Saint Anthony of Padua is for Roman Catholic Christians the patron saint of lost or stolen things. I wonder today while walking, spying the blooming orange day lilies in the ravine’s ditch, touching the bulbous flowers of the milk weed plant, if this Saint can help me find myself again now amidst the many layers of my muck. Or if my own saint Anthony can from where ever he now resides.
Tony heard for years about the Lutheran Christian belief of saints and sinners. That we are both held in opposition, a paradox catapulting between one to the other minute by minute in our daily lives. One loving act quickly followed by shaming words. One promise kept while another not. Our humanness embraced and forgiven by an understanding, compassionate, and loving God without one request from us. Grace we call this incomprehensible mysteriousness.
But at almost eleven months I still feel lost. Not like at first when I could barely move or think. But lost yet. Steeling myself each day for come what may. Still making phone call after phone call tying up Tony’s affairs. Still supporting both boys through tragic grief compounded by medical issues compounded by feelings of unsuccessfulness as school for both of them this past year tenuous, arduous, hazy. Still weeping at odd moments.
I think somewhere in Tony’s things lies a St. Anthony medal. I wonder if I should pull it out. Even though I don’t believe in Saintly elevation. Rather preferring taking my worries and dreams right to the Trinity. But over the years understanding why many want and cling to faith mediators. Thinking maybe at the end of the day it does not really matter where we fall in embracing Saints or saints.Wondering too if Tony’s medal has the symbolic capability of showing me I will find myself again.
A friend reminds me of Erik Erikson’s famous and lovely and ringing true Eight Stages. Death flings me back into the adolescent stage of identity versus role confusion. I struggle again and with great emotion figuring out who I am alone. No longer attached on every living level possible to another person except in memory and in two tall, young almost men sleeping soundly right now. Moving differently in grief, my body betraying my state. One not associated with a partner. Alone. Misplaced. Confused.
Stay focused I tell myself since grief makes me more aware of others’ attention issues and my own ability to get side tracked. Remember your strength my braceleted wrist reminds me. Remain curious Tony in my memory reiterates. All that glitters is not gold I say to the boys. And in a remembered haze from the early days of this hell I think a pastor friend told me to keep my eyes on the cross and not in a sin salvation kind of a way. But in a there is life after death both for the living and the deceased kind of a way. Or the salvation of the cross frees me from my living bondages, grief able to overtake me. Own me without something bigger to focus on, believe in. Or maybe that’s just what I want to think he meant.
Slowly and on better days than this one, I find I still love a good dress, sharing a finely prepared meal, the obtuse humor of friends and family, chocolate colored dogs, my extended family strewn across the world, dark chocolate for breakfast, my boys even when they are goofing off or leaving trails of stinky socks around the house, the fragrance of laundry hung on the line, pulling onions out of my garden with a pop(!), the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the seasons in our little corner of Iowa, Minnesotan Scandinavian idiosyncrasies, Spirit-filled worship services, the close knit chords of hymnody, meeting a friend for lunch, and a whole host of other joys embraced before and now after.
Somewhere in this mix of loves and grief is me. Not so lost as I sometimes think. A saint in my own right, Lutheran Christian style. Forgiving my own sins of omission and otherwise during this time of keeping grief. Focusing on healing trauma, walking with and through sudden loss, noticing my emotions whether they be feelings of abandonment, guilt, loss, or being untethered. At the same time entering fully into an unfolding future looking hope straight in the face. Living on with joy flowing from sorrow in another of life’s many paradoxes.
Every week a widowed or divorced, middle-aged man with a car, boat, or home who is always caucasian asks to befriend me on social media. These men have names like David Smith, Mark David, and David Mark. Each request comes with an oddly empty profile page. These people have no family or friends. If they perchance have one or two friends the friends tend to be (for the lack of a better term) booby younger women in scant clothing. The men also have no work history, no history at all really. And their written English syntax reads like a foreign tongue.
My sons call these requests trolls referring to a common media term but also to our collective aversion to the small Norwegian warty, hairy, figurines populating the homes of our extended family. Grimy also falls from my sons’ lips often in general feeling like an apt term in this case. As the recipient of these requests I feel repulsion as if over the cyber airwaves someone wants to do me harm.
I block these requests. Laugh about them. Make fun of them. Rail at this annexed injustice added to my many layers of pain. And now openly write about them for any one willing to read my blog. Poking at a world that sees widows as easy prey in our emotional pain. Limping along like an easy shot. The shooter tasting dinner on the trigger.
But I am not a target. So whoever you are get a proper job and an actual life. Volunteer your time to a real and worthy cause. You who haunt me obviously have time on your hands. And while you’re at it find a good therapist. Delve into your early childhood attachment issues. Have the courage to work on yourself instead of hurting others. Understand where you start and stop and others start and stop as well. Discover the space between your emotional boundaries and the emotional boundaries of others is where all healthy relationships in any form really live. Dream about goodness, the goodness you want to receive and return. Then create goodness in all its forms in the space between you and other people.
But if you continue haunting me I will keep calling you out in public. Giving you databases of trauma therapists around the world for you to contact. Urging you to make that first appointment. Wondering aloud about your substance and process use or abuse or addiction and how it’s impacting your life.
Because what you fail to understand in haunting me is that my late husband knew you better than you know yourself. And he and people like him are the key to your healing and happiness. Although now the world has one less of these healers and that is why you found me in the first place scouring your search engines for women using the title widow. Perpetuating the cycle of your pain. The pain you bat away. Hiding instead behind what your fingers can find on your computer. Your screen shielding you from healing.
If you get us all in a room, those of us who earned the unasked for title of widow, you might hear uncomplimentary commentary about non-widows or even of other more seasoned widows. Commentary born out of the ravages of early widowhood experienced when we were most vulnerable and most likely according to research to even die ourselves. Yet forced in our angst to ward off words, some more hurtful than healing hurled our way filling the bereft air with sound. Sound we could barely listen to but somehow made the speakers feel better.
Not for the attempts or the actual help usually wrapped in foil and smelling divine when hunger was non-existent. Even in the depths of our despair we recognized these gestures as acts of love. No, push back would be for the words uttered as we in recent widowhood stood shocked into fake smiles receiving stuff we would rather deflect or run away from while enduring phrases which really has no bearing on what happened to make us widows or what truly constituted support in our present moment of realness.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
God has a plan
Let’s start with this gem. Really? Did God sit upstairs in the control room of the world planning for an August river to act like an early June river? Did God plan for the state of Wisconsin, the county of Sauk to simply be unable to post a red and white danger sign like every other beach in the United States can? Did God plan for a beach full of people to be incapable of rescuing my husband Tony before he went under? Did God plan for the boys and I to witness the day of Tony’s death? I don’t think so, not the loving God walking with me then and now embracing and giving grace in the face of pain.
This too shall pass
Look, let’s just get something completely straight here. I didn’t lose my job or have a fight with my best friend. Okay I get grief changes over time and with tons of therapy. But it doesn’t pass away or die like my husband did. Loss stays more and more in the background as the months pass. But it’s still there. Visits me in the middle of the night or when I’m tired. Brings me to tears in public again and again especially in the aisles of big box stores. Reminds me daily that life is not nor will ever be the same. Grief like life marches on but healing doesn’t happen without work–real emotional, gut wrenching work which takes courage every day to face everything anew while attempting some understanding of the confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed.
My aunt, an unexpected widow herself said to me a few months into this muck, “You will get stronger.” With these wordsshe supported my bereavement as hard work. Not just a putting my time in watching the clock. Preparing to punch out of this horrid job called gut wrenching grief.
God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.
This statement belongs with the God as ultimate planner quip. It too connotes God hanging out in the control center of the universe deciding who can handle what. I doubt any child caught in a war zone reflects, if they survive, that they handled war well. Or a victim of sexual violence, male or female, thinks gratefully God thought they were strong enough to endure such suffering. This statement infers what happens in life is something to be managed or a challenge to be won. As if grief is something to be manipulated and not lived in and through as a possible part of human existence. God didn’t think “Jen can handle a complex and violent by nature death of her husband, Tony. She’s a tough cookie, she is,” as if God imparted a gift on my poor human soul. If grieving this death is a gift, I’m returning it for a full refund. No re-gifting from me either.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Okay. I’ve got to say most days I’m not concerned in the least about my braun. And the word “kill”? Well it is a grating, disgusting word to hear at any time but especially when grief is raw. And even now nine months into this unwanted journey, I still utter internal commentary something akin to tired of being strong all the time. Once again this kind of grief does not stem from getting into a fender bender or being diagnosed with diabetes. It requires deep empathy and compassion on the part of the speaker. Not sympathy offered at arm’s length coded in a worn out utterance.
Still More Words…
There are more words uttered during this time which I can do without. Usually when asked a question I want to scream get back to me in a year! Like when people ask me how this grief experience will impact how I pastor. As if I can fully reflect on something so devastating while I’m still in it. Grievers and therapists know we grievers can’t…yet. And the reality of grief, sudden grief especially, is that the brain slows down. For me my spoken words come with a great deal of arduousness as if my brain is experiencing a blockage of some sort like coming across a highway made impassable by a rock slide. My reflective abilities marred in the mess. All I can think when I’m able to climb out of the rock slide for a moment or two long enough for a few gulps of oxygen is as a pastor I won’t use any of the word combinations I’m trashing here.
The other statement I hear ad nauseam attributed to Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber is “share your scars not your wounds.” I told a friend the other day I will vomit the next time someone shares this phrase with me. I think when I’m feeling somewhat centered in my journey I would like to read her books or even meet her. I imagine we might laugh at the overuse of her phrase taken each time I’ve heard it out of context applying it to any of life’s traumas as if all trauma is the same when in fact the experts know each trauma like everything else in life is nuanced by the specific traumatic events, the past of the people involved, and the help received from the git go.
Grief takes time. Lots of time and lots of tears and prayers and even some therapy, maybe even lots of therapy. But through everything and everyone who brings true solace, we who grieve understand gradually our own abilities and capabilities now. And in time and with work we are awed by what we have accomplished in our day to day lives while existing within the worst emotional circumstances. And the person we lost in this life, the one we grieve, that person is so very, very proud of us. And if we can hear our loved one or think we can in the quiet of night or early morning or even in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, we won’t hear any of the comments I’ve batted away here. I won’t. Not from Tony.
Instead I hear the words imprinted on a silver bracelet Tony once gave me. During a time when I doubted myself and this thing we mainline Christians refer to as call. Most days this bracelet lives on my left wrist right above my wedding ring. Nudging me forward. Speaking words I can hang my weary heart on.
I’ve wondered for months how I would feel when the next person died in the Wisconsin River. When the grip of this seemingly innocuous body of water pulled another unsuspecting human being along and under not letting go. A thief in bucolic clothing whose banks lack the human hand of life saving intervention like those seen at other shores across the nation on universal bright red and white signage.
But today as the wind howls and the rain beats down, it not the Wisconsin river swirling through my forever changed arms. Arms which at times still feel adrenaline’s pulse and pain clenching my heart as well. No, it’s the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota where a family I do not know tries to make sense of their lives suspended in warped time. Existing in shock while at the same time warding off blows. The wait in slow motion to find their beloved. The tangle of bureaucracy and the business side of tragedy. The often inaccurate news coverage sometimes pummeling an additional blow laced with inferred blame. All the secondary traumas, some little and some large, which come as some sort of nasty package deal with any primary trauma.
Slowly the news of this family sunk in today. My brain on grief often not able to comprehend the words before me making me read and read and read again the same sentence or phrase or social media post. I reach out. We, the mother and I, are connected somehow through this seemingly small Lutheran world. I add a prayer to the growing list of prayers on social media.
Melissa, I know your wait, your pain, the fist at the pit of your stomach, and the coldness of your fear. And I pray you are surrounded by who and what you need. And I pray your beloved son feels the strength, hope, and peace of God. And I pray for the tenacity and strength of your responder team.
And as I pray for this family I know my prayers are for us as well. For we are not done with our grief. Yet as we slowly heal our thoughts and prayers mix with those in new pain because now this pain born from dangerous waters speaks to us. Speaks to me as I reach out an invisable hand over miles to strangers sending swift currents of hope, love, and peace.
Every Lent a simple wreath hangs on our door. It’s a peace sign made from vines by a third world woman. Someone trying to better her life and therefore the lives of her family. Woven by fingers practicing hope.
This sign also hung on our door from the first morning of our grief. I took down our summer garland of blue and yellow flowers and hung this one instead. Attempting some way of marking us as a home in a different time now than everyone else’s. Dramatically, wanting to wrap the wreath in black ribbon but couldn’t find the energy for it. So the peace sign hung as is for months, actually until Thanksgiving or Advent, I don’t remember which. Longer however than I lasted in my all black widow’s wardrobe which began to hang heavy on my shoulders.
This morning fetching the newspaper once again at the end of the drive and in the wet, I looked at this wreath of peace and suddenly wanted to replace it being done with long dreary Iowa springs and grief and Lent. It’s color the same as the dead foliage falling against our home. Deciding to find our white flowered Eastertide wreath hanging downstairs in the storage room waiting for its turn on the door. It’s lightness signaling something good, something looked forward to and now here. Thinking its flowers bouncing off the budding daffodils along our front walk could create a cacophony of color celebrating the return of something we deem beautiful.
So days before Palm Sunday marks the beginning of what comes next in the Christians story, I took down our circlet of peace. Not because I have fully found peace, but maybe because I haven’t. Not yet. Not quite yet. But maybe I trust, because Tony taught me this and Aunt Linda keeps reminding me, that I can and will heal and will come to some sort of peace with what has happened. A one time trauma not comparable to perpetuated trauma, not as complicated, a clean break in trauma speak, no emotional pins or surgery escalating matters even more. Yet still dark, occasional panic attacks creeping in from out of no where except now I know how to appease this shadow.
Breath in for five. No hold. Breath out for five.Repeat.
Breath in for five. No hold. Breath out for five. Repeat.
Breath in for five. No hold. Breath out for five. Repeat.
On and on in a circle of breath, maybe five minutes or so, until the agitated sensations running throughout my body pass away returning me to my now normal. Aligning my vagus nerve (this large wrapping living rope like nervous system soul Tony loved so much) with my beating and hurting heart. Making a peace of sorts between me and my trauma and my ongoing grief. Aligning all in this mighty breath of life. Finding Easter in my breath. Life. Resurrected from grief’s darkness. Again and again. Breath after breath. Blooming even in my muck.
It’s March. Each year the Iowa landscape dons a coat of mud regardless of what type of winter we’ve endured or embraced. The light changes giving hope for warmer days even as the furnace continues to blow warm air on our winter dry skin. And we who chose to live in Middle America get antsy. Antsy to plant. Antsy to shed our coats and our daily vitamin D supplement. And in my case antsy to move out of the church season called Lent and into Easter.
For practicing Christians Lent is a time of deep reflection on our actions in this life. A time for many of giving something up such as chocolate or online shopping or hatred. Or taking something on, a new behavior cultivated over time with daily discipline such as praying for hungry children, dropping off food at the local food bank every Friday, or thanking mentors for their coaching so freely given for our own betterment. Something different chosen and practiced so that after Lent is over, when we begin fifty days of once again embracing our lives as Easter people, the practice remains solidified, habits changed over the six weeks of Lent. Not quite the two months needed to fully change a habit the experts tell us, but close enough to keep going.
I’ve never liked Lent. It’s dark, introspective, and wrapped in deep purple when all I really want is something light. And it’s full of the word “sin” which needs a reframe I think, one less associated with shame and more with being humanly capable of change. And this year, well introspection hangs onto grief like sap. We’ve been Lentening since August and really a few chocolate bunnies would be most appreciated now in our spring slog.
When I was a child Lent meant extra worship services on Wednesday nights. In my teens it meant giving something up like the year my friend Kirsten and I gave up sugar only to gorge ourselves Easter Sunday morning in the church basement while helping with the Easter breakfast.
As a mother, Lent prompted creating ways to track the time preceding Easter much like an Advent calendar counts off the days before Christmas. The first year we owned a home, I tied bright colored feathers to our lone and little front yard tree until its own leaves unfolded into green. Little did I know my creation was something stemming from my ancestry. I had made a Swedish Påskris whichtranslates as “Easter twigs.”
I grew up with a Påskris of sorts. My mother and some of my teachers cut pussy willow branches in early spring to bring indoors. Some women put the branches in water, some did not. But the branches in water over days slowly leafed out, the miracle of spring’s new life playing out on windowsills and kitchen tables across my Scandinavian influenced river town community.
Over these years of raising children, I’ve searched for willow bushes to cut my own live branches. Most years I’ve settled for store bought curly willow twigs purchased inside at my local grocery store or from a gift shop owning farm woman. These branches always decorate our home this time of year dressed in feathers and Easter egg ornaments. But they are alas no longer green within and serve as abstractions or symbols of the real thing.
A couple of years ago though I found a willow bush at a local gardening center. Tony dug through our hard clay to plant it up near the house even though I’m sure there was something else he’d rather been doing. Me assuring him as he dug that it was probably the last time we would plant a bush or a tree, the yard now full of life. He knowing by the next spring I would find something else to plant or better yet want to rearrange the landscaping.
The bush Tony planted flourished as all willows do. It grew up quickly toward our windows and the light frequently needing aggressive shearing. By last September it looked like it would take over our house. The church men who did our yard work itched to trim the willow back. But in my shock and need for control, I told them not to touch it.
This spring I remembered the willow bush out back wanting this year of all years to watch a live Påskris take root and bloom in our home. So one morning, a Friday, I ducked out back in the early morning cold to cut back the willow bush bringing its fallen branches inside. I filled up the large old blue canning jar with water and set everything in my office. Later in the morning I asked my online seminary group to name one gratitude and one waiting, a something on their hearts and minds that seemed a long time in coming. With each gratitude and each waiting, I added a branch to the jar. After group that morning the branches found their own waiting home on our kitchen table where the boys took their presence for granted being quite familiar with my bringing nature indoors mentality.
Some mornings I take a photo recording the branches’ journey. I will show these photos to my seminary group sharing this simple miracle living right under our mostly Midwestern noses. From the funny but not so fuzzy buds, to curled up leaves, to leaves just opening the photos capture this passage from dormancy toward awakening even as an early spring snow storm rages outside.
And this process, age old, elicits hope within my heart. Hope which tells me no matter what has happened or will happen, the rhythms of nature move through their living and dying and living cycle much the same way they did last spring and will again next spring. And even if our life is so very different this spring than last, our leaves too uncurl a bit more each day for want of more sunshine; spreading out in the warmth while taking in moisture, air, and life again after a time of dying, darkness, and reflection.
I have no idea what I’m doing most days. No longer in shock, I am working, in seminary, and signing up for volunteer activities. Yet all is not as it was. I awake sometimes in tears followed by an often bolt out of bed. My bolt is not unlike when the boys were small and we had just opened The Men’s Center. But back then I worked with a nervous energy afraid it would all collapse around us. Since Tony’s death I seem more methodical knowing now my own ability to survive a punch to the gut and the collapse of life as we knew it. Still the bolt soothes. Its movement creating endorphins or dopamine or something like that as I whirl around gathering laundry or finding the newspaper or making tea before settling down to write.
Once fully awake I face absolutely new, different, or often bizarre experiences. My brain spins constantly with these realities and challenges as I both mourn our loss and work to rebuild our life or just catch my often runaway breath. Obstacles live and lurk everywhere often hiding under piles of paperwork, laundry, and emails. The biggest obstacle perhaps is my reluctance to be what other’s name as widow.
Widow, a noun coming from the same first syllable as wife derived from the old English wif but meaning the direct opposite as in a woman who has lost her husband and furthermore has not remarried. A state of being I interpret as either transitional in that a widow may after a certain amount of time remarry or final for those who remain married in mind and heart only to their spouse who no longer lives on this plane of existence. Or final as well for those who merely choose independence over coupledom. A word regrettably also associated with poison filled fear inducing spiders, incomplete lines of type on a page, and an extra hand in certain card games.
According to Walter W. Skeat, the early root of the word widow means, “to lack, want, hence, to be bereft of.” The word itself derived from the Middle English word widewe and before that the Latin vidua. My college thesaurus adds some possible widow synonyms: dowager, relict, widdy, and mantrap. Dowager, awidow who owns her deceased husband’s property, strikes me as grossly outdated, dusty, and belonging to past eras known for corsets and butlers. However the modern terms of executor and beneficiary aren’t exactly poetic either. Relict means something that has survived from the past like an antique. I may have a few wrinkles but I don’t feel musty or collectible, at least not yet. Widdy is a rope which connotes being tied but to what? Widowhood? Grief? My now late husband? And mantrap, well what I am supposed to think about this term? It’s blatantly derogatory not to mention sexist.
The definitions for widower are similar to widow. But the synonyms (of course) do not contain terms such as widdy or womantrap. No, widowers are allowed to be survivors. Not antiques, ropes, or funky economic terms. Survivor, a noun easily changed into a verb no less as if this state of male widowhood has movement! Not a person, place, or thing with no possibility for becoming an action in life.
I am told through books on my condition, that of widowhood, that I will begin at some unknown point in time to uncouple. A sterile modern word, medical almost, for an excruciating process sounding similar to a chain disjoining or disconnecting or severing which isn’t far from the rope concept of widdy. However uncouple is used as a verb which may show some progress in the widowhood lexicon. This newer term uncouple, used in all break ups, misses however the truth of this experience–living love torn apart by death.
Widowhood with its added suffix donating state or condition seems more an active circumstance but still one with no foreseen conclusion. A refugee of the heart in which my essence is pummeled with fluctuating and extreme emotions and my mind challenged with questions of who am I without my husband. Unfortunately the defining words associated with being a widow whether modern or musty fail in depicting with any sense my specific reality now. Widowhood indefinable at best if there is a best and at worst, confusing and painful.
The one descriptive I embrace is bereft. Yes, I am bereaved, a different tense of the word. Lacking yet wanting my loved one, my partner, and the father of my children. Bereft because a community, a county, a state failed to provide adequate precautions to the tourists they work so hard to attract on a river known for its ability to take life swiftly in any given year but which swallowed way too many lives last summer. Yes I am bereft of my husband because of a bereavement, a lack, a deprivation of decisions made for the common good, the good of all, including tourists, vacationers, and boosters of the state and local economy. Bereavement begetting bereavement.
Hence I am now WIDOWED. Not truly single, at least not in the way I was before meeting Tony. But because of my husband’s permanent absence in life legally no longer married either. A sole proprietor in life. Not in union with another yet still attached emotionally forever to our relationship. Grossly reminded of what has happened by every form I fill out in which I now must check a very different marital status box.
If I were much older and despite the surrounding terminology, I would more fully understand this condition I now find myself in. My friends would have enlightened me as I comforted them in their grief before I began my own journey. But in my age set, well I’m a token widow, one of just a few everyone will turn to if they too become widowed which I hope and pray is decades away for their sake as well as mine.
I doubt as a day to day experience my widowhood differs from others, particularly those who became widows suddenly and still have children at home. Things fall apart or do not get done. Toilets run on, lightbulbs burn out, and things break down, especially things of a mechanical nature which of course I cannot fix. Lawyers, accountants, and business assistants in addition want details from me I either do not know, do not remember, or have little want to do.
Books, lawyers, and other widows warn me what to watch out for having donned my new descriptive. Lecherous married men. Lecherous men in general. Money scams. Scams in general, and of course the perils of the internet. Months ago I would have scoffed at these thoughts shared by others. Now, I know too well these bits of advice contain some truths as I block yet another fake widower from my social media platforms.
It occurs to me that I am also bereft of both the cultural knowledge to understand my new state of being as well as the adequate words to describe not just widowhood but the shock, grief, and experience of in my case sudden widowhood. The violent ripping out of life as we knew it in one moment replaced with just emptiness for a time, maybe months before life in its infinite mercy gradually fills in our gaping holes. Or perhaps I am also missing a reframe of current terminology and definition. Thoughts into words which in turn create widow and its hood into a possible developmental life stage or phase much like we name the ages and stages of childhood which of course are transitional and build on each other in the perpetual march toward another time in life.
/ən ‘blen dəd/ /ˈpēs hu̇d/
To rethink widowhood as a possible stage of life, one of loss and grief, gives way to more possibilities. It becomes a recalibration of sorts, marked with gradations such as a thermometer does for temperature, of existing differently now while at the same time reflecting, healing, and building anew a life which is still worth living even without the one whose absence marks me as widow. After which a new stage begins, a post widowhood. Bereft yet trusting the love shared still exists, embedded permanently in deep cellular functions interacting with every pulse of my heart. In love still but open to what may be, could be, in this next developmental stage called perhaps unblended peacehood or renewed oneness or just peaceness. Full of love from a loving partnership and for a partner. Yet ready to forge into life rediscovering the importance of living again and living well. Peaceful enough in these life stages — although unasked for and unwanted– for the flow of new life to find my humanness.
Last December, amid all that this season brings under normal circumstances and what the first December brings to we who grieve, a display outside my local grocery store sent me whirling down into some unforeseen weird widow expectation. There along the outside wall right before the entrance door where no one could possible miss this exhibition stood wreath after wreath on tiny green stands. In previous Decembers I would have given this display a mere glance being fully buffeted by my typical December angst. But this year, four months into my widowhood as if the universe compelled me, I stopped to decipher the sign. It read “Cemetery Wreaths.”
“Oh shit,” I thought standing there in the cold, waning light of dusk, “I’m suppose to put a wreath on Tony’s grave.”
It took me days to work through whether or not I really wanted to put a wreath on Tony’s grave. My answer continually turned up as “no.” I didn’t want to be Tony’s widow in the first place so why in the world would I ever want to decorate his, well really our, gravestone.
Then I wondered if I didn’t place a wreath on the grave how it would look. Would it seem like I just didn’t care? Or was being sloppy in my responsibilities? The old me, pre-widowhood, would have said with a note of scorn “Don’t worry about it. No one is even looking at your husband’s gravestone. They are all too busy with the season or too young to think about it.”
But my own reasoning of an era now past in my life did not stop the internal niggling that somehow I was screwing up.
Niggling brought thoughts of perhaps I was being a bit selfish and really what would it take for me to buy and place a wreath in the cemetery this first Christmas. But the temperatures dropped to way below zero and it snowed and really when it came right down to it, I didn’t want to learn how to do this gravestone decorating thing. So I procrastinated.
I figured out however over the course of many days, my thinking slowed by my grief, that if I indeed placed a wreath on Tony’s grave I would need both a wreath and a wreath stand. But the stand at the grocery store was twenty dollars for something one of the boys could make if they were so inclined. Instead armed with a hobby store coupon I bought a wreath stand for a few dollars thinking, perhaps reasonably, that the stand might not survive the season. If it did survive the cold, snow, or human hands then I would have it for the next wreath needing holiday that I may or may not know about.
Of course I couldn’t find the stands in the store. After searching the entire place because really no one needed to know my mission, I was forced to ask a clerk for assistance. Then I had to put on a “this is common and normal, this asking for a cemetery wreath stand,” face so that I wouldn’t break out in tears which would crack my veneer of privacy and throw the clerk for a social loop.
Once purchased, I threw the stand onto the back floor of my car. There it lived for days staring up at me every time I collected the grocery bags. “Buya wreath,” it seems to say until loaded bags of food squashed its insistent message.
By the time I finally convinced myself to buy a wreath most were sold out. Eventually I found a ragged, half-priced, slightly brown circlet at a local hardware store and tossed it in my trunk. Still the wreath and the stand stayed put in my car for another week void of their final resting place as I drove around town doing errands or running my son here and there or attending meetings or generally avoiding the cemetery.The evergreen aroma made my car smell festive at least.
After Advent service at church one night, I talked with another recent widow I know. We stood in the dark and cold parking lot talking of things only widows talk about. She too did not know about the wreath thing. But she had put a pumpkin on her husband’s grave in October. My insides screamed, “A pumpkin! Am I supposed to decorate for every holiday?” More evidence of the weirdness of my condition.
I polled my mother and aunt (both seasoned widows) on the wreath. Each put wreaths on their husbands’ graves through some program at their perspective cemeteries. So actually someone at the cemetery buys and places wreaths on each gravestone while my mother and aunt just send checks in. I like the sounds of this program but seems I picked a cemetery without this added bonus feature not knowing this perk should have been part of my decision making process.
Assured by both women that whatever I did was fine, I felt a bit better. But the wreath still gnawed at me. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was if I had developed a brain glitch over the whole custom. I couldn’t shake what felt like an expectation coming out of nowhere. I wondered what I would say if my mother-in-law asked me if I had put a wreath on her only son’s grave. I would want to be truthful but also knew I did not traverse nor did I expect myself to know her cultural expectations at all during this time of bereavement.
Maybe however the expectations I sensed were not all external. Maybe some of this stuff haunting me was coming from within like my need to do well in my new, unexpected, and unwanted role. As if falling down on this job, that of widowhood, dishonored Tony and our love for each other. I felt guilty but wasn’t quite sure of the crime.Guilt that the parts of my life that were bringing me joy and solace now took precedence over things that were beginning to feel compulsory. And I began to feel not “good enough.” Not good enough as a widow and therefore as a wife. Grief saturates the mind in ways no one prepares for making for odd and sometimes irrational thoughts and conclusions. I just didn’t trust my own thinking in this matter.
People stepped in. My mother reminded me that in our faith Tony wasn’t at the gravesite anyway He is with God whatever that truly means. A friend who had worked with Tony asked me if he would care about a wreath. “No,” was my answer. He thought such rituals receptacles for empty actions developed to please others. My therapist laughed with outright joy as I told of my anxiety over the cemetery wreath. Her advice was to blog about it which at the time I thought a bit crass but now you can see I am doing exactly what she suggested. Tony himself would have found my dilemma wonderfully humorous which in turn would have given rise to a few words of blustery irritation on my part. Regardless of others’ support of my inaction, something didn’t seem quite right during this season so fraught with grief triggers.
So finally one less cold day when the temperature soared into the low teens, I caved as if needing to cross a task off my perpetual “to do” list. I drove to the cemetery on my way but really in the opposite direction of a monthly meeting with women friends in ministry. I love with a whole heart these women who early on in this expedition into the bowels of sudden, traumatic, and complicated grief sat in my living room and somehow understood my pain or maybe were just willing to imagine it. Then they dared to remind me as the weeks passed and I gradually awoke from the clouds of shock and sorrow that my mind was created to think and feel, not just feel. On this day my meeting with these friends would be my reward for doing what I was avoiding or still didn’t fully understand and of course didn’t want to do.
Off I went loosing my way within the labyrinth of old narrow roads which course through our final resting place. Heading toward the woods which line our joint plot I found Tony’s grave under a new landscape of snow and winter sky making it almost unrecognizable. Quiet permeated the cold as I set about my business as if it was business, alone in this place so full of other people’s memories thinking I did not want to be here now or ever.
Then the stand wouldn’t stay put on the sloping, frozen ground. It kept falling over, the earth unwelcoming to its spindly little legs. Giving up I retrieved the now weary, worn looking wreath from its hiding place. A trail of needles followed the wreath and I from from my car to the grave like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I managed to set the two together, the stand and its partner. But the wreath’s weight combined with the slope of the hill continually knocked the duo over until I leaned these bedfellows against the stone itself. Now the duet covered my name carved so precisely into our grave stone unsettling my nerves with its frankness. I stood back not really admiring my work but glad to have accomplished this arduous task.
But I wasn’t done yet.
It was a last minute addition, a thought welling up from deep within, the reason for the smooth grave stone top instead of the rough stone look. In my car I grabbed a stone bigger than my hand. It was one of many I had found in Tony’s office and hauled home along with business records, lamps, and computers. This one sat on the sill along the bank of windows lining one wall overlooking the heart of downtown. I crunched back down the slope placing the blue grey stone wrapped in a single cream line on top of the gravestone like I had seen in Jewish cemeteries. I realized I didn’t know the meaning of this practice but that it made visceral sense to me now, more so than the wreath. The stone, like all the stones in Tony’s office and in our home and in our gardens, came from places we had visited–Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, and even I suspect countries in Europe. Tony was forever lugging stones home like a scavenger and using them as paper weights, door stops, garden borders, and objet d’art. I didn’t know where this stone hailed from, but I knew it reminded me of our family’s life together, our voyage both with Tony present and with Tony’s love still surrounding us.
And I know my late husband would appreciate this gesture. The wreath, a topping. But the stone and the many which now live in a basket in our mudroom waiting to be put in a place of remembrance signify what we built as a family on a foundation of love. Love fraught with all the ins and outs loving relationships bring to us. Yet, love none-the-less.
And the wreath? Maybe I will next year and maybe I won’t. I do hope and pray and truly think the boys and me will have found many, many ways to celebrate our love together by next year which might be seen at the sight of Tony’s grave and then again might not. And that I, with more months of healing, more therapy, and more acts of resilience will have found my way as a widow that is true to who I am in this life and what our love as a family was and still is. Wreath or no wreath.
On a dark afternoon in early December not too long ago, we closed the door on my late husband’s office for the last time. My oldest son said, “It was a good run,” reentering the office once more as if looking for something or someone he had lost.
Locking the door, I took a deep breath as I do now many times per day. As usual the old hallway smelled a bit musty. Sounds and smells from the restaurant below wafted up the stairway.The other doors in the hallway warmed the area with light from within. The one I locked, Tony’s door, was dark. Soon new life will again warm this door, but not today. Not in this moment of finality.
We descended the steep stairs in quiet not looking back and parted on the street below. My son heading with a load of things from the office to his new college apartment. I with three sets of now useless keys not wanting to go home. The outside air smelled fresh and of impending snow–a smell I usually love in winter especially during Advent. The air bolstered me a bit, woke me up to the life before me even in the midst of closing the past.
Thirteen years ago last November, Tony and I opened The Men’s Center. It was Tony’s dream, his calling, to do this work which began by opening his heart and skill set to male survivors of child sexual abuse and grew into working with and for people suffering from sexual addictions. In those early days we debated the tag line for the business for what seemed like forever until finally settling on a place for healing, mindfulness, and possibilities. Our niece, Marissa, created the beautiful and heartfelt logo and webpage. We rented an office near our home and bought office supplies
Then the work began and as a family the boys and I often saw only the beginnings and endings of Tony’s days. The beginnings, hurried moments for all of us trying to prepare for our days of work and school. The days’ ends, an exhausted and quiet human being used up willingly in the work of healing who told corny jokes to let off steam if anyone would listen. Vacations were often not free from his work for any of us. One year while hiking in the Santa Catalina foothills, we watched and worried as Tony tried desperately to save a client’s life on a cell phone with poor reception. Another year he spent hours on the phone planning his book, Facing Heartbreak.
In the wake of his death, I can only imagine the healing which occurred within the walls of Tony’s various offices. The boys and I bore witness as Tony would say, to so many stories told to us in person and through cards and letters after his death. So many stories. So many lives changed and in some cases saved. These stories kept me afloat that first month after his death when I could hardly think or feel. Stories which reminded me it had all not been in vain even as I looked out over our deck every morning donned in widow’s black wondering how the future could happen without him.
The week before closing the door for the last time, I gathered our children, my mother, and our pastor to say goodbye to The Men’s Center. Empty and dusty, the space which housed this dream had already lost its warmth as a space for healing. For a few moments we stood in a circle in the middle of the office talking of vocation and the Spirit filled early days of the business when I never knew how anything would get paid for yet there was always money. Then we prayed acknowledging the courage this business took to create and maintain while reminding ourselves that this same courage will help us live now without Tony.
So on this very snowy night during our first Christmastide without him, I pay tribute to the work Tony did. Work I supported. Work which defined Tony and in many ways defined our family. Work I could be resentful of. But work I was and am still in awe of. Work which will always be to me and maybe to our children, synonymous with Tony’s very being, his soul made more fully known to the world than most through his courage and sacrifice.
It was a good run my darling. It was a very good run.