Loser

Back in high school, when I was a lot younger, and a hell of a lot more stupid; I used to go out with my friends in groups. We would go to the mall, the movie theater, out for drinks, or multiple other public places. We were cocky and a little bit mean with our nonchalant, seemingly innocent comments about other people’s lives and things we observed along our teenage travels. We weren’t really trying to be mean or awful – it’s just that we were truly selfish, stupid kids who knew absolutely nothing about anything, so we said lots of things without ever thinking for one second how that thing might affect the person we were talking about. Or, in our case, usually whispering and pointing and carrying on about.

I remember that we enjoyed making fun of people who were out somewhere alone. We used to find it funny to repeat the phrase: “no friends”, as in: “That lady has no friends. Her and her no friends are shopping today.” Again, not once did it go through our little pea-brain heads that perhaps this person was alone for a reason, and that maybe this person was, in fact, hurting and in pain. Maybe it also was the first time this person made the decision to go out somewhere alone since their divorce, or the death of their partner, or since their son or daughter died, or since whatever awful and horrible thing happened that turned their world upside down. I remember being at a movie theater with my friends this one night, and a man who was somewhere around my age now, walked in with his popcorn and drink, and sat down two rows in front of us. He was alone. We giggled under our breath as the previews started, and we made jokes to each other about how he had “no friends.”

As I sit here today, right this minute, knowing what I now know about life and death and loneliness, I cringe at the memory I have of me saying out loud to my group of friends: “Who goes to the movies alone? What a loser.” Yeah. Not my proudest moment. But as I said, we were typical teenagers, and typical teenagers don’t normally think about anything, other than themselves.

As my friends and I watched the movie that night, laughing and giggling and making light of this man and his pain, little did I know where my own life would end up, just 21 short years later. Boy, do I wish I could take those words back. I wish I could go back in time to that movie theater, sit down next to that man, and just let him know that I get it. And instead of calling him a loser, I would congratulate him for leaving his house that day and taking a risk. It actually hurts me inside to think about that memory, and the memories of all the other times my friends and I judged people for no reason other than to entertain ourselves. When I think about that man sitting there with his popcorn and his face with his eyes that looked dead inside, it makes me very emotional. If there is one thing that this grief walk has changed in me, it would be that I am far more compassionate of a person than I ever used to be in that other life. And honestly, sometimes I am a bit ashamed of that younger, naive version of me who mocked others with no thought or empathy. If only I knew then, what I know now. That one day, I would become that man.

Yesterday, I officially became that man. Well, truthfully, I became that man on July 13, 2011, the day I became a widow. But yesterday was the first time in over 4 years of going places by myself, where I truly felt like that man. I truly felt every ounce of the loneliness, in all it’s delight and wonder. After my husband’s sudden death, it didn’t take me long to begin going places by myself. Actually, I had always been quite independent, even while married, and so I never thought twice about sitting in a movie by myself, or even grabbing lunch alone, going to the park, and whatever else. There were times when Don didn’t want to see a movie and I did, so I would go and he would stay home and strum his guitar. And then we would hang out later that day. We were two independent souls who absolutely loved each other’s company, but who were also totally fine spending time alone. So, at first, when he died, and once the parade of friends and family taking me out for lunch and dinner stopped around month 3 or 4, I would go out alone often. The hardest part of doing that was always seeing other couples, out together enjoying each other, the way Don and I used to do. Seeing families together, or dad’s giving their little boy a piggyback ride, or teaching him how to play catch in Central Park. Many times, I would end up cutting my plans short and running home in tears. But in those early days, I had to get the hell out of that apartment – that place where we lived together that was now just walls slowly collapsing in on me and suffocating me with memories and “stuff” from a life that no longer existed. It was pure hell being there, so I went out as often as I could. When I would come home, I would cry myself to sleep most nights, if I could sleep at all.

Somewhere around year 2 or 3 of this “life after loss” madness, I started to get more used to being places by myself, in the sense that I no longer ran out of the room in tears. It still hurt, but I learned to ignore it or just became numb to it, or something. I started bringing books or playing on my phone when alone in a restaurant. Or I would bring my laptop to the park and write something, with a cocktail, on a lovely spring day. I got into the habit of lying to waiters and servers and movie ticket people, as if I had to justify my aloneness to everyone. “Oh, Im back at work a few blocks away in a couple hours, so I’m just trying to kill some time”, I would find myself saying. I had all kinds of stories at the ready. “Yeah, Im directing a show nearby and I needed somewhere to come and do some paperwork.” I’m not really sure why I felt the need to explain. Maybe somewhere inside, I was hoping like hell that these servers weren’t going back to the kitchen and saying to the cooks: “That woman at table 3 is eating lunch alone. What a loser.” I would always be extra nice and leave a great tip, so that they wouldn’t say bad things about me, but instead might say that I was really friendly or left more than they thought I would have. Sometimes I would leave my business card, which has this blog on it, so they may read it and know my story, and then know that I’m not a loser with no friends, but someone whose husband was dead and who was sometimes extremely lonely but still wanted a nice steak dinner. In any case, I got to the point where being alone and going places alone just became my normal. If my friends were busy or people were with their own families or doing their own couple-things or singles-nights or date-nights or whatever, I wasn’t letting that stop me from going out anyway and doing what I wanted to do. It wasn’t always joyful or even pleasant, but it was just the reality of my life. And for a long time, it stopped bothering me.

Until yesterday.

Easter Sunday. It’s one of those holidays that always makes me extra sad for some reason. In our early days of dating, Don would call me “Cuddlebunny” or “BunnyBoo”, and I would call him “CuddleBear” or “BooBear.” I know. Pathetic. Anyway, when I was 3 years old, my parent’s hid a stuffed Bunny underneath the sewing machine for me to find on my Egg and candy hunt, and I loved him like crazy and named him “Bunny.” (“How original”, noted my husband.) I kept him (still have him), and Don got such a kick out of that thing. He thought it was adorable that I slept with a stuffed rabbit. So each year, on Easter, he would buy me a new stuffed Bunny so that Bunny could have friends, and he would get me my favorite chocolate truffles and marshmallow-filled chocolate eggs. After we were married, we would usually drive to my parents house in Massachusetts over most holidays, and Easter was one of those days. It was filled with laughter, sarcasm, family-banter, the homemade cooking from my mom and my Nana, and all the comforts of being with the people you love most. On the years where Don would have to work and we couldnt make it home, we had each other. We were our own little family, and if we didnt have plans with friends, we would make it special somehow for just the two of us. It never really matters what you are doing when you are with the person you love most. As long as you are together, you are happy just doing nothing at all.

And then he died. And then I had to sell his car. And leave our apartment. Get a roommate. Change my whole life around. Make sacrifices. Work more jobs. Make more income. Survive, survive, survive. I couldnt afford to get home for Easter anymore, not with mine being the only paycheck coming in. I couldnt get time off on the days surrounding Easter, so no time to go home anyway. Most holidays I would end up staying local in NYC, so that I could afford to be home with mom and dad and everyone else for an extended time over my Christmas break. When the only family you had in NY was your beautiful husband, and your beautiful husband is now dead, holidays can be rough. My dear friends started inviting me for Thanksgiving at their house in upstate NY, and so that has become a tradition of sorts. Last year, on Easter, another friend invited me to go to her family’s house, and I did. It was nice. But I don’t know. Something about this year felt very different. I was invited by two seperate widow friends to spend the day with their families, and my roommate also had suggested that the two of us maybe make dinner or do something together. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t feel like cooking, and I didnt feel like being with other people’s families, if I couldnt be with my own. Right now, today, something about that idea made me way too sad, so I decided in my head to do something very different and random. I went to see a Broadway show. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. It is a show I have been wanting to see forever. Multiple Tony-award winner, and an old college friend of mine happens to work tech for the show, and she was able to get me a single seat at a highly discounted cost, due to the holiday matinee and the fact that I only needed one ticket. So off I went to the theatre.

On the subway ride into the city, families were everywhere. Everyone had bouquets of spring flowers, casserole dishes, and Easter dresses. Children were dressed with ribbons in their hair, and the boys with little bowties and adorable-looking tiny shoes. Dads were laughing with sons and daughters, while holding their wives hands. People were coming from church or going to church, or getting ready for family dinners. My stomach started knotting up immediately, and I tried like hell to ignore it. I get off the train, and walk through Times Square, which any true New Yorker will tell you is nightmarish and a place to avoid at all costs. New Yorkers generally hate Times Square. Its filled with screaming tourists, and an ungodly amount of people. The amount of people in those few designated blocks of the city would make anyone want to commit homicide. But that is where the theater was, so I had no choice to angrily pace through the chaos. A church choir was singing a song about family, and a block away, an Easter wedding couple was taking their pictures against the backdrop of the crazy city. Of course. I kept walking.

Once at the theatre, I got a backstage tour with my friend, and then she sent me off with my ticket. I was led to my seats, which were Box seats. For those who don’t know what Box seats are in a theatre, they are private boxes, usually 4 seats in one designated area. They are usually reserved for VIP people, as they are seperated from the rest of the audience and up in a balcony. Think Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night. Well, maybe that’s not the best example. Anyway, I had an amazing seat next to the railing, where I could lean over and look down right at the stage. A couple was seated in back of me, and they argued about their seats and then she got really annoyed with him and then they got up and left. Another woman was seated next to me, and then ten minutes into the production, SHE got up and left. So I had the entire Box to myself. Although it was actually nice having the entire section to myself, I began to feel very alone as I sat there reacting emotionally to this amazing production. Nobody to bounce my thoughts off of, nobody to run and get us a glass of wine during intermission, nobody to talk about how incredible the leading actor is in the complex role he plays. Nobody for anything. Just me.

After the show was over, I headed across the street to this really nice restaurant that was recommended to me by my friend, and that had a theater matinee special on some entrees. Originally, I had thought she was going to come with me for dinner, but I must have misunderstood, because she said she had to head home to spend Easter dinner with her kids. So off I went to have dinner alone, on Easter Sunday. And yes, it was just as depressing as it sounds. I honestly dont know what the hell I was thinking, doing that, on a major holiday where families are all together, eating, publicly. But dammit, I wanted a nice dinner, and just because I’m alone and don’t have my person here with me anymore, does that mean I shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy some delicious food on Easter? So I walk in, and the hostess looks at me and says: “Just one?” “Yes.” I say. “Just me.” She takes me to a small booth in the corner upstairs. The server comes by, pours me some water, and says: “Will anyone be dining with you today?” “No. Just me,” I say again, beginning to feel like I should just wear a giant sign that says: WIDOW: PARTY OF ONE. EATING ALONE AGAIN. NEXT SHOWING AT 7 PM. She goes away for a few seconds, then comes back with a head tilt and a slightly condescending tone: “Can I just remove this place setting here, if nobody is joining you? Great!” “Sure, no problem!”, I say cheerily, finding that today, I just don’t have the energy to make up some story about why I’m sitting here alone eating a meal on Easter.

And then I sat there. The food was delicious, but my insides were being ripped out every moment I was in that tiny booth. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run. I wanted to fade into nothing from the shame of my own existence. For 4 years, I had talked myself into the idea that I was okay being alone, that I was fine spending time by myself in restaurants, in theatres, at the park. And then, suddenly, right in that exact moment, it just didnt feel okay to me anymore. Yes, I can spend time alone. Yes, Im capable of doing that. Yes, Im an independent woman who can take care of herself. But I don’t want to anymore. Or, at least, not as often as I have been forced to, and definitely not on a major holiday. I want a “person” in my life again, that I can create new traditions with, and that I can miss my old life with, and that I can live THIS life with. I want to cook our food together and have our friends over and hang out with our families instead of someone else’s family. I want to make a life with someone while Im still here to be alive. I dont want to sit here anymore, or sit anywhere, by myself, and feel like a loser.

And the thing is, I know I’m not a loser. I know that. But that is how it felt, and that is how it feels. And my mind went to that poor man in that movie theater that night, all those years ago, and how I called him a loser out loud and laughed a little too loudly. I thought once again about compassion, and empathy, and about how none of us ever really know someone else’s story or what someone else is going through, and how sometimes people are grumpy or bitchy or stand-off-ish or aloof, because they are right in the middle of going through their own personal hell, and how nobody should ever judge anybody else because they are sitting in a restaurant alone on Easter Sunday.

The thing is, at any time, on any day, probably when you least expect it – you could be that person that other people are laughing and pointing at, and calling you a loser. I never thought that could be me. Until it was me.

It was a rough holiday. And I’m tired of being alone.

ps. Comments are welcome always!!! I love comments!!!

Pray to Live

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about something other than death.

Life.

I’ve been thinking about life, and the true meaning of it, and how that meaning is different for everyone, and how maybe that meaning changes and shifts when you have been through trauma or loss or grief. I have been thinking about what it all is, what it all means, really and truly means.

I know. Pretty deep stuff for a Friday morning. But let’s go with this thought process for a few minutes, and see what comes of it. Like many days and weeks in my life after loss, I woke up this morning with a feeling that I needed to write today, but had no idea what to actually write about. And then these jumbled, yet somewhat clear thoughts, appeared in my head about life, love, death. So I followed my brain cells, and I started writing about that.

In my jumbled up mess of a brain, I was also thinking about loneliness. Well, not so much thinking about it, as feeling it lately. Feeling that intense loneliness that happens when you have lived FOUR whole years of life without intimacy – without a partner – without a best friend. Since much of this past four years has been spent just trying to exist/live/get through the day, and grieve at the same time for the loss of that life I knew, the loneliness sort of got pushed to the side for awhile. It was there, but I pretended for a long time that it didn’t matter to me. I told myself I didn’t need to have anyone in my life anymore, that my dead husband was it for me, and that I would live my life alone. I told myself that nobody would ever love me again anyway, and nobody would ever be able to put up with this version of broken-down and battered me, and how on earth would I be able to feel anything again for anyone who wasn’t him, ever? I told myself that maybe he WAS the only person who thought I was worthy of love, or that I was beautiful, or that I was any other good thing. All of the relationships and situations I had with men before my husband, were complete shit, so I talked myself into the idea that having more love, just didn’t matter.

It didn’t seem possible, so I kicked it away and focused on work and other aspects of my life that didn’t involve the idea of “someone else.” I didn’t date. I didn’t think about dating. I didn’t think about sex. Truly. I honestly didn’t think about it, or even want it. I just somehow shut off that piece of myself from life, as if shutting off a water faucet and then exiting the room. And if a person of the male species dared to look my way or flirt with me, or god forbid, ask me out in some ridiculously overbearing and out of line manner, I felt sick to my stomach. A few times, after being hit on by a random guy, or feeling uncomfortable in a situation with a man who was showing interest in me, I actually would go home and throw up. I’m not joking. That is how sickening the very idea of someone that was not my dear husband, was to me. It made me feel ill. So I stayed alone.

And let’s be clear – being alone is very different than being lonely. I can do alone. I have been alone most of my life – all the years before my husband, and now, the 4.5 years after his death. I left small town Massachusetts home at 18 years old, for my big dreams in New York City. I lived alone in apartments for years. Ive paid all my own bills, walked home alone at night from subways and trains and busses, lifted my own damn suitcases and bags and everything else, for years and years and years. I’m fiercely independent, and I know how to survive alone.

But that is very different than being lonely. And what I have discovered in the past 4 plus years, is this: I don’t want to be lonely anymore. I don’t want to live a life of loneliness. Even if every single dream I have ever had for myself, career-wise or other, were to come true, I would not truly be happy if I were alone. For what is the point of living, what is the point of anything – if you have nobody to share it with? Nobody to come home to at the end of the day, and say: “Honey, I’m home.” Or “Honey, I had the worst day today. Can we just sit on the couch and let the world fall away?” It reminds me of a scene from the Kevin Costner film: “For Love of the Game”, where the main character, a major league baseball pitcher, has the best career day of his life. He pitches a perfect game. He is being interviewed, and the bright lights are on him, and he is the star in everyone’s eyes. He is all over the media, his name is everywhere, his dreams have just been realized. And then, after all the hoopla, there comes that moment when it has finally reached “the end of the day.” He goes “home”, to his hotel room, alone. He doesn’t have anyone in his life with him to share this major achievement. He sits on the corner of the hotel bed in silence for a few minutes, and then he just cries. Best and happiest day of his life – ruined and stolen by loneliness.

What made me start thinking about life, death, and loneliness so much, you didn’t ask? Well, dear readers, I will tell you. Recently, I have been “talking to someone”. I have “met someone”, in the sense that I have physically met them, and in the sense that, to me, they are someone very special. I am not going to call it “dating”, or whatever else, because things are rather complicated with this situation, and we are moving in very slow motion, which includes not labeling things just yet. Also, I am very protective of this person’s privacy, because he is way more private than I tend to be with things such as this, so it’s important that I respect that right now and keep things vague in public forums, until we have shifted into more of a place of knowing what this actually is, and what it might become.

I will say this – the act of talking with this person and then meeting them and spending some really good quality time with them – has made me start to think a lot about the meaning of life after loss. It has awakened that part of me, that I truly thought was dead inside. It has made me feel joy again in my personal life, and made me see that while I will ALWAYS love and miss my husband and that life, the life I have now is still very much happening, whether I like it or not. And even though I could survive alone and be alone, I don’t want to be. I want more memories, more life, more love. I don’t want the good pieces of my life to be tarnished and stolen by loneliness. I want to love my beautiful husband who died, forever and ever, while also feeling love for someone else, who is very much alive, in the very same breath.

And whether or not that turns out to be this person or someone different, the important thing right now is that I have finally let these feelings in. In 4 years time, I have gone from pushing them away, to welcoming them with a warm, yet terrified embrace. For so long, I was not ready. And the people that were approaching me, were not even close to worthy of me being ready. Then, about a year or so ago, something shifted, for no reason whatsoever, and I suddenly and finally felt ready to let the concept of “my next great love” into my heart. There was no new person in my life at that time. I just all of a sudden felt different about it. The idea of someone else no longer made me sick to my stomach. About 5 months later, this person showed up, and we began a slow and beautiful friendship. I believe it is much like what my friend Tom Zuba says: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Yes, Im scared. Losing the person you thought you would spend your life with to death, makes a person very scared. I’m terrified that I will open my heart and then be rejected. I’m terrified that this person will disappear entirely, either via sudden death, or because they just decide they don’t feel like doing this with me anymore. Both of those things have happened to me in my life, so it scares me every single day. I am walking around a terrified mess. But I’m also happy. And I’m emotional too. Letting someone into that vulnerable and soft part of yourself, it brings back the grief. Caring about someone new brings back the intense missing of your person, and the missing of the life you had. I’m not really sure why, but it does. In moments that are hard with the new person, you start to think things like: “Well if my person didn’t DIE, I wouldn’t be having to deal with this right now! DAMMIT!” I have learned that all of this is normal. I have learned to sit with 37 emotions at the same time. That is what this widowed life is. That is what it does. Instead of fighting that, I have decided to just let it happen. Sure, its exhausting and all kinds of complex and really, really hard. But it’s also a hell of a lot more fun and meaningful to actually be alive inside my own life, instead of just sitting around waiting to die.

Which brings me to the title of this piece. Pray to Live. I am not a religious person. I do believe in God, but I believe that God is whatever we want God to be. A concept, a symbol of love and all things good, a power or force of energy that nobody can really ever totally understand. I am not big on religion, as I feel it generally seperates people more than not, and that it uses itself to promote hate and judgment more than love. But that’s another post for another time. Today is Good Friday, and Sunday is Easter, so I want to leave my widowed friends or any friends who are struggling, religious or not, with these thoughts to ponder …..

There was a time, for a long time, after my husband’s death, when I kept just wanting to die. Or, to be slightly more accurate, I was not interested in living “this” life, the one without my husband in it – the one that was shoved at me without my permission or consent. There was a time when I begged and begged, and maybe even prayed and prayed, even though I am NOT the praying type, that God or nature or the universe or whoever, would just take me in the middle of the night while I slept, so that I wouldn’t have to wake up to yet another day of this unbelievable pain.

The only thing that stopped these thoughts, or made these thoughts come less often, was making tiny and microscopic movements toward life. At first, it was taking a shower that day, or getting an errand done that my husband would have normally taken care of for me. Later, it was accepting lunch invites from friends, or getting through my workday without falling apart. Right away, I began writing everything down, because it felt like a lifeboat to me, to be able to put my emotions into words and then release them. Slowly, I began meeting other widowed people, and finding many ways to honor my husband and his life. For a long time, that is what my life was about. Honoring him. It gave me something to do, something to look forward to. Creating a one-woman show about him or doing a benefit concert in his name, or walking a 5K to raise money for Organ and Tissue Donation – anything that kept his name alive and out there and relevant. I didn’t really see a life for myself personally, so I would live for him. I would live because he did not have that choice. This is what kept me going in those early days, for the first couple of years, actually, until, eventually, I started to be able to see pieces of life , mixed in with all the pain. I was still in tremendous pain, but there was life. Still there. Lurking.

Now, 4 plus years later, there is still pain and grief. There always will be. And there are still days and weeks and moments when it overtakes me again, or when I feel like Im going backwards again. But Im not. That’s just grief, and that is just what this is. It is ALWAYS going to be hard. And now that I know that, I can handle it better. Recently, I have heard a lot of my widowed friends having these same thoughts that I had early on. I have read their words or heard their voices, and the ones who are religious, they keep saying that they keep praying to God that they would just die, and that God never answers them. They say: “Why cant I just go and be with my love in eternity?”

Well, I don’t know why. I don’t know if anyone does. But praying for death and praying to die – it doesn’t work. I don’t think it works that way. I don’t know what the reason is, and none of us do, but I do know that life has meaning, and life has the meaning that YOU give to it. For me, being here on earth is all about connecting with people, loving as much as you can possibly love until your last breath, and then leaving behind something good in the world, something that made a difference to someone, or to lots of people. It is in this way, that we all live eternally, through the beautiful lives and stories of other people. I don’t think we were brought to earth to live a life of loneliness and sorrow. There is a lot of sorrow in life, and there is a lot of grief – but there is also Love. So much beautiful, neverending love.

So what Im asking from you today, those of you who are struggling – is this: Instead of praying for or begging for death, or for God to end your time here, maybe you could begin a new thought. Maybe you could start praying for life. Pray for the courage or the strength or the shift to happen, where you begin to see more life. Pray that you are able to see or smell or feel a simple little joy today. Pray that you are alive to hear a gorgeous piece of music, or to witness a beautiful sunset, or to accomplish something new and strange that you never saw coming. Pray for the day to come, where your grief and your loss does not rule every minute of your day. Pray for the scales to tip to more joy instead of hurt. Instead of praying for the desire to die, pray for the desire to live. And then just keep living, one microscopic moment at a time.

It is what your loved one who died wants for you. If they could be here themselves to live with you, they would. They would move mountains and heaven and earth to be here. But they can’t. And yet, here you are. Still alive. Still on earth. Learning and growing and connecting with humans everyday. Living life to the fullest. It is what they would want for you. It is what any person who loves another person, wants for them. And eventually, it is what you should and will want for yourself.

Pray to find that meaning of life for yourself. Pray for more love to enter your heart, when you are ready to accept it. Pray to be able to blend new love with forever love, and to know that having both is very, very possible.

Pray to live.

And then go live.

I promise you won’t regret it.

P.S. If you just read this, please leave me a comment!!! I looooove comments!!! They are like a bunch of little Christmas presents, just waiting under the tree. I will try to do better at replying to them as well. Please comment!

Nightmares

Many years before I met my husband Don, there was an extremely traumatic event in my life. It happened back in 1996, and it was the kind of thing that changes a person forever. The kind of thing that can end up defining you, if you let it. The kind of thing that steals your soul for awhile and grabs at your eyeballs and pulls them out and onto the floor and then stomps on them with tiny little needles until they bleed. It’s the kind of horror that I can’t properly put into words here and now in this blog piece, because it’s so much bigger than that, and because if I start talking about the specifics, I will go back to that dark hole that I hate going back to, and I might end up staying there for much too long. Now, 20 years later, I don’t think about this traumatic event too much. It doesn’t control me, and it doesn’t run through my mind all the time or torture me regularly anymore. But, it is always there. It will always be there. It is NOT who I am – it is something that happened to me – and that makes it a piece of me forever. Even though I don’t want it there. Even though the very thought of it makes me shiver and get chills of nausea. Even though, even though ……….

I cannot get rid of it. It is there.

The two worst moments of my life both happened while I was asleep. In the middle of the night – very early in the morning – and while I was home, supposedly safe in my comfy bed, and sleeping. The first of these moments was this traumatic event in 1996, and the second, of course, was the death of my beautiful husband, who was collapsing from a massive heart-attack at work, as I slept unknowingly in our bed. Because of these two events, I have severe issues surrounding sleep. Intense insomnia, waking up over and over, unrelenting guilt for sleeping at all (its that feeling of “bad things happen when I sleep”), not being able to relax my body into sleep mode, re-living the trauma that I had all those years ago, and then re-living the moments that I never witnessed, in the minutes and hours before my husband’s heart stopped beating. Unbelievably horrible nightmares. On and on and on ….

All of these things have lessened over the years, but they never go away. When I hear a noise in the night, or when I wake up in a cold sweat and realize Im completely alone in that moment, or when I wake up actually in mid-panic-attack and have to try to control my breathing – everything comes rushing back, just like it was yesterday again, and I feel like a small and insignificant child, terrified in the night, and calling out to the canyon of echoes. Nobody answers. I am paralyzed by fear, and I have to remind myself to breathe.

It happened today. No particular reason. It is not the anniversary of either of these horrible events or anything like that – it just happened because sometimes, shit happens. I woke up in the early morning of the time when the actual events occured, and my body flung itself into a sitting position, and I woke up feeling as if someone was choking me. I couldn’t get any air. Logic was nowhere near my brain in this moment – the only thing present was terror.

In the early days of meeting Don, or talking with Don (because we talked online and on the phone for almost THREE YEARS before finally meeting in person), it was about 2 years after living through my trauma, and I hadn’t really told anyone the story of what had happened. I also never saw a therapist, never did anything healthy in the ways of dealing with it. My coping skills included eating fast food and hibernating in my apartment for days and hours and weeks. I would go to work, and then come home, and I would cower in a corner with my TV and my food. I didn’t know this at the time, but my thought process was something like: “If I gain enough weight to be disgusting and awful, it will somehow shield me from the pain. Nobody will ever love me again or touch me again or hurt me again. Nobody will ever want me again, and I can just live inside this protective shell forever.” Over the next year and a half or so, I gained over 100 pounds, and truly became a person that was in no way myself. I became someone I did not recognize. I became the very definition of darkness.

What happened next was something I didn’t expect. What happened next was that, right smack in the middle of my darkness and my hopelessness, a Saint or a savior in the form of a human showed up in my life. Not only did he listen to me when I was most afraid, but he saw right through my “I’m strong and I don’t need anyone” routine, and he called me on it. One night, on the phone, he called me on it. He instinctively knew something was wrong, that something was “off” with me that night, and in general. He said: “Kelley, you can trust me. I feel like something happened to you. Something awful. You don’t have to tell me, but I want you to know you CAN tell me, and I will sit here and listen for as long as you need me to.” Everything fell out of me that night, and before I realized it, I was telling my future husband my story. He listened. He got furious that such horrors could happen to a person. He cried with me. And even though he had to be up for his EMS shift in just a few short hours, he sat on the phone with me for FIVE hours. The sun came up while we were talking – both literally, and figuratively. He said to me in that phone call: “I’m going to stay here with you until you feel safe enough to hang up. I’m going to be your safe place to fall. ” My husband saved my life that night, and he continued saving my life for every single day after, for the 14 wonderful years that I knew him.

One of the hardest parts of waking up to that darkness, now, is knowing that my safe place of Don is no longer here. He can’t hold me until I stop crying. He can’t whisper in my ear that it’s going to be okay, and that I’m safe now, and that he will never let anything happen to me. He can’t say with 100% certainty: “I will never leave you, Boo. I’m always here for you.” He can’t be the one who saves me anymore, and that hurts and stings like an open wound, and it’s something I have to live with. Over the past 4.5 years without my husband, I have started to learn to save myself. I have learned that when Im afraid, trying to bring up his voice in my ear, and trying to really feel it, helps. I have learned that when I have no idea what to do next, to ask myself honestly and freely: “What would Don say to me in this moment? How would he make this better?” Doing this is not even close to the same thing as having my husband here in reality, but it’s a whole lot better than the nothingness that lives inside those echoing walls.

Recently, I’ve been talking with a new person – one that I feel a deep connection to, and one that I’m forming a beautiful friendship with, at the very least. He is a widower, and for reasons too complex to explain here, he is connected to Don in many ways, as is his late wife. So it feels as though the four of us are in this together somehow, and that this connection was meant to happen. It feels as though Don knows that he cant be here anymore for me physically, so he sent me someone wonderful, so that maybe we can heal our broken pieces together.

This morning, when I woke up in my state of panic and terror, instead of getting myself through it, and trying to be strong, and all that crap that I really didn’t want to do – instead, I took a risk. I texted him, and I asked for help. I asked him, in the early hours of the morning, if he could call me. And he did. And he helped me breathe in and out again, and he helped me to feel a little safer in that moment again. And he told me he would be there for me, next time I need to hear someone’s voice in the night, providing evidence that there is more than just a lonely echo.

We are all broken. Eventually. Sometimes. To different degrees.

If we can find the missing pieces to our puzzle, the ones that will sit with us and help us to find the best of ourselves again, to want to try again and live again, to dare to feel again ….

That is worth everything. Even the nightmares.