At Least

When my husband died last year I immediately gave myself a set of daily living rules to make sure that I didn’t crawl into a hole and die right along with him (which would have been my preference at the time so the rules were, and continue to be, really important). At first there were three rules that were 100% focused on just keeping me alive…

  1. Take 10,000 steps a day. You can go back to bed and stay there the rest of the day if you accomplish this goal, but you must take 10,000 steps – no excuses.  
  2. Drink 1 gallon of water a day. You may not have a desire to eat or drink anything but you must drink water. Fill the bottle up and keep drinking all day, everyday – no excuses. 
  3. No junk food in the house. If you decide you want to eat you will eat, and you will eat everything in sight and that’s just not a good idea, so no junk food (including take out/drive thru food) – no excuses.

As the weeks went by these rules helped me to get through my house plant phase. I made sure I had plenty of sunlight and water while making a conscious effort not to overfeed myself, but had zero expectations of effort or activity beyond that. It worked for awhile but soon the danger of living too long in the house plant phase became apparent. I had to make sure to expand my efforts to stay alive before my roots took hold in the recliner that I’d bought for my husband a few months before his death. I’d tell myself that if Travis could see me he’d be livid that I was wasting my time sulking around the house instead of enjoying my life (I mean, at least I had a life to enjoy, right?), but thoughts like  that just made me feel guilty and more sluggish, so I made more rules.

4. Accept one social invitation each week. You must say “yes” to at least one social request from a well-meaning friend or family member each week. You can turn everyone else down and just stay home, but you must say “yes” once. If no one asks you to go anywhere you must do something social with strangers (yikes!). 

5. Give yourself something to look forward to. Plan for the future because odds are that you’ll have one. Plan a trip, buy tickets to a show/concert, and try to let yourself drift into day dreams about the fun you’ll have doing those activities. 

These two added rules, a bit more abstract, were aimed squarely at recognizing that I was not a house plant, but an actual living/breathing animal who needed more than just food and water to survive. I needed to engage with other people, have conversations, and have hope for the future. All of these activities were really tough because my life revolved completely around my own misery. I was (and continue to be) lucky to have people in my life who tolerate my lack of ability to filter out off hand remarks about death and despair, but I’m sure spending time with me during this anti-social-wounded-puppy-phase was draining for them as they wondered if they’d be able to reach out and touch me without me biting off one of their fingers.

Over time I got a job (one that still allowed me to take things slow by working mostly from home), began reaching out to others a bit more, established some semblance of a routine, and stopped biting people (for the most part). The rules I created for myself kept me breathing, initially, and eventually helped me start to enjoy life again. The last rule, which had been the hardest, suddenly became the easiest a few months ago as bits and pieces of my future started to take place. I was looking forward to events, activities, and celebrations, most of which centered around the exciting turn my life was going to take as I prepare for the birth of my first child. 

But then, suddenly, everything came to a halt. I, along with much of the world, was forced into house plant mode. My coping mechanisms were stripped away one by one as the rules that were keeping me alive became impossible to follow. There were no social requests to accept, and as the days ticked by each of the things I’d been excited to do were cancelled. The no junk food in the house rule went out the window as restaurants closed. I was once again left with sunlight and water.

I focused on walking my dog obsessively, setting a slightly higher target of 5 (socially distanced from everyone else on the trails) miles each day. As I approached my third trimester in a world without public restrooms this goal became more challenging so I had to break up the 5 miles into those smaller chunks spread out through the day. Drinking a gallon of water became equally challenging, but I was making it work and holding it together, until this week when I was tossed another curveball. As I set off for a hike with my dog on one of our favorite trails I took a funny step, fell to the ground, and heard a crack that I hoped was a stick breaking under my foot. A few hours later an x-ray would confirm that, unfortunately, it was not a stick.

And so went the last rule. After consistently and obsessively meeting my 10,000 steps a day goal for over a year I failed for the first time managing only a few hundred steps, most of which were taken as I dragged myself back to my car with a worried and confused dog in tow. I felt incredibly defeated as I examined the current state of my life. I was already an 8 months pregnant widow living alone in the midst of a global pandemic, and now I was all of those things… with a broken ankle.

I’ve gone over the list of “at leasts” in my head a few dozen times. At least it’s not a really bad break and will heal nicely on its own. At least you didn’t hurt the baby when you fell. At least you were relatively close to your car and didn’t have to hobble 5 miles back down a trail. At least you have loving and supportive parents who will drop everything to take care of you at a moment’s notice. And my favorite… At least it’s not a brain tumor.

But while I’m grateful that all of those things are true, I’ve come to realize over the past several years that the least comforting statements (whether they come from myself or another person), begin with the words “at least.” When Travis’ battle with brain cancer began and he was given a less than 10% of surviving for two years we heard… at least there’s a chance, at least you have each other, at least you don’t have children. And when he died I heard.. at least you had time to prepare for his death, at least you know he’s in a better place, at least he’s not suffering anymore, at least you’re young and can find someone new, and again… at least you don’t have children. At least, at least, at least.

But the reality of my situation right now is that it’s incredibly hard. I’m still grieving the loss of my husband, anticipating bringing his child into the world without him here, doing so at a time when that world is in total chaos, and now my ankle really hurts and I can’t do the one thing that has consistently brought me comfort and joy for the past year… walk my dog. You can tell me to count my blessings as much as you want (which is just a fancy way of saying “at least”), but you know what, I don’t want to and I don’t have to because things just really fucking suck right now.

And I hope that as you read this you aren’t thinking to yourself “wow, at least I’m not 8 months pregnant, widowed, alone, with a broken ankle during a pandemic!” because I bet things are pretty hard for some of you right now as well. If taking stock of all of the things that you are blessed to have helps you, by all means, do it. But if not, don’t try to cheer yourself up by telling yourself how much worse things could be. Be mad. Be hurt. Be frustrated and bothered by all of the challenges you’re facing. Own it and let yourself feel sad that you’re missing out on things that bring you joy.

Don’t compare your challenges to others. If things are extra hard for you right now don’t tell others whose lives you perceive to be somehow less difficult that they should be grateful for what they have. And if you perceive other’s lives to be more difficult than your own, don’t force yourself to count the blessings that may not be worth counting at the moment. If the hardest thing for you to deal with right now is the fact that you can’t enjoy a baseball game (and trust me, there are days where that’s hurt more than my broken ankle), then that is still pretty damn hard. Try not to live and wallow in the reality of the hard things, but still, let yourself feel them without forcing yourself to push them away.

I don’t believe that there really are differing degrees of difficulty (outside of the realm of olympic sports, perhaps). If it’s hard for you, it’s hard, and that’s all that matters. And I’m sorry if things are hard for you right now.


8 thoughts on “At Least

  1. Praying for you Julie. That just sucks. Rest and Heal and get ready for your bundle of joy that will get you through. Love you, Aunt Sue


  2. Julie, I did not know Travis died. I am so very very sorry. Randy and I will never forget how you took time out to show us around the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was one of our favorite trips! Life is so cruel sometimes, but bringing your child into this world will be beautiful. We have plenty of Angels looking down on us. I bet Travis and Scott are now great friends in Heaven. You are in our thoughts and prayers. I will be looking forward to hearing about your life. I’m so glad Susan posted this one! Thank you.
    Jeanne Holland


    1. I have fond memories of your visit to Cooperstown as well. Scott is never too far from my mind or heart even after all of these years.

      Love, Julie


  3. Thank you for writing this. It gave me a whole new perspective on my own “hurts” and the hurts of others. Blessings to you! ❤


  4. Dear Julie, we are ‘mates’ and I was observing your posts from FB which resonated with me very well. I feel pain and fear and anxiety six month after my Artur died. It is getting even harder. But your blog enables me to touch my feelings which I want to hide. I hope it makes sense. Hugs


  5. Julie. You are wise beyond your young years and have insight that is born from pain and raw emotions that you’ve endured thru loss. I totally totally get it. There is no hierarchy or ranking of pain. And the “at least” thoughts and comments from ourselves and others complicates healing. Best wishes on your beautiful new baby and you continue to be in my prayers. Your Mom and Dad are very very special people and they raised great kids. Vera Brewer (North Olmsted)


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