Thank God it's over. November, the month of great suckage. People died. Memories arrived and churned and therapy was skipped. Friends announced divorces. Lights dimmed, I got lost, we moved house and spent money. Exciting projects began, then sputtered as their parts were too hard to find among the many boxes. I managed to blog EVERY DAY this month and thus fulfill NaBloPoMo, but I think I broke every other promise I had outstanding.

Yes, thank you, I do expect a trophy. Polly Pocket scotch-taped to a maraca will do nicely.

NaBloPoMo wasn't easy, but I learned stuff. Posting daily greases your wheels, forces you to think different, to reach a bit. Mostly? I just really don't want to talk about it anymore. I read the victory posts of other bloggers today and I hear the same word-fatigue, senseless quiet, silly satisfaction everywhere.

I'll admit I made many new friends and cemented my interest in some important topics, gained a wee bit of traction on my next life, but I'm too tired to think about it, and my back is starting to go again.

Upcoming posts: lots of dark true tales, a few bright insights, and a review of a movie that stars cute little fuzzy toys with weapons.

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Echoes: Another Husband Sent Home

I don’t know how people survive in this world without a church. When Gavin was ill, we got so much out of the personal announcements at the beginning of services. It was a great comfort to be reminded in human scale and real time of the great circle of life: not only were other people fighting disease, busy being born, and learning to appreciate the world around them, but smaller things happened too: kids would announce that they’d adopted puppies, seniors might share that they’d found tango lessons alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder.

As we faced the worst, we felt part of a rich and wonderful world, one in which everybody hurts sometimes. As time went on I felt grateful to share good news many times with those whose eyes had met mine over and over when things were sad.

Today, nearly five years later, one of those announcements hit me just right. It had two parts and the whomp snuck up on me.

“We’ve just heard from Sue that Freddie Sampson will be sent home tomorrow... for hospice care.”

Freddie is a sweet fellow in his 80s who’d been hit by a car a few weeks ago. We’d been spared most of the updates but I know from my friends’ stories that multiple operations after a major impact like the one he suffered don’t mean that he’s expected to come out of it.

His wife, Sue, is one of those grandmas who always has a twinkle to spare: she’s Miss November, lifting a champagne flute in a soaking tub full of bubbles, in the calendar of nude church ladies we’re doing for 2010.

Yes, I advocate for hospice. I talk about end-of-life decisions and bandy cancer statistics about at cocktail parties (and yes, I do sometimes get invited). But it doesn’t get any easier to hear that this lovely woman will be joining our club.

Closing in on the longest night of the year, with flu season’s worst still ahead of us, waiting for our mortgage to be approved in the worst economy of a generation, all I can feel is very, very sad to share in this loss.

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A Clean Slate

Maybe I’ll never unwrap the memories? We have art by many of Gavin’s friends, some of whom I never met, a few I actively disliked. But we hung what was framed, mostly his choices, and had two or three times as much as we could use. I kind of like having them here, in the new house, still wrapped up like ghosts.

To me, this looks like a spoof on the Pottery Barn catalog: maybe there are people who are afraid to unwrap their art, the same ones who cover their couches in clear vinyl? With decorator shades of white, as long as they’re wrapped, this platter of artwork counts as neutral.

It’s rather exciting to see how all my stuff looks in this house. (Olivia’s furniture looks far better in my old house, with the dark wood trim: she likes things overstuffed and antiquey. This house suits my mid-century and later aesthetic.) I’m lucky to have tons of art, most of it with personal connections, and of course we’ll hang a few of Gavin’s pieces (it doesn’t count as tacky now that he’s gone). It’s as if I have fresh eyes for the same pieces.

This scene on the mantel is something Gavin would have delighted in painting: the subtle colors, layers of meaning, hint of sentiment, room for personal interpretation.

The greatest irony is that this new house is a split-level and Gavin would have really loved it. He did a few drawings of this house model, sourced, I’m sure, from this same neighborhood. I’ve at least one left, perhaps that will hang in the space next to this mantel soon?

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Full Circle

I cherish a snapshot* of Gavin with his long thin arms loosely around me outside a hip brunch place in the college town next door. It’s a sunny day and I’m wearing the flowing skirt and fuchsia top I’d worn to graduate from college a few years before. My arms are toned from sword work, pushups, and youth. That photo, transferred to silk, is in a pillowed cartouche on the front of our wedding album and preserves one of the happiest smiles we had.

I remember always the feeling of his arms around me. I felt encircled, sealed tight but comfortable, binding me loosely inside a pure shape and close to his body. Gavin was a calm man and that state was contagious when he held me this way. I felt safe and energized.

From the start, nearly two years ago, Mr. Fresh has loved to hold me, join his strong arms around me when we’re lying in bed, my back to his front. Our hooks and crooks find each other and go soft. I feel nestled and nuzzled. I know I’m safe because he’s so strong and he means it.

It’s comfortable for me, but deeply, richly comforting for him. He needs this peace, it doesn’t follow him otherwise. If you look into his pool it’s roiling, even when he’s happy. He’s restless.

I love that I can do for him what Gavin did for me, even though I have no idea what it is, because I know how delicious it is and how necessary.

* The picture above is of the same hug but in 2005, with Short Stack in the huddle.

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National Day of Listening

This may not work.

But I am going to try to talk to my damn mother for the Story Corps project, the National Day of Listening, on Friday. Maybe you can do it, too. It's a great legacy to leave, to include in the history of our real country, and a fantastic opportunity to connect with a loved one in a different way. The website offers tips as well as starting questions for your "interview."

There are a million ways and reasons I love what storytelling has become: a significant method that we use to frame our lives and our history. I never thought I'd see the day that ordinary people were recognized for their experiences and perspectives. I always thought that was the job of the Great American Novel, not reality TV, not computer networks, but things have changed. Thank God.

I love that I spent an hour on Monday selling a corporate client on how we'd help put faces to their "story," which they already value as a central part of their brand. I love that I have a chance to sell without lying, and use my skills to accomplish something rewarding while getting paid.

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The day after Thanksgiving, if I follow through on my National Day of Listening pledge, I'm supposed to listen to my mother for a full hour. We have a difficult relationship, but she is here for the holiday anyway.

Why don't I turn away when opportunity knocks like this? Maybe I'm strong enough to plunge right in to a challenging learning experience, perhaps flowers will pour from her mouth in a surprise fit of something-or-other. Could be that this process is just part of some rebellion I'm having against being healed, maybe this is my way to insist on banging my head against a familiar wall one more time.

I know part of my mother's annoying behavior is caused by illness, but after 43 years I still have trouble being around it and making room for my real live self.

Around her I feel like the child I was, the one who was constantly asked to be different; at other times I'm in the shoes of her parent, whose job it was to take care. The one who failed so miserably. If I saw my mother as a child who needed only love and empathy, I'd probably accept her and feel more sad than angry.

The sadness is like a well. I don't want to shine a light down there.

But an hour? With my ears? I'll try. Wish me luck.

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Engage With Grace: Your End-of-Life Wishes

I'm participating with many other bloggers in a blog rally for Engage With Grace – a movement aimed at having all of us understand and communicate our end-of-life wishes. At the heart of Engage With Grace are five questions, often shown as a single Powerpoint slide, designed to get the conversation started. We’ve included them at the end of this post. They’re not easy questions, but they are important.

Engage with Grace targets a time of year when most of us are with the very people with whom we should be having these tough conversations -- our closest friends and family. To help ease us into these tough questions, and in the spirit of the season, this year's Engage With Grace conversation might open with five parallel questions that ARE pretty easy to answer:

Silly? Maybe. But it underscores how having a template like this -- just five questions in plain, simple language -- can deflate some of the complexity, formality and even misnomers that have sometimes surrounded the end-of-life discussion.

So with that, we’ve included the five questions from Engage With Grace below. Think about them, document them, share them.

To learn more please go to www.engagewithgrace.org. This post is based on text written by Alexandra Drane and the Engage With Grace team. If you want to reproduce this post on your blog (or anywhere) you can download a ready-made html version here.

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Jumbled Former Shrine, #3

At one time this Virgin by the Aguilar sisters of Oaxaca was working on Gavin's cancer, along with some favorite fabric bits, milagros, pictures, a candle, and other souvenirs. Over 3+ years it's been joined by my perfume, lost toys, and jewelry I don't bother to put away. The candle was lit for every night of nookie with The First, sometimes Mr. Fresh and I bother to light it, too. And then a pile of Mr. Fresh's old receipts, discarded drawings by Short Stack are all piled on top.

This is one of my last pictures from the old house.

I look at this prominent chaotic neglect in my bedroom and think of Robert Venturi's oft-quoted statement:

"I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit meaning as well as the explicit function..."

and I wonder if it's that, or if I'm just lazy. Or whether I didn't want the prayers to work, because the shrine didn't look a whole lot better for very long even when it was supposed to be on duty. (Your deity expects a clear view of what you'd like. I'm sure an old toilet paper roll, as great an art supply as it is, isn't something devoutly to be wished).

It's a fragment, archaeology of five years' accretion between dreams that transcended and stuff that got done. A little taste of life in that place, at that time. Nothing big.

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Schmaltz Pan Sequelae

Perhaps I went too far yesterday with my post about The Pan.

(1) Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this crazy way about cookware as investments linked to real estate. Likely, I’m the wife with the worst cleanup skills.


As Olivia walked me through some kitchen features on moving day (reader, meet Olivia, Mr. Fresh’s former spouse. Yes, it’s all amicable. Yes, this is the house they lived in for 20 years) she cracked open a drawer and said, “Oh, and here’s The Pan that came with the oven, it’s here if you want, but I’ll take this other one since it’s the one I’ve always used...”

(2) I told him the gist of the Pan post (I published it nearly a week after the fight) and he thought it was a cute idea. He insists he doesn't read this blog, or worry what I might say about him.


Tonight he brought home a supermarket rotisserie chicken and I think it gave me food poisoning.

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Married Life: Schmaltz Pan Spiel

[Mr. Fresh and I had a fight about something move-related and while I was cleaning up from dinner I schemed this rant. It's supposed to be funny. Just so you know.]

No, really, honey, thanks for making dinner. And it was delicious. Your plain roast chicken was way better than the rotisserie ones. THANK YOU. You’re great.

But fuck. The Pan. I can't believe you used that aluminum two-part grilling pan that you’re never supposed to use. What? You know, THE PAN. The one that came with the stove that came with the house. Yeah, no one ever uses those pans.

Why? WHY, motherfucker? Because it’s a piece of crap. It’s made to work exactly with this size oven but it doesn’t fit into the sink at all. It’s really hard to clean. All those holes. And it’s a flimsy material.

Dishwasher? What are you, crazy? That piece of shit would MELT in the fucking dishwasher.

You’re never supposed to use that pan. Everyone knows! Come on! Didn’t your Mom have “the pan?” She probably just didn’t want to tell you about it. I don’t blame her, you would have suggested she put it in the dishwasher!!!

What are you SUPPOSED to do with it? Put it aside or at the very bottom of the drawer and make sure no one ever uses it! That's what everyone does.

Waddaya mean "throw it out?" This pan, mister, is part of the stove, and when we sell the house, we’ll sell the stove with it and if the original pan is missing it’s not worth as much. And now, we’re moving out so there is no way I can leave the pan coated with chicken grease for the tenants. Okay, it’s not completely covered. But they shouldn’t be able to smell our last week’s dinner, you know?

What do you mean, “my usual cleaning standards?” Of course now I have to clean it better than I’d do for us. I don’t want the tenants to think we are total losers!

I'm sure they'll tell the whole neighborhood. Yes, the neighborhood we are moving out of. Why in the world are you laughing? Fuckhead. You wouldn't know community if it bit you in the ass.

And anyway I just heard this piece on NPR about grease and oil. You’re never supposed to put them into the sewage system, neither by dishwasher or by sink or by garbage disposal in sink. Well, as little as possible. You can drain it into a can and then wrap that up thoroughly when it’s full and throw it in the regular trash the evening before trash morning. Or, save it in the freezer and take it out mid-winter to make redneck suet for the birds. I know, pretty much every spring I find that I’ve forgotten it. But we’re not composting anymore, so why be THAT green?

Anyway, if I did compost now, I’d be making compost for the tenants and that’s just plain stupid.

No, I said I don’t want it going down the sink. I’ll wipe the grease off The Pan with paper towels… Trees? Smartass, you got a better idea? Oh yeah? Do you have any old shirts I can turn into rags? NO, BECAUSE YOU’RE WEARING THEM. “It’s my favorite,” “It’s so soft,” “It still fits me,” wah wah. And you think I’m ridiculous about “stuff?”

So I’ll stick the greasy paper towels in the can (it’s a whole damn chicken’s worth, thank you very much) and then use the sharp spatula to scrape off the big chunks of grease and stuck skin, and then maybe a big lump of baking soda will cut through what’s left… huh? No, well, SOMETHING has to go down the drain, I’m not CRAZY.

Or maybe vinegar if I have to. And then soap. And then maybe more baking soda or vinegar. That schmaltz shit is persistent. It’ll take a few hours. I’ll let it soak and watch some CSI with you. It’s going to be a lot of scrubbing though. Just want to make sure you know for next time.

No, Martha Stewart doesn’t have any better ideas about what to do with The Pan. She probably has a special warehouse full of things like this that she has to save. Like the mattress tags. Yeah, I think she pulls them off, but she keeps them in case there’s a rebate or something.

I can’t believe your mother never told you about The Pan. Or even your Grandma.

No, don’t ask your Dad, obviously he’s not gonna know, right? But you could ask him about the clitoris sometime. Maybe you had the flu when he was telling you that part.

Well, you know now. So when we get to the new house, I really do want you to feel comfortable in the kitchen, and that was delicious chicken, really, but can you just ask me before you pull out a pan?

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My Anissa Post: Prayer Isn't Enough

[Background on Anissa Mayhew here or here]

Leave it to the widow to say what no one else will: Prayer and love are great. But they are NOT ENOUGH. Whatever happens with Anissa, and I hope as strongly as you do that the outcome is whatever is best for her, things are NOT going to be okay.

So I’m going to give it to you straight: Send up those winged hopes. But plant roots, too, please: add something like this to your prayers and posts and intentions: "Whatever happens, I will help her family for the long haul." They -- Anissa’s husband and three children -- are going to ACTIVELY need your positive energy (and time and money) for at least the next three years.


Widows' Index

One of my many Big Ideas is a site that puts all the widow bloggers’ content together through an index.

It started after I left support group and started reading the huge variety of blogs produced by widows and widowers, especially the young ones. Despite our diversity, we share many of the same experiences so there tend to be common topics:
-- When they removed their wedding ring.
-- Their feelings at having to check “widowed” on a form, or God forbid, “divorced.”
-- When they sent their spouse’s belongings to the Goodwill (on my blog, this very casual post that is among my most visited).
-- And of course, the ever-popular, impossible-to-beat, post about First sex after death.

And then Michele Neff Hernandez told me about her project of interviewing many widows, asking the same set of questions, some of which were similar. See, that’s how I can tell she’s a genius. (Too.)

An index that connects our entries by the topics widowed people are looking for would generate traffic and share the commonalities more easily. For those of us writing blogs, it would be a great way to continue the conversations we all have informally, non-linearly, without interrupting our own narratives.

And it feeds into my other hypothesis: that young bereaved people are an underserved group, socially, economically, with certain needs that could be identified and dealt with. But that’s a Big Idea for another day.

I’ve started a list of the topics that might be included in a “widow index” of blogs – a “W-Index,” if you’ll forgive me. (No one ever does.)

I won’t bore folks with the logistics or technical details. The project could be self-building or we could each index other blogs as we wish.

This is probably too many topics, but what do you think?
Being single
Blogs and bloggers
Career and job
Dating stories
Dating, online
Friends and friendships
Grief counseling
Grief, anticipatory
Grief, competiveness
Grief, complicated
Grieving Kids: age 0 to 3
Grieving Kids: age 4 to 5
Grieving Kids: Grown children
Grieving Kids: high schoolers
Grieving Kids: K-5 gr
Grieving Kids: middle schoolers
Grieving Kids: over 18
Losses during bereavement
Loss of a child
Loss of a parent
Marital status on forms
Mental Health other than depression
Moving house
Neighbors and neighborhoods
Other culture
Parents, yours
Practical advice
School, your children
School, yourself
Skin hunger
Step parenting
Stuff, spouse’s
Support groups
Survivor guilt
Time management
Triggers to grief
Wedding ring
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6+

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Kid Theology, Part 2

My daughter will only listen to women vocalists, and I make mix CDs for the car every few weeks so it’s not All Pink, All the Time. At 5, she comes up with some funny ideas about the songs, like in “Dancing Queen” she heard the lyric as “Cheetah girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing Queen” so we had to play along and refer to ABBA as the Cheetah Girls for about a year. (We did tell her it was ABBA at first, and she got angry. So PEH! And I kept the lie going, partly because it would save me from even being tempted to buy anything by the Disney act. We lived in dread of the day she’d find us out: sing “Mamma Mia” and come home pissed. That day never came.)

Like all kids, she’s very musical. And like all kids her age, she’s starting to wonder where things came from. Since age 2 or so she’s been fascinated by inventors, robots, and how things work. Now she’s beginning to ask what made the seeds that made the grasses, flowers and trees: “Mommy, I came out of your tummy, but where did the world come from?”

“A lot of people have questions about that,” I straightened up, pleased to have a “teaching moment” just show up. “And so they study science to learn about where seeds, and water, and even the earth itself came from.”

“Wait, Mommy! I know! God maked the whole earth!”

I shuddered involuntarily.

“Well, no one really knows the answer for sure, but that is an interesting idea. Yes, many people study religion to learn about how the world was made. So people can do work using science or religion to answer these questions,” I offered, without giving her creationism, I hope.

“No! God did it.” Sensing unnapped, late-afternoon ferocity on the horizon, I let her idea stand. That week, I think her image of God was an old man with a white beard that she’d heard about at school.

But come Sunday, I knew she had options. This year’s religious education program in our Unitarian Universalist church is about world religious traditions. In the past few Sundays she’s colored in Ganesh and Shiva, made a “stained glass” chalice out of tissue paper, and created a camel (part of a lesson on Islam) out of two humps of a paper egg carton and some pipe cleaners. And the questions, as you can imagine, are bound to keep coming.

And when she heard this song last week, she got very excited.

“If God had a name, what would it be
and would you call it to his face
if you were faced with him...?”

I’m pretty sure she thought the CD was reading her mind. “Mommy! What she singing is EXACTLY the same as what I am thinking!”

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Kid Theology, Part 1

When Short Stack was less than 2, with a vocabulary under 50 words, she learned to blow kisses.

And one winter night at bedtime she was gazing at the stars out her window. She smiled, brought the pinched fingers of both hands to her eyes and burst them out toward the sky. She laughed, facing the glass with open palms.

She had blown kisses, with her eyes, to the stars.

I still don’t have words to express that feeling more eloquently.

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Good Bye, House

Good bye, house.
Good bye, mouse ... traps.
Good bye, closet door that you can’t open unless the bedroom door is closed.
Good bye, single water line that means you can’t flush if there’s laundry going.
Good bye, crack in the wall that has the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit.

Good bye, improperly installed storm door that moans with a cold northwest wind.
Good bye, hot water toilet that we fixed eight years ago.
Good bye, potential for that toilet to explode in an unheated bathroom (we added heat five years ago but I’m still bitter).
Good bye, giant hatch in kitchen ceiling that can expose the second floor plumbing.
Good bye, feeling that I ought to fix everything.

Good bye, dining room non-acoustical ceiling with unexplained hole.
Good bye, unfinishable basement.
Good bye, huge sunny garden a mother can't make time for.

Good bye, house with many expensive problems.
Good bye, busy urban street in a mostly sweet residential suburban neighborhood.
Good bye, bus stop across from living room windows, community gathering place, facilitator of loitering nuisances.
Good bye, frequent route for ambulances and fire trucks.

Good bye, incredible equity accumulation.
Good bye, future development as multi-family housing opposed by the neighborhood.
Good bye, uphill battle.

Good bye, Benjamin Moore 963, lovingly applied to the hallways.
Good bye, brand new, extremely expensive roof.

Good bye, house which I bought as breadwinner in my first marriage.
Good bye, first home I created for my child.
Good bye, house I came home to the night my husband died.

Good bye, house where I felt trapped with a crazy toddler.
Good bye, house I left each morning to go to work, a blessed distraction and relief.
Good bye, house where I learned to walk again, built up my strength, and hosted new friends.
Good bye, house where I rediscovered my bliss and found out some new joys, too.
Good bye, house that I left, hand in hand with my daughter and my second husband.

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Do You Have "The Pan?"

I am working on a funny post about this stupid idiot roasting pan, the one in the left sink above, the one that you’re not supposed to use because it’s a piece of crap but you have to keep it because it goes with your stove. You know “the pan?” You’ve got one, too, I’m sure. It came with the house.

But I can’t publish it because Mr. Fresh and I are having a fight about the move. He's upstairs in a huff. He doesn't read this, but no need to stoke flames with the universe.

Anyway, "the pan" is covered in chicken grease because someone didn’t know you are not supposed to ever use that pan.

I’m hoping the post will pass for Bloggess material when it’s done, at least in the amount that it threatens the author’s marriage, but in the meantime, you can look at the pretty picture.

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A Milestone in, or toward, Life 2.0

The milestones pile up, big and small, three years' worth, and they are all linked to loss: When I removed my wedding ring. The anniversaries, birthdays, child’s birthdays, ritual vacations. First Thai food without Gavin. First Mom, and 4-year-old, at a playdate who didn’t know I was a widow. First trip to the grocery store where I didn’t buy a lot of cookie comfort.

This one was new and it snuck up on me. I had my first parent-teacher conference this week with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. First her speech teacher came in and summarized progress toward her goals. I had some questions (Should I correct her diction when she’s talking to herself? Which is about 2 hours of each day. “No.”) but overall the teacher said Shortie’s doing really well and may not be referred for services next year.

And then the teacher and I went through evaluating all her little successes: reading simple words. “Understanding statistics at a kindergarten level,” WTF is that? Social adjustment, managing her food allergy, etc. She is especially enthusiastic, as I know, about art, and excellent with scissors. In all things, my daughter looks to be flourishing. I smiled.

“Now, Short Stack has mentioned that her father died. Can you tell me some more about that?”

I hadn’t told the teacher.

A milestone that went unmarked at the time: The first time I didn’t mention the loss, at ALL, in meeting someone really important to my child.

I was shocked, sad, happy that I’d gotten away with it: and surprised it took me this long to see that back in September, there was at least one occasion when I didn’t need the attention devoted to a widow.

I blabbered my spiel in incredible surprise: her father, his illness, my general state, basics of grief in kids her age, support we’d gotten. I reaasured her that we talk about him and I’m always honest, and while experts have told me all her reactions so far are typical, she should feel free to let me know if she has any concerns. And I told her about other changes in Short Stack’s life: the death of one grandma, our move to a new neighborhood, Mr. Fresh joining the family. How she refers to him as “Dad” but also says, “I’m a artist like my Daddy,” meaning Gavin.

Everything was OKAY. I’d again escaped injuring my child despite incredible flakiness. I was again grateful for sensitive teachers who have to cope with all our parenting gaps. Grateful I’d avoided a single-Mom breakdown for three years and am now out of those particular woods (breakdown is still possible, but I’m not single ☺).

Is this a milestone of loss, or of Life 2.0? It’s a mark of the absence of loss, the mark death doesn’t leave, of me TRULY living with it and beyond it. Maybe a hint, if not the first, of defining myself as something other than a widow.

I’m just plain happy to be here. And I feel a little less skeptical to, maybe, call a life, at some time, a “New Normal.”

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What Is Grief?

Grief is a monster. It rips and roars. It has a thousand eyes and eight kinds of fur. It’s furious and it bursts into your home. Grief rapes and pillages, it spends you, but it never leaves you alone.

Grief is an embezzler, green-shaded and officious, sapping you from a back room where he carries on vital aspects of your business. You’re not sure exactly what he does but everyone seems to trust him. The first day he doesn’t show up you find you’re hollow.

Grief is a saboteur, a pickpocket, a bastard. A hurricane, an elevator shaft, a muddy puddle, a pie in the face. Grief stains you, breaks you, kicks you when you’re down. Grief surprises you and changes constantly.

But we often forget that early on, Grief is also a companion. Grief is true, constant, honest. It won’t run if you stare or yell. Grief is always up for a conversation or a really juicy fight. Heck, Grief even shares jokes, some of which must be kept just between you two.

Grief is your intimate, your confidante, your own.

It takes, but it gives back, too. It plays Good Cop, Bad Cop. You have no defense.

You think maybe Grief protects you from worse things. It’s hard to say.

Grief feeds you and slakes your thirst. It embraces you when no one else will. It will never leave you alone. It helps you feel special and keeps you apart when, sometimes, you need to be distant from the rest of the world.

Grief can be an object. It’s easy to blame Grief, and satisfying to beat the shit out of it.

It will step back a bit over time, and you two will grow apart. It never looks the same the same two days in a row. Like you, it learns.

But gradually your life will recruit new characters and more feelings. When you are busy with them, Grief begins to starve. You gain strength.

Grief is not the thing that hurt you, it's made out of you, so it will always be there for you when you need it.

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Three Cliches, Including "Till Death Do Us Part."

Leave it to me to question the truisms that everyone says without thinking. (For some reason, I am still fun at parties…)

“It didn’t work out.”

I never understood why people would say this about a relationship after it was over. What was supposed to be the endpoint, which didn’t end up fulfilled? Is it that they didn’t “close the deal” by getting married? Surely they could enjoy their time together without having an end in mind. Did it “not work out” because they didn’t stay married until one of them died? Is a marriage that ends in divorce like the sound of a tree that falls in the forest when no one hears it? Surely those years together were worth something in this world, at least in the small sphere of your time in it.

Is it just that it’s one of those nonsense phrases that everyone uses, of which I have so little understanding or tolerance? Or is “it didn’t work out” truly contemptuous of time? Whatever it is, I always take a step back from any friend who says it. (Did I mention that I still have friends? ‘Cause I do. I’m not even lying.)

“Happily ever after.”

Who cares what it’s “after?!” Yeah, I get that you’re closing the book, so “after” the cover’s shut. What is it until?

On the other hand, we cynics today, we sophisticates, make so much fun of “fairytale endings.” What would be wrong with just plain being happy until we each individually (don’t forget, we all do die alone) fade out, hopefully in our sleep and at a good ripe age. So much contempt. Don’t you deserve to have joy? Wouldn’t most of us be happy to remember one moment of bliss at the end as the chapters shoot past our fading eyes?

“Till death do us part.”
How much do any of us really contemplate this statement? Gavin and I thought we were pretty serious about our love in the face of Death. We married in defiance of his heart problems and several near-death experiences. We requested that our friend Pat, glamorous jazz singer, sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story (“even death won’t part us now”) at our vows (and, um, “Like a Prayer”). And then we went to Mexico for the Days of the Dead (including a cemetery tour) for our lunes miel.

But seriously, who wants to fulfill those vows? We love to picture ourselves on the porch, white haired or bald in last year’s hiked-up pants giving lollipops to sticky grandkids.

But being the caregiver to a dying love, whether old or young? Recovering alone from the shock of a car accident? Romantic? Pfah! Research shows it takes 10 years off your life.

We cherish the Norman Rockwell picture of “till death do us part,” but none of us is ready for the Norman Cousins one.

Should I be pleased that death parted me from Gavin? I’m not sure. I did enjoy entering dating with a “successful” relationship (ah! There’s that endpoint!) behind me, and I certainly hold it over your everyday divorcee. And look, widowhood is a big part of my identity. (Today.)

But surely a marriage in which my husband died didn’t “work out,” did it?

Mr. Fresh says he hopes I die first so that I don’t have to go through this kind of loss again. I’m not sure how much of a kindness this is. I joke back, “Yeah, um, no thanks. I love you too, but be my guest.”

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* (I’m not endorsing divorce. I think it’s a grand waste and injustice 90% of the time. But seriously? Marriage and death? Not really on the same page for any of us.)

** (Is that time only valuable if it’s permanent? If we are mortal, shouldn’t our feelings be mortal, too?).

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Really, Truly True Things: A Top Ten List

Perhaps these things are obvious to everyone else but it’s taken me 43 years.

1. You only get one body in this life.
2. If you don't talk much, people will think you are smarter.
3. Water is the best, but single malt Scotches rock.
4. True guru-style wisdom is always a surprise and it comes out of people you’ve started to tune out: Small children. Crazies. Your grandma who says the same thing over and over again. If you are paying for this kind of language (other than in books) or feedback (other than in therapy) you will not receive.
5. Fast music, even if you don’t like it, really does make you work out harder.
6. When you exercise, you will have more energy, yes, even that same day.
7. Caffeine really does make you smarter.
8. It is truly just as easy to fall in love with a rich man.
9. Driving and crossing the street are extremely risky behaviors.
10. April really is the cruelest month, but May, November, and January suck smooth red monkey hiney most years, too.

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Cancer, Schmantzer. When Will We Market Death Awareness?

October’s over. The debris from the pink tsunami I see in every store I visit could be evidence of the recession or that people are as sick as I am of the idea that consumerism can heal our disease, which I suppose are the same thing. Or they could be evidence that this particular product push has had its day. Maybe it’s time for something new?

In October I got pretty hot in a debate on the BlogHer site on “Do we really need Breast Cancer Awareness month?,”  initiated by the great Denise Tanton. Suzanne Reisman followed up with her own piece, "Breast Cancer Awareness month is bunk." I contended that the pink has done its job, and it’s time to move on.

(I could also engage further in questions of how much funding BRCA receives compared to other cancers, the politics of cancer advocacy, the limitations of the American Cancer Society, the effectiveness of funding research versus reducing disparities in health care delivery and outcomes, how much money from these purchases actually gets to an organization, or how much each organization actually helps people with cancer. I could argue about the different types of BRCA, the ages they affect women, and the efficacy of mammograms for each type. I could talk about black women’s rates of death, which are much higher. Or about health care reform, pharmaceutical companies, and the changes that would make a bigger difference than mammograms. But I won’t do that here. [Do you like how I spent 124 words “not talking about it? Me too. Where’s a good editor when you need one?])

I do, in general, support medical research and public education about health. I have several friends who’ve lost loved ones to this deadly disease and I in no way wish to diminish their pain, or the courage presented every day by people faced with any cancer.

But I think it’s time for a change. (No, not that one, but thanks.)

See, we’re all going to die, right? No exceptions. And probably, we won’t be the first person we know who will undergo this fate, which many say is the only fate.

My public awareness campaign would encourage us all to plan for the inevitable. Here are the elements:
-- Discussion with your loved ones that specifically gives them permission to remarry and do anything else that’s important to them.
-- Write a will and make sure everyone knows it’s true to your intentions. If folks are going to receive bad news, might as well tell them now, or they will make life hell for everyone else. And for the love of God, put in a fund for a mediator in case of dispute so your family can avoid fighting in court.
-- Prepare an Advance Health Care Directive (I just preached about my experience the other day). Understand that this is a dynamic document, because you never know what the situation may be. Discuss it with loved ones but have paper to comfort and cover them in this most stressful time.
-- In some states, you may need a living will and some other documents. I’m not a lawyer. At least Google it, okay?

Naturally a public awareness campaign is necessary. People can be eased into the discussion. Just like “breast” 30 years ago, “death” is still a fairly dirty word and something most of us would rather not think about at the grocery store or in the garden products aisle at Home Depot.

But just think about the products in this campaign (of course everything is black):

-- Ribbons? Sure, what the hell, black ribbons. Satin, not grosgrain, those Swarovski crystals make a lovely accent and they get cheaper every year.
-- TV ads featuring famous actors: Don’t be morbid. Be prepared.
-- A panel on the bus: Talk about the end: it isn’t just for widows any more.
(and) How much do you love your family? Will love be enough? *
(and) Wow! What bargains! How much did you spend today to protect your family?
-- A frisbee: Life’s a breeze when your Advance Health Care Directive is in place. (Maybe we make a boomerang for Hindu outreach).
-- Bumper stickers: Shit Happens. That’s why I just updated my will.
(and) In case of apocalypse, I speak to Jesus. In case of cancer, I speak to Hospice.
(and) I wrote my will. What’s your excuse for driving like that?
-- Produce state-by-state kits of the necessary documents and sell at FedEx office, Target, etc. Cute designs for men and women, Gen-X and Gen-Y, Latinos. Lots of butterflies on the chick stuff, motorcycles for guys. (Yes, it’s all available for free, but to reach everyone you need a consumer option. As demonstrated by BRCA).
-- Partner with banks to produced branded kits to offer FREE when you open an account.

Yeah, I presented it as sort of a joke (sort of), but I do believe in this cause.

Don’t you think there’s room somewhere, somehow, for a more public discussion of what death requires of each and every one of us?

* Note the potential synergy with life insurance marketing -- we can learn from their successes and failures, and I bet they'd love to work with us. Win-win!

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Second of Many Shrines

There's clearly always a lot going on around here.

This niche was installed to heal Gavin and it was updated with his picture after he died. (The bottom shelf is worldly goods like stationery, not part of the invocation.)

Top shelf, far right: The card Gavin made for my birthday, which was the day after he was diagnosed, and which promised he'd be here for many years to enjoy together the hammock we'd just bought.

Center shelf, center: A virgin of Guadalupe I made of toasted pumpkin seeds, painted and glued to board, for a piece Gavin and I created together with a chef, who made a spicy nouvelle Mexican pepita soup, which was served as part of a Cuisine des Artistes evening around 1999. Maybe.

Flanking the virgin are: (pinned up) two Renaissance angel notecards, augmented with silly poorly fitting facial features by our dear friend, the greatest collage artist ever, (mid-height) angel by Gavin, devil by Mexico, (on shelf) Lord Ganesh in rosewood, one of the local Virgins, ceramic by the Aguilar sisters, purchased on our honeymoon. 

Strangely enough, I no longer have much to say about this assembly.

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Anything My Little Heart Desires

As an investor, I’ve always seen value in contrarian strategies. The evening after Lehman fell, Mr. Fresh (then, Marshall) and I went out to buy a diamond. We were nearly the only shoppers in the mall and we’d had this conversation:

Mr. Fresh (PhD in economics): Now, about a ring. Do you want a diamond? You know the scarcity is strictly….
Me: Yeah, I wrote a 15 page paper on DeBeers in b-school. I know it’s all bullshit.
Mr. Fresh: Okay, so…
Me: Uh huh, I want a diamond.

Gavin and I had artsy, wonderful rings that alluded to his artwork, made by a friend, no stones. I was a breadwinner the first time. While Gavin’s job was to understand the newspaper, his naivete and poor math skills left me, delighted, holding the business pages.

Now Mr. Fresh and I are having money issues. The checking account is declining, his new job demands longer hours plus a ridiculous commute, and I’m not planning to go back to work anytime soon. And he’s stressed about applying for a mortgage in this environment despite our strengths.

It’s hard to give up my financial independence. This late in feminism, it’s hard to remember that my attitudes were formed in an era when it was surprising, some would overstate it as “revolutionary,” for a woman to pay her own expenses.

During Gavin’s illness I grew accustomed to taking my only breaks at Target, spending always $46.34. What a luxury to know you could afford anything in the entire store. In a way, this was what I’d always dreamed of: being able to ignore the price tag. Gavin would say “you’re spending money like there’s no tomorrow.” I knew we were spinning toward bigger disasters than money. I didn’t reply.

As an overwhelmed widowed single Mom heading toward bankruptcy, but sitting on a cool half-mil of home equity, I kept up those habits. What was another $50 when I was spending down savings to buy groceries anyway? The savings accounts I’d built up during my years studying the market, pre-kid, dwindled. And I woke up in the solution every morning anyway. It wasn’t ideal but I’m pragmatic.

But I also became careless about paying bills on time, something I’ve been fastidious about since my mid-20s.

I’m at the point in my new life when “I watched my husband die” is a pretty weak excuse. Even with my contempt for a million things, I respect the world’s numbers and values to know that at some point, the shit has to hit the fan.

We were told we had nearly perfect credit when Gavin was dying. I hated this contrast. I wonder if I’ve spent the last five years ruining my credit out of contempt.

I’m thinking a lot about my spending as a way of bleeding out the grief.
I’m realizing how much I used spending to shed responsibility.
It makes a terrific, inevitable story climax when a rich man finds money can’t prevent or cure a disease.
Someone loses their home and says, “At least I’ve got my health.”
Widows feel incredible guilt living off life insurance benefits (I was “lucky,” haha, he had just the barest bit,)
Bloggers can’t really feel too happy about getting loads of traffic after they lose a child or are hauled off to the nuthouse.
Neither prosperity nor health have any moral sense.

I suppose worst case is that the bank will ask us to reapply for the loan with just Mr. Fresh’s name on it. I imagine I might be embarrassed, and he might be disappointed. Not the end of the world.

But I’m not feeling happy about the uncertainty, and it’s ruining my post-feminist enjoyment that someone is buying me lots of “free” time. I mean, yeah, I’m a housewife and mother, and we’re moving, but I have the luxury of figuring out what’s next in a fairly relaxed way. It matters to me that for the first time, someone, other than Oprah, wishes I'll create my best self.

Cross your fingers.

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Tear the Roof off the Mother, Sucker

After living in this house with its niggling and intractable issues, enduring ten years of the previous owners's ham-fisted "improvements," it hurts like I can't tell you to be spending a huge amount of money to fix it up. The house suffered because we had no money; now we have some, but wish to move. Always the Gift of the Magi.

In the case of the roof, the repair is not really optional, but the work has also been a lot more complicated than we expected because, like anything when you start to dig at it a bit, the roof was in worse shape than we could have imagined.

At least the tenants will get to enjoy it.

At least I'm moving into a house with more than one water line.

This is really hard. Not to mention the constant hammering and all the saw dust and roofing debris being created in the attic, which of course we hadn't thought to empty first. So now in order to throw out my JUNK I will have to vacuum it off first. (This crap is in addition to the trash I'm paying professionals to move to the new house.) (The boxes of Christmas ornaments shown above are NOT garbage, unless they get uncleanably dusty.)

I will be happy when this is over.

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Six things I was grateful for today.

1. The smell of crushed leaves after the kids have been through. (I am pretty sure that for worms, this is the smell of pizza.)
2. The sound of dried fallen leaves as you walk or skip through them.
3. The softness as my daughter jumps into a berm of leaves piled over grass near the curb.
4. The crooked dance of the leaves as they fall in our way.
5. The stubborn brown of the leaves that stay late on oaks.
6. The clear blue you see after the yellows, reds, and browns have left.

(cross-posted at Grace in Small Things).

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The "Grief" Category: Ruminations on BlogHer09

I finally figured out what was getting me about the BlogHer conference back in July. Why I went in expecting to feel different from everyone else, and came out disappointed that the only thing different about me was that I had hoped to be left out, but no one would play along.

(I’ll leave the psychoanalysis aside for a moment and just talk about grief in blogging.)

I went to BlogHer expecting grief in blogs to be like grief in real life: a difficult issue that no one is willing to talk about. I often found myself frustrated that there was no real category for me in the indexes (BlogHer, Bloglines, Blogopedia, Technorati, AllTop, Blogarama, Scribnia… ). I’d list my blog under “family life” or “parenting” even though those choices cut me off from single widows, with whom I generally feel great comradeship.

Checking the wrong box left me feeling misunderstood. After all every widow has a story about the first time she has to check “widowed” on a form, and another about some clueless organization that expects her to select among “single,” “married,” or “divorced.”

When I was at this conference with 1300 other people, mostly women, largely Moms, who write for different publics, I found that grief in blogs really is like grief in real life: a deep vein that shows bright if you scratch the surface. A stone a lot of people are carrying in an inner pocket. You can’t see it, but they might even be fondling it while they talk to you. Grief is so common and such a part of life that it doesn’t make sense to put all those people off in a separate room.

(Leaving aside for a moment, again, that a grieving bloggers conference would be TEH AWESOME). (See. I learned blogger lingo. I’m a pro now.)

We all hope to be lucky enough to write only occasionally about our loss and adaptation. Then we could talk about other subjects: recipes, cute things our kids did, politics... the whole world. Of which grief is, yes, an important part.

Maybe we grief bloggers are just stuck. I’m sure that’s what it looks like from the outside.

Or in some HEY LOOK AT ME phase of tearing hair and rending garment. I suppose it’s a good thing that we might move on to something else.

Blogs that serve only one need for the author do tend to die out. There are abandoned grief blogs all over the place.

But my demands are often unreasonable. Maybe topical categorization is less useful for subjects that span our serious, lumpy, camouflaged, ever-changing emotional lives. Seems we bereaved people do a fairly decent job at finding one another online using the same vehicles we do in real life: through friends (and their blogrolls).

What’s so wonderful about blogs is that they are as in-between as we are. A fresh source of rich, personal information and perspectives that shows humans in all our color and glory (leaving aside, for now, the skew towards people with internet access).

If this diverse democratic distribution of words and images favors the creative, the trouble makers, those who don't fit neatly into one category, who am I to complain?

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Sometimes Things Are Just Plain Broken

Oh I was so poetical about the kintsugi a few weeks ago. And I meant it, too.

But everything went wrong yesterday. A bunch of little hints showed me my car had been broken into the night before (it was unlocked, but things had been taken out of the glove compartment, just a little more chaos than usual). The lucky thief stole my gym bag and some JUNK from the trunk.

Though it was funky junk:
(1) A box of recipes "from a woman who hated cooking." Gavin's mother's yellow file box of Betty Crocker crap, handwritten, recipes with mostly canned ingredients. She didn't even like to eat. But I thought this awesome item should go to Tarrant Figlio after I heard her speak at BlogHer. She didn't look too happy when I told her about it, and it's been sitting in my trunk for months. Tarrant, you're welcome cause now it's the treasured disappointment of someone who hoped for an iPod (Nyah, nyah! I lost the iPod last month just so he couldn't get it).
(2) A tea pot and two mugs shaped like anatomical hearts in green and red ceramic. Heavily textured and complete with aorta, etc. This was a wedding gift (I told you Gavin had heart problems?) and while it was artsy, there was really nothing we could do with it. Recently a good friend, a genius intellectual art lover, had a bypass and I thought: REGIFT. Awesome! Hon, you're out of luck too.

I hope that bastard thief is as mad at me as I am at him.

Then I had several extremely exasperating lack-of-customer-service experiences (changed my mind: Don't save the fucking banks after all!) and broke a favorite bowl, see above.

I usually keep broken china for an "art project" but that's just plain stupid when I'm already completely overwhelmed with all the shit I've saved. Anyway the box of broken china is already packed and deep in the POD.

(Yes, thanks, I already know I'm crazy.)


So I guess that goes in the trash too. Trash Tuesday.

It's just a broken bowl. But somehow, around now, with everyone around me slowly losing faith, it seems like more.

(P.S. Wednesday was better. I got a Wave invite, fixed the bank thing, and got some other stuff done, but Mr. Fresh is in the worst mood I've seen yet. OK, maybe Wednesday was just not Tuesday any more. Good 'nuff.)

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Behaver Rules [sic] (Found Art)

An artist friend found this “readymade” in an old school notebook from around 1956, and gave this to me as a housewarming gift. It’s been posted in my work area ever since as inspiration. Or something… perhaps to remind me to be grateful I’m not the fidgety bright child of the 50s, and no longer this kid at any time (though workplaces seem to bring this out in me still).

Gavin grew up in an era when the teacher read Scripture in class, an average somewhat-challenged pupil unlike me, and he didn’t find this a bit funny. Maybe he knew a kid like me back then and hated her.*

Still, #4? #9? Poor kid.

Behaver Rules
1. Listening to stories inc.
2. Be good in school.
3. Raise your hand.
4. DON’T moan.
5. DON’T talk out.
6. Sit up straight.
7. Follow drirections.
8. DON’T talk to your self.
9. DON’T laugh when the teacher is reading the bible.
10. DON’T bring toys to school.
11. In your free time walk around the room quiltely and read quitely.

* It certainly bugged him that I point out any spelling error that crosses my path, even in something a child was forced to write as punishment 35 years ago. 

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One of Many Shrines

I have a tendency to attack idols. Not too long ago Abel Keogh, the first widowed blogger I found on my first search just after my loss, advised a woman that her widower fiancee was "not ready to move on" because he had not yet dismantled the shrines to his late wife installed in his home. Ridiculous, I thought. There are good reasons for keeping visuals with the memories. And anyway, it’s rude to display family photos outside of intimate spaces in your home. I consulted important Miss Manners entries (Advice columns? Are those like blogs?) and drafted a forceful reply.

Then I looked around. Oy vey, are there shrines. Disrespectful as I am, I also pay obeisance to the vague spirit I’d like to have round me. Our old, tiny apartment had a milagro heart on every door frame in thanks for Gavin's surviving open heart surgery and its complications; those tin shapes are hung in this home too. And when he was very, very ill I did put together several shrines, even though none of them included his image until he died.

Here’s one that I set up next to the dresser mirror:
-- A thrift store porcelain saucer (in Japanese, cranes are often used on wedding kimono because they mate for life).
-- A blue and green glass heart paperweight, not my style, but heck, a heart.
-- One of Gavin’s many Ganeshes.
-- Two stones from our yard, which I saw as male and female: one, half grey, half white; the second, red and ochre, porous, with a hole in the top so you can see that it’s hollow.
-- A shrinky dink necklace I made for Gavin’s 55th birthday party: “55, still alive.” We gave these out, red or green cords assigned you to a team, and we planned to play “Survivor”-style games. More than 100 people showed up, the barbeque was about 8 pizzas worth of calories short, so we managed to judge the sculpture contest segment before we decided to just hang loose.

On the other of the mirror was a similar niche holding a virgin sculpture (from Oaxacan honeymoon), something paper, perhaps a ticket stub, and Milagros for whatever parts needed healing at the time (kidneys, heart, arm). After he died, I carefully stuck his boy scout compass there to help me find balance, or North or something. It's all packed up now for the move.

It makes you think about people's homes and faiths: how many shrinelets do folks really have in their homes? I'm always kind of spiritual, and as a UU I have room for pagan object faith, but if Abel Keogh addressed it, is it really that common -- not just a special spot for family pictures but a little haven for the household Gods?

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November: From the Days of the Dead to the Distractions of the Living

I decided to participate in NaBloPoMo because I’m already so incredibly overbooked, I figured what’s one more damn thing? I mean, if you want something done, give it to a busy man. Right?

Note: I am not a man.

October 31 to November 2 marks the Days of the Dead, a particularly redolent time for me. I’ve blogged about Gavin and I taking our honeymoon in Oaxaca for the festival, about the outdoor dance performance I hosted in 2007 as a memorial to him, and about a tribute I handed out for the event. I don’t want to repeat too much of those earlier posts, but the Mexican tradition as I learned it from Felipe Ehrenberg treats making art (a learning process) and remembering those lost as central to continuing life -- which is as good a description of grieving as I’ve yet found.

We connected with the Days of the Dead a dozen years ago because we felt we’d beaten death once, when Gavin had some heart problems. Little did we know -- I wouldn’t have expected the end to be so nasty, brutish and short or for it to lead me, eventually, to so much more clear and forceful direction in my life.

Each November at the small funky bookstore I used to run, we built a community offering, in a different medium with a different theme. It was chaos and love combined, and always colorful. We’d burn copal and myriad candles (remember when they were not required to be scented?), welcoming everyone, even the bums, to get paint on their hands, drink beer and eat candy. The 2007 event was more advanced but less Mexican than all the ones while Gavin was alive, since it included a hot chick in metallic leather thong bikini and little children whispering to their Moms, “I can see her BUTT!”

Americans need a tradition like this – a solemn and hilarious way to celebrate the lives of those who’ve died, a way to live with mortality every year, even in good years. Grievers and non-grievers together without fear or silence. God knows this country would benefit from celebrating non-religious festivals, more ways to share creative energy, noise, and food and drink. We’d be creating occasions to talk about loss, to take it as the serious and weighty business it is, to share memories and laugh our butts off, too. And what a great way to meet with and learn from our unassimilated Latino neighbors.

Maybe next year I can do one through our church? If I have time. If I’m not moving, balancing paying work, and participating in, uh oh…. NaBloPoMo.


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