Letting Go

Life as a widow was exceptionally awkward. I was still very much in the “we” mode. I was hesitant to make plans before I checked with Rocky. I would wonder what he wanted for dinner. I would buy his favorite cookies without thinking. Each time I remembered he wasn’t there I would quickly inhale and stop breathing for just a minute. I was just 24 years old with an 18 mo. old baby, learning to navigate widowhood.

We live in a “couple’s culture”. From a very early age we are exposed to the idea that we will eventually become ‘a couple’. We are led to find someone and share our life. Valentine’s Day, wedding season, two-parent family focus, date night reminders and the like are constant in our society – reminding us of the ultimate goal. When you ARE a couple you are part of the club and when you are NOT it’s painfully obvious that you no longer belong.  Married people we used to hang out with stopped inviting me to events (they didn’t want me to feel bad). When someone did invite me to a party or something, they were generally attempting to set me up with someone.

I was living in a Navy Mecca – Tidewater Virginia. Sailors were everywhere; in cars on the freeway, at 7-11 getting coffee, in grocery stores and banks. Every time I saw a tall blonde with broad shoulders wearing Navy whites I would experience tightness in my chest and feel my stomach begin to turn inside out. For that first six months I was in denial, choosing to believe that perhaps he was just doing another tour of duty, that he had somehow escaped the hospital and had amnesia. No matter what I did, there were triggers everywhere. Even doing something s simple as laundry could move me to an exhaustive crying fit as I realized (again) that there were no men’s briefs in the basket.  I tried to move on. I tried to ‘get over it’. I tried to be how everyone thought I should be. I didn’t know what grief was supposed to look like or how long it should last so I went with what others suggested was appropriate.

I attended a widow’s group at the urging of a neighbor. It was held her church and she offered to go with me although she was not yet widowed. I have to assume that the people in that room were well intended. I realize they were experiencing their own losses. They listened as I described my circumstances, my pain, and my fears. And then they dismissed it all. They told me that I should be glad to be young. They said that I had plenty of time to remarry, that I would find someone else. Another person suggested that I replace all of my underwear because ‘single’ ladies should have pretty panties. Some part of me knew these people meant well. I wanted to spit at them.

In MY mind, it didn’t matter if I had been married 4 years or 40. Perhaps we hadn’t yet accumulated the history but we HAD developed the dreams and anticipation of them. Every aspect of my future – every vision I had about it – included him.  He was automatically built into the mental picture of everything I had hoped for going forward. It was a constant ‘head shaking’ to realign or reconfigure day to day living. In terms of visualizing a future – it was as if someone had built a cinder block wall in front of me. I couldn’t see around it, over it, or through it, I had NO idea what was ahead of me and I had no energy to keep going.

On a particularly difficult night as I lay in bed, deeply feeling my loss and experiencing intense sorrow – I contemplated taking my own life. I didn’t want to be in a world without him. I wanted to be WITH him- no matter how that had to happen. I thought about how I could die without feeling pain. I thought about it a long time. Of course my first thought was Francis…. Who would take care of him? My mom and step dad lived close and my twin (half) sisters were only 7 … they would take excellent care of him; they would love him. He would really never remember us… would he be ok? I wondered if he would hate me. I wondered if Rocky would be happy to see me or mad that I had left Francis? And then… I remembered. I remembered the Catholic upbringing that taught me about suicide; they say it is the ONLY sin committed that one cannot ask forgiveness for… without forgiveness, I would go to hell. That’s what I thought about.

If I was in hell, and Rocky was in heaven – then the entire objective of dying to be with him didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t serve any purpose.

………..

During these months there were a number of incidents that pointed to the idea that Rock was with us…

One evening I went to pick Francis up from the sitter – he’s about 20 mos. old. She explained that she was sitting on the couch folding clothes while Francis played with his truck on the floor. He started chatting and then suddenly got up, ran to the corner of the room and held his arms up chanting “Dadadadada…” then, went back to the center of his room, picked up the truck he had been playing with and took it over to the corner – lifting it high as if to show it off.

The babysitter was freaked out.

On another occasion a few months later after I had moved into a new place I heard Francis in his room playing and talking away… my housemate and I stood in the doorway as we watched and listened to him talk to his dad about his toys.

I was sitting in bed one evening reading. It was quiet in the house and I felt settled for a change. Suddenly I felt something – he was there – in the house. The sense of him was so strong. I knew in my heart that he was just outside my door. “Stop” I whispered. “Please, please don’t come in here.”  I knew that if by being ‘here’ – he could be ‘there’ – I would never be able to leave the ‘here’ space. I’d never be able to live in the world – to have a life.

My heart was beating so fast and hard that I could hear it and tears were building in my eyes. “I have to let you go and I can’t do it if I know that you are here with me.”

I was so very sad.

“Go see Francis – he needs you. I will never teach him that you aren’t really there – be with him but let me be babe.”  I sank into my pillows, eyes tightly closed, and refused him.

That night, I let go and made a conscious decision to keep moving.

Learning to Hope

I was crazy thankful that my first baby was a big baby. He didn’t feel quite so delicate that way. As can be the case in military families, the timing wasn’t really good. It was September 30th and since Rocky was leaving for Japan the beginning of November, we had scheduled 30 days leave to move me back East so that I could have a support system, new baby and all. As I nested prior to the baby’s birth, most everything was in boxes and ready to be moved into storage by the time we got him home from the hospital. Anything that needed to be moved with a truck had been done by Rocky and a few friends while I was in the hospital.  I came home to a mostly empty apartment although they had saved all the couch cushions to create what they assumed would be a comfortable sleeping space for a brand new mother. Um-hm. None of them comprehended – in any form – the consequences of a four degree episiotomy (look it up). Nor did they consider that I would be up and down every two hours from the lowest position in our apartment. I may have been better off attempting to sleep standing up. It took some time for me to experience gratitude for the fact that our furniture was appropriately stored and I didn’t have to worry about it.

The baby – also called Francis Marion Rockefeller – and may I digress just a bit to discuss the name Francis. It was a ‘Rockefeller’ family name. For my husband, it had shifted sideways a generation (from his Uncle Frank) so that the name could be carried down-line and let’s just say that I had absolutely no choice in the matter. There was no annotation of numbers (i,e., the III or IV) but I was always told that there had been someone in the family with that name since the civil war. I have no documentation of that fact but it always made a great story. I came from William’s and Patrick’s and Edward’s. I had trepidations about the name Francis. When I met Rocky (obviously a nickname he garnered while in the Navy) he talked about how he loved his nickname.  I actually shortened it to ‘Rock’ pretty quickly and he would tell me it made him feel strong. Funny what a name can do. My step-dad was Francis a.k.a Frank. Rocky’s family called him Francis – Frank’s family called him Francis – Neither of them were Francis to me. What in the world would I end up calling my son?? It’s funny that he turned into a Francis for me…. Within days of his birth it felt natural and authentic. I had my own Francis. Years later it would get really confusing again but for now, everyone was distinguished with a name unique to them – for me at least.

So Rock and I are parents. He is leaving the country and we have to get from San Diego to Cincinnati, OH where my dad and stepmom have  loving prepared space for us to hang while Rocky is overseas. Ten days after giving birth we all pile into a little Ford Pinto and head across country; an infant, a male cat, and over 30 stitches in my bum. I sat on a donut and moved sparingly. I know we stopped in the (then) tiny little town of Texhoma, Oklahoma for the night and checked into a classic Route 66 style strip motel.  It may have been our second night on the road, I can’t exactly recall. It was THIS night however that stands out in my mind clearly. Francis (the baby) was hungry and crying. My milk had come in – my breasts were rock hard, my nipples were cracked and bleeding, and I needed to sit in a pool of warm salty water. I hurt, the baby was hungry and needed to eat but I couldn’t cope with the notion of allowing anything near the petrified coconuts on my chest. Rocky felt helpless and was getting mad at me for not knowing what to do It was 1983 – the world before cell phones – long distance was expensive and collect calls required someone be home! He simply needed advice from a woman who had experience because in a matter of days I had become a tired, restless, and hurting, bitch.

My mom was finally reached and she suggested that I sit in a bathtub with warm wet towels draped across my milk factory while offering to nurse the baby. I can only imagine what it must have looked like just two weeks postnatal. THAT was love…. For better or worse. The baby finally latched on while I cried and we got through the night. By late the next day we were in Clay Center where I finally had some experienced help (thanks Grandma R) and rested. We begrudgingly left the cat in the good hands of Gpa. We moved on to Cincinnati. It was great fun to watch my father turn into a Grandfather and we settled in just a few days before Rock left for his tour of duty.

He was gone for 6 months. In that time, an infant changes daily. I was so sad that he may miss even a minute of it so I invested in a Polaroid camera and took daily photo shoots of FMR Jr. They would get folded into a letter that professed love and sorrow for the distance. I stamped, and mailed one every day.  Eventually I learned to date them on the outside because he usually received them in a stack. To keep him motivated to come back to me, I added a personal Polaroid from time to time. ; )

Sometimes I think it was then that we really fell IN love with one another – those letters were our hearts poured onto paper. They were absent of defense mechanisms and blaming. They lacked rhetorical pieces of our brokenness and focused solely on the ways in which we supported and cared for one another. For a solid six months there were no arguments, no conflicts, no power struggles; we simply shared ourselves in the most vulnerable of ways.

We started to plan the rest of our lives and shared hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We began to develop a clear vision of what we hoped for our lives to become. We wrote letters to one another that were clear in intention and specific in our picture of the future.  The map to the rest of my life was being drawn.

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I split the time he was away by spending half with dad in Ohio and then the final three months in Virginia with mom. I loved being back on the East coast and fell in love with the Virginia Beach area. Rocky and I came up with a post-navy plan. He would only have 30 days of his Navy commitment left when he returned and we agreed to move east – all the way. We counted down the days with each letter. I washed windows in big houses with newspaper and vinegar for months as I earned enough money to get back to California so that I could be there when he got back Stateside. I made enough to fly out there and rent a trailer on the Camp Pendleton beach for the last month of his service. It was a surprise. He didn’t know I would be there and I was able to watch as he got off the bus – perhaps a bit envious of other family members running up to their loved ones – and then he saw me. I remember it as a movie moment, a bit sappy, probably cheesy, but everything I wanted it to be; surprising, joyful, and romantic.

We were three again. We had persevered. We still wanted one another – he came back to ME. His desire for me had withstood the test of separation and time (six months is a life-time at the age of 23). I began to believe that dreams can come true, that families can be happy, that life was fair. I was learning about hope and counting on it.

Silly me.