Tag Archives: grief

The Hurting Time

I read a book not too long ago, The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and heart-affirming and spoke to me on every page. But one passage stayed with me because of the deep truth it contained, a truth that every grieving person knows, a truth that lies within the shattered remains of a broken heart. It is a truth that is so very hard to give words to, hard to explain to anyone who’s never experienced the hurting time.

“Do you know there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.”

I struggle this time of year, struggle with waking up, struggle with going to sleep, struggle with finding joy in each day. Part of it is the change of the season, the turning back of the clock — I can never turn it far enough back to get me to Kevin. Part of it is the approaching holidays and the jarring juxtaposition of celebrating with my girl, but without her Daddy.

It’s the hurting time. It’s the threshold I’m still crossing.

I have words for it now.

Maybe that will help me struggle less.

Some Guy

She almost fell off her chair with laughter.

“What did you just call Daddy?” she asked me, interrupting my story and giggling so much she could hardly get the question out.

“I called him ‘some guy’,” I answered with a laugh because her giggles floating through the air were contagious.

“But Daddy’s not ‘some guy’ – he’s DADDY!”

“But he wasn’t always Daddy, Beary Girl. First, he was just a guy I worked with,” I started counting off on my fingers, “then he was my boyfriend, then my fiancé, then my husband, then your Daddy.”

“I just can’t believe you called him ‘some guy’, though! Why did you call him that?”

“Well, goofy girl, if you let me finish the story,” I reached down to tickle her side, sending her off in giggles again, “you might find out!”

While I gave her a minute to catch her breath, I thought about the trip we were getting ready to take, the trip that prompted my story. A road trip to Mount Rushmore, a good twelve or so hours away, in our new-to-us minivan. A trip her Daddy and I had talked about taking, that early spring in 2013 when we knew time was getting short and we wanted to cram in as many minutes of life as we could. We booked a flight to Hawaii, got out a map and circled all the places we could find within reasonable driving distance, checked airline miles and hotel points, and planned to travel with our girl. But we didn’t plan fast enough and cancer caught up to us. His body was too tired, too worn out.

He died before we could hit the road.

But this year, I pulled out those plans, dusted them off, asked myself, “Can I do this?” and decided that yes, I could, and yes, I had to – for Kevin, for our girl, and for me. I didn’t want to leave his dreams undone if I could help it. She and I sat down and planned our route – where we’d stop, what we’d see, how long we’d drive each day. It turned out the fastest route to Mount Rushmore took us right through Omaha, Nebraska. And took me smack dab into a whole lot of memories. Things I hadn’t thought about in years, but were special, funny moments that I wanted my daughter to know about, so she could learn more about her wonderful Daddy, the Daddy who had to leave her much too soon.

My first trip to Omaha was in 2002 with my sister and her two kids, ages two and nine at the time. We’d heard the Henry Doorly Zoo was amazing, and it wasn’t too long of a drive with a couple of kids, so we loaded them up and took off for the weekend. When in Omaha, one must eat steak, so I found a local steakhouse – the site of my later infamous “some guy” remark. When I ordered a filet mignon, I told my nephew, “Now, I’m going to try this with some butter on it, because some guy at work claims it’s the only way to eat a good steak.” Sitting side-by-side in our cubicles at work, Kevin had heard me talking about my weekend trip to Omaha, and, being a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, offered up his favorite steak-eating tips. I listened because even though he was just some guy at work, I’d already starting thinking I’d like him to be more. I wanted to go back to work and tell him I tried a steak with butter and it was as fabulous as he’d said it would be. I wanted him to know I listened and I wanted him to figure out I wanted him to be more than “some guy”.

It turns out butter on steak is great, and I told him so as soon as I got back to the office.

And two months after my first trip to Omaha, Kevin and I had our first date.

“Are we going to eat at that restaurant, Mama? Can I have butter on my steak, too?” My Bear had stopped giggling and looked at me expectantly as I finished that part of the story.

“We might. It depends on what time we get there. And, yes, you can have butter on your steak.”

“Mmmm…steak,” she said dreamily. She’s her Daddy’s daughter all the way.

While she thought about steak, I thought about the next part of my Omaha story.

By November 2004, Kevin and I had been married for a little over a year. We were both in our thirties and we wanted nothing more than to start a family right away, but it just wasn’t happening. We were about to dive headfirst into the world of fertility treatments and I was depressed and sad and scared and a million other emotions. But Kev was my rock. He set aside his own disappointment and took care of me. He called me at work for no reason, he held me when I cried all night, and when we realized what we were up against, he said, “We need to get away for a few days.” We’d just watched “About Schmidt”, a movie set in Omaha and, it turned out, a few scenes were filmed at the “some guy” steakhouse – Johnny’s. When Kevin found out I’d been there, and the part it had played in our little romance, he wanted to go there, too. He did some more research and found a mystery theater dinner train in the Omaha area and some World War II planes. That was my Kev: always taking care of me, thoughtfully planning a perfect weekend getaway: the zoo, the Strategic Air & Space Museum, some good steak, and the dinner train.

And it was perfect. I can still close my eyes and hear Kevin’s voice reading the script on the dinner train, because he was one of the lucky guests to be chosen for a part. And I love the photo of us at Johnny’s, in the spot where Jack Nicholson stood in the movie. And I especially loved ordering a filet and trying to tell Kevin with a straight face, “You know, some guy once told me to put butter on my steak, that it would taste so good. You should try it.” I couldn’t make it through my sentence without giggling, especially when Kevin started in with his rumbling laugh. And even when we got back from that weekend and the doctor told us we had less than a 1% chance of conceiving a child, God had other plans. Plans that included a curly-haired baby girl with her Daddy’s face. It wasn’t an easy road, but it was worth every hard minute of the journey when, after an emergency cesarean, the doctor held up our little Bear and Kevin hugged me, with tears streaming down our faces.

My girl and I didn’t end up eating at Johnny’s Steakhouse when we stopped in Omaha on our trip last month. We found a different steakhouse, close to the hotel. The instant I saw it, though, I knew Kevin would’ve loved it. It was very old school, red leather and ornate, and had all the touches he loved in a good steak restaurant. Forever her Daddy’s girl, the minute I started reading from the children’s menu, “There’s chicken fingers…” I was interrupted with, “Mama, no one comes to a steakhouse to eat chicken!” And I thought, You are so right, Baby Kev. And, little girl, thank you for giving me another memorable story about Omaha to add to my collection.

From some guy to boyfriend to fiancé to husband to Daddy. It makes my girl laugh to think about it, but it makes me smile. He was all that and more.

I’ll keep telling my girl the stories that make her laugh, and stories that make her think, and stories about the man I loved, the man who adored her, the man she should’ve been able to get to know on her own, in his words not mine. And all of them will begin the same way.

Once upon a time, there was some guy at work. And, it turned out, he went on to be other amazing things: a great boyfriend, a wonderful husband, a compassionate friend, and a doting and loving Daddy.

And in telling my stories, our girl will see: It takes some guy to be all that.

She Won’t…

I sank down on the edge of my bed, holding the pile of fresh towels, still warm from the dryer, and buried my face in them. I inhaled the fresh, spicy scent deeply, and exhaled shakily, tears threatening at the back of my throat. My girl wandered in, looking for the cats. I held the towels out to her and said, “Hey, Baby Bear, what does this smell remind you of?” She gave me the kind of look only a nearly-ten-year-old girl can manage, the one that says You’re acting sooo weird, but she leaned in and sniffed. She looked up at me, quirked her eyebrows in thought, then leaned in for another whiff of the fragrant towels. She straightened up, wrinkled her nose and said, “Umm, I don’t know…” paused, then slowly, “Daddy?”

Yes.

She did know.

He’s been gone from us for two and a half years, but there are still smells and tastes and sounds that bring him close to us.

Like a new brand of dryer sheets that I picked up on a whim at the store. The dryer sheets that smell a lot like Kevin’s favorite Brooks Brothers cologne.

An icy-cold Dr. Pepper at a baseball game, or a Snickers bar at Halloween. He always picked through the bowl before the trick-or-treaters arrived to get all the Snickers out. And as soon as our girl got finished trick-or-treating, she’d dump out her haul and immediately pass over all the Snickers to her Daddy.

The Sunday afternoon sound of a football game on TV, background noise to whatever else was going on in the house.

I struggle some days, worried that someday her memories of him might fade. She was seven when he died – a first grader – and it hit me the other day that she’s nearly ten now. Somehow, she became a fourth-grader, and soon she’ll be a young lady. How did that happen, and why can’t her Daddy be here to see it? My memories of him are so vivid, but are hers? She’s got a magnificent brain, it’s truly amazing to see her mind work but, like she says, “If I remember it, I remember it forever. But if I don’t, I just don’t.”

I don’t want her Daddy to fall into the “I just don’t” pile.

So I stock up on the new dryer sheets, hoping to engrain that scent in her mind, to associate it with her Daddy. And I fall asleep every night, feeling like he’s with us.

I dump out the Halloween candy and pick out the Snickers; she helps. We save those until last to eat. And I buy her an icy Dr. Pepper at the baseball game because, as she told me once, “It tastes like the ballgame, Mama.” And Daddy, I always add.

And I buy us new game day t-shirts and turn on the Cowboys games on Sunday afternoon, to help her internalize her Daddy’s love of football, to make the sound of a roaring crowd be comfortable and familiar. And we take our opening game day family photo because keeping those traditions is what will keep her Daddy close.

His photos are scattered all around the house, and when she says, “Tell me the story when…”, I always stop and do it. I’m teaching her to cook his favorite recipes, the ones he always asked for; and she laughs when she asks for catsup because she knows I hate it, but her Daddy loved it. She is so much like him, my little mini-Kev, and I want her to remember him well, to know that she’s more her Daddy than just her physical looks.

I remember crying to the hospice grief counselor, “She’s so young; I’m afraid she’ll forget him,” and she reached over, took my hand and assured me, “She won’t. I promise you – she won’t.”

And I promise you, Kevin – she won’t.

I tiptoed into the bedroom, tugged the scented sheets a little closer to her face, kissed her forehead, and whispered, “Sweet dreams, little girl.”

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20)

Speak Softly, Love…Again

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up!” (Charles Dickens, 1812-1870)

He was only in my life for a little over a decade. Ten short years. But we lived forever in that short time. Our anniversary is coming up; at this time of year, I always go back to the words I wrote two years ago, on the first anniversary I spent without Kevin:

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.

____________________________________________________

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?”

___________________________________________________

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

Another Good-bye: The Big Red Truck

The icy sleet angrily pecked against the glass windows as I picked up the ringing telephone. My greeting might not have been so cheery had I known an operator with the state highway patrol was on the other end of the line.

“There’s been an accident…” she started. I swayed against the door frame to the living room, watching my three-year-old daughter and her older cousin playing on the floor. I dropped to my knees on the floor, even as I looked quickly out the window to the front porch, expecting to see a state trooper slipping up the icy sidewalk.

But he’s all right, I thought to myself. They wouldn’t call if he wasn’t all right. Someone would come here to tell me.

I forced my attention back to her words.

Ice on the highway.

Lost control.

Rolled the vehicle.

Emergency crew cut him out.

Refused hospital treatment.

Trooper took him to a gas station to wait for someone to pick him up.

He’s okay.

He’s okay. I kept telling myself as I called my dad. It took a while to get to Kevin that icy, snowy day. My grandmother came to stay with the girls while my dad and I slowly drove the treacherous roads for an hour to the gas station where I flung open the truck door and threw my arms around my still-shaken husband. Ten minutes later, when we drove into the wrecker’s parking lot, I could see why. His blue Explorer was totaled; smashed in doors, broken glass, outside mirrors hanging at crazy angles. We silently filled plastic bags with the bits of our life that survived the crash and walked away, thankful that he’d survived.

When the shock wore off and we could joke about it, I teased Kevin because I’d actually been up for the next new vehicle at our house. “Wrecking your truck? That’s kind of a hard way to make sure that YOU get the next new car, not me,” I told him. But I laughed because I didn’t really care about the new car, as long as I still had Kevin.

A few weeks later, after insurance claims had been filed, Kevin went looking for his new vehicle. He found a 2005 Dodge Durango, bright red, low miles and, with our insurance check and a little bit we’d squirrelled away, it was the right price. It was the base model – no frills, no bells or whistles – but it got us where we needed to go. Kev loved it; it drove a little rough for me. I told him it was like riding in a feed truck across a bumpy field, a comparison my city-bred husband didn’t really get.

I think he liked the bright red color because it felt so alive. Just a couple of months before his wreck, Kev’s oncologist had okayed a little break from the chemo that was fighting the colon cancer’s unrelenting spread through his body. Kevin had been through a lot over the last nine months – diagnosed with cancer, two surgeries, six months of chemo – and being able to walk away from that smashed-up Explorer made him realize that he had a lot to live for; the cancer hadn’t gotten him, and the wreck hadn’t killed him. He was supposed to live.

And so we did.

We piled our luggage into the Durango early one spring and headed to the airport. Destination: happiest place on Earth. And, at the end of our Disney week, the truck welcomed us back, funny mouse ears and all, and got us back to our real life.

We went to baseball games and amusement parks and church and work and the zoo and museums, and the Durango safely got us there and back, always up for whatever kind of adventure we were in the mood for.

We sang along one summer as Frank Sinatra blared from the speakers, “My kind of town, Chicago is my kind of town” and Beary passed bottles of water and cans of soda from the cooler by her side as we road-tripped to the Windy City for a conference. The following spring, I loaded the cargo area with Kevin’s oxygen concentrator, portable oxygen canisters, a wheelchair, our luggage, and Beary’s beach toys and we drove sixteen hours to Orange Beach, Alabama, so he could watch our girl play in the ocean for the first time.

It was our last family road trip.

Just a few weeks later, I drove the big, red, rough-riding Durango home from the hospital, with Kevin in the front seat. I winced at each bump, anxious not to cause him any extra pain. My dad sat squeezed into the back seat, ready to reach out and catch Kevin if he started slumping, or if he passed away on the way home, a fear my dad and I didn’t voice to each other, but felt every mile of the way home. We’d spent the night in the emergency room and, when morning came, our doctor told us time was short. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on Kevin’s arm, needing to touch him, keep him with me, get him home safely because I’d promised him I wouldn’t let him die in a hospital.

He died the next afternoon, laying by my side in our bed.

The truck sat in the garage for a week; in my grief, family and friends drove me to the places I needed to go.

But one day, I climbed into the driver’s seat again, and my girl fastened herself into the seat behind me, and we drove Daddy’s truck to the store. Then to church, and the park and soon, we drove Daddy’s truck everywhere. It was a way to keep him with us, to remember him seated behind the wheel, music blaring, taking us to another family adventure. We drove it to the airport, so we could get back to Disney’s magic and remember Daddy again; we drove it on the long road trip back to the beach, to be in a place of wonderful memories on the second anniversary of his death. We drove it and drove it to the zoo and museums and baseball games and amusement parks and took Kevin with us everywhere.

Two years went by and the odometer ticked steadily and I knew it wouldn’t be long until we’d have to give up the Durango. I started looking around, searching for the minivan I’d been wanting since before Kevin’s icy wreck. Finally, six years later, it was my turn for the new car, but it was hard to get too excited about it, because we’d be giving up the Durango. Losing the rough-riding truck itself didn’t bother me; but losing another piece of Kevin, a tangible something that connected us to him and our memories – that was harder.

I didn’t know it, but we had one more memory to make with Kevin’s truck.

It’s kind of like we saved the best for last.

I don’t know what my girl will remember about her childhood, but I hope she remembers the night that I woke her up at 11:30 and drove eight miles out to the middle of a bean field in the country. We layered blankets on the hood of the Durango, then leaned back with our arms crossed behind our heads and watched the stars shoot across the sky. She giggled with delight at the idea of sitting on top of the truck, then said, “I can’t believe we’re part of all that, way up there,” gesturing to the Milky Way spilling out across the heavens above us. We cried out each time we saw a glowing bit streak across the sky and burn out as quickly as it appeared. Me and my girl, on the hood of her Daddy’s truck, feeling him with us, watching God’s fireworks.

That’s what I’ll remember.

A week later, I finally traded the Durango in for a minivan. It was déjà vu on the car lot, silently filling a plastic bag with the bits of our life left in the Durango. Beary bounced with delight, trying out all the seating options, and I struggled to maneuver the new buttons and controls. I cried as I turned out onto the street and drove past Kevin’s big red truck, sitting alone on the lot. I couldn’t feel his presence in the minivan and I missed glancing over and imagining him sitting next to me. I wanted to turn around and go back and sit in his truck just one more time, spilling my tears over the steering wheel.

But then I remembered what he’d learned after his wreck: We are supposed to live.

So we will. My girl and I will keep on, because that’s what he wanted. We’ll take our new minivan and make some new memories. We’ll go on road trips and adventures. We’ll drive and drive and drive – to museums and zoos and baseball games and church and amusement parks.

We won’t be in Kevin’s truck, but that’s okay – he’ll still be with us.

He’s always with us.

big red

My girl likes to make chalk drawings on our driveway. This is one of my favorites: Daddy’s bright red Durango.