Grieving: How We Survived the First Year+.

From sex to sadness. Sorry for making readers relive my rollercoaster. Here's how we got through the first year after our loss:
  • I stayed at my job, even though I was in a bad situation and bored to tears. (They gave me benefits at 30 hours, I could walk to work.)
  • I sent my daughter to day care for the first time, two blocks away, even though there were "issues."
  • We didn’t see people as much as we should have. Little kids need other little kids (dogs like to be with other dogs), and extroverts need company.
  • We went to church every single week. All kinds of strangers expressed all kinds of sympathy and empathy and other things I never heard of.
  • We participated in almost every structured event we were invited to unless it involved preparation (potlucks) or dressing up (art openings) or being out after 7 p.m. or politesse. I guess this means we stayed in a lot.
  • I wanted as much sleep as possible. I tried to get the kid to nap. We spent many, many days lying on the couch watching hand-me-down kids' videos. (I was pretty sure Short Stack would grow up thinking Barney was her Dad.) Nothing makes you feel more used-up than nursing a kid in the late afternoon and then she still doesn't sleep.
  • Trader Joe’s. Every evening I took something out of the freezer, put it in the ‘wave or the Swiss Diamond, and we ate it between tantrums. My cholesterol went through the roof.
  • I ignored finances. I kept it at the back of my mind that I could always sell the house (how “gift of the Magi.”). Gavin had minimal life insurance, but we lived off that, art sales, gifts (MBA classmates) and savings (already depleted during his illness). I knew my job would not support me, but could not imagine having a 40-hr-plus-commute job or taking on any more responsibility.
  • I complained a lot, about everything. This predilection took care of reorganizing my rolodex.
  • I said that anyone whining about George W. Bush was very lucky to not have any real problems. I canceled the paper.
  • I wrote a bunch of thank you notes. I neglected most phone calls. I cursed a lot.
  • I wondered why the hell no one was calling. I checked the mailbox like a freshman, but looking out only for condolence notes and gifts, preferably money.
  • After dark, I worshipped in the church of Buffy (all seven seasons in full).
  • I forgot the words “dentist” and “salon.” I got fatter and still lost weight.
  • I went for massages at least once a month, more when I was on leave.
  • I attended support group as my truest religion. I cried and laughed with new friends.
  • I made wonderful plans and lists, and lost them.
  • I was heavily preoccupied with Gavin’s 91-year-old mother, who could no longer conceal her growing dementia.
  • I believed Gavin would care what I did about some matters but often ended up cursing him.
  • I took care of a few important matters and coasted on everything else.
  • I cherished my child but did the very least in almost every department.
  • I started a blog with a strong sense of mission and humor. I abandoned it with many other "projects."
  • I took one three-month unpaid leave from work and began a second one.
  • We started dinner each night with a moment of silence, holding hands. I've always imagined one is "saying a personal prayer" or trying to feel lucky. Mostly I was cursing inside, or thought of something tiny ("Today I am so, so grateful for my dumb job"). How I would have thanked the holy one, blessed be he, for a shred of true silence during one of these moments.
You can see why that turning point was such welcome relief. I was ambitious, futile, desperate, unproductive, litigious, angry, and blinded. I was weary, a shell. But somehow I knew it wouldn't last forever.

Even a spent sigh somehow turns into a breath.

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Hot Girl-on-Girl Action

So I found the tap, but I couldn’t see the bottom of the well of horniness. (And man, was it dark down there!) The hormones hit me like a waterfall, but it wasn’t really an overnight sensation. I couldn’t pretend I was living without a body for four years.

On the YWBB I have recently heard the term, “skin hunger.” Maybe it’s a natural part of attachment parenting; at any rate it is biological and it works. (Did you know that sandbox and bathtub are in the "sensual play" category?) My daughter and I were on each other all the time, it seemed, day and night. It was one thing that comforted us.

We had finally weaned a few months after Gavin died, when I tried to recreate Gavin and his mother’s autumn beach vacation without him. Most of the trip was a mess, except my ugly scheme worked: My mother kept Short Stack in her room for three consecutive sleepovers. Back home on the fourth morning my little one begged me for "booboo" and met repeated sad but firm refusals.

Enraged, my girl clenched her body up and shook a tiny finger at me: “You! Poop!! Mommy, you POOP!” A bit shocked, I thought, “Huh! That’s a new word.”

At around a year after our loss we had adjusted, night by night, to sleeping in separate beds, in our own rooms. My own room… what a weird idea. I was moving toward “single.” (And the bed was a “full.” All the goddamn words were wrong!)

But there was still a ton of touching between my daughter and me. As the only two who were always there for each other, I was her cuddler, horseplayer, wrestler; arm grabber, fork holder, holy lap. She was still very interested in my bosom; I was fondled multiple times every day, sometimes in public. I had a girl jumping on me, treating me as a slide, a swing, and a jungle gym.

The action satisfied my girl, but did nothing for my needs (except for the occasional hour when it allowed me to remain horizontal).

And I cherished endless sweet little kisses and loving hugs among the bruises and tossing. A favorite memory of this time is the morning when Short Stack, waking, pulled my hair back from my face and said, gazing with tilted face, “Mommy, you tow pooty!!!

So while the onslaught of adult feelings seemed to come out of nowhere, I couldn’t have lived so long without some strokes. It would have killed me, I felt. And one thing I knew was that I did not want another death happening anywhere near me.

After all, isn’t it Eros* that gives life?

* I know it is cheap to cite Wikipedia but these first two paragraphs contain such wonderful detail that tells so many other stories about death, sex, and creation that, while I can’t justify writing poetry for this present context, I also can’t stand to leave these roots out entirely. [Can I just pay some kind of “bad blogging” fine and go home now?]

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Dating Episode 0.9 and 1.0: Virtually Real & Really Virtual

My first online relationship ended with phone sex.

In August, seeing that flamenco dancer, and with encouragement from Lil and a dare from another woman in group, I swore I’d dip my toe in. Within a month I was drenched and it was up to my neck, rapidly rising. How did I get there?

Around my birthday I placed an ad on Match.com, a little more elaborate than the one on Plenty of Fish, but same punchy attitude and honest simplicity. It was a big room to play to: Manual laborers, lawyers, investors. Idealists whose jobs I wanted more than their bodies. Losers who wanted to “feel they lady’s breasts.” There were guys who were way out of my league. Fellows who pointed out that they wanted an "HONEST woman for once." Some winked. One asked for a picture "that shows you below the neck" (it was hard to find one -- I was always squatting at kid height).

I was totally a teenager: gawky, awkward, flirty, without perspective, fresh, unaware what guys my age liked. Not sure who I was or why anyone would like me. My personal brand? My story? No fuckin’ idea. This was the story I knew. I held it close during those weeks:

I held an almost-religious faith that I would find someone else, remarry, and live a happy chapter two (or three?). I credited Gavin with this. That first night after diagnosis --- my first birthday since having a child – we drank a bottle of wine and I waved my finger at him saying, "I just want you to know, if I find someone else, and if I want to, I’m going to get married again. You know, on the off chance you don’t make it."

So generous, Gavin looked at my rage and confusion and clarity. “That’s terrific – I want you to be happy!” Two years later in my young widow/ers' group, I heard I was the only one who’d had this conversation at all. Well – after the first few months that practicality wore off and we were in and out of the land of miraculous healing, surrounded by the moat of denial, until it was too late. I suppose chapter two was an appropriate belief, since Gavin was much older than I. But I entered dating grateful that we’d had that conversation. I thought of that faith, mine and his, every day.

So you can see why nothing was working well.

Except – that it sort of was. One of my earliest winkers developed into a slow and mellow conversation. His ad quoted Groucho and pictured him leaning back with a glass of white wine, petting one of two twinned pugs. In the picture, he was talking. Then some of him on flyfishing adventures and on a boat. A man with a yacht would talk to me? Me?

I was so insecure but tried to be honest: “… I'm not even sure if these are the types of things that would make me seem more (or less) interesting. Knowing me, I should probably be trying to convince guys I'm *less* interesting. Though being 40 means being more comfortable in my own skin and less likely to compromise -- right? I suppose I should put some more pictures up. You wrote a very good profile but I still don't have much of a ‘feel’ for what you're like.”

He was relaxed, and he could deal: “… Do you really want to attract men who are attracted to a less interesting you? For that matter, do you really think you can make yourself less interesting? Seriously doubt it. I wouldn't have responded if I didn't think you were really interesting! As for me, well I'm a pretty direct person and I wrote my profile to convey that. But, I'm also REALLY interesting. I'm just not going to give away all the goodies in my profile. What would we have to talk about?”

It was scrumptious. When he expressed confidence that we were going to have coffee some day, I was beside myself. I was pulling up the bucket from the well of horniness and it was running over. I felt flushed with hormones from head to toe. At the same time, there was a lush sadness coming up. It affected my entire body at exactly the same time as the desire. I was complete and full with the conflict.

Short Stack was in toilet training. Over and over, day in day out, I kindly said, “Listen to your body, honey…” One of my challenges is to treat myself with the same loving care I give to my child. At the time, I’d heard a statement on Oprah* that “Our children learn not from how we treat them, but from how we treat ourselves.”

I started to hear what I was saying. Listen to my body. (Maybe someone else would like to listen to my body?). "My body is saying it is sad and horny." Yeah, weird, but it sounds human enough. I told YachtGuy I was flooded with sadness corresponding with him and it didn't freak him out. He said, "Take your time. This is supposed to be fun."

Now hang on a minute, I said have a body? I do?

Oh yes. Yes, honey, I do.

[White lettering on blackscreen, arousing your ire:]


Part 2. Dating Episode 1.0: Really Virtual

Maybe a week after he assured me we’d meet in person, my “relationship” with YachtGuy escalated to talking on the phone, which was richer and more wonderful. We had rapport, we laughed. I called him “French” because he shopped each day for that night’s dinner; I could hear his playful sneer when he threatened to hang up.

I nearly pee’d my pants laughing when he told me he was living on his yacht, hours from work, since the separation. We told life stories, compared marriages, talked about our dysfunctional first families. We had a similar level of intensity but I was insecure; he was gracious, reassuring, and patient, a southerner raised by bohemians, who facilitated complex accounting transactions.

Perhaps for some women “settled charges resulting from an SEC investigation” might raise a red flag. I found out that I am not one of those women.

During my work day, I’d think of him, or exchange an e-mail or two, and that sorrow and lust would rise in me again. I sought and clung to this deliciousness.

I was still scared to have a date, even coffee, even with him. Finally I allowed that I could get together for coffee in two weeks – enough time to visit the woman who kindly but firmly disciplines my hair a few times each year. I could at least prepare on the surface.

Wow -- my first date.
I wouldn’t even call what I’d done before Gavin “dating.” This was fresh territory and I only had rusty tools, though I guess my compass was strong. I warned YachtGuy that I would cry when I met him, no matter what. He warned me that he would kiss me, no matter what. I melted into an even more tangled ball of tension and pestered Vivi and Lil until they consented to chaperone the coffee date. Lil told Vivi, “Don’t forget your fake glasses and nose so we won’t be recognized.”

There were some other difficult things going on in my life – the subject of a long, separate, widowhood-related story – and they came to a head the weekend before our date. I vented to YachtGuy by e-mail and we made a date to talk by phone that evening.

As I look back on it now, after so much else has happened, I know I was a tinderbox. I couldn’t contain my excitement at any stage so far. I drank half a bottle of wine before I got him on the line. Perhaps what happened was pre-ordained. Destiny or kismet or drunken dumbness, it was a fucking total blast.

The next day I had to process with the girls:

Viv: Three hours! What did you talk about?
SDF: Um…. We only talked for one hour...
Viv: Oh my. Was the hour of talk before or after?
SDF: Before. We were pretty spent at the end as you can imagine.
Viv: Was it just dirty talk or….
SDF: The latter. So here’s how I foresee Sunday: I’m sitting across from him saying YOU'RE the guy I fucked?????? and laughing my ass off. PLEASE chaperone!
Viv: What are going to wear, and for the love of God, have you had your hair done recently? You totally have a boyfriend. I NEED DETAILS.
SDF: I do NOT have a boyfriend. What details do you want?
Viv: Basically, um … the transcript.
SDF: Transcript: First hour is like, how was your day and what do you think you want in life and let’s just have fun. He tells me how relaxed he is and how he can see the stars from his bed. I do the same except I say I can see the TV from here on the couch. He tells me some things he likes about women and what he likes to do to them. I tell him how much I enjoy those things. Things escalate to a lot of heavy breathing that cannot be heard very well and some descriptions of what we imagine we are each doing to the other except probably not accurate b/c hard to keep track of what’s sposed to be where when, breathing gets faster, I can hardly hear anything and have to keep checking if he’s still there, heavier breathing and some imaginative descriptions, exclamations and exhortations and some cursing, I hang up about 3 times (chin pushes handset buttons, or switch phones because battery dies) and one of us has to call back, then there are some louder noises. I hang up by accident again. He calls back. We make appropriate small nice talk for a while and then we say goodnight. DOES THAT HELP?
Viv: Well… it sounds almost romantic.

After phone sex, coffee had to be a piece of cake, right? I still felt that real physical contact, even the threatened kiss, would be more than I could handle easily, but at least I had some basis of recent experience with some kind of partner. I sure felt different, and people at work kept asking me about my “glow.”

Four nights before the date, just after finishing story time, I opened my inbox:

S –

Lots of thoughts in recent days. Three significant points pertaining to you:

1.  I don't want to meet you yet. In fact, I've decided to drop dating (the in-person type) altogether for the time being. Very personal reasons having nothing to do with the wonderful women I have met, you included. Sorry, but must postpone coffee for a while.  For some reason I think you will understand without explanation...at least I hope.

2.  I am strangely attracted to you. I am simultaneously troubled and intrigued by that.

3.  The other night was amazingly erotic. I want to fuck you tonight. Please call.


Sent from my iPhone

* Read the next installment in this series! *

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Dating Episode 0.2 [August 2007]: What I Heard When She Moved

This will be, sort of, my last post about pre-dating. The next one on this subject starts with the best sentence I’ve ever uttered.

But this short story describes the last step before I could really “put myself out there.”

At our church in the summer, services are organized by members. This August Sunday the service featured a gorgeous flamenco dancer on the hardwood of the choir loft, in two of the intervals in which we normally would have just music.

She transfixed all of us. We looked to the choir loft fastly. She stamped her declarative feet. She held dramatic poses, Spanish arabesques. There was as much pause as guitar and those silences held us rapt. The music was plaintive and joyous, her dancing was full of life. Her belly showed, gorgeous chocolate skin. She knew exactly how beautiful she was.

How often do you find a single point around which other aspects of your life have turned? The lever or wedge, the first slow domino?

That could be me, said a voice. During her second number, it said, HANG ON, that is me. I can move. I can strut. I can command attention with a slight curve of my pinky or a thrust hip. I can be subtle and I don’t mind making a statement.

I remembered Marie’s search. Who am I? What do I like?

The flood took me by surprise. I ignored the sermon, responding to the wave:
I love fuchsia and red and black.
I love the shawl I bought at Teotihuacan.
I love music, I love to dance.
I love my perfume.

Through the hour it swelled:
I love my child.
I love my body.
I love beans.
I love dark chocolate and all kinds of wine.
I love talking late into the night about intense and light lovely topics with someone cute.
I love to kiss.
I love watching the leaves fall, and my hammock.
I love to read.
I love Dave Eggers, though he doesn’t deserve it.
I love the New Yorker and This American Life.
I love a good movie.
I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I love yoga.
I love that I can do anything when I start with a chopped onion in olive oil.
I love the equity in my home.
I love creating art and mixing materials and gazing at what I’ve done.
I love the feel of wood.
I love the smells of metal.
I love my pointy black boots.
I love rice...

I can do it. I knew in my heart and I felt it in my feet and my belly. The next evening after storytime I looked for all the flamenco classes I could find. Maybe that would take too long; I looked up salsa meetups, but those people were young. Then I realized if I was out learning to dance I could as well be out flirting with boys instead of just browsing at them. And some of that might lead somewhere. I already had a sitter every Thursday for support group; if she could handle another $28 a week, my kid would not suffer.

I was off.

* Read the next installment in this series! *

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When is an insight “blinding?” One duality illuminated.

I have been told that the job of a creative is to pluck concepts from the “ether” that surrounds us, the inchoate, and build an image or story from those bits. In polite society, this ability has sometimes earned me the label "crazy." You'll be judged, on one axis, by whether your result resonates with anyone, whether you've picked things that speak to others.

Last night Short Stack had a 15-minute pre-bedtime tantrum which was clearly* an incredible simulation (because it was frequently interrupted by giggling). It pissed me off and I couldn't see a way out, so I took a Mommy Time Out and went into my bedroom to read for a few. I’d been saving this piece about “restorative justice” from a recent Washington Post Magazine. (Things do sit around). Some ideas in the article hit me hard if slow; in the 24 hours since, that blunt insight has expanded and brightened:

“Abramson is a big believer in the transformative power of such face-to-face meetings, as are others. While spiritual leaders have long asked folks to accept the benefits of forgiveness on faith, the secular world has lately jumped on the bandwagon -- and proffered scientific evidence to support this view. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been studying forgiveness for more than 20 years. He reports that a survey of the scientific literature in 1997 turned up only 58 studies on the topic, but that has grown to a total of 1,000 documented studies exploring the subject today.

Evidence of the potential benefits is piling up: Recent studies suggest forgiveness can decrease your cardiovascular risk, elevate your immune system and reduce your chances of depression, anxiety, anger disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Worthington attributes this to the conflicting messages the body sends. ‘Biologically, we have an immediate vengeful justice motive when we've been wronged, but over time we have a biological urge toward empathy and reconciliation,’ he says. The desire for justice gives us a buzz, he says. ‘Pretty much everybody can get aroused and motivated by anger and the prospect of getting back at this person. It is lighting up... those same dopamine-releasing pathways that are in the reward section of the brain.’

But at some point, an evolutionary response kicks in, he says. A human who is totally cut out of the group doesn't stand much chance of survival. The others in the group ‘want to do something to not cede them to the wild beasts out there,’ he says. ‘That's when we start to feel conflict and pressure.’

I reread. I tore the page out. I went into the other room once Mr. Fresh had wrapped up "Green Eggs and Ham." I reassured the person who'd been pushing my buttons with pretend emotions that I loved her dearly. Small arms reached up and pulled my neck downward. I delivered a goodnight kiss to a restless, slightly blubbering girl and stayed for three minutes.

Who among us, particularly those who live on with great loss, hasn’t felt that pull, that desire to stay angry, knowing you could not keep it up? Isn’t it fantastic to hear there’s a scientific basis for both sides, the two crazy ends that fight inside each of us? (No, not crazy: it's science.) I feel I’ve been running back and forth between the two walls of anger and moving on for years. It's a relay race where I'm the only runner. There's no medal and no ending. I direct ferocious intentions at these walls and end up with sore knees and ankles, fists clenched, no baton.

In restorative justice, sharing stories is a big part of the answer. Perhaps it’s the same for me. I don’t think I would have heard this lesson if I hadn’t opened this channel to write. So, thanks.

* not the Beatles but...

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