Monthly Archives: October 2020

Two Weeks

It’s been two weeks now. I miss her more every day. I think the initial shock and fog might have lifted, but I am still cycling through the various stages. There are times of the day when I cry, hard. There are times when I’m really angry, but not at Erika. I’m angry at the unfairness of it all. She was only 46 years old. She was robbed. The world was robbed of the things that she brought. She had so much more to do. We had so much more that we wanted to do, together. I recently read one of her tweets to an old friend where she wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here “I will go back one day” to Lake Baikal in Russia. She spoke of that being the most beautiful place she had ever seen, and she was very well-traveled. She saw a lot of the world. Lake Baikal in Russia was her favorite. She often told me about it, often talked about us going there, taking the train up and showing it to me, and she getting to see it again. I looked forward to that.

We’d also talked about going to see the bears in Alaska. She and friends would often watch the “bear cam” in Brooks Falls at Katmai State Park. We even looked into scheduling for that type of vacation, what it’d take to get there. It was on the list of things to do.

But the other thing that hits me every day is when I wake up. Waking up in our house. Our house. I feel like:

That’s just half of the yin-yang. The other half isn’t there, so it seems very odd, or out of place, like something obvious is missing. Half of me is missing.

We were together for almost seven years (November 11), but we’d lived together for about the last five. We shared an apartment in Providence, eventually grew to not like that place anymore and when we began to think of where to go, Erika suggested “What about buying a house?” I’d never considered that before, but I immediately loved the idea. We started looking in April of 2017 and we cautioned ourselves to go slow and not want the first house we saw.

On the first day, we saw the house we ended up buying, but were both cautious. After seeing a handful of other houses on other days, we both brought up this one again. It was the first one we saw and we both loved it. Both thought it was perfect for us. It checked all the boxes for Erika and her requirements (garage for her car, central air conditioning and hardwood floors). We bought it, and we couldn’t be happier. We were building our life together. We merged all of our possessions. Figured out whose furniture we liked better and sold off the duplicates. For some things, we went out and bought new, or “adulting” as we called it. It was fun to do things like buy a new bedroom set, or to try out mattresses in a show room, or to see the happiness on her face as she tested out various recliners at Cardi’s. I’d also learned that Erika liked to play ping-pong when she was growing up. I too consider myself a ping-pong expert, having won the Arlington Boys Club 11 year old championship in 1981 (only one other person showed up, but hey, I got the trophy). So one day I bought a ping pong table and somehow got it all the way into the house, into the basement and assembled it without her being aware. Then I had her come down to the basement to see it all set up. We had fun with some competitive games there.

We also have artwork that we both like hanging. Some that one of us bought for the other, like this one I got for her, a sampling of cheeses that hangs in our kitchen:

There is also this one, hanging in our kitchen that she got for me, an artist’s rendition of Prudence Island, our favorite vacation spot:

But maybe the best of all is these, that hang in our bedroom:

Both of those are Iceland’s Kirkjufell mountain. What makes those the best is for Christmas one year, we got those for each other and we had no idea we were both doing it. I unwrapped mine first and just started laughing. She didn’t know why, so I immediately had her open hers. It was one of those “Great Minds Think Alike” type of moments, but also showed how much we knew what we liked, and also just how alike we both were. The perfect gift for each other that year was essentially the same gift. This is why they hang side by side in our bedroom. To me, it just shows how were were one mind, often one person, together. Made for each other, perfect for each other.

Two weeks. I miss you.

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The Under(dog)

As many people also are, Erika was always a fan of the underdog, the little guy, or in our Bruins hockey world, the backup goalie. A few years ago, Anton Khudobin was the Bruins backup goalie and Erika was a big fan of his. Even though Khudobin’s play style could be a bit erratic, to the point of Erika shouting during the game with things like “What is he doing?!?” and “Get back in the net!” Smooth or efficient are not a words anyone might use to describe his style of play.

But Khudobin moved on and then the Bruins signed Jaroslav Halak to be the Bruins new backup goalie behind Tuukka Rask. Erika also became a big fan of his. I’d joke (or maybe I’m not wrong) that she is the biggest Halak fan outside of his own family. I even got her a Halak jersey to wear to Bruins games.

Erika getting ready for the Bruins first playoff game on August 15th, 2020, wearing her Jaroslav Halak jersey

Her love of Halak also goes back into 2018 when she and I attended a Bruins game together. At each game, Bruins staff always hand out a small poster before the game with one of the players on the front and stats on the back. For that game, the poster was of Jaroslav Halak. I think she got 3 or 4 of them. We got them home and they sat around for weeks, maybe months when one day I was just doing a little house cleanup and threw them away as clutter. Well, she noticed and wasn’t happy.

Fast forward to a Bruins game this year that I attended with my buddy Deane. Once getting in to the Garden, I noticed it was a special poster that night. Not the typical black and gold, but a purple one, for Hockey Fights Cancer, and whose face was on the front, none other than Jaroslav Halak. I made sure that I got multiple copies as insurance that I could get at least one home in good quality. But I didn’t tell her right away. Instead, I did this with it:

That is proudly hanging in our kitchen to this day. Also, if the name sounds familiar, it’s because Jaro Halak is also the origin of our dog’s name. In spite of Jaro being a man’s name and our dog being a female, Erika was pretty excited to give our dog her new moniker.

I guess this is a really roundabout way of starting to tell people more about Erika and how she always loved the underdog, the overlooked, and the underappreciated. For those who knew her in journalism, they know that these were her favorite stories. She loved telling the stories of students in the Baltimore schools. Or her story about Josie King, the one that earned her a Pulitzer finalist spot. Or more recently when she chose to change careers and earn a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Tufts University so she could focus on fighting climate change and working in the renewable energy field, pushing for more solar electricity. And in the last couple years, she also began to focus on racial and equity injustices. She and I both worked from home and her work day included many phone meetings. Many times I could hear her very professionally trying to explain these issues to others who just weren’t “getting it” yet. She was trying, trying so hard to fight for those who need a voice from someone like her. She understood the powers that she had, the abilities that she had and yes, the privileges that she had and she was using them. Using them for those who she wanted to help. In time, this work she started will continue. It will not stop now, there will be more from Erika Niedowski. Stay tuned.

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Two Depths

I got divorced in early 2013. At that time, I felt a large part of my identity was tied to being married and to my family. I felt like a total failure. The lows I felt from that were something I’d really never felt before for such a long time.

I’m back there right now. There are similarities, but I’ve also been trying to figure out the difference between that and now. Well, the obvious that a divorce is a failure of sorts and the other person is still around. You can get angry, you can blame the other person (and yourself). But now with Erika’s passing, there’s no anger toward her. It’s all hurt. It’s all pain. It’s all emptiness. I was thinking tonight that any time I was feeling down or sad or hurt or bad about anything, I could always turn to Erika and she’d know how to make things better. We were one. I always had that trust with her that I could tell her anything, talk to her about anything, and she would always try her hardest to make it better. Multiple times in the last few days, the thought flashes in my head to talk to her. To have her make it better. To have her help me fix it. But she can’t. The person that I need most to help me feel better isn’t here. It’s a total void. Total darkness. Lost. I thought I had the right words for all of this, but I’m not sure I do yet. It’s just such an empty feeling where I’m just so used to being dependent on someone else, and she’s not here. The one person I trust that I can talk to, is not here.

I know all my gushing about Erika may seem corny and maybe unbelievable to some, but it’s really true. Most mornings, I woke up before her, sometimes by a couple hours. Multiple times, I sat around like a little kid on Christmas morning, waiting for the whole family to get up, just so I could start my daily routine with her. Just so I could see her again. We had so many little corny things that we did for each other. One that we had was every morning, we’d celebrate her simply getting out of bed. Yep, it really was that silly. When I’d see her come downstairs, I’d throw both hands in the air and cheer “Yay! You did it again! You got up!” It always made her smile. If there was a morning I forgot to do it immediately, she’d just stop and look at me and start to put her hands up as if to say “Do I get a cheer today?” Like I said, it was silly, but it was fun, and it was what we did.

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Out Driving

My friend John Marion from Common Cause is collecting photos of ballot drop boxes from each town hall around the state. He needed four more, so I drove around today to get them, with Jaro. As I was driving, I saw parts of Rhode Island that I’d never seen before. I went through Smithfield, North Smithfield, through Burrillville, to Glocester and eventually Foster. As I was driving, it hit me multiple times how much fun that trip would have been with Erika and it’s exactly the type of trip that we’d do, often on the spur of the moment. On Friday wine night, I might blurt out, let’s go take those pictures for John tomorrow! And Erika would assuredly say “Ok!” and off we’d go, driving around on a Saturday morning.

The other thing that hit me about this trip is that Erika told me about how driving was stress therapy for her. She told me that when she first moved to Rhode Island back in 2012, she did a lot of it. She’d drive to all corners of the state, discovering her new home, but also doing it to clear her mind or to think about things like “What’s next?” That’s where I was today. I was wishing so hard she could have been there with me. She should have been there with me. It would have been fun together and probably another of those little things that we did that someday would be a “Remember that time we drove around taking pictures of ballot boxes for John?” Because we did that a lot. It didn’t have to be any big, momentous event for us to “Remember that time…?” It was always just more about the time we spent together and how it made us happy. It was so often the little things that made Erika, and me, happy.

Some might think the gifts that she liked best were a little bit odd, but I had a pretty good idea of what things she’d like best. This was also one of the things that I loved most about Erika is she was atypical in this way. She didn’t wear jewelry, she didn’t like fancy clothes (actually she hated them), didn’t like anything flashy. One of the best things I gave her recently that made her so happy and got her excited is just so typical. She loves the outdoors, she loves nature and all of its oddities. We’d joke that she wanted to quit her job and just be an “Outdoors-ologist.” Yeah, we made that up. She read a book about how trees can communicate with each other and then wanted to study trees. She was just starting to get into beekeeping with her little hive of Mason bees. So when I saw this thing during a recent walk in the woods with McKenna, I just knew Erika would love it. And I was right, she talked about it for days and how awesome it was. Here it is:

If you can’t tell what that is, it’s ants working. They’re hollowing out a log and there’s a pile of sawdust. That is the kind of thing that Erika just loved to see, and loved to get. It’s just another thing that made being with her so much fun.

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Me ‘n’ Squeaks

Yep, Erika is Squeaks. That was my name for her for years. Why? Well, I think at one point she made some kind of high pitched sound with her mouth closed when she wanted attention or something and it sounded like a squeak to me. So I called her Squeaks once and she liked it.

I walk our dog Jaro (soft J, like Yaro) twice a day. First thing in the morning and again after dinner. It’s about a 1 mile, 20 minute walk by myself, so I have a lot of time to just think and in the last week, the entire time is just spent thinking and remembering Erika. My mind goes from the best times we had together to remembering how she looked in the hospital and on her last day. Let me just say that was heartbreaking and I hope I never have to say anything about that ever again.

I’m also trying to think of how I will eulogize her. I’ve never done one before, never wanted to, didn’t think I could hold it together to do one, but for Erika, I want to. I want everyone to know just how incredible she was. Sure, most people talk about how much they loved her, how great she was, how she lit up a room, how positive, or funny or down to earth. And all of that is 100% true, but it also doesn’t even scrape the surface of how great she really was. I always thought I knew how much of my life that she was but now that she’s gone, I realize she was so much, much more of my life.

One thing that’s really interesting about our relationship is that it actually took me years to finally feel like her equal. And that had nothing to do with how she treated me. She always treated me as at least her equal, but for a long while, I just didn’t see myself as measuring up to her. I did eventually see us as a “co-equal” couple, which made it even better between us. Made our conversations so much better when I had the confidence to challenge her on things and dig in. I’ll talk more about some of those in the future as she and I had some plans that we wanted to tell everyone at some point.

I think one thing Erika did to help me get over that feeling of not being her equal was just her reaction one time when I told her that. She seemed legitimately surprised. For some reason, that was a piece that helped me to get over it. That didn’t fix it overnight, but the fact that her reaction wasn’t “well yeah…” definitely helped.

One other thought that hit me recently while walking Jaro, and there have been a lot of these. It was one of those gut-punch thoughts about her. She had an incredible life, she did so many things that were impressive, but I think at times many of those things were stressful to her. Just in the last couple years during a quiet time, or during a pause in conversation, she’d look at me and just say “I like our life right now.” And it really was only in the last couple years she said that. We had a house together, we had our cats, our dog, we both worked from home so we saw each other constantly. And yes, I also really liked our life together right then. And that’s the gut punch of where it took us 40+ years of our lives to get to where we were both simply happy about everything in our lives, only for it to end so suddenly, so tragically, so abruptly. All gone in an instant.

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