There is a chasm where the echoes of you resonate
Memories vibrate, resounding up through the depths
Humming, strumming my heart
Orchestrating haunting internal melodies
Sentimental serenades bereft of lyrics
Frequently, the songs are as tender as a lullaby
Tranquil, faint, soothing as a purr
Intimate whispers shadow my perceptions
A fleeting smile or tear offers a glimpse into the hymns
From time to time, the reverberations are flagrant, flamboyant
Visceral concertos of cacophony
The interludes intrude and occlude
Boisterous crescendos, their clamors are deafening
Outwardly silent, inwardly surging, I await their conclusion
Most often, the intrinsic music is my resident accompaniment
Instrumental ballads proclaiming, portraying a bygone life
An opus of a lover pining for an encore
The unfinished symphony plays on beyond the curtain call
Tucked in the upper right corner of my garage rafters lies a box containing an enormous vase. It has earned that spot because it is simply too large for any indoor closet. Scarlet and urn-shaped (an omen, perhaps?) it was a gift from my late husband on a bygone Valentine’s Day. He promised to fill it with roses each year after that. He made it to three.
Guiding like a beacon, it is the first thing I notice when pulling into my home. Sometimes, all I observe is the tattered, dusty edges of the box — how empty that picture of the crimson glass vessel appears. Most of the time, however, I recognize it as it truly is: A loving cup brimming with memories. It all depends on my point of view.
Now here I am, a dozen Valentines since my husband’s passing, without a holiday mandated significant other. Lavish bouquets will not be exhibited on my Facebook feed. No one is sending me sweet love notes this year.
But here’s the kicker — I am teeming with loves just as significant, if not more so, than the adoration of a spouse or partner. And, I bet, my fellow non-plus-oners, you are, too. You just have to recognize them and, most importantly, resolve to take heed of their beauty.
“Only in the eyes of love can you find infinity“ -Sorin Cerin
The Greeks defined eight types of love. Why eight? I’d like to think it’s because eight is the number of infinity. Universal love can’t be comprehended in a single construct.
My favorite synopsis of this Grecian octet is a blog post on the FTD website. I know, cheesy, but good content is good content. Plus, this is a Valentine’s piece, so what the heck.
Here they are, with a little commentary thrown in:
Philia: Brotherly Love. Kindred Spirits. The kind of person who understands that pineapple has no business being anywhere near a pizza, but completely understands why ketchup on tacos is the bomb.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” -Audrey Hepburn
The Greeks never intended for these loves to be mutually exclusive. Like features in a luxurious landscape, they are to be planted together; complementing and highlighting what is sown alongside.
Love is never monochromatic. It can be dappled with a few complementary hues or bursting with psychedelic shades. Your preferences, your environment, help to select the flora.
So Cupid be damned! This Valentine’s I am going to shift my focus to the loves that presently adorn my life, instead of longing for those of seasons past. Like any landscape artist, I am working with the abundance of botanicals presented to me. Hopefully, you find it as breathtaking as I do.
But first, the fertilizer
Ever since my husband’s original cancer diagnosis (on the eve of 9/11 — another omen), one could say my life has been a reoccurring shit show. An endless carnival of freak occurrences and rarities that would amaze even Ripley.
Contrary to the old adage, my shit does stink. Big chunks of putrid stank bobbing in a viscous cesspool. That aroma, believe it or not, is peculiarly intoxicating and addictive. The compulsion to anoint oneself with sorrow’s perfume overwhelming.
But, to my surprise, it is within these piles that my loves have sprouted. Instead of prompting repulsion, these predicaments have fertilized my blessings. They laid the groundwork for my bountiful garden.
Mia famiglia: Storge-Agape-Philia
I used to take for granted my strong, extended family. I’m sure it’s partly due to my Italian heritage, but, to me, it was a given that everyone had one. Only recently, have I recognized my privilege.
My family is voracious in their appetite to make it all better and I admit, I lap up every morsel of their compassion. There is my mother, who bursts in with a month’s worth of homemade ragu and biscotti; her arms laden with bags of herbals and vitamins. Whether the ailment is physical or emotional, she has a supplement for it.
Her maternal might set to 11, my mother will nestle in for days or sometimes weeks to tend to her firstborn. Three square meals a day (always organic) her manna from heaven.
My father, in turn, will drive to the ends of the earth — and Costco — to gather provisions. Tucked within his bags of supplies will invariably be a surprise luxury item (jumbo shrimp, baby lamb chops, juicy rib-eyes) that he and I both adore. It’s a wink and a silent, “I’ve got you covered, honey,” that rings loud and clear in my heart.
Each of my siblings is steadfast as a succulent. A variegated array of devotion, their loyalty never waivers.
Then there is my cousin, who has made it his mission to make me feel attractive even though lately I feel about as appealing as a corpse lily. I know he is at the ready to beat down any dude he feels has done me wrong.
Treasured old friends: Philia-Pragma-Storge
Fortune smiled upon me when it granted me a fellowship of life-long friends. Most budded in elementary school with one germinating in our infancy. Beloved companions for 50 years, they are my roots. We have grown, matured, and endured alongside each other like a redwood forest.
We have experienced the trials and joys of all that life has to offer from youthful shenanigans to the frolics of middle age. Boyfriends, careers, marriages, and births have been our summer solstice. The biting frost of illness and death’s devastation our frigid winters. We have a symbiotic history that grounds and nourishes us. They know and cherish me to my core.
The Posse: Philia-Philautia-Agape
My posse, along with their spouses and children, is my trellis — my backbone. Interwoven with strength and radiance, this sisterhood+ rallies like a fire brigade as soon as a distress call pings our group text. Ever ready for the rescue, they’ve arrived within minutes whenever I needed a lift to an appointment, a toilet unclogged, or gallons of libations to drown my sorrows.
These families have cheered on my children, coaching and stepping in as surrogate parents when my capacity was waning. Even more glorious, they have always included me in their social gatherings. I’m not weeded out as the solo attendee or tolerated as the pity invite. Within this lattice, I am welcomed.
No landscape is complete without a bit of foliage providing an anchor or a touch of flourish. There is the former coworker who has become a dear companion and priceless dispenser of wisdom, the countless clients who unknowingly offered inspiration when I was desperate for validation, and, of course, my two sons who supply me with abounding purpose, pride, and hope.
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” –Henri Matisse
I’ll admit, I still pine for a season of roses. It’s easier to be content with discontent. When the next storm arrives, I have no doubt I’ll find myself, once again, slathering sadness like a warm blanket.
But when that happens, I am equally assured that one of my loves will sprout anew and tenderly wipe the tears from my eyes. My focus cleared, I’ll soon notice the grandeur blossoming around me.
So what is blooming in your garden? Which of the eight loves decorate your landscape? Are you dazzled by their brilliance? Or are you struggling to see splendor amidst some desolation? Are you basking in a verdant meadow or shriveling in a barren desert?
When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother - for me - the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.
Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.
I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.
My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.
Typical Father’s Day Haul
When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.
Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.
After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.
We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off - like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father – a damn good one - I could never take his place.
Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse
It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.
The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.
This post previously published on Illumination | @Medium
It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.
So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.
Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.
Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.
No more talk of darkness Forget these wide-eyed fears*
Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.
I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.
When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense – and my realtor – told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.
You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to – that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden – our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.
It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth – a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford – until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us – to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.
Promise me that all you say is true*
As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.
It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.
All I want is freedom A world with no more night*
Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.
Loving you always,
*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990
This post previously published at Hello Love | The Good Men Project | @Medium
Few things in life are more personal than grief. The only one-size-fits-all premise is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. Since the progression of that process is in a perpetual flux, I find myself commonly exhibiting three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:
The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”
The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.
The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore – attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.
All these types are prowling about, waiting to crash the party, when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was recently discussed in a post on Medium and subsequently featured in the Huffington Post.
What I didn’t disclose, and what nobody prepares you for, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.
The days, often weeks, before are a gradual crescendo. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.
When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling or as uplifting as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, throbbing ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.
But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. Like a burn victim, you need to debride the dead tissue: expose the uncontaminated and living flesh existing underneath the defunct scabs of yesterday. Most of the time, this is a solitary and nerve-wracking assignment. No one else recognizes the necessity.
For those who are grieving, give yourself the time you need to contend with a celebratory challenge. Allot at least 72 hours to endure and not be your customary, post-loss self. If you need more – take it! Don’t berate yourself if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary “timely” manner. Sorrow’s schedule is subjective. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles. Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.
She’s been having weird dreams. Not like the type she used to endure. The ones where she’d wake up in a cold sweat, weeping with grief, with loss — bereft. Unlike the other ones, either. Those she described as “whackadoodle.” A variety similar to nightmares that would occur when she was a child, sick with fever — apocalyptic tales of zombies and morphing faces. A quick Internet search revealed taking Tamoxifen in the evening could be the culprit. Switching to a morning routine solved that problem.
No, these were of a different sort. Not exactly disturbing, but when she awoke she was encompassed by a sense of unsettling curiosity as to their meaning. The premise was consistent. She’s with someone — an unknown acquaintance, an old high school friend — never an individual in her current sphere. They are always about to go out — to the movies, dinner — the destination is never the point. The problem lies in that they are unable to leave until someone joins them. That person is always the same:
Her deceased husband.
“This puts a new twist on the term, ‘late,’” she thought to herself after her last encounter with the dream. She knew her husband would have appreciated the pun. The dreams had been going on for months. In each of them, her dream partners and she are in a state of perpetual expectancy. Her husband is always on the verge of arrival, but never shows. In some dreams, his tardiness makes her anxious. Not worried, just a “Come on! Get here already!” temperament. In others, she is lackadaisical. He’ll get there eventually. She’s enjoying her present company. All of the dreams were underlined with uneasiness.
She rarely remembered her dreams before her personal day of infamy. Deep down, she had always known it was coming, but she had envisioned warning. Like a hurricane, she expected it to start slowly and then build. Forecasters would make their predictions, state that things were looking ominous. At some point they would realize the storm was indeed coming — better secure the household and prepare. It would hit them with full force and bombard their entire existence, but they’d be ready to accept the inevitable. Instead, it arrived like an earthquake, without notice. It shook her suddenly and violently; she felt her brain rattle and bruise. Her foundation cracked, leaving an abyss. It took her quite some time to regain her bearings.
She’s a native Californian. She should have known.
Still contemplating, she realized her morning had a mental soundtrack. Alex Clare’s “Too Close”.
…At the end of it all, you’re still my best friend,
But there’s something inside that I need to release.
Which way is right, which way is wrong,
How do I say that I need to move on?
You know we’re heading separate ways.
She was disturbed by the lyrics echoing in her head. It felt like the dream was remaining, intruding on her waking hours. Was it playing in her actual dream? She couldn’t remember.
You’ve given me more than I can return,
Yet there’s also much that you deserve.
There’s nothing to say, nothing to do.
I’ve nothing to give,
I must live without you.
You know we’re heading separate ways.
Still perplexed and getting annoyed, she went to the Internet to visit her modern day swami on a hill — Google. She entered several variations of “waiting for dead husband to arrive in dream.” The results were more numerous than she had supposed, but none had the answers she needed. All of them went completely off-track by the second or third page. By the tenth page they included “How to get pregnant faster with Bible promises,” and passages from The Iliad. She wondered what babies, faith, and Homer had to do with it before clicking back to the first page. The common theme there was how and do loved ones communicate with those “left behind?”
She had a friend, more than one, actually, who asked her if she talked to her husband. The friends claimed they talked to their dead relatives regularly. Every light flicker, every floor creak, was a sign. A “Hello!” from their departed loved ones. She, however, never participated in such communications. Nor did she believe in them. Heaven, to her, was perfection. Her husband was finally at peace, whole — free from the physical pain and discomfort that haunted him on earth. What good would it do him to witness one of their children suffering an injury? Or to observe her own tussle with cancer? How could he watch the anguish they all felt after losing him? He loved them with his entire soul and being. That wouldn’t be Heaven for him. That would be Hell.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
There’s nothing I can really say.
I can lie no more, I can hide no more,
Got to be true to myself.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.
She was sick of the daybreak disturbances that were now customary. She wanted to awake rejuvenated, refreshed. Instead, she felt pensive and agitated. Where was the promised ending of time healing all wounds? She’d made progress, done all the things they had discussed when they contemplated the “what ifs.” The house was paid off. She was going back to work full-time. Her social calendar was full. Intellectually, she knew that she was doing what was necessary. He would approve, applaud even. Her friends touted her “strength” and “courage.” But her heart (dreams?) would send in sneak attacks attempting to halt her advancement: “Fraud” “Betrayal” “Dishonor” were lobbed like grenades into her consciousness. Occasionally they would be duds. Often they would explode.
“Enough of this shit!” she declared as she shut down the computer.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.
Valentine’s Day, 2014 began like any other day. After all, five VDs had come and gone and I was sure this was going to be the one on which I didn’t cry. No more feeling sorry for myself. This was the year.
Then I saw the Google Doodle.
It started out innocently enough. A lovely illustration of conversation hearts headlined the page this holiday. “How adorable!” I thought. “How charming! I love conversation hearts.” (Yellow is my favorite.) My eyes glided, enchanted, across the sweet sayings of “Crush” and “First Kiss” and settled on the soon-to-be insidious PLAY button on the lower right-hand corner. “Bonus!” I thought. “It’s animated.” Naively, I navigated my mouse over the triangle and clicked, fully expecting the hearts to begin their pretty pirouettes, choreographed to a delightful ditty and magically morphing into a cupid-filled depiction of their illustrious logo. My need for alliteration satisfied, all would be right in Googleville.
That’s not what happened.
Instead a voice, a male voice, starts emanating from my speakers. What’s this? Where’s my syrupy sing-song or powerful piece of classical music? I’m confused. He explains that all the stories I’m about to hear are true. ??? Did I drop into an episode of Dragnet?
Hesitantly, I click on the pink “Mr. Right.” Another voice, this time an older woman, begins to tell the tale of the day after she got married. Worried that she has made a horrible mistake, she sets out on a walk that lasts well into the evening. She arrives home to her frantic husband and soon realizes this is where she is supposed to be. Forty-two years later, she has never had another moment of doubt. As the story is being told, line drawings come and go on the selected heart, animating the dialog. And so it continues on down the line from “First Kiss” to “Puppy Love” to “Blind Date.” Each story heart touching and poignant.
Commence the tears. You know the routine. Small pools form in your eyelids. A quick sniff or snort to try and make them retreat. Deep breaths — and then all is lost. Floodgates are open.
My expectations for the day completely derailed in the first thirty minutes, I began to ruminate over what just transpired. I was doing so well! My grief had evolved into an attribute — no longer my definition. I pondered this self-disappointment all morning — getting dressed, driving to work. Preoccupied, I had forgotten to pack a lunch. Then, in the drive-thru, the revelation struck me — I wasn’t weeping out of melancholy, I was weeping out of empathy. I had been responding to the tender moments of someone’s history. For so long I was pushing and compressing my emotions deep into the bedrock of my being, fully expecting them to fossilize. Meanwhile, my subconscious was constructing a derrick and had begun the gradual and cautious drill into my sentimental reservoir. The Google Doodle was just the final twist of the bit spewing the tears up and over.
I should have seen it coming.
There were hints. The previous summer, I attended a wedding. The bride was the daughter of an old and cherished friend. I traveled to Spokane with another lifelong cohort; the three of us inseparable since childhood. Our bond had survived through countless trials. We were bridesmaids for one another. This was the first wedding for one of our children and it was special.
The big day came and I was composed. No tears expected from me. Heck, I had been to funerals and not spilled a drop. You think a wedding could unsettle me?! Cue the music…
Release the Kracken!!!
It didn’t help the procession music was the love song from Princess Bride, one of my husband’s and my all-time favorites. But what the heck was this?! Hold on second — it’s not just crying — it’s blubbering!!! I wasn’t prepared for this assault. There was no feminine handkerchief in my pocketbook. I struggled for something to sop up the onslaught streaming down my face. Frantically, I grabbed an offering envelope from the pew and cradled it under each eye. Not their intended use, but it was better than nothing.
Completely taken aback, I struggled to make sense of this phenomenon and gain my composure. I had never, ever cried at a wedding. Why now was I bleary-eyed and snot-nosed? But the bride was the spitting image of her mom on her wedding day. In both appearance and mannerisms, she was a reflection of a date more than twenty-five years earlier when all was right with the world. Plus, I had held this wife-to-be when she was only a few days old, a little peanut of an infant. She was our collective first child. There wasn’t going to be enough envelopes to last the weekend.
My dear friend and closest confidante asserts I never stood a chance. “It’s the beginning of menopause,” she explains. “Those hormones will get you every time.” I suppose some of that is true. There could be a biological component bringing on the waterworks. But is that all there is to it? I hope not. That would mean that there will be an end to this epiphany. The change will eventually complete and I will return to being unresponsive and dispassionate. I am finally at a place where I feel it’s safe to express my vulnerability and I don’t want to retreat. I want to feel the sting of raw emotion and be confident that it won’t scorch my soul and turn me to ash. I want to shed a tear and be happy about it.
One of my favorite stories is the one your family used to tell me about the day you were born. You were the third of four, the only boy, in a patriarchal, first-generation Italian family. Your father brought your mother roses; no such gift heralded your sisters’ arrivals. One would think this would create conflict, but it never arose. The family revolved around you as the sun-son of their universe.
You were proclaimed the golden child and that was that.
I wish I could have known you as a little boy. On all those previous birthdays when they would drape a blanket over your shoulders, place you in your highchair and pronounce you “king.” Your mother would make you chocolate cake for breakfast and your father would burst with pride. His son, named after his own father, was growing into a fine young man. Years later, we would continue the tradition and name our first-born after him.
It was the first time I saw your father cry.
I caught up to you when you were seventeen. I was your “Christmas present” from a mutual friend. As we stood under the mistletoe, you pointed out the cheesy stuck-on bow the friend had somehow convinced me to wear. We shared our first kiss—my first kiss. Three months later, when you turned eighteen, we almost broke up. Some friends had called me “jail bait” and it made you apprehensive. Even though no statutory offense had been committed, the thought that you could go to jail for falling in love with me sent you, the son of a detective, into a minor tailspin.
I told you to stop being ridiculous and that was that.
You never really liked your birthday. It wasn’t because most people could never get the date right. Even family members would ask, “Is it the 30th or 31st?” You objected to a day being devoted solely to you. Maybe all those years of being the center of your family’s cosmos had created the aversion, I don’t know. Christmas was more your character. You relished its reciprocity.
We were married by your twenty-eighth birthday; living in our one-story, blue-and-white house you had gallantly purchased. I wouldn’t dare to make you a chocolate cake. Your mother’s was sacred. I made you a special dinner—salmon, I think.
Our first son was born the year you turned thirty. Your father’s age was the same when you appeared. The three of you always delighted in the symmetry.
Our second son came into this world just barely into the month you turned thirty-two. He shares the date with his Auntie, but he shared the month with you. We were never able to grow our family more.
We were complete at four and that was that.
The year you turned thirty-four, you donated a kidney to your father. Some questioned how I could allow you to present this gift to him — your dad, my father-in-law, our boys’ Papa — as if I had any say in the matter. They had no idea that it was my turn to burst with pride at the mention of you. You were left with a fourteen-inch scar to mark the occasion.
We received the call when you were thirty-six, during a late-evening, family dinner. The doctor asked for both of us to be on the line when he related what the tests had decreed. We soon realized that after-hour phone calls would be forever ominous.
Your fortieth birthday was celebrated halfway through your treatment. The month before, your medical court had brought you to death’s precipice, and then cautiously, methodically, brought you back to our realm. Your sister had the honor of cup-bearer, offering her lifeblood for the rite. For weeks you had been in isolation, developing the strength needed to withstand our world’s contamination. The doctors conceded to the momentous occasion and allowed you to go into the garden and bask in the sun as we basked in you. We festooned your wheelchair with balloons and the boys took turns sitting on your lap. You overexerted yourself for our happiness.
Each of the five birthdays after that was precious. Resplendent gems that our hearts treasured. We coveted them, but the golden child was waning and that would soon be
We held your service five months after your forty-fifth birthday. An elite few were chosen to proclaim their tributes and testimonies from the rose-adorned altar. Over a thousand people came to pay homage.
I have very little tolerance for martyrdom. It’s the helplessness and the “feel sorry for me” mindset. I am the first one to say, “Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it, woman!” If I see someone continuously curled up in a ball, my initial instinct is to kick him or her down a staircase. Not my most empathetic attribute.
A little over five years ago, my husband, Matt, died.
There. I said the “D” word. I’m a regular user of all the euphemisms — “passed away,” “the day we lost him,” “left.” There is nothing wrong with any of them and most likely I will continue to use them. It’s just that I have specifically avoided the word DIED. It seems so irrevocable — so harsh —
so … dead.
Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to write this. Why it has taken over half a decade to begin the process of putting on my personal panties and dealing. I always had something else more important, someone else who needed my attention. In retrospect, there is no doubt I erected those “somethings” and “someones” as barricades to protect (obstruct?) my own recovery. These barricades even had their own set of panties: the mother, high-waisted and lacking all femininity; the candy striper, supportive and sticky sweet; and the trooper, camouflaged to disguise any hint of vulnerability. I need to get a new pair. My own fresh and unique undies.
Now — for the first time in my life — I am living alone. An empty-nester. A widow. Single. Honestly, I dislike all labels. I would rather be known by my personality and accomplishments than my “situation.” The situation is whispered about at parties or school functions. Occasionally, I’ll catch an attempt at the discreet finger point. No one introduces me as the Widow Gastaldo, but the title is there. It’s my aura.
Then there are the times that I want to scream it from the rooftops. I want to stand on a stage yelling into a microphone,
“Do you know who I am?!
Do you know what I have gone through?!
SYMPATHIZE WITH MY SITUATION!!!!”
I then consume an entire cherry pie, sit down to watch an episode of Parenthood and sob.
I guess it’s time to dissect and digest these classifications. Empty-nester. When my husband died (there, I said it again) our boys were thirteen and fifteen, in eighth and ninth grade. Resolute to make up for what they had lost, I threw myself into volunteering for their football team, their track team, whatever. If they were on the field, I was on the field. Matt had coached every sport they were in from the age of four and I was determined to continue that legacy. This was the era of the mother and the candy striper. Then the boys went off to college and suddenly high-waisted and sweet didn’t fit quite right. Don’t mistake me; I have never been one to pine for days gone by with my boys. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage of their life as it occurred. Ecstatic for what they have accomplished and what their future brings, #proudmama is my most frequent hashtag. But the nest is unoccupied now. It is too silent. I can go an entire day without uttering a single word. I need a new focus.
Widow. Wearer of the trooper. Most days I don’t feel old enough to have the title. Yes, I am aware of how cliché that sounds, but it is authentic. In my mind, I am that 16-year-old naïve teenager that my husband fell in love with. (High-school sweethearts, another cliché.) I still have years left to achieve and witness much. Other times, I feel extraordinarily ancient. A lifetime lived-and-done-with, begun-and-completed-earlier than most. Then there’s the look the word generates. I hate the look!!! It passes across their face when your situation is explained and people contemplate you like a caged dog in a shelter that needs rescue.
I swear I can hear Sarah McLachlan singing.
Now the worst of all — Single. Ownership of that designation is still difficult, maybe because I did not chose to be single. It was thrust upon me like a lance that I could not avert. Single sounds whole and complete. But I don’t feel whole. I feel hacked, a fraction of what I once was. For better or worse, clichés and all, Matt was my better-half and I was his. We shaped each other into adulthood. He was my seatmate in life’s roller coaster and now I’m the single rider — the extra. Sometimes, I wish people could see the giant scab that runs the length of me and has yet to completely scar and heal. They unknowingly pick at it and would be mortified to find out they do. Yet each time a husband lightly strokes his wife’s back during casual conversation or a wife gives her husband a look that can mean anything, but only he understands, the scab bleeds just a bit. I quickly wipe it away so no one will notice, but the sting lingers. It is the actual physical sensation that NO ONE warns you about and thus you are unprepared. Unprepared for the craving of non-sexual intimacy and chemistry you used to know. A forced detox if you will, constantly longing for the fix of a hug or caress or casual conversation. There are no undergarments for this, only bandages.
So that’s it. That’s the situation. I know I won’t be able to shed these classifications easily or entirely, but a girl has to start. It’s time to remove the roadblocks, resist the urge to roll up like a pill bug and shop for my new big-girl panties. Perhaps I will head to Victoria’s Secret and settle on an eye-of-the-tiger-wonder-woman hipster. Or (gasp!) a thong. If you see me veering towards the clearance rack located in the Aisle of Martyrdom, please take me to the top of the nearest staircase and kick.