Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Life After Death

Another big milestone for me....I'm having a baby!

I'm actually six months along already, due in mid-September.  We are having a boy.

Sheldon and I are thrilled.  We had been trying since we got married last year, and though it doesn't sound like a long time, I was starting to get discouraged when it took us six months to get a positive test result.  The (small) bummer was that this test happened to fall one day before we took a trip to Las Vegas.  On the plus side, I realized I REALLY love Vegas when I was able to have a blast drinking only ginger ale - and I think the fact that I wasn't drinking made me get carded a lot.  At 33, I'll take that all day long!

Overall, things have been going very well.  I feel pretty good, and even ran 3.5 miles in a marathon relay race a few weeks ago.  I am just starting to feel big and notice that my belly influences my mobility and the way I move, and I'm getting up a lot in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and change positions.  Overall, though, I can't complain.

On the other hand, there have been some triggers or emotional challenges.  Not long after we found out our good news, I had a dream that really shook me and had me feeling "off" for a while, and I cried for a good day or two.  In my dream, I was pregnant and sharing my life with Sheldon, just like in real life.  However, the baby was Brian's.  We knew that I would have two children -- one Brian's and one Sheldon's -- and we were happy with that scenario.  In the dream, I felt like it was perfect -- I would get one child with each of my loves.  I woke up and was sad to remember that this wasn't the case, and I felt disappointed about that, and again had to grieve for the fact that I never had the opportunity to have a child with Brian (or, more accurately, that we never even ventured down that path because we thought we had time for that "later").  It's not fair that he died before he could have kids, that his genes weren't carried on.  We had talked about down the road and I fantasized about having a red-headed,  smart, mischievous boy like him.  He was such an adorable kid.  The fact that this never happened still leaves me with a sinking, empty, feeling....like you feel if you are holding a precious heirloom that means the world to someone and you just dropped it in front of them and saw it shatter at your feet, and you are frozen, staring down in shock at your empty fingers and the myriad glass fragments littering the ground.  Broken chances, irreversible fate....an opportunity that literally slipped through my fingers and shattered in front of me, never to be whole or real or within my grasp again.  This still pains me a great deal when I think about it.  I think this is why I've waited so long to blog about this.  The dream happened a good four months ago, but I'm crying as much today as I did the day after it happened.

This pregnancy brings about another reality -- I am carrying a child who would not have existed if Brian had lived.  This boy will owe his very existence to Brian's death.  Of course, Brian dying changed a lot of things in many peoples' lives though the butterfly effect -- I have made new friends, friendships have been forged among people I connected, a couple I introduced is now engaged, people live in houses I found for them, etc.  And I know I wouldn't even be married to Sheldon if Brian hadn't died.  But this adds a whole new level of gravity to the impact of it all -- a human being is going to be born out of the aftermath of Brian's death.  It's a sobering and heavy thought.

I think about how I'm going to tell the little one about Brian.  How will he understand?  When is it too soon to talk about death?  I know it will not be a one-time, sit-down conversation and that we will handle it in age-appropriate ways, but it's already something on my mind.  Most parents at least get the luxury to delay this conversation for many years, until a death in the family occurs.  In this case, a death in the family happened before he came along, and one that he'll ask questions about when he finds out my middle name, when he asks how he's related to his Boka cousins and relatives, when he sees my tattoo or pictures of Brian on the wall.  Will he understand that I could love Brian and Daddy the same?  Will he worry about Daddy dying too?  Will he see Brian watching over him and us?

I don't like feeling like I see the negative side of everything, because I'm generally a very positive person.  And I do feel like I've made a lot of progress.  Early in my grief, I would have to strain to see the silver linings amongst the big, dark clouds.  Now, I feel like it's blue skies all the time, though I am aware of the dark clouds in the distance, clouds that are outside the vision of those who don't know what I know, who haven't been through what I've been through.  

Mostly though...I see skies of blue...and I think to myself, "What a wonderful world."

Friday, January 17, 2014

4 Years

It's been four years today since Brian died.  Thankfully, the details of that horrible day have softened a little bit in my mind.  If I choose to go back and remember it, it's pretty sharp and still cuts me to the core, but time has helped me add some distance and I no longer have flashbacks, nightmares, or persistent thoughts about the horrors that unfolded before my eyes and upon my life that awful day.

In a way, it doesn't sound like a long time.  Four years really isn't that long in the scheme of things - not to a normal person with a normal, happy life.  When life is good, time goes quickly.  It is true that "time flies when you're having fun."  But when you're a grieving widow who's reeling with shock, hurting beyond belief, dreading upcoming holidays and occasions, and who is fearful and unsure about the near and far future, every day seems to drag on for an eternity.  While the past couple years have gone by relatively quickly, the first year felt closer to a decade in time than one year.  It's only lately that I've started to feel capable and ready to plan far in the future again.  I don't know that I've planned anything for more than six months in the future since Brian died -- and that one thing I did plan that far in advance was my wedding.  I'm still not the future-planner I once was.  I'm too leery of unexpected change, too timid to dare to presume that I (or anyone else) will still be alive and well that far ahead.

Yet so much has happened.  I moved, I changed jobs, I picked up another (!) cat, I moved again, I bought a condo, I went to Europe, I had a breakdown and went back to therapy, I bounced back, I struggled to fit in, I made amazing friends, I ran a couple more half-marathons, I irreparably injured my ankle on a Mexican waterside (thus insuring I won't be doing any more full 26.2-milers), I traveled to Mexico three times, I went to Bonnaroo twice, I have made mistakes, I met a few celebrities, I took up golfing, and my online diary of grief has been viewed over 100,000 times.  I literally could not have imagined any of this four years ago.  At that point, all I knew was I was lost, I was shocked, I was devastated, and I knew life would never be the same again.

Yet, on that day, I also knew that life would go on.  I remember distinctly thinking, "I'm still breathing. I'm going to keep breathing.  I'm going to wake up tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.  I don't know what to do with this, but I know my life is going on."  And from there, I just had to take it hour by hour, then day by day, and week by week, and finally - month by month.  I'm finally able to think ahead and to dare to dream about what will happen years from now, what life will look like when I'm middle-aged, when I'm old.  It's something a lot of people take for granted, this ability to dream and plan for a future.  It's the thing that has taken the longest to build back up in my life.  Some combination of fear and the cold reality of possibilities has kept me from daring to think long-term and to build toward an uncertain future.

Brian was quite a planner.  Not only did we always have a packed social calendar, but he was diligent about his professional and personal goals.  He had a target income he wanted to hit by 40, and a position within his company.  We started seeing a financial planner before I had even finished my schooling with the idea to set our long-term goals and take the steps needed to achieve them.  I was like that to a lesser extent, but loved the structure of this way of thinking and happily participated in these discussions and plans, and we started socking away money into our IRAs and 401(k)s.  Once he died, I was like a sailboat in a windless sea, drifting about deflated and without direction.  I literally wrote about how I moved to Austin because "that's where the wind took me."

Today, in Brian's honor, I resolve to get back to my forward-thinking, future-planning ways.  I know that life is uncertain.  I also know that the things I want in life aren't going to happen if I don't plan for them.  If I don't dare to dream it, I won't achieve it.  It's time to start dreaming, goal-setting, and forward-thinking again.  I've let the wind take me where I needed to be, and I'm ready to use this place in life as my new launching pad.  It's time to draw up a road map to the future I want.  It's time to dream big again.





Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

It's been a while since I've walked the early days of fresh, sudden grief.  Well, it had been a while.  Over the holidays, I treaded that footpath again and remembered what a hard and fierce walk it is with Sheldon's family dealing with the sudden loss of his beloved Uncle Matt.  I have to admit, it was very hard to be in that place again, and this trip was very hard on me.

I heard the story about how Sheldon's uncle died in the middle of the night, about what his fiancé went through calling first responders and doing chest compressions, how helpless she felt, how this experience was so utterly traumatizing.  I heard family members talk about getting the phone call, about  being told the news by the doctors, about what it was like to see someone you just talked to -- someone who was just walking around, breathing, living, and doing so on a grand scale -- now lifeless on a table in a small room where family and friends take turns paying their respects, saying private good-byes, and being forced to reckon with a cold reality that is undeniable once you have touched a cooling body and realize there's no breath coming back.  I wasn't there when his uncle passed, but I can see it as clearly in my mind as if I was.  It was eerie how similar the stories from everyone in Ohio were to my own experience four years ago in Iowa.

I knew the family had to tell their stories, difficult they may have been for them to articulate and for me to hear.  I remember reading in some grief book or literature how important it is for survivors to tell the story of the death, to say the word "dead" even, to help reality sink in.  It was after reading this that I had started to tell my own story and even wrote about it on this blog, to help me accept reality.  I knew that this was about acceptance and processing, so I listened.  I offered comfort. I felt the familiar heave of heavy sobs of shock, confusion, helplessness and pain when Matt's fiancé cried into my arms.  We talked about where the spirit goes, about signs that our departed leave for us to let us know they are okay.

We put together a photo collage for the funeral on the long, oval-shaped, oak dining table.  As we told the stories behind the pictures amidst a blend of tears and laughter, I was pulled back in time to the preparations for Brian's funeral.  I remember someone at that time making a remark about how this task serves to not only honor the life of the deceased, but it gives the survivors something concrete to do, a chore to keep hands busy and to keep the hours passing in those first few, most difficult days.

When we went through Matt's clothes, there were many tears shed.  Still, we managed some chuckles when the words were said, "Matt had terrible taste."  (He always looked nice, but he did have quite a few mock turtlenecks and Cosby sweaters that made the comment completely fair.)  A box of tee-shirts was put aside for the making of a memory quilt, just like I did with Brian's Bears attire.  Sheldon's mom is keeping a suitcase full of ugly sweaters so we can wear them around the holidays to keep Matt's presence with us in future years.  I thought about how, desperate to be practical and knowing I was downsizing in my move, I got rid of a few shirts of Brian's that I wish I had back.  On the other hand, I also know I'm okay without them and that no one will ever get the disposition of things just right.  Life does go on, with or without the things.

Still, it has taken time, a lot of effort, and a life full of love and support for me to come full circle, to get to where I feel mostly happy thinking about Brian.  It took time for me to really understand how his presence and spirit live on, and how they don't (and I'm still sorting some of that out).  There is no magic pill.  Grief is not short-lived, nor is it simple.  Most of all, it is not easy.  I had to dig deep to think about what advice or insight was most relevant now, at this time when the loss is so fresh and when we haven't all really absorbed his death as fact quite yet.

I kept coming back to one thing:  One day at a time.  Sometimes, one hour or one minute at a time.

This mantra got me through the worst times.  The other thing I would say to someone who is freshly grieving is to embrace the grief.  That's not to say you should seek to enjoy it -- because no one will.  It will completely suck.  But, like a root canal, it is necessary and you just need to suck it up and deal with it, or the problem and pain will remain festering under the surface.  When you feel the pain, lean in.  When you want to cry, cry.  When you want to tell a story about the loved one, go ahead and do it.  Ignoring his life and memory won't help anyone.

I think that living with grief is ultimately about how you are able to cope with what has happened.  While a death happened, a life happened too.  Remember that, celebrate it.  Mourn the loss, both of what you had and what you will not have.  You have to acknowledge those feelings, and feel them.  But also celebrate the good times.  Be honest about the persons flaws and laugh about them if you can -- such as the ugly sweaters or Hawaiian shirts (Brian was guilty of the latter).

Eventually, the pain will be less.  Eventually, the smiles will be more.  It just takes time.  And work.  And love.



 






Monday, December 16, 2013

Birthday Blues

Today would have been Brian's 35th birthday.  He would not have liked it.  First off, he would have been less than excited about hitting that midway point between 30 and 40.  Second of all, it's a Monday.  He much preferred a Friday or Saturday birthday, or even a Thursday, so people could celebrate in style the whole night long.  We probably would have had a blowout party over the weekend, followed by a day of recovery (and pizza) watching football yesterday.  Still, he would have wanted more today.  He'd probably have taken the day off work, stayed home and played video games or fooled around watching internet videos or music DVDs.  Maybe we would have gone to Kenny's Pub in Waukee for steak night, if in fact Monday is still steak night there.  All in all, even a birthday he didn't like very much still would have been pretty darn good.

It's silly to think that someone would see 35 as being old, but he felt that way starting around age 28 or 29.  He just wasn't excited about getting older.  Maybe it was because he was a kid at heart; maybe it was because he was scared to get to the "kids or no kids" phase of our life; maybe he was afraid everything would change with our friends as we grew older and made such choices; maybe he just realized life is short and hated seeing it go by so quickly; or maybe it was because, deep down, his soul knew his time on this world was particularly limited.  Looking back at his attitude on aging, I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I think of the youthful ignorance behind not wanting to get older -- surely it beats not getting any older.  Being 35 sure sounds better than never having the chance to reach that age.  We should just relish every day and every year of our lives, and appreciate the bounty of friends, family, fellowship, food, drink, music, fun, faith, and so on.  Every day that we get to do that is a day to enjoy, not to dread.  The older you are, the more opportunity you've had to enjoy what this world offers.

On the other hand, I have to admit that Brian was right.  (God, he would love that I'm admitting this.)  At least in his own case, he actually was nearing the end of his life at 28, 29 years old.  We just didn't know it at the time.  It's strange.  If only we could have slowed down the clock, made him 29 or 30 for just a while longer…

Perhaps a healthy dose of appreciation for enjoying every day needs to be tempered with the awareness that we are all getting older and that every day that goes by represents one less day of your life that remains -- one less day to achieve what you want to accomplish, to take a trip to the place you've always wanted to visit, to tell someone dear how much you love them, to take a chance you've always wanted to take.  Whether or not you are objectively "young" or "old," life is short and our days on this earth are limited.  That is true for all of us, whether we die young or last 100 years.  It's still a finite number of days, and no one has any guarantees.

Make the most out of today.  That's what Brian would have wanted.



Saturday, December 14, 2013

Heavy Hearted Holidays

This year marks the first time I won't be in Iowa for the holidays at all.  I haven't always been there on Christmas Day since moving to Texas, but I have always spent some time there during the holiday season, had some kind of celebration.  Not this year, though, and that's kind of hard.  I made this choice with Sheldon a couple months ago, and with good reason - we went to Iowa in October for another wedding celebration and I returned again in November to attend a charity auction for Brian's animal shelter.  Plus, it is always stressful to try to go to two different states up north.  I have gotten quite sick over the holidays the past two years, probably in part due to the stress and travel.  Not to mention the fact that the cats hate being left alone so long, even though our sweet neighbor Carol checks on them daily (actually, more than once a day).

Still, I was thinking it would be strange this year.  I was missing the idea of seeing everyone, the excitement of the season.  I knew we were making the right choice, but it still tugged at my heart a bit.  Add that to the warm Texas weather, and I just haven't quite been very quick to get into the holiday spirit.  I only started to come around a week or so ago, after we got all our decorations up and went to an ugly sweater party with some friends.  I started to finally get excited about Christmas.

Now, some bad news has come along that is going to make Christmas really, really hard this year.  Sheldon's uncle Matt passed away of a heart attack this week.  He was only 50 years old.  Far too young.  We are still in shock, and very much grieving the loss of this man, who was very close to Sheldon.  Matt got Sheldon into the business he is in now, and we would see him on company trips.  We just spent time with him in Colorado a couple months ago.  He was always around when we were in Cincinnati.  He helped Sheldon plan and orchestrate our engagement, and did a reading at our wedding.  I can't imagine a trip to Cincinnati where I don't see his face, hear his voice, feel his arm around me in a hearty embrace, and smell his cologne.  It just won't be right.

This year, like last, we were to have Christmas dinner at Matt's house.  He was going to make prime rib.  It was amazing last year, one of the highlights of the trip.  He was a great cook and host.

Matt also had season tickets to the Cincinnati Bengals.  Every time we went there, we'd try to go to a game as well.  This year, we'd planned a big group outing to the last game of the season with over a dozen people going.  Matt would have been the heart and soul of this, the one who had the best tailgating spot, who told the best stories, who brought the best food.  He may have been but one of 15 or so people, but his presence (and now absence) was much bigger.  It will not be remotely the same without him.

Matt reminded me of Brian in a lot of ways.  He was big-hearted, big in stature to match, he was outgoing, liked to have fun, liked to drink, not at all shy or reserved, spoke his mind, loved people, loved food, loved football, could be silly at times, and kind of acted kind of like a big kid.  They both liked dirty jokes and Jaegermeister and were the life of the party.  They both had unique voices that I will remember clear as day for the rest of my life.  They both died suddenly on winter mornings, and their deaths were followed by major snowstorms.  These men were powerful forces in life, and their sudden takings from this earth seemed to literally suck the air out of the atmosphere and wreak the same havoc on the weather that their deaths were wreaking on our hearts.

It will be with heavy hearts that we head north this week.  Instead of having Christmas dinner at Matt's house and going to a football game with him, we'll be going to his funeral and comforting his fiancé the best we can, which will be helpful, but I know will never be enough to fill the hole in her heart and life.  Thinking about what she is going through now and what lies ahead for her absolutely breaks my heart.  I know this pain all too well, and wish to God she didn't have to go through it too.

Please keep Matt's family and friends in your prayers this holiday season.  And please, cherish the time you spend with your relatives and friends.  You never know which Christmas will be someone's last.  Live your life with love, have fun, host parties, go to football games or museums or whatever trips your trigger, engage in good conversation, tell funny stories and jokes, and hug one another tightly.  And have a Jaegerbomb for Uncle Matt while you cheer on the Bengals.


  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Your (Grief) is Like a Roller Coaster, Baby Baby

My grief is largely under control now, something I carry with me, concealed and small.  I don't cry that much anymore and rather than being actively grieving all the time, I function as a more of a "normal person" whose past just happens to shape the way she thinks, feels, and acts.  Most of the time.

Sometimes, though, I get caught off guard.  Sometimes grief still sneaks up on me and overwhelms me.  My dark days may be less severe and far less frequent than they were two or three years ago, but they are not gone completely.  Despite my overall improvement and well-being, I am not immune from crying spells and bad days.  My grief is kind of like a wild animal that I've spent years training and domesticating.  While it usually rides around with me inside my pocket, sometimes it returns to its feral ways and, when I'm not looking or I forget how strong and savage it can be, it gets out of its neat little spot and attacks me when I least expect it.  It claws me up and sinks its teeth into my skin, but instead of drawing blood it brings a stream of tears.

Obviously, I had a bad day recently.  There was definitely a trigger, one I don't care to discuss, but I had a full day where I simply couldn't stop the tears.  I knew there wasn't much I could do except let them come.  I had to let the emotion out, to validate my feelings.  Each tear was the anguish, the pain, the hurt coming out.  It would do no good to try to fight to keep all that inside.  Why would I?  There was nothing to prove by not crying.

Sheldon was understanding, as always.  He couldn't rationally understand the pain, but he didn't have to.  Emotions don't always listen to reason anyway.  He just let me have space, and gave me lots of hugs.  He let me talk if I wanted, but didn't push.  I told him I just needed a day to process some things and to work through my feelings.  I told him I needed one day to cry.  And I did.  I alternated between sobbing on the couch and silent tears that just flowed without permission while I went about my daily routine.  These tears were coming whether I "allowed" them to or not, and each one carried out a little of my pain.  (That last statement is a scientific fact; tears that are produced from emotional crying actually contain more toxins than those produced from a physical stimulus such as chopping onions or having something in your eye:  http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/healthy-living/wellbeing/the-health-benefits-of-crying.htm)

What's nice is that now I know that I can handle the ups and downs of grief.  I've lived with it so long that I know I can manage a bad day here and there.  I know that crying and feeling bad are okay and are normal.  I know this isn't permanent.  I know that sometimes, the wild animal that is grief has to be a wild animal, but that it will tucker itself out and I can put a leash on it again eventually and put it back where it belongs.


 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Laces Out

Perhaps you saw the commercials that were running recently featuring Sam Gordon, the girl who is a football phenom, promoting the "Together We Make Football" contest.  The contest allowed people to submit an essay and five photos or a video telling their football story about why they love the sport.  The grand prize was a trip to next year's Superbowl.  Naturally, I was excited and set out writing my essay right away!

I spent hours writing, proofreading, and editing my essay.  I also spent considerable time rifling through years' worth of digital pictures (even busting out an old hard drive) to find the five best pictures that would illustrate my story.  Unfortunately, the amount of time I spent on these tasks would be just the beginning, and I ended up spending just as much, if not more, time just trying to submit my entry due to repeated technical glitches and ended up feeling about as crazy as Ray Finkle in Ace Ventura…hence the name of this blog post.

Here's exactly what happened.  The contest ended at midnight on Tuesday, November 5.  By the 4th, my essay and pictures were ready to go!  I started trying to submit them that morning.  The website had you first fill out your personal information.  Then, there was a box for uploading pictures and a box for submitting your essay.  Once those things were done, a blue button below read "Submit Your Photos" The first several times, the blue box to submit the photos wouldn't light up - it remained pale.  Eventually, I figured out that I needed to first copy and paste the essay, then upload the photos one by  one.  If I did that, the "Submit Your Photos" button would light up and could be clicked.  Still, I kept getting error messages.  The message said something to the effect of "Sorry, there was an error uploading one of your photos.  Please try again later."  This happened every. Damn. Time.

I read and re-read the contest rules.  My photos were well below the maximum size allowed.  The rules said the photos could not have been edited at all, and I had cropped them, so I thought maybe that was the problem.  I went back through my old files to dig up the un-cropped versions for submission.  No luck.

I thought maybe it was my computer.  I was at a friend's house, so I emailed my essay and photos to her and tried it from her computer.  Same result.  I asked Sheldon to try from his computer.  Same problem. Another friend offered to try from her computer.  She also had the same problem.

I tried using less than all 4 photos, tried using different photos.  I figured maybe there was a glitch with one of them, so I tried systematically removing each photo, one by one, and only submitting four of them.  I STILL got the same error message.

I thought maybe web traffic was just too high on the site, so I tried in the middle of the night.  Repeatedly.  I got the error message.  Repeatedly.

I thought maybe Internet Explorer was the issue….until I got the same error message using Firefox and Google Chrome.

I bet that in all, at least 75 attempts were made over the course of 36 hours by four different people using four different computers and at least three different operating systems.  We were ALL unable to submit my essay.  I was getting incredibly frustrated, but I always like to try to plan for the worst-case scenario.  I decided that since the error was photo-related, that I would just submit my essay without the photos and add a couple sentences explaining my technical issues and asking to submit photos another way, by email or something.  This meant I had to pare down my essay a bit more though, to squeeze that explanation in and still stay under the word limit for the essay.  I did that, and….STILL got the same error message!

At this point, I had literally spent hours just trying to submit my entry and was very frustrated.  I had no idea what to do, so I posted my essay and photos on Facebook, asking my friends to share the status to the NFL's Facebook page.  The problem?  You can't "share" something on a business page, only that of a friend.  You have to post it directly, not using the "share" function.  So I did that.  I posted my story on the NFL page directly, and in the comments section of a post they had made promoting the contest.  On the same thread, I reported my technical issues and found I was not the only one having this problem.

Desperate, I even tweeted the NFL asking about the problem.  I got some tweets in response suggesting various things to try (including, ironically, cropping the photos and saving them a special way with Photoshop).  None of them worked.  Eventually, I got a direct message from someone with the NFL saying he would try to submit my entry for me before the deadline.  I thanked him profusely.  The next day he told me he wasn't actually able to submit it after all, but would still see what he could do and told me to "stay tuned."  I haven't heard anything since, so I decided I'd write this post.  I plan to post a link to this post on the NFL's Facebook page, tweet it to the NFL, and send a direct message with the link to my contact at the NFL.  I want someone in charge to see what this contest experience was like for me (and probably many other fans, though I doubt any were as manically rabid about continuing to try to post their entries scores of times using a network of friends and family).  Most importantly, though, I wanted my story to be told.  I wrote this essay hoping it would be read.  I truly believe my football story is powerful and moving, and football means the world to me.  I just want to tell my story one way or another.  If this is my only platform, so be it.


THIS IS WHY I LOVE FOOTBALL

In the seventh grade, I made the football cheerleading squad.  Not knowing too much about the game, I started watching college football on weekends and tried to learn the basics of football from the other girls on the squad.  In high school, I continued cheering and started dating a football player. Brian and I would spend Sundays watching games with his family.  He taught me not just about downs and player positions, but also about Papa Bear Halas, Walter Payton, and the Superbowl Shuffle.  The boy bled blue and orange, and quickly converted me into a Bears fan.

My last Bears game with Brian
Once we got to college, Brian and I had our own weekend ritual during football season.  I would stay in his dorm room on Saturday nights, we’d have a frozen pizza for dinner, and on Sundays we would sleep in as late as we possibly could while allowing time to hit the cafeteria and be back in time for the noon kickoff. 

A few years later, Brian and I got married.  By that point, I was as big a Bears fan as he was.  My "something blue" on our wedding day was a Chicago Bears garter.

In our first home, we converted our basement into a Chicago Bears bar - the Boka Bear Den (Boka being our last name). We filled the walls with banners and memorabilia, down to the Bears keg tapper.  We loved having parties for Bears games and also cherished our annual trip with “Da Tailgating Crew” from Des Moines to Soldier Field for a game.  My favorite memory at Soldier Field was witnessing Devin Hester return two touchdowns one frigid Chicago night to help the Bears defeat the Broncos in overtime.  Whether at home or at the stadium, we loved watching football together.

Tattoo tribute
Tragically, after five years of marriage, Brian passed away suddenly of a pulmonary embolism.  As friends and family filled my house that cold Sunday in January, we turned on the television to the playoff games.  As his brother said, it wouldn't be right to be at our house and not be watching football.  I don't really remember much of that postseason, but I do remember the way our friends, family, and the members of his fantasy football league came together to support me.  I had a Superbowl party at our house less than a month after his passing because we always had one and that's what he would have wanted.  That fall, I hosted the annual draft for the fantasy league that he founded eight years prior.  I was honored to be given Brian’s place in the league, as a player and as the commissioner.  That year, we had the trophy named in his honor.

In time, I decided to start anew.  I moved 1,000 miles away to Austin, Texas.  I wasn't going to abandon my team, though, or my husband's memory.  I got a tattoo in remembrance of Brian -- a Chicago Bears "C" set against a shamrock background -- a tribute to the big, Irish guy who made me love football and whose mark on my life would never fade away.  I remained active in his fantasy league, too, and won the trophy that had eluded him for over a decade.  I went on our annual trip to Soldier Field with our friends, and we celebrated a bittersweet victory without him. 
First Bengals game with Sheldon

Eventually, I met another Midwest-to-Texas transplant.  Sheldon was from Cincinnati, but lived in San Antonio.  We began dating, and one of the first times I visited him was for the 2011 Superbowl…in part because he had a better TV than any of my friends.  One Sunday, watching football together on the couch, he told me how much he loved that I was a fan of the game.  He enjoyed watching me me and liked that I didn't feel ignored on Sundays (because I, too, was on my laptop, following fantasy scores and the Bears game blog).  For my part, I was just glad he wasn’t a Packers fan!

This summer, Sheldon and I got married. Now I’m in two fantasy leagues – one started by my late husband, and one founded and run by my current husband – and I dream of winning both trophies in the same year. 

First playoff game - in Houston!  (Tank top in January?! Okay!)
While I’m no longer able to make an annual trek to Soldier Field, Sheldon and I see our teams whenever they play in Texas -- we gleefully watched the Bears destroy the Cowboys in Dallas last season, and been crushed by Bengals playoff losses in Houston the past two years.  We also catch Bengals games when we visit his friends and family in Cincinnati. These game day experiences together have given birth to a dream of ours to see a game in every NFL stadium.  This fall, we were able to cross Mile High off our list. 

Ready to see my fantasy QB in Denver!
Rooting for a different team than my husband is something new, but it has its perks.  When the Bears and Bengals played earlier this year, the result was not just a Bears victory, but also that I got out of laundry for two weeks!  For the most part, though, we enjoy getting to have two teams to root for, giving us twice the chances to celebrate a win.

The past four years of my life have been filled with ups and downs, awful times and joyous moments.  One of the things that got me through it all was football. Football provided a distraction when one was needed, an opportunity for my friends to surround me with love, fond memories of my time with Brian, and fertile ground for new love to take root. Football made me the person I am today and the person Sheldon fell in love with.  I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without football, and I love football for that.





Monday, November 11, 2013

And Miles to go Before I Sleep

My car hit 100,000 miles recently.  And by "my car," I mean the Mitsubishi SUV that used to belong to Brian.  The car we took to Austin on our last trip there together, about 10 months before he died.  The first, and only, brand new car he ever bought.  It wasn't even paid off when he died, and had about half as many miles then as it does now.  I've put my fair share on with many trips between Iowa and Texas, plus miles accrued showing houses and driving between Austin and San Antone.

The car's been good to me.  I've had a few fender-benders in it, but she's in good shape overall.  It's a little messier inside than Brian would have kept it, but that's okay; he wouldn't have really liked me driving it at all anyway.  I did clean it out pretty thoroughly, complete with vacuuming, and then got it washed just before I hit the 100K mark.  That was in part because of my awareness of how he would have kept the vehicle himself, and in part because it had gotten way too messy for my own standards.

Sheldon got a new truck recently.  Before that, he'd been talking about getting me a better car.  He keeps saying that when we have kids, he wants to have them in the best, safest vehicle possible.  He wants to spoil me and have me live and drive as comfortably as possible.  I keep telling him I don't need or necessarily even want a new vehicle.  So now he got himself one, and maybe we'll revisit the idea of me getting a new car down the road (haha) a ways, when his truck is paid off (I hate the idea of having more than one car payment).  I still don't know if I will ever be ready to get rid of the Mitsubishi though -- I have a definite emotional connection, besides just loving its utility.  It can fit a lot of stuff, drives well, has been solid mechanically.  I like how high up I sit while driving it.  I also love the Bears helmet bobble head guy hanging from the rear view mirror, left behind by Brian and now festooned with pins from my yoga studio and skeeball league in Austin.

I know someday it won't make sense for me to keep this car….but I'm just glad that day is not today.  


Monday, October 28, 2013

The Big D's

No, this isn't a post about my breasts, although 2 out of 2 husbands would agree...my chest is blog-worthy.  If you're looking for boobie jokes, though, I recommend my friend Kristen's blog:  http://seekatzblog.blogspot.com.  (You might notice her top blog post is, in fact, about having sizeable chest melons.)

Of course, my blog is less about dirty, witty humor and more about grief, struggle, and deep emotional issues.  You know, the kind of thing that really makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.  So the big D's referred to in this post's title are....drumroll, please....Death and Divorce.  Fun, right?  I'm sure you can't wait to dive right in!

When I was a new widow, I was desperate to find tools to help me cope with my loss and profound grief.  I devoured books about grief, I struggled through some intensely painful sessions with a grief counselor (which helped as much as or more than they hurt), I joined an online community for widows and widowers for virtual support, and I went to a handful of grief support group meetings.  At these meetings, I struggled to find people like me.  Of course, in some ways, the experience of losing a spouse is universal - the loneliness, the loss of a life plan, the questions over things like whether to wear a wedding ring and what to say when people ask about your spouse.  Yet, being so young, I was not the typical case.  I wanted to find others who would relate to me more closely, so shortly after moving to Austin, I posted a couple times on different websites looking to form a group of young people dealing with grief.  Only a couple people replied, not enough to form a group, so that idea fizzled out relatively quickly.  One of the responses, though, was from a young woman whose long-time partner had left her, and she was grieving the end of the relationship.  She wanted to join a support group to help her cope with this.  I don't honestly remember if I replied to her email or not, given the general lakc of interest I found, but I knew I wasn't interested in being in a support group with her.  I couldn't bring myself to compare our experiences, or to think that we were going through the same thing.  I mean, she was going through a break-up, and I was a widow.  She was dealing with life, and I was dealing with death.  I certainly felt bad for her, but also was almost offended that she reached out to me.  At that point, though, I was really looking for someone who had walked a mile in my shoes, and she hadn't.

A few months later, I became good friends with a woman named Heather, who started to read my blog as a way to cope with her sense of loss after going through a divorce.  Coincidentally, she moved to Austin to heal, just like I had.  She was very careful about choosing her words when she talked about how my blog had helped her, and made a point to say she knew that our experiences didn't really compare.  Still, in that first conversation with her, I realized that we were going through some of the same feelings and emotional aftermath as a result of our experiences, different as those might have been.

Since then, I've had several friends and family members who've gone through divorces.  At first, you'd think that death and divorce are very different experiences.  And they are -- especially if the divorce is mutually agreed upon, or if you're talking about the party who wanted the divorce.  But for those whose spouses made the unilateral decision that they wanted out of the marriage (or long-term relationship), our experiences are more similar than you'd think.  Sadly, I've had several friends in this boat in the last few years -- their worlds, their lives, their futures upended and taken away, sometimes suddenly and sometimes painstakingly over months or years.  None of us chose to have our spouses leave us.  None of us wanted to divert our life paths.  None of us wanted to be alone.  We all had to grieve the loss of our partner and mourn the fact that the future, the life, the plans we had will not happen.

That being said, it is NOT a good idea to say to a new widow or widower, "I know how you feel.  When I got divorced..."  This would not have sat well with me when I was in the depth of my grief, and is not very sensitive to that person who is in so much pain.  You'll just look like an asshole, because it's not the same.  Tread very carefully when saying you know how someone feels because you went through an entirely different situation (this applies to everything not just taking to widows and widowers).  I used to be quite offended when people who were divorced would compare our experiences.  I thought, "That's so different!  In a divorce, someone made the choice for that to happen.  Neither of us chose for Brian to die.  God made that happen to us, not either of us.  We were happy."   Still, in time I started to see some similarities, and this was in part because I was witness to several unwanted divorces.  In each case, it helped that my friends recognized that although we went through some of the same things, our experiences were different.  They were all very good at saying, "This is nothing like what you went through, but..."  And then I would say something along the lines of, "I know it is different, but I also know some of the feelings that result are the same."

In sharing our experiences as friends, we can acknowledge the similarities and differences in our experiences and the feelings we have.  I have come to realize that while both are very traumatic and painful, death and divorce present different challenges.

If you get divorced, you lack the finality of death.  In my case, Brian's body stopped working when he died.  Science dictated that he was physically gone.  No one and nothing could change that.  From that moment on, the grief began, and then the healing.  In a divorce, things aren't so cut and dried.  A lot of people end up second-guessing themselves, and sometimes a couple will give things another try, even in the midst of or after the divorce proceedings.  There is no metaphysical barrier preventing you from working on the relationship, even if it seems dead.  This can delay the realization that a relationship, a life as one knew it, is over.  It can keep a person focused on rekindling the relationship and prevent them from mourning its demise.  With a living ex-partner, there is also much more room for anger.  Of course, it is normal for a grieving widow or widower to have anger -- not just at God, but also at their departed spouse for leaving them (not all emotions are rational, after all) -- but the fact is that for divorcees, this anger is more rooted in reality and can easily be fed by nasty divorce proceedings and ongoing issues between the parties, particularly if they have children together.  Simply put, death is more of a clean break than divorce.  The bandage gets ripped off, and then you start to heal.  With divorce, the bandage is slo-o-wly removed, maybe put back on after you peek at the wound, maybe replaced, before it is eventually taken off.  Only then can the recovery begin.

Finality of loss is a double-edged sword, however.  One of the hardest things to accept in coping with death is knowing that you will never EVER hear that person's voice or laugh again, that they are truly gone from your life on this earth.  That is a hard realization, and one that you never have to embrace if you're mourning the loss of a relationship and not the loss of your spouse's life.  It is hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this person you loved and spent your life with does not exist anymore and is gone from this world.  

Related to that is the fact that death will almost invariably cause you to examine your spiritual beliefs.  When someone you love is gone, you wonder where they are, if they are with you, whether they are in a better place, etc.  You might question everything you've ever been taught, you might be sick with anxiety over the soul of the departed, you might find faith anew in signs from beyond.  Whatever your experience, death takes you down this journey whether you intended to think about such things or not.  You can remain blissfully ignorant or choose to not worry about such things if you're divorced, because you don't have that feeling of responsibility for or a vested interest in the soul of someone who has left the physical world.

Another difference is in the way death and divorce are treated by the rest of the world.  Divorce carries a stigma and shame, while being a widow or widower causes people to bestow a strange mixture of pity and admiration on you.  I was praised so much for being so "brave" and "strong," yet I don't see how I've done anything praise-worthy.  Bravery is choosing to face daunting odds -- running into a burning house to save the children inside, rescuing a dog whose fallen through the ice into freezing cold water, etc.  I just lived the life I was given; I'm no hero.  I simply did what I had to do.  What else could I do?  On the other hand, the rules about how to move on are clearer for divorced folks.  It's assumed that you'll date again and go on with life.  You probably won't cry on your new partner's shoulder when an ex-husband's birthday rolls around, but you very well might do that on your late spouse's birthday.  By the same token, only one of those is socially acceptable, so at least a widow can continue to grieve and heal while forging a new relationship.  It might be that dating divorcees feel more pressure to keep their residual pain and emotional hang-ups hidden from new partners.

I could go on and on about these losses, how they are similar and how they are different.  I will say that there are many similarities in how someone who chooses neither reacts when life hands them one of these anyway.  I have had conversations with other widows and with divorcees about our feelings of loss, about how to cope with being suddenly alone, about having to grieve the futures we thought we were going to have, about how to re-enter the dating world as adults who never thought we'd be there again, etc.  I think my experience has given me an insight on what my friends were going through, no matter the reason they were there.  Although our experiences were different, some of our feelings were the same.  We are all trying to walk the path of recovery, healing, and finding happiness again.  In doing so, we have strengthened our resolve, our friendships, our emotional intelligence and our ability to support each other in hard times.  What hasn't killed us has made us stronger.  

It's easy to get caught up in our differences, but sometimes it turns out that our similarities are stronger than they appear.  Rather than worry about who has had it worse or whose pain was greater (How does one quantify that anyway?  And why would you want to?), I have come to see that the path I've walked has made me a more empathic, compassionate person and I can relate to people a lot more than I could before.  Having walked with pain and grief, I know what it is like and I know that, regardless of the source of one's woes, you can come out stronger and better for it.

How have you dismissed someone's pain and hurt because you think you had it worse?  Is it possible your experiences are more similar than you care to admit?  If you focus on how people are feeling rather than the outward cause of their pain, you'll come to find that heartache and loss are the same for everyone.  Sharing feelings doesn't have to be a competitive game of who has it the worst; instead, it should be about drawing on your own experiences to help you be compassionate and understand toward others who are hurting.  




Monday, October 14, 2013

Contrary to Popular Opinion

I've been struggling with some thoughts or experiences I've been having lately, and I think this is part of the reason I haven't been blogging as much (that, and planning a wedding takes a lot of time!).  The reality is that I'm no longer struggling with how to manage my grief, but how to life my life and move forward.  It's a different phase of widowhood, and in some ways, it's hard to acknowledge these experiences and feelings.

I've worried about how or whether to share everything.  I think about what other people will say or think - especially Brian's friends and relatives.  Still, I started writing as a way to not only process my emotions and experiences, but also to share my journey with others who are in my shoes, to let them know that what they are feeling is normal.  I feel like I'd be disingenuous if I didn't share some of these things that have been rolling around my head, things I've been afraid to write about for fear of being seen as a bad person or a less-than-admirable widow.  I've wrestled with these fears and with the thought that I want to be sensitive to others who grieve Brian's death, but I've decided that it's time to share more about my journey now, in the interest of full disclosure.  I know there are other widows and widowers who read this blog and who, like myself, are years out from their loss and who are navigating life and love in a different way than they were when the loss was fresh.  I have to keep reporting from the field for them as well as for myself, so here goes....

Sometimes I will go an entire day, or more, without thinking about Brian.  He is forever embedded in my soul and in that way, he is with me every moment of every day.  That being said, I don't necessarily miss him or talk to him every single day.  People tend to say things like, "Not a day goes by that I don't miss him and think about him."  That's not the case for me, and I'm sure there are a lot of people in my shoes who would agree.  Don't get me wrong -- I think about him a lot, and talk about him freely and frequently.  But it's more in the manner of telling stories about an old friend and recalling memories than it is me mourning his death or longing to see him again.  There is no joy or purpose in doing that, but telling stories keeps his memory alive and makes him a part of my life on an ongoing basis.  In my mind, that is a better way to treat his memory and a healthier thing for me to do.  It's also what he would have wanted.  When he died, I had to mourn the loss of what would not come to be, and one part of that was crying over the fact that we wouldn't grow old with his friends (Hart in particular), telling the same stories of our silly youthful antics that we had already told and re-told a hundred times.  I thought we'd all be old fogies together, telling those same tales.  I realize now that the stories will live on, but now it will be Hart and I telling them to Sheldon.

Another thing that I never thought would happen is that my memories of Brian are fading somewhat.  There have been a few times when I think about a memory of my past and I can't remember if it happened with Brian or with Sheldon, or whether Brian was still alive when a certain thing happened or if it was after he died.  For a long time, everything was starkly divided into two segments of my life:  before Brian died, and after.  Now, the line isn't as sharp.  The other day, Sheldon asked me if Brian had liked a particular food as we cooked dinner together.  I honestly wasn't sure.  I no longer have every preference, every memory, every quirk of his embedded into the surface of my brain and at the top of my mind.

It's weird to admit these things or acknowledge them, but they are part of the inevitable process of time moving forward, my brain getting more crowded, and the significance of the little details fading as the rest of my life unfolds.  I don't remember if he liked bell peppers because it really isn't that important.  I know I'll remember and cherish the most important things, but I'm finally able to see what is and isn't important.  I think when someone dies, you put them on a pedastal for a while and everything connected to them takes on more importance, more than it even did when they were alive -- that's why I struggled to throw away his pomade and toothbrush, when they were things that would have made their way to the trash can without a second thought when he was alive and they were all used up.  Now that the dust has settled a bit, things have fallen back into their natural order a bit more.

Whether I think of Brian consciously or not, whether I remember the small details or not, he is always in my heart and has irreversibly guided the course of my life, from the city I chose to live in to my selection of a new life partner.  I don't have to pretend to conform to certain expectations or ideals of what widowhood is to honor him, and I'm not going to anymore.  Brian valued truth, and it's time for me to share some of the less romantic realities of what my life is now.  This is part of my rebuilding.