Haunted by the Specter of Empty Rooms

The last night in my father’s house. I’ve been wandering through the empty rooms to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything, and I can’t stop crying. It seems as if during the past five years I’ve tapped into a well of endless tears, and though the weepfests are fairly rare now, tonight brought them back.

It’s the end of so many things.

I came to this house after the death of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate, to look after my father and ensure he could be as independent as possible during his last years. I fulfilled that task, and now he is gone, too, having survived my mother by almost eight years.

I no longer know who I weep for. All my dead? The woman I once was? Death itself?

I came here shattered by grief — totally desolate with no idea how to go on by myself, no idea how to want to go on by myself. Now I have dance classes, friends, dreams. Would Jeff even know me now? Would the woman I once was know me?

I rememb016ber how at the beginning of my grief, I used to marvel that so great a trauma as the death of the one person who tied me to earth and made life worth living didn’t change me. But something did — perhaps living. There is a whole world out there if I have but the courage to take it, and yet here I am, soaked in tears.

Tomorrow I will gather myself up and forge ahead with hopes and a smile, but tonight, well, tonight there are just too damn many empty rooms. Too damn much sorrow.

I know this is the cycle of life. People are born. They live a few years or many. They die. But my heart doesn’t want to know that particular truth. My heart wants what it can no longer have — to go home to Jeff. But that home is gone, too. Those rooms I emptied before I came here are filled with other people’s belongings. Jeff for sure isn’t there. Nor is he in my future.

The specter of empty rooms haunts me.

I used to love empty rooms. Jeff and I never put furniture in our living room. A weight bench. That was all. But now, empty rooms remind me of ends, not beginnings. And I am tired of ends. (That’s probably why I like the idea of a nomadic life, though I doubt I would like the reality — there are no ends, only beginnings.)

I wish I were strong and wise and brave, but the truth is I simply do what everyone does — keep on going however I can.

And tomorrow I go, leaving these empty rooms behind.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Empty Rooms

I seem to be doing a lot of sitting and staring out windows lately. Could be physical exhaustion. Could be mental overload. Could be spring fever for all I know. But here I sit in an empty room — no furniture, no decoration, no ghosts except for my own.

I am haunted by my unknown future, by leftover sadness, by thoughts of what and whom I will be leaving behind if I follow the call to adventure, especially my dance teacher/mentor/friend. She more than anyone brought me back to life when it seemed as if I’d never be happy again, and I will miss learning, dancing, lunching with her on a regular basis.

I want to stay. I need to go.

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Sounds like that old Jimmy Durante song, doesn’t it?

“Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go,
But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay,
You knew it was right, wasn’t wrong.
Still you knew you wouldn’t be very long.
Go or stay, stay or go,
Start to go again and change your mind again.
It’s hard to have the feeling that you wanted to go,
But still have the feeling that you wanted to stay.

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In my case, though, I’m not changing my mind since I haven’t actually decided anything. I’m leaving it up to the fates. I am planning on heading up north in June to meet a friend, and for all I know, I could be coming back in a couple of weeks. But no matter what happens to me — go, stay, return — I won’t be coming back here to my father’s house.

It’s been alternately stressful and interesting being chatelaine of such a large, lovely residence. It’s been a challenge to get my stuff packed and in storage, to dispose of my parent’s belongings, to find homes for their furnishings. Most of the furniture was taken out of the house this weekend. There is still one pick up tomorrow, and another on Wednesday, then the house really will be empty except for my clothes, computer, and one old mattress to sleep on.

I won’t have long to live in these empty rooms. In nine days, this phase of my life will be over, and once again, I will be driving away from a houseful of empty rooms.

It seems odd to me that after all this time — five years since the death of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate — I still don’t know how to go about rebuilding my life. Still, this should be an exciting time for me, with an unknown and possibly exciting future ahead of me, but these empty rooms are taking me back to the empty rooms I left behind when I drove away from the house Jeff and I shared, and along with the memories, comes sadness.

I know endings are the beginning of beginnings, but tonight I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for starting over. So I sit and stare out the window of this empty room, and try not to remember the other empty rooms I left behind.

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***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Courage to Remember

One of the lies we’ve been told about grief is that we should put the deceased out of our minds to keep from being so sad, but the truth is that it’s important to remember . . . anything.

Carrie Jane Knowles, author of the soon-to-be re-released memoir, The Last Childhood (a book about the impact her mother’s Alzheimer’s had on their family), wrote a blog today: Art as an Act of Memory. She talks about the devastating effects of not being able to remember even the simplest things, and mentions a far-flung theory she’d read that Alzheimer’s patients developed the disease because they wanted/needed to forget.

Of the four of us, I’m the only one still living.

I am not a believer in blaming the victim for a disease, but this particular idea has merit. We spend most of our lives burying that which is too painful to remember, whether the memory of loved ones lost to death, world-wide tragedies, wars, deprivations, abuse, that it seems impossible so much buried pain could leave us unscathed.

As Carrie Knowles says, with all the “tragedy we’ve witnessed in recent years, what chance do we have of not developing Alzheimer’s? How will we have the courage to remember?”

Courage. So much of life is about courage, about living despite the tragedy in our lives, about remembering no matter how much sorrow it brings us.

Philosopher Eugene T. Gendlin wrote: What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don’t know this. They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change.”

At times I’ve felt strange about continuing to write about the effects of the death of my life mate/soul mate five years after the fact, but from the beginning, I knew it was important to feel whatever I was feeling. Not that I could have buried the feelings — I don’t have that sort of discipline — which is just as well.

I am starting my life from scratch, or at least mostly from scratch. I’ll have a storage unit full of things that I can’t yet get rid of, a brain full of fading memories, a soul full of old sorrows, and a psyche that will always feel the absence of the one person who connected me to the earth. And I’m okay with that. What I wouldn’t be okay with is if any of those things held me captive. I have a world to explore, adventures to embark upon, experiences to savor. My moments of sorrow will only add piquancy to my future if I continue to have the courage to feel and the courage to remember.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Unending Process of Dying

In just two weeks, my father’s house will be gone. Well, the house won’t be gone — it will still be here — but it will belong to someone else. I’ve mostly been looking at my leaving here from a practical point of view (or impractical, considering how loath I am to rent an apartment), exploring my options. As of now, I still don’t have a place to stay other than with a couple of willing/unwilling friends. (Both offered me a place to stay, but were quick to mention that it was for a short time. Even if I have to take them up on their offer, I wouldn’t stay long. That’s a surefire way of not having friends any longer!)

Last night, though, it hit me that when the new people take possession, my parents’ last earthly possession will be gone. Nothing will tie them to this life any more. Well, their descendents, of course, will always tie them to this earth, but no “thing.” No place.

And so they will be truly gone.

When a person dies, they don’t die all at once. (Even though sometimes it seems so.) First there is the clinical death where there are no more clinical signs of life. (This only means that the person has moved beyond the tools clinics use to measure life.) Then, about four minutes later, the brain begins to die and decay. Any successful resuscitations happen between these two “deaths.” (New research has shown that after clinical death, there is a surge of electrical activity in the brain before it dies, which could explain both the idea of near-death experiences and life flashing before your eyes at the time of death.)

After the brain dies, there is still cell activity and a proliferation of microbes along with various other processes. We don’t call this living. But it is still the process of dying.

Even after a person is buried or cremated, they continue to die to those left behind. Each further loss a survivor experiences seems a new phase of their death, and so it is with my father’s house. It feels as if both he and my mother have died again.

Oddly, though Jeff never visited here, it feels as if he died again too. Although I accepted long ago that I would never be going home to him, there must have been crossed fingers or a whispered “ways out” deep inside me, because most evenings now I still have a brief few minutes of grief as I remember once more that he’s gone, that I will never go home to him, that I am on my own.

And so it goes . . .

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Fan Mail Brings Me Grief

Grief: The Great YearningI must be only author who grieves when she gets emails and comments from readers. For most authors, fan mail is a wonderful and affirming event. It is for me too, but the affirmation is usually accompanied by my tears because most often when readers write to tell me how much one of my books meant to them, they are referring to Grief: The Great Yearning.

It’s nice to know that people who are going through grief find comfort in my words, but oh, it breaks my heart to know that yet another person is dealing with the devastating loss, disbelieving shock, unfathomable pain of losing a spouse.

Those who haven’t lost their life mate, soul mate, partner, the person who makes life worth living, the person who connects them to the world, cannot comprehend the reality of the situation. In fact when people tell me they can’t imagine having to deal with such loss, I tell them not to even try. There is no way anyone can imagine the physical, mental, spiritual, emotional upheaval such a loss brings. And yet, the people who reach out to me in their grief know. As do I.

And so I weep.

The tears don’t really help anyone. We all have to find our own way through the horror, and yet, there they are, these prisms refracting my soul. Still, I do love hearing that my words mean something to people, that they brought a bit of comfort. It helps give meaning to those long years of pain.

If you are suffering a soul-numbing loss, maybe you, too would find comfort in my words. And I promise, despite my tears, I’m always glad to hear your story.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Secret to a Long Marriage

I just saw another of those ubiquitous and supposedly heartwarming posts about a couple who were married for a zillion years (I’m exaggerating — it was only sixty or seventy). They were asked how they stayed together for so long, and they gave the same answer everyone in that position does — respect, love, never going to bed angry, etc., etc., etc.

The true answer and the answer no one ever gives is that one of them didn’t die. That’s how you end up being together for all those years — neither of you die.

Some of us didn’t have a choice about how long we were together. Death came, and that was that. Death didn’t care that we were respectful, that we didn’t go to bed angry, that we cared for each other (in both meanings of the phrase — we loved each other and we took care of each other).

We were never given a choice whether we’d go into our twilight years hand in hand. We were never given a choice about how long we’d stay together. Death chose.

It’s not as if he was careless with his health, either. He never smoked, wasn’t dependent on caffeine or any drug no matter how benign, seldom drank and when he did it was little more than a beer or a bit of wine. He knew more about health than anyone I ever knew, including all the doctors I’ve ever met. He was also disciplined, putting all that knowledge to work — exercising, eating right, keeping his mind active. And he was kind to everyone. (It’s one of the things I fell in love with — his universal kindness. You know those women who fall in love with a jerk who is nasty to everyone but her, and she always says, “but he’s good to me.”? Well, I am not that woman.)

We thought because we took care of ourselves and each other, we’d be ones who would get to have a long and happy old age. But death thought otherwise.

When he was but 63 years old, he died.

So everyone else can ooh and aah over the sweet photos of a loving geriatric couple, but I know the truth. They were able to stay together because death left them alone.

And me? All I have to warm my old age is a photo and memories of a man who died way too young.

I sound bitter, but I’m not, not really. Life — and death — does to us what it wants. I just wish those old folks who remain together for all those years would tell the truth: “The secret to a long marriage? That’s easy — don’t die.”

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Across the Great Divide

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of my life mate/soul mate’s death. It seemed like it should have been some sort of great divide, though why I expected this particular anniversary to make any more impact than any other anniversary, I don’t know. Maybe because five seems such a momentous number. A prime number. A strong number. Maybe because it comes at the same time my father’s house was sold, leaving me without a place to call my own. (Though I never did call this place my own. It was my father’s house, and now it belongs to all his heirs.)

The Black Canyon of the GunnisonBut there was no divide. Today is just the same as any other day. Jeff is still gone, and I am still left alone to deal with his goneness.

People advise me not to look to the past, to put his death behind me, and for the most part it’s good advice since there is nothing we can do about that which has passed. The problem is that although Jeff is gone, leaving our shared life in the past, his absence is very much a part of my present.

His absence brings an urgency to my life that it would not otherwise have since his goneness is a constant reminder that death is but a breath away. His absence brought me to this desert town to look after my father — if Jeff hadn’t died, I would never have come, would never have found dance, would never have made so many friends. His absence creates not only a void that begs to be filled but an uncertainty that demands to be acknowledged — since life is uncertain anyway, it makes sense to embrace that uncertainty along with a need for adventure. His absence engenders a sense of uncaring. It’s not that life doesn’t matter — it does. It’s that it doesn’t matter so much what I do or where I go because no matter where I am, there I am. And there he isn’t.

I know I can be happy because I so often am. I know I can find joy in living and discovering, searching and learning, maybe even loving, because I do. But none of that negates his absence because although the great divide of death separates us, his absence will always be a presence in my life.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Am a Five-Year Grief Survivor

I’ve been doing well recently, trying to be excited and optimistic about the future, accepting the uncertainty of it all as something wonderful, but this afternoon, I crashed.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Jeff’s death.

In my grief blogs, I call him my life mate/soul mate, which gives people an erroneous idea of our state of bliss. We weren’t a romantic couple, and we didn’t bring each other a lot of happiness. In fact, we weren’t happy very often — we had to deal with too many setbacks with both our finances and his health. And yet, through it all, we remained together, connected in a profound way that neither of us ever understood. We used to joke that the trickster gods hated us because of that connection so every time we almost reached success, they toppled our lives, leaving us to start over.

The connection was so great, in fact, I often thought that when he died, I would die too, that he’d pull me with him when he left, and at times it felt that way — as if I were straddling the invisible line between this world and eternity, with half of me a mere shadow of death.

But life isn’t so simple or dramatic.

I survived his death. I survived the breath-stealing and heart-stopping pain of grief. I survived the long bleak years of loneliness. In many ways, I’ve even thrived.

People seem astounded by my ability to accept an uncertain future, but those are people with something to lose. After Jeff died, I came to look after my father, and now that my father is gone and his house sold, my future is up for grabs. I don’t want to settle down, don’t want to deal with a lease, utilities, and all the rest of the responsibilities that come with a “normal” life, and so I will fling myself to the mercy of the winds.

It’s not really a virtue, this acceptance of uncertainty, but more of a necessity. What do you do when the one person who connected you to the world is gone? Where do you go? How do you choose? The truth is, it simply doesn’t matter. If he were alive, of course, I’d go home to him. He was my home. Everywhere else is simply a place. I suppose as time goes on, it will matter where I am, and I will make plans accordingly, but now . . . uncertainty is as good a way to live as any other.

If it works out, of course, I’ll stay in this area and continue to take dance classes. I have friends here. People who care about me. But if it doesn’t work out? I’ll get in my soon-to-be-restored VW Beetle and take off.

I think Jeff would like my feeling so free. He told me once he admired my spontaneity, and how it bothered him that our life together changed me. What he didn’t know is that meeting him and knowing there was someone like him in the world is what inspired me to try new and daring things. Until then, spontaneity had never been one of my defining characteristics. Not that it matters any more what he would like — he left me. I know he didn’t have a choice, but still, he did leave me to fend for myself.

And now I am free for . . . whatever.

Tomorrow I’ll again be optimistic and try to be excited about the world opening up to me, but not tonight. Tonight I’ll remember him, and weep. I’ll indulge in wishful thinking of what might have been. And I’ll give thanks that once I was lucky enough to be so connected to another human being that even five years after his death I can feel his absence.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Going Along for the Ride

I’m going to be without a car for about three weeks starting on Monday, and when I mentioned this to a woman I dance with, she said, “Maybe you’ll have to ask your friends for help.” She said it sweetly and kindly, but the impression my friend gave me was that I was just too damn independent. Others have come right out and said the words, not meaning them as a compliment, and I suppose it’s the truth. I don’t like to put people out or put them on the spot or make them feel burdened by my requests. Still, people do like to help. So . . .

Maybe it’s time for me to be less stubbornly independent.

Or not. What do I know? Not as much as I once did, that’s for sure.

But my friend is right. If I am without transportation at such a critical time — when I am about to be ejected from the only home I’ve known for the past five years — then I will have to ask for help, even though it’s my decision to be without a vehicle. (I’m going to have my ancient VW bug de-rusted, de-dented and re-painted in celebration of my new start in life. Makes me smile to think of restoring the bug while I am restoring me.)

It’s interesting all the changes — outer and inner — that are coming at the same time as the fifth anniversary of Jeff’s death. (The actual anniversary is this Friday.) I feel like I’m crossing some great divide, though I’m not sure what the divide is dividing. Maybe the last of my old life and the beginning of my new. Coming to my father’s house to take care of him was a transitional stage for me. A place where I could grieve, where I could move away from my old shared life without having to start anew.

And now it’s time to start anew. (We never really do start a new life, of course. Every stage is an extension of our one life, but sometimes it feels like a new start, particularly when so little of the old remains.)

Another friend said about my current situation, “Grief and joy mixed up with movement. That’s a recipe for . . . I don’t know what.” She suggested asking the I Ching. Sounds so exotic! Now I just need to think of the proper question to ask. (Not a yes or no question.)

The oddest thing about this upcoming odyssey is how many friends I have. (It bewilders me at times that so many people seem to like me.) Some friends have said I simply cannot leave the area, that I have to stay here so they can have the benefit of my company. Others say I have to go on an epic journey so they can experience it vicariously.

Me? For now, I’m just going along for the ride. And starting next week, I will literally be going along for the ride. No driver’s seat for me for a while. Should be interesting.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Glad about Grief

Almost five years ago, my life mate/soul mate died, leaving me in a world of pain.

I hesitated about using such a cliché, but the truth is, the world for me was pain. My heart hurt, my lungs hurt, my mind hurt, my soul hurt. I was surrounded by hurt. Everything I saw, smelled, touched brought pain. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. How could he be dead? How could I not be?

Ferris wheelMost of the pain has been now absorbed, amoeba-like, by the days of my life. During the past five years, I have traveled, taken dance classes, learned new things, made new friends, lost friends, had new experiences, attended festivals and fairs, ridden Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, suffered various ailments, written more than a thousand blogs, walked thousands miles, dreamed impossible dreams as well as merely improbable ones, been hurt, inadvertently hurt others, made plans and abandoned plans, panicked, found peace at times, even found pieces of time.

All of that living has bounded the pain, creating a buffer between me and the rawness of the universe, making it easier to embrace the future, wherever it might take me. (Easier, not easy. There is a contract on my father’s house, which, if accepted, will mean the beginning of the next phase of my life. And since I have no clue where I will go, I have moments of panic because I just am not ready. And yet . . . I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.)

Despite the buffer, the pain does seep into my consciousness at times, stealing my breath, and filling me with sorrow. The difference between now and the beginning (odd that I always call his death “the beginning”) is that where once I railed against the pain, now I welcome it because I am reminded of him, of his life, of our shared life, and that is good. He is no longer the focus of my life, and that also is good since such a one-sided relationship can bring no joy or growth, but he is and will always be a part of my life. He is and always will be a person unto himself, and it’s that person I celebrate with my brief and occasional bouts of tears.

The world is poorer for his absence. And someone, if only me, should acknowledge that. I used to wish grief weren’t so hard. Now I’m glad that it is.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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