6. Flattened

Grief experts warn that episodes of grieving come in waves, that it is not a linear process where one moves along a smooth trajectory of improved mood and well-being. But that doesn’t really work for me so I decided my grief would be different. I’m a linear kind of gal and achievement oriented. I like to get things done. I was just kicking myself a few minutes ago about the fact that I rose at 6 something many many Saturday mornings when I was married to Tom to run off and have a class with the most kick-butt of all Jazzercise instructors. It made me feel so PRODUCTIVE to have a hard workout done by 8 am —on a SATURDAY! What I wouldn’t give to have those hours back in an alternate universe where I stay in the warm bed with my loving husband who liked to wake up slowly.

But no ebb and flow for me on the grief walk. I was going to do everything possible to feel better as fast as possible and get my life back on track. I told my students I would be taking two weeks off to cry full time and then would be back in the saddle. I did and I was. I dutifully went to grief support group, wrote some poems and started this blog, traveled a ton and made sure I was busy busy busy— kind of like my life before I lost Tom. I think I looked pretty much ok on the outside. But weird stuff happened. I visited my best friend at her new house and kept saying snarky things I didn’t mean. I reverted to old habits of sloth that don’t serve me at all and make my daughter crazy. I was hating on people all over the place. My friend Jill says that Tom softened my rough edges and it was as if they had all grown back double overnight. Sharp tongue, mean spirit, a mess inside and out.

I think I get now that I was/am just profoundly lost but couldn’t face the pain of that. I had not only lost Tom but the better version of me that I was with Tom. I was grieving both of those losses by trying to ignore them and it wasn’t working. As Christmas approached it all seemed to get worse. It’s not like we had a huge history of Christmases together. We were married for exactly 2 and he was sick, really sick, for the last one. But Christmas is so fraught with activity and tradition and emotion that it is overwhelming even to the most resilient of us as we soldier through the shopping, baking, wrapping hoping not to disappoint anyone. Because being with Tom was ever and always so peaceful, so calming and so safe, everything just seems harder without him. I had plenty of experience living life without him—55 years’ worth—but I didn’t want to go back. He made life fun and easy and was my polar opposite on the stress meter and thus the ballast that kept my boat on even keel. I was nicer when he was alive because I was so damn happy.

I haven’t cried in months, but yesterday the tears fell where they often have in the past—on the yoga mat. I love that my yoga teacher let me sit sobbing in child’s pose while still letting me know she got it by talking to the class as a whole about grief. I felt better pretty fast (there really is healing power in the salt water our bodies make) and got up and did some Shiva Dancers I was proud of.  I’m thinking she might have focused on balancing poses to spare me from the hip openers that kick my butt. Thanks, Rebecca.

I am making a resolution way before New Year’s Eve. I’m going to try really hard to ride the waves of grief and let them buffet me as they will anyway. Isn’t it the swimmer who tries to fight the rip tide who drowns? The one who just swims along without resisting survives. I still have a 15 year-old who is down to one parent and needs me. Even my 22 year-old could use some motherly advice (or a hot meal) from time to time. And I still do have a pretty long to-do list of projects I am excited about. And water color class starts up again in January. And I have Fiddler on the Roof to produce with local kids. I’ll be listening hard when they sing Miracle of Miracles. Finding Tom was the greatest miracle of my life. So I might cry in public. I’m going to try to be ok with that. Tommy was a pretty big crier. Maybe he was trying to teach me how to do that too.

Life is a journey. So is death. And grief. Our tickets are prepaid so we might as well just ride.

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5. Being Miss Mary

Like most women, I have assumed a variety of personas during my life—daughter, sister, wife, mother, student, banker, teacher, divorcee and now, widow. By far my favorite role besides mom has been “Miss Mary.” I think of her not as me but as a character I play while working, most often teaching Kindermusik classes to very young children. Miss Mary is a great part to play. She is patient, kind and fun. As my actual children (the ones I live with) can attest (and have–loudly) she is nothing like me.

Last week one of my all-time favorite 2 year-olds, an adorable bespectacled tot named Elliott came running into the class, hugged me hard and planted a big kiss on my cheek while saying “Miss Mary! Miss Mary! You’re my FAVORITE teacher!” At age two-and-a-half Elliott has not had many teachers, in fact I’m pretty sure I am the whole list. Still, it is always nice to be a favorite. Today a Kindermusik mom told me that at their house the manger scene includes Baby Jesus, Joseph and Miss Mary. Kind of reminds me of my religion prof in college who could never remember my name until the day he was struggling to come up with it and I tried to help by issuing the prompt “VIRGIN………….?” He never forgot again.

There is the occasional downside to what I do–like when I roll straight out of bed and off to the grocery store only to bump carts with a student who is either thrilled to see my disheveled, bleary-eyed self (“Look, Mommy! It’s MISS MARY!!!”) or completely flummoxed to find me out of context. Because most of them think I live at the Rec Centers where I teach they must be shocked that my meals are not provided by the recreation staff. Me too. And what about that reserved parking space!?

If Freud is right that the basic requirements of a good life are love and work, it has always been work that saved me when love seemed in short supply. Losing Tom was the worst thing I could ever imagine happening in my life. Because I teach in our tiny home and his hospital bed was right next to the piano, I had to cancel piano classes during his final month of life. I also took time off after he died because I needed to cry buckets before trying to teach again. But I scheduled friends and family to stay with him during my Kindermusik classes because I could not bear disappointing the tiny kids and their sometimes desperate-to-get-out-of-the-house moms and, truth be told, because I could not deprive myself of all that toddler love at a time I needed it so badly. Even if they didn’t hug me and tell me it’s their birthday (each and every week) and sometimes share their potty training triumphs, the fact that they wait in line at rocking time to have me ride them on my legs is enough to make my whole week. And their dance moves alone would put anti-depressant manufacturers out of business. Today we had Ruth doing an incredible fast feet routine that looked like Mexican jumping beans, Olivia in a non-stop 360 twirl and Dax doing the famous toddler rhythmic knee bend—his body stock still but his knees going to town, up and down and up and down to the beat of the song. They crack me up and fill my mornings with sunshine.

I was a banker for 20 years and liked it well enough but it always felt like wearing shoes that were half a size too small. I quit to become an inner-city classroom teacher (pure middle-aged liberal white guilt and I was no good at it) and then quit that when my youngest daughter was born. I was just starting to go crazy at home when I saw an ad in a magazine at the dentist’s office that said “You could be a Kindermusik teacher” and I thought, ”Yes, I could.” Teaching music in my tiny little town and watching the kids here grow up over the past 15 years has been a joy and a privilege. It made me laugh and feel happy the year that the mom planning the 5th grade send-off party said they were seriously considering having a Miss Mary table because the committee had figured out that nearly every kid in the 120 member 5th grade had at one time taken a music class from me. I just ordered a congratulatory ad in the band concert program because I counted over 50 middle and high school band members who were current or former students.

My new minister included in a recent sermon the idea of a 6 word epitaph. He asked us to consider what ours would say if we had to write it. The launch point for this was the idea of a 6 word story challenge to which Hemingway famously responded: For sale, baby shoes, never worn. Proving definitively that I am no Hemingway, my six words would be far less profound and yet as true as I can muster: She loved kids. They usually reciprocated. Grown-ups make me nervous and I can take them only in small doses. I’m positive I know exactly what they should all be doing to make their lives and the world better and yet they refuse to make me queen. Years after I stopped cramming my square self into the round hole of corporate America I can finally say with complete honesty that I don’t play well with others. Other adults that is. Give me a room full of two-year-olds and I am in heaven. Some people are amazed by that in the same way I can’t believe there are people who voluntarily teach middle school. I tell any such folks I meet that I KNOW the entire front row in heaven is reserved for them.

I suppose it is possible to feel sad while teaching music to kids, but I have never managed to do it. No matter what is going on in my life, I always feel better when I am working. I can slip on my Miss Mary identity like Clark Kent in the phone booth and go out and save the toddlers of the world from boredom and Teletubbies or whatever the 2015 equivalent is. I recently ran into a mom who brought her sons to Kindermusik 10 years ago. She told me that her best friends and some of her boys’ best friends are people they met in my class. Helping people enjoy music, bond with their kids and meet their neighbors is a pretty great way to spend one’s working life. It is the perfect antidote to grief. If widow is the worst role I’ve ever played, being Miss Mary has been one of the best. Mary’s heart might be breaking, but Miss Mary has classes to teach and that requires getting out of bed and slapping on a smile that just might start to become genuine someplace around the third or fourth song. Fake it ‘til you make it is not the worst advice ever given. That’s what Miss Mary says and she’s never failed me yet.

4. Useful Condolences

Most people want very much to console the grieving and yet don’t have a clue how to do it. What can you possibly do or say that will ease someone’s devastating loss? Should you even try and risk saying the wrong thing and possibly offending? Is it better to just assume that lots of others are rallying round and therefore your inadequate attempts at comfort would not be missed? I asked myself all those questions before I lost Tom. Now I know better. Something is always better than nothing. Grief and loss are lonely and any attempt by someone to reach out is appreciated.

I took great comfort in each card I received. I got more than I expected and now understand those pre-printed “the family of so-and-so gratefully acknowledges your expression of sympathy” cards that had always seemed a little lame to me. All those who contributed to the scholarship fund we established at Tom’s alma mater received an immediate acknowledgement and note of thanks, but many of them I did not know personally and my notes were the handwritten equivalent of a form letter. The cards with handwritten notes that truly touched me were saved in a pile to be answered later. Many of these shared stories of their own losses and recovery. They gave me hope that there actually would be life after the pain. Ten months later they still sit in the same pile. I have decided Christmas cards will be the perfect opportunity to finally send notes of thanks and gratitude for the time each person took to reach out to me in a personal and meaningful way.

I took all the prettiest cards and cut them up into a collage that hangs on my bedroom door. In with the beautiful floral prints and country scenes were short notes from my great nephew (age 6) saying how much he loved Tom, a young piano student of mine expressing his condolences in an email he typed himself and my best friend’s message saying that whatever I needed she would do.

Most people have long ago figured out what not to say in a sympathy card:

“He’s in a better place now.” (Really? Then can I go too?)

“It was God’s will” (Uh-huh and that’s why I have unfriended Him.)

“You’re still young. You’ll meet someone else.” (To paraphrase Paul Newman speaking of his marital fidelity—Why would I ever eat hamburger when I’ve had roast beef?)

Figuring out what TO say is harder. My vote goes to actions rather than words. My friend Elissa started bringing delicious meals about 10 seconds after Tom was diagnosed and never stopped. Two piano dads made sure my driveway was always shoveled. An incredible team of neighbors spent days rebuilding my beloved screened porch that Tom had been too sick to finish. Another group of friends paid to have my house cleaned. My daughter’s sainted Social Studies teacher delivered pints of Ben and Jerry’s to our door. My babysitting co-op friends of yore brought food and snacks for a month after Tom died. My friend Sharon bought me a plane ticket to the Jersey shore for a summer girls’ get away. An amazing seamstress friend took Tom’s T-shirts and made me an exquisite quilt. My book club made a beautiful container and filled it with affirmations—positive, inspiring quotes I could pull out and read on dark days. They also brought me a huge basket of books—some grief related but most just good reads we had selected for future meetings. I kept these books teed up in a stack by my bed. The next one was warming up as I read the final pages of the current one. They were my solace, my activity and my drug and they helped to heal me.

Funeral expenses and medical bills were a genuine burden. (Do you really have to pay when the outcome is so faulty? “Sorry. Your job was to keep him alive. He died. You’re fired and you don’t get paid!”) My brother just started sending me his monthly Social Security checks out of the blue because he didn’t really need them. My nephew and his wife decided to fund my daughter’s trip to her beloved summer camp. Nearly half my piano families paid for lessons I didn’t teach.  My sister served as travel agent and companion extraordinaire on two wonderful trips. She somehow knew that it is almost impossible to believe your life is over when staring into a blue ocean with a pina colada in your hand.

Showing up is another great idea. People filled the church at the funeral. Singers I didn’t even know came to be in the pick-up choir. Friends who live very far away dropped everything and came with their spouses to be at my side. The church ladies organized a beautiful luncheon. My neighbors sent food. My anxiety prone daughter who has not been to a family event in years, including her beloved grandmother’s funeral, put on a brave face and stayed for the entire service, luncheon and after party at the house. She did it for me and I will always remember.

So if you aren’t sure what to say—just say something. If you aren’t sure what to do—just do something. Show up at the funeral or visitation. Send a card. Make a meal. Bake brownies. Offer to drive kids to school or take them to activities. Rake leaves. Clean gutters. Shovel a walk. Rebuild a falling down porch. Arrange for a get-away to a beautiful place. Pay for a house cleaning. These acts are not only kind, they are useful. They help the grieving person feel less overwhelmed by the burden of daily life in a world that is now so much darker.

There is no perfect expression of condolence. All that is really required is a heartfelt desire to reach out and connect and in so doing remove pain—even if just an ounce of a two ton burden. We are none of us perfect people—in life or in death. But we are fellow journeyers and by being present in each other’s lives—especially in times of sorrow—we can help to light the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Coat

There is a scene toward the end of La Boheme where one of Mimi and Rodolpho’s artist friends sells his coat to raise money for the consumptive Mimi’s medicine. They are freezing in a garret in Paris and it is an act of pure sacrifice and love. He sings a beautiful aria to the coat, thanking it for all the warmth and comfort it has provided. There is never a dry eye in the house.

There is a coat drive taking place in my town. Bins are groaning with contributions, but still I knew that my closet held items that needed to be donated. I carefully folded a few old jackets of mine and a lovely little furry stole the girls wore ages ago with their fancy Christmas dresses. Then it was time for the big decision. The only item of Tom’s clothing that I had not been able to give away or repurpose was his dress overcoat. It was a funny huge thing, sized extra-large although he really wasn’t, bought from Eddie Bauer decades ago and still in perfect shape; gray and brown tweed with a brown leather collar and buttons. He wore it to church and any other dress-up winter occasion and just looking at it conjured the image of him in an instant. When we met he had been away from church for many years, but no matter how many times I said I was fine going alone, and despite his great fondness for a long slow wake up on the weekends, he always said, “I want to go.” And often that meant wearing the big overcoat.

Maybe because it was such an unusual item or because no male friend or relative wanted it or because I can still picture him wearing it—for whatever reason it is still hanging in the front hall closet 9 months after he died. Winter is coming and someone could be kept very warm by that coat. Tom would want someone to enjoy its warmth, I am sure of that. But as I folded it and started to put it in the bag I held it close, just like the bass in Boheme, and spoke right out loud to Tom, telling him how much I missed him, all the specific things I missed about him, how much I wished he was still here to wear the coat, but how now it was time for me to pass it on. Someplace he was saying, “Yes, it’s time. Let it go.”

Today I delivered the bag of coats to the Recreation Center. I liked picturing a little girl in the stole, a thinner, younger woman than I in my jackets and some man, whose face I can’t quite see, smiling at the handsome tweed and heavy warmth of Tom’s old overcoat. Wear it in good health, sir. It belonged to a prince among men.

2. The Hug

Today a total stranger came up and hugged me, saying she was sorry for my loss.

How, you might wonder, did she know of my loss?

The answer would be—-my sister.

My sister is one of the most generous, open-hearted, fully-engaged-in-life people you will ever meet. She is also the most curious—about people.  I recently heard her ask a man she had only met two minutes earlier if he thought he would have more children—a topic even close friends and relatives are reluctant to broach.  But my sister’s friendly demeanor, basic good nature and sincere interest make it very hard to say “None of your business” or “Please leave me alone” so she gets a lot of information.

But back to the hug. Before the woman hugged me she explained that my sister had been her seat mate on our recent flight. I said, “I am SO sorry!” but she said they had enjoyed a nice chat and found many parallels in their lives. When she hugged me I realized that in the span of 75 minutes from JFK to Detroit Metro my sister had managed to cover not only her life and this stranger’s but mine as well. You have to hand it to her.  General Motors should be so efficient.

My sister is a retired teacher (not surprisingly, every class began with the question of the day) but I believe I can get her a gig as a CIA operative questioning terrorists. She might start with “What is your very favorite song that you have ever listened to in your entire life?” but would soon move on to “Who asked you to blow up that plane?” and, as always with her, the world would be a better place.

Post script: In case you were wondering, my sister gave me permission to send this piece. She has a wonderful sense of humor and I’m also pretty sure she knows that despite all the teasing I have basically wanted to be her my whole life –and not just because she was Dad’s favorite! It turns out the stranger had also lost a beloved husband she met late in life so sharing my story made perfect sense. I may need to rethink my firm commitment to never engage with anyone on an airplane. It’s true I might get stuck with a bore, but I also might meet someone I have a genuine connection with. Maybe I’ll just try channeling my friendly, open big sister and see what happens.

1. Annabel

My daughter was an L.I.T. (Leader in Training) at the local day camp as a middle schooler. As near as I could tell this meant that she did all the work, amused the children, slathered on their sunscreen, dried their tears, while the actual counselors –high school and college kids—sat around talking to each other. She didn’t really seem to mind.

One session there was a rather high strung and sensitive child named Naomi. She fit squarely in the camper category titled High Maintenance. On a rainy day it is tricky to keep everyone amused and on one particular day the counselors decided fuse beads were just the ticket. These tiny multi-colored, plastic beads are carefully arranged into a design and then ironed in order to fuse them together and create a portable three-dimensional piece of art. It does not always go well.

Naomi had spent considerable time and effort arranging her beads. They had been duly ironed by a counselor but somewhere during transport the creation was dropped and shattered into just short of a million pieces. Naomi melted down like a fuse bead. She sobbed, she wailed, she was inconsolable. Her fellow camper, a sweet bespectacled 6 year-old named Annabel patted Naomi ever so gently on the back and said,

“I’m Sorry for Your Loss”.

Yes, whether fuse bead creations or beloved pets or parents or spouses or children—our losses are real to us, irreplaceable and heart-breaking and just having that acknowledged by a fellow earth journeyer may be enough to get us through.

It doesn’t really matter the magnitude. My own recent loss of the love of my life, a man I had known for only 4 years and had married just 16 months before his death was devastating. But was it any greater to me than Naomi’s beads to her, than Hemingway’s loss of his entire body of work, left behind on a train by his first wife, long before laptops and Word programs? Than a friend’s loss of every single cherished heirloom Christmas ornament in a basement flood? Than my mother’s loss of words and sweet memories at the end of a long life? Some are things, some are people, some are experiences—all are dear to us.

So this humble blog offering will take an occasional look at loss, how we respond to it, how it shapes and changes us, what we learn, how we go on. Maybe someone will read it and be helped. Maybe the person writing it will find a safe place to put a lot of ping ponging feelings and make some space for new life—for life after loss. I hope so.