Bedroom in new home

“Are you done grieving?” It wasn’t a question for me. It was asked of my father by a recent friend. She asked my dad as they shared lunch and talked about the new house we’ve been building and what she’d seen.

Later, Dad shared the question with me and it got me thinking about it. I answered him quickly at first: “Does anyone ever stop grieving?”

He mentioned his reaction to hearing the song: “You’ll never walk alone” from Carousel. It had been a favorite of my mother’s. And just a week before she died, the last time we heard her say anything, she sang some of it when a visitor – a complete stranger to my mother – asked her in her slumber if she had ever heard the song. As the visitor began to sing the first few words, my mother began to sing with her.

When it came on the radio, out of the blue, as he got to an intersection he began to cry. Just like that. No warning. It just hit him, now 18 months later. Does anyone ever stop grieving? No, I said to dad. We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

Even now, for me, five and a half years after Keith passed, there are times when that inevitable moment stops my breath. A song, a number, a phrase, a space, a memory… and I have to pause for a moment, take it in, reflect, and consider the possibility – is this a message?Pay attention, I tell myself. He’s still there, just on the other side of the veil. He’s still with you as real as the bearded little man laying beside me now. There are times when I still feel his touch, a gentle one on the shoulder, a soft caress to the cheek as if a kiss made of air.

Sunset over snowy field and woodsThe triggers still come, a song I hadn’t heard in awhile played recently and I had to stop and listen and nod. “I will wait, I will wait for you…” sang Mumford & Sons. The song had just been released the last summer Keith was alive. I had put it on the playlist that became the soundtrack of the summer. “You can’t let me down now” sang Bonnie Raitt in another soulful tune that filled me with guilt and sadness for not having saved Keith from the pain he endured. Then there was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a song that came out the year Keith and I were able to see them play live in concert.

These tunes and several others cause the air to slip out from my lungs momentarily, my heart to tighten in my chest. The difference now is that they don’t make me cry like they once did. The tightness lets go quicker and a soft smile slowly curves the corners of my mouth and I breath again, lovingly touched by the soul of my deepest connection in the spirit world.

There are times when I may also feel a bit irrational, where anxiety steps up and clenches my nerves tightly. Last fall I had been asked about going to a conference this winter. It was one that I had attended in March 2012 and co-presented with Ferris doctoral students along with the then president of the college where I work. It was in Philadelphia and I’d wanted Keith to join me but he couldn’t. He hadn’t been feeling all that well and felt the pressure of some work he needed to do. I wasn’t happy about his not feeling well, this uncured bronchitis or whatever it was. But he clearly didn’t have the energy to travel so I backed off. The conference, however, has somehow been cast in my mind as the “beginning of the end” for Keith.

So it was with a sudden attack of anxiety that I couldn’t immediately bring myself to register for this event when asked last October. Steven had had a health scare around the same time and I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years. Fortunately for Steven, the potential for liver problems was caught early enough and has led to him cutting way back on his alcohol intake and it has made a noticeable difference.

I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years.

Still, though the moment had passed, the anxiety over the association between this conference and losing a husband remained. Irrational, yes. But real enough that I put it off while still watching the deadline for the early bird registration. So when the moment came this week in a meeting with the VP to discuss conference travel, I was relieved when she supported my attending a different conference, one that would take place in Austin, Texas at the end of May. I would plan to take Steven so he could visit with his son, and I’d lead a contingent of faculty to the conference. It looked like something I could sincerely enjoy doing. The anxiety slipped away and replaced by a sense of giddy relief.

But then Dad mentioned the question asked by his lady friend: “Are you done grieving?” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The answer is: No. But life still moves forward and we must go with it, or risk losing the opportunity to live the life we’ve been blessed with to the fullest.

Today is the birthday of several good friends. And I wish them LOTS of happiness as they celebrate another year of life to share with loved ones and good friends.

It also is the inauspicious anniversary of my late husband Keith’s passing at only 54 years old…the same age that I am now. You can read lots elsewhere in this blog (starting at summer of 2012)  about the transition through his rapid decline to death to the journey of grief and resilience that I have undergone. He was my best friend, lover, and husband of 30 years. He was someone I would trust without question, share in heartaches and celebrations, and the journey through parenthood raising our two beautiful daughters Sarah and Anastassia.

Today it has been three years since your passing, Keith. A lot has happened. I have grieved… and still do. But I have also moved forward with many of life’s demands and the promises I made… to you, and to myself… and to others.

I have embraced joy in the form of a future grandchild expected in December. And I’ve embraced building a life filled with happiness and love in my marriage to my second husband, Steven, who understands that you came before him. He honors you and protects me. Sometimes he is quick to get upset, mostly out of frustration, when he feels unsuccessful in protecting my interests, or feels slighted by a family member. He is learning the art of nuance and patience. He is learning that what others say or do is not about him, nor is it meant to impugn him. He is learning to let go of the wounds of his other life before me so that it doesn’t fracture an otherwise beautiful relationship.

And I am learning to feel your presence as a guide, to look around me and examine it through your eyes. This has become especially important as we move forward building a new home on Perry Road. You and I and Steven all came from a tradition of craftsmanship. This included a respect for workmanship, the materials, and the process. Things were carefully planned, constructed in the right order, with attention to detail. When it came to homes, it was about making them last, energy-efficient, and beautiful.

As I look at the workmanship of some of the rough framing crew, I am appalled. It has left me – and especially Steven – stressed. We are determined to keep the project moving forward, but only if the workmanship is up to our standards. It is hard to let go. And some things, I admit, I am willing to let go. For now, after several days of stressful challenges to the contractor, I am willing to see what he will do to keep to his promise to address our concerns.

If not… well. Keith… what would YOU do? I ask myself that… every… single… day…

Yes. It’s been three years. But I still depend upon you to guide me and give me strength to keep moving forward.

with love always,

Mara

Photo: Keith and me in Fiji in 2001 chaperoning students.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the "dad" to them all - young and old.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the “dad” to them all – young and old.

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Above: The side entrance to the now complete gallery/studio house at Perry Road.
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The building was mostly silent. I could hear the whoosh of the occasional car rushing by before it brakes to make the steep turn just down the road. The trades are mostly done at Perry Road with the exception of the electrician who will be back to do some final installations of lamps and switches. The drywall is finished, painters are gone. Plumbing was done awhile ago and the limestone slabs were installed inside the old mantel and threshold.

The floors have been swept, trash removed, and a quick wash has gotten the first few layers of drywall dust and stray splatters of paint off the floor. The exterior doors received a bright coat of glossy red enamel, like a fresh coat of nail gloss, making a sharp entry to the now completed gallery house.

After walking through the silent building, once buzzing with men working and jabbering with friendly banter, I find myself making mental notes of what little details are left, and wondering what comes next. I’ve learned a lot from this project. Made a few goofy mistakes, too. One was letting them mount the microwave right underneath a shortened cabinet over the stove (or letting the salesgirl convince me the shortened cabinet would be a good idea). Although fine for the vent hood, using the microwave will require the 3-step stool I have stored next to the fridge.

There’s still a front walkway to be poured in Spring in the correct place. And the barn needs a few things. Still, we can begin to move forward and put this building to work.

I sit on the bottom step next to the newly polished oak rail and lean my head against the wall. Except for the sound of the occasional car rushing by, all I can hear is the sound of my breathing and one heartbeat, mine. Silence. I begin to cry.

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20130118-235818.jpg A tiny glimmer of the crescent moon is visible in the sky above the gable-trimmed front porch roof.
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It doesn’t last long. I’ve learned to just let it go and move on. Still, it is a bittersweet accomplishment. And I know I’m not the only one feeling it. My daughters feel it, too. Last Friday, Stassia had her opening at Buckham Gallery as part of a 4-person show. This is the same gallery Keith and I did together back in September 2010. She was sentimental about the opportunity, and was well supported by friends and family. And her work stood up extremely well compared to her co-exhibitors, all far more established artists, and all male. I was very proud of her, and I knew her dad would be, too.

Today I drove to Grand Rapids for another of my doctoral courses starting up. I had to book at the Hampton Hotel a little farther away than I prefer because the closer ones were booked. The last time I did this was the weekend a week before Keith died. I remember the trip each time I reach that point on the drive where all the signs point to Grand Rapids and I begin to choke up. On that day nearly five months ago, I cried all the way there and all the way back, getting lost amidst the on and off ramps I had to ride to get through the maze of highways connecting my hotel to my class meeting. I was a wreck. Hospice had arranged for the hospital bed to be delivered the following Monday and we were told to prepare ourselves for these last days. But Keith insisted I still go to my class.

This time was different. Just as I was nearing East Lansing before the halfway point where those signs for Grand Rapids begin to consume my view, I connected the iPod to the stereo and tuned in a new album. This time “Someday” by fun. blasted through with an anthem-like beat. I began to sing at the top of my lungs and tapping my hands hard upon the steering wheel.

Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights I call it a draw
Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights I don’t know anymore…

[Listen here.]

The beat is pounding and I cannot help but feel energized. I vow to listen to other songs that lift my spirit high. Another song, Carry On, begins to play.

Cause we are
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day
When we’re miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home

If you’re lost and alone
Or you’re sinking like a stone
Carry on
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground
Carry on, Carry on, Carry on

[Listen here.]

This afternoon, and all this past week with the start of classes at the college where I teach, people have been asking me how I’m doing. My answer? It’s going to be an adjustment.

But, I’ll carry on.

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Daughter Stassia’s first show at Buckham Gallery, following in her parents’ footsteps.