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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven. The pages were never filled with artful passages but high-pitched strum and angst. I’ve avoided reading them but it’s a pretty safe bet that 90% of the strum was about boys. They are all (except for the current one) packed in a box, topped with a note in bold Sharpie: “Destroy Upon My Death.” (The note is for my sister whose curiosity and hunger for drama outweigh any sense of integrity.) The curious thing is that it is not a large box. There are only two journals for the entire 18 years I was with my husband. Lots of things happened during those years. Lots. But I was rarely sad and/or filled with angst. My marriage wasn’t boring but it was relatively calm and steady. These past four years have been anything but.
I have probably filled more notebooks during these past four years than I have my entire life. It’s not just the grief, I’m lost.There seem to be too many paths to take; a luxury, I know. My kingdom for simply a fork (versus a loom) in the road. I have tried so many roads, and gotten lost or reached a dead end more times than I can count. These journeys are probably invisible to everyone else, as they are more about my perspective and/or trying new things. I have tried work, play, dozens of volunteer gigs, politics, religion and apathy. I have dated people I considered good matches and people I knew were anything but. I have grown my hair and shrunk my wardrobe. And when none of it feels enough or right, when the loneliness and loss come crashing upon me, I grab my journal. I’d be embarrassed to read what I wrote a year or two or three ago. I fear I would discover little if any personal growth. If my journals were a therapist they would probably tell me it’s time to shift my narrative.
Life IS loss. My rabbi once told me that not everyone experiences loss. I argued (yes, with a rabbi) that was impossible. To be alive, in any real sense, means you have suffered loss. Even if it was “just” the loss of a dream or one’s youth, it is still loss. I accept that the cost of survival is learning how to live. There is even something to say for the creative freedom it allows. At least that’s what I tell friends over lunch or drinks. But I’ll tell you the other truth; it’s hard and sad and very lonely. I know I’m less lost than I was, but I still struggle for direction. This is particularly frustrating for a gal who has an exquisite sense of direction (seriously, my husband used to say you can spin me and I’d always point north.) I am learning self-care, which is huge progress. I am also learning not to say “yes” to everything but to trust my own judgement again.
Regaining trust of judgement is nothing to sneeze at by the way. The thing about being lost is one tends to ask for directions (regardless of one’s gender!). This is not always a great strategy, as no one knows you as well as you do. I’ve received some rubbish advice these past few years! I saw a therapist…once, who told me that the reason I still had sadness was that I made no difference in anyone else’s life. She said I lived a very self-absorbed life and I’d always be unhappy. So…I turn to my journal. I write and write and write, in the pursuit of clarity. I rely, as I always have, on my dreams to reveal my inner thoughts. And I live. I put one foot in front of the other. I do the things that make me happy whenever I can. I seek out experiences that feed my soul and spend time with people I love. That’s all I know to do. But oh do I miss the assuredness I had when married. I so miss feeling solid in my life…feeling I HAD a life.