On Your Mark. Get Set. WHAT?

When you run a race, you always know ahead of time when you will be finished. There is a pre-determined length in miles or kilometers that you will run. Or walk. Or crawl. 5k. 10k. Half-marathon. Marathon. 100-yard dash. Whatever it is, there is an ending in sight. That ending is real and it’s tangible, and there’s a big sign at the end that says FINISH, and maybe some pretty ribbon to break through as you raise your hands up in victory, and people cheering and saying with delight: “Congratulations! You did it!”

What if someone told you that starting right now, right this second, through no choice of your own, you would have to run in a race that had no finish line? No chance to go out and buy a fancy track-suit. Nobody applauding or even noticing your efforts. No friends holding up signs along the way or handing you water and orange wedges. None of that. Just, from this moment on, your life would be one, long, endless race that leads to nowhere, and there is no Finish Line. None. The race never ends. Well, okay. Let’s not get overdramatic here. The race ends when you die.

Would you ever purposely put yourself into any such kind of ridiculous race? No! Of course you wouldn’t. Nobody would. Youd have to be a crazy person to sign up for such lunacy.

But that’s grief. That’s widowhood. An endless race that leads to nowhere – a race that never ends. And when your husband dies in a flash, with no warning, like mine did – that is exactly what it feels like. From the first second that I was jarred awake by that ringing phone on July 13, 2011, it was a new life of: “GOOD MORNING! YOUR HUSBAND’S DEAD! READY? ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, GO!!!!!!

Me and Don, doing a 5k in NYC, 2010.

It’s been almost 21 months now, and I’m exhausted. Every decision, every turn, every corner, every dilemma or problem or obstacle – these are all things I must face alone now. Without my other half to give his take on the situation. Without his help. And let me tell you – people stopped handing me water and orange wedges long ago. For them, the race was over awhile back. For me, it’s always there. Life is exhausting when you are living it without your teammate.

Something that I keep saying over and over again to my grief counselor, week after week, is this: “Everyone keeps telling me that Im doing really well. That I look ‘better’, or that I seem more ‘alive’, or that Im doing good things and progressing in all the right ways. So if Im doing everything ‘right’, why do I still feel like shit? WHY? Why doesn’t the pain ever lessen? I know it will never go away entirely, but why does it feel just as intense now as it did when it happened? Why doesnt what everyone else SEES, match the way that I actually FEEL? When will I not feel like shit everyday?”

She reminds me that it’s only been a short time – 21 months – and that it will take a very long time before I feel a little bit of release. She reminds me again that the level of pain is equal to the level of love we shared. She tries to comfort me with her words of hope and promise. My logical side understands all of this, and it makes a lot of sense. My heart will never comprehend any of it, and it makes no sense at all.

And so, with no answers about much of anything, and no real reasons why; feeling dehydrated, lethargic, and about to lose my mind; I just keep running. I suck at running. I have terrible feet and my shoes are old. Im overweight and Im breathing hard. I look like a complete jackass. WHERE THE HELL IS THAT FINISH LINE???

But there isn’t one. There never will be. But maybe one day – months or years or a decade from now – there will be more answers than questions.

Maybe one day – my ankles will adjust to the rocks in my shoes – and my knees won’t feel like they are on fire – and the pain won’t be so crushing.

No Finish Line. But another start.

Ready? On your mark. Get set. GO …..

The Box ….

A couple of weeks ago, I had to take one of our two adopted kitties, Sammy, to the vet because he has been losing weight, off and on puking, and having digestive issues for months.

So off to the vet I drove. Alone. Just me and my pet carrier and Sammy. We both cried the entire 30 minute drive to Long Island; and both for the same reason. We were scared. “I know, honey”, I said to Sammy as his eyes stared at me through the lines of that caged door. “I wish Boo was here too. Im sorry that Im not him. He would know how to make you feel better. I suck at this.” As I walked my kitty into the vet hospital, everything went wrong immediately. They couldn’t find my name in their system. Why was I there again? Was I married? What was my appointment for? After a million questions and no progress, they made me sit down and fill out “the form.” I took my seat amongst the other zillions of people and their Fluffies and Whiskers and Creampuffs, placed the paperwork atop Sammy’s pet taxi, and started to write.

 

That’s when I saw it. It jumped out at me as if I were wearing 3-D glasses in a movie theatre. The sight of it made me dizzy and filled me with fear. I forgot how to breathe and I stared blankly at the page as the following words became blurry, then clear, then blurry again:

 Check the Appropriate Box: Single – Married – Divorced – Widowed.

My friends in the widowed community had warned me about this moment, and about how awful it was to have to check that box. But I guess I never really paid attention or thought much of it. How hard could it be to simply put a checkmark inside of a box? Compared to all the other shit I’ve been through, making the shape of a checkmark with my pen would be cake. Right? Right? Wrong.

My heart was beating so fast that I kept forgetting where I was. The sound of dogs barking and cats meowing became a migraine as I tried to wrap my brain around these boxes and what they meant. How can my emotions and my raw, complex feelings about this loss possibly fit into a box? The problem was, none of these boxes described my situation at all. None of these boxes told the truth.

Im certainly not single. Being single is a choice. Single people date and live single-people lifestyles and go out on weekends til 2am with other single people, which I have zero desire to do. I was all done being single when I got married. Being single is not a place I want to return to. I am not single.

No matter how many times people try to lump divorce and death of a spouse in the same category, they are two different things entirely, and I am most definitely not divorced. We were so in love. We were just beginning our time together. We were supposed to be that couple that stays together forever, that still holds hands when we are old and gray. We joked about moving to Florida in 30 years and helping each other up the steps to The Golden Corral for the Early Bird Special at 4pm. We were that couple that went out for dinner at restaurants, and found it sad and depressing looking around at other couples who barely spoke a word to one another during their meal. The clinking of their silverware and the tension between their eyes were the only sounds you heard, and we would always promise to never be them and to always discover new reasons to fall back in love with each other. I am not divorced.

Widowed. This is a tough one. Sure, technically, my husband died, and therefore, I’m a widow. But that just can’t be. How is that possible? Widows wear black, or they walk around in mysterious capes and large beige sweaters, looking out windows pensively and petting their 18 cats. Widows let their houses pile up with memories and receipts and old aftershave and things from the life they once had, until, eventually, they are featured on an episode of Hoarders. Widows are old ladies with white in their hair and whiskers above their lip. Widows are on social security, and enjoy shows like Jeopardy and Murder She Wrote. Widows have blankets draped over their favorite chair, and they call them “afghans.” Widows have children, and grandchildren, and sometimes great-great grandchildren, and enough years behind them to count for an actual life with their husbands. Don’t they? Shouldn’t they? I don’t care what you say, you stupid hospital form. I am not a widow.

My cat stares up at me through his sad cage as I focus on the word  married. That is what I am. Married. That is how I feel. Those are the vows that I made, that we wrote. We chose not to say “til death do us part”, because we both thought it sounded creepy, like you were inviting death to come knocking. Instead, we coined the phrase “Until Forever” into our vows. Now he lies dead and here I sit, very much breathing but not quite alive, and I am married. I am married, dammit. Why can’t I still be married?

 It wasnt my choice, nor his, to end our union. Even if you’re dead, you can still love, right? Even if you no longer exist, you can still be a husband, right? Can’t you? There is no box to check for when you feel like you’re married and want to be married, because its the only thing tangible that you have left to cling onto. There is no box for when your husband is clearly gone, but you still talk to him every day and you say goodnight to him every night and you say to the thin air: “Ha ha! You’re the last one in bed. You have to shut off the light!” There is no box for when you still put the brown and the red M&M’s aside, cuz he likes those gross colors best. There is no box for taking out your phone 20 months later, on a regulgar basis, to text him with the score of the Yankee game. There is no box that says “It’s not Fair!”, or “What the fuck?”, or “In Denial.”

In this new widowed life that I was pushed into, there are many areas where I know that I will be okay, eventually. I can rebuild a life for myself. I can still have happiness and still feel joy, one day. I can still laugh and I can still have wonderful people in my life who care about me. I can soar in my creativity, and get onstage and teach and write and perform. I can help others and help myself and find new things and new ways to always grow and learn. I can have a fulfilling life ahead. It will hurt like hell and none of it will be easy, but I can do it. However, there is one place of that life where I am stuck. There is one thing that hurts so deeply and in a place so far down, that even when I start to type the words, I begin to sob.

Marriage. The end of our marriage. The very thought makes me shake and almost whimper. The very idea that because you died, we are no longer married. It doesnt seem right. It doesnt make sense. How can I no longer be your wife? How do you begin to accept something so awful? So far, I just cannot accept this, I cannot take it in, and that is where I am stuck. Or loyal. Or crazy. Because even if I cant be with you here on this earth, I would rather keep the title of being married to you, then to even address the concept of breaking that tie or being with anyone else. The reality is, I will probably be alone forever. Right now, I have negative zero desire to find love again, and maybe thats unhealthy, but its just how I feel. I had love. I had you. How on earth do you find that kind of thing twice in a lifetime? I would imagine that you dont, and if I cant have something that special, I dont want anything at all.

When I die, I want to still be your wife. I want to die as your wife. Why cant I have that right? That honor? You got to die being my husband, but I dont get to live being your wife? Why not? Instead of “Widowed”, why cant there be a box that says: “Married – Spouse Deceased.” Why? The hurt that lies inside of my heart at the thought of our marriage being over – it is a hurt that is impossible to describe. It is a hurt that sits dormant, wailing like a child. Seething like a lion. Crying like a widow, who just wants to be your wife.

“Are you ready?” The vet tech looks down at me. Sammy yawns. My hand shakes and quivers. My fingers fall off one by one and my soul dies as I make the unwilling checkmark, next to the “appropriate” box. Widowed.

But Im not ready. Im not ready to be widowed. And to be honest, I dont even know how to begin to start such a thing. I would suppose that it all comes down to acceptance. And if Im being truthful, I can accept that you are gone – maybe. Possibly. Someday. But to accept that I am no longer your wife? That our beautiful marriage dissolves like some pill floating in a glass of water? No. That is not something I can do. I don’t know how. 

Is it really so awful to just live inside denial? If I know its denial, and I know Im lying to myself, and I dont care, who am I hurting really? Not myself. Just let me have this one little corner, this tiny box, where we still exist as husband and wife. Where we hold hands and walk along the ocean. Where we watch Yankee games and get to be old people. Where I get to die with the knowledge that I was the one you chose, that you were the one I chose.

Beyond life. Beyond death. Until forever ….

Where is the box for that?

What If I Died and You Lived …

My husband and I used to play different types of ridiculous “what if” games. Well, I would play them and he would humor me and my insane sense of humor by responding over and over to my absurd “what if” questions. It was so much fun, and I would do this at the most annoying or random times – always out of absolutely nowhere, and always starting the same way; with me saying his pet name in that sing-songy voice, where I would stretch out the word “Boo” to somehow make it two lengthy syllables, served up alongside some innocent, pathetic, puppy-dog eyes….

Walking along the Hudson River by our New Jersey apartment, where, in parts, it was very cliff-like and steep along the roadway …

Me: But, Boo-oooooo???

Him: Yes Boo ….

Me: What if … what if I jumped down this cliff right now, Boo? What if I hurdled my body over this low fence and jumped and slid down all the steep rocks, hitting my head on each one, landing in the grassy knoll?

Him: You would probably die.

Me: But, what if I didnt die? What if I lived through it, but I became severely paralyzed? What if nothing worked except my head? What if I was just a head sitting in a wheelchair? Would you leave me if I was just a head, Boo?

Him: No, Boo. I wouldnt leave you if you were a head. But I might have you commited to a mental institution of some kind, for leaping off a giant cliff for no goddamn reason. In fact, I may have you commited right now. Freak.

 

A lot of times, we would be in bed, and I would wait until he was just about asleep, and then I would tap him on the shoulder with another “What if” question ….

Me: (tap tap tap) But, Boo-ooooooo???

Him: (grunting awake) Mmmhgjmmzz… what, Boo?

Me: What if I gained lots and lots of weight? Would you divorce me?

Him: Seriously? This is what we’re doing right now?

Me: Like maybe 150 or 200 pounds. What if, Boo? Would you leave me then forever?

Him: (sitting up, eyes still closed) No, Boo. I wouldnt leave you forever. Youre my wife and I love you. Is that the right answer? Can I please go to sleep now?

Me: But what if I was like that lady we saw on TV? The one who was 600 pounds and you couldnt even see her face, and she lived in her bed for 4 years? What if I was her? THEN would you leave me, Boo?

Him: Yes, Boo. THEN I would leave you. (laughing at how dumb this is)

Me: But, that’s mean, Boo. I thought I was your wife …

Him: Yeah, well, at that point, you sort of stop being a wife and become more of a furniture piece. Besides, what are you gonna do about it? Run after me? It would be the easiest divorce in history! Can I PLEASE, for the love of God, go to sleep now?

Now, almost 20 months after his sudden death, I still play the “What if” game, but I play it alone. There is not really much joy in playing this game alone, because now I, much like my husband, have become the unwilling participant. I dont want to play this game, but my mind and my heart and my brain and everything else inside me just goes there. And it is no longer fun, silly “What if” questions. No. It is the kind of “What if” questions that make you sweat, and keep you up all night, and give you nausea …

What if Don never took that second job at Petsmart? What if he had gone to the doctor more? What if his dad gave him the time of day or had a relationship with him, or maybe informed him that heart disease was in the family and that he should get his heart checked out? What if he had stayed in Florida, where his life was more calm and less stressful? What if he never moved to New Jersey at all, to be with me? To marry me? What if he was at his regular job that morning, as an EMS, on an AMBULANCE? What if he had his heart-attack in the ambulance and was treated in time and survived? What if he got that second chance that so many others get? What if he was home with me that day? What If I wasnt asleep when my husband was collapsing on a floor at work? What if he wasnt happy – really happy – when he died? What if he was alone and scared when it happened? What if he wondered where I was? What if he was in pain?

Everyone who has lost someone plays the “what if” game, and everyone else tells us not to. They tell us to stop torturing ourselves. Stop trying to change things that cannot be changed. Stop trying to figure out a riddle that has no answer, a calendar that has no months, a bird that has no wings. Just stop.

The “What if” game comes and goes in my mind and in my heart, and lately, it has quieted some. It has silenced itself for awhile. Why? Not because my mind and my heart are finally leaving me alone and letting me live in peace. No. That would be too simple. Too linear. That would make too much sense, and we all know that the grief monster never makes sense. The game has stopped asking these endless questions about the day of my husband’s death for a much deeper reason: it has a much more probing question in mind …..

What if our roles were reversed? What if I died, and you lived?

It is a question that plagues me. It is a question that brings upon sadness. Guilt. Fear. Confusion. Sacrifice. Love. And, of course, death.

But what if, Boo? What if you had woken up that morning to that new, horrific reality? The reality that I was already gone? What would you have done in the following minutes, hours, days, months? How would you be coping? I know for sure that after the services were said and done, after the friends and the flowers and the dust had settled – you would pack up our kitties and pack up your chair and your guitars and your life – and you would go back to Florida, where you loved it, and pick up right where you left off. You would get your EMS job back in Pinellas County at Sunstar. You would find a nice, but humble apartment that had central-air and tennis courts in the back, like your old one, and you would walk along Clearwater Beach and ride your bike in the paths and just be you.

I know you would always keep in touch with my family – my brother and my parents – and you would all take care of one another as much as you could, and you would check on them, and they would definitely check on you. I think you would handle the pain so much better than I am handling it, Boo. I really think that. You would be devastated, of course, but you would know how to go forward better than I know how to. You know how to let things go, because you had to growing up, and so you would probably find private ways to honor me and remember me, but you would spend your life making the best of your life.

Our families would embrace you. Our friends would embrace you and hold you up and love you. And you would take our photo albums and our wedding things and our letters and our memories, and you would take special care of them. And you would be a much better papa to our kitties than I am a Mama. They put up with me, but it’s so clear that they want you. They want you to be here. I want you to be here.

What if I died and you lived? Its something I think about often. I dont like thinking about it, but it’s there. It lingers. It whispers. It taps on my shoulder, waking me up in the night, right as Im about to fall asleep. Just like I did to you, Boo. All those nights. Those wonderful, married nights.

It’s not that I want to be dead. I don’t. Its just that sometimes, I don’t really want to be alive. And there is a difference. And during those times, I wonder ……

What If I Died and You Lived?