Dragonflies

I first heard the song “The Night We Met” about six months after my husband Gary died. It came on the radio as I drove home from an errand. The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful and unbearably sad. They transported me to Gary’s and my early days of courtship and catapulted me into my present life without him.

I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do
Haunted by the ghost of you
Take me back to the night we met

Tears clouded my vision, forced me to pull over to the side of the road, and weep.

Monday, May 30 was Memorial Day—fourteen and a half months since Gary died. All morning, that song looped through my brain and started to make me more than a little irritated. It had been weeks since I had a crying session. “I’m not in the mood,” I seethed at the hovering Grief Bitch. “Leave me alone!”

It was a beautiful day and the garden needed tending. I state this like I enjoy gardening, which I do not, but I occasionally feel compelled to tackle things my paid gardening crew ignores. I try to do this with a positive attitude, but that usually fades within an hour. There were stalks of grass among the lavender that needed to be pulled. This sounds like I have a fancy garden. “Let me don my straw hat, prance about the flowers and devote an hour to weed eradication.” My garden is quite basic with plenty of blights that I choose to deny.

My dog Lucy was thrilled we were having “outside time” and commenced to graze on grass stalks in between snapping at bees. The grazing later makes her barf on the carpet. I don’t want her killing precious bees and a sting could have serious consequences. I spent most of what was supposed to be our happy time scolding her to knock it off.

When I finally gave up and decided we would both be better off indoors, I noticed Lucy had not been chasing bees at all, but dragonflies. Dozens of them flitted about the garden. I rarely see a dragonfly, let alone so many in one place. I was spellbound, watching them dance through sunlight that transformed their luminescent color from red to auburn to nearly purple and back again.

After several minutes, Lucy and I went inside—me still haunted by that song and she frustrated with her failure to catch a flying insect. I reluctantly invited Grief Bitch to join us, sat in my crying chair at the kitchen table with a wad of tissues and told Alexa to play “The Night We Met.”

Later, I looked out the front window. The dragonflies were gone.

I did an internet search and discovered that red dragonflies are quite rare. If you see one, you are justified in feeling honored. Their symbolic significance can mean a number of things:

Self-realization
Transformation
Rebirth
A deeper understanding of the meaning of life

Their presence in my garden was an unexpected gift that caused me to realize I’m beginning to feel these very things. This brought me joy. It brought me peace. Two feelings that have eluded me for a long time.

I’m so grateful for the appearance of those dragonflies. So grateful to be made aware of how this dreadful grief journey has led me to the place I am today. I’m not “cured” by any means, but am no longer ruled by anguish and am experiencing growing contentment.

If you are in the early stages of the intense pain that grief visits upon your very core, you can ignore this. I do not want to fast forward you through the process. A few months after Gary died, I frantically did internet searches in an attempt to find “solutions” to alleviate my pain. Each article I read sent me into a full-blown tantrum. How could anyone possibly claim that it took time to get better, that my anguish would eventually lessen and mostly go away?

Early on, someone offered the unsolicited platitude that I would be fine, that I would grow and change as a result of my grief, I would blossom, I would….

I wanted to punch them in the face!

I do not intend to take away your pain. It belongs to you. You can hold it for however long it takes to trudge through it. And the trudging is hard, so goddamned hard. There’s no specialty brand of shoes, no magic formula, no magic pill to make it easier.

For those of you in the early stages of this trek, know that I walk beside you and hold you in my heart through this dark, scary time.

As Good as it Gets . . . for now

There’s a great scene in the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good as it Gets” where he barges into his psychiatrist’s office without an appointment. When the psychiatrist sends him away, he walks through a packed waiting room, pauses, turns to the patients and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Off camera, someone gasps. Everyone else just stares at him.

One year and one month after my husband of 46 years died and left me to redefine myself with a new label—Widow—I had an appointment with my therapist. I’d been off and on weepy for a couple of days, suspecting we were nearing the end of the journey she had guided me through. I was reluctant for our relationship to end. She’s someone I can sit across from and uncage all my emotions. To me, they’re terrifying gargoyles, yet she never once flinched when I sent the demons flying in her direction. However, over the past couple of months, they’ve calmed down and are increasingly content to snuggle, purring, at my feet.

We talked about how I was doing and reflected on the past 13 months.

Gary died on March 15th—the Ides of March, which was ironic given that his favorite Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar. If you’re unfamiliar with ancient history, Julius Caesar had named himself dictator in perpetuity of the Roman Republic. Soon after, members of the Roman Senate were, like, “Yeah, well we don’t like Caesar all that much, especially not enough to put up with him forever.” But according to law, they couldn’t vote him out.

A few conniving senators gathered and got all hopped up on whatever the Roman’s hopped-up beverage of choice was and decided to call a special senate session with two agenda items: (1) Bring a knife hidden under your fancy toga; and (2) Be prepared to use it.

At the appointed signal, they surrounded Caesar and stabbed him to death—on the Ides of March.

A few days before Gary’s death, he mentioned this play. As if foretold, he died from complications of diabetes exactly 2,065 years after Julius Caesar. Remarkably, Gary survived a nearly recording-breaking 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes. Despite the care he had taken to survive for so long, the devastating effects of his disease conspired to attack all at once— pneumonia, kidney failure, heart failure. Like Caesar, his death was an ambush.

Life is strange. Death, it seems, can be even stranger.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I’ve dealt with dozens of widows through my work as a financial advisor. I have a few close friends who were widowed years ago. I’d learned that the first year is awful, the second year nearly as bad, and the third year begins to offer some relief from the pit of dreadful emotions. Despite my enlightenment, my adult children worried about me. Even though I tried to shield them from the gruesome details of my sorrow, they saw through my guise, feared for my sanity and urged me to seek professional help.

I confessed I was a broken-down mess, but argued that this was normal. Eventually, in an effort to placate them, I asked a therapist friend for a referral and based upon her recommendation, contacted Carol.

She was full up until the end of June. Fine by me. I didn’t want to see her anyway.

When I went to my first appointment in early July, I wore snappy business clothes so Carol would recognize me as a woman of corporate steel, someone fully capable of dealing with whatever monkey dung life flung at me. Moments after I sat on her couch, she asked about my situation.

Tears and snot burst from me like an erupting volcano. I tossed the F-word around like beads at Mardi Gras. I spewed my anger at myself for feeling weak and overwhelmed, feeling tired all the time, being confused and forgetful, and hating people who said things to try to make me “better,” but only made me feel worse.

After a bit, I paused and said, “I’m sorry, but I say fuck a lot.”

She said, “I don’t fucking care.”

I knew she was the therapist for me.

Over the months after Gary died, my anger towards people consumed me and caused me to be filled with guilt. I’d been raised to allow others to express anger, but not me, oh no, not me. I’d grown up with the notion that I should react to people with love, not anger. In Carol’s office, I covered my weeping face with my hands and rocked back and forth. I was a horrible person for hating people when they said inane bullshit. I should look beyond their words and honor their attempts to soothe me.

And you know what Carol said? My wonderful, savior Carol? “During times like this, people say things to make themselves feel better. You were raised in an era when women had to bury their feelings in order to be socially acceptable and take care of others. You don’t have to do that anymore. Anger and hatred can sometimes be useful emotions to propel us forward, to help us take action.”

I’m forever grateful to her for this.

I never—well, let’s say very rarely—unleashed my anger onto others. Not because I’m a saint, but because I’ve learned enough in this life to know I’d have to later apologize. Quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend that type of energy.

Over the following months, Carol guided me through exercises where I wrote scathing letters to those who had ignited my ire. After I read them to her, I was not to send them, but to shred them. This went a long way towards allowing me to maybe not actually like these people, but to not hate them as much.

In my last session with Carol, she praised my hard work. As much as I am tempted to avoid it, I sit with my grief—not all day, every day, but begrudgingly make a place for it whenever the bitch barges in uninvited. I allow myself to experience true anguish even when I fear it will kill me. I have a group of supportive friends who I interact with on a regular basis. I accept myself for being a mess because, fact is, I was a mess and sometimes still am.

When Carol asked if I wanted to continue seeing her, I pointed to a cupboard in her bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any ecstasy tablets in there?” She laughed and said no. “In that case, can I keep you on speed dial if I need you in the future?” She said yes.

For now, this is as good as it gets—long stretches before sadness sneaks up from behind and shoves me to the ground, feeling joy in moments that call for it, gratitude for family and friends and even towards those who said lousy things that once pissed me off—at least they cared enough to say something. I’m having fewer anxiety attacks, my mental capacity is improving, and I don’t fight as much against this process—a onetime formidable foe.  

Without my guide Carol, I would not be here. I’d be lagging far behind on the grief path, lugging a heavy pack filled with sorrow, anger, hatred, self-judgement, shame and vulnerability. Over the months of our hiking together, she gave me permission to toss bits of these aside and lighten my load.

Don’t get me wrong, this hike is far from over. My load still feels heavy at times. Whenever I’m distracted, those pesky demons tend to slither back into my pack. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and the burden is not as hard to carry.           

Press P for Panic

It was two days after my granddaughter Lilla’s first birthday. I returned home from the Bay Area yesterday afternoon after spending time with her and her family to celebrate this momentous occasion. I went to bed feeling grateful for all my healthy, happy kids and grandkids.

About three in the morning, I woke with my heart racing and stomach upset. I feared I was having a heart attack. Couldn’t be, I decided—for no other reason than I didn’t want to be having a heart attack. Probably just gas from the burrito I ate for dinner. I tried shifting into different positions, hoping that would alleviate the discomfort. After an hour with no relief, it occurred to me that this was a severe panic attack.

I’ve had mild anxiety attacks over the course of my life, but only one other severe one—on my birthday in March 2021, nine days after my husband Gary died. My son and daughter were with me and friends were bringing lunch to celebrate my achievement of surviving another year.

About an hour before they arrived, my heart started racing. I was nauseated and lightheaded. I tried to banish the feelings with deep breathing. I felt I was going to faint. I’d once read that if you feel faint, you should sit and put your head between your knees. I gave it a try. Staring at the floor, I noticed it could use a good vacuuming. I refocused on my dire circumstances and diagnosed myself with a panic attack. I staggered to a kitchen cabinet, took out my prescription of lorazepam and ate one.

The sickening feeling persisted for another fifteen minutes. I reclined on the sofa, seriously concerned I might die. I was afraid of the effect this would have on the kids. This had the potential to become one of those salacious stories told to future generations who would shake their heads in astonishment—what a horrible legacy to leave where one parent dies and a week and a half later, the other drops dead.

At four this morning, I got up and wobbled down the stairs on shaking legs to the kitchen and ate a lorazepam. I made a nest on the sofa and tried to go back to sleep. If I was indeed having a heart attack, it would be easier for the paramedics to cart me out of the house from the living room and not have to navigate the stairway from my bedroom. It would also be easier for the mortuary removal people in the event the EMT’s weren’t able to get here before death nabbed me.

I don’t know how long before my symptoms lessened and I was able to sleep. When I woke at seven, my heart no longer raced, but I still suffered what Southerners call the vapors—lightheaded and weak. I brewed coffee, hoping caffeine—that miracle drug—would make everything okay. It did not. I started drinking water, thinking maybe I hadn’t hydrated enough while traveling the day before. It took me the entire morning and several glasses of water to start feeling a bit normal.

At noon I ate lunch and cleaned up the kitchen. I must confess, I’m not a big fan of kitchen maintenance. I’m perfectly content to let pots and dishes pile up for a day or so before thinking, yeah, maybe I should do something about the situation. While cleaning, I listened to Frank Sinatra’s, “The Way You Look Tonight.” I love that song and listen to it at least twice a week. It makes me nostalgic for Gary, but not sad. Today, it surprised me by bringing tears that fell into the soapy suds of a pot I was cleaning. I had to stop scrubbing, sit in my crying chair at the kitchen table, put my hands over my face and weep.

What was going on? I hadn’t had a solid weeping session in weeks. I was fully prepared to report to my therapist that I’d turned a corner and was cured from this grief nonsense after a mere 11 months. Wow, look at me, ever the overachiever. From here on out I would waltz through sunny meadows, frolicking with butterflies and chirping birds.

As I wept, I realized that my archenemy grief had been waiting for me since February 10th, the one-year anniversary of Gary entering the hospital to begin his five-week journey towards death. Every moment of his 24 days in the hospital, I worried about him being alone. It was Covid Time with no family allowed. Every moment, I worried I would get a call to say there was nothing more to be done, to come pick him up, bring him home and figure it out by myself. Every moment, I was terrified, absolutely terrified.

A few days after Gary entered the hospital, our beautiful granddaughter Lilla was born. When I got the news, I cried so hard with a combination of happiness and sadness that Gary wasn’t with me to relish the news that I thought I’d have an aneurysm. I wanted us to celebrate this new, precious life together, share our joy in person, smile with sheer delight into a Face Time call. but we could not—and there was nothing I could do to make it so.

The following weeks were a whirligig ride with an evil carnie on an extended cigarette break, unwilling to pull the stop lever. I was blessed to have family take time out of their busy schedules to be with me as we trudged through one frightening day after the other.

Three weeks after Lilla’s birth, she was loaded into a car with her two-year-old brother Parker and my brave son and daughter-in-law made their way from the Bay Area to Fort Bragg. It was Covid Time. I could not touch or hold my newborn granddaughter, but I could at least see her from a distance and marvel at her beauty.

By this time, Gary had been transported by ambulance to come home to die. His sister was also with us as well as daughter Laine, her fiancé Julian, daughter Jenn and granddaughter Nora. Son Garth and granddaughter Lyra spent a few days. It was chaos—a beautiful chaos that Gary thoroughly enjoyed until his last two days when the toxins of kidney failure took his brain hostage and rendered him unconscious.

***

I am grateful to have been with sweet Lilla to celebrate her first year of life. Yet lurking in the shadows was Gary’s absence. Also lurking was grief, that hideous monster I try so hard to avoid, yet revels in reminding me of that terrible time a year ago. I try, I really try to focus on the current good things, but during this one-year anniversary period most are overlayed with heartbreaking memories.

When I shared my panic attack experience with my therapist, she explained that what I’m feeling occurs at a cellular level. My mind can compartmentalize the events of a year ago and put them into perspective. But my body holds the trauma and gives the anniversary of Gary’s hospitalization and death the power to take me down, to transport me back to that time as if it is currently happening.

A year ago, I was in hyper-overdrive. My husband of 46 years, the father of my children, was dying. I didn’t have the luxury to feel the full weight of that trauma. A year later, my body reminds me. My body tells me it’s time. Time to fear I’m having a heart attack. Time to sit down and cover my face for the one-thousandth time and weep. It’s time to acknowledge that this was the worst, most horrendous period of Gary’s life, of my life, of my family’s life.

True or False?

On October 26, 2021, I waited in line at the Mendocino Coast Clinic’s mobile vaccination clinic to get my Covid booster shot. When it was my turn, I handed my card through the car window to a young woman who filled out the date and dose and returned it. I tossed it on the passenger seat and moved forward to get my shot. From there, I drove to the designated parking area to wait the required 15 minutes. As I put the card in my wallet, I noticed the date of my first vaccine—February 23rd.

That couldn’t be.

That. Could. Not. Be.

***

In the early days of the Covid vaccination clinics, none were offered on the Mendocino Coast. People urged me to go inland—to Willits (an hour away) or Ukiah (an hour and a half away), even Santa Rosa (two and a half hours away). One person suggested getting “aggressive” in my quest to get myself and my husband vaccinated. What they didn’t realize, what I didn’t share, is how increasingly disabled Gary had become over the past year. There was no way he would be able to tolerate what I termed a cattle call, traveling such distances only to wait in line with dozens of people. I didn’t have the luxury to be “aggressive.”

Eventually, a friend learned of a vaccination event at Mendocino High School on February 23rd—only a 15-minute drive—and signed me up. My appointment was at 1:00. I arrived at 12:45. Because the school’s parking lot is quite small, I parked on the street at the bottom of the hill. It was a cold day, made colder by the biting wind. I’d put on a sweater, wool suit jacket and scarf. I was going to bring a heavier jacket, but decided against it, figuring the time from leaving my car to entering the gym would only be a matter of minutes.

Near the base of the hill, I was stopped by the end of a line, which by my calculations was a good 10 miles from my destination. I wanted to scream, “What’s going on here? I have an appointment for God’s sake! Don’t tell me these people were all booked for the same time!” I settled myself with the reminder that I’m not the only person in the world, that these people suffered my same predicament and maybe the line would move swiftly.

I pulled out my phone and began playing crossword puzzles—the equivalent of sucking my thumb whenever I have to wait. As the line moved slowly—as in snail pace slowly—the air grew colder and the wind more insistent. For the first time ever, I was able to relate to the valiant hikers who struggle against the elements to crest Mount Everest.

If you’ve never been to Mendocino High School—and I assume most of you haven’t—it sits atop one of the most pristine pieces of real estate along the California coastline with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. Such a shame to waste it in on snarky teenagers who by that time in life hate their small town and can’t wait to escape. If Jeff Bezos ever sees this school, he’ll figure out a way to capture it, tear it down, and turn it into either a rocket launching pad or one of his many luxury retreats.

During the two grueling hours it took me and my fellow hikers to get into the gym, my fingers grew numb from the cold and could no longer navigate the crossword puzzles. I silently cursed those who “organized” this event. They deserved to be punched in the face or at the very least publicly humiliated.

I realize this was early on in the vaccination effort and people were doing the best they could amid the chaos. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have unpleasant feelings about enduring the hardship of freezing for two hours without snacks or a porta-potty.

When I finally entered the warm gym lobby, I wanted to drop to my knees and weep with gratitude, but feared any tears would freeze to my frostbitten face. A young man asked my name. When he checked his iPad, his brow furrowed. “You’re not in the system.”

I nearly shattered into a million pieces.

I was cursed with two names—Kathleen is my given one, Kate is my nickname. I had said Kathleen. After I said Kate, he looked again and found me. I nearly leaped over his table, grabbed him by the shoulders and kissed him on the mouth.

Inside the gym, an acquaintance who was a volunteer beckoned me to her table where she filled out and gave me my vaccination card. I wallowed in euphoria for the few moments it took her to hand me a slip of paper and say, “You’ll have to check this website in a couple of weeks to register for your follow-up shot.”

What?!?

What?!?

Every person I knew had their second shot scheduled when they received their first. What sins was I atoning for that forced me to suffer this horrendous ordeal? I took a deep breath, thanked her without meaning it and moved forward to the designated waiting area.

After about five minutes, a nurse called me to her station. She started to chit chat. My jaw was still thawing from the cold and I could neither chit nor chat. She said she’d heard my name before. I’ve been told I’m practically a local celebrity, but wasn’t in the mood to sign autographs. She wouldn’t stop asking me if I knew this person or that in hopes of finding a mutual connection. I wanted to scream, “There’s a thousand people out there freezing to death. Give me the blasted shot and get on to the next one.”

I sat the in 15-minute waiting area and didn’t faint or die. As I walked down the hill past the poor, blue-lipped, shivering peons, a woman about my age appeared at my side. “Well, that was a f-ing shit show,” she said. Ah…a kindred spirit. We walked together, volleying the F-word back and forth. At the bottom of the hill, we parted and she said, “I’m going home to smoke a big, fat doobie.” I flashed her two-thumbs up.

My memory is that I went home to rant and rave with Gary about Covid, about how it was ruining our lives, about how the government was bumbling the vaccination rollout—maybe even about what the hell we were going to eat for dinner. We eventually soothed our rage by watching “Judge Judy” which routinely allowed us to criticize stupid-ass people and going a long way towards boosting our self-esteem.

***

As I put my October 26th updated vaccination card in my wallet, I realized I couldn’t have come home to Gary on February 23rd.

He entered the hospital on February 10th where he spent the following three and a half weeks. He and his doctors struggled to find ways to allow him to survive before finally surrendering and he made the noble decision to come home to die. It was Covid Time. He was in Adventist Hospital Saint Helena, three hours away. I wasn’t allowed to be there, but was in telephone contact with him and the staff several times a day. It was a deeply traumatic experience—for him, for me, for our family.

Looking back, I realize the trauma of Gary’s last weeks sent my mind into another dimension with little sense of space and time. I believed I handled everything in my usual take charge manner, but now know I was living a surreal existence.

How on earth could I remember Gary being here on February 23rd when he’d been in the hospital for 13 days?

I suppose it was because for 46 years, Gary had always been with me. He was my sounding board. I didn’t always agree with his feedback—especially when he told me to calm the hell down—but I valued my ability to ask for it. How was it possible he wasn’t here when I returned nearly hypothermic from standing so long in the cold, after being told I’d have to check a website in a few weeks to schedule my second shot? How was he not here to agree that we live in such a terrible time, that Covid has completely screwed up everything, and we couldn’t take it anymore?

How?

I know for certain I would not have called Gary to complain while he was fighting for his life in the hospital. So, who did I rant to? I honestly cannot remember. Probably to my poor daughter and son-in-law who were with me during this time. Probably over the phone to my sister who was always available to listen to my tearful rages.

Fear for my mental health sent me to the internet to do a bit of research. I was relieved to discover that my experience isn’t unusual for someone who has experienced trauma. It’s called false memory.

According to the website “healthline,” (www.healthline.com/health/false-memory#overview), “[False memories] range from small and trivial, like where you swear you put your keys last night, to significant, like how an accident happened or what you saw during a crime.”

As time goes by, I’m sure I’ll uncover more false memories from this time. As for this particular one—and as strange as this might sound—it comforts me that even though Gary wasn’t here to commiserate with after I got home from the Mendocino debacle, I was able to spend several months believing he was.

Mourning Pages

Over the years, it’s been suggested that I participate in an activity called “Morning Pages,” where you get out of bed, rub the sleep out of your eyes, grab a pen and dedicated notebook and start writing. Apparently, you can write any old thing that wanders through your head in those moments when your mind isn’t cluttered with the garbage that accumulates as you rush through the day. Fresh and clean, the mind-hand connection can create amazing things. Apparently. I don’t know. I’ve never tried it.

I’m usually too tired first thing in the morning to do much of anything aside from turning on the coffeemaker, firing up my computer and waddling through Facebook. Coffee in hand—the first sip so delectable it makes me grateful to be alive—I start checking the financial news and my calendar for the day. Half way through my second cup, I’m usually so stressed about either the financial markets or what I have to do that day that my mental garbage begins to rapidly fill.

The experience of losing my husband of 46 years in March 2021, has forced me to do what I call “Mourning Pages.” I’ve done a lot of research about grief and am getting therapy to understand mine. I’ve learned sadness will come and go. In between, I’ll be happy, feel almost “cured.” It’s all very bipolar and unsettling, a process that stretches over the course of months to years. I hate process. Hate it. Really hate it.

As a result of my mid-century upbringing, I’m not supposed to hate anything. Otherwise, my brow might permanently furrow, my lips become a perpetual grimace. My clinched hands might freeze in that position. What sort of husband could I hope to attract with such a disfigured face and club-foot hands? It was best to stop feelings of hatred in their tracks lest my parents could not marry me off and I ended up living with them the rest of my life. (Perish the thought.)

I learned I’m supposed to have love in my heart at all times and when I don’t, I must shame myself into making it so. Fortunately, I have a therapist who tells me it’s okay to feel hateful at times. I love her for that and so much more.

In the early months after Gary died, sadness overtook me several times a day. I didn’t have the strength to fight it. Crying off and on all day is debilitating. In an effort to protect my energy and allow me to continue to be a productive member of society, my very clever mind became successful in circumventing grief. But its pesky partner—my body—seems to be in cahoots with that bitch. They plot against my mind and send warning signals when I’ve avoided grief too long.

I begin to feel what seem like tears in my heart. As my mind fights to prevent letting them out, I start to feel faint or get what Southerners call the vapors. If I avoid the vapors too long—and believe me, I have—I become nauseated. Only then do I recognize that it’s time to succumb to my Mourning Pages.

These aren’t the socially acceptable tears that I shed when I talk about the loss of Gary to family, friends and acquaintances. These are guttural, ugly tears that emanate from the core of my being, that spew like hot lava and feel like they’re burning me. They are best shed in private.

Most recently, these tears reared their hideousness after my adult children and young grandchildren left the day after Christmas. We’d had five days of sharing food, laughter, toddler glee and meltdowns, raucous activity and noise. After they left, it was rainy and dark. It was eerily quiet. The house felt like a morgue. It was beyond awful.

It was close to noon and I was hungry. I prepared my lunch and sat at the kitchen table—alone for the first time in five days. I felt like one of those pathetic characters in an Ingmar Bergman movie—a shriveled up widow, sitting alone at a darkened table in her drab, studio apartment, an elevated commuter train running past her windows every few minutes, shaking the walls as she spoons food into her mouth. The image was so disturbing that I couldn’t eat. I cried gut-shaking, choking tears.

My grief avoidance mind eventually took over. You need to take down the Christmas decorations! They are only serving as a reminder that the holiday is over. Like Gary, it’s dead.

I love Christmas and have a lot of decorations. It takes me hours to put them up and hours to disassemble. I struggled to bring in a couple of bins from the garage. I started with the tree ornaments. A few minutes in, I sank to the floor and let the hot lava of grief overtake me. Gary is no longer here. He will never be here. There is no one on this earth who will share the love of our children and grandchildren the way we did, the way I continue to do.

I got to my feet, determined to get the blasted ornaments off the tree. I looked around at the other Christmas decorations and didn’t have the energy to continue. It would have been be so much easier to vaporize them. Oh, how I wished for that kind of superpower.

I gave up, took a hot bath and sat on the sofa in a daze, watching mindless television programs before going to bed early—as in seven o’clock early.

The next morning, I woke up feeling tired, but was determined to get all of the decorations stuffed into their bins and hidden in the garage. Their mere presence physically hurt me. It took most of the morning and buckets of tears to banish them.

Then there was the tree. Traditionally, I leave it up until New Year’s Day. Not this year! It had to go! It’s artificial and too big to manage by myself. I contacted a friend who said she could help me the next day. I sighed in resignation.

***

This morning when my feet hit the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I glanced to the right and noticed the tree, sitting naked and alone in the dark parlor window. I walked down the hall to the kitchen to start the coffee. Instead of going into my home office, I went into the parlor and turned on the tree lights.

Cup of coffee in hand, I sit on the sofa, having one last moment with my tree, with this glorious Christmas season where my family and I reveled in being together knowing that life is fleeting. I let the tears flow as I wonder if the next post-Christmas season will be better or worse. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

I’m going to pour myself another cup of coffee, sip it slowly, cry some more, and let my tree anchor me a bit longer in my Mourning Pages.

Zen & Grief Goulash with a side of Onion Rings

It’s four days before Thanksgiving. I sit in my car in the parking lot of the Boatyard Shopping Center, chowing down onion rings and contemplating going home to dig into the snickerdoodle dairy-free ice cream I purchased earlier. I think about what I told my therapist a mere two days ago.

I said I’d been feeling pleasantly “normal” for the past couple of weeks. When she brought up my decision to be by myself on Thanksgiving, I said I was at peace with it. I anticipated that it was going to be okay. It might be bad, but that doesn’t matter. I have experienced so many awful, debilitating days since my husband Gary died—particularly in the first five or so months—that at eight months in I’m not afraid of having more.

How very enlightened. Yay for me!

Then earlier this morning I went to Harvest Market.

I ran into a long-time acquaintance. I hadn’t seen her in a few years. She’s a good, kind person and I like her a lot. We hugged and she asked if my kids were coming home for Thanksgiving.

“No,” I said. I don’t believe I said it with gloom in my voice—just stated it as a simple fact.

Her expression turned from sadness to anguish when she asked if I had plans to have dinner with other people and I said, “No, I’m okay.” Tears formed in her eyes.

Aw…crap, I made her cry. I swatted my hand in her direction and said, “It’s okay. It’s my choice. It’s what I want to do this year.” I could feel my defenses start to bristle. Was I supposed to make her feel better by explaining my daughter and her husband were on their honeymoon; that my son and his family were spending the holidays with his in-laws?

“Do you want to come to our house for dinner?”

 I held my palm up, waving it from side to side as if to erase her. “Thank you so much, but no. I promise, I’m okay. I’m fine.”

I wanted to say, “You don’t need to pity me. I’m going to have coffee and pie with friends the morning of Thanksgiving. On the day before, I’m having brunch with a friend. On the Saturday after, I’m having a group over for a Friendsgiving. Oh, and I’m going on a walk later today with a friend and with another on Tuesday. Look at me—wow! So popular!” Instead, I said it was good to see her, paid the checker and hustled out of the store.

As I drove home, I started to cry. Even though I had made the decision to be mostly by myself on Thanksgiving, I felt pathetic. I’d had plenty of dinner invitations, but I didn’t want to accept any of them. When I made this choice, I envisioned curling up on the sofa in my pajamas and staying there all day. As the holiday grows closer, that sounds dreadful. But the fact is I don’t want to do anything—and I also don’t want to do nothing. I feel like a toddler having to choose between two options—she doesn’t want either and starts to wail and thrash about.

Goddamnit!

I miss Gary and his crazy passion for the holiday season, beginning with Halloween and rolling into the New Year. He especially loved Thanksgiving. He was raised “old school,” and a stickler for the traditional meal—turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, canned cranberry sauce—but was gracious when he passed on what he considered an “exotic” dish like cheesy potatoes or homemade cranberry-orange sauce. None of that fancy stuff for him! He delighted in the leftover turkey sandwiches he made for days afterward.

Over the past two weeks, I avoided the emotional logistics of being alone in my house for the first time in my life on this holiday—no kids, no grandkids, no dear friends. My action plan? I’d decorate for Christmas! I love Christmas and by then I’ll be surrounded by family. I can warm the hearts of random inquisitors by stating that yes, my children will be coming home. I’ll focus on that. Oh yes, I will. I’ll ignore Thanksgiving all together. Look at me, so sassy and clever. Yay for me! I successfully eluded grief by zigging here, zagging there, confusing it so it couldn’t find me and take me down.

Despite my mad dashing, grief kept creeping up behind, lightly tapping me on the shoulder, annoyingly trying to get my attention. “Go away,” I’d whisper. “Don’t ruin everything by making me cry and draining my energy.”

I returned home from the store, brought the grocery bags inside, sat down on a kitchen chair, and bawled for a solid 15 minutes. Gary loved Christmas. He was no longer here to enjoy it. He’d never again be here to enjoy it.

I would have continued crying, but there was the snickerdoodle ice cream threatening to melt. I hadn’t bought a frozen treat in a long time and I’d be damned if I was going to let grief destroy it.

I needed onion rings!

I put the groceries away and called David’s Deli to place the order. You cannot cry with your mouth full of onion rings. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you.

I picked up the food and sat in my car in the parking lot next to the Tesla charging stations. (You can’t take onion rings home and have the same flavor experience of eating them fresh out of the deep fryer. If you do, they cool just enough to make you realize how soaked in grease and terrible they are for you. I swear, never do this.)

Was I lying when I acted all Zen in front of my therapist? After eating a few onion rings dipped in tartar sauce, I decided no. I’m not afraid of grief. I just don’t want to invite it. Eight months into this shit show, I’m done with it. “Ha!” says grief. “I’ve been trying for two weeks to get your attention.” Losing patience, it finally crashed the party.

And now I’m home and feel worse than before. Goddamned onion rings didn’t help at all.

This morning probably should have taught me to make room for grief. Instead, it taught me that grief doesn’t care if I make room. Whether I like it or not, it occupies a permanent space in my life from here on out. It’s a filthy squatter that doesn’t pay rent—one I can never evict. Over time, I can try to clean it up, teach it some manners, and together we might one day peacefully coexist.

In the meantime, grief makes me sad. Just plain sad. And I hate it. I truly hate it.

Myles Anderson – Anderson Logging

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

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For decades Anderson Logging has provided jobs that have helped support many families along the Mendocino Coast. From an early age, Myles developed a passion for working in the woods and learned the value of people taking care of one another in this dangerous occupation. As he moved out of the woods and into running the family business, he’s continued this practice. You can read my initial interview with him here: https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/03/29/myles-anderson-2/

Under the shelter in place orders, Anderson Logging is deemed an essential business. Myles is grateful to keep his crews employed and is working hard to keep them safe. “We are not open to the public and most of the regulations impacting businesses are focused on those that cater to the public,” he says. “However, through a combination of our own ideas and those learned from industry trade associations, we devised prevention measures to keep our employees and their families safe from potential exposure.”

After a lifetime spent in the logging business, Myles says, “Every year I think I’ve seen it all, and every year I’m reminded how wrong I am. We always need to be prepared to adapt and react to change. Long before Covid-19, our business prioritized the safety and well-being of our employees.

“We have approximately 90 employees who enter and leave our facility daily. Every morning, I check their temperatures. They are required to stay in their personal vehicles and not allowed to congregate until the transport vehicle picks them up. We keep crews that work together away from the other crews. Masks are required when riding in transport vehicles and everyone must use hand sanitizer before break and lunch.

“At the end of the day, employees are dropped off at their vehicles and leave our facility. Any contact with employees after work is done over the phone.”

After the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, Myles may ease some of the company’s prevention measures. Ultimately, this decision will depend upon what his employees need to feel safe. “I’m concerned that the restrictions will cause many families to lose their immune systems. Keeping some of these in place will benefit them.”

In contemplation of future restrictions, Myles says, “We try our best to comply with all rules and regulations. I hope any future orders are well thought out and discussed with business leaders prior to implementation. Painting rules with a broad stroke is damaging. Rules that protect employees in one industry may not do anything for employees in another.”

As for the future of our coastal community, Myles is concerned about another pandemic. “There are many things other than a virus that could cause similar issues. People in urban areas are much more susceptible to virus spread because of the density of people and public transportation systems. A potential problem for Fort Bragg is people flocking here to get away from those areas and bringing their hazards to us.”

While Myles agrees with others that it’s important to spend money locally, he also believes that the industries along our coast need support. “This can come in the form of a conversation with friends or writing letters to newspapers and elected officials. We should all agree that we need to work together to sustain what industry we have left.

“Support for logging is a good example. It is hard, dangerous and seasonal work. Through careful management of the industrial timberlands around our community, we can continue to provide jobs and produce the most environmentally-regulated wood products in the world.”

Megan Caron – Lost Coast Found

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

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Megan returned to the Mendocino Coast four years ago for many of the same reasons other young pioneers come back—weary of city living, wanting to raise children where they’d been raised, and hoping to use their energies to revitalize our community. Soon after her arrival, she opened the vintage shop Lost Coast Found in the Larry Spring building on Redwood Avenue. https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/10/02/megan-caron/

Unlike other shop owners, Megan says she wasn’t fazed by the shelter in place order.

“It seems like everyday something shocking takes place. The current administration has forced many of us to become desensitized. When I think about what’s happening to this planet—children in cages, criminals in the White House—a pandemic just kind of seems like icing on the cake.”

Similar to other retailers, Megan considers the ramifications of future shelter in place orders and is considering the addition of an online store. “My brick and mortar will always be a priority because creating space and human interaction is what I enjoy. I have never really shopped online—except for that one time, but I was doing research on Scandinavian linens.” She laughs. “I find online shopping dull and unfulfilling. During these tumultuous times, I have confidence in the secondary market. I believe people are catching onto the idea of conscious consumerism, but as with every change in behavior, it takes time.”

Megan is grateful to Anne Maureen McKeating, the owner of the Larry Spring building. “She isn’t charging rent as long as I am unable to open. I wish more landlords were so kind. I am worried about our downtown community and hope landlords realize there is more value in keeping a current tenant than waiting a year for a new one to come along.”

Lost Coast Found reopened on June 12 and Megan has to limit customers to one or two people at a time. “The shop is too small to fit more than that. I want people to have a relaxing experience. I don’t want them to worry if they’re six feet away from someone.”

Given the number of employers who are allowing employees to telecommute, Megan believes Fort Bragg is more attractive to outsiders than ever before. “I guarantee we’ll make it on ‘The Top 10 Small Towns In Which To Survive A Pandemic’ list.  Over the last three years, a constant stream of tourists have come into my shop and asked, ‘So what’s it like to live here?’ I say it’s a great place if you can afford to buy a house. It can be impossible to find a rental unless you have a local connection. I tell them about our need for working professionals, trades people, entrepreneurs, and community volunteers.

“Like it or not, an influx of people will move here. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Buying up housing for vacation rentals is what has devastated coastal communities. Building new homes will help our economy.

“When people move here, they bring money and this town desperately needs money. Fort Bragg has struggled to financially maintain its downtown and the current crisis will only make that more difficult.”

Megan finds hope for the future of our community in people like her customer Joanne.  “She lives in Fremont and is selling her home. She’s dreamed of having a tea room and Fort Bragg seems the right place. Joanne has the capital to buy one of the downtown dilapidated commercial buildings and will make it beautiful again.”

https://www.facebook.com/lostcoastfound/

Lost Coast Found is open 11:30-5:00 Wednesdays through Saturdays.

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Amberly Reynolds Caccamo – Reynolds Men’s Wear and Wrens

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

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Each story shared by the returnees I’ve interviewed has left an impression on me, but Amberly’s touched me deeply. Not only did she keep a beloved and long-running family business going through the Great Recession, she managed to survive cancer while pregnant with her youngest child. You can read her interview here: https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/07/12/amberly-reynolds-caccamo/

Despite rising above previous challenges, Amberly initially found the business ramifications of the shelter in place order overwhelming. She struggled between wanting her family and community to stay safe and keeping her business afloat.

“By the time the SIP order was issued, I had already closed Wren’s and was grappling with closing Reynolds,” she says. “In early March, my 11-year-old son and I went to New York City with his class to participate in the Montessori Model United Nations. We returned on the tenth. When we left, there were more Covid cases in California than New York. Upon our return, we learned how rampant it was in New York City.  I put myself and the kids in quarantine and we hunkered down.”

Amberly despairs at the fact that the pandemic has pushed people to make needed purchases online. “Before this, I had plenty of customers who bought clothing from us, even though it was only a click away on their computer.” She’s being forced to make some tough decisions on how to move forward. “It breaks my heart, but I’ll have to combine my two shops into one. I hate to see another empty building on Franklin Street, but I cannot afford two rents and to staff two shops.

“Reynolds Men’s Wear has been in my family 54 years and was a men’s clothing store for 43 years before that. We are nearing our centennial. We have weathered more than a few storms. During the economic period of high inflation in the late seventies and early eighties, my parents spent most days sitting at a window table in the Fort Bragg Bakery across the street from the shop watching for the occasional customer. They managed to survive that difficult time.

“I am steeped in the tradition of this shop. It’s a part of me and makes me who I am. When I help customers find exactly what they need, I feel a giddy satisfaction. This pushes me to carefully select products. I am working on an online presence, but it’s not nearly as much fun as seeing people face-to-face.

“At this point, we are offering limited customer access to the stores and curbside pickup Wednesdays through Saturdays from 12:00-4:00. It’s been nice to see a few faces again—even if they are behind masks.”

Amberly is grateful that her husband’s business, Caccamo Construction, has been able to operate. She enjoys being at home with her three sons. “I see a lot of value in slowing down, and that is a huge part of my decision to merge my two stores. It will give me more freedom to be with my family. We love watching our plants grow, raising goats, and hanging with our chickens. Our dog is so happy to have kids home all day.”

Amberly encourages people to call or visit her shop. “See if we have what you need before you hop online to order. Share our Facebook posts. Interact with our Instagram posts, all of that helps to make us more visible to the public.”

https://www.facebook.com/wrensboutique/

https://www.reynoldswren.com/

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Forging a Path through the Pandemic: Young Pioneers of the Mendocino Coast

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

***

Sarena Breed – Frame Mill Art Works

SarenaCovid1I met Sarena in 2017 when I interviewed her for my blog. She had recently purchased the Frame Mill Art Works. As a first-time business owner, she worried about her ability to succeed. Despite the challenges of learning to run a shop, she’s seen her business grow and is happy she made the decision. https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/06/02/sarena-breed/

She was surprised in March 2020 when nonessential businesses in Mendocino County were forced to close under the shelter in place orders. “A week before the shutdown, I had celebrated my third year in business,” she says. “I noticed things had gotten slower, but expected to continue to operate with some mandated adjustments.”

The Sunday before the order took effect, she spent the day cleaning her store and making changes to keep employees and customers safe. “I separated tools and work areas so everyone in the back room could maintain social distancing. I drafted a sign for the front door asking customers to social distance. I didn’t imagine I would have to close the shop.”

With her routine suddenly disrupted, Sarena says, “I felt I was going through the stages of grief. This was the death of something.”

In addition to the temporary closure of her shop, her eighth grade daughter’s middle school was closed. “Sadly, her class had to settle for a virtual promotion ceremony this year.” Despite these losses, she’s grateful that her husband’s job as an utility arborist is considered essential and he has continued to work.

She began attending webinars on how small businesses can adapt during this time.

The core of Sarena’s business is meeting with clients face-to-face to discuss ways in which a project can be framed. “I love picture framing and don’t like spending much time on the computer. With the doors shut, I realized I had no direct way of communicating with clients. I felt cut off from the folks who came into the store. I wanted to reach out and say a simple hello and give updates, but didn’t have that capability.”

During the shutdown period, the feeling of isolation from her clients caused her to innovate. “I put in a point of sale system to collect email addresses. I’m started work on a website and Facebook and Instagram accounts. Going forward, I’ll continue to expand my online presence.”

Sarena was able to open her store on a limited basis the last week of May. “I looked outside that morning and thought we’ve all been like Sleeping Beauty and are starting to wake up. It feels great to see people again. Some come in just to make sure I was okay. Others pop their heads in to let me know they’re glad I’m open. I feel a great deal of support.” Her shop is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00-4:00.

Sarena is determined to move forward. She’s ordered inventory to stock the store for the Christmas season even though there may be shelter in place orders issued in the fall. If she’s forced to shut down again, she’ll be in a better position to communicate with customers and offer framing services by private appointment.

“This experience has given us time to contemplate the things that matter and to reevaluate. People seem to have an understanding that we’re all in this together and are being more patient. I feel a greater commitment to shopping locally and supporting our community.”

***

Since she re-opened, Sarena  is looking for a framer to join her team. Anyone interested can call her shop at 964-6464.

https://www.facebook.com/Frame-Mill-Artworks-106182994399181/

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