A new season of grief...


Spring has sprung here in North Carolina. The trees are in bloom, the grass is green, and although temps swing from t-shirt weather back down to needing a coat in the morning, overall, its pretty mild. You’d think with the sunshine and fresh air, we’d be bouncing happily around from park to playground, and back again. 

While we’ve definitely made great use of the early warm temps, I’ve been feeling…funky. Not quite in a total depression, not quite myself either. While I could certainly attribute this “off” feeling to any number of things, I realized this past week that almost everything seems to serve as a reminder of where I was this moment last year. And at this moment last year, I do believe I was hitting the absolute rock bottom of a seemingly bottomless pit of awfulness. 

Watching Kenny not be Kenny every day was a special kind of torture. We ate it, slept it, breathed it. I had to change all of our account passwords so he couldn’t access them. I had to remove him from our checking account because he’d taken to using the funds to order random things on the internet, and it became a real worry, that he was going to unintentionally drain it. I had to get up and get myself dressed like a human, and walk into the bank and actually say the words out loud, that I needed to remove my husband from our bank account. I cried in the morning before I went, I cried again when I got in my car afterward; but I walked into that bank, and did it. The whole time, mentally reciting the sentences over and over, “I need to remove my husband from our bank account, here’s my information, here’s his…” I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to follow through. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get the words out. I did it, though. I remember getting back to the house, and my face crumpling up as Kenny’s mom hugged me. It was a stab in my heart, to do that. Kenny had been the finance guy. The bills guy. The guy with an excel spreadsheet for everything. Every last red cent we ever spent was spelled out in rectangular boxes on the computer screen. And here I was…officially taking it over. All of it. It was the first time that it dawned on me that, soon enough, life, all of it, was going to be on me. No division of labor. No “I’ll handle the kids and the house and life, and you handle the bills, and the details.” It was going to be all me, all the time. In the face of mourning, in the face of grief and pain and loneliness. All me. It was the first of many times, from that minute forward, that I would have to do things that felt like a betrayal. Any form of acknowledgement that he wasn’t going to be here, that he was really leaving (and then really gone), felt like cheating, somehow. 

I was starting to go under. Kenny’s mom had suggested I take a “break”—go to NJ, see my family, see old friends, just for a few days. I was hesitant, but at that moment, I agreed, because I couldn’t go one more second without air. So I booked a last minute flight for the kids and I. Friends and family in NJ scrambled to find us car seats, Kenny’s sister loaned me her SUV, a family friend picked us up from the airport. I shared how happy I was to see family, spend my brother’s birthday weekend with him, and I even shared my Jennifer Carpenter (of Dexter/Limitless fame) story—how she’d rearranged seats on the plane so Benny could sit with us. What I didn’t share then, was how hopeless life felt that minute. I had a recurring dream in the days leading up to this mini trip that haunted me. I can’t say it was a nightmare, because nothing bad happened in the dream, but it left me hurting nonetheless. 

In my dream, I’m simply walking into my mother’s house. I stroll past her living room into the kitchen, where I find Kenny…young, healthy, gorgeous. Kenny sitting at the kitchen island, smiling at me, with an expression on his face that I take to say “THERE you are! I’ve been waiting for you to come find me!!!” Then I wake up. Every time. Never a word said. Nothing but that gorgeous smiling face looking at me, with such relief that I’d found him. It still haunts me. This weekend last year, I actually made that stroll into my mother’s house. Except I didn’t stroll, I ran. I ran before my mind could realize what my heart was hoping to see. I ran ahead of my kids, leaving them in an open doorway. I ran, having absolutely no clue why I was running. 

And when I got into the kitchen, and he wasn’t there…I remember feeling (literally and physically) like I had the wind knocked out of me. I simply leaned over the kitchen island and sobbed. My mother looked so scared and confused. She had no clue why I ran in and began crying like that; and at that second, I was crying too hard to explain. Through tears, through my hands over my face, I tried to tell her. I’m pretty sure all I got out was “I had this dream, and he was here…” I mean, of course he wasn’t there. Physically he was in North Carolina with his mother, texting me nonsense every few minutes or so. The disease had progressed so far that he often had no train of thought, forgot what he was doing or saying; most of the time, he wasn’t even lucid. Before brain cancer, Kenny loved to tease me by making me upset; joking that I’d forgotten to do something, or that I never told him something, and at the last minute he’d say “GOTCHA!” Some of the conversations or things he’d say by this point were so far gone, I fully expected him to “snap to” at any second and say “Pysch! Just kidding!” Except that never happened, because, in reality, the cancer had taken over. There was no “Kenny” left, just a walking, breathing tumor that held memories of a life “it” hadn’t lived. A pod person. In that moment, I fucking cracked, wide open. Months, if not years of holding everything in, of self pep talks, of convincing myself he’d be fine, we’d be fine—that we’d live a long life together…it all came crashing down. He wasn’t here. He wasn’t there. He was gone and he was never coming back.

When I look at those pictures…of this weekend, last year, a mere 365 days ago, somehow it feels like some bizarre “worlds colliding” experience. I’m not that woman anymore. That’s not my life anymore. And yet, this morning, as I saw those photos, I was pulled back in. I had that same feeling of having the wind knocked out of me, just like I did then. That dream, still so vivid in my mind…that desperation, the feeling I can only describe as having everything inside of me scooped out with a spoon…I can still feel it. My kids have grown a foot each since those photos. Kenny’s been gone just over ten months. I write this from my beautiful new home…and yet, my chest still feels tight with the image of his face, smiling at me from behind my mother’s  kitchen island.

I’ve already decided today will be better than that day. I’ll do what I do. I’ll take the kids to Costco. We’ll play outside. We’ll laugh and dance until the muscles in my rib cage loosen. I’ll hop into the life we live now, and remind myself of why I’ve worked so hard for nearly a year to get us where we are. And in 365 days from now, I’m aware that I’ll wake up, and my chest will be tight with the memories, and cry; and then I’ll do it all over again. My kids will be another foot taller then. Who knows what else will be different, but I’ve come to learn that grief is very much like these changing seasons. We know winter will come again, but we also know spring will, too; where all things grow again, even me. 

Megan Courtney