Life Won

I have always worked, hard. I have been career-driven since I was 17. Then I had kids and the whole “Work-Life Balance” thing that I had heard about got real. Except “balance” was a zen-like euphemism. There was no tranquil balance. “Cage Match” was more like it, with each side pummeling the other back and forth all day, every day. After Michael got sick, and especially after he died, it became a pure shitshow. I’ve just been plowing ahead, with huge help from my mom and my friends, doing the best I can to stay afloat. On most days, I think I do a reasonably good job.

Friday was not one of those days.

On Thursday, Shennie had gone to the school nurse complaining of a tummyache. The nurse called me on my cell phone, which I had (of course) left at home. Next she tried my office phone, but I was teaching. By the time I got the message a few hours later, Shennie was better and had gone back to her classroom. I felt like a mildly crappy parent for missing the call, but not too bad, since she was fine.

On Friday, Shennie woke up and said her tummy didn’t feel good again. My mom had gone back to the East Coast so I was on my own. We were halfway to school when it occurred to me that Shennie might get sick at school again, so I made a snap decision that, instead of getting out of the car with her brother, she could come to work with me. I hadn’t packed anything: no I-pad, or headphones, or art supplies, or snacks. Her backpack contained only her lunch and one library book.

This was a poorly thought out plan.

I had to teach two classes back to back, one at 9 and one at 10. One of my colleagues thankfully gave Shennie some markers and paper. In my first class, she just sat at a desk and colored and looked cute. I was balancing it LIKE A BOSS.

By the next class Shennie wanted to sit up with me in the front of the lecture hall. She was quiet at first but then started urgently tugging at my shirt. I stopped talking. It occurred to me that might have to go to the bathroom. Thirty-five students stared at me as I bent down to see what was wrong. “Mommy?” she stage-whispered, “I have a question: Are there any animals with blue fur?” Cue class laughter. Things went down-hill from there.

I ended class ten minutes early, much to my students’ delight, and headed back to my office with Shennie. She had fun pushing all of the buttons on the elevator. She showed me how she could cartwheel down the hallway. She commented, loudly, on the portraits of former deans that we have hanging up on the third floor: “Wow, that guy’s OLD!” “That guy’s FAT!” “That guy’s fat AND he has a stupid moustache!”

When we finally got back in my office she announced that it was time for lunch. I said that was fine and turned to put my course materials away. I turned back around 30 SECOND LATER to see that she had cleared off my desk. All the papers I had been grading, books, family photos, hand lotion, pens, etc… were piled up on the floor by the window and her lunch was spread out, picnic-style. “I need water,” she demanded. “At school we always have cups for water.”

“OK,” I said, “We’ll just go back down the hall to the water fountain.” “No, I’m too tired now. And I‘m so thirsty. You can just go find a cup and get me some.” She gave me her sad, puppy eyes. She was sick after all. I had to go down to our break room on the second floor to find a cup. Then up again and all the way down the hall to the water fountain and then back to my office.

I returned to discover that she had rearranged the furniture. Every chair, plus my trash can and recycle bin were stacked up to create an elevated bed of sorts that she could recline on. I handed her the water and went to drag my chair back around to my computer.

“I’m done with my lunch!” she announced. “And now I’m not thirsty anymore so I can water your plants!” Before I could stop her, she emptied the water into the plant on my windowsill – which is fake, because I kept killing my real plants by not watering them. Water spilled everywhere, including on the pile of stuff she had made next to my desk. I shouted at her that the plant was fake. “Why would anyone have a fake plant? That is very weird.”

At this point I realized it was time for me to do a Zoom call with two people who I am collaborating on a casebook with. I gave Shennie my phone to play with and turned to my computer to wait for the e-mail invitation with the link to the call. I waited and waited. No message. I called IT but they said there were no problems with the network. I went to check my day-planner to make sure I had the right date and saw that someone had scrawled “BY PREZENTS FOR SHENNIE” across the week in huge letters.

I finally gave up on the call and got my phone back from Shennie, only to find – you guessed it – that she had been deleting the email invitations as they came in. Then she handed me a picture of a person with a giant ponytail surrounded by rainbows. It was captioned “Mommy is LAW. She is fun and she is awsome.”

Then it was time for a Curriculum Committee meeting. After ten minutes Shennie climbed on my lap. She drew rainbows on the agenda. After 30 minutes she took her shoes off (*stinky feet* in a closed room). By 45 she was loudly saying that she was bored and wanted to leave. We all felt the same, and so we did.

Once we left the meeting room Shennie announced that it was time to go outside. “No sweetie, I have to teach another class in an hour and I need the time to get ready,” I said. “But when do you have recess?” she demanded to know.

“I don’t have recess. I’m the teacher. I usually just work at my desk between classes.”

“Well when do your STUDENTS have recess? They have to have recess.”

It occurred to me that she wasn’t actually sick after all. And that we were definitely going to need recess.

We went outside. We checked out the wacky action at Speaker’s Circle. We held hands and ran around the fountain. We browsed Mizzou-wear and school supplies at the Student Center. “Hey Kathy,” she sang out when we ran into a friend of mine, who also happens to be an MU-employee and the mom of one of her BFFs. We bought gummi worms. She bit off the heads and I ate the bodies.

When we hustled into my 3 o’clock class, I was, to put it mildly, less than fully prepared. It was in the same large lecture room as before. There was a white board in the front on the left side. This time, I at least had a plan: I gave Shennie some dry-erase markers and told her to entertain herself.

I noticed about 20 minutes into my lecture on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33 that the students were tittering. I looked over and Shennie was just erasing the board. At 30 minutes they were chuckling. By 40, the were roaring with laughter. I looked over and Shennie was beaming in front of a white board that said this:

“Don’t worry!” One of my students finally managed to say through her giggles, “I got pictures of all of them. And I’m handling the Law School’s Instagram account this week. They’re all up there!”

“ALL?” was all I managed to say. Apparently there were many.

Shennie waltzed out to applause, waving at her fans – my students, who told her to come back anytime.

Back in my office, she tossed my stapler into her backpack (because it’s better than the one she has at home), shook up my San Diego souvenir snow globe “extra hard, to last the weekend,” and insisted that I take the elevator while she raced me down the stairs.

We picked Griffin up from school and arrived home. I walked in the door and was greeted by a load of dirty laundry, (which contained soccer uniforms necessary for tomorrow’s games), hungry pets, a full dishwasher, and an empty refrigerator. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” I thought to myself, recalling the Bill Murray movie about the guy who has to live the same day over and over.

Then I had a revelation that tonight we should order pizza and watch Groundhog Day.

Two weeks ago, we did a bereavement exercise on the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I made the kids write out their favorite memories of Daddy. They included him telling stories at dinnertime, going off the diving board together at the pool, and listening to the Beatles. None of them were the “Meaningful Events” – vacations, holidays, birthdays – that we often designate as times for special memories. They were ordinary, everyday occurrences.

The lesson of Groundhog Day, of course, is that in order to escape reliving Feb. 2 over and over, Bill Murray has to live his best, most generous and authentic life, in the context of a very ordinary, annoying, workday.

As the movie was wrapping up, it occurred to me that I had just experienced something like that, with the help of a definitely not-sick Shennie. She may not remember this day when she gets older, but I hope she does. I know I will until I die.

Let it be known, that on Friday, October 5, 2018, in the battle between Life and Work, Life definitely won.

Dying Before You Get Old

Today I went to a Blues Festival that is held annually in my town. Michael and I used to go every year, because it is fun and kids get in free.

Today I was struck by a strong memory: There we were, walking around the Festival grounds, our small children running around our legs. “Promise me,” Michael said, gesturing toward a couple with matching tie-dyes and grey ponytails, “that we will never be some weird old festival people.” “Of course not!” I reassured him.

Whelp, I guess I can cross that off my list of worries.

I will never get fat and old in Michael’s presence. Nor will he in mine. I will never have to watch his hair go entirely grey (which would have been sexy and totally OK). He will never have to suffer me going through menopause. While we navigated together some of the thickening and wrinkling that goes with middle age, neither of us watched the other get truly decrepit. Michael had a few silver strands in his otherwise ridiculously luxuriant dark hair. I gained ten pounds after two kids that I am never going to lose.

We were cool with that. Each of us thought the other was still hot, even though neither of us was the spry young hottie that we were when we first met. Even though we both knew there plenty of other hotties out there in the world. Whether they liked us or not was irrelevant. We had each other, and our intimacy bond was clear. We were as comfortable and complacent as every loving middle-aged couple has a right to be.

This is painful to me now, because I am only going to get older, and crinklier, and smushier. My Facebook ads are now all about foundation garments and wrinkle creams. I buy stuff from the J.Jill catalog. I’m under no illusion that I’m 29 anymore. I’m cool with my minivan and my c-Section scar and the sensible heels and the whole thing. But it would be easier if I was still married.

When you are with someone you love, you are together in that first moment forever. Time essentially stops in terms of how you think about each other. She will always be the beautiful young girl you saw over candlelight, he will always be the strapping young guy in jeans and a t-shirt at the bar.

I will always see Michael as a 29-year old man with wavy black hair. He was tall and trim and tan. The me that walked in to the bar will always be a young woman with no crow’s feet or baby weight. I think he would have always seen me that way – the girl with the lower back tattoo and a navel ring (yes, I came of age in the 90’s, sue me). We each thought the other was the Bees Knees, end of story. Only not.

No one will ever see me the way Michael saw me in the summer of 2002. It sounds vain and trivial for me to even care about this now, but goddammit I can’t help it. I used to worry about getting old and fat and ugly. Michael used to blow this concern off. “You’ll always be beautiful to me,” he’d to say. Of course, he never worried about being unattractive to me because he was (a) kind of pompous, and (b) naturally tall, dark and handsome. He was going to be good-looking until the day he died. Which, actually, he was.

There is some cliché about dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse. Although there is no point to making that your goal in life, that is basically what Michael did. He was sick, and skinny, and beat to shit by cancer and chemo and everything fucking else that had happened to him. But I am still reasonably sure that he was the most strapping handsome dead guy ever to be brought to the Dignity Memorial Funeral Home, just off the business loop of I-70. (Right by the soccer fields that we get to drive past, every Saturday, in the minivan!)

Even so, I’m sure that if someone asked, Michael whether the Who’s famous lyric “I hope I die before I ever get old” rang true to him, he would have replied that that line was clearly written by some shitforbrains who’d never had to face terminal cancer.

Anyway. Back to vanity. It hurts to think that the only person who ever looked at me that adoringly, when I was youthful and happy to be looked at that way, is now dead. Its like that version of me is dead, too, now that there’s no one around to remember it. If I ever do meet another man who loves me, he will only ever be able to love the middle-aged me.

I will not grow old with Michael.

He will never grow old at all.

I (probably) will.

Much love…

This is Not the End

There was a lot of build-up in my mind to the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I was consumed with foreboding. It happened right when the seasons started turning, so there were many sensory reminders – the light slanting in a certain way, crisp mornings, those little white star-shaped flowers that bloom in the midwest right now, kids’ soccer.

The build-up was bad. Everywhere I looked there was a reminder. I felt like I was in an awful fun house where constant ghosts were popping up and cackling in my face. Fuck you, Facebook Memory Function. Fuck you, Back to School Night. Fuck you, Calendar. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

You might think that, when The Night Of came upon us, I would have handled it well, given that I had so much time to prepare. But I didn’t. It was a Tuesday. Griff had soccer. Then we were just home. We ate an unremarkable dinner and my mom put the kids to bed. I tried to be up there with them but I just couldn’t. I was a basket case and needed them to not see me this way.

Instead, I sat downstairs for several hours by myself. I cried. I drank (non-boxed!) wine. I looked at old pictures and videos. I briefly attempted live-blogging the whole experience for this site and then wisely aborted that mission. I emailed Michael’s parents and sister and best friend and Hospice nurse. When it all got too intense I would take a break and – my hand to god this is true – surf the DSW website (that’s Designer Shoe Warehouse for all you men out there) because they were having a sale on Cole Haan work pumps.

I’ll pause for a moment, so you can hear Michael’s audible eyeroll from beyond the grave.

In any event, I was up super late. I felt like I needed to stay up until 3:15, which was the actual moment that Michael died. Why I felt this way, I can’t say. It was probably a masochistic impulse to relive the hour and minute of his death, in the very room in which he died. But at some point around 1:00 am-ish I started to get tired, and then I woke up and it was 5:00. Honestly, the most overwhelming feeling I had was relief. It was over, and I had gotten (slept) through it.

Amazingly, the morning was fine. Whereas one year ago I was having to wake my children up to inform them that their father was dead downstairs in the family room, this time they just popped up and ran around like their normal lunatic selves. When they heard I was giving them the day off of school they were ecstatic. We made pancakes and sat around in our PJs. It was like a snow day, only not.

At some point mid-morning I corralled the kids and reminded them of what today was. I forced them to go through a Hospice bereavement exercise with me. It involved writing a letter to Michael answering questions: “What I miss about you most is…” “Here’s what I wish I could tell you…” etc… The kids gave thoughtful answers. Then Shennie decided she was “done with sad stuff” and wanted to watch TV. Griffin, my sweet, sensitive boy, decided he was ready to watch Michael’s last message to him, a 30-second video I had recorded of Michael, literally on his deathbed saying goodbye. I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea at the time I filmed it. It almost certainly was not. Michael was so sick and looked like death and was barely able to talk. Griffin watched it like a soldier, and then cried silently into my arm for a few minutes, and then pulled out his Lemony Snicket book and started reading. Message Received: Do Not Disturb.

Then I had to go to work and teach a class. Crazy?! Yes, but I had cancelled this class a bunch because I’d had a conference earlier in the semester and didn’t want to cancel again. So I taught it. And it was actually nice. My students (who had no idea) were their usual great selves. For one hour I felt like a grown-up professional who didn’t have a sucking chest-wound.

The rest of the day turned out OK. I met with my pastor, who was with us at the end, and a whole bunch of friends to drink with and reminisce. I talked to the Hospice nurse who was there when Michael died. I went to bed late again – after 1:00, because I just couldn’t sleep.

The next morning was hideous because I was hungover and operating on about 8 hours sleep for the last two days. I had to teach and do other stuff and go to a faculty meeting and pretend to be Fine. And I suppose I was.  At least I survived. I got past this giant psychological milestone mostly unscathed.

I was talking with a friend about how good I felt for having moved beyond this hurdle, when she reminded me – in the kindest possible way – that this is not the end. My husband is still dead. Just because this first anniversary has passed doesn’t mean that its smooth sailing from here on out. I am still a widow. My kids still don’t have their dad anymore. I am now facing a Year of Seconds, which will probably also suck almost as bad as the Year of Firsts.

She was so right. This is never going to end.

Here I sit, one week and one day from the one year anniversary of my husband’s death. Am I worse off than I would be if Michael had never gotten sick? Undoubtedly. Am I better off than I was one year ago? Sure. I am no longer reeling and bouncing around like a numbed-out pinball. My kids are good. The brutal, soul-crushing paperwork and final arrangement bureaucracy has been navigated. Bank account is stabilizing, hopefully. If I don’t buy too many shoes at DSW.

I am better, objectively, because that is how this shit works. No matter how sad you are, no matter how much time you spend despairing at the sight of your dead loved one’s toothbrush, at some unintentional point you start living your life. Especially if you have kids because they leave you no choice and are actually a pretty good reason for getting on with it. But that does not mean its over.

I got a refrigerator magnet after Jen died that said (in Old Typewriter Font, attributed to no one):

To me, this embodies the human instinct to persevere, even though everything sucks everywhere you look. I have to believe that it gets better. It got better after Jen died and it is getting better after Michael died. At the same time I know that it never ends. It never stops being hard A.F.

Am I still sad most of the time? Of course. I miss Michael every single goddamn day. At night, in the morning, on a beautiful fall afternoon when we could be taking a walk on the trail, holding hands and talking. There are soccer games and lost teeth and music performances and visits to the pumpkin patch that he is missing. I am about to publish a paper that he helped me formulate and edit. He would be so happy, just to be here and see everything that is happening.

Everything continues to happen because that is what it does.

So here I am, on the other side. Not much different than I was a few weeks ago. Different than I was last year. Still pretty shitty. Operating on the assumption that this is not the end.

I hold every single person who goes through any loss like this in my heart, whether I know you or not. Let’s keep on.

Much love…

Out of Time

I haven’t written much lately, in part because my semester has started back up and I am busy wearing WorkPants, but also because we are, inexorably, circling in toward the anniversary of Michael’s death. This makes it harder for me to write, because literally everything conjures up memories of what was happening this time last year.

What was happening? Michael’s parents were here. I summoned them even before he went into Hospice, when it was clear things were taking the downward turn. His sister was here, too. His best friend from childhood came. The days were bright and hot, but it was starting to get cool at night. The kids were back at school.

How do you spend the last few days of a person’s life with them? I’ve done it with two people, and both times it was surprisingly banal. Jen and I curled together in an old recliner and watched the execrable Ryan Gosling movie, The Notebook. Michael and I sat around the dining table. We played cards and I read the newspaper to him, cackling over the latest idiotic thing Donald Trump was doing.

You might think it would be nonstop anguish and weeping but it’s hard to sustain that pitch for more than a half hour. And why would you want to make things sadder than they already are? You might think this would be the time for you two to have incredibly profound, meaningful discussions but that doesn’t really happen either. You’ve had time to process the facts of the person’s dying, so there isn’t much more left to say. Besides, the sick person is weak, exhausted, and heavily medicated. There is a lot of sitting together quietly. There is small talk, usually one-sided, about the sorts of things you talk about when you aren’t really talking about anything. The weather. Do you want to watch Seinfeld reruns? Oh look, that hummingbird is back visiting the feeder. Are you comfortable there or do you want to move to the couch? You pretend to be normal, which is less an act of denial and more an attempt to help the person live the few final days of their life being treated like the normal person they used to be.

The hours draw out long because essentially nothing is happening. But time also feels impossibly short because the person’s life can be measured in days, and then hours. I remember looking at the half-empty carton of milk in the refrigerator and realizing that Michael would probably be dead before it was time to buy another one. You enter into a kind of suspended animation, outside of time but acutely aware of it. You are worn out, because sleep is impossible and food is inedible. So you brew another cup of tea, adjust the pillows, watch the sunbeams track across the room, and go on numbly waiting for a beautiful, singular human being to die.

I hate to make this comparison (because one is joyful and one is awful), but its like the last few days or hours before you have a baby — not the screaming. bloody part, but the early “I think that was a contraction!” part. All that matters for you is the time until the big event, but you are no longer existing in the same time as the rest of the world. If you are like Michael and I were, you don’t sit around talking about the baby or the birth. You look for distractions and flip channels and make small talk. You can’t sleep or eat. Instead you brew another cup of tea, adjust the pillows, watch the sunbeams track across the room, and go on excitedly waiting for a beautiful, singular human being to be born.

On this day last year, we stopped connecting Michael to the IV bag that gave him the fluids he could no longer swallow and the albumin necessary to prevent his blood vessels from leaking into his body. We knew it would be only a matter of days, though we still couldn’t know exactly when it would be.

Today I know precisely when we will arrive at the one-year anniversary of his death, down to the minute. It will be at 3:15 am (Central), Thursday September 20. I see it grinding toward me and I feel a similar weary dread.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself when this time actually comes. Part of me thinks I should just sit quietly in the room where Michael died and maybe light a candle. Another part of me wants to run out of the house, shoot off fireworks, and scream at the moon. (I don’t, however, relish the idea of getting arrested at my age, especially since I’m no longer married to the best criminal defense attorney in the state.)

No matter what, this time is coming. I’ll sign back on once I’m on the other side of it. In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait…

Much love…

On Religion

I’ve been wanting to write about religion/god/faith for a while. I actually composed a lengthy post on the subject, but after reading it I realized that it sounded like an anti-religious screed. Not so much because I have angry feelings about religion/god/faith, but because I am angry in general. It was a cheap way for me to vent my feelings and likely to offend a lot of people who I care about, so I deleted it and decided to try again.

This time, I am starting with a question posed to me by a friend and colleague who lost his spouse to cancer and became a single parent when he was about my age. The question isn’t “What do you believe?” but rather “Did your beliefs change as the result of the experience you went through?”

The latter question turns out to be the easiest to answer: Not really.

I have given birth to two children. I have watched two people who I loved, my best friend and my husband, die awful and premature deaths. There is a symmetry to those events, and it seems like each one should have been significant enough to give me some new perspective on the weighty issues that religious faith grapples with –life, death, afterlife, souls. But they didn’t.

“What I believe” is a harder question to answer, mostly because it consists of the negative. Before Anyone I Knew Died I believed  the same thing that I believe now: that there is no sentient god who listens to and occasionally answers prayers. I have never believed in an afterlife or an overarching Plan for all things. I have always felt that there is a great mysterious life-giving force in the Universe. If you want to call it god, sure, but it exists at a level of complexity and abstraction that is completely outside of our puny human understanding. I consider morality important in my personal philosophy, but I am convinced that the Universe itself is amoral. Which is another way of saying that the Universe is kind of a Dick.

Does this make me an agnostic? An atheist? Who knows. Who cares. It should go without saying that I don’t adhere to any organized religion, which is why I am a member of the Unitarian Universalist church (ha ha, UU joke!).

Even though these experiences have not changed my nonbeliever status, they did lead me to appreciate the role that religion can play in coping with tragedy. I wish that I believed something more. I would love to believe that I will see Jen and Michael again someday. It would be comforting to think they are still with me, watching over me. It would be less unsettling if I was convinced that all the shit that has happened was actually part of a divine plan with a higher meaning. It definitely would have felt less lonely as I waded through an internet sea of religious-themed messages of Christ and heaven and a god who actually answers the entreaties we make to him if we just beseech hard enough.

But you can’t force yourself to believe something you don’t, no matter how appealing it might be.

One area where my feelings did shift slightly was with respect to prayer. I used to be uncomfortable around prayers. When people said prayers I would usually tune them out as not pertaining to me. But when people started praying for Jen and for Michael it was nice. I never thought for a moment that it would do any good, but we genuinely appreciated the care and the love behind it. (Those prayer chains and prayer lists, though, those are something else. The idea of complete strangers chanting Jen’s and Michael’s names somewhere in a church thousands of mile away. I’m not mad that people cared enough to add them to the lists! It was just kind of weird to know that it was happening in such an impersonal, transactional way.)

The other day I went to the dentist – stay with me, this is relevant. Dr. W has known me and Michael for years and he knows what our family has been through. He and his staff even came to Michael’s memorial service. He is a religious man, and after my check-up he asked if he could pray with me. There was a time when a request like this might have sent me fleeing for the door, but now I said sure. The dental assistant and I bowed our heads. Dr. W took my hand and asked his god that I continue to have the strength and courage to take care of family with love, and that I feel comforted held in light especially during this difficult time leading up to the anniversary of Michael’s death. Amen.

I was moved to tears right there, with the sticky taste of the cherry fluoride treatment still trickling down my throat. It felt like Dr. W had given my soul a much-needed hug.

I now see the value of prayer, not necessarily as a message to god or as a mechanism to obtain a particular outcome, but as a way to express profound feelings. We don’t usually say things like this to each other, even to people we love. Its difficult and it feels awkward. So I truly appreciate when people pray for me, even if it comes in the form of a communique to a god who I don’t believe in.

I will continue to not believe in god. I will keep (occasionally) going to church, seeking solace in the words of the fabulous Ms. Reverend M, who has perfected the art of the secular prayer. I doubt I’ll ever find any answers because I don’t think they exist. I hope that in the future I can speak more truthfully, authentically, and prayerfully to the people I care about.

So there we go. This post was less snarky and pissed off than the one I originally wrote. It is arguably less entertaining as a result. But it is more honest and it felt better to write.

Much love…

A One Year-Old Email

Dear [Griffin’s Violin Teacher],

I’m not sure if you saw my Facebook post but I’ve stopped all treatment and am now in Hospice. We’re not sure how long I have but it’s weeks, maybe a month or two. We’ve therefore decided that Griffin should not take on another commitment with Youth Orchestra. I’m sure you understand and know that I am disappointed that this is necessary.

I also have a request for you regarding my funeral. I would like for Griffin to play something at it, and I’d like the song to be the Irish folk tune Danny Boy. I’m a little concerned that it might be too much pressure for him with the emotion but I have a feeling he’ll do brilliantly. However it might be prudent for you to accompany him. Would you be willing to do this, and also to find the music so that you can start teaching him?

That really would be wonderful. Danny Boy always makes me cry. Thank you so much.

Michael

(Not) Fine

My family is Fine. We still have our house. My kids still do all of their activities. If you don’t look too hard, we seem just like any other busy, middle class family, with our pets and soccer practices and laundry. I go to work in nice professional clothing, usually with some make-up on, and lecture to rooms full of students in a manner that I hope is both intellectual and engaging. I do Pilates and occasionally make it to church. At some point in September I will almost certainly put some potted mums on my porch, then it will be October (my favorite: Decorative Gourd Season!), and before you know it I’ll be hanging Christmas lights.

My family is Not Fine. Every single night my children – especially my son, who is too old for this – can’t sleep in their beds alone upstairs because Daddy died downstairs while they were sleeping. My daughter can’t draw a picture of our family because she doesn’t “know what that looks like anymore”. My mom, dad, and in-laws have basically been taking turns living with me to help me take care of everything. Our household income is a little over half of what it used to be. I am a single mom in a world of married people. And every day, multiple times a day, I am hit with the crushing realization that Michael is dead. I can’t call him and tell him about my morning, we won’t be growing old together, and his earthly remains are in a box on my bookshelf. I can’t sleep without Ambien. I occasionally have panic attacks.

People who interact with me in the real world probably assume that I am doing OK and getting on alright. I guess I am, because I am not paralyzed by grief and other than a few memorable episodes when Michael was in chemo, I have not melted down in public. I probably seem mostly normal most of the time. This is what those of us without PhDs in Psychology would call “compartmentalizing”. It means I get up and do things with a pleasant demeanor, while at the same time I am filled with sorrow and rage. I go home, check the homework folders, change into stretchy pants, and pour my black heart out into stuff I write on my computer (most of which I am sensible not to let anyone else see).

I promise, this is not as unhealthy as it sounds.

It would be much much worse if I was sitting around in a pile of filth, unable to go into work or get my kids to school. There is something to be said for slapping on some sunglasses, tucking that handy bottle of Clonazepam into your pocket, and crushing all that shit you are supposed to do today.

We all have a secret self that we keep separate from our external self. But never have my two selves felt so different from each other.

Even though I no longer give a crap about most of the things that occupied me before Michael got sick, it feels all the more pressing that I do them now. I know that the world was never going to end if I forgot about Picture Day or fucked up Snack Duty. I used to feel compelled to worry about this shit because everyone else was doing it and that’s what parents do. Now I do it because if I don’t then it means we are Not Fine.

It occurs to me that other people might feel this way, even those who aren’t recent widows.

Friends, please don’t take any of this post as a cry for help. I’m Not Fine. But if I did feel super-normal and great then that would actually be cause for concern. It’s just nice to drop the pretense for a little while and put some of this out there, so I can go on about the business of living like a person who is Fine.

Much love…

Official

And just like that, it is autumn. School-season. The time to register the kids for their next year in elementary school, plus the after-school program, the gifted program (humblebrag for my little geniuses), and ALL THE ACTIVITIES.

If you are the Primary Parent, you have been filling out these goddamn forms forever. If you are a divorced or otherwise single parent, you have been doing the same only under shittier circumstances. BUT if you are a recently widowed parent, you get to fill out all of these forms, for the billionth time, only this time you have to write “Deceased” in the Second Parent Information section. And that just fucking sucks.

I hate checking the “Widow” box and I hated filing two sets of W2’s as a single person because my husband died. (When I picked up my tax return the receptionist looked at the front page, then at me in my hoodie and giant sunglasses, then did a double-take, then sighed sympathetically.) I hate the Death Certificate I have to carry with me when I travel with my kids outside of the country. I hate all the official mail that Michael still gets – don’t worry, Voter Fraud Paranoiacs, I sent a certified death certificate to our Voter Registrar. Michael definitely did NOT vote in our most recent primary election, even though he really really wanted to.

Some of this stuff has to end, eventually. Good god, I sat down in the weeks after Michael’s death and did I everything I could to erase his official existence, with his social security number and a list of passwords and bottle of Clonezepam at my side.

Michael’s Legal Death should be the least of my worries. And it basically is. Its much worse to look through a closet and find the scarf that still smells like him, or to do the bike ride that we always used to do together by myself, or to watch our son look more like him every day. Those are Gut Punches. But still. These forms, which I will probably have to fill out for the rest of my form-filling out life, are like a little drop of lemon juice in my paper cut. Official recognition of the fact that I once had a husband and that my children once had a dad but he is dead now.

The bureaucracy of bereavement?

Much love…

Well THAT was awkward…

I’m not great at small talk with people I don’t know well. After any new social situation I tend to go home and have anxiety about whether I sounded stupid or talked too much. My ideal pastime is sitting at home by myself, listening to NPR and flipping through my Martha Stewart Living magazine, circling recipes that I will never actually make.

But I love my job and part of that involves meeting new people. Yesterday I had lunch with a new group of student mentees (all young women). I said something about my kids, which eventually led to the question, “So what does your husband do?”

I run with an academic, feminist crowd, and I can already hear the howls of offense at the heteronormative assumptions in that question, especially when directed at a female professional. I am not offended. It wasn’t a job interview. We were talking about families and life in general. Here, in the middle-class Midwest, it is a fair assumption that somebody with kids also has a spouse, or at least a partner, or an ex. At my age, it would also be a reasonable assumption that that person is still alive. Until 11 months ago, those assumptions would have been 100% correct in my case: I did, in fact, have a husband. And I would have been happy to talk about him, because he was brilliant and had an interesting background and legal career.

Here’s the thing: This is not the first time this has happened. A federal judge, a kindly radio reporter, one of our Communications Specialists, the list goes on and on. All are people who I was making happy conversation with when the talk to turned to kids and families and then the Husband question came out and I didn’t know what to do.

WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO? Do I lie and speak of him in the present tense (knowing that my new students will surely hear the word on the street about me from the 2Ls)? Do I use the past tense and hope they don’t notice, or do notice and quit asking? Do I say something weaselly like “I’m not married anymore”?

Yesterday I decided that honesty was the best policy, even though it meant dropping a great big turd into an otherwise pleasant chat. I said, in as normal a tone as possible, “Well, he was an attorney, too, but he passed away about a year ago from cancer.”

The young women looked stricken. I immediately tried to assure them that I was OK. It was fine, just something that happened. I was not about to start sobbing over my Farmhouse Salad. They looked like they wanted to start sobbing. Finally, I redirected the conversation and we went along and hopefully it wasn’t too traumatizing for them.

Conversations about death definitely do not belong at the new student orientation lunch. Conversations about death don’t really seem to belong in the workplace at all (unless you work at a hospital or a morgue) but guess what? I spent 18 months going in to work and teaching classes and attending meetings even though everybody – students and faculty alike – knew that my husband (who a lot of them knew) was at home dying. I am glad that they knew. Pretending that nothing was wrong would have sucked. I didn’t want to talk about it all the time (there is only so much you can say, over and over again, about the basic facts of terminal cancer). On the other hand, I wish there had been a good, non-weird way to talk about it. Because it was happening. And shit happens in life that we don’t just check at the door when we go to work.

Almost a decade ago, when I was chair of the Appointments Committee, I took a candidate out to lunch. He had moved to Missouri from another state and I asked what brought him here. His response was that he had come to take care of his parents, who were both elderly and ailing. I asked how they were and he said they had both recently died. He was an only child, and adopted at that, so it was a hard time for him. I could tell immediately that he felt bad for dropping all that detail. I probably looked stricken, just like my poor students. But I did feel honored that he had shared that with me, and so sorry for what he had been through. I tried to tell him that, in what I’m sure was a clumsy way. We hired him.

Anyway, I don’t know the solution to this dilemma: what to say when the black cloud of my Bereavement gets blown into an otherwise medium-superficial conversation. The answer can’t be just to avoid personal topics, because they just come up and that’s normally fine. We are people with families and lives and it is usually great to talk about them. Mine just happens to be fucked up right now. Maybe I’ll write to Social Qs. Maybe someone reading this has some advice?

Much love…

Firsts and Lasts

Here’s another entry in the Lexicon of Grief that you might not be familiar with: The Year of Firsts. This refers to the first year after your loved one has died, specifically the first time that you have to do all of the things you used to do together without him or her. You have to do these things, because that is how you establish The New Normal (another term of art that I find annoying). You soldier through the best you can, mostly so that it can be behind you.

We have now traversed most of the Firsts. We had Michael’s birthday – our friends put together a beautiful tribute and I succeeded in not having a nervous breakdown. I had a birthday (on which I was less successful in avoiding a nervous breakdown, but on the plus side I got a sick tattoo). We had Thanksgiving (fled to DC) and Christmas (fled to New Zealand). The kids each turned a year older. There were recitals and soccer games. Griffin finished fourth grade and Shennie finished first. We did all of our annual events. New first things happened, like the first time Shennie lost a tooth and when Griff did his first 30-mile bike ride. The seasons changed, and changed again. All of these things, of course, Michael would have treasured. We had to do them all without him, some with more success than others.

Pretty much the only thing left are the First First Day of School, which is next week, and the First anniversary of Michael’s death, which is next month. So I am now finding myself more preoccupied with the Lasts. As in, the Last Time he ever did things. Now is the time for all of those Last anniversaries. Thinking about them hurts more than the Firsts, because he and I both knew they were the Lasts at the time they were happening. Here’s a little timeline:

The last time he saw the ocean: April 1, 2017. We were at his favorite beach, Kamaole III in Maui. He had gone there with his parents and me something like 20 times throughout his life. Now we were there on the last day of our vacation, at sunset. The kids were playing in the surf. He and I walked down to an empty stretch of sand so that he could do a haka to the sea. I cried and sniffled as the sun sank out of sight. It was time to go but I couldn’t, because I knew what it meant. Finally we had to get the kids back to our hotel. I saw Michael look out over the ocean, with a sad, sweet look on his face. He gave a brief two-figured salute and a nod to the darkening waves, then turned and walk quickly away.

The last time he saw Griffin do a violin performance: May 14, 2017. It was the school talent show. It took place in the “Music Mansion” of Grant Elementary School, which is actually just a small trailer. Unfortunately, Griffin’s performance was scheduled for close to the end, and people with no home training were rudely and loudly getting up and leaving while the show was still going on. The door was hanging open, loud noise was coming in. Griff was rattled and had a hard time getting his performance together. Michael, whose tolerance for bullshit was low BEFORE he got cancer, freaked out. He was really sick, pale and sweating, and he yelled at the assholes to get the hell out. Griffin did his best to finish the performance but it was brutal. Afterwards, Michael was a mess of sadness and anger and regret that this was how the last time would have to be.

August 2: When he got the drain surgically placed in his abdomen.

August 7: The first time he was admitted to the hospital.

August 15: The second time he was admitted to the hospital.

August 19: When he was discharged to Hospice.

The last time we ate at a restaurant together: August 31 2017. We had lunch at Billiards on Broadway. He had already started having trouble digesting his food by then. The doctor told us his system was shutting down, but if he wanted to try one last bacon cheeseburger he totally should. It was hot outside. I was in a hurry because I was taking Griffin to a therapy appointment.

The last time we went for a walk: September 6, 2017. The kids were upstairs in bed. Michael insisted that we go for a short walk. It was a strangely cold night for early September – you could see your breath, and the wind was swirling the trees around in the silvery moonlight. It turns out that Michael wanted us to talk about his death arrangements. He had gotten the prices for a cremation and visitation. Visitation would be too expensive so he thought that we could nix that idea. He wanted me to buy a nice urn or box from Bluestem Crafts for his ashes. We made it just around the block and had to rest on the front steps before we went it.

The last time we had sex: Well, I won’t be going into detail about that. Just let it be known that it was spontaneous and normal, but when it was done we knew it would be the last time.

The last time he slept in our bed upstairs: September 14, 2017. He had been struggling to get up the stairs, and he ended up falling and bruising his thigh. The next night he slept on the hospital bed we had set up for him downstairs, which is where he died.

The last time we ate dinner at the table: September 15, 2017. Michael’s parents were here. We ordered Michael’s favorite, ABC Chinese. Michael couldn’t actually eat much of it, but we all sat there together.

The last – and first — time he saw Shennie play soccer: September 16, 2017. He was so sick we had to take him in a wheelchair. He was too hoarse and tired to cheer. It was hot. Shennie got scared and refused to play. I bribed her with the promise of a Barbie CamperVan.

The last time he watched a rugby match: September 16, 2017. New Zealand spanked South Africa. So that was good.

The last time he spoke to our children: September 19, 2017. Just before they went to bed, he told them to have a good sleep and that he loved them.

The last time he spoke to me: September 19, just before midnight, when I decided to go to bed, too. He said “Go be with the children. I love you.”

Maybe it’s a privilege to be aware of the last time your child will hold your hand, or you will eat your favorite meal, or your spouse will say they love you. Maybe it’s better not to know.

Either way, no matter what, there will be a last time for everything. My year of Firsts and Michael’s year of Lasts will end on September 20.

Much love…