Monday, December 26, 2011

The Christmas Entry

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(My parents living room looks like a Christmas card, right?)

I woke up early this morning--and breathed a sigh of relief. The emotional gauntlet of my first Christmas without Ken was over! I never imagined having to experience one without him after we met in 2001, and after he died in June I dreaded December and all the holidays that surrounded it. An internal clock counted down the days with deafening silence as the year drew to a close.

But it was okay. Christmas wasn't just bearable, but it had many moments of happiness, laughter and joy. For me it was both surprising and expected. I don't think I could have fallen in love with Ken without possessing (or learning to posses) the much mentioned "journey" mentality. And likewise, I have found the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality to be just as important. Learning what to focus on and what not to focus on have been my stock and trade since Ken's re-diagnosis in 2009.

Spending Christmas with my family was truly wonderful. Though there was no snow to be seen, the Christmas spirit was present and accounted for in my childhood home. My parents possess an equal measure of realism, optimism and hard-boiled family loyalty that was served up on a platter of love for me to dine on. It wasn't just my determination to endure the holiday and somehow enjoy it alone--it was the determination of those in my family--the "birth" family who I spent the holiday with as well as my "marital" family who I spent the day with emotionally, as well as my "chosen" family of friends who thought of me, emailed or called me or Facebooked me encouraging words of love and support.

A true "win" for me this Christmas was after returning home to Chicago on Christmas Day (my family's annual celebration is on Christmas Eve), I uncharacteristically accepted an invitation from my friend Beth to drop by in the afternoon for a Christmas cocktail and spend time with her, her son and family. Usually preferring to keep my own company--particularly during times of emotional tumult and the innate difficulty of being without Ken--after considering the kind invitation, Ken's unmistakable voice said "why not?" And had he been here and we were spending the day together, he would most certainly would have wanted to go and spend time with her and her posse. Doing something new and social was right up his alley.

She lives nearby so I opted to walk--all the while stupefied that I was actually doing it. I knew Ken would be proud of me, which made the decision more steadfast in my own mind. Watching her 3-year-old son's excitement about Christmas and Santa reminded me so much of Ken's my nephews Jack and Nathan and Ken's own childlike enthusiasm. I held her 10-month old nephew as he played with some of his cousin's building blocks. While conversations went on around me, it felt like I was the only in the room, holding Isiah and watching Ian play. It was an ethereal moment I'll never forget. Moments like that haven't been uncommon, and feel like I'm suspended mid-air between my past and my present.

My walk home was slow and full of memories--not just of the Christmas I'd just left, but of ALL of them. From childhood to the nine Christmases I spent with Ken, in particular. Decorating our tree. Our annual holiday party. Christmas Eve breakfasts on the beach in Malibu with his family when lived in or visited Los Angeles. It seemed like a LOOOONG walk, and at times I wanted it to be over with--just like part of me wanted Christmas to be over with. What was so striking was walking home through the neighborhood without seeing another single person--except Santa, of course.

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But Christmas is over. And I got through it--enjoyed it, even--with a little help from my friends, and Ken's ever-present voice in my heart and in my head.

Merry belated-Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Baking

Today had been marked on my calendar for weeks. "Holiday Baking." It's tradition I'd grow up with and then that Ken and I shared during our life together. But this year, I decided not to make any of our classic treats. It needed to be a whole new menu to expedient with. I'd also decided a while ago that the benefactors of my holiday treats would be the wonderful staff at the Creticos Cancer Center, where Ken was so lovingly tended to. I'd learned from my Zen cooking master how relaxing and focusing cooking/baking can be. And it lived up to its promise. I hummed Christmas carols and did my best in my pursuit of the elusive holiday spirit.

I've experienced brief flashes of it, though. Today while driving home from errands first thing, my mind drifted away from trying to inject me with the Santa Serum, and in a brief moment of not really thinking about it--and no doubt looking forward to baking and delivering my goodies, I felt it. For a split second. It was almost like being tickled suddenly. Then it was gone. That's about the fourth time it's happened. I guess thems the breaks when you are practically dry humping Christmas, molesting it to make it feel the way it used to.

While in the middle of holiday baking, I got an unexplained desperate craving for deviled eggs. I'd never made them before, and only had them rarely at get-togethers. But still I wanted them. And I all the fixings for them. After a quick clean up, I switched gears and prepped my eggs, excitedly getting out a piping back and tip to use to fill the eggs. They were tasty and I devoured each and every one of them. Then went back to baking.

The fruits of my labor:

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I couldn't help but think of Ken and his pride in my new-found kitchen affection, and it makes me happy to know I'm going to deliver the bulk of it to a group of people who were instrumental in taking such great care of him. I'd like to think of it as a way of honoring him, and spreading some Christmas spirit even if I'm not finding it myself.

I won't stop trying to capture the spirit of the holiday, but even if it doesn't happen, it doesn't change my excitement about seeing my family, and beginning to look forward to 2012.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Anniversary Thank You

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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the my first blog. During the intervening year--as I promised myself--I've written at least one blog per week. It's an accomplishment that fills my writer's heart with more than a little pride. When I began blogging in December, 2010 I told myself it was mainly to gain some exposure on the blogosphere and to begin building a public voice as a writer. But early on I knew I was fooling myself. Ken's illness and subsequent death has been a difficult journey. Were it not for my need to journal, to document, to express and share our journey together--and now mine alone--I would have been left far more damaged.

I admit without pride or glee I knew from the beginning of the bleak diagnoses there was something within me--maybe strength; maybe selfishness; maybe some measure of both--that wouldn't allow losing Ken to leave me used up and ground down. Of course Ken's eternal optimism and courage played a key role to that end. And my need alone to write this blog and to document my feelings on this journey was only part of the formula that kept me buoyant in such heavy water over the past couple of years. There have been so many people in our life together who showed unwavering kindness, grace and selfless beauty, and who played weighty roles in helping us deal with Ken's illness, and helping me cope with his death.

I couldn't think of a more appropriate anniversary gift than showing my gratitude. This is for you...

You celebrated with me during times of ground-swelling triumph, and you mourned with me during times of earth-swallowing sorrow. And you "let me be" during times of both--and all in between--because you know that's how I sometimes need to both celebrate and cope. My "apartness" is no stranger to you, yet you understand it--or at least accept it.

You wept with me during times of overwhelming despair during the last year, and you also found a way--when I was ready--to make me laugh until I cried with lung-wheezing abandon, sometimes at your own expense. You left me voicemails and understood I wasn't in the mood to talk. But you kept calling. Kept checking on me. Continued to send me love without reserve. You thought of me, and sent me strength. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, you never stopped digging deep and finding hope and love to give to me.

You knew you couldn't experience what I was experiencing--though you begged to the heavens for the contrary to be true. You wished you could soar across space and time to get to me; to change events; to take away the pain. You selflessly turned down the volume of your own feelings in order to better hear mine. You comforted me with food; with words; with love and tenderness--sometimes without ever knowing me very well--or at all. But it never mitigated the love and compassion you drenched me with.

You picked up the slack at work--in addition to an already full workload--to assist during my FMLA absences, and to allowed me to focus on caring for my beloved, and sent me encouraging words and gifts, and instant messages of kindness and strength.

You helped me deal with a loss the likes of which I could never prepare for. You wept with me. You helped me. You loved me. You reminded me that death doesn't mean "the end" of everything. You supported me in blissful moments when I understood that, and in hopelessly lost ones when I didn't.

You texted, you Facebooked, you emailed. You sent cards, notes and care packages. You never failed to let me know that I had your support; that I wasn't alone; that I could reach out to you at any time of the day or night; that you would be there for me. And you were.

Though you tried with all that is you to understand the emptiness I feel and the hole left in my heart, you know that each grief is unique and unmatched. You never had to pretend to understand the complexity of my mourning. Because yours is just as complex.

You loved me in way that was both unique and universal in all the ways that is possible. You ignored your busy life in order to make multiple trips to spend time with Ken and to support me. You shook the martinis and manned the kitchen. You understood and valued the true meaning of fellowship and living in the moment.

Whether I have been able to tell you or not, you helped me on the journey I'm on to better understand what I've lost, but--more importantly--what I haven't, and there are good things yet to come. It isn't lost on me that Ken lovingly taught my destination-oriented psyche to embrace the journey. Like all journeys, this one comes with the bitter as well as the sweet. But it's being on the journey that counts. As I move forward into 2012, I know some important and exciting things await me. You are part of that goodness.

No one could have been so lucky as Ken and I were to have been surrounded by such loving and caring people. "Thank you" doesn't seem meaningful enough to let you know how grateful I am to you, but it's the only way I know how to do this; to thank such an elite and loving group for helping in ways that were kind, loving, and everlasting.

Thank you for your courage, love and support. I'll never forget it.

Tonight PadLo and I will have a toast to Ken's unyielding spirit, to the unmatched support and love of our friends and family, and to the first anniversary of TXD.

Cheers, my friends. To honoring the past and to all the good things yet to come.

Oh, PadLo!
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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Searching for Christmas

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As much as my brain is so wanting to get into the Christmas spirit and feel all the wonder the season implies, my heart…just isn't. I have been working my ass off to continue with traditions that Ken and I shared. Every day together was special, but the holidays were even more so. Sharing them with him, and relying on his inexhaustible optimism leaves me feeling a bit…lost…again. I knew Christmas would present its challenges, but though I thought the "what if" in me had calculated all the permutations of potential sadness and had designed "work arounds" I knew I was fooling myself to some extent, but was prepared to be surprised.

Last weekend after I returned from California, I pulled out the three components of the pink, shimmery Christmas tree I bought for Ken in 2009 and assembled it, placing it in the spot it stood in last year. The Christmas spirit has been elusive this year--as anticipated. But I've kept trying to kick start it with favorite holiday movies and plans to do some baking other holiday-inspired activities. Also, in considering Ken's personality and spirit, I know he'd want me to do what I could to "feel" Christmas. I've kept telling myself, "I've lost Ken. I can't lose Christmas too." And I think that's what fuels my rampant need to get into the spirit--this year more than any other.

I yanked out all the boxes of Christmas decorations--boxes I'm certain Ken packed away as the more patient and far more effective packer. If they were sitting in the middle of the living room, I'd have no choice but to pull out the decorations. Not so much. They sat in the middle of the living room for a week. Apparently, my "work around" was to just not go into the living room.

But this weekend was "it." Like it or not, I was going to decorate that tree!!! I had a plan. And a new tradition to start: ordering a ton of Chinese food, watching a few of my favorite Christmas movies and decorating the tree on Saturday night. To help along my Christmas spirit I got a surprise text from my sister and brother-in-law who were not only visiting Chicago for the weekend, but were seeing a play just four block from my place. I was delighted to hear they were so close and met them for drinks after the show ended. We had a great time, and laughed a lot--as usual--and anticipated the hijinx of our family's Christmas together.

Later that night, food ordered, my decorating plans were put on hold due to a defective string of lights. A fruitless trip to CVS, put my plans on hold until today when I was able to go out--first thing--and pick up some strands of blue lights. After heating up a plateful of Chinese deliciousness, I set out to accomplish my tree decorating task. Bittersweet and even a little haunting, I went through the boxes and pulled out the decorations for the tree. Time stopped as I held the very first ornament in my hand. It was a difficult moment. Memories of decorating with Ken flooded back--particularly last year. It's like when people say their life flashes in front of them. My life of Christmas memories with Ken deluged my brain. Knowing I didn't have a choice--and as experience has taught me--I surrendered to the feelings and sat down by the tree head-in-hands and sobbed until my skull ached. Acknowledging my grief and expressing it are important--as is decorating my tree.

Once my "grief burst" passed, I set to the task of placing the ornaments. And has been the case for the past two Christmases, I can't look at that pink, shimmery tree without smiling. It's whimsical, bright and unconventional--like Ken. As "Love, Actually" played in the background I lost myself in the art and mathematics of placing ornaments (which include the special one pictured below). It wasn't as joyful as it was comforting and somehow satisfying. Honoring tradition.

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Once I was done, I ventured up to Lincoln Square to the Christkidl Market. How's that for some holiday cheer? My determination to force Christmas down my own throat has pushed me beyond my own comfort zone limits. Well, almost. When I got there and realized--unlike the Christkindl Market downtown--this one was one was under a giant, hot, sweaty, tent stuffed with people (and strollers). I made my donation and one round then immediately exited. But I managed to do a little shopping at the quaint shops in the Square, listening to my Christmas playlist on my iPhone. Like my quick trip to Ribfest this summer--and, really, like venturing out and doing anything I wouldn't normally do, I gave myself an "A" for effort then headed home.

Besides, it's about the journey, not the destination.

My tree…

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