Friday, December 24, 2010

On Another Year, Another Christmas

I have just spent a good deal of time reading over my three final posts from last year. I had thought that this might serve me well in assessing how “far I’ve come” over the past year. And in some ways, it has.

My mood at this time last year was dreadful. I simply couldn’t get out of my holiday funk. It was a time filled with change, some of which I disclosed in those posts and some of which I did not disclose until posts written after the holidays. Some of those things have changed and some have not.

At this time last year I had just begun my first dating experience following my wife’s death. Though it was somewhat short-lived (three and a half months from start to finish), it was a necessary learning experience. It was also the item I did not disclose at this time last year, but I pledge to let you all in a bit sooner if/when I should date again. I did not see direct evidence of that relationship having a negative impact on my holiday mood, but I am certain that it must have.

What emerged as the most obvious contributor to my “bah-humbug” mentality were the changes in my extended family over this time the previous year. At the time I thought that neither of my brothers would be coming home for Christmas, but one of them had a change of heart at the last minute and decided to come after all. The other did not. And sadly, that is one area that has not changed over the past year. At least not in a positive way. Unfortunately, my relationship with that brother (and his relationship with every other member of the family) has only become more strained. It has been touch-and-go with him for years, but it has really started to affect my daughter this year. I have tried to talk to him about it (even again recently), but unfortunately I get more excuses than I do genuine communication that might help solve some of these issues. It’s an unfortunate situation and one I had hoped would be on the mend by now. But at least my sister is consistent and seems to value family as much as my parents and I do.

At this time last year I had just finished most of the decorating, card sending, and shopping, which was uncharacteristic for me. This year I finished the decorating early in December (due to our trip to the Midwest over Thanksgiving), had the cards mailed out this past Monday, and had the shopping and most of the wrapping done with two days to spare. I started listening to Christmas music two weeks before Thanksgiving (which goes against one of my staunchest rules), due mostly to the release of this holiday collection. And I’ve just had a genuinely jovial outlook toward the holidays this year.

Now, that’s not to sugarcoat the frustrations I shared (and alluded to) in my last post. Those things are all still very real and very much on my mind. I spoke with the dentist about my periodontal surgery and he concurred with the periodontist. I can do this sometime in the near future, or I can continue to put my teeth at risk of having to be extracted down the line. Periodontal surgery is still tentatively scheduled for March 2011. I did receive a check that will help defray the costs some and also helped replenish my dwindling emergency fund, so I am not quite as worried about finances as I was when I wrote the last post. And my water heater is not only fixed, but it was an inexpensive repair and I don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars to replace the entire unit right now!

The good news in all of those things is that even though I’ve had things on my mind that have weighed me down this holiday season (and still do, unfortunately) they have not managed to crush my overall outlook like similar circumstances did a year ago. And a brighter outlook has allowed me to find a little more joy in the holidays this year.
My daughter and I always spend the first week of our Christmas Break from school at home, before heading to the Midwest to see our extended family. And we always try to make the most of that special time together. This week we visited some of her old daycare teachers and had lunch with some friends/former co-workers of mine. We also visited an area lighthouse with a new/old friend (someone from my childhood that I have recently become reacquainted with. And for those of you who are wondering, there’s no dating potential-this particular friend is a man.) We carved out some time to see Tangled, which vastly exceeded my expectations. And we headed to the beach for our annual Christmas Eve excursion. And in the midst of all the excitement, my daughter managed to lose three teeth, two of which were the coveted “two front teeth” she had so desperately wanted to lose before the Big Day. Tomorrow, after all of our morning festivities, we’ll hit the road for the first part of our journey to see the rest of the family. It’s been a busy week, but I’ve found in some instances being busy can be a good thing.

So what can I conclude from all of this? Am I naïve enough to believe that grief cannot strike when my mood is “up”? Absolutely not. It already has this season and it will continue to. Do I think that I am somehow untouchable because I’m not in the same kind of rut I was in last year? Not at all. There are still plenty of negative circumstances surrounding these holidays and life in general. They have just not affected my overall outlook in the same way similar things did a year ago.

My daughter asked me last night how many Christmases this makes without her mother. She seemed surprised when I told her it would be the fourth. She sadly does not really remember Christmas with her mother, but thankfully we have video she can watch to supplement what her mind will not conjure up. She had some tough moments early in the season and has done more visible grieving than I recall her doing at this time last year. My moments of grief have been more subtle, but still very much a presence. During this, my fourth Christmas without her, the overall grief has abated some. I know this does not mean it will do the same next year, but I think a general pattern of abatement is likely.
Which makes me all the more mindful of the widow/ers who are still newer at this than I am. For some it will be the third or second or even the dreaded first Christmas without their husband or wife. If you are reading this and fall into that category, know that you are on my heart and in my prayers more at this moment than any other. And know that each Christmas is different. If this one is particularly hard, the next one may be better. And if it isn’t, then perhaps the one after that will be.

Wherever you are in life as you read this, I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy 2011.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

On Random Updates

I don’t really know how to begin this post.

And that has been a good portion of the reason for my absence from this site the past few months. There have been things I have wanted to write and times I have wanted to write them, but the two have not crossed paths. And even then, the posts have not been taking shape in my mind the way they usually do before I ever sit in front of this screen (and even now there have been much longer pauses in my keystrokes than normal). In order for a post to make the site (generally) it has to flow from my brain through my fingertips. And that just hasn’t been happening.

Now, I won’t lie and say that I don’t know the reason(s) for this, because I do. Sheer busy-ness has been one of the main culprits. I rarely play the single dad card, but in this case I must. For those of you who are new to this site, I live 800 miles from my closest relatives. So everything that needs to be taken care of in a day/week/month/year falls on my shoulders. There is no dropping my daughter off at grandma and grandpa’s so I can do this or that. Now, I realize that I made the choice to stay here after my wife died, but one of the unfortunate consequences has been not being able to update this site nearly as often as I would like.

I have also had a lot weighing on my mind, some of which I unfortunately cannot go into here right now. I can sum things up by saying there have been some health issues, some family issues, and some possible financial issues. Actually, that one I can go into here. I found out the day before Thanksgiving that I am going to require some extensive periodontal surgery in the spring. Well, really anytime is good, but I don’t think I’ll have the money until then. I’m not a perfect financial planner, but I do have a budget and live within my means from month to month, so money is not as constant a worry as it once was. But I don’t have dental insurance. And my emergency fund is not prepared to take that kind of a hit right now. And truth-be-told, I’m a bit of a control freak about certain things, and oral surgery was not part of my overall plan (even though I have known it might be a possibility for a while). And on top of that I found out I am likely going to have to buy a new water heater…

But I digress.

Most nights I have been falling asleep earlier than normal. I’m a night owl by nature and most nights recently I haven’t seen ten o’clock. Which is good for my overall health and well-being. But it’s short-lived. It inevitably comes in cycles and I end up with nights like the past couple where I cannot get to sleep until the normal time or even later. (It’s the middle of the night as I type this, though I will not likely post it until tomorrow). So I’m exhausted when I need to be alert and sometimes alert when I need to be exhausted. And as if that wasn’t enough, I had a dream about my wife last weekend. It was the first one I’ve had in a very long time and was similar to the first few dreams I had after she died. Only this time she was already in the hospital when I found out she was going to die and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Those dreams never get any easier to take.

But actually, as many of my long-time readers will note, the sleep issue is not really such a new pattern with me after all, so I guess I should get to the updates.

My daughter started first grade in August. I didn’t think that first grade would be a grief-trigger for me, but I was wrong. Parents expect to have difficulty letting go when their child starts kindergarten, but first grade should be old hat, right? It was in all of the normal, routine ways. But my wife was in her second year of teaching first grade when she died and that thought has bombarded my mind many times over the past several months. I think about the skills my daughter is learning that my wife taught to her students now four and five years removed, the books she read with them, the papers I helped her grade. And to complicate matters, my daughter’s teacher is a young expectant mother whose baby is due near my daughter’s birthday. She does not remind me of my wife in appearance or demeanor, but the new mom dimension has been hard to think about at times. Those were such happy times, and while I’m thrilled for her teacher and her husband, it still amplifies my own sense of loss. I think it would be that much harder if my wife had been teaching first grade when our daughter was born, but thankfully she was still teaching third at the time. And my daughter’s teacher is expecting a boy, which somehow helps a little as well…

We spent a lot of time trying to see family this fall. Living as far apart as we do, we welcome any chance we get to meet family, either where we live, where they live, or somewhere in-between. In October we met my parents in-between one weekend and my wife’s parents in-between the next weekend. It was a lot of time on the road for a little bit of quality time, but it was well worth it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, so the week before Thanksgiving I made the official decision (I had been contemplating it for a long time) to head back to the Midwest for Thanksgiving. That’s not something we do every year and it was a decision which was complicated by a few factors. Normally I have the day before Thanksgiving off, but due to some school cancellations early in the year we were required to use that day as a make-up day. On top of that, plane tickets were outrageously priced (a thousand dollars for two weekend plane tickets was also not in my budget), so we were locked into driving. Fifteen hours each way. To be with family for two and a half days. I know a lot of people would have taken the day off and pulled their child/ren out of school, but I made a rule before kindergarten that I would only keep my daughter out if she was too sick to attend. (Which, interestingly enough, happened the day after we drove fifteen hours home!) Even so, it was still worth making the trip to be with family for Thanksgiving and a few other special events…

The weekend after Thanksgiving held a milestone of sorts. It was the anniversary of my first foray into the dating arena. I didn’t actually think about it until the day before and am not sure I would have at all had it not been in such close proximity to Thanksgiving. But I did think about it some. A year later, it’s not a decision I regret making. But it’s also not one I’m anxious to make again anytime soon, no matter how many “nice Christian girls” my friends and co-workers want to set me up with…

And now Christmas is upon us. Last year at this time I was in a rut and had difficulty being excited about Christmas. Thankfully that is not the case for me this year. We got the house decorated last weekend, the Christmas shopping is about half-completed, and the cards are in a box on the kitchen table ready to be signed. Having a brighter outlook toward Christmas this year has been a huge blessing.

Mostly because my daughter is struggling so much with it now.

My daughter continues to experience her grief in waves, much like I do (though not always during the same periods). But sometimes it blindsides her as well. Last weekend was one example. If you’re not a widowed single parent of small children, then you’ll have to take my word for this next sentence: Comforting my grieving child is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. When she says things like “Mommy will never get to watch me open presents again” or “Mommy won’t ever get to read me a Christmas story again”… there are no words that can heal that kind of pain. But even worse than trying to comfort her without being patronizing, is having to watch her endure the kind of pain that grief can bring and not being able to do a thing about it…

So I guess that is my update of sorts. Now that I’ve typed it, it seems as scattered as it did in my head. But I wanted to get something on here for those of you who have been genuinely concerned about my absence. I truly do appreciate your messages and Facebook comments. I’m slightly better about returning e-mails than I am about posting here or on Facebook, so should I go missing again, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

It actually kind of brightens my day when you do.

And right now my days could use a little brightening.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On How I Spent My Summer Vacation

As a school-based employee, I am afforded the luxury of having an extended break from work during the summer months. Yes, I do work a couple days a week most weeks, but in general I am able to take the time off and really enjoy the summer months. My wife was a teacher, so it was a double blessing for us to be able to spend this time together when we were first married and throughout our marriage. Many of our vacations were spent with family, either visiting them or entertaining them in our home, but occasionally we branched out a bit from our normal vacation routine.

Four years ago was one such time. My stepdad turned sixty that summer and my mom planned a surprise trip with out entire family, which was no easy task considering there were thirteen of us at the time and we lived in three separate states. However, being the expert planner she is, she/we were able to pull off the surprise. We actually rented a beach house about half an hour from where I live, which made the surprise part all that much easier (we incorporated the week into part of their annual summer trek to our house). My wife and I enjoyed being able to play a small part in the surprise, and it was our best vacation as an entire family.

It was also our last vacation as an entire family.

At the time, my wife was starting to show signs of her illness becoming worse, but she was under the best care we could find and the doctors had given her clearance to lead as normal a life as she cared to. The month after our beach trip we spent our five year wedding anniversary in New York, a city she had never visited, but had always wanted to. Seven months later, she was gone.

This summer my mom also had a milestone birthday (though with respect to the lady, I will not mention just which milestone it was). My sister and I had previously discussed doing a trip for Mom’s next milestone birthday when we were all at the beach four years ago, but none of us knew what would happen in the intervening months and years. Last fall we decided to start looking for a place to vacation anyway. My only request was that we did not do it here again, as I thought it might be too painful to duplicate that atmosphere with all of the same players. Minus one.

Our original plan was to head to the Gulf Coast. She had a friend in Alabama who could get us a good deal on a rental, so we set the plan into motion. Then my older brother announced that (for reasons I cannot go into here) they would not be joining us. That dropped our number to ten. Then the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill happened. (On a side note, I am amazed at the number of times I heard about the poor pelicans and possibility of oil stained beaches in comparison to the number of times I heard about the people who were killed and the families they left behind). So we decided to move our trip elsewhere, preferably as far away from the possible effects of trace oil and tar balls as possible.

So in mid-June, we set off toward Maine. I had never traveled to the New England states (well, not any further than Stamford, CT at that point), so we took a couple of extra days to get there. It turns out a lot of that time was spent stuck in traffic and driving around certain cities looking for the way back to the interstate. My parents traveled with us, so that was an added bonus and we had an enjoyable time. We finally arrived in Maine on Saturday afternoon and my sister met us with her family a few hours later. By this time, my younger brother had also backed out of the trip (for reasons that were at least a bit more valid than my other brother’s, but frustrating nonetheless), so there were only eight of us who spent the week together in our rented house. We were about a five minute walk from the beach, which was magnificent, but so very different from the beaches I have grown accustomed to here in the Southeast. I’m not much of a shutterbug, but I took several hundred pictures during our week-long stay. (Check out my Facebook page for a larger selection than what I’ve posted here).

I have to say that New England was everything I thought it would be. From the many quaint towns we visited, to the rock outcroppings along certain highways and the entire coastline, it was simply magnificent. There were so many places we were unable to travel to (Gloucester and Rockport, MA for one) that I am most assuredly going to have to travel that way again sometime. We did manage to spend a day in Boston hiking the Freedom Trail, which took us throughout the city and allowed us to see many famous sites that were important in the Revolutionary War (check out photos of that on my Facebook page as well) and an afternoon at the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, ME (yep, more pictures of that on Facebook too).

I cannot say enough what an amazing time it was. Family has always been very important to me and I cherish whatever time I am able to spend with my loved ones. I was worried that this trip would have an adverse effect on me, even though the location was so very different from our last family beach trip. I cannot say that the effect was adverse, but there were many times when my grief was much closer to the surface than I am used to it being these days. One afternoon in particular I remember being in my room at the rented house and just sorely missing her. It seems a bit silly, knowing that she’s in Heaven, but in those moments, I just really wanted her to share Maine with me.

The day after we returned from Maine, Bible school started, so I busied myself with lesson-planning and skit practice for my role as a ranch-hand who couldn’t sing on-key. My parents left and her parents arrived. We spent a few days with them, including some time at the beach and watching fireworks over the water on the Fourth of July, before heading to another place I had never visited (though this one was a much closer than Maine!)

Charleston, South Carolina is another place that did not disappoint. We only stayed a couple of days, but we packed a lot in. The first day was spent at a rice plantation, where we learned about the local wildlife (including alligators!), the way plantations were run, and the importance of the slaves who lived and worked there (not only for their labor, but also for their knowledge). In an interesting twist, we learned that following a major hurricane in South Carolina many years ago, logs from that particular plantation were sent to Boston and used to restore the USS Constitution, which my daughter and I had just seen less than two weeks earlier.

We spent that evening downtown viewing the slave market (which we were told was used by the slaves to do their trading and not used for the actual selling of slaves), eating, and taking an informational carriage tour around the historic areas of the city. The next morning we took the boat to Ft. Sumter and toured the area where the Civil War officially began. It was amazing to be able to see sites from both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in a two week time period (yes, yes, those pictures are on Facebook as well).

The trip to Charleston was bittersweet for me. We moved to the Southeast less than a year after we got married, so I got it in my head that I would surprise my wife with a first anniversary getaway and Charleston was a feasible place to do so. Plus it was on her list of places she had always wanted to go. I wish I could say that we went and had a great time, but it was not so. As I was getting ready to set up the details for the trip I realized that I had made an error and left the cost of the moving van out of our checkbook. We were juggling two checking accounts at the time, waiting for things to clear so we could close the one back home, and it was a complete oversight on my part (which was incredibly hard because I am overly cautious about finances and it ended up ruining our chances to take the trip). She was disappointed, but understanding when I told her what had happened and that I had planned to surprise her with the trip. By the next summer our daughter was on the way and we just never seemed to find the time or the money to see Charleston together after that.

My in-laws left the day after we returned from Charleston and some friends arrived two days after that. We spent a lot of time visiting local places (within a two hour radius anyway), but I unfortunately do not have pictures to accompany those travels. It was, however, very nice to be able to enjoy and appreciate some of the areas that are very close-to-home. The two weeks following that brought my neighbor’s sister and her daughter from out of state (think blueberry patch from my previous post), so we spent a lot more time around home during those weeks.

The final few weeks of the summer were spent in various states in the Midwest visiting and traveling with family. We managed to work in five days with each family, plus travel time and a side-trip of our own. In that time with family we: saw an exhibition of big-wheeled bicycles, went to a small zoo, celebrated my in-laws’ fortieth wedding anniversary (my parents celebrated their twentieth earlier this summer as well, but we were not able to be with them then), took my daughter to see her first of the Great Lakes (which she enjoyed, but promptly reminded her grandmother that it was nothing like the ocean), attended a minor league baseball game, visited friends in their home, celebrated my Mom’s actual milestone birthday (trip was planned earlier in the summer due to the likelihood of higher temperatures in our initial location in August), helped my parents with an outdoor project, visited with friends in my parents’ home, met some new people and pets, and had an all-around enjoyable time (I know, I know - quit selling the Facebook page already!).

On the way home last week, my daughter and I took a detour and went to a new zoo. It has become a tradition of sorts for us to visit a new zoo each summer. We usually take this trip by ourselves, but last summer we had the pleasure of incorporating it into a trip we were on with my parents. The zoo we went to was nice, though the exhibits were a bit overgrown, so it was hard to see some of the animals. We enjoyed our daddy-daughter time together immensely though, especially since it was our last big hurrah before school starts tomorrow.

All in all, we set foot in twenty different states this summer. Six of these were new for me, which brought my overall states visited count up to thirty. Eleven were new for my daughter, which brought her overall count to twenty-five (and she’s only six!) We spent more time away from home than we did at home, which is unusual for us. And we had an excellent summer, but for one thing:

Every memory made and experience shared is another one without her.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Unrealized Dreams

July is always a hard month for me. Not as hard as February, but it is what I have decided to refer to as “my other hard month”. The only redeeming quality it has is that it falls during the summer and I, therefore, have more options to avoid grieving than I do in February.

July 21st would have been my wife’s 32nd birthday. It is the fourth one I have recognized alone. I hesitate to say that it is getting “easier”, but the truth is that the grief is not as raw now as it was during the first couple. Plus, my daughter is older now, so I have been able to share what the date means over the last two years, whereas I was totally alone in it the first two. (We were actually with family last year, which also helped).

For us it was a quiet day. I work two days a week in the summer, and this year her birthday happened to fall on one of those days. I did have lots of time to think about her on the drive to and from work and during the afternoon hours while my daughter was still at her summer program, but the feelings were primarily of fondness and the pangs of grief were held at bay. I teach some of our elementary-aged kids at church on Wednesday nights, so that was another welcome distraction. And as I recall, I fell asleep on the couch watching tv with my daughter that night.

Mile one, down.

One week later came what should have been our ninth wedding anniversary. As far as the day itself goes, it was very similar to her birthday in that I worked during the day and had church that night. I was able to pick my daughter up earlier that day (no field trip with the day program), but she watched tv while I took a nap, then went to play with a friend nearby while I made dinner. That evening (after church) we sat and talked to some neighbors, which was another nice distraction. I was still trying not to dwell on the day when I posted about it on my Facebook page with less than half an hour to go. But eventually I found sleep and the next morning arrived.

Mile two, down.

I think I sometimes downplay my emotions on this site. I don’t have very many attacks of raw grief like I did at first (before I could even write about it) or like some of my favorite bloggers are still encountering and enduring, but that doesn’t make it any less hard when these days arrive. It just makes it a different kind of hard.

That’s what I’ve begun to realize over the past few days. Her birthday will always be difficult in that it symbolizes one more year that she could have lived on earth and one more year she is not here with us now. No one’s birthday should be symbolic before age thirty-two. But for me, every day symbolizes that. Her birthday is just an enhanced reminder of what I live daily.

Our anniversary is another story. While I “made it through” the day okay, it’s the one that gets me. It’s the day that reminds me that I’ll never realize the dream of 6-7-8-9+ years of marriage with her. Yes, there could be another Mrs. 3SF someday, but it’s not something I am concentrating on at the moment. And the fact of the matter is, even if I do “find love again” it can’t be with her.

Now, this may seem conflicting for some of my long-time readers, considering the fact that I dated a very nice young woman this winter. (Supa wrote a great post about being a remarried widow recently). Dating or marrying someone else doesn’t suddenly erase the sense of loss you feel at having never realized certain dreams with the spouse who made you a widow/er. And I believe I may have only scratched the surface regarding that when I dated last winter.

Most of the time I am truly at peace with the idea that I could remain single for a very long time. I was okay with it before I dated and was again pretty soon after we broke-up. Being comfortable with myself with or without someone else has always been important and after two-plus years of being widowed, I finally regained that sense of self, which is what allowed me to be ready to date when I did.

But something happened Friday evening that caught me off-guard.

My daughter and I were eating at one of our favorite Italian restaurants after her appointment with her ENT in another city. We were seated at a table-for-two, which is obviously not uncommon for us. I sat facing a window and the table just below it. It was another table-for-two, and I could not help but stare at the people seated there throughout our meal.

Seated over my daughter’s shoulder were two people who could be us in 15 years.

The man was in his work uniform, which made me believe he was a mechanic of some variety. He had a full beard and his eye color was different from mine. But other than those differences, he could have easily been me. The resemblance with the girl was even more striking. Other than the eye color difference, she could have been a computer-aged image of my daughter in fifteen years.

Normally I would find a scenario like that endearing, but the other night it just made me sad. I kept thinking “This could be my life for the next fifteen years”. I have obviously known that since February 26, 2007, but these people placed in this setting at this moment in time reminded me that no matter how comfortable I am with myself and my current single/widowed status, there will always be moments of sadness. There will always be pangs of regret.

There will always be unrealized dreams.

Yesterday an opportunity arose to spend some time with a single woman and her daughter and I took it. I normally shy away from these types of situations for fear that I might lead someone on, but yesterday I was a bit more selfish (though I tried very hard not to send any mixed signals). We took the kids to a pizza place and then to pick blueberries - a very typical family-type event. And even though I wasn’t really part of a nuclear family, it felt good to spend a few hours in that type of situation. (Plus I made a delicious blueberry pie from the fruits of our labor!)

Writing that just now, I’m not sure if I actually feel good about doing it or not. But my promise to my readers has always been to stay true to my journey, and that includes the parts I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now. (Please don’t judge me too harshly).

Today has been better. I don’t feel the same sense of imminent sadness I felt Friday evening, nor do I feel the need to take any single ladies out to the blueberry patch to fill my need to feel like part of a pseudo-family for a few hours. I’m back to being comfortable with the day-to-day aspects of my single/widowed life.

And I’m really glad it’s August.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Breathing

The last month of the school is always very hectic for me. I have mentioned before that I am not a teacher in the traditional sense of the word, so it always means extra paperwork and headaches for me. I’ve often compared it to a race, with the finish line being the final day of school and always approaching much too quickly. This year was no exception.

So why, you may ask, am I finally addressing this topic when the school year officially ended five weeks ago? And what could this possibly have to do with my title regarding “breathing” anyway?

Patience, my friend. I’ll get to that.

This year I began working at a new school, which was much closer to home and was just the environmental change I needed. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my old school, but my total drive (partly due to my daughter starting school this year) went from an hour one way to twenty minutes. Unfortunately, during the last month of school I spent the difference sitting at my desk, or in meetings, or running about the school building collecting information, or… well, you get the idea.

And on top of that, I broke my cardinal rule and brought work home with me. Almost every night that month and every night during the last week or two. I even spent the better part of the last weekend before summer at this very computer typing one piece of information after another into the necessary forms. In fact, I spent so much time here that weekend that my back really began to ache. A lot.

By Sunday afternoon my back was so tight that it was actually painful. And this is from someone who prides himself on having a very high pain tolerance.

By Monday morning I was wincing whenever I moved the wrong way at work and was worried that co-workers would start to notice.

By Monday afternoon, it was evident that I needed to go to the doctor/med center. In addition to the severe pain across my upper back, I was also having trouble breathing. And that lump in my throat that I forgot to mention earlier, but had until this point thought was indigestion, had refused to go away.

So I called a friend to watch my daughter and headed to the med center, as my doctor’s office had closed by this time. As I sat there my head also began to hurt, but only as long as I kept my eyes open. It did not turn out to be a migraine as I had originally feared, but it did cause me to spend the majority of my time waiting (several hours’ worth) with my eyes closed unless it was absolutely necessary to open them.

And during this time it also became increasingly difficult to breathe. At one point I worried that it might be some sort of panic attack brought on by the overwhelming amount of work I had yet to complete. But I’ve been with several people who have had panic attacks in the past, and none of the symptoms really seemed to match up. So I sat. And waited. And worried. And tried to catch my breath.

They finally called me back to a room, but I waited there so long that I thought they had forgotten about me. Just about the time I was ready to climb off of the table and open the door, the doctor came in, all apologies about having to suture someone’s finger.

I guess open wounds trump the inability to breathe at this establishment.

The doctor said I had bronchitis and that I was to go with the nurse for a breathing treatment. They checked my lung capacity before and after the treatment and said that I needed to come back in the morning to get an x-ray. It was too late to fill my prescriptions, so I picked up my daughter and went home to bed.

Throughout this time I was a bit troubled by the diagnosis of bronchitis. I had bronchitis once in college and I remember it being accompanied by other symptoms much like those that come with a severe chest cold. A family member had also had bronchitis recently and had the same chest-cold-like symptoms. I felt fine other than the lump in my throat, the pain in my back, and the extreme difficulty in breathing just one single, normal breath.

So the next morning I put my daughter on the bus and headed back to the med center for my x-ray and follow-up. They said that I had “something suspicious” in my right lung (though it was the left lung that hurt when I took a deep breath) and that I should take my medicine and have another x-ray done in August (keep in mind this was early June). So I stayed off work the rest of that day and part of the next day (but that was prearranged as my daughter’s kindergarten program was that morning). But the work wasn’t going to wait any longer and I could breathe well enough to function at that point, so I went in. As it turns out, I made those days up as it took me an extra day and a half to finish all of the work necessary to end the school year (I just ended up doing it on my own time).

I’m still not entirely convinced that I had bronchitis. I think it was more likely pneumonia, or walking pneumonia at the very least, but I’m not a doctor, so what do I know?

What I did find odd is that I take the ability to breathe so completely for granted. As a widower, you would think that I would cherish every life-giving breath. After all, it was the cessation of breathing that made me a widower in the first place. And many of you reading this are here because your spouse or another loved one also lost the ability to breathe. And yet, I take that ability for granted.

I did not, at any point during this ordeal, think that I was going to die. I felt reasonably certain that the doctors would know what to do and that I would feel better in a few days’ time. But I felt reasonably certain of that on the night of February 25 and during the day on February 26, 2007 too, so I guess one can never be too certain. I can say that I haven’t taken the ability to breathe quite so much for granted over the last month though…

So that explains my absence from the Mother’s Day post to about mid-June. There’s another explanation for my absence this last month, but it will have to wait for a future post. In the meantime, please check out my Facebook page and be sure to click that you “like” it. The more people who like it, the faster my blog posts will appear on the page. (A special thanks to the three of you who have checked “like” already!) And the more interest shown in the page, the more interactive it will likely become.

Stay tuned for future updates.

And cherish your ability to breathe.

Monday, May 10, 2010

On Being a Mom by Default

As happens every year, Mother’s Day has come. And by the time this is actually posted, it will likely have gone as well. This year I am not overly concerned about it (it happened last year too) as I was on the phone late with my own mom, which seems to have something to do with what Mother’s Day is all about.

Except when the mother of your child has died.

As many widowed single fathers have come to realize, Mother’s Day takes on a whole new meaning when your wife and the mother of your child/ren is no longer here to be celebrated. Its primary purpose seems to be to bring that in-your-face reminder that she’s not here and seemingly everyone else’s mother is.

Mother’s Day began for us about a month ago with the inevitable discussion with my daughter’s teacher about how I wanted her to handle Mother’s Day crafts and activities. I gave her the same answer I have given her daycare teachers in previous years - allow her to participate in the same capacity as the other students and let her choose the recipient of whatever she makes – and that is exactly what she did.

Mother’s Day must be a huge event at my daughter’s school. It seems like every day for the last week she was involved in the making of some craft or writing assignment or the like, which was compounded by the activities in her separately-run after-school program. She was vague about some of the details, which of course lead me to believe that I might be on the recipients' list again this year.

The last few years she has taken all of the Mother’s Day hubbub in stride. But this year her grief has been more visible. I’m not certain how much of this is a reaction to the intensified grieving period I can’t seem to shake (which I wrote about in my last post and is on-going) and how much is a reaction to her own feelings of sorrow. I know that both are factors. And I know that I can’t change either one for her.

So over the past few weeks she has made more comments about missing Mommy and Mother’s Day approaching. Sometimes she has wanted to talk, though all conversations regarding this topic lately have been brief, and sometimes she has simply wanted to make her comment and move on to another topic. I try to follow her lead when she initiates these conversations/ comments, but sometimes it’s hard not to draw her out more when she clams up. It’s something I have to respect in her though, as I am prone to doing precisely the same thing, so I know she will talk about it when she’s ready.

Which leads me to the saga of the Mother’s Day Tea. The culmination of the weeks’ Mother’s Day events was the aforementioned tea. My daughter had asked if I could come, but I explained that I couldn’t due to the scheduling, and reminded her that I will be taking an entire day off to accompany her on a field trip in a couple weeks. She appeared to be okay with that decision and I wasn’t worried about it as there has been very little parent participation in her classroom this year, so I knew that few students would have someone attend and she wouldn’t be left out.

Guess I missed the “Mother’s Day is the Most Celebrated Holiday at our School” memo.

When I picked my daughter up that afternoon she brought up the tea and the fact that she almost cried during it. I assumed the reason had something to do with seeing some of the other kids with their moms and grandmas (we live 800 miles from both of her grandmas, so they couldn’t attend either). I assumed wrong. She was upset because she thought I would come and surprise her even after our discussion about my not attending. She recovered quickly and told me about the rest of the day, but not before reporting that almost every other student had an adult relative attend. If my daughter exaggerated often, I would not have felt bad. But her observations are usually on the mark, so this was part two of her unintentional one-two punch. For those of you reading who have never seen your child disappointed by you, for whatever reason, brace yourselves. It was one of my hardest moments as a parent, to date.

But Mother’s Day itself was mostly about me. She woke me up with two cards. One was made by a friend at church, but my daughter had signed it. The other was a drawing she made before I got up this morning that said “Happy mathrs day! I love you” with pictures of both of us as people and again as cats. When I went out to the living room I noticed immediately that she had picked up all of the toys she had left out the night before (and simultaneously wondered just exactly how long she had been up!) I half-expected to see the table set for breakfast, but she stopped short of that (which is good as it would have involved climbing on a chair to reach the plates, so I’m glad she exercised good judgment there.)

During breakfast she asked if she could give me my present. Now, here’s an interesting story. When I picked her up on Friday she mentioned that she had a surprise in one hand and that I was not to look behind her back. She made a big show of hiding it even when she got into the van. At some point before or after the conversation regarding the Tea, she mentioned that the gift in the bag would need some water. Then she inquired as to whether I might know what it was. So I said that if it needed water it must be a plant or an animal. There was a short period of silence, followed by soft mewing sounds from the backseat! When we got home I gave her an appropriate amount of water and she disappeared into her bedroom with it. I did not hear any more mewing all weekend. Until this morning. I could hear her footsteps as she crossed the living room, but before she came into view. What I could also hear once again, was that soft mewing sound. She came into the dining room with my gift behind her back. And I can now say I am the proud owner of the only pink petunia planted in a plastic cup that can say “meow”!

After breakfast we headed to church, which was an exercise in torture. (Bear with me here). I’m starting to realize that attending church on Mother’s Day might not be in either one of our best interests, especially if we are in the midst of a particularly difficult period of grief as we have been this year. And this comes on the heels of a service which had very little mention of Mother’s Day as the pastor is preaching through one of the books of the Bible. I can only imagine what it might have been like if he had delivered a traditional Mother’s Day sermon. The first year we spent the weekend alone at a friend’s beach cottage. I’m tempted to see if I can call in a similar favor for this Sunday in May next year.

After church we went out to eat, then to a birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates. It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend the afternoon, but it was important to her that we went. The timing of the birthday party interfered with my plans to head to the beach, even though it was twenty degrees colder today than it was yesterday, so I knew it would likely be cold and windy standing on the edge of the country with the ocean at my feet. But after the party my daughter asked if we could still head to the beach because it was Mother’s Day and she wanted “to do something special to remember Mommy”.

They say “great minds think alike”. I say sometimes grieving minds do too.

So we drove down to the beach in attire that was not appropriate for beach combing, but was good for a short walk on a windy beach day. Except we would have been better off in shorts and swimsuits. As a general rule of thumb, the beach will range anywhere from five to ten degrees cooler than it is in town during all seasons except summer. Today, of all days, was the exception to the rule. Not only was it just the right temperature, the breeze was slight, and the waves were gentle. It was one of those perfect days at the beach. Except we weren’t dressed for it, and it was Mother’s Day, and I was getting a sinus headache.

Okay, the headache hit pretty fast so I’m not sure how much of it was truly sinus-related and how much was me being angry that of all days this would be the perfect beach day and we weren’t in the right attire or frame of mind to enjoy it. Despite all of this, we did stay for a short while – long enough for my daughter to carefully make a small fortress out of wet sand. I was further irritated thinking that she was going to somehow get her clothes wet and I had no way to dry her off (though I thankfully did not let her know I was irritated). When we left, she told me that she had built that for Mommy and she as glad we had come to the beach.

Leave it to my six-year-old to put a positive spin on my negative outlook.

When we got home it was time for the dinner/bath/bedtime routine. Then I called my mom (my daughter had spoken to her earlier in the day), which is where I had just left off when I started this post. And as I mentioned, it is already after midnight, so Mother’s Day has officially passed on the 2010 calendar.

But I can’t help but wonder what it will continue to bring on our grief calendar.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Avoiding Grief

I have been avoiding this post for two weeks.

Or trying to anyway. The content has been here, it’s the writing I’ve been trying to avoid. This, of course, has been part of an attempt to avoid something of a much greater magnitude. Namely, my grief.

It’s been over three years. I’ve managed to resume a sense of normalcy for my daughter and myself. I’ve even tried my hand at dating again. I have what I would consider to be a relatively content life, especially given the circumstances. So why in the world have I been actively grieving the past two weeks?

I should take a moment to clarify that statement. I have never ceased grieving over my wife’s death. I have just felt over the last 12-15 months that it has moved from an active state of grief to a more passive one. I miss her just as much now, but not in the raw, broken way I did during those first several months and into the second year.

So in a moment of naiveté I guess I allowed myself to put my guard down a bit. I got comfortable. I became passive in my grief. Then I was slammed back into the rocky crags by yet another pounding wave of active, self-exposing grief. And as has been the case over the past three-plus years, I was completely blindsided by it.

I should have noticed the signs. We had a particularly nice visit with family over Spring Break, but I was more aware of my wife’s absence during this trip than I have been at any other time in the last year or so. It seemed that everything reminded me of her. The visit to her stone was especially poignant in that my daughter asked for a moment alone, then went to the car so that I could have some time by myself. She returned from the car just at the moment that my tears began to flow, though she had no way of knowing that since my back was turned to her the whole time.

We returned to a flurry of activity and I thought I could bury myself in all the trappings the end of the school year brings. The first week home was especially busy and stressful, but by then my sleep cycle was out-of-whack – another sign of things to come. Many widow/ers have mentioned the issues with sleep cycles, but again, I was naïve enough to think that once this evened out initially, the erratic patterns would not return. But for the better part of two weeks my sleep cycles were wildly out-of-control. One night I’d be up till the wee hours before sunrise, and the next I’d be asleep on the couch soon after sunset.

Then there was the dream. I have mentioned in previous posts that I have seldom dreamed about my wife since her death. And all of my dreams thus far have been overshadowed throughout by an impending sense of doom. This dream was different. But I think I’d like to go back to the impending doom dreams again.

I don’t remember much of the actual dream itself. What I do remember are the last few fleeting frames – glimpses of beauty I have not seen in a very long time. When I awoke I truly thought it had been real. And in that foggy, pre-dawn moment, my reality came crashing down around me all over again.

I felt a bit like the Time Traveler’s Wife, a woman who spent her life constantly holding on to her love, knowing he would disappear, and often waking up with the realization that he had. I left the dream holding on to my love, and woke up knowing that she, too, had.

It is never easy to be blindsided by grief. I have mentioned here before that every time I figure out how it is going to manifest itself, it develops a different pattern for doing so. I’m serious when I say that I’d like to return to the impending doom style of grief-related dreaming. At least in those dreams I am already aware of what has happened and the fact that I am powerless to change it. I prefer that to being handed a glimpse of hope and waking to find that it cannot be attained this side of Heaven.

That happened on a Saturday, the week before last. The weather was beautiful, so I threw myself into several hours of yard work (or as I like to call it “yard therapy”). I transplanted flowers into a new bed (the one with the birdbath I’ve shown in previous posts), weeded for several hours in other beds, and even dug out the space where I plan to eventually hang my hammock. But apparently my yard therapist needs a raise. None of that work provided the payoff that a job well done typically yields. But I guess it was worth a shot. And at least the yard was starting to look ready for the season, which was an improvement over the house.

I generally keep a clean house. Now, that doesn’t mean that the dishes are always washed immediately following a meal, or that I don’t miss a week cleaning the bathrooms, but as far as cleanliness goes, I’d say we do okay. It’s definitely nothing that would land us on an episode of Hoarders (I watch that too, Dan), even when my daughter has toys and artwork strung across the entire living room.

But that week I let the housework go. Completely. I washed clothes and dishes on an as-needed basis, but nothing else got done. No sweeping. No vacuuming. Certainly no dusting or mopping or cleaning of bathrooms. But by Sunday I realized that it needed to be cleaned regardless of my emotional state, so after church I put on some cleaning music and my daughter and I spent the afternoon cleaning up our respective messes. And several days later it remains in a state of relative cleanliness.

I need order. I seek calm. Chaos has no place in my life. And three-plus years after the most chaos-inducing event I’ve ever endured, we have managed to come to a place of order and calm.

But that does not, by any means, make us untouchable. Rather it makes us vulnerable in increasingly penetrable ways. It takes us from a long series of relatively normal days to erratic sleep cycles and haunted dreams, interrupted routines and binge sessions with a large bag of M&Ms.

It is grief. It is raw.

And it is my reality.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On What I Said to the Crowd

Early in February I was asked to speak at our evening church service. It is a tradition in our church to have a service conducted and implemented completely by the men each year. I have never participated in this and am still not really sure why I was asked to speak (of all things). The only guideline I was given was to take a passage of Scripture and speak on it for about ten minutes (I took almost fifteen).

It was immediately apparent in my mind that I would speak about how to help widow/ers and I remembered the verse about helping orphans and widows (though I admit I had to look it up as I had no idea where it was in the Bible). And since I also have a heart for orphan care, I managed to throw in some information about helping orphans as well.

I know many of your spiritual beliefs may differ from mine and I completely respect that. I ask only for that attitude to be reciprocated as you read what I shared and know that I used the opportunity I was given to get the word out about helping widow/ers.

I actually presented this information on Sunday, February 28, 2010, just two days after the third anniversary of my wife’s death.

Please turn in your Bibles with me to James 1:27. While you’re turning there, I’ll offer a bit of background on the book of James. It is believed to have been written by Jesus’ brother, the first fully biological son of Mary and Joseph, who was instrumental in the development of the early Christian church. It was written less as a way to explain Christianity to the early church, and more as a guide for teaching Christians practical applications for living out our faith.

It sounds like most of you have found the verse, so let’s read James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV).This is a verse we often hear, especially in the context of orphan care. It is the “theme verse” for Show Hope, the adoption organization Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife Mary Beth began several years ago. It is a verse that is often used in this context and is one of the few places in the Bible where orphans and widows are specifically mentioned.

So as not to take the verse completely out of context, I’d like to offer a little background. James 1:27 falls at the end of a section in which James is instructing the early church regarding sin and adherence to the Word of God. It seems that the early church, just as many of us today, was pretty good at listening to what was preached, but not so good at actually following through with it on a daily basis. They were good at getting dragged into a variety of sinful behaviors because of their, and our, focus on the things of this world. Earlier in Chapter 1, James even likens this to looking at oneself in the mirror then forgetting what one looks like when the mirror is removed. God wants us not only to hear his Word, but to put it into practice as well.

This is where verse 27 comes in. Here James gives us a very practical way that we can put our faith into action: by caring for orphans and widows. Or, in the most literal translation of this verse, by sharing the Word of God with them. James goes on to remind us again that we are to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, which is something that would require much more time than the few minutes I have allotted this evening.

So now that we’ve looked at the context surrounding this verse, I’d like to look again at the beginning of James 1:27. Let’s read it again. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time tonight discussing how we can help orphans. Though I do have a heart for orphan care and adoption, there are several organizations in place, such as Show Hope, which I mentioned earlier, that are doing an excellent job of getting the word out about orphan care. There are numerous resources online for any number of these organizations that would be glad to help you get started in assisting with orphan care on some level.

There are however, very few organizations that deal with practical ways to help widows and widowers, so I will spend the remainder of this time focusing on that.

The fact of the matter is that it is very easy to help children who are unable to help themselves. And even to a lesser extent, it is easy to help widows who have small children, especially if their husband was the sole breadwinner. But what to do with self-sufficient widows? And what do we make of widowers with small children?

For those of you here tonight who are not aware, Friday made three years since my wife passed away. I was 29 at the time and my daughter had just turned 3.

Some of the ideas I will mention momentarily are things that were done for us by members of this congregation and other friends during the early months following her death.

Many of you are probably also aware of [another family in our community], and I know some of you know them personally. If you do not know them, write down these items anyway as you will almost certainly know another young widow or widower in your lifetime. And even if you don’t, these ideas also work wonders for single parents…

In the interest of time, I will only be sharing ten practical ideas for helping widows beyond praying for them and sharing the Gospel with them (if necessary).

They are presented in no particular order.

1. Offer to watch the kids.

Widows and widowers often very quickly develop a sense that we have to do it all alone. It doesn’t occur to us to ask for help, and when it does, we decline the notion for fear of imposing on anyone, especially if we don’t have family close by to rely upon. I recall only asking for help if I was in a bind, and typically for me that was mainly during the summer when I had to mow the lawn.

It doesn’t have to be much – a simple “Let me take the kids for a few hours so you can get some things done around the house” will suffice. But be persistent. I found that if I told people no once, they often didn’t ask again. The people who kept asking were the ones whose offers I eventually accepted.

2. Invite them over for dinner.

Again, this is an area where you might have to be a bit persistent. One thing about widows and widowers is that we suddenly find ourselves in a very awkward place in society, especially if we have children. We are no longer married, but we still feel married. We don’t usually fit in with the singles crowd, but we also no longer fit in with the married crowd either. For widows with children, it may be a bit easier to fit in with the Mommy crowd, but single dads aren’t generally welcomed into that group either (for a variety of reasons which I won’t spend time on tonight).

There were a couple of families who were very good about inviting us over for dinner in the months following [my wife’s] death. They were not always elaborate meals and we weren’t invited often, but those simple invitations were a great way to help me remain connected with other families.

3. Take them dinner.

So what if you’re not the best host or hostess in the world? That doesn’t let you off the hook either. Now, this is not to say that these people are not good hostesses, but there were also some families in this congregation who were good about bringing meals.

Here’s what’s important to remember about this: don’t take meals during the first few days. Everyone else is bringing in food then, and most of the time the family doesn’t really feel like eating it. The meals that meant the most to me were the ones that came two or three or even four months later, when most people had moved on with their own lives.

Again, don’t take no for an answer, Just call and say, I’d like to bring you such and such sometime soon, when would be a good time?

4. Don’t forget them.

As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this list, timing is important. We all want to respond immediately when someone has lost a spouse and rightly so. But it was amazing to me how quickly people went back to their own lives and seemed to forget that we were still hurting. So make it a point to send a card, or cook a meal, or make a phone call periodically as time passes.

I have several friends who still do this on occasion, even though it has been three years. If you are worried about forgetting, flip ahead in your day planner or set-up a reminder in your cell phone to do so. It doesn’t matter by what means you’ve remembered, it just matters that you do remember.

5. Do something practical.

A little gesture goes a long way.

I knew of a woman who was behind on her ironing when her mother passed away. A co-worker insisted that she let her do the ironing. It turned out to be a blessing for both the woman and her co-worker. For me, it was mowing the yard. There were a few times when I’d come home and the yard would be completely mowed, trimming and all. I found out later that once it was a former co-worker and twice it was my nearest neighbors. It was a thoughtful gesture, and it was nice to come home and have one less thing to do on those evenings.

6. Send money.

Nearly everyone who is close to the family sends a sympathy card. This might sound like an odd suggestion, but consider including some cash or a gift card as well. I’ll be honest, the first sympathy card I opened with money inside threw me a bit. I was still reeling emotionally, and could not figure out why someone would send money. But there are significant costs associated with funeral services and burials, and not everyone has insurance to prepare for those things. And even if they do, the everyday bills suddenly need to be paid on one person’s salary, so any money you send will be put to good use.

Several people sent us restaurant gift cards also. I tried to cook as often as possible, but on those days when I just wasn’t up to it and there was no more lasagna left in the freezer, it was nice to be able to take [my daughter] out for dinner and not have to worry about how to pay for it.

7. Keep your condolences simple.

If you attend the wake or the funeral, say whatever you need to say about how sorry you are for the family then. But when you see them out and about for the first time after that – at work, at church, at the grocery – keep it simple. The best thing anyone said to me when I returned to work was “I’m glad you’re back”. It was a simple statement with no specific reference to what had happened, yet the person acknowledged it without upsetting me.

Too often we are worried about what to say and end up making the situation worse. So when in doubt, keep it simple. If the person did not share personal details of their lives with you before, they are not likely to do so after. And all they want is for things in their public lives to return to normal as quickly as possible.

8. Don’t be afraid to share memories.

While it may not be appropriate to share memories with the person as soon as they arrive back to work, there will likely come a time when it will be. Don’t be afraid to do so when the time is right. One of the best things people can do, even now, is share a memory they have of [my wife] in the context of a conversation.

Since Friday was the third anniversary of [my wife’s] death, I posted a comment on Facebook for people to share memories of her. It was wonderful to be able to read those memories throughout the day and actually helped to make the day a bit more bearable for me.

9. Don’t deny the person’s existence.

To take this one step further, don’t be afraid to talk about the person in general and use their name when doing so. It doesn’t always have to be a special or elaborate memory. It could be something as simple as referring to “[my wife’s] parents” instead of “[my daughter’s] grandparents”.

One of the things that has meant the most to me is when people have made comments or told stories and used [my wife’s] name. It is validation that not only did she exist and play an important role in [my daughter’s] and my life, but that she meant something to other people as well.

10. Listen without talking.

If you find yourself in a position where a widow or widower is sharing their feelings with you. listen, listen, listen. You don’t have to say a word. Just listen. Sometimes all we want is to be able to get something specific off of our chest.

Now, most of you will probably never find yourself in this position as widows and widowers tend to be very private about their situation. But if you do, just remember that listening is the absolute best possible thing you can do.

There are plenty more things you can do to help a widow or widower in their time of need, but these ten will give you a good place to start.

If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you.

At the time I uttered these words, I did not know that the audio would end up on our church’s website within a few hours’ time. About a week after I received the e-mail regarding this, I decided to also post the link on Facebook. I’ve never been asked to speak about being widowed before, and I’m not sure that I ever will again, so I wanted to get this out to as many people as possible who might not otherwise hear this type of information.

Posting it here is yet another step in that process.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On Healing

Since I seem to be in a pattern of posting a maximum of once a month of late, I’m going to proceed with a series of mini-posts that will hopefully serve to catch you all up to speed on what has been happening in the last month or so. It seems like there is always so much more I want to write about than there is time and energy to actually type it out and post it here. I am hopeful that this pattern will change soon, but until then, please accept my “mini-series” of posts, if you will.

On Winter Snow

As even the most occasional reader of this site has likely discovered, I am not a big fan of winter. I do not enjoy cold weather. I do not enjoy scraping ice off the car windows. And I most assuredly do not enjoy snow or ice.

We have experienced both this winter.

One weekend late in January we had an inch or two of rain that froze overnight. I live far south enough on the East Coast that life pretty much comes to a stand-still when there is ice or snow on the ground. It had melted off by time for church the next morning, but it was enough to cancel Sunday School, which is unheard of in these parts.

Just a few weekends later, we woke up to a slightly different sight. On the Friday night before Valentine’s Day about eight o’clock, I looked out the window (knowing what had been forecast) and saw huge, wet snowflakes falling from the sky. I got my daughter and we walked out to the back porch so she could really see them well. By the time she went to bed an hour or so later, there was a groundcover of snow and the flakes were still falling rapidly.

The forecast had said one to four inches, which is a rare sight in this area. What we actually had in our yard the next morning was eight fluffy inches of pure white snow. If this had happened a year ago, I would have been nothing short of traumatized. But I have done a tremendous amount of healing over the last year, thanks in large part to being able to write out my thoughts and feelings here, so I was able to see this snow through a different lens.

So instead of grumbling and being in a generally lousy mood all weekend, I embraced the snow, knowing it would only stick around for a short while. So once the power returned (it went off just as we were suiting up to go out and play), we headed out to build snowmen, make snow angels, and have snowball fights. I took plenty of pictures and even some video (my daughter gave me a five-minute instructional video on how to have fun in the snow, which I will always treasure). All told, we spent about four hours total in the snow that day.

By the next morning there was significantly less snow on the ground and even less than that by the time we arrived home from church. But being unsure of when this might happen again (good for me, but not so much for her), we suited up again and played in the wet slush until there was literally no snow left to throw or build with. I think we eked out about another two and a half hours between morning and evening service that day.

When I was a kid I loved the snow. And growing up in the Midwest, we definitely had our fair share of it each winter. I have three siblings and many fond memories of times had in the snow with them. This snowy weekend reminded me of those times, only I shared them with my own child instead of my brothers and sister. I was able to play with reckless abandon in a situation I would not have otherwise (or at another time) enjoyed.

And I took that as a sign of healing.

On My Daughter’s Sixth Birthday

The Friday after the “big snow” was my daughter’s sixth birthday. She loves birthdays and was, as expected, very excited about having another party. The thing she was perhaps the most excited about was getting to take cupcakes to share with all of her friends at school. But that turned out to be overshadowed by some other events that day.

Since it was a special day, I drove her to school that morning instead of having her ride the bus as she normally does. I was dressed for work, so she had no reason to think I wasn’t headed there after I dropped her off. However, I instead went into town to pick up the cupcakes and then back home to finish doing a few other birthday related things. Since kindergarten classes eat lunch first at her school, I was able to finagle my schedule so that I could take a half-day and join her for lunch. And seeing the look on her face when I showed up with the cupcakes and told her I was going to stay for lunch was definitely worth it.

I hated to leave after lunch, but she had more to learn and I had a mandatory meeting that afternoon, so I walked her back to class and went on my way. But my joining her for lunch was just the first surprise of the day.

My daughter usually attends an after-school program since her school ends earlier than mine, and she rather enjoys it. I can only imagine what went through her mind that afternoon when the secretary came over the intercom to ask her teacher to send her to the office for pick-up. And further still, I can only imagine the look on her face when she turned the corner and saw not her daddy as she had probably expected, but her grandma and grandpa who had driven down to surprise her again this year. (After last year I told them no more surprises for me, so I was in on it this time). Once we all got home, we headed to our favorite Chinese restaurant for dinner, then watched her open her gifts (again with plenty of pictures and video).

On Sunday we had her party and since the weather was a far cry from that of the previous weekend, she and her friends who attended were able to spend quite a bit of time playing outside. We also did the usual cake and ice cream and presents, plus a craft activity which the girls all really seemed to enjoy.

We usually have her party at home and invite a small number of her friends and their families. She has made it even easier on me by requesting Disney Princess parties the last three years (plus the one before that which her mommy and I chose), so I have been able to use the same accessories from year-to-year. She just chooses a different princess to highlight (this year it was Belle) and we make sure she is featured on the cake.

Each year it seems like the actual party-throwing part of the birthday festivities comes a little easier (though I’m still learning), but each year that passes is another year that her mommy has missed.

And no amount of personal healing on my part is going to make that any easier.

On the Third Anniversary

Exactly one week after my daughter’s birthday was the third anniversary of my wife’s death. I wasn’t sure how I would be affected on this day as this was the first significant grief event to pass since I started dating. I talked to my girlfriend ahead of time about the actual date and my plans for it, and she was overwhelmingly supportive.

So that morning before work, I posted this on Facebook: [My name] is attempting to see something positive in this day. If you knew [her name] please share a memory of her here.

It was the most positive thing I could think of to do, and it turned out to be really good for me. Throughout the day and well into the evening, my Facebook ring tone went off repeatedly as people posted their memories. It was nice to find reasons to smile that day, instead of focusing solely on how much I missed her and how much she was missing by not being here.

As tends to be the case with us, this day was also marked by two other events. Since I started this blog on the second anniversary, this date also marked one year of blogging (however sporadic) for me. That one was anticipated.

But the surprise event came that afternoon, when my daughter came into my bedroom and said “Daddy, I think my tooth is loose”. I checked, and sure enough, it was loose enough she could wiggle it with her tongue. I told her I’d pull it and she said “No Daddy, I think I can do it”. And sure enough, halfway across the bedroom she turned back with a tooth in her hand. It was so loose she had popped it out with her tongue! So the third anniversary of my wife’s death also became the first anniversary of the tooth fairy’s inaugural visit to our home. Only in this family could two such events coincide.

That night my daughter and I went down to the beach and ate at the restaurant we discovered on this date last year, although this year there were no dolphins to watch as we ate. It was however, considerably warmer than this time last year, so we walked on the beach for a little while both before and after we ate. (I took plenty of pictures, but no video this time). I had planned to post something here that night, but she and I were both asleep on the couch by nine o’clock instead.

In a lot of ways this anniversary was “better” than the past two have been. And by better, I mean more bearable. I think the passage of time had something to do with it. And the fact that I not only had considered dating, but was actually in a relationship (though I did not see her that day) probably made a difference as well.

Whatever the reason, a bearable anniversary is much-preferred over an unbearable one, and I considered the bearable nature of this one a sign of healing.

On a Different Sort of Milestone

Exactly one week after that, on March 5, I had a pretty rough day grief-wise. It was the anniversary of my wife’s funeral, but that was not the cause of my grief on this day. It actually had to do with what was to follow.

One semi-consistent pattern in this widowed journey has been that my grief tends to well-up more after a grief-inducing event, once the anticipation and the actual event have passed, than it does before. This usually happens within the first few days following the event. But as is common with grief, its patterns are often inconsistent, and this one hit me a day in advance.

When my wife died, my daughter was three years and one week old, to the day. On March 5, my daughter was six years and two weeks old, to the day. So March 6 marked the day that I had officially parented her longer alone than I had with my wife.

That’s the first time I have acknowledged this in any form outside of my own mind. I haven’t even told my parents (sorry you all had to find out with everyone else). I think it was something I wanted to keep private for just a bit longer, but in staying true to my journey and this site, the time had come to post it here.

Ironically, this is one event in this post that I had planned to mark with pictures, but did not. You see, my daughter has had her picture taken at day care and school many times over the last three years, but she and I have yet to have a professional family photo taken. I kept putting it off, then realized that maybe after this “milestone” I’d be ready. And I think I am. But I didn’t get it scheduled in time for that day, so it will have to wait just a bit longer.

I’m not sure where I am in terms of healing on this one. But I do know that I’m really thankful it’s a “milestone” and not an anniversary I’ll have to acknowledge (and dread) every year from here on out.

On Breaking Up

In my last post, I mentioned that I had been dating someone for the first time since my wife’s death. And throughout this post I have referred to her as “my girlfriend”, which was true at the time of each of those events. But early last week we decided to break up.

It was strange in terms of break-ups in that it was something neither one of us wanted, but both of us knew was necessary. The fault was not really with either one of us so much as with some external factors that were not likely to change any time soon. So it was a better decision to break up than to continue working against them.

I believe that she is okay with this decision as we arrived at it together. And I am okay with this decision, even though I think there was some unrealized potential in the relationship. Her daughter is young enough that it probably didn’t even faze her.

But mine is not.

So that evening, I sat her down and got the reaction I had expected to get when I first told her I was going to date someone – lots of tears. She was upset that she would not be seeing my girlfriend much anymore, but was more upset over the fact that she would not get to play with her daughter. She had allowed herself to start to get close to them, even though their contact was still fairly limited, so it was another loss for her when she realized they wouldn’t be coming around any longer. After a few minutes she calmed down and began to accept it, as she has had to do so often in her young life. Within a few days, she had stopped mentioning it altogether. That’s not to say she won’t again, but I think it’s a sign of her acceptance of the situation.

There is some good news in all of this though. I met someone who sparked my interest, asked her out, and built a new relationship with her. At the time of the break-up we had not said or done anything regrettable, which made it that much easier to create an amicable split. And the split was in no way, shape, or form related to my “baggage” as a widower. So I’d say for my first foray into the dating world things went pretty well.

In addition, I learned some things I will do again if/when I date someone else. I will be honest and up-front about my “situation”, but careful to disclose information at a rate with which she is comfortable. I will take things slowly. I will maintain minimal contact between my daughter and her (and myself and her kids should she have any) until the relationship is established and is moving to a more serious level. And I will remain content in my circumstances until then, so that I can be content if/when my circumstances should change.

And I think that’s the best sign of healing I’ve experienced yet.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Starting Over

This post was originally planned to be put up around New Year’s Day, but as you can see from the sidebar, it’s been well over a month since I have actually posted anything here. The good news is that this has been less for grief-related reasons than it has for hectic, everyday life type changes. When I returned to work after Christmas Break, I was informed by a colleague that she was moving, which in turn would more than double my workload. So we spent the following four weeks rearranging our schedules and preparing for these changes, which left me exhausted on the best of evenings.

And as if that wasn’t enough, I started dating someone.

Yes, just when I had accepted the fact that I would likely be single for the next ten years or so, someone sparked my interest in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore. Now, since I write this blog largely to chronicle my life as a widowed, single father, I will refrain from gushing about how great she is. She does have some great qualities, some of which are not all that unlike qualities my late wife possessed. But the beauty is that she is not an exact replica of my wife and I’m okay with that. One of the things I have worried most about since I started thinking about dating again in general, was that I would seek out someone who was a carbon-copy of my wife. I would guess that is a fear with most dating widow/ers, and I’d bet that many of us end up falling into that trap at some point or another. But unless this initial foray into the dating world is my last, I am not immune to this possibility. I’m just glad it didn’t happen that way this time.

Now, this might be a good time to point out that I am not a casual dater. Including my wife, I’ve only had four serious relationships since I was old enough to date. I put a lot of thought into the possible ramifications of actually dating anyone I might be interested in. I am as comfortable as I can be with being single, which I think allows me the freedom to act when I do meet someone. And being choosy landed me in a good marriage the first time, so I have no reason to think it won’t again if there is to be a second time.

That being said, I was as surprised as most of my regular readers probably are now when I found myself attracted to someone else less than three years after my wife’s death. But as I posted in the fall, I wanted to work toward healing so that I would be ready when the ”right” person came along. I’m just still really floored that it happened so soon.

Now for some background. I actually met her this summer at church. She was supposed to be the assistant for the Bible school class I was teaching, but ended up being assigned to another class. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think she was physically attractive even then, but at that point even finding another woman attractive was a huge step. So that’s as far as it went then. We saw each other off and on at church, but communication was pretty limited over the next few months.

Enter Facebook.

Not one to jump on bandwagons, I reluctantly joined Facebook this summer. As it turns out, that proved to be to my advantage. Sometime in October I received a friend request from her and over time we started chatting. (I had actually tried to look her up prior to this point, but was unaware at the time that her name is not spelled in the traditional manner and could not find her). I definitely felt like there was interest on her part as well, but let the chatting continue over the course of the next several weeks to give us time to get to know each other and allow myself to get my head around what could ensue.

Even then, it was still early December before we had our first date.

And even now, we are continuing to take things slow.

Dating in and of itself can be a scary venture, but throw widow(er)hood and a grieving child into the mix and it can be downright frightening. So once we had decided to go out, I sat down with my daughter over a bowl of ice cream and tentatively told her that I had a date. I expected tears. Or screaming. Or drama of some variety. The only thing I didn’t expect was the reaction I got – a wide grin and a gleam in her eye.

My daughter had, of course, met this woman and had seemed drawn to her in a way that she does not show with many women outside of our extended family. So in her own way, without even knowing it, my daughter had given me the green light to begin this relationship. And what I loved about it is that my daughter sought her out during some of our initial encounters at church. She wasn’t overly zealous about it, but she would ask if we were going to see them that day at church and things that she never asked about anyone else.

One of the many things I worried about when I thought about dating in general is that some women attempt to get to single dads through their child/ren. I was afraid that if that happened I might not see it coming. I’ve had single women friends who suddenly took more of an interest in my daughter than I was comfortable with, so I have experienced it on some level and knew what to watch for. It didn’t happen with her.

Perhaps that is because she also has a young child from a previous relationship.

And that is one of the many reasons we are choosing to take things slow. When I mentioned the date to my daughter and she smiled, she also said she was happy. Then she proceeded to determine which room would be the other child’s (there was only one choice) and how often she would be willing to share her toys with her. So I put my hand up and explained the process to her. I told her that we were starting with one date, then maybe another and so on and so forth, and that eventually if things went well, we would possibly start doing things with the kids at times too. It seemed only logical that if I had worked out the process in my own mind, it might bring her comfort to know what could be expected.

And for the most part, that has worked out well. The morning after the first date, my daughter smiled and asked me how it went. So I told her there would be a second date and she seemed fine with it. But when the time for the second date actually rolled around she was not quite as “okay” with it as she had initially been. She acted a bit more like I had initially expected her to, and it actually made me feel better to see that she was having a “normal” reaction. There were a few moments like that during the first month or so, but she seems genuinely glad to include them now. I make sure my daughter and I still have plenty of time to ourselves, including our Friday night dinners out, and she asks to include them sometimes when we do things. It has become a pretty workable balance so far.

But dating as a widow/er does not come without its pratfalls. Not only is this my first new relationship in ten years, but it started in winter (note to new readers: I loathe winter) and the three-month mark falls smack dab in the middle of the darkest part of the year for me. And it’s still early enough that I view everything through my widow/er glasses. Every phone call. Every text. Every Facebook status update. Every face-to-face interaction. And let’s face it, it’s hard to be romantic sometimes when grief has you by the scruff of the neck.

But she’s stuck by me thus far. And I can’t help but think that if she’s attracted to me at my worst, then things can only get better from here.