I Am Widow, Hear me Roar

It wasn't so hard to kill the first seven mice. Usually I found them splayed with the trap on top of them, gory bits concealed. Once I figured out to put out newspaper under the traps the cleanup got a lot easier. And it was harder to be sympathetic to the poor little animals the morning that I found two in the same nook, a few inches apart. I mean, was it simultaneous or are they not only dumb but lacking in basic instincts? We made "seven in one blow!" jokes all day.

My four-year-old loved hearing that we had mice in the house: “ooh, can we keep him as a pet and catch a mommy and a daddy for him too and have they all for pets?!”

But the eighth mouse was a little scary -- the trap caught his leg and he dragged himself partway behind the dishwasher. I asked Mr. Fresh to handle it. He also confirmed it was indeed dead.

Then the very next morning I checked back there and -- no trap. Great -- somewhere there was an angry, wounded mouse, dragging a piece of wood and wire behind him. He could show up anywhere in the house (though probably on the first floor :-) ) at any time. He could pop out while Short Stack was watching Disney channel. It was almost too much to contemplate. I poked around the most likely refuges and then settled down to coffee and tried to forget about the threat to my child's sanity.

Mr. Fresh came back from his run, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, singing “M – I – C – K – E – Yyyyy…” I broke in. “Speaking of which, one got away, so don’t shoot if you hear something…” Huh? We looked at each other. “Oh, I checked the trap and cleaned it up before I went out.” I told him my fearful fantasy. “No, don’t worry, it was dead and in the right place.” Thank heaven.

Over the course of 2008, I killed a dozen and felt supremely competent. While I was dating, this was evidence that, yes, I could manage everything as a single Mom. And Mr. Fresh was impressed when I told him one of my tricks early in our relationship: One night I bait the trap but don’t set it; then use the same bait and set it the next night. And sprinkle the same bait nearby to whet their appetites. (I use chocolate chips or Stilton). "You are brutal!", he said. I smiled.

To really eliminate the problem, I need to analyze their tail hair to find out if they are house (city) or garden (country) mice. Do I plug holes or seek out and destroy the nest? My old work roomie, Tobias, who has lab background, is working on this. I’m sure his report back will cite Latin names.

This type of acceptable murder is so gratifying for those of us with anger issues, with usually-barely-repressed rage, who are on a slow boil. I’m exploring the combination of aggression and helplessness than marks my worst tendencies. Perhaps I am the mouse that roared, or a Jekyll/Hyde (maybe Gertrude Jekyll?). Another post will delve into my psychoanalysis, but I’ll backdate it so you can skip it.

See, I’m not so cruel after all.

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Hospice Horror Stories

As ever, I provoke. In comments on Dethmama Chronicles I've pledged to share my hospice horror stories. First, I must say hospice is important and good. I believe a good death is possible, I believe hospice is an important player and partner as we talk about reforming health care in America, and I refer folks to hospice in general whenever I can. Dorcasina has discussed it so much more wisely and clearly than I can:

"I know that in retrospect, survivors are grateful for the slow easing away that hospice can provide; glad that they didn't abandon their patient to the studied impersonality of the hospital room, grateful for those moments of quiet hand-holding amid the medical turmoil that accompanies changes in states of being. But the anticipation of loss is unbearable, the opening up of an abyss of sorrow and terror. I have had to remind myself that suffering now is not preventative; this future loss will be no easier for the grief we are feeling today."

The day I signed Gavin into hospice I had to pull over on the parkway to cry. I had been screaming inside for days. And yes, I was grateful to not keep escalating the medical farce and to begin to understand, to let go, to let in things that are so much terribly larger than I could understand. BUT. We had some astonishingly insensitive experiences in hospice*:
  1. The M.D. in hospice stubbornly refused to believe that I was Gavin's wife, not his daughter. Yes, he's 20 years older than me, but I said it several times and pointed at Short Stack, and he kept going. "But the file says his daughter...." His apology? "Oh, I thought because you are so young... " Yeah, duh, the word is "sorry."
  2. The staff didn't treat me as single point of contact, and followed conflicting care orders from my very anxious mother (who had a valid concern, but one that was manageable) rather than checking with me or containing her.
  3. They did not know how to deal with his pacemaker/defibrillator. There was no plan at intake. I understand that this is a lack of protocol throughout the "system," but it could have been really traumatic and we should have received guidance -- we should not have had to initiate the topic on his last day and rush the Medtronic rep in at the last minute. Talk about deus ex machina...
  4. Gavin died Friday evening. The social worker called me first thing Monday morning and said, "Well, that sure was quick!" I understand these things are not predictable -- I know they did not anticipate how quickly things moved for him -- perhaps it was her form of apology for not being around at the right moment -- but Lord, this is a very very offensive thing to tell a fresh widow.
  5. The other social worker, who may or may not have apologized for the other one, asked me in a session if I'd read "The Year of Magical Thinking." (Yes, I could benefit from reading accounts of grieving, maybe Kubler-Ross,** but to suggest I read a book where the author loses first husband then child...?) I recoiled. "Of course not."
  6. The staff managed to lose the bag of cassettes, pictures, and treasures from his room that I had left behind that night. Did they really think I'd want to pop back over there quickly? They were dripping with volunteers who could have delivered it before it got "lost" (or insufficiently sought).

Yes -- I hear you -- there is no good way. Yes, much of this is my projection or transference or something. Maybe I'm blaming the messenger. Maybe I was too nuts to do anything right. I certainly could not handle details, or care, or emotions, or my family members. BUT STILL. Isn't this pretty bad?

* Everyone in the ICU and the hospice salesperson, I mean intake person, really pushed me to go to inpatient hospice, a lovely small facility. Of course, I thought they wouldn't have room for us, it was very exclusive all their literature really discouraged one from applying. Like the Seinfeld: "If you're thinking of getting a place [in Tuscany], don't bother. There's really nothing available."

Oh -- but those rooms are reserved for people who aren't expected to last more than two weeks. We couldn't possibly take it. He should have another few months, he's been living with all these problems for nearly two years now! And he's very motivated. And he really wants to come home.

The small number of rooms dovetailed nicely with my general feeling that I'm excluded from the good stuff.

"We think he's a good candidate for inpatient services."
"But what about the two weeks thing?"
"That's not important. It's the right thing for him."

Then I think of what they were looking at -- me, desperately looking for another solution, defending the new med, seeking whole brain radiation for two tiny asymptomatic mets that were not the problem, helpless without a real doctor (ours didn't have rights there), deny deny deny -- me with a small child, still trying to work, managing his mother, with so little help... -- I know the truth was that they knew I could not handle his at-home care even with their help. And since I still thought it would be a few months of this care with only limited support from hospice, friends, and family -- and him, contagious with shingles, with a 2 year old and several seniors underfoot -- him, severely hypoxic, too weak to get up from bed -- I believed them.

Of course they were right. But if I'd known it would be just three more days?

** Dorcasina's quote brings up an element of grieving that I would not have guessed: Kubler-Ross says that it's a hallmark of grieving to think there's a formula that you are not following -- a general sense of deficiency, that maybe there are rules you don't know or understand -- and it was an immense relief to me to learn this, when I finally did, long after one year had passed.

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"The New Normal" x 2 Contexts

In grieving group, we often talked about "the new normal." What future might that describe? One when you didn't cry every 2 hours? One when you could make a decision? Would it be like everyone else's "normal" or just a bit better functioning than now, with higher standards than now?

I might almost be living a (never "the") new normal now, as a remarried widow. We'll attend an opening tonight that includes a few drawings of Gavin's. I imagine saying "my husband" there and causing some confusion, maybe some eyes not knowing where to look, as we stand awkwardly holding plastic cups of cheap wine. "Oh no! I mean my living husband," I'll laugh. I felt still married when I started dating; sort of the best of both worlds. I had two men -- I was two women. Stable and allowed to be wild at the same time. (I know. Widows have a crazy way of looking at shit.)

And then I get this from one of my MBA lists. The business world thinks it can start adjusting to a new normal!

We wouldn't want to start making plans until we know if the wheels are done turning. Is the patient still dying? Will we ever know? Won't there be a grieving period? Will there ever be a "new normal?" And yes, what would it look like?

I didn't know it two years ago, but I do now. Those support group conversations always assumed this understanding: No. It will not be the same. Things will stop moving so quickly someday, but they will not be still. Don't even ask for them to be the same as they were. This changes everything.

(Oh, and McKinsey: Excuse me, this is a "conversation starter?" Is anyone having trouble coming up with things to talk about????)

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Dating Episode 0.1 [Summer 2007]:
Window Shopping from a Fishbowl

Lil and I were sitting in her SUV outside a senior’s home after grieving group. “OH MY GOD!!! I can’t believe he said that.” We giddily scrolled through replies on her phone. She had posted an ad on an online dating service a week or so before. She’d had a few winks, and some brief conversation, and was now exchanging innuendo-laden phone calls and text messages with a young divorce in a somewhat-distant suburb. I was pretty sure texting was too sophisticated for my cheapass phone.

“I’m sure Dan is thinking, ‘who is this woman?’” Lil said of her late husband. An introvert, she’d been married many years, contented, devoted, a good Mom.

There was no picture in her ad, and she was fierce about keeping her intentions from her teenagers. It’s the neighborhood pool, she said. There is so much gossip – I just know they would make mincemeat of me. I hear about everyone else, so I know…

But we were totally high on it. It seemed a little scandalous: me, feeling still married, and with a 3-year-old, with an estate to handle -- I could flirt? Then again, I’d just selected a fragrance. Could I really do it? Was I ready?

“Why can’t you go online and browse? It’s free and it really gets you revved up. You can at least see what is out there. That’s how I got started.”

It seemed possible. “Well, I do like shopping online… I suppose it can’t be that bad.”

I started on Plenty of Fish. My, there were a lot of men out there. Several of them might have been incarcerated… they’d say they were "on assignment" and would return to the area in 18 months. But you could search the database using all kinds of screens… marriage status, age. Many were clearly older than they said. Probably one-third had photos they’d taken with their phone held out at arm’s length. Or in the bathroom mirror. Shirtless. They were not hot. The literacy level on POF was low.

“It’s like window shopping at Wal-Mart," I told Lil. “But even Wal-Mart has some good things if you look hard enough.”

I decided to post my own ad. Who was I? More importantly, who was I not? I didn’t want to have to screen out too many guys who’d hate me. There were thousands of men there.

A direct approach would suit my brand: “Wiseass brainiac widow, 41, with one kid, seeks coffee and conversation. About me: No one thinks I'm boring and I am not fat. My kid insists I'm silly, although most people don't get my jokes. Please tell me that you read real books and aren't into smoking or drugs... I'm not overly concerned about politics and I love to dance.”

My pseudonym would be "Lynnette" (The result of my taking a “Which ‘desperate housewife’ are you?” quiz).

I had dipped one toe in. How deep could it get??

* Read the next installment in this series! *

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What I Threw Out, When

It's amazing how much emotion is bound up with the stuff. One day I summarized in response to this common question, on a bulletin board:

When did you get rid of stuff?

  • His clothes -- I tossed most within a few weeks. He cherished his chinos, but I was sure this was the last thing he'd care about.
  • Clothes, the rest of them -- 2 years
  • The clothes he went to the hospital in, the last time -- just recently (I had hidden them).
  • Toiletries from in medicine chest -- 3 months.
  • Toiletries, rest of them -- 1.5 years
  • Jovan Musk -- stayed in cabinet for 2 years
  • Prescription opiates, hypodermics -- 2.5 years
  • Books -- I started to sell them after a few months, but then, he'd promised me he'd winnow them down already. I've done this slowly, emotionally, in tiers. At last, at 2.5 years, I can see them by their cash value (But I am writing down the names of all his books, preserving the information as part of his artwork/legacy).
  • Furniture of his that I never liked -- 2 years.
  • His car which didn't work at all but I was paying the insurance -- 2 years.
  • His art materials -- starting to, 2.5 years out.
  • Junk in the basement (unmarked toxic liquids, odd bits of wire) -- starting to, 2.5 years out.
  • His tools -- starting to, 2.5 years out. Amazing that he fancied himself handy at all. Look at this house! Argh!!!
  • His stuff in the attic -- god knows if I will do it even when we move.
  • His family photos -- trying to get the good ones scanned so I can throw them out. (40 or so oversize albums of his mother’s – she died two years after he did).
Most of the house looks the same, but there is a lot of unused stuff, boxes, things “on the way out.” Sorting takes me forever. I suppose trying to hang onto someone's spirit will encourage anyone's packrat tendencies, but in me those are strong to begin with. Gavin was neat, but he’s not here. I suppose it's partly my hostility. He'd be appalled at how much stuff I (excuse me? He!) saved. (Mr. Fresh is neat too, but doesn’t care much about stuff).

Each week when I was on leave I bring home half dozen office boxes and feel productive (the "library" still has a wall of filled labeled boxes). I deducted more than $1200 in $250 increments in each of 2006, 2007, and 2008.

The hospice social worker advised me to keep a t-shirt or something to remember his smell; I did but I can’t remember using it and tossed it at about a year.

As far as emotions, seeing his things around casually has been helpful for grieving and okay for my young child. However, I'm glad I took his voice off the answering machine (after about a week). I'm finally feeling ready to take his name off the phone bills so that I can appear on caller ID.

My situation may be a little unusual because he was an artist, and I will have a bunch of his artwork forever, for our daughter. Even better, 98% of it is in collections and loved all over town. This makes it easier to NOT treat his “sensitive” toothpaste as a “legacy,” but that crap did stay on the sink for a loooong time.

But basically -- seeing these objects categorized and written down reminds me that it's just stuff.

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Can I just say how much I appreciate the poem that arrived with today's update on trash collection from county Solid Waste Services?

Let the old snow be covered with the new:
The trampled snow, so soiled, and stained, and sodden.
Let it be hidden wholly from our view
By pure white flakes, all trackless and untrodden.
When Winter dies, low at the sweet Spring's feet
Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.

Let the old life be covered by the new:
The old past life so full of sad mistakes,
Let it be wholly hidden from the view
By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.

Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring
Let the white mantle of repentance fling
Soft drapery about it, fold on fold,
Even as the new snow covers up the old.

"A March Snow", Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The last one they sent was Robert Frost, but still appreciated given the context. This one is actually kinda apt. Thank you, trash man! (Trash communications woman?)

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