Sunday, November 23, 2014

Still, Life

"Hope" ©Sarah Treanor

This week has been a whirlwind for me. I met a fellow artist who, upon seeing my photographic series on grief, asked to write this feature about it for a creative blog he writes for. That one blog post at this point has led to around 6 other blogs contacting me to share my story and the project… which has resulted in hundreds of people sharing the project via Facebook and Twitter. It has been certainly one of the most memorable and moving weeks of slogging through the past two years since my fiancĂ© died.

To catch you up, this is a year-long self portrait series I have been doing since February called "Still, Life". Each weekly image - which I share on my blog - explores and expresses the emotional and psychological journey of living on after the death of someone you love. It touches on aspects like desperation and isolation, hopelessness and hope, fear and trust. It has been a grueling and often frustrating project. I've wanted to quit MANY times. I've cursed enough over it to make a sailor blush. I've had total emotional breakdowns over it. But, I've needed it project to survive. It's given me something to put myself into each day… like being able to climb into a boat on this stormy sea of grief. Still in the storm, but with something to hold me and help give me some small bit of direction.

So here I am this week, reading kind words written by other people about this work I've poured myself into for the past nine months. A project that could have never come out of me had he not died. It is so bittersweet - but my God, it's beautiful. The first two years were deeply survival. But these first 5 months of the third year since he died, it feels like he lives on in every step forward I take. The bitter is beginning to fall away, and leaving more and more sweetness over time.

As I read the headline to one of the articles this week - "Photographer Takes Moving Self-Portraits To Cope With Her Fiance’s Death"- and the article itself, I realized for the first time that this project is actually about a lot more than I ever knew. The images themselves may speak of pain and loss, but the project as a whole speaks of other things. It is about healing by making something meaningful out of loss. It is about love, and how unbreakable love is. Even when death tries to take it, it cannot be taken from us. Not ever. Finally, it is about the most important lesson he taught me in our three short but beautiful years together; Never give up on your dreams.

He worked for years to achieve his dream of being a commercial helicopter pilot. The man loved flying more than I've seen anyone love anything. Like any big dream, there were plenty of big fears along the way. He feared he wasn't competent enough. He feared the responsibility of transporting others safely. He feared dying in a crash, of course - which is ultimately how he did die. They were some very real fears. But he never let it stop him. I was lucky enough to be by his side to watch it all unfold. To watch him pass every check ride and gain every certification and land his first commercial job. There was a deep joy in him that last year as his dreams came to fruition. A joy unlike any I've witnessed so closely before. Watching his journey was the fuel that led me to chase my own dreams to be an artist. His death is what ignited it.

I feel now that this whole project is far more about him than me. It is all the things he stood for and the things taught me in life. And all the things he is teaching me still, in death. How he is showing me that still, even after all of this, there is life. And love. And that it is my job to get up every day, live life, and be love. My job to look for beauty still wherever I can find it. My job to decide to make something out of this crazy, awful, shitty, unbelievable journey. And my job to create my own meaning out what life throws at me.

I am completely overwhelmed to even be a part of it all right now. In deep gratitude that he came into my life 5 years ago… just a friend, who turned into more, and who has changed the entire course of my life now in ways I could not have ever imagined. The fact the just one person can come into your life and have THAT much impact still amazes me. I cannot help but be grateful that he changed my life and is still changing it today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living With The Hole

A young widow in my on-line support group, who lost her husband to depression very recently, said something this week that really got me thinking.  She had one of those moments that happen in the early days where you kind of forget your partner has gone - she picked up her phone to text him about something and then it hit her hard, she could never contact him and tell him her news again.  

I had forgotten that feeling.  After 16 months without Dan, I've pretty much adjusted to being on my own again.  Sans-partner.  Table for one.  Lone wolf.  I don't like it - God no, it's bloody awful and lonely and it freaking sucks.  I miss him like my left arm, but I don't forget that he's gone anymore.  

That realisation that I've adjusted in this new life still takes me by surprise.  When Dan first died, the hole he left was so vast, I couldn't imagine how I would go on living and navigate my way around it.  But now I see, looking back, that I have.  I've slowly, step-by-step, started to rebuild my life around the hole. 

It is still there but I don't fall in as often anymore. I've gotten used to it. Then I've felt terrible for getting 'used to it' and confused by what that meant.  It's a long and difficult path but I have been walking it. I still don't really know how.  

Every time I've taken a step forward it's come with the complications of guilt and confusion along with constant self-analysis and judgement.  How can I be moving forward into a life where he's not here beside me?  So. Many. Things to feel bad about.  So much information and emotion to process and comprehend.  No wonder I'm exhausted all the time, with so much going on in my head.

I raised this with my grief counsellor and we spoke about the importance of trying not to assess my progress or determine my status in this process.  While it's wonderful to realise that I've made some kind of progress or grown in this after-life, I still get nervous when I'm having a good day, or disheartened when I have a bad day - because of my inherent need to 'assess' what it all means.  

Am I going backwards?  Have I turned some kind of corner?  Is this a milestone?  Ugh - so much pressure!  I am working really hard at letting go of the expectations I put on myself.  

She pointed out that people have good days and bad days - even when they're not carrying the extra complication of bereavement.  Before Dan died, I wouldn't sit and think 'But WHY am I happy today?  What does that mean!?  Will I ever feel sad or angry again or is that behind me now?!'.  

So I am trying not to question.  Not to assess.  And gee, it feels nice to stop worrying and just 'be'.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Crazy Cat Lady

My husband was a huge animal lover, and even more cool, animals absolutely loved him. They flocked to him. We would go over to other people's houses or just walk to a nearby park, and other people's pets would run up to him and want to play. If we went to anyone's home who had a dog, he was instantly playing with the dog. He always wanted a dog of his own, but because we lived in an apartment that didn't allow dogs, he used to say: "Someday, Boo. When we move to a bigger place or maybe buy a house or condo, I can have my husky/shepherd mix." Well, that never happened.

What did happen was that Don Shepherd packed up his entire life into a moving van in February of 2005, and, with his cat Isabelle in his lap the whole time, drove from Florida to New Jersey non-stop, to start a life with me. His cat Izzy was 13 at that time, and two years later, she got old and sick and we had to let her go. Don wanted to adopt another cat or kitten from the local rescue shelter, so we went there together and found two sisters that were only about 7 weeks old. They told us the sisters were a package deal, and so Don convinced me that we should take them. I was very hesitant about having two cats. I kept saying: "But I don't wanna be the crazy cat lady." He would say: "You'd need at least 3 cats to qualify as crazy cat lady, and crazy cat ladies usually don't have husbands. They just have cats."

Cue the part of the story where my husband randomly drops dead.

But before that happened, we took the 2 kitties home and named them Ginger and Autumn. They were so damn cute, running around and chasing each other, and fighting playfully and lying down at night behind our heads. Ginger was so in love with Don, she literally would hang on him like he was a tree. She would sit on his shoulder or wrap herself around his neck and just hang out wagging her little tail. One day, when they were about 3 years old, Ginger and Autumn were playing and chasing each other like usual. It was the middle of the night, like 2 am. Suddenly, Ginger whimpered loudly and limped under the bed, hiding and whimpering. "Come here, sweetie. We have to see what's wrong honey. It's okay, my sweet girl. We're gonna get you some help." My paramedic husband went into action while I panicked. "Get the kitty cage, Boo. Look up where the closest vet ER is. Something's very wrong. " We drove Ginger to the nearest vet ER, which was a good 40 minutes away, and she moaned the whole time as I tried to calm her while Don drove and talked to her the whole time. When we got there, they took her and we waited. Then a guy in a white coat came back out and took us into a small private room, closing the door. He pulled out an x-ray and showed it to us, and Don burst into tears. "Look, Boo" he explained to me, since I had no clue what was happening. "Her poor little lungs can't breathe because her heart is too big. Her lungs are being crushed. Oh, my poor sweet girl." The doctor explained that Ginger had been born with an enlarged heart, and that she threw a blood clot, causing her to spasm and stop walking on her back legs. He said it would happen again and again, and that she was not destined to live a long life. We had to let her go, and Don and I held each other and cried in that private room for a good half hour before Ginger came back in so we could be with her when we let her go.

Just 3 days later, when it was just us and Autumn, who seemed quite depressed at the loss of her sister which she didnt understand, Don wanted to take some pictures of Ginger back to the rescue shelter where we got her, and where her foster mom worked. He wanted to tell them what had happened. I agreed, although I really wasnt much in the mood to go back there, but we did. We walked inside, and began telling them what had happened, when suddenly, this full grown adult orange male cat, lept out of his cage and ran across the large room, galloping like a horse. He sped through the 12 or so other people in the room, and ran right up to Don. He looked into my husband's eyes, then climbed his 6 foot 4 body, all the way up to his shoulders, just like Ginger used to do. Then he sat there, staring at Don and wagging his tail. Don turned to me with tears in his eyes and said: "You realize we are taking him home, right?"

So there we were, coming home with this 9 year old boy-cat, whose name on his papers was simply "Shawn." We both couldn't stop laughing at that stupid name. "Shawn? Who names a cat Shawn?, Don said on the drive home. "That sounds like the name of some Irish dude from Boston that you'd go and meet for a beer. It's silly. No. He will be Sampson. Sammy." And so it was. Sammy came home, and he healed Don's grieving heart from the loss of Ginger. He followed Don around everywhere. He slept ON his head, almost every night. Sammy could not get close enough to Don. It was like he wanted to sleep inside of his face. That was in 2010. And then, in July of 2011, I found myself running into an E.R. at morph speed one early morning, as I saw a gaggle of nurses and doctors walk toward me. And it was me who went into that small, private room where they closed the door and told me that my husband had a massive heart-attack and didn't make it. It was me who went home alone that night, and forever.

And so now I'm the crazy cat lady. Even though I only have 2 cats, I still say I qualify for the role. I certainly feel crazy most days. I have no idea what I'm doing, Don was the better pet-parent by miles and miles, and they miss him in very specific and obvious ways. Too much to get into here, as it would take pages to explain the many ways in which they grieve for their Papa. But here we are - me and Autumn and Sammy. We have moved twice together, in the 3 years since Don's death. It was very difficult, both times, to find living situations that would accept not one, but two cats along with myself. I kept hearing Don's voice in my head, from when he and I were thinking about moving years ago: "I'd live underneath a bridge somewhere before I'd ever let anyone take my kitties away from me." So where I go, they go. I do my best, and I love them like mad. They are the only living piece of Don that I have. We never got to have our family - we never got to have kids together - so this is it. When it's time to say goodbye to them, I don't know how I'm going to do it. Sammy is already almost 14 now, and showing signs of slow cause for concern. I just pet him and love on him and say "I love you, buddy. I love you so much. Papa loves you too." Autumn sits in the hallway and meows and howls at the ceiling, sometimes for an hour straight. She did the same thing after Ginger died. Don used to say to her: "Are you talking to your sister, honey? Tell her Papa loves her." So now I say: "Are you talking to Boo? Tell him I love him so much." I don't know if I actually even believe anything I'm saying in those moments that I'm saying them. I don't know that I believe Don can hear me or that he knows what we are doing or any of that. I don't know. But it's all I've got, and so I do it.

On a typical night in my bedroom, Autumn sleeps by my side or by my feet, and Sammy sleeps right in the crook of my arm or right up against me, like a person. He is the most lovable cat I have ever known, and just like I was convinced that Ginger was sent to us to help heal Don's broken heart after losing Isabelle - and Sammy was sent to us for more healing after Ginger died - I think that having Sammy here is sort of like Don's last gift to me. It sure feels that way. Anytime I am sad and crying, Sammy helps. He cuddles me and he purrs and he sits with me and says: "I know. I miss him too." Or at least, that is what he seems to be saying, in my crazy, cat-lady mind. But maybe he is just saying: "You're doing okay. Papa would be proud."

Pictured: Don sitting in his "Archie Bunker" chair with his Isabelle. Ginger climbing Papa. Autumn and Ginger hanging out by Don's guitars in their new Jersey home. Sammy sleeping on Don's head. Me and my Sammy-Sam. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Magic Man

I'm writing this on Tuesday. It would have been Mike's 61st birthday. My heart is breaking.

Honestly, I didn't expect it to hurt this much. Last year all I can remember is the day passing in numbness and disbelief. This year somehow I feel more alert to the pain, and it's been very hard. Over the past 21 months - 21 months yesterday, by the way - it's as if the panic and shock of his death have faded into a deeper, more guttural state of grief. A year ago it was still reverberating like a constant ringing in my ears; now, it has settled into a knot in my stomach, or maybe, a hole in my heart that I must learn to carry around with me.

So many people wished him Happy Birthday on his Facebook page along with many soulful wishes he was still with us. How much they missed him, how special a man he was, how he still holds a place in their heart. Some, that they even still feel his presence. That is nice. It made me feel happy to know he affected so many people while he was here...and so deeply sad that he is missing from us now. I know a lot of his friends, not to mention family, still mourn him very much indeed.

My world seems deflated without him. It seems ho-hum without him. You have to understand - when I met him it was like I was suddenly able to perceive another spectrum of light. The world changed for me; something shifted and a bright, sparkly radiance entered my field of vision. And don't get me wrong - not every moment was magical. Some were arduous, yes, as in many relationships. But a lot of them actually really were magical indeed. (No really. You have no idea. He blew my mind from the moment I met him.) It was truly amazing to have been a part of his world. I am forever changed, and will forever feel blessed for the experience. He taught me so much, and I am, forever, grateful.

But much as I know I can have a future, as much as I know I do have a lot to live for, as much as I know there are some really amazing people around me now, and as many fun and lovely moments I can be sure to still feels...somehow...not as bright. Waking up with him each morning was always an adventure. Believe me. But that magic that was Mike, that vivid energy that filled a room and filled my life, died with him, and all those sparkly bits fell to the ground and went out like dying embers. 

If my world was black and white before I met him, life with him was in color. And now, the colors are fading again. I try to keep a brightness in my heart, the memories of him and what he taught me, as I carry him with me into this next chapter - but it is hard. It will just never, ever be like it was again when he was around.

I tossed and turned all night last night, waking up several times to stare at the ceiling and think about what we would have done together this day. Whatever he wanted, that's for sure. And they were always lovely, these special days. A drive up the coast, or a swim at the beach. Maybe a matinee at the theater. Always a special lunch, or dinner. Usually sushi. Sometimes Mexican, or pizza. A glass of wine on the lanai. Perhaps a small gift or two. But always cards. Greeting cards were just one of our things. We both pored over the racks at the store for each other, and I saved them all. I have a huge stack of them in a drawer, and I kept thinking about them all night. There would never be another card added to that stack.

This morning I dug them out and started going through them. I think I've only done that one other time since he died. It was wonderful to relive, for small moments anyway, the joy we shared giving them to each other. And also terribly excruciating. Each one brought more tears. 

The pictures above are of the one I gave him for his 59th - our last one together. Love is togetherness through time. It was, on that day, a perfect card. Because it's not as if I wasn't aware of the magic and adventure while it was still happening. I was. And learning to live without it has been torture, because I am so keenly aware of what I have lost. You might see a seemingly strong person out there doing her best, but she is, and always will be, hurting inside. I've had to screw my brain back the other way or something...I've had to partially revert back to some older version of myself, even though I'll never be the same again...I've had to try and make peace with an alternate reality, one where magic isn't real again, because the magician has left the stage. 

But I like to think that one day, I will continue the adventure with him, in another magical place I cannot conceive of yet. That thought keeps me going. That thought helps me appreciate what can still be a beautiful experience here, to encourage me to still do good and enjoy it all - because that is, I know, what my magic man believed about his own life.

Happy Birthday, my dear Michael.

(P.S. My grasshopper, which I haven't seen in a couple weeks, made another appearance as I was writing this.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Road Well Traveled~

My daughter and I are nearing the end of our 6 month road adventure.  It will be the end of this particular segment of my Odyssey of Love.  But it doesn't end in Arizona when I drop her off.  I'm going to take a one month break off the road, visit with my son and grand-daughter, meet my son's girlfriend and her daughter (I'm really looking forward to that), and then continue on.

Rae (my daughter) and I were discussing the end of our travels together.  She and her husband are very much anticipating their reunion and I'm happy that they'll be together again.  Their life as a couple can begin again.

There is a part of me, I told her, that used to believe (or want to believe), that at the end of my travels, Chuck would be waiting for me.  Even knowing it couldn't be so, that tiny place in my heart hoped, I guess, that he might be.  Or couldn't believe that he wouldn't be.  After all, we've been apart for almost 19 months now.  It's time for us to be together again....right?

Except, of course, that he won't be waiting for me.  He's dead.  He's gone.  And I can't conceive of settling down into a home without him.  He was my home.  For the last 4 years of our marriage we didn't even have a sticks and bricks house; we lived on the road, staying at military billeting as we adventured the country.  At the end of May, I'll have been on the road for 6 years.  2 of those years will have been on my own as I drove this Odyssey of Love for him.

Chuck won't be there to greet me in Arizona and it isn't home to me, so...I'll continue driving.  I don't know what else to do and I'm convinced that if I do settle down into an apartment, I'll just go inside and close the door and pull the covers over my head and that will be the worst thing for me.  I'll die but not really; just my soul will die while my body lives.

A friend asked me today what I consider home.  My home always has been...was for many years, my husband, Chuck.  It was truly where my heart was and now that he's gone, I guess I'm searching.  Before he died, when I told him I was going to continue traveling on my own and that I would paint my car pink so that he could find me out on the road, he smiled and said he'd be looking for me.  So I'm out here, hoping he'll find me somehow.  That somehow I'll find a way to connect with him again in some way.

My Odyssey of Love isn't done.  There are places yet to scatter his cremains, and in the process of doing so, of knowing where those places are, there is a life to be built.  Wished for or not (and it most definitely is not wished for).

Drive on~

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Secluded Paths

Maggie kept the beat in our relationship when it came to social engagements. She injected me into a lively social world that held me captive to weekends packed with activities, most of which were not optional. Now, without her overwhelming influence, I find myself woefully disengaged with what I think most people would consider normal life.

We had no children so I don’t benefit from the continued social pressure that comes with little ones. The lack of children also often filters me from events in which I’d otherwise be included. Well-meaning friends intentionally don’t invite me to birthday parties and other kid-thick events “to protect my sanity,” so they say.

Except for the brave and determined, friends who only knew Chris as half of Maggie and Chris have had difficultly making the transition. Most fell aside quickly after Maggie’s Angel Day. My guess is that they were battle-weary from the 850-day fight. However, for me that was just the climactic end of one major battle in the still on-going war.

So here I am with my solitary habits but now with fewer friends. Fewer friends mean fewer easy opportunities to be social. Gravity has temporarily dragged me into a lonely world.

Thankfully, if there’s one thing that seems to be constant, it’s change. Life is transition. All of this will change and it will likely change again. The New Reality will become the Old New Reality. Rinse and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

The picture that I chose for this post was taken on one of our many happy vacations. A framed version hangs by the front door of my downtown condo and right below it sits a patient walking stick I cut from a tree that grew at the house where we lived together happily for almost ten years. Every day when I leave the condo I glance at that picture. Almost every weekend, I take that walking stick on a mini adventure. Both remind me that my journey isn’t done; I’m just in transition.

I consider myself a world traveler. As of this writing, I’ve visited 11 countries (with three more coming up next month.) Every one of my journeys has involved at least one secluded and often scary path. Each time I’ve been delighted at what I found at the destination. Life is a grand adventure. I also consider myself one of the lucky ones because just like you I’m forever blessed to never again walk a path alone, even when I’m the only one leaving footprints.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Left Behind

Two years ago, on November 17th, my husband and I were getting married. It was a chilly autumn day, and the rain paused long enough for us to gather at the registry office in New Mills for our simple, beautiful ceremony. Later, we brought close friends and family to our local pub, The Beehive, for a reception and delicious dinner.

No one from America was with me at my wedding, and Stan knew I would be missing their presence, so he put together a slideshow with pictures of them and played it on a screen at the party we held later in the evening. It was a sweet and thoughtful gesture, his attempt to bring my old world into our new, shared life.

Eighteen months later, we gathered at The Beehive, again, to mourn my husband’s passing.

All of Stan’s family and friends were there. But my son and his girlfriend were the only ones who could come, on such short notice, from America, to be with me.

Our second anniversary falls on a Monday, this year, and, though I knew others would remember it, I didn’t feel I could ask them to take time away from their working lives to sit with me on that day, to help me commemorate it, and I did not want to face it on my own.

So I decided to come ‘home,’ to rest, to be surrounded by the people with whom I was raised, and to try to heal a little bit. I’ll be here for Thanksgiving, too, that distinctly American holiday, a day I don’t even pay attention to, when I am in England.

I am here in Indiana, at my brother’s house, who lives on the street where we grew up. Yesterday I walked down that street and recalled the names of each of our neighbours as I strolled past their homes. I walked through the subdivision where my childhood home once stood, and looked up at the pine trees that I used to climb when I was little. I walked down the hill to my muddy creek, a creek I spent a lot of time with, as a child, skipping rocks across its waters.

The world I inhabit, when I come to America, is so much different than the world I have in England.  It is a known world, with wide, spacious streets, giant yards and houses, chain stores and franchise restaurants, the familiarity of fifty-two years of living. And though I love the life I have in England, and I cherished my life with Stan, I settle into the rhythms and ways of America very easily when I am here, and there is a certain comfort in it.

It is a world that, aside from two, steaming weeks in May of 2011, my husband never knew.

Sitting here, on this cold, snowy, Indiana morning, I wonder if I did the right thing, coming here to spend our second anniversary.  I can’t feel his presence here. Stan and England feel so very far away.

I feel like I have left him behind.

Six months ago, in May, I was back in America for my son’s graduation from a Master’s Program in Music. Stan had not been well, having only been in the hospital a few weeks before my scheduled trip, but he was well enough to return to work, and so I decided to go ahead with my plans to be there for my son. I kissed my husband goodbye at the Manchester airport on May the 2nd.

My days in New York were filled with activity. We hiked around the falls and gorges there, I attended my son’s graduate recital, beamed with pride at his many accomplishments, met up with some old friends who lived nearby.

Through the wonder of technology, I was able to connect, often, with Stan via FaceTime. But the difference in time zones made planning for those connections difficult, and we did not always get to chat. I was immersed in the American world I knew so well, and did not always find time for my husband. I knew we would be together soon, when I returned to him in England, and my focus was on my son.

When I returned to England, Stan told me he had felt left behind. He could not share in my world and he missed me sharing in his. I guess I became a bit defensive, upon hearing this, and I was not as kind to him as I should have been in response. I told him I had so little time with my son, and that sometimes I felt torn between the two worlds. I did not want to have to choose one over the other. Both worlds were important to me.

Three weeks after I returned home from America, my husband was dead.

Inevitably, when someone dies so suddenly, loved ones pour over missed opportunities, experience longings and regrets.

I cannot put into words how much I regret those last few weeks. I feel terrible that I spent two weeks away from him when he was not completely well. I wish I had taken time to connect with him, on those days we did not talk, that I had been more mindful of his need to hear from me. I wish I had known how short our time would be.

If only I had known.

But I didn’t. I thought we would have many more years together. I planned to work harder to integrate my two worlds in the future, and we talked of taking the next trip to America, together. I hoped that my husband would come to understand my American life, eventually, and come to share it, with me.

There wasn’t time for all of that. And sitting here, amongst the familiar voices and sounds and surroundings of my childhood, I must try to forgive myself. It is not easy to live between two worlds. I had only lived my life in England, with my husband, for a few short years. I got swept up in America every time I came here.

It was only natural that I would.

Today, the 17th of November, two years after we married, I will try to bring my husband’s memory here with me. I will look over our wedding photos, light a candle for him, help those here to know him a little bit.

I know Stan would be telling me, in his kind, gentle, way, to forgive myself, to let go of regrets. He knew that I loved him, and that I would never, truly, leave him behind.

And I have to hold onto that.