Seaworthy

Sea-wor-thy
ˈsēˌwərT͟Hē/
adjective
“(of a vessel) in a good enough condition to sail on the sea.”

Sometimes, something unexpected happens, and it gives you a new look at something, or a new look at yourself maybe. Sometimes, everything just lines up in the way it is supposed to, so that the universe can deliver to you, exactly what it is that you need in that moment. I want to tell you all a story, where that happened.

So, I recently returned home from Tampa, Florida – where I attended as a presenter once again at Camp Widow. It always seems impossible to even begin to describe the experience of what goes on during those few days at that Marriott Hotel, because it always feels so special and so big and so life-changing, and something that just cant be seen or felt or understood, unless you were there inside of it. Each and every time.

And I figured out the reason for that. It’s because we are living life every day. Sometimes we are living life poorly, other times we are barely hanging on, and still other times we might feel like we could be doing okay. The pieces of our life are in constant movement. Each time we attend camp, and are surrounded by a couple hundred other widowed people – our tribe – things have changed in our own lives. We are in a different place than we were the last time, even if its not a good place. Grief does not stand still – its always shifting – as is life, whether you fight the changes of it or not. They still keep happening. So each time I attend, I receive brand new messages, gain new knowledge, and walk away with something I didnt have just a few days earlier. I also meet more new people that are on this path of loss, and I reunite with my friends that I met there last year. Not to mention I have the amazing honor of providing laughter to a room filled with widowed people – and widowed people laughing, has become my very favorite sound to hear.

At each camp, the founder of Soaring Spirits International, my dear friend Michele Neff Hernandez, widowed at age 35 when her husband Phil was hit by a car while cycling – delivers a Key Note Address. It is always the perfect message for us to go home with, and always something to make us think in a new way about something. As it turns out, this one hit home for me, in ways that were quite unexpected. She normally uses some type of metaphor or image as part of her overall theme, and this time, that image was boats.

Michele spoke about how common it is to hear people comparing grief to the ocean. She then noted that she liked to think of it more as a boat. That when our loved one dies, we are left with this boat (our grief, our “after” life, all of it), and it is our mission, eventually, to make sure our boats were seaworthy – in good enough condition to sail on the sea. She talked about what a ginormous task this was, and how all of our boats were in different conditions and some of our boats had other passengers to take care of (children), while others were completely alone in their boats. She talked about having to fix our boats over and over, and how new holes would appear and how we had to keep starting over, and how sometimes, you just wanted to sit there and tread water and not deal with this boat or deal with anything. Or how you wanted to just give up and sell your boat, but you couldntt, because you have the deed and its yours forever. You had no choice but to take your boat, your life, and make it seaworthy.

Later that day, after the Key Note Address, I did my presentation, which went very well, and then attended the big party that night where we both honor our forever loves with a message release, and celebrate our own lives, and love and life itself. Everything was great, and I felt such a sense of life-affirmation and hope – the way I always feel when around my widowed family.

The next night, Sunday, I was hit with a huge emotional breakdown. A panic attack. It happened at a random moment, while sitting in my hotel room alone. The reasons as to why it happened aren’t important here and cannot be shared here, so I will only say that it was an extremely emotional week for me in Florida, and it was very difficult being there for personal reasons. My heart was hurting all week long, and in that moment, it all came to a head.

So, on that Sunday, I found myself on the floor of my hotel room, crumpled up in a corner, sobbing hysterically and barely able to catch my breath. It was that kind of crying where you start hyperventilating, and where you are absolutely positive that the severity of your crying and your pain, will indeed kill you. You are positive that you will die from this pain, and you sort of very much want to die, in that moment. Here I was, 5 and a half years from my loss, and still, grief and life and pain was attacking. But because I am over 5 years from my loss, I knew enough, somewhere deep inside, that I was having a panic attack, and that I probably would not die from it. I knew enough that I needed a friend to help me breathe through this, and I needed to talk with someone I could trust with all of this pain. So I texted Michele. It just felt right. She was the person I needed in that moment, to say the words I needed to say out loud, that would be kept between only us.

I got through the night somehow. I cried hysterically for a long time that night. Hours, maybe. With the help of a sleeping pill, I finally drifted off into crying sleep. On Monday morning, I woke up with a headache, and a return text from Michele that she had been asleep the night before and just received my text now. I was still in a very bad place, and asked her if she could somehow spare even just a few minutes for me in person, because I felt as if I was going to collapse from pain. I wasnt sure how to get through the next minute, never mind the day. This woman, this beautiful friend of mine who was literally in the middle of packing up all of Camp Widow into trucks, several meetings, and things other than my sobbing ass – scheduled a private conference room for us to meet in, and was there waiting for me when I arrived at the appointed time.

I sat down next to her, and just collapsed into her. I let myself cry horribly and loudly. I let everything that was inside, come out. And she sat there, holding me, and giving me the space I so desperately needed, to let all the hurt escape out of me. I needed a private place to feel safe, away from everyone and everything, and she gave me exactly that. We talked for a long time, and many things were said that I can’t get into in a public forum, but this was the part that is important to this story, that I will share here.

She looked me in the eyes, as I cried and cried and cried, and she ordered me to go outside. “You can cry all you want, but you are not allowed back into your room until tonight, to sleep. I want you outside in the fresh air. Take a walk, sit by the pool, whatever. If I find out you went back to your room, I’m going to be really upset with you.You have to find a way to release this from your heart, at least until your TED talk is done at the end of the month. You have to focus on that. This is a huge deal, a huge opportunity and platform, and you cannot let this thing, steal that away from you.”

I cried some more, and she wiped my tears and asked me if I had any sunglasses. I shook my head no. She took her own beautiful sunglasses, and put them on my face gently. She said: “Here. These are yours. Now you can go outside, and see yourself through my eyes. Youre beautiful. Youre so worthy. You cant see that right now, but I can. Look through my eyes. You are allowed to grieve and mourn and feel everything that’s happened, but do it outside, and put these on so you don’t have to face questions about why you’re crying. When you get outside, you never know what could happen, who you might run into, what new perspective you might see. Go outside. I love you.” I walked down the hall, still crying, and said: “I love you too.” And I went outside.

Minutes later, I got a text from one of my widow friends, Leah. “A few of us are going on a boat cruise around Tampa Bay. Wanna come?” Without thinking about anything other than the words that Michele had just spoken to me, I texted back: “Yes.” Because I was ordered to stay outside. And because her Key Note was all about boats. So the idea of a boat ride seemed absolutely perfect.

So off we went, onto this boat ride, which was supposed to be a dolphin watch, but there were no dolphins. There was a captain, and a co-captain. The co-captain was at the back of the boat, where me and my friends were sitting, and he was chatting it up with us and being friendly and personable, because that’s his job. I was telling my friends about how I never took my late husband’s last name, Shepherd, an how I was going to now use it as a pen name in my book about him – Kelley Lynn Shepherd. The co-captain/2nd mate heard me and commented: “Thats a really beautiful way to honor him, by taking his name for the book. Wow. I like that.” He then asked us if we wanted to request any songs for the boat tour, so I requested “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. He yelled out to the captain my song request, and the captain responded: “You got it, Phil.” Then this man, Phil, who has the same name as my dear friend Michele’s late husband – just minutes after she ordered me to go outside and I ended up on a boat – says out of nowhere to me: “I love your sunglasses. Those are really great sunglasses.” Really.

When the boat tour was over, my friends and I started walking down the pier after saying our farewells to the captain and co-captain. He shouted out to me, something about “next time, I hope I can be your shepherd.” And then winked. My friend Rhonda turned to me and said: “Wow. He was really into you, huh?” “What?”, I responded, completely clueless. Leah and Tara agreed. “How could you not know? It was so obvious! He was listening to everything you said. He was standing over by you the whole cruise, talking to you.” I was stunned. “Really? I thought he was just doing his job and being nice. You really think he was flirting with me?” “YES!!!!”, they all practically screamed at me in unison.

So, with my new sunglasses on where I could see myself through Michele’s eyes, and with my new-found “who gives a shit and why the hell not” bravery, I said: “Well, I dont think he was flirting with me at all, but if you guys really think so, Ill go back there and give him my card. Why not, right? He was super nice. And his name was Phil! And he commented on my sunglasses that Michele just gave me. On a boat! Just like her Key Note! I mean, come ON. That HAS to mean SOMETHING!” So I fished through my bag to find my card, and then sprinted back toward the boat. But it was too late. The next cruise was already taking off – they had literally JUST left the dock. “Dammit!”, I said, genuinely disappointed.

We walked back to the hotel, and sat outside on the patio, because I was ordered to stay outside. Leah came up with a plan. “Lets find the boat tour company, see if they have a Facebook page. Then find him, and send him a message that you just took the tour and thought he had a great sense of humor, and that you were wondering if they give private group tours, because its something you may look into for our widowed convention next year. This way, if he wasn’t flirting with you, then you wont feel like you’re putting yourself out there or feel silly. And if he was, it will be obvious.” So I did. And I was pretty damn proud of myself for having the courage to walk back there and give this total stranger my card, AND follow it up by reaching out with this message.

The next morning, he did not reply, so I assumed that I was correct and that my friends were crazy for thinking he was into me. But the morning after that, after my flight had been pushed back a day due to snow back home, he did reply. Saying that yes, they do private group tours. He then asked me if I had some time right now to talk about it further. I was in the hotel, with a couple hours before having to leave for the airport to head back home. So I said sure. And then my phone rang (apparently people can call you from the Facebook Messenger thing, without having your number. I had no idea because I suck at technology).

And then, we were suddenly talking, for a very long time. The subject of boat tours only came up for a few minutes, if that. The rest of the time, he asked me about my late husband, and about the widow convention, and he noted how it must be “very comforting and validating in a way” to be part of an event such as Camp Widow, and to know that you aren’t alone. I then decided to take a chance and just come out and ask him if he was, indeed, flirting with me during the tour. Because I still didn’t really know for sure. Because I suck at knowing those types of things, and I suck at reading men and their intentions, apparently.

So I asked him. “My friends insisted that you were flirting with me on the cruise. I told them they were crazy.” He paused a few seconds, as if collecting his thoughts, and then said: “Oh, I was totally flirting with you. You’re absolutely beautiful. I have a thing for sexy brunettes with long hair from Massachusetts, who change their name to author a book about their husband, and who have a great personality and sense of humor and gorgeous eyes, and who are half Italian and half-Finnish. Oh, and the cleavage didn’t hurt anything either. ”

I could literally feel myself blushing through the phone. He really WAS listening to everything I said on that boat. To be feeling so horrible and awful and low and hopeless just hours before and the day before, and be literally crumpled up on the floor not wanting to do anything but die in my sorrow – and then to hear these words, coming from a total stranger named Phil, who has nothing to gain by lying to me, who I met on a boat, with my new sunglasses on, – it was magic.

It was the universe giving me the exact thing that I needed, at that exact moment. We talked about how I love sunsets, and how they do a nightly sunset cruise on the boat, and how beautiful the sunsets are in Florida. We talked about how we didn’t see any dolphins on our dolphin tour, and he lightly mocked me for being in a bathing suit and tank top on a “chilly” and windy day in the high 60’s, while all my friends were literally covering themselves up with blankets and coats and things, as I yelled out mockingly to them: “Wimps! It’s beautiful out here!” And then he said: “Its too bad you have to leave today. I’m off work, and I was going to see if you wanted to spend some time together.”

In talking with him further, his life situation is extremely complicated, and it’s the kind of complicated that makes him rather “unavailable” – and because of that, I doubt this will ever be any kind of relationship with us. And just a week before leaving for Florida, I had a first date with someone I recently met on the dating sites here in Massachusetts, and our date went quite well, and I really like him and would like to see him again. And that situation, or THIS situation, or ANY situation, could all turn out to be absolutely nothing.

And if there is one thing I have learned over this past year or so, in the most painful way possible – it is that you can spend a whole lot of time and emotions and put your whole heart out there on someone, only for it to turn out to be absolutely nothing. And so Phil, or the really nice guy from back home, or anything else, at any given time – could all be just a whole lot more nothing. But that does NOT erase the moments that happened. It does not mean that what you experienced and what you felt and what happened, was not 100% real, when it happened. Moments like that are real, and they are fleeting, and they live in my heart, and nobody can ever take that away from me. You can NEVER take that away.

What’s important to me is this: Phil and I have kept in touch, and he has been sending me nightly sunset pictures from the boat cruise, and they make me smile and feel peaceful and calm and tranquil. And he sent me and my friends a video of jumping dolphins from the cruise the other day, with the message: “Now you can see your dolphins.” And he called me beautiful. And on a boat filled with lots of other people, he chose ME to flirt with, he chose me to interact with. And when that was pointed out to me by my friends, I took a chance and tried to give him my card. And when that didn’t pan out, I took another chance and sent him a message. And that felt brave, somehow. Because just hours before, I was crumpled up in the corner, and I truly felt like nothing, and like my heart would fall right out of my chest, and I just wanted nothing more than to die right there in that room.

And then I went outside.

So even if all of this, all of these situations, all pan out into nothing,
– they are still not nothing.

The universe giving me hope and a new perspective, in a moment where I felt like everything was gone,
is never nothing. It is the furthest thing from nothing.

And in those moments,

with the wind in my hair,

and the music sounding like a lullaby,

and the water drinking up pieces of life and sky ….

In that one moment,

for that one measure of time,

I was more than Enough.

I was Alive.

And I was Seaworthy.

From Nowhere to Everywhere: Living at the Rainbow Bridge

In the beginning of the end of the life I once knew, there was nothing. My husband died and I felt and believed that he was just gone. I didn’t feel him or see him or notice his presence anywhere around me, so I assumed that it would always be that way, and I didn’t know how to live with that. It is bad enough when the person you love most just dies randomly with no warning whatsoever, and shatters your world apart – but it’s made worse when you cannot feel some tiny piece of their energy or spirit or soul floating around you. The thing that really sucked was all the many people telling me over and over how he is always here with me. I wanted to scream at them: NO HE ISN’T!!! STOP SAYING THAT!!! I DON’T FEEL HIM!!! HE IS JUST GONE FOREVER!!! A friend of Don’s, in the first couple of weeks after he died, insisted that he was a rainbow in New Jersey. She had seen a rainbow while driving to his funeral, and she told me that it was Don, and it was a sign. At the time, I literally was trying not to laugh in her face when she said this, because my husband would never come back as a fuckin’ rainbow. He just wouldn’t. He would come back as a lot of other things, but a rainbow isn’t one of them. So the term “My Husband Is Not a Rainbow” was born out of her observation and my reaction to it, and now, I have turned that very phrase into the title for a one-act play, a comedic presentation, and the book Im now writing.

The thing is, I was in too much pain back then for my husband to get through in any way whatsoever. Nothing else could get in. Not even him. Just pain. So in the beginning, he was nowhere. And I didn’t feel him for a very long time. Until one day, I did.

He started coming to me in my dreams. But these weren’t just any old regular dreams. They were visits. They were the kinds of dreams where I would wake up from them and actually physically feel his arms around me, or feel him hugging me, or he would say something specific to me, or often times we would have an entire conversation in the dream. And he was always already dead in these dreams. He was always coming back – his soul was coming back from wherever, to comfort me somehow, to help me somehow, just like he always did in life. He was trying to help me to move through and process his death. I would wake up and be shaken for days by how real these visits were. He was there with me. He had come to see me. I don’t know how the hell that shit works, but I know I couldn’t question it once I felt it. Sure, I tried to “logic” my way out of believing it was real, but he kept coming back. And in one of his visits, he told me to believe it. He said: “Does it feel real?” I said: “Yes.” He said: “Then it’s real.”

And then he started sending me even bigger signs. He would put people into my life path, exactly when I needed them. He would send an anonymous person to donate to my blog, exactly at the moment when I was drowning in bills and rent and secretly asked my husband to please find a way to help me. He led me to new jobs and apartments and scenarios, and to a bonding with his adult nephew and half-sister that I never had while he was alive. The signs became more and more constant, and as I continued the hard work of grieving and processing and breaking down my emotions with my grief-therapist week after week, I started to feel him around me more and more. This was an intensely slow process, and there was a LOT of doubt and questioning and trying to talk myself out of any of this being anything other than total bullshit. But again, he kept coming back. He didn’t give up on me.

And then suddenly, and also at a grueling and slow pace, one year became two, and two became three. Somewhere inside of year three in my “after” life without my husband on earth, I started to really feel joy again. I started to notice things like autumn leaves again, or Christmas mornings, or the lightness of the first snowfall, or the way that guitar chord sounds in that Stevie Nicks song. And each time I noticed one of these things, he was inside of it. He was inside everything, everywhere, all of the time. And then it no longer became about trying to search for him and figure out where he might be after death – because suddenly and finally, I felt him everywhere. If I were to tell you stories about all the many, many signs I have received from my husband since his death, this blog piece would be 50 pages long. Most of the stories will be in the book I am writing, but I feel the need to talk about the two biggest ones here, today, in this blog. Because they connect to one another, and because they are so completely amazing, sometimes I still have trouble believing they are real. But he keeps coming back and showing me.

One of the places that my husband Don loves to give me signs is at “Camp Widow.” I have now been to this incredible Soaring Spirits International event eight times, and given my comedic presentation eight times. Maybe Don gives me signs when I go there, to let me know that Im on the right track in what Im doing with my life, and that he approves. I don’t know. But something he has been doing lately, over the past year or so during most of year four without him here on earth, is sending me literal signs with parts of his name on them. He sends me his name, sometimes in pieces, and other times, in its entirety. Don Edward Shepherd. He puts his name on literal and actual signs, and gives me signs through actual signs, which is totally his warped sense of humor. It’s as if he is yelling at me: “You see, Boo? That’s a SIGN, with my name printed on it. See that? A SIGN. It’s a sign!! Get it? How much more obvious do I have to be?”

The sign/name thing really started taking shape during my first trip to Tampa, Florida, for Camp Widow in 2014. Because Don lived in the Largo area of Florida for so many years and while we were dating, and because I had spread some of his ashes at Clearwater Beach a couple months after he died, I already felt him close to me while I was in Tampa. And then on Sunday morning, during our Farewell Breakfast Buffet, we were sitting in a big banquet room at the Marriott Hotel, eating our eggs and saying our goodbyes at the end of camp, when one of my widow friends pointed at the big coffee thermos in the center of our table and said: “Kelley, look!” She picked it up and showed it to me. Right there, at the top center of the thermos, it said “Don.” It was just typed there like that – “Don.” There were maybe 10 other round tables in the room, so I got up and checked each thermos on the other tables. Every single thermos said: “Don.” Now you might be thinking to yourself, how on earth is his name showing up on 20 or so coffee thermoses relevant? Well, one of our favorite movies to watch together and quote together was Steve Martin’s “The Jerk.” And one of Don’s favorite parts of the film to quote to me specifically, was a song that Steve Martin sings to Bernadette Peters, about a thermos.

It goes: “Im picking out a thermos for you. Not an ordinary thermos for you. But an extra best thermos you can buy, with vinyl and stripes and a cup built right in. Im picking out a thermos for you, and maybe a barometer too. And what else can I buy, so on me you’ll rely. A rear end thermometer too.” We would hold hands in bed and he would sing this to me in this incredibly silly voice. So in that moment when I saw his name there, it made total sense to me that my husband was not a rainbow, but he WAS a thermos. And then it got even better. I went up to the staff and asked them if I could purchase a thermos with his name on it, and explained why it meant so much to me. I think they thought I was a lunatic, but they told me they arent allowed to sell the supplies used in the hotel, but that they would go ask their manager where they bought the supplies so maybe I could buy it myself later on from that company. So the guy comes back and tell me the name of the company that supplies the thermos and some other stuff. The company is called “Edward Don and Company.” Their website is www.don.com So now we have his name on each thermos, and his first and middle name is the supplier company name. When you go to the site, it says in big letters: “Who is Don?”

sunstar ems

don thermos

Then last year, I attended and presented at Camp Widow in Toronto, Canada, for the first time. “Camp Widow” happened to fall on my birthday, which is September 26th, which happened to be the first day of camp events, that Friday. So I had arrived in Toronto on that Thursday night by train. I had decided to take the Amtrak train instead of flying, because I hate flying, and Ill do anything to avoid it. Plus, Don absolutely loved trains. He loved everything about them. He even loved the band “Train”, and their song “Drops of Jupiter’, which , as it turns out, is all about the lead singer’s mother and where she “went” after she died. But anyway, Don was obsessed with trains. He had the Lionel Train Engine Set in our apartment, he had model trains that he would put together, and he loved riding the train with me. He even had this dream of us getting married and having our ceremony on a moving train. We had found one in Cape Cod Massachusetts, but the logistics of doing it were too difficult and it was very expensive, so it didnt happen.

So I took the 12 hour train ride, and I felt very close to him while on the train. That night, I was in the lobby where the Wi-Fi was free in the hotel, writing my weekly piece for the Soaring Spirits blog “Widows Voice.” It had just turned midnight, so it was now my birthday officially. My good friend Joclyn suddenly ran in, yelling: “Kelley, you have to see this! You will never believe what I found today, just a couple miles from here, while walking around just outside the city.” She started to show me pictures on her phone. It was a picture of a small building. It was a train station. It had a one-word sign at the top center. The sign said: “Don.” I was in complete shock at what I was seeing, so I googled “Don train station in Toronto”, and I came up with a website for the Toronto Railway Historical Association, which explained in detail the history of the Don station. His name was all over the website. It was unbelievable. The Don station sits inside the Don Valley, which is across from the Don River. It had opened and closed several times throughout the decades, but re-opened for the final time with an open house in October of 2006, our wedding month and year. So it looks like Don got his wish, in some strange way, of having our wedding day on a train. Out of several 19th century stations, the Don station is the only one still in existence today. The Main Subway Line is called the Shepherd Line, and runs along E. Shepherd Avenue. So once again, my husband is still not a rainbow. But he is a train station. My awesome friends Arnie, Judy, and Angel, drove me to the station location, and I got out and took this picture.

don train

This year, about two weeks ago, I went back to Toronto for my second time presenting at Camp Widow. Once again, I took the train. About two weeks before my trip, I was screwing around on Facebook one day, and just happened to notice a link that someone had posted about something called “the rainbow bridge” in Toronto. I started laughing immediately, thinking to myself how Don is not a rainbow, but he WOULD be a rainbow bridge. Actually, it made complete and total sense why he would be a rainbow bridge. For those who dont know, Don was a paramedic, but he was also a huge animal lover and activist. He loved cats and dogs especially, and in his free time on his one day off, he both worked and volenteered at our local PetSmart in New Jersey, doing everything from feeding and brushing the kitties to helping out with their adoptions. That is where he collapsed and had the massive heart attack, on a random Wednesday early morning on July 13, 2011. My husband was a lot like me in his belief system. Neither of us really believed in the idea of heaven or hell, but he hoped that he would somehow see the pets he had lost when it was his turn to die. At his funeral, some of the staff from PetSmart gave me a beautiful plaque with a poem called “The Rescuer at The Rainbow Bridge.” It talked about a man or figure who lived at the Rainbow Bridge, and whose job it was to greet all the animals when they crossed over and make them feel welcome and at home. The Rainbow Bridge is the term used for a sort of “pet heaven”, a place filled with meadows and grass and trees and places for animals to play and run around and be happy forever. This is how the people at PetSmart saw Don – as the Rescuer who lived at the Rainbow Bridge. So, with all this in mind, I clicked on the link for the rainbow bridge, and quickly discovered it was only a couple miles or so from the Marriott Hotel we were staying at. I also discovered that once again, his name was all over this website. The rainbow bridge was just off the Don Valley Parkway, and could be found at the base of the East Don Trail. “I must go there”, I thought, and posted about it on Facebook, seeing if anyone else who was going to Toronto would have a car to get me to there.

Enter my friends Sarah and Mike. Sarah lost her fiance Andrew (she called him Drew) in a helicopter accident. Mike lost his wife Meghan to complications from cystic fibrosis. Sarah and I have became very close over the past couple of years, spending hours and hours on phone calls talking about life and death. This past March, Sarah and I both attended Camp Widow Tampa. We sat down next at a table during the meet and greet on night one next to a guy named Mike. Fast-forward to today – Mike and Sarah are in love and starting a life together. Mike and Sarah would be traveling to Toronto by car, so Mike volunteered to take me to the rainbow bridge. None of the three of us had any idea what to expect from this little day trip on the Sunday that Camp Widow had ended, but it felt as if we were supposed to be going there together. The best way to describe what we felt and saw is through lots of pictures. In true Don fashion, he just kept showing himself over and over and over again. Driving there, Sarah and I were both rushing to get each picture of each sign as it quickly passed by us. One after another after another after another:

don valley keep right

don valley pkwy

don valley north

don mills road

I was actually laughing as we passed each new sign. It just seemed so incredibly surreal. Sign after sign with his name. Why was he coming through so strongly in Toronto? Two years in a row now? I still dont know why. But the signs were literally all around us as we kept driving into our adventure ……

don signs gps

don mills roaddon mills rd small sign

donway East

Finally, after maybe 20 minutes or so of endless signs (there are actually more than this, but some are repetitive and I think you get the idea), we arrived at our destination of “The East Don Trail.” We had no idea whatsoever what to expect, except that there was apparently a rainbow bridge in here somewhere. Never in a million years did I expect to see this beautiful walking trail with the beautiful views of nature, exactly how I always pictured the Rainbow Bridge area looking – where animals go when they die. If such a thing exists, this is what it would look like:

don east trail

rainbow path

walking don trail

don trail pretty

don trail stream

don trail flowers

As we continued to walk in stunned silence, I noticed something. People were walking by with their pets. People were walking their dogs down these paths and right by us. It felt like we were someplace special, someplace meant for us and meant for the animals and meant for life and death to embrace in that moment through the trees and the flowers and the streams of water. It was magical. Eventually, before we reached the rainbow bridge, we passed a small bridge that had graffiti written all over it. On the outside , and on the inside. Remember when I told you that it felt like the three of us specifically were supposed to be there that day? Yeah. I wasn’t the only one who received epic signs. As we walked, there were weeping willows down the paths of trees, which was Mike’s wife Meghan’s favorite tree, and a sign she sends him. Then, on the graffiti bridge itself, in huge blue letters, the word STAR was spelled out. Sarah and her late fiance’s initials spelled the word STAR. (Sarah Treanor, Andrew Ridge). Since Mike and Sarah have been dating each other, she has seen stars over and over and over. Sarah and Mike both believe that their late partners have had a huge part in putting them together to fall in love. I believe this too. Especially now.

graffiti wall star

As we passed underneath the bridge, there were the usual typical writings all over its inside tunnel walls. “Fuck You”, “Eat Shit”, lots of pictures of drawn penises, and our favorite: “Dildo In My Bum.” And then, in the midst of all that disgusting and crude writing, was the word “Mommy.” This was a sign for me and Sarah specifically. For reasons much too boring and dull to explain here, Sarah and I have a private joke where we call each other “mommy.” And there it was, written on the wall. So damn weird.

graffiti wall dildo

mommy

We walked some more, and finally we came upon the rainbow bridge, a small bridge with a painted on rainbow. Something about it made me feel safe and silly and at peace. It reminded me of the animated style artwork that is going to be on the cover of my book. It was cartoonish and lovely all at once. It was the rescuer, taking care of all the animals and making them feel welcome and loved. It was everything that my husband was and is. I took out the bag of his ashes that I had brought with me, and left some right under the bridge, in the corner. We walked underneath the bridge and came through the other side, slowly looking at all the artwork drawn on the inside of the bridge. This was another thing I never expected – drawings on the inside that had actual relevance to Don and were MORE signs upon signs that this was him, SCREAMING AT ME, “Im here!!! Im alive!!! Im everywhere that you are!!!”

rainbow bridge me

rainbow bridge us

As I passed underneath the bridge, two of the drawings struck me. They were Don. One was of a man walking a dog, with a city skyline behind him. The other was of a man riding his bike, with a skyline behind him. We lived on Boulevard East in New Jersey, just eight minutes outside of NYC, and our street had the NYC skyline all along it. It was gorgeous. Don had a bike and he loved to ride it. He would ride it along that street, with the skyline behind him. He always wanted a dog, but our apartment building wouldnt allow them, so we had two kitties. But every dog on earth would come up to Don and love on him, and I have this vision in my head that always sticks, of him taking our neighbors dog for a walk, with that skyline view behind him. He was so at peace while walking that dog. It was magic.

bike skyline

man dog pic

When we came across the bridge and out the other side, we came across an older couple with two dogs. They were very friendly, and we started chatting, and they asked us if we were visitors of Toronto and why we were there. We told them the story about how all of our partners had died, and we were here for a widowed people event. We told them why we were at the rainbow bridge and the significance of it, so they offered to take our picture with one of their dogs.

meeting dog

As we were talking to them, another man walked by and one of the dogs sniffed him a bit, nothing serious. The man sort of over-reacted, and started rattling on to the couple about how they should probably keep their dogs on a leash. The husband said very matter of factly: “Oh really? And you should probably go fuck yourself.” It was EXACTLY what Don would have said in that same situation, and in that same kind tone, like he was telling the guy to have a nice day. It was so hilarious and re-affirmed that this place was indeed, a place for the animals to be happy and free.

After walking under the brige and saying goodbye to our new couple friends, we came upon The Don River. It was really gorgeous, and I took the rest of the ashes I had with me, and let them go into the river below. It felt like the perfect ending to an absolute perfect day. Don was all around me and I felt so calm and safe. And I didnt question any of it. Just like Don told me when he visited me long ago, if it feels real, then it IS real.

In the beginning, he was nowhere. And now, he is everywhere. And that amazing shift in feeling has made all the difference in how I live each second of this thing called life. Beautiful, glorious life. Thank you, Don, for showing up over and over and over again, and teaching me how to live once more. I love you. And for all those people who kept annoyingly telling me that my husband was “in a better place”, I say to you now, perhaps yes. In Heaven? Hell, no. Canada.

don river

don river us

Running

I never really liked running. Never really saw the point. For exercise? Sure, but I’d much rather play a sport or go swimming or do just about anything other than feel the pounding of my flattened and worn-out feet, screaming for mercy against the hot and unforgiving pavement. Or feel my knees hurting and buckling and cracking with each breath, showing their severe weakness and obvious disapproval of this evil form of torture.

People who run claim that it’s “freeing.” I don’t know about that. To me, it feels the opposite, like a never-ending prison sentence filled with sweat, horrible cramps, and nausea. The only thing freeing about running is maybe the part where the race or the dash or the charity sprint or whatever other forced form of hell has ended, and I am now free to go and grab a drink and a burger somewhere.

Me and Don – in the life I knew

Despite this, I have been running for just over 2 years now. It’s not the kind of running that requires good sneakers, or keeping hydrated, or carrying a stopwatch. No. That sort of thing is for amateurs. This is much different. It’s much bigger than all of that, and much more complex. This is the kind of running that takes over your life, and that is caused by death.

I began running at approximately 6:30am on July 13, 2011, when I received the series of phone calls that would jar me awake, give me the worst news of my life, and change me forever. My very first sprint was the one that took me from the inside of a taxicab, into the ER section of the hospital, just down the street from where we lived in West New York, New Jersey. My run from the door of that car to the doors of that E.R., I can honestly say, was the fastest I have ever moved in my life. I don’t know what all the rushing was about. He was already dead. Then again, I didn’t know that at the time. Until, of course, I did.

And since that time, that day, that hour – every piece of my existence has been about running. Running from pain. Running from hurt. From loss. From love. Running as far away from the memories as I can, because memories sting and they stab and they reinforce what is now gone. I am not ready for memories. Memories are for 5 years, maybe 10 years from now, when I can feel them without intense sorrow, when I can “cherish them”, which so many people who have not lost their husbands keep telling me to do. Running from pictures, and triggers, and trauma. Running from my heart. My soul. My “before.”

San Diego paradise…

Like the time I packed up everything I own and everything he owned, and finally made the decision to move out of the New Jersey apartment where we shared our entire engagement and marriage and life. The 7 years that we spent there began to eat away at my skin and engulf me – the walls were closing in on me after 8 months alone, facing the nothingness of a life that was now over, a time that would not come back.

So I ran away from the homemade birthday cakes at our kitchen table, the small dinner parties and hang-outs with our core group of friends that shattered into bits of glass, the friendly neighborhood store owners that all knew Don and looked at me with sad eyes each time I crossed their path, post-death. I ran from the hospital where he died, and the other hospital where he worked as an EMT, and the Pet-smart where he collapsed on that cold floor, alone, while working his second job to help support us. I ran from the familiar-looking ambulances with his hospital’s name on them, and the uniforms I would see around town, on other tall men resembling my husband. I ran from our special bench where we would sit at night, and stare at the city skyline, laughing and dreaming and being. I couldn’t get away fast enough from the local restaurants we used to eat at, the movie theatre we used to spend Sunday matinees at, the tennis courts he would play tennis at, just like he did one day before he suddenly died.

So after 8 months of sitting inside of it, tripping over the piles and the stuff that used to be our life, I ran. It was either that, or stay there and be further suffocated by things and objects and items – when the person that made them come to life, was no longer breathing air. And the person that I was now, a widowed woman with only one, small paycheck, could no longer afford to pay rent and live alone. So I left.

But it wasn’t enough. Running or walking or crawling or kicking and screaming away from all those things helped, but it wasn’t enough. The pain was still there. Lurking. Hiding. Approaching. Waiting …

So I ran some more, and started to add new things into my new life, thinking that new things would hurt less than old and familiar things, things that I did with my husband. I have added lots of things, big things and small things, important and mundane things. Like the new comedy class I now teach in NYC. Or the new writing gigs Ive picked up. Or my new apartment, and my new roommate (my 2nd new roommate, and 2nd apartment, since his death). Or my new membership with ZIpcar, instead of our car, which I was forced to sell and get another, safer car, which I was also forced to sell, due to my new “broke widow” title in life. Or performing stand-up at Camp Widow. Or eating and making new foods for myself that I dont associate with foods that he loved. Taking a new walk to a new place that he never saw or went to. Seeing a new film, hearing new songs, thinking new thoughts. Making new friends, breaking new ground, facing new fears.

Me with my “new” Network Comedy Class, outside Gotham Comedy Club, NYC.

But none of that was enough either. It helped, but it wasn’t enough to make the stabbing pains go away. It still wasn’t enough to take the hurt and the grief and the why away. So then I started replacing painful things, with better things, thinking that the good would eventually outweigh the bad. Like, if I felt a panic attack coming on while driving down a familiar road or seeing our exit on the Turnpike and instantly flashing back to that life – that death – I would pull over and try to breathe and think about something else. Or drive a new route next time. When the nonstop image of my dead husband’s body in that casket would appear in my heart out of nowhere, I would try and get rid of it by posting pictures of us together on Facebook, or in my blog. Happy pictures. Pictures of him alive and smiling and being. Or when I couldnt sleep at night or kept waking up with the  sweats and the panic and the anxiety, flashing back to that morning or the night before or the days after – I would get up and make myself some tea, and watch something silly on TV, like Three’s Company, to make the bad thoughts go away.

But that didn’t always work either. Well, it worked momentarily, for a short time. For now. But the panic and the stress and the thoughts of death and the cruel images would always, always return. They are burned into my brain and stamped into my skin, like a tattoo that I can never remove, and that I don’t remember asking for.

moving (running) out of our apartment …

So then I have thought to myself – I need to think bigger. I need to run away. What If I just left New York? Left my life altogether? Left my teaching job of 11 years, left my familiar, left my problems and my clutter and my stuff – and went somewhere new? What if I went somewhere else, where I wasn’t the widowed girl? I could run away to California or Colorado or The Moon, and just start the fuck over, right? What do I have to lose, when I have already lost it all? And really, anytime that I go anywhere, I instantly feel somewhat better. Lighter. Happier. The sadness still lives inside me, but there is more room for the joy whenever I go somewhere else. My week in San Diego at Camp Widow was so relaxing, so freeing, so healing. And I felt so close to my husband there, closer than I have felt to him in a long time. I slept through the nights, and I felt a sense of peace and comfort around me. New and beautiful surroundings created new and beautiful things.

But that’s the problem. If I am visiting San Diego, or anywhere else, they are new surroundings. It is a vacation. It is temporary. If I lived there, then the new surroundings are eventually no longer new – they are simply the background to where I live. And although moving away sounds nice, it only sounds that way because whenever I go anywhere for a short period of time, it is time away from what is the norm. It feels exotic. It suggests “better.” But it’s not. It only feels that way, because I don’t live there. If I moved somewhere else, my New York issues would just turn into San Diego issues or Moon issues or wherever I ended up issues. I would have their bills and their traffic and their stresses and their problems, instead of the ones I have now. On top of that, I would be losing the very things that help to keep me sane in my new and unwanted life – my old and lifelong friends, my NY connections, my comedy buddies and clubs, my job that is secure and mostly rewarding, my counseling sessions that fuel me with coping skills and hope, my family that is 4 hours away instead of much, much further if I were to move out West. I would be trading in problems for different problems, and Im just too exhausted to deal with that much uncertainty right now.

me, with one of my many new friends in the widowed community, Beth – San Diego

Like I said in my first sentence, I never really liked running. Never really saw the point.

There is no purpose to running in circles. No reason to marathon and finish where you began. No meaning to a race that cannot end.

I cannot run from the truth. I can’t run from the pain, or the hurt, or the grief. Whether I go to San Diego or Hawaii or stay right here in my new apartment, all that shit comes with me. It is inside of me, the same way that my lungs and my veins and my breath is inside of me. It is an unwanted presence, a giant scar across my face. I can keep washing it off my face, and it may appear to have gone away for awhile, but it never truly leaves. I can’t run from it. I can’t fight it. I have to live with it and through it and sit near it side by side, and learn to look myself in the mirror and not hate that ugly scar.

There is some good news though. The ugly scar and the pain and hurt and trauma and fear are inside me, yes. They go with me. They are me. But if they are a part of me, then so is the hope. So is the love. The laughter. The joy. The birthday cakes and the Christmas mornings and the walks along the Hudson.The music he played. The chords he strummed. The pets he loved and the people he touched. The lives that he altered. My life. The beautiful, epic soul that is my husband, that is now me. It is all inside me. All of it. Every single cell of it. Until the end of time, and then miles and miles beyond that  …

I just need to stop running.

 

(p.s. Been meaning to say this for awhile to my regular readers and anyone reading this now – I . LOVE. COMMENTS. If you read this blogpiece or any of my posts, please leave a comment if you can! Each comment is like a little Christmas present to me, and I love getting them. Lately, when my email informs me I have new comments, they end up being 90% spam that I have to filter through and delete. I love getting real comments from people. It lets me know that you are out there and reading and hearing me … and thank you for doing that. Thank you.)