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Not Enough Candles

I know a lot of people don’t like birthdays, mainly because they don’t like to think about getting older. My comeback was always “it’s better than the alternative.”

Well, this year, I got older, while Rich did not.

And yes: we have (had?) the same birthday. April 14, two years apart. And, since we met in 1986, my first year of college, this year was the first year I didn’t have him as my birthday twin.

Our first shared birthday was humbling for me. In my family, birthdays were always a big deal. The birthday person was feted with presents, cake, and a dinner at a restaurant of their choosing (I pretty much always picked fancy places. I was into all the new stuff even as a teenager.). I had a party for my birthday every year until I arrived at college.

My parents and brother drove to see me at school, and I felt as special as I always did — until they dropped me off and headed back home. You see, I turned 19. But Rich was turning 21.

Let’s just say 21 trumps 19 in college, and I was basically unnoticed. I was most displeased, but tried to suck it up. Rich’s roommates had a plan: they took him around to every apartment in our off campus housing complex, knocking on the door and playing a sort of college trick or treat: they asked the resident of each apartment to “donate” a shot of something alcoholic. Since most of us were under age, pickings were slim, varied, and, ultimately, not pleasant. To make things worse, they refused to let Rich walk at all, carrying him from one boozy pit stop to the next.

Flash forward a few hours, when Rich is passed out in his bedroom. We had the smarts to keep an eye on him, and I volunteered for my shift of sitting with him, making sure he didn’t well, die in his sleep. For me this was more than a babysitting gig, though. It was my chance.

I had been dating someone else for several years at this point, but I was totally crushing on Rich. But of course I could never admit it! But, when he was fast asleep? I fessed up, letting him know that I was into him, and kissed him.

The next morning, we were all gathered in the dining commons, laughing about the night before. In the middle of breakfast, in strolls Rich, more chipper than the rest of us. In fact, he had just come back from a run. While he professed to feeling fine, he didn’t seem to remember everything about the night before, much to my relief, and so my secret was safe.

A few years later, when the other guy was out of my life and Rich and I finally got together, I revealed what I had done on his birthday. He grinned, and from then on always insisted “that mut have been why I slept so well.” I mean, we both new it was more likely demon alcohol, but the story became a part of our lore.

So, our first birthday together was our first kiss.

We shared a lot of special birthday celebrations over the years. On my 21st, he took me out at 1201am for my first legal drink (a vodka martini. A very poor choice). We celebrated in California before he moved to the midwest, graduating a year before me.

Over the years we celebrated in Ohio, back in California, in Minnesota, and back to Ohio, and back to Minnesota again.

For his 40th, I hosted a surprise party, which stressed him out completely, as I had invited both work colleagues and social friends. He remarked that he didn’t like seeing his worlds collide. It was fun though for folks to see different sides of him — the coworkers learning that his neighborhood buddies thought he was the life of the party. The neighborhood friends were shocked to know of Rich’s serious side. I delighted in his feigned discomfort.

For my 40th, he tried to surprise me with a trip to Vegas with our friends. It was the first of many for what would become known as the Unicorn Squad. I say he tried to surprise me because I actually figured it out in advance, but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to spoil his fun! He worked so hard — arranged child care, hotels, flights, dinners, shows. This time, I was the star (I even got to wear a crown!).

Because we had the same bday, I realized we could actually have a 100th birthday party the year I turned 49 and he became 51. We booked a venue, hired a caterer, and invited everyone. Frankie and her friends provided the music, and we danced and laughed and partied our butts off.

A few months later, on our anniversary, he handed me a card with a special message in it: we were going to Pars for my 50th. He knew I had always had a silly fantasy of dancing on the Champs Elysee on my birthday, and he wanted it to come true. He also knew that for me planning a trip was half the fun, so he decided he was better off letting me handle that. I agreed, but said he was in charge of planning our actual birthday celebration.

We did so much, and had such a magical time.

On our actual birthday, he booked us a table at one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, with a view of Notre Dame (I blogged about this trip. The one that talks about our actual birthday and dinner can be found here.)

Little did we know that the cathedral would catch fire a year and one day later. We watched it burn on tv, crying, holding hands. I thanked him so much for the trip, and for having the chance to be there with him.

That was 2019.

In 2020, we were in quarantine.

In 2021, we went to dinner at the restaurant that had replaced the one we went to when he handed me the Paris card. The next month, his leg went numb.

In 2022, our friend Erika brought us cakes, and he blew out the candles while laying in bed, surrounded my me, Erika and his brother Frank. He died 6 months and 8 days later.

People used to say they thought it was s cute that we had the same birthday. It’s so easy they said, you’ll never forget! Early on in the relationship Rich offered to let me have all the rest of the birthdays, as he knew I was sometimes sour about sharing the spotlight.

I’d give anything to share it now.

So this year was hard. I knew it would be, and I wasn’t wrong. The week leading up to the 14th was probably the hardest I’ve had since he died. I cried every day. But now it is over, and I survived. I made sure I did fun thigs, and spoiled myself a bit. Not sure what I will do next year. Maybe I will travel somewhere new, or maybe I’ll host a party. But whatever I do, I know that Rich will approve — as long as I get to be the star!

Aloha Means Goodbye and Hello

Many years ago, I took my first solo trip.

Rich and I had broken up, and I was leaving Ohio to return back to California. I planned that trip with enthusiasm: I wanted to see the country, and refused to drive once the sun went down, as I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to see route 66, a corner in Winslow Arizona, Carhenge at the Cadillac Ranch, and Las Vegas. By the end of the trip, I declared “every year I will take a trip all by myself!”

Well, it took me 30 years, but I finally took another one.

In January I took what I called my “widow trip.” This was to be my first adventure without Rich, a journey of rest and relaxation, reflection and rejuvenation, renewal and resolution and refocus. I had been to Hawaii many times, but this was the first return trip to Maui since our honeymoon more than 28 years ago. I was determined to make the most of it. When you trave with others, you often skip things you want to do , as you balance each other’s choices. But as a solo traveler, I was determined to do what I wanted, when I wanted. And I did.

As I mentioned, Rich and I honeymooned on Maui. But I didn’t want to retrace our steps. While I planned to honor us, I also needed to make new memories. So my first choice was where to stay, and I chose the Wailea Beach Beach Resort. I had never spent time in this part of the island, so there were no memories there. My first full day I wandered along the beach walk (I did that daily, and would recommend it highly), and hung by the pool before an early dinner at the Lahaina Grill, reportedly the best restaurant in Maui. Dinner did not disappoint. In fact, I was a little leery before I arrived, as the website really didn’t lead with the best picture. But it was a beautiful restaurant, and the staff was as warm and welcoming as the food was delicious!

I mentioned an early dinner, and there was a reason for that (besides jet lag). At 230am the next morning, I boarded a shuttle to the top of Haleakala to watch the sunrise over the volcano.

The bus ride to the summit was pretty quiet, given the early hour, and uneventful because, well, it was dark. And at the top it was quite cold, so we were bundled up for our long wait. I think we were there a good 2 hours before there was a hint of sun, but it was okay because the night sky was stunning. This was an experience I had always asked others to try with me, but I was actually glad to be doing it alone. No need for chit chat: I could be alone with my thoughts. Granted, I was hardly alone on the volcano, as there were hundreds of folks up there…

… but I secured a spot on a rock with a clear view, and hunkered down.

Watching the horizon for glimmers of light was easy fodder for this symbolism-hungry former English major. It’s easy to see the story in this scene. The more I stared, the more I was sure I had seen some light, but then I wasn’t really sure if I had. Had I just been hoping for the sun? Or was it really coming? It reminded me so much of my current journey. I mean, I knew that of course the sun would come, and I would be warm and comforted by the colors and light. But sometimes, you doubt whether things will really get better. But as sure as the sun went down the night before, it rose that morning.

We headed back to the bus, tired and exhilarated. I know I was not the only one who whispered messages or prayers up on that volcano. In fact, the Hawaiians sang a song of prayer as the sun came up, You can hear an example of it here. It really was magical, and a reminder to the tourists that we were privileged to be there. The last bit of the journey that morning wasn’t spiritual, but it was fulfilling: breakfast! The folks at Valley Isle Excursions hooked us up: macadamia nut pancakes at the Maui Tropical Plantation!

I knew I’d be pretty wiped, so when I returned to the hotel I changed then headed back down the beach walk to the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont. I spent several blissful hours there, followed by a cocktail at the bar. After wandering back down the magical beach path, I had an early dinner at the poolside bar back at the Marriott, then crashed, content with a day filled with nourishment for my body and soul. But this was just the beginning of my magical trip.

My next day was also destined to be memorable, for very different reasons. I started with whale watching, which is something every Hawaiian visitor should have on their bucket list,. January is prime whale season, as the mamas and babies are all over. I had already been blessed with sightings. The night before, while wandering around at sunset, I gleefully cried out when I saw one breach ff shore (breaching is when they do that awesome full body leap and crash out of the water). I laughed at myself and sheepishly glanced around, only to find that everyone else was either freaking the same way, or wistfully wishing they had seen it. I thought that would be my highlight, and I felt fulfilled. When I boarded the charter the next morning, I was cautiously optimistic, but figured if I even saw one or two I’d be sated.

When I boarded the boat at Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkel, I met Captain Emma and First Mate Lexie. These dynamic women were part of a trend for this trip: strong, powerful women helping me realize my own strength. They filled us in on the plan, and told us to be patient. We did not need to be. It took very little time for us to come upon whales — but Emma kept saying “that’s not our whale.” No one knew quite what she meant, until we met Shania.

Shania Twain was playing on the radio when we spotted her all white fluke, so rare that Emma and Lexie were excited. You now you are experiencing something special when the “experts” are giddy. Shania flirted a bit, then breached! We were so tickled! She would roll and wave her fins, then dive down, then, she breached again!

And again.

And again.

Emma told us, as she picked her jaw up off the floor, that the human equivalent of a whale breach, in terms of caloric expenditure, is like running a marathon. So for a whale to do it that many times in succession was really wild. But it got wilder. We wondered if she would go for double digits. She did. Twice. By the time we had to go back to shore, she had breached about 24 times! She was so predictable, that we had time to even plan for “whalefies,” pics with her breaching in the background!

At one point I cried a little, just from the sheer beauty of it all.

I also was thinking about Rich, and how much he would have loved this. When we docked, I made sure I was the last to leave the boat, so I could thank Emma and Lexie. I told them about my widow trip, and that I was doing new things on my own to prove to myself that I could, and that I would be okay. I also told them about Rich, and how he had been a marathon runner, and that I thought of him with every breach. I swear he sent us that whale. He sent me Sania to tell me over and over that he knew I could do it. That I would be ok, and that he would send me whatever help I needed. We all wept a little at that, as hokey as it sounded.

But I walked away feeling so incredibly full of heart, ready to take on the rest of the day.

I wandered around a bit before heading off to find a place for lunch. I had something big on my schedule for the end of the day, an I needed sustenance — and a cocktail. I found a spot at the bar at Monkeypod, a well-known local chain.

After another walk about, I pointed my Turo rental north (first time trying Turo — great experience!). My destination was the Hyatt Regncy in Ka’anapali, where Rich and I stayed on our honeymoon. This was going to be challenging, I knew.

Walking into the lobby it all flooded back — the exhaustion and giddiness upon arrival, taking in the soaring indoor/outdoor lobby, and my eyes wandered upwards, trying to remember which room had been ours. I remember that lobby was were Rich would sneak down every morning to check for faxes from work (remember those, pre-cell phone?), and every morning I pretended I didn’t know. I wandered the grounds to try and find some of the places we had taken pictures, and even reenacted a few. I watched the penguins, the swans, and all the other birds. The hubbub around the pool seemed like it was happening in another world. I was in a grief bubble, for sure, and I knew it was going to be harder still.

I wandered down to the beach, and flashed back on watching him slowly swimming back and forth off shore. He loved doing that. He so loved the ocean. And since I wanted him to be forever in the places that brought us both joy, I had brought some of his ashes.

I found a remarkably empty little beach, and sat down. When I was cleaning out his things back home, I found shell necklaces that we received on our honeymoon, and I put those on. I wrapped myself in the sarong I somehow still had from that trip, and I cried. I remembered everything wonderful about that trip — even his inevitable sunburn when he refused sunscreen. I laughed a little, and smiled. I waded out into the water, and let him go. I could immediately feel some peace, knowing that at east a part of him would forever be in that beautiful place.

I dried my eyes and made my way back to my car. Windows down, music blasting, the Hawaiian wind drying my tears. And then, offshore, a whale breached.

Thank you, Rich. I love you.

I Do New: January edition

I had two New Year’s Resolutions this year. One was to write in my blog twice a month (I’m behind on that. I’ll do three for February to catch up!). The second was to do something new every week. So here is what I did in January!

Traveled solo: while I have done a few travel adventures on my own, they were either really small or a long time ago. You may recall I packed up Stevie Nicks (my doggo) and headed to a cabin shortly after Rich died. That was pretty solo, in that I was in charge of planning and executing all on my lonesome, but it really wasn’t a big deal. The first time I travelled by myself was decades ago. Rich and I had been living together in Ohio, and things just weren’t working out. So we broke up to save our relationship (I know, sounds odd, but it clearly worked). I packed up all my stuff in my Geo Prizm and drove cross country, touristing on my own terms along the way. When I finished that journey, I made myself a promise I would travel solo every year. Yeah that didn’t happen. But a few months ago, there was a sudden miles sale to Hawaii, and it was too gid to pass up. So In January I took myself to Maui for a week. I will blog more about that trip at another date, but I definitely wanted to start my “new” checklist with this one!

Whale watching: that happened on the Maui trip, of course (not too many whales in Minnesota, especially in January). A stunning, moving day full of laughter and a couple tears.

Fancy dinner all by myself: I have been my own dinner date before. Usually I bring a book and the meal is bookended with shopping or a movie. But on the Maui trip, almost every meal was by solo. I made a huge effort to keep the phone in my purse, and just soak in the experience. The first dinner out was the game changer, as I went to the “best restaurant in Hawaii,” according to many forums, the Lahaina Grill. I dressed up, ordered what I wanted and people watched, making up stories about all the other guests in the restaurant. People don’t really notice you when you are a middle aged woman hanging solo, which in this case was a great thing, lol.

Sunrise on a volcano: I have been to Hawaii several times, and have always thought it would be cool to watch the sun rise over the crater of a volcano. But every other trip I had people with me, and no one ever wanted to get up at the butt crack of night (my shuttle picked me up at 230 in the morning!). So this was my chance, and I took it. I am still sifting through all my pictures, trying to find the best ones to share. That will be part of the Maui blog post. For now, though, I’ll just say that between the sparkling white stars in the purple sky, to the firey oranges and yellows of the wakening sun, it was magical.

Make new friends: on a snorkeling adventure, I sat next to two women who I am now friends with. They were on a girls trip celebrating ther 40th birthdays (babies!). Jodi and Kelsey were from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I grew up, so we connected immediately. Next thing I knew they invited me to join them at a luau the next night, and we had dinner together again the following night. We are now friends on social media, and I am looking forward to connecting with them again in the future!

Whelping: I have wanted to whelp FOREVER but Rich always put his foot down. Well, here I go! If you follow me on TikTok you have met Millie, the 100 pound Newfoundland mama that birthed 10 puppies at my house January 22nd. Every day with them is new, and exciting. I love it!

I challenge you to do something new, too, and let me know what it was! Even if it’s just once a month — a new food, a new skill, a new location. Whatever it is, do it! We all need to grow!

A New Chapter

The last time I wrote in this blog, I was married to the love of my life.

Now, I am a widow.

I still wear a ring, but he doesn’t.

My life is a new marriage of sorts. I must weave the before with the after. I sit at his desk, in what was previously his office, dividing my time between reconciling the past and preparing for the future. Simultaneously I must settle his affairs while making sure my own are ready for future days. I spend a little bit of time every day working through legal documents, finagling various types of insurance, and preparing for taxes. I am the chief cook and bottle washer now.

This blog will probably have a haphazard appearance (not that it was very ordered before, TBH), as I strive to cover a varied terrain.

I will write about the last vacation we took before we knew he was sick and talk about my own solo travels. As I write this, I have just arrived from a one week beach vacation where I mourned and healed. In fact, I have several trips coming up this year. Last year we had but one: our last Vegas adventure. I’ll have to write about that, too, I guess. I have a lot of leg stretching to catch up on this year.

I will blog about his celebration of life party, and about the hell of watching someone die by degrees. Of watching the man who used to hold you up become the one you must support. I went from being a friend and a lover to a nursemaid. It sucked, but I am not alone. In fact, I now have 90-some thousand new friends walking my widow journey with me. I decided before he died that I would need a way to keep myself accountable. So I created a TikTok grief journal, and every day I post something. Some days are decidedly more interesting than others. Some posts show me drowning in grief, while others show me making new strokes forward in the ocean of possibilities. I’d love to have you follow me, and help me stay the course!

We’ve all heard that the first year is the hardest, although now I’ve been told it is actually harder in year 2, when the new loss becomes the new normal. But I need to get through year one first, one post at a time.

Grieving is something that takes place on a sliding scale. For me, that process really started October 1, 2021, when we first heard the words “You have ALS.” I can still remember everything about that. I dropped him of at the entry to the University of Minnesota Neurology department, and watched him limp inside, leaning heavily on his late father’s walking stick. I parked the car, then found him. Our roles had already changed. In the waiting room we were both casually terrified, trying not to look outwardly concerned. I think he was more worried than I was, which makes sense. I think he already knew the diagnosis. I was living on edge in the dark, impatiently waiting for someone to tell us he did NOT have that hideous disease, .

Once in the exam room, the doctor had clearly read through the myriad reports from other doctors, and had analyzed the test results. Rich sat on the exam table, while the doctor checked his reflexes. It seemed to take him less than a minute to declare Rich’s death sentence, but I am sure it was longer than that. I was sitting in the spare chair they always have in an exam room. I know it was just maybe 5 feet away, but the doctor’s words sucked all the air out of the room and I felt as unsteady on my feet as Rich had been for months when I lurched up and crossed to the exam table. I put my hand n his shoulder, but that wasn’t enough. I needed more. I pressed up against him, and clutched his leg, trying not to hold too tightly or breathe too loudly. In the few steps it took me to cross that increasingly claustrophobic room, I had a million conversations with myself. I transitioned from panic and sorrow to determination and caring, because that was now my job. I needed to be what he needed, whatever that was, and my own needs had to be put aside.

Now it is time, once again, to tend to my needs.

Slowly, the world we built for two has become a universe of one.

I still make the king sized bed, but only have to wash the pillowcases on one side.

His clothes, now donated, are hopefully bringing someone else a smidge of the confidence he had, and I have started spreading out in the closet, reorganizing my things to suit my new lifestyle.

When Rich was first diagnosed, we had two cars in the garage. Then three, when our daughter came home home for one last summer with her dad. Then two, when we sold his car. Then three again when we bought the wheelchair van. Then two, when she went to school. Then one, when I sold the van. My car now also lives alone.

It seems every week I rearrange a drawer or a closet. I feel like I am marking my territory, by making things work in my new normal. It is also a way of visiting with him on a small scale, as I run across something of his, whether it is a business card or a pair of swim goggles or a tool he never put away in the right place. I fear, and hope, it will be a long time before the last item is discovered. Like an archeologist, I will be unearthing bits of his life for years to come.

And every day, I unearth a bit more of my life. My new life. My widowed life. My rebuilding life. My strong, sad, capable, terrified, hopeful life.

I can do this. With the continued support and help from all of you, I will do this.

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