Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Comfort in Dreams

Among the many frustrations brought about by my grieving process has been my lack of dreams involving my wife.

I tend to have random periods of about ten days or so when I have vivid, often bizarre dreams on any number of topics. I have also had a few rather endearing dreams, the most recent of which involved some really great bonding time with my two brothers. These dream cycles are often more frequent than not, so it’s not the lack of dreams themselves that frustrates me.

It’s the fact that she is so clearly absent from them.

In my conscious memory, I can recall two dreams involving her and both were very similar in nature. She is here. Not back-from-the-dead here, but instead not-yet-dead here. We are generally traveling in some sort of vehicle and I have the distinct impression that we are running errands around our town. It is a seemingly normal day and not at all like our actual last day together.

But it is our last day together.

You see, in both of these dreams, I have somehow been given the knowledge that she is going to die, but am completely powerless to stop her from doing so. And I am suddenly aware that our seemingly normal errands are actually my vain attempt at finding a way to save her even though I know it is impossible.

There was a tv show when I was younger that I used to love to watch. At the beginning of each episode, the main character would receive what appeared to be a normal daily newspaper. Its contents, however, foretold a tragedy that would occur the following day. So he spent each day of his life attempting to avert the next day’s tragedy. What I loved about that show was precisely what has plagued me about my dreams. He was able to stop his tragedies, while I was left to sit idly by and watch mine unfold.

Helplessness is an awful feeling, even in slumber.

I could spend paragraphs (and hours) speculating as to why my dreams have turned out this way. My best theory is that it is my subconscious mind living out the helplessness and guilty feelings that I refuse to give a voice to during my waking hours.

Aside from the feelings of helplessness these dreams have awakened in me, I can’t help but be upset by the sheer lack of dreams about her. For two people who had as good a marriage as we did, it would stand to reason that the surviving spouse (and how often are we doing well just to survive?) would dream about the other more than a couple of times in as many years.

But that may have finally changed.

Sunday morning I awoke feeling more contented than I have in a very long time. After another night of vivid dreams, I typically feel restless and irritable. But Saturday night’s dream was different.

It started with me flying into a European country. I believe it was initially Germany, but I think it somehow morphed into France along the way. For some reason I had to land there, then rent a car and drive across another country before arriving at my final destination in a third country. The second country was the Czech Republic, with my final arrival being in Italy. Geography has always been a strong suit for me, so I’m pretty certain that those three countries are not connected in a way that would allow me to drive from start to finish without crossing more than one other border. Ah, the idiosyncrasies of dreams.

I have never been to Europe. I have never flown across an entire ocean. I have never stepped foot off of the North American continent. I have only left this country twice. Once to visit a town we share with our northern neighbor; the other time to pay a similar call to our neighbor to the South. I at least understand the Italian connection. Last week I finished reading the second of two completely unrelated books that contained significant plot-lines which occurred in Italy. My current car book takes place, again by sheer coincidence, almost entirely in Italy. (My current house book is set on a boat in the Pacific Northwest). But I digress.

In the dream I had to head to an airport in whatever Italian city I was visiting to pick up my wife. (How she got a direct flight into Italy, I’ll never know). So I have vivid memories of the anticipation of seeing her mixed with the excitement of exploring new countries by land, albeit alone. In this dream she is also not-yet-dead, but we have apparently not seen each other for some period of time due to circumstances that were left unclear throughout the dream.

Apart from the outlandish circumstances of this dream, the rest of the dream was very normal. I don’t exactly recall the moment we met at the airport, but I remember another extended journey by car to wherever we were staying, only this time it was together. We boarded in a very expensive hotel and spent the entire weekend doing all of the normal things a normal couple would do on a normal weekend away in a foreign city.

Keyword: normal.

The most vivid memory I have in the dream came upon checking out of the hotel, which was also where the dream ended. We were rushing around the room frantically as it was past time to check out and I was concerned about being charged a fee. I distinctly remember picking up what must have been our dirty clothes from the weekend and stuffing them into a suitcase. Then I looked around the room and made a statement about how I couldn’t understand how we had accumulated so much over the course of a weekend and wondered aloud how in the world we were going to get it all back home. Then I reminded her that, at this rate, there was no way we were going to be able to avoid the late check-out fee. The entire time she was patiently reminding me that it would all be okay.

It was such a completely typical moment in our marriage. Though we didn’t travel to exotic destinations, we did do our fair share of traveling and the pattern was always the same. I would get completely stressed out about how I was going to get everything home (it mattered not whether we were traveling by car or by plane) and that we were going to be late leaving. She would do her best to remind me that things were going to turn out fine and that it wasn’t worth letting my blood pressure reach its boiling point.

Although it has taken over two years for a dream like this to manifest itself to my subconscious mind, I think it was just what I needed. I have become accustomed to my new normal, as I like to call it, and am generally fairly content in the lives my daughter and I now lead. But it was so nice to be reminded of the comfort and joy and sheer normalcy of the time I had with my wife. I tend to miss different aspects of our relationship at different times. But I always miss the comfort we had with one another.

I guess that’s why I waited a few days before I posted about this dream. I was hoping against hope that I might be able to post about more than one such dream, but alas, they have eluded me the past several nights.

But tonight is a new night.

And if not tonight, then perhaps tomorrow night

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Visiting the Stone

One of the many difficult decisions I had to make in the days surrounding my wife’s death was where she would be “laid to rest”. She had unwittingly made her wishes regarding this known to me in a conversation one day as we were driving around town. Simply put, she wished to be buried in her hometown. So in a way, it was a no-brainer when the decision actually had to be made.

What I could not know at that time was how living 800 miles from her “final resting place” would affect me, and more importantly, my daughter.

From our very first trip back to the Midwest following her funeral and burial, I have always made it a point to sneak away to the cemetery for at least a few moments of unadulterated grieving. Prior to that first trip back, there were some questions I had to mull over regarding the cemetery visit.

The first question was whether or not I would take my then three-year-old daughter with me. We visited twice that summer, and the headstone was not placed until mid-November, so I opted not to take her or mention it to her during those summer visits.

This, in turn, answered the second question: that of what, if anything, I should tell my in-laws I was doing. On the first visit my daughter fell asleep during the two hour drive between my parents’ house and my in-laws and continued to sleep soundly while I stood at my wife’s graveside for the first time in the absence of other mourners. So that solved the problem initially. But when we returned later that summer, I was left to ask them to watch her for a few minutes. I felt awkward explaining that I needed to go to the cemetery for a little while. Then, between waves of tears and emotion, I worried about what they were thinking knowing I was there at that moment. I tend to over-think things a bit sometimes, but burying her there denied me the luxury of visiting whenever I wanted, unbeknownst to everyone else.

The next visit was a bit less awkward, but I again went alone as there were several inches of snow on the ground and it was the first time I would see the stone I had designed for my wife at 29 years of age. Of all the things I could have been designing at that age – baby furniture, a piece of anniversary jewelry, an area for entertaining outdoors – somehow a headstone wasn’t even on the list.

Our next visit was spring break a year ago. It had been about thirteen months since my wife had passed, my daughter was a year older, the stone had been placed, and there was no snow on the ground, so I explained what going to the cemetery entailed and asked if she would like to go with me this time (I did this a few days in advance so that we could revisit the topic and she could opt out if she changed her mind). She decided to go with me, and thus began our current ritual of visiting the stone on the journey between the grandparents’ homes.

I refer to it as visiting the stone, because essentially, that is what we do. The term “paying our respects” would suffice as well, but we’re not doing that. That seems like something you do when an acquaintance or co-worker’s family member passes away. Not your wife. Not your child’s mother.

Yes, we’re remembering. But we’re also grieving.

My daughter understands more of this process than any child should, especially at such a young age. She understands that Mommy’s body is under the ground there. But more importantly, she understands that Mommy is not there.

Sometimes when we go she looks reverently at the stone. Sometimes she runs her fingers along the engraved words, my attempt at capturing the highlights of a short life well-lived. Most times she cries, but not always.

This time, for the first time, she did something different.

When we walked over to the stone, I stopped at roughly the same point I always do at first, but she continued and walked right up to the stone itself. I had resolved that I would be strong for her while she was with me, then would likely sneak back later in the week to cry more heavily on my own. But after what happened next, I could not have held my own tears back no matter how hard I tried. She stopped as she stood right in front of the names, the dates, and the symbols.

Then she leaned over and hugged the stone.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t cry. She just stood there for a few moments with her head resting atop this rose-colored stone and a forlorn look on her face. Then she came over and reached for me to pick her up, which I did as I half-heartedly attempted to push back my tears.

The rest of that visit went like the others. We cried. She asked questions. I answered them. We stayed until she was ready to leave and could look once again with excitement at seeing her grandparents in a few minutes.

After that, I thought this would be the only visit for me that week. I had been able to realize my own grief for a few moments, and really, that’s what visiting the stone is for me. It’s the one place and situation where I feel free to let all of my anguish surface and spill over unashamedly. That’s not to say that I don’t still cry at other times, though those times are fewer and further between than they once were. But those times are random and inconsistent. Visiting the stone gives me the license to grieve fully each and every time I am there.

As it turns out, I needed to realize my grief twice that week. As I left to fill the gas tank the night before we headed home, I felt compelled to go visit the stone again, even though I knew it would soon be dark. My daughter was with her grandparents, and though I knew they would figure out where I was when I didn’t return within a reasonable amount of time, I have also grown past the feelings of discomfort I once had with them knowing when I am there.

So off I went. There really wasn’t anything unusual about this visit. It was just necessary for me to go again, alone.

Something I try not to think about when I am there is the patch of grass to the right of the stone. When I purchased my wife’s burial plot, I purchased my own as well. So at 29 years of age, I decided where I would be “laid to rest” too. It is not my hometown. It is two hours from there and 800 miles from the place I call home now. But I have many happy memories in that town. And someday it will be my “final resting place”.

This time I took note of that patch of grass a bit more than usual. Now that I am a single parent, I take even fewer unnecessary risks than I ever did, not that I took many before. But I simply do not like to dwell on my own mortality. I no longer have that other parent to count on to raise my daughter if something happens to me before she is grown. And while her godparents are fully capable of raising her, I just can’t allow myself to imagine her growing up in a world without either of her parents in it. So I try hard not to.

When I was designing my wife’s stone, I sought my mom’s advice, as she was also widowed at a young age. My dad’s stone is a shared one. My mom will be buried beside him and her name is already engraved there (my stepdad will be buried on her other side). The one thing I distinctly remember her saying was that it was very hard to see her name on the headstone when she went to the cemetery. So my wife’s stone is a single one. My name is only engraved on the back as her husband.

Still, there is something sobering about looking at that patch of grass, knowing that someday your body, when your soul has parted from it, will be buried below it.

But I know that ultimately I will not be there.

Just as she is not there now.

Only a stone and a patch of grass remain.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Spring Break

In an attempt to recover from our 15 hour drive on Sunday, I slept 10 hours last night instead of posting this, as was my original plan for the evening. We had such a good time during our trip to visit family in the Midwest that I thought I would share some of it with you all. And with pictures, to boot.

On Saturday

We spent 13 hours driving to my parents’ house and arrived within two hours of the start of my nephew’s 14th birthday party. My nephew has Down syndrome and attends a special needs class at his middle school. He has a best friend and a girlfriend in his class who also happen to be brother and sister. We were able to meet them both for the first time that night and they seem to be really good kids. Since his birthday falls during the school year, this was the first of his parties I’ve been able to attend in the seven years since I’ve lived in the Southeast and was the very first one for my daughter. I think she, quite possibly, had the best time of all.

On Sunday (Easter)

We got up earlier than I wanted to after staying up way too late talking to Mom the night before, but not any earlier than we do on a normal Sunday. This day was different in that we all got a little more dressed up than normal. There’s Sunday Best (which at my church is dress-casual) and there’s Easter Sunday Best, which means a fancier dress for her and a new shirt and tie for me. My younger brother and his wife showed up just as we were leaving for my sister’s church in a nearby town (big brother only comes home for Christmas as he lives in New England), so we were all able to ride together. I was more exhausted than I realized, and while I stayed awake throughout the service, I didn’t really pay as much attention as I should have.

Note to self: Don’t drive all day and stay up too late the day before Easter next year.

After a delicious lunch or ham and many wonderful sides and desserts, my brother’s wife hid the 150 plastic eggs my sister had filled for the Easter egg hunt. My sister usually coordinates the Easter egg hunt at her church, but did not this year and I think she missed it. Reason being, there were only three children in our family to find all of these eggs (and the other two are hers)! The kids all had a good time though, and my students will love all of the extra candy when I remember to bring it in for them.

Just before the egg hunt, we saw this guy resting under my parents’ car.

I think maybe he had an even longer night than I did…

On Monday

My mom loves to work in her yard and garden. I can only assume that’s where my passion for this originated. She has a beautiful yard and spends weeks each year working to make it look just right. One of the things she most enjoys is the opening of the local greenhouses. There is one that she is particularly fond of (there are actually 13 separate greenhouses to go through there) and she waited to go this year until we could be there to enjoy it with her.

It rained the entire time.

But we managed to make the most of it, and I even managed to remember to take a picture without my daughter in it so I could post it here.

That night I got to take my daughter to her first live sporting event – a minor league baseball game. Now, it is important to note that I am not even remotely a sports fan. I watch the Summer Olympics every four years, but even then I only watch selected events. I do, however, enjoy a good live game/match. I just don’t get to them often enough. So it was a nice surprise a week earlier when my brother called and said he had scored six free tickets to a game. And it was dollar food night, which appealed to the miser in me as well.

Although it was really cold, it was a pretty day for a game.

There just weren’t very many fans in attendance.

After 6 ½ innings, this is how the game ended.

Yes, that’s the infield.

But the game was not a total bust. Our seats were just far enough back that we did not have to move when the rain started. And the first baseman for the opposing team tossed her a baseball, which she later had signed by the third baseman of the home team, who came out of the dugout in the rain to sign it for his newest fan. We didn’t have the heart to tell him we live 800 miles away.

On Tuesday

We spent another day running around the town I where I went to college and met my wife. There is a bakery there that is almost unmatched (there’s one in my older brother’s city that rivals it, but thus far it’s the only other one I’ve found that even comes close). Whenever we are home, my mom makes sure we have doughnuts from there and we usually manage to find an excuse to stop for cookies or cupcakes during our visit as well. A few months ago, the bakery opened a cafĂ© and coffee bar in a different location, so my parents (again) waited to try it since they knew we would be visiting soon. I think it was worth their wait!

That evening we went to another town a bit further away to see my friend and former college roommate and his wife. They are the only friends with whom I feel like my friendship has not changed/suffered as a result of my wife’s death. Which is ironic in a way, since he and I are much more alike than my brothers and I, and his wife and mine were as well. And not just in the greater aspects of our personalities, but in the smaller, quirky aspects as well (they were even known to be dressed alike when we would meet somewhere for dinner). If anything, our friendship probably should have suffered the most, based on all of our similarities, but it did just the opposite, and I think that is a true testament to their character.

This was also the night of the big reveal, so after dinner we gathered the girls in the kitchen so that their older daughter could tell mine about our upcoming trip to a very kid-friendly place next month. She was not quite as expressive as I thought she would be, but now that things have sunken in a bit, she cannot stop talking about it! It will definitely be a memorable trip for us both.

And since it was too cold and rainy to work in the yard together, my mom and I made small terrariums when I got back from dinner with our friends and stayed up way too late doing so (again).

On Wednesday

After digging up several pots’ worth of flowers to plant in my yard and packing up all of our stuff (how do we always manage to leave with more than we brought originally?), we had a quick lunch and bid farewell to my parents, (who I would later find out took a nap all afternoon) and drove the almost two hours north to spend the remainder of the week with my in-laws.

This school year, they volunteered to cook dinner for the church youth group and their families, so we spent the evening there seeing many familiar faces and several new ones. They still attend the church where we got married (but had the good sense not to hold the funeral), so it has always held fond memories for me, and I enjoy any chance I get to go there.

On Thursday

My mother-in-law had the day off, so I slept in a bit and was treated to a nice home-cooked breakfast. We met my father-in-law for lunch, then spent some time in a larger city nearby buying my daughter some new outfits and a couple new dresses for our trip (at least in her mind. She needed them for church anyway).

My daughter rode the first of two of these this week at the mall.

That night we went out for some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. There is a place where I live that my daughter and I frequent and the food there is excellent. When the egg rolls came (as an appetizer), I started talking about how the food there rivaled the food at the one in my town. After about my third comment , my father-in-law looked at me and said very seriously “Is your egg roll the same as ours?” He kept a straight face when I said “yes” and proceeded to tell me that they contained shrimp! It is a well-known fact that I do not like nor do I eat any organism that can survive underwater. But this shrimp was virtually undetectable and I had already consumed ¾ of the egg roll, so I finished it. But I did let a few obvious bits of shrimp fall to the plate during those last few bites.

On Friday

Both in-laws had the day off, so we ate a late breakfast, then headed to the nursing home to see my daughter’s great-grandma, who had returned a day earlier from her most recent hospital stay. Last month she had to have emergency brain surgery and her hair is just beginning to grow back, so before we left I took my daughter aside and explained that Grandma would look a little different when we saw her. She did look a little different, but the shortened hair was the least of it. When we saw her at Christmas she was not at all like herself. She was somewhat despondent and had trouble holding her end of a conversation. Since I’ve known her she has been a fiery little woman, and though she’s lost too much weight, her spark has definitely returned (hopefully for good).

The rest of the afternoon was spent tending to my nieces, whose mom had to have outpatient surgery that day (dad’s a doctor, but stayed in the role of husband this time). We had all three of them at my in-laws’ house overnight, so it was a fun time for my daughter. And they were all in bed asleep by eleven.

On Saturday

The two older girls were picked up by their dad to attend to some 4-H obligations. While they were doing that, the rest of us drove to an Amish area to meet my wife’s best friend (and former college roommate) and her husband for lunch. (A side note here: If you ever have the chance to eat real Amish cooking, take it! Just be sure to bring your appetite along for the ride.) It was good to see our friends, and we made plans to get together again when we are “home” this summer.

Oh, and my daughter got to ride her second merry-go-round in as many days.

Saturday afternoon and evening were uneventful. I almost finished a book (which I took care of Sunday night) and packed the van for our return journey, while everyone else watched tv and tried not to think about the fact that in a few hours we would part.

On Sunday

We spent 15 hours making that return journey and it was one of the most enjoyable car rides I’ve ever had with my daughter.

It’s always nice to visit family and friends.

But it’s always good to be back home too.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On the Limiting Effects of Grief

Before I launch into the main post, I want to take a moment to wish everyone a happy Easter. Also, please check out the polls to the right of the screen. You have come to know quite a bit about me – now it’s my turn to get to know a little something about you! Since I’m a technological dinosaur (which I’m working on, but the new gadget I desire is currently out-of-stock at my local cell provider), I will not be posting for somewhere in the neighborhood of ten days or so. Who knows what posts my thoughts will provoke in the meantime…
Following a large-scale disaster or tragedy by any number of means, it is common for the news media to throw around words like “aftershocks”, “fallout”, and “aftermath”, to name a few. Each conjures up a similar image, none of which is pretty. But one thing we don’t hear people talk about is how these words can be applied to personal tragedies. Again, the images are not pretty. Nor are they the same for everyone. Nor are they confined to the few I feel compelled to discuss in the paragraphs that follow. But they are real. And they are painful. And they are crippling to some extent, be it large or small.

I have always had a passion for the written word. Whether my skills are average or superb has always taken a backseat to how I personally feel I have conveyed my thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints regarding a given topic. There is a certain thrill in engaging the pen and paper (or now, more often the computer screen and keyboard) and seeing a composition come to fruition literally before my eyes. Being the word-nerd I am, in high school and college I excelled in English classes and struggled to do well (though I did for the most part) in math classes. My hard drive holds a plethora of poems, stories, essays and the like and I have notebooks full of them from the “dark ages” – that time I can scarcely remember before I owned a computer.

But very few of those writings are from February 2007 to January 2009.

It seems that along with my wife, death also consumed my ability to express myself through the written word. My thoughts and emotions often came to my extremely organized mind in a jumble and try as I might, I was more often than not unsuccessful in unscrambling the mess they had become. The rare occasions when I was able to do so usually consisted of a serious crying spell and an extreme level of raw emotion, much more than I was comfortable allowing myself to feel on a regular basis at that time. But for the most part, I was unable to produce much of anything.

Over the past few months, these skills have slowly begun to reinsert themselves back into my conscious mind. And I have felt a sense of release that I have been building up to for two years. I do not, at this time, believe that my writing has returned to the state it was when my wife was alive, (and this is not a cheap ploy to fish for compliments, so please do not take it as such) but it’s starting to. And it is.

And I hope it will continue to.

Another great passion of mine is reading the written word. I wish I could say that I was into reading great classic novels or profound works of literature as I have enjoyed the ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading, but that’s simply not the case. When I read, I like to escape into someone else’s life for a while, even if things in mine are going just fine. So I tend to stick primarily to authors whom I believe are good at writing fiction. I will spare you the boredom of reading a listing of them here, but I tend to like legal, political, and psychological thrillers and have found more than one author whose new releases are hard to pass up.

For over a year after my wife’s passing, I found it incredibly hard to concentrate on almost every work of fiction I put before my eyes. I managed to sob my way through several books on death and grieving, but much like reading the blogs of other widow/ers does now, they served to ease the sense of loneliness and abnormality I felt during those early months. Ironically when I was visiting with family, I was better able to concentrate, but even then I found myself reading biographies and works that leaned toward descriptions of real people versus fictional characters. About six months ago, I was able to finish a book by a favorite author completely for pleasure. And it was completely fictional. And it was a completely wonderful feeling. Now between reading blogs and the subsequent works of fiction through which I’ve plowed, it’s a wonder that I find the time to do normal things like work and clean house and play with my daughter. But I do.

And I’m certain I will continue to.

The loss of my ability to concentrate on reading and writing left me with an excessive amount of time to fill once my daughter went to bed each night. Since I was also largely unable to sleep at night (which I’ve found is extremely common among widow/ers), it was hard to know what to do. Some nights I would talk on the phone, which served to help me reconnect with other friends and family members I cared about in addition to taking my mind off of things. But on the many, many nights I refrained from conversation, I generally found myself staring mindlessly at the tv.

Even then, the limitations of grief were evident.

I have never been particularly drawn to shows with a medical theme, but I have not often shied away from them either. Even before my wife’s death, especially just prior when we found ourselves spending an increasing amount of time in doctor’s offices and hospitals, I would skip past them and continue to search for something that did not take place in one of those settings. (This holds true for books as well now, which is why this genre was not listed among my favorite in the previous paragraphs.) It mattered not if the show was a comedy or drama or if it was real or fictional, if it had a medical theme, I wanted no part of it.

This became increasingly true for me after her death.

Nowadays I still skip them and continue my search (though my nighttime tv viewing has decreased drastically now that I’m spending so much time writing and reading blogs), but every once in a while I’ll have the fleeting thought that I actually used to enjoy this or that show. It’s not enough to make me flip back to it, but I think it may be a sign that someday I’ll be able to look at one without replaying real-life events simultaneously in my head.

One day I hope I’ll be able to. But I’m just not there yet.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Good Surprises

As promised, here’s the second of the two posts I mentioned last night. I am hoping to crank out one more tomorrow night (a new one I’ve been composing in my head), but we’ll see how many last-minute things I have left to accomplish before we leave at the crack of dawn on Saturday. In the meantime…

There are very few true surprises in life, and most of them are not even remotely pleasant. So it was nice when I received one recently. Before then, it had been five years and two days since I had received my last truly pleasant one. My wife and I were one of those increasingly rare couples who chose to wait to find out our baby’s gender until birth. So after a series of unpleasant surprises over a four day period, it was a nice change to hear the doctor announce “It’s a girl!” and to finally know who our baby was.

My recent surprise was also directly related to that special girl. It was two days after her fifth birthday and 22 hours before the start of her party when our doorbell rang. Great, I thought, that’s going to be a certain local organization I choose not to financially support asking for money. Never in a million years would I have dreamed it would be my parents! Now for some people, having their parents show up unexpectedly on their doorstep while they are busy trying to clean the entire house in preparation for a special birthday party would not be a happy surprise at all. But for me they were a welcome sight. I had been grieving much more intensely the last four or five weeks, as had my daughter, and they had sensed that during our phone conversations. My mom said they had actually been contemplating doing this since before Christmas, but that their plans had only been solidified the previous week. What made their surprise even more special is that my stepdad was under a strict deadline at work and his boss actually gave him an extension so that they could drive 800 miles to spend the weekend celebrating my daughter’s special day. Their selflessness was nothing short of amazing.

I’m used to parenting alone. I’m used to making sure that my daughter gets to preschool and gymnastics on time. I’m used to planning fun experiences for us to enjoy together. I’m used to balancing the mundane tasks like housework and mowing the lawn with playtime and family movie nights. It’s been two years and I’ve gotten into a pretty good routine of doing it all. Alone. I have on occasion asked for help. I have also accepted help when it has been offered by friends in the area. I have never once expected anyone to help me. This is my new lot in life, and I am willing to do the best I possibly can with it.

That’s what truly made this surprise so special. My parents didn’t have to take time out of their busy schedules to come. They didn’t have to ask for help at work so that they could be a part of their granddaughter’s birthday celebration. They didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night, drive thirteen hours, and spend the next six helping me finish getting ready for the party. They did it because they wanted to. They did it because they saw a need. They did it because they cared. They were able to see beyond their own noses and do something that was truly extraordinary in my eyes at a time when I needed it most, even though I tried not to let on that I did.

So here’s to good surprises. May they find us more often that the bad ones.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Photographic Memories

Two months ago, when I was still considering whether or not to share my grief online, I composed two posts regarding events surrounding my daughter’s birthday. While the timeliness factor is somewhat compromised by posting them so long after the fact, the message remains unchanged. I plan to post the second of the two tomorrow night, as I will be in a whole other region visiting family next week.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But no one has ever mentioned their worth in tears.

I recently finished a project for my daughter’s birthday that involved going through lots of old photographs. This is actually the second such project of this nature I have done in as many years, but truth be told, my scrapbooking days are numbered. My wife was very much into scrapbooking, although I often wondered if there was more thrill in the pursuit of a good deal on supplies than in the actual crafting of the pages. Now I am happy to have the contents of that full-sized cabinet in the spare bedroom.

Since my wife’s passing, I have committed myself to making certain that my daughter has plenty of concrete evidence that her mother was the most amazing woman ever. So last year I made a small scrapbook, using supplies that her mom had bought, of our three years together as a family of three. Every other layout was done in pinks, which was her mom’s favorite color, and the opposing layouts were done in purples, which was my daughter’s favorite color at the time. Each page was filled with pictures and a line that, when read in sequence, told the simple story of our time as a family. It was a major undertaking which left me with only one hour of sleep the night before her birthday last year.

This year I also endeavored to make a scrapbook, although this one was, in many ways, a much greater task. I sent a letter to several friends and family members asking them to write a letter/essay containing some of their favorite memories of my wife. We met in college, and I knew there would be many memories people could share from before the time I knew her. Plus, I thought it would be good as my daughter grows older to realize that her mommy had some of the same thoughts, hopes, and fears as she does at various ages. Most of the people responded, and she ended up with a thick volume of memories that she can turn to time and again. However, many of people did not include photos as requested, which is what had me digging through our boxes at insane hours on a recent Monday night.

When I work on projects that involve preserving memories, I have to separate myself from my emotions to a certain degree. If I didn’t, I would not be able to complete them, and these books are and will continue to be very important to my daughter. So as I began to dig through the boxes, I steeled myself against any onslaught of emotions that might occur. And I was okay – for awhile. But it wasn’t long before each picture that came into my grip was a reminder of happier times – early dating, later dating, engagement, wedding, early marriage, first home, first pregnancy, first baby. Times when we were a small family in hopes of one day expanding, first through natural means, and later, through adoption.

But it wasn’t the happy ones that bothered me. At least not as much as the few that showed her as she was getting weaker. Those are the ones that reminded me that she’s not here now. Those are the ones that made me think on how unfair it was that I was sitting alone at night at the kitchen table creating a book of memories, when she should have been here to create the memories with us and later commit them to a book to be stored on a dusty shelf, instead of displayed prominently on her daughter’s dresser because it helps lessen the pain for her to be able to look at the photos on a moment’s notice.

But after my tears retreated, I continued to sit and work. Because that’s how she would have wanted it. And that’s how I make decisions now. Not as one part of a team who can weigh the options and make informed decisions, but as one man who weighs what he thinks his late wife’s wishes would have been and hopes like everything he’s making the right decisions.

I finished the book, but not before I put the pictures back into the closet lest they become any more painful to bear.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

On the Single (Dad) Life

Most days I trot through my now somewhat ordinary existence and follow whatever series of motions transports me from the opening of the day to its close. And most days that is fine. As often as I still miss my wife, and as much as I have posted lately about my said grief, more often than not I make it through the days relatively unscathed. And while I still miss her immensely, I have adjusted rather well to my life as a single father. So much so that I do not often dwell on the “single” part of my status nearly as much as I focus on the “dad” part. But then there are moments that thrust me right back into my own reality and I am forced to deal with situations much differently than I did just over two years ago.

Hello. My name is 3SF, and I am a single father.

Thursday started out like most of these ordinary days of mine, with both of us up and ready in a timely fashion, but still somehow managing to run late on the way to daycare/work (and with no increase in traffic on which to blame it). The initial “reality check” came as I walked through the door of my daughter’s classroom and found myself in the midst of a conversation regarding how many days the daycare would be closed for Easter (her preschool program is within her daycare). Now, I believe that everyone deserves time off now and again. Especially teachers. And especially those teachers who still wipe noses and bottoms on a regular basis (in the younger classrooms). The problem is that, unlike last year, my lovely employer opted not to give us a day off for Good Friday, so I have to work. This would normally not be a problem, but I am (overly) selective in who I ask to watch my daughter, especially for an entire day while I am off in another county earning my paycheck, and most of the people on that short list also have to work that day. The one woman who I would ask in this instance is a stay at home mom, but she is visiting family out-of-state and will not be back till after Easter. I would take the day off and move our trip to visit family in the Midwest up a day, but I have to save my days off for our upcoming adventure in May and a couple of other my-daughter-is-growing-up-too-fast occasions, one in May and one in June, respectively. I have a couple of other friends in mind, but I still need to call and see if one of them will actually be able to watch her. Crises-not-averted-but-in-check-for-now.

Later that morning, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket as I was finishing up with a group of students. Now, I am not a traditional teacher in the sense that I have the same set of students day-in, day-out. I instead see a rotating group of kiddos within each week, but I always pull from the same set of 55 or so. Point being that I have a bit more flexibility in listening to a voice message or returning a call than a traditional teacher would. I did not recognize the number, but I did know the voice on the message. “This is your daughter’s teacher. Your daughter is complaining of a sore throat and has a low-grade fever”. Great. My daughter is typically not a complainer, so I felt that if she was making these ailments known she must not be feeling well. Surprisingly, it was the second call that really reminded me that I am somewhat isolated in my single-fatherhood. Most men would just call their wives and decide who would stay at work and who would pick up their sick child. I couldn’t exactly do that. Many other people would call Grandma or Grandpa or Aunt So-and-so. Since we chose to follow my dream and move 800 miles away from the nearest relatives, I couldn’t exactly do that either. As it turns out, I called the teacher back, who said she thought my daughter was okay and that she would call me if the symptoms worsened. They did not, but I called back about an hour later just to make sure. I was feeling extra guilty since I had an appointment to have a non-essential item on the car fixed after work, but I kept the appointment and she was fine with being picked up later than usual. Crisis-averted.

Fast-forward to Saturday. The weather had morphed from cool and rainy into something out of a travel magazine photo, which could mean only one of two things for me: go to the beach or do some yard work/therapy. Since we are going out-of-town next weekend, I did the responsible thing and worked in the yard. You have probably noticed that I love working in the yard. I enjoy pulling weeds and planting flowers and cutting grass. I love to get my hands dirty, and more importantly, I love to be able to look at something I’ve done in the yard and feel that sense of accomplishment it brings. One such ego-boost for me comes in the form of mowing my entire yard. My property is a bit over an acre, but is very long and runs at an odd angle, so it takes several hours to mow. None of this would really be a problem if it wasn’t so very loooong. Sometime last year I developed a system wherein my daughter will play in a certain area of our yard that is within eyesight while I mow. When it is time to move to another area of the yard, I command her attention and she moves to that area and commences playing. I came across this system by accident when I was in a bind last summer and needed to get the yard mowed, but didn’t have time to call anyone to watch her. It works fairly well, and she is perfectly safe the entire time. The hitch in this plan is that there is no convenient place to play toward the back of our property, and no shade in which to play back there either. So rather than get the entire yard mowed in a day, I will have to complete the task one afternoon between work and picking her up from school. This is not the end of the world, but I could not help but notice how nice my neighbor’s yard looked when he finished mowing it yesterday. A petty reminder, but a reminder nonetheless that I answer to a different set of rules than my married and/or childless friends and neighbors. Not-a-crisis-but-not-exactly-averted-either.

Then tonight, my typically well-behaved child decided to let her alter-ego emerge during the evening service at church. It was not pretty. What began as a pleasant evening, ended with a quick spanking when we arrived home. It is a very rare occasion on which I find myself faced with having to spank my daughter, but that’s how bad things were throughout the service. I will spare you the details in this already very lengthy post. Suffice it to say, spanking is always a last resort and is only used when she can derive meaning from its employment as a disciplinary tactic. Crisis-not-averted-but-solved-nonetheless.

Though my single-parent reality is always present, it is not always at the forefront of my mind. But as it has been this week, I have been reminded that I can confront each “crisis”, however minor it may seem, on my own. Because I have to, but also because I want to.

And I have also been reminded that I really, really love those days when going through the motions gets me from Point A to Point B with some play time, and some snuggle time, and maybe a blog post in-between.