A Journey Through Grief In the long moment that his life ended, hers as an emotional exile began

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ellen Uzelac, a former national correspondent for The Sun, was widowed seven years ago at the age of 31. Her husband, Jim Thomas, an editor for The Sun, was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 1986. He died six months later in San Francisco, where Ellen was working as the paper's West Coast bureau chief. Following is an excerpt from "Lost & Found: A Journey Through Grief," Ellen's just-published account of those wrenching six months and her emotional and spiritual recovery.

I have never felt more alive than during the months Jim was dying. Home was a precipice, a place where the air was thin, but the view revealed truths I had never before known. At times, I felt drenched with insight.

There was a fullness to the days, a sharpness of focus. In that climate, I discovered my bare self. Where some might have seen only bruises, I felt a ripening.

Even when most afraid, I could wrap my arm around Jim and find relief in the simple act of touching his face or rubbing his hand. When I sighed, he was there, taking my broken pieces and cradling them in his heart. Our lives were propelled not by promise, but by rich moments that offered everything from giddiness to grace.

When Jim died, a silence began living in the house. Sometimes, I'd go half a day or more and suddenly realize I had not uttered a word. My cheerleading days were over. I had lost my voice.

An emotional exile, I traveled low to the ground in space that seemed temporary, borrowed. The days I inhabited now were unstable and long; I didn't trust my footing. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I would look at the wind-up clock on the old oak school desk beside the bed and count the hours until I could sleep again. I became an intimate of the darkness, which cloaked me in its black veil.

My hunger for Jim fed me, and I looked for him everywhere. One afternoon walking down 24th Street in San Francisco, I heard a motorcycle cough behind me. I couldn't see the biker's face, but wisps of brown hair curled out from under the back of his helmet, and his legs, lean and taut, reminded me of Jim's. I began to follow him.

Twenty-fourth Street, where it cuts through my old neighborhood, hosts an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and apartments. It's a lazy street where no one drives fast. Picking up my pace, I hurried down the sidewalk in the motorcycle's wake. Just as the distance widened between us, and I feared he was lost to me, the biker paused for a stop sign, allowing me to catch up. After three blocks, he parked the bike in front of a health-food store, swung one leg in a perfect arc over the leather seat, and stood. As he reached up to remove his helmet, I turned away.

One thing about grief -- it doesn't let you in on its travel plans. In the middle of a conversation with a blue-suited executive or standing in a grocery line next to a woman chatting on about the price of avocados, I would remember Jim was dead and that I would never see him again. I struggled to trap the bad news inside me. This was knowledge that had to be accepted slowly, carefully, one piece at a time.

You never know what will trigger the sadness -- walking through the men's section in a department store; seeing a woman lean into her boyfriend while they wait at a corner for the light to change; anniversary cards in a stationery store; a lyric from a familiar song floating out of a passing car.

Nor is it possible to predict what will trigger the anger. Shortly after Jim died, I was standing outside a store looking blankly into space when a man turned to me and said: "You look like you've just lost your best friend. Where's your smile?" For months, I received as personal assaults such casual remarks as "I could have died" and "I feel dead" and "She looked like death warmed over." One morning, I nearly ran down a group of teenage skateboarders. "You idiots," I yelled, jumping out of my car. "I could have killed you!" In those dark days, I was afraid everyone was going to die.

Then there are the well-meaning questions people ask: Are you married? What does your husband do? Dead? How? Cancer, did he smoke?

The world outside the apartment had become a dangerous, demanding place. Questions usually require answers; far too many of these begged the past tense. For me, the only safe place was home.

For many months, the apartment on Grandview was my ground conductor, the one place I felt connected, the only place that gave me shape. In the pink of the evening, I'd sit in the recliner Jim had insisted on buying before we left Baltimore, gaze out of the window and wait for the loneliness to rip through me in gushes. So pronounced was Jim's absence it seemed a presence, something just beyond human sight.

After Jim died, my periods stopped and my hair began to fall out. When I showered, hair would come out in wet handfuls and clog the drain. A doctor told me I was under stress.

I longed to talk to Jim about all this. He would have had a lot to say. Communication was his currency, and it is what I missed most. We had developed a language of which I was the sole surviving speaker. I had become the custodian of our memories. I grew terrified of forgetting something.

Working for The Baltimore Sun in San Francisco, I mentally operated in two time zones -- mine and the newspaper's. I would wake up at 7 a.m., and think of it as 10. Ed Goodpaster, my editor, would ask for a story by 8 p.m., which for me meant 5 p.m. After a while, the three-hour time difference fused within me and, so, for a time, it was with Jim. I tried living for both of us.

I processed my day through the filter of what Jim might think or do. How would he react? What would he advise? It could be something as simple as hearing a new song I thought he might have enjoyed, or seeing Belgian waffles on a breakfast menu and knowing that is what he would have ordered. Would he have liked my new perm or preferred my hair the old way? How would he suggest I handle a fight with my mother? What would he have me say when Anne [his younger daughter from a previous marriage] announces she's dropping out of high school and Aimee [his eldest daughter] reveals how much life frightens her?

For months, I felt Jim summing me up and cheering me on. It seemed he was at the edge of things -- out of reach but close enough to call in case of an emergency.

Jim was one of those people you immediately felt comfortable with. If you knew him, even just a tiny bit, you wanted more. He was such an important part of my physical self, my social self and my emotional self that I let him go the only way I knew how: slowly.

In the weeks after he died, I'd crawl into bed and play the tape he had made so that I could fall asleep to the sound of his voice. After a while, it didn't matter what he said, only that he say it. His voice, purring at me from the end of the bed, tucked me in at night, lessening the loneliness that had become my center of gravity.

Everybody has a sound you can tell a person by, a sound that announces him. Jim's was the crush of leather. Often, I would hear him before I saw him. The sound of his leather jacket moving in step with his body usually gave him away. Sometimes, in the long nights after he died, I'd twirl Jim's jacket around the living room as if it were an imaginary dance partner, just to hear that sound again.

I began to read the obituaries, paying particular attention to the age of the deceased, the cause of death and whether there was a surviving spouse. I developed instant empathy with the folks who existed among the death notices, and I wondered how they were managing.

Had they discovered that it wasn't always the anguish that was so cutting, but the simple rituals of everyday life?

Vacuuming under the bed one Saturday morning, I found a list Jim had scribbled of people he had intended to write thank-you notes to: "Millie and Frank -- pyjamas. Mick and Dick -- housewarming plant. Martin -- teddy bear." He never did get the chance to write those thank-yous. For the longest time after he died, I couldn't understand what had caused the white paint to chip so horribly at the base of the door frames in the bedroom and office, until it struck me with the force of a sucker punch that Jim himself had chipped the paint pushing through the doors in his wheelchair. Many months after his death, I was rooting mindlessly through a drawer in the bathroom when Jim's blue brush turned up, hair clinging to its black bristles as if he had just used it. I fell to my knees and began brushing my hair.

There are only two personal things of Jim's I have kept -- the leather jacket and that blue brush.

After unearthing my memories and exploring my interior, I have begun to appreciate what rests outside my own front door: A purple larkspur bloomed yesterday, and this morning a delicate orange champagne bubble popped up beside it. I have watched the blue mountain jays peck at my petunias, and I have listened to them screech as they chase one another through the tall pines around my log cabin. Just one-quarter mile from my house there is a lake that calls out to me. It knows my name.

Most mornings I walk four miles along a bike path bordered now with wildflowers. I sing while I walk. For four months last winter the path was covered with mountains of snow, so each summer day seems like a gift. I almost ache when I think about summer ending, but I can already smell it in the air.

I moved to Lake Tahoe to write about loss, but what I've found is a wholeness and a home that resides within me. If "home" is a feeling of being anchored, I have found it in the late afternoon sunlight that turns the green needles of the pines a shimmery silver; in the meteor showers that sprayed the black sky with white light a few nights ago; in the roar of a gushing waterfall near my favorite reading spot.

I don't know how much longer I'll be here, but the mountains have disclosed truths I hope always to carry in my heart. Once, while sitting alone at the lake, I actually felt a warmth, as if someone were holding me. For the first time in a long while I felt safe, and it is that feeling that has diminished my loneliness and filled me with awe and unspeakable hope.

Next week Aimee will visit, and Anne called just now, "to check in," as she put it. Each of us is back in California, living only three hours apart. I think of our migration here as another of Jim's legacies. It was loss that brought Aimee and Anne and me together -- but it was through that loss that we found and kept one another. They are part of my shading, part of my texture, and on some level I know I am part of theirs. In the end, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be there for one another.

I realized the other day that I don't own a calendar, and it has skewed my sense of time. I have no sense of days stacked one after the other, grouped by month and year, by week and weekend. For me, every day is an equal. Yet, I hear the clock ticking -- and I know it is marking time for me.

Even though the hurting has stopped, the grief pushes me still to explore this day, this moment. It has taught me that this moment is all I am certain of having.

Life is not a continuum, but a series of journeys. I often have felt I have lived many lives in this short one. For me, the journey is more important than the destination. It is that series of key moments that make up a life. I hope never to stop moving.

Ellen Uzelac will appear at several book signings around Baltimore: Gordon's Booksellers, the Rotunda, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. June 11. Waldenbooks, Towson Town Center, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 12. Borders Books & Music, 415 York Road, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 17. Brentano's, Towson Town Center, June 18, 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"Lost & Found: A Journey Through Grief" (WRS Publishing, $16.95). Copyright (symbol) 1994 by Ellen Uzelac.

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