False Victory

What a sense of victory it was; all those firsts! Each time I survived a holiday or milestone I did so with shock and awe. When I made it to the first year anniversary of his death I felt as if I was crossing a finish line. I did it! And I did, gritting my teeth and with white knuckles. Each and every little thing that I had to do by myself for the first time, shook me to the core while filling me with pride. I did it! I made it through the birthdays, anniversaries, lawyer’s appointments, financial decisions, travel, health issues, and holidays completely on my own. Twelve months of firsts and I made it.

Over four years later it occurs to me that those firsts may have been the easy part. The adrenaline of “I can do this!” mixed with my shock and numbness helped ease the way. Now it’s no longer about “getting through” anything, it’s about the stunning and cruel fact that this is my life. Doing it all on my own; the financial decisions, the legal affairs, my health and happiness, all of it, are my one-woman show. It shouldn’t really be so startling to me. I didn’t marry until I was a ripe old age of 32. I had lived on my own for a decade, coming home to an empty house and being my own counsel. If anything it should be easier now. I was stupider then (isn’t everyone?) and had zero professional or financial safety net. I certainly did not have the confidence acquired sometime in my 40s. So you would think that now; devoid of the unflattering perm and having a modicum of security I would find it if not easier than at least comparable. Alas, no.

If you’re a math person you’ll have no doubt noticed a bit of a mathematical formula in the paragraph above. Call it the Happiness Formula if you will:

Youth – knowledge – confidence – resources = 20s Happiness

Experience + confidence + resources + knowledge – perm = 50s Happiness

But there’s a factor missing, one that can’t really be quantified: my broken heart and spirit. I may be stronger on paper but I’m less than whole in reality. I am wounded. It’s that simple. Yes, I am capable of love and happiness, but I am fundamentally bruised and changed. Each difficult task or setback feels bigger and darker now. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are times I feel I’m owed a break and even happiness after what I’ve been through. I feel that every time the world is not nice to me that it’s personal. I feel resentful that on top of everything else, I still need to fight with the co-op board about my cable bill. I know it’s utterly absurd and unpleasantly self-absorbed but it is how I feel.

I’m disheartened to realize that I did not in fact cross any kind of finish line. That victorious feeling of surviving the first year was a false victory. There is no benchmark, there is no end point. I am not owed a happy ending or even kindness. There is no epiphany waiting around the next corner. For each day I wake up and think; I’m okay, I like my life, there will be an evening that I cry myself to sleep. This is my life now.

 

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I Yam What I Yam

“You’re so strong”

I lost count of how many times I’ve been told that. It’s happened so often that I’m almost inured now. In the beginning I wanted to demonstrate how strong I was with one swift kick. They meant well, and it is true, but it felt dismissive and to be perfectly frank I’d love the option of not being so strong. I look around and see people who aren’t forging ahead and making scary lonely decisions. I see and know people who have suffered loss and have a village of family and friends swooping them up and into their lives and homes. When you’re strong, no one volunteers to take care of you.

So I forge ahead, through sheer will and a shark-like sense of how to survive. I don’t stay in the past, musing how it’s the pictures that got small. There is no shrine, no visible reminders to the unknowing eye. Of course, I know that the mini wooden giraffe perched on a cabinet was a shared joke. My husband was heading to Africa for business, during that insurance ad campaign which featured a mini-giraffe. When he asked what I wanted him to bring home I did my best Veruca Salt and demanded a mini-giraffe. Two weeks later, he handed the 6-inch carving over (with a small bag of precious stones.) There are little things like that scattered around and in my closets. It’s not that they’re a monument to him, it’s that they are us.

I’ve consciously fought being a living monument to my husband. I’ve seriously considered changing my last name and I had my wedding rings reconfigured into a necklace. However, I could throw out the entire contents of my home and closet and you know what? It wouldn’t matter. As long as I’m alive, I will be a living monument. It’s not that “love never dies” or anything else terribly twee. It’s that we were together too long and too much that I can no longer discern where he ends and I begin. And maybe, just maybe, that makes me stronger than I know.

 

Appetite Suppressant

I’ve always been a good eater…according to those who have seen me eat. I was once in a cozy Russian eatery in Brighton Beach when three large locals approached our table. The largest one boomed at my husband; “Your wife, she’s Russian? She eats like Russian!” He took it as a compliment. When my husband was planning our honeymoon, my only request was that it was somewhere I could eat my weight in lobsters. But this gold star member of the Clean Plate Club is and was pathetic on her own.

In my twenties, I would come home from work and open a can of chick peas. If it was a special occasion I might microwave a potato. It’s not that I can’t cook, I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for my family since I had my first apartment. It’s simply that I have no interest in cooking, or eating real meals if there is no social component. Not surprisingly, upon hearing of my husband’s death my appetite was the first thing to go. Their words were still hanging in the air and my inner monologue was; “don’t throw up, don’t throw up.” I did not throw up. However, I also couldn’t eat, not even my favorite foods. I tried and had to spit it out like a truculent toddler. It took weeks until I could eat and when I could it was children’s food. Sugared cereals, spaghettios and instant mashed potatoes filled my pantry. Eventually, I began to reintroduce favorite foods. Some, took years to swallow.

There was a “dish” my husband grew up with and I also loved. It’s an odd little concoction, but I made and enjoyed it on most holidays. You’ve heard of pickled eggs? I’m pretty sure Archie Bunker had them at his bar. It’s basically a mixture of canned beets, vinegar, sugar and hard cooked eggs, left to do their thing for 24-hours. Scoff all you want, it’s good and colorful. The day before my husband died I had asked him if he wanted me to make the eggs before we went away for Thanksgiving (they don’t travel well; see “colorful” note above.) So there they sat in my fridge, pushed farther and farther back as the condolence food baskets arrived. There was some point at which I asked someone to throw them out. Since then, many holidays have come and gone, most of them excruciating reminders of what I’ve lost. I’ve tried to recreate, reinvent or totally ignore. Trust me, nothing works. But this past holiday season (somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas) I found myself craving pickled eggs. I gathered the ingredients and cried a bit while making them. I didn’t know if I would actually be able to eat them. I did. All of them. And then made a second batch.

Survival is full of surprises. Sometimes they are good.

 

 

A House Is Not A Home

I hear my husband’s voice in my head sometimes, chiding me towards indulgences. His memory helps me to live larger and easier. There are times, not very frequently, that I miss him. I know how odd that must sound. I had a happy marriage and loved my husband very much and very well. But while I think of him always, I don’t exactly miss him. What I miss, really really miss, is being married to him. It is the partnership, the union, that I long for. I loved my marriage as much as I loved him.

Losing a spouse means losing an identity and losing one’s world. I loved taking care of him. Picking up little treats to bring home for him, cooking favorite meals, even folding his laundry are memories that now make me ache. I loved how we started and ended each day together. I loved all the shared jokes and opinions, the shorthand and nicknames we accrued over the years. A good marriage not only makes life technicolor but also means bearing witness to each other’s lives. Living without a witness feels one-dimensional and terribly self-absorbed.

After about a year of being alone I started to embrace having a home of my own. It snuck up on me rather suddenly, or at least the awareness of it did. I was in a shop specializing in quirky kitchen and tableware where I spotted alphabet cookie cutters. I’ve never used a cookie cutter in my life but that didn’t stop me from purchasing the multi-colored; B-R-E-N-D-A. Upon returning home, I propped them up on the kitchen counter and declared; “I can do that now, it’s all mine.” I won’t lie, it was a good feeling. I don’t enjoy shouldering all the stressors and unexpected expenses of sole ownership, but I do enjoy that it is my space. I’ve made it mine with paint hues and feminine touches. I’ve opened my home to others in ways I never did when married. But something has changed recently. Perhaps it’s that I now have a couple of post-marriage committed relationships under my belt, I’m not sure. What I do know is that my home now feels empty to me. I prefer having someone I care for here. I’ve no doubt it’s a metaphor and what I really miss is sharing my life with someone.

I can make my life as big and loud as a Vegas act but the loneliness creeps in. The busier I am the sneakier it gets. As I finally crawl into bed, the emptiness rolls over me and sadness descends. Unlike other disagreeable parts of life, this one is utterly and completely out of my control. Being happily partnered with someone you love above everyone and who loves you the very same way, is not something you can go out and make happen. I feel that I’m not living a full life and there’s nothing I can do about it.

My husband and I saw Titanic when it first came out. I wasn’t a fan, to me it was a jewelry snuff film. But there is a scene that ripped my guts out. There is an elderly couple that gets into bed to die together. After the film, I told my husband I never could’ve gotten on a lifeboat and left him behind. I can still hear him telling me; “you’d have to live for me.” I can’t help but feel I’m letting him down.