Welcome to the Misadventures of Widowhood blog!

In January of 2012 my soul mate of 42 years passed away after nearly 12 years of living with severe disabilities due to a stroke. I survived the first year after Don’s death doing what most widows do---trying to make sense of my world turned upside down. The pain and heartache of loss, my dark humor, my sweetest memories and, yes, even my pity parties are well documented in this blog.

Now that I’m a "seasoned widow" the focus of my writing has changed. I’m still a widow looking through that lens but I’m also a woman searching for contentment, friends and a voice in my restless world. Some people say I have a quirky sense of humor that shows up from time to time in this blog. Others say I make some keen observations about life and growing older. I say I just write about whatever passes through my days---the good, bad and the ugly. Comments welcome and encouraged. Let's get a dialogue going! Jean

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Widowhood: My Second Memorial Day

Grave Yard Picnic
Memorial Day means different things to different people. For most people it’s just the kick off to summer and a long weekend for having family fun or for working on an outdoor project. For some, it’s all about honoring our fallen military men and women. Still others use the weekend to decorate at the cemetery, a tradition dating back to shortly after the Civil War when families would gather to clean up the grave yards at the end of spring. In the realm of useless information cluttering up my brain is the fact that Civil War era families would take a break from their cleaning to spread blankets on the grass and have a potluck lunch among the ghosts of their ancestors which in turn gave birth to the custom of families getting together over the holiday. Then, in more recent times when the government turned it into a three day weekend…well, forget the cemetery---we can swing by after work---and save the three day holiday to party. We all accept that evolution until we’ve had a recent loss, then we wish the whole world to hit the pause button to remember the dead and the families they left behind. .

This year Memorial Day is bringing me a sense of restlessness and mixed emotions. Last year it was all about making sure Don's tombstone was set in place and how disappointed I was with the unseeded ground around the marble. Sand filled up the etched letters and there was no hope for keeping the stone clean with the way the sod was left high on one side. A week ago I stopped by the cemetery and found those issues are no longer a problem. So now what? The cemetery has a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t put on graves but people break the rules all the time, and then they fight with the sexton when he removes their decorative flags, solar lights and wind chimes that fall over and get tangled up in their mowing machines. When I was checking the place last week I ran into another widow whose husband’s grave is near Don’s and she was trying to rally up support to get the sexton fired. She lives within walking distance, checks on the cemetery often and says she's been raising cane since her husband was buried six years go. I don’t want to be that kind of widow. To me, it’s easier to learn the rules and follow them.

I worked in the floral industry for twenty years and made my fair share of Memorial Day flowers over the years. I had planned to make something for Don’s grave until I broke my elbow and acquired an arm sling. As a Plan B I stopped by a place that sells cemetery flowers but their arrangements weren’t weighed and would blow away with the first strong wind, so I left without buying anything. The evil side of me thinks it would be fun to fill up the etched letters on Don’s tombstone with birdseed so that when the militant widow mentioned above sees birds all over my husband’s grave she’d call the city offices to demand the sexton buy a shot gun. Did I mention she’s also a militant, foaming-at-the-mouth NRA member as well? I know she’d call me in horror if Don’s grave became a Mecca for birds. She called me when the Snoopy I'd glued to the stone disappeared. But I’d act overjoyed about the birds and tell her, “Holy moly, Don’s spirit is communicating with the gods, using the birds to carry his message to the sky!” Okay, I wouldn’t really tell her that but I would put seeds on his Don’s grave just to watch her go off like a rocket on the Fourth of July. Hey, I think I just hatched Plan C.

Aside from what to do about the cemetery what is bothering me the most about this second Memorial Day without Don is how lonely it’s making me feel. I hear the plans that family and friends have for the long weekend and while I’m genuinely happy for them, I’m a bit envious as well. In the past I’d always had plans to look forward to over the holiday. I can't remember ever not having some where to go over Memorial Day, not even as a kid. Poor me, I can’t even satisfactorily pig out on comfort foods because with my broken elbow bone and sprained wrist on my dominate arm it’s a struggle to shovel food in my mouth. To make it worse I’m sitting here watching a doomsday movie---nothing like making a misery pie for your self when you should be closing the kitchen and going for a walk in the sunshine. I mean who wouldn’t feel miserable at the thought the world is coming to an end and I don’t have a survivalist’s cache of supplies hidden in a backyard bunker? I’ll bet the militant widow with the NRA patches on her jacket has a well stocked bunker. Woo is me. I can’t wait until Memorial Day, year two is past history!

But I must say I’m starting to understand why recent widows feel the pull to go to the cemetery on Memorial Day; we don’t have any where else to go and if we’re lucky we’ll get to meet the families of our spouse’s neighbors. Yup, my husband is across the road, four stones in. Where is yours? I brought a peanut butter sandwich. Would you like half? Maybe if I make friends at the cemetery this year next year we could plan a potluck on the grounds like the Civil War widows did. Everything comes full circle if you wait long enough. ©

Friday, May 24, 2013

Widows and Memory Triggers


This week I learned that if you ever need a dose of ‘nice’ in your life all you have to do is go to the grocery store with your arm in a sling. People give you understanding smiles, offer to help you reach stuff, and are more patient when you’re clearly in their way and the cashiers offer to get you help loading bags in your car. I even heard a few stories about grandmothers who fell and broke their arms. I experienced the same kind of gestures when I shopped with my wheelchair bound husband but he’s been gone 16 months now and I ‘d forgotten how society can be when you really need a little ‘nice’ in your life.

Speaking of Don, it occurred to me a few days ago how impossibly complex it is for widows to “just move on” and put the past behind us. The memory triggers keep coming and coming like this week when I saw a classic MG, the exact model year and color of one Don and I found on vacation years ago. It was a fixer-upper that we would have had to be trailer back to Michigan and we were headed out west to the mountains at the time. If it was meant to be, we decided, it would still be there for sale when we passed by on our way back home. It wasn’t but it sure gave us a lot to dream about on that trip. All those dreams came rushing back upon seeing the restored MG on the road, dreams of taking “our MG” through the Smoky Mountains and along the California coastline. But the MG memories also reminded me of how lucky I am that my memory triggers are mostly good ones. How hard it must be on widows who had bad marriages to be constantly reminded of things they’d rather not remember. Oh course, in the beginning months of widowhood my memory triggers came with a heavy dose of melancholy for what can never be again. Now, my memory triggers just valid the fact that my past life was never dull or empty with Don around.

Having my broken elbow in a sling is slowing me down but my Plan B includes purging filing cabinets, cleaning drawers, ordering books online, and researching my next major purchases---a washer and dryer---so I’m finding things to do. In the second drawer I cleaned I ran across two memory triggers, trinkets that were given to Don and me at a drummer circle we took part in 4-5 years ago. It was a chance meeting in a park we were wandering around when we came upon a group of people beating drums. After watching for a while, they motioned for us to come join them. Don was given a rattle to shake, I has handed a tambourine to beat and for the next hour we fell into the rhythm, at one with the group. To this day I don’t understand who or how their percussion shifted from one rhythm to another without spoken words but it was an amazing experience. Native American cultures believe instruments have a persona and life of their own so maybe it was the instruments, not the people setting the pace? How do you throw away trinkets that remind you of a feel good memory like that sunny afternoon in a park spent with a group of nice people who without words made us feel at one with the world? I did and I didn’t. I kept the beads off the whatnots to sting into a necklace and threw the other parts away. Others might call that silly to keep the beads but I call it progress to throw out what I did.

We spend much of our younger years looking ahead and now I’m in a phase of life when I spend much of my time looking back. If we had had children and grandchildren things might be different. I think they help you keep looking ahead as you exchange grandparent stories with your friends, but that’s just a weak theory on my part. Old people stereotypes that include us telling endless stories from the past didn’t just magically appear, whole clothe doesn’t get woven without thread. As we go through life we keep mementos and souvenirs, we write journals, take pictures and then we wonder why our elders and widows often seem to be living their lives in reverse? My best theory? If we were only meant to live in the here and now the invention of cameras never would have caught on and tourist destination shops would only sell ice cream and soft drinks because memory triggers would be of no value to us. Therefore I conclude its part of old people DNA to review and make peace with our own personal histories; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Yesterday I got another one of those infamous widowhood memory triggers in the mail. It was a letter addressed to Don with these words printed in big block letters on the envelope: WE MISS YOU AND WANT YOU BACK! That piece of junk mail acts as a marker on how well I’m doing as a widow. A year ago it would have made me cry. Yesterday it only brought a moment of sadness as I said out loud, “Me, too. Join the club.” ©

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Broken Arms and Plan Bs

I’ve always known I can’t successfully do two things at the same time and Monday I acquired a broken bone to prove it---the head of the radius in my elbow. Note to self: trying to hook a water bottle on to a fanny pack while walking causes you to trip on you own feet, fall down and fracture bones. On the good side, I didn’t hurt the elbow that I broke years ago and is screwed back together in three places. On the bad side, the break is on my dominant arm so writing, eating and brushing my teeth have all been adventures in patience. Typing one-handled is coming along good but I discovered Windows 7 on my laptop has voice recognition so if I get to a point where I want to challenge my aging brain to learn something new, it’s there for the taking. If nothing else, life teaches the importance of always having a Plan B because you never know when you’ll need one.

When my husband first had his stroke and was learning how to live in a one-handed world I taught myself how to do many things one-handed so I could then teach him by example. I even have a book on the topic, but cooking one-handed is something brand new to me. The first night I tried to fix dinner one-handed I cooked a large beet in the microwave and trying to cut it up caused my kitchen to look like a crime scene. Even the floor was red with beet juice skid marks. The dog got to the fallen beet half before I did and he managed to track red paw prints as he escaped to the living room to eat it. It was a juicy sucker and Levi looked good with red lips. Thankfully that caused me to remember the high sided cutting board and rocking knife made especially for one-handed cooks that was storage in the garage. (It was a gift someone gave to my husband who didn’t know that in his entire life Don never did anything more complicated in the kitchen than make coffee.) So now I have no reason to get frustrated cutting stuff up. But I’m worried I’ll impale myself on the deadly looking spikes in the middle of the cutting board that holds your food still. What would life be like if worry-warts like me didn’t have something to worry about?

At one the three medical facilities my broken bone took me to this week someone called me “sweetie.” Getting called sweetie struck me the same way it did the first time I got called “madam” instead of “miss”---like I’d just crossed over the border into the Land of Irrelevance with no return ticket in hand. I don’t know what came over me, maybe pain, but I stopped in my tracks, stepped back to her window and said, “Now, you don’t know if I’m sweet. I could be the crankiest old lady you’ve ever met.” She laughed (along with her co-worker) and replied, “I took a chance.” I had no come back for that so I laughed, too, and went on my way. But I do worry if someday I’ll bitch-slap someone for just trying to simplify her life by calling everyone over a certain age the same thing.

I saw my orthopedic doctor on Friday. He did both of my knee replacements and I love the guy. He said in a week when the swelling goes down in my wrist and elbow---thanks to his handy packet of Prednisone---I can try writing, typing and eating with my dominant hand again. He took away the rigid splint formed to my arm at the urgent care center that went from my fingertips to my armpit and he’s not making me have a permanent cast to replace it so long as I promise not to pick up anything heavier than a fork and I keep my arm in a sling when I’m not sitting or sleeping. I would have signed that pledge in blood if he’d asked me! He’s also setting me up for testing that could lead to me to get some treatments to strengthen my bones. Hallelujah! Maybe I won’t end up in nursing home someday with a broken hip and an aid that calls me “sweetie” or “dear” or some other bogus endearment that only means she does know my name. Life is good again…or it will be in 4 to 6 weeks when I can ditch the sling. In the meantime it could have been so much worse and I am grateful to the gods of good fortune that my streak of bad luck could actual end with something good---bones of steel! Wouldn’t that be too cool for words! ©

Friday, May 10, 2013

Dreams

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep. A dream woke me up, a dream where Don was telling me he was leaving. He said he didn’t want to go and couldn’t figure out why he felt that he had to do it. He didn’t know when it would happen, he said, but soon. “Fine, then go!” I told him. “Do it right now!” I wasn’t going to beg although I wanted to do just that. We were standing in the basement of my old house. We had just started painting the walls and I was feeling overwhelmed with the idea that I had to do that huge job all by myself. I wanted my life partner back but he had already left me in spirit, I thought, so what was the point of him staying around physically? I woke up trying to figure out what my dream meant. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the setting of the dream was inspired by my recent basement flooding and my feelings of being overwhelmed by all the work that came with it. And now I’m worrying that Don’s spirit (which I’ve always felt close by me since he died) is fading and will one day just be a distant memory. 
 
I read something in another widow’s blog that describes exactly how I feel about widowhood, 16 months out from Don’s passing and having just gone through my first crisis---the flood---without him. She said she was on the peripheral of many people’s lives but the center of no one’s. I can’t get that sentence out of my head. No one has my back, no one is at the center of my life or me the center of theirs. People care and show concern but it's not the same as having a life partner. I have known this from the funeral, of course, but that fact slaps you in the head whenever there is something good or bad going on in your life you want to share.

I was at the senior hall yesterday for a lecture given by a couple who in retirement spent seven years sailing around the world, living on their sailboat while at ports in places like Italy, Spain, Casablanca, the Canary Islands even some countries in the Middle East. What interesting and brave people they were. In my early twenties I owned a little sailboat and the lecture/slide show reminded me of some of the dreams I had in the days before Don---the non-swimmer---entered my life. The first week of their voyage the woman broke her arm in the middle of the ocean and had to wait to get it set. I would have turned around right there and then. But she didn’t let anything, much less her pain, get in the way of living out her dream. By contrast I just live to armchair dream. As they say no guts, no glory.

While at the lecture a wood carver was in the back of room with some of his creations. He was trying to drum up interest in a class he wanted to teach and it took me about two seconds to add my name to the list of interested people. He’s going to call us all to work out a day and time that suits the majority of students. So while other retired people are out seeking adventure around the world I’ll be sitting in a rocker whittling a block of wood into shavings. Oops. Back in the 80s I took a wood carving class and I still have an unfinished turtle to prove it. In college I once spent an entire semester carving a piece of marble into a woman’s torso---it started out as a rejected tombstone with a misspelled name and I got an 'A' that semester. Having seen Michelangelo’s Pieta when it was brought to The States for the 1964-65 New York’s World’s Fair, I wanted to be just like him. In my naivety I didn’t realize how huge I was dreaming. Now, I’ll settle for finishing my turtle before I die. My dreams are getting more doable with age.

Tomorrow I’m going back to the senior hall for a Victorian Tea. It will feature a speaker from the public museum who will come dressed in a Victorian nightgown and over her hour and a half presentation she’ll dress in traditional period garb layer by layer explaining each garment’s purpose and history as she puts it on. For more than a few decades of my life I was enamored by all things Victorian so I expect to have a good time. But I’ll be haunted by a summer when Don and I looked at every run down, fixer upper Victorian house for sale in two counties. We dreamed of restoring one back to its original glory. And now? I dream of finding something suitable in my closet to wear to a formal Victorian tea. 

There are all kinds of dreams in our lives---big ones and small ones, old and brand new dreams plus broken dreams due to the death of someone important to us. Then there are dreams realized like the couple did who sailed around the world, and youthful dreams gladly discarded to make room for love like I did with Don and my sailboat. Our daytime dreams are unlimited but the ones that are the hardest dreams to make my peace with are the ones that come in the night and keep me from falling back to sleep. Like the dream I had tonight that forces me to acknowledge what my heart doesn't want to admit is happening: Don has been gone physically a long time now and I'm feeling his spirit around me less and less often. And that takes my sadness to a whole new level.© 

 above: painting by Betty Pieper

Sunday, May 5, 2013

One Week in the Life of a Water Logged Widow



SUNDAY: I couldn’t have gotten through last Sunday (or the rest of the week) without my handy Crocs rubbers. My basement was covered with three inches of water----every square in of it---and that’s how I know that Mother Nature has a sense of humor. She decided if I was going to bellyache about feeling guilty over my good fortunes in life (see my April 24th post) then she’d give me something to cry about. The sump pump that I often wondered what it did in the basement besides scare the bejesus out of me out failed while trying to keep up with the 100 year flood and record rain falls in my township. The guys who came today to pump the basement out couldn’t keep up with the water coming in from the broken sump pump so they packed up their hoses and left me standing in the water saying they’d be back at 8:00 AM Tuesday, assuming I could arrange for a plumber to install a new sump pump by then.

MONDAY: I woke up at the crack of dawn, so I could get a hold of the plumbing service where I left an S.O.S. late yesterday. Their White-Knight-to-the-Rescue showed up at 2:00 PM and left an hour later after handing me a bill for $275. The rest of the afternoon I spent behind a push broom, creating a series of mini wakes in an attempt to help the water find the new sump pump.

TUESDAY: I was back in the Crocs rubbers this morning so I could alternate between watching the water extraction guys work in the basement and worrying that it wasn’t going as fast as I wished. After four hours of sucking up the standing water, they placed industrial fans and a refrigerator-sized heater/dehumidifier in the basement and together they sound like I have a couple of jet airplanes warming up down there. (I don't even want to think about what this will do to my electric bill.) Then the crew made a series of appointments with me before leaving, for them to move their equipment around each day. I guess you could say they’re my new best friends. After they left, an old friend who owes a clean up service came over to help me get the worst of the wet and ruined stuff out of the basement.

WEDNESDAY: It was back in my Crocs rubbers to work in the basement where the Mold Prevention Patrol showed up to do a treatment. So far this little flood zone has cost me roughly $3,500 and the bills aren't all in yet. The landscape guy was here today, too. He added a 50 foot temporary drain extension at the end of my sump pump pipe to drain the water farther away from the house and my soggy yard. Now, my house can correctly be described as the one with a river running towards the storm drain. When I wasn’t downstairs I was hauling stuff to the deck in an attempt to dry it out in the sun.

THURSDAY: The ‘fans and giant dryer’ guys came back in the morning to move their equipment round down in the basement. This afternoon I was able to breath easier and go on a tour I’d signed up for weeks ago through the senior center. It was to the 911 dispatch center that handles all the 911 calls for 4-5 counties. It was an interesting tour but it brought some unexpected bad memories to the surface of times when I had to call 911 for Don. At one point those old “flee” or “cry in place” widow feelings washed over me, but I toughed it out and did neither one.

FRIDAY: When I wasn’t working in the basement I was thinking about the damage down there. My basement wasn’t a finished basement so my flooding could have been far worse. There are people in town who still can't live in their houses due to water damage---several weeks after the river crested---and other people in high rises who just this week were given permission to take their insurance adjusters in to see their water logged cars that were in the underground parking area. Due to electrical issues those people living in high rises still can't move back home again either. The most important things I lost---at least to me---was an old leather suitcase full of Valentines from the 1800s and my artwork dating back to my college years and after---four decades worth of folders full of drawings, etchings, lithographs and painted canvases. I’m telling myself that losing the artwork can be a blessing in disguise, a gift from Mother Nature. When I get around to taking up art again---which is on my Bucket List---I won’t have to compete with the talent of my youth. I can start fresh with no expectations or mourning over skills I might have lost in recent years.

SATURDAY: I got a break from the flood zone and went to an outdoors wedding in the country.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was so happy the couple didn't get the 40% chance of rain that was in the forecast. The reception was inside a near-by barn and it was a fun way to end an exhausting week. As often as I saw the water extraction crew this week, though, I should have asked the crew leader to be my date for the wedding. (He really liked the 'art studio' I set up in the basement and if there hadn't been a forty year age gap between us, I would have called it flirting.) Oh, well, I’ll see him and his crew on Monday, I hope for the very last time because that will mean the "jet planes" are no longer needed in the basement.  I want to get my basement put back together again and to put all this behind me over the next week or two!! ©