A year of being a single parent

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Today as I dropped our little boy to the school bus, it struck me that it was the last day before the school closes for summer vacations. I had gotten a note from his teacher few days ago that there was a class party planned today and I was to send cup cakes and cookies. So last night I stopped on the way back from work to pick up the goodies.

It’s the trivial moments like these that hit you the hardest. An entire school year has gone by where I’ve been a single parent. I’ve juggled work, parenting and struggled with my own grief through this year. There are times I’ve felt like a failure, times I’ve felt it was beyond me to get through this. But at the same time, something has kept me going as I have labored through each day.

I don’t know how I’ve done, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Every morning I’ve gotten up, woken up my son, coaxed him to finish his breakfast and got him ready for school. Every morning after waving him back as the school bus disappeared from sight, I’ve returned to the loneliness in my life. I start work later in the day so mostly my mornings are not rushed.

These few hours in the morning are still the most difficult. Many days I just slept through them, many days there was nothing to do but to just lean into whatever emotions surfaced. Sometimes I wrote, some days I read blogs and tried to find hope. I tried meditation, listened to calming zen music and it all helped keep me sane.

I’ve taken care of my son when he’s been sick, helped him with his homework, done his class projects and the million other things that come with raising a child. I’ve felt profound sadness that I’m all that he’s got left. I’ve struggled with the thought that I’m doing what his mom loved to do,that she was denied her motherly right to watch her boy grow up.

And then there have been times I’ve just not been there because of my work responsibilities. I’ve felt guilty about it but it’s just amazing to see how strong my little boy has been through this, perhaps he gets it from his mom. Courage is in his genes. I wish I could  be in the moment and look forward to the next thing like kids do. But we are grown ups tethered to the emotional chains of our past.

The last summer vacation was a blur, I was so deep in shock that I don’t even remember. My superiors were supportive and I worked from home many times just to be with my son. A year later, the shock  has dissipated but the deep sadness remains as it always will. I remember the fun both of them used to have during the holidays – playing games, going to movies and doing the many other little things that only moms can do.

I can’t do many of those things simply because I’m not there, I need to also earn to give him a good life and that means mostly I’m away during the day. He has his grand parents to take care of him. I guess we are all trying to do the best we can but the void of her absence is just so deep that no one can ever fill that space for both of us.

I often wonder what goes on in his little mind, what he thinks of how life has turned out to be for us. It’s hard to know what goes on there, we can only do the best we can and hope that when he grows up, he will remember that this was the hardest thing anyone can go through but we still thrived,we came through.

So this morning I asked my son if I was invited to his class party and he promptly replied “No, it’s only for those who are in my class”. I love the pristine honesty that children have. They never hesitate to say what is right. I’m both proud and sad today – proud because I’ve been there for him every single day in the year and sad that I’ve been there alone without the person who deserved to be doing what I’ve been trying to do all along solo. It’s just the way our life has turned out to be.

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I hope..

So much is made of the firsts after a profound loss – anniversaries, birthdays and other special occasions. Undoubtedly all these are very difficult because they remind us of what was and never can be again. But it’s not these that are the most challenging.

That which is the most difficult to bear is the every day life – that most routine but sacred thread of our existence, the day to day life which hurts the most. The same life that once throbbed from the joy of living with that one person in this universe that was yours, is now threadbare.

I’m a creature of habit and routines and the same humdrum of life that once comforted me now makes breathing difficult on many days. The days of the week are filled with work and being a single parent, and yet every moment is just shrouded in dark emptiness.

After a rough week at work when the weekend comes around it brings even more emptiness because it reminds me of the days that were. The evenings hurt the most – lonely and slow as they are. I always knew life was unfair but to be cheated out of it like we’ve been, words fail the disappointment I feel.

When I get tired of the life I’m living, I try to go out and do the things we used to do like going out for lunch and a movie. I try to convince myself that I’m getting back to life, that I’m trying. But the cold reality is that it’s all an attempt at deluding myself. At the restaurant we take the table for two and it hurts so much to be just two and not three.

It’s the sort of loneliness which is incurable because it doesn’t go away even in the company of people. It’s always there like a silhouette. The fact that it’s been a year is like a proverbial slap across the face. It just deepens the sense of loss.

I miss the motivation, the enthusiasm, the spring in the step that I see in the people around me. I feel devoid of energy, just a shadow of my former self getting through the days.

I don’t want to be like this, I want relief from this pain but so far nothing has helped. I want to talk but the problem is that one person I want to share with is not around.

I know this is the reality of loss, this is the path we all tread. Others get impatient, they think that with time you will go back to what you were but only you know the painful truth of this existence in the world of afterloss.

I now know that there’s no going back now. That place in my life now exists only in my memories. I carry the fragrance of those days in my heart but I can’t touch that piece of my life again. It’s there but like a mirage in the desert.

I ask myself what next, where do I go from here? I really don’t know, I just know that I have to find a way to live again. I’m getting tired of feeling like this day after day without respite.

I wish someday I would be able to enjoy a moment again, enjoy the little things in life like an outing, music, a cold beer on a hot summers day and not be ambushed by grief the moment I begin to enjoy anything.

I wish someday I would be able to wakeup on a Monday morning longing for the weekend instead of being relieved that it’s over and I can hide behind routine again.

I know sometimes in life we have to have the courage to start all over again. But rebuilding a broken life is not like rebuilding a house from the ruins. It’s more like building something amongst the ruins. The destruction, the sadness, the profound sense of loss never really go away. We just have to find a way to live with this gasping hole in the fabric of our lives.

I have no idea how to go about it. I wish there were instructions, there was a manual but there is none. Maybe some day it will happen without my conscious knowledge that this heavy burden of loss that I carry will feel lighter and I will be able to say that we made it, despite everything that happened to us, we lived through it and came out on the other side.

Maybe I’ll feel like Red in the Shawshank Redemption :

” I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

The Lost Year

“If I die, I will wait for you, do you understand? No matter how long. I will watch from beyond to make sure you live every year you have to its fullest, and then we’ll have so much to talk about when I see you again..”
Jeaniene Frost

Thursday marked a calendar year in my journey of afterloss. While memories of that fateful day have tormented me much over the past year, I’m glad to say that they never have been the focus. As in life and as in death, my wife’s extraordinary character has always shone through.

But that hasn’t made handling this devastating loss any easier. It has been an immensely difficult and lonely time. While lot of people can’t believe that a year is already past,I have felt the burden of each day.

If there is some relief today it is for the fact that I will never ever have to go through that again. The first few days, weeks and months, the inhuman intensity of the pain – something that I thought never could exist. At times it completely debilitated me but I have carried on. I have had no other choice but to get up every day – get my son ready for school, and after a few hours break go to work and just do whatever was needed to get through the day. And the same thing the next day followed by the next..

Holidays and weekends have been particularly bad. Most weekend evenings have been spent alone either at home doing nothing or when it became too much, just taking long walks. The family life we had has been completely dismantled. There are no more late nights or enjoyable evenings because she isn’t around.

I believe a lot is made out of a year ending. I don’t know how life changes tomorrow just because it’s been a year. Loss is loss even after a year. It still hurts as bad and I still don’t have a clue about the crushing loneliness that permeates everything.

You can say that I’ve been stuck in my past. The memories of happy days together have sustained me through this dark period. I know much is made of staying in the present but sometimes the present is so hollow that you have to find shelter in the warm embers of the past.

It’s been a year of remembrances. Not a minute has gone by when I haven’t thought of all the memories that we made together. Our years together have been a gift, a privilege. Even if I don’t achieve anything else in life, I will be content for I have those years with me.

It’s been a year of missing her and the world that disappeared with her. The innocence of our lives and the pure happiness of her presence, I have yearned for these but have found them elusive.

It’s been a year where I have gone on vacations with my son and felt the most excruciating loneliness that I ever thought was possible. I have stood alone in the most beautiful places and failed to register the beauty that lay around and above me.

It’s been a year where I have stared the walls for hours and done nothing else on many days. It’s been a year when I have read only books, memoirs and blogs on grief and loss. It’s been a year when I have lived a parallel life in my mind – a life that we were denied.

It’s been a year when I have talked so less even by my own standards because I have had no one to talk to. And yet, when someone has offered to talk or listen I have found myself short of words to say.

In reality I’ve been frozen in time, the world has gone through an entire year but I haven’t moved with it. I haven’t felt the need to be in sync with a world where loss is just another word till it happens to you.

I went through many firsts in this lonesome year and somehow got through them all. One thing that helped was the thought that these were happy occasions in the past – birthdays, our anniversary. But when the last of the firsts came, there wasn’t anything remotely happy about it.

I couldn’t just ignore the day, I wanted to mark it with love and respect even though the sadness was just so overwhelming. So I took the day off but when I got up in the morning, I found that in the absence of routine there was nowhere to go.

So I went back to the hospital, to the place where it all ended. It was also a place where we fought to live together. It’s no longer a place that frightens me. The last time I left, I thought I would never come back.

But I came back on this day, parked in the familiar parking lot. I noticed so much had changed in a year, the buildings had a fresh coat of paint now. I didn’t go inside for there was nothing in there for me.

Instead I walked around the building and walked to a nearby cafe. We used to frequent this place after our marriage. I used to work nearby and we would meet here in the evenings. They were the happiest days of our lives.

I sat outside the cafe and watched the afternoon traffic. I had all the time and nowhere to go. The world seemed to move in slow motion and I felt I was watching myself from the outside.

I truly believe that our relationship continues in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago. A year ago, loss consumed me in its entirety, and it still does but I have realized that I can never lose what is within me – our timeless memories and love.

Most days it still hurts, there are often more tears than not but ever so slowly I’m discovering that I haven’t lost her after all. What I have searched all along and found elusive lies within me.

Turning forty

Of all the terrible ‘firsts’ if there was one I had hoped to get through as easily as I could, it was my birthday. Never the one for celebrating my birthdays, it was mostly an unneeded distraction. Of course it felt nice being wished but mostly it was just another day.

This was the case till I got married. My lovely wife ensured that I was pampered, got me gifts, baked me a cake at midnight and made me feel so special that I actually started looking forward to my birthday.

She was particularly fond of both of us turning forty. She would often talk about it as if a new life started after you hit that age. She would often say ‘I love getting old’. I never thought much about it, I had it all figured out – getting old, birthdays, anniversaries all lined up in the years ahead.

Not in a million years I would have imagined not being together when either of us hit this number. She didn’t live to see hers and mine as well.

I think it was only fitting that I fell sick a day before my fortieth. As the fevers raged and the meds took effect, I slept – no thoughts, nothing just very uncomfortable but peaceful sleep. I don’t know how else to describe it.

But with sickness comes guilt that I couldn’t spend time with my son. In fact he was sick and I probably got the bug from him but he’s recovered and I can’t be more relieved. Yet being a single parent means there’s no back up. I do have help to attend to his needs but there are some things only parents can do – talking, playing together, going out.

So as the day ended and it felt like my fevers had gone away, a million thoughts came racing back – the empty living room where we celebrated so many birthdays and anniversaries together, the incapacitating feeling that there would be no more of those.

I was planning to retire early weary from the terrible weekend when few of my best friends showed up with their families and a birthday cake. The kids sang the birthday song while I cut the cake. It was very hard not to be emotional but then if there’s something I’m very good at – it’s masking my emotions.

But I know they understand and sometimes silence speaks eloquently. If you are reading this, please know that it’s something I will always cherish. The fact that even though we don’t speak every day, sometimes I don’t return calls or keep aloof, you have not given up on me. Thank you for this.

I also received so many Facebook and WhatsApp messages through the day and there are calls I want to return. I have to thank my wife for the kindness I received today because she was the first one to call up people on their birthdays – family, my friends, even my family members that I had not spoken in years.

It was never an obligation, her affection was always genuine and heart warming. One of her pet peeves was that I didn’t call up people enough. She was forever making new connections and I was always struggling to keep up.

Today it’s too painful to imagine what the day would have meant had she been around, it’s too painful and I’m thankful I could in some part blame my sickness for feeling so miserable.

I wanted to totally ignore today but I cannot because it meant a lot to her. Someday I might turn the bend and I will be more grateful but today is not that day.

Memories Revisited

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom”- Rumi

I have been really struggling the last few weeks. The intense pain, anxiety and the debilitating sadness is just so overwhelming many times.

I know the reason is that I’m revisiting the days leading up to the time when life as I knew it ended forever. The memory of those days is just so brutal.

I have no idea how I’ve been working through all this. I returned to work barely ten days after the passing which was a terrible mistake but all the people around me didn’t want me sitting at home and brooding.

I suffered so much in those first weeks and months that I decided never to let others voices drown my own and it has served me well.

Almost a year later people have largely forgotten at work and many don’t even know. This month marking the first year and my 40th birthday is the most difficult for me but it has coincided with an extremely busy and stressful period at work.

Sometimes it helps to get through the day but often it is just too much to bear. Whenever I get a chance I take a break – go for a walk or take some deep breaths to calm myself down.

In the beginning I spent a lot of time feeling guilty that I should have been the one to go instead of her but now I think it would have been so cruel to have her undergo this level of emotional trauma on a daily basis.

March 3rd is etched in my memory. The doctors had decided to put my wife on the ventilator and asked me to get my son to the ICU to meet her. I lost my temper at the doctor on duty telling him he had lost his mind and that he was being completely insensitive. I noticed he had mentioned in the daily log-“She may not survive this illness”.

I demanded an explanation and he said he was just doing his duty and speaking based on his experience. Looking back I think I was just not ready to even consider that possibility in spite of the gravity of the situation. I regret I was so harsh on him.

The major reason for my complete denial was the fact that I was seeing such extraordinary courage from my wife. She was always so feisty, I always believed she had the power to overcome anything.

That day we sat in the ICU and talked. My little boy a little bewildered by seeing all the medical equipment and still in his school uniform. His mom joked and played with him like it was just another day.

I was still so angry at the doctor for putting me through this. I remember thinking that I would give him a piece of my mind the day we got out of the ICU. He didn’t know it was my wife he was talking about, she was no ordinary woman.

I was under severe mental trauma – the toll of the last seven months of continuous chemotherapy treatments and lengthy hospital stays was weighing down heavily on me. But I was still thinking that it was just another roadblock in our battle against leukemia.

I remember I sat in a chair next to her, my son in my lap. When the time came to leave she asked our son her usual “And what do you say now” and he responded with his sweet “I  love you mumma”.

I stood up, my son in my arms and stopped near the door. Suddenly it seemed like time froze,my mind went blank. I stumbled a little and then steadied myself. I always picture that moment – it was the last time the three of us were in the same room.

It also became the last time my little boy saw his mother. I know that in time he will not remember but I have captured the moment for him here so that he will always know how courageous his mom was. It was a gruesome day but she never let it show. I want him to know how proud we should be of her.

The next morning they put her on life support. I held her hand too numbed to even react. She must have understood like she always did because just before drifting into sedation she said “I’ll be fine”. It was the last time we spoke.

I always kept myself from writing about those unimaginable days but today the weight of those memories is too much to bear. I’m sharing this in the hope that it lessens the enormous burden that I carry all the time.

I shouldn’t have been even writing this blog, we should have been living our dream watching our son grow up together. But I don’t have the power to change my reality. I don’t know why I’ve been put on this path but I have been given no choices but to walk.

I know some people go through their entire life without experiencing the kind of love that we shared. I can’t be more grateful for those twelve years in my life. They are the reason I’m still here.

But at the same time my grief is so much more intense. It’s true when they say that deeper the relationship, deeper is the grief. I still find it impossible to think of death and her in the same breath. It feels so unreal even after a year.

Maybe the truth is that I will never be able to come to terms with what I have experienced. I can’t look far ahead and I don’t have any answers on how I will move ahead but I know that I will keep moving forward despite every hardship.

Her strength and love keeps me alive and I know I can always count on her.

Castaway

Castaway is one of my favorite movies. It touched me deeply the first time I watched it so many years ago. It was probably much before I got married. Today I remembered I had the DVD in my collection and I watched it again as I had another of those lonely Sunday evenings to survive.

Maybe it’s my grief stricken mind but I’m amazed at the parallels. I feel so much like Chuck Noland – marooned on an island with no one in sight. Cancer entered our happy life like the plane crash in the movie. It destroyed everything that was precious to me and left me to live.

I cannot be grateful that I have my son but he can’t rescue me from this island of grief. I’m alone here day or night. I have begun to lose track of time. Sometimes I see a light in the distance, maybe it’s a ship that can rescue me from this place. I scream and shout to be heard but no one hears me. The light fades away leaving me back in the darkness.

I guess grief is very much like this. You can be surrounded by people but you are truly alone for they can’t hear you. Once in a while, there is a flicker of hope but it doesn’t last. You wake up every day and find yourself in the same place – not a soul in sight and deafening silence all around.

Sometimes hope falls away and you think if this is how it’s going to be forever. You desperately hope that one day a ship will sail through and rescue you. You will get back to the world again, you will feel what it is to live again.

In the movie, there is this heart rendering relationship Chuck has with ‘Wilson’  – the ball. In many ways, this blog is my ‘Wilson’. There are so many days and weeks I go without having an adult conversation. Yes, my job involves talking to a lot of people and running lots of meetings but then they don’t count, do they?

This blog is where I come to talk, to speak as I feel without restraint and compulsions. Yes, I have spoken about how I feel with a few close friends but then for how long can I burden people with the same thing over and over again?

With the passage of time, the urge to talk has withered. The world goes on and people get busy. Grief is slow and irrational, it doesn’t care if it’s going to be a year. In its own timescale, nothing has moved. It’s such a solitary path, no one carries your burden. You have to walk alone.

It’s also not easy to explain to others, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain this to my own family and failed. It’s not easy to be around grieving people. They expect that with time, you would get back to normal but the truth is that what was once normal no longer exists.

In the beginning I was angry and frustrated – how could they not understand, how could something so obvious to me be so difficult to understand for others? I truly realize today that it’s nobody’s fault. It’s not for them to understand.

But this is where the word ‘Compassion’  steps in. It doesn’t really matter whether you understand or not, it doesn’t really matter if you get it or not. All that matters is that you are there despite the fact that you don’t understand. Time notwithstanding.

It matters that you don’t judge or try to find solutions. Again I understand how difficult this is. I’ve always been an emotional person. My wife knew this and the reason she was so strong was because she loved me so much. She knew how hard it would be for me.

Back to the movie, Chuck is finally rescued and reunited with civilization. I find the last few scenes of the movie extremely poignant and beautiful. Though he is back in the world, he finds that it’s not the same world that he had left behind.

In the iconic last scene, Chuck finds himself at the crossroads. He is told “You look lost” and he replies “I do?”. This is what this journey of grief is like. You really don’t know what’s next. But then this is also true about life though we often think otherwise.

Today these words have a special meaning for me for I have lived through it all, I’m sharing this because despite what I’m going through, I feel hope not despair :

“We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and… knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had… lost her. cos I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen. So… I made a rope and I went up to the summit, to hang myself. I had to test it, you know? Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log, snapped the limb of the tree, so I-I – , I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over *nothing*. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass… And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring”