A melancholy date with St. Anthony

I lost John’s wedding ring this past Friday.

Yes, I re-traced my footsteps.

Yes, I looked in all the places I had been.

Yes, I shook out clothes, checked in the drains, went through the trash, dug under piles of stuff, and searched and searched and searched until it made me too sad to search more.

No, I could not find it.

And yes, I know that it is only an object, merely a thing, and things get lost. There’s all kinds of the standard words I can pacify myself with about how it’s Not That Bad or that it Could Be Worse because c’mon, it’s only a thing and a very small one at that. 

It was a platinum band with a slightly thinner gold layer on top of it. On the inside, it was engraved: JLS to ASG 9-15-90. We bought it at the Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC the summer before we married, all filled with the eager anticipation of joy for the life that lay ahead of us.

I wore it on a necklace along with a little charm of the Space Needle and a gold charm of Texas, all three together connecting where we met and where we parted. When I didn’t have the necklace on, I wore it on my middle finger or behind another ring, as it was slightly too big for my ring fingers. But I never, ever was without it. John wore it from the day I put it on his finger and I wore it from the day he had to remove it in the hospital, just before he died.

It’s only been a few days since it slipped off my hand as I went about my day but I feel unbalanced without it. I’m off kilter, like something has shifted and I can’t quite keep up with the world, like I have been exposed. I always felt it surrounded me with some kind of magic — it protected and it gave me a little shot of courage no matter what I was facing. It made me feel like that promise we made all those years ago had not died along with the physical presence of John. With it on, that life I had planned and worked for was somehow still around me, even though John’s death had profoundly altered the course of those expectations. It made me feel I was not alone, ever.

I generally do not feel alone, even when I am by myself. Let us turn for a reading to the Book of Merle 4:20 “It’s great to be single, it’s hell to be lonely”. I am lucky enough not to be lonely. I’m blessed with deeply loving family and friends. I enjoy a busy life with dogs I adore, rewarding work I enjoy and a home I am happy to be in. I have a strong network of unquestioning love and support I can turn to at any time, sometimes even without asking. I’m deeply grateful for all that I have and for the life I have rebuilt, once again filled with possibilities and anticipation. 

None of that has changed with the disappearance of this ring.

But I am so sad without it. I feel its absence on my hand like a weight, like an empty gold circle on my soul. I have lost even more of John and I have let his memory down by letting this symbol slip (quite literally) through my fingers. The farther away I go from his life as my own is moving on, there is a sadness at seeing his memory — the life he had — grow ever more dim and abstract. That ring was a conscious reminder of what we once had and of what he once was.

A friend, who had also lost her husband a few years ago, said that maybe John took it back. And that maybe he would give it back to me again some day, when I was least expecting it. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It could be found somehow and returned to me or it could be lost for good. Many years ago when I was a teenager, my father gave me a ring he had brought home from his service overseas in World War II. I lost it while working as a lifeguard one summer at a local lake. I remember how sad he was, although he was kind and philosophical about its loss, it clearly represented quite a bit to him. I still feel guilty about it. That tangible item of a very different time and place didn’t erase the memory of his remarkable experiences. But it added to those memories being even more faded and propelled him further away from who he once was.

My father is gone, John is gone and John’s ring is now gone. Just one more small piece missing, changed and chipped away. I am well aware I will lose much more ahead, more than just the things, and those losses will also make me feel alone and sad. I’ll lose not just those I love, but the things that remind me of who they were, who I was, who we were together. I know too I will get through somehow, perhaps a bit more scarred but still trying to rebuild.

But now I have to do it without the little talisman that reminded me each and every day of the life I once shared and the hopeful, perfect round, golden shape it once took.

The Sympathy Note

The Sympathy Note

Write it. Do it now. Don’t put it off, but even if you have put it off, go do it now. I promise that the widow still will be thrilled to know someone still cares. It doesn’t matter how far away from the death it is. It’s never too late. (more…)




August 21. September 15. November 3. November 11.

All these significant dates. August 21 would have been John’s 55th birthday. He never expected to make it to 50, let alone to 53, so each passing year beyond that auspicious number was a miracle and astonishment.

September 15 will be our nineteenth wedding anniversary. November 3 would have been my brother’s 57th birthday. And November 11 marks the second year John has been gone and I have been the Practical Widow.

I don’t dread the arrival of the dates nearly as much as I did the first year. I braced for them as if a hurricane was arriving and I guess in a way it was. But each day ticked by like all the others, I was sadder than usual but each day came and went. Those days were sharp reminders of what had happened the year before.

This year, I’m more melancholy. Rather than the oppressive grief of the first year, I’m experiencing a lot more of the smaller moments. Perhaps I’m just less weighed down and can see them now, whereas before I was overwhelmed just getting through each day. It’s the tiny passing changes that are so hard now. John would have liked the new fence I put up in the back yard. He would hate it that I’ve etched huge scratches on the side of my brand new car because it’s a little too big for the garage. He would have liked the new stop light at Greenlake Way and the one on to Aurora southbound, because it’s easier to turn left during busy times. (Not that anything ever stopped him from driving way too fast and bitching about the other crappy drivers.) He would be so proud of Harry and what a gorgeous sweet dog he’s grown into and what good friends he and Betty are. Jim would have enjoyed the Cleveland Cavalier’s run for the championship and he would have been terribly proud of me going to graduate school.

My birthday is November 13, two days after John’s death anniversary. I suppose that will always hang over the date. I’m happy to be reminded I’m alive each year and I feel obliged to live a full life on John and Jim’s behalf. So I keep trying.

For each date, I do work hard at planning something meaningful. For our wedding anniversary, I take myself to the Mariners ball game and buy the best seat I can find, which is easier both when you are buying just one seat and when the Mariners are the worst team in baseball. It’s like a date with a ghost, but it’s where I’d rather spend the day. For the birthdays, I’ve planned long hikes with the dogs, it’s lovely and it gets me out without having to force social behavior.

When I was anticipating the first anniversary of John’s death, a Jewish friend suggested following the Jewish tradition of a gravestone unveiling. It was an excellent idea, especially since we had planned to bury some of John’s ashes next to his mother and father in Texas. His brother and I spent months planning a small memorial at the grave side and a Texan-sized barbecue at the family home afterward. It gave me something to look forward to that was meaningful and significant for that day, gathered together those who cared about John and let us all sit around in a much more relaxed atmosphere than the funeral and tell tall tales about him. It was the perfect solution.

I must say however, it was thoughtful of John to die on a national holiday, which gives me a day off each year to think of my own fallen veteran.

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

Always go to the funeral. Spouse, parent, sibling, friend, dog—it doesn’t matter who died, it means a lot to the bereaved if you show up at the funeral. You don’t even have to say anything, you can just go in, sign the book and leave. They can’t really remember who’s there anyway, but it’s so comforting to see that someone cared enough to show up for a few hours.

But if you did know the dead guy or their nearest and dearest but can’t go to the funeral (and sometimes you can’t for a variety of good reasons) please do take the extra effort to do something else.

Allow me to throw in a side caveat here that there were several people at the funeral who hardly knew John. One man even earnestly explained to me back at the house while he had only met John once, he was now sorry for that because John seemed like such a great guy. Let’s just agree that’s one of the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow At The Funeral. You can say it later, but what the heck are you doing at the dang funeral if you didn’t even know the guy. Let me hasten to add that he didn’t know me any better. I was bewildered as to how to reply, “Well, yeah, he was a good guy. Thanks for coming. Do you need a name tag?”

Back to alternatives. Two dear friends lived on the East Coast, so due to the travel constraints just couldn’t make it out in time. In the overwhelming swirl of events, it would have been nearly overwhelming anyway. Being the widow also means being the hostess to a certain extent, your friends naturally want to spend time with you and be as helpful as they can. But you don’t always have the time or ability to spend time or extend the emotional energy when you’re under siege.

So my New York friend wrote me a lovely sympathy note and told me she would be planning a trip to visit me within the next month. And sure enough, three weeks after the funeral, she arrived Kleenex in hand and ready to make casseroles. We sat together talking about John, reading over the cards and letters that had come in. She helped me get the house reorganized and talked over work issues with me. She was just there for a few days, but it was a lovely, meaningful visit.

Three weeks after that, my DC friend arrived for the weekend. She went with me to John’s office to help me clean that out and to figure out what to do with it all when I got it all home. And she too sat with me, laughed, cried and talked over memories. She had recently lost her father and we shared our grief together, which served to reinforce the great love that had been left behind.

Seeing these friends at a quieter time, when the maelstrom had settled was quite a gift. Although I was still in a stupor, they granted me the time to talk over what I had just been through and they listened with love. They reminded me that distance didn’t matter. It took a lot to get them to give up precious vacation time, to leave their own lives and families just to come and show me they loved me. That’s quite a gift and I was grateful for it.

Closer to home, there were friends who also couldn’t make the funeral. One couple took a weekend day and came over to see what needed to be done around the house—we went through the house making lists for repairs or upkeep maintenance that needed doing. Although John was disabled, he couldn’t do the physical work but he always knew what was going on around the house, what needed fixing and how to do it. His last weekend at home, we installed a beautiful dining room light fixture he had given me for our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to install a light fixture and didn’t understand how the electric system worked, so John sat in a chair, drinking a beer and directed me step-by-step. The installation worked and the light looks terrific. It was a fun project. But now I didn’t have someone to tell me how to do things.

Since my friends knew home maintenance—at least the husband half did—we went over the basics of the house, where the water and gas mains were, how to turn on and off the furnace, how the water heater worked, and we re-labeled the electric circuit box. I couldn’t have done that alone, in fact, I would not have known where to start. It was an empowering day for me that was also a perfect way for my friends to show me they were still an essential part of my life.

One friend I knew only casually called to ask me out for coffee. She suggested the day, time and place—small but critical details, since I was in no condition to make decisions on my own. She showed up on time, came in to the house, took me out and we had a nice time talking about lots of things, John included.

Going to the funeral means you take the time out to share memories with your friend. Most importantly, it shows the widow there is a network of love and support out there, that she is not alone. So you should always go. But if you absolutely, positively can’t, make the same gesture another way. Take an afternoon, an evening, a weekend and show up. Be present and listen. Let the widow babble senselessly for a while, let her cry on your shoulder, let her do what she needs to do for a few hours. Time is a great kindness.

Allow me one last warning to help steer you through the waters of Doing The Wrong Thing: Try not to show up at the widow’s doorstep all at once just after the funeral, then leave her alone for months and months. That’s a classic dilemma and that’s another post.

When does the tide start to turn?

When does the tide start to turn?

To continue my oceanic metaphor, I was reflecting back on when the tide of grief started to turn, or better put, when the undertow stopped drowning me. A loss of this magnitude is so ridiculously out of control, it turns your every moment into turmoil. And the place where you turn for comfort—your home, your family—is what’s most undone. When does that all come back under your control?

Well, let me just set the record straight and say, I have no idea. I thought, like so many other life events, that I would get over it, time would heal the wounds, things would be better, and all those  things we say to one another in our helplessness to fix this sorrow. What I’m finding is that none of it is true. There is no better, there is no healing, there is no over it. But…

I can say that I do not feel the bone-crushing weight I was carrying last year. I don’t know if its because I’m stronger or the weight is lighter, and honestly I don’t really care which it is. I am glad that it’s lighter, however it got that way. Here’s some things that are easier: I can come back home to the house alone and find it the place warmly welcoming again. I am able to do house projects that make me feel good, even if I have no one to share them with. I look forward to my next day, and not just because I can get back to bed and escape into sleep. I like listening to music again and can finally concentrate enough to read a whole book. Little things, but they’re making a difference.

So better isn’t better, it’s seeing the world through new eyes and finding how lovely it still is. The healing isn’t really healing. It’s more about being at peace with the wound. I didn’t wake up one day and realize, oh I don’t feel so bad anymore. It was more about looking practical widowhood in the eye and thinking, ok, I can take this one tiny step forward into a life I didn’t ask for but got anyway.

I’m stuck with it any way you look at it, so here goes.