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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Tears Well-Earned

Friday, January 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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