40

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I never made a big deal about my birthday in my 20’s. In fact, I had a bit of distaste for people I knew who insisted on being fawned all over on their special day. Sure, your birthday is a time for people to celebrate you coming into this world, but do you really need everyone to kiss your feet and carry you around on a palanquin, as if you are a king or queen? I spent several of my birthdays in my 20’s comfortably alone. One year I spent that day solo in Florence – contemplating the majesty of The David and musing over the never ending frescos. Another year I was holed by myself up in a 5 star hotel in Delhi, avoiding the pestering vendors and rickshaw drivers after 6 straight weeks of constantly being harassed. When I turned 29, just 9 days before my wedding, I was in Paris with my best friend from college Rob, who was to wear a tux and carry a bouquet when he would be my Maid of Honor the following week. We celebrated my upcoming nuptials but my birthday wasn’t a thing.

For some reason, when I turned 30, for the first time I hoped for a bit more fanfare. I was a new mom – still recovering from a C-section 3 months beforehand, still breastfeeding my little Isabella. I was in frumpy mom clothes – red sweat pants, an open pink cotton button down shirt, and a nursing tank top smudged with damp milk. John made home made pizza, didn’t cook a vegetable or salad, and then after dinner went to the garage to get stoned with his friend while I stayed in and soberly nursed a hungry baby Isabella. Later that night he made no sexual advances towards me and instead went out with a friend while I went to sleep. When a woman is getting older, she wants to feel attractive and physically wanted on her birthday. My 30th was an epic failure, and after the fact John figured it out and felt terrible.

Here’s the thing about marriage – your success as life partners isn’t so much about the conflicts that you have, but about how you repair and recover. John and I didn’t always communicate well during times of conflict, but we always knew how to come back together. We loved and respected each other dearly and, once one of us realized the other was unhappy, we did what we could to make things better. We didn’t hold grudges and we didn’t try to punish each other. I was always able to let go of frustrations with him (and vice versa) by simply meditating for a few moments on all the wonderful things he did for me – all the nights when Isabella was crying and he lovingly took her from my arms so I could sleep, the way he waited on me hand and foot after I was cut open – bringing me meals on a tray and delicately taking the steri-strips off my incision. John was a wonderful husband, and any missteps were but brief moments in time during a marriage that was filled with wonder and joy.

After the debacle of my 30th birthday, John proceeded to throw me the most elaborate and wonderful birthday dinners every year. He would invite 20 of our best friends, spend 10-12 hours cooking an enormous multi course meal, and would always make sweet love to me later that evening. For my 39th birthday he made 11 Spanish dishes including seafood paella, clams cataplana, ham lollipops, mushrooms with garlic and white wine, and more. In fact, he went to so much effort, eventually I had to tell him to cook simpler banquets so that he would actually have time to spend with me during the meal, rather than being chained to the kitchen.

After my 39th birthday I posted the following note to my friends –

Thank you for all of the birthday wishes! I have to say this is by far the loveliest birthday I have had in years. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what made it so incredibly wonderful. Perhaps it was the AMAZING 11 dish Spanish feast John cooked on Saturday for us and a number of our best friends, the 4 bouquets of flowers I was given and the super fancy multi layer cake that ex-pastry chef Sean made. Perhaps, though, it was so wonderful simply because I felt so loved. At this time in my life, I feel more total love coming to me (from many sources) than I have ever before in my life. In fact, I think that most of this love has already been there, but now I am finally able to fully receive it. I have come to realize that my heart has been covered in armor for years due to some past trauma that I hadn’t let go of. It has been painful to reach inside and allow myself to really feel the pain that is there such that I can finally let it go. As I often tell my yoga students – “We are all human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.”. The pain I have allowed myself to feel has helped me to let go of my hard outer shell such that I can open more full to love and joy. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this process. Thank you for loving me, and thank you for being patient enough to wait around until I was ready to receive this love fully. I feel more loved than ever before, and I am filled with incredible gratitude for this gift.

John and I spoke at times, after my 39th, about what I might like to do for my 40th. He was determined to do something extra fantastic and special. He suggested maybe he send me on an exciting climb of Kilimanjaro in Africa while he stayed home with the kids, or perhaps we get childcare and take a luxurious week long vacation together. Because we had Isabella so quickly after getting married, we hadn’t taken a week together just us since our honeymoon. We didn’t settle on any one idea, but it didn’t matter – John would have made it amazing. I told him many times how happy I was to turn 40. Of course, 40 is the stereotypical age when a woman is “over the hill”, but I wasn’t worried about that. I told John that turning 40 was wonderful, because I was in the best shape of my life, had 2 beautiful children, a lovely home, and the most amazing husband I could ever ask for. I loved my life in just about every way, so why would I be unhappy about growing older? If growing older meant more of the amazing life that I had, then I couldn’t be anything but thrilled.

Now, John is dead and I’m not happy to turn 40.

Now, I’m an almost-40 year old broken widow who is a single mom to 2 traumatized girls.

Now, I’m single and I have to contemplate entering the dating scene as an “over the hill” 40 year old woman.

A widow friend of mine told me of her own recent first birthday after the loss of her partner. She said “It was horrible. I wish the day had never happened. For your birthday I’m going to make you a card that says “I hope your birthday doesn’t suck too badly.””

You see, my birthday is a reminder that, even though John is dead, life keeps moving forward. I am getting older, but John stays the same age. My friends will be holding a birthday dinner for me, but John won’t be there. John won’t be cooking me any special dishes, and after dinner, I will be going to bed alone. I have been wishing, for months, that my birthday would just disappear. I don’t want to celebrate a birthday without John by my side. I don’t want to become a stereotypical over the hill 40 year old single mom. I just want to disappear into the mountains and pretend I’m still 39.

None of you can fix this for me. Sure, you can make me dinner, hug me, tell me you love me, and pamper me on that day. All of those things help to soften the edges so that, perhaps, I won’t lay on the floor that day and drown in a pool of the blood that flows from my broken heart. But still, you can’t fix it. Things are going to get worse before they get better. Shortly after my birthday will be the first wedding anniversary that I celebrate without John, and shortly after that will be the 1 year anniversary of his death. Very dark times lay ahead.

I can feel how painful it is for many of you to watch me gasp for air as I fight the dark undercurrents in my ocean of grief. You all want me to get better, but that’s not in the cards right now. The way out is through – I will never get better unless I allow myself to feel and process the excruciating pain that is the loss of my wonderful John. Sit with me, hold me, but most importantly – be ok with me not being ok. I bring myself back to the words that I wrote after my 39th – “We are all just human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.” Thank you to those of you who can sit with my pain, while also helping me to remember that there is joy to reach towards. I reach for it, but the journey through is long and exhausting. In some ways I have never been more alone, but at the same time – I don’t believe I have ever been more loved. John still loves me, and so do all of you. Thank you.

Undying Love

It only took one night for me to fall in love with John. It was Monday, August 25, 2003. I had met John a couple of times before but we had only shared a few words. On that fateful night I arrived in Black Rock City, Nevada, to be welcomed with open arms by 100 of my friends in our village at Burningman. Most of the village infrastructure was in place when I arrived, so I proceeded to setup my personal tent – a cheap Costco monstrosity, as no one wants to let their expensive mountaineering tents get destroyed by the playa. I donned my outfit for the night – zebra print pants and fairy wings that lit up with pink and blue EL (Electro Luminescent) wire. The EL wire was on a sequencer and flashed from top wings to bottom wings, so that it looked like they were flapping. The year before I spent a week making them with a beautiful raven headed goth named Lena whom I briefly dated. I was home.

I walked over to a brightly lit tiki hut, as it was the most active spot in the village. I didn’t know John well, but I knew it was his hut. I’d heard he and friends had spent months hand building it in his garage. The structure was made out of bamboo poles and came apart in sections so that it could be sent to the desert on a 24ft Uhaul truck and re-constructed on the playa. The counters were shiny with shellac and the thatched roof was hand sewn. Inside were stations for 2 bartenders as well as mint, rum, sugar, lemon juice, soda water, cups, and straws for thousands of mojitos which were to be given away to happy burners over the course of the week. John was behind the bar with a huge happy grin on his face. He had dyed his hair neon orange and had a tangle of mardi gras necklaces around his neck, given to him by cute women who were thankful for their free drinks. His shirt was patterned blue and red paisley and he had orange shorts to match his hair. He smiled at me and I was drawn in.

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Later that night John asked me to go for a walk. Others joined us but they must have sensed that something was brewing as they eventually all peeled off. By 2am it was just John and I, the deep desert, and the moon. That was back when burningman was smaller – maybe 25k people instead of the 70k it is today. Back then you could wander off into the deep desert and be alone, and that was what we wanted – to be completely alone in the most wonderful way on the dry, barren playa – just us and the moon.

We walked and talked. John asked me if I ate meat and if I wanted to stay in Seattle for the long term. When I answered both questions in the affirmative, he smiled and I had the sense that I had passed all the tests I needed to pass. Eventually some wind kicked up and we watched the moon disappear. We opened our camelback packs and pulled out goggles and dust masks just as we found ourselves in full whiteout. It delighted both of us – to be desert warriors, alone on the playa but not alone with each other. Eventually the wind and dust calmed down enough that we were able to remove our protective head gear and John turned to me for our first kiss. I will never forget how the remaining dust surrounded us as we connected. It felt like we were in the most beautiful, natural, cocoon while the dust, wind, and and the rest of the planet kept rushing by. Our mouths were dry and dusty and he slid his arms around my back – over my shirt but under my camelback – the one piece of gear you are never without in the desert. That kiss lasted forever, and I never looked back.

John and I spent that entire week together – dancing, roaming, exploring, drinking sweat off each others bodies in my hot stuffy tent. Three months later we were living together, a month after that he put a ring on my finger, and a few months after that (just 7.5 months after that fateful night), we were married. Many people questioned our quick union. My mother said “I’ve seen you fall in love and say you wanted to be with someone forever a few times.”. A recent ex-boyfriend, who was not happy that I was moving on from my relationship with him, told John “You know she is just looking for someone to knock her up.” Still, John and I were never confused about our future path. I always told him that saying “yes” to his proposal was the easiest decision I’ve made in my life.

Of course, as with all marriages, ours had it’s ups and downs. We didn’t always communicate well. I was too direct and harsh, he was passive aggressive and held things in. He partied too much, I worked too much. I was terrible at asking for help when I obviously needed it, and would become cranky instead of reaching out. However, we loved each other. It was that true, all-encompassing sort of love, the sort of love where there was complete, unconditional acceptance. Over the years we saw each other in every negative state possible – grouchy, angry, post-surgery cut open, inebriated, argumentative, passive-aggressive, exhausted, impatient, etc. We also saw each other in all of the positive states, but those aren’t the challenging moments. Through it all, our commitment to each other was never in doubt. John is the one man who looked to the depths of my soul, saw me raw and bare with all of my faults and imperfections, and loved me just the same. He saw all of me and never tried for a moment to make me someone I was not. John and I often discussed our philosophies around marriage – that marriage is a package deal. When you love someone and plan a life with them, you embrace the whole package – all the positive qualities but also all the faults and imperfections that make that partner real and even more beautiful in his/her humanness. God damn I loved that John package and never for a moment wanted to be partnered with anyone else.

There were so many times when he reminded me of how sweet and pure his love was. My teeth have all sorts of hairline fractures and are falling apart (I started grinding them intensely when I was at MIT). Once I asked him “Will you still love me when all of my teeth fall out?” Without missing one beat, he said “Of course, and I will even buy you new ones.” Another time he complimented me on how I looked and I happened to be wearing contact lenses. I said “Do you wish I wore contacts more often?” he smiled and sweetly said “No, because then you wouldn’t be my glasses girl.” John took care of me like no one ever had and taught me that I can indeed be vulnerable with someone. When I had a traumatic C-section with Isabella, he spent the next 2 months waiting on me hand and foot while I healed. Then, when it happened again with Melanie, he did the same. John was everything I needed him to be at every important milestone throughout our 10 yr marriage.

Even with all of that love, I had fears about growing old. My father is mostly deaf and somewhat senile at age 70. I already have noticeable hearing loss and sense that I will be on his path. I used to joke with John – if I’m old, deaf, and senile, will you take me on a mountain and please let me wander into a crevasse, so that I’m put out of my misery? He would look sad and tell me that he would never do that, and I knew he was right – that man would have stood by me through anything, and I him.. There is nothing more comforting than knowing that your partner will be there for you through any horrific illness or trauma that you might encounter. Our commitment to each other flowed through every fiber of our bodies. Our friends often said (and still say) that we were a couple they expected never to divorce. After John died, people sadly shared with me that they held us up as one of the few couples they knew who were still totally romantically in love with each other after being together for such a long time. We adored each other, still do – even after his death.

It didn’t take John’s death for me to realize how wonderful he was. When he was here on this planet, I told him all the time. I showered him with affection and told him I loved him many times a day. I grabbed his ass every time people weren’t looking, and often when they were. We had sex several times a week (or more) up until the week he died. People often say that once you have kids, the sex goes away, but that wasn’t true with us. We made it into a game. Sometimes we would lock ourselves in our walk-in closet and have sex standing up, telling the kids (who were wrestling on our bed) that we were just “taking our time getting dressed”. Other times we would hear the kids playing upstairs and he would say “quick, here’s our window” and then he would pull up my skirt, put one of my legs up on the kitchen counter, and take me right there, hoping the kids didn’t wander down. We were crazy about each other. I loved that man more than I thought was possible, and even then – that love only grew over the 10 years we were together. John was my guy. He balanced me. He completed me. He helped me to follow my dreams and I supported him in following his. Our friend Erin, who watched us fall in love that week at Burningman, recently said “He melted you. I mean, he melted the Ice Queen! No one else was able to do that.” John softened me and helped me to become a better me, without trying to make me someone I was not. I knew we would be together for as long as we both shall live.

The amazing thing is – even though I loved him so much, even though I fawned over him all the time and had unbounded gratitude for marrying such a truly wonderful man, it turns out I still didn’t know how deep the love was. Now that he is gone, I ache for him in a way that I cannot express. Even almost 10 months after loss, my whole body hurts. Just this last week, twice I found myself sobbing on the floor of my bedroom at 3am, listening to songs that make me think of my sweet John. Today I cried as I drove the girls to school, I cried as I drove back from their school, and I had two separate loud sobbing sessions on my mat as I tried to do yoga in my precious studio – all before 11am. I want my life back. I want my John back.

I find myself often reaching for his soul. I have this gut instinct (which I feel no need to prove) that his soul swirls around above Mt Rainier. He loved that mountain. He always said that when he died, that was where his ashes were to be spread. If he had to die early, it’s where he would have wanted to pass. I have this deep sense that the Mountain Gods chose him to be one of them, and he is now with them, looking down, watching over that beautiful and fierce volcano. I want to be with him, but I also know it is not my place to choose how, when, or even if I get to float by his side.

I’ll say it again – I want to be with him. It is not that have nothing to live for, and I would never consider hurting myself – it’s not my place. It’s just that… I miss him. I feel lost without him. I am torn in half. I cannot let him go. When I sit and meditate in my yoga studio, the one that he built for me as an expression of his love, all I can see is his beautiful gentle twinkling bearded face. Sometimes I stand on my roof, weeping, looking towards Mt Rainier, allowing him to shine the bright beam of his love onto me so that I may find the strength to move forward. Often I let his soul float all the way down from Rainier to Seattle so that he comfort me. He comes down, wraps his arms around me, and tells me that he is proud of me. He says that he sees how hard it is. When I stumble, he smiles and says he wouldn’t fare much better. John is the only one who doesn’t judge me for a nanosecond. I only receive love, compassion, and understanding from him. When I feel completely alone (which is often) and need to be held, I reach for him and he is there. Sometimes I feel pathetic – reaching for my dead husband’s soul when I’m needy and hurting. Still, I do it – when I’m so sad and lonely that I feel I will literally vomit from the pain, I invite him down and let him hold me, stroke my hair, and tell me that somehow I will survive and everything will be ok.

Sometimes I find myself lost in the question of what my path would be, post-loss, if I didn’t have children. I know what I would do. I would keep climbing. I would wander into the woods for weeks on end, growing a metaphorical beard, weeping into the hillside, covered in filth. I would keep climbing until the Mountain Gods claimed me. To be clear – I would never jump off a cliff or take inappropriate risks. If I did then John and the Gods would not approve and would not allow me to join them. I would respect the mountains, as John taught me to do, and would be patient, knowing that it was to be the choice of the Gods and not of my own. It might be that they took me in a year, or not until I turned 80. Still, in this fantasy, I keep climbing until they have mercy. I keep climbing until I perhaps get to be with him. And then, should I be given such a great honor as to be claimed by them, the dream continues on to what it would be like to float up there by his side. John and I would be unified in our goal to watch and protect the mountain – sometimes releasing gentle rain, sometimes fierce winds, sometimes shooting down crackles of lightning bolts.

That’s how much I love John.

The life that I had is gone now. I mourn the future. John and I and the life we had was like one big puzzle. Now a bunch of random pieces are ripped out. I cannot live the same life with a bunch of holes. I need to find a new future. I need to make a new life post loss. There is pain and challenge on so many levels of my life right now. I constantly struggle to not become completely hardened, frozen, despondent.

Still, I have gratitude. I married the most wonderful Northwest nature boy named John. He gave me everything I could ever ask for and continues to give me a love that will never die. No one can take that away from me. No one can make him stop loving me. John continues to give me the greatest gift I could be given – his love, and I continue to give the same to him, even after his death. He thanks me, often, and I feel what an honor it is for him to be loved so deeply for the rest of time. Not everyone is loved that deeply in life, but John was, and still is.

Earlier this week I was at women’s bath house with a couple of widow friends. We sat in the tubs, naked, with ridiculous cotton shower caps keeping our hair out of the drains. The hot water was soothing. I was able to breathe, relax, and let my muscles drop a bit. Then I disconnected from everyone around me and connected again with John’s soul. I found myself begging him to wait for me, to save space by his side for the day that I’m allowed to be with him. I told him that it’s absolutely fine for him to have trysts with other souls along the way, as long as there is a place for me later.

John – I love you forever and beyond. Wait for me, and I’ll wait for you.

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