Yesterday was my birthday. Not going to lie, it was tough.
When my husband died, I was no stranger to grief. I had already experienced tremendous grief when my mother died in 2005, just 4 months after the birth of my son. She died suddenly and shockingly, at age 58, and after surgery we all believed would herald a bright, healthy future for her. I am an only child, and my Mom and I were very close. Losing her rocked me. My husband was my North Star while I navigated having three kids under the age of 6, multiple sclerosis, trying to keep my father afloat while he dealt with Mom’s death, and coping with my own huge loss. Chris understood me sometimes better then I understood myself, and he was able to help me through it all.
I started dating my husband when I was 16, a high school junior. He was killed when I was 45, less than 3 months before my 46th birthday. Chris made a very big deal about birthdays. He loved to give me birthday parties, or plan vacations around my birthday. There was never just one birthday gift, and I never knew what he was going to come up with. It could be jewelry or a trip, box seats for something he thought I would like, an obscure gadget he knew would intrigue me, some kind of experience he thought I would enjoy. Last birthday gift he ever gave me was a teacup pig. Unexpected, kind of hilarious, and also kind of sweet.
I never minded the age advancement that is signified by birthdays, probably because he never minded it either. I remember he had a friend who started complaining about age upon turning 30. I clearly recall a conversation Chris and I had in our car, parked in front of that guy’s house. He couldn’t understand why the other guy had the attitude that they were “old.” It irritated and perplexed him. Chris was always too busy looking forward to bother looking back.
We had a plan for Chris to retire at age 55 and work as a consultant in his field. The way we lived was to make a plan, work the plan, adjust when you must, achieve the goal. We had a lot of plans we made happen. The 55 Plan would give us more time to pursue other interests we had. All of those plans exploded and were incinerated in 2013. We had never foreseen that his 46th birthday would be his last, although I do believe Chris expected something was going to happen to him. (I’ll write about that another day).
I’m still here. Still blessed to be having birthdays.
The pain of grief always lives within me. Most days it stays controllable, a quiet presence buried in the background. A painfully twisted creature corralled into a box in the corner of the basement. It mostly cooperates with the restrictions placed upon it. But there are days when it comes out and stretches its legs and lives and breathes and flexes its muscles. On those days, there is no way to ignore it. I try to ignore it, try to pretend the pain of the twisted creature’s presence does not exist, but when I push too hard against it, it feels like I’m trying to pretend my husband didn’t exist either.
I can’t do that.
My kids did a lovely job making my birthday a really good day. They started with birthday wishes just after midnight. My eldest made a beautiful breakfast for me. None of the kids really like carrot cake, but that’s what they got for my birthday cake, because it’s a favorite of mine. They got a dinner they know I like and beautiful birthday cards. They gave me 2 dozen red roses in separate presentations; one dozen from them, the other from their Dad, because they never fail to remember that he gave me red roses all the time. They did a bunch of things that day to make it special.
The things Chris isn’t here to see taunt me. Things like our children making my birthday as special as they could and finding a way to include him. I know it would make him proud.
No one gets to make rules about how fast to move on from losing somebody you love. After my husband was killed, well-meaning people gave me books and recommended even more books, until I felt like I had read everything imaginable about dealing with grief. There were books by psychiatrists and psychologists, by new age therapists and by psychic healers. Books based on religious approaches and even atheistic approaches to grief. Philosophical analysis and practical step-by-step guides. To be truthful, none of them actually helped me. Nothing resonated within me. And, in fact, I found some of them offensive in their approach.
Ironically, sometimes you find wisdom in a place you don’t expect. In a novel I read recently, the author has the female heroine think, “grief is really love with no place to go.” Those few words rocked me. In the book, the widow’s deceased husband is also named Chris, and they had been high school sweethearts too, just like me and my Chris. Nothing else in the story was even remotely similar, but that was enough to make it extra poignant to me. (The excellent book is H.A.L.O. Redeemed).
I could not get that quote out of my mind. I researched it and found a fuller version of the statement. “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” (Jamie Anderson).
I love my kids with every breath I have. Even when they drive me crazy with frustration, exasperate me, irritate or annoy me … still I love them and would do anything I can to make them happy. The love you have for a person you grieve cannot simply be reassigned elsewhere. I can’t just add to the love I have for them. Love is not a mathematical or algebraic equation where you can carry over an amount into another area.
I think a lot of the love I had for my mother became part of the love I have for my kids, but not in a quantifiable way. Consciously or unconsciously, I see myself modeling some of my attention to them the way she paid attention to me. It makes sense because we learn what we do and don’t like about parenting from being the children of our own parents. Our personal experience can dictate what we pass forward into the next generation. We try to take the best from that and leave the rest behind when we raise our own children; hopefully, we strain out the rocks in our own parental relationships and pass along a more refined variation to our kids.
The love I had for my husband cannot be re-allocated to our kids as if I was re-allocating funds on a balance sheet. It doesn’t work the same way as the love for my mother did. Some widows can find another valuable relationship after they’re forced to be single again. Given the situation with my disability, that was never an option for me. But even if it had been – if my disability was nonexistent – I doubt I would have ever succeeded with another relationship. It would have been difficult to accept something less than that which I had with Chris, and it would have been an unfair standard to try to recreate. But even if I had an opportunity for another relationship, I know love could not have been simply reassigned. It would have been different. I think human nature would have caused comparison, and I would have worried that it would be intrinsically unfair.
Chris was really like my other half, and as crazy as it might seem, he still is. It’s not the stuff of love songs or poetry, not perfect or even ideal. Sometimes in my mind I can hear him. I can assure you I am not crazy – at least no more than anybody else on this planet. But there are times and situations where I think about it and I know exactly what Chris would say or do. Not always, of course. But pretty frequently.
In The Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson says “True love is the soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another.”
It’s not a movie where you expect to find real truth, but there it is.
Everyone claims to want true love. But it isn’t without flaws even when you have it, and then when you lose it it’s like an important part of you dies. And yet you can’t go half-in on it if you find it. It won’t let you. Chris and I had some major fights in almost 30 years together. But there was always a quiet inevitability under it all. There was knowledge that when the fight was put to rest, we would still be there together.
So even though he’s gone from here before me, in an oddly undefinable way, we are still together. I have a good handle on the painful part of it all at this point. And then on days like my birthday, grief crashes the party in a way that has itself become familiar and inevitable. It’s kind of like an emotional balance due that never gets paid in full.