Moving Forward, Looking Back

By Beth Ann Blackwood

Grief weighs me down like a black bear settling in for hibernation on my shoulders. Experts say it takes at least a year to adjust to losing a spouse. I picture a knapsack filled with twelve heavy stones flattening me to the ground. As each month passes, a stone will work its way out of the pack until eventually I can get to my knees, then stand, and then walk. At least that’s the hope.

The funeral director never smiled, even though I smiled at him several times. I couldn’t help it. My preacher’s daughter background has conditioned me to be cordial even when my world is dark, and that practice has become a habit. I wondered if the guy had been taught at some seminar or other to keep a solemn expression on his face no matter what, or if experience had taught him that any sign of happiness could be taken as an insult.

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Excerpts beth

Then grief slammed into me, making sleep impossible. Thoughts of what had happened, whether I could have done anything different and what Tom felt as he died roiled through my mind. I’d become Tom’s advocate, his nurse, and his twenty-four-hour-a-day companion over the past few months. I’d been with him at his last breath, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have carried him personally across the threshold from life to death, and that by letting him cross that barrier all by himself I’d failed him. It was as though he’d gone through an iron gate that had slammed shut in my face, leaving me to grip the bars on the other side, straining to catch a glimpse of him to make sure he was OK.

I know things will get better. Millions of people for thousands of years have gone through the loss of a spouse. My story is not special. It’s common. Expected. Inevitable. I’ve started to equate this period of grieving with swimming. I’m trying to learn to swim competently as part of my triathlon training and I’m excruciatingly slow. Every time I ask my coach about getting faster, the reply is always, “It’s just time in the water” … I think living with grief must follow the same logic. Nothing you can do can make it go faster or become any easier. You just have to live in it, adjust to it, and hopefully figure out how to navigate it in a way to come out whole on the other side.

I know Tom would love for me to get back to work. We’d talked about it, and I’d actually started looking last summer. When he had his accident, I temporarily shelved the idea, but one of the first things he’d ask when he came out of a bout of confusion in those last weeks was “Anything new on business?” by which he meant he wanted to know if I’d had any job nibbles. When he died, I stopped looking. I think I’m ready now.

Still, I couldn’t help looking at homes in Brownwood on Zillow when I got back home, having cried most of the drive home. I had to laugh at myself. I’d be a stereotype of a figure in one of those romantic novels, like the ship captain’s wife seen walking back and forth at night in the lighthouse, awaiting the return of a husband who would never come back. I know that captain’s wife was bat crazy, but I totally get why she’d entomb herself in the lighthouse.

I knew our love story wouldn’t be the easiest in the world. He’d never whisper sweet nothings to me, or sweep me off my feet with flowers and gifts. His will and mine would clash again and again, and I’d always have to be very sure of myself to keep from getting run over. But he was intelligent, strong, honest, ethical, and tough. He was the most interesting person I’d ever met. He lived life as the fleeting thing it was, diving into both work and leisure with everything he had. I admired him. I was madly in love with him. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. There was no one I’d rather plunge down the matrimonial rapids with. Yes, I’d marry him.

I know nothing about horses and somehow never appreciated how dangerous they can be. A wiry man unloaded Merlin and handed his lead to me. Besides being in a trailer for several hours, Merlin had been cooped up in a stable for almost three weeks due to torrential rain in Tennessee, which I now know means he had scads of energy bubbling underneath the surface, just waiting for a chance to explode. He tolerated me for a few minutes and then bolted, kicking out his back hooves for good measure as he flew by, missing me by a centimeter. It looks like he’ll be a challenge. Good.

Excerpts beth
Excerpts beth

I believe my purpose is to please God in the way I live, and I derive comfort and peace from knowing I’m trying to do that. It seems like peace—peace with my situation, peace with my lot, peace with my relationships—is attainable even if happiness is not.

I knew Tom hadn’t caught the name of the disease, and because the doctor didn’t give us the gritty details, neither of us knew quite what the diagnosis meant. I went home and looked it up. No, it wasn’t Parkinson’s—it was much worse than Parkinson’s … If I managed to keep Tom from a fatal fall, choking to death, or succumbing to pneumonia, he’d die bedbound, incontinent, unable to speak, unable to move, and needing twenty-four-hour-a-day care. I was horrified. Tom, on the other hand, was ecstatic. All he heard was that he did NOT have Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. As far as he was concerned, things were fine.

Tom and I knew each other so well, had been through so much together. We needed each other. Our history was complicated, difficult, and binding. In a way, we were in our own world, one I’m sure to others looked at times like it shouldn’t work, but it did.

I’d hoped when I started this diary that by the end of one year all twelve of the stones in my imaginary backpack would have fallen to the ground. But that’s not the way it works. There are still days when I don’t get out of bed, when food has lost its flavor, when I feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a world humming by without me. I still think about Tom multiple times every day and dream about him almost every night.

My emotions aren’t as raw and close to the surface. I have moments of joy. I can talk about Tom without crying. I can chuckle over funny memories. I see my mother, five years after my father’s death, busy and happy, and it gives me hope. I press forward in the knowledge that nothing stays the same. I’ll keep going, walking ever faster as the weight on my shoulders gets easier and easier to carry. Who knows what life may hold for me?