Sail on silver girl...


Literally every time I begin a post, the first words that come to mind are, “It’s been a weird week.” I think its safe to assume my life will always feel weird. Sometimes it’s an awful weird, sometimes it’s a good weird, sometimes a funny weird. Maybe that should be the title of my memoir: I’m having a weird week: the amazing, awful, wonderful, terrible, funny, tragic life of Megan Courtney. It has a nice ring to it! But I digress…

The last few months of my life have been a “productive” weird. They haven’t been without setbacks and pitfalls. I have no regrets about pushing myself as hard as I did, for as long as I did, but I did burn myself out—and in January, I hit a wall. I hit it hard. At first I thought it was a rough day, then a rough few days, then weeks; and before I knew it, nearly two months had passed of my feeling as though I was sleep walking through my days. It wasn’t just the pure exhaustion of the last few years catching up with me, although that would have been enough to make me tired; but it was also putting in the extremely hard work that grief just is sometimes. There were things I expected to feel when we were losing Kenny: sad, angry, lonely, overwhelmed. I was, of course, totally correct about those things, but one thing I didn’t quite anticipate feeling, as least not nearly as much as I actually do: guilt.

Guilt has been slowly eating me alive for about fifteen months. Guilt is not always a rational emotion. Sure, if you harm someone, you should feel guilty. If you cheat people, lie to people, do nasty or illegal things, you should feel guilty. Why do I feel guilty? No reason that will sound “not crazy.” I feel guilty that I couldn’t save him. I feel guilty that I had to accept he was gone. Every time I have to do something relating to his passing: returning his car, closing accounts, disconnecting his cell phone, it has felt like I’ve betrayed him; like I’ve given up on him. Worse yet? Anytime I’ve done something to move forward, I’ve felt like the world’s biggest asshole. Sometimes my guilt is that I can’t do it all for my kids, all the time. I can’t be two parents. I can’t be in two places at once, I can’t always juggle them if one of them gets sick. I can’t give them the normal, stable existence I once had the privilege of assuming that I’d able to provide them. I’ve done what I can to move forward, to keep going, because the logical part of me knows I can’t keep my kids (or myself) in a bubble. Time is moving. The world is moving. They deserve to live, maybe even I do. They deserve a childhood as unburdened as I can possibly give them. But it still felt so awful sometimes, I felt so undeserving. How dare I laugh so hard, be so happy, enjoy so much of my time? How dare I let my heart fill with joy at watching my kids play soccer, or play tickle monster and revel in their laughter, if he can’t be tickling them, too? In retrospect, I realize that for nearly a year, I have stripped myself of things I enjoy as punishment. TV shows we loved to watch together piled up on our DVR, until I simply stopped watching TV altogether. I stopped trying new recipes, I stopped giving the kids bubble baths, I stopped going out or taking breaks from the kids for almost two months. I also stopped my most favorite thing of all, reading.

I’ve always been a voracious reader. Kenny used to tease me that I’d need a suitcase just for books when we’d go on vacation, since I could easily read a book, a day, under a shady palapa or next to the pool. I’ve always loved to escape to different times, different places, and get to “know” different characters. I am one of those people who always find book versions to be better than movies, since my imagination can run wild with it. 

While Kenny was losing his battle, I would “escape” into books. Namely, books by Elin Hilderbrand, who’s novels all take place on Nantucket. She has a gift for creating imagery that had me smelling salty ocean air, feeling the grit of New England sand under my feet, and practically tasting lobster rolls and crisp, light beer. Her story lines were engaging in a way that made me feel like I was standing in the room with her characters, far away from inland North Carolina, or the Jersey Shore, where my world was falling apart. They were the perfect mental vacation for me. Nearly a year ago, just after Kenny died, I bought another Hilderbrand novel, excited and eager to get “back to Nantucket” after a few weeks hiatus. The last couple of weeks of Kenny’s life were too dismal for even Elin to help me escape from. Once the funeral was over, once all the guests left town, and the friends stopped texting me, I thought maybe it was time for a “trip.”

By this point, I read the synopsis of each book to try to minimize anxiety “triggers.” This book looked good, two old friends who lose touch and find each other again. It was called Silver Girl. Being through what I just had, reading the title had me singing in my head “sail on, silver girl…” Like the song (Bridge Over Troubled Water). I liked the sound of it. Until I got to page eleven and found out the main character’s husband had died of cancer. First it says brain (UGH!), later it was another cancer that spread to his brain, either way, it really threw me for a loop.  

As I wrote the thank you notes, as I had Kenny’s car towed away, took the kids to Disney World and started to formulate my “plan B” for life, guilt began to bog me down. No longer feeling like I deserved an escape, I didn’t pick up another book for ten months. I tried. I’d get a few pages into a book and stop.

It took some time for the lightbulb to click on. I only knew that I felt such a sense of self loathing, of such anger at myself. Then, a few weeks ago, my mom came to town for a nice, long stay. It was so nice to have another adult in the house, for a lot of reasons. First of all, just to have another adult in the house was such a relief for a little while. Someone to chat with, someone to hang with, someone to commiserate with about one of the kids being a bear that day; but it also brought to light those things I wasn’t doing, because despite all the many things I’d done to move forward this past year, I was still holding myself responsible for something that wasn’t my fault. I was still beating myself up for not being superhuman; for not being someone who could cure brain cancer, for being a woman and not a deity. A flawed, human woman, who couldn’t save her husband from an awful fate, who had been trying the past year to do just what she thought he’d want her to do: live. Except despite all my “living,” part of me was still trapped in the feeling that I’d failed him. Once I figured out what was happening, being me, I (of course!) challenged myself to “feel the fear, and do it anyway.” I had a wise therapist tell me that once, and I’ve said it to myself at least a million times since. 

It all started with watching TV.  When my Mom arrived to town, we put the kids to bed one night, and she told me about a couple of new shows on Amazon. Except for old reruns of Gilmore Girls and Psych, I hadn’t watched TV (at ALL) since I had closed on my new house in December. I’m not good at sitting still anymore in general; being a single mom of three kids, you can imagine how much needs to get done Sitting isn’t in the job description (I’m even standing at my island, putting dishes away, as I write and edit this post). One night, after the kids went to bed, and knowing I’d have the luxury of extra hands to help me the next day (and would only have the enjoyment of another adult around to watch TV with another week!), I agreed. It felt foreign at first. There’s almost never a minute of the day that I’m not multitasking, which I realize has made it harder for me to focus on one thing at a time; but by episode two, I was back in the game, and I loved it. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed getting lost in shows and storylines. 

From there, I started to cook again. Kenny and I were people who loved to eat (and cook, and then eat what we cooked…). At least five times across our relationship we ate at restaurants that cost about the same as a short vacation (Yes, for one meal. Yes, you read that right; and no, I don’t have a single regret about it). The last year or two of Kenny’s life, cooking elaborate meals wasn’t a “thing.” We were tired and stressed, and whipping up ginger glazed mahi mahi was the furthest thing on my mind; but in our heyday, we got some awesome meals on the table. Sweet potato vegan chili, breakfast pizza with bacon, scallions and poached eggs, braised short ribs, squash macaroni and cheese with bacon, gruyere and white cheddar…we weren’t afraid of trying new recipes, new flavor combinations, or failing at both.

With my mom in town, and a reinvigorated zeal to press forward, I decided to try again. I still had it! Perfectly timed pork chops (on the bone, because if you ask me, any meat tastes better on the bone…#meatsnob!), covered in baked pears and onions with a side of rainbow fingerling potatoes. Grass-fed, medium rare London broil with stir fried vegetables, brown rice and coconut aminos. When my time of feeding a guest was done with, I didn’t want to stop- but could I REALLY go ahead and make myself lemon drizzled scallops and crispy, sea salted asparagus, while I cooked my kids grilled cheese? I was dubious, but when I cruised Harris Teeter over the weekend, those scallops called to me. It felt weird to order such a small amount. It felt weirder to cook it with the sole intention of feeding “just me,” but I did it, and it was fucking delicious. My next challenge to myself to is to cook for my friends, and pray I don’t make them sick (I kid, I kid…).

Next, I did “bath time” again. Bath time had always been Kenny’s thing. It was his “Daddy” thing that he did after work, to play and reconnect with the kids. I’d usually clean up dinner in the kitchen, and listen to them joyfully bouncing around in tub, telling Kenny about their day. After he passed, I started having them shower all the time. It was just easier, I thought. Looking back, it was one of those things I felt bad doing without him. So last week, after joyfully helping the landscaper lay fresh soil in the yard, my boys were filthy. Instead of tossing them in my shower, like usual, I poured Mr. Bubbles into the tub and watched as they happily splashed about. Getting to be little guys once again, with bubble beards and mustaches. 

And finally, I started to read books again. I missed the shores of Nantucket, the pages filled with strong women, sisters, friends, mothers and daughters. With just the slightest bit of hesitation, two weeks ago, I purchased the book she’d been writing around the time I lost Kenny.  It brought me back to my escape, except this time, it was just for fun. Did I deserve it? I don’t know, I still struggle with feeling “less than.” Survivor’s guilt isn’t going to go away after a few small self-challenges (maybe it never will), but it was certainly a start to overcoming it.  After I finished the novel, I couldn’t help but sing proudly in my head “Sail on, Silver Girl…”

Megan Courtney