Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Last night we had a lovely barbecue at one of Audrey's preschool friend's homes.  They are a family of five with a nice home, big backyard and Audrey had a great time.  On the drive home always, the sadness comes- and I realize that these new friends have never even met you.  That's a very difficult truth for me.  I want them to know how wonderful, funny, and sweet you were-a better person than me- but I'm afraid my words will create a flat character.

Then I think of random things like the fact that we never went bowling together, you and I.  Despite eleven years of being together- there were still those things that I was aware we had yet to do- and I was very much looking forward to them.  Taking Audrey to MOMA, showing her around our old neighborhood in Brooklyn, returning to the resort where we stayed on our honeymoon for our ten year anniversary.  Plus all of the places you saw as you traveled that you kept writing me, "I can't wait to take you and Audrey here someday.  I wish you guys were here too."  Plans- all plans.

I've been doing some spring cleaning and consciously pushing myself to get rid of a few more things.  It's amazing how almost two years later, so many things are still the same.  My Dr. Haushka face wash- in a large glass bottle is still the same one, but it's running out.  I still had some of your toiletries in the medicine cabinet.  I decide to toss your shaving lotion- because it was a natural kind I picked out and got you and not something that really makes me think of you.  I lift up my copies of Real Simple in a basket in the bathroom and see the magazines I left there since you died- your Berklee alumni magazine addressed to you and a few other things you were reading all dated May 2010...these I consider for a long time- then I let them go and place them in the recycling bin.  Then, I find the remaining California Baby diaper spray and cream that we used on Audrey that I must have put aside while potty training and decide to also throw those out even though you must have used them to change her.  I remember a friend saying how just a couple of weeks after your baby is out of diapers, you completely forget that you changed diapers a few times a day.  Sometimes I feel like that with you- did I really ever live with, sleep beside, eat with- a man?

I used to be someone who loved de-cluttering- now it is draining- everything I sell or toss is a little bit more letting go of the past and the life that was torn away from me.  As I pushed myself, I was able to process a little bit more that you really aren't coming back- ever.  I despise this fact, but each day and each season, I get it a little bit more.

But there are things...things I wonder if I'll keep for far too long.  In the kitchen pantry- with the medicines- there's a bottle of Advil - but instead of Advil inside there are about seven Tylenols.  Right before you left, I remember I was having really bad headaches and you were worried that I was just about out of Advil.  You carried medicine on your trip incase you got sick and you insisted on getting your Tylenol and leaving me those, even though I could easily have gone and bought more.  It was you who placed them in that bottle.  It is the last tangible example I have of your thoughtfulness and care of me.  Then there's the Vietnamese hot sauce in the fridge- something you put on just about everything- can't seem to touch that one.  Or the last bag of rice that you purchased with a little bit of rice left in it...I bought a new bag and just use that, leaving the other one untouched now.  I imagine when I have to move and pack, it'll be difficult to justify taking these along-
though I may.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


A couple of days ago Audrey was painting at her easel.  She's been really into mixing primary colors to make secondary ones and mixing colors in general: red and blue make purple, red and white yield pink, etc.

But this time she started out with a big, dark grey blob- mixed primarily with black and white.  She thought if she added additional lighter colors on top of that dark grey blob, the color would change to something else or brighten, so I listened as she said, "Let's see what happens if I add some yellow...hmmm" followed by a small, disappointed sigh, and on and on with each color as the dark grey mass grew.  I had to explain to her that at least with this kind of paint and paper, once she laid down a really dark color- no amount of other colors would really change it.  We'd have to paint on the portion of the paper that was still white- and I took a brush and painted a few strokes of purple and a few of green.

Despite how much I want that "turn" and need something to change- it feels just like this...the lighter colors just don't show up on top of the dark ones.  At some point you just need a clean piece of paper.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the first year, I learned and knew you were dead.
In the second, I feel it and live it.

In the first, I cried and keened and wailed.
In the second, I weep.

In the first year, I was clutching to the idea that Audrey could remember you, and terrified that I would forget.
In the second, she has forgotten, and I understand now that I never will.  This is my acceptance- that I was silly to fear that I could forget you.  

Though some of the writers of memoirs that I've read have battled the expected suicidal thoughts- and though I've wished to disappear and though I've asked, "How do I go on?" over and over again- mine is a different battle- the battle between a wounded, but soft and open heart, and a calcified, petrified heart.  Mine is a struggle between wisdom and hopefulness, and meaninglessness and bitterness.  On one side is eternity- on the other- a slab of granite with a space for my name next to my beloved's.

Lately- I am losing my ground in this struggle.  I feel self-pity.  I get that this isn't going to happen to everyone *not that I wish it to!- that this totally bizarre tragedy is mine and mine alone.  I take it personally.  I am disappointed and disillusioned- with people and with the church.  Bitterness will creep in and take hold...I remind myself- be careful.  He would not want you transformed in this way.  Mostly, I am weary.  World-weary.

Today is the first day of spring- the vernal equinox was at 1:15 am last night- about fifteen minutes after I slept.  I thought about staying up for it.  Why- I have no idea- certainly not to balance an egg on its head.  But I guess we look for symbols- some of us more than others.  A day when the darkness and light are balanced - and thereafter the light will have the upper hand- seems a good day for a griever.  But instead, spring's scent is like concentrated nostalgia for heaven and that home.

"Every fairy tale must have a happy ending, of course - a eucatastrophe, or sudden joyous 'turn,' as Tolkien calls it-" writes Buechner, and I think every griever spends a lot of time anticipating this turn.  The princess is not dead, only sleeping- the poor stepdaughter gets to go to the ball after all- I should know- these tales are an intrinsic part of the three year old psyche and mine recites lines from "princess songs" as if they're her own, "Isn't it a beautiful day?" I ask.  "It's a whole new world," she answers (a line from Aladdin).  "Mommy, when will my life begin?"  she says to me randomly one day (a line from the song Rapunzel sings in "Tangled").  I can't help but laugh.  "Our lives have begun- this is it!" I tell her.

Still- no turn.  It probably won't be sudden or joyous.  It doesn't even have to be something external or visible- even an internal, invisible turn like a small seed blown under cover- potential- not kinetic, will be enough.  In my weariness and resignation, I think of Elijah: "I have had enough, Lord," and I think of the angel bringing bread and water and encouraging him to eat: "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you."  And I think of the gentle whisper he heard a little later on- after the wind and the earthquake and the fire.
A gentle whisper.    

Beautiful and Terrible Things

"You have to give God the option to work in the present.  You and Audrey have a life to live, even though it's not the one you wanted- it's the one you have," a friend and old boss writes to me yesterday.

Give God the option to work in the present.

Is my heart so hardened and so angry, am I living so much in the past that I am not open to that "option"?  I am afraid if I look for something- I will find it- and not necessarily because it's there- but because I need it to be.  But mostly- I am angry on behalf of my husband and can't seem to get past that and move onto my own life- which as she says, still needs to be lived.  I am stubborn- I refuse to give life meaning enough to say I should get on with mine, before I am able to say genuinely- yes, it does have meaning.  It is not a tale told by an idiot- despite the horrific things that happen.  "Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid,"  Frederick Buechner writes.  If I can believe this...

I did not write down the exact quote before returning this one to the library, but in the memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, she writes about her own disbelief in a God or Creator and how she didn't need to have an explanation for the world or the things that grew in the garden outside her house.  "It just is," she writes.  I am paraphrasing unfortunately but I believe she uses those three words.  It just is.  I've been asking myself if I can find meaning in a world that just is.  If a world with striking beauty and black terror can be a world that "just is" and if I can find hopeful existence in that world.

One of the widow groups on FB that just sends out quotations- sometimes terribly trite but sometimes profound, sends this one out:
"Yes, I will try to be.  Because I believe that not being, is arrogant."  Antonio Porcia, Voces 1943

I actually stop and read this one again.  It reminds me of something Vivian Gornick, a writing teacher in my MFA program, once said to us during a workshop, that shy people are really not being timid- they're being arrogant.  I am not timid with life, but perhaps closed-fisted and perhaps prideful enough to believe I can ascertain whether life is meaningful enough to try to be again before I get involved.

Try to be.

Sadly, I get more footholds for this journey from Korean dramas lately than any sermon.  In the last one I finished, a grown orphan turned Korean mask-wearing crazy person who kidnaps all the people who wronged him, (just gets them to confess to their crimes on tape while he scares them by wearing the mask- then releases them- yes these dramas are funny.) tries to take his life by jumping off a building, but the main character, in a climactic moment, grabs onto his arm and tries to pull him back up to the roof.  Even though the character who jumped saw only injustice in the world, and even though he would have to face punishment for his own crimes, he still wanted to live.  The hero of the series screamed to him in Korean as he hung there, "Live with all your strength!"  I cry as I watch this scene despite the melodrama.  I have said before here that I don't hear the whole "He'd want you to be happy" thing, but that I do hear, "Live well."  Now, as I often feel I too am hanging from a precipice- I grab onto this phrase, "Live with all your strength."

Live with all your strength.

It's funny how words and phrases sometimes sit with you and you chew on them until they kind of fit together like a puzzle in your this case they were all a form of the irregular verb "to be,"

It Just Is

Try To Be

and in the background I keep hearing- what I've always thought is a pretty cool name for a God to call himself, you've got to admit- whether you believe in him or not:

I Am.


One of, if not the hardest thing about losing a spouse is you lose the person who is usually your support during difficult times.  Now, in the darkest time of your life- you find yourself, alone.

There are many special and cherished relationships, but they are all, in a sense- (apart from maybe your own mother at one point) with people out in the world- people you meet as you journey.  With your husband, it is as if you're together inside a cockpit or behind a glass windshield, driving on this journey.  You marvel at the view together- the valleys, deserts, and even the rockiest terrain.  No matter what, even though you make stops along the way, and even though, physically- you may be separated for times- even on other sides of the world- you remain invisibly- always seated beside each other- as a unit-watching it all happen.  Even then, it's apparent when the phone beside your bed rings and your heart warms and you answer, "Hey you."

Sitting beside each other as passengers does not mean you will see everything in the same light or have the same ideas, friends, hobbies, or even passions, and in fact, this is what enriches your joint experience of the world more than anything...this togetherness and otherness tied into one.

My entire adult life, you sat beside me- and then one morning- when I heard the phone ring- as I danced around your daughter in the hallway hurrying to reach it, waiting for that "Hey you," I heard something altogether different.  "Are you sitting down?  Can you sit down?"

And then, there I am sitting watching the story of your departure from behind "our" now shattered window.  There I am without your hand on my shoulder, or your own shock or witness, to this- the most horrifyingly bizarre thing either of us have never imagined.

I am perversely jealous of the victims of other tragedies who write in their memoirs about the support offered to them by their spouse through it all.

Because there I am, not as I am below- with your arm around me at your grandparents' grave on a hillside in a small Korean village the first year of our marriage.  No, there I am, so suddenly- alone- at your own grave.  I came across this photo a few months ago.   I just keep looking at it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Social Graces and On Belonging

It starts from the inception.  The stacks of Hallmark cards piling up.  You must, or at least you should- write thank you notes.  In fact, at the weakest time of your life, your days are full of social graces.  Because you are wholly dependent on others for a while, you are full of thank you's.  It is humbling and it seems to go on and on.  It's a good thing really because if you didn't have anyone to thank, that would obviously mean you're all alone.  But it's tiring.

After the first year- the time begins when everyone likes to believe "you're fine now."  So the social graces become more the first year an acquaintance asked how I was at Audrey's soccer class and I answered, "Shitty." When she seemed taken aback and asked why, I responded, "Oh you know the whole husband dying thing- still getting over that one."  In the second year, some of the inhibitions come back (probably a good thing) and you don't do this.  "Oh fine, thanks, and you?" This is what I teach Audrey to respond when people smile and ask her how she is and this is what I too am expected to reply.

I am to make chit chat with the other moms while picking up our children from preschool- most of them pregnant or with another small child in tow- as if we're on the same page and thinking about the same things.  Um, my daughter was talking about seeing her dad in heaven when she dies at breakfast- yours? I am to get out of my car and wave and smile even though I've been crying in that car at the meter outside Starbucks, wondering why why why why why why why.  "Hey- how are you?"  "Oh, you know- fine. You?"

I am to smile back when grownups give me that knowing "isn't she cute" look when Audrey is prancing in front of me in her fairy wings.  Yup- she is, but things aren't exactly as innocent as they seem.  I am to take my change with a thank you when the cashier says, "Here you go honey," and I feel angry that I'm still being called the diminutive "honey" cashiers use to empower themselves (I know, I've been one a few times) when I feel about eighty years older than they are.  I still have to rsvp on time to invitations of events I cannot attend.  I still have to chip in for birthday presents and dinners for people who I feel have everything they could ever want or need.  Their family is intact.  I still bring little hostess gifts or bake something when I visit someone's house and I'm still expected to say "Oh no problem," when people cancel on me.

The social graces are harder and take more effort than ever now because the longer this goes on, the more I understand that unless someone has been here, they have no idea of the inner world of pain we live in.  It's a lot like being kicked out of your home but being told you still have to pay property taxes.  And because when you really start to get the reality, you have a hard time finding your place.  By virtue of what you've experienced, you're isolated.  Where do you belong?  Where do you fit in?  Can you still park in the "family section" of the parking lot at church?  Are you considered as much a of a mother as those who have two or three children?  Can you sit and chat about pregnancies and school activities as much as the next mom?  How do you relate to the young pastor's sermon when he keeps talking about how no one wants to be weak before God and fall on their knees when you are on your knees every day?

How does one interact with others when your perspective is now so incredibly different?  They are glorying in pregnancy- I am feeling anxious that they have so many kids- what if something happens to their husband?  They are wishing they could have some time alone- I am wondering how long it would take for someone to find me if something happened to me and Audrey couldn't call for help.  They are shopping for a suit for an event- I am thinking everyone must have a suit to be buried in just like the one I got out of the closet for my husband to wear.  The one I liked the least- so I could keep the if the one who'd wear it was only an impostor. An impostor.  They are calling me to sub for the coop parent that morning- I am afraid to pick up a phone that is ringing at a time when no one usually calls from an unrecognized number.  They are preaching about heaven and how it's hard to long for it as we should when we're comfortable here.  I am longing for it with each breath.

Am I overly morbid, pessimistic, dark?   I don't believe so.  My perspective is based on something incredibly, painfully, real.  It becomes more real each day and I wish I didn't have it.  I wish I had a smaller that included what I should wear that day rather than what lies at the edge of the universe.  But like someone bound to a wheelchair after an accident- my perspective is just different- and I've come to realize- the thing I was waiting for- for it to just go back to the way it was- won't ever come.

It's a lonely feeling when you recognize that most people you interact with on a daily basis live in an entirely different world than you do.  And yet, if you don't step up and at least appear "normal" you do yourself the disservice of isolating yourself even more- which wouldn't matter so much if you didn't have a really cute three-year old who loves people so much she gets disappointed when the people coming to look at the apartment you're being pushed out of cancel.  "But I weawy wanted them to cooome!"  It's another case of this really sharp navigating you must do: I don't want to be inauthentic and have never been less than genuine (too genuine according to my husband who would scold me telling me if I didn't like someone it was written all over my face), but the fact is, I cannot show the state of my heart most of the time.  People don't want you to, "play the widow card," as we say in our circle- for too long.  You don't want to be a burden.  You don't want to be always sending thank you notes.  Self-pity- does not lead to quality writing.  So, yes, sometimes I will be the woman talking to herself in the drugstore, and sometimes I'll just stay in my car when it's time to pick Audrey up and read a book about heaven rather than chat with the "moms."  But "for the most part," I'll change and dress my wounds at home and keep them invisible out there.  They are mine.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

For the Most Part

It was an uplifting weekend for the most part.  We had a couple of invitations for Saturday for a change, and that was nice.   We got to get together with someone I know through this blog- a lovely woman and a friend- in the city where we walked around St. John the Divine, and looked for the peacocks that live there, with our daughters.  In the evening, we had dinner with neighbors and two other couples- both who knew Dan.  The dinner was delicious and Audrey always has fun playing with their boys.  At one point I opened the door to the room where they were playing and heard her practically screaming at one of them, "I just wanna say!- that I really love you!" and then upon seeing me, tilting her chin down and smiling shyly.

So, for the most part, it was a nice time and I felt very thankful.  But life will be a series of "for the most parts," I'm afraid- (and probably is for everyone).  But specifically with your loss, there will always be those moments- the ones where I'm supposed to be out having a normal night- eating steak and drinking wine with friends- when I suddenly feel the pinch of your loss like a herniated disc pressing on the nerve.  One of the couples knew you from many years ago at the church you used to attend but I've never met them.  I wonder to myself if you liked them- what you would've told me about them.  We talk about basketball and I am dying to know if you'd be rooting for the Knicks and Jeremy Lin or the Celtics since you were a Boston fan.   I listen to the couples discuss preschools in the city and letters of acceptance and have a hard time thinking this is important.  And mostly, I am aware- that everyone there is together- and I am alone.  And I am acutely aware, when we leave and I come home, tuck our daughter in, and go to bed myself.

On Sunday we go to my parents after church.  I want to watch some of the game- but it is so strange without you.  I hear you saying, "Paul Pierce- his nickname is ..." "  But I can't remember what it is and you're not there to tell me.  I google it...oh yeah, "The Truth."  You really liked saying that for some reason.  I see you so clearly in my mind coming down the hall in that daze where I can't get your attention- staring at the TV.  This imagining is so real to me- it's hard to snap out of it and tempting to stay there.

Yesterday I took all of the tax information I'd gathered for the accountant to the copy store after dropping Audrey off, and, quite humorously actually, my bag fell out of the car when I opened the door, all of the tax papers in the stack blew away- under my car, etc.  After I got on my hands and knees to retrieve them- luckily the wind stayed calm for a few minutes- I went inside and attempted to make copies- the copier jammed again and again while I tried to follow the instructions and open the machine up and clear it... and finally a Staples employee came to help, "Wow, you're a trooper," he says, "I thought, 'She's gonna call me over now...but you didn't!'  A trooper- that's me- I think.  I later realize I'm missing a few pages and head outside to find them- with tire marks on them- but found nonetheless.  And for the first time, I see my yearly income on this document- and it's startling.  But only money.

The other papers I am copying is a small stack I am sending along with thank you notes to the medical examiner in Switzerland who recently shipped your sample- a woman at the American Embassy who has been helpful, and two nurses/lab technicians here in the States.  I could've sent a simple thank you note, but why lose another opportunity to tell the story- a griever will not do this.  So I also sent the post from my blog that was published in the Times parenting blog, a page of excerpts from the memorial letters written about Dan, and a photo card that I had made with three photos- one of Dan, one of the three of us, and one of just Audrey and I and the words, "Thank You."  I wanted each of these people who never knew you, and yet became an intimate part of your story- to know you were a real person- and a wonderful one.  And- to know that you were missed each day by someone.

I ask the guy at Staples to make these copies on nicer cream resume paper, and I can tell when he rings me up- that he's read the gist of it.  I can just tell.  "You take care now..." he says after I pay.  After Audrey's in bed, I cut pieces of gray card stock and write the thank you's on that, place the photo card on top of that and tape it together with gray Japanese washi tape.  It's a pretty package.  I talk outloud to myself while I try to package them up as quickly as I can because it is not a task I enjoy.  "You just keep trying to make this mess pretty don't you?"  But I cannot.

Instead, I feel depleted.  Even as I looked for stationary supplies, every drawer I look in, every place I look, I see things from our life together.  I can't escape it.  Everything was "ours."  There are pens you got from your job, erasers you brought from Korea, leftover pieces of paper from the tree mural we made before Audrey was born.  There is honestly, no thing- no object, that isn't connected.  They may seem like small things- but each one screams of a reality that now feels like a dreamworld.

My cries are long - so that I start to feel like I'm having an asthma attack and can't catch my breath.  I crave comfort- but there is none.   Every now and then I allow myself to catch just a sliver of hopelessness...cosmic aloneness.

Today is Tuesday, the sixth.  I skip to seven on our perpetual calendar and head to the Post Office to mail those envelopes after dropping Audrey off.  "Oh, Switzerland, not Sweden," says the woman at the post office after she accidentally inputs Sweden as the address while weighing them.  "Yup."  I remember how I also had mistakenly told your brother and everyone that you'd died in Sweden that first day- I was so confused.

A friend asks via chat if she can call me last night right in the middle of the cosmic aloneness- and I tell her no- "but I'm OK- I'll regroup tomorrow"...time to regroup.