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

Being a parent without a partner

“It’s day four. I woke up crying this morning, and I can’t stop. It just comes in waves. Aaron is asleep on the couch downstairs, and I just keep seeing over and over again in my mind the image of him, a full grown man, curled up, tucked into his daddy’s arms and shoulder, crying as he found out that his daddy has stage four cancer. That image will never leave me. Paul cradling his precious boy.” – February 16, 2018

My son is twenty-three. I am hardly a “single parent” in the modern sense. I am not raising young children by myself. I am so grateful that Paul was with me through all those years, but there are times when, as a parent, I feel the loss of my parenting partner. Even adult children come to crossroads in their lives, their job, their relationships, having kids of their own when they seek out the counsel of their parents. Parents. Plural.

A couple of weeks before Paul passed away, I awoke during the night at the hospital, and Paul was not in his bed. Panicked, I strained to look through blurry eyes around the dark room. My gaze landed on the movement of a figure bent over my son who was sleeping in a fold out chair. It was Paul. Unbelievably, even with large amounts of pain medication and sedation, the impulse to be Aaron’s dad could not be diminished. Paul was out of bed, with IV tubing stretched half way across the room, and he was pulling a blanket up over his sleeping boy. I told Paul he had done well, that he was a good father, and then gently guided him back to his bed.

No matter what was going on between me and Paul, we were always on the same page when it came to parenting our son. If we were not completely united, we always agreed to at least have the appearance of being united. We were always able to set our selves aside in order to provide as much stability and emotional safety for our son as possible. This was particularly true during transition years when our son was changing schools and when big, pivotal decisions needed to be made.

Making preparations for his launch from college to full on adulthood has certainly been one of those transitional phases, and I have missed my parenting partner immensely. It’s not that I don’t feel capable of helping our son navigate this phase, or that I doubt the guidance I am providing, it’s just that I am alone in this process now. It’s lonely. I miss the small moments most, the quiet, late night conversations about what to do next. We made another human, together. I feel deeply the full weight of the parenting process now. I am blessed that it is something I have never had to do on my own. Yes, there are others in our lives who care about our son and in whom I trust, but they don’t, they can’t know the full story of our life together as a family, and they never will. Because our son is an only child, there simply is no one else who participated fully in the family dynamic that produced him.

Our Family

My husband was a good deal older than I am. He had been married previously but had no children of his own. He was nearly 40 years old when we had our son. The day we arrived home from the hospital I was downright scared. I felt safe being at the hospital with a newborn. There were people all around me who knew what to do, but when we got home, I was suddenly overwhelmed. Paul was amazing. While our son still lay sleeping in the car seat, Paul settled me into bed and then brought our son to me. With a big smile on his face, he said, “Here. Hold him! Hold your son.” I took our son in my arms, and all the fear just melted away. I was no longer worried that I wouldn’t know what to do because with Paul I felt safe, supported, and encouraged.

We weren’t eager to leave our son at daycare nor could we afford it. Paul opted to be a stay-at-home dad, and he was so good at it! He was great with our son, calm, tender, doting, and patient. He was even more patient with me. It wasn’t any easier for me to be the one going to work than it was for him to be the one staying home. I had a terrible case of mom-guilt, and it came out in me being a little over-bearing about how things should be done, a desire to control all aspects of caring for our son, but Paul didn’t push back. He understood. He understood better than I did and just let me work it out for myself until I felt more comfortable in my role. He was so generous that way.

Soon, we will have a lot to celebrate, but each celebration will be bittersweet. We are moving into a time period in our son’s life when he will make some of the biggest decisions there are to make, graduate school, moving to a new city, long-term relationship decisions (read engagement!). And all of those decisions come with big moments, graduation, first day of work, first home, creating a family of his own. I am confident that the right decisions will be made, but I miss my partner and I hate that Paul’s not with us to see the fruition of all of the parenting work that we did together. I want to make sure that I find ways to include and infuse Paul’s memory into all of it. I think being thoughtful and intentional in the planning is the way to do that. Our son is the product of both of us. I intend to represent us both and seize opportunities to share Paul’s memory from a place of strength and gratitude.

Be blessed, Malia