On Grief and Despair

Dear M,

I know the title of this letter is misleading. It might make you think I am at the DEPTHS right now. I am not at this moment at the depths, thankfully. I just came in from walking our sweet dog and I just kissed our sweet oldest boy iMac on the head as he talked about college REALLY happening. He went to orientation earlier this week and registered for classes and got his Student ID. I dropped Butter off this morning at National Youth Leadership Training outside Atlanta, where he is actually one of the trainers this year. The last hour of the six hour drive was beautiful, hilly, rural, tree lined. It reminded me very much of upper Montgomery County where I grew up before the DC suburbs exploded and took over our farms and woods. Georgia of course has more pines. The pines then led me to think of a favorite song, Tall Trees in Georgia as sung by the late Eva Cassidy. She succumbed to your same malady many years before you. We did miss you last night. Butter of course forgot to pack many items. As we neared our destination his Senior Patrol Leader sent a list of additional items to bring, so we detoured to Walmart. I was cozy in bed in my pajamas when Butter announced “Um Mom, you know the health forms you asked me to scan and email on Tuesday? I forgot to attach them to the email.”

I also told him to photograph the forms so he would have a copy of them on his phone. That didn’t happen either. Then I could bonk myself over the head for thinking my 15 year old didn’t need a little confirmation and follow up on these tasks from Mom.

Butter said “Hey Mom what do you think Dad would be doing right now?” I replied,”Sleeping!!!!” You would have handed the baton over to me at this point definitely. We contacted iMac back at the homestead. Imac was able to scan and email the forms to us from home, so that snafu was resolved by 10:45. I fell fast asleep only to be awoken every 5 minutes by Butter with announcements of his latest backpack organization ideas until about 11:30 pm when he ran out of giddiness. He did help keep me alert on the drive. I am so conditioned to be a sleeping passenger while you drive on long car rides.

I digress. So this week in celebrity news, Kate Spade, a fashion designer that you wouldn’t know and Anthony Bourdain, who’s memoir you read, both committed suicide. All the columnists and broadcasters are abuzz about what could have/should have been done, the whys, the where does this come from. It’s a good thing I think in the long run to create some awareness around depression and suicide. Really too big of a topic for a news clip or a sound bite.

You knew my story and you loved me anyway. Looking back I tend to think I was just born this way. Certainly there were events in my life that were triggers, but fundamentally I think I came with a lot of smarts, intuition and creativity. The depression is just part of the package, like value added. NOW with DEPRESSION added at NO extra cost. The intuition has been almost like an extra sense. It’s hard to turn it off. Antennae with a 500 mile radius sensing the moods of the people and the zeitgeist of the world around me, a gift and a curse. Periods of sadness came and went over the years. I remember it as early as my first memories around 3 years old. In my immediate circle, “Oh that’s just Sarah.” The sadness accelerated and gained more power between 18 and 20, until one day the constant crying was so noticeable that my anti-psychiatry father gave my mother the go ahead to find a psychiatrist for me and convince me to go. These were the days before Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. So it was talk therapy for me, twice a week. I didn’t even seem to realize that was really VERY often, that most people don’t need to go twice a week. I think there were weeks I went three times. They were also the days when insurance paid for talk therapy. It saved me. I was able to finish college on time because of it. I didn’t even ask what I was being treated for, I just went because it made things better. I was in therapy for 5 years before I heard the word depression and understood that what was wrong with me had a name. Learning that coincided with the FDA approving the first SSRI for use in the United States, Prozac. It took me about 6 months to be willing to take it after my psychiatrist suggested it. I still felt obligated to pull on those bootstraps. I quit Prozac three times over 25 years, just to see, you know, if I was better. Within 6 weeks I was back at the bottom of the pit each time. People have had lots of suggestions, most of which amount to “Try harder!!!! To be happy!!! Your life is good!” Cognitively I knew it was good, and I tried lots of things, meditation, yoga, nutritional changes, acupuncture, job changes, church, bible study, smoothies, running, allergy shots, sleeping, reading.

The Prozac helped. I could get out of bed without thinking “Now how long will it be until bedtime again?” Still through the years I fell back in to the pit, most notably for about 18 months after iMac and Butters births. I got good at feigning normalcy and then retreating when that was too hard.

During your illness the Prozac wasn’t cutting it anymore, as anxiety was ever present and the fakery of normalcy between your medical crises depleted my reserves. The heinous and horrible headaches were coming now monthly, then weekly. I changed to Cymbalta and relief came, pressure was lifting.

Then you died. Along came grief. I retreated a lot, because people wanted to know this or pretended to want to know: “How ARE you????” You can’t just tell people the answer to that question because they will want to have you committed. So more fakery. I knew I was just where I was supposed to be… in the hardest, most tormenting and painful place, akin to having my head held underwater by a tight grip on the back of my head, holding my breath, telling myself I CAN DO THIS, reminding me of what I am capable of and not knowing when it would let up. But the grief intermingles with the depression and that can be tricky. I recently went for my refill check up with my current psychiatrist. That’s also when they try to sort out what part is grief and what part is depression. I don’t worry about this detail much anymore. Ah how things have changed, 15 minutes every 6 months @ $150/visit to determine if I should get a refill, am on appropriate treatment etc etc. It’s a cheap imitation, but I’ll take it. Something interesting came out of this 15 minute session. The psychiatrist said these words, “Recent studies show that your type of depression may be caused by inflammation in the brain.” That is the sweetest thing to say! I thought, what a nice fellow, letting me off the hook like that. While I can’t speak for other sufferers I am always looking for what I did wrong, what I need to do differently, trying to fix, correct, remediate this condition with will power. Now maybe there is more to this than just my personal effort.

I’ve been running this fall as you know. I hit a major obstacle 3 months in, with allergies and the resultant wheezing/coughing/asthma. The running felt great, and horrible too. But overall great, like an exponent for every positive thing I was doing to feel better and get better. So when the asthma kicked in, I missed the running desperately and went back to my old friend CARBOHYDRATES, who disappointed me once again. I will never learn. Then I discovered that I can get the same result if I really seriously use a stationary bike and without the wheezing and coughing. So I am taking virtual spinning classes in the living room on my iPad.

There were times in our marriage when you saw the depression and times when you had no idea or maybe you just felt like “why is this happening again?” Truthfully that’s what I think to myself too. Again, really, aren’t we done with this?” I think the depression scared you too because it defied logic and perhaps you thought it was your fault as I often think it is mine.

So why did Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain commit suicide? I don’t know. I just know a little something about where they’ve been.

The strangest feeling I had after you died was that I shouldn’t be here and that part of me had already left, like you were pulling on me or a bit of my sweater got caught up and I was being pulled very very hard away from my life on earth. The feeling lessens. The lights don’t flicker when I enter our room anymore. I think you might be at peace. Do know this, that I am determined to stay, that I am planning to be here for the graduations from high school and college, for their first jobs and first loves, and maybe marriages, and hopefully grandchildren. I want to travel again. To see dear sweet Fiona, maybe when she is in London. Fiona and I had planned years ago to go to St. Petersburg. You and I planned to take the kids to Egypt. Such another life it was and it still can be for me. Maybe another trip to New York with Molly. It would be amazing to go back to Baku to see Farkhad and Liana and Sabina.

Love,

S

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Graduation

Dear M,

Just a minute ago I was pushing a stroller with a beautiful black haired, blue eyed baby who laughed in his sleep. Saturday he graduates from high school. I bought the special tickets, the ones that you have to line up for at 6 am in front of the school- those tickets. It’s silly but it is important. There was an ultra competitive Mom who got there at 4:15 am. She claimed insomnia made her do it, but I don’t believe her. A few hours of awkwardness for me with the driven tiger moms. This is more important than awards for achievement. This is endurance, fortitude, humility, quiet determination for our baby boy. I must see him up close. I must BE “the parents.” It was nice to share the blame for bad parenting with you when you were here. Now I find myself holding the bag and hoping I am doing ok. It’s hard without you encouraging me and reminding of what the books say. The very same books I recommended but didn’t find time to read

Golf clubs and pie pans

Dear M,

I miss you and you+me. I underestimated the “+” when we were both here on earth together. I am a bit frayed , threads still visible where the fabric was torn. Some of my struggles seem silly but the struggle is real. I have been struggling with your golf clubs and pie pans for months. As you know I don’t play golf and I don’t bake pies. Yes, the kids might take up golf some day, but not likely until after college if real jobs afford them a pastime like golf. I finally put the golf clubs and four of your pie pans in the van. Truthfully this is the second time. The first time I changed my mind and returned them to the house and garage. I drove over to the used sporting goods store only to find they were permanently closed for business. One Florida strip mall over I found Goodwill. I deliberated about the political correctness of Goodwill vs. Salvation Army. Knowing the correct choice would have been the Salvation Army. Salvation Army would mean more driving and another chance to change my mind. Goodwill it was. The clerk announced,”It’s golf club day! Everyone is cleaning out their garage today and bringing in those golf clubs.”

Remember you were rolling out a piecrust the first time I called you at your house on Capitol Hill? You had to call me back, as you explained, rolling out a pie crust is a delicate matter. I digress.

I returned to the house knowing that going to Goodwill with a dead husband’s belongings wasn’t the kind of victory that I could share with just anyone. It would make people uncomfortable. I didn’t want to make the boys sad since they still see your belongings as a part of you. They are not golfers and they are not pie makers but you were. I distracted myself by hopping on my exercise bike. It wasn’t working by itself, so I added some tv. Seinfeld reruns might make me laugh. I always enjoyed Seinfeld during its original run. This episode I’d never seen: The Bottle Deposit. Elaine loses the golf clubs won at auction for her boss Mr. Peterman. The clubs, previously owned by JFK, have been left in the backseat of Jerry’s Saab. Jerry’s auto mechanic Steve decides he cares more about Jerry’s car than Jerry. Steve absconds with the car and the golf clubs. Kramer and his friend Newman, the mailman, make a mission to Michigan with garbage bags full of soda cans and bottles they hope to return for the five cent deposit. En route to Michigan Kramer spots Jerry’s Saab and a very slow car chase ensues. Kramer realizes that Newman is weighing down the mail truck and slowing the chase. In order to offload some weight Kramer speeds off after convincing Newman that he has pulled over so Newman could visit a non-existent roadside pie stand.

So it was that I knew I’d done the right thing about the clubs and the pans.

Love,

S

A letter about routines, flashbacks, holding hands

Dear M,

On your birthday I started a new routine, getting my nails done every 2 weeks. A gel manicure every 2 weeks. My color is Bubble Bath. I dabble in Princesses Rule for special occasions. Once every 2 weeks someone holds my old hands and makes them look a little younger. It’s time for me to go back to the dermatologist. I go just once a year. The summers of the 70’s by the pool and in the yard all day are starting to catch up with me. I’ve got a few patches ready to be frozen. You know the type that keep flaking up and off over and over so you can’t pretend they are just dry skin anymore. I walked a patient and her Mom over to the hospital today. Across the walkway, elevator from 4 to 1, winding past the coffee shop, the heart hospital, gift shop, radiology and procedure waiting rooms until finally we arrived at the reception desk in the ED. I passed the hallway to the Weaver Tower and so many places I waited with you or for you, worried with you or for you. The tears came but I held on to them until I had my patient and her Mom signed in. I raced back to my clinic as fast as I could without running, trying to outpace my memories. Tonight on my way home I stopped for a manicure. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow for someone to hold my hand.

Love,

S

The Headache

Dear M,

I woke up at 3 a.m. with an “I miss you” headache. Early onset of the same headache that landed me in Sibley Memorial Hospital ER 16 years ago. iMac was one, Butter was just an untestable dweller in my belly. You were an international project manager on an international project. In the ER my electrolytes had been balanced. The toradol kicked in. The pregnancy test came back negative(in error). The ER doc came to have a little chat with me. Stress was the cause of my headache and it wasn’t a migraine. It was a tension headache. He inquired about your whereabouts and suggested that the treatment for my headaches would be you coming home. You weren’t as excited about the treatment plan. After months of conflict and some marriage counseling we settled on a plan for being together overseas. We just needed the right opportunity to present itself. It seemed an untenable situation and then turned into the time of my life. I look back and see it as preparation for us being apart now. Training to remind me of situations that from one angle seemed impossible and then turned possible. Also to remind me of how good it feels to be free.

That is the exciting thing about taking up running at 51 and about 30 pounds over my optimal weight. It seemed impossible, but now on week 7 of my training I can jog for 25 minutes without taking a break. It gives me hope. The impossible seems possible.

I look back at our marriage and I see my mistakes. I see me ignoring, dismissing me and my dreams to make yours come true. I see that lots of other people saw it too. I’m chagrined. I know what a fool I must look like. I am grateful for those who didn’t say “I told you so” and stuck with me in spite of my decisions. Your mistakes I could see clearly all along, as is the case for most wives. Now I see mine too. I still think it’s true that if I had broken more than your favorite wooden spoon, if I had gotten furious and left, you wouldn’t have been able to meet me in the middle. You loved me, and I loved you, that I do know. Compromise wasn’t in your lexicon, just winning. Marriage was at it’s best joy and belonging; and at it’s worst excruciating and suffocating. If I had left, you know I would have brought you back when the melanoma came back. I would have taken care of you until the end. Then the kids would have had divorced parents and a dead Dad. I couldn’t betray the family we had created. It meant more to me than I meant to me.

Tonight I watched Dunkirk with the boys and thought of you and how much you would have enjoyed watching with us. Maybe you did watch with us. Last night I came home from work to find that Butter had applied four pieces of duct tape to the garage door. I think of it as your door because it is the way you always entered the house. It started opening or blowing open on its own soon after you died. After a few months it stopped opening on its own. Then on my first day back to work after Christmas, with the boys home on their own, Butter reported that it was opening non- stop. Just you hanging with your boys over the holidays as you always loved to do.

Love you lots,

S

The Second December

Dear M,

This is the second December without you, although it feels like the first. Last December MK and Sara put up my decorations. I barely remember the holidays. Lots of Christmas cards came. Condolence cards were rolling in simultaneously. I know I never opened all the condolence cards, but I still have them. There may be some 2016 Christmas cards yet unopened. This year the tree is in the living room, but I haven’t put the lights up yet. Tomorrow. I went to church without crying for the first time last Sunday. I’m going back tomorrow, after my run. More on that later. Mostly I have avoided church. A lot of fakery is required to get through any public appearance. I find it’s best to keep the grief under wraps because it looks a lot like crazy. Depression and anxiety have walked a long side me as long as I can remember. I didn’t have words for them until I was close to 30. When grief came along depression and anxiety got all excited. Finally someone had come to their party. They’d met before, but it had been a good 18 years since they had such a big get together as this one.

There have been big developments. Developments that may help me get a few steps ahead of all three of my uninvited companions. Butter and I ran a Festival of Lights 5k. I started training 4 weeks before the event, having not run since I was 20 years old and 32 pounds lighter. It was awesome. I ran the first two miles without stopping! I had not done that yet even in training. Everyone had jingle bells on their shoes. The streets were lined with luminaries. There were even some dogs running, and lots of strollers. It was 47 degrees, which is crazy ridiculous for Florida. We saw one of Butter’s cross country coaches there too. We are going to sign up for another one in February.

I shopped for stocking stuffers for the boys, thinking of what you would get them. You always did a great job with Christmas shopping for them. Oh!, do you remember the Christmas right before we moved to Baku? We shopped at Sullivans. I think my Mom shopped at Sullivan’s Toy Store when I was little and we lived in the city. It was snowing. We were about to go on our big adventure with our beautiful baby boys ages 1 1/2 and 3 1/2.

Miss you my dear.

Love,

S

Thanksgiving Again

Dear M,

How did it get to be Thanksgiving already? Less emotionally grueling for me this year. Actually not grueling at all this year, a pleasant surprise. We went to MK and Alan’s again this year, hard to resist, two blocks away, delicious and friends since we moved here 11 years ago. We brought two vegetable dishes: balsamic green beans and a butternut squash, rainbow Swiss chard gratin. I️ think you would have liked the gratin, a little unusual, but even the kids liked it. You would have found the balsamic green beans too trendy, but I️ have found that the kids will eat pretty much anything that has balsamic vinegar in it or on it. You would have loved the deep fried turkey and the stuffing too. I’m imagining that in Heaven there is either an unlimited buffet with no weight gain or simply no desire for food.

Tonight I️ grilled marinated chicken breasts and made roasted vegetables in the oven. I’m branching out in the cooking department, having been used to having you cook for 18 years. The kids think I’m an awesome cook, but then I’m all they’ve got. You would be a little jealous. It seems it is not the classic French cooking of Julia Childs or modern French cooking of Jacques Pepin they desire. Instead it is the recipes gathered at the last moment from the internet by Mom that have captivated them.

I️ also started running if you could call it that. I’m doing Couch Potato to 5K. Tomorrow starts Week 3, which is actually a record for me. I’ve never made it to Week 3 in my previous attempts. I️ signed Butter and I️ up for a holiday themed 5 K in December, to keep his enthusiasm for Cross Country going in the off season.

Last weekend was so beautiful. iMac’s school marching band performed their half time show, titled Jack, for the last time. They placed seventh in the state band competition, which was a huge leap for them from last year when they tied for twelfth(last). I️ just can’t put into words the beauty of iMac’s flute solo. It is courage and sorrow and beauty bound together.

I️ have missed you lots this weekend. I️ have so enjoyed being home with the boys. We watched a movie last night, Hell or High Water. Catchy title huh? The title betrays the depth of the movie, a modern western. All three of us enjoyed it. Christmas shopping without you is challenging. All year you would have been collecting and jotting down book and movie titles. You would read reviews in the Economist and The Week. You would scour best book lists in the LA Times and the New York Times. You would read about all the books nominated for the Man Booker prize. You would email old friends from college, your published writer friends, and your English literature teacher friends. Then the treasure of books would arrive. All three of you would read them and talk over the intricacies of the books. As far as I’ve gotten is to order them each a Kindle reader on sale. Their kindle fires have long ago lost their battery lives. Now my amateur hunt for books begins.

That’s all for now. Love you lots,

S

Cool Night Letter

Dear M,

The weather is perfect for me right now, just a bit crisp at night, sunshine and 70’s in the daytime. The fall has been busy and amazing. So much to share with you, still somewhat disbelieving you are not here with me to experience this life. IMac got his license. Butter has his learner’s permit. imac applied to and was accepted at the college of his choosing, not a fancy college like yours, but one of his choosing. IMac is having a stellar fall in the marching band. They won their first ever band competition in the history of the school. Butter set his alarm for 5 am 4 days a week for 3 1/2 months to get up and go running with the XC team at school. You would delight in it all.Yesterday our sweet pup, Murphy, celebrated her first birthday. Love you and miss you.

XO

S

They say it’s your birthday

Dear M,

It is your birthday today, our first without you. My college friend Lisa has been sending snail mail to me daily for the last week. Raining down on me like birthday confetti, each envelope with a surprise, a pink paper heart, a comic strip clipped from the paper. It makes my heart happy. You know how I love snail mail. In celebration of your birthday I thought about what you would do on this day. Mainly you would want to hang out with iMac and butter. You loved to share books and movies with them. I picked a movie I thought you would like: Catch Me if You Can with Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio. I brought dinner from Chik Fil A. We watched the first half of the movie tonight and we’ll watch the second tomorrow or Thursday. iMac got to see Christopher Walken and began to understand why I was opposed to naming a child Christopher. Christopher was tops on your list when we were picking names for our baby boys, but I just couldn’t do it because images of Christopher Walken kept coming to mind. I find him rather creepy. Cha has just hopped in into bed and Murph is in her crate. I’ll sign off because I have an early wake up tomorrow, 4:30 am.

Lots of love to you on your birthday,

S

Hurricane Irma Letter

Dear M,

I hope this doesn’t become a regular thing, hurricane letters. I remember sitting on the couch with you talking about hurricanes. You said if Jacksonville gets hit with a Category 5 it will flood from the beach all the way to the St Johns. Irma was a category one when it got here 3 days ago. Downtown Jacksonville is still flooded. IMac and Butter filled 50 additional sandbags for me. Miraculously the water level only came up to the first layer of sandbags. In some neighborhoods whole houses filled with water.

I’m thinking of Idaho. I’ve never been there, but it seems sufficiently inland. Thinking back to my late 30’s when we were in Baku. A sparkle of a dream started there. When I think about becoming a nurse practitioner I don’t think about working in a Minute Clinic at CVS. I think about being in the foreign service and working in a US embassy. In the dream you are retired but tag along. Smaller dreams are getting enough sleep, exercising, having time to read a book or have coffee with a friend, losing my grief fat.

Cha started sleeping in our bed again during the hurricane. Time to stay close to Mom I suppose. I switched my white noise maker from Summer Nights to Thunderstorm. That sounds insignificant, but it’s part of my process of figuring out my likes and routines and not in relation to the people or animals I care for. It’s much harder than it sounds after so many years of identifying and catering to the needs of others. That’s all for now.

Love,

S