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Over the past few months, my daughter and I have emerged from the fog of grief like butterflies breaking out of a chrysalis.

The second anniversaries of everything in many ways are harder, because we face them all wide awake now, realising that life goes on without a husband and father to share our lives.

May and June are much like Thanksgiving and Christmas with too many family remembrances – two birthdays, tenth wedding anniversary, another mothers day and fathers day, our first date-iversary.

We recently rejoined our grief groups at Bo’s Place and feel better for it.   Facing death head on, no apologies, moving forward.

A little sign here and there from R.  Kisses in the sky.  An upturned penny in an unexpected spot.  A favorite song comes on over the radio.  “Mommy,” says N, excited, “it’s the song from Daddy’s Celebration.”

The last day of school for both of us comes and goes, and we are dog tired.  Tears and laughter, just as on the first day over 180 days earlier.  New friendships forged, new lessons learned, and a new career for me.

And then vacation.  A week of serenity, sand and sun with R’s family in Florida.   We compare notes – taller kids, learning-to-drive-kids, heading-to-middle-school kids,  independent kids.   First day’s rain giving way to clouds, then sunshine.

Restoration, relaxation, reflection.

Making new memories.  It’s all good.

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Sitting on the patio with a mug of tea (mug designed by darling daughter at a friend’s pottery painting party).  It’s a little chilly outside right now but it’s quiet, except for the two robins singing their hearts out in the trees around the corner.

Looking back on a crazy busy week that was  – beginning a week ago Friday with a school fundraiser at a local sports bar and my first time out as a grown up in a very long time (for the record, I can still cut a mean rug on the dance floor);  Saturday – we attended a dear friend’s wedding at one of our favourite local restaurants; on Sunday we went to church and then headed to the children’s festival, where my daughter got to meet Victoria Justice from Nickelodeon thanks to a very generous volunteer who gave me a backstage pass to the Meet and Greet.  Result – one very happy little six year old who now believes she is going to meet Big Time Rush when we go to their concert in June.  Not sure how I am going to manage that one.

Monday  – yearbook deadline for me after pulling three late-nighters – and dress rehearsal for N’s recital – a madcap scramble to get her fed and ready after school because all six of us moms whose daughters dance together completely forgot the date;  Tuesday – TBall practice;  Wednesday -field trip with an after school club to the Arboretum and a weather change from summer to winter in the space of an hour;  Thursday – dress rehearsal for a local high school spring show in which the girls had been selected to perform their tap routine – a huge honour for them;  Friday night – first show; Saturday morning TBall game and evening show……and a birthday party this afternoon.   I’m letting N sleep in this morning instead of rushing to choir practice and then church – she deserves it.  And I need a little quiet time too.

Been very reflective since last weekend.   The school fundraiser was held at one of R’s old stomping grounds: they serve a mean Philly cheesesteak and have a myriad TVs tuned into the sports channels of the day;  I know he would have really enjoyed the evening and kicked up his heels on the dance floor in his own unique two-left-feet-my-style-is-my-own.  He would have cried at my friend’s wedding, coached third base for N’s team, and used up a whole box of tissues at the dance show last night too.

It’s hard to believe that R has missed almost two whole years of our lives – N has come through kindergarten with flying colours and is learning so much every day.  She has a poise on the dance floor that belies her six years;  and a presence on the TBall field already.   She attacks every task with vigor and a cheerful demeanour.   I love her strength and determination – especially during the occasional meltdown at home – when she plants her feet stubbornly, screws up her face, and yells at me “Mommy, you’re NOT LISTENING!”   As for me, I am truly blessed to be her mom – and to be working in a place surrounded by little voices and feet, where I really feel appreciated every single day, and where I know I am making a difference, even if it’s just a small one in the big scheme of things.

In less than a month it will be our tenth wedding anniversary.   Not a day goes by that I don’t think of R and the life we shared.  I wonder what he would think of our lives now?  I know he would be proud of us.   The raw grief of loss has faded, but I have been thinking about him a little more than usual this week and I know N has too.   Tomorrow we are going back to Bo’s Place to join the twice-a-month ongoing group.   It’s almost a year since we finished our nine-week Thursday meetings, and we’ve come so far, but we still have a long road ahead.  It will be good for both of us to have an outlet again to express our feelings with others who have been through similar experiences.

This past week the Cardinals baseball team honoured the life of Stan Musial, who passed away in January.  Opening day in St Louis was a week ago today, and the first time since 1945 that baseball’s “perfect Knight” Musial had not been present in some form on the ballfield at Busch Stadium.   On Sunday they unveiled the wall tribute – the same patch which the ballplayers will wear on their uniforms for the season.  N is wearing #6 for TBall this season as my own little tribute to my late husband – and to R and his Dad’s favourite player.

Yesterday morning I was walking the dog around our park when I heard the peep-peep of a pair of Cardinals.   “Show yourself, Mr Cardinal,”  I said – half to myself.  And suddenly there was a flash of red and a beat of wings right above my head, and the male Cardinal himself landed on the plinth right in front of me.  He looked magnificent, preening himself and fixing me with his beady black eye.  Cocking his head watchfully at the dog, who of course was completely oblivious as usual with his nose in the grass, Mr Cardinal scraped his beak on the bricks, and flew off to join his mate.

I often wonder when I see the redbird if R  – being from St Louis – is sending a little reminder to me that he is always watching over us.  This morning I picked up a penny from the floor under my laptop desk, Lincoln side up.  A penny from heaven?  It’s comforting to think so.

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Photograph courtesy of the St Louis Post Dispatch

Photograph courtesy of the St Louis Post Dispatch

I wasn’t born in St Louis, and I never met Stan Musial, but I’ve shed many tears since last Saturday when I heard he passed away at the ripe old age of 92.

For my late husband and countless other kids who grew up in St Louis,  Stan Musial was the greatest baseball player who ever wore a Cardinals uniform.   I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of him before I met R, but after we started dating, Mr Musial often came up in conversation, especially when we talked about how much R missed his Dad, who passed away when he was just 24.    R would talk about how he and Pop  listened to Cardinals games on the radio in their basement, how his late father – who was about the same age as Stan – used to sneak over to the old Sportsmans Park as a young man to watch Stan play, and how the latter was just a wonderful example of a good citizen on and off the field.   My husband met the ballplayer in 1963 when the latter was playing in his last season, and his Stan Musial signed ball was one of his most prized possessions.  As a four year old, he probably missed the significance of the meeting at the time, but he talked about it often with me when he mentioned his father.

When we finally made it to St Louis to see a game, of course we had our picture taken in front of the Musial statue.  Inside the stadium, my husband pointed out the retired numbers, including number 6, and told me how Mr Musial had been present at every Cardinals opening day since he put on a uniform and even after he retired, except for the years he was serving in the Navy in World War II.   In 1967 my father-in-law queued up overnight to get tickets to the World Series, and came to collect R from elementary school the day of the game so they would have plenty of time to find their seats.  That was one of my favourite stories – how R told his friends that he was going to the game, and that none of them believed him until the school principal came to announce his departure to the classroom.   I loved to  imagine the smile on my husband’s face as he walked proudly out of class to meet his Dad.

The old Busch Stadium was demolished at the end of 2005 to make way for the new one,  and Stan Musial’s statue was relocated.   In July 2006, we headed to St Louis for a long weekend visit and a baby shower – I was about seven months pregnant and since the Cardinals were out of town, we decided to do a tour of the new stadium.  It was great fun – we goofed around the whole time – R pretending to be Jack Buck in the commentators box, then Tony LaRussa calling the bullpen for help, then Jim Edmonds waving his hat as he came down the stairs (after scoring the game winning home run in a playoff game).  And, of course, we took plenty of pictures in front of the Musial statue in its new location.

In his eulogy yesterday at Stan Musial’s funeral service, Bob Costas spoke eloquently about the about the on-field achievements of a player who was often forgotten when people talked about the baseball greats,  about the humility of the man he knew,  about the decency of a human being who was never too busy to sign an autograph for a local kid,  or to make a black ballplayer feel welcome in the days when color was still an issue for many both in and out of the game.

After the service, the hearse made its way to Busch Stadium so the family could lay a wreath at their beloved Mr Musial’s statue.   It’s hard to believe he won’t be at opening day this year.

My husband used to choke up when he talked about how much his father admired Stan Musial, and how much of his memories of his father were tied up in Cardinal Nation.   R lived and breathed the Redbirds during baseball season because it was a reminder of the links to his Pop and the special times they shared, just the two of them.

I didn’t really understand how much those times with R in St Louis meant to me, until Stan Musial died this week.   His passing was the end of another special link between me and my husband.  Another reminder that R is gone, and he’s not coming back.

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Keeping the Faith

I normally dislike January with a passion.  The holiday season is over and a new year usually makes me sad for the old one.   Taking down Christmas decorations, dark mornings, bare trees, shriveled plants.  Last year the New Year forced me to begin facing my grief at losing my husband four months earlier, so I certainly wasn’t looking forward to January this time last year.

This year is different.  I couldn’t wait for 2013 to begin.  We spent the end of December and the first week of January with my mother in England.  It was a wonderful visit – catching up with her – getting together with family, and with schoolfriends  – some of whom I hadn’t seen in almost thirty years – and just hanging out.  The weather was rotten – but that didn’t stop us from having fun – N rode carousels in the rain, we made gingerbread men and mince pies, we rode on buses and in taxis, and we walked – a lot.   We returned refreshed and renewed and ready to start school for the second semester.   And as it happened, I went back to school too – the week before Christmas break, N’s principal offered me a job as a teaching assistant for first graders at her school.   I’d been thinking about teaching for a while – for a few years in fact – but I was so comfortable in my previous job that I never really did anything about it.    Since N started at the local elementary school in August, I’d been volunteering my time frequently – helping out in the front office, as a room parent for class activities, around the school for special events.  I’d talked with the principal about my desire to teach eventually and here she was, offering me a foot in the door to a new career.   I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to take the plunge and dare to grab hold of my dream.

And so, here we were, jetlagged and bleary eyed, heading to elementary school together the day after we returned home from England.  I kissed N goodbye in the cafeteria and walked to the office, feeling more excited than nervous and ready to begin.  After a morning meeting with the other TAs and assistant principal, we were off and running.  My new job includes an hour of daily cafeteria coverage and subbing a few classes here and there as needed, but mostly pulling out students who are struggling to keep up with math and reading.      The first three weeks have been exhausting.  I have discovered that I absolutely hate getting up in the dark.  That I need a lot of coffee in the mornings.  That I probably need earplugs for the cafeteria.  I’m definitely getting a pedometer – I must have walked miles along the corridors so far.  Subbing classes was a little intimidating at first but I summoned my best Jean Brodie and managed just fine.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”     In the past 16 months,  I relied on my faith to get me through my grief, to keep me going on the days I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, and to trust God with my sadness and know I would heal eventually.   I made it through my foggy inner moments by believing that I was going in the right direction, even when I couldn’t see past the next twenty four hours.   Not having to work was the best gift I could have been given, because it allowed me to spend quality time with N and really think about what I wanted to do next.

Starting this new assistant teaching position has forced me to take another leap of faith.  I’m discovering immense job satisfaction already – I love the students and teachers I work with;  my first grade teachers left me flowers, breakfast and a thankyou note last Friday;  and I constantly get hugs in the hallways from the students I am helping (as well as my daughter’s kindergarten class).   And the big bonus – I get to see N a few times each day too.

Last Sunday morning,  it was so foggy outside that I couldn’t even see the end of the street we live on, never mind a staircase.   I took the dog for a walk and thought about how far I’ve come since my husband’s death.   I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be at this point in my life.   It may take several months to achieve my goal of becoming a qualified teacher with my own classroom, but I have already taken the first step.

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Merry Christmas to All

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It’s Christmas Eve.   All is calm.  The cookies and milk are out for Santa, along with some chocolate edamame for Mrs Claus, and carrots and cucumber for the reindeer (the edamame and cucumber my daughter’s idea – two of her favourite things).

Gifts are wrapped.  The lights on our tree are sparkling.   I’ve had the same Christmas tree for about 16 years.  My sister and I were driving back to Boston after a typically beautiful blue-sky-cold fall day in New England, and saw the flashing lights of an over-the-top Christmas store by the side of the highway.  “Don’t you need a Christmas tree?” she asked me.  “Why yes, I do, indeed,” I replied, so we pulled over and stopped for a look.  These were not those lovely cut-your-own-fraser firs with the scent of a forest still in their branches – but boxed up fake trees – completely portable and reusable annually.  I can’t remember how much I paid but we chose one and drove home with it.

The tree came in three parts with its own stand. I was surprised how real it looked when I put it together.  And when I moved to Texas in 2000, it came along too, as well as the star topper I’ve been using since my very first stateside Christmas season in Atlanta twenty years ago.

My first Christmas with R was in 2002.  Just a few unbreakable coloured ornaments (we had 2 cats at the time), strings of white lights, red and silver beads, and the star topper.  We decorated the tree together and he asked me about some of the ornaments I was hanging.  The annual Woodbury pewter ornaments, from my father’s hometown in Connecticut, that my sister had sent me for a few years.   A wooden Santa from my father on my first California Christmas with the family in 1994.

“We should start our own ornament tradition,” he said. ” A new one every year we are married, for the tree.”

And so we did.

Our first annual ornament came from the Museum of Fine Arts.  It is a red and gold stitched ball with a hanging tassle.   My husband was a sports fanatic but he also loved the more refined culture of theatre and art.   As members of the museum, we were invited to exhibition previews and the annual grown ups Christmas party.    At our very first one, while standing at the cash bar, we were nearly beaned by a lady in a completely outlandish fascinator – it looked like a paper plate topped with peacock feathers.   Thereafter, my husband referred to these previews as “The Plate”.  “When’s the next plate?”, he would ask, periodically.    The other day, my daughter and I were returning home from the nearby Childrens Museum and happened to pass by our art museum on the preview night of the newest exhibition of paintings from the Prado.    Another “Plate” we would have attended for sure, if he were still here.

As my daughter hung the ornaments this year, she too asked me about each one.  The Woodbury pewters.  “That’s where Aunt Debbie lives.  I’ve been there,” she said.  Two from the Museum “Plates”.  “I’ve been to the Museum too.”   Mini Nutcrackers.   A Cupid snowman.    The 2006 St Louis Cardinals Santa-flying-in-a-plane, which I bought before they won the World Series.  “That was when I was born, right Mama?”   A set of Russian hand-painted wooden houses I picked up on a business trip to St Petersburg.  “Can we go there?”   Hand made ornaments N did at preschool.

After N was born, we started adding annual family photographs as a gift from Santa to us, under the tree on Christmas morning.  Last year, our first without R, I found them a comforting reminder of family Christmasses past.   The three of us plus our kitty Cleo, Nell’s first Christmas.  Aged 2,  the Mommy-I-need-you-please-get-me-away-from-that-Santa-man picture taken at our church children’s party.  December 2009, with the addition of Dexter, the wonder dog.   The 2010 photographs are my favourite – N with Santa at our local mall,  Dexter in sunglasses on the patio, and the three of us at breakfast at the Red Rooster Cafe in New Braunfels, after what would turn out to be our last trip to the Hill Country as a family.    It was one of R’s favourite places, a cabin on a friend’s property near Canyon Lake, and he had dreams of us moving to the area when N was a little older or we won the lottery.     I love the photograph.  We are well fed, R and I with happy crinkled eyes, N with a telltale smudge of ketchup in the corner of her smile.

Last year’s photograph in a Mickey Mouse frame, taken at Disneyland two days before the Big Day.   Me, N, and Pluto.  We were happy then, too.

The ornaments remind me that I have so many things to be thankful for this Christmas – wonderful friends and family here and around the world, the warmth and faith of our church family at St Martin’s, our full-of-love home, the memories that my daughter and I have of our time with R, and each other.   We are truly blessed.

Merry Christmas from our house to yours.

I had one of those days today.   The kind of day when a song on the radio that used to make you smile, sets you off.

It all started this morning because I took our car to the mechanic a friend had recommended, to buff out some paint scratches that had been on there for a while.   A couple of the scrapes were my fault – usually misjudging the turn into the carport trying to avoid the garbage can I’d put out the night before.  But the big one on the passenger side was my husband’s doing.  I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I know when it happened.  November 27, 2010.  I remember because we had been to the beach with friends that day and got home quite late.  We needed milk.  Driving back from the grocery store in the dark and without his glasses, R misjudged a turn and smacked into something stationary and big.  A wall, or a big curb, probably.   We fixed the flat tires right away the next day – but the white scrape on the side was there like a badge of shame every time we went anywhere.

Look, that’s our car, the red one with the big scrape Daddy made, N would say, for the past two years, almost proudly.

Recently I decided it was time to take care of the scratches, and I had got most of the paint out by myself, but the stubborn bits just would not budge, so I hence my decision to get it sorted by someone who knew what they were doing.   While waiting, I sat in the sunny window and savoured some quiet time to read Natalie Taylor’s Signs of Life, her memoir about being a widow with a young child.  I was feeling quite peaceful, all in all.

Just as I finished the book, the car was ready, and it looked amazing.  Almost like new.  The dent in the passenger door was still there, but barely visible with the white paint scratches all gone.

I got in the car and drove away. I probably would have been fine, had I not  turned on the radio – one of the Vince Guaraldi instrumentals in A Charlie Brown Christmas was playing.  A memory of us dancing and being silly with N every December to that music hit me like a punch to the stomach, and I couldn’t stop the tears.   It was silly, but by erasing the paint scrapes on the car,  I felt that I had just rubbed out a tangible memory of R in my life.  A bad one at that, because I was so mad at him that night, but still – every time I drove the car and saw the scrapes, I remembered him being part of my life – and now that physical reminder was gone too.

I worry about losing the memories.  Forgetting what his voice sounds like, the curl of his back up against me while we were sleeping, playing footsie at a restaurant, that look in his eye when we shared a private joke.  How  wonderful his “family hugs” were for all of us; the way he would often sneak up behind me and say “have I told you I loved you today?”, even when he had just told me a few minutes before.

I am afraid there will come a day when I cannot remember his presence in my life at all.  Just like the scrubbed-out-car-scrapes, I’m afraid that those memories  – the ghosts of Christmas past – will be scrubbed out as time goes by.

Tonight I was feeling a little cold, so I grabbed a sweater out of my closet.  It was one of R’s favourites – the maroon one he wore that night of our wonderful dinner in Rome.   I had never really wanted to wear any of his shirts or sweaters before, but I had put that one away some time ago because I couldn’t bear to part with it.   It gave me some comfort when I put it on.  Snuggling with our daughter, I wrapped my arms around her just as he would have done with both of us.   It occurred to me that the three of us were as close as being together again as we could be, with me wearing that sweater.   And with N in my life, I will never truly lose the memories of my husband, because part of him will always be with me, in her.

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PH Redux Day 2 Reframing the Season

It’s December 9th and N is counting the days til Christmas.  For me, it’s 15 more days of figuring out where to put Fred, our Elf on the Shelf,  each morning.  15 more days of enduring mindless commercials flogging this toy and that and encouraging us all to spend money we don’t have on our family and friends.  15 more days of baking cookies that never turn out like they do on the packet and mince pies that I really don’t need to be stuffing my face with. 15 more days of listening to the same Christmas music on the radio a thousand times while navigating the worse-traffic-than-usual around the Galleria.

Tis the season to be Jolly.  Or in my case, Grinch-y.

If I am totally honest about it, I can’t wait til January.  This will be our second holiday season without my husband and it feels so much worse than a year ago.  Grief is a great protector of feelings when your loss is as recent as it was last November and December, when I took N and we went to St Louis for Thanksgiving and San Diego for Christmas, where family embraced us and where the pain of losing R was eased by out-of-town distractions.  Quite frankly, I was in shock and disbelief for a long time, and the holiday season went by quickly.

This year we are here for Christmas, and I hate having to put on a brave face.  I hate the word widow.  I hate being a widow.  I hate being a widow in the holidays.  I’m supposed to be merry and bright and filled with the joys of the season and all I want to do some mornings is throw things and punch a pillow.   Add to that the stress of trying to find a job at “the wrong time of year” and there you have it.  At least when January gets here I will be in good company with other grumpy people who hate the New Year.

We put up our tree earlier than usual – the weekend after Thanksgiving.  It’s not a real tree but the same fake one I bought over a dozen years ago when I lived in Boston.   We kept it simple this year – just lights and ornaments – mainly because I forgot to put the other stuff on first and then when I found it all at the bottom of the storage box, I couldn’t be bothered.   The first Christmas after we were married, R and I attended a holiday party at the Museum of Fine Arts and purchased an ornament there.  This became a tradition – a new ornament for the tree each year.  We also added an annual Christmas photo on the tree as well after N was born.  So as I unwrapped each one from the box and gave it to our daughter to hang, I told her the story of the ornaments and what they meant to her Daddy and me.  It’s hard to see his face on the photos and remember the joy of Christmas past without being sad for all our present and future Christmases without him.

Last week our church held a special ceremony of carols and lessons, very similar to the one I loved being part of in our annual school Christmas service for seven years.   Growing up, I loved this time of year.  The school hall was decorated simply with paper and tinsel angels and holiday lights – it was magical – I loved singing the carols – especially the Three Kings – and hearing the same Bible passages about the birth of Jesus spoken every year.   When the lights dimmed last Sunday at church and the service began with the first chords of O Come All Ye Faithful, it was all I could do to sing the first line before I was overcome with emotion.  Hugging N close to me, I remembered the years we had come as a family with her Daddy to the Christmas Eve services each year since she was born, and my heart just ached.

The other day, via a link that a friend had posted on Facebook, I found a blog site by and for other widows and widowers.  The last few days I have been absorbed in their online stories.  This time of year is hard for all of us, whether it’s been 15 days, 15 months, or 15 years since we lost our loves.  Someone posted a timeline of grief which showed that the 15-18 months after loss, the pain spikes again almost as high as it did in the first few months.   It helps to share with others who have been through the same and know that somewhere down the road, it’s going to get a little easier – hopefully.

So if  I seem a bit more Grinch-like and out of focus than usual at the moment, remember that my aching heart has been through a lot since last September:  be kind to me, know that this will pass, and that I will resume normal programming in the New Year.   Tis the season, after all.