Refuge in Grief – Day 04

How do certain smells connect with your grief? 

A letter… 
Dear Jon, 

     When I smell the things that are us, the little girl in my brain runs after bubbles squealing and giggling. It’s like we are back on a beach in St. John, the hot sun is painting pictures on my body with its rays, and I’m digging my toes into the sand down to where it is cool. The gentle, rolling waves in front of me are inviting us to play and get wet. You are looking at me with that smirky, devilish grin of yours. 
     The smells that are here in your absence comfort me. They are reminders that it was all real. You will always be Lagerfeld Classic, with a hint of Clubman. When you would kiss me goodbye in the morning and I was still in bed, you would leave behind this scent in my hair and on my neck. I would fall back to sleep as if you were still holding me. I don’t sleep that well right now. 
     I miss our weekend coffee time together. You would be interested to know I have mastered the French press, even your Mom thinks I do an okay job at it. When the kids and I go to our Starbucks drive-thru, it’s like you’re with us. I still order a cafe mocha, out of habit. That burnt coffee smell always reminds me of when our daughter was born and your coffee breath was too horrible for me to bear! But I love you for doing everything I asked you to do to help. 
     Your lavender plants are huge this year. I forgot to cut them back last fall. Those plants have been so prolific. When I did a little weeding today, I brushed my hand through one of them. The rich, musky-sweet scent always makes me smile. It reminded me of the flowers you would bring me from the tiny floral shop in Bucktown, always just a few stems, but you knew what would intrigue me. If you were here, I would want to get naked with you right now. I’m cold, I need to go put a sweater on. 
I love you, I miss you. XOXO Puskie

Refuge In Grief – Day 03

Today’s prompt is about living in a changed world. How do you live in a landscape so vastly changed? 

“Happy to drink from the waters of sorrow, To kindle Love’s fire 

With the twigs of a simple life.”

In 1997, only a few short months after we were married, our first big purchase together was a 1929 historic brick bungalow in Chicago, in the same neighborhood where his parents and grandparents had once lived. A sunlit gem with glowing wood floors and natural stained floor-and-crown mouldings still unpainted. Our two cats would bathe themselves on the south-facing dining room sun-filled floor, this being the only thing they agreed on. We lived our most happy years together in this home, five happy years of bliss. We made a baby there, we hosted large parties, we grew almost ten kinds of hot peppers in our cherished garden. Jon and his Dad built an awesome Parthenon-of-a-deck which was the crowning achievement of owning this home. It still stands in all its glory today. I know because I drive by when I visit Chicago. I talked to the new owner just this past February 2017, who was out on the front steps with his two little boys. Unlike the deck where something was built from literally the ground up, there existed a ‘B Side’ to our home ownership projects. Our bathroom had a cast iron white tub with ‘updated’ plastic tiles: swirly grey with black trim probably from the 1960s. The shower tiles leaked water into the wall. Instead of fixing it with an HGTV-style makeover (which didn’t exist at the time) we taped thick, clear plastic on the walls of the shower to prevent further damage. This particular fix, or lack thereof, was the beginning of our pattern of house repair for every house we were to own in our future. It is important to note that the shower only got fixed so we could sell our home. Then we moved five times in the next fifteen years. We were relocated with Jon’s work, and we kept buying houses with more space, to fit more things. We weren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, we were trying to keep up with ourselves. There would always be projects like painting rooms, an unfinished basement, or a broken kitchen faucet that would require attention, but instead of a fix, it would exist as an inconspicuous ‘white elephant’ in the house. Typically, I would be the one who most noticed it’s annoyance, especially when I would need to use the laundry room sink to wash pots and pans. Eventually, most of the projects would get done, but some were left for the next owners.

Almost a month ago, I decided that Jon’s shoes on the rack in the garage needed to be moved. Every time I pulled the car in, there on the top two shelves were his cycling shoes, tennis shoes, sandals, and hiking shoes all waiting for this man to wear for enjoying the things he loved to do, this man who is now not coming home. Finally action: just me cleaning the garage on a sunny Monday early afternoon. A little sweeping, a little putting in order things on the work table, and of course moving the shoes. I put them in a garage cabinet. I can’t seem to put the cycling shoes away though, they’re still on the shelf. The funny thing is my son, at age 13, wears a larger shoe size than Jon. I don’t know what to do with Jon’s shoes, I wish someone who knew him could take them and wear them. (And right now I’m thinking about all of his dress shoes in our closet, more decisions, but not today.) While tidying up, there, leaning against the cabinet, standing upright behind a folding chair, I see it. Jon’s Ripstyk wooden skateboard with well-worn wheels. He’s had it forever. He could ride it really well, and when he wasn’t surfing all those years ago, I’m sure he was on his skateboard. I say I am going to ride this. Now. Helmet required. I just knew I could do it. It made me think of surfing, and I love watching surfing videos on YouTube. Surfing defines my grief: I’m in the pipeline, it’s going to crush me, I am being propelled forward without consent, I might not come out, I’m trying to control what can’t be controlled. There could be sharks or sharp rocks just below the surface, I could ride the top of the wave. Surfing is the most thrilling and all-consuming thing I can imagine doing in my life. When my son got home from school, I asked him to take a video of me skateboarding down a hill in our neighborhood. It was awesome, until I realized my speed and the board began shaking and I could not shift my front foot to curve into the next turn to slow down. I decided to bail and jumped up and off thinking I could land on solid footing but no, it became a face-plant instead. Apparently this is called a speed-wobble, which also describes my day today. I had hoped to hold the day steady, but suddenly I was unable to hold it together. I am all over the place in thoughts, actions, and emotions. I can’t get to the gym right now, or leave for a bike ride. I am worried the need to bail is becoming an automatic reflex.

Both of my kids still go to the orthodontist and had appointments this morning. My daughter will need her wisdom teeth removed this summer, sometime in August. As my son was still in mid-appointment, my daughter and I got in the car to drop her off at school – then it hit me. August. The future. It was no longer today, May 17, but sometime in August. Thoughts of all that will be happening in the next few months filled my mind, and I was seeing the calendar of events: June: Jon’s birthday, July: a trip to Canada to have the last of three ashes events and then a biking tour in Iowa, all of this and more flashing in my head, and I feel the loneliness even though I will be with others. I’m crying beside my daughter, I’m gushing to her how I feel no matter how much I put into myself there is no one to share me with right now, and time is moving so fast, it makes me so sad. I feel invisible to people, like no matter who I am or how I present myself, I am interrupting other people’s conversations and lives and things in progress and I don’t fit in. Everyone else is in mid-something with someone and I don’t belong in anyone’s group, old friends or new. I am no one’s go-to person for dinner out, biking, or texting. I am the most open I have ever been to new people, ideas and adventure, and I think I am the only one who is not in a box held shut by invisible rules. I am rewriting my life like I just rewrote today’s response, and no one can see my true intentions or understand the effort it took to make rewrites to get to this point. I am slipping into a new pipeline and my feet are not in the right position on the board. I want so much to ride the wave.~Paula

Refuge In Grief – Day 02

What you don’t know or see about my grief, love and loss: the truth behind closed doors.


Jon did not marry me for my cooking skills or house cleaning abilities. It was me, us together, each other’s perfect fit. He always said I flipped his switch. Our kids would catch us playing grab-ass or smooching on a regular basis. And those family videos! Jon would always zoom in on my parts he liked best, we all laugh now at his “eye” for things when we watch them. For so long, he and I were a very private couple, we relied on each other to share intricate details of our lives. Since our beginnings in Chicago, we were on a rollercoaster. Year to year, there were job changes, life changes, that only we felt we could keep up with being ever-responsible for ourselves and protecting those we loved from getting sucked in to our happy chaos. We never wanted to worry our families or close friends with too much information. 

Jon was always the healthy one in our relationship. It was one of our jokes, “What will happen to Paula this summer? Gee, last year it was a knee operation.” Jon endured the constant stress of his job, at one time it was normal for him to travel three weeks out of four. His emergency surgery for a bowel blockage in January 2013 resulted in his stage 4 cancer diagnosis. It was devastating, but at the same time, I finally knew why my partner was not himself. We had moved to Michigan at the end of 2011, and our family life had not settled in well. I was losing my mind trying to get the kids school situation right, struggling to make family time a priority, and failing at myself being happy on the inside even though from the outside we should have had nothing to complain about. With cancer added to our family drama as the lead antagonist character, our habits to seal and protect our family went in to full-effect and lock-down. Jon chose not to tell our children that he, in fact, had cancer, and only very few family members and friends were told of our situation. I was the lead secret keeper and had to run constant interference to support Jon’s choice for three years. That is our harsh truth, and right now I can’t add any more about that time, without ripping off large bandaids in my mind that are keeping the past on its shelf and the present in tact. 

There are now three teenagers living in our house – my two kids and me. Yes, I’m the third at age 48, this is not a joke. I am convinced that my brain has detached its frontal lobe cortex just like a normal teenager’s brain due to all of the stress and anxiety caused by grief and years of withholding my truest feelings. I am now letting it all out and not holding back a single thing. Please don’t try to fix me or get me back to normal, this is my normal. I am crying in front of my kids, I am connecting with people and making new friends, I’m getting Brazilian wax treatments. If I do something that triggers an unpleasant memory, makes me go into a grief zone, or just for no reason at all, as soon as possible I will choose a release – usually exercise, sometimes social media, something that leans to the opposite of sad or can vent my frustration. Some might say I’m in denial: I say it’s survival, finding ways to feel good, to laugh, to FEEL when I would rather not. My teen-brain makes sure these things are extreme, appear reckless, or gets my heart pumping hard because when I’m sucking wind biking uphill to its crest, driving over the speed limit on country roads, or listening to music that has big-bass beats to vibrate my core – I am ALIVE and AWAKE. I want to stay awake, wide awake. The kids and I have the rest of our lives to live without Jon, and we will brace ourselves for each day, live in our reality rebuilding trust with each other, and establishing honest truths. We are not okay, and that’s okay – our lives altered by Jon’s death are continuing and they will do so full-steam ahead.~Paula

Refuge in Grief – Day 01

Who was the person you used to be?

Why do I feel like I should be an iPhone or some operating system to properly and definitively answer the question of who was the person I used to be? If I were one of those things, it would be so much easier to give a concise answer, at least who I was then to who I am now would contain bug fixes, have better security and a fancy dot-something number. I think of myself in three parts: past, present, and future. Most days, these tenses of my state of mind overlap and often one is fighting for dominance at the wrong time. I find myself reviewing a day, a conversation, even a simple text, needing to assure myself what “is real” and “not real.” 


What is definitely “real” and something I wake to the realization of every day, is that my partner had died in October of 2016. Twenty years to the day that he asked me to marry him. His things still fill half of the closet we shared. When I do my taxes in years to come, I will be filing as a widow and single head of household. As a mom of two teenagers, I am trying not to miss anything in their care. I think of the will I created that gives them everything when I’m gone. I think of his possessions and this will, and I am perfectly content with having absolutely nothing, it’s all for our kids. I like the idea of owning nothing, I am okay with being nothing. I don’t want things, I don’t want to continue living in this house. It is a place of promises not kept, a life unfulfilled. Yes, we are moving next summer 2018, our final destination yet to be determined. My kids and I agree, it’s time to downsize.


 I love fractals: geometric figures in which each part has the same statistical character as the whole. A repeated pattern in infinite scale. If I ever get a tattoo, I would get a Fractal tattoo, a ‘Dragon Curve’ Fractal Object to be precise. I love watching Fractal art videos on YouTube, they calm be down. I think of my life as its own Fractal. No matter the scale, I’m the same pattern. The only difference is that at different times I have adjusted my focus and scale, it’s still me in there. Before I met Jon, I was happily doing two things: working and working out, and just like Romeo and Juliet, neither could survive without the other. My future husband brought a new dimension to my passions, someone who could relate to things that were important to me, and it was great having a partner to do the things I liked to do. As we grew together, wife and full-time mom replaced my career, and exercise was put aside due to my own health issues over these crazy years. This grief that now stands beside me has brought me back to my center, full-on with no holding back. The ‘working out’ is back and I consider it my job to be as healthy as possible for myself and my kids. It’s my release and how I deal with the anxiety of my grief. ‘Working’ is managing this hollow life trying to fill it with a future that is simplified, keeps my kids close, and will make room for things to come.~Paula 

The Great Lawn – April 2017

It’s happened almost every night of this trip. I wake up feeling like I’m in the most familiar of places, warm and secure, when suddenly my eyes focus as best they can on something out of place in the dark of the room, or a part of my body feels like it’s being touched in a wrong way. This shift in sight or touch, suddenly pulls all feelings of safety and serenity out of my body, like I’m on the Mega Drop at that moment when the chairs are released from the locked position. I’m falling, hard, and I feel like I’m going to miss the safety net catch of hydraulics below. That original sense of ultimate comfort is now replaced with my heart beating out of my chest. I can feel my heart torquing trying to get all of the blood in and out of itself as quickly as possible. My eyes are now hot with my tears which have welled over onto my cheeks without my even blinking. These sensory realizations now give way to the whole of my body tensing up, instinctively knowing the next thing to come: my brain in its weakened state, is flooded with the entire history of my past 6 months, which this short time alone, in and of itself, is enough to put me in this state. The words summarizing my situation are spoken in my head “Jon died, you are alone now in this bed, you have to get up in a few short hours and get shit done.” No solace, no reprieve. Only more tears.

About two months in to my starting a cardio cycling class, I had an epiphany about why I loved it so much. Not only was it able to make me sweat to the level that I needed to feel my exercise, but it went much deeper. My one hour release of someone else telling me what to do and when to do it, and I being the ever-eager student to please my instructors is intoxicating. This is my dirty secret of pleasure, and it’s helping me deal with my grief. The whole of my life outside of this cycling class has and is spent being in charge of other people and managing often unthinkable family situations. No matter my wants, it’s been the needs of others that I have chosen to give my attention and my all. I have had little relief, it’s been all on me, and Jon’s spiraling death roll broke me. I say this with full acknowledgement in that I know everyone has problems, but the fact is that the specific trajectory of Jon and I in our past 15 of our 22 years together had nearly killed me, and it did kill Jon. Since his death, my kids and I remain depleted and have shifted into a phase of oppositional defiance to those years. Jon, Audra, Cole, and I had moved 5 times together for his work relocations. Jon’s chemo-brain and his constant awareness of his mortality had engrained skewed life lessons in my kids for an expectation not to fail and to do things only the right way. The largest of the open wounds with my kids involves the breaking of their trust by Jon and I, having kept his cancer a secret from them for three years until he chose to tell them in January 2016. Up front or delayed, the truth comes out. It always does.

I love New York. It’s an easy city to fall in love with because there is something for everyone. Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” rings true in my mind. Being here this week for the second of Jon’s three ashes events has humbled me. Here I am surrounded by family and friends that have shown me and my kids unconditional love. This is an inheritance from Jon that means more to me than money or possessions. I am amazed at how my “family” keeps growing as reassurances from each person is received and reinforced by their actions. I have embraced them all and know Jon would be happy for us having this consolation. However, as I walked in the City yesterday, without my Jon as the knowing guide, I was scared because nothing was making any sense. I don’t have a feel for direction here, and I am afraid of getting lost. My kids, meanwhile, walk ahead of me like true New Yorkers and seem like they know their way around. I watch in awe of their persistence and resilience. ~Paula

Hill One

The last time I had sex was with my dying husband. It was sometime in September 2016, about a month before he died. It was easy to see past his deteriorating state, as we always knew exactly how to please each other, and we still fit together perfectly. Instinct took over with the synchronized movements of our bodies and an unspoken “this is probably the last time” whispered in the back of my head all at once. Everything about Jon was shrinking and wasting away. Ironically, his manhood did not. Throughout the last weeks of his care, my gaze would bounce between his eyes that bore into my soul, to his most familiar parts seemingly untouched by his disease. I had committed these things to memory a long time ago, but now they were my last tethers to the man I first fell in love with. The man who told me time and time again that he wanted to crawl under my skin so he could be as close as possible to me. The desire and passion we shared are the things I miss the most. I need to be wanted like that, it’s what makes me whole.

Love itself has many expressions and forms. I can say “I love my life, I love ice cream, I love my kids,” you get the idea. But there are new love lessons from the death of your committed partner that are only revealed to you, the one left behind. This is the result of love interrupted by death. The love didn’t stop, but the life it was for did. My most prominent love lesson after Jon’s death is having learned the difference between ‘love’ and being ‘in love’. Jon was my only mind fuck (in a good way) for over 20 years, and now that he’s gone, it is in my mind without him that has taken me to this new place of being. My new insight causes me to evaluate people differently, and I worry that others do not understand what I see or get my point of view. I clearly see limits and rules of other people about what they love, how much and who they love. My designer-brain thinking has me outlining solutions to other people’s love problems that they may not even know they have. It saddens me to see their walls, and I see most people are in a box they alone have placed themselves in most times. I do not have these limitations. I do not have walls, corners, obstacles, and I am definitely not in a box. My universe is ever expanding. And so I float weightless, and a beacon of love calls to me, seranading it’s wanting me to be ‘in love.’ Like in my dreams, I’m swimming in air, but I can’t go fast enough, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere.

As a part of their Spring Carnival, Carnegie Mellon University has a most unusual tradition. It’s called Buggy — Buggy Races to be exact. Probably thousands of hours are dedicated by each team to the engineering and building of small one-person-steered go carts, which are propelled by ‘pushers’ throughout the hilly course to hopeful victory and eternal bragging rights. Being in Pittsburgh, there are some seriously steep hills on that course! I was the relay pusher for Hill One. This was the starting point, the most difficult, because Hill One is an all-up-hill-from-zero attempt. My role was to receive the Buggy mid-hill and at full sprint, push through to the hill’s crest, and at the right moment propel the Buggy with a huge release to the first downhill. There was lots of past-midnight course training, weight-lifting, and visualization to prepare for race day. A music major friend and I even formulated a palindrome pace needed to achieve my max running speed. Race day. All went as a planned, it was perfect. What we did not expect was the fact that my tremendous push placed our Buggy in line with another which was cutting across the lanes. The buggies had a mild collision followed by skillful course correction of our driver. Our team was able to finish the race, but victory was not ours that day. Even after all my preparation, I learned there are some things I couldn’t prepare for, and what happens after I let go is sometimes not in my control. Things out of my control be damned, I will never give up my preparation and attempts to achieve victory (and bragging rights) in anything I do. ~Paula

The Last Becomes the First


Before and after Jon died it was only him that I was connected to physically and mentally. Since his death last October, I have been solo now for some time, dare I use the word “independent “, relying on myself to get through each day. I stuffed my love for Jon and his that he had gifted to me deeply inside my core, and there it remains. I am standing on my own. I continue to think of this love as my kryptonite. It is crushing me implosion-style to keep it inside, but yet if I let it out too soon to someone new, it may be too much to give to said new recipient. The last thing I want is to have to put that love back inside once it’s out again. 

Around December, I had a taste of what it might be like to have an ‘other’ emerge into my life, but this turned out to be a fantasy played out entirely in my head. A misinterpretation of someone attractive being nice to me, and I too eager to think it was flirtation. Nonetheless, it was almost too easy to project myself in to someone else’s world, all the usual life moments in tow. I found my ‘other’ (even in its fantasy form in my mind) to be in conflict with my grief process. Only three months in, I was not hearing Jon’s voice in my mind as clearly. This part of him leaving me (a second death) was coming fast. I refused to replace his voice with another, as if the powers of osmosis could balance out a loss for a gain so easily. There will be no replacement for Jon, and I especially did not want a new partner to feel as if they were the understudy. 

In February for my birthday weekend, I gifted myself with spreading his ashes at Northwestern as he requested. This location was originally to be the last, saved for October 2017. In the despair of one of my lowest grief points, I decided to make the death of him in my mind complete as soon as possible. Another mini-funeral, including wading into Lake Michigan to release him. That water was cold! As is many things for me now, I needed to feel in an extreme way that I was alive, and it was perfect. As the water’s temperature gripped my legs, the less I felt every step further in, almost as if floating above the water itself. I kept my eyes on the point of the horizon where sky and water trade places. I am now at peace with Jon’s voice being gone from my mind. There is now a clear path for an ‘other’ that is separate from the one Jon and I walked on. I am ready for a new adventure. ~Paula

Back In Time


There once was this hot graphic designer in Pittsburgh and she wore short skirts, high heels and pearls. It was 1995 and, yes, she had the high hair, too, and smelled like tangerine body wash. Enter the print rep from the Windy City, a young man who is dashing in his suit with a colorful tie and dazzling rock star hair and apple cheeks when he smiles. The girl, ever to control the situation, chooses to flirt but is conflicted about breaking client/supplier lines. She designs an annual report he is printing. She learns he surfs, runs, likes mountain biking and rollerblading and at one time lived in New York City. All of this intrigued the girl, but she is too busy to give him her full attention. Meanwhile, the office is chatting. The young man, ever the social butterfly, has been asking about this girl, learns she is dating someone no one likes and they agree this new young man would be perfect for this girl instead. So begins the calculated courtship: A client hosts a suite at a Pirates game, and real conversation begins between the hot designer and dashing print rep. The office keeps him near her. The conversation continues into AOL, with plenty of IM. As these two people share emails with stories, life realizations and ‘major PPI’… they are falling in love. The question is asked, “your city or mine?” Chicago it is! A girl walks off a plane and into the arms of this young man, their first embrace is like two puzzles pieces fitting together as easy as breathing.

I think what Jon loved most about me was that I was his perfect fit. He saw every detail of my body (committed to memory of course) and with one look at each other (if I was trying to explain some conundrum), I would know he was listening but also imagining me naked and wanting to cause trouble and his having that moment when I pause my diatribe and smile back as a yes was everything. When I would be intense about my own work, being a mom or immersing myself to learn a new something, he would always give me that smirky smile letting me know I should relax and see the humor in the situation. Life was meant to be enjoyed first and foremost, together of course.

Jon had life-long friendships, an intense work ethic and never did anything half-assed. He had a work-hard, play-harder attitude that drove him to succeed in anything he chose to do. After grad school, his work travel took him away from home for periods of time, but I always knew he would return to me. I was always excited to hear the door unlock and the sound of his dress shoes on the wood floor. When at home, he gave me and our kids his full focus. He always had a twinkle in his eyes, a big laugh and a memory for intricate detail. I loved hearing his funny stories or discussing work issues and especially relished in his description of what he had enjoyed for dinner out with coworkers. We understood what made each other happy and he always woo’d me with exotic flowers, his amazing cooking skills, touching me in just the right spot, and played the best music to set the mood. ~Paula


“Without you, everything has a flatness, I feel as if I’m waiting for something all the time.”~Charles Renee MacIntosh

This is a no-judgement zone. I will be writing about my grief from my point of view. You are welcome to read, comment and share, but please do so with an open mind and open heart. I trust my words to follow will be in good hands.