If it were a baby, he/she would be in preschool and potty trained by now. Talking, playing, becoming more independent. Yelling “no” in my face while throwing a plate of food off the side of their high chair, and laughing as it splatters everywhere. Not a baby anymore, but still requiring my energy.
Except I’m not talking about a baby today. I’m talking about my grief, 26 months after my husband unexpectedly passed away. But it’s kind of related, because grief actually feels like a plate of spaghetti thrown over the side of a high chair, the kind that laughs at you as you stoop down to clean it up, again and again and again.
In three days, it will have been 26 months since Kenneth died. Two years. Roughly 780 days. 112 weeks. Three cycles of summer. Two winters. A kindergarten graduation. A preschool graduation. Missed milestones: lost teeth and toothless smiles, two toddlers learning to talk, hearing Peter Jack say “How dare you?” and “You’re not my friend anymore.” Eloise learning to read. Swim classes. Vacations. I celebrated two birthdays without him. I replaced a washer, a dryer, a stove top, windows, and had the house re-painted–all without him. So much water under the bridge in two short years. It sometimes feels like maybe none of my memories from that previous life were real. It could have been all in my head.
It has taken me longer than usual to write in the last few weeks. I haven’t posted lately. That’s because I had terrible jet lag after coming home from Australia. And then summer. Summer has gotten in the way for sure, spending time with the kids, loving it, wishing for the school year to start, but loving summer, and also wistful for daycare…you know. Always a ticking time bomb of contradicting emotions.
I remind myself that I have to enjoy each season as it comes. There are pros and cons to everything. I have to remind myself of this fact over and over again. I know and believe in this truth but it takes a lot of reflection to be present. It’s easy to forget.
Summer means lots of time off with my kids because I am a teacher. I’ve been completing many of projects, and these projects are actually related to my grief. I am getting through the final stages of sorting out my life from before Kenneth died. 780 days later, I might finally be getting my shit together.
The other day I stayed up until 2AM clearing out the closets in my bedroom. One closet used to be Kenneth’s. I got rid of a lot of his stuff in the months after he passed away to make room for my clothes and shoes, but a person’s junk is like sand…it gets everywhere. It’s hard to sweep it all up. There are traces all over the place. I’ve been trying to determine what to do with the grains of his existence for over two years. Figuring out what to keep. Deciding what to pack into boxes, and what should be thrown away. I’ve gone through several of these grief-fueled purges, and each time it gets easier to part with items. At first it is painful to throw away the person’s favorite shoes and clothes, or even to touch their closet and mess with the order (or disorder, in Kenneth’s case) of their personal belongings. But it gets easier with time. The more cleaning purges I have, the more ready I am to let go of things. Progress has been slow, but it’s happening.
In the latest purge I came across random things that managed to survive the other cleaning frenzies.
I found pictures. One is of Kenneth as a child, his two siblings, and their father. They are all posed with their Welsh Terrier somewhere out in the desert.
There was the button his mother got the day he was born with the name of the hospital and “It’s a boy!” in faded letters.
His Social Security card, the one he blamed me for losing (it was in the file the entire time).
I found lots of paperwork. So much paperwork. That pile of junk was partly my fault. In the fog of 2016 I just stuffed things into a box, not willing to deal with it. That’s what happens with grief. Certain tasks become too painful to deal with.
There was the printer I bought during that fog, the one I could never figure out how to work. I got rid of it. My dad asked why I didn’t figure it out, and then he made a comment about how we waste a lot of things by not keeping track of user manuals and getting them set up. But that’s normal logic. Grief logic doesn’t work that way. Grief makes your mind as slow as molasses, and you can’t process details. You get amnesia. There are big chunks of time and moments I absolutely can not recall from the early days of widowhood. My memory is spotty. Grief amnesia–it’s totally real. You aren’t in your right mind. In fact, I just found a document from 2017 that said “Very Important” in big bold letters that I somehow just stuffed in the box with all of the papers I didn’t want to sift through. This move was totally unlike me–I’m usually pretty organized. Now I have to make a phone call to my CPA and figure out if I really did forget something. Chances are he will tell me it was already taken care of, and I will sit there feeling stupid but having absolutely no recollection of any of the details. Or he will tell me that yes, it was Very Important, and now I owe a bazillion dollars. And I will worry about this, like so many things that I have worried about since Kenneth died. But for right now–the printer–it had to go. If anything, I needed to not have the reminder of that fog.
Here’s the thing about my experience with grief. It collided with the fog of motherhood. Kenneth died when I was still nursing the baby. We were 7 years into the blur of pregnancy, breastfeeding, babies, diapers, toddlers. A hectic life with three little ones. Even on a good day the best we could hope for was a barely manageable hot mess.
Let’s just say the last two years have been rough. If you’ve seen me smiling, it’s because I’m really good at stitching myself together and trying to put everything into perspective.
But it’s getting better. My closets are organized now. I’m checking items off my to do list and I am not as resistant as I once was to dealing with things. I finally cleaned out the sandbox that hadn’t been used in 6 years and hauled 300 lbs of sand into my backyard so the kids could have fun. I cleared out Kenneth’s overgrown garden beds and have actual plants growing. My junk drawers are no longer stuffed with Kenneth’s belongings. I have completely reclaimed my bedroom. I bought a new filing cabinet and will have total control of my filing for the first time in over ten years.
Other aspects of grief have changed too. The kids and I don’t visit Kenneth’s niche as often, mostly because of the kids. They’re lazy. It’s boring. “We have some of his ashes at home,” Ethan will say. “Let’s just leave flowers by the avocado tree or his picture.” 1/10 of his ashes are in a biodegradable urn beneath the avocado tree. The kids will use that as an excuse not to go to the cemetery, but I never see them paying attention to the avocado tree either. Sometimes it feels like they would rather not be reminded of this part of our lives. I am constantly teetering on a tightrope, trying to find the balance between a healthy amount of talking about “our situation” and ignoring it. Nobody gave me a manual on how to do this. I’m really just winging it.
But we still go to the cemetery. Recently, we went for Father’s Day. Three days early, because I wanted to beat the holiday rush at the cemetery. I took pictures of the kids next to their father’s niche. We used to do that when we would visit his parents, except back then it would be Kenneth holding the kids, posing next to his parents’ plaque that read their names and important dates. Now it’s our kids in front of his niche. I take the pictures because it’s the only way we can take pictures with their father, and I’m using them as a measuring stick of time.
Kenneth’s columbarium is in front of the grave of a 7-year-old girl, and every time we visit him we stop to leave her a flower too. Each time I re-read the dates on her gravestone, and each time I experience the gut-wrenching reminder that the universe could be a lot more terrible to me, so I hold my breath and hope that it thinks I have been served enough bad luck for one lifetime, even though I know this is foolishness. There will be more heartbreak. More tragedy. More loss. I am prepared for it, but I don’t want to think about it. I am more squeamish than ever about the possibilities, because now I know what it’s like to have your head squeezed between the vice of life, and I know how fast everything can change in a second.
Recently a person we met in the last few months found out that my husband is dead. I guess I assumed she knew, maybe by the lack of a father attending the kids’ tennis practices, or I don’t know? I guess I forget that “new” people in our lives don’t know our story, and that I have to actually tell them. It somehow came up in our conversation, when I blurted out the “after my husband died” part of the story I was telling. Her face stiffened and she asked me to repeat my last sentence. After my husband died. Then I had to tell her the details. I am not one to clam up. I will tell you all of the gory details if you are interested, so I’m not sure why it felt a little weird. Maybe it’s because we’ve gotten further and further away from that day. Maybe it’s the way I can tell a new person the details completely devoid of emotion while they tear up and I smile and shrug it off. Maybe it’s the realization that there are people in my life now that Kenneth will never know, and they will never know Kenneth.
People ask me how I am doing. Not as much as they did in the beginning, but I still get asked.
You know. It’s fine. Really. I’m used to wrangling three kids on my own now. The dust has settled. The missing is still there, but most of the emotions have been digested and the intensity is gone. My brain and heart have accepted and stopped fighting the reality imposed on us. Now any sadness is like a few scattered clouds instead of a complete storm.
I know we struggle as humans with “why” questions. Sometimes we’re like stubborn toddlers wanting to know “why, why, why?” An answer of “because” would not be sufficient. But sometimes I think “because” is perfectly fine. Why do I have this life? Because. Why did he die? Because. Who knows. It just is. Because.
I’ve found comfort leaning on the fact that we always have choice. Even if the choices are not the ones you wanted. Even when our choices are limited. Even when the playing field isn’t fair and you seem to get the short end of the stick compared to everyone else. You still get to steer the direction of your ship, irregardless of the weather forecast. I’m definitely not using this analogy to take away from people who have experienced terrible circumstances. I would never suggest that we shouldn’t create an ocean where everyone’s boats can float. It’s just that in my tiny part of the world, with the cards that I hold in my hands at this present moment, I find it comforting to know that I can choose my next move. So I’ve made choices. Namely, I spend my time doing things that I like, and I have focused on raising my children. A zillion people ask a zillion times about whether or not I am on dating apps or “putting myself out there.” Look, I just got Peter out of his damn diapers. I’m probably having about as many romantic dates as I would have had with Kenneth around. It’s funny how people wonder and expect certain things. Maybe quickly finding somebody is a way of wrapping up a terrible situation with a nice bow. It’s funny how I myself worried about this when Kenneth died. But two years later, I don’t really care. I haven’t made it a priority. If it happens, cool. I’m not opposed. I’m just not going to make it my full-time job, and I’m not going to settle for less because I actually really like my own company. Sometimes being alone at Starbucks and playing tennis and having nobody to bother you after the kids go to bed is pretty darn sexy.
I guess that’s the biggest change in the last two years: I am much more in tune with myself. I actually like to live alone (I lived alone before I met Kenneth!). Granted, when I talk about living alone, it’s about as alone as you can get with three kids. But I still get to call all of the shots. Okay, okay. Not really. I’m a slave to three tiny dictators.
I feel like when you are alone, there is a greater burden to figure out your own happiness. When you have a partner it is easy to pawn off the responsibility to the other person, or to attach happiness to the family unit. There is less personal responsibility and less individuality in how you approach life when you are in a relationship. When you are alone, it’s all you. You have to work harder to create your own happiness. The consequence is that in many ways I feel greater happiness, because I was in control of it. All of it. I was the architect. Life on my terms. In my next life with a partner, I will make sure I am intentional about my individual happiness, and try not to fall back into the trap of happiness codependency.
Enjoying being alone is not me saying that I would rather be a widow than a married woman. It’s just making the best out of a shitty situation, and acknowledging that there are silver linings to everything, and we can’t exactly sort life into “good” or “bad” categories. Most of the time it can be both.
My current life is good and bad.
My former life was good and bad.
Every single moment is composed of good and bad.
You maximize what you can do in your current circumstances with your current resources and current knowledge, and you move forward. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.