beginnings


 

Atlas Mill Pond, this tree hugs the edge of the hillside yet thrives in its strength.


Oh dear Keith, I think of you all the time… every… single… day… I ask your advice; I feel supported, if even from afar; I smile at your photo every day. I love you still, and always, for you are a major reason I am who I am today… because of the life we had together. And together, we created two beautiful children… and together…you are in the DNA of our future grandchildren. I will see in them your eyes, your smile, your dimples….even as I look at our daughters and hear your laugh.

But time has had its say, and I find that my identity has evolved. I realized this in sharp focus today, even as I had begun to feel it evolve over the past six months or more.

 

The Heron, usually the Great Blue but sometimes the White, has served as Keith’s animus to me, a reminder of his presence in winged flight. Here they are seen on the Atlas Mill Pond as I try and refocus on the new future life has planned for me.

 
When you first passed away, when you first left me and the girls, left this earth to go to the other side…the spirit world, I could see myself in only one way…lost. I was physically and emotionally in pain from losing you. My world had crumbled, and with it my entire identity had shifted… as half of a partnership that was entirely dependent upon being connected to you. Without you, I felt I was only a shadow of who I was. Because I was a widow…someone who – by definition – had lost a great love.

I still am that person who lost a great love. But I am no longer feeling like the crumbled broken woman whose wounded heart was freshly ripped open by loss. I feel stronger, capable of managing the stress of difficult situations, able to accomplish challenges with confidence rather than apology. I feel strong enough to help others who are facing difficulty, strong enough to stand up for what I know are the right steps to take in my own life in challenging situations. And strong enough to trust when the future is uncertain.

I feel strong enough to help others who are facing difficulty, strong enough to stand up for what I know are the right steps to take in my own life in challenging situations. And strong enough to trust when the future is uncertain.

I am now in a new and loving partnership, looking forward to celebrating our first wedding anniversary with Steven in two months. He is a wonderful and loving partner with whom I can see my life in balance. He provides the kindness I need to come home to, the smile in the morning, a sweet and loving hug in the evening, a supportive companion who makes me laugh when I need to stop taking myself too seriously, and a lover who calls me cutie when I need to feel pretty. And it seems that I have a role to play in his life, trusting in his talents, and supportive of his interests. I find that I can help him learn to move beyond anger and frustration, especially when these feelings seem to overwhelm him, often when accompanied by feelings of helplessness in difficult situations.

Sometimes, I think our roles make up an emotional partnership where I am the one who offers the stable view of life’s challenges and dreams and Steven offers the practical implementation of those dreams. And when conflict and distress threaten to undermine them, Steven’s frustration is balanced by my calmer pragmatism. Our life is built upon the comforting partnership of building our shared dreams. Without him, many of the dreams we share could not see practical fruition. And without me, the dreams we share might not see the supportive belief in their potential of reality.

 

September 27th this year marked the appearance of the Super Moon, a Blood Moon made red by a Full Lunar Eclipse. It created an important counter to the Blue Moon that occurred just a day before Keith passed. The universe speaks volumes while we ponder our own significance.

 
My identity has evolved. I am no longer the broken widow, a survivor of great loss who feels the hollowness and pain of your death, Keith. I know that you are still with me, and I depend upon your guidance from beyond this world. But I find that my heart is larger now than it was before. The hollowness has been filled by the recognition of the great love we shared during our long and loving marriage, a love that still grows in our children and future grandchildren that I will help nurture. My heart has grown larger to encompass a sweet love of a new partner who has joined me in this next and vital stage of my life. And the pain of your absence, Keith, has been replaced by an inner strength and mindfulness that allows me to serve others in a supportive, caring, and unconditional manner, understanding that listening goes beyond hearing the specific words said, to the words not spoken.

My identity has evolved into a woman who can meet life with an elegant strength. I am strong. I am resilient. I am loved. I do love. I do serve. And this is why I am here.

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Today is the birthday of several good friends. And I wish them LOTS of happiness as they celebrate another year of life to share with loved ones and good friends.

It also is the inauspicious anniversary of my late husband Keith’s passing at only 54 years old…the same age that I am now. You can read lots elsewhere in this blog (starting at summer of 2012)  about the transition through his rapid decline to death to the journey of grief and resilience that I have undergone. He was my best friend, lover, and husband of 30 years. He was someone I would trust without question, share in heartaches and celebrations, and the journey through parenthood raising our two beautiful daughters Sarah and Anastassia.

Today it has been three years since your passing, Keith. A lot has happened. I have grieved… and still do. But I have also moved forward with many of life’s demands and the promises I made… to you, and to myself… and to others.

I have embraced joy in the form of a future grandchild expected in December. And I’ve embraced building a life filled with happiness and love in my marriage to my second husband, Steven, who understands that you came before him. He honors you and protects me. Sometimes he is quick to get upset, mostly out of frustration, when he feels unsuccessful in protecting my interests, or feels slighted by a family member. He is learning the art of nuance and patience. He is learning that what others say or do is not about him, nor is it meant to impugn him. He is learning to let go of the wounds of his other life before me so that it doesn’t fracture an otherwise beautiful relationship.

And I am learning to feel your presence as a guide, to look around me and examine it through your eyes. This has become especially important as we move forward building a new home on Perry Road. You and I and Steven all came from a tradition of craftsmanship. This included a respect for workmanship, the materials, and the process. Things were carefully planned, constructed in the right order, with attention to detail. When it came to homes, it was about making them last, energy-efficient, and beautiful.

As I look at the workmanship of some of the rough framing crew, I am appalled. It has left me – and especially Steven – stressed. We are determined to keep the project moving forward, but only if the workmanship is up to our standards. It is hard to let go. And some things, I admit, I am willing to let go. For now, after several days of stressful challenges to the contractor, I am willing to see what he will do to keep to his promise to address our concerns.

If not… well. Keith… what would YOU do? I ask myself that… every… single… day…

Yes. It’s been three years. But I still depend upon you to guide me and give me strength to keep moving forward.

with love always,

Mara

Photo: Keith and me in Fiji in 2001 chaperoning students.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the "dad" to them all - young and old.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the “dad” to them all – young and old.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I am really living this happy life with a lovely sweet man, and planning a new home. In the space of a blink of an eye – it seems – life has turned around.

In December, Steve and I celebrated our marriage in a small “hillbilly wedding” on the terrace behind the old woodworking shop. Surrounded by family, nervous laughter, and not just a few chattering teeth, we said our “I Do’s” – the Doctor and the Hillbilly – in a loving commitment to sharing our future together.

Married 12/13/14, Steven placed a heart-shaped log as our featured decoration for our wedding.

Married 12/13/14, Steven placed a heart-shaped log as our featured decoration for our wedding.

Although the old shop was supposed to have been renovated prior to our wedding, its aging decrepitness lent a certain rustic charm to the day. After all, we’re building anew, releasing ourselves from the pains of past suffering, yet we acknowledge the scars we may still carry, fading slowly, but undeniably there.

Our day turned out to be auspicious, too, for its date. Honestly, it wasn’t chosen because of the pattern – 12/13/14. It was chosen because that was a day that some key people said they could be there. Fortunately, others who were equally important were able to arrange their schedules in order to support us. Our vows were sweet and honest, helping to tell the story of our meeting, our courtship, and our plans for a future life together. Unlike our first marriages, we were not marrying to raise children together. We are together because we look forward to spending our lives together as companions in our golden years, loving, supportive, sharing laughter, tears, and joy.

Even more amusing, my diploma arrived just after Christmas and ironically it stated that the degree was awarded the same day – 12/13/14. An auspicious day, indeed!

Doctorate in Education, Community College Leadership Issued 12/13/14

Doctorate in Education, Community College Leadership
Issued 12/13/14

Our wedding announcement told our little story in a gently amusing way. Here’s a mash-up of the front and back.

"The Doctor & the Hillbilly"

“The Doctor & the Hillbilly”

The response was appropriate and kind. Close friends and family shared their love and warm wishes. We were touched by the sentiments, especially those from around our generation or older, ones who could relate to building a life anew for a second chapter.

And that’s what it seems to be… a new chapter in life. Never will I forget the first one, my first life with Keith. Never will I forget the love and life we shared. And never does a day go by that I don’t feel his touch deep within my heart.

The old 1840s Farmhouse is being dismantled stick by stick. The pieces will be repurposed in the new house planned for the same location. Building the next chapter of our lives.

The old 1840s Farmhouse is being dismantled stick by stick. The pieces will be repurposed in the new house planned for the same location. Building the next chapter of our lives.

But as I move forward, building a new life with Steven, we take down the old… with plans to rebuild it, adapt it to new experiences yet to come. I pinch myself still. New career opportunities, new husband, new plans to build a life together… and the promise of a future watching our respective children raise their own families, building their own lives. I want to be a part of all that, and so does Steven. Together we can share in that joy. I acknowledge the guardian angels who have guided us towards each other, giving us the opportunity to share a second chance at love… sharing the next stage in life with a loving companion.

The mists rolled over the fields below our property.

The mists rolled over the fields below our property during our wedding, 12/13/14. The only music was the sounds of laughter and the soft ringing of the wind chimes on the hill.

I feel truly blessed.

 

Wedding photos by S.E. Fulmer Photography © 2014.

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Detail from an artist’s book created for a presentation on my growth through my doctoral studies.

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Well… That’s done! Phew! I have successfully defended my dissertation and can now officially be called Doctor Fulmer. It’s been a long and winding road and I can unequivocally say I am not who I was when I began.

And this is not where I thought I would be when I finished. But here, indeed, is where I am…

Tomorrow will bring a new challenge, something to change the course of my life… Sometimes it’s just a small thing… Or just a word or two. “Do you want to move in with me?”

You never know, really, how your life will shift ever so imperceptibly in a different direction. Not every change is brought on by the seismic shift of death. Sometimes… just sometimes…it is just one small thing you never really believed you would hear or say.

And then it’s over. And you’re sitting there thinking: “hmmm. That’s it. What next?”

In a way, life has been in a simultaneous holding pattern while I finished this doctoral degree, while at the same time rushing forward towards a future that was not entirely in my original plan.

Well, it’s not like I don’t have other things to do… Or want to do. Make art. Write more. Build a house. Move up in my career so I can put my skills to the test.

In a way, life has been in a simultaneous holding pattern while I finished this doctoral degree, while at the same time rushing forward towards a future that was not entirely in my original plan.

Let me explain. For the reader who is unfamiliar with my story, I offer a brief synopsis. Life was good. Really good. Daughter #1 had just gotten married to a wonderful man. Daughter #2 was graduating from university and had two jobs already lined up. I had finished my first year in a doctoral program while working full-time in a job I love. I had been awarded a short-term Fulbright to Russia. My husband of nearly 30 years and I had purchased our dream property where he could have his workshop, family art studios, gallery, and even a future new home. Life was good.

And then it wasn’t. (Read more about it In earlier posts going back to September 2012.) He had lost weight, been fighting a “cold” and feeling weaker. A month of tests led to a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, unknown primary (likely pancreatic), prognosis extremely poor. From diagnosis to death – less than 3 months. He made it just past his 54th birthday and our 30th anniversary. My life felt like it had completely crumbled.

Promises were made, though. He made me promise: Don’t sell the property, but finish it for the family to use for their studios as planned, and for my own uses. Finish the doctorate. He really wanted me to do that. He was upset that I had dropped out that summer to care for him. But, really, who can concentrate on Quantitative Research Methods while managing the care and emotional roller coaster of dealing with your dying spouse? But…then he was gone and I had to deal with the emotional crater that is grief.

First, I finished the renovations on the gallery house which contained daughter #1’s photo studio upstairs. Then a new fence, and retaining wall went in. The farmhouse is slowly being dismantled and parts saved for salvage. Steven, my companion in all of this, has tirelessly put his heart and soul into the work, along with any college students I can hire to assist.

Most recently, the large 4000 sq. ft. workshop space has been slated for renovations. Stacks of the 71 new windows fill the crowded shop in anticipation of being installed late fall, along with new insulation, siding, and steel roof. The emerging economy has slowed progress as the contractor I have worked with, an old friend of my late husband’s, is backed up from other work. But progress inches along and I have no doubt that it will all be done before Spring.

While all this was happening, I caught up. I finished all of my coursework, including the Quantitative Research course which I did by independent study with the original and very understanding instructor. I did all of this with a 4.0 GPA. At the commencement and hooding ceremony held last May, I was awarded the Faculty’s Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award for my thoughtful approach to the various studies, sometimes challenging my classmates to look at things from a different perspective.

And then, only five months after commencement, I have completed the dissertation defense, receiving high praise for intellectual standards for my work.

The meaning of pursuing these goals had changed. My life’s partner was gone… And my life had been designed for a partner.

I tell you all this not out of boastfulness. I tell you this because it was done in order to honor my promise. For if I had not made that promise, there were many times when it would have been easier to just walk away from it all. The meaning of pursuing these goals had changed. My life’s partner was gone… And my life had been designed for a partner. My new companion, however, was not going to let me give up on those promises.

And so how does one do it? It began with a simple gesture of sharing… Opening up one’s vulnerabilities and accepting that you might get hurt… But that you’d already felt the worst of pain. So what could it hurt if you shared a little of yourself with someone new who seemed to care and shared some vulnerabilities of his own?

It’s been a year and a half since I met Steven and he’s been the kindest and gentlest person that the spirits could have sent across my path at a time when his kind of personality was just what I needed. And since then, I have grown to respect and admire this self-described hillbilly for his creativity, innovation, and practical smarts. He is a good balance to my over-intellectualism. He wears his heart on his sleeve which reminds me to recognize my own capability to love someone again. And frankly, he’s always there with a good hug…just when I need it.

So I come back to where I began this brief story. I finished my doctoral studies. I am now Dr. Fulmer. I began as the wife of a loving husband of 30 years. I survived through my studies as a widow. I am now looking forward to building a new life with a new partner in a new home on the dream property from before.

The shape of the dream has shifted…just a little… I face a new challenge shared by many in the “sandwich generation” who are looking at caring for aging parents…mine who will join me in this new home I’ve designed. And I feel confident that, with Steven as my companion on this new journey, we will be able to meet whatever life’s challenges lay ahead. But I’m not naive. I know that, without warning, the road can shift beneath your feet. And life will never be the same again. You can’t live your life looking only in the rear view mirror as you try and move forward. And you can’t live your life paralyzed by the fear of a shifting road.

All you can do is take this long and winding path of life one step at a time. Look ahead to the dreams you continue to create. Scan side to side to see who is coming with you. And occasionally glance back to remind you how far you’ve come. Only in this way can you live your life moving forward.

Besides, I’m all good with the ghosts of those who still travel these roads with me around here.

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A good omen. Swans are visible through the branches along the pond’s edge as the sun sets behind my property where I’ll be building a new home.

September 8, 2014

So what does grief look like after 2 years? It is a full moon tonight as I contemplate this question.

Everyone grieves differently. For me, grief is a different creature than it was last year, or even the year before. For me, it lurks deep in the crevasses of my emotions, boiling in the depths far below the view of the outsider, or even – at times – myself. Yet at the right moment it bubbles up like a volcano, racking my body with sobs, an emotional sink hole in an otherwise softly curvy road in life’s journey.

A week ago yesterday marked the second anniversary of Keith’s passing. The actual day of the anniversary, Sunday, September 1, 2014, passed with little fanfare, a relief that the day was finally here and soon to be gone. I took part in the “Ice Bucket Challenge” where I wrote two checks – one for Keith’s scholarship, and one for the American Cancer Society – and then prepared a Tequila Sunrise to toast in Keith’s memory, followed by dumping the bowl of ice over my head, all recorded for sharing on FaceBook, as is the custom for this challenge. It was a cathartic ending to a difficult, yet sometimes fulfilling, week.
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Keeping a Steady Head Despite the Anticipation
For me, it was the anticipation of the anniversary date, brought on by the pattern of activities that occur annually at this time of year, that made it more difficult to maintain an even emotional keel during the week before. And some changes in my work made this passage even more pronounced.

This summer I was offered a new opportunity at the college, to serve as Faculty Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning where I could test out my newly minted doctoral studies in community college leadership. The opportunity marked the end of my reign as Program Coordinator in Graphic Design, a program I created upon my arrival from Fiji back in 1997 and had guided to success ever since. To step down from that position, while still maintaining my teaching position (and teaching just one class) was a major shift both mentally and emotionally. It meant turning over the reigns to one who I had helped mentor to take over. But I never thought I would see such an opportunity so soon. I was truly excited by this new endeavor. But it also meant stepping further away from a life and identity I had built with Keith.

That is part of the crux of this. It is all about Time, with a capital “T.” Time, in this case, is like a long winding road that sometimes loops around on itself. My life with Keith now lies further back on this road. And each new step I take building a new life takes me further and further away from him and the journey we shared together. As sad as that sounds, the reality is that he is not here, physically at least, traveling on this road with me now, and I’ve come to terms with that. There are others who are on this journey with me, my children who still connect me to Keith. Many dear friends and extended family members. And then there is one especially sweet and gentle hillbilly of an artist who has joined me on this road I travel now.

It is all about Time, with a capital “T.” Time, in this case, is like a long winding road that sometimes loops around on itself.

But each year, the summer winds down, and the last milestones that passed with Keith in his last weeks and days in that Summer of 2012 march across my calendar again – his birthday, our anniversary, and then that last week…

On the college calendar, all faculty come back from summer for Welcome Back week. The last two weeks before classes start are among the busiest for everyone on campus, but especially in the office of my new job.

Yet so marked are these late summer dates in my mind, that I can’t help but count them down. Friday before Welcome Back week… when the hospice nurse urged me to try and go to my doctoral class meeting in Grand Rapids after we had spent the morning talking about installing a hospital bed in our bedroom so that Keith would no longer have to climb the stairs. Keith had expressed his concern to the hospice nurse about being too much of a burden on me while I attempted to go back to teaching in Fall. For me, it was an admission of my failure, that the end was near for Keith, that I could not save him. It broke me emotionally and I cried all the way to Grand Rapids and back, even screaming at the top of my lungs in the cocoon of my car.

Then there was the following Wednesday afternoon when I attempted to try and pretend I was doing something normal by going to the Faculty picnic. I lasted only an hour, leaving after the VP told me that she didn’t expect me to be there, to go home to be with Keith. She was right. I couldn’t face all the happy people excitedly telling stories of their summer adventures. This year’s Welcome Back festivities brought all those memories back to me again, especially that picnic. But this time, I mostly enjoyed seeing all the smiling faces.

It was a good day. A mother-daughter bonding day, a day when we didn’t need to spend lots of money to enjoy each other’s company.

Then there was the memory of the days that followed – Thursday being told to prepare for Keith’s imminent passage, Friday spending the day between the bedside vigil in the dark room where Keith lay, and spare moments with my brother and sister-in-law who had come to help rescue me and the girls from well-intentioned visitors. And then there was that final day… sending my youngest grown daughter upstairs to wake her sister to give Keith his meds. Feeling the urge to follow her moments later… walking into the room in time to see her as she said “I think I just saw Dad take his last breath.”

My younger daughter and I got together on Sunday, the day before the 2nd anniversary. It was a good day. A mother-daughter bonding day, a day when we didn’t need to spend lots of money to enjoy each other’s company. We enjoyed looking in antique shops, eating a cheap but delicious BeBimBop at Cosmos, and wandering Ann Arbor chatting away about everything and anything.

I know that when Keith died, she was worried about losing her mother, too, as I made my own way through grief. Her older sister had her new husband to lean on. My younger daughter’s concern seemed to grew when I met my new friend Steven. It has been a long winding road, but a certain balance has begun to evolve. I am seeing the way forward to build a new life with a new partner and new job, balanced with the life that existed before and which provides the foundation for my future, and the evolving dreams.

Sometimes the Winding Road Bends Around on Itself

But it’s not without tears. That winding road of Time, when the events flip back over upon themselves, repeating their position on the calendar, mock my grief which had sunk deep out of sight into those crevasses. Then, occasionally, it explodes as it did this year in a sobbing release. It occurred this time on that Wednesday before the semester started, the same day as that faculty picnic. I had tried to remain stoic and put on a happy face throughout the week, and most of the time I actually felt happy! The new job was starting and I was immersing myself in learning as much as I could about its operations and mission.

But I could feel the cracks occasionally fissuring away at my strength. Steven was trying to help. He had arranged to get my car serviced a week before at his son’s shop in Gladwin. And now he was even getting new tires put on after we discovered the cause of a slow leak in one of the tires, a metal screw that probably came from the roofers at Perry Road.

In discussing the cost of the tires, I had pulled out the papers from nearly two years ago in October 2012 when I’d brought the car to a company Keith had used before to get two new tires. Back then, the kids had been concerned saying my rear tires were far too worn to be safe and urged me to go. It was just 5 weeks after Keith’s passing and I went to the tire place thinking it should be a straightforward affair. It was… as long as I didn’t pay attention to the charges. Looking at the receipt now nearly two years later, Steve and I discovered I had been charged for two overlapping warranties amounting to nearly $140 in extra charges.

On this night, after getting the exact same tires put on for nearly $230 less, Steven was angry at the original tire company that he believed had taken advantage of me. Extending the conversation, he was equally impatient that the roofers had not taken better care to clean up the nails and debris from their installation at Perry Road. Yet another item seemed to irritate him that wasn’t done more carefully at Perry Road, too, and he expressed a frustration that some people may have taken advantage of my more vulnerable position.

…Keith had been my protector, running interference and taking care of those things to his satisfaction while allowing me to focus on other things that helped make our lives run smoothly…

But the reality was that back then… during those six months after Keith’s passing, I did not have the strength to push for details. I just wanted things done. And if it caused too much of a drain on my energy to try and resolve an issue, I backed off. I had learned that life was, indeed, too short to waste one’s energy on arguing. And the reality was also that, as a woman, I was indeed taken advantage of by certain vendors, especially the tire company. It’s a common theme experienced by many women.

Even more than that, though, was the fact that Keith had been my protector, running interference and taking care of those things to his satisfaction while allowing me to focus on other things that helped make our lives run smoothly, things that I was more expert in. He would take care of the car and tires. He would have made sure that the roof, or the drain tile, or the clean-up was done satisfactorily. Steven, though well intentioned in expressing his dissatisfaction over these issues, feeling they were an affront to my wellbeing, had succeeded in reminding me how vulnerable I had been without Keith.

It reminded me how much Keith had protected and cared for me in these situations… and, yes, how Keith had protected me from at least one unscrupulous “friend.” Steve’s frustration reminded me how far away from Keith that time’s winding road had carried me, only to flip around and hit a moment of painful memories… And then the dam finally broke on the wall of tears that I’d held back for the previous week. A gentle embrace held me while I sobbed until I had no more tears left. And then life went onward and the grief receded to the deep crevasses again.

Life is good. Life is blessed. Next month I should be defending my dissertation, another milestone on the winding road of this ethereal journey of dreams.

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Above: My brother is met by a White Heron who hung around on the beach near Sarasota, Florida during our visit in May 2014. I have often thought that the Heron, whether White or Blue, was Keith’s animus.

It’s been nine months since the last entry. Not that I haven’t had anything to say, far from it. But life has been very full… And frankly, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to really share with the blog-reading public. So I will simply say that life has been mostly good, with many, many blessings to be grateful for, lessons learned, and dreams experienced.

First… The promises kept.

During the summer 2012 of my husband’s illness, when I dropped my classes for the doctoral program I was in, Keith made me promise him two things. First – that I would finish the doctorate, and second – that I wouldn’t sell the property at Perry Rd and would continue with the renovations to make it the studios and gallery we dreamed of, including a photo studio for older daughter Sarah, and a printmaking studio space for Anastassia.

Last month, on May 9, I participated in the commencement and hooding ceremony for my doctorate with highest honors (4.0 GPA) and was given the faculty’s Distinguished Scholar Practitioner Award. I still have some work left on the dissertation. So I am reluctant to duly embrace this achievement. But finish it I will, with an anticipated completion only months away.

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Above: Me with my award.
Below: My daughters, me, and Steve pose together with our Spider-Man masks on. One can’t take oneself too seriously, you know.


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And last fall, we launched the opening of the photography studio of S.E. Fulmer Photography, followed shortly by the opening of the downstairs gallery. All together, the building is called The Gallery House.

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Above: The Gallery House from last Fall.

This summer, with the incredibly dedicated help of my dear companion of the last 14 months, we are heading fully into the workshop renovations. We are starting with some much needed landscaping – fully fencing the space of about 1.25 acres. Then we’ll add some retaining walls, and finally, the building itself will get a thorough clean up. The workshop must be made ready for use in making the project that follows possible.

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Above: Looking uphill at the workshop which will be the focus of this summer’s renovations at Perry Rd.

New promises…

In late April, I read a book that I recommend to anyone wondering what kind of grief is normal. With apologies to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief are more appropriately applied to those who are dying, not necessarily to the survivors. The book is called “Four Funerals and a Wedding” by Jill Smolowe. She experienced the loss of four dear loved ones, including her husband, within a short period of time. She addresses her own manner of dealing with those who offer help, with the potential concern for being judged, and most importantly, the resilience of recovery from loss. In no way does resiliency mean that one has stopped grieving for their loss. But resiliency means one is able to look forward and build a new life, in spite of their loss.

I was so moved by her book, about her ability to describe many of my own feelings and providing the permission one needs to move on, that I sent her an email message. We exchanged some very kind messages and I felt a kinship to the form of widowhood she has defined, where one is allowed to move onward, even find new relationships. She sent her encouraging best wishes, for both the relationship I now have, and for the completion of my degree. If you, too, are facing the potential loss of a loved one, or already have, this book may be for you. If you know someone who is facing this, and you want some insight into how to help, this book would be for you, too.

Another book I read was “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” by Roz Chast. A comic book artist, she writes and draws from the heart about her experience as the only child of two 90-something parents who she must deal with in their last few years. Her strong-willed mother faces serious health issues after a falling incident, while her father suffers from dementia. The reality, however, is that we just start falling apart the older we get.

This book also dealt with the feelings of guilt and frustration of the caregiver, Roz, who was an only child. Frustration because she couldn’t convince her parents to move out of their apartment until it was a critical situation, and guilt over issues of money… Would they outlive any money they’d saved? And what of the cost of their care and special living needs? The situation described by Chast was made even more real by the sudden decline in her health of my companion’s aging mother.

These issues have crossed my mind regarding my own parents recently, too, though I have been spared some frustrations. Shortly after my doctoral commencement, a road trip to Florida to see my parents led to discussions about a potential future with them living with me in Michigan. The trip included their first introductions to my companion, and my parents seemed to have really taken a liking to him, and he to them. As my brother (who flew in to help with the discussions) and I looked knowingly at each other, my dad regaled Steven with the stories we’d heard many times before. And my mother seemed to enjoy Steven’s chivalrous nature and good humor.

Though much younger than the situation in Roz Chast’s book, my parents are coming to terms with a future that includes being near me as they face their own health and aging issues. Rather than be a 20-hr drive away, we are now planning to build a multi-generational home to share.
So the workshop at Perry Rd will need to have the woodworking side fully functional.

Yes, a new home is in our future. Recognizing the fact that both my parents are artists, too, my daughter Sarah has already dubbed this future abode: “The House of the Aging Artists” complete with dripping paint for the logo style.

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Above: a great white heron, one of Keith’s animus, visits me on Sanibel Island during my visit to my parents last month.

Below: Me…on the beach at Sanibel Island.

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Ah well. I’ve come to the conclusion that we must embrace the life we’re given, go with the flow and be ready for the challenges that life brings. I’ve been through hell and back. Keith is still with me in spirit – I know this for certain. But I’m in this universe and I will be making the most that life offers. It’s the only way I know.

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Pumpkins grow in spite of my lack of attention.
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Last year, after my husband Keith’s passing, I made a few efforts to try and create normalcy, or at the very least offer the pretense of bringing it about. I bought a pumpkin and put it out by the front door. I bought some colorful gourds and put them in a bowl on my dining room table. And I tried to keep up with all the vegetables that were still coming in from the crop share I’d joined earlier in the year.

But as Autumn brought the chilled promise of winter, and the leaves began to change and pile up outside my door, the fact that I was facing the season alone became palpable. The pumpkin out front began to rot in place at the corner of the front garden, and I tossed a couple of the gourds into a hole Lenny had dug outside my backdoor when they began to mold. When a small baking pumpkin began to rot before I could cook it, I couldn’t be bothered taking it out to the trash in the cold dark winter. Instead, it joined the gourds in the hole out back.

Imagine my delight when Spring came and seedlings began to sprout. Little had I known that these would become magic seeds. Like a horizontal version of Jack in the Beanstalk, the plants began to grow – out in the front garden, and even more out my back door.

It took months before any fruit began to show on the plant out front, while the backyard began to look like a scene from Jurassic Park as the plants multiplied, sprouted fruit, and crept quickly across my patio and over my fence gate. It quickly became clear that it was more than one kind of plant. Lo and behold, several kinds of gourds became apparent, and two shapes of small pumpkins. The kids began to pay attention, teasing me on my gardening approach, and claiming their own pumpkin from the patch.

The whole situation was rather amusing, even as we would gently move the giant plants tendrils back and forth when mowing the lawn or trying to weed the overgrowth of morning glories tried to take over. But apparently my utility company was less than amused, especially when access to the meter became nearly impossible. A letter came in the mail indicating they had estimated my bill rather than do an actual reading due to lack of access from “overgrown weeds” around the meter.

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More abundance makes its way to my Jurassic Park garden.
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I kept the letter out so I could see it when I walked through the living room, shaking my head in amusement. But finally I relented and decided to take my cutters to the mass of weeds that had overtaken the fence gate, even the pumpkins. Then I took on the overgrown bushes around the airconditioning unit. In between, I took a break. But not to rest, but to refocus.

Inside the house was a similar tangle of overgrown brush, but in the form of files and papers. These created a palpable weight upon my heart and mind. They needed filing, put away. As I moved through this pile, I expanded my reach and took on files of Keith’s old business, then moved on to his final papers, the will, his death certificate, and finally adding to the pile… his birth certificate. There it was… all neatly put away in a file box ready for storage. I breathed a deep long sigh. Life in a box. Well, not really. But it seemed that way… full circle… life… death… birth.

Inside, as the piles inside were cleared away, I began to see space in the room, in my file cabinets, on the floor and the weight of their presence, and their meaning began to fade. Outside, as the piles of debris were packed into the yardwaste bags and dragged to the curb, the sun began to shine through the leaves and branches to reach the cool mossy ground. I was tired and sore, but it was the kind of feeling that came from a day of hard work and accomplishments.

I had succeeded in making room in my house by packing up some of the weight of the past… In my garden, I had cleaned out the overgrown brush around my fence gate making room for it to open more easily, for me to become more open to whatever may come into my life. And at the same time, I delightfully celebrated the gifts of abundance that had grown in spite of my lack of careful tending. It seems like an interesting metaphor for me…

Life goes on. You just have to make room and be open to letting it happen.

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My first fall harvest.

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