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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Alive

Over the course of one week I experienced two significant anniversaries: it has now been five years since my husband died and nine years since I’ve lived in my home. I’m a numbers gal, always have been, so these kinds of things really resonate. Even if you’re math averse no doubt you’ve gleaned that I’ve now been in this home longer without him than I was with him. It is also the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life. For real.

By the time I was in 4th grade I think I’d lived in about 13 places and attended perhaps 5 schools. Needless to say, I don’t have many romantic notions about a homestead. I do however have many feelings about stability. I abhor surprises and above all else, I like to be told. Mr. Rogers did and said many things that spoke to me (he was most definitely my surrogate parent) but it was his song “I Like To Be Told” that made me feel so seen.  So yes, given my druthers I probably would never move, let alone dozens of times in my life. It is no wonder that it takes me no more than 24-hours to fully unpack. I love stability. Have I mentioned that? I could eat the same lunch every day for the rest of my lunch. I am like a dog with my love of routine. I don’t love to travel (see every word I’ve written above) but do enjoy the planning and packing. Those days or weeks imagining myself in another place are usually more fun that the realty. I’d rather read about travel or watch someone far more adventurous than myself (with a stylist and personal assistant just off-camera) traipse through the Swiss alps. I simply don’t like the unknown. Is that a product of so much moving? Probably not. The moving was simply the fall-out from a very unpredictable childhood. (Having to move across town and away from your four best friends because your mother can’t get along with the neighbors is about one’s parents’ unpredictability not about real estate.)

Going though life having stability as one’s guiding light is not ideal. I’d like to think that with age and repeated upheaval I’ve gotten less rigid. And I probably have. About stuff that really doesn’t matter. Change in plans? Okay. Purchasing a one-way ticket? Sure, I’ll try that. But the big stuff is still the big stuff. It’s been five years and I still become a bit nervous going out alone at night or having to make big financial decisions. I still at times feel paralyzed after five years. I spent the first year stunned and furiously taking care of legal business. While I did have to take care of everything myself, I had people who were always “there” for me. I felt somewhat taken care of by my “village” for the first year. I began casually dating the next year and had a few “relationships”. I loved the familiarity of the relationship routines and at times felt whole again. But over time I grew less resilient to disappointment (middle-aged men can be very very disappointing – it simply never dawned on me that they wouldn’t have learned how to be nice by now.). Not surprisingly, by the time I grew tired of dating, my support circle had dispersed. Well of course they had! They have their lives to lead and presumably I should have made one for myself by now.

Five year is a long time. I still get mail addressed to him and have memories so strong and sudden that they stop me in my tracks. But I’ve lived in this place longer without him than with him. For five months I have parented a dog (for the first time) without him. In other words, time is definitely marching on. I look different than I did five years ago. My hair is longer and my skin is getting a bit saggy in places. Other than that I’ve really nothing to show for these past five years except that I’m still here. I am still in the apartment I chose partly for the sunken living room which I (very wrongly) predicted would be suitable for a hospital bed when the time came. (You tend to think that way when your spouse is 19 year older than yourself.) I look around and realize that the place has changed as little as I have; a hallway painted, some chairs moved, a bathroom refurbished. But mostly everything is just the same except he’s not here. That seems wrong. He took up so much room. He was a big man in every sense. I feel there should be a visible chasm, right here in the living room. There should be some physical representation of the enormity of the loss (besides the bags under my eyes.)

I’m proud of myself for surviving. During the past five years I have never engaged in destructive behavior or done anything (too) rash. I’ve gotten out of bed every single day. I have tried new things and new people. None of these accomplishments are small or should be dismissed. But I honest to G-d thought that by now I’d be “all better” and have a new life. Let’s face it, I watch too many movies and tend to believe they are actually real. The five year anniversary was  disorienting in its intensity. I was gutted for a week. I listened (for the first time) to voice mails I had frantically had tech support save. I took out a photo of us with our (late) Bichon. I lit a yarhzeit candle for the first time. I made his favorite foods and even ate some of them. It felt sacred, raw, recent, sad and powerful. But mostly it felt jarring. How could I still be feeling the loss of him so strongly? The sorrow was deep inside and on the surface at the same time. I spoke to him all that day, something I very rarely do. And I admitted to him what I am to you right now: I never expected to feel this alone after this much time.

 

 

 

 

Out Here On My Own

“I’m making Verdene’s cabbage, Husband,” I hear myself say out loud as I stir a steaming pot of goodness. A second later the tears come, and not from the copious amount of onion chopping. He’s gone and no one else in the world (except for Verdene) knows what Verdene’s cabbage is. It’s been five years since he died and only about six months since I could make his favorite dishes. I’ve never been much of a chef-for-one so not cooking isn’t all that noticeable. But even so, there are some foods that I’ve actively avoided since he died as their emotional power is just too much. I was tickled the first time I made something that his mother used to make and actually enjoyed the process and results. It felt like gaining part of my life and joy back. Recently life has become very very hard. It’s come as a surprise and in the form of harassment from a neighbor. I am frightened and anxious in my own home and it hurts beyond reason that I know for a fact that this would not be happening if he was still here. This neighbor wouldn’t have dared to launch an attack against me if my solid, sturdy and old-school husband was still here.

I stir the cabbage and cry and hear myself plead; “Come back. Please come back.” My heart breaks for me. I cried that same cry five years ago. It’s a faint but real memory. Faint, because for the last five years I have worked fiercely to move forward. I’ve dipped my shark head down into the foreign waters and moved forward like my life depended on it. Because it did. As I lunged forward those waters sloughed off protective layers. I became more porous, more open. There is a lightness and darkness to this change. I became open to new experiences and people. I tried so many new things; projects, jobs, volunteer opportunities. I let people into my life and my home. I confided and let go of long -held secrets. I stopped touching up my lipstick, hell, I stopped wearing lipstick. I became a little less mired in perfection. But with the openness came porousness. I lost my protective layer. Things hurt and feel personal in a new exponentially deep way. I’ve lost the capacity to brush off callousness and insensitivity. I never much subscribed to missives of; “that’s just the way they are” or “they’re doing the best they can.” First off, to say “that’s just the way they are” is all the information you’ll ever need to justify staying the hell away from that person. Secondly, “they’re doing the best they can” cannot be verified. I suppose a person can say; “I’m trying” but how do you know you’re doing the best you can? And how would anyone else be able to gauge that?

I am not a competitive person, except in one arena: I will go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with anyone wanting to play the misery game. Why? Because I know my odds are good. I’m no Augustus Boroughs (damn you Augustus!) having not lived in a home where dog food was considered a family dinner. But I feel pretty confident that I can hold my own in the poverty/chaos childhood home category and I know I can kick ass in the neglect category. I would go so far as to say that my life has never been easy but that wouldn’t be entirely true. My life was mostly glorious for the 17 years I was married. But those other 35 years and counting? Not easy. There are far worse stories. And I’ve stuck by that party line for my entire life. “People have it much worse.” Hell, even in the moments after the detectives told me my husband had been killed, I thought: “thank G-d I don’t have children.” In other words; in the worst minutes of my life I was thinking of how it could be worse.

The stories I told myself and the world about my childhood…the tremendous perks of growing up around creative and off-beat people are true. But I left out the other 90%. I was never parented and left to my own defenses at a very early age. My feelings, desires and opinions never mattered and I thought that was normal. I was dirty and unkempt and commuting on public transit at aged 10. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I learned that some parents actually help their kids. I watched friends’ parents help them move into their apartments and even help to decorate and (gulp!) finance such endeavors. One day, I was in a dressing room in a lovely shop. I could hear a woman about my age in the only other dressing room. She was with her mother who was helping her select her first interview suit. I broke down in tears (there’s no crying while shopping!). I’m not sure my mother even knew when I was interviewing let alone offered any help (Reader, I had to buy her a dress to wear to my wedding, that’s how disinterested she is). There have been dozens of these sad little realizations throughout my life. Maybe more. But I brushed it all aside. After all, all that hands-off parenting made me the fiercely independent and strong woman I am today! And that was probably true for many years. But you see, my protective layer is gone now. I am no longer feeling strong and I’ve run out of resiliency. Maybe that happens with age, you lose your elasticity. Perhaps my husband’s death and my age are too potent a formula.

The other day I struck up a conversation with a woman about my age. She told me about her neighbors who pitched in and helped her with her dog on a regular basis. When she added that her brother lives in her building and helps all the time I think I audibly yelped. I cannot imagine that life. I cannot imagine that level of caring and generosity. I’ve never known it and up until now, I’m not sure I needed it. But the most important person in the world to me is gone and with him the only time in my life I was ever truly happy. I consider myself fortunate (see? there I go again!) to have about 7 very good friends. I’ve dubbed them; The Magnificent Seven. But none of them are able to “help me” in any real and regular way. I also am deeply grateful to have an uncle who regularly and consistently demonstrates care and love. But in the end, it’s not enough. I want what everyone wants; I want to feel not so alone in the world. I did once, for 17 mostly glorious years.

Come Back

I Am Katie Sipowicz

It’s no secret that when it comes to binge watching, I am a repeat offender. There are decades old series, and even game shows, that provide me great comfort from time to time. My ability to re-watch and continue to enjoy certain shows and films drove my husband bonkers. It is one of the very rare upsides to being alone that I can indulge in these vapid pleasures without judgement. This past year, my living room has been screening The West Wing and N.Y.P.D. Blue. The comfort derived from a fictional White House staffed with civility, reason and stellar intellect is clear. The appeal of “being back on the Blue” is a bit more elusive. It is not for everyone, I admit that. But for me it is all about the relationships. The dialogue and acting are always so spot on. The directing and editing capture silent moments sometimes far more powerful than the dialogue. There is a realness to it all.

I don’t relate to all of the characters. I have clenched my jaw watching the character of Diane as she uses her childhood and family of origin to justify her weakness and bad choices.  I almost have to avert my eyes as she wallows in widowhood having been married a whole week before her husband dies. I’m always more of a champion of those that don’t bask in victim-hood.. At various times I have various favorites. I like to watch these “people” overcome their demons and evolve.  This go around I’ve been drawn to the character of Andy Sipowicz’s ex-wife. Katie is played by the enchanting Debra Monk and for the first few years is mostly annoying. The loss of her marriage and their only son, shatters her. She finds A.A. and gets in touch with her religion, and becomes a different sort of annoying but not longer a victim. The other night I saw the most heartbreaking moment between her and Andy. The bareness of her need and the depth of history and feeling Andy has for her were evident in about 5 seconds of film. I gulped and let go of a flood of tears. A few episodes later Andy gets into bed with his preschool aged son who is sleeping with “Aunt Katie”. He cuddles the boy and they drift off to sleep. The camera moves to Katie on the other side of the bed and we see that she is awake. Her face registers serenity. The thought bubble says “This moment, all I need is this moment.” For this night she has her old life back. He’s no longer her husband and that is not their child, but it feels familiar. It reminds her of a time she had it all.

It is almost five years since my husband died. I have had boyfriends and relationships and I’ve no doubt that many if not all, have been the result of my seeking to reclaim my old life. I’ve sought comfort in the rhythms of a coupling rather than the dynamic between us. It mattered less how I felt about the person than how I did about the mechanics of our coupling: to wake up and have coffee with someone, to spend holidays together, to discuss the highs and lows of our day. That’s what I craved. I don’t have the sense that these men appreciated me anymore than I did them. I was able to ignore many shortcomings and red flags in pursuit of the rhythm. It is akin to an addiction, the drive to recapture what was lost. Even when I was doing it I knew what I was doing. I am pragmatic and hyper-aware so have never had the luxury of deluding myself. I silently narrate my experiences, no matter how emotionally intense. (You shoulda heard the monologue when I was told my husband was dead!) My most Katie moment came two years ago on a speedboat in the middle of the Caribbean. My boyfriend and I were traveling to a remote island to spend eight days together. The last time either of us had done anything remotely like this was on our respective honeymoons. Before we left for the trip I had already seen the signs. I knew we were not going to go the distance. On paper it really was a great match. But I knew. So there we were on the speedboat and the captain told us to hold on it was about to get rough. Without warning my partner wrapped me in his arms and held on tight. I watched the distant island grow closer and thought; “Remember this feeling, it may never happen again.”