Archive for the 'New Beginnings' Category

On rejoining the world of the living
Monday, July 9th, 2007

This post is about sex, or more accurately, my lack thereof and all of my emotional baggage surrounding that fact.

Well, not just about sex, more so dating, interest, relationships, and how the hell a young widow is supposed to make sense of all of this shit and deal with incredible feelings of guilt at the same time.

The new town that I’ve moved to is wonderful. There are people here whom actually have some of the same interests as me. After years of being the only young, slightly-lefty, college-educated chick in a crowd of sorta-righty, career military folk, it is downright refreshing to no longer be the “freak” in the crowd. On a military base, I might have well been coated with neon pink paint and wearing a suit made out of tinfoil. Here, I fit in. I had forgotten what a simple pleasure “fitting in” is.

And so while in the process of building new friendships, my mind has occasionally wandered into the future: what will happen if I meet someone here who I like? What if I decide that I might like a boyfriend sometime in the future? Those questions might seem mundane, trite nothings—I try to be a “grab life by the horns” kind of chick, and really, how much stress can be caused by the mere thought of a future suitor? But I have to be completely honest—I sit here in tears as I put these thoughts that have plagued me for weeks into record.

During my last session of grief counseling back in March, the issue of relationships came up, and I asked for a professional opinion. The therapist’s response? “You’ll know when you are ready.” Thanks for that $65/hour advice there, Doc!!!

I mean, really, what the heck? I have scoured the internet, books on widowhood, sought professional guidance, and I am still completely and absolutely lost. Part of this utter confusion, no doubt, lies within my realm of dating inexperience as a whole. My former husband and I started dating very, very young; he was my only real boyfriend in fact. Actually, we were officially a couple before either of us had our driver’s license. And so, my memories of dating, falling in love, and sex originate from a completely outmoded frame of reference. I can’t approach this strange new world using the same rules that applied back in high school—namely, I can’t initiate a relationship by asking someone to share a seat on the school bus with me. Making out in the back of my parent’s van won’t constitute a “date.” Guys won’t be willing to date me for years before we have sex. One of my worst fears is that my return to the dating scene will be an epic tragi-comedy on par with The 40 Year Old Virgin: sweet, yet hapless girl desperately wants to love and be loved; she unknowingly breaks almost every rule in the book, and hilarity (at her expense) ensues.

And I know it seems easy—if you’re not sure about things, then you’re not ready; but in reality, relationships and sexuality seep into so many aspects of our lives that they are akin to eating and sleeping. Soon, I plan to make appointments for both a family doctor and an OB/GYN. My personal, baseline, preventive health measures have been neglected ever since my husband’s leukemia relapse date of February 19, 2005. The OB/GYN visit is necessary—I don’t think that I’ve had any of my cancer screenings for three years now—but is also a great source of stress. The issue, of course, is birth control. I haven’t been on anything since we found out that my former husband’s chemotherapy treatment had resulted in sterility, and I am obviously not planning on sleeping with anyone at all in any sort of near future—but OB-GYN appointments are an annual thing. What if I meet someone in the next year? I don’t want to have to go to the trouble of going to another doctor’s appointment just to get a prescription—so should I go ahead and get a script written in the off chance that I’ll need it in the next year? Am I a really horrible person for even thinking about the possibility that I might eventually sleep with someone else? I mean—I know that I’m not, really, but that knowledge does nothing to assuage the intense feelings of guilt. I can’t be a nun for the rest of my life, but I don’t want to feel like I’m cheating on my former husband either.

Ironically, the inward stress has shifted outwards as I work towards decorating my apartment. I find myself actively avoiding displays and photos of Eric in areas of the new place that a guest might see. I don’t want the place to seem like a mausoleum to someone who never knew my former husband, and I don’t want to bombard a poor unsuspecting guest with a wall-sized display of him—but at the same time, I want to hang onto the happy memories attached to those pictures and drawings.

And so, I actively avoid it all by sitting at home with my knitting, and going out with my (all-female) knitting group. Can you tell that I’ve been knitting a lot lately? It’s so soothing, and when there’s a mistake, you simply rip the mistake out and reknit. If only real life was that easy.

the sound and the fury
Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Today at work, I got asked The Question, the perennial favorite of those who have just met me or who have just learned of my history: How can you be so positive and relaxed about everything?

My canned response, the one that gets spit back at those who cannot even fathom the anger and sadness lurking beneath this sunny exterior (still, after more than a year to heal), boils down to learning to save my stress for the big stuff when Eric was sick and dying.

But it is really so much, much more than that.

The truth is that I’ve really sort of become a selfish and careless thing, spending my time only on those who care about me and actions to further my own position, and not really giving a damn about the rest. I really think that the only difference between myself and others is that I’m being brutally honest with myself. I don’t stress at work, because at the end of the day, the job will get done regardless of whether my blood pressure rises or not. And so I choose the path that accomplishes the task with the least amount of my time and energy: I get the job done. I solve the problem. No one’s dying or getting hurt, so no big deal.

I’ve also learned over the years to only share myself with those who have proven to care about me. I am an open book in some ways, but have been known to cut negative influences out of my life without much thought. The most recent example of this was an acquaintance who I met in F-ville. Although the only thing that we really had in common was that we both hated our jobs, we met outside of work regularly (albeit spending that time complaining about work). When I finally started to climb out of the deep hole of self-pity that I had buried myself in, when I finally started to be hopeful again, she had the nerve to confront me and tell me that I was “becoming a different person.” I told her that friends of mine support me both when I am happy and when I am complaining, and promptly erased her e-mail, phone number and other contacts.

And this whole crusade, this whole “Fuck Cancer, raise money to fight leukemia” business that I am hoping to make my life’s work? Although it appears altruistic at the surface, I want others to hear about Eric and me and what happened to us and how it should never have to happen to another nice young couple again. I want to beat this fucking, crippling, destroying thing for the most selfish of reasons: I never want to know that pain again. And yet, every time I connect with cancer patients online or offline, it is often the same tragedy. Many of the people whom I blogged with when I began “Cancer. It’s not just an astrological sign anymore” are gone or have relapsed. Sometimes it seems like everyone I know has cancer or is dying, and I guess in the big picture, those sentiments are true. Everyone is dying, but no one should have to live through the pain and have their life cut so short as Eric did. And so, I continue to raise my voice and speak out—not because of wanting to help others, but because I want to shield my own heart from the pain that it’s known before.

So when you see me being cheerful, not getting stressed over the day-to-day, don’t think that you should strive to be more like me.

I am not a role model.

I am simply trying to get by, the only way that I know how.

Mourning Clothes
Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

I started wearing black in my teens and I have grown through the black of many shades and stages. Black dresses with carefree frills, black slacks for sassy, practical black for warm gloves and hats, the black I wore was playful and nonchalant, naive to the darker fringes found in wardrobes after death swoops in and kills nonchalance.

I liked wearing black. Satin black dresses, tied at my back, ebony curls and polished grey pearls; his charcoaled hair against my white breast. Black was an accent, not a focus. I asked him to wear it, and then wrapped myself around him like a sash circles a neck. Twirling around the smoky clubs, holding onto the black-and-blue of his eyes, we danced the midnight streets and the wooden floors of our churchhouse, under the moons of a blackened sky.

Black changed when he died. That night, I discovered the black of a widow. A shiny black; sharp and crisp. For Mama Til, my great grandmama, a widow’s black was dull, highly buttoned and severely laced. At the turn of the century, when Til stepped out of her launder woman’s home, she wore a widow’s costume. It was observed and noted that she was in her mourning period, and she was sheltered from the bite of the invisible widow’s black that I wear, perhaps?

Newly widowed, I yearned for an intricately woven, black-lace veil to drape over my tear-streaked face. I wanted the world to know that I was mourning my beloved. I wanted motorists to slow down when I crossed the busy street. I didn’t want for them to mistaken me as a goth and be suspicious of me. I wanted to wear a sign on my back that said, “be gentle with me; I am learning to walk with a limb missing.” But my widow’s black was quiet. Because mourning clothes aren’t worn in my time or culture, I wore naked clothes of grieving. Without a costume, I was blurred in a land of out-dated words and invisible wardrobes.

I didn’t wail in public. I didn’t throw myself into the unforgiving ocean or the expectant funeral pyre. I pinched my face brave as I feared falling apart. Afraid that if I crumbled, so did my children, my family, the peaked roof above our heads. I won’t crumble, I repeated, biting my lip till it bled. But no one saw the blood either. In my culture, the images of death are tucked away, until one day death bleeds in front of us. And then we don’t have enough towels in our closet, to sop it all up.

The black of my once-preferred wardrobe, paled as I tried on my new black. I didn’t know what to wear to describe my grief. A black armband to mourn revolutionary style, elevating my love to martyr? A hooded cape with a widow’s peak at my forehead? I recoiled at the sight of black. I heard widow and I cringed, “Don’t call me that. It isn’t true. It isn’t my story. It’s Jacqueline Kennedy’s, Yoko Ono’s, Katie Couric’s. Go away. Be an interrupted nightmare. Be someone else’s costume and title.”

The man I loved did not die fighting for the illusion of freedom. He was not a sacrificial lamb, a statesman or a rock star. He did not die in a factory accident, a car accident, or from an environmental disease. I didn’t watch him suffer and dwindle away, and yet, I live in the shadow of crumbling towers, where daddies and fathers and lovers disappear. Where I became widow and single-mother in the same swoop.

Trying to fit into my pre-dated corset, I looked up “widow” in the dictionary. From dowager, it said, a legal term. A woman who could own property because her husband had died. I looked for a widow in literature that I could relate to. There had to be stories of widows walking over boggy heaths, weren’t there? Civil War widows tending to the farm, hungry babies at their skirts. Widows of the Depression waiting in a bread line, cold children at their skirts. Widows of WWII in factories, boosting the value of America, children working at their skirts. Widows of Vietnam, staying out of fire’s way, horrified families hiding at their skirts.

Where I live, women run corporations, same-sex couples adopt children, domestic partners are entitled to working benefits and single mothers keep rediscovering that it has always been a village of women and children, around the hearth, while the men disappeared in the hunt, or war. Maybe, I realized one day, it’s not how I dress myself, but how I write myself. I can wear my name and write widow in a way that becomes me. My widoe can evolve from dowager, by dropping the w and adding an e. I can write myself as widoe and create a new way of looking at myself, through my own lyrical fingertips.

My widoe wears an e, the way another widow wears high-necked black, another wears a white mourning veil, another, a heavy shroud, or a severe peak. I told my professor that the e is the proper way to make the o long and widow feminine. Spare me the grammar lesson, she says. Okay then, widow is written in an archaic language that doesn’t define me. The e loosens the patriarchal bindings of widow, with origins of being his property. I know I’m privileged to live in a fertile valley where women, at least overtly, are not regarded as property. The nagging hole in my belly is obesity alongside the widow of India who has been cast out to the streets to beg with her children. The widow who has been denied her home, her children’s, inheritance, which had been stolen by her husband’s family.

“Widoe” is somewhere in-between mammal and woman, I said to my professor, as I explained my thesis title. Birth unites women in a family of mothers welcoming life into hopeful arms. Death unites women in a family of widoes releasing life from helpless arms. My widoe has the freedom to walk to a Haitian dance class, down the street from my home, thirsting for rejuvenation, from the live drumming, the sweat, and the colorful skirts. I don’t live the Haitian widoe’s day-to-day hunger and poverty. But, in many ways, I live her pain, her dance of raising children on a dime. Rather than deny my widow’s hood, I cut my cloak from a cloth that belongs to all widows, tailoring it to me, grateful for the choice I have to be able to wear what I want.

Mercury
Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

My person becomes fluid

For I’m about to head

to the fourth new town

in as many years.

It used to be so easy.

Roles I dutifully embraced:

Loving wife, tender caregiver, faithful girlfriend.

Now, all roles are gone.

I can be whomever, whatever I want.

A brand-new, clean slate.

Most people would kill for this chance.

In a way, I already have.

So why am I so damn unsatisfied?

identity
Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

More info, less whining:

I am in a good place right now. I have wonderful opportunities in front of me, and I think that I have finally come to terms with Eric’s passing. For both of those milestones, I am extremely grateful.

However, in moving from merely surviving to living, I am faced with a whole new quandary: how will I now identify myself? For the past year, my life has been a harrowing test of clinging onto sanity’s cliff by one finger…and now that I am safely off of the ledge, I find myself questioning which roles I should assume. I proudly wore the guise of doting girlfriend and supportive wife for almost ten years…and now I am in a strange new place where I’m not quite sure how to act, and I’m not even sure of how to define myself.

Thusly, I am trying on new roles like a five-year-old playing dress up in her mother’s closet. However, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that, at twenty-six years of age, I should have all of this figured out already.

As I try to move on with my life, I am chained to an invisible weight of guilt. I plan to start having a social life, and have started caring about my appearance again, and wanting to seem attractive to others…but even as I put on makeup where there was none for so many months, I can’t help but feel as if I am cheating on my lovely Eric. I know that the guilt is unfounded, and that he would want me to be happy, but those thoughts do little to assuage the feelings of infidelity.

I am so fortunate to finally have reached this plateau, but it seems as if I have traded one problem for another.

I can’t believe that it has been almost a year that he has been gone.

I need some direction. Widowhood is a long and arduous journey, and I have reached yet another crossroads…

avoidance
Friday, February 16th, 2007

I live in the realm of
my mother’s discomfort.

Speaking to her of
a husband’s death,
the emptiness of a home,
how slowly the bed warms up at night,
she withdraws.

Talk of empty refrigerators,
of dishwashers that are ran only half-full,
of trying to fill the time once spent
building the foundations of a new family,
ends abruptly at the emotional brick wall
that she has built.

Her silence regarding
all things widowhood
speaks volumes:
Surely, this won’t ever
happen to her.

Moving on in 2007
Friday, December 29th, 2006

Dear Eric:

I struggle to find a way to communicate with you in a way that comes close to the connection that we had when you were still living. Whereas we could once look into each other’s eyes and hold an entire conversation without uttering a sound, I now find myself speaking to you in the car, or walking in the park near my apartment, or at your grave. Oftentimes, those one-sided conversations gain me many odd, quizzical stares from the living who happen to be walking near me or idling beside me at a stoplight. And then I retreat, embarrassed that I have demonstrated to the world one more time that yes, the loss of you has made me crazy.

And so I return to the internet to send you a message. I have no idea if you still exist, or if you can read what I am typing on this page, but I know for certain that if there is a heaven you are there, and if heaven exists then it almost certainly has high-speed internet (for how could it be Paradise without a nice broadband connection?)

I should write that these past months have made me a stronger person. I remember telling you many, many times as I dressed your central line, gave you injections, or helped you take the dozens of pills that were a sad daily ritual for you that these trials made you tough-as-nails, and gave us a rock-solid marriage to boot.

I was wrong. I’m sorry.

It turns out that some things just plain suck, and there’s not a lot of personal gain to be achieved from having to endure them. Losing you has been the single biggest challenge that I think I might ever face in my life, and there has been more than one time this year that I’ve felt weaker and more vulnerable than I ever had before. I don’t deal well with stress right now; I take medicine every day to help keep me sane and to control the vague and irrational fears that have rooted into my brain since your early departure. I used to say that I was afraid of nothing, and now I fear my apartment getting broken into, my pets dying, someone jumping out of the bushes to kidnap me when I walk the dog at night…I know that none of this makes sense, but I just felt so much safer when you were with me.

But I’m really trying hard to hang in there, to create a life that you would be proud of. True, some days I am merely clinging to the cliff of sanity by my pinky finger, but I haven’t let go–not yet. I should be hearing any day now about which graduate schools have accepted my application for admission–it was always so important to you that I had the chance to pursue a career where I might find more fulfillment than I do at my present job. I’ve created a pretty little home with your artwork, and have started creating my own images and crafts because it was always something that brought you so much joy. There’s even the dog that we talked about owning–she is a mutt, not the beagle that we had talked about, but I’m sure that if you met her it would be love at first sight. In fact, there are some days that I think you must have sent her for me–how else could I explain the random nature in which she wandered into my life?

And so, Eric, I dedicate the upcoming year to you, and to living in your honor. This whole experience has not made me a more religious person, but it has made me a more spiritual person. I pray that we both heal and grow stronger in our own respective worlds.

But, 2006, I have this to say to you: you took my best friend and partner, the happy little home that we had created together, my health and even my sanity at times–but I *am* clawing my way back.

2006, you kicked me when I was down, but I’m not done yet.

Now, get the hell out of here.

Black Heart; Black Funny Bone.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

During a recent personal trip to Pennsylvania, I realized that my husband’s passing had imparted a sense of humor to me that was so black and dark that others simply refuse to understand it. The trip was overall a successful one–most of my time was spent visiting with family and friends. There was only one hiccup throughout the entire weekend, when I was sitting in a local bar with a mixed group of about seven friends and acquaintances:

Friend: What do you do when you’re out with your friends and some weird guy comes onto you and will NOT take the hint and leave you alone?

Me: Well…I have a comment, but it will probably only be appropriate to me…

Friend: No, go ahead…we all know each other here…

Me: (said in the most sarcastic way possible) Just tell the guy that your husband just died. I *guarantee* that no one else will hit on you for the rest of the night.

(insert sounds of crickets chirping, tumbleweeds rolling, and jaws hitting the table here)

Looks like I need to work on a few things before I’m approved for a mixed social setting again. Yeah.

Fierce Look into the Future.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

The following is a recent essay that I submitted to several schools in my area:

I do not need to be admitted to this University.

That’s right, you read that correctly. I will find a way to realize my goals whether I am welcomed to this school or not.

Let me explain by sharing how I arrived at this point. At twenty-six years old, I have a job that has afforded me the opportunity to travel to many new and exciting places. I get paid very well for my career field and level of experience. My current employer even paid for all of my undergraduate student loans as a perk for committing to the company for three years.

And I am about to throw it all away to pursue a job in a career field that I had never previously considered before February 19, 2005.

On that day, my new husband and significant other of nine years, Eric W. Shaffer, was diagnosed with a relapse of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. This was his second experience with the disease; however, assuming the role of his sole caregiver was a new one for me. We had been married for nine months. Eric was twenty-three, and I was twenty-four.

Cancer is a terrible disease for anyone it touches. As a newlywed young couple, we quickly found that there are few other diseases that devastate the afflicted so thoroughly. For those patients who are lucky enough to beat cancer, overcoming the physical disease is just the beginning as they then face co-pays for months and months of medical care, prejudice in finding new employment post-treatment, and the lingering secondary effects of harsh but necessary treatments.

Eric and I also learned that the devastating effects of cancer are compounded greatly when young adults are affected. Due to the limited career choices that I had after receiving a B.S. in Developmental Psychology, I accepted a government internship on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Five thousand miles away from our families when he was diagnosed, Eric and I were forced to end the honeymoon early and negotiate a confusing system of specialists, referrals, and prescription-drug benefits. While learning to clean Eric’s chemotherapy catheter and giving him growth-factor injections, we often had to deal with being treated differently by the hospital staff as the youngest adult patients on the floor.

Eric and I had good health insurance through my job, but were still hit with $300-$400 co-pays each month that were a struggle to pay with my entry-level salary. When we went to our local Social Security Office to apply for disability, Eric was immediately turned down for all benefits when it was determined that he hadn’t worked enough to accumulate the necessary forty S.S. work credits. (When we asked the representative how Eric was supposed to have worked enough to obtain the credits while having cancer twice since 1999, just graduating from college, and only being 23 years old at the time of application, the answer was, “I’m sorry that there is no policy to address your concerns—please write your Congressman.”)

When the news came that we would need to go back to the mainland for a bone marrow transplant, the stress of getting our few possessions, our cat, and ourselves to Maryland was added to the mix. The pressure of performing at my job, acting as a caregiver and advocate for my husband, making arrangements for the move, finding a new job in the vicinity of Johns Hopkins hospital, keeping our family members and friends posted on Eric’s condition, and caring for household duties took its toll on me. I struggled to do it all and felt that I was succeeding at nothing.

However, in meeting other 20- and 30-something cancer patients, I realized that Eric and I were luckier than most. We hadn’t fallen into the gap that many people our age experience. One of us had gotten a job with a full benefits package immediately after college. Young adults just out of college are the most likely to be uninsured or underinsured-too old for their parents’ plans and not established in careers with full benefits. Also, our health insurance was willing to pay for Eric’s bone marrow transplant, no questions asked. Many leukemia and sarcoma patients have their claims denied after cutting-edge treatment that may prove to be life-saving is deemed “experimental.” Despite this supposed “luck,” Eric and I relied on charity at times for assistance with paying our co-pays, prescriptions, and medical equipment expenses not covered by insurance.

While Eric and I were thankful for the breaks we got during our journey with leukemia, the added difficulties of being a cancer patient in early adulthood had resulted in an overall disheartening experience, leaving a bitter taste in our mouths about the condition of health care in the United States. Additionally, we were not able to figure out what Eric would have told potential employers about the significant amount of time after college when he wasn’t working. While employers are not legally permitted to ask specific questions about an applicant’s health during an interview, we feared that Eric’s leukemia would have had a negative impact on his career and professional opportunities for the rest of his life.

My husband and I were dealt a final, crushing blow when we received the news that we would not be able to have children together due to side effects from his years of chemotherapy. A pre-marrow-transplant fertility test in July 2005 confirmed that, at the ages of 24 and 25, we would never have the opportunity to have our own children. Eric’s initial leukemia treatment, in 1999, was at a pediatric hospital that did not explain options for preserving one’s fertility to its young patients.

However, the burdens of employment and lost fatherhood are no longer of concern to Eric. Eric W. Shaffer, my husband, partner, and best friend, passed away on March 17, 2006 from complications caused by his chemotherapy treatment. He left behind his mother and father, a twenty-five year old widow, and hundreds of friends, family members, and acquaintances whom he touched and inspired simply by staying real and fighting until the end.

Six months after my early entry into the world of widowhood, I am still finding it to be a strange and bewildering place. Being a twenty-something widow is very similar to being a young adult long-term illness patient: there are few to no resources available that address the specific needs of the population. The general public does not know how to react to a twenty-six year old in my situation; I have experienced avoidance, platitudes, and downright ignorance when I choose to share that “no, I’m not single, I’m a widow.” As I make my way through this dark time, the urge to hide my status from the world and avoid the pitying looks, the prying questions and the well-meant, but misguided remarks grows stronger and stronger.

But sometimes, a seemingly harmless object or event will trigger a string of memories to go off like firecrackers inside my head, and the grief spills out into my public and professional lives. Try as one might, it is damn near impossible to portray to the world that everything is fine while one is still deep in the throes of grief and healing. While I have publicly displayed my grief, I’ve also found that it is absolutely necessary to remember the person who passed away in terms of the positive contributions he or she had on other people’s lives. And for that reason, I have chosen to soldier onward and live to honor Eric’s life, instead of perpetually mourning his death. I am becoming a Medical Social Worker. In this vocation, I hope to make the world a friendlier place for cancer patients and young adults whom are dealing with long-term illnesses, end-of-life planning, and related issues.

In honor of my late husband, the love of my life, and young adult cancer patients and widow(er)s everywhere, I REFUSE to let my grief control me. I am mad as hell that there are few resources for twenty-somethings faced with serious illness and death. It isn’t fair that public, charitable, and corporate spending for cancer research is not distributed equitably—breast cancer, a highly treatable cancer that is not even the leading cancer killer of women, received the lion’s share of both research and patient support funding. My goal is to challenge the treatment and resource inequities until I can be confident in the knowledge that no other young adult patients will have to endure an experience similar to ours.

To achieve this ideal, I am currently working on two separate fundraising campaigns in memory of Eric. I’m also working on developing materials on grieving, written specifically for young widows. To further awareness of treatment and funding inequities, I write for several websites, including an appearance as a featured author on The Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com). And I plan to shout and write and scream until research and patient support funding is more equally distributed, young adult patients of long-term illnesses have more of a support system, and young widows no longer feel like they have to hide their marital status for the sake of others— emotional comfort.

It is for Eric that I am changing my profession, my goals, and my life. It is for Eric that I hold onto my dream of kicking cancer’s ass.

And so, I will become a medical social worker. My determination is fierce and I have a motivator that is heart-breaking, infuriating, and inspiring. I will find a way to achieve this goal even if it means applying to every MSW program in the country.

Will you help me in my quest?