Nine Months – A Widow’s Journey

In case you all haven’t figured it out, Karen is the heart and soul of #WTA. Conceived together? Yes, but totally raised and nurtured by the remarkable Ms. Thang. I’m officially an absentee blog-parent.

So where have I been while Miss Karen toils away? I’ve been on a crazy journey. A journey not everyone may understand. A journey that I feel compelled to share. A journey that is most certainly not over.

I’ve learned so many things about myself since May 21st, 2017, but chief among them is that I need to live my truth, uncomfortable as it may be for myself or for others. I’ve learned that nothing good grows in the dark. Ok, ok, mushrooms, blue cheese, stalagmites…but generally speaking…it’s not good.

Good things grow in the light.

I left you last September, telling you about the passing of my husband Jeff on May 21, 2017. He was my best friend, a wonderful father, and a man who made me laugh even in the toughest of times. He battled a long time.

We met in a Denny’s in the middle of the night in 1998. I was a shadow of the woman I am today. Depressed (but determined) with three babies under 8. I was waitressing what must be the most awful shift in the history of waitressing. Anyone who has found themselves digging quarters out of the bottom of a water glass after waiting on obnoxious drunken 20-somethings attempting to sober up with a Grand-Slam will back me up on this.

But Jeff saw something in me. He believed in the me I wanted to be. He bought the dream – hook, line and sinker – and then set about doing everything he could to make sure that dream came true. Who does that? How loved was I? How LUCKY was I?

He battled hard, but somewhere along the line, we both came to understand that I would lose him far too young. It was a long, slow roll down a bumpy hill. There were many hospitalizations, many glimmers of hope, and always his sense of humor. There was also unspeakable frustration, arguments and denial. Through it all we never stopped living. In his last year we bought and remodeled a house and had such fun doing it.

And then – suddenly (but not suddenly) in one horrible weekend- he was gone. His luggage was open on the bed when I came home that Sunday, half packed for his upcoming trip to Palm Springs.

But this post is not about his passing. It’s to try and give you some context for what happened next. For my journey after Jeff left this life.

I remember vividly being asked me if I was sleeping in the days after his death. Such a natural question to ask. I remember feeling guilty answering YES. To be honest, after years of hyper-vigilance at night – listening for the sound of his breathing, touching him to feel for fever (in case of infection) or cold and clammy (in case of a diabetic low) – I honestly could not remember the last time I slept through a night. Even when I traveled, I worried. I waited for the text or the call that so often came.

I cried myself to sleep that awful Sunday. I awoke to a terrible night-terror, but I slept. I slept really really hard.

The weeks that followed were a fog. My coping mechanism during this time was to make lists. I had dozens of them along with calendars to keep me focused. I had several profound moments along the way. Crazy, touching moments where Jeff was certainly making his presence known to me. Oddly, though I missed him, I feel to this day as if he has never left me. I had a few melt downs. Those calendars and those tasks kept me busy as my mind and heart grappled with the thought that haunted me the most: who am I in the absence of him? Who am I in the absence of we?

As the late spring turned to summer and summer to fall, I slowly began to find the me in the absence of we. I took trips with my children. I had sleepovers with my girlfriends. My family and friends on all sides rallied. And I slept and slept and slept. I sat in the quiet, still of my home. I had and still have very little desire to watch TV. I wrote.

And, in that silence, I began to listen to my own voice, my own instincts, and suddenly things that seemed so impossible became possible. Doors began opening, and I began walking through them. And it felt so…good.

It all began with a little trip. I fantasized about going somewhere tropical. Hawaii maybe? I had never been. I verbalized it to coworkers, and with their encouragement,- I booked that trip.

I went solo to Maui where I slept, read, swam, listened to the ocean and the voice coming from inside of me. It was Labor Day weekend and, as a friend likes to joke with me, I had a little “Eat, Pray, Love” moment. My good friend Bob, recommended the book Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (great airplane reading material) which I could relate to in some profound ways. I made a fundamental shift in my mindset on that trip. I turned a metaphorical corner.

Hawaii is a very visceral, tactile place. Your senses are bombarded with beauty: sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste. In the quiet beauty of that place, things became clearer to me. Decisions became obvious. Next steps, no brainers. My focus was (and is) simply to embrace life – every single second of it. To not waste a moment. To follow my passions. To say “why not?” To listen to my inner voice and be unafraid to act on it. And most importantly to live my truth.

And that’s when things began to change. I decided to quit my job (years overdue) and take control of my career. That decision alone, and acting on it, was invigorating. I made a plan and lined up contract work- but just like that- a door opened and the perfect opportunity came to me.

I made all kinds of decisions large and small. And each one felt so good; so empowering. My courage grew. I was feeling alive and hopeful in a way I had not felt in some time. That’s a hard thing to say in the context of profound loss. It’s a hard thing to describe to people.

One of the biggest decisions I made in late September (month 5) was to explore dating. I was pretty secret-squirrel about the whole thing (hello, not living my truth). As brave as I was with my new found “why not” button, I felt a little uneasy about how others would feel about this. I shared with my daughter and, of course, Karen.

Let me tell you, as someone who has pretty much been married her whole life, the online thing was flat out bizarre (we’ll save that story for another blog post). I met several really nice gentlemen along the way, a few of whom I am Facebook friends with now, but nothing really clicked. Until it clicked.

He is smart, funny, capable, handsome, and interesting. He has taught me that I can love again fully; that my heart has so much room to love. It takes a beautiful soul to embrace not only me but all of my family, all of my friends, and Jeff. To embrace the love that I will always have for Jeff. To realize, without Jeff, there would be no me. Once again, lucky. And I do feel lucky. More importantly, I feel happy.

I am so afraid there are people who will find this a slap in the face to the memory of Jeff. That my moving forward may cause pain to somebody who loved Jeff and is still grieving his loss. That thought breaks my heart and hurts like you can’t imagine. My greatest fear over these past months is that someone assumes my ability to be resilient and joyful and to move forward has a negative correlation to the breadth and depth of the love Jeff and I shared. How wrong that is. Jeff is a part of me. He is a part of my children. He is part of our everyday conversation. My ability to feel joy and love and passion with someone new has a direct connection to the crown Jeff put on my head in a Denny’s all those years ago.

And that is my truth. I am terrified to put this out in the universe, but I am more terrified not to. Because nothing good grows in the dark.

Except mushrooms.

~Stephanie

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14 Responses to Nine Months – A Widow’s Journey

  1. Linda Nix says:

    I knew the very first time I met you, I liked you. That doesn’t happen often for me.
    You “do you”. You are amazing and I am positive Jeff is saying the same!

    • Stephanie Nicolai says:

      Thank you Linda for your kind words. I liked you right off the bat too. A genuine, good person. Hope you are having the time of your life in that beautiful part of paradise (and it was YOU who got me to Maui ultimately- it was magical and healing).

  2. Dan Davis says:

    I love this, and I love you! What an amazing person you are to share with us, and remind at least me of how precious time is. I love Jeff, and think about him almost everyday. I can hear his impression of “Yoda” telling you “The Force is with you” :). Continue your journey there are lots of adventures ahead!

    • Stephanie Nicolai says:

      Dan, I love you too. Your ongoing support of Jeff before he passed and me after is remarkable. You have been one of the most steadfast friends I’ve ever er known. Through sleet, and snow and dark of night: if I’m in big trouble I’m calling you, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt you will be there. Jeff knew it too. ❤️❤️

  3. Anne B says:

    This makes my heart SO happy. He would be so proud of you!!!

  4. Jill says:

    Stephanie, we love and admire you. You and the kids brought such joy and love to Jeff’s soul, just as life, those same kids and your time with Jeff will continue to bring love, joy, confidence and strength to your soul. I hope I can be as brave as you, as Steve & I adapt to the inevitable transition of our kids on the brink of adulthood to ’empty nesters’…
    The grass is not always ‘browner’ on the other side of the fence as some like to make you think…change is the constant and with it comes our growth, our appreciation, our understanding and a new day…appreciate and celebrate it all, because life is ultimately too short as we have seen, experienced and been reminded over the last few years. I am blessed to have you as a friend despite mot seeing each other nearly often enough! Hugs, Jill

    • Stephanie Nicolai says:

      Jil, Thank you for lovely words. Jeff loved you, Steve, Bruce and Doug like family. It was a gift he gave to me- I love you all. Your support means the world. Monday Night soon? Steph

  5. Connie says:

    Stephanie – it is beautiful.

  6. Doris Hale says:

    Stephanie, this is wonderfully written. I’m so proud of you for facing life head-on and know that it hasn’t been easy for you. You’re a beaitiful lady with a huge heart full of love. Jeff would want you to live happily ever after.
    Looking forward to your next blog.

    • Stephanie Nicolai says:

      Thank you Doris. I appreciate your love and support, as always and of course that firebrand of a daughter you raised. 🙂 Steph

  7. Susan Pearson says:

    So beautifuly written. I have walked in YOUR shoes and people can be quick to judge and they will always have their opinion, that is them and this is YOU and YOUR life is about YOU! I am beyond delighted to hear YOU have a new man and YOU are happy. Enjoy YOUR life, we only have one shot at it!

    I do have one opinion I would like to share and that is trust I have always thought YOU should be a writer…don’t waste YOUR talent.

    Love YOU lady.

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