riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


11 Comments

Melancholy Beauty

Traveling across the country is bringing up all kinds of emotions. The epic beauty and expanse is almost too much to process. I find myself grateful to arrive at the bland motel at the end of the day and rest my brain from the sensory overload.

Idaho

Idaho

The beautiful vistas make me think of the people I’ve loved and lost, my mother and Kaz, both of whom loved the outdoors and nature. Both of whom would have absolutely loved this trip I’m taking now.

Idaho

Idaho

It also makes me think of others who are alive and suffering from all the atrocities, hate, injustice and violence happening in the world right now. My heart aches for the innocent children, mothers and fathers, old people and animals caught in the middle of the madness, unable to enjoy the basics of life.

Montana

Montana

Nature’s beauty is humbling, evocative, poetic and touching. It makes me think not only of people, but also spiritual mysteries, music, art and history. I’ve often wondered how this land might have looked before people arrived, or the moment when people first saw it. What must they have thought? Did they fall to their knees in appreciation? Or did they shrug, like it was no big deal?

Sulfur sea

Yellowstone

Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone

Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone

I’ve both laughed and cried while stopped on the side of the road in the “big sky” state of Montana, while sitting at a lake in Yellowstone National Park, while driving through the gorgeous cowboy country of Wyoming. I’ve gasped and said “wow” a lot. I’ve also said “thank you” silently and whispered into the wind.

Lake at Yellowstone

Lake at Yellowstone

I miss my mother and Kaz so much. I’m thinking about them constantly. I wish they could share in this experience, not in spirit, but here, right now. I wish I could see them react to what I’m seeing. I wish we could be together.

western Wyoming

[All pics taken by me: Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming]


8 Comments

Birthdays, Milestones and Peacocks

Anyone who’s lost someone knows how bittersweet birthdays can be. One often feels guilty for having a birthday at all, while our loved one will never have another. Friends and family go out of their way to shower us with attention and make sure we have plans, lest we end up alone. Of course, more often than not, that’s all we really want… to be left alone. 

But then we feel guilty about denying everyone the opportunity to show their love. We might even feel guilty because we know our loved one wouldn’t want us to be alone and moping about. We know he/she would want us to do something special, if not for us then for them.

Today is my birthday. I am now 43 years old, the same age as Kaz when he died (technically, he was 43 years and 6 months old). Soon I will be older than him, which seems very strange indeed. I always thought of him as older and wiser. Actually, no matter how many more birthdays I have, I will always think of him as older and wiser.

Three years ago we had a big party for my 40th. I wore a very tight, red dress and invited all of our closest friends, not just for me, but to see Kaz. He was still doing fairly well then. It was an incredible night, forever immortalized in the many photos that people took. For some, it was the last time they saw him looking like himself.

The next two birthdays (without him) were more subdued. I turned 41 six months after he passed, while sitting in the rain at Occupy Oakland with a friend. The event had started only the day before (October 10, 2011). We sat on the plastic-covered steps of  Frank H. Ogawa Plaza while my friend’s 4 year-old daughter stomped nearby puddles in her red rubber boots. Something about the wet, serious, anonymous yet congenial atmosphere felt appropriate. I was surrounded by people but not required to talk. Tears blended with the rain.

I don’t even remember what I did for 42. I just remember thinking, “This is how old he was when diagnosed.” 

This year I feel stronger, more hopeful and grateful than before. Not coincidentally, the blog is almost 1 year old (on October 18) and my dog’s adoption date is a week after that. When I reflect on this past year, it was a year well-lived, a year of getting my “sea legs” back, so to speak.

The puppy and I lived for a month in Vermont. I made significant progress with the memoir. The blog was Freshly Pressed, and I’ve made many new blogging friends since then. I bought a new car, and drove my father’s Porsche. I got back in the kitchen after almost two years of not cooking. I interviewed for a writer’s gig, and even though I didn’t get it, the interview taught me a lot. I have steadily trained my puppy and hope we can take the Canine Good Citizen test before the end of the year.

The future looks bright as well. I just started a Television Pilot writing class. I’ve hired an editor to cut a new director’s reel. I’m updating my resume and making plans to possibly (finally) move out of Los Angeles. I’m also planning on taking a few months off to finish the memoir. All in all, life is good at the moment. I couldn’t have said that last year, or even six months ago. But life is like that, ever changing, moving and molding, like water.

A friend gave me a birthday card with a peacock on the cover. I’ve been so drawn to this image that I had to look up its symbolism. In doing so, I found this blog post that lists several meanings and their origin.

From The Meaning of Symbols.com: The peacock is a symbol of immortality because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death… The peacock naturally replaces his feathers annually; as such, the peacock is also a symbol of renewal.

Renewal. That is what I’m feeling these days. May this year be the Year of the Peacock.

my friend's card

my friend’s card


13 Comments

The Sweet Gift of Grief

Recently, I have felt a growing distance from my grief, and it’s been bumming me out. It’s as if I’m losing the sense of being Kaz’s widow. Even more disconcerting, of being his wife. The healing seems to have replaced something intangible in addition to the grief. Or perhaps it has become a thing in itself, like a scar that replaces a wound and then becomes a permanent fixture of the body.

I’ve actually found myself yearning for the earlier days of grief. The days when it felt like my heart was splitting in two, every waking moment an excruciating reminder of his permanent absence. Yet I could still feel and remember him vividly, and we were still together, still part of a union. So there was sweetness mixed in with the pain. Now the pain has subsided taking the sweetness with it, and I’m left feeling empty, longing for one or the other, or both.

Then three triggers happened this weekend.

The first – a dear friend got upset with me about something on Friday night (details irrelevant to this post). When I finally left work at 7:45pm, I drove home knowing this friend was disappointed in me and basically feeling like shit. I remembered similar times before when I had come home upset and Kaz had put things in perspective.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” he would have told me Friday night. “You apologized. There’s nothing more you can do.” He would have diverted my attention to the positive. “Hey, at least today was pay-day, and tomorrow Angelina is coming over, and Sunday is football, and you’re going to cook us dinner.” At that point, I would have nudged him and laughed.

Angelina is the new cleaning lady I’ve hired to come every other week. She is reasonably priced and sorely needed, but still a splurge. The last time I had a cleaning lady was when Kaz was sick. One of my former bosses had very generously donated several months of cleaning service. Kaz immediately dubbed these nice ladies “the help” (a year before the film came out), and mumbled about them moving his stuff around. But we both appreciated them very much. 

This new lady, Angelina, did a wonderful job. She also emanated a certain energy that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s comforting to know she’ll be back every two weeks, and not just because of the cleanliness she leaves behind.

The second trigger was a dream on Saturday night, in which I visited Kaz in a hospital. I hate to see him sick in my dreams, but it was still good to see him in general.  We spent the time lying on the grass in the shade of a large tree outside his hospital room, just listening to the wind rustling through the leaves. 

Sunday I slept in and captured this classic moment:

Ruby in the morning

Then it was off to Agility class with Ruby, where she got to do the course off-leash for the first time, and see her pal Louie, the grey poodle I wrote about here. They’re both in Obedience and Agility together and quite an item now, play-wrestling before and after class to everyone’s amusement. Louie shows his affection by chewing on Ruby’s ears, and she shows hers by nibbling on his ankles. “He has a thing for female pitbulls,” Louie’s dad told me with a smile.

The third trigger happened when we stopped to look at motorcycles at a Honda dealership on the way home. “My late husband owned an RC51,” I told the rep as he showed me around. I could almost feel Kaz walking around with us.

Not surprisingly, I cried harder this weekend than I have in the past several months. But it was a good cry, familiar and somewhat comforting. I had been missing my man, and this weekend he came back briefly. His sweet presence in turn triggered the painful grief. But despite – or perhaps because of – the tears, I felt grateful.


13 Comments

An Open Letter to M, a New Widow

Dear M,

I’m writing here because I want to get my thoughts down in some semblance of order. When we spoke yesterday,  I’m afraid our conversation didn’t live up to your expectations. “How did you get through it?” you asked. I found it hard to answer, shocked as I was by the news that you, more than 10 years younger than I, not even 30 years old, married for less than a year, are about to be a widow too.

I had just seen you and your husband a few months ago on the eve of your move up North to start a new life. When I didn’t hear from you for a while after that, I figured you were in the throes of settling in. And you were – until six weeks ago when the shit hit the fan. You said you found it too late and now he’s on hospice with days to live. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How was this possible? I felt silly saying, “I’m so sorry, M… I’m so sorry…” but I didn’t know what else to say. So, here are a few more words.

Contrary to your impression, I am not “the strongest woman ever.” I am the same as you. The difference is I had a little more time to deal with Kaz’s illness, 13 months to be exact, which is a lot longer than your 6 weeks.

I was also in denial most of the time. I didn’t believe Kaz was dying (as quickly as he was) until he had the seizures, ironically six weeks before the end. Then I had to accept the situation and things got a lot calmer. It stopped being a race against time and became more about his comfort and well-being. In a strange way, I think my being in denial helped me get through quite a bit.

When I wasn’t in denial, I had the equivalent of emotional blinders on. I focused on practical matters rather than on the reality that I was losing him. I pushed the reality into the recesses of my brain, consciously choosing to deal with it later. Sure enough, after he was gone, the volcano erupted.

Unfortunately, it sounds like you don’t have time to be in denial or have emotional blinders. Six weeks is a blink of the eye. Yet, some women who lose their husbands instantly would, no doubt, be grateful for six weeks. Every widow’s path is different.

As I told you yesterday (and glad it made you laugh), you can expect to cry A LOT. More than you ever thought possible. So much that it might scare you. You might think you can’t get through it, but you CAN get through it. I can’t tell you how exactly. I just know that you can – and you will.

The most important advice I can give you is to surround yourself with folks who love you, be they family, friends, neighbors, pets. Only good people and good energy. Even if you end up being alone, have these people on standby for the times when you need them. Anybody who gives you any kind of drama, or makes you feel bad about ANYTHING, avoid like the plague and don’t feel one iota of guilt. You don’t owe anybody anything. 

Your creativity might help too. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to deal with the pain, try writing things down – a poem, story, memory, letter, journal entry – or pick up your camera and take pictures. Anything to direct your pain somewhere instead of letting it swirl inside you like a never-ending whirlpool.

To answer your original question, “how did you get through it” – it was a combination of the above, and it was also Kaz. I leaned on the memory of his character and his love. In the darkest moments, I could hear him encouraging me to keep going, to not give up, much the same way I had encouraged him. I knew that he wanted me to go on, that he believed in my strength, and I kept coming back to this over and over.

Keep your beloved S in your heart and mind, and he will help you too. Also, not to get all “new-agey,” but try to be open to feeling his energy around you after he passes, as he might not leave your side right away. It is my personal belief that energy doesn’t just evaporate, especially the powerful energy of Love.

I won’t give you this letter right now, it’s too soon. But I’m thinking of you. I remember how you helped Kaz and I when we were in the thick of things, and now I’m angry that you are suffering. I’ll never understand how unfair life can be sometimes. The pain feels unbearable but somehow we do bear it. As one who is further down this path of fire, I can’t tell you that it won’t hurt, but I can tell you it won’t last forever. You will come out the other side, and you are not alone.

I love you, and I’m here for you always.

Niva

[prompted by WordPress]


1 Comment

Love Life (Photo)

image

Just found this photo from two years ago when I did the Brain Tumor Walk in Orange County, CA, in honor of Kaz and others. We walked 5K and raised thousands of dollars for brain tumor research. It was an inspiring day with lots of shared stories, embraces and tears. There were also lots of signs. This one was my favorite.


18 Comments

Sweet Dreams

People have varying opinions on the origins and meanings of dreams. This post isn’t meant to be a discussion of either, rather an observation on the emotional power dreams can carry. For those of us who have lost loved ones, it can be quite an experience to encounter the person(s) in our dreams. It can feel as if the person has just “visited” or like they’re trying to tell us something. In some cases, it can feel mysterious, jolting, even upsetting.

For years after my mother died, whenever I would see her in my dreams she ignored me – the opposite of how she behaved in life. She had always been the emotional anchor of our family. After my parents split up and my father moved away, in many respects she became the center of my world. Yet, to this day, she has never spoken to me in my dreams. 

The last time I dreamt of her, she was the special guest at a party and when she entered the room, everyone applauded. I felt thrilled, curious and proud to see her looking so beautiful and radiantly happy, almost like a movie star. Of course I still wish one day she would look at me or say something (what I wouldn’t give for a hug), but I have learned to simply be grateful in her presence and respect her independence, for in my dreams she always comes across as a strong, independent woman, comfortable in her own skin and not defined by motherhood.

With Kaz it’s been different. For one, I have dreamt of him more often in the past two years than I have dreamt of my mother in the past twenty. Second, we do interact in my dreams, both physically and verbally. Some of my dreams have been “R” rated. Some have been upsetting, others odd, but most have been good.

In the first few months after he passed, we were definitely still a married couple in my dreams. His body was healthy and strong, the way it had been when we first met and, though we never discussed it, there was a shared awareness that he had been sick and was no longer alive in my waking life.  The combination of these elements gave those early dreams a heightened sense of urgency, like “these few moments are all we have, let’s make them good!” 

After a while, the nature of our relationship in my dreams changed, as if he was evolving with time, or I was, or both. Once I dreamt that he was living with another woman. I felt happy to see him again, especially looking so happy and healthy, but found it difficult to contain my jealousy. That dream ended with me leaving to take a walk around the block because I couldn’t take seeing them together anymore (and pretending to be okay with it).

Last night I dreamt of him again. I only remember the end. We had just finished having dinner with a bunch of friends in a strange city, perhaps Europe, and Kaz had to leave. He walked towards a waiting vehicle, like a van or small SUV. I actually felt shy about following him. Were we still together? Was I still his wife? What was I to him now?  

I finally did follow him, and he turned around to hug me. “I’ll see you later,” he said and smiled. Then he got into the back of the vehicle, and it drove way. My questions hadn’t been answered, but I felt elated and woke up laughing, “I just saw Kaz!”

No matter what the situation, any time I see him (or my mother) in a dream, it always feels like a gift.


4 Comments

The Ghost of LA Woman

Yesterday's sunset, corner of Olympic and Arlington Ave

Yesterday’s sunset, corner of Olympic and Wilton Ave

What’s lurking in the drafts section of your dashboard?

I couldn’t resist today’s Daily Post because I only had one draft post, which was just a title: LA Woman. The idea came to me a couple of months ago while driving around, or rather stuck in traffic going nowhere fast, in Los Angeles. I heard the song LA Woman by The Doors in my head and knew I had to write a post about this place.

I first arrived in LA in August 1995, a somewhat innocent 24-year-old, eager to start her first year at graduate film school. I drove here from Philadelphia in a two-door Acura hatchback, my first car, which I had purchased one week before I left, ten days after getting my license.

First impressions of LA: it was beautiful, hot, HUGE, a labyrinth of highways and streets I was sure I would never be able to figure out. On days off I would hop in my car, which had a sunroof, and drive around listening to music, not minding if I got lost (this was before Navigation and GPS so I got lost A LOT), from Hollywood to the Valley to Beverly Hills to Route 1 by the beach. Everything seemed to sparkle and shine. I felt both as if I knew this city, which I had seen umpteen times in movies, and as if I didn’t know it at all and would never truly penetrate its mystery.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I would often go out by myself to explore the bars and clubs. It didn’t take long to figure out the best places to spot celebrities were at the fancy hotels like The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons, The Peninsula. At the former, in the same night, I once saw Dustin Hoffman eating dinner and Barbara Streisand walked by me at the bar. I couldn’t believe it!

Over the years, I would meet many actors, musicians, directors, producers and other film folks at school lectures, various jobs and industry events. The novelty factor gradually wore off, as did the fascination with the nightlife, Beverly Hills, fancy hotels, and so on. The intense loneliness I used to feel in the first few years was replaced by a fluid sense of community, film school friends, colleagues and the few regular non-industry people I know.

When I met Kaz, who was from a D.C., the city came alive in a different way. We used to joke about our mutual love/hate relationship with LA, and love sharing those “I can’t believe I live here” moments. One time he passed Snoop Dogg in the hallway at work, and went to a party where Kobe Bryant showed up in a helicopter. Another time we went to a Passover seder at a famous director’s house with the granddaughter of an American film legend seated beside us. And many more such moments.

Since his passing, I’ve tried to redefine my relationship to the city. How long do I want to live here? Should I go back East and be closer to family? Should I hold out a little longer and see if I can get the career going? LA feels like a combination of high school and metropolis, playground and work center, a series of urban facades and breathtaking natural landscapes. It rarely feels as comfortable to me as the East Coast, but it’s home nonetheless.

These days, my favorite place to hang out is the dog park, usually with natty hair, dressed in my most tattered clothing. For some reason, Ruby loves rubbing her muddy tennis ball on my leg instead of just dropping it at my feet. I’ve even started meeting people there, and the other day I invited a friend to join me even though she’s dog-less. We sat on chairs in the shade and caught up, every now and then pausing to throw the muddy ball to Ruby.

Ah, how things change.

Thanks for encouraging me to finish this post, WordPress!


7 Comments

Two Years

In honor of Kaz’s passing two years ago May 3, 2011, and since I won’t be online tomorrow, I’m reposting Mountaintop, copied below. One love.

— — —

As I continue to heal from a state of heartbrokenness, I am reminded of the phrase stated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last speech: I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

In the context of my life this phrase means, I have known, loved, and been loved by a Good Man.

I lost this man 3 years into our relationship (before we had worked all the kinks out), 11 days after our wedding, to a horrible disease which, coupled with a devastating motorcycle accident, was simply too much to overcome.

Shortly after he passed a girlfriend said to me, “Well, at least you’ve known love.” At the time, the pain was still so fresh I couldn’t find much relief in those words. But even on my darkest days I knew on some instinctual level that she was right.

I had experienced something few people do in a lifetime, the kind of love that makes you walk on hot coals to try and save the other, the kind of love that you read about in novels, the kind of love that makes you write love letters for a year after the other dies.

For a long time, and a variety of reasons, I didn’t always feel that I deserved this love. There had been moments when I doubted or disrespected it due to immaturity and insecurity. Just as the relationship was hitting its stride, he got diagnosed with a terminal illness and everything changed overnight. As things progressed at a deliriously fast pace, a part of me began to awaken, while another part began to shut down in order for the rest of me to keep functioning.

Once he was gone, I had a volcanic eruption of heartbreak and guilt, not uncommon for the surviving spouse/caregiver/less-than-perfect partner. Though my husband had forgiven my shortcomings, I found it difficult to forgive myself. Every time I thought of a good memory, a painful one reared up in front of it, like an eclipse blocking out the sun. It took every ounce of strength to not follow him to the other side.

Another friend told me, “Just hang in there and keep breathing.” Others reassured me that one day I would feel more grateful than devastated, more happy than sad. I couldn’t imagine it, but I also didn’t give up.  He never did and wouldn’t want me to.

Now it’s been 1 year, 6 months and 9 days since I watched him take his last breath, and I can say with cautious optimism that things are better.

I am still heartbroken. I still cry. I still talk to him, write to him, ache and reach out for him. But instead of feeling like my soul has been crushed, it more often feels lifted. Instead of dwelling on all that was lost, I think more often on how to rebuild. Instead of feeling guilty for not knowing better then, I focus on being better now.

Part of this transformation is simply Time. Part of it is all the writing and healing-work I’ve been doing this past year and a half. Part of it is the continued love and support of my family and all of our friends. Part of it is Ruby, my new puppy, who literally re-awakens and strengthens my heart every day.

So, I have been to the mountaintop. And I have seen the Promised Land. I couldn’t get there with my husband, but I have looked over and know that it exists. And in the knowing is the transformation.

Obama inauguration party 1/20/09

Wedding day 4/22/11


3 Comments

Wind Chimes in the Breeze

It’s windy out tonight. The wind chimes are singing and the trees are rustling, but the chimes are in the foreground. They remind me of Kaz. Of nights lying in bed next to him, hearing the wind chimes late at night.

On nights like this, I would sometimes close my eyes and pretend we were on a tropical island or somewhere warm (he bought these wood chimes in Costa Rica). The chimes were outside our beach bungalow, and the rustling trees were really ocean waves lapping at the shore just outside our window. If these moments happened after sex, I would picture the moon glittering on the white sand outside as we were actually sleeping under a silk canopy on the beach, not a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. With my head on his shoulder, my nostrils filled with his scent, a combination of Irish Spring and his own natural muskiness (he never wore cologne or after shave), I would smile to myself.

Such is a woman’s mind. Or at least, this woman’s overly imaginative mind. We don’t always think like this. But certain things trigger us, like the sound of wind chimes on a breezy night.

And music.

As I mentioned, I went to see CLUTCH last week. I could write several posts just on what this band meant to Kaz and our time together. They were the most-listened to, most-heard music of our three years, which is saying a lot given that he was a musical aficionado and listened to music for a living.

Last week’s concert brought back so many memories. Seeing them in DC at the 9:30 Club, hanging with the band backstage and in their tour bus afterwards, seeing them at the House of Blues in LA, listening to them on road trips, listening to them in the ICU (I would play them on my phone for him), listening to them at his memorial (his ashes were released to their song “Electric Worry”). We had some of our happiest moments at their shows, and one of our saddest too. Because Clutch was also his last concert and we both knew it when we were there.

Seeing them last week was both joyful and heartbreaking. Afterwards, I went backstage to say hi to the band. They all remembered him. They all said he was special, a good spirit, a good man. They didn’t know what else to say about what happened to him. I told them they didn’t have to say anything more, and thanked them for the kind words.

It was wonderful to see live music again. Before he was sick we would go to a show almost weekly. He would go more often than that. Part of his job was to keep up on music. We saw shows at probably every major venue in the Los Angeles area, and several smaller ones too. We rarely paid for tickets and always had VIP passes. And he always had new music before it came out, which was a treat indeed.

Now I have no idea what’s going on in the music world and hardly ever see a show unless it’s one of his favorite bands.

But I still have the wind chimes. And when the wind gets going like it is tonight, it takes me back. A couple of times the wind has blown hard and the chimes have clanged about loudly. But mostly they’ve been singing in a gentle, rolling rhythm. I don’t talk about him as much with people as I used to. But I can still remember what it feels like to lay in his arms in the dark, under the imaginary silk canopy. He would laugh at my tropical island fantasy but not be surprised. He knew I was a cornball.


7 Comments

Mother-in-Law

Last night I had a great conversation with Kaz’s mother, whom I still call my mother-in-law even though I’m a widow. She’s a lovely woman, intelligent, gentle and sweet, a former social worker who used to work with teenagers in the D.C. school system. We had met only once before Kaz got sick, but saw more of each other during the year of his illness. She helped me take care of him in the very end, and we were together when he passed away (she on one side of the bed, me on the other).

Though it was a sad and stressful time, the experience bonded us. Kaz used to tell us (together and individually) that he wanted us to keep in touch after he was gone. “It means the world to me that the two of you get along,” he would say. Privately, I promised him that I would look after her since he wouldn’t be able to. He was her only child and she was getting older.

Anyway, last night, when I was sharing with her the Vermont saga, she reminded me of a moment we shared with him the week before he went on hospice. We were having lunch in the hospital restaurant, talking about movies and television. Kaz told his Mom that I had worked in many areas: directing, writing, producing, editing. On a whim I asked him, “So, what do you think I should focus on the most?”

He thought about it a moment. “Well, I know what a control freak you are,” he said. “And the best way to have the most control is to write. I think you should focus on writing. That way you can control everything.”

“He knew how talented you are,” his Mom told me last night. “And he believed in you. So I think you’re doing exactly the right thing. You’re following your passion and dreams, and that’s exactly what he would have wanted you to do.”

Sometimes I feel like our shared experience helps keep him alive in some way. She knew him one way. I knew him in another way. Together, we remind each other of who he was, who he became, how he grew, what he believed in, what he liked and what he didn’t.

The irony is that she lost her son but gained a daughter-in-law… and I, who lost my mother 20 years ago, gained a mother-in-law. I think Kaz saw this before we did. He always had a certain wisdom, as if he could see farther down the road than the rest of us.