Monday, April 08, 2013

18 Months

Today (April 8) marks the eighteenth month anniversary of Ed’s death. A while ago, I swore off writing about the “things by which I resist to be defined by” - among them, my widowhood, being the friend that always asks for help, and recently, foot surgery, which has me rolling around on one of the greatest inventions *ever* - the knee scooter.  (My favorite picture is the guy on the grassy hill:  Larry went to wine country! The brakes on the knee walker are terrible; whenever I head down even the smallest hill I am sure I’m going to crash; I picture “Larry” tumbling into a nearby vineyard).

I step back from my pledge to not speak of what I call the “self-centered, boring and pitiful” on this day because eighteen months feels like a big deal and I want to call it out. At the end of Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story” she writes, Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think ‘I kept myself alive.’ I would only amend that should she have children, that she kept them growing. 

For me, eighteen months is almost as significant as twelve months. Yes, I felt triumphant the day after the one year anniversary. I woke up October ninth with a sense of accomplishment. I had energy to move forward in a way I honestly wasn’t sure I ever would. Yet, the six months following last October rang with the familiar melody of exhaustion and challenge. Mostly because I had to learn, and relearn (sometimes many moments a day), how to balance being real about how I felt with choosing to be positive. I guess I thought I was “done” with that after the first year. This mental work is the equivalent of training for a marathon, except it’s for a marathon that never ends.

The winter after Ed died, the kids and I vacationed in Roslyn with Ed’s brother, Steve, and his family. We were all still pretty grief raw. Steve and I confessed to one another that we felt like there would be a reward for getting through the pain- that there was something on the other end of the awful emotional tunnel. At the time, even though we both knew it was impossible, it seemed like the reward would be that Ed would come back in our lives. It was illogical that we would have to go through the hell of grief and NOT be given a fabulous gift in exchange --and the only gift for accepting Ed’s death would be, well, Ed alive again.

Facing the foreverness of death is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The only thing that is harder is realizing that there are no rewards for accepting that reality, there is no “reason” it happened, no lottery of life on the other side; actually, accepting death creates the opposite of a reward: it can give day to dayness of life a dull smudge. The trade off is a life that doesn’t make sense anymore. And, unless someone has gone through a similar major life change there’s no way to truly reveal that reality, so the isolation is palpable because few intimately know what the ongoing process is like. I certainly don’t wish for anyone to have this knowledge. That said, it’s a lonely reality. So, while the fact that I survived the first year is an accomplishment, that I’m still able to navigate the ongoingness of our reality another six months when the “newness” of death has worn off for us and those around us, is also notable.

On the phone with a good friend the other day, I admitted how frustrated I am at having to slow down. Foot surgery has caused me to drastically scale back any momentum that started in October. Even though I woke up most of fall with the thought, “oh, yeah, I’m still here without a mate and my kids without a father,” I sought ways to enjoy life again. By the start of the new year, I lined up weekends for the kids to be away so I could slough off “mom” and “work” Laura and turn my attention to figuring out whoever I was without those titles; I discovered new music on my own (that used to be Ed’s job); I started making a lists of things I *wanted* (not had) to do and began meeting new people. Nothing like a knee scooter and the haze of Percocet to halt everything but the basics. I whined to my friend how much energy there is involved in just taking a shower--I wanted to put that energy into going out or a new hobby. She said, “taking a shower is the first step to getting a life.” I have brilliant friends.

I can’t help but gravitate towards the metaphor of foot surgery. How much the effort that goes into getting from the front porch to the car is like building a life and identity from scratch; if I am not careful, the process can be glossed over and I will miss opportunities. At least two times a day, I have to stop and engage in painful exercises that will keep my toe joints limber. I would rather not, just like I would rather not have to make breakfast and then clean up the mess after the kids have eaten maybe half of what I made--something that annoyed me in my “past” life, but now feels like a colossal waste of time as I wheel back and forth between my narrow kitchen and the dining room. Instead, I shift perspective and chuckle at how Reese works hard to avoid the bread and only licks the jelly off her toast or notice how patient Jack is when he helps his sister brush her teeth. There is something in this rebuilding process akin to learning to walk again. Here, I thought I was learning to live this new life. Apparently not because I was still running to get “stuff done.” It’s easier for me to just start running, but now I have to wait for my bones to heal and *then* I can start the simple process of putting one foot in front of the other. It forces me to take in a lot more, including longer showers.

Slowing down has other perks. I thought why not include in all my requests for help with the kids and house, asking a good friend, who is also a chef, to come make a steak dinner. He knocked the meal out of the park, of course. Last year, I would have thought such a request was indulgent and selfish- when actually it is *those* kinds of things I need more than having someone wash Reese’s hair when I can’t. I’m not sure I would have understood this unless I had surgery (Clean hair is *always* the priority, right? Maybe not...). I inhaled the steak and the company. Normally, I would have organized such an event for a weekend- when I could have many friends over and I would do the cooking. Though, I would probably put it off for when the yard was weeded and the house spotless. But, last week, I knew that I needed to do something I enjoyed to balance the exhaustion of recovery. I had to do something that meant ignoring the crumbs under the table.  So, instead of putting off “fun” for the weekend, I have to find a way to enjoy life during the week. Before surgery, there was too much to do for such frivolous activities. But, now, if I don’t make space for something that fills me up on a daily basis-despite the chaos, I am completely depleted.

Of course, figuring out where and when to do this as a mother of two who works full time and is running a household is challenging, to say the least (it was hard enough when I had partner helping and could walk around on two feet). But, lately, it’s from necessity that I don’t see the messy toy room downstairs (mostly because I can’t go down the stairs) or worry about what my kids miss without a father. I take more time to go through Jack’s school papers and watch Reese’s “nymnastics” dance routines. I tackle projects I’m passionate about at work first-- before the mundane ones (well, at least one day a week). All this time, it’s been about duty, about getting things done, making sure the kids were okay. Slowly, I am realizing I also need to model the value of finding-- or, rather, seizing-- joy in life: and not just “weekend” or “vacation” joy but the kind that is as necessary to each day as teeth brushing.

Strangely, I wake up in a good mood. Just when I got used to the idea that good moods weren’t the norm, there they are. How is this possible? I think it’s alchemy: without explanation, instead of paying attention to the pain in the 23rd mile and wish for it to be over, I look up and notice the scenery or wonder at something simple or silly. I catch myself thinking about how absolutely in love I am with my children: I am struck daily by their tenacity, their emotional intelligence, their empathy, their energy, their ability to assume a hopeful outlook. Don’t get me wrong, I am still grumpy about the piles of paper on the console table and the three year old who won’t answer any of my questions (Do you want more toast? Do you? DO YOU?!). I feel guilty that I have yet to take Jack to the orthodontist as instructed by his dentist three months ago. I’m still uncertain about which building blocks to use to rebuild my life and grow weary sifting through the options. But, I’m not looking for the finish line and, miraculously, it’s okay. Mentally, I’m getting quite tough. Ed--the mental toughness guru-- would be proud.

Songs for post 
Miike Snow "Cult Logic"
Of Monsters and Men "Slow and Steady"