Tuesday, September 10, 2019

How Could I Forget?

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
~ John Lennon

Where did the summer go?  I had so many plans - plans to write, maybe travel a bit, complete reorganizing the house, lose 10 pounds (again), and of course, deal with this on-going grief as it was sure to arise.

Then, life happened.  It interrupted my plans in late May when I woke in the middle of the night with an attack of vertigo, the room spinning, my stomach churning, and the realization that should I fall, no one would know.  A realization that brought on a wave of grief and anxiety I hadn't known since the days immediately following John's death in November.

It was this event that set into motion a series of challenges and decisions that would occupy several following weeks.  First, the diagnosis of Positional Vertigo, exercises to correct it, weeks of unsteadiness and incipient nausea, and always the fear of falling.  Then, hearing testing and hearing aids.  Followed by a balance assessment and the warning that my balance was so poor that I was in danger of falling, with or without vertigo.

For a while, it seemed that each new attempt to resolve a problem only led to the identification of another problem.  It took all of my emotional energy to avoid holding a major pity party for myself.  Needless to say, I didn't travel, didn't write beyond my personal journal pages, and comfort snacking didn't do much for a diet!  So much for plans.

Ultimately, I did resolve my health challenges.  I enrolled in a balance course and made significant inroads in organizing the house.  I got an alert system which has alleviated much of my concern about being alone.  And while I haven't lost weight, I haven't gained any - a small victory considering all the stress!

So, as dawn arrives later every day and dusk settles sooner, as autumn is in the air and I anticipate the first anniversary of John's death, my second Thanksgiving and Christmas without him, I could easily descend into anxiety and trepidation.  However, the greatest accomplishment of this summer has been to remind me, not that life happens while I'm making other plans, but that I have the resiliency, the skills and support to deal with it.  I almost forgot.  

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Just Not Yet

"Don't cry because it's over.  Smile because it happened."
~ Dr. Seuss

I love Dr. Seuss and I so want to believe this.   I can recognize that I am making progress, for sure.  In those first few weeks after John died, I despaired of remembering him other than from those last six months when he declined so significantly, losing weight, losing his ability to drive, losing his eyesight, eventually needing my help for even the most rudimentary tasks.  I panicked when I couldn't remember the silly little jingle he created and sang only in the shower.  I couldn't sleep in our bed, couldn't ward off the regrets.  

I turned to a multitude of grief books, hoping to find that someone else, anyone else, who felt the way I did.  Thankfully, I found the reassurance I was looking forward.  Not crazy, not unusual to feel so frantic.  

Then one morning, out of nowhere, the jingle emerged as I was waking up.  Gradually, sweet memories from those last six months returned.  How pleased he was that our little rescue dog, Rufus, and I had "found each other."  How he would sing to me, "Have I told you lately that I love you?" several times a day.  How, when I asked if he knew how much I loved him, his response was "and do you know how much that mattered?"  How he always expressed his gratitude to me, to his doctor, to the home health care and hospice nurses who cared for him.  Memories that, though they first brought tears, could also evoke a smile.  Not either/or but both.

In recent months, other memories have returned, sometimes initiated deliberately by someone sharing a common experience.  Or when I have had the courage to sit with photo albums or my basket of all the cards he sent me over the years.  When I have had the courage to go through a travel journal - our trips to Tuscany or the one to Sicily when we came upon a relative of mine sitting on a doorstep in her housecoat and flannel slippers, a scene from a Fellini movie.  Or the photos from the helicopter ride down the face of the Jurassic Falls.  How thrilled he was to sit beside the pilot.  

There are the memories that pop up unexpectedly - when it's dusk and I can hear him call to me to "come see this.  You won't believe the sky."  Or when I wake in the morning and recall how he would ask how I slept.  Hearing that Tiger Woods won the Masters and knowing he would have said, "I told you so."  Walking into the local Starbucks and ordering an iced tea the way he would have.

The intimate memories - the night we met in a "bar in Kansas City."  Well, an elegant lounge actually, but he loved telling everyone it was a bar.  Our wedding, the way he hovered when I had breast cancer, the beautiful messages he wrote on every card until he could no longer even sign his name.  

There isn't a day now when yet another memory emerges.  Bidden, unbidden.  Most of the time I can smile, well, at least smile first.  Am I at the point when I don't cry?  Not yet.  Will there come a day when I can simply smile because it happened?  Maybe, hopefully, but just not yet.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

This Much I Know

"Healing in grief is a lot like the onset of spring.  It's unreliable and fickle."
~ Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Unreliable and fickle.  Certainly my experience.  It's uncanny how this spring my inner mood so reflects the weather - or is it vice versa?   

Some days, the skies are gunmetal gray and the temperatures have dropped by ten degrees.  It's all I can do to get out of my nightgown and accomplish anything.  A song, a telephone conversation, an unexpected request related to John's death and I'm weeping.  A grief burst to rival the cloudbursts that have been all too common this spring.  

Some days, I wake to sunshine and the expectation of a good day, but by noon, banks of gray clouds roll in and the threat of yet another cloudburst increases by the hour.  On these days, it takes so little to unleash my own cloudburst of tears.  For how could those grief experts who warn you to prepare for the first anniversary or birthday or holiday know how easily I can fall apart at the sight of the first tulip, remembering the delight he took in planting them.  Or the sight of the first hummingbird, reminding me that he is not here to fill the feeder.  Or how even anticipating the first roses brings tears as I know he will never again bring in a fresh rose in the morning to greet my day,  How could they know?

Lately, however, there are days when I think I'm making progress through the forest of my grief.  The sun shines.  It's warm and a breeze whispers the shrubbery.   I have energy, look forward to the day and getting out and among folks.  The memories are sweet.  I barely shed a tear.  I even laugh.  On these days, I can believe there will be more such days, hopefully, many more.

So, this much I have come to know about this path I'm walking - the journey is, at best, unreliable and fickle.  Grief bursts are to be expected at the most unexpected times.  They are a part of the journey, but they, like spring showers, eventually pass.  So, I do best when I take it a day at a time, some days an hour at a time.  

I know that quotes like the above help me to make sense of my experience.  I know that the good days, and there are good days, are cause for celebration. The good days, and there are more good days, are cause for optimism.  I know that somehow, someday, the firsts will not overwhelm me.  I know that I will survive, and maybe, just maybe, even thrive again.  Even if, today, the clouds roll in again.

Monday, February 11, 2019

I Am No Stranger to Grief

"Grief is not a train track toward acceptance.  Instead, it is more of a 'getting lost in the woods.'"
~ Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD

I am no stranger to grief.   I have walked the path of grief alone and as a companion of family members and friends many times in my 78 years.  I have grieved openly over the assassinations of my youth and the shootings too common these past few years.  I am no stranger to grief.

So I thought I was prepared for John's death.  I was naive enough to think I was "ready".  Moreover, I was more concerned that I would be relieved rather than bereaved.  I wasn't - either ready or relieved.  I was shocked, that the pain and fear and regret were so crippling; also shocked that I was shocked.

It has been 12 weeks now, 12 weeks today, and the initial shock waves after subsided.  I have put my feet forward into the woods, deliberately, albeit with no small measure of anxiety and trepidation.  It is helping to think of this as a journey on an unchartered path through a dense forest.  This metaphor helps me when I'm going along, seemingly upright and grief descends like an unexpected branch that smacks me in the chest or an unseen root sending me tumbling face forward to the ground.  It helps when is a ray of sunshine breaks through the canopy of grief and for a moment I feel guilty that I feel OK.

I'm pretty sure not everyone thinks in metaphors nor finds solace in them, but this one works for me.  Grief as a path, an unchartered path through a dark forest.  A path that one has to create slowly, carefully, a step at a time.  Sometimes moving in the wrong direction, sometimes stumbling, sometimes frightened and disillusioned, but eventually finding the clearing.

I remind myself that I am no stranger to grief.  I may not have been lost in so vast, so dark a forest before, but I have made it through a miscarriage, a divorce, the loss and betrayal of friends, my own cancer - I will survive.  Someday, I may even thrive again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

To Remember

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"Promise me you'll always remember:
You're braver than you believe,
And stronger than you seem, 
And smarter than you think."

~ Christopher Robin to Pooh

I gave a plaque with this quote to John two years ago, at the beginning of his valiant battle with a rare cancer of the blood, a battle he lost the Monday before Thanksgiving.  I wanted him to cling to these words, wanted him to remember every day through the hundreds of transfusions he received, through his steady decline how much I believed in him.  How brave and strong and smart I knew him to be.

Then I forgot that I had given it to him.   He never used the words brave, or strong, or smart when people marveled at how resilient he seemed, how courageous, how amazing that he survived beyond the initial prognosis of six months.  Instead, publicly he would credit it to his orneriness or stubbornness.  Privately, he would declare that he expected a miracle.  For hadn't he survived non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, several bouts of skin cancer.  He was going to beat these odds, too, and be the first to defeat what we had been told was incurable.  He didn't use the words, but every day he lived them.

I forgot about it as I sent him more cards, found other plaques, penned letters of acknowledgment and gratitude and encouragement, and grieved as I watched him decline,  eventually surrender to Home Health Care, and finally to Hospice services.  

Then, on a day following his death, when I could muster the courage to check out his computer and immediate surroundings, I found the plaque and shared it with my sister who had come to be with us, to be with me.  She encouraged me to place it where I could see it.  Where it could serve me as surely it had served him.

So, it now rests on my bedside table where it nudges me to remind myself in the morning and in the evening, in the moments when grief and loneliness descend on me like a sudden thunderstorm, when I fear I haven't enough years left to ever feel content again, that

You are braver than you believe,
And stronger than you seem,
And smarter than you think.

~ John to Angie

I repeat the words and hope someday I'll believe them.  Just not yet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Who Will Remember?

"I never wanted to be the eldest."
~ Ben Magestro

I haven't thought of this comment in years.  Many years.  Dad made it at the news of the death of his remaining older brother over 25 years ago.  Dad was just about the age I am today.  I didn't pursue the comment.  Maybe it was because I am the eldest child and grandchild and had never given it much thought at the point.  Maybe I feared I'd make both of us uncomfortable discussing why he felt that way. Maybe I arrogantly assumed I understood. Whatever - I just let it pass, one more comment to file away. 

Until recently, when I caught a video of my remaining uncle, now in his 80's, suddenly frail, undoubtedly old.  In the weeks that have followed, my dad's comment has popped up at the most unexpected moments.  Finally, I suspect I understand.  When this uncle dies, when I am the eldest in the clan, who will remember?

For, it's not only that this uncle is the last of his generation.  In many ways, he was more an older brother than an uncle.  We lived under the same roof at the end of World War II.  He consoled me and tried to protect me when the stress of that household at that time was too much for a little girl.  He took me trick or treating.  He fixed my plate at the buffet when we celebrated my great-grandmother's 100th birthday.  He was there when I was baptized, and when I received Holy Communion.  He remembers the day Grandma gave up her icebox for a refrigerator, what it took to keep the coal burning furnace going, the snowstorm that crippled the city in 1947.

He was the first male in the family to get a college degree; I was the first female.  He was the first to leave the city and his family to serve in Korea.  I was the first to leave the city and never return.

When he dies, there will be no one left who knows where I began, who can appreciate even remotely what it has taken to be who and where I am today. There will be no one else who remembers. I'm not sure this is what Dad meant when he made that comment so many years ago.  But I rather suspect I'm in the ballpark.

I know there are scientific reasons given for why we older folks begin to dwell on memories of our younger selves.  But what if it isn't also that we reach a point when we are the eldest and there is no one else who remembers?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Because He Listens

"The first duty of love is to listen."
~ Paul Tillich

I write this as we approach our 35th, and I fear our last, wedding anniversary.  We met 38 years ago, Aug. 18, 1980, to be exact.  In a bar in Kansas City, as the song goes.  Just 15 minutes before I had determined to leave.  I was there with a colleague, sharing with her the highlight of a long road trip I had taken alone, so proud of what I had done.

John walked in with a friend to celebrate a successful business transaction and sat at a nearby table.  His first trip to Kansas City, he asked a question of his friend that the man could not answer.  But I could, and without much thought, did.

We continued to talk - about the city, and then work, and backgrounds and interests - and he listened, at a level I had rarely experienced.

When we parted, we exchanged telephone numbers in case I ever got to Cleveland, his home base.  In case he ever visited Kansas City again.  Which I seriously doubted.  

The next day, I told my mother that I had met someone who, though I was sure I would never see again, gave me hope that there might be someone with whom I could build a lasting, supportive relationship.  In fact, I told her, were we to live in the same city I was sure we would end up married.

He called the following Sunday morning just to talk.  And he listened.  As he did every Sunday morning for weeks.  And eventually every Wednesday evening, and eventually every night.  As he did throughout the challenges of determining how to create a lasting relationship across miles and different careers, across different backgrounds and commitments, across significant hesitations and considerations.  Somehow, even when he became most fearful or I became most frustrated and angry, he strove to listen.

And I came to realize that for all the reasons I had come to love him, at the top of the list was that he always listened, no matter how difficult the conversation.  I moved to Cleveland, and we married in l983.

That foundation of talking and listening through the tough conversations has served us well.  Sustained us through several moves, career changes, presidential campaigns, caregiving for my elderly parents, and battles with cancer.  It continues to be a basic survival skill as we deal with this, the greatest challenge we have ever faced, the most difficult conversations we have ever had to have.  Still, he listens.  I have never loved him more.