Archive for November, 2006

Salvation
Thursday, November 16th, 2006

I wasn’t gonna celebrate Christmas this year. You see, it was Eric’s favorite holiday. He loved his family’s traditions, buying and wrapping gifts, Christmas music, decorating, the whole nine yards. And I was planning to deny its existence this year, to refuse to decorate and bake, and possibly not even visit my family for the holiday. There was a moratorium on holiday cheer in the works; I had already told family members not to expect gifts or cards from me this year because I just didn’t know if I could bear the atmosphere long enough to make any purchases. By gum, if I was miserable for the holidays, everyone around me was going to be miserable too, dammit.

That all changed today. I found the Christmas spirit in a sex toy shop.

While I had been Googling phrases such as “offbeat Boston,” “alternative Boston tourism,” and “local Boston” in preparation for my trip, Sweet and Nasty was the only listing that routinely appeared in the top ten results. It turns out that the bakery/confectionery-cum-sex toy shop (heh heh) was a local institution, and is even listed in several mainstream, highly recommended travel guides. And because I am the sort of person that really, really wants to be the eccentric old lady full of highly amusing anecdotes when she’s sitting in a nursing home somewhere, I suggested that we visit. Because really, whose life is complete until they’ve sampled a penis cake?

It turns out that the store, aside from selling novelties and questionably-shaped baked goods, also purveyed a wide assortment of insanely funny and wildly inappropriate holiday greeting cards. One of my favorites has a charming picture of a 1950s-era Pollyanna on the cover, with the lyrics to an old Christmas favorite, “Oh, I’m getting nuthin’ for Christmas! Santa says I’ve been bad!” On the inside of the card is a single word: “Asshole.”

And as I stood in the aisle, laughing until my sides hurt at the sheer audacity of the cards (and snatching up more than a couple for purchase), I had my revelation: I’m not supposed to deny the holiday season this year. This Christmas will be a difficult and painful one for me, but there will be no good of attempting to bury my head in the sand and pretend that the holiday doesn’t exist. I can find my own way to celebrate this year, and it might be extremely non-traditional and slightly tinged with anger that Eric isn’t here with me. But if I can find ways to express that anger in a constructive, smart-ass manner…well, that is what Eric would have wanted. He would have wanted me to find a way to laugh in spite of it all, and to celebrate in his absence. After all, remembrance is what the Christmas season is all about.

Ps. The cake was delicious.

naughty cupcakes

The Missing Peace
Thursday, November 16th, 2006

One of the more odd habits that I have picked up after March 17, 2006 is going to Eric’s grave when I am in the area. No words are spoken, no grand discussions of my life without him are vocalized. Instead, I lie down on the ground next to where he is buried, and I am overcome with such a strange feeling of comfort that I never wish to rise.

I hope that he knows how much I miss him.

Starlight to Shit.
Thursday, November 16th, 2006

The other night, I was driving up a country highway to visit my parents for the weekend. It was after work on a Saturday night, about 11:30 pm, when I saw the lowest, brightest falling star that I had ever seen in my life. The meteor was so bright that I thought that is surely landed in a nearby field. My curiosity piqued, I continued up the road for a fourth of a mile when I saw large plumes of smoke rising from the side of the road. Exhilarated, I pulled off of the small road and jumped out of my car. Maybe, I was about to become the proud owner of a bit of space rock. It was possible that I was about to own a singularly foreign and beautiful object. Just maybe, this was a sign from Eric.

The roadside clouds of smoke were rising out of a primitive country sewer grate. My shining star had turned to shit.

What an apt metaphor for my marriage, Eric’s health, and my own identity and life. I still struggle to define myself outside of my relationship with that boy every day.

Anatomy 35
Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Anatomy 35, by Tricia Harding

Concentration
eludes me.
Talk of cadavers and hyperplasia
steers me eerily away from the classroom
with its flourescent lights
and too deep seats.
Instead I am holding his hand,
grown pudgy after days of excess fluid,
signs of organ
failure.
He grips back,
assuredly.
But, really, he doesn’t.
They have dimmed the lights.
Reverence?
I suppose.
They say it will be “soon.”
Why does it have to be at all?
I have no interest in cadavers.
Or hyperplasia.
I do not like the wooden seats.
I only want to hold his hand.
I want him to grip me back.

Am I depressed, or is this normal?
Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

No matter what path one follows in life, everyone experiences bad days, weeks, or months. Feeling down in the dumps is a common occurrence. But when does a routine sadness cross the line into a depressive disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if a person experiences one or more of the following symptoms, it may be time to visit a medical professional for a depression screening:

* Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
* Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
* Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
* Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
* Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
* Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
* Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
* Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
* Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
* Restlessness, irritability
* Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Several months after my husband’s death, the weary, wandering soul of depression sank into my bones. At first, the symptoms were easy to ignore; I had just lost the love of my life, of course I was going to feel sad, angry, and hurt. But little by little, the sadness overcame me until I was no longer functioning in my professional, social, or family lives. Certain that I was being a burden to those around me, I quit visiting family and returning friends’ phone calls. I became unstable at work and lashed out whenever an unexpected challenge was handed my way. Seeking an escape from the increasing desperation that I felt, I began tucking a beer or two into my grocery cart during my weekly trips; the local store carried my favorite brew from a small town in Pennsylvania, and only one or two wouldn’t hurt. But one or two per week quickly devolved into one or two per night, and then the large-size, 22-oz. bottles came into the play. My heart, mind, body and soul all knew that alcohol would not solve my problems. However, I was still on the waiting list to see a primary care physician as a new patient and was also wary of taking any psychopharmaceutical medication. For the meantime, the pleasant numbing of good beer buzz was my escape from the sadness that was crushing me.

After several months’ wait, I finally got to see the doctor, who promptly made it a point to prescribe an SSRI (anti-depressant), as well as an anti-anxiety medication. Despite my initial reticence, the medications ultimately helped me cope with many of the circumstances in my life that contributed to my diagnosis of depression. My treatment is ongoing, but making the first step and seeking help is a decision that I have never regretted. I urge you to please take an honest evaluation of your own circumstances–and to seek help if necessary. Depression is something that far too many of us feel we must simply “cope” with–when we could be receiving treatment.

Popular fiction and non-fiction that helps to shed light on a dark time
Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

After my entry into widowhood, one of the most vexing problems that I faced was the complete and total dearth of quality literary resources for younger widows and widowers. To help remedy this situation, I’d like to share a list of books that have proven to be immensely comforting through this time. None are books specifically meant to serve as a guide for widows, but each employs its own method of reassuring and gently guiding those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

An autobiography encompassing the period of time immediately following her husband’s death, Didion’s book is at once an immediate, brutal, and crystal-clear portrait of a grief so deep that it suspends the normal thought process.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way home from work — happy, successful, healthy — and then, gone,” I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,” people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.”

“And then — gone.” In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside. Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner time, all those who picked up the plates and froze the leftovers and ran the dishwasher and filled our (I could not yet think my) otherwise empty house even after I had gone into the bedroom (our bedroom, the one in which there still lay on a sofa a faded terrycloth XL robe bought in the 1970s at Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills) and shut the door. Those moments when I was abruptly overtaken by exhaustion are what I remember most clearly about the first days and weeks. I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them. At one point I considered the possibility that they had picked up the details of the story from one another, but immediately rejected it: the story they had was in each instance too accurate to have been passed from hand to hand. It had come from me.

Paint It Black, Janet Fitch’s recently released follow-up to White Oleander, tells the story of young Josie Tyrell, punk princess of the 80s-era Los Angeles underground. After receiving a call from the County Coroner’s office to identify the body of her longtime boyfriend, Paint It Black follows Josie’s journey through grief and her toxic relationship with her boyfriend’s mother.

It felt strange to be alone in the little house, in the tranquillity of the afternoon. This was the first time she ‘d ever lived alone. She straightened the pillows on the couch, looked through the mail, put on the Clash, Sandinista!, sat down and got up. She couldn’t settle anywhere. The house seemed so empty, her presence didn’t alter its emptiness. At home in Bakersfield, she ‘d shared a room with Luanne and Corrine, and on Carondelet, she ‘d lived with Pen and Shirley and Paul. Later in the Fuckhouse, it was half of punk Hollywood. Now she was alone, her only company the paintings and drawings he’d done, furniture they’d salvaged, collections they’d accumulated, toys and hats and flatirons. Without him, it took on the quality of a stage set where the actors hadn’t yet come on. She sat on the blue couch and leafed through an art magazine. A man making paintings using smashed plates. They’d seen his show at the county art museum. She’d liked the big, heavy-textured works better than Michael had, their confidence, their bold beauty. “Shtick,” he ‘d said. “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” Always so critical, he hated everything artists were doing now. He only liked Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, who painted like bloodhounds on the scent of human imperfection. And his beloved Schiele.

…She sat in his chair by the window, overlooking the hills, Echo Park, Silverlake, and beyond: the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park. The observatory’s green copper domes stood out perfectly clear against the pale blue winter sky. She loved to sit in this chair with him, her arms around his neck, drinking his smell. She pressed her face to the waffled coarseness of the chair back, trying to smell it, her eyelashes fluttering against the skin of her cheek. Catching then losing it. Still stoned from the Spider, she shuffled back into the kitchen, drank a glass of milk standing up at the sink, peeled a finger-sized banana. She tried not to look at the wooden breakfast nook with its cutout hearts, where they ate their meals, and the painting that hung there, her at the old stove, light from the kitchen window pouring over her. When he was the one who did all the cooking. She couldn’t do more than heat soup from a can.

Finally, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold paints a haunting and oddly comforting picture of the afterlife. Secular in nature yet reverent in its portrayal of Heaven, the book follows fourteen year old Susie Salmon after her brutal murder. Sebold’s Heaven is a place where wishing is having, a place that is unique to one’s own visions and needs that sometimes intersects with other people’s Heavens.

(from the Wikipedia synopsis of the book)
She arrives in heaven at first to find it boring and taking the form of a high school with “orange and turquoise blocks” that she never got to go to, saying “life here is a perpetual yesterday.” She and a fellow teen girl, Holly, are finally approached by a friendly older woman named Franny, who, after giving the two girls some lime Kool-Aid, describes herself as their intake counselor. She explains that anything they desire can be theirs if they follow the paths that wind and twist through the woods and wish for it. Following this advice, Susie and Holly find their way to a duplex where they live, a gazebo from which they often follow events on Earth, and an ice cream stand where they can get peppermint-stick ice cream all year long. At the high school, there are no teachers and they only have to attend one class each, art class for Susie and jazz band for Holly. “The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.”

They also meet other inhabitants of what they realize is “their” heaven; one of which is an older woman, a past neighbor of the Salmons who was the only dead body Susie had ever seen during her life. At night Holly and the woman play duets on violin and saxophone which attract many dogs, consoling Susie, who misses her own dog Holiday.

Do you have any books on grieving or loss that you would recommend? Please share in the comments.