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Grief Prolonged

Over the weekend Julia and I were in the front yard of our house, doing nothing in particular, just sitting together on the front step and feeling the first crisp of Fall, a welcome respite from brutal breath stealing heat and humidity. I’ve found that most of all, especially after marrying Andy, what Julia wants most is to talk to me. To have the full attention which she now as to share with him and to be really listened to without distraction.

Julia is all long limbs and pre-pre-tween-ness now. Early attempts at biting sarcasm and “too cool for school” attitude she puts on; a costume of grown up behaviors, still trying them out for size though they pool at her feet like a too large dress. My Little Pony on Netflix has made way for Descendants movies and she has grown so much in the past year while the dates on the calendars furiously flipped by. She’s still a child trying too hard, as have generations before her, to grow up.

But Saturday afternoon, kicking the early fallen leaves she asked, “When did you last cry about missing Daddy?” I laughed quietly and said, “This morning” She looked shocked, large brown eyes searching for if I was teasing her. But I was not. I had woken up that morning, turned to Andy and burst into tears because I missed Wesley. Truth be told it had been building for about a week. The song I heard in CVS, the same one Wesley had put on a mixed tape early in our dating days caused my eyes to prick with unshed tears; the friend of Julia’s who told her that she had a new dad now in Andy so everything was better and Julia has to gently explain that is not how it works. That she’s still sad, misses Wesley and mourns the fact that she remembers so little about him and a host of other tiny triggers that had nicked my heart all week.  So instead of waking up with  excitement about the weekend that sprawled before us Andy hugged me as I sobbed  about missing the man before him. That I wanted Wesley there and that still, over 4 years later, I’m still in mourning.

I think that is a common misconception, one I’m sure I too would have if I had not myself lost a husband so young, that I have moved on and all is better with the Book of my life with Wesley now closed and on the high shelf. That I’m never backward gazing and just moving right on with my life. Andy is my new Book so it is neat and tidy with one man’s love supplanted by another. But that book of my life before Andy, and the chapters unwritten, is something I examine in the quiet moments and think of what could have been. At times those empty pages are too much to bear and my heart, newly healed breaks once more for all that has been lost and unfulfilled. I have committed to facing forward as I can, focusing on the joys of my current life and the knowledge that Wesley would wish happiness and peace for Julia, myself and I think for Andy as well. Yes, but still. But yet, my heart; oh my heart is shattered and no time will fully change that reality.  I’m blessed with a current husband who understands and comforts me when I cry and remember all that way planned, but was not to be.

Every step of Julia’s that propels away from childhood and toward the life ahead of her is awesome (in the truest form of the word; to be filled with awe) and I know Wesley can see her, though he is unseen to us.

As the Fall comes, the chill in the air beginning the advent of cooler days and the need to huddle inside among those we love I think about the little girl who is a daily reminder of her father and my love and I tear up for a whole other reason, my heart aching with pride and awe.

 

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Being a Joseph

My house is merrily decorated in reds and greens right now with cheery elves peering from shelves and the smell of our freshly cut Frazier fir tree fills the living room. Julia loves the animated ornaments that sing holiday classics like, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s  “Nutcracker Suite” while ballerina figurines spin dizzily on the lighted boughs.

I’m struck by the traditions Julia clings each year such as placing felt strips of “hay” in the manger for good deeds and kindnesses thus softening the cardboard manger for Jesus. She nightly rushes to the Advent wreath to light candles, including the center purple “Daddy” candle whose flame seems to burn the brightest, to read the lesson and talk about how we can best prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus. These traditions are those that we shared with Wesley and perhaps they would be where her heart and sweet spirit led her regardless of his loss but I find it interesting that these, the ones she associates with Wesley, are the rituals she clings to in her Christmas devotions. It is as if he is with us, just apart from our sight, as we go through the frivolity of December and she is determined to keep him in our traditions even when we are apart one from another.

Despite the bounty of Santas and twinkling lights it is the Nativity sets that Julia loves most. We have a multitude of Holy Families with all manner of mouse Wise Men bringing not frankincense and myrrh but walnuts and berries to baby Jesus and what seems like the whole population of Bethlehem on my glass table behind the couch from the Fontanini Nativity I have had since I was first married. Each year Wesley and his mother diligently added animals and figures to our set, multiplying the masses present for the holy birth and as I unpack them each year I feel equal parts jubilant and heartsick. These are old friends whose presence reminds me of days of happiness and peace and I lovingly tell Julia about how Daddy bought the mother and child figure the year she was born and the donkey as an inside joke about character Sam Wainwright from “It’s a Wonderful Life” who annually calls his friends on Christmas proclaiming, “Hee Haw” in lieu of a more traditional holiday greeting; a custom Wesley picked up and adopted.

In unpacking our Nativities I’m struck by the faces and postures of the various participants in the holy birth of Jesus. Baby Jesus looks heavenly and sweet with his mother Mary kneeling beside him, her hand on her heart in blessed adoration. But Joseph looks strikingly different to me in each incarnation of our Nativities from weary and footsore to amused and joyous. The poor woodland nativity’s Joseph is missing part of his staff, an ear and his left foot–it must have been a rough road to Bethlehem!

I sit in the dark with just the Christmas lights illuminating the room tonight and find myself thankful that I have been so blessed with a community who have cradled me and Julia in their heart even when loving us and supporting us was messy and challenging. People close to me have loved what was not their responsibility to love and cared deeply for a  grieving mother and child. That ability to cherish something that is not your obligation personifies the giving spirit and brings to mind Joseph for me. To raise a child, not just any child but the Son of God, as your own is the ultimate act of self-giving. Joseph the foster father, “earth daddy” as we call it in our home, is a special role and one that takes someone with great love to embrace. Being a Joseph to others and caring for someone that is not your own, with love and wholeheartedness, is humbling and beautiful and I’m blessed to find such multitudes of Josephs and Josephines in my midst.

 

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Opening the Door 

 

 I’m torn. My heart bifurcated between the terrible tragedy of loss and the possibility of the life that lies ahead. I’ve written of this conundrum before and like many themes in grief it seems to be different motions of the same dance; two steps ahead and one step backwards.

I’m so changed from who I was before Wesley died that who I am now is so permanently tied to that loss and sadness. I cannot separate the two from each other and perhaps that is what grief is as a long-term experience; the sadness that has seeped into the marrow of my bone leaves my heart less broken but a heart that has healed with scars–tight and prominent around it.  As fingers of memory stroke my heart the scars are rough and raised and tender to the touch. Even as it heals through time and distance from the date burned in my memory of March 30, 2013, the skin is changed and the wounds visibly invisible. I’m reminded of a Mumford and Sons song that says, “Because death is just so full and man so small; Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.” I’m scared of both. I’m scared of the loss I have known and keep my fear at times contained behind the mask of determination and hope. I’m scared of the life to come because it is uncertain. My mind goes to the “What if?” and descends into the rabbit hole to find the solitude I seek. Solitude is comfortable and safe and the warm warren at the bottom of the rabbit hole is harmless; I can live cocooned in my sorrow and come out for work and required social occasions but can live behind the closed door in a widow’s colony of my own creation.

But what is gained in this emotional exile amongst the world? I am granted in some ways the societal permission to hide away, to live with a hermit’s heart, and completely seal myself with a “No Vacancy” sign. People understand and don’t want to question how I grieve lest they be seen as callous or pushy. Friends ask if I’ve thought of dating or thinking of life beyond the moments immediately in front of me. They tentatively ask but always quick to say, “Not that I’m saying you should be…but are you?” But I’m beginning to look down the road, to stare at the horizon and not at the rocks at my feet on the road of widowhood I tread. I look at trees changing colors as Fall begins here and can for the first time see beauty in the change. I see it as wonderful and not another season that I’m without my darling Wesley.  

Julia has grown so much in the two and a half years that Wesley has been gone. Physically, emotionally and intellectually. Wesley would love her childish obsession with Helen Keller and how she thirsts greedily for knowledge. Like Wesley did. She is my biggest reminder and physical representation of her dear father. She is happy and joyful and I realize that in my creating a world that is so marked by loss I fail to nurture that as I could. I cannot shroud myself in sadness and cast off joy with thoughtlessness. I feel Wesley’s strong hand at my back pushing me forward, taking my chin in his hand and lifting it to see light and the road ahead of me and whispering softly in my ear, “Look to the days ahead of you. Grab our child’s hand and soak upthe possibility of what might be and do not mourn what is lost.” In opening the door and stepping outside of my solitary sorrow community I am walking toward a future. And that is how I can best honor Wesley. 

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Painted Wings and Giant’s Rings

   

 

In the hazy and disorientated days immediately following Wesley’s death I was in many ways unable to care for Julia in any meaningful manner. I could only cry and stare into space with nothing much penetrating beyond my lifeless red rimmed eyes. My family took over the day to day activities of ensuring that Julia did indeed get fed, bathed and put to bed. One night as my mother lay in bed with Julia, she made up a story of Griselda the Mermaid. Griselda lived at our beach house and would come to shore while we slept, but as mermaids are shy natured creatures, she would dive below the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico at dawns first light. Griselda had a friend, Azure, who lived in the Great Lakes and would visit the warmer waters in winter months when the lakes froze over. Griselda’s adventures on the Beaches of South Walton were vast and unique and weaved a colorful tapestry of stories and tall tales and from that first story began a saga that endured for two years. I have privately thought that in some way those stories were a part of Julia’s grieving and her child-like way of  processing the loss that tragically befell us. I think it is why they lingered so long, why that oral tradition continued beyond a day or week and why that particular magical and fantastical story would get told over and over in the months that followed.

Recently  Julia and I were visiting the family beach house which was filled with extended family and bittersweet memories of my recently deceased grandmother whose toil and love built the house and family contained inside it. We were on the beach, her hair sandy and dripping with ocean water and she asked me to make her into a mermaid. She sat down in the sand, pink painted toes pointed toward me and I began scooping handfuls of moist and sticky sand piling it upon her slender legs. I asked if she had seen a pink flag flying on the mast as that was the surefire way to know if mermaids had been spotted. I patted sand into curving granular fins feeling the white sand, silky in my fingers. She said quietly, “I don’t think mermaids are real anymore…but I don’t know.” I looked at her and assured her that even if we cannot see something it does not make it less real, but I can tell that much like an older sibling keeps the wonder and joy of Santa or the Easter Bunny alive for younger brothers or sisters, Julia was providing the caveat of mermaid validity for my benefit, not her own. She is growing up and her sense of the world is changing and I’m not sure how I feel about it. 

I know every mother, father and adult bemoans the growing up process with the younger generations and it is part of the maturation process to see babies develop into toddlers and little boys and girls to awkward teens and beautiful men and women. Who have their own darling babies and the cycle begins anew. But I struggle with it because I cannot fathom Julia’s growing up and fight with the urge to keep her perpetually 3 years old. In my minds eye she is smaller than she is in reality, she is more baby than little girl and she is the same as when Wesley was alive. 

But Julia is growing up and is, despite my selfish machinations and desires, no longer a toddler on the brink of preschool but a young lady. She no longer pleads to watch My Little Pony and Sophia the First on TV but now clamors to see YouTube videos of arts and crafts projects she can replicate. She is tall and strong and smart and Wesley would be so proud of the little darling she has become. 

He would chide me to not mourn her development, not to cry as she devours books that we bought for her as an infant in arms together dreaming of the day we would hear her sweet voice sound out words tentatively then with surety and confidence. I hear those words alone and I grieve the solitude of only having my two ears to hear them. But Wesley would tell me to embrace the changes, to smile at Julia’s lengthening limbs and broadening mind. He would love her  inquisitive mind, so much like his mind, is burgeoning daily as she asks and wonders and ponders things that were not even a concept in 2013. I cannot will her to stay the child Wesley knew and cherished on earth because she is changed by his absence. 

I try to find peace that I can loosen my grip on Julia and try, sometimes with a heart that is shattered and heavy, to find the love in the leaps forward. Julia is well adjusted and happy, so very happy, and lives in the moment fully and richly. From her I’m reminded that all we have a moments in our lives, moments to grasp the small hands in ours and to watch as they put aside loves of old to embrace adventures of new. To see the beauty in the boundless striving for knowledge and understanding. And should my growing babe decide that perhaps childhood is a place she wants to not flee too quickly from then Griselda the Mermaid will be waiting at the oceans shore.  

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Statute of Lamentations

When Wesley first passed away I cried incessantly. I cried in my sleep, awaking from fitful dreams to discover that my pillow was damp and clammy against my face. I would close my eyes, willing myself to sleep again and often failing. I cried until I had no tears left and was reduced to the weeping version of dry heaving; the act of crying with no tears produced because I had literally lived up to the saying of “all cried out.” A friend told me in those early days that I would never truly stop crying. I’d never end my mourning period and despite the feeling of things being better; they would never be all better again. The curtain of certitude and safety had been irrevocably pulled back and could not be hung up in the same way again. But as the days number and seasons change again and again I do find my grief and ways of processing it changed and different. My tears are less frequent and I can better predict the triggers that will start the ocular leaking process; often I feel like I’m in control in a life that can feel chaotic.

I feel that I should have reached my statute of lamentation. After this indiscriminate amount of time the widow’s grief shall cease and desist per the order of life or time or whatever. But that is not the case. The sucker punch is still out there and hits me when my dukes are lowered and I’m looking the other way.

Today I offhandedly mentioned to our babysitter that Wesley would have used the excuse of an upcoming black tie wedding in Manhattan to finally buy the Brooks Brothers tuxedo he always toyed with getting for himself. I would have come home one afternoon to the mysterious brown box on the front steps or he would have “happened” to frequent a Brooks Brothers store in his trial travels and have walked in the house, garment bag slung over his shoulder saying, “I really think I’ll use this, Katherine.” Wesley often asked forgiveness, not permission with me and this would have been another such time. He would have loved us going to New York as a family, showing Julia the skyscrapers and statues and meticulously researching Broadway shows and planning our family adventure. He would have delighted as Julia takes her first airplane flight home on this trip and watching her face which I’m sure will be a mixture of delight and terror as we take off, our bodies separating from the Earth.I animatedly told my sitter this and we laughed together sitting on my couch.

After my babysitter left I felt…off. Just emotionally akimbo and kind of sick to my stomach. I took my temperature worrying that I had a fever, but was fine. I chalked it up to a long day at my office and after getting Julia settled with a snack decided to take a bath, hoping the warm water would ease whatever weirdness I had going on. I sank into the water and immediately and quite surprisingly started crying; or rather sobbing. Ragged and chest heaving I buried my face into my knees and cried hard. It shocked me. Honestly my first thought was, “What the heck am I crying over?” I puzzled and thought as tears splashed the water around me because  nothing glaringly stood out from the everydayness of my Thursday afternoon. It took me a while to realize that I was crying over the fact that I had so vividly imagined the family vacation we were going on. My family. Wesley, Julia and me with our hands clasped as we walked through Central Park stopping to look at the Alice in Wonderland statue, Wesley in a tuxedo and me in my long blue gown dancing at the wedding reception at the Central Park Boathouse and laughing about how glad we were that we would NEVER have to date again, Julia watching the clouds surround the plane as we flew home and the way Wesley would in his unique way look at me and simultaneously smile and wink at our daughter’s joy. I imagined it so clearly and believed it and in that fanciful daydream it was truth. It was real. My curtain was hung again straight and I was certain in my life. But in a moment, like a bubble in the bath, that illusion burst.

There will be no tuxedo delivered to my home and Julia will walk through Central Park with one small hand swinging free by her side as I clasp the other firmly in mine. I will again answer her question about if we will see Daddy again when we fly in the sky because he lives in the Heavenly clouds with God, doesn’t he?

I constantly tell others that my grief has no time limit but I think that I had stopped believing that myself. I thought that I was starting to become a widow who had overcome her broken heart and I felt strong, uneasy but strong. But I think the statute of my lamentation might not be quite as close to the ending time as I thought it was. And I’m comforted and at peace with it. My heart feels less sore and tight, my stomach less knotted and sick now that I’m at least momentarily not fighting against myself and my self imposed time limits and expectations of moving on. To dream of what could have been and cry over the loss of my family of three does not negate the life and altered family I have now. I can live in both places and cry as I travel from one place to another. There is no shame in the traveler’s tears as they are tears of pure unending love.

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Peaches and Dream

Midtown_Atlanta_SkylineWhen I was a child I often traveled to Atlanta with my family to go clothing shopping. The exotic stores of Lord and Taylor and fashion forward styles were far superior in my mind to the offerings at Tallahassee department stores. I could not dare wear the same Guess jeans and Esprit that my classmates purchased at Gayfers and Burdines. I would look out of the window of my family Suburban at the high rise apartments and beautiful homes and think, “I’m going to live here when I’m an adult” I vividly imagined myself dining in restaurants with names I could not pronounce and working in the bustling skyscrapers where the fog settled beneath my office window. I grew and yearly imagined myself living in Buckhead but the feeling of homebody-ness tethered me to Tallahassee for my college years and early 20’s. I met Wesley who lived 900 miles away from Tallahassee and eventually we knew we needed to live closer to one another so we looked at big cities and Atlanta was my first choice! Wesley needed some convincing as I think he was hoping for a DC or other Northern city to win the habitation lottery but he got a job and I quickly joined him in Atlanta in 2002.

We lived and loved and grew in the bustling Atlanta metropolis. We joined the High Museum of Art and surrounded ourselves with culture, we ate at tiny restaurants surrounded by friends from Emory Law School loudly arguing the finer points of a law case that Wesley and his classmates were studying, we shopped on weekends looking for the perfect bowl or Brooks Brothers shirt or just walking around looking for the items that will fill our mantelpiece in our hip and chic townhouse. I even worked for a time in an office where fog settled below my office window; it was truly the child’s dream realized and I was here alongside the man to whom I had pledged my life. I was not alone in my Peachtree adventures, I had a companion to see this place with me; our hands excitedly clasped together.

Atlanta was where Wesley and I were fully us and where we changed and grew and loved life. We had our first real jobs, Wesley went to Law school, were married, had a baby and ultimately made the hard decision to leave the bright lights to settle closer to my home in order for Julia to grow up alongside family and cousins. But Atlanta for us was truly the place we went from two separate and distinct entities to a joined life, we became “The Clines” here.

I have not been to Atlanta much since Wesley died. Once with my family for an overnight trip in July 2013 but I was still so in shock over the changes in my life that I recall how I wanted to flee as quickly as I could from places familiar but different to me now. I’m was in Atlanta this week for work and felt strangely out of place and discombobulated on this trip, but I’m more able to process them than I was then. This week it seemed every place I passed had a memory or a trigger that made my heart long for yesterday. I found myself recalling the most mundane and seemingly trivial things as I drove through the streets whose names were familiar. Remembering driving on I-75 to get to countless Junior League of Atlanta meetings, sitting in the Nordstrom Cafe with an infant Julia for hours just to get out of the house, date nights at JCT Kitchen and other Atlanta restaurants. It seemed that every turn my car made these past few days steered me toward memories both good and bittersweet. I found myself longing for my old life; my life that now seems so carefree and bucolic and much like the life of that young girl daydreaming from the window of her parent’s car. Many times over the past few days I fought back tears as I desperately desired to go to my old home and my Atlanta life that seemed complete but knew that I do not belong there any more.

My life is not in Atlanta and I found that I unwittingly had avoided the Peach State for two years because I feared that juxtaposition of two lives that are so different now. I’m no longer that young woman whose life is ordered and predictable, but I’m finding an uneasy peace in that. My life is now centered around my child and soccer games and homework folders and perhaps geography and circumstance does not play as large a role in that as it seemed but just the natural progression of maturation. I happily returned home to my life here, altered as it may be, because this is where I belong. I’m home.

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Superheroes

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People often talk to me about my bravery, the beauty of my written words and the strength that I appear to show in the face of adversity. The sharing of my story, our story, with others is at its core a selfish endeavor and one I feel compelled to do in order to put my thoughts on virtual paper and get them out of my cluttered mind. I said to someone recently that my telling our story of love and grief keeps Wesley somehow present for me and allows my soul to feel quieted. My mind which is often a cacophony of “What if?” and “Am I doing this right?” is soothed as words form and appear on the computer screen and there is a tightness that fades, even momentarily, as I send my thoughts into the vast blogosphere.

I’m not writing about me this time…I’m writing about others. I have been called a Superwoman by others who I suppose think I jump emotional hurtles with a single bound and save others in trouble but I must say it is those around me who I see wearing the capes of red and blue. Many other people have superpowers which astound and move me. Julia, whose heart and experience makes her much older and mature in some ways than her 5 years. She knows true loss that she cannot fully understand and yet goes through her life with joy and peace in the uncertainty. While straightening Julia’s room which is often cluttered with baby dolls and stray Legos I recently discovered a note she had scribbled in blue ink, “I’m sad and do not know why” When I later asked if she wanted to talk about it Julia said, “Sometimes I just miss the olden days…” I miss those days too when I feel like our lives made better sense. I yearn for the times when my heart felt untethered by sadness and I felt carefree, a feeling which alludes me now. She struggles with missing Wesley and not knowing how to reconcile his loss with an ever growing understanding of death’s permanence. Heaven holds few loopholes and there are no weekend furloughs to Earth and our happy home for Daddy. But still she stands, hands on her hips and braves on with her smiling face and clear brown eyes grabbing joy and wonderment as her mind expands and grows in ways which her father would absolutely delight. She braves on with a mother who sometimes feels frazzled and who asks for her help to run our home. She grew up faster than I would have liked, but she just keeps pulling me forward into the future.

I’m almost daily reminded of the friends and family members who care deeply about Julia and myself and are so open to my voice and writing provide a safe and secure place for me.. Honestly, if others had not supported my blog and my willingness to talk and laugh and cry about Wesley I think I would have crawled into my own protective cocoon. Because I was fragile and at times still am but find myself bolstered by the strength of others. People ask and share and do not shy away and cringe as I say, “Gosh, Wesley used to say that exact same thing!” as I slap the table with my palm and laugh over pizza dinners. I am included in activities and can honestly share the days of happiness and the times that I find it hard to see any joy. Both are true and honest realities for me and I need to not hide from them. I cannot stop talking and sharing and loving and if I had nobody to talk to about it I think I would crumble. I need the people in my life with whom I can be both the damsel in distress and the strong action figure.

I am so moved at the love I feel from people who know me, who knew Wesley, who may never have ever laid eyes on us but who share a similar experience. I see the Superman behind the black thick rimmed glasses who asks how I’m doing and truly wants to know. I feel the love of people who may never comment or tell me they read that blog and who I know pray for us. I’m surrounded by heroes who will never know how much they mean to us and how they make my hurting heart feel bold and brave by words spoken and unspoken and how their joy and love makes my wounded heart feel like it might beat again.

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