I Am Not What I Feel

A few days ago, I returned from Camp Widow San Diego, where I attended and gave my 10th comedic presentation. Since 2013, I have been a presenter at Camp Widow in all three locations; Tampa, San Diego, and Toronto. Last weekend was my 10th time standing in front of over a hundred widowed people, and hearing them laugh. It is truly one of my favorite sounds.

The week that I spent in San Diego was incredible. It was filled with friendships, old and new. I learned lessons, I experienced realizations about my grief and my process, I had moments of helping another person through their tough emotions. There was dancing and drinking and swimming and relaxing and healing and laughing and crying and loving. It was absolutely wonderful.

And then I had to come home.

There is this feeling that those of us who attend Camp Widow refer to as “Camp Crash.” It is a very specific sort of deflated and depressed feeling that one gets, after having been in the supportive, loving, understanding “everyone here is just like me” bubble of a camp widow weekend. It is a very real and powerful set of emotions, and it can truly mess with your head. Well, my crash began the second I stepped outside of the Marriott Hotel in San Diego, about to get into the cab to the airport back to NYC. As I stepped into the taxi, my face felt the PERFECT weather of San Diego, and instantly I got very sad.

Then, on my red-eye/overnight flight home, the WiFi wasn’t working. I was seated next to a couple who argued and fought with each other in a cruel manner, the entire 5 hours. The TV’s weren’t functioning either, so I had no way to escape my own panic and anxiety that comes with every single flight. I hate flying with a passion. It terrifies me.

Suddenly, in mid-air, and seemingly out of nowhere but not really, I started to miss my husband who is dead. I mean, I really started to miss him in that visceral, all-consuming, pit-of-your-stomach way, where you just want to find the nearest corner and sob your guts out. Except I was in mid-air, on a plane.

My husband Don was in the Air Force. Years before I met him. He was Flight Crew Chief and Mechanic, for the F-16 planes. He made the planes safe, just like he did with everything else. His job in life was to make things safe, and he made me feel safer than anything, just by being near me. When we flew together, he would put his arm out and say: “Just hold onto my arm, Boo. I got you. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just squeeze my arm, or dig your nails into it. Whatever you need to do. And if something scares you, ask me about it and I’ll explain it. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.”

But those days of grabbing my husband’s arm and feeling safe were gone. This time, I grabbed at the arm-rest to my right in the aisle seat I was in, as I tried really hard not to cry out loud. The couple next to me kept arguing and screaming at each other with the attitude and clueless-ness of two people who know nothing of the sudden shock of death, and I sat there, like a child, on the verge of a tantrum stemming. Suddenly, I couldn’t think of any other thought than how much I missed my husband, and how much I wanted him and only him back, right this minute. Suddenly, the unfairness of how HARD my life is now without him, how hard EVERY SINGLE THING is, and how exhausted I feel after doing every goddamn thing ALONE and by myself for 5 years, came rushing into me. Suddenly, I just wanted to run far away, except there is never anywhere to run when you are in mid-air on a plane, and your husband is forever dead.

The last 90 minutes or so of the flight were awful. There was something like turbulence, but worse. I don’t even know what it was really. The plane kept dipping over and over again, dropping really fast in altitude, and making my stomach do flips. Nobody else seemed to notice or care, and I was alone in my panic, holding onto the arm-rest for dear life. The plane shook and made weird noises – noises that my patient and loving husband would have explained to me in a calm and non-condescending voice, if he were alive. Noises that wouldn’t stress me out, if he were still here to make sense of them. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.

Once we finally landed, my luggage ended up on the wrong carousel for almost 2 hours, and when I finally retrieved it, I had to walk with it half a mile throughout the airport to find where the taxis were to get home, due to construction in the airport. My phone was dead and not functioning right, and my brain was even worse. I plopped down in my bed, fixated on the picture of my beautiful husband in his EMS uniform that says “Everyday Hero” in the frame that his work gave him, and sobbed my guts out.

Suddenly, and finally, I couldn’t stop crying. This was more than just camp crash. This was life crash. I lost my Summer teaching job last month, so I have no job or income until September. I’ve been stressing out about this for the past month, and looking everywhere for work before my cash supply officially runs dry, and my stress and emotions finally came to a head the second I landed in NY. As did everything else. The reality of my situation. The exhaustion of living life without my husband for almost 5 years. The confusion of dating and trying to find love again, and being in situations that involve other people’s fragile emotions, and that I have no control over. Wanting things that I can’t have, and not knowing how to make my heart feel differently about them. Knowing that the heart feels what it feels, and I can’t stop it. The frightening thought of hurting someone, or hurting myself, or trying to do everything right and still ending up alone anyway. Trying to just be in the moment, but always terrified of the future and what’s around the corner. The feeling of having absolutely no idea what I’m doing, where I want to be in life, or what comes next for me. In life, I feel exactly as I did up in that plane – suspended in mid-air, and terrified.

I feel like a failure. I feel scared. I feel like I should know what Im doing by now, or like I should have it more together than I do. I feel like a fraud – like someone that people look up to, and really they shouldn’t , because I’m just as clueless as everybody else. I feel tired of making decisions, and I feel sick of struggling. I seriously feel like I cant make one more decision, after 5 years of making EVERY decision, big and small. I just want somebody to say: “Relax. I got this. Let me take care of this for you.” I feel like dirt when I can barely support myself. It feels bad. When you don’t know how you will pay your next bill or next month’s rent, it makes you feel less human. I feel shaken up by life and trauma and grief, and I feel like that shaky feeling will never leave. I feel like having a temper tantrum. I feel, I feel, I feel …….

And then I remind myself, I MUST remind myself, that I am not what I feel. I am not my feelings. They are just feelings, and they matter, and they are revealing, but they don’t mean that is who or what I am. Just because I feel like a failure right now, does not mean I am a failure. Just because I feel terrified, does not mean I will be terrified my entire life. All of these feelings and thoughts are frightening for me right now, because I have never felt them before, and therefore, I dont understand them. And things that we don’t understand are scary. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.

I no longer have my husband here to make me feel safe in the world. And that sucks. Sometimes it REALLY sucks. And I don’t have him to lean on when I’m scared, or to help me when I can’t pay the bills, or to say: “Its okay, Boo. I’ll pick up some extra shifts this month, and we’ll get through this together.” That is no longer a thing. Nobody says that anymore. And I do not want to go through the rest of my life with nobody saying that anymore. I can’t do it. I want to have that teammate in life again. But until then, I need to remind myself that I am not what I feel.

Maybe if I keep repeating it enough times, I will finally, actually believe it. Or, if anything, I will understand it better. And nothing is scary, once you understand it better.

I Don’t Need Anything. Except This …

One of my very favorite comedy films of all-time has always been The Jerk. As I continue to pack, lift, go through piles, clean, organize, fill boxes and bags, and generally prepare to move out of the apartment my husband and I shared our life in for 7 years, I feel a little bit like Steve Martin’s character, Navin, as he left his mansion and his lovely wife Marie (Burnadette Peters.) My dad and I used to quote this scene constantly when I was a kid, and I can still watch it a hundred times and it always makes me laugh:

Navin R. Johnson: Well I’m gonna go then! And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need anything. Except this.
[picks up an ashtray]
Navin R. Johnson: I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray… And this paddle game. – The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. – The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches. – The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control, and the paddle ball… And this lamp. – The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need. I don’t need one other thing, not one… I need this. – The paddle game and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches for sure. Well what are you looking at? What do you think I’m some kind of a jerk or something! – And this. That’s all I need.
[walking outside]
Navin R. Johnson: The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, and this magazine, and the chair.
Navin R. Johnson: [outside now] And I don’t need one other thing, except my dog.
[Shithead growls at him]
Navin R. Johnson: I don’t need my dog.

I don’t need anything else. Except this ….

About 13 months ago, I lost my husband when he had a sudden heart-attack. Four days later, I was staring at him in a casket, delivering a Eulogy I wrote, and getting in our car and driving home, alone. A week after that, the foreclosure went through on the home that my parents shared their life and their marriage in for 45 years. The home that my brother and I grew up in. The only home I had ever known. That same week, I had to sell my husband’s car, because at 14 years old with 145,000 miles on it and always in the shop for repairs, it was no longer a safe option for me.

And so there I was, just a year ago, sitting in Don’s Pontiac Grand Prix – his baby – in my parent’s driveway, sobbing, trying to feel him one last time as I desperately wrapped my fingers around the steering wheel like claws, trying to somehow bring him back through his love for his precious car. I walked into my parent’s house, which was technically no longer their house, stood in the emptiness, and just cried. Waves of emotion bombarded me and my heart sunk into my chest as I closed that door one last time. Something had ended. Life had been stolen. There were things I could never get back. It wasn’t fair.

Mom and Dad’s home for 45 years

Fast-forward to this week. It’s happening all over again. Don has been dead for a year now, and I’m saying goodbye to the only home we have ever known as a couple. We never lived anywhere else together. We never got to own a home, or have kids, or reach our goals. We weren’t there yet. It was only the beginning – until it was the end. Our life was here, in this crappy, dusty, tiny apartment. We had dreams. We had a future planned. We also had no money, no savings, and no idea when we would be able to get out of New Jersey like Don wanted to so badly. And in 10 days, I will be leaving, alone. And let me tell you – it hurts like hell to go.

Moving is a goddamn nightmare. Moving while grieving is a hellish nightmare. Moving out of New Jersey is an impossible, hellish, awful, terrible, evil nightmare. After all this time, I am finally starting to see why my husband hated this state so much. “It’s a pain in the ass to do the simplest thing here”, he used to say. “They are ass-backwards, and things that should be easy, you gotta break your damn back to accomplish. Why is EVERYTHING so difficult here?” He never understood why you couldn’t miss your exit, and just turn around. Or why you had to pay money to simply park your car in a space. Or why they never fixed the potholes that would ruin his car. He could never grasp the concept of the jughandle, the mafia-mentality, or “The Jersey Shore” obsession. “The beaches here suck”, he would say. The bike and golf clubs that he used all year long in Florida – stayed in our storage closet here, barely used. The lifestyle was different. He didnt like how everybody was on top of each other here. It’s always crowded. Filthy. Old. Moving from Florida to here, his car insurance doubled. HIs rent doubled. There were so many more expenses here than what he was used to. It was stressful just to live. He was always working his ass off, yet we never got ahead. He loved NYC, and he loved me. He knew I needed to be here, so this is where we were. But he really hated New Jersey. I used to take that personally. Now, after jumping through hoops trying to move the hell out of here, I truly understand.

Don’s Entertainment Center. Before my Dad took it apart …

The place I am moving into comes complete with a roommate. It also comes with a beautiful king-sized bed, dressers, nightstands, couches, desk, and everything else you can think of. It is furnished, and so I cannot take much with me. Because of this, for the past month, Ive been trying to figure out ways to get rid of my bed, 2 sofas, Entertainment Center, kitchen table, coffee table, and annoyingly large dresser. I put them on Craigslist. Freecycle. I even made posters and put them up in our building, and then walked them into the mom and pop stores all over our neighborhood. The items were all listed as being FREE, provided you come get them and carry them out of here yourself. Good luck finding a parking spot. It’ll never happen. And if by some miracle it does occur and you park within a mile of the place without issue, have fun trying to fit the ginormous items through the small doorways, and down the 3 flights of stairs. Nobody showed up. Nobody wanted my things. For FREE! Okay. Fine, assholes. I will donate them. Surely a woman’s shelter or The Salvation Army would be honored to have these items, right? Wrong. Turns out the Salvation Army only has one guy available to pick up donated items, and he isn’t free until mid-September. The shelter doesn’t take any items from families who have cats, due to possible allergies. (Seriously?) Well, Kelley, you may say- why not just leave the furniture on your curb? Surely someone will come and pick it up! Not in good ‘ole New Jersey! In my neighborhood, you are not allowed to leave any large items or furniture in the basement or on the street. If you do, you will be fined. And then killed. The town will come and pick up your items for you, but only on Tuesdays between the hours of 12:45pm – 1:17pm, and only on partly cloudy days, and only if it’s not raining. Or sunny. Or hot. Or cold. And they wont come up the steps to your apartment to get the items. They will only pick them up on the curb. Oh, and they will only pick up 3 items at a time. Are you fucking kidding me? What kind of dumb-ass racket are you people running anyway? How is this convenient or logical in any way whatsoever? And what the hell am I going to do with all my crap??? Eventually, I had to let my friends know that I needed help. And when I did that, they came running, and the process of getting rid of my things began. So did my extreme emotions.

Our apartment living room

First up, our good friend and Don’s long-time EMS partner on the ambulance Meg showed up and tore apart the two sofas. She literally took box-cutters and a mallot, and destroyed the damn things. Don would have really appreciated that, and found it awesome. Me? It was really weird watching the couches that we bought right after our wedding, the couches he always sat on when he strummed his guitars – being turned into sawdust. “They are just things”, Meg reminded me. And she was right. I just have to constantly remind myself of that. Meanwhile, I took the mallot to the dresser, and showed it who was boss. Two 7-hour days later and our lungs filled with dust, we had accomplished something. We had bonded in our violent destruction of innocent objects. We were one. (Okay, that last part is ridiculous. It’s late and I’m just tired. We weren’t one.)

Meg scares the crap out of our couch

Next, my friend John came over and helped me go through Don’s hallway closet, a project that, if I had done by myself, would have left me frozen by intense emotion at the discovery of each new item found. With him there, I was able to control that, continue, and talk about it with him instead of crying in a corner alone.

Lady Gaga’s got nothin’ on John

Today was the biggest project of all. Two gay men, a married guy driving a church-owned box-truck, and a widow – all working together as the weirdest moving company ever, to get all the pieces of junk that was once my furniture out of the apartment and into some dumpster somewhere. In preparation for all of my friends arrival, I woke up this morning and moved what I could into the living room so they would have easy access to it all. Then, I stopped. Looked around. Another empty room. Just like last year, standing in my parent’s house. Once again, it all hit me. The flood gates opened up, and I broke down. An hour later, I cried again, this time while talking to Rebecca on the phone about the details of today. That time, I was overcome with gratefulness. Thankful for the many ways friends like her have helped me. So I cried.

 Just hours later, my crew arrived, and we were eating the pizza I ordered, and drinking the soda and bottled water I provided them – a tiny thank you for all they were doing for me. And then we got to work. Bobby, Jay, Ben, and me. Slowly removing the pieces of my life into a truck donated by Ben and his wife Rebecca’s church. It was messy. It was funny. It was strange.

When we found an empty trash bin outside and Jay came up with the idea to “borrow” it for a few minutes so that we could use it to put all the many loose pieces of wood from our couches and Entertainment Center and dresser that had been hacked to pieces the days before, I suggested that may be considered stealing by our neighbors. Then Bobby came up with an Ad slogan for our new fake Moving Company:

“Need movers? Have no values? Call us!  We are QuestionableMorals.com! We have no conscience – Right or wrong, we  get the job done!”

Ben and Jay pack away the pieces of my past …

Later, when we removed our mattress and bed frame, we discovered Don’s gun in a case underneath the bed. This wasn’t a surprise to me, as I recall him telling me he had brought it up here from Florida. It sat under our bed for 7 years, never coming out of it’s case. Don was in the Air Force, and he enjoyed skeet shooting – even won some trophies for it in competitions. So, it was some sort of skeet-shooting rifle. When I told the men that I wanted to open the case and look and see the gun inside, again we started creating fake future newspaper headlines:

 “Widow Accidentally Shoots Herself with Dead Husband’s Gun. Gay Friends Watch in Horror.”

 Or my favorite:

“Young Widow Found Dead After Gay Friend Accidentally Mistakes Gun for Microphone. Local Church Held Liable.”

 (Not to worry. Later in the day, I phoned the local police station and informed them of the situation and that I found my deceased husband’s gun while packing. An officer came over and made the gun go bye-bye.)

Questionable Morals ….

Today I cried. Today I laughed. Today my friends were amazing, as they have been throughout this neverending nightmare of losing my wonderful husband. Today I stood in our living room, and saw my never-reached future and my bittersweet past. I saw the things that we bought together and used together and lived in together – carted away. You would think that the emptyness of the rooms would make the place seem more impersonal. It didn’t. It just made me sad. Made me think about 10 days from now, when I close that door forever, when I walk out of here for the last time, and how I won’t be with my husband when I do that. None of our things made it out alive. Our couches. Dresser. Tables. All the small and big things we owned together – gone. Cut up and thrown into a truck.

 The only thing that made it – the only thing that is coming with me – is his chair. His silly, stupid, dumb, horrible, wonderful chair. I made fun of it all the time. He loved his chair. He brought it with him from Florida. His La-Z-boy chair. The chair he napped with the cats in. The chair he took care of me in for a week when I threw out my back. The chair I sat in the first time I flew out to Florida to visit him, when we were dating long-distance. I sat in his chair, and his cat Isabelle jumped right into my lap. Don smiled and said: “She loves you. She doesn’t usually do that. She loves you, Boo.” It’s the chair that I called ugly on more than one occasion. And now, as if Im being punished for mocking it so openly, I am left with it.

Bobby, me, and the lone, remaining chair …

As I leave this apartment and move into this new one, I am 40 years old and I am starting my life all over again. I am left with no husband. No money. No health insurance. No security. No safety net. No plan. What if my new roommate hates me? What if he regrets letting me live there? What if he dies like Don did? Then where will I live? What if my cats freak out and hate it there and he kicks us out? What if I get sick and cant pay my bills? What if I lose my job? What if I can’t think of any more panicky questions? What if ….

And so, as I attempt to fall asleep tonight in my husband’s favorite, lame chair that is now my lame chair – I am reminded again of that classic scene in The Jerk. And when I leave here in a week and a half, I will need to remind myself that, like Navin, I don’t need the Entertainment Center. Or the dresser. I don’t need our couches. I don’t need anything.

Except this chair. This chair … and my kitties. And I don’t need anything else. Not one other thing.

I do need friends. I need my friends. So this chair, my cats, and my friends .. and that’s all I need ever. And I dont need one other thing.

But as I close the doors on New Jersey and open them to New York and to this new part of my life, I’ll tell you a secret. And the secret is this:

 

I’m terrified.

 

No Christians or Gays Were Harmed During This Move …

(Thank you to Rebecca, Ben, and Powerhouse Christian Church for the use of this wonderfully perfect truck today. And thank you to all of my great friends, who always come running whenever I ask. I just need to remember to ask. I love you.)

Quarters, Dreams, and Chapstick

Here’s a Riddle: What are you left with when your husband drops dead; and there is no warning, no will, no money, nothing you owned, no children, no “estate”, and nothing of monetary value in the crappy little New Jersey apartment you rented together for 7 years?

Answer: A bottle of guitar polish, some old chapstick, and a book of dumb State Quarters.

I said it was a riddle. I never said it was funny.

Exactly one month from today, I am moving. Leaving New Jersey and going back to New York. Forest Hills, Queens, to be exact. For weeks now,  I have been putting the life that Don and I shared, into boxes. Bags. Suitcases. Piles. This box goes to mom and dad’s place for storage. That one goes with me to my new apartment. This bag gets thrown away. That one gets donated to The Salvation Army. This one I might sell. On and on and on, making emotional decisions at lightning speed, as the days count down to when I must be gone from this room, this neighborhood, these walls. Time will not wait for my grief. Life will not be patient while I consider yet again whether or not to keep his favorite chair.

When you’re grieving and dealing with your spouse’s “stuff”, everyone is an expert. People attack you with their opinions. Everyone knows what you should do. “Only keep 10 items,” they say. “Anything you haven’t used in the last 6 months gets thrown away!”, they bellow. “Be brutal! Get rid of everything!”, they order, before returning home to their husbands and wives, who are still alive and well. People love to tell you how you need to do things, what is best for you. Do this. Do that. Keep this. Throw that out. Move on. Cleanse your soul. Get over this. Make space for new things in your life. You can’t grow with all this junk surrounding you.

And that is where it gets messy. When your spouse is alive and breathing, his dental floss or his nail file or his ratty old t-shirt might very well be junk. But when he is dead? It is everything. It is the only thing I have. There is nothing else. Just stuff. Each item becomes a tiny piece of them, something that is still somehow alive. Something I can keep. I study the dental floss like a CSI-investigator, pulling at the long string and trying to place my fingertips in the same place where he placed his the last time he used it. I unzip the old duffle bag that is sitting in the corner, wipe off the dust, and unveil the old ratty t-shirt that is inside. He played tennis wearing that ugly thing. Two days before his heart stopped, he was running around a tennis court in 92 degree heat. I sniff the shirt like it’s a fine wine, searching for his scent somewhere. Could it still be there after one year? Am I imagining that I smell him faintly? The plastic water bottle he drank from rolls out of the bag and onto the hardwood floor, taunting me. I pick it up. I fill it up with fresh water. I do not wash it first. I want to put my lips where he put his. I want to feel him through my thirst. I feel crazy as I take the first sip. It doesn’t make me feel close to him. I feel so far away.

What seems like lunatic behavior to one person, is someone else’s lifeline. What you see as nuts, I can’t be without. Those people on the show Hoarders? I understand them now. I get it. They have been through something traumatic. They lost someone that they loved, and they try to compensate by surrounding themselves with all of that person’s “stuff.” Time doesn’t give a shit about your grief, and so it marches on in that cruel way, and suddenly days become months, and months become years, until you are living in a pile of filth and trash and things. And all of that junk envelops you. It takes you over. It makes your world small, until you no longer really exist. You get lost inside the junk that isn’t them. It will never, ever be them. You know this, but you still feel paralyzed. You still feel guilt and gut-wrenching pains for every single item of them that you throw away. How can I simply discard of his things? It was his. He loved this stupid thing. It feels like I am throwing him away. It feels like he is dying again. How the fuck do people do this??? I have to stop now. It’s too much. Tomorrow. I will do this then. Seperating our life into boxes and bags is too exhausting for words. I need to quit my job so I can stare at this swiss army knife or that silly uniform pin that says ‘EMS” and decide what to do with it. These are awful choices, and I have to make them. I want to just leave everything here and run away forever. I also want to take everything with me and hold onto it for dear life. But I can’t. There are deadlines. There is rent to pay. There is reality.

The Entertainment Center in our living room. There is a little box sitting on top of it, which has a bunch of random items inside. I open it, with trashbag at the ready, feeling simultaneously victorious and like a murderer each time I throw another item away. Old pens. A piece of paper with a couple of music notes written on it. The startings of a song he was writing? Something he was learning? Seeing his handwriting gives me the chills. For a second, he is here and I am home again. There is a tiny bottle of guitar polish. He was always cleaning and taking care of his many guitars. I mocked him incessantly for treating his instruments as if they were people. The polish is old and probably expired. But he took such good care of his things. How can I just carelessly toss it away, like he was never here? Like he never even existed. I will come back to it. I can’t decide now.

The Book of Quarters. It has been sitting here, messing with me for weeks. Don collected State Quarters. He put them in this official looking book called: “State Series Quarters: Complete 100 Coin Set.” It took him years to build up the collection. He was almost finished with it. He still needed 6 states. I remember him taking me into 2 or 3 different places in the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts while we were on our Cape Cod honeymoon. He was anxious to see if they had the missing states he desired to complete his book. I laughed at him and his silly hobby. I found it lame. We had a conversation during our honeymoon that went like this:

Me: I dont understand why you collect quarters.

Him: (mock-pouts at me while folding his arms and pouting his bottom lip) Boo doesn’t like my hobby. It’s fun. It’s just something I do.

Me: But what’s the point? They just sit inside this book that you never even look at or acknowledge. It just sits on a shelf and serves no purpose.

Him: The purpose it serves is that I enjoy collecting the coins.

Me: But why? They arent even worth anything. I dont understand how that is fun.

Him: Well, Boo, you dont have to understand everything I do. It’s really not all that deep. I just like it, that’s all. It’s really no big mystery.

Me: Oh. Well that’s dumb.

Him: Yes, Boo. (laughing at me) I’m sorry my hobby is dumb to you and that it annoys you so much. Actually, Im not sorry. Annoying you is fun. Let’s go into this store. I still need the Montana Quarter. Come on Boo … (grabs my hand and walks me into store enthusiasticly) You know you want to look at coins with me. Isnt this fun?

Me: No. It’s dumb. (mock-pouting back at him)

 

Now, sitting here with this stupid book of coins, I feel guilt and sadness and pain. The logical part of my brain wants to take all the quarters out of the book, and put them into my giant change Jar, the one Don and I always threw change into over time, and then used it for laundry or tolls or saved it up and changed it in for actual dollars when we needed to. What the hell am I going to do with this Quarter Collection? I don’t collect coins. I will never collect coins. I have zero desire to collect fucking coins. But for some damn reason, I cant seem to make myself toss these dumb quarters into the Jar and be done with it. For some reason, it feels like stealing. Like Im stealing his hobby. Like Im mocking him while he’s dead. It seems really unfair. Then again, they are just coins. Why is this so hard? Why am I making it so hard? I wrestle with it for hours. I still cant decide. I need to do laundry and I have no change. The guilt creeps back as I steal from my dead husband and his harmless little hobby. I post my dilemma on Facebook, knowing how humorous it is, and knowing I will get many responses. Immediately, people start in with their opinions. People are getting emotional. Other widowed people who have their own individual issues with their loved one’s items, are becoming affected by what I decide to do with these quarters. Now it weighs on my mind, and the minds of people in cyberspace. The world is on the edge of it’s seat. Never was a book of quarters so damn entertaining. What will happen??? Will the widow make the right choice? Will she do right by her husband? There were too many people screaming and typing in my ear. I couldnt think straight, and I just wanted to be done with feeling. I took the few quarters I needed to do my laundry out of the book, did it, and decided to deal with the rest in the morning. I felt unsure about what to do, and honestly, only one person could tell me the right thing .. and that was Don.

Last night I went to bed. Last night I had a dream. It was the first time that my husband “came to me” in a dream, since months and months ago. There were two dreams where I “felt” his presence there, where It felt like more than just a dream. Both of them happened two or three months after he died. Last night it happened again. In the dream, I was lying in bed on my side like I always do. I felt his arms around me. He was spooning me, and my hand grabbed his as it reached around my waist. He was here.

“Your hands are dry, Boo. You should use some of my Chapstick on them. I still have some left. It’s in that little box on the entertainment center. Just rub it on your palms. It will help. You never used to have dry skin. I had dry skin.” His voice was calm and reassuring. I was safe again. All was well.

“Why are you wasting time talking about dry skin and chapstick? There are so many other things to talk about. I can’t believe you’re here.” My voice is shaky and scared. I’m crying.

“I’m always here for you, Boo. We don’t have to talk at all. I just want to lie here with you. I think that’s what you need right now.” He sighs into the back of my neck. I never see his face in this dream. He is behind me, and I feel him. His hands. His touch. His warmth. I feel him.

“I dont want to move, Boo. I don’t wanna move from this bed. This apartment. This room. If I leave here, and I go somewhere new, it will be somewhere that you never were. I don’t want to be anywhere that you never were. We were supposed to leave here together. I’m scared.” Now Im sobbing loudly, and his hand wipes away my tears. He rubs my back.

“I know you’re scared. I’m not going anywhere, Boo. And neither are you. You aren’t leaving me. You’re leaving this shitty, stupid, messed up state and going back to New York where you belong. Just remember – wherever you are, that is where I’ll be too. I know it’s not the same as what we planned, but I’m here. You need to know that.” He sounds like an Angel.

“I wish I could believe that. I wish these dreams would happen everyday. I wish I would stay with you forever and never, ever wake up.” My voice sounds like an alien.

We lay there in silence for awhile, until I stop crying. The whole time, I feel his arms around me. He doesn’t let go. Finally, I ask. “Are you mad at me?”

There is no hesitation in his response. “Of course not. Why would I be mad at you?” He seems hurt that I would even think such a thing.

“Because I threw away your stuff. And because of the quarters. You loved those stupid quarters.” I’m sobbing again. Ridiculously hard. These fucking quarters have made me lose my goddamn mind.

“Remember what you said on our honeymoon? They are dumb. They are just dumb quarters. What are you supposed to do with a book of quarters, Boo? They were my hobby. Not yours. Use them for laundry. Throw them in the jar. Like I told you years ago, it’s just a hobby. It’s not that deep. You do what you need to do honey. With everything. What’s mine is ours. It’s yours now. I’m dead. I don’t need a book of quarters. And you’re alive. And laundry needs quarters. Use them. They aren’t important. You’re important. I love you.” He starts to disappear now. His fingers unlock from mine.

“I hate when you leave. I hate waking up. Please please don’t go. I love you so much.” My pillow is drenched with my reality. My pain. My life. There is no response. He is gone. I’m awake. Just like that. I lay there for minutes and try like hell to get it back. But it’s gone.

After awhile, I walk into the living room, feeling as if a train just ran me over. I pick up the small box I had looked at yesterday, the one with all the random items inside it. I look at it and shake it, and it appears to be emptied. Everything was removed by me before. I sit in his favorite chair, exhausted and spent. Some time passes. Then, out of nowhere, Sammy meows. He meows again. He looks at me and keeps making noise. He is like Lassie with an important message. Something tells me to get up. Look again. I pick up the box, just for kicks. This time, the bottom of the box is not the bottom of the box. There is more. Another layer; like one of those boxes of chocolates with the paper in between. The corner is sticking up, so I pull it. Underneath lies some junk, or the greatest thing on earth, depending on who you are.

Chapstick. His chapstick that he used every single day for his really dry skin and lips that never quite got used to the air up here. I take off the cap, and twist the gooey, waxy substance into a ball, so it’s floating just above the top. Putting out the palm of my hand, I gently rub the chapstick back and forth across it, in a calming and slow rhythm, erasing my dry skin and my fears and my guilt with each stroke. Finally, I put it to my lips, and feel the texture go over my mouth, knowing that once, long ago, it was on his mouth. Knowing that I felt him in that dream, and that it wasn’t just a dream. Knowing that I can be at peace with my choices about his stuff, that isn’t just junk. Knowing that with every State Quarter I put into that washing machine, I have his permission, and that wherever I chose to go in my life, from now on, he would follow me. He will follow me. This I know, and this I choose to believe.

Turning Horror Into Hope: Pay It Forward for Don Shepherd Day

Recently, I had the very unfortunate reality of facing the one-year mark of my dear husband’s sudden death. July 13, 2011. It will forever be the worst day of my life; the day that changed me into someone else; the day he never again came home. As with everything in life, on that anniversary day last week, I had a choice. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we have a choice, but we usually have a choice. Would I drown myself in the horror and hopelessness of that day? Would I isolate myself and convince myself that nothing will ever get better until the end of time? Or would I do something else? What if instead of making his death the focus of my heart, I used my heart to put focus on life? What if I could use who he was as a person, to inspire others into acts of kindness? What would happen? How far could I take this? And who would even care? The answers will astound you.

So I made my decision. July 13, this year and every year, would be a new holiday. “Pay It Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” The premise was simple. Do an act of kindness. Anything. For anyone. Then write to me and tell me about what you did. To me, this was the perfect way I could think of to honor my husband, because Don was the type of person who paid it forward every single day. He really did. Except he didn’t even think about it, and he didn’t wait until some tragedy came along to make him realize that Gee, we should really all be nice to one another. Nope. He just knew. And now that he is gone from this Earth, he is with me forever, and he is part of me. I am more compassionate, more kind, because I knew him. If I could use this horrible day and turn it around to help others – well – it is the very least I can do for Don; who made me want to be better. Pay it Forward for Don. Pay it Forward for Love. Pay Forward Life.

I sent out my idea to everyone I know. I used Facebook, email, texts, bullhorn, rotary phone, stork … whatever worked. Then I waited. On July 13th, I woke up feeling awful, like I was destined to re-live every moment of that day just one year ago. I was so heartbroken and sad. Then I started reading the messages. The emails. The texts. They came pouring in at lightning speed, and they lifted my heart to a place it hadn’t been to in ages. As the day went on, I found myself going to the computer excitedly, awaiting the next “Pay it Forward” story to read. It was like Christmas morning, and each story was a present that when unwrapped, demonstrated the love that people had for my husband. I still felt my heart drop on that day, and I was still so very sad. I think I always will be when it rolls around. But this gave hope to something horrible. It put light where there was only darkness. My friend and colleague Maggie Lally said it perfectly: “You changed the entire energy of the day.” She was right. And because I changed the energy, so did you. You floored me.

There are not many things that I know in life; but I now know this: Love is contagious. Kindness is contagious. Evil is always followed by hope. At their core, most people are good, and want to give. When you are good to others, they remember. And they pay it forward. What follows below are ALL of the stories and deeds of kindness that people wrote to me. Everything is written in their words. Some are from friends. Some are from family. Many are from strangers. Some of the acts are small things, some are very big, and some are off-the-charts creative. They are all, in their own way, truly amazing. Before you continue reading, you should get some kleenex, and you should have some time. A lot of people participated. More than I could have ever imagined. If you read this and it doesn’t move you, you may want to get checked out, because it means you have no heart. The stories below are in no particular order. Everytime I read them, I change my mind on which one is my favorite. In the end, I cannot decide. They are all little miracles, brought on by the most powerful thing in the world – love.

 

As we travel cross-country, we continue to do lots of little things to pay it forward for Don. So far we helped a man with his car, opened doors for loads of people, and donated money to the Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park in his honor. We will do as much as we can while driving, and we will keep telling people about you and Don. Sending you love from the Motel 6 in Wells, Nevada. High class all the way, Baby! – Holly Lash, California.

 

We made a donation to our local animal shelter. I knew from your posts that Don loved animals, and so do we. – Phyllis Norris Groover, Alabama. 

 

I am an artist. On July 13th, I had some artwork printed out. I agreed to donate a piece toward an auction that would be raising money for a young girl who is fighting luekemia and had lost her leg. In addition to the piece I said I would provide, I also had more work printed out to try and earn more money, plus a print for the young woman to keep for herself. I am not accepting any money to cover any of the costs for shipping or printing. (and they dont know that either.) I am glad I got to do something extra to help someone else – and do it on the day to remember Don and pay it forward. – Kevenn T. Smith, Ohio.

 

 

While traveling on business this week, I had a couple hours layover between flights, and was having lunch at a bar in O’Hare. A soldier in uniform sat down at the next table, so I told the waitress to put his lunch on my check and tell him it’s from Don Shepherd. I ended up chatting with him, told him who Don was, and he was very touched by your story. He said that he would also do something to pay it forward for Don as well. – Sarah Forgey, Virginia.

 

I’m not sure if Don would have appreciated it, but my Don Day animal honoree mascot is this neighborhood Bear, who I will now call “Don.” – Leslee Koritzke, California

I cannot count the number of times I have stopped at my friend’s elderly mother in law’s house to pick up my nephew with a quick and impatient nod hello and goodbye. Friday the 13th I was feeling hot, annoyed, and hurried when I stepped through the door to see her sitting there looking very small and frail. I thought of you and Don and gave her a warm hello and sat down to visit. She told me stories about her new cat Penny, and we watched as her 4 yr old grandson tossed a ball up the stairs and the cat came bounding down after it. It was a small gesture, but one of the many moments Ive thought about you and Don and how fragile life is, and how easily those we love could be snatched from us without notice. Im grateful for each moment I stop and realize Im not in such a hurry anymore. Thank you for sharing your love, heart, and grief with us all. It is a gift. – Katherine Ragot, Massachusetts.

 

I offered to take my friend’s daughter to field hockey practice a few mornings a week. – Lisa Etkin, New Jersey

I thought of Don today and stopped off at a pet store in Key West and donated to the Xena Fund. You can check them out at www.thexenafund.com. They are unique because they help animals that need emergency surgery. It felt good to donate. Thinking of you. – Jarlyn Gonzalez Phillips, Connecticutt

 

In memory of Don, I made a donation to your site to help you get your book published. – Joe Hernandez, New York

 

Here is a picture of our beautiful new puppy that we adopted, Tovah, in honor of Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day, and in memory of our sweet Benny, who went back to God on 7/5/12. – Belinda Bishop, Alabama.

 

 I donated 10 cases of cat food to a no-kill shelter for cats. – Pamela Clark Rademacher Nall, Chicago.

 

My eldest daughter Chloe is an animal lover. I sat down with her today, bought her an ice-cream, and explained about the wonderful thing you were asking others to do today. She proudly announced to anyone within earshot that in honor of Don Day, she would collect donations for the SPCA. She collected towels, food, toys, and $22.75! We will deliver this to them and then double the donations she collected, as we promised her. I only wish I had met Don. You are leaving such a great legacy in his name. – Maria Stefanou Peters, New York

 

In honor of Don, I tried to anonymously pay for a tank of gas, but all the pumps had input credit cards, so I could not. However, a co-worker was having a super stressful day, so I bought her lunch and sat with her. – Misty Corrales, Alabama.

 

I took on a new guitar student today at no cost, an 11 year old boy with no hope of being able to afford lessons. I will be loaning him an acoustic guitar to play on until he gets the hang of it, and then, when it’s time, I will buy him a nice electric. – Norman Paulsen, Jamundi, Columbia. 

 

I took my handicapped neighbor to and from Temple tonight. – Sheila Slaw Muller, New York.

 

I sent my staff home early to thank them for all their hard work this week. – Susan Spencer Farinacci, New York.

 

My boss and I are donating money to a family that just lost their dad. The fundraiser is being held tonight. – Spreti Valente, California.

 

My husband and I donated needed supplies for the staff and kitties at Austin Pets Alive, a no-kill shelter here in Texas. I was so very blessed to have known Don, worked with him, and be his friend. I miss him everyday. By sharing your sorrow with so many, you have touched more lives than you really know. I’m honored to call you my friend, and I know why my friend Don fell so madly in love with you. – Maria Mantek, Texas.

 

I just made a donation to your website in honor of Don today. – Kathy Bernal, California.

 

I took SIX kids to the movies today. Does that count? – Darleen Manfre Fleming, New York.

 

I am donating a full crib, car seat, and 5 boxes of infant and children’s clothing and books to a local center for abused women and their children. – Stephanie Miller Morales, Texas.

 

My act of kindness went to help someone who is working so hard to have a chance to become a parent, to get a little bit closer to her goal. In part, this is also to honor our Lanny. Thanks for letting me be a part of this day, and for letting me share this in remembering Lanny. – Cyndi Harvey, Colorado.

 

In our little dul-de-sac of 4 homes, 2 of our neighbors are widows. They each received these flowers today in honor of you and Don.

For our second act of kindness today, we also donated some kitty food to our local shelter. As you asked, here is a photo. As you can tell, they were very touched. Thanks for inspiring others today. – Stacey Riggs, California.

I donated 6 bags of clothes, books, shoes, etc, to my local thrift store. I told a friend about today and he gave a stranger at the laundromat quarters to do her laundry. Celebrating Don’s life today, and every July 13th to come. – Sharon DiCostanzo, New York

 

Today I honor a very special man who left this world far too soon. I made a donation to the SPCA in Don’s name, and will be walking with my beloved beagle and cattledog in the local Mutt Strut in honor of Don and his unconditonal love for animals. – Amy Hoffman Engle, South Carolina.

 

For Pay it Forward Day, my husband Robert donated half of his dress shirts to the local shelter. He picked the best of the best to give. I was floored! As for me, I bought little mini-cupcakes and then sent an email explaining why everyone would be eating cupcakes. “Hello! There are cupcakes in the break room. They aren’t meant to make you fat. They are meant to make you happy. I bought them in honor of Don Shepherd, a man you never knew. He was awesome, and he would have bought you cupcakes if he could have been here today.” – Ginger Michele, Florida.

What a fun Friday! I offered to watch my neighbor’s child, who has a disability. We had a blast. I was nervous about how it would go because I have a newborn and toddler, but she was great with them! She loved helping me with the kids, and I was so glad I could help her mom, who took me up on the offer before I even finished the sentence! Thanks for the inspiration. I will definitely be doing it more often. – Trey Sullivan, California.

 

A late audition by a young musician gave me an opportunity to pay a little back in honor of Don today. Auditions are often rather routine, but this young man and his mother needed some special attention. By the time the almost 2-hour process was finished, I was glad to welcome him on as a music major. I spent as much time with his mom as I did with him. Her husband died when her son was younger; a number of years ago; and she had been raising him and his sibling alone ever since. She told me how much her son misses his dad these days, and how it has shaped his life.  He is a talented musician who just couldnt decide about auditioning for the Music Major. I talked to him, played for him, learned about his goals and dreams. When I told his mom Id be able to recommend a fairly high Scholarship for talent, she burst into tears. She is so hopeful that our University will give her son a chance to blossom as a person and musician. It made me realize that every dollar I could recommend was one dollar less she would have to earn or borrow. I thought of Don and all the qualities you have spoken of. I think he would have been pleased that I was a human being first, and a music administrator second. I hope that this young man will have a great experience as he continues to think of and honor his own Dad, taken too soon from him. – Asked to be Kept Anonymous.

 

Dylan and I left cookies, crackers, and candies for our mailman – with a note that said: “Pay it Forward for Don. Don passed away suddenly on July 13, 2011. To remember him and honor his life, today we are paying forward his kindness and generosity.” – Jesaida Zayas Snyder, King of Prussia, PA.

 

I helped my mom prepare her house for selling it. I thought of you and Don as I wore a bike helmet, crouched in a 4 foot, 100 degree sloped attic, amongst old trunks of linens and towels and assorted crap. Next year I’m doing gift cards. – Sheila Sayah, New Jersey.

 

 

I have been a volenteer with the Dunstable Summer Concerts for about 5 years now. Last year, we made a connection with someone that could get the RE/Max hot air balloon to come to one of our concerts. Their only request was that we donate all proceeds collected to a local cause, charity, or person in need. As the day got closer, I read about Pay it Forward, and suggested The Sharing Network Organ Donation as our cause. It was one of the largest turn-outs that we have ever had, with over 300 people descending on the Common. We had signs letting people know what their donations would be going towards, and from there, over $400 was “raised”. (That’s a hot air balloon joke.) – Laura Rothman, Massachusetts.

 

I made a donation to our local Richmond SPCA in Don’s name. The fact is, I love animals, as did Don, and its a great organization that I think he would appreciate being associated with. – Laura Jean Shelton, Virginia.

 

I paid it forward to a friend with a Psychic Reading. I wanted to help her anyway, so this was a good way to do both. – Jan Drake Bakke, Nevada.

 

I donated $50 to the Connecticutt Burn Care Foundation, for a child who was disfigured in a fire, so he could attend a children’s burn camp for kids with disfiguring burn scars. It was sent “In Memory of Don Shepherd.” – Jennifer Pierce, Massachusetts.

 

While walking home the other day I saw this homeless woman that Ive seen many times before. The heartbreaking thing is that she is with her baby as well. Instead of walking past her, this time I stopped and spoke with her. I didnt give her money because I didnt have any cash, but I asked her if she was aware of shelters nearby. She said something, but it was hard to understand her. So I walked away and called Jessica who told me to call the homeless hotline and outreach workers would come out and help her. So I called and let them know where I was. I dont know what happened after this, but I hope they were able to help. I havent seen her in the past few days. Between seeing a woman with a small baby, and thinking about my friend Don, I had to at least stop to see if she needed help. – John Joseph Cina, New York.

 

I took a down on her luck friend out for lunch, and I also paid for an old woman’s groceries in front of me, at Don’s all-time favorite grocery store – PUBLIX! Her grocery items, you’ll be happy to know, included Don’s favorite Publix Sub. – Gin Malvita, Florida.

I wanted to tell you that I produced a random act of kindness in your husband’s honor, even though I didn’t know him. I went to my local library, and in various books that I love, placed notes attached to $5 bills. The last line was: “random act of kindness and paying it forward.” Thanks for encouraging me to do something nice for others. – Anonymous.

 

We got a chance to pay for the lunch of the people behind us at Burger King. We told the clerk about Don’s Day and had him relay the message to the car behind ours. I hope he did! We have also set up a time to play/perform music at a local nursing home to honor his love of music. – Amy Martinson, Texas.

I went to the Post Office to mail a few things, and there was a young man and woman standing there with a sign saying he was just laid off and needed food and money for their baby. I didnt have much cash on me, but gave them all that I had, which was $14. Thinking of you always. – Tobi Raymond, California.

 

I donated money to your wonderful friend Elayne Boosler’s animal rescue organization, Tails of Joy, to honor my incredibly selfless son-in-law Don, and his love of animals. We love and miss you so much Don. You will always be our family. – Christine and David Niemi, Massachusetts.

Two acts of kindness on Don Day from me. Number One: Because I feel like I know Don personally through you, I paid a visit to New Jersey (the lame state), to visit a friend who was having a lonely day. She is a Lower East Side city girl who loves Manhattan more than anyone Ive ever met. When her baby was born, her husband decided the child needed to be reared just like him – in the suburbs of NJ, within spitting distance of his mother. (What could be better?) I took the NJ Transit to visit my friend, whom I love, and we did suburban things; mostly sat by the town pool for hours – BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO DO IN THE SUBURBS!!! I love my friend and spending time with her is always a joy, but I was mindful the entire day about Don and what a good, good man he was. His love for you transplanted him to NJ, as my love for my friend gets my ass on the train to spend a long day in the burbs. By the way; my friend, like Don, also thinks NJ is lame.

Number Two: I have a good friend in Los Angeles who is an animal lover, like Don. She rescues animals (literally goes out with a team when calls come in about abused or abandoned animals) and saves them. She also adopts those dogs and cats who are unadoptable because of age or illness. I made a donation to “Tails of Joy” for her and sent her a tote bag so that she can spread the word out there about www.tailsofjoy.net. She is a woman whose husband died when he was only 46, and she was just 40. Like you. She is a writer/comedian, like you Kelley, so I thought she would be the perfect person to include in my thoughts about Don on this wonderful, new holiday. – Caitlin Kelly, New York.

 

The Vietnam Veteran’s were given a futon bunk bed, a couple of mattresses, and a couple of huge bags of clothing in honor of Don. God Bless you both. What a beautiful way to honor your beloved husband. – Lynn Gaba Henkel Dilloo, Nevada.

 

My husband Joe and I stopped by our local EMS station with some fresh homemade treats (brownies, cookies) to thank them all for their hard work and sacrifice. We wanted to pay it forward in honor of Don and know that all EMT’s like him deserve a big thank you from all the people they protect and serve. – Jennifer Calkin Mastromarino, New York.

I went to Petsmart today, and, while there, donated some money to help homeless animals. – Brett Alyse, New York.

 

Sometimes the best laid plans get sidetracked and not necessarily by the planner. So instead of my original plan, I have donated to Elayne Boosler’s Tails of Joy. It’s sort of the same thing as what I had wanted to do anyway. – Karen Block Breen, New York.

 

My 15 year old daughter signed up to be a volenteer at Petco from 7am-9am daily to take care of the kitties that are in need of good homes. – Erika Lynch, Massachusetts.

 

I bought a homeless woman a sandwich. I have passed this woman everyday this week on the corner of 47th and 8th. Swept up in the 1001 things to do at once energy of NYC, in the sticky July heat and with the inherent general defense mechanism we all develop of blocking out those in need asking us for change, food, help, attention, kindness, love. But today I felt compelled to stop. Three major events in my life occured this week, all from seemingly different corners, yet all strikingly linked:

1. I began rehearsal for a project unlike anything I have ever been closely a part of. Somehow I have found myself producing REQUIEM FOR A LOST GIRL in the NY Musical Theatre Festival. It’s elements include: a 7 piece Chamber Orchestra, a 20 person choir of young NYC musical theatre actors, a dozen or so members of the homeless youth of NYC streets, a gaggle of Canadian composers, opera, rap, poetry, interpretive dance, a rocking chair and a friendly German conductor named Marcel. If it sounds like a mess, it is. But a gorgeous, heart-wrenching, inspiring, tragic, hopeful, life-changing mess. What brings all these elements together? Standing in the middle of that first rehearsal, it finally made sense. Hunger. Hungry to work, hungry to help.

2. Today is Pay it Forward for Don Day. One year ago today, a dear friend of many years lost her husband. Suddenly. He was working a second job and collapsed instantly from cardiac arrest. The irony is that his primary job was working as an EMT. In his spare time he volenteered countless hours at animal shelters. He is a veteran of the US military. And he LOVED our friend. He was one of the most generous, selfless and humble men you could ever meet. And it made no sense. Kelley has asked us to do something for Don. “Reach out to a stranger who needs you. Make a difference. Make a new friend. Go outside the box. Make someones life better. It can be big or small. What matters is that you do it, and you think of Don.”

3. Well, I cant talk about it yet. Not publicly. Lets just say its one of those things that happen suddenly, that sends one into panic, surprise and exposes how much we take for granted. Comfort. Home.

This got long. I think what I wanted to say is what I said in a Facebook Note one year ago tonight: “I am always weary of sounding preachy, especially in this format. But … hug your loved ones. Call your friends. Say thank you. And dont sweat the small stuff, life’s too fucking short.”

Oh, and …buy a homeless woman a sandwich. – Andrew Block, New York.

 

In honor of Don, I made a donation to the SPCA. Also, we went to the Italian Festival for dinner. We were lucky enough to snag a table, but there were 3 on duty cops that needed to eat quickly and go back to patrolling, so we gave them our table. – Heidi Miller, New York.

 

I paid it forward in the name of Don today by leaving the closest spot in the hospital parking lot open for someone who needed it more than me … or someone greedier / lazier than me. – Bianca Neff Diesel, Ohio.

 

Today I let two people go in front of me at the IRS. Nobody is ever nice at the IRS. Love the spirit of Don Shepherd Day. – Amy Cavanagh, Florida.

 

My show Friday (Blogtalk Radio: Living in the Psychic Realm) garnered more friends on Facebook needing guidance and advice. Once they are all in good places themselves, they will be able to turn from client to colleague, helping others. – Linda Irwin, Idaho.

 

I am donating a large amount of clothing and household items to Goodwill, as well as donating sets of collectors plates to a little rural Tennessee animal shelter for them to auction off and use the proceeds toward the care for their animals. – Vanessa Russell, Maine.

 

Neil and I made a donation through your website in honor of Pay it Forward for Don Day. We know you will decide where it can be used best. – Lauren Young, Massachusetts.

 

I treated my mom to her first ever Caramel Machiato. Glen has been installing closet supports in 2 bedrooms at my parents house, and cutting back a hugely overgrown fig tree in their backyard, even in the miserably humid weather. – Janelle Klepic, California.

 

Today, in honor of my friend Kelley Lynn creating Pay It Forward for Don Day, on the one year anniversary of the sudden loss of her dear husband, Tails of Joy helped pay for 22 dogs to be transferred out of a Miami, Florida pound, and into a rescue that will heal them and find them new homes. We did the same thing for cats yesterday. Here is the message I left on the Chip In Board: “Thank you for all that you do. xoxo Elayne Boosler, Tails of Joy (in honor of Don Shepherd Pay it Forward Day). – Elayne Boosler, California.

 

I am paying it forward by making a donation in honor and memory of Don and my Mom. They both loved animals, especially cats. I will be donating to Pets Alive in Middletown, NY. Pets Alive saved my Louise and then they placed her in my arms. She came home with us on the day before my Mom’s birthday less than two months after she had passed. – Lori Harvey Sternberg, New York.

 

You said Don loved animals. I believe he sent us one. We found this fledging Canadian Blue Jay on the road, about to be eaten by our cat. The kids named it Bob. He’s taken up residence in our backyard, closely guarded and fed by his parents, and has attracted the attention of every cat in the neighborhood. Every five minutes, we rush out to shoo away a feline so his parents will stop screaming and dive-bombing our deck. Google says this particular act of kindness could last up to 2 weeks until Bob can fly properly. Does this sound like something Don would approve of? You’ve worked your way into our hearts and helped me with my healing through your honesty and humour. In one month, I will be going through the 6th sadiversary from my Michael’s coronary, and Ill be thrown back into THE DAY yet again. I hope I can handle it with as much grace through the pain as you are. We will try to keep Don-Bob safe so he can come back next year and pester the entire neighborhood. – Jennifer Nunes, Edmonton, Alberta.

 

My mom, who will never pump her own gas, asked me to get gas for her car. So on my way home, I stopped at my moms, put gas in her car, and ended up having a glass of wine with her and my brother and chatting away. I know family meant a lot to Don. Also, my girlfriend and I are collecting signatures to help pass the Busters Law Bill. Right now NY has crappy animal abuse laws, but there are a bunch of lawmakers that want stiffer penalties for animal abuse. They just passed the bill to create an animal abuse registry; meaning anyone who has commited a crime to any animal are placed on a list, similar to that of the sex offender list. – Linda Knights Wilkie, New York.

 

As I reflect on this past year, I have learned more about Don each time I speak with Kelley. I knew how much he loved animals, with the pictures shown to me throughout the years. So it was only perfect for my Mom and me to help out some local cats that are up for adoption from a local rescue group for Don’s one year Angel Day. We donated money to the organization, and also spent time playing with them and feeding them treats, which they loved (as you can see in attached picture.) I feel a special connection to this rescue group because I adopted my cat Bella back in November there. After the loss of my cat Mittens in September, I wanted to help another animal in need, so this is something that Don and I have in common. This leads me back to the day of his funeral one year ago. My cat Mittens had been sick and I could not find her that day which was not her behavior to hide, so Mom looked for her all day, but she never came out. Later that afternoon, I saw Kelley  at the services for her husband, and talked for a short time as there are no words that can comfort someone in shock and grief of a loved one. I understand, as I lost my brother and my father within three months of each other, and this new grief journey we are on is forever. So I was concerned about my Mittens and that she was hurt, called my mom, and still nothing.

At the funeral home, I had learned even more about Don through talking with some of his friends, the beautiful pictures of his life with his family, with Kelley and with his cats. I knelt before him and said a prayer for him, for Kelley, and for my Mittens, asked Don if he could please find her and make sure she is safe. So I sat down quietly to reflect on this moment … then my phone rang, and it was Mom and she said Mittens just walked out and she was fine. So Don heard me that day and that was a very powerful moment. After that, Mittens was diagnosed with mouth cancer and she lived a few more months and then passed in my arms. I still think about that day, a day that changed Don’s loved ones forever. So I celebrate Don’s memory in the one connection I had with him, and that is our cats, and will continue to pay it forward everyday for the Love of our Cats. – Laura and Mary Ameruso, New York.

 

I didn’t really pay it forward in the extraordinary ways that I see some others have today. I am in awe of how many people paid it forward in memory of Don today, and I am also simultaneously very sad for the loss of my friend. I had plans for a few weeks to see a good friend who I hadnt seen in about 9 months, which is way too long to go without seeing her. She lives around the corner from my mom, and usually, when I visit this friend, I dont let my mom know because splitting time between them gets complicated. But thinking of Don today, I called my mom this morning and asked her if she wanted to go to the park this evening and take a walk after it gets cooler. I did this because I would like to stop taking for granted the time I have with people on this earth, especially my parents. I know it made mom’s day to spend time with me, her daughter who she can hardly get a hold of unless it’s obligatory – like a birthday or a holiday. I ended up going to her house. She had ordered some Chinese food for me and we sat on the couch looking at my art website on the internet, which was very funny for both of us since I have some pretty crazy stuff on there. I helped her with her computer skills a little, and we chatted awhile. We never did go to the park, but it was nice to slow my life down and spend time with people who I love. So – that is what I did in honor of Don. – Jessica Rowshandel, New York.

 

This isn’t much, but I helped an older lady who was struggling through the precinct. She was struggling to get into the paper shop as she had to climb a couple of steps, so I helped her to the bench opposite the shop, and went inside for her and bought her the newspaper. She was ever so grateful, and it really did put a smile on my face. – Polly Coaker, England.

 

There is this woman that I know that not everyone likes, and nobody wanted to take her to the viewing of my friend’s mom. I thought of you and Don when I drove her there and then back to work. It’s not anything huge, but you were the first one that popped into my brain. Thinking of you. – Asked to be Kept Anonymous.

 

I bought groceries and then took them over to my Uncle’s house. He had no idea I was going to do it. He is 86 years old, and he was very surprised and so grateful. I did this in memory of my own Uncle Donny and his kind nature. – Mark Exlos, Ohio.

 

Thank you so much for inspiring me to do “An Act of Kindness for Artie Day” – a spin on your “Pay it Forward for Don Day.” I wont say Im not sad and I dont desperately miss my husband, but thinking of others and taking the time to post and email the request, plus reading some of the stories, changed my whole day. Im going to do this every year, and every year I will mention you and Don as the reason. – Jan Warner, Arizona.

 

I made a donation to the NJ Organ Donor Sharing Network in honor of Don, and you were both on our minds all day today. – Norma Morrison, Massachusetts.

 

In honor of my beloved brother Don Shepherd, I donated $50 to the House Rabbit Rescue, and spent an hour there with the bunnies, loving them. Due to lots of “bunny hoarding” in our area, lots of rabbits are confiscated, and lots more end up here. They try to find homes for these guys, though many have been here for years. There is a group of folks and vets in the area that donate their time to give medical care, groom, feed, clean the facility, and provide donations to keep these cute little pets alive. Sharing these photos with you from the day, and sending love. – Cynthia Shepherd Poe, Alabama.

 

 

My 86 yr old grandmother is a special lady, and she is an inspiration to me. In honor of Don’s Day, I spent a few hours visiting with her in her living room, which was as much a gift to me as it was to her. In addition, I made a donation in Don’s honor to Tails of Joy. Long before I had a child, I had a dog, who I adopted from the Lowell Humane Society. That dog, Nikki, was the greatest dog and I miss her everyday since she passed away in 2004. Back then, I thought dogs and cats would be my only kids. At present, I have 4 furr-kids and 1 human. The pets have all come from rescue or the streets, and those are the best kind of pets you can have. Please keep writing. You have strong purpose and vision. Please keep asking us to remember Don, and know that your requests are not falling on deaf ears. – Kristi White, Massachusetts.

 

I made a donation on behalf of Don to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Clearwater, Florida. (where Don lived for many years) The Marine Aquarium is home to the Winter Dolphin, and they help protect hundreds of animals and situations throughout each year. Thinking of you, and sitting here emotional at my computer, just like on this day last year. – Dianne Bissonette, Virginia.

 

I had the BEST Friday the 13th – all because of Don Day! My first act of kindness was with my husband at Applebee’s. We decided to give two $20 gift cards to two tables. We picked a dad with a young daughter, and a dad with two young sons. I wrote a note about Don Day and signed them from “Friends of Don and Kelley.” The waitress was not supposed to tell, but she was so touched that she couldn’t help herself. The man with the two boys came to our table to thank us. He said his youngest son had been crying all day because he missed his mom after she moved to California for a new job. They still had two more weeks before joining her there. They had come to Applebee’s to try and cheer him up, and the dad said that our gift card accomplished that, so they were headed home to call the mom. The young son wanted to share the story of Don’s Day with her. We had a nice conversation and walked to our cars together. They were all three smiling when John and I said goodbye, and they thanked us so many times.

I wish we could have videotaped our second act of kindness. So many reactions! On the way back from Applebee’s, John and I stopped at the bank to get 50 one dollar bills. I typed up a short note that explained Don Day, and paperclipped to each dollar with the title: “Doling out Dollars at the Dollar Tree For Don’s Day.” My mom, dad, son Zane, and niece McKenna met me at the Dollar Tree to help me. I had 52 dollar bills and notes ready. We stood in front of the store and the kids gave the next 52 customers dollars, as I explained Don Day to each person. After several dollars, my son started sharing the story too. Many people were leary about what we were doing, even trying to avoid us. Many were teary-eyed and wanted to hear more. Some were just thrilled to have an extra dollar, especially the kids. Several people said they wanted someone else to have their dollars, and they would pray for Kelley and Don instead. One man yelled: “There should be cameras here! This is the kind of thing that should be on the news! What an amazing thing you are doing. Thank you!” Four different people said they used their dollar to buy school supplies for needy children – already paying it forward. (The Dollar Tree was collecting donations for a charity inside the store.) Some shared their own stories and thought Kelley’s idea was amazing and said they would tell others. When we passed out all of the money, we went inside to pick out some school supplies to donate in memory of Don. A little boy came running up to me to show me he had picked out a Thomas the Train puzzle. He was so thrilled, and his mom said he was telling everyone in the store what he was buying with his dollar. Who knew how much happiness a dollar could buy? I do know that we had a lot more than $52 worth of blessings, fun, conversation, smiles, and everything else, thanks to Kelley and Don. My son has decided that every July 13th we will be doling out Dollars for Don Day. This may be our best family tradition yet! – Kelli Renee Williamson Fockler, London United Kingdom.

 

Being a military family, we have faced struggles, but we were unprepared for what awaited us when we finally got a date to leave that life and return home to our civilian lifestyle. Our two dear adopted cats needed a temporary home as we looked for a place to live in our new state, and with our move date fast approaching, it wasnt looking good. The last thing I wanted to do was put them in a shelter. Then I received an email from my sister. My sister who was given up for adoption soon after she was born and whom I had a broken relationship with until only about a year ago. She already has a house full of pets and two children of her own, but in a desperate attempt to find someone who could help, I emailed her my plea. She called almost immediately and said that she would be happy to foster our kitties for us. My heart cried as she said she would never turn me away when I needed help. I just couldnt believe it. We only had ten more days to find them a home, and here she was, reaching out to help us. Despite our broken relationship. Someone had paid it forward for US and our kitties. Don was there to care for them when nobody else was able to. Thank you Don. We will never forget you and your generous heart and love for our kitties. – Jenny Billot, Texas.

 

I was nice to my husband for an entire 24 hours. If you knew our relationship, and how entertained Don was by it constantly, you would know what a huge sacrifice this really was for me. Thinking of you Kelley. – Nancy DiNinno, Massachusetts.

 

On July 13th, I had to work all day, and I work at Macy’s. So, I interact with people all day, we were in the midst of a Summer Hot List Sale, and people were on a shopping frenzy. 90% of these people were unaware that we were offering coupons, as most associates in the store will not offer customers coupons, unless they produce their own. So to help my costumers save money, I offered the coupons. 20% to every single person I checked out that day. People were pleased to know that at least one associate was on their side to help them save some money that day. One customer who was buying outfits for a new job, saved $190 on a $600 purchase. Another great thing happened that day too. An elderly man who only spoke Portugese, needed some assistance in calling a cab to pick him up from the store and back to his hotel, about 20 minutes away. Not only did I call the man’s hotel and explain to the front desk that he was here and doesnt speak much english and is in need of a cab, but I also walked him to the designated waiting area, and stood with him there until his cab arrived safely. Not many Sales Associates would take the time to do that, and I felt good that something that might seem small too many, was a very big deal to this one man’s day, on Don’s Day. – Cassandra Richardson, Georgia.

 

Kelley and I just met a month ago, when she told me she accepted my offer to be roommates. I never met Don, and I dont know Kelley’s family beyond a quick hello, but Kelley has a big heart, is deeply feeling and is very generous with her time, its clear, so I can only imagine Don must have been a true sweetheart. Plus, her parents like country music, which is always a good sign.

I resently took a trip to Boise, Idaho, to see my family. My mother died tragically 5 years ago, and Ive never been very close to my father. We have tried, but the whole gay thing and living out East for 20 years has made it difficult. I didnt want to go to Idaho. I didnt want to see my family. We are not a tight group. My mother was mentally-ill, and, while funny and kind, she was a trainwreck in the making. I decided to go on this trip to pay respects to my mother and work again at forgiving her for all she did. I also went because my father is 87. I have no idea how much longer he is going to live. After I had visited my mothers grave with my father, we went back to his house. He lives in a tiny trailor home on the outskirts of Boise. Its a quiet place he shares with his dog, Gracie, a dog Im not terribly fond of. I swear the dog is possessed with the spirit of my mother. She’s moody, thinks she’s a bit of a princess, and will pee all over the carpet if left alone for more than 20 minutes. My father is ancient now. His fingers are gnarled by arthritis and his feet always ache. I look at his feet and my hands and realize his fate is my fate. His body will be my body.

We stood in the bathroom together, Gracie roaming around, pushing her way into our private moment like my mother would have done. I told him I had come to tell him I love him. I said the only reason I endured an eight hour plane ride is to tell him Im proud of him and thank him for all he did. So that is what I did. I put my hands that look like his hands on the side of his face that looks like my face and I pulled his rigid, frightened and diseased body into mine and I watered into his ear: “I love you very much, Dad. You need to know that.” He let me hold him, but not for long. We pull out of the embrace and he kisses me on the lips, like he used to when I was a little boy. “Remember when I said to you, ‘Straight as a soldier?'” I nod. I do remember. I’d lay in bed at night, my hands at my side, and he’d come in smelling of car grease and faded Aftershave. Old Spice. He’d run his hands through my hair and then shove his hands under my body, slipping the sheet under me, keeping me safe and tight and warm. After he’d leave, having giving me a kiss on the lips and shutting out my light, I’d stay like that for hours, never wanting to move, wanting to remember the feeling of my father keeping me safe forever. My mother was crazy, a whirling mass of chaos; but he was constant. There. Present. Always counted on. That’s something.

“I love you so much.” “I love you too, son.” He surprised me by embracing me again. Later in the day, I pulled away in the car, on the way to the airport. He waved as I waved at him, I knew every moment dealing with anxious relatives and cranky siblings and pain and death and hurt was all worth it. He gave me life. He loved me unconditionally and still does. I am his only son and now, at the end of his life, I can give him my unending love and gratitude for everything he has given me.

I have a photo now above my computer at home. It’s a late summer day. I am two months old and my father is holding me in his arms. He sports a nifty crew cut and a white T-shirt. His eyes are small in profile and I cant see his face except a bit from the slanted side angle, but I look afraid. Scared. I had good reason. But even from a distance, with his face in profile and with the way he cradles me, I can tell I was loved. I was wanted. I was protected, for a time. For this I am grateful more than he will ever possibly know. I was wanted. He made me feel wanted. – Michael Bryan, New York.

 

I am really very happy that you found an amazing way to honor Don today; publicly, privately, alone for yourself, and together with all of us. We decided to honor Don by making a donation to our Zoo here in Basel, which is literally right at our doorstep. Its a small but very nice zoo and they make great efforts to provide natural habitats for the animals. Now what is special about our donation is that we did not just hand over money to the Zoo. Instead, we joined the adoption system of the zoo in Don’s name. From today, Don is the Godfather of a Long-Tailed Finch. He will get a plaque with his name on it, which they will put on a Wall in the Zoo with all the other donors and godparents for everyone to see. The long-tailed finch is a really beautiful little bird that comes originally from Australia. Love and Hugs, Annegret and Marc Eiermann, Basel, Switzerland.

 

So there you have it. A whole lot of people, from all over the place, gathering together, seperately, to honor a man that some of them never even knew. It is inspiring. It is hopeful. It is all kinds of amazing.

In writing this and putting it all together and going through several pictures of my husband to post in here, I cried more than once. I will keep crying tomorrow, and the next day, and for many days to come. I will keep feeling pain, and I will keep living inside of this tornado that has become my life. But to go through this with the new knowledge that people can be this good and this giving and this loving – it makes me want to live, so that I can see more and feel more and BE more. It makes me wonder what might happen tomorrow; because as I learned one year ago; anything can happen. It could be something horrible and incredibly sad. Or – it could be a miracle of epic proportions. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amnesia

If there is one thing I have learned as a student in this new life that was handed to me by force, it is this: I don’t know a damn thing. The Grief Monster is in charge here, and much like Charles In Charge, grief wants to rule “my days and my nights, my wrongs and my rights.” Except this isn’t a really bad TV sitcom starring Scott Baio and an awful laugh track – it is my very real life. Eventually, Charles In Charge was cancelled, because it sucked. This new life I have will never be cancelled, no matter how much it sucks. And it’s also the only show on television. It is on every single channel. I have a broken television that I can never ever turn off, and I simply have to learn to deal with it.

July 13th was the one-year Anniversary of Don’s death. Have I mentioned how much I loathe the phrase “anniversary” when talking about my husband’s death? It makes it sound as if it’s a great big party, or something to celebrate with balloons and cake and ice-cream, instead of the worst day of my entire life. (I’m guessing it wasn’t the best day for my husband either.) I chose to face that day by creating a holiday out of it, and calling it “Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” I asked friends and family and total strangers; pretty much everyone on earth; to do something kind that day for someone else, in honor of my husband’s generous nature and who he was as a person everyday. I also asked them to tell me the stories of what they did, so I could read them, and make “Pay it Forward for Don Day” an entire chapter in my book. My hope was that in creating this type of day, it would not only help others; but also remove the horror of having to sit with and deal with re-living the worst day of my life, one year later, and that I would instead have something hopeful to focus on. Did it work? Yes. And not at all. I still felt shaky and panicky all day on July 13th, and I woke up at 6:43am, the exact time that my phone kept ringing and ringing and eventually waking me up just one year before, informing me of my new, terrible life.

 As we gathered later that night with my mom, my dad, my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Richard, and our friends Cheryl, Thelma and Ron; celebrating Don’s life by eating his favorite homemade chicken parmesan, garlic bread, salad, brownie sundaes, and root beer; I was able to somehow get through the evening. The constant barrage of emails, private messages, texts, and a few phone calls saying: “Thinking of you today”, or telling me an incredible Pay it Forward story, kept my emotional breakdown at bay. But it was still there, just waiting to pounce. The Grief Monster never goes away – he just waits until that one second where you finally start to think: “Maybe Im going to be okay today” – and then he attacks violently and with no warning. He makes your stomach churn and gives you intense headaches that start at the center of your eyeball and pound against your temple nonstop. He gives you the shakes, and that feeling like there’s a brick in your chest, and everything you do is so heavy. Every breath is so thick. You want to explain to people and to earth and to your job that, yes, you are aware it’s been an entire year since your husband died, and yes, you are still grieving. You want to scream to the world that “NO!!! I’M NOT OKAY YET!”, or order them politely to please stop rushing you into the next phase of your feelings. “I’m not ready!”, you want to tell them. But they aren’t listening. They are eating brownie sundaes and laughing in the next room, as you anticipate The Grief Monster’s next  unpredictable move.

And, so, as it happened; my first breakdown this week came about two days later; on the morning of Sunday, July 15th, while still at my parents place. Why? No goddamn reason at all, except that Grief Monster wanted it that way. What happened that day to make me lose my mind and feel stuck on despair? Absolutely fucking nothing, that’s what. I woke up. And sometimes, waking up is more than enough to cause an emotional breakdown. In this case, the term “waking up” is being used rather loosely, since technically I had only slept about 40 minutes. Suddenly, I was sitting up in bed and staring blankly at the wall and the mirror in front of me, as tears slowly moved down my cheeks. I sat there for twenty minutes, or three hours. Silently crying, and not caring enough to do anything about it. I had to pee for a long time, but couldnt make myself get out of bed to do so. It just suddenly, at that stupid, nothing moment, hit me like a tornado. This thought is what floored me: My husband has been dead for one year. It has ONLY been one year. One year living without him. That was just ONE year in a series of MANY years that I will have to KEEP living without him. I have to live without my husband for many years, possibly decades. Forever. He will be dead forever.

That last sentence was like a loop inside my heart, playing over and over again. He will be dead forever. Here, everyone was acting like the one-year mark was some big revolution; like things would suddenly brighten and the skies would open up for me, and I would start to maybe feel a bit less hopeless. Yet, that is not what was happening at all. The one thing going through my mind sitting in that bed on that morning, was that the real hell was only just beginning. No longer in “shock mode”, and no more grief fog protecting me from myself; these feelings have never felt so harsh, so painful, so hurtful. My mom came into the room and tried to be a mom and help me. I should have let her. Instead, I looked right through her, because I couldn’t see. Her pain and my pain and her pain about my pain, and all the pain inside that room was just too much for me to look at. Everything was paralyzed. I couldn’t even cry anymore, at least not volentarily. The tears kept coming, but they were slow and accidental, like a leaky faucet in the middle of the night, just dripping out now and then off my face. I felt like I couldn’t move or didnt want to move. Why should I have to ever move off of this bed? What if I don’t like what’s waiting for me? A life without my husband? Always feeling alone in a room full of people? Dreading each and every holiday and special day on every calendar year? Watching 17 episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in a row, in some crazy, Food Network haze so I don’t have to feel anything real and awful? Drowning my intense pain with mashed potatoes, or stuffing it down with chocolate cake? This is the life I have waiting for me? No thanks. Maybe I will just stay sitting in this bed until it’s time for me to die. Or until my mom informs me that I have to get out of the bed so I can go and babysit my niece and nephew at my brother’s house. Oh. Okay. In that case, I suppose I will keep living. Just for today though. Tomorrow – it’s back to sulking.

Today is Tuesday, July 17th. I woke up feeling physically ill, and that damn headache was back again. I woke up crying. I didn’t want to, or mean to. It was involentary. Stretched, yawned, and cried. Why am I feeling so lost this morning? I put on the news. 96 degrees today, with heat index of 110. Why does that sound like an echo to me? There is a certain smell in the air. It’s the smell of humidity. It’s the smell of something familiar and awful. It’s the same smell that was in the air just one year ago today; the day of my husband’s funeral.

Grief is a fucked-up thing. Everytime you think you are moving forward, it stops you cold. In the days and weeks leading up to the one-year mark of his death; my mind went reeling back to last year at this time. Not only did I re-live the actual day that he died and the horrors I went through on that day; but I also re-lived and questioned all the surrounding days and weeks around that day. When you lose your spouse in a sudden and tragic way; and it happens in a flash; you want to give significance to things that had no significance at the time. You didn’t know he was going to die, so how were you to know that every single thing you did would be the last time you would be doing it? Over the past few weeks, my heart and brain have been on overload, trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle that made up his last few weeks and days on earth. When was our last kiss? When was the last meal we ate together? The last time we were intimate? The last time we hung out with friends? When did we laugh together? When was the last time he strummed his guitar for me? What was our last conversation about? What was the last thing I said to my husband? I honestly have no idea. The night before he died is like a vague cloud of nothingness. It was a typical evening in an ordinary married day. We were both exhausted. He was sitting at this very desk where I type this up now, and he was online and texting to a friend. I was talking to him. Smalltalk. I was watching something on TV. I dont recall what. We talked some more. Or didnt. I dont remember. And then, just like that, it was over. The memory fades. Either I fell asleep or he did or we both did. There was no goodnight kiss that night. There was no goodnight anything. The night just sort of came to an end, and he had to be up at 4:30am the next morning for work. He knew how much trouble I had sleeping, so when he left that early, he would never wake me. And so he left. And he went to work. And while I lay there asleep, he lay collapsed on a Petsmart floor. And then when I finally woke up, his life had already ended.

People ask me all the time how I got through the funeral, or how I wrote and delivered a Eulogy for my husband. Easy answer. I got through it, because I wasn’t really ever there. Physically, I was there. But I was in deep, deep shock at that point; just 4 days after he died. I stood in that room, with my husband in a casket behind me, and I pretended that none of it was happening. I was not able to comprehend the sheer horror of what had transpired, or what was to come. There was a cloud over my head during that funeral, and in the weeks and months afterward. Now – one year later – the cloud has lifted, and I am left with a very frightening reality. It hurts like hell now, and knowing that there is nothing I can do but just “walk through the fire”, as my grief counselor so perfectly put it, makes that pain even more unbearable. There is no running away. No escaping it. The only way out is through. The only way out is through.

So in my state of panic and terror and sadness, I made an emergency call to my grief counselor today. And we talked. And, like she always has a way of doing for me, she gave me a bit of hope. She doesn’t say anything magical , or even “fix” things for me. Because there is no such thing as fixing this. It cannot be fixed. But she tells me the truth, and she does it in a really smart and compassionate way, and that is so much more than a lot of other people do. I told her how for months, I couldn’t remember anything at all about the funeral. It was like a big blank space in my memory. It was the same for my first birthday without him, his birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, all of it. A big, gigantic mass of vague. That is how I got through all of those days – I was protected by the cloud. I told her that grieving feels a lot like being a patient who is recovering from Amnesia; and all of the painful details of important days and events in our life, like his services, are coming back to me now; in flashes. It doesn’t even feel like I am re-living the funeral. It feels as if I am there for the first time. If you asked me 6 months ago to tell you the details of Don’s services, I would have stared at you with fog in my eyes. Now? There are so many things that I clearly remember about the funeral. Things that I wish would go away, things I will never forget, things that a 39 year old woman at the beginning of her wonderful marriage should not have to think about. But here they are, stuck inside of me forever ….

I remember being in the backseat of my parent’s car while they drove us from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and texting back and forth with Opie. He sent me a private message that said: “You’re strong, and you’ll get through today. Lean on your family and friends.” I remember him sending out a tweet to all the fans of their radioshow on Twitter, that simply said: “Our friend Kelley Lynn is attending her husband’s funeral today. Please reach out to her if you can. She will need it.”

I remember shopping with my mom for an outfit to wear to my husband’s funeral, and how strange and terrible and weird that sounded to say out loud. The sales woman asked me: “Anything I can help you with todayyyy?”, in a way too bubbly voice, and I remember wanting to answer, in that same phony way: “Why YES! What goes better with my husband’s casket – red or blue?” I will never forget trying on that cranberry sleeveless blouse, liking it, and immediately thinking: “Don would love this on me.” Then realizing, of course, that Don would never love anything on me again.

I remember how disgustingly hot it was that day. High 90’s, just like today. It was sticky and humid and disastrous. I remember getting there early, and the funeral director asking me if I wanted Don’s wedding ring. He informed me that when my husband is cremated, “that ring isn’t going with him. It belongs with you.” He handed it to me and I kept touching it all day long, rolling it back and forth in the palm of my hand, as if doing so would make all of this go away. I remember the smell of death flowers and awkwardness and pain as I walked into the big main room where he lay there in his casket. The American Flag was draped over half of it, and my husband didn’t look like my husband. His face was puffy. His eyes looked weird. They were not his eyes. They looked swollen shut. His arms were thicker than normal. His hands were placed in an unnatural position that he would have never put them in. He seemed uncomfortable. He had this creepy look on his face. It was a combination of stillness and fear. I remember talking with friends in front of, to the side of, and all around that casket, never once acknowledging it. If I ignored it, then it wasn’t really happening. If I kept telling myself “that is not my husband”, then maybe it really wouldn’t be. I remember bits and pieces of conversations with people, as songs from Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic and the Beatles Abbey Road played in the background. They told me that during the “viewing” portion of the afternoon, I could have whatever music I wanted playing. And that is what Don wanted. Aerosmith.

I remember talking with one of Don’s EMS brothers, Matt, and how shaken up he was and crying. I kept thinking “Why am I comforting HIM? Im the wife and Im not even crying. What the hell is wrong with me?” I recall that when I mentioned how Don looked nothing at all like himself because the Organ Donation people “took so much – he isnt even recognizable”, he corrected me by saying: “Don’t word it that way. They didn’t take anything. Don gave.” Right. He gave. I gave. I gave away my husband, and now he looked like Frankenstein instead of my Sweet BooBear.

I remember everyone sweating, and constantly wiping their foreheads and fanning themselves with anything they could find. My dad asking the funeral director to please turn up the air-conditioning, and them telling us over and over: “It IS up!” I remember being in the bathroom with Don’s good friend Meg before the service, and telling her that I just got “friend” (my period), and how Don would be laughing at me, because he always said that it showed up on the most important days for me. And there it was. Right on time.

I remember so clearly, such small and unimportant details. My dad asking the pastor for directions to the nearest Dunkin Donuts so he could go and get his morning coffee, and how he tried to make me eat a muffin and I just couldn’t. The funeral director asking me which pictures I would like placed on the back of my husband’s casket. The guest book and fancy pen by the door that reminded me of weddings; people signing their names as if this was some happy occasion to remember down the road. The funeral cards we had made up days earlier; me, my mom, and Don’s EMS bosses and managers. We did one that was serious, and one that was silly and funny and that Don would have cracked up at. It said: “Hi. I’m Don. I was here. Now I’m gone.” We only gave that one out to special friends with a sick and twisted sense of humor. In that room, that ended up being a lot of people.

People. There were endless amounts of people. The heartbreak in my friend John’s eyes, the crack in Kevin’s voice, the knowing look from my boss and friend Laura; who had lost her own brother and father only 4 months apart, just 5 years ago. The comedian friends that showed up and made sick jokes and made me laugh inappropriately. Standing in the hallway with Jessica Kirson, Danny Cohen, and Jonathan Fursh; saying that one of us should get up there and “do a comedy set.” The woman who walked up to me and said: “You dont know me, but I know you from the comedy circuit and Facebook. I just had to come here today and honor the love that you and Don had, and the life you had together.” She was, at the time, a complete stranger to me. We hugged, and have been friends ever since. Watching Don’s sister Karen and her husband George walk into the room, after their long drive from Ohio, and thinking to myself: “Don, your sister is here! Come on out here and talk to your sister!” The faraway look in her eyes as she tried to convince me, and herself, that his death was quick and therefore, more peaceful. Seeing Don’s best friend in the world Rob, and his wife Mindy, after driving from Florida to attend the service. Watching as Rob came out in his EMS uniform to honor Don. Watching as all of his EMS brothers and sisters slowly filled up the room, all in uniform. In the back, a whole bunch of doctors and nurses, all coming directly from their shifts and in their scrubs. An entire group of employees and friends from his part-time job at Petsmart, where he collapsed just 4 days earlier. Watching as EMS and Air Force lined the walls and held flags up throughout the service. Feeling my face turn hot as the soldiers and Air Force members kept saluting me, acknowledging me, looking me directly in the eyes as they performed their procedural ceremonies.

I will always remember the beautiful and heartfelt words that were spoken about Don by so many people. His boss Joe, who offered Don a management position multiple times, only for Don to shrug his shoulders and say: “No thanks.” He didn’t want the stress. He wanted to come home to his wife each night and not think about work anymore. Our friend Kevin, whose words were touching and funny, and spoke of the true love Don had for me and my family. Mary, who runs the adoption for kitties center at the Petsmart where Don volenteered his time, telling endless stories of Don’s love for animals. Meg and Don became close friends when they were EMS partners on the ambulance, and her speech spoke of how amazing Don was as a paramedic, and how he made everyone else feel safer. Rob told some great stories about his days on the ambulance with Don, and how they would banter and purposely try to annoy the other. So many words of love spoken. Mine was last, of course, and I barely recall delivering it. The highlight was when one of the Air Force members took a spill and passed out right in the middle of my speech. Does anyone know if there’s an EMT in the house?

I will never forget sitting in that front row, and feeling outside of myself as the Air Force members folded up the American flag, played TAPS, and delivered their touching speech that before then, I had only seen in the movies. A young African-American pretty lady handed me the folded up flag, and she said: “On behalf of the President of the United States of America, we thank you for your service.” I remember my brother sitting next to me, and when I cried, he started rubbing my back. And then there was a line. A long, endless line of loved ones, friends, family, colleagues … all there to say we love you, and his life mattered. The line seemed to never end, and the people kept coming and coming. “We’re sorry for your loss”, as they bent down to my chair and hugged me, then Don’s sister and George, then my brother and Jen, my mom, and my dad. The words continued from many. “So sorry for your loss.” My cousins and their families; my Aunt Ginny; Nicky and his wife Julie; all coming from far away to support me. The faces I went to college with at Adelphi over 20 years ago, all back together in one, horrific place. Holly, Meghan, Kim, Debra, Matt, Vinnie, Rodney, Jay, Andrew … it was so surreal. I remember each time I turned around, there was a new person to hug, another face to look at, a different soul to hear.

 Once everyone had cleared out, they left us alone with Don. I will never forget my mom saying to him: “Thank you for being such a wonderful husband. We love you.” I remember what she said, and have no idea what I said. What do you say to someone that you know you will never see again, who doesn’t even look like themself and is lying there not breathing? There’s not much to say. As I walked out though, my only thought was: “How can we just leave him here all alone?” That simple thought crushed my insides.  When we left the funeral home, I was escorted out and led through men and women in uniform forming a canopy above me with their swords. A long line of Hackensack Medical Center ambulances led the way and formed the most beautiful processional I have ever seen. They took us down NJ streets which were closed off for Don, and we were brought to the nearby Vanguard Healthcare, where Don worked and where we all gathered for after-death refreshments.

At the food gathering, I recall talking to people and mingling as if it were a normal event. As if my husband would join us any minute at his place of work and make some comment about idiot New Jersey drivers making him late. As Sarah and Julio served up gourmet food from his restaurant, and people talked and laughed and drank coffee and soda and ate cookies around me, I really wasn’t getting this. It wasn’t sinking in. I was there. But I was not there. I understood, but I couldn’t possibly understand. I cried tears, but I didn’t feel raw pain. Not yet. And not for awhile. That happened last month, and last week, and today.

 Today – I attended my husband’s funeral for the first time, and finally looked at what was inside that casket. Today, I didn’t turn away. In some ways, today was the worst day of my life, because even though it happened a year ago; this time; I was there.

 

 

 

Eleven

 

:You know how sometimes, after the death of your husband, he comes to you in a dream that is soooo intense and sooo real, you can actually feel or hear or touch or smell him, even minutes and hours and days after you wake up? Have you ever felt something so palpable, so organic, that it stayed on your heart indefinately? No? Me neither. At least, not until last night. Last night – my husband was here. I felt him. This was my dream:

I was inside of a Best Buy, and I was in the movie section and picked up “This is Spinal Tap” and slowly started sobbing; because that is one of Don’s absolute favorite movies. I kept thinking of him always quoting from that, and Caddyshack, and Blazing Saddles. As I was sobbing, a large hand touched me on my shoulder and I turned around. It was Don. He was in one of his favorite shirts; a t-shirt we had bought the very first time I took him to the US Open tennis tournament. It said: “You call that a serve? Take that back to New Jersey!” I didn’t think it was that funny, but he found it hilarious and wore it all the time while playing tennis. Anyway, in the dream, I turned around and looked into his beautiful blue eyes and sobbed even harder. Continue reading “Eleven” »