I have to admit while I was walking up Lincoln Avenue to the Tiny Lounge last evening I had butterflies in my stomach and was filled with a medley of feelings that ran the gamut. I was excited to see Claire–like “date” kind of excited, perhaps not knowing what to fully expect or maybe expecting too much. But the grin on my face and the fast pace of my step reminded me to let everything else go and love the anticipation of seeing a good friend.
I first met Claire Bidwell Smith on March 31–the very heady week after Ken came home from the hospital for hospice care. Luckily for us at the time she the grief therapist with Advocate. She and Ken connected instantaneously on her first visit. It wasn’t only because of their connection that I felt a connection with her as well. Watching, seeing, and feeling the energy in our house when she was here could inspire nothing less than the most sublime confidence–something I couldn’t help but lack. At a time when I was frayed, exhausted and sometimes actively ignoring despair, Claire’s visits offered a satisfaction and a security that–at the time–was rare for me. Ken loved spending time with her. And the three of us spoke more than once that had we met under different circumstances we would have become good friends. Yet the three of us knew, in spite of the circumstances–not because of them–we did became friends. Some connections are undeniable.
Claire visited with us weekly during Ken’s home hospice days until she left her role as grief counselor to move to LA with her husband and daughter. I’ll never forget the last time she was here–to say goodbye to me–and even more impossibly–to say goodbye to Ken. He understood she was leaving and was excited for her, but of course, he was having a difficult time with saying goodbye to someone he loved, knowing he wouldn’t live to see her again. I’ll never forget that day: May 26, 2011, a week before he died.
I always remember answering the door when Claire came over. My day was muddled with household tasks caring for Ken, and living only for the next moment, but always when I saw her, there were milliseconds that went in slow motion in my mind’s eye where the tension in my shoulders eased and the comfort I felt in knowing how much Ken loved her and loved spending time with her assuaged my fatigue and gave me joy. If I left them alone in the front room, I inevitably heard exuberant laughter following shortly afterward. It was like the sound of brightness.
Not having seen her since that day in May made me wonder if I’d burst into tears and cry hysterically–or intermittently–when I met up with her. My “what if” had to wonder: would it be more painful than blissful? Did I see something that wasn’t really there in my pre-grief? Would our only connection be loving and losing Ken? Not surprisingly, the answer is a complete, resounding and vehement “NO!” My affection for Claire is the real deal, and when I came upon her at the outdoor seating area where met I couldn’t wait to get to her and squeeze her hard. And I did.
The next time I actually thought about my emotions about seeing her, I was sitting with a close friend, talking seriously, joking bawdily and smiling unabashedly. As my old “what if” habits watched me connecting with Claire as I would with any of my close-knit circle of friends, we both talked about how much we loved and admired Ken, and how there was no way he wasn’t someone watching us together and loving it. Claire is a writer–an amazing writer. Aside from being an avid reader of her blog, a personal memoir about her journey with grief after losing both of her parents comes out on February 2, 2012. Her fearlessness and honestly in sharing parts of this journey has inspired me since she told us about on one her visits with us this past spring. There is a subtly in her wisdom that I value and greatly admire.
Over a glass of Chardonnay and appetizers, Claire recalled the last time she’d seen Ken on May 26, and shared a private moment with him. She knew it was the last time she’d see him, yet in her role as care giver and friend, she asked him if there was anything he wanted me to know when he was gone. She typed what he said verbatim on her iPhone and saved it in her email to wait for the right time to share with me. Last night was the night. She forwarded me the email as we talked. And as much as I was curious and almost desperate to connect with Ken via this message, I’ve only recently learned to “dose” my mourning in order to spend my time in the present–with my friend Claire.
After I hugged and kissed her twice, and told her how much I love her, I walked back down Lincoln like I was in a race. I couldn’t stop thinking that when I got home, I was going to be able to connect with my husband with words he spoke to Claire on the day etched in my memory. It was exhilarating and terrifying. But for me emotional fear is hardly the terrorist it used to be. I purposely slowed my pace about half-way home and enjoyed the beautiful warm night air, the starry skies above, and the memories I’d made with Claire–with thoughts of many more to come.
Once home, I poured myself a glass of merlot and sat in the back yard, surrounded by memories and the garden he once so passionately tended.
And I read aloud these words Ken wanted me to hear, to give me comfort after he was gone:
I still am.
Together we still be.
We’re still here.
We still exist together.
My heart surged and re-broke a thousand times as I repeated the words over and over, as if chanting them to conjure him physically or spiritually. My vision blurred until I couldn’t read the email anymore, though by then I knew it by heart. My voice fell silent. I was dumbstruck by these words, Ken’s beautiful intentions, and the loving messenger who had delivered them to me when I was ready to hear them. I surrendered to my emotions and utter blithering, and slumped in the chair, head tilted to the stars. I felt the weight, love and honor in his words to me. It was a solemn moment and ineffable moment.
Then the river of tears eased. These words embodied what I have never stopped believing. It was another affirmation that we had been of the same mind. It was a connection to Ken that I knew was always there, but hearing these words–spoken back on that day when he was so sad about so many things–I could love hearing them (or at least be able to hear them) as I continue to love and honor him and our life together. Understanding what we were together, and what we continue to be together is a cornerstone of the journey I’ve set out upon. No, it’s not the same. It can’t ever be. And it will be a long time before I’m okay with that. But this experience–just like loving him–was something extraordinary. And something not to be ignored.
Sometimes you can wake up on Tuesday morning and muddle through the day, all the while aching for something that’s lost to you. And sometimes you can go to bed that very night, knowing things you never imagined you’d have the privilege to know.
Ken was always giving me little gifts, and that hasn’t changed.