Becoming a Widow...10 Things I've Learned

               10 Things I have Felt, Observed, Learned and Accomplished 
                           Since Becoming a Widow

Losing my husband unexpectedly was like a merry-go-round that suddenly stops! Our marriage ended when he didn't wake up from his afternoon nap. I've been on an emotional roller coaster; wandering through financial mazes and unknown pathways into this world of widowhood. 'You cannot start a new chapter unless you stop re-reading the old one' the saying goes. And yet I cannot put the story of our Great Adventure down. Over and over I revisit the memories and what might have been. Nothing prepares you for having your life interrupted and forever changed, but over the last six months I've learned to be a little braver and move a bit more forward as I face life on my own.

  • Your Adult Kids will step up and do what needs to be done. Let them. They will give you strength and comfort as their spouses comfort them. They will use their talents and resources to make things happen. They will shield you when necessary....but give you that push you may need at other times. They will give balance to decision making; knowing when to take over ....and when to step back and respect your choices. My son and daughter were hit hard with the loss of their Dad and their kids' grandfather.  I'm still amazed at how well we got through it and have never been prouder of my children.
  • Ownership of credit cards, vehicles and houses make a BIG difference in the debt and varying shades of red tape you'll face! Two of our cards were in his name only; I was an authorized user. I don't recall us ever considering this or being asked any preference. Visa was quick to write off the balance; American Express not so much. They inquired regularly about the estate, but the calls finally stopped when my lawyer explained there was no estate; no probate. Collection calls are frightening; know your rights and seek legal help if necessary. Our cars and home were in both our names.....with the house having the important "joint tenancy with survivorship" clause in the contract! 
  • Finances I had to think about money. I sold his car and refinanced the house; reducing my payments by $600! My husband was retired, but did free-lance writing for several publications. I would miss that income, so I had to make changes quickly. His insurance money came within weeks; but it took awhile to secure results with Social Security and our pensions because didn't occur to me for months to pick up the phone; and the processing took more time. Stopping newspaper subscriptions, reducing cable, phone and internet to the minimum needs... and discontinuing pest, weed and lawn services helped make a dent in monthly expenses. Doing without car washes, hair appointments, Starbucks or browsing Target taught me I could live frugally while waiting to get things settled! Someone told me it takes a year to really know where you stand with your financial future, so I continue to be wise and careful.
  • Accepting comfort is not always comfortable; but you quickly learn you have more grace than you ever imagined. I'm a hugger and a crier, so that part was easy! I answered questions truthfully, but without much detail. It was raw and private in my opinion; giving CPR, the paramedics suggesting 'cease and desist.' As phone calls and texts started coming, I replied to some; my kids handled the others. The doorbell ringing with gifts of food and wine was awkward. I didn't feel like eating or serving anything; couldn't think about dishware, napkins, glasses. And so I said as much. I recall now that my pals took over the kitchen and handed me a plate and drink. I just let it be....and they just let me talk. The stack of sympathy cards was overwhelming. Do I respond? I've saved these comforting words and have acknowledged each one little by little. I don't think it's expected, but that's me.

  • Kids' Views about death are amazing. My grandchildren touched my heart and saved my soul with their sweet innocence. A child cuddled on your lap is peaceful glue that holds you together. Their questions and comments are spot on: "grandpa got dead; now it's a grandma-only house" and "don't worry, grandma, I'll help you understand sports!" I laughed through my tears at "grandpa will be a writer in the sky." Two months after he passed away, my teenage granddaughter spent a week with me. She listened and talked with me like an old friend; asking how our story began, and remembering all that she missed and loved about grandpa. Our first; she knew him the best and the longest. All five attended the funeral... each with a role to play.  Helping with the photo and memento displays, manning the guest book, passing out programs and, to my delight, the second oldest spoke the welcoming words as the service began.

  • Handling the fog and heaviness of grief is tough because you don't know when it's coming. Music will do it, a kind word, an older couple walking hand-in-hand or just roaming through your home with reminders of him around every corner. Some days you feel uncertain, unsteady and unanchored; I learned to stay put and let the teary sadness come. Be careful if it grips you while driving; scary to wonder where you are, where to turn or where you were headed. I had to pull over and wait it out. Other days I'm eager to get to the gym or store or lunch with friends. Joining a grief group allowed me to face my anger over his leaving; and keeping my grandkids on weekends helped strengthen me and ease the pain. The kids wrote notes and drew pictures for grandpa in heaven. Surprisingly, this nonchalant celebration of him makes me happy. One day at a time is absolutely true!

  • Everyday adjustments like cooking, taking out the trash, killing bugs or figuring out why the dryer doesn't work takes time...but will build confidence. These things my husband handled; now I use his tool box, keep a shoe handy, take my time in the grocery aisles......and what I cannot do, I put on a list for my son, son-in-law and neighbors. This is part of the deal....learning to ask for help. I built and lit a fire during the winter storms and made tacos for myself. However, I'm hanging clothes in the great outdoors until the dryer fairy comes. I was spoiled, dependent and well cared for; so it's not easy taking charge of my house and my life. But, like the good witch told Dorothy, I've "always had the power." Buying and preparing nutritious food has been my biggest challenge, so figuring things out for myself and asking questions is another step in the right direction. 

  • His things versus our things will make you stop, think and question...probably forever. I lowered the cable bill by removing the hundred dollars' worth of sports packages he loved. Terrible guilt...I'd complained over the years...but it had to be done. More hand-wringing cancelling three papers. Newspapers were us. We met working on our college paper, he was an editor in various cities and newspapers meant coffee and lively discussions in our retirement years. His shirts and pants are still in the closet; but I did donate his warm sweaters and jackets.  His recliner is still 'grandpa's chair.' His office we call the den now. I work at his computer sometimes, but the pictures and posters, the model car, the lanyards from every convention he attended are part of him....thus a part of me. I sold his beloved jeep; where he let the grandkids pile in the back and ride dripping wet the half block from the pool. The fab five will always be ours...becoming grandparents created our future 16 years ago.

  • Honoring his wishes and his life are huge responsibilities. We'd discussed what-ifs during our 47 years together and assured each other we were having a wonderful life. He felt strongly about cremation and wanted his ashes spread on the lake where he grew up. It was a beautiful ceremony. We held two services in two different states; one was taped and made into DVD's for us, the other was photographed and made into a photo book; treasures forever. I'm filled with joy when I get all green lights, find lucky pennies or hear the twins ask how God will let Santa know not to leave presents under the tree. Whether a spiritual connection or the humor in everyday things, he is close. I tell him about my day at bedtime; and say 8-13 (our anniversary date) morning and night as was our habit. The holidays went smoothly with the support of family and friends who made sure he was included...using his recipes, lighting candles, giving toasts. Framed photos of him sit in every room and I smile now when I glance up and see a reminder. We always knew someday one of us would be left to carry on; keeping his light burning is part of that commitment.

  • Moving forward will seem like two steps ahead, one step behind. Keeping busy helps; for me it's been cleaning house, going back to work and volunteering. Hazy, blue days just need the comfort of time I write, I read, I cry. But there is much more to beginning this new chapter. First, I asked who am I now? Is my body still attractive? Am I single or a widow? Will my goals and intentions change?  How can I be confident in all that I do without my cheerleader? It's not easy rediscovering self-image...reinventing a future. Initially, I worried about being the only one left....that I'd die too. I stopped exercising and driving at night and was afraid of shadows. It took my doctor's push to get me back in the gym. I was needed in the evening hours, so I drove. I eventually stopped leaving lights on at night and slept just fine. Memories don't bring tears so much anymore, but rather joy in understanding that his love equipped me for what's ahead.

 My mom showed me how to age gracefully, but I remember how she hid her grief and slowed down after my dad died. So consider this; what a great gift it can be to show our kids how to live the end of life. I want to keep traveling, learning and playing just as my husband and I did. Can I do it alone? Will I find a companion? Should I sell the house? I'll find a new future, but I'll still read the chapters of my past once in while. I feel an inner whisper that tells me I'm making progress.

Australia, Diamonds and Love

A diamond necklace AND the trip of a lifetime.....what more could a girl want!

My guy surprised me with this simple "Live, Laugh and Love" piece that was popular at the time. Knowing I was not  much of a jewelry person, he was glad to find something I'd wear; "it's exactly who you are" his note read on Valentine's Day morning. He'd left it on the bed as he was always up and off to work before me.   I was surprised and tickled....and wore it to show off at school that day.

But it worried me...could we afford it? Two weeks earlier, we finally agreed to go to Australia that year.....a place I'd been wanting to visit ever since my brother moved there. He'd surprised me then also....showing me the tickets and sharing in my excitement. I thought it was the best gift ever.  I didn't care about diamonds right now. At noontime I sent him this email (yes, I kept a copy as it was meaningful...and funny at the time!)

"I can't stop thinking about your gift, sweetheart! All your surprises and little things that you do are so romantic...I like being in love with you! But I would like to ask that we return it for now and get it another year. I feel incredibly lucky that you want to go to Australia with me. That is my gift, honey! We actually have the tickets and we're really going....with you beside me all the way. Our kids are married and we have grandchildren and here we are, still in love with security and companionship and romance!
Can you understand what I'm saying? That I love this necklace, but I want to enjoy traveling on an adventure with you first.  Let's return it and save our money. Let's concentrate on taking our love down under! You make me feel like our first kiss on the steps at the lake! But please know the trip will be the best gift of all!"

His reply went like this; " let's talk about it later. I'm pushing the guys for an early deadline."
A few minutes later, another one; " I love you too, but you're wearing that necklace to Australia. There's a game on tonight."

Well, I kept it. Don't recall if we ever discussed it. We spent two weeks in Australia. I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, he spent a day wandering around Homebush Bay, site of the 2000 Olympics. We spent time in the Blue Mountains with family and enjoyed time at the Coffs Harbor Zoo with friends. We spent days and nights in The Rocks and the quays;  enjoying the sights by day and the romance at night on the water.

 We had so much fun laughing at  the slang and great words Australians use. For the rest of his life, he called me "a damn fine woman"....a common expression he picked up over there; along with the familiar cuppa in referring to our morning coffee.  We celebrated Easter and my Birthday in Oz. We never tired of talking about all that we did and learned; he loved the history and I loved staying in touch with all the new people we'd met. Friends of friends, relatives of relatives. It really was our trip of a lifetime.....and it lasted us 11 years.

 The necklace loved Australia too. After our third grandchild was born, I renamed it my "Sunshine, Star and Flower" necklace....the nicknames I'd given the kids. After the twins came along, he said I needed to go back to calling it my 'laugh and love' necklace. And so I did; but in my heart it's always been my Valentine necklace. I’ll wear it again when I go back someday, as we promised each other we would. 

Remembering 9/11 the Day After

I have five grandchildren who call me Gramcracker! The one and only baby shower I had was for my second granddaughter, born the day after September 11, 2001. I was teaching 4th grade at the time, and my colleagues and room parents conspired to throw me a shower about a week after she arrived!

 My school handled 9/11 beautifully; it was the hardest day of my life in 33 years of education. The principal walked from room to room with a handwritten note to keep TVs and phones off.....with the simple message that something terrible was happening in NYC.
I can't believe all of us held it together. I went home, but could not relax or sleep; knowing I'd have to be strong again the next day when my students returned knowing what had happened.

Some arrived solemnly; others cranked up from seeing too many images they should have been shielded from. I tossed the lesson plans in favor of discussing and drawing their feelings and reactions......but the morning no sooner got started when my son called and said "come now......the baby's on the way!" Turning these scared, shocked kiddos over to a substitute was hard, but luckily I had a good one who knew the kids and my routine!

 Kayleigh was born that afternoon. She was our ray of sunshine and reassurance of life after the horrible tragedies of the previous day. I was torn between being with my students and caring for her 3 year-old big sister; but my family needed me too.

When I went back to school the following Monday, I shared her picture and told stories about her and her sister to my class. They were thrilled and spent their free time making cards for me! I took the cards home to share with my granddaughter and husband.

 It was the next day or so when I was totally surprised! A colleague came in and asked me to check on something while she watched my class.  It must have taken more than a few minutes.....because by the time I returned, there were parents and teachers and a cake waiting for me! The children gathered around me excitedly as I unwrapped their gifts.....each one bringing happiness and joy as I told how baby Kayleigh would love it!

The baby shower will always be the reminder of how my students, family and I healed and moved forward to embrace our beautiful world. It was originally planned as a pre-baby event; but circumstances brought her to us 3 weeks early. I'm forever grateful to my teaching pals and the parents who pulled it off. Kayleigh is now fifteen and still has the pink, long-eared bunny with her name on it; thanks to one of these 4th grade girls!

That's how I remembered 9/11 for many years. In the fall of 2014, Kayleigh and I went to New York City to visit the Memorial. We saw a play, rode the subway and ferries, skated in Rockefeller Center and took part in a Today Show broadcast. But we'll never forget that cold and rainy day we walked around the fountain, brushing our fingers across the names in a silent crowd. It is the most spiritual place I've ever been in; a feeling of sadness but also uplifting. We felt as though we'd honored not just those who died, but those who lived to forever shine the light. This is what filled me yesterday as the family gathered a day early to celebrate this growing up girl.