This past week, I was staying in Massachusetts at my parent’s house. I hadn’t been there since December, when I was there for an entire month to help my mom through her cancer surgery / hysterectomy recovery (she is totally fine and clear now), so it’s been almost 5 months since I have seen my family. Since I was born and raised in small town Massachusetts, and moved to NYC when I was 18, that family includes everyone. My parents, my brother, his wife, and their two kids (my niece and nephew), Brian and Jillian. Plus; cousins, aunts, uncles, and many, many old friends from high school or from when I was growing up. Whenever I come back here, we spend a lot of time running around visiting this one and that one, catching up with everybody, and generally just enjoying being together with the people who I started my life with – the people who were in my world the most and helped me build the foundation of who I was the first 18 years of my life.
One thing I have noticed each time that I come back “home”, to my home state, to stay with my parents – is this weird paradox of how much everything and everyone changes, yet also stays the same. My parents are no longer in the same home that they were in for 45 years of their marriage – the home me and my brother grew up in and knew our whole childhood lives. They are now in a different home, in a different small town, and have slightly different lives and patterns than in years past. They are now both almost 71 years old, so my dad moves a little slower than he once did – and my mom puts the TV at a volume that some might call “blaring”, because her hearing is perhaps more impaired than it once was. My nephew is now almost 7 years old, and looks like a little man to me some days, as he plays on his soccer team or puts on his little reading glasses and plays his Leap Frog. My niece just turned 4, and she now talks and laughs and dances all around my parent’s house, asking us to watch her do pleas like a ballerina, or sing along to the latest pop song and knowing the words way more than any of us do. My brother seems and acts much more like a real-life dad and a working husband now, than the little pain-in-the-ass kid I remember growing up with. Our friends are all aging, or changing, or switching jobs, or living dreams, trying new things, creating new milestones, buying new homes, moving to new states, surviving through loss, adding new elements and love and volumes to their lives. On the outside, it looks and might feel as if everything has changed, and continues to change.
But it hasn’t. Not really. That’s not the full story.
As much as everything and everyone has changed through the years, they have also stayed very much the same. There are certain aspects of people that will always remain the same. My mom is still one of the best cooks I know, and she still loves making her very grown up children feel loved and feel like kids again, through homemade food and precious family moments. My dad is still a big strong teddy bear who worries about his little girl, and who does whatever he can in practical ways, to make sure she is always safe. My nephew Brian still has the same big and full laugh that he had when he was just 2 years old, and my niece still makes that same quizzical face with her eyes raised that she made when she was only a few years younger. My old high school friends that I catch up with now and then, still have the same great sense of humor and wit that I remember them having all those years ago. My brother still loves his Red Sox, and still gets all worked up when I banter with him about how much better the Yankees are than his team. The small town that I grew up in still gives me that warm, familiar feeling when I drive through it – and coming home to Massachusetts and to my ever-growing and changing family, still feels like coming home.
And what about me? Sure, my husband’s sudden death has changed me forever. How could it not? It has changed me in such intense ways, it is almost impossible to put that into words. His death has made me live my life in new ways. It has made me more compassionate. It has changed my goals and dreams. It has changed how I spend my time, and what things are important to me. It has also given me more anxiety, panic, PTSD, fear, and hurt and pain than I could have ever imagined. At the same time, it has given me resilience, strength, patience (still working on that one), and open-mindedness, like I have never felt before. Yes, I am very different than I once was. The death of the person you love most in the world, changes you forever, from the inside out. It just does. But despite all of that, I am also the same. The essence of who I am is the same.
Why am I saying all of this? Well, something that I have heard often from other widowed people, is the idea that if their dead spouse or partner were to somehow return and come back and walk into their life right now, that they wouldn’t recognize that life, or that they would no longer fit into that life – that the person who has survived the trauma and lives with the loss, had changed so much, that they would no longer be compatible with the person who died. This is something that widowed people talk about with one another – this idea about how our dead loved ones would fit into our lives today – or if they would fit at all. It seems to be of popular opinion for many, that their person would no longer fit into their “new life” – the one they were forced to create when their person died. The one that took years and years to create, and that stole pieces of their soul as they created it. Not everyone feels this way, of course, but I’ve heard many widowed friends say that their deceased partner might not even recognize them, or that the person they have now become, would probably not be with the person who had died. And it isnt even really about the fact that some widowed people have gotten re-married or re-partnered. Its more about the fact that some widowed people feel that they have, in a sense, grown out of the life they had with the person who died. They feel that the person they are now, is SO drastically different than who they were in that life, that the pieces would no longer fit.
Now, normally, I don’t even like to go down these types of roads, these types of; “what if they could come back? What if you had to choose between the life you have now or the life you had with them?” questions. Why? Because it makes zero sense to do this. You can talk about this all day until you’re blue in the face, and you can tell yourself that you would go back to them in a second and all of that great stuff, but guess what? IT”S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN!!!! NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO PRESENT YOU WITH THAT CHOICE! NEVER! So why pain yourself even further by making hypothetical decisions about something that has ZERO chance of happening in real life? I don’t see the point in that. However, with this idea of “growing out of” the person I love who died – or changing so much that they wouldnt recognize me anymore, I felt the need to address it here in my blog. Because I strongly disagree with it. I have thought about this a lot over the past almost 5 years, and I have come to the realization that this assessment is simply not true. Not for me.
The best way for me to try and describe how I feel about my beautiful husband Don fitting into my life today, is to tell you about the first time that we met. We had been talking online and on the phone , for just under three years. I was not ready emotionally to meet him in person for a very long time, due to some trauma in my own life that had severely damaged my heart and turned me into someone who no longer believed in love or good things happening for me. But the frightening and sobering events of 9/11 made us both realize how insanely short life is, and how it was absolutely worth it to take a risk on love – and so I finally agreed to meet my beautiful Don, in the fall of 2002.
He lived in Florida at the time, and me in New Jersey. So he flew from Florida into Newark airport, where I met him, and where we spent the next week slowly and very quickly falling in love with each other. That moment I finally saw Don walking toward me at the airport – after three years of foreplay and anxiousness through phone calls and words – my palms were sweating, my heart was shaking, my soul was awakened. When he was standing in front of me for the first time ever, after three years of talking only with typing and voices, it was terrifying. We looked at each other quizzically, as if trying to figure out a new puzzle, or something we had not yet seen before. For the first twenty minutes or so of us being together in person, it was a matter of trying to re-familiarize ourselves with what was somehow already familiar. We had already known each other, but this was new. This “looking into each other’s eyes” part of things was scary and strange. But by the time we collected his luggage and were sitting on the bus together back to my Jersey apartment, his hand found its way into mine – and everything that was strange or foreign about him only a few minutes ago, suddenly felt familiar again. It was as if we just looked at one another and collectively thought: “Oh. It’s YOU!”
That is how I picture it being, if the impossible were to happen, and my beautiful husband could somehow waltz back into my life today. If he walked into the living room of my parent’s house, which is no longer the house he knew. Sure, my hair might be a little longer or I may have gained or lost some weight again. He might be surprised by how I’ve learned to be more patient like him, or by all the many things that have taken place in my life since he died. He might have to re-adjust himself to my new world, and meet all the new people I have met in the time since he has gone from earth. He would be ecstatic beyond words that I have connected on levels we never expected or saw coming with his adult nephew, his half-sister Cynthia, and his friend and fellow co-worker back in Florida. The new people I have met because of his death and because of what I have tried to do in the life after it – his heart would be full beyond words.
In those first few moments of seeing each other again, we might look at each other and, at first, see only unfamiliar and fear. But then, after a few minutes or so, his hand would find it’s way to my hand, and everything that once was about us, would simply return, or remain in place just where it always had been sitting. My husband would look around my parent’s new home, see our nephew, meet our niece for the first time, and then go out and have a game of catch with my brother, or talk with my dad about cars and baseball, just like they always did. And when I went to hug him again for the first time, I would find that his hugs are still the same best hugs in the world that they have always been. He would still make me feel like everything is okay forever, and like I’m always safe and protected when I’m in his arms. He would still smell like fresh laundry, and his eyes would still be that gorgeous blue like the sky, and his soul and heart would be the same one I fell in love with, all those years ago.
Sure, things would be different. But more importantly, everything would be the same. We would look at one another, and in ourselves, we would re-discover what was already there. In each other, it would still be Home. My husband would look at me, pause for a second , and then say, as if it were obvious from the first moment:
“Oh. It’s you. ”
And I would say back:
“Welcome home, Boo. You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”