Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving, past and present

They told me you just can’t predict what the triggers will be.

First weekend of November: at the theater, contentedly waiting in the buzzing capacity crowd for the play to begin, I was suddenly stricken by the sight of a play program advertisement for a gourmet cheese shop that my husband Jeff, now gone from us, wanted to patronize before what was to be his last Thanksgiving. Ever the gracious host, he wanted the best for our gathering. After the last treatment of his first 12 chemo cycles, we stopped in and spent a lovely hour there, tasting samples and chatting with the friendly staff, buying a few tidbits and promising to return the following week. We never did get back there.

In moving my suddenly, inexplicably tear-filled gaze away from the painful printed ad, my eyes were distracted by a gentle motion a few rows ahead. It was the hand of a woman, idly stroking her mate’s neck and shoulders, which were clad in a shirt just like one Jeff used to wear. Oh, it is ever thus! I cry over the strangest things, but the constant is the crying. My friends and family now are quite used to the sight and know it is fine to avert their eyes and continue the conversation, or give me a friendly squeeze, and it will be over soon enough, until next time. Someday these episodes will spread out, and fade, and then eventually will come the day we will say, boy, remember back when we used to cry over stuff like this!

I guess in my heart of hearts, I knew last Thanksgiving that he would not be here this year. I worked so very hard to make a lovely day for him and for all of us gathered together that day, and by all measures, succeeded in that effort. This year my girl Anna and I will drive over the river and through the woods to the welcoming home of the last remaining Flanagan, his sister Karen, who was with us the last week of Jeff’s life. I don’t know what I would have done, how we would have coped, without her here, and we are now as close as any friends or sisters could ever be. Indeed she and Anna and I did walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and we did come out the other side, and we will never be the same.

I have never been more grateful, more aware of every blessing and tiny scrap of kindness and grace, both accidental (perhaps a sunset or a flock of birds) and purposeful (any number of examples from any number of people near and far). The kindness of other people is making me a better person than I ever would have been without this. And whether or not this makes me a sap, I wish fervently for everyone to notice their own moments of beauty and goodness that their own worlds contain. Before Thanksgiving, in time to be properly grateful for your own pieces of wonder and grace. I will end this musing with a favorite quote of my brother’s, from Kurt Vonnegut:

“God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind!”

C. Stephens, November 2009

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 12, 2015

This, I got.

Yesterday was surely just one of those days.

Do you have them too?

Veil thin days.

I could see no cause for this: no anniversary, no particular sadness, no burning question needing an answer.

–  As if there is any answer to be had.

Yet this day I found dozens of hearts, after a long spell of none for days and weeks.

I felt followed, watched over, by my late beloved all day long, for no particular reason.

This phenomenon is super weird for me.

I don’t believe in heaven, don’t really think he is watching me (Gawd, I hope not, really! Awkward!)

But when I feel his presence, it feels as real as the sun and the rain and the actual living people who walk and talk with me daily.

I got Nothin.

But I got this.

I posted on Facebook a picture of a heart shaped stone I found. Friends chimed in. Many of us living with loss struggle with these feelings, these questions. If we are reality-based secular humanists, as I am, it is hard to reconcile what we think and what we feel, what we believe and what we know.  What our minds insist upon and what our bodies resonate with as our truth.

A widow: “The most baffling part is wondering if that feeling is real. I’ve decided that I will choose to believe.”

Another widow: “I had many signs at first and then none.”
A third widow: “I don’t know. For myself I mean. I have a sister who thinks every penny she finds is from our mother and every deer she sees is her son, and she is a devout Catholic who lights candles and follows the rules and I just am not like her. Sometimes I feel his presence but frankly I don’t really want to be just plain stalked from the afterlife.”
[Amen to that, sister.]
She continued: “But you sure do find a lot of hearts.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | October 20, 2015

soul food

Something about the first frost brings out the cozy bunny in me. Don’t laugh.
This has been a summer of rewarding hard physical work and walking in beauty <—days
and heading for the nearest sunset at swimming beach +/or with friends on the bar patio <—nights.
But the last few days have been much cooler than before. The afternoon sky is turquoise with purple clouds over impossibly yellow birches and blazing red maples: if it was a painting you would never believe it. My yard is full of fallen acorns and abandoned lawn chairs, and that two cords of firewood heaped in my driveway is calling me home.
This summer has seen some great home-cooked feasts, exceptional restaurant meals, and creative picnics, but also far too many messy cheeseburgers gobbled in the car, grilled cheese tipsily prepared at midnight, or cold cereal shoveled in while watching late night tv. Bad ideas, all. Not to say they won’t all happen again, because we know they will.
But that firewood won’t stack itself, and the earlier sunsets make a pink backdrop for a chore that I always enjoy anyway.
Last night I stayed home, for a change, and was it ever sweet! I lit a fire in the wood stove, cleaned all obvious surfaces, opened a bottle of my favorite wine, and after darkness fell, cooked a week’s worth of meals from the bounty that farmer’s market provides. At this best time of year, it is even sweeter for being finite.
From the last of a leftover crock-pot pork shoulder I made two casseroles of green chili, sweet potato & shredded pork enchiladas to freeze for colder, darker days ahead. The sweet potatoes and the green chilies are from Snell’s, my farm of choice, melded with soft slow-cooked onion and broth. With some spicy red or green salsa and grated cheese on top, baked til bubbly, welcome indeed these will be on some colder night than this.
My grown girl and I both got cauliflower and it was taking up way too much room in the fridge. I made a big cauliflower gratin for tonight. It used a whole head of cauliflower, gifted by Carolyn: she dangled it temptingly from her hand and wondered if I could find a home for it. Yes, ma’am, I sure can! Rich and thick with sauteed onion, browned nutritional yeast in with the flour, and whole milk, it tastes much cheesier than it is. I usually do make this with lots of grated whatever’s-about-to-go-moldy, but after tasting, decided this stood well enough alone without any cheese, just a bit of nutmeg, lots of pepper, and some smoked paprika and sea salt. This makes a fine vegetarian dinner, but I like it with a broiled piece of fish, or the best deal in town: the “fish medley” from Free Range Fish & Lobster: chunks and end cuts of all the best meaty fish: salmon, halibut, sword, monkfish. I like to broil this medley with capers and tomato.
And maybe toss some bright, bitter greens with Mom’s favorite blueberry vinaigrette to round out the meal.
With the other head I made a sweet and hot cauliflower potato curry. Been hankering after this for weeks. As I prepped, my girl drifted through the kitchen and grabbed a handful of chopped raw veg from the colander, just like she did when she was little. To coconut oil fragrant in the big skillet I threw in scallions, shishito peppers, long red Italian peppers, and the cauliflower with fresh young ginger and garlic (all from market). I sauteed whole mustard seed, cumin seed, coriander, yellow curry, then added diced red potato, bright fresh green beans, chopped pears, and apple cider, also chick peas for protein and texture, then set on low flame to simmer. The house still smells like curry this morning. Froze some for another day and the rest I’ll eat all week. Plain in bowl, over basmati rice, and maybe the last bit will get made into samosas wrapped in flaky dough. These also freeze well and bake up crisp and savory in twenty minutes.
The rest of the chickpeas I made into a little salad for today’s lunch: chopped peppers, tomatoes, olives, avocado, and some olive oil and vinegar transform a sad bowl of knobby tan beans into a tasty, crunchy, protein-rich snack.
When I turn on the oven to bake the gratin, I’ll put together a fast dessert/snack/breakfast, my best apple crisp. What? It’s got lots of fruit, whole grain, a bit of fat for absorption of all the goodness in the apples and oats. Plus it might be my favorite thing on earth, and the world right now is full of apples.
Apparently I really needed to nourish myself, for a change, because I went to bed happy and soul-satisfied. Even the dishes are done, dry, and put away. That never happens!
What are YOU making for supper? Or to feed your soul? Which is the same thing, really.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | October 3, 2015

(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.

maudlin

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. Instantly enveloped in hugs. Kisses. Pats and rubs of back and shoulders. Followup texts in the night.

I counted afterwards, because that’s the 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? More than one “I love you”, nose nuzzles, kisses on lips and cheeks, reassuring commentary from a nurse who knows, a bit of teasing. Kind questions from someone I 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, and refrained. Kindly. 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. It 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 a 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.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 22, 2015

upta camp

Spent a long weekend upta camp. I always feel like I have FAR too much to do to drive up there, forgetting each time that

1) it’s a mere 3 hours – an easy cruise up the coast – and
2) once I get there, I never want to leave.

I go to The House That Jeff Built (Mostly)™, which can and does eviscerate, build up, infuriate, and enfold and nurture me, all at the same time.

It’s always a bit of an emotional whirlwind there, in our still unfinished cabin, with his guitar picks still in drawers, his notes still in books, but didn’t cry once, hardly!

I went with Jeff’s sister, who I love dearly, count as my own sister, and never get to spend enough time with. She misses him too, so there’s that. And my bestie came also, so I was surrounded with love, support, and girlfriend camaraderie, the best! We did some chores that had been hanging over my head for far too long. All done now, onto the next project!

We worked up a sweat in the field, then swam in a lovely tree-sheltered clear brown tannic pond, the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon. (September 20 for those keeping track of swims.) Water so soft and mineral. We hiked a tiny mountain, an enchanted forest trail, all ferny mossy fairy landscapes with a spectacular view at the top of ocean near and mountains far.

Ate some good meals, drank some good wine, slept some good sleeps, sat on the porch and watched birds in yonder trees. Aaaah, life is so damn sweet. And it is our duty to make the most of it for those who cannot.

Route 1, Sullivan, Maine Looking south toward Mount Desert Island

Route 1, Sullivan, Maine
Looking south toward Mount Desert Island

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 16, 2015

last swim?

September 15th. Pushing the envelope for late summer swims, we arrive at the beach at suppertime, low tide.

The sand is nearly empty. A handful of dogs run joyfully at top speed. A few wet-suited humans bob in the surf, shiny and dark as seals. Not a good sign. Our work clothes drop into a pile on the damp sand. I’m in tank top and underwear. We pad barefoot down the long strand, stick a dubious toe into the froth. “Into the dark, mysterious Mother,” says my friend, bracing herself. We remind ourselves of the Ani DiFranco lyric

                                  “We are 78% water, even our pumping hearts.”

Although daring greatly, our toes recoil from the bubbly small waves of the mighty Atlantic. For the first time in months, the ocean is cold.

I mean, it’s refreshing! Invigorating!
We wade gingerly into low surf. Still unsure. I have never regretted jumping in. But I have never regretted NOT jumping in, either.

I can’t feel my shins. I’m still not sure if I will dive into a dark wave, or retreat back to the beach, salty and sticky only from the knees down. A small wave splashes a critical area, the tipping point is reached, passed. The decision is made for me; I might as well jump. I jump.

The smallest of gasps escapes us; we are mostly glad to be here. To be wet, to be swimming, under a big pale sky, alone now in all the big ocean.

We sink into the medicinal broth. Bob up to our necks in green salt. Surrounded by swirling seaweed, we call to each other like great sea-birds.

“It’s like eating bitter greens! It’s so biting, but so delicious, so good for you. From the first bite you can feel the the nutrients seeping directly into your bloodstream, feeding you, nourishing.”

It’s an Epsom salt bath, only cold, and the dark, dark green of faraway island pine trees. It’s a seaweed massage. We are nurtured, held by the cold water; we feel the core heat in our bodies rev up to compensate. We are ocean-buoyed. Above the waves our washed feet, held aloft, glint in the late sun. Our spines un-kink, relax into weightlessness. We soak like matriarchs, bathe our work-weary limbs: stiff ankles, aching shoulders. Dark opaque waves carry us. We are kick-ass old ladies who can still catch a wave. So we do.

We stay in the water until the big houses along the cliff cast long shadows across the sand. We drive home through slanting golden sunset, past burnished marshes. The first of the migrating geese rest in cornfields. We are glad we came.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 5, 2015

keep ’em coming

My dear childhood friend, my early erstwhile lover M. is probably dying.

So says his sister R., with whom I have become happily, recently, friends.

For a time it seemed M. might never leave the hospital, but he has come home, to be cared for by his large and loving family. He is responding well to treatment, and currently things are looking up, although the long term prognosis is still dire.

When R. gave me this news, I told her: if there is a list of friends and chores, please add me. I can drive him to dialysis, clean the house, give respite care for those in the trenches. Whatever is needed, I can do it.

I have lived in that twilight world of sacred drudgery and I now know what it means, how it feels when someone is able to step up and lend a hand, in whatever capacity. For me, M. was one of those who stepped up to help.

I know that the simplest gifts echo in reverb for a long, long time – maybe forever. I have certain memories of tiny breathtaking acts of kindness that will never, ever leave me. I will never forget. Some of the most memorable gifts are from people I didn’t know very well in the Before. Maybe they’re close to me now. Maybe they were here just long enough to offer one thing, and now they’re gone again.

(They are like the stars
On a summer morning
They sparkle up the night
And they’re gone again
Daybreak, dawn again.

-our great poet, Joni Mitchell)

I also know how it feels when people can’t. When they step away, avert their eyes, disappear. No judgement here; I’ve done it myself: been simply unable to abide, witness, help. There are valid reasons someone can’t step forward instead of back, and the reasons are not always evident to the naked eye. Those who are your closest friends in your normal life may not be capable of staying when things get hard. I have seen that, and I have been that.

~

Before my J. fell ill, before he died, for many years, together we ran a bakery. The seed of the bakery came from pie. The summer I was 20, I worked at an infamous local restaurant, The Port Hole, and I made my first pie ever from the owner’s dooryard blackberries. I propped open a cookbook on the counter to peer at as I taught myself to weave a lattice crust. The pies were successful, and from that seed grew the bakery that my husband and I operated for 25 years, before cancer put an end to all that.

I don’t really do a lot of baking these days, except in certain circumstances I deem worthy, for certain people. I tell people I started the bakery so I’d have a job where I could keep my kid with me, and out of daycare. As that kid is now twenty-four, that ship has sailed.

(…while the ships bearing their dreams
Sail out of sight.

-another great poet, Jackson Browne)

A few days ago, a delightful old bakery customer called out of the blue. His family used to eat lots of my pies, back in the day. They ordered them by the dozens, for Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals. He told me his apple trees were heavy with fruit. Asked if he could bring by a hundred or so pounds of apples, if I could make them into pies.

Yes! I can do that! I ordered a 50# bag of pastry flour, some butter and sugar and spice, and got ready to make some pies.

Last night I saw R. at our favorite local watering hole and asked for an update. She said the family does indeed have a list, and that M.’s brothers and sisters are making up a schedule of duties needed. She said she mentioned to her brother D. that I asked to be included in any way that might be helpful. D. and I go way back. We are pals even if we don’t see each other much. We understand each other. We don’t have to be careful with language. We’re on the same wavelength. I guess you could say we’re simpatico.

D.’s response: “She wants to be helpful? Tell her to bake him a fucking apple pie!”

I didn’t even think of that! The simplest things are not always the most obvious. The gift you can offer most freely may not even be clear to you, until it is. Yes! I can do that!

So guess what I will do for M.

I will bake him a fucking apple pie.

And I will keep ’em coming.

Until he begs me to stop.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | August 22, 2015

salvation

Been slacking lately keeping the bird feeders filled, what with travel, company, work, emotional disruption, and all that. But as soon as I did the chore, lugged out the heavy bag of toothsome black oil sunflower seeds, the birds were back within a half hour: finches, wrens, chickadees, morning (or is it mourning?) doves, happily darting from one feeder to the next, chirping their delight. Had they been watching, waiting? A whole family of cardinals, adolescent males and females, flutters in the heavily-laden apple tree outside my kitchen window. Their burnished, tawny young reds are the same as the ripening apples. Their tweet, tweet, chirrup call-and-response makes me unreasonably happy. Not to say that birdwatching is a reason to live, but I saw recently a quote that said something like, “Find one thing you care about, and that will be your salvation.”

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | August 20, 2015

for my sins

I just realized today is six years since Jeff’s funeral.

And by “funeral” I mean party. That fab party was attended by Jeff’s wife and child, Jeff’s family and friends, Jeff’s pictures, Jeff’s guitar silent in its stand, Jeff’s lovely small hand crafted rosewood table decorated with a commemorative bottle of Jack, Jeff’s ratty threadbare size 13 just-barely-black Converse hightop sneakers, but not by the Big Man himself.

I prepared for that day as for any gathering, my specialty, thinking of everything. I baked up a storm, arranged huge swooping bouquets of his favorite flowers from our own yard and from our dearest friends. Dressed in finery, hugged everyone, chatted with everyone, kept it so together. Except for how I purposefully had my first glass of white wine at noon, before anyone arrived, and kept up the pace all day like it was my job. Ate none of the gorgeous, lovingly-prepared food.

Got the opportunity to stare hollow-eyed at a murky yellow August sky from a spinning lawn chair all night for my sins, murmuring to myself over and over, “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s really dead.”

As if the events leading up to that day had not been evidence enough that this was true.

Too hollow to cry, even, which for me is saying something.

I mean, I’m fine. Nothing a little jump in the ocean and some careful consideration of my priorities won’t cure. lol.

No, really.

But man, have we been through some shit the likes of which most people can’t even imagine, or what? I think some of my people know what I am talking about.

I usually like to think about how I am a better person now than I was before this happened, and how I am packing in a lot of life: joy, beauty, love, for those who can’t. Most days this is true. I will apparently do any damn thing now to prove I am alive. I will swim in the ocean at sunset, jump in a glacial stream, lay naked in my yard watching shooting stars all night, and drink espresso at 9 pm. My dead husband can’t, but I can. So I do. I carpe the fuck out of this diem.

 carpe the fuck

But today I am sad, and it just hurts. Today I am struck by the world of pain that floats around so many of us and how very little we can do for each other except be kind. I feel like I have lately dropped the ball on kindness, even though I know it is the most important thing. Time to refocus. Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle you know nothing about.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | July 8, 2015

CousinFest 2015

a_002

Time of Wonder: saltwater swim

CousinFest 2015, Blue Hill, Maine: Because it is my duty to make the most of this life for those who cannot. “Have a summah!” says my girl. And her classic line: “I want to have adventures!”

So we did.

She is right. I’m so happy she absorbed that lesson, too. Life is short and summer can be so sweet.

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Indoctrinating Andrew in the Jordan’s family tradition. He didn’t seem to mind.

So: Pie for breakfast, strawberry picking with cousins large and small, local turkey smoked on the barbie at brother Bob’s expert hand, local pulled pork w all the fixings, kitten-in-a-box, first saltwater swim of the season, referencing Time of Wonder with those I’ve known longest – those with whom no explanation is necessary. Exploring an old fort, selfies from atop the bridge, playing Poohsticks, raucous card game around the dining table after the kids are asleep, fireflies, Jordan’s TWICE: once for crab rolls, onion rings, and haddock, once for ice cream and milkshakes. Brother John’s plan for the day: “I’m going to sit on the porch and watch the grass grow”, pink pink sunset, road trip up w/ Mom, road trip back w Anna & her sweet beau, sleeping in the car <—my favorite hobby in which I can rarely indulge now that I’m the primary driver, rarely a passenger.
After all the adventures, quiet gratitude for my own kittycat, cozy house, welcoming bed.

And to think I considered not going. Too much to do, she said. Should stay home and mow the lawn, she said. Nope. The grass is still here.

Adventures! so we did

“I want to have adventures!” she said. So we did.

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