Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I’ve been trying out a new anthem for the last few weeks.  It’s a little more upbeat than “The Fighter,” but not quite as good for running up a long hill.  
It’s “Keep Your Head Up,” by Andy Grammer:

I've got my hands in my pockets,

Kickin these rocks.
Its kinda hard to watch this life go by.
I'm buyin into skeptics,
Skeptics mess with, the confidence in my eyes

My life and the purpose.
Is it all worth it?
Am I gonna turn out fine?
Oh, you'll turn out fine.
Fine, oh, you'll turn out fine.

I know it's hard, know its hard,
To remember sometimes,
But you gotta keep your head up, oh,
And you can let your hair down, eh.

The funny thing about both of these songs – “The Fighter” and “Keep Your Head Up” – is that my 11-year-old picked them out.  Other than the music I listened to in high school, I really only know the songs that my son buys on iTunes.  There are about 20 of them, and they end up on my phone and then in my ear when I take my phone jogging with me.  

Does my sixth-grader know that these songs sometimes get me through the day? Is there a wise purpose behind his selections, or is this blind coincidence? 

And if there is a wise purpose, what am I to understand from “Goofy Goober Rock” from Spongebob Squarepants?

I’ll have to get back to you on that one. Happy new year.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Invictus II

Some days are good.  I wake up, get the kids to school, go to work, pick them up after school.  Then I nag the boys to practice the piano and finish their homework.  We have fun together sometimes.  We drink hot chocolate, and watch movies, and play games, and wrestle in the big bean bags in the basement, and read together before bed.  Many days are good. 

But some days it is all I can do to keep from flying apart.  Something sets off a trigger, and sadness and pain wash over me like a tidal wave.  The intensity is the same as it was the day Mat died – higher because now I truly know what I have lost – but now there is no one grieving with me.  For everyone else, it’s been 21 months.  For me, my soul is being torn in half right now.

When this happens it helps to get it out, and then I do everything I can to pull myself back together.  I have no choice – my kids have only one parent.  Sometimes my outlet is screaming in the car where no one else can hear me.  Sometimes it’s putting on my old running shoes and pounding up the hill next to my house – the best sledding hill for miles – hoping to trade physical pain for the emotional pain that feels so much worse.  I run up the hill hoping to make myself throw up.  No luck. Try again. Again. Again.

I’m listening to a song, a modern-day version of “Invictus” (a horrifying comparison on literary grounds, but better for playing on an iPod while running).  It’s “The Fighter,” by Gym Class Heroes:

Until the referee rings the bell, until both your eyes start to swell,
Until the crowd goes home, what we gonna do y’all?

Give ‘em hell.  Turn their heads, gonna live life ‘til we’re dead.
Give me scars, give me pain.
Then they’ll say to me (say to me, say to me),
There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter.
Here comes the fighter.
That’s what they’ll say to me (say to me, say to me),
This one’s a fighter.

Some days this motivates me to keep going.  (It also makes me want to take up boxing.)

When I can’t get away to scream or cry or run it’s worse.  Then I have to count backwards from 10,000 by seven.  I’m not good at doing math in my head, so it requires a lot of concentration.  This is key to distancing myself from the emotions that otherwise will not stay tamped down.

When you see me next, I will most likely be fine.  I will be thinking the same thoughts you’re probably thinking. ‘What should I make for dinner?’ or ‘Is there any hope at all for the Red Sox next season?’ or ‘Hello, Mary Ellen, the eighties are calling.  They want their mom jeans back.’

But if I look deep in concentration, and maybe I’m even moving my lips a little, then what I’m thinking is, “Seven thousand nine hundred and ninety eight, seven thousand nine hundred and ninety one, seven thousand nine hundred and eighty four …”

Monday, October 29, 2012

Today a picture is worth 1000 words

That ice maker that I "fixed" in August broke again, about two weeks after it started working again.  By then it wasn't so hot anymore, and I couldn't see an easy fix.  I decided to take an approach to the problem that I find to be surprisingly effective:  benign neglect.  When I say "surprisingly effective," I mean that my success rate in solving problems using this method is not 0 percent.

The ice maker doesn't have anything to do with these pictures.  Just to be clear, that tree is on my house.  It was blown over today by Hurricane Sandy, which also closed schools, cut off our power briefly (and others' power for much longer), blew down lots of other trees and branches, and is causing our French doors to leak.

If you can't tell, the tree is resting on the corner of the porch and second floor roof, where it looks like it has damaged gutters, some shingles, and some siding and trim.  Surprisingly little damage, given that it's a tree that was blown over onto my house.  I'm not even sure it will meet the $1,000 deductible for my homeowners' insurance.  The photos don't show that a tree on the side of our house is bearing some of the weight of the fallen tree, but maybe you can make out the fact that a broken branch is also bracing the tree, keeping it fairly stable.  

The tree blew down this afternoon, where it will stay until the town Department of Public Works removes it.  I'm not sure what they're going to do about the large section of sidewalk that was pulled up when the tree blew over.

I can't say that I feel lucky -- after all, there's a tree on my house.  But it's stable, the damage is minimal, and since it's a tree that belongs to the town, the town will remove it.  Mat and I always suspected that it might come down during a storm, and it could have fallen straight onto the house instead of onto the corner, with more force, and caused much more damage.  And inexplicably, the ice maker started working again this afternoon.

Actually I do feel quite fortunate, all things considered.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ice Maker Assembly

I noticed the other day that the ice maker in my freezer was no longer making ice.  I missed the ice.  It's summer, and I like to drink cold water, and tonight I scraped every last ice cube out of the ice drawer that was left.  I could not make it work again no matter how many times I turned the power switch on and off.

These household breakdowns happen regularly -- sometimes in large batches -- and always threaten to tip me over the edge.  If Mat were alive and well, he would have fixed the ice maker while I put the boys to bed, and we would have celebrated with ice-cold drinks.  He would have liked fixing it.  I do not like fixing things, and these repairs are yet another reminder that Mat is gone and that I am On My Own.  Without a safety net.  Flying solo.  I hate this.

My list of household repair chores is long.  I'm not handy, I'm not particularly skilled or knowledgeable about home repair, and I don't have the time to try to figure out how to do all of these things.  I could cut back on sleep I suppose, or time at work, or what little exercise time I get, or time spent with the kids, but none of those seem like good trades.

My wise friend Janell, also a single parent, gave me this advice:  hire someone.  A repair person has the tools and the expertise to fix things, and will do it right.

It's excellent advice.

And yet ... could I get the ice maker working again?  It felt like too small a job to hire someone for.  Besides, I replaced the water inlet valve to the ice maker last summer, when it started leaking and made a mess of the drywall in the basement below.  (Fixing the drywall remains on my list of household chores, a full year later.)

So I told the kids to put themselves to bed, got a wrench, and pulled the refrigerator away from the wall.  I checked the water to the ice maker -- no problem there.  My new water inlet valve is still humming along nicely.

I had no choice but to look at the ice maker itself.  I know as much about ice makers as I know about underwater welding.  Nothing.  But still I looked.  I pulled out the shelf in front of the ice maker, and then the drawer underneath.  Inside the drawer was a flat plastic piece that looked quite a bit like a wide-tooth comb.  I felt like a toddler watching "Blue's Clues":  "A clue!  A clue!"

I looked for a long time and couldn't see where the plastic piece might fit.  (Maybe I looked longer than I needed to -- it's summer and the house is hot and I was standing in front of an open freezer door.) Inspiration finally struck.  My favorite website of all time could solve my problem:  repairclinic.com.  I typed in my refrigerator model number and got a list of parts.  There, at number 7, was an ice maker assembly. (For $163!)  And right in front of me was a picture of my wide-tooth comb. Now that I knew where it went, I found the grooves that hold it in place, and I snapped it in.

And was rewarded with a piece of ice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Someone asked me the other day if I was happy.  This is a person who is well aware that my Mat died 18 months ago, so I thought that was pretty optimistic of him.  
Am I happy?  I answered him with a flat “No.”  Mat isn’t here, and he shows no signs of coming back.  I miss him every day.  Mat was my home – my place of rest – and without him I am homeless.  When I let myself think about it, I worry that I may never have a home again.  I am a single parent of two grade-school boys, with all of the responsibility, logistical challenge, and sheer exhaustion that involves.  My children don’t have a dad, and they will not even fully understand what this means for them for decades
I realized a long time ago that it is not a good idea to look too far into the future or ask large existential questions about happiness.  This can be fuel for a dive headfirst into a pit of depression.  But I do have moments of joy.
My friend Beth describes life as a salad.  If her life is a bowl of iceberg lettuce, she’s happy to find some tomatoes here and there.  These are her walks with friends, and uninterrupted stretches of writing time, and happy moments with her kids.
My salad is also made of iceberg lettuce.  It hasn’t been washed that well, so there are some gritty pieces, and it’s a little old, so there are also some slimy pieces.  But there are also some sugared walnuts, sweetened dried cranberries, and even a chunk of blue cheese here and there.  These are the times I spend reading a satisfying book with my boys, or being caught off guard by a hug from one of them, or getting them through a conflict-free bedtime routine on time
This week it was playing in the water with the boys, having a few free hours and using it to discover a book I really like, and helping Colin catch his first big fish.  We were in the Nantucket Sound on a boat with 30 or so other people, and Colin – the youngest by several years – was worried that he would be the only one not to catch a fish.  Instead, he was among the first, landing a big sea bass. 
Mat would have loved it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Colin's autobiography

It's been a tough week.  The fourteenth anniversary of my wedding day was Tuesday and Mat was not here to celebrate it with me, my 11-year-old graduated from fifth grade on Wednesday and Mat was not here to see it, and my first-grader presented his autobiography at school today, and again, Mat was a no-show.  (And just to round out the week, the boys and I are doing a bike ride to raise money for cancer on Saturday, and Father's Day is Sunday.)

Colin worked on his autobiography in class for months.  It has eight chapters and includes photographs and detailed drawings for each page.  This morning, on "autobiography day," I came to school so Colin could read me his book and talk about his work.

Here's chapter three, "My Family."
I have a small family. I do not have a dad because he passed away. My mom is very tall and she has black hair. My brother's name is Ian. And he is very good at baseball.  And he is also good at Xbox. And one other word about my mom. She is a very nice person. Now, my brother Ian plays soccer. He is the goalie. He is a super good goalie.  We like to go to Disneyland.  Me and my brother like to play Xbox. Me and my mom like to watch Once Upon a Time. Me and my Dad liked to go to baseball games. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Goodbye for now.

Colin was very matter-of-fact as he read this out loud.  I, on the other hand, discovered I had something in my eye that needed my attention. (And Colin clearly adores his brother.)

I'm glad Colin is able to tell people his dad passed away.  I still can't say those words.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Mat's Music

One of the many things I miss about Mat is his guitar music.  He had taught himself to play a little before we met and wooed me with the Lemonheads' "Being Around" and sing me lyrics like:

If I was a booger, would you blow your nose?
Would you keep it?  Would you eat it?
I'm just trying to give myself a reason for being around.

Then he learned how to play Jewel's "You Were Meant For Me," and I would sing, rather not as well as I thought I did.  Ditto for the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces."  It was good to be young and in love and making mediocre music together.

Then we moved to Cambridge and Mat decided to really learn what he was doing on the guitar.  He took classes at the famous Club Passim's School of Music and spent what I thought was inordinate amounts of time looking at -- and sometimes buying -- guitars and guitar accessories.  
Then Mat started traveling full time for work.  This was terrible for me but great for Mat's guitar playing, because I bought him a travel-size Seagull Grand guitar.  He spent his nights in hotel rooms practicing and he went from mediocre to really good

Even more than Club Passim and the Seagull Grand, Mat's friend Brandon helped make this happen.  I'll let you tell Brandon about that himself. He recently gave me recordings of some of the songs he and Mat played together, and he also put them on SoundClick (email me if you want the link, then check out "Idaho Spud Blues" -- Mat wrote that one). Here's what Brandon wrote on the website:  

The first few years after Mat and Kimberly first moved to Boston, Mat and I played guitars together almost every Saturday morning. We tortured our unsuspecting wives with badly played music from all genres and they patiently put up with our loud noises and ever growing piles of guitar gear. It was male bonding at its finest. Sure our wives had book club but we had illusions of guitar grandeur. 

Later the kids came and music rooms got converted into nurseries. Saturday mornings got filled up with kid duty and the mountains of gear got moved into the attic. All that remained was the beginning of great friendship and handful of recordings.

I'll miss all the songs we never got to play and write together. I'm glad I captured a few to share here. Mat loved music, so much so he was determined to learn to play just to create his own. I am realizing as I write this many of you may not have known about his musical side.

I loved that about him, always another facet to discover. Always curious, always exploring, never one dimensional and never afraid to try. I'd like to think a little of that spirit lives on in me for having known him and with it maybe a little bit of Mat lives on as well.

Enjoy the tunes.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sloppy Gloppy

If you knew Mat, you know that he had a way with words.  He liked to make up words and expressions, and for the last year I've been writing them down along with their definitions to make a Mat Dictionary.  Here are some of Mat's creations:

Sloppy gloppy:  A frequent description of the main course served at dinner, always used affectionately.

Wonka donk:  Mat on pain medication.

Unshorn sisters of the apocalypse:  Feminists at a Lilith Fair concert.

Snuffle trout:  A term of affection for Ian and Colin as infants.

Backscratcher:  A derogatory term for a past girlfriend who would sit next to Mat and scratch his back during church services.

Filthy muck:  Items belonging to Kimberly that Mat had no use for, like scrap-booking supplies and old yearbooks.

Glumpy:  A combination of emotions including gloom and weariness.  Mat often felt glumpy when he was recovering from chemotherapy.

Glom:  A term of affection for Mat's mother dating to Mat's childhood.

Paper cuppish:  The feeling of being treated as unimportant or taken for granted.

Smucktate:  A synonym for hippity-dippity.

We had a party last month to commemorate Mat just before the one-year anniversary of his passing.  There was guitar music, Virgil's root beer, mango lassis, Fruit Gums, chips and salsa, and angel food cake with strawberries and whipping cream.  Sadly, Mat's motorcycle did not make an appearance because, despite valiant efforts by two of Mat's riding buddies, we could not get it running.

We also used some of Mat's words to play a home-made game of Scattergories.  People had to write down definitions for Mat's words, occasionally real but more often invented.  It was fun.  Mat would have liked it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

To say that I had low expectations for Valentine's Day this year would be a massive understatement.  One year from the day I lost my husband and best friend, my goal was survival.  Anything better than a nervous breakdown or a day spent under the covers would be deemed a success.

It turned out to be a good day.

That had very little to do with our carefully designed strategy for the day.  We considered a lot of options, but the boys and I ultimately decided to spend the day with Mat's sister and her kids at an indoor wave pool that we visited with Mat a few years ago.  A change of routine and scenery would protect us from well-meaning but ill-timed wishes for a happy Valentine's Day and the possible onslaught of emotion that could follow.

Under no other circumstances would it be a good idea to drive almost three and a half hours to stay at an indoor wave pool for two hours, but that's what we did, and under our circumstances it was a fine idea.  The day was all about passing the time, spending the day together, and being in a place where we had happy memories of Mat, and we did. The kids got along, complaints about the car ride were minimal, and we had some great sushi for dinner.

Valentine's Day didn't start, though, until we got home at 8:30 p.m. to a porch almost literally fully of flowers.  Women in my congregation had stopped by throughout the day, leaving one or two or a dozen flowers in a container stationed there by my brilliant friend Ellen.  The container was overflowing.  I don't know how many people brought flowers, but I suspect that it was dozens.

The picture of my porch was taken sometime in the late afternoon -- by the time I got home, there was more.  In addition to the flowers there was some of our favorite chocolate milk, a batch of cookies, boxes of chocolate, notes, cards, a balloon, and dinner.

The boys were just as awestruck as I was.  Colin put himself in charge of the candy, and Ian took one look and ran to find some vases.  He helped me arrange the flowers into six big bouquets including a special one for his room with purple, pink, and yellow flowers.  Ian very proudly put his arrangement next to his picture of Mat on a display shelf.  Then he ran around the house finding places to put bouquets, and finding pictures of Mat to put next to them.

In the end there was an onslaught of emotion, but not the kind I designed the day to avoid.  It turns out the possibility that I imagined for myself and my boys for the day was not nearly as good as the one my friends had in mind.

It was a happy Valentine's Day indeed.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

2:14 AM

I just glanced at the clock and read the time:  2:14.  Why does everything remind me of Valentine's Day?  The upcoming one-year anniversary of Mat's passing is weighing on me like a grand piano.  It's getting hard to breathe under this thing.

People in my bereavement support group agree that these days would be best taken off the calendar.

Official announcement:  There will be no February 14th this year.  The date will skip directly from the 13th to the 15th, and February will end on the 30th.  February is already such a flexible month, expanding and contracting as necessary -- why not just take advantage of that?

It seems easier -- although not easy -- to think about the fact that Mat has been gone for almost a year now than to live through this one day.

It's not as though February 14th will somehow remind me of his passing more than the empty space next to me in bed already does. And yet Mat's passing -- and the excruciating detail of the events of that day -- become more present with me every day as I approach the one-year mark.  I feel as though I am approaching a hot stove, and on the 14th I will put my hand directly on it.

The heart-shaped reminders in card displays and candy aisles are not helping.  Why is the whole world celebrating on the worst day ever?

It was then-nine-year-old Ian who said, "Why did Dad have to die on Valentine's Day, of all the days?"  Good question.

Valentine's Day is not much of a holiday -- it's a Hallmark holiday that plenty of people despise.  (Let's organize!  Down with Valentine's Day!) Heaven help the people whose loved ones died on a real holiday.  My heart hurts for them.

Now it's 2:41.  There are those numbers again.

We are coming up with a strategy for this dreaded day.  It's a bit loosely shaped right now, but it involves the boys skipping school to avoid Valentine's parties, and doing something that helps us feel connected with Mat.  I suggested handing out sugar cookies and sandwiches to homeless people near Mat's office.  He would like that, I think.  Ian liked that idea but thought we should also do something fun that Dad would have enjoyed, like going snowboarding.  Seven-year-old Colin suggested that he get presents.

Maybe we'll do all three.  I'm pretty sure we won't do my original idea, which was staying in bed with the covers over our heads.  I think we can do better than that.

I hope we can.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Lost and Found

I found the missing diamond from my wedding ring this morning.

You might remember from a previous post that I lost the diamond from my wedding ring in late August -- almost five months ago. The boys and I were on our way out of town for a camping trip when I looked down at my hand on the steering wheel and realized that my ring was ... empty. The white gold band was there, the four prongs that held (or were supposed to hold) the princess-cut diamond were there, but the diamond was gone.

I pulled the car over and started hyperventilating. Then I calmed down. I decided I didn't want to ruin our camping trip worrying about the diamond.

That was more easily said than done, but there were some encouraging developments. For instance, in my sister's dream the previous night, she lost her diamond and found it in the middle of her living room carpet. Surely this was a sign: I would find my diamond in the living room. Then during a stop on our way, I instructed Ian to search the fully packed car for the diamond. When I got back to the car, he was sitting peacefully in his seat, not looking. He reported that he had prayed about finding the diamond, and received a firm answer that it was not in the car.  Surely then God would tell me where it was.

Although that didn't stop me from searching the car later, from top to bottom, as well as all the clothes and camping equipment packed inside the car.

It wasn't there, so I got home from the camping trip fully expecting to find the diamond. I didn't. Then I scoured every carpet on my hands and knees, swept every floor, moved furniture, inspected kitchen and bathroom drains, and searched the garage, where I had been packing the car for the camping trip. Nothing.

So I quit looking. I decided that if God said I would be all right without my ring, then I would.

Then this morning I went for a walk. I was multi-tasking, of course, chatting with my friend Amy about the merits of Costco (Soviet-style grocery store or happy place? discuss amongst yourselves) on my cell phone. As I approached the house to enter through the garage at the end of the walk, I looked down and there it was.

My diamond was in the driveway for almost five months through a storm (August), snow (October), and a very thorough leaf-raking (November).

I started shouting at my friend on the phone: "AMY! I JUST FOUND MY DIAMOND!" Then I called my sister and shouted at her for a long time "YOU'LL NEVER GUESS WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME!" In her excitement, she shouted at her kids for a long time ("KIMBERLY FOUND HER DIAMOND IN THE DRIVEWAY!") until they asked her to stop. Then I called some of my other people, who I didn't shout at because they were at work and because I was getting hoarse.

Every time I think about my found diamond, I laugh and marvel at it. I think the sheer improbability of it qualifies this as a miracle. Discuss amongst yourselves.