My Happy Place

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Recently the kids and I have been listening to an audio book when we’re in the car, but, sometimes, between discs, we’ll let the radio play. Since we gave up TV years ago…and I don’t read the news, either…we can be a little out of the loop. Maybe Kirsten listening to the Tulsa radio is a bit like Country Mouse visiting Town Mouse.

When the advertisements play I don’t think of them for me. My life is–by choice– simple: I take care of farm animals; I school my children; I school other people’s children; I exercise at the local YMCA; I go to bed ridiculously early. Every few months we’ll venture the forty miles to Tulsa, but it’s a treat and not the norm.

So a few weeks ago, when I heard the Trans-Siberian Orchestra advertised on the radio, I never considered buying tickets. I only thought to myself how wonderful it would be to go.

Sept. 14, 2011: before the opera

And, of course, it transported me back to Friday, October 14–just three weeks before my husband unexpectedly died. He took me to the opera.

No one would have guessed my Joe loved opera. He was an Oklahoma boy who ate jerky, drank sweet tea and used inappropriate clichés (“It’s colder than a well digger’s butt!” or “That rain is a real turd floater). But he had admitted to me that as a little boy he would lock himself in his room, play opera, and pretend to conduct…for hours. (I could relate since my childhood was spent with an old-fashioned record player and my Dad’s Frank Sinatra album.)

Sometime in September I received an envelope in the mail with my name and address typed on the outside. I opened it to find a formal invitation from my husband of eighteen years. He asked me to please accompany him to a dinner out followed by an opera performance—“The Barber of Seville” at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

The truth was–although I was thrilled my husband wanted to take me out–I wasn’t so sure I would like the opera. He played opera in the garage when he worked on his wood working projects, and I thought the music was a bit annoying. He knew me well enough, though, not to care that I wasn’t bubbling with excitement. He counted the days until the special night, the hint of a knowing grin at the corners of his mouth.

That was a magical evening. Joe didn’t have a lot of money but he had saved his dollars and purchased $100/each seats for us on the sixth row, center. Seeing this opera was a “bucket list” event for him. The performance was unbelievable; we were both enraptured the entire time and the next day we still glowed. I remember Joe saying multiple times that day, “I can’t stop thinking about it! Figaro!” We were so happy.

And now fast-forward weeks later when my whole world has changed and I am sitting in the driver’s seat instead of the passenger seat because Joe is no longer with me. The radio plays. I listen to the advertisement for the orchestra and wish I could capture, again, a bit of that opera glory.

That’s why it was so special, the following day, when my friend texts me that she and her husband would like to please take me to the orchestra while their teenage daughter watches the children?

I have daily proof that Someone is watching out for me. Yes, I’m sad…terribly sad. I miss my husband so very much. I expected to have years of opera outings with My Guy, but instead I have this soul-deep ache that will never go away. It would seem unbearable if it weren’t for the constant proof that I truly am covered in care. I am held up…kept from falling and becoming a puddle…by the daily miracles. I acknowledge them and I thank them. And I go on.

I’ve found there is no logic to how I feel in the middle of grief. I’ve received huge gifts, and–although I’m thankful for them because they assure me I don’t have to make a drastic lifestyle change at the same time that our family has been changed so drastically–I sometimes don’t have an emotional response to them. But, then, when someone offered to clean my chicken coop, I sobbed with thankfulness. I’m not sure if this is because my thinking is skewed, or if, maybe, I have a new clarity right now: a clarity that the little things really *are* the big things.

And so I’d like to share with you some of the little things…the little miracles in the midst of sorrow.

On day #4 I was, of course, still in shock. I couldn’t grasp that Joe was not coming home…yet I could worry over the ridiculous things like who was going to feed my in-laws when they arrived that afternoon? As soon as word got out, my friends started a meal train and I knew that the evening meals were covered…but what about when my house was full of guests at 1 p.m.?  I was barely allowed a moment of panic when the phone rang. “May I bring over pizzas?”

Those pizzas came with a boxed toy–a flying saucer toy that rides the air waves.  You would think a battery-operated toy was the *last* thing my house needed at that moment. But when my nephew–a NASA scientist– arrived, not only did he play with the toy…he played with my children…and he explained some scientific theory, too. And they were distracted…happy even.

Speaking of toys…maybe you know that sometimes children fixate on the oddest items? They beg for things that don’t make any sense?  My ten-year-old has desperately wanted an air mattress for an entire year now. I don’t know why. Two separate people showed up with air mattresses….

The last email I sent to Joe listed how we were going to pull off Christmas this year. I was going to save $25 here and another $50 here…and, if I was diligent, I would be able to purchase simple gifts right before the holiday. Joe and I had decided not to exchange gifts this year. But…now….I can’t tell you how many offers I’ve had to help with Christmas.

I raise pet rabbits and sometimes my rabbit colony gets over crowded. I can have as many girl rabbits as I want since they all live together in our huge kennel, but the boy rabbits fight and they each must have a separate cage. I had one boy bunny too many. What to do? When the trailer of miracle firewood arrived, a teenage girl who loves bunnies popped out of the truck cab. I asked her if she’d like a boy bunny and she said, “I would love him! But my Daddy won’t agree…”  Okay, it was a horrible thing to do but I will admit it here. I went to Daddy and simply said, “It’s socially unacceptable to say ‘no’ to a grieving widow…” Bunny problem solved.

Reading my Facebook wall was a huge comfort to me that first week. I felt wrapped in love from such a variety of friends. One evening I read a comment from a college buddy saying how he was sending love and hugs my way. During our college years, Kent and I were both friends with Colleen, so, when I read his comment, I instantly thought of what it would feel like to see both Kent and Colleen at the same time; I pictured myself sitting in a restaurant with the two of them, laughing again. Colleen lives far away and I hadn’t heard from her in ages. Less than 15 minutes after reading Kent’s post, the phone rang. It was Colleen.

I remember walking my fairy-laden wooded paths with my nephew and discussing with him where and how I would deposit Joe’s ashes. My nephew suggested I plant a tree in the same spot and that felt so “right” to me. I went up to the house and checked email. There was an email from Joe’s boss asking if she could buy me a memorial tree?

And so it goes.

Here I am left with a choice. I can focus on what I no longer have: my soul mate living here with me. Or I can focus on what I still very much have: one little miracle after another covering me in love. And so I choose today…in this moment…to simply be thankful.

Sometimes I actually think :). I like to plan and compare and problem solve. Sometimes I think my way to an answer.

Sometimes I make choices based solely on my gut whether the choice seems logical or not. I feel my way to an answer (I use this method more often than thinking!).

Then there was that time when the most tragic and shocking thing happened to me–that time, early one morning, when my husband died in our bed. I lost my capacity to think or feel. I couldn’t make decisions. And in that moment…Something else took over: Something Amazing.

I have friends who are good listeners…other friends who are practical…still others who are great for some laughs. Most of the time I can know which kind of friend I need at which time. In my widow’s daze, however, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.

But Something did it for me.

Who would have known five years ago, when Joe and I bought our little farm, that the spot’s best quality was hidden within the nondescript house next door? There is no way we could have chosen the right neighbors for that tragic night: neighbors my son would wake by pounding on the door; neighbors who would come over and hug me as the EMT’s wheeled my husband’s lifeless body out the door; neighbors who would stand by me as those same EMT’s performed their required duties on that shell in the back of the ambulance; the neighbor who would stay with my children as his wife took me to the hospital….to hear the news I already knew was coming.

Once at the hospital, I survived that nightmarish moment when the doctor admitted that Joe was dead because of the person Something sent. I turned around and looked down the hallway….and saw my Daddy. He was walking up just at that moment. He held me as I fell to pieces…feeling the world I knew falling away beneath my feet.

I arrived home to find my Mom sitting on the couch with my children. Oh, how they needed their Grandma right then–a familiar and steadying presence. I took each child to a private spot–held each little body in my arms–and whispered the news.

I then deposited them back to the couch, under their Grandma’s protective arms, and grabbed the phone. I croaked the news to my friend Shelley…I’m not even sure why she is the one I called…but Something new she was the right one. She held me up…strong and sure and compassionate. She washed the bedding that tormented me–the bedding where Joe had died. She remained there until my sister Starla arrived.

Starla was the right one for those first few days. Since we talk every week and I told her Joe’s trials…Joe’s dreams…Joe’s joys, she really knew my introverted husband (if mostly through my eyes) and I felt comfort that she had that foundation. And she knows me. She knows how I process things. She talked me through those horrible first days and stayed up through the nights when I was terrified of sleep.

The shock wore off but the mourning had just begun when sister Starla handed me over to sister Willa. They are such different sisters! And how could one be right for the first few days and the other be so right for the next few days? Something knew better than I. Willa fed me. And cried with me. And cleaned my bathrooms. She sat with me and let me be exhausted.

And then it was Kyle’s turn. Kyle is my nephew who lives in Florida and works as a chemist for NASA. He called and said, “Aunt Kirsten, I’m using my week off to help you.” I remember thinking, “How odd? How will he help me?” but as soon as he walked in my door, I knew. Kyle is the quiet, comforting, practical man who never interferes but always offers just the right amount of interaction. He fixed my furnace, hauled off the metal trash, set up things for the memorial service, etc. etc. etc., but the one thing he did that no one else could do, was he talked to me like Joe talked to me. Joe spoke of deep spiritual and meaningful things in scientific terms. Joe thought big. And that is how Kyle thinks and talks. And that gaping hole…the need for that kind of thought and talk…was so huge and sore. He filled it up and added salve.

Letting Kyle go was so hard for me, but niece Andrea was there with waiting arms. Andrea is a kindergarten teacher in China and she bought a ticket and flew to me…with no clue of how she would help me. I didn’t know either. But Something knew. I wanted to go back to my part-time teaching job…I wanted to see those little faces…but I was shocked to find I was too exhausted to teach. I just. couldn’t. do. it. Usually I could rely on my co-teacher to pull me through, but that week she was ill and I had the class to myself. Andrea stepped up. Andrea taught with me and she was fabulous. We were an amazing teaching team. She was just what I needed.

And so it continues–like a symphony. Even now…almost a month later…my thinking and intuition are not up to par. I’m still not able to know what I need. But Something does. I look back over this parade of unlikely angels, and know that Something will send me who I need, when I need them. And, for that, I am thankful.