I want to talk about Pete. But I worry people will not be comfortable with me talking about him, especially if I cry – which I most certainly will. I worry talking about him might communicate to some that I am “stuck” in grief when in reality, I think I’m just now coming out of shock. I worry people will tire of me talking about him when in reality, I have actually spoken very little about him since he died.
And he was so great. We should talk about him. Right?
Did you know…
Did you know Pete collected stringed instruments? one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, three electric basses, one acoustic electric bass and one upright bass?
Did you know he played his upright bass for Faith to walk down the aisle at her wedding? He played “There’s a place for us” from West Side Story.
Did you know he loved the Allman Brothers? When Greg Allman died last month, I hated not having him around to play his favorite songs.
Did you know he loved history? When he died he was studying the Columbian exchange. He had been reading about it for almost a month. One day after work, he wheeled into the kitchen and asked me, “Did you know that cows are not indigenous to America?” I said, “No I didn’t. Who on earth would load a cow into a boat and transport it here?” When I turned around, he had the biggest grin on his face because clearly I had asked the right question. “Exactly… it’s part of the Columbian exchange.” He kept talking blah blah blah and I cut him off and said, “Wait, Columbian like Christopher not Columbian like the country?” Then he no longer had the same smile but still stuck with me. “Yes, I’m reading up on the ramifications of Columbus coming to the new world and how we got what and when we got it.”
Did you know he was also reading Waking Up White and frustrated with it. From time to time, he’d suggest that the author is naive or that her experience is not his experience in realizing his “white-ness.” And then in no time we would come to realize white people aren’t too different from one another – none of us really understand that we’re white and privileged and powerful. Even him, in a wheelchair, on disability – a middle aged white male has tremendous power.
Did you know someone gave Mateo a bi-plane that came with a battery operated toy screwdriver. The bi-plane could be taken apart with the screwdriver. One morning I helped Mateo take the plane apart but then I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. I said, “maybe PopPop can help.” And so he started to hand the pieces to Pete and sure enough, 15 minutes later the plane was back together again.
Did you know he loved Sherlock Holmes? Absolutely any rendition, he was in.
Did you know he wore button up shirts and ties for the 25 years he worked for National Starch? But before he got to his desk, he would loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves.
Did you know he can quote the first line or tell you about any main character in a book but most of us have never seen him reading those books? I think he read them all before he turned 25.
Did you know he was not a fan of sweets? Yep, he would say, “All this and sugar free too.”
Did you know he had the cheesiest sense of humor?
Did you know he also had the darkest sense of humor?
Did you know he bought himself an Amazon Alexa mostly to have her tell him jokes? True.
Here – I’ll ask her for a joke for you…
“What do you call a potato wearing glasses? A spectator.”
Did you know he collected hats?
… and NRA stuff – Not National Rifle Association but The National Recovery Administration. This was a prime New Deal agency established by FDR in 1933. The goal was to bring industry, labor, and government together to create codes of "fair practices" and set prices.
Did you know he marched on Washington in protest to the Vietnam War? He and others from NJ slept near the Lincoln Memorial. He often talked about his shock (and probably fear and perhaps some new awareness of how the world works) at military police with automatic rifles walking around what was a completely peaceful protest.
Did you know he was actually a tea drinker in his earlier life? But then he got a job where in order to get a cup of tea, you had to go into a lounge where primarily women gathered. He felt out of place and perhaps invading their space so he settled for the coffee that was flowing freely in the office.
Did you know this was his favorite tshirt of all time? (Based on research done by me.)
Did you know although he did not have a sweet tooth, he loved bread with butter? When we were first married, I made (my bread machine made) honey granola bread regularly. And he went to work with it still warm. He said, “Those were the good days.”
Did you know he also loved pork roll? Of course you did.
Did you know he loved to talk to strangers?
Did you know he had an impressive LP Collection until his wife convinced him to sell them back to the Princeton Record Exchange for a fraction of what it cost him? And her reasoning was that we had not had a record player on which to play any of the records for as long as they had been married. And did you know she needs someone to grant her dispensation from this horrendous act?
Did you know he loved Mark Twain? Particularly, he often quoted the War Prayer.
Did you know he loved Dan and Joe more than any words he could ever utter? The three of them lived happily with one another using as little words as possible before they met me. And now there is all this need for talking.
Today marks two months without my beloved. Two months without a kiss or a hug or a pinch of my butt. Pete would often sneak a pinch of my butt and then with a smile, he would say, “I paid $14 for that pinch.”
We had a running joke about our marriage license costing $28 and each of us paid half. And so for the bargain price of $14, Pete could pinch my butt whenever he wanted to.
The other day, my grandson Mateo and I were settling in for a nap in my bed. He was laying half on Pete’s side of the bed, half on mine and we were laying close with my arm around him and I was suddenly aware of how beautiful touch feels. My arm wrapped around his. Our warmth together.
One week after Pete died, my girlfriends had planned a spa day together. I am a regular with massages. I keep a lot of stress in my body (as we all do); This spa party was not with my regular massage therapist. And I had not been touched in this way since Pete’s death. Realizing I was anxious, I emailed the spa ahead of time to tell them my story and ask that they assign the right therapist to me.
They understood and had assigned a therapist who did energy work as well as massage. She had lost a love as well in her lifetime and understood the odd sensation of being touched by another. We started in a prayerful manner by my head and then I can best describe her massage of me as lightly petting me everywhere. She never used strong touch or deep massage techniques. She just moved her hands over each inch of my body finishing with my feet.
I cried a bit but mostly I allowed myself to feel the sensation of being touched. And I was thankful for the safety and warmth of the experience.
I practiced the Japanese healing art called Reiki. For me, as a Christian practitioner, my practice is about sensing the person’s energy and prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit for healing which I feel/sense as the moving energy in the room. I have spent a lot of time in people’s energy. I have honed a skill in differentiating my energy from others’ energy. I have learned to name or describe certain energy in a room, with a person but most importantly within myself.
The practice of Reiki for me has been primarily self-discovery. After all, isn’t this how we are able to serve others. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Since Pete’s death, I sense differences in my own internal self. For example, I almost always have a humming sensation around the part of my body that holds my heart. And most of my upper back is tight, as if protecting the “back door of my heart.”
A couple weeks after Pete’s death, my daughter in law to be, Teal and I planned to go for a foot massage at an Asian massage place around the corner from her home. But when we got there, we thought, “Let’s do an hour.” And I thought, “Well, if I’m doing an hour, I’m going to have her do my back.” So as I settled on the table, I took a deep breath and suddenly realized I was about to have someone who does not speak my language work out the muscles and energy of my back and I would not be able to communicate what is going on with me. I should know better, I thought to myself.
So I took another breath, I said a prayer and I decided I would deal with whatever consequences there might be from this experience tomorrow. Well… if my back was the floorplan of my interior life (my emotions, my hurt, my joy, my worry, my grief) she opened up every dang room and every dang closet. I was swept clean – and I was left vulnerable and exposed.
So I spent the next couple days breathing in God’s love for me, trusting my love for myself and accepting the love from so many around me.
A couple weeks after, I went to a trusted massage therapist, who not only speaks the same language as me, she knew Pete and loves me. She used a bit harder touch but not as hard as would be typical for me. When she got to my shoulders, I had an overwhelming sensation that something was leaving, like a package and internally I started to grab for it, to save it. Then I am not kidding - Pete swooped into the room and with his sternest voice he said, “You have got to let that go.”
I started to object but he cut me off. With the same stern voice but this time filled with deep sympathy, he said, “You should never have had to carry that in the first place.”
I believe (although I can’t be completely sure) the package was filled with the weight of caring for him. In one fell swoop, the responsibility, the worry, the stress, the joy and love of caring for him as he has been sick left me.
I cried through the rest of the massage.
Our bodies carry trauma with them. Life happens and things stick to us. Sometimes things burrow inside of us and although talk therapy is invaluable, we need to honor the physicality of our lives. Not all of who we are happens in our thoughts. We are bodies. We are amazing bodies. Bodies that protect us and keep us. They move for us and serve us. And they take a beating because of us – inside and outside.
Last week, I had my annual visit to the OBGYN. I hadn’t really thought about the visit until I parked my car.
I texted Faith, “I’m at OBGYN… this appointment is never fun but it feels even more weird without anyone else touching me. Too much info but needed to say it.”
She texted back, “[sad emoji] I know you miss his hands.”
How absolutely true. I miss his hands. I miss his touch. I miss the warmth of his body beside mine. I miss the hugs and the kisses and the pinches of my butt.
Pete used to say, “I feel as if a giant duck is walking behind me, stomping out my past.” Try to imagine a duck – several stories tall - real, stuffed, cartoon, whatever you like; it’s your imagination. And now imagine that duck walking behind you with its big webbed feet crushing down on your elementary school leaving you with only memories.
There were several places in Pete’s life that had closed or moved or changed – squashed by the duck, he would say. And there were several friends who also seemed to be squashed by the duck. Pete was left with memories but without the touch or voice with which to reconnect physically to many he loved dearly, not least of which was his father and his mother.
The Duck. The Damn Duck.
I used to roll my eyes about the Duck because he was clearly being dramatic. His childhood had not been stomped out at all, and certainly not by an imaginary Duck. His childhood home still stands exactly where his father built it. They’ve added on to it but it’s still there. And his childhood school still stands, although the Diocese closed it long ago. All of the houses where he raised his children still stand, and they look basically the same minus one beautiful Cherry Blossom tree that was great for climbing.
The McDonald’s where he worked as a teenager is gone. The first office he had at National Starch is gone. National Starch was sold a couple times over at this point but the last building where he worked still stands.
And yet, he still talked about the Duck.
Pete was oriented in the past. It’s not just that he loved history, which he did; he was guided and grounded by his roots.
Throughout our marriage, he was so confused by my lack of physical roots or even my incessant need to think about and plan for the future. I was always thinking several months ahead and always leaning into what was next. And now that he is gone, I am desperate to find my roots, to hold onto something that has been here for awhile, something that knows me, knows the landscape.
Within the first few hours of Pete’s death, my family threw away his pillow. (It had blood stains from trying to revive him.) Then they changed all the sheets on my bed. They did every bit of laundry they could find. They cleaned the stains on the rug that had accumulated over several years of Pete spilling coffee or grinding dirt with his wheelchair. They also disposed of the medicine, his toothbrush, his deodorant. All that was left of him in the bathroom was a gold bar of Dial soap.
The day after his death, an army of family members collected every handicap accessible device in our home and drove them to a Goodwill Medical Supply store. All that remained of Pete’s journey with chronic illness was a manual wheelchair, a motorized wheelchair, a hospital bed and an accessible van – the bigger items for which we would need to find the right home.
The Duck had started to stamp out Pete’s life.
Yesterday, I sold the van. I sold it to one my closest companions, the associate pastor and her husband at my church whose daughter has special needs. Her daughter is 3 years old and she is now the proud owner of a fancy van, equipped with a motorized ramp.
Pete said once, “I wish I could see the world the way this little girl does.” Erin wrote about this in a blog post called "Heavenly Gazes and Wisdom." Objectively, we’re unsure what she is able to see or comprehend. But Pete was very clear - no one sees the world that way she does.
I remember years ago, I was pushing Pete in a wheelchair through an airport. Afterward, Pete said, “the only people who look at me when I am riding a wheelchair is others in wheelchairs and children.” Perhaps this insight is why Pete wished he could see what she sees.
Although as the van pulled away, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to part of my history. The van was part of my life for the past four years but now it has a future that I can partly imagine. The Duck and his big webbed feet didn’t squash out this part of Pete’s life.
A little piece of Pete’s world will continue as this little girl takes in the world through her unique senses as she travels through life in the back of Pete’s van, in the back of her van.
One more thing... If Pete were still alive, the changes proposed to the Affordable Care Act that are currently in the Senate would prove to be dangerous to him and others who are the most vulnerable in our society. If these changes pass, they will be devastating to Lucia. If you haven't already reached out to your representatives to let them know how important it is to care for our most vulnerable - those with pre-existing conditions, children and the elderly. If you want or need more information, please read Erin's most recent blog post, "Why I'm Worried: An Inhospitable Present for People with Disabilities."
We live, I live on the second floor of a condominium building. We are just above a semi-busy street. Directly in front of our patio is a large Maple tree. She is flanked by a variety of pine and some bushes beneath her.
Across the street however is a small forest, perhaps four or five trees deep. They block the view of the Shop Rite most of the year. They are Oak and Maple, Pine and Cypress.
Pete mentioned the trees often. In particular, he would tell me about the motion of the trees as they waved in the breeze during the day. Until that afternoon sitting on the patio, I would have said his primary view of the world was his online life and the audio books he was devouring. But I would have been wrong.
You see, about two weeks after Pete’s death, I was suddenly aware of the surrounding trees. It felt as if they were watching me, listening to me thinking. I had never experienced creation as participating in life with me before. But that afternoon, I saw the Maple and the chorus behind her and I realized that they had watched Pete too.
fact, they knew him. They knew all that had happened. They saw his mobility being taken from him. And it occurred to me that they probably saw him cry more than I did.
These trees were Pete’s witnesses.
I broke down in tears, whispering words of thanks to these strong witnesses. “Thank you for being here for him. For watching and listening and witnessing to his life and his hurt and his worry and his doubt and his love,” I said.
A few days went by. My heart felt like it someone had taken a fillet knife and shaved off the front of it. I looked to the trees and asked them, “how will a wound this ugly ever heal?”
I turned to my right and tried to imagine Pete sitting beside me. I tried to tell him how I was feeling – the pain in my heart, the crying that turned to moaning (that I saved for when I was alone – or with the trees.) I told Pete, “I’m at a loss for how any of this will heal. My heart is so torn apart. Anytime I think about what I can do to heal it, I just think how ugly the scar will be.”
And after a moment of silence, I added, “I love you Pete.”
And I’m not kidding – the trees spoke to me. Not audibly. But they communicated clearly, “Don’t stop doing that. Don’t stop loving him.”
I blinked with uncertainty; I looked up at the chorus of my green friends and said, “What? Do you mean I don’t have to let him go? I can keep loving him?”
I looked over to where I had imagined Pete sitting beside me and I said, “Oh my God, Pete, that’s how my heart is going to heal!”
And the trees sighed a solid, “Yes.”
Tears streaming down my face, lump in my throat, I caught my breath and said, “I know how to love him. I can do that. I can.”
Continue to love. Love will heal my heart. Love heals.
The Christian scriptures say that God is love. It’s not an adjective in that sentence. It does not say that God is loving or God is lovely. It says God is Love. When we love, we know God.
The trees set me straight that day. This was not a time to let go, move on, set aside, bury the dead. This was a time to continue to love. This season of love will look very different than the last season of love. And the the season before that was different as well. The trees knew that; they had witnessed it.
We humans often fall short of the kind of love we wish to give and to receive. But the trees, they stand with generations of love embedded in their trunks. Their branches creep outward fueled by love. And with their leaves they wave love to us as they witness to our lives.