Category Archives: appreciate what love means

What it means to be a widow

There are tons of things that I thought I’d be in life. Being a widow is not one of them.

When I was a kid I had dreams of being a pro athlete. Then in college, I dreamed of becoming a college All-American in running, and that happened on a team basis.

Then I went on in life, becoming a writer, an artist, an environmentalist and a liberal Christian. Some of these things have earned me friends. In other cases, enemies. It’s only proof that there are some things we seek in life, while others come our way no matter what.

And yet, becoming a widow was not one of the things I ever imagined happening.

Not so early in life, anyway. Three years ago this March my wife passed away after eight years of chemotherapy, surgeries and side effects resulting from all those cancer treatments. Cancer finally migrated to her brain, for God’s Sake. That was December 26, 2012. She submitted to brain surgery and radiation, but the tale was already written. Bravely she stood before mortality and only briefly did she admit that might not work. Three months after that numbing, post-Christmas diagnosis, she passed away in her own home in the company of her two children and husband.


Thanks to her strength, we enjoyed eight years of survivorship together. However, I must admit that the first day we learned my wife had ovarian cancer was the day that I began imagining life without her. There is no way not to think about that. I remember crying in my car, sobbing after hanging up the phone, wondering if I’d have her a month, a year or a lifetime. The answer was: “All of the above.”

With each successive, concussive treatment for cancer, that reminder or her challenges got a bit stronger. As time went by, the cancer came back repeatedly. It was like a ping-pong ball bouncing on the table., Rap….Rap….Rap..Rap..Rap.RapRapRapRapRap…until it became evident we were not going to kick this thing.

So truth be told, my brain began to recognize that I would be a widow well before she ever died. That’s an unfair advantage in grieving compared to those on the outside the widow sphere.

However my active role and belief were different than that. We maintained hope despite this developing realization that the cancer was so persistent. After all, who was I to determine the length or outcome of her determination? Miracles do happen. Miracles did happen. Multiple times over. We were grateful for that.

Personal history

What you lose when a spouse dies is a big component of your personal history. A simple act like putting ornaments on the Christmas tree is not the same when the person with whom you’ve spent 25+ years is not there to corroborate their origin. You hang those ornaments with echoes of conversations past. Yet you live in the present. There is no escaping that.

So you carry on as a widow, because that’s what widows do. Initially that feeling of separation occurs on many fronts. You want to honor the memory of your loved one; parent, spouse, child or friend, and there are so many reminders in the first year or two of grief. Anniversaries and events. You especially want to respect and protect those memories for your own children, whose own unique and shared qualities are an extension of that life.

It’s as if there are Christmas ornaments hanging in every conversation you have with them. Sometimes they shimmer in the light. Some are fragile. Others are transparent. They bring laughter and joy.

Shared lives

It was not long after my wife passed away that I met a woman with whom I have forged a significant relationship. This was perhaps initially painful for the people in my life. My friends were immediately supportive, knowing that I enjoyed her company and we were both helping ourselves to new experiences. Yet, it was tough for people used to seeing me in the company of my wife of 28 years. These included my own children I’m sure, and my in-laws and family. They could not help be upset by the change.

Yet I know myself well, and at one point a year into my new relationship, my wife’s best friend, and former preschool director, turned to me at dinner one evening and said, “Did I ever tell you that Linda said she knew… that you would date if she passed away?”

That was like a Christmas ornament of its own. It was something my late wife never said to me. That was not really her style. But it meant quite a bit to hear it from so close a friend.


As I’ve taken Christmas ornaments off the tree this year and put them away as carefully as possible, it has become obvious that there is a dynamic at work in all our lives. We’re all widows in some sense. Memories are often attached to things, and things are attached to experiences. We lose grandparents and parents and people we love. We end marriages or relationships in love and work. Along the way we try not to misplace, damage or otherwise abuse the better ornaments of their memories. But it’s tough to do.

On a broader scale, being a widow is also like being an architect. You build these experiences in your life. That’s where your memories reside. But you must learn that it is not necessary to knock down one building to create another, nor should you.

After all, we don’t often live in the same houses all our lives. Yet we keep the memories of those homes in our minds, or feel them in dreams, our imaginations and ourselves. Because that’s the real place where we live. It’s a process of grieving the past while embracing the future.

And that’s what being a widow is like.


Grieving in dream time

We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.

Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.

And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.

Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.

And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.

All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.

Shred of guilt

Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.

None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.

Asking forgiveness

FamilyBefore my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.

Recurring dream

Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.

The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.

This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.

That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?

Bad dreams and divorce

The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.

It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.

Dealing with loss

In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.

Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.

Sharing burdens and friends

1509152_10204571857793222_4147884275556153224_nAlso, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done,  is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values.  And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.

We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.

Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”

Protection and risk

11169852_10205615038072077_292278208289650118_nThat is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.

We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.

Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.

And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”

That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.

Caution signs

We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.

That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.

We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.


One long breath

CrowdThere were more than 2000 people milling around the start line of the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in our hometown. My racing instincts from long ago sent me out to a quiet street for a one-mile warmup jog. It had already been an eventful week getting my house ready to host 12 people for Thanksgiving. I was looking for a place, I suppose, to take a deep, long breath before doing the race.

Perhaps my mind was trying to take in a bit too much information at that moment. We had scheduled a Memorial Service for my father Stewart the night before Thanksgiving so that family could visit and join in celebrating my father’s life and grieve his passing.

Me with folksAll those years of caregiving for him were not quite over. There were still financial issues to manage, and the sale of his home to discuss. All that functions like a practical soliloquy that must be sung in order to gain closure.

But the emotional bank accounts remain open forever, and it is best to invest some time sharing memories with others, and learning how they view the life that has passed on. This is particularly true for a parent, as not everyone has the same perspective on what they mean, and how they should be honored.

As principal caregiver, my role kept me close to my father all those years after his stroke in 2002. He lived a full decade after my mother pass away in 2005. My job had been support for her initially, which quickly transitioned to full caregiver after her survivorship with lymphoma and pancreatic cancer came to a quick close in November 2005. That meant a full-time caregiver was necessary to join Stew in the home.

Stew and OlgaNot knowing what to expect after those quick changes, it struck me one day while walking into the home of my father that there were no real rules to this game. I was in charge of his life in consultation with my brothers. That meant there were always bills to pay and issues to discuss about his health and needs.

Sometimes that made it difficult to address much else in life. Stewart was not fond of making small talk when there were things bothering him. That list and how to address it could take quite a long time during my visits two or three times a week. He’d lost his ability to speech due to the stroke, which meant that we had to engage in a series of yes or no questions to ascertain his concerns. Early in the stroke recovery he’d quickly grow frustrated. His emotions were also hair-trigger thin at times, setting him off on a session of arm waving and barking “NO NO NO!” whenever I failed to get the questions right.

Stew and Evan and EmilyThere were many times I’d try to push the conversation toward something more pleasant such as memories of his that he might like to share. That was a tough gig too, because we could easily stall if I did not guess the name of the person involved in the story he wanted to relate. Even before his stroke we all had problems not knowing all the friends and family he thought we should know.

“Dad,” my brothers and I would say, “I never knew that person…” we’d reply, and he’d get frustrated and demand, “Yes you do!”

But we seldom really knew them. My father was a highly social man and had many acquaintances from golf and bowling and work and life in IMG_4900general that we, his sons, had never actually met. Or if we had, we did not remember them. Which was worse?

That meant it was a work in progress over the years moderating discussions with my father. It hurt me to hear that my brothers were frustrated with their visits. Stew would store up a memory bank full of things he wanted to share and try to communicate it all in one grand session rather than being patient and happy with a few satisfying stories.

There was a whole lot of life lost after my father had his stroke. He’d share photos and get bits of information out, often in beautifully abstract Stew and Evan and Emilyfashion. But my dad always was an impatient man in some respects, and one could go there with the best intentions to have a nice talk and come home hurt by the exchange.

His caregivers had the same problems. But we ultimately made it work for thirteen years. He lived in his own home until the very week he died. All three of his other sons made it for a visit by circumstance, and my father passed away on a Saturday afternoon.

All this was coursing through my head as I warmed up for the race. It felt like I’d been inhaling and dealing with the stress of trying to please him for so long. Now it was over, for the most part.

We held a nice memorial service with both laughter and tears.

And on Thursday morning I jogged up the quiet street away from the crowds. The air was clammy and grey. I felt tired and slow. And as I reached a spot near the river I stopped in my own tracks and began to cry. Tears fell down on the wet sidewalk and I told my father that I loved him.
Stew and Olga.jpgEarlier I sat in McDonalds before warming up. My cell phone had some photos sent to me by my daughter and son the night before. They were photos of my father holding each of them in his arms. Truly, those images felt like yesterday. I felt sad at the time that had passed yet thankful for those memories. He was a wonderful grandparent and a good dad.

That’s about all you can say. The rest is part of one long breath we take throughout this life. It seems we’re always holding our breath for what comes next. Which is why I encourage you to let out a little air. Breathe out and let the air come back into your soul a bit. Breathe in the essence and reality of the people around you. Because they want your attention. They love you. The demands of life can wait. They seriously can.

Then take one long breath and smile. It’s worth it.


The 10 ways I’ve most changed since I was a kid

This morning while pouring cereal into the bowl, the box of Maple Pecan flakes ran out. Seeking to fill the dish, I picked out the Ginger Granola and poured it into the bowl to create the right portion. Then I thought, “I’d never have done that as a kid.”

Growing up I liked my cereal pretty much homogenous. If it was Cheerios or Rice Krispies, that’s what went in the bowl. Never would I think of mixing the two.

I also had a favorite spoon with which to eat my cereal. It had a raised image of the United States Capitol building on it. I loved that spoon, and ate my cereal with it every day.

These little moments of recollection set me thinking about how many other ways a person changes from a child to a grown up. At one point my own son at eight years old confessed that he would rather not grow up. He could see that being a grownup came with all sorts of challenges that did not seem to be that much fun.

And yet, there are some things that you do and feel as a kid that are not that great either. Here is a list of my Top 10 ways I’ve most changed since I was a kid. Perhaps you can share a few of your own in the comments below.

  1. No longer afraid of the dark. At some point in my late 30s I was running down the dark stairs to our basement and realized that the haunting feeling of fear at entering a dark space was no longer there. No boogeyman. No devil. No ghosts or other imagined dangers in the dark. It was a liberating feeling.
  2. Sex is no longer such a mystery. I can remember having sexual feelings very early in life. Children do, but they often don’t know what to do with them. Most masturbate their way through puberty and early teens, then experiment their way with sexual partners into some form of knowledge. It took me a long time to understand anything about sex, and that is not to say I know all about it now, either. But the giant wall that was “sex” looming ahead in life from the perspective of childhood was quite difficult to figure out. I was always jealous of kids who seemed to know so much about sex. And some just did. It’s a gift, I guess.
  3. My sense of wonder is not the same. This is both a relief as a person, and a shame as well. As a very sensitive child there were many moments of experience so deep and heartfelt it was difficult to function at times. I recognize now that some of this was tied to an anxious mind. Gaining control of my ruminative nature has been necessary to function in this world. And yet, I sometimes miss the intensity with which I felt a keen sense of wonder at nature, or in a moment.
  4. My trusting nature has evolved. I still trust people, especially those I love. But through many experiences in life, one learns that some people simply cannot be trusted. That was not me as a child. I trusted everyone. I often got teased or tricked as a result. The long journey to loss of naivete is the hardest road many of us travel in life.
  5. Money is just something, where it was once everything. As a kid you’re happy as heck to have money to buy candy or cheap stuff to entertain yourself. Our acquisitive nature drives us to want way more than we need. We obviously need money to survive in this world, and one learns through odd jobs and real jobs that you have to work hard to earn it. Some people judge themselves (and others) by what they earn. They see it as a mark of adulthood. And that is to some degree true. But there’s also an immature or childish nature to liking money too much. The Bible warns us that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is also the mark of adulthood to balance your love of money with gratitude in life.
  6. I put competition in perspective. For some crazed reason I could not stand to lose as a kid. Hated it. As an athlete I became one of the most competitive people you could meet. My brothers called me The Mink because I’d get spitting mad in the heat of competition. That fire to win served me well for the most part, winning races as a runner and leading the teams on which I competed or coached to victories. But at some point I recognized that the desire to win must be tempered with the understanding of what it really means to win, and when winning actually represents some sort of loss. Because that can happen in relationships, for example. But I have always, always fought for the underdog and for fairness to the best of my ability. I’m proud that I have not changed or lost that childhood sense of fair play to this day.
  7. I’ve learned to forgive myself. In my case childhood essentially lasted through the age of 29 years old. That’s when I woke up pounding the pillows in anger over some of the things that happened in my upbringing. I was confused by these angry feelings all through my teens and 20s. As I began to understand their source and grow out of the vexing events so many of us experience in childhood, it became evident that I was beating myself up all the time by not being willing to forgive those who might have wronged me. But it was a wise counselor that finally asked me this question: “You seem to be good at forgiving others…how are you at forgiving yourself?”
  8. My sweet tooth really is my enemy. We all want candy without the consequences. Back home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania there was a candy store a quarter mile from our home. A dollar would buy you tons of sweets, and that foundation of candy-loving carried through my college years and well into adulthood. But the harsh truth is that sweets are bad for your body in a lot of ways. Between sugar and carbohydrates, the supposed fuel of athletes, there lies deep danger to your heart, stomach, liver, kidneys and other organs. Reigning in my sweet tooth is hard, but it truly is the sign of a wise adult.
  9. Love has changed me. For all the flaws we see in our parents as we grow up, it often takes a lifetime to appreciate how they loved you. I no longer have any doubts about that, even with my father, who at times was a hard and exasperating man to abide. Time has given me insight into how many ways he did nurture me, and my mother too. As a result, love has changed me from a child who felt hurt due to a sensitive nature into a man who is sensitive to the power of love to heal those emotional pains. I’ve also grown in my understanding of faith from a child taught through bible stories to think of heroes as outsized personalities to a person who sees heroics in the small and wonderful things people do for each other. That is true love.
  10. Death is no longer so scary. Dead things were always both interesting and scary as a kid. The only funeral I attended as a child was for some relative I knew little about. It reduced me to tears seeing my aunt and uncle cry at the loss of their loved one. Yet when I lost a treasured former teacher to a heart attack in 1993, the funeral turned out to be a celebration of his life. I learned from that. Then my mother passed away in November 2005, and I was there when she ceased breathing and I saw that her body was through with life. Of course, during the eight years in which my wife struggled through cancer treatment, death was the frightful thing that always lurked ahead. When it came to us n March, 2013, my next worries were how to help my children deal with the loss of their mother. That is a challenge that will never abate. I think about my own mortality as well, and if you do the math and add up the years you have remaining on this earth, life itself can seem pretty scary.

So how delightfully ironic it is, that one of the best ways we can learn to enjoy life is to bring back our inner child. That’s when we begin to experience life in new and meaningful ways. It doesn’t mean you need to relinquish all the things that you’ve earned for yourself as a healthy adult. It may mean setting aside some of your more restrained behavior so that you can try new things, take chances and live a little. Or a lot.