Portland to LA…in the RV!

There is nothing like facing your fears — and overcoming them — to make you feel alive. Back in October I suggested in my post “8 Reasons to be Happy” that I would take our RV and drive to Crater Lake National Park, to honor the memory of where Marcus and I met. Seeing that I’ve never driven the thing and the idea of driving it fills me with terror, I procrastinated on that idea until the mountains were too full of snow to drive there. I came up with another way to torture myself instead. Drive the RV from Portland to LA. It was a practical concept. With the RV I could not only have my own place to stay in LA, I could use “The Beast,” as Marcus and I called it, to transport my stuff from my storage unit in LA up to Portland. (I have only one small goal in life right now and that is to have everything I own in one place!) Never mind that I would go from never having driven The Beast to taking it on a 2,000 mile road trip across several mountain ranges and into the city with America’s worst traffic. To use Marcus’ term, I was “pregnant with the idea.” Meaning, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. And when I make up my mind….look out.
Step One: Pick up The Beast from the RV dealer where Marcus left it in August, in hopes of selling it. The thing was just sitting there, unsold, unused. Someone needed to drive it. Why not me! Step Two: After losing three nights’ sleep from the anticipation/anxiety of getting behind the wheel of the RV, my friend Alison drove me down the dealer. “Oh, it’s a lot bigger than I remember,” Alison commented. Gulp. She rode along for my practice drive around the neighborhood — so far so good — then she followed me in her car home on the freeway, rolling along at 50 mph, sitting as high as the semis and school buses.
Step Three: I packed up The Beast with some food, clothes, two dogs and a new set of tire chains, praying that I will never have to use them. I drove 400 miles the first day, from Portland to Lake Shasta, and parked at my first RV park. “We have electrical outlets. You can plug in,” the campground manager said. “That’s nice but I don’t have a power cord,” I replied. He raised his eyebrow as if to say, I can see you are ignorant about RVing, and then said, “Let me show you where to find it.” Sure enough, there was a built-in cord. I plugged in to the power and therefore enjoyed the luxury of having both lights and heat. I could get used to this kind of camping. I discovered hiking trails the next morning and walked for hours in the California sunshine with the dogs. I was so relieved about making it this far — and appreciated the chance to relax — so I stayed an extra night.

PHOTO: Have shrine, will travel. Memories of Marcus fill the RV.
I made it safely to LA and now The Beast is parked in front of my friend Melissa’s house in her swanky Santa Monica neighborhood. For all that I resisted Marcus buying this thing, and then refusing to drive it all that time we traveled in it together, I have come a long way. I have faced my fears. I am no longer afraid of driving the big rig now. I haven’t felt this alive or this invigorated since Marcus died in August. I’m ready for my next adventure. Where to next?

Seven Thanksgivings

I spent the last seven Thanksgivings with Marcus. Throughout the tumult of our marriage, often living apart on different continents, his job moving us to three different countries, our standoffs and stubbornness with each other, me threatening to leave him too many times, always finding our way back to loving each other… Throughout all of this only now in the wake of his death can I see there was one consistent thing we shared and never missed, something sacred and rich: we celebrated every Thanksgiving together. It was always my favorite holiday, and though Marcus was German he embraced the day — and the overeating — as if it was his own.

As this year’s Thanksgiving approaches the despair and panic of missing him have already begun to overwhelm me. To keep myself busy and to “focus on the good memories, not on the regrets” (as my grief counselor wisely recommended), I took some time to search in my photo files until I found a picture from each year we spent the holiday together. Not that these “good memories” take away the pain and intensity of the loss, but in looking at the pictures and reminiscing I see the goodness, the love, and the connection we shared during our time together. And that is something to be grateful for.

Marcus and Beth’s Thanksgiving Retrospective

2002 – Lehnigen, Germany
Marcus and I weren’t married let alone engaged yet. I was trying to impress Marcus and my future in-laws with my cooking skills and pies –I even hauled cans of pumpkin, bags of cranberries and pecans, and Karo syrup over from the US — but instead they impressed me! Their free-range turkey weighed 40 pounds and it was roasted to perfection in their traditional Backhaus. The oven was first heated with a wood fire, then cleaned out, and the sand in between its walls stayed hot for hours. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t seen it for myself. The turkey was moist and delicious.

2003- Lehnigen, Germany

We got married in August/September and before we even went on our honeymoon it was already Turkey Time. Marcus’ coworkers were so envious about our American feast the year before we invited the whole Daimler team. The aprons were a gift from Marcus’ mom. Germans don’t eat sweet potatoes so they are hard to find. I finally paid something like $10 a pound at a gourmet market for imported yams from Israel.

2004- Marina del Rey, California

This was Marcus’ first Thanksgiving in the USA. We went to my parents’ house in California and were joined by two of my four siblings. Below is Marcus, who had become an expert Thanksgiving sous chef by now, whipping the cream for pumpkin pie.

2005 – Oberdiessbach, Switzerland
This year we fulfilled a promise to my dear friends in Switzerland to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for them. They loved everything except for the pumpkin pie. “Next time make more apple,” they said as they scraped the apple pie plate clean.

2006 – Lake Oswego, Oregon
When Marcus got a job transfer from Germany to Portland we promptly rented a cozy lakeside cottage and made a nest for ourselves. No matter that we didn’t have furniture yet when Thanksgiving rolled around, my brother in Seattle (center), his wife (left) and his family of four kids drove down for our turkey feast and an overnight. For dinner we sat on lawn chairs and balanced the plates on our laps. For sleeping, the kids rolled out their sleeping bags on the carpet.
2007 – On board a Lufthansa flight to Germany
With the unexpected passing of Marcus’ grandmother we gave all the pies and cranberry breads I had made to friends and boarded a plane bound for Bremen, Germany. We flew business class on Lufthansa and were happily surprised when we were served turkey and all the fixings during the flight.

2008 — Saltillo, Mexico
I could have never EVER imagined that this would be my last Thanksgiving with Marcus. We had moved to Mexico for Marcus’ job five months earlier. The boss of the new truck factory was American and he very thoughtfully organized dinner for the American expatriates. Lucky that Marcus had an American wife or he wouldn’t have qualified! The dinner was held at a popular Mexican restaurant and we speculated on what kind of food they would serve, what would be the Mexican interpretation of Thanksgiving. We were impressed with the attention to detail, they got everything right down to the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

2009 — Portland, Oregon

This year I have never had so many Thanksgiving invitations. I was very touched that so many people reached out, but early on I had decided I would stay in Portland and join our friends Alison and Thomas and their parents from Ohio and Boston. Alison and Thomas have been so good to both Marcus and me, sharing backpacking trips and barbeques over the years, and now they share stories of Marcus while propping me up.
In spite of being in good company I know it’s going to be hard. I tell myself I won’t be there alone. Marcus hasn’t missed a Thanksgiving yet, so I know he will be there with me in spirit.

Letting Go of His Stuff…Or Not

Marcus died three months ago today. When is it time to let go of his stuff? Six months? A year? Ten years? Never?

We kept a storage unit here in Portland and I gathered up the nerve to set foot in it last week. Actually I went only to look for a tax document and stayed three hours. I organized all of clothes he had with him during his vacation in August, clothes that our friends tossed into garbage bags in our rush to make funeral arrangements.

Marcus took good care of his belongings, he folded every shirt, sock and pair of underwear with painstaking precision. He wouldn’t have liked his things being treated this way. So I folded everything and placed it neatly in the large plastic tubs — though I admit I smelled every item before putting it away, burying my face in the armpits of his shirts and the crotch of all his pants, longing for any hint of his scent.

I talked to Melissa that evening and she said, “Why don’t you just pick ten things to keep and give away the rest?” To which I snapped angrily, “It was enough for me just to organize. I’m not letting go of anything!”

PHOTO: Dress for success. Marcus looked gorgeous in these shirts and always ironed them himself.

That was last week. I went back to the storage unit today to collect Marcus’ dress shirts and wool trousers. My youngest brother wears exactly Marcus’ size and I suggested I give him Marcus’ cashmere sport coat as he just started a new job. He said yes and added that he was in need of more business clothes. I decided the rest of Marcus’ work clothes would go to him, keep them in the family as a win-win. Marcus would approve and I wouldn’t feel like I was truly letting go of them.

As I rummaged through the tubs I noted Marcus’ abundance of hats, gloves, socks, fleece jackets, and sweaters. In my recent manic desire to clear out all clutter from my life, to simplify, to downsize (if one can actually downsize from a studio apartment), to lighten my load, I considered giving away Marcus’ warm clothing. “Think of all the homeless people out there who could benefit from this pair of fleece gloves or this great hat,” I thought.

Oh, but he wore those gloves to the park when he threw the stick for Jack. I bought him that hat in New York, in Little Italy. He looked so cute in it. We had so much fun that trip…

No! No, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give this stuff away, HIS stuff.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I put away the hat, gloves and everything else except for the dress shirts and trousers and snapped the lid shut on the tub. I pulled the door closed, locked the padlock and left the rest of Marcus’ belongings where they were, secure, unused, and waiting for some distant day that I might be able to let go — or at least go back and smell them again.

You Seem Better…

PHOTO: Returning to familiar territory. Our old house (right), my new house (left)
“You seem better,” my dad said to me when I saw him this past weekend.
Really? Am I better?

Is better when you take the dogs on their nightly walk in your very quiet neighborhood, inadvertently get scraped by a thorny blackberry branch and let out a blood-curdling scream yelling “FUCK!!!” at the top of your lungs, collapse right there in the middle of the sidewalk at 11PM and sob so hard you scare your dogs, let alone the neighbors?

Is better when you call Marcus’ cell phone number and feel your heart race because you actually think there’s a possibility he’ll answer?

Is better when a friend brings over a box of fancy cupcakes and after she leaves you eat the whole box in ten minutes trying to fill the un-fill-able deep, cavernous, terrifying void left by Marcus?

Is better when you lie on the couch for two, three, even four hours just staring into space?

Is better when you eat a bowl of rice pudding – Marcus’ favorite – and raise your spoon toward the ceiling, offering him a bite, even making sure the spoonful has a sprinkle of cinnamon on it?

Is better when you climb to the top of a 3,000-foot mountain during a rain/snowstorm and in a fit of exhaustion and rage scream “MARRRRRCUSSSSSSS!!! I MISS YOUUUUU!!!” to the sky and just lie there on your back wailing in a wet puddle of snow?

Is better when you move into the apartment right next door to the house in which you used to live together so you can be closer to him, so he knows where to find you, and then turning the place into a shrine to Marcus by filling it with pictures on every wall and every shelf so each direction you look you see him?

Is better when you spend hours looking at photos of Marcus on your computer? Is better when you spend extra time looking at the pictures of him lying in his casket?

Is better when you go to the library and check out every single book available on the afterlife? Is better when you consult with three different psychics to try to communicate with your husband, to understand why he died, to find out if he is okay, to let him know you are so very very sorry for not being more loving, more patient, more respectful toward him?

I want to be better. I want to have a productive life again. I want to be able to accomplish more in a day than just staring into space. My grief counselor advised, “Grief is hard work. Even staring into space is doing the work.”

My friend Ann also said something helpful: “Give yourself a break, you lost your husband just a second ago in the scope of things.” A “second” in this case is three months. Three very long, painful, confusing, exhausting months. Three months of which I have very little memory as the shock has made time seem like a big blur.

Sorry, Dad. Someday I hope I am better. I’m not better. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

My Life as a Tree

A block from Thomas and Alison’s house in Portland, this maple tree stood out as the most vibrant in the whole neighborhood. I stopped to take the picture because, in between the storm clouds, the sun illuminated its leaves to blinding shades of red and orange. Mainly I took this picture for Marcus. He would have insisted on stopping to document this stunning site. I could just hear him saying, “Look at the colors! Look at the light!”and then fiddling with his camera to get just the right shot. I used to feel alive and vibrant like this tree. That was when the world was normal, before Marcus died, before I knew what grief felt like.

BEFORE


AFTER

Now, with my so called leaves blasted off my branches, I try to remind myself that life mirrors the seasons. For every ending, a new beginning. For every winter, a spring. And so, I will take a cue from nature, hibernating — and healing — until the buds force their way out and open up into blossoms. And, yes, that’s the same tree as above, just one week later, proving once again that the only thing constant in life is change.

8 Reasons to Be Happy

When I am able to stop my tears long enough to look around and appreciate what goodness remains in life, there is actually a lot to be happy about. After pouring all my grief out to all you loyal readers, let me share with you the little rays of positive sunshine that have managed to penetrate my shell of sadness in the past week.

One: Three puppies and Melissa’s two little girls showered me with affection during my stay in LA. We walked to school together every morning and the girls skipped on the way. It’s impossible to be sad when you’re skipping! This innocence and enthusiasm of these kids is a big reminder about the circle of life. Life does indeed go on.

Two: My parents are hip, healthy, young-spirited, and very caring people. Even if they don’t know how to talk about death or about my difficulties over losing Marcus, they are always right there. I’m lucky for that, lucky for them.

Three: Friends can show their care in the most unexpected ways. My friend Cheryl from high school sent me roses in LA and they cheered me up immensely. They opened perfectly and fully during the week. I haven’t seen Cheryl in several years (she was at Marcus’ and my wedding in Seattle) so her gesture was especially touching.

Four: It’s great to be a house guest where upon arrival (after a 1,000 mile drive) you are greeted with a PIE straight out of the oven! A big thank you to Alison who has the easiest, quickest laugh — along with the most beautiful, biggest smile. Though her veggie pie was delish, it’s her laughter that’s the best medicine.
Five: Fall is here and fall is my favorite season. Why? Because it’s all about pumpkin pie! Tip: I get my recipe off the label of Libby’s Pumpkin can. But if you can’t make your own, Costco makes a very tasty and large pumpkin pie and sells it at a bargain price.
Six: The sun is shining! In spite of managing my expectations for all rain all the time, Portland greeted me with four consecutive days of sun. Even better, it was warm enought to sit outside at Marcus’ and my favorite French bakery, St. Honore, and eat an almond croissant. I have to say, that little tasty respite was good for the soul! And yes, it does feel comforting to retrace the steps of our life here together.

7: Marcus had put the RV up for sale but it hasn’t sold, and now it’s begging me to drive it to Crater Lake National Park before the snow sets in. (Crater Lake Lodge is where Marcus and I met, eight years ago, on September 29, 2001.) While I always hated the idea of owning this beast, I learned to enjoy the comforts of camping with a bed and an espresso maker. Marcus always drove, since I refused, but now I will have to face yet another fear and get behind the wheel.Eight: Last but certainly not least, I have a new boyfriend! His name is Nolan, he has six teeth, and still wears diapers. Okay, so maybe 15 months old is a little young for me, but he sure is charming. Like Marcus, he’s German. What is it about those German guys that is so attractive?! Unlike Marcus, however, Nolan doesn’t have a seductive British accent. But that’s because he can’t talk yet. I can’t wait to see this sweet little thing grow up. He’s a special boy, happy and always smiling. Nolan came to Marcus’ funeral in Portland and during the reception wanted to play Peek-a-Boo with me. Even in my darkest hour, this little creature knew how to bring a bit of lightness.

Death: Just Talk About It!

Another road trip, another Motel 6. I am in Red Bluff, California, half way between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. It has been 51 days since Marcus died. I just spent ten days in LA, ten days as Melissa’s house guest, ten days of having very little time or space to cry. Ten days of wearing my “game face,” a mask to trick people into thinking I’m “just fine” now. Which I am not. Which is probably why yesterday I cried for nine solid hours, all 541 miles of my drive.

Crying – deep, heavy, loud, guttural bawling – is not the safest thing to be doing while driving. It’s surely safer to talk with a cell phone attached to your ear or jam a messy Big Mac in your mouth than cry the way I was, my glasses fogged up and streaked with tears, my eyes filled with blinding tears. Driving up I-5, the potential for my Mini Cooper to become a semi sandwich, me the glob of tuna salad mashed between thick slices of Freightliner or Mack trucks, was extreme. But in spite of myself, in spite of my death wish, I made it. Yes, I said death wish.

PHOTO: My mom packed some snacks for my road trip, including a piece of berry pie. Eaten while parked. The pie stopped the tears for a few soothing minutes. Thanks, mom.

Whoever says grief doesn’t make you suicidal is wrong. What other way is there to escape this pain? This intense, endless, life shattering pain. Pain that curls you into the fetal position, writhing on the floor of the bathroom or in the car (pain does not discriminate in its choice of location, it can strike anywhere, anytime). Pain that shoots razor blades through your heart, slashing, cutting, tearing, ripping you apart. Pain that leaves a gaping hole inside you, a hole so large that nothing can fill it, a hole so wide that is impossible to repair. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes in her book ON DEATH AND DYING, that a surviving spouse’s reaction to loss is fear of their own death, fear that God will retaliate and take them too. Huh??? This is not my reaction. Do I fear my own death? No! Quite the opposite! I wish for it every day.

Of course this is a topic that makes others VERRRRRRY uncomfortable. It’s not a conversation that one can have with even the closest friends or family. It’s not a conversation one can really have period. I know my mother and sister, for example, would much rather talk about shopping than death – be it Marcus’ or my own wish for it. And it’s obvious my friends would rather talk about their kids or work or decorating their house. Death is a subject that I am noticing everyone is going to great lengths to avoid. Almost no one will talk about Marcus’ death with me unless I bring it up and insist on staying with the subject. My own family can’t even mention Marcus’ name. Hello, is there an elephant in the room?

There is only one person I can talk to about death – and I mean the real issue of death, death as beast, demon, torturer, inflictor of pain, inspirer of rage – and it is Maggie. Maggie’s husband, Paul, died of the same thing as Marcus (hemopericardium due to ruptured aorta) in February, so she is six months ahead of me in the grieving process. “I think about suicide every day too,” she assured me. “It’s the only way to stop feeling this pain.” Well, there you have it. Maggie thinks about suicide and she is still alive. I think about it and I am still alive.

The point to this is to remind everyone JUST TALK. Talk about death. Talk about pain and grief. Don’t avoid the conversation. Don’t be afraid of it. Everyone has to deal with death at some time in their life. Death is unavoidable. So don’t avoid discussing it. We can all help each other and learn from each other. And as long as I’m lecturing, I should also add, don’t drive while crying! It’s advice I plan to follow myself.

Today is a new day, my eyes are dry for the moment (albeit exceptionally puffy!), the sun is shining, and I-5 is calling me further northward. Tonight I will be staying in the beautiful Portland bungalow of my good friends Alison and Thomas. Next week I will be starting my nine-week grief support group. I also plan to look for a part-time pie baking job. And seeing as I will be staying in one place for the next two months, I am happy to report this will be my last Motel 6 for a while.

Back in the Saddle Again…Well, Running After the Horse

When I was 8 year old I went to horse camp — one full week of learning to groom, saddle and ride horses. I was so excited. One of the first things our horse instructor told us is that there was an award given to anyone who fell off their horse and got back on to ride again. It was called the “Spurs Award.” That sounded nice, but I wasn’t going to fall off my horse. Of course, I did fall off. I don’t remember how or why I ended up on the ground – those horses must have been the tamest animals in the world to be putting little kids on them — but what I do remember is that I wanted to win the Spurs Award. I was going to get back on and ride again. So I went running after my horse, chasing it so I could get back on, immediately. At the end of the week, at the closing ceremonies for camp, when all the awards were granted – for archery, for team spirit, for cleanest cabin – I was called up to receive my award, a paper certificate with my name on it: The Spurs Award. The horse instructor handed it to me and said, “When we said get back on your horse and ride again, we meant sometime during the week, not ten seconds after you fall off.”

I am reminded of this episode, this “award,” as I move through the days following Marcus’ death. Friends have written kind words telling me things like: You’re a survivor. You’re resilient. You’re resourceful. You are brave. You are a strong woman.

I don’t want to be strong. I don’t even want to live anymore. I’m tired. I’m not 8 years old anymore with that kind of determination to get back on my horse. And yet, I’m still here. And, like it or not, life keeps moving forward.

I am moving forward – at 75 miles per hour, to be exact. I packed up my beloved writer’s cottage in Terlingua, loaded the dogs in the Mini Cooper, and am currently heading West — to Los Angeles first, to visit my family, and then to Portland, Oregon, where I will stay for at least two months to get medical treatment for my hyperthyroidism (when you see the goiter in your neck growing to the size of a grapefruit, you know something needs to be done about it!)

Portland is where my trusted endocrinologist practices. But Portland is where Marcus and I lived for a year and a half (for his job). And Portland is where Marcus died one month ago.

Portland is the place I fear being because of All Those Memories. I fear the St. Honore Bakery and Caffe Mingo because those were our favorite restaurants and to not be able to go there with him, meet him for lunch, go out for dinner — that can only add to my sadness.

I fear driving on the Fremont Bridge as that’s the route he took to work and to think how much he was looking forward to his new project – that can only give me more heartache.

I fear hiking in Forest Park because that was our backyard and where we rode bikes, and to remember how much he loved biking and how he isn’t here to ride anymore — that can only make me feel worse.

I fear the American Medical Response ambulances, ubiquitous in Portland, with their sirens blaring, because one of those took Marcus to the hospital that fateful morning.

And thus I fear passing Emanuel Legacy Hospital because that is where he was pronounced dead.

I fear all those people – neighbors or coworkers – who haven’t yet heard about Marcus and will say, “But we just saw him a month ago…” or “He was so healthy” or “I cannot believe it” — that will just send me further down into my abyss of grief.

Portland is my horse. I have learned that you don’t need to run after the horse to get back on and ride. Besides, real life doesn’t give out Spurs Awards. I will take my time. I will try to remember and to BELIEVE all those kind words – survivor, resilient, resourceful, brave, strong. I will pack those words in my saddle bags to help me confront my fears when I arrive in Portland. I will cherish the good experiences Marcus and I had there and I will be grateful for those memories. I will eat at St. Honore Bakery and Caffe Mingo and order his favorite dishes. I will ride my bike in Forest Park and sing to Marcus in the trees. I will drive across the Fremont Bridge and shout Marcus’ name. I will see the AMR ambulances and the Legacy Hospital and I will thank them for trying so hard to save Marcus’ life. (From reading the hospital report, it’s clear they did everything possible.) I will eventually get back on the horse and ride. Like it or not, the saddle of life awaits me.

Giddy up.

Pie Fixes Everything? I Wish!

My trip to Austin was short, less that 48 hours short. What was I thinking going there at a time like this – “this” being one month since my husband died. Of course Grief came along with me, like a hitchhiker, sitting right there next to me in the passenger seat. I had to pull over quite a few times to quiet the bastard down, pull over and cry and cry and cry to subdue its backseat driving. Anyway, what I could see of Austin, through the cloudiness of my sad and puffy eyes, was spectacular. Austin appears to be a sweet city with an eclectic combination of funky farm life, youthful university vibe (all that promise for the future!), stuffy government (just think, W lived here…), athletic energy (all those runners and bikers along the river trail), and downtown sophistication with elegant bistros. And then there’s the music scene. At 10PM on a Monday night there was live music blaring from every bar in the six-block radius I walked. I liked everything I saw, though admittedly I didn’t see much. I’ll be sure to return when I get my energy back….at least one can hope. On my drive back to Terlingua, I stopped in Fredericksburg, a German town right here in Texas. Even the street names are in German, including the German word Strasse for street. There was Friedhelm’s Bavarian Restaurant, Der Lindenbaum, and the Altdorf Biergarten. Naturally, this reminded me of Marcus…but that was okay, in fact it was good, nice, cozy – or gemutlich, as long as we’re using German words here – and made me feel closer to him. The thing about Fredericksburg is that is not only German, it is also famous for its pie! (Maybe this is where Marcus and I should have settled.) This Texas hill country is fertile with peaches and pecans, both exceptional pie fillings.

I was determined to stop in Fredericksburg for a piece of pie. And like I did with my yoga session last week, dedicating my practice to Marcus (you know, let him use my body to enjoy an hour of yoga, like Patrick Swayze used Whoopi Goldberg’s body in GHOST), I planned to dedicate my pie eating session to Angelika, Marcus’ mother. Angelika has been on my mind every day since Marcus died. I am not only grieving for Marcus, I am grieving for her. Marcus was her only child. And even from my bottomless pit of pain, I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to lose a child. If grief were a contest, I have no doubt a mother would win every time. Which is why I thought a pie dedication to Angelika was needed.
After asking a local woman for a pie recommendation, her face lit up with a smile. “Oh, that’s easy. The Fredericksburg Pie Company. It’s just around the corner.” Are you sure it’s open today, I asked, having noted that although there were a number of tourists strolling the sidewalks nearly every restaurant was closed. In Germany this is called a “Ruhetag” or rest day, though a Wednesday seemed an odd day for everything to be closed. “I’m sure it will be open,” she insisted.With buoyed hopes and a hungry belly, I drove around the corner and there it was in its kitschy, cute, touristy glory: The Fredericksburg Pie Company. An old white Craftsman cottage with a front porch, covered in vines, perched on a pert green lawn. It was picture perfect. I could already taste the peach pie, or maybe pecan, or maybe both. I would have one piece for Angelika (pecan is her favorite) and one piece for me (peach is one of my top 5), and, if necessary, a third piece for my hitchhiker, Grief.
As if my mission wasn’t clear enough, I saw a sign hanging from the rafters of the house. “PIE FIXES EVERYTHING,” it promised. In my broken state, I was desperate for pie. (Well, no, I was desperate to have Marcus back, but….) “Pie is better than a psychiatrist,” I thought. And then I saw another sign. “CLOSED,” it said. “And you thought putting your life back together after Marcus was going to be that easy, did you?” said the voice inside. “Easy as pie? Ha!”
I got back in my car, pulled over a few more times to cry, and eventually ate a stale croissant I had been carrying around for 3 days. I will have to think of other ways to help Angelika with her grief, while still dealing with mine. My goal is to spend Thanksgiving with Marcus’ parents in Germany. I will bring all the ingredients to make pecan pie — and I will make every effort to leave Grief behind.

Our Sixth Anniversary…On the Floor, On the Road

If your husband has just died and if you are anything like me, which I hope you are not, this is how you “celebrate” your sixth wedding anniversary.

PHOTO: Walking toward the light. Our wedding in Alpirsbach, Germany, six years ago.

You start the day by opening your eyes, struck once again with searing grief at the realization that your husband is gone. Gone as in no longer a resident of Planet Earth. Gone as in deceased. Deceased. Deceased is the word the Medical Examiner used when he called you and told you that you were listed as the emergency contact for a Marcus Iken. He used the article – “a” – as if your husband was an object. A car. A watch. A book. A husband. A deceased husband. “Your husband is deceased,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly like a military officer. These are the words from The Phone Call you wished had never come, The Phone Call that you makes you wish you could turn the clock back a few years, a few months, even just a few hours. The Phone Call is what you remember each morning you open your eyes to reality. Harsh, painful reality. Reality that you are alone, that you don’t want to be alone, that you want to wake up next to the man you married, the man you loved, the man you still love, the man you would sell your soul to have back in your life, back in your bed. You want to close your eyes again, but you cannot. You cannot sleep even though you wish you could sleep forever, sleep and never wake up again.
You have two dogs that need to go out so you have to get up. You put on your husband’s bathrobe, the red plaid one that still holds a bit of his scent, the one you sleep with every night like a security blanket, pressed up to your nose, your faced buried in the cotton, your tears soaking it. You wrap his robe tightly around you, as if to wrap yourself in your husband’s body, his strong, manly embrace, the embrace that comforted you, made you feel safe, so many times. When he was alive. You open the door for the dogs, holding your hand over your eyes to ward off the blinding bright morning sun.
You say to your husband who is not there, “Good morning, my love. Can I make you a latte and toast with Nutella?” And you do. You make coffee and toast for both of you. And then you remind yourself, “You know, if you keep pretending Marcus is here with you, you will need to see a psychiatrist.” You don’t care. You need to keep talking to him. You need to believe he is with you in your desert cabin. You need to make him his favorite breakfast on your anniversary.
You’ve lost 15 pounds from the stress of losing your husband, your best friend, your confidante, your soulmate, so you figure you should just eat his Nutella bread and you drink his coffee, you need the calories.
After breakfast you take a shower. You use the Verbena soap you bought for him at Whole Foods, which you found when sorting through his belongings, it was still in the little sack on which you had written “Enjoy,” which makes you remember the day when you gave it to him, when he took an afternoon bath that you ran for him in your Venice apartment. The soap reminds you of just how much he left behind, how much he had been looking forward to, how instantly he vanished. You start crying. Not just crying but sobbing. Deep guttural sobs. You drop into a heap on the shower floor. You are crying so hard you sound like something primeval. Like an animal. Like a cow that has been hit by a car and is laying in the middle of the road moaning in pain from the impact, wishing someone, anyone, would come by and shoot it, put it out of its misery, end its despair. You are that cow, injured and broken, moaning with pain, writhing from despair. Strange sounds emit from your body, wailings that define the brokenness of your heart. Loud, desperate cries that you hope the neighbors can’t hear. If they hear you they will know how bad off you are, they will not let you be alone. You lay there in the fetal position for an hour, water streaming onto your body. Your back heaves up and down with each sob, each gasp for air. Somewhere inside you are aware that you live in a desert and that you really should be more conscious about saving water. But you tell yourself, “If a long shower is what will keep me from driving my car off a cliff into the Rio Grande, then let the water run.” The water runs and runs, as hot and steady and constant as your tears.
You’ve become an expert at crying. You have sobbed hard like this every day for 33 days now. You are used to looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing puffy eyes. Permanent puffy eyes. You don’t care. You don’t care about much. You don’t bother to brush your teeth. You don’t shave your legs. You never put on makeup or lipstick, not even lip balm on your dry, cracked lips. You don’t care that your jeans are two sizes too big from losing all that weight, uninterested in food, uninterested in life, unable to eat, unable to swallow with grief living like a rock wedged in your throat.
The phone rings so you raise yourself off the ground, slowly. You turn off the shower and crawl to the phone which sits on the bathroom cabinet. It is not The Phone Call. It is Melissa, your best friend in LA, the only person who seems to be able to rub any salve on your shattered soul. She hears your voice and KNOWS. She knows you need help. “Come home,” she says. “I will give you my bed. I will take you swimming in the ocean and walk with you on the beach. We will find you a place to live in Malibu so you can still be in nature. You need to come home.”
You say, “Okay. That’s a good idea. But first I’m going to check out Austin for a few days, as long as I am still in Texas.” You dry your tears, blow your nose, and pack up your Mini Cooper, setting off a day early on your road trip. You know that driving is better for you, safer for you, than staying home alone in your quiet little house with sharp knives too close at hand. Leaving today gives you a destination, a purpose, a chance to find greener grass.
You load up the dogs – “Team Terrier” you call them – into the car and drive through Big Bend National Park. You choose this route even though it will add two hours’ driving time and cost you a $20 entrance fee, because you have been meaning to do this for several months and you still have not done it and your husband’s passing has shown you, you cannot wait. “Do it now!” you hear him telling you. “Don’t wait another day!”
You recognize the friendly face working at the national park entrance booth. It’s Blue from your yoga class. You can tell from the way she looks at you with sympathetic blue eyes she knows about your husband. “You heard about my husband, didn’t you?” you ask her. She nods with compassion. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says. “I need to get out of town,” you tell her. She nods. “I understand,” she says as she runs your credit card through her machine.
You drive through the park, looking at the scenery but not really seeing it. The park feels so big, so empty. You cannot wait to get out of its confines, its wilderness only magnifying your loneliness. Once you exit the other end you drive into a half blue, half gray sky. It is a cloud burst. “That’s Marcus,” you say. “He is expressing himself. He’s mad that he was yanked away so soon.” You understand. You would be mad too. You are mad. You are angry with how life works, how unfair it is, how you can’t control things. You continue driving east and soon you see a rainbow. “It’s Marcus again,” you note. You drive toward the rainbow, thinking you are getting closer, but the closer you get the more it eludes you.

PHOTO: Chasing, but not catching, Marcus. Heading east on Highway 90, Texas.

“Oh yes, that’s just like Marcus,” you say of its unattainable-ness. You drive for more than an hour into the rainbow, its colors growing more intense, deeper, richer, stronger. You think you can finally touch the rainbow, that you’ve nearly arrived at its pot of gold, that Marcus will be there waiting….until the rainbow gives way to a thunderstorm. The rain begins to pelt the roof of your car, gradually at first, but soon becoming stronger. The noise grows as the drops come down bigger and faster. “That’s Marcus,” you explain to the dogs who are wondering why it has become so loud inside the car. You keep driving, driving straight into the middle of the storm cell. The storm grows, the wind intensifies, lighting strikes in bolts straight to the ground, thunder rattles the earth. The rain falls so hard you can barely see the road. You hold tight onto your steering wheel to keep your little car, yourself and your dogs from blowing off the highway.
“What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask. “What is it you are trying to say?” You cannot make out his message — you don’t understand how or why the lure of his heavenly rainbow has led you into this stormy hell. But you don’t have time to dwell on this theme as you are running out of gas, so in spite of the dangerous conditions, you keep driving in hopes of reaching Langtry, the tiny town on the map, the one where Judge Roy Bean held his court.
You put on your hazards and move at 40 mph and finally hobble into the filling station, the one with the lone pump, a pump that doesn’t take credit cards. You discover the gas station is closed and will not open until 8AM — the next day. You realize you will have to wait out the storm and also wait for the gas station to open in the morning and you wonder how your sixth anniversary came to this. You were heading to the campground at Amistad Reservoir, the place where you spent three blissful days camping with your husband only nine months earlier. You were going to drink an anniversary toast to him in this special spot.

PHOTO: Our special camp spot. Amistad Reservoir, Del Rio, TX, Dec. 2008.

Now you are going to sleep in the back of your Mini Cooper, curled up in a tight ball with your knees jammed against the door. You are sobbing yet again. “What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask for the tenth time as you lay there in a new form of misery, lightning striking all around, rain pelting your car. “Are you telling me to slow down, to stop being so impetuous?” You admit you left in a bit of a hurry, panicked by touching the depths of your grief, needing to run away from yourself. You acknowledge that he was a helpful anchor to you, like a necessary, stabilizing tether to your hot air balloon which constantly threatens to float away without warning. “You cannot get away from yourself,” he seems to be telling you. “You need to stay still and I am going to make sure you do.” That he had to create a tempest to get you to stop and listen is not lost on you.

Still unclear about his message, you sit in your car until the storm passes. The stars appear in what is now a deep black night sky. You open the car’s sunroof, staring at the stars and talking to Marcus, until you fall asleep. You wake up to the sound of a truck engine roaring next to your window. You look up and there is a large, handsome black man with a gun strapped to his belt. Your mind wonders what kind of danger you are in until you see he is a Border Patrolman. He asks you why you are parked at this gas station at 2:00 AM and after you explain – minus the part about your husband and his elemental messages – he escorts you to the next town where there is a 24-hour gas pump. You make it there, touched by this officer’s kindness, fill up with premium, and drive until you find a Motel 6, because Motel 6allows dogs.

It is 3:30 AM when you settle into your room. Finally, you pour yourself a small glass of sake, from the expensive bottle Marcus bought at Whole Foods, the same store where he discovered the soap that you bought him. You couldn’t possibly have known how much this bottle would come to mean to you, but you somehow had the foresight to bring it with you from LA to Texas. At last, after surviving the storm, surviving yourself, you raise your glass and say, “Love of my life, Happy Anniversary.”

You shut your eyes and pray that when you open them in the morning you will have a little less pain, a little more will to keep living. That you will keep remembering the man you love, and to keep appreciating what time you did have together, even if that time was cut short. You vow that you will keep celebrating what you had with him and what you still have without him. “Whatever else you want to tell me, Marcus,” you say, “I am here. I am listening.” And with that, you fall into a deep sleep. Wrapped in your husband’s bathrobe. With his scent. With him.