Memories and Remembering and Love~

Chuck never wanted to be one those people who retire and die the next day or the next week.  He wanted time to enjoy his life without work, time to relish waking up together and lingering abed. Time to travel and be with each other and grow our marriage even more.

In April 2009 he sent an email to me at home.  This is what it said.  And this was my response….IMG_2851.pngWe put the house on the market, sold or gave away most of our belongings, and packed everything else into a U-Haul truck to put into storage for future use.  We’d need some shit to start up again, right, when we settled down?

On May 29 we closed on our house, and Chuck immediately got in the truck, I got in our SUV, and we headed west, the first of many times we headed west from Jersey.  And we never looked back.

May 29, 2009.  The day we began our Happily Homeless adventures.  We tossed what was left of our belongings in storage and continued further west, state shopping, so to speak. Where did we want to settle down?

Until, 3 months in, we looked at each other and said why on earth do we want to stop doing this? and continued on.  And on and on, for our last 4 years together. We drove over mountains and through desert valleys and crossed miles long bridges over breathtaking rivers and we climbed to the highest points of various states and laughed when they were barely above sea level, and danced among the waves of the Pacific Ocean and visited family and friends and made new friends along the road, and stopped to have lunch and wander among out of the way cemeteries and paid our respects at National Cemeteries and had wild and crazy sex in towns and cities around America and fell more deeply in love and managed our way through Chuck’s first cancer with its’ 5 surgeries and went back out on the road to fucking live by god and visited National Monuments and Parks and learned American history from a local standpoint and we danced to Clint Black in hotel rooms and in military lodgings and we sat 1 foot across from one another in our SUV and discussed marriage and relationships and men and women and roles and our kids and family gossip and our hopes and dreams and we lived and we lived and we fucking lived until we danced our last dance in Death Valley and this man who lit up my world died in a hospice in southern CA, eaten up by cancer but strong in spirit and with love until his last fucking moment.

On May 15, 2013 I began my Odyssey of Love.  I walked down the 15 steps from a condo we’d rented for our stay in Cathedral City, CA, carrying Chuck’s cremains in my arms.  I returned to Jersey to give him well-deserved military honors. I bought PinkMagic.  I’d never towed and I’d never camped and my world was incinerated around me and beneath me and my heart was shattered into glass and my chest felt as if a meat grinder was continually slicing away inside of me. I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t know how to do what I was doing.  I didn’t have a plan, or a destination or a goal.  I was like Sgt Schulz on Hogan’s Heroes, but not in a funny way.hogans-heroes-cbs-198-b

All I knew then, all I know now, all I will ever be able to tell you, all I really care about telling anyone, is this…

Love must be stronger than this grief. It must both be bigger than the emptiness of life without Chuck and fill that emptiness.  It has to be, or I will cease to exist.  I push every day, every every day, to make his left behind Love bigger than anything else.

I don’t know how else to do any of this.  Without that Love I couldn’t have driven over 100,000 miles on my own, tracking down highways and side roads Chuck and I traveled together, stopping to eat lunch at roadside stands where he and I lingered over lunch, seeing the mountains and deserts and bridges and lakes and rivers and prairie grasses and beauty of this country through eyes wet with tears and my heart shattering again and again.

The thing is, for anyone who doesn’t know this already…yes, I have incredible memories. Everywhere I go there are memories. I have memories to look at and memories to hold in my heart…but those memories don’t make this better. Indeed, those memories serve as a stark reminder of 24 years gone, never to happen again. Those memories, though I cherish each and every one of them, are a double-edged sword, reminding me of my alone-ness in the world now, without him. And I struggle with that.

Each day is a decision on my part to get up and make Love bigger than anything else. I don’t ignore my grief; I hold it within the Love Chuck left behind for me, I hold it within the Love I had for him, still have for him.  And it fucking hurts, no matter how I do any of this, and it’s spiritually exhausting, so I feed the Love every day by reaching out to people, giving and receiving hugs, and being of service where and how I can.

Chuck was Love.  I was his Love. He was my Love. He was my beloved, as I was his.  We were in Love for 24 years.  He died loving me and I kissed him for the last time with my heart overflowing with Love for him and the Love he’d brought into my life.  His left behind Love pushed me into my pink car and has fueled me for 4 years and I have to I must always always always carry that  knowledge in my heart and plant it in my mind every damn day so that I don’t lose my mind. 

Love Love and Love harder and more, no matter anything else.

I repeat this to myself now, at this moment, as my heart takes me back to May 29, 2009, watching Chuck climb into the U-Haul, as I remember turning the key to follow behind the truck, headed west, as we began our Happily Homeless adventures…

Love.  Only Love.  C8D2FCE2-F53C-43D6-9CF4-C9D600907140

 

 

 

These Few Words~

 

I will sing you to me…..

These words curve around my lower right leg, from knee to ankle.

My 3rd tattoo.  My first one says nothin’ but love, our credo in hospice.  Those words swirl in a circle on the back of my neck, with the circle ending in a small heart, and the circle is left open.  As my heart must be in this new life without him.

My second one simply says Love, and is on the inside of my left wrist, in the exact location where the tumor I named Wilson, first showed up on Chuck.  It took a 11-hour surgery and 4 reconstructive surgeries afterwards to rid ourselves of Wilson and reconstruct Chuck’s arm.  His right thigh looked like hamburger when they were through.

Each of my tattoos carry special meaning, as all tattoos must.

But…my 3rd tattoo…

Chuck and I both enjoyed watching the movie Australia; a movie set in pre-WW2 Australia, dealing both with the invasion by the Japanese, and the kidnapping of mixed race Aboriginal children from their parents.  The kids were sent to orphanages where they were taught white ways. 

One of the most charming characters in the movie is a little boy named Nullah, a mixed-race boy, taken in by the character of Nicole Kidman.  The two are separated, in the movie, by the kidnapping of Nullah.  As she stands on the pier, desperately trying to keep him with her…as he is taken away to an island for orphans, he says to her I will sing you to me.

And she responds and I will hear you…

In our Happily Homeless travels, Chuck and I visited the huge bike rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.  We didn’t go there specifically for it, but it was going on when we were there, and we walked around and admired the bikes and fell in love with the state.

In the second year after his death, my daughter, Rachael-Grace, went on the road with me for 6 months, supporting me in my Odyssey of Love.  We crisscrossed the USA, and, in the process, ended up in Sturgis, SD, and, again, happened upon the Sturgis bike rally.

South Dakota is home to Crazy Horse National Monument, one of the places Chuck and I visited together, and the final place he’d asked me to return to, to scatter his cremains.

Rae created a beautiful ritual at Crazy Horse, and was the one to scatter her dad’s cremains there.  And then we walked around Sturgis.  Which is where I found the tattoo artist who created my 3rd tattoo.  I’d told him about our Love story, about my Odyssey of Love, and though I didn’t know when I first got there to SD what my tattoo would look like, the words came to me as I walked about, and he did a quick sketch.  Unfortunately, the cost was too much for me to justify, and I was honest with him about that.  Another of the artists, who had listened in to my story, told me that he thought I really needed to get the tattoo there…it was the last place Chuck had named, after all, and given the words I wanted, it was perfect. So, he offered to pay for half, stunning me.

I will sing you to me….

Words spoken in the movie Australia, among the Aboriginals, when saying goodbye to a loved one, with no idea whether that one will be seen again.  Words of hope for the future, maybe…

I’ve no idea whether this phrase, and the concept behind it, are true to the Aboriginals or not.  I honestly don’t care; the idea of the words touched my heart years ago, and they touch my heart now.  And I seek comfort where I can find it.

I will sing you to me…

These words that wind around my calf speak of my wish to believe, even as I struggle with believing, that I will see Chuck again someday.  Somehow, maybe, he will greet me when I die.  Maybe.

Meanwhile, in this life that I must live without him, maybe I can sing him to me in my heart, by living the Love he left behind, by reaching out with kindness, in service to others. 

I will sing him to me…

And the other half of the meaning of those words for me?

Maybe, maybe, maybe, I will sing my future to me even as I live each moment without him, as I continue this Odyssey of Love.  The future that I still don’t want, that I don’t care about, but one that seems as if it must be lived for all the days of my life until my own death.

I hold these words to me, written as clearly on my heart as they are written on my calf.

I will sing you to me…

 

Dark Veil Included. Of Course~

My Odyssey of Love began almost 4 years ago.  Chuck died April 21, 2013, and 3 weeks later I loaded our belongings into our red Ford Escape, gently placed his cremains on the shotgun seat, the jacket from his BDU’s on the back of the seat, climbed into the driver seat and turned the ignition.

I’ve been on the road ever since and I’m just shy of 100,000 miles, having crisscrossed the country 8 times. Not bad for a chick who had no idea of how to tow a trailer, or camp.  Directions were never my strong suit, which has worked out well, because my only plan all along has been to head north, south, east or west. Once I learned to back up my rig, I lost all fear of getting lost and having to turn around and getting stuck because I didn’t know how to back up. Mostly, I’ve gone where my heart has led me to go.  In so doing, I’ve met hundreds upon hundreds of lovely and loving people who have reached out to me and I’ve given and received as many hugs. Love has been my compass. It will always be my compass.  My Odyssey of Love will always lead me.

Grief is isolating, something I well knew from my hospice training, so I set out to fight back against isolation.  I painted my rig pink to draw people to me. Telling one’s story is a necessary component of grief, and I’ve told my story to as many people as I’ve met along the way. Creating a new life for one’s self after being widowed means trying new things and I’ve pushed as many comfort zones and boundaries as come to mind and I say yes to most everything, endeavoring to find something that grabs me, hoping for something to make me care about life again.

So many times, I wish that I had the luxury of hiding under the covers.  I wish I’d had the time after Chuck died to do that.  To just grieve. To fall apart and have someone care for me while I fell apart. I’ve had moments, of course, and my kids have been so amazing as they’ve sat with me through those meltdowns.  But you have to stand back up again, right?  So, I did.

As I approach the 4-year mark of widowhood, as I consider mygodhowhasitbeen4fuckingyears, I marvel that I am alive at all.  How has a broken heart not killed me? The answer is, of course, that it isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I wish.

I consider, too, what I’ve learned in this time.  Nothing great, really.  I don’t value life more. I’m not more grateful. I have not become a better person; I’m pretty much the kind and loving person I was; just sadder and heavier feeling now. I’ve had no great epiphanies other than life can suck a great deal and, yep again, it isn’t as easy to die of a broken heart as I’d heard.  My life is not better for Chuck’s death; on the contrary, it’s quite a bit tougher financially, emotionally, and physically. 

I am amazed and taken aback at how I keep going. 

I’m also amazed and a bit dispirited at the realizations about the social aspects of widowhood that I didn’t know about before…because, well, I wasn’t widowed, you know.

Mostly, the people in my world have been supportive and I don’t know where I’d be without our kids. Yes, I do. I’d have driven into the desert and disappeared.  My support community is pretty awesome, fortunately.

Chuck and I had a conversation while in hospice, about what kind of widow I’d be.  Dark humor, you know. We talked the pros/cons of tragic widowhood, merry widowhood…but never about being a dark widow, the title that seems to have become mine simply because I’m not the happy, cheerful person I once was, and the world is very unforgiving of that.  Not that I chose the dark widow title; it sort of just became an awareness on my part that I have become that, and there is a degree of pariah-hood that comes along with the title.

Grief now, for me, is more personal than ever, in that it has gone deeper, no matter how much I’ve tried to keep it in the open, because who wants to hear about it constantly, right? Or even sometimes? Christalmighty, I’m tired of me.  But I’m in my body, so, yeah, and believe it or not, you can’t just flip a flipping switch to change grief, despite what the positive living gurus tell you.

Grief isn’t just sadness; it is everything else that goes with the death of your person.  It is your entire life, and it takes more than 4 years to recalibrate the obvious shit, never mind the hidden bugaboos and treacherous grenades that explode in your face without warning.

I get it, though.  I admit and acknowledge and understand that it’s tough to be around me and in my world.  I wonder if that’s why, in part, widows way back in medieval times entered convents. A life away from society at large…it’s tempting, actually.  No need to put on a happy damn face.  No need to talk, really. Just meditation and quiet.  I swear I could do that.

Here’s the thing. I know that everyone who loves me would love for me to be grief-free, pain free, happy go lucky, embracing the world, joyful, connected to life…call it what you will. Call it everything you want to call it.  Basically all the things I’m not. mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa, etc…

But I am so many other things. I’m determined, unafraid to challenge myself or accept challenges. For god fucking sake…I have gone out and done shit I couldn’t ever imagine doing in these 4 years and I’ve done it in fucking pink.  I haven’t let grief and trauma or sadness or fear stop me from anything. I’ve gone out and done 4 years of shit instead of burying myself under the covers.  Not because I didn’t want to bury myself, not because I’m running from this sadness, but because I knew that would be a downwards spiral for me. Instead, I’ve fucking done new shit left and right and up and down.

There are times when I want to scream to the world, to people in this world what the fucking fuck do you want from me?  I’d be proud to know me.  I know Chuck is proud of me, if he’s anywhere where that matters, and I’m not sure that he is, but, whatever. I’m a damn amazing role model for my daughter, for my sons, for my grandgirls. I’ve touched the lives of more people than I can count as I’ve driven this Odyssey.  I know because they write to me to tell me. They tell me that they tend their marriages more consciously because of what I write about the Love story Chuck and I shared. They tell me that I inspire them to suit up and show up, because that’s what I do everyday. They tell me that they’ve learned to live more simply, because of how I live. When the time comes that I finally die, I know I’ll leave behind a bigger legacy than many can own to. No, I’m not joyful, no, I don’t give a fucking damn about life. Yes, I’m sad, yes, I find life overwhelmingly lonely at all times, yes, life sucks without Chuck and that has only intensified in this time since his death. But so fucking what, right?  It hasn’t stopped me, it doesn’t stop me, and that’s what matters.

Godalmighty, world, just fucking accept me as I am, for who I am: a woman who does shit even as I’m weighed down with missing my husband.

The fucking dark widow, if you will.  *Dramatic black veil available upon request.*

 

Slow Dance. Last Dance.

I first wrote this blog in 2014, just a couple days before Valentines Day, a few days more before our 24 wedding anniversary.  It holds as true today as it did then..

So, here I am, writing my first blog right before Valentine’s Day.  Right before what would have been our 24th wedding anniversary. I’m getting ahead of myself, I know. I was going to introduce myself, give some back-story, and I promise I will.  But maybe, because of the timing of this first entry, I’ll give you a glimpse into the world that was mine with my beloved husband, let you peek through the keyhole so you can understand the missing-ness of him in my life.  This, dear ones, is the memory I carry with me in my heart and soul.  The only memory, really, that I can easily call to mind. (Why is that?)

As I remember him, and me, and our full-time travels of the last 4 years, this Death Valley dance lingers in the nooks and crannies of my heart.  Exploring Death Valley National Park in California was a dream of ours, and for 3 days we drove up and down the Valley, exploring the muted colors of the Canyons. Chuck was already sick and in pain; we thought it was the die-off from a fungal infection.  We thought it was a pinched nerve.  So this last day was taken slowly.  He’d managed a short hike back into the rocks.  Our last hike, but we didn’t know it then.  All we knew was that it was getting late, he was tired, and it was time we returned to our ranch cabin.

But, as I steered the car over the road to the ranch, looking at the changing colors of the rocks around me, my instinct told me that here was a memory that we needed to imprint on our hearts.  I’m relieved now that I listened to that instinct that made me maneuver the car to the dirt on the side of the road and say to him “Let’s dance”.  We loved to slow dance, and Chuck was a master at it.  He wasn’t quite sure of the footing on the rutted ground but I said let’s do it anyways.  And he smiled and got out of the car.
 
It was that most beautiful part of the evening that the Scots call “the gloaming”.  The quiet moment when the day is done but right before full dark sets in.  Silence surrounded us as I met him in front of our Ford Escape.  The strains of “You’re My Inspiration” by Chicago wafted from my IPOD.  Our song.  He put his right arm around my waist and clasped my right hand in his left, wrapping his fingers around mine.  In spite of everything, his body was strong against me.
 
And on the side of the road, there in Death Valley, in the setting sun, we danced what would be our last dance.  

Chuck’s romantic heart met my even more romantic heart and we kept that passion alive for the 24 years we were together.  This Valentine’s Day is my first without him.  Our 24th wedding anniversary is the 18th.  I don’t know if any one particular day is more painful than another because right now every day is filled with immeasurable pain.  I miss him kissing me and holding me and dancing with me and loving me and that slow wink at me from across a room. 
 
I miss him with every beat of my heart, with every painful breath that keeps me living without him. 529438_552029828185289_1995679461_n

Do it NOW. Seriously

In 2015, in my second year of widowhood, I went to Camp Widow.  Never heard of it?  It is a weekend sponsored by Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, bringing men and women together in Tampa, FL, and San Diego, CA, for workshops and connections with other widow/ers  from around the world.  The speakers are exceptional, sharing their experience, strength and hope, and it all wraps up with a ball on Saturday evening, where men and women whose lives have incinerated around them with the death of their person, dance madly on the dance floor, music blaring.

The year I attended, there were roughly 150 people attending Camp Widow, and it took my breath away to see the number of young widows; women whose husbands were healthy young men, now left to raise their children on their own. Young men, whose wives had died way too soon…

Men and women, with the median age probably in their 40’s and 50’s. Men and women who carry grief in their hearts, desperately missing the one they shared their lives with, the one they loved, who loved them, reaching out to offer Love to one another, to hold each other up, to hold hands and share hugs, to listen without judgement, to bear witness to the stories each person carried.  The woman who started SSLF is Michele Neff Hernandez, now a remarried widow, who sought, after her own experience, to reach out to others.  That’s what life is all about, right?

I wrote the following piece after my first Camp Widow, and it holds just as true now as it did then.  This is what was in my heart, and is in my heart still, after witnessing this phenomenal weekend…

And so you know what I have to say to all of you out there in the world who still have your husbands and wives and partners?

Forget the bullshit. Stop being so fucking busy that you don’t pay attention to each other and your relationship.  If you’re in the habit of being a bitch to your husband and bashing him when you get with other women, knock that shit off.  If you’re a man and in the habit of complaining about the old ball and chain, stop being an asshole.  If all you do is gripe at one another and speak disrespectfully and condescendingly to one another, knock that shit off too.  Even if you think you’re doing it in fun. Ever hear the phrase passive/aggressive? And do you know how fucking blessed you are to still have your husband or wife? Do you?

Don’t just grab them and hug them; drag your husband, your wife, your partner, off to the bedroom and have mad, crazy sex like its the last time for you.  Smile at one another.  Kiss each other for a minimum of 30 seconds; no peck on the cheek!  Kiss consciously! Make your partner your priority. Over and above your kids. THEY’RE the ones who will be with you after the kids are grown and off to their own lives.

Become conscious of each other and your relationship.  Every minute.  Be aware of all you can do for each other, big and small, to show your love. Fucking talk to each other about what made you fall in love in the first place. Talk about your lives together and what you mean to each other.

Chuck’s death is the most devastating, excruciatingly painful thing I have ever experienced, bar none (and I’ve had numerous deaths in my life). And guess what?  One day either you or your partner will be standing exactly where I am. So make what you have count NOW.  Not tomorrow, not next week, not “Oh, I should schedule him/her in”.  That’s bullshit.  NOW is the time.

Because one of you, at a time hopefully far into the future, but really at any time, is going to be staring down at their beloved face in a coffin, the same way I did with Chuck, and your heart is going to break and you don’t want to have any regrets.

Tough for you to read this? It pales in comparison to what its like to live it~photo

I’ll Be at my Hotel~

I remember these words from my mom, spoken many years ago at a time when one of my younger brothers was dying.

Family and friends had gathered from around the country to say final goodbyes.  As it happened, he didn’t die until many months later, but it seemed like the end, so…there we were.

There were 8 kids in our family;  our folks were divorced, but we were all there that long ago weekend, and, as is normal at such a time, emotions were running high.  It’s funny to me, really, to think of my mom at that time.  She’d been alcoholic for decades but, as I came to recognize as I grew and matured, that was only one aspect of her personality.  Mom was also an intellectual, wise beyond wise, realistic, and she had a hugely funny cynical sense of humor that I totally loved.  She’d been an Army wife for 20+ years, a demanding lifestyle that took her overseas frequently, and around the USA, oftentimes as she was ready to deliver another child, or having just delivered a child.  The strength that was molded into her bones didn’t come easily or lightly, and there was much to admire about her, in spite of her alcoholism.  In the decades since her death (she died of breast cancer just 6 months after my brother Kysa succumbed to Hodgkins), I’ve come to admire her even more and sometimes wondered, given all that life pushed on her, why she wasn’t also a drug addict. (I say that with a sense of humor, because, really, looking at her life, who wouldn’t want to anesthetize themselves as thoroughly as possible?)

Anyways, back to the topic at hand…my brother dying and all of us gathered together to say goodbye and emotions running rampant, except that mostly it seemed none were being expressed (our family didn’t do emotions well, if at all). Which made for very dicey possibilities, none of which sounded good.

A meeting was called at a sibling’s house, to discuss…shit, I don’t even remember anymore what exactly needed to be discussed. I do recall that there had been a few angry outbursts and there was an air of uncertainty floating about, as if anyone in the area might need to take cover momentarily. Like the  heebie jeebie feeling that I imagine might crawl along one’s spine prior to a major engagement involving weapons (not that any of us were packing).  In any case, my mom, being the smart woman she was after raising 8 kids, beckoned me over to her and in a very calm voice requested that I drive her back to her hotel.  But don’t you want to join us at the meeting?  I naïvely asked.  Mom shot me this deadpan look as if taking my crazy temperature, and said if you think that I’m going to put myself in the middle of whatever is going on, you’ve got another think coming.  I’ll tell you what. You go and then come tell me all about it. I’ll be at the hotel.  Watching TV.

All of this to say, and why I’m telling you this, is that my mom gave the greatest response ever and I think of it whenever I’m with my kids and their spouses and their kids, when emotions are running high and it’s all kind of chaotic and undecided with the almost sure outlook of exploding fireworks and I just want to tell them, seriously,  I already did all this when I was in my 30’s and figuring it out and I don’t need to be part of all of your figuring it out, so thank you anyways, but…

I’ll be at my hotel.

I graciously extend the invitation to all of you, dear readers, to use this response, especially those of you who are parents with adult kids. Especially when the hackles on your neck rise in family situations that are beginning to sound explosive…listen to those hackles.

This is a mighty useful phrase to use at such times.

Thank you to my mom, Betty Catharine Miller~

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What Has Changed. Besides Everything…

It hit me this morning as I drove the back roads of south Jersey and passed a tree whose leaves were changing colors in preparation for the Fall.

Each time the seasons have changed since Chuck’s death, it takes my breath away.  Not for the beauty of them, which I always used to appreciate, but because…the season is changing again.  As they’ve changed 14 times in these 3 1/2 years since his death.

Each season takes me further away from his life, from our lives together.  And, yes, it hitches my breath each time I acknowledge this.  And it hurts my heart.

Many years ago, for his birthday, I surprised him with a trip to the Poconos.  And yes, we stayed in one of the cheesy hotels with a heart-shaped tub.  We loved it.  Fall colors popped all around us, because Chuck’s birthday is in October.

On our way back home again, we stopped at a roadside park for lunch.  There was a river there, with trees draping their leaves over the water.

It was beautiful.  Now, I can barely bear to see the leaves turn.

Everything changes when your person dies.  The meaning of everything changes when your person dies.   What once had color is now bland.  The flavor and flow of daily life, of days becoming weeks and months and years, changes.  There is an absence of color.

I realize, of course, that I don’t write for every widow and widower.  I can only speak of my own experience.

My heart sang with Chuck’s for our 24 years, and my world was filled with color and beauty.  If there were a switch I could find to turn everything back on, I would, and I’d look at the trees outside and see what color feels like again and I’d listen to the fallen leaves rustle under my feet, and I’d feel everything down to the soles of my soul.

I just don’t fucking know how to change this everything’s changed world of mine~