It’s amazing what turns up when you are clearing out the attic. We ran across a box that had a bunch of old posters in it. They were up on the wall in her dorm room when we were dating, and some of them later migrated to the kids’ playroom in the basement of the old house. One in particular struck me. It was a photo of a huge elaborate sand castle. The caption reads “Fashion a dream and make it come true.”
We did that. One day on our honeymoon we built a big sand castle and then stayed all evening to watch the tide take it back out to sea. Then we built a whole life together. We raised a family, watched them grow and leave to start their own lives. I co-founded a business, and watched my designs get shipped in the millions. We spent so much time in Broadway theaters that she ended up with Tony winners as Facebook friends. We even built our own castle of sorts. That three story bay window was as close to a turret as we could get on our budget. We greeted our first two grandchildren, young enough to enjoy rug time with them, just as we had hoped. It was a dream, only better. It was real.
Then, like that sand castle, it all washed away.
When we were cleaning out that attic I had to lug a whole set of encyclopedias down three flights of stairs. That got me thinking about this place I now find myself in life in terms of books, volumes, and chapters. I wondered about a proper title for this chapter I’m in now, at the last chapter of the last book of the volume of my life with her. For a bit I considered “The End of All Dreams”. There are days when it feels like that, like it was all a dream that ended in a nightmare that left me with nothing. I stuck on that for a while, almost wrote a piece titled that. But I don’t have nothing.
I have lost my wife, but I still have our family. They are still out there, building their lives, starting to make a mark of their own in the world. This week, our grandchildren are out on a beach building sandcastles of their own. Their dreams are just getting started.
I lost my best friend, but I still have incredible friends, some I’ve known for forty years, some for twenty, and some new. All of them have been supportive in ways I never could have imagined.
I lost my lover, but I still have love. Those friends, that family have held me together when I couldn’t do it myself, and to be honest, that’s still most of the time.
In my last post I wrote about going down to the river Styx and watching as she crossed over. It occurs to me that when a spouse dies, we don’t just stand at the bank and watch them go. We get pulled in too. We cross to the threshold ourselves, as a part of us dies with them. The first part of this journey back to the living starts with whatever pieces we have left crossing back across the river, and it’s a cruel stream.
I talked with my brother the other day about how he really didn’t want to hear people express their sympathy. Sympathy is ok, but it doesn’t go very far. Getting across that river is really, really hard.
It was right at the beginning of my journey back that these friends of mine showed what they are made of. A bunch of the people we used to sing with pulled together something for her memorial service on very short notice. It was short, it was beautiful, and when they started singing “Dona Nobis Pachem” I somehow managed to pick up my old part along with them. They came to the house afterwards, and they didn’t just say how sorry they were for her passing. They said “We miss you, come sing with us again.” And I did, and so every Sunday night I had a place to go, and old friends to reconnect with. They didn’t just offer sympathy, they threw me a rope, right when I needed it.
A few weeks later another friend said “You really should meet this bunch of guys who dance Morris and get together at the pub and sing.” I didn’t take the bait the first time, but she kept at it. I finally gave in when she prodded me on the night of the first practice in January. And with that I had a whole new set of friends I had never really met before who immediately took me in as one of their own. So on Tuesday nights I had a place to go, and a setting where Barbara wasn’t missing, because she had never been part of this group, although she would have felt right at home with them. Another rope, another line to the shore I was making for.
And then my oldest group of friends started having guys nights here and there, when everything before had been couples. Maybe it was serendipity, but it sure helped.
Her sisters brought back the family holiday get together that hadn’t happened in years and made sure we came. I have started connecting with her brother on my west coast trips. All making sure I know I’m still part of the family. And my family has been a rock, as always.
And with all of these different groups, it was the same care, the same repeated calls to make sure I knew something was coming up. Do you need I ride, can you give so-and-so a ride, hey I’m setting up a carpool. All those gentle pulls to keep me engaged, when it’s so easy to just not bother. And always making room for me when I needed to pull away and collect myself, just happy to have me there at all.
They all knew the basics: when somebody is drowning, don’t express concern, don’t ask if he needs help, get the guy a rope! And if he misses the first time, keep throwing him another one.
And with those ropes, the friends, old and new, built me a bridge. And they built it well. On the first few get-togethers with the Morris folk, when new acquaintances would ask about me, the friend who brought me would start to tell them about Barbara before I had a chance to answer, saving me from the impossible task of explaining without collapsing. The team read the blog, a use I had never expected when I first started this thing as a personal journal kept in a place where I couldn’t lose it. Suddenly, there was a whole group who had never met her who knew about her. And it grew more. When we couldn’t disperse all of her craft stash to her friends, the network of friends worked to get her supplies to good homes, and I found out that a group of people heard about Barbara from someone who had never even met her, as her story was passed along with the yarn and books she collected.
So many strands, so much care. Just the kind of thing she would have built.
This bridge is made of rope, so it’s still pretty bouncy, and I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I get a false sense of how close I am to shore, but the water is still always there just below, and it’s easy to get washed over. So when I’m with you but not quite there, be patient still. I am not home yet, but I’m on my way.