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.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fathers Day

Today is father's day and marks another first for us a newly configured family.  Tom and I were never big on what we called hallmark holidays but we often did ridiculous things especially when the kids were little.  On fathers day when Megs was 3 Tom played on a soccer team in Hilo that was largely Samoan. These boys were big as was Tom.  On fathers day meg and I made him a Super-dad cape and topped it off with an over decorated burger king crown.  His arrival at the game was spectacular.  His mates were delighted that a haole family had such a sense of humor.  High fives abounded.  Our father's day celebrations shifted of course as the years went by but they never went totally un- noticed even if it was just a day spent moving rocks or puttering.  Today we are keenly aware of the passage of years and time.  I will spend the day on the tractor, Jeff is at war with the drainage systems of NY, Megs in a tent with her dog.  

 Tom was a truly spectacular dad and one who had no role model or parenting to speak of.  He was present for his kids, adored them and modeled ethical and fair behavior at every turn.  His was a vocabulary of encouragement and gentleness.  His mantra was  How hard can this be...  As the years roll on I know that the foundation he laid for the kiddos will be a strong and sturdy platform that they can reach back to to guide them on their way.  There is no question in my mind that Tom Stasz  deserved the cape

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

cultivating contentment

while in Yoga today our beautiful teacher gave a little chat from one of the sutras about cultivating contentment. It just struck me as about the best advice that could possibly be given regardless of circumstances. Cultivating contentment, like gardening in general, is really about being present, intentional and reasonably quiet.  In our industrialized consumer life - contentment seems elusive.  The news would have you believe that the whole world is going to hell in a handbag and the discontent is the order of the day.  We are always too fat or too thin or too something.  Even growing old is worthy of complaint.  Rather than embracing the idea that "growing old is a privileged denied to many" , there is a tendency to grouse about the pull of gravity.

 I found the idea of "growing contentment" just like growing peonies or iris or carrots a very stabilizing notion.  Here I am in one of the most beautiful places in the world with friends, a garden, an orchard and the memory of a life well lived - being discontent would be an affront to all of that.  Instead I am trying to learn little by little to see contentment differently and that it can arise in surprising places.  I am pretty sure Tom would agree with that.   

Friday, June 7, 2013

better or harder?

It is cloudy and drizzly in Vermont this morning. Even my normal routine of hot tea around six on the porch swing was shorter than normal due to the weather.  I rely on that time to watch the sunrise, think about the coming day and wonder how Tom is faring and where he might be.

The interesting thing about becoming a widow is that you are catapulted into a new colony of travelers.  we find each other in odd places. You would think we are all married as most of us still wear wedding rings - a coupled state of mind. Widows have an intimacy that belies the amount of time they have known each other. We tell each other things that in normal circumstances would not be a topic of conversation.  However the overall topic is how to help each other through this or more to the point to find a destination that makes sense.  Most everyone says that it will get better. 

For me at least, it just feels like it is getting harder.  It is not a question of support as I gratefully have loads of that. It is a question of how to fashion a new life one that was not expected or wanted.  What will I become when I grow up?  What will I do with my talents?  These are not self serving questions but they are ones that deserve considerable thought to make good decisions that capitalize on the life Tom and i had together and the family and home-place we built.  Suggestions are gratefully accepted . 

Monday, June 3, 2013

falling down

I am just back from my mom's 93 birthday where I managed to fall down again and whack my ribs. This is only worthy of comment because in the last year I have fallen down more than in my whole life.  I fell down and got five stitches at Mount Sinai at the nurses station.  I fell down in the subway running to catch a bus. I fell down in the street, in the elevator and various other interesting venues. This last time I fell down  was two days ago trying to find Bushy's dog who had decided to go for a stroll in the neighborhood at ten at night.

One might ask .. big deal birdie you are falling down.  I do think though that there is a pattern here.  I fall down when the noise and the chaos of life seem to be so loud I can  barely think. I am to respond to the unfamiliar from the stance of the familiar which simply does not work.  There is a disequilibrium that comes when the comfort zone is far out of whack.  I am not sure this has much to do with gravity as it has with our own precarious place in our own lives.  I have gone, for example, from married to widow, from coupled to uncoupled, from comfortable to painful in the space of a few months.  It is not to complain but it is to say that it changes the lens that saw the world in one way - the familiar to the unfamiliar.    To borrow a tired cliché it is Alice's rabbit hole. 

The painful piece of this is that falling down is really about getting up and how to do that with grace, determination and the realization that tom would love to be getting up is the trick.  Sentimentality only goes so far. Rather this is question of "staying on your pins" and moving forward without breaking your bones or your heart.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

the punies

It has been raining hard off and on in Vermont for the last several days. It has also been cold, enough so that I had a fire in the wood stove.  The outcome of this state of affairs has been an attack of the punies.   The punies is a state of smallness,  weepyness and probably a certain amount of self-pity.  The later symptom is understandable but not particularly helpful or admirable.  The punies are somewhat debilitating as all tasks become absurdly daunting and all events equally catastrophic. Hence discovering that the cucumbers have mosaic virus, Mount Sinai billing office has gotten it wrong again and the lawn mower blades need sharpening are all the same and worthy of surrender on my part.  I had a wonderful conversation with a women from yoga that I don't even know her last name but she is also a widow.  We sat outside after class and I started to cry for no particular reason except that I had the punies and she nailed it immediately.  She talked about how it took her a month to just get to the grocery store. She also said that when people asked her how she was .. her first response was to say  " i am grieving" but that made others feel badly .  And then she said remember .. that this is time when you are no longer who you were and you have no idea who you are going to become. ..  The punies are just part of the process.  So maybe when some one asks me how I am .. i shall say puny and unfolding .  

Saturday, May 25, 2013


There is a tired phrase - wayfinding  that is glued to all sorts of things including climbing gear but the real meaning of wayfinding goes back to the Polynesian navigators who in fact formed the basis of Gardner's multiple intelligence theory. The basic deal is that there is a unique group of people who have the ability to navigate across vast unchartered oceans by memorizing star patterns, wave patterns, and wind. They also chant and sing as they go.  It is the most wonderous quality. The navigator "wayfinds" across the oceans of the Pacific by understanding where they are by the set of the stars, the action of the waves and a song. The navigator stands up for the whole journey only taking the occasional cat nap.  Amazingly enough, they found their way to the most remote island in the world which is Hawaii without benefit of sonar, gps, or maps.  Hence wayfinding is about stars, courage and staying awake.

There are many lessons to be learned here.  My wayfinding is all about learning to be alone and positive.  A great friend of mine and I had a conversation about the melancholies how they can fuel creativity and ideas but in the end we are really blessed.  I am not a big fan of using that word as it feels well .. sort of far right but the idea is genuine.  Tom and I were lucky to have each other, we were lucky to come home to Vermont .  Now I need to figure out how to wayfind on my own. Learn the star patterns, the wind, and the wave sets and set the helm to places that make sense to me and our family. 

Monday, May 20, 2013


We celebrated Tom's life on Saturday.  Friends came from all the corners of the earth and from all the parts of our life. The ceremony was under a big tent on a blue bird day in Vermont.  We faced the woods and the sugar house. The speakers were former students,  child hood friends of our children, his brother,  his best friend and our megs.  We were led in our comments and deliberations by our dear Shin Buddhist friend from Hawaii.  We chanted and prayed prayers of love, grace and gratitude. We sang songs from the Muppets and one about the beauty of firewood.  The kids did a Kalua pig in a stone immu they built in the ground.  It was amazing.  We toasted him under the dark night sky with good scotch around a blazing fire.  Folks came together who had not seen each other in years and years and they came together because Tom and had touched their life in so many ways.  As one speaker said,  all the really important things i learned in life, I learned from Tom.  Others said that Tom was a father when my own was not.   It was glorious and painful.  Some one asked me to explain what happened and how I felt about all this.   As a former boater,  I explained in the most accurate metaphor I know.  Tom had a dangerous mandatory drop, he ran it hard, fast, and with incredible grace and skill.  But in the end it was too much he just lost the brace. 

Only 50 percent of people with his illness survive a BMT.  The disease is rare and treatment problematic.  We gave it everything we had and left nothing on the table. For that I am grateful and proud of us as a couple.  As in life, we paddled hard finessing drops, boulders and keepers. We had one hell of a run.  Now I have to figure out how to paddle this boat solo.  It will be a challenge but one that he would say.. birdie you can do this - how hard can it be?   we will see.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

grief spiders

Tom and i lived in hawaii for about 5 years plus a little when the kids were small. We built our own house, lived in a tent and drove a red rambler named Hot Lava which we bought for 200 dollars.  It had one windshield wiper but could carry lumber on the roof racks like a champ. These were fun and adventurous years for us.  Hawaii however has this rather terrifying creature called a cane spider.  They love to fold themselves up like an umbrella and hide away in various spots that you would not expect.  One of their favorites is the sun visor of your car.  They are generally nocturnal hence they cruise around doing spidery things during the night but come daylight they try to find a dark preferably safe place to snooze.  The visor of your car is perfect.  What is not perfect is that you could be happily driving down the road and pull the sun visor down to cut down on the glare and wham out hops the cane spider right in your face.  If you are not careful you can easily drive off the road, or cliff or into the side of another car.  Accidents prevail .   Grief is like the cane spider.  It tucks itself away - held at bay and just when you think you have it together it leaps out at you.  It finds you suddenly in the coop when you see another retired couple chatting over coffee.  It finds you in frustration when trying to start the lawn mower that requires more strength than you have.  It finds you in over heard conversations about "jim and I are just back from ..".  It finds you when Vermont is achingly beautiful and the all of missing is almost too much.  Like most things it is possible to adjust. We managed to anticipate the cane spiders eventually and check the visors before starting out on the road.  Hopefully that will be the case with grief.   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

a ninny meter

If I could invent anything at all I would create a ninny meter.  The ninny meter would be a tasteful ring that would be given to all married couples on their wedding day. It would have various indicators that would perhaps change color appropriately to indicate when one person is being a ninny . There should probably be a gradation from ninny to total jerk - perhaps total jerk should be say .. pulsating red?   The ninny meter would be a big time saver, especially in long marriages like ours. Over the course of 41 plus years there were lots of opportunities for being a ninny and a jerk.  You can not put two strong personalities together for a life time and not have that be the case.  Leave it to Beaver is a myth.   The advantage to the ninny meter is that it would be a short cut over the rough and stupid spots. Spots that in retrospect were so idiotic you almost can't believe you cared.

I thought about it today quite a bit . As Tom's illness grew more intense we abandoned the small stuff to savor our time together.  I saved his voice mail messages so I won't forget the sound of his voice.  His pictures are everywhere. What brought all this to mind is the top of his bureau. Tom was not a super tidy guy. Every night he emptied his pockets and put all of it on the top of his dresser until it practically toppled over.  His dresser cost 60 bucks and belonged to a college student. We bought it in grad school.  Tom was a simple ( but complicated) man.  In any case at one point i was desperate to clean up the top of his bureau and get a new one. One that was maybe in Vermont, would look lovely in our room.  He said.. Birdie leave it alone - i like the one i have.  My ninny meter would have started to glow, but then he was alive and here and present.   Now his dresser sits just as he left it - cluttered with nails, receipts ,  tooth picks and matches.  It reproaches me for my need to clean it up and it will probably stay just like it is for a long while yet.   The ninny meter would have gathered that time up and spent it better.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

To be worn while gardening

A mysterious package arrived a day or so ago.  It was from burlington NC and I knew I had not ordered anything.  I opened it up and it was a present from my dear buddy Annie.  She sent me a pair of the most outrageous blazing rhinestone earrings and a bottle of wine. The note on the earrings said  -  to be worn while gardening.    The next morning I got up and put on my grubby jeans, tom's worn out paint spattered shirt AND my earrings.  It was a STUNNING ensemble .. all i needed were gold wellies with sparkles on them and a pair of bunny ears.  I went out to weed and water .  The earrings made rainbows every time the sun hit them.  I was literally surrounded by rainbows that bounced off every surface.  My friend Brad arrived with his girlfriend to take a shower. I tossed my head and he was "blinded by the light".   "Oh my god birdie, what are those things? If Tom could see you now - They go so well with  his shirt"    We sat in the driveway in the early morning laughing.  It felt good.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

peaceful moments

This morning i was up before first light and made myself a mug of tea. We have a porch swing that is made in Maine and is a replica of the bunks that sailors slept in in the forecastle of sailing vessels. It hangs on the porch in the corner and faces east. It has a gentle sway, comfy pillows and a blanket.  This morning was particularly lovely and still.  Big Tom turkey gobbled from the woods. The woodpecker started to hammer away at the dead tree by the sugar house. A wren has taken up residence in the rafters of the porch and was busy arranging her nest. The light eased over the green mountains and filtered across the lower meadow . It was a  peaceful  gentle way to begin the day.  Tom wasn't quite so far away this morning but seemed almost here somehow in the way the light hit the field, in the early breeze as the sun came up.  Moments like this give me hope that all is not lost .

Sunday, April 28, 2013

trees and good weather

On Friday, Phil the UPS driver came zooming up the driveway while i was putting the finishing touches on a new walkway up to the front door.  My friend Nazgul and I had built it ourselves except for the last bit.  Phil approved as he said " oh good I always hated your walk".  He delivered a long box of apple tree saplings and my new cobra weeder.  Tom had ordered these trees two years ago. They are rare, old heritage cider apple trees and the orchard that grows them is tiny. It is owned ( of course) by an old friend of his.  These trees were long awaited and planned for.  I called my friend Joan who knows everything about trees and learned what to do before planting. As she said.. Birdie it is 5:30 on Friday .. how many you got.  Ten I said.. no sweat  she said.  See you tomorrow.

The day dawned lovely and green as only Vermont can be in Spring.  I took the trees out to the orchard and of course Tom had a stake where each one was to go.  Even the names were on in his loopy funny writing. So he and I dug ten pretty decent holes with the help of the razor back light weight birdie pick ax. Joan came and she showed me how to spread the roots and steady the tree and then cuff the back of the hole. ( if you want more info email me)  It was a bittersweet journey.  Each of those little trees had been carefully selected and on the last day when Tom could talk.. He said Oh Birdie it will be so good to get back in the orchard. The trees should be there after we get home.  And so they were.  I watered them again today, tomorrow I will mulch and mow. 

Friday, April 26, 2013


My goodness there are so many tools that we can avail ourselves from .  On the start Mount sinai ( of course) has some good ideas on grief. Not my favorite topic but worthy of note.  It seems that my second guessing is common. How lovely .  So moving on from there may I recommend tools for women alone. To start everyone needs a good lawyer and accountant, as the immediate medical system in Amurica is impenetrable.  As an example, today I got yet another bill for six grand for which my insurance has paid the same . There seems to be a bit of confusion on the virtual end of things. However when you get a live person send in you copy of the ever present death certificate and  most of this goes away.  How totally inhumane and absurd.  So you , as newly minted widow, get to go through this whole hoopla again and again to make sure some doc already paid a boat load of dough gets his due.. REALLY

On to happier topics. For those of you alone may I suggest the following great tools. The first is the battery powered chain saw . Yep it is awesome. The second is a host of digging tools such as the Trake .. you can order on line . It digs and scratches. You will also need a light weight lopers that can whack away at the debris of bushes etc and not wear your arms out. Also you need a razor back pick ax, a pair of number 8 felco sheers, knee pads and of course a soaker hose from gardener supply .  I suggest you get the kit.    stay tuned more to come

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

second guessing

I have had a serious bout lately of second guessing which is toxic. There is still a part of me that thinks .. well I can change the outcome or I could have changed the outcome if only we had done x or y or z.  This is ridiculous and destructive. However it seems to be a particularly painful part of the process. It is the kind of thing that if you could run away from it you would as if the second guessing piece is an avalanche or a flood - escape is possible.  It just isn't. Tom can't come back as he has crossed the great divide and I can't find him for the same reason.  So if any of you who have been reading this have a cure for second guessing let me know.  So far I can only find physical labor.  I am not used to having something be so well.. out of my control and permanent.   Rationally I know Tom made most of his own decisions and I was the support. We were in this together and I guess we still are . It is just harder.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

5 AM

It is amazing how busy the natural world is at 5 in the morning. Today I woke up to the loud gobble of a big Tom turkey who was happily marching around under my window followed by two hens.  They were fearless,  simply getting on with things such as finding some tender shoots in the yard that were delicious.  I got a cup of tea as was our custom and just watched them. They continued on oblivious.  Even my dog Connor  sat still with not so much as a woof just being awake on a sunny spring morning in Vermont. These are the moments where Tom and I would chat about the projects for the day or the possibility of rain or something equally mundane.  This morning reminded me that life is best savored and that the everyday is more interesting and important than we might of thought. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013


I weary of organization.. pain has steps, grief has steps , terrific.  The bottom line is that the loss of your life's partner is not for the faint of heart.  A friend reminded me that it could be worse.. well of course it can. But I think it is important for all of us to realize that our pain is well .. our pain. One persons is not meant to diminish or trivialize the other.  Loss is loss and as I said recently to a dear friend be it hound or husband does not mediate the grief. We look often for self help books which frankly i plan to burn happily at the bonfire in Tom's honor.. not because they are not helpful but because they do not speak to me. Instead the book I will treasure is for children.. Rabityness .. may i tentatively recommend to all . It is about loss and joy. Can we contain both in the same breath , I surely hope so.   I just passed the one month mark, one month vs. 41 years.  Hmmm is there a recipe for that, I think not.  But there is a recipe for gardens and for staying on an even keel and howling at the moon when the tiny boat of stability puts the lee rail under water and the wind in the rigging rattles the mast and plunges the bow into the sea. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I have the great pleasure of having lots of company all of whom are willing to putter around outside, digging holes and snipping branches. There is a community of work  built around making things grow. It is lovely. I think there may be a tendency in this culture to "give space" to widows or people in peril. The space is meant as a respectful way to let them grieve or recover. I have found the opposite to be true. Last weekend the house was full of buddies, all cooking in the kitchen, rummaging around in the orchard and garden and some just sitting by the fire. It felt good and normal as our house has always been a place for others to gather.  It is a lesson for me that the next time I think - don't intrude- maybe the opposite is true and reach out to work, cook, drink tea, or plant.  We are social creatures after all and much of our sociability is built around the very complicated work of just plain living.

Friday, April 12, 2013

I will see you tomorrow

My cell phone saves unheard messages in a cyber archive. When it decides that I have skipped too many or transgressed in other ways - a mechanical voice reminds me to shape up and listen to my messages.  Take care of business Birdie, get organized, stay on top of things.  Thanks for the tip.

 Yesterday I was admonished by my telephone and dutifully pressed the buttons.  Among messages from verizon, automated pharmacies, and other random things - like a jewel - was a message from tom.  His voice was strong, and he was just calling as we always did when apart to say good night. This was one of those times when i probably heard the phone ring but it was  under the gum drops or doggie bags in a pocket of my jacket in a closet.  I knew it was him so i just called back instead of listening to the message.  His voice was strong and optimistic. His message closed  with his customary - " well birdie i will see you tomorrow. "   The power of the human voice is not be underestimated.  I will save this message to listen to when times are dark and remind myself what a brave and strong man he was and is. That once again, he schooled me and others in grace. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

notes in the margins

Tom was a prolific note taker. He loved to keep track of things especially if they had to do with growing things or building things. His notes are everywhere on the backs of envelopes, in the margins of catalogs and the back of receipts. The notes range in topics from to do lists such as clean the house and do laundry, to reminders to pick up a repaired piece of machinery to informational such as fertilizer mixes. They are also every where as Tom was not known for tidiness. I am glad actually as these notes are now an on-going conversation. I love finding them in random places and on scattered bits of paper.  It is like he has just stepped out of the room or gone out to the shop to build another beehive.  There are measurements for projects that will remain something of a mystery.  How many times can 2 and 3/8ths be replicated? There are sketches and bits of ideas scribbled on the back of an envelope. He had so many plans and ideas for projects  - adding more grapes or trees or buildings.  Without these notes the clutter of this house would just be clutter instead of conversation. It would  be too clean and too quiet instead he pops in to remind me to water or dig or prune or fertilize.  I am thankful he does . 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


So far the vegetable garden seems to be the best therapy.  I think part of that is it is a place where we worked together and happily nattered and kivetched about what would go where.  Tom believed that there was no such thing as too many and I am the opposite.  Hence we would tussle on amounts .  Our garden is about 250 square meters and would happily feed a small village in Central Asia.  Three of us have been out there cleaning up, tidying up the strawberry beds, weeding the asparagus and yesterday we put in our first real bed. It was a labor of love as we double dug and picked out stones. The plan is to put in some plots that will divide the 52 foot rows into ten foot sections that are approximately 3 feet wide to accommodate two rows of plants.  There are permanent or nearly so wide paths on either side  of the plots to allow for easy picking and weeding.  We also printed out the Vermont Cooperative Extension guide to times to plant and spacing.  Very handy.  Terry who is English and has garden design genes is master minding this project. He is also my boss in Central Asia and was part of Tom's international buddies.  They would exchange rude comments about the Queen and the Colonists.  Somehow as we worked yesterday digging and planning and weeding.. tom did not seem so far away. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Tom's birthday is today.  He would have been 64.   I will make spaghetti, blue berry pie and stack firewood.  seems fitting.   Our buddies will come around 5 .

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Just about every day another piece of mail arrives with a form letter that "expresses condolences" and requests proof of life events.  My brother in law Paul said that i would need lots of death certificates.  I have 20 copies. Yesterday I got a request for our marriage license - a document long since lost or misplaced. Why would I ever  need it anyway. I called the number and talked to a nice young person and found out how to get what I needed on-line.  I hung up and went out to the orchard. There is proof of life and marriage. We planted thirty trees.  They are a mixed offering of apples - cider and eating as well as peaches, plums and pears. We picked out each tree together reading up on the pros and cons. With the help of our buddies we  planted them together , mowed between the rows together, and built a deer fence that rivals the walls separating nations - together.  Spring means it  is time to take off the mouse guards so I began at the top of the orchard and moved slowly from tree to tree. Tom's handmade stakes with his loopy writing were sticking out of the ground. I moved tags, cleared away debris from the winter and cried a lot.  Geese flew overhead honking their way north and small cyclones of leaves whirled in the breeze. The early spring sun felt good .  Proof of life, death, love and commitment, it seems to me at least, does not reside in bits of paper to be found on line, but in orchards and pruning and geese. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

anatomy of memory

When Tom was first diagnosed with this illness and we bought our place in Vermont, I decided that I would need a good counselor who understood the landscape of life threatening disease. Yesterday I went to see her as my first visit since coming home.  We talked a good deal about grief and how it, in the beginning, is simultaneously a searing pain  in your gut and a tidal wave just waiting to thrash your little boat of stability. What to do?   In the course of the conversation we talked about how we remember and how we might act on those memories.  Memory actually comes in two parts.  The first is of course concrete artifacts such as my Tom's flannel shirt and his eye glasses but the second is more ephemeral and that has to do with legacy.  Her question to me which is posted now where i can see it .. for today, how can I move his legacy forward.  It can be little things such as brewing coffee just to smell it or it can be more philosophical such as  responding to a situation differently.  What would Tom do?  The point is that intentionality of memory allows us to move forward without drowning in how adrift and rotten we might feel at any given time.  So in that spirit I bravely planted lettuce.  Today I will water it .  Tom and i always managed to miss planting the "cold crops" but not this year.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

estates and other complexities

Yesterday I spent pretending that I knew what i was doing. Well I don't.  Even with the most careful planning and organization the beginning of estate "stuff" is painful, daunting and triggers the most bizarre behavior. For example, I managed to let my battery go dead on the car as i was headed to our lawyers office. This required a call to AAA.  Then I left all the paper work on the dining room table so had to return to pick it up. Then I did not get all of it so once again back to the house. The hardest part of all is of course this ridiculous death certificate.  That can't be Tom's name there must be some mistake. He was too busy with life to die and we have to prune the fruit trees.  Stamped by the city of New York - really  we live in Vermont.. Wait wait..

There is something so final about this process that it grabs your breath and squeezes your heart.  it also requires you to be really careful, not let your hands tremble and eyes cloud with tears.  There is no room for sentimentality when the financial and legal world are at the helm.  Papers need signatures and you best get it right.

That said, thank God for our family lawyer who has the soul of a poet. We managed to get through it together in his office.  There were a few gliches but I at least have confidence that this will all come together.  As i sit here watching the sun come up over the green mountains on a blue bird day in April - it seems so surreal this turn of our lives.  I heard the owl hoot and said good morning to my man as I went to make tea.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

small victories

I am learning how to see the day in terms of small victories.  I imagine that all who have walked this path before me and have lost there life's partner have this same sense of amputation.  Just as in an amputation there is a learning curve on how to do what the other was an expert in. In my case it is learning, finally to be a "farmer".   So far i have managed to learn how to run the wood stove, bank it at night, order firewood and get it stacked, and have taken on tending the orchard.  Next week Joan Lynch and I are going to prune. 

We walked the orchard yesterday and I had a moment of great joy and sadness. Tom and I and others planted those trees, we built a deer fence that is eleven feet high.  We picked out the trees including the old heritage cider apples.  As we planted one sloggy early spring day , Tom said Oh Birdie I can just taste those apples.  Joan and I looked out over our handiwork and her comment was this is an orchard for generations.  Tom was and still is one of those rare individuals who actually knew what he was doing 99 percent of the time.  So there is a great deal to learn about orchards, and vegetables. Thank god for dirt and heavy lifting and the ability to grow things.  It is the victory of small things that makes the rest of this possible.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


My Tom died on March 16 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.  We had been at the hospital for four months due to complications of a bone marrow transplant to combat his myleofibrosis.  We were married for forty one years. He was only 63.  As I posted on the night of his death, he was the love of my life, my rock, my pain and fury and my passion. We spent a life together in all of its permutations and mystery. The result was two great kids, a strong family, and a close knit circle of friends . For Tom this was a life goal as he came from a tough and often abusive household. So his success as a father and a husband were even more remarkable as he had no role models.  As a friend he was unparalleled.
We live on a lovely piece of land in Vermont that was  our dream for retirement.  The property faces south east with a good view of the green mountains . We used to sit on the porch and watch the sunrise every morning while drinking tea.  That has not changed.   There is a lot to do and as Denny a local Vermonter and friend said to me .. Birdie you can still live the dream.  I am going to try to do that but am well aware that the learning curve is steep. 

I am writing this blog as a way to chronicle this next year - partly for myself and  partly to honor this process.  If you reader, happen upon it and find it helpful then i welcome you along on this journey.