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.

 

The Wearin’ O’ the Grief

Sometimes a hat is more than a hat….

I look terrible in green. I’ll wear it in a Campbell plaid, offset by enough navy to keep my face from turning sallow.

I’ve been wearing Mike’s Campbell plaid scarf all winter. I’m sure it originally was mine, but he wore it as his sole neck-warmer through all the blizzards and vortexes we endured together. He also took my little black Russian-looking hat, which I have also been wearing all winter.

Green everywhere today, not only because it is St. Patrick’s Day in Chicagoland, where more than one river has been dyed green, but because the annual miracle of spring has begun. Perhaps slightly more miraculous than usual, because this has been one bitch of a winter – grey, snow, thaw, rain, freeze, vortex, snow, snow, snow, ice, slush, grey, rain – until you are going mad and believe you may never see the sun, or a blue sky, or green grass, ever again.

And then, there they are. The sun, the sky, the grass.

The immortal snowpiles that won’t melt until June are still blocking views in parking lots, but still.

In spring, Chicago’s headwear changes. Even though the nut cases who will actually sit in the stands at Wrigley in early April will freeze their ears off, they’ll be wearing baseball caps.

So, despite my habit of not getting green too close to my face, today, I put away the little black Russian looking hat, and  put on Mike’s green, be-shamrocked Cubs hat.

Not just because it is the only completely green article of clothing I have, but because it was Mike’s.

It still smells like him.

Mike’s middle name was Patrick (derived from the Latin for “father:” appropriate, because Mike was a great Dad). He was only one quarter Irish and he never made much of St. Patrick’s day, but in Chicago, you can’t avoid it. Green river, green beer – one year my Dad’s train-commuting seat-mate gave him a green bagel and a green yarmulke. I was relieved when my brother’s genealogical research turned up an Irish great-great grandmother. OK! I surrender. Kiss me, I’m Irish.

But I’m not sure still wearing Mike’s scarf and hat is all that healthy.

Spring is bringing some kind of emotional, as well as physical, thaw, and grief keeps busting out unexpectedly, suddenly, like bulbs I forgot I planted, or last summer’s un-pulled weeds emerging overnight from under the melting snow. It startles me like a smack of spring thunder when you were still expecting the silence of snow.

Driving aimlessly down the road last night, looking for, and oddly not finding, anyplace featuring live Irish music, even in the two close-by towns-full-of-bars, and listening to the radio, just because I had some me-time available, wearing Mike’s hat, I passed the lane that leads into the small industrial area, back to the odd little crematorium – I thought I had put that out of my mind, but last night? Oomph – like a punch in the gut.

This morning, on the way to church, “Landslide” came on the radio – the mature, more recent one recorded by the older Stevie Nicks:

“Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
I don’t know…

Well I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’
Cause I built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too…”

Tears, under sunglasses. Grateful for the sunglasses. Don’t cry in front of her, our child, anymore. She’s getting through it.

Better than me.

I still haven’t figured out how to sell his game collection.

Or his telescope.

Or the tandem.

Maybe all the redecorating I’ve been doing (or attempting) lately has just been a frantic effort to suppress grief. Push it way down, keep it down, don’t let it surface.

But, I wear the scarf and the hat, not just for the green, but as present, physical symbols of his absence, worn with love and remembrance, giving form to my shadowy, inner void.

Time passes. I get older. If I give myself the time to really wear the grief, put it on like a coat with the hat and the scarf, I fear I will run out of time to take it off enough to really live what’s left of my life.

You can’t do something significant for others, or feel gratitude and joy to their fullest, if you are a shrouded, diminished, half-empty version of yourself.

If I must wear a coat of grief, let’s make it a lighter, spring coat.

Our next forecast for sun is Thursday, and highs in the 50’s (F) Friday.

No need for a scarf or hat.

Until then, I remain,

Your unpredictably weepy but going with it until it passes, and it does,

Ridiculouswoman

 

 

 

 

The Sideways Hourglass

How’d my hourglass fall over?

Back when Mike would drive me to the train station for my commute to my high-stress job, we’d sometimes arrive early enough to see the train before mine go by – it was an express, and our daughter loved the thrill of watching it blast through the station (from the safety of the car, of course.)

We came to call these express trains “whoosh” trains, because they’d “whoosh” by.

Every once in a while, she still asks to drive over to the station, to see a whoosh train.

Whoosh trains define my relationship to time, now – time that is whooshing by like a train I’m not on.

I feel like I should be “better” by now. It’s been over two years and we’re coming up on our third Christmas season without Mike. I finished my book and I’m working up the courage to start sending out my query letters about it. I’ve painted rooms, given away almost all his clothes, including, finally, the barn coat and boots. I’m still working on figuring out what to do with his collection of war games, and the telescope and the tandem are still in the garage. But still.

I’ve had days when I felt happy. Days when I didn’t think about Mike, and then felt guilty about it. I’m surprised by this new wave of grief that has hit me, now, at the start of the season of joy.

The train whooshes by. I’m supposed to be trying to live with love and laughter, and right now, I suck at it. I’m doing OK with the love part, I guess, except it feels like it is coming from a still, quiet place that just sits there – it isn’t an active kind of love. It’s an, “OK, get up, one foot in front of the other, let’s try to be a decent person today” kind of love, and I still fail at it regularly.

I feel an odd sort of responsibility to “make progress,” and I feel like I haven’t made any. I keep getting older and I’m every bit as alone. I keep losing and regaining the same three pounds.

The panicky anxiety is back. Mike could fix that. One hug from him and I was OK. I felt safe.

I don’t feel safe. I feel exposed. Unlocked. Threatened and afraid.

I sure as hell don’t feel like I’m “making progress.”

I feel like someone knocked the my hourglass over sideways.

Everyone else’s hourglass is efficiently sifting its sand, and when it is just about done, they’ll just “strike the bell and turn the glass” and start a new day.

I feel stuck in a place where time passes, I get older, but things don’t get better. Just dustier, greyer, yellowed. Old. Dried up.

chess and hourglass still life

I kept one of his many chessboards, the one he won as an elementary school champion. I still have his hats, though the smell of him is fading from them. I have too many dried up roses around the house. Feng shui, or something like it, says not to keep those, and to throw away the chipped dishes and cracked glassware. Working on it.

I haven’t been reading anything other than the deluge of catalogs that come this time of year, which I find oppressive. Maybe this year I’ll just do one of those, “Anne has made a donation in your name to…(insert laudable charitable organization doing the good in the world that I don’t seem to have the will or gumption or energy or courage to do.)

From darkness riseth light, right? Right?

Each year my church has a “longest night” service for people like me – people who need comfort because they feel left out of the joy.

That’s the message, though, isn’t it? He came in our darkest hour – never mind that we appropriated a pagan midwinter festival designed to address fears that the dark of winter would last forever and light would not come again. He came to bring hope to the hopeless and light to the darkness.

And to unburden us of our sins.

I feel like failing to be happy is a sin. I feel like I shouldn’t have to work so hard to feel grateful for the life I have and I don’t understand why I keep thinking about the life I never had instead of the one I do have, now. I don’t understand why I keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.

I’ve been slipping in my observation of the Middle Aged Woman rules. I’m in danger of giving up, drying up, sinking into a cronehood made up of joint pain and thinning hair and sagging spirit…well, let’s be honest here, sagging everything.

I have to go wash my hair, put on some lipstick, and take my daughter to see the holiday model train display. I’ll try to be quiet, and let her just enjoy it.

And maybe when they start sprinkling the fake snow from the ceiling, I’ll look out the window at the specks of real snow that is falling, and remember that spring will come.

From darkness riseth light.

In the bleak midwinter.

Time to buy a tree, and smell the piney-ness of it, and find the joy, even if it is small, and deeply buried.

Until then I remain,

Your humble, flawed, struggling, hanging on to hope by a thread,

Ridiculouswoman

Fantasy Island

He could show up…in my fantasy…

Tonight through Friday, I choose to dwell in an alternate, fantasy universe.

In this place, flying horses are gently anchored at sunset, docile, innocent, faithful – certain of a safe night and a sweet sunrise, when they will be freed to soar again.

And in this place, I cook an enormous Thanksgiving meal, with appetizers of paté on brioche with cornichons and mustard, smoked salmon and cream cheese with capers, marinated shrimp, cheese and grapes, strawberries with creme fraiche and brown sugar, a perfect, moist turkey with crisp skin (I’ll try spatchcocking it, for the first time, which is sure to turn out magnificently, because this is my FANTASY, remember?), mashed potatoes and gravy, whole berry cranberry sauce (not the abomination of the canned stuff, cylindrical, jiggling – we  have RULES here) sweet potato and carrot puree, peas and onions, brussels sprouts with bacon and a salad with dried cranberries, pecans and blue cheese crumble with raspberry vinaigrette, dinner rolls with butter, pumpkin and apple pie and wine, a meal that will last all weekend, with many, many platefuls to be assembled, warmed and served to …..

my imaginary gentleman caller.

Not Mike – that wouldn’t be fair, to call him back – but someone new that he’s approved of, or sent, even.

Someone to prop up this two-legged stool our lives have become, in this manless house.

I’ll wear my Thanksgiving dress all day, because you never know when a man on a flying white horse will show up. Could happen, here on my fantasy island.

I am in the process of cooking that enormous meal, preparing everything that can be done ahead of time, for our second Thanksgiving on Friday, after the first on Thursday at the brother’s in-laws, the first large family Thanksgiving my daughter will have ever experienced.

Then we’ll do our meal-just-for-two, with vats of hopeful leftovers waiting for my imaginary new man: leftovers that will last beyond Friday night, when I’ll hang up the dress; leftovers, uneaten by any man, that will sustain us through the weekend, when, back in the real world, I will bring out out the drop cloth and take on the big project, painting the front room.

Hilarity (and multiple additional trips to the hardware store) will no doubt ensue.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your fondest fantasies come true.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a flying horse to catch.

When my equine flight lands, you may find me in the kitchen.

Stirring, pureeing, peeling, mashing and basting, I remain,

your loyal, lonely, faithful, hopeful,

Ridiculouswoman

First Snow

Muffle my fears, please…not my heart…

Late this year. Usually comes before Halloween.

Heavy, wet, sticky – the whipped-cream, white-frosting kind, that will likely melt away by tomorrow, I hope without taking a few branches down with it, when the wind blows.

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I love the muffled, muting effect of snow. Calming.

I need that today.

Yesterday, the early dark seemed menacing. More than two years on, there are still times when Mike’s absence, and the accompanying not-having-a-man-in-the-house feeling, gives me the creeps. Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong, independent woman and always have been. I can handle things, and pretty much have handled them for myself since I was 18 – and for my late husband from the day we were married until all the arrangements were finished after he died, and for my daughter since she was born.

But knowing I can handle it doesn’t keep me from sometimes doubting I can handle it, especially when I’m feeling inadequate – the too-frequent, bleak feeling of being only half, and the lesser half at that, of what our daughter needs.

She misses him so much. Two years and she only now has begun to repeat, “when a person goes to heaven, they can’t come back. Dad’s not coming back.”

And the only response I can offer is the same as I have been saying all along, that while he can’t be here with us in a way where we can hug him and talk to him, we can always feel his love with us

“Dad’s love never ends.”

I remind her of those times when we’re driving somewhere, and she suddenly changes the radio station and the song that she lands on is one that was special to us, or better, one that was special to just the two of them.

They used to drive around listening to music, sometimes just to drive around, listening to music.

I’ve invited her to bring her CD’s into the car with me, but it is not the same car and he’s not driving it. She just relies on the radio, now.

I keep thinking we’re getting better, that we’re learning how to move on, and then I’ll have a night like last night and a morning like today, where each moment of hope is countered by a moment of fear, guilt, shame or anger. The four horsemen of “this-is-not-who-I-want-to-be.”

There is no love without forgiveness. Why can’t I forgive myself? Why do I magnify every lapse of parental patience into a major, soul-crushing crisis of inadequacy?

Because Mike’s not here to tell me to snap out of it and stop being such a drama queen?

She gets over it before I do.

Way to go, Mom. Some Mom.

BAD MOM.

Am I doing anything right?

This third Thanksgiving without him, I agreed to take our daughter to dinner at my brother’s in-laws. They eat much earlier in the day than we usually do, but it is a chance for my daughter to finally have a family holiday with a lot more family – I’m nostalgic for the big family holiday meals we had when I was a child, with grandpa and the uncle or the cousins. She’s never really had one like that. Grandpa died long before she was born, the cousins moved away, and Mike wouldn’t go, so for years it was just the two of us and my parents. Then just the three of us, at home. Now just the two of us, alone – but I keep the empty third chair at the table. That’s probably not healthy, anymore.

I hope the change will be good for her — she’ll get to meet some cousins-in-law that have only been mythical to her so far.

And I hope it will be good for me, to be around more people – other adults – and to be forced by social convention and good manners to get out of my own head for a while.

By the end of today, my daughter will have new carpeting in her room. Carpeting called “party” from a series called “joy.” Appropriate for her beautiful, joyful, resilient spirit.

The new carpeting for my room and the hall won’t come until January, but I don’t mind waiting. Next year, 2019, is a Big One for me, birthday-wise. Might as well start with new carpet and go from there.

For today, though, I’m just going to look at the snow, eat some soup, be still, and try to “get back to just right,” as we say in our house.

Hoping that the muffling effect of the snow will muffle my fears and my self-doubt, but not my heart, I remain,

Your jittery, inadequate, unexpectedly blue but believing

IMG_20181109_132234474.jpg

the sun will come out soon,

Ridiculouswoman

Serenity in Solitude, Anxiety Alone

Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you … (l)ess prone to worry and fear?

I enjoy my own company. (According to friends, colleagues and former teachers, I also enjoy the sound of my own voice.  A bit too much, apparently. Fair enough, working on that.)

I have long found serenity in solitude. I enjoy a night at home with a good book and some classical music on the radio. I go to the opera by myself and enjoy watching the crowd watching each other at intermission. I write, and sitting alone at my computer, writing, is probably my favorite thing to do.

Before I met Mike, I had made peace with being a single woman. When I was in college, I drove myself to California from Chicago and back once a year. As a young professional, I took myself to Disneyworld (where one of the “cast members” asked me, when I stepped up solo in the Pirates of the Caribbean souvenir photo studio, “couldn’t you get anyone to come with you?”) and I took myself skiing in Breckenridge.  I went to theater and movies and bars. I enrolled in improv classes and ended up performing 4 shows a week. I had fun. I didn’t stop hoping to meet a guy, but I didn’t pin my happiness on it.

Only then, when I’d learned to be happy on my own, did Mike show up.

What happened to that self-assured solitude?

Lately, when I have a moment or two by myself, cracks appear; I feel my composure  peeling away, flaking off, like the veneer on the antique composition face of Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll.

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Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll. She’s wearing a bonnet my mother knitted, and a dress that I wore as an infant.

Right when I need to recapture confidence and even serenity in solitude, I find anxiety when I’m alone.

I was cleaning the bathroom and I suddenly started breathing hard, on the brink of sobs, thinking about taking care of my daughter as I try to help her gain more independence, and feeling inadequate. Talking to Mike, aloud, asking for help.

I’m nervous when driving home from choir rehearsal in the dark. It’s only 15 minutes away, but in my car alone I feel weirdly vulnerable, exposed. Fearful, even. As if I’d left a door unlocked somewhere, putting valuable things at risk.

That’s not me, or at least not who I think I am. I think of myself as strong, capable, enduring; sometimes soft and sentimental, maybe, but no ‘fraidy cat, no scaredy-pants.

I come from hardy stock. Women who gave birth on leaky 17th century ships crossing the Atlantic, or without doctors in remote farmhouses in Maine and Massachusetts. I myself gave birth without painkillers. So I’m disappointed when I feel panic rising.

Mike could calm me down when I felt panicky, which was often, back when I was working high-pressure jobs with toxic bosses or impossible goals. I got some major panic mileage out of those times. It drove my colleagues crazy, and tried Mike’s patience to the breaking point at times.

I kept that panic button pictured up there (with the Hallmark characters called Hoops and Yoyo, who kind of crack me up) on my desk, to remind myself of how charming I am when consumed with anxiety.  Here’s what it sounds like when you push it:

Sweet, huh?

What happened to that confident single woman, who travelled alone, went where she pleased, and knew she could take care of herself?

Well, she got married. Became someone who took care of others, as a mother, a wife, a breadwinner, a caregiver – and now a widow.

Isn’t getting older supposed to make you bolder? Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you wiser? More open and easygoing? Less prone to worry and fear?

It doesn’t seem to be working for me that way just now.

Which brings out the spirits of the hardy New-England ancestresses in my head, especially Grammie E, a retired New England schoolmarm, thirty years a widow herself after caring for her dying husband, in her mid-70’s, wiping her hands on her apron after producing a kitchen full of  homemade donuts at 5 am, telling me to just pick myself up and go outside for a good long walk, deah.

Then come home and scrub something.

Well, I did get the salad veg drawer in the fridge washed out today. So there’s that.

OK, Grammie. I’ll suck it up and do my job to build my daughter as independent a life as she may want.

And then?

Well, if my knees can take it, I’m going skiing.

Maybe I’ll meet a nice guy on the slopes, tee hee.

Daydreaming is what makes solitude serene.

Awaiting the rheumatologist’s report, while trying-to-stop-feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-get-my-creaking-joints-and-fat-ass-to-the-gym (or at least outside for a brisk walk),

I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, solitary,

Ridiculouswoman

Unlikely Tearjerker: Crying at Catalogs

No man to shop for. Incomplete. Halved.

(FYI: I mention brand names sometimes. I’m not getting paid for it. Not that I don’t hope to get paid for it someday, to be honest, but please be assured that I wouldn’t accept payment to endorse something I don’t like or don’t use. There’s a name for that. I’m not that.)

Labor Day Weekend. So far, it’s been a weekend of funerals and public mourning here in the US  – Aretha. John McCain. Rainy here in Chicagoland. But Labor Day weekend is still and always, regardless, the informal “official” beginning of the fall season.

My favorite season.

Break out the pumpkins and gourds, the red, orange and rusty leaves, the deep blue October skies, the fall excursions, the clean, brisk chill.

Here come the catalogs.

For a while there, I was the catalog queen. I delighted in finding obscure, funny or “just right” gifts for family and friends in the deluge of catalogs that start arriving in the mail this time of year, anticipating my other favorite season, Christmastime.

The volume of catalogs in my mailbox has decreased markedly, probably because I don’t buy so much stuff from them anymore.

I used to buy Mike a lot of stuff from catalogs.

Clothes, mostly. Like many men, Mike hated shopping, couldn’t stand having to make decisions about which shirt or what color or how many pockets. So I bought most of his clothes for him, primarily from catalogs.

Mostly from the L.L. Bean catalog

I get catalogs from L.L. Bean regularly, I suppose because I buy stuff from them regularly. And the fall L.L. Bean catalog is one fat-ass catalog.

These catalogs are usually neatly divided into women’s clothing, footwear, outdoor gear and men’s clothing.

When I first collect the catalogs from the mailbox, I still find myself reflexively flipping to the back half, where the men’s clothing is featured.

That’s when the tears start.

It used to be fun, joyful, even, to peruse, study, contemplate and even agonize a little over which shirts, what pair of shorts or trousers or which color sweater I would buy for Mike this year. Always something muted – he liked misty ocean blues, olive greens, greys. He surprised me once, on our annual pilgrimage to Renny’s, an old-fashioned all-goods mini-department store in Bath or Damariscotta, Maine, by choosing a bright, rosy orange t-shirt. But for the most part, navy, dark green and greys would do.

Now, looking at the L.L. Bean catalog just feels sad, incomplete. Diminished.

What do I need with a new flannel shirt? Another expensive (always v-necked, I’m short, it helps) cashmere sweater? I’ll only forget and toss it in the shared laundry basket at the top of the basement stairs, where Angelic Daughter will collect it and with her beautiful, helpful, eager-to-please, utterly innocent heart, wash it in hot water and put it in the dryer, to emerge, a pint-sized shadow of its former self.  I have hundreds of dollars worth of such boiled-wool sweaters. I’ll cut them into squares and stitch them into a blanket for my grand-nephew, one of these days.

That raggy sweater up there in the picture was one of Mike’s stalwarts. So much so that it got snagged and torn during bouts of fall yard work. I kept it and, submerged in it, used it in the deep of winter on sub-zero mornings when tending the chickens. Those birds are gone now, but I still have the sweater.

But the catalog. There it sits, on top of my “mount to-be-read” (an expression I am borrowing from a member of a a listserv and website for Patrick O’Brian enthusiasts), half of it now dimmed, shrouded in sad irrelevance.

No man to shop for. Incomplete. Halved.

I’ve learned to give these catalogs a glance, anyway, silently thanking L.L. Bean for their neat organization, making it easy to avoid the back half of the book, where the men’s clothing is grouped. There might be something there my daughter needs. I’ll  give it a look for that.

Boots, hats, gloves, socks. Perennially unprepared for winter before it comes, I’m determined to fix that this year. We’ll have enough to muffle ourselves up in when we go to hang an autumn decoration, obtained on a fall excursion, on the shepherd’s hook by his gravestone, and when the time for winter wreaths rolls around.

Muffled, with that ever-empty space beside us, where Mike, the anchor of our little family triumvirate, should be.

We walk with that empty space beside us, inside us, now, through every moment of our days.

The tear-dampened back half of that catalog flaps limply as I fold it under.

Recycle.

 

Hoping for a hummingbird, to remind me we’ll be OK,

I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, I hope not-too-self-pitying, incomplete but trying to recycle and carry on,

Ridiculouswoman