Monthly Archives: August 2013

Speak softly, love

Kevin liked to say he waited a long time to get married because it takes a while to find a girl who will let him have The Godfather at the wedding.

I was that girl.

I sang Speak Softly, Love for him as we lit the unity candle. He never knew there were words to the love theme of The Godfather. But there are and I found them and it was my gift to him that day.

Speak softly, love, so no one hears us but the sky
The vows of love we make will live until we die
My life is yours and all because
You came into my world with love, so softly, love

We were so happy. So in love. The formality of the ceremony couldn’t keep us apart. We laughed and talked quietly and entwined fingers and arms at every chance because we couldn’t bear the inches that separated us on a day that joined us forever. The music swirled around us, the lyrics lingering as the minister prayed for health and happiness and long years together.

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The doctor stopped me in the hospital hallway on New Year’s Eve and the soft-colored walls and carpeted floors couldn’t mute the sound of his words because I still heard the fragments: “counting time in months” and “less than a year” and “I’m so sorry.” When we were finally home and watching the ball drop in Times Square, I dropped to my knees and cried in my husband’s arms and he promised me that he wouldn’t die. Not this year.

Two weeks later, we sat in the social worker’s office at the cancer center and listened to her explain disability and Social Security and forms and deadlines and then a question about our anniversary, except she didn’t come right out and say it because when you’re dying, no one reminds you that death sits silent in the room with you. And I must’ve startled because Kevin reached out for my hand and squeezed my fingers and he reassured me, “Of course I’ll still be here for our anniversary.”

So we got back to living and I circled the date on our new desk calendar, with the oversize boxes to mark the busy-ness of life. I marked it Anniversary #10, the letters inking his promise to be here. It’s on the calendar — in ink — so it has to happen. He will be here and we will wake up with kisses and “I love you” and the sickness won’t scare us because we’re together, for better or worse.

‘Til death do us part.

We were married just less than ten years.

I cried when I ripped away July and the empty expanse of August stared up at me, with only the reminder of our anniversary marking the page. The boxes quickly filled with appointments, life moving me closer to the day that I can’t celebrate this year. I should be shopping for a tin anniversary gift to give him, and teasing Kevin for his appallingly bad attempt at pronouncing “aluminium” with a British accent, even as I search eBay and Etsy for a pendant necklace that fit this anniversary’s gifting criteria. There should be a chocolate pie in the refrigerator and bags packed for a weekend away with our daughter.

Instead, I’m feeling numb, worn out from the dream that haunted my sleep last week. I dreamed Kevin came back, wrapped me in his arms and gently chided my disbelief: “Of course I came back, baby doll. Did you think I’d miss our tenth anniversary?”

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I watched our wedding video earlier this week because I think it will hurt too much on our anniversary. I smiled at my nieces and their toddler antics as they tossed flowers along the aisle. I laughed out loud as I watched myself turn to Kevin and say, “Look at me” and he mouthed back, “I can’t” because he was fighting emotion and trying to compose the tears of happiness bright on his cheeks; and I pulled him closer and our heads touched as I discreetly handed him my great-grandmother’s handkerchief, the “something old” I had wrapped around my bouquet. I cried as I watched us promise everything to each other and dance up the aisle with stupidly happy smiles, love spilling everywhere.

And through my tears, I heard echoes of Don Corleone:

“Well, there wasn’t enough time. There just wasn’t enough time.”

We did not have enough time, Kevin, but death cannot stop my love. I love you. Happy Anniversary.

I found him whom my soul loves. Song of Songs 3:4

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An Unfamiliar Road

Coming home from Kevin’s hometown, there is a stretch of interstate that is perfect for napping and, when Kevin was alive and behind the wheel, that’s what I always did for the first hour of the three-hour drive. We’d settle the Bear into her carseat, hand her some quiet activity, then head out. Outside city limits, I’d make it about three miles before I dozed off in the passenger seat, head lolling uncomfortably against the door frame. If Kevin braked suddenly or switched lanes quickly, I’d startle awake and hastily close my sleep-open mouth…then doze back off.

We’d been doing this for so many years, it became routine. A quiet, peaceful car ride. No hurries, no worries. Then one Sunday afternoon, Kevin switched lanes quickly, I woke up suddenly…and nothing looked familiar.

I looked at the billboards whizzing by and all of them were for attractions beyond the exit we should’ve taken. I yawned and asked, “Hey, where are we?”

From the back seat, a little voice piped up. “I was about to ask that, too, Mama. This scenery does not look usual.” And she would know. It’s no joke that Kevin and I relied heavily on her amazing ability to remember absolutely everything. Her brain maps experiences in a way that I will never understand, but am totally in awe of.

So now it was the two puzzled girls against our one Daddy Bear, who was starting to look around curiously himself.

“Well, we’re…um…you know…we’re almost to the exit, I think. Should be just ahead.”

At that moment, I saw a sign and I actually snorted in laughter because it was so obvious we were well past our exit and on our way to a town far off our route. “Kev! Did you see that? You missed the exit! How could you miss the exit? You’ve been driving this road forever!”

His ears were bright red and he put up a feeble protest, but clearly he’d been daydreaming while I was sleeping and the only one paying attention was the kid in the backseat. He sheepishly drove another four miles to an exit where we turned around and finally got back on the right road. Believe me, the Bear and I teased him ruthlessly all the way home. There were two more exits to take and at each one, our lovable tyke, always up for a good joke, instructed, “Okay, Daddy. Here’s where you need to turn now. We don’t want to get lost again.” He took it so well – he always did.

I didn’t nap on the way home this weekend, because it’s me behind the wheel now for the three-hour trek home. My daughter watched the clouds and listened to music and suddenly, as we approached the first exit, broke the silence.

“Hey, Mama,” she giggled, “Remember when Daddy drove too far? He got us lost! And you woke up and didn’t know where we were? And we laughed and laughed? That was funny!”

It wasn’t until later that night, when I couldn’t sleep, that her words came back to me. Because sometimes it feels like that’s what still happening to me. I’m waking up every morning, but I don’t know where I am. The scenery is unfamiliar; the billboards don’t make sense. I can’t make out where I am or what I’m doing, but I know one thing for sure: It’s not funny. It’s wrong and I feel lost. It’s hard not knowing what the next part of my life is going to look like. I don’t like the fact that I can’t just head for the next exit and get off this road; there’s no turning around now, no going back to the familiar drive of my life with Kevin.

I keep moving though, on this new road without him, and every now and then I see a billboard that says Happy Moment or That Made Me Laugh or Find Joy and I look at my daughter, traveling faithfully beside me, and I know she and God are with me on this journey; they will not let me get lost in my grief. They are guiding me, telling me where to turn, how to find joy.

I just have to keep going.

A Bowl of Joy

I read somewhere that in every Seinfeld episode there are anywhere from nine to twelve, or more, boxes of cereal lined up on Jerry’s shelves. I love that little fact because it reminds me of Kevin.

Cereal wasn’t his favorite food ever – that honor would be a tie between pepperoni pizza and filet mignon – but it was his favorite snack. There were at least two or three boxes of his cereal on the top shelf in our pantry. Rice Krispies, Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, Fruit Loops. The flavors varied, but Kev followed one hard and fast rule: No “healthy” cereal – it pretty much had to be something a ten-year-old boy would eat, with any relation to corn or oats far, far, far removed from its present incarnation, and completely processed with as much sugar and artificial flavor as possible. And he ate it out of a large serving bowl; regular bowls couldn’t handle the tsunami of milk he poured over his treat.

If he had trouble sleeping in the nights before we found out his restless leg syndrome was linked to the massive tumor growing in his colon, he’d get up for a midnight snack (and a few minutes of The Godfather) and I’d find an empty bowl in the kitchen sink the next morning. In the days that followed his colonoscopy and surgery, and during the endless weekends of chemotherapy, a lot of foods didn’t taste good or wouldn’t stay down – but a big bowl of cereal remained his steadfast friend. When a local store temporarily stopped carrying his favorite Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, I scoured two nearby cities for as many boxes as I could find. Nutritious? Not exactly. But it was a food he craved and after watching him fight through chemo’s debilitating nausea over and over and over again, I would’ve driven twice as far to find it for him.

The other day was hard and I don’t really know why. A lot of little things finally added up, I guess. I felt like I was crying or on the verge of crying all day. I knew August would be difficult; it’s the month we had our first date and, a year later, our wedding. Some of the busyness of the paperwork that shadows a death is nearly over and now that I’m not filling in blanks on another form, a million thoughts of Kevin crowd my head. Some of April’s numbness is wearing off, and I feel fresh pain as I’m starting to realize the last four months haven’t been just a bad dream. He is really gone.

I know seeing my tears is hard for my daughter, my baby sweet who only wants to hug away my sad. She wants so badly to take my grief on her seven-year-old shoulders. But she’s struggling to process Kevin’s absence herself and that’s so challenging for her, with her straightforward, matter-of-fact expectations of the world. She perceives things so differently, but she feels emotions so deeply and some of those tears and fears are swelling up now. I see it and I’m thankful that I’ve moved to a place in my own grief where I can really help with hers…but mostly I wish that I could just take that pain from her.

So when she wandered out of bed at 9 o’clock that night, I didn’t send her straight back down the hallway with a stern admonishment to go to sleep. What actually came out of my mouth surprised us both:

“Hey, want some cereal?”

A grin like you wouldn’t believe lit up her face.

“Now?!” she asked incredulously and I carried her to the kitchen, where we clinked spoons over two bowls of vanilla almond Special K. She kept looking at me, her Kevin-blue eyes sparkling, giggling like we were on some big secret adventure, and finally asked, “Is this really happening, or am I dreaming up this cereal party?”

We sat there, cozy in the little breakfast nook, her cold feet pressed against my legs, milk dripping from her spoon on its precarious voyage to her mouth. I told her how Daddy liked to eat cereal as a midnight snack and we laughed and shared “Remember when?” stories about Kevin and I couldn’t let that magic end. I carried our empty bowls to the sink, then turned back to her. I know she was expecting me to now hustle her off to bed, but there were bubbles of joy in the air – something we’ve been missing so much lately. I couldn’t let it go…not yet.

I scooped her up on my hip, her long legs dangling to my knees. “Monkey hug,” I instructed and her arms tightened around my neck and her legs cinched around my waist. I hauled my Baby Kev monkey-bear to the front room and laughed at the astonished look on her face as we settled into Daddy’s recliner and I picked up our book to read another chapter.

When I finally tucked her back in bed, both of us brimming with happy and contentedness over the unexpected late-night caper, tears welled in my eyes when she murmured, “I’m going to remember this night forever, Mama.” She sighed, clutched her Dora doll tightly and rolled over to sleep.

Me, too, baby bear, I whispered and pressed another kiss onto her cheek.

I don’t know if Kev was acting as my Jiminy Cricket that night, sitting on my shoulder and showing me the way to a moment of joy our daughter and I so desperately needed, but if he was, I’m so glad I listened…and offered cereal instead of censure.

I’m Not Okay

Sometimes, when I’m out running errands, I tense up inside when people I know approach me. I start talking about things like the price of bananas or the unseasonably cool weather because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t get a conversation started.

“How are you doing?”

I know it’s a social courtesy and I know it comes from sincere concern, so I don’t blame them for asking, but it’s not a question I can answer easily. (And, absurdly enough, I always hear Kevin’s voice imitating Joey Tribbiani from Friends: How YOU doin’? Complete with sly wink and raised eyebrow. That still makes me smile.)

The truth is I don’t know how I’m doing. I mostly feel empty, disconnected from the life that is happening all around me, from birthday parties to back-to-school shopping. Every day, I am drifting farther away from the life I loved and shared with Kevin, floating toward some new life I’m supposed to create for my daughter and me without him. We’re in between worlds, trying, but nothing feels right without him.

What I do know is this: I’m not okay. I walk. I smile. My daughter makes me laugh because she’s seven and has an outrageous sense of humor. I can often give appropriate responses to words I barely hear through the grief that fills my heart. I buy groceries and mow the grass and cook supper and fold towels and feed the cat and clean the hamster cage and a hundred other little tasks that take up the time, that make up a day.

But I am not okay.

If I were, my daughter would not have to steal up silent to the bed and beg, “Mama, please stop crying. Can you fix me supper?” She would not have to glance sideways at tears streaming soundless down my face and lay aside her toys to wrap skinny arms solid around my neck and pour anxious words in my ear: “Mama, you’re so pretty. I love you, Mama.” She would not have to feel responsible for me, try to cheer me, coax me outside when she finds me lying in bed, muffling sobs with my pillow. It’s my job to be the responsible one. But some days, I feel totally inadequate to the task.

I want to be okay. I am trying so hard to keep it together and I think I do, most days. I want Kevin to be proud of how I’m handling things, how I’m raising our daughter, because I promised him we would be okay and I never broke a promise to him. Our daughter has never known anything but love and laughter and crazy adventures, even though cancer and chemo were always around. And it’s my job to make sure that continues, even though death took away our Daddy Bear, so I take her to the zoo and baseball games and the waterpark and I tell her stories about Daddy that make her laugh.

And I’m told I will be okay. Eventually. The grief counselor tells me it’s a long road, though, and it will be probably be very lonely and there are no guideposts. I’m on my own here, figuring out how not just to “be” in this life without my husband, but to be happy again and raise my daughter with the sense of love and security she deserves.

I see glimpses of happy, when my girl makes me laugh, when I remember Kevin’s sly, sparkle eyes: “How YOU doin’?” The joy flickers faint, curves away, fleeting, elusive…but it’s there.

So, I guess when I’m asked, I can answer the question like this: Actually, I’m not okay. But God is, and He is sustaining me because really, I can’t right now.

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Psalm 55:22

Watery Joy

Dear Kevin,

Our girl is sprawled across the hotel bed on her stomach. Drawing, of course, and writing a story in her secret language, the one that only she and her babies at home understand. And guess what? I forgot to put sunscreen on the top of her head. There’s a bright pink line streaking along her pig-tailed hairline. I thought I’d covered every inch of her…Oops.

Oh, baby, I missed you today. Not just because you’re the only one who thinks I look good in a swimsuit, but because water is YOUR thing, what you guys share. I only tolerate it because the two people I love most in the world are apparently fish or mermaids (merpeople?) who need to be in or near the water all the time.

And you know I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t promised her we’d go this year. I’m trying, baby, I’m trying so hard to do everything you wanted to do with her. Even the water stuff. We had exactly the day I know you pictured: shrieking down water slides, floating the lazy river, conquering our fear of the wave pool and staying in for the BIG waves. I even got completely drenched when I didn’t heed the warning sound and the giant bucket of water overturned with me directly underneath. Stop laughing! It wasn’t funny – you know my goal is to come out of a water park completely dry!

She loved it, of course. She is definitely your girl. She says we had “an awesome day” and she wants to come back more often next year. Me? I’m torn. I’m happy that I could make this happen, could fulfill your promise to her, but I’m angry, too. I’m angry that cancer ripped apart what should’ve been our perfect family day. Stupid cancer. I hate it. I hate the fact that the one thing you two fishes looked forward to all winter couldn’t happen. I hate the fact that from the moment of your diagnosis, we tried so hard to fit as much adventure, as much love, as much LIFE, as possible into our lives. You live fast and you love hard when you get that kind of news. We traveled, we stayed home, we made cookies, we made memories. We planned, we lived. But we couldn’t do it all. And then you died.

And, Kevin, my broken heart bled for our daughter tonight.

She looked up at me.

“Mama?” I heard the uncertainty in her voice. “Can we go home tomorrow?”

The question surprised me. You know water is her thing. This is all she’s talked about all summer (Remember, Mama…Daddy promised me the water park!). I can’t believe she’s ready to leave.

I answered cautiously, because it’s hard to know what she’s thinking in that tremendous brain of hers. “Yeah, but not until tomorrow afternoon. We’re going to ride the rides tomorrow at the park,” I reminded her of our plans for the amusement park the following day.

Kev, her voice was so small and she suddenly looked so little, sitting on the hotel bed. “Okay.”

She accepted my answer, but then a burst of words. “I want to go home. I miss my home.”

So I pulled her in for a hug, squeezing her close. “I know, Bear, me too. But at least I’m here, right?”

So quiet, I almost missed it. Softly, sadly, she sighed, “Yeah. But Daddy isn’t.”

Oh.

I didn’t know what to do, Kev. Because you’re not here. You’re not here and we both want you so badly. The two of us go places and we do things and I keep track of all our adventures and all the hilarity thinking I’ll share it with you because it seems impossible that you’re not in on the fun with us. We laughed today, baby, and we played in the sun and the water and I know that not one person guessed the giant hole in our broken life. But we knew it was there and that’s why we’re in this hotel room right now, clinging to each other, my tears trickling onto her sunburned head.

She’s right. We need to go home. That’s where we feel you the most. So we’ll pack up and head home in the morning as soon as we can. It’s good to get out and remember that life is to be enjoyed, but for us, for now, we can only take that joy diluted, in small doses. We are going to be okay, baby. I promised you that.

And I promise that if we go back to the waterpark, I’ll try to get completely drenched again. The Bear’s convinced that you fell off a cloud laughing when that happened.

I’m sure she’s right.

Love and kisses always,
Me