“Think About What You Want to Do With the Next Year of Your Life,” She Said.

“Make a plan,” she said. “Think about what you want to do with the next year of your life.”

I had found her, of all places, on NextDoor. We spoke on the phone, no in-person meetings due to COVID. She agreed to shepherd me through the settling of Dan’s estate. A Barnard graduate like me, a neighbor living only a few buildings away, a lawyer specializing in trusts and estates who also had a PhD in French literature, she seemed like my kind of woman. We went through all the formalities: probate procedure; fees; her responsibilities; mine. I hadn’t expected grief counseling as part of the package. 

“Take that class you’ve been thinking about, make sure to exercise, plan a trip – that is if any of us can ever travel again. Begin to imagine the next phase of your life. It will help. I tell this to all of my clients.”

Just one problem, I thought. I had trouble making a plan for lunch. Or dinner. Or anything beyond slogging through the endless “widow’s work.” 

Contacting people who needed to know. Answering condolence letters. Paying medical bills. Gathering documents. Filling out official papers. Getting them notarized. Making trips to the post office. Checking tracking numbers. Helping Dan’s sister with a Zoom celebration of life. And always, always, thinking “I cannot do one more thingI cannot face one more concrete proof that Dan is really and truly gone.”

What did I want to do with the next year of my life? The same things I had been wanting to do in the previous year of my life—the year consumed by cancer, by COVID, by caregiving, by Hospice and, finally — by death, mourning and widow’s work.

I wanted to cook real food and feed someone other than myself. For so long I had put all of my energy into preparing food for Dan in the hope that he could eat it as he progressed – if you can call it that – through the stages of dysphagia. By the end his nutrition was a viscous, odorless, prescription meal injected by an enormous syringe into a tube in his belly. Sitting next to him on the couch, I ate mostly takeout from the local Sweetgreen, if I could manage to eat at all.

I wanted to snuggle my second grandson, born the previous October a continent away, a pandemic baby without physical visits from doting relatives for the first eight months of his life. I wanted Dan to meet him too, to cradle him as he had my first grandson. I would make this happen through an act of magical thinking, assuaging the sting of my loss through the gift of a private reverie as I held the babe, smiling, telling no one of my transformation into my too-soon-dead soulmate. Both boys, I knew, would not remember that there ever was a Papa Dan, just as I would never forget.

I wanted to read. Actual books. My attention span had become so attenuated that finishing a New Yorker article posed an insurmountable challenge. Most of my reading for the past six months had involved researching ways to keep Dan comfortable, to prepare both of us for what might come, to understand what would happen when the body that I have made love to, slept next to, sponge bathed, dressed and undressed betrayed its owner step by inexorable step. I devoted myself to learning the signs in the hope that with that knowledge I would be strong enough to have grace in the moment we both knew was coming, the moment when all would turn cold.

I wanted to write again, to work. A few blog posts had been possible, but my manuscript lay fallow while I tilled the fields of caregiving. Emptying urinals. Salving pressure sores. Suctioning mucus. Monitoring a gaggle of machines. Communicating with the social worker, the hospice nurse, the occupational therapist, the on-call doctor, the home health care agency scheduler, the equipment companies, the spiritual counselor, the funeral director, Dan’s pastoral counselor. So many words spoken, so few written, my lyrical voice drowned out by a cacophony of medical terms and administrative shorthand.

“I think I have PTSD,” I said to my daughter weeks after my husband slipped from this world into – into… what? 

“I need to make a plan,” I said to her, but mostly to myself.

I forced myself to cook. To read. To write. To nourish my body, to attend to my soul, to become reacquainted with my intellect, my imagination, my aesthetic sense. To remember a life before this forced hibernation during which who I am and what I want had drifted into restless sleep. I wanted to awaken.

Delving back into my memoir, I allowed myself to forget for hours at a time that I am a widow, that there is still widow’s work to be done. My muse was ready to escape her caul, her rebirth imminent after a nine-month gestation. I was ready for the necessary labor. I rewrote my book summary, suddenly clear-eyed as to my story’s arc, its pace, its ending, where nearly a year before I had been timid, adrift, oarless.

Photo by Rhiannon Stone on Pexels.com

I felt no guilt as I immersed myself in my chapter eleven twelve-year-old’s world. I was free for moments at a time from the hard work of mourning, free to row away from the shoals of sadness into the pristine waters of joy, giddy as just the right word rose to the surface of my consciousness, or when, as if by sorcery, a sentence glistened like the sun’s reflection on the water at dusk. I remembered Beth Kephart’s wise words in wife/daughter/self: a memoir in essays: “Memoir is the life wanting to be transformed. It is the life we have been waiting for.”

“Yes. This is the plan,” I said to myself as my fingers tapped the keys. “This is what I want to do with the next year of my life. And the next, and the next, and for as long as there is.” 

35 thoughts on ““Think About What You Want to Do With the Next Year of Your Life,” She Said.”

  1. I guess I’ve written bits of a memoir with no plan to write a memoir. Blog posts, some of them, that evolved into a story with more continuity than I imagined. Episodes that are nests holding a story (or two).

    As I read this blog post, particularly the description of the actual care you took of Dan, the grunt work which is eviscerating and lonely, I remembered doing all that for my dad before he died in 1972. I don’t really have any way to look at that time of my life or those experiences or even a clear memory of what became routine for quite a few years. Reading those words, I felt it again, inside me a very angry, red, baseball bat-wielding knot of anger at the injustice, multiple injustices I can’t even articulate, but it’s there, like a festering splinter. The people against whose heads I’d like bash that baseball bat managed to lift the bat themselves at themselves, but… One of my friends obliquely asked me something about why I don’t paint abstract art — well, objective and external reality is a lot friendlier place than some of stuff inside. Nature’s amorality is OK with me; it has no malice, simple existence of its own, the truth behind everything, the entity that took my hand in my life’s darkest times. The reality — and metaphor — of the trail leads forward to places we haven’t yet seen, haven’t yet painted, haven’t yet written, people we haven’t yet met or loved.

    So I imagine a couple of my self-published memoirs are about that. THE question after all dark suffering is really (your friend is wise) where and how do we want to LIVE. You are also very wise to have seen where the light shines. I’m very glad you found this moment. ❤ It's not easy to find it and it is the thread, rope, out of the abyss.

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    1. Bits of memoir become memoir as they reveal the writer’s inner life…which is after all the real story, not the “this is what happened” story. One of the reasons that I restarted this blog in 2019 after it had lain pretty much dormant was my desire to write in short form again…bits and pieces of my mind and experience … as I worked on a deep dive chapter by chapter in my book. Nature’s amorality took Dan, as it does other living things routinely in the rest of the animal kingdom. In part that’s why I haven’t felt bitter, or even angry, frustrated maybe, demoralized at times definitely, exhausted, profoundly. The anger I do feel tends to be more abstract–racial injustice, child abuse, political corruption. I suppose that’s because I don’t want to feel a victim, but rather a survivor. I made that decision at a young age after a difficult dysfunctional childhood. I lost my mother at age 2. After that nothing could top that. We do what we can to keep on, don’t we, and you have found your own way of expressing what is important to you. I think of that apple water color I like so much, and your bean stories, and your crane reveries, and I know that I am in communion with a woman who has made the best of things, who finds beauty in the everydayness of life. And for me, it is beauty rather than anger that keeps me wanting to take another breath, even in the hardest of times. You are a special soul, Martha.

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  2. I have no life-changing event to point to for my in-attention and lack of focus, but I’m a little inspired by your new plan. I can’t find the focus or drive or reason to write a full memoir, but I look forward to reading yours.

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  3. I know you probably don’t want to write a book about your experience caring for, losing and mourning Dan, yet I can’t help but want your incredible writing about it to be shared with the wider world. I have a Facebook friend who I haven’t met in real life who is also mourning the loss of a spouse. His wife of 27 years recently died of cancer and he has been writing these beautiful, gut-wrenching posts about his mourning. And each time I read one I am struck with the same feelings your blogs give me: I want to celebrate your talent and give it a megaphone. However, I am never sure that’s the right tact. Just know that you are able to write and convey these complex emotions so beautifully. And it is very appreciated. 💗

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    1. Thank you so much Laura. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just being too much of a “downer” but then I realize that we need to talk about this, especially in a time when so many people are grieving during the pandemic and yet as a society we just bury this in the headlong rush toward “normal.” Death is a part of the human condition, mourning a part of being alive to our mortality. We need to acknowledge it not pretend it doesn’t exist!

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  4. Oh, this post makes my heart swell.

    I don’t know you, Trish, except through your heart-felt posts and your occasional comments to my own. But I know you’re introspective and a brilliant writer, that you’ve been through the wringer these past months/years, and to see you emerging from that experience with a desire to write makes me smile. Especially that your memoir, set aside as life made demands on your time and energy, is calling you back, reminding you why you write, giving you all the gifts that only the full immersion of typing words into manuscript – lovely words joining to become beautiful sentences and paragraphs – can give.

    Been there. I know the joy of such writing, and the salve it provides to grief. I’m striving to get there again, because it’s such an amazing place to be. Immerse yourself, Trish, then share with us some of what you’ve written.

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  5. You do manage to put into words some of the things we all dread as we age, and know are inevitable. And you show how to deal with it all in grace and to carry that burden for as long as you last in this earth, too. But you must also have that rebirth of your other desires: writing, loving the grandsons, cooking and eating nourishing food. All that.

    Sending you warm wishes for your future life.

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  6. Trish, I never know what to say after reading your posts. I think my norm is to moan about something of myself that’s related, but nothing fits here. I’m having the same problem communicating with another friend who lost her husband recently. I simply don’t know what’s right so I say nothing but like her facebook posts.

    I think Widow’s Work would have been an awesome name for this post. So much is wrapped up into those two words. I’m sure it’s excruciating but it seems like you’re doing well. Better than many, anyway.

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    1. Jeff, one of the reasons I am writing about grief — not in every post, but as it feels right — is exactly because as a society we are mute on the subject. It is truly shocking to think that we are approaching 700,000 COVID deaths and yet we cannot find the vocabulary to adequately mourn this tragedy, just wishing to “get back to normal.” As if that is possible!!! I have learned that as long as you don’t say “s/he’s in a better place” pretty much whatever you say is appreciated. I hate being asked “How are you?” though … because, duh, I’m not going to answer that question with more than a cliche. As for responding to someone’s writing about grief, mine or your Facebook friend’s, may I suggest something along the lines of “Your post moved me, thank you for sharing such an intimate reflection.” Nonjudgmental, not about you (in a bad way),validating. I sometimes worry that I will turn people off by being so raw, but when I look at my stats it is interesting that some of the most heartfelt but difficult posts have garnered the most response. I’m not in this for the likes, but what that tells me is that there is a need out there for real talk. We are all going to face these things some day. And yes, it’s not “poor me” that I’m attempting to communicate, I am in fact doing as well as could be expected. That means that every day I have hard moments, but also joyful ones, and productivity, and the same old same old as everyone else. The reality of a healthy grief is that it is complicated, and I accept that, and hope to normalize it. Not everyone falls into deep despair, depression … or just “moves on” which is code for let’s not talk about how your life has changed. Those seemed to be the two most common expectations and I want to challenge that model. Sorry to have rambled on!

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  7. When my husband died, I realized that America’s common death ritual is Paperwork. I had hired a woman to help me tend to Richard and the first morning she arrived, the hospital called him back to Manhattan for his final round of medical interventions before he returned to our rental house to die under Hospice care. That woman immediately became help for me all through his dying and and post death processes, and all the way through to his memorial. I was also very fortunate to find that she was a young woman who resonated with with my soul during those bewildering days. It is commonly suggested to not plan anything major until a year after your widowhood, but the rental lease was up in 3 months, my older daughter was clearly the next in line to be my caretaker due to my own physical compromises, and she is a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. So I moved to Kendal at Oberlin in Ohio, a marvelous continuing care facility just across from the college campus. In a matter of months I had utterly changed my life without any plan at all. Fortunately, this Kendal is a fantastic place, and writing in the blog that kept me sane and others informed throughout Richard’s demise, continued for me. I am part of a writer’s group mentored by an Oberlin college professor, contribute regularly to a tri-yearly in house magazine with other story tellers and gifted poets, and even wrote a short play under the auspices of an Oberlin graduate, performed by our own PlayReaders on our pandemic inspired TV station so all could watch it safely from their homes. An unintentional plan evolved from grief to gratitude and I am amazed that my clueless nonPlan seemingly evolved out of air. Writing was the glue that gave it cohesion. Your writing is so vivid and honest, Trish- and I can’t wait to read anything and everything you write .

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    1. What a testament to your resilience! And of course, to the wonderful opportunities provided to you at Kendal and Oberlin. We as a society fail to acknowledge death, and thereby fail to acknowledge its aftermath, both the grieving process and the legal morass that brings with it so much paperwork and anxiety. I’m lucky that at least so far my health is good, my body vigorous, my mind intact. I don’t plan on moving and in fact moved back to New York in part because it is such a good place to age, not to mention that one of my daughters is here. Writing has become even more important to me since Dan’s death, not just because caregiving made it impossible, but because now I not only have only my own schedule to work with, I have so much more to say. Thank you so much for reading. Knowing that my words resonate gives me such hope that I can make a difference in this world.

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  8. This is such a beautiful piece of writing that you share with the world. It takes me to a place where I have never been to before. You are an inspiration for many aspiring writers like me. I’m so very grateful to have stumbled across your amazing work. Look forward to what’s more to come. A fan from now on.

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  9. We don’t speak enough about grief and loss. It is a societal thing. When someone speaks, or writes beautifully as you have done, about the subject it garners responses which often times make “you” think about why people don’t speak or discuss it more often or openly. It is, after all, coming to all of us at some point.

    Your recent posts have been written in such a way that it lays bare the feeling of loss and the aftermath, if you will, of the loss. Having lost three parents, both within and outside of Covid, the feelings were slightly different on each occasion. However the paper chase clear up afterwards all seemed to mirror your experiences. I think as a society we do need to speak about the subject of death and loss, to be more open about it in an empathetic manner.

    I totally get your comment that the recent posts have got higher visits and comments than the posts relating to other subjects. I also found that posts about my friends making their longest journey to the Rainbow Bridge seemed to be more widely shared and commented upon than those of my shenanigans with my brother. I too am not in this for the fame, adulation or the number of views or likes. It is a cathartic exercise for me.

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  10. I took a while to comment on this piece since I wanted to have a chance to reread it thoughtfully. This time through I was reminded of life with a newborn and how all consuming it is. It appears that ushering out a life is as complicated as ushering one in. Both also necessitate a whole reworking of who we are and what we are to be about. Didn’t know about Barnard. I am a Cliffie. Of course both of our places have been consumed by the male equivalent. How come Harvard didn’t become Radcliffe and Columbia become Barnard? Even the Radcliffe Institute, formed for women’s advance work, now takes men and has been renamed.

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