family, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…. So This Is How It Ends

I walked in slowly, taking in my surroundings and checked in with the receptionist. My heart was racing and the fear on my face undeniable. The sweet woman behind the desk raised her eyebrows and attempted a reassuring half-smile; prompting me to faintly whisper, “I’m so scared.” “Don’t be. We’re going to help you,” she whispered back.

I took a seat in the waiting room. I avoided direct eye contact but looked at each of the other women waiting with me. My gosh, they were all so thin. No one spoke. One woman muffled a weak cough as she pulled her hair back into a thin ponytail.

When the door finally opened, I was invited into a much larger room. I turned and faced a mirror. My anxious reflection was blocked by something yellow…what could that be? It was vaguely reminiscent of an instrument of torture. Or maybe something written about in Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Welcome to the 8:30am Cycle TRX Class,” the chipper, chiseled chick in charge said to this fear-filled, fifty-year-old as I flopped my fat-ass on to the frame of a bike and stared at the Aureolin apparatus unquestionably aimed to inflict agony.

(Spoiler alert: The alliteration is a result of the fact that every muscle in my body is still quaking with tremors, including the creative cortex of my brain.)

“We’ll start on the bike for 20 minutes, and then we head to the floor for 25 minutes of suspension training where you will use your body weight to work multiple muscle groups and then we’ll head back to the bike.”

Excuse me? What was that? Did you just say, “Use MY body weight?” Why mine? What do you think I am, some sort of Olympian with superhuman strength? Do I look bionic? No. Is my name Jamie Sommers? Again, no.

I tried to mental telepathy my concern to the instructor. I used every brainwave to convey that I would be much more comfortable using the body weight of the waif seated next to me dressed head-to-toe in Lululemon than be forced to support my own squishy BMI swathed in a chic design from Champion for Target’s 2015 spring collection.

As she was already offering motivational instruction about resistance and pace of pedaling, I knew my mental telepathy was not working. I survived the bike and then took to the floor intent on not dying or making a fool of myself.

That goal was short-lived.

I followed instructions perfectly and took the straps in my hands and started to lean back. This was the first time I thought, “So this is how it ends.” Much like the feeling when I get on a ride at a fair (versus a full-fledged amusement park) I thought to myself, “Has anyone checked this for safety?” I leaned back holding the straps and my mind’s eye could envision my girth ripping the toggle out of the wall resulting in high-velocity metal shrapnel piercing my heart. Nope, that’s not right. Upon further review of the angle, it would head straight toward my eye. I prepared for impact.

After surviving that first set of exercises, I moved on to the second which involved standing on one leg while grasping a small rubber ball in the space behind your knee of the raised leg all while still leaning on those scary handles.

Funny thing is, the handles ceased being so scary when instead of picturing impalement, I was transported back to grade school when I first learned I lacked both balance and athletic prowess. I spent the next few minutes either swaying back and forth on one leg saying “Whooooaaaaa” or chasing my little rubber ball around the studio and apologizing as it smashed into other people. This is how it ends. Death by embarrassment.

As I wiped sweat from my brow, my thoughts went back to grade school basketball. I realize now my love of that sport stems from countless hours spent warming the bench…a uniformed spectator praying someone would foul out. Once, during practice in fifth grade, my coach called me out by name. I couldn’t believe he noticed me out of this talented group of girls on the floor. “Katie,” he said, “You jumped so high going for that last rebound that I could almost slide a piece of paper under your feet.” It wasn’t until years later that the high of him noticing me wore off, and I realized it was really a rip.

The last set of exercises involved putting your ankles into the straps and getting into plank position on the floor. I’m sure all the people I bashed into with my ball moments earlier were shocked to hear the instructor compliment my perfect plank form. They don’t need to know that I have a titanium rod fused to the bottom third of my spine which makes “flat back” pretty much the only option until my arm muscles begin to burn and shake, which occurs about seven seconds in and I start to see spots.

I don’t remember returning to the bike. Or driving home. It’s now six hours later, and I’m lying on my couch. I struggle to lift a glass of water to my lips and am seriously considering leaning over and lapping it up like a dog.

From my perch on the couch, some sadistic side of me is realizing how much I secretly enjoyed the challenge my morning presented, and I might actually try it again.

As I contemplate attempting to stand sometime today, my memory returns to many years ago when I worked for Hospice of Michigan. At one of our black tie events, I walked up to my husband holding court with a beloved local news broadcaster who was talking about how his travel plans always center around one of his or his wife’s hobbies like air shows or golf.   My husband said, “I’m lucky my wife’s hobby can be accomplished pretty much anywhere.” “Oh, and what’s that?” Mort Crim asked in his legendary timbre. Pat put his arm around me and said, “She likes to sit on the couch and eat chips.”

The man spoke the truth. I wish he were here to laugh with me at today’s adventure, but even more so because my arms ache so badly, I will never get this damn bag of chips open.





The Working Title Is…I’m No Sheryl Sandberg

Not that anyone was confusing the two of us, mind you. Even the mere mention of her name morphs me back to a self-conscious high schooler…admiring from afar all of someone’s strengths that seem to only spotlight my shortcomings.

She’s written books, and I’ve only talked about writing one someday. She worked in India for a year on projects aimed at eradicating AIDS, leprosy and blindness. I worked in Wisconsin for a year and once scooped melon balls for five solid hours in a horse barn for a Milwaukee AIDS Project event. (Granted, it’s not India, but I’ll never forget how many flies there were in that barn. And I’ll never eat another melon ball.)

There are similarities between us. We’re both brunettes. She went to Harvard, and I’ve been to Harvard. Well, not Harvard exactly, but I’ve been to Lizzy’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square. Delish!

And then, of course, there is the fact that we both buried a husband without the opportunity to hear his last words or even say goodbye. We both have been left to raise two fatherless children. Her children were younger, but at 11 and 14, my daughters were equally far too young for their world to be shattered.

Almost two years ago, as I approached the fifth anniversary of our life without Pat, my Facebook feed was filled with people sharing and re-sharing a post written by Sheryl Sandberg following the death of her husband.

Beautifully written, it was ultimately the foundation for her newest book released this week, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

She wrote of the profoundly personal experience of grief and credited the “bravery of those who have shared their own experiences” as to what has “helped her pull through.” She’d been taught the three pillars of resilience and shared their role in her growth. And she offered all this incredible insight after the time defined by Jewish tradition as the end of religious mourning for a spouse…thirty days.

Thirty days. Thirty days? All I could think was, “How can this woman write, ‘I am sharing what I’ve learned in hope that it helps someone else’ after only thirty days?”  Thirty days?  I hadn’t “pulled through” anything after just thirty days. In fact, I don’t think I finished clearing the funeral food out of the fridge yet, much less begin clearing my thoughts. I remember staring at her words on my computer until tears blurred the screen.

How had she accomplished in thirty days what I have been working toward for five years? Oh, believe me, in our house, we had been kicking the shit out of Option B since my husband drew his last breath. In fact, that was all we were doing for those first thirty days, and the next thirty and the thirty after that. My tears turned to sobs as I thought about all the people in our lives that had lifted us up for the past five years—lifted us with their love, with their prayers and with their presence and support. I became increasingly aware of the fog I had been living in during those first years without him. I looked back over my calendar and realized how much I had absolutely no, or very little, memory of—things that only existed like blurry snapshots in my mind—not the least of which was Pat’s funeral.

I began a cathartic journey of self-awareness. I thought maybe someday I’d even be able to write a book about it. Well, wouldn’t you know, two years later, that multi-jillionaire/thirty day-wise widow/corporate titan capable of bringing actual change to the world/superwoman beat me to the punch there too!

I pre-ordered her book, and it magically appeared on my Kindle Monday morning. As with anything created by someone of whom I am jealous, I hated the book before I even clicked on the cover art. Which I also wanted to hate. But I couldn’t.

I read the book in one sitting, getting up only once to get coffee. It is very well done and covers not just grief that follows the death of a loved one, but a huge expanse of subject areas including rape, chronic illness, war, incarceration and life after all kinds of disappointment and loss.

The book is thought provoking and insightful. Some parts pertained to me in a very personal way, others I just couldn’t relate to, and some I had a completely opposite experience.

But that is to be expected and is what, in my opinion, should be the opening paragraph of any book or conversation about grief.

Buried almost a third of the way into the text of the book, Sandberg writes, “There’s no one way to grieve and there’s no one way to comfort. What helps one person won’t help another, and even what helps one day might not help the next.”

That is the key message of grief. And it’s one that takes more than thirty days to figure out.

Our reaction to loss and heartbreak are as unique and individual as the relationship we shared with the person who no longer walks beside us. Our “fingerprint” of grief is ours and ours alone. So while Sheryl Sandberg’s book is well worth the read, it can be only one tool in the toolbox of someone who suffers and seeks reprieve.

Reading her book led me to pick up my pen and write and write and write. Emotions flowed on to my paper as I re-read her book, page by page. Realizing how different my experience has been and appreciating the ways we’ve walked the same path. I began writing on themes as broad as joy and hope, as nitpicky as the semantics of death and the liberal use of the word friend, as pivotal as humor and faith and as confusing and daunting as finding love again.

Maybe Someday I’ll Write a Book just as a point/counterpoint to all of Sheryl Sandberg’s books. I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I’ve been leaning in all sorts of directions since the day I was born with scoliosis, so I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that one too.

What I do know is that Sheryl and I were both blessed beyond belief to be married to our very best friends. The way she writes of Dave sounds so very much like Pat. A friend to all, love and laughter always intertwined, even down to the ten college roommates who were like brothers and the fact that both men loved the musical Wicked.

While we own our individual fingerprints of grief, I do believe we have been changed for the better, Sheryl. And because we knew them, we have been changed for good.