When I decided to share the story about what my family went through while my husband was ill, “Life with Joe, before and after his illness,” I hoped it would help someone — maybe someone going through a similar situation. What I didn’t expect was how much writing that story would help me.
Working in a room filled with very experienced writers, many told me how cathartic the experience of writing that story about Joe’s battle with mental illness, and eventual losing battle with cancer, would be for me. I didn’t find that to be true at all. I rewrote the story four times, all during the month of April — a month where we would have celebrated Joe’s birthday and our wedding anniversary. As painful as the story was to write, I knew Joe’s story would touch people who have cared for a loved one suffering with a mental illness.
What I didn’t anticipate was the level of endearment extended toward me through the calls and emails I received. I really needed that. Coping with loss is a deeply personal experience. No one can help you go through it. However, at times, I didn’t feel my grief was acknowledged by extended family members. Often, I felt it was minimized and that my grief may have made them uncomfortable. And, I don’t mean just Joe’s death, but also the loss of his life — our life together during the last several years to a mental illness.
My phone rang on Tuesday afternoon after the story ran, and when I answered, a woman named Rose, 84, from South River, was filled with concern for me. She told me she tried reaching me all day.
She said with such sincerity, “I just wanted to hear your voice and know that you’re OK.” I assured her that I was, and was actually happy. “Are you sure?” she asked. I told her about my trip to Ireland and that I would mail her a copy of the article I wrote about it. I was deeply touched by her call, and after I hung the phone up, I thought about all of the things I wished I had shared with her. I thought about last year and how it was the best year of my life. I wished I told her that.
That night I sat down and wrote my response to Rose’s question asking if I was OK?
The first anniversary of a loved one’s death is always a milestone. And, the first anniversary of Joe’s death on New Year’s Eve 2012 was a horrible day for me. I promised myself when I woke up the next day, the start of a new year, I would be open to new things and attempt to move on, gain some control back and accept my new life.
I always dreamed of seeing humpback whales, so I booked a trip to Puerto Vallarta. The travel agent asked, “You’re going to Mexico alone? With no man?”
“I don’t need a man to take me to Mexico,” I responded. “I’m going to see the whales.”
Thinking I would relax on the beach during the day and sit in my room alone all night, I didn’t pack anything fancy to wear, and I brought several books and DVDs to keep me entertained. I’ll admit, arriving to the dinner party on the beach that night, I was slightly uncomfortable when the hostess kept repeating, “Uno?” Yes, “Uno.” She looked sad for me, but I said, “I’ll just sit with those people over there,” and I headed to a table with six other people.
I had fun that night, a party-type night, but I knew the next several nights’ dinners would be sitdown-style in their restaurants. That’s not something that a person alone might want to do, so I decided to try something new.
I saw a brochure advertising a sailing trip. Up to this point, Rose, I could always count on getting seasick, but I had never been on a sailboat before and I promised myself that I would try new things. I took a cab to the marina and booked a sunset sail. There were six couples along with me. When the captain of the boat, Carlos, saw that I was alone, he called over the two crew members and introduced them to me. He told me each of them would sit with me for an hour on the three-hour cruise.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t get seasick. In fact, I loved it, and when Carlos invited me back every night to sail as his guest, I went. I went whale watching every morning while I was there, and I saw 35 humpback whales in Banderas Bay that week. I swam with sea lions and dolphins, and even released newly hatched sea turtles into the ocean at dusk. I fell in love with humpback whales, sea lions and the whole country of Mexico. As I was packing to leave, I realized I never opened a book or watched a DVD.
The next month, Rose, I went to The Westminster Kennel Club Show in Manhattan, a show that Joe and I always attended but hadn’t been to in years. If you need a hug, you’re sure to get one there with 2,500 dogs in attendance. Then, in March my friends and I went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan and come on Rose, you gotta know that everyone loves a redhead on Saint Patrick’s Day.
And then there was my first trip to Ireland, which was absolutely magical. I fell in love with the whole country, which is very easy to do.
The following month, my niece flew in from Hawaii with her daughter and her new baby boy, and we all went up to New Hampshire where I proudly watched my daughter graduate from college. After dinner, we all headed to a party where there were about 75 young adults celebrating their graduation.
A few of the young men asked if I would do something called a keg stand, and not knowing what I was agreeing to, I said, “Sure.” Remember Rose, I promised to try new things? Well, next thing I knew, six college-aged young men were holding me upside down while the crowd was chanting my name as I drank beer from the pump. I was not very graceful that night, Rose.
During that trip, I fell completely and madly in love with my niece’s baby boy, Jameson. Of course, I knew I would love him, but I fell in love with him.
The next month my daughter brought home a basket of 3-week-old kittens that we bottle fed until they were old enough to get adopted and, of course, I fell in love with one and decided to keep him.
The following month, my friend and I went to see one of my favorite singers, Gladys Knight, in Atlantic City. I danced and sang along with her and just felt so blessed to be there with her that night. Her music has brought me such joy, and she got me through some difficult nights the past few years.
And then, toward the end of the year, my best friend and I went to see another one of my favorites, Rod Stewart. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him and it was so wonderful to be there. I had my new iPhone with me that night and, thinking I taped him singing, I was so surprised the next day to see I actually taped myself and my friend singing along to his entire show. I fell in love with Gladys, Rod and my best friend just a little more last year.
Rose, I wanted to tell you that 2013 was the best year of my life. I fell in love so many times — not with a man — but it’s still love.
Grief is a normal part of life. While the loss is never replaced, and life events and milestones will forever be bittersweet, there will come a point when you know it’s time to move forward and you must give yourself the permission to rebuild your life. I’m doing that Rose.
It makes it so much easier when you have friends calling to see if you’re OK. So, Rose, I am OK, and thanks again for checking in on me.
Kathleen Maloney is an administrative assistant with the Asbury Park Press.