I talk about trials, tribulations, trevails, and a bunch of other “T” words I probably don’t know in this blog on more than one occasion. People often ask “how do you do it?!” which bugs not only me but a number of other widows and widowers I know out there. How do we do it? We just do it, it’s that simple.
But I have to admit, humility and pride are two things I learned a lot about in the last year. Pride went out the window. For a guy . . . a guy who grew up in the Midwest, with its staunch ways and harsh winters, you don’t really emote a lot. It’s not a criticism of that way, either, it’s just what you’re used to doing. But after I lost Andrea pride disappeared. You get help . . . a lot of help. Some of it comes without asking because you need it. My parents helped me in so many ways I cannot really count. I just have to say that in the outset. Pride disappeared in the hospital when I broke down in a horrific torrent of emotion and tears. Pride fell out when I cried with my children having to experience their loss with them.
Humility came when I realized very, very early on that I couldn’t do this by myself. Not all the time.
But that’s where the song up there comes in.
When you have good friends, and I do mean the good friends, life proceeds. I have those. I’m fortunate. Others would say I’m blessed and I wouldn’t really argue.
Couple examples: one month to the day after losing my wife, one of Andrea’s good friends from high-school emailed me. She’d held off to spare me the extra comments and tide of emails, calls and cards. This friend lost her husband nearly two years prior and she’d been through it. Everything she wrote was dead-on perfect and just what I needed to hear. I wasn’t alone, but she and I both noticed that where I was “Andrea’s husband” and she’d been “Andrea’s friend,” and now we’re good friends. Period. She, her kids, her boyfriend, all excellent people and ones I can count on for a laugh and encouragement when I need it.
I have a family that called me just the other day . . . and said if I need anyone to pick up or help with the kids they are there. I needed them tomorrow morning . . . because I have work very early. They came without hesitation. Another family, friends and parents of one of Hannah’s best friend, gave me bags and bags of clothes that will fit the boys. Another offers to help, holds a musical jam every fall . . . all these people are good people, ask nothing in return, and I’d do anything I can for them. I survive because of them.
I don’t write this for sympathy or the “aww…shucks” factor. It’s a tribute to these folks and the fact that I have friends and you know which people are true friends that help you survive. When Abbi, my oldest, goes to college in the Fall, the dynamic will change drastically, and I don’t know if it will be harder or much harder. But I know we’ll do it.
Because you just do . . . when you got a good friend.
It’s an appropriate title because it’s something that seems to weigh on myself and those around me an awful lot. I talked a bit yesterday about Joel Sartore’s segment on CBS’ Sunday Morning program on Sunday. The part I didn’t really say as succinctly as I should of is how I totally understood the “looks” that he got from people who had just heard what his family was going through. To recap for him: his wife came down with breast cancer a number of years ago. At the beginning of this year she had a recurrence. Not long after treatments her mother passed away. Then in the summer, their son was diagnosed with Hotchkins Lymphoma and has to have chemotherapy for the rest of the year.
One of the things people don’t get is how you can have a sense of humor about these things. Joel’s line in the middle of the piece was “I thought the only way things could get much worse would be if she backed over the dog in the driveway.” How true that is.
My own situation, though not like Joel’s, is not too dissimilar. My wife passed away on the day of our 18th wedding anniversary. Then we lost our house. My work decided to “make a change” just a couple weeks after I returned. I couldn’t afford the school my oldest, Abbi, was attending so I had to move her to the public school. If you wrote all this down, as the events unfolded, in detail, nobody would believe that it was true.
Abbi and I had a discussion just about an hour ago and I think it’s what was keeping her from falling asleep. Abbi is not like her mother, she’s more like me. I may write about how things happen here, but I don’t share them person-t0-person often. Nor do I talk about them here, not most of them. This is a snippet of our day, not the whole day. But she was affected by someone asking her if she helped her Mom make Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a simple enough question, but for her, or any of us, the reaction to her answer is much more weighty. Like Joel’s line in his segment, he mentioned that people walked up to him, tears in their eyes, acting like their son had already passed away. We get that . . . a lot. She gets the glassy-eyed sympathy. I get the “how do you do it alone?” thing.
What people don’t get is that we’re okay. Could we be better? Well . . . yeah, what the hell do you think? But couldn’t everybody? I mean, short of Richard Branson, who can say their lives are perfect? Even before losing Andrea our lives were far from perfect. They were hard. Now they’re hard in another way.
What worries all of us, though, is meeting that person the first time and wondering if they’re sincere or nice . . . or if they’re just pitying us.
Don’t you pity me.
Please, don’t. If you don’t like me, then fine. Don’t. I can honestly tell you that I could really give a sh*t. My kids love me. I have a close cadre of friends who are amazing. I have people around me who care and help, even if I’ve been neglectful and failed to talk to them for a long time. Don’t pity me, Abbi, Hannah, Noah or Sam. It’s easy to look at us and say “oh . . . if she’d just lived on. . . ”
Yeah. If. You can’t buy happiness with a fistful of “if’s”.
The discussion I had with Abbi centered around the fact that other people can’t accept that we could be happy. They can’t accept that, maybe, we’re okay. We are. I’m not saying it to convince myself! It took a really, really long time to come to terms with the fact that we could be okay without Andrea. It took even longer to come to terms with the fact that, in some ways, some things are better. You never want to admit that.
But I told Abbi the same thing I’ve said here before: we have to keep going, not necessarily by choice. Andrea gets to be pretty and perfect and sweet in the memories in our minds and we have to keep trudging along. It’s harsh and difficult sometimes, yes, but it’s just the way it is. I could sit and wallow in misery or grief but then there are four kids who suffer because of it. People assume, my daughter said, that she’s picked up all the slack and is doing tons more. They don’t believe her when she says she simply ferries the kids and watches them for a couple hours until I get home. They look at her and wonder how Hannah, Noah, Sam and I will cope when she’s gone and won’t accept it when she says: “they’ll figure something out. My Dad will do it.”
When you face what others see as unimaginable they can’t fathom that you come out on the other side unscathed. The reality is, we’re not unscathed. We’re strong, though. We’re bonded. Holidays aren’t as hard as you might think, it’s the buildup to them and the questioning after that are harder.
In the end, when asked if she helped her Mom with the dinner, Abbi said she simply said “no…I didn’t” and left it at that. It’s easier, sometimes, not to have to tell the story all…over…again.
Beside, Abbi told me, “Mom wouldn’t have cooked any of it anyway . . . and I know for a fact I probably wouldn’t have helped.”
“Friend” is an interesting word. I think it’s thrown around an awful lot in our society, far more than it should be.
My wife had a ton of friends, or at least she called them that. I cannot say for certain that all of them were really “friends” in the truest, Manoucheri definition of the word, though. I loved my wife beyond all belief, in spite of the arguments, frustration, illnesses, depression and other things. Those were the hard parts, the things about marriage that you endure to get the smiles, caresses, the soft touch of the back of her hand on my cheek, those kinds of things. Nothing comes without some sort of price. It’s not a bad thing. I don’t say that as if life is a series of payments and rewards. In fact, you are maddened by these things and then grow to love that you love the madness as much as they do.
But Andrea had a tendency to call people friends who ended up leaving her and our lives a little too easily. I could give you the dictionary’s definition, that ” person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard” line. But my wife’s definition of friendship and mine were never quite the same. She had friends and then she had friends. For me, I tended to be much more like my father, maybe that’s good and maybe that’s bad. My Dad has a circle of friends that is very, very small. His best friend in the whole world passed away not long after Andrea did. In fact, he was living in the house with me when the man passed and that was hard for me to come to terms with.
I have a small circle of people that I can honestly call friends. They cross the sexual divide. They tend to be people who are loyal, caring, and whose judgement and inspiration I ask for and weigh heavily. Some know how much they mean to me, others may not realize that I hold them in such high regard. I say this not to make people read and wonder if they’re in the category. I know there are people who are friendly and pleasant and whose judgement I listen to. But when things are awful, when the world collapses around you, there are only a few people whose friendship you trust enough to let go of those last emotional strings and let yourself fall into their help. Some of them I’ve known for years. Some may be people I’ve just met. Or maybe it’s someone I’ve yet to meet. Regardless, I am friendly with a lot of people. I’m friends with a few.
If you’re wondering why I bring this up it’s because I can finally think about these things with some clarity. Some of those very people called me and were broken up as I was when they heard what had happened. I looked to them for strength beyond what my parents could give.
When Andrea first got sick and ended up in the hospital, her best friend called me. This was, quite literally, her best friend. I know this because they would go for weeks or months without talking and when they finally connected would have no issues with the length of time or the distance. They would talk for hours. When Andrea was in depression and saddened about how she looked or felt and didn’t want this friend to see her she showed up on a plane anyway, calling me and working out the details with me because . . . she’s my friend too.
When I started dating Andrea, her best friend in the whole world was a woman I’d gone to school with. My wife ended up roommates with her and we had no idea until we met there was even that connection. It’s a tribute to my wife that she could learn everything this person knew about me and still marry me.
But the most important thing here is that when Andrea ended up in the hospital she called and said she’d booked a flight and would be at our house to help with the kids before the weekend. Neither of us knew at the time Andrea wasn’t going to make it. She stayed through the funeral and then left. In the throngs of losing my best friend I never stopped to think about how she was someone else’s best friend, too. Only a year later did I realize that she’d lost something strong, too. In only now think about how calling or asking for time might just remind her of what was missing in her life as well.
In the depths of despair you have tunnel vision. I saw the world from my point of view. I realized it’s the best of friends that realize that and don’t treat you badly for it. They lose, too, and wait for you to bring the world back into focus before crossing through the maelstrom themselves. I hadn’t stopped to think what losses others felt. I hadn’t realized a simple call from me or the kids could be icy reminders of loss for others.
Two amazing friends from Dallas constantly helped me with dealing with the emotions and then the realities of raising my kids alone – one in particular helping me with the issues of getting a girl ready for the prom. Then my brother helped me by giving me musical distraction and conversation.
A family we know here helped me navigate the valleys in my life and helped me manage the finances of everyone’s help and then went so far as to pick up my kids when I was stuck at work. There was no hesitation, just action. That is what you do for friends . . . real friends.
I have friends, but it’s the friends that have helped me survive. They gave of themselves but never thought of it as giving. They simply considered it part of who they are. I have since made other friends, whose conversation I can enjoy without pause and without discomfort. It’s a hard circle to break into, but once you’re there, it’s fairly certain to be permanent.
On the description part of this web page you’ll see how the name of this site: Our Story Begins comes from a saying that’s now on the wall of our house with our family photos. The saying there, actually, is “Home: the place your story begins.” That wasn’t quite as intimate as just “Our Story Begins” and my line didn’t seem quite as plagiaristic as using their phrase.
But it would be really simple to just use a saying, thought up by someone else, saying it touched my heart and made me think “yeah, that’s me!” That would be so far from the mark, though, that I would correct anyone who tried to limit what our story is about by simply saying “oh, he found a saying they hang on the wall.” The saying was appropriate because on so many fronts our story really did begin on March 26th, 2011. It’s a strange kind of irony – not bitter or obvious but strange – that my story has so many strange starts and stops on the same days. I was born on July 1st…so was my middle daughter Hannah. I was married on March 26th, but that’s also the day my wife died. Each of those could easily just be a chapter in our lives, but for certain, the biggest change and largest new volumes in the tome that is our life are on the 26th of March.
We started over. There is an outline, a map of sorts, that Andrea left us. I need that map, more of a sketch of the road ahead than an actual accurate depiction of what we’re going to see. It’s also better that way, I think. If we continued on the same path, the one road that she would have traveled, I’m not sure we’d have made it out alive. (You notice I didn’t say unscathed) You can’t go down this road without diverging from the path. Think about it: travelling down the freeway may be the quickest way to get to your destination, but if you never got off in, say, West, Texas you wouldn’t have realized it’s the kolache capitol of the state and some of the best pastries you’ll ever eat. You can’t live your life going down the same path, forever, and never stepping off to see what’s off in the woods or meeting the waitress in the diner a few miles off the path.
I use this as a metaphor because what I’m about to write may come across – particularly to my wife’s friends and family – as a bit harsh and maybe unkind. That’s not at all how it’s meant to be taken.
Andrea wanted the shortcuts on the road. I think she learned that from her father, and I’ve never been and never was fond of it. When I met her she was ambitious, dreaming, and happy. She wanted to be a television anchor – not necessarily Edward R. Murrow, Katie Couric would have been good enough for her – and she was pretty good at it. I’d gone to school for journalism and was behind the camera for the most part. That’s where my career took me as that’s where the opportunities presented themselves. I got to write, make small stories every day, and I loved it. She always thought I should have been a reporter or anchor but life had a way of changing that.
After we got married, even before we had Abbi – which was just over a year after we were married – she wanted to get out. The industry was loathe the break that glass ceiling, particularly for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl. She was one of hundreds, though I would have hired her in a minute. She started to hear the advice of others saying she just needed a stable job. I was too much the dreamer. We couldn’t make a living at this. We weren’t going to make it. Andrea had seen her Dad during her formative years leave his job as an educator and go into real estate because it was fast, big money. He’d been a musician and loved it, even played for the president once, but when he got married his wife hated that he played and was out a lot and not home . . . so he just stopped. That simple. Quit the dream, it’s not worth it.
So Andrea went to pharmacy school. Partly it was because she saw it was helping people. But the main reason, and you can skewer me over this if you want, but her theory was it paid a boatload of money. Pure and simple. She had this wild-eyed theory that once she started working we wouldn’t spend a cent of it and pay off the more than $100,000 in student loans in a year or two. Even I laughed at that theory. We were already in debt, up to our eyeballs. I was working two jobs, delivering newspapers at 2am, and playing gigs every weekend I could get in order to eat. There were weeks I was up for 40 hours straight or more just to make ends meet.
You can see where this is going: we didn’t pay off those loans. We moved, because she wanted to get out of Nebraska. Then instead of renting, we bought a house. All the while I was needled for being a journalist and put down if I brought up the music again, not by her so much as those around her. The neighbors would get something big? She wanted bigger. It was like sometimes she’d absorbed the influences around her more than those in front of her. Once she started making money, we started spending it to support the lifestyle she’d gotten used to.
This was the opposite of my upbringing. My Dad didn’t want me to be a journalist. He didn’t know what he wanted for me, but this wasn’t his idea. Neither was it my Mom’s. When I wanted to go make a go of things as a musician, my Mom was aghast. I never did, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But when I learned to play guitar, joined a band, even started my own band, my folks were always there. My Dad helped me get the PA gear. My brother joined the band. Some nights we would play only to ceiling fans and lights . . . but there in the corner, right in front of the stage, was my Dad. Now, I write, record, and play when I can.
Andrea applied her same desire to get ahead more than be happy to the kids. Abbi came to me tonight with a letter she’d written to her drama teacher. Abbi’s always loved acting, writing, and everything to do with television, film and the stage. She loves it but was never considering going into it because her Mom always told her she had to have a backup and be a pharmacist or another suitable medical field. I told her a million stories about my Dad, my brother, and how long I wanted to fight my Mom for the ability to work in music. When Abbi started to express interest in drama my Mom started in on her, too, much like she did my brother . . . who stopped her dead.
“Let her do it, Mom.”
My mother was incredulous. “She needs to have something stable!”
“And she will, Mom, but you know how many times I’ve kicked myself for not just jumping into it and hitting the road? She’s young. She’ll bounce back from mistakes. Life is really too short and she has the time to go do something else if she fails . . . but at least she can say she tried. Make her go to school for something else and she may never do it.”
My Mom relented. It finally made sense. It never did to Andrea. I had a million arguments with her about this, too. I told her it was most important to be happy. Working is “work” if you’re not happy at what you’re doing. But tonight she showed me the letter she had to write in order to get into her drama class. In it, she talked about how it was always in her, part of her, and what she loved, but never considered it. But when all our lives turned upside down – “on March 26th, 2011, I saw this as a chance to start over, to do it again.” She looked at our lives as a new start, a new beginning . . . where our story begins.
I admit to a slight bit of wishing she’d mentioned how much I’d told her she needed to do this, how I told her I want her to be happy, but informed. How she’ll be making lattes more than reading lines, but as long as she’s aware of what she has to do and believes she’ll do it she’ll be fine. But I’m just happy she’s finally doing what she wants rather than what she thinks she needs. It can all turn on a dime. All of it. If you’re at work staring at the clock then you’re not happy.
Neil Gaiman, an amazing writer, author of American Gods and Coraline, gave a commencement speech recently and in it – I’m paraphrasing here – he said that you are the only person who can do what you do . . . that’s make art. The actor, the musician, the artist, the writer . . . no matter how bad things get, how awful your life is . . . if your Mom dies unexpectedly because of a resistant strain or pneumonia . . . the best thing to do is “…make good art. Wife leaves you for a politician, make good art. Leg gets crushed and eaten by a mutated boa constrictor . . . .make good art. Your cat explodes . . . make . . . good . . . art!” Not only did Abbi laugh at seeing that, but she realized what he was saying. He said the worst tragedy was colleagues who were miserable because now they had to write to maintain a lifestyle, not write because they love to write.
When Andrea died, I was lost. Despair during that time is palpable. I wasn’t just in grief, I was reveling in the grief. I was happy to stew, cry, and be miserable. It’s like a drug, I have to say, and you give yourself to the pain and misery and just let it wash over you like a wave. That’s how far gone I’d been in the first days after losing her. The only thing – the one thing alone – that made sense once I started to see shapes through the fog was picking up my guitar. I wasn’t sleeping. I barely ate. But without having heard Gaiman’s speech, I realize that without having heard his advice I’d done it. At 4am, watching “The Wire” on TV, or staring at the stars through the window, I wrote. I wrote song after song. Some are awful. Others . . . 5 or 6 of them in fact . . . are the best stuff I’ve ever created. Just months after losing my wife I was in the studio with my brother doing one of the best vocal performances I’d ever sung. I wrote a song that was raw and left me far more exposed and naked than the fearful teenager I used to be would ever have considered, but it was good. I made . . . good art.
Abbi’s not there yet, but she wants to be. It’s a turning point that I never thought I’d see. But she’s realizing now what I did a year ago. Our lives didn’t end, though it felt like it. We just began again. We had to. It’s not fun, certainly not easy, and very, very lonely a lot of the time. But today, we’re OK. We’re not rich, in fact we’re struggling a lot. But our home is filled with music. The kids – Hannah and the boys in particular – draw constantly. Abbi is in plays and musicals. Without realizing it, our house is filled with art. We don’t have a lot of money, no, but we do have is wonderful.
Right toward the end, when I had gotten a job in television that paid well – first in Dallas and then here in Sacramento – Andrea looked at me confused one day. “You actually have gotten here, haven’t you? I mean, I went through all that school, did the loans, and I’m making really good money . . . but you never stopped believing you’d be able to do this. Now you are. You were right, weren’t you?”
All I could tell her was yes . . . maybe. But it wasn’t that I was sure, it’s that I wanted to do it. I didn’t have another degree and don’t know how to do anything else but play the guitar – two of the worst-paid professions. But the hard exterior started to crack. I wonder what she would have been like five more years down the road? Would she have done like me and pushed Abbi to do what she wanted, not needed? I kind of doubt it, but she would have been OK with it anyway.
It’s gratifying, in a strange sort of way, that Abbi’s coming to terms with this. But she knows that as long as she’s happy, she will be OK, because I’ll be there. We’re better together than we are apart, my mantra now, and she’ll never be without someone there, not while I’m here and her siblings too.
But most of all, it’s gratifying that they’re all starting to see it: our lives – our stories – haven’t ended. It’s really true.