Day of days

1,001

Today is the one thousand-first day since Paul died, and it’s also our wedding anniversary. This day of days, of all the days, is the hardest for me. It’s harder than his birthday. It’s harder than Father’s Day. It’s harder than the day he died. It’s harder than all the missed family birthdays, celebrations, and holidays combined. Why? Because it was our day; a unique day in the story of us, the day that marked the beginning of our life together, a day when there were still so many days ahead of us.

The story of our lives together had just begun and now that book’s final chapter has been written, and it sits on a shelf in the library of memories, a treasured story to be sure, but bookended in time nonetheless.

Paul and I always considered our anniversary to be the kick-off to the Christmas season. We would choose a nice restaurant, dress up, and linger long, over a multi-course dinner. The last anniversary that we celebrated together we chose a fancy restaurant we had never been to before. The restaurant is a converted carriage house behind an historic mansion that is now a high-end, boutique hotel.

The restaurant, house, and connecting garden were all decked out for Christmas, a sea of reds, greens, and gold. Some of the festive colors had been smartly placed by the staff in the form of swags and garlands, ornaments, and bows, and some had been provided by nature in the form of nandina bushes, holly berries, and camellias as well as the thick, dark greens of magnolia, smilax, and ivy with pops of gold thrown in by maples, oaks, poplars, and sweetgums. By the way, the yellow-gold leaves of the sweetgum are the only redeeming grace of that awful tree with its hard sticker-balls that drop to ground and lie in wait like tiny grenades to the undersides of my bare, southern feet. Anyone who lives in the south knows that they are a menace.

We arrived a little early to our reservation so that we could walk the nearby streets and gardens and take a short tour of the lobby and sitting areas inside the mansion that were so beautifully decorated for the season. We explained to a greeter as we entered the mansion that we were celebrating our anniversary at which point we were invited to ascend the stairs to the cupola and enjoy a view of the city.

A cupola is a small, domed room at the top of a home or building. Some cupolas are very small and intended only to allow in additional light and air. Others are large and used as a lookout either for pleasure or safety. The cupola at the top of this colonial mansion is exceedingly large with floor to ceiling windows and was probably intended for both sightseeing and safety as it is just blocks from the harbor and still to this day is one of the tallest buildings in the city even though it is only four stories tall.

We made our way up the spiral staircase and into the barrel-shaped cupola. It was a clear, cold night and the view was long, expansive and breathtaking. The moon was so bright it had chased the stars away. They left their home in the sky and instead took roost in the city lighting like birds on lampposts and rooftops and taking up residence in people’s homes and dwellings, sparkling through window panes and doorways.

One of the floor-to-ceiling windows was actually a door indicated only by the presence of a handle. I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk that surrounded the cupola. Yes, really. A widow’s walk.

A widow’s walk is a railed walkway around the outside of a cupola; very common among 19th century, Atlantic coast homes and so named for the women who would frequently use the walkways to search for the ships of their sea-faring beloved.

Doesn’t that give you chills? It gives me chills. Because it makes me feel like this blog was being written out in real life with me as one of the characters in some unknown author’s story. Because I didn’t know then, standing next to my husband, that it would be our last anniversary together and that I would be sitting here writing about it nearly three years later. It puts me in a bit of an existential quandary. Am I the dreamer? Or am I the dream?

***

This is the first year that I have not taken this day entirely to myself. In years past, I anticipated the day and intentionally planned activities that celebrated even memorialized our lives together and contributed both to my comfort and to the grieving and healing process.

On the first anniversary without Paul, I took the day off from work to visit the place where we met, and I took this picture; one that you may recognize if you have followed my story.

This is the day that the idea and impetus for this blog began and then became reality about a month later. The second anniversary without Paul was a Saturday. I spent the day volunteering with our dog, Beatrice, at the hospital where Paul passed away.

This year I allowed it to just happen like any other day. It started out pretty rough. Normally, on a day like today, I would struggle to leave the safety and comfort of the house, but lately, the house no longer seems to hold the sense of safety and comfort it once did. It just feels….empty. The routines that once made me feel so secure now feel boring and numbing.

My mood was disgruntled and cross as I made the short drive to work and would you believe it? I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of my car, I was greeted with the sound of a Mourning Dove literally mocking me with its low, somber “coooo, coo-hoo, coo, coo, cooooo”. I mean the nerve of some birds. Ugh. I was already struggling and then this bird just had to rub it in. Seriously. I had a few choice words for that bird.

I have been, no, I am, doing really well. I know that this is just a bump in the road, but today it feels like a mountain. However, it’s not sadness or grief that I am feeling. It’s deeper in a way. It has settled somewhere lower in my soul and my psyche. There’s a resignation to it that is almost equivalent with defeat except it is a defeat that has been reconciled.

It’s nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a wistful sort of acceptance that time is linear, that there’s no going back. It is more closely related to homesickness. That seems about right.

And what does one crave most when homesick? You know it. A good home cooked meal. Am I right? So that’s just what I did. I went home from work after a quick stop at the market and made the first meal Paul and I ever made together, shrimp tetrazzini. It was 1991, about six months before we got married. We were enjoying a weekend at the beach and got in the kitchen together for the first time to make a meal. We listened to Van Morrison as we cooked and drank a dry white wine that just happened to double as one of the recipe’s ingredients.

Once home, I got in the kitchen and got busy with dinner accompanied by Van Morrison and Amazon-Alexa who not only rocked out the Van Morrison playlist but helped me keep up with the five minutes for the shrimp and mushrooms, the seven minutes for the pasta and the 30 minutes in the oven. I made the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. And, no, it didn’t taste the same. Yes, it needed salt. And, this time, the pasta was gluten free because my digestive system is nearly 30 years older and pickier. But none of that matters. It was exactly what I needed.

Here are some directions and action shots in case you want to give it a whirl. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it with shrimp, chicken or turkey, and even though linguine is the typical cut of pasta used for this dish, it works with whatever you choose including gluten free (brown rice and quinoa) spiral cut pasta which is what I used.

Begin with a medium-sized sweet onion, minced. Sauté the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add about a half-pound of shrimp and a half-pound of fresh mushrooms. I added another tablespoon of butter at some point because I had a little more than a half-pound of shrimp and the mushroom slices were large. When the shrimp are pink and the mushrooms are beginning to wilt or sweat, remove to a large bowl and set aside.

The roux could not be more southern; two cups of milk (I used cream because that’s what Paul would have done), one-quarter cup flour, and one-quarter cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, of course). As the roux thickens, add one cup of sherry or a dry white wine. I had a Riesling from a local vineyard so that’s what I used. Also, I may have used more than a cup.

Return the shrimp, onions, and mushrooms to the pan, add cooked pasta (about 8oz dry), and toss gently until well combined. Place in a casserole dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes.

Since it was just me this time, I didn’t go all out, but typically I would add salad and a roll to complete this meal.

***

So something has happened several times lately. A new feeling. It’s happened too often to be fluke; it’s real, it’s persistent, and I don’t like it. It’s not a feeling to which I am accustomed either to the extent that when I first felt it I wasn’t sure what it was. “This is new. What is this feeling?” I thought. “It’s not grief. It’s something else.” It took me a few times of being confronted with it before I had a name for it. Loneliness.

Oh, dear.

Now. Now. Don’t get worried about me. I am fine. I am busy in the best, most healthy ways. I am surrounded by friends and family who love me and look after me. I am not alone by any means.

I fully realize that this is a normal part of the grief and grieving process for both myself and the people who surround a loss. At some point, the attention fades, the phone calls, the invitations, and the texts gradually slow to a trickle as everyone including me moves forward, and the strength of the connections that have been developed during this process are tested in a way. It’s intriguing to me to see what sticks and what doesn’t as I move forward into my life that is no longer our life. From the observer perspective, it’s an interesting turn of events, the next developmental phase, I find myself saying, “Oh, this is an interesting development. What’s she going to do now?” but with the exception that the she is me.

True confessions: I love plants and nature, gardens and parks, but I don’t like to garden. I love to be outside, and I enjoy learning the names and identifying all different kinds of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables. But I don’t like to work in the yard; to plant, trim, prune shrubs, flowers, trees, or bushes, or to mow or rake. However, Paul and I used to spend hours upon hours in our yard and garden and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Huh. Interesting.

What I have realized is that I liked to garden…. with Paul. I enjoyed it because we were doing it together. This. This is what I miss. This is what I desire. I want to love to do something because someone I love loves and enjoys doing it. Ooooo, boy. Relationship goals. This is what it means to share your life with someone. To like what they like because they like it, to take joy in the joy of another.

I didn’t notice how much I missed all of this before I started dating again, and now that I have, well, I’ve realized how much I missed that level of relationship. I miss the small, knowing glances, the tell-all facial expressions, the secret language that we spoke.

It’s funny because before I would have said that there was absolutely nothing missing from my life, and now I feel like there is. Oh, for God’s sake, grrrrrrrr, and double-grrrrrr. Like really? I was so hoping and praying that the Lord would call me to single-ness for the rest.of.my.life. Ha! You got the love the Lord’s sense of humor, and He does have one!

This blog is (clearly!) my expressive outlet, my art if you will. I am equally enthralled, but not skilled, with other expressive arts. Music, theater, visual arts are just not my gift, but I love to patronize and support those who do have that gift. My smart, beautiful, talented friend and colleague, Amy Tepper, is one of those people. I purchased this lovely piece of wearable art from her several months ago. I love it because reminds me of the peace of the Holy Spirit descending from above.

Then, recently, knowing my story, she created this beautiful artwork on commission. It’s amazing in these photographs, but it is stunning in person. It tells my story on so many levels; my human story and my spiritual story. It has layers of color and dimension, and it has movement. It’s like what I see when my life flashes before my eyes. Amy captured that, and I will be forever grateful. If you would like to connect with Amy to discuss the visual expression of your own story, you can find her here.

In church last week, during the closing hymn, something happened. We were just starting into the last verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness and suddenly I heard Paul singing beside me. I heard his voice in my ear. I turned to look at him. I stopped singing and listened to him finish the verse.

Be well my friends, and stay tuned. The adventure has just begun, Malia

All aboard! The holiday struggle-bus is pulling into the station, and I’ve got a ticket to ride…

…also making stops at Nostalgia Boulevard, Lonely Street, and my personal favorite (hmph!), Anxiety Avenue.

Hold on to your hats. This one is going to be a humdinger. My fellow bloggers, grief-specific and otherwise, are all weighing in on the holidays so I’ll dive in, too. Dive into the holiday deep end that is.

I have a distinct memory of the summer I dove off the diving board at the pool for the first time. I was ten. Now, certainly I had been jumping off the diving board for quite some time, feet first, but diving in head first was a different story. I was terrified of going in head first. I had so, so many failed attempts that it was becoming a spectator sport for my fellow swimmers and sunbathers, children and adults alike. There she goes. Will she do it this time? Oh, I think she will! There I was poised at the end of the board, all ten toes wrapped around the edge, in position, knees bent, arms overhead, hands crossed just so in order to break the surface of the water to protect my head from the force of the impact. This is it! I think she’s really going to do it. Some of them would even call out to me. You can do it! Go ahead. That’s right! You’ve got it this time! I would lean forward, begin to feel the pull of gravity, past the point of no return, and then change my mind at the last second; half stepping off, half jumping, half falling, arms wind-milling, eyes closed, face pinched tight. Then, one day when I was poised once again to take the plunge head first, someone suggested that I didn’t have to use force. I could simply allow myself to fall forward into the water. That suggestion changed everything. I got into position. My friends, neighbors, and swim team comrades must have sensed something was different this time because they began to gather around the edge of the pool at the deep end to cheer me on. And.I.did.it. I allowed myself to simply fall forward, head first, into the water. Also known as a dive. As I was making my way back up to the surface, even from within the cocoon of the water surrounding me, I could hear the muted, muffled sounds of everyone cheering.

So here goes.

Nostalgia (Boulevard) is more than just memories. There is a different quality to it, a sadness that borders on melancholy. It is sweeping and broad, equatorial, and leaves me listless like a sailboat held hostage in the Atlantic doldrums, at their mercy until another fickle wind arrives. Nostalgia leaves me impossibly longing for that which I have had and enjoyed but can never have again. And I am lonely. The phone calls and check-ins have tapered off as everyone said they would, and I understand and it’s okay, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. Then, there’s the mistress of ceremonies, anxiety. Let’s take a peek into her knack for choreographing my day….

I wake and go about my business getting ready for work, but my mind is already beginning to worry and spin. I’m finishing up in the shower…. Turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water. Nope. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off! I manage eventually to move on, get dressed, and make it to the kitchen, but I’m stuck. Move, move. It’s time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Me, still not moving. My feet will not advance. Sharp breath. Time to go! I make it to the back door. Open the door, open the door, turn the knob, Malia, turn the knob!

I share this because I want others to know what anxiety can feel like and what it can do, how it affects a person AND how well some people (yes, I am referring to myself) can hide it. I also share it so that others who have had similar experiences, and I know you are out there, know that you are not alone.

I know and fully understand that most of this is the holiday affect. I am grateful that I don’t live with this all the time. I have the reassurance of experience that tells me it’s temporary, a symptom brought on by grief. As difficult as the holidays are, anniversaries are harder, and folks, I’ve hit the grief jackpot, an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Yay. So, yesterday was, or maybe I should say would have been? Ugh, verb tenses, like pronouns, are now a complete mystery to me. Anyway, it was our anniversary, our wedding anniversary. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, Paul and I married. The memory of it is so quick and sharp that I can recall how the air smelled; woody, damp pine, oak, loamy soil, cedar, and smilax combined with salt-marsh and fallow fields and tea olive. It was a typically warm-ish, Lowcountry December day. The day began with scattered rain showers, but by 2 o’clock, it was sunny and breezy. I remember looking behind me to see my long veil was blowing sideways in the wind as I entered the church.

Yesterday was a weird day for me emotionally. I tend to be a bring-it kind of girl. Last year’s holidays were my first without Paul. Of course, it was going to be difficult. I was expecting it to be difficult. So, I had a plan and hurled myself forward through the holidays like I had the grabbed the ball at the 50 yard line and was making a charge for the end zone. In contrast, this year feels like a football field full of quick sand. I have frequently found myself sucked into the trance of a thousand-yard stare. On this day last year, I was compelled to spend the day at the place where Paul and I first met. This year, I didn’t feel called to do that. It might be a sign of growth and progress, or it might be avoidance. With grief, sometimes these two opposites actually appear the same.

***

Marcus Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston. He is brilliant and kind and a true artist. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to meet him and for my students to work with him. I was reading his poetry recently when I came across a poem he wrote on December 14, 2017, mine and Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary, the last one we celebrated together before he passed away. I don’t know how Marcus did it, but he channeled our relationship perfectly.

(…and you will be beautiful)

There
will
be
a
day
when
I
won’t
need
mirrors
because
looking
into
your
eyes
will
be
the
only
reflection
I’ll
need
to
see
myself.

***

The light of my countenance is a little dimmer these days. I find the weight of my smile has become too heavy. I just can’t hold up the corners of my mouth anymore. They keep falling. When I am alone, I let my entire face fall and the saltwater tears pool up to the brim of my eyes like buckets that are only a single drop from completely spilling over. In my ocean of grief, emotions swell as waves do. They rush toward the shore of my daily life and recede. Also, like the great oceans of the Earth, the surface may appear relatively calm, but there’s so much more happening below; great, swirling gyres of currents strong enough to move water around the entire planet. The emotions below the surface are equally powerful and forceful enough to drive mood and affect.

My mind is jumbled and out of sorts. It feels like this might be a little setback. I am reminded of another poem, the first poem I have a memory of, the first poem that taught me what a poem is, Fog by Carl Sandburg. We learned it in school in perhaps second or third grade. I was taken with it and read it over and over again.

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sandburg could easily be describing grief. Who knows? Maybe he was…..

The sadness comes/on little cat feet.

Or

The fog of grief comes/on little cat feet.

….and if Sandburg was describing grief then there’s good news in the poem, too, in that grief like the fog, moves on.

***

When Paul was in the hospital, we had many pet therapy visits. We were grateful for the distraction, grateful for the opportunity to smile. We missed our own dogs who were back at home. Pet therapy visits made the whole room feel warmer, more relaxed. We cherished those visits and were so thankful. Once I was feeling strong enough, I knew it was something I needed to do for others in return.

Each week, I visit patients throughout the same hospital with my dog, Beatrice. She and Paul had a special bond, the way dogs seem to have a way of attaching themselves to a particular human even within a family. She and I worked hard for months to earn her certification. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, but she truly amazes me with her ability to connect with patients and how much she herself enjoys the work. She’s a very social, gregarious, and energetic(!) dog, but when I put the little vest on her she gets all serious and professional. She’s ready to go to work! Her demeanor changes with each room we go into. She reads the patient and responds accordingly. I have watched her lean in to patients, comforting them with her body weight. She gently creeps up closer to them, nuzzling into their arms and shoulders and sometimes even rests her head under their chin. She sees doctors and nurses and staff in the hallways and immediately drops and rolls over signaling an invitation to rub her belly exposing her softness and her trust. We frequently hear comments like That’s the first time I’ve seen that patient smile since she was admitted and Thank you so much. This made my day and This is exactly what I needed and This is as alert as I have seen that patient in days.

The experience never fails to provide me with perspective. It always clears the junk out of my head and heart, bringing laser sharp perspective. There’s nothing quite like it for practicing presence and gratitude. Time and grief are suspended. There is only the moment. Only the now, and it is such a welcome relief to lay down the burden of grief and share a moment of joy with others in the need of the same.

On my rounds, I often visit the children’s hospital including pediatric oncology. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words, especially not in this post, but it is hard for me to describe what it’s like to visit with a child who is fighting cancer. Their ability to take joy in the moment is inspiration to my soul. Beatrice and I walk in and the children’s faces just light up with smiles. I can’t see their smiles because they are hidden behind the masks they wear to protect what precious little is left of their weakened immune systems, but I know they are smiling because I can see the light shining through their eyes and their cheeks raised into little apples and the edges of the masks as Beatrice greets them with her warmth and her happy, wagging tail. Experiences like this bring focus and clarity about life, what’s really important, and the true nature of beauty. In these experiences, there is no past. There is no thought of the future. Only the present. Only that moment. Not five minutes ago. Not five minutes from now. Only that moment. And, in that moment, there is also eternity in the sense that all concept and awareness of the passage of time is lost. Time both stops and stretches on forever in all directions. When I leave the hospital, I find that my own cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It’s not a cure for grief, but it is a band-aid for sadness. Job 5:18 comes to mind, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”

At the end of this long and emotionally exhausting day, when I was questioning all that had transpired and all that lay ahead, I looked into the sky and….saw a shooting star. I was astonished. It was a rare gift in our section of the night sky. I mean we do have meteor activity it’s just that our coastal skies are often cloudy and this particular evening the moon was quite large and bright. I was also near the city so light pollution should have precluded being able to see any such activity, but there it was.

This has been a lengthy post. Apparently, I had stored up a lot of stuff that needed to be expressed. I realize that I should perhaps post more often!

The next post will be lighter. I promise. In fact, the next post will be about cookies 😉

Until then, Malia