Why do multiples of 5 get so much attention? The silver anniversary is 25 years; the golden, 50. Pins are given for 5, 10, 15 years of service. Multiples of 5 feel more like a milestone. A beginning runner may feel good about running 2 miles, though finishing a 5K is that first big accomplishment.
Tomorrow is the 5 year anniversary of Ed's death. And, it’s on a Saturday: the same day of the week he died. So, this October 8 is particularly poignant. This is the first year I feel like we're starting to come out the other side, like we've crossed a threshold. I have more fortitude and bandwidth to carve a new life: skills five years in the making. This is the first year I actually remembered more than a week out to take time off from work in the days leading up to the 8th, to have the conversation with Jack about which day he should take off from school to sleep and recover. Sometimes I think I am a slow learner that it has taken this long to see ahead and plan for this time. Other times, I am amazed that it has only taken five years to better see and plan for what’s ahead of us.
Gretchen Schmelzer, whose blog posts more often than not resonate deeply on trauma, posted earlier this week Finding a Way Forward When the Path isn’t Clear. She wrote about cairns when hiking foggy paths:
I saw my first cairns hiking in the White Mountains when I was a teenager. On the first day, in the bright sunlight of a summer day the cairns looked totally unnecessary—the trail ahead was obvious; it looked like there was no need of a giant pile of stones every 20 yards to mark the way. But when I woke up the next day to fog and rain—and I couldn’t see more than 25 feet in front of me—then the purpose of the cairns shines bright and clear—they are beacons. The cairns were the only possible way forward. Our group traveled for two whole days above the tree line on that trip only ever seeing the way to the next cairn. And that summer I learned this amazing lesson that you don’t have to be able to see the whole trail ahead of you in order to keep going—you just need to be able to see to the next cairn.
Until my husband and father of my children died, I didn’t realize how much of my/our life’s path had been carved for me and us. When were creating our life, we were working really hard to create what we thought was a new path, chopping down the forest growth, stomping the plants beneath us, inch by inch by inch. We had long talks about what values we wanted to adopt (and decline) from our families, friends and movies, books: the values of facing challenges head on; being honest and genuine with one another, allowing for what felt genuine to change and evolve; education and critical thinking; taking risks; being true to self. The tough decisions we made were based on those talks and values, challenging choices that felt unique to us. More and more, though, I am acutely aware of how much assistance we had on that path: our privilege, the fact that we were partners in the task, and all the examples readily available to observe and learn from. Even though it was scarry at the time, we weren't the first to choose advanced education over immediate security. I realize how much easier it was to have multiple examples that worked within the framework of our own relatively familiar and traditional lifestyle.
I understand that creating and navigating the path of a single working widow with children is nothing new. I know I’m not alone on this path nor entirely creating it myself. And, I am profoundly aware of how lucky I am to have the resources, support and circumstances to move forward, even if there are still times when I feel cheated that those have been cut in half. It is also harder to find examples; the most I can usually do is look for examples and say “nope, that’s not me, that’s not us.” I’m 42 years old, and defining relationships I couldn’t have ever imagined, approaching work in ways I never thought I would, parenting differently than I could have seen-- all the result of adapting to this new framework. The tough work in creating this new path is in striking away the noise, the overgrown expectations, the implicit and often inaccurate desires without a clear goal or destination. In so many ways, the world has opened up; the possibilities are limitless because I don't have as many ready examples; often, though, I am untethered and uncertain, anxious to find my footing, realizing the need to create my own example.
Remember in the movie, Inside Out, when Riley’s sad and happy emotions finally allowed themselves to blend together into something new: something nostalgic, nuanced and rich? That was the brilliance of the film, right? It made a complexity simple without losing the truth of the complexity. The film’s popularity is in how much that moment resonated with people everywhere. Part of this new path is recognizing, accepting and finding value in the strange, new concoction of emotions that comes with grief, highlighted this time of year. There’s mix of resentment and possibility, of rage and gratefulness -- a formerly unfamiliar blend of beautifully nuanced emotions. For example, I quickly and easily recognize couples who have a true bond because I am lucky enough to have known it. I want to get inside their souls and show them how much they have to cherish… and many of them do know, they get a hint of the miracle of intimacy in between the slog of daily life; though, I so want to infuse a sense of that into every minute of their lives: particularly in those mundane, repetitive, seemingly routine moments. At the same time, I feel wordless rage for some of those bonds. Because we were four days short of our 15 year anniversary when Ed collapased, I can celebrate all wedding anniversaries except for 15. Good luck to you all, but fuck the universe for taking 15 years away from me and Ed. This year would have been 20. Damn multiples of 5.
The accomplishment of five years is recognizing the new ground beneath our feet. It’s a small patch of the path, but it’s all ours. The destination isn’t clear: that’s the main difference from before when Ed & I could more clearly paint a picture of what we wanted our life to look like. These days, I am feeling my way through: paying closer attention to moving towards what resonates, and away from what doesn’t. I am more comfortable waiting to figure out what is right for us even if it isn't clear, and I have more courage to step away from what isn't quite right even though I don't always know which way to go once I step back.
For example, for a while--about three and a half years, I was blindly focused on finding someone to fill Ed's void. At the same time I knew no one could take his place, I also wanted someone to share and create a life with, to be another adult presence in my kids' lives. It took four years to realize that in redefining the love and security of our family of three, and leaning on people around us in ways I never had to before, I no longer have a void to fill. Sounds positive, right? I guess so, but it also means that my life will never, ever look like it did. Which would be fine, I guess, if I didn't really love that life. By focusing on the value Ed & I cherished of creating an authentic life, I have to let go of that traditional, fabulous and fulfilling life we had. I don't know if I will find that fulfillment again-- whatever form it takes. And, I don't have the same need to find it; it's more that I'll be pleansantly surprised if I do, like coming upon a clearing of wildflowers. After five years of forging a new path, step by step, there's no urgent need to know what it looks like. There's also an awareness I may not find it. Laura of 2010 would find that incredibly depressing. I'm now indifferent. Go figure.
Tomorrow we: me, Jack, Reese, family, and friends will celebrate Ed, we will celebrate surviving without him, we will cherish the richness he brought to our lives. I don’t think about Ed, the person, much. It’s still way too painful. But, I think all the time about living intentionally. That’s all Ed. I think about the people in his life, what their faces look like when they talk about Ed or how their faces lit up when talking with him. I recognize the genetic markers in his incredible children. These are my cairns.