Death, Dads, and Sand Castles

Today is hard.
It’s hard because I know better. I know that life is short and often times very unfair. I know people can be taken from you suddenly without any warning whatsoever. I know what its like to stare death in the eyes.  To wake up to the shocking news that your husband has died. To be taken to a private hospital room to “see him”, after he is already gone. To have a forever-image in your soul of his puffy arms and neck, lying in a casket. To have no goodbye. No goodnight. No good morning. No chance to breathe or adjust or process.
On days like today, Fathers Day and Mothers Day and all the other difficult “special” days since losing my husband, I long to go back. I want to go back to me and my brother and my dad playing on a Cape Cod beach. My dad swimming with us in the big waves, holding us tight and keeping us safe. My mom hugging us kids by the Christmas tree as we opened our many gifts, or making us a special birthday cake that looked like Winnie the Pooh or Raggedy Ann. Always making us feel special, always making us feel loved.

Me, the neighbor girls, and mom’s homemade birthday cake …

It was a time before I knew what pain or illness or death was. A time where getting some penny candy or riding the go-carts or building a really cool fort with the neighbors, was my biggest goal on a typical summer day. A time where my legs were as skinny as they are in these pictures, and where my dad actually still wore shorts. It was a time where a trip to Johnsons or Kimballs Farm for ice-cream made me the happiest person in the world, and where dad’s steak on the grill, or mom’s homemade spaghetti and meatballs, was about as complicated and awesome as things got.  A time where I knew nothing of disappointment or fear or aging. A time where dreams were made out of Legos, and hope sat inside of every badly-made sand-castle.
In many ways, I was lucky. The fact that my first instinct is to go back in time, whenever I’m faced with difficult or tremendously sad days, makes me lucky. Because it means that my childhood was happy and filled with love. It means that I had both of my parents, and that they both loved me, and that nothing earth-shattering or tragic happened during those years to take away my innocence. Not everybody is so lucky.

Mom, me, my brother Dave, Dad

My husband Don was not one of the lucky ones. He was the product of an affair, and his biological father had a family of his own. Don’s mother, who was quite controlling and manipulative, kept Don and his real father apart his entire adolescence. For almost 20 years, my husband thought that he was the son of a terrible man – his “stepfather” – who did nothing but abuse and harm his mother, and who one time, held an infant Don over a high balcony, threatening to let him go unless Don’s mother did whatever ridiculous thing he was demanding at that moment. My husband witnessed countless acts of physical and emotional abuse on the women in his childhood home, and eventually, his mom packed him up from their home in Whittier, California, and they escaped the evil stepfather.

My husband and his very first picture book. His love of animals began early on, because his mom worked 3 jobs as a nurse, and he spent lots of time sitting in hospital waiting rooms, entertaining himself.

Somewhere around his 20th birthday, my husband’s mother decided it would be a good idea to inform Don of who his real father was, and to set up a meeting between them. According to my husband, this meeting was awkward at best, and the man that was his father, although a very nice person with a good heart, did nothing that day or in the years to come to show Don that he wanted to be a part of his life, or that he mattered to him. Never in my life will I understand this, how a grown man felt no need to acknowledge or love his adult son, who only wanted a relationship with his father. They usually spoke about once a year – on Fathers Day. Their conversation was always the same. Don would wish his dad a Happy Fathers Day, his father would ask: “How are you and Kelley doing?”, and then he would make up some excuse as to why he had to get off the phone.
I would spend the next hour consoling the man I loved, trying to answer his painful questions of: Why doesn’t he want to get to know me? Why doesn’t he care? It broke my heart into about ten thousand pieces, each and every year.  His father continued to keep Don’s existence a secret within his own family, and so, about one week before our wedding in 2006, when Don’s father passed away, nobody told us. Nobody knew to tell us. Nobody knew there was an us. We found out almost 2 years later, after receiving a letter from a woman in Alabama. The letter read: “My name is Cynthia, and you don’t know me, but I think we share the same father. I’m writing to let you know that our dad died, and to see if you’d like to connect or talk.”

Me, my Bunny, and my Dad

During the year before we got married, I had written some letters, with Don’s permission, to his father, expressing how much it would mean to the both of us if he would be at our New York wedding. (he lived in Florida) Included in the letters were several pictures of me and Don together, happy in our joyous “engagement high”, and loving our life and our future of many promised years. I remember Don calling him just a few days after he proposed to me, excitedly telling him about how he had asked me to marry him under the Rockefeller Center Tree in NYC, and how our wedding was going to be filled with the themes of my love for Christmas. He said: “Well congratulations to you, but New York is just too far of a trip for me right now, so good luck and we’ll talk soon.” Don cried that night into my arms, because there was a tiny part of him that still had that hope, that just maybe, his father would show up for the most important, happiest day of his life.
Instead, his dad carelessly kicked his sand castle over, and hung up that phone one last time without a second thought. That was their last conversation, and a week or so before our wedding, Don’s father died after having a massive heart-attack on his golf-course. A long time later, his daughter Cynthia was going through some old mail and piles of her dad’s things, and she found my letters. She looked at the pictures of Don, who was a spitting-image of his father, and she figured out the rest and then reached out to us with her letter.

Me, Dad, and Don in Boston, 2010

Cynthia and Don kept in touch and spoke on the phone a few times, trying to piece together the puzzle that was the relationship between Don’s mother and their father. It was like trying to solve a mystery, and everyone who had all the clues was already dead. Don never got to meet his half-sister in person, because he died on that July 13th morning, of a massive heart-attack. Just like his father. Except his father had many warnings, and got to live out his life to a ripe, old age. Don was not that lucky. Much later on, after my husband’s death, I found out through a conversation with Cynthia, that their father had heart problems most of his adult life. He had a minor heart-attack in his 40s, a double-bypass in his 60’s, and then the final heart-attack while playing golf, at age 86. He lived a full and mostly healthy life, and he got to enjoy many rounds of golf while retired in beautiful, sunny Florida – the future that my husband pictured many times for us, and spoke of often.
But Don’s father never had the desire or the time to speak to his son on the phone, and he didn’t have the decency to take the 5 minutes to inform Don of his own medical history, and warn him to go get his heart tested and take the necessary precations that one would take when having early heart-disease in their immediate family. So because Don was healthy, active, never used a sick-day from work in his life, and never had any symptoms or warning signs of what was to come – his life ended at age 46, collapsing on a cold, hard floor. As Don himself used to always say, after coming home from a long shift as a paramedic and working on a patient they lost too young, due to sudden and unexpected heart-attacks, “that guy was fucked.”

Dad gives a welcoming toast at our 2006 wedding, as Don, me, and mom look on …..

It is tough to explain to people why Father’s Day always hits me so hard. Maybe it is because my husband and I never got to have children, and so I never got to see what an incredible dad he would have been. On Mother’s Day, I do grieve the loss of me never being a mother or having the family we might have had together – but that’s different. It’s different because at least I’m still alive. I will most likely never be a mother, and I definitely don’t get to raise a family with my husband, but I do get to live. My husband was robbed of that honor. He was robbed of time, and of life. He never got to be somebody’s son, and he never got to be somebody’s dad. And he REALLY wanted that – to be somebody’s dad. We talked about it all the time, and we talked about the possibilities of natural childbirth vs adoption, and he spoke of how much he looked forward to being that loving father in someone’s life, that he never had himself. And then he died – because his father couldn’t be bothered enough to give him a heads-up. It hurts. It is extremely unfair and it hurts to know that our lives were shattered and stolen from us by death. And every single year on Father’s Day, I still hear my husband’s voice inside my heart, asking: Why doesn’t he care? I can still see the tears collecting in his gorgeous blue eyes, as he looked at me, helpless, like a lost little boy.
My husband did end up having a dad though, a real dad who loved him like a son and who showed him that every single second that he had with him. My dad. For the last 7 years of my husband’s short life, he had the greatest bond with my family. My mom, my brother, and my dad all took him in, and he was one of us, and we loved him. And the relationship between him and my dad, was extra-special, because of the non-relationship Don had with his own father. Nothing made me happier than to see my dad and my husband out in the driveway, working on a car, talking baseball, or just mocking something together.
Laughing. There was always a lot of laughing. They were like buddies, and they really loved each other’s company. My husband called my dad “Pop”, which was just about the cutest thing in the universe. Seeing them together melted my heart, and it made the fact that his own father was never really a presence in his life, just a little bit easier.
On our wedding night, when the reception was over and the parties and hanging out with friends was over, and it was just me and my new husband in our hotel room for the night – he held me very close, looked into my eyes, and started to cry. “What’s wrong, Boo?” I said to him. “Thank you”, he answered. “Thank you for giving me a family.”

Don and my Dad go bowling … on our honeymoon!!!

And so, today is hard. And I know that I am not alone in today being hard. A lot of my friends or family lost their dads long before today, and mine is still alive and well. A lot of people had or have shitty dads, and mine is loving and caring and big-hearted and kind. Some people, a few dear friends of mine, do not have either of their parents alive, and lost them long ago. My friend Frank lost his best friend in the world to suicide, then his parents, and then his sister. I have no idea how he is still breathing – because it is really really hard.
And then there are people, like my best friend since I was a little girl, who have been dealing with the heartbreak of infertility for years now, and so through no fault of their own, they cannot be moms and dads. And of course, I cant forget my widowed friends – the ones that I have met online, or in person, or in endless late – night texts or phone calls, telling each other that it will be okay, or that maybe it won’t. They are hurting today too. The ones, like me, who never got to have children, because their partners died before they could. The ones who did have children, and now they are raising them alone – as only parents – not at all what they had planned. The widows have to play mom and dad, and the widowed men have to play both dad and mom. They have to watch their kid’s go through milestones and moments, for the rest of their lives, without their partners to share the glory, the horrors, the miracles. And so for all of you and all of us – just know that I know that it’s completely unfair, and it’s not right. And all we can do is just breathe. Breathe and feel whatever it is that you need to feel on this very difficult day.
Because it’s hard when you know better. When you know that every kite eventually comes back down, every puppy and kitten eventually goes over the rainbow bridge, and every sand-castle will one day disappear. It might get kicked by someone who doesn’t think much about your feelings. Or, if you are very lucky, it will simply get washed away by the waves, in the ocean that we call life.

Turning the Key

If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

If a really cool thing happens in my life, and nobody is there to share it, does it still make a difference?

I had a really good week. I had the kind of week where lots of little things happened that could turn into bigger things, and that move me forward in my goals and dreams and aspirations. I became a contributing writer for Modern Widows Magazine, where I will write a monthly, humorous grief column. I landed two really cool performance stand-up comedy gigs, both coming up soon. Some of my former stand-up comedy students started a monthly Comedy Meetup, and we had our first meeting Sunday. The blogpiece I wrote about Camp Widow was featured as a link in The Huffington Post, thanks to my widowed friend Tanya Villanueva Tepper, who was kind enough to reference me and my blog inside her own article. All this, and I’m just 3-weeks away from performing at Camp Widow West in San Diego.

It was the kind of week where I should have been happy, where I should have felt excited. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. The reason for this is simple, yet heartbreaking. Happy things don’t feel so happy anymore when you don’t have your partner to share them with. When you cannot rush home and run through the door and yell: “Boo! Guess what happened? Guess!!!”, and await the delight and proud gleam in his eyes when you tell him. When there is nobody on the other end of the phone who says: “Oh honey, I’m so proud of you. I know how much this meant to you, and now it’s happening!” When there is nobody to lie in bed with, giggling wildly and holding hands, dreaming about your tomorrows. The biggest things feel like nothing, when there is nobody sitting at home who gives a damn.

Hubby and friends hang out and give me flowers after one of my shows

Hubby and my dad stand in support as our cast takes pics after my Adelphi cabaret.

Now, this is the part where you tell me that I have my family, and my friends, and that I have lots of people who care about me. I know this. I’m thankful for this. I cherish this, and I cherish them. But none of them are the first person I want to tell everything to. None of them put me first every second of everyday, no matter what. I am no longer Number One to anybody. I am no longer somebody’s first priority. My husband was my best friend, my number one fan, my biggest supporter in life. Whenever I accomplished something or began to see a dream realized, my favorite part of that happening was sharing it with him and seeing his reaction. Seeing his whole face light up as he watched me perform onstage, or create a script, or write a funny scene for a show. Listening to him tell his friends over the phone about the latest thing his crazy wife was up to in NYC. Running through the crowd outside and into his arms, after doing stand-up, and hearing him whisper into my ear: “You were the best one.”

Today, after his death, when something really good happens, it’s always the same. In the midst of the good thing happening, I’m on a high and feeling great. Then, that high very soon becomes a very depressing low, as I eventually have to face going home alone from wherever I just was. There is nobody waiting to greet me. There are no flowers or cards or shouts of: “Lets go get pancakes and celebrate!” There is only me and my latest accomplishment, which suddenly feels incredibly pointless.

This past Monday, I went to my private grief-counseling session, like always. Now, anyone that follows my writing on a regular basis knows that I have made it no secret how much I love my counselor, Caitlin, and how much these sessions have helped me and continue to help me. That is still true. Im actually the only person on planet earth who loves Mondays.

But lately, I feel a bit like a broken record everytime I go in there. Like an annoying parrot that only knows how to say 3 or 4 things, over and over again: “SQUAWK! I miss Don! SQUAWK! Why does this still hurt so much? SQUAWK! When will the pain start to ease up a bit?” I feel bad for her, having to sit there and listen to my repetitive drivel. It’s like my heart is the needle on that record, and it just keeps skipping. I’m moving forward in my life – in accomplishments and doing things and making changes – but my heart refuses to catch up with the reality that he is really, actually gone forever. It’s just an old record, skipping over that same part of that old, sad song.

Something weird happens somewhere after the first year mark or so from the death. People no longer know what to say to you. They don’t understand why you are still sad, why you’re not over it by now, and they get annoyed and frustrated and nonchalant – and they begin to pretend that everything is normal and that nobody ever died at all. They start to view you with confused and quizzical eyes, like my counselor did on Monday, as if to say: I don’t know how to help you. And when that happens, like it did during my session, or like I imagined it did, I just keep talking nervously – repeating my same stupid pain, over and over again. But while I was doing that, something weird happened. Something that seemed like nothing, but it took me by surprise and held me down like a wave in the ocean, until I could barely breathe or swim or speak. I was blindsided.  

She was right in the middle of a sentence, asking me if I had seen the interview with British actress Maggie Smith on last week’s 60 Minutes. Maggie lost her husband of 25 years to heart-disease, in 2008. I hadn’t seen the interview, so when I got home, I looked up the text. Maggie was talking about what Im talking about right now – the feeling of no longer being somebody’s number one. She very casually, correctly, and matter-of-factly stated, that “everything seems a bit pointless” in her life now, because she no longer had her partner to share it with, no longer had someone to come home to at the end of the day.

Caitlin expressed that she was struck by the use of the word ‘pointless”, and I expressed that it was the perfect word to use, and that it didnt surprise me one bit. It is pointless. If I finally ever finish this damn book one day and see it published, or win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Comedy Actress in a Sitcom – what good is it If I have to come home to an empty house and stare at my Award in silence? What the hell good is that? And just as Im reaching the dramatic crescendo in my speech about being alone for the rest of my life, there was a noise. It was a noise I faintly remembered, somewhere deep inside my heart, from a life that was lived long ago. It was the simplest and saddest noise I have ever heard.

A key was turning. A husband was coming home to his wife, who happens to be a counselor, sitting with her pain in the ass client who always goes over her alloted session time that is so graciously offered in her counselor’s home. My eyes shifted fearfully over to that door, and I saw that lock turning, as the door started to open. And as my counselor ran to the door, telling her husband to please give her a few more minutes with this insepid, monotonous widow – my heart went straight to my life and my marriage and my love. Suddenly, her door was my door, and her husband’s keys were my husband’s keys, and he was coming inside from work, like he always did. Suddenly, I was in our bedroom in our New Jersey apartment, and I was typing at our computer desk, and the sound of that key being turned and that doorknob opening, meant that my husband was home and safe. Suddenly, I saw our 2 kitties leap off the bed and run charging to that door, forgetting all about me and attacking every square inch of my husband’s body with affection. Everytime that key turned in that door, I would smile, because it meant that my teammate was home, and everything mattered again.

She came back and sat down, and I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry so hard, so deep, right there in the middle of her living room. My whole body was shaking, and I felt like I was underwater and tied up. Something about that noise – that key – the sound of marriage, the sound of comfort, the sound of safety. It tore me up and it ate me alive from the inside out. And there I was, sitting in the one place where I should be crying and getting out emotions and making hard discoveries and shaking and being blindsided by keys turning, and for some reason, I just held it in.

 I didnt want to make her feel bad just for being married. I didnt want her to feel uneasy in her own home. And besides, I didnt think she would or could possibly understand why the hell a key going into a door would send me into convulsions. Hell, I didnt even really understand it. So instead of crying, I started making jokes and lighthearted comments, saying how I felt badly that she pretty much kicked her husband out of his own home. I talked nervously again, until I ran out of words and could get up and exit with some form of dignity.

There are so many unexpected triggers, that bring on unexpected emotions. They can happen anywhere, anytime, even while sitting in the safe-zone that is your counselor’s couch.

I wish that I had let myself break down. I wish that more people could understand my pain, so that I wouldnt feel weird or strange breaking down. I wish that my counselor could know what it’s like, to feel like everything you do is pointless, so that she might tell me that it’s okay to break down.

But those things are all impossible. You cant understand losing your husband, until you lose your husband. I do not wish that on anyone.

I wish my husband could turn that key, just one more time, and come home to me forever.