Unfamiliar Landscape [Non-Fiction]

Tornado alley. That’s what they call the place where I live. Devastating storms come quickly. Some are powerful enough to level houses and toss cars around like toys. The destruction is random. One home can be destroyed while the two on either side are untouched.

I have seen the faces of tornado victims. Shock. Disbelief. You can see it in their eyes. How did life change in an instant?

I saw that look in your eyes when the doctor gave us your test results. “Stage Four cancer. Chemo. Radiation.” I tried to keep breathing normally as these words swirled around me. I took your hand.

“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said as he left the room. We both simply nodded. Just like that. We stood at ground zero, the epicenter of the tornado. Two months later you were dead.

Now I walk alone, through the rubble that was our life. In a daze. I try to pick up the pieces of unfinished plans and unrealized dreams. I keep looking for something familiar, something I recognize from my life before you died.

All I see is wreckage.

Winter

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It was the worst winter in years. The ice hung heavy on the trees. It was freezing in the garage, but still you stayed out there. I brought you jackets and blankets, and gallons of coffee. The hospital bed in our room would have been more comfortable but you hated it. You never said it, but I believe you began to think if you lay in that bed, you would never get out of it.

First your migraines increased. Your bones ached, then your chest, your back, and arms. You didn’t want me to see you in pain so the garage became your refuge. It became your place to escape, to be alone with your fears, your thoughts, and your pain. And you smoked.

I hated that you smoked. You promised you would quit, but you didn’t. After the cancer diagnosis, you smoked ever more.

“I smoke when I’m stressed,” you said.

What’s more stressful than dying? Watching someone you love die? Maybe I should have smoked with you.

From the window, I watched you pace. I saw you grimace and try to ride the waves of pain. I watched your breath, visible in the cold air, mix with cigarette smoke. I felt the cold inside me. It got colder every day. Inside and out.

Wailing

I learned a new word today. Keening: “a loud wailing lament for the dead.” That’s what I feel like doing. I want to put black cloth on all the windows, tear at my clothes and wail. I want to go out into the front street and scream “The man I love died! Don’t you get it?”

But I don’t do that.

That would be inappropriate. That’s not the way we do it here. We sit politely at the funeral and dab our eyes carefully. We shake hands and thank people for coming. We graciously accept casseroles and Bundt cakes that will never be eaten. We keep our grief to ourselves because grieving is so messy and inconvenient.

And the ones left behind die a little more each day.

Hour After Hour

The days are all the same. I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I break the routine and stare out the window. Spring happened when I wasn’t looking. You died and the whole world came to life.

The house is very quiet. Your desk has layers of dust on it. The business we shared together is non-existent, but all the remnants are still on that desk. I need to go through it all but I can’t yet.

Yesterday I looked for a pen on that desk and came across a half-drawn sketch that will never be finished. It stopped me cold. Your keys, your checkbook, your easel… the mundane artifacts of your life are so difficult to see. I must lay down again.

Motionless, I can hear my own breathing and the ticking of the wall clock. That clock has been running an hour behind for months. Out of sync with rest of life. Like me. What difference does it make? I have nowhere to go.

The nights are the worst. It was “our time.” We talked we laughed and we planned our future. People think I sleep alone now. But I don’t. I sleep surrounded by books and grief. Books are my only escape. At night, I leave them in piles on your side of the bed.

They are a poor substitute for you.

No Way Out

I wrote my will today. I never want my family to go through what you and I experienced.

“I’m running out of time,” you said. “We need to write my will.” So, we sat together on our bed and we wrote it. You were such an amazing artist, but you couldn’t even write your name anymore. You dictated and I wrote. Neither of us cried. I knew if I started to cry I would not be able to stop.

I wondered what it felt like to know that you were going to die very soon. If I had asked, you would have told me gently and honestly. But I didn’t ask. I couldn’t take any more pain in one day.

You and I talked a lot about the future. My future without you seems bleak… and long. I feel too old to start over but I have too many responsibilities to die. Sometimes I really resent the people who care about me. My love for them keeps me here when all I really want to do is let go. Just sleep and not wake up.

It is not just because I miss you, although I miss you terribly. But also, because every single day overwhelms me. The thought of days turning to weeks, and weeks turning to years, is almost more than I can bear. But I bear it, because if I die, everyone will think I chose you over them. That wouldn’t be the case. I would simply be choosing comfort over pain, and peace over fear. But no one would see it that way. Under “cause of death” they would write your name. I can’t do that to your memory.

My kids believe that people who commit suicide go to hell. I know it’s not true, but I can’t leave them knowing they believe it. I can’t purposely cause that kind of pain.

Sometimes I hate being so responsible.

Lost in the Dark               

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I’ve driven that road hundreds of times. This time was different. I was on the highway at night and noticed an unfamiliar exit sign. Then another and another. I looked around but nothing looked familiar. Only moments before I knew exactly where I was headed. Then I was completely lost.

It was as if someone picked me up and dropped me onto a different planet. I continued driving, and the highway took a forced detour because of construction. I was on a two-lane road that wound like a snake slithering in the grass. The lights of town faded into the distance.

I could feel my heart racing and I tried not to panic. I was completely lost and there were no exit ramps. I couldn’t turn around. There was no shoulder on the road. I could not pull over. All I could do was keep moving ahead.

Suddenly I started to laugh. It wasn’t a good laugh. It was a weird, scary movie kind of laugh. It occurred to me this situation was a perfect metaphor for my life since you died. The landmarks are all unknown to me.

I am simply wandering in the dark.

The Best and the Worst

Gold digger. Just one of the many terms used by your family to describe my relationship with you. If it weren’t so absurd it might be funny. Your death has bankrupted me financially, spiritually and physically. “Rise above it,” I told myself, but inside I was raging.

Who drove you 60 miles every day to radiation treatments? Who stayed awake all night long to make sure you didn’t stop breathing? Who shaved your head when you got tired of the clumps of hair on your pillow? Who gave you pain medication at four in the morning when your moaning turned to screaming? Was it any of them? Hell no. It was me. The gold digger.

You’re dead and now some people must live with the demons of regret. I feel so much pain, but it is the pain of losing you. It’s not the piercing pain of regret from wishing I’d said or done things differently.

During all the fear and pain, you and I stood together. We were united against those who wanted to use your dying as an opportunity for absolution and a way to erase past mistakes.

Your death has taught me so much about human nature. Death serves as a microscope for the living, bringing into sharp focus the true nature of who we are, at our most basic level.

You faced your death with dignity. You were more concerned for everyone else than for yourself. Some people panicked, and in their panic, they lashed out at the very person they loved. You. And at me because I loved you.

We had both been married before and were acutely aware of the pain of those failed relationships. It made us more compassionate and more forgiving of each other. We valued each other and tried not take for granted the opportunity to love again.

Our love was not perfect. I refuse to claim perfection for a relationship that will never have the chance to stand the test of time, but it was damn good. Of course, sometimes you drove me crazy. You always left your clothes on the floor, you never did the dishes, and you could be indecisive. But those are not the things I will always remember.

I will remember your willingness to put my needs before your own and the way you made me feel safe against the world. You didn’t solve my problems, but you gave me the strength to solve them myself.

Now you are gone and so is my strength.

Anesthesia        

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I want to be numb again. That’s how I felt when you first died. Death is like surgery. The pain is always worse when the drugs wear off a few days later. Shock is its own form of anesthesia. The shock has worn off, and it feels like I’ve had a sucker punch to the gut. My emotions are raw. Like a new wound. What I feel most often is anger. I am so angry with everyone, especially God.

What was the point of all of this? Why did you come into my life at all if this is how it was going to end? People say it was because “you needed me.” That’s just great. Where does that leave me?

Basically, it leaves me up shit creek, not just emotionally, but in every way. There are so many things you knew how to do, that I don’t. Three weeks ago, the air conditioner quit working. Last week it was the hot water heater. There are huge potholes in the driveway that fill with water every time it rains and it rains every damn day. The car needs an oil change and new tires.

I am so in over my head. I don’t know how to deal with all these things. These were your things. And now you are gone. So much for being a modern woman.

Maybe I am being paranoid, but I am beginning to think when service repairmen see a woman alone, they are like sharks smelling blood in the water. They hone in for the kill.

I worry about money. I worry about everything. In fact, I am always afraid. I wear fear like a second skin. I am always holding my breath, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

I’ve gotten morbid. I notice every news account of every death caused by suicide or car crash, domestic violence, drowning… Maybe I am just trying to confirm the randomness of death. If it can happen to just anyone it seems less like God was aiming directly at you and me. I want to know there are people even more miserable than me. It’s mean, but it’s true.

I’ll probably turn into one of those old women who read the obituary section of the newspaper each day as a form of entertainment.

Adrift

In college, I went to the beach with some friends. We settled our belongings on the shore. One friend and I went out into the water while the rest of the group stayed behind.

After being in the surf awhile we realized we had drifted further from the beach than we had planned. As we tried to swim back, we were hit by a big wave that knocked us down into the water. And then another hit us. And another. Each time we were pushed further and further from the beach.

Every time it happened I fought and clawed and sputtered my way to the surface, only to be slammed down again into the swirling, murky water. I became disoriented and began to panic.

I feel the same way now. Every time I think I am moving forward, a wave of grief hits me again. I remember clearly, all those years ago, that my friends onshore didn’t understand what was happening to me. They thought I was laughing, but I was screaming. They thought I was waving, but I was signaling for help. They thought I was playing in the surf, but I was trying desperately to keep from drowning. No clue. They just smiled at me and waved. The same thing is happening to me now.

People just keep smiling and waving.

The Company of Strangers

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The Internet is strange. It brings the world into our homes. We can shop for wine. Find a cure for warts. Discover the latest fashions. Compare the price of riding lawnmowers. The Internet can bring us whatever we want. I wanted someone, anyone who could understand how I felt when you died. The Internet brought me fellow grievers.

At 3 a.m., when I can’t sleep, I login to a grief chat room and discover people from all over the world also “not sleeping.” Someone lost a spouse 10 years ago, some buried their daughter or son yesterday. One woman’s father died during Hurricane Katrina. She didn’t find his body for five days. A fourteen-year-old girl tries to handle the guilt she feels because the last conversation with her mother was an argument the morning of a fatal car crash.

We are part of a club no one wants to join. Our common denominator is pain and a fierce hope that someday we will feel better. We cry, we rant and we talk about the people we loved and lost. We say things that only make sense to those who have walked this same path and things we couldn’t dare say to our families or are closest friends.

The long-time survivors tell the newly grieved, who are barely hanging on, that suicide is not the answer, and to just stop asking the question “why?”

Sprinkled amidst the crying and suggestions for ways to sleep and advice on how to handle the stress, there are flashes of humor. One man suggested we all have T – shirts printed that say “I’m grieving as fast as I can.” Sometimes we even laugh.

The company of strangers is what gets me through the night.

A Darker Lens

I don’t cry all day long anymore, but I still think about you constantly. I keep hoping you will come to me in my dreams but you don’t. Why don’t you? It’s the least you could do. After all, I have stopped my life since you died. Stopped sleeping, stopped thinking about the future, stopped hoping… I just exist.

I’ve decided there must be a God. There must be a heaven. It’s the only thing that makes sense. There is certainly no logic or justice here on earth. This life must be a dress rehearsal for the real thing. I am jealous of you. I want to be in heaven. It’s probably not right to be jealous of a dead man, but I really am.

Your death has changed me. I see life through a different lens. A darker lens. At the very least, it has simplified things for me. Things that mattered before don’t matter anymore. I feel like a prisoner.

I silently wait for my release.

The Island

It’s winter and cold outside again. The trees are bare and stark the way they were when you got sick. In many ways, I am a different person than I was nine months ago, I know I am wiser. Life’s most valuable lessons sometimes come with a very high price tag, don’t they?

Your death has become my point of reference for most things now. As the one-year anniversary approaches I feel like I have fallen off the cliff of grief again. It is November. Thanksgiving is coming… without you. Christmas is coming…without you. Family get-togethers and Norman Rockwell images, holiday parties and presents… Thinking about these things overwhelms me. All I want to do is sleep until February.

I donated all your clothes. Your desk and work materials are all gone. The signs of your life are getting fewer and fewer. It is getting hard to remember the sound of your voice, but your shadow still looms large. Sometimes I plead with you, “don’t leave me.” Other times I beg you to let me go.

I am surrounded by people, but I feel profoundly alone. I feel guilty because I want what you and I had together.

You once asked me why I held back or sometimes pulled away from you. Fear, I said. I am afraid of getting hurt. I wish now I hadn’t been afraid. If I could turn back time, I would love full out. No hesitations or reservations. I would love like there is no tomorrow.

Because sometimes there isn’t.

Small Victories

 

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Sometimes it feels like you died yesterday. Other times it feels like years. My emotions are a roller coaster. I am grateful for the occasional upswings. For a while the ride was totally downhill.

The most important lesson I have learned, and there have been many, is to appreciate the small victories in life. Yesterday I laughed.

I don’t know a lot of “merry widows”, but I do know some funny ones. People who have walked the same path can say things they wouldn’t dare say to the uninitiated.

Today I saw a glimpse of the “me” that has been buried beneath grief. I have a long way to go before I dig myself out completely. Last night was like so many nights. I didn’t fall asleep until 3:00am. I’m glad I keep five pillows on the bed because when one is soaked with tears, I can reach for another. Last night I used them all, but that doesn’t detract from my small victory.

Yesterday I laughed.

Valentine’s Day

Today is the day for lovers. Everywhere I look people are talking about love, falling in love, being in love…. I envy them. I hate them too. I really hate them. I wish this day was over. All I can think about is you.

This time last year you were in such pain, and we both knew we were running out of time. I kept the card you gave me but I can’t look at it now. I put it away for another time, a time when I am stronger.

Maybe someday I will be someone’s lover again. Maybe not. It is hard to imagine my hand in someone else’s hand or my heart ever being open to someone other than you.

I miss you.

The Last Goodbye

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You died one year ago, today. A part of me died too. I’ve spent the last year screaming, crying and changing. Your death has changed me in so many ways. I am wiser and more compassionate. I focus more on the people who matter, and much less on the things that don’t. I have little patience for people who bitch and moan about stupid stuff.

I can make it through a whole day without crying now, but you are never far from my thoughts. My God, I still miss you so much. It still feels like a physical pain that will not go away. I’ve heard of “phantom pain.” It’s pain from a limb that is no longer a part of the body. I’ve always wondered how that could be possible. Now I know.

This will be my last letter to you. It makes me sad to stop writing to you but, I must let you go so that I can go forward. I will always be grateful for my time with you and for the love we shared. Thank you for being my friend and my lover. Goodbye my love.

Written by Desiree M. Simons – Bonham, Texas

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