Thursday, December 24, 2009

On the Eve of Christmas

So it is as I mentioned it would be in my last post.

December 25 is coming, whether we are ready for it or not. And in a few short hours (at least in my time zone) it will be here. When I mentioned that, I was speaking mostly in terms of being physically ready – having the gifts purchased, the cards sent, those sorts of things. But for so many of us, it means so much more than that. It means another significant day without our loved ones.

I also mentioned in my previous post that I was having a rough time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. I have always loved Christmas and everything is stands for. I am not as crazy about the commercialization of the holiday or the fact that the real meaning so often gets lost in the shuffle, but that is fodder for another post entirely. What has surprised me about my attitude this Christmas season is mostly that I didn’t see it coming. I would have expected this for the first and maybe even the second Christmas after my wife’s death. But the third?

And yet, I had no choice, but to make sure everything got done. My daughter’s Christmas memories shouldn’t have to suffer simply because I’m in a funk this year. So the Christmas shopping was all completed, with time to spare no less. And the decorating was finished, albeit to a much lesser degree than in previous years. And even though some of the cards and packages won’t arrive till sometime after tomorrow, at least they were in the mail ahead of time.

But I still can’t shake this feeling I’ve had lately. It’s very reminiscent of what I went through last winter grief-wise, but last year it didn’t begin until much closer to my birthday. I guess I was just naïve enough to believe that it wouldn’t happen again this year.

One thing that has helped me continue the façade with my daughter is that we have so many traditions this time of year. The Christmas my wife was pregnant with our daughter, we announced to both sets of families that we would begin our own traditions now that we were going to have our own child. Part of that included not spending Christmas Day in the Midwest, but going there the week after Christmas (one of the luxuries we both had as educators). And when we did begin our own traditions, we mostly mixed the ones we had both enjoyed as children.

In the years since my wife’s death, we have kept many of those traditions, but have added a few as well. We still bake a coffee cake on Christmas Eve to eat for breakfast Christmas morning. We still read all three of the same stories just before bed. And of course, we still put out a plate of cookies for the big guy in red.

The Christmas Eve after my wife died, I felt the strongest urge to see the ocean. There’s just something about standing on the sand and looking out across the blue water that fills a need within me sometimes. We try to make it a point to go down about once a month in the winter, even if it’s freezing cold or raining and we just sit and stare at it through the dunes. We were leaving for the Midwest the following afternoon, and I knew that I needed to see the ocean again before we did so.

Out of that moment of need, another tradition was born.

As much as I would have liked to head to the beach alone, and stand on the shore that day and cry alone, it was not a possibility. As a single father living so far from family and not feeling it appropriate to lean on anyone else on Christmas Eve, I did the only thing I could do. I drug my then three-year-old along with me.

And it turned out to be the best move I could have made.

You see, I did not stand on the beach and cry that day. I chased my daughter down the length of sand instead. Oh rest assured I was still incredibly melancholy. But I didn’t have the luxury of pouring out my grief in that moment. I had to be a father first and a widower later, once she had gone to bed that night and I found myself setting out her gifts alone.

As my siblings and I grew up, moved out, married, and the like, it became a tradition at my parents’ house for everyone to bring one item to put in everyone else’s stockings. I’ve received everything from candy to trinkets to lottery tickets from various family members over the years.

That day on the beach, my daughter began picking up stones. I have always loved beach stones, much more so than shells. But my daughter was then prone to picking up solely shells. To this day I have no idea why she picked up stones instead on that Christmas Eve. But as she picked them up, it occurred to me that they would make the perfect stocking stuffers for my mostly land-locked family. So we picked up enough for everyone, and the next week she helped me determine which one went into each individual’s stocking. It’s something they seem to look forward to now.

It occurred to me sometime after we had picked up those initial Christmas Eve stones, that they represented some things. Now, I have never been one to believe that there is any sort of power or energy within stones themselves, but I believe that these particular stones contained a powerful meaning for me. There seemed to be a certain semblance of hope in stones that had washed ashore on Christmas Eve. And I think hope is what I needed more than anything else on that first Christmas Eve alone.

Maybe it’s just what I needed on this Christmas Eve as well.

When I first set eyes on the ocean this afternoon, I could see that it was a deeper shade of blue than is typical, even in winter. Its unusual darkness seemed to mirror my mood. If Crayola could capture the shade, they’d have no choice but to label it “melancholy”. But the sun was out and my daughter was smiling, so I once again found myself embracing the hopefulness of the moment as she selected this year’s stones.

As I write this, I am very mindful of those who are in a similar position as I was on that Christmas Eve two years ago. Those who are embarking on their first Christmas without their mates – WomanNShadows, Dan, letterstoelias, SuddenWidow, and Boo – to name but a few. If I could send all of you a Christmas Eve stone, I most assuredly would. But know at least that you are all in the hearts and prayers, not only of myself, but of the many who read this blog and yours as well.

May we all feel the hope of Christmas this year.

Merry Christmas,

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Winter Weeds (or A General Sense of Apathy)

In the area of the Southeast in which I reside, it is not uncommon to have warm days throughout the winter. These are usually followed within one to three days by significantly colder temperatures. And yes, the same cycle then begets warmer days again. Except for the period from mid-January to the end of February, which I typically refer to as our “six weeks of winter”. But since it is now just mid-December, we are still well within those warming-cooling cycles.

All of this talk about the weather brings me to the title of this post. You see, in many areas of our country the ground freezes and either stays frozen or freezes repeatedly throughout the winter so that most of the vegetation dies off, save that of the evergreen variety. Where I live, even when we have significant cold spells, the annuals and most flowering perennials die back in the winter, as do the summer and fall weed varieties. There are, however, certain weeds that not only survive the winter, but seem to thrive.

I was reminded of these weeds as I stood in the yard with the dog this morning before work on what turned out to be a relatively mild December day for us. These winter weeds have already overtaken a portion of the flower bed just off the back porch, directly below a rose bush which is uncharacteristically still in bloom (I think this may be a first). They have grown taller than the remaining stems of the perennials there and have begun to spill over the border stones and into the yard. If they keep it up, I will have to mow sometime in January to combat their advance.

Stay with me here, I do have a point.

What struck me about my winter weeds on this particular morning, is that they are an allegory for what I have been experiencing lately. An anomaly of sorts, if you will. You see, it defies logic that weeds should flourish in the winter. We are taught from an early age that in the cycle of the seasons spring is the time of birth and life, and winter is the time of dormancy and death. So why, then, do my weeds thrive throughout the winter?

Just as winter is typically looked upon as a bleak period within the cycle of a year, Christmas is looked upon as the high point in the cycle of holidays on the traditional American calendar. It is meant to be a time of extreme happiness, love, and togetherness.

So why am I just not feeling it this year?

In the eight years since I married and was subsequently widowed, I have always had the house completely decorated and ready for Christmas no later than the first weekend in December, depending on whether we were home for Thanksgiving or away visiting family. I finally put my tree up a week ago Saturday. It’s a small tree and does not require many lights, but I found when I reached the third string they no longer worked and I no longer had any spare strings on hand. So I went to the store and bought some the next day. But still, the tree sat unplugged with two strands of lights for another week before I actually strung the third set.

Now, I could argue that it wasn’t really my fault that it took so long to get the lights on the tree. And I would be partially correct. Sometime in October I was approached about acting in our church’s Christmas play. I had never been asked as it was usually a children’s performance, but this production called largely for adult actors, and I was happy to have been a part of it. As it turns out, the part I was asked to play was typecasting at its best. I played the part of a thirty-something, divorced middle child who was having a hard time accepting that his wife didn’t want it to work and having to handle his kids on his own (though he had two and it was a joint custody situation). So even though there were some discrepancies, the sense of loss he experienced was similar. Incidentally, there was a widower in the play, but he was my character’s sixty-something father and though I’m graying at an alarming rate, I don’t quite look that part just yet.

Overall, the play was a great experience and came together really well. But it also required a great deal of time for practices, including all of that Saturday morning and most of Sunday before the actual performance. There were some additional changes that took up another part of that weekend, but that will have to wait for a future post.

The week that ensued was both incredibly busy and extremely exhausting, so we did not get any decorating (or posts to this blog) done then either. So this past Saturday I made it a priority to get the tree decorated. As of right now, the tree is decorated complete with ornaments, ribbon, and working lights and all of the nativities are up. But I still have a few snowmen to place and the outside lights to hang.

And Christmas is just over a week away.

Which brings me to my next area of neglect. It is not uncommon for me to still have shopping to do this close to Christmas. It is, however, quite uncommon for me to have barely scratched the surface this late in the game. I tried three nights last week and came home frustrated and empty-handed (except for a birthday gift, which doesn’t quite seem to count) every time. So tonight I forced myself to make a list and go to the store. I let my daughter pick out gifts for some of her cousins and friends for whom we buy, but that was about as much as I could stand. Thursday we will go pick out teacher gifts (her last day of school is Friday) and tomorrow I have to attempt to complete her shopping between work and time to pick her up.

And let’s not forget about the Christmas cards. Yes, I still send out Christmas cards every year and I actually don’t mind doing so for the most part. But this year it took me forever to even go buy the things, and they are sitting on my kitchen table still in the shrink-wrap as I type. The plan is to attack those this weekend, but it may just turn out that some people don’t receive their cards until after the big day.

So why am I so far behind on everything this year? Is it that grief is overwhelming me to a point that I just can’t cope with these things? Nope (not on a conscious level, at least). Is it that I am so busy and tired that I haven’t the time to take care of them? Maybe, but I don’t that’s the most likely reason.

Okay, so what is going on already?

I think the culprit in this case is that I simply haven’t wanted to. I haven’t been “feeling” Christmas at all this year. And I don’t seem to be alone in this. It seems that every time I talk to anyone about Christmas in general, they tend to be experiencing similar feelings. Or perhaps, the lack thereof. I have remarked more than one time over the past several days that Christmas is going to come whether we are ready for it or not. But it really saddens me that there has been so much less joy in it for me this year.

And I don’t know who or what is to blame. It could be the effect that the economy is having on people, which is some ways might be even greater than it was at this time last year. It could be that the new administration has not been as successful at implementing positive changes as many had hoped. It could be a general sense of despair that seems to be directly linked to that. It could be that Christmas has become so commercialized and politically correct that we feel like there is little enjoyment to be had from its celebration. It could be any of these things. It could be all of them. Or it could be something completely unrelated. I simply do not know.

One thing I do know is that Christmas will look a lot different for us this year. We will still celebrate at our house on Christmas Day and head back to the Midwest after that. But due to some issues which occurred last Christmas, neither of my brothers will be coming “home” to celebrate this year. I won’t go into the reasons or how valid or ludicrous they might be here, but the bottom line is that on top of my general sense of apathy surrounding Christmas this year, physical components of certain celebrations will be noticeably absent. And I would be lying if I said that wasn’t going to be hard.

“So suck it up” you might say. You’re the guy who was widowed before thirty. You live 800 miles from your nearest relative and you’re continuing to raise your young daughter single-handedly. How can subtle changes make things any worse? How can this Christmas be any harder than the first one without her?

I don’t know that this Christmas will be worse, but I do know that any level of change, especially within the family structure, reminds me of how completely precarious life can be. And it drives home the fact that my wife is no longer physically a part of all of this.

I said earlier that I didn’t think this was all coming from an overwhelming sense of grief. And I meant it. But I failed to mention then that I believe it’s coming.

And I am simply bracing myself as best I can for its impact.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Giving Thanks

It is not very often one can say on this Widowed Road that they have been fortunate. Or maybe it is, but is just too hard for us to see when we are mired in our grief. But if I had to identify one area in which I had been fortunate regarding my wife’s death, it would be that she died in the late winter, which meant that I had a good nine months of active grieving before I had to face the dreaded holidays.

Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I love the food, the time with family (when possible), and everything it stands for. But for me it has always been overshadowed by holidays like Christmas and Easter, for reasons which I will likely delve into when those holidays come around again. One thing that I have always dreaded, at least when I lived at or near home, was the obligatory “what are you thankful for” session around the Thanksgiving table (sorry G). I dread it all the more now, though I have not spent Thanksgiving with my side of the family since the last one with my wife in November, 2006.

It can be hard as widow/ers to be mindful of the positive things in our “new” lives. How can we possibly be thankful for anything when everything we’ve ever lived for is suddenly gone? It’s a hard question, and one that is not easily answered. Nor is the answer the same for any of us. But I suspect that over the next week or so there will be many posts in the blogs listed at the right of the screen which deal with this topic on some level. And I suspect most, if not all, will contain some level of gratitude, even amidst our given circumstances.

The first Thanksgiving without my wife was spent as planned prior to her death, with her family in a state adjacent to my own. It has become an unspoken tradition that we meet there every other year when her sister has her children for the holiday. It’s a time I always look forward to, but one that was incredibly difficult that year, nonetheless. Thinking about it now, though, I cannot convey just how difficult it was. This is one of the many times I wish I had been able to write during the multitude of firsts. Sadly, unlike many of you who have or are about to experience them, I have no written record of those times and can only rely upon my memory, which is unreliable at best. But what I do remember is that we all cried a lot and laughed a bit, and ultimately made it through.

Last year was an off-year as far as that unwritten tradition is concerned, and as it is too far to travel to my original home state in the Midwest, we relied upon our surrogate family here to take us in. On Thanksgiving Day last year, we woke up in our own beds and watched the parade in our own living room. Late in the morning we drove to the home of our friend’s parents and spent a lovely fall afternoon. The weather is more temperate here this time of year, so the kids were able to play outside and even jump in great piles of leaves without much fear of illness settling in. We stayed through dinner time, then headed back to our house and watched specials on tv together. I was still not able to write then, but my recent memory serves me a bit better than my distant memory does.

And so arrives this Thanksgiving. In staying true to the pattern, we will again head to that adjacent state in the morning, fighting what I am sure will be all manner of angry drivers and impatient travelers along the way. My daughter, for what I believe to be the first time ever, told me this morning that she is not looking forward to the traveling part this time. Or maybe it’s just my frustration level during the journey that she’d rather avoid. But I digress.

I can’t really say that I’m much in the mood for the holidays yet this year. The time off work – absolutely. I’ve been looking forward to that for weeks. But so far I just haven’t been able to get excited about the actual celebrating of the holidays. However, in preparation for said holidays and the composing of this post, I have once again been reminded that I have plenty for which to be thankful.

Like my beautiful, precocious little girl, who still looks and acts a lot like me, but has those blue eyes and sweet disposition that drew me to her mother all those years ago. Despite her ear surgeries over the summer, she is a healthy child. And since health is something her mother battled with for most of her short adult life, I am certain that she too would be grateful that our daughter has been in such good health these past few years as well. She is doing well in school, both academically (like me) and socially (like her mommy). And she has handled life after her mother’s death with a grace and poise that is well beyond her five years. Though I always dreamed of having a large family, I have been given more in my one child than I would have ever thought possible.

Though we are physically isolated from our families much of the year, we make every effort to see each other when we can. Both families. And that is another thing for which I am thankful. I come from an average-sized, though anything-but-average family. Love was always a part of our home growing up, and though at times our differences have caused that love for one another to be much less evident as adults, I am confident it is still present. And I married into a family that was very similar to my own in that regard. My wife grew up in a loving home, which I was welcomed into with open arms. And as you can tell from the preceding paragraphs, that love was not cut off after she died. In reading blogs of other widow/ers, I am constantly made aware of how blessed I am not only to have my own family, but to have my wife’s as well.

There is also, of course, the laundry list of other things as well. I have a good job, which to this point has been safe from the spiraling economy. I am in relatively good health myself. I have good friends and acquaintances. I can afford to pay my bills and still have some left over to go out to eat and take trips to see family. I’m even starting to come out of that six-month state of lethargy I wrote about here (see photo above for the completed version of the photo at the top of that post). And now I have an ever-growing support network in a place I never thought I’d find it – the internet.

Lots of blessings.

Lots of things for which to give thanks.

But perhaps the thing for which I am the most grateful, is that over the past two years and nine months, I have not once had to worry about or question where my wife resides now. She had an unshakeable faith in Christ and I have no doubt that she is with Him now. This knowledge has done little in the way of taking the sting out of everyday life on earth without her, but over time I think it has helped me become more accepting of her death. Now I’d be lying if I said my own faith hasn’t wavered greatly since then, but at times, it has also been the only thing that has sustained me.

So yes, I have a lot to be thankful for. And as cliché as it may seem, I am putting it here for you to see as Thanksgiving approaches and ultimately passes us by. But I’d like to leave you with this: As you celebrate this holiday with family or friends, please be reminded of those of us who are celebrating it with one less chair around the table. Especially those like Dan and Woman N Shadows, who are doing so for the very first time. If you are a praying person, please say a prayer for us as well.

And if you are fortunate enough to be celebrating with your husband or wife, hug them a bit tighter for those of us who can no longer hug ours at all.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Interwoven Dreams

It is not uncommon for me to dream.

It is also not uncommon for me not to dream.

What is uncommon, however, is for me to dream about my wife. I am closing in on the three year mark and I believe I am up to six dreams of her in total. I’d say it’s an average of one every six months, which is true, but misleading as two dreams occurred on consecutive nights. In the first couple dreams she was back, but I knew that she was going to die and was powerless to stop it. In the other three dreams she was also “back”, but the moments of which I dreamed were normal moments we could have easily had when she was actually here (with the exception of certain details of the third dream of the five, which I wrote about here.) As you have by now guessed, I had the sixth dream quite recently, but you’ll have to read a bit further before we get to that.

Friday night I fell asleep at some late hour in the overstuffed leather recliner with both the tv and the lamp still burning up electricity. I do not usually sleep comfortably in the recliner, but there are still periods (though increasingly shorter in duration and further between), when I opt to remain there at night rather than face my empty bed. When coupled with the incessant noise created by the tv, it’s a wonder my mind was able to formulate dreams that night, let alone clearly enough that I would remember them.

My dreams throughout the night bordered on psychotic – the kind you have when you eat too much greasy food just before dozing off. But two were so lucid and so very different from all the others, that I could not help but recall them the next morning.

During the first of these dreams, I was dating someone. For those of you who are new to this blog, I have not dated anyone since my wife’s death, nor have I thought about it a great deal. I am not one who dwells on such things or seeks them out. I am as content as I can be alone, but am becoming increasingly accepting of the idea that I could possibly be happy with someone else someday, if and/or when that time comes.

And that was the beauty in this dream. I think for many of us widow/ers there is a tendency to want to replace what we had with our husband/wife/fiancé if and/or when we do meet someone else. During those times that I have pondered the general idea of dating, it has crossed my mind that it would be easy for me to do the same. But in my dream, at least, this was not the case. Sure, she had some of the same qualities as my wife, namely a similar hair color and a beautiful smile. But she mostly possessed qualities that made her unique unto herself. She was not a “replacement” for my wife, but was instead someone I could care about (and love?) for who she was alone.

This dream showed me that someday I could possibly love someone else. I don’t think I’ve entertained that idea up to this point, and might not have now, had I not had it forced upon me in my slumber. In fact, I think I’ve spent more energy the last few years resigning myself to the idea that I might just be single for a good many years.

I don’t remember many specific details of this dream, but I do remember being blissfully happy. And it felt really good.

Cue dream two. The initial details are a little fuzzy, but at the beginning of what I remember, I have just come off my first date with the dream girl when I somehow find out that my wife is still alive. She is in something of a comatose state and resides in an abandoned house in the town where I grew up. She is being kept alive by her own sheer willpower and the grace of God – no machines whatsoever. And no one has been privy to the fact that she’s been alive all this time until now.

So at the outset of the dream I am forging my way into this abandoned house, which has no useable entrances and has become quite treacherous to enter over the years. After climbing over, under, around, and through all manner of debris, I come to a room where she is lying on a bed, quite still, but also seemingly quite comfortable. At this point the dream takes on a fairy-tale-like state and I swoop in and save her, so to speak.

But some of the fairy-tale ending is missing. While I am incredibly happy to see her and know she is alive, I am as concerned about showing her what has happened during the last two and three-quarter years as I am about having her back again. I even remember specifically taking her to each of the rooms I’ve painted in our house, hoping she’ll be pleased with the colors I’ve chosen.

And in the back of my mind lurks the date from which I have just come. During the dream I remember being relieved that things had not gone further with the dream girl, but also wondering what might have happened had my wife not miraculously been found alive. It is enough to create chaos deep within a man.

While the details of these dreams did not match up completely, I can’t help but think they are related. And though I generally do not put much stock in dreams having meaning, it seems that in this instance they almost certainly must.

Like the fact that I must be inching closer to the prospect of dating, whether it happens tomorrow or in ten years. And the fact that I could someday embrace a relationship with someone who is very different from my wife. And the fact that I can choose to do this, knowing that I am as content as I can possibly be with my current circumstances.

I think what surprised me the most about these dreams is that there was a level of guilt evident in the mix. I don’t know if I have written about this here or not, but a few days before my wife died, we had a conversation during which she asked me to make her some promises. Her health had declined very quickly and though I don’t think either of us believed she was going to die at that point, it was necessary for us to say some things to each other. The one thing she asked me that I could not promise was that I would marry again. And here’s why. I told her that even (though hard as it was to imagine at the time) if I ever managed to fall for someone else, I could not guarantee that someone else would ever fall in love with me. I don’t believe in making promises I can’t keep. So instead I told her that I would keep myself open to the possibility.

I guess that’s what I’m trying to do now. I was just naïve enough to think it wouldn’t be hard.

And, for now, it was only a dream.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On a General Sense of Lethargy

I have been rolling the content of this post around in my head for about two months now. It was originally intended to be a summer wrap-up post, recounting many things that occurred, but were never committed to paper (or in this case, screen). But by taking so long to actually compose and post these thoughts, I have become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. And I have lived up to the title.

What prompted me to actually post these words now was a recent post by Supa, who has apparently been experiencing many of the same thoughts, feelings, and (lack of) actions I have. Ironically, I read this post while in the midst of cleaning house, but that may come into play a bit later on.

When I started this blog, I had visions of grandeur. I thought that I would post twice a week, or once at the very least, and then only when things became extremely harried in my daily life. I never dreamed I’d see months with only two or three posts. But this blog is an account of how grief has/is/continues to affect my life and that of my daughter. And the truth is we’ve had a lot of two-post months as of late.

It seems to have begun sometime in April. After an excellent trip to visit family over Spring Break, we settled into what would become the end of our now familiar routine - my daughter’s last few months at day care before embracing the world of “big school” and my last few months of school at the job I have held for the past five years.

In May we managed to take our first family trip to Disney World, which I wrote about here. Despite the rain and being acutely aware that we were supposed to make this trip as a family of three (not two) we had a great time. And the end of my school year was, in some ways, one of the smoothest I’ve ever had.

But sometime in May, I noticed that I had put on a few pounds. And that it wasn’t coming back off readily. Not a big deal for most people, but for me, it was a sign of things to come.

About six months after my daughter was born, my wife and I decided to do something about our “baby weight”. Those of you who have children know why it was ours, and not solely hers. When I stepped on the scale, I was amazed to see that I had gained twenty pounds since we’d been married, which was at that time only three years. So we set out on a regimen of strict dietary change and increased exercise. And the pounds came off. In no time at all I had lost twenty-five pounds, and my wife was within ten pounds of her goal weight. I ended up losing thirty pounds in all (I had thought I needed to lose ten going into it) and kept it off for four and a half years.

Now, I typically put on a few pounds around the holidays and any time we visit family (here or there) because my eating habits change. But I am always able to get back to my normal weight within a reasonable amount of time. The distressing part about the May weight gain is that it didn’t really seem to coincide with the trip home or the trip to Florida. I had just gained some unexplained weight.

But it was not so much that I couldn’t bear it. And I had other things to attend to. Like my daughter’s graduation from preschool and the emotions I endured in having to go through that alone. We had a nice visit with all of the grandparents during and after…

But then I sold the car and had to deal with all sorts of new grief-driven feelings.

Then within three days’ time we not only found out that my daughter had to have ear surgery, but she also had it. You can imagine what that was like (or read about it here).

I wrote about those three things. But at the end of June, I completed my first week of teaching Vacation Bible School at our church. It was a rewarding experience and not nearly as mired in grief as the rest of the month had been. But I never managed to share that experience here.

Within a week of that, we were headed to the Midwest for our annual summer trip to see family. We arranged for five days with each side of the family, with a five day side-trip in the middle. You may recall that while some of you were at the Widow/ers Conference in San Diego, I was in the heart of the country at a work related conference. It was my first time in that city, and I managed to add my twenty-third state to the list, while my daughter added numbers thirteen through fifteen to hers (she’s catching up too quickly!) I had big plans to record the exciting moments here, much like I did with the Disney trip, but alas, this is the closest I’ve come to doing so.

And only two days before that trip, I was doubled-over by the worst physical pain I’ve ever endured, which turned out to be a kidney stone. I had actually composed an entire post about that in my head and yet, it never made it to this small screen. Suffice it to say, I can now boast that I have driven halfway across the country on (low, legal doses of) painkillers though.

And as I’m writing, I realize I forgot to mention the garden. That beautiful, sad little plot that held so much potential. Strong tomato plants, evenly-spaced rows of bean seeds, hills of pumpkins, yellow squash, and zucchini… But the bean seeds never took, even with two plantings. And we had almost a week of hundred degree heat in June, when that is usually reserved for late July/early August. Then we had our ten days of rain (which is customary for June, but does not usually follow extreme heat). We did manage to get one small, hard, inedible piece of yellow squash and several undersized tomatoes. But I don’t eat tomatoes. And I’m guessing neither did the people to whom we gave them.

July is also a month with some hard dates for me, as is evidenced by this post and this one here. But as you may recall, I posted them in reverse order and the latter was posted almost three weeks after the date.

And then came August. We had out-of-town guests who inspired my first trilogy of posts on this site (see here, here, and here). And we increased our time at the beach, even though we had managed to make it down there more often this summer than we did the last.

Then my daughter started kindergarten and had her second ear surgery within three days of one another, but I didn’t get either of those posts up until September.

In the midst of all of this, I left the school where I’d worked for the last five years for one closer to my home. With the job change and my daughter starting school, my commute was cut by forty minutes each day. Yes, I gained almost an entire feature-length film’s worth of free time every day. (Not that I know where it has gone!)

The job change was an amicable one, but it’s been over two months and this is the first real mention I’ve made of it here. There have been some occurrences there, mostly dealing with having to reveal my marital status, that I will save for another post (here’s hoping it makes it to this screen sometime in the near future).

But suddenly September was gone and within a week we’d make a weekend trip together to see family in a nearby state and a weekday trip apart (since she’s in school now), which I did manage to write about here a few weeks back.

I know what some of you are thinking by this point, but it’s not true.

Some of you are thinking that these all sound like classic symptoms of depression. And they do. But they are not. I have been depressed before (though ironically it was in college before my wife and I even began dating) and it was much worse than this. Precursors to depression? Possibly. I won’t rule that out at this point. But full-fledged depression? Not even close yet.

What I think this is instead, is simply grief manifesting itself in my life. Like other widow/ers I read, my grief has changed over time. Just when I figure out all the triggers, they shift and I have to learn the new ones. It’s a seemingly endless battle, but one I am destined to fight (or flee from at times) nonetheless.

And there is hope in all of this – namely that I recognize what is happening. So that’s where things like cleaning the house come into play. I usually keep a relatively neat house (especially for a single dad!), but over the last month I noticed that I was cleaning a few rooms here and there, but the entire house was never completely clean all at once. So this weekend I set out to do just that. And once I had accomplished that goal, I felt better.

And even though I’ve gained ten pounds in total since April and I keep eating junk food like someone is going to take it away from me at any moment, I’m starting to make healthier choices here and there again. Just last week while my daughter was at gymnastics, I spent some time walking at a nearby park. Baby steps in that department perhaps, but it is, at least, forward motion.

And in all of this I have managed to maintain the daily routine. My daughter’s homework is always completed, the laundry is never so far behind that we’re scrambling for things to wear, we’ve increased the number of meals we eat at home, my work hasn’t suffered… All important aspects of our lives that are being carried out in such a way that no one would know the relentless undertones of grief that are always there, just below the surface.

Day by day. One step at a time.

Forward motion.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Distance and Conflicting Obligations

It is often said that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. And while I have seen that statement become reality in many situations in my life, none more immediately than in the years since my wife’s death, I did not expect it in my most recent encounter with absence.

But it happened, nonetheless.

At this time last week I was headed to bed in a larger city in a Northeastern state. Or rather, I was headed to my sleeping bag on the floor of my brother’s home office in said city/state. At that time, my daughter had been asleep, snug and cozy in bed, for about three hours. The only trouble was that her bed was in someone else’s house, several hundred miles away in our hometown.

It is also often said that “there’s a first time for everything”.

And such was the case last Wednesday night. My brother had asked me to come up for an overnight visit, the details of which I unfortunately cannot divulge at this time. But suffice it to say he asked me there for a specific purpose, and since he has not acted in such a way in the ten-plus years he’s lived there, I obliged his request.

I rather enjoy visiting my brother and exploring his city, which is so very different from my coastal corner of the map. I enjoy it so much that I am planning what will be our third annual winter visit in January (the details of which I will gladly divulge!) I do not, however, enjoy taking time off work. I do so when my daughter is sick or when we are out of town (though this is increasingly rare since she is in school now) or when she has a medical need (her surgery and follow-up appointments, for example). I even, begrudgingly, take the occasional day off when I am absolutely too ill to climb into the car and drag myself to school. So it was more than a big deal for me to take a day off at my brother’s behest, but I was also glad to do so.

The hard part was leaving my daughter. I was not so much worried about where she would stay, as our friends (who are getting an increasing amount of praise on this blog lately!) who always seem to be there for us gladly took her in for a few nights. As a single parent, it’s not only a relief to have people you can count on when something like this arises, but it’s an added bonus when you have people you can trust to the point that you truly don’t have to worry about your child while you’re away. But I was worried about telling her I was going alone, and then actually doing so.

So in a moment of genius, I made two bowls of ice cream and broke the news during a nice little father-daughter moment we were having. And she took it extremely well. She was, as I had hoped, very excited about getting to stay with her friend for two nights (two school nights, no less!) She was not thrilled about me going to see her uncles without her, but when I explained that I didn’t want to take her out of school to go, she seemed to understand. Plus, I gave her about a week to adjust to the news, so as to help decrease some of the shock a bit.

So last Wednesday, I put her on the bus at ten till seven like I do every morning, knowing I wouldn’t see her for two and a half days. And she hopped on just like she does every other day. No tears. No hysterics. No drama at all. Just my happy little girl hopping on the bus as if it were a normal day. It made leaving her a whole lot easier than I had thought it would be.

So after work that afternoon I flew to the airport a couple hours away (keeping the wheels to the pavement) only to find out that my flight had been delayed for almost an hour and a half. So my twenty hour jaunt turned into eighteen. And my big-city dinner in my brother’s neighborhood was replaced with an over-priced bagel sandwich alone at the airport. I had, at least, had the foresight to bring a book, so I was not completely bored while I waited for the clock hands to trudge forward. But the night had not begun as planned.

Thankfully the rest of the night did not follow suit. The plane took off and landed on its adjusted schedule without incident. I managed to direct the cab driver to my brother’s place without incurring an additional fare. And I enjoyed a nice quiet evening watching tv and waiting for my other brother and his wife to arrive.

The next day was a blur of events capped off with a nice lunch at a local southwestern eatery, complete with drinks, and dessert at a nearby bakery. Then it was off to the airport to catch my return ride. I had initially thought that by taking the earlier flight I’d be able to pick up my daughter before bedtime and thus have to endure only one night apart, but when the drive home from the airport was factored in, this was not a feasible plan. We knew this ahead of time, so she was expecting to stay with our friends two nights, but that did not make the pain of that night’s phone call any easier to bear.

When you have spent nearly half of your young life being raised by a single dad without any close family nearby, you have a tendency to grow exceptionally close to said father. When you couple this with the fact that the only nights we’ve spent apart in the past two and two-thirds years have been the occasional night in the Midwest when she has stayed overnight with her closest cousins (and was thereby the one “leaving”) you start to get an idea of just how hard a night or two apart might be.

So when I called her just before bedtime from the airport city last Thursday night to let her know I was safely back in our state and would see her the next day, it seemed only appropriate that the tears would flow. She wanted to know why I couldn’t pick her up that night and told me how much she missed me. I tried to reassure her that I would see her after school the next day, but I had to choke back my own tears while doing so.

After we hung up I finished my sandwich from a local fast food chain and decided to try to do some shopping. I am not big on shopping without a purpose, nor did I have a purpose that night, other than pure avoidance. You see, I had prepared myself as much as possible for the separation from my daughter, but I had not prepared myself for a night alone in our completely empty house. And now that I was faced with the prospect of such, I opted to go shopping instead. I didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, but I did manage to stay gone long enough that when I arrived home I was tired enough to crawl into bed and ignore my solitude as much as possible.

When I was in fifth grade I went away to camp for the first, and only, time. When I arrived home my mom asked me if I had missed her and was taken aback when I said “no”. And I had not. But what I was quick to point out was that I certainly appreciated her more now that I was back home.

It was the same with my two nights away from my daughter. I did not spend my time actively missing her, though I did think about her quite often while I was gone. But I was certainly glad to see her when I picked her up from after school care the next day. She was a welcome sight, running across the playground with her arms stretched wide and a smile to match.

She wanted to hear all about my trip, so I told her on the way to rescue the dog from the kennel. She was clearly very glad to have me back home, but seemed at ease with the idea that we were apart for a few days. It happened to be the week of our local fair (it’s too hot for the fair here during the summer months), so we finished off a hectic week with some corndogs and a couple of “prize every time” games. Then she decided to use all of her ride tickets on the merry-go-round and of course wanted me to endure the dizzying rotation with her.

It turns out she may have been mad that I left her for two nights after all…

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Single Parent Surgery - Round 2

The last Friday in August my daughter underwent Round 2 of her corrective ear surgery (a left tympanoplasty for those of you who like to call things by their proper names). As many of you will recall from this previous post, I had many mixed emotions about her initial surgery back in June, both before and immediately following that procedure. Her right tympanoplasty turned out well and healed just as it should, which was one of the main reasons for continuing with her second surgery so soon afterward (the original wait time was to be four to eight months to encourage maximum healing). However, the other driving reason for doing these surgeries so close together was that my insurance year changes on September 1st and I would have had to begin paying toward my deductible all over again.

What I did not know at the time was that this was a great idea for another financial reason. Unbeknownst to me, my insurance plan was voluntarily changed by my employer to the degree that if we had waited on the surgery, it would have ended up costing me twice as much out-of-pocket. Yes, you read that right. Twice as much for the same surgery performed in the same surgery center by the same surgeon. So, needless to say, I was happy that we were able to get it in before it would become an even more astronomical strain on my single-income budget.

Overall, I found that I was not as worried about this surgery as I had been about the first one. I’m certain it had something to do with the fact that she had her right tympanoplasty done only two months prior and that the healing process had gone remarkably well. It probably had a bit to do with the idea that I was preoccupied by some close friends during the first surgery itself and realized that this single parent surgery thing could be gotten through with a little humorous conversation. And I know it helped that about a week prior to the surgery another friend of ours had volunteered to come sit with me during the surgery, which was really great since most of my teacher friends had already gone back to work. And having two months’ advance notice of the surgery itself this time didn’t hurt either.

So the day before the surgery I started thinking about what needed to be done in preparation. Nothing to eat after midnight. Only a bit of water before leaving the house the next morning. Pack a pair of socks in case the OR is cold. Call the school and let them know why she would be missing her second full day of kindergarten. Read the surgery center book to her that night to ease her fear of surgery, even though she’s done this in the recent past. Bring a book in case there’s a lull in the conversation. Put in the old car seat so she would have better head support for the hour and a half drive home. I had pretty much thought of everything, and I was more than a little proud of myself for how thorough I’d been in my planning.

But nothing could have prepared me for how I would feel when the first wrench was thrown into it.

Because of the staggered enrollment process in our local school system, my daughter started school on a Tuesday, then was off Wednesday and Thursday. Her first full day with her entire class would have been the Friday of her surgery. Because I also work in the school system, but am not on a staggered return-to-work plan I had to work the two days she was “off”. So I asked our friend who had volunteered to sit with me during surgery (and whose younger daughter is the same age as mine) to watch her those two days. When I went to pick up my daughter on Thursday evening, the woman casually mentioned that she “would not be able to make it tomorrow” and left it at that. Now, I tend not to show much emotion on my face, but I am certain that she must have seen some mixture of shock/surprise/concern/confusion cross my brow at that moment. If she did, she never mentioned it. When I got in the van I asked my daughter if she had mentioned why she couldn’t come and she said it was “because she had some stuff to do around the house”. I could tell she was upset, so I didn’t press it further. But something just wasn’t adding up.

Now, there is one thing that I despise perhaps more than almost anything else: I cannot stand it when other adults make false promises to my child. I don’t think this is a kind thing to do to any child, and I make every attempt not to do it to my students. Children should be brought up with the idea that adults remain true to their word. It is a good lesson in how to deal with children when they are the adults some day and it reinforces the idea that adults should be a source of safety and security in a child’s life. But my daughter has suffered a great deal more hurt than most children her age and though she’s taken it in stride much more than I ever thought possible, she takes adults at their word. So when her best friend’s mom says she’ll call to arrange a play date for a given day, my daughter takes her at her word. And when a friend offered to “come see” her before her surgery? You guessed it, she took her at her word too. So I was more than just upset about this friend breaking her “promise” to me. I was upset about her breaking her word to my little girl.

As we drove home, I started to ponder exactly why things didn’t add up in this situation. The first thought was obvious. This friend is a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her children, so anything that needed to be done around the house could have easily been done during the days prior to or following the surgery. It was a flimsy excuse, but what was the real reason for her sudden change of heart? I wondered if maybe she didn’t want to drive the hour and a half to where the surgery would take place. I know money is generally tight for the family, so I thought maybe the extra gas and probable meal out for three would put too much of a strain on their budget. Both legitimate reasons, but why not just tell me as much? The more I pondered the situation, the more irritated I became.

Then the true reason hit me like a ton of bricks.

So on the way home from dinner with some other friends of ours, I called my mom and told her that this friend was not coming the next day. Now, I realize that this is not a fair thing to do to a mother who is 800 miles away and is already worried about her youngest grandchild enduring her second surgery of the summer, not to mention the fact that her son is still the sole caretaker of said grandchild. But my mom and I have always had a remarkable relationship, so I called to tell her what was going on. When I told her that I would be sitting alone during the hour and a half long surgery, she confirmed what I had surmised. Her words were something to the effect of, “I don’t want to put bad thoughts into your mind, but do you think it could be the husband?” Bingo Mom. You have once again hit the nail on the head. My mother, with all of her women’s intuition, had drawn precisely the same conclusion about this man whom she has only met a time or two. And sadly, I’m certain it was the proper conclusion to have drawn.

I have always been overly cautious in my friendships with married women. I work in a predominately female field and have never had any difficulty maintaining friendships with women. It was something I talked to my wife about early in our relationship as I had previously dated a girl who was very jealous (one of the many reasons I refer to her as “the one who showed me what I didn’t want in a wife”). My wife always took it stride, and was, more often than not, friends with these women as well. (To be clear, these friendships never extended beyond work unless my wife was also friends with them). It was something we continued to talk about during our marriage as well. Not that either of us were worried about anything inappropriate happening, but typically those kinds of things happen when your guard is down, so keeping an open dialogue about it just seemed like a smart thing to do.

The level of caution I used when I was dating and married could not even begin to compare to the level I’ve used since becoming a widower. As with everything else, I suddenly became very aware of how it might look if I spent too much time with another woman regardless of whether she was single or married and whether the time was spent inside of work or out. For the most part this transition time was actually that in name only. I stayed friends with my two happily married, middle aged friends at work and became better friends with the whole family of one of my other friends who is thirteen years my senior.

Here I will take a moment to mention how much I have appreciated this friend and her family. I met this friend when I worked at my first school after moving to the Southeast. By the time our daughter was born a year and a half later she was one of the few people we trusted to watch her on those rare occasions when my wife and I got out for a date. She never let us pay her and always said that the best thing we could do for her was to let her watch our daughter again the next time we went out, which we did. After my wife died, she and her husband, who attend our church, started inviting us out for lunch on Sundays. Over time it became a standing invitation, with the understanding that if one of us couldn’t make it on a particular Sunday there would be no hard feelings. Through this I have also become better friends with her husband, which is no small task since he is not much of a talker. They are some of my best friends here now. And incidentally, she and her daughters are the ones who sat with me during my daughter’s first surgery this summer (her husband had to work).

One thing I have always appreciated about our friendship is that her husband does not seem to mind that she and I are better friends than he and I are. He doesn’t seem to feel threatened or jealous or any of the other types of things husbands might feel in that sort of situation. (And rightly so as we are strictly friends).

Contrast this with the husband of the friend who backed out of the surgery. He is a prominent member of our church, and I mention this only because as such he should know better. Now, as I mentioned before, I know the importance of guarding oneself against any sort of impropriety in single/married friendships. But there has to be a level of trust involved as well. For him, that trust does not exist. Couple that with what I believe (and have observed on a minor level) is a complete and utter lack of respect for his wife and you have an idea of the dynamic that was involved in causing me to sit alone during what should have been a very scary hour and a half.

And more importantly, causing my innocent daughter to see that yet another trusted adult in her life was willing to let her down.

So that night, while I was getting her ready for bed and long after she was asleep, I did something very uncharacteristic. I got angry. And not only did I get angry, but I allowed myself to stay angry. I generally save my ire for social injustices and certain members of the local school administration (there’s a story there, but this has already waxed long), but in this moment I allowed myself to feel it for all it was worth. So I let it stew and fester for a good long while before I simmered down and headed to bed. But sadly, I lost whatever respect I had left for that man during those moments and have since been unable to bring myself to sit through his Sunday school class.

At this point I know you’re all hoping that things went well so this post will be over (if you’re still with me). And they did. My daughter was a bit more nervous than last time, but handled it amazingly well. I sat alone with my book, and was able to concentrate more often than not on the words on the page and not the images of what was happening to my daughter in the OR. When it was time to see her in recovery, her nurse (a man this time) did not ask me any questions beyond what was appropriate, so I was not forced to give an account of why I was there alone following her surgery this time. And I was facing a wall, so I did not have to see any other patients and therefore did not once have the urge to run screaming from the building. Which was good, since my daughter took about twice as long to come out of the anesthesia this time. We made it home safely (using the old five-point seat proved to be my best idea of the week) and our good friends brought us McDonald’s for dinner since we were confined to the house for the weekend.

If you can say you had a good experience with surgery, then I guess we did. Again.

But I still can’t help but be a little sad for the loss of respect we both suffered as a result of this experience.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the First Day of Kindergarten

On the last Tuesday of August, my daughter and I marked another of the many milestones in her life. For the first time, she embarked on a journey that lead her to what people in our area of the South commonly refer to as “big school”.

It was a day I had anticipated with very mixed emotions. The Logical Dad side of me could see the benefits in not having to drive her to daycare any longer, which is halfway across town and took us fifteen minutes on a good day, but added a minimum of half an hour to my total morning commute. But the Emotional Dad side of me stood back and anticipated the rush of tears that, according to my Facebook friends back in the Midwest, where children begin school a bit earlier in the month, was certain to come before, during, and after the big send-off. And the Regular Ol’ Dad side of me wavered back and forth between the two.

When I was in elementary school, my mom always drove us to school on the first day each year. And she always made a big deal out of it. So it seemed logical to me that I would also drive my daughter to school on her first day. This decision was made even easier by the fact that her school is on the way to my school. (No, I did not enroll her where I work as I wanted her to attend school in our home district). And she was all for it.

So that morning we got up and she put on the new pink and white striped dress I had laid out for her, followed by the brown closed-toed sandals we had searched two cities for, as the school dress code prohibits any student from wearing flip-flops, open-toed sandals, or crocs. I pulled her hair back into what has become her signature pony tail and we began the obligatory, but enjoyable, photo session, with my favorites being the ones we took on the front step before we left the house.

As is our unfortunate, but customary pattern, we arrived late, just as the bell was ringing, but this time it was of little fault of our own. They had begun some construction between our house and the school, making our five minute drive last for twelve. However, as it was the first day of school, we were not by any stretch of the imagination the only ones arriving just then.

As some of you may recall from a previous post, I worked at my daughter’s school through the year she was born. So any time we arrive I am greeted with hugs, handshakes, and pleasant conversations with no fewer than three people before we reach our destination. It’s a little bit like coming home after a long vacation.

The first day of kindergarten did not disappoint.

Once we finally arrived at my daughter’s classroom, which we had visited on Orientation Day the Friday before, we had been in the building close to ten minutes. Her teacher and teacher’s assistant were there to greet us with yet more warm smiles (no hugs though, they’re both new since I worked there). The assistant showed my daughter where to put her new Disney Princess backpack, which had been waiting patiently at the top of her closet since she received it from her grandparents last Christmas, and even let her choose which “cubby” she wanted to put it in. Then my daughter got to find her name tag on the table so she would know where to sit when the teacher said it was time. Before I left there were many hugs and kisses exchanged, but overall it was a good way to begin her official academic career. And I managed to make it through the morning without crying.

But in all fairness, I had gotten that out of the way the night before.

The weekend before the Big Day started with kindergarten orientation on Friday. We arrived during the morning session to more of the afore-mentioned hugs and other greetings. Then while I settled in to fill out the voluminous folder of paperwork (I seriously signed fewer documents when we purchased our house), my daughter was taken to another table to work on an “All About Me” collage made from various magazine pictures of her choosing, During the hour we were there, two other students came in with their parents, so she was able to catch a glimpse of what some of her other classmates would be like.

As we left the school, the rain clouds had begun to close in, and I began to wonder if it would somehow rain every day I set foot in the building with her, as the same thing had happened the day of her kindergarten registration. (It was sunny the first day of school, so presumably the curse has been lifted). We had planned to spend the afternoon at the beach, but it was not meant to be.

Or so we thought.

After several short downpours, and more than one children’s program on tv, the rain let up enough that I decided to try it. By this time I had promised my daughter a fast food lunch at the beach, so we stopped and picked up some at one of her favorite “on-the-go” establishments. The sun was shining at the beach, but the clouds surrounding it were much darker than the ones around home, and I was worried that we had wasted the effort in coming.

Five minutes after we set up our chairs, the bottom fell out.

We had just enough warning to make it to the covered building nearby, so our heads stayed mostly dry as we huddled under the awning with the thirty-or-so others who had been crazy enough to brave the elements for a day at the beach. After less than ten minutes of torrential downpour, the sun returned and so did our plans for the day. We spent the next several hours engaging in most of our favorite beach time activities, except for playtime in the ocean as then-Hurricane Bill, though out to sea, was keeping our rip current risk greatly elevated that weekend.

Saturday we went back-to-school shopping, where I had my first experience of having to wait outside of the dressing room while my daughter tried on clothes. (I thought she’d be much older the first time that happened.) We also went to several stores in our town looking for shoes she could wear with her dresses that fit the school’s strict shoe policy. And while we found lots of cute school clothes, we struck out in the school-approved shoe department. So Sunday we went to a larger city about an hour away and searched for several more hours before finally finding her sandals at a store ten minutes prior to closing time. We celebrated with dinner at an Italian restaurant nearby.

Monday was a repeat of Friday, but without the kindergarten orientation and rain. We spent several hours at the beach. And while we sat digging holes in the wet sand, things really began to sink in for me.

This was really the end of summer for us.

But not only was it the end of summer, it was the start of something completely new. So as I dug, I finally allowed the Emotional Dad side to take hold, and I really thought about what all of these changes would mean for us. And I thought about how things might have been if my wife had been here to share in them with us. And the longer I sat there pondering these things, digging holes in the sand, the more I realized that by doing so, I was trying desperately to hold on to the last few moments of my daughter’s childhood as I had known it to that point.

But that was not the moment during which the tears flowed.

We went home and completed our normal nightly routine, with the new addition of packing the backpack and setting it by the front door, and my daughter went to sleep easily, despite her anticipation of what tomorrow might bring.

When the house was quiet and she was tucked in for the night, I hopped in the shower to rid myself of the salt and sand that remained. And I listened to two songs on a particular cd, one of which I will likely share in a future post, and this one. And in that moment, the water from my eyes joined that which was already flowing overhead, and I allowed myself the luxury of a good, long cry.

It was the kind of cry I thought I would have when my daughter graduated from preschool a few months ago. I guess I had reasoned that her preschool graduation marked the end of an era and was therefore sad, while starting kindergarten represented the beginning of an era and should be primarily joyous. Not that I was naïve enough to think I might not cry, I just didn’t expect the emotion to hit me with that kind of momentum.

That weekend my daughter had also begun a cycle of grief that was much more intense than some in the past, and I think I had pushed my own grieving back in order to help her feel and understand hers. Though it would be several more days before she made the connection as to why she was grieving so hard during this particular time, she was able to communicate her feelings in a way that was different than she has in the past.

All in all, it was a beautiful weekend with some emotionally tumultuous spots, but we made it through together. This is just part of how life is for us now. Even the most exciting moments will always be marked with some level of grief and sadness.

And that is how we will continue to make it through. Together.

Due to a staggered enrollment process and a planned absence, which I will write about in a future post, my daughter only attended school on Tuesday that week. But when Monday rolled around she was ready to go back to school and try this kindergarten thing some more. But as is the case with us, Monday came with yet another first. About a year ago, my daughter decided that she wanted to ride the bus when she started “big school”, and true to her own desires, she readily climbed the steps when it pulled up in front of our house. Another day, another change.

I stood there briefly as the bus began to pull away, but there were no tears this time.

Only a big smile from my Proud Papa side.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On a Widower's Discussion

As I mentioned in my two most recent posts (see here and here), I entertained some friends from college the weekend before last. This is the third and final post in a series regarding events surrounding their visit.

Mr. K and I became friends near the middle of my sophomore year (his freshman) in college. Mrs. K and I had been friends for nearly a year at that point. Ms. T had joined the fold about six months later. So it was a nice surprise when I was introduced to him and found that he and Mrs. K had known each other (in passing) during their high school years. He and I became fast friends and often spent time together without the girls. (He and Mrs. K would not become an official item until after our falling out almost a year later. And even then, he and I remained on good terms until they actually began dating).

After our falling out, his friendship was, in a way, that which I missed the most. While he had played a role in those events, his role had been much more passive than the others. He had merely accepted things as they had become, without making any grand attempts to change them. As it turns out, his role and mine were quite similar, although I was not in a position that would allow me to affect any sort of change in the matter initially.

A few months after my wife died, I received an e-mail from Mr. K. We had all resumed some contact prior to her death (and with her encouragement), but it was the first time I had heard directly from him alone. He simply wanted to check in and see how I was doing. Now, even immediately following my wife’s passing I found myself reluctant to talk about how I was doing. But typically if someone asked I took it as a clear sign that they really wanted to know. More so than the now rhetorical “how are you?” we lob back and forth at one another in passing conversation. So I sent a brief message back which included details of how I was doing instead of the vague generalities I used to appease the “how are you?” crowd.

And I never heard another word from him.

Fast forward to last fall when we got together for the first time since Mr. and Mrs. K’s wedding. When we saw one another we immediately picked up where we had left off all those years ago. And it was a wonderful feeling. His friendship was as genuine as the smile on his face, and we had a great few days together.

And I never heard another word from him.

Now, in the months between the visits, I came to realize something about Mr. K. In this age of e-mail and text messaging, he is not a written communicator. And though the telephone has been around since before our births, he is not a verbal communicator. While most of us use many forms of communication (sometimes simultaneously), it turns out Mr. K is primarily a face-to-face communicator. And now that I have come to understand this, we are once again as close as we ever were.

Which brings me to the story of what happened in the ocean.

As much as I enjoy going to the beach, I don’t typically spend a great deal of time in the ocean itself. When my daughter was younger, the majority of my time there was spent near the edge playing and building sand castles. As she has gotten older, she has become more interested in being carried out into the water and bounced along in the waves. But the vast majority of my sea-bound activities revolve around my daughter. So it is a very rare occasion when I am able to sneak off into the waves for a few moments alone (since I can only do this if another adult is present to watch her).

Such was the case on the Saturday of my friends’ recent visit. After spending a great deal of time bouncing my daughter over and under and in and out of waves, I took her to the shore and asked Ms. T if she would watch her so I could take a quick swim. (Mr. and Mrs. K were still minutes away from returning from a walk down the beach). It was wonderful to spend a few minutes actually swimming alone in the ocean, and I hated to see it end.

Just as I turned to head back to the sand, I noticed Mr. K making his way toward me in the water. When I met up with him, I glanced at the shore to see that my daughter was still okay (with both girls now) and decided to stay a few extra minutes to swim with my friend.

Since I don’t ever wear a watch and refuse to get sand in my phone, it is anybody’s guess how long we actually spent out among the waves. But the time was well-spent, with the conversation drifting in and out of a variety of topics you can discuss with close personal friends. But the best part for me was when he initiated a conversation about how my daughter and I had been doing without my wife. And he called her by name.

There is one thing that has come to mean a great deal to me over the past two and a half years, and I may have mentioned it here before: I love it when people use my wife’s name when they talk about her. Now, my family (both sides) is very good about this. Friends who are/were close to both of us are good about this. But very few others will dare to mention her name. When someone mentions her by name, it validates her existence and her importance in my and my daughter’s lives.

So by his unwitting utterance of a single, five-letter name, my friend advanced a few steps in my hierarchy of friendship. And by not only initiating, but carrying on a lengthy conversation about her, he advanced a few more steps.

But hierarchies aside, what was most important in that moment was that, unbeknownst to him, he provided a sense of comfort to a friend who is still very much in mourning.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On a Widower's Discomfort

In my previous post, I mentioned that my daughter and I recently hosted some friends from my college days. And while my previous post centered on a situation that should have made me uncomfortable, but did not, this one focuses on a situation that should not have made me uncomfortable. But did.

Because of a falling out I had with these friends during my junior year of college, the reconciliation of which happened only a few months before my wife died, we did not spend any time together while I was married. And since the two currently wed friends in the group, Mr. and Mrs. K, were married a year after we were, I did not spend any time with them as a married couple until after I had been widowed.

During our first visit last fall, Mr. and Mrs. K would freely reference their sex life. Not in a way that was inappropriate, especially considering that my then-four-year-old was with us, but it still made me uncomfortable on a number of levels. Now, my wife and I made it a habit to keep our intimate life private, which is why you have not read even the slightest hint of a discussion about it on this blog. So I was a bit taken aback at the fact that they would make so many comments regarding their own. And during those moments, I opted to stay quiet.

But time has passed since then. And while I am still not going to divulge even the remotest piece of information about my own private dealings, I find that I am not as inclined to be quiet when others feel it necessary to remark on their own. Such was the case on the Friday night of Mr. and Mrs. K’s most recent visit. After my daughter had been put to bed, we all sat around my kitchen table to play a card game. Throughout the game, Mr. and Mrs. K made various comments about what goes on behind closed doors. Our single (never married or in a serious relationship) friend, Ms. T, was one part mildly amused, one part moderately repulsed. But I chose to take a different tack. I offered simple one or two word commentary, mostly in agreement or disagreement with the possibilities of whatever comment had just been made. We were all having a good time and no one was too uncomfortable. Or so it seemed.

As we were clearing our dessert plates and drinking cups after the game, Mrs. K made a comment to me in the kitchen to the effect that I shouldn’t be talking about sex since I presumably wasn’t having any now (I’m not). I retorted that while that may be true, I was married for five and a half years and left it at that. After I went to bed that night I thought about her comment, but could not put my finger on why the game-time conversation had bothered her so much.

It suddenly hit me the next day.

I am very sensitive about my house and yard. I go to great lengths to keep them up (weather-permitting with the yard) and maintain a nice home for my daughter and me to live in. And for some reason I am always nervous about what other people will say when they visit our home for the first time. Maybe even more so now that I am maintaining it alone.

Mr. K and Ms. T were very gracious guests and were at times even complimentary about my home (though they all three had something to say about the fact that the bedroom and bathroom accessories match a set of our dishes). Mrs. K had her own set of comments to make. She wondered why my kitchen and dining room (painted four years ago) were a less-than-masculine shade (they’re lavender). She got a lot more mileage out of the dishes/bedroom/bathroom combination than the others (it’s very outdoorsy. My wife picked the most masculine pattern she could find as a courtesy to me). She made comments about my furniture (which was all given to us. She would have really balked if I hadn’t sold the flowered couch and loveseat last fall). Ironically, she made no mention of the plants and flowers that adorn our front steps or the butterflies which can be found throughout the house and lawn, both of which are my own “feminine” touches.

It wasn’t until she made the comment about the place not looking or feeling like a bachelor pad (in a tone that clearly stated that she believed it should), that her comments began to make sense to me. I told her in no uncertain terms that there was no reason for my home to feel like a bachelor pad because it wasn’t one. It was our home, where I continue to raise our daughter. (And even if she had been a son, I would still not have suddenly transformed the house into some kind of bachelor pad just because my wife was no longer here with us. Regardless of gender, kids need to grow up in a loving home, not a bachelor pad, no matter how loving it may be.)

But the reason her comments made sense to me was as disheartening as it is disconcerting. Simply put, she is uncomfortable with my being a widower.

Now, I will probably never be privy to the reason or reasons she feels this way. It could be that she is upset about the way she treated my wife and me in the early days of our relationship. It could be that she sees that at this point there is no chance of me dating Ms. T and thereby closing the circle of friends. It could be that she doesn’t understand how I can live day-to-day in the face of such adversity and still make it all work.

It could be. But I really don’t think it is.

I think what’s going on instead is that she realizes how easily this could happen to her. It’s easy to read books or watch movies where a spouse dies and remove oneself from the situation. But when someone you know, someone you care about, someone who is too young to have already had and lost it all is widowed, it suddenly forces you to think about a lot of very uncomfortable what ifs.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this Widower’s Journey, it’s that people don’t want to face their grief or those questions unless they are absolutely forced to.

And even then, the results are generally not very pretty.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On a Widower's Dance

I am a nice guy. A nice, Christian guy. And while I’m certainly no Adonis, I’m also not exactly grotesque. I try to eat right and am in decent physical shape, even with the extra ten pounds I’ve put on since last spring. I’m fairly book-smart and possess at least as much common sense as the average person. I take care of all aspects of the house and yard. I recycle. I make sure the dog is fed and taken out. And I am a good father. Maybe even a really good one.

So it should come as no surprise that I am viewed as somewhat generally attractive to a certain thirty-something subset of single ladies. This actually does surprise me most of the time when it comes up, although I am learning to remember that the rest of the world has forgotten that I am still grieving and may not be thinking much about dating again at this juncture. But clearly there are certain afore-mentioned ladies that are.

Or at least appear to be.

Such is the case with my neighbor’s out-of-state sister. We’ll call her Ms. D. She and her daughter come for a visit each summer, and while our daughters have played together (said neighbor does not have any children), she and I have gotten to know one another a bit. I am always careful not to send out any unnecessary signals that might make a nice, young single woman think I am attracted to her when I am not, but I’m also not sure that I’m very good at that. And in her defense, I’m not sure she’s attracted to me either. But it certainly appears to be so.

The weekend before last, we entertained some friends from college who now live in two other states, neither of which being the one where we all attended said college. Two of the friends, Mr. and Mrs. K, are married to each other and the third, Ms. T, is single and seeking. Now, to set the stage, it is important to know that both of the girls in this friend group had self-acknowledged crushes on me during our college years, but I never dated either of them. In fact, I was virtually excommunicated from the group when I dared to date outside the circle early in my junior year. (On a side note, this girl was actually the one I dated before my wife. I did not date much, but I tend to refer to her as “the one who showed me what I didn’t want in a wife”). They still weren’t too happy when I started dating my wife about six months after that break-up, even though they knew and liked her. In fact, had we not reconciled the friendship shortly before my wife died (and with her encouragement), I doubt I would presently have any sort of relationship with these three friends.

Now, to be fair, I have good reason to think that Ms. T may once again see me as a viable candidate for her husbandry. And I have heard Mrs. K encourage such things, though in the subtlest of ways. How much is coming from Ms. T and how much is coming from the suggestions of Mrs. K is anybody’s guess. But needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about their visit. Especially as it was to take place at my house.

As guarded as I try to be, however, I could not have been prepared for what happened when they arrived.

My friends arrived late on Wednesday. My neighbor’s sister arrived early on Thursday. Suddenly I was forced into a position where I would have to guard myself against sending signals to two very nice, very different women for whom I have no romantic inclinations. Normally this sort of situation would send me into a panic, complete with cold sweat and stomach knots. But not this time.

In a rare moment of widower humor, I instead stood back and watched the dance unfold.

There were several moments over the next few days when I would find myself talking to one of these ladies and the other would suddenly materialize as if out of nowhere, only typically in closer proximity to me than the other. It was like those scenes from “reality” dating shows where one woman cuts into the conversation/date/make-out session so as to get her own time with the man whose affection she is so desperately vying for. Only I was under no obligation to stop conversing with the one, simply because the other had made her presence known to us. So they joined in the conversation each time, but were seldom successful in drawing me completely away from the other. However, as we stood and talked, I was very aware of the body language and physical repositioning between the two of them and also with regard to me. It was a very slow and subtle, yet also seemingly very deliberate, dance.

Now, for those of you who have read even one of my previous entries, you will note that I am generally a very humble man. I do not attempt to blow my own horn and try to relate very honestly how grief over my wife’s death has affected my daughter and me. But during the course of the grieving process, I have also learned that it is okay to see situations for what they are (or at least appear to be). And if such situations call for humor and/or laughter, then so be it.

So during those few days, I stood and watched a dance that I believe was apparent only to me. And inside, I allowed myself to chuckle a bit.

Looking back on it now, I continue to chuckle, if but only for a moment.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Her 31st Birthday

A “side-note” before the post: Please note the new Important Dates section in the sidebar. This was borne out of a comment made by womanNshadows with regard to my previous post. (Thanks for spurring this idea on). I would encourage other widowed bloggers to do something similar, as it gets hard to keep up with all of the different specific dates, and it would be nice to pray for each other more fervently during those days that are likely to be the most difficult. That being said, keep in mind that many widow/ers in the sidebar are experiencing anniversaries yet this month.

One might be inclined to think that, due to my lack of posting in recent weeks, Grief has decided to leave me alone for a bit. It has been quite the contrary. We have managed to stay pretty busy, but there have been some significant dates (see sidebar), some major changes (see future posts), and some simple conversations (again, see future posts) during which it has managed to rear its ugly little head.

Not the least of which was my wife’s 31st birthday.

It seems strange to refer to it as such, since she never got to experience her 30th. Or, for that matter, her 29th. But July 21 would have been her 31st birthday. If she had still been here to celebrate such an occasion.

Instead, we were left to recognize it alone, but with her family for the first time since her passing. I say recognize with purpose. Gone are the celebrations that we used to have - usually a quiet night out to dinner and a movie, or after our daughter was born, a family dinner out, with a birthday date to follow another night. No, these have been replaced by a quiet recognition on my part the last two years. But now that my daughter is old enough to understand dates and times, it has become appropriate to share what specific dates mean. Or should mean.

Or would have meant.

I woke up in the back bedroom at my in-laws home in the Midwest that morning, a home they did not own when she was still here. I wonder if the memories would have been more unbearable if the day had begun in their old house, the one in which she had done the majority of her “growing up”. I will never know that answer. But I do know that there were plenty of memories to go around that day.

I followed the scent of fresh-brewed coffee into the kitchen, and sat for a nice breakfast with my mother-in-law. My father-in-law had gone to the store and my daughter had long-since eaten and was watching tv in another room. I rather enjoy these morning chats with my mother-in-law over coffee on the days she doesn’t have to work. But today, she reminded me way too much of my wife.

For anyone who knew my wife, it was always a surprise to them when they met her mother. One just couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance. When my wife would remark on this, a fact that she actually enjoyed (unlike most women!), I would simply smile and tell her that I enjoyed it too, as I had a good idea of what she would look like at fifty, and I was definitely okay with that. As my wife started to lose weight, first on purpose after our daughter was born and later from complications of her illness, the resemblance became even more unreal.

So on this, her birthday morning, I tried hard to carry on a meaningful conversation with a woman who was hurting as much or more than me, while trying to ignore the fact that she looked so drastically like the woman for whom we were hurting.

It must have worked. Or if not, she was at least gracious enough not to call attention to my obvious pain.

The majority of the day was to be spent at the local 4-H fair watching our nieces show their hogs. We had missed their steer show while I was at my conference, but had managed to make it back in time for their dairy beef show, fashion review, and (later in the week) livestock auction. Since it was the only day we could get together with a friend of ours (hers from high school, mine from college, then ours together once we realized we all knew each other), we agreed to meet at the fair. It was wonderful to see her and she was able to spend a good portion of the afternoon with us. She also arranged for us to see another friend of my wife’s from high school, who happened to be in town and had not seen us for a couple of years, so that was a nice surprise as well. The mutual friend and I are in the same field, so we always have a lot to talk about and the conversation flowed easily. It was really good to see her.

Sounds like a pretty good day, huh?

And it would have been, but for the blasted memories. You see, the last summer we visited family before my wife passed away, we spent some time at that very fair. In those very stands. Watching some of those very kids (my nieces anyway). This friend was not with us that day, but my wife’s best friend from college, who happens to have the same name as this friend, was. That year we were able to see the steer show before we went away for our first and last ever anniversary trip (our early school calendar had prevented us from doing so in previous years). We spent the day with our other same-name friend watching the girls win awards for their steers and showmanship and the like. Some of our best pictures of my wife and her friend and us as a family came from that day. They are some of the last pictures I have in which my wife looked happy. And healthy.

The summer after my wife passed away, this friend gave me a scrapbook of their friendship she had made. The last page is simply a copy of our family picture taken that day, with lyrics to a song I have since come to hold very dear (and will share in another post sometime down the road). The book still sits on the buffet just inside our front door.

That evening we went to dinner at the home of my wife’s older sister and only sibling. She is a tremendous chef, but her meal was toned-down this day. My wife’s birthday was not mentioned among us that night, nor would it be. Her mother and I had discussed it briefly that morning, and I discussed it privately with my daughter, but that was all that was to be said. Though we all knew one another was hurting, we opted to bear our grief in silence. Alone together, as it were.

Over the next day or two, my mother-in-law started to once again remind me only of herself, and I found that much easier to bear. I joined Facebook and found that both my sister-in-law and father-in-law had posted a subtle remark that would have let only those close to them know what the day would have been (if they had not known already). And I decided that I much prefer remembering this and other days like it alone with my daughter.

Which is probably how it will be remembered come next summer.