Thursday, July 30, 2009

On the Other Hand

Tuesday should have marked our eighth wedding anniversary. It is a date that I share with another widower, though we only know this now because of our widower status. My wife and I celebrated five of them together, and even took a trip for our fifth, though we hadn’t the slightest indication at the time that it would be our last.

The first anniversary without her came five months after she passed away and one week after her first birthday without her, which I will save for another post. Sitting here now, I can scarcely remember what we did during the day, but I am almost certain we went to the beach. I know that I planned something fun to do with my daughter, who was unaware of the date at that time, in order to take my mind off of it. Whatever we did, I remember dreading having to face the date that evening after she was tucked safely into bed.

Once my daughter was asleep that night, I did something that I should not have done then, and have yet to repeat since. I watched our wedding video. From start to finish. Part of me wanted to see her move, to hear her speak, to watch her smile and laugh. And the other part of me wanted to torture myself. I had spent a lot of time trying to run from my grief up to this point, but on this night, I opted instead to wallow in my misery. And wallow I did. For two hours.

Sometime during the video of the wedding itself, I took one of my hardest steps as a widower. I removed my ring from my left hand and placed it instead on my right hand. It was a planned moment, but that did not make it any less difficult.

The summer before my wife died, we attended a wake for a woman who had been her assistant two years prior. She had died within about a year of her lung cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband, and elementary aged son and daughter behind. That fall my wife came home one day and mentioned that the assistant’s husband had come in to eat lunch with their son. She then told me about how several of the ladies had taken notice of the fact that he was “still” wearing his wedding band and pondered as to how long he might continue to do so.

When my own wife died just a few months later, the memory of that conversation resonated with me. Since I also work in a school, I knew that people would be talking about me in the same way, even though I would surely never hear the words spoken. So I decided to change my ring on my own terms. But the idea to wear it on my right hand actually came from a friend and co-worker who had been widowed in her early twenties and has since remarried. I had never paid attention to the fact that she wore a diamond on each hand, but she told me that it was her way of keeping her first husband’s memory alive. I liked the idea, so when it came time for me to do so, I followed suit.

In retrospect, I wish that I had waited longer to move my ring. I knew I wasn’t ready, but it was the one time thus far in my grieving process in which I gave in to my perception of what other people expected of me. I thought I should do it before the new school year started, and I knew that there would be no more poignant day to do so that my first anniversary alone. So with hands wet with tears, I made the switch.

My second anniversary alone (the seventh overall) was rather uneventful. I worked in the yard during the day, then my daughter and I went out for dinner that night. I did not watch the wedding video, but I thought about her all day and into the night.

When my daughter and I visited my wife’s stone last week, she asked me to read each item to her as she always does. Our anniversary is written on her stone, and since my daughter has a much better concept of months and dates now, she realized that July 28th was coming soon. So she suggested that we go to my favorite Italian restaurant for dinner “because I needed to celebrate my anniversary”. It was a sweet and selfless gesture, especially coming from a five-year-old, but we ultimately did not do so.

The day started off on a sour note. We had haircuts in the morning, then were to head to her appointment an hour and a half away to have her ear checked. That’s when I realized that I had forgotten something.

Now, I am not someone who forgets things easily or often. Nor am I one who accepts that I am human in the rare instance that I do forget something. But typically when I forget something, it’s something big.

One week prior to this appointment, I was supposed to begin putting ear drops into my daughter’s ear to help clear out any packing left over from her surgery. I remembered this when I grabbed my book to take with me and noticed the prescription slip inside where I had placed it, ironically, so that I wouldn’t forget! I called the doctor’s office and rescheduled the appointment for next Tuesday, but I was pretty hard on myself about my mistake.

Due to a miscommunication with the guy who was supposed to mow my yard while I was on vacation, coupled with over a week’s worth of rain, my lawn was severely overdue for a good cutting. I decided that I would take care of this when we got home following our haircuts and errands. It was a fine plan, but for one problem. The beautiful, sunny day suddenly morphed into an angry, stormy day just about the time I was ready to mow. I’m pretty meticulous about my yard, so that fact that it was overgrown and had been for quite some time did not sit well with me. (I finally got it taken care of today).

These are two seemingly insignificant events, but nonetheless are two which irritated me greatly. Still, I managed to have a pretty decent day grief-wise. Until about five o’clock when someone called to chastise me about something I had posted on Facebook. It was all in good fun, but this was the one day I really didn’t need to hear how “lame” (his word) I was. I probably would have been able to take it if he hadn’t kept on about it. But for some reason it just really bothered me.

After I hung up the phone, I realized the reason it had bothered me. He is usually one who calls to make sure I am doing okay on significant days and he hadn’t mentioned it. He hadn’t even remembered it was supposed to be my anniversary. And sadly, neither did anyone else.

I always wondered when people would stop calling on those days, but I just assumed it would be sometime down the road, when I started dating or was married again. For me, it was the third anniversary alone.

So I spent the rest of the evening thinking about the unfairness of it all. My wife and I had a good marriage. We rarely argued, and when we did, we worked it out so as not to have to go to bed angry. We communicated well. Sure, we had our share of problems, but they were minor in comparison to what a lot of other people deal with inside of marriage. In this world of marital decay, we were the ones who were supposed to make it.

I went to a 50th anniversary party for a couple once, but found little reason to celebrate. It was well-known that he had cheated on her for the majority of their marriage. So what good was it to celebrate their marriage when we were in effect celebrating 50 years of bitterness and deception?

I think there should be a qualitative measure of marriage. Forget measuring it in months and years, measure it in honesty and love instead. My wife and I had more in our five and a half years of marriage than most couples have in a lifetime.

And that’s why I continue to wear my wedding ring. Because regardless of which hand it sits on, it continues to be a symbol of our love and a tribute to our time together.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Grief's Latest Plan of Attack

A brief note before the post: For those of you going to the widow/ers conference in San Diego this month, have a great time and enjoy meeting one another face-to-face. I would love to be there, but had already signed up for a landlocked conference for work in the center of the continent that weekend (what are the chances?!?) when I found out about it. I look forward to reading your posts later this month.
Lately I have been bludgeoned with multiple random memories and I’m not exactly sure why. Little things that should be seemingly insignificant will set off a chain-reaction of memories, feelings, emotions or a combination of the afore-mentioned. It has been going on for a few weeks, but only in the last few days have I begun to recognize it for what it is:

Grief taking a new approach with me.

It seems that every time I figure out what tactic grief will use to attack me, it changes course. This random-memories-that-elicit-subtle-behavior-changes track is just the latest in the sequence.

Ironically, it wasn’t a memory or emotion that first clued me in to this. It was a minor behavioral change. Anyone who knows me outside of this blog could tell you that I love ice cream. To be fair, most people do. But I love it like no one I have ever met. I would eat it with every meal if I could do so without suffering any consequences. I enjoy many flavors, but I tend to stick with some favorites at each place of business that specializes in ice cream treats. So it came as a surprise when I noticed that, within the span of a week, I had ordered two tall sundaes with hot fudge and Spanish peanuts. It’s a treat I enjoy, but one I very seldom order.

But it was my wife’s favorite.

I have since consumed two more.

On the Fourth of July, my daughter and I spent the day doing things around home. I refuse to go to the beach as the crowds on this day can only be rivaled by those on Memorial Day and Labor Day. I enjoy crowds like I enjoy jerks in traffic. But that evening we made our mostly annual trek (unless we’re in the Midwest over the Fourth) to a nearby waterfront town to watch the fireworks. There are two things I love about the Fourth – watching the fireworks over the water and eating a funnel cake. I will fight the crowds to do both, especially since the opportunity only presents itself once a year.

We arrived later than I had anticipated, so parking was a nightmare. The funnel cake line was even worse. Luckily we ran into a new girl from church who invited us to sit with her group nearby. I say luckily because we got our funnel cake at five till nine and would still have been walking the four blocks to our regular spot when the fireworks started had we not run into her. We sat down, and the kids began playing while the girl and her friends took pictures of both the kids and the fireworks. My daughter ate half a bite of the funnel cake and I was left to consume the entire plateful alone. Now, I won’t lie and say that I don’t like the taste of a funnel cake, but it’s really not high on my list of bad-for-me treats.

I had a professor in college, a former smoker, who allowed himself one cigarette a year because he liked to remember what it was like to smoke. I stood in that line for an hour because I like to remember how much my wife enjoyed her Fourth of July funnel cake. It’s a strange connection, but the physical behavior seems to enhance the memory for me.

Everything seems to be conjuring up random and seemingly insignificant memories of her lately. It even happened the other night as I was watching a special one-hour episode of that show about the teenage pop-star with a secret identity with my daughter. It doesn’t help that her on-screen mother died of undisclosed causes sometime before the show aired. But in this particular episode, the girl was having boy trouble, and the mother had taped a video to be played in just such an instance. And I found myself tearing up, thinking about how that won’t be happening for my daughter. I know it was written to be poignant, but it struck a far deeper chord with me.

I can’t even escape grief when I’m watching kid-tv with my daughter.

The problem with these and the many recent instances like them is that I can’t figure out what’s triggering them. Sure, there have been some significant events lately, and there are more to come, but I don’t believe that it’s any one event that’s causing this reaction. I guess maybe it’s a combination of a lot of different factors.

Like the fact that my daughter graduated from preschool and I had the gall to think I made it through relatively unscathed.

Or that she had more major surgery than she’s had up to this point in her life and the surgery itself went very well (though grief found it’s way to me by another means that day).

Selling the car may have even deserved more grief-credit than I’ve given it.

Maybe it’s the song I happened upon the other day that took me back to the summer before we got engaged. We had just attended one of the ten weddings we took in that summer (Yep, I sat through all of them and still proposed!) As we were leaving to embark on the nearly four-hour drive home, that song came on the radio. It was one of the artists “crossover” songs and one that I found moderately appealing. But as the engine rolled over and the car came to life, we looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “Wouldn’t that be a great song for a first dance at a wedding?” (We actually danced to a different song at ours, but it was, ironically, a duet by that artist and her husband).

Such an obscure memory, but it took on a whole different meaning for me the other day.

Perhaps it’s that, for the first time ever, I’ve been thinking about dating. Not in the “I’m interested right now “sense, but in the “it could actually be a possibility in my lifetime” sense. (Don’t get your hopes up Mom, but it’s a start). Up to this point, the idea of dating has seldom entered my mind, and when it has I have quickly thwarted its efforts. In fact, it has been so far from my mind that I am surprised when people ask me if I am or not. Someone once told me that they “could tell when a person doesn’t want to be hugged” which was presumably based on a facial expression of mine. I think that’s the look I give people when they ask if I’m dating (it’s comparable to the “mind your own business” look, but much stronger). When people go so far as to offer or attempt to set me up with someone, I tell them that I’m not ready to date yet, and when I am I will introduce them to her. (So far they’ve gotten the picture). Many of the other widowed bloggers have been writing about it recently (see here, here, here, and here for just a few), which is probably why I have entertained the thought when it has come to call as of late. But it seems to be adding to the muddy waters of my current grief status.

Maybe it has something to do with the post I read this afternoon, which I have been unable to escape. It was written by a man who lost his very young daughter fairly recently and it was a beautiful post. But it forced my mind to visit a place I have deemed off limits. I tend to spend my time fluctuating between “what was” and “what is” (i.e. looking back and moving forward), but this post drove me to think about the third dreaded possibility - “what if”. Partly because my wife died of medical complications and partly because I can’t find any benefit in dwelling there, I have cut off any mental notion of “what if”. But still I have spent the better part of the day thinking about it.

And it hasn’t been pretty.

As if all of this wasn’t enough (and I’ve barely scratched the surface here), both my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary are later this month. And for the first time ever, we’ll be spending her birthday with family. In her home town. I’m sure there will be a post about that when we return from vacation in a few weeks. (We’re supposed to be leaving in a few hours, but I wanted to get this off my chest before my computer access becomes limited). We’ll be back home by the time our anniversary rolls around, but my daughter has another follow-up with her ENT that day in that town I hate so much, so there will likely be a post about that as well.

And to top it all off, my daughter has been an absolute bear the last three days. Try as I might to chalk it up to too much time with Daddy this summer or the play dates she’s had this week, the real culprit (which I had begun to suspect) was revealed this evening. We were in the part of town where my wife taught and when she recognized this, she asked if we could “drive by Mommy’s school”. As we pulled into the empty circle drive, I asked what had made her ask to go there and she admitted that she’d been “missing Mommy a lot lately”. We talked some more about it, but since I can’t figure out what my own triggers are, I haven’t even begun to psychoanalyze hers.

But I do find it strange that many of our grief cycles coincide so readily.

I could sit here all night and ruminate on the possible causes and effects of these goings-on, but I’m supposed to be leaving for the Midwest in four to five hours and I still have packing to do (once the dryer stops). Plus, there’s a cup of banana pudding waiting for me in the fridge.

Again, it’s not one of my favorites.

But it was one of hers.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On the Last Major Piece

It has been two years and four and a half months since my wife’s death.

For the first three months I merely survived and picked up the pieces - at least the ones that had fallen within my grasp. At the end of the third month, however, I had to begin the process of moving forward in that I had to start physically sifting through her belongings.

Beginning with her classroom.

A close friend who also taught at the same school came by and helped me pack up those items of hers that I did not donate to the school – mostly personal effects and some books from her classroom library to give to my daughter as she gets older. It was all boxed up and carted into my bedroom where it was transferred from box to box throughout the summer as I had the time and energy to go through it.

Thus began a process that was mostly finalized in November of last year. Yes, it took me over a year and a half to go through my wife’s classroom items, clothes, and all of the other things that she so enjoyed. I kept some pieces for my daughter, but there was simply too much for us to want or need to keep, so on an overcast Saturday last fall, I finally removed the last of her things from the house.

In a way it was a relief to finally have come to that point in this journey. Not because I was glad to have done it, but rather because I was glad to have it done. It had gotten to the point that the things I had chosen not to keep were an obstacle to overcome, while the things I had chosen to keep were in their rightful places, as they are to this day, where I could gain some sense of enjoyment from them. The house was finally a place where my daughter and I could live and move forward, while remaining filled with the accoutrements that my wife had used to turn our house into a home.

So the house was complete, but there was still one major piece left to deal with: my car.

In June of 2001, just a month before we walked down the aisle, we purchased what came to be known as “the blue car”. Which was ironic in that the car my wife brought into the marriage was also blue. In retrospect, I think we initially referred to them as “the Olds” and “the Topaz” until we sold the other car the next spring.

But I digress.

We purchased the car in my wife’s hometown, the same city we got married in (and ironically, the city we will be spending her birthday in later this month). We traded in my mid-80’s Mustang which was down to its last horse and bought it for a reasonable price for two almost newlyweds who were lacking full-time jobs at the time (I was finishing grad school and she began teaching that fall).

And it was a good car.

It took us on our honeymoon to what would become our future home state and back again eight months later to apply for jobs. It returned just a year after its purchase on a tow-dolly behind our moving van. It was the car that sat in the parking lot of our apartment complex, but looked so much more “at home” in front of our newly purchased house nine months later. It was the car that took our dog to the vet for his final visit and the one that carried our daughter safely home from her first day at day care. It transported me to and from work nearly every day for six years – at first when I worked five minutes from home and later when the drive increased to an hour each way. It took the brunt of more than its fair share of cheese crackers and juice boxes inside, but never required more than routine changing of the oil and spark plugs outside.

Like I said, it was a good car.

In April, 2007, it began what would become a two-year period of dormancy. I had decided to continue driving it until the current plates expired so as to rack up miles on it and not the newer vehicle my wife had always driven. So one afternoon after work I parked it and changed the keys on my key ring. Soon after, I began the process described in the first few paragraphs and the car was all but forgotten as it sat on my driveway. In a way it was the first thing I had to let go.

But it was also the last.

Even after my wife’s things had been sold, consigned, or donated, the car never seemed to take priority. So I had decided that I would deal with it when the school year ended, reasoning that I would be home more often if people wanted to come by to look at it. I was not even remotely excited about the prospect of the actual selling process, which I think is part of the reason I waited so long to pursue it.

But a situation arose in the meantime that would make it easier for both the buyer and the seller. Some relatives “back home” found themselves in need of a second vehicle, and while I knew they would not accept it as a gift, I thought they might take it if I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. So I did and they did not (refuse, that is). The logistics were worked out, and when my parents left my house a few weeks back, they found themselves pulling a bit more weight than they had upon arrival.

I thought that I would be sad to see it go. I owned that car for eight years and drove it for six. It played its part in many memories – good and bad. It had become an almost permanent fixture outside of our house. And did I mention the memories?

But after my parents pulled out of sight, and even as I write this three weeks later, I feel mostly a sense of relief.

Not because I am glad to have done it, but rather because I am glad to have it done.