Expectations

The last few weeks have been and I’m sure the next few will be a time of more reflection than usual. It’s the time of year when, 2 years ago Mike was first diagnosed and then last year he became really, really sick. It feels like a different life. It was a different life, I guess.

This post came up on my FB memories today. That day last year was, at the time, the pinnacle of stress of trying to balance Mike’s needs in his rapidly deteriorating state with trying to keep as much of a sense of normality as possible for the boys. Obviously, that became a lot harder over the next few weeks, but today was the day we had the “If you need me and the boys need me at the same time, I’m going to have to put them first” conversation. I had gone to work to meet some French friends to help me try to call and get in-home care set-up for Mike (it actually took more than 2 weeks to get this sorted out). I spoke with Mike and he was fine so I went to the gym. When I came out, I had a missed call and a voice-mail that he’d fallen down the stairs at home and needed my help. When I got home, he had managed to get himself back upstairs to bed but he was in really bad shape. I spent an hour or so back and forth on the phone with his oncologist (we decided to try and persuade him he needed to go to hospital), with the French in-home care folks (who go home at 2pm on a Friday) all whilst trying to get our absolutely trashed house cleaned up because his family were arriving to see him at the weekend. It was fucking chaos.

He agreed to go to hospital and I managed to get him in the car by myself and his wonderful oncologist met us on the steps of the hospital. He told me which ward they were going to admit him into and said we could go up there now. I had to tell him that I couldn’t because I had to go to the boys’ end-of-year school party with them. He was very understanding and promised to call me as soon as Mike was settled. The feeling of standing on the hospital steps in the rain watching him lean on his doctor and shuffle away will stay with me forever.

I raced home. Picked-up the puppy. Legged it to the school. And the entire school gathered under a tent as absolutely torrential rain poured down. The kids were asking for money for treats and I realised I had no money on me. The party had beer & wine #vivelafrance but again … I was penniless. I remember standing there, trying to stop Louis going nuts with all the excitement, wondering if Mike was going to make it through the night, thinking that later I would have to tell the boys that their Dad was going to die, listening to the rain lashing down in a complete state of shock. And then another expat Mom found me. And she bought cake for the kids. And beer for me. And the rain stopped. And the kids ran around with their friends and did their dances. And they were happy. And in some ways so was I. It was the epitome of the dual-life I was living. Trying to create a sanctuary of happiness for the boys and trying to take care of Mike. We went home later and a friend and his girlfriend came over with pizza and played with the boys and Louis. My house was absolutely trashed. The entire floor covered in remnants of cardboard boxes that Louis had terrorized, no room on the dining table to even put the pizza boxes down. The doctor called to say that Mike was stable, but I would need to come first thing in the morning to talk (the talk ended up being that his heart could stop at any moment and we signed “no ICU” and “DNR” papers)’ he had been accidentally over-dosing himself with painkillers, I hadn’t realised that was something I needed to keep track of for him.

The thoughts I’m trying to have today are that, stressed as I have been for the past few weeks with so much to do at home and at work and making not nearly enough progress with anything, things could be worse. On the other hand, there were far less expectations on me a year ago. Simple survival and getting Mike and the kids through each day to the best of my ability was all I could ask of myself. Even that was a lot. Today, expectations are a lot higher. I want to be productive at work. I want my house to be a nicer place for us to live in. I want the kids to be happy and participate in their sports and music activities and I want to have time together with them to just enjoy ourselves. I want sleep. I want time for myself. And I’m probably doing a worse job against my expectations today than I was a year ago. And I’ve tried just doing a better job, and I’m doing the best that I can. So, I need to find a way to lower my own and others’ expectations of me. At least for a little while longer. It’s taking longer than I thought to find my feet properly. I think that’s probably OK. I think I need to find a way to tell folk, especially those at work, that this is the case now that I finally realise it. If I can take the pressure off myself a little, things will probably go a little better. I’m not sure my pride is going to let me have that conversation at work though …

Last of the Firsts

Another post written on my phone late at night a couple of weeks ago and not posted …

Today was Danny’s 8th birthday. It was also what would have been our 13th wedding anniversary. Last year on this day, I shaved Mike’s head for him as the brain radiation finally took it’s toll on him, I texted our friends so they could talk to their kids and let them know and we screwed smiles on our faces and held Danny’s 7th birthday party.
As I was falling asleep last night I heard one of the boys call out for their Daddy in their sleep, I’ve never heard that before. They both seemed to be sleeping soundly and neither one remembered any dreams this morning. Mike’s sister sent D a photograph of Mike for his birthday, so I’m guessing it was him.

In-keeping with the unpredictability of my emotions, today was a better day than most have been of late. It was the first time in a while I’ve gotten out of bed without having to fight off fatigue-induced tears. We had done all of Danny’s present-opening and celebrating over the last 3 days, so it was just a normal day, apart from the fact that over breakfast the boys wanted to hear the details of exactly what happened when their Daddy died. Even that didn’t feel particularly emotional. After the usual wrangling to get them out of the door, I went to work, I chauffeured the kids around and soon I’ll go to bed. Of course I thought about our wedding day, but honestly I didn’t feel much of anything.

And this marks the last of the firsts. General sentiment seems to be that the first year, the first milestones are hard and then things improve. I have to say that I haven’t found any of them particularly hard. Mike’s birthday was only a month after he died and so I was in a pretty bad place anyway. Christmas was hard, not really emotionally but mostly from a fatigue perspective. Jack’s birthday, my birthday, Danny’s birthday, our anniversary: none of them were particularly hard.
These days grief strikes unexpectedly and is usually catalysed either by the boys missing their Dad or by me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed with life as a single Mom. I grieve for our old life, for the death of our family. However well things are going for us, I think I’ll always grieve for that, it’s gone forever. I grieve for the childhood that I wanted to give my boys that I can no longer give them. I grieve for the time with them that I have lost and that I will continue to lose because I need 29 hour days at least to be able to get everything done. Mostly I grieve for Jack and Danny and the time they should have had with their Daddy. And more than anything else I grieve for Mike and the time he should have had with his boys. The three of them are missing out on so much and however hard I try there is nothing I can do to fix that.

Where’s Sarah?

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago on my phone and never got around to posting it here …

It’s been more than 6 months since I wrote anything, not just here but anywhere. I started writing as a way to manage the constant head-spinning I was experiencing after Mike died, it really helped. In November I went back to work and since then I either felt OK enough that I didn’t need to write or I was so busy that I could not make the time or I was just so tired and so blue that I couldn’t muster the energy.
A lot happened in those 6 months. A couple of weeks after I last wrote, my Dad got really sick and a couple of weeks after that, he died. The boys and I made it back to England to see him just a few hours before he passed but sadly about 24 hours after he lost consciousness. It was a tough time for all 3 of us. The boys were so sweet “Oh no Mommy, now you’ll know what it feels like to lose your Dad and it’s really awful. We’re so sorry”. Seeing another dead body and see if their Mom and Grandma and aunts and uncles so upset really took it’s toll on them.
Next there was the cremation. Then an incident with one of the boys taking the idea of seeing their Dad again in heaven too far (nothing serious from a practical perspective). And then Christmas. By which time I was so tired I could barely function. Needless to say my return to work was not being particularly productive.
And I hated, hated, hated being alone for all of this. Flying and driving and driving and flying alone to see my Dad die. And preparing and celebrating Christmas alone. And taking the boys on a ski holiday alone. I didn’t hate the loneliness of it. I loathed the exhaustion of it all.
2016 arrived with many messages of “This year will surely be better” to which I mostly refrained from responding “That’s what everyone said last year and look how that turned out”. We travelled to England for the third time in a few weeks for my Dad’s memorial service. And then I went to Boston for a week for work. And then it was Jack’s birthday. And then we went skiing again.
The boys both started to talk to psychologists. I started playing rugby again which precludes any need for psychiatric help on my part.
I’m just about starting to find my feet at work after 6 months. I found the most amazing nanny who the boys adore and without whom I simply couldn’t cope. Despite losing the two people who loved me most in the world within a few months of each other and feeling like I never had time to mourn my Dad properly, things are going OK when I’m able to look at them objectively.
I think my biggest problems are practical and most of all it’s that I am bone tired. I start and end most days feeling sad and overwhelmed and tearful. The hours inbetween are pretty good most days. My boys are amazing. I’m in awe of them every day, but I hate the feeling that they’ve been robbed of the childhood they deserved. And that I’ve been robbed of the childhood I wanted to have with them. Danny said a few months ago “You know when Daddy was alive he got to do the fun stuff with us and you did all the hard work and now he’s dead you have even more work to do and so there’s no one for us to have fun with”. That felt great. Thanks, insightful child of mine.
And so I haven’t been writing much because it doesn’t seem like there’s much to write about. I’m not wrestling and trying to untangle my thoughts. I’m just tired. And sad. And happy. And grateful. And tired.
One more Danny-ism “It’s like there’s a battle between happiness and sadness in my heart and sometimes sadness wins”. That’s kind of how I feel. For the middle 80% of almost every day, happiness is the firm winner but at the beginning and end of every day, before I gather my energy and once it’s all spent, that little bugger sadness sneaks in for the win.

How Are You?

The dreaded question. Ask me on any given day or at a different time of the same day and you might get wildly different answers. Emotional stability has never been one of my many virtues.

There were the months when this question was always accompanied by the “sympathetic head tilt” and the obvious lack of belief that I was basically OK. This was at the time in equal parts frustrating (why don’t they believe me?) and comforting (at least folk kind of get how hard this is); but mostly frustrating.

These days, folk are much more likely to take me at face value. I’m guessing partly because I’m doing much better than in the first few weeks after Mike died (although I can’t figure out if I’m doing better or worse than the weeks and months before he died), partly because my “stiff upper lip” impression is improving and partly because most folk have no idea how hard the whole “single Mom” thing is. How could they? I had no idea. Mike and I were both really confident in my ability to “kick the shit out of Plan B”. I could not feel less like I’m kicking the shit out of anything.

So, here’s how I am
— I wake up almost every morning and feel crushed by fatigue and overwhelmed by all the things I should and will not get done that day. I often cry. I set 4 alarms to make sure I wake up. It usually takes 30+ minutes for me to summon the energy to get out of bed making our morning full of stress and tardiness
— I end almost every day with a crushing sense of fatigue and failure. I get done ~20% of the things I should do. I fail on every single front: being a Mom, working, not smoking, eating well, exercising as I should, having the house not be a complete shithole …
— The hours inbetween are sometimes not too bad. I’m genuinely blessed with my kids and my friends and my colleagues, but the deep sense of fatigue and failure are never far from the surface. The effort to push them down only increases both of them #fatiguebasedviciouscircle
— It feels like there is no time to recover. Monday morning is met by all three of us (writing “all three of us” as if it’s a big number, when it’s clearly too small a number, is a weird thing to have done) with the appropriate sense of trepidation and misery. The boys are delighted when Friday rolls around but this is generally worse for me than Mondays; the weekends are just as intense as work-days and somehow seem worse because everyone else seems to be recuperating in some way
— If you asked me to describe my life in one word, it would be “relentless”. Even time away from the boys takes so much organization and then preparation and then recovery that it mostly seems barely worth it
— In what may seem like a contradiction to everything I’ve written above, I spend a lot of time feeling happy and loved and lucky. I have an incredible support network. Friends I can count on night and day. Somehow this makes the darkness when it comes feel more scary because there’s not a logical reason to feel so lonely or overwhelmed or tired or like no one really understands

But if you ask, I’ll say “fine” or “great” or “better”. I’ll usually follow it up with “the boys are doing great” and probably something about “being a bit tired” and us “finding a new rhythm”. They feel like easier answers than the truth.

The sympathetic head tilt will always get the “I’m OK head-bob” though

Everybody Hurts

I’m not sure if it’s only once you’ve experienced real pain & grief that you become more aware of the suffering of others? Or if at a certain age (ugh!) the amount of people in your life experiencing real pain & grief grows.

Jack woke this morning (well, actually I woke him fairly abruptly as I slept through my alarm for the second time this week :-/) and was visibly disappointed. He explained that he dreamed he died and went to heaven and saw his Dad there and now he was disappointed that he doesn’t really get to see him.

I bumped into a friend on Wednesday at work whose brother-in-law is in the final days of his battle with cancer. He had a place available for him in the same, wonderful hospice that Mike spent his last days, but was a little resistant to the idea. I was able to emphasize how much better I strongly believed his last days would be for everyone if he would go there. She let me know yesterday that he both agreed to go, survived the night at home and was there. I hope it turns out to be a good decision. I wish them as much peace & comfort as that place brought to all of us. Feels like some kind of fate that we bumped into each other.

Today is the two year anniversary of the death of the very young daughter of two friends of ours. She was born with severe physical handicaps but her personality always shone brighter than any of her difficulties and the way her parents and beautiful sister formed a family with her was genuinely inspirational.

So much grief. So much love. So much suffering. In just a couple of days. In just the people I know. And we are part of the most privileged 1% of people on the planet. It all seems pretty fucking pointless.

Reality Day #1

I wrote this on Monday, but somehow didn’t get around to publishing it:

It’s not quite reality day #1 as I don’t go back to the office until tomorrow. But today the kids are back in school, I need to collect LTB, unpack from 2 weeks away and start sorting out my house which is trashed from having workmen in it for 2 weeks whilst we were away. Our nanny starts work today; I’ll spend the afternoons and evenings with her this week showing her the boys routine so that she and I can start working properly from next week onward.

I started the day which I have been dreading, having had around two and a half hours sleep, following two weeks of jet-lagged bad sleep in the US. It’s less-than-ideal. I spent the first few minutes of the day whining to a friend which only served to make me feel worse about myself. So I decided to keep myself to myself for once and suffer in silence. So, I’m writing here as the day unfolds to try and keep my misery to myself.

First things first: within 2 minutes of waking the boys Jack was in tears about having to go back to school today. Other than that, the pre-school routine went pretty smoothly. My good intentions for having them walk to school instead of be driven every day went out of the window, but there was no shouting, no more tears and I managed to get their school stuff sorted out and drop them off on time. I feel like I should write something positive or better still, feel something positive. I don’t, so I won’t.

It took me 30 minutes to get out of the car after I dropped them off. And then another 90 minutes to get off the sofa. I haven’t been this paralyzed for weeks. The idea of going to the office tomorrow or indeed of screwing a smile on my face and dealing with the nanny later are completely overwhelming. I arrived at the kennels to pick-up LTB with 2 minutes to spare before they closed. Now I am home and sitting uselessly in my garden, looking at the wreckage of my house and desperately trying to find the energy to address it. I’ve already given up on the notion of any exercise today. I have, have, have to go shopping and I have, have, have to have a shower and get the house in better shape. I just can’t move. What I really need is a hug from a friend. Just to rest in someone’s arms for half an hour or so. Maybe have a cry. Get my energy from somewhere else instead of within me, because I’m empty.

So, I wrote a little and then ended up completely strapped for time to do the absolute essentials for the day of picking up my post (which wasn’t there #franceisbroken) and doing some food shopping. At 4pm Noémie came over and we spent the next three hours going through the Monday evening routine with her. It was OK but really draining. I find myself wondering how much harder this must be for people who are natural introverts; I’m a fairly extrovert person, I get my energy from other people, and I find myself completely worn-out by the very basics of normal human interaction these days; how hard it must be for folk who find these things draining in the first place. Anyway, the boys were relatively good but sticking spoons in my eyes would have been more pleasurable than homework with Jack; he was trying hard but the basic concepts of electricity were hard for him to grasp; especially with me struggling between two languages.

This is pretty much where I gave-up the “not whining to my friends” approach to the day and started blethering to them instead of blethering here. The rest of my evening was consumed in unecessary bellowing at my poor children, making dinner whilst having the fuse in the kitchen trip 5 or 6 times, finally getting the kids to bed and then helping D through his worst breakdown yet about Mike. Once that was done I was back to the sofa for more staring into space.

It was the most completely paralyzed day I have had for many weeks. There’s no rational reason for it. I think it’s good that I (kind of) just let myself go with it and wallow in some misery & solitude. Hopefully it makes for a more funtional day tomorrow.

Reading a comic together before school

At least these guys are *awesome*: reading a comic together before school

Sick

I told Jack whilst we were on holiday last week that I was having a great time but that I was also homesick. He asked what that meant and after he explained, he said “Well, I’m father-sick”. He had a tougher time last week than at any point; two or maybe three nights in a row I held him whilst he cried because he just wants to see his Daddy again. Danny seemed fine and then right before we left for the airport from our friends’ apartment in Boston he had a huge breakdown: I don’t know where it came from, but it was ugly. He had an even worse one here one night this week; he’s so small and skinny and pale and just so sad. We actually ended up having a pretty good cry together about how hard it is and how unfair it is.

Their apparently increasing grief is hard to cope with << you have a firm grasp of the obvious, Sarah. I can’t think of a less cliche way to describe it than it feels like I never really recover after each time they get really sad about it, like another small piece of my heart dies every time and it gets heavier and heavier.

Jack’s comment set off a little spiral of self-pity for me (one of my least favourite states of mind) and all the ways in which I’m sick. I’m husband-sick and sleep-sick and old-Sarah-sick and two-parent-family-sick and work-sick (how weird is that?) and housemate-sick and co-parent-sick and love-sick and shared-responsibility-sick and any-semblance-of-a-lie-in-sick and rugby-sick and so much more.

I guess I could sum it up by saying I’m former-life-sick. In the same way that being homesick didn’t preclude me from enjoying my holiday, being former-life-sick doesn’t preclude me from enjoying my present life; but somehow the further & longer away I am from my former-life, the more I miss it.

Uncomfortably Numb

I read this post at some point in the past and I remember thinking “thank goodness that’s one part of grief that won’t affect me”. It’s not like I spent my life looking for approval from Mike for anything. Or so I thought. But actually so much of what my life was about was about making him and our boys happy. I never had any career ambitions (at least not after I learned at the age of six that girls can’t be boxers); not that I don’t love my job just that I never had any drive to be any thing in particular, I just like to do my best at everything I do. The only thing I ever wanted was to be a Mom. To be a good Mom. For Mike, I wanted to heal and then take care of his broken heart. Most folks won’t know how broken he was when I met him. I was 22. He was 35 and in the midst of an extremely painful separation and divorce. I was sat on my back steps with my sister-in-law during her visit for the memorials and she said “You know you saved him?”. I did know it. I do know it. I’d just kind of forgotten it.

When your husband gets sick, there’s a lot to do and a lot to be proud of yourself for. I was and I remain completely at peace with how I dealt with his diagnosis, his treatment, his decline and his death. I feel like I really got it right. He told me that I did. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done and at the same time one of the easiest. Instant gratification for someone who gets their kicks from making other people happy.

In the earlier days of acute grief, I found some pieces of pride in myself at simply surviving. At doing the very basics of looking after the kids and running the house and slowly doing more and more. Recently I find it hard to take pride in anything I do. Usually, making sure I exercise is a sure-fire way to lift my spirits. On our recent holiday, I managed to run every day. In the heat of Florida and the cold of Maine. It only made me feel worse about myself; I have no idea why. People tell me how strong I am, even that I’m inspiring, that all I need to do is to look at my beautiful boys and see how well they are doing and that I should be proud of myself for helping them through this. And I feel nothing.

I want to care about myself again. I want to look at my boys and feel some sense of pride that I’ve helped them through a terrible 18 months and they are doing well. I want to care about what I eat and exercising and getting enough sleep. And I really, really want to give enough of a fuck about myself to quit smoking. I simply don’t understand why I don’t. And I think it’s not one of the questions that doesn’t need an answer. Am I simply out of energy? Did the last 18 months take everything out of me? If so, how on earth do I recuperate? Will going back to work provide a sense of purpose? Would risking my gimp-wrist and going back to rugby help? I’m pretty sure it would, but how much and is it worth the risk?

I’ve mostly managed to simply get my head down and get on with the things that need to be done. Today I’m failing and all I can manage to do is sit around and wonder why. Because if I could find some kind of answer then maybe I could get off my backside and do all of the things that Reality Day #1 requires of me today. So far it’s an epic fail. And I don’t even really care.

Trying to remember, my reasons for running myself into the ground with such dedication:

the end

Life as a Widower

This is Life as a Widower’s very first illustrated guest post by Anders Nilsen

I first read about Anders Nilsen, a cartoonist from the States, in an interview with The Guardianwhich was published in summer this year. I’d never seen his illustrations before but I was drawn in by the article and instantly struck by the parallels in our lives. Like my wife, Desreen, his girlfriend, Cheryl, died too young. And like I, Anders poured his pain into a book about her death, which is full of both heartbreak and humour. It’s called The End and it’s truly breathtaking.

In this extract, Anders depicts the conversations he had with Cheryl in his own mind after her death. I found myself instantly moved to tears by his work, so I’ll let his illustrations do the rest of the talking.

Thanks for letting me publish this, Anders, and all the…

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Army of Angels

Mike’s sister, Nancy talked at the memorial service about the “army of angels on earth that surround Sarah, Jack & Danny”. She is not wrong. I’ve struggled from day one and always will to come even close to expressing my gratitude. I also said in the church that “So many people have done so many things for us that I couldn’t even begin to list them. Grief is a lonely place and you’ve done everything possible to help us through it. The love that we feel from all of you is overwhelming. Many times, every single day, I try to find ways to express how much it means to me and I simply cannot, the best I can manage is that I feel like love from you guys is what is holding the pieces of me together.

The guys who came to the hospice the night he died and guided me through shock (how can you be so shocked by something that you knew was about to happen?) and seeing his body and took me to sleep. The guys who met us the next morning at the hospice and patiently stayed whilst the boys visited his body time and time again until they were ready to finally leave. The guy who came there on that afternoon and helped me leave and helped me talk to the undertakers and drove me home and all around for the rest of the day. The folk who cleared out his room for me so I didn’t have to go back. The guys who stayed on the sweaty sofa of despair those first few nights so I wouldn’t have to be alone. The folk who kindly volunteered to start drinking at 11am the next day. The folk who quietly cleaned and tidied my house and looked after the kids because I physically couldn’t move. Every single person who came and sat in our garden and played with the kids and drank rose with me for days on end. The family whose house was the only place I felt like being at other than my own. The guys who did and still do swing by for a quick beer on the way home from work so I have some company other than the kids. The girls I’ve become closer to than ever before. The guy who let me drunk-cry on Mike’s birthday about how lonely I am and managed to have me not feel embarrassed. The one who realised the times when I literally needed a shoulder to cry on and turned up with pastries and shoulders. The one who ran interference so my kids wouldn’t see me sobbing when I was at a particularly low point. The girl who realised from hundreds of miles away when I was at probably my lowest point and her husband who made me pick up the phone and stayed on the other end for a couple of hours whilst I did little more than drink & sob. Everyone who helped with my car and my furniture and finding workmen and running my stuff to the dump and everything else it’s taken to get this house in (almost) maintainable shape. The folk who turned up with food, mowed my lawn, cleared up and left again. The folk who visited from far away and forced me to make a start on sorting the house out. Everyone who helped me to organize and then participated in Mike’s memorials; especially Mike’s family who came over from the US and our friends who made it a point to get to know them. The folk who check-in often just to say “Hey”. All of the adults who treat Jack & Danny as their mates; who talk to them and play with them. The folk who organize nights out to get me out of the house. Everyone who has responded to my pleas for babysitters when I can’t find one. The folk who come over here to hang out or have all three (or sometimes all four) of us over to their place, so I don’t have to organize a babysitter. The guys who set-up a new sound system in my house. The list goes on and on and on and on.

It’s tough to call out names when there are so many people who have done so much. To mention some is not to diminish the contribution of others. And frankly, I don’t know why I feel the need to do it: I’m not sharing this with people I know (mostly) and I’m not sure I ever will. But for some reason, maybe to make sure I (as if I could) or the boys don’t forget, there are a few people who in those first few hours after Mike died, did things for us that no-one should ever have to do for their friends. I was talking about this to a friend of mine and he said that people spend most of their lives wanting to do something meaningful for someone that they love and you gave them that opportunity, Sarah. So, maybe it’s them who should be grateful to me rather than the other way round 🙂 Nevertheless, in case Jack or Danny or any of these people ever read this: Billy, Josh, Emma, Jason, Nik, Laurent, Becky & Huggy; I’m sorry for the things you had to do for us and I’m so grateful it was you who did them.

I was going to write “one of the silver linings”, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only one … The silver lining of all of this, is the love, friendship & generosity that we’ve experienced. It feels incredibly cliche to say this (but hey, why the heck not, having been reduced to 100% cliche by this experience?), but it’s genuinely humbling. The new or renewed or deepened friendships I have, mean that love from many has replaced love from one as my foundation.