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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Rescue Me

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.

I Am Not Mrs. Norman Maine

“You have to have a funeral!” The indignation was tinged with hostility. Her words still hung in the air as (mercifully) an actual friend shut her down; “Brenda doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want.”

It was sweet, my friend putting the Barbie girlfriend of my husband’s friend (who was not invited to my home and really had no business being there only hours after my husband’s death) in her place. Great Neck Barbie (as my husband and I had called her) was one of the few fellow Jews in my home at that moment and was well-versed in our tradition of speedy burial. This isn’t to suggest that she had any business telling me what to do however. But I did hear her and her subtext (“you are a bad Jew and a bad wife”).

I have always been susceptible to people’s directives when it comes to social behavior. I was raised by non-practising Jews who adhered more to the Beat credo than the middle-classness surrounding us. In other words; I have always felt a bit clueless. I am in a constant state of observation and if someone tells me what to do, I tend to take it into consideration. But in this case…there was no way I was having a funeral just days after learning of my husband’s death. I had been to two Jewish funerals during my entire lifetime and knew and felt nothing for the tradition. I’m not sure how, and had met the man only twice, but my rabbi showed up in my bedroom the next day. He sat with our small group the day after, prayed and had us all speak. It was powerful and beautiful and all the service I needed.

I don’t know how it happened, perhaps it started as a way to get people to stop asking? But I began to plan a memorial service. I think the service occurred only six weeks after his death, but it feels like it took months to plan. I have planned events professionally many many times. Dinner for 1,000+ in an airplane hangar? No problem. Multimedia musical productions? I got that. I’ve worn headsets, carried walkie talkies and know how to run a light board. But planning my husband’s memorial was the most difficult and ridiculous thing I ever had to do. It was difficult because I was shattered and had to produce an event! Yes: produce. I had no script or even a freaking mood board. All I knew was what he didn’t want (i.e., no children, cremation, no marker). Other than that I was completely on my own…to produce an event that meant nothing to me, nothing to him and caused me heaps of anxiety. A date had to be set for those flying in. But how do you set a date when you can’t get the venue or singer to commit in a timely manner? It was so stressful and so unnecessary. My life had just imploded and I’m dealing with caterers?! The service itself was beautiful and devastating. I soldiered through greeting people at the reception. There were people who I did not like, including those who had treated me terribly during the past six weeks. My husband’s boss attended; the man who refused to retire him retroactively (even though my husband was past retirement age and that common practice would have enabled me to have a modicum of security.) My husband’s family was not there. Did they not know he had converted to Judaism years before his death? Was a trip to NYC simply out of the question? Or is it just that death is really not that much different than life? – ¬†Those who are there when it matters are there when it matters.

The relief I felt when it was all over is indescribable. It truly felt like a second trauma. I was still so very shattered by his unexpected death and have always been a very private person. Having to produce such an event and then having to be the center of it all was excruciating. I regret succumbing to the pressure. I do. When I think of it my stomach lurches. I know it was “the right thing to do”, but so what?! I put myself through such agony for other people. It was utterly unnecessary. That small “service” my rabbi conducted in my living room was all I needed. The beautiful obituary I wrote with his and my closest friends was more than enough of a tribute. I did it because I thought I had to. I thought I owed it to his employees, colleagues and former students. The truth is that not only didn’t I owe anyone anything, but the responsibility really was his. If he had wanted it to happen he would have planned it. I know this now. I know that I am not his living memorial, his Mrs. Norman Maine. But during those first few months I was still holding on. I still wanted to be his wife. I know that now.