Notes on Grieving: You Can Go Home Again

It is summer, 1996. Bernice and I are driving her stuffed-to-the-gills Tarus on our way to our new life in Phoenix. After an interminable drive through flat-ass, farm-riddled Kansas we had holed up at the Tucumcari Holiday Inn. We arrived there after dark and set our alarm for four bells next morning. It was still dark when we drank our fist coffee on the road. Since we are both from the midwest we were still feeling like we had been driving forever without getting anywhere. That was about to change.

As the dawn broke slowly we peered out at some pretty errie structures. Nothing new about that, cornfields and barns and silos can look pretty eerie in the pre-dawn. But as the dark gave way to light and color we found oursleves driving straight into sunrise on the Sonoran Desert. The world had changed before our eyes. At first we could only marvel at the outrageous bolder configurations, the red desert clay and the “Wow, would you look at those monster (Sajuaro) Cactus.” It was serendipitous that Bernice was driving becuase suddenly I was hit with a zolt from the past. Suddenly I am seven years old the summer before my dad died. He is telling me probably the last story about his time out west as a young man. As I listen to him I’m daydreaming about being a cowboy just like he was. The boy is now a fifty-four years old man who has harbored the dream of moving west forty-seven of those years. “Baby,” I said through tears, “this may sound strange, but we are out west and I feel like I’m finally home.”
My life partner, Bernice Betty Wagner, died on February 17, 2011. I am in my thirteenth month of grieving. In my journey I have not yet become whole, but I have changed. I recently attempted to describe this change through a letter to a woman I met in one of my grief counseling sessions. She had recently lost her mother. Through talking to each other about our losses, we became friends. I have her permission, as well as that of my two good friends Paul and Deanna, to share this letter with you.
Dear Teena, 
Just got home from my jeep ride through the Tonto National Park with Paul and Deanna. Thought you’d like to hear the story.
As the jeep rambles over daunting terrain, Paul and Deanna are like the kids in Jurassic Park when they saw their first prehistoric creatures. They, P & D, marveled at the dense desert foliage and the other-worldly rock formations. They kept asking, didn’t I think it was striking, awe-inspiring. Later we sat outside their camper and watched the sunset. Again the questions, didn’t I think it was spectacular, could there be anything more beautiful than the sun disappearing behind a pristine desert horizon. I responded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. But my mind was elsewhere.
It was just last summer (2011) and I had driven up to Flagstaff to spend a couple of days hanging with my writer friend Dan who had found means to escape the valley heat, a cheap hotel with a hell of a view of the San Francisco Peaks. I mention this because Dan was doing a lot of self-congratulatory expositories on his cleverness, beating the heat, getting a steal on the motel rooms, landing us a view that would rival any in the state.
First chance I got I wandered off alone, surveyed the mighty mountains, the more immediate pine forest, and the quaintness of Flagstaff from the edge. It all looked like the set of an old “B” western movie gaudily dressed in technicolor. For fifteen years, Bernice and I roamed the state in a mad love affair with its mountains and deserts. Standing in the motel parking lot in Flagstaff, I simply could not remember what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t jaded. I was grieving. Love of a person, love of a place-when one is gone the other follows leaving hurt and apathy in the wake.
Not that I didn’t appreciate Paul and Deanna’s enthusiasm for the Park. It was the type of reaction that Bernice and I always expected when showing our guests the grandeaur that we lived in. It just that I was hearing them and not hearing them. Feeling them and not feeling them. Sharing and not sharing. My emotions were coming from the same source and not the same source. They reveled in the finding of this world, I reveled in returning to it. It has been so long since I could appreciate my land, my state, my home.
I stayed for dinner and we talked the evening away, telling of our struggles, laughing at our foibles. Paul is every bit as irreverent as I am. Deanna keeps him in line, more or less. They compliment each other. I love them and cherish the time I spend in thier company.
As always, thanks for listening

Notes on Grieving: The lighter side of grief

Two guys girl-watching at a party
First Guy: What do you think of that tall redhead over there?
Second Guy: Not bad. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers.
First Guy: Crackers maybe but I’m telling you pal, you better draw the line at popcorn.
One of the most difficult challenges facing any of us who have lost a spouse or a life partner is what to do about the bedroom. It is half empty now and so is the bed we may have shared for many years. The precious intimacy of this shared activity is no longer available to us. So what do we do, sell the house, redecorate the bedroom, buy a new bed set? And how do we get through the night, sleeping pills, using only our half of the bed, sleeping on our partner’s side?
Or, like me, do you avoid the bedroom altogether and sleep in another room. Any course you take will become a part of the larger process of coming to terms with your grief. No two people grieve alike and time is often not as helpful as we hope. I am a year into the process. I have no solutions for your bedroom or any other part of your grieving. What I can do is share a concept and a story. The concept is simple, laughter is good for you. The story: Save me from the Black Hole! 
For months after Bernice passed, I couldn’t sleep in the master bedroom. I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being there beside me. I closed the door, permanently for all I knew, and set up camp in my office, which is equipped with a futon.
I thought I might stay on the futon forever. I had a good routine. Just sit in front of the computer until my eyes cross, then roll the chair over to the futon and flop. I’m ten feet from the guest bathroom and equidistance from the kitchen and the living room.
But as time passed I began to think about regaining control of my life. Moving back into our bedroom would be a good start. By this time I’ve been in and out of the bedroom several times but never the bed. The bed is the key, I thought. Climb back into the bed and get your life rolling again.
What you need to know about the bed is that, though low to the floor, it contains more mass than a Black Hole in space. When made up it appears flat, but closer observation reveals a slow moving flotilla of crocodiles. The bed is so big you could host an entire Tea Party on it. In fact, if I still have this barge when my Super Bowl XLVI party rolls around I’m going to use the bedroom for overflow, throw a tarp over the bed, prop up a dozen pillows and sit up to five guests in front of our 40” plasma TV screen, with snacks and drinks. 

That is if the Bed doesn’t get me first. On my very first night back in the Bed I felt a malevolent presence. That presence has grown so powerful that I now believe it can cast spells, summons tornadoes, and even evoke the forces of outer space. Every night going to bed I fear for my very life. And yet I can’t sleep elsewhere. Nothing will have me, not the couch not the Futon. The spell of the Big Bed.

The only thing I have going for me is my mother wit. I know how the Big Bed’s evil force works; it turns my bad habits against me. Example, I employ a sleeping strategy that I call the Pitch and Pile. Pitch the sheets and blankets back and pile in. No problem. But Piling out, that’s where the forces of the Black Hole come in. As you know when an object such as a spaceship or a planet approaches the Black Hole Event Horizon the object is sucked in never to see the light of day again. I seem to be immune to the sucking in but nothing else in my little world is safe. I have lost socks, underwear, remote controls, novels, several sports pages, and a bunch of small change from my pocket. 

Piling in I bulldoze the covers over to make room for myself, then I grab any piece of bedding I can and pull it over me. But the Big Bed uses this constant pulling of random bedding towards me to create a tornado that won’t dissipate until every object on the bed is swirling around me and settling to the bottom. Soon the foot of the bed is thicker than a python and I can’t straighten my legs out.

Night before last my legs became the attack point for an assault that almost put me in the hospital. I suffer from leg cramps, specifically my calf muscles. Hardly a night goes by I don’t have at least one calf cramp, a cramp so painful that in the past I would wake up screaming, much to Bernice’s dismay. She is a light sleeper in the first place. Fortunately I have discovered a remedy: roll out of bed onto your feet and just stand there. The faster you roll out, the less pain you endure. The cramp will immediately release its iron grip, you shake it off and back to bed with you. But not if you have pulled-sheet-and-rolled one time to many, resulting in you being wrapped like a mummy.

When the cramp hit I didn’t scream because I knew I could easily take care of it. Only this time I can’t separate my legs to initiate the roll off. Now I’m screaming. Not only am I in pain but I’m doing a claustrophobia freak-out. In desperation I raise my lower half high above me and swing away from the bed with all my might. My upper body gets jerked along and I literally fly to attention. It’s like landing a jet liner; the first hit is just a bounce. And that’s what I did. I bounced once and flew head first into the adjacent wall. Knocked myself out. When I came to I was still mummyized but I couldn’t fight it any more. Wait for daylight to sort the mess out.  

Last night I’m watching the New York Giants whip the Green Bay Packers on my 40” plasma TV screen in the bedroom. I make some microwave popcorn, throw it in my big red plastic popcorn bowl, grab a beer, prop a pillow and bulldoze in. I was asleep before half-time.

Typical for guys my age, nature calls in the middle of the night. In the process of untangling myself from the sheets my hand brushes against a strange object. “Oh no. Oh please no.” I’m tapping on the overturned popcorn bowl. I feel around and my hand is rolling over layers of uneaten popcorn. 

 The next morning I have no choice but to strip the bed. Even I can’t sleep in a bed full of popcorn. The big kernels were easy to remove but the husks and the unpopped kernels clung like blood tics to the cotton fitted sheet. It was so bad I had to grab a broom, step up on the bed and sweep like an Olympic curler.

The Big Bed made its point. Get a new bed or die.  Something between an army cot and a queen. And tall enough I don’t need help getting out. Does anyone out there have a friend in the furniture business? 

Notes on Grieving: First Timers

One of the hardest things for anyone grieving for a loved one is to face the “first timers”:  the first birthday, anniversary, holiday, family gathering, or annual event without your loved one. In Reflections on a Happy Birthday I shared my experience with Bernices first birthday since her passing. I have just experienced my first Thanksgiving without her. For other people many holiday “first timers” are around the corner. These are tough times and I have no advice for anyone facing them.

I would like to share something that has helped me, and that is to focus on other people who are also going through the greiving process. This Thanksgiving was the first time in years that Bernice and I had not spent this holiday with her daughter and grandson. I was invited to her daughter’s new home and would have attended if I hadn’t committed to Thanksgiving Day in New York with my daughter Brett and her BFF’s family. But even amidst the bustle of food, kids, drinks and football, I found myself wondering how all Bernices family-daughters, sisters and grandchildren were coping with her absence on this day. It didn’t make me miss her any less, but I think it helped me get out of myself and try to enjoy the day.

I have also been able to focus on other families. The headline in the Sports Page of the Arizona Republic this morning (12/4) read Sunday Showcase: Sally Meyerhoff Remembered. Sally, pegged for greatness as a marathoner and a tirathelete, died on March 8, 2011 after her bike collided with a pick-up truck. Of course I and the entire Arizona running communty were shocked at the news. But shock has a way of wearing off. When I read the tribute today I was drawn to the reactions of her family, especially her parents. As I read thier quotes and statements I found myself thinking between the lines, what it must be like to lose a child so young with so much potential for inspiring others. And also thinking about how many “first-timers” they will face.

Much like the parents of Arizona football great Pat Tillman, Sally’s  parents have created the Sally Meyerhoff Foundation to honor Sally and to give back to the community through helping athelets in need. Having already committed myself to raise funds for the Tillman Foundation, I’m thinking perhaps the best way to support the Meyerhoff Foundation is to do the first Sally Meyerhoff 5K Run this coming Saturday (12/10).

Whether it is experiencing the apprehension of “first timers” or just the day to day pain of loss, I believe it is mportant not to feel alone.  Perhaps getting beyond our feelings by honoring our loved ones and supporting others who are doing the same can alleviate this anxiety and sense of aloneness.

RFYL would like to hear your thoughts.