Normal

I’ve been making friends. This is something new for me, something I haven’t really done in years. The majority of my long standing friendship are still intact but they all live about 20 minutes away (or a lot further). Not insurmountable by any means, but not always easy to make work either. In the past I had Christine to keep me company, now I sometimes feel like I’m alone on a island.

So I’ve been going out and talking to people. It’s not very comfortable, and I’m not very good at it, but it’s getting easier and I finally know a few locals.

Last Saturday I went out with one of these people to hunt down a Christmas tree and it turned into a full day. We met around 10:30 for breakfast and left to find a U-Cut farm that is still open in the Great Christmas Tree Shortage of 2018. After a couple misses we found one. The old guy running the place informed us it was the only U-cut open for dozens of miles so we got to work.

It was pretty bleak, having been harvested heavily in previous weeks, but after hunting around a bit we found a nice one and murdered it.

The person I was hanging out with decided she wanted to check on another farm her friend worked at just down the road. When we got there it was open and she was incensed, but upon further inspection we found there were only pre-cut trees available. We got some cider and left.

I thought that was it for the day and we’d go our separate ways but she grew up in the area and offered to take me on a tour. We visited an old mining town now owned by a single person who resides in what used to be the local school. We explored a couple abandoned houses, one of them housing a rat as big as a raccoon. Then it was off to a bar I never knew existed and a drive to the top of a mountain.

We drove through country roads, under the canopy of huge trees. In between each unscheduled stop our conversation drifted. She talked about growing up in the area, how different it used to be before the Microsofts and Amazons grew Seattle to the breaking point, forcing up real estate, causing people to move to what had once been rural areas. I learned about her upbringing and her family life.

She told me about the people that have come and gone from her life. I named them strays and included myself in that number.

Her: Yeah, but you’re the normal one.

I was taken aback. Me? The guy who has spent the last several months falling apart? How could I be the normal one?

Me: That’s because you haven’t been around for my breakdowns.

Her: That’s what normal people do. They have breakdowns away from everyone else.

Me: I used to feel normal. I don’t anymore.

Her: All the stuff you’re going through is normal. You’re feeling the same things anyone would who went through the things you’re going through. You’re normal.

I dropped it.

We had a few more stops including hiking a trail in the dark along a ravine before we finally reached a waterfall we couldn’t see because it was pitch black by the time we arrived. She took me to a scarf party and then we found a cover band that wasn’t terrible. Finally it was back to the place we started our day for a nightcap  before parting ways. In the most platonic way possible. Settle down, I’m still on the no dating train.

It was a fun day.

When I got home I thought about what she said, about me being normal.

Wait, that’s a lie. When I got home I had a double Jameson and passed out.

The next morning was when I did my thinking. Normal.

I’ll admit to being a little bit upset by the tag at first, especially because I feel so incredibly abnormal right now. And I am. I’m not the person I was. I never will be again. So in that sense I’m not ‘normal’.

But that’s my normal, or it used to be (and for the love of God don’t you dare think or say ‘you’re finding your new normal’. I hate that one).

Now I’m learning to live in a post-love era. It’s different. It’s awful. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I think back a few years ago when we were broke and times were hard. How awful I thought life was, how difficult. But I always had her. I wish I could find 2011 Ben and shake him, scream at him ‘enjoy every second, you idiot’.

But that reaction and all the feeling and pain and heartache and tears, it’s normal to feel that way when faced with traumatic loss. I think I lost that somewhere. Or just never thought about it. While this is terrible, absolutely horrible, there are countless people who came before me that felt exactly the same way.

There’s something comforting in that. I’m not sure how else to say it. It’s comforting that as lonely as I feel, I’m not alone in my response to grief.

I’m normal.

I’ll Tell You in Ten Years

There are several phrases I hear from people with stunning regularity. Depending on the person and my mood my response varies greatly. I’ve had this discussion with some other people who have recently lost their spouse and found that responses to trauma are incredibly cliche.

And I get it. There really is nothing to say that can help, but people’s instinct is to say something, anything to show empathy and caring and helpfulness. I mean, it backfires constantly in horrible and sometimes hilarious ways.

Is it weird to find humor in this stuff? It’s not because any of it is actually funny, of course. It’s all just so insanely ridiculous and…wrong.

Here are a few of my favorites:

How are you? – The ‘are’ is dragged out so it’s more like ‘How arrrrrrrrrre you?’ often with a slight tilt of the head and a little frown. They’re trying to show sympathy, but I don’t think they usually want to hear an honest answer because it inevitably means they have to come up with something, anything to say. Something like:

I don’t know how you do it – Do what? Be a dad, keep working, keep moving? I mean… I wasn’t given a fucking choice. That’s how I do it.

You’re so strong – Can you help me understand ‘strong’? Like, what do you mean by that? What is strong about laying in bed until 1 in the afternoon, so crippled by emotions you feel unable to get up. Or is it my daily breakdown in the car?

Here’s a few synonyms for ‘strong’. Well built (OK, that one’s true. I’m hot af). Sturdy. Durable. Indestructible.

…I guess the word works in a certain kind of way but only if by ‘strong’ you’re saying I’ve been getting my ass kicked but haven’t decided to join Christine. Otherwise I’m just existing. I am not strong.

And here’s the one the guts me every time.

How are the kids? – The best response to this question is one a friend shared with me ‘I’ll tell you in ten years’. I really don’t know how they’re doing. But here’s what I’ve seen so far:

E is more moody and argumentative. He spends every moment I’ll allow in front of electronics. He’s more awkward, and nervous around people. His grades are getting worse. He also got in his first fist fight at school the other day. He broke down pretty hard at the graveside service. He and I have always had a somewhat strained relationship because he is the most willful of the kids. I’m softer now but I don’t feel any closer to him. I don’t know how to give him what he needs.

T is probably the one who has adapted the best. The only real uncontrollable break down she’s had was when we were driving home after her birthday party. It was May 23rd, just 4 days after she found out she would never see her mom again. T had asked for a picture of her with her mom. I gave it to her in the car because I couldn’t handle doing it with an audience.

T: I MISS HER!!!!

And she fell apart. Since then she has done mostly positive things. She told me her mom and her had a saying, ‘I love you to the moon and back’. I didn’t know that. T found a light up sign with that saying on it. She told me she some times feels like Christine is close, like a cloud and at night when she turns the light on that she’s actually in the room. T will tell her about her day, how soccer is going, etc. She also told me she leaves the light off some nights because she wants to share her mom’s presence with the rest of us.

The angriest one is K. She is pretty pissed off at her mom. They already had a rocky relationship and K is upset that Christine would put us all through this much pain. She is the one that talks the very least about it, doesn’t share memories often and tries to avoid any conversation about how she feels.

Then there’s B. This one is killing me. She’s so far away. She doesn’t get to be around us and is stuck in grief alone. Similar to me, things don’t seem to be getting better for her. She got a tattoo, a bushel of forget-me-nots, Christine’s favorite flowers. Her and I have spend a few nights texting our sadness to each other. She feels like a lot of people dismiss her because Christine was her step mom and it shouldn’t hurt as much. She’s coming for Christmas and I’m so looking forward to seeing her.

So what are you supposed to say? What’s the right thing? A lot of time, it’s nothing at all. No, that’s not right. It’s just some affirmation that you care. My friends who know me best get it. ‘I love you, man’. That’s really it. It’s all that’s needed. Because there’s no right answer.

Sometimes I don’t even need anything. Just being there for me to talk to means so incredibly much. I can’t fix this, you can’t fix this. Why would we use words like we’re trying?

Even better? The thing I appreciate the most? It’s when someone shares a story about her with me. It’s been almost seven months since that day. When a person takes some time to tell me they’re still thinking about her it means so fucking much.

So so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of a Day

When you lose a spouse you lose so much. Dreams, hopes, future, companion, lover, friend, confidant, all gone.

Something else you lose, especially if you’re a parent, is time.

I don’t have much to write about so I thought I would capture a day in the life of a solo-parent and share it with you all.

6:15AM Wake up, brush teeth, get dressed. I worked from home so I got to sleep in an hour!

6:30AM Dialed into first meeting and got T and E up and ready while talking through team strategy in 2019.

7:15AM T and E out the door.

7:30AM Second meeting, acting as a proxy for my director in front of a partner org’s VP. And I made coffee.

9:00AM Meeting ends, finally looking at my emails.

10:00AM Pre-meeting meeting to discuss another meeting.

10:20AM Excuse myself from the last few minutes of that meeting. Rush to the car, realize I hadn’t eaten yet. Run back inside, grab a protein drink, back to the car.

10:35AM Get to T and E’s school to pick E up for his counseling appointment.

10:45AM Still waiting for E, the meeting the pre-meeting was about starts.

10:55AM E finally shows up, we get to the car using only hand signals because I’m on the call. He’s gotten good at this game.

11:05AM Drop E off 5 minutes late, drive back to the school.

11:40AM Still on the call, go into the school to pick up T and get her to counseling.

12:00PM Got T there on time! Pick up E and take him back to his school.

12:22PM Arrive at the optometrist. Fill out the paperwork at record speed. Have to fill out ‘widowed’ for martial status. During the appointment she asks how long ago it happened. Then how it happened. Then gave me advice on how to deal with suicide. Thanks for the tips.

1:10PM Pick up T, ten minutes late. Back to her school.

1:30PM Driving home, next meeting starts, a two hour preparation meeting.

3:00PM T and E get home. I forgot T was having a friend over. I feed them a snack while I finish up the meeting.

3:45PM Go to the gym for a quick run (it’s raining and cold and I just don’t feel an outdoors run today). One of my asshole friends convinced me to sign up to run a marathon with him in June and I just started training. I hope he’s reading this. Asshole.

4:45PM I get home. T wants a pick up at the store and her friend needs a ride home.

5:15PM Back home. Preheat the oven and get the rib roast in. Take E to a scouting event.

6:30PM Pull the roast out and let it rest. Go pick up E.

7:00PM Dinner. It was bomb.

7:30PM Clean the house.

8:30PM Finally hit the couch and start writing with a John Oliver rerun in the background.

I did a lot. I did it well. I did it by myself. I’m a freaking super hero!

See? I’m recovering, right? Things are looking up. I can do this.

But then there’s the day before to think about. On Monday I got up at 5:15 and went to work. Checked Facebook when I got to the office.

Facebook let’s me know Christine’s account had been memorialized (my request) and my relationship status is now ‘widowed’. I break down and nearly turn around and head home.

My schedule was packed. I just float through the day, trying to pay some attention to what’s going on but I feel totally disconnected.

The 3 o’clock meeting was cancelled so I went home.

I walked in the door at about 4:30. Went upstairs and stared at my bedroom ceiling for 1.5 hours until I realize I need to feed the kids. T has already called a friend for a ride to soccer. She knows the drill.

Dinner was leftover pizza. I laid on the couch with the Seahawks on in the background. Kind of watching.

At 8 I went to the store and bought a bottle of wine. I drank it all, then hit the whiskey cabinet while listening to sad music. I finally head upstairs and crawl into bed fully clothed. No idea what time.

Remember at the beginning of this when I said you lose time? When you’re in it, when you’re awake and aware, time flies. When you’re down and hurting it’s the opposite. It moves so slowly. I beg the clock to move but it feels stuck, trapped. Like me.

I don’t know who I am. Am I the dude that’s rocking this shit or am I the guy who can barely make it through a day?

It’s like a real life Two-Face. Fate flips the coin and decides what my day will be.

Guess we’ll see what happens tomorrow.

Musical Interlude – Little Talks, Of Monsters and Men

This song came up on one of my playlists the other day. It isn’t new to me, but it is the first time I’ve heard it since I lost Christine.

It’s a duet sung between a man and a woman. She sings about some trouble she’s having, and he responds with words of comfort:

Her: I don’t like walking around this old and empty house
Him: So hold my hand, I’ll walk with you my dear
Her: The stairs creak as I sleep,
It’s keeping me awake
Him: It’s the house telling you to close your eyes
Her: And some days I can’t even trust myself
Him: It’s killing me to see you this way

I’d always assumed it was about a woman left behind after the death of her loved one, lamenting the loss and loneliness. At some parts in the song they sing together:

You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear
All that’s left is a ghost of you
Now we’re torn, torn, torn apart,
there’s nothing we can do,
Just let me go, we’ll meet again soon

When I listened to it I knew I’d probably end up writing about it because the feelings it stirred in me were intense and raw. The thought of Christine out there, watching me and wanting to comfort me was… I don’t know, because that’s not what I’m writing about today.

In an effort to not come across like an idiot I decided to look up how others interpreted the lyrics. I was taken aback.

Most of the explanations I found were not about a lost loved one. Instead, the majority of people agreed it was a chronicle of a person sinking into mental illness and their lover’s response as he attempted to comfort her.

I’ve listened to it several times since and read the lyrics more. I can still go either way.

But see, that’s the thing. That’s what I’m writing about tonight.

I was struck by the similarities between death and watching someone decline into debilitating mental illness. I’ve been through both.

Kind of.

OK, here’s the contest again. The one about how other people have had it worse. Most days with Christine were good days. I didn’t watch her totally disappear. She was around more often than not. Then there were the episodes.

I hate that word but I don’t know what else to call these events. Episodes.

I’m coming up on the anniversary of the first one. It was New Years 2016-17. I didn’t know at the time it was a beginning. It was so angry. So furious.

And then it kept going. Everything would be fine one minute and then the next things were out of control for days. It usually started with a disagreement. Then she would get upset. She’d change the order of events, or make things up, accusing me of saying things I never said. This would last for days before I could finally talk her down.

It always ended with her collapsing into tears, emotionally and physically exhausted. Then she’d go to bed and wake up herself.

It could be days, weeks or months before it happened again.

So, I still had my wife most of the time, but then this other person would come out.

And the strain of it was eating her alive.

Back to the song. Watching her go through this, watching her struggle everyday, convinced the world was against her… it was like watching something die. Not someone, but something.

I’m struggling here.

The other night when I hung out with the other ‘wids’ one person talked about losing his wife to cancer. He talked about the years of slow decline.

Me: I also watched my wife slowly decline into mental illness.

I’ve thought about that a lot the past few days. Obviously I knew things were not right, but I had no idea (most of the time) of the finality of her struggle, of the outcome.

Feelings and feelings and feelings. They afflict my judgement when trying to think my way through this. And why not? I don’t share her struggle. No matter how hard I try I’ll never understand what was happening to her.

And then I come back to the dark thoughts, the ones that haunt me at night. Why didn’t I do better? If her arm was broken I would have demanded she saw a doctor. Why didn’t I push harder?

I have no answers. I’m so upset I don’t.

God I miss her so much.

This is the most disappointing end to one of my writings I’ve had. Why didn’t I save her? Why not?

There’s one part of the song:

Don’t listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same

They did. They all sounded the same. I tried to understand it through a logical mind. I tried to fix it. I wanted to save her.

I failed.

Fuck I miss her.

Untethered

One of the effects of being suddenly alone is finding myself with a particularly awful new freedom. I hate using that word, because freedom usually denotes a positive experience, but when lacking vocabulary what other choice does one have than to attach an incorrect but nearly appropriate word to the experience.

Freedom. What do I mean by that?

More than anything else it’s been a freedom to make mistakes. I’ve lost my check and my balance. I believe I mentioned previously that I am nothing if not impulsive. In some ways this has treated me well. At work I’ve found myself to be among the risk-takers and it has generally paid off.

The same could be said to be true in some situations in life. After all, I asked Christine to marry me just a few months after we met. We were wed less than 12 months from our introduction. This allowed me the best 18 years of my life.

However, there are times the opposite is true. Buying a house on a whim, a new car. Walking into Costco to get food for school lunches and walking out with a TV and a new computer. Staying out too late. Drinking too much.

Freedom.

I met with a group of ‘wids’ recently, both men and women. We got together to play pub trivia. It was fun, but it was also strange. Not strange in an uncomfortable way. It was the first time I’d been in a group of people who could totally empathize with me.

We came in second place, won some money. Talk about our spouses was sprinkled throughout the conversation, but it was light in tone. However, when the game was over and there was still some beer in our glasses we reached the Shit Gets Real moment.

We all took turns telling our stories, or a least some small tidbit of it. We also took part in one of the strangest contests humans regularly take part in, especially people in great pain, the contest of telling another person their pain is much worse than our own. I don’t get that. Why do we try so hard to validate someone’s pain by downplaying our own, especially in a club like this one?

Eventually I brought up this terrible freedom. One of the people at the table suggested another word.

Him: It’s not freedom. It’s being untethered.

I immediately agreed, thankful for a better, more descriptive word.

However, that night I gave it more thought. What does that word really mean? To be untethered means one must have at one time been constrained. An image came into my mind of Christine holding a leash attached to a collar around my neck (get your mind out of the gutter).

But that wasn’t right. Christine was not afraid to let her opinion be known, but she did not work to coerce me or control me. She trusted me to make the right choice and I love her for that.

And there it was. I wasn’t chained to her, under her control. I was captive by choice, to serve her in love. To make her happy.

When I would be out, and my impulsive tendencies would threaten to overwhelm me I would think to myself ‘would Christine be happy with this decision?’

I was tethered. I was held to her, attached to her. My love for her kept me close and controlled. Anything for her happiness.

And although the love remains, the reason to bring myself to heel, the ability to make her happy, is gone.

I’m untethered.

Tilting at Windmills

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

                           ― Cervantes, Don Quixote

My dad hung a lithograph displaying the above quote in our basement bathroom when I was young. I must have read it thousands of times. It’s ingrained in my memory. I come back to it constantly when things seem out of control. I’ve thought of it often the past months.

When I was a boy I didn’t know anything about the source material. It wasn’t until I had to read it in a lit class did I get the reference. Christine and I also attended the musical years later.

The story is about a noble who reads so many chivalrous romance stories he loses his mind and becomes a knight-errant, a hero in the tradition of King Arthur in a world moved on from such ‘antiquated notions’.

In one famous scene he falls under the belief that windmills are in fact giants attacking the countryside and rushes to face them.

Since the book was written the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ has come to mean attacking perceived but imaginary enemies.

I think I do that. I think I have become so ready for something new and painful to come along that my first instinct is often to fly into battle, attack before I can be attacked.

That might be a poor description though, because just as often I flee. Flee from feelings. I also tend to take an imaginary issue and find my way to the worst possible outcome and assume life will become what I’ve just dreamed up.

Overthinking. Fantasizing. Imagining. Expecting. Worrying. Doubting. This is how I tilt at windmills.

Back to the quote at the top of the page. It’s been on repeat in my head for months, especially the last bit.

‘And the maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’

This is the moment when Don Quixote realizes his madness, when he realizes he’s been fighting the imaginary. It’s poignant prose.

As he’s recovering, as he’s raising himself from the depths of mental illness, his conclusion is that life, by its very structure, is mad. It doesn’t make sense.

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s why we wonder, it’s why we think to ourselves ‘How can this be happening?’.

How the fuck can my wife have killed herself?

She should be at work as I write this, finishing lunch, thinking about our evening plans, stressing about her holiday party coming together. But she’s not. She’s dead.

It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.

And there, in essence, is my windmill. Trying to find reason, logic, anything that will bring me some type of understanding of how she could do this.

The answer is simple, of course. It doesn’t make sense. Not to me. It never will. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a place so bleak you see no escape. To be unable to recognize how loved you are, how incredibly important you are to so many people and how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.

It doesn’t make sense.

And so I tilt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ups and Downs and Downs and Downs

I haven’t written for a while, mostly because I’ve been struggling to adequately explain how I am feeling and because, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve spent a lot of time in avoidance mode.

Last week while in Costa Rica I decided to do some things for myself. First, I booked an 80 minute massage. I’ve only had one of them in my life and that was a relaxing couples massage with Christine. I didn’t know what to order and thought ‘Deep Muscle’ sounded like the right one. It wasn’t.

If you’ve never received a deep muscle massage but want a similar experience, just ask someone to alternate between beating you with a broomstick and tickling you with a feather for an hour.

Anyways, as I lay there I decided to think about Christine (like I think about anything else), but not in regards to how I feel, more about how I should frame my thoughts about her. I made a decision to stop thinking about what I could have done differently, and stop dwelling on how I feel. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a step.

As soon as I made this agreement with myself a warm sensation overcame me and Christine’s face came into my mind. She was smiling and radiant and beautiful. I felt calmer. I felt better.

The next day I got up early. The local team was taking me on an ATV tour. We rode them up muddy hillsides, through the jungle, along cliff tops, across shallow rivers and through the surf on a white sand beach.

I was speeding through the river, water fishtailing behind me, smiling like an idiot, when I thought to myself ‘I am so lucky’… ‘Oh, right’.

This is an issue. I have a moment of happiness. A moment where I’m not dwelling on Christine or her loss, and then I reflect on the happiness and ‘poof’ gone. It’s like my soul is telling me I’m not allowed to be happy.

We finished the ATV ride with a beer on the beach. The plan was to make the short drive to the beach resort town of Jaco for lunch. This had been the plan for weeks, but when we got in the car one of the guys changed his mind.

Him: Let’s go to Playa Hermosa instead. I know a good restaurant there.

Playa Hermosa was the beach Christine and I stayed at when we visited. I just knew in that moment we were headed to the same place she an I had eaten. Panic spiked.

No, that’s not true. It wasn’t panic. A better term would be ‘pre-panic’. It’s something I’ve been experiencing a lot. Anxiety caused by the fear that I will enter a trigger event. I haven’t had one of those since Maine, but I am regularly nervous of it happening again.

I was right, we pulled into the same place… and it was OK. Totally OK. I mean, it was reflective. I thought a lot. I walked the beach where we walked, looked out over the same horizon. I shared stories about our trip with my team members, the things Christine and I did. It was OK. It was good.

I told her goodbye.

That night as I was reflecting, trying to remember good times I found it was almost impossible to think of specific events that could be classified as ‘good times’. It was difficult. I realized just like bad times, I needed a trigger to bring them up. I went to Ireland, I remembered our trip. I went to Costa Rica, I remembered the adventures we had.

This sucks. This really sucks. Why didn’t I do a better job of storing these away for the future?

The answer is obvious of course. I thought there would be more. When you have unlimited money, why worry about saving?

So instead I started thinking about her in general terms. Her smile, her face, those freaking moles on either side of her nose I loved so much. Her laugh. For people that met her that laugh stood out. It was so pretty, so loud, so passionate. Then I remembered her other laugh. The one that was the most real. When she was surprised by hilarity she would have this loud raucous bark. We classified it as her crazy homeless woman laugh.

Thinking about that made me smile. Then by the time I got back to my room I was sad because I couldn’t have those things anymore.

I spent the remainder of my time in Costa Rica staying busy. During the day I worked hard, met with everyone I could. At nights I’d talk to friends, any friends that would help distract me from her. It was nice talking to them, it was distracting. I stayed up until exhaustion took me.

On my way home I was getting on the plane in Atlanta and I realized I had never looked back at her Facebook profile. There is a great place to see happy memories, I thought.

I started scrolling. I made it back to May and then started reading all the things people had said about her following her death. It’s so much fun when you realize you’re crying around a bunch of strangers and you’re pretty sure they’ve noticed.

I was watching the Alabama/Georgia game on the flight and there was a Chick-Fil-A commercial. It’s one of those ones where the guy comes back from service abroad and surprises his family. He was in their cow outfit getting pictures with his wife and kids. They had no idea it was him in the suit. Then he takes off the head and reveals himself.

The look on his wife’s face, seeing him again, the joy and confusion and whatever else. It’s exactly how I would look if I saw her again.

I totally lost it. I actually barked. Who the hell cries during a Chick-Fil-A commercial? Me, that’s who.

When I got home I said hi to the kids, hung out with them until they went to bed and then went to the bar. Weird stuff happened. Not going to go into it, but it was weird.

I stuck around talking to some people I’ve met there until they called last call.

Sunday was another Get up, Get dressed, Get moving day. Made it through. I was up that night, thinking about happy memories. Trying to remember any specifics I could. Then I had a thought.

What if the specifics are difficult to recall because almost all of our time together was happy?

And then I went to sleep.