The Gift of Presence

As the anniversary of Dale’s passing approached, the “lasts” grew vivid. Remembering the evening I last heard his voice was the most painful. His exuberant presence had always filled a room; his absence created a cavern.

A loved one described it well: “There’s such gone-ness.”

That sense of void dominated my early days of grieving.

I had thought that the many losses of the previous decade would prepare me for this final one. With each disease-related change, there was an aspect of Dale that I missed. I had learned to live with absence amid presence.

But there was no preparation for the final loss: Complete absence. Emptiness. “Gone-ness.”

There were times when the darkness and emptiness seemed total…when the absence felt too much to bear. I missed him—every version of him. I still do. However, now I see that throughout these months, I have been accompanied. Although the emptiness felt complete, it never was. There was presence amid absence.

That presence was Love expressed in countless ways, shining light in the darkness. Again and again, Love appeared: through warm hugs, thoughtful gifts, and caring messages. Each one made a difference, and even the memories of them now lift my heart. Love came through music shared among family and friends, through visits and trips with loved ones. Love appeared through nature’s beauties and daily wonders. The miraculous camellia in full bloom despite winter’s chill portrayed Love’s enduring presence. Even a feisty little wren couple nesting in a birdhouse that had been empty for years provided signs of life and hope to me.

Recently as I was drifting off to sleep, I experienced one more. It was as if I knew deeply—just for a few seconds—that Dale’s love was with me and a part of me. Neither a touch nor a whisper, but something as gentle as those, it was as if his warmth and his smile were wrapped within me in a deep, abiding presence.

For this precious gift and for all the expressions of Love’s presence and light amid the darkness of grief, I give unending thanks. Truly: “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” I Corinthians 13:13

Where Are You?

I was at a meeting for Alzheimer’s caregivers when Dale called. There was fear in his halting voice: “Where…are…you?”

It was a first.

It was also a last. I could no longer leave him alone.

Now I am alone, and Dale’s words are mine: Where are you?

Weren’t you just here? Wasn’t I just preparing your lunch…singing and laughing with you…helping you get ready for bed? Where are you?

Although the words come directly from my grieving heart, they also seem crazy. I was with Dale when he died. I composed his memorial service. I helped bury his ashes.

And yet, the feeling that he should still be here can be strong. It’s easy to “hear” his resonant voice, to “see” him sitting next to me, or to just assume he’s resting in another room. All of our years…working, living, loving together…wove countless threads of a shared life throughout my being. The tapestry of “us” is part of who I am.

As we lived with Alzheimer’s, a tighter weave was created. In the last months of Dale’s life, nearly every breath I took was focused on his care, such that soon afterward I asked: How is it that I am still breathing and you are not? It made no sense to my shocked being.

Sometimes it still makes no sense. There is discomfort, awkwardness, and even resistance as I live into a life without his physical presence. And yet, with each step, I gain strength. These new experiences help me heal.

As I make my way through the grieving process, I realize more and more the answer to my question: Dale IS here…in my memories of special times together…in my sense of awe when I see the clear blue sky and my heart leaps, just as his did…even in my voice when I repeat one of his sayings and follow it with laughter.

The threads woven through my being remain. Our love endures. May I honor and celebrate it as I move forward…weaving new patterns into my life that incorporate the beauty of all that we shared.

A Way in the Wilderness

The first year of widowhood is filled with “firsts.”

Some are predictable: holidays, birthdays, trips. Others are less so. I walk naively into a setting, a day, an event, and the full force of loss is mine again. Suddenly I am beneath a crashing wave, tossed about in the disorientation that accompanies acute grief. Every cell in my body cries out to breathe the air of life that was once ours.

I remind myself there is no way out but through. Being in the turbulence and then righting myself—again and again—is how I make my way.

The way feels familiar. During the disease, grieving accompanied each loss. But none was coupled with the aching absence of presence this final one is.

Still, perhaps there are lessons.

Alzheimer’s destructive path called for continuous adaptation. As Dale’s confusion increased, the world of thoughts and ideas receded and created space for the flow of life in the present. Of necessity, we learned new ways of being. In this sense, we were nourished by loss, like a seedling growing from a “nurse log.” Out of death came life—a new way of being “us”—again and again.

We did not do this alone. Countless expressions of Love—seen and unseen—nourished…watered…sustained us.

Surely that same Love holds me now. And I am beginning to trust that even from the depths of grief, something new can be born.

Signs of this abound…and invite hope. Seeds give way to tiny plants as they awaken from dormancy. Buds burst open on branches that appear lifeless. Wings break forth from dry, motionless cocoons.

May my mourning tears provide that which is needed for new growth. May these dark places, like warm soil around a seed, provide nourishment for my life.

“I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.”
Isaiah 43:19