Seventeen

nerjadwedding

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.

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10 thoughts on “Seventeen

  1. *hugs* Thank you for writing this 🙂 It’s good to hear how you’re getting on, even if reading it made me cry. I love your writing, love the descriptions, love the way you link ideas together, love the way you love Nina (and all the other people you mention).
    I wish you all the time and support you need, to feel and think and cry and do whatever’s necessary for you. I also wish you strength and endurance for all your plans, remodeling and otherwise (and the patience to stop and recharge before burning out). And I hope your kids had a great time at camp 🙂

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  2. Your writings are so full of love and realness (not sure that is an actual word). I loved reading how you described Nina, her zeal for socializing, her commitment to relationships for bettering and preserving them, and her fearlessness. Happy Anniversary John & Nina! I hope next year’s porcelain comes with the same flood of amazing memories, through slightly drier eyes.

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  3. I’m so sorry, John. I realize you’re probably sick of hearing that, but it’s the most accurate thing I can think of to say. You and your boys are in my thoughts daily, and especially today. Happy anniversary.

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  4. Thank you. This was a lovely surprise. Someone told me about Nina’s book, and after a few weeks of waiting, it showed up on hold for me at the library. I just finished it. I was so moved–by the beauty of her writing, and her wicked sense of humor, and the open-ness of facing everything for each of us in our own way. I thought I’d look for her blog, in case it was still on line, and here you are! Writing, and living, being real. In response my heart feels very open. Thanks again.

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  5. Hi John, I feel like you and Nina and I are friends even though we’ve never met. I stayed up late last night to finish your wife’s book, The Bright Hour. I absolutely loved it and wanted to reach out to you in some way to let you know how much the book means to me.

    My mom died of breast cancer in February 2017, and my dad died of breast cancer (yes, a man!) in April 2016. The timeline of Nina’s passing and her mom’s passing were somewhat similar to my dad and mom. With all of the cancer in my family — much like Nina’s – I often feel like I have a target on my back. I found myself crying, laughing, and feeling grateful to Nina for writing this book. So much of it was familiar. And I thank you for being so open in sharing your life, too.

    Please know you and your boys are in my thoughts as you navigate and move forward without Nina.

    p.s. I hope you don’t find this too creepy, but I had to say hello and THANK YOU. I read a lot, and I had a hard time putting this book down. I have been recommending it to everyone.

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  6. Beautiful post. I love that furniture is the gift for 17 yrs, did she ever order a sofa? I was diagnosed with Stag II breast cancer in October 2013. I also was treated at Duke and reading the Bright Hour brought back many memories for me. By the grace of God I am approaching my five-year anniversary of diagnosis. Wanted you to know that I found her book beautifully moving and reminded me to be grateful every single day. Prayers for you and those boys.

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  7. Achingly beautiful – your grief and your words. Thanks for sharing your story – and thanks to her, wherever that beautiful place of peace is, for giving so many a perspective on time that I’ll forever try to hold onto. Your family is blessed with words to spew into the universe – making it better. Her words, and yours, are dense, not in the fogginess of woods, but in the way that feels like shower steam melting off a mirror – unveiling little truths we try to capture as they fade.

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  8. I finished The Bright Hour last night, and as I was falling asleep, thinking about things, I couldn’t remember how Nina had discovered her cancer. When I woke up this morning, I went back to the book and found that it wasn’t me not being able to remember; she didn’t really talk about it. Of course, being curious, I googled her name and was able to discover her blog. Thank you, John, for opening this blog up again, for those of us who did not follow Nina’s journey in real time. I, too, discovered my own lump. My breast cancer turned out differently, or at least, so far is different. But breast cancer patients all share a kinship of sorts. I bought the book after reading the piece on Cup of Jo about you and your father-in-law, but the book sat on my desk for weeks and weeks. I knew my heart would crack open and it did, but the light that entered the cracks – wow. Please accept my heartfelt condolences on your loss.

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  9. Hi, John. Checking in on Nina’s blog again to find a piece for a friend whose child is hospitalized. I’m glad to read your hijack, here. Anniversaries are weird. I’m glad to still have you as a cousin by marriage, since as you say, death of a partner doesn’t erase that. Speaking from the farther reaches of a big family, we value you. –Elise

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