Memories

The human memory. It’s both a gift and a curse.

Without memory, there would be no nostalgia. There would be no reminiscing over happy times. But, without memory, there would also be no regrets; no sadness. No grief…

To some degree – a large degree – we’re asked in scripture to live in the present. Lear from the past via our memories, but without drowning in them. We are not to “live in the past”, as it were. But sometimes, following that advice is hard as the mind sometimes goes where it will despite every intention and effort not to – like an unbroken stallion. I guess the task, then, is in dealing with this beast when it runs on its own: bridling it in; bringing it back to now.

On the same token, we’re told not to worry about the future. As I like to say: make plans for the future to protect yourself and your place in it, but don’t dwell on it or try to control it. That last bit isn’t for us. But who doesn’t find that majestic beast in their skull dragging them forward to turn some issue or aspect over and over at some point or other?

One of the joys of widowhood and the “widow brain” fog that seems to fall on us is the apparent inability to exert much control on either – vaulting into the past and worrying into the future like a yoyo.

I write this retrospectively – I’ve come a long, long way in a relatively short time on this. I find myself remembering often, but less so with the sadness and melancholy of loss. And, thanks to a new relationship with a wonderful woman who has gone through this same experience: I don’t wonder at what lonely trials the future may hold for me.

But many things have changed in a relatively short time. My youngest daughter has left the nest. She was the most company I had whenever I was at home. To be fair to her, though, since I’ve retired, I’ve been spending less and less time here – it wouldn’t have been fair to expect her to stay basically all by herself. My youngest son remains in the house, but he works a shift which ensures most waking time here is spent alone. She made the right decision.

When here, I work to alleviate the neglect that my 30-year mostly-on-the-road career, the parade of dogs and cats that came through the house since we’ve been here, etc. has resulted in so that the house can eventually be sold. And, that brings us back to memories. Emptying the house of those things that made it our particular home, as messy as it may have been. Each piece having some memory or other attached to it; having to willfully relegate these things to the trash heap…

Smiles

Smiles. That’s what comes to me now when I think of my life with Kim. Smiles. Some things still choke me up – especially events during those last 7 months with her – but I find myself smiling now when I think of most things; I find myself smiling when some memory bubbles up to the surface.

The evolution of grief has been interesting to observe. It continues to be. Most often, in its early stages, grief would drive the mind to the irrational when memories would crop up: don’t do that because it’s not how she likes it; don’t throw this away because it is her favorite. But she’s gone and what you do with her things is inconsequential. More often, grief would drive the mind to desolation and desperation: why us? How do I recover my life when half of it has been torn away? Eventually, it yields smiles.

This dawned on me a few days ago – that I now smile when I think of Kim and the moments in our life – and I mentioned it to my girlfriend, Sheila. It really hit me again this morning, looking out into the yard at the pool I put in about 26 years ago. She really wanted a pool and, though I have no love for them, I wanted her to have it. I smiled, remembering our first swim together. I smiled remembering her with each of our children in that pool over the years, playing with them and teaching them how to be safe in the water. And I smiled as I remembered her last float on her french fry-design raft the summer of the year she left us – how she wanted to be in the pool, but could not because of the various chemos, the port, the pain, and the appointments. She was feeling really good one day, and got the go-ahead from her doctor, and spent the afternoon simply floating and enjoying the day and her pool.

Odd, that: to need the go-ahead from a doctor to enjoy something when you are terminally ill. We really need to revisit that concept – as well as what should be routine screenings at a physical. The former has driven me to the conviction that if I’m ever diagnosed with something like pancreatic cancer, I’m going to enjoy what’s left, and the medical community be damned. I get the pain management aspect. And I even get the chemo to extend life, knowing that it will not cure the condition. But I don’t get the restrictions on things like getting your teeth cleaned. Kim had an appointment and was looking forward to it – who doesn’t like the feeling of their teeth after a cleaning?! But, no. Because of the chemo. A bit irrational, in my opinion: she was terminal. Let her have her teeth cleaned. Kim had to have her own towels to ensure that she didn’t get some infection that would kill her from one of us. So many restrictions; so many things designed to prevent her from getting an infection that might kill her when we knew all along that the cancer was going to kill her, anyway.

Not all of these things were onerous or disappointing to her or us, but a lot of these retrictions took things she wanted away from her long before her disease would. And to what end?

I cannot speak for someone who is so clearly faced with their own end, but I think I’d rather not have things that I love and enjoy taken from me just so that I can live a little longer. I guess we’ll get to see how I behave if I am ever confronted with that knowledge, but I really think the palliative care professionals need to rethink a lot of what they are demanding from and for their terminal patients.

Sunday, Sunday…

It’s funny. Some days, it’s almost as if everything reminds me of Kim. Little things would remind me of things she’d say or do. Someone will say something, and I can hear Kim’s “stock reply” in my mind’s ear. There was a lot of that today as Jillian sat with Grandma Sue at the dining room table working on a jigsaw puzzle – something Kim would have heartily joined in on.

After mass this morning, I shot across the street to the Holiday Market and picked up two bouquets of cut flowers; one with some purple flowers in it for Kim; another with some blue flowers for her mom. The headstone has arrived and is on the ground at the head of her grave. It looks like they followed my instructions to a “tee” and the stone looks great – though I can’t convey how strange it is to see my name on a gravestone.

Her dad rode out to the cemetery with me, as usual. He’s having more and more difficulty getting in and out of the car. I can see that it likely won’t be long before I’ll be making the trip solo as I don’t think he’ll be able to get in and out of a car if he continues as he has been.

This was a bit of a strange week for the Grandma Sue thing, too. The role of “organizer” has fallen to Jillian, and I knew she was polling her siblings earlier in the week, which she does concurrently with asking Grandma Sue if she is up for visitors. Then, in the hubbub of the week, I lost track of what was going on and didn’t know whether we were to go or not. Kim’s dad really likes to go and asked if we were going, but at that time: I had no idea. After I had been home awhile, I finally got ahold of Jillian, who spent the night at Jessica’s, and found that we were. It ended up being just Jillian and me with Sue and Larry but it was a good brunch, and Jillian and Sue worked on that jigsaw puzzle until about 6:30!

Jillian’s muffler fell off on the way to Sue’s, so I wired it up with a coat-hanger, and then Larry and I dropped it at nearby Akron Tire – it will need that, front brakes, alignment, and an oil change. Larry made a point of telling me how great he thought all of my kids were, and what a great job Kim and I did raising them. It was nice to hear. I like Larry. He seems to be very good for Sue, and he’s fun to kid with.

Tomorrow, I’ll need to go up to Akron to drop Jillian’s keys off and schedule the work. The last time it was there, it was still Kim’s, and they did the rear brakes for her. Maybe they’ll remember.

Prayers for Gramma Sue who is having eye surgery tomorrow.

Old rooms, old memories, and old sea scows

Kim’s Dad is back from his sojourn in Florida and Georgia, so, after Mass, Vanessa and I (Jillian is at a pageant in Tennessee) made our way to his house to accompany him to Holy Sepulchre to visit Kim’s grave and her Mom’s grave as has been the practice since Kim’s mom passed in 2019.

Afterward, in his house, it seemed I was viewing it through AR lenses: everywhere I looked, I could see the house as it was today and as it was when Kim and I were dating and first married, so many years ago. I could see where the couch was that we would plop ourselves on after I picked her up from work on each weekend day. I could see the bedroom that was hers as it was when we were first dating, and then the one she later moved to in the front of the house. I could see her sitting in front of the fireplace to distribute Christmas gifts as was the tradition in those early days. I could see her sitting there as our children, nieces, and nephews took over the role as they grew. I could see Kim working in the kitchen with her Mom and sister at each holiday family gathering. So many memories. So much captured in the vaults of my mind.

It can be maddening at times.

A few years back, we were having a conversation regarding retirement, and how we would get along during it. During the conversation, as we were discussing the things we’d like to do when we no longer had to worry about going to work, she stopped and smiled and said that she believed we would get along just fine…

As the song says: some loves are meant to last forever. Despite the issues we had in our life together, I believe we had that. It definitely had its downs, but we weathered them. Sometimes weathering the storms was easy; other times weathering them was exhausting – but we made it through each one with our marriage intact. The ship of our marriage, a shiny, white, and sleek craft when we launched it, was battered by time and became dented, worn, and rusty – but it remained afloat, and definitely remained seaworthy. We would have been just fine through retirement if only she was allowed to experience it.

Remembering

I spent this evening going through a handful of our photographs while listening to an excellent TED Talk on grief I had found on the Facebook group Widowers Support Network, and a couple of somewhat unrelated talks by Fr. Chris Alar of the Fathers of the Immaculate Conception; one discussing abortion and the other discussing angels (I’m amazed and grateful for the energy of some of these young priests – and for their zeal for the faith).

Some of the pictures were taken before we met. Some were taken prior to our engagement, some from that trip to Hubbard Lake I mentioned in an earlier entry, many from our wedding and honeymoon in the Poconos; and many from various stages of our life together – up to the very end.

A Walk at Hubbard Lake
A Walk at Hubbard Lake – 1989

Looking through these pictures, it is sometimes painful to see how life changed us; the ups and downs, the worries, and the passage of time. At the same time, there is great happiness in those events – post-delivery pictures for each of the kids, birthday parties, baptisms, confirmations… It is remarkable, reviewing those pictures, how everything there focused around family – either our families before we started our own, or our family as it began and grew. There was some facet of family captured in every one of them – be it my inlaws, my family, our own children, or our extended family – oftentimes all in one!

Looking through them does tug a bit at the heartstrings, but, for the most part, reviewing them brings more happy memories than painful ones. I expected that I would find them more painful than I do. But seeing her beautiful face peeking back at me from the past is refreshing, and reminds me of how much we loved each other, despite all of the challenges life and time brought to us.

I wonder what we look like in heaven? Do we look as we did when we passed away? Do we look as we did at the height of health as young adults? Or do we look totally different, no longer recognizable to our human mind? Are we still one with our spouse in heaven? Are our families intact? I guess, assuming I live my life in such a way to be deserving of it, I will find out in God’s good time.

More to clean up

Who woulda thunk the menial task of cleaning up old tax records would turn into a melancholy walk down memory lane?

I have always been meticulous in record keeping. Every receipt and communication is stored in an alphabetized accordion file each year, which becomes the basis for my tax data. After the taxes are filed for that year, a copy of the return is added to the file; the file is wrapped up and stored away. The downside of this is that there were, until recently, over 30 years of such records. In some cases, this has been proven to be an advantage, as I’ve been able to locate receipts for “lifetime guaranteed” items many years after their purchase, saving the expense of replacing some fairly expensive items. That, however, in no way justifies the stack of accordion files and the space they’re taking.

A few years back, I bought one of those “paper brick makers” with the idea that we could shred these documents, soak them in water, and then press out paper bricks to take camping – I mean, storing paper bricks in the motorhome is better than having to bring the pickup with its bed loaded with firewood, right? Well, let me tell you: household shredders are not speed-demons, and, though paper bricks are pretty cool, they take quite literally forever to dry out. I finally resorted to putting our first batch into the convection oven at a low temperature to dry them enough so they wouldn’t mold. And they’re still in the basement, our two planned 2020 camping trips having been canceled – one due to COVID closure of the state campground we had reservations at (thanks, Gretch!); the other due to a premonition that came to be.

So what to do with these documents if they aren’t to become paper bricks? Cities occasionally bring in document shredding services and allow each address to bring a box or two of documents to be shredded, but I’d rather not take the chance of some careless shredder operator letting a piece or two of social security number-bearing documentation drift away on the wind. So, I opted to burn them in the fireplace. It goes a lot faster than shredding them did, and, being January, serves to help heat the home.

So, with today being a holiday from work, I spent the day feeding receipts and tax documents into the fire, while keeping a general eye out for things still better kept.

There were receipts from the hospital when each child was on the way – for prenatal care, ultrasounds, all the way up to the hospital stay for their delivery. There were memories of the various companies we dealt with over the years, how cheap cable service was in the early 90s, various purchases. There were notations in my hand and notations in Kim’s hand. I even found a couple of folders from doing Mom’s taxes after Dad died, among which was a calendar where Mom “blogged” little notes such as “first sunny day since the death”. I guess it runs in the family. (I set them aside and put them in the box with Kim’s records, in case any family is reading.)

It was bittersweet going through all of that. Some of the things in there, I really don’t remember well – such as reservations at State Dock that had to be canceled – State Dock runs houseboats on Lake Cumberland. Apparently, the year after my dad had taken the family there, we made reservations to go again but canceled them. I recall discussing going back – we had planned an “off-season” vacation to save on the expense – but don’t at all recall making them, and I definitely don’t recall canceling them. Maybe that was all Kim’s doing – but seeing it made me wish we had gone. We did so few things like that – sometimes due to the expense, or wrangling the kids’ busy schedules with our own – but most times due to work, and my aversion to leaving home because of all the away-from-home my job demanded.

There were magazine subscription receipts for various crafting and horse magazines. Receipts from clothing stores she liked for herself and the kids. Just so many little paper memories. I kept thinking how, before all this, I might turn to Kim with one and say “Hey! Remember when we did this?” No one to reminisce with anymore. The kids wouldn’t remember much of it; less and less as the timeline moved backward. As I burned through them, I wondered how I would remember things like those afterward? What would catapult them up out of the vault of my memory?

I still have quite a few accordions to go through. I’ve already set aside the seven years I’ll keep, getting rid of the oldest each year, if my discipline holds. The family room will be warm for the next several days, I guess, as I feed more in while working across from the fireplace. The old wooden rack that held them, a vestige of the people who owned the house before us, is now empty – the last thing it coughed up was my collection of Elementary Electronics magazines from the 70s – the magazine that sparked then fed my desire to pursue a degree in electrical engineering (which I accomplished but never truly used). And some leftover material that I had used to reupholster the boat Kim and I bought the summer after we were married, with a 1990 Tandy Leather catalog from the store on Warren near Wayne. That Tandy store is long – 20 years – gone, though the company still exists.

I’ll be breaking the rack down to get rid of it, clearing space in the basement from three decades of “collections”; making room for other pursuits. It always was sort of an odd duck, anyway – after 30 years, I still cannot conceive of its purpose prior to it becoming a “just stick it in that thing” storage unit. All this is good because it keeps me busy; keeps the mind occupied.

And time marches on, inexorably to its final destination…