Gravetending

A walk with grief is a walk with love.

It was a gorgeous day, very like the day we buried the urn  – blue, sunny, breezy.  The third anniversary, marked with a picnic at his grave, peaceful under a huge willow tree. This time it felt less like a ritual of grief, and more like a simple, everyday gesture of love.

The rose we planted that first year didn’t do well this year. Too many Japanese beetles  pockmarking the leaves, same as they have done to the roses in my butterfly garden at home. The vortex didn’t help, either. The soaked, soggy spring caused me to underestimate the importance of getting out there to water the fuchsia that hung from the shepherd’s crook by the stone. I removed it in July, shriveled, brown and twiggy, and so lightweight with the dryness that it jerked upward when I lifted it with too much force, expecting more weight.

Before the picnic, we went to the big-box hardware that has a good garden department. I wanted to get him a new hanging basket to ride out the summer, and a new shrub to replace the rose. As we browsed, a monarch butterfly kept landing on plants in front of us, as if making suggestions. When we came to the butterfly bushes, there were several monarchs flitting around our heads and enjoying the shrubs named for them. Angelic Daughter noticed they kept landing on specific bushes, and staying to enjoy the fragrance and the pollen, I suppose. We bought a dark pinkish-purple butterfly bush, and a hanging basket of impatiens that matched that color exactly. Back home I loaded the shovel and some gloves, then we picked up salads from our usual spot, and headed out to the cemetery.

The breeze made it difficult to spread the blanket, but I used its direction to help, and we enjoyed a quiet half hour under the willow, lunching while gazing at the new plants and decorations Mike’s eternal neighbors had received from their loved ones since the last time we were there. After lunch, I dug out the failing rose bush, and, predictably, stabbed myself with its thorns, right through the gloves. I planted the butterfly bush and hung the impatiens. I lugged four gallons of water over from the pump.

Two more gallons to rinse the stone, and highlight his name and his title, “Father.” That was his job, and he loved it, and it’s perfect to have on the stone to describe him.

I talked to him, and told him how much we both miss him. I asked him to try to find a way for her to really feel he is with her.

On the way home from her job Monday, we talked about missing him. “A day without Dad. I miss Dad. He can’t come back.” Repeated at least twenty times through the day, through most of our days now,  her last grains of hope and disbelief slowly dissolving into certainty, finality, consumed by the permanence of loss.

I told her again it was OK to be sad, but Dad wouldn’t want us to be sad all the time. Hypocrite. Inside I was feeling my own extreme loneliness, and pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, a trick that keeps me from crying.

As we pulled into the garage, I noticed the song on the radio was “You Are Not Alone.”

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay

Lately I’ve been changing the channel when a Michael Jackson song comes on.  Just can’t, anymore. But we listened to this one. I relaxed my tongue and had my tears.

Anniversaries are so hard; marking them with rituals probably makes it worse. This time, though, was more about how remembering, yearning for and missing him is a normal part of every day, not just anniversary days.

It finally rained, a good long soaking rain. Choir practice started last night. This choir has an uncanny ability to conjure precipitation. It always rains on Monday nights.

New phone for Angelic Daughter yesterday. New, substitute caregiver last night.

Sun today. But almost every sunny day has a few clouds.

The weight of this anniversary forced me to realize that this third year of widowhood was about accepting the normalcy of grief, and how carrying it and walking with it is permanently woven into each of our days, and will be in every day to come.

Tending the grave and talking to Mike as I did reminded me that grief can’t exist without love. If we walk with grief, love is walking right beside it, holding its hand.  Balanced, but too subdued. I hope this walk will lead us someday to peace, even back to joy.

Until then, I remain, your hollow yet hopeful

Ridiculouswoman

Twenty Years Ago Today, Less Three

A home now more beautiful is yet less whole.

It was Mike’s idea do the “American Gothic” pose in front of our new (old) house. We stood side by side, beyond the concrete sidewalk in front of the kitchen door, where that tall grass is now. Back then, that walk had been tightly lined with yews.

Mike’s parents entertained Angelic Daughter at their place through moving day. We were ready for them now, the movers gone. Standing with an upturned pitchfork between us, we waited for the laugh. We got it.

Anniversaries come close, this time of year. Today, the twentieth anniversary of the day we moved in. Next Saturday, the third anniversary of Mike’s death.

Both days were hot. The house isn’t air conditioned, and we didn’t have fans when we first moved in.  Exhausted from the closing and the move, we opened the windows and saved shopping for the next day.

That first morning, we heard a rooster crow. There was a small farm at the end of the road, with a horse in the field. I came downstairs around six, and saw a red fox in the front yard, looking right at me through the bay window, one black paw lifted. After about a minute of mutual stillness and staring, he trotted off, apparently satisfied.

The second day, early in the morning, someone knocked at the kitchen door, below the master bedroom window.

Mike went down and answered. It was a woman asking to buy the house. She had grown up near an orchard (there was barely a tree left of the one that had been across the street, decades before) and dreamed of a house like ours. Her prayer group was praying for her dream to come true.

I guess they didn’t consider they were praying for the destruction of someone else’s dream, hard earned through years at a job I loved working for a boss I didn’t, a savvy townhome purchase  (I seem to have an eye for real estate that will appreciate) and urgent timing. When I heard her story, I was loudly unkind.  “My God, we just moved in!”

“She hasn’t slept in four days,” Mike said to the lady, by way of apology.

Ten years or so later, he came around to my way of thinking – that to show up on someone’s doorstep two days after they moved in, whinging about how your purchase thwarted their dream when yours had just come true, was not a nice thing to do.

Our elderly neighbor, now long gone, got it right; she showed up with a plate of cookies and stories about what the house had been like before, and who our predecessors were.

We knew that the previous owner had died in the driveway, shoveling snow or trimming bushes. We welcomed his lingering spirit. We could smell his pipe smoke from time to time. It’s gone now. Perhaps he, like the fox, approved of our plan to live in this house rather than tear it down to build something bigger, which, in 1999, was what people did.

The executor left a watercolor portrait of the house on the wall that records the trees that were cut down before we moved in, the tree I had cut down since, and the yews I replaced three years ago with a bluestone patio and front walk, bordered by azaleas, ferns transplanted from my mother’s yard, sedum, catmint, Russian sage, yarrow, wildflowers from seed, milkweed (for the monarchs), buddleia and bee balm. Landscapers installed the walk and patio, and ripped out the yews. They put in boxwood, to grow into a privacy hedge, a serviceberry tree and a thick layer of organic soil, to get me started.

When we moved in, Angelic Daughter adapted instantly. I was stunned. Transitions had been so hard for her. But that evening we showed her to her new room, and her real, up-off-the-floor bed.  She climbed right in and fell peacefully asleep.

Twenty years in the house today. Nearly three without Mike. Previous “moving in” anniversaries went unnoticed or unremarked, but this milestone magnifies Mike’s absence. He should be here to enjoy the anniversary and the new patio and the garden, planted specifically to attract the hummingbirds and monarchs he loved.

Three years as two-thirds of a family. Peaceful sleep has been hard to come by.

Angelic Daughter yearns for him. I ache for her. “His love is always with you” isn’t enough. She wants to know how to know that. She want to find him.

She wants to know what he wants for her, now.

“All I can tell you is to listen. Something in you will tell you Dad is near.”

Will it?

“It’ll get better. Remember the happy times.”

I hope it will, and she can.

As next Saturday approaches, I remain,

Your trying-to-stay-strong, tearful, hurting, hopeful

Ridiculouswoman

Turndown Service

I sleep with Hilda. Not sorry.

I sleep with Hilda.

Hilda is a lavender stuffed hippopotamus.  Go ahead,  laugh. I’m your neighborblog sixty year-old widow.  Hilda makes me feel better, so get over it, OK?

Every night when the leftovers are put away and the dishwasher is loaded and running, I haul myself and my creaking knees up the stairs, and find Hilda, looking adorable, tucked in under the covers, waiting for me, the bedside table lamp aglow.

Angelic Daughter’s turndown service.

I take it as a sign of Angelic Daughter’s deep emotional intelligence, and her ability to pick up on cues I didn’t know I was sending about needs I wasn’t conscious of having.

Ok, that’s a flat out lie. I know I have NEEDS, primarily for the calming, anxiety-curing, panic-attack abating hugs Mike gave, and for the comfort that his very presence provided.  While people on the autism spectrum might have difficulty making eye contact, demonstrating “focus,” decoding facial expressions, or understanding tones of voice, it would be a mistake to assume they lack emotional intelligence. It may not be obvious, but it’s there.

“I miss Dad.”

“I miss him too, sweetheart.”

Angelic Daughter knows Hilda is a comfort to me, both because stuffed animals are comforting in general, and because Hilda has been a comfort to her, too.  I created a voice for Hilda (a sort of “bless your heart” kind of Southern accent – not sure why) and Hilda comforts Angelic Daughter by conversing with her that way, from time to time.

I found Hilda at a local toy store, a really good independent toy store that Angelic Daughter and I liked to poke around in. Its narrow aisles had shelves of stuffed animals, baskets filled with quirky fidget toys, bouncing balls and toy soldiers, racks of costumes,  arts and craft stuff, board and card games, books and a large section of model trains.

So naturally it went out of business. But not before I found Hilda.

I seized on her immediately.

Hilda righted a childhood wrong.

When I was about three years old, I had a stuffed hippo. I loved that thing, but I don’t remember naming it, or who gave it to me. It was grey. One day I decided to add some color.

I took a set of markers and drew a rainbow of parallel, curving lines all around that Hippo. Encircled its eyes and traced its tummy, big face, back and legs with a multi-colored, multi-lane highway of marker love. I was proud of my artistry.

When I showed Cruella DeVille my mother my gorgeous design, expecting praise and delight,  she snatched that hippo away and screamed at me for “ruining” it.

I had no idea why she was so angry, and I never saw that hippo again.

So Hilda was a second chance at hippo happiness.

Never mind that actual, living hippos are one of the most dangerous animals on the planet – they can bite a crocodile in two, run at speeds 35 mph or more and have huge teeth and powerful jaws. They’re very aggressive on both land and water. They kill around 3,000 people a year.

But my stuffed Hilda hippo is a skwooshy, lavender beanbag of love.

She doesn’t complain when I squeeze her tight, or squish her giant jaw-face, or take up too much room in the bed. She’s just there for me, if I need her.

And something deep in Angelic Daughter gets that I do. Need Hilda.

Everyone has a comfort item.  I hope.

I still have my baby blanket. My uncle borrowed it for my infant cousin, and never returned it. On the brink of heading off to college, I suddenly decided I needed it back.

Unc was living in my late grandfather’s grand house, an English manor-style home with a huge living room and a huge dining room opposite, across the front hall, where Grampa’s cook (yes, his cook) would call for us that it was time to “go through,” meaning, cross the front hall and find your place at a dining table that could seat 12.

Around the time of the disappeared decorated hippo, our family dog was a  black and white malamute (like a husky, but bigger) named “Buddy.” Because he was my brother’s buddy.

My cousin, Unc’s son,  named their red and white husky “Scary.”

When I asked for my blanket back,  it was discovered at the bottom of Scary’s huge chain-link cage.

Unc gamely retreived it, filthy and full of holes. I gladly washed it and took it to college with me.  I’ve had it ever since.

So you won’t hear me laughing if your self-care includes your bwanky, or dolly, or your teddy bear. Or your stuffed hippo.

Grateful for my amazing Angelic Daughter, I remain,

Your about-to-find comfort in a cuppa and a nap (with Hilda),

Ridiculouswoman

Just Get Past This…Then That…Then That

Climb the hill. And see the next one, and the next one…

The first year was filled with ritualized “first withouts” – birthdays, excursions, holidays –  around the calendar to the first anniversary of his death. Attending sporting events and concerts I thought he would have enjoyed, as if the experience could invoke his presence;  finishing work on the house and yard I had hoped he’d live to see. A much-too-soon attempt at finding someone new in the absurdity of online dating, before his stone was even laid.

Displacement activity. Avoidance. Failure to yield to the grief and let it have its head.

The second year was filled with blogging, writing the book and redecorating, as if a coat of paint and some rearranged furniture could fairy-godmother us into a life beyond mourning. Kidding myself that our daughter was finding comfort in activity, new skills, greater independence.

And then Father’s Day – Fatherless Day – the awkwardness of people who asked us what we’d be doing in observance, resisting the temptation to tell them we’d be visiting his grave, and watch the shock and embarassment –  those came anyway when Angelic Daughter answered the only way she knew how – “Dad’s in heaven.”

That day, all the busy-ness of the previous year and a half hit the wall, and demanded a do-over.

We quit, came home, and sat with it. Our “days without Dad,” our house without “his” chair, “his” room, his cooking, his man-presence.

Weeks of dark winter nights filled with tears, then silence. Then restlessness.  I felt my broken-open heart closing again. Retreating into routine, bleakness instead of gratitude, loneliness instead of love. Not much laughter.

This was not the plan – not the “don’t waste another minute” life I thought I learned, from losing Mike, to live.

I want to fix it, but what I have ended up with, right now at least, feels like a never-ending procession of milestones to be got past.

“I can take care of that, once I get past this…”

Just get through it – the holidays again, the wisdom teeth, the job search, the doctor’s appointments.

What then? Just another hill to climb? Another hurdle, another hoop?

I’ve told my daughter the necessary – that we are always going to miss Dad, that every day for the rest of our lives with be a day without Dad – but never without his love – and that we must find a way to carry grief with us without letting it weigh us down.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Because it does weigh me down.

Every time I do a half-assed job of cleaning the Bulgarian-built  kitchen, still lovely, but not longer new.

Every time I try to make a meal that he used to make for her, and do an adequate job, but never an identical job.

Every time I have to make a decision by myself without him here to bounce it off of, even if I know he would have said it didn’t matter either way.

It takes me way too long to finish a book these days.

I’m watching too much television, in my “boudoir” for one.

Not getting enough sleep.

I keep thinking, if I get that job, things will normalize. It will be more like it used to be.

We’ll hire a wonderful new person to stay with her, to get her out more, expand her range and just help her have more fun. Something I’ve never been very good at.

But Mike was an expert at it. A really fun Dad.

So of course it won’t “normalize” things. It will never be like it used to be. Because it won’t be Mike taking care of her, taking her places, listening to music with her, goofing around.

And now, Memorial Day is coming.

Just get past it.

Then medical screenings – routine, but requiring anesthesia.

I’ll update the emergency information – part of the deal, now – and send it out to the brothers, and this time, the sisters-in-law. If by some mischance it’s not me, she’ll need another woman to understand her needs.

Just get past it. I’ll be so relieved, when I wake up.

But then, Father’s Day again.

Then the Fourth of July.

Occasions for visits to his grave. A picnic on the Fourth.

Just get past it.

No trip to Maine this year – can’t afford it. Maybe that will give us a break, from the next one and the next one, this endless pummeling by rituals and reminders of grief, gotten through, only to see the next one coming.

The writer’s conference was good, encouraging – and then I get home and feel like I’m losing my nerve, like I want to curl up in a little fetal ball and hide.

I regard counseling as a form of self-indulgence.

Maybe I should just get past that.

Spinning my emotional wheels, I remain,

Your sad, skeptical, stuck,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Sophie’s Empty Sunny Spot

Sophie the Christmas Miracle Cat ran out of miracles on Mother’s Day morning, and we had to say goodbye.

There’s a special kind of loneliness in letting go of a pet you shared with a spouse who has died.

Sophie’s warm fur was a lingering, physical manifestation of specific memories of Mike – how she’d sit on his left leg, crossed ankle to knee over the other, so his left knee was elevated a bit; he’d stroke her as she settled herself there in the triangular cradle his legs made, to stare over that knee and watch the hockey game with him, intensely following the movement of the puck, as if it were a mouse she wanted to devour.

There was the time he called to me to come see how, as he lay on his bed reading, she had demanded his attention by arranging herself with her butt at his chin and her tail extended straight up his face.

Months after he was diagnosed, we remembered how, months before, she’d daintily walk up from her end of the couch to his, to lay lengthwise on his torso, facing him, gazing at him with concern. It was as if she knew before we did – as if she could sense the disease that lay beneath: as if she was trying to warn us, or commiserate, or tell him that she cared, or ask him if there was anything she could do. As if she was preparing to miss him.

Saturday afternoon, I bought 36 cans of cat food (coupon) and a new green jug of cat litter. Sunday morning I carried them back to the car, sobbing and streaming snot, trying to think of where I could donate them.

The cat bed – her too-small, clam-shaped tiny Hollywood bowl of a cat bed, coated with her fur, went straight to the garbage. I couldn’t look at it for another moment.

When night came, I was overcome with a loneliness so intense it nearly made me sick. Sophie was our substitute third “person” in this house, and now, it was genuinely, really only the two of us, here with far too much hollow space around us, especially in the darkness of the night.

I asked the vet to take Sophie, and not to bring us the ashes.

If Mike had been here to make that decision with me, would it have been the same?

Since Sunday morning, every time daughter sighs and says, “I miss Dad,” (which she has been saying daily for nearly three years, and probably will say daily for decades to come), she adds, “and I miss Sophie.”

I do too, sweetheart. I do too.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to tell her we’d get a sign from Sophie, to tell us she had found her sunny spot in heaven, with Dad. More abstraction for an autistic person to try to process.

Late Sunday night, in the midst of that nearly-sick-making smackdown of loneliness, I had a sudden impulse to start watching a cable comedy that I’m a few seasons behind on.

Halfway or so into the pilot episode, the Mom gets a phone call. It is brief and when it’s done, the daughter asks who it was.

“Sophie’s Dad.”

In the scene, the Mom didn’t want to talk to Sophie’s Dad, who seemed like an awfully nice guy in the few seconds he had on screen. If we think of Mike as Sophie’s Dad, I damn sure would want to talk to him. But maybe our Sophie was just doing the best she could, to find some available, if slightly awkward, way to send a signal through.

Monday evening, sitting on the twin chaises on the deck, enjoying the late afternoon sun and the green of the lawn and the birds swooshing around the yard, I noticed a grey bird landing on one of the neighbor’s fence posts, right across from us, looking at us.

It made a loud, meow-y kind of sound.

Is that a cat bird?

“Sophie? If that’s you, come to the bird bath!”

The bird flew closer, but was headed off by the male cardinal, protecting his turf.

I Googled for a YouTube video or recording of the call of a cat bird. Cornell’s library of bird sounds.

Yep, that was it, exactly.

I googled the territory of the grey cat bird. Cornell again.

Yep, could be here, this time of year.

Oh, Soph. Thanks for calling. Thanks for telling us, as daughter says, that “you have arrived at your destination.”

Now climb up on Dad’s lap and watch some hockey. We’ll be thinking of you both.

Sending love and gratitude to pets past Lucky, Buddy, Barbita, Rocky, Phantom and now Sophie too, I remain,

Your sobby, snot-smeared, Sophie-missing but certain she’s found her forever sunny spot,

Ridiculouswoman

Twenty-nine Years

The snow will melt tomorrow. But my heart melted tonight.

“April is in my mistress’ face,
And July in her eyes hath place;
Within her bosom is September,
But in her heart a cold December…”

madrigal by Thomas Morely, 1594

Mike and I met twenty-nine years ago today, on a warm April evening.

I was wearing a pink spring dress, no jacket necessary.

Twenty-nine years later, here I sit, under a winter storm warning, wearing a flannel shirt and Mike’s winter scarf.

Ironically, we met at a meeting of a ski club, held at a then quite new, but now very well established, brewpub. The event purportedly was to showcase the next season’s planned trips, but it was actually a thinly-disguised singles thing.

Mike didn’t ski. Neither did his buddy, who dragged him along as his wingman.

I didn’t know that then.

The girl pal I dragged along didn’t ski, either. Bad back.

Turned out I was the only one of the four of us who had a legitimate excuse to be there.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve gone skiing. It’s on my bucket list, if my knees can take it. Maybe next year.

As for today, I can feel my ritualizing of anniversaries fading. This is the third without him, and he never made much of them anyway.

So today I’m thinking more about whether my just-emerging snow peas will live up to their name.

I’m not sure the lettuce, spinach, chard and beets I planted two weeks ago, in a burst of April-faced gardening enthusiasm (“this year, I’ll finally get them in the ground early enough!!”) will make it.

When the snow started, I ran out and cut several small bunches of hyacinth and daffodils and brought them in the house to enjoy.

IMG_20190427_182841415.jpgIMG_20190427_200812283.jpg

But I left that snow-shrouded bunch pictured up there, and a few of the daffodils, to fend for themselves. I think they’ll make it.

As for the spring flowering trees, and the trees in general, this snowstorm brings a whole new meaning to “nip it in the bud.”

From the height of them, though, most of the trees around my house have been there for much longer than I’ve been here. On this planet, I mean.  Definitely “old growth” trees.

They might lose a branch or two in this heavy, wet, spring snow, but clearly, if they’ve been here that long, they’ve been through this before. They can get through this now.

It’s all supposed to melt tomorrow, anyway.

Annually, I remind people I meet in grocery or garden stores, people who couldn’t resist wearing shorts and flip-flops on the very first warm day in March, that it always snows again in April.

How sweet of me.

Cold December heart.

Obviously, I called the last storm too early this year.

I should have known better. Like the trees, I’ve been through this before. I have a distinct memory of myself on a June afternoon, sitting on the screen porch my father built, wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt (hey, I was fat, but I was 5), coloring, when a sudden whoosh of wind swept the warmth away in a nanosecond and blew snow flurries through the screens.

And I should have known better than to think that Mike wouldn’t send some kind of  recognition of this anniversary to me in this world, from his timeless place in the next, as a little rejoinder to that remark about him not making much of anniversaries.

Because, just now, as I am writing this, an ad came on the radio.

For the brewpub where we met.

The snow hasn’t melted yet, but the December in my heart just did.

Missing Mike and grateful for a good, carthartic cry, I remain,

Your broken-open-hearted,

Ridiculouswoman

Solace in Spring Snow

Winter can’t come if it never leaves.

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow…

-TS Eliot, The Wasteland

Palm Sunday. A parade toward betrayal, pain, despair, and death.

Crocuses muffled in sudden spring snow, heavy and wet.

Cars off the road.

How could you forget how to drive in winter, so soon?

It always snows again in April, I said.

I was right.

Budding trees and flowering shrubs – freeze frame.

The cedars and arborvitae, which had just begun to lift,

bent now under a burden of white.

I wasn’t quite ready, anyway.

I heard his voice yesterday, so clear,

quoting Sara Teasdale’s “I am not yours,”

the voice that he left on my answering machine,

nearly thirty years ago.

“For yours is a spirit, beautiful and bright…”

just as I was feeling unworthy as mother to our daughter

whose spirit is more beautiful and bright than mine can ever be,

again.

Winter can’t come if it never leaves.

Sun and spring flowers, up from bulbs planted just before winter was coming.

“Mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…”

Today I am grateful for the warmth of winter

and the forgetful snow.