David, love

Love, Sweet Love

“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”  ~quote from French writer, Colette, shared with me by a friend who has also lost a significant other

I’d originally intended to mark the occasion, my first Valentine’s Day without David, by attending a free Widow’s luncheon offered nearly an hour away.

widow valentine lunch

Then two things happened; I ended up with post-viral bronchitis over the weekend and knew I couldn’t handle the drive, and my dear sister Angela, upon hearing my original plan, decided that a Valentine’s Day widow luncheon was more than she could bear for her sister, so she made reservations at a local tea room.

Perhaps it was simply that I was in survival mode with this illness, but the approaching holiday did not bother me in the least. Maybe it was because I’d known the very kind of love that the holiday epitomized, and could be grateful for having had that. On Facebook I shared this sentiment and photo the day before Valentine’s Day:

 I took a photo of these flowers a year ago on Valentine’s Day because it was so unusual for David to give me flowers. He also gave me candy and a bottle of wine. We went out for breakfast, and it was that time alone with him I treasure most of all. Ladies, it isn’t the flowers, the candy, the wine or even the diamonds…It is the time spent holding his hand. Hold your man close tomorrow, and thank the good Lord that you have him next to you~

flowers 002

I was amazed when I didn’t cry once on Valentine’s Day. I enjoyed dressing up for the first time in days for lunch with two sisters and my friend Tim, who’d been sideswiped that morning by sadness over his own loss.

“How are you doing today?” several people asked me with great concern, and I was surprised I could so easily and honestly answer “Fine.”  Better than fine, really. I was touched by the concern of others, honored that my 16-year-old daughter would use her tip money from that day’s work to buy me red roses and that my niece Morgan would stop by in the evening with a lovely bouquet in her hand.

em flowers

My first Valentine’s Day without my beloved, and not a tear was shed. Amazing!

And then I spent the better part of today huddled on the couch with my laptop, tired out and coughing more from the little bit of activity I’d partaken in yesterday. Maybe the doctor’s admonition for “rest and fluids” meant really “REST?” 

I’d fallen asleep when I heard a knock. “I’ll get it! Go back to sleep!” Abby ran to the front door and brought a big box to me from the porch.  I gasped.

“What is it Mom?” Abby asked in concern, because tears filled my eyes and were streaming down my cheeks.

“Surely no one ordered Shari’s Berries,” I managed to say before my throat filled and I couldn’t speak.

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Only two people knew the story behind Shari’s Berries; my son Dan and my daughter Elizabeth.

I am free to tell his secret now; David liked infomercials. I would come downstairs some mornings to find him on the couch engrossed in one. Sometimes he’d even have jotted down a phone number in his eagerness to get the “free” bottle of supplements or the amazing kitchen gadget he was sure would make my life easier. After he died, I found one of those pieces of paper folded carefully and stashed in his billfold. Yet, he’d never actually ordered anything he’d seen on television. When I caught him viewing an infomercial and gently chide him, he’d smile sheepishly and claim there hadn’t been anything else on the television. A couple of times the infomercials were so lengthy, he’d thought he’d been watching an actual television program and we both laughed when he realized his error. One morning, I sat down on the couch next to him and a Shari’s Berries commercial came on. “Those look delicious,” I casually mentioned, and thought nothing more of it.

David did, however. My son Daniel informed me shortly after his father’s death that David had expressed an interest in purchasing some Shari’s Berries for me and having them delivered on Valentine’s Day. What would be our last Valentine’s Day together. Dan rightly talked him out of it, citing the high cost and insisting I wouldn’t want him to spend that much money, so my husband had settled on giving me flowers. And a bottle of wine. And candy. All that, along with my favorite kind of date; breakfast out alone together.

It was my son Dan who once pointed out that after his bout with cancer, his father would have done anything to make me happy.  Sometime in recent years, I realized the truth of that statement.  I am chagrined by the knowledge that David would have given me anything I wanted that was within his power to give.  I am glad, then, that I never craved furs, expensive purses or jewelry. David’s only desire seemed to be my love and devotion, and I believe he died knowing he had both. I hold close the memory of David lying in that hospital bed and solemnly saying “Thank you” when I kissed his arm over and over, telling him I loved him. I couldn’t reach his face to kiss, but I wanted him to know how much he meant to me. To me, that “Thank you” meant he did know, and was grateful.

David had taken my casual comment about chocolate covered strawberries to heart and intended to fulfill yet another desire of the woman he loved, when actually it had been nothing more than a comment. My real desire, like his, had always been to be truly loved.

And yes, David had loved me in a way I can’t imagine ever experiencing again. Despite our limited budget, I really never lacked for anything, though I know he sometimes wished he could give me more.

It isn’t always the specific date on the calendar, the remembered song, a place, or a photo that prompts our tears.

It can be Shari’s Berries, ordered by your oldest daughter and delivered a year after your husband was talked out of them by your practical son.

Grief is not easy, nor tidy. It does not always come when we expect it, nor can it necessarily be anticipated and planned for. I did not expect grief when chest pain sent me to a hospital this past weekend and the man who conducted the treadmill test told me to turn around so he could help me close my gown. No one could have prepared me for the tears that filled my eyes when his fingers fumbled with the strings, reminding me of David when he did the same thing after each of my surgeries.

Nor could I have prepared myself for the question from the doctor, “Can you remember another time when your chest felt like this?”  With my hand splayed across my chest, I carefully consider her question, then nodded when I remembered. Tears streamed down my cheeks unchecked as I whispered hoarsely,”Yes, I do remember. After my husband died, it hurt. My chest hurt for days and felt full and heavy like this, and I thought; Oh, this is what it feels like to have your heart break.”


Over the Snowy Hill, to Grandmother’s House We Go

It was all about how he looked at her. I was enchanted by his look of devotion and love. It reminded me of something, or someone. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I’d gone to their simple but cozy home to interview the veteran of World War II for a newspaper article about the Honor Flight he’d been on. We sat in their kitchen as he answered questions, but soon he went off on a tangent, reminiscing.  He got more and more animated as he related stories about his time in the Navy.  As he talked about his friends and comrades, unchecked tears streamed down his cheeks. He hardly seemed to notice. A vacant look in his eyes, he was in another world. Across the table, his wife reached out and took his hand. As if coming out of a trance, he looked up then and smiled broadly.

“I wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for her,” he said, and her eyes sparkled at the compliment.

While he’d thought the Honor Flight an amazing adventure, the highlight of his trip was the surprise that met him at the airport. “She doesn’t even drive, but someone brought her to the airport to meet our airplane. I’ll never forget seeing her there,” his eyes never left her face, and the look he gave her was one of unadulterated, pure love.

A lump formed in my throat as I watched them.

“I loved them,” I told David when I got home. I dropped a personalized thank-you note in the mail the next day, one with a photo of David and I on the front.

When the newspaper story came out the next week, I picked up an extra copy and dropped it off at their house, an excuse to see the couple again. Abby trailed along behind me.  We were greeted effusively, and welcomed inside the house. I saw my thank-you note propped up on a small table near the door, and noticed the Chicken Soup book that I’d mentioned my essay was in on their coffee table with a book mark inside. I was surprised when Abby allowed the man to hug her good-bye.

“That was nice of you to let him hug you,” I said when we were back inside the car.

“Of course I did. I loved him,” was her simple reply.  This, from the little girl who pulled away from anyone else who attempted to hug her, except her beloved Daddy.

For days afterwards, Abby asked if we could visit the “old man” again, so often that David finally said he needed to meet this couple we were so fond of. We were welcomed warmly, and David spent a good half hour visiting with the older gentleman while his wife and I mostly observed, our eyes meeting in amused affection for our equally animated spouses.

Back in the car, I asked, “Do you see why I love them so much?” and he nodded his head.

“That’s us, when we’re older.”

“The way he looks at her, as if she is his life…” I fumbled with the words, and David took my hand in his.

“That’s how I feel about you,” was all he said.

Which was why I couldn’t bear to see them again after David died.

A card arrived from the wife in May, apologizing for the late sympathy note, but she’d just heard. If there is anything we can do…she wrote.

A phone message was left on my machine.

“Mary, we were so sorry to hear.”

I wrote them a letter, asking if they would consider being adopted grandparents for my girls. A return note of affirmation arrived in my mailbox a few days later.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to visit. How could I bear to see them; a reminder of what David and I would never reach together?

One summer day, Abby and I rode our bicycles past their house and she asked again when we would see them. A few days later, I rode by alone, nearly stopping, but just the thought brought tears to my eyes. I cried all the way home.  Instead, I wrote them another letter.

In November, I stepped into the hairdresser and there she was; the wife, having her hair done. We simultaneously reached out our hands and her face lit up. I grabbed her hand firmly. “I am so sorry I haven’t come. It has been difficult.” She nodded and her eyes softened in understanding. Before she left she turned and said, “We want to be grandparents to your girls. Come and see us soon.”

Today we did.

This afternoon I picked up the gift I had wrapped several days ago; the ribbon candy she’d mentioned she’d loved as a little girl. I also wrapped up the two most recent books I’d had essays featured in.  When Katie, Abby and I pulled up to their house, I couldn’t see where their sidewalk was because it was covered in snow. We laboriously made our way to the front door and rang the doorbell.  The wife greeted us all smiles, and let us in. With a tug to my heart, I noticed my thank-you card was still on the hall table. “He’s lying down because he’d gotten so tired trying to shovel the driveway,” she whispered when I asked where her husband was.

“He shouldn’t be shoveling!” my voice belied my horror, and she responded tearfully, “I know, but there was no one else. Our neighbor did the driveway for us but the city pushed big blocks of ice in front of it.”

“I’m going to go home and get a shovel,” I said. Just then I heard someone shuffling down the hallway. He must have heard our voices. His back was hunched; he walked unsteadily, appearing to wobble a little on his feet. I reached out to steady him, and he brought me closer for a hug.

“You can’t be shoveling,” I repeated.

“I know. I’m 87 and I have a bad heart, but the city closed up the driveway.”

“Give me your shovel.  We’ll do your sidewalk.” Katie and Abby nodded their heads vigorously. The wife brought two shovels and three pairs of gloves and we went to work outside. When I got to the end of the sidewalk, I saw what he must have encountered at the end of his driveway; the city grater had pushed large chunks of icy snow that had solidified at the edge. As I chopped and scooped, I fumed. Why hadn’t anyone helped these people? I knew their children and grandchildren lived out of state, but what about a kindly neighbor? My own neighbor had cleaned my sidewalk and driveway the day before, out of the goodness of his heart. Didn’t any of their neighbors notice the sidewalk was closed in with snow and there was no way to get to the front door? Right then I heard a snow blower start up across the street and noticed a young man cleaning his already plowed driveway.

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to go get some sidewalk salt to melt some of the ice,” I told the woman when we returned her gloves and shovels. She apologized that her husband had gone back to bed. The girls were very quiet as we headed to the grocery store.

“What can we do to help them?” Katie finally asked, and I just shook my head.

Inside the store, I grabbed a container of ice melt, and then I spotted the fresh-baked Kalona apple pies near the entrance. Back at their house, I sprinkled the ice melt on the sidewalk as Abby delivered a pie to the wife. When I gave her the container of ice melt to keep, she smiled a grateful smile. “You have no idea how much this means to us,” she said, but I waved off her thanks. “I worry so much about him,” she confided, and we exchanged a knowing look.  Before I left, I warned her that David’s heart attack had initially appeared as shoulder pain, and then I hugged her again, turning away quickly so she couldn’t see the tears in my eyes as I finally realized what the man’s look of adoration had reminded me of.

He wouldn’t want to live without her,” David had commented on the way home after our visit. “I wouldn’t want to live without you,” he’d added, and I’d responded in kind.

I’d recognized that look of pure, unadulterated love…

because David looked at me like that.


The girls and I will be adopting this couple as our own personal set of grandparents, which of course means that each time it snows we will be heading over to their house to clean off the sidewalks.


Following A Dream

We were sitting outside on a bench of some sort, facing each other, our knees almost touching. He was wearing his blue and white striped shirt and his Iowa Hawkeye black baseball cap. He was hunched over, leaning his arms on his legs with his hands clasped, the classic David pose when he was thinking. His head was down and I couldn’t quite see his face.

“Do you know what we should do?” my voice was excited.

He leaned closer, as if to make sure he wouldn’t miss a word of any wonderful idea his wife had, because even in the dream, I knew he loved me and wanted to hear whatever I had to say. I reached over to circle my arms wide around him, ready to hug him.

And then I was awake, with tears streaming down my face.

6-16-2012: My first dream about my husband since his death.

Yesterday was the last day I would be attending the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop. At the lunch table I found myself talking about David, and our marriage. “Our marriage was wonderful at the time of his death. It wasn’t always like that, but during his cancer treatment our marriage relationship had improved so much that I couldn’t imagine being any closer to him. Just as an example; three weeks before he died, David and I were at the kitchen table. I was busy writing when David jumped up to refill my coffee cup. That’s the way we had become; taking care of each other. I kept writing but I sensed him looking at me so I looked up and smiled and then went back to my work. When I looked up again, he was still watching me.

‘What? What are you thinking?’ I asked, and he said, ‘I’m thinking how beautiful you are, and how talented. How you can sit there and all these words come out of you. I love you so much.’

“I was in my pajamas, no make-up, messy hair, and he thought I was beautiful?” I told the group of women at the table, and I noticed one of them wiping her eyes. “I thought right then~This is what marriage should be like. I wish everyone could have a marriage like this.” Tears flowed freely down the woman’s face at that pronouncement.

Later in the day, she approached me.

“Can I ask you something, Mary? You talked about your marriage at the table. Do you ever regret that you got that close to your husband? Because it hurt so much then, when you lost him?” Tears were coursing down her cheeks and my heart went out to her, and I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “Because my marriage isn’t that great, and I’m scared if I make it better, if we get closer, I’d be afraid to lose him.”

“I am never sorry for those last five and a half years since his cancer. I treasure those years.”

“You aren’t sorry?”

“Never.  I am so grateful I had that. Some people live their whole life without experiencing love like that.” She nodded her head a little.

“It isn’t like we are headed for divorce or anything,” she confided, “But I’m not happy. I don’t think he even knows there is anything wrong.”

“David didn’t either,” I smiled, and I wanted to hug her, knowing that particular pain of feeling alone in a marriage. “But I’d known our union wasn’t something to celebrate on our 25th wedding anniversary. When David saw what our relationship was like, after cancer, he realized what it could have been all along. I wish I had the answer for you, how to make your marriage like that right now, without cancer, because David and I always wished we hadn’t waited to make our relationship like that.  If I had been the kind of wife I was during and after his cancer, maybe it would have been. I rubbed his feet during cancer.” I saw her face change then, as if she was confused.

“For 27 years of marriage, I’d never touched my husband’s feet.” I went on to explain. “One evening, after a long day of treatments and doctor’s appointments, I knew he was exhausted, mentally and physically, and I wondered what I could possibly do to help. I knelt down in front of him and took off his shoes and socks and began rubbing his feet with alcohol. His body stiffened and he asked, ‘What? Do my feet stink?’ I felt like crying. He couldn’t imagine that I would care enough about him to rub or wash his feet! He relaxed when I told him I just wanted to make him feel better and the look on his face then practically broke my heart. He was so grateful. So… content. What if I’d always treated him as though I cherished him? It was all he needed or wanted; to be loved. And that is what we did for each other after cancer; we truly cherished each other.”

Now I was nearly crying too. I’d had that, and lost it when David died.

I can still see the image of that woman’s face; the raw yearning for the same.

As I related last night’s dream to my 15-year old daughter this morning, I began crying again. “Even in my dream, I didn’t get to hug him,” I lamented, and she hugged me. She was leaving this morning, on a mission trip to West Virginia, a trip her Dad had been so excited about for her.

As I reflect on what I did have with David, the germ of an idea that was planted in me at the Write-to-Publish conference grew a little; if I write our story, the story of a marriage and a journey of faith and love, then maybe, just maybe, I can help other women, like my new friend from yesterday, find true love in their relationship.

Do you know what we should do, David?  Do you know what we should do? We should write a book together; a true story, a journey of faith and love.

A prayer for today;

“Dear Lord, I am praying this morning for my new friend, that she might find fulfillment in her marriage. I ask for help for all the women and men who are feeling alone in their marriage today, that they might find their way back to their partners and experience the fullness of love that you designed the union to be. Thank you, Lord, for the love you allowed me to experience with David.”