Thursday, December 17, 2015

Widowed and engaged

Over 3 years since Scott was diagnosed, 2 years since he died.
Over 1 year since I met Mike, 4 months since he proposed.
Only 5 months until our marriage and my graduation, less than 7 until I start residency.
9 months until Clark starts kindergarten.

Last month was a hard one, not unlike November the year before, with a sadness that’s hard to articulate. Certainly it contained echoes of Scott’s last month - our joy when he was able to join us at the table for Thanksgiving dinner and swallow a few bites of mashed potatoes, the horror when he coughed blood into his napkin, the sadness when he had to go back to bed even before anyone asked for a second helping of turkey.

Over the last month, I’ve wished more often than usual that Scott could be here to see his son. Clark is four and a half now and asks great questions (Why do things look small when they’re far away and big when they’re close up? If triangles make buildings more stable, why do the triangle plates under the Earth’s surface still move?) He’s a railway affecionado and engineer who can describe in great detail the differences between various trains and then draw how one might assemble them. He’s constantly coming up with new track configurations that combine his wooden train tracks, plastic car tracks, marble maze gutters, and Magnatiles. He’s bigger and stronger; this month he hiked five steep miles through Muir Woods. (Last time we were there, I carried him the whole way, and Scott was with us.)

The November grief contained more moments of irrational anxiety - what if Mike and I are shot by a crazy gunman at the movie theater and Clark is orphaned? What if Clark gets cancer and dies? As an antidote, Mike and I tried to come up with equally irrational positive events. It was surprisingly hard. (Cue Scott explaining evidence from behavioral economics about how humans are more motivated by fear than desire.) What came from that exercise wasn’t a list of things like winning the lottery; it was an articulation of something I’ve known for a while now: that what I’ve got, and where I am, is perfect. I am in exactly the right place, right now. Some moments are heightened: reading a train book with Clark on a sunny park bench; running side-by-side with Mike through Lands End, all three of us on the couch, teasing and tickling and giggling and cuddling.

I remember having these heightened moments with Scott when he was sick. I often felt the knowledge of impending loss tempering the pleasure, like a chilly breeze on a sunny day. That “tempering” persists, not because something bad will happen, but because it could. And because a moment passed will forever be past - there’s no going back to three-year-old Clark, just like there’s no going back to pancakes at Delafield or log-rolling at Wellesley or dancing in The Nutcracker in Duluth. The trade-off for this loss of innocence (that’s what it feels like) is a gain in mindfulness, feeling truly grateful for the here and now.

I came across an issue of The Sun (August 2015) with an excellent interview with Stephen Jenkinson, an expert in grief and dying well. He says:
“If you’re lucky, something comes along and ruptures your artificial sense of well-being, which is preventing you from really living. If you’re lucky, something like this will show up - you don’t go looking for it - and you’ll never be able to see anything the same way again.”
“Death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life. The centrality of death gives you the chance to live, because it says, ‘Here’s the bad news: It’s not going to last.’ And here’s the good news: It’s not going to last.’”

Alongside my grief is my growing relationship with Mike. I’ve struggled with how to write about my engagement here. This blog has been a place for me to outwardly chronicle my experience of widowhood and inwardly process chunks of grief. Looking out, I know that many who read this blog also love and miss Scott, and writing about my new relationship feels like a little bit of betrayal to Scott’s community. Looking in, holding onto my sorrow feels like a way to hold onto Scott, to prove to myself that my love for him is still real. I know that love will outlast sadness - many others have written about this - but it can feel strange to give up.

“Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. And it does go away, because you can only drag yourself around and rend your clothes for so long. Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures. It’s not something that happens to you; it’s something you do. You can grieve, but you can’t “sad.” Of course, most of us choose not to grieve. We decide to stay busy, to join a protest, or whatever. It’s understandable, but none of this is grieving.”

I will be a widow forever. I love Mike and am so happy and excited to be entering into a lifelong relationship with him. But it won’t erase the experience of having lost my spouse.* So it is helpful to separate out grief and sorrow, and to value ongoing grieving as ongoing awareness of the transience of so much of our experience.

“Otherwise” cuts both ways. Things could be otherwise, and Scott would be here to to teach Clark how to swim. And things could be otherwise, and I wouldn’t be here, on a plane bound for Minnesota with Clark asleep on my lap. And as I move forward - widowed and engaged, donating Clark’s 4T shirts and replacing them with 5’s, preparing to graduate and preparing to start internship - what can I do but be present?

Things to read
* There was an opinion piece in the NYT a few months ago about marrying after being widowed and the misconception that one "moves on" from grief - beautifully written and well worth reading, even for all you non-widows out there.

This blog post that helps visualize and think through what it means that our time on Earth is limited. How many more books will I read? How much more time will I spend with my parents? Very powerful.

Excerpt from “Improvement” by Danusha Lameris
I’m grateful for small victories.
The way the heart still beats time
in the cathedral of the ribs.
And the mind, watching its parade of thoughts
enter and leave, begins to see them
for what they are: jugglers, fire swallowers, acrobats

tossing their batons in the air.