Bedroom in new home

“Are you done grieving?” It wasn’t a question for me. It was asked of my father by a recent friend. She asked my dad as they shared lunch and talked about the new house we’ve been building and what she’d seen.

Later, Dad shared the question with me and it got me thinking about it. I answered him quickly at first: “Does anyone ever stop grieving?”

He mentioned his reaction to hearing the song: “You’ll never walk alone” from Carousel. It had been a favorite of my mother’s. And just a week before she died, the last time we heard her say anything, she sang some of it when a visitor – a complete stranger to my mother – asked her in her slumber if she had ever heard the song. As the visitor began to sing the first few words, my mother began to sing with her.

When it came on the radio, out of the blue, as he got to an intersection he began to cry. Just like that. No warning. It just hit him, now 18 months later. Does anyone ever stop grieving? No, I said to dad. We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

Even now, for me, five and a half years after Keith passed, there are times when that inevitable moment stops my breath. A song, a number, a phrase, a space, a memory… and I have to pause for a moment, take it in, reflect, and consider the possibility – is this a message?Pay attention, I tell myself. He’s still there, just on the other side of the veil. He’s still with you as real as the bearded little man laying beside me now. There are times when I still feel his touch, a gentle one on the shoulder, a soft caress to the cheek as if a kiss made of air.

Sunset over snowy field and woodsThe triggers still come, a song I hadn’t heard in awhile played recently and I had to stop and listen and nod. “I will wait, I will wait for you…” sang Mumford & Sons. The song had just been released the last summer Keith was alive. I had put it on the playlist that became the soundtrack of the summer. “You can’t let me down now” sang Bonnie Raitt in another soulful tune that filled me with guilt and sadness for not having saved Keith from the pain he endured. Then there was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a song that came out the year Keith and I were able to see them play live in concert.

These tunes and several others cause the air to slip out from my lungs momentarily, my heart to tighten in my chest. The difference now is that they don’t make me cry like they once did. The tightness lets go quicker and a soft smile slowly curves the corners of my mouth and I breath again, lovingly touched by the soul of my deepest connection in the spirit world.

There are times when I may also feel a bit irrational, where anxiety steps up and clenches my nerves tightly. Last fall I had been asked about going to a conference this winter. It was one that I had attended in March 2012 and co-presented with Ferris doctoral students along with the then president of the college where I work. It was in Philadelphia and I’d wanted Keith to join me but he couldn’t. He hadn’t been feeling all that well and felt the pressure of some work he needed to do. I wasn’t happy about his not feeling well, this uncured bronchitis or whatever it was. But he clearly didn’t have the energy to travel so I backed off. The conference, however, has somehow been cast in my mind as the “beginning of the end” for Keith.

So it was with a sudden attack of anxiety that I couldn’t immediately bring myself to register for this event when asked last October. Steven had had a health scare around the same time and I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years. Fortunately for Steven, the potential for liver problems was caught early enough and has led to him cutting way back on his alcohol intake and it has made a noticeable difference.

I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years.

Still, though the moment had passed, the anxiety over the association between this conference and losing a husband remained. Irrational, yes. But real enough that I put it off while still watching the deadline for the early bird registration. So when the moment came this week in a meeting with the VP to discuss conference travel, I was relieved when she supported my attending a different conference, one that would take place in Austin, Texas at the end of May. I would plan to take Steven so he could visit with his son, and I’d lead a contingent of faculty to the conference. It looked like something I could sincerely enjoy doing. The anxiety slipped away and replaced by a sense of giddy relief.

But then Dad mentioned the question asked by his lady friend: “Are you done grieving?” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The answer is: No. But life still moves forward and we must go with it, or risk losing the opportunity to live the life we’ve been blessed with to the fullest.

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

First… The promises kept.

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

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

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


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

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Above: The Gallery House from last Fall.

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

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

New promises…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below: Me…on the beach at Sanibel Island.

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