There’s a glossy studio portrait of my little family. Set in front of a dark backdrop, my husband and I stand holding our “boys”; Jacques and Maurice (a Bichon and Maltese). It was a marketing device for when we were a Faculty Family in Residence for college freshmen. That photo was replicated into posters and plastered in the elevators and hallways, advertising our events to “our” students.
I came across that 5×7 photo a few years ago and let out an audible gasp. I am the only surviving member and have authorized the cremation of everyone else. I tucked that photo away along with that life. I loved being a wife and “mother” more than anything else. Ever. I have worked (what feels like tirelessly) for the past few years trying to reclaim happiness and create some sort of life. I’ve taken jobs (paid and otherwise) and partners (worthy and not). I’ve traveled and homesteaded. I’ve had more false starts than I care to track. I have confused taking care of people with creating a life for myself. And at the end of the day, it’s the end of the day. There is no one waiting there for me.
I’ve tried basking in my untethered life. I’ve flitted and flighted and had some interesting experiences. About a year and a half ago I met a neighbor’s cat and was overjoyed to babysit whenever possible. How delicious to have this tiny creature roam my home and snuggle and suffocate me with love. When he would leave I would miss him and remind myself that only loaners are allowed. I cannot and will not put myself through that pain again. I cannot sign those papers. I cannot be the lone survivor yet again.
A couple of weeks ago I flighted to a childhood friend’s beach house. I was greeted by her tiny shih tzu Leo and I fell hard, it was love at first lick. She and I sat on the beach while I peppered her with questions about being a single mother. The idea was overwhelming and thrilling. Could I really do this? Have I become strong enough to let myself do it? Will this change my life for good or bad? What about my allergies, my travel, my…my…oh to hell with it, I’m getting a dog. Less than two weeks later, Marty the rescue Maltese is home. It’s been 72-hours of emotional roller coastering. I am utterly gobsmacked by how much I am missing my husband. We co-parented so well together and taught each other and the dogs so much. I look at Marty’s sweet face and start to cry. My husband would’ve loved him so much. Last night, when I once again acquiesced and put his crate on my bed, I could see my husband lying on his side of the bed and gazing adoringly at that tiny face. It took my breath away. In 4 1/2 years, I have never felt his presence as I do right now. I had thought that getting a dog would be a new beginning, and maybe it will some day. Right now it feels like a very big ending. Taking jobs and partners was just about me trying new things. This is different. This is making a new family without him and no matter how good it is, I know it would’ve been so much better with him.
Twenty(!) years ago my best friend died. It was a sudden death and I learned about it weeks later from an email. The loss was profound and the way I learned of it distressing. My beautiful, strong and vibrant friend was very important to me. We never dated but had agreed that come age 40 if we weren’t married to other people…you know how that promise goes. He never made it to anywhere near 40, and I married. But he was my BFF before BFFs. We had great adventures together and I’ve no doubt we would have had many many more. I can still hear his self-assured voice coaching me as I climbed astride a motorcycle for the first (and last) time; “Keep you spine aligned with mine.” I can see his face, when I stepped out of the dressing room in a see-through honeymoon nightgown and told him “avert your eyes but tell me if you like it.” My memories run like a video montage. I actually have him on video. He arrived at my upstate wedding at the last minute. I refused to walk down the aisle until he arrived. So there he is, ducking (he was quite tall) into the tent as the musicians vamped.
When I first read the email informing me of his death I thought it was a vicious joke. I called his office and no doubt traumatized his sobbing assistant. My husband rushed home from work, I looked at him and said; “I think I’m okay with him being dead right now, I’m just not okay with him being dead forever.”
I thought of that sentiment this weekend. My husband has been dead for over four years. I sense people’s impatience (including my own) with my grief. I don’t spend my days wringing a handkerchief or visiting a grave (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But once in awhile there is a trigger, say a beloved celebrity’s death, that will send me ’round the bend. I’m not willing to bogart a P.T.S.D. diagnosis, that would not be fair to true sufferers. However, a trigger is not just the usual crap we all deal with from time to time. A trigger will cut you off at the knees. It will bring your emotional self back to the beginning. It’s exhausting and defeating and utterly galling. There I am feeling as if I’ve got a handle on this thing called widowhood and BAM! “Not so fast girly, it’s me, your trigger!” – it’s best to picture a cartoon character similar to that little Bill that became a Law. So there I am triggered, treading water as tidal wave after tidal wave rush over me. I am all alone in my sadness as no one, and I mean no one can really understand. That reality compounds the loss of the one person, the only person who ever really saw me and understood me.
I’m not sure which is sadder; the trigger or the loneliness. Explaining my grief to people is exhausting and so sad. I don’t want to teach people how to be empathetic or how to be a friend. To me that’s like having sex with an inflatable doll. What’s the point?! So when I was mired in my sadness this weekend and heard; “are you okay?” from a couple of friends, I was reminded of what I said twenty years ago…My husband is still dead and I’m not okay with that.
I don’t advertise my sorrow (uh, yeah, unless we’re counting this format) but still it shocks me that people assume I’m A-okay. I mean, I do alright a lot of the time and I seem to be getting the hang of this self-care thing, but come on…My husband died. Without any warning whatsoever. In public. I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not 100% all the time.
It more than shocks me when those who know me don’t seem to see me; it hurts me. It’s a reminder of how solo I really am. My husband “got me” all the time, sometimes before I did. So when those close to me are careless or clueless or flat out impatient it hurts my heart.
This morning a close friend sent me a photo of a bench I had paid to dedicate (to my husband) a few years before he died. My friend is visiting the institution which houses the bench (my husband’s place of work and my alma mater). I replied to my friend’s text that I was surprised they hadn’t removed the bench (considering how brutally they treated both me and my husband’s memory after he died.) My friend’s reply? “Ha ha ha ha.” Not; “I hope this photo wasn’t upsetting” or “Should I have not sent the pic?” Nope. “Ha ha ha ha.”
This afternoon I heard from a distant relative to whom I’ve always felt close. She called because I had answered her Facebook message thusly; “No I won’t be traveling to the town where I met and married my husband and never will as it is much too sad for me and might be traumatizing. I also have no interest in attending a party thrown by and for a parent who has ignored me for the past 4 years. I’m sorry to sound so harsh, but ignoring your widowed daughter is harsh.” I had assumed she was calling to say; “OMG of course, I understand. That was a bit thoughtless on my part. I’m sorry.” NOPE. She clumsily asked how I was doing and I said something like; “it depends.” She responded; “But your Facebook photos look so happy.” Huh? What? Shall I start posting photos of me watching When Harry Met Sally and sobbing uncontrollably? How about a few status updates of; “In bed at 7:30 clutching my stuffed rabbit. LIFE IS GOOD!” I prefer to use Facebook to share pleasant things and discover who has political views I find unforgivable. But Facebook aside, does this two time cancer survivor not understand grief and survival? Granted she’s in her 60s and never married and the “Ha ha ha ha” friend is in his early 30s and never had a partner. But…I guess there is no “but” is there? That’s really it, huh? Some people have empathy and some people don’t, and some people simply don’t have the life experience to fake it.
But still. It hurts my heart to not be seen and I’m tired of explaining. Explaining is draining. I would rather use my energy trying to find happiness or peace.
It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and in NYC that means; Fleet Week! The streets of New York are awash in men and women in uniform. If the light (and your alcohol level) is just right, it’s as if you’ve been transported into the film; On The Town. A person (ahem; ME) could spend the entire weekend sailor spotting. I’ve been known to chase down a uniform from two blocks away. I accost these poor visitors with thanks for their service and for brightening up our city for the weekend. Oh, and sometimes I ask for a photo.
By Friday morning I still had not posted any photos on Facebook and began to get concerned messages. Seriously. Some of the queries were from the same friends who had sent “Happy Fleet Week” messages (it’s nice when your friends “get you”). I assured them that all was well and I simply hadn’t found the right opportunity. To prove my reliability I posted old photos; photos my husband had taken of me with our men and women in uniform. It was a warm and wonderful reminder of what a champion of mine he was. Anything was possible with him as my cheerleader and biggest fan. Oh how that man loved me! “You want to work? Fine. You don’t want to work? That’s okay too! You want to try the stage again? WOOHOO! Buy the snakeskin suit, it looks great on you. Splurge!” (Almost) anything and everything was okay in his book. He was always so proud of me and so open to new adventures. I doubt he would’ve gone to as many drag shows, gay bars or straight theatre if I hadn’t wanted to. So there he was, behind the camera as I cozied up to our resplendent men and women in uniform; loving my red, white & blue outfit…and my legs.
I miss the man so often, but I miss that feeling always. I felt strong and brave and seen. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. But even if I never do, I did. For 18 years I had everything I needed and more than I ever dared to dream.
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth. My family had no money, which they liked to remind us kids of as often as possible. But it wasn’t just a lack of money, it was an utter lack of indulgence that wedged that spoon in my mouth. To say it was an adult-centric household would be an understatement. I have no recollection of anyone asking me about homework but I do remember many many nights of asking my parents to quiet their fighting so I could get to sleep. There were more melodic sleep preventers as well, as my mother would practice piano (placed under my bedroom) into the late night. It was the adults’ world, and we were just visiting until aged 18 (of which we were reminded often). It’s fair to say that I was not raised with any sense of entitlement whatsoever.
Fast-forward to my middle age. I’ve worked since I was 11 but haven’t done so since 2011. I don’t live lavishly but compared to some Americans, I live well. I still am slow to “get” that my needs matter (childhood imprinting works!) but despite my childhood, I seem to have developed a sense of entitlement. I am not comfortable admitting it; but since my husband died, I’ve developed a sense of “deserving” happiness. Ick, right? I have always taken people’s unkindness personally. But, now?! Now there is this inner outrage; “do you know what I’ve been through?!!!! Do you know what I’ve survived?! Do you have any idea what it takes for me to wake up every single day and commit myself to my own happiness and being a good person?!” Lemme tell you something: this is NOT a good mindset when it comes to dating. I truly, in my heart of hearts, deep down in the core of my very being, think I deserve happiness. What does that mean?! Who the hell doesn’t deserve happiness? (Let’s not bring serial killers and politicians into this please.)
What happens when you believe you’ve suffered enough (which is what deserving of happiness really means) is that you (and by “you” of course I mean “me”) are utterly shattered when a partner or potential partner is not nice. Yes I get it, everyone has their stuff. Everyone is limited. But there is no way on earth that my husband was the last decent and kind man on the planet. I’m guessing it’s not that I am attracted to Simon Legrees. I have pretty good taste in people (which is why I like very few of them.) I am highly intuitive and can spot crazy from a hundred paces. (I recently pegged a date as a pedophile…pretty sure I was right.) I think what really is at issue is that I’m wounded. Deeply and profoundly wounded and don’t really have the capacity to endure small scrapes and bumps any longer. It’s been four and a half years and I want so badly to feel as strong and as happy as I did with my husband. I want to wake up in the morning and be happy not feel as if I have to become happy.
I once considered it a mark of my recovery and strength that I was willing to try other people on (which is what dating is). I think perhaps I was kidding myself. When your life shatters in an instant. When everything you thought you knew to be true disappears…Well, I think it’s too much to ask of myself to think I can handle any more blows to my heart.