Thursday, August 12, 2010

Camp Widow

As I set off to fly to San Diego to attend the Conference on Widowhood, I felt strangely nervous ... quesy even. It didn't help when I dropped my dogs off at kennels either because the little shits managed to break out of their cage. I was, naturally wearing white linen trousers to fly in, so asked the kennel maid to collect Fred and Barney from the car. I managed to grab Barney's lead, but Fred was off like a bat out of hell - chasing a dog and a horse around the field, whilst the kennel maids were screaming for him to come back, "Freeeeeeeeeeed." I reminded them at least 6 times that he is deaf and waited for him to look at me and waved. Over he bound, full of joy and glee, and yes, I was adorned with two dark dog paw prints for the duration of the journey which lasted 20 hours thanks to United Airlines delaying both my flights.

I finally arrived at the Marriott Marina Hotel, unpacked, stood under a hot shower, ordered "The New York Times", breakfast in bed and an alarm call, and sank into a deep deep sleep.

At 09h30 I was outside waiting for my beautiful old school friend Mel (who drove down from OC to see me for an hour). She left me feeling serene, at ease with my surroundings, confident and ready for Camp Widow.

I still had three hours to kill before the Volunteers' Meeting kicked off at 14h00, so I read the paper, drank lots of coffee to combat my jet lag and walked around the hotel and the grounds, before having a delicious lunch ON MY OWN at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant. Wow that food is exquisite, so are the cocktails (at least the three I sampled were). The waiter asked me if I'd like dessert and I decided on a third and cocktail instead (which he recommended). Returning from the loo (restroom) I found a dessert and cocktail awaiting me. The lovely waiter winked and told me, "You CAN have your cake and eat it." How nice is that? Then I realized I was wearing my Camp Widow badge and wondered if he thought I was short of money (due to being widowed) - who knows? Who cares?

After being fed and watered I headed to the meeting and as I walked off the escalator my eyes were scanning the enormous room for my friend (and fellow blogger) Dan. We have shared our pain not to mention laughter and had some serious as well as frank discussions. I don't mind admitting that Dan is a wonderful and totally trustworthy sounding board. I was so frantically looking for him then noticed this lovely man, with the most enormous smile on his face, arms wide open, and I just stood there and hugged and hugged him for the longest time. Couldn't believe he was standing in front of me ... kept squeezing his arm or hand, just had to keep reaching out for the first few minutes. We sat at the briefing together and then went on duty. I was in charge of t-shirts and Dan was tasked with giving out gala dinner tickets etc that the 210 attendees would need.

Dan took me over to the "wall of love" - which comprised of tiles on which photos of our spouses (and words of your choice) were displayed. Dan pointed out Cliff's tile for me and I had to take a big gulp because somehow it made it so so real. I'd only just gone through the 18 month anniversary, and let me tell you, even though I accepted he was dead at 13 months, I didn't accept he wasn't ever coming home till I hit the 18 month mark. It's widow-brain. If you don't have widow-brain, I don't blame you for assuming I am mad. Sometimes I think I am. I kissed my fingers and touched the face that I long to see, then afforded Michael (Dan's husband) the same treatment :-) It just felt natural and Dan grinned. Then I had to walk away and get busy, because I could feel a big wave coming at me, and I didn't want to lose it and let the Foundation down when I'd promised I would help welcome others.

It felt good to help out and certainly made me feel more involved, more assured actually. Some people were arriving completely on their own and didn't know a single other person attending. I think that's immensely brave. I felt nervous when I left home and knew that I would be seeing blogger friends, as well as widow/ers I'd connected with on Facebook, not to mention the amazing Michele Neff Hernandez, who I am proud to consider as my role model. She is passionate, committed to helping the bereaved and when I look at her, I see hope. Hope. It's that simple. I know that Michele will always love her late husband Phil, but there's more to her story ... a new chapter has opened in her life and she is engaged to a charming Aussie. When I have been at my lowest ... when I have believed that I cannot go forward, she has inspired me, encouraged me, yet reminded me to be gentle with myself, and shown such empathy. You can't really thank someone enough for that.

After around an hour of manning the registration desk more "brown shirts" joined us and I sensed I was in the company of "veterans/alumni" - the buzz and energy was contagious, as was the laughter. Great company. Easy. Natural. I was giggling and felt kind of alive again which was wonderful.

Then I heard a smiling voice say, "I think we know those guys over there" and I ran over to hug Debbie and Susan with Dan. Hugs. More hugs. Smiles. Kisses. Hand squeezing. Emotional but in a happy way, not morose. I can't find the words to put my feelings down here. Can't. Surreal yet real. Unbelievable, yet here we all were huddled together.

Back to work, then I spotted a girl. Sparkling eyes, the biggest smile, energy on legs, a huge heart and I said, "Andrea?" She responded, "Boo?" And I just went, "arghhhhhh" and ran round to give her a huge hug. Again, it was emotional but for me, just pure joy and happiness. What a great feeling after all the darkness.

One widower approached the desk and demanded that we promise him that he wasn't the only man there.

Then a lone widow walked towards us. I could literally see her breaking inside. Really see it. Don't ask me how, but I just could. She accepted the t-shirt and all the paperwork gratefully and quietly walked away. I waited around 30 seconds then asked Dan if he thought it would be okay if I left the desk to check on her. I sat next to her uninvited and held her hand and tears were just brimming over ... we chatted for around 20 minutes then I left her smiling, feeling a little less alone for other ladies had joined us on the sofas ... and went back on duty.

I bumped into Michele and told her that was the best part of the whole shift. Sure, we welcomed everyone, but I couldn't believe that I (yes I - a novice, who still fumbles through the darkness) had made a difference to another person in so much pain. Perversely, it never sits comfortably with me that I get comfort in connecting with another person who feels the same pain as I do, but it is what it is.

Then we retired for a casual drinks reception (with mashed potato in sundae glasses - very weird but really yummy). We sat down, our little tribe ... and chatted. I felt fine one minute and then ... I zoned out completely. Jet lag. Had to get into bed. That second. So I apologized and hurried back to my room for a forbidden Marlboro Lite on the balcony before collapsing into a coma-like sleep (from 20h30 - 07h30 ... yes really). Thankfully I slept through the fireworks because they would have destroyed me. I've prepared myself to scatter Cliff's ashes via fireworks, but I wasn't ready to watch them over San Diego Bay.

I felt completely rested in the morning and went straight to Starbucks for a double macchiato, then bounced back to registration till 09h00 with Dan, before heading to the keynote address, delivered by Michele. Inspiring. Miracle of miracles - I managed not to cry! It was so powerful being in a room with 210 other widowed people. Affinity. Most were complete strangers yet I felt connected to them all - many of whom I would only smile at or hug, not even speak to, through our common bond. It was at that point that I knew that Camp Widow wasn't going to be a miserable fucking sobfest or a pity party. That said, there were tears of course, but they were dignified silent tears, the tears that just spill over a person's face, even while they were participating in workshops. No matter. Tears are so part of our lives that we find it perfectly natural. No one fusses anyone because we all know that someone fussing over you MAKES YOU COMPLETELY LOSE IT. The person sitting next to you (often a complete stranger) might hold your hand or pass a Kleenex, but that was it. We all know that wherever we are on our journey, remarried, a veteran widowed for 10 years or a newbie ... we ALL feel the same pain. It never alters. All that changes is our ability to function whilst incorporating the pain. We learn coping mechanisms. We adapt and we incorporate our loss into our very being. It becomes part of us. But the pain at 19 months is the same as it was at Day One. I've just learned to live with it some days. Not always. I was crawling out of that abyss as the airplane swooshed me over thousands of miles.

At lunch, Dan and I headed to Roy's Hawaiian Restaurant and Dan insisted on joining me in a couple of cocktails. It was beautiful there. Sunshine. Great food, even better cocktails ;-) and the best company. The conversation was natural and flowed. So much so that when I suggested we drop by to see Susan's quilt-making table/stall, horror struck us because we were 20 minutes late for our first workshop of the afternoon. We entered the lecture room and tried to sit down unnoticed at the back, but everyone turned round ... I felt very embarrassed but the speaker was completely non-plussed and just smiled. Five minutes passed and I glanced at Dan. OMG - he was rocking in his chair and his eyes were shut. Shit. My fault. Dan doesn't normally drink alcohol. I think he ran down to Starbucks to get 10 shots of espresso so that he was sober in time for the final workshop.

Back to the room for more illicit cigarettes on the balcony, a quick shower and changing into a long chinese red dress that Cliff and I bought for US$20 in Hong Kong. I felt so sad putting it on and started talking to him. "WTF am I doing at a Widow's Conference in fucking California baba? This is all fucking wrong. WTF. WTF?" After a little rant and a few tears I applied (waterproof) mascara and headed down to join everyone at the gala dinner. The food was good, the tables were dressed beautifully and everyone scrubbed up well. Within 10 minutes I'd made friends with the barmaid and she started fixing my drinks as I approached the bar for the rest of the evening. I was so proud (but very red-faced) when Cliff got a special mention, courtesy of the lovely Michele, for the $800 I raised doing a sponsored walk for the Foundation. The same Foundation that was helping us all by bringing us all together.

It was a privelege to meet the Canadian contingency and join in their banter, laughter and my favourite - the most inappropriate sick widow/er's dark humour. Nothing else hits the spot. Chelsea and Jackie are great girls - you can't help but feel joy and strength standing with them. I listened quietly when Chelsea recounted how her husband had proposed to her. I'm not going to share the story because it is hers and hers alone to share. It's a lovely romantic tale - next year you might like to ask her to share it with you too.

There are, in our elite (but not envied) circle some fairly famous, household even, names. Matt and Abby amongst others. For some odd reason I felt a bit in awe of them, which is unlike me. I mean, I'm the girl who boldly walks up to Triads and strikes up a conversation much to my late husband's chagrin and horror, frankly :-)

Susan left because her tinnitus precludes her from being able to hear a word anyone is saying, in the hubbub of a crowd. I hated that I only knew sign language for ball and sit (for my deaf dog). It made me feel a bit useless. It was nice to see people dancing and laughing. Lovely to watch Michele's parents dance together - it made me smile. I wasn't envious. I don't want anyone else's husband. I want my own. Mine. So I can happily feel warmth at seeing couples together. Why shouldn't others feel happy just because my world ended on January 6th 2009? I don't want others to imagine this pain. Why would I? That would make me one sick twisted bitch.

But the music wasn't really my thing. I'm more into dancing on a stage to House music and didn't think I should introduce that side of me to a roomful of strangers. The last time I danced was with Vicki at a concert and I overheard a woman say to her husband, "I think they're cage dancers, dear." But that's another story. So, anyway, as I said it wasn't really my kind of music and it was quite loud so Dan, Debbie and I took our drinks into the bar outside and settled on some barstools chatting. It's unreal. How can I have just met them (in person) yet feel as though I've known them for decades? How? Who cares ... it's great. Connecting. All of us determined to have a good time. Jesus, I'm miserable most of the time when I'm on my own, so my philosophy is to enjoy people when I'm with them.

Then a couple of girls came over and said they were heading downtown. We congregated in the lobby and the group grew and grew. I had no idea where we were heading but happily followed those in the lead. And we end up at a gritty bar called, I kid you not - "Rock Bottom" - entirely appropriate. Then I realize that everyone is showing the bouncer their ID. It's a requirement even at my age ... so I got cocky and told him I didn't have any ID. Why not? Because I'm English. My passport is back at the hotel. He lets a couple of other widows in and I get cockier ... so can I come in? Yes, yes he responds. And I walk straight into the most enormous bouncer. He looks like he's made of granite not flesh and even though I smile, his face is completely emotionless. He stamps my hand and waves me through. I introduce myself to some of the group and Matt very kindly shouts the first round. God knows what it cost.

Shortly afterwards, a stag party tries to join us, and I make eye contact with huge granite doorman. I've been used to being in their company for years, due to Cliff being friends with some wonderful guys (who are now my guardian angels) and the funniest thing happens. Even though Cliff isn't there, it appears his lessons and behaviour are so deeply ingrained in my very being now that, through (fleeting) eye contact, he comprehends, comes over and stands watching over us till they depart. I keep turning around to ensure he hasn't abandoned us and I am rewarded with a smile. Granite man can smile. We widows meanwhile chat, we don't hold back. Widows are blunt and to the point with each other. Anyone not in this club that no one wants to be a member of would literally cringe, and they do, especially round me. Then I noticed. It wasn't just me spouting brutal honesty. It was all of us. And it felt great. We laughed. Sarah signed the stag's sombrero with, "Get Life Insurance" which he didn't find all that funny. So she explained, "all of our spouses are DEAD". They milled about and moved on. So did Granite Man. I introduced myself to Matt and laughed at myself for feeling too shy to earlier at dinner. He is the most relaxed, affable humorous man, and I love his writing. It's raw and powerful. I find myself nodding at the words in agreement, even though I'm alone at home reading them on my laptop. I love that he looked to do something positive, a focus to help other widow/ers with young children (and unfortunately WITHOUT life insurance). He said he thought it was great that I raised money for Soaring Spirits on the first anniversary of Cliff's death and I told him that I HAD to find something positive to focus on that day, otherwise I would have lost it. Big time. He nodded, and I laughed. I was preaching to the preacher.

Then a couple of dudes made a beeline for Jackie. She's stunning looking so it's hardly a surprise. But seriously, the moron's chat-up line was, "do you like men with small dicks?" and she informed him that her husband had been 6'4" (I think, forgive me if I'm wrong) and then SHE PROCEEDED TO PICK HIM UP OFF THE GROUND, PHYSICALLY. Totally emasculated him. What a girl.

I think I got to sleep around 03h00 and was up again at 07h00. Bear with sore head. Ate an enormous breakfast followed by a lovely relaxed walk with my tribe, by the marina ... we shopped for tourist kitsch (a fridge magnet for Cliff's sister) and soaked in the rays and sea air. It was a beautiful morning and it felt as though I was with family.

Before I knew it, it was time to say bye to Debbie and Susan. Big gulp. Then Dan. I passed him his tile of Michael (which I'd put in my handbag with Cliff's tile) and he looked at it. I saw the pain cloud over his face, followed by his regaining control. My heart went out to him. I felt it go out to him. I know that feeling so damn well now. Gave him a squeeze. Told him that Michael had the most piercing blue eyes. Another hug. We told each other that we loved each other and meant it. I still do. It was hard to walk away from him, but something in me knows beyond doubt that we will see each other again.

I had bought a bikini along so I could enjoy the pool. But I couldn't put it on. Nor get in the pool. Couldn't even entertain the idea. I knew I'd start sobbing, that I would break, really BREAK if I got in there. The palm trees were swaying gently in the breeze as they did on our Caribbean breaks - our wedding, honeymoon, my 40th, Christmas. That's ok though. You have to know your limits and obey the boundaries, otherwise you spiral downward and FAST. This sadness swept me away and I marched into DW's bar to order a couple of cocktails and lunch before departing for the airport.

Next year I'm getting in the damn pool

Just as I was fighting the tears which had almost succeeded in pushing their way to the brim ... Hyla appeared in front of me to give me a hug. Out of nowhere. The whole weekend was like that. Magical almost.

That hug spurred me on and ensured I didn't cry till I sat down at the bar at San Diego airport because I thought I'd lost my iPhone. I literally tipped my bag upside down on the bar, getting all sweaty and couldn't breathe. I really couldn't breathe. I said out loud, to no one in particular ..."someone needs to talk me down because I've lost my iPhone and it's got all my (voice raising several decibels) PHOTOS OF MY DEAD HUSBAND ON IT. The woman sitting next to me told me to breathe. She calmed me and helped me find it and I started crying with relief. We talked about the conference and she shared with me that her son had died two years previously. We just hit it off. Another connection. Other-worldly. Like it was meant to be. Again as though I'd known her forever. We didn't stop talking or laughing. We rearranged our seats together to share another vodka during the flight to San Francisco. We swapped contact information and we'll be in touch for sure. It's not a morbid obsession or a desire for pity, or dark. It's just being with someone who gets it. And that is what Camp Widow was all about for me. Not the workshops. Not dinner. Simply being with others who had been in that deep, dark place and crawled out of it. Time and time again. Moving, always moving. Not always onwards, forwards or upwards. But moving. Trying. Never giving up. He taught me that. Never give up. I am his wife, widowed or not and I will never give up. Camp Widow has provided me with the evidence - breathing flesh and blood that others are in this boat with me. I'm not alone. We're all at different stages and we shouldn't compare ourselves along this journey. It's not a positive thing to compare yourself to anyone else. It's YOUR journey, your loss. You own it. But don't ever forget that you always have a choice. Choose your attitude. Make your spouse proud of you. Do it for them if not for yourself. Keep moving, even if it's downwards or backwards on those darkest days.

and here is the link to USA Today's article


  1. This is an amazing and wonderful post. You captured Camp Widow so perfectly. I can NOT wait to have that drink with you next year!
    Thank you for this .... you're amazing.

  2. Amen, my widda sister! (I'm stealing that term from Sarah - hope she doesn't mind!)

    I love your account of our memorable weekend. I didn't do a good job in my Camp Widow post of describing how I cried on my balcony as I talked to Austin, still unable to believe that I was at a widow's conference. We all had moments of overwhelming grief, some private and some more public. But that's all part of the experience.

    I loved hanging out with you and I agree that as we said goodbye, I had no doubt that we'd be seeing each other again.

    May I just say how wonderful it was to see that you had a new post on your blog :) What a treat!!

    We just got home tonight and it's been a little overwhelming so I'm off to bed. Hopefully things will look brighter in the morning.

    Love Deb xox

  3. Ahhhh!! This makes me soo excited for next year!! Drinks and the pool!!!!!!! :)

  4. Boo. It now feels funny calling you that, as I seem to have shifted to the name your mother called you by. Anyway, this is an amazing account of your, and our, weekend. You can't believe what an effect you had on me tonight when I saw that you posted on your blog. I read, and reread, every single word carefully.

    I already miss you so much. I feel like I had waited so long to be in the same room with you, and it was well worth the wait. I too know that we will see each other again. It was so healing to spend time with you, and the rest of the tribe, all weekend. Where else can we feel so much understanding?

    The first thing that my daughter wanted to know was, did you meet Boo? I had to laugh, and my smiled said it all.

    Can I say how touching it was to look on that tile wall, and see both Cliff and Michael's images looking back on us? Your words captured my feelings so well. It didn't escape me why we were both standing there. It was because of such extreme pain and loss that we individually took to the internet with our blogs. How sureal indeed to be locked in an embrace less than a year later.

    You are such a good friend, and I hope your return home has been peaceful.

    Take care. Love. Dan

  5. Dear Boo - Hi Lynnette from England, but wearing South Africa (I was there for the -world Cup with my brother). Lovely re-count of the weekend! I wish I wasn't there, but I felt ok to be amongst everyone, will go again next year! If I come to UK for Xmas, I may look you up, it was lovely to meet you!

  6. Hi Lynnette, nice of you to connect here :-) It was good to meet you too. I hope you are doing okay and that you got something positive out of the weekend. I know just how hard it is as you know, however, I think that your circumstances make it even harder, and my heart goes out to you xx

  7. Janine, Debbie, Mandy and Dan - I think I might blog monthly (or when I feel like it) because I felt good after writing this.

    It was so special to be with you guys <3

    Janine and Mandy - here's to our first cocktail next year xx

  8. Dan, I love you and miss you too. I loved that Arienne asked if you'd met me LOL. Magical times. xx

  9. Great description of the weekend, Boo. I really felt as though I was there.
    And good to see you on a brief foray into blogland!


  10. it was wonderful meeting you. i loved the time we had together. i needed your damn the torpedoes attitude to get me to the water. i wouldn't have tried it alone. you don't know the impact touching it meant to me. thank you.

  11. J hello stranger! I saw your renovation and it took my breath away ... WELL DONE - hope you're proud of yourself. I'll drop by to check in and see what you've been up to (beside the building work ;-) xxx

    wNs - likewise :-) I thought you were going to say, oh it's ok I shan't bother, so I steamed ahead ;-) hugs x

  12. Boo, I'm so thrilled I had a chance to meet you, talk with you and hang out with you! You describe Camp Widow SO well with this post. Love you! =) XOXO

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  14. well so this post was a year ago, but I am just reading it now. And here is just what I needed ~ "Keep moving, even if it's downwards or backwards on those darkest days."

    love you., Thank you for hanging out with me.