Saturday, November 21, 2009

Seven Thanksgivings

I spent the last seven Thanksgivings with Marcus. Throughout the tumult of our marriage, often living apart on different continents, his job moving us to three different countries, our standoffs and stubbornness with each other, me threatening to leave him too many times, always finding our way back to loving each other... Throughout all of this only now in the wake of his death can I see there was one consistent thing we shared and never missed, something sacred and rich: we celebrated every Thanksgiving together. It was always my favorite holiday, and though Marcus was German he embraced the day -- and the overeating -- as if it was his own.

As this year's Thanksgiving approaches the despair and panic of missing him have already begun to overwhelm me. To keep myself busy and to "focus on the good memories, not on the regrets" (as my grief counselor wisely recommended), I took some time to search in my photo files until I found a picture from each year we spent the holiday together. Not that these "good memories" take away the pain and intensity of the loss, but in looking at the pictures and reminiscing I see the goodness, the love, and the connection we shared during our time together. And that is something to be grateful for.

Marcus and Beth's Thanksgiving Retrospective

2002 - Lehnigen, Germany
Marcus and I weren't married let alone engaged yet. I was trying to impress Marcus and my future in-laws with my cooking skills and pies --I even hauled cans of pumpkin, bags of cranberries and pecans, and Karo syrup over from the US -- but instead they impressed me! Their free-range turkey weighed 40 pounds and it was roasted to perfection in their traditional Backhaus. The oven was first heated with a wood fire, then cleaned out, and the sand in between its walls stayed hot for hours. I wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it for myself. The turkey was moist and delicious.

2003- Lehnigen, Germany

We got married in August/September and before we even went on our honeymoon it was already Turkey Time. Marcus' coworkers were so envious about our American feast the year before we invited the whole Daimler team. The aprons were a gift from Marcus' mom. Germans don't eat sweet potatoes so they are hard to find. I finally paid something like $10 a pound at a gourmet market for imported yams from Israel.

2004- Marina del Rey, California

This was Marcus' first Thanksgiving in the USA. We went to my parents' house in California and were joined by two of my four siblings. Below is Marcus, who had become an expert Thanksgiving sous chef by now, whipping the cream for pumpkin pie.

2005 - Oberdiessbach, Switzerland
This year we fulfilled a promise to my dear friends in Switzerland to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for them. They loved everything except for the pumpkin pie. "Next time make more apple," they said as they scraped the apple pie plate clean.

2006 - Lake Oswego, Oregon
When Marcus got a job transfer from Germany to Portland we promptly rented a cozy lakeside cottage and made a nest for ourselves. No matter that we didn't have furniture yet when Thanksgiving rolled around, my brother in Seattle (center), his wife (left) and his family of four kids drove down for our turkey feast and an overnight. For dinner we sat on lawn chairs and balanced the plates on our laps. For sleeping, the kids rolled out their sleeping bags on the carpet.
2007 - On board a Lufthansa flight to Germany
With the unexpected passing of Marcus' grandmother we gave all the pies and cranberry breads I had made to friends and boarded a plane bound for Bremen, Germany. We flew business class on Lufthansa and were happily surprised when we were served turkey and all the fixings during the flight.
2008 -- Saltillo, Mexico
I could have never EVER imagined that this would be my last Thanksgiving with Marcus. We had moved to Mexico for Marcus' job five months earlier. The boss of the new truck factory was American and he very thoughtfully organized dinner for the American expatriates. Lucky that Marcus had an American wife or he wouldn't have qualified! The dinner was held at a popular Mexican restaurant and we speculated on what kind of food they would serve, what would be the Mexican interpretation of Thanksgiving. We were impressed with the attention to detail, they got everything right down to the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

2009 -- Portland, Oregon
This year I have never had so many Thanksgiving invitations. I was very touched that so many people reached out, but early on I had decided I would stay in Portland and join our friends Alison and Thomas and their parents from Ohio and Boston. Alison and Thomas have been so good to both Marcus and me, sharing backpacking trips and barbeques over the years, and now they share stories of Marcus while propping me up.
In spite of being in good company I know it's going to be hard. I tell myself I won't be there alone. Marcus hasn't missed a Thanksgiving yet, so I know he will be there with me in spirit.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Letting Go of His Stuff...Or Not

Marcus died three months ago today. When is it time to let go of his stuff? Six months? A year? Ten years? Never?

We kept a storage unit here in Portland and I gathered up the nerve to set foot in it last week. Actually I went only to look for a tax document and stayed three hours. I organized all of clothes he had with him during his vacation in August, clothes that our friends tossed into garbage bags in our rush to make funeral arrangements.

Marcus took good care of his belongings, he folded every shirt, sock and pair of underwear with painstaking precision. He wouldn't have liked his things being treated this way. So I folded everything and placed it neatly in the large plastic tubs -- though I admit I smelled every item before putting it away, burying my face in the armpits of his shirts and the crotch of all his pants, longing for any hint of his scent.

I talked to Melissa that evening and she said, "Why don't you just pick ten things to keep and give away the rest?" To which I snapped angrily, "It was enough for me just to organize. I'm not letting go of anything!"
PHOTO: Dress for success. Marcus looked gorgeous in these shirts and always ironed them himself.

That was last week. I went back to the storage unit today to collect Marcus' dress shirts and wool trousers. My youngest brother wears exactly Marcus' size and I suggested I give him Marcus' cashmere sport coat as he just started a new job. He said yes and added that he was in need of more business clothes. I decided the rest of Marcus' work clothes would go to him, keep them in the family as a win-win. Marcus would approve and I wouldn't feel like I was truly letting go of them.

As I rummaged through the tubs I noted Marcus' abundance of hats, gloves, socks, fleece jackets, and sweaters. In my recent manic desire to clear out all clutter from my life, to simplify, to downsize (if one can actually downsize from a studio apartment), to lighten my load, I considered giving away Marcus' warm clothing. "Think of all the homeless people out there who could benefit from this pair of fleece gloves or this great hat," I thought.

Oh, but he wore those gloves to the park when he threw the stick for Jack. I bought him that hat in New York, in Little Italy. He looked so cute in it. We had so much fun that trip...

No! No, I couldn't do it. I couldn't give this stuff away, HIS stuff.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I put away the hat, gloves and everything else except for the dress shirts and trousers and snapped the lid shut on the tub. I pulled the door closed, locked the padlock and left the rest of Marcus' belongings where they were, secure, unused, and waiting for some distant day that I might be able to let go -- or at least go back and smell them again.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Seem Better...

PHOTO: Returning to familiar territory. Our old house (right), my new house (left)
“You seem better,” my dad said to me when I saw him this past weekend.
Really? Am I better?

Is better when you take the dogs on their nightly walk in your very quiet neighborhood, inadvertently get scraped by a thorny blackberry branch and let out a blood-curdling scream yelling “FUCK!!!” at the top of your lungs, collapse right there in the middle of the sidewalk at 11PM and sob so hard you scare your dogs, let alone the neighbors?

Is better when you call Marcus’ cell phone number and feel your heart race because you actually think there’s a possibility he’ll answer?

Is better when a friend brings over a box of fancy cupcakes and after she leaves you eat the whole box in ten minutes trying to fill the un-fill-able deep, cavernous, terrifying void left by Marcus?

Is better when you lie on the couch for two, three, even four hours just staring into space?

Is better when you eat a bowl of rice pudding – Marcus’ favorite – and raise your spoon toward the ceiling, offering him a bite, even making sure the spoonful has a sprinkle of cinnamon on it?

Is better when you climb to the top of a 3,000-foot mountain during a rain/snowstorm and in a fit of exhaustion and rage scream “MARRRRRCUSSSSSSS!!! I MISS YOUUUUU!!!” to the sky and just lie there on your back wailing in a wet puddle of snow?

Is better when you move into the apartment right next door to the house in which you used to live together so you can be closer to him, so he knows where to find you, and then turning the place into a shrine to Marcus by filling it with pictures on every wall and every shelf so each direction you look you see him?

Is better when you spend hours looking at photos of Marcus on your computer? Is better when you spend extra time looking at the pictures of him lying in his casket?

Is better when you go to the library and check out every single book available on the afterlife? Is better when you consult with three different psychics to try to communicate with your husband, to understand why he died, to find out if he is okay, to let him know you are so very very sorry for not being more loving, more patient, more respectful toward him?

I want to be better. I want to have a productive life again. I want to be able to accomplish more in a day than just staring into space. My grief counselor advised, “Grief is hard work. Even staring into space is doing the work.”

My friend Ann also said something helpful: “Give yourself a break, you lost your husband just a second ago in the scope of things.” A “second” in this case is three months. Three very long, painful, confusing, exhausting months. Three months of which I have very little memory as the shock has made time seem like a big blur.

Sorry, Dad. Someday I hope I am better. I’m not better. Not yet. But I’m working on it.