On a late winter evening three years ago, I was sitting staring at the cascading flames in the window of my well-stoked woodstove. It was a month after my dearly-loved husband Barry died of what his doctors called “a particularly catastrophic form of cancer.” As the shock wore off, I was beginning to recognize that I had no idea who I was, nor what I wanted to become.
Just two months ago, my world had imploded as my husband swiftly died of an illness with similar symptoms to those of ALS. Shocked and numb, I waded through the horrible chores that are left after a death and I fumbled simply to take care of myself—to feed myself, to bring in firewood and keep my fire stoked. When people asked, as they often kindly did “How are you?” I could only respond with a weak smile “Overwhelmed.” To be honest, I didn’t even know what “you” that would be.
In the hospital, over the long nights when I sat by Barry’s bed with my arms stretched across his heart, trying to breathe with him/for him, it was easy to know that I was given a gift of more life, a gift which Barry was denied.
What I wrote soon after he slipped away was:
My task now, in the midst of unspeakable grief, my gift to my beloved life partner, is to learn to turn away from the shadows. While I am still given the astonishing gift of life, I want to face into the sun. Barry, and the ravens, and the feathery pine trees would expect no less of me.
But this evening, as I watched the flames dwindle, I felt challenged by a path ahead which no longer seemed either simple or clear. After the loss of a profound, nurturing, but complex marriage, and faced with a solitary future, I could only feel utterly lost.
Dimly, I was aware that I needed to reinvent myself completely. Even more than I had lost my husband, I had lost myself. Over forty-seven years my life had become so entwined with my husband’s that I had no idea of how to do this. To survive, I recognized that I would have to grow into a completely new way of living. But I had no idea of how to do that and I could find very few roadmaps to help me on my way.
I remembered poet Robert Frost’s poem The Ovenbird and his question: what to make of a diminished thing? Something very small flickered along with the flames. For all the uncertainty of forging a new path, there might be something undeniably exciting about discovering the gifts of my new and different life.
I stretched to reach my notepad and pen and started a list of thoughts, which were mostly questions:
- How could I reach out to life, let life in?
- Hope. I knew that for me personally, and indeed for our threatened planet also, to survive. How could I relearn how to practise hope
- What would help?
- Reading. Yes, always. I would start with sages like Mary Oliver. My dear friend Tanya had left me with Thirst, Oliver’s poems about her own loss. I would start there.
- Revisiting. Could I, or did I want to play the piano again, weave, go for big walks into the hills?
- Awareness. After having to blunt myself, it was time to cultivate that again. Bit by bit.
- Appreciate. The corollary of this awareness I was going to work for would be appreciation of small things.
- Live openly. I wanted to learn to say “yes” more than “no.”
- Choose love. If there was one thing Barry and I had learned while he was dying it was always to choose love.
As I rose and damped down the fire for the night, I knew I had a sketchy beginning for my new path.
And now, after three years of working at, but also easing into, what it means for me personally to face the sun I have a lot to share with you. And right now, as I experience again all the gifts of spring, feels like a good time to start.