Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Found and Lost

Somehow having Audrey in preschool three mornings a week has made the days and especially the afternoons- even longer.  She gave up napping a long, long time ago.  Today I realize that what's missing is those little points of contact and interruptions throughout the day from you.  There's not even the hope or anticipation of the phone ringing- "hey..." is all we would need to say.  There are no emails that say "Just saying hi."  There is no anticipation of a key in the door, no relief, no end.  It's dreadful.  Even though I am safe, in an apartment with an adorable three-year old- it is dreadful.

A friend commented a while back after she had just potty trained her daughter but Audrey wasn't potty-trained yet- how quickly you forget entirely that you were wiping poop off their buts two or three times a day every day just a week or so before.  It's a crap analogy, but this is how it is now.  I find it hard to believe that you, a man, lived here with me.  That Audrey ran to your open arms just like in television and movies when you came in the door.  That you took showers and brushed your teeth next to me each night.

Well, except for the teeth brushing.  This I do feel and believe unfortunately every single night as I stand there brushing my teeth.  We usually brushed our teeth together.  We'd both be looking in the mirror- sometimes brushing really fast to be funny.  Each night, ghost-dan brushes his teeth beside me.  I wish he'd go away actually.  I just want to brush my teeth and go to bed for God's sake.

I keep thinking of the manner of your death, and how this is real and happened to me.  How others must assume when they meet me that I'm "used to it," the whole idea.  I am not and never will be, I accept.  I keep thinking- if you had died in a car accident-something I feared-  would this have been "easier?"  Why did you have to be alone like that?  When they found you, were your eyes open or closed- is always in the back of my mind.  What happened to you!

I also think a lot about the particular loss of spouse versus other kinds of loss.  Other losses are painful- I already anticipate and dread the loss of my parents.  The loss of a child is heinous and brutal.  But all of these familial losses are those bound by blood.  You are born into your family.  Your child incubates in your womb.  But only the spouse- is at one point in your life- alive, living somewhere else- maybe another country even- a total stranger for many years- even decades.

The loss is malicious and spiteful because only a spouse, before he can be lost, is first-

There You Are

I came across this video that has you on it today.  I've never seen it before.  You never mentioned it that I can remember though there was probably some night after Audrey was born  (I can tell this by your hair length) when I was up all night nursing and you told me, "I'll be home late tonight- I'm doing this video-thing with Rachel."  It's strange to watch because I can tell they "dressed you" including that weird glove on your hand- to fit the part.  But now that you've been gone, I don't really want to see you "dressed" like this.  It's hard enough to remember what was real.

Still, it was good to see you Dan.  Tears fell down my face and then Audrey came in and I asked her if she wanted to watch.  She did, a few times at her request.  "That's appa," she said.  The look you give the singer at the very end, raising your eyebrows and smiling a bit- is one I've seen so many times- it's the look you give the singer you're playing with.  I received it myself back when we played together as a band and in church.

There you are, I think.  And I marvel at your forearm and fingers and sideburns and skin.  There you are.  Your death it seems, is still incomprehensible to me.  You...are buried?  You are that strange figure that lay in a casket.  "We need clothes- suit, underwear, socks- no shoes."  No shoes.  That bothered me.  There you were on display for all to see.  And underneath that closed half of the casket- shoeless.  A broken body with no consciousness- dressed by strangers- the ultimate vulnerability.

I am left today starving for the real, live you.  It's like the video was some kind of backwards appetizer.  Still I'm thankful for the chance to see you like that- alive, moving, doing what you loved.  Because the only thing worse than questioning your death and trying to comprehend it, is questioning your existence- yes you were really here.

The Most Horribly Untrue Cliches

You will always have your memories.

First of all, no you will not.  Ever hear of aging and not remembering everything from thirty years ago?

Furthermore, the reason you have only the memories, recollections of a past life, is because your spouse is dead and your old life gone in an instant.  This is not a comfort.  Still you do cling to them, gather them up, write them down, put them in a very safe place- because there will not be any more- because the weighty importance of them signifies the end of something- it is finished- it is done.

Time heals all wounds. 

Definitely the least true cliche.  Over time, one adapts as has been said numerous times before- as an amputee learns to walk on one leg.  I'm not saying some kind of healing is impossible, but that time - the progression of existence- does not bring about healing.

Time takes you away.  This is the secret you know instantly when you learn of the demise of your loved one.  That you will forget.  That you are on a train ride and the train is already speeding ahead and the landscape will change and you will have to acknowledge that you can't get off.  Time is a kidnapper that holds you captive and let's you watch the place you left from the last car, leaning painfully over the rail, until it's completely out of view.

More importantly, integral to any kind of healing in this kind of loss- is something else- justice.  The sense of wrongfulness and injustice- this does not fade or even evolve with the changing landscape.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Most Horribly True Cliches

Home is Where the Heart Is

It is.  The widow is struck homeless.  The house- painting my own walls, the American dream- none of it matters.   The home you have lived in suddenly looks unfamiliar.  Oates says that's because it is drained of meaning like colors faded by the sun.  The security, comfort, familial quality of a home- vanishes.  It is all just stuff- materials- rug fibers, plaster walls, popcorn ceilings.  The materialness of it all overwhelmed my senses in the early days.

You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone

You don't.  And you won't, even if you give it your best effort as it is the trend in self-help these days to write gratitude lists and live in the present and slow down and enjoy the simple things.  I believe this is a major, vital thread of the bittersweet root of being a human being.  You don't, and you can not.  In parenting you get just a short while to savor each stage before your child transforms, ever so subtly each day, until the one you'd loved seems gone completely.  You look intently at their face for the eyes of your baby that smiled at you.  Are they still there?  Did you miss it?  Were you not appreciate enough because you were so tired or so nervous.  And then while you are thinking that thought, you have missed the next stage for they are already someone else.

With a spouse, it isn't the rapid development as in a child, but it is the closeness- the intimacy that sometimes makes it harder to see and value the way one ought.  Here is yet another of the paradoxes of life and loss.

  Another great line I'll borrow from JCO:
"and though I am sure that Susan understands how her energy, her confidence, her good humor and her zest for work are inextricably bound up with her husband and her marriage, I think that she can't quite realize the degree to which this is so.  And it is good for Susan, and for other non-widow-women friends, that they can't know.

Love Never Dies

It doesn't.  But the relationship does, I soberly realize.   It cannot continue over this great of a divide.  You go on loving- but you are loving the memory of a human being- it does not have the beautiful back and forth growth of a living relationship, like soil and green veins.  This love is fixed, like granite.


I am still rounding the bend, but I can feel it.  There is an end to this writing approaching.  Every writer sees the end of their project when they are only at the beginning and perhaps this is why I wrote as well.  The abrupt truncation of our family has no end- but these words will.  Maybe there is some solace in that.

Someone I've met only once at church but knows my situation through a mutual acquaintance asks me in the elevator yesterday, "But it's getting easier right?"  "Well, no I wouldn't say 'easier.'  I definitely wouldn't choose that word.  Different...it changes and evolves."

Don't ever ask someone if it's getting "easier."

These days I think I am hungry and I'll go get myself something sweet or savory as a treat in the kitchen.  But then when I get there, nothing is appealing.  Especially chocolate- something I used to relish.  Instead, I am perpetually thirsty.  For iced coffee, iced tea, lemonade, any drink with flavor really.  Perpetually thirsty.

The other day something caused me to utter a few words (which I now sadly already forgot) that I realized I hadn't uttered since I'd said them to you.  You see, when you lose a spouse, you lose an entire vernacular.  Think of all of the things you speak to your spouse that you don't say to anyone else.

In a kids clothing magazine I see a t-shirt with the words "I MISS U" in big letters.  I seriously ponder wearing something like this for quite a while.  I say these words aloud all of the time, sometimes nonchalantly, sometimes whispered, sometimes crying.  I might as well wear it.

No, I am not thinking clearly lately.

There is the dejavu that I've been having so much lately.  Nothing extraordinary will happen and suddenly I'll have the memory that I have dreamt this scene before and even told you about it- was it in our first Brooklyn apartment maybe?  "I'm in an apartment with our child but I somehow know that you've died.  It was horrible."

There is the feeling constantly that I'm wearing sunglasses with fingerprints all over them and just can't see reality clearly.

There is the realization that I loathe anything swiss made- even swiss cheese?  I almost can not let Audrey get a scooter that is designed by the Swiss for her birthday because of this.  A friend asks me, "What about IKEA?"  I remind her that's Swedish.  It's a joke.  We laugh in our email exchange, "phew...you can still love IKEA- haha."

Oates, in her memoir, mentions the Gestalt philosophy where one says to oneself, "I choose for my husband to be dead."  I laugh that anyone would give this a try.  I much prefer the mantra she takes up instead, something like "You have no choice.  This is the way it is."  This seems more helpful in living.

The only thing worse than the shock and disbelief that your husband is dead is the lack of shock and disbelief that your husband is dead.  The only thing worse than the magical thinking that he might still return and reside with you again is the certainty that he will not.

I Do Not Wish to Keep

"Are you taking suitcases as well?" I emailed the church administrator.  "I have a nice one that I do not wish to keep."

Last week I dropped off your suitcase at a church that was collecting donations.  This is the suitcase I searched around for when you first got your "dream gig."  It was the second suitcase I purchased.  I purchased another, more expensive one at a luggage store at first and then found this one at TJ Maxx.  I can still remember carrying Audrey and lugging the first suitcase back into the store to return it.  I then packed up this one with every travel necessity including lots of things you didn't need and never used- small packages of paper towels, a blow up pillow for the plane, ear plugs, vitamin C cough drops, etc.  and placed a photo of Audrey wearing a onesie that said "My Dad Rocks," on top of it.  It was your Father's Day gift.  Your first Father's Day.  You would have just one more just a few weeks before your death.  It is the suitcase I saw you packing up the night before you left us for the last time.  The very one I saw you place your bathing suit into and thought, "Why are you taking a bathing suit?  Are you going on vacation while I'm here alone with a baby?"  but then, "No, I won't say it.  He'll get mad.  He'll throw it out and say, 'There, happy!'"  No, I'm not happy.  It's the same suitcase with the lock that we both said should have the same code simultaneously- our daughter's birthdate.  It's the same suitcase that was all taped up and addressed to the funeral director when it came back along with your body.  But they didn't pick it up so they had to go back and get it along with your electric cello after you were buried.  "I deal with this airline all the time, and now they're going to charge me more for this?  I'm going to have to charge you for another trip," the funeral director had told me.  "Fine.  That's fine."

I've looked at this suitcase for months up in our closet and it made me sick.  I'd ripped off all of the tape but it'd left the impression of the words in the glue still stuck on it, "Air Transit" over and over.  I'd thought about bringing it to our garbage room and just letting one of the workers take it or throw it out.  A friend suggested selling it on Craigs List so I could at least get something for it.  "No, I couldn't deal with showing it to people.  I just want to get rid of it."  So when the church where Audrey's preschool is located sent a flyer about their donation collection, I knew it'd be nice to get rid of the suitcase before her birthday.

I took a photo of it first.  Then I wheeled it outside of our apartment, realizing that the last time it had taken this same journey down our hall, you were holding this handle, setting off on your final trip.  It's raining and when we get there, I pull up next to the gym that is already full of donations and wheel in the suitcase after everything else I've brought- including a few bags of your clothes.  These are mostly dress shirts that have no special memory.  And also the black t-shirts I'd bought you for the tour.  I get rid of all of these.  As I quickly wheel in the suitcase and Audrey waits in the car, a woman walking around busily says, "Oh great, thank you so much."  I ask her where the donations are going, "if you don't mind my asking," and she tells me they have contacted social services and the most needy families will get to come through and choose what they need.  I am glad I didn't throw it in the garbage, and glad to get back in the car, and drive away.

Near-Death Experience

In a book I managed to get half-way through before it's due date- mostly because for some reason I keep taking out five or six books and trying to read them at once- entitled, "Consciousness Beyond Life," near-death experience findings, particularly in a Dutch study, are cited and examined.  This is not the first book I've read on the subject since your death.  The accounts given of patients who have no brain function explaining how they watched the whole scene from someplace up on the ceiling, are fascinating if nothing else.  Little children who have them sometimes return to tell of a brother or sister that greeted them that their parents had never told them they had.  People who have been completely blind their entire lives return to describe the sights in the room or the room next door while they were supposedly dead from cardiac arrest.

This time what I found interesting was a chapter entitled "Changed by a Near-Death Experience."  The author cites similar, lasting changes in those who have had the experience as further evidence of its validity.

What are these changes?  The person has greater self-acceptance and a changed self-image, and is less dependent on approval from others.  There is a hunger for knowledge in theology or philosophical issues.  He or she is more compassionate, forgiving, and less critical.  They appreciate the simple things in life and have a greater sense of purpose/mission.  They no longer fear death because "death turned out to be not dead."  While their religious affiliation declines, their religious sentiment and spirituality increases.  There are even physical changes like hypersensitivity to light and sound.  One NDE'r writes, "After my NDE I felt like a child learning to walk.  The world around me overwhelmed me.  I couldn't find my place in the world.  For months I couldn't bear light and noise, TV and radio, not even music, which I used to love.

Finally, there is something called "enhanced intuitive sensitivity."  This can mean you are "inundated with information from or via another dimension," or have a "very acute sense of the emotions of others," or "feel like you can look right through people."

A part of this includes something called synchronicity.  The best way to describe it is the example they give: "Most of us have had the odd sensation of thinking about somebody only to find that when the phone rings it is the person we were thinking of. "  It is "the not strictly causal, or seemingly accidental, concurrence of events."

I conclude that I myself have had a near-death experience.  Understandably, when a loved one dies, one will think about life and death and perhaps become more spiritually-oriented or awakened.  But I believe that when you lose a spouse- the person you were one with- you come as close to death as you possibly can- while being alive.  Your out of body experience is constant in those early weeks.  You see your body, not from the ceiling of a hospital room, but from the long aisle that takes you up the casket where your spouse- part of you- lies.  Yes, you do see right through people suddenly.  I can remember a friend of mine telling me I'd answered for her thoughts in her mind she'd yet to speak throughout our conversations and she'd thought to herself, "How long will she be like this?"  Yes, the world was overwhelming and foreign- a complete sensory overload.  No, I no longer fear death.

The widow is the body laying brain dead or in cardiac arrest on the table while they watch the whole horrific scene from somewhere near the ceiling- hovering in the air- bodiless.  There are no visions of tunnels or bright lights or dead relatives or Mary or Jesus coming to greet you.  There is just the dreaded feel of your love's hand slipping out of yours and into an unreachable world.

Come and Gone

Audrey's birthday and Princess and the Pea party has come and gone.  I sent you an invitation to the party via email.  

Mostly I threw myself into it creatively.  It was an outlet.  I realized that it wasn't a sad occasion the way her birthday party felt a year ago.  Sorrow was a guest at that one.  I felt it even as we marched around our apartment with instruments following the singer I'd hired.  I saw it in my face in the photos afterwards...my smiling, shocked, sad, face.

Instead of sorrow,  I imagined your role there throughout the day this year.  Instead of my dad, you would've run out to Whole Foods to get the cupcakes and to Dunkin Donuts to get the coffee for the grownups.  You would've called instead of him asking me about the flavors the way you always called from the store with questions.  It usually started, "OK, so..."  I would answer the phone simply, "Yes..."  You would've washed dishes and vacuumed the crumbs up afterwards.  You would've made much fun of the Cinderella I hired to stop by for a surprise visit.  I try to imagine the funny things you would've said.  But I can't.  Because that's the problem with someone being dead.  Anything you imagine is from you.  Not them.

At night I hear Audrey in her bed by herself talking - as she constantly does- (and is in fact right now) "Dear God- please let me have another dream from appa.  And I pray appa has a good birthday party like I did because everyone has birthdays."  

You are three years old.  Another birthday, the second of many, has come and gone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Happy Birthday Audrey

It is Happening.  Just as I knew it would the moment I heard the words.   Because those words are pregnant with years and years of loss.  "Dan is dead."

We are living and aging through the years without you.  Audrey's third birthday is tomorrow.  Even though it's only her second birthday without you, tomorrow she will have had more without you than with you- well, if you don't count her actual day of birth- the day we welcomed her into the world together- as a couple- the day we became a new family.

There is still no continuity between that world and this life.  I have searched for it and given up.  I tell myself to embrace this world- whatever it is.  I am a mother.  I am a woman.  I live in the year of 2011 on this planet.  I try to will myself to just enjoy this life as a separate, totally different life than the other one.  But I fail at this.

Three years- three years- that's all it has been since I lived in a Brooklyn apartment and went into labor with you, my husband, tears and nervousness about what was to come in your eyes at the kitchen table, "I love you..." Three years.  I live in a different state.  I have a three year old.  (This one makes sense) I am a widow.

Certainly one of the toughest things about the last fifteen months of grieving is that we had no set routine to fall back to after we buried you.  I had no job- no career even.  Audrey wasn't in school or daycare.  It was waking up each morning trying to come up with a plan.  There were lots of days with visitors; there were many trips to the library, Target, and walks along the Hudson.  But I felt almost like I was running from being in the house every day.  I had to get out.  "It's a beautiful day," I'd hear.  "I must take my child out," I'd think.   And so I did.

Because of you my dear sweet girl, the first year of my widowhood included raspberry picking and apple picking, and getting up at 5 am to go see the Macy's Thankgiving Parade from the upper west side.   It included keening in showers and sobbing late at night, but it also included birthday parties with pizza, cake, and your head in a pointy pink party hat.  It included a trip to Virginia and Arizona and Maine- more crying late at night this time in strange beds in hotels or the homes of friends, but also your first train ride, teaching you the word cacti, and visiting a lighthouse.

Now it feels like the gateway to your life Audrey.  You are turning three- you started preschool last week.  No more filling up fourteen hour days with things to do when I felt I could barely get out of bed, no more self-imposed structure- dragging myself out of bed each day to do play dough and painting and cry while I walk behind the stroller.  Now there is a structure again- the world reminding me it is still there and will kick me along.  I am happy for the kick as it feels much better than dragging.

My dear Audrey- thank you though- for giving me a reason to get up each day- for giving me a year littered with happier things- and mostly filled with you.  I want you to know how grateful I am and how much your father loves you too.  You may forget every single detail about him- you may not remember his voice or the color of his eyes or the way the scruff on his chin felt against your head or fingers, but you will know this - that he loved and loves you still.  That I am finding is really the same story that the Bible tells- the Old Testament is full of all the stories and rituals- like the ones I tried so hard to do with you in the early days- but the New - the New Testament, reminds me so much of what I hope you'll know of your dad- just that he loved you and would've given his life for you.  It's all important- but if the first part is just too complicated and hard to remember- the Old- then just hold onto the new- the love that overcomes death itself.

I will go now and wrap little presents for a birthday "treasure hunt" from the birthday fairy which, I have made clear, is me, lest I get no credit for Christmas or birthdays.  I will write her a card and put together little goodie bags for the children in her class.  I will wonder if my joy, even in my child's birthday, can ever be complete again- not laced with such tremendous grief.  I wonder what this feels like, to celebrate your child's birthday without the sadness of all that is missing.  If it is possible, and it seems that it should be- in this grieving world exploding with paradox- with joy incomplete, and at the same time, with complete joy- I will celebrate our daughter tomorrow.  Because she deserves nothing less.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Yesterday Audrey and I bought big bins for your clothes.  She chose the color orange, which in retrospect, I've been a bit unhappy with since it's more like a neon orange and the black handles make me think of Halloween- but I just didn't want a dark, unhappy color for your clothing.  I thought it'd look too foreboding and sad every time I glanced up at it in the closet.  Now it will look bright and Halloweeny.  Oh well.

After Audrey was asleep, I took your shirts and suits and pants out of our closet one by one, smelling each one.  It is amazing that your clothes can still smell so strongly of you, or do I have some kind of sense for them that others would not have?  I neatly fold up your shirts, picturing you in each one for some event, or freshly showered, buttoning up your shirt, flinging your wet hair behind your face.   After a short reprieve, I tackle your dresser drawers.  I try to tell myself that I'm just decluttering- getting rid of a few things of yours as I would have every fall, but I also sense a clearing in my processing - that no, you are really not going to come home and wear these clothes.  I also try to tell myself that these are just clothes- that you made them so- but still, I will keep them in these bins in our closet and take them with me when I move.  I had posted a brief summary of my Saturday night events on one of the widow boards on Facebook and was imagining these widows, who are mostly further along than I am, responding with support and understanding- but what I found was that most of them have not done this yet.  "I'm at two years- I need to think about doing this."  "I'm at 23 months- I just can't bring myself to do that."  I worry then that I am having too easy of a time doing this horrid thing- I feel uneasy- that you might suddenly come in and ask me what I'm doing with all of your clothes...but mostly- I need the room.  My own clothes have been strewn on a chair for the whole year and I'm tired of it.  That's been the summation of my grief process I suppose- going at my own pace, waiting...and waiting...until I can't stand it anymore- and finally, it's a relief to do it- change my bedsheet, put away the quilt, wash your towel, take your clothes out of the laundry bin, and now- pack up your wardrobe.  

I leave a few things for myself in an otherwise empty drawer- I can wear most of your socks, a few t-shirts, and your Korean soccer jersey.   

The other day Audrey was looking for some glitter she sprinkled on her "fairy house" in the flower box. "The glitter that I put here died," she tells me.  After confirming her word choice, I realize that for her, the word "die" really just means disappear.  All she knows is that you went away and never came back. I wish it was just that- disappearance.  But sometimes it really does feel that way.  I smell your clothes; I listen to your voice notes on your iphone, and I stare at your desk in the corner and your empty cello case, and it really does seem that you have done just that.  Disappeared.   

Audrey turns three on Tuesday and I intentionally wanted to push forward for her sake- because she has her whole life ahead of her and should not live with her dead father's clothes still in his drawer or a mother who cannot take them out.  A sort of sacrifice went on in this room last night.   The incense was the smell of you- which filled the whole room by the time I was done.  The act was done to the sound of empty wooden hangers hitting against one another like wind chimes or a somber Gregorian chant.   It was appropriate but chilling how they went on and on.

Alexia Sine Agraphia

Interestingly enough, though not surprising really since I felt led to read the Sacks book- I have found another apt metaphor in "The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks similar to the previous one I posted where the woman could see everything, but recognize everything.  Each essay in this book is in fact, some kind of neurological loss that requires the adaptation of the person thus affected.  I suppose this is why the metaphors are relevant to grief- loss, adaptation.  But the types of studies Sachs does are also quite unique and not as known as typical physical impairments like blindness or a loss of short-term or long-term memory.  They are complicated, surprising, and I think what they do so well, is get at the heart of our human predicament- our helplessness and lack of knowledge about the very bodies and minds we inhabit- that are supposedly "us."

In this particular essay, a man loses his ability to read one morning.  The newspaper appears to be written in Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next.  Books and newspapers were suddenly unintelligible to him, followed by everyday objects also appearing strange, "familiar objects like apples and oranges suddenly look [ed] strange, as unfamiliar as an exotic piece of Asian fruit.  A rambutan."

The interesting part is that he could still write.  It's called "alexia sine agraphia."  Reading and writing- two things that should go together, but apparently do not.  This man could write out a thought, but not read back what he'd just written.  Another earlier similar case study shows that a man with alexia sine agraphia could also still learn new music by ear even though he could no longer read the notes.

This man's livelihood was writing, so he describes being able to write without reading like this: it "was like being told that the right leg had to be amputated but that I could keep the shoe and sock."
This sounds very familiar to me.  The loss of a spouse is often described as an amputation.  Except in my case, the shoes and socks I'm left with are my husband's- in my closet and in our dresser.

Another paragraph that seemed a perfect metaphor for the newly bereaved was this one, describing this man's return home from rehab three months after his stroke:

"The house looked strange and familiar at the same time....It was as though a movie set had been assembled from sketches of the real house and its rooms."

I feel hopeful though, after reading these accounts because in each study described, the recipient of the loss manages to adapt and overcome it.  The men described in this essay learn to "read" audio books.  Another learns to read by acting out the writing of each word with his finger in the air.  The main study, the writer, goes on to write painfully a novel about the very illness he had incurred.

My heart feels light while I read about the separation of the seemingly inseparable - writing and reading. Writing without reading.  Living without you living.  But in each case here, the sufferer does adapt and go on living, usually with other senses heightened.  I feel this way too- although the sense that is most heightened is not one of the five but another.  I close the book inspired- finger in the air tracing letters, learning music by ear- as you did so well- relearning


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Inhibitory Control

Living in grief, if it is anything, is sheer exhaustion.

It is doing something- living- that every cell in your body screams against.  Not because you are suicidal, but just because you do not feel alive.   It is something you must convince yourself to do on a conscious level- "Yes, I am alive.  I am here.  I have to get up out of bed and live today."  People who are not grieving, except for perhaps the severely depressed, do not have to have this thought consciously.

I found a perfect description for why it is so tiring in a book I've been reading about the seven most important skills for children to learn called "Mind in the Making."  Skill number one is focus and self-control.  The fourth point in the chapter is called "Inhibitory Control."  It reads:

"Think about your day so far and tally up the times you were on automatic pilot- when you didn't really have to think or make tough decisions about what you were doing, such as getting up, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, or getting your favorite food for breakfast.  These tasks didn't require much conscious focus or self-control; you just did them."  

Not so for the griever.  Every act- getting up, getting dressed, eating, takes deliberate effort and focus.  The limbic part of the brain is always on overdrive and there is little room for anything else.

It goes on:

"Now think about the times that were just the opposite- where you had to make a real effort to stick with the task and be intentional about what you wanted to achieve.  These times demanded what is called inhibitory control- or what some researchers, such as Mary Rothbart of the University of Oregon, refer to as effortful control."   

Yes, effortful control.  The examples given: you inhibit when you pay attention to your child even though a conversation with a friend is distracting you; you inhibit your strong inclination to give up after a failure; you inhibit your behavior and think before you act; you continue doing something even though you're bored or otherwise uninterested.

Effortful control.  When your'e grieving, it requires this kind of control almost 24/7.  Yes, not only paying attention to your child when you're upset about a conversation with a friend, but singing with her, reading with her, laughing with her, and caring for her when inside you are trying to process the fact that her eyes look just like her father's and he is now dead?  Yes, not only not giving up after a failure, but not giving up when you feel as though you are done.  Yes, filtering your actions and words- inhibiting the desire to scream or cry in public.  And yes, continuing to do something- which in this case is live- even though everything in you calls to the contrary.

Effortful control.  I would also liken it to trying to walk a straight line to prove you are sober when you are obviously quite drunk.  That is the kind of effort it takes each day.  For me personally, I've noticed the three toughest times- the ones that feel like I am climbing a mountain are: 1) getting up out of bed in the morning  2) getting out of my chair at the table after we eat a meal so I can clean up.  3) Getting out of the car after we pull into our parking lot.  Sometimes Audrey asks me, "Mommy, why are we sitting here?"  "Mommy just needs a minute..."

And the most challenging task requiring the highest level of inhibitory control that I face: standing at your grave and believing that you are not there.  When all evidence is against it- that you are not lost, but found.  That for you, it is not the end, but the beginning.

"This is the end-- but for me the beginning -- of life."  
Last recorded words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend right before being hanged by the Nazis for a plot to kill Hitler.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Five Years

I just discovered a blog I kept very infrequently at your request back in 2006.  I wrote this on the five year anniversary of September 11th:

it's important to remember today, not only for those who were lost, but for those are still living.  we go about our lives, feeling like we've got all the time in the world.  but on sept. 11th, the stark, raw, nature of our mortality and smallness, cut into our world.  i want to carry that rawness with me in many ways, so i don't forget to love, and live. and so i don't forget that
"Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it." psalm 39.6

Reading something I wrote just five years ago is like reading my journal from eighth grade.  That is how mature and profound my pre-widow thoughts and faith now appear to me.  I had to "try" to feel the rawness, feel our phantomness...now...I do not.  

Ten Years

On September 11, 2001...I opened my eyes half asleep to see the Twin Towers on my left...I was riding the bus into Port Authority and seeing them was my signal that I was almost there.  At Port Authority, I looked at the digital clock as I walked briskly in the crowd.  8:45 am.  Arriving at work at the Random House building in the middle of Times Square, a coworker had a live picture of the first tower hit on her computer.  "It seems like it was a commercial plane."  That's strange, we all thought.  Still, my co-worker and I go downstairs to get our morning bagel in the cafeteria.  By the time we come back upstairs, the second plane has hit.  It is apparent.

My friend and I walk across town to your building Dan- you were working at CBS then in the BMW building all the way on the west side.  From there, you can see the smoke downtown from your window.  The phones are not working.  Four of us, you, me, and your friend and mine, head outside into the surreal streets on this perfectly clear day.  We decide to head uptown to your apartment on 125th Street and we catch a cab together after a long time waiting.  Subways and buses are not running.

Interestingly enough, in the memorial letter about you my old coworker and friend still today writes me after you die, she remembers that day.  She remembers how we found someone's blackberry left behind in the back seat of the cab.  How we decide we should take it and try to find their number and return it.  The cabbie, a crazy one, hears us talking and starts screaming that she has to return it and to hand it over.  We know by her tone that she is not planning on returning it.  That day, you see, like any day, though it is full of heroes, did not bring out the best in everyone.  You put up a fight- even then, on that insane day- wanting to return it to the proper owner - wanting justice to be done on both grand and small scales.  That was always so important to you.  The result: after only a few blocks in traffic- we are kicked out of the cab.  You are furious.  I am angry with you for what I felt like was provocation on your part and now here we are- the four of us- still needing a ride uptown.

Funny, I don't remember how we got up to your place from there.  (We did). But my friend still remembers that incident and writes in the letter- that she never forgot how you tried to stand up for what was right- and that it was you who made her feel safe and protected on that day.

I never thought that now, ten years later, you would be dead.  I never expected I would be friends with a few of those newly widowed- the 9/11 widows.  But today has felt, I realize, familiar- the drawing near of an anniversary of sorrow.  That day was just as surreal as the event of your own death.  Except that, untouched by the event ourselves- it could remain just that- surreal.  It was other people jumping from those buildings- other women widowed- other children orphaned.  We were together.  The thing that couldn't possibly happen- happened- but ...not to us...not really. Yes, we were there, in that city - but we were alive- together.  For those for whom that tragic event did not remain surreal- but became painfully, wretchedly real- for those who did not have the luxury of watching the news replay the horrific scenes together but instead were planning funerals alone without bodies, to them I extend my deepest sympathy.

1 Samuel 2.8 "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap..."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tasks at Fourteen Months

This was a long week.  It was fourteen months on Tuesday- and you died on Tuesday the sixth.  Unconsciously I think I sensed this day and date pairing up to tackle me, and they did.

On Thursday, I impulsively find myself starting to clean our closet.  I have not used this closet except to throw things into it until it was so crammed, I could barely peer into what is supposed to be a walk in closet.  I still have to buy bins to put your clothes in, but I carefully remove your gloves/hats from our joint bin and put them in their own bag.  I find your shoes strewn on the floor.  I place them also in a bag up on shelf.  First I try one on and stand the way you sometimes did with the heel of one off the floor while you were on the phone or talking to someone and about to leave a room.  Then I notice in the light, the complete imprint of your foot on a black flip flop.  There it is.  I think for a strange deranged widow moment of how I could trace it or make a mold of it, etc.

Then I move all of your clothes to the right side behind the door and move mine to the side yours were on. It is a relief now to see my own clothes rather than yours when I walk by the closet.

Later that day, a friend and I go to the cemetery.  I have felt it calling me and wanted to tell you that Audrey is starting preschool and about to turn three.  Not that I believe you're there.  I bring bright green flowers and one breaks off in the car so I have it beside me now on your pillow.  I like knowing that the rest of the bouquet is on the top of your headstone.  At the cemetery, I cry a lot.  I kneel on the ground even though I see a lot of small bugs in the grass that has now grown over the dirt.  I am wondering what the protocol is, if I need to weed, if I should plant flowers.  I eye the surrounding stones for "ideas," and can't help noticing most of their birth dates are in the early 1900's.  The rain had let up and the view of the NYC skyline is clear from your hill.  The stones we left there on the one year are all still there.  The river rocks I had painted with Audrey to say "We love you," are just black now.  The paint washed away in the storm.  I lift one and see a little paint on the top of the stone.

My friend is walking around the cemetery nearby.  She finds it peaceful she says.  No more stress, worries, just peace.  I tell her that I do not find it that way and that I hoped the visit would be more cathartic but I just can't process that Dan is under there.  "What do you say?" she asks.  "I don't know, I don't know what to say, it always comes out wrong and awkward."  "So...Audrey's starting preschool...wish you were here."  Something like that.  I think it's difficult because I don't come here that often and it's in a strange place that neither of us had any connection to prior to your burial there.  Prior to the purchase of "our plots."  I drive us home.

Then that night, it's back to school night at Audrey's new school.  I sit in the in the parking lot when I arrive watching mothers and fathers get out of their cars.  I know that if you were alive, we would've gotten a babysitter and you would've come.  You would've make small talk and jokes with her teacher, I think later after I go inside.  That's just how you were.  You missed only one of my doctor's appointments when I was pregnant and that was because of your job.

Inside I chat with the director and a few parents I've already met.  I am surprised by my strength.  I get a cup of coffee and a rugelach.  Then I sit down in the gym on a folding chair next to a couple from our old church.  I secretly hope they don't mind.  While the director and chairs speak up front, I notice the husband and wife beside me do this little trade off twice- he motions his hand and she instinctively takes the cup he was holding and hands him the folder with the information.  Later, they switch back.  Without a word.  Oh yeah, I think.  That's how it was.  And I imagine you there next to me right then.  I use every faculty I have and can see you holding your cup of coffee and with your leg crossed.  I am the crazy one, taking notes, listening intently, whispering my neurotic thoughts to you while you roll your eyes or smile.  Now I am not like that, I realize.  I am not that person anymore.  Instead, I am choked up as they talk about what a special, momentous time this is for our child- I almost burst out crying loudly, uncontrollably.  Instead, I am composed, listening, my hands clasping the blue folder with a sticker with Cho, Audrey, on it.

Afterwards, we go to the individual classrooms to hear from the teachers.  After the teacher speaks, before I leave, I am asking her about the tissue boxes she has assigned me to bring in.  (This is a coop school and parents contribute both time and supplies).  "Just two boxes- I'll bring them the first day?" I am asking so serenely.

Then I am in my car.  The car, any widow knows, is the place of wailing, and trying to see through a mess of tears and snot.  I am screaming until I am hoarse as I drive away, "Cooome baaacckkk here riiiight nooooow!"  Then I am calm again.  This must be the derangement Oates talks about so much in the memoir I am still working on.

Then I am calm again.

The Things I Tell Myself

Sometimes I tell myself things- I try to comfort myself.

Everyone dies.  Dan would have died anyway.  Most of my friends will experience the loss of their spouse- just not for a long time.

Dan lived his dream the last year of his life.  He traveled the whole world playing his music and met all of his favorite musicians.  He accomplished what he set out to do in a short period of time.  Maybe that's why he always had that sense of urgency about it.

Upon seeing an aged person: Dan didn't have to age and grow old.  He would've hated that.  I'm glad he didn't have to experience the degradation of aging.

Drowning is one of the better ways to die.  His death was so dramatic, it's almost as if God just took him and left us his body.  (This is what I suggested to his parents and family when they came to my house a few days after he died- they concurred)

I am lucky to have been loved.  There are many women who are still single and in their forties- and no one has ever loved them the way I was loved.  I should be grateful for the passionate and beautiful romance we had.

Sometimes when we go to events - like Audrey's first ballet class this morning- and a birthday party at the Little Gym this afternoon- I can pretend you're with us because I can hear what you might have said and imagine you there quite well.  Driving home I tell myself that if I just imagine that, it's almost as good as you being there.

Life is not that long, I tell myself, and at this age, it flies by so quickly- before I know it, I'll be dead too.  We are all mortal, after all.

None of these thoughts comfort me.  Though I try.  Because:

Yes, most people will experience the loss of a spouse, but not before they watch their children grow up together, and welcome their grandchildren into the world.  I am really sad this won't be the case for us and don't understand why.

True, Dan lived his dream- but really he was just on the cusp of a burgeoning career.  The connections he was making was setting him up for a brilliant career in music.  He would've played sessions for his favorite artists; he would've written more music- music that was still inside him and is now lost to our ears.

No, he didn't have to age...but growing old together is certainly better than growing old alone.  This is what marriage is about.

Is there any "good" way to die?  Any "pleasant" means to your end?

Sure I'm thankful for the love I was given.  And that is why it hurts like hell to have lost it.

No, it is not the same as having you there to imagine what you "might have" said or done.  And when I do hear you, you're still talking to Audrey in a baby voice.  Will that be the case when she's thirteen?  No, this isn't helpful.

Yes, the seasons and years do seem to go quickly.  But in my heart I fear I have a very, long journey ahead.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Everybody Knows

I read a very good apologetic by a British theologian a few weeks ago.  It was full of clever, convincing arguments and trains of thoughts, but one sentence in the book struck me more than any other.  A very simple sentence:

"Everybody knows that love is the greatest thing in the world."  

The context of the statement is that this is one of the ways, in a small list, that man differs from animals- his social relationships- "human beings hunger for the authentic relationships of love.  Love is not just a disturbance in the endocrine glands!" John Stott writes.

I am aware that there are physiological and psychological aspects to love.  But if you have experienced this kind of loss and grief for someone you love, you will understand that it is very difficult to believe that all of this is simply part of the physical makeup of my creaturely body.

And I think as I read the above statement, "Of course, of course everyone knows that."  This is what every archetype and fairy tale reveals.  This hunger to be loved and to be known.  It's tempting to read the statement and shrug it off as sentimental, but it is much more profound than that.  The love spoken of here is not lust or romance, or the hormones of "falling in love."  It is love in the truest, purest sense- putting another above yourself- being willing to suffer for another.  At their root, humans are selfish and self-absorbed.  Despite what humanists want to believe about the goodness of human beings, any mother whose had to teach her child how to share can recognize that sharing and putting others first is certainly not inborn.  It must be taught.  So, where does this love we all seek come from? Because this love stands out so much from any other offering in life- it seems to be a clue, a remnant, of the creator.

And I ask myself, if my relationship was just another wheel in the mechanism of our evolving creatureliness- and if I was attracted to my husband to procreate, then why, oh why, do I find myself adoring the shape of his shoe after it had taken on the shape of his foot?  Why, oh why is the imprint of his handwriting to me loveliness itself?  Why then do I search the figures on the streets for one whose walk resembles yours, dragging your feet just a little, pointing the toes in ever so slightly- just so I can pretend for one moment...  What would I have to gain from these subtleties?  Anyone who has grieved knows that what they knew of their love before was only like the tip of an iceberg showing; only upon striking it, does one uncover its immensity, power, and divinity.

Everybody knows that love is the greatest thing in the world.

"...and to know this love that surpasses all knowledge..." eph. 3.19
This must be a whole other kind of knowing.


Every day I am absolutely amazed at how infiltrated you are into my consciousness.  I am tempted sometimes to try to capture it- by using a notepad or the recorder on my iphone- the stream of consciousness way that everything I see or touch leads to you.  The other day I'd wished I'd been doing it when I just opened a dresser drawer to find clothes to wear.  It went something like this: grey pants- the grey pants- I thought those went really well with a black silk top at Ann Taylor loft- the pants were on sale, the shirt wasn't- I bought them both.  I came home and tried on the outfit for you as I often did.  I ended up wearing that black silk shirt to your wake.  Shirt- now I need a shirt.  There's the white cotton t-shirt with little bows you brought me back from Japan a couple of months before- I said it looked really Japanese and I was happy with it.  There's my "Brooklyn" hoodie purchased on 7th avenue.  You wanted to get it for me- the brown DKNY short sleeved hoodie we saw in Century 21 in downtown Brooklyn and you said, "This is your style," - the grey and brown striped shirt from Anthropologie that you picked out when we were living out my parents after I'd just had Audrey and I was wearing the same black maternity pants and oversized sweatshirt of yours for a month.  "I want to buy you this."  "I have good taste right?" you said.  

The problem with trying to capture the way these distinct memories come at you all day on top of the fact that you're constantly aware that you're very, very sad- is that they happen very, very quickly  The paragraph above that takes a reader thirty seconds to read played in thoughts in about two.  Trying to capture the stream of consciousness of grief and loss got me thinking about thinking altogether.  Am I the only one amazed that my thoughts seem to come and come before I've thought of thinking them?  I don't have to put any effort into putting a thought into words and running it through my head to hear it.  They are there, instantly.  Without a thought, we have thoughts.  So it is with grief thoughts.  

Just one simple act of opening a drawer and it is as if I am walking through a sticky invisible web that we spun together of our lives and ourselves.  By the time I close the drawer, "Mommy's just going to get dressed," I'm live prey for the grief monster who walks this web. 

But also, besides the web of connections and memories, there are the moments that stay with me.  A moment before you left on one of the trips where you played a beautiful song I didn't know on a CD and danced with me on Audrey's play mat while she crawled or walked around us.  I was shy and resentful you were leaving...but I loved it.  The moment when I was leaving the ER after a series of tests after giving birth when you came to get me and just held me.  "I love you." "I love you too."  The moment I first saw you coming towards me with that guitar on your back, "Julia?"  

These moments come to me at least seemingly with no prompt or symbol.  They do not come in a flood or a torrent.  They come slowly and sit with me, like a companion beside me while I grieve.  I close my eyes and believe, momentarily, in time travel.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Beauty cont.

The day after the hurricane, on our way back from the library and playground, the skies in our neighborhood were strikingly beautiful.  Every single cloud in the sky was a weightless wisp.   I have never seen a sky like this in my life.  In the clouds, I saw a beauty born of surrender to the winds and torrents of the storm.


There is no intermission when you're grieving, but I wish to implement a kind of break anyway.  I want to take a moment and do something that feels really strange and almost perverse: be thankful.

You were always thankful Dan.  You told me that one day at a retreat in high school, I think it was high school, you realized you just didn't want to complain anymore- and then you really didn't- rarely.  Of course, you were human.  But I, the perfectionist, the critical one, found a lot more to complain about.  I'm sorry you had to hear that so much.

What I am thinking about today are not just random things I am thankful for, but underneath them all is the fact that- yes, this actually could be worse.  No, you could not be any more dead, which is the worst, but- at the same time, struggling financially, or being completely without friends and family, would certainly add an even more unlivable quality to the life I now must live.  I am thankful for:

a year of free grief counseling.
financial provisions that enable me to stay home with Audrey for at least one more year.  And that I am not destitute like many people, widows or other, are.
help from a friend to get Audrey on state health insurance.
my lease was renewed six more months so I didn't have to move before I felt ready.
I recently received a giant box of beautiful hand me down clothes for Audrey from a friend's sister.
Audrey is potty-trained for a few months now and sleeping well in her big girl bed.
She is bright and is already articulating her grief so that she will have less work to do later on.
I recently found an art therapy program that starts as young as three years old and the fee per session is small.
I am very pleased so far with her preschool and we also received some scholarship there.
I have two loving parents who adore my child.

That are many more, different kinds of things I could be thankful for right now, but I think I'll stop there. This is an awkward post to write- it does not flow naturally.

These gratitude notes are just crumbs in the giant crater in my life now, but they are important nonetheless because this is my life now and I have to still live it.   One of my favorite "grief analogies," described the loss as a giant tree stump in the ground- what remained of a beautiful, fallen tree.  A grieving person cannot remove the stump, but what they can do is start to plant small flowers around it.  These notes of gratitude are like that, but instead of being planted, they've grown up on their own- like wildflowers around the remains of my life.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


I am tired of talking theology with a three-year old at dinner.  "I wish appa could've stayed here," she says. "I know, me too."   Tired of analyzing her every word and deed, looking for ways to help her deal with her own, apparent pain.  Tired of each picture she colors meaning something about her grief- "That's appa and me, and that's you and that's our house we're peeking out of," instead of just being a picture my adorable three-year old drew.  A drawing I could hang up and enjoy just for what it is.

I am tired of hearing about her imaginary friend whom I might have found charming if her father hadn't died, but now I constantly worry is an expression of grief and loneliness, a placeholder for a missing family member, or a substitute for the lack of warmth and joy that I bring to our home as a grieving woman.

I am tired of feeling guilt and "already-regret," my own term for it, for the future when I realize how much I missed out on my child's most precious years.

But I am tired also of the fact that it really isn't in my will or choice at this point when I'm "done" grieving.  I have tried making this "choice" before.  I have rallied, psyched myself up, given myself the pep-talks.  It has not worked.  I push forward.

I am tired of envying the other widows I know who were married longer.  Twenty years?  He was so young- 47?  I am tired of envying their stories because I know they are just as painful and raw, but I still feel that twinge of jealousy for the time they had.  And when I read Joyce Carol Oats' complaint that her husband was just far too young to die- he was 77.   I chuckle when I read this.  I suppose no wife will ever say it was the right time for her husband to die, would she.

I am tired of being angry with you- when I am, instead of telling you aloud that "You died," i tell you that "you got yourself killed."  I am tired of cursing constantly when I am alone.

I am tired of the visions I conjure up of you in the apartment.  Tired of laying on Audrey's bed with her because she wants me to sit there for a while, and seeing you turn the corner to our room outside her door, and give me that silent wave and expression you gave when you came home and she was asleep or I was putting her to sleep.  "Hi!  I'm being quiet!" it said.  And then I knew when she was asleep, I'd open our bedroom door and find you there.  Tonight tears drop silently while Audrey puts her legs up on my body, because I imagine you there.  And I imagine what it would feel like to see you and hold you.  "Go to sleep now, mommy has to go now..."

I am tired of hearing what every widow hears, how amazing and strong I am, when I am not.  When most days I am alone, crying, trying to understand that this reality is as real, if not more so, than the one I was living before.

I am tired of staying up late, staring at the computer screen.  Tired of "family weekends" with no plans, tired of food tasting insipid, and tired of puzzling and searching, reading and writing out the pain- the story.

Today I read some beautiful thoughts on humans and the need to tell stories by fiction writer Sue Monk Kidd.  They point me to yet more reasons why we tell this story- over and over.

"Story allows me to enter the tension between memory and hope," she says.
I remember.
I hope.

"The very process of kneading the events into meaning became a ritual of nourishment. My story became bread through which God mediated grace," she writes.  This has not happened for me yet.  The "kneading" does not feel nourishing.  Not yet.  It is painful, but yes, it is, in a way- my bread.

And finally, "Through story we draw connections between the happenings of life and the lessons of God.  We catch God suddenly in the thick of our days, disclosures unraveling out of the mundane.  Such awareness transforms life from a series of random events to the poetic realm of a sacred tale."

No- this has not happened yet either.  I am desperately trying to draw those connections.  This is what I have done previously in my "old life," and it has worked well enough.  In the "thick of" these days, disclosures must be slow to unravel.  Or something.

Poetic realm of a sacred tale...wait for me, be patient with me; I am not there yet.