Into the Woods

slide_352583_3820972_freeWRITTEN Dec 19:
Patience. I’m trying my hardest to have some lately… with myself, with change, with pain. It’s easier said than done. I am beginning to realize that it is going to take a lot longer to adjust to moving somewhere so far away than I’d imagined. Especially while carrying my grief on my back wherever I go. No matter how much good there is about this move, it still feels like another aftershock of Drew’s death. I can feel it causing new cracks in the earth of me to splinter off… new openings into the grief.

That’s one of the things I am learning about living on with his death in the 3+ year era. Not that I expected to magically not have new layers of grief. I’ve been dealing with death for 24 years already from losing my mom as a child… I know better than anyone, that grief stays with you forever. I guess somehow I just maybe was still holding out some sort of hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with it so acutely in this new chapter. And while it may not be like the first year, this internal earthquake has definitely shaken things up more than just about any major change has since he died. It should though. And I shouldn’t be surprised that it is, really.

This year I have begun a whole new direction in my life, one that would have never existed were he still alive. From here on out, whatever happens will be a complete split from the path he and I were on. I think that is the part I am struggling with most. It creates a lot of sadness, and even some resentment, despite the fact that I am quite happy with this new adventure I am on. There is no way around feeling sadness and pain it seems. It makes an already stressful holiday season even more stressful.

While I am going through some very deep and complex emotions about the direction of my life, Mike is often feeling bad for being the reason that I’ve moved so far from everything I’ve ever known. I remind him that this was my decision, and that I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t truly wanted to. But that doesn’t mean it will come without a cost… without some very complex emotions to navigate. And complex questions to try and explore. Who am I going to be in this new life? How do I go about creating that? How does my old life fit into it? How do I honor that life? What parts of myself do I want to change? What parts do I want to keep intact? What do I want to carry with me, and what can I leave behind? How do I begin to challenge myself and grow in ways that will help this new life feel rich and full of purpose?

I’m pretty much a different person every day since moving here. It feels like reverting back a year… the feelings of being uprooted and lost and prevailant. Insecurity and loneliness for friendships and many other things that are just going to take time to resolve. Bottom line, there are a lot of difficult factors that I just cannot change overnight. I have to take a kinder approach to adjusting myself to a new life… just like I did after her died.

I should know this. I’ve done it before. And it was only a few years ago that his death quaked into my life and I learned how to be kinder and more gentler to myself. His death taught me how to nurture and be compassionate with my heart. Amazingly, it was during those darkest and most painful times that I learned how to love myself the fullest. Once you start moving again, it’s so easy to lose sight of that ability. You get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life again, you start comparing yourself to others, you start doubting yourself, and before you know it… you’ve bullied yourself into a stress level that you do not deserve. I’ve been watching my stress rub off on Mike, too. I know, it is draining to be around someone who is stressing about EVERY SINGLE THING at a near-constant rate that I have for the past few weeks. Seeing it exhaust him, actually, is what is helping to make me aware that I need to stop pushing myself and start taking care of myself.

We’re on our way out to Mohican State Forest as I write to you. Mike is taking me on my first backpacking trip. It’s going to be in the 20’s, which is ridiculously cold for a Texan to be sleeping in the woods. But I decided I need to shake things up a bit. Firstly, getting out in nature is always a sure-fire way for me to remember to fall in love with life again, and stop stressing about umpteen little life problems – mostly revolving around my career and finances. Secondly, it might just be good to shove my self into the thick of a new experience just for a day or two to remind me I CAN do this. One week, one day, and one step at a time… remembering the lessons Drew’s death taught me about getting through life’s challenges with grace, tenacity, and spirit.

Many Families, One Tree

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Written Oct 4th:
Like with his parents, Drew’s aunt is someone I’ve gotten much closer to since he died. Yesterday was our first time visiting since I went up to Ohio last month. I went to help her move some furniture out of her uncle’s garage. The 2 hour drive out to his place was just what we needed to catch up on all that is changing in our lives with my move to Ohio. Not just my life… our lives. This move of mine is affecting all of us. His parents, who I have lived with since he died… who have become my own family in the process. My closest friends, who I will be very far away from for the first time since we all met 7 or 8 years ago. And everyone else close in my life in some way.

Sometimes life brings you odd reminders though of just how beautiful and seamless even the most complex situations can be. While with Drew’s aunt yesterday, over at her uncle’s house, we began looking at pictures up on the walls. In the hallway was a wall full of old photos, in particular a collage frame with 20-30 photos arranged all together. He stood and shared with us about all the pictures, who they were, who had died, etc. Brothers and sisters, aunt and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and moms and dads. On the surface, it looks like anyone’s family collage on the wall. But there was something very unique about this particular college that really stood out to me…

Within that single frame, it was not just one family tree shown. Nor was it two, of a husband and wife. This kind, old man has been widowed twice. Before me in this single frame was a beautiful blending of old pictures of his family, his first wife’s family, and his second wife’s family. Not only were they on the same wall together, they were in the same collage. He didn’t know my story. He had no idea how completely in awe I was of this simplistic, beautiful gesture of love.

It’s one of those things that people seem to try and make complicated, or think sometimes is complicated… but right there on this man’s wall it was clear as day – they were not different families. They were all one big family together. With shared love and shared losses and shared memories. It was so simple. He also had little trinkets around the house from both of his wives… more of them from his second wife of course, but still, it was clear that his first wife was very much a part of it all. She was not put away in a box, or hidden in drawers. His second wife obviously welcomed her within their home. It was so beautiful.

To make things even more meaningful, I was doing this with a part of Drew’s extended family…  further reminding me of how deep my bonds run with them and always will.

I knew I wanted to talk about this in a post as soon as it happened… because for me, it gave such a tangible visual of the kind of home and life I want to build with someone new after being widowed. At the end of the day, I called Mike and told him about this experience. I told him how, when we eventually move in together one day, I want to create a collage just like that of our great big family. The one that is made up of four families now. That’s how it should be. Losing pieces of our family may mean that it gets a little smaller. Sometimes we even lose more than just the one person when this happens, which is hard. But it also means that, one day, it gets even bigger as we join new and old parts of our families together.

The Star of Seven

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I was at an estate sale earlier today and I found this little wooden bookmark hiding away in a corner that really intrigued me. I picked it up and read on the back something about The Star of Seven Day. Further intrigued, I purchased it and brought it home to research. It turns out it is a scene depicting the story of the Tanabata Festival. And this is where it got cool. This is the annual star festival in Japan that is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month each year. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

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If you’re new to the story of my late-fiance and I – I will fill you in. Mine and Andrew’s initials spell STAR. And the week before we began dating, we were out star-gazing on the beach one night and we saw seven shooting stars, making seven wishes a piece. We later learned that we both wished for each other, seven times. This was one of our favorite memories. Stars continued to show up in other ways in our time together, and they still do for me. The web address for my photography business is sevenshootingstars.com because I couldn’t think of anything better for it to be named since my work is so deeply influenced by our story. In the entryway of the hospital where my first solo photo show was displayed, there were seven large blue stars hanging. Lots of things like this happen all the time for me now. So now when I see stars, particularly in combination with the number seven, I know someone is trying to get my attention.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this bookmark – which I learned was likely brought home from Japan by the husband after WWII for his wife – was meant for me to find. It is our story – two stars, a galaxy apart. Maybe it was just a hello from afar. Or maybe, on the 7th day of the 7th month every year, we too are brought closer together like in this legend. I also can’t deny that, since he died, I often get very clear signs that revolve around the direction I should go or decisions I should make in relation to my art. Which makes this finding especially cool…

While at this same estate sale, I was introduced to an interior designer who had seen my solo photo exhibit at the hospital and offered me a really exciting next opportunity for showing my work this fall. We hadn’t said two sentences to each other before he was offering to show my work in his space. I was so taken back, and so honored that someone would offer such a thing so immediately to me based on the work of mine that he had already seen. For this bookmark to be right in the same space as where I met this person – I dunno, I like to believe in that sort of thing. And I like to believe I was brought there to find both the bookmark and the person today – and it was just one more sign that I’m going in the right direction.

 

Death and Life

Part of a Poem by my friend Kelley Lynn at ripthelifeiknew.com. Yes.

“There will never be a time,
like the time I lived in,
before I knew too much,
about life,
to know
that it’s not
just Life.

It is nothing. And everything.
It is the only thing that we have,
for sure.
The only thing that is right now.

I wish I didn’t know
so much
about death.
But I do.
I do.
And because I do,
I try to always
Inhale
Life.”

Walking Alone, Together

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I’m writing today to you from Hawaii. I came out for a few weeks to visit a friend on Oahu. This is the longest trip I’ve ever taken away from home since he died, and the first real vacation I’ve taken without him or his family being with me. Leaving the shelter of home has always made me a little antsy, but now instead of just the usual nervousness, my mind is filled with new questions about how I will be able to cope with something so seemingly simple yet terrifying as vacation.

Will my anxiety strike? Will I have a complete meltdown in a totally public space because something triggered my grief or a memory? Will it happen totally unplanned and out of nowhere? Will I miss him so much that I won’t even be able to enjoy myself? I’ve found that the answer to all of those things is yes. At least until you get there. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that on the morning of my flight I wasn’t riddled with anxiety. But I am learning that if I want to ever get out there and do anything, I have to be willing to accept that the grief factors are just going to be a part of things for now. If I want to try something, I have to accept those things may happen.

So I got on that plane and I flew over an ocean alone… knowing full well that all of those scary things might (and very well would) happen. The crazy thing is, for the most part, they haven’t. I am on day 11 of this 14 day trip… and I am pretty okay. I had some anxiety for the first few days, and certain activities have been a little difficult, but no major melt downs. No insane anxiety. And his absence has absolutely not kept me from being able to enjoy the moment.

In an odd way, its been more of the opposite. I’ve felt more able to embrace the present moment and more appreciative of it all. Even in the frustrating moments or when things go wrong. Our helicopter tour got canceled due to rain (it was going to be the first time going up in a helicopter since he died in one… and the first time to have anyone behind the controls but him taking me up). I dropped my GoPro camera into the ocean while kayaking and watched it sink straight to the bottom. My DSLR camera quit working on me halfway through the trip – just totally dead (and thankfully now revived!). And I’ve gotten lost in the jungle a number of times and fallen into rivers getting soaked to the bone… and none of these things have phased me. I’ve responded to all of them with a calm resolve and clearheadedness that is so entirely foreign to my personality.

It’s a very familiar reaction for me, just not one that has ever come from within me. It was how HE responded to things. Always very solid and logical, he had a way of responding to things that helped me to stay calmer and more rational. I was always the one getting worked up about little things or creating problems where there weren’t any yet. I never liked that part of me, but I didn’t know how to not be that way. Now, when faced with frustrations or minor struggles, I seem to have adopted those qualities that I loved so much in him. It’s as if parts of him have been infused right into my own personality and soul… some of the best parts.

I feel like each new experience in this afterlife of mine is teaching me new things and bringing new depth, value, and meaning to his death. With every trip I go on, every new thing I try, every risk I take – I feel as though I am not only coming to know myself and what I’m capable of on a much deeper level, but also somehow that I am getting to know him on a deeper level too. I’m learning that embracing the now does not make me forget him or our relationship. Embracing this new life does not make him any less a part of that new life. In fact, the more over time that I am able to embrace the new life I was thrown into – the more I feel that he is on the journey with me still.

Sure, I still miss his body warmly next to mine. I still miss his eyes and his hands and his laughter. Sometimes excruciatingly so. But now, I am coming to know a different part of him. And a different part of myself. Parts of us that we would have never come to know had we not been sent on this journey. It still somehow feels like we are in this together. And in completely different ways, this new life together – this journey of walking alone, but still walking together – is just as beautiful.

Love Where you Can

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Yup, one of those dreaded days in most widowed people’s lives – Valentine’s Day. If we’re lucky enough to keep our noses out of Facebook and our feet out of public places, we might actually be able to survive this day relatively in tact. Or maybe not… maybe no matter how much we might try to ignore it, our bodies will still know THAT day is here.

This year was my second Valentine’s without Drew. I spent most of the day on the road… driving the five hours up to Dallas to see my best friend. Going back to Dallas is always a lot like playing Russian roulette with my heart. I never quite know how I’m going to react. Sometimes, when I get my first glimpse of that sprawling city skyline over the horizon, I’m completely overcome by a total grief meltdown. Other times, as I drive through familiar streets and past old favorite restaurants, I feel this odd detachment… as if I am in a dream, driving through some post-apocalyptic version of a past life. A few times my trips have even been incredible, all thanks to my amazing friends who still live there.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not the smartest idea to return back to the city we called home on Valentine’s weekend of all weekends. Really Sarah? Sometimes I am amazed at the bold (aka stupid) decisions I make. But anxiety attacks and crying fits aside, I’m gonna say it was worth it.

Friday morning, I took some flowers to Drew at the cemetery on my way out of town, and then headed for Dallas. There we were – me, my suitcase and my anxiety tightly packed into his truck. Anxiety quickly hogging all the space. So I called a girlfriend of mine, already in tears, and hoped that feeling the pain with someone by my side would help. We ended up talking the entire five hour drive. By the time I arrived, I had gotten plenty of crying out, and even some good laughs too. Most importantly, I felt like someone had taken the time to really see me – all the way down to the bones – and to love even the most painful parts of me. A good girlfriend will always do that.

The evening landed me with my best friend, her mom, and another good girlfriend of ours out for dinner and dancing. We had a three-course meal at a swanky restaurant in uptown, with a live band playing. I even bought a brand new dress just for the occasion. Last year, I was such an emotional wreck I could not even think about doing something like this. I don’t know if I was feeling stronger or just reckless this year, but I really wanted to try doing it up right. Sure, I was terrified of having a complete breakdown in the middle of the restaurant and fleeing to the car in shame… but you know, that’s just the gamble I’ve gotta take now.

The really amazing thing is… with good people surrounding me, I really wasn’t focusing on all the things I didn’t have. I never noticed any of the couples having romantic dinners nearby, or got upset at any of the sappy love songs (I was just as shocked as anyone by this). Because I felt seen for who I am – pain and all. We laughed and cried and sang songs and danced and drank wine and savored delicious food. We talked about happy memories and hard times and about how glad we were for each other. We lived precisely in the moment – an untouchable group of four fabulous females. As it turned out – even though I was missing the person I love the most – I had plenty of love right there in front of me and I knew just how lucky I was to have it.

And really, isn’t that was life is about? I know in the times I am able to experience what is right in front of me fully I feel most alive, and most grateful. It was an honor to be able to sit in the presence of other beautiful human beings with their own pains and heartache and imperfect lives and know that – in that moment – we were sharing an exchange of love together. In that moment, we were seeing each other as the flawed and wounded souls we truly are and saying to one another “I see you. I see all of you. And I will not ask you to hide any part of you away from me. And I love you for all of it.”

It is a gift I had only allowed him to give me before. For me, it was just too vulnerable to open myself up to anyone else in that way. But since his death, I’ve been quite forced to open myself more fully… time and time again my friends and family have shown they love all of me. It’s a pretty important gift for his death to have given me, I happen to think.

Who knows how next year will go. Maybe I won’t be feel able to celebrate love, or maybe I will. I sure can tell you that I woke up this morning feeling “the grief hangover”. Missing him more deeply than I have in months… you know the feeling, where it hurts so bad that you want to crawl out of your skin just to get away from it. The pain that makes you want to tear out every synapse in your brain just to short circuit it. When even the tears won’t come. I expect the next few mornings (at least) will likely be that way.

BUT… last night, just for one night, I was able to put on a beautiful new dress, my favorite black pumps he bought me just to see me smile, and just be me…. right where I am. No hiding my pain away, or hiding my joy away either, but letting it all be seen, and discovering that sometimes the best love is the love that is right in front of you.

Cemetery Songs: Pendulum

“Lit up with no where to go… I’m in the fire, but I’m still cold…” Yes. This is me.


Lyrics:

Can’t know what’s high
Til you been down so low

The future’s bright
Lit up with no where to go

To and fro the pendulum throws

We are here and then we go
My shadow left me long ago

Understand what we don’t know
This might pass, this might last, this may grow

Easy come easy go
Easy left me a long time ago

I’m in the fire, but I’m still cold
Nothing works, works for me anymore

To and fro the pendulum throws
To and fro the pendulum throws

To and fro
To and fro

Turning Pain to Love

hand-reaching-heart-21In 2012, when his death was so fresh, I needed to talk. About the pain, the fear, the agony, the anger, the loss, the accident, the future we will not have, the children we won’t raise, the wedding we won’t share… all of it. I wanted to crawl out of my skin with all the pain. I talked and cried almost every single day to someone about my pain. I talked to everyone. Even inappropriately so.

No literally… I have told my story – complete with shameless tears – to perfect strangers. Including customers at the gallery I worked at, a seamstress I had hemming a pair of pants for me, and my masseuse. Really anyone was prey to my grief attacks for about a year there. Sometimes it ended up weird or awkward, but most of the time, it didn’t.

Most of the time, it would allow them to share something really vulnerable in their life (the seamstress it turns out was a widow herself many years back, and has since remarried to a wonderful man), or help them simply feel honored that I would trust them enough to share. Almost every time, we both ended up in tears and hugging each other. It turns out, it doesn’t really matter if we know each other – we can all give that exchange to one another just by listening and honoring one another where we are.

Looking back, I can begin to understand it this way:
Sharing pain transforms it back into love. I stretch out my arms – with a piece of my pain held in my hands – to someone, to anyone who will have it. It is always a risk that they will not reach back, always, but I know I need to try if my heart is to survive this without becoming hardened. So I reach and I show them my pain. And my hope is that they reach back. And usually, they do. They take that small piece of my pain in their hands. They see it, touch it, come to know it. They turn it over in their hands and take it to their hearts and feel it for a moment. And then they give it back to me, but when it is returned to my hands… miraculously, every time, I find that it is no longer pain at all, but love. They have completely transformed that one small piece – with nothing more than a simple act of acknowledging it, and therefore acknowledging me.

Because our pain, you see, is really just the part of ourselves that has loved fully and deeply and come to be broken. When we give a piece of it to someone, and they receive it with compassion, they can return it back to us as love – as it once was. To me, this has been what healing is about. Taking the chance to be vulnerable and share my pain, bit by bit, day by day… reaching my hands out again and again and again… each time holding a single grain of sand from the desert of pain that resides in my heart. And each time receiving back a single grain of love.

It is a lifelong process, grain by grain. And no, we never do turn all those grains back into love. There will always be some pain amidst our hearts, but looking at it this way helps me to see how every person who has touched my life – and everyone who will – helps me to transform my pain back into love. He did this for me too, well before I was aware. Our vulnerability with each other helped us to turn each other’s pain from the days before we met back to love. And now, by the force of his death, I am having to learn a new way to do this. It is time to let others be part of that journey… let them turn my pain back to love, and give the same back to them. I am hoping that by sharing this, it does a little of that for both you and me.

The Visit

I had a visit from Drew the other night… it was quiet, there was no message of any kind that I could make out, I just felt the warmth of his soul behind me as I laid down to go to sleep. I’ve had many incredible visits since he died. I have always struggled to articulate in words what this experience is like. As a writer, it’s definitely frustrating to not be able to find the words for a thing so beautiful, and so I’ve been a bit quiet about it.

I wrote this after talking to a friend about what such a visit is like. It still fails to grasp it for me, but it’s a start.

No words

No sounds

Just your energy

Which I know so well

that I can sense your cells

near mine.

From the beyond place

you come like this.

It is not a hopeful wish,

But a truth.

Every molecule of the air

So exactly

Infused with your soul.

Each one

Holding

a moment of laughter

a heartfelt memory

a gentle touch

In the air

That hangs around me.

together

millions of molecules

create you

In my world again.

I breathe you in

Eyes closed

A soft smile

And I whisper

“Thankyou”.