Family


In the blog entry “My Mother Wasn’t Trash,” writer Joshua Wilkey shares his mother’s important and sensitive story about her life in poverty in Appalachia. It’s worth a read.

When people are eaten up mentally and physically by a lifetime of compounded shitty choices, they reach a point where they can’t even decide what is best anymore, because they realize that no matter what they do – no matter how hard they try – they are cogs in a broken machine and nobody cares about them anyway. Poor Appalachian people are broken, but not nearly as broken as the systems that keep them poor. 

Thank you, Joshua Wilkey, for bringing a voice forward to be heard.


When a terrible disease ravages someone you love, the mourning process begins long before they finally pass on. Kübler-Ross (1969), in her study on death and dying, described five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But Kübler-Ross was initially focusing on those who were dying, and not so much on those who were dealing with personal loss of any great significance, which she later came to recognize.

These stages are not linear, either, and can occur in any order, if at all. Women tend to experience all five stages more than men. They can be cyclical, too, with two or more occurring in an almost extreme emotional roller coaster. For both the dying and the loved one, getting to the point of acceptance does not always happen at the same time. The dying often reaches the stage of acceptance before their loved ones. But if and when both reach the point of acceptance, where communication and reflection can be experienced, a more dignified death can be found.

I’d add a couple of additional stages, or at least notable elements, to the stages of pre (and post) grieving. That includes fighting to maintain control of the details in their lives. The opposite is the disruptive feeling of vulnerability when control is lost which can lead to related stages of despair and anger.

Another related stage involves trying to make order in one’s life. Especially when the world around you seems to be in chaos, small efforts to create order can take on an outsized importance. Cleaning out cupboards, putting away old records, sorting through old photos, are just a few example of how the person facing loss may attempt to build a sense of order in a life that seems otherwise out of control.

Recently, I heard this statement made by someone who is facing the inevitable loss of his longtime spouse who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve paraphrased it per my own cloudy memory.

I feel like I’m in a carnival outhouse sitting out in a field, and the circus is packing up to leave without me.

While he didn’t elaborate, he was trying to express his feelings regarding the situation he found himself in now. I’ve been thinking about this and cannot help but connect it to my own experiences and ruminations.

First and foremost, there is the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, of literally having your pants down in a crisis, or a formidable change that is going on around you. You’re stuck. It is hard to move forward without first finishing the primary business at hand. Panic sets in and it is hard to make decisions. Yet you’re also worried about being left behind, and by the act of moving to a new location – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and the unknown that comes with that. But even more so, it is a fear of being left behind by the ominously fast progression of a disease that robs you of the one you love, again mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The carnival/circus represents fetes of apparent magic, gravity-defying acts, seemingly impossible, often nonsensical, frightening in their dangerous distortions of human entertainment, and the funhouse mirrors that twist and distort our vision of reality.

The world around you no longer makes sense and you feel vulnerable, scared, afraid of being left behind, fearing for your loved one and a future you cannot envision without them. It literally scares the shit out of you… And yet you know you have to keep moving to survive. Because that’s your role here.

Of course, the circus could also represent your loved one, the person who was the highlight of your life, with which you shared the literal stage of life, it’s bright lights, music, the comedy and drama of a life fully shared. Either way, it all seems so unfair.

Anger rushes forward. Anger at what fate has thrown you, your loved one, the cruelty of the disease. There is no preferred or better way to die of a disease. Cancer kills the body slowly while eating away at the person. Alzheimers eats away the person while leaving the body to deteriorate at a slower rate, until the parts of the brain that operate the body begin to lose their synaptic connections.

Either way, these diseases are cruel – to the loved one who suffers them, and to the lover who must endure the pain of watching, of frustrating efforts to try and overcome the diseases’ manifestations, the cruel teases of normalcy and strength that suddenly appear and then, as a wisp in the winds, they disappear to the mists that hid the light in their eyes.

Whether you want to or not, you are, and will be… the survivor. The one who will carry the stories forward until they can be shared fully with a new generation. You will be needed by others who will benefit from your wisdom, humor, insights borne of long experience. The fates have determined that your place is here…in this world…where you are still needed.

The journey along side the dying of a loved one is dark and painful. But it also has its moments to be cherished. The fleeting glimpse of a smile, a flash of humor, the small gestures that show you are still connected to this loved one. You have been chosen for the honor of being beside them on this journey to the end of this life. You, however, will stay behind, their partner only until the gates of passage open to the other side. Until death do you part.

It sucks. It hurts so badly, the pain is physical, palpable. Breath… breath… You are still alive. And they will always be with you, and waiting on the other side to greet you when your turn comes, naturally, when the fates determine it to be so. In the meantime, treasure each moment with your loved one as a gift. Soon enough, there will be only memories that you will hold onto tightly, then share with others when the right time comes.

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Sweet Pea, our nearly 15 yr old Borzoi, in a glamour shot from her healthier days.

January 8, 2016, 11:11 pm

Sweet Pea died today. Steve and I took her to the veterinarian this morning after making a difficult choice. She had not been well for awhile, but had begun declining more rapidly in the last month or so. She’d grown more frail, wasn’t eating as much, or sometimes not at all, and could barely make it up and down the stairs. Lenny, in the meantime, had begun to show his own distress by whining and barking to get Sweet Pea, or one of us out of bed to help her go outside, to eat, or whatever was going through his little puppy sized brain. He was driving us all crazy by doing this at all hours of the night. We were growing impatient, exhausted, and frustrated. We knew what it was about. But neither one of us wanted to make the decision. Sweet Pea would tell us, we would say to each other. She would let us know when the time was right.

But sometimes we don’t want to pay attention, to make the difficult choices. Sometimes, we think, that if we just ignore it, life will go on without having to face the painful moment of truth. I know that’s bullshit. I have seen it up close and personal. But it doesn’t make me immune from the desire to shield myself from the reality of her – or anyone else’s – suffering. It hurts too much to acknowledge it.

Last night, after two nights of sleeping down on the coach through the night, Sweet Pea decided she wanted to join us…one more time. Before this, the trek up the stairs would be wobbly but possible. It was the trek down the stairs that scared us all. Her legs barely held her up, and her unsteadiness made it a nerve racking and time consuming experience to get her back down the stairs. So we were grateful that she had not attempted it for the previous two nights. But not tonight.

The spirits had been talking all evening… I’d been seeing 11’s for most of the day. Michael sent me a photo that showed 5:11 in the LED clock on the TV set top sitting on Keith’s cherry cabinet he’d made for them in Needham. And again I’d look up to see 11 elsewhere…clocks, emails, texts. Something was up.

So when Michael texted me again at 9:11 pm, I thought it was simply an acknowledgement of the pattern I’d shared with him. But not long after, I heard shuffling and then a bang, then whimpers in the hallway. I jumped out of bed to see what happened. Sweet Pea had fallen at the top of the stairs, collapsing in front of the bathroom and had her nail caught under the doorframe molding. With some difficulty, I freed her from the doorframe and coaxed her up so she could make it to the bedroom. I went back down and fetched her pillow bed that I’d brought down before to convince her to stay down there. She looked forlornly in my direction, her cataract cloudy eyes trying to see me in the fog. This might be it, I thought. Maybe she’ll die in her sleep like Gemorra did so many years ago.

But the night passed and Lenny’s constant whimpering reminded us of the grim decision we would have to make once daylight came. She could barely stand, let alone make it down the stairs. At first I tried, but gave up, so Steven took on the challenge, pleading with her to try, telling her he’d catch her if she started to fall. She made it and went outside to pee, retaining the last bit of dignity the old girl had left. She even ate a little when she came back in, constantly escorted by the ever whimpering Lenny. But then she made her way to the couch, using her last bit of energy to climb up there. Her breathing was labored and I could see the time had come. I couldn’t make her suffer another day.

She passed peacefully in the vets office. They put out a white blanket for her to lie upon, though she missed it when she reclined after her anesthesia. At one point I thought the anesthesia had done the job, without the final injection. But she was breathing still, though so shallow it was hardly visible. Then the shot in her leg, and within moments she was gone… Gone to the other side, relieved of her pain, greeted happily by a healthy and goofy big Stanley. Given a warm and social greeting by her old master, Keith. I picture them enjoying some romping and fetching games followed by a good round of coach-potatoing together like they did all the time before.

Steven and I gave our last tearful goodbyes…he was really fond of her, she reminded him of several other big white dogs he’d had as furry companions in his life before me. And, with a trim of her tail feathers and an imprint from her paw as a memorial from the vet, we left to toast Sweet Pea over bacon and eggs and…toast.

Although my neighbor referred to her as "Satan's Spawn," Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Although my neighbor referred to her as “Satan’s Spawn,” Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Later, after letting my grown daughters know about her passing, I posted a photo and the news on Facebook. I felt somewhat awkward about the outpouring of sympathy. Yes, Sweet Pea was my longest living Borzoi, having made it nearly 15 years. Yes, she had helped me through some difficult life transitions. Yes, she had been “my” dog and furry companion. And yes…even better, she had befriended Steven…a sure sign that he was the good guy I thought him to be. I even imagined Keith sending her back from the cemetery that hot summer’s weekend over 2 years ago when she got loose for 30 hours and nearly died in the 100 degree heat so that she could help me to decide on the merits of Steven’s character. She did not share her inner sweetness with just anyone, and was especially particular when it came to men. There have been only two men I knew her to show deep affection for – Keith and Steven. I guess she knew who were the right men to be trusted in my life.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith's chest)....aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith’s chest)….aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

In the photo above: It’s hard to believe when I look at this picture..my heart both sinks in sadness, yet breaths hope, too. Everyone is gone from this earth but hopefully reunited on the other side. Stanley on Mother’s Day 2011, Keith on 9/1/2012, and Sweet Pea on 1/8/2016. Even the couch – brought back from Fiji – is gone, having been turned over to the dogs, and later dismantled, the leather salvaged for me to use in making books. Maybe I should make some more…

 

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.

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.

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