When to Move On

Sometimes I wonder if living in this house is inhibiting my ability to move past my husband’s death to make a new life for myself. Jerry, and I lived here together for over seven years. Every room I go into is filled with memories of him, except for my office upstairs. They are happy memories, but I don’t want to live in the past. He has been gone eight months now; is it time to move on?

            The living room has become something of a shrine to Jerry, with his ashes on the mantle (being saved for his son to pick up), pictures and albums on the entertainment center, as well as a folded American flag, given for his military service. The walls are adorned with fish he had mounted, along with a black duck and a fox. The most recent addition is a plaque presented to Jerry posthumously from a local civic group where he was an active volunteer.

            In contrast, my office has always been “a room of my own.” Perhaps that is why I long to go up there to work, to write, despite the fact that my desktop computer died a few months ago. The monitor sits dark on the desk, a lonely testament, waiting for me to return. I still have my laptop/tablet, but I can work anywhere with it, so have not returned to my office. The privacy it afforded so beautifully while I wrote is no longer a factor.

            My office remains my favorite room, however, because of its captivating brightness: the early sun in one window in the morning, and the same sun, streaming through the window next to my desk in the afternoon, creating patterns through the window screen on the wall in front of me.

            My cat, Frankie, used to hang out up there, because he knew I would show up sometime. Often, I would have to shoo him off my chair, and then he would curl up at my feet. He had a hiding place in the closet, and I still leave the doors partly open so he can get in it, but he, too, never goes up there anymore.

            So I have gone from “a room of my own,” to “a house of my own.” I liked it better the old way, which defines my problem. Or is it a problem? I would be mourning Jerry wherever I was. In many ways he was larger than life. A friend from the local civic group told me that Jerry was his hero, because of the strength, resilience and grace he exhibited the last 18 months of his life.

            I recently received a text from a woman in our previous church in Virginia. She had just found out that Jerry had died. She relayed a story about him giving her a recipe for apple dumplings and telling her all the steps involved. I cherish that – it was so Jerry! He used to make a batch of apple dumplings every time his brother, Denny, visited, with plenty to take home for the freezer. It seems everyone has a story about Jerry. How can I move on when these stories keep appearing, touching my heart, reminding me of how special he was?

            I consider what it would take for me to move somewhere else, all the work involved, and I realize there is no need to even think about that. I can see that it’s not necessary to rush the grief process; it will take care of itself in due time. It is okay that my house is suffused with memories of Jerry. I don’t need to forget him to build my new life. I don’t want to forget him, and I never will.

Where Is the Comfort?

We are beginning to experience the change of seasons. We had a few lovely days last week, cool, low humidity, and the temperature has been definitely lower than summer, mostly low 80’s these days, or even cooler. But it could still get hot again. Summer was so hot I couldn’t even wear capris!

            I have not switched out my summer clothes for winter yet, but will soon. I hesitate because I have so many more warm weather clothes than winter clothes. I love the onset of fall, when I can put away my shorts and wear long sleeves or sweaters. I love to think about turning on the fireplace and wrapping myself up in a soft blanket. I bought a pair of casual shoes that I can wear all winter around the house. It is all about comfort.

            But to me, comfort is more than keeping warm as the season changes. It is about living a life that is predictable, knowing what’s important to me, and having the freedom to follow that path. It’s about getting out in the crowds and enjoying the festivals and events of fall. It’s about singing in the choir and preparing for December’s traditional Messiah performance.

             To my regret, life these days is nothing like that, because of the coronavirus. As I write, it is mid-October, and no one knows what will be happening tomorrow. Everything in our lives is up in the air, and there is no comfort. Halloween will be different, and some people are skipping it. Nothing is normal now, but I am tired of the phrase “new normal.”

             I find myself thinking about the comfort foods of my childhood and yearn to be free enough to mingle with friends I have not seen, except on Zoom, for months. I want my life back! I have hunkered down long enough, I believe, so I really do need to go out and do all the things I  used to. I am weary of “virtual meetings.” I want to hug people.

            Normally, I like to hibernate in winter, gorge myself on college basketball, not caring if I see anybody. I think this winter will be different because of my pervasive loneliness. I never realized how much I needed people until these last eight months of living alone. Everyone has experienced challenges dealing with COVID-19, but I feel my loneliness deep inside, in my bones. I will get used to being alone, and even enjoy it, I suspect, but that time has not come yet.

            The best way to describe how I feel about my current life is “discomfort.” I could throw in “anxiety,” “nervousness,” or “on edge.” I just don’t feel like myself. But that’s the problem: I am indeed no longer that person, the old identity that was married to Jerry. My life is new now, and I am in the process of grieving the old life and figuring out who I am by myself. I am becoming.

            Time is my friend, I know, but right now comfort is like a distant dream I yearn for, languishing in my mind, unattainable.

Fly Away, Jerry

I phoned my late husband’s best friend. “John,” I said. “It’s raining again!” It had rained every day all week. John and my husband, Jerry, were fishing buddies. They had gone fishing two or three times a week, mostly at the waters off Fort Macon State Park, about an hour’s drive. It was a “favorite fishing hole,” and seemed an appropriate place for Jerry’s ashes to rest. Now it was Friday, and we were planning a family trip to Fort Macon on Saturday to scatter his ashes.

            “If it rains, it rains,” he replied. “That won’t stop us.”

            Back in the spring my daughter, Stacy, had come to visit me, and we opened the sealed box of Jerry’s ashes. I had waited for her visit because I didn’t know how I would feel. It almost felt like a sacred moment. But when we opened the box, and the plastic bag inside, we saw simply tan and gritty ashes, with tiny white pebbles, not like fireplace ashes, the only ashes I knew.

            Stacy looked at them and said, “Oooh, I don’t want to think those little stones are his bones!” As I looked at them, I did not feel sad, but rather, almost detached. It did not seem possible that my husband had been turned into those tiny pebbles.

            We were filling an urn, which was more like a cookie jar, we were planning to take to Pennsylvania for a memorial service. The service never happened, because of the coronavirus. Now I am saving the urn for my stepson, Duane, who could not be with us. He wants to scatter ashes in meaningful places in Pennsylvania, where he grew up and lives now.

            Although all of our family could not be with us for our trip to the beach, the nine of us would include three grandchildren, so all families were represented. When Stacy arrived that Friday evening, we made our preparations. “Don’t you think these containers will work?” I pulled several lidded plastic containers out of my cupboard and showed them to her. She nodded, and we arranged nine containers on the kitchen island. Since we had opened the box of ashes once before, we did not feel the apprehension we had felt the first time. We put the remainder of Jerry’s ashes into the nine containers, so each of us would have ashes to scatter.

            Saturday dawned overcast, but not rainy. When all the family had arrived at my home, we drove in a three-car caravan to Fort Macon, stopping to pick up John. I was his driver, leading the caravan so he could show us the best place to park.

            After parking, we walked about a half mile, through a wooded area and then sand, as the ocean spread out in front of us, with a steady wind blowing. I used Jerry’s golf umbrella for a walking stick; (John used it going back. He is 91 and battling cancer, but he was a trouper this day).

            We were a little concerned that someone might call us out for “scattering illegally,” but there were few people on the beach and no rangers. We had decided we would all scatter first and then say words, if we wanted to. I went first, throwing my ashes out in front of me toward the water, but the wind took them, and they flew off to the right, never reaching the water. That wasn’t what I had planned, but I loved it, because it felt like he was really flying away, “to a land where joys will never end.” My grandson Michael Paul wrapped his ashes in a paper towel, weighted down with a small stone Stacy had decorated. Each person threw their ashes, and, as he threw his, John could be overheard muttering, “I was always a better fisherman than you.”

            So “I’ll Fly Away” was a most appropriate song, and Stacy played the Alison Krauss version on her phone, as she and I sang along. It is a special song for Jerry and me, since it was our signature song when we both sang with a band in our church in Virginia.

            It never rained, and it was all upbeat. Everything felt right. We all walked back to our cars with smiles on our faces. Meeting back at my house, we had lunch together. We had given Jerry the best send-off we could, and we were content.

John took a group pic of us

Through the woods at Ft. Macon
Walking with John to the beach
Singing I’ll Fly Away

Clothes Don’t Make the Man

We used to have a house with a huge closet off the master bedroom, big enough to be a bedroom on its own. I had the first half, and Jerry’s half was around the corner, where I never had to look at it, except to put away his clean laundry. When Jerry’s cousin Suzie came to visit, she exclaimed, “Your clothes don’t touch!”

            The large closet was in our last house in Virginia, a custom-built log home on twelve acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. We lived there 14 years, and hated to leave it, but we needed to downsize and wanted to be closer to two of our kids and two youngest grandsons in Raleigh. Our new home in North Carolina had few of the features we wanted, but the price was right. A new kitchen, deck and patio made it much more livable for us, and now it has been home for eight years.  

            Our closet in the master bedroom is technically a walk-in. I can walk into it, just a few feet, with clothes rods on either side and along the back wall. I can fit only my warm weather or cold weather clothes in it, so twice a year I have to switch and schlep clothes to a closet upstairs.

            For those who are grieving the loss of a spouse, the time comes when the closet needs to be cleaned out; somehow you just know when it is time. My time had come. My friend Diana offered to help me, and she showed up ready for business, boxes and all.

            We had a job to do, so I didn’t allow myself to get sidetracked, but I could picture Jerry wearing everything we packed. He wore that Hawaiian shirt at the “luau” we attended at Attitudes, a nearby pub, last year. A picture of us is displayed on the fridge. Such fun! That was the last time we danced together. He had a lot of very nice golf shirts, and more khakis than he could ever wear, but he mostly was a jeans guy, and jean shorts in the summer. T-shirts in the summer, sweatshirts in the winter.

            We had packed several boxes when Diana turned to me. “Was he a guy who left stuff in his pockets?”

            “Oh,” I replied, “All the time.” We pulled his pants out of boxes and removed the usual items from his pockets: dental picks, change, tissues, scraps of paper. As I reached into one pocket, I found a small stone I had brought back for him from a spiritual retreat I was on last year, when Jerry was in full remission. Hand-painted on the stone were the words, “Believe in miracles.” I didn’t know that he had been carrying it around.

            I remained upbeat throughout our work session, so grateful for Diana’s help. In less than two hours, even with an occasional lapse to reminisce, I could see the space developing in my closet and drawers.

            I still have some items remaining, like ball caps and a few coats. When my daughter Stacy last visited, she found a red plaid quilted jacket of his that she wanted to keep, and my grandson Michael Paul took some ball caps that were on a shelf in the coat closet. I have some more hanging on pegs on the wall behind the laundry room door, which I forgot to show him.

            Jerry was definitely a hat guy. I took one floppy hat he frequently wore fishing, washed it and claimed it for my own. It does not look any better on me than my other hats – I am just not a hat person. But I will keep it for sentimental reasons, remembering Jerry and how we bought that hat on our trip to Maine a few years ago.  

            Jerry’s undershorts and socks will be donated to a lady who distributes them to those in need at local nursing homes. I am happy they will get good use. I took the rest of the boxes to the Salvation Army that same day.

            Jerry’s clothes are gone, but the man who wore them remains in my heart.

Mañana

I think the Pandemic Blues have caught up with me. I am mired in malaise. Every day presents with many hours to fill. I do puzzles, read some, and go out occasionally, to the grocery store, to an early-morning outdoor aerobics class, or somewhere else. I write in my journal, which has become my best source for blog ideas. Creating a blog has become a real achievement.

            Now and then I’ll bake cookies, if I feel like it. I try to cook a nice dinner for myself, making the same amount I used to make for Jerry and me; the leftovers can make another meal. I enjoy the prep work, anticipating how tasty it will be. I can use up a lot of time doing that. When I sit down to eat, I am done in ten minutes, and the highlight of my day is over. I’ll watch TV, mostly some shows I enjoy on Netflix, but the evenings tend to drag on.

            Even my sleep is boring. Each time I wake up to use the bathroom, I look at the clock and then calculate how many hours I still need to sleep. “Still six hours?” “Still three hours?” During the last hour I am pretty much awake, counting down the minutes until I can get up, usually before 6:00.

            Last night, however, was different. I had a dream where I was driving home to pick up my stepdaughter, because she and I were going to go out, to a play, to do something fun; we already had tickets for it. She must have been visiting, since she lives in California. I looked at the time and our tickets were for 7:00 and it was already 6:20, so I called her to let her know we couldn’t make it. We didn’t care that we were going to lose the ticket money, as I remember. It was a positive dream; I remember we were closer than ever and enjoyed each other’s company. She was close to her dad, my late husband Jerry. I can’t help but wonder if the dream had something to do with his death, but I can only speculate. I have not been remembering any dreams, so I found it interesting.

            But here I am with another day dawning and me yawning. I could do housework, but why bother? No one sees my house but me.

            I could pull weeds in the garden, but my garden is going nowhere and it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Alas, it is because of the lack of sunlight in my yard with all the tall trees. Almost none of my vegetables are growing; my high spring hopes have been dashed. I know I could have done more, like fertilize, but I think my lamentable lethargy got me there too. Gardening was Jerry’s thing; I don’t know why I thought I could suddenly become a gardener, just like that.

            I grew one jalapeño and then that plant gave up the ghost.  I did get two bell peppers, my best performer. Tomato plants are long and lanky, but the flowers mysteriously have all disappeared, although I recently spotted a small tomato growing. One lone pole bean plant has twisted itself around a pole, but nothing came of its single flower. Zucchini? Don’t ask. I added a new parsley plant a few weeks ago, and then I went out to pick parsley to find it all eaten, after a nocturnal visit from our deer neighbors. One day a while back I did some weeding, but it is too depressing to even look at my pathetic and pitiful production. I will feel better when I pull all the plants out, to no longer be reminded of remorseless ruination.

            So mañana has become my mantra: why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? I even sing it: “Mañana, mañana, oh mañana is good enough for me.” Maybe this will all lift soon, and I will experience a marvelous miracle of motivation. Maybe. But…right now it is time for a nap.

Making New Friends

One of the joys of life is finding a person with whom you are “simpatico.” There are possible relationships swirling around you all the time, but you may not have been looking for more friends. When a special person appears, you feel blessed that you have met someone; you feel that your life has been enriched.

            I recently met such a person whom I hope to keep as a special friend in my life. Dan made me laugh when I didn’t know if I would ever laugh again. I am comfortable with him, and my appearance isn’t nearly as important to me as it usually is, because I sense that it doesn’t matter to him. That feels like freedom!

            I can count on one hand the male friends I have had that weren’t also friends of my husband. This man did not know my husband; he is my friend, although I think Jerry would have liked him. He has a calm personality, and it seems we have a lot in common. We can talk about anything; nothing seems to be taboo. I like that I can talk about my late husband and he can talk about his late wife without discomfort. I just like to be with him, and I think we would enjoy being companions, for dinner or the theater or the things that are just more fun with someone else.

            I also have a new woman friend, whom I would like to get to know better. She is very busy, and seems to be involved in everything, so we have not even had time to go to lunch together. I found her personality attractive, sensing a depth and substance, from the first time I met her.

            Some friendships take a long time to develop. Occasionally a person will just not sit right with me when I meet her, but when I look back years later, I cannot imagine my life without her. Some relationships are mutual attractions from early on, while some need to simmer awhile to get the flavor right.

            I have been lonely, but I did not think I was looking for more relationships. Perhaps the grief process has made me more open. I know I am vulnerable and cry easily, whether sad or happy.  But I would just like to be able to meet with many friends I have missed during the pandemic. Whenever I talk to such a friend on the phone, I get a little rush of pleasure, remembering all the things I like about her, and we may linger in conversation a long time.

            There is always room for more people in my life, I realize. And that makes me smile.

Alone in a Hurricane

The wind roared, the rain pelted and I grabbed my sheet to pull it up around me. Hurricane Isaias was rampaging through eastern North Carolina and my back yard. Bump bump bump: something banging against the house? I heard a quick whine/squeak and I recognized it: power going out, making it even darker. I looked at the clock: 2:45. I slept fitfully the rest of the night. As I tossed and turned, my cat Frankie moved with me, snuggling and comforting me. I was proud that I had endured his plaintive cries to be released and not let him escape into the night. I knew the storm was coming, and he needed to be safe.

            The next morning, Isaias having moved on, I went out to survey the damage: it appeared that debris was covering every inch of my front and back yards. There were a few larger limbs, but mostly small stuff and no damage to the house. I was relieved. I had never had to endure anything at night like this before by myself. I hoped I never would have to again, but it is early in hurricane season, so there is no guarantee. It seems we may have underestimated this storm; it was more powerful than expected, and continued its destruction up north, even spawning tornados.

            Still without power, my first task was to see if I could start the generator. I rolled it out of the shed, heading for the garage. It was very heavy and would not roll over pinecones, which were all over my yard. I managed to get it into the garage, but I had never started it, and was clueless about the next step.

            Fortunately for me, my neighbor across the street pulled into his driveway at that moment, and I hurried over to catch him before he went inside. I don’t know him well, but he is an older gentleman who has been kind since Jerry died, offering to help if I needed him. I had a sudden flash that this was to be my life now, begging for handyman help. The Bible mandates that we take care of widows and orphans. “Here I am! Widow! Somebody please take care of me!” It’s not a comfortable position to be in.

            My neighbor was very amenable, explaining how to work the generator. It fired right up and he went to get a 3-way plug to lend me, so I could hook up more appliances or other objects to the two outlets the generator provided. Before he left, we had the refrigerator and freezer in the garage hooked up, and I made sure I could start the generator myself. What a racket! The whole neighborhood was full of the cacophony created by generators. I brought a long extension cord into the house and tracked down a power strip. First thing plugged in was the coffee maker, so I did not have to do without my daily caffeine. Then I began to move perishables from my kitchen out to the garage refrigerator.

            Power was restored by early afternoon, so this was not a long ordeal, and I didn’t lose any food. I encountered a problem however, that some GFCI circuits had tripped off and I couldn’t get my outside refrigerator going, as well as several plugs in the kitchen and bathroom. The freezer, on a different circuit, did work. I found friends to help, and that problem is mostly resolved now.

            I think about some of the things I have feared happening since Jerry died, and I guess hurricanes were on that list. I did survive, and the experience helped me realize I can do more than I thought I could.

            It looks like I’ll get by, with a little help from my friends.

Living in the Present

When you are grieving, you have no choice but to live in the present. Reliving the past, at least early on, is full of landmines. It is not helpful to rehash the way he died, the last goodbye, and all the “what ifs” that go along with that. You can’t help doing some of that, and it can be very painful. Eventually, you move on when you realize dwelling on painful memories does not help, and may even be inhibiting your recovery. And you know you can’t change the past.

            You can’t plan the future because you don’t know what it’s going to look like. You are too unsettled and too vulnerable to make major changes.

            But, just like living in the past and living in the future don’t work very well, living in the present as a newly single person can also be difficult. I was married to a handyman who could fix anything, and I got dependent upon his talents, and spoiled, I must admit. Now I find things around the house that really need his touch, but he is not here. A year ago I had a bad fall and cracked my pelvis. Jerry was there; he was always there for my mishaps. He couldn’t do anything medical for me, but he took me to Urgent Care, and he was just there. He became my caregiver, as needed – a role reversal for us – and I knew he would take care of me. Now? I go upstairs and a little voice tells me, Be careful on those stairs, don’t fall, whatever you do. There is no one to take care of you.

            I find myself thinking about all the things that could go wrong. What if we have a hurricane and one of those huge pine trees in my yard falls on the house? What if we lose power for days? I didn’t have these worries in the past. Jerry and I were a team, and we felt we could handle anything.

            Living here, in the house we shared for seven-plus years, it is easy to forget he is gone. I sometimes feel like he could walk in any minute, but I know he won’t. I am always thinking of things to tell him. Jerry, you are getting awfully out of touch these days.

            I was single for ten years after my first husband died. I became very independent, so my second marriage required major adjustments. I am older now, but I know I will get back to living alone comfortably again. These are the kind of thoughts I try to concentrate on.

            Jerry knew he was going to die first, and we both felt that I would be okay. And I will, eventually. But right now I am missing those blue eyes and that easy grin, and the comfortable feeling that everything is going to be all right.

            Goodbye, sweet prince. I will be okay, but I sure do wish you were here.

Unmasked

Three cloth face masks

dangle from a rod

in my laundry room,

colorful and whimsical,

ready to protect me and others

when I venture out into the world.

I don a mask of pink flowers

to match my outfit

and now, incognito, off I go

to the grocery store.

But where are all the other masks?

Few of my fellow shoppers

feel the need to cover up.

I hurry through the store,

avoiding the aisles where

the unmasked linger. They

do not see the sadness

in my eyes. We are not really

all in this together,

are we?

When Your Number Comes Up

My husband, Jerry, was a fan of numerology, a “science” like astrology, which goes all the way back to Pythagoras. Proponents believe numbers can affect personality or events. There is no evidence to support that idea, but it’s fun to think about. It’s like magic: a random number can have an influence on some aspect of our life, all of which is out of our control. Who doesn’t love the mystery of magic?

            Jerry’s favorite numbers were: 1, 11, 22, 28, 39 and 1957, and probably some others. I don’t think he ever played them in the lottery, although I encouraged him to. I would have liked to see them come up. His numbers were based on dates, mostly birth dates. When the clock would turn over to 10:10 or 5:55, any identical numbers, he would call out, “10:10, make a wish!” I don’t know where he got that but he got me doing it, too. A lot of wasted wishes, I’m afraid.

            My favorite number is 8, for my birthday. I am always amazed when I meet someone who has my birthday, July 8, and I remember who they are. There haven’t been many, and that surprises me, considering that the billions of people on earth may be born on only one of 365 (or 366 in Leap Year) days. But maybe date of birth is not something you commonly find out about a person until you get to know them better. So all those July 8th people are out there; I just haven’t met them yet! I have had very little in common with any of the ones I have met, so I guess that debunks the “science” of astrology, though I must confess I do read my horoscope occasionally. And I always read it on my birthday!

            Jerry had also heard that “444” was “Die die die!” and would repeat that when that number appeared. I wonder what he would have thought if he knew ahead of time that he was going to die on 02/20/2020. Although 2 was not one of his numbers, he would have nodded his head, and acknowledged that the powers that be had arranged that just for him. By the time he died he was long past such fantasies, however. I know he would have preferred 02/22/2022 as his day to fly away, as that would have given him two more years. But we don’t get to choose those things. I remember telling him that we could celebrate our fortieth anniversary this summer if he lived long enough. “But 39 is one of my numbers,” he said. Was he really saying he wanted to die before July 12th? I don’t think so – but now 39 is etched in our mutual history.

            I discovered recently that Jerry’s mother – who died when he was 8 – was born on February 20th. I don’t recall him ever mentioning that. I think he’d appreciate the eerie symmetry of it, though.

            I am more practical than Jerry. At the last place I worked, I was the only person who did not pay into the group lottery tickets for Megamillions, when the payout was huge. I know, it’s just a fun diversion, but it was just a waste of money to me. I would listen to my co-workers fantasize about what they would do with their winnings, but their numbers never came up. I liked to fantasize with them, however—-: “If I won the lottery, I would set up a foundation to give it all away. But of course the first thing I would do is quit this job.” (It wasn’t a very good job.) My father played the lottery every week well into his 90’s. He wanted to give the money to his kids, but I don’t recall him ever winning anything.

            Now the numbers we try to avoid are the ones that tell us how old we are. We say, “Age is just a number,” “You’re only as old as you feel,” “Life begins at 40, or 60 or…”

            One thing is for sure, like it or not: you will die when your number’s up.