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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[Apologies, dear reader, for the length of this post. It captures many reflections and milestones from the past few months…]

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Keith walks along the coral shores of Tongatapu, Tonga, an island nation to the east of Fiji, 1993.
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The inauspicious anniversary has now come and gone and with its passage, I feel both a deep sadness and a lifting of a veil. No longer do I look back a year and remember what I was doing, how Keith was suffering on that very same day the year before, or the traumas of his treatment. Now when I look back a year ago, I see how much the earth had quaked, my road had shifted beneath me and my children, his family and close friends. No longer would there be any chance of his voice on the other end of the phone, a person to ask advice or crack a joke. No longer would we be able to imagine a time when he could have recovered.

At this time a year ago we began a long dark road of healing, like going through a dark tunnel where you would not know whether your footing would hold you, where you move forward both numb and carried by the faith of good will in those around you. Once that anniversary passed, September 1st, 2013, the first year anniversary of Keith’s passage to another plane of existence – some call it Heaven, some call it an afterlife, another dimension, another life… but just not one here, on this earth, with us, within reach – I no longer felt compelled to think about what was going on a year ago that day…

For the weeks and months before that anniversary, I was doing just that… thinking back to the almost precise day a year before. What were we going through? What sad decision was being made that day? How were we coping with it all? How was Keith even capable of surviving as long as he did? I reread every word of the diaries I wrote throughout that summer, right up through the day he died. Somehow, though, I’d never written down how those final moments passed. In reflection, a year later I write these words:

““““““`
Diary, Sunday, 9/1/13, 3:15 pm

It’s September 1st. Can’t believe it’s September 1st. “I think I just saw Dad take his last breath,” she said a year ago. Stassia had looked up at me in the evening dimness of the darkened bedroom crammed with the hospital bed against the kingsized bed Keith and I had shared. Sarah lay groggily waking from her nap not quite taking it all in. I walked up beside the hospital bed as Stassia kneeled from the bigger bed that hugged against it. I felt his neck, then leaned down over his mouth and nose to see if I could hear him breath. Standing straighter I looked at his chest that no longer moved. Then lifting my eyes to his that were gently closed, his mouth still slightly open from his previously labored breathing, I looked back to Stassia and now Sarah. “Yes, I think you did, sweetheart.” We stayed like that for a few minutes, not quite knowing the next move. Then, finally, we each laid our hands on Keith and said a quiet prayer for him, wishing him safe travels on his journey home… that place beyond our reach but where he would be free from the pain of his disease, the humiliations of sickness and crude attempts to stop its crushing march towards death. He was free of it all now. We were sad, but relieved as well.

I remember all of this now. Even while I cannot believe that a full year, a full 365 days have passed between now and that moment when he left us behind. I remember sending the kids downstairs to tell their Uncle Gino and Aunt Danette who were busy preparing dinner in the kitchen. I had left them just a few moments before, a little while after sending Stassia upstairs, telling her to wake Sarah, that it was time for her to give dad his meds. I remember feeling a tap on the shoulder even while no one was there next to me, and a sudden urge to follow Stassia up the stairs, entering the room only a minute or two after her. I remember the room was mostly dark except for a couple of nightlights and a yellow cast from the small antique stained glass lamp on the vanity.

I remember that after sending the girls downstairs, I picked up my iPad which had been playing music softly while winding through a series of selected family photos I’d put together for Keith to see… in case he had ever opened his eyes those last few days. The music I’d selected was meant to relax him… and us, yet now whenever I hear those songs, I begin to choke up, so many were about the love and caring and commitment to each other that a couple would share. I remember then pulling up the “poem” I’d written the week before, what would eventually become part of his eulogy that Sarah would read at his funeral. In the dimly lit room, I read it aloud to Keith and made some minor adjustments, as if he were directing me from beyond to smooth out a passage here or there. When finished, I laid my hand on his arm and my head on his chest and just lay there breathing… for both of us. It was over. His suffering was over. What lay ahead for me, I knew not what at the time.

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This past summer was a time of many travels, with Keith’s spirit following along nearly every step of the way. As we prepared to travel, a long-awaited package arrived in the mail containing the cremation diamonds Keith had asked for. It was a strange reminder of a stranger request Keith had made and that I had reluctantly fulfilled. Our travels, however, were also preceded by a rather unsettling dream. I wrote about it and then my sudden epiphany of what it meant:

Dream, 7/1/13
First one with Keith in a long while. It seems.

Keith was on the other end of the call and the conversation was as normal and casual as if he were still alive.

Me: hi
Keith: how are you?
M: Good
K: Good to hear. Now, Jess said she couldn’t translate for you. She’s gonna be busy. 13 Hurdles were coming.
M: Yea. I’d heard about that.

As I answered holding the phone to my ear, I stepped from outside to inside of a house, leaning low to pass under a closed window, trim painted white. Maybe it was a Dutch door but with the bottom open.

My alarm went off and the dream ended along with the conversation. I could still hear Keith’s voice in my head. It was good to hear from him again.

Postscript: Today is the 11-month anniversary of Keith’s passing. After the dream, I did a quick online search for “13 Hurdles, grief”. This is what I found:
http://mysonzack.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/hurdle-13-going-home-again/

Appropriate in many ways, even more so because on Wednesday, July 3rd, I’m taking my new friend back to my childhood stomping grounds.

And on July 27, what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, me and the kids fly back to Fiji to spread some of Keith’s ashes and rejuvenate. Jess is our friend’s wife who own the Beachouse in Fiji where we’ll be staying.

PSS: After falling back to sleep, I re-awakened feeling I knew what the 13th hurdles were. I was supposed to take Keith’s ashes to New York, too. It is about “his” going home, not just me. I think he wanted me to bring him back to Ashdown Road, maybe the pond there where I sat with Sarah in my lap and took a photo of the very large Tri-color Heron that walked by me. But it could also be that I bring him to a lake in the Adirondacks for his friends to help spread his ashes…. hmmmmm…. which way to go….

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Returning home to Upstate New York

Over the July 4th holiday, I went back to upstate New York to visit family and old friends and introduce a new one. We met up with my brother and his family for lunch and then Keith’s best friend Michael was there to take me and my friend on a tour of our childhood memories around the Saratoga region. The first stop, though, was Ashdown Road where I knocked on the door of the first home Keith had ever built for our family. And, after securing permission, Michael and I shared in the act of spreading some of Keith’s ashes on the edges of that same pond Keith had dug, and where the Great Tri-color Heron had visited me when Sarah was born.

The next day, as the light of the sinking sun glittered across the quieting lake waters, I handed my iPhone to my friend to record the event. Larry stopped the boat at a special place on Sagandaga Lake where he said Keith had caught a large carp. I then asked Larry and Jean to join me on the boat’s stern and we each took turns dropping the last of the ashes I’d brought into the clear cool waters of this beautiful Adirondack lake. As we dropped the last of them into the water, we each said a prayer for Keith’s peace in the afterlife, the existence you’ve taken on in that other universe that we know you’re watching us from. The ashes swirled into the shape of a large fish and then just as quickly dispersed.

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The sun’s rays pour through storm clouds onto the receding tides of Fiji at the Beachouse. August 2013.

Back to the South Pacific
A few weeks later, on what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, my daughters, son-in-law and I began the long journey to Fiji. Unfortunately, a weather delay out of Detroit had a domino effect and we missed our flight in LA that would take us to Fiji. With every hotel within shuttle distance of LAX filled due to the other stranded travelers, we ended up camping in the international terminal for 24 hours until the next flight to Fiji would leave at 11:30 pm Sunday. We finally arrived, due to the international dateline, before dawn on Tuesday, 7/30, Sarah and Mark’s 2nd wedding anniversary. It would take us three days to recover from our travels but there are worse things than being stuck on the beautiful beaches of Fiji, surrounded by friendly faces.

When on my second voyage out to sea to snorkel about the reef at high tide, I found myself in rapture like a small child laughing at the playfulness of joyous discovery at each colorful fish, sea anemone, or seashell I picked up. It went on like this for what seemed like an hour, even once Sarah and Mark joined us, him on the kayak and Sarah in the water snorkeling along with Stassia and myself.

At one point I found myself alone, looking around there was a panoramic view of dozens of different types of colorful fish, from moorish idols to Picasso trigger, from orange and black clownfish to black or blue damsel fish, lemonpeel angelfish skirted in and about the other unnamed colorful players to our dance. Coral heads filled the sandy area with waves of green seaweed, to colorful Christmas tree coral worms as the waves slowly caressed us to the gentle beat of the sea.

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I was transported back to a similar moment in Fiji during a dive with Keith. I remember holding onto the top of a coral bommie, schools of colorful fish moved in an harmonic dance all around me, in sync with the waves that pulsed through and around our bodies. As I remembered this absolutely magical time back then, my chest began to tighten. Keith, are you here? I remember now asking myself this. You could swim this type of natural beauty any time you want now, Keith. But is that why we are here? To remember and remind ourselves of that magical time? Is this how we are to honor you here in Fiji?

I had to fight back to tears that began to choke me. And just as I could no longer hold them back, I heard sounds of joyful outcry through the water and above the surface. Sarah and Stassia were happily playing in their discovery of some new fish, a group of clowns in an anemone, a big puffer fish under some staghorn coral, a colorful nudibranch that was hiding in the shadows… You taught them that, this joy of discovery of the undersea world, to respect it, yet relish it with a whole heart.

I swallowed back the tears that threatened to overtake me. Turning towards the laughing mermaids, our daughters now nearly 24 and 27 years old, I joined them in taking joy of their new discoveries.

One of our last days in Fiji, we made our way into the highlands of Viti Levu in order to kayak on the Navua River with a brief stop at one of the many beautiful waterfalls. Our little band of just four travelers and our Fijian guide were mostly alone as we made our way downstream. The occasional motorized longboat passed us heading upriver, sometimes trying to splash us (if it was filled with locals), sometimes throwing a big wake (if filled with tourists), but always with big shouts of “Bula!” Otherwise our trip was beautifully and blissfully quiet as we passed through the deep jungle canyon, marked by the occasional group of cattle clinging to a flatter area to graze. The rush of the occasional rapids would make our hearts beat faster. But then as we passed into calmer waters, the chatter of bird calls could be heard from deep in the jungle, one I mistakenly took for a dog barking until I’d heard it a few more times down river. Possibly an owl, instead.

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One of the many smaller streams feeding into the upper Navua River.

I knew this was a place for contemplation. So it didn’t surprise me, only pleased me more, to see the occasional heron fly by or sit on a rocky perch on the river’s edge. Keith’s animus, I thought, watching us make our way, being sure we did so safely. “Hi Keith” I would think to myself every time I saw one of these beautiful birds. They only seemed to ever showed themselves one at a time. So it was easy to believe that the white heron, then the white-faced blue heron, then the dark blue heron were all Keith… watching over his family and guiding us safely through our voyage.

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Earlier in our Fiji trip, Andrew, Keith’s best buddy in Fiji, made arrangements for four salusalu to be made. These are Fijian-style flower leis. Traditionally, they would be dropped into the water behind a sailing ship when newly launched. The same practice would be used to send Keith on his journey by putting more of his ashes into the channel when the outgoing tide would take them out to sea at sunset. Sarah, Stassia, Mark and I each poured some of the ashes into the sea followed by a flower salusalu, the sun setting quickly on the horizon as the waves broke loudly on either side of the channel. Andrew held the boat steady and then I asked him to do the final honors for the evening which he did. With all my children present during this time as the boat rocked us on the horizon of the South Pacific seas, the flowers drifting out to sea with his ashes in tow, it seemed so much more meaningful than any other time before or since. The next place we took Keith’s ashes was to Sulua Place in Pacific Harbour, where Keith had built our South Pacific home. Once again securing permission after finding out Sarah’s former teacher was house-sitting OUR old house, we went to the edge of the sea wall and, with a few blossoms of bougainvillea, we dropped the rest of the ashes I’d brought to Fiji into the ocean-fed lake.

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Very early on August 11th, as the plane descended into Detroit, it occurs to me that the act of visiting Fiji again, especially with the kids, and reconnecting with old friends serves a greater purpose. It served to remind me, to reassure me, that my life with Keith – if it were a dream – is one from a shared dreamscape, shared and made real by all those who knew him and remembered his stories. For it makes life – my past life with Keith, and any future we create anew – more than just the dream of songs, those songs that I played on the iPad a year ago, the ones that still bring tears to my eyes now.

Just before dropping through the clouds to the airport below, we saw the last of the streaks from the Perseus meteor shower outside our window, a reminder that all things are connected here between heaven and on earth.

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The last of Summer’s days

Over the next two weeks, with the marking of what would have been our 31st wedding anniversary, and then the looming milestones of when hospice would bring his hospital bed, I faced more emotional swings, especially as news reports celebrated the Blue Moon for the summer season. Keith died on the weekend of a Blue Moon, defined last year as the second full moon in a month, but more accurately was the fourth full moon of a three-month season as was the case this year. As the evening wore on and I settled in for bed, I felt my mood change. Sleep eluded me and my back throbbed angrily from my earlier weeding rampage in both the front and back gardens. I lay there in the dark, thinking back to a year before and what we were facing in Keith’s final days, still not knowing how long he had left.

Eventually, I just couldn’t stand it and decided to read through my diary entries from last summer. I relived each moment described in those pages yet with the fog of time cushioning the sting of pain. By around 2:30 am, my anxieties began to overwhelm me. I wanted to SEE the blue moon. I needed to see it. But the ambient light in my bedroom was too much. I began unplugging powerstrips that had extra lights. I tried to bend my body over the glass table by the window so I could see the moon that hung very tightly to the roofline of the house at that angle. Last year my bed sat under that window and I could just look straight up from my pillow as the light of the moon pressed sharp shadows of tree branches across the bed. But this year my bed sits on another wall and the window hangs over a glass table with books, photos, incense and a candle I’ve burned occasionally for Keith. Eventually, I climbed across the bed and craned my neck. I needed to try and feel the light of the blue moon, even as I cried myself to sleep.

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Dream, 8/30/13

I was on a boat. On this boat, the drawer of my dresser was overfilled and there was a pair of black velvet flats with bows that were getting squished. Music played on the stereo, like my iHome that holds the iPod here.

I was getting dressed but would get interrupted by different people. In one case someone who was dressed in a black chefs jacket says to me that I’d better be nicer to someone, that I shouldn’t be so hard on him. I replied that it was guidance and tough love, that he needed it in order to achieve what he wanted.

I remember others coming in but can’t recall the conversations. Only that I was in the process of dressing.

As I tried to leave the sailboat, the exit was actually a long curved wooden slide, polished smooth and beautifully crafted, like something Keith would have made. I don’t think I went down the slide.

I recall then seeing someone, a man who had crazy curly hair. He smiled gently at me. I turned back towards the dressing room to adjust the music. I found that the remote control was missing. All I could do was change the tune by selecting something different on the iPod. But to turn it off, I would need to do something more drastic like pull the plug. I sat the iPod down after selecting a different song, tried to shut the dresser drawer, but the black velvet shoes were getting crushed.

My analysis:
The curly-haired man was my friend, the person I needed to be nicer to. The slide was a passage towards the spiritual world… to exit would have meant death for me, an exit from this life. The black velvet shoes are the shreds of mourning and grief that swell the corners of my life, beautiful but sad… They need to be made to fit into the package of my past… not left to overwhelm my current life or my future. The music is the music of life. We cannot turn it off without dying (i.e. pulling the plug). We can only change the song.

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And finally, the anniversary

It was September 1st, 2013… The song that Keith and Sarah danced to at his daughter’s wedding to Mark had just come on the iPod playing on my iHome as I wrote in my diary on this first anniversary. My friend was out in the workshop after having mowed the lawn, trimmed the edges, raked the front yard of its leaves. Sarah, Mark and Stassia would later be coming over in anticipation of dinner, and an evening by the bonfire, toasting their dad.

That evening we would burn the masi bow that we’d tied to the front yard tree last year, the day after Keith left us. And we would throw the last of the copal that I’d brought from Mexico, a gift from Tlakaelel back in 2006. My friend was there too, but quietly… out of respect for this family event. It was still so surreal to me… a word I shared with Keith’s sister Barb just the other day, on her birthday – the same as my friend’s. Keith’s father had died in early June, just 9 months after Keith. She shared news of the closing on his house in Phoenix, the estate sale while we were still in Fiji, how quickly it had all happened… yet all in the same year as Keith’s death.

It felt surreal that I sat here writing in my diary 365 days later, a full year of days, and my friend now sits beside me, ready with a warm and unconditional hug. I’ve needed a lot of those lately. It’s been a surreal experience, this last year or more, beginning with … what… Stassia’s graduation and Keith’s still not getting over his “flu” after too many weeks and months? my flying back from Russia after news of “metastatic liver disease”? the nightmare weeks and months that followed, so few that we never felt we had a chance to even begin to catch up to the disease that had raced through his thin ravaged body.

It’s surreal that life went marching on afterwards… surreal that Keith is not here… YOU are not here, Keith. At least not on this side of the spiritual realm. I wish you well, Keith. I know I can feel your spiritual presence… stronger some times than others. I need to keep going on, to empty the drawers of grief, to change the tune on my iPod, and be more open and kinder to the gentle friend who has stepped forward to help me through it all. Only time will tell. Time… heals eventually.

This morning I reread the card that sits by the candle I light occasionally for Keith. “Regard all dharmas as but dreams.”

Life is but a dream…

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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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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.

* * * * * * * * * *

20130118-235818.jpg A tiny glimmer of the crescent moon is visible in the sky above the gable-trimmed front porch roof.
* * * * * * * * * *

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.

20121203-001739.jpgPhoto above: Keith and me on my college graduation day in 1982 and also the day of my bridal shower. I was 21 and he was 24 years old, both so young and at the start of a beautiful 30-year marriage.
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I haven’t dreamed in such a vivid way in quite some time. But as I awoke this morning after a brief sleep, I lay there stunned that my reality upon awakening didn’t match the dream I had abruptly left. I lay in bed nearly 20 minutes grasping at the threads of memory in an effort to return to the dream.

This morning’s dream occurs just 3 months after Keith’s death and must have occurred during that brief hour between 8:30-9:30 am this morning. I know it was not from during the night because I had gotten up earlier after being awakened by Lenny, my husband’s 18-month-old Silken Windhound, who makes it known that he needs to go out to relieve his small bladder by whimpering relentlessly next to my ear.

Although some things are fuzzy about the dream, some things are quite clear. I’ll do my best to relay these details here:

The Dream, 3 month anniversary

In my dream, there was me, Keith, Sarah and Anastassia, with the girls both grown as they are today. We were preparing for long road trip. It was AFTER Keith’s death… yet he was there, speaking to me. It seemed that the trip was as much for him as it was for the rest of us. The girls were there, too, but not so much talking, just along, watching Keith and I as we busied ourselves getting things ready. Keith was wearing a yellow polo t-shirt with wide white stripes and thin blue stripes and a breast pocket. The shirt would have been one of his nicer ones, though he always preferred ones with the pocket.

During the dream, we were loading up a station wagon – probably my old Volvo, but it could have been Keith’s truck. It seemed more like the bed of a truck. Maybe like an El Camino if it had a back seat. An El Camino might be significant only because it was the car Keith had when we first met. But the car in this dream was somewhat ambiguous.

We were piling things on top of each other into the bed of the truck/back of station wagon. Not boxes, but lots of tools, metal, wood and other awkward-shaped items that didn’t really fit together so there were lots of open spots between the pieces. Gaps that seemed ready to fill with smaller pieces but lay empty now.

Then we were at a gas station, and it seemed important that I had to put air in the tires of my bicycle. Keith was telling me it was important to do this now and helped me by providing instructions. That was when a young female attendant with curly auburn hair asked me about Keith and brought to my attention that this trip was happening with him after his death. I know this because I recall the conversation in the dream where I say to her:

“Yes, this will be hard to explain to my mother. But it’s simple really. It’s like that DNA thing…”

I can’t recall explaining much more than that. But it made complete sense… in the dream. It was natural for Keith to be there, for him to be a part of the activity and conversations.

And then – as I had done all summer – I was driving us all, Keith in the seat beside me and the girls in the backseat watching. I remember at the end of my dream, just before I awoke, I drove up over the bump of a curb before pulling out of the gas station onto the road.

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Now for the analysis:

I like dreams for they are a place where the imagination and reality can collide, where nonsense makes sense, and where time is irrelevant. So when my dreams have been this vivid, I have tried to write them down.

This is not the first time I have dreamed of Keith. But it has been awhile. The last time was only a few weeks after he died. But I’ll save that one for another day.

A close friend who also has a strong interest in dreams and has been studying their potential meanings encouraged me to share this latest one. And I think his analysis is spot on:

Very interesting dream… The idea of taking a long journey is like moving to a new place or leaving a current state… The fact that the packing was not neat and organized, things won’t fit together well on this journey moving forward… Putting air in bicycle tires suggests the importance of managing pressure and maintaining balance… And finally, the curb is so suggestive that it will be a bumpy ride moving forward but you are not alone, with Keith by your side on the journey, and the girls close by. And no one is flustered.

Some might say that your animus has chosen the persona of Keith and is helping you to pack up and move forward.

It’s interesting to see the connections with my dream, my friend’s analysis, and some recent events. This week I was with another friend who turned a little close to a curb and bumped over it. I also took on moving the trailer with Keith’s truck for the first time on my own. Although I had checked and re-checked the trailer, it only took a half mile before I hit a bump and the trailer popped off the hitch, left dragging by the chains. Fortunately, nothing was damaged and I was able to get my daughter to come and help me get the trailer back onto the hitch. It was stressful, yes. So was backing the damned thing with that giant crewcab diesel truck. But I managed. Then I turned it over to others. That is the privilege I’m taking… choosing when I need to step back and let others take it on. I am trying to muster courage to do these things that I always took for granted that Keith did. But I am also mindful of my limitations, emotional and physical. It’s a self-preservation technique I am beginning to cultivate more intentionally.

So maybe the dream was a culmination of these various adventures from the week. And maybe it was, as my friend suggests, a psychic effort to bring Keith beside me as I journey forward. And yes, maybe there will be bumps in the road, and my daughters will be nearby to help. But I also do need to put some air in my bicycle tires. The bike sits upon a stationary stand but the tires are flat, making it unusable for picking up for a ride outdoors. But I guess it’s not a bad thing since the weather now turns to the cold winter with its long dark nights.

As for the young woman with the auburn curls, I know who that is. It is me as a young woman, the girl I was when I first met Keith. I’d even worked at a gas station when I was 17, earning money that winter pumping gas and checking oil at a full service gas station in order to pay for a new exhaust system for my first car. Hmmmm…. so the young me was attempting to give the old me a bit of a reality check.

But each day, I try and make some headway on this journey. I visit our Perry Road project, wander around to check the progress, check the locks, and listen to Keith’s wind chimes in their Himalayan harmony as they echo over the hillside facing the setting sun. I think about what I can build new here, a sanctuary that seems remote facing down the hillside, yet part of the family’s journey with my daughters and yes, even Keith… in spirit. With that in mind, I know I’ll find ways to fill the gaps while bracing myself for those bumps in the road ahead.