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

Grief Is A Time Machine

Grieving in a grievous world

Grief alters time, eradicating now with then. It flares up, prompted by insignificant things.

Except for the significance the insignificant things invoke.

Grief doesn’t recognize magnitude relative to other, more recent, shocking and violent horrors, affecting many more people, all at once.

Should I be ashamed of my grief? Of writing about grief, today? Is it small, selfish? When grief bursts inside my chest, brought on by a radio ad for some long forgotten music venue we visited only once, stealing my breath, and I blink and flutter and try to control my voice, is that trivial, comparatively?

It happens at the intersection I can’t avoid when driving Angelic Daughter home from her once-a-month fast-food indulgence: grabs me by the throat and transports me to the merciful end of Mike’s final fall excursion, five years ago. It was way too long a drive, longer than I thought it would be. We didn’t know about the cancer yet, but he was uncomfortable, he was angry, he just wanted to get home.

I was tense, because I knew he was on the brink of exploding, close to raging at me for choosing the wrong road, the wrong destination, that everything I had done that day was wrong, that I was crazy. He did that when he was in pain, physically or emotionally.

I drifted left too soon and bumped up over the rumble-stripped median, before the turn lane began. A jolt. A bad ending to a bad day.

There’s the place near the grocery store where he finally got pulled over, after driving on an expired license for ten years. He had failed the written test and stomped out, refusing to wait any longer for another chance. He got caught because I had forgotten to renew the sticker on the license plate. He thought I did that deliberately.

The spice jars I gave him: one of his few, final Christmas presents, to use in the new kitchen, hoping he would find them inspiring, cheering, life-extending.

I can’t seem to keep them organized the way he did. But I see him arranging them.

The long-lost chess piece from his little magnetic traveling set, deep in the bottom of a box in the closet. How?

The rugless, blank place on the living room floor where the hospital bed had been.

“Missing Dad with love. Dad can’t come back. We have to live without him because he can’t come back.”

She has stopped repeating how things went the night he died. Now it’s “Dad used to…” Used to take her there, feed her that, play.

Basketball, tag, hide and seek.

The red shed is gone now, where he kept the large riding mower he bought just days after we moved in, twenty years ago. He would put it in neutral while it was off, and push her around on it. I still see it, right there at the edge of the yard, when I look out the windows by my desk. I see the tractor and her on it, him pushing.

Summer was his time. I see him sun-browned in his tennis whites, serving, volleying, hitting passing shots, my Dad gleefully niggling his tennis buddies – Mike was his ringer.

The lamp I bought, afraid he’d hate it.

IMG_20190804_131429837.jpg

I bought it because I liked the shade, the color, and especially the shape. I thought it looked a bit like me.

He said he loved the lamp, and I loved him for that.

These things hold memories, but they don’t blindside me with intense flashbacks, like the radio ad, or the fall excursion intersection, or when I look up at the clock and find that the time reads as the date we met, or his birthday.

They don’t draw sudden tears, like the monarch butterfly that flitted by my desk windows, very close, for several seconds, just as I was writing about the bad end to the bad fall day.

She waits for me, to be as entertaining as he was.

I’m not.

I don’t cook like he did. I don’t shoot baskets or play tag. I couldn’t ride the tandem and finally sold it.

But I took her horseback riding, in a state park an hour away.

The horses were ornery, reluctant. They wanted to graze on the grass. They wanted to turn around and go home, like Mike did that fall excursion day.

But they responded when I spoke to them gently, and when we sang to them.

We saw more monarch butterflies along the trail than we have seen all summer.

She said, “Dad rode Jesse.” In Arizona, on vacation, more than ten years ago.

Then she said, “I really enjoyed going horseback riding with you, Mom.”

Anticipating our next trail ride, I remain, your time-traveling, tearful,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Big News

Nothing like a little external validation – for my writing.

A piece of mine was featured yesterday on wowblog.me; “wow” stands for “Women’s Older Wisdom.”

Here’s a direct link:

http://wowblog.me/this-isnt-exactly-what-we-had-planned/

I will be paid for it.

Let’s let that land for a minute.

I have been writing since I was a pre-schooler. This is the first time I can remember where I will be paid for writing something that wasn’t to serve or promote an organization I worked for as an employee, or to win a prize in school by writing about someone else’s writing.

This is me getting paid for writing as me, A WRITER.

Hot damn.

Validation, thy name is “the check’s in the mail.”

And delightfully, validation out of serendipity: this opportunity came about because my cousin forwarded a link to “On Dying Heroically” to Pat Taub, who runs wowblog.me. An invitation to submit a guest post resulted. So thanks, Cos! And thanks, Pat, for the opportunity.

I chose an image of fireworks against a dark sky for this announcement, because this accomplishment is a bit bittersweet: I was asked to produce a piece on widowhood in middle age. But that’s what I’m living and writing about, so that was fine with me.

For those of you looking for guest post opportunities, Wowblog.me is interested: the blog wants to reflect diverse opinions and experiences. If you want to submit, your piece should be 550-650 words and you should include a short bio (100 words or less) and a thumbnail head shot. Take a look at the blog to get an idea of the kinds of articles published there.

When I looked at my stats, I realized that readers who came over from wowblog.me to check out Ridiculouswoman were looking at pages I hadn’t updated in a while, like my about page, and my books and music page. So that gave me a nudge to tidy those up a bit.

I did recently add a few new entries to the Snark Tank – check out “Whipped,” “Meat is Gluten Free!” and a new, top entry under “Shit Doctors Say.”

That this happened, getting published on somebody else’s blog and getting paid for it,  finally pushed me to add “freelance blogger” to my resume and even to my LinkedIn profile. Not that I’d quit a day job, if I had one! Still looking, there. But I’m looking for a day job (or a part-time job or any kind of a job that will bring in some money to pay for silly things like health insurance and electricity) to support my brand new, long-postponed, writing “career” and related (hoped-for) speaking engagements.

If you’re new here, please sign up to follow either through WordPress or by email (there are links on the right) and do share your comments – you don’t have to have an account to do that. (If you run into any snags trying to post a comment, please let me know and I’ll look into it.)

Thanks for reading and for your support. Readers of and commenters on this blog are my online community, and I love you. I really do. Curses, no tissues handy, again…

Sore from newly adopted devotion to working out spurred by alarming weight gain, and trying to get up the gumption to paint another room, I remain,

Your actually published by someone other than myself,

Ridiculouswoman

Tandem and Telescope: A Father’s Day Lament

The things you buy at garage sales or online just might be sacred objects.

The tandem is gone. I finally sold it, at a garage sale, for a tenth of what it originally cost.

The telescope, too. Sold on Letgo, for a third of a tenth of what it originally cost. It sat in the garage for more than 15 years; he stopped using it when something went awry with the star-finder thing; IMG_20190602_133923769_HDR~3.jpghe wasn’t much for spending time trying to figure out how to fix things, even if it was just how to recharge or replace a battery. He lost his astronomical mo.

Or maybe it was just that I had chosen the wrong kind of scope, or didn’t get the right filters or something, and he didn’t want to hurt my feelings so he used it for a little while and then retired it to the garage, where it stayed gathering dust for years. I was glad to see it go.

The tandem is another story. That was hard. It went to someone down the street and around the corner, but I’m guessing it isn’t going to stay there – probably will get resold for more than I got for it.  So though I told the buyer I was happy it would stay in the neighborhood, I cried when it was rolled away.

Mike transported our daughter all over the place on that thing, from the time she was in elementary school through half of high school, when she had gotten big enough to make her difficulty with pedaling with any force, a problem.

The diagnosis came a year or so after that.

So off to a corner by the wall in the garage it went, to gather dust itself, forlorn.the tandem

People in town who never met or spoke to Mike, knew him by that bike. They saw him riding her to school, then home by himself (a total distance of 5 miles), then back to school to pick her up and home again.

They saw them riding together on the bike paths, through the forest preserves and to the pool in the summer.

The bike, and how Mike used it to get her from place to place, become a sort of living “meme” of  fatherly devotion around here. Mike simultaneously got our daughter some fresh air and exercise (her legs had to go up an down, even if she couldn’t pedal very hard) while also giving her a view beyond the boundaries of our home and her school. Kids with developmental differences are often isolated, kept in their “special” classrooms for more than half the day, then transported to some kind of program filled with more kids with differences, to spend time until a parent could pick them up.

Mike didn’t let that happen to her.

Even though he chose to spend a lot of time alone, imposing a lot of isolation on himself, and by extension on our daughter, they were a very happy team, and under his protection, on the back of that bike, she got a broader view of the world and its possibilities.

Mike also got time away from the routine – the frequent drudgery – of being the stay-at-home parent.

But he made sure we knew that he loved his job.

And the bike was very much a symbol of that. Not just to me.

So if you happen to come across a big blue tandem on E-bay or some other online marketplace, please show it some respect. It might have been ridden by a World’s Greatest Dad.

I never got him that t-shirt. He wouldn’t have worn it, anyway, and he didn’t need a t-shirt for everyone to see what a great Dad he was. All he had to do was get on that bike.

There are two women, myself and our daughter, who have shed more tears today over that bike, and the Dad who rode it with such strength, love and devotion.

May happy memories, and maybe a good bike ride, comfort those who are missing their Dads today, and strengthen bereaved Moms who have to tell their kids that it is OK to cry.

And listen, helpless, when they do.

Trying to decide whether today’s cold drizzly mist is a blessing or an excuse, I remain,

Your thinking of buying a “World’s Greatest Dad” balloon to tie to the shepherd’s crook at Mike’s gravesite,

Ridiculouswoman

On Dying Heroically

Facing death quietly and privately is heroic, too.

Facing a terminal diagnosis is heroic, no matter how a person chooses to react.

But in the end, dying heroically is still dying.

Some people respond to a terminal diagnosis by doing something unbelievably difficult – accomplishing some spectacular feat of physical endurance or creating a final artistic magnum opus. I admire them. They will leave an extraordinary legacy of courage that inspires those who never knew them, and comforts those who did.

But I simultaneously want to acknowledge those who react to a terminal diagnosis quietly and privately, and face the inevitable for what it is – inevitable. Because even if some miraculous force of will or faith or lifestyle change pulls a person back from the brink to health and longer life, still, in the end, they have not cheated death – simply delayed it.

If you don’t believe that grief and humor can intersect, don’t click on the link below (and don’t let little kids watch it). But if you can tolerate a spot of dark humor, here’s a little ditty my eldest brother composed for the theater company he works with (the show this song preceded was called “Serial Killers” because the audience got to vote on which short play it wanted to see serialized, with the next episode performed the next week, and which would not return). This song was actually written for Halloween, but in it’s way it makes a point about the inevitable:

My late husband Mike wouldn’t read the books I got him about food as medicine or meditation as a way to combat cancer. He didn’t want the little Zen painting kit I got him, thinking it would provide calming distraction from chemo and pain. He didn’t decide to spend his last ounces of energy biking across the country (which he had wanted to do when we first met) or touring the world to see spectacular places he hadn’t had the chance to visit.

He decided to stay home, with us. He calmly and bemusedly tolerated my lapse into temporary insanity, my mad and desperate decision to remodel the kitchen and finish the basement and replace the windows and rebuild the fence and the deck while ridiculously falling in love with the man in charge of the whole project, as if improving our home would help him live longer in it and as if falling in love again would give me a some kind of do-over – make me younger and less inevitably widowed.

Mike used his last ounce of strength to hold our daughter’s hand and say to her, “Remember, Dad’s love never ends.”

This from a stay-at-home-Dad, two days before he died, facing the excruciating pain of having to leave behind the exceptional, non-neurotypical child he had raised from infancy to the threshold of adulthood.

That was heroic.

And we will, and we do, remember.

If you have lost a loved one who had chosen to face a terminal diagnosis privately, accepting the inevitable calmly and with quiet dignity, or who received that diagnosis beyond the time they would have had the physical or mental strength to choose any other way, I’m sure you understand, and I want to acknowledge, their courage.

Mike said something else to me that has helped me cope.

When I asked him if he wanted both of us to be with him when it happened, he said it didn’t matter.

He said, “everyone dies alone.”

He was right. Even if a person departs “surrounded by their loved ones,” the final trip is always a solo flight.

We had a deal – he promised to “call me when you get there” – based on past experiences of hearing from departed loved ones, in unusual but unmistakable ways, in the two or three days immediately following their passing. Messages in music, or in electronics behaving strangely, or in the appearance of symbolic animals, or through experiences of visitation.

He kept his promise. He called when he got there. He did his best to let me know he made it, that he “arrived to his destination,” and that he was free and at peace.

That was heroic, too.

When grief washes over me, or bursts unexpectedly inside my chest, I try to remember those little messages he has sent and continues to send, and maintain faith in eventual reunion, when my time comes.

Which it will (“but not yet, not yet…”), even if, between now and then, I manage to write a bestseller, survive another Polar Vortex or achieve EGOT (win an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an Oscar).

Wishing you the comfort of happy memories in the face of loss, and confidence in eventual reunion, I remain,

Your trying-not-to-think-about-the-inevitable-too-much-and-enjoy-the-now,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by Yolanda Coervers from Pixabay

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