Vroom

When I turned 50, I told my husband I wanted to commemorate hitting the half century mark by either getting a tattoo or a motorcycle.

Not terribly original I know, but it was my feeble attempt to keep age at bay, this plan to disguise myself as a badass.

“Then get the tattoo. Because you’re not getting a motorcycle. They’re too dangerous,” was his directive.

My nod to my husband was to choose a Celtic design with three trinity knots. He loved all things Irish (except beer and whiskey) and had a Rain Man fascination with the number three. (Hence why after he died I had to deal with a storage room chock full of tools of every kind in multiples.)

The day we went to the tattoo parlor is as clearly etched on my brain as the tattoo now on the back of my neck. He sat with me during the whole process, watching with fascination as he had done countless times when I was at the doctor’s office getting some minor medical procedure performed.

A few months after he had died, I decided to get that motorcycle. I signed up for the safety course, which was the first step. Then fate (or James) stepped in. I had posted before about Falling off a ladder and fracturing my ankle. Badass plans averted.

I know in hindsight putting that decision off for a year was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I harbored a lot of anger that first year against my husband for leaving me. I was getting the bike out of a “fuck you” spite, knowing he’d hate the idea. I also quite frankly, had a small death wish brewing in my core and wanted to do something reckless.

But when a year had passed, I realized I still wanted the bike but for different, less dark reasons. I’d wanted one since as a 10-year-old, I had come across a glossy, full-page photo of a bright orange Suzuki 750 in a magazine. The time now seemed right, and so I took the class, got my license and my bike (no, not the Suzuki).

Last year, I was on a business trip and somehow during a conversation with my boss, my tattoo came up. I turned around and showed him the ink on the nape of my neck.

“Why would you get a tattoo that you cannot see?” he asked, clearly puzzled.

“Oh, I know it’s there.”

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Stag nation

One study reveals that almost two-thirds of people who resolve to get healthy and fit in the new year give it up.

I’m not surprised by that at all. Following the excesses of the holidays, there is a certain “buyer’s remorse” over all of the bacchanal behavior we gave no thought to while immersed in the season of oversharing, overeating and overspending.

My first Christmas without James was hard, but had been made bearable by the distraction of starting what I’d thought would be my new tradition of going to a yoga retreat on December 25th. This past year, I missed my chance and so ended up doing a lot of emotional hand-wringing at home.

However, now as I approach the cusp of a second year without my husband, I do note small changes in the way I am starting to act and think. For one, I don’t cry hysterically every day. I think of him and get misty eyed, but don’t always give way to the loud, braying sobs that even surprised me (are those sounds coming from me, really?).

I am also fed up with my physical state of inertia. I work from home in front of a computer, and so don’t move nearly enough. This is starting to lead to a lot of aches and pains that I realize, could become my way of life. I’ve suffered through plenty of emotional pain over the past two years. I don’t need to add another scoop on top of my teetering, metaphorical ice cream cone by becoming physically limited.

In their book “Modern Loss” Rebecca Signer and  Gabrielle Burkner list out nonsensical words that describe some of the various side effects of grief. The most apt to this post is “Kummerspeck.” The German word “kummer” for grief or loss with “speck” for layer of fat. Therefore, “grief bacon” or the weight gained after a loss.

So I am one of the millions who has started 2018 by kicking off a healthier regime of exercise and making smarter food choices (oy, my knees from the leg kicks!). We all know intellectually what we need to do to make ourselves feel better, but amazingly we fight it all the same. For me, it marks what I hope is the beginning of the end of a two-year pity party. I’m not saying I’m not still sad every day, and I still face the future with dread.

But it’s a step away from stagnation.

Set seasons

We all seem to remark more and more that there are no longer set seasons in the year.

In New England, winter can physically start in October or late December. We may get a few months of spring-like weather, or it could skip right over into the dog days of summer. Global warming is invariably blamed. Me, I have the totally unscientific view that Mother Earth just likes to mix things up sometimes and throw us off balance. Let’s face it – our time on the planet isn’t even a blip on its timeline radar. This chunk of rock will continue to shift and evolve long after we’ve turned to dust.

I bring this up because I see an analogy between the unpredictability of the seasons with each person’s journey with grief.

My oldest sister Anna recently passed, and I marvel at my brother-in-law. He was married to her for 50 years, and there truly was no greater love story. But instead of wallowing in a solitary disconnected state, he jumped in his car the day after the funeral and drove three hours to Tennessee to spend a week with his sisters and extended family. A few days after returning home to Ohio, Joe boarded a plane (by himself for the first time) to spend the Christmas holidays with my nephew Harvey’s family.  He didn’t really want to be away from home that long, but we all gave a collective sigh of relief that he would not be alone during the horrible first holidays.

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Anna and Joe Golden

I don’t know if he was able to do this because he had known for months that Anna was dying and so had time to mentally prepare, or if he is just made of different stuff than someone like me, who still can’t face the holidays with others. Granted, my husband’s death was a surprise, but I don’t want to dilute how hard it must be for Joe.

Many self-help books compartmentalize grief into manageable chunks. I think Elizabeth Kubler Ross started it all with her five stages of grief. For many, it’s actually as erratic and messy as a slush-filled street.

Joe’s life is now leaving the cold, somewhat dormant winter as a long-time caregiver and entering an unending season of spring. Not the hopeful, flowers are everywhere renewal, but the “Oh, it’s sixty degrees today and sunny,” but then the temperature drops and a late snow kills the too eager crocuses which had sprung up their delicate heads from the semi-frozen ground. The unpredictable time of life when you don’t know whether to wear a light jacket or a snowsuit, keep busy and distracted or stay home and hold yourself a much-deserved pity party.

“Can I handle the seasons of my life?” Landslide by Stevie Nicks

I admire my brother-in-law for his outward stoicism, and sometimes feel a little ashamed that unlike him, I collapsed like a house of cards after my loss.

But then I remind myself that we’re all different. Not just in appearance and temperament, but in our ability to handle the unpredictable seasons of life.

A case of the onesies

In the South, you don’t go grocery shopping; you go “tradin’.”

And those four-wheeled caged contraptions you push up and down the aisles to transport your goods out to the car are not shopping carts, they’re called “buggies.”

I am sure those terms date back to a time when you did barter and trade for food stuffs, and carried them off in horse and wagon.

And did you know the average shopping cart weighs 70 pounds, and some sources say more than 2 million are stolen from store parking lots every year?  Useless, Cliff Clavinesque points for sure, but I was thinking recently about my first trip to the grocery store after James had died. You would not think such a mundane chore would turn sinister and heart wrenching, but it had.

James loved to shop.  It did not matter if it was for yogurt and chicken salad or washers and batteries; he simply loved to purchase things.  (Yes, this did become problematic at times, given our middle class budget.)

But that first trip post-James.  Oh, it was hard.  We generally went grocery shopping together, since he liked it so much.  I would grow impatient as he insisted on going down almost every aisle, even though we generally shopped around the perimeter – meats, vegetables, and dairy.  He could stand in front of the yogurts for what seemed to be hours, making his selections for the week so very thoughtfully (blueberry? cherry? Chobani™ or Noosa©?).  It was maddening.

But back to that first trip.  What struck me as I walked into the store was the music.  Songs take on a different meaning after you go through a major heartache- we all know it’s true.  “First Time Ever I saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack was playing.  I had always associated that song with my friend Pam, who sang it to her husband on their wedding day decades before.  But as I said the meaning of things change.  It was all I could do to keep from throwing myself onto a pile of cantaloupes and wailing.  (Major clean-up in aisle one.)

Out of habit I approached the deli counter but then remembered he was the one who ate the fruit & nut chicken salad, not me.  I practically jogged past the yogurts, my heart in my throat.  They truly seemed to mock me.

puzzleAnd when I rounded down the frozen food isle, starting to feel blessedly numb as an Eggo waffle, I spied an elderly woman coming toward me in the opposite direction.  She had “the ones,” in her cart.  One potato, one small container of cottage cheese, one of this, one of that.  It was like I’d been slapped up the side of my head by a rogue wave of salt water.

“That’s me now,” I wept into the phone later to Pam, whom I had called for consolation.  “I’m the old widow woman who only buys one of everything!”

Of course, it has gotten better.  I can grocery shop now without turning it into a Norma Desmond production.  I have learned how to adjust and feed the body.  I just have to learn how to adjust and feed the soul.