What the wind storm power outage taught me about myself and survival

I felt qualified to handle anything nature could send my way, having been born and raised in Maine. Afterall, we had lived in rural Maine, where power outages were common occurrences and where we were used to being last on someone’s plowing list.

And if that was not enough to give me survival credentials, I had lived and worked through the Ice Storm of 1998 that froze Maine and left thousands without power for more than two weeks in some cases.

My husband Jim had fallen the first day of the ice storm and sprained his wrist so he was home on medical time off. That let him keep the home fires burning — literally — in the woodstove, and stock up on water whenever the power came on briefly before being knocked out again.

Since then, we have replaced the woodstove with a pellet stove, and Jim has died of pancreatic cancer, so when the big wind storm came through at the end of October, causing more widespread power outages than the ice storm did, I felt much more vulnerable.

What I learned though, is that I have the tools to survive.

A huge gust of wind took down the large fir tree on my front lawn, sending it across one part of my U-shaped driveway and ripping the electric meter and phone and electric wires off my house. It also took down several limbs from two of my antique apple trees on my front lawn, including a special limb from Rosie’s apple tree.

Rosie was my Brittany I had before I got Sassy. Rosie was obsessed with squirrels and would actually climb the apple tree and walk out on a certain fat limb in her pursuit of the critters. The recent wind took that limb down, landing it next to her grave. (Visible in back left in photo).

I have not been concerned about any of the power outages we’ve had in the 35 years I’ve lived in my old farmhouse because I am on a main power line. It has to be functioning properly before some of the secondary roads can be repaired.

But this time was different. It wasn’t the main line that was damaged; it was the connection to my private residence. That put me in a less advantageous position on the priority list for repairs.

With more than 1 million people without power statewide, the electric companies had to repair the lines that would help the most people the fastest. That meant single houses without power had to come last on the list.

I lost my power on a Monday morning, and for five nights, the dogs and I lived with borrowed battery-operated lamps, lots of flickering candles, using the grill on the deck to cook and heat water, hauling water from my neighbor’s, and no heat. Fortunately, it wasn’t that cold during the day, and at night, the four dogs and I snuggled under plenty of blankets.

I also was lucky enough to have a family member who did not lose power and I would go there every other day for a hot shower and a meal. I took the dogs with me whenever I could to get them out of the house and into a more familiar situation.

The weird thing was being the only building in the neighborhood without power. Even the streetlights in front of the house were functioning as if everything were normal in our world.

For most of the neighborhood, it certainly was normal. But not at my house.

The dogs were jittery. They had been home alone when the tree cracked and twisted at its trunk and came down with a crash, ripping everything off the house. They were freaked out when I got home that night. My youngest — Quincy — came out of his crate, ran outside, laid in the grass and vomited. Thistle refused to eat for a couple days. Sassy and Bullet clearly were upset, offering out of the ordinary behaviors and clinging to my side.

I tried to keep things as normal for them as I could, with their food on its regular schedule, some playtime outside, and interaction with me as I dealt with the increased number of chores. But the part of the day we all liked best was bedtime. Once the battery-powered light was out, everything was back to normal.

Except it wasn’t. Because there were no numbers visible on the digital clock. No hint of warmth in the house. No phones ringing. No hum of the refrigerator. No ability to do laundry. No TV or radio. No furnace coming on.

No Jim.

The house felt dead, and we were its captives. It was one of the most isolating experiences of my life, as if entering the house meant passage into a different world — like the children who walked through the wardrobe and entered Narnia in the C.S. Lewis story. Only my world wasn’t pretty. Just cold.

And I didn’t make new friends, but I was reminded of the generosity and loving support I have in my life every day from my family and friends as I navigate life’s obstacles.

I worked all week and came home each night, dreading it with an increasing ardor. By Saturday morning, I had decided three things: I probably should purchase a small portable heater I could use indoors or get a battery backup system for the pellet stove; I needed to do dishes and clean up around the house the best I could because who knew when power would be restored; and I had had enough of roughing it in a setup not made for roughing it.

I had just heated water on the grill and was doing dishes when i thought I heard a chainsaw. The dogs and I looked at each other, and when we heard the sound again, they went nuts barking and I ran outside to find a swarm of power company trucks in the area of my power lines, and one person cutting away some of the tree to get to the lines.

I was so happy to see them, I hugged one of the workers — with his permission of course.

We had power again within the hour.

After I was out of my crisis situation and could look at things objectively, I realized some important things about myself:

  1. The most significant is that I am a strong person. Jim’s death weakened me for a while, but now I am strong again.
  2.  I am resourceful. I was able to identify each basic need and find a solution for meeting that need. And come to think of it, it’s how I am living my daily life again.
  3. I can endure. I survived Jim’s death and have learned to live beside it, and I am able to apply its lessons to other areas of my life.
  4. I have confidence in who I am. I am a different person. Older. More seasoned. Less easily rattled.
  5. My faith remains the centerpiece of my life, and my trust in God’s promises is rock solid.
  6. I cannot handle the truly huge problems in my life without the love and support of friends and family, whether that support is emotional or helping me accomplish a task.
  7. I look forward to my future. I have no idea what that will be, but I relish life’s possibilities.

So, in the meantime, the fallen tree has been cut up with help from my stepdaughter and son-in-law and my parents, and hauled away by the town’s public works department, leaving me with a twisted, half-uprooted stump on my front lawn, looking almost like modern art.

It may be modern art by someone’s standards, but to me, it is a symbol of my ability to survive.




My fading fear of couples’ gatherings

It was a couples’ weekend of sorts. At least that’s what it would have been if my husband Jim were alive.

I have carefully avoided most gatherings that I perceived as “couples gatherings” since Jim died in December 2010. I didn’t want to feel the emptiness of the space beside me where he should have been standing or sitting or laughing.

I didn’t want to experience the odd-woman-out kind of feeling I was sure I would have, so I stopped attending what I perceived as “couples” activities.

I remember some of those times early in my widowhood when I tried to pretend life would just go on without me doing the work involved with my grief. And those couples’ events were absolute torture.

But only one couple from this recent weekend of food and fun were people Jim and I knew together, and they are more family than friends. The other two couples are friends – new family — I have made through connections with my four Brittany dogs since Jim’s death.

Still, you would think that kind of weekend would give me pause. The fact is that it didn’t, and I think my fear of such things is fading.

I tend to see myself as half of a couple with one person missing, rather than a single person. Seeing myself as simply a single person in a group setting would seem sadder to me because single equals alone in my interpretation of the word.

Thinking of myself as half of a couple – even when half is clearly gone and not coming back – has made my reality a more palatable situation. It, at the very least, has let me move my life forward into more social situations.

And although I know Jim would have loved these new friends of mine, and they would have loved him had they had the chance to get to know him in person, the fact remains the members of this group clearly are MY friends.

Even at the campground where I am camping for my 20th season, the population has evolved into a different configuration from what it was when Jim and I camped there together.

The campground owners and their family are still there, although they too have experienced changes in the forms of births and deaths. There also is a handful of people who were our friends together when Jim was alive, but there are many new faces with new stories and new opportunities for friendships.

And new friendships that are mine alone, including a couple of women who are relatively new widows. We sometimes find ourselves at the same gatherings of friends or at the same campfires, and I feel a special kinship with them.

But knowing I have “widow sisters” does not define my circle or me. I am finally comfortable in my own skin, and have found my own niche in that small and closed community where Jim and I once shared an identity.

I see that as a milestone in my grief journey: to go from avoiding situations where I might feel like a fifth wheel to happily seeking out groups of friends for the sole purpose of enjoying recreation together is a big step I think.

And an even bigger step, I realized, was when I was making preparations for my weekend with the three special couples, I thought of it as a friends’ weekend – not a couples’ weekend at all.

I won’t say I didn’t think about Jim on that weekend, and our group talked about him. But the stories about him and discussions about marriage and life together made me feel closer to Jim in a warm and happy way.

And to see my friends happy with their spouses made me happy too, giving me a new kind of bond with them.






Paths through sand are less defined

I wrote about my very personal experiences because I felt in my heart it was important to let others “like me” — widows and widowers — know they were not alone …

As human beings, we go through many stages. We are born helpless and depend on others to help us grow and develop and become worthwhile young adults. Even then, we depend on others to help us grow and develop into mature adults who do worthwhile things.

I think the journey through widowhood is much the same. In the infancy stage, I found myself totally reliant on other people for my most basic needs. People told me when to eat and to sleep. Family and friends and coworkers made sure I had what I needed to get through each day until I began to notice those things myself and take care of them.

When I first started writing about my widowhood journey in the blog “When Life Gives You Curves” for Bangor Daily News, I had so much hurt and raw pain yet to deal with before I could even begin to move ahead. I was in grief counseling for the first five years after my husband Jim’s death from pancreatic cancer, and even though I had “graduated” from that process, I still had work to do.

I wrote about my very personal experiences because I felt in my heart it was important to let others “like me” — widows and widowers — know they were not alone; that their reactions that made them feel so isolated from family, friends and co-workers were natural and really not unique, even though their personal experiences were their own.

It became a ministry of sorts too, as I made it clear my faith in God was — and is — an important part of my strength and my healing. I would be in a lot worse shape without my faith as an anchor.

As I became stronger and gained self-confidence, I felt like the adolescent or young adult just emerging into the “real” world. I thought I had control of everything but didn’t really have control of anything. Things just didn’t upset me in the same way any more. That was all. I was healing.

I would bungle along, thinking everything was cool, and I would fall into an emotional ditch and sink a ways into the mud before I could regain my feet. Those same family and friends who were there right after Jim’s death were standing at the ditch edge, ready to wipe the mud off my face so I could see where I was going, and push me back onto the path that is my life.

That stage seemed to last quite a while too.

But lately, I have been thinking I have reached a more mature stage of my grief. I don’t seem to have the same mindless and emotionally raw attachments to my husband’s possessions. Some of them have clearly become mine, and my emotions are more stable in general.

Memories have become much more important, and I realize I don’t need physical triggers in the form of “stuff” to pull them out of my heart to enjoy and gain a smile. Smiling over fond memories is becoming easier.

Life as a widow, however, is not. There are challenges every day that just slap me in the face because I face them alone. When Jim was alive, everyday chores and tasks were easy because they were shared. Now they are all mine, and I truly feel the weight of them some days.

When Jim died, I needed a Plan B to help me find direction in my life. But it turns out, Plan B is just a beginning. There’s a Plan C and a Plan D and so on. And we only have to be open to life’s endless possibilities to find them.

I thought my grief journey would be more lineal, like growing up from infancy to adulthood, but it isn’t. The path not only has curves, but it also is not very defined. It’s like shifting sand, grains constantly moving and gliding with wind and water, and settling in a smooth blanket in front of me until the next disturbance.

I know there will be ups and downs ahead of me, and that I may veer off my own chosen path from time to time, but it’s OK. The sand smoothed out in front of me is a blank slate, and I am eager for the challenge.

Come walk with me on this journey. Let’s find the path together, see where it goes and discover what we can about ourselves and each other along the way.