Eye of the Tiger

October 6, 2018

Today is in honor of my husband-partner Jon, who passed away 2 years ago on this day. Last night, I made a stop at a grocery store, and just after I had walked through the sliding doors and was passing by the check-out registers, I immediately heard the song, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, loudly playing through the store speakers. For just a moment, I wondered if maybe I would find him picking out ice cream or trying to find a box of taco shells. Then I thought of all of the people Jon loved, who would know this song is his song, about “just a man and his will to survive.” While Jon fought cancer, these lyrics gave us all hope and strength, and spoke to how determined of a person Jon was, to face any challenge or rival, his special grin and twinkling eyes always present. I had the urge to say out loud, “this is his song!” At that moment in the grocery store, I found myself not only thinking of Jon, but also of our families and friends, each of us having memories of him. We share that connection, and I’m so comforted to have each of you come to mind when reminders of Jon suddenly appear. Though miles may keep us apart, family and friends, please know you are in my thoughts and memories, and most of all, know you are in my heart and are loved. Thank you for thinking of Jon, especially today. ❤️ ~Paula

The Unfortunate Incident

Saturday Night

Just when I thought it was safe again to go through a fast-food drivethru with my teenaged children, tonight happened. The ‘Previous Incident’ was some time last year at a Taco Bell drivethru and only my daughter was in the passenger seat. We decided to pick up food for her, and also for my son who was at home. I should preface by saying, I know nothing about this food, I don’t eat it, I tried it once. Once. My kids know this menu well, or so I thought. I also thought my son asked for the Cheesy Core, so now stopped at the ordering screen, I said loudly, “I’ll have one Cheesy Core.” And when the drivethru-guy asked, “a what?” I thought he couldn’t hear me, so even louder now with leaning my head out of the window for added emphasis, “Cheesy! Core!” (Please take a moment to say those two words to yourself three-times-fast out loud.) After a pause from the ordering screen, a woman’s voice comes on and says, “uh, we don’t have Cheesy Cores,” said with a bit of ‘WTF-is-this-lady’s-problem’ and annoyance in her voice, it’s obvious drivethru-guy and this annoyed-woman voice think I’m joking. I’m not. I’m just a mom trying to buy cheap, quickie food for my daughter and my now over six-foot son and get his order right in his absence. Apparently though, the only thing I was ordering for him was a Cheesy Whore, when, in fact, it was called a Quesarito. My daughter and I were laughing so hard, “Oh, mom, I love you,” she said through our impossibility to stop laughing at the banter and reaction at the drivethru-guy who had to be saved by annoyed-woman and with my lack to keep a straight face once we pulled up to the pick-up window.

Well tonight, I found myself in the car again to pick up my son and a couple of his friends from the movie theater, and on the way to home, they decided a stop at a McDonald’s drivethru would be a good idea. This time, my son is in the passenger seat, and his two friends are in the backseat. Now would be a good time to say, I do eat this kind of fast food, but not often, my choice usually is the Egg McMuffin. We pull up to the ordering screen, and after my son tells me he would like two cheeseburgers and a small fry, I immediately turn from him to the screen and repeat with confidence. Turning back towards his friends now, I ask, “What would you guys like?” The friend sitting behind him says, “I want a Happy Meal, please,” the other says “I’d like nuggets with buffalo sauce.” From there, this drivethru Unfortunate Incident begins.

To me, being a mom of two teenagers means that you now know answers to potential questions before asked, and *snaps* all those years of motherly experience will now pay off in this moment, this time thinking I know a bit about ordering a Happy Meal for my kids from numerous times when they were growing up. So I turn back to the screen and lean towards my car window and say, “I’d like a Happy Meal, with a boy toy, not a girl toy, please.” Maybe it was because I was tired from exercising today, or having three below-driving-age teenaged boys in my car tonight all taller than me, or the fact that the drivethru-dude sounded on the younger side himself, but it suddenly hit me what I had said. Drivethru-dude asks through a chuckle, “A what? We only have one kind, but I’ll check.” I continue to finish ordering, also getting hung up on the buffalo sauce request, because at this point my son and his friends are all laughing and offering commentary and bantering, and oh my, an answer to “which drink do you want with that Happy Meal” seems irrelevant, because I’m laughing so loud and I think my son is beyond mortified of his mom saying crazy crap. Again.

After clarifying wanting a 10-piece nuggets, a chocolate milk with an extra fry and finishing the order, while driving around to the pay window, I found myself explaining to them what they already knew about what a ‘boy toy’ is and offer my excuse for asking like that because when my son was little there was always a choice and it was a big deal which type of toy you got in the box. I’m just digging myself deeper in on this one, aren’t I? Pay-lady at the window does not seem amused by our car-full of laughing loudness, as the other friend was now telling that there are only two shapes of chicken nuggets, and this seems to only add to the ridiculous, silly level of this drivethru event. My change and a little side-eye is dutifully given. Thank you, pay-lady. On to the pick-up window.

Drivethru-dude is tallish and lanky, and as I peer inside the brightly lit, bustling space, he seems to be surrounded by a crew of three women. He makes a point to say through his smile, “I checked, and we definitely don’t have any of those.” I find myself laughing all over again, this joke just got even worse, now it appears to be on both me and him. “Thank you very much,” I say through my laughing. As drinks and bags are handed through his window to mine, my carload of hungry guys are opening as they are receiving each one. As I slowly pull away from the window, I ask everyone if we have everything, and after a quick chorus of “yup,” the friend who ordered the Happy Meal asks, “What’s this, Peter Rabbit?” and I’m genuinely thinking how much more worse can this get? How did we go from just ordering cheap, quickie food to a boy toy to nuggets to Peter Rabbit? What planet am I on? What? Surprised me says, “I thought it was supposed to be The Incredibles!?!” I’ll have more laughter, please, with a small side of swearing. ~Paula

Introducing Peter Rabbit.

Wave

Dear Reader,

Who knew opening a desk drawer would flood a whole room? 21 months since my partner and husband died from cancer, this is a typical day. I don’t fight these tears, they are with me on this ride, salt-watered and wet, stinging with missing and memories. ~P.

“Meadow, Trees and Snow, Winter Afternoon, Yosemite National Park, c. 1965” Photograph by Ansel Adams, Courtesy of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All rights reserved. Museum Graphics, Menlo Park, California.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico c. 1941” Photograph by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All rights reserved. Museum Graphics, Menlo Park, California.

July 17, 2018

Life organization of After in progress. Tackling this daunting task, finding things tucked in desk drawers. It’s this type of stuff that brings on instant tears and a racing heartbeat. Shit. A moment’s pause, memories of this man and who he was wash over me, and suddenly in my mind I’m surfing again, paddling out, then having to hold on tightly to the board with both hands, tensing, as wave after wave takes my breath away, drenches and soaks my skin. Patiently waiting for the right wave, to be mine, to ride for my return to shore. Deep breath in, tears steam out. Come up for more air.

Ansel Adams was one of his favorite photographers. These small, 5” by 7” prints, holiday notecards by Museum Graphics, I can see through his eyes what he liked in each one, why he saved them in this drawer. He had a sense for knowing great design and loved looking at nature, better still, sought to be in places just like these. To be. ~Paula

#anseladams #photographbyanseladams #museumgraphics #yosemitenationalpark #newmexico #grief #widow #surfing #waves #nature #winter #moonrise #be

Storyboard – No. 04

July 6, 2018

Dear Reader,

It’s been just about three months since I’ve published something new. I’m calling this span of time a much needed brain-break, a rest-and-reset, or maybe just a falling off of the merry-go-round I am on with my-life-with-loss, a result of going a bit too fast and spinning in too many directions at once. My writing and the continuation of the telling of my story has now had this necessary, self-imposed pause, and as of today, this segment has gathered a lengthy, unexpected list of happenings involving people, possessions, and my evolving position on living this life. I keep thinking of my present life as one, big biking adventure, and when it veers off some perceived course and the brakes don’t seem to work, I’m shouting in my mind and sometimes out loud, “It’s my bike ride damnit!” which basically means “focus” to attempt taking control, “stop being distracted” to do what is needing the most attention, and most often “you have your own shit to do, stop doing everyone else’s shit.” This last thought may sound harsh, but for me, cancer and grief has put me on the defensive about the trajectory of time, and specifically the use of my emotional and physical energy in it, whether asleep or awake. It’s release comes at a high cost to me, and if I’m not careful with the speed and breadth of it, I fear I won’t have enough energy to make good decisions, or worse, really fuck something up or not be mentally-present when I’m needed most by my two teen-aged children. My fears and grief are intertwined, like tree roots and poison ivy on a mountain bike ride, no matter how I try avoid them, it seems like I steer directly at them regularly.

Today it has been 21 months since Jon died. At nearly a year and half without him, at that time, my own well-being and “just being” had hit a hard wall. It’s not easy to say, but I reached a total energy depletion. Days while my kids were at school, I found myself in the month of May sleeping extra hours, my brain felt utterly useless and my body refused to cooperate and felt weak. I think after putting on my “brave face” without real replenishment for so long both before and after Jon died, one day the whole of me literally expired with a capital “E” for Empty. Only very slowly, with giving in to all that extra sleep, crying about everything all over again well into June, and doing effectively what felt like a hiding-of-myself-away, had I finally begun to feel like I was able to function, think more clearly, and could exercise without needing a nap afterwards.

This pause had also, in-part, included and yielded some new writing, most is the kind that is too difficult to readily share, because the depths of my mind have been a messy place to be. There became my having more awareness and sharp delineations between what should be public versus private, those boundaries have resulted in some protective walls going up, needing time to reflect moreso in, than out. Sometimes, I chose to write only to myself, or privately to closest friends. I’m not a person who just spews out words to the public just for saying, so if ever those thoughts from that time end up here, it will be for good reason.

What needs saying now though, is that it has been a full year since our family trip to Canada, and the continuation of ‘Storyboard’ with more telling about that week, needs both a bringing forward to the present and a catching up from being one year ago in the past: like a boomerang, it’s gone a far ways-away, yet now it’s ready to come back to me. And just maybe, my current, evolved emotional state now will be able to handle where my mind was then, in what was in real-time, exactly one year ago. As I share with you now, and continue my story, I invite you read on and to be with me. Be. With. Me. ~P.

Storyboard – No. 04

Ontario, Canada – July 4, 2017

Valhalla

Being in Canada over the Independence Day holiday was a perfect excuse not to celebrate it. That matter of place in being outside of the U.S., or north of the wall as I think of it, and having no fireworks show or patriotic songs, easily put it all furthest from my mind. All of my family members and I are focused on just a few important activities here this week: fishing, family-time, and Jon’s ashes. Today we will be making preparations for his last official ashes celebration. We decided our event will be tomorrow, July 5th, fulfilling the last of his three requested locations. First on the agenda though, there will be fishing and a fantastic outing called a “shore lunch.” Afterwards, when we return to our island, event preparations will be in the form of making paper boats to be created by each family member. Then, tomorrow, there will be fire, and Valhalla will be welcoming him home. Will. Be.

Early morning at the dock, all on board for today’s fishing excursion. The lake is particularly smooth and glass-like. This calmness is what I seem to lack the most of in my mind today, so this picture will serve as a reminder for what I wish and wonder if ever I will be. Ever. Will. Be.

My kids and I bought large sheets of Canson paper, selected in colors of calming-blues, blood-red burgundy, and stone-greys. Mom taught us the paper boat folding method, and all together at the table we began to assemble a fine fleet in various sizes and designs, our own messages and symbols of love drawn on the sides and hulls. Our working together was mostly silent, but the sounds of paper-creasing, markers-squeaking, and the occasional musical melody of our voices, echoes in the sparsely furnished room. It blended all together to help us work along. I feel myself looking on, not so much in the middle of this process. I imagine making a boat will also make tears flow, and I don’t want more of that in front of everyone, so I look on and take pictures instead. This detachment I am feeling is not something I can snap out of, and I think I’m hiding it, but really, I’m that rabbit sitting perfectly still in a barren field, I hide nothing very well.

As we were going about our boat building business on this Tuesday evening, suddenly the light from outside seemed to darken, and looking out through the large, glass-sliding doors to the deck, we noticed a dramatic change in the weather. A storm was coming in fast, and reflective calm waters were now choppy and windswept. A dense, misty fog had descended on the water, shrouded our small island, and gusts of rain began dousing our cabin. Time seemed to stand still.

The storm and air pressure then shifted to a new phase. The fog cleared, and an odd-glow from gold-tinged, cloudy patches mixed with a steely-blue sky canvas revealed the most intense rainbow in the distance we had ever seen. We all took turns standing on our deck taking in what we were being shown: a full, high-arcing rainbow perfectly centered in the distance over the water outside of our cabin.

Ever since Jon died, I have chosen to show my face in pictures mostly with some form of smiling. It’s what I need people to see, an outer-image will be shared, and combined with my “natural instinct” to please others, dutifully I just do it, and in the process, reassure you and remind myself: I’m still alive, albeit grieving, but smiling anyway. However, there are other pictures I have taken of myself along this journey with no smiling. I’m talking about the crying ones, where at the moment I realize the need to document the sad state I feel, I take a picture of my distorted face to reflect later. It’s a way to privately acknowledge my range of emotions, despair to anger to fear, all of this, and I often look at these pictures as proof to myself that this loss is real and not imagined. To show you, the reader, my face with a sad expression, is to reveal how I’m feeling on the inside. Do you really want or need to see that? I don’t think so. Who chooses to see a sobbing mess, sagging skin, and a tear-streaked face? You or I can’t fix it, but I feel it, and my seeing it makes it real. So in that spirit, this sad picture, I choose to share now with you because one year after the fact, it’s okay for you to see, for you to know my reality. My whole being was lost in gazing at that rainbow. Looking at it from end-to-end, following its curved trail woven through the clouds, wishing I could reach out and touch it, I felt so certain he was there somewhere along its path. What I felt most at this moment was our separation, the time and distance between our souls. The pressing air and that surreal glow was connecting us now, and tiny raindrops where finding their way to my face like soft kisses. I now saw Jon as a part of the universe, in Valhalla, but I’m left behind in human form, standing in place and falling without him to catch me or hold me up. His life and his love for me are done and gone, so my life is effectively over without him here. In full disclosure, I felt that day, “I have nothing except a rainbow, and it too, will leave me.” While in Canada, even though I was in such close quarters with my family, at this moment especially, I feel so alone, so weighed down by thoughts that I will never be loved again. Will. Never. Be.

What came next that evening surprised everyone. In fact, the next day, we heard from others at the dock that they, too, never saw anything like it. Just as the rainbow faded, and the sky darkened to later evening, the wind had changed, and began blowing in from a completely opposite direction. It was another storm, this time with billowing, rolling silvery-clouds, a darkened, ash-grey sky, and bursts of lighting that flashed and popped. Again, our family watched in awe of what we were shown. And again, on the deck I stood, feeling alone, attempting to capture lightning in a picture, holding back tears.

Thank you for reading. The story will continue with ‘Storyboard – No. 05.’

~ Paula

Magnet

Spring Break 2018: The week in pictures – Number 01

The beach is like a magnet to my soul. It is here where I am compelled to walk, to say thoughts out loud because only the ocean and its depths can bear hearing them. My words and distorted sounds are claimed at the shoreline, rushing water and foam capture and float messages out to a ship only I can see. Tears spilled on my sun-kissed face from eyes hidden behind UV protective lenses are blotted dry by soft brush strokes of salted air. A blink held a moment too long to adjust my focus, and the ship has disappeared, broken into tiny speckles spread across watery miles. A smile tightens otherwise sagging skin, pulled by the weight of loss and missing the one who cannot be found. Despite my calling his name, there is no answer, only lapping waves and solitude today. ~Paula

Portfolio – Circa 2014

In 2014, Jon was alive and only one year in to his cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments. He and I started to have conversations of my going back to work. I had been a graphic designer up until our daughter was born in March of 2002. Then, my role as a stay-at-home mom began, and still continues today.

My graphic design portfolio in its down-and-dirty video form above is a collection of my work from the era where you may not have a web site design project or space for social media information on a business card. What is the same from then to now though, is that good design is still about people wanting to share a visible message in some form, showing what is important to them, an open invitation hoping to make it important to you in some way.

I don’t expect you to think any of this is important. Truth: I see in my little life’s work review a person I don’t recognize today, so I would imagine you would not know who this person is either. I can’t even come to make the decision to update my LinkedIn page because I no longer fit in the role of graphic designer. That page, by the way, was created in 2013, when I was attempting to connect with my Carnegie Mellon design school alumni to somehow go back to where the birth of my career came about.

Who am I now? After being a mom, I am now a widow, 16 months in to being, and under the weight of grief, I have morphed to becoming a cyclist, surfer, triathlete-in-training, and grief blogger. I don’t think LinkedIn can quite “link” me to my community because of so many things that are outside of their expected algorithms, the simple one-sentence answer. LinkedIn, you and I will have a day of reckoning, and on that day, I will tell you who the hell I am, and you will just have to deal with all these parts of me for my description. ~Paula

Order

Right now, those familiar tears are finding their way to the outer corners of my eyes. They’re just kind of resting there, hovering on my lower rims, I feel a combination of sting and wetness made cold by stale, interior air of my car. I’m not really sure if they’ve made up their minds yet to fall down my dry checks or retreat back to gloss over my view of the road as I prepare to drive to my next stop. I’ve just dropped off my soon-to-be, 16-year-old daughter for her last driving school instruction class, and now after ending a phone call just made, here I sit, in silence, in thought.

Just before driving her here, at home my 14-year-old son and I agreed that I would pick up and bring back a pizza for dinner together while his sister had her 2-hour class. Normally, we order a certain pizza with garlic crust and pepperoni from a particular place close by for pick up. The reason goes beyond the fact that it’s tasty. Every time I need that meal I can rely on to be ready and correct in 15 minutes, I know it will be waiting for me within the time it takes to drive there. They are there for me, my little helper, to make things just a little easier. I’ve never mentioned about my husband passing to the pizza people, but I’m always saying how great it is that their pizza is always ready when I arrive to pick it up, and I really do appreciate them. We might share commentary on the weather, either too cold or too hot, and I always walk out the door smiling. That kind of customer service matters to me, especially now being a single parent and having little room for error in schedule planning.

This evening, however, is a different story. The driving school is within view of another pizza shop I am very familiar with, but because they are not as close to my house as the other reliable place, nor close to the usual kids-chauffeur and local-errands routes, I haven’t had their pizza in what feels like years. As I sit alone in my running car, just noticing the red-lit sign across the road, I spontaneously make the decision to go with what’s closest now. After a basic, quick text to my son of “hey, how about pizza from this other place?” He answers with what is a resounding “hell yes” type response. To myself thinking the what’s next, “I’ll call in the order and pick it up on my way home.” Great. Easy. It’s right here, it’s what’s most convenient now.

Calling from my car while still in the driving school parking lot, my Bluetooth connection carries the call in stereo around my ears. The pizza guy who picked up the phone seems to be having trouble hearing my answers, as I had to repeat my phone number several times. Maybe he was new at the ordering or maybe we had a bad cell phone connection. Once I confirmed “yes, that’s correct” there is a notable pause, then I hear “under Jon?” My heart bursts and empties with a rush of blood to all of my farthest extremities. The exhale of my breath brings clarity to my brain as I feel myself dropping my head and smiling at hearing his name while closing my eyes and saying “yes” in reply with the last push of air from my lungs. Nodding now to no one in the car but my aching heart and memories that have swelled to fill empty space, pizza guy happily asks what I would like, so I’m snapped out of the before, back to the present of IS: which is ordering a pizza in the shape of a square and trying to remember what they call it.

So in continuing my ordering, I find myself automatically envisioning what my memory of their pizza looks like in my mind, out-loud thinking with pizza guy “I’m not sure if it’s called a 4-corner or an 8-corner, what do you call it? The deep dish type?” To which he explains simply, “a 4-corner is one, an 8-corner is side by side.” I see it perfectly in my my mind now, two square pizzas with crispy cheese straight edges, each one cut into four square slices nestled in a rectangular box, side-by-side: the pizza always brought home by Jon on his way home from work. He would always look forward to this dinner treat, even though there was no pizza here in Michigan that quite measured up to the famous Roberto’s pizza from his childhood hometown in Illinois. But he made do, and liked this pizza here from this place.

Order for pick up completed, the call is ended, and all I feel now are these tears that still linger on the edge of a grief wave ready to curl and go beyond a swell formation. I have about a fifteen to twenty-minute wait, and these thoughts need to be written down immediately, so in to my phone I am typing it out. All the while, putting to the back of my mind envisioning what it may feel like going back to a place I know he stood in, at the counter, maybe Jon even talked to the same pizza guy as I did. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of my every breath, my eyes pop up to the time at the top of my phone, confirmed by a glance to my car dashboard, it’s time to pick up my pizza.

There is no usual music being played in my car as I drive less than two minutes across the road. This ordinary act of picking up a pizza will be accompanied by silence, in respect for the going back to a place once not out of the way, a different time playing in my mind, and thinking full-on about my partner and pizza-loving husband, when he could eat and enjoy it, before he was too sick and could not.

As I park in front of the narrow glass-enclosed space, I see nothing has changed here, and the door still sticks and scrapes as I pull it open to go inside the shop and step into the shiny, red-tiled, green and white-walled somewhat-uninviting space. It’s just a bit too bright in here, the fluorescence from the lights overhead cause my pupils to constrict, but that’s okay because it seems to help in holding those tears in place. My eyes become fixed on pizza guy, and I answer his question of, “Picking up?” with a soft, but firm “Yes, for Jon” as I plop my oversized, black-leather purse on the pizza-grease-smudged, slightly-too-high red counter to dig out my wallet. The next thing I know, I have paid, and my hands are feeling the slightly damp, hot pizza box held in my left hand, made heavier with my too-big purse hung over my forearm. My right hand finds the glass door handle and after a quick “have a good night” blurted out to whomever would hear, the door is pushed and scrapes open and suddenly cold air meets my face, and I lean into the night to press forward to my car. Once inside, a brief silence is now replaced with my car ignition and the smell of my pizza squarely positioned on the passenger seat. That smell, this particular pizza smell, is so distinctive. It’s a pungent sauce-smell, slightly sweet with a hint of bread crust and oregano. My drive home was all about taking in that smell, I can feel it adhering to the wet in my eyes, soaking in, finding its way to my memories of who I’d like to see when I get home, bringing what he would love to eat. The oven would be pre-heating now with our pizza stone inside waiting to make-hot what is now surely cooling in the box next to me.

Arriving back at home, I hesitate to go inside. Even though my son immediately greets me and is happy to have pizza for dinner, I feel the emptiness now in my kitchen as I place the box on the center island. Jon’s absence is felt without the pre-heated oven, and without his presence and smile to greet me here. There is nothing here that tells me I’m truly home. He was my home, my place, my food that filled me. I look at this pizza now, the smell of it wafting through my kitchen, carefully picking up a piece so my fingers don’t get too greasy, and it’s just not enough. Every bite swallowed does not bring me closer to him, only further into my reality that he will not be here where and when he is expected to be and that hearing his name by someone like pizza guy saying “under Jon” has to be a something for me to savor, to eat, to be a version of home. Sadly though, I feel I will always be hungry.

Time leaps ahead, and suddenly I need to pick up my daughter. I am happy to leave the kitchen behind, sad and feeling guilty though to leave my son alone in it, but he seems to be enjoying the pizza. Music is now played for the return trip: a U2 song “Raised by Wolves” fills my car, and somehow I find solace with these lyrics describing a horrific car bombing. As the song builds in its intensity, I am staring at the road ahead. Maybe it’s the lingering pizza-smell, or that I’ve begun to sing along at the top of my lungs, but the tears have finally broke like a wave on to my cheeks. The view of the road ahead is distorted, and water-filled. ~Paula