Saturday, October 29, 2011

Knowing Who I Am

Since childhood I'd carried a secret that few knew about. I'd kept it a secret because when I'd told my parents, they had laughed. Not only had they laughed, but they'd teased me about it in front of their friends. Looking back, I think maybe I misunderstood their levity, looking at it as ridicule when perhaps it was never meant as such. I only know that once laughed at, I took my secret underground, hiding it in my heart and never telling another soul. Not even Jim.

By the time our kids were in school full time, I felt as though I needed to talk with Jim and bring my long-held secret into the light. I felt like that because I so badly wanted to follow my heart's desire and knowing Jim as I did, I didn't think he'd laugh at me. Even if he did, I told myself, at least my wishes would be out in the open. That's how it came about that on a day when he was off work and the kids were in school that I told him I wanted to talk with him about something important to me. He was more than agreeable. It was his nature.

We sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, me talking and Jim listening. "I've always wanted to be a writer," I told him. "Now that the kids are in school all day, I'd like to take some adult education classes and learn how to do it right." Jim reached over and took my hand and with seeming concern, he asked why I'd never told him this before. I detailed my story for him. The laughter. The seeming ridicule. The fact that I'd written stories since grade school and hid them where nobody would find them, simply because I was so sensitive to being teased. By the time I was fourteen, I told him, I'd written a whole book. It was out in the garage, packed inside the box with my other high school trinkets--the whole thing stored up in the rafters where no one would find it.

Always on my side, Jim looked me in the eyes and told me to go for it. "If that's what you want," he said, "then you should pursue it. Take all the classes you want and as long as you're home when the kids get out of school, you'll never hear a complaint out of me." I threw my arms around him and gave him a long kiss. My secret was out. He hadn't laughed. He'd been supportive. I loved him for his caring attitude.

A few days later, out of the blue, Jim asked what I might be needing to pursue the career I wanted so badly. "A typewriter would be nice," I suggested. He told me to start looking for a used one. That made perfect sense. Like all young couples, we lived pay check to pay check and I knew a used typewriter would be all we could afford. I found one in the classifieds a few days later. I sounded perfect.

That night Jim and I went to look at it. The big old Underwood was exactly like the machine I'd had in school and at my parent's home. The keys were fast; the type clear. Jim handed the man $25 cash and carried the heavy metal typewriter to the car and later, into the house where it sat atop the desk. I was thrilled. And while I never knew where Jim had gotten the money, I suspected that he had saved it up over months. He took $20 at the beginning of every month to use as he wished. My best guess was the typewriter money was the accumulated leftovers he'd hoarded because I knew it hadn't come out of the budget.

A few days later, Jim told me that I should concentrate on my goal and not to worry about where the money would come from. "You learn to write," he said. "I'll pay the bills. I'll buy the paper, the typewriter ribbons, pay the postage, whatever you need, I'll take care of it till you're earning enough for the writing to fund itself." I was grateful beyond description. I had his full backing. And not one smirk, not ever.

I collected rejection slips for a year before making my first sale. I'd written a short story and sold it to a church publication for their children's take home magazine. My check came to $15. My next check, many months later, came from a children's publisher who dealt with nature. My short story about the Joshua tree earned me $150. I was dumbfounded. Jim grinned and said, "I knew you could do it. You're able to do pretty much anything you put your mind to."

My husband continued encouraging me to branch out and there came the day I submitted a travel story to a newspaper. They bought it, plus some of the photos I'd submitted. My check was $125 for the package. It wasn't so much the money that intrigued me but the fact that I'd only sold one-time rights and could market the same story again and again. I sold that one piece to ten different newspapers all across the states. I'd found my niche. Travel stories it would be from then on and with only a few exceptions, that is where I stayed.

By the time twenty years had gone by, I was Sandra L. Keith, Travel Writer. By now I'd become well enough known that publishers called me, gave me a subject matter, a deadline, and a decent salary. In the ten more years before I retired myself to spend all my time with Jim, I'd written six books and more magazine and newspaper stories than anyone in their right mind would ever want to read. No one was more proud of me than Jim. And while my parents bragged to all their friends about their "famous" daughter the writer, I laughed at them, telling them outright that if it wasn't for Jim, their so called famous daughter would never have had the nerve to venture into the unknown.

How grateful I was that Jim had always encouraged me to be me. I sometimes felt like I was many different people: Jim's wife, the kid's mother, the Cub Scout den helper, the school reading helper, the PTA cookie maker. I was like every other mom I knew, with a family to care for and obligations in the neighborhood. But I was also Sandra L. Keith, author. To this day I give God the glory for gifting me with an affinity for words. And I still give Jim the credit for pushing me into putting them on paper.

Author's comments:

An awful attitude took over inside me when Jim died. Looking back, I believe it invaded my heart the moment I saw his head fall back and a deathly gray pallor replace his usually robust color. The best way I can think to describe what happened inside me is "Who cares?" Those two words became my motto for the next ten months. 

I refused to care for myself. Who cares if I brush my teeth twice a day? Who cares if my hair is clean and tidy? Who cares if a filling came out of a tooth? Who cares if I pay the bills on time? Who cares if the kitchen is full of dirty dishes? Who cares if the carpet hasn't been vacuumed for a week? Who cares about anything?

That attitude was where I lived and slept. I knew the Lord was beside me, yet I couldn't summon up the wherewithal to take care of the body God had given me or the house I lived in. I had finally agreed with the Lord that I was meant to live. Wasn't it enough that I no longer prayed to die? The few things I did do every day were to bathe, wear clean clothes, and feed my animals. I thought that was sufficient. I didn't eat regularly and when I did, it was usually something I could microwave. I didn't care if the bed got made or if the bare floors were swept or groceries were purchased. I did the laundry only when I ran out of clothes and rather than go food shopping, I ordered online for home delivery.

I began losing weight; my skin erupted into blotches. I looked in the mirror and puzzled over how a 70 year old woman could suddenly pop up with acne. Only when the itching became unbearable did I seek medical help. For the most part I lived in Jim's big recliner, watching the television without really caring what was on. I tried reading, but couldn't follow the story. I tried knitting but ended up in tears because it reminded me of the last two years I'd spent sitting beside Jim during his immobile times.

I have one widow friend who has been alone two years longer than I have. She is still in a whirlpool of not knowing who she is. I try to help her but she isn't interested in changing. At least not yet. How thankful I am that even in my "who cares?" modus operandi I knew who I was. I've always known who I was. I knew I had talents that I would eventually care about bringing to the fore. I knew I was competent. I knew how to run the house. I knew all about my finances. I knew how to re-program the thermostat and the sprinkling system. I knew everything I needed to know to live on my own. Jim had made sure of that. Yet the thing was, I just plain didn't care.

I did not have to search for who I was without Jim, as so many of the books on grieving claim the widow is forced to do following the death of her soul mate. I can't totally explain in words the feelings that took up residence within me, but suffice it to say that I understood I was now a widow. Yet I was still Sandra L. Keith. I began wondering how long I'd been two people: the loving wife and the writer. It puzzled me. It still does. I felt in my heart that circumstances had forced me to give up being Jim's wife. I grieved and am still grieving that I've lost that part of me, for Jim was my life. Even so, little by little, I see my other self emerging. The writer puts my feelings on paper, illustrates the gut-wrenching facts of losing a loving spouse and in doing so, helps the widow in me heal. In many ways, it's nearly symbiotic.

Many of the books I've read concerning widowhood suggest there is nothing wrong with conjuring up your spouse, talking to him regularly, even asking questions concerning things the widow needs to know. I've discovered even some supposedly Christian books talk about writing letters to the loved one while other books now in my library tell the widow to ask the departed for advice or a supernatural visit. I find no scriptural references for such acts. For me, talking to God about everything that touches my life takes precedence over any other avenue.

Last week I was trying to put a new roll of paper in the adding machine and couldn't figure out how it worked. I tried and tried to no avail. In desperation I said, "God I don't know how to do this. Please show me."  It immediately came to my mind that the paper loaded from the back. I looked and sure enough. There it was. I set the paper in the slot and pushed the load button. Done. 

So I ask myself, "Would I have received an answer had I asked Jim how to do it? As I read my bible, I can find no passage that tells me the dead can communicate with those of us on earth. I prefer going to the One who spoke the worlds into existence; Who gave every star a name; Who runs to my aid in time of trouble; Who owns the cattle on a thousand hills; Who promised in Hebrews that He would never leave me nor forsake me. If I'm going to bet on who's listening to me, I'm going to bet on a sure thing. That's a major part of who I am.

"For I know the thoughts that I have toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29: 11-13


  1. Awesome! Encouraging as well. I just jumped over from Bloggers...something told me I needed to.

    Paul aka UP/Redneck Latte Ravings!

  2. All most of us need is a little encouragement from the right people! You are so blessed to have had such a sensitive husband! Your talent is showing through in your blog posts! Happy Halloween!

  3. Awesome! I had a similar experience and dream when I was a kid. My late husband was like yours as well. How nice it is that your dream came to fruition. When life mates were handed out, we both lucked out.