Hard Work

When I decided to revive my blog and write about grief, I resolved to put no pressure on myself to make big changes, accomplish anything major, or be exceptionally productive for at least the first year after Dave’s death. I wanted to just process, grieve, feel like I could stay in bed all day if I wanted.

I’d read somewhere that most people expect the grieving process to be over after 2-4 months. That blew my mind – two months in, I was just starting to come out of the state of shock I’d been in. One of the really good books on grieving that I read (which is probably where I saw that statistic, although I’ve seen it in more than one place) said in reality it’s more like three years to really feel like you are back on your feet. And even that isn’t always the case – there is no timeline, of course. This was more of an examination of society’s expectations on a grieving person.

So here I am, almost 10 months later. I feel like I’ve been able to really absorb and reflect on Dave’s death, how his life and death have affected my own life. For a long time I thought I was making no progress; just when I felt like I was getting steadier, I’d have a week where every night (it usually happened as I was getting ready to head up for bed) I would cry and tell him I can’t do this, and he should be here for all these things he was missing. I felt just as shattered as I did in the very early weeks.

So I cried. I talked to him. I wrote in my private journal (to him and to myself), on Facebook, here on my blog. It sucked and I thought my life was always going to feel that way. The loneliness was devastating. Dave and I had spent every minute of 23 years together; we ran a business together, we retired together, we were ALWAYS together. I went from constant 24/7 companionship with someone whose company I never got tired of, to being completely alone all day long. I was in a town far from my family, I really didn’t know anybody local. The two cats were my only social interaction.

It was HARD, harder than I ever admitted to anyone because honestly, there was nothing anybody could do or say to make it better. Yes, I had wonderful memories of our life together. But I didn’t want memories – I wanted my husband and best friend back.

I just got up every day, told him, “Okay hon, here we go, another day to get through.” Fed the cats, found ways to occupy my time, tried to meet people. I used social media a lot to keep from losing my mind with loneliness and it worked – especially Facebook, where my family and friends were so responsive and kind to me. For a long, long time, I didn’t have the mental energy to do much more than post and then like/love the responses to my post. I didn’t interact as much in the comments as I normally would. But if I was feeling like I could, I tried to because I knew I needed to come back to myself and that was a small start.

(As a side note, I’m probably going to start posting some of the FB posts here, with a “From Facebook” note in the beginning. I feel like I want them here as well, as part of the grieving process I’m documenting, but I don’t want my Facebook friends to feel like they have to read a duplicate if they don’t want to. So I won’t share the links on my FB page, but you should get a notice about the posts if you’ve subscribed to my blog or you read on a feed reader.)

As time went on I started wondering if people thought I talked about Dave too much on Facebook. Was I wallowing? Usually I would see a memory pop up and then share it and talk a little about it. But I decided I needed to also start talking about my life now, not just my life then.

Summer gave me more of a chance to get out and talk to people. It sounds so minor, but I’d walk the neighborhood and usually stop and chat with at least one person while I was out. I’d stop in a store or whatever and talk to somebody there. For someone who used to be really, really shy, this was more hard work, but I knew it was important for my mental health. I had to really make an effort not to isolate myself. I made myself get out and around people at least once a week, if not more.

A view from a recent walk in town

So here’s a little story. Last Thursday, my social plans were to go to a farm market that Dave and I used to frequent, and then to walk down after dinner and listen to some music in the park. (My town has this every Thursday evening in the summer, a different band/genre each time.) The band was doing covers of 80s/90s music and I figured I’d like that music pretty well.

I went to the farm market, and spent a lot of time talking to the woman who owns the farm. She was talking to herself at one point and then apologized to me for it, and I told her I talk to myself ALL the time. Well, I talk to Dave, really. Then she asked if I had a picture of Dave so she could remember him – and after she saw the photo, she looked stricken and said that oh yes, she remembered him, and she was so sorry. We talked about her mom, who died recently, and what an honor it was to be present with a loved one when they make that transition. It was just a really wonderful, heartfelt conversation.

As I was leaving, I realized I was kind of blocked in. There was a road crew paving the road I needed to take, and it was the only way out of the parking lot. So I walked right up to the guys working, told them I needed to turn right (because I didn’t know any other way home!) and they were so cool. They told me to go to the other driveway, they held traffic for me, and I was able to pull out just before where they were spreading asphalt. I mean, you have to understand – I would have agonized over this in the past. I would’ve been too shy to talk and ask questions. On that day, I didn’t even hesitate. It was fun, even!

Then after dinner I walked down to the park. Chatted with the people I decided to sit next to. Enjoyed the band tremendously. Chatted with more people as I left and walked home.

I got home that night and I’m not joking, I felt like a different person. I’d done all these things alone, had a really social day that didn’t feel exhausting or scary. I truly enjoyed myself. I didn’t once think how sad it was that I had to do this stuff by myself. I’d chosen activities I wanted to do, I did them, and I had fun.

In bed that night I thought about how truly awful those first months were; not just because I was grieving, my life had been completely turned upside down, I was alone and terrified, but because scary stuff kept happening that I had to deal with right after my husband died. My car tire kept going flat, the battery died and the car wouldn’t start, I had problems with my internet, couldn’t figure out how to get the whole-house humidifier to work when it got cold. I had to get used to driving in snow and on ice, when I hadn’t driven a car in over seven years because Dave did all the driving. It was a LOT.

I think all that stuff contributed to the fear I went through in winter, when I didn’t want to leave the house, drive or do anything. I was terrified of getting in an accident and being by myself when it happened. I’m not exaggerating when I say I thought I was going to be scared forever; I just thought that was my life from now on.

So all of that quiet time, which I’ve been lucky to have, believe me I know, has been working under the surface. I don’t think I’ll be “done” grieving or going through this process in a year; that’s only a couple months away. But I can see how I’m changing as a person, in small, meaningful ways.

It’s hard work. It’s scary. It’s what I need to do.

Dancing & Thinking Out Loud

I follow this dancer, Mark Kanemura, on Instagram. I first saw him as a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance ages ago, and then later I saw him on the same show when he was a dancer for Lady Gaga.

Last week he posted about the show coming back. (It had been canceled in 2020 because of covid, and then was rather suddenly – at least to me – resurrected.) In his Instagram stories, he posted links to some of the dances he did, and told stories about how incredibly difficult it was to be on the show. It was fascinating to me, and I rewatched one of my favorite routines of his just for kicks. He performed this piece, The Garden, with Courtney; it was choreographed by Sonya Tayeh (another favorite of mine). Her dances were always really visual and quirky and fun to watch.

So I’m watching this video and it dawns on me that the music is not familiar at ALL. Like, not one bit of it. But the dance itself was so familiar; I’d seen it quite a bit because they had them perform the dance a number of times in later shows. So why didn’t I remember the music?!

And then it dawned on me. I was deaf the summer that season of SYTYCD aired. I lost all of my hearing in April 2008 and got my cochlear implant surgery in July 2008. My CIs were activated in late August 2008. And it took a long time for things to sound the way they used to; music actually took years to come back and begin to sound good.

I think that’s why I was drawn to Mark’s style of dancing – it was really unusual and visually captivating. I watched that whole season not being able to hear the music, so I hyper-focused on the dancing itself. (On a side note, I also watched a whole season of American Idol without being able to hear anything and that was super boring! At least I had something fun to watch with a dancing show; my main impression with a singing competition was whether the singers were expressive or moved around while they sang.)

While I’m here, I’ll update on a few things. (I’m waiting for it to get a bit warmer before I go outside and mow the lawn.) Mowing the lawn, by the way, is less traumatizing for me now. For a while there, every time I mowed I thought about the day Dave got sick and I took him to the ER. (I had come in from mowing the lawn when I found him sitting in the dining room with his head on the table.)

Other things are feeling more natural too – driving around, running errands, going for walks alone. I used to feel incredibly self conscious every time I went outside, like everyone was looking at me. Those first few walks that I went on by myself were torture, just keeping my head down and getting it done because I felt like I had to get out of the house and try to act like a normal person.

I made it through a big task a few weeks ago – cleaning out Dave’s closet and the rest of his things. I donated everything that didn’t go to my son, daughter and son-in-law to Goodwill. I took all the boxes of his extra medical supplies and donated them to my clinic for their missions. Now I have all this closet and drawer space that I still haven’t filled up, but I’m slowly moving things around.

I still don’t turn down his side of the bed. Isn’t that weird? I leave it intact and just turn down my side. But I did rotate the mattress recently! I changed the oil in the lawn mower. I added coverage for service lines (water, sewer, electrical, internet) to the homeowner’s insurance. (I did this after reading a blog entry about roots in the sewer lines at an old house; my house is 120 years old and I do not have thousands of dollars to shell out to fix something like this, so when this new coverage became available I jumped on it.) I even tried to take my car in for an oil change and was told it was too soon, so I’m on top of maintenance in a big way there. (I assumed since it had been six months I should go in; my mechanic told me no, go by the mileage on the sticker they gave me. Since I drive so infrequently, I still have a couple thousand miles to go.)

It will be eight months on Friday. I have weeks where my grief feels as fresh as it did that first week, and weeks where I feel like I’m doing pretty darn good.

My cookbook club is rocking along, and we meet next Wednesday. This month’s cookbook is super fun, The Mexican Home Kitchen by Mely Martinez. I glanced at it and thought ooh, this looks too technical for me. Then I took a closer look and started making notes of which recipes I wanted to try. Every single one has been delicious, although I did confirm that I’m not a huge fan of frying things. (I made empanadas last night for the first time. Super tasty but eh, frying is kind of a drag.)

I have a couple ideas for what I’ll make, and for the first time it will not be dessert. I’m not sure how much advance notice we’ll get this month; last month we all posted our recipe choices on Monday and we met on Wednesday, which didn’t give much time for purchasing ingredients and testing the recipe, if necessary. That’s why I tested a bunch of possible recipes earlier this month; if I can, I try to pick a recipe that’s not being made by someone else. Anyway, it’s always a fun evening and the whole point is to enjoy the food and the company, so that’s what I focus on.

I am settling in to living alone and being alone. It doesn’t feel so painful now. Traveling alone is still not appealing to me; I am not sure I’m going to go to the beach by myself this year. The botanical garden might be all I can handle. But I did have a wonderful time at the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan with my daughter! I’ll close with a picture of us from that day. Smiles all around!

More Firsts

I just realized I haven’t written since last month … what?!

(A large bit of this is pulled from a recent post on Facebook, so if you’re friends with me there most of it will look familiar.)

On Wednesday I did a couple of new-to-me things. I had my six month fasting labs early, and I had a lot of things to do in Niles (where my doctor is) so I decided to take myself out to breakfast. This was a routine for me and Dave after any early morning medical stuff. When I last had my labs, back in October, it was just a couple weeks after he died and I honestly don’t even remember what I did; I think I just drove back and had breakfast at home.

So I ate in a restaurant by myself, for the first time ever. And it was fine! I brought my Kindle, read my book while I had a nice meal, and didn’t feel uncomfortable or conspicuous at all. It took growing older to realize that nobody is watching me and wondering why I’m eating alone. People do not care, and even if they do, I don’t! Check that off my list.

It was raining cats and dogs, so I had the added joy of doing errands in torrential rain. I got all my shopping done, and even found a cute raincoat at a thrift store. (Why do so many of them just look like big plastic bags? Or have NO HAT? I need a hat to protect my cochlear implants. Or they pull over your head. No, my hair does not want that!)

Then I moved on to my next “first”: an in-person grief group. It was meeting at the YMCA, which is where Dave and I used to work out when we lived in Niles. I hadn’t been there since 2017, but it was a good kind of deja vu as I pulled into the parking lot.

Nobody in the lobby was wearing masks, but the grief counselor had told me to bring one. (I’d emailed ahead of time to explain my hearing loss and difficulty with masks, and he said mostly likely we would just need them when we walked in and then we could take them off.)

I wore mine in, took it off when I realized I was the only one wearing a mask, and then a man wearing a mask came out of a doorway to greet me and show me where we were meeting. This was the grief counselor, who said we should wear them. Great.

An intern approached me and talked for a bit, and I understood not one word. I explained to her that I read lips and couldn’t understand her. She just silently looked at me and didn’t take her mask off. (Usually people do after I explain, even in doctor’s offices.)

We were in a huge empty room that echoed terribly, which made understanding almost impossible. It ended up being me, the two grief counselors, and two older men. I didn’t expect to be the only woman, to be honest. I expected a range of ages, and that was fine, but it was weird not having any other women to relate to the struggles I have dealt with.

I have to say, though, kudos to the guys. Looking at them, you would never picture them in a grief group with tear-filled eyes. These were tough, rural farming men, you know? And I just wanted to hug them both. Time for me to get rid of some of my stereotypical thinking!

Eventually it was determined that we could remove our masks (I really didn’t hear why this was such a drawn out decision) but even then I just could not understand much. They had us sit very far away from each other, and the acoustics in the room were terrible. I caught maybe 30-40% of what the other people said, but luckily most of what the grief counselor said because I was close enough to read his lips.

One of the guys lost his wife after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I heard hospice mentioned, and I think the grief counselor knew him through the hospice service. The other guy really did not talk, just very briefly to say why he was there. I’m pretty sure he lost his wife, maybe very recently. This made it hard to have actual conversations because I couldn’t hear them, and only two of us participants were talking. The grief counselor didn’t keep conversation moving very smoothly and there were a lot of long, awkward silences that I felt compelled to fill. I think I talked more than anyone else, which is a strategy I employ when I can’t hear/understand – if I’m the one talking, I don’t have to try to hear anyone else!

I really didn’t get much out of this, other than the joy of just being able to talk to other people for once. (You can only take so many cold, rainy spring days alone in the house and talking to the cats before you start to lose it.) I’ve been doing a lot of reading on grief and that is helping me work through it, helping me reframe some negative thoughts, that sort of thing. I have the self care stuff (I hate that term, but you know what I mean) well in hand. I do the painful things and the scary things in small increments; when I feel myself panicking, I stop and regroup and do something I enjoy instead. But I also keep making myself try the scary things, so I don’t let the fear take over.

I’m not going back, but I’m also very glad I did it. It confirmed my suspicions that my hearing was going to be an issue, and also made me realize that my need right now is for social interaction, not necessarily help with navigating my grief. Things like my cookbook club at the library, which I just love, are what I need to seek out. (Our next meeting is May 4, picnic foods. I hope the weather catches up by then, because we have snow predicted for Monday.)

My stock answer to “How are you?” has been “Hanging in there.” Now I’m getting to where I’m not just hanging in there. I can genuinely say “I’m doing good” many days.

Calorically Yours

In October 1997, I was a single mom in Illinois and had just joined an online hearing loss support group called The Say What Club. Back in those days it was an email listserv, and one of the ‘welcome to the list’ emails was from this guy, Dave, in Michigan. In my introductory email, I explained that I was deaf in one ear, and had just recovered from a terrible ear infection in my other ear (which had some hearing left). During the ear infection, my ‘good’ ear was plugged with antibiotic-soaked cotton and I was temporarily totally deaf. It terrified me and made me want to learn sign language. (Side note: Even now that I truly am totally deaf, I still have never been able to officially learn sign language. I know a few signs and the alphabet.)

Dave offered to send me some sign language books and videos, and we started to exchange emails. He always called me ‘kid’ and I had no idea what he looked like. “What a nice, friendly old man,” I thought. We were good buddies – he was smart and funny and, well, a smart-ass.

A few months after I joined, I offered to build a web page with photos of the SWC members. People started mailing their pictures to me so I could scan and upload them. (This was 1997, okay?!) Then Dave mailed his photos.

‘Hey!’ I thought. ‘This guy is not that old. And he’s pretty cute. Hmmm.’ (He was nine years older than me, BTW.)

We kept talking through email, then IRC chat (where, yes, we did slap each other with wet trout), and finally phone calls – that was a big deal for two hard-of-hearing people. Months passed.

On March 14, 1998 I was supposed to go to a concert at the House of Blues in Chicago, and my friend Renee bailed at the last minute. The kids were at their dad’s and I was sitting around, bored, when Dave called me. When he found out my plans had been canceled, he casually said, “Why don’t I come over?”

So I took a huge chance, meeting a ‘stranger’ from The Internet. He got lost on the way to my house (this was way before GPS, and I think he printed out a map from AltaVista – ha!) and just as I gave up hope and assumed he wasn’t coming, the doorbell rang.

My son took this photo; summer 1998, the first time Dave met the kids.

We clicked instantly and had a wonderful time. He introduced me to his WebTV, which he’d brought along. (“I’ll never need a computer, this has everything I need.” Famous last words.) He came back for another visit two weeks later, the next time the kids had a weekend with their dad. On March 28, we had our first official date. We went out for Chicago-style deep dish pizza (his first time trying it) and then to see the movie Titanic in the theater.

1998, ALDA convention
(Association of Late-Deafened Adults)

After that, we always celebrated on March 28 with deep dish pizza. Twenty four years later, I am carrying on the tradition with a deep dish Lou Malnati’s pizza that I had shipped to the house. The things we do for tradition!

Here we are in 2018, after Dave’s diagnosis

Different but the Same

I thought I’d talk a little bit about a couple of different things: caregiving, and how the grieving process has been for me. It goes without saying that everyone grieves differently, and so many things have an impact on your experience, not the least of which is who you are grieving, how they impacted your life, and how they died.

Because we knew Dave’s illness was terminal pretty much as soon as they told us he wasn’t a candidate for surgery (resection or transplant), I started grieving right away. I had 3-1/2 years to confront what I imagined the future held for both of us. And although the reality of it still hit way harder than I ever could have dreamed, I think having that time kept me from becoming completely consumed with grief and despair after Dave died. In a way, I had worked through some of it at that point.

One thing I did after he died was sign up for a daily grief and bereavement newsletter that I found on the funeral home’s website. It’s been amazingly helpful, and a lot of days the message touches on an emotion I happen to be dealing with right at that moment – it’s been kind of weird (good weird) like that. On a funny note, I mentioned to my funeral arranger that I’d signed up and found it really helpful. She had no idea they even offered that on their website! I showed her the email I’d received that day, and she made a note so she could mention it to future people when she counseled them.

I’ve been reading some books too, mostly memoirs, to see how other people grieve. One thing that came up a few times, in these books and in the newsletter, is that the five stages of grief were actually not meant for grieving people; they were meant to apply to people dealing with a terminal illness. I had no idea! I’d kept thinking about those stages and wondering which one I was currently in (and also wondering why I never felt anger). This is an excerpt from the newsletter:

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published the landmark book On Death and Dying in 1969, which proposed a model that included 5 stages: denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although deeply embedded in our culture, this model has been misapplied to those in mourning. It was really intended to describe the adjustment process undergone by terminally ill patients in relation to their own death.

I’m almost done reading a book called Dream New Dreams. There was a lot I could relate to in this book, which was kind of rare. The other books talked about things like all the people that dropped by and how to manage all the food you’ll get, which did not happen to me at all. One book was written by a girl grieving the death of her father, which is a totally different thing from losing a spouse.

But this woman’s husband had pancreatic cancer, which spread to the liver. A lot of the symptoms he dealt with were things Dave went through, and I could really relate to some of the caregiving aspects she mentioned. I didn’t talk a lot about the caregiving part of Dave’s illness when he was alive. For a long time, there just wasn’t much I had to do.

As 2021 began, he was becoming more nauseous, so my focus was on finding ways to help him deal with that. Then he had all his teeth pulled for his dentures in April 2021, so I spent a lot of time planning meals he could eat while his mouth healed. As soon as he healed from oral surgery, he went into the radiation treatments. He had already lost weight from not being able to eat normally, and once he had the liver radiation, he just lost his appetite.

My days were consumed with watching him waste away, and trying desperately to get some calories into him. The author of this book mentioned the same thing, plus worrying as each new side effect popped up. Dave’s legs and feet became horribly swollen, and nothing brought the swelling down. I bought him compression socks, showed him how to lay down with his legs and feet up against the wall, etc. These things helped temporarily, at least.

She mentioned the slow, slow walks to hospitals and doctor’s offices. I had forgotten about that. Dave lost all of his energy and endurance. Depending on how he felt, I would either drop him off at the hospital entrance while I parked and walked back to meet him, get him a wheelchair, or we would take one hesitant step at a time to all the appointments he had.

He had fluid in his abdomen that made it hard for him to breathe, just like this lady’s husband. Dave had a drain placed in his abdomen, and I became the person who drained the fluid from his belly on a daily basis. Draining this fluid, though, threw his electrolytes off balance. He was on sodium pills, which I’m sure didn’t help his swollen legs and feet. It just seemed like we’d get one thing under control and something else would get out of whack.

I was the one keeping track of his medications (he took different pills morning, noon, and night). I researched possible reasons for side effects I was noticing. His hands started shaking, and his voice became so hoarse that most people couldn’t hear him. (I could read his lips, thankfully.) Writing it all out sounds so horrible but these things came up slowly and we tackled them as they did, and I just absorbed the new caregiving tasks into my daily routine. I never stepped back to take it all in and realize how dire the situation really was. I just kept thinking eventually we’d get on top of all these side effects and Dave would feel better.

Dave was never the type to complain or to ask for help, and this short period of caregiving gave me a chance to feel like I was doing something to help him. I mean, this was a man who wouldn’t even let me go get him some Kleenex if he had a cold!

Reading this book made me kind of sit back and remember what last year was like. It actually felt good to read along and nod and completely relate to this stuff, like I wasn’t so alone even though it was all in the past now.

But of course, her situation was not mine. Her husband had a lot of money and made sure she was set financially after he died; money was not even a consideration for her. Dave couldn’t do that – he didn’t even have life insurance because he’d had leukemia in the early 90s and nobody would insure him. When he died, our already minuscule income was cut in half. (I did notice that all of the books I’ve read were written by people who were financially well off, actually. I guess us poor folks don’t bother to write memoirs about grief!)

She also had three young children to care for, and I was lucky enough that my children were grown and on their own after Dave died. They also immediately moved when they found out her husband’s situation was terminal. Dave and I considered this, but then he was doing so well that it didn’t seem as urgent. When he got sicker, we did look at smaller places, townhomes, and quickly realized we really couldn’t afford to move. I had to make sure wherever we moved was a place I could afford on my own income, and even an apartment was pushing it. A townhome, with association fees, was out of the question. (The mortgage here is actually less than the rent on my apartment in 1985.) When Dave grew really ill, I quietly worked up a budget to be sure I could afford my home even without Dave’s pension.

This post is really meandering, isn’t it? I’m mainly thinking out loud, in relation to this book I’m reading. Thinking about how we all have different life situations, different grief, but we are so similar as well. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. I can sometimes stand outside myself and observe how my grief has changed in the past six months. I have long stretches where I feel close to myself again, something that last fall I thought I’d never achieve.

I’m almost halfway through this first year without Dave, and I sometimes wonder if I should be doing more. Working toward something? Mostly I just get up every day and hope to find a few things that will make me smile. So far in my life, things (love, jobs, big transitions, houses) seem to come along when the time is right, and the less I try to influence the outcome, the better things go. When I’m frantically trying to make something happen, it never works.

So I feel … lazy? … just kind of waiting things out. But also hopeful for the future.

Connections

A couple weeks ago, my local library posted a new club that was going to meet the first Wednesday of every month: the Make and Share Cookbook Club. I mean, could anything be more perfect for me? (The only other thing I can think of is an in-person sign language class, which I have always wanted to take and have never been able to find near any of the towns I’ve lived in. I’ve done the online classes and no, I want to do this in person. Always on the lookout for that!)

So, I clicked the ‘interested’ button and then tried to talk myself out of it. Probably everyone that went would go in pairs or groups with other people they knew, and I’d be the odd man out. What if everyone was wearing masks and I couldn’t understand them?

I decided to email the lady putting the group together, to ask about the mask policy and express my interest. I told myself that if masks were optional, I had to go. I really have to get used to putting myself out there.

She wrote back, was very kind and accommodating, and told me that masks were optional. She was also happy to meet with me one-on-one to explain the club.

So I went. I arrived early because I wanted to check out a book first, and also find out where the club was actually meeting because the post didn’t say. It turned out that the girl in charge was also the one who checked my book out for me, and we both recognized each other. She said this first meeting was really more to pick up the cookbook and answer questions, and not so much a formal meeting. We went to a room to chat more about it. I figured I would just meet the other members some other time.

As we talked, people started filtering into the room. Eventually there were eight of us seated around the table, and it turned into an actual meeting. And I’m so glad it did!

As we talked about how the club will work, we all started sharing little details about ourselves. (It was all women and no men, which kind of didn’t surprise me.) There was definitely a vibe of “I’m so glad to be meeting people and getting out of the house” from pretty much everyone. A lot of us were new to town, and there was a wide age range, which I was happy to see.

We eventually went around and introduced ourselves, and I found myself just fascinated and impressed with every woman there. All from different situations but all friendly, kind, and excited to be starting this group. And not everyone was an experienced, fancy baker or expert in the kitchen, so there wasn’t a competition type of vibe to it.

I was so happy that I didn’t feel on the outskirts, or like the only person who didn’t know everyone else. I think because so many of us were fairly new to town, we were all kind of in the same boat and really eager to meet new people.

We’re baking from a different book each month; this month’s book is called My Little Michigan Kitchen and I have a list of recipes I want to try. I’ve already made one (Chicken Purses) and it was fantastic, so I have high hopes! I’m not sure yet which recipe will be the one I make to bring to the next meeting in April. I want it to be easily portable, and not something that needs to be kept warm. On the other hand, I don’t want to make something similar to someone else or, for instance, a dessert if everyone else is making a dessert. We’ll be starting a Facebook group where we can share which recipe we’ve chosen, and that will probably help me decide.

I came home from the meeting on such a high. Apparently I was desperate to meet new people, more than I realized. There was a little of that euphoric relief you get when you’ve done something you were nervous about and it turns out to be way better than you expected, and also just general excitement because I really love to cook and I think this is going to be fun.

So I may not have found a grief group, but I did get myself out there and made some connections!

Little Things

I made lemon scones a few weeks ago. When I went to bake one (I make and then freeze them, and then bake them from frozen when I have a craving), I searched the refrigerator for lemon glaze. I was pretty sure I’d made some for something else a while back, and I wanted to set the container on my stove top so the heat from the oven could warm the glaze.

I found the container pretty quickly, and then stood there holding it, staring at the lid. “Lemon glaze,” written in Sharpie on a piece of masking tape, in Dave’s handwriting.

This is the kind of thing that is hardest for me as I work through my grief. The big things, the holidays and birthdays and such, are hard, but you have some warning and can try to prepare for them. These little things, like seeing his handwriting, are what make my breath catch in my throat and my eyes well up.

(As an aside, I always loved Dave’s handwriting. I was very into pen pals from my youth until the late 90s, and because of that I really noticed and appreciated handwriting. One of the first things I told Dave after we met in person was how much I liked his writing.)

Then yesterday, I was out running errands and stopped to fill the car tank with gas. Out of nowhere, I remembered that the day I took Dave to the ER (which was the start of his last hospitalization that led to his death) he insisted that I stop first and put gas in the car. I’d completely forgotten about this.

He had asked me to take him to the ER because he got up from the couch and immediately started to fall. He made it to the kitchen table but was weak and woozy. I wasn’t even sure I could get him to the car, but somehow we did it. So when he insisted that I gas up the car, which had a half tank of gas already, I argued with him. I mean, I wanted to get to the hospital as fast as possible. But he insisted. Although it’s not like I don’t know how to put gas in a car tank, he had been the only one doing it for many years at this point and he had such a strong instinct to take care of me, even when he was so sick. He wanted to talk me through it, in case I had questions. And then he added, “And this way you’ll have enough gas to make at least five trips.”

I didn’t ask him to elaborate, but I wondered about it at the time. Five trips? To and from the hospital? I was really thinking we would go, they would give him an IV because he was probably dehydrated, and we would come home. I wonder now if he knew he’d be admitted, and figured he’d be in there for a number of days and I’d be going back and forth from home to the hospital.

So I relented, because he was really serious about this. I put gas in the car. And I did make exactly another five trips back and forth from the hospital to home before he died.

Even a little thing like a trip to the gas station can be emotional right now. I can accept that. It’s learning to sit with those emotions and not avoid them that’s the hard part.

More Vehicle-Related Trauma

Yesterday, my first Valentine’s Day as a single person since 1997, my neighbors were greeted with the sight of my car being towed out of my driveway.

Not exactly how I planned to spend the day.

We’d had yet another lake effect snowstorm. All of the local weather outlets always say that these storms will affect Berrien County, never my county, and they always end up hitting my county the worst. I just expect now that I will be shoveling even for storms my area isn’t supposed to get.

So I went out yesterday to shovel. Of course, it was also really cold (single digits) and I’d actually meant to go out and start my car on Sunday but I forgot. I finished shoveling, came in, then felt the car keys in my coat pocket. I’d once again forgotten to start the car. I almost decided not to bother but then I shrugged, put my boots back on, and headed out.

I turned the key and … nothing. Just clicking. I was sure it would start on the second try, but no. The car absolutely would not start.

I sat there, stunned. This was actually a scenario I’d asked Dave about back in 2018 when I was panicking, after he was first diagnosed. We had a different car back then and it was giving us a lot of trouble, so I asked him – what would I do if he was not here, and the car wouldn’t start? I can’t even remember his answer, to be honest.

I surprised myself by not freaking out. It helped that I really had nowhere to be. So I came in and went to the AAA website. I was hoping I could do this with the minimum of telephone interaction. It turned out to be really easy to request service using their website. They said it would be 45 minutes, and there was even a little map showing the progress of the person coming to help me.

As I waited, I did a search on things that could be the problem. Battery and alternator were the main results, and I figured it probably just needed to be jumped. But just in case, I wrote down the address of my mechanic (and then searched to see if AAA will take your car to the mechanic of your choice, or only one that is AAA sanctioned). This was all completely new to me – I’ve had AAA for 7 years and never used it.

The time on the website was down to 35 minutes and then it changed back to 45 minutes. Apparently it took 10 minutes for someone to respond to the call. So I figured I had time for a quick lunch, and then I hung around by the phone.

With about 25 minutes to go, the phone rang – a number I didn’t recognize. I answered and struggled through the call. (Seriously, the phone is hell for me. I hear them talking but it just doesn’t make sense to me, so I have to wait for the captions to catch up.) The guy said he was here to look at my car and I said, “Here? Like right now?!” He sure was! The website was very wrong about the progress of his travel, it turns out. But no complaints – he was very early instead of very late.

He tried to jump the car and it would not start. Now I was freaking out. He asked where I wanted the car towed, and I gave him my mechanic’s info and then asked what I should do. Should I walk to the mechanic’s? He said no, just call and let them know the car was coming. Then they would call me when the car was done; I didn’t need to be physically present.

So yay, another phone call. I suffered through that, and Tom said he’d be on the lookout for the car. My girl (I call her Nellie, she’s a 2012 Nissan Sentra) got loaded up and driven away around 2 pm.

Then I just sat and fretted. I couldn’t really do anything because I wanted to stay right by the phone (it is a voip captioned phone that sits on my desk). I started really freaking myself out by thinking, what if the car can’t be fixed? How will I look for a new car, when I can’t drive to look at cars? (I still don’t know the answer to that horrible potential situation.)

The shop closes at 5 and by 4:30 I hadn’t heard anything, so I figured I wouldn’t hear until the next day. Then at 4:45, Tom called. Another struggle through a conversation, but I figured out that he had put a battery charger on the car for a while, and then it started. They tested the alternator then, and it was fine. But the battery tested bad, so I needed a new battery. I was just so freaking relieved that it was fixable that I didn’t even care what it cost to fix it. Just fix my car, please!

Tom said it shouldn’t take long, and I said, “You mean … it will be done today?” And he confirmed that. Then I said that I had to walk over (figuring I would leave right away to try to get there by the time they were done with the car) and Tom said, “Oh no, I’ll come and get you.” I said, “Are you serious?!” and he laughed and said yes. So about 20 minutes later, he called again and said he was on his way.

He picked me up, we drove to the shop, I paid for the car, and the whole horrible thing was over about 4-1/2 hours after it started. What a way to spend Valentine’s Day! On the other hand, I was so busy worrying that I didn’t spend one second feeling bad about being alone on that day.

So many things to be thankful for! That I have AAA, that it was a fixable problem, that I found out on Monday (when my mechanic was open) and not Sunday (when he isn’t). That he actually came to pick me up! That I could afford to fix this without any real financial burden. Yes, it sucked that it happened at all but gosh, what if I had been out somewhere by myself and the car didn’t start when I got ready to drive home?! I mean, it could have been so much worse.

I will be honest, I’m getting some PTSD where the car is concerned. I would be happy to never drive again, because this stuff is getting to be too much. But I got back on the darn horse today – I went out for a long drive and then went shopping. But if I could have a few months free of any kind of vehicular situation, that would be swell.

Self-Reliance

I used to work with a lady, we’ll call her Molly. She was older than me (in her 50s when I was in my 30s) and completely dependent on her husband. He did all the driving, he made phone calls for her. (English was not her native language, although she spoke it really well; I am not sure if the phone call thing was just a phobia or nerves related to speaking the language.) I remember feeling sorry for her, that she was always so nervous and not able to do so many things on her own. I often had to cross-train her and she was just completely flustered over things outside of her regular routine.

Friends, I turned into Molly over the years. Once I went deaf in 2008, Dave really stepped in and I became so dependent on him. He made the phone calls, he did the driving. (The driving came about because he was completely deaf in his left ear, so if he was the passenger he could not hear me talking to him if I was driving.)

When he was diagnosed, in my heart of hearts I knew everything would fall to me again someday. Liver cancer, if surgery or transplant is not an option, is usually fatal. But I envisioned a slow decline, where things would become my responsibility in a trickle, with Dave still here to ease me through. And that did happen in some ways. As he lost confidence in his ability to drive, I took over. He was with me, though, to help me navigate. (We’ve lived in Michigan since 2014 but as a passenger, I never paid attention to how we got where we were going. I was too busy sightseeing or talking to Dave.)

I had never used a lawn mower ever in my life. The summer of 2021 found Dave too weak to push our lawn mower, so I had him show me how to start it. Afterwards I came in and flopped on the bed, heart pounding, because it was so difficult to push that mower around. I suggested we upgrade to a self-propelled mower and that was a world of difference. He never really taught me about maintenance for the mower, though, or how to put it up in the winter, things like that.

There were so many things he didn’t show me. His decline was so fast and so unexpected, I don’t think either of us realized what was going to happen. So I’ve really had a lot of ‘firsts’ in the months since he died.

I talked a lot on Facebook about my issues with the car tires. I’d never in my life put air in a car tire, and this is the first car I’ve owned that had a warning light for tire pressure. The first time it came on, I tried first to use our air compressor, then an air machine at a gas station (which turned out to be broken), and finally I pulled in to see our mechanic in town. I went in, told him that Dave had died (this was just a couple weeks after he passed) and started crying hysterically as I explained about the tires. I was so, so mortified. He was kind and calm, and checked/filled my tires right then and there.

In addition to never putting air in a tire, I’ve actually never been in charge of car maintenance in my life. First my dad did it for me, then my first husband, then my dad (after I got divorced), and then Dave. I’d never taken the car for an oil change, nothing.

So I kept having to put air in the tires every few weeks. Dave used to say that cold weather would make the pressure drop, and I asked my mechanic about it too. He agreed and said it wasn’t unusual to have to refill them more in winter. I figured it just seemed excessive to me because I’d never done it or even been aware of it before. We have an air compressor (that I still don’t really know how to use) and Dave used to check and fill the tires with it (how often, I have no clue).

One thing Dave did tell me was that he completely trusted our mechanic and I should go there with any car issues. This was not light praise – Dave was very picky about who he trusted with the car if we needed work done that he couldn’t do himself. So when I decided I wanted the tires inspected, just for my peace of mind, I took the car back to Tom, our mechanic.

The first couple times I stopped in, all the racks were being used. Tom isn’t really an appointment kind of guy, so it was hit or miss if he could get me in. I was actually starting to wonder if I was just being paranoid; maybe I shouldn’t bother with this. But still, it would make me feel better to know that all the tires were okay. (They are only a few years old, but I know that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all fine.)

So on Saturday, I made a phone call. This is a HUGE deal for me because I have a lot of trouble on the phone. There’s a delay effect, and I have CI electrodes turned off in my higher pitches, and also nerves that play into it. I can do it, but it is a LOT of work for me and I hate it. I don’t even try with the cell phone; I use my captioned phone at home.

I struggled through the conversation but I did it – I asked if it was a good day to bring the car in, and he told me sure, how about in 20 minutes?

The inspection was far more thorough than I expected. They came and asked me where the wheel lock key was and I was like, “Um … I don’t even know what that IS.” Tom explained what it was for, and that it was usually in the trunk or glove compartment. I told them they were free to rifle around and look for it, and they actually found it five minutes later! Tom showed me what it looked like and said they’d put it back in the glove compartment so I’d know where it was in the future. They took all the tires off and checked them.

It took about 45 minutes before the guy doing the inspection came in and triumphantly said, “There it is!” He was holding a screw. There had been a screw in one of the tires!

They got me all fixed up, only charged me $15, and I was home about 1-1/2 hours after I left. The whole drive home I was beaming. Not only did I follow my instincts and it turned out to be the right thing to do, but I had done all of this MYSELF.

It probably sounds ridiculous to most of you, just like how I pitied Molly all those years ago. But I know will find my confidence and self-reliance again in these little increments.

Progress

“Hi! I need to have my husband’s name removed from my bank accounts.”

I watched the young bank teller’s face as if I’d be able to read her lips, even though we were both wearing masks. I was the only person in the bank, so it was quiet and I was able to hear her response just fine.

“Oh!” She hesitated. “Um, we usually have the person come in to the bank themselves to do that.”

I thought maybe I hadn’t heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat. She did. And then I said, “Well, he’s dead, so that would be … startling.”

Instantly I thought, why am I joking around?! But it was better than crying, right? And I couldn’t blame her, I didn’t make it clear why I was removing him from my accounts. She was very sweet and contacted a rep for me to work with.

So that was my day yesterday. Everyone was very kind, and I now have the kids listed as beneficiaries on all of my accounts (I didn’t even realize I could do that for checking and savings accounts – it will make it much simpler for them when my time comes).

It’s been 3-1/2 months, and I feel like I’ve turned some kind of corner. When I last wrote, I intended to write about fear next because I was absolutely consumed with fear at that time. I seriously wondered if I was becoming agoraphobic; everything scared me and leaving the house felt terrifying. Driving was a huge obstacle. I could not get over my fear of driving somewhere alone and getting in an accident. The actual act of driving didn’t scare me; I realized that if I thought about driving somewhere with someone else in my car, the thought didn’t freak me out. But being alone while I was driving just did me in.

I have no clue why. It’s not like I didn’t spend the majority of my life driving places alone, and this was well before cell phones even existed so getting help was really a challenge if you blew a tire at night on the expressway, you know?

But here I am in mid-January, and that has all kind of faded. I’ve driven on snowy, icy roads. Got through a really big snowstorm. Got through the holidays. I look at things as challenges to be worked through instead of obstacles that make me want to sit down and cry. No clue what’s changed, if it’s just time doing its magic or what. But I’m grateful, because living in fear was no way to live.

As for the holidays, on the night before Thanksgiving Paige was here and she helped me transfer Dave’s ashes from the cardboard box they’d been in to the place we chose for him. After our visit to the funeral home on that sunny day in September, the kids and I had discussed what vessel we might want for Dave’s ashes. We knew we wanted something unique that really represented him. Eric offered to make a base and memorial stand with his 3-D printer.

I did some online searches and was fascinated by all the options out there. I searched for options for coffee lovers (Dave was very, very into roasting his own coffee beans and brewing methods for his coffee, and he collected vintage coffee makers). I smiled when I saw a Folgers coffee can mentioned as an option. We didn’t drink Folgers, but it did make me take a closer look at his coffee pots. I talked with Paige about it when she visited in October, and asked if if she thought it was a good idea or silly to even consider. We looked at what he had – some things were far too small and others just didn’t seem right. But there was one, a Sunbeam vacuum pot, that he really loved. We even brought it with us when we went to the Hearing Loss Association of American convention in Nashville in 2009.

So that was decided. On Christmas Eve, Eric arrived and brought his gift for Dave. Not only did he make the memorial stand, he also made two photos that can be illuminated to personalize it even more. Eric included so many elements in the stand that symbolize Dave – the Detroit Lions logo (he was a devoted, if resigned fan), his Kast Iron motto, his favorite color (gray); even the castle motif, which is a nod to Dave’s love of fantasy and sci-fi books (especially Game of Thrones).

Right now the coffee urn is on a shelf by the kitchen; I was going to move it and the kids felt strongly that it should stay by the kitchen which was Dave’s favorite part of the house and where we tend to congregate during visits. There’s no electrical outlet there so I have the illuminated photos on my desk for now. But the stand is made so that they can be placed right in front, if I wish, and I’m sure some day I’ll move everything to a place where I can plug that in.

In the meantime, Dave is here with me as I cook and learn how to bake the bread he always made, and brew coffee. (Not in his urn!)

I’m making jokes again. But it feels good to smile.

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