Road trip through the mountains

Grief is like a journey through the mountains. Sometimes you’re in the dark tunnels a long time and then – Boom! – there’s the sun! You’re out of the tunnel! But then, just ahead: another tunnel. Sometimes the tunnels are very long; sometimes they’re short. Sometimes they’re particularly dark; sometimes they’re well-lit. Sometimes we are riding alone; other times we have companionship. As we go through each sequential tunnel, we develop the ability to endure – to even manage – our time in the tunnels to varying degrees.

The mountain range is infinite, and tunnels of varying lengths and lighting come at varying distances – but there will always be tunnels. The key is to continue the journey; to continue to move forward through them.

Real life

Sometimes it’s particularly difficult to crystallize my thoughts around my current reality. Out of the blue, I’ll start thinking of life last year – JUST LAST YEAR – when Kim was still here, and my mind teeters on the edge of that particular bit of sanity where I struggle with the question of “How can this be? Am I not having a nightmare?” My mind claws at the “unreality” of my current state as if trying to climb out of a sandy pit. Everything it grasps at crumbles in its grip and it makes no progress in anything but to bury itself deeper into the sand. Because this is reality. Kim did die a slow, horrible death. I did wake up to find her gone. She is under the ground, her location marked by a polished granite slab with her and my names on it.

Other times, I easily accept the situation; easily relinquish the fool’s hope that this isn’t real. And it’s not that I’m worried about my sanity, but it’s an odd state of mind to find myself in on occasion – not quite a panic attack; just a quirky momentary shift in thought – like connecting with another version of me for whom none of this has happened.

This past rainy Sunday – coincidentally: my first birthday since Kim’s death – I visited Kim’s grave and saw rain on her marker. Simple rain. The marker was shiny with water. This, in and of itself wasn’t troubling – but seeing the lettering being filled with water caused an emotional break. An odd thing to focus on, but it had me standing at her grave in the rain, bawling my eyes out.

And mornings. I was never a “spring out of bed to greet the day” kind of guy, but I would get up at a regular time with no difficulty going about starting my day. That, too, is gone. I could easily lounge in bed until the crack of noon – I don’t, though – but only because of the guilt I invariably feel when I have spent too much of my time in bed. But I cannot recall a day since that terrible December morning in which I have not hit snooze half a dozen times before finally getting out of bed. That alone would be the greatest thing to overcome – nonetheless: every night, I go to bed with the conviction that I will not snooze my alarm, but every morning is a repeat of the previous.

I also find myself to be much more somber than I was in the past; not as quick with my sense of humor, nor as likely to offer solutions – or even responses – to things others encounter in their lives, whether it be a family text, comment in a conversation, or a facebook post in one of the many groups I participate in. Simply put: a lot of what I thought was important just doesn’t seem to matter anymore; a lot of what I used to do in the past for myself and for others seems so burdensome now.

Despite all of this, as you have probably surmised by the long gaps in my posting, I am moving forward. I have a steady girlfriend – a widow – and we spend a lot of time together. Being with her makes me feel “normal,” but, at the same time, creates guilt. Not guilt because she’s not Kim, as many may guess, but guilt because, when I’m spending time with her, I’m not at home for Jillian and Kenneth. Though they’re both “grown-up,” they still need their dad around – if, for nothing other than the assurance that their dad is still around, I guess. Or, maybe it’s the other way around…

Sigh.

We’re complex beasties, we humans. And anyone who claims to understand us is clearly lying.

Not alone

Jillian is reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch in her Lit class. They listen to the audiobook version in class, and since Jillian is remote, I hear every bit.

Randy Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.

I sit in the family room, working remotely while she’s in this class. I often find myself tearing up listening to the audiobook – so much of what he relates hits home. Particularly, in today’s segment, he relates his wife, Jai, asking him “Please don’t die.” I often asked Kim “Please don’t go.” to which she would invariably reply “Well, I’m trying not to.” But the book is written from his perspective; not Jai’s. In a lot of ways, when he talks about his relationship with his wife and family and what he’s going through, it’s as if I am hearing Kim relating her experience. As I mentioned before, she was so staid, serene in her situation. I get that same impression from Mr. Pausch’s statements.

In some ways, the parallels are comforting. I think Kim found the same Zen-like peace in her situation. Most of the time, though, it plucks a chord on the emotional harp that sends me to that place where I just want to be alone.

Today is “Family Friday.” Jillian, Vanessa, and Jeanette are on their way to Ohio for a pageant. I made steaks, fries, and a salad for Chris, Jessica, Kenneth, and me. Dinner was good. Now they’re gathered in the kitchen talking and listening to music… mostly music I don’t like, so I went to the basement and finished breaking up that cabinet I said I’d finish a couple of weeks back (yeah, I know… but one task has now officially been focused upon and completed!), and then took the bottles out to the garage, and the recycling out to can in the side yard… I truly believe music is like candy – you should throw the wrappers out. But then Chris pulled up some Imagine Dragons (sounded a lot like early Zeppelin) and ELO to redeem them… Well, not all their taste in music is crap.

Warm weather

It was warm yesterday. It was shirt-sleeves and short pants warm. It was warm, and I didn’t have Kim to walk with me, to hold my hand, to crack the whip at the corner to give me a kiss. I didn’t have Kim out in the yard working on her flowers or vegetables for the coming summer. The firsts are the worst, I guess.

The windows of the house were all opened to allow the breezes to push all of the stale winter air out of the house. And it was breezy – the wind chimes in the yard, given to Kim when her mom passed in August 2019 were singing robustly. The wind chimes on the porch, given to me when Kim passed away in December 2020 are quieter, more “tinkly”, but I could hear them from where I was a the back of the house as well, and it was almost as if they were harmonizing. My beautiful Kim, who never really could carry a tune in life now has a beautiful voice whenever the wind stirs her chimes.

Small distractions bring big memories

Keeping busy keeps my mind off of Kim – but that, too, depends on the type of activity I am keeping busy with. Some become unbearable as memories flood in – like cleaning things up in the basement. Even the most mundane items remind me of Kim or bring me back to a time long before now when she was still vital and alive.

Getting ready to break down an oddball rack that held all of those tax records I spoke of earlier, it simply brought me back to when we moved in, and when we had our boat. Kim never really had anything to do with that rack, but it is still steeped in memories for me. I had to stop working on it and go upstairs to find something else to do.

And Jillian, my youngest, is really getting into exercise and fitness since I put the old Bowflex back together. She likes to get up early, go into the basement and do her workout with that machine and the resistance bands we bought the other day. All of which hearkens back to a memory of Kim on the floor in the family room doing her leg-lifts every morning in the time before any of the kids were born.

The weather being fine today, and having been cooped up in my office chair literally the entire day, due to meetings stacked upon meetings, I decided on a fast-paced walk around the block – which invariably follows the route Kim and I took every day last year. Generally not a problem until I come to the “crack the whip” turn, in which I still choke up a bit.

Finally, tomorrow is Family Friday. No-one wants to cook, so I decided to do a meatless version of my jambalaya – which necessarily sent me off in search of meatless substitutes for andouille and chicken. Kroger has veggie sausage, I was told by Jessie, so off I went to the closest Kroger – a store that I think I only set foot in once before without Kim in tow. (No veggie andouille, but veggie chorizo – I’ve made jambalaya with chorizo before, so hopefully…. and some extra firm tofu I should be able to fry and season to taste and act like chicken. Wish me culinary luck…)

It seems no matter where I go, or what mundane thing I choose to occupy myself, it draws my attention back to Kim. I suppose this will continue as I’m not sure why it seems to have escalated. Like exercise, the more I am faced with these – the more I face them – the stronger I will become. And, as they say: no pain, no gain. So it will continue to hurt until I drive my emotional threshold higher by continuing to work through them.

That rack needs to be broken up, and I need to strengthen myself. It will be ready for next trash day…

But grieve we do

Simple things get us. Stupid, silly things send us spiraling down to where we can only stand in place and sob. Tonight, as I was putting away the dishes from the dishwasher, I was thinking how I never had any doubts about Kim when we were dating. I never had to guess if my feelings for her were reciprocated. And then, picking up a packet of graham crackers that she had received during one of her chemo visits to throw away, I broke. “She loved me, and I ruined her,” I sobbed. And “How could this have happened to her.”

In analyzing my feelings after recovering myself, I find the first lament is related to her alcoholism. No matter how much I’ve read and have been told that an alcoholic is the only one responsible for their alcoholism, I cannot help but think that I had a big hand in triggering its onset. The time away from home for my job had to be incredibly hard on her. My response to emotional displays – to clam up and run away – was likely another. My manner of focusing so keenly on tasks to the exclusion of all external input is another. I know she was jealous of some of the women who worked around me in our early years, too – having an absentee husband can play havoc on a woman’s mind. But, again, I remained faithful to her through the whole time, and she remained married to me – feats that many of my contemporaries and their wives did not achieve.

The second lament is similar to something I voiced to her shortly after her diagnosis: things like this aren’t supposed to happen to us. We were to grow old together, getting along through retirement as our parents did before us.

And the lever that opened the floodgates was a simple packet of graham crackers…

For what do we grieve?

The thought occurred to me that grief is a manifestation of self-pity. I know that is a significant oversimplification of the maelstrom of emotions that we, the bereaved, face in our grief – but what, exactly do we grieve?

We grieve our loss. OUR loss. Something that happened to us. This thought occurred to me yesterday and immediately took residence, continually popping up like a bad neighbor peeking over the fence. What, exactly, are we grieving? Our spouse is beyond the suffering of this vale of tears. There is no more pain for them. We grieve the loss of someone in our life, a partner, confidant, lover…

Again, an oversimplification. Kim died of a horrible, painful, wasting disease. I feel great sadness thinking of her last months of life; that she was uncomfortable and in pain and couldn’t enjoy the things she loved to do. I feel sadness at how that disease robbed her of everything before finally taking her life. But, in grieving over her death… again: is it just self-pity?

An article I came across discriminates between the two by saying self-pity has to do with the want of something we need (or, I’d argue: simply want,..) but cannot have, and grief has to do with the loss of something you had. Sounds a bit like splitting hairs to me. This one does a little better job, perhaps – even so, it seems there is ample overlap.

So it’s a question, I guess, to be explored by brighter minds in psychology than mine. Maybe now that I’ve written it down, it will stop shaking my mind like a puppy shaking its toy.

Spring cleaning

Every 1 March, Holy Sepulchre Cemetery starts the removal and discard of the decorations they allow on the graves during the winter months. All grave blankets, wreaths, crosses, stuffed animals – they clean them all off the graves and discard them in preparation for the lawn mowing season.

I removed the blankets from Kim’s and her mom’s graves, and the crosses from theirs and those of my grandparents and my dad last weekend. The temperatures have been above freezing most of this week. The end result is that Kim’s grave is an ugly heap of dirt without even a headstone to mark who is there.

Seeing the bare mound of earth was a lot like ripping the bandage off a scabbed-over wound, renewing the pain of watching her casket being lowered into the vault, sealed off, and then being lowered into the hole in the ground and buried.

Her mother’s grave has settled into a flat, but still ugly patch of dirt, the lawn not yet having taken hold. I expect that Kim’s mound will flatten over this year, and they will be setting the headstone this spring. I’m hoping the lawn takes hold quickly, too. Maybe I’ll bring some sandwich bags of grass seed with me on my spring and summer visits and help it along.

One of our attractions to the plots we purchased was the tree and lawn – it looked like a picnic spot – somewhere a person would like to visit. It doesn’t look much like one now, and probably won’t for some time.

Only the swamp-dwellers know…

Here’s an analogy I’ve made to the grief of losing a spouse and the inability of those who know no such loss to understand why we are the way we are: Unless you’re standing in the middle of the swamp, you have only a vague idea of the monsters that live there – no-one outside of the widow’s or widower’s skin can understand how the loss impacts them personally. Even those standing in the swamp dealing with the monsters are dealing with THEIR monsters. Everyone’s experience is different.

I guess the point is that, though people will tell you that they know how you feel, or they understand, they really can’t. Widow(er) to widow(er) has the best chance of understanding; however, everyone came to where they are by different paths, each which imprints differences – some small, some vast – in the experience.

For those looking to comfort a widow or widower, you really need to understand this. Telling someone you understand where they’re at really doesn’t give comfort. Just talk to them. Be aware of their pain, but don’t avoid them because of it. And to those widows and widowers who take offense at the usual platitudes, keep in mind that the goal of the person is rarely to be dismissive. They really don’t understand, and only want to give comfort.