mourning



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…

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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Perry Road workshop after a spontaneous sleigh ride down the hill, a week ago. The sun was quickly melting a new fallen snow.
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It was fortuitous that the workmen would come today (Friday, 3/1/13), the six-month anniversary of Keith’s passing. They moved up their starting day to remodel the master bathroom at home. The room had been a running joke in our lives, but also a sore spot Keith would ignore in favor of taking on other projects, commitments, or just going for a ride on the motorcycles. I admit that I enabled this. I much preferred to ignore it myself and go have fun, then to fight over it= and cause unrest in the house.

Yet there it was, in all it’s ugliness, the focus of which was the freezing shower with the cracked tiles, the shower door falling off its hinges, the moldy ceilings, etc. When I had packed up many of Keith’s things, I came across a drawing and notes he had made for remodeling this room. My own drawings were not too far off. The difference was the custom cabinet which I could not supply. And so other solutions would be needed. In the end, though, I was forced to make a last minute change, bumping the wall out into the bedroom about a foot so that the cabinet I ordered wouldn’t block the doorway. This was the part Keith would have customized, creating a slant to ease the entry while still allowing for the larger cabinet. But mine was 20 inches deep, and the wall next to the door was only 16. I could not put it tucked into the corner as planned. And I couldn’t move it over due to the toilet space needed. So the wall would be moved.

I listened as the guys smashed and cut away old fixtures and floors, while I worked on a paper in the cozy little cocoon I made of my bedroom behind plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling.

It was exciting to start this project. Nearly 16 years after moving to Michigan, and about 15 years after moving into this house, that bathroom was always the target of my disgust. Cracked tiles, continuously moldy grout, shivering cold, a tiny vanity, all added up to a room that I just wanted to smash. It became a running joke (and point of terror) that when the kids misbehaved, they’d be threatened with scrubbing the shower tile in mom and dad’s bathroom.

A need to break something…
So when the guys showed up this morning and started the demolition, I asked them to give me a chance to smash something, just one thing to get out my frustration. I took aim at the soap dish, broken for the last three years where the mold had seeped into the crack and degraded the already cracked and ugly ceramic dish now hanging jagged out of the wall.

SMACK!! and crash, I swung the hammer at it with my eyes closed tight, the guys behind me cackling at the sound of the pieces hitting the tile floor of the shower. I was anything but satisfied. I was angry. Angry that it took 15 years and the death of my husband to get to this point. Angry that I was doing this on the 6 month anniversary of his passing. Angry at Keith for abandoning me. Angry at myself for feeling guilty about wanting the embrace of another man in Keith’s absence. Just plain angry at the world.

I handed the hammer back to Joe who shook his head still laughing at my overly dramatic swing, and so I managed to summon a smile in return. My last big assignment for a doctoral course was calling me. So I slipped through the plastic sheathing that hung between the work area and the rest of my bedroom, climbed back onto my bed where my iPad and reading sat waiting for my attention.

Counting down to the other side
Later that evening, after the workmen left, i let out a sob. Pent up emotion that needed a release. It lasted only a moment and then I went back to my work. But as the hour drew near, I had to stop and write in my diary… a countdown of sorts:

The countdown weighs heavily on my heart, 55 minutes, 54, 53, 52, 51… Keith died at 7:55 pm on September 1st, exactly 6 months earlier. Just a few days ago, visible in the pre-storm night sky, the nearly full moon loomed overhead, stars sparkling and taunting me in a bittersweet reminder of the date to come. But tonight, this last hour has been painful.

The other part of the remodel project ws to replace the vanity in the kids bathroom. Keith had made it and painted it with analine dyes a scene of seaweed and deep blue waters. Unfortunately, he hadn’t accounted for the doorframe trim and the kids were never able to pull the drawers out as far as intended on one side. I feared that any new owner of this house would simply pull the cabinet out and toss it. So I ordered an inexpensive white cabinet the same size and had the guys swap it out.

From my diary…

It’s 7:45 pm. 10 minutes before that moment when we knew Keith made his last breath… 6 months ago. Stassia is busy texting me about how much money she’s losing from her free trip to Florida. I try and restrain my impatience and simply remind her that it will all work out, I had planned to help her out anyway, knowing there would be some impact on her missing work. She has already been stressed due to a cutback of hours so I try not to feed her anxieties. I have enough of my own.

Four minutes now. I’m beginning to feel a little better. Time is passing quickly and I focus on the passage of this sad milestone which will put me on the other side of the hump between the first half of a year after he died, and the second half when looking forward should become more common than looking back.

I moved a photo I have of Keith that sat on my side of the bed. It was the one where he has that silly smirk on his face. But more often recently, that smirk has looked more like disapproval, and even hurt. I couldn’t face it any longer, at least not every moment when I sat on my side of the bed we used to share. I moved it over to “his” former side, the side where I keep my powder puff from crabtree and evelyn, and my button jar, the side where I moved my flickering lamp when I swapped it for his working lamp.

It’s 7:55 pm now. My heart sinks a bit. I have already shed some tears in exasperation. But the moment has passed. It’s time to move forward. I love you Keith. I will always love you. But I cannot live with the pain of your loss. I must live with the hope for a new future. Otherwise, my grief will consume me, a feeling I have occasionally faced in a depressive moment, ready to give up on going forward.

Moving forward…
Yes, the moment has passed, an inauspicious milestone. Six months to the minute since Keith died. I breathed deeply and tried to go back to my work, knowing I am not alone on this road. And that there are angels – or ghosts – who watch over me, too. My dreams, and those of a good friend, make that clear.

So now looking forward, I thank goodness for many things. For the friendships I have, my children who remind me why I cannot sink into despair. And the touchstone of a good counselor. And for a fulfilling career surrounded by interesting, supportive people…

And oddly enough, more recently, I am also thankful that, even if it does not grow into anything further (or I refuse to let it), there’s a little guy up north who is willing to talk to me, listens to my tears, and even then still calls me cutie, and offers me a virtual hug. We have never met, but I have grown more fond of him. Maybe it’s because at this point it is still fantasy. But, at the moment, I can live with that.
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And the demolition begins, at home on Jerome Lane.

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I signed up for Social Dancing and took my first class on Wednesday. The kids encouraged me, too, saying it would get me out of the house. And besides, I needed the exercise. Yoga has been part of my routine every other day. But it’s nice to mix it up. So I was both excited and a little nervous about this new “mini” adventure.

It went very well. I found myself really enjoying myself. So it surprised me a little when the silver-haired instructor (probably around 70 yrs old) came up to me as I was getting my coat and asked if I was okay, was I crying? Oh, no, I’m just fine. But the kids say I wear my emotions on my face too clearly these days. So maybe Beverly, the masters ballroom dance champion, saw what I felt inside but hadn’t acknowledged yet.

My dance partner, a nice gentleman slim and well over 6 feet tall, almost had to lean to reach my shoulder of my 5’2″ frame. And rather than look up and crane my neck, I just stared ahead at the button on his shirt. Then, quite often, I would just close my eyes and count as I concentrated on where to put my feet.

1…2…3   1…2…3  1…2…3  1…2…3

In the space of an hour, we learned the Fox Trot, Waltz, Rumba and a few steps of East Coast Swing. It went by quickly and I found the steps easy to learn. I had an urge to push the dance further with the other moves I knew went with them. Feeling the beat, I channeled a little of the great Tamara Doriva, my grandmother, bell of Spanish Harlem, who made her fame as a folksinger/dancer, a femme fatale on the stages of NYC in the 1930s and 40s.

As I closed my eyes, I could easily forget where I was. Instead, I was transported back to a time not that long ago, when my dance partner was my dear Keith as we shared our utter joy at our daughter’s wedding.

“How did we get here?”

We asked each other in joyful laughter. But now I ask myself:

“How did I get here? alone?”

It has been less than 19 months since that joyful dance, when we saw the future as newlyweds ourselves, with children grown and still young and energetic enough to enjoy the next chapter with youthful-minded (if not youthful physically) abandon.

After my dance class, once I got home from picking up a few items, the kids were all there for a visit and I got to make dinner for more than just me. Laughter and bawdy humor filled the house, jokes flying here and there like old times. It felt good.

Later that night, I sat on the bed and looked at Keith’s photo, touched my lips with my finger and pressed it on his, turned the light off and cried myself to sleep.

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Therapeutic Arts and Conversation

I’ve done three book arts workshops in three weekends and now won’t have another until March when I go back and revisit letterpress printing. Each trip to Ann Arbor for the workshop is usually followed by a visit with Stassia, wandering around the used bookstores, maybe a little peek in the Ten Thousand Villages shop, of course after looking around the gallery where Stassia works.

While this activity has been very therapeutic, I’ve also found myself suffering waves of emotion that were entirely unanticipated, especially after I’ve had long periods of feeling fairly good. It became clear to me that it was time to revisit a grief counselor and so I arranged to set up semi-regular visits to a therapist who could guide me through this next phase. As strong as I may think I am sometimes, my very smart grown children have said “it’s okay” to ask for help. I think that for me, it is comforting just to have this touchstone meeting to look forward to, where I can let some of the emotional backlog slip over the dam.

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Exploring the Territory

In early January, I thought I’d turn over a new leaf. Mostly I think it was loneliness and lack of adult conversation. But I decided to check out one of the online dating sites for “older” adults. My profile clearly states that I am not interested in marriage or longterm commitments at this time. And I boldly express how I do not wish to be “saved” and hold very liberal views. I describe myself as an artist, educator, and writer, and a recent widow. So in spite of my frankness, it is amusing to see what the results are from this experiment. Stassia has been a great source of advice and between us we often share anecdotes over who has messaged us recently. A very odd mother-daughter bonding experience has resulted, even if no other of my online conversations have led to anything beyond an occasional entertaining message.

So while my girls insist that what I really need is a gay guy friend (anyone want to volunteer?), I am approaching this as a sociological experiment with an almost analytical observational technique. For one thing, this approach removes the potential vulnerabilities that might occur if I were to take it more personally. So far, my observations are as follows:

• dating sites are full of scammers attempting to draw the person off the website (cause for “blocking” in my experiment);

• a disproportionate number of men in my age range advertise themselves as being extremely athletic and toned (not always matching the posted photo), and want a partner who is the same. (cause for “deletions” in the list of “viewed profile”)

• a large number of very “conservative” men seem drawn to liberal women. (also cause for “deletions” and/or “block user” in my experiment)

In spite of all that, I have had some nice message exchanges with some educated intelligent people, including the occasional teacher. And, as my daughter has indicated, it’s nice to have that validation that I may still be attractive to others, in spite of my “curviness”.

But, in the end, I still go to bed curled up with Keith’s photo in front of me and ask myself two questions:

“Keith, where are you now?”

followed by

“And how did I get here?”

So I guess it will take a lot more time to work out the landscape of widowhood and all that it means to travel this road.

The sign said:

Please don’t forget I love you.

It stopped me cold. I was allowing myself a short distraction while eating a late lunch, scrolling through one of my favorite pop-up shops online. In this section were graphic wall signs of sayings about love. But this sign wasn’t among those offered for sale. It was in the preview, catching my attention as I flipped through the main page. I flipped the page back up and read it again.

Please don’t forget I love you.

No, I said out loud, alone in the room. No, I won’t forget. I love you, too. But why don’t you visit me in my dreams? At least that way the days won’t seem quite so lonely.

I’ve kept busy the week since returning from my trip to Grand Rapids. There’s no doubt that I could work 24/7 and still not get it all done. My flu mostly subsided, has left a residual cough. And I admit a moment of self-indulgent pity when I awoke a few mornings soaked in sweat, reminded of how badly Keith’s sweats first hinted at the cancer to come. Well, I thought, if I have what he had, then at least we’ll be together. Then I remind myself that it really is just the flu and shame myself for indulging in this little mental melodrama.

Focus has been in short supply. It feels like I’m missing a limb, like I’m out of balance. So I find it easy to fall into distraction. Part of the issue may be technology. It’s too easy to access. So text messages come often, emails, too. And a little online shopping, though that has been reduced considerably. Retail therapy has proven to backfire when the bill comes.

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My new sleigh at Perry Road. The hill in the backyard is much steeper than this photo implies and this sled goes VERY fast! I made the run three times, each time cackling aloud like a crazy woman. But it was a blast, a cathartic release, and good exercise to boot. Anyone watching me doing this alone, however, would have thought me mad. So when I tired a bit and started taking it a bit close to some small trees, I decided it was time to give it a rest. But now that the snow has returned again after the crazy thunderstorms earlier this week, I’ll have to give it another run!
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Making Paper Memories

I made paper last Saturday at a workshop in Ann Arbor. It was a therapeutic experience to finally work with my hands again, being creative in a more tactile way. I brought rose petals from several arrangements we’d received last summer while Keith was ill. The last batch, however, was from his funeral, the only two live flower arrangements there. In Keith’s obituary, we indicated “in lieu of cut flowers, donations could be made to…” And then we indicated either the American Cancer Society or the Keith E. Fulmer Memorial Art & Design Scholarship Fund at Mott Community College.

I admit feeling an initial disappointment when first arriving at the funeral home to see Keith with only a few arrangements nearby. But we soon filled the spaces around him with photos and his own woodturned art.

Over the summer, Keith became distressed by the cut flowers that arrived occasionally, sometimes meant to honor our anniversary, or simply to cheer him, or me. But instead, as they withered away and died, they were a foreshadowing reminder of what was to come for Keith. And so when it came time for his funeral, we chose to request the charitable donations. But as I first felt pangs of disappointment for not seeing an abundance of flowers in the room, I realized that maybe that’s because the flowers were meant to support the living. Still, as I saw them wither and die over the weeks that followed, I was reminded again of Keith’s comments.

So I had saved the rosebuds from each time flowers would arrive, and let them dry by the kitchen window. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so clearly representative they were of a time with Keith. I brought some of these with me to weave into the paper pulp, and by the end of the day, I almost couldn’t bring myself to stop. A little pulp remained with the rose petals still flecked throughout. I asked the instructor if I could keep it and she, of course, said yes.

As I was getting ready to leave, she asked about how Keith had died. She said she’d never realized that anger was a natural part of grieving and that she’d felt it intensely after her father had died. I told her I, too, had felt anger throughout the grieving process. She was surprised by the intensity of her own emotions. For me, I’m not always sure who I’m angry at…. the fates for bringing Keith’s illness, or at Keith for leaving me, or at myself for indulging in this self-pity. But while anger is indeed part of grief, so is the act of letting go.

So as I told the story of Keith and the illness that took him away from me, I realized it was one the first time in a long time that I could share this story without choking up, and without tears pressing against my eyes. Instead I was able to calmly tell the story, and even smile a little bit at the memories and how my life with Keith was a good one. And for that I am grateful.

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New Dream – Keith visits.
1/29/13, 8:30 am

The conversation was so real that it seemed incomprehensible that it was just a dream. Keith and I were standing near a doorway, resembling the sliding door in our home that leads to the backyard. He picked up a clipboard from the dining room table with a notepad attached to it that he asked me to hand him. He seemed to be preparing to go outside to the backyard to address some task. Although it is winter, the grass was very green, though skies were overcast and damp from rain. This parallels the actual weather which featured unusual winter thunderstorms this morning.

We talked. I knew he was just visiting from the other side. He seemed to be wearing white baggy shorts which I thought incongruous with the dark wool baggy sweater resembling one he always wore in this life. Our conversation was warm and casual, like we were catching up a little. I recall talking about how much I missed him, and mentioning some things I wanted to share. And – while I cannot now recall his exact words – I remember clearly hearing the sound of his voice, as strong as in waking life.

We moved closer to each other so it seemed like our bodies were touching in the start of an embrace. But this move led to him then standing nearer to the door opening. His free arm was outstretched towards me reaching and holding my arm. But rather than pull us closer, our hands began to slip away from each other.

“Come back”, I said. “Come back again in my dreams so we can chat.”

And as our fingers barely touched each other now, I began to awaken to the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightening outside my window, the skies opening up in another drenching downpour in this bizarre winter storm. The snow was gone and the grass showed hints of green through the faint patches of icy water in the backyard.

Keith’s photo, the one with the casual smirk on his face, now looked back at me.

“Visit me again, my sweetheart, in my dreams” I said out loud, only the puppy Lenny nearby responded with a quiet whimper.
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Lenny mugs for the camera in the new studio at Perry Road. (Photo by S.E. Fulmer Photography.)

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Above: The side entrance to the now complete gallery/studio house at Perry Road.
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The building was mostly silent. I could hear the whoosh of the occasional car rushing by before it brakes to make the steep turn just down the road. The trades are mostly done at Perry Road with the exception of the electrician who will be back to do some final installations of lamps and switches. The drywall is finished, painters are gone. Plumbing was done awhile ago and the limestone slabs were installed inside the old mantel and threshold.

The floors have been swept, trash removed, and a quick wash has gotten the first few layers of drywall dust and stray splatters of paint off the floor. The exterior doors received a bright coat of glossy red enamel, like a fresh coat of nail gloss, making a sharp entry to the now completed gallery house.

After walking through the silent building, once buzzing with men working and jabbering with friendly banter, I find myself making mental notes of what little details are left, and wondering what comes next. I’ve learned a lot from this project. Made a few goofy mistakes, too. One was letting them mount the microwave right underneath a shortened cabinet over the stove (or letting the salesgirl convince me the shortened cabinet would be a good idea). Although fine for the vent hood, using the microwave will require the 3-step stool I have stored next to the fridge.

There’s still a front walkway to be poured in Spring in the correct place. And the barn needs a few things. Still, we can begin to move forward and put this building to work.

I sit on the bottom step next to the newly polished oak rail and lean my head against the wall. Except for the sound of the occasional car rushing by, all I can hear is the sound of my breathing and one heartbeat, mine. Silence. I begin to cry.

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20130118-235818.jpg A tiny glimmer of the crescent moon is visible in the sky above the gable-trimmed front porch roof.
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It doesn’t last long. I’ve learned to just let it go and move on. Still, it is a bittersweet accomplishment. And I know I’m not the only one feeling it. My daughters feel it, too. Last Friday, Stassia had her opening at Buckham Gallery as part of a 4-person show. This is the same gallery Keith and I did together back in September 2010. She was sentimental about the opportunity, and was well supported by friends and family. And her work stood up extremely well compared to her co-exhibitors, all far more established artists, and all male. I was very proud of her, and I knew her dad would be, too.

Today I drove to Grand Rapids for another of my doctoral courses starting up. I had to book at the Hampton Hotel a little farther away than I prefer because the closer ones were booked. The last time I did this was the weekend a week before Keith died. I remember the trip each time I reach that point on the drive where all the signs point to Grand Rapids and I begin to choke up. On that day nearly five months ago, I cried all the way there and all the way back, getting lost amidst the on and off ramps I had to ride to get through the maze of highways connecting my hotel to my class meeting. I was a wreck. Hospice had arranged for the hospital bed to be delivered the following Monday and we were told to prepare ourselves for these last days. But Keith insisted I still go to my class.

This time was different. Just as I was nearing East Lansing before the halfway point where those signs for Grand Rapids begin to consume my view, I connected the iPod to the stereo and tuned in a new album. This time “Someday” by fun. blasted through with an anthem-like beat. I began to sing at the top of my lungs and tapping my hands hard upon the steering wheel.

Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights I call it a draw
Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights I don’t know anymore…

[Listen here.]

The beat is pounding and I cannot help but feel energized. I vow to listen to other songs that lift my spirit high. Another song, Carry On, begins to play.

Cause we are
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day
When we’re miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home

If you’re lost and alone
Or you’re sinking like a stone
Carry on
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground
Carry on, Carry on, Carry on

[Listen here.]

This afternoon, and all this past week with the start of classes at the college where I teach, people have been asking me how I’m doing. My answer? It’s going to be an adjustment.

But, I’ll carry on.

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Daughter Stassia’s first show at Buckham Gallery, following in her parents’ footsteps.

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