If I’d known that it would end
I would have paid a little more attention
Memorized every look and touch
Every fragment of us
Staring out across the lake
That horizon’s turning red and grey
Watch the waves as they fall and rise
Like our dreams, like our lives
Remember we said we were gonna live forever
And we would paint over the writing on the wall
Chase that sunset till we’re blind
Then wake up to find
We are only human after all
-Human After All by Sierra Noble
I was listening to an interview Liam Neeson did with Anderson Cooper the other day and I noticed once again the similarities that those of us who have lost spouses tend to share. And not just the things that perhaps one would come to expect. Like the fact that you still mourn years later. Or that there is comfort being in the presence of their things, or places that were important to you as a couple or a family. But less obvious experiences. One particular comment struck a chord. He observed that his wife Natasha packed so much into her life that he wondered if she somehow knew she was not long for this world. I have thought the same of Wing so many times. Our life together was a series of one adventure after another. The last few years and months in particular were lived at an almost frenetic pace as he tried to balance his long work hours with family time. I will never forget the time when he felt we had wasted a precious weekend by cottage hunting rather than doing something he thought the girls would enjoy more. It actually sparked our worst argument. I could not understand at the time his insistence that we had so little time. In my mind it was time well spent trying to find a place we would enjoy as a family for years to come. Eventually our argument ended in laughter as we both realized we had each been wrong in our own way. But as it turned out we were both also right in ways I never could have imagined. Only a few short months later, in fact 8 days after we signed the papers to buy a cottage, during a particularly epic Wing style weekend trip his life ended without warning. We could not escape the writing on the wall. We could no longer run from the frailty of that which makes us human. Death. Our time together was over. And the time we invested in finding a cottage became all the more important as it provided the girls and I with the sanctuary we needed as we began to restructure our family and our lives without him.
The process of restructuring has been, and at times continues to be, arduous. Learning how to live without him but at the same time keep him present for the girls is to say in the least challenging. As grief educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt describes part of the process involves learning how to change the relationship from one of presence to one of memory. It’s a hard shift to make. Especially early on when all we crave is the presence and when the memories of all that we have lost seem to bring more pain than peace. Harder still for me when many of the memories I have of our last few years together are not as firmly rooted in my conscious as they should be. Wing died during what was the most difficult period of our lives professionally and by association personally. It was a time that in a lot of ways as I was living it I wanted to forget. So strong was my desire to escape the scrutiny and the stress that I was not always fully engaged in the moments of us. On that last weekend I did not take even a single picture of our adventures through the theme parks. To me it was just one of many such trips. I would do it the next time round when I was feeling more present, because knowing Wing there was always a next time. Except of course there wasn’t. I have considered this twist of fate many times. Wing died part way through a trip doing what he loved the most and I felt I had nothing tangible to remember the beauty of that from. Rather than memorizing everything we saw and felt that weekend I had let it happen around me. Initially, driven by my old friend guilt and pushed by my new friend desperation I tried to hold onto everything I could to make up for this. I kept the part bottles of water he drank and left on the floor of the van because he had touched them. I kept a 5.00 superbowl t-shirt be bought outlet shopping because I knew he had been so proud of the bargain he found. I kept the hideously sweet triple chocolate gas station latte he had bought me because he knew I loved chocolate. I kept it until it was so rancid that I was forced to throw it out…but still I kept the curling paper cup. It was the last thing he ever bought me. I kept the Bic lighter he bought for the sparklers he had planned to light with the girls on July 4th, intending to use it for the fireworks he had also planned to set off on August long at our new cottage. When someone stole it out of my car I felt like I had lost another piece of him. Of us. August long came and went, several times in fact, and I could not bring myself to part with the fireworks by lighting them. Gradually as I learned how to keep living without his physical presence I began to understand that these objects did not hold the beauty that I sought. They represented my desire to hold onto something I could no longer have. Him. I realized I was going to have to let go of some of these inconsequential tangibles and go back into that place in my mind and find what was really worth keeping. I was going to have to piece together the fragments of us. Some things had their place of course. Like the Super Bowl XL t-shirt commemorating his Pittsburgh Steelers as champions. Though he never had the chance to wear it was too much a part of him for me not to wear. But as I considered others, I knew it was not the cup that would comfort me. It was remembering the gesture behind it. He was always thinking of little things that would make his girls, myself included, happy. I did not ask for a latte he bought it for me simply because he thought I would enjoy it. It was not a cheap red plastic Bic lighter I would miss. It was the man who was excited at the prospect of sharing sparklers with his kids, so excited that he stopped in the middle of the night on the way to the hotel to make sure he would have something to light them with. Everything he did always came back to making sure they had experiences and adventures and memories.
Looking back I sometimes wonder where this intense desire to “chase sunsets” came from. Did he in fact know his time was short like I have believed, or was it a product of his own loss? I admit I have often found it bitterly ironic that this man who had lost his own Dad and who did everything he could be to a loving and present father ended up leaving them so young. He rarely spoke to me about his Dad, even less about losing him as a teenager, so I guess I will never know what drove him. From my own experience, however, I know how important talking about Wing is. How it helps the transition from presence to memory, so I can’t help but feel like perhaps that was a missing piece of his puzzle. Whatever his motivation, these moments he orchestrated were important to him. That makes them important to me. That makes them important for my girls. More than important, it makes them essential. They are where they came from. They are how they were loved. They represent who their Dad was, and they are how they will continue to carry him with them into their lives.
As it turns out, the time that I thought I wanted so desperately to forget is in fact precious. It contains the last times we shared together as a family. It defines who he was as a man. As I have gone back and peeled away the layers of hurt and trauma and grief, as I have looked at the rise and fall our lives and our dreams, I know that those memories are embedded in my soul. Perhaps not the minute details of the material things, or the nuances of every trip, but the core that represents who he was. Those are the things I will keep in my heart. That I will share. The treasured memories so that if one of my daughters says to me again that despite looking at pictures she no longer remembers what Daddy looked like, rather than crumble, I will be able to show her through examples his heart and his courage, his conviction and his love, and she will know him….. and who knows maybe I will dry my tears on the hem of what is now an old and well worn t-shirt and I will know that it’s not as simple as moving our relationship with Wing from one of presence to one of memory but rather it is about acknowledging that in fact his presence is in the memories. Always has been. Always will be.