Writing My Story


I was texting with a new friend yesterday about life’s struggles and challenges. Her daughter (and only child) is heading off to college this month and she’s facing lots of changes in her life. I told her the best advice I got when John died was to “feel all the feels” and lean into them, even if it was painful. She said my story inspired her and, since I hadn’t yet, I sent her the link to this blog. I told her to start at the beginning (you can scroll down and click on the link to do that) if she wanted to read our whole story. She thanked me and said she needed some inspiration right now.

I responded, “It’s an inspiring story but spoiler alert…the hero dies in the end.” As I stepped into the shower after sending that text, the floodgates opened and I had what they call in my grief support group, a “grief storm.” They hit me less frequently but still like a hurricane when they come, blowing through my day, out of control and yet controlling me. They only last a little while and then they’re gone, but just like a hurricane, often the devastation they leave behind takes me some time to clean up.

When I am hit with this type of grief and I cry, I don’t recognize the sound. It’s a wailing, keening, utterly painful cry that comes from somewhere inside me I’d never tapped into before John died. The first time I heard myself cry that way was about five minutes after John took his last breath, as I sat on the stairs holding his daughter Chelsey, trying to comfort her through my own unbearable grief, and finally letting go of all I’d been holding on to for so many months as we fought through the end of John’s life. It all came out in huge, loud, messy, uncontrollable sobs that lasted about ten minutes. And every time it’s happened since, I’m still a little amazed at the sound of it, so unfamiliar and anguished that it catches me off guard.

This week I cried because I’m finally here, in my new home, settling in alone. I cried because the sale of my Walla Walla home had come through on Thursday and that stressful time was finally over, along with that part of my life. It was a bittersweet realization. I cried because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone but I also won’t settle in order to NOT be alone.

But mostly, I cried because I miss my husband and best friend. So much, every single day. Even in a new place with no actual “memories” of him tied to my house or surroundings other than the pictures I’m hanging, I still just miss him and the way I felt when I was with him. Finding someone who accepts you for who you are (in fact, loves you because of it and not in spite of it) and who makes your life sweet and fun and happy just by being in it is a huge gift. I never took it for granted but it makes me miss it even more for having had it.

Yesterday, I was sharing some of this with my friend Scott, and I told him about the text conversation. He corrected me about the hero dying in the end. From his perspective, the hero died in the middle of the story, and now I’m writing the ending. He’s right. It’s an ongoing process and I’m learning from every step of the journey. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny



John-birthdayToday is Johnny’s birthday. He also died exactly 6 months ago today. I’m writing this from an airplane on my way to San Jose to spend a few days with his kids Chelsey & Chad. We’ll reconnect after too much time apart and share stories, memories, and probably a few tears as we remember their dad and my husband. He would have been 52 today and he died far too soon.

He still had way too much to do to go…adventures to have, road trips to take, future grandkids to hold, and a lifetime to live with all of the joy and love he couldn’t help but spread in this world. In the last year of his life he aged a lot, but as the months pass since his death, so does my memory of the toll cancer took on his body. More and more, I remember him as he was before he got sick and lately I’ve thought about how he’ll never age in my memory. He’ll always be that good looking, middle aged man with just the right amount of gray hair at his temples to make him irresistibly sexy.

I’ve made great strides in my own life in the past few months and feel as though I’m moving forward in a really positive way without him physically here with me but also with his clear support and presence. I’ve moved back to the Pacific Northwest where my family and many close friends are and am re-defining my life and myself without him. Some days I almost feel normal again, like I’m waking up from a bad dream a little at a time.

As I mark his birthday and this half year milestone of this death, I’m pretty much where I expected to be…not done mourning by any means, but healthier and happier than I’ve been since he died. I’ve actively and intentionally grieved losing him and the life we had (and were supposed to have but never will), and am proactively creating a new life for myself on a daily basis. I’m not the same, will never be the same, but I like who I’m becoming as I integrate the learning from this most devastating time in my life into my new life experiences.

So today I honor John, how I’ve changed because of how he loved me, and who I continue to become because of his impact on my life. He was a true light in this world and was taken from us far too soon, but he made a huge impact on everyone he touched in the brief time he was here. Happy birthday, babe. I’m sure wherever you are, you’re living it up today, skydiving or whitewater rafting or jumping off a cliff somewhere, and laughing your ass off at the sheer joy of it all. I miss you every single day but I know you’re still with us, “just in the next room,” somehow, as you fully expected, experiencing everything in our lives right along with us. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer



Unpacking My Memories

Front-doorToday I’m packing up the last of my stuff in my Walla Walla house. Tomorrow is moving day. I’m praying everything fits into the twenty-four foot U-Haul truck I’ve rented. I’m praying that I can drive away and never have to come back. Now, more than ever, I need to put this house and this part of my life behind me in order to move forward.

I moved my bed and most of my kitchen stuff into the new house I bought in Vancouver last weekend. From the moment I stepped foot into that house on Friday afternoon I felt myself slowly but deliberately coming back to myself. I felt grounded and stronger than I’ve felt in months. Strong for myself, not for John or my kids. I felt myself more capable than ever of standing on my own two feet and being happy on my own. I was relaxed and happy all weekend.

Monday night, I sat on my bed in my big new master bedroom in my dream house and thought about heading back to Walla Walla the next morning to tie up loose ends and finalize my move. A heaviness began to settle over me and I realized that this house here in Walla Walla, where John and I shared our entire lives together, has been energetically draining me since the moment he died. It’s not just the memories and sadness surrounding that time or the haunting memories of him crying the day before he died, skeletal and barely recognizable, half unconscious, and telling us he was sad because he didn’t want to go but knew he had to. That’s huge, for sure, but I realized it’s more than that.

This house is energetically sad. I’ve spent most of the past two months deliberately gone from here, making myself busy with things to do in Portland. Every time I drive back here, the sad creeps back in, little by little, as I drive east up the Columbia Gorge. I dread walking into the house, living and working and sleeping here. It’s just permeated with such a huge amount of sadness that it’s overwhelming. I’ve adjusted to it over the past six months and I don’t think I really even realized how powerful it was until it was absent this weekend.

It was like I could finally unpack the sweet, wonderful memories of John as I was unpacking my dishes and pots and pans. It was refreshing to be able to think about him and our life together for the six years we had before the brutal final six months of his life. And I felt such relief and happiness at those memories. They weren’t tinged with sadness like they always have been in Walla Walla.

I feel John with me more and more now. And I know he’s happy for me. I’ll move all of the good things I remember about our life together with me and I know energetically he’ll come too. His positive energy, the best part of him, will always be with me.

A Change Of Status

IMG_1899I memorialized John’s Facebook account yesterday and changed my status to “Widowed” this morning. That was a tough milestone but a necessary step for me. I still miss him every single day, multiple times a day. There are still days when I can’t quite believe he’s gone, but those moments are fleeting now (as opposed to my predominant mindset a few months ago).

I’m in a strange place of wanting to hold on to (even live in, if I’m honest) the past, and knowing that I need to move forward and step into my new life and my new self. For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever feel joy again. Now I’m grabbing it with both hands every chance I get. I’ve never been a sipper. I’ve always gulped, taken big steps, walked fast. That’s what I’m doing now, after moving in slow motion and wondering if I’d ever feel like “myself” again. I know I’ll never be the same but I’m becoming someone wiser, stronger, and more grateful because of my loss. That’s all I can hope for.

July will be a month of huge change for me. I’ll be moving into my new house, getting back on stage and training again, and leaping into a whole new life in a brand new town on the other side of the state. I’ll be leaving the family of choice I’ve built for myself here in Walla Walla, amazing friends who’ve seen me through the worst time in my life, and moving close to my actual family and close friends who promise to continue that support for as long as I need it. I am truly blessed by the incredible people in my life and I never take them for granted. I’ll miss my Walla Walla peeps but know this is the right move for me.

I’m also dating again, slowly dippoing my toe back into the “love” pool. This is something my sweet, wise Johnny told me would happen. “You’re a partnership person” he said to me a few weeks before he died. “You need a partner and I want you to have that.” Then, with that familiar twinkle in his eye, he smiled and said “I’ll send you the perfect person.” He also told me that I’d probably “partner” sooner than anyone thought appropriate. “Do it anyhow” he said. I’m listening, baby.

I hesitate to say it, but I can embrace the fact that I’ve survived the worst of this brutal grief process. I’m not out of the woods by any means and I know that for certain, but there is more happy and joy in my days than sorrow now, so that’s huge progress. Through this transition, I can feel John with me, cheering me on and, as he always did when he was alive, wanting the best for me.

I’m living like Johnny, choosing joy whenever possible, and moving forward even when it’s scary. Those choices are the best way I can imagine to keep John’s legacy (of living life to it’s fullest and always finding the positive in every situation) alive. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer

Joy, Meet Sorrow. Sorrow, Joy

File Jun 09, 8 02 22 AMIn the past three weeks my life has been a whirlpool of change, sometimes spinning so fast I get dizzy. I am currently in the middle of buying a new home, selling my home, dealing with my insurance company over my car (which was totaled by my oldest son), and spending time in Portland, 250 miles from my current home, to support and say goodbye to a good friend with terminal cancer this week. To say I’ve had a lot going on is an understatement.

This week, it’s become apparent to me that I’m holding both joy and feelings of optimism and eager anticipation right alongside feelings of sorrow and grief. It’s something I’ve never experienced. I’ve realized that I can allow joy back in, I can reside inside that joy and allow it in my life, while still actively grieving all of the loss I’m also experiencing.

In that space, with both palms turned up, willing to receive whatever comes, I’ve also realized that joy and sorrow are not that far apart on my emotional scale. I’ve cried lots of tears in the past 9 months or so…lately some of those have been tears of Joy. I’m in a constant state of reaching out and grabbing hold of the new life I am creating for myself while I struggle to let go of what’s happened or come before. I’m buying the house of my dreams back “home” where my family and friends live and in order to have that, I have to let go of my house in Walla Walla and the friends who have been my family there.

On Monday night I “staged” my current house for the realtor’s open Tuesday morning and packed away every scrap of personalization that was in it. Every photo, every saved love note tacked on my bulletin board from John, every memento from my life over the past decade. It felt like I was packing away that life and it was exhausting and sad. I’ve lived in that house for 12 years. I bought it as a single mom and have done a huge amount of growing there in that time. My boys grew up in that house, and so did I in many ways. I met John and he moved in with me in that house. We made an incredible life together there, and it’s where he exited my life after the most difficult two and a half years I’ve ever experienced. So there is much joy there but also too much pain for me to stay.

It will be very hard to leave, to let go, but it’s necessary if I want to move forward and into my new life. It leaves me wanting to hold on while needing to let go, feeling joy in the midst of my continuing sorrow.

I’m in Vancouver this week. I’m here to say goodby to my friend Ann Hardt. She’s been a friend for 25 years. I sang in my first quartet with her and she’s the reason I’m singing with The Pride of Portland Sweet Adelines chorus now. She invited me back to Portland to sing in a new quartet and Pride was just sort of a natural part of that experience. It’s also been a lifesaver for me. Now I have to let her go. Losing someone I love to cancer so soon after losing the love of my life to it just four short months ago is brutal. Yesterday, I spent several hours with her and my pain was palpable when I left her home.

I’m staying with my friends Camille & Scott Lunt, who have pretty much made me a part of their family and are saving my life right now. Being with them is my happy place, and the one I came home to yesterday. I can’t help but smile and laugh when I’m here. Sorrow and pain occupied the same space in my day yesterday, as they have for the past few weeks.

They seem like odd bedfellows but I have a feeling they’ll be sleeping together for a long time. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscaner #joyandsorrow

Winds of Change, Moments of Joy

Costco-cartI have been absent from this blog for almost a month. It’s hard to believe that my grief hasn’t compelled me to come here and write, but things are changing quickly in my life and I’ve been very busy. I haven’t stopped grieving but things seem to be settling into an uneasy new “normal.”

I’m not mourning as much. I’ve learned that there’s grieving (which is how you feel about the loss on the inside) and mourning (which is how you express the pain of your loss outwardly). In the past few weeks I’ve noticed that my moments of mourning come less frequently and mostly in private now. I still have times when tears threaten (like today as I walked into The Home Depot alone) but I can generally talk myself down off the cliff. A month ago I couldn’t do that.

I’m finding more and more moments of joy. Sometimes I even have hours of joy. I feel more autonomous and am re-learning how to be “just me.” It’s a hard journey. I never wanted to be here again and had grown very accustomed to being half of a whole, even while John was sick and I was his sole caregiver and the main breadwinner. I got spoiled being in love with my best friend, always having someone there to cheer me on and bounce ideas off of. I’m almost having to learn to trust my own instincts and decisions again. But it’s happening, a little at a time.

I’m leaning more heavily on others than I ever have in my life. I’ve learned the value of asking for help (and graciously accepting it even when I don’t). New friends have become close friends very quickly and my ex-husband, his wife, and his mother have embraced me into their family and taken care of me on more than one occasion when I needed family and none of mine were available. I am blessed by the people in my life and I realize that more and more every day. John trusted that I’d be taken care of by them and they are doing a great job.

I am making big changes quickly, which is something the experts say I’m not supposed to do. But they feel right for me. The thing is, I still feel like John’s helping me make these decisions, like we’re making them together in a way because we talked at length about what would be best for me once he was gone. He told me he wanted me to move back to the Pacific Northwest where I have good friends and most of my family close by. We had talked about moving back there together before his disease progressed to the point that we knew he was terminal. So I feel like I’m making this move for both of us. Getting the house of my dreams and then living in it alone won’t be easy, but I’ll fill it with friends and family and make new memories on my own.

It’s been just under four months since John passed away. Some days it feels like much longer than that and others it feels like yesterday. My sense of “us-ness” is fading a little each day and I’m grieving that fact in addition to losing him. We were so great together and I miss who I was when I was with him almost as much as I miss him. I’m also noticing, the further from his death I get, the more I seem to “hear” him. Last weekend, during my Sweet Adelines regional competition, I had a moment when I was dancing with friends and I felt him there with me and heard him whisper in my ear, “YES! This is what I want for you. Grab this joy! You’re doing great!” It was a bittersweet moment because it’s exactly what he would say to me if he were standing in front of me actually talking to me in that moment. It also felt very right.

I want to move on and hold on, all at the same time. The more “normal” my life gets without him, the further away from him I feel. That’s a relief in one moment and sad the next. Regardless, I’m still “leaning into” all of my emotions and allowing myself to feel whatever each moment brings. I don’t feel guilty for being happy anymore like I did a few months ago.

So, all in all, I think I’m making progress. I did so much grieving in the months before John died that maybe I got a head start. I know it allowed me to actually grieve with him, crying on his shoulder every night when we went to bed, asking him how I’d possibly live without him, and hearing him say how sorry he was that he didn’t have an answer for me. I know I still have a long way to go. I’m learning more about myself and this “new normal” every day and I’m changing into my “new self” a little more every week.

I know this is what John wanted for me. I know he’s proud of me. All he ever wanted when he was alive was for me to be happy. That hasn’t changed now that he’s gone. And I’m a little happier every day. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

There Must Be An Error In This Formula

Headstone croppedThis morning I was looking at pictures of my happy past. When John was alive, it seemed like we were always on an adventure, always surrounded by fun. Most of the time it was just the two of us but I felt complete, whole.

It dawned on me that, since his death, it feels like I’m a small percentage of who I was with him. Not just half of me feels gone. Most of me feels gone.

How is that possible? The math doesn’t work. How can one person exiting my life feel this lonely. Nothing else has changed. I still have four kids and a loving, supportive family and great friends. But since his death, the pervading feeling in my life is loneliness. No matter who I’m with or what I’m doing, I feel lonely. And when I’m ACTUALLY alone (which is often), other emotions creep in. Despair and fear and anger.

But always loneliness.

Yesterday I went to visit John’s gravestone. He’s not there (literally or, in my opinion, figuratively). He was cremated and most of his remains are still in a box in my coat closet, waiting for warmer weather and the perfect time to scatter them over the Snake River. So it’s just a memorial marker placed in a family plot that he designed to mark his time here on earth. I stood there in that surreal place in that surreal moment and said to my friend, “I certainly never imagined I’d be here at this point in my life.”

Here being alone. After having found the perfect love of my life at the perfect time in my life. And then losing him too soon. It feels brutal and so painful it’s unimaginable. How could he have been so “in” my life one minute and then just gone the next?

I don’t feel his energy around me. I didn’t feel it yesterday at his grave and I don’t feel it now. He must be having a grand time on the other side because he’s obviously too busy to make his presence known to me. Or maybe I’m just in too much pain to recognize him. When people ask me if I can feel him with me it’s like a knife in my heart. Because I can’t. Not when I’m awake. Not when I’m asleep. Not at all.

And his absence is the most lonely feeling I’ve ever experienced. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny



Looks Can Be Deceiving

ApplesOk folks. Time to get real…
Here’s the thing. I know I appear strong and I can make it seem like everything is okay in my new world without John. I’ve always been a strong person and in my day-to-day life, unless you look closely, I can present that face to the world now. It’s easy to convince yourself, if you’re my friend, that I’m “back to normal.” I even had someone ask me on Saturday if I was better now (since it’s been a whole two months since John died). I looked him dead in the eye and said, “No. I’m not better. At all.” Just because I’m not crying most of the day anymore doesn’t mean I’m not still in intense pain.
I think people want, NEED for me to be ok so they can feel fine about things getting back to “normal” in our friendship. So many close friends were there for me in the few months before John died, helping out, checking in almost daily, bringing food, and just holding me up. Then, within weeks of his death, they stopped calling and checking in. They ask how I am when we do chat or see each other, but I don’t think they really understand my answer and sometimes, it’s easier just to say “I’m hanging in there” and leave it at that. I sense their discomfort, the fact that they pray I don’t break down because they wouldn’t know what to say or do to help me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming them and I know from what I’ve been learning about grieving that it’s totally normal for this to happen. But here’s the thing that I need to say but have a hard time articulating. I am in severe, deep, intense pain. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through. My hospice counselor says that, unless you’ve been through the process of grieving someone whom you loved deeply, you can’t really understand what it’s like, the intensity of it, or how long it takes to move through it. If people did understand, I wouldn’t be alone.
I don’t expect anyone to “help” with that pain. There’s no way to do that. I just need to be around people who care about me. I am feeling isolated. I’m spending too much time alone and it’s not good for me. I need support but I don’t want to have to ask for it. Reaching out and saying, “Could you invite me to do something or just offer to come hang out with me or call me every day to check in?” feels uncomfortable and most often, even if I have the intention to reach out, it gets lost in the exhaustion of grief and I never do.
Before John died we had this conversation and I told him it wouldn’t be long after he was gone before everyone would go back to their lives, families, jobs, and problems and I’d be left with me. No one was intimately involved in my life except him and I wasn’t a part of the intimacy of my friends’ or even families’ lives. He knew it was true and he worried about it. Rightly so, it turns out. I know I have amazing friends who love me a lot. I’m just not “top of mind” for them now that a few months have passed. Life goes on for them.
Just not for me. #lovetrumpcancer #livelikejohnny

A Blanket Of Sadness

Julie-eli-hawaiiLast week I took my youngest son Eli to Hawaii for Spring Break. He’s a senior and will graduate from high school in June and move out on his own, so I thought this would be an awesome opportunity to spend some quality time with him while I still can. I also felt like some happy sunshine would be good for both of us (but especially me).

The last time I went to Hawaii was with John. We had a wonderful vacation in Maui the year before he was diagnosed. We loved being together and were “active” vacationers. We parasailed, paddle boarded, snorkeled, and took a sunset dinner cruise. We rented a car and drove all over the island. It was an amazing week spent with my best friend and soul mate.

Even though Eli and I were on a different island, it still felt a little too familiar. We spent a day touring museums and exhibits at Pearl Harbor and Ford Island, rented a car and drove to the North Shore, chilled on the beach, and had a great time.

Except there was a soft blanket of sadness over the week for me. Nothing dramatic, just around the edges of the days and nights. I’m still glad we went. It just didn’t feel a whole lot different from being anywhere else these days. Without John. Because no matter where I am, he’s not there. I kept thinking about how much he would have loved doing and seeing everything we were doing and seeing. And even though I had a great time with my kid, I still just missed my best friend and lover. I feel incomplete and lonely without him, no matter who I’m with.

My grieving process is evolving and I’m “actively grieving.” I’m reading three different books on grieving and am in two different support groups. I’ve met with the social worker at our local hospice twice and each time have learned from what she’s told me. The most profound thing I’ve realized is that my relationship with John has continued beyond his death and into this new life I’m carving out. It will, in fact, never end. It’s just different now. I still love him more than I can even articulate, get frustrated when something comes up that he left unfinished that I have to deal with, reach for the phone to share with him every time something cool happens in my life.

He’s here with me, always present in my thoughts and through photographs all over my life, in the small touches and big things he did to make this home ours together. He’s also very silent. I know people tell me he’s always with me but I just don’t feel his presence (whatever that means). Everything holds a memory for me and sometimes, once in awhile, those memories make me smile. Too often, they just make me miss him for the millionth time that day.

The other big thing I’ve learned about grieving is that it’s a process I just have to be present to and move through. One of the books I’m reading compares it to a journey through a forest. Sometimes dark and scary and sometimes beautiful and inspiring. I know I’ll never stop grieving and that my job, especially right now, is to be as present as possible to what I’m feeling, allow myself to experience it in whatever way it manifests, and be gentle with myself through the process.

I’m not waiting for things to “go back to normal” or to feel “normal” again. I’ll never be the same person I was but am becoming someone different, creating a new normal, through this process. And at some point, or so I’m told, I’ll actually look at this journey I’m on and be grateful for what it’s taught me and the person I’ve become because of it. I can’t see the path to that eventuality right now, but I’m curious to see how it unfolds.

That curiosity is progress for me right now. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

Missing Hallelujah

easter-1270523_1280Today is Easter. I grew up Episcopalian and during Lent, all of the celebration was deleted from the liturgy. In all the places where, during the rest of the year, we said “hallelujah,” the word was left out. I vividly remember my relief on Easter Sunday when the proclamation was back where it belonged in the familiar liturgy that I knew by heart, and I could joyfully and deliberately declare it once again. It meant that the dark weeks of Lent were over, the light and happiness flooded back in, and anything seemed possible.

I was thinking about that this morning and, as with most thoughts I think these days, how much of a parallel it held with my life now. How Lent was a time where life went on but with an overarching sadness and sacrifice that seemed to permeate everything. It’s why Easter was such a celebration, such a relief.

For me, now, it feels exactly the same way. It’s as if all of the “hallelujahs” have been removed from my life. I get up, show up, and walk through my day, sometimes with a face that defies what I’m feeling inside. I work out, put on makeup, work, cook, clean, and laugh at people’s jokes. But it’s all done without celebration. I’m constantly looking for the joy and most of the time I remember that it died (at least temporarily) when John died.

Sometimes I feel ok and little glimmers of hope seep in, but then another wave of unexpected sadness hits and I’m back at ground zero again. It’s a pretty exhausting process, all in all, and I’ll be glad when I’m past it. It’s better than it was a few weeks ago and I’m hoping each week will bring a little more light and a little less sad. Most of the time, I’d rather be anywhere than where I am now, without John.

The thing about Lent is that there’s a defined end to it. You know you can circle that Easter Sunday date on the calendar and look forward to the celebration. If you give something up for Lent, you know it’s temporary. You literally see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what’s missing for me now. It’s why grieving is so hard, because there’s no way of knowing when you’ll feel true joy again, when you’ll feel like you’re in control again. I’m plugging back in and walking through my life knowing it will happen, but the not knowing when is foreign and very difficult.

Luckily, Easter also comes as Mother Nature ushers in spring. More light, warm sunshine, and a world exploding with color and life will, hopefully, begin to add a few “hallelujah” moments back into my life as well. I’m counting on it and looking for them every day.
#livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer