I’m going to tell you a story.
It is an intensely personal one; one I haven’t felt open to sharing until now. But it has persisted at knocking at my brain, and I finally feel ready to let it out.
So here goes. And since it is so long for a blog, I will be dividing it into several parts.
The Musician: Part I
Life after death is a strange thing. I will start by repeating once again that I didn’t think my heart could survive the horrific break Mike’s death caused. Ours was not a perfect marriage, but it was magical in its own very special way no one else will ever understand. Losing him meant I also lost a part of myself. That feeling - that knowledge of my missing piece, will never go away. There was just no one like him. He is irreplaceable, and a part of myself died with him. The sorrow was so deep I thought I was going to literally drown in my tears. I never knew it was even possible to be so sad. I am stronger now, but the scar of that break will always be there.
I have no answers. I am not a grief therapist. I am only a survivor.
That said, I could never have planned or anticipated what would happen to me in the wake of my grief. But I was forced to start making very real and practical changes quite soon to find a way to supplement the loss of income I faced when he died. I have a small apartment in the downstairs of my home, in Hawaii we call it an ohana; it is what mainlanders might call a mother-in-law unit. A tiny bedroom, bathroom, and living area with a kind of simple bar kitchen. Nothing fancy, to be sure, all in all it’s probably less than 600 square feet.
We used our ohana for many things over the years. Several friends and family called it home for many of our early years in the house, on and off pretty much from when we moved in in 2001 to around 2008. At that time we transformed it into office space for the nonprofit I was working for, and the last couple of years before Mike died he used it as his treatment room for his chi gung clinic, and his archery equipment storeroom. It has been one of the most useful parts of this small house.
Friends and family came together around early April of 2013, about two months after he was gone, to help transform it into a viable rental unit. I remember exactly how it looked before we changed it, and how agonizing it was to remove even one single little thing Mike had down there. But it had to be done. Dear and lovely students of his donated time and materials to help fix it up, redo the floors and window treatments, and clean it. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of spirit and towards the end of that month I was able to list it on Craigslist.
Since I had two noisy dogs upstairs, and at the time a cat as well, I couldn’t in good conscience disallow a pet. That alone is a huge selling point here as it is immensely difficult to find a place that will allow them. So in the ad I mentioned a pet was ok on approval, but that I could only take a single person with a single car. It’s just not big enough for anything else.
I had a lot of people answer the ad. I was hoping for another woman, even perhaps another widow, to keep me company. I imagined a female close to my age or older. Maybe with a cat.
That is not what happened. I had a lot of couples want it, a few single parents with kids; one couple with two pit bulls and two cars; well, that just wasn’t going to work down there. The bedroom is so tiny that a queen sized bed barely even fits inside the door, and I have no room for two other cars. Honestly, given all the people I know here, I was surprised that the only single person with one car and one pet who answered the ad was a man. A man?? Well, I was panicked enough at the time to consider anything, so I invited him over to see it.
Upon meeting him I was skeptical and protective to the point of being snarckily mean. I asked him questions about himself. He told me he was a musician. A musician? What sort? I wondered, did he play for the local orchestra, teach piano lessons, what? He was clearly my age or even older, I guessed; he clearly wasn’t a spring chicken, so what the hell was he talking about.
No, he is a rock and roll singer, he said. No way, I thought. A rock and roll singer? In Kona? Making a living at it, at his age? I could hardly believe it. Since Mike and I almost never went out at night together, I’d never heard of his band. I looked at him incredulously. But indeed, he reassured me, he made quite a decent living and would have no problem paying the rent I asked.
I told him without being asked that I was renting the place because I was newly widowed and needed the income. I remember distinctly how his face fell at that remark, the sad look in his eyes, and the way he sighed deeply and told me how sorry he was. Yeah you should be, I remember thinking, and don’t get any ideas or try and take advantage. I’m fragile but also tough and I can take care of myself.
I insisted on being by the book. He filled out an application and provided several excellent references I checked up on. He even made it through our “coconut wireless” - here in our small Hawaiian town, I asked around and turns out, sure enough, lots of people knew him and he was said to be reliable.
Honestly, the final selling point for me was his dog. He had an ancient German shepherd named, of course…Elvis. Well of course I fell in love with Elvis right away. He was so old his back hips were obviously painfully arthritic and they seemed horribly fused; this elderly but happy dog with big floppy ears got around mostly on his two front legs, hopping his back legs behind him. His owner, this doubtful musician, clearly doted on him - which told me a lot about the man. And when I heard the story about where they had been living my heart strings were pulled.
The place he was before was a four story walk-up, and I listened when he told me about how at first, he would carry the dog up and down the stairs several times a day, but that one time, this proud and intelligent dog had apparently had enough. He placed his two front paws on the first stair and turned to look at his owner, who understood rather quickly that his smart dog was asking him simply to pick up his hind legs and help him wheel barrow himself up the stairs. The musician broke down in tears the first time they did that, as at the top of the stairs that day, Elvis turned and looked at him with a happy smile of triumph. They would do whatever it took to make that apartment work together.
But it was hard on Elvis-dog, as he called him, and the musician continued to look for another place that might welcome them both. Now they had found my little ohana which would be perfect for the two of them. It had not a single step they had to climb, a nice lawn for Elvis to snort about on as he wanted, not to mention a considerate and animal-loving landlady willing to help out however she could.
And the futon I had provided along with a few other pieces of furniture as a partially furnished apartment? The musician told me Elvis-dog had promptly and happily plopped down on it with great relief and a big tail wag the second they moved in. I never asked for it back after that even though the musician brought his own bed because I got such pleasure knowing that old dog had a big, comfortable new place to sleep.
We signed the lease and he moved in the first week of May, and he gave me his deposit and rent which cleared right away. I asked him, given the obvious but strangely-tinted British accent coming from this bizarre character who was now my tenant, where he was from. Wales, he said. He mom still lived there, though he’d been on Big Island himself or nearly 20 years. He was going to visit her just after he moved in. I pondered that and for a quick moment, I wished I’d been able to go somewhere like that. Just as quickly I perished the thought and climbed the stairs back to my sad, lonely aerie above and continued with the grieving I was now getting very good at. I was relieved the place was rented, and didn’t give my new tenant much more thought for quite some time. I felt I’d accomplished something really huge given how hard it was even to go grocery shopping in those early days.
I collapsed on my sofa and began to cry. I couldn’t believe I’d just had to give a part of Michael’s and my home away.
Tune in next week for part II.