Moving Forward After Widowhood

I have a theory: I decided that losing a spouse sacrifices your present.

When your spouse dies, the very person that would help you cope with the present hazards of life, is no longer there. The moment you need them is now, and it’s constant. My kids have always dragged me into the future. My parents and siblings preserve my past. But my spouse kept me present. He and I journeyed in the moment. He was the one who talked and walked me through the past, present, and future, and I for him.

Moving on, moving forward, being asked if I’ve moved on, all became comments I heard more times than I can count. How I learned to hate the expression “moving on”! How do you move on alone? Why would you want to? And while we’re on that topic – how do you even move? The bed and couch became my best friends. Sleep was the only sense of normal I could find, and I became an expert at it. Moving was the last thing on my mind. Silence became my constant companion. Yet, ironically, within weeks of Kevin’s passing moving was the first thing I had to do. I had to leave our home.

But please humor me for a minute: let me take you back in time, for a brief walk to our former home. After years of struggle we had finally made it. The sweet scent of huge sycamore trees greet you as you walk up our driveway. We had nice, used cars, kept a careful budget, and bought a grand fixer-upper in a historic neighborhood. We painted it white. It beamed in the sunlight, as if to brag about our care. It had all of the hallmarks of a beloved home – a formal, oak staircase, French doors which opened to a study, a fireplace. This was a house destined for future prom photos, Christmases, and grandkids. We scrubbed, we painted, and we restored. The yard was bordered by century-old, blooming bridal wreath bushes. The attic smelled like my great grandmother’s attic, with an untouched, woodsy smell. You could still read the notes and measurements left by the original carpenters on the rafters. The creaky stairs in that attic hideaway were aged but sturdy, and light spilled in from the windows, beckoning a future remodel into a third floor guest room… someday.

Kevin installed a basketball hoop for the kids. He put a massive fire pit and patio in the back for me for Mothers’ Day. We’d sit at the fire, sipping wine and laugh about our new aches and pains as we entered our 50’s. It touched upon every detail for our dream home. Yet, I quickly learned to hate that house when I lost Kevin, because it was where I lost Kevin. Every area now had an unhappy memory, or an unfulfilled future planned. Chores piled up. The roof was bad. The basement was creepy. And for me, an unprepared widow, it immediately became far too expensive. One income simply wasn’t enough. Oh – and by the way – I had no income.

While Kevin was diagnosed with his cancer we knew his prognosis was very poor. He had a year, maybe 18 months we were told.  I cashed out my modest retirement savings and quit my job. I desperately drove him to any clinical trial that would accept him from Iowa to Tennessee to Chicago. He humored my madness, having somehow long since accepted his fate before I could grasp that reality. We had long conversations. We had fun with the kids. He made me promise I would date. He liquidated his cabinet shop equipment so we could live on some of that money for a while. We as a family also created many good memories during this time. My focus was entirely on him and the kids. My health suffered, partly from stress and partly from neglect. After he died I had many new realities to face. They were piling up like the unpaid bills.

“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” — Rush

Funny… I just downloaded a Rush Greatest Hits album the other day. I’ve quoted this line from their song “Freewill”, using it to lecture teens since the 1990s. (Nothing like a mom who quotes lyrics from the 1980’s!) It’s a truth however – at least in my experience – that when life presents a crossroads, if you don’t make a decision, something will be decided for you. As it turned out for me, nothing motivates like realizing your home will get repossessed!

After Kevin’s memorials, I took what remained of our life insurance policy, got rid of stuff I didn’t need, and bought a mobile home. A cute, little place in an older mobile home court that would allow me to keep our large dog. My neighbor across the street had a flag from a McDonald’s restaurant for a curtain – charming! Friends and family cautioned me otherwise, but it afforded me three months to job hunt without an income and our furniture fit perfectly.

This renovated, used double-wide became a silent respite from everyone – from the curious to the well-meaning. I wanted no contact from anyone. It was fresh. It was fabulous. It was so quiet I could hear my clocks ticking. It afforded me to sink in anonymity between neighbors I didn’t know. I could learn to be myself, alone. I nicknamed this little refuge my ‘GarageMahal’. This was to become my training ground for many things: how to operate a drill, how to fix plumbing, how to take over chores that were once Kevin’s. And I loved it.

Once I took this drastic first step, cool things started to unfold. Sure, I spent a lot of time crying in the shower – well, really crying everywhere – so much so I began to wear sunglasses. I bought a Louis Armstrong CD and listened to it constantly – such healing music! My new little house was squeaky clean and organized. Kevin’s younger boys visited every weekend, keeping their visitation schedule as it was when Kevin was alive. My older kids dropped by. We bar-b-qued, we sat on his lounge chair. We began to wrap our minds around our new reality. We were taking baby steps.

After a lot of job hunting and poor interviewing (still crying!) I was finally hired by an office supply store. It didn’t cover the bills and I hated the job, but it created a new routine for me. About a month after I started there I received a surprise, urgent call from a museum exhibit designer. She said she had a check ready and wanted to place an order for portable walls. And she was in a hurry! Portable walls? Yes. This was an idea I had a few years prior, something I gave up on once widowhood became a new reality.

Back, before Kevin was sick I had an idea for a new product for portable walls for art galleries. His cabinet business was slowing, so he humored me and we worked on some prototypes. It turned out to be something museums and galleries needed. (Who knew??) We were able to install a few sets of these in various museums, but after he died I forgot completely about them. His business was closed, and I was a web designer, not a cabinet builder! However, in my grief, I left his web site up to explain he was no longer in business, and left my phone number in case old customers wanted to say hello. But an order? That was unexpected. What do I do now? Turn down some badly needed cash? We had already liquidated his equipment. I had no idea how to build things, but I desperately needed the money and this was too much to turn down. I had to find a way.

I contacted his former employees to see if they’d be interested in building for me, and they were very happy to help. They built everything in their own garage, and a friend helped me drive the order to Mississippi in a 27 foot long rented U-haul. I printed some business cards,  and (being Italian) decided to name the company after the Italian word for ‘walls’. That’s how Pareti Mobile Walls was born. This company grew little by little, and now six years later, employs 13 full time employees. We sell walls all around the country, and began exporting them to Canada too.

Because of Pareti I became well-travelled. Me – the hermit! I never saw that in my future! Prior to that I had only been on an airplane twice. But the wall business took me to the west coast, east coast, south, and midwest. I loved watching young expats in airports, and worldly young adults speaking German, Japanese. Fearless young adults, braver than I. I met so many people!

And here’s a fun fact: many of our customers are named “Kevin”, and several are from his home town, Chattanooga. What are the odds?? This still happens regularly. Just a month ago I created a quote for a featured artist named Kevin. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never met many people named Kevin, ever. Now it pops up all of the time. This happenstance occurred so often I began to ask other people if they experienced cool coincidences when they lost a loved one – and most do! This was faith-affirming to me. In fact, so many things began to happen that I couldn’t explain that I wrote them down, then turned that into a book (called ‘When Death Happens’). I wanted people to look at the coincidences which happen after someone they love passes. I wanted people to consider that life goes on in a very real way.

The need to ‘move on’ – that hated phrase – became a new quest for me. As I once spent every day sharing experiences with Kevin, I realized I continued to share experiences with him, but on a new level. We were both exercising courage in new ways of living. We were taking steps to move, even if it was scary. We were evolving, he on one side of life, and me here. Discovery can be frightening for me. Change is scary. These were, and are still, huge steps for me, but I learned to take the steps. That is a big deal.

Let me be clear – owning a business isn’t easy. I mean, we weren’t gifted a bunch of money, we had to earn it, over and over again. I’ve wanted to quit many times. Cutting my own grass is a chore I can’t stand. Dating doesn’t seem to be very productive or fun yet. These are all to-do lists in my life, however unpalatable. At first glance they don’t offer much joy. The real source of joy is moving on – and if that’s not possible, at least moving, walking, dancing, gardening, getting out. I learned that when I take steps to begin anew, however small they may be, new things come into my life.

This is like making room for new furniture, or draining your tub so you can have fresh water in it for your next bath. Who leaves dirty bathwater for next time? Similarly, clutching to the past is not healthy. The past really is dead, and we here are quite alive still. It’s our obligation to change, breathe, and grow. To take those steps, however small. As I learned, what may lie ahead may be terrifying and challenging, but the result is wildly fun and exciting.

In addition to being Kevin Kyle’s widow, Kathlene Quinn Kyle is a mom of five, stepmom to five, and friend to many more. Like a lot of young-ish surviving spouses, she found it difficult to locate support groups with people her age. Kathlene found dealing with the specific challenges a mid-life loss can cause (in addition to heartbreak) can be unique to people suffering a loss earlier in life. A resident of Iowa, she is a career artist and owner of Pareti Mobile Walls, LLC, a portable wall manufacturing company. She has a lifelong curiosity about dying, the continued survival of spirit, and the pursuit of spirituality.

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