Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | June 15, 2015


A private widowed group has been discussing this: “Aside from the grief that unites us – tell us one thing about you that we likely don’t know that you are proud of. “

I’ve been cradling this idea for days, thinking about This Life as opposed to my Before Life, about Now vs Then and indeed, about things of which I am proud. It’s lovely to acknowledge an achievement, to bestow upon yourself at least the accolades you might give to a friend in a similar circumstance. I am grateful to KG of Alive & Mortal for posing the question, helping us process what has happened to us, and what parts of us are still viable among the wreckage.  Not only that, but when I found one thing I was proud of, I thought of another and another. What are YOU proud of?

Trigger warning: this ramble contains references to cancer and death.

In 1988 I started a baking business, Handmade Desserts. My goal was a business where I work independently, could be creative and productive, give good value, and make my own flexible schedule where I work hard but fit in family and play time.

In 1990, I married my longtime best friend and sweetheart, Jeff. Five weeks after our wedding, I was pregnant, and soon after that Jeff left his custom furniture making business to help me with the bakery, which was very busy. We ran this business together for over twenty years. Of course it all had its ups and downs, as did our enduring marriage.

In May 2008, after some years with worrisome health issues, Jeff was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Spots in lung, “innumerable” metastases to liver. For most of the rest of his life –  a statistically correct and way-too-short fourteen months – he underwent chemotherapy, with varying results: a gradual then precipitous downward arc. I’ve written reams about this, tapping the vein to release pressure and pain, pouring out words as if that gives some kind of relief.

My husband Jeff died on July 17, 2009.

After Jeff died, our business was in shambles, and of course so was our family. Our only child A. left for college six weeks after her dad died. She had applied, been accepted, and made all the arrangements while he was sick and undergoing treatment. He was diagnosed at stage four, obviously terminal, but we did not really discuss that until he stopped chemo, ostensibly “to gain strength” so he could attend her high school graduation. He started home hospice care the Monday following her graduation. He died almost exactly equidistant between graduation day and when she left home for college.

After his death, A. and I discussed her deferring school for a year, but she wisely said, “What am I going to do? Sit around here and be sad?”

Have I ever mentioned this kid is JUST LIKE HER FATHER?!
So practical, so calm, so knowing. An old soul in a young body.

She went off to college, where she threw herself into her studies and her new surroundings, and yeah.
I sat around here being sad.

I couldn’t work, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Without trying, I lost 25 pounds. Wandered around here like a ghost holding a wine glass, crying and writing bad poetry.

Looking back, I see that I basically fell into a vodka bottle for the first two years. I’m lucky. Grief is dangerous business. Lots of people don’t pull out of this kind of tailspin; it happens all the time. There are a million ways to die. Lack of self care is not the least among them.

Anyway, afterwards, I didn’t have the heart to reassemble my shattered business. I had stopped answering the phone when he was dx, because I never knew what crisis would come and when. People ordering a wedding cake want to think you are in control of the situation and that nothing unplanned will interrupt their dreams. Yeah, I used to think that, too. Now, I know that we control so very little in our lives. All you can do is do what you can.

Anyway. I wasn’t really working; I was falling deeper and deeper into debt (and did not care.) But I knew I needed to be outside, I needed to do something with my hands, I needed to get out of my own head, and I needed to work on a project ”to make the world more beautiful.”

In the fall after A. left for college, I decided to build a garden in a little shady strip between my house and driveway. I dug up what plants were there, “heeled in” what was worth saving in a holding pen. Painted the ugly foundation a pleasing, dark dark green. Two coats plus primer. Scavenged granite cobblestones, 40 of them, over the course of months, and built a little low wall like I had admired elsewhere. Ordered a dumptruck of loam and shoveled it into place. Built a drip edge from many 80 pound bags of pea stone, edged with scavenged bricks from the waterfront. Chose and purchased a couple of large shrubs, evergreen for year-long interest and flowering for color. Planted bulbs and the remaining saved plants, and chose some new favorites. When I finished, some months after I started, I was as proud of this garden as of any work I had ever done. And still, years later, the finite edges and tousled beauty of this garden bed make me happy and proud every time I step outside.

In the years since then, in between lying crumpled on the floor crying, pounding the floor with my fists, and writing even more bad poetry, among other things, I have transformed this place. Transformed much more than this place, if you want to know the truth.

I’m a published author, in the anthology The Widow’s Handbook:Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival.  I have big plans for more of this seemingly endless stream of purple prose and bad poetry.

I work as a professional landscape gardener now. I run a small business where I work independently, am creative and productive, give good value, and make my own flexible schedule where I work hard but fit in family and play time. In season, I am outside in nature all day. There are many days when I seriously earn my money, shoveling gravel or hauling compost, getting rained on, muddy, poked by thorns, bitten by all manner of bugs. But there are also days when I work while chatting with a dear friend – a big and cherished part of this new life – snip-snipping fragrant heirloom roses all day at an oceanfront estate, listening to waves lap the shore, as fox kits gambol about, and ospreys teach their babies how to fly.

My yard has many gardens now. Mostly they are made from unwanted plants I lugged home for free, from jobs where we divided or ripped out plant material. Mostly these gardens were not here when Jeff was. It’s all new since then. There is a lot that’s new since then.

When I plant something new, I water it in with the watering can Jeff gave me for our tenth wedding anniversary – the tin anniversary. This can is galvanized metal with a big black #10 stenciled on the side. He was laughing, so happy and proud when he gave it to me, and also at my reaction to the best anniversary present ever, from the one who knew me better than anyone else ever did or ever will.  It is the best watering can ever, but it is also my little ritual of keeping him involved.

Sometimes I cry when I am hoisting the enormous watering can. I hate that his things are still here and he is not. But at least something he chose for me  with love is nourishing something that is here now.

This is not to say that I am all better now. Or that I will ever be all better, because I won’t. I did not mention the things that trouble me, the issues I still struggle with, the days I cannot get out of my own way.

But some days, I can use the power of his love, our love, to push me forward. I can change my life, do something that makes me proud, set a goal and achieve it, one small step at a time. I can make something happen, even if my beloved is not here to see it.
I did it.  I am doing it.
You can too.

What are YOU proud of?



  1. Thank You For Sharing, I too Lost my husband David to cancer, he was my best friend. I told him that it was an honor to have been his wife. I am proud of the marriage we had. We were married for 26 years. Always together. I lost him on the Saturday after thanksgiving. On thanksgiving night he wanted us to sleep in the same bed so we moved him out of the hospice bed into our bed. He said I think this will be our last night together. That night we talked about everything and anything mostly about our life together. That Was The last night he was able to talk. During his illness he didn’t remember anyone except me. I asked him, if he knew who I was and he whispered; my wife. I begged God to give him his right mind back just one more time so we could talk to him and he did. God allowed him to say goodbye to everyone on thanksgiving. I always tell people I am he, he is me, we are one. The Road To Recovery Is Bittersweet. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I experienced love like non other, very few people get to experience, but sad because it was cut short. I am proud of the marriage we had. That helps me to move forward. I still am a reflection of him. He was not a perfect man but great he was.


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