Monday, March 30, 2009

On Talking to Myself (or Someone Like Me)

I think there is a common feeling among widow/ers, especially young ones such as myself, that each of us is in this alone. Losing the one you thought you’d spend the rest of your (long) life with is devastating regardless of the specific circumstances surrounding his or her death, and the circumstances in which the surviving spouse finds him or herself following their death. Each story is unique. Each story has its own tragic elements beyond the one that made us a widow/er in the first place. Mine are posted primarily within the confines of this blog, but some additional details are scattered throughout the comments sections of some of the blogs you see listed to the right of the screen.

It’s ironic to me that this pervasive feeling of loneliness would be a commonality among us. That we would collectively feel alone. I have read it many times over the past few months, and even received an e-mail from a young widow this evening who stated it once again. In a lot of ways, we are alone. It is not uncommon for people who are advanced in years to lose a spouse. It is, however, often completely unexpected for someone in the prime of his or her life to lose theirs. Which is what makes us young widow/ers such an anomaly.

Chances are, if you are a young widow/er, you do not know anyone else who you see face-to-face on a regular or semi-regular basis, who understands you. If you do, it is quite possibly someone who experienced this a number of years ago and is in some ways out-of-touch with the raw emotion you are experiencing as the years have replaced some of their pain with fond memories. If they’ve also been recently widowed and you are able to share your grief in person, consider yourself among a “lucky” few.

That’s the beauty of the internet age. Many of us may not know another widow/er in “real life”, but we can connect through the blogs and online support groups that are being made available literally at the click of the mouse. There is one blogger in particular who is receiving both praise and criticism for his notoriety as a blogging widowed single father. I am personally thankful for all of the work he and the other bloggers who came online before me have done and continue to do. It took me two years to be able to open up at all, and even then it has been under a pseudonym. But until recently these blogs were not easily located, regardless of the basic nature of the keywords one typed when searching for them. Trust me, I tried. A lot. It’s the reason I am compiling a comprehensive, categorized list of widow/er blogs (again, see right) on this website, which I hope will continue to grow over time. (Please e-mail me if you know of one that’s not listed here). So if nothing else, his “fame” has opened the world’s eyes to the plight of the young widow/er and many good things are coming about as a result.

Recently I have found myself to be among the “lucky” few, though I did not know it initially. My daughter and a little girl in her preschool class have become best friends over the past several months, so it seemed only natural that we would invite her to my daughter’s birthday party last month. I had met her mother in passing and she was quick to rsvp that they would be in attendance. Following the party, a friend asked if she could look at the scrapbook I had made for my daughter (more on that in another post) and this mother also looked at it, which made me more than a little uncomfortable since I barely knew the family and wasn’t entirely certain they knew the specifics of our “situation”. After a few minutes, the mother came into the other room where I was talking to friends and shared with me that she had lost her first husband when her son was about the same age as my daughter had been when my wife passed away.

In that instant, everything changed.

Suddenly, here was someone in the flesh, before my eyes, who knew to a large extent the pain I was enduring. We did not talk much about it then, but it was a huge sense of comfort to know that we had this in common. That I wasn’t completely alone in this. (To be fair, my own mom was widowed at a young age and has been there for me through all of this from Day One. So in a way, I was already one of the “lucky” few when this conversation occurred).

Fast-forward to yesterday. Two days of rain had been replaced with sunshine and kite-flying March wind, which was to become the backdrop for our first play-date at said best friend’s house. Now, I have never had an official play-date before. My daughter has spent time at the homes of her friends without me, but it is typically a spur-of-the-moment situation. If it is planned, it’s usually so I can get the yard mowed in one stretch of time. This was our first scheduled time strictly for play, and as luck would have it, I got to “play” too. I was grateful for the opportunity to get to know her parents better (mom has remarried and the little girl is hers with her husband now), as we had all seemed to get along well at my daughter’s birthday party.

The kids went to play in the (fenced-in) backyard and our conversation immediately turned to death and widowhood. But this time it was different. In the past, I have been asked (and asked and asked…) questions ranging from the blanket “How are you?” to very specific, personal questions regarding circumstances and events. Typically the questioner disappears once his or her questions have been addressed and I am left feeling vulnerable and exposed. But yesterday, for the first time other than my regular conversations with my mom, it was an even-flow of experiences and we understood one another. And even though the husband had not himself been widowed, it was evident that he had walked closely with his wife through her journey, and his input was extremely insightful as well.

One aspect that made this conversation so surprisingly comfortable is that the spoken word is not my preferred mode of communication. I find that I am much more at ease if I can work out my thoughts on paper. I am also more likely to share deeply personal information if I don’t have to actually say it aloud. In fact, there are many items on this blog that I have yet to voice to another person. But yesterday, that sense of inhibition took a day off and I was able to answer their questions and share and respond to information in a way that I am normally unable to verbally, and definitely cannot outside of my close circle of friends and family members.

The beauty in this is that I didn’t get the impression that they are going to stop calling for play-dates now that their questions have been answered. And as was evidenced by the other two hours of our conversation yesterday, grief and widowhood are not the only things we have in common.

But the most beautiful part of it all for me was that I was able to verbally communicate my feelings and walked away from our conversation feeling about as vulnerable as I would have had we been discussing sports or work or any number of other normal, mundane topics.

And that made the whole conversation completely worth it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Taxing Situations

Today I finally succeeded in both starting and completing something I put off every year until about this time – my taxes. I always have this irrational fear that I’m going to owe Uncle Sam a little something, even though I have as much as possible taken out throughout the year in order to avoid that exact scenario. This year there were some changes in my tax status that had me feeling a little uneasy as well.

Two years ago doing my taxes was a strange mix between comfort and the mundane. The government waits for no one, so less than a month after my wife passed away, I found myself compiling the information that would become our last tax return – or so I thought. Being a miser of sorts, I have almost always elected to do my own taxes, thus avoiding the heavy fees that most places charge to do what I feel I am completely capable of doing myself. That year, it also meant that I had to make numerous phone calls over several days’ time to ensure that I filed things properly given my new “situation”. I remember one girl being very kind in explaining information that I was not ready to deal with. But at that point there was something I didn’t want to deal with around every corner, so why should the IRS be any different? The filing eventually went off without a hitch, and I ended up with a decent refund that year, a fact I was much too distraught to really appreciate anyway.

Since my wife was gainfully employed at the time of her death, I actually had to file a joint return last year as well, making that our official last return. Due to situations beyond my control, I again found myself spending time communicating with several government employees, all of whom I remember a year later as being very helpful. It was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was nice to be able to reminisce in my own mind about all of our wonderful moments in her classroom after school and on weekends, working on materials, grading papers, preparing lesson plans. But on the other hand, it was another reminder that it had been a year since her death, that the estate I’d been forced into opening due to negligence on the school system’s part had just commenced and would not close for several months, that a small portion of the refund would come as a direct result of her last days of employment. I typically have my refunds direct-deposited and leave them in savings to collect interest until something big comes along, but last year I used some of the money to buy a few extra adornments for the flower beds. It just seemed appropriate.

The filing of my taxes this year, or more directly, this day, was also unique in a few ways. This year I was eligible to file as a Qualifying Widower. Finally, after two years, being a widower actually qualifies me for a break instead of breaking me apart. But even that had its drawbacks. As a result of no longer being able to file jointly, some of the numbers changed and I was only able to take portions of deductions instead of the full amount as I have in years past. It all worked out in the end, in that my refund was actually more than last year’s and I was able to do it all without any calls to the IRS.

It still took me the better part of the day as I somehow managed to misplace a few of the essential documents and had to spend hours looking for them. Now, organization is not something in which I am generally found to be lacking. I even started my tax file as soon as statements started coming in this year. But somehow I still found myself digging through every other file I could get my hands on trying to locate those few precious pieces of paper that would determine if I could accomplish this task the same day I set out to do it. The good news? I did. The bad news? It took me the better part of said day to do it and took away a lot of time that would have been better spent playing with a special little someone.

Once again this year, I am having the money directly deposited into my bank account, but this time it will not sit there indefinitely. There was something I wanted to do today that I could not, but will be able to do very soon. In a few weeks, when we are in the Midwest visiting family and friends during spring break, it will be revealed to my daughter that we are taking another vacation the following month to a very special place with some of those very special friends. At that point, I will be able to tell her that doing the taxes and missing some of our playtime was especially important since we will be able to spend a little more than we might have otherwise been able to at this dream destination. My daughter thinks I work so that we can travel anyway, so this will sit well with her sense of logic concerning work and play.

I was going to go into some of the other taxing situations we’ve had this week, but I think this reading may have been enough of a drudgery already, so I will save those for another post. Suffice it to say, my daughter’s grief has risen to the surface more often than not this week and she has needed much more reassurance than usual, which of course leaves her daddy feeling vulnerable and tired.

But we had a nice time together this evening watching a movie on tv. And spring is finally in the air, complete with two days of rain. And the taxes are filed. So there are always things to look forward to and be grateful for.

Like that bottle of red wine I finally remembered to buy. I think it’s time to go pour a glass.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Daffodils

I wrote this last month when the daffodils first started blooming (which they are continuing to do, five weeks later), before I actually began blogging. Thought I would post it now, as my feelings on these floral wonders remain unchanged.

I have always loved daffodils.

Growing up in the Midwest, daffodils were synonymous with the onset of spring. The only thing in our yard that bloomed ahead of the daffodils was the crocuses. But they are a much smaller flower and were planted in a rather obscure area of our yard so that you had to look for them and would most certainly miss them altogether if you didn’t.

Not so with the daffodils.

There was a great sea of them planted in our side yard and when they were in full bloom, they were most impossible to miss. My siblings and I always looked forward to the blooming of the daffodils and would generally race to pick some to bring inside as soon as very many were in bloom. My mother loves daffodils as much as we do, and was always delighted to have one, or often more, vases full in the house for a few days. By the time the daffodils had come and gone, the rest of the flowers in the yard had started to sprout and bloom, but there was still always a little sadness in realizing that the daffodils were gone until the next spring.

Nowadays, daffodils conjure sadness within for a very different reason. They are still the first flower of spring in our yard, but in the Southeast they bloom a full month earlier than they do in the Midwest.

I wish like everything that they did not.

For now, in addition to reminding me that spring is fast approaching, they also remind me that my wife is not going to be here to see it and share it with my daughter and me. She always loved the flowers in our yard, and I planted them everywhere I could while she was living.

Daffodils were no exception.

We have our own sea of them next to the driveway and a few other clusters in different beds throughout the landscape. So now when I arrive home, I am hit with a sea of daffodils planted to bring happiness, now bringing mostly sadness. When I approach the front steps - another small reminder. When I take the dog out the back door – more reminders still. I do not pick them and put them in a vase any more. The reminders outdoors are enough for now without bringing the torment inside. I fear having a vase on the table would only serve to take me back two years, to a house full of everyone I love but her, when another vase of yellow sat there. It would simply be too painful.

There’s still a part of me that loves daffodils. But now I hate them too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Being a Widow/er in a Married World

I have often struggled with exactly where and how I fit into any given situation. I have always been pretty confident in who I am - I’m just not always sure how that works out in relation to everyone else.

Never was I more comfortable in most situations, though, than I was when I was married. My wife had a way of drawing me in and making me feel like a part of every social situation in which we found ourselves involved. To say I loved being married would be an understatement. To say I loved being married to her… there truly are no words. And making two into three when our daughter was born? Well, that was simply the icing on the cake.

One of the many things that came crashing down around me on February 26, 2007, was my sense of where I fit in. Suddenly I wasn’t part of “the norm” any more and more importantly, I was no longer part of my own epitome of social comfort. It was sort of like trying to find a lunch table on the first day of high school. The cafeteria is crowded. Everywhere you turned you’re met with unfriendly, upper-class faces. You know your friends are in that crowd somewhere, but you sure as the world can not seem to find them. What probably took mere seconds seems like an eternity as you finally see a slight wave of the hand and scurry over to the safety of their table.

Yeah, it was a little like that. Only a lot worse.

Eleven months before my wife passed away, my whole family identity was brought to light by a single friend of mine. A mutual friend from out of state was staying at our house, and he and she were working on a relationship, though it ultimately did not pan out. There was something wrong with our van, so I was out in the driveway attempting to fix it when he left. As he passed by, he turned back and looked at me for a second, then said something along the lines of: “You are so blessed. Here you are fixing your van. You have a beautiful house and wife and daughter. You’re like a real grown-up.” To which I replied, “Yeah. This is exactly who I always wanted to be”.

And it was the honest truth. I have never been more comfortable than I was during those years.

Over the past two years, I have begun to learn how to be more comfortable, though it is still a far cry from the five and a half years prior to this. Now I am most comfortable with close family and friends and in situations where I just get to be Dad. I’m adjusting pretty well to those, even when Single is added to the moniker.

But I still really struggle with how I fit in among other couples. I don’t want to be a third (or fifth or seventh…) wheel in group settings, and I don’t want to be “that poor widower” either. I have one set of couple/friends where I can truly say I have never felt any distinction being made, and most of our/my other close friends have adjusted over time so I don’t feel so out-of-place anymore.

But situations still crop up from time-to-time.

Just yesterday I started a new Sunday School class at church. The teacher had developed a “getting to know you” style activity that involved answering several background information questions in a rapid-fire interview format. One of the questions dealt with our first date with our spouse. Which in turn sparked many internal questions of my own. Do I tell this group of stranger/acquaintances about what a great time we had that June night in the big city, walking in the cool evening air, standing by a gorgeous fountain, watching planes take off and land? It was an incredible evening. Definitely one worthy of sharing. But if I do, are people going to be weirded out because she’s not here anymore? Are they going to make assumptions about my living in the past and/or not dealing with my present reality? I ultimately decided to skip the question, and no outward harm was done.

A couple months ago, about two weeks prior to Valentine’s Day, we were at a birthday party for the daughter of some friends of ours. The kids had gone outside to play, and the adults’ conversation turned to an upcoming “not-so-newlywed” game in which one of the couples was to soon participate. They were trying to preempt their competition and had gone online looking for sample questions. As they listed each question, they gave their individual answers and the other couples joined in. I, being the only single parent present, listened quietly while the conversation swirled about me. I had answers to each question, and I’m pretty sure I might have known what her answers would have been as well, had she been there to provide them. But it was another situation where I chose to maintain my silence for fear of any one of the aforementioned reactionary possibilities coming to fruition.

Further still, and perhaps one of my most uncomfortable “widow/er in a married world” situations also happened at church. (A side note here: I really enjoy the church I attend and have no hard feelings toward anyone that was present/responsible for these situations. It is just one of the places I go where people have not had the chance to get to know me as well as my friends or co-workers, mostly because I am with them once or twice a week vs. five or more days a week). Now back to the post:

I had just started attending Sunday School after a long absence, not quite a year after my wife passed. At the end of the class it was announced that people needed to sign up for the first ever “Widows and Widowers” dinner. Thirty pairs of eyes became immediately trained on me. I could feel the temperature rising, could sense the tense catch in the young adult pastor’s voice, could almost see everyone shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Suddenly there was a snafu in a very well-intentioned outreach. What do you do when your intent is to have a dinner to reach out to and get to know the elderly widow/ers in the church and you suddenly have a not-quite-thirty year old widower in the class that’s supposed to be spearheading the dinner?

Where exactly did I fit in?

I made it easy on all of them (after the class) by saying that I would like to help serve rather than be served. Had I said that aloud during class, I’m certain the collective sigh of relief would have been audible.

So where exactly does that leave me?

Comfortable being a son/brother among family members? Check.
Comfortable being a daddy among daughter’s friends and classmates? Check.
Comfortable being a professional among co-workers? Check.
Comfortable being a widower among married couples?

Well, that one remains to be seen.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Raising a Daughter without a Mother

It is not uncommon for seemingly random thoughts to strike me at equally random-seeming places. When it happens I am often inwardly taken aback, but outwardly unperturbed. This has happened quite often over the last two years, and I have become pretty well accustomed to handling the thoughts and whatever emotional fallout ensues. This one almost caused me to take a physical step backward.

I am raising a daughter without a mother.

Now, this would seem to be a rather strange realization, since I have been doing this for over two years. It wasn’t the fact itself that struck me. It was the idea that I often worry about making sure she is taken care of physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in every other way a girl of five could possibly need to be looked after, without thinking about it in terms of the fact that she has no physical, earthly mommy to do those things for her now. It was this perspective that struck me.

No matter how much I attend to every detail of her upbringing, no matter how many positive female role models I supply, no matter to what lengths I go to ensure that she has a happy childhood, there is one circumstance that I will never be able to reconcile for her.

I cannot ever bring her mommy back.

I am surprised I don’t dwell on this more often. I think if I did it would allow me to be truly, bitterly angry about the extreme unfairness of it all.

I should know. I’ve lived it from this perspective as well.

I have mentioned in previous posts that my dad died in a boating accident when I was nine years old. Though my mom remarried three years later, it was still never the same as having my dad around. The funny thing is, my dad was not really that involved in my life during the nine years that he was here. Don’t get me wrong, he did what he could, and I never doubted that he loved me. He just wasn’t a hands-on kind of dad. But after he died, I idealized what things would have been like had he lived, which I think is fairly normal for any child who has lost a parent.

In addition, I resented my stepdad for not being my father and for not knowing how to fulfill the image that my now larger-than-life father could not have filled either. My stepdad and I, unfortunately, have very similar personalities, which added to the turmoil of living with him that was fueled by these factors and a heavy dose of the normal angst every teen encounters as they mature. Once I moved out of the house during college, he and I were able to see eye-to-eye, and we now enjoy a rather nice relationship as adult parent/child friends.

Which brings me back to my daughter. I’m not so much worried about her idealizing her mommy to a level that is unattainable. Although that is possible, her mommy really was an amazing mother. Sure, there are areas we all can improve on, but she truly did not have many. (And I promise this is not just me idealizing her now either).

But what about all those other times when she needs a mom? Not the times when she needs help with the technical aspects of things like her first period or shaving her legs-I can talk her through those things. It’s the times when she needs help with the emotional aspects of situations that I worry about. It’s having someone there who knows what it’s like to experience those things for the first time.

And it’s knowing that I can never be that for her.

That’s the part that has me grieving most tonight. Not for all of the things I miss about my wife.

But for all of the things my daughter will miss about her.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Helping Little Ones Grieve

When I write, I tend to begin composing things in my head long before I write (type) them out on paper (the computer screen). This morning I had begun to compose a post on anger, but the events of this evening have sent my thoughts in an entirely new direction altogether.

Tonight when we arrived home from church, I had many things on my mind, not the least of which was my grandma’s hospitalization, which was scheduled to begin today. It turns out she has a broken and/or dislocated hip, but the doctor agreed she could attend her (surprise) 81st birthday party yesterday and come to the hospital today to see about possible surgery. From there she will be heading to her new home at a long-term care facility (read: nursing home) that is yet to be chosen.

I had chosen not to reveal any of this to my daughter as I knew it would beg lots of questions, most of which I simply cannot answer at this point. My daughter is a very sensitive soul and gets that quite honestly as I gave her a single dose, and her mommy gave her at least a double. Even before my wife passed away, my daughter showed sensitivity to anyone who was hurting or in any kind of need. That has increased ten-fold over the last two years. Yet another phone call brought all of that to a head this evening just before bedtime.

Over the last two years I have learned to read the signals regarding the level to which my daughter is grieving. Most days she is pretty happy-go-lucky. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t inquire about her mommy. On the contrary, that is a rather routine occurrence. But she does so in a way that lets me know she’s interested in knowing, but is not experiencing a particularly difficult level of sadness at that moment.

Then there are what I call her “rough periods”.

After my wife first passed, these periods were marked by anywhere from 12 to 24 hours of extreme and inexplicable irritability. Once I learned the signals, I knew to be prepared for lots of questions and even more tears afterward.

As time has passed, these periods have morphed into something else entirely. Gone are the short-term periods of irritability. They have been replaced by longer periods of fairly normal five-year-old behaviors. It usually starts with her wanting more attention than usual, though sometimes that happens without being attached to a rough period. The initial tell-tale sign is when she gets in bed to snuggle with me during the night. It usually happens just before the alarm sounds in the morning, but she will often stay there till I wake her up to get ready for preschool. The second day it is usually an hour or two before the alarm and gets progressively earlier until she is spending about the second half of the night in my bed. This will go on for anywhere from 6-10 days before she decides to let me in on the fact that she’s grieving.

She is on Day 5 of the current cycle.

Now, I know that many parents allow their children to share their bed, but I have never been one of them. In fact, when she was sick as a baby, I told my wife that I would sleep with her on the couch just so that we would not start the habit of having her in our bed. I had (and have) known too many people who have struggled to break their children (and themselves) of this habit, and I wanted no part of it from the get-go.

This, however, is different. I think this gives her a sense of protection and, in a strange way since we’re asleep, a sense of undivided attention. It is her way of reassuring herself that Mommy might be gone from us, but that Daddy is still here and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I assume that as she gets older and the patterns change yet again, she will be able to verbalize her reasons for doing this, but for now I am fairly certain that these conjectures are probably pretty close to the mark.

Back to this evening. I was out of the room and did not hear the phone ring. When I reentered said room, she looked at me and said “Grammy just called. I think someone’s in the hospital.” I knew who it would be, but listened to the message before I said anything else to her, just to be certain. Now, to give my mother-in-law the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think it probably ever crossed her mind that I had not told my daughter about things yet, though I’m sure I mentioned it to her on the phone the other night. They are in a hard place right now, my father-in-law being the one brother of the three who has been left to make the major decisions regarding their mother’s care. I do not envy them, and I do not begrudge this oversight on their part.

That being said, I also did not enjoy being put in this position at this moment. They were not privy to the fact that their granddaughter was having a rough period right now. It is information I don’t often share unless it happens when we are visiting, as it makes it harder on everyone that we live 800 miles away. They also did not know that I was waiting to tell her until there was more information and/or it was closer to our trip to see them next month. But as I said before, I do not fault them for leaving the message.

The bottom line is that she heard it and I had to do damage control for an hour following. She understands that Great-Grandma (to her) is very old and that people usually die when they are very old. It was the one way I could think of to explain to her that I was not going to follow suit after her mommy died at age 28. She has mostly reconciled herself to that idea, though that will certainly not make it any easier when that day actually arrives. The parts that are not so easy to understand are why Great-Grandma has to be in the hospital, why we can’t see her right now (distance), and why she can’t go back and live in her own home by herself like she did before all of this. Those are all tough questions. You’d think when you’ve had to explain why Mommy isn’t coming home that these would be a piece of cake, but they’re still difficult.

The hour following the phone call tonight was full of questions and tears, followed by more questions and still more tears. She was better when I put her to bed, but there will be more questions tomorrow. These decisions and circumstances can be difficult for an adult to comprehend. Being a five-year-old makes understanding that much harder. And of all times, it has to be happening during one of her rough periods. She started talking more about her mommy this afternoon, so I know the hard times there are coming soon. Only now they will be mixed with questions and grief about Great-Grandma’s situation.

And I haven’t even told her about our hairdresser’s son yet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Two Phone Calls

It is not often that you receive bad news when you are expecting it. Bad news just doesn’t come that way. It comes in the surprise announcement that makes you hold your breath or, as I like to call it, suck air. Or in a manner that makes your heart drop and your mouth dry up. At times it comes in ways that make you forget what you were doing the moment before it was delivered and then, upon remembering, feel guilty that you were doing something carefree only moments before finding out such information. But it rarely comes when you’re looking for it. In fact, it almost never does.

Today has been no exception.

This afternoon I made what is a rather routine phone call for me. For as organized a person as I tend to be, I have a terrible time remembering when we have scheduled our hair appointments. Due to an upcoming trip over spring break, I knew that we had scheduled them differently than our typical four week intervals, so I called to check. Asking for her by name this time, however, begged a question from the receptionist.

“Are you one of her clients?” Uh-oh, something’s wrong. They never ask that.
“Yes, I am”. Make it quick.
“And you haven’t heard?” No, but pretty sure I’m about to. Please tell me she’s quit or left the country or something. Don’t tell me anything close to what I think you’re going to.
“Her son was killed in a four-wheeler accident Sunday.”

She proceeded to give me a list of details while I promptly went numb. I had never met her son, but I had heard many stories about him. He was a couple years out of high school, had just bought the four-wheeler. I think he may have even still lived at home. The details were not what caused my numbness, nor was there any personal connection to him specifically other than through her. The immediate numbing came from the fact that, to a large extent, I know what she’s going through.

And it hurts.

Those feelings of compassion for her and her family soon became mixed with guilt on my part. I received this news the day after his funeral. So while I have been going on with my life-going to work, getting some yard-therapy, walking the dog, spending time with my daughter-she has been living her own personal nightmare. And I could not be there for her.

Now, most people would not feel this way given the circumstances. Most people would be sad for them for a few moments and then properly move on with their lives. I am not one of those people. I don’t think you can be after you’ve lost someone as close to you as a spouse or a child. She is not one of those people you are on a superficial level with. She is sweet as sugar, with a Southern accent to match, and the heart to back it all up. She’s a good wife and mother, in addition to being good at what she does.

Plus, she was there for me at a time when I needed her.

When my wife passed away, she called and offered to take care of her hair and make-up for the wake we had here. She would not let me pay her for it. She did it because she loved my wife and my daughter and me. Maybe this is not that uncommon, but it was one less thing I had to worry about during that time. She also attended the wake, and stayed for quite a while. She is a genuine person who went the extra mile when I needed her to, and I was not able to at least go to her son’s wake. I know she’ll understand, but it’s still hard not to feel a whole lot of guilt heaped on top of all the sorrow I feel for her tonight.

After the shock of this news, I managed to resume my somewhat normal routine. This news had come after work, so I picked up my daughter and we headed home to do some more yardwork/playtime/dinner/dog-walking after which time I made another phone call. This time it was to my wife’s parents. I had not talked to them since the weekend, so I started with:

“How are you?”
“It’s been an interesting day around here.” Definitely not normal, but I wasn’t panicking like I was at this point in my previous phone call.
“What happened?”
“Grandma’s here.” Must be grocery time. He takes her to the grocery about once a week. Her memory must not be good right now-
“She fell today.”

She proceeded to give me a list of details while my mind raced back over two years to a time when I found someone else I love in a fallen position. It’s one of those memories I try to block out and yet with three words, there it was, at the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t numb this time, but a different kind of emotional pain ensued.

“Grandma” is actually my wife’s paternal grandmother. She is the only living grandparent on either side (my dad’s mom died just a few hours before my daughter was born). She has seven biological grandchildren (and eight great-grandchildren), but in the ten years I have been a part of the family, I have always felt like number eight. She will turn 81 on Saturday and until a few years ago was still pretty spry and seemed to have most of her mental faculties. But something happened to her after February 26, 2007, and both her physical and mental health have suffered.

It’s not surprising that something like this has happened. Her three sons have been trying for months to figure out what to do and how best to help her. Making decisions about things like long-term care is not easy, and I think they were trying to wait as long as possible. It looks like the decision might be made for them now. He is taking her to the doctor tomorrow, so we should know more then. I just hope her doctor does more for her than my wife’s did after her fall…

So where does all of this leave me? Tired. Drained. Remembering that which I’ve tried to forget. Sitting bleary-eyed in front of the computer trying to piece together my thoughts so I can crawl into bed with as light a load as I began the day with. It’s not going to happen. Between the sorrow for her son, the guilt for not knowing till after the services, and the worry about my grandma, it could be a long night.

Sadly, it will be a lot longer for two families I really care about.

Monday, March 9, 2009

On the End of Six Weeks of Winter

Since I first weathered a winter season in the Southeast six years ago, I have often joked that we have six weeks of winter here. Not in the sense that Punxsutawney Phil has or has not seen his shadow, but in the sense that we generally have about six weeks of consistently cold, dreary weather before the quick spring warm-up begins. This period of time usually lasts from my birthday week in mid/late January to the end of February or first few days of March. Depending how it goes, it amounts to about six calendar weeks. Our winters prior to this, from about mid-November on, are typically a back-and-forth cat fight between forty degree weather and seventy, sometimes overnight. (I prefer when the seventy degree “cat” wins).

This winter has been the first one for which my six weeks of winter joke has not held true in the physical sense. The weather started to turn cold (freezing and lower) in late October, and from then on, we had more cold days than not, although there was still some yo-yoing between the forties and the seventies at times. Just last Tuesday we had snow. Saturday we were outside all day in shorts and t-shirts. There will still be some cool days, but I believe that this is likely the end of our physical six weeks of winter.

I hope it is the end of my emotional six weeks of winter as well.

Grief is never fun, and it is never easy. Sometimes it hits you at times when you fully anticipate it and other times it completely blindsides you. Either way, it’s still painful.

In some ways, my grief this winter has been harder to deal with than it was at this time last year. Maybe it’s because I spent the first year worrying about just that – the firsts - and was able to avoid some of the more intense waves of grief. Maybe it’s because this winter I made some changes to the house after finally sorting through and distributing all of her things. Maybe it’s because I finally found and started reading some blogs by other widow/ers and found that we had way too much in common. Maybe it’s because I decided to start blogging about my own experiences as well. Maybe it’s one of these factors, or maybe it’s all of them.

Either way, it’s still painful.

In addition to all of this, some other significant dates have matched their original days on the calendar this year as well. The days surrounding my daughter’s premature birth were both wonderful and terrifying, and I’m sure there will be occasion to write about those at length in a later post. For the first time, those dates, beginning with Monday, February 16th, and ending with Thursday, February 26th, fell on the same days of the week as they did five years ago. For some reason that made me relive the terrifying parts of that journey more vividly this year. Ironically, the happiest of those days apart from her birthday was the 26th, which was the day we all came home together for the first time, but I was torn up on that date this year for an entirely different reason.

As if the events of two and five years ago, respectively, were not enough to send my emotions into a tailspin, there was one other date that got to me more than usual this year. This one was from 22 years ago, and I really didn’t expect it to affect me like it did. On Friday, March 6, 1987, my dad was killed in a boating accident, leaving my mom to raise her four children alone. Given everything I’ve gone through the past two years, I thought I would be okay after the 5th. But the calendar and the weather got in the way. The day/date matched up, and the weather was unseasonably warm, both here and back in the Midwest where I grew up. It felt like the first day of spring, which is precisely why he decided to go fishing that day. I called my mom, who has since remarried, that afternoon and she said she had been affected by it more this year than in the past few, for many of the same reasons I had.

I guess it goes to show that our loved ones may be gone, but will not ever be truly forgotten.

This weekend was beautiful. The weather was sunny, with a slight to gusty breeze both days. I got in lots of yard-therapy, while I readied the flower beds for transplanting and the like. And I got to spend some much-needed time with my best girl on her backyard swing set. I received a phone call from friends with some plans to take an exciting trip later this spring, then an e-mail which will have me welcoming some unexpected visitors later this month. It was a perfect way to end 6(+) weeks of winter.

After a bleak and dismal period, things finally seem to be looking up a bit. The rough days will still come. Grief will linger at times that are both on and off my radar. And some days when things seem to be in-check for me, my daughter’s grief will overwhelm her. The end of winter does not mean that our situation will suddenly become what it is not. But something about this winter period ending gives me hope that its burden will at least be a bit easier to bear over the coming months.

If I had a good bottle of wine, I’d raise a glass right now: To the end of winter.

Or more importantly: To the beginning of spring.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Another Day of Reminders

Today marks the two year anniversary of my wife's funeral. At 31, it’s still hard to fathom that I should even be typing those words. Who dies before their 29th birthday anyway? I know that she never intended for us to be left here without her, for me to raise our daughter alone. But some days that doesn’t ease the pain of the situation being what it is. Today is definitely one of those days.

Her parents left for home as soon as the wake in the Southeast was over on March1st. I think they needed to return to what was normal for them for a few hours before they were confronted with things all over again on their own turf. The rest of us returned to my house to find that we were locked out due to a mix-up involving too many people and too few keys. Luckily my cousin, a former police officer, was able to “break in” and I did not have to add a locksmith to an already unwelcome gathering.

I think I slept that night, but I really don’t remember.

The next morning we arose early to caravan home, but I quickly told the others to go on. The last thing I wanted on an already rotten day was to have to keep up with three vehicles and four other people at gas, food, and rest stops. My brothers rode with my daughter and me. Just three men and a little lady. It would have been a fun trip under different circumstances. I guess we made the most of it anyway. Maybe one day we’ll road trip just for the fun of it. I dropped them off at my parents’ house and drove the remaining two to her parents’ house while my daughter slept soundly in her car seat.

I recall being as okay as I could be, given the circumstances. And I remember being really, really glad to be alone. Not alone in the sense that I was without her, but in the sense that I was without everyone else, save my sleeping daughter, for a few hours.

The one thing I remember clearly is how driving into her parents’ town was a slap in the face for which I was not prepared. Seeing that familiar courthouse, the first thing I saw on my numerous drives there in college and after we were married, brought everything home on another level. This was her town. These were her people. It was hard enough to see and receive condolences from our friends and loved ones in the Southeast, but there were very few we shared more than five years of history with there. I realized then that there would be people there who remembered when she was born.

And now they were here to remember when she died.

There were two calling times the next day, Sunday, March 4. The doors opened and the line of people filed in. And there was not a single break until the funeral home director closed them three or four hours later. The idea was that the rest of the family and I would get something to eat and rest a while. Instead, I sought out a couple from our past who seemed especially distraught. I wanted to talk about her and I wanted to help other people make sense of everything as much as was possible. There were so many people who didn’t know she had been sick and there were so many details that just didn’t fit without knowing more of the story. This couple also had known too much loss too young in life, having lost his mother and their daughter within a couple years’ time. We were there for them when his mother passed (we had already moved when we heard about their daughter) and now they were here for me. And in a way, I was there for them too.

There were more calling hours that night. My daughter, who was supposed to have been with a family friend, ended up being there for the entire time. She handled things well, especially for a three year old, and I think it was good for our friends to meet her. It was somehow comforting for them to see a piece of my wife in that vibrant little girl.

The 5th that year was on a Monday. Go figure. So exactly one week after her soul was laid to rest, her body was laid to rest as well. The service was conducted by the same pastor who had married us in the same city only five and a half years before. He considered it an honor, and in many ways, I guess I did too. He had been my wife’s pastor since high school and they had always shared a special bond. He had given us a beautiful send-off into holy matrimony, and he gave her a beautiful send-off into eternity.

The funeral home director and staff, were likewise wonderful. No one should have to bury his wife, especially not five weeks after his 29th birthday and five months before hers. They walked us through every aspect of the process and were more than generous with their time and compassion. The funeral director also had a history with my wife. Her mother had worked for him when he was in a different line of work and my wife was a young girl. And later, his partner was her music teacher or gave her music lessons of some variety. It seems like everyone in that town had a special connection to her.

The funeral home also had some programs that were unique and added to an already special service. Little red satin bags were made available to anyone who wished to take one. Inside the bag were two glass hearts – one to put with my wife and one to keep as a reminder. It was amazing to see the hearts build up over the course of the day. My heart sits in its bag on my dresser. My daughter’s is on her bookshelf. I have on occasion noticed one here or there at the homes of various family members. We all kept them. And for the most part, we all keep them in plain sight.

The graveside service was short as it was at or below freezing, with a strong wind and blowing snow. Again, go figure. The pastor spoke quickly as we all stared at the casket on the rose-colored vault. I remember him handing me three flowers and telling me what they stood for. I don’t remember what for now without looking at the written version of the service, but they too, sit in plain sight in my bedroom. There is no reason to keep those things hidden and though they now blend in with the d├ęcor, they still catch my eye more often than not.

As if I need any more reminders to think about her.

The one thing that sticks out above almost all else that day is how my daughter responded to things. She was clearly, visibly upset throughout the service and much of the day. But there was one point in the service when her mommy’s favorite song was played. When it started, she rose from her seat and gave me a tentative glance.

Then she began to dance.

It wasn’t out-of-line. It wasn’t flashy or disruptive. It wasn’t out of character. It was the only way she could express how she was feeling at that moment. And I think it was her small demonstration to me and the only close family members who could see her, that she was going to be okay. When she finished dancing and the song faded, she climbed back into my lap.

I think that was her way of saying that we were going to be okay too.

And we are.

And we will continue to be.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Unexpected Reminders

When I was little, I loved snow. Snow in the Midwest meant snowball fights, sledding, and, if we were lucky, no school. It was especially nice having a birthday in the middle of winter. I think I spent more birthdays outside of the school walls than inside thanks to this wonderful white stuff.

There was a large hill in the center of our small town that just beckoned to the neighborhood children when the ground was covered in white. An elderly woman lived there, and though many of us had never met her or even laid eyes on her, it was understood that we were welcome to sled on her property as long as we were safe about it. My brothers and I would bundle up in one layer atop another until we could have been mistaken for twins with a character in a certain classic Christmas movie. We would take our beat up sleds up the hill and spend hours designing ways to make each descent more enjoyable than the one before it. When we got home, we would change out of our wet clothes and sit by the wood stove, which was our only source of heat in the winter, drinking the fresh cups of hot chocolate our mom had prepared for us. These are some of my fondest winter memories.

As I grew older, I changed, as children so often do. Snow became more of a nuisance than a thing to be enjoyed. It did not take long for me to grow weary of scraping ice and brushing snow off of my car when I wanted to go somewhere, allowing extended time to get there once the clearing was completed, dodging it’s reflective glare on everything if the sun was out, and driving like the guy from the DMV was in the passenger’s seat the entire way to my destination. Amazingly, I only had one minor wreck on the ice/snow. But I no longer saw it as a thing of beauty either.

This hatred of snow I developed was one catalyst for my move to the Southeast. It turns out I’m not such a big fan of cold weather in general either and with every passing year, a house at/near the beach beckoned to me.

In some ways, it’s amazing we purchased a house here, considering what happened during our first winter in our new state. Our first nine months here, we lived in a third-floor apartment within walking distance to the local mall and many other stores and restaurants. It was a nice location. Until January. We had been told that it never snowed here. That we had moved close enough to the coast to avoid snow altogether. Apparently never ended in January, 2003.

In the Midwest, you go to school in the snow, on time, unless there is a strong wind and the roads are drifting shut, which of course becomes a safety hazard. In many parts of the Southeast, you cancel school if the weatherman says there might be a chance that a single snowflake could fall sometime prior to the opening of the school day. And you do not, under any circumstances attempt to drive anywhere in it, even if you are accustomed to driving on ice-laden roadways.

We had been holed-up in our upstairs apartment for about 36 hours when my wife announced that she could no longer stay there and she wanted to go look for a house. Thankfully everyone else had heeded the no driving advice and we were one of the few cars on the road that afternoon. We didn’t find our house that weekend, but did the next and had closed and moved in within two months time, which was not bad for first-time homebuyers with no money for a down payment.

That snowfall was the last one until this winter. It has been unseasonably cold for us, though not nearly as cold as it has been in many parts of the country. One day in November we had snow flurries, but miraculously they did not adjourn school early that day. There was a day in December with scattered flurries as well. We’ve had a few delays for ice, one in January and one in February, respectively.

But the big snowfall came while we were out of town. We were returning from a snow-covered visit to the Northeast when we found our connecting flight had been cancelled. It turns out that snow had started falling that afternoon and, true-to-form, everything had closed, including our local airport. We flew into a neighboring city and rented a car to complete the journey that night. I was already off work the following day, which was probably a good thing.

I have grown to despise snow and ice, but I was not even remotely prepared for the emotional impact this snowfall would have on me. I have seen and been in snow many times over the intervening six years between snowfalls here. I played in it with my daughter in the Midwest the week after Christmas. We spent two days traipsing around a major city in it together over MLK weekend. Those snows affected me the same way all other snows have since I turned sixteen almost half a lifetime ago.

But this one was different. This snow instantly took me back six years. We were still technically newlyweds. We lived in that tiny upstairs apartment with a cat and dog, both of whom have since passed. Our beautiful daughter was but a gleam in her Maker’s eye. It was a time when we would rent movies and huddle up under blankets to watch them together. A time when we would sleep in on Saturdays and stay in our pajamas most of the day after that. It was a time when college-living had begun to merge with real adulthood, but traces of both were still visible around the edges.

It was a time when she was healthy.

It was a time when she was here.

It’s snowing here again tonight. They’ve already called with a two-hour delay for school tomorrow, but we’re only supposed to get a dusting.

I hope they’re right.

I don’t think I could take another groundcover this winter.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

On What a Difference a Day Makes

Most dates on the calendar are of little significance to me. Sure, there are some happy dates – birthdays, holidays, and the like. And there are some sad dates – February 26th, among others. But there are few that are both. For me, March 1st is one of them.

March 1, 2007 was the date of my wife’s wake. In the area of the Southeast in which I reside, that’s what they call it. In the Midwest, where I grew up and she is buried, they refer to it as a calling or viewing. Whatever the word, this date marked the first of two such events.

About a year before she died, we passed one of our local cemeteries as we often did when we were out and about. For some reason that day, she turned to me and said “I don’t want to be buried in this town”. She was mostly joking, but there was a hint of seriousness behind her words. At that point, the possibility of her dying at a young age was as far from my mind as a spaceship landing in my back yard. It just wasn’t something that was bound to happen. So I agreed half-heartedly that I would not bury her in this town. Which is why we had only a wake here.

I made arrangements for my daughter to stay with a friend’s aunt during the wake so that she would not have to be a part of something so difficult for any mind to wrap itself around, let alone one that was barely three years old. That morning she and I had our own private time with her, and that night she was much more content going to a local school carnival where my friend’s aunt was a teacher at the time.

It was lovely, as far as a wake can be anyway. The room was full of people who knew and loved my wife, my daughter, and me. It was amazing to me to see how many lives she had touched in just 4 ½ years here. But then again, it wasn’t. She had a certain spark that drew people to her and made her instantly likeable.

Nonetheless, I was relieved when it was over. One down, one to go. One 800 mile journey between them.

Because of the significance of February 26th, I do not dwell so much on this date for the events that occurred on it in 2007. I do, however, dwell on it for a different reason.

In many ways, March 1st has become a symbol of hope for me.

I hate to see February on the calendar. I hate to write it on documents. I hate to think about it being February every day for 28 and sometimes 29 days in a row each year. Were it not for my daughter’s birthday, I would be happy if the entire month of February was removed from our calendar.

So to me, March 1st is a somewhat welcome sight. And even though it holds some deeply sad reminders, I have chosen instead to take notice of the happier ones.

Namely that it’s no longer February.