Life Designed Not Defined

 

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http://skirt.com/node/124489 — Life Designed Not Defined

So I’ve seen the whole RHOBH season that dealt with Taylor Armstrong’s struggles with her now deceased husband.  Yes, I watch that crappy show. Why? Because as an intelligent human being with very little time for herself, constantly working, raising two ADHD children, my running, etc, etc, I need to turn my brain off at the end of the day and watch mindless TV. Come on, admit it, you do too. Anyway, back to the crappy show. This season actually struck a chord with me. I could relate to one of the characters.  I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed or afraid. Taylor was me minus the big lips, Botox and crazy skinny body, oh and the extremely lavish lifestyle with the Bravo paycheck. You see her husband committed suicide and so did mine. He left her with a very small child to raise.  Mine left me with two small children. Taylor’s husband left her with a mound of debt, legal fees and secrets revealed.  My husband left me with the same thing. She is struggling to take back her life and find herself again.  I’ve been there, done that. Let me give you a little background.

My late husband was many things, charming, funny, intelligent, a good dad, a give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back kind of guy. However, he was also very sick: bipolar. I never knew what I was going to wake up to each day.  Would he be lucent? Would he be on a high and accomplish the laundry list of things that needed to be done around the house, at work, with the kids, etc? Would he start yet another project that would be left unfinished in the basement; another brilliant idea half realized? You see, I lived in constant chaos. I was his lover and his caretaker.  I was his verbal punching bag and his therapist. I was trapped. Thankfully my late husband never physically abused me.  He was too kind-hearted.  But when you become trapped or your reality is altered, you can’t see clearly.  You know that you’re living a lie but you try to wrap it up in pretty bows and sugared frosting so people don’t realize what is really going on inside your home.  And then you begin to believe the lie and deny reality because it’s just easier.

I was trying to give my children a “normal” life with a nice home, the mini van and the suburban dream. In reality, our family was falling apart.  My husband had lost his job three times in three years and had been out of work for nearly 10 months. I was working part-time to support the family but also be at home with the children because frankly I couldn’t afford daycare and didn’t trust my husband around the children. He was popping sleeping pills like candy and drinking a 24-pack of beer every two days.  We were bleeding money.  We were losing our home.  Our cars were eventually both repoed.  How did this happen to me?! I came from a wonderful, loving family.  I was a college graduate.  I was organized, efficient and good with money. What the hell was going on here? I was living a BIG lie. I was not a suburban housewife by nature, I hated mini-vans, I didn’t want to live in a big house. This was not the man I married, this was not the life I signed up for! However, I convinced myself I was providing my children with a good home. They had all of the creature comforts that their friends had. They didn’t stick out like sore thumbs in the homogenized world in which we lived. I was breaking my back to make sure our “perfect” life was intact. By the time our marriage had reached its 10thyear, I had completely devolved from what I was, a lover of life, fashion, the city, writing and history to a frumpy, sad, angry, lobotomized version of myself. I was in survival mode, hunkering down, my children under each arm.

New Year’s Eve 2008  My husband promised me 2009 was going to be different.  It was going to be a year of new beginnings.  The end of all of this nonsense. We went to dinner with the kids that evening.  It was full of fun but I noticed my husband was giddier than usual.  He was almost in an euphoric state.  It was troubling and annoying.  I couldn’t get him to focus on anything, like helping me get my 5 year old ADHD son in the car who was running around the parking lot. Once we got home, the kids were bathed and readied for bed.  My husband read them stories, kissed them goodnight and told them he loved them as he always did.  There is no doubt in my mind how much he loved his children. Afterwards we sat on the couch watching Dick Clark.  We rarely talked to one another anymore.  There was nothing to say.  Frankly, by the end of the day, I was too tired to think anymore. The energy it took to keep up with him, the kids and everything he did or didn’t do consumed me.  He retreated to his cave in the basement.  This was his realm. A dark, eery place that gave me the creeps. I didn’t go down there. 

At midnight, I shouted down the basement stairs that I was going to bed and would really like him to join me this time. We didn’t sleep together often. He was a night owl and was up until 3am most evenings. He would make it to bed if he didn’t fall asleep on the couch in the basement.  He promised me he would come to bed soon.  That was the last time I heard his voice. The next morning I woke up alone, furious.  He was always breaking his promises! The night before he had promised the children he would make them pancakes.  Oh no, mister, I thought! You aren’t letting them down again! Storming downstairs I was set to give him hell. It was too late.  He had already taken his life in the night. I found him in the basement. The place I hated; his retreat. No note was left, no apology uttered, no explanation given, just dark silence. 

Over the course of several months, I questioned what I could have done to save him.  I went through all the emotions, anger, grief, denial, but anger was the one that seemed to stick around the longest.  Acceptance was not going to be easy. I blamed him for leaving me with two children to raise, not a dime to my name, a foreclosed house. I blamed him for slowly chipping away at my true self until only the shell of me remained. However, in the midst of all of my anger, I was finding myself again. I was becoming stronger. I lost the 20lbs I had gained in the three tumultuous years leading up to his death. I began to run again. My clothing was revealing the tale I had to tell. My love for all things shoes finally expressing itself again. My way of making lemonade out of the sourest of lemons returning. Laughing all the time. Enjoying life to the fullest. Loving my children the way they were meant to be loved. It was the road to acceptance. The road to letting go. The road that lead me to realize he was not to blame, but was very sick. The road that would eventually lead to me.

I have learned many things over the last three years, this truth being the most important, I can’t live my life for other people, not even my own children. The old adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” is so true. I was not going to let his death destroy us. I was determined to be the Rocky of our family and make a triumphant run up those stairs of life, carrying my children on my back all the way up to the top. Counseling, a supportive family, fantastic friends, church, and a positive attitude have allowed me to regain who I was and bring my children into the light with me. And although 2009 was one of the hardest years of my life, it was also the year that brought me back to center. Don’t get me wrong, I am not making light of my late husband’s death. But I can’t change that reality. I chose to respond to his death by finding myself again. Teaching my children life is for the living and to never apologize for who you are. My children are my proudest accomplishment, my greatest creation.

New Year’s Eve 2009 I sat in the mountain cabin my Mom and I had rented watching Dick Clark while the kids slept in the next room. My Dad, who had been my rock throughout the first 6 months following my late husband’s death, passed away suddenly of complications from a stroke in June. Here we were, two widows, mother and daughter. Drinking our wine, we talked of how our lives had changed over the course of the year, she still grieving her partner of 39 years. I told my Mom I was ready to forgive. I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. She smiled and nodded, affirming my decision with motherly acceptance. And with that, it was midnight, 2010, another year, the year that set in motion the rest of my life, the year I met my soulmate. In May of 2010 I met the man I would eventually marry 7 months later. I told myself, when we began dating that I was going to let our relationship evolve organically. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be sucked back in to societal rules on how a widow should or shouldn’t behave. I wanted to experience every moment of this new life I was leading. I make no apologies for how fast or slow our relationship developed. It is what it is, pure and simple; love.

New Year’s Eve 2010 I danced with my new husband, Paul, at a local bar. Happy, healthy, healed. A year that saw the completion of my evolution back to self. A year of discoveries and truths revealed. My marriage only three weeks old, I reveled in the friendship I respected, a love I cherished. 

New Year’s Eve 2011 I happily sipped champagne with Paul by my side watching the ball drop with now Ryan Seacrest. He’s no Dick Clark, but life moves on. You can’t help but evolve. Paul always says, the minute you stop evolving, you die. That was true for me for a long time. I stopped evolving, forgot who I was and slowly died inside. But my tragedy doesn’t define me, it designed me. I was given a second chance in life and in love and chose to transform rather than disappear. Now I am living in the city in a small home with my 4-door sedan and loving every moment of my active, vibrant life. I am in the Spring of my life. I am writing again, living simply, a fashionista to the core and enjoying the excitement of making a go of my writing career. My children are happier than they have ever been and have grown to love and accept Paul as their Dad.

So to of all the Taylor Armstrongs out there, grasping for any semblance of themselves, have faith, I was once where you are. An end is just a beginning. Don’t let tragedy, life’s hard knocks, whatever is holding you back from being yourself define you, let it design you. Let it evolve you. Let it bring you into yourself.

 

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The Most Precious Gift

Our Family 2011

September is a BIG birthday month in our family. Starting with my mother-in-law, followed by my daughter, Anna and finally ending with my husband, Paul. All three birthdays come within a week of each other.  Needless to say we eat a lot of cake in the span of a week! However this year the birthdays coincided with two really big events. The first being the 10th Anniversary of 9-11.  The second much more personal and life-changing.  However, both are days I will never forget.

Anna was born during the week of 9-11. Like most people, 9-11 is a day in which I remember every detail from where I was to what I was eating. I remember I had just sat down with my breakfast of toast, fruit and tea and turned on The Today Show. The first tower had already been hit.  It was so confusing.  No one knew what was going on.  Was it a small plane, a jet, an accident, a terrorist?  I watched as the second plane hit. I screamed.  I couldn’t believe I had just seen that! We all knew then this was no accident. As I continued to watch, I saw the first, then second tower fall.  I remember thinking, all of those lives have just been snuffed out.  I have witnessed the death of thousands. It made me sick to my stomach.  So sick that I actually threw up.  The entire week I was in a sort of fog.  The entire nation was stunned.  The skies were eerily quiet as no planes were flying. The news was dark and grim with the names and faces of the missing, eventually dead. But just 4 days later, my beautiful baby girl was born.  She was the light during a dark week. She was hope. Life goes on after loss.  So when Anna turned 10 years old this month, I kept thinking about all of those babies who were born after 9-11. Especially to mothers whose husbands had been lost that day.  Then I began to think about my own children and the loss they have suffered in the last 3 years.  But that quickly turned to hope in the new life they are living today.  Which brings me to the second significant event this September.

Paul’s birthday is the day after Anna’s.  He wanted nothing but a nice dinner out with me on Saturday evening to include beer and pub food.  This was a task I gladly took on! Cards were exchanged, hugs given, kisses bestowed the morning of his birthday.  It was a school day, so we had our usual routine of getting everyone out the door for school and our runs. But Paul received an unexpected gift from someone that left us speechless.  It was from Anna.  Their relationship has been very good from the start.  Paul never presumed anything with Anna.  He wanted her to develop a bond with him naturally just as he has with her.  He tended to this bond like a garden, carefully and tenderly cultivating it without stepping on her toes, her feelings, or her memories of her biological father. Paul knew that by allowing their relationship to grow organically, good things would come from it.  Paul’s love for the children is amazing.  These are his children as far as he is concerned.  Anna loves Paul very much.  But there was still that barrier.  She was afraid to be hurt…again. Her loss was significant.  It was more than just bodily loss, it was a bond that was lost forever.  She was Daddy’s princess. But I have taught the kids life has to continue pushing forward.  You have to remember the past with fondness and honor it by laughing. Living in the past only makes life harder. My only hope is that this lesson is getting through to them.

That morning, Paul received a gift he never asked for and never expected…the gift of being called Dad by Anna. Up until this point, she referred to him as D2 (Dad 2). Paul had told Anna many times that she could call him that for as long as she wished.  Even if that meant forever.  But that morning Anna announced clearly, “Today for your birthday, I am going to start calling you Dad because that is what you are to me. My Dad”.  Both Paul and I were stunned.  I remember a big smile erupting on Paul’s face as he hugged his daughter for the “first” time.  He knew this was HUGE.  He knew for Anna this was the last barrier to be brought down.  He knew she was taking a big risk and giving him her whole heart. This truly was the best birthday present he could have received.  Paul is now the father of a son AND a daughter.

I remember driving the kids to school that morning and trying not to tear up as I drove. My children are happy, healthy, witness to a loving relationship, and have TWO parents who love them unconditionally.  Nothing sounds sweeter than the laughter of my children and the word Dad leaving their lips. From Death comes Life from Life comes Hope from Hope comes Love.  Like 9-11, the day Anna called Paul Dad for the first time is a day I will never forget.  I will remember every detail of its significance.  I will remember where I was, what I was doing and how I felt.  Most of all, I will remember that life is full of precious gifts.

Anna and Paul