Tears Well-Earned

Friday, January 29, 2016

It’s January, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I find myself feeling blue. January has always been a difficult month. December is often gray and cold, longer nights and shorter days. But there is the anticipation of the holidays; of friends and family gathered. There is no such fun in January—it is yet too cold and gray to anticipate the possible rebirth and warmth of spring; weeks on the other side of December’s cheer. It’s a tough time. Kevin used to steer clear of me in January, knowing that I struggled. He would surreptitiously put seed catalogs where I would find them hoping it would bring me from my gloom.

I had made the conscious decision at the end of last year to spend January in a sort of hibernation. Last fall brought working, traveling, teaching, sending my daughter off to college, and moving to a new home in a new city. It was a time of great change and exhaustion; a time of readjustment, excitement, and fear. Mostly, it was a time when I was too busy to think. So I made the decision that I would spend January being fairly quiet. I would occasionally visit nearby museums or see a film, but mostly I would concentrate on writing, reading, resting, and my job. Though I wouldn’t turn down an invitation, I wouldn’t actively seek out things to do with others. I knew it would be difficult, but I also felt it was necessary. Part of the difficulty is that slow, quiet alone-time often brings opportunities for grief to settle in with me under the covers.

It became even harder than I anticipated with the loss of people and places early into the month. The news of David Bowie’s passing caught me (and the rest of the world) unprepared and deeply saddened. His music fills a fairly large part of my collection. Early on in my musical life I became enamored of glam rock and he was its godfather. His creativity and artistic abilities were so deep and wide. What an impact he had on the worlds of music, art, and fashion. As always happens when someone famous passes, there were comments from other widowed friends. People say that they don’t understand their friends being so sad about this person that they’ve never even met. How can people even begin to equate the loss of this person with the grief they are feeling over the loss of their partner and soulmate, they ask.

I understand their feelings, but I also want to explain that I perfectly understand the outpouring of sadness and how these strangers can feel such a loss in their lives. No, they didn’t know David Bowie personally, but they knew a great deal about him because of his music, because he shared so much of himself with the world. We didn’t know him intimately, but we grieve his loss because he knew us, or

certainly seemed to. He knew how isolated the quirky, creative, out-of-place teenager feels. He wrote messages, donned make-up and leotards, spiked his hair, and in that way he spoke to us and made us feel not so alone in our differences. He, like his music, has just always been there, and now he’s gone.

I’ve also learned this month that my favorite coffee shop, Foggy Bottom, is closing. It is also a loss. It is where I sequestered myself to write, feeling for the first time like a real writer as I sat down with my laptop and a well-made mocha. Most of my Master’s degree was accomplished there—hundreds of pages of thesis and multiple critical essays. I became friends with the owner, Doug, and we often chatted about books. I recently confessed that it was difficult to go into the shop when Kevin was sick, because seeing people there going about their normal lives felt like a slap in the face. It is difficult to explain how much one cannot understand how everyone else’s life can go on when theirs is so upside down. Many nights I drove past on my way home from the hospital and wished that the coffee shop was open so I could stop in and pretend that everything was the way it was before, even for just ten minutes.  I couldn’t bear to go in after Kevin died because it was also a place where I enjoyed being by myself, a place that I appreciated as an escape. How could I have ever
My favorite chair at Foggy Bottom, now being auctioned.
wanted that? When I finally did go back in, Doug asked about Kevin, offered a hug, and said he was sorry for my loss. Now I am sad at the loss of his business, one where so much of our community has gathered over the years.

I also had the opportunity to walk through the first apartment that Kevin and I lived in after we married. I had a small apartment on my own and we lived in it for about a month after we married. But then we moved to our first place together, Third Street—an apartment so full of character and charm that it came to be known as simply that “Third Street.” We had a tiny place in an old house that had been divided up and turned into four apartments. We made life-long friends, cooked in a closet-turned-kitchen, and learned to live with each other in that apartment. The house has been sold and the new owners are doing extensive renovations to both the house and the barn behind the house. Some of the character remains, but much has been replaced by shiny new countertops and stark, white cabinetry. It is more efficient and modern and will make a profit for the new owners after they’ve put many hours of labor into it. As I walked up the oak staircase into what was our apartment, many memories came flooding back: cooking in that kitchen, studying at the desk in the bedroom, walking to the ice cream shop. It was harder than I thought to stand in that space, but I’m glad I did.
Third Street

So in addition to telling my fellow widows that we can grieve for people we didn’t know, I would also tell them that we grieve for more than just people. I suppose when we grieve for a person it’s for more than just the flesh and blood of that person. But we also grieve for places and things, and events, and times, and ways of being. I want to tell them that grief really knows no bounds or limits. I remember when we were expecting our second child. We sat our son down and explained to him that our love was like the flame of a candle—I’m sure I read this in a parenting book and hoped it would work for us. The idea, though, is that the flame of one candle can light many others and never diminish itself. Love is like that, but so is grief. The grief I feel at the loss of David Bowie doesn’t diminish any of the grief I have felt at any other loss, especially Kevin’s. If anything, it makes it richer and more powerful. The grief I feel at losing my favorite coffee shop, or of now living in a different place, they all just signal for me that I’ve been fortunate enough to have many attachments. They may not each hold the same importance, but losing them means losing a piece of the rich and varied tapestry that is my life. I’m thankful to have had them, to know that my life is better in some way because I’ve connected at more than a superficial level with the man I married, and the music I listen to, and the people who lived in the downstairs flat, and the guy that served me coffee. 

I’ll get through January with more tears shed than I anticipated. But they are tears well-earned, and I am grateful for them.

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Of Losing and of Letting Go

Monday, September 7, 2015

Today marks five years since Kevin died. I still often live in a state of disbelief that it has been so long since I last saw Kevin, last spoke to him, last said goodnight or good morning, or all the other million little things that make up the day of two people who live together and love each other.  I am still surprised at how time can simultaneously seem to rush forward and stand still. It has been forever and it has been no time at all.

We have moved on, mostly by putting one foot in front of the other and trying our best to live in a way that would make Kevin proud. I think there are more smiles and laughter these days though the most fun times still invoke the realization that Kevin is missing. That feeling will never leave my life, nor do I want it to. And indeed he has missed so much, especially this past year with my daughter’s high school graduation and delivery to college.

It is this added grief that has marked these past 365 days as different, indeed harder. This year has brought together the grief borne of both loss and of letting go. They are two different kinds of grief, but they have equal weight in my heart. I know I must let go of my children, and believe that Kevin and I did the best we could to raise them to be strong, thoughtful, caring, creative people. I see so much of their father in their appearance, their actions, their mannerisms, and their thought processes. I am grateful that his presence lives on in them so brightly. But to say it is easy to watch my children fly away would be a complete lie. If I could have them back in the house living with me, I would do it in a minute! What is this cruel job of parenting that our work is to shower all the love and patience we have upon our children in order to make them capable of living without us?

I have thought a lot lately about the so-called “sandwich generation” of which I was very much a part. It seems about ten years ago much was written about us—those people who, through coincidences of birth, marriage, and childbearing timing, were caring for both elderly parents and young children. I was firmly in that sandwich. Born to older parents (mom was 38 and dad was 43 when I came along), and delaying childbirth myself until I was 29, I spent several years caring for loved ones on both ends of the age spectrum. I remember having a conversation with Richard Russo, one of my very favorite authors. He was planning a trip to Ann Arbor for a book signing and I was involved in the planning. He explained that his schedule was iffy because of this very thing—an 85-year-old mother and a 19-year-old daughter, both of whom needed him. I mentioned an epiphany I had recently had: that a big part of the problem with both of these groups is that they each wish for more freedom than is good for them: young people because they aren’t mature enough to handle it, older people because it is physically risky. Yet as caregivers, it was our responsibility to keep them safe, to say no to dangerous desires.  At the time I had both a 16-year-old and an 88-year-old arguing with me about how often and how far they could drive. It was a challenging time to maneuver through sanely.

Now, my parents are both gone, and I have taken my youngest to college. Of course, I have had the added loss of my husband during that time, which makes this even harder. So often in the past five years, I have made decisions on my own, wondering if it was the right choice, if it is what Kevin would have done. I constantly question whether I’ve helped my kids through their time of grief, if I showed them my own grief and vulnerability often enough. I grapple with balance, with encouraging them to be on their own all the while fearing their leaving. Simultaneously, I try to shrug off the feeling of being an “adult orphan” though many times that’s how I feel. I wish for my parents’ advice and counsel, for them to be here guiding me in my own parenting, and sharing in the accomplishments of their grandchildren, whom they cherished beyond measure.

So I wonder, what becomes of us sandwich generation folks once the "bread" has been removed? We are dealing with two different kinds of grief, but it is grief nonetheless. One form of bereavement brings pain, loss, anger, sadness. The other is differently colored, with pride, hope, and the ability to smile through the tears. I was completely unprepared for the first, but had my children’s entire lifetime to prepare for the latter. 

Preparation doesn’t make it any easier I am finding. Loss, whether through death or letting go, is painful and heart-wrenching, it just is. My heart swells with satisfaction and delight at the sight of my son and daughter strolling across their respective college campuses, working at their part-time jobs, or handling difficult situations on their own. In the past few weeks alone they’ve signed leases, closed and opened bank accounts, settled in with perfect strangers, and dealt so maturely with a broken heart. All the matters of adult life for which I hope I have prepared them but which I must admit, I’d rather still be doing for them. 

Rarely do we truly realize how important it is to be needed in the midst of the needing time. When we’re deep in it, it feels like muck that holds us back, that weighs us down, that won’t let us have a moment’s rest; like quicksand that leaves you gasping for breaths and flailing to keep some of your own identity and autonomy. Yet, sit long enough on dry land without that needing, and one realizes quickly how painful it is to feel parched and arid, how much the needing, while taking your autonomy, was also giving you purpose and identity and life. 

Kevin loved his children so much, and worked so hard to be the kind of parent he hoped to be. In the end, he also fought so hard to stay here with them. On the fifth anniversary of Kevin’s passing, I honor his memory by tearfully and begrudgingly celebrating the independence of our children.

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Goodbye Regret

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I remember the second or maybe third time I went out with Kevin. We ended up at his apartment, with a bag of Fritos and a six-pack of Stroh’s Signature beer. We had both attended college classes that day, then worked an eight-hour shift at the Hyatt hotel. It was closing in on midnight and I had a class the next day at 8 a.m.

We started talking about stuff that made me think this wasn’t going to be a short-term relationship—how impossible it was to get along with our parents, plans for the future, how we would raise kids, whether we believed in God, what we wanted to be doing when we turned thirty. I remember telling him that my biggest goal was to live life with few regrets. “They’ll eat you alive,” I think I said, trying to seem deep and introspective.

I’m not sure how well I’ve done at living the kind of life my twenty-year-old-self wanted me to live. Regrets are tricky, sly creatures that sneak up on you when you think you’re doing fine. I have my share of the usual regrets—not keeping in better touch with friends, not learning earlier how to budget and save, not getting back to grad school earlier, wishing I spoke better French. When it comes to our marriage, I find regrets to be moving targets. I regret some choices or situations when I’m grieving, but those same things seem less worrisome when I think rationally. There are times when I regret renovating our house. It was a significant accomplishment. But, in the end, we should have spent the time and money sucked up by our house projects on family travel. Perhaps, I sometimes think, we should have waited a while to marry, taking the time to better establish ourselves in our individual pursuits. It could have made me better prepared for the life I’m now living. 

But these are regrets as viewed through the rearview mirror, borne of tragedy, and with hindsight as my guide. They are the kinds of regrets about which I can only say there’s nothing to be done about that now.  

I’ve considered the impossible-to-change regrets lately as I read Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. My reading of the book was followed by a lively discussion at my local bookstore. Being Mortal is Gawande’s look at our inability to understand and properly care for the dying, be they elderly or terminally ill. The medical community has a natural conflict, with their first priority of keeping someone alive when, perhaps that is not what’s really best. In the chapters on terminal illness, Gawande points out instances where the decision to avoid attempts at prolonging life actually led to better quality of life for the time remaining. I can only say that it is easy to proclaim with a healthy voice, the desire to “end it” if you ever were to find yourself extremely debilitated by disease, but more difficult to do so in the midst of that situation.

Kevin and I talked many times about how we both would never want to be kept alive on ventilators or feeding tubes. As the Terry Schiavo tragedy unfolded we both made sure the other understood this. But once we found ourselves in the midst of our own tragedy, it wasn’t so easy. After two spinal cord surgeries, the second of which was mishandled and led to formation of a hematoma that nearly killed him, Kevin was left a quadriplegic. Rather than say it’s time to stop, he instead implored me to keep fighting with him, his only real request of me during that time was that I never give up on him.

So I didn’t. 

My regrets don’t have to do with prolonging Kevin’s life. I am grateful for every second he was here. But the choice to continue fighting meant that we were in battle mode every second. It meant that, when hospice told me he only had a few days, I couldn’t go to him and tell him that we needed to say our “I love you’s” and “goodbyes.” It meant we marched on, side-by-side, rather than face-to-face, toward an inevitability that neither of us could accept by putting words to it. We continued battling disease until one of his tumors ruptured and he was gone within minutes. 

I do regret that we didn’t have some quiet minutes between us; that our choice to keep going prevented us from a peaceful end.

Being involved in grief and widows groups, I have learned a few things. I have talked with widows whose spouses died suddenly from accidents or heart attacks, and those who, like Kevin, suffered for years with heart disease, cancer, or Parkinson’s. Rarely in my conversations have I found someone who didn’t have regrets about the way things ended. I hear lamentations like, “I knew he wasn’t coming back to me, so I said it was ok to turn off the ventilator. Now I wonder why I did that. I feel like I killed him.” Or, “I told him it was ok to let go, so he did. He slipped away. It was peaceful, but now I hate myself. Why did I tell him it was ok and not to keep fighting?”

I suppose what I’ve learned most of all is that is that there seldom is a truly peaceful end, one that is not fraught with sadness and grief and tinged with flecks of emotions like guilt and regret that color the situation impossible. I think, too, sometimes we all look for regrets, or at least for things we feel we should have done better or differently. It is perhaps, all tied up in wanting, more than anything, for the outcome to have been otherwise.

I’ve also reconciled (the opposite of regret?) myself to the knowledge that Kevin died the way he needed to: fighting; trying to keep disease, despair, fear, and death, at bay for just another day. He needed that. Had I said anything to him to signal my acceptance of the end, well, I can’t even begin to think of the terror it would have caused in him. I know I would also regret having done that, so how to resolve? It just isn’t possible. I suppose letting him battle on was my small gift to him, bequeathed unknowingly, that I now must live with.

So while it might have been good for some of the patients in Being Mortal to accept the end, we need to understand that this was their choice. As admirable as it is, it isn’t everyone’s. It certainly wasn’t Kevin’s.

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The Piercing: Or How a Needle Through the Nose is Like an Arrow To My Heart

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Last week was my daughter’s 17th birthday. So much goes through my mind when I think about how quickly my children are growing up. Mostly, I think about how they’re doing so without their dad. It’s tough parenting without Kevin, but not nearly as tough as growing up without him must be. They've both done so very well, despite so much loss around us. I am grateful that they have family and friends to comfort and cheer them.

For her birthday, my daughter wanted to have her nose pierced. A few of her friends have small gems on their noses, and she thought this would be a way of setting herself apart. She’s a pretty quiet young woman, and I think small ways of declaring her independence and individuality are important to her.
So off we went to the piercing salon. We first drove to the tattoo parlor which also does piercings. I know because I had my ears pierced there last year. Before that, I was there to get a tattoo. I shared that experience with my son. Just one week into his college freshman year when his dad died, he returned home over a crisp fall weekend and told me that he was getting a tattoo. I know he was a bit surprised when I didn’t argue, and even more surprised when I said I would join him. I had never previously considered getting a tattoo. In fact, I thought the process to be dangerous and frightening, and the end result to be unattractive and too permanent.

But my outlook and opinion on nearly everything changed after Kevin passed away. Then, a tattoo became a permanent way to mark his impact on my life, our life together, and the memory of him that I wanted to hold onto. I knew that I may someday remove my wedding band (which I’ve done), and a tattoo would be something that couldn’t be removed. My son would have the words “Living it Up” tattooed onto his chest, over his heart. Kevin’s nephew also joined us, and had the same words etched into his side along his ribcage. I had them written in a nice script, just above my right ankle, along with a hummingbird. 

Kevin had a very close relationship with my uncle, G.W. Bailey. G.W. was one of the strongest, sweetest men I’ve ever known. Whenever anyone asked him how he was doing, that was his reply: “I’m living it up.” He maintained that reply even through ten long years of progressively worse Parkinson’s disease. Uncle G.W. died just after Kevin’s first diagnosis, and Kevin felt it important to make this cheery response a part of G.W.’s legacy. He committed himself to responding to everyone that he was living it up, even on his worst days. He named his carepages blog Living It Up, and told the story of Uncle GW whenever anyone asked. So it was only fitting that we would have those words inscribed onto our flesh with a needle and ink. In addition to the tattoo itself, there was certainly something about the act of the tattoo—especially the pain involved—that felt good. And it was certainly, aside from childbirth, the most painful hour I’ve ever endured. So many times I had wished to take just a bit of Kevin’s pain. Taking it in this way was only symbolic, but it was for me, a powerful and welcome symbol.

It was also, in an odd way, a good bonding experience for my son and me. It was a way, I think, of telling him that I understood a little of what he was experiencing, that I would always be there for him, that I wouldn’t let him get away with everything, but that I would support him “to the pain” and share my own pain with him. I’m glad I did it, and glad that we did it together.

My daughter is considering a tattoo when she turns 18. It will also say “living it up.” But for now, she was happy with the nose piercing. We lacked the sufficient ID to get the piercing done at the tattoo parlor, so we headed home to get her birth certificate and then to the piercing salon closer to our house. We walked into the brightly lit salon on a busy Ann Arbor street just after rush hour. The requisite large, bearded man with many posts and hoops through various appendages was there ready to explain the process and the necessary follow-up care. 

I waited outside the tiny room, unable to watch the needle pierce her skin, and considered whether this was a good thing or not. As body art goes, this is pretty small. When she goes on college or job interviews, or meets her first serious boyfriend’s parents, she can easily remove it and it will look like nothing more than a freckle. But I still questioned whether it was the right thing to support her in this. And of course, it is only my decision—there is no other parent with whom to consult, debate, weigh the options of letting her do it versus having her not speak to us for weeks. The decision is only mine.

I worry sometimes that she and I spend too much time together. I want her and her brother to be ok with leaving home and trying new things. I want her to live every moment of her life fully, starting now. And yet, the thought of my children moving on weighs heavily. It does for most parents of almost-adult children, I’m sure. But it’s not just about having my babies grow up and establish lives of their own. For me, it is one more loss; one more thread to Kevin and to our old life that is fluttering in the wind. All I can do is stand and watch as it floats away. It is also one more reminder of all that he is missing; of all that we are missing together as a family. This year especially, as she enters her senior year of high school, my heart aches that her dad isn’t here to share in her last dance performances, her college acceptances, her prom and her graduation.

Seeing my little girl sit up from the padded table on which she was laying, with tears rolling down her face (“I’m not crying, it just made my eyes water!”), and smiling when she looked in the mirror, I’m glad I was there for this little experience. As she grows older, there will be fewer times when she wants her mother along on her adventures. I’ll continue to work on my ability to nudge my children from the nest, hoping that these times we’ve spent together—both the good and the challenging, have created a relationship that they, as much as I, will want to nurture forever.

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