I went to a Christmas party the other night. A year ago, there is no way I could, or would have been able to socialize like that. And I was going alone, as my guy works evenings. So I know I have made vast strides this past year. This time around I found myself really looking forward to it. I felt happy to have been invited; it felt nice that someone had thought of me and asked me to join in, as invitations from people Mike and I met here together have really dwindled since he died, other than a few dear exceptions. This hostess is a beautiful person I met this past year who lost her husband about six years ago. Well, re-met, actually, since after a couple of conversations we realized she had taken Mike’s last class session before he died. That happens a lot around here, running into people who remember him. Which is nice.
But our relationship is purely our own; I am glad she had met him, but we didn’t become friends because of Mike’s talents, which happened a lot before he died, I now realize. We are friends because we share so much in common with each other as women, and widows. Much like my experience she came upon her husband gone from a heart attack, unexpectedly. Like Mike, her husband was a well-known figure in our town, and like us, in their own circles, they were well-known as a couple together for a long time. And like me, she is also dating someone new - and we both have faced backlash from various people who were not ready, or willing, to see us with people other than our husbands whom were both so revered in our little community in their own ways. So we get each other, as we fellow widows often do…the pain of losing our beloveds, and the ins and outs of our lives now without them.
The party was a relatively small gathering with a potluck, and after all the food was laid out I found myself at a table with four other ladies, and one man. Most of them I hadn’t known before, but it did turn out - of course - that one of the ladies had also been one of Mike’s clients and remembered him well. She had looked familiar but I couldn’t place it; when I asked her if she’d known him her eyes got wide and there it was. As someone commented that night: it’s a little big island. As large an expanse as we live on, our small population often finds multiple connections to each other.
So as is wont to happen the subject of grief and loss came up. I met yet another widow (we are everywhere, it seems), Mike’s former client had been through a devastating divorce (no it’s not the same no matter what anyone says - but I will grant that there is some sense of mourning a lost life), and another had lost a grandchild recently. So we ladies ended up chatting about our experiences for much of the meal, including the topic of how our culture is so uneducated about the process of grief. Then at one point a sort of silence overcame us as we all kind of realized we’d been leaving out the only man at the table. We chirped our sorries in a way people do at casual polite gatherings, but then he did something unexpected. This kind, gentle man proceeded to tell us, quietly and a bit haltingly, how he understood what we were talking about. He had lost a wife, a child and fought in Vietnam where he witnessed horrors indescribable. He went on to explain how after he picked up the pieces of five of his fellow soldiers there - literally - he spent two weeks lost in the jungle where he had a lot of time to reflect on his own life and how he was going to live his when (and if) he got back. He said he made a decision, back then, to live positively, to do something good, in honor of his fallen comrades, and not let the grief and horror overtake him as it did for many who fought there. It changed his life in a massive way.
Don’t get me wrong. He wasn't trying to outdo us in any way at all. This man’s nature is quiet…sweet, and soft-spoken. He even said he almost never speaks of it but was moved to share it in that moment with us, having listened to us sharing our own stories. After a moment of sitting there silently blinking my stunned horror at his story, I mentioned how during that first terrible day when Mike died I remembered thinking, and commenting, how it felt as if I could suddenly hear all the millions of other voices crying out around the world. It was as if I could suddenly relate to this palpable, physical grief I knew so many others had experienced. As if I became suddenly attuned, or aware of in some deep, visceral way, not only to people in my own country who had suffered losses, but to people who live in terrible circumstances, war zones, genocide, poverty and sickness that we in our First World culture really have no idea about. How I suddenly realized how life-shattering grief was an experience so many of us as humans in this world have in common, but I had been sheltered from; uneducated about. He nodded.
I knew the conversation was not meant to subvert any of my own personal feelings; it didn’t happen to show me simply that so many people have had it worse than I have, or make me berate myself for the personal devastation I’ve slogged through after my one loss. It happened to show me how people can survive. How people can, as one of the ladies put it so eloquently I thought, move to the other side of it. It doesn’t go away; but, over time and after much work and introspection, I believe we can find a path to walk along that other road we didn’t know was there - that warped reflection of a life we must strain to bring into focus.
The picture above is the gift I ended up with after the party’s lively and fun gift exchange that evening - a mirrored, winged heart. It spoke volumes to me. And as this posts I will be hours away from leaving for the mainland. I am looking forward to a quiet time away with my family. I am looking forward to another opportunity to shift my perspective; to grasp a little more onto this new life. To spend time with loved ones, rest, write, bake, chat with old friends - and reflect. To build a new memory I can keep with me on my new journey over to the other side of this grief. And to do it all with Mike close to my heart.