Thursday, March 4, 2010

How ARE You?

This is the question everyone still feels obligated to ask, but few people want to really hear your answer. It's such a difficult question to answer because there is no simple way of expressing the range of emotions you feel every hour, every day. It's a question that can bring on strong emotions faster than the snap of a finger, and it can happen in public places where having tears roll down your face is just not exactly what you want to do.

So, you pause, try to collect yourself, to give a thoughtful answer without sounding like a drama queen or someone consumed with pity. You pause. You're not finished with the answer by a long ways. You just pause. And they, in their nervous state, become uncomfortable and jump in to fill the silence they find so unacceptable. And they go on, and on, and on. They're trying to do the right thing, really, but you were just collecting your self. You paused. You didn't finish. And you never get to finish, because they really don't want to hear the whole answer. It's unnerving to some, depressing to others. The silence is unacceptable. Must fill this awful silence with talk! Mustn't get into so close to those emotions!

You want them to understand there is no simple answer. I'm fine one minute--until I hear a song, catch a familiar smell, see a picture or an object I haven't seen in weeks--and then it hits me. The moment might be brief, or might send me down for hours, until I can finally get to sleep. I'm grieving all the time, that's how I am. I'm angry at being alone, that's how I am. I'm so tired of coming home to an empty apartment I could just sit at the doorstep in cry, if that would do any good. (I've tried; it won't.) I'm confused and don't know what to do with the rest of my life. I don't know how to restart my life. I don't even know what I want out of my life. I don't know if I can survive being alone. That's how I am.

Honest answers take more time than most people can give. So, when I next get the "How ARE you?" question, I will just say, "I'm OK, thanks." That's what most people want to hear. They don't want to get your whole story or to be your confessional or a shoulder to cry on. You can see the relief when you give the short answer, the fear when you pause, the regret when you offer details they cannot handle and don't want to hear.

I really do understand. They haven't see death up close and I am a reminder that at some point they will see these things they don't want to see, go through something they don't want to experience. When my father died I was much the same. Denial was my specialty. I did everything I could to avoid thinking about the reality of the situation. I was disgustingly upbeat most days. I cringed every time Mama started to cry. Raw emotions are unattractive and if you've never been around them you just want to run the other way.

I'd just as soon someone not ask me how I am, but I remind myself they are trying to do the right thing. They may be lousy at it, but they are trying. And I'm trying to give an honest answer that doesn't make the other person cringe. I've got a ways to go.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Can I Ever Enjoy Doing Us Things with Just Me?

Ten months after his death, I'm now almost done with the estate and financial issues and can begin to contemplate the next phase of my life. In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to do several things we did, always together, and I'm unsure whether these are things to enjoy or avoid. Sharing the experience together was, in many cases, what made them special; doing them alone just makes them hard to enjoy.

Divorced friends and family have had little to offer, in part because they've either moved to a different place or their shared experiences involved property or people who are now off limits. So, this is an issue I'm going to have to decide on my own, meaning decisions will come with each event. I've done some of the "us" things, consciously avoided others, but am unsure if either decision was the right one.

He loved snow--like a child can love snow. When a recent big storm hit all I could think of was how excited he would have been. He'd have insisted that I put on my boots after work so we could get on the subway and go downtown for Chinese and then a walk around on the quiet streets. I couldn't do it, and instead just took a quick walk around the neighborhood.

Movies are another challenge. I've gone to three by myself, with mixed results. What I miss most is the chance afterward to go out for coffee to talk about what we'd just seen. I know this would be easier if I invited friends, but this requires more planning that I've been able to accommodate because of the need to get other things done. But do I really want to do these things with someone other than him? I don't have an answer yet.

Vacation is the next big decision. Go where we went or some place new? Last year I did go back to our favorite place. It was an easy choice because I didn't want to play tourist or have to learn new restaurants. Now, I have the opportunity to go places I've never been, or alone or with him, and don't have a clue whether that would help or just remind me of the pervasive loneliness I confront every minute of every day.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Two Questions You'll Learn to Hate

They mean well, I know, but they have no idea how irritating they can be with the most mundane and seemingly innocent, obvious, appropriate questions.

"How are you?" they ask. They have no idea what a complicated question that is. It depends on the day, the hour, the weather, and whether or not I've had to deal with an insurance company that day. And the answer I'd give if I was being honest would be to explain just how fucking lousy I feel part of most every day. And, as I read this paragraph over, I'm also aware that a part of every day I am also a bit angry--more at my situation than at any one or any particular thing. But how I feel is not normal, or what was normal, not good, not sure. And I was so sure about so much for so long, thanks to him. I've lost so much of my confidence as much as I've lost anything else. So, I don't feel particularly good, but thanks for asking.

"Are you getting on with your life?" is the new, second most irritating question. No, actually, I'm not, but I'm trying not to be a pain in the ass, so I say yes, or yes, I'm trying. Total bullshit. I am not getting on with my life. I have getting on with settling his affairs but, not, I am not getting on with my life. It's too soon and I just don't know how.

I do not know if I can do this--this being what my life has been. I do not know if I want to do this--what I have been doing. I don't know if what I do maters. I woke up this morning and, for the second time in two months, did not have a clue where I was. That's not normal, either.

I cannot get on with my life yet because I haven't finished with the affairs of his life and it will be several months before that can or will happen. At least I have not fallen into the trap of avoiding these matters, which seems to be a quite common reaction. And I have not started rushing to the point of being a maniac about it all. I'm moving along with his life and very afraid of why I'll find out about my life when all of that is done.

I have no plan and I'm very anal about having plans and checklists and being sure about things. My life is very unsure. I am very unsure about what I might be doing in two years.

I have never been afraid of change and I 've turned my life quite upside down two or three times before. Have I the guts to do it again. If I do it again will it be out of fear or conviction. I should have thought about life alone before, but he was only 60, only five years in retirement. I never thought he'd live to be an old man but I also didn't expect it to be this soon.

We should have talked about this but he just couldn't. He could only ask, "What are you going to do?" I had no answer then and I don't have one yet.

Please, ask me about the weather, politics, some sport I could care less about, but don't ask me how I'm doing or if I'm getting on with my life because the answer if given honestly would be rude and perhaps unforgivable and more than you bargained for. But if you do, I'll do my best to remember my manners. Your intentions are honarable and you don't know any better. You're just as new at this as I am.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Busy Is Good, Everyone Says

I had a weekend of work, mostly taking care of last minute details on the other condo, going through the storage bin (and more to do there). Stay busy, everyone says. Don't sit around a brood about your loss, everyone says. Busy is good, everyone says.

There is some truth to this suggestion. Busy prevents that endless pity party I'm prone to hosting. I don't worry as much about my future or my finances or whether I'll ever find someone I can truly care about.

But there's a downside. I don't think much about us, what we had, what we did and enjoyed and endured. I need to remember some of that, if not all of that. I need to think about him every day. I need to try to remember the early days and forget about those last, long, horrible days when he looked like someone else, someone less than alive and not yet gone. I need to forget that last image of that last night and remember when he could smile, when he smiled at me and I just wanted to melt. He could not smile in the end. I want to replace those memories by thinking of places and dinners and movies we shared. I want to remember the giddy joy of the first week together. When I'm busy, that doesn't happen.

There's a middle ground to pursue. Moderation in everything, as Franklin said. I need to get things done, but not be so busy that life becomes the empty blur it was before I met him, before he made me slow down, notice details, notice the small pleasures, enjoy life in small bites.

When we came together he did things he'd never of had time to do because I was there to plan and push and get him to the airport or into the car more or less on time. And I enjoyed it more once we got there because he made me look, and smell, and savor it all. We were good together in that way and now I have to seek balance on my own. He was a good teacher and I'm about to find out whether or not I was a decent student.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Nights

Every Friday night for nearly 25 years we went out together, my partner and I. Unlike a lot of people today (or a lot of people before the economy crashed), eating out was not something we did often, but celebrating the end of the week was a wonderful tradition that I so miss.

This started when we first met. I asked him about going to dinner after work one Friday night--one very special night. After we decided to make our relationship more permanent, Fridays were the best option for getting together because while we both might work late many nights, we both agreed to get out of the office as quickly as possible on Fridays.

Sometimes we'd go for Salvadorian, sometimes for Thai or Vietnamese (pho in the winter--often). But the location was less important that the date. And that's how we treated it. I'd usually get off first, get home and change, then wait outside the office building where he worked. We have our favorites, but he was often very glad to have me choose a place and just go. If the weather was bad we could always jump on the subway and stay in town. He and I both loved walking through snow showers.

We almost never encouraged or invited anyone to go with us, save for those few occasions when there was out of town company. It was our special night and I didn't want to share him with anyone, at least not on that night.

Now Friday's are different--not just any other day, but not something I look forward to. I'm trying to schedule dinners out with friends on either Friday or Saturday, but there are so many things to do with his estate that I sometimes just need to come home and get some work done.

This was one of those nights. The paperwork is starting to pile up, and most of it involves government agencies or life insurance companies only available during the week and during working hours. But I need to pull together documents and get ready before I pick up the phone or the number of hours I'm spending on this seemingly endless list of issues will be even higher.

I am having dinner with a friend tomorrow night, and that sort of thing is very important. I need something to look forward to, especially something that will get me out of the house, especially on weekends. This is how I'm surviving. Get out of the house, eat well, enjoy the company of friends who are capable of good conversation. And eat with someone who will let me talk for a little while about the good times my partner and I enjoyed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Grieving and Parents

I went out on a business dinner tonight. I drove myself there and then, when I drove myself back home, it was after dark. I went to an event where I did not know many people. If this does not sound difficult then you didn't know Mama. I made myself go because I need to get out and need to be busy (and I always enjoy a good meal--especially one I don't have to cook). And I need to avoid becoming her.

On the way home tonight I realized that when my father died my mother was only four years older than I am now. You would have thought she was so much older because from the day he died until her own death 17 years later, it was as if she never stopped wearing black or acting like a very, very old woman. She acted as if life was over because he was gone. Her life would never be the same and would probably be much worse.

My siblings and I and many of her friends and relatives spent a lot of time encouraging her to get out, meet people, take a part-time job, volunteer--anything to make her life more enjoyable. It was all in vain because she always had an answer. She couldn't drive at night. She couldn't go to that neighborhood. She couldn't go if the weather was bad and they'd never understand that. Taxi? Do you know what they cost and the kind of people who drive them? I once suggested she go out on a date and I thought she was going to slap me. How could I suggest anything so disloyal to my father?

She was determined to stay miserable, and never missed an opportunity to talk about how lonely she was, how she missed going out at night. There were problems and her night vision really was lousy, but mostly she just couldn't stop being the grieving widow. She was also angry about being left alone, forgetting that her husband, who was ten years older than her, would most certainly die before her even if he had not had cancer. And she maintained that attitude for 17 years.

Today I am much more sympathetic with Mama's loss because I now understand what it's like to lose someone who has been such an integral part of your life and identity and everyday existence. Today, I also, much more than I did back then, appreciate the fear she must of felt about living alone--and especially about surviving financially. My father left almost nothing to her except a paid for house and a decent, but high-mileage, used car, having borrowed to the limit on almost every life insurance policy he had so he could raise five children and put them through Catholic schools. (Why she ever thought five children would let her go poor is beyond my comprehension.)

I am determined that I will not allow myself to be as consumed with grief as she was, no matter what problems I may face. My outlook this week is lousy. I feel more emotionally vulnerable than I did three months ago. But I will not allow myself to become what she was. Right now I am probably as afraid of the future as she was, which concerns me more than I can express, but it won't be a life like hers.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Tax Fun and What Do I Keep

First the IRS, now the state has a question about last year's tax return.

"And who are you," the man asks. "Oh, so you’re not family?" That’s one I have yet to get used to hearing. I’m not dealing with people who are trying to be unkind. I have spoken with two people with the IRS who were very helpful. But I have no status, according to their rules. (The next person who says we should settle for anything less than marriage is going to probably get bitch slapped by me. And I’m only half kidding.)

So, I had to send a letter yesterday, make a call today, they need more papers, and yes, I can send it by fax. Now wait a week or so for the fax to get into their system and then probably have several more phone calls. And that’s just the state tax return. (Do you know how much I hate the fact that I whine like this all the time?)

I have procrastinated on the federal life insurance and final benefits situation for a few weeks and some paperwork came in today. I am preparing to do battle on an issue I’m almost certain to lose. I know that at some point I will just have to give in and recognize that fighting for rights I do not legally have is fruitless and a fast trip to an ulcer. Survival is my nature, but some of this is just more painful than it should be and I am half Irish and yes, we really all all stubborn.

I was good and tired all day Saturday and when I get tired I get emotional so much more easily. And then, while going through the last personal items in the other condo we own, I found the card. It was the first birthday card I gave him after we were together. My inscription was long and romantic and so, of course, I just went to pieces. One of my sisters called, and let me vent for a good bit, which was so helpful. This weekend I heard from three of the four siblings; they are still keeping a close watch on me—-thank goodness.

There are dozens of personal items like that card I have found and I go through this huge decision-making process with each one. How many do I keep? How many do I throw away? Am I being disloyal if I toss them? How much do I even have room for (the storage bin is bursting, the closets nearly all full). What do I do with what I keep, any way? And when you’re sleep deprived your brain just isn’t worth a damn, making it that much harder.

It's the kind of day when I think I should be ready to just scream, but I don't. I'm unsure if that's a good or bad sign. I think I'm still just numb and worn down. It has been four months, technically, but so much longer since he was his real self--before the cancer, the chemo. So, after more than two years, should I be used to this by now?