“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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The Balancing Act

“So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid, you’ll move mountains.” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Careful, careful, oh…there you go, there you go…you got it! Balance! Balance? Yes, balance!  Very soon after I was widowed, a huge sense of disbelief settled in…I think we call it denial.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me.  I couldn’t believe that it was my husband who had become ill and died.  I couldn’t believe that I would be raising my kids on my own.  I was in a state of complete disbelief.  I discussed this with a dear friend of mine, who is also a MSW, and she told me that someday I would be able to balance the disbelief with the reality.  I didn’t believe her…not one bit.

Sitting here today, I have found that balance.  I still can’t believe this is the life I lead, but it is.  Make sense?  I still can hardly believe all that I have survived…but I have survived it.  I look around and I don’t always recognize my life, but I know it is mine and I own it.  I have found, well, really worked very hard, and found a way to survive.  I even thrive most days now.  I am happy most days.  I laugh most days.  I enjoy my work, my kids, my life…most days.

I can still hardly believe it though.

I balance every day.  As a sole parent, it is the balance that holds everything in motion.  One little glitch…and whoops…the whole thing can fall off track.  I wrote once about balancing spinning plates…it is much like that.  I can run and spin and spin, but every now and then I may trip and lose a plate.  I may trip over my own feet or sometimes things are thrown in my path that trip me.  It doesn’t take much to let a plate fall, to get off balance…that’s how it is when the balance is so delicate.

I do think that balancing takes great care.  I do think it takes great tact. I think there is much inside me that I don’t let out…so I can keep the balance.  I think sometimes it builds up so much that it spills out and I trip over it.  I do think that it’s hard to be the one holding the scales balanced for my family…but I will always do it…no matter how hard or what the personal cost is.

So is balance success?  I do think it is…I think the ability to hold things in balance…my disbelief, my reality, my grief, my joy, my stress, my relaxation, my responsibility, my fun, my care for others, my care for myself…I think that is success.  It took a very, long time to be able to balance these things, even for a small amount of time.  Now that I can do it pretty regularly, I find that pretty amazing.  I do count that as a personal success.  If I slip, that’s ok.  If something throws off the balance, I try to address it and get back in sync again. Most times I can do that.  Most days, I have balance.  On those days when I don’t or can’t, I forgive myself, pick myself up and try again….and again…and again.

Balance.

Disbelief, reality.

Balance.

Success.

Moment by moment

Over the years, I have written about using gratitude as a coping skill with my grief.  I try to be thankful every day.  I try to count my blessings, even when it feels like there are none.  As the holidays approach, I must use this tactic more and more.  Another skill I’ve acquired over the years is to take things moment by moment.

Before I was widowed, I would look ahead to the future.  I would plan, think about what I wanted for myself and my family and set “future” goals.  When Dave was diagnosed, we were thrown into the world of moment by moment.  As he dealt with a very painful cancer, painful treatment and the side effects our days shrunk down to hour to hour, then minute to minute.  We really never knew how his body would be working, responding or how he would feel emotionally as he dealt with his own mortality in a new and very real way. On top of cancer entering our lives, I had just given birth to our second son.  Living with an infant is also a moment by moment life, based on our beautiful little boy’s needs.  We had both ends of the spectrum every day.  Our moments traveled the gambit from deep joy to deep despair.  Moment to moment, I learned more about my new little boy and said goodbye to parts of my life and to my husband in many ways.  If I had to live with the future to think about during those days, I know I would have drowned.  I couldn’t think about it at all.  I knew that my future held a picture of me without Dave, me raising this beautiful new baby and his big brother alone…it was too terrifying to consider.  So, I stopped looking toward the future.  I lived in each moment.  I tried to be present to whomever needed me in that moment…sick husband, new baby, struggling child…all while trying to keep it together.

Living moment to moment is how I continue to live now.  For many years, it was a coping strategy.  I really didn’t have much to look forward to after Dave died.  I had to tend to the boys and love them the best I could with all my strength and will.  I took it one moment, one task, one minute, one breath at a time.  I didn’t do it purposefully.  I did it to survive.  I tried to feel joy if it came in the moment.  I know I felt sadness nearly every moment for a very long time.  I let my anger in when it came and in each moment I did my best.  I found myself surviving.  Some days, I even found myself smiling.  I lived in the moment.  If I let myself slip into the past, there was deep, deep despair in my heart.  I had to live in the moment…no choice.

Now, I live in the moment by choice.  I’m still not good at looking ahead.  Last night while I was lying in bed, I had to remind myself that I choose to live in the moment.  This past year has had so many wonderful moments for me.  So many moments I never planned, so many spontaneous moments. It has been a pretty wonderful year filled with moments that I hope I will never forget.  I had to remind myself about my choice last night because I was feeling pretty lonely.  I had to remind myself that because I choose to live moment to moment there will times that are hard.  During those moments I can think about the joyful moments and it will help me endure.  When I think about the moments that filled my heart over the past months, I can’t believe how blessed I have been.  My moments with my kids, my family and my friends, my moments at a job I love with people I enjoy so much, moments with students, my moments coaching the past weeks, my moments with the sweet man…each moment so special, most moments unplanned…each moment contained within a future I could never see.  All moments which add up to a pretty normal, pretty happy life…all things considered.  Even in the lonely moments, I know they will pass…because, it really is only a moment.  Who really knows what the next moment will hold for me?  Even when I crawl into my bed alone at the end of each day and the shiver of winter seems to emphasize my aloneness, I know that the moment will pass.  I can fully experience the lonely, the cold, even the sadness that comes with it because I know that the moment will pass.  Even more, I can cherish, savor, and be still in the moments of joy, love, and belonging because I know they too will pass…no matter how much I want them to stay.  My choice, my moments, I never would have guessed they would bring me to a place of peace.

Not every moment is peaceful, not every moment is joyful, but not every moment is sad anymore, not every moment is lonely anymore.  The more I think about it the more I think balance is the key.  The future is fleeting and nearly never worked out as I had imagined.  My moments however are filled with the reality of my life.  My moments leave me knowing that I gave myself, my presence, my love, really my whole being to them…and I really never could have planned for that.  In my struggle to survive, I have found the intention to be present to myself and those around me in a way that I never knew when I was always glancing ahead.  My tragedy has led me to a place I truly never knew before…now…and in this very moment…I am grateful.

The spectacularly unspectacular

This week, my friends have been chatting about going to the movies.  Many entries this week on fb referring to going to movies, new releases, films they want to see, and who they will see them with when they go.  One of my friends chatted about going to see the new Bond movie with her husband.  That’s all, a simple mention of a relatively unspectacular thing and it has moved me to reflection all week.  It’s not a huge thing, but it does get the bubbles of my grief rising, unexpectedly.

So, for most the week, I’ve been remembering, thinking, and hoping for those simple, unspectacular moments of life again. I miss those simple Friday nights when we could slip away for a few hours and just hang out…you know…dinner and a movie or something like that.  It was so easy, so simple, so unspectacular.  As I remember, I also begin thinking about what I want.  I do want those simple, unspectacular moments again, but it seems so difficult to get started again.  Part of the reason the moments were so unspectacularly spectacular back then was because we knew each other well, we had chosen each other, it was our life.  The hard part now…starting over…I still feel like I just don’t know how to do it.  It seems like it would be fun, nice, even intriguing to get to know someone new.  It seems like it would be nice to just go to dinner and a movie. I guess the hardest part is finding a nice fella who is interested back and wants to just go to a movie and dinner.

It’s so strange, I don’t remember this being difficult at all when I was younger.  There are many factors now, I guess…or so my friends tell me…things like; I’m so busy, most my friends are married, the place I work isn’t really full of available men…blah, blah, blah…

I guess many of those things are true, but they are true for many of the women who find themselves single again for whatever reason.  For some reason, I see them finding their way to dinner and a movie…not always, mind you, but they seem to find people.

When I think about it more, I think it might be because I’m still finding my way.  I am still a work in progress.  I am somewhere between Dave’s wife and single Chris.  I am setting up a new future.  I am a parent and that takes up much of my brain space, most of the time.  Maybe it’s because I don’t often think of myself as someone who is looking for love?  Maybe because I know I was lucky enough to have had love…and that is truly amazing.  Maybe I still am afraid to lose love again? Maybe the walls I built to get me through widowhood are so fortified, I can’t see the people who want to come inside them?

I guess any and all of these are a possibility.  I’m sure some day, I will find myself having a spectacularly, unspectacular moment again.  It may be soon, it may not. What I do know for sure is that when it does happen…it will not be unspectacular.  It will be spectacular because I know the journey I traveled to get there.

At the heart of it all

As October approaches, I feel the memories building in my mind.  As the weather cools, I feel those memories of those days of dread flooding me.  I remember the moments. I remember the days. I wonder when it won’t fill me up and drown me. I remember the day I went to the doctor and he told me that we would be going to the hospital to have our little one. I remember coming home that very day to tell Dave and he had me call his doctor who told me that he would need to be admitted to the hospital to be seen by specialists…oncologists. All within the same day, all within the same week, my life changed forever. Not only was joy filling my heart as we welcomed our second son but my heart was equally consumed with the fear of what was to come as Dave was admitted to the hospital.  I remember leaving the hospital very early on that Sunday morning in October with our new baby.  I remember how the morning light swept over the parking lot as we took our family home.  I remember the cool, crisp feel of the breeze.  I remember the smell of the fall air.  All these memories burned into my mind.  I remember the tears five days later as the doctor told us that there was very little he could do for Dave.  I remember the cloudy, rainy day that we walked into the oncologist’s office for the plan for palliative care.  I can still see the view from the doctor’s office window as I looked out over our neighborhood covered with dark clouds and soaked from the heavy rain that awful day.  That October it felt like I had walked through the wrong door when I left the hospital.  It felt like we went in as us and we left as some other family.  This strange, new family we left the hospital as had only sadness to face.  That wasn’t us.   We were happy.  We were fun.  We were joyful, playful, and silly. We laughed so much.  Many times I have wondered if I could have another chance to walk out another door of the hospital would we have walked back out as us, not as who we became.

Along with the memories that I can’t control, this year I am realizing something new.  I am recognizing how my reactions to these memories effect the way I walk through my life.  I know that my experience effects who I am…I have known that.  What is new though is the thought of how my fear, my dread, my heartbreak that is awakened in fall really can dictate what I do.  I am reflecting on some of my recent decisions and wondering how much my fear of loss is steering me.  I often write of hope and risk, but as I move forward, I see myself not really allowing hope and risk into my being.  I talk and I write about longing for happiness, for joy, for “thriving” again, but I think I am more comfortable without happiness.  I think really, what good can come from being happy anyway?  It will only end in heartache, right?  If I put my wounded heart out there, it will only be wounded again, right?

My heart has been repaired with the scar tissue that grief creates.  As I consider some of the decisions that I have made in the past weeks as October approaches, I wonder if that scar tissue is too tough, too restrictive to let my heart welcome joy again.  It feels like when things start to feel better, I retreat.  I run back to the sadness I know well…because, really isn’t that where I’m going to end up in the long run?  Why not just cut the middle man out and stay there? Why open myself up to feeling the goodness again, the kindness again, feeling blessed again?  Happy doesn’t stay around.  Happy is fleeting.  Happy is for someone else.  These are the things that lurk in my soul.  Will I be able to survive losing happiness again? I guess I’m not sure anymore.  Dread is preventing me, heartache seems to tangle my mind.  I have had a slight taste of happy and kind of normal again.  I’ve had a glimpse and I don’t think I can dive in completely because October tells me that it will all end again.  So I crawl back, I let my scar tissue constrict me.  I shy away from happiness in all aspects of my life.  I don’t let myself hope for better.  I dream of it, but I can’t invest myself in it.

You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.  –Jonathan Safran Foer

My ongoing struggle is how to find the balance between the fear that lurks within me and moving forward with life.  I know that his death will always be woven through me. I know I need to transcend the dread, the fear and the heartache. I know the glimpses of happiness that I have known recently are tugging me toward them.  What I don’t know is if I have the courage to let myself embrace them regardless of where they take me.  As October approaches, my soul aches, my courage wanes, my heart retreats to safety.  I will ride it out.  I know I’ll come out on the other side.  I know that when it comes down to the heart of it all, happy is what I will pursue.  But I also know that I must have patience and that I must recognize each step I take toward happy will someday move me closer to a place where my fear will melt away.  As another October approaches, as I walk through it all again, as I survive it one more time, fear will move further away, restricting my heart slightly less.  Someday, maybe someday, courage will return and my heart will open again to the happiness that I long for…hopefully.

Here comes da funk…

My clear mind is cluttering and my body is tensing again.  As the skies become crisper and somehow more blue and clearer, I begin to descend.  Fall is approaching.  It is the time of year I love dearly.  It is so beautiful here.  People start coming out of the air-conditioning and enjoy the weather we forgot existed during the intense heat.  The breezes blow cool instead of giving us windburn.  I so love fall.

Although I love fall, it’s the time.  It’s that time again.  It’s my time again.  It starts in September.  It moves into October, turning my favorite time of year into the time of year I dread most.  In September, he didn’t feel well.  In October, the tests began.  Mid October our baby was born…the high point!  Five days later came the low point, well, the first low point, the diagnosis that my husband would die.  The doctor wasn’t sure when, but he was sure he would die and we didn’t have that much time.

I think what tugs me the most this time of year is the dichotomy.  The extreme beauty.  The extreme sadness. The extreme disbelief of what happened.  Yet, here I sit and it indeed did happen.  It is true.  It is my reality.

As I face the eighth year of anniversaries, the eighth year of survival, the eighth year without him, I am astounded.  Although I have lived this life every day, I really am not sure how I did it.  I can’t remember when I saw beauty again.  I can’t remember exactly when I felt happy again.  I can’t remember what it was that made me smile for the first time or brought real joy back to me.  What I do know is that these things did return.

I smiled.

I laughed.

I loved.

I survived.

Today, as I begin to remember the fall that my life changed again and as the funk starts creeping into my bones, I will remember that I have fought my way back.  The details maybe sketchy, but I kept my heart open.  I have survived the unsurvivable seven times.  I will survive it eight times.  It felt like I would never make it through those first moments and now nearly a decade has passed.  So, today when the funk starts to mess with my head and my heart, I will remember.

I smile.

I laugh.

I love.

I survive.

Who can really ask for more? Today, not me.

Limbo

Since January, I have been running at full speed toward something.  Toward what? Not quite sure, but I know that for the first time in a very, very long time, I was feeling content.  I was busy, busy.  It wasn’t just a kill the time, idle busy though.  It was time that I was working purposefully and enjoying it.  I hit some major milestones and was feeling pretty good about the things that were going on in my life.  This is no small feat!

In January, I began my student teaching.  Within a few weeks, I was teaching all the classes and loving it.  My cooperating teacher was generous, trusting and wise.  She let me have her classes of kiddos completely…not an easy thing for a teacher.  She let me grow and develop.  She supported me along the way and was always willing to give what she knew and had away to me.  After school was busy with kids and their stuff and in the evenings along with the usual mom stuff, I would spend time planning for classes.  I felt like I had a direction.  I felt like I was in a place I was meant to be.  I felt part of a team again and felt less aimless at home.

Fast forward to the end of May and I am feeling that limbo again. Student teaching finished, my school finished, my big boy promoted from middle school, little one heading to second grade, another chapter is closed.  The problem is finding the next chapter.  I’m in a holding pattern.  Summer with the kiddos at home has just begun, but this is not really a new chapter, more like the chorus of a song…sometimes there is variation, but it is mostly the same.  The heat is starting to bake and I am feeling much less purposeful.  I am feeling in limbo.  I have to wait for final paper work to get my teacher certification.  I have to wait for final teacher placements to know if there is a place for me to teach.  I have to wait.  Granted I have plenty to do…the usual cleaning, decluttering, and keeping the boys from sitting on the computer all day…but I miss feeling purposeful.  I miss being a part of team.  I’m not sure when I’ll have those things again.  I’m not sure how things are going to work out.  I am mostly sure that they will work out, but how is the mystery, the limbo.

There’s this thing about summer too.  There’s that familiar longing for things that are long gone.  I find myself longing for things that were routine, but were never boring. Longing for the way things were, but I know I can’t go back.  Maybe limbo just leaves too much time for thought?  I like having more purpose when I think about things.  I don’t like being sad, but here I find myself, feeling sad again.  Those feelings of isolation and not belonging have crept back in with this limbo.  I find myself stuck in the funk again of missing what was while I’m waiting for what is next.  I’m not sure if it’s healthy reflection anymore…I don’t like it here.  I’ve had a taste of a life that feels better again and I’m less tolerant of limbo.

So, I’m trying not to slump back into sadness.  I’m remaining hopeful that things will work out…and work out soon!  I hope to find myself thriving again in this unexpected life…a miraculous thing that I truly thought would never be possible.  Now that I know it is very possible, it’s harder to sit in the limbo.