Thursday, December 29, 2011

Grief: A Progress Report

Eldon, Iowa's McHaffey Opera House Thrift Store transforms
into a magical "Winter Wanderland" at Christmas --
but what did they do with all of Marcus' clothes?
With the holidays here again (my, how fast a year goes by!) and H gone for good, I’ve been experiencing a collision of past and present. As I try to make sense of what the hell my 4-month relationship with H was all about and how all that is left of it is…nothing, I have been simultaneously reflecting on my life at this same time last year.

This time last year I blogged about bicycling in the basement, about how my grief was stored in my cells and how physical exertion dislodged the sorrow that was burrowing in my cellular membranes, to the point I couldn’t exercise anywhere but in the safety of my house. I wrote about clearing space in the basement to set up the bike track stand and how that effort resulted in me letting go of a few of Marcus’ beautiful pieces of clothing. I didn’t handle the letting go with grace. I couldn’t even get to the post office without having a complete meltdown – as if sending Marcus’ cashmere coat to my brother in Seattle was reliving Marcus’ death itself.

With the smoke still clearing from the detonation of H, I have made the surprising discovery that grief – as if it were an entity of its own – is no longer dominating my life. (For the record, it has been 2-1/3 years since Marcus died.)

It only just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my grief in a while. That’s because when H was here, living in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (as he put it) for the past three months, there was not time nor space for shedding my daily tears over my late husband or writing letters to him in my journal or looking through our photo albums of our weddings, our European motorcycle trips, our life in Mexico, and our wilderness adventures. There was no privacy for expressing my sadness over losing Marcus, and certainly no blogging about the subject for god’s sake, not with a tall strapping man around.

With H around I didn’t ride my bike in the basement (How could I indulge in that, especially when I had even started calling it my “Crying Machine?!”) Instead, H and I spent long afternoons riding the beach cruiser bikes on the flat gravel roads -- with our destination a barn, where we fed carrots to a family of goats. (Happiness is feeling the wind in your face – and admiring the sexy ass of the guy on the bike next to you.)

And really, there was no need to cry, no ability to feel sad, when there was nightly entertainment in my living room. Letting H’s guinea pig out of his cage resulted in hilarious circus-like performances of guinea pig, H’s Chow and my two terriers chasing each other around and under the furniture. Seeing how a little one-pound rodent could intimidate three dogs made us howl with laughter. The only tears were the ones from laughing too hard.

It is also of note that when H first arrived, in my attempt to make him feel at home – and in my attempt to make room for new love in my life (both literally and figuratively) – I took down my shrine of Marcus’ framed photos in my living room and next to my bed. I also loaded up the rest of Marcus’ belongings (minus a few very special items, like his Lederhosen, Geiger sweater, Haferl boots, and German hunting boots) and hauled them off to Eldon’s thrift store at the McHaffey Opera House. I even donated the clothes that still held his scent – I had sealed them in a plastic garbage bag and because H was standing next to me when I put them in the washing machine I didn’t get to bury my nose in Marcus’ shirts and breathe in his scent one last time. It was an impetuous, “just get it over with” move and though I felt sick about it, I kept my mind on the future – I was making room for new love, damn it! – and pretended to H that I was fine with letting go. “I’m ready to give away his stuff,” I told H, while secretly trying to convince myself it was true. If only I could have just smelled his shirts one last time…

My relationship with H ended a week before Christmas. One could consider this to be bad timing. But it worked out well for me. True, being alone for the holidays could have sent me into a panic. I could have felt the need to run away from Eldon for fear of feeling isolated in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (insert eye rolling here). Or I could have embraced being home and simply hibernated like I did last year. But here’s the thing: The weather has been unseasonably, freakishly warm and sunny. It feels more like May than December. And that has made all the difference.

With balmy weather beckoning me out, not only did I spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day making the rounds to several friends’ houses, I also did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I went for a run. Outside.

Just this morning, I laced up my sneakers and hit the gravel road, following the Des Moines River downstream. It felt so good to move, to breathe in the country air, to feel the sun on my face that I ran at least six miles. I didn’t break down in tears. I didn’t feel the weight of grief bearing down on me. I didn’t have to walk home carrying a heavy load of sadness. It’s hard to be sad when it’s 50 degrees and sunny on a late December Iowa morning and you still have the strength and athleticism to go for a long run after an extended absence from the sport. And it’s especially hard to be sad when you are accompanied by a view of bald eagles soaring over the river.

The weather will inevitably turn cold. January will surely bring snow and ice. But I am ready for it. I am no longer riding my bike in the basement. I moved the bike and its track stand upstairs to the top floor. It’s in what I call my “dressing room,” in front of the “other” Gothic window that mirrors the famous one on the opposite end of the house. It’s another step away from the darkness and toward the light. The back window has a beautiful view of my big yard, several rows of pine trees, and open sky. But instead of staying inside, I know now that I can also put on my fleece tights and gloves, and keep running – snow or not – outside. And that is significant progress.

Part of Marcus' mini shrine
I don’t have anything more of Marcus’ that I will be taking to the post office or thrift store. It took over two years, and H moving in, but I have let go of the bulk of his belongings. Whatever is left I am keeping. Including an unwashed bath towel of Marcus’ packed in one of his boxes. (You didn’t think I was that stoic, did you?! I knew there was still something to sniff when I loaded that washing machine.) When I need a hit of his scent I know where to get it. And whenever I want to look at his pictures, well, I just have to look across my desk. With H gone, Marcus' shrine has been resurrected. Albeit a scaled down version, proving further progress.

As for making sense of H, I can already see how that relationship served as therapy, stripping away yet another layer of grief. Time heals, they say. And if that time was filled with someone who helped keep me from indulging in the daily sadness, someone who kept me from focusing on the past, someone who helped me to laugh again, then yes, absolutely, spending four months with H was worth whatever disappointment and confusion he left behind.

Still, it’s not as if my grief packed up and drove off with H. It’s just that I can see now how it has lessened, how even though grief is still present (and I understand that it will be for the rest of my life) it doesn’t have to hold me back. Oh, I still cry over Marcus. Even when H was here I still had my moments where I hid in my closet and let the tears flow. But the tears don’t debilitate me like they used to.

And so, with past and present now thoroughly examined, the nuclear fusion contained and wrapped up as if in a pretty Christmas package, it’s time to look to the future. Bring on the New Year. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.