Thrive or Survive

HDU_surviveRains falls down in Austin today, allowing me to continue my dedicated procrastination towards the obvious weed pulling and mulch spreading needed in the front lawn.  Every day I am reminded of all the outside work my husband did when he was still alive; and, every day that it rains is a chance for me to stay inside and write to you.

Earlier this month, I wrote a summary of thoughts on my Facebook company page that began:

After my husband passed away in late 2013, people with good intentions said, “You’ll survive this,” except I wasn’t interested in surviving. I wanted to live; I wanted to thrive; I wanted to know hope again.

I wrote that after I was reminded of the final conversation I had with my husband’s oncologist.  The doctor thought he was talking about living except he kept saying things like, “survive longer,” and my husband’s head kept nodding along.  After the third survive platitude, I stood up in the examination room with arms stiff by my sides, fingers balled into tight little fists.  My voice was elevated while my eyes filled with water. I lifted my chin, refusing to allow the liquid to fall down my face in front of those two scientists.

“I’m not interested in my husband surviving longer,” was the most I could say.

But the oncologist failed to understand what I meant. I wanted my husband to come and go as he pleased, to eat what he desired, to swim daily laps in a pool, to walk for miles with a bug net collecting his girls.  What the doctor was offering was some grotesque version of living dependent upon bottles of pills, liquid food, and every day seeing my husband less and less capable of even the simplest of tasks.

Apparently, the oncologist thought that was living.

Surviving is not Living

Since the end of November, my mother has been living with me.  What started out as a short vacation has turned into an indefinite stay.  She originally came for a holiday visit at the suggestion and encouragement of my younger sister, Susan, and me. Susan has been our mother’s primary caregiver since she had a stroke last February, but in reality, my sister took over the management of both our parents in 2010. She has had to transition Mom into widowhood then into assisted living then to the hospital and a rehabilitation facility and now into permanent living in her home.  If you aren’t exhausted from reading that then perhaps you shuddered at the thought of being the caregiving child or worse, the elderly parent.

My mother’s visit to Texas ceased to be a holiday for either of us towards the end of the second week.  But because sub-zero temperatures continue to barrage the state of Michigan, we all agreed that Mom should remain where the sun makes a daily appearance and warm air sometimes nudges over the 70-degree mark in the winter.  Even on a dreary, wet Saturday like today, Austin temperatures are still twenty to thirty degrees higher than those living in the hand state.

More good people with well-meaning intentions have said that this time with my mother is a blessing. Many times these are people who lost their parents too soon or usually have not had to care for a parent in their home for an indefinite period of time or perhaps they have no interests or friends so being stuck at home 24×7 appeals to them.  I see it as my job to dispel the misconceptions about caring for an elderly parent and to announce that blessings come after the occasion not during. This time with my mother is work, it is difficult, it requires an unbelievable amount of patience and compassion, and it allows for a limited social life outside of the home.  I recommend to others in the same predicament what I recommend to myself:  Margaritas in moderation – and offer your parent some, too.

It is indeed important that I have these months with Mom if only to grasp the enormity of responsibility my sister has shouldered for this unspecified amount of time.  Although I cared for my husband through his dying, the differences in the dynamics of a relationship to a spouse versus a parent are too wide for comparison.  Unlike my husband, Allan, who fought to contribute to his own life even after he said, “This is no way to live,” my mother is docile in her approach to her last years.  Allan could barely walk down the street, his appetite erratic, his forever playful attitude diminished, but even so he still woke up every day and sent emails out or dictated messages to me as I typed.  He struggled to get scientific research mailed off so that articles of his work were published posthumously.  I won’t say Allan lived because I don’t think being strapped to a wheelchair unable to hold your own head up is living, but he squeaked out what he could in his last days.

I try to remember how my parents used to go out dancing, how they’d have friends over to play poker or how my mother would bend over four hot burners to cook for eight children. Nowadays she leads a sedentary life.  She was never a runner like Susan and me or an ultra-organizer of people and events like her daughters, but she also wasn’t as motionless as she is today. Sometimes I’m able to coax her out of the house to visit a museum or to decorate pottery or to eat at a restaurant. Daily, though, an extended effort is needed to pull her away from staring mindlessly at the television screen or watching out the front windows for passersby.

The pottery we decorated. Mother's cup is on the right.

The pottery we decorated. Mother’s cup is on the right.

I invite friends over to break up the monotony of her days but also as an incentive for her to do more than just survive.  I don’t know if I am helping or hurting.  What I do know is that this fastidious woman who would never have left her home without a shower, make-up on the face, and hair coiffed sometimes has to be cajoled into basic, everyday tasks.  If the in-house caregiver I hired is not due to come on a particular day or if guests are not expected, my mother may decide to sleep until the early afternoon. No amount of meowing from the cat or sleep interruptions from me can pull her out of bed. Do I encourage her to live for what could very well be many more years?  Or, do I let her wither away in survival mode, her brain going to mush, her inability to communicate a frustrating barrier for her and for others?  I don’t know.  I really do not know.

There was a tenderness I had with my husband in the last weeks of his life, a way of being that I wished I had had with him the entire time he was sick.  I see my time with my mother as a second chance to do things differently, as a way to be for her what I wished I had been for him.  Each day I attend to her needs, I repeat in my head:  Patience Compassion Forgiveness, Patience Compassion Forgiveness. Patience and compassion I learned from Hook; forgiveness I am learning from caring for her. When she asks if she’ll get any better or why this is happening to her, I tell the truth but not the God-awful truth.

“Today is a good day,” I’ll say if it is or, “Tomorrow will be better.”

“You promise?” she asks every time.

“It can be but we have to put some effort into it.”

How to Thrive

On Wednesday mornings, I post an If Not Now Then When question to my Facebook followers. The questions are meant to spur creative thoughts of change or why a person may want change or how someone might change.  Usually, they are also questions I’m answering for myself, my hand holding fast to a pen paused in mid-sentence inside a writing book.

Last January I began reading Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way, to help me unblock creatively.  One of Cameron’s recommended techniques for unblocking is to hand write three pages first thing every morning  As I look back into my mind and watch myself crying over those handwritten pages, a kaleidoscope of awareness spins through my head.  It was too soon after my husband’s death to expect so much of myself, too frightening to imagine anything new.  I had scoffed at the word survival during that last visit with the oncologist then grieved myself into my own survival mode:  Wake up!  Remember to shower. Feed the cat. Stop turning down clients. How many days in a row have I worn these clothes?  I was existing but I was not living.

The rest of the Facebook post:

Survive nothing. Live everything. Thrive. It is not easy to move through the darkness. It is not easy to humble yourself when you’re in need. But we do what we must to get to the other side. 

And what does the other side look like? I’m still learning, but I can tell you it is full of hope and frustration, joy and disappointment, laughter and anxiety. It is not perfect because life is not perfect, and I am not perfect and you are not perfect. The other side looks like what you look like, what you feel like inside, what you create and re-create or don’t bother to try at all. It is everything and nothing. You are everything and nothing and everything.

I asked my readers not to stay in a situation that they no longer enjoyed.  I begged them to begin today to plan and to think and to begin discussing with themselves what a whole new future could feel like and be like if they were willing to live rather than just survive; if they were ready to thrive instead of just exist.

~       ~       ~

When I originally started this blog post a week ago, I was sitting in a restaurant that my husband and I used to frequent.  I was doing that because sometimes during the day, to escape my home office, I work there.  Rock and roll from the 80s played overhead and I could hear Phil Collins singing:

All that time I was searching with nowhere to run to, it started me thinking

Wondering what I could make of my life and who’d be waiting

Asking all kinds of questions to myself but never finding the answers

Crying at the top of my voice

For all the times my husband and I sat in that dingy booth with its cracked plastic seats and an endless supply of tortilla chips, we never once discussed the possibility that life might turn towards an unplanned course.  I mention this not to say there’s no point in planning a new life.  I speak of this because it’s all the more reason to live the life you’ve dreamed for yourself but haven’t yet carved a path towards.

~       ~       ~

More and more I can feel the strength inside myself to change my life however I want.  Other times I struggle with the vision of a whole new life sans Allan.  That second thought happens only when I come upon an impasse in my mind and when I succumb to insecurities.  But I cannot honor myself or the memory of my husband by clinging to the past that has passed.  And I most definitely cannot live that way.

Two years ago, I could barely stop falling down when I ran so I stopped running altogether. One year ago I could barely get out of bed.  For awhile, I gave up. Today and most days, I wake up joyful again.  Before the sun and my mother rise, I run a four-mile course around Town Lake.  On the days that I don’t run, I dip my body into an outdoor, heated pool known as Big Stacy.  Steam floats up from the water when our winter temps in Texas dip below 40 degrees. Unlike other swimmers, I wet my toes first allowing the warm water to reassure me that this swim will be as fabulous as the last.  Rolling one arm over the other in my laps, I let go of any anxieties in my head.  Back and forth, back and forth, my heart pumps blood and oxygen throughout my body.  And each time my head rolls to the side so that my mouth can lift out of the water for air, it is usually memories of my husband that come to me. Surviving was not enough for him.  It is not enough for me.  For now, it is enough for my mother. Please don’t let it be enough for you.

Live. Thrive.

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Hook Plaid Shirt Story

Hook_plaidshirts

Some of Hook’s plaid shirts.

In defense of myself, I never expected the absence of the plaid shirts would mean so much.  I figured that by the time I’d gotten around to fessing up to Allan — 20 or 30 years later — how and when they disappeared in 2011 that so much time would have passed that he would have said, “What shirts?”

I understand now that Hook’s plaids were more than just a style for him.  They were a statement, an irreverent statement that said:  I don’t care what you think; I’m comfortable and warm.  Heat was a big thing for my husband because his bald head allowed so much of it to escape that he wore a baseball cap to keep his head warm and plaid flannel to keep his body warm.

On our first date when he showed up in a plaid shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, I assumed he had come from collecting and that that was his field attire.  When he showed up for the second date in similar clothes I realized … Ah, so this is how he dresses.  No matter.  Allan was kind, clean, and he made me laugh.  Besides, someone once said to me, somethingsomething Dolce Gabbana, and I thought it was a new type of chocolate then I thought it was patio furniture.  Fashion means little to me.

I supported Hook’s addiction to flannel, but I did not know (seriously, I really did not know) that I took issue with his allegiance to the plaid.  I not only hid this deep secret from him but hid it from myself at least until the day the Hook House was broken into and a plaid conspiracy emerged.

The Hook House Break-In: 2011

It was a cold December Monday in the early afternoon.  Allan was in exam week and I was off for the day so we were both in and out of the house except for one hour which is when the burglars struck.  The Hook House is on a street in which much of the foot traffic comes not only from young, hip families walking their dogs but also from the varied types of homeless that camp out where the street dead ends to the west.  We figured that we had disrupted the burglary because my black, duffel bag, normally upstairs in my closet, had been placed in the middle of the empty garage floor, unzipped, and stretched wide open.

Allan started to take inventory of his tools and said, “You should check upstairs to see what else they took.”

As I walked up those stairs, I felt nausea in my stomach at the thought of strangers rifling through our belongings.  I went to my closet first and saw the shelf where they had pulled the duffel was mussed, but otherwise nothing else appeared to be missing.  Then I walked over to Hook’s closet, which by the way was the larger closet, and I slid the doors open and looked inside.

Everything looked fine then I heard him yell from downstairs, “Is anything missing?”

As I stood there staring into my husband’s closet, that big, long closet full of shirts, I said to myself, “Why couldn’t they have taken those stupid, plaid shirts.”   And just like that, I got an idea.  I got a wonderful, awful idea.

I yelled from the master bedroom down to Allan, “Everything looks okay!”

Then I started yanking every plaid shirt off its hanger, flinging them onto the bed.  When I’d gotten every plaid out of the closet, I rolled them up into two huge balls and stuffed them under the bed.  Even though our king is elevated high, there was a long, chocolate-colored skirt around the entire bed so you cannot see underneath it unless you get on your hands and knees. It’ll take him weeks to notice, I thought, but it only took him 48 hours.

By Wednesday morning after I’d already forgotten my devious actions, I heard my husband say as he looked into his closet, “Some of my shirts are missing.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, careful not to make eye contact.  “Everything looked okay when I checked.”

I felt him glance at me from the corner of his eye.  “They’re not here.”

I walked over to stand next to him, to peer into his closet in solidarity at this outrageous situation. “Well here honey, here are your shirts,” I mumbled as I started to fondle one of his solid flannels.

“The plaids,” he said. “all the plaids are gone.”

“That can’t be possible,” I said as I walked away from the closet and into the bathroom. “That would mean that not only were the robbers ill-mannered by breaking into our home but they had bad taste to boot!”

I was talking now over the bathroom fan, “I’m sure they’re in there, you just have to look!” And as I spoke, I used my foot to close the bathroom door thinking, Oh please don’t let him look under the bed.

Hook usually left for work before me, so it was but a small inconvenience to pull the balled up shirts out from underneath the bed and dump them into a big, black garbage bag which I shoved into the storage closet in the garage.

Three days later, on a Saturday morning, I glanced up to see Hook walking down the stairs, and what does he have on but the plaid shirt of his that I abhorred the most (and which also happened to be his favorite, of course). I’m sure all color left my face. I know my lips parted.

With a hard swallow and a shaky voice I said, “Oh, well then, see, there’s your plaid shirts.”

Kelly Scott's display of Hook's shirts (apparently I tossed out more than just the plaid!) on driftwood in Port Aransas.

Kelly Scott’s display of Hook’s shirts (apparently I tossed out more than just the plaid!) on driftwood in Port Aransas.

All the while my mind was reeling, How did he find them? Why didn’t he say anything?  I should have burned them!  

But he replied, “This was from the other closet.”

Damn the guest closet! 

Then I heard a pout in his voice and him say, oh so very quietly, “I don’t think they took them.”

“Well honey,” I replied quite matter-of-factly, “if they didn’t take them then what did you do with them?”

Hook said nothing because he wasn’t sure if his wife was truly evil or just suspected evil.  There was a total of three of his plaid shirts in that guest closet, and he wore those every, single weekend – rain or shine, winter or summer – for an entire year.  It was pure torture, but I never said a word or at least, I never said the word “plaid” again.

When best man, Kelly Scott, came to visit a week after the break-in, I took that garbage bag out of the garage and stuffed it into the back of Kelly’s SUV — unbeknownst to him of course.

Calgary in the spring.

Calgary in the spring.

I can no longer recall when Kelly discovered the bag — if it was before or after he had driven four hours south to Port Aransas, Texas, and his condo which Hook and I frequented on weekends and vacations.  I do remember that he called asking why there was a bag of Hook’s shirts in his truck. I’m sure I threatened his life if he ever ratted me out which he did not. Instead, in true Kelly fashion, he decided to make artwork of Hook’s plaids and began to photograph the shirts in different poses on the Texas coast and in Calgary, Alberta in the spring, summer, and even the winter.

More of Calgary in the spring.

More of Calgary in the spring. Artist: Dr. Kelly Scott.

Two Weeks Before Hook Passed Away:  2013

Out of all the things a wife might confess to a husband before he dies, the whereabouts of attire probably isn’t high on the list.  But Hook had loved those plaid shirts and I had loved him.  With my head down and tears in my eyes, I sat next to his hospital bed in our home and told him I needed to tell him something.  My tears were genuine because I wished in that moment that he had had a different plaid shirt to wear every single day.

“You don’t have to tell me anything, babe, I don’t want to hear it,” he said assuming perhaps that I was going to reveal an infidelity.

I could barely talk I was crying so hard. “I took the sssshirts,” I whispered through gulps of tears.

Hook wasn't the only one who thought the plaids were warm! Artist: Dr. Kelly Scott

Hook wasn’t the only one who thought the plaids were warm! Artist: Dr. Kelly Scott

It took Allan a few seconds before he understood what I meant.  He had been slouching in the bed when I started speaking, but now he sat straight up and said, “I knew it was you! I knew it was you!”

I kept repeating over and over again how sorry I was while I rubbed his hand, but he wasn’t having any of it.  He accused me of throwing them away and I was happy to let him know that they were alive and well and living in Canada.

“Kelly knew?” he asked.

“Not right away, honey, and he didn’t know he had them until he was in Port Aransas.”

“They made it down to Port Aransas?”

“Yes,” I sniffled, “I think they were in one of Kelly’s closets for awhile before they left the country.”

Hook memory quilt, 2014.

Hook memory quilt, 2014.

In my confession to Allan, I left out how the shirts had been photographed on the beach or I did mention it but blamed it completely on Kelly. After Allan passed away, I slept in those three remaining plaids, rotating the wearing and refusing to wash them. Just before my move back into the Hook House, Kelly shipped the “stolen” plaids from Canada.

In November, almost a year and a half after Hook died, I gathered all of his shirts and hired someone to create a queen-sized memory quilt made from the Hook plaids. When I got the quilt home, I held it high up, marveling at what I now considered the precious beauty of these plaids. They were something he wore; things that he loved; now I would love them.

I can hear him now, I really can:  See, they’re good shirts, baby!

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Live Forever

Hook In Michigan at the Wachowiak house, 2010.

Hook In Michigan at the Wachowiak house, 2010.

Today I will spread the last of Hook’s ashes.

In the movies when a person does this, it’s made to seem as though ashes are but a cup full maybe two. The reality is that a human body cremated produces more than four liters of ashes.  I only know this because I dropped off four, one liter Kool-aide bottles — one lime-colored, one orange, one red and one blue — to the funeral home for the transport of Hook’s remains over a year ago.  He would have appreciated knowing I hadn’t wasted money buying a fancy urn.  And, the plastic bottles could be and have been recycled which would have pleased him just as much.

The blue bottle was taken to Trinidad where Allan was spread on a collecting trail he frequented in the Caura Valley, and on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Center, and finally in the rainforest of Brasso Seco.  Hook loved everything about Trinidad especially the people and they had loved him back, appreciated him, understood his “mamaguy.”

The orange bottle was spread in the firefly meadow, where Allan had taken me at the end of our first nature walk and where I began to fall in love with him.

The red bottle was taken to Bastrop and spread in a family cemetery where a grandmother and a great grandfather are buried.  When Allan and I had the ash discussion before he died, we agreed that a portion of his ashes would be spread where mine would eventually be.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You’ll be the only white guy in the cemetery, you know.”

“That’s how I like it, baby,” he said.

When I took him out there, all I could think to say was, “Hi Grandmother, I know we’ve never met but well, this is my husband, Allan. Please show him around.”

That was exactly one year ago, wicked cold just like today with the only difference that sheets of rain were pouring down. I hadn’t wanted to drive out to Bastrop in the rain but I’d wanted to honor Allan on his birthday.  The rain ended up being my good fortune because after I’d covered my grandmother’s plot multiple times, the white remains looked more than a little conspicuous.

Most of you already know how Allan made it into Australia which was not in one of the Kool-aid bottles. But this morning, I’ll pour from the lime-colored bottle and spread around the Mexican Oak which Hook planted in our backyard to honor the year we were married.  This final release is meant only as a pause and reflection of November 17th.  And on September 3rd of every year, I’ve no doubt I’ll either openly cry or shed a tear and eventually over time, maybe it’ll just be the welling up of water in my eyes.

This Time Last Year

Last week as I was driving down Manchaca in Austin, a memory swooped in and I almost had to pull off the road to catch my breath.  I shivered as I felt for the briefest of seconds that familiar abandonment and aloneness in the world.  2013 and most of 2014 had been a time suspended from living, what some might call the walking dead.  I shake my head now as I recall how unbelievably dark my world had become.  Until Hook had died, I had never felt deserted, rudderless, and such an unwilling participant in my own life.  As I continued to drive, the feeling eventually subsided but it was the perfect reminder of how far I have come in these last 14 months.

Since the anniversary of Allan’s death, my memories ricochet against this time last year not unlike how the entire first year of grief was lived.  Except, in all of those memories, Hook was still alive albeit sick and dying.  It was, quite frankly, a time of near insanity.  Now, my recollections are about how I grieved, how I honored, and what I learned and am still learning.

I wear my rings separated now, the wedding band on the right hand while the engagement diamond is on the left.  I tell myself that I am “emotionally engaged” and therefore unable to remove the ring.  I cannot imagine a time when I would ever stop wearing these rings, but then I could not have imagined a time when I would fall asleep at night without silently crying into my pillow.  Those nights occur less frequently now.

In the last month of Allan’s life, I asked him for a song request every day then I would post a link to the song on my personal Facebook page.  One of his requests was Joe Ely’s version of Live Forever.  I think when someone truly loves you, you live forever, maybe not here but somewhere.

Live Forever

(lyrics by Billy Joe Shaver; sung by Joe Ely)

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I’ve always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now

For the rest of 2014, this blog’s name will remain Hooks Down Under.  Beginning in 2015, the name will change to Writings By Rosemary.  Between now and then, I’d like to share some seriously funny memories about Allan so we can laugh together instead of crying together.

Until then …

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A Pilgrimage of Milestones

Australia_kangarooIn two weeks, I’ll be on a plane to Australia.

Someone said that I was taking a pilgrimage but I’ve realized that this entire year has been nothing but a pilgrimage of milestones.  The first birthdays, the first holidays, the first trip back to the Texas coast, our anniversary in June which by the way is not an actual anniversary if only one of you is still alive, are all the beginning of the end to a new beginning.

Confusing, yes.

After the anniversary was the ritual of going through Hook’s clothes, his closets, everything he ever owned, made easier by the presence of my family.  They helped me to pick through what I was willing to part with then adopted some of his things which was more reassuring because it felt like he wouldn’t be far away. Then finally, there was the move back into the Hook House, a house I have to admit that I did not want to return to. Living here again was never part of the plan, but nothing of the last two years was part of any plan ever.

Yes, it’s a great house. Yes, I am grateful. Yes, everyone who walks into this house has said what I said the first time I ever saw it: “It’s so cute and such a perfect location!”

He should have died in this house but if he had, I wouldn’t be living here today. That’s one thing I know for certain and it goes with the only other certainty that I have:  I need to finish what we started which is why I re-booked my flight to Australia with little to no time to plan.

Early in 2014, I doubted that I would ever step foot in the land down under.  That country no longer held any interest for me.  Instead it was a reminder of unfulfilled dreams and not just of a sabbatical but of an entire future.  Occasionally I would say without conviction that someday I’d go and take his ashes, but I lacked any enthusiasm to make that happen until I moved back into the Hook House.

[I refer to my home as the “Hook House” because in the future it will become the Hook Scholar House where I sponsor students from outside of central Texas who travel to Austin from all over the world to conduct creative research at the Wild Basin Preserve.]

The first week back home, I had to give myself permission to feel relief, yes relief, that I could start anew, relief that it was okay to feel happy again, relief that no matter what I did to improve my future did not mean I would forget about Hook.   How could I?  This house was the only home I’d ever known with Allan.  It was his home then our home.  Now it is my home.  His Jeep is parked in the driveway while my Nissan is tucked away in the garage. Do I keep both cars? I don’t know but I no longer feel the need to figure everything out all at once. Somehow being back in this house has released me from feeling like I’d never find my way back to the land of the living.  And even as I walk through the house with the constant sense of he should be here, I know I can’t change the past.  I cannot make my husband be undead.  The only way forward is forward.

He would want you to be happy.

Sort of.  I mean, Allan would not have wanted me to be unhappy. He would have wanted more than anything for me to be productive, for me to get going.  I could cry all I wanted so long as I kept making progress.  Hook was from the generation that if you were too happy, you probably weren’t working hard enough.  So yes, he would want me to be happy but not too happy.

What is Allan saying to you now?

Multiple people have asked me this, but I couldn’t answer because I’d started listening more to what I needed than what I believed Allan would have wanted for me. That’s how I decided to make this trip to Australia which is neither a vacation nor a holiday. The same knotted ball that was in the pit of my stomach when I took my first trip back to Port Aransas without Allan has resurfaced. I struggle to feel excitement for a trip I once couldn’t wait to take.  But that was when I thought my husband would be sitting next to me on the plane not resting in an urn.  Everything is different now even my reason for going.

I go because there is a circle to be closed. I go to complete a two-year journey I never wanted to be on. I go to spread the last of my husband’s remains on the anniversary of his death.  I’ll do finally what we’re both now ready for me to do:  I’ll let him go.

The widow books that used to decorate my nightstand have been replaced by books about Australia.  Each time I open one of the Oz books, Australia_booksI barely skim through the pages, not really reading at all.  Instead, I stare at the maps of this continent, mentally planning a counterclockwise, southwest trek from Perth to Melbourne to Sydney to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef then over to Darwin and down to Alice Springs then back down to Perth for one last peek at Hope Street.

Australia’s vastness used to intrigue me and my hope is that once I get there, it will again.  I’m giving myself exactly one month.  And all that traveling inside the country that I mentioned?  I’ve no way of knowing if I’ll actually do it.  I’m as likely to hunker down in Perth and do absolutely nothing as I am to figure out that anamoly of an island and make a solo trek around the circumference.

As I live through the next three weeks which this time last year were Hook’s last three weeks, I find it impossible not to return to that time in my head. We had lived a year for every day in that last month.  The intensity of feeling doesn’t go away just because 347 days have passed. I can actually see it more clearly now, see that no matter what happens in my life, nothing will ever touch me as deeply as those last days helping my husband to die.

We didn’t know, I didn’t know — our last conversations, our last everything. Some might think that that time was tragic or horrible or possibly even disgusting to have to live through.  When you can’t stop what is happening, when you can’t save them, when all you can do is wipe phlegm from their mouth or carry them to the bathroom, then those actions become ultra significant.  So you push back any thoughts of he’s dying and instead you think, He would have done this for me, or, I can still do these small things for him.  And you make that be enough for both of you and you never break until he’s gone, because he’s no strength left so you must be that for him, too.

If Hook were saying anything it would probably be:  Just keep going orYou’re right babe,” a common phrase in our home.

My husband did not want me to take his ashes to Australia.  But I have always known what was best for us and now I know what is best for me.  I need to release him.  I need to begin a new journey that starts with finishing this one.  I’ll make this pilgrimage to Australia and I’ll face this milestone like I have faced all the others: With my heart and my mind wide open.

And I’ll cry and I’ll cry and I’ll cry and when I’m done, I’ll remind myself that it’s okay to be happy again.

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All Things Must Pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

HDU_AllThingsMustPass_bwEven though I haven’t posted a blog since December, I have been writing like a mad woman. 

Today I write from a condo on the Texas coast in Port Aransas having arrived Sunday night.  The plan is to spend the rest of this week focused on cranking out the second draft of my first book – the ever elusive, The Mystery Behind The Masters.  Do you remember me telling you about that?  Do you remember me telling you it’s not about golf?  

A vote of confidence from the universe came this morning when I received word that another of my quotes made it into a U.S. News & World Report article on universities and education expectations

Hook would have said, “That’s great, babe. Now finish that book.”

At the risk of tempting deep grief to return and body slam me again, I feel I’m past the worst of the worst of the dark days.  How do I know?  Because I shower daily now and I never watch Netflix from my pillow anymore.  There are still early mornings when, as my mind enters into consciousness, I’ll slam my eyes shut so I can return to the unconscious and a world where Hook is not gone.   But I do that less and less and instead say out loud, “I know I should get up.”  The only one to hear is my Siamese, Gatita, who is passed out on the bed with me, and of course Hook who has become my invisible, grief drill sergeant. 

Take the Time to Grieve

If it had been me that died instead of my husband, he would have gone back to work within a week, two weeks max.  Hook would have put his head down and focused at whatever task was at hand, shoving any memory of me aside or burying it so deeply that any vision of me would have been blurred permanently.  I always respected that perseverance in him.  And, I’ve used that tactic before when my brother, Paul, passed away in 1998, and again when my father, Lou, died in 2011.  But it doesn’t work, it never has. 

When I was able to start getting out of bed again, I spent my mornings sitting at my writing desk, scribbling away in long hand with tears pouring out, wetting the pages, and capturing in words the anguish and regret of the last 18 months.  I begged for mercy that the grieving let up.  I begged for mercy that the grieving and Hook never went away.  I became ultra-evolved and certifiably insane in the same moment because I was aware of the world and all it could offer and rip away simultaneously. 

Since September 3rd, I have had the luxury of deep, private grieving.  I say “luxury” because I’ve met so many widows and widowers who had to return to work after only a month, some after only a week.  I shudder every time I think of how fuzzy and frail I felt in the months following Hook’s death.   Frail … those who know me wouldn’t ever use such an adjective to describe my personality.  But we’re talking spirit instead of body so yes, wounded and handicapped and frail would all be words that could have accurately described my soul — that piece of me that was and will always be tethered to Hook.

But not today, I don’t feel that way today. 

I realized that the smidgens of hope I gathered from the Texas coast during my Thanksgiving weekend did indeed grow. Even the four-hour drive down to Port Aransas this week was completely different than that drive I made last November.  Then, I could hardly contain the tears that began with the shopping for the trip to the packing of luggage and hauling out Hook’s green, man cooler – I don’t want to go without you – to swerving on the highway to grab after dirty napkins on the floor of the Jeep because I’d soaked through the clean ones in the console – You’re supposed to be doing this with me.

Four hours of crying is exhausting, and it doesn’t make for safe driving either. 

Before that November trip I would have said I felt hollow inside like there was a humongous hole in my middle.  I learned that Thanksgiving holiday that there wasn’t a huge hole inside of me but me inside the hole, a deep cave with no steps for climbing out.  Since dispirited, comatose states of being are not my norm, I was moved by instinct to make the trip to face the ghosts of the coast as I called them. I returned to the port where Hook and I spent holidays and long weekends and where he proposed on bended knee, asking me to spend the rest of our lives together.

In return for listening to this inner wisdom, the coast greeted me with clear water and clean sand but thick clouds overhead made sure I remembered it was still winter.  I’d already been walking an hour that first day when I turned to look back at where I’d come from.  I didn’t want to go back but I couldn’t walk forward either.  Instead, I turned towards the ocean and held out my hands, palms facing up, and with watery eyes and a cracked voice, I whispered, “Help me; please help me.” 

I didn’t know who I was talking to, God I suppose, maybe Hook a little. Mostly I think I was sending out a plea to the universe, because even though I’d felt empty of all energy, void of all passion, indifferent to interests of any kind, I was still in awe at the power of the water, the flow of the waves, the swoosh swoosh swoosh of the tide as it beat against the sand and washed everything else away.  

After a while I started walking again, walking away from the despair, walking off the loss, walking out of that cavernous hole. I wasn’t moving on from Hook but moving forward with me. On the second day of that trip, I saw the first rays of sunlight beam through the clouds.  It was brief but they stayed long enough for me to react to the warmth and respond, “I see you.” 

And that’s how hope happened.

I don’t know that I would have believed I could feel hope again. In fact I wouldn’t have known how cemented it has become since Thanksgiving if I hadn’t returned to Port Aransas this week.  There were no tears in preparing for this trip not while speed packing or even during the long drive.  (I didn’t even bother to grocery shop instead I threw whatever was in the fridge into the green cooler and figured I’d shop for the rest once I got here.)  When I ran out to the water on Sunday of this week, it took me about 10 minutes before I realized what was different:  There were no feelings of overwhelming loss, no suffocating fear.  I was outside of the hole. 

I know it’s no longer a matter of will I get through this but instead, how much will I learn, how much will I grow, and will it be enough.

Moving Forward

I wish I could write that I don’t cry every day anymore or that I haven’t gotten choked up today.  I do and I have and I will and I’ll continue to do so until one day I just don’t.   But the tears I shed now are more good-bye than don’t go, more resignation than come back.  I can let go of the debilitating grief without letting go of the love in my heart for Allan.  And although I still feel uncertain about building a future without Hook in it, I’m not so scared that I won’t try.  I’ll move forward more slowly than is my usual pace but I’ll still move forward.

When Hook and I celebrated our four-year anniversary last June, we returned to our wedding night place – a lovely bed and breakfast in Wimberly, Texas –  tucked away in the woods. Our room was on the second floor with a spacious balcony that faced the gorgeous Blue Hole.  We began our mornings and ended our evenings sitting outside on the cushioned chairs, listening and watching the wildlife.  On the second night, Hook started to talk about the planning of his memorial.  I had just stood up to return back inside.  When he spoke, I sat back down on the edge of the chair, staring blindly at the balcony floor, waiting to hear what he would say.    

“I want you to play that song by George Harrison, the one he wrote just before he died from cancer,” he said. “Listen to it as many times as you need to.”  

“You’re going to be all right,” Hook would always say in our late night talks. “You have to be.”

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloud burst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not always going to be this grey

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Port Aransas, Texas: My brother Dave, me, and Hook.

Port Aransas, Texas, 2010: My brother Dave, me, and Hook.

When the Epilogue Comes First

HDU_PrologueEpilogue

Sometimes we have to finish writing the ending of one story before we can begin writing the beginning of a new one. 

A year ago today, I was at the hospital to pick up Hook after a three-week, post surgery stay.  Absolutely nothing since that time has turned out the way I’d expected, and mostly that’s a bad thing.  But can I just say that there has been at least one unexpected bright spot that came via the creation of the Dr. Allan Hook Wild Basin Endowment.

Had Hook’s health not become terminal, we would have taken our sabbatical in Australia then returned back to Austin to build a house we’d been talking about for the past year.  Instead, the door to surviving in this life closed for Hook but before it did, we opened a new door that could be used for generations of learning about the sustainability of nature.

Why the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve is Important by Allan Hook

I have a promise to keep that came from one of the last lucid discussions Allan and I had regarding why the 227 acre track known as the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve meant so much to him.  It has taken me more than three months before I felt able to share this with you. Here it is from Thursday, August 29th 2013, 5:57pm:

Q. Why is the Wild Basin important to you?

I was fortunate growing up because I lived next to a nature preserve.  I could go out and play in it.  Most kids didn’t have something like this.

This [Wild Basin] endowment provides an opportunity for people who haven’t had experience with the outdoors to try and tie that research question with the background of nature, integrated into its functional meaning of how we relate to nature.  It’s meant to get kids off their butts, off their computers — to look at what’s outside.

There are a million interesting things going on.  You just have to open your eyes and see what interests you whether its photo journalism or biology of the animal or teaching methodology or creating stories in nature.  There’s so much wonderment in nature because it’s complex and vast and we understand so little of it.

If you want to see what’s entailed in maintaining the [Wild Basin] property from invasive species and the trail maintenance and proper land management use, go see it.  Much of what they do at the basin is communicating with the local people surrounding the preserve and remaining a clearing house to the wider community.

Q. What did you hope would happen because of the endowment?

I thought it could float more students to get creative research experience; to open their eyes to brighter horizons that natural history provides.  This endowment will help us to facilitate studies to better understand some of the interactions happening between organisms at the basin.

I want the endowment to continue to grow so we can reach out to more students so we as a community can get more experience – not just St. Edward’s students, but globally – so we can share what we’ve learned with other such entities in Austin and around the world.

Q. What is it about nature that you love so much?

Why I love nature is because I get peace of mind and understanding, challenges to understanding, interesting people – how interesting people?  Because nature tends to attract inquisitive people and this is where ideas are shared and you think of things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.  Sort of like a nature think tank that grows from every interaction of every person who contributes to it.

Q. What is it that you hope people will do about the endowment?

I’m asking you to consider contributing to it, too.  With your contribution, we can build this into a world class facility that includes Balcones Canyonlands Preserves 30,000 acres.

“Read it back to me,” Hook said and I did, louder than normal to keep his attention.  After several seconds without any reply, I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep.   

“Do what you do best, Baby,” he whispered. “Grow the endowment.”

I clicked to save the document I’d been typing in and put the laptop aside, standing up to lean over the hospital bed so I could kiss his cheek.  This time, he really was asleep.  Four days later he died.

Hook Wild Basin Endowment

My husband was not a social media guy, but he and I both knew there would come a day when I would make my plea on his behalf using this blog and any other social outlets I could get my hands on.   

If you’ve already donated — a huge thank you and please stop reading now.  Hook would not have wanted me to try to empty your purse or your wallet.  You’ve helped us to raise ~ $35,000 so far which has been added to Hook’s and my initial $125,000 which launched the endowment in May 2013

If you’re considering a donation to help me move that $35,000 to $50,000 before the end of 2013 (the goal), then check out these giving levels Hook crafted based on species found at the Wild Basin Preserve in Austin, Texas:

HDU_Sceliphron caementarium

  • Black & Yellow Mud Dauber:  For $100 dollars or more, an individual will be represented by the ubiquitous and mischievous black and yellow mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium.
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASand Wasp:  For $1,000 or more, one is represented by the lovely and industrious sand wasp, Glenostictia pictifrons.

HDU_PepsisThisbe

  • Tarantula Hawk:  For the honor of donating $5,000 or more, one is represented by the spectacular anfearless tarantula hawk, Pepsis thisbe.

Of course, these levels are suggestions only but don’t you just love Hook’s descriptions?  In his inquisitive world, we should all be enamored with wasps … bugs of any kind, really.

Your contribution to the Hook Endowment at any level would be welcomed.  If every person who reads this blog who hasn’t already donated contributed $5 online, we’d exceed the goal Hook and I set when we originally started talking about “What if?”  What if we created an endowment? What if it was for more than just St. Edward’s students? What if it was for more than just science students? What if we could entice international students to conduct creative research at Wild Basin? 

What if? 

I’m not exaggerating when I write that planning the endowment and dreaming about it became some of the last truly happy moments Hook had in this world.

In our last months together, Hook and I would end some of our evenings making plans for the fund.  At first, we talked in ambiguous terms, neither of us wanting to admit to the other what we hoped we could raise.  But one night, as we sat side-by-side on the sofa, I finally asked, “So when you say, ‘a big amount’ or ‘a huge amount,’ what are you thinking?”

Hook’s hesitation before he answered led me to think that the too-high figure in my head probably wasn’t realistic.  He turned towards me ever so slightly and said in his matter-of-fact voice, “A million dollars.”

“Me, too!” I said as I clapped my hands in excitement, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” 

This is what I will take with me into 2014 as I begin to carve out a new narrative for myself. Part of my prologue will of course include the Hook Endowment, but the rest of my story is yet to be written. 

Until then, please be part of Hook’s epilogue for 2013 by making an online donation to his legacy if you haven’t already:

  • Online donation: http://bit.ly/1KR8YDv
    (Choose OTHER for donation then type in HOOK ENDOWMENT)

  • Mail in donation: St. Edward’s University, 3001 South Congress, Austin, TX 78704, U.S.A. re: “Hook Endowment”

For those unable to contribute because of budget constraints, please consider contributing in one of these ways:

Thank you,
Rosemary Hook

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Hook Story: Dr. Hook is Ruining My Life

HOOKABRATION_Taraphoto

2009: Hook on campus at St. Edward’s University. Photo taken by fellow biologist, protege, and friend,Tara Maginnis during her Darwin Days event.

Last night, I hosted a mini Hookabration, a celebration of Hook’s life, for the entomologists who are in Austin for the annual ESA conference.  Five different hymenopterists shared heartfelt stories of their relationship with Hook — how he influenced their lives, what he meant to them as a friend and colleague — with 30 other entomologists in attendance.   This mini celebration was a smaller version of the larger Hookabration which we had only a few days after Hook passed away in early September.

One of the testimonials given at the original Hookabration was from a former colleague of Hook’s, Megan Murphy.   Megan had friends laughing and picturing Hook at his finest, ornery self.  Although I cannot share every testimonial or story given at both Hookabrations, I can share those that were submitted during my Call for Hook Stories.   It’s time for me to begin sharing those with you.  Enjoy …

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Dr. Hook is Ruining My Life by Megan Murphy

The first time I heard mention of Dr. Hook’s name was from a tearful student who came to my office to ask if there was any way she could withdraw from his freshman Biology class after the official drop period.  She said he was too hard. She was convinced that staying in his class would screw up her otherwise perfect GPA, which would keep her from getting into graduate school, which would limit her future career options, which would diminish her earning potential, which would ruin her life.  I will never forget her wailing, “Dr. Hook is ru-in-ing my liiiiiiiiife!!!!”

I worked in the St. Edward’s admissions office and learned to keep a fresh box of Kleenex in my desk for post-midterm revelations such as these. I don’t have any statistics to back it up, but it seemed to me like Al Hook stories were responsible for a disproportionate share of the freshman tissue usage.

Somewhere in the blurry early years of my 14-year tenure at SEU I finally met Dr. Hook. By then he had become a mythical creature in my mind.  Part man, part bug, and according to my tissue count, as heartless as the Tin Man. It was at one of those obligatory faculty/staff gatherings in the Maloney Room (the ones you really only go to because there’s free food), that I walked up to him and blurted out something like, “You’re Allan Hook, right? Do you think maybe you could stop making my freshmen cry?” He flashed me that exaggerated/open-mouthed “how dare you” look and then just started laughing …sort of loud….at me. He suggested I consider recruiting students with stronger backgrounds in the sciences, and then just walked away.

How we became friends after that less than gracious introduction I’m unsure, but over time we did.  Looking back, I think I can attribute our friendship to two things:

1)     Hook is funny (I’m a sucker for funny), and in spite of his crustiness he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. Hook didn’t seem to mind that I called him the Orkin Man when he dressed in head to toe khaki like an exterminator. Obviously he wasn’t too caught up in what anyone thought of his fashion sense because he swam laps in the school pool in a bathing suit that was so famously awful it had a name  — “The Rat.”  Over time I warmed up to his grumpy irreverence, his fascination with wasp copulation, and his creatively profane language.  In fact, I kind of liked it. All my life I’ve heard people say, “nobody likes a smart ass.” Well I disagree.  Some of us actually do.

HDU_MeganMurphy_DrHookRuiningMyLife

Megan Murphy with her fossilized scallop shell and dinosaur bone from Hook.

2)     Hook gave me two of my most prized possessions. Everyone at St. Ed’s knew that I collected found objects. Whenever fellow employees went on vacation, I asked them to bring me back something they found. I got everything from tiny jars of sand to pennies, but my favorites were the rocks and seashells. By the end of my employment I had amassed such a large collection of objects that there was little room left on my desk for anything but a phone and a Kleenex box. The found objects all ended up in a box somewhere, except for Hook’s contributions: a fossilized dinosaur bone and a fossilized scallop shell. They have been on display in my home ever since, and if my house were to catch on fire they would be among about five things I’d grab as I fled out the door.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably add that over the years there were far more students who bragged about surviving Hook’s classes than there were freshmen begging to get out of them.  Hook was a right of passage for a lot of science majors. They liked that he made evolution interesting and that he was curiously animated when he lectured on the topic of mating.  They groused about his tough grading but took pride in working along side him on his projects.  Hook had many devotees who credited him with preparing them for graduate education, research, and careers in science-related fields. I’d like to say that all his good deeds were somehow the result of my repeated requests that he consider taking a kinder and gentler approach to student advising……. but nobody likes a smart ass.

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WATCH YNN AUSTIN interview about Hook http://youtu.be/OmFFv0hfYbI
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