Milestones or Millstones?

We met April 27, 1990. Thirty years.

We married May 2, 1992. Twenty-eight years.

He died August 24, 2016. Three and three quarter years.

Angelic Daughter remembers every significant date, and reminds me of them. But observing these dates does nothing for me now. Mike’s gone. The past is past.

The first widow year was filled with rituals. All the firsts without him. I never looked better. I glowed in the back of the limo on the way to the opera. I stopped the pastor in his tracks, shocked him with my my red fit-and-flare dress and dewy, ivory skin on Christmas Eve. Maybe he was thinking, “isn’t it a bit soon to look that good?”

The second year was ghastly – filled with bleakness, and “what the hell do I do now?” and far too much booze.

The third year, little glimmers of hope. Maybe I can have a full life again. Maybe there is a kind of freedom in this. Maybe there could be another man. I got a good job and a sense of emergence, a feeling of metamorphosis, into another phase of life.

Now, three-quarters through the third year, contraction. Everything has imploded, for everyone. My only role now is survivor, planner, bequeather – get her sorted, make arrangements, develop a back up plan, prepare. Stay home, gain weight, lose hope.

The ruby crowned kinglet came to the yard last week. Seventeen years ago, when Dad died, that bird came right into the flowering plum tree just outside the kitchen window, and flirted with me energetically as I rinsed the dishes. A very curious, very nosy little bird. I hadn’t seen him since then.

This time, he was more elusive, flitting branch to branch, from the crabtree to the cedar, not as close as before. But still, he was there, for two days. Where the hell have you been?

Just passing through.

It was windy, twenty-eight years ago. My hair wasn’t as perfect under the headband and veil as it was when I rehearsed it. The ceremony was short. The restaurant lost my bouquet, or my mother purloined it, so when it finally came to the toss, I used a makeshift bunch of tulips the waitstaff pulled together.

Ten years later, Angelic Daughter watched the reception DVD (the church didn’t allow recording during the ceremony) so many times that it jammed in the old DVD player. I think I recycled that machine with the wedding DVD in it. I don’t have another copy. That’s a relief. She wore out the honeymoon swimming with dolphins video, too. Another relief. The hotel staff seemed dispirited, forlorn – and no one swims with dolphins anymore.

Our wedding was on derby day. His family was annoyed. They liked to place bets. This year, the derby was cancelled.

Mike chose the ring, but I paid for it. I paid for the honeymoon, too. Yay me. Empowered. Deep inside, the fat girl felt devalued and desperate. I loved Mike. But I thought, did I really have to buy a husband?

I’m tired of marking these anniversary dates. They hurt now. They remind me of failures, compromises and defeats. Mike and I were often out of balance, out of synch. Nothing went according to plan. Twenty three years of mutual simmering resentment and his explosive rage, followed by cancer, reconciliation and a too short good bye.

Fuck. Happy fucking anniversary.

I did love you, Mike. I don’t understand why you chose to hurt me as much and as often as you did, but I know I didn’t do a good enough job of forgiving you.

We planted grass in the tiny backyard of the city town home I bought for us in ’93. You called me downstairs to see it sprouting. The rain came, a deluge, and you stood there in the basement, water rising around your ankles toward the outlets, looking up through the sliding doors at the stormy sky, saying “cool!” while I panicked about electrocution and plotted my revenge against the builder who left us with a patio drain sticking up too high, and ground pitched toward the house.

Mike planted grass his final spring, on the lawn below the new deck, meticulously digging out dandelions and gently depositing grass seed along about a six foot line, before exhaustion took over. The grass he planted spread, fighting off weeds for a few additional square feet each spring.

But the dandelions are back, and I like them. The rabbits eat them and they subside when the hot weather comes anyway.

I ordered a new battery powered lawn mower today. Seems stupid to pay someone to do it, when they never listen to what I say and I don’t really care how it looks, anyway. I’ll finally get to do it my way.

For whatever that’s worth. Or however long that lasts.


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


Twenty Years Ago Today, Less Three

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