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Like most mothers on their child’s birthday, I found myself reflecting on when my tiny baby came into this world.  But it was especially the day before Eleanor’s birthday that I kept looking at the clock and remembering where we were in our labor at that exact time five years ago.

I wanted a natural childbirth and Ted was, as usual, totally on board.  We loved doing things together and this would be the ultimate Team Dempsey endeavor.  We went to all our baby doctor (Ted’s words, not mine) appointments together, hired a doula, had a rebozo made by a friend, watched videos on childbirth, and attended the Lamaze classes where we asked more questions than the rest of the attendants combined.  Most of mine were regarding food; no matter how many ways they promised me I wouldn’t be hungry during labor, I kept thinking I should just be prepared…at least with a PBJ.

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    Our lives are made up of a series of decisions.  Some turn out to be good, some bad, some neutral.  Some decisions have minimal consequence, and others have impacts that reverberate indefinitely.

    When Ted was killed, he was at the prime of his life.  He was at that perfect place where he had lived long enough to acquire the experience and wisdom that deepens one’s perspective and sense of gratitude, but he still had decades in front of him to continue making a difference in the world.

    Ted was passionate about the things he believed in. He got tremendous satisfaction from helping others.  He believed that anything of value was worth working for – worth fighting for. Continue reading

      Eleanor was had just turned one when Ted was taken from us. An age that gave many the audacity to say that she’d recover quite quickly from the loss. But like many things that have been uttered without experience to validate, this proved untrue.

      A couple of months before her birthday, Eleanor started to really began her bonding with Ted. We had read that breastfed babies tended to be more mom-focused for their first several months, understandably since that’s their sole source of nourishment, but then they begin to realize there’s another parent – and in her case, a curiously fun and interesting one. Continue reading

        One day I came home from an errand and Ted was sitting on the couch with Eleanor in front of him at the coffee table and a big bowl of watermelon in front of her.

        They were watching the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries and he was feeding her watermelon chunks. She didn’t even notice my walking in (or the red juice dribbling down her chin) because she was so entranced by the cheetahs and lions.

        We hadn’t really let her watch much TV up to that point (except for the Women’s World Cup matches – duh), but I couldn’t help to be tickled when I saw how much she was enjoying not only Ted’s new favorite show, but also his new favorite food. Continue reading

          Often times it’s the endings that make us think back on the beginnings.

          In the months that have followed Ted’s death, the memories that fill my mind most are the ones from the beginning of our relationship.  That thrilling time when our hearts were bursting with anticipation of when we’d get to see each other again and joy when that moment came.  We fell in love so quickly, so deeply.

          I remember his first day with our company and overhearing him when he was being taken on a tour of the office.  When he was being shown the supply closet he said, “Neat, is this where you store all the Mont Blancs?” It was evident the other person didn’t get the reference to the luxury fountain pens that have been around since the turn of the century and cost hundreds (even on Amazon), but I thought the joke was adorable. Continue reading

            I remember when I learned that Ted’s birthday was exactly a month before mine.  This was back before I knew if my affections were requited, but I was scoping him out in the employee handbook where birthdays were listed.

            I was delighted when I saw the date and I devised a way to use the fact that he was born on Flag Day, and I on Bastille Day (two obscure holidays that most people don’t think about in the US) as a lead-in next time I bumped into him in the break room.

            Luckily, he thought it was cool (and I thought it was a sign that we should be together – clearly) so fast forward to after we began dating and our summer birthdays were something we made the most of.

            Ted always went above and beyond to make things special.  He put more meaning into gifts than anyone I’ve ever known.  The most exciting gift I’ve ever gotten (even more than my 7th Christmas when I got my very own bike) was the surfboard Ted gave me after we began surfing together.  That board has hundreds of hours logged on it by both of us, and we dreamed of passing it down to our baby girl when she got big enough.

            The year we got married, Ted brought me coffee in bed and on the tray was an envelope.  He had arranged for Eleanor Beardsley, the NPR correspondent based out of Paris who I would very much like to be one day (listen, I’m a Francophile and love talking to strangers, this would be a dream job), to send me a postcard from Paris on my birthday.  This was during the Arab Spring and she was covering the Tunisian Revolution, so she sent one from there instead.

            Now, I imagine Ms. Beardsley to be an impossibly busy person given the state of affairs in the Middle East.  Yet Ted was able to appeal to her as a “newlywed trying to do something special for his wife’s birthday.”  He also charmed her into reading my (fledgling) surf blog, which she commented on in her postcard – a compliment whose wings I floated on for the rest of the day – and sending a picture of herself.

            So this very busy foreign correspondent, who’s never met me or my dear husband, had someone take a picture of her on Pont des Arts, so she could enclose it in her envelope to me on my birthday.

            Pont des Arts is a pedestrian bridge in Paris made famous by hundreds of thousands of love birds who put a lock on its fencing as a symbolic gesture of their amour.  The city put a stop to this sweet but detrimental practice in 2015 when the weight of the locks began compromising the structural integrity of the bridge.  Therefore, both Ms. Beardsley’s picture and the historically significant post card serve as a time capsule in addition to a charmingly thoughtful birthday gift.

            That man knew no bounds when it came to making something special.  He loved grand gestures and he never shied away from recruiting others to help in his endeavors.

            By far the most meaningful gift was for my first birthday after we met.  He gave me novel by a woman who was born at the turn of the century in France.  When she met the love of her life in 1947, she was Ted’s age when he met me.  Moreover, the man who became her husband was my age when I met Ted.  This man was utterly devoted and loving to her until her death in the 70s, after which, he became her literary executor.

            Ted found a copy of one of her published diaries that had the hand-written inscription, “Finally, the real story – the missing piece, the passionate woman,” on the cover page by none other than her husband.  Somehow, Ted found this copy and presented me with it, on my birthday.  He saw a parallelism between their love for one another and ours.

            I remember where I was when I opened this gift.  I remember how touched I was by his gesture and the incredible effort he went to in making it.

            It’s been years since I read the printout giving the history of this couple that Ted included with the book, so I just read it again.  In doing so, I saw that they were married on March 17, 1955, St. Patrick’s Day, just as Ted and I were 62 years later.

            The symbolism that struck me from before our relationship even began, wove through our courtship and marriage, and continues through to today.  Though our time together was far too short, I ardently believe we were meant to be.

              I walked into the water, feeling shells crunching under my feet.  It was cooler than I expected but by the time it was up to my waist, I was used to it.  When I got outside of where the waves were breaking at the first sandbar, the sounds of the people on the shore had disappeared into the low roar of the waves.

              When I was chest deep, I took a breath and submerged myself.  I stretched out on my back and looked up to the surface.

              Finally, quiet.

              No voices of others, no internal chattering of my own.  Just the muffled sound of the waves above me.

              The water so clear and the sky beyond that was so blue.  It wasn’t as I had pictured it for so many months.  Since the accident, I’ve envisioned myself floating in turbulent waters, looking up at a darkened, ominous sky, and then sinking down to the bottom, so very far from the surface.

              But not today.  Today is his birthday.

              I wanted to feel close to him, so I came to the spot where we spent countless hours together.  It was the place where I caught my first wave, where he pushed me into thousands of waves after that, where we’d sit together on our boards catching up on each other’s days while we looked out to the horizon for the next ride, where we found ourselves in bigger surf than we were suited for more times than we could count, and where we’d catch our last wave of the day – which would be one we’d catch one together.

              He called those “love waves,” and it was his rule that we had to catch a wave together before we could go in…and we had to kiss afterwards.  He also had a rule that we had to kiss when the sun set into the water during our evening surf sessions.

              He was such a romantic.

              This was the first time I had been back to this spot, or even in the water, since losing him.  I felt like I was walking in slow motion when I was coming up the boardwalk over the dunes until the Gulf of Mexico stretched out before me.  The place that once represented such joy and playfulness, has become a peaceful, quiet place to honor him, and honor his love of the water.

              He delighted in being on the water in any capacity, but the way he’d get so excited the night before going fishing was unparalleled to any other time.  No matter how long of a day he had, there’d be a spring in his step while he was getting our gear ready.

              He told me he was the same way when he was little and would be going fishing with his “Pop Pop” the next morning.  He’d be so keyed up that he couldn’t go to sleep so his grandmother would bring him a concoction of milk and sugar that was supposed to be a magical potion to help him fall asleep.  He’d diligently drink it down and he said it worked like a charm.  Here’s to the placebo effect.

              When we started surfing together, I found myself feeling the same eagerness for the morning to come.  If we were going for an early session before work, I’d get everything ready the night before.  In the years before we got married, we’d meet at his house and drive down to the beach.

              He’d always have a thermos of coffee waiting for me.  There was one autumn that I was really into the Green Mountain blueberry coffee and every time I smell it, it brings me back to those mornings, sitting beside him in his silver Fj in my bathing suit and sweatshirt.

              This morning’s trip to the beach was somber.  We weren’t listening to the surf playlist that he made.  We weren’t chatting about the day’s plans or goings on in the world.  I was quietly alone with my thoughts – a rare opportunity in my life with a toddler.

              When I was walking down to the water’s edge, an MH-60 (the next generation of the helicopter he flew) rumbled over and I felt Ted’s presence.  After I sank into the water, I started swimming.  Within a few minutes, I was paralleling beach that was void of any tourists.  I felt like I had the water to myself and that seclusion gave me comfort.  For once, I didn’t feel like others were looking at me as “the widow,” but rather, I was just a woman, swimming.

              I thought about him.  I thought about us, our plans, our dreams.  When I got tired of swimming, I walked in the water. I talked to Ted, I prayed to God.  I cried.  My tears mixed with the gulf and I let the salt water wash over me in hopes that it would cleanse my mournful soul.  I hoped it would provide me with a brief respite of peace and a sense of him.

              Happy birthday, baby.

                The first summer we were together, there were peach stands on every corner.  I had never seen so many local farmers setting up tents to sell their crops, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.

                Ted and I were constantly buying small baskets of peaches and bringing them to one another at the office.  I have memories of him sitting in my cube eating peaches so ripe that he’d invariably get juice on his gorgeous ties.  I felt like we were kids, for that brief moment in our hectic work days, sneaking up into a shade tree eating something we snuck from our mother’s kitchen.

                A couple of summers later, we were coming back from surfing one morning when we saw a farmer who was selling homemade peach ice cream from a roadside stand.  In typical Ted and Maureen fashion, we hit up that farmer every time we passed by for the rest of his short season.

                After we got married, I only thought it appropriate to give Ted a peach tree for his birthday.  I had given him a grapefruit tree for our first dating anniversary and a fig tree a year or two after that, but peaches were becoming a thread that ran through our relationship.

                Ted babied that tree like no other in his little grove.  He built a platform on wheels so he could bring it into the garage on cold nights that first winter while it was still in a pot.  After we planted it the next summer, we ventured out on cold January nights to cover it with blankets to protect it from the forecasted frost.

                When I got pregnant, we decided we’d take a picture of me in front of the tree with the baby in my belly, and then each year we’d take a picture with Eleanor in front of it as a sweet way to chart her growth.

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                We loved looking out our window and seeing the pink blossoms in the late winter.  Our neighbors would ask if it was a cherry tree because it looked right out of the Tidal Basin.

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                When those delicate pink flowers gave way to fuzzy baby peaches each spring, Ted meticulously culled through them to make sure there weren’t more on a particular limb than the limb could support.

                Last summer, one of the limbs did in fact have more fruit than it could bear, and it broke under the weight.  So Ted created a cast using burlap and rope, then he propped it on a sawhorse until the harvest was over.  He loved his trees and his garden, he loved caring for things.

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                We had quite the bumper crop last summer and despite giving bags to our friends and neighbors, we still had enough for cobbler and pie.  With the remaining peaches, we made a huge batch of preserves and gave the amber-colored treasure as gifts to our family.

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                Ted took the lead on that project and I was his sou chef.  He had become super dedicated to his morning workouts and didn’t want to sabotage his efforts with a gallon of sugar in the pot of peaches, so he found coconut crystals to use as the sweetener.   Since sugar is the preserving ingredient in preserves, we weren’t sure how long they’d keep, but I opened up one of the last two jars on our wedding anniversary in March and it was delicious.

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                For lunch that day, I made Eleanor and myself eggs from our neighbors chickens, grapefruit from our tree, and toast with his peach preserves.  It only took my telling Eleanor once that the preserves and grapefruit were daddy’s, so now every time she sees either, she says dada with a big smile.

                One jar remains and I hope it’ll last long enough for Eleanor to be able to try them when she’s older and can savor the experience. I presume that will be terribly significant to her at a certain age – being able to eat something made by the man she craves to know more about with each passing season.

                Now that this year’s crop is ripening on the tree, it’s almost a daily ritual to harvest peaches when the sun gets low in the sky.  If friends or family are over, we’ll set up her baby pool and water table, which she loves dipping her peaches into between each bite.  But the ever-growing helper, she likes picking them off the tree too.

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                Neighbors stop by to admire the tree and we send them home with paper bags filled with peaches.  Everyone marvels at how much it produces and how quickly it’s grown in the few years since we planted it.  It’s becoming a gathering place for our family and neighborhood, which would have made Ted proud.

                Eleanor knows it’s his tree; she points to it saying dada.  She seems drawn to it – almost like she senses his presence.

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                  On the way to work today, two ambulances passed me.  This was right in the area of Ted’s accident and during the same time of day.  Immediately, images of Ted lying on the gurney flashed through my mind.  I tried to block it, as I so frequently have to do, but I couldn’t help but to picture him that day, six months ago, when the ambulance rushed him to the hospital in a vain attempt to save his life.

                  I saw him in the new shirt and pants he was wearing that day, which he got the weekend before when he took Eleanor on a “field trip” to Dillard’s.  When he got home from the store that day, he told me to close my eyes while he held something behind his back.  As I opened them, I saw him grinning, holding a beautiful high-neck black dress that he said Eleanor “thought would look really nice on mommy and accentuate her neck.”  He said I didn’t have to try it on right away but I could if I wanted to (hint, hint).

                  That was one of his countless endearing qualities – he loved making people smile, and he got excited about it.  The dress fit perfectly and we decided that I’d wear it to the company Christmas party in a few months.  We loved those parties as it was a rare opportunity for us to dance (and we oh-so loved dancing), so we already began planning who we’d ask to babysit.

                  As it turned out, I wore the dress 10 days later at his funeral.

                  All of this ran through my mind in the remaining half mile to the office.  By the time I pulled into the parking lot, my heart felt like barb wires of emotions were choking it: the horror of picturing my husband in the back of an ambulance, the sweet sadness of his last thoughtful gesture, and the crushing disappointment of yet another plan that would never come to fruition.

                  When I walked into the office, I was greeted with smiles and hopeful faces.  This is how it always is.  They hope I’m doing better, they hope I’m okay.  They ask how Eleanor is and I beam as any parent in love with her baby would, and tell them how sweet her little spirit is.  I tell them something funny she’s done recently so we can laugh and pretend that I’m just another mom sharing stories about her kid.

                  Inside I’m trying to push down all the feelings that waved over me in the 60 seconds before I walked in the door.  I’m trying to be the Maureen they all know.  The one who’s easy to laugh (too loud probably) and makes jokes – usually about herself.  The one who maybe asks too many questions (because she just likes people), and gets emotionally invested in other’s lives – despite the fact that she’s been told she can’t save the world.

                  Some of these traits come out to play when I’m leading orientations, which I absolutely love.  This is for new employees company-wide, so people dial into my web conference from all over the country, and sometimes the world.  I am fascinated by different places and recreation, so I abuse my position by getting people to talk about where they’re from and what they like to do for fun.  The best orientations are when the orienteers get gabby themselves and begin connecting to one-another over the virtual chat box.

                  Because I only work part time, and usually from home, when I do my orientations I use one of the collaboration rooms at the office.  These are former private offices that have been turned into public spaces for people who need a common area but not a full conference room.  It just so happens that the room I use is Ted’s old office.

                  The office that when he was newer to the company, I’d pretend to stop in just so I could raid his candy dish, but in actuality so I could talk to him about whatever I could come up with.  The office that, once we started dating, I’d swing by just to tell him I loved him or to see if he wanted to sneak a surf session in after work.  The office that we punked for his birthday by wrapping everything is saran wrap and replacing his keyboard with one that had grass growing up through the keys.  What?  He had also been at a fishing tournament in the Bahamas for a week so it needed to be punked.PicStich 2

                  This office holds so many memories for me.  But now his furniture is gone and the walls are no longer decorated with his pictures and plaques.  The only thing that remains of him are the scuff marks on the wall under where his desk once was and where his feet would hit.  He always joked about his big feet.

                  So I sit, trying to block out the ambulance, and the images, and the bittersweet memories, and get ready for my new employees.  They, after all, have their own set of concerns and my job is to make their first day a little less confusing, and (hopefully) a little more fun.

                  And with that, my next orientation starts and I begin getting to know the orienteers.  All the while I try to pretend – if even for an afternoon – that my life isn’t what it’s become and I’m old Maureen, making people laugh.

                    Someone told me today that it’s time that I move on with my life.  It was in response to the honest answer I gave when he asked how I was doing and evidently, it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear.

                    This came from someone who neither had the right to offer me unsolicited advice, nor the past experience to have any basis of understanding of what I’m going through.  The level of pain, despair, and suffering that one endures through a circumstance like this is incomprehensible – until you experience it for yourself.

                    Though this was one of the worst things someone’s imparted on me since Ted’s death, it’s far from the only detrimental statement.

                    Minutes after the funeral, I was holding our baby and the flag that the honor guard presented to me with a look of sincerity and sorrow that I will never forget.  Despite the murky sea of shock I was swimming in, I had the cognizance to realize I would never get over this; I would never be the same.  But when I made that statement, almost to myself, it was met with one of the most common platitudes spoken to someone who has lost their spouse: he would want you to be happy.

                    As though it’s my uncertainty of what Ted would have wanted that’s preventing my happiness.

                    How about the fact that I’ve lost the love of my life?  Or perhaps the fact that my innocent child is now fatherless?  If not those, then the loss of the present that we worked so hard for and the future we dreamed of?  Could those be reasons that I’m entrenched in a level of sorrow that’s not comparable to divorce, the loss of a friend, the loss of a grandparent, or even the loss of a parent for an adult child.

                    Those are all horrible losses, undoubtedly, but they are not the same.  Yet for some reason, so many are unable to resist drawing comparisons, telling me how I should handle this, and discounting my need to grieve.

                    When I tell people I will never be as happy as I was six months ago, they give me a placating look that says aw, they all say that be they eventually find happiness.

                    I feel like I’m screaming in a tank of water, and no one hears me.

                    Yes, I recognize the fact that I may find happiness again (though, if this situation has shown us anything, it’s that there are absolutely no guarantees), but this loss is now the backdrop of my life, the lens through which I view my future. No matter what happens down the road, nothing can erase the fact that the life I dreamt of has been taken away from me and the family Eleanor was going to grow up in has been shattered.

                    When someone says that God may have a great man in store for me, they may as well be telling me, you might find a really nice replacement husband for yourself and replacement father for Eleanor.

                    Suggesting that a new man in our lives will fill the gaping hole that’s been torn into our hearts is as absurd as telling a mother who’s lost her child, you can have another one.

                    People are simply not replaceable, so why say this?  Is it a total lack of understanding, or are statements like this borne out of hope that if something as horrifying happens to them, it won’t be that bad?

                    Spoiler: it’s that bad.

                    The only way to get through grief it is to experience it.  You can’t shelve it, you can’t ignore it, you can’t rush it.  If you want to come out to the other side as a healthy, fully functioning human being, you have to work through each stage, and it’s a long and all-encompassing process.  It affects every aspect of your life: emotional (obviously), but also social, physical, mental, and spiritual, and there are no short cuts.

                    People foolishly hope that I’m doing “a little better every day.”  No one wants to believe that it’s actually going to get harder before it starts to get better.  But the way our brain protects us from tragedies, especially sudden ones, is to buffer us with shock and denial.  As we’re able to process the first little bit of the horror, our brain takes in a little bit more and begins working through that.

                    With a loss as complicated and all-affecting as this, it could take a year before I have processed the entire loss.  All the while, my anguish grows as my hope for the future diminishes.

                    In one of the earlier sessions with my grief counselor, I revealed my devastation for Eleanor.  How is this loss going to impact her?  What is it going to feel like when she sees other children playing with their daddies and she has to accept the fact that she’ll never get to play with hers?  My counselor urged me not to take on that part of the loss just yet.  I had enough to carry and my overburdened heart wouldn’t bear much more.

                    But so many people want to hurry this along.  They see me exercising and getting back to work and want to assume I’m much better.  They think that after the first year, things will be “back to normal,” but the reality is that I could be in the trenches for years to come.

                    When I do get to the other side, things will never be the way they were, I will simply have a new normal – which will always be less than what it should have been.