Big Tree, Little Tree

Little Tree: It all started the day before yesterday. I had some spare time on a Sunday afternoon, so I took out one of those oversized green plastic bins from my hallway closet, and started to unpack it – something I had never quite finished almost 3 months ago, back when I moved out of the N.J. apartment that Don and I shared for 7 years, and into this place.

I began to put things away. Folders, headshots, office stuff, batteries, envelopes, picture frames, coasters – a lot of random items that had not much to do with one another. When I got the deep container emptied at about the halfway mark, my cat Autumn jumped inside, as she loves to do with any sort of box or bag or basket with an opening. She began to rustle around loudly with something in there, pawing at it and wrestling with it playfully. It was Little Tree. The tiny, cute artificial Christmas tree that Don and I used each Christmas to put atop his Entertainment Center in our living room. It was so small and so adorable, that he rightfully dubbed it the “Charlie Brown tree”, and we would decorate it in colored lights and nothing else, for fear of it toppling over from the weight of even one innocent ornament. Our little tree made the whole living room light up with Christmas, and we would drink hot chocolate with marshmallows and watch Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and make fun of how mean Santa was in that cartoon – and I would rest my head against the base of his chest as he played with my long, straight hair and hummed to himself happily – all by the light of our little tree.

Back to Sunday. After a lot of thought over the past few weeks, I had finally made the decision to once again ignore Christmas this year, and instead, stay local in NYC and do things with friends. Last year, I ignored my first Christmas without Don with mom and dad and a trip to Foxwoods Casino. This year, I will ignore it by seeing the most non-feel-good-movie of the year, which comes out Christmas Day: Les Miserables. I figure if Im going to bawl my eyes out, I’d rather have it be because Eponine’s love was never returned before she tragically died, rather than because my husband is dead on what used to be my favorite day of the year.

Deep breath. Am I ready to put up Little Tree? As I give myself a headache thinking it over, Autumn gives me her very obvious opinion. Crunch, crunch, crunch. She is biting the colored light bulbs – the string loosely wrapped around her paw. Okay. I will take Little Tree out and place it on my bed. Who am I hurting? Nobody, that’s who. It’s not like I have to decorate it and display it. After all, I did just become comfortable with my vow to cancel Christmas again this year, and pretend like it doesn’t exist. Suddenly, I hear Don’s voice in my head, quoting Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which he knew every single line to: “You know, it’s really not such a bad little tree, Charlie Brown. All it needs is a little love.”

And then, out of nowhere, I found myself slowly wrapping the string of colored lights around our little tree, catching my breath each time the bulbs made another rotation around the fake little branches. I felt slightly nervous, knowing I was doing something so little, but something so huge. Sammy and Autumn anxiously watched as I carried Little Tree to it’s destination, just like Linus carried Charlie Brown’s tree into the middle of the woods to be loved and fixed up and healed. As the plug went into the socket and the lights glistened and reflected against my bedroom window and the night sky, my heart leapt with a tiny moment of joy, a very small hint of future holidays in years to come where I might actually smile again. Could I actually, maybe, possibly, really,  truly, love Christmas again someday? Could I? In that moment, I felt like I could. I felt safe and cozy with my little tree; and that night; for the first time in the 16 months since I lost my husband, I turned the TV off instead of on, sleeping only by the lights of the New York City skyline, and the little tree that my husband and I once shared together. I slept sort of peacefully for a few hours, and I felt like I won something.

Little Tree

Big Tree: It all started yesterday. Monday. Sammy forced me awake with his endless scratches to the back of my neck, and his constant attempts to bite through my head of hair. This is his pleasant way of telling me he wants to be fed. At 4:30 in the goddamn morning. This is what he used to do to my husband. Everyday. I used to laugh as my husband tried unsuccessfully to shoo him away and go back to sleep. Now I am my husband, and strangely enough, Im no longer laughing.

In a sad attempt to show my cat who is the human and who is the animal in this relationship, there are some mornings where this behavior continues for up to 2 hours, and I try my best to ignore it, even though my head is about to bleed from his sharp claws attacking it. This is one of those mornings. My plan is to wait until 7:00am to actually get up and feed them, because that seems like a reasonable time to expect cat breakfast. However, on this morning, I can only hold out until 6:30. Like the walking dead, I drag across the kitchen floor, scooping the food into each bowl, then dragging back to my bed. Minutes later, I hear the sound of vomiting making its way down the hall. Sammy. He runs into the litter box (which is located inside my walk-in closet, which is why I do not have the option of closing my bedroom door to the cats at night), pushes out a shameful poop, then runs away and hides. Meanwhile, Autumn starts to bite the still sparkling lights on Little Tree. “No!”, I yell at her, as I clean up cat puke off the floor for what seems like the 1,546th time. Overwhelmed with exhaustion and cat poop and holiday blues, I start to cry. These are all things that my husband would always take care of, effortlessly. Suddenly, Little Tree’s magic was gone.

Monday is counseling day, so I made my way into the city to see my Grief Counselor, Caitlin. There are some days when the hurt and the pain lies dormant – and then there are days like Monday. The hurt and the ache of missing him was in every inch of my body. It was all over and it wouldnt stop. I sat on the subway, silently crying the whole way into the city. The crying was effortless. Slow. Like a sigh filled with water. I almost didn’t notice it. It was just simply there.

During our session, I mentioned the constant ache to Caitlin, because she almost always has something really smart or really helpful to say or to offer – something that helps in some small or some huge way. “The thing that just continues to shock me every single day about this whole grief thing – is that the hurt and the pain and the ache just never go away. It doesn’t lessen. You would think that it would lessen by now at least. But it hasn’t. In 16 months, I havent found one goddamn thing that helps make the pain of missing him go away. Not one thing. It just sits there.” She looked at me and I looked at her, awaiting some words of genius, some magic thing, that would make everything better. Please just make it better. Seconds or minutes or days went by, and she said nothing. She said nothing, because there is nothing that fixes this. There is nothing.

We talked about the holidays and my anxiety surrounding them – my sadness at how much everything is changed forever by the loss of one person. I told her how I felt guilty for not spending Christmas with my family. Why can’t I just be stronger and push through it? Why do I have to ruin everything for everyone else, just so I don’t have to feel more hurt? “This is a time for self-care,” she reminded me. “Your family will be okay. They’ll miss you, but they’ll be okay. There are just some things you can’t do right now. Not right now.” I told her about Little Tree and how I felt a sense of calm and peace seeing it lit in my window. “What a perfect metaphor for things”, she observed. “This is what I can handle right now. This much. This much Christmas. This much tree. No more. Just this, and then I don’t wanna talk about Christmas.” Yes. That was exactly it. That is exactly what it was. Little Tree was the amount of Christmas that my heart could safely handle, without breaking and shattering into dust.

After my session, I left the building and started walking towards 7th avenue, where I was supposed to meet a friend to grab dinner. Except my friend left me a text instead – cancelling. Okay. That is fine. It’s a nice night outside, the kind of cold but comfortable evening that I love to walk around in. Passing 7th avenue, I wasnt quite sure of what I would do next, where I would go. I just knew I didn’t feel right, and I didn’t feel like being home.

And then, out of nowhere, I found myself walking toward 6th avenue. Walking toward that big landmark sign: “RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL.” My heart began to pound as I challenged myself to keep walking. Walking toward my past. My joy. The life I knew. The love I had. The future that was gone. Turning the corner, all the familiar trees and stores were beautifully decorated in lights. Blue lights. White lights. The giant ornament statue across from Radio City – where Don and I sat on a bench that night in December, 2005 – to catch our breath and to make all our phone calls telling our family and friends the incredible news. I passed the outdoor cafe inside Rockefeller Center where we sat and drank hot chocolate with whipped cream, and split a piece of apple pie, laughing and kissing and flirting with the newness and the promise of tomorrow. And then finally – suddenly – without warning – it was there. I was there, in front of it. The site of the happiest day of my new life. My old life. The place where my boyfriend would become my fiance. The patch of land right there, underneath that Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, in the middle of NYC, in front of every tourist on the planet, in the freezing cold night of 25 degrees – he would propose to me.

I stood there, frozen in time. The TV cameras and equipment surrounded the beautiful, awful tree. A cop appeared next to me.

“You okay?” he said. “You look white as a ghost.”

“My husband proposed to me here”, I found myself telling him. “My late husband. He died last year. This is the first time I’ve been back here to the tree since he died. I don’t know why I’m here. I feel sick.”

Suddenly I couldn’t stop talking. The young cop looked at me with sad, innocent eyes. He looked too young to know this kind of hurt, which is why what he said next surprised me. “We lost 7 men from the precinct and fire station down the street, on 9/11. Our brothers. Sometimes I come here and just sit at the base of this tree, and try to picture the good times we had walking the neighborhood, or watching the tree lighting while on a coffee break. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does, but other times, nothing stops the pain.”

Nothing stops the pain. We remained in silence for a few seconds or minutes or hours, him sharing his Big Tree with me and me sharing my Big Tree with him. Don and I always called it “our tree”, but I didn’t mind sharing it with that cop, in that moment of shattered time. I felt like I was about to break in half as I asked him: “When is the tree lighting?”

“Wednesday night”, he said. And with that, I started to cry.

“Jesus!” he said, in that classic New York sarcastic tone. “I didn’t know the tree lighting was that upsetting for you. You gonna be okay?” His eyes worried about me as he sipped from his paper coffee cup. I didnt reply.

“I think you need some privacy. I’m right over there if you need anything.” He walked briskly and with purpose, but he didnt go too far.

Sitting on that cold bench, looking up at Big Tree, I sobbed uncontrollably, wiping my stream of tears on my long sweater sleeves. I cried for the dreams that would never be. I cried for the holidays approaching, and all the ones I would have to deal with from now on, without him. I cried for my own impatience with myself – for coming here to this tree way before I was ready – in some lame attempt to prove to myself and others that I’m further along in this grief thing than I actually am. I cried because I don’t understand why I give a shit what other people think of me, or how they judge my progress according to what they feel is acceptable. I cried because it sucks that so many people want to put a time limit on my heart and my love that they know nothing about. I cried because I can no longer tell my husband any of this, and instead, I have to write about it and sit in front of a big tree that meant so much and feels so bad. I cried because my husband is gone, and we will never eat mom’s fried dough again on Christmas morning, or open stockings together in our pajamas, or watch Christmas Vacation or A Christmas Story and laugh as Don recited every line. I cried because Don will never smoke another traditional Christmas Eve cigar, or drink port, with my male cousins out on their front porch. I cried because Big Tree used to represent all that is to come, and now it represents all that is gone. For a long, long time; I just sat there and cried.

Don and my cousin Charlie, Christmas Eve cigars and port

 When no more tears would come, I looked up at Big Tree, and I started to remember. The memories were filled with pain, but I sat there and felt them anyway. I had no choice. I remembered how ridiculously giddy and happy we were that night, underneath that tree. I remembered the sound of hundreds of people – total strangers – clapping and cheering for us as I said “YES!”, louder than I ever thought possible. I remembered how nervous Don was that whole day, and how strange he was acting as we made our way through NYC, me showing him all the landmarks and decor at Christmastime. When we got to the tree, he took my hand and led me through the huge crowds of people, until we reached the base of it, just underneath. We were surrounded by the warmth of thousands of little shining lights, covering the tree like a maze. It was so loud. So cold. Don had gloves and earmuffs on, and I had mittens.

 He started to make his speech, but I couldnt hear anything he was saying, there were so many people talking and yelling and living. I didnt really know what he was doing or why he was talking so much. Then, right there in the concrete, he was down on one knee, and a ring box rested inside his pillowy gloves. Everything stopped, and nothing was ever more beautiful or perfect. The city was ours and the tree was ours and the world was ours as he said to me through shaky and frozen tears: “Because you love Christmas so much, and because you love NYC so much, I wanted to make this our special place forever. So, Kelley, in front of all these people, in the best city in the world, under the greatest, most gorgeous tree I’ve ever seen, from my knees and freezing my fuckin’ ass off ‘cuz it’s cold as shit out here, will you please marry me  and be my wife and make me the happiest man on earth? Please say yes so I can get up now.” It was like a movie. We were celebrities. People took our picture and cried with us. We both laughed as I removed my mittens in order to put the ring on my finger. I couldn’t stop staring at the ring. Or at him. I couldnt stop kissing him. I couldnt stop being happy. Nothing could stop our joy. Nothing would stop our love.

After sitting on that bench underneath Big Tree on Monday night, feeling every awful and wonderful feeling in the universe, I felt as if I had just run a marathon. At some point, I could no longer handle the bookshelf of emotions, and I wanted to go home. I walked along the city streets in the cold and brisk night air, and just as they had on my way in that afternoon, the tears went back to silent and effortless. The subway was filled with people who didnt notice my pain, and I felt alone and crowded at the same time. When I finally got back to my bedroom and looked into the core of Little Tree, hoping to feel some of that comfort and peace I had felt just the night before – it was too late. I had already ruined it.

People are so uncomfortable with grief and death. They will put their own issues upon you and make you feel like you are doing it wrong or incorrectly or not fast enough for them. They will make you feel worse than you already feel by ignoring you completely, or treating you the same as before, never acknowledging the giant gaping hole that used to be your life. They will make you question yourself and your decisions – they will take advantage of your weakened and vulnerable state. They will look you in the eye with malice and coldness, as if to say: “Aren’t you over this yet?”

They will judge you with no reason, and leave you with no care. People will make you doubt your own instincts, your own private grief process. They will bring you to a place where you are so beaten down and so filled with pain, that you find yourself walking straight into the fire. You find yourself floating unwillingly toward the tree that held all your happiness. The tree that crushed all your dreams.

Don’t listen to them. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let them win like I did. I had no business being at Rockefeller Center last night. I wasnt even close to ready for Big Tree. Little Tree is all that I can handle. That’s it. Just Little Tree. Why didn’t I listen to Caitlin? Why didn’t I listen to myself? Why did I try so hard and so painfully, to push forward into the next thing? Why is this always so goddamn hard?

I learned my lesson. Never rush through grief. Never try and skip the steps. Never let others dictate where you should be in your progress. Most importantly, never seek out something as complicated and emotional and beyond what you can handle as Big Tree; when something as comforting and peaceful and hopeful as Little Tree; was sitting in your window, and waiting for you, all along.

Fuck you, Thanksgiving!

3 minutes.

There used to be about 3 minutes of time each day where I had a tiny bit of peace. Where my husband wasn’t gone. Where my life was the life I knew again, the life I loved. For about the first year or so after his death, these 3 minutes happened each and every morning, the second I would wake up. It was that state of groggy, half-asleep, fog-like thing; where you’re not quite sure what is real and what is part of the previous night’s dream. In those 2 or 3 minutes of time, I could convince myself or really believe that my husband was alive. That he never even died at all. That this was all some big misunderstanding and that he was here all along. Sometimes I would smile in that zombie-like state, or even  call out his name to say good morning, or reach over in bed to put my arm around him and snuggle.

 But as minute 4 approached, and that fog slowly wore off, I would be slammed with the harsh truth. My arm would land on the empty sheet beside me, a loud thump that yelled: “He’s dead, you idiot. Why do we have to go over this every single morning?” That realization was always horrific and crushing, but it was worth it for the 3 minutes that he was still alive. It was worth it to get back 3 cloudy minutes of my old and wonderful life. Those 3 minutes used to be my favorite part of the day. My favorite part of the day had already ended, just 3 minutes after awakening. Doesn’t exactly inspire motivation to get up and tackle my life.

It’s been 16 months since my husband’s death, and the last 6 months or so have been a lot like that one minute of time between minute 3 and 4 in the mornings. The fog has lifted. The mask is gone, and the awful face of death and this new life lies underneath. For the past 6 months, that span of 3-minute bliss in the mornings has happened less and less often. There are some mornings where it is still there. Most mornings it is not. Most mornings are like this morning. I wake up inside the war zone. I am already in the hell. No buffer to ease me into it, no dream-like zen to give me peace. The peace is gone, and all that is left is me, alone with my memories of us and our short life together. And let me tell you, memories suck a giant bag of dicks when you can no longer turn to the person that you shared them with, and say: “Remember that?”

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I want to throw myself off a cliff. While families all over are spending the day watching 47 football games and sitting in folding chairs at large tables and trying to keep the giant bowl of mashed potatoes warm, I will be spending my day in a NYC-restaurant, having an overpriced, pre-fixed gourmet dinner with other people like me, who also want to throw themselves off a cliff. The new friends I have met in my life – the other young widowed girls – would completely understand when I say that while they are great, they are not my husband and my family and I wish like hell we didn’t need to be together on Thanksgiving, hiding from our painful memories, our families, and our lives.

Us in NYC during holiday season

Everyone on earth talks about “the first time you do anything after his death will be the hardest.” They tell me how the first holidays will be the worst, and once I get through those, all will slowly get better. Who are these people and why do they lie to me? LIES!!! Last Thanksgiving happened mere months after Don’s sudden death, and like most years, I drove home to mom and dad’s in Massachusetts and we spent it at my cousin Tabatha’s house with our large and wonderful Italian family. And I don’t remember one second of it. Nor do I remember hiding out at Foxwoods Casino on Christmas Day with my parents, or going to our friends party on New Year’s Eve. I know I was at these places, but I can’t recall specific things that happened or what it was like. I was still a zombie then.

My zombie time is up now. I’m a human with a severed heart, and the expiration date on how long others will allow me to grieve has long passed. The more time that goes by, the less I hear “So how are you doing?” from my friends. Well, my non-widowed friends. That is the other thing about this new life. I actually have regular friends, and then “widowed friends.” That is just not normal for most people in their late 30’s and early 40’s, but that is now my reality. It is a tough thing to balance. My regular friends don’t “get it” (how could they? It’s impossible to comprehend this world until it happens to you), and so, try as they might, they are often exhausted from my constant grief and changed emotional state.  Most times they are simply unaware of the pain I am feeling. They often say things that just don’t apply, or that are unhelpful, or that are the exact opposite of what I am actually dealing with. This is not their fault – it’s just a fact. We are not at the same place in life anymore, and sometimes, people who are not going through the same things in life, are exhausting to be around. For me, and for them.

Don with my mom and brother, Thanksgiving

Because of this, I see them less often, or I pretend more. That is the choice I am always faced with. Do I feel like pretending today, or should I sit this one out? Will so-and-so understand if I don’t come to his play or her comedy show or his birthday party or her dinner thing, because “my husband died 16 months ago, and today just isn’t a good day?” So I go. I pretend that I’m doing okay, and then I come home and crash and cry, because it’s exhausting to pretend and act all day long, especially when you’re not even getting paid for it. The truth is, it’s exhausting to be surrounded by a world filled with people who have no idea what you are going through.

My widowed friends do get it, but because they get it, they are often wrapped up in their own personal struggles, emotions, and grief. Sometimes us widowed folk find it helpful to hear about a fellow widow and his or her spouse, and everything that person is going through at that particular moment. Other times, it is much too painful to take in someone else’s hurt. It’s exhausting. Exhausting to pretend – exhausting to be inside your own life. This is why the young widowed feel so alone, so often. Because most days, you just want to run away somewhere. Except there is nowhere to run to, because everywhere you go, they are still dead. And if you drink alcohol or sleep it off or get lost in unhealthy addictions, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. The pain is still there when you wake up – right where you left it.

Me and Don at cousin Tabatha’s house on Thanksgiving, 2008

 Last year, I had several invitations from people to spend the holiday with them and their family. I was in no place emotionally to be with someone else’s dysfunction and love, so I declined. This year, nobody asked. It really is true that people get back to their lives, and in the end, no matter how many friends you have or how great your family is, the ongoing grief and emotional turmoil are all yours to deal with – alone.

There is this thing that tons of people have been doing on Facebook the whole month of November, leading up to Thanksgiving Day. It’s called “22 Days of Gratefulness”, or some Oprah-shit. Every single day on their FB page, they post in their status update what they are grateful for. The first few days of this, everyone’s posts are mostly slightly different versions of the same thing. “Today I’m grateful for my family. My mom. My dad. My husband. My kids.” Blah blah blah. Then they start going to their health, their friends, their life. After that, it goes from minor annoyance to purely obnoxious. Some of the posts I have read give me douche-chills and make my eyeballs hurt. Stuff like: “Day 7. Today I am grateful for the shoes on my feet, because not everybody has shoes, and not everybody can walk.” Or: “Day 14. Today I am grateful for string cheese and trail-mix, and snacks that give me energy to keep going.” (I’m not joking. Someone actually wrote that.) My favorite was somewhere around Day 18, when people were really starting to reach for things to be grateful for in this pointless online exercise that makes people feel like they are doing something wonderful, when really, they are doing nothing at all. One of my Facebook friends wrote simply: “Today I am grateful for pumpkin seeds.” Really? Pumpkin seeds? That is just pathetic. If pumpkin seeds is all you got left on the list, I think it’s time to hang it up.

Soooooo grateful ….

I have no issue with people being thankful. If it is real and true and coming from a good place. If they started posting about it for no reason at all, in the middle of March sometime. If they acted in ways that showed they are thankful people, in their day to day lives. But seeing it coming at you from 37 different directions – it becomes kind of annoying. It’s like those people that post all the silly-ass “causes” type shit, where they vaguely threaten you with their passionate stance on some dumb thing. “Repost this message about Koala Bear Rape. Did you know that Koala Bears are being raped at an alarming rate, in my head? This must be stopped. If you don’t repost this, then you must not care about Koala Bear rape and the hype I have created about it in my own mind. 97% of people will not have the courage to repost this.” Fuck you. If you actually cared about the random raping of koala bears, then get out there and DO something about it. If that is actually a real thing and you are passionate about it, then help. Clicking “share” on some idiotic Facebook post does absolutely nothing. And saying “I’m so grateful” for 22 days in a row doesn’t really do much except make you really stretch for things to be grateful for – like pumpkin seeds.

So, in the spirit of my widow-bitterness and Thanksgiving, I have come up with my own “22 Days” list leading up to tomorrow. And Im so passionate about my list, I was able to post all 22 things in the same sitting! So while everyone else is so busy being “grateful” because it’s Thanksgiving and that is how they are told they should feel, I have a different emotion in mind. Feel free to create your own personal list in the comments. It might not accomplish anything substantial, but it does help in forcing yourself to be a tad less homicidal during these goddamn holidays. Trust me.

 

22 Days of “Fuck You!”

Day 1.  Fuck you, South Park. You were my husband’s absolute favorite show, and we watched you together every week. In 16 months, I haven’t been able to watch you again. I try, but 30 seconds into the opening song, I’m in tears. There are many shows we watched together, but you were the one where Don usually laughed the hardest. It sucks when I can picture his big, loud laugh as he sat beside me, but I can no longer hear it. I want to laugh at the jokes, but all I hear is the silence of nobody enjoying the experience with me. My husband left me with his entire collection of South Park DVD’s. I have every single season, and I can’t watch any of them.

Day 2. Fuck you, couples. Happy ones, young ones, ones that constantly fight, married ones, older ones that got to have decades together, ones that clearly don’t belong together, ones that always complain about each other, ones that hold hands and kiss and laugh in my face. Fuck all of ya.

Day 3. Fuck you, grocery store. I’m sick and tired of going out and buying food and items that are essential for me to stay alive, and having to avoid aisles 4, 6, and 8, or close my eyes when I go by them, so I dont get blindsided by the cereal or the candy or the root-beer or the blah blah blah that he loved.

Day 4. Fuck you, Congressman Abidos. My husband is dead. Check your records, asshole. Stop sending him cards every year with your phony messages of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

Day 5. Fuck you, people with blue eyes. You all remind me of my husband,  and you also don’t, so it hurts to look at you, because I can’t ever look at him and his blue eyes again. I want to see his blue eyes, not yours. No offense. Fuck you.

Day 6. Fuck you, bladder. Having to pee in the middle of the night 2 to 3 times has always been the norm for me, and Don knew this. He used to get up to get ready for work at 4:00am most mornings, and when he was in the shower, he would leave the bathroom door open for me so I could just come in and pee while he was showering. That is the difference between sharing a bathroom with your husband, and sharing a bathroom with a roommate. This morning I had to pee so badly, and I heard the shower going. It made me cry that I no longer had a husband who left the door open for me and my weak bladder.

Day 7. Fuck you, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. This movie made me and Don laugh like hell, and it became a tradition of ours to watch it every Thanksgiving night, while putting up Christmas decorations together. At the end of the film, you find out that the wife John Candy’s character, Del, keeps referring to, has actually been dead for 8 years, and Del is going to be alone on Thanksgiving. I used to tear up at the end of that movie at the thought of losing Don, like Del lost his wife. Now I can no longer watch the movie at all, because I am Del, so it’s no longer just a movie. It’s me.

Day 8. Fuck you, The Sound of Music. Yup, another movie memory I can no longer handle. Sure, I watched this movie for decades before even meeting my husband, but it was a film that I introduced to him. He had never seen it, which I simply couldn’t believe, so I made him watch it one holiday season with me, and he fell in love. We would watch this one each year together when it came on TV. Don was one of the few straight men I have ever met who absolutely loved musicals and Broadway shows. Loved it.

Day 9. Fuck you, floss. The last year or so of Don’s life, he had a bunch of prettty serious dental work done, and had his top teeth all fixed up after decades of ignoring them. That last year, he was adament about taking care of his teeth. Every single time he ate anything, he would run into the bathroom and floss immediately. He finally had the smile that he wanted, and the teeth that he wanted, and then a month later, he dropped dead. I can’t floss or brush my teeth without him running through my heart.

Day 10. Fuck you, dreams. None of them seem to mean anything anymore, when I dont have my soulmate to come home and share them with.

Day 11. Fuck you, period. You were always a huge pain in the vag to my life, with your cramps and your back pain and your migraines and your hot flashes. But now? You are nothing but a cruel reminder that I will never have children with my husband. He will never be a dad. I will never be a mom. I don’t need you, period. You serve absolutely no purpose in coming around each month, other than to make me even more miserable. Go away.

Day 12. Fuck you, dinner. It sucks cooking and eating for one. I miss my husband saying: “Everything you make is so yummy, Boo.” I miss our conversations at the kitchen table. I miss how he used to eat way too fast and then I would be left there eating slow while he watched and waited for me. I miss going out to restaurants together. Everything about eating food now has become lonely.

Central Park, NYC

Day 13. Fuck you, Central Park. Our favorite hangout in NYC.

Day 14. Fuck you, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. You come back every single year, taunting me with your lights and joy. You are the place where my husband proposed to me. Underneath you. I haven’t been back to see you since. Stop appearing on my TV and all over the damn place, all season long. You are very difficult to ignore, and I can’t handle the pain that you bring right now. Leave.

Day 15. Fuck you, posters. On our Cape Cod honeymoon in 2006, Don and I went into this cute little store in Falmouth and bought some really cool posters to frame for our apartment. Movie posters from The Pink Panther and James Bond, (his favorite), a classic Beatles pose, The Rat Pack, and an Aerosmith bluesy picture. Now, 6 years later, they still sit inside their plastic, all rolled-up. We never did frame them. Something inside me cannot hang them up. They were ours. We picked them out together. How can I look at them everyday when he isn’t here to look too? And yet, I can’t make myself throw them away either. So they sit here – in my bedroom – leaning against the wall – waiting for a purpose. Like me.

Day 16. Fuck you, California. My husband grew up there, in Whittier, and he hadn’t been back since he was a kid. One of the things we really wanted to do was go back one day and see his old neighborhoods, visit my uncle out there together, and I really wanted to show him my favorite area of California – Pacific Grove. It never happened. We never got there. We kept saying “someday” – and then someday turned into never. And then he died.

Pacific Grove – my favorite place in California

Day 17. Fuck you, Don’s heart. You couldn’t give us some kind of warning? Symptom? Something? A sign maybe that you were going to just stop functioning and cause death? Thanks a lot for making my husband a walking, clueless timebomb. Thanks for nothin.

Day 18. Fuck you, New York City. Everywhere I turn, there is either a memory from somewhere that we went together, or there is regret from somewhere that we never went together. Fuck you for being so damn awesome and overwhelming, that we barely got to explore you.

Day 19. Fuck you, eyes. My husband wore reading glasses and contacts, and I wear nothing. He was 7 years older than me, and he used to always tease me: “Just wait til you turn 40, Boo. Everything falls apart. Suddenly you can’t see, you’re dying your hair, you have joint pain. Your eyes might be fine now, but I can’t wait to laugh at you when we are going to the store to pick out your reading glasses.” Well, I don’t need glasses just yet, but when I do, Im going to have to shop for them alone. He was right though. Everything did fall apart at 40. Just not in the way he expected.

Day 20. Fuck you, pumpkin seeds. Because you’re stupid and nobody should be grateful for you. Fuck you.

Day 21. Fuck you, me. I try not to regret things, and try not to beat myself up over decisions I made, but it’s easier said than done in most cases. One thing I really regret is that I never changed my last name when we got married. There wasnt even any reason. I just got lazy and never got around to it, and it didnt seem important to Don either way, so I didnt do it. But now, I really want more than anything to officially be a “Shepherd.” It kills me that I cant even say: “Well, at least I will always have his name.” On paper, we dont look related, and that bothers me. I hate that. So fuck you, me, for not doing something important out of sheer laziness.

Day 22. Fuck you, Thanksgiving. Fuck you with your traditions and your gratefulness and your gravy and your stuffing and mom’s apple pie that Don loved so much. Fuck you with your happy toasts and your yams and your annoying relatives and your autumn-leafed tableclothes and your football. Fuck A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving that Don literally knew all the words to and word say out loud as we watched it together. Fuck the holidays for making my loneliness and my fears and my lack of partner so apparent, in your rooms and warm houses filled with happy families carving turkeys. Fuck you for stabing me in my soul with change, and the knowledge that nothing will ever be the same, ever again. Fuck you for serving up my loss on a silver platter, every single year, forever. As all the young kids say today – Fuck my life.

There. I don’t know about you, but I feel slightly better.

Now I can get through Thanksgiving without throwing myself off a cliff.

Christmas is a whole other story. I don’t even want to talk about Christmas.

You Might be Them: Lessons from Hurricane Sandy, Election Day, and My Husband

Yesterday, on Veteran’s Day, my husband Don; an EMT, an animal activist, and a United States Air Force Vet who was born on Election Day; went to The Rockaways, in Queens, New York, to help take part in Hurricane Sandy Relief efforts.

Except that he didn’t. He couldn’t.

My husband Don, on the ambulance

My husband is not here. He is gone. Dead. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on July 13, 2011, of a massive heart-attack at the young age of 46. But in the 16 months since his death, I have felt his presence in my life and in my heart countless times. Just like in his life, he shows up whenever I need him. He shows up to comfort me, to help me, to make sure I am safe. So yesterday; when I volenteered to serve food, drinks, and generally help out in Far Rockaway with the good people of The Gibbons House in Maspeth, NY; it was really my late husband doing the work. It was that part of him – that kind, selfless, generous soul – that lives on in me now. He is a part of me now, forever, and he is what led me there yesterday. He also led me to learning some really life-changing lessons over this past week. Lessons that connected Veteran’s Day, Election Day, Hurricane Sandy, and our values as people; in an unexpected way. Lessons that I did not necessarily see in the horizon. Lessons of surprise and purpose.

Don is 3rd from the right, sitting on the plane.

November 6th. Election Day. My husband’s birthday. Technically. I’m pretty confident that you don’t keep getting older when you’re dead, so the idea of wishing a Happy Birthday or acknowledging the birthday of someone who is no longer alive to celebrate life or live it, seems rather silly to me. However; grief does strange things to a person; and grief held me down and made me buy my dead husband 3 birthday cards (our tradition – one from me, and one from each of our kitties), fill them out, and then leave them on his favorite chair wrapped in his favorite Special Dark candy bar; waiting for him to come home and pick them up. Except he didn’t. Because he’s dead.

So, instead of staring at candy I don’t even like, and cards with messages read by nobody, I walked down the street with my husband, and voted for our next President. And before you roll your eyes and think to yourself that this lunatic widow lady has really lost her mind, please don’t worry. I really haven’t. Believe me, I realize he is dead. I am acutely aware of that horrific fact every second of every day. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t here. There are certain, very specific times when I can literally feel and almost clearly see his presence and his being, with me. His birthday – election day – was one of those times. As I walked the 2 blocks to my voting site, my mind and heart recalled doing a similar walk, hand in hand, with my husband, four years ago in New Jersey, as we made our way to the local high school poll site to vote together, for Barack Obama. There was such excitment in the air that night, such a feeling of wonder and hope. This time, my vote was the same, but I did it alone, and with an empty feeling in my chest. The feelings of hope had been replaced by intense sadness and reality. How could my husband, someone who loved history and politics so much, be missing all of this? The realization that he would never live to know who our next President is, or ANY President ever again, hit me like a chainsaw as I exited the building. And that is when I saw him …

A voice from around the corner, at the top of the stairs that led to the street and sidewalk entrance of the school. He was yelling to nobody and everybody. Screaming at the top of his old, tired lungs. From his wheelchair. “Goddamn liberals!”, he judged. “Lazy, no good unemployed trash, lookin’ for a hand-out. Get this socialist negro Muslim out of the White House! Put him back to Kenya or wherever the hell he’s from! Jesus Christ!” He was ranting endlessly, and people began walking around him and sprinting down the stairs to get out of his way. He looked into all of our eyes, accusing us of destroying his world, his vision of what America should be. He threw his cigarette down by his feet, on the cement, as he stammered in one last cry for attention: “Goddamn country has gone to Hell.” Well, alrighty then. This guy was like Archie Bunker, minus the charm, likeability, and TV show. Total silence.

As I stood next to him at the top of the cement stairs, only a short distance seperating us, I wanted to punch him in his eyeball. I wanted to duct tape his mouth shut and make him shut up for 5 seconds so I could tell him how incredibly wrong he was. How judgemental and rude. I wanted to tell him that my husband was a Vet who served in Desert Storm. That he was an EMT who saved people’s lives everyday. That he held down not one, but two jobs just to support us, and that he collapsed and died while helping innocent animals, volenteering, on his one day off. I wanted him to know that today would have been his birthday, if he was alive and here to see it, and that I’m a teacher and a struggling artist who works my ass off and still has no health insurance because my husband is gone. I wanted to find out why the hell a cranky, bitter douchebag like him gets to live a long and miserable life, while someone as wonderful as my husband gets screwed over by death.

 And then, out of nowhere, I remembered Don’s favorite t-shirt. It was one he had made up for himself by my friend Dave, who creates logos, t-shirts, and signs in a Sign Shop business. On the front of the shirt was the symbol for EMS. On the back, it said: “I’m not here to save your life. I’m here to prolong your miserable existance.” My husband used to think that was the funniest t-shirt on earth, and he loved that message. Me? I never really got it, because I wasn’t an EMT, so how could I? But standing there with that miserable prick of a man in the wheelchair who was judging my life based on absolutely nothing but his own ignorance, I suddenly understood exactly what that t-shirt meant, and why Don found it so hysterically funny.

I started to recall all the many times he would come home from work, telling me about the patients he had to deal with that day. The drug-addict who spit in his face and tried to punch him because he was so jacked-up on cocaine. The teenage girl who was so drunk when EMS arrived on the scene, she threw up all over Don 3 times as he gave her much needed care. The old, angry, half-senile woman, who simultaneously peed down his leg and cursed him out violently, because she had no interest in being taken away by ambulance. There were hundreds more. People who were not pleasant to deal with, but who needed help nonetheless. It was the exact reason my husband loved animals so much. Animals never judged or criticized or insulted. They just wanted to love and be loved. That’s it. That’s all. Simple. Don used to always tell me: “Boo, if my patient is an asshole, I still have to help him. I can come home to you later on and bitch and complain about what a fucktard he was, but when I’m on the scene, there’s a job to do, and everybody gets the same treatment. That’s why I cant get emotionally involved. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to properly do my job. And if you think about it, who cares if the guy’s an asshole? He still needs help.”

Don with his favorite furry person, our cat Sammy …

Yes, I suppose he does. So with my husband’s heart and words on my mind, I walked over to the ginormous prick in the wheelchair, and I asked him matter-of-factly: “Do you need help getting down these stairs?” Suddenly, two young-ish looking men appeared out of nowhere, teaming up with me to get this old fuck down the stairs to continue his mission of misery on earth. “We can do this. You want us to lift you down, sir?”, they said, unaware of the sharp tongue they were about to receive.

“What is this, some kind of do-good-er’s convention? Now that you voted for Obama, you gotta help the old cripple? Forget it! I’m fine.”

The two men looked at me and I looked back. We all somehow silently agreed what would happen next. This asshole was going down these stairs, like it or not.  As we started to slowly roll and lift him down, one step at a time, two other strangers joined in to assist. It was an all-out, free-for-all Kindness Attack!!! The old man grumbled and groaned the whole way down, all eight, wide steps, shooting his mouth off and spewing out insults with each lift and roll. “Make sure you go pick up your Boy Scouts badge for this later on. And the broad can probably get one too, with women being equals now. How old are you fellas anyway? You look about 16. Right around the age to drop out of school and live in your mom’s basement free of rent. I’m sure your precious Obama will support you and your food stamps and your welfare checks while the rest of us pay for it.” We all remained speechless. Where was this guy coming up with this stuff? Who the hell shit in his oatmeal this morning? And how the hell did he get up those stairs to vote in the first place? As we reached the bottom step and the street level, he coughed and then said in his phlegm-filled voice: “Hey! What did you hipsters do with my cigarettes? You steal ’em?” I ran to the top of the stairs and picked up the half-used package that had fallen out of his pocket, and handed it to him as I borrowed a classic line from my husband: “Enjoy your cancer sticks, sir.” One of the other men added: “While the rest of us pay for it!” And with that, the old fuck rolled away.

Veteran’s Day. Yesterday. Went out to The Rockaways to help with Sandy relief. To serve food. Beverages. Give supplies. Sweep someone’s basement. To hug someone. To talk to people and really hear them. To stop watching the madness on TV and actually see it for myself. To give these people a voice. A purpose. A beer.

Packed up my peanut-butter sandwich and my bottled water and my facemask, after being warned several times about the dangerous and terrible elements in the air out there. Brought my bag filled with donated items – a random collection of things – batteries, tape, flashlights, toilet paper, kleenex, pens and pencils, crayons, coloring books, kids toys, pet snacks, socks, toothpaste, floss. Met my friend Heather and the others in front of the friendly, Irish pub The Gibbons Home, who, along with about 7 or 8 other local-area restaurants and bars, donated tons of hot food, drinks, supplies, and organized this amazing outing out to Rockaway Beach. Well, beach is a relative term. Just like it is virtually impossible to know the incredible pain and complexities of losing one’s spouse until it happens to you personally, such is the same with Sandy. There is no way you can grasp the level of devastation, fear, darkness, and loss of what happens after a storm of this magnitude, until you have lived through one, and made it out alive to tell your story.

Car Chaos lines the dirt streets and land in Far Rockaway

 I heard so many yesterday. Stories. Endless, emotional truths told through pained and worn-out eyes. Funny and real snippets of a life changed. There was the old man and his dog, Andy. The old man was pushed by the surge out of his own home, and his dog was left behind. The man’s next-door neighbor broke through and then swam through the man’s second-story window, to rescue his dog for him. This guy says he lost everything – his home is flooded and destroyed, but he still has Andy.

Andy – man and neighbor’s best friend

A woman named Erica and her teenage daughter Alexis touched me to my core. They are locals now, but are originally from North Carolina. They moved to Far Rockaway, New York, in August. Just over 2 months in their new home, and the worst hurricane in over 100 years hits their new neighborhood and their lives. There is no heat or power at Alexis’s school, so she has been sent somewhere completely new and different, with kids she doesn’t know. Do you remember how difficult it was to be a teenager under normal circumstances? The confusion and loss of hope in her young eyes made me so sad. For someone her age to have to go through this and see this, is simply not right. Mother and daughter walked around together in the dirty, kicked-up sand, clinging to one another for support and comfort. Erica is a nurse, so I connected with her immediately. My husband loved the nurses on his shifts. It was often his favorite part of the job – joking around and having fun with the E.R. nurses. When he died, they all lined the walls of his funeral service, coming straight from and during their shifts, all dressed in scrubs. I asked her if I could hug her, because in some odd way, doing so made me feel close to Don right then.

Miles of piles …

She told me about how high the water came up, past people’s porches and 2nd floors, like nothing she had ever seen in her life. Her and her daughter evacuated and stayed in a hotel for the first few nights, until money ran out, and they were forced to return to the nothingness of what used to be home. She said the cliche scenes and montages and stock pictures they show on TV are “insulting” to what is actually going on, and that it is the hardest thing she has ever been through. She spoke of the cruelness that nature can bring, and the widespread fury that was dealt to so many with no thought, rhyme, or reason. “This thing didn’t care if you were black or white, or a nurse or a scientist, or rich or in poverty, or where you lived or any of that”, she said. “This thing hit everybody.” We talked a lot throughout the day, and I gave her my contact information for this blog, asking her permission to quote her and use her name. She said she would keep in touch. I really hope that she does.

As we served food and drinks to locals, EMS, sanitation workers, Red Cross volenteers, soldiers, and anyone who came over to eat or chat; there were stories of hope, humor, survival. An older lady told me about her attempts to receive funding from FEMA, who, after she filled out the appropriate paperwork for, told her to “check their website in 3-5 days for an update.” She stared at me in disbelief. “Your website? Are these people high? I have no lights. No shower. Half my walls are gone in my home. Where the hell am I supposed to check your damn website from?” 

Setting up shop …

 And that’s the thing. Amongst the horror, in the middle of the sand pits and dirt-piles that used to be a neighborhood, people were still people; laughing and eating, complaining and whining, nitpicking and delaying; and doing things that people do. Children still ran around the trees that were standing upright, and played in the corner with the toys we donated. Moms still yelled out to their little boys: “No donuts! Eat an apple!” An older man asked if we were serving hot tea, and then waited on the park bench for 20 minutes for it to be ready, because he liked to have a cup of hot tea every single morning. Volenteers washed down the soot and sand in their throats with cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Kelley and Heather

 A woman named Bina (short for “Columbina”, she said) who lived in one of the only close-by houses that still had running water, let all of us come in and use her bathroom, one by one by one. All afternoon. A couple of us really needed to pee, so we walked over to her front porch with the intention of bribing her with “beers for bathroom.” There was no need. She was an Angel. At the end of the day, we gave her and her husband a giant tray of leftover Shepherd’s Pie. “At least you’ll have dinner tonight”, I said to her as I stood inside her living room that was half-missing. She responded with a heartfelt: “You just don’t realize how much you miss real homemade food like this, until you no longer have it. Seroiusly, if I see one more carboard pizza box, I might scream forever. This is all so amazing.”

People needed to feel like they could still read their newspaper, or walk their dog, or tell their child not to run too fast – be careful. Even if they didn’t have a house to go home to, they could still have some coffee or a bagel . And in this way, we all connected. Through plates of warm penne pasta and bowls of chicken noodle soup, people would bond.

Serving up food …

None of us knew exactly what we were doing. We just showed up, parked our cars amongst the chaos, and started unloading. We set up tents, tables, and large amounts of hot food. Sandwiches. Bottled water. Iced tea. Coffee. Fruit. Cookies. Snacks. Endless hot, homemade dishes from so many restaurants – beef stew, shepherds pie, Ziti Bake, Chicken Marsala and curry, Pulled Pork, potatoes, rice, hot soups. All day long, the people came. They ate. They talked. They smiled. And as I stood there spooning up plate after plate of pasta, I heard one phrase more than any other: Thank You. And it broke my heart. Because it very well could have been me on the other side of that line, accepting that hot meal instead of serving it up. It could have been me trying to swim to safety from my own home, or run from the burning flames that came soon after. It could have been me. Or you. Or anyone. There is no such thing as “us and them.” They are us. We are them. It’s like my husband used to say about his patients: “Everyone is the same.”

After an entire day in Far Rockaway, there are many things that will stick with me, probably forever. The gray-ish, colorless skies. The homes, lining the streets, that had missing steps or porches or roofs or doors. The American Flags that hung from house to house, worn down and torn. The roads that were not recognizable as roads; completely covered in dirt. Hundreds of abandoned cars; parked for miles along roadways and sand mounds; flipped over, on their side, completely crushed. Sanitation trucks lining Dead End streets, picking up someone’s music collection or stuffed animal or wedding album, magically turned into cruel dust.

 Piles everywhere. Stuff all over. No sunshine anywhere. Everyday working people, walking around in suits or heels after a day at church, soot and grime on their nice clothing. People clinging to their cell phones, as their only form of communication to the outside world. Overhearing talks of those who would walk 3 miles to go to the library that may have power, so they can charge their electronics and use a computer. The creepy and sad darkness that took over as daytime ended, and the pitch-black reality set in. No street lights. No light anywhere. Sirens blazing. Everyone leaving all at once, getting out before it gets dark. Leaving there with the knowledge that we are able to go, and they cannot.

Looters. Crime. People guarding what is left of their lives, sleeping next to the pile of their precious things. The gigantic boat that washed up smack in the middle of a busy 2-lane highway, just sitting there, confused. The hum-vees that passed us, one with a sign inside reading: “FUN-vee!” That sick feeling in my stomach as I looked around at that familiar smell, that sand and soot that gets in your lungs, that panic and anxiety of what is to come. The buildings and businesses and restaurants with blown off signs, letters, windows. The beach that now looked like a desert that was bombed. The flashbacks to post-9/11. The eery similarities. The fears of tomorrow.

Kids being kids …

I will also remember hugging strangers. Sharing recipes. The little boy in a little brown suit who belted out the words to Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesnt Kill You Makes You Stronger”, as he happily ate his spaghetti and meatballs. The children giggling and chasing each other around  in the grass. The little boy who sat on a cooler up against a tree, drawing and creating on the donated Etch A Sketch. I will remember how in those moments, on that day, we were able to allow some people to feel human again, just for awhile. I will remember that in every tragedy, there is triumph. In every death, there is life.

The biggest message that I came away with after Veteran’s Day, the Election, and my day in Far Rockaway, was something so unbelievably simple – but that I never really thought about until now. Never judge a book by it’s cover. It’s that thing that my husband taught me, the message that was on his sarcastic t-shirt all those years ago. No judgement. Just help. Sure, you’re a miserable bastard, but I’m gonna help you anyway. Just because someone is homeless, doesn’t mean they are lazy. Not all black people like Obama. Survivors of hurricanes come in all shapes and sizes, and have suffered very complex and emotional situations. Once you start judging their individual circumstances, you are going down a dangerous road.

 When people need help, and you are in a position to help them, you should help them. It’s that simple. Black and white. No questions asked. Who cares how they got there or why they need the help? Who cares that the man in a wheelchair is a complete asshole? He is still in a wheelchair, and he can’t walk down those steps. Instead of wasting your time accusing people of who you think they are, why not get to know them instead? Say hello. Strike up conversation. Have a beer. You really can’t ever truly know someone’s plight, until you’ve walked in their shoes. It all starts with some Shepherd’s Pie, and an ear that’s willing to listen.

Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never judge an asshole from his wheelchair. Never walk away from someone who is hurting, from someone who needs help. Never. Because tomorrow, or the next day, or any day in the future; it very well could be you whose spouse goes to work one morning and never comes back. It could be you whose legs no longer work, and who sits at the top of a staircase in a wheelchair. It could be you standing in the flooding waters, amongst the piles of soot and dirt that used to be your life.

Today you might be a King. Tomorrow you might be sitting on a park bench in a grey, dismantled town, waiting for that hot cup of tea, because it’s the only thing left that you can still call home.

The Gibbons Home Irish Pub, Maspeth, NY

 

Thank you to the wonderful people at “The Gibbons Home” in Maspeth, New York, for allowing me to crash your awesome day of help. Give them your business everyone. Go have a pint and a chat!

Dust In the Wind …

The past few days have been an emotional, upside-down,  tipsy-turvy rollercoaster of events; all with the strange and unexpected theme of sand. Dirt. Earth. Dust.

It all began with my Wedding Anniversary. 6 years. Well … would have been 6 years. According to the official Widow Book of Etiquette and Proper Behavior, I’m supposed to talk in past-tense now because my husband is dead, right? Well, excuse me if I forgot. Of course, I didn’t forget that he’s dead. I never forget that, not even for one second. What I do forget though, is that I am no longer married. That I’m no longer his wife. That hurts to say. Hurts to type. Breaks me in half sometimes. I’m not married. I certainly feel married. Maybe I always will. Nobody left anybody else. No divorce. No break-up. None of that. Just lots and lots of love. And then, of course, sudden death.

Strange thing about getting married – when you are making wedding plans and you choose your venue – you never really think that only 5 years later, you’ll be standing across the street from that venue by the water, holding pieces of your husband’s remains in a green tupperware cup. You never think you’ll be making plans to take turns tossing him into the sea with your friends. You never ask yourself: “Hey! I wonder if this would be a good place to scatter his ashes sometime soon!” None of those things ever really cross your mind while in the ecstatic whirlwind chaos that is blissful engagement and wedding planning.

As it turns out, Sea Cliff, New York, is the perfect place to scatter your husband’s ashes. It is beautiful, charming, subtle, and peaceful. It’s a quiet little town on Long Island, that somehow doesn’t feel like Long Island. It has character. It has love. And now, it has Don.

Last October, on my first Wedding Anniversary since his death, on October 27th, we came to Sea Cliff together, and tossed some of Don into the sea. Me, John, Jessica, and Sarah. Good friends. The best. We were all scared. Nervous. Unsure. Rookies. It was only 3 months after his death, and none of us had any sort of experience with scattering ashes. The only time I had ever even seen the topic of ashes or remains depicted, was on TV shows or in movies. Well, let me tell you something: It is NOTHING AT ALL like in the movies.

Don-tossing last year in Sea Cliff, NY

 Last fall, I went with my friend Herbert to the EMS offices at Vanguard Healthcare in NJ, where my husband worked as an EMT, to pick up Don’s ashes. His EMS brothers and sisters had told me months earlier that they would be happy to hold onto them until I was “ready” to pick them up. So one day, about a week before our wedding anniversary, we drove there and got them. My friend Herb volenteered to go with me in case I had a really emotional reaction and couldnt drive home or something. I was expecting to receive this tiny lovely precious Urn with ashes inside it. Instead, Don’s manager walked out with a very large, very HEAVY cardboard box. My husband was in a cardboard box.

Sarah, me, Jessica (and featuring Don Shepherd, in a green tupperware cup)

I picked him up, and almost fell to the floor with the sheer heaviness of him. “He was a big, tall guy!”, his boss Joe said. “There’s a lot of Don in there! Just so you know, we all said our goodbyes to him. We had fun with him. We belted him up in the passenger seat of his old ambulance and took him with us on a few last 911 calls. He didn’t say too much. He didn’t even moan when I put the country music station on.” The EMT’s all have that same sick, hilarious sense of humor. It’s wonderful. It’s how they do what they do, and see what they see. My husband had it too. He was always making jokes about death and other dark things that bordered on what some would call poor taste. I call it survival. I loved it.

John tosses Don into the sea …

One year ago, we stood at the edge of the sea, my friends and I – a bunch of confused morons trying to figure out the logistics of tossing our loved one into the water. He was in a box, and inside the box, was a container, and inside the container, was a plastic bag. And inside that bag, was the saddest and most ridiculous thing I had ever set my eyes on. My husband. This big, strong, tall, amazing man – who made me feel safe and loved and who made me laugh – was reduced to dirt. Ashes. Dust. Particles. Sand. If Im being 100% real here, he looked like Duncan Hines brownie mix. He loved brownies, so that seemed oddly appropriate.

 It was the most heartbreaking, hilarious thing in the world. Devastating beyond all reason. It was so damn sad, what we were doing, and so foreign and strange to all of us, that it then became funny. That is what happens when something is so awful and so traumatic that you cannot even process it. It starts to become funny. At least in my world. So we made it funny. We started to call it “Don-tossing.” Like an Olympic event. “Okay, who wants to toss Don into the sea first?” We made a semi-circle down by the water, and tried to figure out what the hell came next. There was so much Don in that box, that we began scooping him out little by little and placing him into a green tupperware cup, and using that to toss with. (I don’t know what was more bizarre; the fact that my husband was in a green tupperware cup, or the fact that I actually brought a green tupperware cup and a big spoon with me in preparation for this weird event.)

Group Toss

We all laughed at our awkwardness, and we tried to imagine what Don would have said if he was here with us: “Will you idiots just toss it already? Jesus Christ! Let ME do this! Let’s get this show going already!” Finally, we uncomfortably took turns tossing my husband into the water, each person with at least half a cup of Don or more. There was a lot of Don, so we just kept tossing. Different combinations. Sarah tossed. Jessica tossed. Kelley tossed. John tossed. Jessica and Sarah duo-tossed. Triple-toss. No matter how many times we tossed, he just wouldnt go away. He wouldn’t leave! As for us on that day last year, there was a lot of crying, a lot of laughing, and a lot of love. We ended the day with a beautiful gourmet dinner at Sarah’s husband Julio’s incredible French-American restaurant, Sage Bistro. My friends held me up that day, and that is the only reason I didn’t collapse into a pile of nothing. A pile of dirt. A pile of dust, flailing around in the wind.

Dinner at Sage Bistro, Oct 27, 2011

This weekend, we went back. Saturday, October 27th. Back to the water. Back with more ashes. Back to the sandy beach to put some dirt inside the sand. A slightly revised crew this time. John, Andrew, Vanessa, and me. Good friends. The best. This time, it was less about the scattering of ashes and more about returning to the place where Don and I spent the happiest day of our lives. Across the street from our wedding venue, in the sand, on the day we married just 6 years before, we stood. We laughed. We talked. Remembered. This time, there was no tupperware cup or spoon or group-tossing Olympic event. This time, I brought a little bit of Don with me, inside my purse, in a tiny sandwich Ziploc bag. Only the best for my husband. For some reason, I began to feel weird about emptying the ashes I brought into the sea. I don’t know why. It just felt so blah. Or maybe we were all having a nice time and I knew if I went there to that place in my heart, that I couldn’t recover and I might be sobbing the rest of the afternoon. “I don’t want to”, I hesitated. Andrew gently insisted: “You brought the ashes for a reason. You should do it. Go do it. We will wait up here for you. If you don’t do it, you’ll wish you did.” He had a point. So with that, I walked down to edge, where the sand meets the water. I opened up the baggie, and slowly let the ashes touch the sand and blow into the sea. The dust started dancing in the wind. The water from my tears merged with the sea water, the ashes from Don merged with the beach sand. It was poetic. It was lovely. It was terrible.

John, Andrew, Vanessa

The tide turned, as I knew it would. My heart shifted, and suddenly I was sadder than I remember being in awhile. I walked back up to my friends. “Are you okay?”, John asked. No. He continued: “This was nice though. He would approve of this. He would like this.” I started to question everything while crying. “I don’t know what he would have liked! I woke up and he was dead. We never talked about burials or cremation or anything like that.” I started to feel dizzy. “But he chose you, and he trusted you, so whatever you decided to do was the right decision and he would love it”, Vanessa offered. We began walking back up to my car to drive over and meet the others at the restaurant for lunch. Everyone was hungry, but my mood had altered, as it often does with grief. I felt lost. Hopeless. Defeated. I wanted to go home and sleep forever.

John, me, Andrew

And that is when we saw it. The sign. The evidence that he was with us, that he was trying to say “Lighten up guys!” He was trying to make me laugh, at the exact moment that I absolutely had to laugh. It was big as day. There were lots of other cars in the parking lot, but this was directly behind my car and nobody else’s. “You gotta be kidding me!”, said Andrew as he cracked up laughing. “Was that there when we got here?”, we all questioned. I don’t think it was. Either way, it was there now, and it was large and pointless and dumb. And it made us laugh like hell. Don was sending us a very important message through graffiti, and the message was simply this:

BALLZ

 Ballz. Spelled with a “z” for extra comedy purposes. After that, the rest of the day was light and fun and wonderful. We met up with Rodney and Sheri and Sarah at the same restaurant as the year before, we ate delicious food, and we shared stories and memories about the guy we all loved. Our friend. We talked about signs and death and life, and it was just like old times. Together with my friends, keeping my husband alive.

John, Vanessa, Sarah, me, Rodney, Sheri, Andrew at Don Lunch

Sunday, October 28th. I drove to the funeral services of Eva Kotovnikov, the beautiful mother of my dear friend Marina. She had suffered from the horrible disease ALS, and departed this earth much too young. The funeral was in Hartford, Connecticutt, a 2-hour drive from where I live in New York. It was the very first funeral I attended since my own husband’s. My incredible friends Marina, and Dave, her husband, had been there for me since the first hour that I lost Don. It was time to put my own pain aside and be there for them. It was not something I even decided to do. I just sort of got in my car and started driving.

Since Marina’s family is both Jewish and Russian, the services were too. When I arrived for the memorial service, the main room was already full, as if I were attending a service for Whitney Houston or some other big-time celebrity. There was a second room with a large TV-screen, where I was seated with at least 100 others. We all looked up at the big screen. Many people were crying. The Rabbi was saying words in Hebrew. Sometimes in Russian. I had no idea what was going on, what was being said, but I felt love. I felt that the Rabbi perhaps knew Eva personally and was genuine in his speech and his emotion for her. He introduced Marina by saying: “And now, I’d like to introduce Eva’s daughter Marina, who would like to say a few words.” There was a pause. Marina slowly made her way up front, took out a piece of paper, and said: “Good Morning. I would like to say a few words.” It struck me as funny, the way she echoed what he just said seconds before. Her comic timing, even at her own mother’s funeral, was perfect. In reality, it probably wasn’t all that funny. But when something is so awful and so traumatic that you can’t process it happening, it then becomes funny. So I suppresed my laughter and listened and watched my friend as she honored her mother. I thought about how many people would come up to her afterwards and tell her how brave she was for speaking at the service. That is what they all said to me after I wrote and delivered the Eulogy for my husband. And maybe she would tell them what I told them then – that it wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t a decision I made. I did it because I had to. I had to honor my husband. He deserved that, and everyone needed to know how amazing he was. Marina had to honor her mother, and she did it beautifully. And as I left there and got in my car to follow the processional to the cemetary, I began to flashback to my husband’s funeral. I told myself to breathe. It will be okay. This isn’t about you. Stop thinking about Don. Focus. Just breathe.

Marina with her mom, Eva

The burial ceremony was like nothing I had ever witnessed before in my life. Family and friends gathered around the plot where Eva would be buried. In the center, the Rabbi was there, and again he read words and verses in Hebrew and Russian, and he performed chant-like phrases in a sing-song manner, and again I didn’t understand any of it, but I felt love.

Then, the cemetary workers, right there in front of everyone, went to task lowering the casket into the ground. I stood next to my friend, trying to comfort her, feeling helpless, trying to breathe. Dave came over and put his arm around me and we stood together. As Eva started to disappear from view, I whispered to him: “How are your kids doing?” “Much better than me”, he said, with tears in his eyes. Me too, I thought to myself.

Once the casket was lowered, the Rabbi asked anyone who wanted to participate to form a line. And with that, everyone around me started to move toward the giant pile of dirt next to the hole in the ground. A huge pile of dirt was there, and shovels stuck out of it on all sides. Together, like a community, one by one, the people picked up a shovel, scooped up some dirt, and tossed it into the grave. I was mesmorized. I was terrified. I was shaking. It was beautiful. It was insane. It was horrifying. It was love. And for the third time that day, I had no idea what was going on, but I suddenly understood. I have no idea why, but it reminded me of that last scene in How The Grinch Stole Chiristmas, where all the “Who’s down in Who-Ville” hold hands, and begin to sing. Amidst the horror and sadness of their holiday being taken away from them, their response is to sing these ridiculous, beautiful words that make absolutely no sense. And that is what these people did. They took their shovels and their love and their respect and their tears and their grief – and they tossed it into the ground. So many people participated in this bizarre ritual. Almost everyone. Toward the end, when the casket was almost all the way covered, a few good men were left shoveling furiously, until the loving act of kindness was finished. Until the body met with the dust.

Body. Dirt. Dust. Soul.

The Who’s Down in WhoVille … Singing

I couldn’t hold back anymore. I finally lost it. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I was crying for Marina losing her mother. For her kids losing their grandmother. For Dave losing his mother-in-law, and having to see his own wife go through this kind of pain. I cried for the little kiss that Dave gave his wife on her forehead to comfort her. Cried for Marina’s dad Felix, who just lost his wife, his soulmate, his best friend. Cried because someone as young as me shouldn’t have to know what it’s like to lose a spouse, and be having the urge to comfort someone who is older than me, but still too young to lose a spouse. Cried for myself, because one day, I will lose my mom, and nobody will be there to kiss my forehead and help me through it. Cried for the life inside that casket. For the image that sits in my heart, of my own husband lying in a similar casket. Cried for the hours and days and weeks and months of grief that my dear friend is about to endure. Cried because death is so final, and life so fragile. I left that cemetary, and I cried almost half the way home.

Monday, October 29th. Hurricane Sandy. The worst weather-related thing to happen to New York and New Jersey ever. The storm that brought frightening, hissing winds. Pounding rain. Flooding waters. Horrific surges. Land met water. Waves invaded land. Water took people, and homes, and lives. Sandy blew sand through my window sideways. Chairs flew across the street. A stop sign smashed through a car roof. Beaches disappeared. The Jersey Shore half gone. The Rockaways, Howard Beach, and Long Branch – decimated. 5 million people left without power. Or heat. In the cold. Darkness. Afraid. Clinging to rafts. Rescued by boats. Grabbing their pets and pictures. Leaving their dreams and their shops and their homes behind. Earth met water. Water destroyed. Buildings turned to dust. Sand. Dirt. Wind. Like John Travolta once said: Oh Sandy …

Sandy hits NYC

And somehow, in all that madness and flying debris – my little corner of the neighborhood stayed perfectly safe. My roommate, my kitties, and me – we were okay. The wind was louder than hell and made my heart skip. The crackling sounds and the popping noises of tranformers blowing up in the Manhattan sky gave me panic. Being 21 floors up and watching sand and dirt fly across my window brought me anxiety. But in the end, I was spared. I was okay. I got lucky. After speaking with some people on the other side of the Hudson River, I learned that my old neighborhood in New Jersey was flooded. Roads were down. The basement of my old building filled with water when a pipe burst inside. I could have been there. Scared and alone in that dusty old apartment. But I wasn’t. I moved out 2 months ago, because my dead husband kept insisting that I leave New Jersey and move back to New York.

Seaside Heights NJ

It might sound silly, but I feel like he protected me from harm. I don’t pretend to know how these things work, and I certainly don’t think I’m somehow special. I don’t have a clue. I just know what I feel. I just know that while everything around me was falling apart and coming undone – I felt calm. I was safe. I felt like my husband’s arms were wrapped around me tightly, and he was saying: “Shhh! It’s okay. Don’t worry, Boo. I got your back.” I know that while towns and neighborhoods just 2 or 5 miles away from us are completely underwater, we didn’t even lose our power. I know that I got out of NJ just in time. And I know that last year, just a month after he died, I went through Hurricane Irene all alone. Frightened. Hopeless. That night, I sat in our awful, uncomfortable, old bed and sobbed loudly as a giant leak dripped into a large bucket. I heard the endless ambulance sirens going by into the night, and I was terrified. Tortured by the sounds of the trucks he worked on everyday as an EMT – the trucks that couldn’t save him. That sound gave me stomach pains and made me want to die. I thought: “How am I ever going to get out of here? I cant live like this. Please help me, Boo.”

My husband. My hero. Circling me and keeping me safe.

Monday night, when Hurricane Sandy gave us her most ferocious, there were several devastating house fires just miles away from our apartment in the sky. There were also many hospital evacuations nearby, due to massive amounts of flooding. I sat in my brand new, ginormous, king-sized bed that was provided for me when I arrived here and is so comfortable and warm. I said goodnight to my roommate, who convinced me that everything would be okay. I cuddled with our kitties and told them not to be scared – that poppa is looking out for us. I heard the endless ambulances that were circling the area, nonstop, for hours. The sirens got louder and louder, as they continued to go to their destinations and save people. And for the first time in 15 months, the sirens didn’t make me feel awful. They didn’t make me nauseous. For the first time in a very long time, the ambulances didn’t sound like torture.

They sounded like a lullabye.