Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Life of Brian

Tending bar at the Boka Bear Den
Brian would have been 34 today.  I have no question about what we'd be doing for his birthday if he were still alive -- getting together with friends for the Bears/Packers game.  He was the biggest Chicago Bears fan you'd ever meet.  The only question is whether he'd want to go out to a sports bar or have people over to watch in our living room and the "Boka Bear Den"  Bears bar we had in the basement.  Probably the latter, so we could share victory boots of keg beer from the Bears keg-o-rater, and possibly make up some kind of blue or orange shots.   

Shots, anyone?  (Mexico, 2008)
That was Brian.  He was the life of any party, and particularly enjoyed getting quiet people out of their shells.  He was big, loud, funny and smart.  He had a soft side, though, and would cuddle our kitties and speak baby-talk to them.  I'll never forget the day he was petting Ellie on his lap and said, "Oh, you're Daddy's little purr factory."  By the same token, there was a time he referred to someone (not to their face) as a "monkey sack of shit."  He had a knack for stringing together obscenities and insults into hilarious and oft-repeated catch phrases.  He was very smart and had a large vocabulary.  More than anything, his intelligence came in the form of common sense.  He could look at any problem or situation and analyze it quickly, and simply, in a way that would make you think, "Wow, it really is that simple."  He would tell you what he thought whether you liked it or not, and whether it was what you wanted to hear or not.

Life was always more fun with Brian around
At a fundraising gala

Brian was honest, sometimes almost to a fault.  He didn't pull any punches when it came to speaking his mind, and one of his less endearing traits was that he didn't care who he offended with what he said; he valued honesty over feelings.  Still, he had a great way to use his strengths to bring out the best in people and situations.  He fared quite well in business and quickly moved into positions of leadership and authority.  He was a wonderful manager -- he had the ability to improve an organization at its lower levels by bringing out the most in his employees, while he also had a talent for thinking big-picture and improving a company by making sure departments worked together and sharing ideas for change and development in planning meetings with higher-ups.  He took great pride in helping poor performers on his team turn things around, in mentoring team members to prepare them for promotions and career growth, and in being a leader at the office. 

The college days
He was a rock star at ING, where he took on more special projects than any other manager and managed to excel at each one.  He had been identified as a top talent there, becoming a part of a very small group (consisting of 1-3% of employees) who were being groomed for higher management and who would be sent to training and leadership camps around the country.  I would have loved to have seen what he could have done for that company and for himself.  He was savvy enough to convert his bosses' praises into compensation, and always fared well at review time.  He was, simply, a business genius.  He wasn't afraid to ask why things were or weren't done a certain way, wasn't afraid to suggest new things, wasn't afraid to address any elephant in any room, and wasn't afraid to negotiate for the biggest raises and bonuses possible.  After he died, people who had worked for him at other places, many years ago, came to pay tribute and so many people said wonderful things about him.  In a world where many people dislike their bosses, he had raving fans in his employees.

My best friend
Brian had a unique voice.  He didn't like it, but I loved it.  I miss hearing it, though it's in my memories clear as day.  He did some radio work in college, where he was a communications major.  He had a radio show for a semester or two on the campus radio station, and he and his freshman year roommate (who went on to spend a few years in radio for a career) did play-by-play announcing of basketball games for the Simpson Storm.  He also did an internship at the Muscatine radio station, impressing everyone he worked with there.  He loved sports and also did an internship with a sports newspaper in central Iowa.  This came easily to him, as he had written for the Simpsonian, the college newspaper of our liberal arts school.

Brian loved friends, family, food, fun, and life.  Yet he was picky, and had funny tastes.  He disliked fruit in general, and despised berries.  I remember a big fight we had once when he wouldn't take even one bite of a strawberry-rhubarb cake I'd made (that was a labor-intensive dessert, I might add).  He was stubborn; what can I say?  He hated topiaries, barn quilts, and doilies.  He never shied away from telling me if he didn't like an article of clothing or accessory I picked out, either.  He liked my hair best when it was long and I didn't have bangs.

With Picaboo Whiskers Boka, our firstborn :)
Brian loved animals.  He doted on Princess, the dog his family had when I met him, and cried when she died.  Then, he doted on Murphy, the dog his parents never planned to have but couldn't resist when he showed up one day.  He was a wonderful "pet parent" to Picaboo and Ellie, and loved having a kitty on his lap.  He was on the board of directors of a no-kill animal shelter and enjoyed volunteering there as well, with events (dog washing and silent auction fundraisers, for example) and with animal socialization, such as when he worked with a puppy to get him through obedience classes to make him more adoptable.

With our neices, Lily and Lauren
I wonder if we would have had children...if so, I wouldn't be surprised if they had names that harkened back to the Bears -- he always wanted a cat named Walter, but we ended up only having girls.  He was great with kids, a gentle giant, though a bit unsure with babies.  He was afraid of "breaking" them and felt awkward being such a big guy holding someone so tiny.  He didn't know much about babies, either.  When our first niece, Lily, was born, we went to see her in the hospital the day after she was born.  He was holding her and commented, "Look - she already has fingernails!"  I guess he thought those sometimes grew in later, like hair or teeth.  I laughed until I cried....something Brian did a lot.  Once they were kids, he did much better and could relate to them in a special way.  I always was amazed at how well he could connect to my sister and cousins -- he did that with kids and adults, with ease.

Brian could read people like a book.  He had an uncanny gut feeling about people that would prove, time and time again, to be spot on.  If he warned me that someone was sleazy, they usually proved to be just that.  He also had an ability to talk to anyone, to get people to open up, and to get people to leave their comfort zones and grow.

He was never afraid to jump in and sing along...
Brian was passionate about music.  He was not a great musician, though he played trombone in the high school band and started playing guitar in college.  I loved when he would play guitar and sing, even if he wasn't the most advanced player or the best singer out there.  If he was looking at music online, I'd sit on the floor of the home office while he played.  Sometimes, he'd sit on the corner of the bed while I laid there and listened.  He had a three-ring binder and dozens of pages of loose music in his guitar case.  Sometimes, he'd take his guitar and a bottle of red wine to the basement to relax.  Other times, it was a book and a bottle, and he'd play his records down there.

With his good friends at a Reckless Kelly show (Kansas City)
Brian had a great collection of vinyl.  It all started when my boss offered me a stereo system that he was going to get rid of -- we needed a sound system for the basement bar, so I took him up on it.  One of the components of the 1990 Onkyo setup was a record player that had never even been out of the box.  I declined that, but took the rest home.  Once home, Brian and I were unloaded components and getting the system set up when I told him of the LP player that also went with the setup.  He said, "Why didn't you take that?!"  I said, "Because we don't own any records."  ...."So?"  I had to call my boss that night to make sure he didn't throw away the record player, and thus began a record collection.  It was mostly old rock and folk style music that he liked -- Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Alabama, CSNY, etc.  I thank him for introducing me to the likes of James Taylor, Bob Schneider, Jakob Dylan, and the Avett Brothers.  But he hated Anne Murray.  He loved watching music DVDs, just hanging out with friends and acting like there was a concert in our living room.  He spent hundreds of hours with his best friend, Mike Hart, doing this.  They would watch Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, The Band, and Crash Test Dummies.  He could tell you all about what the songs meant, why they were written, and how the musicians got their starts.  He dug deep into music, too -- he knew the real talents and had found the real gems produced by one-hit pop bands like the Dummies or Marcy Playground.  When he loved a song or an artist, he would play a CD or just one song on repeat over and over again.  I didn't mind that when he discovered Mason Jennings, but I never really liked Warron Zevon.  Funny how I don't mind Zevon now...

With his brother, in Jamaica
Brian loved to travel, and always picked beach locations.  He loved snorkeling and was a good swimmer, having spent many years as a lifeguard (and eventually manager) at the Weed Park pool in Muscatine.  I spent one summer baby-sitting while he was a guard and I'd bring the kids to the pool as often as possible.  When it was his break time, he'd jump in and swim and play with me and the kids, teaching the little boys wrestling moves (I remember especially the "European upper-cut").  He loved MMA fighting, and I loved being his guinea pig while he learned and practiced moves -- he could really get me with a figure-four leglock if I didn't pull off a triangle choke first (usually he'd have to sort of let me have that).  Another summer, when he was managing the pool and I was working at Applebee's, I would bring him Taco Bell after my shift was over.  I'd eat Long John Silver's myself.

Post-tequila-shot picture!
Brian loved having parties, and our house in Iowa was perfect for that.  It had a big kitchen overlooking the living room.  There was a formal dining room that was most often used for board game nights and Wine Club gatherings.  Downstairs from the living room was the sports bar, complete with a keg and shelf upon shelf of liquor.  There was a bar and stools, as well as a high-top bar table that converted to a poker table.  We had a tv mounted in the corner and the walls were covered in Bears memorabilia -- banners, flags, signed photographs, mounted cards (the Walter Payton rookie card being the prize among them), and posters.  We had a nicely sized fenced-in yard, perfect for bags and bocce.  We never did get the hot tub running though -- something that I predicted when we took it (one of those "free" but broken situations).  All we did was spend a few hundred dollars for a new cover, and never did get the broken parts replaced.  Sometimes home projects slipped to the bottom of the list, behind a 50-60 workweek and at least twice-weekly socializing.  We had a great social life -- parties and nights out all the time.  Even our wedding was planned around one idea -- it had to be the biggest party reception we could arrange, with late-night snacks to stem the tide of alcohol, and a DJ that played til 2:00 am (including some last-minute "Chug-A-Lug" karaoke performed by the groom himself...and no, the DJ did not even have a karaoke machine; Brian just asked him for the mic).  We loved hosting the "Boka and Friends" fantasy football draft at our dining room table every year.  He was commissioner of the league, which has been going strong for 10 years now, always with a waiting list of guys wanting to join.  
The League
I'm proud to say this one-time Vanna-esque sticker girl/beer bitch is now the champion of the league and that the Brian Boka trophy is on my mantel.  A fantasy championship in this league is something he never attained, though he would usually have more points than anyone else -- it's just that every week, his opponent would pull off a miracle win by having players with career and season-high stats against Brian.  He loved the frustration of it, though, and all the trash-talk among the league.  I try to keep that tradition alive as well, even though this year I crashed and burned fantastically (thanks, Cam Newton).

With his best friend Mike
It's no surprise that people stayed in his fantasy football league -- if you were a friend of Brian Boka, you would stay that.  He was fiercly loyal to his friends, and that sentiment went both ways.  When he made a friend, it stuck.  He had the same best friend for 25 years -- he and Hart became buds in first grade, and I have no doubt they would have been best friends for 50 years if fate had allowed it.  They were more like brothers.  He was also very close with other childhood and high school friends, as well as college and work friends.  He had many close friends from every phase of his life.  Many people would name him as their best friend, and it was not uncommon for him to be a sort of big brother and friend to anyone who needed an ear to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to have a beer with.  As fun-loving as he was, he was there for the serious stuff too, and was often the one people would turn to in times of crisis or struggle.  I miss his advice, his insights, his wisdom.
Hart's 30th birthday -- sometimes they'd kind of dress alike unwittingly
Words that describe Brian are funny, loud, big, lovable, honest, fun-loving, stubborn, smart, intuitive, tender, perverted, extroverted, indulgent, insecure, crass, leader, pragmatic, inspirational, goofy, and true to himself.  He was someone who would push boundaries and was boisterous and provocative enough to almost get in trouble, but instead would always get away with it.  He was a rambunctious little boy, always getting into fights with his brother (that continued into high school, when he worked for his brother for a while) and finding ways to avoid trouble while doing things that should have gotten him some with his friends.

I can't sum up a person and his entire life with one blog entry, and I'm sure I'm leaving out hundreds of words and anecdotes that would more fully paint the picture of Brian Boka.  He was true to himself and sought to bring out the best in everyone around him.  He forever changed me, made me a better person, and shaped me into the football-loving, music-appreciating, dirty-joke-telling woman I am today.

I miss you, Brian Steven Boka.  I love you.  Thank you for sharing your life with me.

Our wedding day -- 06.19.04

Our 5 year anniversary party at our home in Iowa



Thursday, December 13, 2012

What's In a Name?

I have never slipped and called Sheldon "Brian," though lately, I've done it in my head a few times.  I'll go to say something to him and I have to mentally make sure that "Brian" doesn't come out of my mouth.  I'm sure part of that is that we have a friend named Brian who spends a lot of time at our house and, indeed, I find I'm more likely to feel the potential for a slip of the tongue when he is around.  It's weird -- I don't think Sheldon would get mad if that came out, and I would say it's actually a complement.  I think I feel the possibility of this happening because the comfort level between us is so great, and because our life together is so "old hat."  Our year-plus of living together has gotten to the point that it feels totally natural, and like something that has just always been the case.  He is very different from Brian, and our relationship is quite different too, but the familiar feeling is the same.  I think feeling that way has caused my brain to circuit into its habits from when I used to feel that way.  Much as Brian and I used to have our routines, so do Sheldon and I.  Just as Brian and I used to have inside jokes, and could communicate our thoughts with a split-second glance, so do Sheldon and I.  We are best friends, we share our thoughts and fears, our judgments and opinions. 

There is a level of comfort, a level of love, a level of "home" that you feel with a partner, and that's where we are.  It's something that takes time to develop, to unfold.  It happens while you brush your teeth together, while you fall asleep intertwined with someone over and over, while you start sharing the same language and meals, while you let your guard down more and more until you don't care if that person catches you picking your nose or hears you singing in the shower.  It is when you stop feeling like people who live together (with cats) and start feeling like one family unit.  This is where we are, and in some ways it takes me back to when I had that before with Brian.  The details of our lives are different, but the feeling is the same.  And sometimes it makes me go on "autopilot" and almost makes me say the old familiar name I spent so many years saying in that context.

I also worry that when I'm older, if I end up suffering from some affliction that confuses my senses, that I will resort back to that name, or that it will come out from time to time.  What if I'm an old woman asking for my husband, Brian?  How will that make Sheldon feel?  I know this -- it wouldn't mean I love him any less, just as my close calls now don't mean that.  In a way, it's like a mother who calls her children by the wrong names (we've all heard some version of this), running through them until she reaches the appropriate name.  It doesn't speak at all to who she loves more (as though there is any competition of the sort!) -- it means she view them similarly, and that talking to one is like talking to another.  She gets the same warm, loving feeling from all her kids, and sometimes the brain and tongue don't work well together to get the correct names and words out.  I feel the same way about Brian and Sheldon.

The name "Brian" is wrapped in love and comfort for me, and stands for a partner and friend.  Sheldon makes me feel all those things, too, and that's where my brain and tongue sometimes get tied up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Road

"It's the best of times, and the worst of times." -- My therapist, today

Today was a tearful session.  My therapist told me that she's very busy this time of year, and that it's the "best of times" for her because it was the "worst of times" for everyone else.  That sounds sick, but I swear the comment was funny because it was delivered with an awareness of how dark it sounded.  Okay, so I'm struggling right now, but I'm not alone.

These months, and this year, brings a lot to the table.  Last month, the day went by that marked 10 years from when Brian proposed to me.  I never would have imagined that my life would have taken a full circle of a detour and put me back into the same place -- cohabitating with a boyfriend, childless, and working on a path to my intended legal career.  But alas, what I thought was a path to one destination was really a much longer and more winding road to somewhere else entirely.  (I'm happy to say that, while it wasn't where I thought I'd be, I quite like where I've landed.)

There are the holidays themselves, of course, too.  Christmas, New Year's Eve.  There are the normal feelings of wanting to see everyone and balance time between immediate and extended families, though my situation is somewhat unique in that "family" includes three sets -- mine, my late husband's, and my boyfriend's.  Sheldon will be meeting Brian's extended family -- grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. this year.  I have no worries about families blending, though, and we are fortunate enough to be able to take off enough time to see everyone, so while things may be hectic, at least we will be able to join all the celebrations and enjoy the company of so many that we love.  The only downside is that I'm already having anxiety about gift-giving, packing and shipping.  I'm going to have to face this soon, and just start making lists and tackling tasks.

Again, not so bad.  Brian and I used to spend weeks criss-crossing Iowa to see everyone and attend every family celebration, company party, and friendly holiday cocktail parties; it could be exhausting, but I always tried to remind him that, if our biggest complaint was that we had too many holiday events, it was simply a reflection of how much love we had in our lives.  I can't imagine what he'd think of me adding another family and another entire state to the equation, and doing it all from a distance to boot!

No, there's more.  Brian would have been 34 this month.  I will be turning 32, one year older than he ever got to be.  This will be the first time I have a birthday that he didn't get. 

January doesn't get too much easier.  We started dating in early January (1996).  He died in mid-January.  It will be three years this year.  It was two years ago this month that I said good-bye to our home in Iowa and packed up to move to Texas.

This is a lot to get through in the next five or six weeks.  It's going to be a long holiday road.  Of course, I guess there's more scenery to enjoy on the longer roads, and the destination can be unexpectedly fantastic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Good Shtuff

Read the most recent couple of posts.  Good stuff.  I have wise and wonderful friends.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Am I Losing My Mind? Am I Going Backwards in Time?

I had a tough day yesterday.  It all started when Brian died.  Let me explain...

I have been trying to get licensed to practice law in Texas.  The ultimate plan is for me to do some freelance legal work (writing appeal briefs -- something I relish and most lawyers loath) and continue doing real estate as a paying hobby, working with family, friends, and referrals.  I love real estate, but I'm not crazy about the prospecting aspect of it -- calling FSBOs (For Sale By Owners) to try to convince them to list with me, hosting open houses for other agents to try to scoop up unrepresented buyers, setting up booths at trade shows, managing email databases of prospects, etc.  Some agents do cold calls, door knocking, and even go to malls to approach strangers with business cards.  Not my cup of tea.  I love helping people find the right home, helping them negotiate a fair price, helping them through all the steps of the transaction, explaining all the contracts and documents, etc.  I don't love competing with other agents for listings, trying to convince people why I'm the best agent to use, soliciting business from strangers, etc.  It is hard to make a living as an agent without doing all those things, but it's not hard to be a great agent who is fully dedicated to a small number of clients and who makes a little bit of money doing something she loves.

My plan, then, is to be a "boutique agent" who focuses on quality, not quantity and target numbers for number of appointments I can set in a given week or month.  I can do this by also doing some freelance legal work.  The beauty is that I can do the legal work from home, as well as a good deal of the real estate work (the searching, setting up appointments, phone calls, document preparation).  Being able to work from home and being able to largely control which days and hours I work would be ideal for raising a family, something that is on the horizon for us (though not the immediate horizon -- no big announcements yet!).

Yesterday, I put together a couple more documents that the Texas Board of Law Examiners needed to process my application.  One was my 2010 tax return and one was an order from the Arizona Supreme Court accepting my resignation of membership in that state's bar (I am not planning to practice there, so there is no point in paying the dues required to maintain membership...but I needed to follow a certain process to have that treated as resignation and not suspension.  Now that has been taken care of in a satisfactory manner).  What I didn't have was my 2006 tax return.  When I was putting together my (rather large) package of materials for the Board, I realized this was missing.  I submitted the spare copy of my W-2 for that year, which I did have for some reason, and explained that I had filed taxes in 2006 but could not locate the return, and that the W-2 and my employment references would be able to verify my full-time employment as an attorney for that year.  After placing a follow-up call to the Board yesterday, I was told that I would have to request the tax return from the IRS.  The woman I spoke to couldn't tell me why the return itself was necessary (they have copies of all the other years from 2005-2010), given the other proof of income and employment I furnished, but did at least tell me that my application *might* be considered without the tax return if I submitted proof that I've requested it.  One hundred fourteen dollars and two IRS forms later, the return has been requested and I've sent proof of that to the Board.  The tax return might take 60 days to receive.  I was also told that the Board of Law Examiners has 150 days to consider my application before it has to make a decision.  That puts us in February before I expect to know anything.  I submitted my application (the first time) in September, after spending months completing the application, tracking down and collecting documents (which included my high school cheer coach mailing me the only copy of my old business card anyone seemed to have), and ensuring I had up-to-date phone numbers and addresses for all my dozens of references.

It has been a long, drawn-out process, and I expected to have some answers or resolution by now.  Instead, there will be more waiting.  And it's out of my hands.

I don't like the fact that this is out of my control.  I don't like that the IRS is involved -- I inherently distrust and dislike them, and even having to fill out forms requesting old returns and having to copy my 2010 return (the one with the word "DECEASED" in all-caps prominently next to Brian's name) made me cry, tears of frustration and sadness and rage at the process and the red tape.  Why does this all have to be so difficult?!  Why is it taking so long for all these things in my life to come together?  I have had this idea and plan of what I want for so long, and now I'm just waiting -- waiting for the IRS to send me copies of a tax return that's more than a half-centry old. waiting for the Texas Board of Law Examiners to decide my fate, waiting to know if I'll have to take another bar exam, waiting to get my professional life to where I want it, waiting to get married and have kids, waiting....

And then I started thinking about what I've done with the last year of my life.  Today, I see it more clearly and can appreciate some of the non-Christmas-card items I've done, like writing this blog and having heart-to-hearts with hurting, grieving people.  But yesterday, I broke down, upset that I've only sold a few houses and haven't put all the pieces together like I thought I would have by now.  I'm getting impatient.

Then, I started thinking about the "what if"s that I usually avoid....Where would I be if Brian hadn't died?  Would I be a partner at my old firm?  Would we have two kids?  Would they be redheads?  Would my social life be better, full of all my friends that are now 1,000 miles away?  Would we have upgraded to a four-bedroom house with granite countertops?  Would we be able to spend vacation days at tropical resorts instead of returning home to see family?

I know all of these things make it sound like I'm miserable and unhappy with my life now, but I'm not.  That's the thing.  I just had a lousy day and I let it get the best of me.  I just could not stem the tide of tears yesterday.  It wasn't because I am unhappy with my life -- it was because I was frustrated and upset with a few things, and then some other issues came spilling out.  I don't grieve too much for what "could have been" anymore, but it happens every now and then.  Yesterday was one of those days.  They are few and far between, and get to be fewer and farther between as time goes on, but they still happen.  The good thing is that I was able to share all of this with Sheldon and just having an ear to talk to and a shoulder to cry on, and arms to hold me tight, made me feel better.  It can be a tough walk, to acknowledge these feelings and be honest about them, but also to make sure I don't offend Sheldon by making him feel that I don't love him and our life together.  I explained that, and somehow he handles it all well and keeps it in perspective.  A bad day here and there is nothing compared to our usual routine of happiness, kisses, and counting our blessings.  He knows I am happy, even if I have those "widow days" now and again.  We also know we can and will get through them.

Yesterday was a bad today.  Today is better.  Life goes on.  I will go on, and I will do so with a smile on my face, appreciating the wonderful things and people I have in my life.  As for the IRS and red tape I have to deal with....well, I hope to learn a thing or two about patience and persistence from all this.  There are lessons to be learned from everything, and goodness can come out of anything.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Friday Night Lights

We had a pretty uneventful weekend for a change last weekend....well, at least that is how we thought it would be.  The highlight was to be a party our neighbors had on Saturday night.  They are great neighbors, always there to baby-sit the cats when we go out of town, to lend tools or a helping hand - you name it.  When we have parties, it's not unusual for Leroy to wake up in the wee hours to start preparing barbequed meats to bring over.  This time, we were the ones planning to return the favor by making trays of goodies and lending our keg-o-rator and yard games to the cause.

Knowing this was ahead, and relishing a little bit of down time, we took it easy on Friday night.  A friend came over for games and left around midnight.  Sheldon went to bed a bit before me, and I ended up falling asleep on the couch with the TV on (a guilty pleasure).

Just after 2:00 am, I awoke and decided to turn off the TV and head to bed.  When I turned the TV off, I heard a woman's screams coming from outside the house.  My heart started pounding.  I peered through the windows and the front door -- nothing.  I put my ear to the door and heard her screaming more.  I could tell she was yelling at someone, that there were words to the shrieks.  I opened the front door and stepped outside.  Then, the words became clear.  Over and over I heard her scream, "What did you do?  Oh God, what did you do?"  Now my heart was really pumping.

I looked around, still bleary-eyed from my slumber, and saw a woman in the driveway next door (not where cat-sitter Carol and handyman Leroy live; the other side).  She was the one screaming, but I couldn't see anything else.  There was a car halfway in the garage, like someone was getting ready to drive away.  I didn't understand what was happening, but I knew something was very, very wrong.  I felt like I should call 911, but had no idea what to report.  I felt sick to my stomach, thinking the words "What did you do?" maybe meant someone had killed someone, or themselves.

Afraid and confused, I went back inside and woke up Sheldon.  We spent the next few minutes trying to make heads and tails out of what exactly was going on.  Then we heard the sirens and saw the lights.  Immediately, there were two fire trucks and an emergency vehicle parked in front of our house, and a spotlight being shone around. 

Seeing the emergency lights in front of our house sent me reeling.  The last time there were flashing lights in front of my house, my husband was taken away dead on a gurney.  I've never been able to see the lights of an ambulance without having a flashback to that awful day.  If I'm driving and see one, I try to look away so it is only in the corner of my eye.  Seeing them in that kind of momentary setting is one thing -- my heart races, my chest gets tight, and then it passes and I can slowly come back to reality and normalcy.  Having it parked in front of my house was dreadful.  I was in tears and felt physically ill.  My head was spinning and my heart was pounding for what seemed like an eternity.  Sheldon went out to see what was going on.  I couldn't stick it out alone in the house -- it felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I needed him next to me.  I went outside and learned what had happened -- someone had driven into our neighbor's driveway, through the closed garage door, and halfway into their house.  As it turned out, it was their other next-door neighbor (who lives two houses down from us) who had done that, apparently drunk and confused about where he lived and which pedal was which in the car.  He plowed into their garage, hitting both of their vehicles, pushing their truck through the wall into their master bedroom.  Before going back inside, we made sure to find out whether everyone was okay (remarkably, despite the wall being pushed up nearly flush with the bed, and with debris everywhere, both our neighbors escaped unscathed).  I'm sure other neighbors on the scene wondered why I was holding my chest and practically mute, and why my face was so particularly panic-striken.

Once inside, I still could not get my body to calm down for a long time.  Sheldon went back to bed fairly quickly, but I literally had to pace around the living room and force myself to breathe slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  It took time to get myself physically under control.  Finally, I was able to go to bed.  Still, I was up pretty early and that scene was the first thing I thought about.  Before I was even dressed in daytime clothes, I went outside to see things in the light of day and to verify with my own eyes what had happened and that everyone was okay.  I had to give our neighbors a hug right away -- it was like I needed to physically hold them near my body to make it believe that, yes, everything really was okay.  Only then could I feel normal again.

That morning and afternoon, we checked in with our affected neighbors (Arnold and Juanita) several times to see what help we could offer.  We made cookies for them and the handymen who were at work immediately cleaning up debris and boarding up the car-sized hole in their house.  Eventually, Saturday turned into a day more closely resembling the one we anticipated -- making dip, cleaning up the house, etc.  Our other neighbors went forward with their party that evening, and a good time was had by all.  Still, it ended up not being the biggest excitement of the weekend like we thought.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Update

I have another post coming soon (not today) about things falling into place...looking forward to that one too.

In the meantime, just FYI -- I had another conference call with the IRS today.  Two, actually.  The first time, my accountant Jason (see his blog here: and I called and were on the phone for a total of 30 minutes before being informed that the person who we were speaking with couldn't access our file because her system was down.  We could try calling again and hope we got a representative in another location whose system was working.  No guarantees though.

So we called again.  This time, they told us we need to re-submit the Identity Theft affidavit -- something we submitted over a year ago.  The problem?  The last one was submitted with my name and my information.  It needs to be submitted with Brian's name and his information, with me signing on his behalf as a "surviving spouse."  Also, I need to scan, print, and send a copy of his social security card and driver's license.  Why no one told us of these requirements for the past 12 months on one of Jason's numerous follow-up calls, I don't know.  Once that is done (Monday), there will be at least a 90 day wait before I might get the tax return (for 2010) that is due to me.  Jeez. 

On the bright side, I did recently get something else wrapped up that has been dragging on and on.  I had the last step of my massive dental work done on Monday.  I had a bridge (with three teeth) implanted on one side, and a crown replaced on the other.  I'm able to eat normally, on both sides of my mouth, again, and I no longer have a huge, embarrassing gap where I'm missing teeth.  This appointment took about two and half hours, and approximately seven Novocain shots, but that's it!  I am so relieved to be done with that.  The saga with my teeth has literally been going on since Brian was alive.  I am happy to keep getting things sorted out and put behind me.  Looking forward to the IRS debacle being one of them.  In due time, in due time....

Happy Friday, everyone!


Putting the Pieces in Place

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about how life is like a giant jigsaw puzzle.  Right around the time of that post, I had a few things happen that reaffirmed for me that I am exactly where I need to be, things that made me realize, "These pieces are falling into place perfectly."

First, I have two great friends in Austin, Kristen and Heather, who I would not have met if not for Brian's passing and, more specifically, this blog.  I met Kristen first, almost immediately after moving to Austin in 2010.  We connected through mutual friends on Facebook when I stumbled upon the realization that we had some mututal friends in common (she went to school with Brian's cousin and had met his two best friends from Iowa years before in Las Vegas).  On a whim, I sent her a friend request and a message introducing myself.  She didn't get the message (sometimes, I've learned, Facebook messages sent along with friend requests disappear if the request is accepted before the message is read).  Still, she looked at my page and saw a link to this blog and was intrigued by me and my situation, and the fact that we had three seemingly random friends in common.  We met for "happy hour"....which lasted about 4 hours, during which time we laughed our asses off, cried, shared secrets, and really bonded.  She was such a part of my integration into Austin, and she is now one of my best friends in the world.

About a year later, I met Heather.  She had just moved to Austin from New York after going through a heartbreaking divorce.  Like me, she was seeking refuge and a place to heal and put her life back together.  Funny how well Austin fits the bill.  (Don't tell your friends -- or maybe do...I need to keep the rental market hot to make the condo a good investment.)  Heather had started reading my blog on the recommendation of her sister, who felt she might be able to relate to someone trying to put the pieces of her life back together.  Eventually, she added me as a friend on Facebook.  The first time we met in person was when I interviewed her for a book I'm working on about Austin immigrants from all over the U.S.  We met at a wine bar downtown, me with my tape recorder, and started the interview over a couple glasses of wine.  A couple hours and several glasses later, I turned the recorder off and the interview became a heart-to-heart conversation amongst friends.  Like my first "face time" with Kristen, we bonded immediately and strongly over tears, laughter, stories, and alcohol.  It didn't seem possible to have that kind of connection and conversation with someone who, only hours before, had been a total stranger.

Four or five months later, I was having friends over at my condo in Austin, having just gotten it furnished and ready for renting.  There, Kristen and Heather met each other for the first time.  Now, they have hit it off and are close friends.  Recently, there was one night that they were together in Austin (while I was in San Antonio) that really cemented the feeling of "wow....this was all meant to be."

Kristen has had a rough go of things, relationship-wise, this year.  She met someone in March and felt an instant and deep connection.  She felt things she's never felt before, and he said he did too.  The problem?  He lived in Arizona and was just visiting Austin.  Still, they stayed in constant touch and some visits were made.  Then, the opportunity came up for her to spend the summer in Arizona.  He had lined up job prospects for her, she found a place to stay, and he was urging her strongly to give it a chance.  She went for it, following her heart west.  Their relationship was making them both happier than they'd ever been.  He declared his love for her and told her he had no idea he could be this happy with someone.  She became close to his friends and family, including his sister and his school-aged son.  In July, the two flew back to Austin to celebrate her birthday, and he met all of her friends and family.  It was clear that she was happy, glowing -- she looked and acted differently than I had ever seen her, and it made me happy to see that.  Then, they went back to Arizona and everything changed.  Abruptly, he decided everything they'd been doing was "a fantasy" and that he needed to get back to "real life."  He left her to go back to his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his child.  He and his ex had been on-again, off-again for years, and he decided he wanted to be "on again" with her for the sake of his son.  Not only that, but he had decided to stop the "on-again, off-again" cycle with his ex-girlfriend for good, and proposed to her.  She accepted the proposal, even though he had been travelling across the country to meet his girlfriend's family just a week before.  Naturally, Kristen was devastated.  She stuck it out in Arizona until she could tie up her loose ends and make it back to Austin, heartbroken and with her tail between her legs.

Making things more difficult, this man's family members continued to call Kristen, telling her they were shocked and that this "couldn't be the end" for them -- they loved her, they saw how happy he was with her, and they couldn't understand why he was doing what he was doing.  This made it incredibly hard for her to let go of him and the idea of them being together.  Even his best friend called her to say these things.  Adding insult to injury, the wedding was scheduled for the next month.  Kristen was still heartbroken when he was making his vows to another woman. 

The weekend of his wedding, there was a torrential downpour in central Texas.  I sent Kristen a text message saying, "Thinking of you this weekend.  Hope the rain this weekend feels refreshing and cleansing to your soul." 

Her response?  "I am with Heather right now, and she said the exact same thing!"  Eerie.  It felt like Heather was my proxy to support Kristen in her time of need as she had supported me.  She was literally giving Kristen the same words of encouragement as me.  I wrote back that Heather was very wise, and sent my love to them both.  That night, I went to bed feeling that so much was right with the world.

I honestly feel I am a kindred spirit with these girls, and so happy that they have become friends.  It is interesting that, although our situations were all very different, we all faced loss and heartache in sequence.  First me, then Heather, then Kristen.  Somehow, we all found one another and have been able to lean on one another for support....both emotionally and, sometimes after too much wine, in a literal and physical manner.  Joking aside, I do feel this connection between us all is a sure sign that things work out the way they do for a reason and I feel blessed to have shared my life's journey with these women.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Take Time With a Wounded Hand, 'Cause it Likes to Heal

Logging onto my fantasy football website today, I stumbled across a headline about a grieving college athlete who was going to take some time off.  That link is here:

I noticed two things in the story itself.  First, the player's sister died in 2009.  Second, the sister died in a car accident on her way to her brother's basketball game, driving through a snowstorm because she was intent on seeing him play.  Obviously, I can't know what is going on with anyone else's grief journey, but I'm guessing the manner and cause of her death have been particularly hard for this young man to deal with.  It may be that this is why he needs time off from basketball, and not classes.

Whatever the case, I was glad to see this story because it brings grief into the spotlight a bit, and especially serves to remind people that the pain, difficult feelings, and adjustments you need to make in the wake of death are not buried alongside the body, and aren't put to rest days after the death.  So often, we read about players missing one game to attend a funeral, or there is a blurb about how an athlete is coping with a family member's death in the immediate aftermath, before the death has really sunk in.  Oftentimes, it is not until weeks, months, or even years later that we fully appreciate the loss and what it means. 

Kudos to this young man for bucking the critics (and believe me, they're out there -- people looove to judge how other people handle loss, but that's a post for another day!) and doing what is right for him, right now.  I hope he finds some peace and resolution on his journey. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Putting the Pieces Together

When I was younger, my mom and I (and later, my sister, when she became old enough) would put together jigsaw puzzles.  We'd especially enjoy this over Christmas break, as my mom is a teacher and we'd have time to tackle one or two each winter.  I hadn't really done this in a while, probably since college, until recently.

A while back, I started getting into puzzles again.  Specifically, after moving to San Antonio.  It started when I had to pick up some things for work at Hobby Lobby.  I hadn't been to Hobby Lobby in a very long time, and was entralled with all its offerings.  I found a couple of really cool puzzles there, and bought them.  Both were "collage" style, which are my favorite -- baseball and football.  As a random aside, my cousin Katie and her boyfriend (whose name is Brian) also did the baseball puzzle and finished within hours of us, even though neither of us knew the other was doing it (she lives 1,000 miles away)!  How's that for weird?

I digress again in this paragraph....feel free to read it or skip ahead to the next paragraph.....despite the fabulous selection of craft items, decor, and accent furniture, I won't be shopping at Hobby Lobby again anytime soon.  Why?  1)  Everyone can practice his or her own religion, but the personal beliefs of those at the helm of a corporation should not dictate the medical choices available to its employees.  I mean, if the founders were members of the Latter-Day Saints, would it be okay to deny employees coverage for organ transplants and blood transfusions?  Just had to point that out in the interest of fairness, as it would seem I was endorsing Hobby Lobby above, when I am not.  Not after learning this.  Stepping off my soapbox now...; and 2) the two puzzles I bought at Hobby Lobby (each costing $18) had missing pieces!  Seriously. We took up our living room rug and moved all the furniture to look for them, but found nothing. I don't think it was the cats either, as I never found misplaced pieces, "evidence" of consumed pieces, and there is also the fact that we have successfully completed other puzzles, both new and used (including one that looks to be from the 1980s, that my friends bought from a thrift store, a puzzle we borrowed from them knowing it has been through moves and partial completion previously) without any pieces being missing.  Only the ones purchased at Hobby Lobby have had this disappointing conclusion (it is very anticlimatic to realize you won't have that triumphant feeling of putting the last piece in place after HOURS of puzzling).

Despite being disappointed with missing pieces, the puzzles were fun, and Sheldon and I enjoyed putting them together.  Most recently, I put one together on my own -- the one that is pictured, a 1,000-piece Elvis Presley quote collage that was nearly the size of our coffee table (the picture is made up of quotes, like a photo collage).  In a way, it felt symbolic of what's going on in my life....I'm putting the pieces together.  Except in life, you don't know what the final result is going to be, what the picture is going to look like.  During all these hours of solo puzzling, I started to think about the parallels between what I was doing and my life's journey.

I feel like I had a good idea what my life was going to look like when I was with Brian.  We were putting down the pieces that formed a pretty good picture -- marriage, a home, our careers, two cats.  It was far from complete, but the borders were done, and a good deal of the middle.  Then, when he died, it was as if someone (ahem, God) swept the whole thing off the table.  There, on the ground, were the remnants of what we had been building together.  There were large sections still left intact -- our friends, my job, our house -- but it wasn't a cohesive picture anymore.  Everything was in pieces.

For a while, I vacillated.  Would I get back to work putting that puzzle together again?  I had sort of lost my interest and my passion for what we'd been building.  It wasn't the same without him, wasn't as fun.  While I was taking time to think about what to do next, I realized I could start a whole new puzzle, one that would look totally different.  As always, you have to start with the border.  The border sets the boundaries of the puzzle and tells the other pieces where to go, what space to fill.  It literally is where you start, and that was the first thing I had to decide in my life. When I started my new puzzle, the outline was no longer Iowa-shaped; I built it in the shape of Texas.

Having established my new boundaries, I had to fill in the middle, which is the meat of the puzzle, the pieces that make up the bigger picture.  What's hard is that life, unlike a jigsaw puzzle, offers unlimited pieces.  Everything around you is a piece that may or may not fit into your picture -- every person you meet, every job opportuity, every city in the world, every decision, every opportunity you can take or pass up, etc.  Sometimes more than one piece fits, and you have to choose the best one for your picture.  Sometimes a piece seems to fit, but later on you realize it doesn't after all, and you have to take it out and throw it back in the pile.  You have to choose your pieces carefully to make sure they do fit and they make the best picture possible for you.  Going into my new life, my plan was to go at it solo, and to work on putting my soul back together, then concentrate on the career portion of the picture.

However, as often happens with puzzles, things didn't proceed neatly as planned.  I did well with the healing portion, blogging and journaling, and talking things out with friends.  However, as I tried to identify the career pieces and put them into place, I kept coming across other pieces.  You know how some puzzle pieces are so distinct that you immediately recognize them and know where they belong?  Even if you try to ignore those pieces and continue laboring away at the part of the puzzle you are intent on knocking out, those pieces keep jumping out at you, to the point that you have to put them in place before you capable of seeing or finding any of the pieces you might be looking for.  Despite my intent to get the career portion of my life put together before anything else, the pieces that kept jumping out at me were the love and friendship pieces.

I put the friendship pieces in place eagerly, happy to have something fit into place so well.  The puzzle grew and grew as one piece led to another, which led to another and so on.  Eventually, the friend portion of my life started to look like it was going into "love" territory.  I kept seeing Sheldon on these pieces of my life.  I didn't want to put him into my life -- I didn't want to build that part of my life yet, because I didn't have the work part put together.  It didn't fit my plan.  Besides that, I didn't think it was a fit -- I literally remember telling him once why we didn't fit together.  I was so sure of this that I wasn't really willing to try just putting that piece into my puzzle.  I was sure he belonged in someone else's picture.  I tried out some other pieces, and none fit.  I kept seeing him amongst the pieces out there, and finally realized -- or finally admitted to myself -- that he fit perfectly into my bigger picture.

Now, I'm still laying pieces down, and picking up those that I realize don't seem to fit after all -- career pieces, more friendship pieces (some of these need to be set down in San Antonio), spirituality pieces, grieving and healing pieces.  Still, I work on the puzzle every day, and more and more of the bigger picture is coming into view. 

I wouldn't have planned to build my life in the manner and order that I have -- figuring out the love part of the picture before the career fulfillment part -- but, looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way.  In life, aren't love and family the most important things, and the biggest indicators of happiness?  I realized I'd rather have a career that fits into my family than the other way around.  That's not to say this is the best plan for everyone -- I think it really comes down to which pieces jump out at you, which ones have a clearly defined place in your life.  Those are the pieces you have to put together before you can move on to the next phase of the puzzle, even if that wasn't the way you intended for things to come together.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Your Mark (or Marcia, or Kimmy....)

I recently got to see Chris Gardner (, whose autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness inspired the Will Smith blockbuster of the same name, deliver a speech.  If you ever have the opportunity to see him speak, take it!  He was inspiring, funny, witty, and entertaining.

One thing that struck me about what this brilliant and wildly successful man had to say was his message about breaking negative cycles, and how our greatest legacy is how we shape generations to come.  He spoke of growing up without a father, with a poor excuse for a stepfather in his place, a man who would threaten him, mistreat him, and constantly remind him, "I ain't your daddy."  Gardner vowed as a five-year-old child that he would not be an absent father, that he was going to be in his children's lives when he had kids, and that he would be not just a "father," but a "dad."  If you have seen the movie, read the book, or heard him speak, you know he honored that commitment.  He became homeless because of the fact that he was a father (no kids allowed at the men's shelter), yet he still provided for and took care of his son as a single dad, making sure his son was safe and fed while he went hungry and scraped by, trying to make a better life.

Gardner, of course, went on to make millions of dollars as a stockbroker, despite starting out in the business as a homeless single father with just a high school education. He was wildly successful before writing a best-selling book that parlayed into an even more successful movie. I think we'd all agree that if a mega-star like Will Smith portrays you in a movie, you've "made it" in life. In spite of all of this success, Gardner said the most important thing he has done in his life is to be there for his children, to raise them to know that they are loved and supported by their father, something he never had. He is most proud of breaking that cycle of men who weren't there to raise their children, and he spoke to the fact that many families have some negative cycle repeating itself generation after generation -- abuse, poverty, obesity, molestation, teenage pregnancy, etc.

When speaking about the impact of breaking this cycle, Gardner pointed out that the money, fame and success he's had were good to have in his lifetime, but that they don't hold a candle to the fact that he raised his children right and given them a gift -- the gift of presence and unconditional love and support -- that they can pass on to their own chidren, who can pass it on to their own, and so on.  He said that many generations from now, his legacy and mark on the world won't be what he did as a stockbroker, but it will be his offspring, who will be in a better, more well-adjusted place because the cycle of abandonment was broken.

It's an interesting concept, to think about how our influence on others can carry over across generations.  If someone raises their children well and is able to "fix" some of what was broken in the existing family dynamic, you hope those children will carry those lessons and that example forward to their own children, and so on.  You help form the next generation so that they can form the one after that, forming a new (healthier) cycle.

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this message.  On the one hand, it rings true.  Our mark on the world can only be carried forward by other people.  On the other hand, I don't think those people have to be your children.  Many religious and philosophical leaders, as well as artists and writers, died childless and still have a profound effect on the world years later (or we have a good hunch that they will, for some still living)....Jesus, Mother Theresa, Socrates, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, Florence Nightengale, etc.

In discussing Gardner's point with Sheldon later, I broke down in tears when he said he agreed that having kids is your way of leaving a lasting imprint on the world.  I wondered, aloud, what kind of lasting mark someone like Brian makes on future generations, having died young without the change to mold a future generation of his own offspring.  It's something I've thought of, usually fleetingingly, because it's been such a painful thing to think about, and is so unfair that it makes me very angry for Brian that he didn't have that opportunity.  I also thought it was something I couldn't do anything about....until Sheldon responded to my lament/question.  He said, "The children we're going to have couldn't have existed if it weren't for Brian.  He will always be a part of our lives, and theirs.  We'll tell them stories about him and make sure they know the best parts about him."  I went from sobbing to smiling through my tears at those tender, wise words.

I know when we make our Mark, or our Lisa, or our Hannah, that those kids will be shaped not just by us, but by him.  We wouldn't be the people we are, and the parents we are going to be, and our children-to-be wouldn't have come about, without him.  His impact will be there for generations to come. 

I'm so lucky to have a man who not only sees that, but helps me see it; and who not only is okay with that, but encourages and is thankful for that.

Friday, September 28, 2012

I Wanna Know, Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

I have had a lot of friends and family members go through some crummy stuff lately.  There have been break-ups, both thoughtfully chosen (but still hard) and unexpected and traumatic.  There have been health crises -- friends who are my age have had major issues, one having a stroke and another who is scheduled for a kidney transplant next week after a very long year of serious health issues.  There have been deaths -- one friend's sister died of a severe asthma attack, while another lost her father in a motorcycle accident.  There have been layoffs.  There have been stalkers.  All these things have happened to my friends and family in the last couple of months.

I guess when you're younger, you aren't as aware of what is going on with people all around you, and you certainly don't appreciate the significance of these things.  As we get older, these things happen more and more -- people get sick more often, people die, hearts get broken as relationships fall apart.

I guess one thing I've learned is that, while you can't take away the problem or "fix" things, that doesn't mean you are helpless or that you have to stand by idly.  No one could bring Brian back after he died, but that doesn't mean no one could help me.  In fact, a lot of people did.  They helped by bringing over food and household items, by doing chores around the house, by calling and texting and hugging me, by praying for me, by listening to me, by sharing stories and memories, by offering me encouraging words, by giving me hope. 

Empathy, love, support, listening, and just being there matter.  We all have hardships we will endure in life -- no one is immune.  No one can protect another human being from that harsh reality, but neither are we helpless.

Life's twists and turns are like the weather -- omnipresent over us, sometimes unpredictable and sometimes long-coming on the horizon, and always out of our control.  When the skies of life open up and rain on someone, whether it be a shower or a howling thunderstorm, no one can stop the rain.  We can, however, offer up an umbrella.

When you see a friend who's in the middle of a storm, do you take shelter or do you run out to her with an umbrella?  Better yet, are you able to help her dance and do cartwheels in the rain?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Break the Cycle

I haven't written in over a month.  It's not that I don't have plenty to fact, I think I have too much to say.  I don't know where to begin.  I've started posts and saved them as drafts.  I've mentally crafted posts. I've thought about what to write next, what I can't or shouldn't write about, what people will think.  I've written private journal entries on paper with a pen.  Still, I haven't blogged.

I'm hoping just the act of writing this post, insignicant as it may be in content, will be enough to get the ball rolling again, to break the writer's block, to take away some of the feeling that I better write something big and profound since I took so much time off.

Imperfect action is better than inaction.  This post is very imperfect, but it is action.  And action begets more action.

There will be more to come soon.  I just had to get things going again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Only Things Guaranteed in Life -- Death and Taxes

Sometimes, those certainties become grotesquely intertwined.

Brian died in January of 2010.  That spring, I filed our income tax return as we always did.  That refund, along with our savings and Brian's 2009 work bonus (which paid out in the early spring), kept my financial boat afloat until my life insurance claim was processed and I received those funds.  The life insurance was immensely helpful in that it allowed me to pay off the nearly $20,000 funeral debt I was carrying on my credit card, let me pay off Brian's car, and allowed me to take some time off work and get myself sorted out, as much as one can....but that's a different post.  This one is about taxes.

I went to Austin in the summer of 2010, thinking it would be a short-term getaway, a sojourn to the South.  I took strongly to Texas, and I made it my permenent home in December of that year.  In the spring of 2011, I was settling into my new home state, adapting to life on my own in the big city, and taking real estate courses to prepare for my next professional venture.  Soon enough, it was tax time again.  Luckily, I have a fantastic tax advisor in Jason Dinesen (, who was Brian's college roommate and good friend.  He keeps me in line and on time with all things tax-related.  Between him and my financial advisor, Matt McCulla (, I know I'm in good hands.  Brian and I started working with Matt before we were even married, while I was still in law school, and when we barely had any money to make decisions with and to invest.  Still, he found a way to get us started with IRAs, 401(k)s, and the necessary insurance.  I will always be grateful that we had our finances in order at such a young age.  Not only did it serve me well when I needed it most, but we felt stable and secure knowing we were looking out for our future, and I think Brian was proud of that.  When someone dies, it feels good to know that that person was happy with his life decisions and had no regrets.  Everyone regarded Brian as a fun, outgoing person who grabbed every opportunity for enjoyment and ran with it.  He was that, yes, but he was also incredibly responsible, intelligent, and forward-thinking.  I felt a great deal of relief and peace that he had the building blocks of his life lined up so well and that he left this world with a life he was proud of and happy with (and a wife who would add this parenthetical to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition). 

But I digress.

In the spring of 2011, Jason contacted me to ask for my tax paperwork -- W-2s, mortgage and student loan interest statements, car registrations, etc.  I gathered everything up and sent it to him, and he prepared my tax return.  Somehow, we were not pushing the deadline that year, so kudos to Jason for getting the ball rolling early.  Then, Jason called and told me that he wasn't able to file my return online for some reason.  He couldn't figure out what the problem was, and no one at the IRS could or would talk to him about it because it wasn't his return.  So I called the IRS to ask what was going on.  I was told that we'd need to file a paper return, end of story.  I didn't know why, but I relayed the message to Jason, who filed a timely return by snail mail.  I figured I'd have my tax refund in a month or so. 

Months passed.  No tax refund came.  In August, Jason had me file a Power of Attorney form so that he could talk to the IRS directly on my behalf.  He found out that the IRS needed a copy of Brian's death certificate, as well as some other form filled out.  Funny -- they didn't need that for the 2009 return, even though I was the only one who signed that, signing my name as "Surviving Spouse of the Deceased" on that return. 

A feeling of dread overtook me.  For one, I thought I had handled everything relating to Brian's affairs -- funeral bills, the hospital and ambulance bills, selling the house, selling my car, putting his car in my name, turning off his cell phone (dealing with Verizon was a nightmare -- literally harder to take care of his cell phone than it was to sort out life insurance and our mortgage!), etc.  Now, here was one more thing that would require me to pull out the dreaded death certificate, to look at some official document that proved, in black and white, that Brian was gone.  I hate that piece of paper more than anything in the world.  On top of that, I'd just moved to Texas, and hadn't done the best job of that, leaving random things that didn't have a place in my car or my apartment with friends and family in Iowa.  I had no idea where the key to my safe was, but that's where the copies of that awful document were located.

Right around this time, a flurry of activity took over my life -- I sub-leased my apartment, bought a tiny condo in Austin for mixed personal/rental use, and moved in with Sheldon in San Antonio.  It was literally a three-way move -- some stuff from my apartment went to the condo, some to the house.  Sometimes I'd fill a box to take to San Antonio, unpack it, fill it with stuff of Sheldon's, and then take that stuff back to Austin to the condo, where I'd unpack it, then take the same empty box back to the apartment to start again.  I was hoping that somewhere along the line, I'd find the keys to the safe.

Finally, after the moving was complete, I located the key and was able to get into the safe and get a copy of the death certificate to give to the IRS.  I filled out the necessary paperwork and sent it, along with the certificate, to the IRS.

Months passed.  The next thing to come from the IRS was not my tax return, but instead a letter threatening legal action if I didn't file a 2010 tax return.  This was right before the holidays in 2011.  Happy holidays, huh?  We called the IRS to see what they were talking about, since I had filed a return, I had submitted extra documentation, and I was actually owed a refund and not a "nasty-gram," as Jason and I have taken to calling them.  We were told that someone had filed a tax return using Brian's social security number already.  He was dead, but that didn't make him immune from identity theft.

So why did I get that nasty letter?  The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing at the IRS, to put it simply.  The division in charge of processing returns, the division in charge of identity theft, and the division in charge of hunting down tax evaders all do their own thing without any communication or cross-reference.  I thought a phone call and letter from Jason would straighten all this out.  Instead, I continued to get those scary letters every few months.

Finally, Jason was able to get the letters to stop.  He simply had the nasty-gram people put a hold on those letters until the identity theft people can get this sorted out.  Eighteen months later, that's all the progress that has been made.  I'm not getting letters threatening legal action anymore, but I still don't have my tax refund that the government owes me, and more important -- I don't have resolution.  I don't know what is happening with the scum that took my dead husband's social security number and filed a fraudulent return.  I don't know who that is, or whether that person has been caught.  I know he or she has created a painful nightmare for me and a lot of work for my tax advisor.  Jason has been writing about this ordeal on his tax blog, The Dinesen Tax Times.  You can read the posts at  He's breaking this up into a series of posts, and is 4 posts in at this point.  (Be sure to read the posts in order.)

Jason has been a champion and an advocate for me throughout all this.  I'm so grateful that he has taken on the task of following up with the IRS every 90 days or so, and that he is the person who calls and writes letters on my behalf.  I am frustrated with this situation, but I would be blood-boilingly angry and stressed out to the max if I had to talk to the IRS bureaucrats about this every couple months.  The worst part is that every time he calls, he has to start the story from scratch because it's such a big organization that no one knows what's going on -- it's like the letters he sends disapper into a black hole and there is no system for keeping notes on individual files.  That would frustrate me to no end, not to mention the awful feeling I get when I have to tell strangers over the phone that Brian Boka is deceased, I am his wife, and that I'm trying to take care of something.  Those phone calls are the worst -- awkward, stilted sympathy from the stranger on the other line, reciting dates of death and social security numbers, willing away the tears that flood my eyes, trying to focus on the task at hand....and in this case, knowing the call won't really resolve the issue.

Right now, we are at a stalemate.  The status quo is simply that nothing is happening.  I'm not getting my refund, I'm not getting hate mail from the IRS, and I'm not getting answers.  Somehow I doubt that I'll get interest and late penalties from the IRS when I do get my return, even though I'd owe those if I really was late.  Maybe I should be the one sending the nasty-grams. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Paper Trail

I'm getting my application ready for the Texas Bar Association.  I'm applying for admission without exam, which is available because I have spent five of the past seven years practicing in another state (Iowa).  The application itself is something like 25 pages long, and requires a boatload of documents.  This is where I'm running into issues.

Among the things I need to provide to the state bar association are:  tax returns for the past seven years, my birth certificate, marriage certificate, name change certificate, transcripts, test results, a copy of my old business card, a copy of my driver's license, a job description (or, in lieu of that, I need to have someone from my old firm write a letter on official letterhead describing what I did as an attorney and how many hours I worked), certificates of good standing from other bar associations, and much, much more.  It's ridiculous.  Things have be timed just so -- I can't submit certificates of good standing that are more than 30 days old, so I'm requesting those last.

As part of this process, I realized I really need to get a Texas driver's license.  My Iowa ID expired in the process of my move, so I renewed it in Iowa right before I sold my house and moved to Texas, so I guess I wasn't in a rush to do that.  Well, getting my Texas ID has proved frustrating and difficult too.  You have to have a lot of documents -- social security card and/or passport, proof of vehicle registration and insurance, bills sent in your name to your current address.  Twice, I've thought I had everything together.  Twice, I've gone to the DOT with a stack of documents.  Twice, I didn't have the right stuff.  First, it was that I needed a second document to prove residency.  The second time (about two hours ago), it was that my vehicle registration paperwork was expired.  Nevermind that my vehicle has a registration sticker that is current -- they need the piece of paper that said sticker came on.  Well, I can't find that.  And, now I've gotten home and realized, I can't even find my Iowa driver's license.  I know the lady at the DOT had it briefly, and I haven't seen it since.  Did I leave it there?  I don't know -- their phone line is perpetually busy, and now they are closed!  So, despite my best efforts to get everything in order and comply with state laws, now I am going to be driving without a license until I can track that down, if I even can.  If I can't, then I can only imagine the hoops I'll have to go through and how many trips to the DOT it will take to get my Texas license.  It's incredibly frustrating that it's taken so many hours to try to do it already, to no avail.  I feel completely incompetent and foolish that I haven't been able to achieve this seemingly easy task, and that I've squandered so much time and gas money on this stupid little thing.

I should also add that I'm apparently awful at keeping things together.  I didn't have any of my old business cards, so I put out a plea on Facebook.  My old cheerleading coach had a card and mailed it to me.  Now I have no idea where I put it.  I am just really struggling to get all the scores of documents I need for any one thing all in the same place at the same time.  It is taking me way too long to get all this done.

Also in the meantime, all my bar association renewal notices for the State of Arizona (where I am also licensed) were being mailed to my old law firm in Iowa.  Not until they got certified mail notifying them/me that I was going to be suspended for nonpayment of dues did they forward this my way.  By then, it was too late.  So I've been dealing with that too -- trying to change my status in Arizona from "suspended" to "resigned in lieu of suspension."  And now I have to change that answer on my Texas bar application, and add yet another page to the application to explain that.

Well, I guess I'm back to square one on everything on Monday....actually, "square one" would be where I started.  I actually lost my Iowa license, so that puts me BEHIND where I started.  Months later, I'm making negative progress. 

I feel like a salmon swimming upstream.  Except salmon don't dish out $1,000 in application fees for the privilege of that swim.

Monday, August 6, 2012

I Have A Dream

This weekend we went to a wedding in Virginia.  We're both pretty busy with work at the moment, so it was a quick trip (literally, flying in on Friday afternoon and flying home Sunday night).  Still, it was a great time. Friday and Saturday night were great -- spending time with our friends, meeting new ones, etc.  The wedding was at a winery, so I was in heaven! 

On Sunday, we even had the chance to see a few of the sights in Washington, D.C.  We had a fantastic lunch at the cafe in the W Hotel, just next to the White House, then spent a couple hours walking around the National Mall, where we saw the following:  Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the White House, WWII Memorial (a new one for me, since my last time in DC, and our favorite), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a few other statues and memorial dedications.  While walking along the national mall, an elderly couple strolling along caught my eye.  "I wonder what we'll look like, what we'll wear, where we'll go for vacation, when we're old," I said.

I haven't really let myself think that way much with Sheldon.  I have been afraid to look forward to something, in case the unthinkable happens again.  I have been hesitant to assume that we will, in fact, grow old together -- it's not the together part that is a question, but the "growing old" part that I have a distrust of, deep in my heart.  I had planned on that, banked on it, dreamed of it, and built my life around that assumption once.  It's taken me a while to start to think I could start doing that again.

I still know that it might not happen, and I still have a fear of tragedy that casts a larger shadow on my psyche and my vision for the future than most people.  Still, I am starting to be more objective and know that that kind of thinking is based in fear and pain, and isn't rooted in a logical assumption of life, based on what normally happens.  More importantly, it isn't based in hope and love.

I always want to look at the world with eyes of possibility and love, not fear and protection.  I always want to hope, dream, and love fully.  I took a step in that direction amongst the trees lining the walkway between Washington and Lincoln this weekend, and I like where I am heading.  And I love the man who will grow old next to me as I walk that path.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Widowland....It's a Small World After All

My last post was about a weekend we spent on a lake.  While there, we met some new friends, Gabby and Blair.  I didn't tell anyone that weekend about Brian, or that I'm a widow.  We've since seen those two again, at a Wine Club gathering at our house, and we got along fabulously.  In fact, they were the first to arrive and the last to leave.  This time, I let them in -- or at least Gabby, anyway -- on the full story of my past, but only because it came out in the most uncanny of ways.

In conversation, we were talking about our families.  Gabby mentioned that she had a brother who had died in the armed forces at a very young age, leaving behind a young wife and child (maybe two makes the details fuzzy).  She spoke of her sister-in-law, who is still very much a part of her family.  She talked about how it took this young woman a long time to get herself together, to heal, to move on, and how her boyfriend is now fully embraced by the family.  She talked about her sister-in-law's boyfriend, and how they have pictures of her brother in their home.

I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities between Gabby's sister-in-law and myself.  Sheldon has become a part of my family, which includes Brian's family.  He has been embraced by us all, and he has embraced Brian as a part of my past, and has welcomed his memory in our home.

I took Gabby back to our bedroom to show her my own wedding photo on the wall, and to tell her about my pre-Sheldon life.  It all resonated with her, and I know she won't see me differently because of this, though she knows that my life and my perspective are different than most.

There really are a lot of people out there who understand grief.  People don't tend to talk about it, or open up, but it's surprising to see how many people relate and empathize.  It feels good to be normal, whether or not that means telling my whole story.  It feels good to know that even when I do share, I am still normal.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Weekend Warrior

A couple weekends ago, Sheldon and I went to a lake house for the weekend with five other people about our age.  It is the family cabin of a friend of his.  We had some rain, and some sun.  We enjoyed drinks, games, grilling, and swimming.  It was a very good time, and I really enjoyed meeting those folks (3 of the other 5) that I hadn't met before.  One thing that made this experience different?  I spent that much time in close quarters with those people, with lots of conversation and getting-to-know-you talk to fill the time, without once mentioning that I was a widow.  It felt good to just be Wendy, not a widow who is "recovering" or "rebuilding."  I was just me.  No awkward moments, filled with stammering condolences from someone who never knew my husband.  No uncomfortable silence wondering how to change the topic, or with each person mentally reviewing the words they'd previously spoken, hoping they hadn't uttered anything that would offend me.  I kind of felt like a normal young person, out at a cabin, having fun.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Today marks 2.5 years since Brian died.  30 months, it's been.  It seems like an eternity, and just yesterday at the same time.  I'm halfway to five years out.  THAT seems like a long time, but still....I know it's not that long.

How am I doing at this stage?  Well, okay.  I have gotten praise for being "so strong," for being "brave" enough to move and start over, to forge a new relationship.  Yet I feel a bit like a hypocrite.  I purposely put a positive spin on my writing and try to focus on how to handle the challenges, and sometimes I feel like I don't share all my struggles.  I don't write every time I cry, every time my past makes me aware of how different I am, every time I struggle to decide how much to share with people I meet, and when. 

Most recently, I chose to not write about another step in my recovery.  I wanted to give it time, to think long and hard before sharing this publicly.  A message from a fellow widow yesterday that asked simply, "How do you stay so strong?" made me realize I need to share what's going on.  My blog is nothing if not a documentation of my journey, for better or for worse.

My "secret" is this:  I have started individual therapy.  Also, I'm planning to start participating in a grief support group here in San Antonio.  Two and a half years out, and I need a little help to work through some things.  This is the ebb and flow of grief, and this is how it can last, can effect people, how it carries on.

Right now, I am getting help because I'm feeling aftershocks -- the effects of so much change all at once (admittedly, a lot of this is by choice -- I chose to move, to change careers, etc.).  I am adjusting to a lot of change, struggling to accept some of it, grieving the loss of the life I used to know, making the most of the life I have (I'm doing okay with that), and searching for clues or signs about where I should be going in the future, while at the same time, trying to deal with a strong fear and apprehension about planning for the future, because, well, look where it got me last time, getting ahead of myself and planning a certain life and a certain future with a certain person.

I am feeling pulled in many directions -- I have my family, Brian's family, and Sheldon's family.  My friends, Brian's friends, Sheldon's friends.  It's hard to feel like I'm doing a good enough job filling all these roles -- daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, girlfriend, etc.  Compounding that is the stress of a new career that demands at all times -- nights, weekends, etc.  Every time I have gone on a family trip, something comes up for work.  Not to mention that I try to make sure I'm paying equal attention and visits to the parts of my family -- mine, his, and his.  I worry that my family will feel slighted if I visit Sheldon's family too often, or that Brian's family will feel like I've forgotten them.  I worry that I'm not being a good girlfriend if I miss special events like milestone birthdays and weddings, and I want to become a part of that family too.  And of course, all special events mean another weekend of not doing an Open House or setting client appointments.  It's hard to build a career like that.

I have had one session with a therapist so far.  We talked about a lot of things in just that hour.  Survivor's guilt, my feelings of worthlessness and frustration that I haven't made my career into something more self-sustaining and profitable, my desire to see everything in life click into place, my inability to plan for the future, my deep-seated fear that everything will fall apart again, my apprehension at realizing just how much is out of our control, my intimadation and cripping indecisiveness when it comes to how many avenues are open to me in the world.

Currently, I'm transitioning.  This is hard.  I'm mourning the fact that some things will never be the same, and that goes way beyond my home life with Brian.  I'll never have another Christmas season where I get to see all of my family and all of Brian's family over the course of a month, like we used to do every year.  I'll never have a Wine Club with the same friends it started with, the regulars with whom I there was such familiarity that hardly anyone even rang the doorbell before coming in on Wine Night.  I'm adapting to a new life, with new friends, new family.  There are a lot of wonderful things in my life, to be sure, but it is also difficult to realize that the old life is no more.  I have to let go of the past.....and I think I'm holding on a little bit.

On top of the transition, I am dealing with complex emotions and thoughts that stem from being a widow.  There is the guilt of being the survivor, the one with the life insurance money that pays for things like dental surgery and trips home.  There is the neverending feeling of wanting to "justify" what happened by doing something great with my life, something to fulfill what I perceive to be some greater calling, though I don't hear the call.  I wonder why things happened like they did, what the plan for my life was.  I'm searching so hard for that path, that maybe I'm not allowing myself to just find my own way.

And how would I find my own way?  Since I was a teenager, there was one plan -- grow up, become a lawyer, marry Brian and (maybe) have children together.  I had a one-track mind for years, and I never thought about any other options.  I had a bit of tunnel vision for my life, but Brian's death was TNT that blew the shit out of that tunnel.  The tunnel now longer exists.  Now, I'm in the wide open, recovering from the blow, and it's scary.  The possibilites before me are never-ending, and that is overwhelming.  I don't even know where to begin, but I know I keep finding shrapnel in my skin. 

So that's how I'm doing at 2.5 years out.  I've accepted that Brian is gone....kind of.  I still wonder why him, and not me.  I'm still looking for answers that I probably won't find in this lifetime.  I guess I'm over the pain of missing him day-to-day, and now I'm stuck in bigger questions.  This is why I'm getting therapy and why I think it will help to talk to other widows again.  I am a little bit frozen, stuck.  I need a little help to get over some things and get moving again.

I keep trying to remember....the journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.  Sometimes I get so bogged down trying to chart out the whole course of my life, when I should really focus on taking one step at a time.  That's new to me, just like so many other things I'm getting used to.

Still, "new" isn't bad.  There are a lot of things about my new life that I genuinely love.  Focusing on those things helps me so much.  Now, to learn to let go of the past, and of negative emotions.  That's what is holding me back.