We Were Together

My husband is missing another wedding anniversary. (Because he died.) And after all this time, after everything I’ve done, he is still not alive.

If that sounds like I feel stood up, its’ because I do. There is this side to widowhood that is sarcastic and irreverent and very WTF.

What happened?!

You don’t call.

You don’t write.

But then there are other times… and I remember how good it was. How good we were. I remember all the love.

And I must say, those times are harder. Going to that place, getting swept away in it, letting your mind wander back to your happiest moments and visit there for a while.

I love this quote from Walt Whitman. It shows up in my feed frequently, usually from fellow widows.

It usually leaves me feeling somewhat short of breath. Because we were together. And I do forget the rest sometimes.

Sometimes I visit those memories and I forget.

I forget all the petty fights we had.

I forget all the little annoyances.

I forget the ways I feared I’d failed you.

I forget the ways you weren’t perfect.

I forget the look on your face after your heart was no longer beating.

I forget the trips we didn’t get to take, the healing that never happened, the promises we’d made that could never be fulfilled.

I forget the ways our house was always a mess.

I forget the bad habits.

I forget the dishes forever in the sink.

Instead I remember your beautiful face when you looked over at me.

I remember hugging you, the freckles on your neck, and the funny way your beard grew on the right side.

I remember the way you held my hand as you drove. Your hand holding mine over the gear shift.

I remember watching VH1’s Top 100.

I remember your smile as you held Olivia for the first time. The complete joy and love and manic admiration.

I let myself remember what it felt like to be in a room with you. Sometimes I see you in the corner, still, your hands in your pockets, watching us. Watching me.

I let myself be there for a moment, maybe longer. “What do you think, Jake? How are we doing?” The answer is always the same.

And I remember our wedding day. Taking that picture with you out in the field and then holding your face and telling you, it’s going to be okay. Stressful, but okay. Relax. I love you.

I remember standing in front of our family and friends and feeling like the luckiest woman on Earth, and even though we were telling everyone all about it, no one could really understand what we had.

I remember dancing and dancing and dancing.

Also, some more dancing.

I remember calling you my husband and feeling so ecstatic.

I remember calling you my husband nine years later, and feeling so proud.

—-

Tomorrow will be our 11th wedding anniversary. I miss you, husband. I remember and I miss you.

A Love like Cyndi Lauper

Disclaimer: I realize that part of the art of writing is not telling your readers exactly what you are doing before you do it. But who cares. The song “True Colors” has been running through my head. It inspired me to write something based on those lyrics. How they strike me, what it stirs up for me. So here goes…


You with the sad eyes...

If I made a movie about a widow it would involve a lot of shots of a lady just sitting and staring out blankly at nothing. There’s a certain look she would need to master. It’s a specific look. We’d get someone good to play her. Like, Meryl Streep. Diane Keaton, maybe. But really overall the movie would be terrible. Just sitting and looking forward, no one wants to see that.

Don't be discouraged, oh I realize

It's hard to take courage


I have thought of writing my own story. The story of me and Jake. But I fear it would sound self-indulgent. We are not good historians of our own stories, right?

It’s just that I think my story is kind of special.

I met Jake when I was twenty-two. Basically a baby. And like all self-important babies in college, I felt like no one would ever truly love me. I worried that I was too opinionated, too round, too loud, too smart even (I have to wince when I say that). But it’s the truth. And for this part of the story, it is important to relate that these feelings (while incredibly dramatic), were very real to me. For twenty-two years I had spent my time on Earth learning what desirable girls looked like and acted like and I just didn’t really fit that mold. It’s not that I didn’t like myself, I did. And I liked guys. But after getting to know them or showing them a little of the real me, the red flags would become clear. He would be too pushy, or too cool, or too condescending. I would be too strange, too demanding, too unwilling to bend. Expecting him to embrace all the parts of my personality.


In a world full of people

You can lose sight of it all

The darkness inside you

Can make you feel so small

I don’t know. I’m not sure why I was so repulsive to guys. I wasn’t, probably. But I felt weird. I felt like I was a lot. I was told that I was a lot. I didn’t want to be this loud feminist friend that the good-looking girls brought to the party, but there I was… I couldn’t seem to help myself from explaining why tampons should be free throughout the world, or why fraternities were essentially school-sanctioned safe havens for rapists. I could be funny and clever but that didn’t seem to be what the dudes were looking for.

Show me a smile then

Don't be unhappy

Can't remember when

I last saw you laughing

When I met Jake it was different. He was so funny, so clever. He brought this incredible energy to a room. It’s hard to describe, but people who knew him immediately understand. He was the magic ingredient that made everyone in the room get along and have a good time. He did all of that while somehow staying remarkably laid back, never seeking all the attention, always bringing people in, never letting anyone feel left out. And he like me. He really, really liked me. He would listen to my wild ideas and challenge me and debate me without ever putting me down. He would tell me that opinionated, strong women are hot. I was hot. He was amazing. And we had found each other.

This world makes you crazy

And you've taken all you can bear

Just call me up

'Cause I will always be there

We got real close real fast. He’d come over to visit at my apartment complex where many of our friends lived, and he’d reasons to stay on when I had to work late nights. We would stay up late talking and laughing. It was a bit like 7th grade, when you’ve realized how painfully nerdy and uncool you are. You know you are. Then you come upon someone who is also uncool. And you share a little about how much you still like watching Disney movies or collecting Star Wars figurines, and they are like, “I like that TOO!” And you laugh. And you open up more. And they still want to hang out with you at lunch tomorrow. And the next day. And you just know this is your person.

And I see your true colors

Shining through

I see your true colors

And that's why I love you

To be loved by someone who really sees you. Really knows you. Jake never winced when I’d wear shirts that said “feminist” or even (this is true) “vagina.” He’d make little jokes that were actually just funny, not mean or condescending. He loved my family. He watched my youngest sister graduate high school, and he sat with me when I learned my parents were getting divorced after 25 years of marriage.

So don't be afraid to let them show

Your true colors

True colors are beautiful

At the end of the day I think we all just want to be the weirdo that we truly are, and to be loved anyway. Or better: to be loved because of it. To be loved because we are weird and strange and opinionated and imperfect but perfectly lovable.

I see your true colors

Shining through

I see your true colors

And that's why I love you

So don't be afraid to let them show

Your true colors

Jake was my favorite person. On the last day of the last year of our relationship, his name was still my favorite name to see on my phone. And he was texting me about money. It’s hard to describe the pain of that.

But last words do not really matter. No one conversation or fight or disagreement really matters that much. It’s the feeling he gave me. It’s the relationship we created. It’s the family we built and the way we built it. It is something so special, I keep it in the deepest part of me. This part of me that is always his, always ours, always us.

True colors are beautiful (they're beautiful)

Like a rainbow…

The first picture of us ever taken at that epic apartment in Salem.

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

sorry-im-not-sorry-quote-1.jpg

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.