Going through the Motions

This upcoming Sunday is my wedding anniversary. I used to say “our” wedding anniversary but now that doesn’t feel right. “My” anniversary doesn’t feel right, either, but I guess since my husband died, the anniversary is mine now.

Once Tom’s birthday in January passed, I set my sights on our March anniversary. I notice myself doing that—making it past one milestone and immediately steeling myself for the next one. (After this anniversary, the next milestone on my radar is Mother’s Day, which Tom often made a bit of a big deal about despite me arguing every year that it’s a bullshit made-up holiday. He believed firmly in honoring mothers.)

I started feeling heavy sadness last Sunday night. My eyes fell on a framed photo of Tom and me and the kids the day we got married. We had been together two years when we married in 2011. When we got married, Tom was 51, I was 41, his son was 18, and my daughter was 8. I started thinking that none of the people in the photo exist anymore. Tom is dead, the kids are adults now. The kids and I have been changed profoundly by his stroke and death. The photo seemed to capture a moment from some imaginary time I no longer felt connected to. I put the photo in a cabinet, then went to the bedroom and opened the drawer of things that at one time smelled like Tom. They haven’t smelled like him in a long time, but I still think of it as the drawer of things that smell like Tom. I ran my hands over the shirts and a stuffed unicorn (after his stroke, he loved stuffed animals), and then sat on the floor in the closet and listened to voice messages from him. The smells-like-Tom drawer and voice messages always destroy me, so I limit how often I let myself dive into them. This week, there have been no limits.

On Monday I bought myself a big bundle of red tulips to put in a vase on the dining room table. One thing I have learned since Tom’s death is how to be kind to myself.

This week I am just going through the motions at work. I’ve been attending my field’s most important conference online all week, but I haven’t retained a thing. A collaborator gently suggested to me that the work I did on our project this week wasn’t as detail-oriented as it needs to be. I will likely need to spend the first part of next week revisiting the work I did this week.

My plan for Sunday is loose. If I can get an appointment, I’ll get a memorial tattoo. Tom actually hated tattoos, so it’s kind of ironic, but I love tattoos and he’s dead so I figure this decision is all mine. I already have a few small ones on my arms and want this one somewhere else—I’m trying to decide between the left side of my collarbone or the left side of my ribs. (The left side because it’s closer to my heart.) I’m also going to go through Tom’s many T-shirts to pick out 20-25 to give to a friend who is going to make a memory quilt out of them. I’ve been putting that off because I know it will destroy me, but since I know Sunday will already be a tough day, it feels right to just pile it on. I’ll go to the commemorative bench at the park by our house at some point.

I have to force myself right now to lean into the sadness. I want to push it away. I’m tired of being sad, tired of crying, tired of memories that feel painful in their beauty and fullness. This week my sadness feels different. I feel like I can only remember my life with post-stroke Tom well. The photos and memories of pre-stroke Tom, like the wedding day picture, feel almost like someone else’s photos and memories. When I think of wanting my life with Tom back, I think of our post-stroke life. I think of pushing him in his wheelchair around the house while crouching down like a ninja and singing the James Bond theme music for drama and comedic effect. I think of cheering him on during physical therapy as he took a heavily-assisted step with his left leg. I want that life back.

I know this will pass. So much of grieving is just being patient and trusting the process. I wonder how much patience I have left and I remember a conversation Tom and I had after his stroke. He had suffered one of the many, many setbacks in his recovery and he asked me how much more caregiving I had in me. “As much as I need,” I told him. I would have happily been his caregiver for 100 more years.

Today I remind myself that although I feel like I have no more patience left for grieving, I do in fact have as much as I need.

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