Welcome to the Misadventures of Widowhood blog!

Welcome to my World---Woman, widow, senior citizen seeking to live out my days with a sense of whimsy as I search for inner peace and friendships. Jeez, that sounds like a profile on a dating app and I have zero interest in them, having lost my soul mate of 42 years. Life was good until it wasn't when my husband had a massive stroke and I spent the next 12 1/2 years as his caregiver. This blog has documented the pain and heartache of loss, my dark humor, my sweetest memories and, yes, even my pity parties and finally, moving past it all. And now I’m ready for a new start, in a new location---a continuum care campus in West Michigan, U.S.A. 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. Stick around, read a while. I'm sure we'll have things in common. Your comments are welcome and encouraged. Jean

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Natural Order of Things

For only the second time in my life I got a close up and personal look at a Northern Harrier. It’s a low-flying hawk that is huge---it averages 17 to 24 inches tall with a wing span of 3 ½ to 4 ½ feet. The first time I saw him last week he was sitting on my deck railing not more than ten feet from my window. His back was to me and the first thought that popped into my mind was, how did a rabbit get up there? At first glance, he had a similar sized silhouette as a big buck rabbit sitting up on his hunches. My juggle-gym of a bird feeder was near-by and I think the hawk must have been hunting a chipmunk that feeds underneath with the rabbits. The second time I saw him he was feasting on his prey underneath a pine tree at the back edge of my lot and when he left the ground he came right toward me in his flight. I feel sorry for him. He belongs in counties south of here this time of the year and by a country marsh, not by my puny cattail bog in the city. Mother Nature is doing funny things lately and if she keeps insisting on rearranging the patterns of nature then I’m glad she assigned this hawk to me. If I see him again I’m going to name him Harry and makes sure he knows my dog isn't dinner.

I was reading other widows’ blogs a few days ago and it struck me how many of the themes, analogies and emotions we write about are so similar. It shouldn’t be surprising. From the bottom of time until now I doubt that the seasons of love and grief has changed much. We can read period literature and see that while the verbiage used to express our feelings is different through the centuries the emotions are the same. It’s bred into our DNA to care for one another. And yet…there are always exceptions to the rule. Always a Northern Harrier somewhere in the world that has lost his way or a super-pod of dolphins that no one can explain with 100% certainty. But I like the thought that I’m not alone in the sea; I have a pod of widows swimming along side me in the virtual world who value similar things, feel similar ways and are making similar wakes in the water.

Do you think rudeness is also in our DNA or is it something some people cultivate like a summer garden? Before Don passed away we used to go a VFW once a month but the place wasn’t very wheelchair friendly so I’d just run inside to get their roast beef dinners as take-outs. It's in the country and a popular place for the after church crowd. They serve cafeteria style and one time just as I got up to the food an old lady---80ish---cut in front of me and brought three others with her. She looked at me standing there in my sweats with disapproval in her cold eyes and in a snappish tone she said, "You've been up here before so you can go to the end of the line." Mind you, no one was behind me so their wait wouldn't have been very long even if what she said had been true. Since rudest seemed to be the appetizer of the day I told her it wasn’t my second time in the line, I just got there! She shot back that they were there now so I could wait anyway. (Chick fight---or rather old hens fight at the VFW.) They obviously had just come from church and I was thinking, what in the hell does that woman do when the preacher is talking about love, peace and fellowship? Is she making out a grocery list? Planning her garden? Imagining the guys in choir all standing there naked?

As the fourth person in her party stepped in front of me he apologized for his wife’s behavior. Instantly I felt sorry for the man and wondered if he’d spent their entire marriage doing clean-up duty, trying to balance out his wife’s rudest with his kindness. He was the ebb to her tide, the natural order of things in a microcosm at the VFW. If she was swimming in my pod of widows right now I’d tag her with glow-in-dark paint so the fish canneries could find her easily.

Oh, my, I can’t believe I just said that! Maybe her rudest was something out of the norm, like the Northern Harrier in my back yard. I wish the whole world was forced to keep a blog so we could google what’s going on inside each others heads. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see if their rudeness is entirely what it seems on the surface? Would I be more forgiving, for example, of the lady at the VFW if I knew she was dying of cancer and only had a few weeks left to live? Maybe. Maybe not and I’d write a catty comment on her post to tell her not to worry about her nice, soft-spoken husband when she’s off battling the angels who guard the Pearly Gates of heaven. See, I can be as priggish as the next person. It’s all part of the natural order of things. Or is it? ©

“Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real thoughts.”
Abel Stevens - minister/author

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wedding Bands and Borrowed Courage

I finally got it back…my husband’s wedding ring that was incorporated into an opera length necklace. It was made by a woman who does bead work for craft shows and small boutiques. She did a good job but how could I not like it considering I picked out all the beads that she used.

Did you know that in colonial America the Puritans thought adorning your body with a wedding ring was immoral, wasteful? Instead of giving a ring during a wedding ceremony a man would pledge his devotion by giving his bride a thimble engraved with her initials. It was practical and useful in a time when all women had to sew if she didn’t want her family to go to church naked. And they went to church a lot in those days. When I was young and first getting interested in antiques it was a fad to collect initialed thimbles and if you were lucky enough to find one that had the end of the thimble removed you knew it was used as a make-shift ring by a Puritan woman who wasn’t all that keen on following rules and living a moral life. She could switch that thimble back and forth between the tip of her middle finger and up her ring finger when she wanted to add a little sin into her schedule. And don’t we all want that from time to time? When I wear my beaded necklace with Don’s wedding band incorporated I can slip that ring on my finger and I will feel like a double agent with a secret. I can pretend my ring fidgeting is a signal to other fans of Puritan style sinning. Party on, ladies, I’ve got a ring on my finger!

The second photo (below) is of my lion charm necklace which symbolizes my need to have courage throughout 2013. (See my New Year’s Eve post if you want more information on the idea of having a One Word Inspiration to take the place of resolutions.) It’s just a cheap craft store charm and chain but I only wear it when I’m going someplace alone where I need to be reminded to have courage in doing so. I was half of a couple for 42 years and the transition to being single in a couple’s world still feels like I’m walking naked in a dream---and that’s not a pretty visual when you’re my age. I haven’t gone to a restaurant alone yet, for example, still haven’t done many things I’d like to start doing again. So I’m taking my courageous lion with me in the spring to a breakfast-only café and the farmer’s market in a near-by tourist town. I want my summer time Saturday morning routine back! I couldn’t bring myself to go that market last year because I wasn’t ready to face the vendors' questions about why Don wasn’t with me. But life goes on and so shall I with a little borrowed courage from a lion charm or a beaded necklace. ©

“He felt lighter than he had in weeks, and he realized that the monster he had been running from wasn’t really a monster after all. It was simply that place in the heart that holds the measure of your history, the joy and the grief, the laughter and the tears, the magic and the wonder; all the ingredients that add up to the story of a life well lived.”

Lilli Jolgren Day, author of The Wonder of Ordinary Magic

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Widow's Kitchen - Cooking for One

I have bit of a reputation in the cooking department and it’s not a good one. Long story, short all of my opportunities to learn to cook came mostly for family parties where everyone would bring a dish to pass. Let’s just say that after you bring bright pink potatoes salad to a fourth-of-July picnic no one asks you to bring it again. (I was trying out a recipe that combined beets and potatoes but I made a fatal mistake of combining the ingredients too soon.) Early on in our relationship my husband’s family took pity on me and whenever there was a family get-together I’d be asked to bring chips or something that didn’t require a trip into the dark, unused recesses of my kitchen. With my family, I could make a good three bean, marinated salad and they were okay with me bringing that to any and all events. They knew my talents ran in different directions so my lack of culinary skills was never a running joke with them like it was/still is with Don’s family.

Anyway, I have a limited range of things I can make and most of what I can do successfully---like a pot roast dinner or chili---you can’t make for one person living alone. So here I am, a widow with time on her hands and a new plan. I’m going to teach myself how to do things in the kitchen and at least once a week I’m actually going to make a meal using an ingredient or method I’ve never tried before. As my mother used to say, you’re never too old to learn something new. I’m not sure if she was talking about me or the dog but, what the heck, this is my story so I can tell it any way I want. Jeez, now that I think about it what she actually said was, “You can’t learn any younger. Just do it!” I was a stubborn child.

As I mentioned in my 2/15/13 post I went to my first ‘cooking for one’ class at the senior center. But one thing the dietitian teaching the class said won’t leave my thoughts. She said when cooking for one you have to rethink what your conception of what a meal is. A meal, she said, can be something as simple as guacamole on whole wheat crackers with a baked pear for dessert. This was a startling concept for me to wrap my head around, having grown up in an era when a home-cooked dinner always had to have meat, potatoes, vegetables, bread and dessert and later on having hung around Don’s family full of gourmet cooks. But her comment got me wondering if I can actually come up with a month’s worth of recipes to serve one that are easy-to-make dinners.

After class I stopped by the store and bought my second ever avocado to test the dietitian’s premise. When I cut the avocado open the way the she did in class it dawned on me why I had so much trouble opening a mango I tried doing a while back. I was trying to use the same method of cutting all the way around it then twisting the two halves to free it from the pit. But mangoes don’t have a nice round ball-like pit like an avocado and all I did was create a mess. Color me embarrassed. I haven’t tried opening a mango since. Someone should tell the gods of fruit to start growing them all with peels like bananas. I'm sure we'd all eat more fruit if they did.

One thing I’ve already figured out by reading recipes that are supposed to serve just one or two is often times you still have to buy ingredients in larger quantities than you’ll use. What’s a widow living alone supposed to do with a left-over ½ a can of something or seven tortilla shells? Get a deep-freezer the size of Rhode Island? Oh, my God, now I remember one of the reasons why I hate cooking: wastefulness. I need to watch more episodes of the Iron Chef hoping they can brain-wash me into throwing more stuff out. Have you ever noticed how often they discard ingredients that aren’t the perfect size, color or quality? Those people would die of culinary shock at my house where this “cook” has been programmed to eat what I burn because children in China will starve to death if I waste anything. Bottom line: my widow’s kitchen is now open for business so if you have any tips or tricks send them my way. ©

P.S. Here’s my first tip: Don’t order a cooking for one cookbook for your Kindle. Sometimes you actually need real pages to thumb through and an index you can get at easily.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Way We Were and Other Widow Worries

jigsaw puzzle

I’ve always loved the 1973 movie, The Way We Were, with Robert Redford playing Hubbell and Barbara Streisand playing Katie. If you haven’t seen it you must be living under a rock. It’s a classic and comedian Gilda Radner once summed up the plot like this: "It's about a Jewish woman with a big nose and her blonde boyfriend, who move to Hollywood, and it's during the blacklist and it puts a strain on their relationship." That’s all true as far as it goes but it’s the strong contrast between the Katie and Hubbell’s personalities that makes the movie memorable---at least for me. She was a vocal woman with strong anti-war opinions, a political activist who took life and current events super seriously. Hubbell was a carefree guy with no particular leanings in the political arena. I can’t remember if it was Katie or Hubbell himself who described him as a guy who had everything in life came easy for him, but it fit. His good looks and athletic ability took him places without much effort. Of course, their love affair and short marriage was ill-fated and the movie ended with what has been described as the “most romantic love scene of all times.” I wouldn’t say that---ever---but I guess the idea of a chance meeting with an old flame who looks at you like the ‘good one’ that got away has a lot of appeal to some women.

I like the movie because I always thought Don and Hubbell had some qualities in common. Some things in life came easy for Don---he was a good looking people-magnet with a silver tongue for story telling---and I thought of myself as a Katie type who got too intense sometimes. Before I met Don I had lost a couple of boyfriends because I had aspirations that didn’t include staying home and keeping a supply of a clean socks and hot meals available 24/7 for her man. And maybe it was the gods of twisted humor that, in the end, turned me into a married woman who spent the last 12 years of Don’s life staying at home and keeping a supply of clean socks and hot meals available and turned him into someone who had to struggle just to get one word ‘sentences’ out of his aphasiac brain.

One of the advantages of growing old is you actually get to see the ending of things like an x-boyfriend who eventually came out of the closet long after our relationship ended. When I think about the pain of that break up compared to the pain it would have caused if I had married the guy and found out 20 years later that he’d been hiding a secret all that time---well, I dodged a huge bullet didn’t I. Another guy I could have married turned his wife into a sports widow on the weekends and short-order cook for his buddies and I would have hated that life-style. Nope, I don’t have any regrets about the ones that got away. If I saw either of those guys today I wouldn’t look at them longingly like Hubbell did with Katie and wish I had chosen a different path. I doubt they would look at me that way either. If given enough time, life works out the way it should or at least in a way that finally makes sense.

Now that I’m wearing my widow’s garb I’ve entered a new phase of life. I’m too old to make mistakes and miss-steps because I don’t have enough time left on earth to make corrections. Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time, right now, keeping a long range plan in sight so I can keep the daily stuff moving in that direction. Too often I find myself drifting without accomplishing more than getting dressed by noon and day-dreaming and plotting my course. The future seems like a giant jigsaw puzzle and I’m still working on finding the edge pieces. 

Have I ever confessed that I like putting jigsaw puzzles together, the harder the better? I've never liked telling people that because it sounds like something only old people do, but I've loved them since I was a kid and work 3-4 puzzles a year. I have a puzzle with pictures on both the front and the back of the pieces, a round puzzle and puzzles with geometric patterns. I have other puzzles with repetitive images that are really difficult. (Visualize hundreds of yellow pencils lined up side by side---that’s the picture on my favorite puzzle.) I could do one of these difficult puzzles in two days. Don would roll by in his wheelchair from time to time and look at me with admiration. He was impressed. I haven’t done one since he died. If widowhood has taught me anything about myself it’s that his admiration was a prime motivator in my life. I always thought I was my own motivator and I truly was before we met all those years ago but somehow I must have transferred that chore to him; I fed off his admiration, breathed it in like air and I miss that. Now I’m struggling to motive my own self again. This was the way we were. Now I am writing the sequel: the way I am. ©

Monday, February 18, 2013

Looking For Closure

Closure is a word we often hear in relationship to widows and grief. It’s defined as an end to grief. We look for closure so we can move so-called forward. Closure to heal, closure to say good-bye to the past, closure to put a period at the end of our pain. Closure, closure, closure---well, phooey on all that! According to Nancy Berns, a sociologist at Drake University, seeking closure actually does harm to people who’ve suffered a loss. She says we don’t need it to heal. Instead of looking for closure we should be choosing to carry our grief forward. We don’t need an ending to our grief and in fact, she says closure doesn’t even exist.

Those were startling thoughts when I first heard them but what she means is what we actually need to do is to create a space for joy and a space for grief to co-exist. If we try to keep our grief in a tightly closed box---like the champions of closure say we must do---then we can’t bring forth the memories that make us smile, laugh and warms our hearts. We need to do this with memories and to do it without feeling guilty for not finding so-called closure, not “moving on” as the people around us are always looking for us to do. Guilt for wanting to remember shouldn’t walk hand-in-hand---she didn't say this part about guilt and memories but this is my nutshell interpretation of what she was getting at.

I can sure identify with feeling guilty about bringing Don up as often as I do. I’ll share a memory or antidote and immediately look at the person I’m talking with to see if they are making a judgment about me---looking at me with pity or something worse. Do they think I’m living in the past? Do they think I’m not making a big enough effort to move forward? Do they think I should be able to can carry on conversations and leave out 42 years of my life experiences as if Don was never a part of them? These are all self-doubting thoughts I’ve had and they are perfect examples of guilt walking hand-in-hand with remembering.

Nancy Berns says carrying grief and joy together is liberating. If you keep your grief in a box then you never get to take out the joy that went along with the relationship/person you grief. If you haven’t seen her seventeen minute video titled Beyond Closure, I’ve linked it below. It will give you a lot to think about. There is one thing she said I hope will stick to me if the occasion comes up. She says when you come across someone who is deep in grief the best thing you can say to them is, “Tell me about him/her. What was he/she like?” Instinctively I think I already knew this is a healing approach---let the memories flow, not bottle them up.

I got another envelope in the mail from Social Security this week addressed to Don with a warning in big black letters not open it if I wasn’t Don. When does it stop? It’s been 13 months. In the same batch of mail I got another letter addressed to Don inviting him to look at a new rehab nursing home that promises the place “could help him return back home again stronger and feeling better.” I read it over four times trying to figure out who sold his name to their mailing list. If anyone needs closure it’s the places that should have updated their records and stamped Don’s DECEASED before they sold his contact information.

The “rehab letter” was good for an hour’s entertainment, though, as I thought about various replies I could send them. I would have used the grave plot block number and row at the cemetery for a return address and tell them to “come get me! I’m cold down here in the ground! Make me feel better so I can return back home.” Dumb-ass marketing department…you really have to learn to laugh at stuff like this because if you don’t you’d spend your life crying. And would we really want to live in a world where the data of our lives is so well documented and connected that we couldn’t sneeze without Kimberly-Clark e-mailing us coupons for their Kleenex? Nope, not me, I’m already creeped out enough by Facebook "fingers” every where on the net. So instead I write letters in my head one of which would have said: Dear Dumb-Ass Marketing Director. Find some closure. Don is dead. But if you think you can help him, be my guest. He’s in the cemetery two streets over from your place.©

Friday, February 15, 2013

Widows on Diets and Lost Horizons

I have been dieting since I came here by way of the womb. Today I had to take a link out of my watch because it was sliding around too much. Darn it, who cares about my wrists losing weight! I didn’t give up Ben and Jerry’s American Dream ice cream for smaller wrists. How did that happen? Last week I shoveled snow 3-4 times a day for five days in a row and I was as so happy, thinking all that exercise was going to result in my pants feeling too big. Nope, it had to be my wrists that got smaller. I was so hungry last week with all that shoveling and cold air that I told the dog to stay clear or he’d find himself in the microwave.

Today I’m supposed to send my doctor another fatty-fatty-two-by-four Accountability Report and this month’s email can’t be written by my Ms. Sunshine persona. After a few ups and down I’ve plateaued with only a two pound loss for this month. How will he react? Will he let me slide by on my laurels? After all, over the past four months I’ve lost the extra pounds I put on in my first nine months of widowhood which is what he wanted me to do. But will that be enough to make him happy? Will he want to haul my butt down to his office to admire my slimmer wrists if I mention them in my report? I could just “forget” to send the email. He won’t miss it what with all the people coming in to his office for stuffy noses, acid reflect and cancer.

Yesterday I went to the first of six “cooking for one” classes that I signed up for at the senior hall. This month’s class was on making healthier deserts. The instructor, a wee-little dietitian from the health department, wasn’t the least bit intimidated by cooking in front of 15 women who all probably had at least 40 years of cooking experience under their belts----that’s 600 combined years in the kitchen! No matter what questions were asked the young dietitian had an answer and a lot of the questions went right over my head. I didn’t know, for example that good vanilla has alcohol in it let alone where to buy Madagascar bourbon vanilla in town. Nor did I know that vegans don’t use honey.

Apparently we’re going to use a lot of vegan recipes in these classes. After hearing that I decided to swing by the grocery store on the way home and pick up a couple of Black Angus steaks before the classes start making me feel guilty for eating things with faces. Today we got to sample vegan chocolate pudding made with avocados and she made fruit chai chutney that we’re suppose to use every which way except on Sundays. They both tasted great but I can’t picture myself making something that would tempt me to eat it all in one setting. How is that any different than having Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer? Silly question. Thanks to the class I actually know the answer---it’s all about the nutrient values in the calories we eat. If I’m going to live to be 100 I suppose I should start caring about stuff like that.

I started reading a book for the first time since Don passed away. I used to read all the time, belonged to a book club and couldn’t leave the house without a book for fear I’d have a spare moment and be caught without something close at hand to read. I lost my concentration for reading when grief settled in for the long haul but for some reason an old classic caught my attention last week---Lost Horizon which was written in 1933---and since I escaped reading it in the past I figured it was something I needed to do. I’m not enjoying the writing style and the character development was so slow in the first 50 pages I could have baked brownies in between descriptions of the main character’s facial features. I’m three-quarters of the way through the book and the only memorial thing the 200 year old High Lama of Shangri-La has said was, “Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue.” Maybe more enlightening dialogue will come in the next quarter of the book. I hope so. What good is longevity if wisdom doesn’t come with it? If I had picked up this book while Don was still alive I would have quit reading it by page fifty. But I’m afraid if I quit the book I won’t pick up another for years and I don’t want that to happen.

I talked to a woman from my old book club recently and she said it took her five years to find the concentration to read again after her husband passed away. Sad, isn’t it, that widowhood affects us in so many imperceptible ways. Ways that are not like changes in our weight where a doctor notices and becomes a cheerleader to set our bodies back to square one again. No one notices lost concentration and if they did they wouldn't ask us to send an accountability report when we’re trying to get it back. No one notices or expects an accountability report when tingles of sadness come with signing up for classes on cooking for one. We widows move ahead in such tiny steps---like the character development in Lost Horizon---that we can look like we’re standing still. But we’re not and that’s worth celebrating with Ben and Jerry’s. Oops! You didn’t hear that. ©

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Widows Moving Out and Moving On

I am Exhibit A in why widows shouldn’t make any big decisions in their first year of widowhood…like selling a house and moving. Even before Don’s funeral a little over a year ago I was telling everyone I would put the house up for sale this coming spring and buy a condo on the other end of town. Spring is coming and I no longer feel the need to flee. Quite the opposite, I feel the pull to stay close to the dog park, the nature trails, my favorite grocery store, the post office, my antique booth, and a little tourist town I’ve grown to love. The other end of town also doesn’t have an active senior center. I’ve been following their newsletter online and from what I’m seeing they might as well close the doors. I lived on the other end of town all but thirteen years of my life. I could do it again---pretend I’m not a “flaming liberal” and blend in with the ultra-conservatives down there---but do the pros outweigh the cons of doing so? The biggest draw to moving to that end of town is it would cut a half hour off the hour and a half drive it takes to see my family. They all live in the country, near tiny towns that I love, but I’m a big city kid so moving to one of those towns isn’t an option. Yet.

What I’ve almost decided is that if I get to the point where I actually need my family for ‘old person support’ then I’d probably be at the point where I ought to be living in an assisted living facility. At that point, it would be more practical to move to one of the places within minutes of my nieces. But what to do in the meantime---hopefully a decade---that is the million dollar question. I’d like to downsize. The house is too big for one person but it’s a universal design house which makes aging in place the best fit you can get. Houses like this are few and far between and the only condos I’ve found built universal design are in a baby boomer community---you guessed it---on the other end of town. I’ve been following their newsletter, too, and they don’t do much in the way of organizing social outings, lectures, classes, day trips and clubs like the senior hall a mile away from where I’m living now does. I couldn't keep going to this one, if I move out of the township.

I love watching the HGTV program House Hunters International. I am fascinated at how easily people make up their minds to pull up roots here in the states and move half way around the world. They often move to places where they don’t know the language or have any human ties living in the country of their choice. How do they do that? I know the world is getting smaller with all the communication devices available today, but try hugging your iPad when you want to cry on someone’s shoulder in the middle of a life-crisis. Do some people make friends so easily that they don’t see it as a problem not to have a circle of support closer than a trans-Atlantic ride on an airplane? Do I place too much importance on having a circle that in reality I’ve rarely ever needed? I suspect the answer to both those questions is “yes.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is an age related thing that I don’t want to live more than one or two area codes away from family. But I don’t think so. Unlike the people on House Hunters International, the most exotic place I’ve ever fantasized living is on an Amish farm under the Federal Witness Protection Program where back up would only be a cell call away. Or on Nantucket Island, sharing a cottage with an agent assigned to my case who, coincidentally, thinks my novice paintings are masterpieces.

Nope, my lack of adventure isn’t age related, besides I can go anywhere in my head and be back home in time for dinner. I’m just a person whose has always lived with a backup plan. The only trouble is there is no plan B for dying. We’re all going to do it someday and I’d much prefer that I don’t do it on the streets of Calcutta where someone would steal the ID and money off my corpse and I’d get cremated in mass with other anonymous and penniless people. Is that any way for a woman eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution to die? Hell, no! I’m going to stay at home and hope someone finds my body before the dog gets too hungry. My, am I in a morbid mood today or what!

Bottom line: I feel a widow’s pressure to move to a small house and/or redecorate something. Build a new nest. But the pressure is coming from within, I can afford to age in place if that is the path I decide to walk---I wasn’t sure of that a year ago. But if I stay will I be able to push past these feelings of being unsettled and restless? Whatever I decide about moving out and moving on I’m so glad I was paying attention in Widowhood 101 class the day they covered to topic of not making major decisions in the first year. ©

P.S. To the history buffs out there who might be wondering what my connection with the American Revolution is, it's Mercy Warren Otis. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Grocery Stores and Chance Encounters

It was a beautiful, bright winter day and for the first time in almost week the streets were passable after a fierce storm that dumped nearly twelve inches of snow. I love grocery shopping after storms like this. You could hardly move through the congested aisles today but people were glad to be out and about so they accepted it with good grace and even a few laughs. No one gave me “that stare”---you know the one that says: what are you doing shopping on the weekend, old woman? You’ve got all week while I’m at work to get through these aisles. We were all there at the same time for the same reason. And like the snack aisle was the morning of super bowl, it had a celebratory feel. We had conquered a major snowstorm, shoveled our way out of confinement and now the sun was shining! Hallelujah!

But there were a few times in the store when I wished I’d had my old Camp Fire Girls whistle with me---once to direct the traffic jam in front of the milk cases. Another time to break up a fight in the vegetable department where a well dressed, aggressive woman and her husband couldn’t agree on whether to buy a bunch of carrots or a bag of baby carrots. She was being a bully about it and he was whiny but holding firm. I wanted to hand him a few bucks and tell him to buy his baby carrots. What’s the big deal? Don and I didn’t like the same brand of tooth paste so we had two tubes in the bathroom. If carrot man died in his sleep tonight you can bet his wife would wish she hadn’t been so priggish about the damn carrots. That fight in the grocery aisle would replay in her head for months. If you’re going to fight---especially in public---make it something worth fighting about like how to achieve world peace or which end of eatable panties do you start on…the top or the bottom?

They had a new display of hummingbird feeders at the store and fresh cut tulips in the plant department. Someone thinks spring is on the way. But the one thing I wish they had at the grocery store is an observation deck. I would sit up there with a tiny voice recorder and make notation on all the things I’d like to write about later on. I swear I could craft a passable novel if I could live inside the store like Novalee did in Billie Letts’ book, Where The Heart Is. I’ve often wished I had a microphone in my watch so I could talk to my wrist and describe fellow grocery shoppers. If I was young I could do that and people would assume I’m an undercover agent following someone around. At my age they’d just think I’m delusional and my distracted caregiver is near-by.

On the way home I stopped at Subway and the young clerk reminded me so much of Don. The kid was outgoing and friendly and the sort of person who treats people of all ages exactly the same. No patronizing tone or boredom in his voice because he had to wait on an old woman. I was his customer and he was focused on me and not the cute, young girls in line behind me. I had trouble saying I wanted a six inch sandwich on eight-grain honey oat bread and it came out something like I wanted half of eight grains of honey. “That didn’t come out right,” I told him. We both busted out laughing and then he said, “How about I just cut six inches off a 12 inch loaf of eight-grain honey oat bread?” Our senses of humors were simpatico and that doesn’t happen often with me. All the way down the line we were joking back and forth about silly things. But the big take-away from the chance encounter with “Don’s younger self” is it didn’t make me sad. It didn’t take me down. The widow lady didn’t cry on the way home. Life is good even if I did just spend last week living inside of a snow globe. ©

Friday, February 8, 2013

If Dreams Have Meanings and Words That Do

Woman Sweeping, Edouard Vuillard C 1892

If dreams have meaning then a recent dream of mine has some interesting things to reveal. It was set in a motel room that was long and narrow with a door at each end. It was messy inside and I kept trying to sweep little boxes into the corners. Every time I’d get the boxes all swept up, Don would open the front door of the motel room and shove more boxes inside. According to the dream dictionary a motel represents trying to hold on to temporary feelings and boxes represent gifts or presents. Doors in dreams have several meanings depending on if they’re open, closed or locked---everything from resisting something to exploring new feelings. But in my dream the door at the far end of the room kept swinging open and shut and it was daylight outside that door, but still night out the other door Don that kept opening up. I was annoyed that he wouldn’t quit shoving boxes inside so I could quit sweeping.

I’ve always loved John Steinbeck’s title, The Winter of Our Discontent. It rolls off your tongue so smoothly and paints an image of bleakness with so little effort. But I don’t like the feeling of living in a winter of discontent and you guessed it, I feel like I am. I’ve been restless lately and I can’t decide if it’s because of the winter blues, boredom, loneliness and/or a deeper grief related issue. Maybe my dream was trying to help me figure that out? My dreams are so real at times that I often regret training myself to recall them. I even quit keeping a dream diary 13-14 years ago when my dad developed dementia and literally couldn’t tell the difference between dreams and reality. The dream described above woke me up 3-4 times through out the night and like a needle stuck on an old phonograph the dream would replay again when I’d fall back asleep.

When I’m feeling this restless I ramble-write, not knowing where I’m going to end up and ramble writing often reminds me of a John Steinbeck’s well-known quote from In Awe of Words:  “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—“Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.””  

The winter blues, boredom, loneliness and/or a deeper grief related issue, does it really matter what is causing my restless discontent? The cure for all these things is basically the same. We need to reach out to others---sometimes I go a week without hearing the sound of a human voice except for those on television. We need to think outside the box we’ve taped ourselves inside and find a way to bust out of our safe little routines. For me that also means I need to quit fighting what my dreams are trying to tell me. When put in context with what I’d been doing the day before the above mentioned dream, it’s easier to understand why I kept getting overrun with ‘boxes’ from Don. I’d been working on identifying the lessons that Don taught me about life and love (see my last blog post). My subconscious mind obviously twisted my list of lessons into the boxes/gifts. The long motel room (temporary grief tunnel), the door that kept opening and closing (the future I’m both ready for and afraid of) and the sweeping (me preparing to say farewell to Don) all make sense. The question I have now is would I be better or worse off if I said ‘good-bye’ instead? Do I want to keep a string attached to the past or not? ©

“Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance.
Good-bye is short and final, a word with teeth sharp
to bite through the string that ties past to the future.”

John Steinbeck
The Winter of Our Discontent

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lessons To Keep Their Spirit Alive

“When those you love die, the best you can do is honor their spirit for as long as you live. You make a commitment that you're going to take whatever lesson that person or animal was trying to teach you, and you make it true in your own life... it's a positive way to keep their spirit alive in the world, by keeping it alive in yourself.”

The Time of My Life
co-authored by
 Patrick Swazye and Lisa Niemi

I haven’t read Patrick and Lisa’s aforementioned book but from reading the reviews I know that he had experienced losses in his life. His father died of a heart attack in his fifties, his sister committed suicide and he and Lisa suffered the miscarriage of their son. The book was also written while he was fighting incurable pancreatic cancer and that fact alone gives a couple special insights on what it’s like to face loss.

Lessons to keep their spirit alive. When I say that phrase I visual a grief counselor assigning someone to make a list of everything their deceased loved one taught them about life and love as a way of refocusing their grief onto something positive. But I’ve never been to a counselor or therapist so all I’ve got to go on is my imagination for what goes on behind their closed-door sessions. Maybe all the professionals do is let you talk and then they say, “Time’s up. Leave your check with my receptionist on your way out.” But then again, maybe just talking it out IS what we all need when someone dies. By doing so, maybe we instinctively begin to focus on what our spouses taught us over our years of being together. So many people in this world use their spouses like mirrors to tell them who they are that they don’t see themselves when that mirror is gone. It might be good, it might be bad or it might be ugly but we widows do need to see ourselves again as individuals before the healing process can come full circle.

Fact: Our loved ones help shape our characters and personalities and we don’t fully appreciate that until they’re gone. For example, my mother was a strong woman and she taught me to be the same. I keep her spirit alive by nurturing that side of myself. My dad was a gentle soul, a thoughtful and thought providing person and the life lesson I most identify with him is this: By the grace of God it could be you or me. Decades ago my cousin and brother took my dad to strip joint, thinking they’d shock him while proving how ‘grown up’ and ‘worldly’ they’d become. (Back in those days strip joints were much sleazier than they are today.) After the stripper did her act my cousin asked my dad what he thought about a woman who’d do what she did. My cousin expected a lot of things but he didn’t expect my dad to say, “Well, she probably has a baby at home that needs milk and this is the best job she could get.” That was my dad. Always looking for the story behind the actions of others and the story usually came with an empathic twist. I often say that ‘grace’ is my favorite word in the universe and now you know why. I associate it with my Dad.

My husband taught me many lessons about life and love, too. But after 42 years of being together I’m having a hard time deciding who taught who what. We were not bookends by any standards but in some ways we were like chameleons that, on the surface, took on each other’s traits. He was outgoing by nature and I am not but little by little I learned that strangers don’t generally bite. He nurtured my love of writing but his oral storytelling taught me a lot about adding textures and tones to the bones.

The core life lesson learned from Don that I should probably honor would be that friendship is the most important ingredient in a love-match. You don’t need storybook nights with candlelight dinners and champagne to take your breath away. It can happen over take-out pizza. It can happen at the grocery store. It can happen when ever his smile reminds you that this person you’re looking at truly is your best friend. But how do I honor that core belief short of writing romance books? I’ve already been there, tried that and it didn’t work out because I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. That reminds me, though, that I should write a post about the year Don went to a Romance Writers of America convention with me.

I don’t know if Patrick and Lisa’s suggestion about making a commitment to take a core lesson a loved one taught you and making it true in your own life is doable in all cases but it’s been a good exercise for me just thinking about it. ©

Monday, February 4, 2013

Vent - Young Widows Versus Old Ones

Pulling off my nightgown and putting on a clean pair of cotton underpants this morning, I thought about putting on the same sweatpants and turtleneck I wore yesterday. Who would notice? Not the dog watching me from the bed and if he did, he’d probably think, Oh, boy, I love the smell of that chicken soup stain! Even when Don was still alive, he couldn’t have told on me either if he’d caught me wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Living with someone with aphasia, apraxia and agraphia did have a few advantages.

I discarded the idea of wearing yesterday’s clothes, not because the dog seemed too interested in sniffing the garments but rather because when you’re living in the land of elderly bliss---and I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek--- people like to assign words like ‘dementia’ and ‘forgetfulness’ to the simple concept of laziness and trying to cut down on laundry. You can’t get away with anything when you’re my age. For example, a head of gray hair looks silly all dyed up in the Easter egg colors like some of the twenty-somethings do these days and if I were to cover up my head of unruly hair with a brightly colored scarf no one thinks, How beautiful!  No, they’d be thinking, Poor dear, she must be getting chemo.

I have crumby thoughts running around in my head today. I just heard that line coming from the TV in the living room. What an apropos way to phrase it---crumby thoughts in my head. But in fairness to other people my age, you don’t have to be old to wake on the wrong side of good-natured and merry. Crap! I just stubbed my toe and the dog is smirking behind his schnauzer beard. Where are your glasses, old woman? his dark eyes are asking.

Growing old is just as hard as growing up because people are always watching, waiting for us to screw up so they can take our car keys away. The biggest difference is when you're young they give the keys back after a period of contrition and begging and you don't have to worry about your family taking your measurements in the middle of the night so they can order your casket.

I have to quit reading over at the widowhood website where I learned yesterday that we old widows have it made in the shade. We can sit around sipping sweet tea and let our memories hug the crap out of us. Apparently because we’ve got so many of them it’s not supposed to hurt as much as only having only a few years worth under the preverbal widow’s belt. To that I could counter that at least young widows have time left on earth to find happiness again. They don’t think they will, but most of them will eventually love again. I know that firsthand from a love I lost with dark and deep grief before my 42 years with Don. All we old widows have to look forward to is some mean person in a nursing home using our liver spots to play connect-a-dot.

Sometime I’d like to pick one of those kitten-widows up by the scruff of her neck, get right in her face and screech in my best old, mommy-cat tone, “Look, thinking your grief is somehow worse than others isn’t helping you heal. Grow up before I'm tempted to slap you silly.” ©

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Loneliness and Dogs that Play Dead

I don’t know how pioneers did it…stay sane while living without much human contact for months on end. It’s been nearly a year---slight exaggeration---since I’ve been out of the house to talk to anyone, and that was just a clerk at the supermarket. He was a chatty-Kathy but that was hardly enough to keep the marbles in my head from falling out. Between periods of snow, fog, pouring rain and ice the weird weather has me trapped in 1500 square feet of boredom. But the fact is I’d have no where to go even if I could. I’d have to make something up---like a desperate need for purple eye shadow---just so I’d have a reason to back the car out of the garage. I have one week out of the month where all four of my reoccurring social events fall and then it’s nothingness again until the next month. I can only have so many conversations with the dog before he lets me know I’m about as interesting as watching a digital clock tick off an hour. I could take up bingo and go the senior center once a week but I don’t need can goods and with my luck, I’d win a bunch of soup and lima beans.

I’ve been hanging out on YouTube a lot lately where I fell in love with Bobby McFerrin a few days ago. Why has the world been hiding this genre bending guy from me all these years? I got all excited when I found out he’s actually going to do a concert in my town in the spring but that was a short-lived excitement because the tickets start at $350 and if I didn’t want to go alone I’d have to buy two and arm-twist someone else into going with me. But who? I can’t think of anyone I like $350 worth. Damn it! It’s all Don’s fault for dying and leaving me alone in the house with too much time on my hands.

On Facebook someone posted a picture of a dog with a sign hanging around his neck. It read: I spontaneously drop to the floor and play dead even when no one tells me to because I’m hoping for treats. That intrigued me enough to look the trick up in my dog training book but after reading the instructions for teaching ‘play dead’ I realized that while Levi isn’t too old to learn it, I’m too old to teach it. It would require me to get down on the floor with him which old people who live alone and have fake knees can’t do if they ever want to get back up again. The last time I was on the floor, I had to have Don park his wheelchair next to me so I could climb up the side. Woo is me. So I’ve been trying to teach Levi to balance and catch treats placed on his nose instead of playing dead. He thinks I’m crazy and looks at me with disgust. If he could talk he’d say, “Who wants to eat a treat that’s been on a nose during flu season? That’s gross!” And that’s coming from a dog who licks himself.

Paul Tillich, who I don’t know anything about other than he wrote a cool line that ended up in an internet collection of quotations, once said: “Language has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.” I wonder what word good old Paul would use for that limbo place in between loneliness and solitude. That’s the place I’m at. I still miss Don daily but I can’t call it ‘painful’…not like it was in the beginning. But I’m not ready to say I’m at peace with being alone like the word ‘solitude’ requires. It’s boring at best and boring at worse with more boring in between. If it gets any worse I’ll start baking cookies to take to the neighbors so they’ll be obligated to invite me in for coffee. I wonder if that would work. Better yet, if I go to the mall and spontaneously fall to the floor and play dead I'll bet I’d get treated with a lot of attention. Damn it! I forgot. I’m snowed in! ©

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Letting Go of Our Ghosts

Levi, February 2013

I am so glad I don’t have to go outside in the winter and poop in the snow. Whoever invented indoor plumbing for humans should have a memorial built to them on Time Square. I thought about this while sitting in my warm, fuzzy bathrobe—the one that leaves pink dusty bunnies all over the house---and watching the dog outside in eight inches of snow looking for the perfect place to do his duty. What makes one place better than another I don’t know but Levi has a peculiar cat-like behavior of using his nose to push snow over his poop that is even harder to understand. Sometimes I think he doesn’t want me to find it because he suspects I’m the one stealing it when he’s not looking.

When I was younger I was a self-employed florist specializing in wedding flowers and I always worried about being a bag lady when I got too old to work. That emotional roller coaster is no longer on my worry plate but when I watch the dog outside in the winter I often think about the street people who live out in the elements. I can’t even stand the cold of winter while waiting at the door for the dog to come inside. I can’t imagine living in a cardboard box under a bridge. One of the things that made me fall in love with Don all those years ago is how generous he was with donating to our local mission and soup kitchen and that never changed over the years.

In our early years together Don didn’t just mail checks off to the soup kitchen, he’d often hand deliver them. Back in those days he had a gaggle of teens that worked for him in the summers doing asphalt resurfacing and patching. As teenaged boys go they often thought their lives were tougher than they really were. “My mom’s making me work for my own spending money!” Boohoo. So Don would make sure which every kid needed a reality check was in the truck when he’d drop off a donation to the soup kitchen and he’d make sure he’d do it while the street people were lined up outside the door waiting to get their only hot meal of the day. He’d pull right up to the front door and leave the boys in the truck while he walked around back to find the director of the charity. It was an uncomfortable place for the boys to wait while getting their first exposure to inner city, homeless people who really did have it tough. The conversations back to our side of town were what we called his “fifteen with father” teaching times. Don and I never had children but he never passed up an opportunity to teach the kids around him something about life. Never condensing or lecturing, always man to “man” with respect for their opinions but finding a way that got through their teenaged bravado and naivety.

We all leave our marks on the world in big and small ways…some good, some bad. Some of those marks are known to those around us but some are obscure even to those who thought they knew our spouses well---or think we know our own impact on the world, but really don’t have a clue to its extend. The trick is to get through life with more check marks in the ‘good’ column than the other. When a spouse dies we spend inordinate amount of time adding up all those big and small ways our loved one touched our world and the world at-large. We can’t help it. We want their lives to mean something, to count for more than just a stone in a cemetery and images in photographs. So we become accountants making sure we’ve cataloged everything in their ledger book before we can let go of our ghosts and the past that haunts us. It’s an unselfish act---letting go. Some of us want to hold on forever but we know we can’t. We let go of the past because we owe it to our families and ourselves to work at exchanging the pain of loss for the peace of acceptance---the loneliness of lost love for the solitude of knowing we had it in the first place. And because we still have marks to make in our own ledger books. ©

“Sometimes the hardest part isn't letting go but rather learning to start over.”
Nicole Sobon