Grief is a sacred journey

Solo on a Bench Built for Two

4 1

DSC04692-001“We’ll sit here in the afternoon sun when we’re old and too tired to walk,” Vic said when we designed a deck with a two-person bench shielded from the wind. “We’ll watch sunsets here.”

He dubbed it the “Old People’s Corner.”

We’d always wanted a deck on the sunny southwest side of our home, but there were foundations to be rebuilt and walls to be torn down and reconstructed to save this house built in 1824 by Elias Jewell. The deck had to wait. For thirty years.

Deck without furniture

Deck without furniture

In 1972, the summer we bought the land and the mess of a house that came with it, Vic rebuilt the eastern-facing porch off the kitchen. Previous owners used it to raise rabbits, but it was perfect for summer eating and full moon rises. The following summer, Vic rebuilt the north-facing front porch for firewood in winter and houseplants in the summer. Neither porch had the sunset view.

The final piece of our long remodeling plan was a deck made of locally milled locust trees. Locust is naturally rot resistant so it was a way to avoid treated lumber. We also installed new windows on the south and west side of the living room and cut a door through the office wall connecting the house to the deck. Vic grumbled about sacrificing a panel of his beloved built-in book cases for the door, but his office, now my office, gained a sunset view.

Office with door to deck

Office with door to deck

After Vic died, it hurt too much to sit on the deck alone. In his last years, we ate there, watched sunsets, and enjoyed hummingbirds at a nearby feeder. We listened to turkeys cluck and coyotes howl, spied deer through binoculars, and spotted an occasional fox. On warm clear summer nights, Vic set up his telescope on the deck.

“Wow, did you see that one?” we yelled. “Or come and look at the moons of Venus.” We watched shooting stars, planetary conjunctions, eclipses, and cycling moons.

Willow loves the view

Willow loves the view

As grief eased ever so slightly the second summer after Vic’s death, I used the deck for meals with family or friends. I never sat there alone. Gradually, the sunsets drew me outside. The deck became my favorite spot again. This strangely warm year, our family opened Christmas presents there.

I often sit on the little bench by myself now with my dog Willow nearby. The Vic who lives within my memory keeps me company and reminds me of our love.

Christmas on the deck

Christmas on the deck

Vic’s birthday was on March 7. He would have been 75, but my image of him is stuck at 67 when he took his last breath.

The weather was oddly warm and sunny as it’s been most of this winter. I watched the sunset alone in the Old People’s Corner and remembered the man who created this protected place in my still protected life.

DSC04643

***

How do you celebrate the birthday of someone you love who has died? Do you try to forget about the day or do you welcome it? For other posts about celebrating my marriage, see The Comfort of Small Things and A Personal Grief Ritual of Remembrance and Release.

 

4 1
44 Comments
  1. A beautiful post Elaine, bittersweet.
    Understandable, that the corner your Vic created for you both was such a lonely place (too much to bear) during the earlier grief years, but, I imagine, now brings closeness and comfort to you. I love that the whole family opened Christmas gifts outside, in the special spot. Can’t help but imagine Vic there watching over you all. x

    Interesting that your dog is called Willow… our guinea pig has the same name and I’ve often thought how well the name would have suited our dog if we’d have thought of it before naming her 🙂

    Birthdays after loss are so tough, I know. My thoughts are with you, Elaine. x

    • Thank you, Kimmie. I felt the usual sense of Vic missing, just as I feel today, but it was good to devote time to remembrance and ritual. It was also good to hear from family and close friends. If I’d tried to ignore the day, I would have been a mess.
      I named my dog Willow because it’s a flexible wood that doesn’t break easily. Hmmm… She’s had two knee surgeries (ACL) and I can’t talk her out of running like the wind. On the other hand, she can hang out all day with my 100 year-old mother-in-law and be perfectly content. Maybe that’s flexibility, but more likely the constant feeding of whatever the health aids have given my M-I-L. A bite of ham, a piece of cheese. Since I don’t ever feed her off my plate, it’s thrilling.

  2. Hi Elaine! Thank you for your friendship and support. Today is International Women’s day and you are on my list of inspiring ladies: http://mindfunda.com/international-womens-day/

    • Thank you, Susanne. I just visited your site to see what you’ve done. I’m honored. You are on my (unpublished) list of inspiring women.
      What a great idea!

  3. I love this. I still feel awkward about spending time at some of the favourite places Stan and I shared. I hope one day it will not be so painful to do so. Our winter has been mild this year, too, but the other day, we got more than 6 inches of snow. Stan loved the snow and I pictured him doing his little dance of joy in front of the window.

    Thank you for this poignant piece.

    • Thank you, Tricia. I’ve had much more time than you to get used to the new life–and you didn’t get nearly enough time in the first place (if you ask me, but no one asks us). I can almost see Stan doing his joy dance. I admit, these memories and places are tinged by pain, but there is much love there, too.

      A friend whose husband died told me it took her ten years to feel only joy without pain–and she still missed him. It just didn’t make her cry anymore. She told me this about twenty years ago. I’m glad I remembered what she said.

  4. Remember the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built?” Your post could be named “This is the House that Vic and Elaine Re-Built.” I find the interiors & exteriors of houses endlessly fascinating, particularly if they reflect the personalities of people I know.

    Marriage is all about negotiation, which you and Vic must have done so that he would agree to sacrifice a bookshelf panel for a door. It’s easy to picture you and Willow enjoying the view and the sunsets now. Lovely post, Elaine!

    • Marian, of course, I remember Jack’s house. My house was built topsy-turvy with a room added here and another tacked on there. It has its own charm.

      Vic and I were good at negotiation from beginning to end, although not 100%. I could be a tad bit defensive when I was younger. 😉 Willow loves to run from window to window watching for rabbits. I watch for sunsets and flowers. Yesterday afternoon, I saw snowdrops in my front garden. Wildly early for NY, but that’s the way it’s been. It was 60 today in NY and 80 today where I am in FL. But we don’t have alligators in upstate NY.

      • I am SO excited you have landed in Florida. Soak up the sunshine – and the goodwill.

        • I will, Marian. We’re in that slightly nervous place of last minute preparation, misplacing things, and all that. Time to let it rest. We are well prepared, but because the co-leader and I live so far away from each other, this is the first time we’ve gone through everything face to face rather than on Skype. I’m enjoying the flowers, too, and hearing an owl last night.

  5. Thanks for sharing that beautiful part of your life with Vic – the building of your home and favorite things to see from your porch.
    You should also recognize how far you’ve come and grown since Vic’s passing.
    I always smile on my father’s birthday and embrace my memories just a wee bit closer on that day, March 22nd. I won’t deny that after 24 years, I still shed tears for the empty hole in my heart since his death. We never stop loving or missing one who filled our hearts and have been taken from us, we merely find a way to displace our grief in other avenues.

    • Thank you, Debby. I never feel held back by my love or longing. It’s just part of what I carry along in life now. The older we get, the bigger the bag gets, so it’s good if we learn how to carry it well. I have grown a lot since Vic’s death. In many ways. This learning can be hard work.

      • We are always learning. Look how far you’ve come. You’re remarkable Elaine. <3

        • It was nice to see the sunset from the deck last night–in a winter coat, but out of the wind. Thanks for your kind words. I’m very behind with everything and I promised an article which has a deadline in two days. The article comes first and then I’ll catch up–I hope.

  6. I really love the way you write about everyday feelings, experiences and places that everyone can relate to. And I appreciate your grounding in the physical world with its practical realities. Your pieces always inspire and teach me. “So this is another way to be that I never thought of before,” I often think after reading one of your pieces. Thank you for being such a gifted teacher and sharing your wisdom with the world.

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I’ve just spent the sweetest day with you sharing what matters most to me in life. I can hardly wait to see what we’ll create together at our lecture/workshop this weekend. It’s bound to be dynamic and energetic.

  7. Hi Elaine, this makes me think of how memories can be both pleasant and painful – what a paradox. It’s a beautiful piece of writing thank you – the photographs are so lovely! What a deck to see Nature in all her glory! When birthdays come up of loved ones who have died, I chat to them in my way, perhaps while walking or lighting a candle. And always, at Christmas time, we acknowledge those who have gone before ..

    • Ah, those opposites. I expect life experience to come in this way now, so I’m not surprised. The deck is simple and rustic and just right. It looks a little more dressed up with the summer table and chairs, but it’s not fancy. Only the view is fancy. I remember you saying that your family remembers those who have died at Christmas when I wrote about my family doing that. It makes us feel close to the dead, but also very close to the living–and we remember how precious life is. It’s always a pleasure to read your comments, Susan.

  8. Dear Elaine, I write today on my eldest daughter’s birthday. A long, heart-breaking tale of estrangement, with separation that feels like a living death. Anyhow, I decided to celebrate the occasion as I always do, and opted to go for a long unaccompanied, circular walk from my house. On the way back I decided, I would walk along the reassuring shoreline.

    The walk was pleasurable. I thought a lot about her and the years of not being in each other’s lives and how I would always miss her. I thought about how I had moved from the floor and the grief-stricken wailing, that only a loving mother would know, to an ever increasing acceptance and letting go of ever trying to control the situation.

    I reached the sea, and in bewilderment, regarded the height and fierceness of the incoming waves. ‘No way out but through,’ I told myself as I battled through to safety, feeling afraid and invigorated all at the same time. Again and again I was struck by waves, soaked from head to boots. I didn’t think the tears would come but they did in that solitary moment.

    Sodden, I traipsed the last mile home, and read this your ‘Solo’ post and resonated profoundly on this day of hearts. Sometimes, as you know dear friend, we read another’s words just when they are needed most. I got changed, drove down to where she works and quietly approached her. She smiled, ‘Happy Birthday my darling,’ I finally said after ten years of silence. There are no words. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Oh, oh, oh, Deborah. I’m imagining your walk and you in rough cold waves–actual or metaphorical or both. Isn’t the sea freezing cold there right now? And you did that? I’m glad you made it to safety. The whole world was weeping.
      Then you changed your wet clothes and drove to where your daughter works and wished her a Happy Birthday? And she smiled? It’s so exquisitely beautiful and miraculous. I want to know more. When you have words. If there are words.
      No matter what has happened and what will happen next, she is your darling. She knows that. So do you. Sending you love and a huge hug, Deborah.

      • ‘The whole world was weeping.’ That’s so beautiful, and was exactly how I felt. Your poetic words, Elaine, are constant healing magic. You give so much to others in your loving validation. Yesterday, through the help of your wonderful blog, I finally opened Pandora’s Box and found within ‘Hope.’ Much gratitude for your presence and who you are. Love and thanks, Deborah.

        • I’m so glad, Deborah. Although my brother and I didn’t have a specific incident, we were distant and rarely in contact for many years. I pushed my way back into his life quite a few years ago. I’m grateful I did, because that was when his daughter got sick. And then he was there for me when Vic got sick and now I can support him and his family again. I risked being ignored or rejected, looking foolish, but instead I found an old family love. I’m sure your situation is more difficult, but hope can be the sweetest of words. The opposite of a shut box with a lock on it. Hope on…

  9. Elaine,

    Your words always stir up so many emotions and images.
    I love this story about the bench. And it’s good to see
    Miss Willow’s photo. Sharing.

    • Thank you so much, Kathleen. Willow loves the view from the deck where she can keep an eye on her kingdom. I love seeing you do so well. I’m in FL getting ready to give a workshop on Friday and Saturday. I knew I had to do this workshop. I had no idea it would consume my life for months, but I love what we’ve created and look forward to the weekend. Best to you and your loving family.

  10. Elaine,
    Your living situation is so much like mine. A house my husband and I built, a deck he built that looks over the forest and a creek, a wooden sign that says, “welcome to our deck”. We spent many hours sitting out there enjoying nature, talking or just sitting in silence enjoying each other’s company.

    It is almost one year since Ron was killed when a truck pulled out in front of him just a few miles from our home. He was an avid motorcyclist and one of the safest I had ever known. He owned a large touring bike and took many trips with other members of the association he belonged to. He was killed instantly. I was never allowed to even view his body, as it was so mangled. Instead of being greeted by my husband after his ride. I was greeted by a policeman and a chaplain .

    Now I sit on our deck alone. Now I wonder what I will do with my life, as I pick up remnants and dismantle bits of the life he left behind. Now his ashes reside in an urn on top of the piano he so lovingly played.

    It is early days. I gain some strength from your blog. I am always amazed at the similarities of our two lives as widows. But right now, all I do is achnowledge and morun the 27th of each month, in the beautiful space we once shared.

    No one tells you about the endless, empty moments, the relentlessness of the endless moments, and the vast space, after your husband dies.

    Thank you Elaine.

    Deb

    • Dear Deb, this is so true and beautifully put. “No one tells you about the endless, empty moments, the relentlessness of the endless moments, and the vast space, after your husband dies.” We have been well trained by our culture not to speak about grief and not to tell people about the enduring pain of loss–or the enduring longing and love. Since we’re all expected to “get over it,” most people hide. Maybe, if I had been told, I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. There are experiences we know only through living them.

      We do have so much in common, Deb, including the motorcycle guys, although Vic gave up the motorcycle a few years after we met. And our rural homes built with love with our partners.

      Yes, it is early days for you. It’s been a slow process of softening for me, but as I prepare for the workshop I’m co-leading this weekend and read poignant passages from my book, tears still arise. They don’t flood me, but they are there. Thank you so much for commenting and telling me that my work is helpful to you. That’s what makes life matter now.

    • Deb, my heart goes out to you. Lost my fiancé suddenly 25 years ago- have you read “Seven Choices” which is another lovely guide to grief…and reflects her husband’s sudden death?. Helped me a lot.
      I am now in a longer goodby and learning from this blog and ready to leap into Elaine’s book to help guide this different journey.
      Blessings to you and all the wonderful women helping each other with the various parts of the journeys we share…

      • Thanks for your book suggestion, Cynthia. I haven’t experienced sudden loss, but worked with many in bereavement groups who have. It adds whole new layers of pain and sorrow. I’m sorry you had to experience that.
        I didn’t begin writing a blog until almost four years after my husband’s death, so in 2012. My book follows my life during and before my husband’s illness and for about three years after his death. I hope the book will support you, as my blog does.
        It’s an immeasurable gift to have women who stand by us through these experiences. Thanks for being one of them. I have a few notable men in my life who haver never wavered in support–my two sons, my brother, and a family friend who was with my husband and me throughout–Steve in my book.

  11. A very moving post, Elaine. Brought back lots of memories about building, renovating, watching sunsets in our country home. Thank you for saying it so well.

    • Thank you, Mary. Yes, I know you had many of these experiences, too. Cherished, but always with a tinge or flood of grief. I look forward to a few days of rest after the workshop and then a bit of spaciousness in life after I get home. I hope I can hang on to the need for that. Sending you love.

  12. This story contains so many layers of meaning, and I’m sure you recognize them better than I do. Houses are often used (especially by women) as symbols of the self. The history of this house, with Vic, and now without him, has prepared you to take small steps back to the bench with much loving attendance from Willow and your sons. May the sunsets you see there infuse you with light and hope. You’ve earned your place on the bench, and you are very much in the game.

    • Hi Shirley. I love your observations. In the Myth of Inanna (~3000 BCE), part of which I’m presenting in a workshop this weekend, one of the symbols for the Divine Feminine is the storehouse–the place where the seeds and, we’ll add, eggs are stored. She is the womb of life as women are, the body that houses and protects us. Thanks for your affirming words. I look forward to reading about your exotic trip after the weekend workshop is done.

  13. This story brought tears to my eyes,Elaine.Chuck and I never got a chance to really slow down and watch the sun set or rise,unless we were away;it was just the way our busy NY lives were.But now when I do have a moment to do the things some of the things I once did with my husband that I avoided at first,it’s like being coddled in a warm soft quilt.
    Thank you for this reminiscence…..Thank you and blessings

    • Thank you, Yvonne. We’re all so busy. Too busy. Vic and I were the same, but we often took time to sit on that bench and watch the sunset and take long walks together on our land as well as working on the land and house together. I’m grateful for times. I know that sooner or later, probably sooner than I want, it will be time to leave my home. So another big change awaits me as we move forward and keep changing. I’ll try to follow your example and face it with courage and gratitude.

  14. Elaine, I’m glad you can sit on the “old people’s” bench again and share the space with family and friends. I find I think of Adrian at odd moments throughout my days, but one thing I choose to do: I play a song that makes me think of him every time I hear it. Some weeks I listen to it every night of the week.

    • I get it, Lynne. Music isn’t pleasant to my distorted hearing anymore (a huge loss), but I remember meaningful songs and operas inwardly. Recently a blogger I greatly admire shared a lyric with a song title. I knew the lyric and the title and knew they didn’t fit together. I was dogged in finding out the right lyrics for that song title since it had been important to me as a love song in Vic’s last years. In doing that, I sang the love song to myself and swayed around the house to the rhythms. And now I’m singing again. So nice to hear from you.

  15. Lovely. Evocative.
    One place can hold so many layers of bittersweet memory.

    • Thank you, Kiri. Of course, I agree. Many people chose to separate from those places to make a new life. Instead, I’ve chosen to build my new life on the strong foundation of my old one. I love the sweet love in the bittersweet.

  16. I loved this post, Elaine. I can so relate. I stopped using my deck when I lost my daughter. I just couldn’t be out there knowing she couldn’t be there. All the beautiful nights with coyote calls, fireflies, the air sweet with honeysuckle – I haven’t been on the deck for more than a minute since Marika died. But every year in the spring, I rake the pond. The pond that only she swam in regularly. The pond that fills with algae, each season, which threatens to choke it. It is long, backbreaking work but I do it every spring even though I rarely swim in the pond myself. But just in case Marika is watching, or if she comes back as a duck, I keep her pond clean.

    • Ah, the pond. Robin, let’s share a cup of tea on your deck when the weather gets warmer–if you’d like to do that. I needed people to enjoy the deck with me to make the transition to enjoying it by myself.

      Ah, Marika as a duck or a hawk or a star in the sky or…? Soon after Vic’s death, a friend and Zen Buddhist monk told my son Anthony and me that we would see Vic everywhere now. We weren’t quite ready to hear it at that moment, but I get it now. Everywhere…

  17. Thank you, Elaine, for once again writing so eloquently about grief. In many ways, I feel like it’s the most complex emotion, and my “go to” strategy is to try to ignore it. But I know that’s not healthy for anyone, and admire the way you’re dealing with the loss of Vic. I hope your spring and summer include many lovely moments on the deck. xo

    • My first fourteen years, I lived with a dying dad–almost dying and surviving in what seemed like endless cycles. It had an impact, as you might imagine. Then I didn’t think much about death until I began studying goddess mythology and myths of going to the underworld. These ideas served me well when my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and my mother died in 2007. Since then, it’s been a steady stream so there is no way to ignore death. In my usual style, I turn toward grief and try to learn something. Instead of depressive, it makes me appreciate each day.

      I just returned home from a trip and look forward to sunset on the deck tonight–tucked in on the bench out of the wind, maybe with a winter coat on, but watching that golden orb sink in the west. Thanks so much for taking time to read and comment.

  18. Ah, me, Elaine. I hear you. As I approach my milestone birthday one of the things I have been contemplating doing is returning with my adult children to a place that holds deep memories of happiness from a time when our family was whole. And yet I don’t know if I can. Or even if I should.

    • Since I never left the place of deep memory, I don’t have to think about returning. Not yet. Many people thought I should leave or it would be better for me to leave. I imagined I would leave, but haven’t wanted to. For me, there’s deep love in those memories along with a sense of loss. Sadness is always there, so no use trying to avoid it.

      Contentment: I found a quote in ‘The Best Day, the Worst Day’ by Donald Hall, p. 174. “…Gucharan Das… began our conversation by telling me how a group of young Indian businessmen asked him to define contentment. His definition was ‘absorbedness,’ and I agreed.” Hall doesn’t say more although I wish he had. Not sure it takes me or you anywhere, but I thought of you.

Leave a Reply