I’m hijacking Nina’s blog today. Sorry. But it’s for a good cause. You’ll see. The writing won’t be nearly up to snuff, but the occasion is sort of a valid excuse?
So today is my seventeenth wedding anniversary. But it’s the first time I’ve celebrated one without a wife. Nina made it almost exactly 16.5 years into our marriage, which we’d both envisioned lasting long into our dotage (which, yes, you could argue is already nascent in my case, but was not in hers!). Today I’ll mark the occasion by picking the kids up at Camp Kesem, the same wonderful place where they went for their first overnight camp last summer. I remember it felt almost criminally liberating leaving the boys, and to be home all week without them. Nina and I kept having these sudden “realizations” where we’d panic that we didn’t know where the kids were, then remember we’d left them safe and sound in the woodlands of Virginia, three hours away, with a bunch of college kids, whom the kids liked better than us anyhow. Phew.
That occasional panic lasted about 24 hours. Then we got REAL used to having a kid free week. Actually, Nina was in the throes of an intensive round of radiation, which started two days before our anniversary. And the anniversary was only two days before we took the kids off to camp, so I’m pretty sure it went more or less uncelebrated. But by the time the kids were done with camp Nina was too radiation sick to travel, so I got the boys by myself then, too.
Just like last year, we will head up to Naushon—Nina’s communal family spot off Cape Cod–a few days after the boys get home from camp. This year that’s just when our time up there starts. Last year we had to wait a few days for Nina to be well enough to travel. I remember during our stay we talked about how many more times we’d get to enjoy the house up there, its breathtaking views and familiar structures—the halls of the house where Nina’s father played with his brothers and sister, where Nina and Charlie grew up knowing every knot hole and creaky plank, and where our two boys have been coming since before they knew there was any such thing as vacation houses, extended family, motorboats, or cancer. We were aware of the ticking of the clock, but I think we both imagined at least one more trip.
This summer we’re not just going to Monsod without Nina—which would be odd enough—we’re going to drive up there with her ashes in a box, and we’re going to commit them to the ground on Nonamesset Island. It’s a stunning place. The burial will be marked by an engraved stone, on a beautiful spot where Nina’s cousin Alex—who died a few years back at about the same age Nina was—is buried. Nina’s aunt and uncle picked Alex’s burial ground superlatively well: in full view of Monsod, her favorite place on the planet, and also Martha’s Vineyard, the Sound, and Woods Hole. Pete and I picked out stones for both Nina and Jan, so they’ll both be making their last trips to Naushon, as it were. The longest funeral procession ever. All the way up I-95 from North Carolina, and in Jan’s case, two years in the making.
But before all that, gotta get though today: our seventeenth anniversary. Anniversaries are funny. We celebrate the wedding, but not the start of the relationship for some reason. Nina and I actually were together starting in June of 1999. And we met the summer before that. So it’s really our eighteenth or nineteenth anniversary, by gum!
Still, there are some conventions that are fun to follow, however flawed. For a while I used to use the “traditional” list of anniversary gift materials for Nina’s presents. We weren’t traditional. But I liked the list as a sort of starting point, and it became a fun challenge to find a good gift that actually matched the material for that year: for our 10th I got tin jewelry from Wales, for our 12th a silk jewelry travel pouch, and for our 15th crystal champagne glasses. It was a little silly and frivolous, I guess. But it also gave some tradition and structure to anniversary celebrations, which for us were not giant to-dos. We never did anything more than go out for a nice dinner.
Just for kicks I looked up seventeen on the traditional list and it said: “Furniture.” I don’t think anyone traditionally gave “Furniture.” In fact, I don’t think anyone traditionally celebrated the seventeenth anniversary, so “Furniture” is probably just a furniture industry ruse cooked up down I-85 in High Point, NC to boost sales. But, as it happens, I am executing a plan Nina and I made for an extensive remodel of our house, which includes a new master bedroom suite, two-car garage, newly remodeled family room, new half bath, and a “bonus” room over the garage, much of which will be fairly empty. So I will, without question, be purchasing “Furniture” in great abundance in this the year of our seventeenth anniversary.
Like I said, we never really made that much of anniversaries. But as this one approached, I really felt the loss more acutely. I can’t tell if it’s just the passage of additional time—nearly six months have passed since Nina died now—or the gradual return of life to its circadian rhythms. Not “normal,” whatever fictive thing that is or was, but normalized. Regular. Measured in more predictable emotional and quotidian metes and bounds. But that feels odd. Upsetting. Not because I want life to stand still because Nina died. But the passing of new epochs of our lives brings a kind of drift—not distance exactly, because I can still summon her immanence with photos, memories, or the company of friends and family who knew her well. But a persistent tidal flux that, though it keeps me more or less in the same area, nearly remakes the whole landscape each time it rises and falls. New detritus washed up around me every time, scattered in different places. And even though the landscape looks basically familiar from even ten or twenty yards out to sea, when I examine it closely, I realize it’s totally changed.
I’d prefer this ebb and flow wash me as smooth as beach glass (a great love for collecting which Nina learned from her father and passed on to her children). But I keep finding I’m all jagged edges, even though I’m constantly immersed in the salty tumult. Maybe I’m a beer bottle made from tempered glass? Or safety glass blown out of a warship during a great battle? Or maybe I’m just pushing this metaphor way beyond the flexural strength of any known form of glass or language?
The point is, I miss Nina. I miss her smile, her voice, her touch, of course. But I also miss her equal zeal for socializing and cancelling plans to cuddle in our bed and eat takeout. I miss her unbelievable gift for relationships, for not being afraid to confront the really difficult parts of being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, or friend, in order to preserve the very best bits, even if it hurt sometimes. I miss her fearlessness to try to do whatever she thought was best, even when she was afraid. I miss her more today than other days, I suppose. But I miss her achingly all the time.
The ardor over her book, the immediacy and shock of grief, and the incredible support I’ve had gave me momentum for several months after she died. But now on our first anniversary since Nina’s death, I feel a million miles from coping. I’m not a terrible parent, but I’m not the parent I’d be alongside Nina. And I’m not awful company, either. You know, for a guy who’s grieving and wasn’t all that much fun before the grief. But I was always a whole lot better at parties and get-togethers with Nina along. I’m going to keep on parenting my kids (yikes!) and hanging out with my peeps (sorry, friends and family of Nina, contract not dissolved by death of one partner!), but we were a team, a unit. And today was meant to be a celebration of that. A casual celebration at our favorite restaurant, where I’d probably not have been able to bring a whole piece of “Furniture” to present to her as a gift. I bet picking out “Furniture” for our newly remodeled house would have been a pretty slick present anyhow. So I’ll just do that. And keep missing Nina. Happy seventeenth, NER: the “Furniture” anniversary, which is maybe appropriate, as long as all the “Furniture” remains unfinished.