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

Anndddd….she’s back!

It’s been six months to the day since my last post. And now. Now my fingers are on fire! So, get ready because I’m back, baby!

And, yes, the sassometer (Hint! Rhymes with thermometer) is at full tilt these days. You know, sassometers. They measure one’s level of good ol’, Southern gumption. If you are one of my far flung readers, you might not be familiar with that word, gumption. It means shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness, and it describes my current mood, oh, so, precisely. When I mentioned to my son that this post was about to go live and that it was ‘full of sass’, he responded, “Aren’t they all?” Indeed!

And, because once an educator, always an educator, this blog post is officially sponsored by the letter G.

G is for grateful.

I am practicing gratitude like it’s going out of style, and as far as I can tell from the world today, it seems like it actually is going out of style.

Gratitude is the cure for what ails. That may sound naïve or even a little tone deaf given some of the circumstances that people are living through right now, but….have you tried it? By all means, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. There are a million ways to practice gratitude. Pick one, and try it. Honestly, if I didn’t start each and every day telling God what I’m thankful for, I don’t know what would become of me. Some days are harder to be grateful for than others. Some days I am really reaching, grasping, because the world is weighing so heavily upon me, but there is always something to be thankful for. Sometimes I even thank God for the pain I’m feeling. Yep.

In giving thanks, my mind and heart almost always return to Psalm 95, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in him with psalms” and Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

G is for grieving.

Transporters (science fiction style) are real. I can be anywhere doing anything and with no obvious trigger and very little warning be beamed into another space and time.

On one of these trauma trips, I suddenly found myself in Paul’s hospital room. I openly, loudly, without regard, hesitation, or regret begged God for death to come and come quickly. Paul’s body was beyond help, beyond hope, but his spirit was not. (Nor is ours!) And then, he was gone. Less than a minute. Less than 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 20. He was still soft, warm. I smoothed his hair. Kissed his cheek. Cupped the corners of his jaw in my hands, placed my thumbs in the places where his dimples had carved out the most beautiful divots in his face. I.am.there. I can feel the warmth of his body beneath my open palms. The scruff of his beard against my lips and cheek. I breathe in trying to capture, retain the essence of him. I breathe out.

Sometimes that moment feels like so long ago. Other times it feels like I’ve just stepped out of his hospital room for the last time.

So, yes, I am still grieving.

Y’all have to understand. I am still shocked that I wake up every morning. I’m surprised every day to find that I am still here, that the sun still rises, that the world still turns. I mean, how in the hell is that even possible? It is the grief mindset. And I often wonder if it’s permanent, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it give me perspective, some level of awareness that others do not possess? Some level of awe and appreciation for each and every day? Or will I wake up one day and go, “Ohhhh, now I get it. Life goes on.”

I hope not. I love that I live in a state of awe and wonder at the miracle, the gift, that is life. I just don’t like what I had to go through in order to achieve that state of being.

G is for growing.

I am so different now. I have changed. I am physiologically not the person I was before Paul died. I am different. I think different. Every day I catch myself thinking very differently about things than I would have in the past.

I had a conversation with someone recently, a colleague, about perspective and what it takes to achieve it. What does it take to achieve next-level social and emotional self-awareness? What does it take to wake up? Does it take a tragedy? A significant loss of some kind? I don’t know. I really hope not, but I do think that it points to the purpose of struggle in our lives and, folks, we all struggle.

As the Oak, So I

A large oak stands sentry in my front yard. As the seasons have changed, I’ve noticed that the oak sheds its leaves a little differently than other trees. While other trees drop all of their leaves at once and are rendered completely bare, left to stand naked against the fall and winter sky, the oak retains its old leaves, crisp and brown, until they are literally pushed off the branches by new leaves, new growth. So, too, my new growth is taking the place of what was once useful and productive but no longer serves me and now falls away to be replaced by something new, something fresh.

I’m loving what I’m learning about life and others as I move forward. I recently cleared a pretty big hurdle as I moved from a state of equilibrium in my life to disequilibrium.  I’m getting it right sometimes, but I’m making lots of mistakes, too, as I’m forming and navigating new relationships, negotiating and balancing my needs with the needs of others, honoring where they are in their own processes. Having been in a stable relationship for so long has made some of those skills a little rusty for me so I’m working at it every day.

G is for grace.

That smile on my face? It’s all about His grace.

I often get asked “how I do it”. Where does the strength come from, the resiliency to endure, heck, even thrive in the face of such difficult losses. Sometimes I even sense a little bewilderment if not outright irritation from others. The vibe is ‘What’s she so happy about? What’s she got to smile about? Doesn’t she know we’re in the middle of pandemic?’

Then, there’s the opposite of that reaction in which people assume that because they see me smiling, it means everything is going along perfectly. Not! These are trying times. There are challenges around every corner, let downs and disappointments, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and down-right attacks filled with the arrows and spearheads of hurtful words and actions.

Then, there’s this. I spent all of July down and out with COVID. Yep.

And my work has been disrupted just like so many others. I work in education so I’m pretty sure that I can just leave that right here and let your own imagination, dear reader, do the rest about what that experience has been like. It’s no secret that schools have had a hard time meeting the needs of students, parents, and teachers. I am proud of my colleagues, my school, and my district. We are working harder than ever before and providing students and their families with the best that we have to offer, but it is terrifying and insanely difficult every day.

Half the time I only get half a night’s sleep. I’m up pacing the house while my dogs peacefully snooze the night away only occasionally lifting one eye to make sure I’m not actually going anywhere. Sometimes I cry myself back to sleep, or sometimes I stand at an open window and breathe in the stillness of the night contemplating the nature of the universe. Quiet street. Bright moon. Light breeze and leaves in flight as they are finally released from the trees’ branchy grip, punctuated by the soft *tink* of acorns hitting the roof, front walk, driveway, or street below. Insects sing their buzzy lullaby and owls shoo-shoo me back to bed, back to sleep.

I’m not the only one though who manages to face the storms of life with a tenacity of spirit. Some of our nearest and dearest have suffered stunning losses. I see their strength, their resilience, and I know where it comes from. I want you to know it, too. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. My faith is my source of strength, my source of peace.

G is for glowing.

I’ve had lots of ups and downs these last six months. But this picture pretty much says it all about where I am right now. (Funny how no one takes and posts a picture of themselves when they are ugly-crying, ha!)

G is for the big Guy upstairs.

The OG. The original, Father God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I have been working really hard lately on achieving stillness; stillness in body, mind, and spirit. It’s not easy. My heart is often troubled, my mind is often addled, and my spirit has always had a tendency to be restless. But I am trying.

I recently came across the full, original version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. You probably know the first part by heart as so many people do, but maybe like me you were unaware of the rest of it. It’s so appropriate for the times we are living in today.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

So here I am. Living life in the moment. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is not promised. I’m making the best use of the dance floor that is my kitchen for morning and sometimes late night dance jams. I am not perfect. I am, in fact, very far from it, but I do serve a perfect God.

From Jeremiah 6:16, “This is what the Lord says:  Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

I’m standing at the crossroads. Won’t you, please, join me? Malia