A Journey with Journey: Fall Excursion, Part 3

Unexpectedly, the forecast is for some sun, one last time before Halloween.

Carpe this freakin’ diem, for sure.

We didn’t have a trail ride scheduled, so we got going early, and I had actually planned a route that could intersect with several “rustic roads,” and a few more days had passed for more leaves to turn, so this, I was sure, would finally be the day for the perfect fall excursion.

And the rustic roads did not disappoint. Out by Lake Geneva, then west and north, back east and north, hills, ponds, bowers of boughs over strips of smooth asphalt, like ribbons through the moraine. Hawks circling, big red barns, horses, cows and the occasional llama.

We stumbled upon a pristine local park right when we needed a bathroom, and although as usual the “bathroom” was an outhouse, it was the cleanest, freshest outhouse I’d ever had to use.

And the road signs were there, this way and that, to lead us down those rustic lanes and give me what I needed from October’s bright blue weather – a stress-free, no-anger, no-pain, no-yelling fall excursion.

And I want to believe he was with us, enjoying it along with us, this time, free from pain.

Our child has taken to repeating wistfully, “a day without Dad.” He’s been gone 14 months, but on the spectrum, processing time is individual, and often long.

And I say, “every day for the rest of our lives on this earth will be a day without Dad, sweetie, but never without his love. You remember what he said to you?”

“Dad’s love never ends.”

“That’s right. And I believe he’s here with us and he sends us little messages from the next world – the monarch butterflies, the Journey songs.”

Yes, Journey songs. Mike could sing just like Steve Perry – Really, high notes and all.  And it was mostly a running joke for us three, whenever it came on the radio – “just a small town boy, livin’ in South Detroit….” But it was damn fun to sing along with, and they’re actually really good songs. And despite the haircut (c’mon, it was the ’70s), Steve Perry had an unmatched set of pipes. We will not hear his like again.

Except, for us, in our memory of Mike.

And our child has an uncanny knack of changing the radio station to land directly on a Journey song, repeatedly, during the day.

I know, I know, Journey has been resurfacing constantly since “Don’t Stop Believin'” but who cares why? To us, the impulse to change the radio station right now is a little signal from him, from the next world – change it now, you’ll get a little hello from me.

Faithfully. Separate Ways. Open Arms. “O-pen Ah-AHHH-Ahms!”

“It’s Dad!”

Yes, sweetie – a little message from Dad from the next world.

Up toward Waukesha, found the road with the farms. Pumpkins, corn stalks, gourds.

And this time, we ate at Taco Bell.

And it was good. Back on the road in plenty of time to enjoy the last of October’s bright blue weather, singing along to Journey, and with Mike.

Fall Excursion, Part 2

It started out great – a beautiful trail ride in a state park I didn’t even know existed until a few months ago. We rode through a savanah with a marsh in the middle of it, saw and heard (incredibly loud!) sandhill cranes, I think, and wended our way up and down ravine-like terrain populated with huge, beautiful, old, gnarled burr oaks. The sun was shining, the dappled leaves were changing, and adult child was happy.

Next goal, winding roads, pumpkins and lunch.

We found an odd, small little farm that billed itself as a winery, mostly, but sold decent looking pumpkins and what’s called “Indian corn,” which I like to hang on my door this time of year. Pumpkins accomplished.

Winding roads of fall color? A little, and following my nose and the compass embedded in the mirror of my car, found the town with the store that has the chicken feed we needed.

But first, lunch.

A likely place, menu looked OK, even a bit sophisticated for a rural town. The place is mostly empty, which I put down to the hour of the day, not the quality of the food or service. Which was my first mistake.

So, I thought, OK, not crowded, great! Will get adult child fed and happy and be on our way in a jif.

Not.

I should know by now, through years of fall excursions, that I am particularly cursed at choosing lunch places. I always harbor hopes for some quaint out-of-the-way find, a local cafe with great soups and sandwiches and maybe some pie.

I usually end up with grey, greasy burgers and persons with whom I dare not converse lest the subject turn to politics, arrayed on torn barstools erupting with ancient, stained foam.

But this place looked much more promising.  Tin ceiling, nice old bar, highboys and regular tables, tile floor, interesting historic thingamabobs all over.

Adult child was very hungry, so I thought, OK, bruschetta – how hard can that be? Essentially some toast with tomatoes, basil and a little cheese.  That will be fast and take the edge off.

Ten minutes. Fifteen. Breathe. Head in hands, pulling at my hair. One waitress, only two other parties in the place.

Breathe.

Mom, are you OK?

Yes, sweetie, just trying to stay calm.

Thirty minutes, at last, the bruschetta.  Ice cold. As if it had been defrosting. And coated with something that was supposed to be balsamic but looked more like chocolate sauce.

Thirty minutes for a COLD appetizer.

Breathe, head in hands, Mom, are you OK?

Yes, sweetheart, just trying to stay calm.

Thank God the burger and fries came immediately after, as if the lone inexperienced waitress figured out that I was about to lose it if my child didn’t get something edible RIGHT NOW. Adult child likes the fries, at least, but tells me the burger was fried. As in, fried in oil, or worse, butter, which adult child on the spectrum can’t stand.

My salmon salad was pretty good, but I realized it too had been fried, not broiled.

OK, whatever, we ate. I admit to myself that I have zero skill in stumbling upon the one cute “supper club” or diner in town that actually might be worth trying, where they actually might have some retro comfort thing for my child to eat (big old shake in one of those tall, heavy ice cream glasses? No whipped cream, that is even worse than butter. Mac and cheese? Too many carbs. Tomato soup! Why can’t I just find a damn bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich? In friggin’  WISCONSIN???)

So what do we learn from this? Fast food next time. Don’t even try. Go somewhere generic, cookie cutter, where you know exactly what to expect, and quit trying to make lunch any significant part of fall excursion.

On to feed store. No time for any more winding roads.

Will there be any more of October’s bright blue weather? Please?

Ah, God is great. Yes, yes there will. And the third time’s a charm.

Grief and Grace

“Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

-Leo Tolstoy

Mike actually read Tolstoy. War and Peace, long before we were married. After he got sick he asked me to buy him several classic books, things he could read through the hours of infusions.  Anna Karenina was one of them, along with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He made it through five of the six volumes of the latter before he lost the strength to read anymore. I haven’t yet tried to take up either or any of those.

He was an exceptional reader – but he very rarely dove into novels like those classics. If he wasn’t reading chess books or poetry, he was reading literary criticism, or politics or history. Dense tomes that I found, at best, uninteresting; at worst, impossible – I was exhausted just looking at some of the books he read.

There are so many things I admired about Mike, and so few times I told him that. He didn’t like expressions of gratitude or appreciation. No matter how genuine or heartfelt, he seemed to believe these offerings were fundamentally insincere. I don’t know why.

Substitute the word “marriage” in the Tolstoy quote above, and you will reveal a truth that grief consumes – the memories of the petty battles and the major ruptures that occur in any long marriage that are unique to that marriage. But in grief, the weight of those things evaporates to reveal the longstanding love beneath. And in grace lies the hope to be, or to become, free of regret.

In the large and varied autism community there is a saying: “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual on the spectrum is different from every other. Unique. There is no “generic” way to understand an autistic person.

Likewise widows. I’ve started reading other widows’ blogs, and the thing that hits me of the few I’ve seen so far is how very different each experience of widowhood is from mine. Not just the widow’s age, or the manner in which the spouse was lost, or the length of the marriage, but the many ways a widow’s life changes and the new challenges she faces.

One wrote about having to do things she hadn’t had to cope with before – buying a car, fixing things around the house, etc. Nope, I always had that role. Mike was a stay-at-home Dad, and a fantastic one; just the right guy to raise a child with autism. He was a great cook, a genius at finding free, entertaining things to do with a child who needed special care, and a music lover always discovering new, interesting bands and artists and sharing that music with a child who never forgets a lyric or who sings it.

But he was not what you’d call a “handy” guy.  If it required set-up, assembly or repair it was usually me who handled that, unless brute strength was called for (with the notable exception of an incredibly complicated model roller coaster I bought years ago for our child for Christmas – he set that thing up in a marathon session, and when he was done and it worked, he said, with triumph and glee, “didn’t think I could do it, did ya?” He also took charge of the Christmas train at the base of the tree. I haven’t tried to set that up without him). I set up the computers and the router, fixed the toilets and figured out how to program the remote. Maintenance Mom. He was Fun Dad.

And Fun Husband, too. We laughed together a lot – sitting together in our little library room listening to Mozart or Bach, we’d read aloud to each other, passages we thought were hilarious. I’d read snippets of Patrick O’Brian to him, he’d read John Ashbery poems to me.

Another widow wrote about coping with family members or friends who had objections to how the widow was performing her widowhood. There are Expectations and people who feel entitled to impose them on the widow.

Not for me. It was, pretty much, all on me. There were four people at the burial – myself, our adult child, the hospice chaplain and my regular pastor. I made all the arrangements and all the decisions, alone.

That’s a long story – too long for a blog and wrong for a blog that is about learning to live a daily life of love and laughter. I’m working on telling that long story in a book. A book that I hope will inspire laughter with the pain. A book that will certainly establish my bona fides as a ridiculous woman.

But when I write about my Mike here, I want to remember and honor the Mike I knew at the beginning of our relationship and the end – both before we were married and when the weight of years of marriage evaporated – on the day he decided to accept hospice care.

That day happened to be my birthday.

And the hospice care was at home. Visiting nurses.

The doctor told him he had three to six months. Mike optimistically chose to hear the six month part.

The nurse told me that based on her experience and how he looked, he had, maybe, six weeks.

He died at home just short of eight weeks later.

But those eight weeks were the best eight weeks of our marriage, where, as he described it when he had the energy to write, the bubble of tension between us burst, and the love was there, revealed, still glowing, and we knew that even though it was weird to believe this, the cancer was at least in this way, a gift.

On my side, our relationship and my return to church, started as an expression of gratitude. I went back to church because I was grateful that I had met Mike. That there was, it turned out, finally going to be a guy for me.

And our relationship ended in gratitude, for the chance to remember how we loved each other, out from under all the crap that builds up over the years, all the day-to-day squabbles and the year-to-year strains. Gratitude, forgiveness and love.

It shouldn’t have taken losing Mike to bring these back to the surface of who I am. And it shouldn’t take so much work to keep them there. But that’s what grace is for. I’m counting on that.