“She fell and no one caught her…”

Thanksgiving is here. I am grateful for many, many things. Every day I count my blessings…really. My life is pretty, dang good most days. Sure I have struggles and challenges, everyone does.  Widowed and non-widowed alike will have moments of acute gratitude and acute pain. It is what it is.  People have joy and sorrow in their lives every, single day….holiday or not.

I’m getting better at holidays.  Over eight years of practice now and I don’t feel completely taken down by them. This is my ninth Thanksgiving widowed.  It is my boys ninth Thanksgiving without their dad. When I write these words, they knock the wind out of me. Yesterday, I was so fortunate to see Dave’s work buddies.  I’m not sure if they know how much it means to me to get that call to come by and see them.  They were just gathered for a short time, but being in the room with them, well, it reminds me that he was real.  He was here. We had something. After all these years alone, sometimes I forget that I’m loveable.  I forget that I don’t have to bear all the responsibility alone. I forget it happened to me.

Along with those moments of respite, I remember things too.  I remember that for a while, I had someone who always had my back.  No matter what, Dave had my back. I had his. We knew this.  Our relationship wasn’t perfect…very far from perfect, but I never doubted that he would catch me if I fell.  He would catch me when the big things happened…when I lost a job, a friend, a dream…and when the little, daily things would trip me, his hand was always there to help me up again.  I did everything in my power to be that to him…always. Even in the midst of a fight, maybe even hating each other for a while for whatever reason, I knew he would always be there for me.  I could fall and be caught…no matter what.  Knowing this changed me.  I was braver.  I was more trusting.  I learned to love fiercely, because I wasn’t afraid of being dropped.

In the years since he died, I sought out people who might catch me.  I’ve been lucky because I have a pretty strong net of people who will catch me. The ones that wouldn’t or couldn’t catch me weeded themselves out pretty quickly after his death.  It takes a special soul to catch a widow…at least that’s how I see it.  As a widow, I feel even more invisible. I feel that not only I would not be caught, but who would even notice if I fell?  Who would see me? I feel invisible…would anyone even notice if I needed them to get my back?

I think this is one of those feelings that transcends time for me.  No matter how much I achieve, no matter how much I build in this new, unexpected life, I still worry about being seen and having someone there to catch me.  I know  that having someone like that is rare…I was lucky.

I think this fear of not being caught is a reflection of not receiving one of the things I value most in life.  I put it out there every day for other people.  It is who I am.  I build relationships.  I will love you fiercely.  I will have your back.  If you are family, friend, colleague, student, neighbor, well, really anyone who has become a part of my life, this is what I will do for you.  Some people get this.  Some people are ok with it…some are not. It is who I am. I am one of those people you can count on…nearly all the time.  I think this is why I miss having someone in my corner so badly.  It is one of the many, many reasons I miss Dave so badly…especially this week.  As I think about what would have been our 17th wedding anniversary that just passed, as I think about another holiday season, as I think about the future and how mine was ripped away eight and a half years ago, I miss him deeply.  I miss being caught.  I miss being seen.  I miss being loved fiercely and being able to love someone that way.

In the eighth plus year of this unexpected life, I know for certain that it will continue to teach me unexpected things.  I know that there will be new and unexpected joys.  I know that I will appreciate them even more than the average bear…I know that even though I worry about no one seeing me, no one catching me…someone will.  I know that this holiday season will pass and it will give me unexpected gifts.  I know that I will be stronger, more loving, and more me with every passing day…and for that I am grateful.

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Whoomp…there it is

I have been feeling pretty good lately, pretty normal…as relative as normal is. I have going through the days happily, enjoying my work, enjoying my kiddos and even added some extra things that I enjoy outside the responsibilities.  Simply stated…life is good.  One phrase I thought I’d never utter again.

So this week, my big boy had a milestone.  He is starting a new phase of his life, a wonderful phase of his life.  He asked a sweet, young lady out on a date.  This is so wonderful.  This is so fabulous! He mustered up the courage, asked, and she accepted.  It is a big deal for him.  Of course, he is totally nonchalant about it.  He came to me and asked me about my schedule for the weekend, told me his plan, and was completely thoughtful about the whole thing.  He shared the whole process with me…and for those of you who know how much I love the process…this was such a gift!

The day came.  We all went our ways for the day.  He asked.  She said yes! When we got home after school, he told me about it.  I am so thrilled for him.  I am a tad nervous about it, but thrilled about it at the same time.

A few hours later, I was back in bedroom alone and WHOOMP!   There it was…my grief swooped in, buckled my knees, and blurred my eyes.  I stood looking out the window as all those widowy feelings consumed me.  I was sad for him, because his dad is not here to guide him through this moment of his life.  I was sad that his dad wasn’t here to hug him and tell him what good kid he is.  I was sad that Dave didn’t get to see his boy turning into a man.  I was sad for me.   I was sad for me because that familiar feeling snuck in and whispered that no one else in the world cares for my boys like I do…and I don’t have him here to share this stuff with anymore.  I miss the joking, the smiles, those parent moments…I just felt so alone again.

My eyes welled up with tears, but no crying came.  My body felt the tension that my sadness can bring, but it did not overwhelm me.  My heart ached, but it felt strong at the same time.  As much as my grief can surprise me, I can withstand it now.  It is like standing in the ocean and letting the large wave come over you and not losing your stance.  It came. I felt it. It hurt, but I am not broken this time.  I held my ground. I let all the thoughts fill my head and then let them exit my mind.  I can let myself miss him like I did in those first moments when he took his last breath and still lead a happy life.  The two have come to some type of odd balance…at least this time.

I reached out to several friends to share my part of my boy’s new dating exploration.  They may not have known that it was one of my survival techniques when my heart is recovering, but maybe they do.  They were open and let me share.  Although it may not be the same as having his dad here to share it with, it was nice.  Being able to have these friends out there that let me process my life, my experiences and see those experiences reflected back to me through our conversations makes a valuable difference for me.  I have to be vulnerable and believe that they care enough to listen and also courageous enough to reach out to them.  It has taken me years to build the courage to reach out to others.  It has taken loving, patient friends who will let me contact them with the mundane…and then just listen and chat about it.  They are kind and let me interrupt their lives with my routine endeavors…that many times seem like daily things, but are big transitions for me.

I love them for that!

So, my big boy will have his date.  I will hold my breath until he gets home to tell me how it went.  Nearly like normal…we will balance our missing Dave with how life is now…and hopefully move toward tomorrow with more love and fortitude in our hearts than we had today.

Discovery

I think one of the strangest places that my journey of widowhood has taken me is this place of discovery.  Discovery brought forth by the need to survive.  This new place is definitely earned.  I struggled to survive for so many years.  I searched my being for a way to get through each minute, each breath when Dave died.  At 39 years old, I was a widow.  I was a mom with two little boys looking to me for guidance through this unknown journey of grief.  I didn’t have a clue how to survive.  It was all trial and error. Surprisingly, here I sit nearly 8 years later…still alive.  That alone is a something that I doubted early on in the journey.  I thought I might really die of a broken heart.  If my own pain wasn’t enough, I had to watch my children struggle to understand how this horrible thing had happened to us.

A few years shy of a decade later, I sit in a place of discovery.  I have learned new things, become more capable and believe it or not…more loving too.  I am kinder to myself. I have discovered things that I never would have learned if this wasn’t my journey.  I am more appreciative of my family, my friends, and my life.  At first, none of this was true…it was just breathing. That was it…nothing more, nothing less. Now life is beginning to take my breath away again and I can see the beauty around me without thinking that life isn’t fair.  It took a long time to not feel ripped off by the universe.  It took a long time to think that my life would have joy in it again.  Step by step, discovery by discovery I find myself in a new place…is it better…who knows?  I don’t think anything would have been better than my boys having their dad watch them grow up.  I don’t think I’ll ever be ever to measure better or worse.  There’s just no telling when your world is torn apart.  I didn’t get to see the life I’d planned, so how can I judge?

What I can say? I can say that I have grown and continue to discover a woman that I didn’t know before he died.  Would I have grown and changed? Of course! Would I have grown and changed into this woman? I don’t think so.  There’s something to be said for being brought to the darkest place you’ve ever been, emotionally, spiritually, physically, well…in every way…and then finding your way back to light, joy and love.  I never expected to find my way.  I am living proof that it is possible.  It has taken much time and extreme effort.  It has taken every ounce of courage I have.  It still does…every day.

It is still hard to crawl into an empty bed each night.  It is still hard to come home to more work and no one who wants to hear my story.  It is still hard to watch the boys grow and change and not have him here to share it all.  It is still hard to bear all the responsibility of being a sole parent, sole financial provider, sole emotional provider…but it is all doable.  Over the last year or so, it has even become a life I appreciate and enjoy.  That fact alone is a discovery I thought I would never know.  It can be amazing…and the even bigger thing…I appreciate it all more.  I know the struggle.  I know the sadness, the heartbreak and it makes the happiness sweeter than I have ever known.

Steady as she goes

Busy, busy, busy, that’s me.  Keeping myself busy has never been a problem.  Too much time to think…well, I can always fit in the time to over process anything.  My mind is probably four times busier than the busiest me.  The gift of busy though is that I don’t have a whole bunch of extra time to act on the things that go through my mind incessantly.  I am a reflective person, so I continue to take time to contemplate where I’ve been, what I’m doing and where I want to be…maybe too much.

Another gift of busy is that I don’t have too much time to contemplate the sorrow I still feel in my life.  I still have a hole in my heart and nothing fills it.  I still have an empty heart in many respects.  I am still lonely.  If I stay busy, I only have to think about this, to feel these things when the momentum slows.  During the week, the momentum never slows and I can fill myself with work, family and my obligations.  When the weekend comes, especially after the kids have gone to bed, the aloneness hits me in the face.  No one to talk with, no one to sit with, no one who wants to know how I am.  It still leaves me feeling hollow.  As much as I do for others, when Saturday night rolls around, I’m still sitting alone in my living room thinking too much.

I have filled my life with many relationships.  I always have.  I have friends, coworkers, acquaintances who fill my life with laughter and camaraderie.   During the work day, I am blessed to be surrounded by students who make my life a joy.  Now that the boys are older, I have time to do some of the things I enjoy too.  I get to spend time coaching and taking care of myself too.  At home, my boys keep me alive and ticking. Not a shabby life by any means.

I don’t even mind planning ahead a bit now.  I can look at the future and not be overwhelmed.  Even looking forward is a huge feat for me.  I can remember when looking to the future meant that I would have a plan for dinner and even that brought pain.  Then slowly it meant I had plans for work.  Now, I may even have plans and goals that will lead me to more fulfilled place.  I have plans that even make my heart happy…sometimes.

Nearly at the eighth anniversary of his death now, I can see light in the tunnel.  I know there is not really an end to this tunnel and as long as I am moving forward, healing will continue to come to me.  My hope is that if I keep the forward movement steady, the healing may lead me to a place where I feel loved again.  I know I can keep living this life as I do…alone…but I don’t want to do that.  I want to have someone to share my life with.  For many years, I felt this was a cop-out to want to have someone in my life.  I thought I had to do this on my own.   I imagined my journey as a widow was to break me of this enabling need and prove to myself that I didn’t need someone in my life.

I look at those words and think “how absurd!”  As a person who spends her life building relationships with others…first in ministry and now as a teacher…how can I ever imagine that!  Relationships are paramount to me professionally and personally.  It is important to me to be a loving, compassionate, committed parent, friend, colleague…well, all of it.  Why wouldn’t it be important to me to be a loving, compassionate, committed partner, lover, and confidant with and for someone?

So as busy as I may be and as steady as I hold the line, I still will keep my heart open.  Not in the way a young girl looks for love, but in a way that I now know.  I now know that I can survive one of the greatest heartbreaks a person can imagine.  I know that life and love are fleeting.  I know that people come with baggage and that is what gives them depth.  I know that my heart can expand to embrace another in ways that I never would have imagined possible.  I know the gifts I have to offer and the challenges that I struggle with every day.  I know how not to lose myself to another.  If I stay steady on my path, if I keep my mind and heart open, I know I won’t face lonely forever.  I know that his death wasn’t the death of me…even though it felt like it so often for so long.  I know that as important as it is to just keep moving, keep busy…it is also important to stop, look around and assess…even when I’m lonely and feeling like solo may never end.

Steady as she goes.

A champion

When Eat, Pray, Love released years back, I read it.  I enjoyed it and I even read Liz Gilbert’s sequel to it and enjoyed it too.  When the movie came out, I wanted to see it.  I never caught it in the theater, but remember watching it at home.  I remember not really liking it too much. Oh well.

Last night, in a pre-holiday stress bout with insomnia, I caught some of the movie on tv.  As I enter my eighth holiday season alone, the stress fills me up and manifests in a severe lack of restful sleep.  I’m familiar with the pattern and try to do my best.  I’m exhausted during the day, fall asleep a bit early and then wake around midnight or so and can’t get back to sleep….ugh.

So, anyway, I watched the movie last night.  No harm, no foul I thought, it’s not a school night.  As I watched the lovely Julia Roberts and the even lovelier Javier Bardem, I heard a quote that I don’t remember reading in the book or hearing the first time I watched the movie.  While visiting a spiritual teacher, the teacher’s wife continues to prod Liz about not having a man.  She has brought her friend, Felipe, with her and the wife mentions that he is a good man.  While leaving, Liz and Felipe have the following brief exchange:

Liz Gilbert: I’m sick of people telling me that I need a man.
Felipe: You don’t need a man, Liz. You need a champion.

For some reason, this struck me last night.  Now mind you…I am exhausted!  The boys have been crazy, work has been busy, my ongoing to do list is, well, ongoing, and on top of this…I’m not sleeping well.  A champion. I have been rolling the words around in my sleepy brain all day.  I’ve decided that a champion sounds like what I need.  After all these years alone, I want my champion.  I know, it’s a big, Hollywood type of idea, but wouldn’t that be nice?  I would have someone at the end of the day who knew I did my best, gave my all and would love that about me.  To have someone in my corner again would be fantastic.  I think that is the hardest thing about this whole widow thing…no back up.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I have my support system, but they all have their lives.  I want my champion in my corner with me at the end of the day.  I want to be champion for someone else too.

So, as I start the climb toward the holidays, I am going to be my own champion until someone might be brave enough to stand beside me again.  I’m going to remember that I have survived much and continue to strive for happiness and joy again every day.  I have given myself the room to heal, but now must give myself the credit for making it this far.  I know that I’m not where I want to be yet, but I will get there.  If not this holiday season, maybe next…I won’t give up believing, hoping and striving to get there.  Maybe even someday, there will be someone beside me again to hold me and be my champion.

Safe and sound?

Letting go has not been one of my strengths in recent years.  Allowing myself time and space to feel safe, relaxed and unbound isn’t really part of my current life.  It is a skill that I have struggled with all my life.  I am responsible.  It is my strength, so to speak.  I am the oldest daughter and have four younger siblings, from the beginning, I have been wired for responsible.  When I was younger, I was better at letting go, having fun and shedding my responsibilities.  Since I became a widow and a sole parent, I find letting go even more difficult.  It is not only difficult because everything is my job, but because I worry that if I do let go again, if I do trust again, if I find a safe place of respite, it will be ripped away leaving me alone, naked and exposed.  I’m not sure if I have it in me to rebuild again.  I’m not sure that I can surrender again knowing what I know now.

Feeling safe isn’t about if my home is secure or if I will be attacked on the street. I don’t worry about those things.  Feeling safe to me is that place where you go with another person where you are naked and exposed, but loved and cared for at the same time.  It is that place where I know that if I give in, surrender, I won’t be left hanging out there alone. It will be a place of respite.  It will be a place to collapse at the end of the day, good day or bad, where I am just me and someone cares about that.  Sometimes I do worry that I won’t be able to be safe in this way again, because I know in the depths of my being that these things will always end.  I really wonder if I will ever find a safe place again where I can truly lie, relaxed and unbound by my responsibilities, and receive care and compassion from someone.  I’ve had glimpses of this, but I really don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feel this type of safety again.

What I do know is I’m pretty tired of the “me” show.  This is the show where I do everything.  I take care of all the elements that keep my life running, keep my kids life running.  Now, I know many people, who do this even when they are in a relationship.  We do it because we are responsible, we do it because it is who we are, I know it is how I’m wired, but I remember a place where I could do most of this and still take off the “me” mask at the end of the day and there was someone there who would make those responsibilities feel miles away.  The “me” show is boring and always a repeat.  I don’t mind the work, I never have.  I do miss the collaboration.  I do miss hearing someone else’s story.  I miss the variety. I miss the intimacy.  I miss feeling safe, loved, and being able to provide those same things for someone.

When I was younger, I was more open I guess.  My life experience hadn’t crept into my bones as deeply as it has now.  When Dave died, many pieces of who I was ceased to exist.  My youthful naivety was a casualty. When I was younger, I knew heartbreak, but not like I know it now.  Becoming a widow, especially at a young age, I fear has aged my soul deeply.  It takes this once carefree girl and fills her up with so many responsibilities.  The responsibilities that are mine alone often feel like a heavy cloak that I am unable to get out of or put aside.  It weighs me down.  It won’t come off, even when I try. Even when others try to carry it for me, it is still my cloak.  Even when I try to shed it for a moment, there is no one that really wants to stay and help me get it off permanently.

If I do get the cloak off, there I am again, naked and exposed, vulnerable.  There I am again opening myself up again to who knows what…

I tell myself that the “who knows what” will be worth it.  I tell myself that if I practice taking off the cloak, shedding my responsibilities briefly, feeling a moment of safety will lead me to a place where someday I will feel safe again.  I watch as people I know have had heartache as consuming as mine plunge into risk again. They plunge into love with their heart and soul.  I tell myself that even in those few moments when I have allowed myself to be vulnerable again, I have felt better and someday I will get there again.  I will find the safety, the relaxation, the soul who cares for me deeply.  I have to believe and hope that if my heart remains open, intimacy will find me again.

The ultimate truth is there is no guarantee of this.  The ultimate truth is that this might be my story. The responsibility to find a place where I am safe and sound is up to me…here comes the “me” show again.  The learning to let go and relax again is mine to own.  I have to get out of my head and create moments of peace for myself.  Finding a safe place and allowing myself to be vulnerable won’t happen if I don’t allow it.  Allowing someone to see me naked and exposed is a risk only I can take.  Hopefully, my story will find me in a place of balance.  Hopefully my story will be to transcend the pain and trust again.  Hopefully, my story will find me feeling safe and sound again.

Familiar faces of courage

In my day to day life, I am now a middle school teacher.  Over the last month in several language arts classes, we have been exploring heroes and what makes someone a hero.  It’s a great process.  Students get to write what they think a hero is and then over the weeks we explore poetry, movies, experiences and stories of heroes and their journeys.  So, as I’ve been preparing and participating in the discussions and instruction I have been thinking about my own definition of heroes and heroics.

Since widowed, I have met many, many people who are truly heroes.  I meet men and women who put every ounce of their souls into surviving great heartache.  They may stumble at first, but with great courage they continue and carve out lives for themselves in new and extraordinary ways.  Many of them transform their own heartache into service to others and astound me with their bravery.

The people in my life who are heroes in the true sense of the word for me are my boys.  So young, yet challenged to deal with such an adverse situation. Every day, my heart sings for them and breaks for them as they walk through their journey without their dad.  I had my dad with me until a few years ago.  I don’t know what it’s like to grow up without a dad.  My dad was always there.  He was consistent, reliable, honest, and filled with dignity and respect.  He loved us and worked hard all his life to provide for us.  He was funny, kind and generous.  My husband had many of these same qualities, but my boys don’t get to see it up close like I did every day.  It’s very different.  Their memories of their dad, if they still have them, are fading.  My little one was only six months old when my husband died.  He has no memories of his own.  He didn’t know his dad.  He has our stories, he has pictures, he has my words to reassure him, but he doesn’t have his dad.  For many years, this was ok, he had me and I was enough.  As he got out into the world more though he began to feel the gaping hole in his life.  He began to see other families with daddy around and it changed him.

My big boy had nearly seven years with his dad. They spent tons of time together.  It really was wonderful.  When he was an infant and toddler, they spent long Sundays together while I worked.  As he went to school, afternoons were their time together until I got home around dinner time.  They enjoyed each other.  When Dave died, he was so lost.  Here he was with mom, all those wonderful things he did with his dad were gone.  As he grows his challenges change.  Being without his dad peppers each phase of his life in a new way.

Now, these sweet boys only have me to deal with each day.

One parent.

Every day.

Just me.

Now I can hear all of my friends and those around me saying that this is ok and they are lucky to have me….all very true….we are lucky to still have each other…but in all fairness to my boys, they are the only ones that have to put up with me every, single, day.  They have no choice.  No one else lives behind our doors, just us three.  I am far from perfect and although I do give my very best effort daily I make many mistakes.  These brave boys don’t have the gift of diversity of adults in our home.  They don’t have another parent to hear them in a way I don’t. They don’t have someone else to go to when they want another opinion.  They don’t have anyone else to exert their frustration with me to when they need to do that.

Here’s the thing though, they get up every day and start over again.  They go to school. They make friends.  They have fun.  They do.  They laugh.  They cry.  They strive to be good students.  They still have dreams and hopes. They have good days and bad day.  They do all this every day.  They do it on days when they are sad.  They do it at times when they miss their dad so much they can hardly breathe.  They do on days when I have yelled at them or expressed disappointment in some way.  They do it on days when I am having a bad day.  They do it every day.  They are my heroes. 

Every time I see them smile, every time I see the sparkle in their eyes, I am moved with such pride in their courage and ability to not let their hearts turn to stone.  They are my heroes.  They inspire me to be better.  They inspire me to love more deeply.  They inspire me to keep going each day.

They each came into my very ordinary life and have created a life for me that is extraordinary every day.  What a privilege to live in the midst of such heroics every day!

My boys.

My heroes.

How lucky am I?