Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rebirth [ree-burth, ree-burth]

Renaissance; Renewal; Resurrection; New Beginning

Most faith traditions throughout human history have acknowledged some version of the “circle of life” – birth, life, death, and rebirth. This is the season where Christians focus attention on that concept through the birth of a child, symbolizing the hope of a new beginning for humanity. In the last few years I have thought about this only in the context of Susan’s own birth, life, death, and “resurrection”. But as we navigate through this second year and into a third without her physical presence, I have become more aware of how this concept also applies to me. While I have not “died” in the sense that we usually mean it, a chapter of my life has in fact passed away and I am experiencing a renaissance. I’m feeling very much alive in a very new way. It’s exciting, challenging, and maybe a little scary.

As it applies to me, the “labor and delivery” of my own rebirth started slowly at first, but has picked up momentum. Somewhere along the line a new “me” has begun to emerge – a mix of who I have always been, minus who I can no longer be, with added features of who I can yet become. This “year of seconds” since Susan died has not been without its challenges. In fact, it has affected me in ways I did not expect. Labor and delivery indeed. But I have found my way through it mostly because of Jane and my wonderful relationship with her. Jane has graced my life with new awareness and new reasons to “be”. I think she would say something similar about how the relationship has affected her. Jane and I aren’t deliberately trying to change each other. But by being together, we are doing just that.

A new relationship at this stage of our lives is a fascinating experience. It retains many aspects of the original love recipe but it’s also seasoned with life experience. The result is a tasty new set of savory sensations. And like all new culinary creations, it brings anticipation along with questions. Is this what we want it to be? Is there too much of this or too little of that? Have we prepared it properly? How do we know when we’re “ready” for the next course? And taste-testing along the way yields delighted exclamations like, “Oh my! This is really good!”

One of the major differences in establishing relationships with new mates later in life must surely be what we inherit from each other as part of the bargain. When we’re young and just getting started, there’s not as much life history to assimilate with a new partner. There are the families of course, and that’s often a significant factor. But later in life, there are decades worth of friendships, experiences, roots, habits, children, and “stuff” to absorb into a new life style. This adds both clarity and complexity to the newness. Clarity, because we have a better idea of what we want and need (or don’t want and don’t need) from a new relationship. Complexity, because we still have to figure out how to merge what’s already been established.

The list of changes in our respective lives has grown over the ten months we’ve been together. Jane and I have formed a new living environment with different things in different places, different routines, and a developing set of new shared experiences. They are all inextricably rooted in our old paradigms and inevitably compared to them. Our minds are busy processing all of this, occasionally demanding us to take a deep breath and catch up to the realization that this is all good, and good for us. One of my realizations is how healthy I feel in both body and spirit (and how long it’s been since I have felt that way). It’s not at all stretching the point when I say I feel “reborn”.

I suspect – indeed I hope – that all of us are experiencing some version of this renewal. Susan will never be truly gone from us. She is in fact an active participant – a midwife perhaps – in all of these new beginnings. There is no dishonor or betrayal of her life and legacy. Quite the opposite. She and all of our departed loved ones are a vital part of the new life that is being reborn in us. It is because they lived that we experience renewal in the ways that we do. I really like that notion. Isn’t that how faith traditions view their icons and ancestors? Isn’t that what we’d like to be for those whom we will leave behind?

Just like our bodies are continuously shedding old skin cells and replacing them with new ones, we have a continuous opportunity to ask ourselves: What elements of my life am I ready to release to history? What new elements would be relevant to my needs today? Becoming aware of these things invites epiphanies that can revitalize us.

Birth, life, death, rebirth. People who have come and gone long before us already knew what we must learn for ourselves.

Bless you all in this season where darkness turns back to light as a reminder of new life and new awareness. Happy Winter Solstice! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Springtime in the Rockies

Her name is Jane. We’ve been together for almost three months. We’re teaching each other new ways of looking at ourselves and the world around us as we accumulate shared experiences – one at a time. Both of us feel like it’s springtime again in our lives. I’m suddenly aware of many others who have felt the same fresh breeze of new love in their own worlds. They smile at me or nod knowingly or write positive affirmations. My friends tell me I look and behave “differently” (which truly surprises me – I had no idea). I find myself responding to questions like: “how are you?” with an enthusiastic “terrific” or “faannnntastic” – and meaning it.

As a widower, I am keenly aware of a delicate balance between honoring the treasure I’ve lost and rejoicing over the treasure I’ve found. When I was evolving in my readiness to pursue another relationship, my early (and irrational), silent fear was that loving another woman would somehow be dishonorable to Susan. The idea almost seemed adulterous. That’s clearly a fallacy – and I’m over it. I’ve had nothing but encouragement from friends and family – including Susan’s family. We are being accepted by the people in each other’s communities with open arms and warm hearts. And I had clear instructions from Susan herself (those who knew her can start grinning now) that I was expected to do exactly what I’m doing. In fact, Jane and I both have a sense that Susan was somehow actively involved in getting us together because it feels so “meant to be”. That sense makes this all the more special. It turns out that I am honoring the treasure I’ve lost by rejoicing in the treasure I’ve found. They are not mutually exclusive. What I learned in partnership with Susan is “paying forward” into what I bring to my relationship with Jane. We have arrived in each other’s lives at seemingly just the right moment. We seem to be doing exactly what we are supposed to do.

Anyone who has ever experienced this time of year at altitude knows what we mean when we say “It’s springtime in the Rockies”. It can be warm and beautiful one day, complete with gorgeous spring flowers and budding trees. The next day could bring a storm with heavy, wet, branch-breaking snow. We often refer to spring weather as “unstable”. The sudden changes can be daunting, and stressful. But spring storms also leave behind a wonderland of beauty. (The mountains are breathtaking after a fresh snow.) The indisputable promise of summer is still there. Spring moisture makes everything colorful after a drab cold season. If springtime is a metaphor for new relationships, then the springtimes that Jane and I have already experienced in our lives have prepared us well for this one. As in all new relationships, we’re making adjustments to the lifestyles we had before. We’re accommodating each other’s schedules. We’re learning what the other is like at various times of the day, what foods we enjoy or dislike, what we watch on TV, what brands we buy at the grocery store, our tastes in music, and a multitude of other, sometimes mundane details. We’re also realizing the similarities of our Midwestern heritage (we grew up 100 miles from each other), the many ways in which we’re alike, and how often we have the same thoughts at the same time. The adjustments can be daunting, even stressful – the realizations delightful. Because we’ve been here before, we know that the beauty of the relationship itself is what’s really magical.

We recently took a brief trip to Montana and Wyoming to visit Patrick. We came back through Yellowstone and the Tetons – a first for Jane (and I don’t think I’ve ever been there during this time of year). Soon it will be warmer and greener with less precipitation – and way more people. So it was special to experience these places (and the wildlife that inhabit them) in snowy, cold, overcast conditions – and in their never-the-less silent majesty. The steadfastness of the changing seasons, complete with their unique splendor and their onerous challenges can help us appreciate the meaning and beauty of life’s odyssey. Jane and I hope to have many seasons together. But no matter what, we are experiencing life in all its glory – right now. Capture the moment. It’s springtime here in the Rockies – and it’s faannnntastic!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bricks and Patience

How do you build something that will endure the test of time?

Brick by brick.

I’ve become keenly aware how emotionally comfortable I was most of the time during my years with Susan. To be sure, we had our ups and downs – both as a couple and as parents. I had many days and nights of angst over that 32 year period. But no matter what, we knew it would be OK because our relationship was cemented in deep, trusting love. After the first few months (maybe even weeks), the foundation of our love was never in doubt, particularly as time went on and our lives became more and more entwined. It’s amazing to look back and see what we built over that time – and how many building blocks it took – all placed one at a time. Being single again has forced me to identify as an individual rather than as part of a couple. I’m essentially getting to know myself again. What’s changed? What’s the same? It’s a pretty interesting and refreshing experience. And a new relationship means starting over – brick by brick.

I’ve been dating a remarkable woman for about a month. I had completely forgotten the emotional roller coaster that is present in building a new relationship. It’s like being a teenager or a 20-something again. In fact, that’s what Jon said I sounded like on the phone! My heart does flip flops and I feel euphoric when I’m in communication with the object of my new romantic interest. Then, when we haven’t been in touch for what seems like a long while, I begin to conjure up all kinds of stupid stories about how I’ve said something to screw up the relationship, or she’s having doubts, or something’s not right, or . . . I just really like talking to her and being with her and I can’t wait for the next encounter! More than once I’ve heard a voice saying to me “Rob, you’re pathetic! Get a grip!” Then, I get an email or a text or I’m with her and my heart goes pitter patter all over again. To be sure, we don’t know where this relationship is headed – the uncertainty is very real and it adds a measure of vulnerability to this experience. (But how can you feel love if you’re not also willing to feel pain?) The necessary time to build something worthwhile and enduring is in conflict with my impulse to hurry. But relationships are journeys not destinations. The more disciplined voice in my head keeps reminding me to do this one step at a time and savor the experience - brick by brick. Isn’t that how we’ve had to do our grieving? Fortunately, my new special friend is wise in the ways of patience and it’s a common (and enlightening) topic of our conversations.

Experiencing all of these emotions has brought back some vivid memories of my early relationships, including when Susan and I were just getting started. Given my age now, I had assumed all that stuff was behind me – an artifact of youthful immaturity and the absence of life experience and wisdom. Apparently, age alone does not make those feelings go away. The good news about dating at this stage in life is that our hard-earned wisdom really does help keep us reasonably centered and stable. We both know from our life experience that everything is going to be OK no matter what. But the emotions are more intense than I ever would have imagined. It’s invigorating, thrilling, exciting – and unnerving! And it feels like it’s taking so damn long! The reality is that it’s only been a month. How many bricks can that be?

In our fast-paced, high-tech, quick-gratification world, there still remains an ancient truth: Anything built to last still has to be built one brick at a time on a solid foundation. If we choose to, we can call upon the necessary patience to not only persevere, but also to find peace in the process.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


The trip was an extraordinary experience - not always easy or enjoyable - but remarkable. February, as I knew, isn't a particularly good time to visit. Cold, cloudy weather added to the air pollution was a constant downer. We didn't see the sun and clear air until (believe it or not) Beijing - which was a delightful surprise. But what it lacked as a relaxing vacation, was more than replaced by exposure to a fascinating culture and people with more similarities than differences. There were plenty of differences though, some of them pretty annoying. Still, my mind went from "I'm not coming back here"; to "if I come back I'll . . ." ; to "when I come back I want to . . ." It was terrific to spend that kind of time and have those experiences with Jon. He's pretty conversational in Mandarin and it solved an endless number of problems. I thought of Susan a lot - mostly about how she would never have done this trip in this way! Maybe we'd have done a more comfortable, english-speaking tour - but never like Jon and I did it. However, she'd have gone nuts with the shopping opportunities!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Smoothies, Coffee, and China

I joined eHarmony a few weeks ago. It’s one of several on-line matching services that help people find new relationships in a safe and expedient manner. It felt like a HUGE step for me at first – equal parts of fear, excitement, and dread with a dash of guilt. But the experience has been instrumental in helping me prepare my outlook for the future – the future that Susan and I discussed many times – my future. So I have carefully written my profile and posted some pictures on eHarmony. It’s been a fascinating experience on many levels. I’ve already been “matched” to several hundred women (all in the Denver area – amazing). Most of these matches have now been closed - either by them or by me. It’s not as easy as it might seem. It’s still going to take time. I did have a face-to-face meeting with one person. We progressed through the communication steps and agreed to meet at a Jamba Juice a few weeks ago. We had a very nice conversation even though she is clearly not “the one”. So I guess my first “date” in well over 30 years is now under my belt! It’s gotta be easier moving forward. I was set to have another encounter for coffee last Sunday with another woman. She had to back out at the last minute and says she would like to reschedule after I get back from China. We’ll see. (I’m already feeling hardened to the realities of seeking new relationships!)

But my focus hasn’t been on new relationships lately. After the first of the year I finally got serious about planning my trip to China and that has occupied most of my attention for the last four weeks. I leave tomorrow and I’m ready to go. I know I’m in for an adventure (after a very long plane trip) – but I really have no idea what to expect. I’m just looking forward to seeing Jon and traveling with him. He’ll meet me in Shanghai and we’ll be off on a big loop through the country. No matter what we experience, it will be unique and memorable. My friends and I have been chuckling about my trip preparation – or rather the lack of it prior to the new year. Susan would have been 99% packed and ready months ago. It just takes me a while to get mentally ready before I spring into action! It’s all come together nicely – but I admit it’s been a little hectic.

All of this illustrates how far we’ve come in a year. We’re moving on with our lives but we haven’t left her behind. She’s right here with us. In fact, I’m discovering her presence in new and pleasant ways all the time. She’ll be with us in China. She’s with Patrick in Bozeman (he’s living and working there after having graduated last month). For all of you who knew her, she’s no doubt with all of you in some meaningful way. And – she’ll be my “chaperone” for all those future smoothie and coffee dates! Onward we go!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Decorating for the Season of Life

Today is the first anniversary of Susan’s passing. I have vivid memories of the weeks and months leading up to the moment she took her last breath. I look at the weeks and months since then with wonder and amazement - I don’t remember ever experiencing such a roller coaster of thoughts and feelings as I have in the past 365 days. And when I ponder the whole experience over the last six years, I’m astounded. It’s been an extraordinary ride – and it’s not even over.

I’ve decided to decorate our Christmas tree as part of my observance of the day. In our long life together, I was always responsible for getting the tree up, getting it straight, and doing the lights. Susan always did the decorating. She had a flare for it and knew the story behind each ornament that came from family members or those we had purchased in some Christmas store in our travels. The decorating part was always a little tedious for me (we’ve collected a LOT of ornaments. Besides, we all know it needed to be done right!) Last year, our good friend (the other) Susan helped us hastily decorate the tree in the days immediately after Susan’s death. It felt like it needed to be done. This year I will do it in honor of her, even though I don’t have the flare and I won’t know all the stories. But I do know her story. It feels like the right thing to do.

Just a few weeks ago I was ambivalent about decorating at all. I was approaching this cold, dark season with a sort of gloomy demeanor. All I wanted to do was to get through this “year of firsts” and get to spring as quickly as possible. But somewhere between our anniversary on November 18th and Thanksgiving on November 26th, a little switch flipped in my head. I can’t explain it. The only trigger I can think of was Patrick saying “let’s put up the decorations”. A little voice in me said “of course”, and that was that. No hesitation about it – let’s put up the decorations. We got the outdoor lights in place and hauled up the indoor stuff. But we didn’t get around to doing the indoor things before Patrick returned to Bozeman to finish out the last seminar of his (final) semester. I’ve been both procrastinating and too busy to do it before now.

I’ve been thinking about what I might do today for some time. I decided weeks ago that I’d take the day off. I consulted with friends about how to make my observance meaningful. There is of course, no “right” way to do this other than what feels right to each of us as individuals working through our own process. But most people I talked to agreed that doing something deliberate, perhaps with a sense of ritual, would be important. I’ll talk with Jon and Patrick, re-read what I’ve written about this experience, review all the cards and mementos that have been waiting for me to revisit, light a few special candles, and play some favorite music. And, I’m going to do what Susan might do if she were here. I’m going to decorate the Christmas tree.

The significance of that little switch that flipped in my head is about much more than the Christmas decorations. It now feels like I can move on in my grieving process with less sadness about our loss and more focus on what Susan has meant to me; with less incredulity at what has happened and more awareness of how I have grown from the experience; with more appreciation for what we have successfully endured and less apprehension about when I will ever find unbridled joy again. I’ve already begun reaching out to build new relationships. I have a sense of hope and excitement about the future. It feels good. It feels like I’m decorating for the next season in my life. And the voice inside my head is saying "of course".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sentiments about Sentiments

Yesterday would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. She was an especially sentimental soul and always remembered important dates in her life (especially losses) with melancholy nostalgia. I often thought she was way too wistful. Now I have a somewhat more tolerant perspective.

I reconnected with a childhood friend yesterday. He used to live across the street from me. I became a member of Facebook a few weeks ago – surprising even myself along with the younger members of my family. I don’t know if it’s a function of my age and/or my situation as a new widower, but I’m feeling a strong urge to reconnect with my past. Facebook is helping to satisfy the yen (although it’s only as good as the impulses of my peers to join as I did).

This childhood friend and I were very close through our elementary years but had drifted apart before we graduated from high school. Never-the-less, the shared memories haven’t lost their importance. Most of them are of us as typical neighborhood playmates. But one is seared in my memory and came roaring back as I recalled those childhood years. When I was about 6 or 7 and my friend was about 5 or 6, his little brother was hit and killed by a car – right in front of my house. I have a horrible image in my head of their mother standing at the scene of the accident in hysterics, and watching helplessly as the fatally injured toddler lay on the street next to his mangled tricycle. I didn’t know how to process that at the time. And all of a sudden, I have a new perspective for her grief and what she must have experienced in dealing with such a tragic and sudden loss. My loss pales in comparison and yet I feel like a member of a very unique club whose members have had very unique experiences and to which none of us really wishes to belong.

As my family and I were sharing emailed thoughts about my mother, we agreed that our loved ones – even our children, are only on loan to us from God. In addition, my brother offered up a passage written by Khalil Gibran. It includes these lines: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” It’s a very similar sentiment to what I mentioned in the last post – the more loss we feel, the more it means that we had something worth grieving for. And it was never mine to begin with.

My friend Peg suggests that I am defrosting from the numbness that has protected me up to now – which I no longer need – and that my pain is therefore more noticeable as I continue to heal. My friend Alan, having himself traveled this road, says the same thing using “the Novocain is wearing off after a dental visit” analogy. The comparisons are accurate and they both frame the situation in terms that promise the pain will ease.

Tomorrow would have been our 31st wedding anniversary. I’m feeling a little wistful about that - with no remorse. And I’m glad that my mother showed me how.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

That's Life

My grieving process reminds me a little of when Jon and Patrick were little. Susan and I were aware that we were always moving from one parenting phase to another. Just as we got used to one, it seemed another was upon us. It required flexibility and patience. Through it all, we experienced life with its full range of emotions. That’s what this feels like now.

The last few months have been very busy and active. Everyone, including me, anticipated that “busy-ness” would be good for me – and it no doubt is. But my active involvement in things outside home and work has brought with it a new intensity of emotion that I didn’t see coming. I am experiencing Susan and her loss in a variety of ways, triggered by a variety of – well, activities. I guess that’s what you get when you choose to live life actively.

Susan and I had no idea of course, how we would connect after she died. We discussed it often and both of us believed that we would – somehow. The only model that I had in my head was the scene from “Sleepless in Seattle” where Tom Hanks interacts with a vision of his dead wife in the living room of his houseboat. But I’ve discovered that I can connect with Susan in a wide spectrum of ways. I have difficulty explaining it or offering examples other than to say that it reminds me of the “Where’s Waldo” books that we read with our children. We find Waldo amid a kaleidoscope of colorful, busy images, often difficult to spot – but always there. I have only to think of her and I know she is with me. It is bittersweet. I deeply appreciate her spiritual presence – and I deeply miss the tangible interaction. She will always be with me and she will always be gone. One of my daily meditations reminded me of the great irony of grieving: the more loss we feel, the more it means that we had something worth grieving for. Other entries remind me that she is “in the air that surrounds us, the sunshine that bathes us with its warmth and light, and the life that surges within us”. Like water that might have boiled “away”, it is still water in a different form and still “there”. Like God, she is in nature, she is in others, and she is in me.

The “busy-ness” began in August with a trip to visit Susan’s family and celebrate the shared birthdays of Jon and Susan’s mother. It was a little weird and a little sad to be there without Susan this first time. As soon as we returned, Patrick got immersed in student teaching, Jon got ready to go to China for the school year, and I got involved in my first show in six years.

Rehearsing for shows has always been intense. But I discovered that memorizing dialogue, lyrics, and movements is now much harder than it seemed before. I can’t imagine that aging has anything to do with it! Eventually I learned my part and had an enjoyable experience. But I was performing without Susan for the first time in over 30 years – we always supported and encouraged one another’s performances even if we weren’t performing together (which we did a lot). There were a variety of emotional triggers for me with this production. The show was dedicated to her memory. Opening night was on my birthday (another “first” without her). A very sweet teenager whom Susan had helped in earlier performances came up to me to express her appreciation and sadness. Before the Saturday night performance in the traditional cast circle, our good friend and director, Dennis, remembered Susan in an emotional tribute. They all combined to create not just a busy activity, but an experience that made me feel fully alive.

In another touching event, a long-time choir member and friend, Don Elliott, made a shadow-box display for the glass hummingbird I gave the choir in memory of Susan. He finished it in time for the first choir rehearsal in September. It will be mounted on a wall in the choir room. Don died very suddenly and unexpectedly a few days ago, making his effort even more special.

I have become keenly aware of this “year of firsts”. Jon, then I, and now Patrick (today) have all experienced our first birthdays since Susan died. In addition to the date of Susan’s death, our wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and her birthday are still coming up. As we approach the darkening season and the memories of intense care-giving, decline, and death just one year ago, I know that the sense of progress I felt earlier this year was an important “phase” to help us get ready for these milestones.

Very soon, I will be immersed in church committee work for the foreseeable future. My job with the City of Denver is professionally stimulating. Plugging back into life in these ways is better than being idle – and it is also creating more powerful feelings of appreciation and sorrow.

But I guess - that’s life.

Friday, July 17, 2009


In this story, we view a man’s life from when he discovers his earliest childhood passions, meets his soul mate, and forges a wonderful life with her through joys and sorrows – until she dies. The man is deeply saddened by her absence as well as by unfulfilled promises and dreams. But an opportunity to keep those promises, see those dreams come true, and pursue new ones, comes his way unexpectedly. He goes along reluctantly and begrudgingly until he realizes that pursuing his new life and keeping his old promises might be one and the same. He becomes renewed and thrives again.

Patrick suggested we see this movie last Saturday night. He had seen it before, so I suspect he already knew that its similarities to my own life would not go unnoticed. This might even be a way for him to deal with his own grieving process – by intersecting his and mine with shared events. The movie was a poignant experience – as well as funny and creative. For example, if you know anything at all about stereotypical dog behavior you’ll have some good belly laughs. It’s a fine film and I recommend it.

I have had many other poignant reminders lately. The youngest son of some special friends got married last Friday. The wedding (in a beautiful, outdoor, mountain setting) underscored the passage of time, the physical absence (but also the spiritual presence) of Susan, and the timeless rituals of life. It was also my first wedding as a widower – which was a little weird.

I don’t often need to identify myself as a widower. But twice this past week I found myself explaining that Susan had died. Once was to notify the office of one of her specialists who had called to suggest it was time for her to be seen again. The other was someone at work whom I had not seen in a while and who inquired about her.

The daily meditation for July 13 (from “Healing After Loss” which I mention in the book list below) quotes John Hassler: “He’d begun to wake up in the morning with something besides dread in his heart. Not happiness exactly, not eagerness for the new day, but a kind of urge to be eager, a longing to be happy.” The author of these meditations, Martha Whitmore Hickman reflects, “Then one day we may think to ourselves, ‘Wait a minute. This feels different!’ . . . we realize we inhabit a new land where we are happy and content more of the time than not.”

This feels like an accurate description of where I am on this path – and where I’ve been for a couple of months. I still have moments when I have trouble believing that all this has really happened. I still have moments when I miss Susan terribly. It still feels like grieving, and it still looks like I have a long way to go. But I’m much more aware of how far I’ve come. I am more cognizant of the “circle of life” – being born, living, dying, and being reborn – than I have ever been before. It’s the fundamental commonality of all religious traditions. It’s beautiful, sad, inspiring, and awesome all at once.

Life is good. Everything is as it should be in the Universe. Things are looking “Up”.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Passage of Time

I’m remembering six months ago today and the life-changing weeks, months, and years leading up to that moment when Susan took her last breath. I’m awed by the powerful transformation from winter into spring, both in nature and in our human experience.