[Apologies, dear reader, for the length of this post. It captures many reflections and milestones from the past few months…]

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Keith walks along the coral shores of Tongatapu, Tonga, an island nation to the east of Fiji, 1993.
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The inauspicious anniversary has now come and gone and with its passage, I feel both a deep sadness and a lifting of a veil. No longer do I look back a year and remember what I was doing, how Keith was suffering on that very same day the year before, or the traumas of his treatment. Now when I look back a year ago, I see how much the earth had quaked, my road had shifted beneath me and my children, his family and close friends. No longer would there be any chance of his voice on the other end of the phone, a person to ask advice or crack a joke. No longer would we be able to imagine a time when he could have recovered.

At this time a year ago we began a long dark road of healing, like going through a dark tunnel where you would not know whether your footing would hold you, where you move forward both numb and carried by the faith of good will in those around you. Once that anniversary passed, September 1st, 2013, the first year anniversary of Keith’s passage to another plane of existence – some call it Heaven, some call it an afterlife, another dimension, another life… but just not one here, on this earth, with us, within reach – I no longer felt compelled to think about what was going on a year ago that day…

For the weeks and months before that anniversary, I was doing just that… thinking back to the almost precise day a year before. What were we going through? What sad decision was being made that day? How were we coping with it all? How was Keith even capable of surviving as long as he did? I reread every word of the diaries I wrote throughout that summer, right up through the day he died. Somehow, though, I’d never written down how those final moments passed. In reflection, a year later I write these words:

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Diary, Sunday, 9/1/13, 3:15 pm

It’s September 1st. Can’t believe it’s September 1st. “I think I just saw Dad take his last breath,” she said a year ago. Stassia had looked up at me in the evening dimness of the darkened bedroom crammed with the hospital bed against the kingsized bed Keith and I had shared. Sarah lay groggily waking from her nap not quite taking it all in. I walked up beside the hospital bed as Stassia kneeled from the bigger bed that hugged against it. I felt his neck, then leaned down over his mouth and nose to see if I could hear him breath. Standing straighter I looked at his chest that no longer moved. Then lifting my eyes to his that were gently closed, his mouth still slightly open from his previously labored breathing, I looked back to Stassia and now Sarah. “Yes, I think you did, sweetheart.” We stayed like that for a few minutes, not quite knowing the next move. Then, finally, we each laid our hands on Keith and said a quiet prayer for him, wishing him safe travels on his journey home… that place beyond our reach but where he would be free from the pain of his disease, the humiliations of sickness and crude attempts to stop its crushing march towards death. He was free of it all now. We were sad, but relieved as well.

I remember all of this now. Even while I cannot believe that a full year, a full 365 days have passed between now and that moment when he left us behind. I remember sending the kids downstairs to tell their Uncle Gino and Aunt Danette who were busy preparing dinner in the kitchen. I had left them just a few moments before, a little while after sending Stassia upstairs, telling her to wake Sarah, that it was time for her to give dad his meds. I remember feeling a tap on the shoulder even while no one was there next to me, and a sudden urge to follow Stassia up the stairs, entering the room only a minute or two after her. I remember the room was mostly dark except for a couple of nightlights and a yellow cast from the small antique stained glass lamp on the vanity.

I remember that after sending the girls downstairs, I picked up my iPad which had been playing music softly while winding through a series of selected family photos I’d put together for Keith to see… in case he had ever opened his eyes those last few days. The music I’d selected was meant to relax him… and us, yet now whenever I hear those songs, I begin to choke up, so many were about the love and caring and commitment to each other that a couple would share. I remember then pulling up the “poem” I’d written the week before, what would eventually become part of his eulogy that Sarah would read at his funeral. In the dimly lit room, I read it aloud to Keith and made some minor adjustments, as if he were directing me from beyond to smooth out a passage here or there. When finished, I laid my hand on his arm and my head on his chest and just lay there breathing… for both of us. It was over. His suffering was over. What lay ahead for me, I knew not what at the time.

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This past summer was a time of many travels, with Keith’s spirit following along nearly every step of the way. As we prepared to travel, a long-awaited package arrived in the mail containing the cremation diamonds Keith had asked for. It was a strange reminder of a stranger request Keith had made and that I had reluctantly fulfilled. Our travels, however, were also preceded by a rather unsettling dream. I wrote about it and then my sudden epiphany of what it meant:

Dream, 7/1/13
First one with Keith in a long while. It seems.

Keith was on the other end of the call and the conversation was as normal and casual as if he were still alive.

Me: hi
Keith: how are you?
M: Good
K: Good to hear. Now, Jess said she couldn’t translate for you. She’s gonna be busy. 13 Hurdles were coming.
M: Yea. I’d heard about that.

As I answered holding the phone to my ear, I stepped from outside to inside of a house, leaning low to pass under a closed window, trim painted white. Maybe it was a Dutch door but with the bottom open.

My alarm went off and the dream ended along with the conversation. I could still hear Keith’s voice in my head. It was good to hear from him again.

Postscript: Today is the 11-month anniversary of Keith’s passing. After the dream, I did a quick online search for “13 Hurdles, grief”. This is what I found:
http://mysonzack.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/hurdle-13-going-home-again/

Appropriate in many ways, even more so because on Wednesday, July 3rd, I’m taking my new friend back to my childhood stomping grounds.

And on July 27, what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, me and the kids fly back to Fiji to spread some of Keith’s ashes and rejuvenate. Jess is our friend’s wife who own the Beachouse in Fiji where we’ll be staying.

PSS: After falling back to sleep, I re-awakened feeling I knew what the 13th hurdles were. I was supposed to take Keith’s ashes to New York, too. It is about “his” going home, not just me. I think he wanted me to bring him back to Ashdown Road, maybe the pond there where I sat with Sarah in my lap and took a photo of the very large Tri-color Heron that walked by me. But it could also be that I bring him to a lake in the Adirondacks for his friends to help spread his ashes…. hmmmmm…. which way to go….

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Returning home to Upstate New York

Over the July 4th holiday, I went back to upstate New York to visit family and old friends and introduce a new one. We met up with my brother and his family for lunch and then Keith’s best friend Michael was there to take me and my friend on a tour of our childhood memories around the Saratoga region. The first stop, though, was Ashdown Road where I knocked on the door of the first home Keith had ever built for our family. And, after securing permission, Michael and I shared in the act of spreading some of Keith’s ashes on the edges of that same pond Keith had dug, and where the Great Tri-color Heron had visited me when Sarah was born.

The next day, as the light of the sinking sun glittered across the quieting lake waters, I handed my iPhone to my friend to record the event. Larry stopped the boat at a special place on Sagandaga Lake where he said Keith had caught a large carp. I then asked Larry and Jean to join me on the boat’s stern and we each took turns dropping the last of the ashes I’d brought into the clear cool waters of this beautiful Adirondack lake. As we dropped the last of them into the water, we each said a prayer for Keith’s peace in the afterlife, the existence you’ve taken on in that other universe that we know you’re watching us from. The ashes swirled into the shape of a large fish and then just as quickly dispersed.

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The sun’s rays pour through storm clouds onto the receding tides of Fiji at the Beachouse. August 2013.

Back to the South Pacific
A few weeks later, on what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, my daughters, son-in-law and I began the long journey to Fiji. Unfortunately, a weather delay out of Detroit had a domino effect and we missed our flight in LA that would take us to Fiji. With every hotel within shuttle distance of LAX filled due to the other stranded travelers, we ended up camping in the international terminal for 24 hours until the next flight to Fiji would leave at 11:30 pm Sunday. We finally arrived, due to the international dateline, before dawn on Tuesday, 7/30, Sarah and Mark’s 2nd wedding anniversary. It would take us three days to recover from our travels but there are worse things than being stuck on the beautiful beaches of Fiji, surrounded by friendly faces.

When on my second voyage out to sea to snorkel about the reef at high tide, I found myself in rapture like a small child laughing at the playfulness of joyous discovery at each colorful fish, sea anemone, or seashell I picked up. It went on like this for what seemed like an hour, even once Sarah and Mark joined us, him on the kayak and Sarah in the water snorkeling along with Stassia and myself.

At one point I found myself alone, looking around there was a panoramic view of dozens of different types of colorful fish, from moorish idols to Picasso trigger, from orange and black clownfish to black or blue damsel fish, lemonpeel angelfish skirted in and about the other unnamed colorful players to our dance. Coral heads filled the sandy area with waves of green seaweed, to colorful Christmas tree coral worms as the waves slowly caressed us to the gentle beat of the sea.

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I was transported back to a similar moment in Fiji during a dive with Keith. I remember holding onto the top of a coral bommie, schools of colorful fish moved in an harmonic dance all around me, in sync with the waves that pulsed through and around our bodies. As I remembered this absolutely magical time back then, my chest began to tighten. Keith, are you here? I remember now asking myself this. You could swim this type of natural beauty any time you want now, Keith. But is that why we are here? To remember and remind ourselves of that magical time? Is this how we are to honor you here in Fiji?

I had to fight back to tears that began to choke me. And just as I could no longer hold them back, I heard sounds of joyful outcry through the water and above the surface. Sarah and Stassia were happily playing in their discovery of some new fish, a group of clowns in an anemone, a big puffer fish under some staghorn coral, a colorful nudibranch that was hiding in the shadows… You taught them that, this joy of discovery of the undersea world, to respect it, yet relish it with a whole heart.

I swallowed back the tears that threatened to overtake me. Turning towards the laughing mermaids, our daughters now nearly 24 and 27 years old, I joined them in taking joy of their new discoveries.

One of our last days in Fiji, we made our way into the highlands of Viti Levu in order to kayak on the Navua River with a brief stop at one of the many beautiful waterfalls. Our little band of just four travelers and our Fijian guide were mostly alone as we made our way downstream. The occasional motorized longboat passed us heading upriver, sometimes trying to splash us (if it was filled with locals), sometimes throwing a big wake (if filled with tourists), but always with big shouts of “Bula!” Otherwise our trip was beautifully and blissfully quiet as we passed through the deep jungle canyon, marked by the occasional group of cattle clinging to a flatter area to graze. The rush of the occasional rapids would make our hearts beat faster. But then as we passed into calmer waters, the chatter of bird calls could be heard from deep in the jungle, one I mistakenly took for a dog barking until I’d heard it a few more times down river. Possibly an owl, instead.

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One of the many smaller streams feeding into the upper Navua River.

I knew this was a place for contemplation. So it didn’t surprise me, only pleased me more, to see the occasional heron fly by or sit on a rocky perch on the river’s edge. Keith’s animus, I thought, watching us make our way, being sure we did so safely. “Hi Keith” I would think to myself every time I saw one of these beautiful birds. They only seemed to ever showed themselves one at a time. So it was easy to believe that the white heron, then the white-faced blue heron, then the dark blue heron were all Keith… watching over his family and guiding us safely through our voyage.

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Earlier in our Fiji trip, Andrew, Keith’s best buddy in Fiji, made arrangements for four salusalu to be made. These are Fijian-style flower leis. Traditionally, they would be dropped into the water behind a sailing ship when newly launched. The same practice would be used to send Keith on his journey by putting more of his ashes into the channel when the outgoing tide would take them out to sea at sunset. Sarah, Stassia, Mark and I each poured some of the ashes into the sea followed by a flower salusalu, the sun setting quickly on the horizon as the waves broke loudly on either side of the channel. Andrew held the boat steady and then I asked him to do the final honors for the evening which he did. With all my children present during this time as the boat rocked us on the horizon of the South Pacific seas, the flowers drifting out to sea with his ashes in tow, it seemed so much more meaningful than any other time before or since. The next place we took Keith’s ashes was to Sulua Place in Pacific Harbour, where Keith had built our South Pacific home. Once again securing permission after finding out Sarah’s former teacher was house-sitting OUR old house, we went to the edge of the sea wall and, with a few blossoms of bougainvillea, we dropped the rest of the ashes I’d brought to Fiji into the ocean-fed lake.

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Very early on August 11th, as the plane descended into Detroit, it occurs to me that the act of visiting Fiji again, especially with the kids, and reconnecting with old friends serves a greater purpose. It served to remind me, to reassure me, that my life with Keith – if it were a dream – is one from a shared dreamscape, shared and made real by all those who knew him and remembered his stories. For it makes life – my past life with Keith, and any future we create anew – more than just the dream of songs, those songs that I played on the iPad a year ago, the ones that still bring tears to my eyes now.

Just before dropping through the clouds to the airport below, we saw the last of the streaks from the Perseus meteor shower outside our window, a reminder that all things are connected here between heaven and on earth.

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The last of Summer’s days

Over the next two weeks, with the marking of what would have been our 31st wedding anniversary, and then the looming milestones of when hospice would bring his hospital bed, I faced more emotional swings, especially as news reports celebrated the Blue Moon for the summer season. Keith died on the weekend of a Blue Moon, defined last year as the second full moon in a month, but more accurately was the fourth full moon of a three-month season as was the case this year. As the evening wore on and I settled in for bed, I felt my mood change. Sleep eluded me and my back throbbed angrily from my earlier weeding rampage in both the front and back gardens. I lay there in the dark, thinking back to a year before and what we were facing in Keith’s final days, still not knowing how long he had left.

Eventually, I just couldn’t stand it and decided to read through my diary entries from last summer. I relived each moment described in those pages yet with the fog of time cushioning the sting of pain. By around 2:30 am, my anxieties began to overwhelm me. I wanted to SEE the blue moon. I needed to see it. But the ambient light in my bedroom was too much. I began unplugging powerstrips that had extra lights. I tried to bend my body over the glass table by the window so I could see the moon that hung very tightly to the roofline of the house at that angle. Last year my bed sat under that window and I could just look straight up from my pillow as the light of the moon pressed sharp shadows of tree branches across the bed. But this year my bed sits on another wall and the window hangs over a glass table with books, photos, incense and a candle I’ve burned occasionally for Keith. Eventually, I climbed across the bed and craned my neck. I needed to try and feel the light of the blue moon, even as I cried myself to sleep.

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Dream, 8/30/13

I was on a boat. On this boat, the drawer of my dresser was overfilled and there was a pair of black velvet flats with bows that were getting squished. Music played on the stereo, like my iHome that holds the iPod here.

I was getting dressed but would get interrupted by different people. In one case someone who was dressed in a black chefs jacket says to me that I’d better be nicer to someone, that I shouldn’t be so hard on him. I replied that it was guidance and tough love, that he needed it in order to achieve what he wanted.

I remember others coming in but can’t recall the conversations. Only that I was in the process of dressing.

As I tried to leave the sailboat, the exit was actually a long curved wooden slide, polished smooth and beautifully crafted, like something Keith would have made. I don’t think I went down the slide.

I recall then seeing someone, a man who had crazy curly hair. He smiled gently at me. I turned back towards the dressing room to adjust the music. I found that the remote control was missing. All I could do was change the tune by selecting something different on the iPod. But to turn it off, I would need to do something more drastic like pull the plug. I sat the iPod down after selecting a different song, tried to shut the dresser drawer, but the black velvet shoes were getting crushed.

My analysis:
The curly-haired man was my friend, the person I needed to be nicer to. The slide was a passage towards the spiritual world… to exit would have meant death for me, an exit from this life. The black velvet shoes are the shreds of mourning and grief that swell the corners of my life, beautiful but sad… They need to be made to fit into the package of my past… not left to overwhelm my current life or my future. The music is the music of life. We cannot turn it off without dying (i.e. pulling the plug). We can only change the song.

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And finally, the anniversary

It was September 1st, 2013… The song that Keith and Sarah danced to at his daughter’s wedding to Mark had just come on the iPod playing on my iHome as I wrote in my diary on this first anniversary. My friend was out in the workshop after having mowed the lawn, trimmed the edges, raked the front yard of its leaves. Sarah, Mark and Stassia would later be coming over in anticipation of dinner, and an evening by the bonfire, toasting their dad.

That evening we would burn the masi bow that we’d tied to the front yard tree last year, the day after Keith left us. And we would throw the last of the copal that I’d brought from Mexico, a gift from Tlakaelel back in 2006. My friend was there too, but quietly… out of respect for this family event. It was still so surreal to me… a word I shared with Keith’s sister Barb just the other day, on her birthday – the same as my friend’s. Keith’s father had died in early June, just 9 months after Keith. She shared news of the closing on his house in Phoenix, the estate sale while we were still in Fiji, how quickly it had all happened… yet all in the same year as Keith’s death.

It felt surreal that I sat here writing in my diary 365 days later, a full year of days, and my friend now sits beside me, ready with a warm and unconditional hug. I’ve needed a lot of those lately. It’s been a surreal experience, this last year or more, beginning with … what… Stassia’s graduation and Keith’s still not getting over his “flu” after too many weeks and months? my flying back from Russia after news of “metastatic liver disease”? the nightmare weeks and months that followed, so few that we never felt we had a chance to even begin to catch up to the disease that had raced through his thin ravaged body.

It’s surreal that life went marching on afterwards… surreal that Keith is not here… YOU are not here, Keith. At least not on this side of the spiritual realm. I wish you well, Keith. I know I can feel your spiritual presence… stronger some times than others. I need to keep going on, to empty the drawers of grief, to change the tune on my iPod, and be more open and kinder to the gentle friend who has stepped forward to help me through it all. Only time will tell. Time… heals eventually.

This morning I reread the card that sits by the candle I light occasionally for Keith. “Regard all dharmas as but dreams.”

Life is but a dream…

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Perry Road workshop after a spontaneous sleigh ride down the hill, a week ago. The sun was quickly melting a new fallen snow.
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It was fortuitous that the workmen would come today (Friday, 3/1/13), the six-month anniversary of Keith’s passing. They moved up their starting day to remodel the master bathroom at home. The room had been a running joke in our lives, but also a sore spot Keith would ignore in favor of taking on other projects, commitments, or just going for a ride on the motorcycles. I admit that I enabled this. I much preferred to ignore it myself and go have fun, then to fight over it= and cause unrest in the house.

Yet there it was, in all it’s ugliness, the focus of which was the freezing shower with the cracked tiles, the shower door falling off its hinges, the moldy ceilings, etc. When I had packed up many of Keith’s things, I came across a drawing and notes he had made for remodeling this room. My own drawings were not too far off. The difference was the custom cabinet which I could not supply. And so other solutions would be needed. In the end, though, I was forced to make a last minute change, bumping the wall out into the bedroom about a foot so that the cabinet I ordered wouldn’t block the doorway. This was the part Keith would have customized, creating a slant to ease the entry while still allowing for the larger cabinet. But mine was 20 inches deep, and the wall next to the door was only 16. I could not put it tucked into the corner as planned. And I couldn’t move it over due to the toilet space needed. So the wall would be moved.

I listened as the guys smashed and cut away old fixtures and floors, while I worked on a paper in the cozy little cocoon I made of my bedroom behind plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling.

It was exciting to start this project. Nearly 16 years after moving to Michigan, and about 15 years after moving into this house, that bathroom was always the target of my disgust. Cracked tiles, continuously moldy grout, shivering cold, a tiny vanity, all added up to a room that I just wanted to smash. It became a running joke (and point of terror) that when the kids misbehaved, they’d be threatened with scrubbing the shower tile in mom and dad’s bathroom.

A need to break something…
So when the guys showed up this morning and started the demolition, I asked them to give me a chance to smash something, just one thing to get out my frustration. I took aim at the soap dish, broken for the last three years where the mold had seeped into the crack and degraded the already cracked and ugly ceramic dish now hanging jagged out of the wall.

SMACK!! and crash, I swung the hammer at it with my eyes closed tight, the guys behind me cackling at the sound of the pieces hitting the tile floor of the shower. I was anything but satisfied. I was angry. Angry that it took 15 years and the death of my husband to get to this point. Angry that I was doing this on the 6 month anniversary of his passing. Angry at Keith for abandoning me. Angry at myself for feeling guilty about wanting the embrace of another man in Keith’s absence. Just plain angry at the world.

I handed the hammer back to Joe who shook his head still laughing at my overly dramatic swing, and so I managed to summon a smile in return. My last big assignment for a doctoral course was calling me. So I slipped through the plastic sheathing that hung between the work area and the rest of my bedroom, climbed back onto my bed where my iPad and reading sat waiting for my attention.

Counting down to the other side
Later that evening, after the workmen left, i let out a sob. Pent up emotion that needed a release. It lasted only a moment and then I went back to my work. But as the hour drew near, I had to stop and write in my diary… a countdown of sorts:

The countdown weighs heavily on my heart, 55 minutes, 54, 53, 52, 51… Keith died at 7:55 pm on September 1st, exactly 6 months earlier. Just a few days ago, visible in the pre-storm night sky, the nearly full moon loomed overhead, stars sparkling and taunting me in a bittersweet reminder of the date to come. But tonight, this last hour has been painful.

The other part of the remodel project ws to replace the vanity in the kids bathroom. Keith had made it and painted it with analine dyes a scene of seaweed and deep blue waters. Unfortunately, he hadn’t accounted for the doorframe trim and the kids were never able to pull the drawers out as far as intended on one side. I feared that any new owner of this house would simply pull the cabinet out and toss it. So I ordered an inexpensive white cabinet the same size and had the guys swap it out.

From my diary…

It’s 7:45 pm. 10 minutes before that moment when we knew Keith made his last breath… 6 months ago. Stassia is busy texting me about how much money she’s losing from her free trip to Florida. I try and restrain my impatience and simply remind her that it will all work out, I had planned to help her out anyway, knowing there would be some impact on her missing work. She has already been stressed due to a cutback of hours so I try not to feed her anxieties. I have enough of my own.

Four minutes now. I’m beginning to feel a little better. Time is passing quickly and I focus on the passage of this sad milestone which will put me on the other side of the hump between the first half of a year after he died, and the second half when looking forward should become more common than looking back.

I moved a photo I have of Keith that sat on my side of the bed. It was the one where he has that silly smirk on his face. But more often recently, that smirk has looked more like disapproval, and even hurt. I couldn’t face it any longer, at least not every moment when I sat on my side of the bed we used to share. I moved it over to “his” former side, the side where I keep my powder puff from crabtree and evelyn, and my button jar, the side where I moved my flickering lamp when I swapped it for his working lamp.

It’s 7:55 pm now. My heart sinks a bit. I have already shed some tears in exasperation. But the moment has passed. It’s time to move forward. I love you Keith. I will always love you. But I cannot live with the pain of your loss. I must live with the hope for a new future. Otherwise, my grief will consume me, a feeling I have occasionally faced in a depressive moment, ready to give up on going forward.

Moving forward…
Yes, the moment has passed, an inauspicious milestone. Six months to the minute since Keith died. I breathed deeply and tried to go back to my work, knowing I am not alone on this road. And that there are angels – or ghosts – who watch over me, too. My dreams, and those of a good friend, make that clear.

So now looking forward, I thank goodness for many things. For the friendships I have, my children who remind me why I cannot sink into despair. And the touchstone of a good counselor. And for a fulfilling career surrounded by interesting, supportive people…

And oddly enough, more recently, I am also thankful that, even if it does not grow into anything further (or I refuse to let it), there’s a little guy up north who is willing to talk to me, listens to my tears, and even then still calls me cutie, and offers me a virtual hug. We have never met, but I have grown more fond of him. Maybe it’s because at this point it is still fantasy. But, at the moment, I can live with that.
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And the demolition begins, at home on Jerome Lane.

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Photo: Family Christmas 1989, our first as a foursome after our youngest daughter was born. She recently graduated from university in April 2012.

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Adaptation Fight or Flight

A fellow who worked for the Peace Corp in the South Pacific office in Fiji once told me that they had done studies that showed a volunteer would have their toughest time at about the four-month mark. It was at that stage in their adaptation to their new situation in a foreign place where they were truly reaching the depths of homesickness. The strongest would endure, powering through it in spite of their emotional turmoil, forever changed by their new lives outside of their full control. While the weaker ones would give up and return home, soaking in their traumatized perceptions, refusing to accept life that isn’t fully predictable.

So here I find myself in a parallel space. That four month mark since Keith’s death where I am reaching that first major turning point in my adaptation to life without him. In thinking about this, I was struck by another parallel from our past. It was on September 1st, 1991 that Keith and I arrived with two very young daughters in Fiji. And it was in December 1991 where I found us on that pivotal moment where I would either run back to the states in tears and frustration, or tough it out and find a way to adapt. Back then, in Fiji, the holidays were an amusing attempt to create normalcy on the other side of the looking glass. In the end, we stayed six years, choosing to adapt, and even thrive. But it wasn’t easy.

And I find it just a little too synchronistic that Keith would die on September 1st, 2012, 21 years later. Five years before our arrival in Fiji, our first daughter was born two weeks late. She was due on September 1st but chose to wait a couple of weeks longer in the womb. Apparently an Emerson Lake & Palmer concert was finally enough to coax her out.

It’s funny (not haha funny) that I am only thinking of this now, that September 1st would be such a day of note in our family history. But then again, I was always amused by numbers and patterns. To this day (for at least the last decade or more), I find myself looking at a clock at just the moment where it reads 9:11. It’s almost as if life is not in balance if I do not see this time upon my glance at the clock. So when the World Trade Center was struck on 9/11/01, the date more than seemed significant. When Keith died, it was 9/01/12. Another dear friend and mentor died on 01/09/10, bit since he was overseas, it would have been written 09/01/10. So maybe there’s a pattern. Or maybe I just like playing with numbers. No meanings inferred here. It’s just interesting.

Now here we are on 12/21/12, or even as 12/21/2012.. Interesting rhythm to it. Not quite a palindrome, but a nice pattern nonetheless. Some believe it is the end of the world on the Mayan calendar. But anthropologists say it is what the Mayans say is the end of an “era”, a 13-round cycle of 52 years each.

For me, it is just another day. But the end of an era is already here for me. I feel it in my body, physically aching each night as I fight sleep. Days are long, but nights are longer still. Each night, after keeping myself busy with work, school, laundry, family, etc., I come to bed and Keith looks back at me from his photographic perch. In one picture he can look almost stern, mocking my lack of attention to him and my heart sinks. Reality hits me again, like a repeating torturous blow. I kiss my finger and place it on his lips on the photo. “I miss you,” I whisper as I sigh deeply with watery eyes before turning away.

And then I face the truth. No, he’s not coming back. No, he’s not out of town. No, he’s not going to walk into the room. No, you will never hold him again while you curl up in this bed.

It hurts.

And as another holiday looms, I know that when I come back from our annual service at the soup kitchen where we’ve been cheerfully taking photos of children on Santa’s lap on Christmas Day for 8 years, my home will be quiet except for the two dogs curled up asleep. Keith will not be sitting there with them asking how the event went. He will not be there, ready to open a few presents with the kids, or sit down with us for a meal of whatever we’ve decided to experiment with that year.

I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. And what’s worse… there’s not a damned thing I can do to change it. So, unlike the homesick peace corp volunteer who still has the option of running back to the familiar, I’m going to have to push through it until I get to the other side of this holiday.

Grief sucks.

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The woodworking shop(s)

My husband was a woodworker. And a very talented one at that. I’m beginning to realize that more and more. I guess I took it for granted that others were as meticulous as he when it came to work they were hired to do. Granted he had his off days. But he knew it and more than once he would take a mistake and toss it out starting over again when something didn’t come out exactly as he wanted it to.

And, like any talented and meticulous woodworker, he had his tools… LOTS of them, admired by others for the over all completeness of his shop. What makes my role harder as his widow, however, is that not only have I inherited HIS very modern shop. But I also have the project of dealing with the shop and lifetime of items left behind by another woodworker, Mr. Maurice Reid, at Perry Road, the property Keith and I had purchased a year before Keith’s death. Mr. Reid left behind more than 100 years of accumulated tools, supplies, and various pieces-parts of furniture, etc. There were also albums, notes, letters, assorted artifacts going back to the mid-1800s left behind in the 1840s era farmhouse on the property. Fortunately, Keith and I had already gone through much of that, with arrangements made to donate these to a university museum. But the 4000-sq-ft workshop was still chock full of vintage machinery, tools, and supplies.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have begun to sell some items, if only to make way for the art studio that Keith wanted me to arrange for the girls and myself. I even wrote about the first round of sales in a previous post where it felt like a very positive experience.

But the more recent effort left me emotionally drained. And after they left, I went to my bed and cried. It didn’t feel right this time. And so, after talking to my daughters, I’ve decided to hold off with any future sales. Both shops are closed to any sales now, especially the kind where people wonder through as if at a garage sale in search of unrecognized treasures.

Frankly, it was one thing to see people going through stuff at Perry Road where Keith had only begun to play with the big giant vintage machines to make them his own. But it was quite another to see people I didn’t know touching and talking about equipment in the shop here at home. It was just too painful seeing them playing with knobs, etc. on Keith’s machinery, commenting here and there about it’s failings. I know there was no disrespect intended. And under other circumstances, I probably would have been just fine about it, maybe would have even cracked a joke about it.

But this time, as I watched and overheard their murmurings, it took every bit of strength I could muster not to break down in front of them. In the end, after thinking about it for a couple of days, I cancelled the sale of the last two items that would have been picked up in January. I couldn’t go through with it. And the girls convinced me that it was okay to just leave things where they were, even saying that they wanted to use these machines themselves.

This last part amazes me. For I often forget how much time Keith had with them working in the shop. They’re much more knowledgeable than I am about the operation of some of these tools. That’s a beautiful gift that Keith gave them… the confidence to handle these tools and make things with their hands.

Such are the precious gifts of memories and meaning that are the comfort I seek to get me through this holiday season.

20121203-001739.jpgPhoto above: Keith and me on my college graduation day in 1982 and also the day of my bridal shower. I was 21 and he was 24 years old, both so young and at the start of a beautiful 30-year marriage.
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I haven’t dreamed in such a vivid way in quite some time. But as I awoke this morning after a brief sleep, I lay there stunned that my reality upon awakening didn’t match the dream I had abruptly left. I lay in bed nearly 20 minutes grasping at the threads of memory in an effort to return to the dream.

This morning’s dream occurs just 3 months after Keith’s death and must have occurred during that brief hour between 8:30-9:30 am this morning. I know it was not from during the night because I had gotten up earlier after being awakened by Lenny, my husband’s 18-month-old Silken Windhound, who makes it known that he needs to go out to relieve his small bladder by whimpering relentlessly next to my ear.

Although some things are fuzzy about the dream, some things are quite clear. I’ll do my best to relay these details here:

The Dream, 3 month anniversary

In my dream, there was me, Keith, Sarah and Anastassia, with the girls both grown as they are today. We were preparing for long road trip. It was AFTER Keith’s death… yet he was there, speaking to me. It seemed that the trip was as much for him as it was for the rest of us. The girls were there, too, but not so much talking, just along, watching Keith and I as we busied ourselves getting things ready. Keith was wearing a yellow polo t-shirt with wide white stripes and thin blue stripes and a breast pocket. The shirt would have been one of his nicer ones, though he always preferred ones with the pocket.

During the dream, we were loading up a station wagon – probably my old Volvo, but it could have been Keith’s truck. It seemed more like the bed of a truck. Maybe like an El Camino if it had a back seat. An El Camino might be significant only because it was the car Keith had when we first met. But the car in this dream was somewhat ambiguous.

We were piling things on top of each other into the bed of the truck/back of station wagon. Not boxes, but lots of tools, metal, wood and other awkward-shaped items that didn’t really fit together so there were lots of open spots between the pieces. Gaps that seemed ready to fill with smaller pieces but lay empty now.

Then we were at a gas station, and it seemed important that I had to put air in the tires of my bicycle. Keith was telling me it was important to do this now and helped me by providing instructions. That was when a young female attendant with curly auburn hair asked me about Keith and brought to my attention that this trip was happening with him after his death. I know this because I recall the conversation in the dream where I say to her:

“Yes, this will be hard to explain to my mother. But it’s simple really. It’s like that DNA thing…”

I can’t recall explaining much more than that. But it made complete sense… in the dream. It was natural for Keith to be there, for him to be a part of the activity and conversations.

And then – as I had done all summer – I was driving us all, Keith in the seat beside me and the girls in the backseat watching. I remember at the end of my dream, just before I awoke, I drove up over the bump of a curb before pulling out of the gas station onto the road.

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Now for the analysis:

I like dreams for they are a place where the imagination and reality can collide, where nonsense makes sense, and where time is irrelevant. So when my dreams have been this vivid, I have tried to write them down.

This is not the first time I have dreamed of Keith. But it has been awhile. The last time was only a few weeks after he died. But I’ll save that one for another day.

A close friend who also has a strong interest in dreams and has been studying their potential meanings encouraged me to share this latest one. And I think his analysis is spot on:

Very interesting dream… The idea of taking a long journey is like moving to a new place or leaving a current state… The fact that the packing was not neat and organized, things won’t fit together well on this journey moving forward… Putting air in bicycle tires suggests the importance of managing pressure and maintaining balance… And finally, the curb is so suggestive that it will be a bumpy ride moving forward but you are not alone, with Keith by your side on the journey, and the girls close by. And no one is flustered.

Some might say that your animus has chosen the persona of Keith and is helping you to pack up and move forward.

It’s interesting to see the connections with my dream, my friend’s analysis, and some recent events. This week I was with another friend who turned a little close to a curb and bumped over it. I also took on moving the trailer with Keith’s truck for the first time on my own. Although I had checked and re-checked the trailer, it only took a half mile before I hit a bump and the trailer popped off the hitch, left dragging by the chains. Fortunately, nothing was damaged and I was able to get my daughter to come and help me get the trailer back onto the hitch. It was stressful, yes. So was backing the damned thing with that giant crewcab diesel truck. But I managed. Then I turned it over to others. That is the privilege I’m taking… choosing when I need to step back and let others take it on. I am trying to muster courage to do these things that I always took for granted that Keith did. But I am also mindful of my limitations, emotional and physical. It’s a self-preservation technique I am beginning to cultivate more intentionally.

So maybe the dream was a culmination of these various adventures from the week. And maybe it was, as my friend suggests, a psychic effort to bring Keith beside me as I journey forward. And yes, maybe there will be bumps in the road, and my daughters will be nearby to help. But I also do need to put some air in my bicycle tires. The bike sits upon a stationary stand but the tires are flat, making it unusable for picking up for a ride outdoors. But I guess it’s not a bad thing since the weather now turns to the cold winter with its long dark nights.

As for the young woman with the auburn curls, I know who that is. It is me as a young woman, the girl I was when I first met Keith. I’d even worked at a gas station when I was 17, earning money that winter pumping gas and checking oil at a full service gas station in order to pay for a new exhaust system for my first car. Hmmmm…. so the young me was attempting to give the old me a bit of a reality check.

But each day, I try and make some headway on this journey. I visit our Perry Road project, wander around to check the progress, check the locks, and listen to Keith’s wind chimes in their Himalayan harmony as they echo over the hillside facing the setting sun. I think about what I can build new here, a sanctuary that seems remote facing down the hillside, yet part of the family’s journey with my daughters and yes, even Keith… in spirit. With that in mind, I know I’ll find ways to fill the gaps while bracing myself for those bumps in the road ahead.

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Above: Thanksgiving 2011, what was to be our last one with Keith (deep frying the turkey). We deep fried a turkey this year, our best one yet, in Keith’s honor. Missed him terribly. But celebrated our family, too. He’ll always be a part of our lives, for which I am forever grateful.
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During this holiday season, it is too easy to fall into despair and self-pity. Missing Keith brings me to tears, crying myself to sleep at night. But I have much to be thankful for in spite of our loss.

Unfairness in life is all around us. It’s what we call it when we are frustrated, angry, despairing over what life has thrown at us. How unfair is it that Keith’s life was cut so short? How unfair is it that I would spend this holiday knowing I will never have another holiday with him, or to hear his laughter, feel his embrace? My best friend, husband, loving father… How unfair is it that I spend each night alone?

Do you see how easy it is to fall into self pity? Yes, there are times when I indulge in it. There are times when I cannot fight the ache in my heart and therefore feel the overwhelming pressure of the waters that must flood their banks in the form of tears and wails.

But unfairness, or to wallow in the notion of its cruel facade, is to neglect the true beauty that life has gifted me. I had 34 years with Keith, a life that had its ups and downs, yes. But it was also a time of great beauty, when we grew up, grew as humans, artists, responsible and caring people. We shared our life together and supported each other, experiencing the world, raising two beautiful, intelligent daughters. Saw each through college, and walked one down the aisle. Yes, we experienced a lifetime of love and joy and wonder together.

Each day, each week, or year, we may experience what can be described as unfairness. Yes, it is painful. Yes, it is heartbreaking. And yes, there is the feeling of incredible loss and pain, seeing something or someone you care about slip beyond your reach. Feeling the sting of an unfair act, or unfair words.

I could choose to measure life’s unfairness each day, tallying it up like a scorecard each week, letting it tighten its grip on my life with each passing month. But then I would be denying myself something far more important. I would be denying myself the ability to treasure the life that I have had in the past, or the one I wake to each day. If I counted up the daily unfairness tally, I might spend all my time counting. I would deny myself the joy and gratitude for the gifts I have been given. The stories of our lives that we’ve shared, and the future stories yet unwritten.

Yes, there are times when life seems so unfair. But I can’t bring myself to deny the life I will build upon the foundation of a beautiful life I had with Keith.

So, here’s to being thankful for my life with Keith. And to the future, watching my children build their lives, and being part of that. Here’s to whatever life will throw at me. I will not tally the unfairness of Keith’s passing. His life and our life was full and wonderful. With tinges of occasional sadness and cheeks yet slick with occasional tears, this first Thanksgiving and holiday season without him, I choose to remember him with a loving gratitude.

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Below: This is the photo I mentioned earlier this week, taken at the Beachouse in Fiji in 2001. Love that sly grin that also said “you did it to me again, stuck me in the middle of all these Mott students.” He’d complain in a good natured “grumpy old man” sort of way. But he always had a good time anyway.

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