Our House

I always wanted to live in an old house, one with a century’s worth of stories lived within it’s walls.  I loved the romantic idea that a historic house had stood the test of time for families that came before, and that mine would add to that richness and somehow become part of history.

It didn’t work out that way.  Jason wanted to build a house, somewhere he could start a fresh story of his own.  When it came time to say goodbye to our first house, I said I would only live in a small area, and if we were to build a house it had to have certain elements of character and design incorporated.  If he could meet those demands, I would acquiesce and let him build us our dream home.

And so of course, he did.

We were sitting on the front porch of the Earthsong Lodge outside Denali National Park in Alaska when we got the phone call that our financing had been approved and we officially had a lot and a construction loan to build a new house.  Then Jason’s work began, as he managed and coordinated all elements of the construction himself.  He had the support of family and friends to guide him through, but he did the work.  At that point of our lives I didn’t even understand how much work he was really doing, because he just took care of things.  I certainly contributed, but he made it all happen.

He would work his midnight shift as a police officer and then head to the lot for a few hours to work or communicate with the subcontractors there that day.  We moved into a little apartment and he set up a command center on the kitchen table with all the paper work and blueprints strewn about, a constant state of controlled chaos.  Things seemed to move slowly and then sprint ahead, we were constantly picking things out…there was no builder design center to give us standard and premium choices.  The options were limitless and at times overwhelming.

I was 29 years old when we started this project.  We broke ground in early October, and there was the shell of a house there by Christmas.  The building was all moving along, right on schedule, but Jason’s health was starting to be a bigger and bigger problem, particularly between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  He lost 40 pounds and was consuming Omeprazole like it was candy, and in December he finally went to the doctor.  January 2, 2009 we got the final diagnosis.  Cancer.

The building haulted, of course.  We didn’t even go there, we couldn’t.  We were a few miles in the opposite direction, at Mercy Hospital and the Cancer Center, floating through a new existence that included a terminal diagnosis.  6 months, they told us.

Jason’s Uncle Scott took over the building later that month, or maybe in February, I’m not really sure.  He started coordinating everything for us and we could start to see some progress again.  I don’t even know how he managed it all, but he did it for Jason.  I am eternally grateful for his work.

Treatment started and Jason was sick, but more able to go to the house to see the progress or to do some things to help Scott out with the management side of it all.  He slowly took over more and more as the chemo shrunk his tumors and made it possible for him to eat and sleep again.  He was able to get to the house to do some work himself, which was his dream and his plan for the whole process.  At the end of May, 2009 a scan showed the coveted NED diagnosis, or No Evidence of Disease.  The doctor was clear, the cancer was still there but it was small enough that the scan couldn’t see it.  We decided to celebrate that.

Jason was weak, but so determined to finish our house.  We spent the month of June doing finishing aspects ourselves.  Jason and his friends laid all the sod on an epic-ally rainy day.  We shoveled mulch all day every day for what felt like weeks to finish the landscaping.  I cleaned the construction dust for weeks before we got our final occupancy permit in late June.

When we moved in that summer Jason was feeling much stronger and revitalized, and started going to work again, during the day instead of the night.  I realize now, looking back, how much I struggled that summer.  The previous six months I had held it together, dutifully supporting my husband through the worst news one can receive in life.  Together we fought that cancer, and we built our dream house as we did it.  So naturally, by July, I fell apart.

I would sleep most of the day.  I’d get up, unpack a few boxes, and take a shower so it would look like I had been productive, and be smiling and happy once Jason got home from work.  I realize now I was depressed, but at the time I couldn’t admit it to myself, much less to anyone else.

August brought my 30th birthday.  I stayed in bed and cried the whole day.  I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t walk around that house.

The house became a symbol of all we had already lost to cancer.  Jason lived past that initial 6 month diagnosis, but we knew we were living on borrowed time.  Every time I pulled into the driveway I was reminded that this was where we had planned to start the rest of our lives, and now it would be the place where his would end.  We were going to raise children here, and now that was now impossible.  We didn’t talk about this with each other.  He needed to spend his days living, not thinking about death.  I did my best to do that with him, and we enjoyed our time together in our house.  He took pride in what he built, as he should have.  He was not materialistic or boastful about what he had done, he was simply proud of the goal he was able to accomplish in building that house.

After 2 years he took his last breath in our house.

Now, Jeff and I wonder about what life will be like when 2 little boys are running around the many circles that are possible in our house.  I watch Nicholas run screaming with joy down the long center hallway and it is simply a dream fulfilled. This house was meant for a loud, loving family, and now it has it, just not the one I had imagined.

When Jason first died I considered selling the house.  The space was too much, like a concrete example of the huge void his death created in my life.  So much empty space, so many unused rooms behind closed doors.  I just couldn’t do it though, I couldn’t part with the house Jason built for me, with the life he created for us.  I like the fact that I still have that connection to him and I am eternally grateful to Jeff for understanding my need to start our life together in the place where that life ended.

I think back to my desire to have a old house, to have one that had stories to tell and history my family could add another layer to.  Gosh was I wrong.  9 years of stories fill my house.  Stories of love, loss, death, and now, birth.  My boys will grow up and we will be a family in that house.  Our house.


40 years

Happy birthday in heaven, Jason Kloese.  You would have been 40 today, but you are eternally 33.

Your birthday has become a day when I reflect on what I’ve done with my life through the year and all the years since you have been gone.  I consider if I still breathe deeper and love harder than I did before.  Do I still cherish life I am given each day? Do I still realize how much of a gift it is just to be alive?

This birthday hit me differently, and I think it’s the number.  40.  A milestone you never got to reach.  When I think of all the things you accomplished in 33 years I can only dream of what you would have done with more.  It makes me want to be sure I am living with gratitude and purpose, and making sure the mark I will leave on this world is even just a shadow of what you left.

I feel the wounds of your loss breaking open on this milestone birthday as well.  I feel some anger…my judgmental side looks at some people and wonders how they get to waste their lives away and you had yours taken from you.  Anxiety has crept too…I lay awake at night thinking about how happy and hopeful for the future we were at that time, when in an instant it was all gone, and a room full of doctors said the word cancer.  I worry I am too happy now, with my beautiful family and a life full of love.  Doesn’t that mean something awful is about to happen?

The contrast of being so happy and grateful for all I have now while also missing you and wondering what could have been can be too much for my mind to handle.

I do feel some comfort when I focus on the lessons I’ve managed to embrace from your life, our life together, and your death.    You lived to served others in the most selfless way possible, never doing it for attention or out of pity or judgment, but because you simply were most satisfied by helping people.  It was who you were at the very core and you learned that from your family and your faith.  I want to be that way, I want to raise my children that way.

Together we went from teenagers to adults.  We learned to make grown up decisions at an early age that would set us up for success later in life and reaped the benefits of our good choices. We lived a life of carefully executed adventures.  I did the dreaming and you carefully planned how to make my dreams come true. We struggled with loving each other as we changed into adults, but we learned from those struggles and used that to meet each other’s needs when death became present in our lives.  I want to remember that journey and the work it entailed, that it wasn’t all easy but it was all worth it.

My perspective is forever informed by your death.  I can still feel that moment looking into your eyes as you mouthed I love you and took your last breath.  In a moment you were gone and I had to learn to live on my own.  I am still learning so much about life from your death. I have learned there are some things a person will never regret….hugging the one you love one more time before you go, or putting the phone down and looking into your loved one’s eyes.  I have learned to say I love you, out loud, when I am thinking it. If I am thinking about something that makes me love them so I try to let it fall out of my mouth rather than sit inside where only I can hear it, particularly with Jeff and Nicholas.

The lessons can go on and on, these are just the ones I am most conscious of lately.  My life has been changed by your presence in it as as well as your absence.

I am wearing the necklace and earrings you gave me on one of our many adventures today.  We were in Strasbourg, France in 1999, on our whirlwind tour after my semester of study abroad.   There are no pictures of that time because I lost the film as we were travelling so all the memories only exist in my mind now.  There’s no one to reminisce with because you are gone. I straighten the necklace or fiddle with the earrings and I am transported back there with you, and reminded that you do still exist, and those memories are real and important and will live through me.

Happy birthday, Jason.  I think about you every day, and work to live these words in your memory:

“It is not the length of life, but the depth of life.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trigger warning

Trigger Warning.

I see those words often on social media.  A post about a traumatic event, perhaps describing a person’s struggle with illness or loss, is often prefaced by those words.  Trigger warning.

I’ve really been enjoying the television show ‘This is Us’.  Often I find the episodes cathartic, in particular the ones that deal with the loss of life on the show.  The episode when Randall’s father died was particularly touching, I found the way they chose to chronicle his life and his death beautiful.  I was grateful to be watching it by myself, when I could connect with the characters and just cry, allowing the deep pain death has left inside me to bubble up and come out.  That episode could have come with those words- trigger warning.

Sometimes I need a trigger to tap into the deep sadness that still lives in my heart.  I need to allow myself to be consumed and just cry and cry and cry.  I knew what I was sitting down to that night when I watched that episode.  I knew I would let myself be triggered by it, but I was in control and conscious in my choice.

So many things in life don’t come with those words, yet are triggers that remind me of how my life has changed, and what my world lost when Jason died.  When the seasons change and I feel that first breath of spring on a blustery March day I flash back to our little house, working in our first yard, figuring out how to be adults together.  A song will play on the radio and immediately I can feel with all my being the wind on my face as we drove away from our empty lot, when a long life lived together was still a possibility.  I see a Batavia Police car drive by and my heart skips a beat. Life brings him back to me in unexpected ways at unexpected moments.

These moments in life are never prefaced by those words- trigger warning.  Sometimes I can anticipate them and brace myself for what is to come.  But other times I am caught completely by surprise and find myself wiping a way tears at my desk, or laying awake in the middle of the night consumed by memories.  Anyone who has experienced death knows that the moments and memories that can be the most painful don’t come with trigger warnings.  Something I’ve learned over time is that I also don’t always want to avoid those painful moments, as I did at the beginning of this grief journey. Jason was an amazing man, and what we shared was unique and incredibly special.  I don’t need a trigger to miss him, or to grieve for him.  Those feelings live inside of me and I am okay with that.

I often save an emotional episode of ‘This is Us’ for a quiet evening when I’m in front of the tv alone.  Or I might pull out an old photo album when I know I can relive those memories and just cry, just let myself be sad for the life we could have lived.  Then, when an unexpected trigger hits, I am better able to process that pain because I have allowed myself to feel it before.

I want to remember

That you like to take your trucks and your stuffed bear to bed

The way you laugh when I come home after work

How you bring us your shoes when you want to play outside

That you point and stare at every airplane that goes by

Your love of parking lots and expressways filled with trucks

The serious expression you get on your face when building with LEGO’s and reading books

How you love to sing good night songs…twinkle twinkle, home on the range, edelweiss

The way you and daddy have your good night chat and snuggle each night before bed

Your sloppy open mouth kisses and head first attack hugs

How much I love the three of us.


The dreams are back.

At first, I wished for him to be in my dreams.  I wanted to sleep forever and just dream about him, to live in the parallel universe a small part of me believed existed where he was still alive, my life was still the same, and we still had each other.

Ironically during those times I had insomnia and would lay awake for hours each night.

Then the dreams came that were more like flashbacks.  I think my brain was trying to process the trauma I had compartmentalized far away in the depths of my consciousness while Jason was sick.  I remember in particular that I would often dream of our last 4th of July, when I watched fireworks from his hospital room.  That day, I was cool, calm, and collected as I drove him to the emergency room in my Mini Cooper.  He was throwing up because spinal fluid was leaking from an internal incision from his brain surgery a month earlier that wouldn’t completely heal.  I remember calling his parents and telling them we wouldn’t be able to make it to the family picnic that night.  I am calm in my memory of that day.  But the dream was always a nightmare, where I felt terrified and unsure of what to do. There was a time when I would have a dream like that every night, when I didn’t want to shut my eyes for fear of what I might be confronted with.

As time passed, those dreams did too.  It helped that I talked about those flashbacks with other widows, my therapist, other people experiencing grief.  I processed them during the day so my brain wouldn’t have to do that wrestling with itself at night.

It’s been a few years since I consistently had dreams of Jason.  He would pop in every once in awhile, but in a welcome and comforting way.  Lately the dreams have been different.

One recurring dream starts with him coming ‘home’.  I find out the truth is he never actually died, he was taken to a special hospital in Kenya where they treat people who have terrible illnesses like his, and put them in comas until their bodies have time to heal.  The healing process is very slow, and takes a long time, and for some reason it has to be done in Africa. Now, after 6 years he is better and ready to restart our life.  I’ve woken up from this dream, in varying editions, several times in the past two weeks.

The second one also involved him coming ‘back’. This time he is essentially taking me out on a date, trying to woo me again.  I think we went to dinner, but the part I remember clearly is him taking me back to his parents house after.  Neither of us ever says this, but in my dream I know this is the point: his parents and his family have been struggling since he died, and now that he’s back, we need everything to go back to the way it was to help them start living again, too.

Both dreams end with me needing to make a heart wrenching choice, the choice between my old life and my new one.

This is a new type of dream in my grief  journey, and I’m shaken by it.  I do think there is a reason for this turn, and I need to understand it in the same way I needed to understand those flashbacks.

Fear still sits in the back of my brain.  Grief has made me acutely aware of being grateful and helped me let go of worries that don’t seem worth the energy any more.  But sometimes fear still creeps in.  I am afraid of feeling too happy.  I worry that if I am too happy that means something bad is bound to happen.    I guess I can’t let go of the evidence in my life that bad things do happen to good people.

Guilt is the second reason those dark thoughts creep into my brain.  I shouldn’t be too happy with my life now, because in some way that’s being a traitor what was before, and maybe even to Jason.

I think my brain is using these dreams to remind me that I can’t just tuck that fear, or that guilt, far away into my subconscious and try to keep it there.  I need to process the feelings that come with being so incredibly grateful and satisfied with my current life while also always sad for the life and love I lost.

In some ways as time passes it gets harder and harder to let myself do that work.  I want to be present for my family, and not bogged down by events in the past.  But no matter how much time passes my life is still framed by this loss, I must live differently because of that experience.

I suppose this is just another bend in the road in my grief journey.  The scenery is changing, and the road isn’t as smooth as it has been for awhile.  But I’m still moving, the horizon is still beckoning me forward, I just might let myself go a little slower for the next few miles.

Dear Nicholas #2

One year old

Dear Nicholas,

This past weekend we celebrated your first birthday!  It was so much fun, it’s Tuesday and the decorations are still up because I cannot bear to take them down.  I printed out all the pictures your dad and I have taken during your first year of life and hung them all around our house.  From your first bath, to your first taste of sweet potatoes, I love being surrounded by those precious memories of you and life we now share together.

You are growing into a delightful child!  You are still my baby, but you are so much more than that now, you are a definitely a toddler, and I see glimpses of the little boy you are becoming every day.  You continue to resemble your dad, with your blue eyes, blonde hair, and that sweet smile.  I can also see some of Gubba in you, and Grandpa Havlik is in there as well.  We love being a little family, me, you and your dad.

Our life has settled into a nice routine now.  You go to day care a few days a week, and Grandpa and Grandma Havlik come stay with you on Wednesdays. You don’t like being dropped off at day care but you have fun once we leave, and even brought home your first craft for Easter.  Your dad and I miss you all day while we are at work so we make sure to have the time we spend together be quality.  We play with you, we laugh with you.  We build towers of blocks and you toddle over to knock them down.  Lately you even try to build your own towers.  We put the legos in the lego bucket and you take them all back out again.  You love to put things in something else, or play with the top of your bottle, taking it off and putting it back on again.

We eat dinner together every night. Now you mostly eat whatever we are having for dinner, and we can usually get you to try anything.  You love frozen vegetables, especially peas and green beans.  When you are done eating you throw your food off your tray to Bella, who feasts below.  Your dad and I work really hard not to laugh at that, but it is hilarious.

You are so much fun right now.  You love to play peekaboo when we are eating dinner, you put your own hands up and cover your face and wait for us to say ‘Where’s Nicholas?’ Then you laugh like crazy when you ‘reappear’.  You love to throw balls and will walk up and down the hallway throwing the soft baseball I got at a Cougars game when I was about 18.  I knew it would come in handy someday.

You have also started snuggling more.  We ask you for a hug and you lean in and touch your face to our face, or we ask for a kiss and you put your open mouth on our face.  It’s adorable and gross all at the same time. You have a clear love for me and your dad.

You say mama and dada, and a version of Bella that’s more like ay-ya, but it’s definitely an attempt.  You love to babble and squeal as you toddle around the house.  You are always trying to run everywhere and sometimes your feet go faster than your body and you take a tumble.  You like to take your socks off and then try to put them back on again, or play with the blue striped bear hat, or a pair of sunglasses.  You are so curious about everything around you.

We love you so much, Nicholas.  We love being parents, we love being a family.  We are so incredibly blessed by you, and we can’t wait to see what the next year holds.

5 years

5 years ago on this day my life changed forever.

It’s a bit of a blur, but moments of clear memory will still hit me every now and then. Earlier in the day I stood in the kitchen while the hospice nurse explained what to do if Jason’s breathing should turn to that tell tale rattle that meant death was near.  I think she knew that it would happen that day.  We said goodbye only to call her back a few hours later when everything changed.

Our final moment together, really together- him looking into my eyes, me standing over him holding on tight- it’s burned into my brain.  I hope it never leaves me, honestly.  He looked at me so intensely, and I told him it was okay to go, I would be okay, I remember saying those words, it’s okay, I will be okay.  He mouthed the words I love you and then he was gone.

I got to hold him as he died, I got to call our family and friends to surround him and speak words of love over him as he left us.  I have met many widows who didn’t get that moment.  I choose to be grateful for the chance to experience that with him.

It’s hitting me a little harder this year.  Maybe because 5 years feels like a bit more of a milestone.  Maybe because it’s a Friday again, and every hour I am hit with another memory of that day I didn’t know I’d forgotten.

I’d love to know what he thinks about what I’ve chosen to do with these last 5 years.  I know he is proud.  I know he watches over me, I feel his presence as I stretch myself and grow through the pain of losing him.  I know he has had a hand in the path I’ve followed.  My loving husband, our beautiful son, I can’t help but believe he is sending me these gifts. 

I am a different person today than I was 5 years ago, and I’m very proud of that.  Death is hard. Grief is immense and complicated.  There is no end to a grief journey, I am not over Jason’s death, I will never be.  Our life together, the experience of living with cancer, and the crushing pain of losing him is always going to be in my heart.

That’s why I have to embrace the perspective it gives me as I continue to live.  I feel like it’s a way I can honor him, and our 15 years together.  Sometimes, when I’m working out and my heart is pounding away, I can’t help but cry.  I am alive, just that heartbeat is amazing. I am grateful for the ability to appreciate the simple things in a deeper way.  The serenity of an evening stroll with my little family.  The pure joy in the laughter of my son.  The blessing it is to be in love, to be loved, and to give love.

Sometimes the complexities of being a widow are overwhelming. It’s complicated to love my life now so deeply, to adore my husband and cherish our son with my whole heart, yet always wonder what would have been.  What box do I check on forms? Married? Widowed? I am both. I am loyal to both lives, to both loves. 

I’ve been coming back to this all day trying to find a way to wrap up my thoughts and nothing seems just right. But maybe that’s fitting. This day, the five year anniversary, doesn’t represent the end of anything, certainly not the end of my heart missing Jason.  In so many ways my life began again as I learned to live the last five years. I can’t help but end with my favorite quote: 

“It’s not the length of life, but the depth of life.” Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Do that with me please, to honor Jason. Live. Live fully, live deeply. Just live.