Life After an Alcoholic Husband

Alcoholism segued subtly into our marriage, stealthlike, until it was everything in our lives. Now, years after my husband’s passing from alcoholic hepatitis, a glance in the rear view mirror.

  • I don’t anticipate with dread what I’ll find when I come home.
  • My basement no longer smells like Scotch. And urine.
  • I sleep through the night.
  • Broken promises and lies are no longer the norm.
  • I’m not constantly making excuses.
  • The tension in my neck and shoulders has disappeared.
  • I finally, finally realize that there was nothing more I could have done about his drinking.
  • Constant worry has been replaced with tranquility.
  • I live in the present, no longer haunted by ‘what if’ scenarios.
  • Chaos has been replaced with happiness.
  • There is nothing I miss about life with an alcoholic.

Selling His Stuff

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The trio of 8″ inch tall plastic dolls that Kellogg’s issued in the 1960s—Snap, Crackle and Pop—guard my kitchen from an overhead shelf, next to a Bluto Pez dispenser. My late husband was a collector: Hollywood kitsch, World’s Fair memorabilia, Atomic Age toys. Robert would return from Saturday morning bike rides laden with yard-sale finds; or pull into the driveway with a trunk load of purchases, the result of having scoured the aisles at a flea market or a World’s Fair show. But not everything seemed valuable, at least to my eyes. Besides vintage pens and antique tins, his haul might include an ugly gardening pot, that odd rocking chair, those tasteless orange Playboy Club ashtrays—and anything Disney. I’d greet him at our side door like a customs inspector: “No junqué beyond this point!”

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Now, eight years after Robert’s passing, I’ve begun to sell his stuff. Sorting through the items elicits reflection. They are a throwback to the good days, before Alcoholic Robert took up residence. A rebirth. Those last few years, when alcoholism hijacked our lives, often overshadow all the good years. And all the good. Sometimes it’s a story or picture that triggers memories; other times, it’s his collectibles.

Back then, Robert would joke about the value of his stuff, usually in response to my questioning the clutter. It was one of our sweet and silly routines.

“In this box,” he’d proclaim, “are my Huckleberry Hound lunchbox and thermos. They’re easily worth the price of our next Broadway tickets!”

I’d raise a quizzical eyebrow.

“This box here,” holding up a collection of MatchBox cars—including the Batmobile—in its vintage car case, “This is our next vacation!”

“Domestic or international?”

Ignoring my question, he’d continue.  “And in this box? All my original GI Joe’s, plus accessories. This is our summer home!”

“Where’s the box that will let me quit my job?”

“There is no box.”

We’d both laugh. Despite his estimates, inflated for entertainment value, I was surprised at some of the prices of those collectibles, and well aware that he’d never sell his treasures.

But now I am.

My goal:  clear space and make money. It’s a huge undertaking. While there are a few pieces I’ll keep for sentimental value (Snap, Crackle, Pop and a few World’s Fair souvenirs), the bulk of it is getting posted on ebay.  It’s time. I’m ready to de-clutter and send these pop culture artifacts back out into the world for another collector to keep.

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Once I make a sale, I mention my late husband’s passion and his eye for a gem in my shipping confirmation email. To my surprise, many buyers have responded with assurances that the treasure has found the right home, and provide additional background about their latest acquisition. Reading between the lines, I sense their excitement about their find. I feel like a matchmaker, connecting eager collectors to that missing piece in their collection. Making a sale isn’t always about getting the best price, but finding the best person whose passion for the item matches Robert’s.

After selling a rare 1939 World’s Fair wooden box with an etching of the fair’s symbol, the Trylon and Perisphere, I received this message:

“Rest assured it is going to someone who shared your husband’s collecting passion!” Lenny (trylon39)

Robert would like that.

 

A Hopeful New Year

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Unlike any other time of the year, the end of December pressures us to take stock. Looking back is painful. Looking ahead is scary. Whether your loss was last month or ten months ago, it feels fresh now.  But remember, you have an incredible resource, YOU.

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Surviving the loss of your partner is one of the most difficult challenges you will face. Whatever the circumstances, you’ve gone through an emotional upheaval. And though you may not know it, you’re moving on. Perhaps you don’t want to hear that phrase ‘moving on’? It may sound trite, like a section heading in a bereavement brochure. But the truth is you are moving on.

When it comes to loss, you’ll discover a few universal truths. Perhaps the most relevant today, as we contemplate the year ahead, is this well-worn phrase:  time heals. Yes, it’s cliché. It’s also true. From one widow to another, I can tell you that each month felt different, that a week made a difference…though sometimes I didn’t realize that week was better until a month later. Slowly but steadily, my grief changed. It wasn’t as suffocating. It stopped greeting me first thing in the morning, and eventually wasn’t the last thing on my mind before I succumbed to sleep. While there are no rules or timelines for grieving – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – as the days and weeks and months pass, healing takes place.

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I wish all my widowed friends a hopeful new year. Let your memories bring you comfort. Find the strength to pursue new dreams. Make it a point to find joy in every day. Don’t be shy to cry, don’t feel guilty when laughing, be good to yourself, you deserve it.

 

2017

Good Grief, It’s the Holidays

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The last thing you want to do is celebrate, but it’s everywhere. Office parties. Family gatherings. Friendly get-togethers. Is the scent of balsam making you teary? Does the sound of sleigh bells have you pining for seasons past? We can’t stop Christmas from coming, but we can cope. Here are a few tips to tackle the holiday season.

Take Charge & Step Down – If you’ve been hosting Christmas Eve or Hanukkah these past few years and have no desire to do so this year, reach out to family members – they may be shy to ask if you’re up to the task, but happy to help.

Shake It Up & Host – For those who haven’t been hosting, this year might be the time to step up. Sound crazy? Not really. For some, being busy is half the battle; preparing and cooking is a much-needed distraction. Plus, you’re in control when the gathering is on your own turf, making the get-together during this difficult time more palatable.

The White Lie – Perhaps your mind is set on no party. While others may be dreaming of a big white Christmas there’s no reason you can’t tell a little white lie. I did. It was the first Easter after Robert had passed and I felt like being alone. I told friends I’d be with family; and told my family I’d be with friends. Easy peasy. I had a quiet day alone, went to the gym, cooked my favorite foods and binged on TV in comfy clothes. The day passed painlessly and without a hint of pity. Avoid the awkwardness of being on the receiving end of an invitation you know you’re going to decline by having your alibi ready. If you stammer an ‘Oh, I don’t know…’ the good-natured inviter may pressure you into a ‘Yes.’

Find Comfort in Common – Reach out to other widows/ers, perhaps you kept in touch with members of your bereavement group. Meeting up with others in the same situation can be an oasis in the midst of holiday hell. There’s no pressure to be jolly and a mutual understanding about the challenges of the season can be therapeutic.

Pamper Yourself – If ever the rejuvenating and calming effects of a spa day were needed, it’s now. Go!

Let Yourself Spree – Indulge. A bit of financially responsible self-gifting might help ease the holidays. A pair of great boots. Maybe a makeover. Upgrade your cable.

Refresh – Don’t be afraid to start new traditions. Now more than ever, you may welcome that sense of newness. Initiate a Day-After-Christmas-Dinner at a favorite restaurant. Perhaps it’s time for a scaled down tree? Or replace the tree with poinsettia plants and some funky new house decorations.

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Holiday Health – If you see a therapist, schedule an extra session or two during the holidays to help alleviate any added pressures of the season.

Home Alone? – You don’t have to stay home. Go to the movies. Plan a museum visit. Volunteer.

The Great Outdoors is Calling – There’s something about being cooped up inside that wreaks havoc on our mood. Get out. Take a walk. Go for a run. Bike. Let Mother Nature have her way with you.

Get Cozy – When you are inside, make sure your home is comfortable, uncluttered, clean and filled with good food, including healthy as well as not-so-healthy treats. ’tis the season.

Be Accepting – Your inner circle wants to help – let them. Accept offers of help with your holiday shopping, babysitting, cooking, dog walking, snow shoveling.

Be A Gracious Guest – If you feel ready, say ‘yes’ when asked out to dinner, for a drink, to a party. Please try.

Be Good – Get involved with a volunteer organization. Offer to help a sick friend. Find time to spend with an elderly neighbor. Do good, feel good.

Remember – When you’re with friends and family, stories inevitably are told and retold. Share memories of your loved one. Say their name. Tell their stories. Feel their presence. It will help all of you through your grief.

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Post-Mortem Letters

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In the spirit of celebrating love after death, I’m sharing this letter of my late husband’s to his deceased mother that I came across recently. Unlike the stereotypical mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship, I adored my mother-in-law.  Nancy was a character, as was her son. I like to think of Robert and his mother together now. At peace. Comfortable. Unbroken.

To my widowed comrades and those who have lost loved ones, I hope you find peace and comfort in your memories.

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[Robert’s letter to his mother, post mortem]

Dear Mom,

Did you know we were going out for Chinese food just before you died? It sounds like a book title, but just when we told you that, you finally gave up your struggle…and left us. I hope wherever you are that you got there by a rainbow.

It was the hardest thing to watch, but I guess we would all have regrets if we weren’t with you. What did it feel like? Did you hear our tears of sorrow, and Dad’s tears of regret. He did love you and told you that just before you died. He probably took your death the worst…maybe he underestimated just how much you meant to him, and what living alone means for a guy his age.

Richie, Toni and the kids are fine. Paula and I are OK too. We quote you often…all your little pearls of wisdom. Did you like my eulogy? I wanted to capture what a unique woman you were…eccentricities and all.

You were so loved and respected by your friends and family. I still feel your loss. So many times I still have the urge to telephone you…then I realize…I don’t have your new number.

Your legacy as a mother and a person still, and always will, live on in my heart.

I could always say anything to you, and you were never without an opinion. Usually well-meaning. I just wish you listened to your own advice.

Your struggle with cancer was difficult to watch, but I know we all did a good job of managing your care and making sure you were comfortable. But I must admit, after all the doctor visits, your death was a relief for us, and I’m sure for you.

I just wish you were happier, even during the years before you got sick. I realized how unhappy you were and how you often created the things that made you unhappy. I also wish that you could have treated Dad better. You both just couldn’t say nice things to each other until the bitter end…that’s heavy, and it was all such nonsense anyway.

You had much to live for, and I’m not so sure you really realized that. But your mistakes will enlighten me, and what doesn’t kill me, will make me stronger.

You were a wonderful mother, always, and I mean always, there when I needed you. From sitting outside my kindergarten class when I was afraid to stay in school, to encouraging me to be whatever I wanted to when I grew up.

What would you do if you came back to us? I still haven’t told anyone about the time you scraped the car driving home from Grandma’s. And I cherish the memories of our trip to Ireland. Thank God we went. And I was always so happy that you knew what a wonderful and fine person Paula is.

Thanks for teaching me to always be myself, match my colors, don’t be afraid to cry, write ‘thank you’ notes, put the stereo loud when I like a song, marry for love, be liberal and open-minded, speak up, give people hearty hellos, eat good food and have some sense of God. It all mattered and made me a better person.

How many times have we all wished we could take the past and bottle it. Instead, it remains behind us, with its many memories. You’re part of so many. I hope we’ll meet again someday.

We’ll be at the doll collectors show in May…wish you could be there.

Your loving son,

Robert

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My Late Husband & My Boyfriend

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If my late husband, Robert, were to meet my boyfriend, Billy, they’d have little to talk about—not that I’m worried they’ll bump into each other, but it’s impossible not to notice the distinctions. Robert wouldn’t walk out of the house without ironing his shirt; Billy didn’t own an iron when I met him. Robert was a news junkie; Billy is an avid sports fan. Super Bowl Sunday would find Robert in the Men’s Department at Bloomingdale’s.  For Billy, the Super Bowl is the culmination of months of Fantasy Football – and cursing at the television. I only recall Robert yelling at the TV once, during an upset at the Oscars.

Initially, clothes distinguish the two. Robert wore Armani, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein. Billy wears Mets, Giants, Islanders.

The first time I did laundry for my husband was after we moved into our house. I was in the basement loading the washing machine when I heard footsteps racing across the living room and pounding down the basement stairs. Robert rushed into the laundry room as if his hair was on fire: “You didn’t put my Ralph Lauren shirt in the dryer, did you?”

In light of that experience, when Billy moved in I asked: “Can all your clothes go in the dryer?”

He looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Yeah,” shrugging his shoulders, “why not?”

Everything from dress shirts to soccer jerseys gets tossed in.

Robert didn’t have soccer jerseys or any garment with a sports team logo. He was more comfortable in a Fifth Avenue store (despite an outer borough wallet), than a sports arena.

A good sale was a big win. Sadly, his greatest bargain ended up on the Disabled List.

We were eating at Alfredo’s, a restaurant owned by a friend of my in-laws. Robert was wearing the pinnacle of his shopping career—the particulars of which I know by heart, having heard him tell the story so often:  A sale at Bergdorf’s. The last one. His size. “You can never have too many white button-down shirts,” he’d declare.

Halfway through dinner, Alfredo – the tall, burly, old-world Italian cook – came out of the kitchen and over to our table. “Hey, how’s ‘a you father?” he smiled and clapped Robert on the back, anointing the virgin white cotton oxford with tomato sauce.

Robert winced, dread flashing across his face having spotted the chef’s saucy fingers before they landed on his back.

Billy has never set foot in Bergdorf Goodman’s.  He shops for clothes at CostCo (while picking up groceries), Kohl’s and Citi Field. His favorite place to browse is a hardware store. And with the exception of watching televised sports, Billy will choose being outdoors over staying indoors anytime. He loves to golf, hike, swim and bike.

Both men have brought more life to my life.

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Robert’s eclectic taste in music coaxed me out of my rock’n’roll-only phase, and gave me an appreciation for classical, light jazz and Big Band era. He orchestrated the backdrop to our dinner parties, from the soundtracks of John Williams to the sounds of Sinatra. Sunday morning’s mix of tunes might include Tchaikovsky, James Taylor, Acoustic Alchemy and Irish folk songs.

Billy brought out the gardener in me. I’d tinkered in the yard for years, but Billy upped my game. Shortly after we met, Billy and I were transplanting bushes, redesigning flowerbeds and creating a vegetable patch. Now I own gardening tools serious enough to inspire a murder mystery. Gardening had been a challenge; as a little girl I ran into the house whenever a bee buzzed by. With fair skin and a wicked fear of insects, I was a bug-zapping, shade-seeking, al-fresco-frowning, anti-outdoorswoman when I met Billy. On our first date, he asked enthusiastically, “When was the last time you went camping?” I looked at him and scowled: “Girl Scouts.” Eventually, love won out.  Billy’s enthusiasm for the great outdoors and promises to protect me from bears, led to my first camping trip since 1968 when Girl Scout Troop 4-935 boarded a bus from Flushing, Queens for a lake in upstate New York.

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And Billy brought me back to the beach, a place my Dad loved and a big part of my childhood summers. But once I grew up, I avoided the sun as skillfully as a vampire. Now, the beach is one of my favorite places. With Billy, I’m more adventurous – I’ve gone snorkeling in Oahu, jet skiing in the Gulf of Mexico and camping in the mountains. I no longer run when I see a bee, though I’m still not sure how I’ll react if I spot a bear.

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Part of the thrill of finding love in your 50s is discovering the new you, a slightly altered version of the person you’d gotten used to in your 20s, 30s and 40s. Baby Boomers in new relationships get to shake things up and discover selves they weren’t yet ready for years ago.

Robert and Billy changed me. That’s what love does.

 

 

Continuing Bonds – Reinventing Relationships After Death

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We all have our circles. Your late spouse had family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances—most of whom you know. You have a circle, as well. Inevitably the two overlapped. Now that life has changed, how will you handle his relationships? In a divorce, shared relationships can be challenging. But after a death, there’s no need to fight over friends (‘Who gets the Wilson’s?). Be cognizant of those you’ve come to treasure, and keep them in your life. Stay in touch. Initially, it may be something as simple as commenting on their Facebook posts or including them in a group email announcement about a family milestone. If they don’t reciprocate, you’ve lost nothing. If they do, you’ve gained a friend.

A good friend and colleague of Robert’s has kept in touch; we both have. It’s been over seven years and despite working in different industries, living miles apart and not sharing the common grounds of parenthood—we have a great time when we get together. Although it was a relationship that began in the past, it’s not stuck in the past, we’re not simply telling ‘Robert’ stories, we’ve become friends on our own. There are many of these relationships in my life:  initially Robert’s, then ours, now mine.  And I am eternally grateful.

As you navigate the world of widowhood, it often helps to seek out others and expand your social circles. There’s no such thing as having too many friends.