Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mourning And Memories

Jim and I never had a
real honeymoon. We
visited his aunt in
Pittsburgh and his sister
in Virginia. I didn't
care. At least we
were together.
Jim and I had been married less than a month when he came home from work one day, handed me his paycheck, and told me to pay the bills. It was the wife's job, he said. I stood there with my mouth open and what was surely a puzzled look on my face. I was barely seventeen, had never  paid a bill in my life, didn't know how to write a check or even open a bank account. Guess I'd led a very sheltered life.

"I don't know how to pay bills," I said. "It's your check, you should do it." Jim gave me that slow grin of his and suggested I ask his mom for help. Seems the whole four years Jim had been in the navy, he'd sent his paycheck home and his mom had paid what few bills he'd had and banked the rest. I figured by now he must have quite a nest egg built up. Not so, he informed me. His parents had his permission to use leftover money if they needed it and it seems they'd needed it.

Jim's sister, his brother, and him at the
end of the line, all had to work to help pay
the family bills. Jim delivered newspapers
until he was seventeen and joined the navy.
That shouldn't have surprised me. Jim, his brother and his sister had all had to work to help support the family ever since they were kids. And while the Keith family was cast of gold, their income consisted mostly of dimes and nickles.  Or so I was told. Jim always insisted that delivering papers taught him responsibility. I guess he was right. One of his  greatest attributes, besides his dry sense of humor, was the way he stepped up to responsibility without ever once dragging his feet or looking back.

During all our years as man and wife, things around our house went pretty much as they do in most houses. I continued to pay the bills in addition to all the rest of "wife" stuff and Jim took care of everything else, plus a few of the things I never seemed to get to. Like cleaning off the top of the refrigerator. I couldn't see it; he could. My rule was, if you can see it and it bothers you, then you should scrub it. So he did. Sometimes being short pays off.

As the Parkinson's disease set in and then progressed, many of the things that had always been Jim's responsibility became mine. Not because he was no longer willing to do them but because it became too dangerous. When he was on a ladder trying to get the Christmas tree out of the garage rafters and his legs gave way, resulting in a nasty fall--which resulted in little more than a sore body--ladders became off limits. When he still insisted he could mow the lawn, then fell with the power mower going full blast, lawn work was scrubbed from his list of duties.

I knew how difficult it was
for Jim to hand over his
keys. He loved driving
and he loved what he
referred to as his
"dream truck."
Little by little, I assumed responsibility for those things Jim had always taken care of. When it was possible, I hired others to do the gardening and mowing and gutter cleaning. Then came the day when Jim handed me his truck keys. When I looked puzzled, he told me he no longer trusted his ability to drive as he had twice pulled in front of vehicles he thought were further away than they were. Even as he gave me his keys, he apologized. "I know how much you hate driving, Sandy, and I hate to do this to you, but if I continue, I'm afraid I could cause an accident and if you were with me and you were hurt or killed, I'd never be able to live with myself. It's just better to quit now."

By the time the Parkinson's disease had progressed to the point that I needed nurses to help with his care, nearly fifteen years had passed and while I've compressed time for the purpose of telling my story, I can look back and see that the Lord was preparing me to be alone. I just didn't recognize it. I've talked with widows who had no idea of how to handle finances or how the health insurance worked or how to keep track of vehicle maintenance or how to fill up the gas tank or even how the home security lights or automatic sprinklers worked. I'd learned all those things because I'd had to.

In the end, I was grateful. I'm still grateful. It has been hard enough to deal with losing half of my heart without the frustration of trying to figure out all the financial things, the life insurance, and all the other stuff that rears its head, demanding to be dealt with in a timely manner. In the last year of his life, Jim made arrangements for me to sign every financial document so I would have access not only to his IRA, but every other asset he had always personally overseen.

Jim had already been
diagnosed with
Parkinson's when this
photo was taken. His
neurologist was able to
keep him working six
more years before Jim
had to go off on
Sometimes I find myself wondering if Jim suspected his time was growing short. I know I had no inkling. Neither did his many doctors. Nor anyone else who spent any time with him. Yet by the time he moved to heaven, I was fully prepared to take care of the dozens of jobs Jim had always assumed responsibility for. And although I knew how to handle paperwork, I flunked at losing the man I had loved for so long and so hard and so thoroughly.

It's been more than eighteen months since his passing and while I can now speak of him without tearing up every time, there are ambushes that come at me unbidden and at any time of day or night. A  song, a sound, a smell. Some memory of Jim that floods my heart, filling up my entire being. It is then that the tears flow and I just let them.

Author's comments:

While all of these blogs about my journey into widowhood have been difficult to write, this one has been particularly painful, though I'm not sure why. I wept while I wrote it; I'm weeping now. I've put off writing my author's notes for almost a week, waiting for my emotions to settle back into some form of stability, but that isn't happening. 

Every widow I know and have spent time with tells me the same things I'm feeling myself: their husband was one of a kind, the dearest man God ever created, an affectionate lover, a spouse both gentle and strong, a person given more to smiling than frowning, a hero in a white hat. And most important, the love of their life, who loved them back equally or even more.

For me, the anger that built into volcanic proportions and finally blew was not directed at God for taking Jim, but for leaving me behind. That became the root of the anger that followed. Had that intense anger not resided within me, I likely would never have taken offense at those well-meaning friends who spoke without thinking as to how their words would hurt me. I pray that they may learn how to comfort the bereaved, for if there is nothing else I've learned, I've learned how to do just that. And had that anger not coupled with my original anger, I likely would have shrugged off my long-time friends email as her opinion but not necessarily truth.

But that isn't what I did. And so it festered. Until that night I threw myself across my bed and sobbed out to God to deliver me from so much anger and bitterness. I could not carry it any longer; I didn't want it to be part of me anymore. Grieving my loss was all I could handle and if I were ever to heal, the anger had to go and the peace of God needed to flow into me. I wanted more than anything to stand clean before the Lord that He and I might get on with my journey into accepting widowhood.

Because I believe that God already knows everything, it's always been my nature to be honest with Him. The morning after sobbing myself to sleep, I got up to my usual routine of coffee and more coffee and maybe some toast. When I felt my brain was sufficiently awake to think straight, I took my bible and a notebook, sat down in Jim's recliner, and asked the Lord to meet me there. I had some things I needed to discuss and some people I needed to forgive. I turned to 1 John 1:9 and read "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

I'd been forgiven before, maybe a zillion times. I trusted the Lord to forgive me yet again. One by one, the people who's words had stung came to mind and although I'd forgiven them time and again, this time I forgave and consciously let the hurt go. As each face came to mind, I did the same thing. I felt like I was making progress, yet I knew something big still sat on my heart. I asked the Lord to show me what was left to do. As I sat in that chair that was way too big for me, I heard the softest whisper in my spirit and the words sounded like "Now forgive me."

Knowledge filled me and while I sobbed almost uncontrollably, I heard it again. "Now forgive me."  I knew exactly what God was asking. Yet I had questions. "Why did you make me watch him die so unexpectedly? And why does that gut-wrenching video loop my mind stored play over and over again?" It came to me that denial is the first step of grief, yet I had bypassed that step because of the reality I'd witnessed. I had not denied Jim's death. I knew with horrid certainty that he was gone. I asked the Lord to be gracious to me and remove the video loop from memory. What I heard in my heart was that the video would remain as a part of my memory, but the pain of it would diminish. And from that time on, the loop stopped playing and when it came to mind, the agony of it was gone, replaced by a sort of sadness that I could bear.

I'd been sitting in Jim's chair most of the morning, going step by step as the Lord directed. Yet I still heard those same words in my spirit. "Now forgive me." I thought about what that meant, knowing it was God who was in the forgiving business, not me. It was then I saw myself, alone for the first time in my life, trained by circumstances to go on alone, but dragging my heels all the way. "God, I don't want to be here," I said. "You know I want to be with you, I want to be where Jim is. I'm not afraid to die. You know that about me."

"Forgive me for leaving you behind," was what kept floating through my mind. "I have work for you to do." Stubborn that I am, I tried one last time, pleading with God to take me home. Yet I knew that wasn't going to happen. At least not anytime soon. I opened my bible to no special place, laid my hands on God's word, and forgave Him for making me stay on earth without the other half of my being. And even as I cried, I physically felt anger leave me and peace fill my heart. That peace has remained and I've been grateful, for the widow's path is strewn with many difficult situations and in order to heal to the point where I would again be useful to the Lord, I needed to continue walking through that dark valley until I came out into the sunlight. I wondered how long it would take.

"For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for 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. You will seek Me and you will find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29:10-13

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