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Harry Brabec at age 55—one of Barbara's favorite pictures.
2015 UPDATE: Harry's office and the "museum" I turned it into is now gone, replaced by my new "Room of Contentment." Out with the Old, in With the New tells the story of an important step I finally took as I approached the tenth anniversary of Harry's death and my widow's journey.
"Hope for the moment. There are times when it is hard to believe in the future, when we are temporarily just not brave enough. When this happens, concentrate on the present. Cultivate le petit bonheur (the little happiness) until courage returns. Look forward to the beauty of the next moment, the next hour, the promise of a good meal, sleep, a book, a movie, the likelihood that tonight the stars will shine and tomorrow the sun will shine. Sink roots into the present until the strength grows to think about tomorrow."
- Ardis Whitman, from Resources to Last a Lifetime (1963; out of print)
BELOW ARE PICTURES of three walls of Harry's "museum room" to give you an idea of how wall space can be used when you have a lot of things to display. After I cleaned out Harry's office, I decided to gather all of his photos, circus art, pictures and personal mementoes together in one place and, in the process, I actually created a room that shows Harry's entire life at a glance, and it's a room that will give me comfort in the future. I love working in here on special projects, and this is also where Harry's stereo system is. (Another area includes his CDs and part of his LP collection.)
ABOVE: A "Circus Wall" and a wall of photographs showing Harry at work as a professional musician.
A "personal wall" that reflects some of Harry's special interests and favorite artwork and pictures. He was a fan of Garfield Goose and Kukla, Fran & Ollie (whose creators he knew personally), and W. C. Fields, whose ironic humor he loved. (The chess board was made by his father, who hand cut each colored square of glass and backed the whole board with textured foil.)
Charlee, Barbara's loving companion and "office helper" in their first year together.
2013 Update: For more pictures of Charlee—and to see who rules the roost now— click HERE. (It wasn't long before she made it clear she wasn't going to wear a collar. Just kept chewing it off. Originally I had a little bell on it so I could find her when she was hiding, but that didn't last long.
IT HAS BEEN ALMOST three months now since my husband, Harry, died, and Iím only just beginning to feel as though I can get back to my writing and other professional responsibilities, including the book project that has been waiting for me since January. Because so many of my readers and website visitors have sent sympathetic cards and emails in the past weeks, I felt I needed to assure everyone that Iím okay. I appreciate your concern very much, and I thank everyone who prayed for me or Harry during our dark days. (I know this made a difference, because God blessed us with an extra good week after I brought Harry home on Hospice.) Now I feel especially blessed to have so many friends, both on the Web and in my community, not to mention two great sisters who have been a real lifeline for me since Harry died.
Harry was physically disabled for the past two years, and quite ill throughout 2004, so I had a lot of time to prepare myself for what I knew was coming. Because he was ten years older than I, I always knew Iíd have to finish my life alone, but I also knew Iíd be okay because Iíve always been very independent. I think Iím moving through the grieving phase more quickly than most widows because I literally have so much to do, not to mention a strong sense of purpose. In an old magazine article by Ardis Whitman titled "Secrets of Survivors," (see also her quote at left) she noted that people who survive the trials of life are those who begin learning to do so long before crises appear, adding, "The survivorís life jacket is made of the imperishable things with which he surrounds himself: books, music, spiritual faith, purpose, a dream."
In addition to this, Harry left me a bountiful legacy of love, wonderful memories of our interesting and exciting life together, and a house full of beautiful art, crafts, and mementoes, much of it related to his work as a crafts show producer. I am also comforted by all the books and music he acquired for us. He left me with thousands of LPs, CDs, and audio music tapes, so I won't ever run out of music. But I now have a new challenge: Before I begin to get rid of his huge collection of LPs, Iíd like to convert some of them to CDs, and Iíve been researching the best way to do this job.
As a professional musician, Harry made several recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, plus a couple of classic percussion albums back in the 50s, so itís wonderful for me to be able to listen to this music and know which instruments he was playing in them. I also have tapes of several concerts he played with a local concert band, so I will always be able to hear him drumming his heart out. Music was his life, and now his music is helping to sustain me.
Part of my healing this month came in the form of a luncheon I had in April for some of Harryís old music friends in the area. Prior to the luncheon, I turned Harry's office into a museum of sorts, so his friends and relatives (and I, of course) could see his whole life with new perspective (see photos, below left). For the luncheon, I ordered a photo cake from Jewel, made centerpieces of some of his small percussion instruments (see left), played tapes of him playing drums in the background, and asked his friends to share "Harry stories" with me.
Celebrating Harry's life like this seemed like the one last thing I could do for him, and to me, it was like adding two exclamation points to the end of his life. After lunch, I let Harry entertain everyone by playing an audio tape of him speaking, which I had dubbed from a collection of tapes I found in his office of him talking to different people at different times of his life. Of course, they included some classic "Harry Brabec humor" which everyone loved. And this brings me to a word of advice for those of you who soon anticipate the loss of a loved one.
Preserving a Loved One's Voice
If you haven't done it already, get a tape recorder (or, better yet, video recorder) and record the voice of your loved one talking about things he or she cares about—their memories, their feelings about family, friends, their favorite stories, whatever. I cannot tell you all how MUCH I needed to hear my husband's voice after he was gone. Although I had done a special taping with my mother a year or so before she died, I neglected to do this with Harry, probably because I was so consumed with the responsibilities I had as both breadwinner and caregiver for the past few years.
Fortunately, I found a few audio tapes in Harry's office, including a two-hour tape he'd made for me on one of his trips to Europe when he was producing the International Crafts Exposition in the late 70s, and another tape made for a friend as he drove a U-Haul truck from Florida to Missouri on one of our many moves. (It was loaded with lots of Harryís quips and plays on words and other humor, and Iím so grateful that his friend returned this tape with his own message on the other side.) I also have a radio interview Harry once did for WMAQ when he was Principal Percussionist with the Chicago Symphony, plus a tape he did for a cousin that recalled many childhood memories (things I never heard until the cousin gave me a copy of that tape after Harry died). All this is to say that I am fortunate to have this much of Harry that I can cling to so I'll never forget his wonderful voice and the way he delivered humorous quips, but perhaps you don't have this kind of treasure yet, and I tell you true—you will yearn for it later if you don't take steps now to tape your loved one's voice.
Support from Other Widows
The last thing I would ever feel the need to do is join a widowís support group, but talking to other widows one at a time has been helpful to me, and to them, too, I know. One of my oldest friends lost her husband a couple of months before I lost mine, and as we continue to compare notes about our feelings and what we're doing to reorganize our homes and personal lives, we are finding that we have been doing much the same things. Getting rid of "stuff" is high on every widowís list, it seems. For example, one day last month, I hauled out nine 30-pound plastic bags to the street for garbage pickup, plus sixteen shopping bags full of paper from the eight filing drawers in Harry's office. He was a terrible pack rat who seems to have kept every piece of paper he ever got over the past 44 years (much like me, actually). It broke my heart to throw out all the file folders of articles he had clipped and saved on dozens of topics dear to his heart—places he wanted to go to throughout the U.S. and Europe, people he found interesting, restaurants he wanted to try, books he wanted to read, music he wanted to acquire, folders full of quotes he liked (which I'm saving). But most of the paper was stuff only he had an interest in, and since he died, I have felt obsessed about getting rid of everything that is not necessary in my life just now. I don't know if it's losing Harry that has done this, or if I am just more aware of my own mortality and the need to downsize my life. What seems certain is that I wonít be able to stay in this big four-bedroom home forever.
Currently, everyone is advising me that I need to "move on," and although I am making both short- and long-term plans for a life of my own as a single woman, I also know I'm never going to "get over" Harry. He was a presence no one could ever ignore, and his absence in my life after so many years together has left an enormous hole I'll never be able to fill, in spite of having many friends, a hundred interests, and much work I look forward to doing for the rest of my life. As I said to another widow recently, when you lose your soul mate and best friend, it's as if a giant sinkhole has suddenly opened up in your life. You can never expect to fill that hole, but you hope in time to learn how to walk around it.
Thereís a big hole in my heart, as well, but I am slowly beginning to stuff that hole with all the happy memories of my life with Harry, and there are certainly thousands of them. (Funny how easily you forget all the bad times when a loved one is gone.) Iíve spent many hours going through our photo albums and scrapbooks (both his and mine), and every picture or page brings back new memories and things Iíd forgotten in the rush of daily living. Iíve also salved my wounds by rereading letters Harry sent me on the few occasions when we had to be separated, as well as letters to friends that I had typed for him over the past several years. Those letters revealed a rich legacy of Harryís special memories about drummers and other musicians he had worked with through the years, as well as his experiences with various orchestras, orchestra leaders and conductors, plus his feelings about performing and having to lay down his sticks when he got too old to perform. It was a pleasure to share them with his music friends. "When I get too old to drum, Iíll still have you to marimba," he wrote to one mallet player, adding, "I know. . . itís an old joke, but then, Iím an old man."
My most important need has been to have something alive in the house (and also something to talk to so I donít get in the habit of talking to myself all day long), so I got a cat (a mixed breed tabby with medium long hair) from the Humane Society last week. When Harry was in the hospital for the last time, and knew his end was near, he was talking about things I needed to do for him, and then he paused and said, ". . . and you'd better get a cat," which made me cry, of course, because he knew I'd given up cats for him all those years I wanted one so badly. I've named her Charlee (feminine for Charley, a nickname Harry once gave me as a joke). Sheís clearly delighted with her new home, and Iím delighted with the love sheís showering on me every day. Now if I can just figure out how to get my work done when she wants to curl up on my desk under the warm lamp and lie on my papers. (She is currently fascinated by the moving cursor and the changing images on my computer screen as I move around the Web.)
When I finish my book project, my immediate plans will then be to have both of my knee joints replaced because I am now greatly handicapped by my inability to walk more than half a block without caving in. I realize that walking is one of the most healthful things I can do for myself, and the older I get with no one to take care of me, the more important it will be for me to stay in good physical shape. In the future, I plan to keep writing, publishing on the Web, and going wherever God leads me. I am confident that He still has work for me to do, and Iíll be waiting for new windows or doors to open in the months ahead.
I leave you with this wonderful verse from Max Lucado, sent by a dear friend this week:
Go to the second article in this series:
Copyright © 2005-2014 by Barbara Brabec