Restlessness

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(Photo credit: My SIL, since I never seem to have any photos of myself!)

When you are in the throes of a deep, gnarled grief that stabs and slices and shreds, a relentless grief that wants to disembowel, your life becomes consumed with the important job of trying to survive. Pain is your new toxic companion that wants to wrap its tentacles around your neck every single night in the silence of a dark, empty house filled with shadows and reminders of the dead. Grief pours into every corner of space inside of you, invading every cell of your body, stretching for endless, hopeless miles with no horizon in sight. You, alone, spend your days cowering on a rickety raft amidst the violent churning of a vast ocean. You are focused only on getting through another day, one at a time. Every morning you wake up and are surprised that you are still alive.

Over time, the intensity wanes. Your toxic companion isn’t always around, because even it has grown tired of your sad life. It prefers to come around when you are least expecting it, when its chances of knocking you to your feet are the greatest. You are relieved that you don’t have to live every day with it, so the coming and going is acceptable to you, at least at first. When it leaves, you can breathe again. Soon, you can start eating and sleeping again too. The rest of the world had always kept moving along, business as usual. You had to eventually jump back on that train if you were serious about living, which you must have been, since you kept waking up every morning.

I felt almost normal until just before the one year mark, when another burst of grief hit like a volcanic eruption inside of me. I saw it coming. I knew what to do. But none of that ever matters in these circumstances. Like a tidal wave, it is bigger and stronger than you, and your only hope is to ride it out like all of the other wipeouts you’ve experienced. You’ve come to rely on the predictability of pain.

It felt like 8 weeks of a stomach virus, commandeering my body, my thoughts, my entire being. It catapulted me into long, desolate stretches of hopelessness. One final sputter, like the burst of energy surging through your body right before you die, except in reverse. Or was I finally dying?

And then, like a virus, it was out of my system, and a few days later I felt like my new-normal self again.

What I didn’t anticipate was the feelings that would flood my mind after grief subsided.

A new companion took its place: restlessness.

You see, grief is a dark, vicious beast that you spend your time resisting, fighting, processing, understanding. It takes all of your energy to keep it from defeating you, and you mistakenly start to think that this is who you are: a suffering, pathetic, pain-fighter.

Once it’s gone, when you hold your katana over your head in defeat of the ugly beast of pain, you look around, realize you are alone, and you wonder: what’s next?

Restlessness: the inability to rest or relax as a result of anxiety or boredom.

You didn’t prepare yourself for this, just like you weren’t prepared for grief.

I went to my husband’s nephews’ college graduation last weekend. The twins, who were little boys when I first met them, had earned their college degrees. We had a good time with the family, and I thought: wow, I have good in-laws.

Except…I’m not married to their brother anymore.

It’s a sad realization, but not one that cuts through me like it would have in the newness of Kenneth’s death. It’s just a fact now. Facts are facts. I’m not one to argue with truth.

After the festivities, I thought about how much my husband would have enjoyed the weekend. He loved time with his family. Kenneth would have been so jealous, I thought. Everyone together sharing a joyous occasion, but he is nothing but ashes.

It takes time to process the brutality of truth. You have to take the time to digest “Kenneth is campfire ashes” before you reach the point where it doesn’t make you break down anymore.

I’ve gotten used to it, and Kenneth is a neutral topic for me now. I can look at his pictures and feel neutral. I can think of sad things like how he was missing his nephews’ college graduation and it is a passing thought that does not debilitate me anymore.

Kenneth would have liked this.

Kenneth would have liked that.

Wish Kenneth could see this.

Passing thoughts.

I’ve had to work up to this point. I wear my indifference like a hard-earned battle scar across my chest. It is bittersweet: I haven’t gotten stuck in my pain, but Kenneth is a distant memory, floating further and further away from me.

Nobody wins in the end. We just survive the best we can.

Time softens feelings like a rock tumbler, smoothing the edges of the rough and jagged and ugly into something we can live with, maybe even something beautiful.

Having a dead husband, being a single mother, surviving grief–all of these parts of my identity are as normal to me now as being right-handed.

In the absence of my grief and pain, there is space. Breathing room. Time to think. A container to fill, but with what, I don’t know. My attachment to the pain is gone, and I am now attached to…what?

Not my husband.

Not my grief.

_____________.

I’m having an identity crisis. Should I feel normal? Am I really happy? What should I be doing right now, exactly? Is there a correct answer to any of these questions swirling around in my mind?

I am stuck in the role of pioneer, forging my way into new and uncharted territory, but I’m never quite sure if I’m going in the right direction, and this is a role I never planned to have.

This space inside of me is the source of my boredom-but-not-quite-boredom, and it gives me anxiety. Everything is working too efficiently right now in my life, and I’ve gotten used to chaos. I don’t know what to do with this. I’m suspicious of “this.” I’ve conquered the things I once feared, like pumping my own gas, raising three kids alone, and learning how to deal with household crises without another adult. But in other areas, there are still big question marks, like will I live the rest of my life alone? What does my next chapter look like?

I am unsure, and I have a horrible tendency of wanting to control all parts of my life. I’m a planner. I plan food menus and daily activities and monthly goals and weekly goals and a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan and I make to do lists for my to do lists and I revise them a couple times a day.

But “this”, this is something I have not been able to put my finger on. “This” is an elusive thing that I am unable to define.

It’s a scratch I can’t seem to itch.

Something I can’t remember, lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, just below the surface, escaping my memory.

It’s a frustration that grows in my chest, an unidentifiable feeling that isn’t happy or unhappy.

It’s going to dinner with somebody and asking, “What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either.”

A broken record that keeps spinning, playing and replaying a song that doesn’t offend nor appeal.

Going to bed early on a Friday night, wanting to do something fun but never getting around to making it happen.

Saying yes to something you didn’t really want to do, and the remorseful feeling afterward.

A child stuck inside on a summer day, watching the neighbors play and wishing they were too.

A desire to run for miles and miles and miles but not being able to work up the energy to get up and go.

An inability to put a finger on what is missing, but having that nagging feeling.

My days are filled with lots of meaning and productivity and doing the things I think I want to do. I meet my daily writing quotas. I exercise and eat well. My house is clean. I’ve organized closets and bedrooms and obscure drawers. I’ve taken the kids to a zillion places and they are fulfilled and loving little people and I am so happy they are my children. I’ve gone to Europe and gotten new bedding and cute matching pillows and I’ve taken naps and gone on walks and fiddled around in my garden and played with the kids and cooked and juiced and had my hair done and a manicure and a pedicure and everything I can possibly think of to feel content and happy and yet I can’t escape this feeling of restlessness.

If that’s what you call it.

I just call it restlessness for lack of a proper word in English to explain this space inside of me.

I can only assume this is a new stage in my new normal.

Perhaps I’m mourning the loss of the identity thrust upon me last year: Grieving Widow.

Now I am Bored Widow. Restless Widow.

Is there such a thing as Normal Widow? It seems like an oxymoron.

When a baby deviates from their routine and drives you crazy with new naughty behaviors, it tends to be a sign that they are entering a new developmental stage.

I must be evolving, I think. Entering a new stage.

It has to be a good thing, I think.

But I’m not sure. I’m never sure. I just have to keep bumbling through it, and right when I think I have the hang of it, something will pull the rug out from beneath my feet and I will have to figure out a new puzzle in my life.

The silver lining is that I’m getting really good at winging it.

Traveling

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The first day of every trip sucks, I reminded the kids, and ultimately myself. They whined, their eyes half-shut as they threatened to melt into a puddle of limbs onto the dirty ground. I tried not to get too mad at them. I’ve traveled with adults who have been whinier, and they are, after all, just children.

It was a 15 hour plane ride to Rome, counting our brief stop in Dallas. The loading and unloading, waiting, fussing over documents and lugging personal items with a 35 lb toddler strapped to your back can wear a person down. Usually I only do direct flights these days, but sometimes I make an exception if the price is right. It was probably a rookie mistake, but I figured we’d survive…somehow.

We arrived in Rome at 6:45AM and it felt as if an entire day of our lives disappeared with nothing to show for it. Airports are ugly; there was nothing magical about our adventure so far. In fact, there was nothing but nerves bouncing around inside of me as I worried about travel arrangements we needed to make in order to get to our final destination: Venice, a 4+ hour train ride away. I existed in a haze of sleep deprivation. We took the Leonardo Express to Termini, Rome’s largest train station. There we waited for 2 hours for our train. It was the only option with seats available. We were exhausted. I wondered if I could really muster the energy to continue, but I didn’t say that out loud. The trip was all my idea. I was the one who was here for the fourth time, the seasoned traveler in the group.

Let’s rally, I told the kids, my favorite mantra for when things feel tough.

They didn’t even worry for one second. They trusted with every fiber of their being that I would make everything happen the way it was supposed to happen. I guess that’s a compliment, albeit a lot of pressure. It’s different now. I don’t have my husband to catch me when I want to fall. It’s all on my shoulders.

It had been 11 years since the last time I was in Rome. I hadn’t thought of Termini Station in over a decade, the details tucked away in parts of my brain like an unopened junk drawer with forgotten items crammed inside. But once we arrived, it all came back to me with familiarity.

“There’s a McDonalds over there,” I said, remembering the last time I ordered a hash brown and it came with chunks of onion. I refused to eat it, back in my youthful days of extreme pickiness. My palate has matured…slightly.

I remembered the grocery store downstairs, where we purchased pesto (my first experience with it) with a woman from Seattle who we met at our hostel. We carried everything back under the moonlit sky and cooked dinner together in the hostel’s kitchen like we were all old friends. That was back in the day when I didn’t flinch to share a room with strangers and share a bathroom with an entire floor of people. Now I’m still sharing a room, but this time there’s three other people in my bed, limbs intertwined, and probably a couple of Legos and some stuffed animals.

We went to the McDonalds across the street from Termini, where we hoped to pass as much of the wait as possible since there was extremely limited seating at the station (basically, nowhere to sit) and we had time to burn. Our choice was sage; trusty McDonald’s with its globalized banality and dependable French fries. It was clean, there was food, and we could spread out and still be able to keep our eyes on the beggars who kept approaching us with their unsavory agendas pooling in their cloudy eyes.

At this point I wondered why I was still traveling. I wasn’t quite sure how I thought it was a good idea. I wondered if it was one of those things that seemed better on paper, or better in the idea stage. But then I wondered why I kept doing it if it sucked. There had to be a compelling reason. I tried not to decide at that moment. Surely I was on the edge of hallucinating from not sleeping in two days. I could reserve that decision for later.

I still wasn’t convinced any of it was a good idea 4 hours later when we got off our train at the Santa Lucia train station in Venice. I still wasn’t sure when we stepped out of the station and descended the ramp with our heavy luggage in pursuit of an easy route to the apartment we were renting.

And then we found ourselves facing the Grand Canal, watching boats float by against a backdrop of exactly the kind of gorgeous buildings you would expect to see in Italy.

Holy crap, I thought to myself. The city looked like the Venetian in Vegas. Except…it was real. We boarded a water bus toward the “tail” (Venice is shaped like a fish) and adrenaline pumped throughout my body. My fatigue disappeared. The kids were fully awake too, grinning widely, trying to stick their heads out the window so the wind would blow into their faces. They were ready to take on this new adventure. It felt like we stepped into a watercolor painting with lots of colors and people dressed in stripes and beautiful skirts and dresses and perfectly placed canals and bridges and churches. The water helped: it was everywhere. Surely any place with water can put a person at ease. It felt like we were caught in a dream.

In that moment all of the hassle of traveling felt worth it. It was a good idea. I got to see “this” with my own eyes. 15 hours of plane travel, 6 hours in train stations and on a train, and 40 minutes on a water bus. It’s the same feeling you have when you are backpacking. Your body is tired and your muscles are sore, you’ve lost track of how many mosquito bites you have, you’d give anything for a Coke and fast food, but when you’re on top of that waterfall, looking down a picturesque valley, or watching deer galloping across a meadow when the sun has just barely peaked over the eastern horizon and the air is dewy, then you know why you went through the hassle. Good things take effort. It is a universal truth.

Traveling is such an incredible experience. It opens minds. Traveling takes you through doors of civilization. It connects us to the billions of other people on this planet. It makes you realize that you are part of something bigger than the microscopic speck on the planet which you call home. Sometimes it’s as small as discovering a unique wine cork that helps you preserve your leftover wine, something you’ve never seen in stores back home, to make you realize that you and your country don’t have all of the answers, and your way isn’t the only way of living, and there is still so much to absorb in life. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

The rest of the world has simpler tastes, it seems. I am always reminded that we have too much in the United States, from the toys in our kids’ rooms, to the cars in our driveway, to our furniture and clothes and kitchen pantries bursting at the seams with junk that we eat and don’t need. If I hadn’t traveled, I wouldn’t have been able to think reflectively about how I live. That is an added bonus when you travel: copious amounts of time to reflect. I bring a journal and write. I don’t have to worry about the regular laundry list of tasks that keep me stitched inside of the daily grind. I feel free, and the beauty of everything fills my proverbial creative cup until it is overflowing, and the only thing I have to worry about is how I will carry it all back home with me and what will I do with it.

I noticed the way people prepare food differently. I noticed the importance of fresh ingredients. I get to walk when I travel. We don’t walk in the U.S. Not as much as we should. I walk up three flights of stairs to our apartment. Elevators are a luxury and not frequently found in these old buildings. I tried to picture what the people might have looked like in this building built in the 1500s. I hung wet laundry on lines attached from one building to the next. There are no driers. Other countries have amazing public transportation. When I travel, I get to experience the possibility of a world in which we can share resources and in turn, share a healthier planet.

Sometimes traveling helps me realize what it is I love about my home, opening up a well of gratitude for the randomness of the universe that allowed me to live where I live. My driveway. My backyard. The garden beds I can have. A bedroom for each person. My career. Our convenient grocery stores filled with many varieties of products to choose from. Sometimes the gratitude comes with the guilt of knowing how excessive it all is. We have so much. As ugly as the concrete jungle of my home is and how devoid of culture and history it may be, in so many ways I am reminded that I have won some kind of cosmic lottery.

I am convinced that there is a magical place I can call my second home one day, and I find myself in pursuit of this dream wherever I go. Only I can’t really decide, and I’m still partial to my roots no matter how much I love to hear different languages and learn new history. I love walking around amidst the layers of history, seeing 700 year old fountains with my own eyes, pondering artwork older than the founding fathers of my own country. I find myself enamored with many things, but for now, the dream of living abroad is a flicker inside of me begging to be nurtured until the conditions are right.

There are three stages of travel: planning, the actual trip, and reflecting.

The planning allows me to dream, strategize, gives me something to look forward to, occupies my mind, challenges me.

The actual trip is about survival, pleasure, challenge, fun, fear, learning.

When I am home, the reflection is a rosy-colored pair of spectacles that turn everything experienced into something to fondly remember. The stressful train rides are something to smile about. Missed connections, no big deal. There is no recollection of tired legs and cranky attitudes. I forget all of the moments when I asked myself what exactly I liked about traveling. The good and the blends into a reservoir of pleasant nostalgia that I keep returning to when the desire to see something new returns and I do it all again.

I know a lot of people who don’t travel, and it sort of boggles my mind. I mean, I guess I don’t like sports, and that probably seems weird to others.

The common reasons cited for not traveling: money, kids, can’t decide, careers that don’t give enough time off, inexperience in planning, or maybe they don’t like airplanes. It all ends up being excuses at the end of the day. We get married, have children, and buy things we don’t need, all of which cost lots of money and take up a lot of our time, and all of which require that we put effort into learning.

At the end of the day, it boils down to whether or not it is a priority. I remember feeling sticker shock about the price of a train ticket we had to purchase. It simmered inside of me. I felt myself questioning whether this was a good idea. And then I thought: this train ticket for my entire group to see an amazing city has cost me about 1.5 Costco trips. When I put it in those terms, it was easy to let go of the annoyance.

And like all things, if you can get past this learning curve of traveling with good humor and an open mind, you will reap the benefits of the experience. An experience isn’t the same feeling you get when you open a new package or purchase something tangible. Those purchases are a fleeting form of excitement, doomed to wear off and leave you hungry for more.

Unlike buying goods, an experience is something that stays inside of you and becomes part of who you are–forever.

There’s a reason I travel with three children like a mad woman. I love to travel. I’ve never been able to stop traveling, and I’m not the type of mother who is comfortable leaving my kids out of the experience I value so much. More importantly, I want to raise children who have been exposed to the world. I want it to be part of their foundation. I want it to be as familiar to them as their childhood home. I want them to always see a world of possibility. I also want them to accept all human beings as their neighbors, and that despite language, what our homes look like, the food we eat, the money we have, or any other difference, that we are all human beings with the same basic needs and wants. So when I’m tired from carrying Peter around all day, when Eloise has spilled her glass of water at dinner for the 284728657th time, when Ethan decides to start skipping around in a medieval church after I told him to deactivate his robot-mode, or when a cranky old lady shushes Peter’s noises and shames me with her impatience, I will still persevere. I won’t stay home. I can’t keep my wanderlust cocooned in the bubble of my tiny speck of the world. I have to roam. I live for the adventure.

I often hear people talking about their plan to travel “someday.” That someday might be retirement. It might be when their kids grow up. It might be when they save enough money.

To all of that I say: you just don’t know what your “someday” looks like.

I think I’ve always had a sense of urgency, a consciousness that I have a finite amount of time and a heck of a lot of things I wanted to do. But as I am traveling now, I am always aware that my husband is missing out on life. He studied Roman history and could be giving us historical information instead of us relying on Google. He put off traveling to Italy for “someday.” He thought he had all the time in the world. He never thought that one day he’d wake up and die, before he could retire, before his children were out of diapers, before he could finish his life’s bucket list. Just gone.

I thought about him the other day. Not just a passing thought that often happens, like how he liked this or that, or a reference with the kids. It was one of those thoughts I have when I suddenly feel struck by the outrageousness of life, and his lack of life. I don’t often have those thoughts anymore, but it happened while I was traveling on a train to Rome. I tried to remember his face. I even searched through my phone, looking for reminders. He has become a distant memory, intricately woven into the fabric of our lives, but also nonexistent in so many ways. It doesn’t hurt the way it did last year when it was fresh and raw and I didn’t know what to do with myself as a single woman with three young children, but there is a feeling of emptiness you can’t really ever shake out of your system. It feels like you are in a car on a journey with an empty passenger seat. You want to turn and talk to the passenger, or ask them what music they want to listen to or when they want to stop or where they want to go and maybe let them take over the driving sometimes, but there is nothing but empty space. Your car won’t stop. It will continue on, with this journey, and many more, and you get used to the feeling that something is missing. But it’s never going to feel like an ideal plot twist in your life.

When I hear excuses about why people don’t travel, I hear people who are afraid to make the leap into the unknown. I see people who are too attached to the comfort of familiarity. I see people who haven’t yet embraced their mortality.

For those people, I encourage them to make that leap into the unknown and to live as if today is your last. Tomorrow comes with no promises, and sometimes it never comes.

A Letter to the Young Women

I debated whether or not to share this with the masses. It’s a letter I gave to the founding members of the club of which I am the advisor. After several days of contemplation, and since I’ve already given it to my girls, I thought I might go ahead and take the risk and share it to encourage others to connect with our youth.

There is no garbage can for human beings. I’ve come to the conclusion that adults are really just children who have aged on the outside. They may or may not have grown on the inside. As somebody who has experienced brokenness and has had to rebuild and grow resilience, I’ve also learned that we can’t force people to learn on our schedules, they must do it on their own. As teachers, it is our job to be patient and give them repeated opportunities to learn without judgement. We can’t understand somebody else’s journey if we haven’t walked in their shoes. All we can do is practice empathy and patience with an open mind and give them every chance to succeed. They won’t always succeed. But they’ll remember that we believed in them. My husband was always trying to teach me that. I finally did, when I was ready.

***
May 19, 2017

Dear Founding Members,

Next week you will graduate from high school and begin your lives without the constraints of mandatory K-12 education. As exciting as this feels right now, it should not be the end of your learning. I believe that we should all be life-long learners. There is no such thing as knowing everything. While this doesn’t necessarily mean your learning always has to be through traditional means, having a college degree will give you privilege that others won’t have. It will open doors of opportunity, fill your mind with knowledge, connect you with people, and help you grow as a person. Find what you are passionate about and immerse yourself in the study of it. Then go find more things that you are passionate about to learn. There are an infinite amount of things to learn. Spend more time reading than you do engaging in passive activities. Participate. Participate even when you can’t see why or how it would benefit you. Participating leads to learning.There is always something valuable about experiences, and everything you do today will prepare you for the person you’ll be in all of your tomorrows.

Keep being the champions of great causes. Help people. Be bold, but remember a leader has to inspire others to take action. Build relationships. Be fair and compassionate with people. You never know the burdens they carry, just as they don’t know about your burdens.

Take care of your health. You only have one body. Develop healthy habits that will stack the odds in your favor for living a long, happy life.

Say yes to something beyond your comfort zone, and start saying no to the things that no longer serve your heart.

Live in a way that stays true to the woman inside of you. Don’t let society, relationships, friends, careers, laziness, addictions, tragedy, setbacks, friends, lame excuses, or anything else prevent you from living a purposeful, meaningful, balanced life. Life will attempt to bury you under a pile of B.S.. Life is pretty freaking hard, Ladies. Be more stubborn than all the odds stacked against you. Don’t let yourself get buried. The longer you wait to unbury your true self, the harder it will be. You may get lost. That’s normal. Take the time to check in with yourself. Journal. Spend time alone. Think clearly. Focus on your goals and do the best you can. We all make mistakes. When you make a mistake, fix it. Learn from them. Don’t repeat. Never, ever, ever, ever give up. You have too many important contributions to make in this world and in history. Humanity needs you.

Know that your past does not determine who you are today or tomorrow. You always have choice, and you can choose to live a happy life. Happiness is a direction, not a destination. Only you can make yourself happy. Only you can destroy your happiness.

Know that feelings are temporary. They aren’t meant to stay. Let yourself feel and then let the feelings move on. It takes hard work to keep a clear, focused mind. Invest the time to think. It’s worth it. Keep your impulsive instincts in check. It’s so easy to react when you are young. Impose a waiting period on your actions when necessary. Learn to trust your gut.

Keep an open mind about people. People are weird and annoying. So are we. Don’t write people off too quickly. When you can, give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be a doormat, but don’t be quick to burn bridges.

Do your research in life. Research the heck out of everything, from cars to schools to jobs to how to fix things around the house.

Save your money. Don’t waste it. Strong women are independent in many ways, but financial independence is the hallmark of a strong feminist. Only then are you truly free.

Don’t fall in love with the first anything. That includes significant others, cars, houses, whatever. If you fall in love, don’t get one-itis (where you have tunnel vision only for that person). Always ponder the statistical odds of meeting “the one” at the age of 18 and that should help you put life into perspective. You live in a vast ocean with many fish to choose from. Guard your heart. Be choosy about who deserves your time and attention. Not everyone is worth your time.

When you do find that special man or woman to share a life with, if that’s what you choose to do, make sure that person supports the woman you’ve always been, the woman with hopes, dreams, and goals. You should never have to sacrifice that woman for anything or anybody, if that’s who you really are. You’ll know Mr. or Ms. Right is the one when they would never ask or want you to be anyone other than yourself.

Travel as much as you can. Once you have experienced a new country you won’t ever want to stop seeing the world. Once you witness with your own eyes and ears and senses that there isn’t only one way to live, it opens your mind to a world of possibility and opportunity.

If you want something, you’ll make it happen. Don’t wait for your dreams to knock on your front door. You must manufacture your own destiny.

Too much of anything is never a good thing. Knowing how to strike balance in your life is a skill you can develop, and it is something we all must work on throughout our lives. It’s not a one-and-done. You’ll have to calibrate, make adjustments, add, cut, and more over time. That’s what is so beautiful about life. You can wake up every morning to the smell of possibility.

Don’t cheat your way through life. You only cheat yourself, and you will have to pay the consequences at some point. At the end of your life nobody will be standing there high-fiving you for fooling everyone with your cleverness in taking shortcuts. People can spot the inauthentic vs. authentic people. They may not tell you, and you may think you’re getting away with the dishonesty, but it stains your reputation. At the end of your life it will just be you and the emptiness you allowed to grow inside of you. Don’t be that person.

At this age you probably feel invincible. You’ve got wide open space in front of you and lots of time, or so it seems. Know that time is an illusion. Ten years may seem like forever. But now that you’re out of childhood, ten years will pass as quickly as a blink of an eye. In ten years you will lose loved ones. Your body will change. You may or may not have a family of your own. You may have traded your tube tops and ripped jeans for t-shirts and yoga pants. You will not have all of the same friends. Your favorite band won’t be your favorite band anymore.

Don’t be scared of change. You will change. Change is healthy and normal. If we don’t change, we become stale and obsolete and stupid. As we acquire skills and knowledge and experiences, of course we will change! But we are taught to fear change. Instead, embrace it. Own it. The good, the bad, the painful, the joyful. All of it. Because we are human we get to feel everything. And most importantly, we get to learn from it all. That’s the key: make an effort to have a positive influence on the inevitable change you will have in your life. This happens through the choices that you make.

Picture the woman you want to be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, or even 70 years from now. If you take care of yourself you will increase your chances of meeting that future you. Don’t sabotage yourself.

You’re not living by someone else’s timeline. This is your life. You do things when you are comfortable and ready. You must learn to have boundaries and learn to protect your boundaries. This will be important in your careers, relationships, and just life in general.

Make a life that you can enjoy. Find what is meaningful to you. Know that it is possible to live a life that doesn’t feel like drudgery. It’s all about choices and perspective.

The biggest mistake in my life was that I was always rushing from one destination to the other. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. I graduated from college in 3 years. I couldn’t wait to move out of my parents’ house. To have a career. Get married. Have a child. Have another child. And another. And then my husband died. You wish you could go back in time and savor moments, even ridiculously small moments like trips to Costco, which you’d now give anything to have again. You often realize your mortality when it is too late. But it’s never too late to live fully. Enjoy the journey and appreciate all of your days.

Don’t squander your time. It is not unlimited. You may live 70+ more years or you might die next week. Live with purpose. What is meaningful to you? How do you think you can contribute good into the world? You will do great things. What will they be? What do you want to be known for? Isn’t it exciting to wonder and plan for this?

Each of you recognized a need for a feminist club on campus. Each of you knows that we still have a long ways to go to fight for equality and equity for women and other disadvantaged groups in society. You have the opportunity to continue your work advocating for others. You can do it. I’m picturing all of you as 80-somethings, taking a break from time with your grandkids to go to a rally or perhaps volunteer for a great cause. I envision all of you making gray hair and soft, older female bodies as normal as the sun rising and setting each day in a world that stigmatizes women for aging. We need bold, fearless young women like you to pave the mindset and societal attitudes of the future.

You will feel lots of pain in your life. Some of you have already experienced pain. This is the price of living. But that doesn’t mean you have to live a life of suffering. Look your pain square in the eyes with the audacity of the world’s most stubborn woman who won’t back down. Promise to face your problems head on instead of burying your head into the sand. In life we have two choices: lay down and crumble, or do great things. Your life doesn’t have to be over when you face adversity. There are so many beautiful things in the world, you just have to open your eyes and mind to see them.

Inside each of you is a fighting spirit with her own story. Own your story. You have so many more chapters left. You get to fill those empty pages with plot lines and characters and settings. Some of it will be imposed on you–the universe can be cruel. Still, there will be many choices for you to make. Choose carefully. This is YOUR story. As they say, “edit your life ruthlessly and frequently.”

When it all feels too heavy, don’t give up. People will want you to quit. Sometimes life feels like we’re one of many crabs thrown in a boiling pot of water, the crabs pulling each other down and inevitably everyone gets cooked. Don’t pull other people down, but don’t let them pull you down either. Choose your referent group (the people you hang around) wisely. Remember, your life is your story. You get to pick the characters in your chapters. You are the author. Nobody else.

Thank you for being the founding members of a club that means so much to many students on campus. The 2017-2018 FU cabinet has excitedly been planning next year, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do it if a group of fearless young ladies who wanted to change the world hadn’t put their heads together to make it happen. You have already begun your legacies–how exciting is that? I’m optimistic and thrilled to wish you all much happiness as you embark on your life journeys.

Thank you for also giving me hope in my own life. The past year was personally difficult as I embarked on my own journey of being a new widow. The hope, optimism, and curiosity I saw in each of your eyes gave me another reason to show up each day even when I felt like things were too difficult. I am a better person because of knowing and working with you ladies. Thank you for choosing me to be your advisor.

I have gifted each of you with a book that I myself have read. It’s about life. It’s about loss. It’s about finding meaning in your life. It’s an easy read, and if you’re like me, by the time you get to the end you’ll be in your pajamas eating your favorite cake and sobbing over the complexity and fragility of life. And then you’ll lift your head high, take a deep breath, and promise yourself that you will kick butt with whatever time you have been gifted. I hope it inspires you the way it did me.

If you ever feel like you need somebody to talk to, you know where to find me. Now go kick butt.

Sincerely,

Your Teacher

A Weird Wedding Anniversary Post

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Yesterday would have been my 8th wedding anniversary, and just over 10 years together. We got married on the same day as my grandparents. I thought their almost sixty years of union would have been good luck. Nope. At least not for me.

Not long before Kenneth passed away, I teased him about our upcoming 7th wedding anniversary. I told him it was the seven year itch, and would we survive? He got mad. He was always very traditional and loyal when it came to family (not hair or music though, haha). I never had to worry about him running off. Until he died off.

As the anniversary approached, I wondered how I would feel on that day. I wasn’t overcome with sadness like I was last year when it was only two weeks after his death and two days before his funeral. I didn’t run off to get a tattoo, like I did last year. I told the kids that it was our “family anniversary,” celebrating the day that we formalized the beginning of our family. We spent the day at swim lessons and then at their school carnival, complete with cotton candy, face painting, and bounce houses. Instead of me getting flowers, I gave Kenneth flowers at the cemetery. I felt a bit of sadness well up in my chest, but then it passed. It kind of just…is. The agonizing grief has faded into tired grief. The kids declared it the “best day ever.” They are way more skilled at not letting the past interfere with the present.

What I’m about to write is probably the exact opposite of what you might expect to read about somebody’s anniversary, especially from a widow who is supposed to be sad about her dead husband. But I’m not one to sugar-coat reality, and like most things in life, it’s never as simple as feeling one emotion. When we take a trip, we are excited about going, we feel sad when we leave, happy to be home, and nostalgic when we look at the pictures. A full spectrum of feelings about one trip. To reduce our experiences to one emotion is to not be transparent about living.

My disclaimer before I continue is that of course I miss my husband and I wish he were here. But like all things, it’s never usually good or bad. Happy or sad. Tragic or fortunate. In life, it is usually all of it. 

I’ve noticed that I’ve become more efficient. I appreciate things more. I’ve learned a lot. I feel more. I’m writing more. My house is always clean. I’m more forgiving. I go where I want. i’m more organized and focused. I’m kinder to myself. ‘And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking. 

Maybe I’ve had enough time by myself, enough distance from that fateful day, to put everything into perspective about marriage and loss and being single again. I remember in the days and weeks after Kenneth passed away, one of the most noticeable changes in my life was all of the free time I suddenly had, left alone with my own thoughts. I was so used to him always being there. When the kids went to sleep at night, it became just me mulling around an uncomfortably silent and lonely house. Nobody to talk to. Just me and my thoughts and a desire to reconcile the madness in my head. In the mornings, instead of bumping into him as we prepped breakfast and lunch and chit-chatting about school and politics and what we had to do that day, I suddenly found myself alone to do all of the work by myself with time to think.

There’s nothing like becoming a widow to experience a complete identity crisis. I thought I was living the life that I wanted, and then the next morning, that life was gone. I became a 34 year old widow with three little ones. We all know what society thinks about single mothers. So much of a woman’s social status is tied to her reproductive strategies, no matter how bogus some of us might think that is. Not only would I have to grieve my husband, but I’d have to deal with the social ramifications of being a single mother. A societal outcast. I’ve had multiple well-intended people remind me how unlikely it will be for me to find a significant other while I have such small children. 

So this was it, I thought. My fate. It felt like rusty nails being pounded into my coffin. 

The first year of widowhood passed both excruciatingly slow and quick all at the same time. There were many evenings of isolated thinking. Many early mornings packing lunch and pondering. If I didn’t have three young children, I would have left my job and spent a year somewhere reflecting on a mountain. But alas, I was stuck in the suburbs with obligations and monotonous routines. Being single gave me the space to process without having to use someone else’s filter.

My dismal situation led to an opportunity to engage in deep reflection. It made me think long and hard about who I was, how I felt about myself, and how I felt others perceived me. I knew early on that I was going to think my way out of this. Someway, somehow, I’d save myself. This couldn’t be the end for me. I could take back my narrative. 

In marriage, so much of who we are has to pass through the marriage filter. Would my husband be okay with it? What time should I be home? He didn’t like this or that. He wanted to go there. I wanted this but he doesn’t like it, so we had to choose that. Compromises involve concessions that don’t always feel true to the person we once were. We forget the person we were. That person becomes buried under time. We assume a new identity that is shared with our spouse.  Until something happens.

My husband was the one who died, but I felt like in a lot of ways I died too.

Except I could reinvent myself. There could be rebirth for me, if I wanted it.

And I knew that I did.

Maybe the life I lost wasn’t necessarily the be all, end all in the narrative of my life. Maybe there could be positive gleaned from a horrific experience. I don’t know what it looks like, but there had to be value in the person I was becoming in my new life.

An identity crisis is not unique to widows. It happens to all of us. It’s just that widows go through the crisis of one day being married and sharing their lives with somebody, and the next day not, with no choice of their own. It’s a shock to body and mind.

But we’ve all experienced having our sense of self pigeon-holed into someone else’s projection of who we are. They want to define our narrative. We are led to believe that our narratives just kind of happen. We become passively complicit in the loss of ourselves, floating through life with the rest of society, accumulating labels over the years.

We’re too bossy. Too lazy. Too messy. Too radical. Too loud. Too idealistic. Too soft. Too drama. Too quiet. Too crazy. Too pretty. Too ugly.

I find myself fighting labels now more than ever. Awful ones that make you want to walk the other way, like widow and single mother and bitch.

They will judge me by what I say. How I look. What I do. Where I go. Who I associate with. What I believe. For my biology.

As a woman, and especially as a mother, we seem to be targets for unwanted opinions and generalizations. Everyone else apparently knows better than us about how to live our lives.

We are born a blank slate, uniquely our own person, but the moment we enter this world until we take our last breath (and for some even after death), we are subjected to the onslaught of society’s opinions about how we live and who we are. It pushes its way into the narrative of our lives. It attempts to define who we are without our direct consent. Some of us are better than others at handling the imposition.

We should get married. We should have children. We should do this. We should do that. We should, we should, we should. But nobody asks us what we really want to do, nor are we in the habit of creating the space and time to contemplate this heavy question. Often we don’t think to challenge social norms. It’s just the way it has always been.

But there is always a choice. We can roll over and accept whatever is handed to us, or we can take back our narratives. We can fight to unbury our true selves from out beneath the rubble of the societally-imposed narrative.

In the quiet space of my newfound singlehood, I’ve thought a lot about who I am, who I was, and what the future might look like for a pathetic widow like me. The truth is, we seem to have made being single a societal plague that one must strive to avoid. Marriage is glorified but being single means there must be something wrong with us. Something missing. Same for people without children. They get a zillion questions from curious people about why they wouldn’t want to reproduce. Why wouldn’t you want to do what everyone else does?

We live in a society that values bad relationships over being alone. So we settle. We stay. We concede and we tolerate and we live our lives without knowing what it takes to be happy.

Nobody talks about how marriage is one of the biggest hijackers of our sense of self, or how boring most parents become when they have nothing to talk about except about their children. 

We get married and our personal narratives are abandoned, replaced with a family narrative. Everyone acts like that’s the way life is supposed to work. It’s like a Vanishing Twin Syndrome, but for couples. One person becomes absorbed into the other. They are no longer individuals, but a unit.

Our spouse and children become our hobbies. We get addicted and attached to them. Codependent.

Having a personal narrative consumed with the lives of other people (even the humans I gave birth to) seems like a lazy way to live. How easy it is to hide behind being Ethan’s mom or Kenneth’s wife. It was easier not to have to make decisions alone. It was easier being able to pass tasks off onto somebody else. It was easier to blame each other. It’s so easy to say you can’t do this or that because of your kids. Crutches, that’s what they are. Crutches that prevent us from having to walk on our own and take responsibility for how we lived our lives.

The problem with basing your entire identity on your relationship with others is that you can’t control those others. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they leave. Children grow up. Children get their own lives.

But we are still here.

When I ask the students in my class to tell me about what they like, I tell them they can’t say sleeping or eating. Duh. We all eat and sleep. We all go to the bathroom too. And most of us have family, whether it be parents, siblings, offspring, spouses, whatever. Are any of those things really something to put on our resumes? If you go to a job interview, do you tell them immediately that you are a parent and a spouse? Are these personal attributes that measure our worth and appeal as human beings?

And yet we let it consume who we are.

I’m not trying to disparage parenting or marriage. I’m a fiercely loving mother of three. I’m the woman who wanted children since my childhood days of cradling Cabbage Patch Dolls in my arms. I opted not to go to law school because I didn’t think being a lawyer would allow me to be the kind of mom I knew I would want to be. And I had a mostly happy marriage to a man I would still be married to if he hadn’t died. But I’m not just a mother, and I wasn’t just a wife.

I had to lose my identity to realize that I didn’t want to drown in domesticity ever again. Even though I don’t think I was as bad as I could have been, I still recognized parts of my life that was not the way I really wanted to live.  Now that I have one foot in the family life, and the other foot in the single world, I don’t quite fit into either world. I don’t want to spend my social time talking about potty training, but I also don’t have the luxury of hanging out at bars and not planning my life around sitters. I’m somewhere in between. I don’t feel adequately understood, but I’ve become at ease with that. I feel less of a need to be understood and more interested in determining my own narrative, on my terms. It’s part of understanding your mortality and realizing that you have one shot at making the most of your life.

I guess the first moment I realized that my life wasn’t as bad as I thought was when my annual anniversary photo book came in the mail. I’ve been making one every year since we got married, using it as a way to look back on the previous year of our marriage. Now I’ve turned it into a family book. I flipped through the pages, looking at pictures from Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, a trip to Legoland, the Aquarium,  holidays, hiking, our house, the kids’ activities, birthday parties, the kids’ artwork, and outings. I closed the book and felt guilty. I had spent the last year feeling like my life was terrible, but the photographic evidence proved otherwise.

The family we knew had ended, but it evolved into something new. I had it ingrained in my head that the old version was better, the one that included my husband. But in a world where there are so many things beyond our control, we shouldn’t be measuring the value of our lives based on simplistic standards of better or worse, good or bad. There is no one way to live. There is value in everything. 

It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in marriage. I had a mostly positive experience being married. I was lucky enough to be married to somebody who was constantly in awe of me. It was a time when I could be myself around somebody who accepted me completely. He knew all aspects of who I was. He understood the nooks and crannies of my mind, for better or worse. He understood my dreams and goals. He knew exactly what my shortcomings were, but he cared more about my strengths and potential and would support me no matter what. He was somebody who wanted me to succeed. He was also a great co-parent. 

Nobody understands me the way that he did. The other people in my life usually only know a certain aspect of who I am. They know the professional side of me. The neighbor side. The daughter side. The friend. The mother. Only my spouse (who I worked with) knew what it looked like when all of these aspects of my identity intersected, creating the authentic narrative of who I was. We all have an innate desire to be seen for our true selves.

Despite having a positive experience, I think it is irresponsible to not point out the negatives of marriage. There was a lot I didn’t like. Even in the best of circumstances, marriage inevitably involved bargaining, compromise, acceptance, and concessions. Two individual narratives do not happily intertwine with longevity without some (or a lot) of mess. You will have battles of the wills. I also find it can lead to avoiding having to write your own narrative. It’s so much easier to make everything about the family. Being true to yourself, to really know who you are and what you want to do and be known for, is something that takes a lot of hard work. It’s easier to selectively post edited snippets of your life on Facebook so the world thinks you’re the happiest married couple on Earth and everything in your life is Pinterest Perfect.

Except, we all know that a parent living vicariously through their children or a person who sacrifices their life to cater to the life of their spouse are people who aren’t living true to themselves.

But we would never admit that. Instead of calling it like it is, we think it’s great parenting. Loving marriages. To think otherwise is nothing short of treason to social conventions. 

I always wonder why it is considered good parenting to show your kids (through the way that you live) that once they grow up they too will become a parent whose life amounts to chauffeuring small people around, catering to them like maids, and having no real interests or skills other than keeping the fridge stocked and managing the family calendar. I can’t be the only person to wonder about this. 

Why are we so terrified of showing the true colors of marriage? Like death, we shy away from revealing what living really looks like. I know Van Gogh didn’t paint toilets, but he also didn’t have a platform like social media  to constantly push out fake narratives about living.

If you want to know the truth, marriage puts constraints on your time. It can suck away your attention. It can reduce your life to Costco trips and diaper-changing rotations and squabbling in the car about the most inane topics. It can lead to simmering resentment. It can cause you to compromise away non-negotiables and make you have amnesia about the things you once wanted but gave up in the name of the family. It can make you selfish and entitled. It can dilute who you are, and we so easily smile and pretend that it’s all okay because we have these amazing families and lives and everything smells like roses until you look at the divorce rate in this country.

I often wonder if I am okay with living the rest of my life alone. At the rate I’m going, and the more I dissect it in my head, it seems less likely that I will agree to anything less than what I think I deserve, which means it may prove to be immensely difficult to find someone with a similar perspective (in addition to me having three young children, which everyone keeps reminding me is a major detriment to my social calendar). I won’t give away the person I’ve fought so hard to become just for the false security of companionship. I would also never downgrade, or contemplate settling, just for the sake of companionship. Being a widow has taught me that I can stand on my own two feet and face my scariest days alone.

And yet I still believe in the benefits of marriage. I had a mostly good experience with marriage, which means the good parts of my relationship outweighed the bad parts. We cannot reduce a complex relationship to a simple word of good or bad. It was fun, boring, dramatic, supportive, loving, bitter, resentful, admiring, tiring, inspiring, companionship, friendship, angry, adventurous, and a lot more words to accurately define what marriage was like for me.

There are many benefits of companionship, when done in a way that stays true to yourself. I still believe in the institution of marriage, despite the fact that I’m realizing that I kind of like being single too. We can be good partners and good parents without sacrificing everything. We don’t have to choose between this or that, but rather it’s a balancing act. When we work to strike the right balance (an ongoing process), I think it makes us better spouses and parents and people.

I know that if I ever get married again, I will be a better partner. I’ve learned so much about relationships from losing mine.

My narrative involves a dead husband and three young children, but there’s so much more than that. I am the only person with permission to write my narrative. I will protect that right until I die. I hope my narrative will be long and filled with memorable experiences and feelings and people and places. I want it to involve frequent plane trips around the world, gardens, libraries, and copious amounts of time spent with my children. I want a cozy home with purposeful space to socialize with family and friends. I want books all over my house. I want to learn, create, and participate in my community. I want to exercise regularly and eat clean. I have many more backpacking trips to make, whitewater rafting to experience, and snorkeling to do. I want to be a NICU cuddler and I want to comfort people in the hospital experiencing death. I want to play better chess. I want to attend Supreme Court oral arguments. I want to take the family to Plum Village and learn to meditate. I want to join a travel group. I want to say yes to something outside of my comfort zone and get better at saying no to the things that don’t speak to my heart. I want to publish dozens and dozens of novels and be a 90-something year old who still feels the insatiable desire to create more. I want to nurture my children’s interests and raise passionate humans who help the world. I want an Andalucian garden and maybe a hot tub. I want to be a strong female role model. I want to inspire and mentor young people.

None of this requires that I am married.

It would be nice to meet the right person again, someday, but I only want to share my narrative with somebody who has their own compelling narrative, who isn’t interested in consuming mine, and who isn’t seeking other human beings to make his hobby.

I don’t do downgrades. Only upgrades.

Whether this happens or not, I want to be known as a person who contributed good in the world. A person who lived the way she wanted to live. Not just a mom. Not just a widow. A human being who lived each day fully.

Dear Kenneth

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Dear Kenneth,

When you died, I didn’t know how I was going to survive a single day without you.

And now, 365 days later, we are remembering the one year anniversary of your passing on that fateful spring morning. The year has been both tediously long and achingly short. Somehow I am still standing.

Today we will go with your family to the cemetery. We’ll release butterflies, just like we did last year at your inurnment, and we’ll leave you and your parents flowers. We’ll eat at Curry House–your favorite–and then resume business as usual. I’ve always known that the first year is the hardest. Then the years start to fly by, like a pile of papers in a gust of wind, scattering before you can catch them, off into different directions.

The entire situation still seems so outrageous to me that I sometimes think there may still be a possibility that it’s all fake. But I am forced to deal with the brutal reality of your absence. It hurts more than any pain I’ve ever known. A year later, it has evolved from a searing pain into a duller, nagging feeling that just sort of sits heavy in the pit of my stomach, slowly digesting. I think about the distance spreading between us with each passing day. I feel like strangers now. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever really married to you. It feels like it was a mirage in my mind. I’m forgetting the details. I worry that I can’t remember your voice. The other day I desperately looked for a video with you talking and I listened to it over and over again. It feels like we loved each other in a different lifetime.

I’ve done my best to raise our children on my own. It feels like a cruel joke that our family has to be this way now, considering we planned every single child down to the day. We had charts of age projections and we crunched numbers and marked calendars together, investing all of our hopes and dreams into this little family we were building. We forgot to plan for you dying.

I hate looking into our children’s eyes when they tell me they miss you. How horribly unfair that they must grow up without remembering your arms around them embraced in a hug, or to have you carry them to bed from the car when they fall asleep. They miss the way you used to talk to them on the drive to school. Ethan claimed he asked you lots of questions and you always knew the answers. You loved being a dad, and you were a good one.

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The main thing that keeps me going is knowing that I have to continue the love in our family for Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. I know it’s what you would expect, and it’s what I expect from myself. We fought a lot, but we always agreed on the important things, like family, money, politics, religion, and love. The only thing that could hurt me more is to not do my best to give our kids a life of love and opportunity.

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Sometimes I wonder what you would have looked like as an old man. You would have been cute with white hair (although I’m skeptical your jet-black hair would have ever turned color). I felt a little guilty when your sister and I cut snippets of your beloved hair in the hospital room before they took your body away, just so we would have something to remember you by. The hair I took is still in the same purse, zipped inside the upper pocket, wrapped in the same tear-drenched tissue. I don’t know what to do with it. I haven’t used that purse since. I stuffed it on a shelf high in my closet, just like I stuffed a lot of things I knew I needed more time to deal with.

I get shivers down my spine when I look at the pictures we took only days and weeks before your passing. Moments of us together, frozen in time, like the picture of you pushing Eloise on the swing right after we bought them new shoes at the mall, or the one of all of us posed on the Legoland ride 11 days before you died, completely clueless about how our lives would unravel. The normalness of those last days still unnerves me. I’d give anything to have our ordinary life back.

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I’ve spent an entire year not only mourning your loss, but also the loss of my innocence. My life can be divided into two parts: before April 27, 2016, and everything after. It’s an odd feeling that I have to live with for the rest of my life. I dream of the day when I will start the third part of my life, the part where I’ve moved out from beneath the dark clouds of grief and have rebuilt my life into something happy and meaningful. I want the story of our love and tragedy to fit seamlessly into the tapestry of my long and beautiful life, rather than feel like my destruction.

Ethan recently told me “it feels like Daddy was just here, but then I closed my eyes, and when I opened them he was gone.” It totally does.

You were always teaching everyone about something, whether it was chess, philosophy, world history, religion, finance, health–whatever. Even in your death, you continue to teach me. I’ve learned more about myself, life, death, suffering, being present, gratitude, responsibility, love, trust, courage, and more in just one short year. I want to continue sharing the meaning you contributed to this world. I know you’ll live on through everyone you’ve ever impacted, but I want to do what I can to continue it too. So I’m doing it the best way I know how (other than through our kids). I write a lot. Fiction. Non-fiction. I’m working on your unfinished work. I have to turn the pain and loss into something.

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In the first year of your absence, I know there are decisions in my new life that you would love and others you’d be mad at me about, but I want you to know that everything I’m doing now is not necessarily what I would have done before you died. Our circumstances have changed. I’ve changed. I will admit that without your veto power, there have been no checks and balances in our home. It’s a one-woman show. Also, I’ve been kind of winging all of this. I just have to do what feels right in my gut.

I’m sorry I changed the color of your childhood home. I know you’d probably be pissed off at me. And I got the new windows you told me “no” about for the past several years. But…it had to be done. So I did it. I’m happy with the way it turned out. I think you’d probably like it. You know I was usually always right, and in this case I totally was.

I’m sorry I’ve been going a little crazy with my trips. I know you’d be telling me to stop spending money. You were a phenomenal saver. You used to tape “A part of all you earn is yours to keep” on everything, and you loved to stockpile your money. But, I am only going to live once. I think I’ll start being better at scaling back on the trips next year. Right now I’m searching for ways to occupy my mind as I persevere through this inferno. Next year I’ll be better. Maybe. Okay, probably not. But there never was a trip I ever regretted, so I’m confident that all of this will work itself out.

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You would have loved Japan. It was everything and a ton more than I ever dreamed of. Every time we ate udon or something good, we thought of you. When we were at the temple in Kyoto, walking barefoot across the cold wooden floors, listening to monks chant and smelling the burning incense, I couldn’t help but feel like you were there with us, even though I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. It made no sense. Maybe it’s because we hoped you were there. I know there isn’t a Santa Claus, but the idea is cute, right?

The thing is–and you would love this–but I feel like you are somehow in my DNA. A part of every cell in my body. My experiences with you are fused inside of my genome. And part of you is in each of our children. So you really are always with us.

I know you’d be jealous of us going to Copenhagen. I know you wanted to see the Little Mermaid statue. What a strange thing for you to want to see, but that’s what I loved about my metro husband. Unapologetic about the things he liked. So sorry you won’t get to see the “hot blonde women” in Denmark that you always wanted to see. But I’ll get to see the hot Italian men in Italy. You probably would have raised an eyebrow about that. I know you were annoyed with my penchant for Italian men. But I think you’d understand, given my current situation.

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I’m sorry I let Ethan drop out of karate. I know you wanted him to do it until he was 18. He confessed to me almost a year later that he missed going with you because you helped him with the difficult moves. He loved the way you used to put on a gi with him and practice karate side-by-side at the dojo. It just didn’t feel right for him to go alone, and he wasn’t interested. Maybe he’ll want to do it in a few years. Maybe he won’t. We really have to go with our gut feelings these days.

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You would be proud that we stepped up our spiritual game and attend service regularly. I’m appreciative that you introduced me to Buddhism. I feel like you somehow knew that I would need it to survive your loss. I am constantly contemplating the meaning of life, death, suffering, and happiness. My life before 4-27-16 wasn’t as consumed with these thoughts, but the new me is. I thought I had everything figured out. It turned out I didn’t and I still have a lot to learn. I’m happy to have a source of knowledge that I can reference when I need some intellectualizing to process my thoughts. I also finally found Nietzsche, Sartre, Freire, and others who you quoted over the years. You’d be happy to know that I was quite impressed with your intellect when I finally caught up with some of your reading list.

On May 12th, on what would have been our 7th wedding anniversary, I got my first tattoo. Your writing, from your journal. On my arm.

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Seriously. I know your eyeballs would pop out if you knew this. I was never going to get a tattoo and I used to tell you to stop saying “I am responsible.” You annoyed the hell out of me with it. You’d play your self-help tapes over and over again, and I’d groan out loud. And then I went and tattooed one of your dorkiest phrases on my arm, because somehow it felt like the right thing to do. Your handwriting comforts me. Now I feel like I need the reminder that no matter what has happened, it is my responsibility to control my interpretations and to make deliberate choices. My life is in my hands. I miss your writing. I miss your terrible spelling and the notes scribbled everywhere. I miss your thoughts. I’m still working on your story. I’m going to finish it. For you. For us.

In two weeks it would have been our 8th wedding anniversary. The kids and I are still going to celebrate. May 12th was the establishment of our family. That will never change.

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We went to Germany and Paris last summer without you. It was hard. You loved Berlin, and we were supposed to experience it together. You always talked about the amazing club you went to that was in a castle. Unfortunately my Berlin experience wasn’t as enchanting. Paris wasn’t the same either. Something was missing. You. Us. We did come across a bar called Bon Vivant. Ethan thought it was a sign (since we put “bon vivant” on your niche).

Our annual camping trip with our friends came and went–without you. I miss how you would get excited and always wanted to buy new camping gear as if you were a real mountain man, even though we all knew you were terrified of bears and bugs. I got a tick on my arm. You would have freaked out. I called your doctor on the drive home so he could reassure me that I wasn’t going to get Lyme Disease. I totally felt like you, the eternal hypochondriac. (Everything was okay!)

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I had to start a new school year without you. I cried the entire day. Bawled. It was so hard seeing your empty classroom and not hearing your voice. It’s still sometimes difficult for me to stand outside of my door during passing periods and not be able to talk to you. For 10 years we taught next door to each other, and then suddenly you were gone. I had to endure the end of the quarter minimum days, remembering how we would always go to lunch together and then go to the movies. Graduation. Breaks. I was so used to you always with me at lunch time and meetings and having somebody to always consult. I don’t have that anymore. I feel left behind and alone. Maybe I was spoiled. My work spouse really was my spouse. Now it’s usually very quiet. But the students get me through my days. I like that they aren’t jaded yet. For many of them life is a still a big, open canvas. I can relate to them too now. We’re all dateless and unsure of our futures.

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The kids and I visit your niche at the cemetery almost weekly. I can’t bear the thought of you not having fresh flowers. People always stare at us with pity. I already feel like a freak show. I know their intentions are good, but it still makes me feel like crap. Peter excitedly says “good-bye” to you. I hate that our baby only knows you as a plaque on the cold marble wall. He folds his chubby little hands together and bows, imitating the namu-amida-butsu he learned from his siblings. The kids kiss their fingers and then press them against the letters on your niche, repeating it over and over and over again until they have sufficiently kissed “you” at least 10 times and it’s time to walk over to your parents. I made sure I got your niche facing the door so you could “look” out to where your parents are. The kids race over to their columbarium and we give Jichan and Bachan flowers too. I know how much you loved your parents.

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I survived the election season without you. I was determined to precinct walk, business as usual. I strapped Peter on my back and brought the older two with me, walking house to house. I met Jackie. You would have never guessed in a million years that I would precinct walk with somebody who used to work for somebody you protested against. A Republican! But I know you would have liked her. I took Ethan to a Bernie rally. You were making phone calls for Bernie only days before you passed away. The kids and I went to an anti-Wal Mart rally. I’m going to make sure they are involved, the way you would have wanted them to be.

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By the way, Trump got elected. If you had lived I suspect you would have surely had your aorta explode on Election Day. Sometimes I think maybe you just couldn’t live in this world anymore. Imagine a world where Bush is slightly more tolerable than Trump. I don’t think you could have ever guessed that would have happened in a million years.

I really miss you when I’m feeling scared about life, during those moments when I feel like I have nobody who understands me and nobody to lean on. Life was better with our hive mind. I was less scared of failing with you by my side. It’s really freaking scary having to do all of the adulting in the house by myself.

Halloween came and went. We survived your birthday, but we felt your void. I remembered your last birthday party and the picture of you about to blow out your candles. There was something contemplative about your expression. I wonder if you subconsciously knew it was your last birthday.

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Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came and went. All lonely days without you. I feel like a third wheel in a vast ocean of couples. Somehow this is always more evident to me on holidays. I’ll spare you the emotional pain of what it’s like being a “single mother” now because I know it would have killed you. But life as a single woman with three kids is odd. My feet are in two doors: the singles world, and the family world. I don’t fit in with either world. I’m a misfit. A woman with a scarlet “W” branded onto my chest. A widow. I find myself not wanting to be around couples and families. I don’t want to talk about kids or family life. Even witnessing somebody touch his wife’s arm makes me bristle. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you are so very alone and the person you loved is so very dead. I don’t think people realize this when they are around me. I know they can’t stop their lives. But it hurts feeling like I’m the only one who was banished to another planet.

Ethan turned 7. You would be proud of him. He’s smart, thoughtful, and he misses you the most. That boy loved the hell out of you. He is brave. He enjoys life. He’s social and curious. He started Cub Scouts, chess club, Mad Science, art, and coding. Most special about him is that he’s resilient. He’s full of love. And he is hopeful for the future.

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I turned 35. You met me when I was 24. I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been, but you’ll never see it. That makes me sad. I’m different. I feel it in my bones. If I didn’t have this layer of grief over my head, infecting my mind, I think I would be a better person than who I was before you died. When I’m thinking clearly it makes me hopeful for my future. When I’m not thinking clearly I feel like I’m doomed. You helped me reach more of my potential. You were my greatest teacher. You always encouraged me to pursue my writing. You never objected to me getting new clothes or books or anything that made me happy. Not having you here makes me realize in a soul-crushing way that I lost my most loyal friend and companion. I know you loved me more than anything. Sometimes I worry that I’ll never have that again.

Our baby, Peter Jack, turned 2. You would adore this little troublemaker. He looks the most like you. He’s a clown, an adventurer, a lover, a brat. He loves to eat. He’s 35 lb of squish. Last week he filled the sink in the “Dirty Bathroom” (your childhood name for the bathroom near the garage) with dog food and turned on the sink. He also climbed on top of the washing machine to reach a bag of Easter chocolate, which he promptly consumed. My mom accurately describes him as a bull in a china closet. Last week I was taking him out of the van to go to the babysitter’s house, and he said “Bye, bye, Da Da.” Nobody else was in the car. I clarified who he was talking to. He just smiled. I looked up at the moon and said, “There he is. There’s Da Da. He’s everywhere, isn’t he?” He smiled again, that big goofy grin that he owns. He fights with his siblings over who gets to carry the flowers for you at the cemetery. He kisses your picture every night before he goes to sleep. He loves you even though he doesn’t know you, and that makes me sad.

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Eloise turned 4 exactly two weeks ago. Her birthday was the last event we had together with family and friends before you died. A few days ago we had her unicorn party, and even though we had a great time, I noticed the empty space where you should have been. Ellie misses her daddy. She loves lipstick and shoes. I bought her high heels for her birthday and she hates to take them off. She also likes to read books and play doctor. I know you would be amused by her little personality. In many ways she’s like you. She’s creative and stubborn. She’s learning to sound out letters. Recently we were shopping at Sprouts and out of nowhere she pointed to the radishes and said “Daddy liked those in his salads!” We haven’t talked about that since you last went grocery shopping with us. I smiled, happy that she still had memories of you. You were the closest to Eloise since you had the most patience for her shenanigans. Ever since she was born (screaming the second she came into contact with oxygen) you had a way of consoling her and giving her the attention she needed. You never lost your cool with her meltdowns. The two of you could relate to each other. She would go to you over me any day. I worried in the days after you passed away how I was going to fill that role for her. It happened naturally, and now I feel an extra duty to Eloise to do my best to understand her the way you did.

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It’s sad that the only thing our kids have left of you are memories, and because they are so young, those memories are going to fade and most likely disappear. But I promise you, I’m doing everything I can to keep your existence real and relevant in their lives. They are always eager to hear stories about you. Recently I told them about the chocolate bunny you bought me during that first year we lived together in the horrible studio apartment in Long Beach. The apartment got so hot that the chocolate melted. We started making it a tradition to buy a chocolate bunny and to see how long it would take to melt. The kids loved the story, and, well, there’s a chocolate bunny on our refrigerator, waiting to carry on the tradition. (Unfortunately for them we have air conditioning now.)

Guess what? I learned how to juice, and I actually do it 4-5 days a week! I didn’t even know how to use the machine before you passed away. But I learned (thanks to your sister). Peter is my biggest fan when it comes to drinking juice. He can drink 3x the amount that his siblings consume. I’ve continued your interest in health, branching off into my own areas of interest. Currently I’m exploring sugar, and how to drastically reduce it in our diet.

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We planted the avocado tree you always wanted. 1/10 of your ashes were put into a biodegradable urn that we buried beneath the new tree. My dad dug the hole and Ethan lovingly placed the urn inside while the rest of us watched. You will always be a part of your childhood home that you loved so dearly. Someday in the future we will have a beautiful avocado tree bearing fruit, and you will be a part of the earth that sustains its life.

After you died, I met many of your former students who also loved you. You had over 500 people at your funeral. The number of former students that attended was astounding. You never knew how loved you were. You had no idea about the reach and impact of your influence in their lives. I wish I could tell you that the ones you thought weren’t listening…they were listening. They carry you inside of them and they were in pain when they heard that you passed. You contributed so much good in the world. Who could ask for a better purpose in their life?

Several of your former students have become my students, and they formed a feminist club. You would probably be rolling your eyes, calling me a Femi-nazi. But I know you’d be proud of their hearts and what they are trying to achieve. One of your students started babysitting for us. I gave her some of your records and I’m happy that a part of your musical passion gets to live on through her. I know she will be a lifelong family friend, and I would have never known her if it wasn’t for you. I sometimes joke that she is the red-headed daughter we never had together.

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I don’t watch many movies anymore without you, the King of Netflix, picking the ones you thought I would like. I miss talking politics with you. I miss you being there. Here. I miss even going to Costco with you. Life was a little easier with a constant companion. The weight of life didn’t feel as heavy with you by my side. Sometimes that weight crushes me now.

I had to throw away your favorite shoes and True Religion jeans. I remember when we drove over an hour away to the outlet mall, back in the days before we had kids. We dropped my grandma off at the casino and went looking for True Religion jeans. She kept asking why you would spent so much money on pants that had holes in them.

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Slowly, memories of you are being scrubbed away, cleaned out of drawers, stowed, organized. Some things I couldn’t part with, like your books. Your nato is still in the freezer in the garage. Someday I’ll throw it away. I’ve learned that eventually you just know in your gut what to do next. You’ll know when it is the right time. It’s better not to rush anything. I probably should have been kinder to you when I nagged about cleaning out the garage. You needed your own time to process your memories. (Bet you can guess what happened to the garage after you passed away though.)

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I told the kids that we should be thankful for having you in our lives. You were never ours to keep forever. But we got a little bit of you. You were part of our stories.

It bothers me that I never got to say good-bye. I’ll never know if you heard me calling your name or making the 9-1-1 call. I’ll never know if you heard me crying over you, begging you to open your eyes. If I knew there was nothing they could have done, I would have spent those last few moments holding you and reassuring you instead of doing chest compressions. I can only hope that you possibly felt my presence and that you knew I was by your side when you took your last breath.

If I had the chance to say good-bye, I would have thanked you for your knowledge. For always encouraging me. For helping me come out of my shell, for teaching me to feel deeper, think broader, love harder, and to take care of my health. I would have told you that I loved you and reassured you that I will handle everything. I would have promised you that I will always fiercely love our children enough to count for the both of us.

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When you watch your significant other unexpectedly die, in that moment you realize that everything that ever bothered you about them, drove you crazy, made you mad, made you want to quit–all of those feelings were probably not as important as the good ones you shared. Or maybe not. (If I had the choice though, I would have chosen you again, even knowing how messy you were.)

We had bad times, like everyone else. I wish there was a magic way for other people to learn these lessons too without having to suffer like I have. I wish you would have learned them too. I wish we could all learn important truths about living without actually having to be disemboweled by life to understand.

It’s easy to lose your focus. Why do we dwell on the bad and quickly forget the good? Our mind plays games with what we see. If we could only understand this BEFORE we lose a person instead of AFTER, it would truly be an invaluable gift of living. I know you would have lived differently too if you knew what our fate was going to be.

The problem is that most of us don’t know our expiration dates, and we become selfish in the way we live. We aren’t able to gauge our time constraints unless we’ve been given a definitive diagnosis that puts the numbers in front of us. We should be living as if tomorrow is our last day together, and instead we arrogantly act like we have hundreds of years to squander. We forget how fast time passes by right under our noses. I don’t ever want to be complacent about living again. This is the challenge I wish to undertake for our children and myself.

Now I don’t count the days until the weekend. Weekdays and weekends are indistinguishable to me. I have no idea how many days there are until summer vacation. I really don’t care (and this is even with plane tickets to Italy!). It’s just that I know what it’s like to go to bed on a Tuesday night and to wake up on a Wednesday morning to your life in pieces. Whatever day or week or month it is, I want to focus on the present moment and not take any of my days for granted. You never know when they will be gone.

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You used to drive me crazy, but you were one-of-a-kind. I know you would want us to keep living our lives, and I know you would have 500% trusted me to lead the way for myself and our children. That knowledge makes it easier for me to move forward with living.

We love you. We miss you. But now, as we enter year #2, I need to work a little harder to figure out how to move on while still carrying you inside of me. I have many years of living left (I hope). I’m a stew of mixed emotions, but as the boiling cools to a simmer, I’m starting to see that it is making me stronger. And somewhere, probably closer than I realize, perhaps just beyond the horizon, there will be light guiding my path into the future.

Lucius Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Since I don’t have a choice in how these unexpected circumstances have changed the course of my life, I have to hope that it is true. Lots of new beginnings ahead of me. We are your legacy.

Love Always,

Teresa

For Good Excerpt

(For Good Lyrics)

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good

The Expiration Date for Grief

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A major question that has been swirling in my head for the past year has been: when will I stop feeling this way?

“This” being the ticking time bomb of loneliness, sadness, rejection, worthlessness, hopelessness, self-loathing, sometimes dotted with sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and loss of interest in the things once enjoyed.

Who knew the loss of a loved one could trigger your own self-hate.

I am now a person I did not plan to be. A widow. A single mother of three very young children. I’ve lost my best friend, my significant other, my colleague, my co-parent, and my most loyal ally in life.

There have been many moments when I’ve felt like something I did triggered this karmic wrath of the universe. I must be the scum of the earth.

And then I remind myself that it’s all random. There is no meaning behind it. It just is. I don’t like it, but at least it makes it all a little easier to swallow.

Perhaps the best word to describe to the layperson about how I feel is: rawness.

I’ve been skinned alive. My flesh is exposed and my body is throbbing in pain. You can’t see it. I’m raw inside. The pain is a constant reminder of my change in circumstances, and I assume an unpropitious future.

What I really want to know is when will all of this rawness heal and become calloused skin. Or maybe I won’t heal. Maybe I will be permanently damaged, a societal castaway.

Psychologists do not diagnose “this” as depression if the root cause is grief. Apparently “this” is a temporary psychological disturbance in which time, to be determined based on the person, will heal.

I want to know what they mean by “heal.” Right now I can’t envision any such thing. You can’t throw a porcelain bowl on the ground, watch in break into hundreds of tiny pieces, and then expect the shards to come back together and form another perfect, seamless bowl.

Apparently I’m supposed to wait and see how it goes. I’m not very good at waiting. I always place the burden back on my shoulders. There must be something I can do. Or something I’m not doing enough of.

I’ve mulled over whether I should accept letting time do the healing or if I should try to speed it up. Of course I want to speed it up. It’s definitely in the plans to speed it up. I’m the type of person who thinks she can logic her way out of anything. I absorb as much as I can on the topic: death, suffering, meaning, happiness, purpose. Anything I can read. I want to know and feel all of it.

And that’s just it. This rawness has turned me into a hyper-feely person. It’s like I have exposed nerves. I once was a pretty emotionally neutral person, and now I’ve become a woman who sobs during the last chapter of a book on death as I eat my cake (earlier this week!). I don’t recognize myself. It both pisses me off and amuses me.

Somehow I think I can unbury who I was, or someone close to who I was, from out of the rubble caused by my life’s greatest tragedy. I can dig myself out. I know I can. But sometimes I’m skeptical.

Recently I emerged from dark cloud cover that had me trapped in 3 weeks of new lows. Up and down. Up and down. Down, down, down. I found myself Googling “what’s the difference between grief and depression?” According to the sources I researched, the main difference is a person with grief’s ability to bounce back. This isn’t an option if you were diagnosed with depression. I’ve teetered on that fine line between the two more times than I’ve felt comfortable with and I don’t like it.

There are only three major things that have keep me going in my darkest, ugliest days, when I felt like there was no reason to continue under the crushing force of life.

My kids. There is nobody who will be able (no matter how good-intentioned) to give them the life I planned and envisioned for them. I have to provide them with the stability they need to become the humans they deserve. My bossiness has finally served a functional, life-saving purpose in my life. I can not give up on my life because I have to be the one in charge of my kids!

Second, my traveling. I still have places I want to see. Basically the entire world. So I’ll be busy for, like, the next hundred years.

And finally, I have writing projects that need to be finished, and many more that haven’t even been brainstormed yet. I plan to live until at least into my 90s, being as prolific as I can possibly be. T.S. Eliot once said “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” I have a lot of blood to spill.

Because I’m the type of person who likes to have a handle on my brain, I have arbitrarily decided that one year is a good amount of time to mope around, and now as year 2 approaches, I need to have a more serious exit plan to move past my grief.

So I wrote out a plan. An actual plan, in true bossy style. This is where I think I can logic my way out of things. I will somehow convince myself to accept and love my new life. Maybe if I say it enough times, I’ll actually believe it.

I started with a mission statement:

Year 2 Goals:

– To progress in my battle with grief.
– To actively live a happy, fulfilling life, centered around my primary interests and objectives, which include: 1) family , 2) writing , 3) reading, 4) supporting my kids’ passions, 5) expanding social circles, 6) traveling, 7) self-care, and 8) health.
-To give myself reasons to feel excited, challenged, and hopeful as I make a concerted effort to live a happy and fulfilling life.
-To be authentic in my journey.

I included a checklist of specific goals I want to achieve in each category of my primary interests, including finishing a novel that I have started, reading at least 2 books a month, going on 3 dates a year with each kid, hiking at least once a month, taking the children regularly to dharma school, having friends over for dinner, going on trips (including one by myself to D.C. to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg while I still have a chance), improve my garden, repaint all the walls in my house, hire a nutritionist, and reduce sugar intake.There are a lot more, which I will now logically place into my Google calendar so I can ensure that my goals are met in this process of convincing myself that I am definitely moving forward and enjoying this new life.

The reality, however, is that I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how long it will take me to return to my baseline. I don’t even know what my baseline is anymore. I still have many unanswered questions swirling around in my head:

Will my kids be okay?

Am I making the right choices?

Will I be alone forever?

Will I be truly happy again? Or am I doomed to an unhappy life?

Will all of this misery ultimately lead to something bigger and better?

When will Peter (the 2 year old) stop driving me crazy?

The honest answer to all of these questions: I don’t know. People feel the need (either for their own peace of mind, or they think they are being helpful) to reassure me that everything will be fine. The truth is, they don’t know either. Nobody knows what will happen.

The best thing I can do is to keep plotting my way out of this with sensible interpretations and sensible and deliberate actions that I still have control over. Basically, all I can do is give it my best shot, and hope that it will be enough.
But for now, today is all about hosting a unicorn and rainbow birthday party for my new four-year old who thinks life is magical. That’s a good reason to keep going.

When Breath Becomes Air

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I’ve been staying up late the last few nights reading this and finally finished today. It was wonderful, in a punch-you-in-the-gut kind of awakening wonderful.

“You left me, two legacies,–
a legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had he the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.”

-Emily Dickinson