The Language of Grief

I have just returned from my first solo travel to visit Aunt Ginette.  It was long overdue and she can’t travel well, so she really couldn’t make it to Keith’s bed side in the hospital or to the memorial service  This “first” surprised me.  I felt accomplished, joyous, celebratory – especially at that moment when I managed to cross the Gothos bridge.  I always hated that bridge, even as a passenger.  Jersey walls squeeze in tight on narrow lanes with all the trucks blocking any hope of a view to the end of the bridge.  But I made it through and remembered each road and turn until I was sitting on Ginette’s doorstep in Flushings.  It was late so she was already in bed.  Henry let me in and I watched “The Bodyguard” with him and his girlfriend, Sylviane.  She only speaks French so Henry translated everything to her as we watched.  She calls home the Caribbean which makes their romance amazing in terms of the sheer distance between them.  Cow came out so he could get his photo op and let everyone know on Facebook that I had arrived safely.  I demonstrated Cow’s vocal talents to her and she fell in love with the little guy.  Such a charmer.

After the movie, I climbed into the spare bed.  This bed is two twin beds pressed together and whenever Keith and I spent the night, we always got stuck in the space between them.  We never minded being that close because we were snugglers, but we always reached a point where it was time to roll away from each other.  Needless to say, we couldn’t.  We would constantly shift and move until the wee hours of the morning, when I would realize I could lay across the two beds instead to avoid the space.  Come morning, I usually made my way to the foot of the bed with my pillows bunched up against Keith’s feet.  Of course, he was always up first and as soon as he’d leave the bed, I’d spin around and assume the proper alignment.  With no Keith on this night, I actually got a good night’s rest.  I almost felt guilty – almost.

Ginette and I got a great visit in the morning and she served me up cheese and a bagel.  I brewed the coffee which was something Keith always did.  Henry was telling me about a friend of his that belonged to the red hat society.  Reaching deep into the recesses of my high school french class data bank, I took my best stab at speaking french by pointing at my head and asking if that was “tete rouge”.  Sylviane nodded her head in agreement and Henry said that oh yes, that does mean red head.  Oops – red head, red hat.  “No, no Henry – red hat” I repeated.  OH! he tells me that is chapeau.  I was missing Keith at that moment, he always translated for me when everyone started speaking French.

Henry and Sylviane invited me to go to the mall with them.  I joined in and Henry drove.  One thing you have to know about Henry’s driving is that he used to be a New York cab driver.  The other thing you need to know is that he still drives like one.  I am probably the only person that loves riding with him.  My thrill seeking, roller coaster riding nature gets a kick out of it.  I’ll never forget the time he picked Brandon and I up at Penn Station several years back.  He had all the windows open and drove like a banshee out of the city, slamming on the brakes, weaving between cars, accelerating right up to a bumper only to dodge around a split second before he would have to stop.  Keith on the other hand, could never take a normal driver’s quirks.  In a vehicle with Henry, he’d have a death grip on the Oh-My-God handle, the whole while making commentary about how Henry was driving.

So the first thing Henry did when we got in the car was a spot-on imitation of Keith as his passenger.  “Don’t stop so close, why aren’t you turning here, don’t let that guy in, watch what your doing, you should have taken the parkway, look out, slow it down, you trying to get us killed . . . ”  Poor Sylviane looked over at Henry, perplexed by this animated rant.  He saw the look and immediately repeated it in French.  No doubt about it, Henry imitating passenger Keith in French had me in stitches.  One of the best laughs I’ve had in a while.

Later that day, I traveled to Oakdale to visit with Billy, Leslie – long standing school mates of Keith – and MaryAnn, his first wife.  Billy shared the story of how Keith had helped him move into an apartment in a less than favorable section of Manhattan.  As Billy and Keith stood on the balcony of Billy’s new abode, Keith questioned the choice to move to such unsavory and unsafe quarters.  A homeless man had chosen to relieve his bowels on the street right in front of them at this very moment, giving Keith the golden opportunity to point to the man for further proof of Billy’s poor judgement.  After Billy shared the story, he just shook his head and questioned the odds of that ever happening again.  Another one of the best laughs I’ve had in a while.

MaryAnn was wearing this beautiful heart necklace that her grandmother made using the stone from MaryAnn’s old wedding ring from Keith.  Leslie shared with me some of her experiences with the lose of her ex-husband when her daughter was only eight.  Often that day, I thought of Melissa, Keith’s niece, who lost her fiance to cancer just a few months ago.  I carried Ginette’s words with me too.  She tells me frequently – take care of yourself.  Before anything else, it is so important to take care of yourself.  No one can do that for you.

This widow world is strange.  It transcends age and time and marital status.  We all speak the same language that no one understands but us.  It is a language we did not choose.  I look to those that have spoken the language for longer – Ginette, Leslie – for guidance.  I reach out to Melissa as we move through this on the same time line.  Even widows I have never met speak this language to me and I understand it.  My college mate, Chuck, died in an accident in October of 2010.  I had friended his widow Sheila on Facebook a while back.  Shorty after Keith died, she sent me a message.  It included her phone number and she told me to call her any time.  We share this language.  There is no one that can translate.  There are no tense, clauses, conjunctions. It is spoken in stories and song and tears and reflection.  Simple phrases like “I know” or “I understand” carry with them a complex meaning that even we who speak it can’t explain.  Most importantly, it is in our moments of silence that we speak it fluently.



It is Time

It started on September 16, 2011 – Keith’s blog that is – he opened with a brief statement about waiting for the PET scan results.  Maybe all of this started a long time ago, before I was even fully aware of what “it” was.  Actually, I still don’t know what it is – not in its entirety.  What I do know is that my husband was sick and we decided to reach out to our family and friends.  We were going to share what was happening.  We would lean on our human network for support and encouragement and advice.  What it has become is so much greater than anything I could ever imagine.  Through the diagnostic phase, into the deterioration of his health through his final moments on earth, and into life after Keith, I have found a voice.  Wobbly and unsure at first, but gaining ground.

I had been toying with blogging my own story back in September.  It would be a way to link the person to the business of Cherish Studios.  I intended on sharing tales of my life thus far and my impressions of the world I traveled in with the slightly askew, dark hearted, rose colored glasses that is my core.  It didn’t happen quite on schedule. I am ready now.  No more excuses.  So lets start at the very beginning, shall we?

My parents met at the Dairy Queen.  She was a waitress and he was a cook.  This duo only had eyes for each other right from the start.  Now that I think about that, I should say that their overly romantic daughter chooses to believe that this was love at first sight, kismet, magic, – – soul mates.  So, long story short – at the ripe age of 18 and 17, they eloped to Ahoskie, North Carolina on October 19, 1967.  My mother originally bought a red cocktail dress as her wedding gown.  Her mother made her take it back.  She ended up getting married in a gold business suit.  Years later, her daughter would get married in a black mermaid dress.  Just one example of who I am floats around in my mitochondria as much as it exists in the influences of my life.

On July 13, 1968, Cherish Mia Lankford was born in Fort Lee, Virginia.  My first name came from the song “Cherish” by the Association, my middle name from the actress of Rosemary’s Baby fame – Mia Farrow.  Right out of the gate, I carried both a lovely light name with a dark sorrowful name, born on the lucky number 7 and unlucky 13th day.  I have always walked that line.  I credit this line for my dark humor, the laughter in moments of grief, and a total love of Star Trek, episode 5 – “The Enemy Within”.  You know it – the one where evil Captain Kirk messes with Yeoman Rand’s basket weave and good Captain Kirk can’t even pick a restaurant.  I had a crush on both of those captains.  Who am I kidding – I still have a crush on Captain Kirk.  There you have it – my first confession of the new blog.

I do have to credit my parents for selecting the most amazing name for me.  In my youth, I often mumbled under my breath about being stuck with it.  I even went so far as to dream up more readily recognizable names for myself such as Ann, Katherine, and Elizabeth.  All proper names for wives of King Henry VIII, regal and respectable.  In college, I came to my senses and embraced Cherish.  Although, if you make enemies and they graffiti on campus about you being a dweeb there is no confusing who they are talking about.

Years later, I discovered that the alternative could have been far more surreal.  The week I was born, In A Gadda Da Vida was top of the charts.  When I was working at the Harlequin Dinner Theater, my two friends Chris and Jeff would tease me about getting my name from a song that in all probability I was conceived too.  Both of them pointed out that I was lucky it hadn’t been Iron Butterfly’s anthem.  It would have meant that I would have been stuck introducing myself like this:

“Hi, I’m Inagaddadavida.  You can call me Ina, or you can call me Gadda, or you can just call me Davida.”

It is time. This is my story . . . .


Brandon’s Song to his Father

Here is Brandon’s first song:

“Shit Happens . . . Just don’t step in it”

There is so much to say,
But the beginning is so unclear,
Cause you were the one that kept me going,
You were the one that made me strong through all the fear.

I miss home, cause this house means nothing without you,
How am I suppose to handle this silence,
You made me smile
You made me laugh
Now reeks of sadness

How could you leave me now
How dare you say you would be there forever
Because I feel so wrongly cheated
I guess its true
The dead get off easy

20 years wasn’t enough
There was much more I needed to learn
I still need to grow
I’ve lost everything I’ve earned
You left me all alone

The pain I feel needs to go
It’s consuming me
Like darkness I can’t see
I’m losing sight of what I use to be

X2 –
How could you leave me now
How dare you say you would
be there forever
Because I feel so wrongly cheated
I guess it’s true
The dead get off easy.

I’m holding on tightly
There is nothing left to lose
Is this the price I pay
I wish you were a part of my life
I never thought I’d be this way

I’ll be as strong as I can
How long do I have to wait
to rebuild the life that you led
Because it’s never to late
to end this continuous thread

Shit happens – Just Don’t Step in It
Shit happens – Just Don’t Step in It

Just another Valentine’s Day

What is it with this silly holiday?  Mushy hearts, stinky flowers, fluffy cards, over priced jewelry and fattening chocolate confections (ok, I could go for that last one).  Keith and I never celebrated today.  Ok – once, we celebrated it – kinda – well, I guess I better explain.

A few years ago, my niece was working on a school project and her subject was Egypt.  It was natural for her to think of Uncle Keith so we got a phone call from Michele asking if there was anything he could share with Bekah to enhance her display.  Keith promptly got out his mother’s jewelry box to locate a few scarabs and evil eyes for Bekah to borrow.  As we were going through everything, he pulled out a little velvet bag and dumped out the contents – that being one very shiny large diamond solitaire ring.  He held it up and announced that we should sell the thing.  Those of you that know me, know that I’ve never been a bling girl, keeping the jewelry to a couple of rings and some hoop earrings.  But this sparkly was just too much even for a keep-it-simple girl like me so I grabbed it out of his hand and announced that he could sell it after I got to wear it for a while.  Mind you the band was sorely worn and the ring was a tad too big for my finger but I wore it anyway. Yep – for days afterwards, I was like a little girl who got into her mother’s jewelry box, wearing the crown jewel on my finger and catching sunlight in the stone so I could throw thousands of rainbow lights across the walls around me.

Valentines day rolled around that year, and Keith and I were hanging out in our office.  He was yacking it up on the phone with our friend Agent Jay (remember Agent Jay) with his feet up on the desk, leaning back as far as the chair would let him.  In the course of his conversation he announces that he gave me his mother’s diamond ring for Valentine’s Day.  I just looked across my desk at him in time to catch this total look of mischief on his face and then he smiled and winked at me.  The next day I took it in to have the worn band replaced.  So that is how this little hemp wearing hippie chick ended up wearing the forgotten Housewives of Beverly Hills ring.

Usually, Keith celebrated Valentines day with a quick “thinking of you” email exchange with MaryAnn, his first wife, whom he married on February 14.  I believe it was 1981 but don’t quote me on that.  She was on my mind so much over the weekend so I shot her Keith’s “thinking of you” email as his proxy.  I had the opportunity to meet her for the first time in September.  There was this connection that I felt with her right away.  She was so warm and lively.  It was not lost on me that she was the spirit of Keith’s young love akin to my spirit of Keith’s last days love.

This morning I went to counseling with Brandon.  I put aside my own selfish weepy self to really listen to what he was saying to the counselor.  I am starting to understand the depth of his own pain.  His father, his anchor, is gone.  I am just a stepmom.  I can not change that for him.  I can not stop the pain, give him back what he has lost, fill the void in his life.  I have to accept that.  This evening, he shared the lyrics to the first song he is writing.  It is about Keith – and it was emotionally rich and deep and poetic and I feel privileged that he shared it with me.  I have asked him to share it on the blog when he has it finalized.

After he left for school tonight, I wept.  Big, crumpled on the floor, sobbing cries till I couldn’t breath, see.  It started with a sad sack comment I made about losing Cow on Friday.  I know he’s just on a walkabout and I have already found a new cow to take his place.  I had no idea that my little bovine muse would have been my undoing.  The flood of comments on Facebook about our lost Cow hit – – hit hard.  I get it now – all those who have widowed before me tried to explain that this would happen.  But until you are there in the moment, it can’t be comprehended.  I had to get in my car and just drive – – I went to my old homestead where I grew up as a child, on Choptank road.  The lights were on and the house looked so inviting.  I drove out to the old Davon Crest homestead, and stared down the old lane.  As I was rolling down Pine Top Road, all I could think of was Keith and I dating.  I would be on the phone with him, sitting in front of my computer and we would test how much faster his DSL internet speed was from my dial up speed.  This test was conducted under strict standards.  We would both be on EBay and would look at the same item.  Then Keith would count to 3 and we would both click on the detail button.  Shortly after, Keith would yell “HA!  Loaded!!  Where are you?”  to which I would reply “loading . . . there’s an hour glass”.

We spent so many nights at that farm, just the two of us hiding out in the house, our own secret world.  Now I sit in his house without him, hearing some of the last words he ever spoke to me in my head . . . “I miss you”.  There’s a creature gnawing on something in the attic and I want Keith to get it out of there.  He’d know what to do.  I can’t stop the tears, not for me, not for any of the children – Brandon, Christie, Zach.  I can only whisper back “I miss you, too.”  One more deep breath, one more step forward . . . I can do this, I know I can.


Dworks, Smurfs, and Cow Patties

A few weeks ago, I caught my friend Neil’s band, Mike’s Garage, at Outta the Way Cafe.  My son joined me after wandering lost all over Montgomery County which prompted me to tell him it is time for a GPS for his car.  Enough of wandering lost and showing up when the party is almost over.  It was so great to see Zach though.  He really is growing into a very striking presence.  I had a blast dancing and one particular gentleman coxed me into dancing to every song – including Jethro Tull’s Aqua Lung.  Any of you familiar with that particular song can laugh now knowing that it doesn’t necessarily have a dancing beat.  He was goofy and nerdy and sweet and by the end of the evening, he asked for my email.  A few days later I got a message from Mr. Dwork.  The name gave me pause because it was fitting for this sweet dance partner.  He asked me out for coffee and I declined on the premise of living too far away.

My truth is so different from “living too far away”.  My truth is that Keith came into my life like a meteor, talking at NY speeds, constantly in motion both physically and mentally.  We meet on Yahoo Personals, an internet dating service.  The very first phone conversation we had consisted of Keith providing me a detailed description of his dating history, his daughter’s soccer games, his son’s compulsion for video games, and all the while he was barking orders out to people who were helping him pack up his mother’s house. Interspersed in his diatribe were questions about where I grew up, where I had lived, how old was my son, and did I like Chinese food.  This entire conversation took place as I was driving to Annapolis to visit my great grandmother.  In grand Keith fashion, he asked what I was doing and when he realized I was traveling, he would ask every few minutes where I was on Route 50.  He announced that based on my reports to him, I was making good time and then called me Mario Andrettie.

When I hung up the phone, Blue Oyster Cult’s The Reaper started playing on the radio.  I laughed out loud thinking if I ever get serious with this guy, this is one heck of a soundtrack for our relationship.  In hindsight, I still laugh at the absurdity of it all.  From that very first phone call to the first date at Masons, he talked non stop about the weather, politics, his children . . . until we looked over the dessert menu and as soon as I ordered the berry tart, he shared with me his disdain for all things berry.  That was his style – a no hold bar approach to life that left you always knowing exactly where you stood with him and where he stood on any issue.  I was in awe of him, drawn to his unstoppable force, pulled to his gravitational field like the moon child I am – – from that first phone call.  The Dworks of this world can’t touch that and I don’t want them too.  That is my sacred space, my secret heart.

What has transpired since dancing at the cafe can only be described as the abyss.  Both Brandon and I just couldn’t shake it – – that feeling that we were apart and separate from the world.  We couldn’t relate, connect, focus.  Grief hung in the house and we could hardly share what we were feeling with each other, because it offered no comfort to do so with someone standing in the same emotional mire.  He kept his friends at the ready and continues to keep constant companions and I am in their debt.  It isn’t like me to flounder when it comes to being strong and emotionally available to the people I love.  I am floundering with him and it frightens me that I might fail him.

In the mix, although Dad showed signs of recovering well from his surgery, he did have a short set back Tuesday night leading to an ER visit.  He continues to recover but in the moments between finding out that his boss was taking him in and the call from Mom letting me know he was ok, the disconnect from the world became complete.  The real possibility that I may need to get to the ER myself until Mom got there sent me down this path of chanting to myself the tasks that needed to be completed in order to get in the car.  Eat – – Eat – – finish edits on photos – – Eat – – pack – – pack – – finish edits – – photos – – pack.  It was a familiar thought process. One I had become versed in during the weeks leading up to Keith’s death and with it came the question “How strong is my spirit?” which followed with “At what point will it break?” followed by the concrete knowledge that I do not want to ever have either of those questions answered.

I could feel myself crawling out of the abyss last night.  Maybe it was a return to being a vendor at a fundraiser, forcing me to have my game on.  Maybe it was looking forward to having the nieces over this evening.  Maybe it was hearing it in his voice that Dad was hanging in there.  Whatever brought me back doesn’t matter.  All I know is that coming back to the real world is exhilarating.  I could feel every muscle, each breath on my walk.  I finally started playing on my new computer, truly enjoying my Facebook world as a few of us started posting photo booth alien photos to our profile.

I picked up my nieces on the eve of my brother’s big 40th birthday.  HA! he’s catching up with me again and his gift was from Keith – in the form of $40.00 worth of two dollar bills from the coin collection.  The nieces and I blasted ABBA songs on the ride home, singing Dancing Queen at the top of our lungs.  We made boiled oatmeal cookies and when Cow came out to inspect them, we decided they looked like cow patties.  After photographing Cow atop a cookie, I spoke with Mom and we are in agreement that they should always be called cow patties from now on.  I also filled her in on the fact that between me and the girls, we managed to eat all but 6 patties.  I actually have a stomach ache right now.  We wrapped up our girls night with a viewing of the Smurf Movie.  “Are you dead?”   If you are not laughing at that line, go watch the movie.  I confess that I actually liked it.  Then again, anything with Neal Patrick Harris in it will always be a hit with me.

I don’t know how long this joy will last.  I will soak it up into every pore of my being until I can’t hold on to it any more.  It will get me through the next abyss.  So much of who I am will always find the joy in dancing with a Dwork, eating cow patties, and having a smurftastic time with the nieces.  Even Brandon can’t stay in the abyss with them around.  He braved eating a patty at the insistence of Elise and got a big Bekah hug.  He also told me that there is a counselor at the college that he will seek out for the help he needs, relieving some of my fear that I am failing him.  Besides, if Keith were around I know he would tell us to knock it off already, and don’t eat all those patties or you’ll get sick, and turn that TV down!  What the hell are you watching anyway?