Day of days

1,001

Today is the one thousand-first day since Paul died, and it’s also our wedding anniversary. This day of days, of all the days, is the hardest for me. It’s harder than his birthday. It’s harder than Father’s Day. It’s harder than the day he died. It’s harder than all the missed family birthdays, celebrations, and holidays combined. Why? Because it was our day; a unique day in the story of us, the day that marked the beginning of our life together, a day when there were still so many days ahead of us.

The story of our lives together had just begun and now that book’s final chapter has been written, and it sits on a shelf in the library of memories, a treasured story to be sure, but bookended in time nonetheless.

Paul and I always considered our anniversary to be the kick-off to the Christmas season. We would choose a nice restaurant, dress up, and linger long, over a multi-course dinner. On the last anniversary that we celebrated together, we chose a fancy restaurant we had never been to before. The restaurant is a converted carriage house behind an historic mansion that is now a high-end, boutique hotel.

The restaurant, house, and connecting garden were all decked out for Christmas; a sea of reds, greens, and gold. Some of the festive colors had been smartly placed by the staff in the form of swags and garlands, ornaments, and bows, and some had been provided by nature in the form of nandina bushes, holly berries, and camellias as well as the thick, dark greens of magnolia, smilax, and ivy with pops of gold thrown in by maples, oaks, poplars, and sweetgums. By the way, the yellow-gold leaves of the sweetgum are the only redeeming grace of that awful tree with its hard sticker-balls that drop to ground and lie in wait like tiny grenades to the undersides of my bare, southern feet. Anyone who lives in the south knows that they are a menace.

We arrived a little early to our reservation so that we could walk the nearby streets and gardens and take a short tour of the lobby and sitting areas inside the mansion that were so beautifully decorated for the season. We explained to a greeter as we entered the mansion that we were celebrating our anniversary. Upon hearing this, the greeter invited us to ascend the stairs to the cupola and enjoy a view of the city.

A cupola is a small, domed room at the top of a home or building. Some cupolas are very small and intended only to allow in additional light and air. Others are large and used as a lookout either for pleasure or safety. The cupola at the top of this colonial mansion is exceedingly large with floor-to-ceiling windows and was probably intended for both sightseeing and safety as it is just blocks from the harbor and still to this day is one of the tallest buildings in the city even though it is only four stories tall.

We made our way up the spiral staircase and into the barrel-shaped cupola. It was a clear, cold night and the view was long, expansive and breathtaking. The moon was so bright it had chased the stars away. They left their home in the sky and instead took roost in the city, lighting like birds on lampposts and rooftops, and taking up residence in people’s homes and dwellings, sparkling through window panes and doorways.

One of the floor-to-ceiling windows was actually a door indicated only by the presence of a handle. I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk that surrounded the cupola. Yes, really. A widow’s walk.

A widow’s walk is a railed walkway around the outside of a cupola; very common among 19th century, Atlantic coast homes and so named for the women who would frequently use the walkways to search for the ships of their sea-faring beloved.

Doesn’t that give you chills? It gives me chills. It makes me feel like this blog was being written out in real life with me as one of the characters in some unknown author’s story. Because I didn’t know then, standing next to my husband, that it would be our last anniversary together and that I would be sitting here writing about it nearly three years later. It puts me in a bit of an existential quandary. Am I the dreamer? Or am I the dream?

***

This is the first year that I have not taken this day entirely to myself. In years past, I anticipated the day and intentionally planned activities that celebrated, even memorialized, our lives together and contributed both to my comfort and to the grieving and healing process.

On the first anniversary without Paul, I took the day off from work to visit the place where we met, and I took this picture; one that you may recognize if you have followed my story.

That was the day that the idea and impetus for this blog began and then became reality about a month later. The second anniversary without Paul was a Saturday. I spent the day volunteering with our dog, Beatrice, at the hospital where Paul passed away.

This year, I allowed it to just happen like any other day. It started out pretty rough. Normally, on a day like today, I would struggle to leave the safety and comfort of the house, but lately, the house no longer seems to hold the sense of safety and comfort it once did. It just feels….empty. The routines that once made me feel so secure now feel boring and numbing.

My mood was disgruntled and cross as I made the short drive to work and would you believe it? I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of my car, I was greeted with the sound of a Mourning Dove literally mocking me with its low, somber “coooo, coo-hoo, coo, coo, cooooo”. I mean the nerve of some birds. Ugh. I was already struggling and then this bird just had to rub it in. Seriously. I had a few choice words for that bird.

I have been, no, I am, doing really well. I know that this is just a bump in the road, but today it feels like a mountain. However, it’s not sadness or grief that I am feeling. It’s deeper in a way. It has settled somewhere lower in my soul and my psyche. There’s a resignation to it that is almost equivalent with defeat except that it is a defeat that has been reconciled.

It’s nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a wistful sort of acceptance that time is linear, that there’s no going back. It is more closely related to homesickness. That seems about right.

And what does one crave most when homesick? You know it. A good home cooked meal. Am I right? So that’s just what I did. I went home from work after a quick stop at the market and made the first meal Paul and I ever made together, shrimp tetrazzini. It was 1991, about six months before we got married. We were enjoying a weekend at the beach and got in the kitchen together for the first time to make a meal. We listened to Van Morrison as we cooked and drank a dry white wine that just happened to double as one of the recipe’s ingredients.

Once home, I got in the kitchen and got busy with dinner accompanied by Van Morrison and Amazon-Alexa who not only rocked out the Van Morrison playlist but helped me keep up with the five minutes for the shrimp and mushrooms, the seven minutes for the pasta and the 30 minutes in the oven. I made the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. And, no, it didn’t taste the same. Yes, it needed salt. And, this time, the pasta was gluten free because my digestive system is nearly 30 years older and pickier. But none of that matters. It was exactly what I needed.

Here are some directions and action shots in case you want to give it a whirl. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it with shrimp, chicken or turkey, and even though linguine is the typical cut of pasta used for this dish, it works with whatever you choose including gluten free (brown rice and quinoa) spiral cut pasta which is what I used.

Begin with a medium-sized sweet onion, minced. Sauté the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add about a half-pound of shrimp and a half-pound of fresh mushrooms. I added another tablespoon of butter at some point because I had a little more than a half-pound of shrimp and the mushroom slices were large. When the shrimp are pink and the mushrooms are beginning to wilt or sweat, remove to a large bowl and set aside.

The roux could not be more southern; two cups of milk (I used cream because that’s what Paul would have done), one-quarter cup flour, and one-quarter cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, of course). As the roux thickens, add one cup of sherry or a dry white wine. I had a Riesling from a local vineyard so that’s what I used. Also, I may have used more than a cup.

Return the shrimp, onions, and mushrooms to the pan, add cooked pasta (about 8oz dry), and toss gently until well combined. Place in a casserole dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes.

Since it was just me this time, I didn’t go all out, but typically I would add salad and a roll to complete this meal.

***

So something has happened several times lately. A new feeling. It’s happened too often to be a fluke; it’s real, it’s persistent, and I don’t like it. It’s not a feeling to which I am accustomed either to the extent that when I first felt it I wasn’t sure what it was. “This is new. What is this feeling?” I thought. “It’s not grief. It’s something else.” It took me a few times of being confronted with it before I had a name for it. Loneliness.

Oh, dear.

Now. Now. Don’t get worried about me. I am fine. I am busy in the best, most healthy ways. I am surrounded by friends and family who love me and look after me. I am not alone by any means.

And I fully realize that this is a normal part of the grief and grieving process for both myself and the people who surround a loss. At some point, the attention fades, and the phone calls, the invitations, and the texts gradually slow to a trickle as everyone including me moves forward, and the strength of the connections that have been developed during this process are tested in a way. It’s intriguing to me to see what sticks and what doesn’t as I move forward into my life that is no longer our life. From the observer perspective, it’s an interesting turn of events, the next developmental phase. I find myself saying, “Oh, this is an interesting development. What’s she going to do now?” but with the exception that the she is me.

True confessions: I love plants and nature, gardens and parks, but I don’t like to garden. I love to be outside, and I enjoy learning the names and identifying all different kinds of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables. But I don’t like to work in the yard; to plant, trim, prune shrubs, flowers, trees, or bushes, or to mow or rake. However, Paul and I used to spend hours upon hours in our yard and garden, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Huh. Interesting.

What I have realized is that I liked to garden…. with Paul. I enjoyed it because we were doing it together. This. This is what I miss. This is what I desire. I want to love to do something because someone I love loves and enjoys doing it. Ooooo, boy. Relationship goals. This is what it means to share your life with someone. To like what they like because they like it, to take joy in the joy of another.

I didn’t notice how much I missed all of this before I started dating again, and now that I have, well, I’ve realized how much I missed that level of relationship. I miss the small, knowing glances, the tell-all facial expressions, the secret language that we spoke.

It’s funny because before I would have said that there was absolutely nothing missing from my life, and now I feel like there is. Oh, for God’s sake, grrrrrrrr, and double-grrrrrr. Like really? I was so hoping and praying that the Lord would call me to single-ness for the rest.of.my.life. Ha! You got to love the Lord’s sense of humor, and He does have one!

***

This blog is (clearly!) my expressive outlet, my art if you will. I am equally enthralled, but not skilled, with other expressive arts. Music, theater, visual arts are just not my gift, but I love to patronize and support those who do have that gift. My smart, beautiful, talented friend and colleague, Amy Tepper, is one of those people. I purchased this lovely piece of wearable art from her several months ago. I love it because reminds me of the peace of the Holy Spirit descending from above.

Then, recently, knowing my story, she created this beautiful artwork on commission. It’s amazing in these photographs, but it is stunning in person. It tells my story on so many levels; my human story and my spiritual story. It has layers of color and dimension, and it has movement. It’s like what I see when my life flashes before my eyes. Amy captured that, and I will be forever grateful. If you would like to connect with Amy to discuss the visual expression of your own story, you can find her here.

In church last week, during the closing hymn, something happened. We were just starting into the last verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness and suddenly I heard Paul singing beside me. I heard his voice in my ear. I turned to look at him. I stopped singing and listened to him finish the verse.

Be well my friends, and stay tuned. The adventure has just begun, Malia

How’s your vision? Mine’s 2020.

Life as we knew it…is.over. I know. It’s devastating, but maybe, just maybe, there is something new and different and wonderful ahead for us.

I mean who wants to return to normal? Not me. Not if normal means rampant consumerism, hateful speech and actions, and addictive, unhealthy behaviors involving social media. Let me be clear. There are more problems with the way people use social media than with social media itself. This is true of most all devices conceived by the heart and mind of man. No manmade object, contraption or contrivance is inherently harmful or dangerous. How we use them, what we do with them, makes them so.

Folks, it’s time for us to leave normal behind. I am done with normal. I am sick of it. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s time for us to grow and mature as a people and as a country, to eat the solid food of patience and wisdom, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts that love fully and robustly. It’s time for us to move beyond our infancy as a nation, as a society, as a race; the human race.

If you’ve ever wondered where I land politically, economically, philosophically, or otherwise, that’s as much as you are going to get in the context of this blog.

The truth is that until we all collectively accept the death of Normal and grieve the death of Normal, we are not going to get to the good stuff. And, yes, I realize that I am communicating my truth so, as always, you have the option to continue reading…or not.

Now, what is the good stuff you say? The good stuff is what comes after; after the struggle, after the hurt, after the pain.

Don’t believe me? The reality of this is etched in the layers of the earth itself. Proof of it is written into all of creation and played out over and over again throughout history from the small, personal moments between humans to the huge swaths of sweeping movements across recorded time.

It’s in the sunshine after the storm. It’s in the small patches of flowers boldly growing in a field of long-cooled lava. It’s in the desert blooms after the rain. It’s in the tender, green shoot emerging from a tree stump. It’s the baby boom after World War II.

It’s the widow making her way in the world, no, even thriving, after the death of her beloved husband.

It’s the rise. After the fall.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something my husband said to me in the days just after his diagnosis when we were all struggling to fathom the reality of our lives without us being us. We were like sonographers sounding the ocean depths trying to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, waiting for the return echo that would signal that we were not dangling over a bottomless pit.

What my husband said came in the context of a collection of other things Paul felt like he needed to tell me regarding what to do and how to be after he was gone. The conversation was like a bundle of kindling to spark and light the way to my future. One particular remark, that has perplexed me so, came on the heels of his now famous advice for me to make some friends.

Paul said, “You can be free.”

I have really struggled with that. It has confused me and worried me. I didn’t know what he meant then, and I’m still not entirely sure I now know what he meant. At the time, I said, “Stop it”, protesting the insinuation that I was somehow the opposite of free or burdened in some way. I was also frankly a little hurt that he might think of me that way, that he might think I felt that way, or perhaps I was convicted of any inadvertent behavior that may have caused him to even think that I felt that way. It pricked my heart like being handed an exquisite rose with an equally exquisite thorn.

I have tried for quite some time to wrestle the meaning out of those words, you can be free. Maybe he just knew that I might never become fully myself unless in his absence. And, in truth, I have indeed discovered things about my self that I would not have known within the context of our relationship just as I had discovered things about myself during our relationship that I would never have learned otherwise.

My family has been my life’s work. Paul knew there were many things I had not allowed for myself because they would take away from my mission to give every last nth of myself to the people that I loved and loved me. That is, after all, agape love; sacrificial love. And I don’t regret it for a second.

But there’s more to it than that.

Caregiver is coded in my DNA, and I love that. It gives me purpose. I show love through service. But it is also a disorder that developed as the result of the death of my mother. I developed a knee-jerk, emotional coping mechanism, a child’s false logic that goes something like this, if I’m good enough, I can prevent this from happening again. If take care of the ones I love well enough, nothing will ever happen to them.

It led to a pattern of me taking too much responsibility for everyone and everything.

I vividly recall a late night, phone conversation with our son. This was many years ago now. He was in college and struggling a bit with the adjustments of living on his own. Paul and I listened as our son shared what was going on and after a quiet pause, I said almost hesitantly, “What if. What if you took care of yourself as well as Daddy and I have taken care of you?” Stunned silence from the other end. I may have heard a gulp. I don’t recall the exact response, but our son basically said he could not even wrap his head around that, couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But over time, he has learned to do just that.

So there I was back in the spring on COVID lockdown and struggling to adjust to life on my own, and I turned the question on myself. What if. What if I took care of myself as well as I have taken care of others my entire life? What if I turned all that effort and energy to me? Holy moly.

So now. Now I am loving my own self with the same kind of purpose and service. This. This is what Paul meant, what he wanted for me, to be free to grow myself in the ways I have poured effort and energy into others that I have loved and cared about for my entire life. After very nearly now 50 years, I am turning all of that effort and energy on to me.

Taking care of myself to the level that I have always taken care of others has been transformative. I have nurtured my self and grown my self, mind, body, and spirit, through exercise, reading, writing, counseling, nutrition, swimming, yoga, running, playing, plenty of sunshine, walking, rest, time for thought and prayer, time with friends and family, laughter and tears, challenge and ease, all of the good things a person needs to grow healthy and strong….and free.

I am free of (most!) of my own self-imposed limitations. Free from the constraints and expectations I’ve placed on myself. Free from a false logic, a false narrative of responsibility that held me captive. Free from the cage that is the either-or mindset, and free to embrace both-and instead because my heart is no longer the shallow well of self-reliance, where there is never enough to go around, where effort and energy must be conserved and rationed, where either-or decisions rule the day. My heart is instead the constantly renewed and refreshed deep well of faith so that I can be the fullest expression of myself and have more than enough left over to fully love others. Can you feel the ground shaking? Because I do.

I haven’t shared this next part with any of my friends or family. They may wonder why. All I know is that some things are easier to write than say. Or maybe. Maybe God has asked me to hang on to this for 37 years, 8 months, and 7 days until today because you, dearest, are the one who needs to know it.

When I laid down to go to bed on the night of the day my mother died, I went toe-to-toe with God for the first time. My relationship with God had gotten personal. He had reached his hand into my life and taken something precious from me. I felt I had at least earned the right to ask for something in return. I recognize the spiritual immaturity in this now, of course, but as a young girl, trying to make sense of the senseless, well, I was doing the best I could with my limited understanding, and God, God was as He always is, full of grace.

In the quiet of my room, in the stillness of the night, I met God as Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok River. There were windows above my bed. It was a cold, clear night. I gripped the top of the headboard and pulled myself up to the sill to peer through the window and saw a sky full of stars. The room was flooded with moonlight, and I was flooded with a river of tears. I cried, begged, and pleaded with God as I prayed, “Lord, please take me, too. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. Just please, please let me die during the night. Please.”

I had my answer when, well, I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t exactly angry as one might imagine. I was disappointed; defeated, hurt and wounded that God had taken so much from me and would not allow me this one request as consolation. I didn’t understand yet that God had indeed allowed my request. It took years for me to realize that God had given me exactly what I asked for. I had, in fact, died and awoken to an entirely new existence. In the same way that I have had to mourn the girl I was, I have also had to mourn the loss of the woman I became in the presence of my husband, in the context of that relationship, because she also died….and awoke to an entirely new existence.

In this life, we die many deaths. Grieving is not something we do only at the end of a life. Grieving is a cyclical part of our emotional climate, our human and spiritual nature, because loss is a fundamental life experience for us all.

Nowadays, it’s like waking up every morning and strapping on a pair of wings. My flight is erratic. I sputter. I flap ridiculously. I wobble. I soar too high and crash. I crash. And when I crash, I laugh. I laugh, and I think, “Good. This is good for me”, and I am thankful for the experience; the hurt, the disappointment, the embarrassment, the knowledge, and the wisdom.

Some days all I do is flap all day long not even getting so much as my big toe off the ground, ending my day completely spent with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing. You see on days like that it’s not about flight at all. It’s about strength and getting stronger. All that flapping builds strength. Soaring and gliding does not build strength, flapping does. Hooray.for.flapping. And for looking ridiculous doing it. I’m ok with all of it.

I had a dream recently. I was outside. It was early morning. The sun was up, steadily climbing and warming, but it was still low in the sky, just beginning the long arc of the day. I had the sense that I had been there in that spot for a while, legs crossed, calm and peaceful, light breeze, head tilted toward the horizon, watching the sunrise, but I was oddly expecting something more. I was waiting. And then. Then, a second sun arrived on the horizon and, via time lapse as if racing to catch up with the first sun, took its place in the sky; the same size and shape, but the glow was different. This second sun was golden and fuzzy around the edges like a peach where the first sun had become white hot and the edges were quick. I could no longer look directly at it. It had risen above those protective layers of the atmosphere through which one can safely view our star without wincing.

This dream. I knew I was dreaming but actively chose to stay in the dream to see what happened next. It actually didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt like a vision, like someone had something to show me. I wasn’t even surprised to see that second sun rising in the sky. It felt like a long awaited something had finally arrived. I smiled, closed my eyes, breathed in the glorious warmth, and felt my skin like a sponge soaking in the life bringing light. And my whole body reverberated, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

I am choosing not to pull at the threads of this dream. I wouldn’t dare. Instead I will treat it with the reverence it’s due. I don’t want to know its roots, its origin, its pieces and parts. I don’t want to see the trees this time, only the forest. I just want to sit with it, enjoy it, accept it with gratitude as if a gift had just been handed to me.

Time to rise, my friends, Malia