We Couldn’t Have Known

He couldn’t have known. He was just being a good guy, a gracious manager who gave us permission to use the back room of the restaurant for a family gathering.

Of course a restaurant wants patrons, and large parties mean large tabs and tips (hopefully). But he was kind enough to let me come in a few hours early and set up for our celebration.

My son surprised me by wanting to help. He was 15 and life was challenging him in some very big ways at the time. But it was his idea. He asked.

“Mom, can I go with you? Can I help?”

How does a heart both break and soar at the same time? A mother’s heart knows how, and my delighted shattered heart welcomed his company. He couldn’t have known what a gift it was to me that he asked, that he wanted to join me.

And not just join me, but help me in staging a surprise for my husband, his stepdad, whom he loved with deep affection as well as deep pain for reasons I’m not sure any of us understood at the time.

We concocted a cover story. Well, actually I concocted the cover story. I coached him on the details. I should be embarrassed about how easy it was for me, but I’m not.

Off we went to pick up the balloons, the candy, the cake, the colors, and the mischievousness that frame a surprise party. There were Skittles and M&Ms strewn down the center of the long table, sweet edible confetti for anyone who chose to partake. There were balloons tied to chairs, and a general spreading of Technicolor merriment in anticipation of the celebration yet to come.

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We giggled and speculated and worked up a sweat, then went home after thanking the manager yet again for his kindness in allowing us this privilege. He could have made money off those tables while they sat there waiting for our crowd to arrive. But we were granted favor. And it was a last in a lifetime chance. He couldn’t have known.

We walked into the restaurant a while later and were told my step-daughter and her husband were already seated near the back, waiting for us to join them for a quick dinner before they had to head home. The hostess escorted us to our party room, where my husband took two steps in then turned around and almost left. He wasn’t angry, just overwhelmed.

He’d told me he didn’t want me to make a big deal of his birthday, just like he never wanted anyone to make a big deal over him. But it was a big deal birthday, one that ended in a zero.

And it had been less than a year since we’d received the news that he had an untreatable invader in his body, and had been given instructions to “go home and make the most of your life.” In fact, the doctors were more than a little surprised that he was still breathing.

But he’d told me I couldn’t make a big deal. So I didn’t. All I did was agree to be a partner in crime to my step-daughter. She gave me the gift of allowing me to point to her and say with a smile, “She did it. It was her idea.” So I was able to honor his wish while also honoring hers.

We all knew we might be living on borrowed time. But there was a determination that would not be denied, that of a grateful family wanting to honor this man who loved us all so well.  He couldn’t have known.

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We laughed. We dined. We ate the cake and the sweet confetti. We took pictures in front of the birthday banner and tried to visit with everyone seated around that long table. It was a wonderful time with family ties four generations deep, and he said he’d had no idea it was coming. I’m pretty sure I believe him even now.

A year later he was lying in a hospital bed, fighting hard for his life. It was a fight he was soon to lose. And it made the memory of that celebration a treasure all the sweeter. We couldn’t have known.

** ** ** ** **

(Today’s post is in honor of what would have been my late husband’s birthday. We couldn’t have known that his son-in-law, one of many who helped with the birthday ruse at our neighborhood Macaroni Grill, would qualify to be – and insist on becoming – a live liver-donor for my husband.

It was his last, best chance. On his final birthday my husband underwent a surgery that we all hoped would save his life. He died two months later. But what a fantastic celebration of life we’d had only one short year earlier. I’ll always be grateful for that.)

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
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Say What?

The inside of the house still smells like a campfire today, which is fine by me. We had a lovely evening yesterday, grilling dinner and chatting around the fire in the backyard.  My kids were all here. At the same time, even.

My mom was here too. She brought The Best Three Bean Salad In The World, and she’s going to give me the recipe. Tastes just as good now as it did when I was a kid.

Eventually everyone left and I was alone. I sat in the darkness by the fire waiting for it to die down before dousing the last two crackling logs.

firepit at night

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s still hard for me; I admit it. There are times I feel very alone.

Ironically, alone feels most alone after having been around people, after shared laughter and lingering good-bye hugs.

Maybe that’s why I am less social than I was before my husband died. Sometimes it’s by choice, and sometimes it’s simply by default. People have lives, and they expect you to get on with yours. Their obligations and marriages haven’t ended. They just don’t understand what you’re dealing with because, thankfully, they’ve not experienced it.

They might not realize that when you do go out and partake in life, the fun may just be followed by deep exhaustion of every conceivable kind. They don’t get that sometimes crowds are the loneliest place in the world.

If you’ve never buried your spouse, please don’t presume to tell me that I haven’t moved on, that I shouldn’t be sad anymore, that I need to keep busy or be less busy, to simplify or find a hobby or go on a date.

And if you have buried your spouse, I don’t want to hear it from you, either.

There is a fine line the widowed must learn to walk, a line that involves rejoining the living, and learning – allowing for – happiness. But it also involves knowing that your loss will always be part of you, and knowing that somehow those things need to coexist. They can. It’s possible; it really is.

But please never make the mistake of telling us how to do that, how to integrate loss and life. Or that we’re not doing it right, that if we will “just _______” it would be better. For the rest of my life my husband will still be dead. And while I can and do experience happiness and fulfillment, that fact will always make me sad. There are some wounds that will never fully heal.

It seems that the ones most bothered by that are the ones without the wounds.

Those of us living it, it’s hard but we’re okay working to figure it out daily. Our sadness doesn’t scare us near as much as it seems to scare others. We have been handed the tricky task of learning to survive in a different universe than the one we thought we lived in. Sometimes, even years later, it’s still painful. Sometimes, even after finding a new love or a new life, it still stings.

It’s okay. Let us feel it. We need to. Don’t try to talk us out of our grief, even if you think it should have ended long ago. It doesn’t define us, but it’s still part of us, and we need you to allow for that. If you can’t, then it’s fine for you to keep your distance. Or at least keep quiet about it.

*****

Why oh why did I awake in such a melancholy mood today?!? I think it’s because I woke up sick. Achy. Congested. Sneezy. Dizzy. And whoever those other three dwarfs were. I woke up that way, feeling like one of them. My beard is fuller and I may even be shorter than I was yesterday, I think.

I’m so thankful we had our Memorial Day gathering an evening early because I have spent today sick in bed, except for loading the dishwasher from last night and seeing my mom who brought me a small tin of yummy pistachios, which I have already eaten. I hear they’re good for colds.

 pistachios

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I think my hearing is a bit off too. While watching mindless TV a bit ago, I heard an insurance commercial that started out like this: “Funerals are a very difficult thing for families to go through.”

But I didn’t hear funerals. I heard urinals. I’ve been through funerals, but never dealt much with urinals, especially as a family activity. It threw me for a quick minute, but then gave me a much-appreciated belly laugh, which I think is better for colds than even pistachios.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Addendum

I had the privilege of seeing family recently. It was a mini reunion of sorts, an unexpected and lovely surprise on a windy, sunny Sunday afternoon. A relative of my late husband was celebrating a milestone birthday, and we all got to gather for a time to celebrate her. I was and am honored to be included still in this family, even though my husband is no longer here. He remains my connection to these good people, and I am grateful.

Among the welcoming faces I saw was that of a young man, the son of my late husband’s cousin. He is on the local police force, as was his father before him. His girlfriend was there, a lovely and engaging young woman. She is also on the police force in our city.

So it was probably inevitable that talk would turn to the Aurora Theater shooting, now nearly ten months ago. He knew my girls had been there, and was eager to see how they are doing in the aftermath of the trauma that was that night.

aurora theater

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I have written before about my daughters’ time in Theater 8, about how they tried to leave but were stopped in the interest of their own safety. I shared how they left the theater parking lot just before it was locked down  and how we struggled to make sense of what had happened as the night hours wore on.

I also told of a story I’d read about a man who got up to lead two girls out of the theater, one of whom had been shot in the jaw as bullets came through the wall from the beginnings of the rampage in Theater 9 next door. As he started to lead them out to the lobby, he saw what he thought might be a gunman, so he retreated back into Theater 8, closed the door, and instructed someone to pull the emergency alarm.

This was the story I shared on that Sunday as this young relative, a member of the S.W.A.T. team, asked why my girls didn’t leave the theater right away. “They tried to go out the emergency exit, but someone thought they’d seen a gunman out there. And someone had already said they thought there was a gunman in the lobby. So they were hiding on the floor between rows of seats, not sure what was true or what was safe for them to do.”

“That was us,” he said. “That wasn’t the gunman that guy saw in the lobby. It was us. We got there three to four minutes after the call came in. When we arrived the gunman was still in Theater 9. We know that because people were coming out of there, and they’d been shot on the way out. It wasn’t the gunman he saw; it was us.” He went on to explain that they were armed and wearing gas masks.

“Well I think I would have shut the door on you, too!” I told him. I’ve never seen a S.W.A.T. team in action (and hope I never have cause to) except on TV or in the movies, but if I’d seen them approaching me, armed and in gas masks as I was trying to help someone who’d been mysteriously shot, I could very easily mistake them for gunmen on the loose, I’ve no doubt.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

His girlfriend went on to explain that she had not been on duty that night, but she did what she could, calling the families of the officers she knew were on scene. She worked to assure them that their loved ones, the first responders we so often count on, were safe. They were doing their best to contain a nearly uncontainable situation, and had no time to contact their relatives who undoubtedly heard the story unfolding, feeling as confused and frightened as the rest of us.

We don’t often think of them, I imagine, of the families of the people we trust to step in, to run towards the danger every day. I have family members in more than one city and state who are on the force, so I have somewhat of a feel for how it is. But I don’t live it daily, knowing that just going to work could mean that someone I love is putting their life on the line.

I suppose we also don’t think much about what those first responders see, how it affects their lives, their jobs, and the people they love. I wonder if we often take the time to think of them as real people, with real lives, families, children, struggles, and emotions. Statistics do not bode well in regards to many things when it comes to these fine folks and their families. They live in a dichotomy that few of us could understand, much less be bothered to consider very often.

grieving fireman

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s a humbling thought. Yes, I know they choose to do that. Yes, I know it’s their job and they’re paid for it. I know that some people will choose to focus on the relatively few public servants who lack integrity and character. And I also know those who opt to be first responders are the minority, that most of us don’t make that choice, don’t decide on such a career.

I still say it’s humbling, and I’m thankful they were there to offer order on a night of terror, as they are so many other times that don’t happen to make the national, or even nightly, news.

“We probably passed each other as they left the theater,” said my girls’ step-cousin. “But they couldn’t have known it was me all suited up and wearing a gas mask.” I’m pretty sure he’s right on both counts. He didn’t elaborate much, but alluded to the terrible sights he and his team had seen in the theater in those early morning hours.

I was moved as these two officers told me that they haven’t been to a theater since the shooting. They don’t know when they will; they just know that they have no desire to for the time being.

“How are they now?” he asked me, wanting to know of any lingering effects of the night my girls might be having all these months later.

I told him that my older daughter loves to go to the movies. One day as we drove by the newly re-opened Aurora Theater, I asked her if she’d ever consider going back to see a movie there. “Sure,” she said. “I’d go.”

My younger daughter, I shared, has only been to one movie, and it was not at a traditional theater, but instead at one that serves dinner with the show. And that was enough. Other than that outing over four months ago, she has no desire to or plans to go to any theater.

“You just tell her,” he reassured, “not to worry about that. Tell her that those big, bad S.W.A.T. guys don’t want to go to the movies anytime soon either.”

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013