Milestone or Millstone? A Widower’s First Year

August 12, 2009

I am in disbelief at how the days have puddled into weeks and how, in turn, those have pooled into months and now reflect as a year- a year that will likely be the worst year of life for me. I recall those early days sometimes. Many times, they are vivid like the beeping of the machines that kept her lifeless body working. Often, I get flashes of emotion out of nowhere like waking up the next day after she died and the suffocating weight of reality sitting on my chest. I remember the shower I took that night after 3 long days in the hospital, shaking my head, wondering what I was going to do as what I thought life should be fell into the drain taking the form of my tears. I recall the deep breathing, almost like a nervous tick that I had for a few weeks; what I now feel was a physical manifestation of my disbelief… shock.

Somehow, it seems that I should be out of a transition stage and into a “new reality”, but I think they may be synonymous. How exactly can one “move on”? Doesn’t that beg for some sort of finality? Closure? Resolve? I’m sure that I could present many words that don’t surgically describe “it” or what “it” “is”.  But, I am convinced there is no finality. Why should there be? Something screams that I cannot both honor her and “arrive” at some destination. I feel as though I am living in a perpetual suitcase, thinking one day I’ll arrive at where ever it is I am to go now. I’ve been in the gatehouse and I am ready for these big black doors to swing open and allow the future come in. But, my future is now.

I have learned to tolerate this reality. Maybe that’s all one can do until the tolerance becomes acceptance and the acceptance becomes permission to let go of some of the pain. The pain that has become a beautiful remembrance, thinking somehow she is honored and that I am being loyal. The truth is she doesn’t need anything from me, anymore. In fact, if I think it through enough, I realize that she would want me to smile more than I ever have and stop being so damned sad. And, if my love for her is real love and not just the way she made me feel, I should be the happiest I have ever been because of where she is and the real joy she is experiencing.

Even so, it’s harder to smile without her. Linen keeps me going though. She has been my salvation through all of this. I realize now that I needed her more than she needed me. Fathering the transition from baby to little 2 year old girl has been tough but has also allowed me to escape this new reality 15 hours a day. The nights catch me lying awake with my questions more often than sleeping. The weight of the grief has stretched my eyes as well as my faith. I have had a few friends that have listened to my questions of faith, existence, providence and sovereignty, and I appreciate their honesty in not having all the answers. I have read the books on grief that all seem to say the same things. In my opinion, they should all be found in the comedy section of the bookstore, not because they are not helpful, as they must be for some… or most, I don’t know? But, when you are living it out and you read it; it’s just ominously droll.

When you are in the hell of grief, you have many friends in numbness, loneliness, hopelessness, emptiness, depression and anger. They all hate me and love me. They take their unsystematic rotation in my home. I loved numbness the best but she doesn’t come around much anymore without manufacturing and I made a promise not to get lost in those things that would keep her with me. I made a decision to go deep, hoping that the healing would be deep and I would come out better for having endured one of life’s toughest punches. The day after Carla died, my friend with which I feel sometimes we share the same brain, drove me to see Dr Rhoades, my old psychology teacher who is now, once again, practicing. He had lost his wife, Sharon two years before. He told me that he made a promise to himself to not lose himself in drugs or alcohol or to hide in another relationship. That was the last time I went to see him. Either he’s that good or I fight alone. Whatever the case, I took his words and made them my own promise. But, this allows no room for hiding from the pain.

Prayer was no help at first either. How could I talk to God about the pain when he put me here to endure it in the first place? How could I ask God for anything when the only thing I asked for was Carla’s life? I still believed in Him. How could I not? The intricacies of life scream design. No, my real problem was “Who is this God?”

After Carla and I had been dating a few months, I went to Ft Leonardwood, Missouri for basic training and AIT, as if that wasn’t enough to endure in one lifetime. Missouri loves company and Carla was a faithful writer. It was there; in our separation that I knew that I loved her and that I would marry her. We used to seal each letter and draw joined puzzle pieces over the seal as a symbol of our “oneness” and “fitness.” This seal continued as I served in Afghanistan 2005-2006. A week after Carla died, I was in Barnes and Nobles buying The Shack (very good fiction), A Grief Observed (my year on paper, love it), 90 minutes in Heaven (less than okay). While there, I wanted to get a journal to start writing. I circled that doubled rack of paper bound by colors and cheap tricks and couldn’t find what I wanted. I needed one black, like my heart at the time. On the third trip around, I saw it. It was hard cover, black with the exact same puzzle pieces with which Carla and I used to seal our letters. This was one of two times that I felt Carla after she died.

It’s a confusing amalgamation of faith and skepticism in which I exist. I don’t believe in coincidence but I believe that most things have a naturalistic explanation. I believe in miracles, but I think, subjectively, God missed a great chance… or maybe that was just the beginning… we’ll see. This made one of my many questions tough to resolve. Besides coming to a (now resolved as wrong) conclusion that God is a scientist, putting us into situations and watching us fight for breath, I had come to the conclusion that I would never be able to know if Carla could “hear” me. And by “hearing,” I mean sensing in whatever capacity she has or would have to sense things from this shadow of earth which she left. I wondered if she could see how miserable I was. I wondered if I could make her proud in the way I raised our baby girl and in how nurturing I had become. I wondered if she could see me press my lips to her two dimensional lips every night or feel the wetness of my tears on her two dimensional cheeks as I told her picture that I loved her and missed her through the sobs until finally my eyes shut down. Of course being who I am, I put it into a system:

September 28

Your parents came by today. They were pretty torn up the first 15minutes. They stayed for a while. Linen woke up from her nap and was showing out for everyone. I told your parents that I wish you could have been here when they arrived. Its painful to see them. I want very much to remain in their lives and them in mine, but it is tough. I think Linen may go stay with them this weekend. I feel like I have given up trying to find out if you can “sense” what is going on with us “down-here.” What would it hurt if I were able to know for sure? Especially if it is an unambiguous “No.” I could begin to heal. I can see the troubles if it is a reassured “Yes.” The yes, itself; if true, great, but the confirmation might cause one to live life a little differently. Should I assume; “Yes”, you can sense our lives here and how much we miss and love you? Because a confirmed “No” is better that a non-confirmed “No” and a confirmed “Yes”, but not better than a non-confirmed “Yes”…what am I saying? Am I only getting my hopes up? I will have to believe or not believe. You died knowing that I love you out of this world. If you can hold that somehow, I am glad for that. I miss you Babe.

I remember the feeling that I had decided that she cannot sense me and when I go back and read it now, it’s almost comical and my self-awareness makes me aware that it still has room to grow.

September 29

I opened that book that you and I never finished reading by Alcorn, Heaven. For some reason, I found that book in one of the ten boxes I unpacked on Saturday and placed it on my bathroom counter. One night after drawing the 2X2 box of confirmed Yes/No, I opened that book and found an anniversary card from you. It had to have been from 2007 or 2006. After smiling over the card, my eyes fell to the words on the page where that card had made its home for at least a year. It was entitled “Do people in the present Heaven see what is happening on Earth?” After I read the chapter, I laid in bed, looked up at the ceiling and laughed. I trust you were laughing too. I believe now that you can “sense” me. Now, I am not really sure how or what or to what extent but I believe you can talk to God about us and for us and maybe somehow “talk” to me and Linen and perhaps even “feel” our love permeating through my grief, like some filtered aroma or warmth. At any rate, I love you Carla and I miss you. I do wish that we could still be together but I am happy for you and where you are. You are still my bestest. Can you believe how much Linen is growing up? I know you can see her. I wish I could see your face as you watch her and laugh. Do you like the song I wrote for her? I bet you do like it. I sing it to her every night, before she goes to sleep, but I bet you see that too. I love you babe.

I don’t talk to her much anymore. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I really cried. I guess it was our anniversary, one month ago today. I do feel the urge to cry well up in me often, but real sobbing hasn’t happened like it used to. I have begun to remove some pictures off the wall. They really do seem like images framed in pain; all those smiles smiled in vain. They tell me of another life, and I can feel the sullenness enter my veins where the sadness used to cloud. There is no secret formula for conquering grief. You cannot know that taking 21% of the pictures down at one year does the trick. But, I am staring at these stills of a great life with less of an enduring sadness and more with a smoldering exasperation. I know that no smiles were in vain- I am just tired of carrying weight. One can only endure so much- I miss her terribly and I am beginning to miss myself. Diving into  becoming the best father the world has ever known was a great place to hide but I realize that this is not healthy for a long period of time. Sure, I can still earn my place as the best dad but I am so much more.

With God, through something like this especially, there is no standing still. I remember yelling at Him and fighting to believe in Him in spite of the dark silence. All those infinite “why’s” still have not found their home, but I believe now more than ever that God has no reasons. He needs none for He knows all. He simply is. I am small, and that is hard to admit; but, man is not the measure of his maker. And, it is only because of Him that I have made it to this day, alive. I do look forward to the day when I can know as I am known and see clearly, but for now, I am bound by my small understanding, longing for my intended home. As hard as it is to say, God has put me through this in order for me to point towards Him. In losing my wife, I must count it as gain. To have nothing is to have everything.

I am not saying this in some sort of chritianese. In fact, I cannot stand the regurgitated sayings that float around. Early on, when I could barely manage the pain, I wanted to punch many people in the face for their “encouraging” words. I wanted to let them know how their easy words made me feel. “Don’t talk to me about God’s plan or being in His hands or restoration or any of those tired sayings. Just, be real for one second of your life.” Of course, I never said this out loud. I haven’t ever had much patience for clumsy and/or borrowed words; but, in spite of feeling like I had “earned” a platform for saying whatever I wanted to say, I had to force myself to look past their words and into their intentions. No one meant to sound like a crashing cymbal- that’s just what I heard.

I struggled with losing God more than I struggled with losing Carla. I am glad now that God shattered the house I built for him in my mind. I hope I never begin construction on another. No amount of pain, although crippling at times, or amount of happiness, although distracting at times, can compare with knowing and trusting in God. Nothing in this life compares to knowing my God, through Jesus Christ. I know He is big enough for my questions for He created and keeps this large chunk of matter spinning around a huge ball of fire, which is insane if I think about it for more than a few minutes. I know He is loving enough to endure my anger for He endured the margins of manhood to let me know of Himself and His love for me, which is unfathomable no matter how long I reflect.

Today is both milestone and millstone. The weight I wear and the year I have worn it are dear and dreadful, but I believe that I will be a better man for having endured.

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3 Responses to “Milestone or Millstone? A Widower’s First Year”

  1. Jo said

    Michael,
    So many parallels. My wife died suddenly in 2006 from a brain aneurysm. Two of them. Your account of the hospital nearly matches mine. I have two children, live in NC, served in Afghanistan. I was in Afghan when my wife experienced her first aneurysm and I got the Red Cross message from hell.

    I know your pain and can say from experience you will see better days. As I approach the third anniversary of my wife’s death I marvel at how far my kids and I have come. From depression, PTSD, suicide attempts til today I can say that while we miss here continually and cry occassionally we also laugh and share many happy memories.

  2. charley said

    I often pray for you, carla and linen. I hope one day you’ll publish these entries. I have no doubt they’d be very helpful to others experiencing grief.

  3. I lost my beautiful wife two years ago. We were at a party. She had a brain aneurism and was gone within minutes. I am so grateful for the principle of eternal marriage offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. I know we’ll always be together.
    God bless you guys.

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