Thursday, August 22, 2013

widow brain

There is no place in any of the self help, grief management, spiritual journey literature that discusses widow brain.  Lots of tips on emotional recovery, moving on but not a word about what happens in your head.  

Widow brain should become a new medical diagnosis. Briefly it is the inability to manage information. I have found it almost impossible in some ways to keep all this stuff straight.  I think it is a safety mechanism, a kind of mental shut off valve that keeps you afloat.   Examples are endless, good hearted friends send multiple emails about a get together and you either a) forget what they wrote, b) shelve them to read at another time and don't do it, c) simply space it all together.

However, that said, there is a list a mile long that needs attention most if it new territory.   Most of that list has consequences that get your attention such as hospital bills and warranty renewals on machinery that you didn't know you had.  Or the phone calls you get from various organizations.  To date my favorite is Mount Sinai financial folks who call and want to talk to Tom. The first time this happened I was nice and said he had passed away  However the 5th time my rather nasty response was.." he is still dead nothing much has changed. How can i help you?: Widows brain can also be snarky and unpleasant.

There are other symptoms such as simply staring out into space rather content to think about nothing as it is easier than tackling the to do list or forgetting what you were doing or going entirely.  Staying present seems a better alternative than planning too far ahead.

 Widows brain also has a dark side which is not recommended but needs to be recognized for what it is.  There are nightmares, and restless sleep or no sleep at all .  It is the widows brain on overdrive.

From now on I have promised myself to try to be a bit more aware of when the WB is kicking in and simply use the term to explain why I have screwed something up. It is not an excuse it is just a manifestation of a process.  Hopefully one that others understand.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Down East

My 93 year old mom and I leave our cabin in Maine tomorrow early to beat the traffic.  We have been here about two weeks.  She has come Down East every summer for the last 89 years.  Things have changed on the coast but there are constants. It is the constants that are note worthy.

My mom gave up rowing her little boat the Amiable Comfort this year. She said that she probably could row but getting in and out of the boat would be dodgy. That said she goes to the dock in the morning with her tea cup, inspects all the various boats, knots, sea birds and who is or not in the cove. She goes down to watch the tennis matches with the three or four other people in their 90's.  They have outlived practically everybody; in her case,  two husbands, a daughter in law, a son in law and a step son.  Still she takes an enormous interest in the harbor, the comings and going of boats and people. She is deaf but still engaged in what ever part of the conversation she can hear.  For many people old and young alike she is a constant.

For me the constants are in images such as the lovely old friendship sloop ghosting along wing and wing out the bay to the sea. The seals  screwing around splashing by the rocks  and the Ospreys who have the enviable skill of soaring above the sea and hurtling toward the surface to snatch lunch.  It would be lovely to have such a wing span.  There are other constants, boats coming in the harbor. Some skippered by people who have no idea what they are doing and others in older boats, gear everywhere but clearly expert.  The latter take great amusement and delight in the antics of the former. 

There are traditions that are  anchored in the sea and the granite of the coastline. One is the remembrance of the dead.  Our  small club, founded in 1901,  always reads the names of the those who have died  during  the year. It is the opening of the annual meeting.  The names are spoken aloud and there is a full minute of silence.  You can tell the widows and the widowers as they are the ones looking at the floor.  They read Tom's name this year. It seemed so strange but comforting to have it spoken aloud by strangers much the way those who are lost at sea are remembered.  The irony of the maritime tradition for a farmer was not lost on any of us.

So the summer winds down. Labor day is just around the corner and most of these little cottages will be put to bed. The days are a bit shorter and the nights are cool. I put a fire in the stove just yesterday. Kids go  back to school.  Then rather miraculously it will be summer again on the coast of Maine a whole year will have passed but there will be constants - a most comforting thought

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Water and redemption

It has been a few weeks since the last post.  I have learned a lot in the last two weeks about myself and this process.  As predicted there is a stage in grief that includes a charming dose of anger. I liken it to those ancient sea creatures that lived just over the horizon when the world was flat who would lash out at the unsuspecting sailor and eat them up. Or the sirens luring the Greeks into the islands only to dash their little brains out on the rocks and turn them into pebbles or prisoners .   It is terrifying, seductive and righteous. 

While most of the people I know live on planet earth, I  live on my husband is dead planet and my  kids live on  I no longer have a dad planet. . On my planet their is an overwhelming desire to run over all those people who are eating french fries, sucking down buckets of coke and smoking cigarettes and along with them it would be swell to knock off all the mean people and  probably a few members of the tea party. Not exactly the spiritual path i had planned.  How can they all be romping around planet earth when my planet needs so much more  energy and compassion and grace than I have.

 On my kids planet the over arching question is what the hell do I do now?   On their planet Mr. Fix it is gone. There is no one to help with your soul, your taxes, your car engine, your apartment lease,  your life choices your  anything.  The person who was always going to be there just took a powder and they are pissed. Regardless of the layers of civilization, anger is primal and it pops out in the strangest and most fragile times. We all get it .

This week though I have returned to water and to  Maine. I began sailing this coast at age 4 and have come here off and on but mostly on my whole life. Water is the constant that eases pain, encourages bravery and can with enough time change the very face of the planet.   The sea in Maine is the color of jade and it is equally as cold.  The big swells come in from off shore and they roll with a measured relentlessness that is similar to breathing from some distant and mysterious set of lungs.  I have sailed every inch of this coast in fog, hurricanes, foul weather and fine - the skipper a huge pain in the ass but no better a sailor ever was.  Now I paddle it in a light weight sea kayak which is the only boat I own and can lift. It is black.. hence the name black magic. I have had her out in screaming seas just to see if I can keep upright, thick fog just to practice my navigation .   Now i paddle her just to paddle three inches out of the water and in those three inches there is redemption.

It is water that in many ways makes us whole. It is too hard to be angry on the water because you have to be present or you will drown. You can not rail against the injustices of the universe because you are in fact in the universe itself.  Water is life .

 The light is different here. It floats and refracts off the mica in the rocks, the pines on the shore and the horizon that bends the light off the edge of the world. Perhaps there really are dragons.  To be on the water is to be of the water and in that one can find a measure of peace that is not readily available on land.  I will savor this small respite from the grief spiders and the anger demons just to spend as much time floating three inches about the surface of the sea as I can breathing at the same rate as the rollers coming in from Spain and in that breathe connect with all that really counts.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Tomorrow is the 4 month mark.  I have begun very slowly the task of tidying up.  My thought is to begin with the symbolic rather than the intimate.  I also decided to include my own stuff in the mix so it is a joint venture - much the way we lived. It seems like this process should be fair .   If Tom's stuff is getting sorted then so should mine.  Whiddling life down to the useful, the loved and the present. The over worked word "down sizing" comes to mind- one that I don't particularly like because it subsumes needless accumulation of stuff rather than the idea that life has different phases and with it different tools. 

I am beginning with business suits - mine and his and academic regalia. So what do you do with PhD. academic robes? Tom's is much nicer than mine as his degree is from Cornell so his robe is a fabulous red. Mine is blue and black with an orange cowl as it is from Syracuse.  I wore mine all the time over the last years parading around at graduations, convocations and of course at Halloween when dressed as a wizard handing out candy and questions on our front porch in NC.  The robes are pretty great actually from a costume standpoint but they are also serious.  It takes work to get one of these things. They  have roots in the rituals of the middle ages . They are mysterious and conjure up drafty halls, stones and well Harry Potter.   They also represent solid accomplishments in our lives .  Respect for that is important but the fact remains they are probably not all that useful.  The act of sorting is also an act of remembering and that in and of itself is a good, if not painful process.  Oddly enough the business attire is an easy fix. Who really cares about that stuff but the academic robes are another story.  It remains to be seen what to do with them.  It is a start that is all .  

Monday, July 8, 2013


This has been a week of milestones.  July 1 was our 42 wedding anniversary followed by our favorite holiday which is the 4th of July.  My birthday is coming up but that is not such a big deal. The anniversary and 4th of July were something of a test of stamina in this new life marathon.  We always celebrated our anniversary regardless of extenuating conditions - usually it was a project, a raised glass or a picnic but the day did not go by without notice.  We loved the 4th of July because it meant great food and blowing things up.  The kids were usually home and they usually brought their buddies.  Last year Tom was building our stone terrace which is stunning.  This year I spent the day the way we would have which basically involves farm machinery, and bubbling batches of fruit.  Strawberries are in just now and as we have a 52 foot row that is 3 feet wide of berries we had a "few" on hand.  I got a chance to tool around on my new tractor picking up stuff in the bucket loader and dropping it off in other places around the farm.  It rained of course.  There were mosquitoes of astounding size and ferocity but all in all it felt eerily normal. 

That fragile balance and probably another milestone were disrupted by two events.  The first was the most astonishing rainbow I have ever seen.  It came on the 4th just after a downpour. The kiddos and I were standing on the porch after a full day of moving stuff around including getting ready for the pheasants. Hot, tired but generally okay we looked out over the field and a rainbow very low to the ground started at the beehives on one side of the property and ended in the orchard on the other side.   The three of us just stood there arms locked,  lips tightly shut keenly aware of the beauty and utter loneliness of that moment.  Some would say it was a sign,  I like to think that. 

The second event that tipped the balance in the other direction was the arrival of the Japanese beetles. They come every year - ready or not- to New England.  I hate them and Tom hated them even more.  We worked out all our subliminal aggressions by drowning them in kerosene.  This year I was suddenly overwhelmed by the prospect of warding off these insects. So overwhelmed that when I went out to the orchard and found them munching on the leaves I just burst into tears, cursed the cancer demons,cursed the leaking sprayer, cursed the weed whacker that I can't start and cursed those GD beetles -  it was simply a meltdown. It was also cathartic and instructive. This is a marathon and it is not flat course .  People can give good intentioned advice, make suggestions but like a marathon you are the one running.   The milestones are the  water breaks some are better than others but like any marathon - patience and resilience win the day .  Balance is a relative construct - another milestone.

Friday, June 28, 2013


I sold my new subaru and bought a 2002 4runner. Her name is Bernadette. We have just completed our first solo road trip that went from Vermont to rural Virginia to the Eastern Shore, Western Connecticut and back to Vermont.  This is noteworthy only because it is the first time that I have driven long distance without the pleasure of chatting with tom as i whizzed down the highway.  It is also the first time that I began to realize the division of knowledge that a couple has when they have been married a long time. 

A friend who was widowed four years ago pointed out that he and his wife shared the general responsibilities of life and when it was just him there was a realization of how much the other person did and how much their knowledge was well.. their knowledge.  A silly example for me was I discovered that cars have fuses.  Maybe everyone knows that but I did not as fuses were Tom's department.  I also learned that you can't use orchard spray on Pears.  Then why label the stupid bottle as fruit tree spray.  Pears are fruit duh.   I learned that it is possible to drive at night without crashing the car, that I can pay attention to deer who are determined to become hood ornaments.   I would not normally have done either of those things as Tom was the night driver.  The list in just this last week is long - longer in fact that I had any idea it would become. 

I am glad that I simply went ahead and traded my car in for one that is sturdy, sensible and will see me through on adventures as they unfold.  In the meantime I am keeping good notes on the things that I need to name and remind myself to do. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

lessons at the solstice

Today is the solstice and the official start of summer.  In many parts of the world the solstice is celebrated with fires, chants and prayers.  Because we live so far from the land and the natural world, the solstice isn't even worthy of a "sale" at Macy's.  Summer for Tom and I was always a time of enormous activity. We had gardens, bailing hay and building projects.  The kids got out of school, I was done with my classes and we went on summer rules.  There are only three.  Don't get hurt, don't complain, and dont be rude.  Other than that, it was possible to eat ice cream and pringles for breakfast, sleep in your life jacket, spend an entire day mucking around in boats. We went to Maine for a few weeks and the kids learned to swim, sail, and  generally poop around  on there own.  When home they pursued M and J enterprises which consisted of selling garden produce to the neighbors.  At one point they had 600 bucks in a cookie tin under the bed with an accounting system  worthy of the Ben Bernaki.

The solstice this year for us is one of reflection and intention. My new summer rule is  to practice saying less and listening more - the rest will stay the same.   We will sort out the new order of being, not making any big changes, not trying to learn everything in a day. It took a life time to get to this place there is no reason to assume speed is of the utmost importance.  Still though I look back on summer rules and realize that as guiding principles for a well lived life they are pretty damn good.