After almost 11 months of not ever “feeling” my late husband’s presence or that he is “with me” in some way, I am finally beginning to see signs of him in small and big ways. It is not in the ways that most might expect, or that I have heard about from others who are widowed. He isn’t leaving me coins or butterflies or small tokens of love. There aren’t any feathers that fly by at unexpected times, or pretty birds landing near me when I feel most alone. There are no songs that come on the radio at the exact moment that I’m missing him intensely, and there is no special star in the sky I can look at and automatically think of him. No. Nothing like that has happened for me.
But recently, I have started to feel my husband in another way; in a way that is much more indicative of who he was and who he will always be. One of his favorite things to do in life was to laugh. More specifically, Don loved to laugh at me. He really enjoyed chuckling and pointing out to me that I tend to exagerrate everything, that I’m a “drama queen”, (one of his favorite things to say to me was: “Stop being so overdramatic, Boo.”), or his favorite thing; that I had gotten myself into a situation that would eventually turn into a trainwreck of epic proportions. If there was ever anyone that loved watching a good dose of schadenfraude, (the term for laughing and delighting in other’s small misfortunes), it was my husband. He was one of those “I told you so!” douchebags, but he always said it as he was laughing good-naturedly in my face. Yesterday; along with my friend Sheila and my mom; I participated in The NJ Sharing Network’s 5K Walk/Run for Families and Friends of Organ Donors and Receivers. It was something I wanted to do to honor Don, and in memory of him. And what did I get for my troubles? The entire day, I could literally hear my husband laughing gently … no, cackling … at me, and at the situation I had once again gotten myself into, and in his eyes, deserved. My husband came to me in the form of his laughter, and he was here to get Sweet Revenge. I’m sure of it. Let me explain ….
Somewhere around September or October of 2010, a friend of a friend was trying to put a team together of people who wanted to participate in a 5K “Walk for Hearing” – a charity that benefitted The Clarke School; a school for deaf children. This friend of a friend worked with these kids at this school, and was recruiting as many people as possible to join her team. Apparently, she did an amazing job in convincing a whole bunch of us to do this walk, because for some reason, our whole group of friends agreed to do it. I vaguely recall filling out some sort of application form online, registering for it, and saying: “Okay. That sounds fun.” I also sort of remember getting our friends John and Jessica involved in this event as well. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure I was drugged at the time. Whatever the case, one thing that I neglected to do was to inform my husband that we were doing this walk, until this conversation that happened maybe 2 days before said event: (dialogue is from memory, but I pretty much remember this like it was yesterday, so it’s extremely close to the actual conversation that occured.)
Him: Boo, I think Im gonna play some tennis on my day off Sunday, and then I was thinking of maybe heading down to the music store to check out some of the new lefty guitars that just came in. Then maybe we can get dinner or something.
Me: You can’t on Sunday. We have plans. I thought I told you, sorry. We are doing the Walk for Hearing for Missy’s school in the city.
Him: (with most perplexed expression of all time on face) We are doing the what for WHAT? and for who???
Me: Walk for Hearing. For Missy.
Him: Who the hell is Missy?
Me: Missy. Kevin and Michelle’s friend. You’ve met her before. You know who she is.
Him: No. If I knew who she was, I wouldn’t have just asked you who the hell she was. (still confused) When did I agree to do this thing? Was I on crack at the time, because this is not something I would agree to do – ever.
Me: No. You didnt agree to it. I signed us up for it. John and Jessica are doing it. Kevin and Michelle. All their friends. It’ll be fun.
Him: I don’t think you know what the word fun means. Getting up at 6am on a Sunday to go into the city and WALK for no reason on my only day off, in no way, sounds fun to me.
Me: Its not for no reason, Boo. It’s for kids who can’t hear.
Him: Uh-huh. Please explain how me walking in the cold and rain at an ungodly early hour against my will is going to magically make them hear again. Cant I just write them a check and stay home and sleep?
Me: No, cuz I already commited both of us to doing it. (laughing at him) It’s really not that big of a deal, hon. Lets just go and have a good time.
Him: Why do you hate me?
Me: (laughing) I dont hate you, Boo. This is just one of those things that married people do. It’s part of marriage.
Him: Oh really? Married people forcibly sign their spouses up for 5k Walks? Funny. I don’t recall that being in our vows.
Me: It was in the fine print, Boo. You’ll be fine.
Him: Did you read the fine print where it also said that if mean spouse enters you into a 5K Race against your will, that is acceptable grounds for divorce? Cuz I think that’s in there too.
The day of the Walk for Hearing was really raw, cold, and rainy. We had to get up super early to get into NYC for the early start time. Don was grumpy and exhausted and sort of pouting and whining the entire time into the city. My husband was not a whiner. He normally just went with the flow and would have a good time wherever we would go together. On this day, however, he was clearly annoyed; in a playful way; and wanted me to know it. When we got into the city, we started walking the wrong way for about 4 avenues, and then had to turn around and go back. I remember Don walking with me on our way there and saying: “Jesus, Boo. We just did a freakin’ 5k on the way to the 5k. This sucks. Im cold. Im tired. Can we go home yet?” He was purposely trying to irritate me, in order to give me payback for roping him into this. It didnt work. I just kept laughing at him and his silly whining. When we finally got there, Jessica was also extremely unhappy to be anywhere except in bed sleeping on a Sunday. Here is a picture of Jessica and my crankypants husband that morning:
During the walk, Don kept complaining about his sneakers. The trails and paths were very rocky and hilly in some spots, and he never got used to that up here. He always missed the flat roads and paths in Florida for walking, biking, everything. “Ah, my feet are killing me. I’m getting blisters. Can we leave yet? How about now? Now? Or now?” I remember making fun of him for being such a baby. I believe I said: “Arent you an EMT? Werent you in the Air Force? You cant handle a little walking in a light sprinkle? Come on Boo, suck it up!” He looked at me with daggers in his eyes, and we kept moving. When it was finally time to go, hours later, we had to walk more blocks and avenues back to the bus to take us to NJ. The second we walked in the door, Don kicked off his sneakers harshly, fell into our bed face-down, and mumbled something under his breathe. “What did you say?”, I asked him. “Oh nothing, Boo. I just said that I’ll get you back for this misery you’ve caused me today. I will get my revenge when you’ve forgotten all about this. I will never forget, Boo. Goodnight. Wake me up when my feet stop throbbing or when you’ve completed making the delicious homemade meal you surely owe me for making me take part in this travesty you call fun.” Jesus. And he calls me overdramatic?
And that’s just how it happened. I never even saw it coming. When the Sharing Network called and asked me if Id like to participate in this year’s Walk for families of donors, I figured it would be a really nice way to honor him, and pay forward his kindness to others. So I said yes. And about 2 months ago, I started to let everybody know that I wanted to start a team, and that I wanted everybody to walk on my team. It would be great. We would be Team Shepherd. We would get t-shirts made up. We would cheer each other on during the walk. We would hold up signs and yell Don’s name and say things like: “GO TEAM SHEP!!” People from all over the land would come out to join my team for Don. And at first, that is exactly what it seemed like would happen. Family, friends, and even some acquaintances and connections seemed genuinely excited to be part of the Walk. “I’m so there!”, they chimed in on my Facebook posts. “I would love to walk on your team! Count me in!”, they bellowed. Before I knew it, I had a minimum of 15-20 people that really seemed as though they were going to do this with me. It was exciting.
And then, about a week before the walk, it suddenly became clear that of all the people who said they would like to walk with us, only 2 would actually be doing it; my friend Sheila, and my mom. Turns out my dad’s knees and legs have started to give him problems in the last few months and he cant walk long-distances, so he was out. The walk turned out to be on the same date that John and Jessica were on vacation in California. Lots of other friends had family obligations, weddings, graduations, you name it. Andrew and Rodney and Sheri wanted to come, but didnt realize how far into NJ it was, and had no real way to get out there. Very quickly our enthusiastic group of supporters started to dwindle into nothing. “Team Shepherd” was now 3 people, and a homemade Sign I made that listed everyone’s name that made a donation. And because we raised so much money and so many friends and family donated in Don’s memory ($1460 and counting), I now felt obligated to do the Walk, even though at this point it seemed a bit .. well … pointless. 3 of us? Really? That’s kind of lame. But all these people gave money, and they are going to want to see some pictures and know that we were there and we did this thing. The night before, I heard it was going to be ungodly hot and humid for the Sunday Walk, and I honestly just wanted to cancel and not even do it. But then I remembered all the people who supported me, and realized I was stuck doing it whether I wanted to or not. I didnt really have a choice in the matter. And that was the first time I heard Don laughing at me.
It started out as a light chuckle that evening, and then it began to progress the next morning and throughout the entire day of The Walk, as a loud, bellowing, “HA HA HA HA HA!!!! Have fun, honey!”, in your face kind of thing. I tried to ignore it at first, but then I just couldn’t. There were too many elements that pointed in the direction of this working out exactly the way that Don had planned it to. The weather was hot as hell. The high was 87 that day, and very humid. Every surrounding day before and after was in the low 70’s. And just as my husband and I had to walk a 5k before walking the 5k, my mom and I did too. The parking situation was atrocious, and we were led to a giant lot that was at least a mile … or four … from the Event itself. When we finally found the starting location, they made me stand in a “pre-registration” line to get a Number, even though I had already registered online in order to avoid standing in huge lines at the event!
The sun was blazing as I stood in this line for minimum 30 minutes to receive my number. Before we even began walking, I started to notice that my sneakers felt really tight. I don’t recall them being too small for me in the past, but my toes felt like they were being squished into my shoe. As I stood there with my tight shoes in the hot sun with my TWO teammates, I heard him laughing again. “Ha ha ha! You thought this would be FUN! You thought you’d get 15 people to do it with you! But they didn’t show up. They were SMART and did what I suggested in the first place. They stayed home and wrote a damn check! Ha ha ha!!! Oh, this is awesome! Go ahead and walk, Boo! Go on … it’s FUN!” I could literally hear him inside my head or my heart, or wherever evil, late husband spirits with a twisted sense of humor speak to you.
And as me, mom, and Sheila walked along; the heat became unbearable, and my toes felt like they were on fire. I was sweating like Robin Williams, and I just wanted to lie down or take a 45 minute freezing cold shower. The water we were drinking to stay hydrated went from semi-cold to luke warm to sweaty-ass hot. I felt sticky and nasty and gross. When we crossed the finish line after what seemed like decades, the only emotion I was feeling was the intense pain coming from inside my shoes, where I knew I had developed blisters on my toes, just like Don. The walk was over, and then we had the second walk to our car. I was convinced that my feet would just burn right off of my body. I kept hearing Don and his sarcasm: “How exactly is you walking in the nasty heat going to get some poor soul a kidney any faster?” And he was right.
Was the event more than that? Yes. It was. There were close to 6,000 people walking and running. Families. Kids. Dogs. Strollers with babies in them. Teams of people all wearing homemade t-shirts to show their love for the person they were there representing. Lots and lots of stories. So many stories. One woman I met was part of a very large team of people, probably at least 30 people, all there in memory of their friend who was struck by a car and died. There was a man there whose brother had lost his life in a freak work accident, and his lungs ended up going to one of the man’s best friends at their job. I met a father who just lost his 21 year old daughter to a violent crime by commited by a college guy who was apparently obsessed with her. There were people there that had received organs, and were walking with the families of those that gave them life. Perhaps the most surreal moment for me was having people ask me why I was walking, who I was walking for; and then hearing myself say out loud that my husband was dead. I never quite get used to hearing my own voice say those words. It seems like someone else talking and not me.
So, in the end, just like everything else surrounding my husband’s death, nothing is the way that I pictured it would be. In my mind, I pictured this Walk being life-changing and motivating and inspiring and beautiful and so many other things like that. In some ways, it was those things. But it was subtle. I do think things like this are much more powerful when you can rope a whole bunch of your friends to experience it with you, like Missy did on that day that will always make me laugh. Maybe next year more people will be able to take part wtih me, and we can start to make it a yearly tradition. Or maybe I will take my husband’s advice of staying home and writing a check. Who knows. The only thing I do know is that I need to stop expecting that things will turn out a certain way. Things never turn out in the way you thought they would. Not even close. This is not a good or a bad thing – it’s just true.
But when I got home later that night and harshly kicked off my sneakers, I saw two big blisters, one on each pinky toe. I limped into the bedroom and I fell into our bed face-down, as I felt my husband’s laughter all around me. He was laughing at me, and he was enjoying himself.
It was schadenfraude. It was marriage. It was the sweet revenge of a husband, who never forgot that day. Whatever it was, it was there, and it was real. It made me feel close to him the entire day as he found joy in my misery; and to me; that was all the reason I needed to do a 5K.
But maybe next time I’ll just send a goddamn check.