Where've I Been? I've Been Marching

Sunday, July 2, 2017

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted. Truth be told, it’s been a long while since I’ve written much of anything and I miss it. I miss putting my thoughts on the page (or screen, as it were) to the point of becoming anxious and even depressed. It was nearly impossible for me to write immediately after Kevin died and the combination of grief and lack of my usual outlet drove me to strange panic attacks, loss of sleep, and days of staring into space. I rented a house near Lake Michigan for a few days and told myself I had to face the writer’s block. Once I did, the words poured out and this blog, along with the beginnings of a book, were born. But now I feel back in that space again and it’s almost as troubling.

Though I’ve hesitated to write about it, and felt for a long time that this blog was not the place for it, I am now willing to say that I attribute nearly all of this difficulty to current politics. If you are feeling like you don’t want to read one more thing about that, I hope you will hear me out. 

The mind goes through so many difficult emotions during significant loss and grief. The grieving are tossed into a tumultuous sea, battered around until our bearings are completely lost and we feel we can only tread water in hopes of eventually finding shore. Exhaustion, hopelessness, regret, anger, constant worry; those are the weighty emotions that the grieving bear. We try to shake them off until one day they are no longer so much a part of our daily lives. It is damn hard work. I have worked hard at it, as have my children, Kevin’s and my family, our friends. I could almost go through a calendar since 2010 and mark the times where I felt the various stages of grief and then learned to lay them down.

I don’t know if I’ll ever again live without worry. Death and grief create a sense of vulnerability that is unparalleled. I worry about my own well-being and health, for I am my children’s only parent. I worry about our finances (I am extremely lucky that Kevin planned and we’re ok, but we are nowhere near where we would have been were Kevin still here and working a job where he was achieving). I worry about my children’s futures and how they will be impacted long-term by the loss of their father. I worry about growing old alone. But, because I am a person of the world, I also worry about bigger things like the planet and inequality and living in a just society where everyone is valued.

Since November,  I am disheartened in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. I have low energy, no focus, and most days, I pour my creative momentum into trying to correctly explain my POV as a liberal to people on social media who have no interest in understanding or finding common ground. So why begin a blog about the election with a primer on the emotions of grief? Because I have felt all those things again over the past eight months.

I fell in love with Kevin for many reasons, not least of which was because he had dropped out of college as an engineering major and returned when he decided to pursue his first love, political science. He ended up in the corporate world, but would have made a wonderful politician, especially later as he became more deliberative. Our early dates were filled with talk of how we would save the world and what Reagan’s presidency meant long-term (much of which has come to pass). Together, we attended rallies for Mondale and Dukakis, and canvassed for Bill Clinton with our infant son in a carrier. 

I credit my dad for making me a political person.
He was a proud Yellow-dog Democrat from Tennessee who schooled me on how the Dems lost the South the minute Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He was a union member with whom I walked picket lines as a young girl. He once was nearly thrown off a bus in Kentucky in the 1950s because he gave up his seat to a young African-American woman. He idolized Franklin Roosevelt because he lived through the Great Depression and believed firmly that we all have a responsibility to uphold even a small piece of the social safety net. He knew from experience that those New Deal programs saved millions of lives. When I met Bill Clinton last year, I told him first about canvassing with my infant son, then told him about how my parents kept his picture in a frame in their guest room. 
,Telling Bill Clinton how much my parents loved him.

And now I find myself struggling, angry, and genuinely afraid for our country and the division that we currently face. I’m trying to understand how people, some of whom I know and love, could vote for someone who behaved in the way our current president behaved. I won’t provide the litany here, it’s been done in many other places. We have come to a place where there is such division between those who want everyone to have equal rights, regardless of who you love or the color of your skin, and those who believe that this equality means taking something away from them. The lines are drawn and they don’t follow the lines drawn in the past. My father disagreed with Republicans over issues like limited and had no place in people’s homes. Those were debatable topics that were discussed civil tones. Now, much of that party is about judgment of anyone who is "other" and a seemingly narrow definition of what it means to be American. The current administration says they were elected to disrupt, but what it appears to me they wish to do is to dismantle all the strides made in the 20th century to ensure the affirmative role of government in our life, the part where they “protect the general welfare” of the citizenry, especially the least among us. It is difficult for me to see this as anything but heartless selfishness, though I feel compelled to try to understand.

When Kevin died, I lost the provider of health care for my family. His employer allowed me to purchase at the same rate for one year. Then, overnight, the cost went from $150/month to $950/month. All of us were seeking grief counseling which, along with all other mental health services, wasn’t covered at all. My son was on ADD medication, which wasn’t covered. It was a terribly frightening time when I could see that the life insurance legacy Kevin had so carefully planned would be eaten away each month as I struggled to pay for insurance. As I had a plastic bin containing over $1 million in medical surgery, treatment, prescription, and emergency visit bills, I knew I could not ever be without insurance. I have taken extra work teaching in order to remain at a job I love but which cannot provide insurance for me. When I post about this publicly, I’ve been called a “welfare queen” who "mooches off the government dole." This is what we’ve come to. We don’t try at all to understand the real situations of real people. We simply name-call anyone with whom we don’t agree. 

And it is not just my personal fear over losing health care. It is also my concern for science and for our planet. It is anger that an international emergency like climate change has been politicized and people have been wrongly convinced that it’s not real. How can this be? Equal pay, the protections offered by Medicaid, the war on facts and on the press, accessibility to the voting booth, the vilification of certain religious groups and immigrants, the war on higher education as being the playground of the “liberal elite,” or the demonizing of public education as a place of brainwashing; the list goes on. My parents worked hard to make sure that their kids could go to college so they wouldn’t have to toil in a factory (though that is good and honorable work). Now, I’m being told I don’t understand the very demographic in which I grew up because I’ve gone to college and entered the professional class. Where do we go from here if an entire segment of our population feels it is wrong to improve their situation, or that it’s more honorable to struggle with unemployment and addiction than to go to college? I honestly grapple with these issues daily and have felt no effort from anyone who espouses them to attempt to explain to me how they make our country better.

It’s a daily assault on so many things I hold dear and important.  It’s an assault that is exhausting and seemingly has no end any time soon.

I often wonder what Kevin and my dad would think of these strange days. I so miss having them both to talk to. I know that not having them has impacted my physical and mental health. Holding on to anger, fear, and frustration, or dousing them with red wine and boiled carbohydrates has taken its toll. 

I don’t know what our future path can be. I am trying to get back to reading, trying to find empathy in situations where none seems to exist, trying to rest so that I can battle another day. I make near-daily phone calls, write emails, sign petitions, attend organizing meetings, learn how to circulate petitions. I am resisting what I feel is an administration that has absolutely no moral compass and no concern for those most vulnerable--the refugee, the disabled, the unemployed, the woman wearing a sari or a burka, the young black man who simply wants to walk down a neighborhood street. I am resisting senators and members of Congress who, I believe, are terribly
Women's March, January, 2017, DC
troubled by their leader, but not enough-so to give up the power they’ve been thinking about for the past eight years. I am resisting a system that is increasingly based on money, lies, manipulation, and outside interference. I believe my resistance would make Kevin and my dad proud, and sets a good example for my children, both of whom are articulate and active in politics. But it is debilitating work (and I’m not even on the front lines).
I know I am a different person having lost Kevin and having lived through the grief of his loss. And I can see that I am becoming a different person yet again—a fighter, a resister, a more outspoken feminist. I have commented before about the meta-experience of watching yourself change from outside forces, the deep analysis that tells you that you’ve become a different person, with different motivations and priorities. I feel that happening again and hope that it is enough. Friends might say that I should concentrate on myself and my kids; that no one would blame me for backing out of activism after all I’ve been through. But if I’ve taken any of those “life is short” lessons to heart over the past seven years, then I cannot walk away from what I feel is wrong. It isn’t enough to value every day, you must also, of your own volition, make something of that day. I want to fill each day with justice and knowledge, and spend my time working to help the world inch closer to equality, acceptance, civility, and love. It is not how I thought I’d be living this time of my life, but outside forces sometimes compel us to become better people than we once were.

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Wherever You Go, There You Are *

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It’s autumn again, that difficult time of year. This time six years ago, I was in the worst throes of grief and loss. It still amazes me how much I feel this time of year coming on. As foliage begins its dusky turn and darkness nudges the dinner hour, my thoughts turn to those difficult last days. The first cool nights settle in against me and prod my mind to memory. It is unavoidable and outside of my control. 

This time last year, I was also settling into a new home. The strange mixture of excitement and newness coming on the cusp of my saddest time of year created a strange situation that took months of adjusting to. I also sent my youngest child off to college and was acclimating myself to a life more solitary than I had ever lived before. My memories of that time are of darkness coming very early and a chill that I’m sure my mind exaggerates. I continue trying to make myself comfortable in this new life, trying to shape myself into this new person who feels fully and happily single. I don’t know how long that will take.

On a recent chilly day, I pulled one of Kevin’s favorite flannel shirts from the closet. Many of his things are packed away and stored safely in bins and boxes. Despite two moves, I’ve parted with very few of his belongings. Some things that were only his (as opposed to ours) I brought with me—favorite ties, his navy blazer, his shaving kit, his running shoes, and a favorite summer hat. Until recently, I haven’t been able to wear anything of Kevin’s. Many find comfort in wearing something that belonged to their loved one. But for me, I have always felt that putting myself into his clothes would take him out of them. I know that makes no sense and I struggle to explain it. It is difficult to think of putting anything of his in the washing machine. I want forever to hold something that touched his skin and know that nothing has happened to erase that closeness. Whatever cells or molecules of him that might still remain in the sleeve of his shirt, I want to know that they will always be there. But on that day, I wrapped myself in his shirt and sat on the balcony of my new home watching a young family stroll down the street.

So much has happened since my move, and in many ways I do feel settled in my new home. I love living in Detroit. My neighbors are wonderful; my neighborhood is cool and friendly. I can walk or bike ride to most everything I need. I take walks along the riverfront. I go on weekly bike rides around the city with a thousand other people. I’ve met a former president and the current president, along with senators, fashion designers, rock stars, writers, and television personalities. I’ve joined clubs, re-connected with old friends, and made new, life-long friendships. I’ve hosted dinner parties, started teaching at the nearby university, attended concerts and gallery openings. I'm on a first-name basis with folks at the bakery, the bookstore, and the farmers market. That’s a lot in one year. I worked with an architect to design the space I’m in by myself, with no input from a partner. Aside from some furniture from the farmhouse and those few small items of Kevin’s that I brought with me, there is very little of him in this new space.

And yet, as I sat on the balcony in his shirt, I understood that he is everywhere. And he is missing. 

I had the mistaken idea that moving to a brand new space, in a different city, in a building that couldn’t possibly be more unlike the one in which I lived with Kevin, would be a new start in so many ways. I didn’t want to erase my memories, but I did think that a new place would nudge me toward making new memories. And I have done that. But at the same time, I am surprised at how much I miss Kevin in this space.

It is a different emotion, for sure. At the farmhouse, his absence was a gaping wound that would never heal. It was an emptiness that rung out at every turn and from every room. It frightened me to think of being there on my own because I knew that the memories and the absence had such a strong hold. 

Here, in this new place, it is absence of a different sort. I grieve not that he was here in this place and is now gone, but that he was never here at all. And that grief is far greater than I ever would have thought possible.

I remember when I used to travel for my job. I would always look forward to a work trip as part mini-vacation—no chores, no meals to prepare. But once I got there, especially if it was in an interesting place, I of course missed having my family with me. I would squeeze in a few minutes to do something touristy and be disappointed because I knew it would have been better if it had been shared with my family.

That’s the feeling I often have in my new home. I’m doing all these wonderful things, but the thought of how much Kevin would love living here sometimes makes the enjoyment hollow. I know he would run every day in the neighborhood, or along the riverfront, or on the greenway path. I know he would love having his favorite brewpub just downstairs. He would hang out with the neighbors, play with the puppies and kids, and chat-up the people we would encounter on our evening dog walks. He would love it here. He should be here. He was never here, yet I miss him so much. 

It has been a definite realization over the past several months, that missing him will always happen, regardless of where I live. It is like the shirt that I feel has bits of him woven into its fabric. He is woven into my fabric. He is a part of me wherever I go, whatever new experiences I have, whatever new life I create. He will be in it, and he will not. He will be a part of it because he is not. Moving-on will always be moving-on without. He will make himself known by his absence. And wherever I am, there he'll be.

P.S. The title of this entry comes from a line in one of Kevin's favorite movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension in which it was uttered by John Lithgow's crazily hilarious character John Warfin.

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Watch Me Run

Saturday, June 11, 2016

I ran a 5k today, my first. I didn’t really run. I completed it in 39 minutes which is barely a jogging pace, but I jogged the entire time, stopping only once to linger in shade. It was 84 degrees at start time, quite reminiscent of the day in 2007 that Kevin ran his first and only marathon. That day was so hot a few of the runners crossed the finish line on stretchers, one was intubated. Kevin was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. He had a look on his face that was different from anything I had ever seen. But I would see it again when, a year and a half later, after surgery to his spine, he developed a hematoma and wasn’t getting enough air to his lungs or his brain. That run precluded his cancer by only a few months and he came to think that the extreme training regimen he endured could have had some causality.
Twin Cities Marathon

I have never liked running. Honestly, I still don’t. I’ll run a few times a week and improve my pace, maybe shoot for a longer run someday, but I don’t think I’ll ever get the “runners high” that Kevin loved so much. I am a social person who loves group exercise like aerobics and Zumba or group bike rides. Kevin was more solitary than most people realized and he loved individual pursuits. He also loved a challenge, especially one that he gave himself. So running to him was a personal challenge to be better than he thought he was, or better than others thought he could be. I understand now, more so than I ever did before, how one can be caught up in the self- imposed challenge. I have dared myself multiple times in the past five years to move forward, try something new, do something I never thought I could. The decision to run a 5k (and I should say, I did it as part of a social group) was just another in a line of tests I’ve given myself.

Rising to those challenges has changed me in many ways. And I am constantly dealing with that change. I can’t help but feel sometimes an almost overwhelming sense of betrayal for all that I’ve started and accomplished in the past five years (and thanks to my dear friend Dania for helping me put a name to this strange feeling). If Kevin were here right now, he would barely recognize this person I’ve become: a teacher, a writer, a Detroiter, and hardest sometimes to reconcile, a happy person.

As I trained for the 5k--running with a group of people I’d never met before and making new friends as we moved along the Dequindre Cut Greenway, one of my favorite spots in Detroit--I very often thought about Kevin and his love of running. As I've mentioned, it was something that we didn’t share and there were times when I would be aggravated by his need to get up and run in the morning when the kids needed tending and we were all rushing to get out the door, or Saturday mornings when there was a long list of chores and he would go out for an hour to drive to the trail and run. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I fully understood how much he needed that time and that routine. His ADD made it difficult for him to stay on task and being able to tick something off each day before he even got in the shower was important and helped to get him focused for the rest of the day. Some of his ashes are spread along his favorite trail. I wish I had understood more thoroughly and been more generous.

As with many things around loss, I learn about Kevin and I learn about myself as I learn something new. I know that this challenge to run and complete a 5k was motivated in part by the feeling of betrayal or moving away. I know on some level I thought that maybe if I do something he would have  loved for me to do, I can be at peace. The first time this thought came to me, about two weeks into training, this Kenny Chesney/Dave Matthews song came up on my phone as I was completing my run.

Of course it never had before. It was part of  Kevin’s chemo playlist and was suggested to Kevin by another dear friend, Jenny, as he was compiling treatment music. I had purposely avoided loading any of Kevin's treatment music onto my phone because it's still very emotional, so I have no idea how it even got onto my playlist.

When the song came on after our run, I didn’t hang around the group to stretch, but went straight for my car and had a good cry.

Today, I purposely loaded Kevin’s running playlist onto my phone. I felt it fitting that he would be with me in this way; another challenge. I was running with him and for him and for all the running he was never able to do. I was running for me and our kids as we see a future and try our best to embrace it with all our hearts. I was running for forgiveness. More than anything else, I was running for forgiveness. 

 About five minutes into the run a goofy song came on that Kevin loved and I hated. I won’t even mention its name since it is really goofy and I’d have to tell the whole long story behind it. But of course I knew that he was laughing at me having to listen to this song, and telling me it was ok that I didn't love every single thing about him.

As I crossed the finish line, this song by Social Distortion was playing. And I know that it was no coincidence, either. Because I know Kevin, and I know this is exactly the way in which he would tell me to move on, already. As the song warns, "you can run all your life but not go anywhere."

"Live this good and full and happy life," Kevin would say. "To do any less would be the real betrayal."

"Leave that burden right here, at this finish line, and don’t keep trying to make me happy. Make  yourself happy. Live your life."

I don't think I’ll ever grow to love running. But I’ll keep doing it. I'll keep running toward all that awaits me.

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A Person and A Relationship

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Grief elbows you into corners. It makes you sit uncomfortably with emotions, memories, regrets, decisions, and actions. It forces you to ask yourself the difficult questions: did I love well? did I love enough? did I say what I needed to say? did I waste time? did I ever—even once—get it right? And then ask why: why did I waste so much time? Why did I get mad about those stupid little things? Outside of grieving a terrible loss, we never force ourselves to go through this much introspection, and why would we put ourselves through it? Rarely do I come out of it giving myself any kind of benefit of the doubt. No, I mostly just add to the doubt. Standing in that metaphorical corner where grief has pushed me, I am metaphorically knee-deep in doubt, like a metaphorical pile of dust swept up from a long-neglected metaphorical room.

I have learned that grief is about loss; about not seeing this person ever again, or hearing his voice, or kissing him goodnight, or even picking up those socks he left on the floor. Or not asking his opinion, or telling him about my day, or finishing his sentence, or asking him, yet again, to put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

Yes, grief, especially of a spouse, is also about a lost relationship. It brings into strong focus the good and the bad of it. It is about lost opportunity: the chance to apologize, to try again, to get a do-over. It’s about coming to terms with how you lived together, realizing that it can’t be fixed or improved upon or made better or given another chance. I try to cut myself some slack. We were both in it together, I remind myself; neither of us experts. We were both so young. Our marrige wasn’t perfect, but it was better than many. We lasted. We talked things through. The clichés come to my mind so often I think I should turn them into cheers—cute little rhymes I can say to myself when I’m feeling most vulnerable. Give me a B. Give me an R. Give me an E,A,K!

I also try to give value to this loss, to make it meaningful by understanding that I’ve indeed learned from all the experience and reflection. And I know that I have. Again there is a multitude of clichés about not sweating small stuff, understanding that life’s short, and valuing every day. 

But aside from that, what do I know that I would perhaps take into any future relationship? Quite a bit, actually. I’ll share only one thing here. It is the most important nugget I’ve discerned from hours of contemplation. That is that I would make sure that I am always the kind of partner I want to be. If there is something, anything, about a relationship that makes me unhappy, it needs to be addressed; same for my partner.  What I realize most about any of the really difficult times Kevin and I experienced is that, thinking back, I didn’t really like myself or my response during those times. Not liking myself made me unhappy, an emotion I quickly shared and that only made things worse. So often Kevin thought I was unhappy with him, but really, I was unhappy with me or with how I reacted to a situation. In the moment it’s difficult to be objective, and nearly impossible to be objective about oneself. But looking back (and I cannot say that I have the “benefit” of being able to look back, because nothing about this situation is in any way beneficial) I realize that I was unhappy about me, about where I was emotionally or what I was saying or doing. I wish I had understood this many years ago. I know I would have been much happier, and I know now how important that is to the total equation.

I recently finished Paul Lisicky’s lovely memoir The Narrow Door. It is the story of the parallel losses of Lisicky’s relationships with his best friend, the writer Denise Gess, when she died from cancer, and with his partner M due to a breakup. I have filled the book with pink Post-Its to highlight lines that I particularly understand or with which I agree. I am not surprised that many of them are about grief and reactions to cancer, illness, and death. On many of them I have written one word: "yes!" He gets it and articulates it so very well. It is the extraordinary wonder of literature that his truth is mine; that he and I, having never met, but having gone through similar events, have these same exact experiences and thoughts. 

What surprises me though, are the three or four notes that I’ve placed in the chapters about his  breakup with M. Is the subject matter all that different, I wonder? Best friend, lover, partner, husband, death, grief, regret, analysis. I realize how they are all bound together for me. Kevin's death was not only the loss of my best friend, but also the ending of my marriage. I am left to grieve both. To try, like Lisicky, to understand how both friendship and love ended too soon. While Paul Lisicky grieves the loss of two people, I grieve the loss of one, but of the same two relationships. I hope that Kevin and I got it right, and I try to come to terms with the times I and we didn’t do so well. 

To that end I examine and scrutinize, turning the memories over in my hand, asking those questions of “did I,” “did we” and “why.” Not in an effort to fix, because it’s too late for that, but because grieving makes it impossible for me to avoid doing so. I want to believe we mostly got it right. I want to hope that our time together was good, that Kevin’s short time here was made better by our marriage. For me, it is how I grieve, it is a part of the inescapable need to appraise this life, his life, and our life together.

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