Me vs. the Tree

…cute is…the best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged..

…that there is no such thing as a sexy flannel nightgown.”

A sudden burst of luck and generosity hit me yesterday, when out of the blue I got a call offering me a fresh cut Christmas tree, delivered to my door.

“Are you looking for a Christmas tree?”

“Umm…wha….well, not yet, but, sure, why not?”

Turns out I could help out by taking the topped-off top of a large tree a member of my congregation just felled, as my Tree for this year.

It only took me 5 tries to get it up, centered and reasonably stable.

Which reminded me of the annual Battle of the Tree.

We’d trek out to get one, usually the second week of December, which Mike always insisted on – he never wanted a tree earlier than that: wouldn’t allow it. Meaning there was no point in arguing about it as that would mean no peace in this house until the subject was dropped.

So the second week of December we’d trek out, buy a tree at Home Depot and stuff in into the Honda, its trunk through the little trap door in the back seat that opened into the trunk, and it’s tip poking between the front seats, our child submerged under pine boughs in the back seat. Why didn’t we ever figure out how to bungee it to the top of the car?

The car would smell of pine needles for weeks after, and regardless of how many vacuumings I attempted, stray needles would still show up in there until the following year when we’d repeat the entire exercise and re-needle the whole interior.

Tree hauled inside, and that’s when the “fun” would begin.

“Wait, wait hon, let me put something down to protect the floor.”

I’d do that while he’d go fetch the tree stand from its perch on a not-easily-accessible shelf in the garage.

This tree stand is supposed to make it easy to get the tree  up and straight, and then sort of lock it in place. You screw on a smaller base to the trunk, and then put the whole thing into the larger part of the base, waggle it around until all agreed it was straight, and lock it in.

It has a foot pedal sort of thing on it, which you extend and then step on to enable the waggling-around, and then when it is determined the tree is straight, you push the pedal back in and voila! Locked and ready for lights.

Seems easy, right?

Well, the first issue was remembering to pull the foot pedal out in the first place. For reasons unknown, we simply could not remember that from one year to the next, even though the foot pedal says, “extend fully.” So that was a good thirty minute fight and several failed straightening attempts before we remembered that. Then we’d argue about whether it was supposed to be “extended fully” before you put the tree in or after. And trying to figure out whether the red ring thingee around the small base part is supposed to be in the “open” or “closed” position, when it didn’t seem to open or close anything.

Plus deciding how many, if any, of the bottom branches to trim off, so the sharp little beaks on the levers that were supposed to screw into the tree to secure it inside the smaller part of the base, could bite in deep enough to hold the tree.

But the biggest issue was trying to reach parity, compromise, or, in a very good year, actual agreement, about whether the tree was straight.

We’d trade off doing the waggling around, the stepping back to check verticality, adjusting, swearing, starting over, trying again.

“It looks fine to me!”

“No, further to the left!”

“Just hold it still, dammit!”

Etc. You get the idea.

Last year, the first year without Mike, our adult child didn’t want to go, so I went by myself to choose the tree and stuff it into my Subaru, since I sold the Honda. I don’t need two cars.

Went through all of the above steps and got the thing up, leaning back a little, but stable.

This year I thought I was thoroughly prepared. I remembered to pull the handle thingee out, but got stymied by the “open” or “close” ring thingee and the narrow trunk of this tree-made-out-of-the-top-of-a-bigger-tree (which is really pretty, and nicely shaped, and the right kind of tree for me, a short-needled balsam, I think, with great branches for lights and ornaments.) Tried it open first, and I thought I got the little beak thingees biting into the tree enough, but when I put it up, it waggled and leaned and tilted and tipped.

Try again.

Pulled the base off, closed the ring thingee. Now the beak thingees wouldn’t go into the trunk of the tree far enough at all. Way too loose.

Try again.

Open the thingee.

Position the levers with the beaks around the trunk of the tree in slightly different places. Beak thingees tighten up nicely, take a good bite. The little base is secure now.

Pick it up and put it in the big base, and proceed to waggle until I think it sits down in there the way it should. There’s a sort of click. That must mean something, right?

It seems like it is staying up on its own. Step back, looks reasonably vertical.

But I forgot to check which side of the tree I’d want facing forward.

Undo, redo, two or three more times.

When I finally decided it was good enough, I pushed the foot pedal thingee back into the base, and it seems to have worked. The tree is standing, awaiting lights and decoration.

Mike always did the lights, because he could reach the top of the tree, and I’d follow him around and around, reeling them out as he placed them on the branches and getting kind of dizzy. Step back, check, adjust.

After lights and garlands, ornaments. We have ornaments that mean things to me – I’d pick up a new one on any vacation, as a memento, so we have several from Maine, one from Disneyworld and one from Arizona. Each year I also tried to pick one that seemed to represent that year most memorably of all.

My favorite is the little snowman with a shovel, from the year 2001, I think. Mike was absolutely fanatical about shoveling. He’d set his alarm every two hours during a blizzard, and go out and shovel the driveway, just to prevent the snow from accumulating so much that it would turn to ice before he could shovel again. He even did this during a real snurricane, a snowmageddedon that carried 60 mile an hour winds that ripped part of the roof off.  What was the point, I tried to plead with him, when the wind would just blow it all back in a minute or two?

But in his mind it seems the measure of a man was his ability to contend with a snow covered driveway.

He appropriated my little black russian-looking hat for this task. I wear that hat everywhere now when I go outside, if I feel the slightest chill.

But that year, 2001 I think, was exceptional in its demand for shoveling. It seemed he spent the whole winter out there. So that year’s ornament was a no brainer.

Once the tree is all decorated, we had a tradition of “tree regarding.”

We’d turn on Christmas music and turn off all the lights except the outdoor decorations and the tree, and just sit back and look at it. It really is magical, and soothing.

Which brings me back around to the flannel nightgown.

I love the warmth and comfort and coziness of an oversized flannel nightie in the winter, and my Mom used to buy me a new one each Christmas. She thought it was excessive. It offended her native New England frugality, as she knew they’d last much longer than a year, but she did it anyway because she knew it made me happy.

I’m down to one flannel nightie now, and no one to get me a new one this year.

I can handle that, but the thing that made me sad, after I won this year’s solo battle of the tree, was when I stepped into the downstairs powder room, which has two big oval mirrors over two pretty porcelain sinks with gold trim and a floral pattern (why didn’t we go down to one when we had that room done? We didn’t need two sinks in there, ever) and saw my reflection in one of those mirrors.

“I look cute,” I thought, in my Santa’s helper hat (only Santa wear’s the REAL Santa hat), and my bulky red cardigan thrown over my last remaining Lanz flannel nightie.

“You look cute, Mom,” Mike would have said. Because I’m pretty sure he actually thought I did look cute, and he knew it made me happy that he’d say so. And cute is really the absolute best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

But he isn’t here anymore to tell me that. And I know it is vain and childish and kind of selfish to need someone here to tell me I look cute in my hat and my sweater and my nightie, but I do. And I could sure use a hug and a loving pat on the backside, too.

I try not to give in to loneliness or sadness too often anymore. But when we got the tree up yesterday, still undecorated, and had our “candle time,” when we listen to music, turn all the lights off and enjoy candlelight (votives, lanterns and a few tapers in the antique brass candlesticks that belonged to my grandmother- well away from the tree, don’t worry), after a nice long quiet time, our child sighed and said, “I miss Dad,” I lost it.

“I miss him too, sweetheart. S-s-s-s-o much. And I kn-n-n-now this house feels incomplete without him and I know I can’t be him for you, but he told you, remember? He told you to remember that Dad’s love never ends, and he wants you to try to be happy and have a happy life.”

“Don’t cry, Mom.”

After our child retired to bed, I returned to soft Christmas music, and to feeling incomplete, because Mike’s not here to say, “You look cute, Mom,” to me in my flannel nightie.

That “You look cute, Mom,” was forged, earned, built, over years of marriage and togetherness, through good times and bad, from the deep appreciation and long-glowing embers of a love that has endured decades of Battles of the Tree, and it isn’t something that comes easily. I’m not sure I have enough time left in this life to find another relationship that could generate the depths that produced that “You look cute, Mom.”

The holidays are hard. I’ll pick my chin up again, I know. But I can’t promise I won’t cry when I hang that little snowman on the tree. Even if  I go ahead and buy myself, by myself,  a new flannel nightie this year.

Just One More Day…

There’s a difference between stuff that’s just stuff and stuff that is suffused with memory..

I said I’d be back here the day after Thanksgiving, with lists of acceptable Christmas music, and a sort of “OK, start your holiday engines” vibe. I’m late, because  I needed just one more day to enjoy the russets and golds of autumn – the corn stalks, the pumpkins, the gourds. The day after Thanksgiving was beautiful and warm, and I took a long nature walk with our child along paths and preserves we had enjoyed together with Mike, and that the two of them had enjoyed with each other.

As I put away the deep autumn burgundy tablecloth, the russet and yellow and orange napkins and the good china, as I rolled the table back to its usual spot, I noticed the gourds and the flowers of yellow and orange, and I just couldn’t switch to Santa Claus red and Christmas tree green, not yet.

I have been driving around for a month now with Mike’s good L.L.Bean field coat, the one made of heavy tan construction-worker-in-the-winter fabric, with the thick plaid flannel lining and the corduroy cuffs and collar, and good L.L.Bean snow-sneaker hiking boots, trying to decide where to donate them, and coming up with an excuse every time I think of somewhere. The coat drive for the nearby impoverished school district? No, whichever high school kid got the coat or boots, there would be never-ending teasing, maybe even danger, I reason, for looking so, well, so L.L.Bean.

Goodwill, Salvation? No, Mike wouldn’t want someone to have to buy his used stuff – he would have just found the right guy and given the coat off his back and the shoes off his feet. Homeless vets, maybe?

Mike wore the coat and the boots as he became weaker and more weary, stoically driving himself to his infusions, until the driving became too exhausting and the doctor switched to something he only had to have every three weeks or so, not every week.

He wore them when he suddenly decided to go to Home Depot in the midst of the insane remodeling job I decided to go ahead and do (long story, book, working on it) in some crazy desperate attempt to get him the kitchen he deserved to cook in and the new deck he deserved to relax on and the basement he could cool off in, before he died; a distraction, a goal, something to take our minds away from the inevitable.

The last time I remember seeing Mike wearing the coat and boots was when he decided to pile all his chess books, a substantial library cataloguing historic games and tournaments, strategies, openings and “novelty” moves discovered over time, into the car and drive them deep into the South Side, to give away to a young man who was trying to start some kind of chess coaching business or charity. It absolutely exhausted him, that trip, especially since the young man he delivered the books to, a young man who knew Mike had cancer,  didn’t help him unload or carry them at all. Perhaps it would have been risky, I don’t know, to be seen helping a guy wearing that coat, those boots. Mike came home dispirited, and didn’t really go out again, except to his infusion appointments.

And now 15 months after Mike left this world, the coat and the boots are back in the front hall closet. I just can’t give them away when I still see them filled up with him.

I kept only one of his chess sets – the one he won as an elementary school student, with the pieces kept in a nice wooden box with an engraved plate, “Irving School 1975 First Place” and the accompanying board.

I kept his glasses, and his hats, the ones he wore when the last round of chemo made his hair fall out, before he chose hospice and it grew back, in a perfect, silver-grey feathered cut. How’d he do that?

The hats still smell like him. I take them out of the drawer and bury my face in them from time to time, and I think I’ll keep doing that for as long as they still smell like him.

Some days the cat sleeps on his bed, on the heavy plaid wool blanket (yes, L.L.Bean again – I’m not getting paid for this, honestly) I got him one Christmas, before we knew he was sick. I agonized over the color – should I get the mostly blue one? Or the blue-green-camel-russet one? I opted for the latter, and to my great surprise and relief, he loved it.

But every morning before she decides to jump up on that blanket on that bed, or up on whichever other piece of furniture she will appropriate today, Sophie the cat walks over to the Afghan war rug that my parents brought back from one of their port-of-call side trips on one of their cruises, the one that was under the hospital bed Mike died in. If you look closely you can see the woven images of rifles and helicopters in that rug. The cat plops down on one corner of that rug, and cries, with a loud MYOW, MYOW?  Mike and Sophie, the two most territorial beings in the house, had a love-hate relationship. But clearly she misses him too, and finds something of him still hovering above that rug.

I kept his wallet, the tooled leather one I gave him that was like the ones my Dad could always find for my brothers, with his final driver’s license and his sad-faced college ID, the photo for which was taken on a frigid day when he was wandering around UIC, freezing in an absurdly thin windbreaker, pining for some long-ago unrequited love.

There’s a difference between stuff that is just stuff, and stuff that is suffused with memory – things that are semi-sacred. I cleaned out almost all of the just stuff in the two weeks after he died. I donated clothes and books, mostly poetry, keeping only the ones we enjoyed together, the ones with the poems we read at our wedding and the poems we read when we buried his ashes, or the rare chapbooks he said might be worth something, and I gave away all his other chess boards. (For most of our life in this house, every available surface had a chess board on it, with an open chess book next to it, with pieces poised in the middle of a game that was being studied or an opening that was being relearned.)

Right after Mike died, I was overcome with a weird belated nesting impulse. In addition to giving away stuff, I repainted bookcases and wished he could have seen them, they looked so much better. I had the floors done, and sat sobbing among a clutter of furniture in the kitchen alcove, watching the Cubs win the World Series on my phone because the floors weren’t ready for me to reconnect the TV. I had a bluestone patio installed just outside the kitchen door, which makes a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee on a summer morning, and planted shrubs that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies as a sort of memory garden for Mike. I hoped he could see it and enjoy it from the other side. I think he did, or can – I’ve had visits from hummingbirds, monarchs and even dragonflies, all of which Mike remarked on before he died, and these creatures hovered unnaturally close to me, as if to say hello.

But I haven’t been able to give away the huge tandem bike he rode our child to school on for years, even though it is way too big for me to try.

Or the watch my father gave him, at least twenty years ago, that still beeps at 6:37 a.m. each morning.

Each day I think to myself I need just another day with these things. I’m not ready.

The unseasonably warm weather made the day-after-Thanksgiving annual tree-lighting better than bearable, pleasant, even, and our child and I sang carols heartily along with the high school choir, and once those lights went on, at that point, I felt ready to roll over into Christmastime. So the next day I dutifully put up the lights and the garlands and the wreaths, while our child took on the Christmas knick-knacks, tree- and angel-shaped candles and other thingamabobs inside the house, arranging them on the mantle and bookshelves and tables and we rolled on from the season of russet and orange to the season of red and green. And we got out the Christmas CDs.

We did a pretty good job of being thankful, this second time around without him.

But although I was able to set the table with just two places, I couldn’t do it with just two chairs. The third chair was there, and he was there in my mind’s eye, enjoying the candles and the good china and the Beaujolais Nuveau.

And so far we’re doing a pretty good job of seasonal good cheer, this second time around without Mike. We talked about it and decided we would not hang his stocking this year. Just ours and the cat’s.

But I’m keeping that stocking.

And though the tandem may go someday, I’m keeping the chess board, the hats, the glasses, the wallet and the watch. Just one more day. And then another and another and just one more…

Snark Tank

Nice is nice. But Nice ain’t funny.

“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothing’s at all.”

-Thumper

Did you catch the double negative, there?

Thumper, go over there and sit on Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s needlepoint pillow (“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come sit next to me.”)

Nice is nice.

But nice ain’t funny. Not usually, anyway.

If you’ve been a trouper and you’ve read this blog from the bottom up, first to latest, you’ll see that I’m a widow, and I’m trying to live the lessons I learned from loss, primarily that love is what matters, and a little laughter, too, and every person has their stuff, and anyone you run into or sit next to on the bus could be in the midst of their own tragedy, and everyone deserves respect and compassion.

And that behaving that way all the time is exhausting and really difficult for me (see, “The Briefcase Maneuver“).  I have confessed to being someone too full of judgment, impatience and an ugly sense of superiority (see, “And What Do We Learn from This?)

But sometimes I just can’t help myself, especially if something strikes me as stupid.

And nothing is more irritating than avoidable stupidity. And it is often funny, too.

And in such situations, I tend to lead with my big mouth, not my big heart.

I’ll say something that makes people laugh.

And then I’ll go home and feel really bad about it.

I own a T-shirt that says, “I’ll try to be nicer if you’ll try to be smarter.” Snark. Which was basically my theory of management for a long time. Yeah, so, that didn’t work out so well.

I have another T-shirt that says, “Pretending I’m a pleasant person all day is exhausting.”

I will reveal both of these during my talk on “Confessions of a Toxic Boss,” if I ever get that one written.

Not nice. But honest.  Nice is not often funny,  but honesty often is, which is why improvisers are taught to go for the emotional truth on stage, because most of the time, nothing is funnier than the truth.

So far, I’ve written honestly about loss and grief and a little about some coping strategies (Middle Aged Woman Rules).  But when do we get to the funny part?

Well, I have a plan. When I feel the snark surfacing, and I can’t resist the temptation to think or even say something that is kind of mean but also kind of funny, I’m going to dump it right over there in the Snark Tank.

Yes, I’m going to make a whole separate page on this blog where I can dump all my little pet peeves, my moments of self-righteous superiority, my little rants, and just get them out of my system so I can get back to the love part.

No politics, though – we all get plenty of that on Facebook or Twitter.

And as the parent of a developmentally different young adult, I’m definitely not a fan of making fun of others just for being who they are (although my love of accents has gotten me in trouble that way – I hear an accent and impulsively imitate it, often right in front of the person with the accent. Oh, nice. I’ve embarrassed my family and literally made children cry, when all I thought I was doing was joining the fun and expressing delight in the music of a different way of speaking. Oddly enough, the people whose accents I “joined in on” didn’t find it amusing.)

But people who have all their intellectual faculties and physical abilities, neurotypical and physically able people, who are ungifted with and unchallenged by differently wired brains or physically different bodies, often do or say stupid or funny or illogical things, and they misuse words a lot, which either drives me nuts or makes me laugh hysterically, so I may take the opportunity to point a few of those things out. And if it happens in the middle of a blog post about something entirely different, well, I’ll just link over to the Snark Tank and dump it in there.

My additions to the Snark Tank will likely be short and unrelated to each other, unless I really get on a roll and unleash. And I’ll just keep on editing that page by adding new stuff on top.

And if you are so moved, you can jump right in through the comments, and we’ll all just get it out of our systems, and the world will be a better place, because we will have done a service in pointing out errors and inanities that are avoidable, preventable and therefore needn’t be repeated. Won’t everyone be so grateful! So let’s dive in!

Good China or, the Thanksgiving Rules

We’ll use the Good China anytime we want.

We brought it out at Thanksgiving and created a resplendent table with it, and the silver, and the stemware. Once a year.

Although I am a child at Christmas, full of anticipation and wonder and the magic of the tree lights sparkling in the dark, Thanksgiving is really my favorite holiday.

All I have to do is cook, drink, eat. Not necessarily in that order.

At the end of the meal, after the coffee and pie, and the signature mashed potatoes that only Mike could make, we shared a marathon session of dish washing, by hand (in the dishwasherless days before the remodel) and then the plates would go back into the round, plastic, zippered bags with the quilted floral pattern, separated by those little foam circles that were supposed to keep the plates from chipping.

And the stemware went back in its box, each glass with its own little cardboard compartment, stowed carefully on the shelves in the cubbyhole at the top of the basement stairs.

But when Mike got sick, and we knew that each upcoming Big Holiday would likely be his last, we decided, fuck it, let’s use the good stuff now.  Any time we want.

And we wondered, why did we keep it all packed away all year anyway?

The whole idea of bridal “china patterns” now seems sort of quaint, or twee, or adorable in that way that brides are allowed to be adorably annoying, observing the rituals that really belong in the nineteenth century and before.

We have ten place settings. Ten. And we never had more than four family members over for dinner, and that, very rarely (long story, book, I’m working on it).

But really, who uses ten formal place settings anymore, in their home? Most homes now without formal dining rooms? (although I hear they started making a comeback with builders and their clients a few years ago. Sounds good to me. Invite me as a companion for your extra man – I’m a lively conversationalist and I never miss a chance to overdress!)

But now our child and I continue to use that fancy china regularly, two place settings at a time.

And I try to use the Good China as a reminder to be thankful, not once a year, but daily.

Another widow has “gratitude Fridays” so I’m going to try “thankful Thursdays” – and one of the exercises I want to commit to observing is writing a thank-you note a week to someone. Just to express gratitude in a concrete way, and maybe to share those here.

Recipients of thank-you notes I’ve written tell me I’m pretty good at it. I’ve even thought of turning that into a side business – to help those hapless, adorable brides who’ve gotten themselves in too deep and can’t come up with a single original thing to say to the gifter of the tenth full place setting. I can help her with that.

(I’ve also written a few thank-you notes that I never sent, on the order of, “Dear Mrs. Moneybags: How gracious of you to respond to my phone call with a letter, informing me that the organization I had hoped you’d support deserved its demise for its silly habit of asking poor families to pay only what they could, and instructing me that such foolishness should be abandoned posthaste, and good riddance to those poor folks. Right here in our town! The nerve!” Or something like that.)

But since we have The Big Holiday in the area of thankfulness coming up, I think I’ll save the weekly notes for after the holidays, when people aren’t expecting them.

In the meantime though, there are some Thanksgiving rules, which, unlike the practice of using the Good China only once a year, cannot be abandoned.  To wit:

  1. No Christmas stuff, especially NO CHRISTMAS MUSIC, until the day after Thanksgiving. We will not bury Thanksgiving in tinsel, or wreaths or red bows, or early-bird Black Friday deals, nor will we deafen ourselves to it by subjecting ourselves to Mariah Carey screeching, “All I want for Christmas is You” or Michael Buble crooning, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Puh-leeeze.  (We will address the subject of acceptable and unacceptable Christmas music on THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING. Which will not be spent standing in line outside a WalMart fighting over who gets the biggest big screen TV).
  2. Cranberry sauce must be homemade, from whole berries. No can-shaped gelatinous blobs on a plate, for God’s sake. Have some RESPECT, dammit. It’s EASY. Seriously, just read the package instructions on your Ocean Spray. Water, sugar, boil, berries, pop, pop, pop, chill. Done, yummy.
  3. Although I do not require anyone else at my table to perform this allegedly death-defying feat, I will make and consume stuffing that is ACTUALLY COOKED INSIDE THE TURKEY. Pepperidge Farm is the only acceptable stuffing mix. Non-negotiable.
  4. NO TURDUCKENS. See, “Have some respect,” in number 2, above. This goes triple for deep frying on the deck outside. Are you out of your mind? Haven’t you seen the Allstate ad about how many people burned their houses down committing this gastronomic atrocity?
  5. Mimosas. Mimosas are required. See “cook, drink, eat, not necessarily in that order” above. Rockettes, lip-synching broadway stars, marching bands and giant balloons are actually fun when viewed through the gentle mist of a Mimosa. Just don’t say the other Thanksgiving “M” word (the one that comes before “Thanksgiving Day Parade”) when channel surfing over to the the Chicago parade, because that big store they march past will ever and always be Field’s. Dammit.

I better start making a grocery list and polishing the silver, for our second round of Big Holiday with just the two of us, our child and me.

I’ll continue using the Good China every day, as a sign of gratitude for our memories of Mike, and faith that more Good stuff is coming, for just the two of us, our child and me.

The Presence of Absence – or, Bookends of BoDeans

…absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks … where he should be.

UPDATE

Well, it turns out there will probably never, ever be any reunion of Sam Llanas with the BoDeans, and it appears there’s a real good reason on top of the ones originally given – how sad – and how creepy, since this band once recorded a song with the lyric, “sweet little Mary was just 13, walking down the street she’d make a good man mean…”

Eeeeeewwww. I debated taking this post down when I heard about this, but the post reflects my experience before I heard of these accusations. Yet I didn’t think it would be right to leave this post as it is without acknowledging that I now know these accusations have been made. I wish I could unknow about them, but I can’t.

______________________________________________________________

Even if you knew it was coming, the death of a spouse or other family member creates an absence that feels physical; that heavy blank space over there is where he is not.

And it feels like that absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks in chairs where he should be sitting, over there on the rug where his hospital bed used to be, by the stove in the kitchen where he should be cooking.

I spent the last fourteen months managing that thing, first raging at it, crying and sobbing and panicked by it, hating it, feeling attacked by it, as if it would erase me or reduce me to a shadowy thing myself, some kind of half-being, ghosting around aimlessly. “I’m just a ghost in this house.”

Then I decided to engage it. I started talking to it, taking it out places with me. I created a sort of “memory tour,” attending concerts and events Mike would have enjoyed, trying and many times succeeding in feeling him with me in the car, in the box at the opera or the too-expensive seats at the hockey game.

And I went to see the BoDeans.

Years into our marriage, Mike and I discovered, in casual conversation, that before we met, we had been at the same BoDeans concert at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. I was there alone, he with whoever his then current girlfriend had been.

And Sam was there.

If you haven’t heard this band, go back in time to their earliest albums – Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams, Outside Looking In, Black and White, Home.

But you really should listen to their live compilation album, Joe Dirt Car.  The BoDeans are a kick-ass live band and put on a great live show.

And the lead vocal you hear on almost every song is Sammy – Sam Llanas.

I remember that show at the Riv as just that –  kick-ass rock’n’roll fun – singalongs, clapping, stomping, great time.

That was a long time ago – 1989.

I had put the albums (yes, vinyl) and CDs away years ago, and hadn’t thought about them until last year when I saw a poster around town announcing a BoDeans show – they were playing at a benefit at a community center very close by, and I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a chance to hear them again, and to take Mike’s “present absence” with me, and remember with the memory of Mike what fun it was, to dance and stomp and sing along with this band.

And I went and they put on a full-blown, burn-the-house-down rock-n-roll show with lights and fog and great sound at this recently rehabbed little theater that started life as an elementary school auditorium.

I had a great time there by myself with the crowd, as I had done so many years before.

But Sam wasn’t there.

Because something happened, years before, as often does in marriages, and in bands that have been together for a long time – Disagreement? Jealousy? Misunderstanding? Resentment? Exhaustion? Who knows.

But Sammy wasn’t there – Sam’s voice wasn’t there.

It didn’t really register with me too much last year at that event – the band seemed to stay away from the songs that really had to have Sam’s voice to make them what they were. Or maybe it was the crowd – a liquored-up, wealthy, charity-event attending crowd that knew how to party and was on their feet, dancing and singing along the whole show (so this is how rich people party? Oh, OK. Pretty cool. And for a good cause.)

And then this year, by accident again, I found that the BoDeans were playing within reasonable driving distance, almost exactly a year (less one day) from that show I went to in memory of Mike.

So I went, and this time I knew that Sam wouldn’t be there.

And his absence was very present for me this time.

Maybe it was the geriatric nature of the crowd – they just wouldn’t get up and dance, even with the bar open, until after the break, when several women of a certain age, dressed as if in memory of their younger years, got up to shake and bounce what they had, groupie-dancing down by the stage.

And I was shakin’ it in the aisle, dressed in my own recently-achieved too-tight jeans and shirt, trying to remember the fun, but hearing that live album, Joe Dirt Car, in my head, and missing Mike, and missing Sam.

There were some fun moments – a Tom Petty tribute inserted in the middle of the show, some amusing musical quotes of other artists, and the sing-along songs that depended more on the crowd than on Sammy’s voice. And although geriatric, the crowd at least managed some singing along.

And then the band did a song called “Naked.”

I can think of a lot of BoDeans songs, “Black, White and Blood Red” or “Going Home,” or “Far, Far Away from My Heart” or “Misery” that require Sammy’s voice, but none more than “Naked.”

It’s about sharing your secrets, committing to not holding back in a relationship – at least that’s what I hear in it – “I’ll stand naked with you, you’ll stand naked with me too.”

And when Sammy sang it, there was a raw, raspy desperation in the sound, like he really was tearing himself open.

You just can’t sing it without that – without Sam.

So you have a choice – don’t sing it.

Or forgive, forget and ask Sammy to come back.

Because he can. He’s right there in Wisconsin. It would have been a few hours drive, no more.

Mike can’t come back.  He can’t come with me to a BoDeans concert, ever. In fact, after our child was born, we never went to a rock show together. He’d go to shows he wanted to go to, and I’d go to mine, and whoever wasn’t going was staying home with our child because we didn’t use sitters, not with our special needs child – our beautiful, vulnerable amazing child.

So we switched off, took turns – called it a “shift change,” when I got home from work, and he, exhausted from a day of cooking, cleaning, playing, shopping and chauffeuring, retreated upstairs to read and relax.

No shift changes for me anymore. Adult child is far less vulnerable now, and I’m doing the best I can at my job of enabling greater independence, but each day there’s still, “A day without Dad. You ok Mom? You’re here in this world, the first world, with me? Right? You’re not going, you’re here. You’re good.”

Yes, my lovies, for as long as I possibly can be. I’m here right now, for you.

But Mike can’t be here for me, or for our child, anymore.

Life is short. Forgiveness is worth it.

I have to wait until the end of my life for a reunion, but you guys don’t.

And I find now that the presence of Sam’s absence in that band means I just can’t see them again. And listening to Joe Dirt Car just makes me sad now, thinking about the permanent presence of absence.

Because Mike’s not here for me, and he can’t be, and he can’t be here for our adult child either, and the best I can say is “remember what Dad told you? Dad’s love never ends.”

And it doesn’t, but it is so hard even for a neurotypical person to understand that, and to feel the abstraction of love from the next world.  How can I help an autistic person understand that?

My year of dating Mike’s shadow, his present absence, is over, and I’ll have to find something new, a new band to follow or maybe a new person to love, to be a presence for the two of us, now.

But I’ve been honest with our child – we’re never going to stop missing Mike, or stop feeling incomplete, without him. That is a present absence we will just have to absorb, and carry, within and around us, every day. We can’t add anything or anyone that will take that absence away. We can only try to love what we carry – memory and hope and whispers of love in songs we hear in this world as Mike’s messages from the next.

Middle-aged Woman Rules

I do not intend to act my age. Not until I have squeezed everything out of what’s left of this life…and put as much love as I can back into it.

There is nothing like widowhood to make you feel your age.

But I am determined to “defy it,” as that make-up ad with Melanie Griffith from a few decades ago – “don’t lie about your age, DEFY IT!”

I noticed that ad a few DECADES ago. So much for lying about my age!

But the “defying” thing suddenly became important to me when Mike got sick.

I wanted him to see me at my best, or at least the best I could be, before he went. So I started the “defying” thing. And it amused him, and we laughed about it before he died, and I like to think that he did see in me again the younger woman he had pursued years before, when all he had to do was hug me and I would glow – “I’m all shiny!” I would say – and though he didn’t have the strength to hug me anymore, I wanted him to see he could still make me shine.

After he died, after all the widow duties were done, after the stone was finally laid and the cold empty absence of him became so present all the time, I panicked, and then I got mad, and then I got determined.

I don’t have very many good woman years left, I thought, and dammit I refuse to believe that they are all already gone. Mike wouldn’t want me to mope around alone, I’m sure. (Although when one of the last two of our wedding-present stemware broke, flew out of the cupboard as if someone had grabbed it and flung it down, he did observe, “that means there’s only one left now,” as if he thought that was right – there will be only you to use those glasses now. But I still don’t think he’d want me to be alone. He fell in love with me, he said, partly because he could see how badly I needed to be loved, and how easily my heart could sing, or cry.)

So I am going to make the most what I have left. Life is short. Love matters.

And so does lipstick.

Allow me to explain.

The Middle Aged Woman Rules began before Mike died, but intensified after. I took a good look in the mirror, began the heavy use of skin products, and established these Rules, which are as follows, in reverse order of importance (and I reserve the right to add to this list, ad infinitum if necessary!:

  • dress like you are expecting someone and waft perfume lightly
  • manage hair wherever it occurs
  • floss
  • smile, and
  • NEVER BE SEEN WITHOUT LIPSTICK

Because the first thing I noticed when I looked in that mirror was how washed out and ghastly I look without lipstick.

So I wear lipstick even when the only person who is going to see me is me. (See, “dress like you’re expecting someone, etc., above.)

Now, on the “dress like you’re expecting someone” rule?

Did I buy nice middle-aged lady clothes, with high shawl collars to cover my neck? And below-the-knee middle-aged librarian looking wool skirts?

Um, no.

The first thing I did (ridiculous woman, remember?) was buy a black peignoir set. Yep, sexy nightie. As if I was expecting someone. Ha!

Then I bought tight jeans, v-neck t-shirts and sweaters and five or six really cute 1950’s style dresses with tight bodices and flared skirts that you wear a crinoline under.

And related infrastructure of naughty underwear.

And I started going out, on a sort of “memory tour” of things Mike and I would have done together if he was still here.

And the first time I wore one of those crinoline dresses out? Several burly, very short-haired women remarked on how attractive it was, that I wore it well.

Oh well. Sorry, ladies, I play for the other team, but I appreciate the compliment, I really do!

And when I took adult child downtown for our annual holiday excursion, I didn’t notice until I headed to the ladies’ that the lipstick I required myself to wear had formed two little “Chuckie” lines (you know, Chuckie? That creepy horror movie doll?) on either side of my mouth, probably as a result of residue on a glass from a too-hasty pre-game snootful of something because I had splurged on a limo and wouldn’t be driving. Uncharacteristically I didn’t check my look in the car, so I was “Chuckie” all the way to the table in the restaurant.

But the kicker was when I went out to an event, smiling!! really trying to smile! and noticed a very tall, nice looking man staring at me, near the bar. I mean staring.

So I’m thinking, this pencil skirt and silk blouse are really working for me! OK!

And he kept staring so I just said, hello, I’m Anne. And he told me his name but I forgot. If adult child was with me I would never forget names, or birthdays, for that matter.

So I went and sat next to someone I knew and tall guy comes and sits on the other side of the someone I knew, and I hear him saying to his wife, “Doesn’t she remind you of Jill?”

And I’m curious so I say, “is Jill a good thing to be reminded of?”

And he turns to me and says, “Oh, yes! Jill was…Jill was brilliant! She was my best friend from high school’s mother! She passed away….”

So after all the skin products, hair management and the accurate application of lipstick, I end up being compared to a middle-aged man’s best friend’s dead mother.

So much for defying my age.

But I still do not intend to act it. My age, I mean. Not until I have squeezed everything out of what’s left of this life that I can and have done my best to put as much love as I can back into it.

Ha! Just call me Mame. Or Vera Simpson.

Or defiantly ridiculous woman.