This week, I am staying in Massachusetts at my parent’s house, I haven’t been here since December, when I was here for an entire month to help my mom through her cancer surgery / hysterectomy recovery (she is totally fine and clear now), so it’s been almost 5 months since I have seen my family. Since I was born and raised in small town Massachusetts, and moved to NYC when I was 18, that family includes everyone. My parents, my brother, his wife, and their two kids (my niece and nephew), Brian and Jillian. Plus, cousins, aunts, uncles, and many, many old friends from high school or from when I was growing up. Whenever I come back here, we spend a lot of time running around visiting this one and that one, catching up with everybody, and generally just enjoying being together with the people who I started my life with – the people who were in my world the most and helped me build the foundation of who I was the first 18 years of my life.
One thing I have noticed each time that I come back “home”, to my home state, to stay with my parents – is this weird paradox of how much everything and everyone changes, yet also stays the same. My parents are no longer in the same home that they were in for 45 years of their marriage – the home me and my brother grew up in and knew our whole lives. They are now in a different home, in a different small town, and have slightly different lives and patterns than in years past. They are now both 70 years old, so my dad moves a little slower than he once did – and my mom puts the TV at a volume that some might call “blaring”, because her hearing is perhaps more impaired than it once was. My nephew is now almost 7 years old, and looks like a little man to me some days, as he plays on his soccer team or puts on his little reading glasses and plays on his Leap Frog. My niece just turned 4, and she now talks and laughs and dances all around my parent’s house, asking us to watch her plea like a ballerina, or sings along to the latest pop song and knowing the words way more thanany of us do. My brother seems and acts much more like a real-life dad and a working husband now, than the little pain-in-the-ass kid I remember growing up with. Our friends are all aging, or changing, or switching jobs, or living dreams, trying new things, creating new milestones, buying new homes, moving to new states, surviving through loss, adding new elements and love and volumes to their lives. On the outside, it looks and might feel as if everything has changed, and continues to change.
But it hasn’t. Not really. That’s not the full story.
As much as everything and everyone has changed through the years, they have also stayed very much the same. My mom is still one of the best cooks I know, and she still loves making her very grown up children feel loved and feel like kids again, through homemade food and precious family moments. My dad is still a big strong teddy bear who worries about his little girl, and who does whatever he can in practical ways, to make sure she is always safe.
My nephew Brian still has the same big and full laugh that he had when he was just 2 years old, and my niece still makes that same quizzical face with her eyes raised that she made when she was just a few years younger. My old high school friends that I catch up with now and then, still have the same great sense of humor and wit that I remember them having all those years ago, My brother still loves his Red Sox and still gets all worked up when I banter with him about how much better the Yankees are than his team. The small town that I grew up in still gives me that warm, familiar feeling when I drive through it – and coming home still feels like coming home.
And what about me? Sure, my husband’s sudden death has changed me forever – it has changed me in such intense ways, it is almost impossible to put that into words. His death has made me life my very life in new ways. It has made me more compassionate. It has changed my goals in life. It has changed how I spend my time, and what things are important to me. It has given me more anxiety, panic, PTSD, fear, and hurt and pain than I could have ever imagined. It has also given me resilience, strength, patience (still working on that one), and open-mindedness, like I have never felt before. Yes, I am very different. The death of the person you love most changes you forever, from the inside out. But I am also the same. The essence of who I am is the same.
Why am I saying all of this? Well, something that I have heard often from other widowed people, is the idea that if their dead spouse or partner were to somehow return and come back and walk into their life right now, that they wouldn’t recognize that life, or that they would no longer fit into that life – that the person who has survived the trauma and lives with the loss, had changed so much, that they would no longer be compatible with the person who died. This is something that widowed people talk about with one another – this idea about how our dead loved ones would fit into our lives today – or if they would fit at all. It seems to be of popular opinion for many , that their person would no longer fit into their “new life” – the one theywere forced to create when their person died. The one that took years and years to create, and that stole pieces of their soul as they created it. Not everyone feels this way, of course, but Ive heard many widowed friends say that their deceased partner might not even recognize them, or that the person they have now become, would probably not be with the person who had died. Some widowed people feel that they have , in a sense, grown out of the life they had with the person who died. I have thought about thisa lot over the past almost 5 years, and I have come to the realization that I do NOT agree with this assessment. I dont feel like this is true. Not for me.
The best way for me to try and describe how I feel about my beautiful husband Don fitting into my life today, is to tell you about the first time that we met. We had been talking online and on the phone , for just under three years. I was not ready emotionally to meet him in person for a very long time, due to some trauma in my own life that had severely damaged my heart and turned me into someone who no longer believed in love or good things happening for me – but the frightening and sobering events of 9/11 made us both realize how insanely short life is, and how it was worth it to take a risk on love – and so I finally agreed to meet my beautiful Don , in the fall of 2002. He lived in Florida at the time, and me in New Jersey. So he flew from Florida into Newark airport, where I met him, and where we spent the next week slowly and very quickly falling in love with each other. That moment I finally saw Don walking toward me at the airport – my palms were sweating, my heart was shaking, my soul was awakened. When he was standing in front of me for the first time ever, adter three years of talking only with typing and voices, it was terrifying. We looked at each other quizzically, as if trying to figure out a new puzzle, or something we had not yet seen before. For the first ten minutes or so of us being together in person, it was a matter of trying to re-familiarize ourselves with what was somehow already familiar. We had already known each other, but this was new. This “looking into each other’s eyes” part of things was scary and strange. But by the time we collected his luggage and were sitting on the bus together back to my Jersey apartment, his hand found its way into mine – and everything that was strange or foreign about him only 4 minutes ago, suddenly felt familiar again. It was as if we just looked at one another and collectively thought: “Oh. It’s YOU!”
That is how I picture it being, if the impossible were to happen, and my beautiful husband could somehow waltz back into my life today. If he walked into the living room of my parent’s house, which is no longer the house he knew. Sure, my hair might be a little longer or I may have gained or lost some weight again. He might be surprised by how Ive learned to be patient like him, or by all the many things that have taken place in my life since he died. He might have to re-adjust himself to my new world, and meet all the new people I have met in the time since he has gone from earth. We might look at each other and , at first, see only unfamiliar and fear. But then, after a few minutes or so, his hand would find it’s way to my hand, and everything that once was about us, would simply return, or remain in place just where it always had been sitting. My husband would look around my parent’s new home, see our nephew, meet our niece for the first time, and then go out and have a game of catch with my brother, or talk with my dad about cars and baseball, like they always did. And when I went to hug him again for the first time, I would find that his hugs are still the same best hugs in the world that they have always been. He would still smell like fresh laundry, and his eyes would still be that gorgeous blue like the sky, and his soul and heart would be the same one I fell in love with.
Sure, things would be different. But more importantly, everything would be the same. We would look at one another, and in ourselves, we would re-discover what was already there. In each other, it would still be Home. My husband would look at me, pause for a second , and then say, as if it were obvious from the first moment: “Oh. It’s you. ” And I would say back: “Welcome home, Boo. You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”