Where'd You Go?


State of the Mind, September 2018 

"Where'd you go, Bernadette?" is one of my favorite books. It takes place in a residential area of Seattle where a famous architect, Bernadette, is trying to assimilate into the domesticated lifestyle of her neighbors after her daughter survived a major medical scare. She has abandoned her passion, redesigning unconventional spaces into incredible, artistic homes. And she has taken up full time motherhood, except that she's no good at it, really. Everything frightens her and she seems to be getting worse the harder she tries. Finally she disappears to Antarctica and then later emerges after rediscovering her true self. 

"Where'd you go?" is a question all the characters ask her, both literally and metaphorically. At a turning point she receives a sharply worded letter from an old friend. "You've stopped working?! Bernadettle, if you don't create, you will die." 

Or something like that. It's a great book. 

It came back to me while I was running 200's during a CrossFit workout yesterday. (Is that a lame sentence? It's the truth, but perhaps a bit gratuitous?)

'Where did you go?' I was thinking. When you stop creating, stop following your passion, and throw yourself into something else entirely...where does the "you" go? How do you get it back? What if you can't? 

A few days ago I opened my closet and felt a cold kind of darkness come up. "The lights are going out," I said, out loud, to my clothes. It was very ominous. If I were in a movie, the soundtrack would have changed just then. A slight key change, I think. (I'm not a musician.) 

I'm not going to disappear to Antarctica. I haven't disappeared. I'm still running 200's for goodness sake. But I don't write as much. And I feel ... different. Sadder.

One year ago I was in a different place than I am now. Life was not perfect but my husband was alive. And after September 25, 2018, I will have lived one year without him. I will have one year of memories without him. It will be our second Christmas, our second set of birthdays, our second seasons without our Jake. 

I remember four days after he died, I was hesitant to take any pictures on my phone because it would put more pictures between the ones I had with him, and the ones without him. I hated each day that passed, putting more time between our existences. When I hit the two-week mark, it was the longest I'd ever been away from him. In fact, it doubled our previous record. Sometimes I would look around the house, or over at his side of the bed and ask, where did you go?

Had I been a military wife, would I have been more prepared for all this time without him? Had I ever let myself sleep in another bed for more than a day or two, would all this have been so hard? 

Or was I wise to get every day and night, and every moment that I could get with him? 

September, 2017 one year ago

Nothing prepares you for this. And this month, this time right now is particularly dark for me. I know it is for others too. I feel myself slipping a little. I'm not going to disappear. I wrote this, after all. (And so far it's going extremely well, I'm sobbing over my keyboard. Progress, folks.) 

And I'm doing all the other things I'm supposed to do. Therapy. Self care. Asking for help. 

But he's still gone. On Tuesday at 5:57pm, that's when he died. That's a bit much to accept. So... it's a little dark here.

That's all. 

Sorry (I'm Not Sorry)

Writing My Grief: Days 5-14 

Continuing from my writing course, Writing My Grief, organized by author Megan Devine.

In the second week of this course we had several prompts that brought up how I feel about how other people perceive me and the way that I am grieving. It is mostly about my fears. People have given me no real reason to think that I am grieving wrongly, but these fears seep in nonetheless. I think I know why. 

Day 11: On Behaving Better

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I need to apologize. I'm not sure who to apologize to. Or what for.

Well, sorta I do.

I didn't live up to the image we had in our heads. The perfect widow. Have you ever noticed how many stupid songs there are about widows. Well, not widows specifically, but basically widows. "I would die for you." "I would have no reason to go on without out you." "Better tell the gravedigger that he better dig two."

Are you fucking kidding me? That's not how this works. You don't get to die just because your love dies. You have to keep living. Seriously. You have responsibilities. You have to pick up the kids at 5:00! The daycare closes at 5:30 and they get so sad to be the last kids there. You can't have that. So get your big girl pants on and get out of bed.

Sorry, I digress. The point is, I am not the perfect widow, and these songs are at least partially to blame. They've romanticized the idea of dying for love to a point where we've become completely irrational about what loss looks like. We all know about the "till death do us part," part. The part after that, well, it's a lot less romantic than fairy tales and songs would have you think.

But it isn't just that we have to pick up the kids and keep paying the mortgage on this house that he thought was such a great idea even though it was a squeeze when we had two incomes, let alone one. It's not just that.

It's that you GET to live, too. Not only did I not die for love, I'm actually trying to live.

So I'm sorry. But I'm not sorry, too. I won't wear black every day. It's not going to help me and it doesn't suit me.

I won't sleep next to his pillow every night. I'm going to buy a new damn pillow, the kind that I like. And I'm going to cry massive tears when I throw out the old one because this doesn't have to make any sense to anyone.

I'm going to meet someone new. And I going to keep loving my husband.

I'm going to throw parties and have fun. I'm going to take selfies and look good in them. And then later I'm going to hear our song on the radio and let out a laugh/cry because I always think that he made that song come on the radio somehow to tell me that I'm doing fine and he loves me and he's happy to see me happy. It doesn't have to be true. These are my things, I get to have them.

I don't need to prove that I'm sad, or that I'm not over it, or that I am over it. I don't need to prove that I loved him. And I certainly don't need to prove it by dragging myself further into loneliness and getting stuck in the pain, just so I can live up to some image of complete and utter sadness.

But it still matters that people know. I am sad. I am sad every single day (but not every single minute). Does that make any sense?

It matters so much that people know: I loved my husband. I love him still. He was my world, he was my person, and I was his. Nothing I do will change that. But it might not always look the way it does in the movies or those stupid songs. Will people understand that? I need them to.

It still matters to me that people talk about him. I need all the letters and all the text messages and all the phone calls. I miss my friends so much. I miss Jake's friends. I am so needy. I'm sorry.

In my heart I know that no one's opinion matters more than my own. Not even Jake's (though I have no doubt we are on the same page).

And yet still... when I open my phone, and I see a message, and it's even the slightest bit supportive, I add it like a brick in my wall of confidence. And I prepare for a message that may never come:

you aren't doing this right

you aren't sad enough

you don't honor him. 

Should that message ever come, I hope I won't say I'm sorry. I hope I will say, "you're wrong."

-hmv 4/9/18

Writing My Grief: Days 1-4

I've joined an online writing class called Writing Your Grief. It has been a great class and community, and it gives me a much-needed excuse to write daily. Today is Day 4. 

I am not going to share all my writing from this course. Some of it is too personal. It's a bit like therapy on paper. But I'll share a little, because I do that.

A brief disclaimer: the writing is not intended to be 100% accurate. Don't get all concerned about me. You all know that I'm a complicated person with deep feelings who is also very grounded and supported right now. Getting these big feelings out feels good. I hope something connects with you, too. 


Day 2:  On what you don't see

My boat is afloat on deep, deep water. 
You cannot see what lies beneath. 
You see only the boat.
And it looks fine.
So you tell me, "you're doing great."

And it's not your fault
That you can't see the stormy undercurrent that's always there
Threatening to surface at any moment and take this boat down

It's not your fault
That you want to tell me something good
So you focus on what you want to see
Because the part that is hidden is so horrifying
You're scared to go there
(Wouldn't it be great if it really wasn't there? Wouldn't it be great if I were truly "all better"?)

But you know enough not to ask
You know well enough that there is something simmering below the surface
You tell me you "can't imagine"

But you can image
You're just scared to
You know it's there
Sometimes you see it out of the corner of your eye
An errant tear, or a thousand-mile stare
And I'll bet you wonder what's going on
I'll bet you wonder
But perhaps the truth would be too terrifying
And perhaps I'd never tell you anyways
Because sharing this horror doesn't make it go away
So I just float on
Keeping my head above water
Despite everything that's pulling me down.

3/27/18 hmv

 

Day Day 5: A Letter from my friend Grief

Dear Hannah, 

I'm sorry we have come to know each other so well lately. I have really only briefly visited you before, and you've dodged me several times. Though you didn't know it. But now I'm here! I'm really, really here. And you don't have a choice, I know. 

Your good friend and mentor told you that you had a million tears to cry. That is true. I will make sure you cry those tears. It will happen whenever it needs to happen, and not always when it is convenient for you. Sorry, my dear. That's the way it works. It always has. People have tried to kick me out before. They have tried to sweep me away. I see them re-apply their make-up, force themselves to smile, go out, stay in, eat food, eat nothing. It doesn't matter. Those tears will happen. They need to get out.

I sound harsh, don't I? I have been around for ages, I know my role in this world. This difficult, heartbreaking world. I may be harsh, but I am as real as it gets. There is nothing so profound as that deep pit of sorrow that knocks you over and demands your attention. It hurts in your heart, because that is where this all comes from. That's where it started, where it hurts, and where it will heal. 

Will I ever go away? I'm afraid I don't know. Much of this depends on you, too. You already know that you can take steps to make this a little better (but I'll circle back at some point). You already know that you can go a day without crying. Why not go a week? It can happen. I have seen it.

But you can't chase me out. I've come to be with you a while. You need me. You don't want to hear that, but you need me. I will serve a purpose in your life, and you will find a space for me. That space may be smaller and smaller. It may be more and more occasional that you visit this space. But here I will be.

This is not a journey with an endpoint, so don't think of it like that. A part of your world has opened up and I've come charging in to fill that void for now. There is room for other possibilities in this space. In time, it will become clear. You will make this your own, and you will live beautifully.

3/30/18 hmv

Burning House

I came back home on New Year's Day. And I realized, after some cleaning up and walking around: this isn't home anymore. 

I had been visiting family over the holidays, then staying with friends, then finally I had to come back here. And sure, it looks nice. It is full of my stuff. And it is full of him. My missing husband. The empty hole in my life. 

This house is full of everything that will never happen. It's surrounded by a garden he will never see bloom. Its bedrooms contain children that are growing and outgrowing everything and learning things that he won't teach them. It has a queen sized bed with an incurable divot from where he sat, awake in the middle of the night, plagued with worry and illness and guilt.

I got into that bed last night, as I have done every night since losing him, alone. After some tears and some writing and finally, some sleep, I had a dream.

I dreamnt that I set a house on fire. It started with me walking into this dark house. I knew which house I needed to set on fire. And I went about it very methodically. Walking through each room and spilling lighter fluid. I took nothing with me. Walked out the front door and threw the lighter fluid back in the house behind me. The upstairs was already in flames. And I knew the fire would follow me out, but it would stop where my feet hit the ground. 

Setting this house on fire did not give me great joy. It wasn't done entirely out of anger either. It simply needed to be done, and I needed to do it. 

Later I realized that I would be caught. I tried to hide, but then realized that I couldn't. They would figure it out, and my life would get worse for a while. I'd be in jail, my kids would be without both parents for a while. And none of this was in my control. Because I couldn't NOT burn that f*cking house to the ground, and I couldn't hide either. I imagined standing before a jury of my peers and having my terrible story laid out for all to see, and owning that story, and the consequences of it, and just saying F you to the world. What else could I do? F you. F you. F you.

This morning listened to Burning House by Cam. And my heart just absolutely broke. Every single word hit me hard.

I had a dream about a burning house
You were stuck inside, couldn’t get you out
Laid beside you and I held you close
And the two of us went up in smoke
— Cam, "Burning House"

 

I really liked that song before Jake died, but it is a haunting song. It used to almost make me cry. Now it destroys me.

There's a few things like this that entered my life before loss, and have only just now come clearly into view. Like that feeling we had when Hillary lost the election and Kate McKinnon performed "Hallelujah" on Saturday Night Live the next week, and we were all like...WHOA...ok so THAT's what that crazy song was about. And all of its beauty and meaning just hit us.

It's like that.

In any case, I guess I'm going to be burning down a house. It's already on fire. I can't not.

What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

In these last ten weeks full of sadness and support, people have said some truly wonderful things to me, and I'd like to share a few, in case you too are looking for the right words. 

A brief disclaimer though: there are no right words. 

Nothing can take the pain of grief and loss away, try though we might. And lord, I wish that weren't so. After we lost Jake, in the immediate next few days, it was very important that people keep talking to me. My fear was that people would be afraid of saying the wrong thing and so they wouldn't say anything at all. 

I worried about this, because I have done it myself. Keeping my distance from the intensity of grief. The pain is so incredible and so raw and unrelenting, I had a tendency to stay back. I can see now that this was foolish, but when you don't know what to do, you really don't know. 

And the truth was, I was scared of grief. I read a beautiful story once of a woman who'd lost her husband too, and she made a new friend in her new town. Kind of a strange, eclectic person that is all out there with their emotions. One night the friend visited the grieving woman while she was crying and insisted that it was okay to let her come in the house. "Let me in, Claudia," she said, "Your grief doesn't scare me." Beautiful. (But I couldn't imagine saying that myself. The idea of some young woman suddenly losing her husband was terrifying. It still is. But it's also real life now.) 

So here are a few ideas on things people can say or have said or versions of things I've heard that have been nice to hear or read. 

Me and his sister Meggie at his service

  • How are you today?
  • How are you right now? 
  • I'm bringing dinner over, what sound sounds good? 
  • I'm coming over after kids' bedtime. Do you want red or white? 
  • My husband wants to come over to help with any yard work/housework you may have.
  • Thinking of you. No need to respond.
  • Thinking of you and sending love.
  • Sending prayers for you and your family. 
  • Was just sitting here working and got to thinking about you. Always sending love in your direction babe (from a friend who lost her mom)
  • Ah, guilt. The unexpected buddy of grief. I'm working on that myself. (from a new widow friend) 
  • I have no words to express my condolences or to say how wonderful I thought Jake was.
  • I wanted to call but didn't know when was a good time.
  • I didn't know what to say, frankly I'm still in shock. 
  • Too often when tragedies like this happen, people ar afraid to reach out because they cant find the right words and grief tends to make people uncomfrotable. I am admittedly one of those people.

Hearing about how other people are processing all of this can also be very welcome. Or just hearing about other people's problems and being able to help a little or offer some advice. This may seem counter-intuitive. People don't want to heap more emotional stuff on me and I get that. But it's nice to be helpful or to be a listener. In my case, I've only got problems that no one can solve.

It's also nice when someone who isn't as close to me just waves or smiles or nods in my direction. There's no obligation to talk, and sometimes I don't really want to. In the first few weeks I felt incapable of even smiling back. But that has gotten easier. And I'm trying to think of these little moments as chances to feel connection and brighten my day.

What isn't helpful? There's only one thing I've pinpointed as truly unhelpful. And this is when a conversation turns into ME comforting someone ELSE for feeling sorry for ME. It's a very specific, and luckily rare, situation. Like, "Oh my goodness I couldn't imagine if MY husband died, I wouldn't be able to do it!" or "Tell me, how are you doing it??!" But not because they want to know, just because they want comfort from their own fears. This sort of thing hasn't happened much and never with family or friends. But did happen once in front my loving grandmother, and she politely, but abruptly, ended that conversation for me. Bless her. 

I suppose there's other things that aren't helpful, but I think that's because there are no perfect words. Platitudes don't help. "You'll get through this," or "it will get better" are not inherently bad, they just don't help when you're slogging through it. I've told people, "You'll need to keep telling me that." Because I don't believe it right now. I don't have ears for it. But I will. I want to believe it.

Lastly, I love hearing stories about Jake. It's a real comfort. We shared tons of stories at his memorial service and reception, and we keep sharing them at parties and late night visits and phone calls. I'll talk about his with anyone. I love getting more information about his life. It might seem like I'd be sad to hear his name brought up, but really the opposite is true. I love it. I want so badly to re-live the story of our life together. I want to know everything about him. He was incredible, and I got to love him for thirteen beautiful years. His capacity for empathy and true friendship was off the charts. And he was the absolute best husband and father to our children. His stories make me feel like I'm living a little bit more of that life, which makes him feel a little bit closer.

A Terrible Thing Happened

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This was something I wrote on a note to our delightful housekeeper before she came in to clean up a living room full of unfamiliar furniture, sympathy cards, and absolutely none of Jake's clothes to wash or fold. "A terrible thing happened." The furniture had to be replaced because four weeks earlier my husband Jake sat down on our old green couch and never got up.

Yesterday (a Monday, already a terrible day), it was 8 weeks. Mostly I feel like nothing has changed. Mostly I feel like I cry just as much as I did those first 4 weeks. Mostly I look around this house and wonder where did he go? Why did he go? We needed him. We love him. I don't know how to do this without him. 

Except that I am. I still need to get the kids fed and dressed and off to school every day. And although I've been mostly capable of doing this, I have no idea how. People tell me that I am "strong," and they don't know how I'm doing it, but I'm "doing great." I'm not. Or maybe I am. But it doesn't matter. I don't wake up every morning thinking, what do I want to do today? Should I be heroic? No. I just wake up and miss him and get the kids ready and miss how he used to take Olivia to school every day and miss how everyone would say hello to him at her school because everyone loved Jake. 

I obsess over how this happened. I obsess over everything I wish I had done differently. But how can you predict a heart attack? If I had asked his doctors if this would happen, I suppose they would have "yes, it could, he is at risk." And he was. And I suppose we knew that. But it was both predictable and completely sudden at the same time. There are a thousand little things that contribute to heart disease over years and years, and there is one quick little moment when it happens, and then they are gone. It feels like he slipped through my fingers.

I can't decide if life works like this: where life is resilient and the ability of the body to live and withstand hardship is strong and it really takes quite a bit to kill a human body. Or is it like this: where life is fragile and we must make choices every day to keep the human body healthy and strong or else life slips away? I don't know why this is so heavy on my mind. It feels important that I figure this out. And every day there is some new mystery, big or small, that gets my wheels spinning. Like whether I should move back home and live with my sister. Or whether I should cancel Jake's credit cards.

I will write more. I may not share much more about Jake's medical history because frankly it's no one's business and he never shared it much himself. But there is much I need to say, and writing feels good. He would want me to write-- for that reason, and because he really liked my writing. He would tell me that I'm strong too. It kills me.

I Know Why You Don't Understand but It's Okay

When I was in the 5th Grade I bought a shirt that said "The Weaker Sex Just Kicked Your Butt!" I felt powerful wearing that goofy little $9.99 wonder.  I was out there, taking a stand! No one at my small, conservative Catholic school could stop me, because it didn't say "ass" it said "butt" (which might as well have been the C-word in those days and times).

Ah, the power of speaking your mind.  I didn't actually know that women could be referred to as the "weaker sex" until I saw that shirt. No one talked like that. But once I knew this was a thing, I was pissed, and I needed to show that. On a shirt. At my school.

My folks must have let me do it, and I'm grateful. It was an early introduction into the world of wearing what you stand for on your sleeve (literally). And walking around with it, and knowing that other people might judge you or make fun of you (which happened) or just casually silence you. I needed this lesson, though I didn't know it. I needed this toughening up.

When I was in the 11th grade I was sexually harassed at school. A boy walked up the stairs and put his hand under my butt and slid it along as he walked past. At first, I didn't think it had really happened. My first instinct was to doubt myself. (Revision: my first instinct was to believe in the goodness of other people.) He must have done it by accident. He was on the track team with me. I looked up in shock and waited for him to look back and laugh. "Look at me, Blake!* Say something stupid so I can punch you in the arm and we can laugh and this will be just be a dumb joke."

But he didn't look at me. He just kept walking. So I just felt scared and silly and dismissed it.

Until he did it again. Later that same day he touched me again, and this time his hand lingered on my butt a little longer, it was more grabby, more brazen. In a moment, I realized (a) I was not wrong about the first time, (b) he got away with it once so he thinks he can do it again, and (c) I want to curl up into a ball and disappear.

I did not "kick his butt." I did not punch his arm. I cried out, "He did it again!" My voice cracked. And then I ran into my track coach's classroom with a friend trailing behind. And I cried and cried and shook with fear. The idea of going back out into the hall terrified me.

It was not the reaction I had anticipated.

When I young, I played basketball on the playground with the boys. They hadn't invited me. I just wanted to play so I made them let me in. I enjoyed these little acts of defiance, and I recruited my girl friends to join in too. One time I stood in the way of the P.E. teacher who was only asking boy students to come up and demonstrate the football positions. I demanded to be seen. I dared anyone to try and exclude me because I was a girl.

But in the track coach's classroom all I wanted was to disappear. I felt gross. I felt like someone had pulled my pants down. I wanted to step out of my skin because I was so, so gross. And all the damn crying. The tears poured out. I looked back a few days later just dumbfounded. I didn't understand the reaction then, and I didn't understand it as it was happening. It would be years before I'd understand, or hear other girls describe the same kind of thing.

Why didn't I kick his butt?

I didn't have that shirt any more. I'm not sure what happened to it.

Within days this boy had been suspended. The administration took care of all that. I don't remember having to tell my story to a bunch of people, I think they all believed what had happened and they took it seriously. But other kids didn't. They didn't know. Blake wasn't just ON the track team, he was a STAR on the team. Kind of a strange, quieter guy, but lightening fast. I could see how people wouldn't believe he'd do anything like this.

In English class one day I saw a boy sitting across the room from me wearing a shirt that he had made himself. It said "Bring Back the Falcon." The Falcon was Blake. Then I saw that there were others too, with shirts or pins saying the same thing. They didn't believe me. (Revision: they didn't know. They truly did not know what the eff they were doing.)

To this, I reacted with sadness and a bit of anger. I mean, fuck these guys. I didn't need this. I didn't ask for this. I didn't get the kid suspended. What was I supposed to do? I really did not know. It seemed like I had done something wrong, I got that feeling. It registered (you selfish girl, why did you punish this talented young man?) Only I was at a total loss to explain what I had or hadn't done.

Because I couldn't. Because it had been done TO ME. Me, the victim, only I'd never seen myself as a victim. 

What could I do? I could throw my hands up at them, tell them "I can't DO anything! This wasn't my fault!" I could skip school for a while, let it blow over.

I could have put on my energetic, young feminist hat and reamed them out for being dicks to a victim of sexual harassment. But that girl was not there. Not even close. I was still afraid, still shaky. I didn't want to feel that way. But I didn't get to choose.

It's been seventeen years since this happened. The fear is still there. I still don't understand why it was fear and not anger, except that I lived it, and through that experience I do understand. I get it in a way that can't be reduced to words. My heart reacted, perhaps, because it understood exactly what that boy was doing. It wasn't just a touch. It was an invasion. It crossed a line of consent, of respect, of recognizing that I was a person whose opinion about what my body would and wouldn't do, mattered. He didn't look at me. He didn't do it by accident. He thought he could get away with it.

I'd like to tell you that I'm glad I took a stand. But I wasn't. If I'd known what would happen, that they would wear shirts and mock me and disbelieve that I'd had this painful experience, I would have stayed silent. I would have asked them to let me stay home and keep Blake at school.

Does that make you sad to hear? I'm sad about it. I'm pissed about it.

But now I am ready to speak this truth. I understand why they mocked me. I understand they didn't have a goddamn clue. A minute before it happened, I didn't have a clue either. I would have wondered why one little touch would reduce me to a crying, panicky mess. Why would one incident send a track star home on suspension? Couldn't they at least let him practice with the team? Was it that big a deal?

I didn't have a clue what I'd do in a situation like this. Victims don't kick ass. They cry, and hurt, and feel terror and shame. That's normal. And lots of people don't get it, sometimes I guess you need to live through it.

Now before you give up on this hopeless mess of a sad story, let me remind you: one person did believe me. Coach Nelson believed me. He never doubted it. He looked into my eyes and heard my words and went straight to the principal's office and did the right thing. He didn't pause for a second. And don't forget, this track star was Coach Nelson's track star. We lost the next track meet. It didn't matter. I mattered. Doing the right thing mattered. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but I've never forgotten. Bystanders can be so powerful, they have more power than they know.

Coach, wherever you are, thank you. May the world be filled with people just like you. May we all believe in the goodness of people.
-----

This is a story I've been mulling over for some time, and especially during this 2016 election season. Donald Trump brought sexual harassment to the forefront of American conversation and appalled us with his words and actions, but the result was that we elected him and ignored the bad things he'd said and done. I feel like I understand all of this so well, and it goes back to these incidences I had as a teenager. I know why Trump doesn't think it's a big deal. I know why the women didn't speak out then and why some of them don't speak out now and why some of them do. I know how they felt and how they feel now after being ridiculed.

We should be ashamed of looking past these actions and electing him anyways. We should have stood up for these women, and stood up to Trump. I believe that with all my heart. And yet I also believe in the goodness of people. I don't think cluelessness makes you an evil person. I believe people deserve a second chance, including the American people. I believe we can make this right. 

 

*Blake is not his real name. He knows who he is, and I truly hope that he finds peace.