What Doesn’t Kill Us Leaves Us Scarred

Nine years ago on this date, I awoke in the middle of the night knowing something was very wrong with me, by daybreak I could barely move. My husband was on a business trip and we’d just moved to our apartment building three months prior. I knew and had no one. My only thought was the walking of my dog. I called down to the front desk, gasping in a whisper; “is there anyone who can walk my dog?” I think I heard laughter. I got myself and my dog downstairs and held on to walls and wrought iron fences as we slowly made our way down the block. I had to rest every few steps.

My brother agreed to do that evening’s walk and my husband was home by the next morning. Later that next day, I sat in a doctor’s office silently crying and panting as she told my husband she refused to treat me as I belonged in the hospital. My husband, defying his lifelong need to be liked by strangers, explained that I would never agree to that. He was still recovering from the devastating hospital borne infection (C.Diff) and was still injecting himself with blood thinner from the post-surgical blood clot the hospital staff missed. I had been his caretaker and advocate and the experience left me even more distrusting of hospitals, if such a thing were possible. The doctor very reluctantly stuck an agreement with us: we were to call her every four hours for forty-eight hours with a temperature update.

It took me six months to fully recover from that pneumonia. A dear friend who had not been well for awhile succumbed to the illness as I emerged from the fever. Her funeral was my first time leaving the house. A month later my 12-year old bichon, overcome with a discomfort he couldn’t communicate, hid under a table and died a week later. 2010 was by far the worst year I had ever experienced. The pneumonia changed my body and mindset. My friend was far too young to die. And our dog was the best thing that had ever happened to us. It wasn’t my first time at the tragedy rodeo, but this particular trifecta was so dramatic and happened so rapidly. If anyone had told me; “oh honey, it’s gonna get so much worse.” I would’ve checked myself into a facility until it all passed.

The fact is that those advertising disclaimers are true: past performance is no indication of future outcomes. An awful childhood, doesn’t protect from crap things happening in adulthood. Misery is not metered out. There is no suffering or trauma quota. And there’s no healthy way to get more resilient or less human. The best one can hope for is to become laser focused on the light in one’s life. If I can focus on what I do have, while periodically admiring the scenery of my past life, I’m okay. Every night I have thoughts of gratitude, the first thing on the list is always the same: I am grateful that my dog is healthy and I am strong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Nature Of Aging

Growing older never bothered me. Well, that’s not entirely true: I had a terribly anxious time turning 21. I felt that once one turned 21, everything counted. I was now formally an adult. Never again could I hear; “well, whatya expect, she’s just a kid.” Though truth be told, no one had ever said that. Growing older suited me. I was born middle-aged and was delighted as my body caught up to my psyche.

I did have a troubling relationship with the passage of time while I was married. My husband was significantly older than me. Our birthdays and new years reminded me how limited our time was. The idea of living without him was intolerable. I’ve been without him for over five years and I was right. It is intolerable.

 

Friends and the world at large suggest that getting older is a nightmare; a blow to vanity, ego and mobility; moaning and whingeing of sagging skin, creakiness and dryness whirl around me like white noise. It strikes me as no different than complaining about menstruation. It’s nature. What is the big deal and more to the point; what is the alternative?? Getting older doesn’t bother me in the least. I have a treasure trove of amusing and delightful memories that serve as a riveting mental documentary. I’ve seen things and done things and gone places. I feel no urgency, no pressing need to accomplish anything. I don’t fear running out of time. I aged out of the most compelling choices ages ago (i.e., F.B.I. agent, astronaut, chorus dancer, mother). I take each day as it comes, delighted to discover how it unfolds.

 

I will never be young in someone’s eyes again and that hurts. But it is nothing compared to the pain of losing the keeper and creator of my most precious memories. I am the sole repository now, and when I die (hopefully in my sleep at a very very old age) the memories of the best of years of my life will die as well. And that is nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Apologies To Gloria Gaynor

Newly widowed I experienced terror and trauma in waves as frequent and powerful as a category 3 hurricane. For almost a year, I would avoid walking under scaffolding or air conditioners, so afraid of the unexpected. Over the months and years my terror and trauma changed flavors and frequency but has never wavered in its intensity.

I went through a period consumed by thoughts of illness or accident that I would be forced to suffer alone. I changed dentists to avoid dealing with my lifelong Achilles heel taunted by memories of my husband by my side. I changed gynecologists to avoid being splayed in the same stirrups I was the moment my husband died. For the first year or two, I heard all financial and legal professionals as disembodied Oz voices amidst white noise. I couldn’t make any but the most cursory and urgent decisions.

It’s been over five years now. I’ve lived in my most recent home longer without him than I did with him. The terror feels more like fear, and I’m resigned to it. I am alone. Terrible things will happen. I’ll manage. But the trauma…? That never ebbs. Yes, I can once again watch movies and T.V. shows I had to avoid for those first couple of years. I can hear music we or he loved and not become physically ill. Finally, he now appears to me in dreams that have nothing to do with him being dead. I cherish those dreams. But that trauma that was right there on the surface? Doubling over in pain when hearing an ambulance siren? Not being able to breathe when passing the place he died? That trauma has seeped into my being. It is part of me now. It has changed my entire worldview and guides my survival. And I am surviving. I may not be living a recognizably productive life, but I’m still here. I am more porous, fragile, quiet, fearful, grateful, peaceful and solo, than ever before. My life is almost childlike in its simplicity.

For most of my adult life I maintained that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I’ve learned that isn’t entirely true. I can spend the day in shorts, T-shirt and Keds (my childhood uniform) and eat ice cream for lunch, but to say I was happy would be a disservice to real happiness. I am at times peaceful. I am afraid at least once a day. Deeply and profoundly afraid. I am sad often. And my husband is always with me. Always. This is both comforting and shattering. Nobody does “the best they can” and I’m no different. I’m doing the best I choose to do. I may do better some day, I may do worse. I have never bought into that ridiculous chestnut: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What a load of crap. What doesn’t kill us can leave us on life support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Life Reclaimed

There are a lot of different kinds of marriages. There aren’t “as many as there are couples” as people don’t differ that much. People’s interpretations of marriage and people’s relationships do differ. My marriage was perfect. For me. I won’t speak for my late husband as that would simply be self-serving. But I can speak for me.

I married my best friend. Not like; “my child is my best friend” (ick) or “my dog is my best friend” (really? would he come get you after your colonoscopy?). I married my husband because he was the sleepover date that I didn’t want to go home. That is not some clumsy allusion to sex. It’s that I never grew tired of his company. He didn’t make me nervous he never made me doubt myself or him. I felt at home with him and had gobs of fun. So when he began to plan our wedding out loud (yep, that was my proposal!) I didn’t even flinch. I did have one moment of bridal jitters: we had checked into our lovely ocean-side honeymoon suite and I was standing by the window, as he was unpacking his bag. All of a sudden I became panicked. “What have I done!!” My very next thought was; “oh, it’s okay, it’s him.”

My marriage was a seventeen year pajama party. That is not to say we didn’t struggle or have our share of crap. We did. But throughout it all, there was nowhere we’d ever rather be than we each other. We would make living room nests and binge watch before it was even a thing. We’d get in the car every weekend for an adventure (when we lived in a cultural wasteland). We were each others touchstone and playmates. We took classes, went to opening nights at the opera, traveled, and read together (yes, he read aloud to me every night.) We shopped together (my husband loved to sit outside the dressing room as if at a department fashion show from a bygone era.) There were years in which we even worked together. That kind of togetherness is not for everyone, but it worked for us. The sound of him coming home never ceased to thrill me.

I miss going out with my husband. I miss sitting at my vanity as he watched me primp. I miss how I felt on his arm. But it’s our home life that I loved most of all. I am a homebody, an honest to goodness closet introvert. Being married to my best friend was a license to hermit. There were hundreds of Saturday or Sunday afternoons spent reading in bed while listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s American Standards show. (I was delighted when the programming changed as it eased that painful reminder.) We both basked in ritual and predictability and loved to nest.

When I began to try and rebuild my life I stumbled out of the house (like a newly born colt) whenever possible. I felt that’s what “living” was and I knew I had to LIVE. I went to the theatre, concerts, exhibits, lectures, classes and traveled. I worked, I volunteered, I took care of other people’s children and animals. And then something changed. I can’t put my finger on it. Was it the man who ghosted me after a brief whirlwind courtship? Was it being with my best friend during his surgery? Was it the three consecutive incidents of sexual harassment in the span of a week? Was it the realization that my family of origin was not going to care for me (I think I’d thought that being widowed would have evoked a dormant empathy). I don’t know, I just know something changed about nine months ago. I’ve started to reclaim parts of my old life. I no longer feel that I need to LIVE to live. I say “no” a lot. No to theatre tickets, dinner invitations, travel, you name it. If the thought of something does not make me giddy with pleasure, I say no. I loved my life with my husband. It was the only period of time in my entire life when I was happy. I’ve discovered that I can reclaim tiny bits of it. It’s exciting and comforting to nest with intention. I’ve even cooked some of our favorite foods…and eaten them! When I catch myself feeling self-indulgent or anti-social I remind myself I wouldn’t have felt that way if he was still here.

I am done flailing around trying to grab onto a new life. I will never be as happy as I was with him. But I can be who I was when I was with him. Enough has changed, I don’t need to become someone new to LIVE.

 

 

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like A Light At The End Of A Tunnel

This is a difficult season for many. Whether your life includes grief, loss or run of the mill disappointment, being barraged by messages of joy, family and abundance can be oppressive. Recalling shared traditions and past celebrations can be a punch to the lonely gut. For me this is the winding down of a breath-holding four months. Of course I miss my husband and our winter rituals. I can recall our first New Year’s Eve: we had been dating for three months and had gone our separate ways for Christmas (he on a divorced dad guilt fueled trip to Mexico with his adult children, and me on a grandparent pity paid for trip to Florida) and planned to reconnect on New Year’s Eve at his house in front of the fire. I don’t recall the food or beverage but I do remember the music and his face as he explained how illuminating our separation had been to him. He told me he loved me and immediately began to plan our wedding. It was a marriage-long thorn (that I repeatedly thrust) in his side that he never properly proposed. But the truth is, New Year’s Eve always have felt like the anniversary of a proposal. But even with that wonderful and heartbreaking memory, the last week of the year is easier for me than the four months prior.

Each September I brace myself for my holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) without him. Some years I simply pretend they are not happening which is really challenging when you live in New York City! Just as I’m catching my breath from the loss of my family of choice and a family of origin that does not engage in anything remotely traditional, my wedding anniversary occurs! Yay! If I’m particularly unlucky the weather is exactly as it was that gorgeous fall day. No one acknowledges the day (even those that wore matching clothes and walked down the aisle with us) and it just may the loneliest day of the year for me.  But wait! In just a few weeks it’s my birthday! (There’s a reason the month was dubbed “Brentober” in our house.) My husband made a big deal out of the whole thing. Dare I admit that for the last ten years of our marriage there was a small gift each morning of the month? We’d spend my entire birthday together, even if that meant me accompanying him on business trips. For the last few years we dined in the same restaurant, that has mercifully closed. Quite simply, it was really fun. There has been kindness and even some festivity on my birthday since then, as well as the self-awareness that I’m a grown-ass woman and can celebrate myself. But still…And just as I’m finishing off the birthday cake the yarhzeit (anniversary of his death) arrives and then Thanksgiving (unless I’m really having a shit year and they land on the same day.) It is lonely and horrible and terribly terribly sad, but I get through it. So you see, by the time “the holidays” come along, all I’m really seeing is the light at the end of the tunnel.

It helps that Christmas isn’t really my holiday and I feel perfectly comfortable being an outsider on that day. My family of origin did not go to the movies or have Chinese food (Jewish Christmas Day rituals), in fact one side of my family had a Christmas tree and presents. My husband and I did celebrate the holiday for about ten years, and I cherish those memories. But I do not feel left behind (as I have since September). I watch my favorite Christmas movies, decorate with a few snow-globes and feel grateful to be warm, safe and still here. New Year’s Eve stings a bit for the memories it conjures and the reality that it’s a very romantic night. However this year I’ll be doing something completely different. On New Year’s Eve I will be on a plane, headed to the beach with my 5-pound rescue dog. It will be an adventure (I’ve never flown with a pet, and he’s never flown!) and most importantly, something completely new. My hope is that I will be so focused and busy that there won’t be time to reminisce. The plan is to awake on the first day of 2019 with the sound and smell of the ocean and the warmth of a snuggling pup.