I woke up to the most horrible dream about a week ago. Only the second worst kind of dream to have behind the dream of reliving my fiance’s death. My new partner, Mike, had been in an accident, and just like before… I got the phone call that changed everything. Just like before, the dizzying sensation of shock slammed into me, and picked me up off the ground like a tornado. As I swirled through a surreal vortex of a sudden reality I could not comprehend, I found a whole new fear.
When Drew died, the fear was that I would not live through this pain. I was very literally afraid for my life… because I didn’t see how anyone could make it through something so painful and so horrific and come out the other side. I was not afraid of my body dying, but worse, I was afraid my soul had died right along with him, and that I’d be damaged, angry, or just an empty shell of a person for the rest of my life. This was a very real fear for about the first 6 months. And it took time to begin to see proof that my soul hadn’t died too, and lay that fear to rest. I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced this.
In this dream though, came that new fear. No longer was the first thought “What if I’m gone too?” Now it was… “How the hell am I going to take care of her on my own?”
That new fear, comes from the place I am in my life now… being in a committed relationship, as a widow, with a man who has a child. A widower who has a child. Meaning there is no divorced parent or part time parenting for me. I am full-time mom. And if anything happens to Mike, his daughter’s life is in my hands. This is an enormous responsibility, and risk, that I chose to step into.
As the dream continued on, a torturous display of my own thoughts played out… “I have no job, he made all the money, I can’t make even close to what he made even if I go back to full time shitty work. Fuck. We weren’t even married yet, and I did not legally adopt her yet, so what if she is taken away from me, despite her wanting to be with me? Even if I do work full time and pay the bills, how will I get her from school and take care of everything else? Should we stay here where her family is, or should I move her back to Texas with me, or Indiana, where my own family members are present to support us? Oh my god, I have to pick her up in an hour… HOW AM I GOING TO TELL HER.” All of these thoughts ran through me in what felt like a millisecond in the dream.
I woke up totally startled, and breathing heavy. In that half asleep place I immediately had the momentary dread, just as I had every morning for over a year after Drew died, where I wondered… “was it a dream? Did he really die? Oh please, please, I am begging for it to be a dream…PLEASE let my life still be here the way it was yesterday” Only back then, when I fully woke, I realized that no, it was not just a dream. It was my reality. My best friend, my partner, was dead. Gone. My nightmare of a life was real, and I still had to live it, for another day, somehow.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a dream that startled me awake that way. That gave me that sensation of being truly unsure what my reality is. It’s been at least a year or two since I’ve woken up truly afraid that the reality I knew has disappeared overnight. Only this time, at least on this very day, it WAS just a dream.
As I woke, thankfully, Mike was still in the bedroom getting dressed for work. I heard his avoid in the dark immediately as he came over to the bed, and I pulled him tight and he comforted me. It was about the biggest relief I have ever felt in my soul. I don’t know that I have ever felt so much gratitude in one small moment. After so many times before waking up to the nightmare being true... on this day, this one time, the nightmare wasn’t true. And I still had my beautiful life… not the one I had before, but a new and different beautiful life that I value just as much.
This is a fear that haunts me in real life constantly. It is the fear that follows all of us into life after we love someone we love. In some version, we are always holding these fears in our hearts and trying continually to still choose to love, and live, fully. It’s so fucking hard and we have to do it so often I think sometimes we forget just how brave it is, just to live another day with all the fears we dread reliving - or the new fears we dread even.
At least once a week when Mike leaves for work, or even somewhere random like the grocery store, I shout to him on his way out the door “Don’t die!”. We joke about it, try to make it lighthearted, but truly, a part of me feels like I constantly need to remind the universe that I’ve got my eye on it, and it better not try and anything. Like somehow, if I just make sure to call it out once a week, it will hear my request loud and clear and do me a solid by leaving my people alive. This is ludicrous I realize, but I guess it helps my mind cope when the fears to arise. It gives me some action I can take that at least lets my fear feel like I tried to do something about it, and usually that’s enough to help the fear settle down some.
I’ve always known that choosing to step into Mike and Shelby’s life would mean that I will have this fear, constantly, ticking in the background like a time bomb I cannot see. I have no idea when it will go off. I know one day, it will. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in 5 or 10 years. Maybe even if I’m lucky, not for another 40 or 50 years. Maybe if I’m even luckier, my time bomb will blow before his (not lucky for him, I realize… sorry babe!) I mean, we are effectively both very healthy people with no issues currently, and even still I can hear the ticking of the unknown. I think becoming widowed just activates it, and there it is, just running in the background all the time.
My biggest hope now is only that this time bomb gives us enough time to get this little girl grown up. It sometimes feels like a race… where I’m pleading and hoping that we are ahead just enough to make it there somehow. And it always, always feels like a crapshoot. Like we cannot possibly know what will happen, to any of us, so the best we can do is try to keep on living the best life we can now and hoping that we somehow manage to make it. As I type those words, I realize that must be exactly how her mother felt - on an even bigger level. And how Mike must have felt too… because they had a very real time bomb ticking away in her chest. They may have known that the Cystic Fibrosis bomb was going to go off in the next decade or so, but still they didn’t know when. Still they had to live with the tick, tick, ticking away. I guess not only being widowed creates that fear.
Since having that dream, I’ve actually made a lot of different choices. It made me more aware that for a while now, I’ve been making dozens of small choices a day that do not serve me or my family. I began noticing more clearly when I was making choices out of fear or avoidance or laziness, and instead, decided to go with a choice that served myself and those I love in a better way. When I get tired or overwhelmed, a lot of my reactions in life turn into automatic
“No”s. I tend to withdraw, and it’s not usually a good thing.
So I’ve been trying to work on that. Making different choices. Making conscious choices instead of autopilot ones. Sometimes that has meant choosing to listen intently when I feel like zoning out. Or choosing to create deeper conversations when I feel like isolating. Or choosing to wake up earlier, and find ways to start my day better. The biggest one was choosing to take Shelby and Mike out with me one evening at dusk, to take pictures of Shelby. She’s been asking to do this for ages, to share somehow in my photography work with me, and I’ve always let my fear and laziness get the better of me and avoided it. This time, when she asked, I chose differently. And I said yes. Even though I don’t photograph people hardly at all and it felt new and vulnerable for me.
We ended up having one of the most fun nights ever, which Mike wrote about in his post last week. She danced around in a field of flowers, occasionally her dad doing silly things behind me to make her laugh. I captured photo after photo of her beautiful spirit… and I could not believe I had avoided sharing this experience with them for so long. For me, that was a huge reminder to keep pushing through fears... because the best rewards are almost always on the other side of that fear.
As horrible as that dream was, I’m grateful for the wake up call it gave me. I’m thankful that it has helped to shake me up inside and remind me, “hey, you only get one shot at this life, and at raising this kid, don’t waste it by checking out because of fear. Make a choice to be fully present”.
Funny enough, since making more of these choices this week, I actually think it’s made the ticking of that ole time bomb much quieter. Quiet enough to feel like I’m not letting it inform my life so much in fact. I think I've been living in my fear a lot up to now, without realizing it. It seems this past week, I’ve been busy living in the present moment - where the sound of living quiets the sound of fear just enough to forget it for a time. What a beautiful thing, even if only fleeting... to forget the sound of fear.