Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Wedding Ring Dilemma

The department store jewelry case was lined with rows of diamond-studded wedding ring sets, some so brilliant they seemed nearly able to refract themselves into tints of gold, green, and blue. Jim stood beside me, asking which ones I wanted. I questioned if there was a price point, but he shook his head no. "I want you to have the rings you like the most," is what he said. "You'll be wearing them for the rest of your life."

I have never been a showy kind of person. My roots go back to WWII rationing and being thrifty had been the motto my parents had instilled in my head. For fun, I tried on a set with a large diamond in the engagement ring. It had looked so enticing sitting in the case, but on my small hand, it looked ridiculous. At least I thought it did. I tried on a few more sets, but once on a hand with short fingers, they appeared almost clown-like.

Then I spied an intricately carved set with small diamonds, chips mostly, and a single quarter-caret stone set in the center of the engagement ring. I asked to try them on. Perfect for me. Perfect for a tiny hand with short fingers. I thought they cost too much, but Jim insisted he could afford them. He bought them and took them home toward the day we'd be officially engaged and then married.

Over the years, time and wear took its toll on those rings and while the diamonds stayed clear and sparkling, the gold wore through and eventually broke into pieces. Jim said I should have the stones put into a new setting so I looked here and there for weeks, but found nothing I liked as much as my original rings.

My local jeweler suggested I have the rings re-cast. I gave her a couple of 24-caret chains and bracelets to be melted down and the gold reused, but in the end I had to purchase a bit of additional gold.  By the time the wax mold was finished and approved by me, the new rings were cast and the stones set. Even I couldn't tell they weren't my original rings. I brought them home so Jim could slip them back on my finger. They are still there. Even though he isn't.

I have read so many different books that deal with grief and one of the major questions always concerns the wedding rings. Should the widow put them away, move them to the other hand, wear them around her neck, have the stones reset, or keep the rings on her wedding finger? I am friends with a widow who has put them in her jewelry box and brings them out on special occasions. I propose there is no one way to do things. Each widow must do what feels right in her own heart.

My heart maintains that I am still married. My husband may have moved into heaven, but my heart says that while I am still so much in love with him, the rings stay where he put them so many years ago. Perhaps the day will come when I'll move them to my jewelry box. Maybe. About a hundred years from now. Maybe then. But not today.

There are other reasons why I continue wearing my rings. They are protection for me. As long as strangers think I'm married, nobody bothers me and that's how I want it to be. I learned that lesson the hard way. Several months after Jim died, I had an appliance that started acting up so I called a repairman. He fixed the problem and as I was writing the check, he asked a question that I no longer remember. What I do remember is that in answering, I mentioned I was a widow.

"So you're available now," is what he said. My mouth dropped open and I'm sure my eyes must have been wide with shock. My mind began questioning myself as to what on earth I had said that made him think he could ask such a thing. I do remember that I told him I was not available and then I listened to him apologize over and over for having spoken as he had. I handed him the check, ushered him out of the house with my dog, Bonnie, right beside me and double-locked  the door behind him. He was the last person who would ever come into my home to repair anything that would know I was a widow.

I continue wearing my rings for yet another reason. I have two very good friends my same age who have never been married, never had children, never seen a man's eyes light up when they walked in the room. I listen to their heart's longings and I understand how much they wish someone had loved them enough to say they could not live without them and place a ring on their finger. Through their unspoken words, I listen to the longing for the life they wanted to live and never did. I hear the sadness in their words. The hunger for what they wished had been. It is then that I realize how much God has blessed me with a husband who loved me unconditionally. So it is that I continue wearing my rings. They say that some man wanted me. They say that I was loved. Life never gets any better than that.

Author's comments:

Wearing my wedding rings feels normal. Right now, it is the only thing in my entire life that feels that way. It's been said that it takes a while after the death of a loved one to "return to normal." My consensus is that normal is gone--vanished into thin air, along with Jim's presence. For me, normal is a thing of the past--the glory days when Jim and I sat visiting over coffee or taking a ride to the mountains just because we wanted to or planning a cruise to someplace we'd always wanted to go.

I suspect that in time, a new normal will surface, one that works with the person I am and the personality God gave me. For now, I have set being "normal" aside, content to leave it in the Lord's hands, for I know that if I try to effect some sort of new standard for myself, it will likely fail miserably. You know the tale of the best laid plans of mice and men. They never work. So it is that I save myself the trouble of pushing my way into some sort of new normalcy. I let it go willingly, for concentrating on change when I still have grieving to do is more than I can handle right now.

My widow friend who has been alone two years longer than me says that she would like to marry again. She claims she is the type of person who needs someone to take care of her. I suspect that for her, having someone to carry all the burdens and make every decision is normal. From what she tells me, it is the way her husband was and what she's used to and what she wants again.

I can't envision myself ever getting to that point. As much as I loved Jim, I've always been self-motivated, opinionated, and decisive. They are traits I low-keyed as a wife yet allowed to run full bore as a writer with a freelancing business. And while in the beginning, shortly after Jim's death, I didn't believe I could survive without him beside me, I've come to see that God knew me better than I knew myself. I know I can go on. I've even come to the place where I am willing to do so. There is still much sadness within me and with the holidays approaching, I find I am ambushed by tears more often than not.

My intent to go on and have a good attitude about the whole thing came as a surprise to me. Perhaps you are doing a double take too. The change inside me came about last week and only the Lord could have done it because it happened so spontaneously. It was a day I was once again sitting in Jim's big recliner, teary-eyed by memories of holidays past and dreading those that are almost upon us. For some reason, the sense of loss seems bigger right now, for this will be the second year that Jim won't be sitting at the head of the table on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

That day I especially felt alone and bereft. I felt limp with grief, as though all the starch God had put within me these last months had been washed away. It was then that the oddest thing happened. I saw my grandma. Not visibly, but mentally, and she was smiling. I considered that for a moment and then it came into my head that grandma would have understood exactly how I was feeling. Her long-time spouse had gone to work one day and while sitting at his desk, suddenly claimed he didn't feel well. Before the other employees in the real estate office could even think what to do, grandpa put his head on his desk and died. He was sixty-two.

Five generations of my
family, from great
grandma to my son.
Into my head came this thought: You come from strong stock. "If grandma could live thirty plus years alone, so can you." Believe it or not, I felt starch come back into my soul. I was still saddened that these holidays would be lonely, yet I looked back at my genes and knew I came from a line of tough and determined women. Great grandma lived alone for untold years, running a small farm by herself, the house heated only by a wood stove. She lived to be ninety-eight. 

My grandma went back to work a year or so after grandpa died, walking the six blocks to and from a large department store every single day, eventually becoming the best sales lady in her department and later on, the best sales person in the entire store. She lived to be ninety-four. My own mom, all her life as healthy as a horse, succumbed to Alzheimer's at eighty-two. Every so often I wonder how long she would have lived had her body remained whole. My best guess is well into her nineties. It seems to be our "normal" pattern on my mother's side. 

As for me, I think I'm going to find the bumper sticker that says, "If I'd known I was going to live this long I'd have taken better care of myself" and put it on my car. Jim always refused any kind of sticker on any of his vehicles, but now that I'm in charge, I can do as I wish. I say that with absolutely no animosity. Honest. I didn't choose to go on without him, but if I must, then I will make my own choices, knowing that the Lord is guiding me along the right path.

I will allow my stubborn nature to say "no" when need be and I'll let my decisiveness make decisions without wringing my hands. As for my opinions, I'll say only this. The wedding rings stay put. Death ends a life, but not a relationship. Others may disagree with that opinion. I understand. None of us are alike. Yet that is my opinion and no matter what anyone says, I'm stickin' with it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Holiday Ambushes

These past holidays have been difficult for me. I suspect you figured that out when you saw no new postings. I simply wasn't prepared for the way grief came back on me just when I thought I was doing so well. I never even saw it coming. Not until it hit me between the eyes, resulting in intense emotional pain. The 2x4 seemingly came out of nowhere to deliver it's agonizing blow. The worst part was, once was not enough. More would follow, usually when I least expected it.

Jim and Debi were soul-
mates from the very beginning.
It started with my oldest granddaughter getting married the middle of November. I'd known the date for a long time but the week before the ceremony, I began thinking of how much Jim would have loved to be there. She was our first grandchild and while I loved her, Jim adored her. They became soul-mates, always together whether it be playing or walking or bike riding. She was our only grandchild for four years and Jim spoiled her rotten every time she came to visit.

Thinking how much Jim would have enjoyed the wedding is what started my whirlpool of sadness. After that, I was downhearted most of the time. I often cried  during the classic movies I have always enjoyed watching. You know the old black and white ones that are always on the movie channel. The ones we've all seen a hundred times and still watch over and over. Those movies where the man always loves the woman more than life and promises to care for her forever. And even if the guy gets sick and dies or goes off to war never to return, the women left behind remain sturdy and strong and if they cry, it is only a single tear that trickles down the face.

I cried when I heard the old, familiar songs that reminded me of years past when my family was all around me. Today, my kids are grown; the grandkids too. Jim is gone. And even though I am surrounded by a big dog and four comical cats, it isn't the same. And even though I understand that I cannot live in the past, it is the past that evokes the tears. It seems a vicious circle.

I've resolved to go on alone, even though I don't like it. That resolve is still inside me as I continue walking through what feels like the worst winter of my life. From time to time, scattered memories bushwhack me. Those memories will always be within me. I figure tears will abate after some years of grief. Maybe in about ten years. Or twenty. I'm not sure when. Is it easier when the widow is younger and somewhere in the back of her mind she allows that she may again find love and marry? I don't know the answer to that. Seems to me losing a spouse is devastating, no matter what your age.

One of my widow friends dropped by a week before Christmas, saying she was lonely and didn't want to be home by herself. I understood. Yet when I told her I too was lonely and sad and then began crying, she continued sitting in the chair and never said a word except to ask what plans I had for the holidays. When I told her my daughter was having Thanksgiving and Christmas at her house this year, my friend informed me that she had no where to go. No kids. No family. No friends. For some reason I got the impression that she was trying to tell me that she had it worse than I did. Maybe I was wrong. Probably so. But maybe not.

Being a widow is only for the strong. Sissies need not apply. And I've learned this much. If you aren't strong when widowhood strikes, you'll become strong as you walk the lonely road you've been dealt. There is no other way to survive. I've learned that the hard way. All those friends and family who surrounded me at the beginning have gotten on with their own lives. I understand that the world goes on. For everyone else but the widow. For us, time moves in slow motion. Only others like myself truly understand what I'm saying.

I've read that to get through the holidays the best way possible, change things around so you aren't doing what you've always done. It's supposed to break the cycle. My family changed things around during the last holidays. It didn't break anything except my heart. This year we changed things around again. I'm here to tell you how well breaking the cycle works: it doesn't.

Despite my family's endeavor to make this second Christmas without Jim different so that I might not slip into sadness and tears, I found it of no consequence, though I love them for trying so hard. I found it mattered not whose home we met in or what we had for dinner or when we opened presents. So obvious to my heart was my missing spouse that I came to the conclusion that no amount of change would ever make up for his warm hand, his gentle touch, his lazy smile, his sturdy presence in my life.

Through these past two months, the Lord has been ever faithful to me, saving up my tears in His bottle, restoring my spirits times and times again, and comforting me when I gave in to despair and let the tears fall. He continues to urge me to go on with the grieving till it be finished. He continues to urge me to press on with life. He continues to tell me I'm loved. Even when the tears run in rivulets down my face. Even when they spill over in torrents. Even then I feel Him near. He understands that these past couple of months were painful to walk through.

What I have come to understand is that if anyone knows about grief, it is the Lord God. What father amongst us could watch His Son die while nailed to a cross and not know the agony of a broken heart? As awful as this sounds, it gives me great comfort to know that God understands my tears and railings. While on the cross, Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Christ paid it all. For my sorrow. My tears. My broken heart. My continued grief. It was during these past two months that I saw the truth of Hebrews 13:5 where Jesus says, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." In the Amplified Bible, that verse ends with, "I will not, I will not, I will not." Jesus felt forsaken--something I will never experience.

Yes, the holidays were difficult. But I have hope my life will get better. I am content with that for now, for I know I ride on Jesus' shoulders, the place where He carries the sick, the weak, and the wounded. If that doesn't describe me at this point in my life, I don't know what does.

As always,


Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Death Of Dreams

Although Jim and I were happily married, there was one year in particular when I thought we might split up. We argued all the time. The year was 1986 and it was becoming more and more obvious to me that there was something drastically wrong with my husband. His typical "sailor on a ship" walk had changed to one of short, straight steps. Along with that, his arms would no longer swing as he walked, but hang motionless at his side. What's more, his left leg trembled uncontrollably during parts of each day. The symptoms grew worse if he became stressed.

He was a regular jogger, every day coming home from work, changing clothes and hitting the streets for at least an hour. One day he informed me his left leg had been cramping up, so he was going to switch from jogging to riding his bike. I tried to get him to see our long-time family doctor but he stubbornly insisted nothing was wrong and I started to wonder if my mind was inventing problems that didn't actually exist.

About six months after the left leg began seizing, his left shoulder started hurting and since Jim never complained about pain, I took him seriously. "Go to the doctor," I told him. He finally did, though for no other reason than to get me off his back. He came home with a good report. Nothing wrong. The leg was cramping during jogging because of a pulled muscle; the shoulder was hurting because Jim had strained it helping our son-in-law moved a large couch into a second story apartment. Jim and our family doctor had come up with a reason for everything. Case closed.

But I had this growing suspicion in the pit of my stomach that said the diagnosis was wrong. Jim's left leg began trembling more often and so did his left hand. I suspected a neurological disease but didn't want to speak the words out loud. Months passed. We continued disagreeing on whether Jim was alright. By the time 1986 was almost over, Jim's leg spasms had become nearly uncontrollable, as had the trembling in his left hand. He got to the point where he could no longer ride his bike around town, and a couple of times, ended up having to walk it home. Because Jim used exercise as a stress relief from his job, he wanted a stationary bike. We began looking around and finally bought one. When I suggested he should see the doctor again, he fought me, insisting I was hunting for problems where none existed.

We went on like that until early in 1987. Never in our married life had we had so many disagreements and it took a toll on me and I'm sure it did the same to Jim. Our easiness with one another suffered. Our hours-long chatting nearly ceased. A few months into that year, I called our doctor and questioned him about the diagnosis he'd given Jim. He explained exactly what Jim had told me. I listened politely, then told him he was wrong. "I've been married to this man for over thirty years," I said, "and I know something is wrong with him. If you can't diagnose it, then send Jim to someone who can."

Late that afternoon, I received a call from a well-known neurosurgeon's office. The doctor wanted to see Jim the next day. I instantly felt sick to my stomach. I went ahead and made the appointment without consulting Jim, then called our family doctor for added information. He told me he'd conferred with the neurosurgeon and the specialist's consensus was that Jim could be suffering from either a fast-growing brain tumor or Parkinson's disease.

I was too stunned to cry. I was too stunned to pray. I sat down at the kitchen table and told the Lord I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to pray. I didn't know what to think. I didn't want Jim to have a brain tumor. I didn't want him to have Parkinson's disease. Why were there only two choices?  And both of them bad? Jim had just turned fifty-two. Too young to be stricken with any disease, let alone what many, including myself, had long considered to be an old person's complaint. Parkinson's. The worst was, it was what I had secretly suspected for a long time, all along hoping I was wrong.

The neurosurgeon put Jim through a battery of tests. No brain tumor. No other neurological disease. That left Parkinson's, diagnosed only by ruling out everything else. The surgeon recommended Jim see a neurologist. We went together, asked every question we could think of and the doctor started Jim on Parkinson's medicine, stating that if the diagnosis was incorrect, the meds wouldn't make any difference in Jim's symptoms. The meds dramatically changed Jim back to near normal. We now knew what we were dealing with. It was the beginning of a more than twenty-year uphill battle fighting a progressive and incurable disease that Jim determined would not take charge of his life.

The first thing that dawned on me is that when one of the mates has a debilitating disease, both have it. I wasn't the one dealing with the off-times leg shaking and hand twitching, but the disease affected me in ways I'd never thought of. I read everything I could find on Parkinson's disease. It was slow moving. It was medically treatable, especially in the early years; less so in the latter years. It was a disease that would eventually lead to impotence, slurred speech, loss of body function control, possible Lewy Body dementia, a wheelchair, and in the last stages, bedridden. The stages would come slowly. And not in perfect order. But they would come.

I kept a stiff upper lip for a long time, encouraging Jim that there was nothing we couldn't handle together. I continually reminded him that the Lord was in control and wanted only the best for Jim as His child and us as a couple. I saw him cry only once and that was shortly after the diagnosis. He was sitting on the couch; I was in the chair opposite him. We were casually chatting when he suddenly put his head in his hands and began weeping. "All of our plans to travel when I retire are gone," he said. "I'm so sorry, Sandy. I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to leave."  I went to sit beside him and put my arms around him. "I will never leave you. I promise," is what I said. Tears silently rolled down my face. It was so like him to always think of me first. How could I abandon the one I loved most in all the world? "No matter what, you're stuck with me,"  is what I said. It would be my mantra for the rest of our lives together.

I held myself in check for a long time. Jim was still able to work and as he traveled for the company on occasion, there was a trip to Portland, Maine on the schedule. We decided to make it a vacation and Jim's secretary booked my flight along with making the arrangements for Jim's hotel and transportation for the three days the conference would be held. After that, Jim and I were on our own. I was excited to be headed to the east coast. I'd not been there since childhood. I had great plans for everything we would see and do. I never knew whether it was the travel writer in me or the wife who wanted to show Jim around someplace he'd never been.

Jim and I flew out of San Diego, changed planes in Philadelphia and just as we were coming into Portland, the oddest thing happened to me and to this day I still can't explain the why of it. As our plane began leveling out to land, the full force of how much Jim's disease would eventually affect us landed on me. It rose up inside me like a volcanic explosion, nearly uncontrollable. I felt great, gulping sobs forming inside me. Mental anguish overtook my feelings and spread into my whole being. "Why, God?" I prayed silently. "Why now in a plane filled with strangers? Why does this come upon me here and now?"

I didn't receive an answer. I still don't know why the full knowledge of how Parkinson's would alter our lives dawned on me at that particular moment. What I do know is that the Lord helped me keep things together all through de-planing, car pick-up, and hotel registration. I held myself together till we were in our room. Then I told Jim that I felt so travel weary that I thought I'd take a long, relaxing bath before supper. He turned on the television to catch the news. I went into the bathroom, turned the faucet on full blast, and sobbed until there were no tears left.

That was the day I fully understood what this disease would cost us as a couple. That was the day I began mourning the death of our dreams.

Author's comments:

Dreams don't necessarily die all at once. When a disease is slow moving, dreams fashioned together as a healthy young couple, begin expiring along the twists and bends of the path one is forced to walk. For as long as I could remember, we'd planned on travelling six months out of every year, stopping where we wished and for as long as we wished. From our first days together, Jim had been a saver, relegating every penny possible into stock in the company he worked for. When he retired, he would receive his own contributions, plus the company would add fifty cents to every dollar saved and upon retirement, the whole package would be Jim's  to do with as he pleased.

We were pleased to see the world. But that isn't what happened. In the end, much of the money went to pay for caregivers, for the time came when I was too exhausted to carry on alone and in addition, I'd become ill myself and had ended up in emergency surgery--not once, but twice. All in the period of one year.

I distinctly remember when our first dream died. It was the day I realized that if we wanted to travel, it would have to be before Jim could no longer drive or get around easily. I knew the time would come sooner rather than later and I sat on the couch late one night and cried myself nearly to sleep. With Jim still able to work, I knew vacations would be spent in week or two increments and while we did take a cruise to Alaska, our intents to travel the globe were gone. I'd planned on that almost my whole married life. We both had. If it hurt me, I knew it hurt Jim. I showed it; he didn't. My conservative husband, always staunch. Was he strong for me or is that just how he was? I never knew for sure.

The day intimacy died is still emblazoned on my heart. How we loved one another and with the disease progressing, more medications and stronger doses were the game plan to keep Jim moving. By now, he'd had to go off on sick leave from work, turning his job over to his next-in-charge, whom he'd worked diligently to train. Jim and I sought out a specialist in all things pertaining to intimacy and after a long examination, the doctor's suggestion was to cut back on Jim's meds. That would resolve the problem. It wasn't an option. Jim could either get around, walk, feed himself, dress himself, or sit in a chair completely Parkinsonian, unable to move or do. I left the choice to him. He chose to live an active life. I agreed. We took a cruise to Mexico. We took our three oldest grandkids with us.

If not for the Lord's faithfulness, I would never have learned how deep and abiding love can be. I thought I knew. I didn't. What I learned is that laying next to one another, touching, kissing, speaking love to each other's ears, gave a comfort to each of us that I would never have learned had it not been for the impotency. I believe God worked in both of us, showing us that although intimacy was given of the Lord, when it was no longer possible, God would make a way where there seemed to be no way. For the last six years of our life together, we remained close and loving. Only the Lord could have effected that in both Jim and I.

Little by little, we gave up our dreams and goals, letting them die by the wayside. One day I questioned Jim if he ever felt anger concerning the direction his life had taken. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "Why would you ask that?" he said. I mentioned the disease and the things we could no longer do. He shook his head, turned those blue eyes on me and said, "I don't wallow in it. I can't change it. I can't do anything to fix it. I use all my energy to get on with the life I've been dealt and live the best way possible." I wondered if I would have come to that had it been me. Probably not. I'm a complainer. Jim never was.

As I look back at those Parkinson's years of our life together, I see God's wisdom taking hold of our days and years. He knows my way and He knew it while I was yet in my mother's womb, so He says in scripture. He knows I am a wimp, falling to pieces when stress overcomes me. He knows I can't handle more than two things going wrong at the same time. He knows that others see me as being strong but the truth is that only as I hold onto Christ can I face any kind of trauma. He knows I constantly flunk the life testings sent my way and only get a passing grade when I give up going my own direction and purposely set my face toward the Lord.

As Jim and I faced the death of our dreams, he got A's. I didn't. In my heart, I believe Jim was ready for heaven. I wasn't. I think that is why I'm still here, writing what I've learned on the journey I've been assigned. Perhaps when I stop dragging my heels, I'll get passing grades. Perhaps when I have taken hold of the stubbornness inside me, I'll graduate to heaven with Jim. In the meantime, I plug away, day by day, trying to share that which I know with anyone who wants to learn without having to deal with it the hard way. It's what I always told my own children: "If you'd do as I say, you wouldn't have to learn things the hard way." They never listened. What on earth ever made me think I was different?

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." 
 2 Corinthians 4: 7, 8

He alone knew I could not face the death of my dreams all at once. One at a time was hard enough. I will always be thankful that the Lord never laid on me more than I could bear at any one moment.