February 2nd marks the five year anniversary since Wes passed away. I will go to sleep tonight still not knowing or understanding how I have lived these last five years without him. I think about what I was feeling just a month after he died, and you would never have made me believe that I would actually be here five years out after enduring some of the most crushing pain that I have ever felt. But I’m here. And that’s saying something.
In five years, Wes has missed his birthdays, our birthdays, our anniversaries, the college graduation of his youngest, the wedding of his middle son, and the long trek to California of his oldest and her long trek back to the East Coast and her brave and bold moves to empower herself and solidify her career. He has missed his best friends that are now turning 60. He is missing their birthdays, along with his own, as he too would be 60 in June. He’s missed the passing of my father and a few neighbors on our cul de sac, as well as a dear friend’s daughter, just barely eighteen. In dealing with all the grief we feel in losing Wes, we deal in the day to day acknowledgement of all that he is missing, and how we seem to be leaving him behind, even when we are hanging on for dear life to all that was, but isn’t anymore.
I think about a day a month or so after Wes died, that I was coming into the house through the garage, after going out for a run. The exercise gig was nonexistent for a long time while Wes was sick, and certainly was not on my list of “must do’s” after he passed. Some things you just don’t have the gumption for as you’re fighting to stay upright, and exercising was certainly one of them. But nonetheless, I was urged to get out there and move, just get off the couch, generate some energy by exercising, and so I did – I went for a run. The weather was getting warmer, as I remember it on this day. While I was coming in through the open garage door into the mudroom and into the family room and kitchen combo, as I opened the door to step inside, a red cardinal flew in through the garage, over my head, or beside it, I’m not really sure, and into the opened mud room door and into the kitchen, where it quickly and calmly perched on the kitchen windowsill. I shrieked – you have to believe me on this one. I screamed, and at the same time, opened up the back door and then ran through the house closing all the doors to bedrooms and bathrooms so that if it flew upstairs, it wouldn’t get caught in one of the rooms. Running back downstairs, the cardinal had flown from the kitchen window over to the large armoire that housed our TV and which stood in the corner of the family room. As I watched this bird, I was truly rattled on how to get it out and what havoc was going to be rendered on this particular day with this particular bird. But the curious part was, the bird was as calm as if it was a house pet, or actually was familiar with the layout of the room. It was eerily calm, in fact. This bird’s calmness didn’t actually make me calmer – but even in my grief fog, I was paying attention. This was an oddity – this bird. As it flew from the armoire to the back of the kitchen table chair, the back door sat open just beckoning for it to fly through to the outside again. But it did not. It stayed perched, making its presence known and felt. But as this bird flew to these three locations, only in our kitchen and family room, it was never spooked, never flustered, seemingly, never scared. Its flight throughout my living area was never frantic, but instead calm and steady. After sitting on the back of the kitchen chair for a few more minutes, it flew out the open back door, with no fanfare, but just as stealth and steady as when it came in through the mud room door. As the bird left the house, I said out loud: “Wes.” And so it was.
As red was Wes’ favorite color, all of this would stand to reason. He certainly wouldn’t show up as a blue jay. That wasn’t his style. It could only be a red bird. I’m certain he wouldn’t have it any other way. But the spectacle of the bird screamed at me as a reminder that we are sent things as symbols or messengers that our loved ones are still present. Sometimes we just have to look for them. In Wes’ case, he never made you work for the answers – if it popped into his head, it came out of his mouth. If he felt it, he showed it. If he loved you, you were blessed. And since he pretty much loved everyone, because that’s just how he was made, we were all blessed to have known him. As I draw on that memory for its symbolism, I am comforted. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I am comforted a lot. When I think about how calm that bird was as it went from post to post, I almost shudder at the possibility and how crazy it all seems. But I also relish in that same possibility that Wes was letting me know that he was still here, and still in our lives as this presence tried to quell this broken person, housing this broken heart. It comforts me with every cardinal I see. As I look out my huge kitchen window that sits over my sink and counter top, I look out on my crape myrtle and I see many cardinals sitting amongst the branches and I always say “hi Wessy.” Sometimes I give him the what for and tell him “I wish you’d just come inside and materialize.” But beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.
I will bring in this five year anniversary in the accounting office of Wes’ and my dear friend Mark, who is also our accountant. He has been my rock in all things estate, financial, and all that is in between – like keeping me sane, keeping me organized, well ok, I’m not organized, but he is so that’s a win for me, as is his unyielding love and support of all things Neff, as he continues to be our sentry as we still struggle with the day to day and the logistics of staying afloat. Tomorrow I will be in his office as this five year anniversary screeches in and at least one of us will know the significance of the 2nd of February, maybe both of us will know, or remember. Maybe we say nothing to each other, but more than likely, we will shed a tear together.
And as I find myself back on the couch of my grief counselor, after not being there for almost 3 years, I find this time in my journey to be especially hard. I don’t remember the 4th year anniversary being so hard, but five is kicking me to the curb. Maybe there is some significance here that I am missing. Maybe I’m just tired of the longing. It’s getting pretty heavy to carry. But I look back and I cannot believe I am here. That I have taken the steps of millions of others that have felt this grief and have dealt with loss and pain, no matter what the origin. I really can’t believe I’m here.
As I struggle to figure out where I go from here, my counselor reassures me that I am not leaving Wes behind, that all that we had, all that we were is the legacy and the fuel that I am and will be bringing into the future. My future, not ours. But ok, intellectually, I grasp that, but emotionally, not so much. I am an unidentified being that doesn’t want to leave her husband behind. I still feel like his wife, but I’m not. Not anymore. Not really anyway. Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. I am wrestling with this and grappling with what this will mean for me moving forward. My new identity moving beyond five years is still guesswork.
As this anniversary is huge in terms of time and quantifiable pain, it also may be a turning point. It might need to be. Asked again, while on the couch in my counselor’s office, what this rock in the pit of my stomach feels like. I say it feels like I’m carrying around a 200 pound Wes Neff in my belly – that’s what it feels like. Wes would scold me for still being in this place. Stuck. I’m pretty sure he would tell me to “un-stick it.” Well, that’s a new one. But Wes was always pragmatic about life. He would always tell me, long before he got sick, that if anything happened to him – I had to live my life. I hear his words in my head often, but I constantly wonder if just existing counts. Cuz, that’s about all that I’ve got. But maybe it’s time. Time for what, is a really good question, but I suppose to move past this pain, and make the conscious decision to move past Wesley. It hurts me just to say that. And tears now roll down my face. I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave him. But I have to go somewhere.
As I am just finishing up the book “The Light of the World,” by Elizabeth Alexander, who has written her memoir of losing her husband to a sudden heart attack, I read on the jacket cover the review from Jeannette Walls, a New York Times bestselling author who wrote:
“A brave and beautiful book about love and loss – the deep pain that comes with such loss, and the redemptive realization that such pain is a small price to pay for such love.” I’m sucker punched in the gut again. I have no choice but to wrestle this one to the ground and weigh its words for their inherent legitimacy. But I can’t ignore the beauty in the message, in spite of the pain of the existence. I relent, because I know this is true.
When I consider my love and my loss and the toll this pain has taken on me, I consider that I am lucky to have known both – the beauty of love and the rawness of pain in response to that love. It shows me how intrinsically one is relative to the other. And as I walk through this day, marking Wes’s five year anniversary, I think that at least I have these words of wisdom to contemplate and comfort me today. That, and the red cardinal outside my kitchen window.