Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...
Mike was an enormous presence - truly larger-than-life. He had a childlike spirit; a wondrous, awe-filled approach to life, loved having fun and pushing the limits. A geek his entire life, he obsessed about things like Star Wars, Robin Hood, Doc Savage, Lord of the Rings, comic book characters, and so forth. Like a little kid he still got a kick out of wearing all kinds of silly hats and costumes. So our house became filled with his stuff as if he were eternally 14 years old. Martial arts paraphernalia. Musical instruments. Posters. Action figures. Books. Statues. Hats. Gadgets. Feathers. Arrows. Pictures. Stuff. Things. Trinkets. Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere.
The few pieces I had became lost in all his bits. But I didn't care. Mike World was a pretty nice place to live, most days.
Until he died.
For the better part of the first year, a lot of his stuff remained in situ. But the heaviness I felt to be left alone surrounded by all the toys he'd never play with again was intense. I felt like I was drowning. It dawned on me that you really can't take it with you - nor is anyone only defined by things. Sentimentality and nostalgia is comforting to a point, but for me personally, I had to draw a line, or I would have simply become an artifact myself; paralyzed, unable to see a way through to any sort of future without him.
About nine months after he left us I had a massive breakdown in his room, which had become a cluttered but powerful shrine to this unique person. The next day I sat in there for a long time, just being with all the familiar things that had surrounded me for so many years. I realized I was ready to start making changes. I talked to my therapist who supported me in this call. I knew many people live for years with their spouse's things, and I understand why - again it's maybe just one of those things that can't be defined as right or wrong in grief. Everyone has to do what feels right for them. So I called his two girls, my stepdaughters, and after much heartfelt discussion we agreed to go through his things together a couple of weeks later so I could begin the task of clearing out that space, both physically, and emotionally.
Even though I have kept a few chosen things, I was left with a shockingly barren living space. Even my walls were mostly empty. Still, his presence remains strong - and maybe that's as it should be. I'm ok with that, most days. But I know I need to make it my own, as long as I stay in this house; to find myself again, in my surroundings, and in my own life. To rediscover what Stephanie World is. I have to face the terrible fact that I could have many more years on this earth without him. I have to find a way to retain the memories, but still come up for air.
My dear friend and fellow widow Margaret came to stay with me for a few days on the anniversary of his death in February. We spent some time walking around Kona's little shops and found ourselves in a store that sells beautiful photographs of the islands. It occurred to me I could find something that resonated with me personally - maybe I could find something meaningful to fill my empty walls that wouldn't only remind me of Mike and his world. Maybe I was ready for that.
As I looked through the photos, almost every single one reminded me of Mike. Oh, he would have loved that. Oh, didn't he just love this, and that, and just about everything Hawaii. I moved sort of agonizingly to the next stack. I came across a photo of a shark. Aack. Margaret saw me and said, you know, sharks will die if they don't keep swimming. They are like manta rays that way, which are her special totem animal. (On the one year mark for me, we went swimming together with the mantas here - a surreal and beautiful experience - much better than the surreal and horrific day one year earlier.) We looked at each other knowingly. We knew we needed to find a way to keep moving forward, somehow. We had spent already many months texting and emailing each other the support and confidence to do just that.
I bought that photograph, and put it on the wall next to my bed. Now, I look up and see not a monster, but a survivor; a being who must continually move forward in order to breathe. When I look at it I get a small feeling of accomplishment and relief. I was able to create the first little new corner of Stephanie World, and it feels pretty ok.
I'm going to keep swimming.