The Man of My Dreams

A song from the past floats into my head as I’m falling asleep.  I’m a teenager, listening to one of the first albums I bought with my own money.  Barbra Streisand: A Star is Born.  It’s the end of the story.  Esther Hoffman Howard is a widow, taking the stage for the first time since the accident.  “With one more look at you…” she begins.  “I want one more look at you.”  I want one more chance to put it all together and make it make sense.

My husband Jim is in my dreams again.  But I don’t know I’m dreaming.  I can touch him.  I feel his hair, strangely coarse, actually, compared to the thick, loosely curled, soft stuff I remember.  But he’s there, in the flesh, inexplicably, and so am I.  I want answers.  How is it you’re here again, and so often?  Was I wrong when I thought you’d died?  Has there been a mistake?  Are you back for good?  Where, exactly, have you been?  Speak to me.

He begins to talk, and I hang on every word.  He is telling me the secrets of the Universe, of life and death, and I had better remember this accurately later, when I wake up.  When I wake up…does that mean that this is just a dream?  Logic gets all loose and wiggly again, and consciousness creeps back into my head.   Suddenly, I’m awake and sweating hot.  I’m in a room by an open window on a street in suburban Milwaukee.  And this doesn’t seem to make much sense, either. 

Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.  What are the emotions driving these dreams?  What is my subconscious trying so hard to reconcile? I keep struggling for meaning.  I am angry, I suppose.  I deny that Jim died at the age of 47.  That was too soon.  It doesn’t fit into my perception of How Things Ought To Be.  I do not accept it.  Even now, more than four years later.  Although, even in my dreams, I know that he is dead, and that is Real. 

Enlightenment is, roughly, when you accept all that is…without the ‘you’.  Ego is inconsequential.  Acceptance, peace, wholeness.  All Is.  I guess I’m not at that point yet.  I work on it through the night.  I imagine Jim trying to help me out, but his input just confuses me.  And I’m still too involved, trying too hard to wrap my little brain around the incomprehensible.  How can I simply let it go?  Accept ambiguity.  Accept mystery.  Accept it all.  Accept.      Accept.

I Love My Mom

My mother makes a very satisfactory leader of my Fan Club.  She is, undoubtedly, First Fan, as many mothers are.  The hallmark of her grace is in the way she embodies this position, not simply as a role, but as a genuine expression.  I never get the feeling that she encourages me out of obligation.  I believe she really likes me.  What a stroke of good fortune!

This morning I got an e-mail from her titled “catching up on the blogs”.  I felt her heart bubbling over like she had just emerged from an afternoon reading a favorite novel.  She had associations, appreciations, memories, connections to share, like her synapses were fireworks going off.  From a reader to a writer, this has got to be the highest praise.  She started off by remarking, in all caps, that there has to be a book in this somewhere and that she wants an autographed first edition.  Aw, Mom!

My mom is not a literary push over.  She has a degree in English from Radcliffe (now coed with Harvard).  She devours books regularly and always has.  Her typical posture these days is sitting in her high-backed rocker with knitting in hand, book strapped in on her reading stand, mind and fingers flying.  She used to hide away in her bedroom with a bag of snacks and emerge an hour or so later with renewed energy to tackle her household obligations, sporting a kind of secret glow.  Get her talking about one of her recent historical sagas, and she will enthusiastically engage for hours!  I love seeing her pull thoughts that have been carefully laid aside like unmatched socks and bundle them together with a flourish of discovery and pride. 

She recently told me that her doctor mentioned her good prospects for living another 20 years.  That would make her 97; she wasn’t sure she’d want to live that long.  But think of all the books you could still read!  Or that could be read to you, if the cataracts cause the eyes to fail.  I can still hear my father’s voice reading to her behind the bedroom door.  His partnership to her intellectually was so rich, until Alzheimer’s whittled his brain away.  I wonder if she feels the same phantom guilt I have in enjoying a healthy body and a sound mind after our husbands’ deaths.  Well, I suppose consciousness is a responsibility to approach with reverence.  We live, we feel, we think, we read, we make connections still.  May we both bring life and light to the world like fireworks, Mom, as long as we are able. 

Mom (photo credit: DKK)

Why These Tears?

So I didn’t get a post in yesterday.  It was a hot, humid day at work; thunderstorms arrived just as we were leaving.  I got home at 6pm, put my feet up for a bit, made dinner, and then prepared packages for mailing for the book business.  By the time we were done, it was 9:30, and my eyes were stinging.  I closed them and fell asleep.  I’ve been musing on an issue for two days, though, and since I don’t work today (except for a voice lesson), I’m ready to give it some time and work it out in writing. 

It happened on Saturday.  I burst into tears at work. 

It was late afternoon, toward the end of my shift.  Families had been coming through in dribbles to look at the church.  Since it was hot, I put a chair out on the landing in front of the door so that I could catch the breeze.  Sitting there in my bustle, I suppose I made a good picture of a prim and proper church lady.  A father and his two-year old daughter wandered down the road, leaving Mom and older siblings at the General Store.  I invited them in and showed the little curly redhead the pump organ.  She liked the sound of her voice in the echoing chamber of the empty church, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (a good Mozart tune) and let her sing along.  She took a look at my pin cushion balls, too, and held one until her father gently took it and handed it back.  She never left the safety of her father’s arms during the whole visit.  I walked them out of the church and settled in my chair to watch them walk back down the road, hand in hand.  She stumbled at one point, but Dad righted her gently.  That’s when I lost it.  That sudden, rising swell of heat in my nose and the burning tears tumbling down were totally unpredicted.  Why these tears?  Why now?

Driving home with Steve, I began to talk it out and answer his compassionate questions.  Where were my thoughts?  What were my emotions?  I remembered that I had been bored, hot, and feeling a bit lost and alone:  all dressed up in an empty museum, wondering how I got there.  Kind of disconnected and surreal.  That father and daughter reminded me of my late husband and our curly-haired youngest.  Seeing them walk away together triggered a sense of devastating loss.  I will never see Jim again; Emily, now 21, will never be that young again.  That manifestation of life is gone forever.  

But I knew that.  Why the tears?  Why judge that as something sad?  Obviously, I am still very attached to that particular arrangement, and perhaps not so attached to my current one.  “Attachment causes suffering.”  Somehow, I came to believe that my life as a wife and mother was very meaningful, very important, and it became a “secure” identity for me.  Not hard to imagine how that happened.  The thing is, it isn’t the Truth, wasn’t the Truth, either.  It was a temporary condition.  I enjoyed that condition, but Change is the nature of life.  Conditions always change.  One condition isn’t more meaningful or important than another.  To be able to think about every moment of life as a valuable moment is a mindset that can set me free to live happily.  I think of Hafiz, the Sufi poet, and his exuberant joy in living, not dependent on circumstances.  I get sentimental about family life, but I don’t want to be the mother of a two year old, now.  Somehow, though, that sentiment suggests that there is greater value in that particular model of life than in others, and that I am “missing out”.  It’s just not true.  It’s a kind of cultural propaganda.  Hallmark and Focus on the Family and organizations like that profit from supporting that way of thinking.  I love my children, but our life isn’t Hallmark any more.  It was, once.  It was nice, but it wasn’t the only and most important manifestation of living.  Conditions arise, conditions change.  Judging that one is “better” than the other can get me stuck and cause suffering.  That’s not to say that I can’t think critically about my life and make changes.  But I also want to be able to be happy in any situation. 

I like my tears, too.  They help me learn about myself. 

photo credit: Susan

Home and Hearth 2

I love my daughter.  I love having her visit, and I love how we slip into a comfortable companionship around making meals, talking, laughing, reminiscing and being outside.  I love feeling that we are genuine with each other.  It wasn’t always this way, of course, especially not when she was a teenager and I was an anxious mother.  Ah, but it’s wonderful to mature. 

I wonder how my relationship with my children would be different if my husband were still alive.  Would we act as advisers?  Would we be cheerleaders?  Would we be judgmental?  Would we be willing to share our mistakes and successes?  Would we be anxious?  Would we be distant? 

I guess I feel like I can be more transparent, perhaps as if hindsight had opened up a window.  I am able to offer my marriage as an example without feeling like I am betraying any confidence. 


  I suppose we learn by watching someone else’s example…and then rolling up our sleeves and doing it our own way.  How did your parents influence the way you deal with money?  or the way you communicate with your partner?  or the way you take care of your health?  When did their example stop influencing you? 

My children are like embers from the fire my husband and I ignited. Our fire is extinguished; they’ve gone on to light their own blaze in the world.  I hope they will be warmed and comforted by their own energy.



A Day With My Friend

“There’s a giant millipede in your apartment.  And one of the rooms is filled with water.”

Those were the first words out of Steve’s sleepy mouth this morning.  “Say, what?!”  He usually says whatever thing left over from his dreaming thoughts is still floating in his brain when he first wakes up.  He rolled over and closed his eyes again.  I thought about how every day with him is surprising and interesting and genuine.  I told him that I feel very fortunate to have had such a good friend during the past tumultuous 3 years.  I wonder how my grief and recovery would have been different without him.  Would I still be drinking tumblers of gin after work and crying myself to sleep in an empty house?  Would I be knocking on the doors of half-interested acquaintances looking for more attention, more love, more support, parading my needs pathetically about?  I don’t know.  I believe that I wouldn’t have tried half the things I did without Steve or gotten through the necessary bits quite so well.  Steve then asked me what I thought was our best “best friends” photo.  We agreed on these:

The first best friend "self-portrait" I shot of us, holding the camera at arm's length, like a teenager would do

One I took by accident while my camera dangled in my hand during a spontaneous kiss

Today, we’re heading over to Kettle Moraine State Forest where Old World Wisconsin, the living history museum, is located for our back-to-back job interviews.  Ever gone job hunting with your best friend?  I did once before, in college.  My friend had a summer job as a camp counselor, which I thought would be perfect for me.  I went up to interview there and didn’t get offered a job, but I did find a camp closer to home which hired me.  I love the feeling of adventure, the unknown, the “let’s just try this; I will if you will!” daring.   With a friend beside you, it’s a win-win situation no matter what happens.

So anyway, as my mother would say, “Enuff zis luff-making!”  Time to shower and be off!  Life is rich; friends are golden!

Four Years Ago Today

I’m feeling rather gray and gloomy today, like the motionless monochrome sky.  I went out with wet hair, first to breakfast with Steve’s mom, then to do laundry at the laundromat, then to the grocery store.  I feel thoroughly chilled.  I think my hair is still wet.  Yet, there’s no snow on the ground, so I can’t really blame the weather.  It’s still far from wintry…not like it was, say, four years ago…

Four years ago, there was a snow storm.  Four years ago, the Super Bowl was on.  Four years ago, my husband was in the hospital.

I could give you the whole background history on his medical odyssey, but it would come out dry and clinical.  What I’m feeling now is more surreal.  Let’s just say that he was in the cardiac wing, waiting to be stabilized enough for surgery.  Waiting.  Like waiting for Godot.   There was no sense of time after a few days.  Doctors would come and go and offer conjectures and imagine scenarios.  I got the feeling that I should simply camp out with him and see what happened.  So I did.

My husband was a sports fan, and the Super Bowl game was a big party occasion on our calendar most years.   During the regular football season, we’d watch games together on Sunday afternoons and nap through a good chunk of them.  I can enjoy the game and root for the underdog or a sentimental favorite, and usually Jim would fill me in on some of the finer points of strategy or history.   I guess you could say we were companionable about it.  Jim watched a lot of TV in his later years, and in the hospital, there’s not much else to do.  “Camped out in the cardiac wing” meant that during visiting hours, you could find me squeezed in next to him on the bed, cranked up in sitting position, watching whatever was on the box suspended from the ceiling.   But I thought the Big Game should be more festive.  So I asked the nurses if we could watch it from the visitor’s lounge on the floor, on the big screen, and invite a friend or two.  They gave their permission.

It wasn’t a party.  It was just me, Jim and one of our church friends who stopped by for a while.  I brought a couple of coolers with snacks and drinks.  I got in trouble for bringing beer.  Not that Jim was drinking it, but I guess it was against some rule, because a nurse came by and told me I couldn’t have it there.  Jim was comfortably situated in one of the lounge chairs with his IV pole and beepy-thing beside him.  We were in clear view of the nurses’ station the whole time.  A few other hospital visitors peeked in periodically, but mostly, we were alone.  Our friend Dave told us that there was a huge snowstorm outside.  Toward the end of the game, we actually lost power for a while.  When it was over, it was past visiting hours, and I was concerned about digging my car out of the parking lot and driving home, so I packed up my coolers and kissed Jim good-bye pretty quickly.   Three days later, he had his surgery.  Ten days after that, he was dead.

I found out today that the two teams that are in the Super Bowl this year are the same two teams that played four years ago today.  They will play on Sunday.  And I won’t be watching.  I haven’t watched a football game in a long time.  We don’t even have a TV.

Life changes.  Waiting only lasts a while.  Those days, suspended in gray like a snowflake, drift down slowly, but eventually, they evaporate, and something else takes their place.

I’m okay with that…I think…  Yeah.  I’m okay.

Bridal Wave of Memories

On this day 28 years ago, I was married to my high school sweetheart in my parents’ church in northern California.  I was 21 years old.  Jim was 23.  I wore the veil that my mother and grandmother wore on their wedding days.  I wore the hoop petticoat that my mother wore in 1955 under her similarly long-sleeved and high-colored wedding gown.  I also wore the wedding present Jim had given me a year before: a beautiful cameo pin that he had purchased on the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze.  My dress had been made by a local seamstress using pattern ideas, material and trim that my mother and I had picked out.  My mother and I selected the caterer, the photographer, and the florist together.  My mother secured the musicians: a flute player she knew to play in the church with our organist, and a jazz trio to play at the reception.  My parents issued the Banns of Marriage in the bulletin of the mass the week before my wedding, inviting everyone in the parish to attend.  The reception was held in the Parish Hall behind the church.

My bridesmaids included my two older sisters and two friends.  Jim’s groomsmen included his half-brother, my brother, and two friends.  We selected other friends to participate in reading the Scriptures.  Since we knew so many semi-professional singers personally, we decided not to have any soloists.  Instead, we included congregation hymns that we could all sing together.  The whole affair was pretty simple, but elegant, and definitely traditional.  I did not have a manicure or pedicure, I did my own hair and make-up, we did not have a DJ or MC or dancing.  I did throw my bouquet, but I gave my garter to my husband…to keep.  We did have lots of champagne and loaded the unopened bottles into the station wagon (nothing like a limo) when we took off afterwards for our honeymoon, driving back down to Southern California where I would continue the second semester of my senior year at college.

My grandmother was appalled that Jim and I arranged to meet each other the morning of our wedding day to drive out to a county arboretum and spend some time together.  She kept insisting that it was bad luck for the bride to see her future husband before joining him at the altar on her wedding day.  She also kept asking if someone was going to sing “I Love You Truly” at the service.  These were not the traditions that we were interested in honoring, though.  We were not about superstition or sentimentalism, or so we thought.  We wanted to be sacramental and sincere.  I suppose there are slippery slopes and fine lines involved in those distinctions.  What I do remember thinking about is how to conceptualize a lifetime together.  I figured that might be 50 years or more.  I could barely conceptualize the two decades I had actually experienced.  I realized that it had to come down to faith.  I couldn’t imagine or predict what our marriage would be like.  I could only promise  to live it moment by moment as lovingly as I could “until we are parted by death”.  I did that to the best of my ability, I believe.  That parting occurred almost four years ago, now.

January is often a month of looking into the future, making uncertain plans, vowing to try to live in particular ways.  “Pointing your canoe”, as we like to put it.  Don’t let it frighten you.  Paddling is slow work, with plenty of time to correct, re-align, look around, and get inspired.  You can even drift for a while, if you like, without causing harm.  Forgiveness can arise.  Consequences will arise as well.  There’s no need to cast blame.  Look lovingly on the scene, on yourself, on your partner, on the world.  I enjoy marking the milestones, and I’m finding I even enjoy moving on.

Affairs of the Heart

“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately.  I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and recently browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday.   I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course.  What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero.  Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be.  In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.

My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash.  She and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened.  My mother cobbled together connecting flights to reach me in Nebraska the next morning.   She got me discharged from the hospital and set up in a hotel with her while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California.  We went to the mortuary the next day.  I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business.  Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body.  “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply.  For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there.  I hesitated.  Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door.  “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table.  “No, she’s not there.  She’s gone.  Look here…” she began to comment on Alice’s wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future.  My mom said something about all the suffering her daughter had been spared.  Then she tenderly bend down and kissed that pale, waxy forehead.  My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment.  Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful.  I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.

My mom (photo credit DKK)

Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay.  “Don’t be afraid.  Go talk to him.  He can still hear you.”  She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions.  I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away.  It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time.  I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then.  We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home.  By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach.  I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.

In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently.  I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving.  Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation.  My instinct was to run away.  I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me.  He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.

I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief.  I would like to be a conduit of such grace.

Morning Pages

With the time change, morning daylight becomes precious.  It’s dark by 5pm now, so I like to get up and get going early.  My partner, however, stays up working late into the wee hours and sleeps in.  I woke up at 7, but decided to stay in bed.  Early morning brain work is often my most productive, so I just lay there and thought about my Memoirs assignment.  How would I describe my late husband in detail?  As I pictured him from toe to head, each part brought back associations and memories spanning the 30 years we were together.  Doing this in the quiet, safe, wordless place where I sleep was a great indulgence.  I didn’t feel the need to come up with verbiage or sentence structure or decide what might be better left unsaid.  My brain wandered through different decades and moments without the need to assign chronology.  In this floating place, I felt more connected with his entire person, without delineation.  When Steve rolled over, I put a hand on his shoulder and suddenly began to weep.  Why just then?  Perhaps the absence of tangibility in my relationship with Jim just would not be denied at the moment I became aware of touch.

We are still one.

He sat at the edge of the bed, his naked back to me.  He was working up to rising, about to stand on his unsteady, swollen, deadened feet and shuffle off to the bathroom.  Something prompted me to scoot forward and wrap my legs around his waist and lay my cheek between his shoulder blades.  “You will always be the love of my life,” I whispered.  “You know that, don’t you?”

He did.  He does.