Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Freezing Time

O call back yesterday,
bid time return
~ Richard II, Act III:2

No matter how much support we receive from friends and family, grief remains a lonely road to travel.

At the end of each day, the loss is ours to bear. The sadness, the heartache, the longing and regret are all uniquely our own, born of our personal relationship with the dead. The emotions must be met and mastered individually, each at our own pace and in our own way and time.

In the fifteen months since my husband died, I’ve run an obstacle course over a wide spectrum of emotions, many of which were brand new--some, even frightening. But life goes on in its unrelenting cycle of sunrises and sunsets. Regardless of our mental state on any given day, we get swept along in the tide of daily routines.

The most challenging mental aspect of widowhood, for me, has been what I call the “freeze frame effect.” In this state of mind, nothing should change from the way things were on the day Pete died. His clothes remain in our closet, his medications on the bathroom shelf. It is irrelevant that the clothing hangs unworn and the medicine is past its expiration date. In my frozen frame of mind, these things belonged to Pete and need to stay where they are.

Charles Dickens gave a vivid portrayal of the freeze frame effect in Great Expectations with the character Miss Havisham, who, jilted at the altar, stopped the clocks and sat in her rotting wedding dress, day after day, for decades. To me, she no longer seems a crazy old lady, but rather a grand master of the freeze frame effect.

In Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, she relates how she could not bring herself to get rid of her dead husband’s shoes. If he came back, she reasoned, he would need them. Thus Didion also suffers from the freeze frame effect, which she terms “magical thinking.” I suppose it is exactly that, for I still sleep on “my” side of the bed (to give Pete room), still keep his computer folders intact (he worked so hard setting them up), still park on the left side of the driveway (to leave room for Pete’s truck).

How long this irrationality will persist is uncharted territory, but I think I’m making small progress towards greater practicality in dealing with my loss. I noticed this last month, when I made what is, to me, a giant leap forward into the present.

While Pete was a tall guy, 6’4, I’m what is kindly referred to as “petite.” He used to monitor the sales on paper products and buy the army-sized packages, then store them on the very top shelf of our floor-to-ceiling linen closet. Replacements would magically appear in each room, as needed, as though I had a butler. Pete stayed ahead of the paper wave, and I never had to go searching for supplies.

After Pete’s death, each time I needed a roll of paper towels, or toilet paper, or a box of tissues, I would climb on the bathtub, then onto the counter, then step over to a closet shelf. Risking life and limb, I would grope around and fish down the needed item from the top shelf, usually letting it bounce over my head and onto the floor as I gave my full attention to a safe descent from my precarious perch.

Honestly, I’m not stupid—merely bereft. Bereaved people don’t think logically. The top shelf was the proper place for such items, because that’s where Pete had kept them. In frozen frame mindset, the inconvenient location made incontrovertible sense.

In March, as I steeled myself for another ascent to the top shelf, I suddenly stopped and asked myself a long overdue question. Why am I keeping everyday items in such an inaccessible place? The answer was as unavoidable as it was illogical: Because that’s where Pete always kept them.

I retrieved a ladder from the garage and moved all the paper supplies down to a lower shelf, where I can open the door, look at the full inventory, reach in without physical peril and grab what I need, all within a few seconds. “Sorry, honey, but I need them down here,” I heard myself mutter.

I could almost hear Pete’s relieved response: “Finally!”

One frame is unfrozen, for which I am thankful. Emboldened by this milestone, last week I tried parking the car in the center of the driveway. Somehow, it didn’t seem right. I’ve reverted to parking on the left side and accepted the fact that unfreezing my life’s frames will be a glacially slow process. Like deep snowbanks under a fine mist of rain, life’s frozen frames can defrost only gradually, through time and tears.

At least now the tissues are within easy reach.