My dead husband haunts me

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.

 

For a serious chunk of my adult life, I have worked in newsrooms.

In early February, I was hired as an associate producer for a national media company. It also happens to be where my husband Mike worked before he died. I had visited him there many times. My son called it, and still calls it, ‘Daddy’s office.’

Since starting there, I have never questioned my decision. I love it for all the same reasons I loved my former newsroom at The Calgary Herald. I am at home.

My only trepidation? How would I cope with working in the same place as my beloved? How would it be working with Mike’s colleagues?

For the first few weeks, it felt odd. While walking the hallways solo, I’d get an odd feeling, a presence walking with me. OK, to be clear, I’m not talking Poltergeist here.

Instead, competing feelings of discomfort and comfort battled. I have fought back tears and then caught myself smiling, thinking of Mike walking these same hallways.

Turns out, Mike is still walking these hallways. Mike has a doppelgänger.

The first time I saw this man, his back was turned to me. He was standing 20 feet away, fiddling with a TV camera. He has the same body shape as Mike, tall and lean. He has the same curly black mess of hair that Mike once had. He wears black-framed glasses, like Mike once did. And he has the same, beautifully wrinkled face and fantastically bold nose that Mike had.

The first time I spotted The Twin, my heart leapt with joy. For a beat, my brain, heart and body forgot Mike was dead. And then, just as quickly, my heart hurt.

In the ensuing weeks since that first sighting, I now see this man everywhere. We have even exchanged a few words. He caught me raiding notebooks from the TV staff’s stash. I defended my filching and we had a chuckle.

Another time, we nearly ran into each other in the hallway as we cornered the same turn from opposite directions.

He’s everywhere. That’s not exactly surprising. The newsroom isn’t gigantic. I see everyone, everyday, I’m sure. But The Twin, jumps out at me from across the room, every time.

I know his name. (Someone mentioned his name one day in passing.)

Other than our notebook ‘drama,’ I have never spoken to him.

And that’s fine. He’s not Mike. And maybe he’s really a jerk. That would suck.

Somedays when I spot him, I think about running up to him and throwing my arms around him for a long, sweet hug. It’s a thought I would never act on.

Stalking and harassment aren’t my jam. Silently, staring at him from across a room is my jam.

The Twin does his thing, and I do mine. We live in the same world. And for whatever quirk of the universe, we work in the same space.

And, he’ll never ever know that his presence haunts me.

Wanted: A New Best Friend

Wanted: Best friend. Must be a bit goofy. Great storyteller a bonus. Appreciation for art, music and beauty in life. Funny sans sarcasm. Love people while simultaneously irritated by them.

Love food. Dining out, dining in. Adventurous spirit a must. An innate curiosity. Engaged and interested in the world. Above all, kind hearted. 

 

Mike was my best friend. He was my companion, my cheerleader, and my love. And he just got me. And I got him.

True friendship is such a gift. I am blessed. My friends are my light. They have given me so much joy, love and support. Did I already say, I’m blessed? Because I truly am. My friends are my bedrock. (Forgive me, this may be dipping into motivational speaking territory, or, dear lord, aspirational message town.)

Here’s a point: Mike was my husband. He was my love but he was also a fantastic friend. I really, really liked him. That may sound a touch off but the idea of liking your spouse—liking them as a human being, aside from all the romantic and tummy-flipping feelings—isn’t something that gets traction in popular consciousness.

Liking your partner is more important than loving them. Love will fade and surge over time. If you fundamentally like the human beside you, that is the basis of a solid relationship.

That’s free advice folks. I’m not an expert. But I’m an expert in Mike and I.

And I miss my favourite person. He won’t be replaced.

I have many friends in my corner. And I’ve made several new friends since his death.

My new pals never met Mike. My life is moving forward without him.

Mike is now part of my past.

I feel sad for Will and I.

And I feel sad for all the people that never got to meet my incredible best friend.

Before and After: Cancer’s Toll

This is where I check all vanity at the door.

My new driver’s license came in the mail this week.

The picture wasn’t good. To repeat: It wasn’t good.

I know, I know, I know… everybody says that about their photo ID.

But mine is bad. To repeat: It’s bad.

It’s really, really bad.

Cancer takes a toll, even if you’re the one driving shotgun.

When you’re in it — living with near constant stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety and fear— it’s your new normal. You adapt. You move forward. You get through the days.

I know that I’ve paid a physical price for Mike’s cancer.

But aging is supposed to be a gradual process, isn’t it?

In my case, cancer put the pedal to my mettle.

And here’s the proof….

The first photo was taken three months before Mike was diagnosed with Stage 4 synovial sarcoma.

The second was taken four years later and nine months after he died.

Things can only go up from here right?

FullSizeRender-2

My Valentine: A love letter from beyond the grave

vdday

Mike was a romantic guy.

My husband’s gestures of love were big and small. He slipped them in seamlessly throughout our days. He did it with a word, a look, a touch.

I was loved. He made that clear.

On Valentine’s Day two years ago, he bought me a book of vintage Valentines. He wrote on all 36 cards. It was the story of our love. His messages were poignant, sweet, romantic, and even a bit goofy.  The notes are snapshots of our life together. (For anyone currently in love, I recommend this idea. Please steal it. Make someone happy.)

The following year, I copied his vintage Valentines move.

This Valentine’s Day, I obviously wasn’t expecting a gesture of love from my dead husband.

But I was wrong.

Three months before his death he sat on the floor in our closet. He culled paper work from our filing cabinet, tossing out old files, taxes and letters.

A few days ago, I was going though the cabinet looking for nothing in particular. I randomly grabbed a folder. Inside was a document titled ‘The Thing.’

Mike was an avid list maker. He wrote lists for everything; long and short term goals; places he wanted to see; his favourite meals, movies and books; and so on. And on. And on.

‘The Thing’ was his step-by-step plan detailing how he would propose to me. He came up with two options: a New Year’s Eve proposal over dinner; or popping the question at Winnipeg’s English Garden, our favourite spot.

He went with option B. He asked me in the garden on his 44th birthday. He produced his great-grandmother’s engagement ring. Later, he had chilled champagne waiting for us inside our room at the Fort Garry Hotel.

Back in the closet, I scanned the note. Joy washed over me. Sadness came next. And then a rush of love for my dear love.

He left the note for me to find after he died.

And I found it one week before Valentine’s Day.

When I need Mike the most, when I need to feel his love around me, he sends me a sign. ‘The Thing’ is his sign.

The universe is on my side.

And Mike is still on my side.

I know it. I feel it. And with this note, I see it.

Wear your Dead Spouse’s Undies: A Guide to Modern Grieving

“It’s alive.”

The ‘it’ is me.

First things first: My dear Mike started this blog to document his life with cancer. He did it with honesty, grace and humour.

I promised myself that I would carry on and keep The Big Diseasey alive after Mike died. Refresher: He died of cancer, specifically metastatic synovial sarcoma, on May 24, 2015.

So, I soldiered on, wrote a few posts, wrote an essay for the Globe and Mail on our loss, and the Huffington Post asked me to become one of their regular bloggers. I desperately wanted to write but something was holding me back.

I regret not capturing the depths of my grief in words but heck, the best intentions sometimes get laid to waste.

But life also happened: My son started kindergarten; my cookbook, Winnipeg Cooks was published in October 2015; and CBC Radio Canada hired me to pinch hit as a national food columnist for three months to cover a paternity leave. (Here’s one of my radio pieces.)

Here’s what was also happening behind the scenes: My heart hurt, my body ached, my brain went on low-power mode and I put one foot in front of the other. Some days I lived from minute to minute. Other days I measured and managed time from hour to hour.

My hair started falling out. I ate more. I moved less. I lost more sleep. Chest-tightening, flop sweat, anxiety attacks struck. I cried. I stopped crying. I kissed pictures. I put up more pictures. I crawled into Mike’s closet, wrapping his shirt sleeves around me.

And I started wearing his underwear.

In my defence, the first time it happened I was out of clean undies. His dresser was full of fresh ones.

Truths were revealed as a pulled on his snug boy shorts.

Firstly: We now have empirical proof that his butt was smaller than mine. So there’s that.

Also: Men’s undergarments are very comfortable and don’t ride up.

And: Wearing your dead husband’s underwear should be a prescription for grieving.

It felt good, right, sad and comforting. It was a hug, a pelvic hug, from beyond the grave.

So to recap, between the crying, kissing, hair loss, flop sweats and cross-dressing, there was some by-the-book and also off-the-hook grieving going on.

Moving forward. There has been progression since then. Five weeks in New Zealand over Christmas and New Years helped.

I am back. I am back home. I am back writing.

Better late than never? I hope so.

Better than ever? Not quite.

But getting better.

I Found a Lump; and other Dreaded Fears

I found a lump in my breast.

I discovered my invader while soaping in the shower six weeks ago.

It was the size of a pea and buried behind my left nipple.

My mind instantly went to the dark side.

I have cancer. I will die. My son will be an orphan. 

Losing a spouse fundamentally shifts your universe. And you become a little paranoid, I have discovered.

On May 24 at 9:30 p.m., I became a single mom. My five-year-old has one parent. And I have only one child. There’s no spare parent if something happens to me. And there’s no spare child if something happens to him.

Mike was diagnosed in June 2011. From that moment on I worried about him and put most every other concern on the back burner. I worried for four years. He died and I stopped worrying. . .about him.

Now it was all about my son and I. Our survival is now a must.

And my paranoia has gone super sonic. The lump didn’t help.

This vicious, life-abreviating alien has been sent to kill me and destroy my son’s life.

I raced to my doctor. She had a feel and ordered a mammogram. In the meantime, she told me not to worry, forget about it for now, and not to touch my breast again. I tried to follow orders.

So I waited for my appointment. Weeks later I sat in the waiting room surrounded by women facing the same fears I had, I’m sure. And that’s when I started to panic.

After my mammogram, I was pulled into a secondary room for an ultrasound. More panic. The doctor came in and took an inside look with her wand. She found nothing.

“This is healthy breast tissue,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I know I’m being paranoid about all of this but my husband just died of cancer,” I replied.

And then she gave me some advice that applies to everyone, regardless of your connection to cancer.

“It’s not being paranoid if you’re taking care of your health.”

It’s great advice, sure, but I don’t know how long I can follow it.

Marking milestones, one day at a time

Three months ago, my love died. Today is our seventh wedding anniversary.

I am miserable.

A wicked cold and cough has forced me to rest.

Funny thing though: I am strangely grateful for my physical misery. It distracts me from any emotional misery presently laying low in my soul.

But even between my own hacks, sniffles and snorts, the sads squeeze in.

I miss my love. He should be here. If nothing else, to bring me tea, rub my back and indulge me in my little pity party.

For the bereaved, marking milestones—birthdays, anniversaries and holidays—is a dread-filled exercise. In my short experience as a widow, the anticipation is often worse than the reality.

Distraction and over compensation has been a great (if not especially healthy) strategy for me. If I can’t face the pain of loss at the moment, why not flip the script. Unsolicited advice to my fellow grievers: Whatever you did in the past to celebrate special days with your beloved, is off limits, at least for the first year.

For now, that’s the road I’m taking.

Case in point: My son’s fifth birthday at the beginning of August was on track to be a crazy blow out, something we hadn’t done in the past. Twenty guests were invited, a custom-made Scooby Do cake was ordered and a bouncy castle was in the works. A storm blew in and the big bash was cancelled. We scaled it way down, little man still got loads of gifts and declared it ‘an awesome day.’

So as I mark the third month without Mike on a day that would have been our seventh wedding anniversary, I am going in a new direction—straight back to bed to take care of my tired body.

It’s all good. I’m literally pulling the covers over my head, but it’s exactly what I need.

Please Unload Here

Talk to me. Tell me your troubles. Is your cluttered, messy house making you mental? Do you fantasize about giving your nutso kids up for adoption? Is your job driving you bonkers?

Tell me everything. I can take it. I want to take it. Mike died of cancer two-and-a-half months ago but I’m still a half decent sounding board, a good friend (in my opinion), and a fantastic secret keeper. I also love bone-headed husband (and wife) tales.

Being the bereaved is lonely and isolating. You’ve lost your anchor, you become unmoored. But despite the radical change in your life, you’re also fundamentally the same person.

While I haven’t felt any friends pulling away from me—the opposite is true, actually—I wonder sometimes if people are holding back telling me their troubles and triumphs.

Hearing tales about happy lives filled with laughter and love lightens me. And as weird as it sounds, hearing stories about the big and small irritations of life makes me feel normal.

Perhaps friends fear sharing their struggles with the newly bereaved because think their problems are trivial in comparison.

It’s not a contest whose life is crappier or whose really rocks.

But if it were, I would definitely, definitely win (or at least place in the top three) in the crappiest life contest. Look it up—dead husband, single mom of young son and widow (uggh, that word) at 44 trumps bratty kids, irritating spouse and lousy boss any day.

And if you’re afraid to say the wrong thing remember this: no matter what you say, no words can hurt me more than I have already been hurt.

Case in point: A family friend, a devout Catholic with the best of intentions, told me he liked to think of Mike looking up at us. To be clear, he was joking about my dead, agnostic/atheist husband burning in hell. I had to laugh. Mike would be laughing too.

So feel free to unload on me because whatever, whatever you say, it will never be worse than that joker.