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.

The sign said:

Please don’t forget I love you.

It stopped me cold. I was allowing myself a short distraction while eating a late lunch, scrolling through one of my favorite pop-up shops online. In this section were graphic wall signs of sayings about love. But this sign wasn’t among those offered for sale. It was in the preview, catching my attention as I flipped through the main page. I flipped the page back up and read it again.

Please don’t forget I love you.

No, I said out loud, alone in the room. No, I won’t forget. I love you, too. But why don’t you visit me in my dreams? At least that way the days won’t seem quite so lonely.

I’ve kept busy the week since returning from my trip to Grand Rapids. There’s no doubt that I could work 24/7 and still not get it all done. My flu mostly subsided, has left a residual cough. And I admit a moment of self-indulgent pity when I awoke a few mornings soaked in sweat, reminded of how badly Keith’s sweats first hinted at the cancer to come. Well, I thought, if I have what he had, then at least we’ll be together. Then I remind myself that it really is just the flu and shame myself for indulging in this little mental melodrama.

Focus has been in short supply. It feels like I’m missing a limb, like I’m out of balance. So I find it easy to fall into distraction. Part of the issue may be technology. It’s too easy to access. So text messages come often, emails, too. And a little online shopping, though that has been reduced considerably. Retail therapy has proven to backfire when the bill comes.

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My new sleigh at Perry Road. The hill in the backyard is much steeper than this photo implies and this sled goes VERY fast! I made the run three times, each time cackling aloud like a crazy woman. But it was a blast, a cathartic release, and good exercise to boot. Anyone watching me doing this alone, however, would have thought me mad. So when I tired a bit and started taking it a bit close to some small trees, I decided it was time to give it a rest. But now that the snow has returned again after the crazy thunderstorms earlier this week, I’ll have to give it another run!
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Making Paper Memories

I made paper last Saturday at a workshop in Ann Arbor. It was a therapeutic experience to finally work with my hands again, being creative in a more tactile way. I brought rose petals from several arrangements we’d received last summer while Keith was ill. The last batch, however, was from his funeral, the only two live flower arrangements there. In Keith’s obituary, we indicated “in lieu of cut flowers, donations could be made to…” And then we indicated either the American Cancer Society or the Keith E. Fulmer Memorial Art & Design Scholarship Fund at Mott Community College.

I admit feeling an initial disappointment when first arriving at the funeral home to see Keith with only a few arrangements nearby. But we soon filled the spaces around him with photos and his own woodturned art.

Over the summer, Keith became distressed by the cut flowers that arrived occasionally, sometimes meant to honor our anniversary, or simply to cheer him, or me. But instead, as they withered away and died, they were a foreshadowing reminder of what was to come for Keith. And so when it came time for his funeral, we chose to request the charitable donations. But as I first felt pangs of disappointment for not seeing an abundance of flowers in the room, I realized that maybe that’s because the flowers were meant to support the living. Still, as I saw them wither and die over the weeks that followed, I was reminded again of Keith’s comments.

So I had saved the rosebuds from each time flowers would arrive, and let them dry by the kitchen window. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so clearly representative they were of a time with Keith. I brought some of these with me to weave into the paper pulp, and by the end of the day, I almost couldn’t bring myself to stop. A little pulp remained with the rose petals still flecked throughout. I asked the instructor if I could keep it and she, of course, said yes.

As I was getting ready to leave, she asked about how Keith had died. She said she’d never realized that anger was a natural part of grieving and that she’d felt it intensely after her father had died. I told her I, too, had felt anger throughout the grieving process. She was surprised by the intensity of her own emotions. For me, I’m not always sure who I’m angry at…. the fates for bringing Keith’s illness, or at Keith for leaving me, or at myself for indulging in this self-pity. But while anger is indeed part of grief, so is the act of letting go.

So as I told the story of Keith and the illness that took him away from me, I realized it was one the first time in a long time that I could share this story without choking up, and without tears pressing against my eyes. Instead I was able to calmly tell the story, and even smile a little bit at the memories and how my life with Keith was a good one. And for that I am grateful.

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New Dream – Keith visits.
1/29/13, 8:30 am

The conversation was so real that it seemed incomprehensible that it was just a dream. Keith and I were standing near a doorway, resembling the sliding door in our home that leads to the backyard. He picked up a clipboard from the dining room table with a notepad attached to it that he asked me to hand him. He seemed to be preparing to go outside to the backyard to address some task. Although it is winter, the grass was very green, though skies were overcast and damp from rain. This parallels the actual weather which featured unusual winter thunderstorms this morning.

We talked. I knew he was just visiting from the other side. He seemed to be wearing white baggy shorts which I thought incongruous with the dark wool baggy sweater resembling one he always wore in this life. Our conversation was warm and casual, like we were catching up a little. I recall talking about how much I missed him, and mentioning some things I wanted to share. And – while I cannot now recall his exact words – I remember clearly hearing the sound of his voice, as strong as in waking life.

We moved closer to each other so it seemed like our bodies were touching in the start of an embrace. But this move led to him then standing nearer to the door opening. His free arm was outstretched towards me reaching and holding my arm. But rather than pull us closer, our hands began to slip away from each other.

“Come back”, I said. “Come back again in my dreams so we can chat.”

And as our fingers barely touched each other now, I began to awaken to the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightening outside my window, the skies opening up in another drenching downpour in this bizarre winter storm. The snow was gone and the grass showed hints of green through the faint patches of icy water in the backyard.

Keith’s photo, the one with the casual smirk on his face, now looked back at me.

“Visit me again, my sweetheart, in my dreams” I said out loud, only the puppy Lenny nearby responded with a quiet whimper.
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Lenny mugs for the camera in the new studio at Perry Road. (Photo by S.E. Fulmer Photography.)

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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.

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

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Peeking over the edge of the camera view, I am standing at the square near the river that runs through the center of Ekaterinburg, Russia, May 2012. Seems nowadays I am peeking over the edge of a new journey.

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Dreaming off the edge…

I woke this morning (1/4/13) with a start. My heart was still pounding from the last remembered scene in my dream. It was about 9:20 am, a little while before the alarm I’d set would go off, but about 90 minutes after I’d fallen back asleep after letting the dogs out for their morning constitution.

Although I cannot recall all the details of my dream, as with other dreams I’ve written about, I’ll try and share what I can here:

I was driving on an elevated highway heading towards a fork in the highway. I didn’t know which way I should go. Beyond the view of the two diverging ramps, all that was visible was blue sky. My speed was not in my control, and the vehicle – I think it was the truck for it felt higher off the road than my car – was moving at a very fast pace. I started to panic and reached out to both sides of the car, both hands outstretched could reach the door frames. I remember thinking “how is this possible?” I shouldn’t be able to reach both sides, am I in a covered motorcycle? No. I realized I must be both driver and passenger. As I was cruising very fast towards the split, I could finally read a green and white highway sign which said “I-75 North” and a curved arrow pointing towards the left. I remember thinking “Grab the steering wheel and turn” but when I reached for the steering wheel, it was too late and the momentum took me straight off the highway into thin air. I never hit the ground. I remember seeing it very very far away, as if falling from a high altitude airplane when the landscape below is still very abstract. It seemed to be rushing closer but remained very far away. I awoke with my heart pounding, still feeling the terror of the experience. But it wasn’t the same as a terror born of fear. It was terror from uncertainty, exhilaration, and fear of the unknown. Not fear of an impending death.

What do I think of this dream? Several things come to mind based on experiences going on in my life. First … the New Year means new directions. But I’m not there, and I am not quite sure which way to go. But I am heading there at great speed! I have committed to exploring building a new house out at Perry Road. Just the preliminary design stage first and potential zoning variances. Greg Mason is working with me on this. He had begun working with Keith on potentially renovating the farmhouse but we gave up on that due to its extremely poor condition. I also began to peek at dating websites to see if there are any understanding widowers out there in my age range who are looking for an occasional companion for friendship, dinner, a movie, maybe other shared interests. I was discouraged. But Stassia is providing some advice in this new dating style that didn’t exist the last time I was dating back in high school… in the 70s!

Another point of note is that I was alone in the car – driver and passenger were both just me, alone. Keith was not there as he had been in my previous “driving” dream. And as I shot off into the air in my vehicle, I realized I was in this liminal space – between spaces. Between control and uncontrol, between heaven and earth, between now and future, ending and beginning. It is that space when you’ve lost the momentum of the direction you were heading, but haven’t begun to fall to the ground yet.

Other memories to consider…
And one last coincidence that might have a connection: My last night in the USA before flying to Fiji the next day with the family, I was on an elevated highway, I787 which wraps around the city of Albany, NY, the family’s plane tickets on the seat next to me, the kids waiting with Grandma at the Hilton. Just a mile from the hotel, I narrowly missed being killed by a wrong-way driver on the rush-hour holiday traffic-filled highway. Following behind a gasoline tanker in the right lane, I saw him swerve and hit his brakes, and I followed suit. But then I saw the wrong-way driver heading towards me and the vehicle to my left. The errant driver hit the small truck right beside me instead, killing him in a swirl of spinning vehicles, flying parts, and eventual fire. I braked hard with my car stopping only 50 feet from where some of the wreckage finally stopped spinning. Keith and his dad were about a mile behind me in his truck and didn’t know how close I’d come. But they were stuck in the traffic for another 3 hours while police and firetrucks came. I was interviewed by police and newspaper reporters both who took my film from my camera – once I’d realized I couldn’t do anything to help the man who was dead under his car, I grabbed my camera that still contained the “going away party” photos on a roll and started taking photos of the scene realizing that it would all have to be moved to make way for the emergency vehicles (the journalist in me).

Once the police gave me the go-ahead, I attempted to make my way to the hotel. The only exit was an on-ramp being used for the emergency vehicles. One came towards me lights and sirens going, and I stopped to the side again, shaking and beginning to cry. But I then started off again and made my way to the hotel. My mother-in-law and daughters were there, but Keith and his dad would be another 2 hours stuck in the traffic. When they finally arrived, they went on about the accident and I told them how close I was. It became clear it was not my time. The film loaned to the police and the newspaper was processed and returned to me the next morning before we left for our flight. That was August 30, 1991. Flying out on the 31st, we arrived in Fiji on 9/1/91, exactly 21 years to the day from when Keith would die on 9/1/12.

Symmetry and threads in the fabric of life

So there is symmetry in this story. In my dream, I am driving on an elevated highway that feels a lot like the one on I787. But I am the only car on the road. When we left for Fiji, we were leaving behind everything that was familiar to us, embarking on a journey that was new, exhilarating and frightening at the same time. And, when I was flying back from Russia last May, after cutting my trip short to be here with Keith when he got news from his liver biopsy, I remember trying to distract myself from thinking about why I was going home on this flight from Ekaterinburg to Moscow by snapping photos out the window of the abstract landscapes below. I still have these photos in hopes of creating new artwork from them.

I’m not sure of the meaning of all of this, but it seems obvious that I am at the start of a new and unknown journey. My psyche is frightened and a bit curious and excited, too. Like the threads that weave back and forth in a great tapestry, I seem to be heading back towards another destination, with details that sometimes echo of a previous path. I mentioned to my daughter that we had family who lived to their late 90s. So if I follow suit, I may have another 45 or more years to go, another lifetime ahead of me. It saddens me that I do it without Keith. But it also means I have another life to build. I hope to make it as fulfilling as the first half that I had the privilege to build with a very special and wonderful person.

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Above: View from the Aeroflot flight from Ekaterinburg to Moscow, May 2012, after cutting the trip short to be with Keith.