School started last week. Two days of just the teachers and administrators and two days with the students. Of course, no teacher sprints back to school, but when my dad and Ben were ill, I especially dreaded that day. In those days, some teachers knew not to even ask me how my summer was. They knew not to ask me how my weekends were! I would sit and observe everyone sharing their fun summer stories and just hope that I didn’t get asked questions so I didn’t have to shrug and get those sympathetic or pitying looks. After I lost Ben, when I started in a new school, where only a couple of people knew me, I could just give a generic reply to strangers rather than reveal how difficult summers were. I’m not a terribly superficial person, so it felt like I was not really being myself, yet I was grateful to shed the image of the caregiver running in circles to tend to her dying dad and husband, or the woman grieving her losses. Last week, when asked how my summer was, it was a strange feeling to be able to respond with complete honesty and enthusiasm that it was great. I was keenly aware of feeling good and yet awkward about that answer.
Summer remains a time that is shadowed by the sad memories of Ben’s departure. As this summer approached, I braced myself for those memories but still made plans that I would enjoy. I am pleased, relieved and even proud that I truly had a delightful summer. It feels like an accomplishment. Still, it comes with a bit of guilt and confusion.
I sometimes wonder if my ability to fully immerse myself in life and joy means that I am distancing myself from the loss of Ben. Is it a lack of respect for Ben? Does it appear that way to others? If being Ben’s caregiver and grieving widow have been the ways I have defined myself for such a long time, who am I without those most important aspects of myself? Who do I even want to be?
Although I felt relieved to be able to smile and say that I had a great summer, there was so much emotion and history behind that seemingly simple response. People who have known me through all the difficult years know that it is a big step to be able to experience joy again beyond just having some good times. I am so grateful and appreciative that they are happy for me. For those who don’t know me, it is just casual conversation among acquaintances. Part of me is happy to be a new Abby without that sad history. Part of me feels that those are such vital pieces of who I am that to be unaware of them is not to really know me. Also, it feels strangely disrespectful if Ben is not somehow a vibrant part of the new Abby. It’s hard for me that I’m no longer part of Abby and Ben. By saying I had a great summer, it feels that I am not acknowledging the pain that did exist and continues to haunt me. It dismisses my ongoing struggle to achieve a balance between living in the here and now and taking Ben, and essentially, my past, everywhere in my heart.
Alice was right. I can’t go back to the person I was before the caregiving days and grief. Those experiences did change and shape me. People will not necessarily know my experiences. If they get to know me, it’s likely they will because Ben, and our journey with ALS are vital parts of the person I have become. This blog, my volunteering and my goals to work with other caregivers evolved from those experiences. All these things keep me heading towards the future but also keep Ben with me as I venture forward.
Who am I? In some ways, am still floundering to define myself. I hope that in time I will become more comfortable with myself without so much self-assessment and self-criticism. I knew myself best as a caregiver and person in grief, and the transition to a life without those prominent roles has been difficult. Of course, grief does not really go away, though it shifts. The Abby from before my days of caregiving and loss has always lived within me during those rough years, but I am just not exactly sure who I am at this point in time. Maybe this is simply who I am, realizing that as we go through life, it’s okay that people will enter and exit and not necessarily know my history. I have yet to be comfortable with who I am in the present and as I look to the future. Maybe I need a looking glass.