Learning to Sing Solo

Denver in the summer of 2014, about two months after Jamie's ALS diagnosis.

Denver in the summer of 2014, about two months after Jamie's ALS diagnosis.

Soon after I arrived in Colorado, early in May, a simple song came out of my car speakers. It was coming from the Bluetooth in my phone, but I had NO IDEA how it got there or why it started playing. It’s called “Oh, Sweet Lorraine,” and it’s produced by Green Shoe Studio. The first time I heard it, I started crying. I listened to it obsessively until I could sing along.

Oh, Sweet Lorraine. I wish we could do all the good times over again.
The good times,

The good times,
The good times all over again.
Oh, Sweet Lorraine,
life only goes round once, and never again.

Among my summer activities was learning to play the ukulele, so I decided to figure out the chords and learn to sing it. As I practice, I’ve begun altering the lyrics. (I know how much songwriters love that.) I began singing to “My Sweet James.”

And the memories always linger on,
Oh my sweet James, no, I don’t want to move on.
Yes, the memories always linger on

Oh my sweet James, that’s why I’m singing this song.

The memories linger on. They are a catalyst for sad and also for happy, but mostly happy-sad. The Year of Firsts will be over after today. I survived all the Bigs, along with many special days less publicly celebrated: The first anniversary of what I was certain would be my last First Kiss. The first time we said: “I love you.” Moving in together, which we called “Pod Day.” Our three honeymoons. Jamie had of those all marked in our shared calendar. But I wouldn’t have forgotten.

The “Big Firsts” didn’t leave me too battered. I knew enough to wrap myself up in a tender cocoon of solitude and reflection while my family and friends, wherever they were, held me in love and support. It’s the smaller, unexpected memories that pierce the cocoon and leave me feeling breathless, exposed and bereft. Hearing “Hotel California” in the coffee shop where we met. Breathing in the smell of his signature plaid wool cap. Stumbling across the red shoe polish that he used to shine my red cowboy boots — Jamie’s first birthday gift to me. Driving through a mountain pass last traversed with Jamie at the wheel. Sitting alone in a darkened theater. Filling out forms that ask for marital status. Zip-lining through the Colorado with my 14-year-old grandson. Spying a couple holding hands on the hiking trail.

That Facebook Memories app showing up in my newsfeed. Every. Damn. Day.

And now, the August 16 triple whammy: His Birthday, the Day We Met, the First Anniversary of his Death. Today initiates the end of the Firsts, one year without Jamie in the world. Tomorrow officially marks the beginning of something else.

            But the memories always linger on,
            Oh, my sweet James, no, I don’t want to move on.

Memories are tumbling around in my head all the time. I recognize all that grinding is knocking the edges off, making them softer, smoother, easier to hold. This is designed to make our memories about loved ones who have died easier to bear, I suppose. But I don’t want to lose those sharp edges.

The good times,
The good times,
The good times all over again.

As I began practicing with my ukulele, the lyrics felt inauthentic. Jamie was my soul mate (I admit this sheepishly, because I bullied that term big time before we met. And — I swear I am not making this up — while editing for a client today, I went to the Merriam-Webster site to look up a word. The “Word of the Day” was soul mate.)

Believe me, our 10-year partnership included plenty of “dark nights of the soul.” And days. They were as real as the good times and more important, I think. Life can be vexatious, and how you navigate those rubble-strewn, dangerous relationship roads matters. Difficult times demanded the most and the best of us. They reminded us that love wasn’t just about dancing in the kitchen while we cooked, it was also about finding our way out of a tense, resentful silence at dinner. We chose this commitment. The first of our six marriage vows was “to be fully responsible for the success of our life together, even in difficult times.” We had plenty of opportunities to make that vow real. Who doesn’t, really?

Jamie used to wish aloud we had found each other sooner. "We found each other exactly when we were supposed to," I would insist. I have this vague recollection of an early argument about this or something equally silly and irrevelant. The details are washed out, but I remember something I said to stop the fight in its tracks. (This memory is vivid, because that had never happened, and I don’t recall it happening again.)

“You’re always saying we found each other so late! Come on, Jamie, do we really have time for this kind of fight?” He stared at me for a moment, eyes wide, and then his expression transitioned from cloudy to clear. “You’re right. I’m sorry, baby. We really don’t have time for this.”

I’m not going to state the obvious here.

The point is, I don’t want to start idealizing my memories now that I’m in charge of our relationship history. That feels counterfeit. Our partnership was nothing more than two flawed human beings having a human experience, from the beautiful beginning until the bittersweet end. We both brought a lot of baggage to our marriage. What made us work was a willingness to help each other unpack and put things away, but often it got unpleasantly messy until we did. When I worried that the mess would obscure what really mattered, Jamie would insist that the discomfort of working it through was just as important as feeling the love and savoring the joy. He was right.

Of course I’d take the good times all over again, but I’d happily take the hard times, too. So I sing:

The good times,
The great times,
and the hard times all over again.

 Except for the watching him die of ALS part. I would never want us to do that all over again.

The most insistent advice I got after Jamie died was to take it slow, not to make any big life decisions for a year. It was good advice. But now that this year is behind me, I’m reminded of a story about a little girl who had been exhilarated about the thought of being old enough for kindergarten. As the big day approached, however, she became increasingly anxious and agitated. The night before school was to begin, she hysterically insisted to her parents she couldn’t possibly go. They were mystified. “But why?” they asked. “You were so excited about kindergarten.”

“Because I can’t read yet!” the youngster sobbed. For months, her parents had been concluding their bedtime reading with comments like, “When you go to kindergarten, you’ll be able to read these books all by yourself!” I get it. I still can’t imagine how to navigate life without Jamie, all by myself.

It helps to remember that life is a practice. I am still the strong, smart, independent woman Jamie fell in love with, only with added experience,  more wrinkles, and white hair. I can, I will, figure it out as I go along. This year of grief and the summer of love have given me plenty of opportunities to stay focused on the now. Gratitude reigns.

Being in Denver these past few months has spawned its fair share of happy-sad memories, and it’s also been a delightful distraction. Seeing Kadin, my little man, becoming an adult.  Watching 2-year-old Audie Rae using her words and asserting her indomitable toddler will. Welcoming a new life. When I look deep into baby Iris’ beautiful blue eyes and listen to her baby coos, I like to imagine she is telling me how she and Jamie passed each other along the way.

 “Well, Papa Jamie, I’m heading out to the world,” Iris tells him. “Wish me luck.”
“It will be awesome. You’ll be amazing,” Jamie replies, giving her one of his superlative hugs.
“I’m so glad I got to meet you. Give everyone my love.”

And the memories always linger on,
Oh my sweet James, I know I gotta move on
Yes, the memories will always linger on,
But my sweet James, I won’t stop singing your song.

Don’t look for me today. I’ll be in my cocoon somewhere. I’m thinking about finding a quiet, private spot on a Colorado mountain. I’ll take my ukulele, and I’ll sing what I now think of as “Jamie’s Song” (with sincere apologies and deep respect to Fred Stobaugh, who at 96 wrote the lyrics after his wife of 73 years died.)

You won’t hear me sing, but I hope you’ll feel me.

Because I couldn’t have done this without you.