Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Turkey Trot

After our week in Iowa for Thanksgiving, I feel like I've run a marathon instead of a typical Turkey Trot fun run.  Unfortunately for my waistline, though, none of our running around consisted of actual running.

Last Tuesday, we flew into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where we had lunch with my friend Emily, an attorney and law school classmate who was my first visitor to Austin after I moved there last winter.  From there, we went to get flowers and visited Brian's gravesite in Muscatine.  That night, we went out for dinner with my parents, my sister, and her boyfriend.  At the restaurant, a high school classmate spotted us from across the room and came over to say hi.  She turned to my boyfriend and said, "You must be Antonio.  I've read all about you."  We joked about how he had a level of celebrity in southeast Iowa before even setting foot there.  That night, my parents' van broke down and my dad got a speeding ticket with all of us in the car while we were driving home from supper.

On Wednesday, we (my parents, Antonio and I) visited LeClaire, Iowa, a scenic town set along the banks of the Mississippi River.  We browsed an antiques shop and visited the Mississippi River Distilling Company ( a distillery there that is run by friends of mine and in which I hold a small percentage of ownership.  We took a tour, enjoyed some samples, and filled up a box of liquor, stickers, pint glasses, and beef straws (yes, beef straws -- I couldn't make this up if I tried:  That evening, my parents had family and friends over for a party at my dad's garage bar (which is more impressive than many actual, open-to-the-public bars I've frequented in my day).  Antonio got to meet grandparents and aunts and uncles from both sides, along with friends of mine (and Brian's) from high school. 

Thursday was Thanksgiving day.  It was a relatively quiet, low-key day.  We ate a very traditional dinner at my parents' house -- turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatos, gravy, stuffing, rolls, etc.  It was just the six of us (again, my parents, little sis & her bf, and us).  When we weren't having our dinner, football was on in the living room for as long as my dad could take it (he prefers old movies to pigskin action so a couple games back-to-back was enough for him).  We went to bed early that night.

On Friday, we woke up early and headed to my in-laws' house for another traditional Thanksgiving feast, with a little college football on the side.  We had dinner with Brian's parents, his brother, his brother's girlfriend and their three daughters.  That afternoon, we drove our bare-bones, rented Chevy Aveo to Des Moines.  We checked into our hotel, then stopped by the home of some friends of mine (formerly "friends of ours," as they were both people I met through Brian).  We spent a little bit of time at their house, catching up and getting to hold their baby boy, who is seven months old.  From there, we met some other friends -- Hart and Sheppard, guys who have visted Texas twice this year and who know Antonio well already -- for sushi and went out in West Des Moines.

Saturday morning, I got a bright and early start to my day while Antonio got to sleep in a bit.  I had an 8:30 coffee meeting with a family friend who, as fate would have it, is 33 years old and was widowed suddenly last year as well.  The time flew by as we talked about loss, death, emotions, in-laws, love, dating as a widow, family, grief, and work in a way that only we could understand.  Before I knew it, more than two hours had passed and we were both running late for our next obligations.  I rushed back to the hotel and picked up Antonio so we could make our lunch date with the Disneys -- parents of my good friend Erin, who lives in Austin now.  The Disneys are like family to me, and they had met Antonio in Austin before, so it was good to see them.  We snapped a picture of Antonio and me holding Erin's nephew, who they were baby-sitting so his parents (Erin's sister and brother-in-law) could join Erin's brother on a Thanksgiving road trip to visit Erin & her husband in Austin.  From there, we went to the home of Jenny and Justin, a couple who were part of my running buddies in Iowa and who came to Austin to run the Livestrong half marathon with me this February.  My Iowa BFF, Kristine (who happens to be Jenny's sister too) and her husband came over, and we all visited for a few hours before Antonio and I had to be off for our evening plans.  We first went to Hart's apartment -- a funky new pad right on the edge of downtown Des Moines.  Shep joined us there and the four of us walked to a nearby bar for a drink, then through Des Moines' sculpture park to the wine bar that served as our meeting point for the evening.  Saturday night, we ended up bar-hopping around downtown with a group that was in excess of 15 people at one point.  We went to a wine bar, a German bar (where we passed around boots of beer), the Miller High Life lounge (an old school lounge-y bar where the most popular shooter is a mixture of Tang and Jaegermeister), a beer-focused bar with hundreds of offerings on tap, and a sports bar. 

On Sunday, we got up and went to the children's hospital where Kristine & Bobby's newborn girl is staying while she receives the remainder of her IV antibiotic treatement for a blood infection.  It was really exciting to see the baby face-to-face; I thought I'd probably be seeing a pregnant bestie the whole weekend instead (Kristine's due date was not until today).  Another good friend, Joy, came to the hospital as well.  From the hospital, it was back to Jenny & Justin's, where more friends gathered for a feast of leftovers and fast food, and more NFL football action.  It was a fantastic Sunday.  Late in the afternoon, we drove back to southeast Iowa so Antonio could meet one more aunt, uncle and cousin who had been out of town earlier in the week. 

Monday was our day to return home.  We had a late flight, so we had time to enjoy morning coffee, then lunch, with my dad before we had to go to the airport.  Sunday night, we got home late and I was glad to sleep in our own bed, with the three kitties all around us.

All in all, it was a good trip.  We saw a ton of friends and family -- around 60 people, with over 50 being new to Antonio, ate a lot of great food, and saw some cool sights.  Antonio got along well with everyone in my family, of course.  We enjoyed our time with Brian's family, as well.  It was strange being at that dining room table for a holiday meal with someone else, but it wasn't bad.  At various points on various evenings, I had friends pull me aside and tell me some combination of three things:  1) I miss Brian; 2) I like "Antonio"; and 3) I'm glad to see you happy.  I agree with all of those.  Antonio saw pictures of Brian almost everywhere we went -- friends and family have pictures of us up from vacations we took together, birthdays, etc.  We told stories about those pictures, and we toasted to Brian, who brought so many of us all together. 

It was also good to spend some time with another young widow.  I was widowed about seven months before her, and a friend commented that she probably really appreciated talking to me.  I responded that I appreciated talking to her.  Just because I've had that title or status longer doesn't mean I know more about it; instead, we can learn from each other.  I think I said things that will help her out and she said things that were good for me to hear.  I have been feeling a lot of anxiety about the holidays and birthdays that are coming up, and we talked about what to do on those days.  It was good to hear someone else's thoughts and approach, and I think I'll have an easier time with my decisions this coming month because of it.

Throughout everything, Antonio was a champ.  He is unfazed by all the talk of Brian; he loves hearing more about him and who he was.  I was scared about going to the cemetary and crying in front of him; he calmly reminded me that he's seen me cry my hardest before and that hasn't scared him away.  He somehow knows just how to act and what to say, and he's not jealous of Brian's memory or intimidated that he can't live up to the ghost of my husband past.  When we drove past our old house, when I pointed out where Brian used to work, when we went to Taco John's because that was Brian's favorite, he was curious about all those things -- my story, my history, my past.  It's a nice feeling to finally bridge that gap between past and present.  Now I feel like the man who I share my present with, and with whom I am planning a wonderful future, really appreciates my past and my background. 

I have a lot to be thankful for this year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Terrible Twos

The holidays are upon us again.  As anyone who has lost someone dear to them can tell you, there is a definite difference in the way you view the impending celebrations and traditions after someone you love dies.  A lot of people will tell you that the hardest part is getting through all the "firsts" -- the first birthday, first anniversary, first set of holidays without your loved one.  I've also read more than one piece of grief literature that suggests the second year is often harder.

This is going to be my second year of being a widow during the holidays.  Last year was awful.  I expect this year to be very difficult as well, though for different reasons.

Last year, I remember crying my eyes out at Easter when my uncle thanked the Lord for our family's blessings during the pre-meal prayer.  I didn't feel particularly blessed or thankful, having been widowed a few months before.  When the winter holidays rolled around -- as well as my birthday and Brian's birthday, both in December -- I had been widowed longer and was beginning to adjust to life without Brian, but I still found little joy in the holidays.  I remember feeling empty, like I was just going through the motions.  I remember feeling so alone on Thanksgiving, despite being surrounded by family.  That night, I couldn't get excited about Black Friday shopping plans.  "I don't even want Christmas to come," I sobbed to one of my aunts.  Still, Christmas came and went.  I attended all of the numerous celebrations hosted by Brian's family and my own, just as we normally would have done.  Though I was in the process of moving to Austin, I planned things so that I would be in Iowa for each family celebration (I traveled something like 8,000 miles that month by car, commercial air, and private flights).  I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Texas, and was able to enjoy spending time with friends and family in Texas, as well as the simple act of waking up in a new apartment on Christmas Day.  I loved that apartment and, to me, it signified that there were good things to come in my life in a new place, even without Brian.

This year, I have someone special to spend the holidays with.  While that is a wonderful thing, it also means things will change, yet again.  It cements the fact that my life has changed forever and that I'm no longer walking the same life path as I was when Brian was alive.  It really drives home the fact that he is gone, that I have to let go of the expectations and plans I had for our lives together.  If he were alive, we'd almost certainly still be in Iowa, and we'd go to all the family celebrations like we always did.

That's not an option for me anymore. If I tried to do all that, I'd have to spend a month shuttling back and forth between Iowa and Texas, and I'd have to ignore Antonio's family in Ohio altogether.  It's just not feasible -- logistically, economically, or emotionally.  Part of me wants to just say, "Forget all this!" and not go anywhere for any of the holidays, to just stay home alone in Texas, enjoying the simple pleasure and sense of peace I feel at home with the cats.  At least that would allow me to wallow in my grief as I see fit, to not feel like I have to mask my complicated feelings beneath a joyful holiday face.  I did a similar thing for my 30th birthday last year, choosing to treat it as simply another day, picking out new living room furniture for my apartment.  I rather enjoyed that.  No expectations, no false front, no disappointment, no hoopla, no unnecessary energy and emotion required.

So what do I do this holiday season?

Well, we are going to Iowa for Thanksgiving.  I haven't been home since summer, and Antonio's never been to Iowa and hasn't met most of my family and friends from up north.  I have a mixture of emotions about this trip.

Of course, I'm looking forward to seeing my family (including Brian's family) and friends, and to visit some of the places I hold dear to me.  I can't wait to show Antonio off to everyone, and to show him how great my place of origin is.

On the other hand, I know it will feel strange to be back in those familiar places, surrounded by familiar faces, with someone who isn't Brian.  I've never been in those places with a man who wasn't Brian, and I know it will be different.  I'm not saying it will be bad -- in fact, I'm looking forward to it -- but it will certainly be different.  I haven't had a "meet the boyfriend" moment with my family since the mid-90s when I brought home the tall, skinny redhead upperclassman I'd just started dating and would eventually marry.  I know they will love him, but I'm a little anxious because it's an unfamiliar situation.

I have to admit, I also worry about introducing him to my in-laws.  I can't imagine what it will be like for them to have me at their family Thanksgiving table with a new man beside me, a man who isn't their son and brother.  Will my nieces understand?  My in-laws are loving and gracious people, and I know Antonio will be welcomed warmly; that is not a concern.  That still does not mean it will be easy, or that it won't feel a little bit strange.

I also worry about Antonio.  I want him to enjoy this trip.  Will he be overwhelmed to meet all "my friends," most of whom were Brian's friends, or "our friends"?  Does he worry about being liked by everyone who loved Brian so deeply?  Will he get sick of hearing me rave about the places we used to go, the things we used to do?  He hates seeing me cry, but I suspect there will be many tears in the week we will spend in Iowa.  Will he hate the trip if I cry too much?  We'll be going to see Brian's grave, which makes me bawl every time I'm there.  I want to show him our old house, my old law firm, and all our old hang-outs.  I loved my life with Brian in Iowa, and I want to show him why.

All of the places and people that used to make up my daily life are now 1,000 miles and one year removed from my current reality.  Will seeing them all again trigger sadness for what I lost?  Will I get overly sentimental and yearn for what no longer is, for what will never again be my life?  I don't know.  I know that one year ago, I couldn't miss my old life as much as I do now, because I wasn't as removed -- I still had possession of my house throughout the holidays, so I was at least in a familiar home during the holidays.  This time, our trip will include a couple nights in a hotel, further cementing the fact that "home" is no longer.

Despite my mixed emotions and complicated feelings, despite my pain, I know I can enjoy the holidays.  I just have to have a plan to deal with emotions when they come up, instead of hoping they won't interfere and being unprepared when ignoring the emotions doesn't work.

First, I have to remember that the past is meant to be remembered with fondless and affection.  Instead of longing for what I no longer have, I need to cherish the fact that I had years of happiness with Brian, and to be grateful and joyous that we had such a wonderful life together in Iowa -- full of friends, family, a wonderful home, great food, and fun.  I can share all that with Antonio, who I know is looking forward to experiencing the places and people that made me who I am.

Second, I need to remember that pain and happiness can co-exist.  While I might feel sad to let go of my old life and my old traditions, I also know that I will enjoy being with Antonio this holiday season.  I can miss Brian and be sad that I might not make it to Iowa for Christmas, but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy myself with Antonio's family in Ohio.  I love his family, and I look forward to spending my first Christmas in Ohio with them. 

Third, I will talk about Brian.  Whether in Iowa, Texas, or Ohio; with my family, my in-laws, or my boyfriend's family.  Brian may be gone, but he is not forgotten.  Sharing good memories about him, telling "Brian stories," and just saying his name all feel good.  Talking about him helps bridge the gap between my old life and my new one.  It is a way to be open to change, to the world, and with my emotions.  If I stifled myself, listened to that tiny inner voice that warns me not to talk about my dead husband too much lest anyone think I'm obsessed with him or unable to move on -- or that worries that people I've just met will think I'm weird or morbid, I would bottle everything up.  That wouldn't be good for anyone.  It would be self-destructive, as it would cause me to feel I couldn't share my past and would make me feel bottled up.  It would also be disrespectful to Brian -- just because he died, doesn't mean he didn't exist.  He doesn't deserve to be exiled to a place of non-mention.  He was a wonderful person -- bright, funny, outgoing, warm, wise, and honest.  He doesn't deserve to have his presence limited to our silent memories; instead, the stories of his life should continue to be told -- for they are a source of laughter, inspiration, and happiness.

I think with these simple rules that I will enjoy this holiday season, even if it turns out to be harder than the last.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Got Me a Fearless Heart

Being a widow is the most painful, horrible, difficult thing I have ever been through, and it’s been harder on me than I could imagine.
And here I am, less than two years out, in a relationship again.  And not just “in a relationship” – I’m in all the way.  I’m in love, hard core, all in.  We share a home, a family, a life.  I’m committed to him.  I've relocated from the city of my dreams so I could be with him, and I plan to start a career here in San Antonio because he is here.  He is the center of my world.  This is how I felt, loved, and lived with Brian.  I know the immense value of what I have now, and I know how easily it can all disappear, without warning, in an instant.   I know how vulnerable I am.  Although highly unlikely, it could all happen again anytime.  I hope if I'm widowed again, that it would be after a long marriage, when I am an old woman with grandchildren who are grown.  But life offers no guarantees.  With a relationship comes risk of heartbreak, and I am now acutely aware of what a risk I am taking. 
Knowing the pain I have carried, I choose to put myself on the line again.  I will risk that torture, that heartbreak, that complete and utter devastation again.  Why?
Because he is worth it.  Because I love him so much.  Because I’m brave.  Or maybe because I'm just too stubborn to let death win.  I’m proud of myself for being able to love again, for not letting fear keep me from finding joy. 
Go forth with a fearless heart.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Run Baby Run!

I'm running a half marathon this weekend -- the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon in San Antonio.  What will make this race different for me -- other than the fact that I haven't trained very well -- is that it will be my first time running with a significant other.  Two of my friends from Austin, Antonio and I will all be participating in this 13.1 mile voyage through the streets of San Antonio, dotted with rock 'n roll acts along the course (the, ahem, "star" of the show is Vince Neil from Motley Crue....let's just hope he's still as good behind the mike as he is at getting himself arrested).

As I've been training with Antonio, I've had a chance to think about how different it is training with a romantic partner.  For one, he's made me a lot faster.  I usually try to keep up with him, even though I don't have to -- he makes a habit of turning back to check on me and looping back to let me catch up and we plan where we will meet up to finish the run together if we get separated.  Another fun thing about running with him is that I enjoy the visual aspect of watching him run ahead of me.  He looks sexy in his sweatband, gym shorts, and headphones.  The stud factor and the positive impact on my training would be reason enough to keep running together, but the big thing is that I just enjoy being with him.  It's great that we can enjoy doing this and being healthy together.  It is fun to discover new ways to spend time and bond with a partner, and this is especially a treat for me because this relationship is the first one I've entered as an adult.

Antonio and I do things together that I've never done with a romantic partner.  In addition to running, we golf together, we've gone fishing, I help him with work sometimes, we share a bathroom, and we cuddle on the couch often (Brian didn't care much for physical affection).  It's interesting -- and wonderful -- to see how different relationships work.  I don't look at it terms of "better" or "worse" -- just different.  After all, it is not just my partner that is different -- I am a different person than I was when I was with Brian.  I'm older, wiser (I hope), and forever changed by having been Brian's wife and by becoming his widow.  Now, as a different person, and as an adult choosing a partner (as opposed to growing into one another the way Brian and I did, as high school sweethearts), it is interesting to see how things unfold.  I'm excited to see what other things we will enjoy together in the future.

Right now, I'm just enjoying the view by his side...or from behind when he's wearing his running clothes. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meet the Parents

Antonio and I recently got back from a trip to Cincinnati, which is where he is from.  We spent a week in Cincy, eating our way through the city's best offerings in the form of Skyline Chili, Frisch's Big Boy bacon cheeseburgers, Montgomery Inn barbeque, and Graeter's ice cream.  (I should also mention that we started exercising more and watching what we ate immediately upon assessing the damage shown by the bathroom scale when we got home!)  In addition to the culinary delights, we got to enjoy the visual splendor of fall's foliage that covered the rolling hills surrounding the beautiful skyline of the Queen City and the banks of the Ohio River.  What a perfect time to experience the city!

More importantly, though, I got to spend a lot of time with Antonio's family.  I had already met his mom and four siblings, but this was just the tip of the iceberg.  I met Antonio's stepdad, uncles, cousins, grandparents, lifelong friends, and more.  We went to his brother's last two high school soccer games, cheered on his QB cousin at a football game, golfed nine holes with another cousin (who, at 13 years old, beat me handily), watched a play put on by the Cincinnati Children's Theater (where his mom works), went to the restaurant where his sister was waiting tables, took another sister shopping and then had "brinner" (breakfast for dinner) for her birthday, picked up all the siblings at school for ice cream, and hosted a ping-pong tournament open to friends and family and that lasted for several hours while NFL football played in the background.

We spent a lot of time with Antonio's family, and it was amazing to watch the way he gets along with everyone in his family.  He is an amazing son, big brother, grandson, cousin, and nephew.  Antonio's family is large, but close.  It reminded me of my family, if we were set in a big city instead of a small town.  His family home, like mine, is within walking distance of other relatives, with more a short drive away.  Maybe this is part of the reason I felt so at home there, like I was with my own family.  I'm sure another part of that is the type of activities we engaged in -- cooking together, going through old photo albums with Antonio's grandma, and running errands with various family members were all in the mix on top of the sporting events and meals out.

Antonio will be coming home with me to Iowa for Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, and I hope he enjoys his visit as much as I enjoyed mine.  I've been making plans for things to do and places to take him in Iowa.  Regardless of what he thinks of the sights and tastes of Iowa, though, the most important thing is that I want him to come home feeling like he's been somewhere he belongs, with people he enjoys, and that he wants to come back.  I want Iowa to feel like home to him the way Ohio felt like home to me.