The Other Side of the Moon

It has been several months since I published a post here and I’m not altogether sure that I’m ready to begin writing regularly again, but for today I am inspired to share, so here goes.

I look back to the first post in this blog: a discussion of its title, Transilience. Transilience means abrupt change coupled with resilience. Little did I know when I chose it, that the title would be prophetic. It had been my intention to write about my thoughts and observations on being a woman “of a certain age,” and on topics that might interest and inspire other women in the last third of life. Now, the name Transilience seems to perfectly describe this time in my life and an experience that many share.

Twelve weeks ago I said goodbye to my husband. He was my best friend, my sweetheart, my everything. We were alone in his hospice room that morning as he drew his final breath. I had been terrified of being there alone with him when he died, but when that moment came I was so glad there was no one to intrude. It was private, beautiful, and as peaceful an ending as could ever be.

In 2017, there were 11.64 million women who were widows in the US and 3.28 million men. While these numbers include widows of all ages, obviously the vast majority are older. And for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, most of the women who are widowed will never remarry. This means that millions of women are living a life they didn’t choose and didn’t want, that of being an older, single woman. Now I am one of them.

Since Will died, I’ve had many conversations about grief, mostly with people who relate it to the loss of a parent, sibling or friend. Grief is grief, right? We’ve all heard of the stages of grief we must traverse, and I’m given the repeated advice to take my time and be kind to myself. Dear friends have stayed with me, brought me food, mowed my yard, and regularly call or text to check on me and let me know I’m in their thoughts. I have been humbled by their thoughtfulness and attention. What few of them can know is how utterly and completely widowhood devastates your life. And how grief is far from being your only challenge.

When I was a kid, a popular plot theme in television shows and movies was that of a character with amnesia. Said character would awaken from some trauma unable to recall their own past or identity. The effort to build a new life from this nothingness would follow. This is very much the way it is when one is widowed. Though you recall the past in vivid, heart wrenching detail, you don’t know who you are anymore and the life you’ve led has been swept away as surely as ashes are scattered in a breeze at sea.

We knew for several weeks that Will was dying. In his final days he was never fully awake or coherent and I sat watching him slip away by excruciating degrees. Impending widowhood was in my peripheral vision, but I chose not to look too closely, knowing there would be an interminable eon in which to face it.

The first few days following his death were blessedly hazy. I had the warm comfort of my daughter and her family wrapped around me in a protective blanket of love. They fed me, hugged me a lot, let me sleep for many healing hours, and expected nothing of me. Plans for a celebration of Will’s life consumed the next couple of weeks, and were followed by a lengthy visit from an old school chum. But when the inevitable reality of my aloneness hit, it was as though a tsunami had swept away everything stable or secure I had ever known. Every single aspect of my daily life was different. Every single one.

It is hard to describe the changes, because where does one begin? With the morning coffee made for one? With the unslept-on side of the bed? With the single toothbrush in the holder? Or maybe with the discarding of “his” food items, the breakfast cereal and the jar of hot peppers that he loved. The rearranging of the closet and the dresser drawers. The sale of his vehicle. His mail, now addressed to “The Estate of.”

I’m struggling to learn to shop for and cook for only myself. I make notes on my calendar to check the oil in the car weekly and to take the garbage bin to the road, tasks I was able to ignore before. When the dogs must be walked while it’s dark or sweltering or rainy, it is up to me. When there is the bump in the night, I must gather my courage and investigate.

I frequently go for several days at a time without speaking with another human being. My dogs have become the recipients of my wandering thoughts and are the only witnesses to my tears and wails. The wailing that seemingly appears randomly, comes from deep, deep in my belly, and is unlike any expression I’ve ever made before.

The future is like a mirage. Sometimes it is a thing of beauty, shimmering and beckoning in the distance. Other times, it is elusive and shadowy, ominous in its brooding darkness. The past is equally treacherous, filled with holes of regret and the painful perfection of best memories. I am trapped on this small floating island of “today,” untethered and at the mercy of the tides which shift on a schedule not of my making.

I am striving to establish some sort of routine that will build structure in my new life. It feels a bit like construction made of straw, weak and tending to topple over with the slightest pressure. I’ve noticed that my tears have become less frequent since a recent week when I cried for days, the numbness worn off and self-pity taking its place. I see that my calendar has a half-dozen days filled with events to enjoy with family and friends. I seem to be better able to make decisions about the decluttering necessary for a future downsizing move, and the clearing of excess things in my home no longer feel like a loss.

But though I’m clearly moving forward, with the proverbial two steps forward and one step back, Will is still very real to me. My longing for him is endless and his absence is still a very raw wound. I talk to his picture, and each night I go out before bedtime and talk to him while gazing at the moon. Before he died, I promised him that each time I looked at the moon, I would assume he was on the other side looking back. “I hope that’s how it works,” was his tearful reply.

Though it still feels like my world is a shambles, I am slowly inching toward clearing the debris and finding those pieces that can be dusted off and put to use in my new life. A vision is gradually taking shape of what I want that new life to look like, and I’m learning to appreciate the freedom of selfishness with no one’s needs to consider but my own. I watch my widowed friends who are leading active meaningful lives and know that I will be there again one day.

Transilience has new meaning for me as I absorb this abrupt and profound change and I search for the resilience that will be my saving grace. There will come a time when my identity is intact and built on who I am rather than what has happened to me. I will again live in a cozy world filled with my loved ones, my treasures, and activities of purpose. These things I know. The healing will come, and the joy will return. Gratitude will fill the spaces where pain currently dwells, and the beauty of Will, watching over me from his side of the moon, will make my heart sing again.

Heirlooms: Blessing, Burden, or Bondage?

If you want to start a conversation quickly among a group of 60-year-old women, ask them how they feel about family heirlooms. I guarantee there won’t be anyone in the group without an opinion.

You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine it seems without finding mention of Marie Kondo’s little tidying up book or the latest craze of Swedish death cleaning-the practice of disposing of your possessions before you die, to save your heirs the trouble. Minimalism is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and Ikea is bigger and better than ever. Everyone wants to show you what to do with all your extra stuff.

But I’ve not seen mention of the specific emotional turmoil felt by so many of us over family heirlooms. As a somewhat gently raised southern girl, I’m here to tell you that those wafer-thin teacups, the twenty-pound lead crystal vases and the brass candlesticks shaped like pineapples carry more emotional baggage than any inanimate object has a right to.

One of my earliest memories was seeing my grandmother go through her china cabinet and carefully place a strip of adhesive tape on the bottom of each item with the name of a granddaughter, daughter-in-law or niece on it. She was bound for a nursing home and these were her treasures, the sum total of her family wealth and she was very definite about to whom each item should go. As I grew up many of these objects resided in that same china cabinet in our home, my mother’s sacred place.

Mother added her own articles through the years, told stories about the various pieces of china and crystal, and generally let it be known that these things were priceless and precious and woe be to the one who damaged any of them.

In short, she gave the objects a value far beyond what any antique dealer might offer and created within her children a sense of family history and the responsibility of stewardship of that legacy.

Unfortunately, she also created a lifelong sense of obligation, one that has not always been easy to uphold.

I began my adult life, living away from my parents, at the age of eighteen. I accumulated the household items and furnishings necessary to life as I could afford them. I once moved to a tiny furnished apartment, from the even tinier one I had been calling home, with two trips across town in my old Ford Pinto. It was accomplished in an afternoon, including packing and unpacking. In the more than forty years since, I have continued to add possessions, with many being items I dearly love. When my mother sold her home to downsize to a senior living efficiency apartment, the full onslaught of heirlooms hit hard and now I have begun to feel that I no longer own them, but that they somehow own me.

I don’t know anyone in my age group who doesn’t wrestle in one way or another with the emotional entanglement of previous generations’ belongings. We are the children of people who experienced the Great Depression with its many scarcities and deprivations. To have held onto a grandmother’s prized soup tureen through those dark times represented an accomplishment. Often there were memories of a mother’s loving hands tenderly caring for the delicate bone china brought from the old country, or stories about the silver flatware that was once used to serve a visiting dignatary, or a battered toy that had entertained three generations of pint-sized ancestors. The objects, as well as the stories about them, become a valuable part of the accumulated family wealth.

But when added to a household already bulging with its own accumulation, emotional conflict is bound to arise. What do you do with it all?

In the days when families were large, it was a simple matter to divide things as fairly as possible and each child receive a sampling of family treasures. But for those of us without a lengthy list of heirs and an entire Swedish death cleaning to get through, it takes on a new light.

My daughter flatly stated that if she wound up with her grandmother’s sacred set of Fostoria berry bowls, she would likely feed her children in them until they had all been broken. It is clear that she holds no sentiment over the family crystal.

A dear friend who is considerably younger than me, simply boxed up all her heirlooms and took them to Goodwill, saying it was one of her finest acts of claiming freedom. Another friend lost her home to fire several years ago and was left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. She mostly feels relieved of the burden of the heirlooms, but laments the loss of special ornaments each Christmas.

Another loved one recently sold her home just after retiring. I helped her pack. There were easily fifty or sixty boxes of heirloom china, objects d’art, silver serving vessels, and beautiful crystal that she must now find places for in her new home. A large shelf in her garage already holds many boxes of things labelled with her granddaughters’ names, to be given when the girls are established and ready for them. She vacillates between feeling deeply connected to her forebears and in bondage to their posessions. She has let go of many beautiful pieces, consigning them to an anticipated garage sale, with both relief and a large measure of guilt.

So what’s to become of it all? Our children live in a throwaway world of cheap, easily available and beautiful things. They enjoy the freedom of ordering just the lampshade or throw rug to complement their trendy decor, knowing that they can change it all easily when they tire of it.

In our mobile society, the connection to generations past is fractured, all but destroyed. There is no wonder to be experienced over a beautiful wooden bread bowl used for decades by their great-great-great-grandmother, or the crocheted bedspread made by their great-great-grandmother with love in every stitch. They have no memories of sitting at a table elegantly set with the treasured finery, and so they lack sentimentality about its disposition. So we, those of us in the last third of our life, must come to difficult and painful conclusions about what is to be done with it all.

I have made the decision that I’ll not stay in bondage to a collection of items, simply because someone who contributed 1/16 of my DNA once had it upon a shelf in their home. And I am struggling to break with the tradition of treasuring an item simply because my mother did. I plan to find new homes for these items among my nieces or perhaps the daughters of friends. It is time to allow someone else to love them, and put them to use rather than to hoard them in a cabinet and dust them once a year. As I anticipate simplifying and streamlining my life and preparing for a move to smaller quarters, it is a necessity.

But I’m keeping the bread bowl and the crocheted bedspread, and perhaps the crystal lemonade set as well. I can find a place for them, wherever I go.