I dreamt of him last night. This was not the “I know you’re dead but let’s talk anyway” usual affair, nor the “How could you of faked your death? Do you realize what you’ve done?!”. No, this dream had not even a whiff of death. He was very much alive and the feelings so vivid it felt more like a flashback than a dream. He was telling me that he had Monday off (but would have to work a little from home) and I was so utterly brimming with joy that I ran and jumped into his arms, wrapping my naked self around him. That feeling of joy was so accurate, so real. It’s been a long ass time since I’ve felt it, but I recognized it immediately. I was as happy to see it as I was my husband!
I’m not romanticizing my marriage by saying that I just loved spending time with my husband. He made me angry and sad at times as I’ve no doubt I did him. But for 18 years there was absolutely no one with whom I’d rather spend time. No one. He didn’t take enough time off, so when there were those unexpected days off I really was thrilled. He (almost) always took off for my birthday and every holiday his workplace acknowledged. But when it came to planning time off he was rubbish. My husband was many things, but a planner was not one of them. He was an idea man, and I was and still am a details woman. There were times, I’ll admit, that I really resented his lack of planning. I hated how tending to all the details made me feel like the “mother”. I envied friends whose husbands planned and executed their travel. I remember a particular tense travel dust-up: once upon a time, during the age of mapquest, my husband printed out directions and handed them to me. Once behind the wheel, he kept asking me to navigate. He had not looked at a map before we left and had no idea what direction we were headed. My “you have one job!” outburst was a long time coming. I planned the trip, got the cash, shopped for and packed the picnic, packed my bag, the dog’s bag, cleaned out the fridge, stopped the newspaper, etcetera, etcetera. All he had to do was pack his back and drive the damn car. Our division of labor was much more balanced in every other domain. But anything that took planning? Eeh gads.
Funny thing; one of the first things I did after he died was to cancel all our plans. (Psychological aside; he canceled my happily ever after plans by dying, and I responded by canceling all our immediate plans.) Just hours after he died, I enlisted friends to cancel the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve plans I’d made for us. The four days at the beach making turkey with our best friends? Gone. The Christmas show at Birdland? Poof. The New Year’s Eve dinner cruise with friends? Over. All of it, over. Really and truly over. I’ve been on a dinner cruise since then, and to the Birdland Christmas show. I’ve been at the beach since New Year’s Eve this year. They’ve all been fine, sometimes pleasant and always monochromatic. For as long as anyone would listen I’ve maintained that a happy marriage makes life technicolor. Last night in my dream I saw all the colors of the rainbow.
My husband’s birthday is in a few weeks. I’m not yet sure if I’ll acknowledge it in any way. The first year after he died I spent weeks, if not months, strategizing how I’d observe the day. I remember a well-meaning person telling me; “planning is a good coping mechanism”. But it wasn’t about that. Planning birthday celebration has always been important to me and at least half the fun. I grew up in a house where birthdays were a big deal, he did not. I loved planning small surprises and meaningful celebrations and presents for him. The last few years of his life I had designed the perfect decadent birthday breakfast. Watching his delight at I placed the “challah french toast nutella and jam sandwich with homemade syrup” I would grow giddy. So planning how I’d honor his first birthday after his death was more of not being in any hurry to relinquish that particular joy. Which is why just four months after his sudden death, I dressed up and took myself to the Bemelman Bar for a drink. I sat in a corner sipping a glass of champagne, a jumble of anxiety and sadness. Within earshot was a young woman celebrating her 21st birthday with her parents. I did not burden her with “OMG it’s my late husband’s birthday too!” but took delight in the observation nonetheless.
Since that surreal first year, I’ve made less of an event of his birthday. I do remember cringing one year as I realized I was consummating a new relationship on my husband’s birthday. (By the time I realized the supreme tackiness of it, it really was too late.) I like to think I evened the cosmic score by making him a birthday cake last year (but who am I kidding; I was the one who ate the cake!). I suspect that this year on his birthday I’ll be at the dentist getting my new crown. It’s kind of funny considering how dental work played a minor recurring role in our relationship. When it became apparent we’d be getting married, I sat my future husband down and said; “I need to tell you something; you are signing on to HUGE dental bills for the rest of your life.” One of the first presents he ever gave me was while I was recovering from oral surgery. Perhaps as the hygienist straps on the nitrous (yes I get nitrous for every single procedure, did you not read that part about the dental bills?!) I will think; “This one’s for you, husband!”
If I’m not nursing a nitrous hangover, I suspect at the very least I’ll pour a drink and toast to him. So much has changed in the past five years. The first and the fifth year have been life altering. Truly. I do not recognize my life from two years ago any more than I do the life six years ago. My husband is part of my life now in a way he never was. I talk to him and think of him constantly. It’s not a Vaseline on the lens kind of view of him. I think of him the way he really was. I cannot conjure what he’d think or say about all things, but it’s surprising how many I can. There are many areas of my life in which I feel confident and am my best counsel. But there are some that make my knees buckle, and I ask myself WWHD (what would husband do). I freely admit to narrating some of life’s most joyous moments to him as if I’m watching a play seated next to a visually impaired friend. He’s a genuine part of my life now. Like an imaginary friend. I did not see it coming (like his death) and never dared to wish it, but am delighted beyond measure. This is the sixth birthday since he’s died, but the first that I’ll truly feel he’s with me.
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.
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.
Today is my husband’s birthday. It’s the fourth since he’s died and the first that I’m “celebrating”. I made a cake. The same cake I’ve made dozens of times and the one he made for me the week he died. It is fail-proof and ridiculously simple and yet it sits on my counter, sunken, misshapen and tilting precariously. I think where I screwed up was in my self-consciousness. I was acutely aware that I was making a cake for my dead husband and wondering how crazy that really was. I thought all this while crying and stirring. The crying didn’t prevent me from eating the disaster, mind you.
There’s a major snowstorm today in the northeast and it’s not the first time that has happened on his birthday. I’m reminded of a time we had to abandon the car on a hill and hitchhike home after seeing a band in a dive bar. We found some vegan restaurant workers with a van that reeked of bong water and found our way home through darkened country roads to our snow covered home and 9-month-old Bichon. We moved to the city years ago and I know exactly how we’d be spending this birthday. I would be making his annual “peanut butter & jelly” breakfast (challah french toast, layered with nutella and warm preserves, topped with berries and maple syrup) and we’d spend the day seeing Harry Potter on Broadway. He would’ve loved it. I would take him to an old school restaurant for dinner (we had been making our way through all the classics; 21, Four Seasons, etc.) and fall into bed.
This is the first year I have indulged in any birthday celebration or fantasy. Part of me resents this experience. It’s bad enough I have to get through every other holiday and milestone; NOW THIS?! But I also am reveling in this private time between me and my memories. I miss him so much. My life is different now, as am I. I don’t think I’m living in the past. But oh what I would give for one day back in time. I’d even go back to that disgusting van filled with stoners if it meant sitting by his side. Together we were so much better than we ever were apart.
I can’t go back. Life is not a movie. But I can spend today thinking of him and remembering what it felt like to have everything I’d ever wanted and needed. Happy Birthday, Husband.