Rough Going

Published on June 11, 2017 by Michelle Wirth

It’s Pride, my third Pride without my partner of 20 years. Fresh pain, more than I expected.

Two days ago I brought my dog Harry to the veterinarian for knee surgery. His first surgery occurred over a year ago, near the first anniversary of the death of my wife. That winter I was so crushed that I went to the veterinarian wearing my pajamas. I sat on the floor with my dog to comfort him because he held me and would not let go. I remember how a vet tech became openly hostile and condescending. I assumed it was a “kill the weak” response, unchecked. At the time I shrugged it off. This Friday I drove to the veterinarian knowing the ghosts of that winter appointment were waiting and no one could see them but me.

Harry came home yesterday. The surgery went well but I have to keep his meds constant or the pain and fear are inhumane. When he is awake he fears the yard which hurt him the first and last time he tried to poop. He fears his sister who was near the door when he walked out into the yard. He looks at me, ears down and eyes sad, like I am punishing him. He cannot understand why he is in pain.

When Madeleine died I threw away the prescription drugs but kept the bottles. Maybe because her handwriting was on them. Maybe because I can’t stand more empty spaces she will not come back to fill. Maybe because without the shock of the horror of the medication bottles, all that is left in her nightstand are the things that bring me to my knees – her eyeglasses, a pen, ear plugs. I cannot understand how she cannot come back.

I have to make a meds chart for Harry, so that he doesn’t miss a dose even first thing in the morning when I am bleary eyed. So that I’m free to keep my attention on how he’s doing, how he’s feeling, to support him if he wakes and rallies enough to move through the house to the yard, to do what little he can do.

It’s Pride and I can’t leave the house because I have unraveled – this grief and these memories of something that cannot be real, this sweet dog here and now in pain he cannot understand – and I have to tie these strings together in the form of this med schedule chart like the one I had to write for my wife – “Gabapentin every twelve hours, 8 am, 8 pm…”

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Streaking By

Published on March 10, 2017 by Michelle Wirth

(Frick Park in Spring. Hill between Beechwood and Forbes.)When I was 34, my wife encouraged me to get my motorcycle license, something I had wanted for myself but hadn’t pursued. We learned it would be better for our marriage if I learned how to ride a motorcycle from someone I wasn’t married to. I hesitated to ride fast enough to obtain balance and control of the motorcycle on Pittsburgh’s streets, all hills and curves. I struggled to maintain balance and control of the motorcycle while riding slowly in the K-Mart parking lot, while people drove their cars past me as if I knew what I was doing. Instead of becoming one with the motorcycle, every fiber of my being was shouting “Attention K-Mart shoppers!” (Get out of the way now please don’t let me hit you please!)

Pennsylvania offers a free motorcycle safety course. I was the only woman in my class. I passed the book test, took the rider training in the parking lot on smaller motorcycles, and failed the riding test. I did not have the confidence needed to let loose on the course. A year flew by and I returned to the class. Passed the book test. Returned to the parking lot classroom and was again the only woman on a motorcycle. This time some things made sense that just hadn’t clicked before. I understood them in the fibers of my being. I counted up the miles and figured I had logged a total of 15 training miles in this parking lot, plus 15 from the year before – and I had a chance of passing the class.

On the day of our riding test, I was looking forward to smooth sailing from the training to the testing part of the day. October’s cold rain started falling before our class ended, and we were blinded by the rain that stuck to our safety visors. Then we were told we would have to wait and take our test after a class that had come before us. The instructor explained that their test results hadn’t been certified correctly, and they had to retake the test. Other returning students had not passed the first time so they were getting a do-over. From the sidelines, I would not be able to tell the difference.
As we stood on the curb in the cold rain, a group of women crested the hill. Women in riding gear, holding helmets, looking totally badass. Women retaking the motorcycle safety test. Each of them had their first motorcycle driving experiences in this class in this parking lot. They took the class together because their boyfriends liked to ride together.

One woman said to me, “I’ve had plenty of time riding, but I was never driving the bike.”
“You mean you were always a passenger, on the back seat?” “Yes.”
“It’s different when you’re in control of the bike, not the accessory.” “Yes.” We each got our motorcycle licenses.

My wife bought a bike that was a good fit for my short legs and strong reservations. She rode us out to the pitted parking lot of a big box church that was empty on week days, and watched as I practiced swerving figure-eights around potholes.

When I was 39, she asked me to stop coloring my hair. She liked the silver streak that had come in down the middle. I said no, because I was job hunting.

When I was 40, she died.
I would give anything to run my fingers through the gunmetal grey, soft curls of her short hair.

I would give anything for my wife to see me get older.

I see the silver strands of my hair and I feel tenderness for all that she wanted to share with me. When I see older women who have white hair, or hair they’ve died purple or highlighted cobalt blue, I want to nod at them the way motorcycle riders nod at one another when they pass on the street, badass just for having their hands on the grips and doing the ride. In the moments I feel overwhelmed in the driver’s seat of my life I look up in the mirror and see silver signs that life is streaking by, and I find steadiness in the speed.
I’m 42. I’m learning how to navigate the terrain without my wife gunning the engine, or standing back to witness as I set a course and pick up speed. I’m job hunting again.

I cut my hair to a professional length, and I left the silver streak that says this is not my first ride.

Post Script – The Pennsylvania Motorcycle Safety Course is funded with the learner’s permit and licensing fees paid by Pennsylvania motorcyclists – so if you passed your permit test, come take the course you paid for! Check out the FAQs here.

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Published on March 3, 2017 by Michelle Wirth

I play one of Madeleine’s favorite recordings, Yo Yo Ma performing Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major. In my mind I am in our old house, on a massage table, watching the afternoon sunlight fanning across yellow walls, as Madeleine digs her elbow into some tender spot.

The embodied memories of having been married to a deep tissue massage therapist.

I spent last week on a tropical island in the extraordinary space created by magnificent people from around the world. I learned the fluid embrace, the cradling and the expansive space of Lomi massage. I experienced Madeleine and embodied her in her absence as I could not have in her presence, standing in a place at the table where she used to stand, moving as she used to move, reaching for her as I stepped into the space in my own right.

I walked barefoot on the black sands of Hawaii, the way I wanted to when I first saw the picture in the social studies book in elementary school. Before I could imagine that I would one day float in the Dead Sea with my wife, and we would come home with a part-siamese kitten who had bitten her hand on the street, and that he would be endlessly loving without ever getting any easier. If you had asked me then, I would have sworn my adult self would have gone first to the Redwood Forests (this land is made for you and me). From Hawaii I crossed the ocean and drove up the California coast with my boyfriend. We are holding off on a trip to the Redwood Forests, for a longer weekend, for a more languid ride. We stayed at a hotel on the beach and I collected rocks rolled smooth by the waves, because that is what I do. There is a Jewish tradition of putting pebbles on grave markers. I have a flicker of thought about whether I will place one of these on his marker, or if he will place one on mine. I crack a joke instead about how, having filled my pockets with rocks, I could walk into the water like Virginia Woolf.

On our way up the coast, we had stopped at a gas station for the bathroom and there were two women ahead of me in line. They said the guy ahead of them had been in there for ten minutes already. I knocked on the door briskly and asked the guy if he was alright (he was). One of the women remarked that I have more balls than she does. I explained that if someone’s using heroin in a public bathroom there’s a short window of time to use Narcan in the event of an overdose. She looked at me oddly so I clarified that, of course, there were a lot of other sudden ways to die that don’t involve overdose – stroke, heart attack, aneurysm. She asked if I have a medical background. I said no, I have just become familiar with a lot of sudden ways to die. This seemed like a good time to leave and find an available bathroom. On the flight home, as we sat on the runway a man went into seizures. While we waited for medics to arrive the woman sitting next to me went into detail about how she nurses her husband through his diabetic seizures. I turned my gaze out the window to give our fellow passenger some privacy as they wheeled him off the plane, and I listened to my seat mate detail her seizure response habits, with the new found patience of one who now knows how turbulence evokes turbulent memories.

I crossed the continent and came home at midnight to an empty house.
Today my wife’s siamese-ish cat cried and cried harrowing my soul like nails on a chalk board until I yelled at her – at Madeleine – “All those years of yelling at me from another room no matter how many times I told you I can’t make out the words, and now you leave me with a f#cking cat who cries from the basement. FUCK YOU.” And then I laughed until I cried. And I thought, finally, something about this is funny.

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My Funny Valentine

Published on February 15, 2017 by Michelle Wirth

Madeleine’s angle for why we should move in together, was so that we could have time together after our dates when we weren’t arguing. We would often start arguing on a date and not resolve the argument until long after, on a phone call. This was years before I learned the term “anxious-attachment style.” It just seemed normal, romance between the daughter of an attorney and a woman headed to law school.

In the early days of reeling from losing Madeleine, in those months when it hurt to breathe, when I looked back on the issues we had just transformed in our marriage and those we were planning on working on next, what gave me peace was knowing how hard we had worked and how far we had come. We had earned credit with one another. We knew we were good for it.

The twenty years we had were a good start. We were partners living life at full speed when cancer crashed through everything. We wanted 40 years together. I think about the 20 years ahead of us we will never have. I have wondered how we would have worn those years, wondered if those years would have worn the clanking edges off of us.

And then I read the words of Isaac and Rosa Blum, who met in a war ghetto, survived the Nazi Holocaust, and lived to argue with one another for over 75 years:

“We have a different point of view, but somehow we’ve survived,” she said. “What keeps us together are the quarrels. That’s the cement of a marriage.”

“I love him in spite of all his defects,” she said. “It’s not so easy, but I wouldn’t change him for somebody else.”

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Uphill Both Ways, and In The Snow (Love Will Come To You)

Published on December 7, 2016 by Michelle Wirth

The woman who was once our marriage counselor is now my grief counselor. I recommend marriage counseling. May I give you a head start and confess that there is economy in those three short words, “You were right.” You win twice if you’re married to someone who says that to you, and you can refrain from saying, “I told you so.”

On my way to grief counseling, the words to an Indigo Girls song I haven’t heard in years were going through my head, and I sang them over and over as I drove uphill:

“And I wish her insight
To battle love’s blindness
Strength from the milk of human kindness
A safe place for all
The pieces that scatter
Learn to pretend
There’s more
Than love
That matters…”

I walked into the counseling office waiting room with Hannah, a dog I named after my wife’s grandmother. Hannah walked up to a woman who welcomed her, and the woman told me she also had a dog named Hannah. Then we realized we knew each other – she had been Madeleine’s hospice nurse. She nursed Madeleine in our home through her dying. She cared for us after Madeleine died. Now she pet Hannah and said, “how are you doing?” I looked around the counseling center’s waiting room. I thought about the horror of the months behind me, the comfort of my present moment, and the abyss ahead of me, and I said, “I’m getting counseling.”

“I was born under the sign of Cancer… (love will come to you)
Like brushing cloth, I smooth the wrinkles for an answer… (love will come)
And I’m always closing my eyes
And wishing I’m fine
(Even though I) Even though I’m not this time”

That night I went to the wedding of my friend and his beloved. They had planned on a longer engagement but after this presidential election, they decided to get married before the political climate changes. So they stood in their freshly painted living room, surrounded by the love of family and friends, and gave their vows in their new home on top of a hill.

“The wide world spins and spits turmoil
And the nations toil for peace
The paws of fear upon your chest
Only love can soothe that beast…”

Madeleine and I had been married by our own vows and the blessings of our family and friends, four years after our first date and 15 years before it would be legally recognized in our home state. Our community had our back, and when one of us thought of walking out the door they got out ahead of us, too. She cared deeply about marriage and wanted our friends and family members to be married by someone who cared deeply about their marriage, so she became an officiant. She loved facilitating conversations about partnership and love, and I suspect she found something slightly subversive about being licensed to help so many people obtain legal recognition for their unions where we could not. I became a booking agent of sorts because with uncanny frequency people would spontaneously tell me they needed someone to officiate their marriage. We were good partners.

Going to weddings without Madeleine hurts twice over. I miss the pleasure of seeing her joy, and I’m at a loss when she is not here to share my joy. My heart reaches for hers the way your foot might move forward for the next step on a staircase only to find the ground gone beneath you. So much of grief is turning to share something with her, and falling into the abyss.

For two decades we magnified each other’s joy. One of our favorite ways to multiply joy was to bring people together with a comfort food potluck. We invited friends to bring their favorite comfort foods and friends. First we agreed to make the party an annual event, and then we argued over which date to set. Madeleine lobbied hard for the Saturday closest to Valentine’s day. I balked under the pretense that I believed people would rather be with their sweetheart somewhere romantic that weekend, but I let go of my position when I realized my primal motivation was a fear left over from childhood that I would throw a party and no one would come.

Madeleine insisted that the right people always show up to the party. I let go of my unfounded certainty about the future and realized that we could throw our party on Valentine’s weekend and only then would we know what the turnout would be. The turnout was a home full of warm, happy, comforting people. Every year for over a decade we held the party on the weekend closest to Valentine’s day, and Madeleine never said, “I told you so.”

She died in January 2015, after three heartbreaking months of intense and loving care. I had been getting by on tenacity and fumes, burning the candle at both ends with the ferocity of wanting to save her life, or clear the way for her and die with her.

I did not want to survive her.

After she died, I felt combustible. Our family was too spent to sit shiva. And so one month later her family and friends gently adapted our annual celebration of love and comfort into her first memorial on February 14, 2015.

Our friend had met his sweetheart just the night before, on Feb. 13th, 2015.

After their wedding ceremony, he invited me to step outside. We stood on the front porch of his new home and he told me that in February 2015, he had tickets to fly to some place sunny and warm, but he canceled his reservations and changed his plans to be at Madeleine’s memorial. The night before her memorial he went to a bar, met a beautiful man, and fell in love in the falling February snow. He had pulled me aside to tell me that meeting the love of his life felt like a gift from Madeleine.

Madeleine, my love, wherever you are – you were right.

“…And my words are paper tigers
no match for the predator of pain inside her.

And I say love will come to you
Hoping just because I spoke the words that they’re true
As if I offered up a crystal ball to look through
Where there’s now one there will be two.”

Note: Thank you to the grooms for permission to share a part of their story. Congratulations!

If you would like to help marginalized people find “A safe place for all/ The pieces that scatter,” please consider contributing to the support network formed by over 200 people in rural Indiana, Pennsylvania:

You can also support the network by buying some of the (punk/ adult) art created by artist Darcy Trunzo, who initiated the network:

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