Getting Through

“Ultimately, the only way to get through something is to get through it-  not over, under, or around it, but all the way through it.”

  -Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Life is Goodbye/Life is Hello

She kept her photo journal of the house construction in a book that is full of surprisingly appropriate quotes like that.

Lots of getting through to be done this month. On February first I took the new car up to the new place and got my keys. There still was more work to be done on the house in order to hit the closing date, but if all went well by the end of the shortest month the house was supposed to be home to another family, and I would be settled into a more appropriately sized place which won’t be full of memories waiting to ambush me.

Well,  that was the theory, anyway.

After we picked up the keys and checked out the place my daughter and I went across the border into to New Hampshire for some dinner and furniture shopping. She found a terrific Indian place on Yelp that was nothing to look at from the road but had great food. Feeling sufficiently fortified, and perhaps a bit overstuffed, we headed out to look at televisions and furniture.

There was a Best Buy right next to a furniture store, so we parked there and went in to get a rough idea of the television shopping landscape. It’s funny, when we built the house I was working on a contract to develop control systems for television transmitters. It was just as High Def broadcast was coming on-line, and I joked that this was going to be the house that HDTV built. We never got the follow-on contract for the HDTV transmitters, and instead, I will leave the place having never even put a High-Def set in it.

Once we were done getting an idea of the options for TVs we headed out to go across the lot to look at the furniture, but as we started towards the door I noticed the appliance section, and realized what I really should have been looking for was a washer and a dryer.

You never know what is going to get you, but I certainly never thought considering what size laundry equipment I was going to need would be a semi-traumatic experience. Something about trying to find a washer and dryer sized for one instead of a whole family just hit me as totally wrong. The following furniture shopping was only mildly less traumatic. I ended up not buying anything that day.

Like so many things I have experienced over the last year, the second try was much less traumatic, and a month later the condo has a new mattress set in it, a washer and dryer, a really nice TV, and just this Friday a new couch and chair arrived for the living room.

I have moved virtually nothing over from Amherst yet, as I was waiting for the work on the house to be completed. And the more I look at the condo and the furniture back at the house, the less of it I want to bring.  We built a neo-Victorian, and furnished it accordingly.  Right now I’m somewhat glad our budget restrained us from some of the furniture we contemplated on the way, as it would be just that much more stuff to get rid of now.

The place you live can really strongly affect the way you look at things. We spent far too long in our little starter ranch, and the big house was partly about reasserting who we were and how we saw our place in the world. We built a house big enough to be the anchor for the extended family we valued so much. The scale was set up so that we could easily handle all the holidays, and so that the kids could bring their friends over without anybody feeling cramped. When I first started looking for places to move to I kept trying to maintain a scaled down version of that, thinking about space for holidays and room for the grandchildren to play.

The first few places I locked onto were very much in that vein. I could have just dropped a lot of the furniture from here into them with a minimum of hassle. But then what? My children are grown, my wife is gone.  That isn’t my life anymore. I would be living alone in an empty house that was sized for a family. For that, I could just stay here.

The weather delays in the construction actually helped me out here.  The more I looked at what I was doing, the more I realized I needed to force a change. The new place is intentionally too small. The architecture is modern, the old furniture won’t fit. This is a place that’s perfectly sized for one, viable for two, but way too small for a family. I can have a few people over, but nothing like the bashes we hosted here. That’s fine, this year is not for that. This is the year I stop looking back and start looking forward.

Meanwhile back at the house, the siding work is finally finished, and all that remains is a little drywall work to close up the areas in the office and garage where they did the structural repairs. There is yet another dumpster in the driveway, full of construction debris this time, but that will be gone tomorrow. By the end of the week, the house should finally be contractor-free. It has taken five months to get this place fixed, largely thanks to the wonderful winter weather we have been experiencing. It only took seven months to build it in the first place. Come to think of it, that may help explain why it needed so much fixing only seventeen years later.

I have rescheduled the closing for March 28th, a full month after the original date. That leaves me with less than three weeks to completely empty this place out. This would be somewhat challenging if I could take some time off from work, but the next two weeks are wall to wall critical meetings. I have no idea how I am going to pull this off.

The only way to get through is to get through. I have gotten through much harder things already.

One month from now I should finally actually be rid of the house, and at least some of the chaos of this transition year will be behind me. I don’t care if I have to get another two dumpsters and just trash everything that’s left in the house. I’m done here.

I have spent well over a year writing an epilogue to the life that was. The hassles with the house have kept me in limbo for the past four months. It’s really time to start writing the prologue for what is yet to be.

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Busy Day

Slowly, oh so slowly, the ice is cracking.

I started the day by signing the Purchase and Sale Agreement for the house, and ended the afternoon by signing the lease on the condo. Yes, the ‘little house for a little while’ has resolved itself into a condo rental. A bit less romantic, perhaps, but a little more realistic as well. That, I think, is the overriding theme of the last few months. Over a year since the disaster, and slowly the drama is draining out of my life. That’s just fine, I’ve already had enough drama for a lifetime already, thank you very much.

Drama is highest in life and death situations. That’s why television is always full of medical and criminal shows. Drama is a lot more entertaining to watch than it is to live, though.

It has taken me months to recognize that the crisis is over, that life-and-death is over, for the moment, at least. It was very strange to watch myself responding to every event like it was a crisis, but that’s how it went for months on end. I wonder if I ever will react to things the same way again. My whole concept of what is critical and what isn’t has been recalibrated. The calibration process certainly wasn’t very straightforward.

I don’t think it was proper PTSD, or anything that serious, but I sure was a mess, and not without reason. I’m not quite all the way to whatever normal is yet, either.  But when the worst thing imaginable, the thing you refused to even imagine, happens to you, and you didn’t see it coming, your entire sense of proportion is trashed. You need to rebuild it completely, and until you do, it’s impossible to react properly to anything. Everything is either far too serious to cope with, or far too trivial to even warrant a response. I wonder what I looked like from the outside. From the inside it was weird enough.

So it’s actually somewhat nice to be running out of high drama to write about.

My loss isn’t any less. There is still a huge hole in the middle of my life where she used to be. But I’m getting better at not falling down into the hole every time I turn around. And I’m getting better at assigning an appropriate level of seriousness to the events and people in my life.

Of course there is this odd reality to my life. After spending thirty years intentionally off the fast track raising my family in a wonderful and odd New England college town I find myself squarely back on that fast track. I never defined my sense of self by work, it always took a back seat to being a husband and a parent. I always worked hard, but it was always to support them.

The kids are grown. My wife is sadly gone. I am determined to rebuild a personal life that is not defined by my work…

But in the meantime I have a chance to build something that a billion people will touch. And that is kind of cool.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

Again at Christmas did we weave
  The holly round the Christmas hearth;
  The silent snow posses’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve.
 
The yule log sparkled keen with frost,
  No wing of wind the region swept,
  But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
            – Alfred Lord Tennyson
 

The tree is decorated, the presents are wrapped and under the tree, the kids are in bed for the night. I’m sitting in the parlor one last Christmas Eve in the house we built for Christmas. I got a real tree this year, the first one I’ve had in years. I wanted to have that smell in here one last time. This tree won’t be chipped at the transfer station, I already know what to do with it after the new year.

She loved A Christmas Carol, loved the book, liked most every movie adaptation, loved the musical version Scrooge with Albert Finney, even loved Bill Murray’s Scrooged modernized take on the story. This year I find myself mulling over Christmases past and present, and wondering about those yet to come.

For years she struggled with Christmas, because it was the time she most missed her mother. Every year when we decorated the tree she carefully unwrapped the old china bells her mother collected, always fretting over the cracked one. She worked hard at being happy in the holidays, and eventually she got good at it. It wasn’t an act, she just kept working at it, building more new good memories each year until the loss became bearable.

Now it’s my second Christmas without her, and already I realize I have my own set of ornaments that I’m paying attention to, the silly and sappy ones we bought in the 90s when she was on her Hallmark binge. Last year I was just numb, but this year I am out of shock. I can see why a lot of people feel like giving the holidays a pass after losing someone, but for me that doesn’t even seem like an option. Bringing the family together was so much a part of what we were that giving them up now would seem like a surrender to something she never gave in to.

In the morning, the house will fill up one more time, probably the last time for me. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning I intend to keep Christmas in the past, present, and the future. I am going to make sure we have one more day here where children are laughing and the conversation runs wild. I’ll remember her, and Kris, and K.C., and Tom, and my Mom. I will say thank you for all the good times here.

Next week, the tree will come down, and I will start packing things up for good here. I am ready to move on to a new place as soon as we get the repairs done. It’s funny, a year ago I thought I would like to spend one more Christmas in the place this year and then start someplace new early in 2014. I didn’t think that was a realistic hope, I figured it was either leave by fall of 2013 or wait until summer of ’14. This mess with the siding has given me the schedule I wanted, although it cost me a fortune. I guess I should be more careful in what I wish for.

Oh, and my plans for that Christmas tree? After it comes down, I’m taking it over to my friend’s place, five miles from the spot Barbara and I met. And on May Eve, her 51st birthday, the 32nd anniversary of the night we met while on fire duty, I will be tossing that tree onto a bonfire.

May we all spend this Christmas, and many more to come, the way she and I spent so many here in the past: surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones.

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The Longest Night

Solstice2013I spent much of the weekend with friends celebrating the Solstice. On Friday one of the small local hill towns had their annual bonfire with singing, stories, and a little dance out on their common, and then most people headed back to the General Store for warm drinks and food, maybe a little singing, and some dancing- sword dancing, that is. Saturday I joined a large group of friends caroling out a bit, singing in their tiny local library, and then returning to their home for a long evening of food, drink, companionship, and music.

Both my Morris team and my choir performed Friday, which made for a slightly challenging but extremely enjoyable evening. This is the only time I have been with the two groups at the same event. Well actually it’s the second. The first was a year ago, at the same celebration. That night I came up to sing with the choir I had just rejoined, an old family welcoming me back, still very raw and numb. I ended up sitting at a table of folks from the Morris community after being introduced by a mutual friend. By the end of the night the team had recruited me to join them for the next season.

There is always a little talk out at the bonfire about the history and meaning of the solstice and why communities gather at this time of year, both to educate the young ones and remind the rest of us. Our choir director gave it this year, and he spent a bit of time talking about the derivation of the word, which means “sun stands still”. In earlier periods, before people had accurate ways of measuring time, it was quite hard to detect the transition from shortening to lengthening of the days, as for a few weeks around the shortest day the changes are measured in just a few minutes, or even seconds. It’s not surprising, then, that traditional celebrations of this dark season run eleven or twelve days. It isn’t just the longest night we mark, it’s the longest nights, the darkest weeks of the year, where time itself seems frozen.

One of our favorite holiday shows when the kids were growing up was “The Bells of Fraggle Rock”. Of course it involved Muppets, we met over a mutual affection for the Swedish Chef, after all. The Fraggles have an annual celebration at their coldest time of the year where they all dance and ring bells, in order to keep the Rock where they live moving as it slows down. The stories have it that there is a Great Bell at the heart of the Rock, and that the Fraggles must ring their own bells to keep the Great Bell going through the coldest day, or it will stop, freezing the whole Rock and everybody in it.

This whole past year has been something of a solstice for me, a long dark night to be endured, where everything seemed frozen even on the warmest days. But like those Fraggles, I kept company with my family and friends. We rang our bells in the spring and summer, we clashed our sticks and swords and antlers in the fall and winter.  All year we sang the ancient songs. Family and friends endured more losses as grievous as mine, and celebrated births as well. The Rock did not stop, and the light is starting to come back,  slowly and gradually.

It has been a year since I started this blog, first just as my journal, and later as way to share this process with family, friends, and whoever else might want a look into this thing we all sign up for in marriage, but hope to never see. I am now looking back on my firsts without her, instead of my lasts with her.

At last year’s Yule feast event, I stumbled through with the choir, barely a month after she was gone. This year, she was present yet absent in quite a different way. Most of the items at the silent auction table were donations I made from her medieval craft library. It was odd going by the table all day seeing long familiar books looking for a new home, but at least they were popular and all found new homes while we raised some money for the travel fund. Still, it somehow felt like one more bit of dispersing the remains. The feast was excellent, court was really fun, and overall it was a good day, but there was no getting around the hole in the heart of it.

1-TurkeyKnightThe experience at the Solstice year to year was an altogether different thing. Last year I came with a few old friends, really my second family, looking for a way to get through what I knew would be a very long night ahead. I had no idea I would be adding another clan to my extended family that night as I watched the team outside performing the Abbott’s Bromley horn dance I had seen so many times, and then watched them pull off a sword dance inside a rather crowded general store later. This year I wasn’t a numb spectator, I was one of the guys with the antlers and swords. I was among friends, trying to juggle my time between them all, knowing that this community of family and friends, old and new, had pulled me through that year that I thought would never end.

This is the reason we perform rituals, over and over every year, whatever kind of community we are part of. We sing familiar songs, see the Nutcracker over and over, go to midnight Mass, decorate a tree, watch the same old movies, bake the holiday cookies, send out the cards, or go out for Chinese food. Whatever we do, they remind us of the continuity of life, they give us fixed milestones to measure our selves against. They let us know that even in the dark times, life does go on.

At the bonfire every year they pass out candles to the people gathered around, and give everyone who wants to a chance to offer up an intention for the coming year. I wasn’t quite around the fire right then, I was coming back with the team as they got ready to do the Mummer’s play, but I was close enough to hear and think about an intention. It started there, and formed a little more fully over the weekend.

PostCarolRevelry1.Saturday night we gathered at a friend’s house before the caroling, and then again afterwards for more general merriment. The house was overfilled in the ways ours had been so many times, and it solidified my intention from the night before: to build a home as welcoming and open as those I had experienced over the last year. I know how to do this, I did it once, and really I haven’t completely lost that. All this past year, I stuck to something I said before last Thanksgiving: as long as I am here, I will keep hosting the family get-togethers. A week ago I had the choir over for one last tree decorating party. The family will be here for Christmas, one more time.

One thing I have been trying to sort out over the last year, as I tried to put the previous thirty years in perspective, to pack up the lessons learned, to realign myself for the life ahead without her was simply this: What went right?  We were lucky to find each other for sure, but we also did a lot of things right, and I wanted to process that before I lost the thread, before the memories got distorted by the passage of time.

A lot happens in thirty years, and you can shorthand your memories to the point where you lose track of little things that you didn’t realize were important. As I formed that intention to create a welcoming home for my friends and family, I thought back, all the way back, to those first few weeks when we were dating, when we just fell almost instantly into effortless conversation that we never tired of.

We both came from large extended families. For both of us, fourteen around the Sunday dinner table was the norm growing up. We had so many cousins we lost track of them. Our houses were the ones the extended family came to on the big holidays. It was what we remembered, it was the thing that stuck with both of us. After four years of living alone to get a taste of personal space after sharing a room with two brothers, I knew what I wanted. Nine years after losing her mother she knew what she wanted, and it was the same thing. Before the kids, before the chaos, before everything else what we wanted was very simple: to provide the place where things happened, to be in a home that regularly was filled with laughter and song and silliness.

Christmas is at my house this year. And wherever I am next year, it will be there too.

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Laundry Night

You know, living in a town where there is a brew pub right next door to the laundromat sure takes the edge off of a broken dryer. Oddly enough, it also finally affords me a chance to write again.  We have to stop meeting this way….

I stopped in for dinner while my laundry was drying, and after the second brew it occurred to me I might be better off not driving home right away. So instead, I stuck around for a round of dessert and coffee, long enough for a couple of reasonably talented guys to start playing and convince me it was worth sticking around to listen and maybe write for a spell. Score one more for serendipity.

The guys are pretty good, singing a pub friendly mix of stuff ranging from current Imagine Dragons back to Otis Reading songs you know are way older than them. There are a couple of tables you can tell are the girlfriends and other friends here to cheer their buddies on. The rest of the bar is at least not annoyed, but the applause is pretty much limited to the friends and often me. A season of Morris has reminded me the effort it takes to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and put yourself out there. You go guys, you’re doing pretty well.

The last few weeks have been a busy run of fixing walls and decking halls, trying to get the house ready to sell, and setting up for an unexpected final Christmas at the tall house. I really thought I would be out of here by now. The house, it appears, has other ideas.

Like the beautiful but psychopathic ex-girlfriend in the movies, the house keeps coming back for one more dig. The work on the east wall kept expanding, eventually requiring the crew to strip off even the scalloped “gingerbread” up in the eaves. Every place there was trim or flashing they found something wrong. The crew is hoping  to be done before Christmas, but that is pretty much up to the mercy of the late December weather. Needless to say, all this has held off the buyers. Now they want me to repeat the process on all the other walls. So much for getting into a new place for the new year. I just let go of the duplex I was negotiating a lease on.

This hasn’t stopped us from finding office space, and in a few weeks I’ll be dealing with the long commute again, something I thought I could skip this time around. At this point I’m willing to get into a daily office routine any way I can. Working at home simply does not work, not this home, not now.

Still, like that pretty psycho-ex, the house keeps teasing me with the beautiful sunrise views, the ridiculously good light, the views from every room. And then the claws dig in, because it was our place, and it will never be just mine. We had a good time, but it’s really over between us, House. It’s time we both moved on.

These buyers still seem willing to buy after the rest of the work gets done, and if they don’t, by the time it’s done we’ll be back in the prime selling season. I can wait a few more months. Maybe the universe is simply trying to teach me patience here.

I have been in a hurry to get to that mythical “clean sheet of paper” for a while now, but after a year, a month, a week, and a day I know I still have a lot of work to do, and much more importantly, I have realized there is no clean sheet. What he had, what we were, what we did remains. Our family, my business, the friends I made through her, all of the things that hold my life together remain. It’s a new page, but the same book.

And it is a hell of a good book. I remember my Dad frequently saying “life is good”, almost like a mantra, the year after my mother died. I find myself doing the same these days. Life is fragile, it is too short, and that means every day is precious, and not something to be wasted. She knew that, and she lived that truth. Despite the inevitable losses and the pain, this really is a good book. I’m just itching to get to the next chapter.

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Another Thanksgiving

I just got the bird in the oven and decided to reward myself with some writing time. At the beginning of the month I promised myself I would spend more time writing. Then something amazing happened. It’s called real life. After a year of having nothing to do but soak in grief, a year where I learned that I can write and that I really like doing it, I’m too damn busy to write. And that’s frustrating, because there is much to write about.

I was going to write a piece about Hidden Damage after seeing what a dangling light fixture that catches a lot of rain can do to a house, and then having an unexpected mini-meltdown, just when I thought I had it together. But before I got a chance to write it I pulled myself back together and got back to work.

Work. What a wonderful word, I have something that I’m actually good at and want to do consuming the day. And I’m finally about to start getting regular paychecks for the first time in three years, too! I need to get the heck out of this house and into someplace else for work, though. The empty space is too distracting, my focus is not what it needs to be.

The family starts to arrive and I dive back into preparation for what almost certainly is the last Thanksgiving at the Very Tall House. Last year I stumbled through still raw and numb, but I’ve had a year to adjust to the new reality. Last year I let the kids run things, and just reserved the bird for myself so I would have something to do. This year, it’s a smaller gathering, but it has meaning for me, and I am in charge again. I still delegated a lot of the work, but I am directing things myself . That feels good, too.

At a dozen people, this last is also the smallest Thanksgiving we ever had in this house. My niece, her husband, and their baby are off with his family. Even my Dad isn’t here. He is spending the holiday with his girlfriend’s family. She deserves her turn too.  Life goes on, families grow, relationships get more complicated, and with the crisis past it is time for me to take my turn like everybody else. Another thing to feel good about.

After dinner, the grown kids gathered around the fireplace for the nearly obligatory twisted game of Apples to Apples that springs up when we are together. We started playing it with them over a decade ago, and as they got older the general sense of a winning answer shifted more and more towards finding the most outrageous response possible. Today’s game was played by my daughters, my nephews, and nieces, and  the two grand-kids sitting in laps with the jokes going right over their heads.

I read an article the other day about the second year of grief, how many find it even harder than the first year. As the article ticked off the reasons, I saw that my peculiar circumstances might mitigate at least some of them. One of the big points was the effects of secondary losses, things beyond the direct absence of your loved one. Things like loss of income, and loss of support network really don’t apply to me. My financial situation has been bad for years and is finally better again, and through the help of a few old friends my social support network is bigger than it has ever been. But one thing that resonated was the loss of shared dreams.

I realized that all my stress over leaving the house was exactly that. This place had been a shared dream we built together, and a big physically tangible manifestation of that.

Tonight I watched that game of Apples to Apples play out, and listened to the laughter and groans shared by the next generation, those cousins as close a s siblings. Earlier I heard them talking about how we would all rotate the holidays once I moved out of here. Thinking about them as the game played on I recognized something I had known for a while. We built something here, something much more than a house, more than a mere home. We anchored an extended family for over a decade as they grew and came into their own. That’s the thing we built, the family that supported each other in the wake of her loss, that will be here after I’m gone too. The house was just the scaffolding.

In one of the bookcases we cleaned out a few months ago was a little book called “the wish list”. It’s one of those odd little list books with things you can pick and check off that you want to do, a bucket-list builder. She circled things she wanted to do someday, and checked off the ones she had already done.  I always got a kick out of looking at it and seeing all the things she managed to do even before I met her at nineteen. The other day I was flipping through it and saw a circled entry that threw me a bit. She had circled “Help my mate realize his dream”. No check mark. This was a woman who prided herself on being right almost all the time. How could she not know she had already done that? Check it, and underline it in red. Done.

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Sunday at the Diner

Sunday
In the blue, silver chromium diner
On the green, purple, yellow, red stools
Sit the fools
Who should eat at home
Instead, they pay on
Sunday

For a cool orange juice or a bagel
On the soft, green cylindrical stools

Jonathan Larson,   “Sunday”, from tick, tick…BOOM!

I was going to go for a short hike this on Sunday morning, but when it started drizzling onto my windshield I decided to just skip it and go out for breakfast at the local diner. That song from tick, tick…BOOM! started running through my head as I pulled into the parking lot, but I got there before the rush, so they gave me a small booth instead of a stool at the counter.

Sunday at our diner is a lot less hectic than that Larson song, at least when you go early before the college students get up and flood the place. The parking lot wasn’t that full, and there was a preponderance of working pickup and trade trucks. I overheard some of the locals talking about getting the crops in as I noticed a bunch of college kids at another booth, a reminder of the nice mix we have here of agriculture and academia. That’s one of the many things I will miss when I leave this area.

As I got my coffee and placed my order I realized that I have gotten used to the idea of eating out alone, something that I used to only do when I was on the road. I always felt a bit out of place doing that before, but now it has become part of the new normal. I noticed a middle aged guy a few booths down with a laptop and a stack of papers and wished I had brought my tablet with me as ideas for writing started coming to me. During the mid-morning rush they never would have put up with that, but early on there is plenty of space.

My thoughts drifted back to another Sunday breakfast, eight or nine years ago, at Gaby in the New York Sofitel. We stumbled onto the place through a web reservation screw-up that forced them to upgrade us from the budget Novotel several blocks away to a suite with a terrific view of the Chrysler building, one of her favorite pieces of architecture. Best. Screw-up. Ever. Sofitel is a French chain, and we both noticed the staff’s increased attention when they saw our oh-so French last name. After that, the Sofitel became our favorite place to stay, although we couldn’t afford to do it often.

Gaby was our place when we were in town. Even when we didn’t stay at the hotel we would often stop in the bar for a drink after a show. It’s where she fell in love with chocolate martinis. But the thing I remember most is breakfast with a basket of croissants, a coffee press, and her, with the early morning light managing to make its way in the windows from 43rd street. It was simply lovely.

That memory came to me without tears, it just felt good to remember.  More and more often, that is how they come, bringing just smiles. I read the blogs and postings of other widows and widowers, often much younger than I am, and so often I am taken by the pain they feel for having been denied their time together. We were lucky in that regard. We had just barely enough time. We had enough time to cram in all the big things on our list, every last one.

We never made it to Europe. It was on the “get to it someday” list, but all those theater weekends in New York were more important to both of us. We didn’t have Paris, but we had Gaby, and that was close enough.

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