I’m back on the Texas coast again for reasons I’m not sure I completely understand. I thought my January visit was the last one for 2014, but then I thought the November trip was my last one forever. Two weeks ago, I had another crystal clear dream, and I took that as a sign that I needed to drive four hours south so I could think through some things.
In this second dream, I was standing on the beach in Port Aransas, facing north with the ocean to my right. I could hear and see the swells of white water rushing towards the shore, coming with a little more force than usual.
Hook was not visible but I felt him standing next to me, seeing what I was seeing as I said, surprised, “Port Aransas!” In the waking world, I’m aware of him watching over me, weaving in and out as would have been his way. Since his death, I’ve imagined him checking in on me and only leaving to catch bugs … two things which could occupy him fully forever.
In the dream, I saw gray and white overcast skies, but I felt excited when I woke up because an absence of Texas sun meant comfortable runs on the beach. What was different in this dream, aside from not being able to actually see Hook, is that I heard the waves and smelled the water, that unique ocean aroma which could have very well been the cat breathing into my face while I slept. But there was no wind. I could see the water and I could hear it, but I couldn’t feel the wind. I was standing in a place outside of time.
So that was the dream.
Here is the reality: Port Aransas is mostly sunny and humid when it’s not windy and threatening to rain. Dump trucks and plows have been on the beach for the last week and a half trying to clear off the unyielding seaweed that is blocking access to the water. The gulls are happier than I’ve ever seen them because seaweed, I presume, is a smorgasbord of gull food.
Last week after I finished a three-mile run in the morning, I’d taken my shoes and socks off and was wading through the seaweed to get to the water. I was fighting off waves of sadness that had started in Austin weeks before. They were coming at times when I not only felt I was making great progress but knew that my grieving was more manageable every day. The only reason I stopped running and started walking that morning was that I needed to talk to Hook. I needed to tell him how much I loved him, how much I missed him, and how alone I still felt about moving forward.
Because it was the middle of the week and so early in the day, the beach was empty of people so I whispered, “Are you here?”
I told myself and I told others that I was going to the coast “to write,” but I realized now that I was coming to feel closer to Allan. In response to my crybaby question, a laughing gull started to screech at a high pitch. I glanced towards the sound and saw a black-headed male perched on the backside of a female, flapping his dark gray wings while he squawked endlessly from his red beak. I stared at the female who looked perplexed or perhaps bored. It was difficult to tell from her beady eyes which like the males were outlined in a thick white before the black hood of feathers took over.
I rolled my eyes and shook my head, annoyed with my husband’s sense of humor in death as I had been in life. In response to my whimper, he sent me two copulating birds as if to say, “Look what I can do now, honey!” Or, “Hey babe, watch this!”
There have been moments since Hook died that I have sensed his presence, stronger on some days than others. Lately, I’ve been feeling him moving on … moving away from me … moving farther along on his own journey. During these times, I struggle with not begging him to stay, because I know that neither of us can thrive if we remain still. Hook has always understood this better than me. It’s as though he’s nudging me forward, nudging me towards something, nudging me on, but I continue to look back and back and back.
This reminds me of a morning during our honeymoon, in the rainforests of Chiapas, when I’d gotten sick and had to stay in bed all day. We’d slept overnight in a cabin just outside the Palenque ruins. When I woke up that morning and realized I had a fever along with some bodily unmentionables, I knew I would not be able to go exploring with him. Hook had been excited since the beginning of the trip to take his bug net out and collect on the grounds – an insect haven for any entomologist – but he didn’t want to leave me alone. He could be a worrywart like that, but he finally agreed to leave if I promised to keep the door bolted at all times.
“Only answer when you hear my voice,” he said.
The first time I heard a rap on the door was only an hour after he left. I unlocked the door and asked, “What? No bugs, honey?”
“I saw a maintenance worker milling around,” he said, “and I didn’t want you in here alone.”
He stayed nearby that entire day while I lied in bed shivering, occasionally dragging myself to the bathroom or to the door to let him in. From time to time, he’d draw the curtain aside to peer out the window to see where the man was. If Hook felt the guy was far enough away, he’d go outside with his bug net, but he never strayed farther than 25 feet or so from our door. In this way, he hovered over me in my sickness, much like I’d done with him throughout most of the last year.
I remembered him saying, more than once, in the final weeks of his life, “Don’t hover.”
But how could I not when I knew he might need me, just as he couldn’t help himself should I have needed him that day in Palenque, and now when I need him the most.
Other widows forewarned me how the pain never really goes away, how it “just hurts differently forever.” WTF?
At the time, I’d ignored the counsel assuming, of course, this would not apply to me. In the last four months, I’ve increased my running schedule, tried my hand at painting and zentangling, listened to storytelling, journaled daily by pen, stalked live musicians, lived an alcohol-free existence for 40 days. I’ve said “Yes” to most social events, increasing my business events, seeing a “grief counselor” weekly who never, ever, ever allows me to have a pity party no matter who died. I got comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in public, stopped hiding underneath the covers, dealt with the “How are you” questions while spontaneously forgiving those who never even asked. I’ve taken petite grandma steps forward and sasquatch steps to the side, zigzagging my way toward a north compass, backward, sideways, upside down, right side up. Anywhere I saw an opening to inch forward in this non-linear journey, I took it, regrouping back to shore when I needed only to encounter surges of sorrow, sometimes coming one on top of another.
So I ask again, WTF?
Each time, I would remind myself – this isn’t permanent – this feeling of not belonging to these people and places where I’m supposed to belong. And I would always add, Please, to that thought so the universe would know I took nothing for granted. The scariest thing about losing a spouse is we never actually believe life will feel whole again, and it won’t if what we’re trying to do is get back to the way things used to be. That’s been the big lesson for me so far. Whatever my life was before, it will never be that way again. Whoever I used to be is as gone as Hook is dead. And however I used to make do in this world — only remnants can be applied to my future.
When the physical pain of missing Hook is accompanied by tears, I frantically write down every Hook memory, every Hook anecdote, every Hook saying so that I don’t forget — never forget, ever — this man and this time in my life. And I have to do this because my memory or my mind, depending on how you look at it, is going. I was re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point, and in Chapter 11 he describes a state of being some couples might experience if one of the partners goes away. It’s called a loss of “transactive memory,” made up of the combined memories of two people. When one spouse dies, the other in essence feels like they are “losing their mind” because, in a sense, they are by way of having lost a part of their “joint memory.”
You can’t imagine how happy I was to read this especially as 24 hours prior, I’d said out loud, “I think I’m losing my mind,” while sitting at the kitchen table, holding my head in my hands at twelve-thirty in the morning.
It wasn’t just the incessant crying when I’m alone because that’s no longer daily anymore. I remember the first time I realized, Hey, I didn’t cry yesterday, only to have the tears sweep back in the next day with extra spunk, making me wonder if an overabundance of crying expanded the tear ducts thus making them able to produce even more tears thus making you cry even harder. Can a person die from too much crying? Has anyone looked into this?
If the tear duct theory wasn’t valid then my pudgy Aztec toes were sucking up moisture from the earth because otherwise, how in the world could any human being produce this much water from their eyeballs? After reading Gladwell’s chapter I was relieved because I realized I wasn’t going crazy. I was just losing my mind. Perfectly normal. This is all perfectly normal.
And the talking to Hook on the beach? That’s perfectly normal, too. I told Allan without words what he already knew: How miserable I was, how I wasn’t sure what more to do, how this was all too much. And then I said it finally, said it out loud, said it unwillingly. I said what I know he’s been waiting to hear:
“It’s okay for you to move on,” I whispered through tears, “I know you need to go.”
For all the times a movie has promoted the idea that the dead hold back the living, I’m here to say that it’s usually the living holding back the dead. We hold them back because we don’t really know how to live anymore without them. We keep trying to live like we lived before when they were still here.
Hook has work to do, but he won’t move forward if he thinks I still need him. In holding him back, I hold myself back – keeping us both floating, wading out to a sea of nothing, neither of us alive or dead but stuck in some in-between where we can’t really be together, but we’re never apart either.
When do I stop wearing my rings?
“You’ll know when you’re ready,” another widow says.
I wear my wedding rings even though legally I’m no longer married. I wear them because I still feel married. I wear them because even though Hook is not alive, he’s not dead to me either.
Sometimes as I finish getting dressed in the mornings, I’ll announce: “I’m not going to wear my rings today.” During these times, I’ll wear replacement jewelry on the wedding finger. But I feel false and dishonorable to Hook while at the same time unbelievably alone in my hollowed steps. When I do wear the rings, I’m not alone; Hook has my back. There is time yet to make sense of the future. But I’m still false because wedding rings are for a living, breathing husband and part of mine is scattered in the rainforests of Trinidad.
What I have figured out from my seaweed time here in Port Aransas is that hope is being challenged by despair, like it was on the day I’d won an award from a professional women’s group. I began the celebratory Saturday at 10 o’clock in the morning laughing and talking with some of the finest women in Austin, joking about my sobriety, making funny faces for photographs. When I left the event in the late afternoon and started to drive home, a groundswell of gloom floated over me the closer I got to the house. By the time I’d parked Hook’s Jeep and walked into the garage, my shoulders drooped and the emptiness was complete.
During these times, there is nowhere to go to fill the unfillable, to find the one person who can make this feeling go away. The thing to do when these disruptive waves descend is to wait it out and hope you don’t drown. If I’m home when it happens, no room in the house feels comfortable and the walls are like the inside of a lung squeezing the breath out of me.
So get out of the house, right? I thought this, too. I even thought I could run it out one time – literally – on the Town Lake/ Lady Bird trail, only to find myself halted to a slow walk after one-eighth of a mile. If I could have hitched a ride from a mom pushing a stroller, I would have hopped on.
It wasn’t just that Hook wasn’t there to share the afternoon with me after I returned from the ceremony. It’s that he’s never coming home again. And my joint memory might have forgotten some things, but my arms and my heart haven’t forgotten that.
Hook’s Ruddy Turnstone
I saw a Ruddy Turnstone for the first time a few days after witnessing Hook’s shameless seagull. When Allan and I would walk the beach in the evenings on our Texas coast trips, he loved to point out the plump sandpipers because of how they skimmed the wet shore with their paper-thin legs. They forage for insects with an agility that is almost comical. But the typical sandpiper is skittish and darts away as soon as you approach.
As I walked along the beach one early evening, my head and eyes were down so I could maneuver my bare feet around broken shells and pebbles and seaweed. In the past, most of the sandpipers I’d seen with Hook had been a beige color or maybe a dirty gray with speckles of black in their white breast. But the one that was standing on my path, the one that had scurried towards me instead of away as I approached, had a plumage full of a deep rust color mixed with a velvety black. He had raccoon eyes and skinny orange legs which were longer than the common sandpiper. Had this breeder not stepped into my line of vision and stopped, I wouldn’t have noticed him at all because the colored pattern of this Ruddy Turnstone blended in with the heaps of seaweed surrounding it.
Allan’s love of insects was second to his romance and fascination with birds. If he had not become an entomologist, he probably would have studied ornithology unless he could have found a way to make money fishing without actually catching any fish. Every walk on a beach or a neighborhood street or even through a parking lot was always a chance for Hook to teach me something about the parts of nature that fly. Most times I was an interested student, sometimes a lazy one. In all of our walks together, though, Hook had never pointed out a Ruddy Turnstone nor had he ever mentioned them specifically to me when he was alive. A few weeks after he died, an acquaintance from a networking group read his obituary and realized that her husband graduated from high school with Allan. She dug out her husband’s yearbook, scanned Hook’s senior portrait and framed it for me. It was a picture of Allan I had never seen before and in the caption, he referred to himself as a Ruddy Turnstone.
I’m not embarrassed to admit I had to look up what a Ruddy Turnstone was after receiving the photograph. Recognizing one on this coast trip did not give me peace right away, but it did cause my heart to beat a bit faster. Was the Turnstone a sign or was Hook the bird? I don’t know.
It is said that parents and grandparents are our past; siblings and spouses the present, children our future. The losses of these loved ones affect us based on the depth of our relationship with them at the time that they leave. I’d fallen in love with my husband all over again in the last months he was alive. Seeing his vulnerability and him trusting me to take care of him only cemented this bond. Hook was my best friend, my confidant, my mentor, and my protector. Now, I’m his personal bird watcher.
“I know you need to go,” I say again to Hook, the Turnstone, but it doesn’t leave and neither do I.
Malcolm Gladwell didn’t write anything about whether talking to birds was part of the whole losing-the-mind thing. Yet there I am on a beach in a mental standoff with a Turnstone thinking, You go first. But he won’t leave. He just looks at me as though to say, No you go first.
I turn away to face the water and as I do I whisper, “I’m sorry I’m so sad.”
But I ask nothing of the ocean or the power it represents. There’s what the universe is willing to offer, and there’s what I have to be willing to give up or let go to make room for those offerings. I’m not there yet, and now I understand why I’m here on this coast, and why I’ve stayed this second week. My first trip back in November was to ask, Help; the second in January to say, Hello. I didn’t know this about either of those visits, just as I didn’t know that this time has been to say, Goodbye.
In order for me to get to the healing power of the water, I need to sift through this seaweed some more. And even though this Ruddy Turnstone won’t leave, in time he will, because it is a bird and birds must fly away if they’re to live.
He doesn’t fly off even after I’ve walked by, heading north still. I think about how if the city dump trucks didn’t remove the seaweed, eventually it would decompose and over time the tide would wash it away.
Eventually, the tide washes everything away.