Confronting Change

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ebb and flow. I think about the tides on the shore. Coming in. Going out. Pounding at times. Calmly and steadily swelling and shrinking. Eroding the coastline as sand washes out to sea. Bringing in treasures of life. Washing away and purging in a never ending cycle of life and death, before and after.

My last writing about the SCDS was difficult to express. I want the so called normal back I suppose. The normal of life with Dave and the normal of good health. Everyone in bereavement knows about the “new normal” one is required to define for life after a death. I am no different.

I’m trying to find my pace.

My emotions are running high again. We passed the first big milestone of events since Dave’s death. Last week was Leah’s 25th birthday. I dug up photos of baby Leah to post on her Facebook wall. I waded through some that contained us, with Dave and her, and her alone. I chose a couple of newborn photos of Leah to remember. I can’t remind us of her dad being gone this birthday, I thought. Not that we don’t know it and feel it anyway.

I ordered individual photo memory boxes a couple of weeks ago for all the kids. They arrived last week and I am so pleased with how simple and perfect they are to honor each one with their dad. I made one for me too, to hold his wedding ring, and some other little trinkets. The pewter camels. The feely heart. His thumbprint from Father’s Day. I couldn’t find a photo of the two of us I liked. It seemed each froze a moment in time and I wanted to picture our 30 years in one image. When we filmed the hospice video there was a photo taken of our hands clasped together. I used this one because we always held hands- from the beginning of our relationship to the end. “To have and to hold” I wrote on it; to have and hold the memories and our vows. It’s perfect to me.

Saturday, the family came over to honor Leah’s birthday and her boyfriend Scott’s, too. It was also time to also get together since Dave’s death; to come back into this house without him. It felt to me like a bit of the elephant in the room but that moment had to be felt each in our own way. So with everyone coming over, and with Leah’s permission since it was her birthday, I prepared to give the boxes out along with the cheesecake.

I had lots of Dave’s guitar picks so I placed one in each box. What else can I add? We have some fingerprint jewelry on order but that hasn’t arrived yet.

So I’ve been cleaning out and looking. I found some TESC pins marking varying years of service. I can let those go. I wanted to find a particular medallion that Dave often carried to give. Nowhere. Having a reason to look is a great way to force action, to confront the things. But it also means running into the unexpected.

I stepped into his home office to find the medallion. Dave’s office has always been his own space (as it should). Other than routine dusting or a vacuum of the floor it was usually untouched by me. Rarely in the years I’ve known him could you see the top of his desk. Think nutty but brilliant professor! It makes my rotating piles of papers and books look manageable (mine are always changing; his stacks would just grow until the occasional purge). His bookshelves, all four with height extenders, are stuffed full. They wrap the entire room plus two corner bookshelves and the desk centered under the only window. Additional half size shelves and file cabinets also line the walls. It is a library in a room – his study. (I always worried about him being buried under books in an earthquake, but that would have been appropriate in a weird way.) Since his school office was emptied last June there are cartons of his portfolio binders and more books and important papers stacked on the floor. It is overwhelming to think about, much less sit among. But I wanted to find this special memento for one of the boxes.

Dave’s desk. There are a handful of student papers folded in half lengthwise, with last name penned on the top in Dave’s handwriting. This was his unique method of preparing the papers for return. The out box so to speak. 1/2011, the date. His two pages of ruminations for a seminar book laid on top of a stack of printed out research material and unread magazines – The Nation, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Asimov’s Science Fiction. I tossed the magazines into the recycle bin. There was a note from a colleague with response to his memoir writing he marked with yellow highlighter. Since his diagnosis, he had wanted to complete his writing about coming to Evergreen. It didn’t transpire as he desired. Two analog wristwatches, still ticking and gathering dust were tucked behind the computer monitor. I suppose these were back up watches in case of time failure?! The desktop itself is a time capsule. A man in the midst of work stopped, yet time keeps on ticking. This was just one of four stacks on his desk. Plus the printer and a standing file holder. I made new piles smaller from this first one. I’m not sure why.

Thoughts flooded me. Tears fell. I shook my head half-smiling with just “how he was” memories as I as tried to absorb what I looked at. I think he tried to sit at his desk maybe two or three times once he was struck down by the Tarceva, now well over a year ago. Clearly it overwhelmed him then as it overwhelms me now. I feel his loss of his career – forced retirement – as I sit in his chair. A man in the midst of work. He was still having fun.

There is so much more. I looked through the drawer. Sticky notes with important passwords, callbacks and phone numbers, a stack of pay stubs for which there haven’t been paper versions in years. I tossed a few wrappers. I sorted highlighters and pens together to consolidate the loose things in a coffee mug he probably received as a gift from a student. I looked in the crevices for where the coin might hide. I found a gold dollar. I laughed at the Costco pack of highlighters I bought years ago. Only the yellow removed, the other colors aren’t really good for highlighting, he told me. He would never throw them away or send them onward, they stayed in the drawer. Please don’t buy any but yellow, he said. There were tiny notes from Leah, a miscellaneous photo of him smiling back, business cards, stuff.

I found two paper towels carefully wrapped and taped. Dave always used paper towels instead of Kleenex. So funny, and so painful on the nose! I was sure to wash a few that would be in his jean’s pockets during the seasons of Spring pollen and September back-to-school colds. Eww, were these leftovers? No, they had tape on them. So I unwrapped the packets and, sure enough, I found a baby tooth in each. Dave kept all of Leah’s baby teeth. These were lovingly moved with the possessions from two other homes and now here they sat in his desk drawer. An almost full set of tiny teeth were placed in Leah’s memory box! See, I can let go of his things! Too funny. So Dave.

I turned to the stack on the floor brought over from his campus office. Student cards of thanks. Articles. An anniversary card from me. The original manuscript of The Dream Poet. Richard (Jones, author) must have given that to him. Wow. 30 years in thirty minutes. Marriage, best man, student adoration. Homes, work, parenthood. Cancers, medical appointments, illness. It was a time for me to play on a stream of consciousness and word association memories.

I couldn’t find the medallion. I tried not to get anxious over it.

Then it struck me, almost in a panic: the Hershey’s Syrup can. Where is it? I’m sure it’s here. I didn’t find it on the bookshelves. Of all things, I wanted to find the Hershey’s Syrup can. Later. Enough emotions for now. This was already a “good” cry for now.

So I prepared for the boxes and Leah’s birthday party. And the day before I found the Hershey’s can. Upstairs in my “extra” room, a room itself a monument to “things to be reviewed.” The Hershey’s can had adorned Dave’s desk from the time we were married. He loved vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup dripped over it. Apparently one day he opened the top of an empty can and used it for a pencil holder. Now that I find it, I also find Sponge-Bob and Powerpuff Girl candies on a stick getting stale, never to be eaten. In the can were more child gifts for a daddy: a pen with a musical clef shape and a pencil with a moon eraser. The can speaks to me of Dave’s simplicity, his never need much attitude, because he was rich in thought. He surrounded his little world with things of thought. He was content. He could buy a gold plated pencil holder if he wanted, but he didn’t. The Hershey’s can worked just fine. He was happy.

I had moved the Hershey’s can to a box along with some other memorabilia when we replaced the carpet in his office almost three years ago. That day was anxiety filled for Dave. His space, his world was going to be shaken. When the books were pulled from the shelves I had to mark each box and their books so they would be placed back in the same order. He had no discernable system or alphabetizing by title (like I do for the DVDs) but he knew which book was where. When I found the can, I found some other little pieces of his life that weren’t put back on his shelf after I restored his office, I felt sad for having interfered. I feel sad for having to interfere with his shelves now, mostly because of why I am in his office. He is not here to do this himself. He doesn’t need any of it any longer. And who does?

I found a clay figure Leah made in early elementary school of him reading a book to her. It used to sit among his books on the shelf. She painted him a striped shirt. She included his sometimes unruly black hair and beard. She made a little clay Leah who sat in his lap. I cried hard as I held it, not knowing why. Because it’s a good memory? Because her childhood is gone? Because her time of innocence is over? Because he can’t protect her any longer? Because I can’t protect her from his death? Because he will never have more reading time with a child (her child) again? Because his sentimental soul loved this handmade memory? All of the above, plus just pure raw emotion.

I know this is a long story. But I must take in the details, because these are the most important memories of what I miss about Dave. These are the memories of his being. Everyday. Each day. The hurt I suffer now is the one of grief (processing loss) for what was normal for us for a long time. The Hershey can for 30 years. Trinkets that fade into the background because they stand so long one doesn’t see them anymore. Notes that are retrieved whenever desired. Memories and life that gathers dust because they can be counted on for being there, where I left it and when I need it. Predictable. Comfortable.

I’m trying to find my pace this week – the pace for how to cope in work and loss and changed health. I am not able to wake up on a sunny day and think Spring cleaning. OK. I think Spring cleaning I just can’t act on it like I used to. This is the tough reality that comes with a rite of passage called forth by such as a decently long partnership and widowhood and even a daughter’s birthday. It is Leah who is 25 now. Not me. I have ailments and loss and exhaustion to get in my way of my new daily reality, my new normal. I don’t bounce back so quickly.

If it were possible I would compartmentalize these tough areas of life I am working through. Then I could respond to each one. I could make a pile and deliver each component to the proper space: recycle, keep, sell or give away. It is the organizer’s mantra. I could divide and conquer. But emotions and aging can’t be compartmentalized. They overlap and affect. They are funny intangibles that have a mind and direction of their own. They are to be experienced not managed.

I am setting the pace for my new normal, my way of being. It’s not all that different from my old self – the self that shared life with Dave. But it is an adjustment, a change. It is reminder that I have always and will always be required to rely on myself. We are all temporary.

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