Today is My Wife’s First Birthday Since She Died.

Alex a few months after we started dated on the left. A pretty recent photo (in Thailand) on the right.
  1. Quickly Catching you Up: Alex’s Death & memorials
  2. 3 pieces of advice about Death and Love
  3. “How is Tony doing?”
  4. Get to know Alex (better)

Alex’s Death and Memorials

To catch you up: Alex died on July 17th. She was fishing in Alaska at the mouth of the Kenai River — one of her favorite places in the world. She went to this fishery each of the 20 years we were together, even after we moved away from Alaska. She was with one of her best friends. The fish were just starting to run after crappy fishing the day before and I’ll bet Alex was grinning ear to ear.

The medical examiner said that her heart just stopped — so I think we can safely hope that she died painlessly. There were EMTs fishing a few feet away and they did CPR for more than 90 minutes, but she was never responsive after she collapsed.

Turns out the EMTs were heroes for keeping her blood flowing until they could get her body hooked up to life support. The hospital kept her body alive for a few days to allow some of her organs to heal — as an organ donor, she helped dozens of people in death — giving people years of life, sight, mobility, and more.

We had a small memorial with her family in Alaska up in Hatcher Pass (near the trailhead of our favorite hike in the world).

Reed Lakes — a hike a few miles where we had our Alaska Memorial for Alex.

We had an amazing memorial here in Seattle where hundreds came together. A whole mess of us of jumped in a lake together, which I think Alex would’ve gotten a kick out of.

3 pieces of Advice about Death and Love

People say that events like this give you perspective, and they are sure as hell right about that. The stuff that you thought was important melts away and what’s left is what really matters. I don’t know how transferable this perspective is, but I’m going to do my best. Below is the advice I wish someone had given to me years ago. I’m unsure if I would’ve listened. I’m not sure if you will either, but here goes.

#1: Imagine the sudden death of people you love most

I can tell you a bit about how it feels to lose your partner after 20 years of being together. There are the obvious emotions — sadness, anger, and a bit of gratitude for the time we did have. The overwhelming thing for me is regret and a wish for a chance to redo our last years together. Don’t get me wrong — our last years were pretty damn good. I think we did marriage better than 95% of couples do at this stage. But it doesn’t matter how good your relationship is — I promise you’ll be buried in regrets like these when the time comes.

The last picture of Alex and I together (on Whidbey Island)

This feels like a particular awful thing to ask someone to do, but I believe if everyone truly were able to imagine the sudden death of the folks they love, it would change how they live.

With all of the demands of life, we can’t give (much) more time to the people we love without taking it away from other love-worthy people/things… But we can easily change is how we treat people with the time that we have. We can say “I love you” more, and more earnestly. We can tell people when we’re proud of them. That we admire them. That they are important to us. We can say the things we’re leaving unsaid because they are hard or because they make us feel weak. We can put our phones away and listen better. And when the warmth leaks out of our relationships, we can pro-actively try to get it back.

So please: imagine your closest relationships, and imagine losing them in an instant. Figure out what would be left unsaid and say it. Think about how you’d wish you treated them, and… just treat them that way. Don’t take people for granted. Don’t let a month go by without thinking about this.

#2: Read the love letters (or equivalent)

I have oceans of “Widower Homework” to do — one such task is wading through the storage rooms. Alex and I were pretty good at living light, but she saved a big tote of pre-digital photos. In this tote I found a collection of letters and cards she had saved that we sent each other over the years (which had sadly trickled to a stop 10ish years into our relationship). I’ve read them dozens of times in the last few weeks.

Relationships evolve, and I suppose we can can never get the head-over-heels feelings of the first months back… I certainly wouldn’t trade the feelings of comfort, trust, and companionship in our 20th year for the anxious puppy love of the first month.

But it’s worth trying to hold onto some of that stuff, I think. I’ve run across very few relationships that still seem sweet/loving after 10 years, many that feel downright perfunctory, and plenty that feel snippy. If this is the natural (d)evolution of marriage, how can we fight that? Maybe one answer lies with one of the weapons we’ve found in the fight against depression.

Humans have done a miserable job of figuring out how to treat depression. Broadly, science says anti-depressants don’t work. Most therapy doesn’t work and most therapists don’t follow evidence-based methodologies. One thing that actually seems to work is gratitude journaling — just thinking about and writing down stuff that you’re grateful for on a daily basis.

People who are depressed can always find the negative side of any situation. The paths of your brain get deep ruts that are hard to break out of. Repeatedly thinking/writing thoughts that might not be entirely natural for you carve new ruts that make it easier to think positive thoughts… I believe it’s actually rewiring your brain.

So perhaps having little monthly celebrations where you read old letters with each other, look at old photos together, talk about your gratitude towards each other, etc — can help keep your brain wired for love.

Alex and I didn’t do this, and I think we did better than many couples. But as much as I loved her, as much as I admired her, and as good as we were as partners — I often was a little sad about the state of our relationship. It wasn’t what I hoped our marriage would be and I think we’d both given up on changing that. What a fucking idiot I was.

There’s a lot of struggle at times like these between guilt and regret. When I say stuff like this, people naturally say, “stop beating yourself up — you guys were great!”. Guilt is something you feel when you knew better but you did the wrong/selfish thing. I don’t feel (much) guilt about this — I just didn’t have this perspective. Instead, I mostly feel regret. It turns out that regret hurts plenty too… I’m hoping that I can spare some folks that.

Advice #3: What to do with a friend, acquaintance, or stranger who is grieving?

A year before Alex died, my friend (and co-founder at RescueTime) Joe died after a multi-year struggle with cancer. I look back at how I treated him in these years with a lot of regret (and a little guilt).

For most of this time, I would often say “In Joe’s shoes, I wouldn’t want people to see me like that.” and “My job is to respect Joe’s wishes and his space”. So I’d (less frequently than I should) send Joe emails or texts with something like this:

Hey Man- How are things going? I would love to see you and would drop everything anytime you feel up for it. We could go see a movie, rent a movie, play a board game, or just hang out and stare at the wall. Whatever you want…. Just say the word! -T

Just say the word. He never did say the word much. He did host a birthday BBQ every year where his friends would gather and he always seemed to enjoy the heck out of it.

When I saw people I knew less well grieving about some sort of horrible life event, I often wouldn’t do so much as send a note. “I don’t know them well enough” , I’d say to myself, “It’d feel fake/forced for me to reach out now.”

When stuff like this happens, communication from friends and strangers is like oxygen. Even the little “thinking of you, sorry for your loss” notes from near strangers help.

I’m grateful for my friends/family who didn’t ask — they showed up. They’d email or call, and if they didn’t hear back, they’d email or call some more. My people (and many near-strangers) have been better at supporting me than I’ve been in the past at supporting others. But I won’t make that mistake again.

Once more — regret, not guilt. I didn’t know any better but I sure as hell do now.

So what can you do to help the grieving? Here are some of the things that have helped me:

  1. Just send a note saying you’re thinking of them — even if you don’t know them well. They need these notes as munch a month in as the do in the first days, so don’t be shy about sending more than one.
  2. If the person who died impacted you in some way, however small, tell the survivors about it. When life rubs your nose in the impermanence of all of this, the idea that the person you’ve lost is impacting another human helps.
  3. If you’re close enough to the survivors (or if they don’t seem like they have a lot of support), spend time with them. Don’t put the ball in their court. It’s a very rational feeling for grieving folks to say, “No one REALLY wants to be around someone in my state of mind — so I’ll spare them that.” You have to be pushy, which feels a bit unnatural when you’re trying to be respectful.
  4. After a week or two, keep friends busy with “normal” stuff. Yes, grieving people need to talk about their loss. But it’s also great to take hikes, play games, watch movies, and otherwise learn how to have fun again.
  5. If you’ve gone through something like this and navigated to a happy life, tell them about the journey and the destination. Don’t stretch too far for this (“I lost a dog when I was 12” isn’t terribly comforting). One woman I went to college with (but didn’t know very well) reached out and told me her fiancee was murdered when she was 25. She said she still cries about it from time to time. But she also told me that she’d married, had kids, and found happiness. Hearing that helps.
  6. Donate to causes on behalf of the person who died and tell the grieving folks about (I wrote about Alex’s causes here). There’s a (very rational) fear that the world will forget and that her impact will dissipate. I guess it will someday, but fighting against that helps. People have sent me hundreds of notes about donations to Alex’s causes that I’ve been keeping on the counter.
  7. If you worked with someone who died and were close to them, reach out to their spouse (a lot) — even if you didn’t know them well (or at all!). Some of the most important support in the last few months has come from Alex’s coworkers. Before this, I didn’t know many of them very well. But, aside from me, these are people who spent more time with Alex than anyone over the last four years. And because they were in a non-profit, I think those bonds were especially close — they were brothers and sisters-in-arms fighting to make the world a little better. So it stands to reason that they are grieving as much as I am.

How is Tony doing?

“How’s it going?” I can watch people cringe when they say this automatically at the beginning of conversations.

“Oh fuck, that was probably the worst question I could ask him,” I imagine them saying to themselves.

First, it’s a fine question to ask — it allows me to gush if I need to or say something light if I don’t.

But here’s the answer, since it’s definitely a FAQ: It’s going as well as could be expected.

This is an empty-sounding phrase, but it’s not an empty sentiment.

I am ridiculously well-supported. When people reach out to me to spend time, I joke that my comfort calendar is full and that perhaps I could squeeze them in for 30 minutes of comfort next Tuesday. I apologize to folks who I’ve accidentally ghosted — my inbox and calendar are a tornado.

I’m staying healthy. I’m exercising every day, eating well, and drinking less than I used to. My instincts are telling me to blow off exercise, be alone, do shots of whiskey, and eat donuts, but I’m not doing any of that… Alex wouldn’t want me to and she’s in charge right now.

I have a lot to be grateful for. A lot of people in these situations have hate/anger mixed into the grief (hate for a reckless driver, an ineffective health care system, etc). Alex died instantly/painlessly. Or they feel tons of guilt for being a crappy spouse/friend. Alex and I had an pretty amazing life and I was on sabbatical for the last 9 months… so was more present than I otherwise would’ve been. We had a better marriage than most that I’ve come across. I still feel a ton of regret — even if I was pretty solid as a husband, it would have been so easy to be a kinder, more loving, more generous partner. But mostly I manage to keep the regret in check.

Lots of people in these situations have kids. I can’t imagine trying to go through this while simultaneously trying to help kids through it. I have a dog, and he seems oblivious to her absence.

Here, have a Pim picture, complete with side-tongue. (photo credit to Addy Wright)

Tons of people who go through this have financial woes — because they were hammered by medical bills because of a prolonged illness, they lack savings, or because they just lost half (or all) of their family’s income. I have plenty of money — not enough where I can retire in style… But I was already in sabbatical-mode, and don’t have to worry about going back to work for a years if I didn’t feel like it (despite this, I’m actually eager to figure out what’s next professionally!).

So I kinda have this in easy mode. It turns out easy mode is still unimaginably hard. I cry every day at some point, and for every time I cry, I feel like I’m on the verge of crying half a dozen times. From what other people who’ve lost loved ones have told me, this is just how it is. It does slow down a bit but it never goes away — you just learn to live with it.

I’m able to have fun, be with friends, tell jokes, think about work. I can talk about Alex without falling apart. Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions of living, but most of the time I’m just living.

It’s hard to know what a grieving person is supposed to do. I know that Alex would want me to go have an awesome life as soon as possible, but she’d also want me to do whatever I needed to do to grieve.

So what should I do? Am I crying enough? Not enough? Should I talk about her more or less? Think about her more or less? I often listen to emotional songs and go through the same photos and letters over and over again. Is that processing or masochism?

This is my current favorite masochism music.

I think my grieving playbook for the next year or so is:

  • Do what comes naturally and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Avoid the temptation to wallow/suffer needlessly — seeking out pain doesn’t honor her — living a better life and being a better person as a result of this does.
  • Ask “what would Alex want” and “what would Alex do” at every fork in the road.

Get to Know Alex

Have you seen those memorial decals people put on the back of car windows? “Theresa Smith — 1976–2018 RIP”. I’ve always found those strange, but I understand them now. It’s the same urge that drives us to plant tombstones or little memorials by the road where people have died. As I write these words, the torrent of emails and Facebook messages have slowed to a trickle and I find myself saying, “No. You can’t forget her yet.” We’re so good at not seeing the impermanence of all of this. When someone you love dies, you see the impermanence. You can’t stop seeing it. You feel compelled to fight against it.

You can’t, of course. On our year traveling the world, Alex and I would often look at gravestones near old decrepit churches. At some point in history, these gravestones were new and people would perhaps lay flowers on them. Years later, maybe a relative or two would come by on an anniversary or birthday. Decades later, maybe some stranger from the same village would recognize the name and smile slightly. But soon, the marker is anonymous. When we saw many of them, the march of nature had worn them into illegibility. Tombstones are a shout in the dark, but eventually the echoes subside.

So this post is my digital tombstone for Alex. I like to think it’s better because it’ll help me remember her. And maybe help you know her a little better so you can remember her as well.

For those who never met her — Alex lived life in a way that was just downright dazzling. She was fearless — she could fish, lead a team at work, keep bees, raise chickens, cook a gourmet meal, grow veggies, replace a toilet, knit a hat, eat termites right out of a hive, make jewelry, behead a turkey, do carpentry, raise millions of dollars for a non-profit, travel anywhere in the world, throw on a ball gown for a formal event, tile a floor, make bread, storm up a mountain without breaking a sweat, wrangle a snowmachine, run a marathon, fly an airplane, troubleshoot an outboard motor, eat a tarantula, cross country ski, and fillet 100 salmon in record time.

A few months before she died, Alex posted this. The caption was “Tony had plans tonight so I did this.#fridaynightplumbing

When Alex and I started dating, I was in awe of her. I’d recently moved up to Alaska and was in love with the place. As a guy who had grown up in landscraped suburbia, Alaska was magical. The mountains, the wilderness, the animals, the winters, the lifestyle, the people. It was all wondrous to me and Alex was Alaska personified. She’d grown up flying around in her parents float plane and spending much of her summers at their remote cabin. She’d fished and hiked and hunted all around the state. During the Iditarod, she’d snowmachine out to the early checkpoints and hand out candy bars to the mushers as they raced by. She was a competitive cross country skier. She knew how it all worked.

I, on the other hand, was an Fresh-off-the-boat Alaskan Idiot. I carried a 5 pound .44 magnum on heavily trafficked day-hikes with me for bear protection. I was in terrible physical shape. I had no idea how to coax a fish out of a river or where to find them. I had no idea what to do with a fish once you had one. I didn’t know how to camp. I didn’t know where the hikes were.

Alex was this fearless expert in all of the things I wanted to learn.

Alex took me all around Alaska and taught me to love the outdoors.

Despite Alex and I being pretty over-rationale people, we were only dating for a few months before we started talking openly about wanting to spend the rest of our lives together. This was good, given that she moved away for a PhD program in Chicago 3 months into our relationship. We tried the long distance relationship thing for a bit (not a cheap thing for a guy making $11/hr working a graveyard shift), but eventually I bit the bullet and moved to Chicago to be with her for a year before we returned to Alaska.

Many people knew Alex as strong and composed but she could be incredibly sweet. Her soft moments were rare but precious to me. She wrote beautiful love letters in the first decade of our relationship. We fell out of that habit, but I wish we didn’t.

I remember when we finally realized that my friend Joe was probably going to die of cancer. We were both kind of stunned. Alex really didn’t know him well, but knew he was a good man and that I respected him a lot. The next night we were walking to a dinner in downtown Seattle and Alex burst into tears about it walking across first avenue.

She was ridiculously proud. When in Alaska, my friends and I got into rock climbing. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had always had a dream of rock climbing in Grand Teton National Park. I kept trying to get her to come climb with me when I learned this, but she hated the notion of being 6 months behind me in skill/strength and never did. I think her pride (and mine) made our relationship harder than it had to be. Life is too damn short — be vulnerable to the people you love.

I never heard her sing (I think this is because she was too proud).

She was thrifty with clothes and jewelry. She thought diamonds and fashion were wastes of energy.

Despite the fact that she didn’t care much for fashion or jewelry, she cleaned up pretty well.

She kept trophies for “most inspirational runner” from High School.

Despite making it look easy, she was a little vain. She had oceans of products for her hair, skin, teeth, eyelashes, etc.

She was afraid of slugs and driving up steep hills, but almost nothing else.

She loved taking power naps and taking 2-hour baths.

Love is supposed to be this thing where you care as much (or more?) about someone’s happiness than your own, but that seldom seems to be the case when I look at most relationships. For Alex, I suspect it might have been. When I wanted or needed a thing, she wanted me to have it and worked to make it happen. When I was depressed and lost in our final year in Alaska, she moved with me to Seattle despite her love of her home state. She could’ve been resentful of that sacrifice, but she never was.

In the year before her death, I’d been taking some time off of working. I recently asked her “Hey, when I start hunting for a new opportunity in earnest, what’s your appetite for moving to a new neighborhood or even a new city?” Her response was, “I love our home and our city and don’t want to leave. But if you find something you love, we’ll make it work wherever it is in the world.” Saying something like that requires a lot of trust — certainly I could abuse that sentiment and have Alex in a constant state of adapting to my needs/goals.

Her trust and faith in me was complete and unshakable.

Not once did she ever express jealousy.

In our 20 years together, I’ve had a few times where I had no idea what to do with my life — sometimes for many months. She was always confident that I’d figure it out.

When I spent time with away from her, she never said, “But I wanted to spend time together tonight” — she was happy that I was doing something rewarding, even if I wasn’t with her.

When we disagreed, she’d almost always approach my viewpoints with reason and charity.

In the tech industry there is an awakening to how we are treating people — especially women and minorities. I remember reading a particularly awful article about a woman being systematically harassed at work and realizing that Alex had never — not once — mentioned experiencing anything resembling harassment to me. Not at work, not on the street, nothing. So I asked her, “Have you ever been harassed?”. She thought about it for a second and said, “Not that I’ve noticed.” Trying to harass Alex would be like a tiny wave trying to adjust the course of a cruise ship. If you had to courage to try it, you’d just kind of bounce off.

(edit: it’s worth pointing out that Alex was strong as hell, but was also in a position of privilege. Someone who needs their next paycheck to feed their kids is a lot more vulnerable. Alex was 5'10", pretty intense, and was an executive — many harassers would seek easier targets. When she said “not that I’ve noticed”, I think she meant, “Sure I have, but those people are trash and not worth thinking about.”)

When we returned from traveling for a year, a common question was “what was your favorite place?” Alex’s answer was not what you’d expect. We’d seen mountains in Nepal, Cathedrals in Spain, magical waterfalls in Croatia, the headwaters of the Ganges, the sunrise over the Sahara, and a zillion other breathtaking things. But her favorite time was in a beautiful-but-unassuming seaside town in Morocco where we were taken in by a retired group of friends we didn’t know. They had a vacation home there and knew and loved the town — they showed us around, took us to the beach to haggle with fishermen for dinner, drank wine with us, and swapped stories.

In the mornings, Alex would walk down to the beach with our hostess Anna and watch her haggle with the fishermen for that night’s feast.

We were headed to Spain after and one couple took us with them across the strait of Gibraltar and put us up in their house. I spoke to them recently and learned that Alex is the third person in our group that has died since 2013. I’m not religious, but if there’s a heaven, they’ll get together up there and eat oysters together — and sea urchins right out of the shell.

Alex dedicated her life to raising money for non-profits, and finished her life as Chief Development Officer of Washington STEM. She worked in for schools, for women’s health and reproductive rights, for land conservation, and more.

She was so positive about work. So many people come home from work with a laundry list of of things they hate about their job. Alex wasn’t like this at all. Alex spoke with unwashed admiration for the people she worked with. It’s not that she didn’t see flaws or have frustrations — but everyone was seen through the default lens of “these people are good at what they do and these people are good human beings.”

Years ago I was very surprised when the first in a long line of coworkers and bosses told me how exceptional Alex was to work with. I was especially surprised to hear this from people who worked FOR Alex. People generally hate their bosses — that’s just understood (fun fact- 75% of people say their direct supervisor is the worst thing about their job).

And Alex had some pretty sharp edges — I’d seen plenty of people have trouble warming up to her. I prided myself on being a bit of an “Alex Whisperer” — a person who could get through these edges to the hard-to-reach person inside. So I was a little annoyed — these people were near-strangers to me and they get a delightful Alex without all of the work?!

It was always obvious to me that Alex would be fiercely competent at her job, but it never occurred to me that she would be beloved. It didn’t take her death for people to tell me that she was.

Alex had no time for introspection. People who know me know that I’m fairly constantly pondering the nature of ethics, work, friendship, love, etc. Whenever I tried to talk to Alex about these things, she’d humor me but rarely had much interest in the discussion. To her, the right thing didn’t need to be deliberate/thoughtful — it was obvious and natural.

I’m maintaining videos and photos of Alex here. I’ve sent away the pre-digital photos of her to get scanned and expect to add those in a week or two.

It’s hard to know how to finish a post like this. I’d give anything to have her back. Hell, I’d give anything to have 10 minutes to tell her the stuff I didn’t say enough.

I can’t get any more life with Alex, but I can try to lead a better life because of her and I can try to make her proud, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.

Happy Birthday, love.