Real talk here from the widow-who-shall-not-be-judged-because-grief-is-an-individual-thing: tomorrow I bury Mark.
Well, the part of him I’m going to bury, anyway, as the boys want to spread some of his ashes where their mom is spread. Which means that today, I had to do the task I’d been putting off: dividing the ashes. I had gotten stuck on the idea of closed and open systems. (Career problem.) Once that bag was opened, there would be no chance of not having wastage. Some of Mark would drift away, lost in the floorboards of the house or wherever the wind would take him. I forced myself to do it anyway. I took the plastic bag filled with Mark outside, cut off the zip tie, and started scooping out Mark ash, Mark bone, and either what is part of his knee replacement or part of the crematory machinery that fell onto his body (I think the former). I filled two empty pill containers for absolutely no reason (rainy day mentality?), one gallon-size ziplock bag for the future spreading activity with the kids, and then resealed the original bag with a new zip tie and put it in my car so I don’t forget to take it to the cemetery tomorrow (widow-brain is no joke.).
There was wastage; how could there not be? I wiped my hands off on my kale plants and the sweatshirt of Mark’s that I am wearing. I’m letting the little table I worked on, now covered in DNA-infused Mark powder, to sit in a sunny, windy spot to let nature move him wherever she will. (Bob has decided to guard it.)
The day is stunningly beautiful, the Steelers must be losing judging from the neighbors screaming on their patios, and I feel sad but I am okay. Mark’s not in that ash, anyway. He’s with me, in my heart and mind. Just like before, I am carrying him. Love. Isn’t it amazing?
I think about it on average about every minute of every day. Sometimes it hits me with surprise, and sometimes I am just turning it in my head like an unfamiliar object I am exploring with my hands. It’s been 44 days, and his death feels like it was both yesterday and long ago. It’s shocking, still, that it will be true later today, and tomorrow, and forever.
At 53 years old, I’m fortunate to say that I’ve never had someone close to me die. Because of that, nothing about this experience is expected. Heck, Mark dying was not expected. (I’ll write more about that at some point. I am not ready.) For the first few weeks after he died, I took to my bed, climbing out just to do the necessary things, like going to work, interacting with the kids, and dealing with the depressing paperwork that death brings. I’ve slowly been regaining energy, but I am still finding my center in the simple act of resting. Looking in the rear view mirror, I can see that for the three years of Mark’s illness, I never truly rested. Every moment of every day was shaped by taking care of his every need. I woke when he woke. I slept when he slept, the kind of terrible sleep a new parent has while keeping one ear attuned to the breathing of their baby. Now my body relishes the simple act of laying in bed for as long as I need, as many times a day as is needed, the dogs nestled next to me, my bedroom chilly and the blankets piled high. None of those things in the last sentence were happening before. I am living in loss and in peace.
Grief is exhausting work. My brain is constantly shifting around the facts and feelings. I feel deeply respectful and protective of the process, like I am parenting my brain-child. Does she need sleep? Let her sleep. Does she want to take a walk? Yes, let’s do that. My brain-child likes lattes, Netflix, and quiet. She is sad, of course, and that makes complete sense. Sometimes she feels content, and that’s surprising. She is living in the moment, still, having been highly trained to stay in the present with Mark.
I came to this place of Mark leaving the earth with exactly no construct around death. Thoughts, opinions, considerations, yes. But arriving here, in a painfully non-theoretical place, has opened up thought processes that I have never explored. The most immediate has been, of course, where is Mark? He was here, and now he’s not. When Mark died at hospice, my friends and family stayed with me, with him, until I felt a separation between Mark’s body and spirit. I was sitting next to his body; that’s all that was there anymore. I could leave that room, leave that body, because Mark had left it, too.
Weeks later, my living room a sanctuary decorated in dried flowers and twinkle lights strung up with sympathy cards, I continued to consider this: where is Mark? Before he died, I always knew exactly where he was: on the couch, in bed, at memory care. He was gathered in one place. Was he now fully absent? Or with no body, was he more fully present than he ever could have been? Then any of us can be, bound to our flesh and bones?
My therapist encouraged me to go out for a hike. I returned to the park I’d so often walked when I was getting breaks from watching Mark. The day was overcast, the wind tossing the treetops, the wetland water rippling, the geese and ducks bobbing and feeding. I down sat on a bench amidst the swirl of energy of life all around me, and I wept. Where was Mark? Looking across the landscape, something came flying towards me, landing under my legs. Peering down, I watched as a large praying mantis swiveled its creepy little head to look up at me. My tears turned to laughter. Mark was an engineer and worked in numbers. He made exactly one sketch for me, ever, years before when we were dating: a praying mantis. If Mark was going to send me a little message from the spirit world, this seemed like a Mark-way to do it. I watched the praying mantis for a long time, finally saying goodbye to it, carrying a dose of happiness and peace with me as I walked out of the park.
I know that meaning-making is part of the deal of being human. And I believe that the creation of personal narratives is just that – personal. I am experiencing Mark’s death as a creative process unlike any I’ve ever explored. Mixing all the things of my life into the soup of my electrochemical brain – nature and art and religion and science – and the most beautiful thing has merged as my personal truth: I get to make sense of my world, and if my construct helps me, and if it doesn’t hurt others, then I believe it is good. It is GOOD. In that moment with the wind whipping and the smell of autumn leaves decaying, staring at that praying mantis, I chose to believe that Mark was, indeed, everywhere now. He’s with me as I write this early in the morning laying in bed. He’s with me on my commute to work. He’s with me when I go to the movies, or out to dinner, or sit by the fire on my patio.
Mark’s body is not here anymore, and in that I miss him all the moments of my days. If I could choose, I’d still be taking care of Mark everyday, keeping him safe and feeling loved. But have I really lost Mark? I think no. The gifts Mark gave to me through our long, difficult, love-filled journey stay with me. I can still talk to him, still be with him, in ways I don’t really understand. And I’m okay with that. I can continue to turn it in my hands, heart and mind, this new experience with life, these burgeoning thoughts and explorations. I can also just let it be. Either way, I will be okay.