The Working Title Is…The Ache from a Journey Down Memory Lane

I traveled a million miles in my mind before I even got out of bed this morning, and there were four things that fueled my trip.

In fact, the title of this essay should be “My SUPER GROSS Morning with The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, The Big Sick and Princess Diana,” but that doesn’t flow very well.

Let me break down how my day started. I rolled over when the alarm went off and felt a little itch on my neck. This was not so surprising since my one mid-life crisis move so far has been deciding to grow my hair a little longer. For the first time since I was seven years old, I’m getting used to luscious locks that can almost be pulled into a ponytail. As I went to swipe the hair away, I grasped something in between my thumb and forefinger, and when my eyes finally focused, I saw a squished spider.

SUPER GROSS!

There was a god-forsaken spider on my neck. And I killed it with my bare hand.

Just to review for those of you skimming text quickly; a freakin’ spider was walking over my jugular and now his guts were smeared between my fingers.

Final review: Spider. Neck. Guts. Fingers. Super Gross.

I reacted as any grown woman would have…I screamed bloody murder and jumped out of bed wiping my hand on the carpet at warp speed. (After later review of the crime scene, he must have been pretty tiny because I could barely find any body parts to scoop up. But in the heat of the moment, I was a main character in the sequel to Arachnophobia.)

I continued to react, as any grown woman would have, trying to problem solve while sitting on the floor in the fetal position. I asked Siri, “Where can I get one of those giant plastic bubbles like John Travolta lived in back when I thought he was super good looking?”

I suppose my plan to spider-proof my room should have taken me straight to Amazon Prime rather than Siri. Instead, I spent the next ten minutes reading this twenty-year-old Houston Press article about David Vetter whose life story was the inspiration for the 1976 television drama starring John Travolta. And perhaps the inspiration for a less emotional, albeit hilarious, Seinfeld episode.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble

The actual story is heartbreaking and could fuel debate on a host of topics related to medical ethics, parenting, savior siblings and HIPAA. What is not up for debate, however, is the fact that John Travolta’s path from Bubble Boy to Tony Manero and ultimately Vinnie Barbarino was the thing of which a young girl’s dreams were made.

As I read about David Vetter’s relationships with his caregivers and his family’s struggle to do the right thing, I was soon lost in reverie. My mind couldn’t help but recall the path our family took seven years ago with an army of caregivers searching to find out what was wrong with my husband and how to bring him to full health.

I make a painful walk down memory lane each year. It begins on Fathers’ Day when I recall being first worried something might be really wrong with my husband and ends in mid-August after the anniversary of his burial. This morning I found myself remembering how lost we felt as we searched for answers. I remembered specific meetings with healthcare professionals and discussions with family and friends who felt as helpless as we did.

And when I considered where we were at this point on Memory Lane, my thoughts turned to The Big Sick.

The Big Sick

If you have not yet seen this movie produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, go now. Like, right now. You can finish reading this later.

The film is hilarious. I mean really, really funny. But it’s also beautiful and heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. It will have you talking for days about love and cultural tradition and interracial and interfaith relationships. And it will have you thinking about The X-Files and how tiny Holly Hunter is and if you could ever make it as a stand-up comedian.

If you have intimate knowledge of the word thoracentesis, it will make you shiver. If your mind’s eye holds an image of someone you love unconscious in a hospital bed and hooked up to machines, it will take your breath away. And if you’ve ever missed hearing that person’s voice so much that you sat in your car and replayed a voicemail over and over and over again, it will make you weep.

Cue the Royal Family.

Princess Diana

As I wiped a tear with my spider gut-free manicured hand featuring my go-to nail color which also happens to be that of the Royals, my thoughts turned to Princess Diana. This week, I watched the HBO special Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.

It is recommended viewing for everyone, especially anyone who stayed up an entire summer night in 1981 dreaming of becoming a princess and wondering, “Who the heck gets married on a Wednesday?” Also recommended viewing for anyone who kept their kids home from school on an April 2011 morning while all wearing tiaras and cutting photos from Brides magazine and pasting them into wedding planning notebooks.

Prince William and Prince Harry shared very similar stories of a mother’s love and very different stories of facing and coping with loss. The documentary is a poignant journey down a painful memory lane.

As I stared at the television, I watched our memory lanes converge a bit. William and Harry were 15 and 12 when their mom died. Our daughters were 14 and 11 respectively, and just weeks away from their next birthdays, when their dad died.

So much of what these boys, now men, had to share resonated with me and echoed feelings my daughters have shared. Most comforting of all were continued feelings of the presence of a parent in your life many years after a far-too-early death and keeping memories alive for people who never even had the chance to meet that parent…people like spouses and children and grandchildren.

In the documentary, Prince William says, “There were times when you look to someone or something for strength, and I very much felt she was there for me.”

There is no doubt in my mind that is true.

As my walk down memory lane continues, happy memories soften the ache. And new memories and new experiences and new paths bring the girls and me such joy, just as Pat would have wanted.

Pat would have turned 50 on Friday. On that day, we will toast him and the positive, joyful, witty, calming influence he had on our lives. And continues to have. Everyday.

Who needs a plastic bubble when you’ve got all that?

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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.

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