What It’s All About

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death, and as with everything to do with grief, I am feeling a bit bewildered. None of it makes sense to me. Was I really that woman? That woman who watched a man slowly die, who wanted the suffering to end, yet whose love was so ineffectual she couldn’t make him well or take away a single moment of his pain? That woman so connected to another human being she still felt broken years after his death? That woman who screamed the pain of her loss to the winds?

I’ve always considered myself a passionless woman, so how could that woman be me? I’m mostly living in a state of relative equilibrium at the moment, feeling more like myself than I have at any time since his death, which makes that bone deep grief I lived with for so long seem even more unreal. Sometimes looking back, it almost seems as if all that emotion was an effort to make myself seem important, and yet I know it was real. It came from a part of me I didn’t even know existed. It makes me wonder if maybe that’s what changed over the years — not that I became more used to Jeff being gone, or that time healed my grief, but that the part of me that surfaced after he died has simply sunk back into the muck from which it rose.

Making the situation even more unreal, I can barely remember what he looked like — I do not think in images, so it’s understandable (though distressing) that I have no clear image of him in my mind. Even worse, I don’t have a photo that matches what I remember of him. (The only photo I have was taken about twelve years before he died.) And so the image of him in my mind now is the image in that photo. I remember the first time I looked at the picture after he was gone — I was shocked that it no longer looked like him. I put the photo away, not wanting that false image to be the only picture of him in my head, but when I moved here, I put his photo on the bedside table, finding comfort in that now familiar image. Does it matter if it didn’t look like him at the end? When I was going through his effects and found a picture of him around the time we met, I didn’t recognize that image of him either. And yet, they were both good images of him at those times. So what difference does it make how I picture him? He was all those men, and none of them.

Nor do I have a clear sense of time. Sometimes it feels as if he died just a couple of months ago. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. The demarcation between our shared life and my solitary life was once so stark it was like the edge of a cliff. All I could see was the past and what I had lost. The living I have done in the past eleven years has blurred that edge almost to the point of nonexistence, adding to the sense of unreality.

I didn’t really expect to grieve for him today, and I didn’t, though the day isn’t yet over, so there’s a chance a bout of sadness will visit me tonight as I prepare for sleep. What I did today is what I have done every day since he died — lived the best I know how, finding joy in simple things, finding life in novel experiences. He was so sick at the end, it seemed as by dying he set us both free — he from pain, me from a lifetime of servitude to his illness — and I have been careful not to waste that gift.

Today’s simple joy was the blossoming of the Glory of the Snow bulbs I planted last fall.

And the novel experience was getting to drive a baby John Deere. The worker who is laying rock around my house drove here in the tractor to make it easier to transport the rock from one side of the yard to another, and to my delight, he let me drive the thing up and down the street, and even showed me how scoop up the rocks.

Those two things in particular add to my bewilderment today about life and death and grief. If Jeff were still alive, I wouldn’t have had those treats. In fact, if he were alive, I would be someone else, more like the person I was eleven years ago rather than the person grief shaped me into.

Then I have to add in the aging factor to the bewilderment. He will always be the age he was when he died, and I am getting ever older. Sometimes I feel the injustice of it all — we were supposed to grow old together, and because of our healthful lifestyle, we were supposed to beat the odds and be vital to the end. And yet, he’s gone and I am trying to pick my way through the minefield of growing old by myself. I am glad he won’t have to deal with that. I’m also glad he didn’t have to deal with the angst of surviving the death of a life mate, though what do I know. It’s entirely possible, if the dead have any sort of consciousness, that they grieve for us as much as we grieve for them.

But what all this comes down to is that it’s been eleven years since he died, and I don’t have any clearer idea now of what it’s all about than I did back then.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Becoming the Matriarch

Getting old is a weird thing. When you’re very young, the old seem to be a fixture; after all, you never saw them when they were young. As far as you know, they were always old. Oh, you do see photos, perhaps, but those photos seem to have little to do with the old folks in your life. All you really know is that you are young and they are old.

In fact, it often seems as if they were born old, as if old is what they were supposed to be, when the truth is, you were born young. Still, despite what we learn of history, whether our personal history or world history, it seems as if the world begins when we are born.

As time goes on, we do get a sense of the progression of life. We grow older, learn to walk and talk, and eventually we go to school. Sometimes we get younger brothers and sisters, and we are puffed up with our oldness. We try so hard to grow up, especially if we have an older sibling, because we want to be as old as they are. We want their privileges, such as they are. And then, the big birthday comes, and even though we are a year older, so is the sibling.

And so the years pass.

Then one day you wake to the realization that you are the old generation. In the back of your mind there’s still the image of the world you were born into, where you were young and the old were old. So how is it possible that the world has suddenly become inverted?

After Jeff died, I was afraid of growing old alone, but now I’ve gotten used to the idea, and although the thought of being old doesn’t worry me, being old and feeble does. Luckily, I have been able to bypass the feebleness for now (though with my wonky knees, sometimes I sense a less than active future).

I am confused, though. How can I be the matriarch of my family — the oldest living female? There are cousins somewhere who are older than I am, but for the most part, everyone who is older than me — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older brother — are all gone now.

And I am now that old woman who so mystified me when I was young.

To be honest, many of my youthful years seem to have disappeared, not just out of sight but out of mind, so perhaps the truth is what I once sensed about other elders — that I am a fixture; that I did in fact appear on this earth as an old woman. And there’s no one who was alive when I was born to tell me otherwise.

With any luck, I will continue to grow older, and if enough years pass, I will look back to this time as a relatively youthful one. The ninety-year old woman I sit with says I am just a kid, so perhaps I really am still relatively youthful.

But none of that mitigates the very real fact that I am not only the oldest living female in my family, I’m also the oldest of anyone, male or female.

Does this blog post have a purpose? None that I can see. It’s just that once I was so young that everyone in my family (and the world, too!) was older than I was. And now?

Maybe it’s best if I stop thinking about this.

***

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Shedding Light on Old Fears

Last night I again suffered a bout of fear over growing old alone. I haven’t had such feelings for a long time, partly because I have been living alone and am getting used to it, but mostly because I’ve been keeping my mind away from the inevitable decrepitude of old age, and away from thoughts of being that old lady whose house is falling down around her because she doesn’t have the funds to shore the thing up.

For now, the decrepitude is advancing very slowly, just a matter of knees that don’t bend as well as they did, not being able to walk as far as I once did, and not being able to easily climb up steep stairs without dragging myself along. But bodies do tend to break down, and one day . . .

Yeah, better not think of that day.

It’s odd, though, that the fear last night was of growing old alone rather than the fear of being broke because of all the extra expenses I didn’t expect when I bought this place, such as having to build a new garage. The old one might have lasted for years, maybe even the rest of my life (or the rest of my car’s life) but even though it seemed solid and well built, the shed-like garage had been built on shaky ground. (Probably above an old septic system, which, combined with a high-water table, made the area rather damp.)

The other things that I have had done to the house and property, such as putting in a new foundation for the enclosed porch and replacing the old porch floor, removing diseased trees, and putting up a fence, didn’t really change things that much. It just felt as if I were cleaning up the place.

But a garage is a whole other matter. Erecting a building from scratch seems so much like growing deep roots, as if I were no longer just playing house, but living here for real.

I realize I’ve been here for almost a year, setting down tender and tentative new roots, but building a garage seems like the beginning of a massive root system. Makes settling down — and settling down alone — even more real than it had been. (Besides, all the talk of security that came with planning the garage, such as lights and locks and security cameras, as well as having to be aware of the seedy characters that walk the alley, is enough to feed anyone’s fears of being old and alone.)

Luckily, I’ve made friends, and luckily, the contractor is aware of and considerate of my need to fix things now to make my old age easier, but fears aren’t logical. Or maybe they are logical, and I do have something to fear.

But I won’t — can’t — let myself be afraid.

Today is a new day, and though the sun isn’t shining and the temperature rather cool, it’s bright enough to shed light on that old fear and make it scurry from sight.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

A Widow’s March

I have a lot of stuff in my head — no clear ideas or sharp feelings, just stuff. For example, I have conflicting feelings about the woman’s march. It seems like a good idea since solidarity is helpful, but there is a lot of contention over what the march is supposed to accomplish, which is not helpful. Some people say the march is pro-abortion, and so pro-life women are not welcome. Others say the march is for liberals, and so conservative women are not welcome. Others insist it’s about equal pay and equal opportunity, and so anyone is welcome. It seems funny that after all these months of people talking about inclusivity, separating women into various sexes such as lesbian, transgender, and whatever, all of a sudden now there’s just one . . . women. Why can’t it be that way all the time?

What I don’t understand is if this is a march about abortion, are all these women planning on having abortions? And why are there so many abortions? People used to say that there were unwanted pregnancies because of lack of education about pregnancy avoidance, but it seems as if there are more abortions than ever. To my understanding, the new regime is not so much interested in abolishing abortion as in removing federal funding. If this is what women are against — removing the funding — it’s even more mystifying to me. What they are saying is, “my body, my decision, your financial responsibility.”

More of a concern to me than abortion is the whole cultural aspect of women’s ideology. Apparently, one of the airlines used pink lights in the plane to Washington DC as a show of solidarity for the women, but really . . . pink lights? Why does pink still signify women? Pink is a color that is used to reduce aggression and anger. Could it be that’s why the airline used pink lights, not so much as solidarity but to keep the women in line?

See? Stuff.

Talking about cultural aspects of women’s ideology reminds me of the many anti-feminist themes still present in so-called women’s movies and chick lit. Too often the stories are about trying to get the guy to propose, which leaves me to wonder why the women don’t do the damn proposing if they want to get married. There are stories about successful business women who have to learn the importance of love. There are stories about women trying to teach each other how to trap a man. Sometimes, especially in historical romances, there are hints of rape as a prelude to romance. And of course, there are on-line sites that brag they are smart women who love trashy books, books that in no way reflect their own political beliefs.

I’m not really interested in people’s sexuality, so all the talk of inclusivity when it comes to gender and sexual orientation passes me by (though it is nice to know how one’s friends lean in order to understand them better). When you are alone, there is no sexual orientation because orientation connotes a leaning toward, and if there is no one to lean toward there is no orientation. What does concern me personally is the subtle (and not so subtle) exclusion of widows.

Ours is a coupled society, whether the couple is the same sex or different sexes, so a person alone is someone who barely exists. Even worse, there is a vague feeling that it’s your fault for being alone. People quickly forget that you once were coupled, that you once had someone. And now you’re . . . inconvenient. If your friends used to be other couples, you are no longer invited to events, so you try to make new friends, but if the women you like are married, you’re in the same boat as you were before. (People expect widows to become friends with other widows, but this does not solve the problem of exclusivity; it exacerbates it.) If you try to do things on your own, you pay double for a room in a hotel or on a cruise ship. Ads about products for old people show couples. Ads for assisted living places show couples. Ads about supporting one another in illness shows couples. And then there are the ubiquitous articles where a couple who is celebrating their gazillionth wedding anniversary gives advice on how to say together so many years, which always makes me want to scream “You’re still together because one of you didn’t die!”

But some of us are not so lucky. We are left to grow old alone, and a woman (or man) alone is no one’s priority.

None of this “stuff” will change anything, not even for me. Current events only serve to make me feel more alone, more outside the range of what is considered normal life in the twenty-first century. I probably would not be musing about any of these things, but the juxtaposition of the woman’s march (or rather the contentions about the march) along with a blog reader’s question as to whether I had any insight on growing old alone has put all this stuff in my head.

The growing old alone part is no one’s fault, of course. Nor do I expect society, the government,  or even individuals to do anything to solve the problems that will arise for all of us folks sitting alone in our empty rooms. We will do what we have always done since the death of our beloved, take each day as it comes, do what we can to survive, and hope that someday our lives will make sense again.

I’ve never been one for marching or demonstrating in a group, but today I will do a widow’s march. Sort of. I will take a solitary walk, and try to clear the stuffing out of my head.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Letter to the Dead

I was searmailboxching through my stack of notebooks today, looking for some information I needed, when I came across the last letter I wrote to Jeff, my deceased life mate/soul mate. I used to write him as a way of feeling connected to him, but I haven’t done so in a over a year. The letter, dated October 13, 2013, was written three years and seven months after his death. I don’t remember the dream, don’t even remember writing the letter, but here it is:

Dear Jeff,

I dreamt about you last night. You came into my room, stood at the foot of the bed and touched my blanket-covered feet, then climbed onto the bed, on top of the covers, and cuddled up to me. You were in your underwear, and in the dream, I knew you’d come from where you were sleeping, though I had the impression you’d been with someone, as if you had another life. You said, “I miss you.”

I woke and teared up a bit, but no emotional storm, just an acknowledgment that I missed you too.

Was that really you? Some people would say so, but I still don’t know the truth of (or have any belief in) what comes after. I’ll know soon enough, I suppose. As long as my remaining years seem, I know the truth — they are but a wisp of time. For a long time, I was afraid of growing old alone and dying alone. I know we all die alone; I guess the fear was of being feeble alone, but I’ve chosen to believe that if my end years were going to be difficult, you wouldn’t have left me.

I’m trying to embrace life in a way I never did before — to see it as the gift everyone says it is. I was angry at you recently for leaving me here stuck between my father and my brother as I’d always been when I was young, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve found a new love (dancing) and I’m walking with a group when I can, which is helping me stay centered. I could leave here, of course, and run away from the men who are bedeviling me, but I’d also be leaving these activities and my new friends, which adds an element of irony to the situation.

What about you? What are you doing? How are you doing? I wish we could talk, catch up, tell our current truths, but maybe someday . . .

Will you still like me? Will you be waiting for me?

Adios, compadre. I love you.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

 

Visualizing a Life of Joy

When a fellow grief survivor once told me about a woman she knew — an old woman who had lost everyone she had ever loved — and how the woman was the most joyful person she had ever met, I could only marvel. At the time, I was in the midst of unfathomable grief for my life mate/soul mate, but even before my terrible loss, I’d never been a candyparticularly joyful person. I couldn’t understand how, in the midst of the traumas and dramas life doles out like Halloween candy, anyone could find joy. And yet, and yet . . .

If you’ve read any of my posts about my current situation, looking after my 97-year-old father and dealing with my dysfunctional brother, you might think I’m in the throes of despair, but oddly, there is a feeling of . . . could it be joy? . . . deep within me. It’s as if something — my psyche, my inner child, my soul — is smiling.

When my brother is relentlessly demanding my attention, particularly late at night when I’m exhausted, or when I’ve had to explain something for the tenth time to my bewildered and hearing impaired father, I wonder how I’ll ever make it through another moment, but in the quiet times, I’m finding peace and an illusive joy. I feel as if I am letting go of ties that kept me bound to an unhappy past and a burdensome present.

What helps is that I’ve found refuge in new friends and new activities that make me feel alive, especially exercise classes that stretch my body and my mind. Like yoga, these classes make me aware of possibilities I had never considered, and teach me to reach further, imagine more, dream deeper. They make me feel beautiful and graceful, even though the mirror quite clearly shows I am many years past such an ideal. Or not. My teacher skews the whole age curve, making seventy-seven look like fifty. For so long, I’ve been afraid of growing old alone, worrying about dragging a decrepit body through long and solitary decades, and while such a scenario is possible, it’s not necessarily true. The exercise teacher’s radiant smile and still sensual movements show what is possible if someone keeps active, has a great attitude, and is blessed with a bit of luck.

I don’t know what life has in store for me, of course, but for the first time in I don’t know how long — maybe forever — I can visualize a life of joy.

The very thought makes me smile.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Becoming Who I Need to Be

For a long time, I lamented that I hadn’t been changing, and I thought I should have been.

After the death of my life mate/soul mate, I was totally blindsided by grief. I’d lost my mother a couple of years previously, and a brother the year before that, so I thought I understood what grief was. Besides, I knew my mate was dying. We’d spent the last three years of his life disentangling our lives and severing the connection so we could go our separate ways — he to death, me to life alone. I truly thought I’d moved on, yet after he died, I experienced such agony and angst that it shattered me, my identity, my understanding of life . . . everything. An experience like that should change a person, yet month after month I remained . . . just me.

Now, two years and four months after his death, the changes are occurring on an almost daily basis. I’m still just me, but the person I am today is not the same as the one who screamed the pain of her loss to the uncaring winds. Nor am I the one so connected to another human being she still felt broken more than a year after his death. I left those women out in the desert somewhere. I’ve walked about 2,000 miles since he died, and a bit of that me evaporated with every step.

I am stronger than that person was, maybe even wiser, certainly more confident and open to whatever comes, willing to accept life on its own terms.

I no longer fear growing old alone as she did. I might not live to a great age, and if I do, I might not be alone, but even if I am, that woman will not be the me of today. She will older, used to dealing with the infirmities that come with age, perhaps even experienced in the ways of dying. She will have lived her life to the fullest of her ability, and might even be able to wake each morning feeling the joy of living one more day, no matter how painful. Or not. But the point is, I am not in that place today, and the person I am today will never be in that place. So there is no reason to be afraid.

For so long, I’ve been worried about what will happen to me now that I am alone. I worried that I’d become the crazy cat lady (sans cats) or the pathetic, lonely old woman that everyone whispers about (when they remember her at all). If I end up alone and lonely, so be it. I’ll be okay. I am quite comfortable with being alone. (I always was, to be honest. Grief skewed things, made me desperately fearful of loneliness.)

But I am not alone now. I have friends to go to lunch with, online friends to plan trips with, siblings to talk to now and again, an aged father to look after. I thought it would bother me no longer being part of a couple, but the other day at lunch when some women my age were talking about maybe meeting guys and falling in love again, I asked, “Why?” All of a sudden it seemed strange to want such a thing. Three of us had mates with compromised health, and now that they are gone, we are free to simply be. It’s not out of any loyalty to my deceased mate that I find myself unwilling to pursue a hypothetical relationship right now, but out of loyalty to me.

And that brings me to the biggest change of all. It bothered me that no matter what happened, I was always just me. Now I see that as a good thing. No matter what happens in my life, no matter what challenges I face, I will always be there, becoming who I need to be, even if it takes longer than I think it should.