Forward…then Backward

by | Feb 22, 2012 | 4 comments

It’s forward and then backward.

Numbness and then rawness.

Putting it away because it is too fierce.  Putting it down.  Keeping busy.  Then late at night in a quiet room- picking it back up again.  Trying to comprehend.

We take the 2 mylar heart shaped balloons outside on Sunday morning to release them by the river of the city you loved and the city Audrey described as we landed over it in an airplane: “It’s our favorite New York City!”   But it’s windy and before we get to a good spot, Audrey releases one of the balloons and it gets stuck in a nearby tree.  Do not tell your child you are sending the balloons to heaven (which is a horrible cliche I know, but it is a somewhat true symbol nonetheless), if it’s windy and there are trees around.  We release the other balloon while I promise an upset Audrey I’ll buy another balloon.  Then while she’s in the car,  I decide to climb up and get the other one, praying the wind will blow the ribbon towards me so I can reach it.  I do.  Tears are wiped and we release the second balloon.  I find the whole episode humorous- the way all of these things are…dark, real, and a little bit sweet like the tears of a small child for something unimportant like, “I wanted to push the elevator button!” or “I wanted to put my own shoes on!”

A couple of months ago, a strange thing happens.  The teasing I’d talked about- that Joyce Carol Oates says is one of the greatest losses- returned.  I hear you all the time in my mind, making fun of me when I use old-fashioned vocabulary words no one uses or do something silly…and I smile along.  I’m not sure I want to accept this- but I do see how the “integration” in clinical terms, puts the pain inside of you…which although quite weighty- is easier to bear than the pain outside of you- the one you hold in your hand and stare at each night from your bed- his empty desk…wallet, glasses.

What do you look like?  Am I forgetting?  There is a constant check of these things going on.  Unlike the early days where memories were constantly brought to mind so I could quickly write them down in a notebook lest they never reappear- these days it’s mostly very subtle gestures of yours- that probably only I know.  I see your quick nod to the waiter as you push the little tray with credit card towards him. I see your nod to me in the rearview mirror as you sit with Audrey in the backseat- followed by a short sniff.  I put your socks on and see the exact way you balanced as your own foot slipped inside.  I see your knee bouncing up and down as you look for jobs at your computer, scratching your head from time to time.  I see you up on stage playing the keyboard with fingers moving so effortlessly over the keys, expressionless face- maybe even bored.  I see your knees as you hold the cello between them, and your fingernails as they lay across the bow.  Many more of these also- they come to me throughout the day…sometimes surprisingly.

The past month or so I’ve accidentally called Audrey “yubo,” an old-fashioned term for husband/wife in Korean kind of like “honey,” that I used to call you.  It was so odd as soon as it left my mouth- why was it reappearing now?   And oh how I have missed it.

Sometimes I suddenly get a glimpse into how little others can grasp what this feels like- and then I feel incredibly isolated.  The proper wording is “I can’t even begin to imagine what that feels like, ” but some get it wrong and say they can imagine how hard it is.  The only comforting thing for me, is recognizing how invisible and unknown this pain was for me also before this- how theoretical it all was.  If something this huge was completely invisible and unknown to me- what else might there be that is largely theoretical and unknown- and yet just as real once touched upon- like this sorrow.

I visit rentals with a realtor and houses with another.  Venturing into suburbia without you is sad.  I remember some old commercial with a couple lying in bed listening to rain and the woman saying, “Do you hear that?  That’s rain on our roof!”  I thought we would get there.  Instead I look at houses alone, wondering what on earth I’m doing, trying desperately to grab hold of some kind of vision for Audrey and I- for our new life.

I turn down houses, apartments, that are very nice- not perfect, but nice.  “I’m not sure why- it’s really nice, but it just isn’t right,” I say.  But it reminds me of when I visited cemeteries- how every one felt so wrong.  I couldn’t imagine that the man I’d spoken to a few days ago was going to be there so I was not satisfied with any of them.  Denial.  Perhaps my house hunt has a bit of that in it.

Today was the day your remaining tissue/blood sample was being shipped from Switzerland for testing.  The people I’ve been working with have done a great job organizing but I am nervous.  The whole operation seems so precarious- and not one that any of the Dr’s arranging it had done before.  I read in the email exchanges about stores selling dry ice and the forms that need to be filled out and I worry.

I go to my dentist for a cleaning- one of the last places we went together as a family the day before you left because I insisted you get your teeth cleaned- take care of them.  I am relieved, so relieved, to find that the office has moved across the hall- a different room.  I don’t have to walk over to the little table and open the drawer quietly to see if the coloring supplies Audrey had played with that day while we waited for you are still there.  It is a totally different office.

The hygienist asks me how you died and I tell her.  It comes out so matter of factly now.  The realtor asks me too later while we drive from one suburban town to another.  The words come out quickly.

But later on it returns to me heavily- that story I told so bluntly with little feeling…with disbelief really- acting out the role of my life.

At a child’s birthday party the other day, I suddenly realize for myself for the first time that thing everyone tells you- how strong you are.  I don’t really know the moms there and it’s all boys at the party except for Audrey so we play together and I think about how none of them knows our situation and yet we appear just the same- we make conversation, Audrey sings a rousing rendition of happy birthday, we smile and participate.  I listen to them talk about their daily lives, kid classes, errands, mom stuff, and think, “I do all of this by myself,” and feel, for the first time I think, proud.

Audrey brings up the dream she had about you last August again at breakfast and then lunch.  She tells me a new detail that I don’t remember her telling me before- that in the dream when you said “I promise I’ll come back and visit you again,” you shook her hand.  You shook on it.  You made a deal.  I ask her why she thinks you left in the dream and she tells me maybe you missed God.  That is sweet to hear her say, but there is the heartsink that comes when she says, “And then I went to play with him, and he just…(she pauses) disappeared,” looking at my questioningly.  Heartsink.

I sit in church services in Sundays in the back row listening to sermons that sound like self-help magazine articles.  How to get your finances in order, how to take more joy in your work, how to take better care of your body or be emotionally healthy.  When all I really want to know is is this all really true?  Are we really created beings by a God of this universe who is watching us and going to come back- is my dead husband really with him?  This is what I’m interested in.  Why do churches reduce all of the mystery to self-help and get so bogged down in the regular details of living just like everyone else?  
I am disappointed.

I keep busy the past week or so because that always seems to end better.   I take Audrey to see a play in the city and meet friends for cupcakes afterwards.  “How are you?”  “Oh we’re fine, you know.  Nothing new.”  And I laugh with the other moms at the dizzying indoor kids arcade and I smile at neighbors who tell me how cute Audrey is.  And then I am tired.  And then I crave comfort.   I drink coffee with condensed milk and wrap myself up in your old Brooklyn hoodie.

Another widow on a Facebook group posts a lovely photo of her two children using their arms to make a  heart-shape in the ocean in Hawaii on the anniversary of her husband’s death…sunlight behind them.  I think about how we keep trying to make beautiful things out of this mess.  I take photos and I write words and I decorate.  I play sonatas while I cook sometimes as if the soundtrack could make this into an artistic film.  This too though, grows tiring.  All of it does- the writing, the smiling, the “We’re fine…” the searching, the staring, the wondering, the houses where you’ll never live with us, the empty desk, the heart-shaped balloon nestled in the branches.  Backward, forward, strong, weak, hopeful, and just really, really sad.  It’s a little bit of everything.  


February 22, 2012


  1. mml


  2. Brooke Simmons

    so beautifully expressed…as always. I always seem to relate so well to your posts. wishing you some comfort today. 🙂

  3. Vee

    I always love your words, and the way you articulate things I can barely seem to process or figure out how to describe. Beautiful. Thanks for writing.

  4. Christy

    You should be proud, Julia. You never cease to amaze me. SOOOOOO PROUD OF YOU!


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