2016: We had a brand new puppy, a 13-month-old, a 3-year-old whose Hello Kitty birthday party was exactly two weeks before, and a 6-year-old in kindergarten who was memorizing sight words and obsessed with hexbugs.
On an ordinary Wednesday morning at the end of April, we were supposed to begin another school day with our assembly line routine of making lunch and breakfast for our large family. My husband would take the kids to daycare while I went to teach zero period, and after school we switched cars and I did the pick-ups while he went home to start the chores. Summer was six weeks away and we had tickets to Paris and Berlin, plans to go on our annual camping trip with our friends, and we spent the night before talking on the patio after the kids went to bed, promising each other to start making time for date nights that we kept putting off.
But that’s not what happened on that ordinary April morning. Instead of making sandwiches and cutting apples and wrangling toddlers into their clothes, I had to call 9-1-1 and watch my husband take his last breath. I followed the ambulance to the ER only to be greeted by a doctor who told me “Nothing we could do,” and then I had to make decisions about the disposal of his body– all before the sun came out.
I remember thinking in the midst of the most agonizing, soul-splitting emotional pain that time would lessen the intensity of what I felt in that moment. That had been true in any of the situations I had ever experienced before with death, loss, disappointment, crushed expectations, or any other feeling– good or bad. Nothing can last forever, at least not in the same form. I remember in the throes of my raw grief knowing in my bones that I had to lean on the truth of impermanence. I had to trust that the suffering would not last. It didn’t seem possible in that moment, but I needed it to be true, otherwise the pain would have killed me.
The days were long in the first year after my late husband’s unexpected death; the experience was out-of-body. I remember experiencing memory loss, disorientation, extreme lows, fear, anxiety, lack of energy, isolation, and just about every negative emotion to the nth degree. I didn’t get my period for several months. I instantly shed almost 20 lbs from no appetite. I dealt with a barrage of conflicting feelings, and I finally knew what depression felt like day-after-day.
The most immediate feeling I had to deal with was loneliness. I had to grapple with the overnight loss of a major fixture in my life– literally. I fell asleep in between sentences exchanged with him in bed, and a few hours later I don’t think he was ever conscious to know that a 9-1-1 operator was leading me through chest compressions in a futile response to an aortic aneurysm.
I learned that our lives can drastically change in the most ordinary second. I also learned that we are never prepared for these moments.
It felt like an exile to a faraway land of misery where I was held hostage with nothing to do except sift through the wreckage of his death. Of course the baby still needed his diaper changed and the kids still need to be fed and taken care of. I had to entertain my misery and the three kids.
My coping mechanism was to pile my plate high with distractions. Work. Kids. Work. Kids. We hardly stayed home on school breaks and I maintained a schedule that was perpetually full. There was always something to do. No time to sit around in that wreckage. Just keep going– and with three kids, a house, dog, career, and the miscellaneous things I am involved in– this was easy to do.
I’ve lived this way for three years.
It worked well during the transition. It got me through the growing pains as I adjusted to my new reality. It helped me cope with the pain and find a place where I could reflect and grow in a way that felt true to the person I wanted to be. It helped me keep the overwhelming grief at bay, or at least keep my head above water.
It’s hard to live with the broken pieces of your crushed expectations. To plan your life and do what you think you’re supposed to do, and to have that not be good enough. It’s difficult to get up and keep moving forward, even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to. Learning to reconcile a life you did not choose or want and figuring out how to write a new plot line in the story of your life.
2019: my 4-year-old wants to know why Daddy left. I explain to him that it wasn’t a choice, and he asks to watch old videos to confirm that his father was indeed a real person.
“There I am, and there he is,” he says, re-watching the same video over and over again.
My third grader has inherited his father’s terrible eyesight and has just gotten his second pair of glasses. I realized that his father had never even seen him lose a tooth.
Our middle child– the daughter my husband adored– just turned 6. She is sweet and kind and makes friends easily. She does well in school and I’ve never once heard her complain about not having a dad, although I know she must notice the other girls with their fathers. I am sorry that my late husband will never get to watch this precious daughter he used to dream of grow up. I am sorry that she only got three years of him brushing her hair and painting her nails, reading her stories before bed, holding her, watching movies together with her on his lap, and being the doting father that he never hesitated to be.
Once Kenneth told me, “I don’t think I’ll be alive when I have grandkids. That’s too bad. I think I would have liked to know them.”
It makes me sad, because he didn’t live long enough to see any of his children make it past kindergarten, let alone any thoughts of grandkids.
I am not in pain anymore, even when I have to live with these facts and memories and realities that are seared onto my heart. The wounds have hardened into scars that you most likely can not see, but I know where they are. I can trace the jagged edges of these scars with my mind, and they remind me of how far I have come.
When you see me, you probably see the same person you have always known, especially if you knew me as a married woman. I probably don’t look much different.
But I am not the same person anymore.
For everyone else, life moves on. They feel sad about the person who died, but it doesn’t affect their day-to-day functioning. For my family, our circumstances remain the same. I can’t erase the fact that the kids do not have their father around and he’s not helping me with daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m more times than not the only single parent in my social circles, even when it doesn’t bother me like it initially did.
Even with my acceptance, the facts are still there. It’s still my reality.
People have seen me smile and show up to work and do what I’m supposed to do, but I suspect they could never guess how many of those days I wanted to die. I found that most people never came close to understanding the depth of my despair, even when most people sympathized with our plight.
You learn quickly that nobody will come to save you. This road– this life– is only for you to navigate. Nobody will swoop in with the answers for you. If you’re waiting for that magical ending and the fairy godmother– just know that you’ll spend the rest of your life waiting. You are the only one who can save yourself.
You either figure out how to maximize the potential of each day, or you drag your miserable self through time and be unhappy. It is most definitely a choice.
Above my sink, I have a little chalkboard that says, “If you want something, you’ll find a way.” I’ve had it there since becoming a widow. I guess it has become my mantra. I look at it every day. I try to live by it.
If the kids are driving me crazy, I try to find ways to make our routines easier.
If I’m not getting enough time for myself, I brainstorm ways I can do better next week.
It’s being strategic with my battlefield. The battle never ends, but I can be smarter about what I do out there. I can work on my survival skills.
I feel like there is always something I can do– in any given circumstances– to make my human experience a little more enjoyable.
I want to maximize my life to its fullest potential and do what I can with what I have.
From your own personal wreckage you can gain newfound clarity.
Each day is a gift. I’m doing what I want. I’m not starving for anything. I am acutely aware of the privilege in which I have been able to experience my grief. Not everyone is so lucky.
I know that tomorrow can be worse. I understand in the worst way that tomorrow is not guaranteed. I do not live a single day without remembering the fragility of life.
I try really hard to focus on each day. To hone in on my priorities and be intentional and grateful for the opportunity to partake in the human experience.
This was not how I used to live. When I think back to who I used to be, I remember a naive person. Entitlement. A propensity to get bogged down in unessential details. Distractions. Misguided conceptions about who I was and what I wanted. Hubris. Embryonic thinking.
Charles Dickens once said, “I have been bent and broken, but– I hope– into a better shape.”
The truth is that I would never want to go back to being that person who I used to be. I genuinely like the person I am today infinitely more– even with the scars. Even with the painful past. Even with the broken heart and scary unknowns about the future. Everything I have experienced has made me who I am today, and I wholeheartedly believe I am a better version of myself. (Apologies to my late husband who got the beta version of me. But in all fairness, I got the beta version of him.)
Koichi Mizushima said, “Right here, right now, you are living a wish fulfilled.”
It’s true. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to have a career and be independent and write and travel. If I spend time dwelling on what I don’t have, what purpose does that serve? I would waste my time and forget to acknowledge everything I do have– all of those fulfilled wishes.
There are so many more wishes inside of me. I have chosen to spend my energy working toward fulfilling those dreams. It’s all of those big and little things we look forward to that give us a hunger and desire to continue being engaged in this life. When we remember all parts of living– the good, the bad, the ugly, the joy, the sadness, the everything– we remember that it is all worth experiencing. It is all a part of our miraculous journey.
Three years later: do I miss my husband?
Yes and no.
In three years, I have had time to look under every rock– inspect every nook and cranny– of our existence together. I’ve read his journals and my journals and notes scribbled on scrap paper and cleaned out boxes in the garage. I’ve had to make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. I’ve gone through all the first holidays and special occasions without him, and a second round, and again a third time.
Next month would have been our tenth wedding anniversary. We started dating over 12 years ago. I’ve started to notice the anniversaries of people who married the same year as us. It’s true that I was the last person I would expect to be single at this point in my life. It’s true that sometimes it bothers me, but it’s also true that I am content with where I am.
That is a huge, huge, huge victory in the battle with grief. To be able to say “I am happy where I am” is like arriving to the golden promised land we could never conceptualize in the early stages of our grief.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about marriage: there is good, there is bad, there is everything in between. Most people just aren’t showing the rest of the world where they are on that spectrum, but there is no way it’s all unicorns and rainbows for them. No way.
I liked being married and I hated being married. I loved my husband and he pissed me off in many ways. I like being single and there are times I don’t like being single. My husband was a great person and he also had character flaws that made him difficult. There are times when I deeply miss him and other times when I like not having to deal with him.
It’s not this or that. It’s both. All of it. I’ve learned to embrace and appreciate the duality of a human existence.
I’ve found myself grow softer through this experience.
I’ve seen myself become stronger.
I’ve beaten myself up over the mistakes I made as a wife and made mental notes so I can do better as a partner.
I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t like. I know what I will put up with and what is unacceptable.
I’m not in a hurry. I have no expectations. I am more willing to see what happens, and I am perfectly fine with what doesn’t happen.
I’ve become comfortable being alone. I have embraced solitude without succumbing to loneliness.
I’ve redefined my boundaries.
I’ve gotten closer to my children.
I make intentional choices that have enabled me to live an authentic life.
I’ve been focusing on my own personal growth.
This is the year that I want to look at the plate I’ve kept piled high and I want to take things off. This is the year that I will protect my energy and be even more strategic about how I use it.
It’s time to stop distracting myself. The pain has subsided; the experiences in the past are part of my DNA and I can’t forget them. But those experiences aren’t driving my decisions anymore.
It’s time be even clearer about what my priorities are, to free up my time, and to continue to explore all of the amazing opportunities I have yet to seize in this strange human experience. There is so much to look forward to– everyday and always. There is only one of me. I only have one precious and fleeting life. I want to make sure I am living every last drop in a way that feels true to myself.
Our pain is a reminder that we have loved and we were loved. The pain also has an amazing ability to enable us to love deeper, harder, more honestly and expansively.
Our love is not a zero-sum game.
The best thing my late husband did for me was to teach me how to love myself. I took his favorite affirmation from his journal, “I am responsible,” and tattooed it on my arm two days before his funeral. I have never once regretted that decision. Those words have been my guiding light. He gave me the tools to survive his untimely passing, and he empowered me to make living well a priority– no matter how brutal this world is. No matter how much we lose. No matter how many things don’t go our way. We always have choice in the way that we react.
I will be forever grateful to him for loving me more than I was ever able to reciprocate. I can only aspire to love others the way he could.
I am nothing but grateful for today, and hopeful for tomorrow.
This is three years later.
A Dream Within a Dream
BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?