Last week I went to the eye doctor. As expected, I had to fill out a standard medical form—you know, the one where they ask your name and age, medical history, insurance information, and social history. The form that’s not really important because nobody ever looks at it. So I did on this form the same thing I have done on all forms for ten years. I left the Social History blank. I refused to check a box.
Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
Nope. None of their business. It’s odd how I picked this one little thing to have an attitude on. If they added a box that said All the Above, I might’ve checked it. But I refuse to check the appropriate little white square sitting beside the “W” word. If they really care, they’ll ask, and then they’ll get a piece of my mind.
Once a nurse did ask. “My husband is deceased,” I answered. I got shot a look that said, There’s a box for that, to which I replied, “I refuse to be labeled that word.” My look back said, Don’t mess with this.
Ten years ago today, after thirty-six hours of surgeries on my husband, I became that…that word I abhor. After all the heroic efforts by surgeons, the not being able to pink him up, the flatline, he went, and I was left with a social status I didn’t understand and didn’t want. That was the visual summary of the chaos I was thrown into, like a rag doll in a wind strong enough to blow the seams apart, a wind strong enough to blow the accumulated dust out of it, a wind strong enough to blow the red stitched smile right off its face.
Picking out one insignificant thing to take a position on, while holding on to the only self I knew, was within my rights, I figured. It was one simple way I could keep some control of my life, which was in splinters up in the air in a tornadic swirl of dust and debris and cloud and earth particles.
That is one of the important things I learned after my husband died. State what you need and want. If something bothers you, let it be known. (Be reasonable, be firm, and don’t be unkind in your positioning.) If it doesn’t hurt anybody, hold to it. Take some control where you can. Because you’re going to be tossed, bruised, banged around on many fronts. Getting the steam of grief out where you can is important to healing.
“I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.” – Anna Quindlen.
The quote spoke to me this morning. Why? Because for some time now, I’ve been drawn to the ocean. I desire to sit on the beach and stare out.
It’s odd because I’ve always been more of a mountain person—hated the beach, refuse to wear a swimsuit now, hate the grains of sand that get between my toes and stick to my feet. I still have sand in my suitcase from my trip to the Oregon coast four years ago. But . . .
For some reason, I need to sit in the sand at the point it touches vast lonely waters and let the waves roll in and wet my toes. I need to hear the sound of the crashing sea. I need some deep sand thinking, I need some reflection, I need to be in tune with my world and my God. And I need to see His truths there. I need a balance.
I think I need that after loss. I don’t deal well with change, and I’m tired of death, the most recent being my sixteen-year-old dog. It has always haunted me how I can stand on a beach and leave my footprint there, and then a wave comes in and smooths out the wet sand, and there’s no sign of the print. I don’t want my life to be that way. I don’t want the lives of my loves to be that way.
I want to sit and look out at a cerulean sky and feel the water cold on my toes and watch it roll out toward a distant horizon. But I need to wait for the second act. Because the water comes back in. Life takes away; life brings the new. I need to see the going out and the coming in.
I need the coming in to offset the going out. I need balance.
It’s at that point when I recognize that people, or pets, come into my life for a time and then go out, and it is not the end, but a beginning, and I must welcome the new and live and look forward and onward in the time I’m allotted, that growth and contentment and joy occur.
One day soon I just might pack away in Sweet Madeleine the Outback, hop on that ribbon of 65 highway, and head south to the white sands and blue waters and sit there where the going out meets the coming in for hours and hours and stare out and breathe in the waves and then breathe them out, and find me anew.
Anna Quindlen also said that I am the only person alive who has sole custody of my life.
I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.
Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.
Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.
We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.
We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.
Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.
“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”
I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.
“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”
They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.
“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”
I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.
“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”
“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”
They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?
We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.
I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.
Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.
“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.
I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.
I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.
Then Cory was there at the top.
“Come on, Mama!”
I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”
I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.
I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.
I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.
I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.
I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.
I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.
A hand. Reaching down. For me.
At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of you. It did to me. June 28, 2008. My husband died.
It has been a long and incredible journey of grief and healing, of learning things I didn’t want to learn, of giving up things I didn’t want to give up, of building a whole new life. As hard as it was to fathom that I had to build anew, it was a given. It happened by default. The old life existed no more. As much as I tried to gather in all the residuals of that old life, I could not.
My journey of loss, grief, and rebuilding is presented in a memoir published in 2013: Remember the Dragonflies. It’s all there: the loss, the raw pain, the sheer agony, how I dealt with the pain, how I dealt with the “why” of it, and walking up that road of rebuilding. It’s a long, hard journey.
Now, I can say that I am well, I have coped, I am content with my life, I am happy. Yes, I miss him.
Seven is the number of completeness … and rest. And so I leave it with that. I am complete, at rest, at peace.
Brilliant yellows and oranges, they ruffle in the wind when the cold comes and soon are tossed to the ground.
Autumn makes me think. For me, it’s a moving inward time, a time when I want to stare at the October cobalt blue sky and the yellows and oranges plastered to it and make sense of this thing we call life. Because in winter I will be inside, and a barren landscape will be outside.
In early October I was on a panel for a session at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville — memoirs of grief and healing: “What It Takes to Heal.” I shared from my book Remember the Dragonflies and what helped me to move forward after losing a loved one. That talk is here.
And now that my book has been on the market for one year, I will say this. I can see a difference in people and in the way they view my book. Some don’t want to think about losing a spouse at all. They refuse to accept that it might happen to them; they don’t want to consider it. At all. And they don’t want to read my book and know reality. The attitude is: if it happens, I will deal with it then. I understand that. I also understand that reading about realities of life helps us to prepare for the ways we might react if and when it happens to us. I understand this because I’ve done it all my life. It was my approach to life. But that’s me.
Then there are others . . . other strong women who are aware that in all likelihood, at some point, it WILL happen to them. They embrace it and read my book and take note of things that happen to a surviving spouse — the feelings of isolation that come, the death departments of credit card companies that call with coldness, the friends who don’t understand and don’t call, the light bulbs that go out, the vacuum cleaner that breaks, the holidays — and how one woman handled them all. These women store away for a time well out in the future, and when death comes, they will hopefully pull out that memory and know, Oh, that happened to her and this is what she did. And they are able to better stand up to it. They will hopefully do it far better than I.
I wrote my book for these women. The women who have not lost a spouse. So they will know that they can make it, too. So when it does happen and they are thrown to the ground, they will not be trampled upon . . . without at least knowing that they are going to be trampled upon.
Autumn leaves, while they are still hanging on in all their brilliance and beauty, remind us to go inward for a moment and prepare for the coming time. Because at some point, life will boil what’s in your crucible down to the salt of “you.” Now is the time to become aware of the possibilities and to consider the substance of “you.” Now is the time to get to know YOU.
Not only in loss and grief, but in other facets of life as well . . . Autumn makes me think.
This is the big day!
This is the big weekend! The book’s debut! I have two signing events for Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing. Friends and local writer colleagues, please come say hello! They are both come-and-go events; just stop in, shake my hand, look at my book, buy it if you want, or buy something else, or buy nothing. I’d just love to have your warm friendly smile and your presence and your support!
Tonight — Nov. 22, Barnes and Noble Cool Springs, 5:30-6:30, as part of Discovery Friday.
Tomorrow — Nov. 23, Brentwood Library, 10:00-3:00, as part of the annual Author Fair, 8109 Concord Road in Brentwood.
I hope to see you there on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving. I am grateful to be able to share my journey with you and to share a bit about the man who was my husband.
Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing is now available. To order, click the icon:
Or…you may order a signed copy from me. Or you may order from amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com or have your favorite bookseller order it for you.
Last week I was on vacation in Maine and Canada’s Maritimes, and on the fifth anniversary of my husband’s aortic dissection and death, I was in Nova Scotia, and I was surrounded by dragonflies. Dragonflies have become special to me because their metamorphosis describes my journey through grief during these past five years, as I have survived the darkest time of my life and found my way onward and upward. The dragonfly nymph lives in the water and climbs up a plant to get out, as he transforms to an adult with wings, and then he takes to the skies.
Remember the Dragonflies is the title of my book about the grief journey.
The past month I’ve been telling Charlie I needed to see him again on that five-year milestone. I needed him to come to me, I needed a sign, I needed some tangible, physical connection to him, and that’s what I got. I got dragonflies.
June 27, 2013
At the beginning of vacation week, on the road to see the Anne of Green Gables house, we stopped by the two-thousand-square-foot showroom of Gaudreau Fine Woodworking Artisans, halfway between Charlottetown and Cavendish on Prince Edward Island. The shop also features the works of twenty Maritime potters. In a far corner on display were a few pieces with a dragonfly etched in them. I picked out a square tray in dark earthy tones of sage, olive, gray, and black. I could set this plate on a display stand and it would be a reminder of Charlie, of my grief journey of uncoupling and rebuilding, of my book.
It is five years to the day after Charlie’s dissection and my family group of travelers visits Peggy’s Cove, a small fishing community on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia. The landscape of Peggy’s Cove was carved by the migration of glaciers. Four hundred million years ago, movement of the Earth’s crust allowed molten material to bubble up from the interior, forming big rocks there. The melting and movement of the glacial ice left scouring marks in the bedrock, still visible today. Scars like loss left on me. Sitting atop the rock is a lighthouse.
As I walk away from the lighthouse, across the parking lot of the Sou’Wester Restaurant and Gift Shop, adjacent to the lighthouse, I see an injured dragonfly on the concrete. It is brown-speckled with clear wings, still alive, still trying to flap its wings. Its lower abdomen has apparently been run over and is stuck to the surface, and it will most likely eventually die. I can’t just leave it there to be run over again. I pick it up, put it on the flat inside surface of my hand, and it walks to the tip of my fingers like it is going to take off and fly away from there, but it doesn’t. I give it a resting place on the grass next to a rock.
I cry and let the tears soak my face. Because it is June 27, and here is a dragonfly for me. Is this Charlie coming to give me assurance, or just a coincidence? Is it a tidy miracle box wrapped up as a gift for me? Some would say I am crazy to think so.
Later, in Lunenburg I shop at Window to the Sea, where I find a bronze coin stamped with a dragonfly on a bronze chain. I buy it as a reminder of Charlie, my grief journey, my book.
June 28, 2013
Five years today.
Today we drive up to Maitland to go tidal bore rafting on the Shubenacadie River with a company named River Runners. A guide will take us out on a Zodiac boat to ride waves up to fifteen feet as the tide rushes up past eagle nests, Acadian dykelands, and geological formations. The Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tides in the world, creating the Shubenacadie’s tidal bore. The bore is the point where out-flowing river water and incoming tide water meet, creating a strong wave. The office has a porch across the front and on the wall were three silver, metal-like dragonflies, each about three feet long.
The staff sends us over to Bing’s Eatery & Socialhouse for a quick lunch before our rafting excursion. Bing’s is a gathering place combining visual art, music, and conversation with good food and drink. The walls of the dining room are covered in original paintings, all for sale. I keep noticing a big, colorful, abstract piece on the front wall and as I finish my pizza, I realize it is a blue dragonfly among a chorus of other colors. I walk over to take a picture of it and read the title/author tag. The piece is named “Genesis.” Like Charlie’s business name: Genisys.
We dress in orange survival suits, find spots on the edges of the Zodiac, and hold on to ropes positioned along the sides. Then we head up river ahead of the advancing tide to wait for the tidal bore to form. When it comes, we’ll meet it head on and then surf and jump the surges. But first our guide takes us to a sandbar and instructs us to get out and walk around on the red sand.
“In ten or fifteen minutes,” he says, “the sandbar will be under thirty feet of water.”
I lean over and draw a dragonfly—one long swipe, then two loops for wings on each side.
In a matter of minutes, the dragonfly is under water and wiped away from the surface.
And I hang on for the ride of my life, and I make it without washing out of the boat.
“Joyce Carol Oates sincerely regrets that, her life having unraveled like an old sock, she is unable to aid you in knitting up your own.”
Joyce’s husband died four months before mine did, and I’ve been reading her memoir A Widow’s Story. She uses the “W” word. I won’t. I never will.
Life changes when you lose a spouse. Maybe “change” is not the right word here. Life is over when you lose a spouse. Keeping on doing what you were doing before your spouse died – in the messy, chaotic tangle of grief – is a futile attempt at keeping some semblance of your life together. At some point, though, it’s going to fall apart. You are changed, different, you are frenetic, you have new responsibilities and less time, you have little patience, you feel agitated and antsy, your emotional pendulum swings faster and wider, and yet people hold you to what you were, clawing at you until you are bloody.
I’d kept my life pretty much together – pushed myself and pushed myself to keep on going, for three years and ten months – until the spring of 2012, when something happened that shouldn’t have happened, and it changed me, and I found my life finally unraveling. I was tired of it. I’d had enough, I was filled up, I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t go on.
For ten years my life had been devoted to helping others, mainly writers, knit their own lives up. I did a lot of volunteer work in the local writing community. I gave inordinate amounts of time … and money … helped market the books of others … put writers in contact with those who made a difference in their lives … gave up a year of my life to work on an anthology. I was burned out and worn out from it all. As it turned out, I wasted ten precious years. It’s a “taking” world. People are selfish. They push and pull and squeeze the last drop out of you and spit you out. I was stupid to not see that sooner.
For eight years I edited and published an online journal – a place for emerging and established writers to be published. I published the works of nearly four hundred writers. I wanted to do it. I loved doing it. I thought it was a good thing; it was a good thing. It was rewarding and fulfilling, and I wanted to keep it up forever. But then came the spring of 2012, and I couldn’t do it any more. It broke my heart. And I felt guilty for having to let it go.
And then I read Joyce’s statement. I found peace. And I let go and floated in my newfound freedom. I felt Self emerging. I found “my resting place.”
I think this will be the title of the memoir I am writing.
Thank you, 2012, for bringing this all home to me, and thank you, Joyce, for telling me it is okay to take care of my own sock. Now, I am learning to knit.
Last month this blog was five years old. It has survived.
It has survived the test of time. I started First Draft in order to share writing experiences, books, opportunities, tips, and text with other writers – literally, the first draft of some personal essays. Then life got in the way. First, the tragedies of death, two of them, my husband and mother. And then the joys of birth, two of them, my grandson and granddaughter. And the blog reflects it all.
From “Life and Not and Lilies” in early July 2008:
The house is quiet now. The kids have gone home — son, daughter-in-law, son, girlfriend. I couldn’t have made it without them the past week. Besides silence, the house is filled with the sweet, sweet scent of lilies. I must do something about that before it overwhelms me. I thought my husband had a stomach virus — or maybe salmonella — and went out for saltines and ginger ale. But that wasn’t it, and after teams of doctors and surgeons in two hospitals worked to save his life over a 39-hour period, he died one week ago of an aortic dissection, a catastrophic event. And so…
To “It’s A Girl! And A Boy!” from November 2008:
We just finished an ultrasound on this the day before Thanksgiving. I say “we” because I got to be there via conference call and witness the event with my son and daughter-in-law. Baby A is a girl…no doubt about it. Baby B is a boy. “Unmistakable” came the comment from the one holding the wand. Baby B was kicking Baby A, and she was swatting him back.
From a business merger to the births of babies, through the many firsts, such as the first Thanksgiving without him and then the first Christmas, first anniversary, to the disposal of the ashes, to the funeral of my mother, to the first birthdays of babies, to the decision to sell “our house,” and the purchase of “my house” and the move, and all the trips and journeys…it’s all on this blog.
That includes a representation of the journey of grief. Grief is not something we “get over.” Or even heal from. It’s a journey to a new stage of life. We enter a “new normal.” There’s no forgetting. There’s no resolving. There is, however, reconciliation with life – an ability to live again, to move forward, to scale the hills, to walk through the valleys, to remember, to laugh again. There comes a balance of holding on and letting go.
Until one loses a spouse, one hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about. We, those of us who have lost, each cry in agony and suffer from pain so deep it cannot be touched or soothed and grope for comfort and understanding and deal with the “four walls” of loneliness and total aloneness until we can literally claw our way through the worst of it. We live in hell, and the blog even reflects that. From July 2008:
A sign on a church on Franklin Road, the route I take to the office, says, “You think this is hot? Try hell.” I’d been thinking recently about hell, that hell doesn’t scare me any more. I’ve lived in it for four weeks now.
At this point I shift my blog to the journey of writing a memoir about losing Charlie, about grief, about building a brand new life.
Others have done it and written about it. My experience, of course, will be different. So will my approach. I will begin by saying that I have not reached the final assumed stage of grief, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: acceptance. (She actually wrote these stages for a person who was dying himself, not for those left behind, but her stages are manipulated and applied to all experiencing grief.) I will never accept my husband’s death. It is not a valid stage for someone in my place. Acceptance seems too much like approval. It is not okay that he died. It will never be okay that he suffered a catastrophic event and died. I acknowledge it. I have learned to move forward without him. I have [unintentionally, but assuredly] built a whole new life without him. That’s good enough.
And others like me find community in hearing and talking about living with loss and learning to put one foot in front of the other and lumber ahead. We are the only ones that know what we are talking about, and it feels good to understand each other and to know we are not alone and to share our feelings and needs with those who have yet to experience what we have.