death of a spouse, expressive writing for healing, grief, loss of a spouse, widows

Beware the Ides of March…

I don’t typically take “selfies” at all, but certainly not in a hospital gown. This afternoon I did.

During the writing workshop I taught Monday night I remember saying something like this:

“Why would we write about things that embarrass us? Or make us look foolish, or petty? Why be so transparent?  Why would I write about crying in the peanut butter aisle and bolting out of the grocery store to sit in the parking lot and slam my fists into the steering wheel? Because I am not helping anyone if I am not transparent. I cannot help another griever if I don’t share the messiness of grief. Because if I admit I bolted out of a grocery store or sobbed in a dentist chair then someone else who has lost a spouse can read that and think ‘Oh, I’m not crazy. She did that too.’ I’m not helping anyone if I hide behind a perfect Facebook façade.”

How many times have I stood in front of a room full of people in an Expressive Writing class explaining how every single cell in their body holds memories: cellular memories. That even if they didn’t want to think or write about the trauma and sadness in their life, their body would find a way to express it; through headaches, stomach upsets, generalized anxiety, or other physical ailments.

Which was why I woke up crying on June 2, 2012. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of the date; even in my sleep my body remembered that it was the first wedding anniversary without my husband. It’s likely why I ended up in an emergency room three times in six years around the month my husband died. 

Make that four times in seven years.

mary at hospitalWhen the chest discomfort began six days ago, I dismissed it, thinking about all the snow I’d been shoveling. When the discomfort was joined by pain between my shoulder blades, it kept me up at night, as I moved from chair to bed and back again. Then nausea joined the symptom ranks, followed by an upset stomach and a nagging headache. After confiding in a couple of my children, they encouraged me to see a doctor. Except a doctor didn’t want to see me, I discovered when I tried to make an appointment. “We’ll make an appointment for you after you go to the emergency room and they rule out a heart attack,” I was informed.

Three hours and several tests later, I was informed my heart was fine, and handed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication I might never take.

The look you see on my face is one of sadness and resignation. The thought uppermost in my mind; is this how it will always be?

Seven years after the March we discovered our little Jacob, my grandson’s cancer had returned. Seven years after the month my husband had a heart attack and stent surgery. Seven years after the March my husband died. Seven years, with a job I love and many exciting things happening in my life, my body still remembers.

 

David, death, death of a spouse, faith, grief, loss of a spouse, love, marriage, widows, writing

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.

grief, widows

A Missing Valentine Meal

missing valentine meal poster (2)

It was never really my idea. I didn’t want to begin a widow/widower support group, though I’d certainly seen the need for one. In the four years since my husband’s death, I’ve encountered many widows and widowers; first in the Bible study I began in April 2013, then in my public speaking for churches, hospice, and grief support groups, as a library director, and now, as a newspaper reporter. And I kept hearing the same thing, that lament of my own soul; no one understands.

No one but those who have  also lost a spouse.

As much as I saw a need for it, I didn’t want to be the one to begin providing that kind of support. I still have children at home. I have a job. I’m busy.

But  I’d look into the eyes of yet another widow, and see that lost and hollow look I recognized from my own mirror. My initial prayer of “Please don’t ask me to do this” became one of “Show me how.”

I approached one church, where I was informed I could start a group but “You’ll have to do all the work yourself.” Appalled, I attempted to do just that for two months in a row, wondering all the while what kind of church would abandon its widows.

Then one day I received a phone call from a minister who’d heard I’d been doing presentations on finding hope in grief. He called me into his office, asking if I knew how he could help the grieving spouses in his church. A minister who truly cared about his congregation. What a novel idea.

I told him about the group I’d started, and my wish to plan a special meal in February for those who’d lost their spouse. The minister’s secretary heard me and asked if she could make chocolate cake for the meal that up until then was only a vague idea. In her capable hands, that meal became a reality. She picked up the phone and somehow got the Olive Garden in Dubuque to donate enough lasagna, breadsticks and salad for 36 people.

olive garden

                (Andrew Mialkowski at Olive Garden, with bags of food for our widows/widowers)

Members of that parish offered to serve the 28 widows and widowers who attended the event. Desserts appeared, including the chocolate cake promised by the secretary who’d spent most of her day decorating the room. Local businesses had donated gift certificates and centerpieces that became prizes in a drawing at the end of the meal. One man served the widows with a finesse that had them all a twitter. “I’ve never had a man serve me,” I heard one comment with a girlish giggle. His wife in the kitchen carried in desserts and filled coffee cup after coffee cup. The secretary’s young daughter went from table to table, serving with a smile. A man I’d never met entertained the room with a CD full of television theme songs and a game of guessing. I was in awe of what was happening.

widow widower tables2

bill and widow widower dinner.jpg

(Bill Scanlon waiting on widows, minister Rev. Phil Rogers in background, entertaining a table of widows)

God’s people serving widows and widowers a special meal, acknowledging their loss of a very special someone. Their missing Valentine.

 

Psalm 68:5  Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.