Marking another milestone

Thirty-eight years ago, July 28, 1978, I had my first date with David. Our wedding date was June 2, 1979, not quite a year later, and we began our married life as college students living in a small trailer south of the main campus. Later, we moved to different married student housing; cement block buildings where we lived for several years with our two youngest children.

In June 2011, David and I celebrated our 32nd anniversary by strolling through the UNI campus and visiting those old buildings that were in the process of being torn down. Just a few months later, my husband was gone.

Recently someone early on in their own grief journey asked me what it felt like, more than four years out from the loss of my spouse. I hesitated, not sure how to respond. What could I say that would convey truth, but not scare her?

For the most part, I am doing well. I am navigating single motherhood the best that I can. I have had four books published since 2012, and have a good job. But the honest truth is that days like today, that mark special dates for David and I, remain difficult for me. Memories rise closer to the surface on those days. The pain of loss sharpens. My heart aches, and yes, I shed a tear. Or two. I wouldn’t be quite truthful if I told someone new to grief that it “gets better.” It just gets different. The best thing I can say is that they won’t be feeling the way they do right then, forever. This is an important distinction to make because in those early days and weeks, the pain is unbearable.

Seasoned grief looks and feels different than that dark despair of early mourning. It comes with the dawning reality that a daughter will soon be getting married without her father to walk her down the aisle. It can be a sob escaping while driving because a certain song comes on the radio. It can rear its ugly head with jealousy at another couple’s anniversary trip or the sight of an elderly couple holding hands. Grief remains a heavy burden for those left behind. It never really ends, and only those who have experienced it truly understand its depths.

Grieving is lonely.

Even today, more than four years after his death, I want so badly to share with David what I am feeling, what losing him has been like. Because we talked about everything. And nothing. And when we weren’t talking, we often just held hands. I miss that too.

Grief, four years out, remains a constant companion.

 

She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. – George Eliot

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The Wind Beneath My Wings

There hasn’t been a July 4th since that rivals the memories I have of the holiday in 2009. What an amazing husband I was blessed with. He encouraged me that morning to begin the book that I had talked about for two years, a book about the hobby that had been a part of my life, our family’s life, for 30 years.

“The hardest part is getting started,” he said. It turned out he was right.

I sat down at the table in my pajamas, in front of a white legal pad and my favorite black pen. I began writing, and couldn’t stop. I wrote like a mad woman. The outline came easily, as did much of the first chapter, and pieces of the next.

David stood nearby, refilling my coffee cup, taking care of the children, making lunch. What it must have been for him to see the woman he loved completely immersed in two of her passions; writing and couponing. When I later began conducting coupon workshops in 2011 and writing a couponing column for a newspaper in 2012, David would tell me that it was my “time to fly, to soar,” and how much he loved seeing me that way. I’d replied that I couldn’t do it without him.

Later in the day of that particular July 4th, David gently interrupted me to ask if we were going to go to my mother’s house for the celebration we always shared with her. I looked up at the clock and was horrified to see that more than eight hours had passed since I’d sat down to write. We made it to my mother’s, but when my daughter Katie complained of a stomach ache, I was secretly glad to bring her home. I continued working on the book while she lay on the couch watching television.

The bones of the book were constructed that day, but for some reason, I set the manuscript aside for several months. Then on March 10, 2010, David heard on Good Morning America that the New York Times had a cover story calling couponing the next extreme sport.

“Where is that book you started on couponing?” he asked that morning. “You need to finish it.”

I pulled the rough draft out of my file cabinet, and read sections aloud. My dear husband alternately smiled, laughed, and made helpful comments as I got excited about my book project all over again. That morning I worked on the questionnaire I would use for interviewing other couponers throughout the United States. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer that summer, I lost some enthusiasm for the project, though I continued working on it. Like my husband, my mother encouraged my writing. After Mom’s death in November, I inherited some of her notebooks. I read them and the Memory Book in which she entreated her children to utilize their God-given talents. It was with those words echoing in my head I would pick up my pen with a renewed determination. Much of the rest of the book was written in my mother’s empty house that winter. David would hand me a travel mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to “go write.” Once again, he took over childcare and cooking while I spent hours alone in the house of an extremely talented woman who was my creative muse.

By early March 2012, David had shared in my struggle to find representation for the book I’d completed, observing two failed agent relationships and rejections from large publishers.

“Don’t worry. It will sell,” he’d encourage. “I believe in you. I believe in this book.”

Then he’d ask about the other manuscript I’d completed, the one about caring for him during his cancer. That book, relegated to a filing cabinet, detailed a caregiving journey that resulted in a revitalized marriage relationship, a relationship that allowed me to continue writing and left us with no doubt that we were truly loved by the other.

“It’s not really about cancer. It’s a love story,” he’d muse. “It will help people’s marriages.”

David didn’t live to see either book published. I signed a book contract for Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession seven months after his death in 2012, and the book was released the next year. I will never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble storefront with my book filling the front window. My daughters were jumping up and down with excitement. Me? I stared at the display, completely numb. My daughter Rachel took one look at my face and asked “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you happy?”

barnes and noble

I could barely choke out the words past the huge lump forming in the throat. “Dad’s not here.”

Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage was released in April 2014. Those first two books wouldn’t exist without my husband’s encouragement. Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, released in October 2014, wouldn’t exist if it were not for the loss of him. I’m fully convinced that the fourth book contract, for the co-written Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink, was a gift from God so that I could observe my co-writer, Mary Jedlicka Humston, and vicariously enjoy all the firsts and perks that come with a book release, and the incredible excitement I have been unable to actually experience myself.

“I couldn’t do it without you,” I’d informed the man who’d become the wind beneath my wings after his cancer experience in 2006.  In the end, I would have to.

I continue to write, now as a reporter for a newspaper, and essays and pieces I must work on without the benefit of the writing marathon sessions my husband had gifted me with. I also do workshops; mostly classes for aspiring writers. Except for newspaper coverage of meetings and events, every single piece of writing I undertake, each workshop, and all the public speaking engagements I do are in honor of the man who believed in me. I  am surprised as anyone to learn, not only has my love for David continued despite his absence in my life, somehow it has managed to grow.

 

“But my grief is a clean grief. I loved my husband for forty years. That love has not and does not end, and that is good … Hugh will always be part of me, go with me wherever I go, and that is good because, despite our faults and flaws and failures, what we gave each other was good.”
Madeleine L’Engle, in Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, page 230.

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