I’ll see myself out

A big round gold medal reading "FIE: Federational Internationale d'Escrime" and a rectangular one reading "Dueal of the East Coast: Farrag Fencing Team."
The last medals

As my kid and son-in-law drove me away from the hospice clinic, I texted my fencing coach, Milos: “Good news: I’m definitely going to Croatia. Bad news: Stephen died this afternoon. All good here, will probably be at practice this week :)” Then I got on with texting all of Stephen’s friends, to let them know he had finally passed on from his terrible cancer, after two years of treatment, several weeks in hospice, and many days spent unconscious and on IV pain medication.

As my coach said later, when the assistant coach was shocked that I would go on with my plans when my husband of 46 years had just died, “What else is she going to do?” Milos is Serbian and matter-of-fact about minor things like death and personal tragedy. He said the young don’t understand the relief that comes after an ordeal like this, and that much of the mourning happens before the death.

And yes, what else was I going to do? Fencing was what I did when everything was impossible, and if I no longer had to take care of my sweet husband in his last painful days, if I was numb with grief and relief, I might as well leave the country and go to that other world where no one knew him. I had bought airplane tickets to Croatia for Veteran World Championships, after all, so I might as well go.

As it turned out, I won gold (for the fourth time), and when my coach came up to hug me after the gold medal bout, I burst into loud, ugly sobs, because the only thing keeping me together had been the fact that I had to go to Croatia.

I went home and started the process of winding up a life and starting a new one, and I kept going to fencing practice, but now I really was in a different universe, where I didn’t have to protect Stephen from his pain any more. I didn’t even take my usual month off after Veteran Worlds, because I didn’t want to stay home in my empty house on practice nights. I went in, and fenced the same people I always fenced at practice, with the same results, and usually with much of the same conversation.

In January, I went to a regional tournament in New Jersey. The event was in a big field house, crowded and noisy. I was there for an over-40 event, one that didn’t really matter for anything except seeing friends, getting some exercise, and being out of my quiet house.

I am not good at motivating myself when it doesn’t matter, and so I was a little slow and I lost two bouts in the seeding pool, one of them against a tall, athletic, excited, fast 47-year-old. When you’re 71, that physical difference in the decades is immense. Wearily, I realized I was going to have to get serious if I wanted to win, and to get my adrenaline going. I was going to have to care. I didn’t want to care. It actually didn’t matter, and I didn’t want to persuade myself that it did.

But I got myself into the required mood nonetheless, and as usual, adrenaline made me feel sick to my stomach, grouchy, and intensely focused. In the elimination round, I beat all my opponents, and once again I got to the final, against the 47-year-old. We had an excellent referee who was calling the actions correctly and tightly, so I could relax and do what I know how to do best, which is to show the referee I know what I was doing and to deceive my less-experienced opponent. My coach Milos was shouting instructions at me from the sideline. I couldn’t understand him, because I am somewhat deaf, but that was normal.

And I beat her.

When they announced the medals a little later on, the best part of the day was a little inhale of breath from the young guy announcing the medals, when he realized the little old lady standing next to him was the winner, not the tall athletic 47 year old. But you know, it wasn’t enough. And the medal wasn’t enough, either.

And so I sat in a folding chair for more than half an hour, alone, by myself, too overwhelmed and weary to change out of my stuff, feeling horrible.

It wasn’t exactly grief, though I know that was part of it. No, it was dreadful, terminal boredom that was washing over me now. I had been practicing this sport for nearly thirty years, and suddenly I just didn’t see the point of getting myself all worked up.

That decision had been a long time coming. For similar reasons, I took a year off from fencing after Worlds in 2019, and just as I was ready to go back, COVID hit and so I took off another year or two. When the club was open again and USA Fencing started hosting tournaments again, I was happy to come back and happy to see my friends.

But now? Not so much.

Then I started packing up, and I got in my little car and drove home, thinking. I didn’t have anything left to prove, did I? And if I wasn’t taking care of my husband (or all the other people in my life I’ve had to take care of, which I did willingly, and with love, but lord it was a lot of work), I didn’t need to have an escape. I didn’t have to care about something that wasn’t real life in order to keep myself going, not anymore.

So I stopped going to fencing practice. Then I sold my car, because the only thing I needed it for (I live in a city with good public transportation) was going to the fencing club. Friends from across the country checked in on me, and told me people were wondering where I was, but it didn’t seem to matter. I was very busy grieving, getting rid of possessions, and negotiating my new life alone, and gradually, I started to be happier.

You know what? It’s pretty nice these days. My life is interesting. I’m trying new things, like art classes, and I’m brushing up on my French and getting back into writing. I take day trips and expeditions. I visited my brother who lives abroad. I have cleared all the clutter out of my house. I’m writing again. I have a new cat. Milos calls me up to tell me about what’s going on in the fencing world, so I’m up to date on all the drama.

I do miss my boy, every day, but it’s not as hard as it was in the beginning. I keep forgetting I can’t tell him things, because Stephen was a chatty gossip who loved to know what was going on, even at the end.

But I don’t miss fencing at all.

One of the things I know, after a long and strange life, is that I am going to feel the way I feel. I can’t persuade myself into feeling any other way. Life isn’t a sentimental movie, it’s an awkward collection of odd reactions and complicated feelings, and I need to pay attention and accept how I feel, even if it isn’t reasonable.

The medals were a pretty awkward collection themselves, besides. In aggregate, they were incredibly heavy, they gathered dust, and I wasn’t doing anything with them. I’m keeping the World Championships medals, because they look cool in a shadow box and I can show them to visitors. All the others? They are actually nothing but mass-produced pot-metal, bought in bulk.

I figured before I put them in the recycling bins, I had better give them the respect they deserve, which is my kind attention and a handful of stories. I owe them that much. Now that I’ve done that, they are just objects, and I can let them go.

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