My late husband's birthday was May 16, 1952. He died on January 9, 2008.
His death feels like it was decades ago. His death feels like it was yesterday.
Grieving John has been the most difficult thing I have ever done. This includes surviving abusive alcoholic parents and childhood poverty. John was one of the smartest, funniest, and kindest people I have ever known. We were lovers and best friends who travelled the world together. No topic was ever off the table. We helped each other love and grow.
Our marriage lived 29 years.
Professionally, John was an award winning math teacher. (If you have seen Johnny Depp in The Tourist you sort of know what he looked like.) He was also an author who wrote books full of playful intelligence with titles like Counting On Your Fingers Is Not Immoral and Making Math Matter. His quest was to make math accessible to all students through hand-on activities that mattered to kids.
Although his death certificate says he died on January 9, that isn't actually true. January 9 was the day that I took him off life support, with the encouragement of his doctor. His medical records support that he actually died January 7 on the operating table during a heart valve replacement procedure. Generally, January 7-9 remains a blur and I retreat into a numb fog when that time comes around each year.
It's his birthday that throbs with pain, probably because we made a big deal out of our birthdays and celebrated them for weeks. It's his birthday that shines a spotlight on the big hole left in my life because he is gone.
I have come to believe that good marriages--and especially long good marriages--are like rivers. There are fantastic "in flow" periods when the river surges with strength and power. There are also stretches of calmer, quieter water. And then there are the times when the river gets stuck behind a dam or other obstacle. A good marriage has a lot more flow than dammed up stretches. At least, this was true for John and me. We flowed. Mostly.
Unfortunately, in the months prior to John's death, we were stuck. Neither of us were consciously aware that he was dying. His arteries, unbeknownst to us or his doctor, despite regular and frequent medical maintenance, were rapidly turning into those of an eighty year old with advanced arterial sclerosis. What we did know is that he needed a replacement for a deteriorating congenitally defective aortic heart valve which had inexplicably and quickly gotten much more dysfunctional.
That fall, as John struggled more and more just to move, our marriage did, too. To make matters worse, his educational consulting business collapsed. John had literally put his heart (and soul) into the enterprise. He was devastated.
I wish I could say that my behavior during this time was exemplary. It was not. I was impatient, frustrated, angry and scared. At my insistence, we went out to dinner on what was to be our last New Year's Eve together. At the table, I suddenly had the urge to ask for his forgiveness for my failings as a partner. What I got was uncharacteristic and cool silence. Seven days later, John died.
For the first five months after he passed, I rattled around alone in our rural Wisconsin house, which now felt like a tomb, trying to figure out how to live a life designed for two. Expending major amounts of my limited energy, I tried to maintain a high needs house with a large yard, and a job for which I had long lost passion. Although supportive friends kept me afloat during the darkest and most turbulent grief, many of John's and my social circle had already drifted away.
A big theme of our married life had been stability and security, with travel adventures and lots of other play time tucked in--especially during summer. Now summer was approaching. But there was no John. I could feel myself dying of a broken heart.
It was around John's birthday in 2008 that I sat myself down and willed to live. But I did not want to live the old life designed for two. A new life was needed, one designed by me for me. As a school counselor, I had created a lot of successful interventions for students who were struggling emotionally. I insisted that I owed myself the benefit of my own expertise.
The intervention wasn't nearly as rational as the word implies. But it involved actions that revolved around the one thing I still wanted to do before leaving earth. This was to live and work abroad, a desire I had had since I was a little girl and from which I had detoured repeatedly.
To say I made a series of life changes is putting it mildly. And doing so broke the "rule" psychologists suggest for the bereaved which is not to make major changes during the year following a loved one's death. All I can say is that I was viscerally aware that my time was limited.
The long and the short of it is that I now live and work in Hong Kong and have done so since October 2010. I also earned a long yearned for master of public health degree and revisited beloved Nepal.
I have begun to love the stranger who was myself. Derek Walton's poem, Love After Love, expresses it best:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.