Holiday cheer?
December 19th, 2006 by

Val, the author of Dig Your Toes In, recently wrote an excellent post on dealing with loss during the holidays:

It’s been building for a few weeks now, and I didn’t even realize it. I have this intolerance for … a common holiday attitude, and suddenly the intolerance is smacking me in the face and begging to be shouted. And so—well, I’m going to blog it.

The Pet Peeve that I’ve suddenly discovered is the constant obsession—on the radio, in ads, by folks that we talk to—about the “stress” of the holidays. The “hustle-bustle.” The “Millions of things that have to get done.” Rather than a celebration of the holiday season I have encountered again and again a huge collective, “O Poor Me!” factor regarding all that must get done.

Holidays are hard when you’ve lost someone that you love. Remembering all the special things that the person did when preparing for the holidays. Reflecting on the holiday memories. The thoughts that come rushing in, uninvited, about missing that person. It’s all bitter sweet. It’s wonderful, because it keeps your loved one close, but it’s terrible because it causes the ache to swell again and again and again. Yes, I am missing my Mom this Christmas, even as I gleefully gear up for the festivities. Even as we do our holiday projects. And it is this missing, and the experience of the past few years of my world being turned on it’s head that gives me this intolerance. This I know.

I would be lying if I told you that I haven’t felt some anxiety and tension over the “gotta get it done” factor of Christmas. I have. We’ve worried that the humble offerings we’re giving to our friends and extended family won’t seem like enough to them, since we’ve tried to scale back spending by focusing mainly (and as cost-efficiently as possible) on our small family unit. I’ve fussed over recipes, and worried over presents getting here in time. I have. I am not immune, despite the words I am about to write.

But the “stress” of this Christmas is nothing like the “Stress” of the last two. The last two Christmases were the hardest, darkest, scariest that I have known. The last two Christmases the stress that I felt was real—and beyond my control. It was so much more than being exhausted by my choice to take part in “the hustle and bustle.”

Two years ago, my Mother had just been diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer. We were still trying to wrap our brains around the diagnosis. I was scared to death. I wasn’t sure where to be. It was my first Christmas to have my husband home with me, and it was the Christmas sitting in front of a year when my husband would be gone on short detachments the majority of the time before his eventual deployment. We weren’t sure if he would be home for the birth of Little Miss. We also weren’t sure if Mom would be around for the birth of Little Miss, and then if she was how much time they (and we) might have together. There was uncertainty everywhere. And at times the world seemed like a very dark place.

Last Christmas was the first after my Mom died. It was very, very hard. I hurt over the things that we “always did” that we couldn’t do that year. I didn’t know how I would get through Christmas Eve without doing the special things I always did with her. I couldn’t imagine Christmas morning without her at the table of her and Dad’s house. My husband was in Iraq and I missed him so terribly—especially while in the midst of the grief stuff—that I didn’t know what to do with myself. And just when we thought that things couldn’t get any worse, Husband’s grandfather became very, very ill and the words, “They’re going to make him comfortable,” were used. Husband’s family and I quickly mobilized and I found myself visiting again at the deathbed of a family member that we loved very, very much. I put in the Red Cross call to my husband, and while we had decent communication so I was assured he knew what was going on, the official message took nearly a week to reach my husband’s superiors. There was talk of him taking a whirl-wind trip home to hopefully be with his grandpa, but he didn’t have the leave time to cover it. Working through those logistics in the midst of the situation—the grieving, the aching, the hurting. That was stress. Husband wasn’t able to come home, and wouldn’t have been back in time anyway. Grandpa died three days before Christmas. His funeral was on Christmas Eve. My heart was as heavy as a rock. The grief and the pain and the hurt and the missing seemed to consume me. There didn’t seem to be any light anywhere.

But. I knew better. Because you see, that Christmas after Mom got sick I heard the message over and over and over again that Christmas isn’t about hype. It’s about a light in the darkness (faithful blog-readers. you knew it was coming sometime, didn’t you?). And I have to tell you, I grabbed onto the hope of that light with everything in me and didn’t let go and I’m convinced that’s the reason I made it through both years. And I DID find light. I found it in the strength that wasn’t my own that allowed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I found it in the smile and giggle of my beautiful daughter. I found it in the courage and strength and shared hurt of my husband’s voice on a phone-line connecting us while a world apart. I found it in the comfort and love that I found in being with Husband’s family on that whirlwind trip to be with Grandpa and to attend his services. I found it in my Daddy graciously “pushing back” Christmas so that we could celebrate it together after we’d returned back to his home. And, I found it where it was found 2000 years ago, “in the squatty, dark light of a stable.” In the form of a baby that was born to save the world. including me.

And so. Well. When I hear about the stress. About the hustle and bustle. About how terrible it is that people have to spend time buying presents and writing cards and baking things and visiting people, I just want to SCREAM: “Don’t you get it?!!! This isn’t what this season is about!!! This is about time with our families! This is about taking time to be together! To hold hands! To take joy in the presence of our loved ones. Because not a single one of us is guaranteed another Christmas!

I want to shout, “Get your priorities straight! If the ribbons and bows and cookies and candy recipes that don’t get to ‘soft ball’ stage are going to give you such an ulcer, throw them out the window and find the real joy of the season.” Of being with people that you love, and realizing what the point of the holidays really are: Light in a dark world!

I would take the “stress” of this holiday season—the financial worries, the putting together of our holiday offerings, the worrying over getting everything done—five times over before I would want to relive the past two Christmases. And yet those Christmases contained light too. And I look back to that light and find strength in it.

So that is my holiday diatribe. And the bottom line. The point that I’m trying to make is: Don’t get so caught up in the hustle that you miss the miracles. Don’t get so caught up in the bustle that you forget about people who are suffering through their hardest Christmases ever. And feeling so alone in that.

Remember the light in the darkness. Hold onto it, and offer it to someone who might feel that the darkness is winning this year. And: Look around at the people that you love. Drink them in. Make the memories. Cherish them.

Make the choice to slow down and refuse to become part of the rush. It *IS* a choice. When the world stops because of something awful those things fade into the background and you find out how unnecessary they really can be.

Remember the point of Christmas and the Holidays. Look for the light and love one another.

December 6th, 2006 by

my skin,
starved for intimacy.
his hands:
so masculine,
and yet
so careful.
his chest:
burying my nose
in the hirsute warmth.
his lips:
a perfect, soft pink pout.

my soul,
hungry for a connection.
his eyes:
sweetly seductive hazel,
contained a knowledge of me
that i may never see again.
his brain:
an encyclopaedic library
of our memories together.
his heart:
pumping our blood, life and love
throughout his body.

now, decay:
the vessel returns
to dust.
does the soul live on?
my legs, worn.
my feet, tired.
looking and looking
for a sign
that part of him
is still out there

November 16th, 2006 by

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
November 16th, 2006 by

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.
November 16th, 2006 by

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
November 7th, 2006 by

Anatomy 35, by Tricia Harding

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
He grips back,
But, really, he doesn’t.
They have dimmed the lights.
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?
November 7th, 2006 by

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
November 7th, 2006 by

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.

Seeing Halloween in a new light.
October 30th, 2006 by

Ever since I became a widow, people have been warning me about how hard the holiday season was going to be for me. I have been bracing for the emotional torrent that Christmas will surely bring ever since he died.

Little did I know that the difficult holiday season would start way too early. I am now seeing Halloween in a whole new light.

Being affectionate of the macabre and having a dark sense of humor had facilitated a long love of Halloween. I’d always been into good scary movies, trick-or-treating, and wearing a costume. One of our happiest memories as a couple was the time when we mentored a group of teens to design, build, and act in their own haunted house. My husband and I were “scarers” during the event and frightening passersby with a one-two punch. He even helped me in painting the exposed areas of my body with a ghostly bluish-grey pallor, complete with oozing flesh wounds on my neck and face. Halloween used to be incredibly fun for both of us.

And now, I see the cheerfully “dead” costumed children, and I know that no make-up, even the make-up used in the scary movies, can replicate the look of a dead body. I see the yards decorated with fake tombstones and wonder if the families inside the adjoining homes spent any time this year visiting a real grave. I used to think that persons who opposed the celebration of Halloween were religious proselytizers, but now I see the true nature of the holiday, soulless as corpse’s eyes.

Why, oh why must Americans take a meaningful ritual and turn it into something completely devoid of deeper meaning? Day of the Dead, the holiday on which our Halloween is loosely based, invokes the same dark imagery but instead celebrates the dead with offerings, shrines, and remembrance. Would it kill us to add some depth to our celebration and candy?

So, sorry kids, I’m not playing this year. You can keep your dead cheerleader and dead football player costumes, you can keep your candy and your empty, commercialized holiday. I’m remembering someone real, someone warm and loving and caring, someone whose death is all too recent and honest and painful. And I’ll pay homage to him, thanks.

Bridesmaid Blues: Memories of a Love Lost.
October 30th, 2006 by

Next week, I’ll be serving on bridesmaid duty for the first time for a very good friend of mine who I’ve known for almost eight years. And I’d be lying out my teeth if I didn’t say that I am having mixed feelings about the whole thing. I love my friend, and I am truly happy for her and her fiance, who is a hell of a guy. But this will be my first wedding after my husband’s death, and I can’t help but think that being surrounded by a lovey-dovey celebration of couplehood is going to make me extremely sad and/or bitter. I can try my best to remain positive and be the supportive friend that I so desperately wish to be–but I don’t know if I realistically will be able to escape the memories of my own wedding and romance for the entire day. And I cannot promise to anyone, even myself, that I can be happy with memories of a marriage that was cut far too short, and a love that I am so desperately missing right now that I am moved to tears over just about anything.

Truth be told, I have been lashing out over the most minute things lately. Will this attitude continue at the wedding? I am so nervous that I will not be able to hold it together during the festivities, or that my presence will cast a pallor over the event.

The best accessory for this bridesmaid? A mini-tube of vaseline–so that I can maintain a constant smile through my tears. Like a pageant contestant, I’ll march down the aisle with my poofy dress and my vaseline perma-smile under my tears. People get sappy at weddings, right? This shall be my excuse and my disguise, all wrapped up in a tiny parcel from the drugstore…