How Do I Miss Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

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With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.”~ Patti Davis

It is an everyday occurrence for couples who have happily survived 30 or 40 or 50 years of marriage. One spouse dies; the survivor begins a period of mourning that can easily last for years. The intensity of mourning is proportional to the number of years spent together. I am one of those people. My late wife is in my DNA and her DNA is the genetic good half of our three children. At some point I will likely stop grieving for her, but I will never stop missing her.

Nancy died on August 17, 2021. We were approaching our 46th wedding anniversary. She had suffered through a five year battle with pancreatic cancer and the cancer, as is almost always the case, won. By the time the end came, it had robbed her of her intellect and her consciousness and had disfigured her almost beyond recognition. her once-beautiful features distended, her limbs bent, her luxuriant hair a memory.

Two recent occurrences, which I will describe below, have shown me that missing one’s spouse is not a discrete state of being. It is comprised of a number of different types of memories, and there are different triggers for each. It is easier to identify the trigger, and give an example, than to try to categorize the different ways we miss our loved ones. I have identified around a dozen different ways the bereaved miss their spouses . Most of them are sensory, the remainder are tied to events, calendars and places.

Seven Sensory Triggers

Visual triggers usually come to us through photographs and videos. We see our loved one in happier days, when they were young and healthy and vibrant and completely alive. I have an Echo Show in my family room which scrolls through a thousand photographs. Each time she appears on the screen takes me back to the time when the picture was taken. Our sense of sight inflicts this punishment on us; the blind are spared this particular agony.

Auditory triggers for me come in a number of different flavors, the primary one being the songs we fell in love to and countless others that we loved during almost 50 years together. We had our first dance as a married couple to Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” I play the piano, and there are several songs I’m unable to play anymore without weeping. Birds grace us with their whistles and calls. My family and I believe Nancy visits us in the form of a female cardinal–“Where cardinals appear, angels are near.” Even the sound of the dryer door closing can do it. There are times when I wish I was deaf.

Gustatory triggers come to us through food. She was constantly amazed at how vivid my memories of certain flavors from my childhood were, and still are. A made-from-scratch birthday cake. My mother’s cream cheese and garlic party dip. The salad dressing at the restaurant where I parked cars in college. Now, of course, memories of her come to me in her apricot cake, her pumpkin chiffon pies, the delicate almond cookies she hated baking but loved giving away. Her tomato, corn and bean salad. Miss Giddy’s fried chicken (a name well-known only to members of her family). My daughters and I remind the grandkids of the recipes that Nanny used to make. She spent weeks making a family cookbook for granddaughter Lila, who cooks from it regularly.

Tactile triggers, fortunately, are rare. I held a gold chain I had given her years ago in my hand the other day. Gold has a peculiar, almost soft feel to it, and I remembered her wearing it most days. Going through her jewelry, separating the precious from the dross, I recognized the textures of a number of pieces, mostly costume jewelry, that she enjoyed wearing. I will always remember and miss the feel of her skin, holding hands during Mass, carrying her around in the water at the beach. She took most of these memories with her.

Olfactory triggers, as I discovered again just the other day, are powerful reminders of those we have loved and lost. She favored two Innis fragrances, Moonlight and Free. They have similar scents and both infuse her sweaters, in her dresser and her closet. I began crying the other day searching for something in her dresser, and have not yet been able to approach her closet, which needs to be cleared out. But doing so feels like I’m sending her to Goodwill and Dress for Success. Simply can’t do it yet. Our daughters are going to have to get involved in this.

Proprioceptive triggers are associated with proximity and movement, both of which our bodies can perceive. As I sat through Mass on Palm Sunday, I was overcome by the sense not of her presence but of her absence. 98% of the time I’ve ever spent in our church she had been right beside me. On that Sunday I could feel her absence and it was palpable and overwhelming. I have decided to join a different church, one that we rarely attended together. This was a truly powerful experience, one I hope never to have again.

Kinesthetic triggers are associated with keeping track of our bodies. They are what keep us, generally, from accidentally hitting our bed partners in our sleep. When we roll over, something helps us keep our limbs close to our own bodies. I would guess that in almost 46 years of marriage I might have kicked or clubbed her in my sleep perhaps half a dozen times, which is statistically significant.

Other Triggers

Holidays bring their own set of clear memories to bear. Why is it that happy memories generally make us sad? Christmas, Easter (Nancy’s favorite), Halloween, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, even birthdays, are easy to remember clearly. I have very few memories of gifts, much more of the people who were there, where we celebrated, things like that. For some bereaved spouses, holidays are their own special minefield, to the point that some widows and widowers are unable to celebrate certain holidays or anniversaries after a death.

Vacation and location triggers can hit us looking through photographs, maps and globes, seeing ads for river cruises we never got around to taking. Visiting a city where we used to live (Annapolis and Cincinnati, in our case.) A trip to the art museum, of which she was a faithful supporter. Summer concerts outdoors at Conner Prairie. All these things are fertile ground for taking a few private moments to miss her.

Historical and calendar memories. Celebrating the Bicentennial on the Mall at the Washington Monument in 1976. New Year’s Eve on Y2K. September 27th every year, the date of our wedding in 1975. Her birthday, the day she died, the day she found out she had a terminal illness (June 2). The birthdays of our daughters, remembering being there in 1977, again in 1980, and the last time in 1984.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to understand that the world we occupy after the death of a spouse may be full of family and laughter and joy, but that painful memories are lurking in the corners and crevices. For the newly bereaved, one must be aware that some rocks have snakes under them; we must be careful turning those rocks over. We will certainly have happy times in our new world, but the memories, and the things that trigger them, are numerous and often unexpected.

Running low on dreams

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© Bruce Allen   October 21, 2021

I admit to never having been much of a dreamer. I’m sure there are a host of reasons why, but I can’t recall more than a handful of what one thinks of as dreams in my adult life, after the NBA and MLB became inconceivable.

Let’s see. Since high school I remember dreaming about meeting The Perfect Woman and living happily ever after; I grew to believe that I had checked that one off. In high school, I dreamt of becoming a guitar and keyboard player in a big rock band. That, I realized in college, wasn’t going to happen. In college, I dreamt of saving the world from itself. Right. Once married with children, I dreamt of becoming a captain of industry, one able to pay his bills without worry. For a number of years I dreamt only of getting out of debt. I dreamt briefly about working for myself; that particular dream cost us 300 large.

There was a period of time, a sweet spot for us, between maybe 2009 and 2016. We were happy, both working, she was making more than ever; I was working at Chase for insurance and gas money. But we were putting a third of what we were earning into retirement accounts, playing catch-up until maybe 2013, when, suddenly, and for the first time in our married lives, the prospect of a dignified retirement came into view. I allowed myself to dream about our golden years spent visiting kids and grandkids and going to graduations and weddings, doing a little more traveling, puttering in the yard until most of those dreams came crashing down in 2016.

Since then I’ve found dreams hard to come by. Nancy took most of the few I had with her when she left. I look at my future and it’s hard to argue against the observation that most of the good things that were ever going to happen to me in this world may have already occurred. I don’t make good use of my time. I am developing a list of low-grade health concerns, with outpatient surgery in the foreseeable future. Plus a crown. Plus getting my blood sugar under control. Plus my vision keeps getting worse.

Seems like most of the encouragement I’m getting to soldier on and find new things to do calls upon me to do a lot of stuff vicariously. “Take better care of yourself, so you can go to their graduation.” “They’ve already lost their Nanny, they can’t deal with losing their PopPop anytime soon.” Kind of like emotional sub-letting.

I can’t put my finger on anything I would call a dream at this point. All I know for sure is what I don’t want. I don’t want a long, agonizing descent into decrepitude. I don’t want the grands to have to watch me going down the tubes for months and years. So, yes, I guess I still have a dream, that of saying goodbye to this world not soon, but relatively suddenly, and before all the wheels fall off my brain and body.

Before The Flood, I had given some thought to moving after Nancy passed. I was looking at houses on the west coast of Michigan and around Burlington, VT, places that get real winters. But the closing of the show with Nancy made me realize that, living alone in a remote place and getting ill would become a cluster of the first order. That I would likely always live here, where my daughter and her family live. If they were to move for his job, I would have, I suppose, a choice of wherever they land, or Chicago or Seattle. I would have no reason to stay in Blood Red Indiana.

Reverting to cliche, I observe again that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Without dreams, how is one to know which road to choose? Isn’t it our dreams which guide us, which drive many of our decisions, which make it possible to endure the heartache that comes to the thousands and thousands of people who end up in my boat every day? I suppose my remaining dream is to not feel like this forever. I need to reach a point where I can tell Nancy’s story without falling apart. There is yet no shadow on the horizon suggesting what a Chapter 2 of my life might look like.

So, never having been the sharpest blade in this particular drawer, the introspection drawer, I feel as though I’m flailing, looking for something to capture my attention other than watching the birds feed in the backyard. As of yet, I’m not feeling ready to try to tamp down my grief and make room for other emotions, other friends, other activities. I’m pretty sure I’ll feel differently at some point down the road. All I know is that right now, today, the future appears dreamless.

A Summer Unlike Any Other

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© Bruce Allen                            August 31, 2021

I’ve always enjoyed winter weather. I tend to run hot, and in winter I’m usually comfortable, inside and outside the house. Don’t mind plowing the driveway, don’t mind slipping and sliding in the car. Don’t like all the salt, but what is one to do? Of the four seasons, winter has been my favorite for a long time.

Early spring and late fall have always been nice. The change of seasons is in full swing; one of the few good things about living in Indiana is that one does get a taste of all four seasons, summer being the longest and most oppressive. My snowblower is now four years old and has about 20 hours on it, most of those spent plowing the sidewalks on my dogwalking route.

Fall was always my second favorite–baseballs and footballs filling the air, cool, crisp days, out in the country the look of farm fields getting prepared for winter. Fall dropped in the ratings back in 2005 when our dog Amos needed to be put down. The effect when we lost Gracie was not nearly so pronounced, so February is still okay. But the Ben Hur Lampman poem about where to bury a dog was written for a dog like Amos. October lost some of its allure after he passed.

I’ve never really liked summers. I inherited a pronounced intolerance to heat and humidity from my dad, who suffered mightily in the hot months and whose idea of a nice day at the beach involved a gin and tonic, an air-conditioned living room, and a color TV. He did like to open the sliding glass doors of their condo at night and listen to the waves. But summer for me has been, for a long time, something to endure, something to get through. Probably not a coincidence that I’m writing this on the last day of August, two weeks to the day since Nancy died.

Two weeks since the brutal struggle of her last week on earth came to a merciful close. Two weeks that have found me still in shock, immobilized, unable to stop weeping, unable to say why I’m weeping other an insightful “just everything.” Unable to write these damned thank-you notes because my eyes fill with tears and I can’t see down through my bifocals. I can’t talk about it; I can only write about it with dry eyes.

Most of the time, the feeling is similar to back when she would take a week in Seattle and I would stay home with the dog. Those ‘staycations’ for me were a way to spend a few unsupervised days attending to my various vices–smoking cigars, bad food, lots of CNN–with no fear of discovery. Only I can’t shake the fear of being discovered, can’t stop listening. Then arrives one of those moments that cause me trouble, when I have to hit myself on the forehead to remind myself that she won’t be back. I realize now that I probably asked her a dozen questions a day. Those questions are going unasked and unanswered. Where are her pearls? Where is the bequest ledger of all things? How is it that I ended up having cheese and crackers and a brownie for dinner last night?

We have a friend who is gravely ill with cancer and I’m taking some egg custards over there in response to my WWND–she would have me make egg custards and then drive her over there with them. So I might as well do it myself. WWND intended to drive me to that conclusion in the first place. But our friend’s prognosis is poor and about to get worse, I fear, and I may not get another chance. I will probably end up spending plenty of time with her husband; they were married forever, and he will be a mess. Next up will be our old friends on the south side who have myriad health issues themselves.

I’m trying to find someone to serve outside of myself, and these friends seem to be the first logical choices. There will be others. Going with my daughter next week to visit one of Nancy’s collection of disabled people over at his group home on the west side.

Things were getting bad for Nancy this past spring, but she was determined to get her last Bethany trip done. So she toughed through the pain for months in exchange for one last week in the sand with her grand kids. Things went straight downhill once we returned. Six weeks later she was gone. A lost summer, a memorable summer, a gruesome summer for the girls and me.

So far this has been worse than I had anticipated. It’s a guy thing, and I should have recognized it as such early on–the tendency to underestimate the difficulty of pretty much everything. The extent to which I have underestimated the emotional toll this is taking on me is laughable; I am going to have to seek counseling if things don’t improve in a hurry. For now, I am hunkered down, trying to discern God’s will in all of this. It seems to be venturing close to my motto, “Be humble or get humbled.”

My new bank checks arrived yesterday. Her name no longer appears on them; our joint account is now a single account. It feels disloyal. Lord please deliver me from too many more summers like 2021.

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Nancy and two of our girls, late in the game. Still smiling.