Archive for May 2014

What It’s Like

May 25, 2014

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At the Farmer’s Market last week I found a beautiful pork roast, island-raised, well-marbled. Frozen. So I set it to thaw, and then sort of ignored it. It seemed too big, too substantial, until today, when I realized that if I didn’t cook it the pig might have given her life in vain.

So I rubbed it with pink peppercorns, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, garlic, and roasted it all afternoon, ever so slowly. Made a sauce of vermouth and cream and pan drippings, utterly delicious. Based on this recipe, only slow-roasted, pulled into chunks, doused with the sauce. Absolutely delicious.

And then I put some on my plate, with nothing else, because I’d had radicchio for lunch and felt that I’d had my vegetables for the day. A glass or two of Hendrick’s before dinner, with seaweed snacks, a favorite light apéro, a surprisingly great combination.

Sat down at the table, took a couple of bites, and couldn’t eat. Had to put down my fork and not pick it up again. Because, you know, it was way too good to eat alone. The salt in my tears added to the salt in the sauce, already perfectly seasoned. Making something really good, to eat all by myself = does not compute. Even at the end, when Shel could only eat Mint Milano cookies, he was there with me, at the table. He would have taken a bite or two of the delectable pork, for old time’s sake.

Everything I’ve read about grief tells me that it isn’t linear, it lies in wait, pounces with claws bared to shred the most peaceful moment. A simple dinner, roast pork in a fragrant sauce, reminds me of all I’ve lost. It’s not just losing Shel. Now I don’t have a husband. Now I’m not a wife. I hate death. I don’t want to have given my life in vain.

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Garden Therapy

May 24, 2014

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Do you remember reading as a child, or reading to a child, this little ditty from Winnie The Pooh “this warm and sunny spot belongs to Pooh, and here he sits and wonders what to do?” Well, this is my spot, and I’ve been sitting there a lot, wondering how to create the rest of my life.

DSC_8406Toby, not much of a therapy cat, nonetheless loves to hang out in the garden and seems pleased to have my company out there.

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I also have dozens, if not scores, of winged companions. Would you say that this is a giant bee, or really tiny flowers? Would you say that trying to compose the next 20 years of my life is a giant challenge, or just a tiny mote in the eye of the universe?

DSC_8373Zazou, who is also interested in bees, shows up to put the flowers into perspective. Me too, I’m in need of perspective. Perhaps if I go back to France and get a little distance from all that’s happened, my troubles too will shrink down to a manageable size.

DSC_8376Sometimes it all seems so dark, with just the tiniest bits of bright spots to remind me to keep my eyes open.

DSC_8390Other times I feel so wide open and exposed that the slightest psychic breeze can carry me away, scattered silly.

DSC_8398But even the bees like a change, like to spread themselves all around the small world of my garden, and so too, perhaps, should I. I’m a bit terrified to go back to France without Shel, lest every single thing remind me of him. But then, how would that be different than here? Thus I also contemplate a trip to some place he and I never went together, to remind myself that I do have a separate existence, now that I’m an off-leash puppy.

DSC_8423Solitary travels, even though I once went to Finland and Russia by myself, aren’t my favorite thing. I need to be able to share the bees, and their stings, the flowers and their thorns, with someone who cares.

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I guess it’s all a question of what’s in focus: the beauty or the emptiness, the light or the dark, the loss or the presence. I carry it all within me, as well as those grief bursts, now less frequent, but more powerful. The paradox of the day is that often, right after having had a fine, even fun time, where I think to myself that I’m really doing a whole lot better, it all falls apart once I’m alone, and I dissolve into pain. I need to find a way to let it out bit by bit, like drip irrigation. Who said that tears make things grow? That’s such a gentle image, whereas mine scour me out like steel wool, leaving raw, dull spots where all the shininess has been rubbed off.

DSC_8412But somewhere in there, in the deep, hidden center, there is healing going on. Grief picks at the scab until it bleeds anew, but I put my nose into the heart of this iris and inhale its delicate apricot scent, and I remember that life is beautiful, even though death is part of it. Or maybe life is beautiful because death is part of it.

DSC_8461-002The fact that I am craving beauty, and light, is undoubtedly a good sign. They’ve got those in abundance in the south of France, and I have so many dear friends there. Shel wanted me to go back, even to move there, because he said he’d never seen me happier than when we lived there. French Letters too probably would be happy to be repatriated. J’y pense. I’m thinking about it.

Moonrise Over Sorrow

May 16, 2014

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While the sun and the moon have been rising and setting, I’ve been living in the dark night of the soul, where grief has a way of bursting over my head, deluging me from parts unknown, and the enormity of my loss leaves me numb, watching life stream past in a blur of sorrow.

Most days I take a qi gong class, have coffee or lunch with a friend, go for a walk with another friend. All day, trying to spend time with someone, going places, doing things. Then I come home to my empty house, get in my empty bed (folded laundry piled on Shel’s side so that it doesn’t seem so deserted), and sometimes start whimpering like a child, occasionally wailing like a banshee.

Last night I put on Shel’s oldest and rattiest bathrobe, which still had a bit of his hair caught in the scratchy fabric, and hugged myself tightly. It’s the robe he had when we met, one I never liked and often urged him to toss, and nonetheless the one he took everywhere whenever we traveled. The cats immediately came and sniffed at me, so I guess that it still has his discernible-only-to-cats scent. Then this morning I discovered the new belt that I had bought him just a couple of months ago, needed because he’d gotten so thin that his clothes were falling off. These things undo me completely.

But they came into my hands because I decided to reclaim a tiny part of our closet for myself, a set of hooks for tossing the garments one is too lazy to hang up. Those were Shel’s hooks, but now I want them. And in order to possess them, I had to remove his things, still hanging where he last left them, 5 weeks ago. The things he wore, the things he touched, his favorite green cords with the reading glasses and nail clippers still tucked into the pockets, remind me that sorrow is not reserved for the dark of night, the empty bed. It’s also for the closet, where our life together flashes past me in the neat pile of his sweaters, for his desk, where Zazou likes to sleep on his chair, for the last crossword puzzle he did, his letters in pencil.

But I did want those hooks for myself, and I did admire the rising of the moon, and I did decide that before wearing that bathrobe again it really needed a bath itself. And some day I guess I’ll want the whole closet to myself, want the space for his desk, where he spent so much of the last year of his life, to be converted to some other use. Because I’m alive, and I’m here, and he’s not. And I hate that.

 

 

Sweet Memories

May 5, 2014

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Yesterday, in a beautiful ceremony, we said goodbye to Shel. Because so many of you couldn’t be there, I want to share some of the highlights with you.

Shel’s oldest friend, Rob Barnes, made a cool video talking about Shel as a young man and included recordings of him singing and playing that will probably blow you away. You can see the video here.

A dear friend in France, Eric Letessier, recorded this wonderful song by Jean Jacques Goldman, in honor of Shel, and our friend Kimberly Brown made a touching slide show with pictures of Shel that I’d taken over the years, to accompany it. You can see the slide show here.

And about a year ago, during a power outage, Shel was playing and singing for me, and I recorded, with my little handheld Olympus, this song, that made most everyone at the memorial cry. Listen to it here.

Finally, I did get a request to post here my remarks at the memorial. Here you go.

Back in 1994, when I was first getting serious about Shel, I consulted my old friends Tom and Nancy, who are sadly not able to be with us here today, but who were miraculously here visiting from California when Shel died. So way back then I told them of my trepidations about getting too involved with him: he’s from the South. They answered in unison, So? I said “he eats white bread and drinks Coke.” They replied So? And then I said “and he has cancer.” And once again, they chorused So?

And now, this is the So, come to pass. You love someone, do every human thing together, go everywhere, feel every emotion with that person and then suddenly, in the space of a breath, he’s gone. And by gone, I mean really and totally gone forever, utterly and completely gone. Neither Shel nor I believed in an afterlife, but just to hedge our bets, there at the end, we said to each other “just in case we’re wrong, just in case we’re reborn as blue-green algae or something, we pledge to find each other, out there in the swamp.”

Shel’s been gone for a month now, and he’s left a huge hole in my personal time-space continuum. People have told me things like “he lives on in you” and “he’ll always be with you” but actually, I don’t feel that at all. I feel his absence acutely, all the time, and everywhere. But I console myself with remembering how it was, when he was well enough for adventure, when he could still sing sweetly, when he loved me like nobody’s loved me, come rain or come shine.

Because that was our marriage agreement, that he would always love me, just the way I am. In turn, I promised that I would never leave him, no matter what, and also that I would never make him do any yard work. Because so many people were familiar with the intimate details of our life through my French Letters blog, hundreds of messages of condolence flooded my mailbox after his death. I probably received a message from every one of you, for which I want to say thank you. The day after Shel died I sat at my computer off and on all through the day, and just let the rush of sweet messages pour over me, soothing me on that darkest of days.

In those messages many people referred to Shel as a lovely man. I think that’s because his capacity for love shone through bright and clear, even in the hardest of times. Over the course of our marriage he mastered the art of truly unconditional love, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been the recipient of that steady and tender stream of affection and understanding.

Other people basked in his presence too. I want to share with you just a few of the comments I got after he died – some of you here today will recognize your own words:

I will always remember Shel as a wonderful, kind man, who loved you deeply.

Such a great guy, such a privilege to have been able to spend time with him.

He was one of the sweetest people I have ever known.

Long will he be remembered! Whenever we sit around pickin’ and singin’, Shel will be in our hearts.

My world is a better place for having known Shel.

The most important thing I learned from Shel was to never stop exploring and experiencing new things. Shel smiled in a most beautiful way and had so much joy in him no matter what.

And finally: Shel was one of a kind; curious about the world and genuinely interested in everything; kind and unassuming; opinionated but open-minded; always ready with a joke (usually a groaner); always an optimist, even recently when he could have chosen a different outlook. He was one of the greats.

He was all of those things, and also sometimes cantankerous, stubborn, cynical, and he didn’t like wine. Over time he taught me to love him wholeheartedly, in spite of those things. He taught me not to give up, not to walk away and slam the door. He taught me to let myself be loved, tamed, and protected – I was half-wild when I met him, so maybe he taught me all that in self-defense.

He gave me so many things: a life with someone who knew how everything works and who loved to fix things, replacing my previous life of just muddling through the physical universe on a wing and an atheist’s prayer. He gave me 20 years of being loved every day, which is something I think all of us want, but few of us get. He gave me our beautiful home, where he spent the last year of his life gazing at the beach and garden that have sustained me since his death. And his ultimate gift: to die when my oldest friends could be with me as his body was wrapped up and carried out the door.

Together he and I faced his cancer for 20 years. It’s a cruel illness, and some of you have been with us through several times when we all thought Shel would die, only to see him pull out of it once again, and sail merrily along, having lost some part of himself in the process, but still hanging in there. He managed to do that so many times that even he really didn’t think that he ever would die.

These past few months, when it became clear that this time he was really in for it, he took it hard. When I told him, near the end, how difficult it was to watch him suffer, he said, with total sincerity and no trace of irony “but I’m not suffering – aside from the fact that I can’t breathe and I can’t swallow, I’m fine.” He wanted to live so much that he bewitched us into believing that it might be possible for him to do it one more time, that this time it wouldn’t be the real thing. He never resigned himself, and refused to go gently.

On the morning he died, the very last thing he said to me, just before he took his final breath, was “I’m good now.” Whether he meant that he felt good enough for another round, or good to go, we’ll never know. But I take comfort in the idea that he was good, for whatever came next. None of us really knows what lies beyond the very next breath we take. So I propose that we all take a page from the Book of Shel: show bravery when confronted by insurmountable odds, show grace when facing irretrievable loss, keep an extensive file of jokes both good and bad to fire off at a moment’s notice, share your music with the world, hold fast to the ones you love, eat as many chocolate chip cookies as you can, and live your one and only life with boldness and passion until your very last breath.