In the days after Paul's death, there were things to be done; some expected and some I had not bargained for. I had begun mental preparations for the funeral days before I had to. I knew which songs he would want; who would facilitate the service, who I wanted to render the eulogies. What I could never prepare for were the small, imperceptible slights that unglued a thinly constructed veneer; the social security office, for instance. I knew I'd be asked for my identification and his certificate of death. I handed them to the woman behind the desk, trembling but resolute. When she began typing and, without looking up, asked, "What was your husband's name?". I finally heard it. "Was", past tense.
I have written here before that what surprised me most is the inequitable quiet of death, the absence of reassurance or comfort. I must rescind that now. Having passed a year's time without him, I can tell you truly there have been suspicions of something more.
This winter I got characteristically stuck in the mud and tried to turn around in a spot grossly unsupportive of mini-vans. This habit had been a running joke in our marriage. One year, on my way to Christmas service, I made a helpless call to AAA. The driver did a horrible job hiding his amusement with me. There was a night out with the girls when my triple A membership rescued me again. A good thing, since my sleeping husband never heard a single frantic call home. So, on this particular day, I was familiar with what to do, only here's the thing: I had left home without my cell phone. The more I tried to back out of the mud, the more stuck I became. Will you believe me when I tell you what happened next? I question myself, even as I write it. In one quick motion, my car seemed to lift up from the mud and be deposited once more onto solid pavement.
Visiting San Diego in April, I spilled out the details of the previous ten months to my dear friend Jules, her Golden Retriever Luna sitting between us. While I petted her dog and cried with Jules, Luna winked right at me. Not a blink, but a legitimate wink, the exact way Paul had, so many times from his hospital room.
After one particularly difficult grief session with my counselor Claire, I hurried home, realizing all the windows downstairs had been left open in the rain. As I closed one window, I saw something that stopped me. There, wedged between two panes of glass, was a dragonfly. The dragonfly, as you may already know, has become for the kids and I, a symbol of transformation. So there I was, in the midst of working through some painful stuff, looking at a trapped dragonfly. With great gentleness, I lowered the window, hoping to set it free. It didn't move. I gingerly blew on it and watched as it took flight. Could I possibly miss the symbolism? I was holding on so tightly to Paul, keeping him trapped. Mired down with pain, I could not set him free. When I called my sister to tell her what I'd seen, she had a different perspective. "Heidi, is the dragonfly you? Do God, and Paul, want to set you free?" This would make for a better story if I told you that was all it took. That, from that revelation on, I began to release my desire to have him back. But there were still months of anguish and arguing ahead before I could begin to let go.
On the Fourth of July, our neighbor "Mr. Paul" came to my kitchen window as I stood washing the dishes. "Honey," he said, "Are you ready?" I hesitated, uncertain. Later that night, the three of us set sail; Mr. Paul, Miss Ali and I. Paul navigated the boat just past the beach where we swim. "We can sit here until 10 at night if you need to, honey. Take as much time as you need" Ali said. After a few minutes and a few words of goodbye, I walked to the back of the boat and released Paul's ashes into the ocean. "I will always love you". I said. He exists in another dimension, but Paul, and our love for him, remains.
I have often viewed life through a spiritual lens. On the night before my childhood dog died, I whispered goodbye and knew it was the last time I'd see him. I cried in fearful foreshadowing the night my brother ended up in the hospital with a bad concussion. Whether it was rubbing my rosary in rote prayer or raising my hands in evangelical vigor, I have always huddled near Him. My one constant was the awareness of God in, and over, the world. How could I miss Him in the months after Paul's death? The answer is clear to me now. The truth is, when we numb ourselves from the pain-when alcohol or food or people or things medicate the place of pain inside us-we numb ourselves to everything else, too. We keep at bay the very things that might bring us forgiveness, joy and peace. We miss the dragonflies.
This summer I walked the beach. I cried, sometimes in deliberate, scheduled ways. I laughed every chance I could. I admitted areas of excess in my life, those convienent escapes from grief. I spent time with strong, sage people, willing to keep company with suffering. I played with my children. I made dinner and fed my friends. I swam.
After his ashes were emptied, Paul and Ali held me, encircling me with all the love two chosen parents could give. Ali whispered words of comfort. Paul added that my Paul would continue to be with us; in the water as we swam, next to us as we gathered quahogs, washing up onto the sands of the beach. As we turned around and headed home, the night sky had tuned into an explosion of pink. We were struck quiet by the sheer beauty of it. A band on a nearby beach began to play. A bonfire burned in the distance. Showy and splendid, so very Paul.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a lesser known passage of the Bible. It says, "Call to me and I will answer you and show you great and unsearchable things you do not know." In the throes of crisis, as Paul's doctors gathered to discuss with us the considerable obstacles to his recovery, I wondered about that scripture. I imagined praying that line over every doctor gathered that day-how 'unsearchable things' revealed to those collective, capable hands, might change things.
In my future, not too distant, I suspect there will be a reunion between me and the wooden pews of my chilhood. Or perhaps I will meet with God, as I often do, calling out in the early morning sun on His (Her) sea. Perhaps I might glean some unsearchable things as I walk along the beach. Wherever I end up, one thing I am certain. The same God who sends the dragonflies is holding onto my best friend, preparing for me the greatest reunion I could ever imagine. Because Paul was. Because he is...