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.

Six Things to Never Say to a Grieving Person

In March 2021, my husband of 46 years died and a 13-year-old girl took demonic possession of my emotions. I call her Tammy. I try to placate her with soothing tones, carrying scones and mocha lattes to her bedroom door. She opens the door (she’s a sucker for sweets), wearing her You’re Not the Boss of Me t-shirt, her fiery red mass of unruly curls swirling about her head. She snatches the food like the feral child she is, flips me off, and slams the door in my face.

Tammy horrifies me. I was raised to be a good girl and avoid burdening people with my anger or negative feelings. Better to keep such unpleasantness under wraps. Tammy isn’t burdened by such nonsense.

In the months since Gary died, I am astonished by the outpouring of love and support I’ve received. I am grateful, oh so grateful. It shocks me how angry Tammy becomes when people make comments that, while intended to provide comfort, do just the opposite. This consumes her with a rage that embarrasses me, one that I wrestle to control. But she will not be tamed. It’s true that one of the steps in the grief process is anger, but another is acceptance, which makes me feel I need to embrace Tammy. Maybe I can hug her so tightly that I squeeze the very life out of her.

Whenever Tammy encounters someone who says an absurd thing, she snarls, “Don’t pity her.” When people stop pitying me, she whines, “Why aren’t you pitying her?” When they try again, she snaps, “Don’t pity her.”

Pity her. Don’t pity her. Pity her. Don’t pity her. On and on it goes. It’s debilitating.

Recently, Tammy duct taped me to a chair and forced me to compile the following list of things to never say to a grieving person. I balked, not wanting to offend or hurt anyone. She got into my face and screamed “You’re a widow! You can do whatever the hell you want for at least the first year!”

#1 At least he’s no longer suffering

“Oh really?” Tammy spits. “At least?” She wonders why people try to throw this measly life preserver when I’m drowning in my darkest moments. This comment does nothing to ease my pain and causes Tammy to shriek as she stomps up the stairs to her bedroom and slams the door. She opens it to shout, “Screw you!” before slamming it again and again. It’s exhausting and humiliating. I want tie her up, throw her into the back of a white-paneled van and ship her off to a school for troubled teens in Utah.

#2 He had a long, good life

Tammy wonders if people honestly think this offers comfort. She’s drawn her switchblade. (Before joining me, she belonged to a gang.)

Gary did have a long life, mostly good, but deeply affected by the devastating effects of 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes, effects most people know nothing about. His last 10 years were spent dealing with diminished eyesight, mobility and kidneys. He valiantly struggled through each day and remained grateful for what he did have. He was still grateful when he made the difficult decision to come home from the hospital to die. If he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have chosen death.

Tammy wants people to stop assuming any life was either long or good. It was a life. And it’s over. Grieving people don’t care how long a life was, they want more.

#3 There’s hope for a brighter future

Tammy hates this more than anything. Even more than kale.

If anyone has experienced the intense grief of losing a loved one, one of the last things Tammy wants them to say is that their journey was like a flower that slowly blossomed and left them feeling more radiant than before. This perspective comes years after their loss. Tammy doesn’t want them trying to fast forward me through this process by giving me an end result. They think they’re helping, but they’re not. I cannot fathom such a future and right now these comments only make me sadder because my flower is wilted and rotting. And Tammy wants to kick them in the stomach.

Instead, tell me that at first you were buried up to your neck in raw, stinking sewage. As the pipes unclogged and the sewage began to recede, you could at least move, but it was nearly impossible to trudge forward with it up to your chest, then waist, then knees. Finally, after many months—perhaps years—the muck was at ankle level. By then the struggle had gotten you into Navy Seal training shape and you were able to strut out, hose yourself down, hold your fists high and claim victory. But only partial victory because the mild odor of grief will cling to you forever.

#4 Focus on the good things in your life

Tammy narrows her black eyes and seethes, “If you happen to see any sustainable good things in her life, I’ll let YOU focus on them. Right now I want to punch you in the face.”

Just when I’m able to rise a bit out of the muck and periscope my head from side to side to spy one tiny good thing here and another there, a tragedy strikes. My brother-in-law died suddenly at the end of August. In mid-September, on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, my 91-year-old mother had a major stroke and lingers in a state of limbo. A dear friend died in late September, and another at the end of October. Another close family member died in mid-December. On New Year’s Day, the infant daughter of a young, dear friend was found dead in her crib.

Each of these events belly flopped me back into the cesspool of gloom and made Tammy go wild! She burst out of the house and ran cursing and screaming down the street.

#5 I feel so bad for you living in that big old house all by yourself

I swear, if another person says this to me, I’ll let Tammy have at them with her brass knuckles. Tammy wonders if they understand when they say this that they put me in the position of defending my choice to stay in our family home. A home where we raised our children. A home that comforts and nurtures me daily.

Tammy’s interpretation is that they want me to make them feel better by closing off rooms, confining myself to the living room with a hot plate, chamber pot, a garden hose run through an open window, and a cot. Tammy wonders if it would it make them feel better if I left this big, old house and moved to a smaller place, possibly an alley house where nobody has to worry about me rattling around. Or am I being selfish by staying here and hogging more than my fair share of square footage on this earth? Should I relinquish it to others—perhaps a nice, young couple with two kids, a dog, a couple of cats, and a ferret?

Tammy wants people to know that wherever I live, I’ll be by myself. It’s not like I’m a hermit. I have an active social life. Right now, figuring out how to live alone is an integral part of my grief process. I’m much better off navigating this from a home I love, a place I shared with my family for 30 years.

Tammy wants these people to shut the hell up. Remember, she has duct tape and is not afraid to use it.

#6 Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you

I’m grateful for these generous offers, but they make Tammy clench her fists. She says, “She doesn’t know what she wants from moment to moment. Even though you’ve left the door open to respond to whatever she needs, she’s not capable of reaching out to ask for anything.”

My therapist suggests being specific when offering to help someone. “I’m going to the store today and wonder if there’s anything I can pick up for you.” If the answer is nothing, say, “I’ll bring you a meal from the deli. Does a salad or something you can warm up sound better to you?” Or, “Let’s take a walk this weekend. Would you prefer Saturday or Sunday? What time would you like, one or two o’clock?”

A friend once told me that she contacts people who are suffering and asks, “What do you need right now? What do you need today?” Sometimes they say nothing, but most of the time the responses are magic: “I need a latte.” “I need someone to bring me dinner.” “I need a walk.” She continues to reach out, not often, but maybe every month or so in an effort to not overwhelm them.

Tammy pulls her wild hair back, ties it with a scrunchy and nods approval. She knows that every smartphone has a calendar where this type of outreach can be scheduled on a recurring basis. If you truly want to help someone, do these things.

***

I pretty much hate Tammy. She’s a deep source of my shame. But I also love the way she steps up to fiercely defend me during this fragile emotional time. Someday I may be able to send her to finishing school where she’ll cut her hair, become more polished and learn to control herself. In the meantime, she’s a fitting vessel for my anger.

***

I just locked Tammy in a closet while I confess that I understand that people extend their hearts to provide comfort and help ease my suffering. People don’t intend their words to cause Tammy to burst into flames. Before I experienced Gary’s death, I’m certain I said many things that sent grieving people to the internet to shop for voodoo dolls.

Tammy is yelling at me through the closet door. “You need to tell them! Tell them now!”

Throughout this journey, I once got her calmed down enough to help me compile a list of what we consider the only things that need to be said:

  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I’m holding you in my heart.
  • This sucks so bad.
  • Give a warm hug and say, “I love you.”
  • Say nothing, bow your head in reverence, and listen . . .simply listen.

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.