I’ve completely fallen off the wagon with this post-a-day 365 Project, but with all the shit hitting the proverbial fan in my life lately, I don’t even feel the need to apologize for my sudden absence. But now that the dust has begun to settle and I feel like maybe I’m breaking above the surface for a breath of air, it’s finally time for me to sit down, sort it out, and write it down.
It’s time to let it in, and let it go.
With every big event in life, the hardest days are the ones that follow, where you’re faced with the seemingly impossible task of trying to find your new normal.
And that’s just it. You have to find a new normal. Because when it comes to the big things like births and deaths and moves and career changes, you can’t ever go back to the way things were before. Not really. Maybe you can get close if you’re lucky, but that certainly isn’t the norm. After the big things, most of us find ourselves hit with a steep learning curve as we try to settle in and right the ship and navigate the new and unfamiliar waters.
When we lost Stevie’s mom, Diane, in 2012, we tried to find our new normal, but I’m not sure that we ever really succeeded. Maybe it was losing her so suddenly, or maybe it was losing a woman we loved with such a big personality–either way, her death threw us quickly and completely off balance. The house on Yale Avenue was always too quiet. The birthday and holiday cards stopped arriving with predictable regularity. And the worried phone calls stopped coming when I would miss a day or two of my blog.
When we learned that Stevie’s dad, Richie, had been taken to the ER in December, we were thrown off balance again. And when the cancer diagnosis came a few days later, our lives were torn apart. Stevie flew to New York. I flew with Henry to San Diego for a work event. And Cadence spent the week at my parents’ apartment while we did our best to try and hold it together.
Stevie and I flew back home on February 12, both of us emotionally and physically exhausted. He’d been surviving on 2 hours of sleep as he and his siblings tried to wade through mountains of paperwork and prepare themselves for what was to come, and he returned to Lincoln completely drained and fighting off a cold and a stomach bug that knocked him on his ass for the next four days. I’d been surviving on 2 hours sleep trying to balance all my work obligations, a teething 6-month-old waking every hour all…night…long, and the nagging guilt of not having enough hours in the day to support my husband or check in on my daughter who was back home trying desperately to hold onto some semblance of a routine while her parents were running from coast to coast like lunatics.
We prayed that we might get a short break, a few days reprieve before we had to face what we knew was coming. We’d planned a family birthday party for Cadence. It was always one of our favorite gatherings of the year with local family and a few friends coming over to the house for some good food, homemade ice cream cake, and time spent making Cadence feel special. We knew we would be planning another trip east after the party, but then Miss C started running a fever, and we watched her energy and her incessant chatter fading as her temperature climbed.
Thursday, February 18 – I was in the rocking chair feeding Henry when we got the call. It was early, still dark. My eyes were half-closed when Stevie came in the room to tell me Richie was gone.
Everything from that moment until this one is a bit of a blur.
Stevie and I hit auto-pilot and started moving. Cadence’s fever was on Day 3, holding steady at 103.9, so we made her an appointment to see the doctor, and made arrangements for her to stay behind with my parents while we headed to New York. I had to lay my body on top of her to hold her down so the nurse could swab her throat for strep, only to have the test come back negative.
We booked a flight, rented a car, and spent the day rotating laundry and re-packing all the clothes we’d just taken out of our suitcases. By 5:45 a.m. Friday morning, we were in the air and heading east.
Stevie’s sister, Michele, already had most of the arrangements made by the time we landed in Westchester. We made the drive to Long Island, our hearts as heavy as the clouds that pressed down on the city skyline.
The food began to arrive shortly after we did–giant deli sandwiches and sides, trays of pasta and pastries, bottles of wine and Richie’s favorite Budweiser–all sent by the friends and neighbors who love Richie as much as we do, and who know exactly how big of a hole his death left us to fill.
I wasn’t prepared to walk into that wake. I’m not sure there was even anything Stevie could have said that would have made it any easier. All I could think about was how it had only been a few months since our last visit, exactly 133 days since we hugged Richie goodbye after blowing into town for Henry’s jet-set baptism.
Somehow, I kept thinking if I closed my eyes and wished hard enough, I could wake up in my own bed and find that it had all been just one, long, bad dream.
We headed back to the house for a few hours and more food between the wakes. The house was full, and still felt empty. I happened to glance at my phone as we were gathering our things to return to the funeral home for the evening wake. There was one text from my Mom.
Please give me a call.
And my heart dropped straight out of my chest.
I could hear Cadence coughing in the background when Mom answered, a deep cough, unrelenting.
“Honey, if I lose you, it’s because we’re getting in the elevator. I don’t want to alarm you, but Dad and I are taking Cadence to the ER. Her fever went up and she can’t stop coughing. She just doesn’t look right…her eyes…and we’re worried.”
I started to answer, but the line went dead.
I cried all the way back to the funeral home, as Stevie and I talked it out, trying to calm each other’s frazzled nerves and convince ourselves that everything was going to be ok.
It was an hour before a call came through from the hospital, asking for our consent to treat. And then a call from Mom. She didn’t know anything yet. They were waiting for the doctor, and she would call back as soon as she knew anything. It took three nurses to hold our little girl down for a flu test, but somehow the screaming and the crying helped ease her cough long enough for her to talk to her daddy and I on the phone. She told me she was scared and she missed us, but it was ok because they gave her a gown with the Looney Tunes characters on it and promised her a popsicle. The wake was ending and we were gathering our things to head back to the house when we finally got the news.
Swine flu. I didn’t even know that shit was around anymore!
But thankfully no pneumonia, and Miss C was heading back to Grandma and Papa’s house for the night to try and get some sleep.
We managed to get some too, just a little, and then it was time to get up and head to the church and say our goodbyes.
We buried Richie on a Tuesday, in the rain and the cold and the wind that cut straight through to the bone.
And now that Richie is gone, we are facing the same impossible task–trying to find our new normal.
We spent a week talking and reminiscing and sharing our favorite stories about all the things we will miss the most. Like the way Richie always had a white towel tucked in his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow, or the old wood-paneled Buick station wagon he drove. Or the way he would always make sure we got all of our favorite foods during our trips back home–egg bagels, sandwiches from Idlehour Deli, chocolate coconut donuts from Dunkin Donuts, and a huge steaming plate of zuppa de pesce from Mamma Lombardi’s. We spent a week in the house, waiting to hear him walking down the hallway, or waking to find him sitting in his swivel chair in the living room, hot cup of coffee in his hand, gazing out the window at the neighborhood below, just as he and Diane did every morning.
That’s the thing about loss and grief, isn’t it? You never really go back to normal. Instead, you spend the rest of your days with this gaping hole in your life. Time can dull the edges, but nothing can ever really fill that void, and so you wake every day working your way toward your new normal, gaining on it, but never really managing to hold it tightly in your hands before it slips away again.
And here we are now. We’re home. Our bags have been unpacked, and the last loads of laundry are spinning in the dryer. We’re slowly cleaning off our DVR. Stevie is back in the office, and I’ve got an undetermined amount of free time and family time ahead of me thanks to my unexpected unemployment.
Looks like we’re being pushed headlong into our new normal with a whole bunch of changes and uncertainty, and yet, somehow, Stevie and I are both okay with it. Somehow, for the first time in a long time, it feels like everything is going to be fine.
It is what it is. That’s what Richie would say. And you know, he was one of those guys who was always right.