Once upon a time, an ordinary woman and an ordinary man met, and in a flash they embarked on an extraordinary relationship. Their adventures spanned just over 21 years, and then he died. And she realized that their time together had changed her irrevocably and immeasurably, and that his death had changed things irretrievably.
That realization that nothing would ever be like it used to be took awhile to sink in, and to say that it was a most painful realization would be an understatement.
She knew that grief was going to take time, and she knew – even though she didn’t know how she knew it – that grieving was an individual and unpredictable process.
Along the way, she found that her willingness to embrace change became a way of coping and adjusting. In fact, she began to reach for change, for new experiences. For better or for worse, human nature tends to avoid change, so each change she reached for seemed to disguise itself as an ultimate goal – as “the way things will be from now on.”
She is me, and it has taken me awhile to sort out the experiences of the past three years and make some sense of them. And I find that it is difficult to write about these things without a sense that I am reaching for something I can’t quite identify. Perhaps that, too, is a part of this process.
Just a year after Tom died, I bought back the little house in the woods by the lake – fondly dubbed TLHITWBTL – and it felt like it was meant to be. When things fall into place so neatly, that’s what I think – it’s meant to be. I was going to have my house in Mason and my cottage up north. Living the dream.
Then as I spent more time at TLHITWBTL, I grew to love it more and more. Even as things broke and needed fixing, I simply regarded them as investments in a place I loved. By late fall, I knew I wanted to live there. It was a very simple thing to sell the house in Mason, downsize my clutch of possessions, pack up my life, and hire a mover.
I knew when I moved in that I would need a garage, so I reinvested the money from the sale of the Mason house to build one, and it was good.
I had adventures: I snowshoed, I hiked, I rowed on the lake and played golf in summer, I explored. I insulated and drywalled my garage, painted the exterior of my house, planted things, spread gravel to create a perfect driveway, and mowed my lawn; and it was good.
I could have spent the money on cruises and getaways and clothes and sparkly things. They would not have provided the kind of therapy that living amid the good memories, and accomplishing the crazy tasks I took on, provided for me.
Then one day I woke up and – I don’t know how else to describe it – I was done. Or maybe TLHITWBTL was done with me.
The solitude turned to isolation. As the autumn approached, I found myself dreading winter. I began to experience levels of anxiety I had never experienced before, especially as the afternoons wound down to evenings and darkness wrapped TLHITWBLT up tight.
One odd experience kept shoving its way into my consciousness. It was by no means a major factor, but it was a nagging little thing. One neighbor had found it necessary to share with me that I was the object of another neighbor’s fantasies, and I found both the fact and the sharing of it disturbing on some level. You see, the lifestyle at TLHITWBTL is long on solitude. For much of the time, the fantasizing neighbor and I would be the only humans within 100 yards. A nagging discomfort took root and would not be stilled.
I began to think about getting myself a little pied-a-terre in Lansing so that I could again spend time among family. Being a three-hour drive from everyone I really cared about was not working for me. When I came to Lansing for my younger daughter’s wedding in October, that sealed it, and I made appointments for a week later to begin looking.
The search was short. The first place I looked at was the right spot, and if I took it, the current tenant would be able to move to a 2-bedroom unit without paying a rent penalty. Everyone wins! And once again, when things work out so neatly, it feels like it is meant to be.
What a ride. I spent some money on basic furnishings with the idea that I would spend perhaps a third of my time here. I spent my first night here in mid-November, and when I went back to TLHITWBTL for a few days, I realized that I simply didn’t want to be there. And so the plan was hatched. I used my time up north to wrap things up, and by mid-December was I was a permanent resident of Lansing. (Really? Did I just say “permanent”?)
Several trips – a couple of overnighters and a couple of day trips – allowed me to swap out some furniture and get those things I really treasured moved to Lansing. Family members helped, giving their time and efforts without reservation. All this time, I was considering the place up north to be our future recreation spot – but I began to see that I no longer enjoyed being there and that the three-hour drive was not a great incentive to family members to go there either. THLITWBTL was in danger of becoming one of those places that gets used two or three times a year and sits alone the rest of the time. That didn’t seem like a good use of assets, and it didn’t seem like a good way to treat a little house with a big heart, so in April, I put the place on the market.
This is where things get interesting. Just 33 days after listing, I received an offer. I made a counter-offer, as one does, and the buyers accepted that first counter-offer! Another two months, with a few bumps along the way, and the sale was closed.
The best part? The buyer was the daughter of the man Tom had bought the house from back in 1993. This man had lost his wife to an aneurysm in January, 1993. TLHITWBTL was their retirement dream home, and when she died, he could no longer stand to spend a night there. Tom bought it, and we created a lot of wonderful memories there. Then after Tom’s cancer diagnosis, we decided the place would be better off with his sons; in 2013, a year after Tom died, it came back into my hands. When I put it on the market, a neighbor let the former owner’s daughter know, and she and her husband were in a position to buy it back. The closing was so emotional. She was overjoyed, and her husband and daughters were thrilled. The moment that really grabbed me? It was when we were leaving the building to get into our cars, and she told me that she and her sister had had so many good times at that house but had drifted apart after her father sold it, and she knew that having the house back in the family was going to draw them close again.
So here I am. All my family is within a couple of miles of me. I don’t own any real estate, and I’m pretty much a free spirit. And in the past three years, I’ve experienced – mostly as a willing participant – any number of changes that felt “meant to be” – that rang that “This is how it’s going to be from now on” bell.
“Meant to be” I get. Totally. But I have come to believe that “This is going it’s going to be from now on” is a trap.
Why a trap? Because along with everything else, this also happened: I found myself, as I progressed through all of these changes, questioning myself and even trying to explain – yes, justify – my decisions to myself, and worse, to others.
As I examined this rather alarming tendency, I began to realize that it was entirely based in fear. Yes, fear. Fear that I and others around me would judge me to be flighty and irresponsible and unable to stick with anything. Fear, especially, that I would forever flit from one meant-to-be, this-is-it-forever life situation to another, only to find that that wasn’t it after all. Fear that I would somehow constantly seek, and never quite find, that one thing, that only thing, that was going to make me happy.
What??! I wasn’t happy??!
What a question. What a trap. What a beastly way to surround myself with doubt, fear, and festering discontent.
Nothing is forever. I should have picked up on that when Tom died. After all, we were going to be forever, and then one day there was no “us.” Just me.
The secret is, I don’t need “forever.” The change, the huge, irrevocable, irretrievable change that began when Tom died, was not an event, not a moment. It is a process, a continuum, a journey. It needs no explanation and does not brook excuses for its existence. The flow of change is as inexorable as the flow of water over a brink that creates a spectacular waterfall. It is as small as the drip-drip-drip of water that eventually wears a hollow in a rock, and it is as huge as the flood that smashes earthen levees in a hurricane.
Change does not require justification; it requires only to be embraced and surrendered to. Change does not require explanation, which means looking back; it requires a sense of adventure, which looks only forward.
I have, for years, taught that the way to deal with change is to own it, and to focus one’s energy on those things over which one has control. As life flows around and through me, I realize that my attitudes and reactions really are the only things I control. Let me focus on the future, with an attitude of anticipation, and let me react with “Wow! What a ride!” whenever life steers me toward a new “meant-to-be.”