Turning the Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin is Gone

This morning, I was jolted awake by the most frightening dream. It was not scary in the typical fearful ways that dreams can be scary. There were no monsters or fires or people chasing me. It wasn’t even about Don this time. Except it was. He was not in the dream, but it centered around his death. It was about change, and how much I fear it. It was about being terrified of things and people disappearing – people I love, people I count on. Maybe it was also about me feeling guilty anytime I ask for help from others. I don’t know. Having a tough time figuring this one out totally. It was off the charts weird and mean. It was also incredibly hilarious and bizarre, and although I am able to analyze some of it pretty well, I’d love it if my readers would attempt the rest for me in the comments. Most of my dreams seem to quickly leave my mind an hour or so after I have them, so because I just woke up from this one, Im going to write it out here exactly as I remember it happening. It felt incredibly real, as most of my Don-related dreams do these days. When I woke up from it, I was actually gasping for air a little bit. I was very confused. Here is the dream in all it’s terrible, hysterical reality:

It is Monday, which is my grief counselor day, and the dream begins with me getting off the bus in Manhattan and then walking the couple of blocks to my appointment. It’s a sunny day, extremely windy, hot as hell, and I’m rushing. There was traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, so the bus was running late. I turn the corner and pass the Starbucks that is there, (in the sea of other Starbucks within a 4 block radius), except it’s not a Starbucks anymore. It’s a McDonald’s. What on earth??? Why the hell … I have no time to react to this baffling turn of events, and I run the rest of the way to my counselor’s high-rise. The usual leathery-faced older man who is worn out by life and announces and buzzes me in – is now replaced by an older leathery-faced woman. She grunts at me angrily as she lets me through the front entrance. During my elevator ride up, I anticipate all the things I want to talk about with Caitlin today. It’s been another exhausting week and I need this safe place to explode and vent without judgement or fear. I get off the elevator and walk down the long hallway, expecting my counselor to be standing in her doorway, with the door held open for me, in that welcoming way that she always does. That doesn’t happen. I reach the door and nobody is there. That’s strange. I guess I will knock. Still nothing. I get out my cell phone to call her and let her know I have arrived, when the door opens suddenly.

A flamboyantly gay man who is minimum 85 years old  and looks like an aging Tim Gunn looks at me, then says insincerely: “Can I help you?” He is wearing a wool beige sweater with a hot pink scarf. It is August and 95 degrees. “Well, are you going to come in, or are you going to stand there like a fool?” I walk in. I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but my need to find out keeps me moving forward. Maybe my counselor hired this odd, rude man as her receptionist. “Wait here. The therapist will be with you in a few minutes. You may sit in this chair or that chair, but never that big one. There is bottled water on the table. The cost is $5 per beverage. Your timed session begins now. Toodles!” He flings his scarf around his rooster neck, sets a loud kitchen timer for one hour, and then exits the room, slowly disappearing. I have no idea where he goes.

I feel sick. Something is off, but I stay anyway. The comfy, large marshmellow-y chair that I always sit in is now off-limits to me, apparently. As is the water, which I now have to pay for? What’s up with that shit? And therapist? No. Caitlin is not a therapist. She is a grief-counselor. Why is he calling her a therapist? I begrudgingly choose the hard, tiny, uncomfortable chair, and squeeze my fat ass into it somehow. I look like an overstuffed sausage, it is boiling hot in the normally comfortable, friendly room, and I suddenly want to run away. The loud kitchen timer makes me nervous. It is larger than a normal one and looms over me, watching me like a creepy owl. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock …….

A few minutes go by and I’m now sweating. The clicking of heels gets closer and someone enters the room. The someone is not Caitlin. She is a brunette with medium-long, straight hair and glasses. She has a cold, dark face. She wears a business suit and black pumps. She looks to be about my age. She sits directly across from me and glares at me with suspicious eyes. She is not Caitlin and I hate her. She opens a drawer and pushes a button. A hidden cabinet opens, and a flash of light appears. A spotlight. There is a spotlight on me. I can barely see, it is so bright. She picks up a clipboard and a pen and begins to take notes. She is writing furiously. What the fuck is she writing? We haven’t even said anything yet! She speaks and doesn’t look at me.

“So last time you were here, you mentioned your mother, Fran?” She taps her pen on her clipboard. The kitchen timer gets louder. Her breathing gets louder. She crosses her legs and squints at me. Her squint is an accusation against me. She despises me. She is everything I loathe about therapy.

“Fran is my grandmother, not my mother. And I never mentioned her. I’m sorry, but who are you??? And where the hell is Caitlin?”

“I am Kathleen. Caitlin is gone. You need to start accepting that.”

Start accepting it? It JUST happened! Where is she?”

“That is irrelevant.” She turns the spotlight so that it is directly in my eye.

“Actually, it’s pretty much the only thing that IS relevant right now. Can you please get that light out of my eyes?” The normally warm environment is now frozen, and I am being interrogated.

“She had more important people to tend to. More important things to do. She no longer felt the need to spend her time discussing your loss, so she asked me to replace her. You will be seeing me now. It’s really important that you not dwell on the past. She is not here. Accept it. Move on.” She takes out a pack of cigarettes out of nowhere and lights one up. Cigarettes? Seriously? Could this bitch be any more of a cliche?

“But this makes no sense. Why would Caitlin give up her job? She loves her job. And why wouldn’t she tell me? She would never do this to me. She wouldn’t just disappear like this.” My face feels hot and I can feel the tears welling up. It is four-thousand degrees in that room, but Kathleen’s veiny hand is ice-cold on her cigarette.

“People disappear. Don disappeared. He left you. Get a grip, Kelley. You are wasting session time talking about this. The clock is ticking. I did not want to go down this road with you, but if you insist, I will tell you. Caitlin did not give up her work. She gave up you. She doesn’t hate her work. She hates you. She took her practice and moved it to Wyoming.”

Wyoming??? She hates Wyoming!” This cannot be happening.

“No. As I said, she hates you. Her exact words to me were: ‘I would rather live in Wyoming than be forced to sit and listen to that woman’s whining for one more hour. I find her story tiresome and annoying, and life is too short for that kind of nonsense. Please do not give her my contact information, and good luck to you in trying to find some relevance in her insipid grieving.”

“Insipid? No. Caitlin would never say that. She doesn’t even talk like that. She is amazing. You’re a bitch.” Now I’m crying and I grab the kleenex box behind me. There is a lock on it, with a sign that reads: “Kleenex: $2 per sheet.” I throw it across the room and cry into my hands.

The bitch is unphased. She picks up the kitchen timer and moves the time forward by ten minutes. There are now 35 minutes remaining in this mindfuck horror show. She removes her glasses, takes a drag off her cigarette, and says calmly: “I do not allow profanity in my office, and crying is for infants. Learn how to grieve properly. Your husband would be ashamed by this embarassing display. You are acting like a child. I will tell you this one more time – with feeling. Your husband is gone. Caitlin is gone. And if you keep acting in this manner, everyone in your life will be gone. Your counselor asked me to take over, and because that is Kathleen’s job, that is what Kathleen will do.” The fact that she just referred to herself in the third-person, twice, is the catalyst that makes me get up and get the fuck out of there.

I stand up out of the horrible chair. “Well, no offense, but you suck at your job. You are the worst person I’ve ever met and there is no way in hell you have a license to practice anything. I can get through this much better without you, than with you. I’m leaving.” I walk toward the door. I can’t get out of this place fast enough. I still don’t know where the hell Caitlin is, but I don’t believe for one second that she is in Wyoming, that she hates me, or that she would abandon me and send this mess of a human-being in her place. The door won’t open. “Try again”, the bitch says. “There’s someone on the other side.” I open the door, and my brother walks in. He is stumbling, is wearing his Red Sox hat and sweatshirt, and has blood-shot eyes. He is drunk.

“David? What the hell are you doing here?” I have never been more confused in my entire life. He goes over to Kathleen and takes one of her cigarettes and lights it up. He smokes in my face rudely as he talks: “I live here now. In NYC. I fuckin’ hate this place but I had to move here because you’re so needy with all your grieving bullshit and all the constant help you need from everyone. I had to sell my house and truck. Jen left me and moved to Wyoming, and I had to give my kids away cuz I couldn’t afford them anymore. I gave them to The Salvation Army. I started smoking again and I drink again too. I go to the bars just to take away the stress of having to hear abour your stupid grief all the time. I’m tired of hearing about Don. Even Don is sick of hearing about Don. You should just shut up already and leave it alone. My life sucks now, and to top it all off, I’m stuck here with a bunch of stupid Yankee fans. Thanks a lot.” He puts his cigarette out on the floor, stomps on it, and then walks into the other room and disappears. Kathleen laughs. “I’m charging you for that cigarette”, she says. “Get the door.”

The doorbell rings. I go over and open it. This time, my parents are there, and they have aged about 20 years. They look terrible. Dad has a cane and mom walks with her spine in the shape of the letter L. “Holy Shit! What happened to you guys?” I am stunned at their appearance. “What the hell is going on???” I scream out loud at the universe. My dad sits down in the nearest chair, exhausted. Mom leans against the wall with her brittle hand. If I didn’t know it was them, I would never know it was them. Dad lets out a long sigh, and then finally speaks: “We have done so much for you. Too much. We can’t do it anymore. I got fired from my job because I had to keep coming up there to help you move out of your apartment. You have made my diabetes worse and your mother now has Alzheimer’s because of your inability to move on from this. She doesn’t even know where we are right now. She thinks I’m her father, and that we are getting ice-cream. We are quitting. We quit you. You need to sign these papers. They say that we are no longer your parents and that we no longer have to feel obligated to help you. We are resigning and moving to Wyoming.” Kathleen cackles again. Mom looks lost and plays with the spotlight. What the fuck is happening??? And what is with Wyoming???

“Do what my father says, honey. We love you, but it’s just too much. Look at what you’ve done to us. All because you refuse to live in reality. I’m going with my dad now to Kimball’s for my Black Rasberry ice-cream cone. Sign the papers, Katie. Fend for yourself. You’re all alone now. Be strong, Karen. These are the cards you were dealt. You can’t stop counting your chickens until they hatch. Life is not a rollercoaster. It’s a journey and a destination. There were two footprints in the sand. That was when Moses carried you. And I took the one less traveled by. Deal with it, Karla.”

Dad sighs again. “Come on Chris,” he says. He grabs her gently by the arm and leads her away from me. “I’m coming, Father!” she yells.

They both walk out of the room and into that weird other space that everyone keeps disappearing into …..

There is a loud, horrific noise. It sounds like an ambulance siren. The ambulance my husband drove. It gets louder and louder as I block my ears. Kathleen chuckles. “That’s the kitchen timer. I had them make it into the sound of an ambulance – just to mess with you a bit and remind you of his death some more. Funny, huh? Time’s up. Please get out of my office now. I have to relieve my bowels. Jerome will see you out.”

The flamboyantly gay older-than-dirt man that resembles Tim Gunn and his pink scarf return from thin air, and he hands me a piece of paper. “Here is your bill for this week. You’ll see it’s been broken down into sections so that your feeble brain can comprehend it. $150 for the session, $5 for the cigarette your brother smoked, $2 for the kleenex, and Kathleen added an annoyance fee of $45, because she finds you annoying in a general sort of way. So your total is $202. Kapish?” He opens the door and physically starts moving me into the hallway.

“But, I’m never coming back here again, and I can’t pay this stuff!”

“We’ll make sure that you do. I have pilates and yoga to get to, followed by my daily colonic and cleanse ritual. So – be gone with you! Toodles!” He takes his foot and literally kicks me in my rear end to push me into the buildings hallway. The door slams behind me. I walk down the long hallway, which got longer while I was inside, and push the button for the elevator. The door opens. The elevator is packed with people. There are at least 75, maybe 100 people inside. They are all crammed in together and they are talking to each other. They are everyone in my life. My parents are there. My brother. Relatives. Friends. They all keep talking. Everyone ignores me. The elevator starts going down, over 100 floors, 200 floors. 300. It is moving like a racecar at lightning speed and Im so dizzy. I start screaming out my friends and families names one by one over the loud elevator engine, praying someone will acknowledge me: “Hey!!! Sarah! Mom! Dad! David? John! Andrew! Hello??? Bobby? Why won’t anyone talk to me? Tabatha? Aunt Debbie? Caitlin!!! Oh my god! You’re here! You’re not in Wyoming! I knew it! I just had the weirdest dream … you didn’t want to see me anymore, and then nobody wanted to see me, not even my own family. Everyone was so mean, and they kept rushing me to grieve faster, and there was even a timer and a mean, horrible therapist … Hello??”

The elevator jolts to an abrupt stop. We are at street level, but it’s no longer a street, and it’s not New York City. It’s farm land and grass and trees. Its gray and ugly and drab. The large door opens. “This is our stop, everyone!” Caitlin says enthusiastically as she leads the huge pile of people out of the cramped elevator and into the land of Wyoming. I begin to follow. “No. Not you. You stay here. This is goodbye. I’m very disappointed in you. We are all very disappointed in you. I can’t help you anymore. I don’t want to. Nobody wants to. You’re hopeless.” Everybody nods in unison, and they enter into the farmland, toppling over one another like dominos. The door shuts again, and before I can move or think, the elevator goes all the way back up to the top floor. It shoots up like a cannon, and I feel like I will be sick. The door opens. Jerome is standing there in his wool sweater and hot pink scarf. He glares at me. “Well” he says, “Are you going to come in, or are you going to stand there like a fool?” I walk into the awfulness and sit in the terrible chair. Kathleen is already seated across from me, and she turns the kitchen timer dial with her veiny fingers. She shines the spotlight into my pupils – the start of her killing my soul.

She starts speaking after a long, hateful pause. “Last time you were here, you mentioned your mother, Fran?”

And so it begins. And ends.