Two Years Later

It was two years ago today. Two years ago that I found him. Two years ago that everything changed.

Last year on this day, I did not stop to grieve. Although in fairness, I hadn’t really ever stopped grieving. I was still in the middle of that every-single-day-every-single-minute pain, even as I was working toward building a new future. I was still out in the middle of that fight with myself, determined to find a way to stay above water and somehow forge a new life.

I also just really didn’t want to talk about it. I thought that, of all days, this was the one I didn’t want to give any attention. I’d think about celebrating him on his birthday. On my wedding anniversary. On any day but this day. Any day but the one that wrecked us all to our bones. Those other days passed, though, and for the most part, I stayed silent on those days, too.

But this year, everything is different. Maybe it’s because I’m not as angry. Because I’m somehow finding some peace, at least most days. Because I am finally moving past so much of the fury and blinding pain that I can start to focus on who he was, and not just what he did.

It’s a hard transition, though. The last two years of my life have been defined by widowhood. Every single decision I’ve made has been a direct result of the fact that my husband died.

When I first moved to Wisconsin, I found myself always having to answer questions like “So did you leave someone special behind in Iowa?” and “What made you decide to move to a state where you don’t know anyone?” These were casual questions, but they did not have easy answers. It was always an internal battle of what to say, how much to say, and whether or not I could bear the look on their faces when I explained that I was a widow. And then, trying to find some way to nicely say “Well, yes, it was horrible. But I’m okay now. Except I’m not. Well, I mean, I sort of am. I mean, I’m trying. I think I might be eventually. Maybe.”

Over and over and over again.

Yet somehow, in the midst of a battle between mind-numbing grief and the strength of my heart, I built that life I was so determined to create. My job ended up being a perfect fit, and I love my city – I work in the heart of Big Ten country, surrounded by sports, seemingly endless gluten-free food options, and two lakefronts. The friendships I’ve built are beyond comparison. From my very first friend, the one who took me out to lunch during my first week in Madison and simply said, “So do you want to be outside-of-work friends, too?” to my very best friend, the one who has seen me through tears and anger along with laughter and joy. They are both strong and true friends that I am proud to stand beside.

And yes, I did fall in love again. Our relationship is strong. He is kind and intelligent. Talented beyond measure. Unafraid of silliness. Slow to anger, quick to laugh. Willing to dance during joyful times and cry during difficult ones.

My life, it seems, is quite good indeed. I have created a new chapter.

So it’s interesting, then, that on this particular two-year anniversary, the pain of remembering feels stronger than ever. I’m learning that grief is this long, tricky spiraly thing. I’m also learning that the process of going through it may never be complete.

Perhaps it hurts so much because I have come so far forward. The further I get from everything that happened, the easier it is to see it all clearly, and to see the finality of it all. And this where I get stuck. Stuck between living the legacy of his love and the aftermath of his death.

I am so very tired of remembering his death. I want to remember his life. Because before there were two years of pain, there were ten years of love.

I have wanted, since that very first moment two years ago, to use my words to craft a eulogy. To tell everyone what a good man he was. How he spent his professional career building up others – first those with mental and physical disabilities, and then those with substance abuse issues. I want to talk about his love for NASCAR and baseball, and to make people understand the heartbreak he went through every time the Hawkeyes lost. I want everyone to understand how excited he got playing FanDuel while watching NASCAR races. I want people to understand how deep his faith was, and how I’m hopeful, even in the moments before his death, that he still felt that faith come alive. I want to talk about inside jokes from college full of folic acid and garden gnomes. I want to talk about pirates and fishing and freezers full of deer meat and the first time he saw the ocean.

I want to tell his stories. About that one time in North Carolina when he tried to swim out to a boat in the ocean because it had his favorite NASCAR driver’s logo on it. About the time we took our niece to the zoo. About the way he liked to dig in the sand, saying he was searching for buried treasure. About how during the Iowa flooding in 2008, he was on campus every night filling bags of sand, trying to save the university he loved from the rising water. About how complete he finally seemed the day we brought our Beagle, Gracie, home from the breeder. About the time he proposed at sunrise on one of the prettiest beaches in the world, and I was so excited that I screamed “Oh my God!” to everyone who could hear, and actually missed hearing the most important question he’d ever asked me. These are the stories I want to remember today.

But these are not the only stories I have.

Because as I try to honor his life, I can’t ignore that I live in a world where I deal with his death every day. I live in a world where every time I have to fill out demographic information, I check this weird box marked “widowed.” I live in a world with a dog who still whimpers when she hears his name spoken aloud. I live in a world where images of guns (and they’re everywhere) conjure images of his dead body in my mind. I live in a world where news of the latest mass shooting makes me understand not only how the survivors feel, but what they had to see. These are not the stories I want to remember today. But they are ones I live every day.

And so I remain, stuck in this in-between land of fond memories and painful ones, of remembering who he was with great love and remembering what he did with great pain.

But I am trying. I don’t yet know the way out of this in-between place. But I know that every day, I move closer to peace.

I know that if I could go back to the beginning, to that day when he asked me to marry him, I’d still say yes, even if you told me it would end like this. Because the ten years of love were worth it.

His life taught me the value of serving others, the importance of faith, the necessity of puppies, and above all, the endurance of love, even in difficult times.

His death made me understand my own strength – both of my heart and of my faith. It made me understand the sheer importance of getting up every day just to experience what life has to bring. It made me understand that I am worth it – that we are all worth it. That a world of possibility exists, if only we can somehow take hold and enjoy the ride.

It was, so sadly, the act of taking his life that caused me to realize the value of my own.

And so, here I am. This is where I’d normally wrap up my blog post with something inspirational, probably in pink text, letting you know that above all, I’m doing well and that my life these days is full of pink sparkles and glitter.

I don’t have those kinds of words today, and pink sparkles and glitter live only in my craft room. Today is a day of grieving, and I will treat it as such.

And so I can leave you only with this: the knowledge that every day, I wake up in this brand new place that is not so new anymore, simply trying to live the best life I can for as long as I can. Trying to live a life of love and joy, but allowing myself to feel pain and sorrow when it makes sense.

This is my life. A life I love, a life changed forever by the life – and death – of the man I dearly loved.

And today, I simply miss him.