Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | June 2, 2019

“How long does it take?”

Yesterday I overheard a conversation while I was waiting to get a haircut. I wasn’t really listening, but in the small salon I heard the two women talking about the client’s house. I heard the client say

“They say you’re not supposed to make any big changes for a year.”

Oh, man, I know all too well what this is about.
When her haircut was complete, the client turned around while dabbing her eyes. We made eye contact over her damp tissue. She said, “I just lost my husband. Six weeks ago.”

I said “I am so sorry. It is so hard. I’ve been there.”
She looked surprised. “You’re a widow?” she asked.

“It’ll be ten years this summer. ”

I am out in the normal world, living my life, paging through magazines, getting a haircut. I am wearing a wedding ring. So is she. She also has a large men’s gold ring strung on a chain around her neck. I’ve been there, too.

We talked a little about the cancers that took our beloveds away. Then she asked me, “How long did it take?”
At first I thought she meant “How long did it take for him to die?”

Not a road I really felt like going down with a stranger on a sunny Saturday morning. But then I realized she meant “How long until you are over it? How long until you are “better”? ‘Til you are back to your old self?”

I did not know how to answer her. Whether it is kinder to lie or to tell the truth. But I don’t lie.

There is no over it. There is only assimilating it. There is no better. There is only different. There is no old self anymore, and she will not be back. She is just as gone as her husband is. Six weeks is SO, so early, and it will likely be a lot worse for a long, long time before there is a dim glimmer of “better”. Who wants to hear that? Who wants to say it?

My life is so very different now than it was ten years ago. It is so different from what it might have been. From the five year plan I used to have, back when I made such plans.

Hers will be too. She will need to find her tribe. She will need to learn to live alone again. She will need to teach herself to live at all. Maybe she will again be happy someday, however offensive the idea of happiness may seem to her right now. But is hard, hard work to get there, and some people don’t.

“Oh well, it is what it is,” she sighed, trying not to cry in public in front of a stranger. I opened my shirt to show her those dumb, banal, ironic words tattooed on my chest, the words with which I honored having survived the first grim horrible year. I did not explain the private joke between my terminally ill husband and me that induced my desire for such a tattoo. I did not tell her that when a friend remarked “But doesn’t it hurt to get a tattoo there, so close to the bone?” my answer was “Compared to what?”

She looked shocked to see the widow cliche´ right there in permanent ink. Our rallying cry. It is what it is. If we keep saying it long enough maybe we start to believe it.

Lady, I am so sorry you are here. You are among friends.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | March 17, 2019

“when you get too maudlin”

Are there Irish Handcuffs in Heaven? If there are, Bob Colby will be too pissed that there is indeed a heaven to report back to us here still on the other side.

Our friend Bob Colby died March 13. Bob had cancer, endured horrible treatment, worse side effects, myriad complications, then even more cancer, and died anyway. Fucking cancer don’t care. His sister Kathleen wrote that even while very ill, “he wanted his cable channels, his chair, his weed, and his beer. When he couldn’t enjoy those things, we knew it was time [for hospice]”, where he died a few days later surrounded by his family.

Bob was so smart, so funny, so well read, so opinionated. Anne Lamott’s advice for writers is: “Have one honest, tough, loving friend who will read and mark up your work for you, and bust you on your overwrought bullshit.” Bob Colby was mine. Bob was probably that for lots of people.

You know how to have a rich full life, people have home, have work, and have a third place? Bob is the reason I have my third place, the Brian Boru pub. Brian Boru is a true Irish pub, where all are welcome: along with visitations from the occasional dog or baby, bow-tied wealth managers and lawyers dressed for court clink glasses and talk politics, the stock market, or baseball with aging hippies in paint-spattered Carhartts and the rainbow coalition, the robust, notorious group to which I am proud to belong: The Women of Boru.

In 2011 I was still recently widowed and grieving, an empty-nester alone in the house, just barely starting to peer out from under that looming dark monolith to elicit tendrils of human interaction. I had gone to a funeral, the mom of school friends, and there reconnected with A and her partner, S. I knew they frequented the pub, and on the way home from work I would sometimes stop in, drift through the throngs to see if my friends were there. If so, I stayed to visit on the sunny brick patio. If not, I went on home for another night alone.

One evening I was floating anonymously through the happy hour hubbub of strangers, and some scruffy dude in a jean jacket and baseball hat said, “Hey, aren’t you S & A’s friend?” I allowed that I was. That dude was Bob Colby. He generously introduced me to the gang of regulars that are now my close compatriots and dearest friends. Bob and I started talking, a conversation that lasted the next several years. Bob had strong, expert opinions on many subjects. He was not shy to share his positions loudly and definitively, and if necessary, to debate them with such force of logic that minds were changed. Not his.

Bob Colby also introduced me to the man who would become my new husband. The night I met my future beloved, everyone I knew at the pub was discussing football. Everyone, that is, except my good friend Bob and a man I did not know. I could overhear them having a lively discussion about grammar, of all things. In particular, they were discussing the fine points of ending a sentence with a preposition – a folly up with which I will not put <— a line I lifted from Bob Colby, and I suppose, Winston Churchill. I am always happy to discuss grammar with anyone who will listen, and improper use of the propositional phrase is one of my favorite pet peeves. When editing my work I always go back through and take out half the prepositional phrases, and there are still too many. That night I cocked an ear, sidled up next to Bob, insinuated myself into their conversation, met David, and changed the course of my life.

Bob paid me the best compliment ever, when he commented on my wordy Facebook posts: “When it says Read More, I always click.” Then he ruined it by saying “Except when you get too maudlin.” He followed that with “I always read the whole thing, then decide if it is the M word.”

I looked up the definition to be sure. “Maudlin: self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness.” Which makes it ten times funnier that I was writing about our bar.

Maudlin:maud·lin/ˈmôdlən/adjective:
self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness.”the drink made her maudlin” synonyms: sentimental, over-sentimental, emotional, over-emotional, tearful, lachrymose; informal weepy “a bout of maudlin self-pity” — Google dictionary


Maudlin

It’s been a week more trying than most. It’s been a week of fear and pain and sadness and worry, and it’s not over yet. Last night I went down to my local watering hole for a taste of the milk of human kindness, and maybe just a wee dram of that 12 year old Irish whiskey that goes down so smooth and makes the world seem kinder than it is.

I go to the pub to see my friends, have a little spirited after-work conversation, some human contact before going home alone to the cat. I can drink at home – and have! – so when I go to the pub it’s for the people in it. I’m proud to be a regular, and not because of what’s being poured. I spoke just a sentence about my week, my family’s troubles. I was instantly enveloped in hugs. Kisses. Pats and rubs of back and shoulders. Followup texts in the night.

I counted afterwards, because that’s the kind of geek I am, and because it was so amazing to be cared for that way. I got fourteen hugs, from people who really meant it. Who GETS that, in the course of a day? There was more than one “I love you”, reassuring commentary from a nurse who knows, nose nuzzles, kisses on lips and cheeks and forehead, a bit of teasing. Kind questions from someone I dearly love, so kind I had to say “Don’t be so nice to me or I might cry.” He has seen this to be true, so he (kindly) refrained. A hug sandwich, with me in the middle, a girlfriend on either side holding me tight. Who would even ask for such a thing? And yet, I got it. What a gift. It changes the situation not at all, but it surely changes me.

Love and connection. That really is all there is. Scratch the surface of any one of these people and you’ll find their own stories of sadness and pain. There are stories I know and ones too private to share in any bar. Yet there they all were for me, giving the only thing they could, the only thing there is. I am so grateful. Maudlin, yet grateful.

Okay, Bob was right, that is maudlin. That’s what friends are for.

I had been trying unsuccessfully to summon up the courage to visit Bob in hospice. I know all too well it’s important to show up if you can. But every time I thought about it, I couldn’t stop crying, was waiting to feel stronger. Ha. That’s not what strong is. Strong is showing up anyway. For me, the later stages of Bob’s illness brought up a lot of emotions from the last few days and weeks of my late husband Jeff’s life, some of which was very precious, all of which was very, very hard. I had the nerve to text a friend all my supposed reasons I couldn’t go to visit Bob in hospice – many valid, to be sure, but also including, shamefully, “busy week”. It was a busy week, but no. No. We make time for the things that matter – the things we have to do or the things we want to do. The truth was, I wasn’t brave enough to go see Bob in time, and now it’s too late. That part doesn’t matter, or matters only to me; I’m in the outer periphery of Bob’s people. There are many who are more profoundly affected by his death. I don’t need a “sorry for your loss”. I just want to honor my friend by remembering him.

Now of course I regret not showing up to thank him, to talk about all this and more. He would have taunted me, called me maudlin. He would have been right. But there are worse things to be accused of.

You are well loved, Bob Colby. The day you died, we clinked in your honor a tall, clear, nut-brown pint that stood on the bar sweating and untouched. We all cried. All the friends you helped me make at the pub will mourn your loss, tell your stories, lift a glass. You will be long remembered here.

Rest easy, my friend. Or EASILY, as you would doubtless correct me.

 

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 25, 2019

never more gone

At a memoir writing workshop, we each (of course) had to go around the room and tell our story, why we were there.
Workshop teacher to me: “So your only child left home for college six weeks after your husband died? Do you ever write about that?”
Me: “Not really. It turns out people who are alive don’t necessarily like to be written
about.”’

 

Writing Prompt: The hard story you’re contemplating writing, that painful moment. Before or after – find something funny. Also look for a shift in perspective. Act of mercy? Diversionary detail? Write without editing yourself for 10 minutes.

He’s gone. He’s really gone. As unacceptable as this fact may be to his daughter and his widow, he stays gone – he’s not coming back. As a friend wryly notes about her own dearly departed husband: “Not only did he die, but then he had the nerve to stay dead.”
After all this time – nearly a decade – I am getting used to the idea that Jeff is really and truly dead, but he is never more gone, never further away than when Anna is moving. She’s moved dare I say dozens of times since he died: into and out of college dorm rooms, up and down countless flights of stairs. By now, years past college, she also has inhabited half a dozen apartments and houses. She and I are experts at this. To make it all fit we pack the car like the Tetris wizards we are.
We didn’t have this car when he was here.
For ten years we have carried her clothes her books her heavy boxes for kitchen and office up the winding staircase to the third floor in fall and down again in spring. We are a good team. We work well together. We are two grown women, strong and capable, practical and helpful. We make a verbal plan to tackle the project. We each hoist an end, watch the walls, carry her furniture through narrow doorways, around tight corners. Although she and I are a well-oiled machine, practiced at this task, I recall how her father and I would end up fighting, thin-lipped and grim-faced, every single time we had to move furniture, anything that required two people. He would assume his obviously correct unspoken plan was the same as mine – it never was. I’d be thinking right as he’d be going left. “Use your words,” I would helpfully hiss at him; he would only become more silent.
Capricorns!
I’ll never know how she did it (I could barely feed myself in those days), but somehow my fatherless girl had the successful first year of college under her belt. She was coming home for summer break that first hard year he was gone. We were emptying her dorm room,  loading the car to ferry Jeff’s girl and all her possessions back home. It was a glorious warm spring day, with those gentle pale greens of newly unfurled leaves, birds chirping and flitting in the pine trees outside her dorm, all fresh good smells in the soft June air. She had gone back inside for another armful. I was halfway inside the car trying to make something fit, flip-flopped feet widely planted in the rough gravel driveway. All at once, out of nowhere, I felt his presence there with me as clearly as if he had tapped me on the shoulder or called my name out loud. I shook my head to clear it, looked down at the pine needles on the ground. There between my feet was a heart shaped rock – among the first of the many hundreds I have found since then. Back then I didn’t know I would continue to find them all my days.
Anna the scientist is a skeptic – the natural world is indeed full of heart shaped rocks, shells, shadows, flowers, food. But sometimes their material, placement, or timing can seem like a message just for me. She worries for my sanity. I try to reassure her.
“Sweetheart, it’s not like I truly believe that Daddy is up in heaven pelting us with heart shaped objects.”
“You sure act like you do.”
After all these years, all these hearts, I have come to believe that the many, many hearts I find are perhaps a reward for being open, for paying attention, for slowing down enough to see. (All he ever wanted for me was to just. slow. down.)
It isn’t Anna’s heavenly Daddy sending daily Valentine missives.
There are those people who say “He is always with you.”
(It’s never anyone who has suffered a similar loss who presumes to say such things.)
To those people my answer is always
Maybe in your world this is true. In my world, he is no help at all when it is time to lug his baby’s stuff up and down the stairs.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | December 24, 2018

big black truck

Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a private message from S, a local woman I know only a little. As is so typical in a town this size, we have known each other for years, have many friends in common, have gone to the same parties, worked or hung out in the same local dives. We are friendly but not exactly friends. Because of S, her partner M bought my husband Jeff’s truck from me when I was selling it after Jeff died. Jeff died in 2009, coming up on ten long years ago. Several lifetimes ago.

I probably sold the truck a year or so after he died – as you may know, in deep grief, details escape, become fuzzy, morph, or disappear altogether. I barely remember those early days except for what I wrote down at the time, and even so I can read my old journal entries and think, That poor family! How terrible! The base details of his illness, the tragic circumstances, the peripheral damage! That poor man, that poor woman, their poor child! How can the loved ones left behind ever survive a cut so deep? Yet somehow, eventually, maybe we do.

Perhaps mercifully, lots of memories from those days are lost. But I remember pulling into our driveway many, many times in those early days, seeing that big black truck, and thinking, “Yay, he’s home!”

He wasn’t home.

I’m sure I have told the story of the day a year or so after Jeff died. I had finally sold the truck; it was gone from the driveway. I was in our yard with our  (Jeff’s) dog Wilbur when he took off running joyfully across the yard towards our neighbor, who had just driven into his driveway. This was so unlike Wilbur; he was quite accustomed to the neighbor. But that day the neighbor was driving, instead of his little beige sedan, a big black truck like Jeff’s. Oh man.

That big black truck was an albatross around my neck for a long time. It was way too big for me, a beast on gas mileage, intimidating to drive, impossible to park, had expensive mechanical issues that I was too poor and broken to address. I was happy (?) when it finally left my driveway. The paltry sum I got for it came in very handy in those days when I was too debilitated to work. I used to see the (unmistakable) truck around town afterwards sometimes – weirdly, I often saw it at uncanny times, like when our song was playing on the radio or when I was already driving around crying, or –well, you know, like that. It was years before I could see it parked somewhere and not think, Huh, what is Jeff doing at Buckdancer’s?

Oh, right. It wasn’t Jeff.

So, anyway, what is my acquaintance sending me out of the blue? It is a link to her her beloved M’s obituary. He died this week following “a short illness”. I am not close enough with S to know any more details, although perhaps I will learn them eventually. He was only 59, about the same age as Jeff when he had to go, to leave his beloved, devastate his offspring, implode his family.

Now S is in the very early days as she starts down this dark road some of us know so well and wish on no one. There aren’t any words even the most gifted wordsmith could craft as a ladder to rescue her from this black hole. Her friends gather around her helplessly to mourn M and all that has been lost. They may not yet know that she will never be the same. The old S is gone as surely as is her beloved. Now it is her job to unload that truck. That detail destroys me.

Please let it help me remember how it feels to be where she is now.
Please let it help me be kind.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | July 13, 2018

beautiful hot perfect summer day

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 11, 2018

trigger warning, present tense

My husband Jeff is unwell. For weeks or months or years, I can’t remember; it seems he has always been exhausted, lethargic, snappish, unable to work much, unwilling to rally for family events. I know this isn’t true, it hasn’t always been forever, but sometimes it feels like it.
He gets a bad cold and it lasts all winter. When I can’t find him he is always asleep, dozing in a chair somewhere, head hanging, mouth agape, hands open by his sides, a pose of utter weariness. His symptoms are vague and intermittent. We suspect a food allergy, a lingering infection, a vitamin deficiency. The tasks he used to take upon himself are somehow now mine. The chores he used to do go undone, or done poorly, or halfway. I am tired of it. I secretly feel that he is malingering, settling comfortably into a world in which I do all the work. I work all day, come home and work some more. I am a beast of burden, pulling a dead weight up a lonely hill, earning all the money, doing almost all the labor of family and home and marriage. He doesn’t even seem to notice, let alone appreciate my efforts.
He is older than I am and tells me I am unsympathetic to his simple age-related fatigue. It is true; I am unsympathetic. I am bitchy, mean to him. Snide remarks spring unbidden to my lips, into his ears. I can’t unsay them. I am so tired and annoyed I don’t care. He doesn’t seem to care either. He just turns away and closes his eyes, unwilling to engage, eager for rest, for silence, for oblivion.
I feel he is in a small boat, untethered, drifting out into a still, foggy sea, ebbing away from me. He can’t or won’t make the effort to come back; I can’t reach him to pull him closer to me, back to the shore of our life.
Finally he has agreed to see a doctor. There has been blood work, an ultrasound, a tentative, unclear diagnosis of “lesions”. I look up “lesions” on the internet and see that there are dozens of possible causes, most of which are unremarkable. All we have to do now is get a clear diagnosis, figure out a plan, get some treatment, antibiotics or probiotics or vitamins or SOMETHING, and I will get my husband back. Maybe I will forgive him for being such a negligent slacker. Maybe he will forgive me for being such an unrelenting bitch.
I am with Jeff at the hospital. A CT scan is ordered to look more closely at what the ultrasound has revealed. The doctor has sent him to the ER because it is a fast way to get a CT scan instead of scheduling it weeks out. We have been here for many hours. We have spent the day paging idly through magazines in waiting rooms, more bored than concerned. He dozes on the gurney; I click through channels on the television.
It is getting late. Our daughter, a high school junior, is at some school thing, a play rehearsal or a meeting. She doesn’t know we are here. I want to call my mom and ask her to pick up the kid at school so I can stay with Jeff at the hospital until we get the results of the scan. He does not want to alarm our girl by changing her routine. (This is so Jeff! He does cherish routine, so much more than I do.)
I leave him alone in the small, uncomfortable curtained cubicle with the buzzing flickering florescent light. I pick up Anna at school, drive home with her, and wait. Jeff is alone when he gets the news.
It is after ten.
I am still waiting for his call.
Finally it comes.
I say “What’s up?”
He is oddly reticent.
On the way home he doesn’t want to discuss it. I think this means it is an simple fix, not worth a long discussion. What it really means is he wants to say it only once.
We drive home silently through quiet streets. Clutching the cold steering wheel with both hands, I glance sideways at him, trying to intuit his thoughts through sheer marital osmosis. His eyes shine in the dark car cocoon, inscrutable, staring straight ahead. The white streetlights, the green and red traffic lights reflect in his eyes, scroll over his big glasses. He never speaks until he has fully prepared what he wants to say. He has been my best friend for thirty years, my husband for nearly twenty; I am used to this. I know better than to push him: it annoys us both and it does not work.
At home, Anna is doing homework upstairs in her room. He calls her downstairs, gathers us in the family room. Anna and I are on the couch, Jeff is in the walnut rocking chair, facing us.

“Well, they found out what is wrong with me.”

I lean toward him, hands on my knees, smile encouragingly.
He speaks flatly, no expression in his voice or on his face.

“I have cancer.
Colon. Liver. Lungs.”

Anna starts to cry. Jeff starts to cry. I cover my gaping mouth with both hands like some parody of a woman receiving terrible news. Even my alter ego Worst Case Scenario Girl has not considered this outcome.

Anna immediately, instinctively, silently goes to her father in the rocking chair, climbs into his lap, curls up like a tiny kitten there even though she is already 5’10”. She is big; he is bigger. She nestles herself into a ball on his lap, rests her head on his wide flat chest. She draws her strong sturdy athlete’s legs up into his lap like a toddler would, but her long legs spill over the arms of the chair. Her bare feet graze the floor. His big hands hold her close. They rock together.

All three of us are crying. We cry for hours, we cry all night, we cry forever. It doesn’t help. It changes nothing. Finally we go to bed because what else is there to do. I suppose eventually we sleep.

Years later, I can’t remember my own phone number or what I came into the room for, but this night I remember vividly, all of it.

Jeff has been gone almost nine years now.
Our girl is a grown woman now.
He would be so proud of all she has done, who she has become.
(He knew it all along.)
I have taught myself how to be mostly happy now.
He would be proud of that, too.

I like to think we forgave each other for our human frailties, our imperfections.

This night is always right close by.
It never goes away.
It is all still present tense.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 26, 2017

“Goodbye, baby.”

For better or for worse, holidays do have a way of bringing back memories of holidays gone by, throwing those memories into stark relief. Joy and love hold hands with loss as we think of those moved on from here, whether they left long ago or yesterday.
A while back, my mother and I were discussing the birthday of her youngest granddaughter, my smallest niece. Neither one of us was quite sure of the date. Mom said, “Well, it’s no wonder I can’t remember the date. It was such an odd fall that year. Your father was hanging around…”
My father had been in declining health for many years. His grandchildren never knew him hale and healthy, if they knew him at all. In September of 2005, his last year, he had an alarming “episode” – an emergency room visit followed all too swiftly by a stunning recommendation for home hospice care. He was brought home from the hospital on a stretcher, carried into the house and placed onto a rented hospital bed in his Chinese red-painted study lined with jammed, sturdy built-in bookshelves. He curled up under a thin blanket, facing the wall. We all, himself included, prepared for him to die. Except he didn’t.
Some days later he sat up, blearily blinked at all his nurses and somber-faced well-wishers, and asked for a bacon sandwich on buttered white toast. A few days after that he was walking, talking, and advising us on all the usual subjects. The hundred foot plastic tube that tethered him to an oxygen generator did not limit his ability to make terrible puns, or gleefully tell dreadful shaggy-dog stories to the unsuspecting. These lifelong occupations of his agile mind became even more prevalent as his body atrophied.
My brother and his wife were expecting a baby to be born late that October. My mother recalls my dad wistfully wondering if he would be able to live long enough to know if the baby was a boy or a girl. The baby came, a sweet little girl with rosebud lips and a shock of dark hair.
My father decided that since he had already lived longer than anyone expected, he would like to continue to live long enough to meet this baby. Several weeks after the baby’s birth, the family gathered at my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. We had a lovely long weekend full of family, love, and laughter. Hospice be damned. Sunday afternoon came, and it was time to take that baby back home, hours away. Her grandfather held the new baby while her parents gathered up all the baby gear and loaded the car. Her grandfather was overheard to say, ever so softly, while chucking the infant under her tiny chin, looking deep into her dark eyes, “Goodbye, baby”.
Dad was tired from all the commotion. The days after Thanksgiving were hard for him. He rested all that week, a gentle slow decline. He barely gave me any advice at all, that week! He did tell me he was proud of me. I told him I was proud of him, too.
He died the following Tuesday. My father was hanging around. Then he wasn’t. Thanksgivings aren’t the same now. Says everyone, always. Our family has grown and shrunk, morphed, as families do. Members have been added and subtracted. Memories keep piling up, as they are wont to do.
The baby is pretty great, though. She only met her grandfather that one time. She is twelve now, a skilled gymnast. She spent Thanksgiving weekend with us again this year, quietly doing complicated flips in the living room, landing gently as a cat.
Dad, son of a Presbyterian minister, wrote a blessing for our Thanksgiving that last year. He recited it at the dinner table to all those assembled. While cleaning out his closet a few weeks after his death, we found the notes for it in his jacket pocket.
(Aaannd cleaning out the closet was abruptly over for that day.)
I don’t always say it out loud, but every year, near Thanksgiving, I always breathe it softly to myself, as many times as necessary.
“Fill our hearts with thankfulness;
fill our souls with grace.
Smile on our celebrations,
and then bless us on our way.”
Thanks for everything, Dad. Thanks for “hanging around”. Thanks for your legacy. Although you dearly loved your toys, your tools, you taught us that the best things in life aren’t things. Goodbye, baby.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 30, 2017

down to the river

Image may contain: plant, bridge, tree, outdoor, water and nature

We work in the morning: hot heavy labor, crawling around in the dirt, pruning thorny overgrown shrubs. By noon the truck is overflowing with sticky tangled branches. We drive to the dump at the far edge of town to unload our leafy burden. We are sweaty, scratched, and filthy. Time to take a break and cool off.

Using our superb rationalization skills, as we tired, middle-aged, self-employed gardeners are wont to do, we decide a cooling swim is in order before our afternoon’s work. I suggest the covered bridge: Babb’s Bridge, a well known and much beloved swimming hole beneath a replica of a 19th century queen’s post truss bridge which spans the Presumpscot River. Intrepid explorer though she is, my friend has never been there. Might as well drive a mere two towns over for a quick refreshing dip at one of my favorite spots. It’ll be too cold to swim here in Maine soon enough.

We drive through the busy mill town out into countryside. The smooth, newly paved road winds around hillsides and grassy streams, past grazing cattle and junk vehicles, ancient homesteads and old graveyards; opens up into golden green farmland and russet hedgerows under billowing fair-weather clouds, impossibly white in the bluest possible sky.

Silently sparkling in bright sunshine, the water beckons, beguiles. On a summer weekend, this place is jumping with kids and dogs, families, paddlers, partiers. At midday, midweek in late September, we are alone here. The river runs quietly between its brown banks, smells of minerals.

We strip off our boots and work pants, dive off the rock ledge into the fresh, soft, cool green of our cherished Presumpscot River. The dark forest of evergreens and the bright yellow of birches starting to turn reflect in the still water farther upstream. The water is gin clear. Pebbles ripple, refract in sunlight ten feet down. Small fish poke about in the shadows of larger submerged boulders, unfazed by our presence above. We are held aloft as if in amber, our long legs and pale feet floating above the bottom we can clearly see but not reach.

We swim across, drift back, splash and float on our backs like otters, reveling in our good fortune to be here now. My friend paddles over to examine a mossy, mostly submerged fallen tree, home to turtles, frogs, and bright red stalks of Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower, a moisture-loving native plant, sign of a healthy river. I swim to the center of the bridge, grab onto a handy rope attached to the underside, hang suspended in the cool water. The lazy current takes me, unkinks my spine, loosens the knots in my shoulders and back, makes me slightly taller as it gently pulls me downstream.

All around us yellow leaves drift down to the water, land so gently that the surface tension holds; their cupped uppers remain dry as they are taken by the mid-stream current, swirl slowly in the eddies.

A sheriff drives through the wooden covered bridge, slows, notes that we are parked directly in front of the brand new, highly-insulting-to-the-locals NO PARKING sign. He passes by, disappears from view, turns around, comes back. Keeps going. Evidently the sight of two gray-haired ladies in sports bras and underpants assures him we are no threat to public safety. Good. I wasn’t looking forward to getting a ticket in a wet t-shirt and panties.

As we towel off, the breeze picks up, chills our wet skin, raises the hair on our arms. Dozens of enormous ripe acorns let loose from yonder oaks, fall all around us, pelt the still river with sharp retorts. If they hit us, it will hurt, a lot. Amazingly, they don’t. We’re somehow graced in a protective cone, under an invisible umbrella, acorns falling everywhere but here.

We drive back to town refreshed, ready for the afternoon. We are glad we came.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 2, 2017

lucky

So this happened:
We got GOOD news at an oncology appointment.
I know, right?
Who knew that was even a thing that could happen.
Not bitter cancer-widow me.

“I’m a widow; I don’t even believe in the future.” -C.M.S.

We didn’t even dare think about the idea of good news.
I sure didn’t anyway.
We were all pretty stunned by it, to be honest.

Mom, age 81, at diagnosis some months ago: “Well, I’ve had a good life.”
Doctor: “Hold up!”
Mom, yesterday, peering at the CT scan on the computer screen: “Is all that white stuff cancer?”
Doctor: “Nope. Those are your ribs. Nice try, though.”
I know, this too shall pass. Usually that’s a platitude people say about bad things, but it is also true of good things.
Me, in 2008, to my husband’s doctor: “Is this good or bad?”
Doctor: “It’s not good OR bad; it is what it is.”
Me: “Uh huh. [So it’s bad then.]”
It was.

Doctor, yesterday, seeing my sister and me fiercely holding hands and stealthily wiping away tears with the other hand: “I often do make people cry. But not for this reason.”

We drove away from there in a somewhat dazed but celebratory mood, in search of Mom’s request for a lunch of fried shrimp and rum punches. Last time we had only a few weeks between “you’re in remission” and “metastasis to spine”. I know how to read between the lines of oncology-speak, but I’ll still drink a toast to my mom any time she wants to.
Mom, whose picture is by the word ‘stoic’ in the dictionary: “I’m so sorry you couldn’t have this good news all those times you came here before.”
Me, silently, with watery eyes: “Jeez, Mom, I’m trying to drive here.”

We know we are so. damn. lucky.
We know this luck can’t hold.
We know that all we have is this very moment.
I know this in theory only, evidently, as I’ve put myself through seven circles of unnecessary hell in the last few days between latest scan and followup appointment, imagining only the worst. I act and talk all “stay present” and “it is what it is” and “oohhhmmmm” but in real life I’ve been imagining my mother dead and dying and all that will entail for the rest of us, too.

That day will come but not today.
We know what we have here is pure luck in action.
“Genes” says Mom, which to my mind is another way of saying “luck”.

We know it is not because “God is good” or God picked us.

My Christian friend J.T.E., a widow whose Texas home recently flooded, says “I don’t believe in a God who cherry-picks whom to help. I don’t believe in a God who gives us what we ask for, like Santa.”

We aren’t getting this news because Mom deserves it more, she has more work to do here, we prayed harder, we wanted it most. Lots of people who also deserved it, had more work to do here, prayed harder, and wanted it as much as we do are already dead. Nope. We just got lucky. For a minute. Just this very minute.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | June 8, 2017

sitting at a light

I am a pretty happy person these days. Life is full and rich and mostly good, with certain troubling dark clouds on the horizon, like anyone has.

My Jeff has been gone from here coming up on eight years now. This fact no longer makes my breath catch in my throat, most of the time. But every once in a while, it still hits me, hard. I expect this will always be so. Often I can predict and make space to accommodate it: his birthday, his death day, our anniversary, the date of diagnosis, any given holiday, three-day weekends when other people have their families gathered round and I’m wandering around the yard alone.

Sometimes I have no clue what is about to blindside me, sitting at a light.

The child we made, Jeff’s baby who once could nestle her tiny head cupped in his big hand, her little feet resting in the crook of his elbow, is a full-grown woman now. She carries her own grief mostly silently, single-handed and stoic, so unlike her mother, but just as her father might have done. The girl with his cleft chin and clear green eyes, his dry wit and social conscience, is working on her second college degree, and a career she has wanted for a decade. She has her eyes on the prize, and I could not be more proud of her. It is my dearest wish that he could be here to see who she has become.

He isn’t.

There are those who tell me, “He is still with you.” I usually respond that while in your world that may indeed be true, in my world he has been NO HELP AT ALL moving our girl in and out of the dozen dorm rooms and apartments she has had since he had to go.

She recently moved with her accomplished young beau to a small town 30 minutes south of here. Last night I went to a gathering at their new house. We ate grilled meat and toasted marshmallows; we added wood to the fire and watched Jupiter dancing with the moon. Around midnight I drove home.
Well. That’s complicated. I drove to the house of my new beloved, where I happily stay nearly all the time now. My girl works in the same town where he has long lived. She drives from her new home to this town every day.
As we say in Maine, “You can’t get there from here.” There is no simple way to get from one town to the other.

My husband was a cab driver in his early life, long before I knew him. He was a native of our town, and took pride and pleasure at avoiding as many traffic lights as possible. “You’re not making money when you’re sitting at a light,” he was overly fond of saying. He knew all the best routes around town, and anywhere we went, he figured out the best, most efficient way to get from point A to point B. While he was teaching our baby to drive, he passed on this lore to her. It was one of his last legacies. I love to watch her avoiding all the traffic lights, her eyes-so-like-his cloaked behind fashionable big dark glasses, a casual elbow out the window as she expertly spins the wheel of the first car I bought without Jeff’s input.

Last night I drove back from our girl’s new house to the home of my sweetheart, ready to crawl into his warm and waiting bed. Before I drove off into the night, my daughter and I discussed the best way to get from her house to his.

I was tired, content. Happy. It had been such a pleasant evening, and I was driving back to my sweet. Thinking about how to get from A to B, sitting at a light.

Our baby girl makes her way in this world, even without her father’s instructions. I was so happy. Until all of a sudden, I wasn’t. Sitting at a light.

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