Secondary trauma

I have many draft blog posts that I haven’t completed… But this one has to make way.

What I experienced on January 31st through now is not really secondary loss or secondary traumatic stress … But it’s hard to describe what it is…

It was the first major trauma in my life since Tim’s.

You may read this and say… it’s a broken bone… its not comparable to cancer and death after 26 days in the ICU. And yes, that is true. However, for me… living it… there was so much “again.”

It started out like a regular Thursday. A and R have play therapy for grief on Thursdays, so I always pick them up from school and take them. I got to school, and headed into their aftercare and chatted with teachers, while they took their usual forever to get backpacks, jackets, projects, water bottles, etc… when we got to the car, I glanced at my phone while they were buckling up. I had a message from my au pair that she and D were at Target, he fell down and he tells her his leg hurts so she is taking him home… he was pushing the cart and he jumped up on it and half fell on his leg, thank God she held the other part… I really didn’t know how to interpret this so I responded with a crying emoji! Like the kind with the big tears! And then the girls call out her name! And there she is next to my car. So I jump out. (The school is on the way home from the Target.) And she says he is still crying. So I run over to that car. I look in his eyes, and I know right away something is wrong. He’s not really hysterical but he’s crying, nose running, and he touches his thigh and says “my leg hurts, Mama!” But it was his eyes. His eyes told me something was very wrong. I said “OK! Let’s switch – let me grab my bag, take the girls to Ms Paige’s, and I’ll take D to the Doctor. I ran to my car. The girls started crying, that they wanted to be with me. I said no, firmly, D needs me right now. The car next to us was complaining they couldn’t get out, because the car D was in (Tim’s car) was blocking them in, so E moved it while I got my bag and then we switched, and D and I were off. I actually considered going to the pediatrician, but I knew they’d be closing as it was 5:00 pm.

So I took him to the closest ER. The off-shoot ER near us. The place where I took his father on May 16, 2017. I walked him in as quickly and safely as I could. Everyone was calm. They don’t say this to you, but both times I felt like they thought I was overreacting. First, with a perfectly healthy looking 6’4″ tall, 37-year-old man, while I did all the talking, then, less than 2 years later holding my 2.5 year old son. I had been to this ER with R. And I had been there myself when I had severe dehydration, with step throat and a stomach bug when pregnant with D. But those times, I drove us home.

As they took D back for his x-ray, I passed the ambulance bay and I realized for the first time – this is where they took him to load onto the ambulance after I left with A, to pick up R and D. They had told me they didn’t think D’s leg was broken but they would x-ray it just in case. I was confused at the confidence. Why? Just because he wasn’t screaming bloody murder? He wouldn’t put any weight on it, he certainly wouldn’t walk (or even stand on his own) when the Dr. made me make him try to walk. So off we went to xray together, me holding his hand. He was not excited to move into all different angles for the x-ray but he handled it pretty well, truthfully. And then we walked slowly back to his little room, past the ambulance bay again.

When the Doctor (who told me she didn’t think it was broken) returned she said “so you heard the news?” to which I said, well I OVERheard you guys ordering “transport” so….” And she confirmed it was broken and that he’d be getting some stronger pain meds. (Went from tylenol to morphine!!)

As I should know well by now there is a lot of hurry up and waiting in medical situations. No matter how much I might will things to go faster. He started to doze with the morphine though so I could text and get things in motion, let people know what was going on. My amazing OT friend who works at the hospital that the ambulance would soon be taking us to showed up, then once transport arrived, left with my keys to get another friend so they could move my car (Tim’s car to be honest) to the hospital.

I was there. I was 100% with my boy then as they moved him to the stretcher and started to wheel him to the ambulance bay…. he looked so small. Too small to be broken. And then we were in the ambulance. He was cheerful (maybe it was the morphine).. he called the ambulance the white bus. Every day he watches his sisters get on the school bus and he wants on that yellow bus so badly. Here he was, getting his own special bus ride. (Spoiler alert – the school bus is way cheaper!)

And then we were driving in the ambulance and I was holding his hand. Talking to him… looking into those baby blues. His father’s blue eyes… and all I could think was how I should have been in that ambulance with Tim. I had never thought that thought before. I did what I had to do. I simply executed. I wasn’t a hysterical mess. I calmly got Annabelle out and got the other 2, and got all 3 home for dinner with my friend who showed up to help… then I drove to the hospital in my car, met him in his room. I did not let myself feel, cry or worry; I executed. It’s one of my greatest strengths. A cool head in crisis. It’s something Tim loved about me. I never doubted that he would have wanted it any other way. Always – the kids first. But there I was in that ambulance with my son, holding his hand, looking into those blue eyes, making that exact same drive that Tim’s ambulance had made, the last time Tim was ever outside. I thought about what we might have talked about. Certainly not anything intimate in front of the paramedic, but just the idea of one more conversation with him, the missed opportunity. My eyes filled with tears. Then I scolded myself. D. He is here now, he is the one who needs you. Look at this tiny little person on this stretcher. You are what he has in the world, you make all decisions for his well-being, you CAN NOT FALL APART.

And so I didn’t. I did not fall apart. However much I may have wanted to… I told the paramedic his father also broke his leg at 2 years old (a fact I knew but confirmed with Tim’s parents while I was waiting)… but I didn’t tell the paramedic that this little boy’s father was now dead. Sometimes, I just can’t… My two amazing friends showed up at the hospital ER and when they hugged me… how I wanted to fall apart. When my in-laws called me (when I was in that Emergency room with D and my two friends waiting for Dr.’s and trying to entertain him with television) and they told me my father-in-law (who happened to be arriving the next day for a scheduled trip) could stay as long as I needed help, I teared up, but I did not fall apart. When I was told we had to wait for the morning for an OR and I didn’t even let the Orthopedic guy in scrubs finish talking before I handed D some water (which he had desperately wanted but I could not give him in case they could take him into the OR that night.) I simply executed what was best for my boy. When my friends left and we were transported to a children’s room for the night… when I “slept” the worst night I think I’ve ever had in bed beside him, where he would doze, then wake himself with a start and burst into tears… I held him, and soothed him, and I did not fall apart in the darkness. When they finally got him in the OR the next day and for the first time, I was alone… alone with the exact same color-coded paper in my hands they had given me when they sent Tim into surgery to get the ECMO set on May 17, 2017. And I sat in that waiting room alone… alone where I should have been waiting with my husband for our son with the broken femur to get out of the OR. I did not fall apart. When one of my friends’ friend who is a Pediatric surgeon in that hospital came to see me in the morning, filled with so much kindness, intelligence, knowledge and compassion, I teared up, but I did not fall apart. When a good friend showed up with her son (a friend of A’s) and Dunkin donuts coffee and a wake up wrap, I teared up, but I did not fall apart. I executed. When I saw the full extent of the Spica cast he was in, when I had the thought “my baby is broken,” when the OT explained to me diapering, clothing, getting in and out of the car seat, no baths, no putting any pressure on his leg, that the pain reliever they had for him was a narcotic, that it could cause constipation, that he would need 24×7 care in this cast…. any of these things that made me want to burst into tears… I did not. I listened, and I did. I did whatever needed to be done for my boy. Because that’s what I do. Because its what widows with small children do. We do what must be done, even when reliving the trauma feels like more than we can possibly bear.

These past 6 weeks… there was darkness. There were many difficult nights. There were times when the light at the end of the tunnel was too dim to see.

Someone asked me yesterday at an impromptu St. Patrick’s day and “cast off” party “So what’s your secret? How did you survive?”

I said “I don’t have one… well, I had a lot of help. I guess that’s it ” – and I proceeded to describe the help I had – people flying in from LA and Chicago and New York, family and friends driving long distances to come and help, my au pair, local friends supporting us.. and on and on.

And that is the truth. That is how I survived the logistics of this situation that felt impossible to survive. I had so much help. From people I can probably never repay. And my heart explodes with gratitude just thinking about it.

But here’s my secret.. in so many ways, the logistics were not the hardest part. That is a fact that maybe unless you UNDERSTAND, you can not understand. And I am truly happy for you if you can not UNDERSTAND. The parallels, the reliving, the questions that come in the dark, the longing for the one person who was supposed to be here to help you through all these hard times, in sickness and in health. He should be here. For me, for D, for himself. One morning after several without sleep, I woke up, looked at Tim’s dad and told him, “I just feel so confused that Tim is not here.” I know that makes no sense. Its been 20 months… I know he is dead. I understand. I understand the permanence of death. Then why do I feel so confused by his absence right now? My father in law said “because it makes no sense.”

So here’s the thing. We did survive it. And we will survive the next curve ball that comes our way. I survived it thanks to an incredible village of support for which I am forever grateful. I once heard Glennon Doyle say “I created the community that I would one day need” and I so feel that way about Tim and I. We had no idea of the community we were creating.

Before bed tonight, the girls and I read a book with a shooting star, and R said she knows what she would wish for if she saw a shooting star… she would wish for Daddy to come back “that’s always at the top of my list of wishes.” She told me she had a dream that he came back for a day. A chimed in that she had those dreams too. And we sat in that moment. Me too, guys. Me too. I know without a doubt that I would give up all the help from family and friends if I could have him back – even for one day. But I also know I can not. I know I can never have him back, and I know that the grief will change in waves over time, but it will never be gone. And I know that this pain and suffering, as well as simply being the woman he loved, and the mother that my kids have, every day it is making me who I am. The person I will bring into the future. I don’t imagine that he would want anything else for me.

The Holidays

The Holidays are joyful, magical, especially for children. The holidays can be difficult for adults. They are difficult for many people. They are especially difficult for grieving people, people in crisis, people processing tragedy.

The Holidays – Christmas in particular – are for children and people in love. This year, I am neither of those. But I do have three small children at home for whom I must ensure the magic.

When I was in the Widow’s support group “the Holidays” was a topic on the giant post-it note paper, and I didn’t totally understand it. It was October, so I think I knew intellectually it was staring us all in the face, but I could not yet comprehend it.

The best that can be said for me last Christmas is that I survived it. I think the kids enjoyed it. I went through the motions. I know this for sure because when I unpacked the Christmas ornaments I found a homemade ornament from each kiddo marked 2017, which I would swear I’ve never seen before, and yet I am positive I must have seen last year. On my birthday (two days before Christmas), I drove to the grocery store and fantasized about running away. My kids were with two people I trusted completely. Certainly, running away was the best option. Tim loved Christmas. He was absolutely kid-giddy about it. When we first took the kids to our new home, the first thing he asked them is where we should put the Christmas tree. (It was June). He loved Christmas lights! I know, without a doubt, that if Tim had died on me before we had children, I’d want to take time off and go to some tropical beach, and completely ignore the holiday. But that’s simply not an option at this point of my life. Not when I need to supply the magic of Christmas to our children. To help them see the Holidays through the lens their father would have showed it to them. I feel the pressure to give them the best Christmas possible, for them, because of what they are missing without him here, and because he was the great Christmas lover. So I ask myself “What would Tim do?” and then I do it… And so often that helps.

Today, I listened to an episode of my favorite podcast, Terrible Thanks for Asking, Happy(ish) Holidays III . In it, a man talks about looking forward to a Christmas that he will spend with his family, including 2 teenage sons, through a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, knowing that this is likely to be his last Christmas season.

And it made me think. What if we all thought about how we would want to spend the holidays if we knew it was our last? How would it change your perspective? How would it change how you spent it?

As much as I wish we could have had so many conversations… to prepare… for ME, I am absolutely thrilled for him that he never knew. Had no idea that this was coming. But if he had known…. If he had known that his last Christmas, would be his last Christmas, how would he have wanted to spend it? Like all things with Tim, because of how well I knew him… the answer comes to my mind immediately: exactly the way he did. Everyone said we were crazy. But he didn’t care. And for once, I didn’t care either! We threw caution to the wind, we planned, and we took a 5 year old, 3 year old, and 5 month old to London for Christmas. We took time off. We traveled. We trusted each other. We relied on each other. There were few gifts that year. The gift was the experience. Exactly the way he always wanted. We said that the Christmas gift we gave each other was paying for expensive airport parking to make our lives easier getting in and out of the airport in the US. Santa had small, modest gifts under the tree in London Christmas morning. The kids didn’t seem to notice Mom and Dad didn’t get anything. Most importantly, we spent Christmas together, simply. We played games, pulled Christmas crackers, I cooked dinner, and had some snacks and charcuterie for “lunch.” We enjoyed each other. Just our small immediate family. And we could not have been happier. I don’t tell myself that’s how he would have spent his last Christmas to make myself feel better. I do it because it is simply true. But thinking that today… it did bring a measure of comfort.

So then I thought to myself…. if I knew this Christmas was my last… how would I want to spend it? Again an easy answer. I would want to spend it with my family. However, wherever, that was. Spending it with Tim is not an option. Yet if this was my last Christmas, I’d want to be with my children, and make it special and memorable for them. I would want to see the magic of Christmas that can only be seen in a child’s eyes. I’d want to slow time down, and just BE with my family.

It’s probably not my last Christmas. But I don’t know that. And elements of it could be “the last”… kids grow and change so quickly. My children’s cousins will be here this Christmas again, but one of them is already in College, so I know that family togetherness is fleeting. If I’m lucky, I will grow old. My kids will grow up, and have their own interests, their own people, and they may all chose to spend it with their own families… maybe then I can try that tropical vacation Christmas.

Somehow, there is comfort in knowing the answer to that question. It’s not a question about Tim, and doing what he would want me to do. It’s a question about me – how would I want to spend it if I knew it would be my last?

I know the answer. And that is just what I am going to do.

Year Two

June 11th came.  And I survived it.  I did a round trip drive to Pennsylvania to see my nephew graduate from high school.  I stopped in A’s classroom before I left.  Worth every moment.  I spent the morning at a coffee shop we used to go to together… working on the 26 days post.

I woke up on June 12th and Tim’s car was gone from the driveway.   Someone came into my driveway and took my property.  Tim’s car.  Which as of September 2017, was registered and titled to me care of the Virginia DMV.  So close to my home.  So close to where my three babies were sleeping.   I’m a short female, widow…living alone… with three small children.  Surely, I should have felt “vulnerable” before.  But I just… didn’t.  Maybe that’s foolish, but it’s simply true.  This one act rattled the core of my being.  I missed another day of work, I dealt with so many police, detectives, insurance agents, adjusters, car lot, tow truck drivers, body shop managers… you name it that week.  I got the car back.  Spent more to get it back than it’s worth and should have just let it go and bought a new car… but I will let that car go when I am ready, on my own terms.

Year Two.  People tell me it’s worse than year one.   I actually remember Tim remarking about that once with respect to the overwhelming sympathy/support you receive because people note the “first” of everything… but they have moved on by the second… and you haven’t.  I guess this is true.  It may also be that the cloud of grief has lifted, and you have to feel more, you still have to live the new reality.  There are a hundred reasons people may say that year 2 is harder than the first… but I didn’t want it to be true for me.  Of course not, I never do.  Well, I guess how the year turns out remains to be seen, but it certainly started with a bang!

Year Two for me has been difficult in a unique way as well, that not all widows face in exactly the same way.   For me, as a result of the size of my heart, along with random happenstance and timing.  Hopefully one day I’ll be ready to write about that.

Tim had such a solid and nearly instantaneously good sense of people.  I used to say he was an excellent judge of character, but it was more than that.  It used to drive me crazy how he always turned out to be right about people.  The thing for which I am most grateful is how much we knew each other.  And how much he shaped me.  While we never discussed death and arrangements for us specifically, I knew immediately every step of the journey how to do exactly what he would want.  I worried sometimes (because I am me) how they would be received by others, but I always knew what he would want… and I executed accordingly.  In any difficult situation in the last year, I’ve offered it up to him in my heart and I hear an answer from him nearly immediately.  That fact has a spiritual / other-worldly nature to it that I don’t typically buy into… but it’s simply true.  I hear him in my heart telling me what to do, whenever I ask.  Sometimes, even when I don’t.

In D’s room I have a picture of him and Tim where Tim is looking straight into the camera.  I picked it to put up on a canvas on the wall even though there is one I have in the same position of them looking at each other that I like even more… because I love the idea of D having that in his room… with Tim looking right out at him.  I both love and hate that picture.  It has a Mona Lisa quality of Tim’s piercing eyes.  Tim could pierce you with his eyes like Dumbledore… in life, and most especially in the picture in D’s room, beyond life as well.

There was a saying that I always liked that went “if equal affection can not be, let the more loving one be me.”  (From a W. H. Auden poem.) I have often lived that way.

There was a time, when I put D to bed while Tim was in the hospital… when I bathed or put D to bed right after he died…  when there were many people here with the girls, that I was finally alone with D, and I would just cry.  And I would worry, what am I doing to this poor kid to cover him in my tears all the time?   That hasn’t happened in a long time.  But tonight, I let the girls watch something while I put D to bed, so we were alone reading stories… while he was getting another one I looked up at that picture of Tim.  I let his eyes pierce me.  I let everything he would say to the questions of my heart wash over me.  And I cried.  I felt bad, because D looked at me very confused.  But when I smiled at him, he smiled at me and snuggled in for “one more” story…

What I hear him say is this:  I know you, MaryBeth.  You know me.  Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment when it really matters.   I can’t be there to envelope you in my love.  I can’t be there to adore you.  Surround yourself with people who adore you.  People who adore you, but will also call you on your BS… 

So this is what I must do.  This is what I will focus on doing in year two, and I will see where it takes me.

“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen

New Year’s Day

I survived 2017.  What more can I say?

Tim did not.

It’s true,  I feel like half of me died last summer.  However, my heart is still beating.  Kidneys, lungs, all of it.  And tiny humans still need me.  There are all the logistics. There is the world that just keeps spinning, 24 hours after another.  Relentless.

Some days, the amount of life I have left seems daunting.  All of the days and the weeks and the months and the years that I have to live without him.  That just simply was not the plan.

I survived Christmas, somehow.  Well, with family, with a lot of support.  That is how I survived Christmas.

New Year’s brought me great anxiety.  Both eager anticipation to get the heck out of 2017… and the realization that with the end of 2017, came the end of the last year Tim ever saw. The last year that ever knew Tim.

My solution?  Invite around 30 people to my house to provide distraction.  That worked, but then this morning, I felt the deep sadness welling up.  The kind of sadness so deep and powerful that the only way to deal with it really would be to cry and sleep all day.  That, of course, was not an option, so I was infinitely grateful that I had been invited to my first ever in-person get together of the DC area members of the Hot Young Widows Club.   I took the kids and truthfully it was a lifesaver to have something to do, around people who just simply get it.  And the power in the girls realizing that all of the other kids there had dead dads too.  And meeting a widow my age live and in person for the first time ever.  It turned out to be the exact medicine I needed.

My goal for 2018 is to find a balance between the sadness and hope for the future.  I want the kids to hear all the stories about their dad, to hear his name, to feel him in their hearts. But I also want to do whatever I can for myself to avoid them living with a sad sack until they go to college.  I don’t know how to find that balance, but I have to believe there is always hope, and that I can find it.

Don’t read the last page
But I stay when it’s hard or it’s wrong or we’re making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
And I will hold on to you
~T. Swift, New Year’s Day

Anniversary

No marriage is perfect.

 

I know that.

 

And ours was no exception.

 

Recently, though, I was reminded of the concept of infidelity.  And that in some cultures or circles in the world, and even in the U.S., much as I hate to admit it, its accepted…overlooked… ignored for men to be unfaithful, and not respect women.

 

Being married to Tim, it’s easy to forget that exists.   The way he was, the people he surrounded himself with…

 

Tim and I were both terribly passionate, opinionated, stubborn people.  We argued about everything.  Sometimes, he felt I argued just to argue. Maybe he was right.

The last argument I remember us having was about the car keys.  Or rather, about me lying about them.

 

To explain: the keys to our SUV – which I primarily drive – had remote access keys.  This allows you to start the car, lock, unlock, open the back hatch without getting the key out of your bag, pocket etc., as long as it is close by.  But this feature requires good, working batteries.  Ours were both going, so we bought the new batteries, and I asked Tim to change them – he did it the last time, looked it up on YouTube, etc.  Weeks, then MONTHS went by where he didn’t do it and I was losing my mind.  With three kids in and out of that car all the time, the remote key was soooo missed, having to get it out to start or lock the car was driving me crazy.  And I just didn’t feel like figuring it out to do it myself. I finally got tired of waiting and just stopped at a Battery place near work and had it done.  I didn’t tell him mostly because I thought it would be entertaining to see how long before he noticed.

When he found out, he was livid.  I mean absolutely temper tantrum angry.

His reason – not that I had done this, but that I hadn’t told him.  I had purposely not told him. I had lied.  If I could do that, what else could I lie about, what else could I hide?  “It’s a slippery slope.”

 

Remembering this now I smile.  A sad, ironic smile… but still.

 

This was my marriage.  We fought about silly stuff, but never in a million years could I believe he’d cheat on me.   And now that I have access to his entire personal, physical and digital life, I know that to be true even more.   Nothing I found surprised me.  And he certainly had no time to prepare!

 

He was one of the best. One of the good guys.  His love for me, his remarkable, unwavering moral compass. His desire for the world to be a better place for his children. His desire for equality and social justice.

 

Yes, I was robbed of the life I planned.  But I know I am also in a way, one of the lucky ones.

 

My life with him was too short, but what an honor to be his wife.

 

Wherever you are, my love, Happy Anniversary.  I love you.

 

Packing for the beach

Today, I packed for the beach.

It was really, really hard.

It should not have been.  With Tim here I still would have done all the packing.  But this time, I also loaded the car.  That wasn’t hard.  But this time, Tim wasn’t talking to me about whether I had packed yet, or whether I had remembered abc or what time we were leaving, or where was his xyz.

Mostly, it was hard because he should be here.  He should be going to the beach with us. This house that we stayed at last year when I was large-and-in-charge pregnant.  Where we walked on the beach together.  One of our favorite things to do.  And talk about the future.  All the possibilities.  Now I am living a future we never imagined. A future we never discussed.

Everyone worries about me and what I call “the logistics.”  I understand this.  I can take myself out of my life for a minute and imagine what I would feel/ think for a friend if this had happened to a friend and not to me.   I would worry about “the logistics.”  Because in early May  of this year, and every minute before, raising these tiny humans was hard, and exhausting, all-consuming.  And there are so many logistics.  All that is still there, I know.  But it seems completely different now. The logistics are no longer what is hard.  I seem to just know that somehow (and with lots of help from a lot of amazing friends and family) the logistics will be taken care of each day.  I will find the strength to handle the details – the bill-paying, the working, the child-caring.  It’s the sadness and the broken heart that make the future truly unimaginable.

Sometimes the missing him makes my throat close and the air seem so hard to swallow.