It’s been one year since Erika was taken from us. One year ago today.
This post is a long one, apologies for that.
It’s been a really long, tough year. I want to share with you many of the things that have happened. Since the moment Erika got sick last year and asked me to keep her family informed, I’ve grown closer to them. Gotten closer to her father Ray, her mother Marion, her sister Nancy, her brother- in – law Don and our niece, Violet. Erika’s family has treated me like family the entire time. They’ve been there for me every step of the way, each in their own way and we talk frequently. I’ve been welcomed to dinner in Marshfield with Ray and Marion, in the house where Erika grew up. The dinner repeated something that I’d done many times before, but always with Erika. It was quite different this time with just the three of us. I talk with Nancy on the phone, as she’s always there to talk or even just listen. A few weeks ago, she and Violet came to visit, so I could give them some of Erika’s belongings. I look forward to this fall and winter when Violet will be wearing Erika’s hoodies. Don is also a runner, so he and I will often swap stories about our training. There have been other things that we’ve done together, like figuring out Erika’s estate and creating the scholarship non-profit organization.
I spent about nine months of the year in therapy. I knew right away I’d need it and I tried a group session with others, but it wasn’t a fit for me. I found a really good local therapist and we met weekly, then biweekly, then every three weeks. Now I’m on an “as needed” basis. I felt like I was running out of things to talk about and I’ve learned how to handle some of the feelings. But the process continues, one where I’m constantly learning. I have some new friends who have also been through this type of loss and the resulting grief. I have learned from each of them. Some of the things you go through are the same for everyone and some are pretty different. I feel like I still don’t understand it all, and one thing that I learned is to not be surprised by what hits you. Just when you think you’re doing better, a trigger will lead to a really bad day. Fortunately, I’ve learned some of my triggers and while I can’t and don’t want to avoid them, I can often anticipate how they’ll make me feel. And for those who have never experienced this kind of loss, about all I can say is that it’s far worse than you can expect.
I had some local friends who offered advice early on about grief, and I often didn’t immediately believe what they were saying. I’ve shared some of it on Twitter and retweeted some of the good ones. Early on, I did think that grief was something that you, “get over.” I’ll never claim to fully understand it because it keeps surprising me (not in a good way) but I do at least now understand it’s something that you live with forever. Grief and loss change you. Another of the things that I learned is summed up in this Mitch Albom quote: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Losing someone like Erika is nearly impossible to explain. To me, one thing is certain, we don’t just, “move on.” We carry it with us. This Nora McInerny TED Talk explains it so well.
More than a few times, including just a few weeks before she died, Erika said to me, “I really like our life right now.” I, too, really loved our life together. After I got divorced a number of years ago, my life was turned upside down and everything felt chaotic and jumbled. It took some time to get things settled again. Erika was a huge stabilizing force. She helped me when I was a mess, was patient in many ways and we were finally settling in. We bought our house in 2017, we got a dog, a couple cats and were just enjoying our life. We were both working from home during the day and then sitting together on the back porch or on the couch together at night. Just when things were finally all right, this tragedy happened. This just adds to the frustration, the anger, the unfairness.
As absolutely crushed as I have been for the last year, and as sad as I am for my loss, I realized that I’m actually even more sad, frustrated and angry for Erika’s loss. She was cheated out of so much. There’s no question that in her 46-plus years, she lived life to the fullest, but she still had so much more to do. She touched so many people, she helped change people and things for the better. There was so much promise on the horizon. I’m sad that she didn’t get to do that. I’m sad for all the people who didn’t really get to know her and all the things she wanted to do. Just as one small example: Erika wanted to go to law school to be a lawyer. In our discussions about that pretty major life change for her and for us, getting a law degree didn’t make financial sense. But that didn’t matter. She was tired of seeing injustices and wanted to jump in and use her skills to fix them, even if it was on a volunteer basis. Making money wasn’t the motivator for her. Doing what is right and helping others was. Her loss is our loss.
Back on March 20, we held a memorial service for Erika that was streamed online. We had more than 30 speakers that day who told stories of their memories with Erika. We were joined by people who knew Erika from high school, from college, from her days in Baltimore and Russia and of course, lots of Rhode Islanders. It was a nearly three-hour event and it was recorded, so if you missed it and would like to watch it or even just to rewatch parts of it, I’d be happy to share the video with you.
Maybe a month or two before Erika died, she and I were at home having dinner. One of the things that we talked about was the lessons we were learning about trying to become anti-racist. Among those lessons was to do what you can with the resources that you have to help those affected. We came up with the idea to create a college scholarship for Black Rhode Island students. We had no idea how to do it, but we agreed to figure it out. We thought we’d fund it for the first year and then start asking friends and family to contribute. She didn’t get to see it through, so a few months later, Erika’s family and I created the Erika Niedowski Memorial Scholarship with myself, Erika’s parents Ray and Marion Niedowski, Erika’s sister Nancy Welsh and Erika’s brother-in-law Don Welsh, as the committee. In August, we awarded scholarships to two amazing students, Felmara Greene and Lydia Nkrumah.
Next weekend, we’ll have a bicycle ride to honor and remember Erika. Most of you know that Erika was an avid cyclist. She loved being out on her bike and she also enjoyed riding with John Marion. Last August, Erika and John rode together either out to or nearly out to the Connecticut border as she wanted to get John’s opinions on law school. Since then, John decided he wanted to put together a ride to remember and honor her, and put together an organizing committee of Matt Netto, Liza Burkin and James Baumgartner. We’ll be “Out Riding” on the Blackstone Valley Bike Path on Saturday, Oct 9 starting from the Stop & Shop in Cumberland on Mendon Road at 9 am. Everyone is welcome to join us. No registration needed and it’s free.
I’ve always kept a very small circle of friends, but in the last year, that circle has grown. People have reached out to support me, and I am appreciative of each one. I won’t name them for fear of forgetting someone. But I am thankful to all the people who came over for fire pit nights or brought me food or periodically checked in with a, “How are you doing?” Also to the new friends who shared their experiences dealing with grief and tried to prepare me—I didn’t usually believe you, but you were always right. And I am grateful to the widow who I spoke to often as we were frequently going through and feeling the same things.
In some of my blog posts, I’ve shared some private things, like photos from inside our home. I want to do that again now. Some of these might seem really mundane, but I can also explain how each has meaning for me or helps me to still feel connected to Erika.
Let’s start with an obvious one. Erika’s bike:
That’s her bike, exactly where she left it after her last ride on September 19, 2020. Her cycling shoes and arm warmers are still right there, as if waiting for the next ride. It was the last day before she started feeling any symptoms.
These Lincoln photos:
I think Erika bought these at Frog and Toad in Providence, shortly after we moved in to the house. We jumped in with both feet, immersing ourselves in our new town. We also made frequent trips to Lincoln Woods and it was a site for our “Winter Walking” adventures. She really liked specific or even kitschy things. When she found something interesting or was happy with something she did, she had a slightly different smile and look on her face. It was a mish-mash look of self-contentment, pride and also a fulfillment of curiosity. She had that look the day she brought those home and hung them up. We were home. This was our home.
This bookshelf sits, maybe, ten feet away from me all day, right outside my working space at home. Everything in it is Erika’s. From the tourist knick knacks on top, to the entire set of Seinfeld episodes that she bought while living in Russia so she could watch some American TV. Some of her favorite books are in there, too. There’s Team of Rivals, a book on beekeeping and one that was the subject of an ongoing joke, The Children’s Blizzard. After she finished it, I asked how it was and what it was about. For some reason, she was at a loss for words, but just said it was sad. I asked, “Is it about children who die in a blizzard?” It was just one of those had-to-be-there things that hit her as being funny in how clearly it summed up the book.
Speaking of kitschy:
There’s a hip-swinging Elvis. She always had this around, connected to a string and a suction cup, often swinging from the bathroom mirror. I asked her about it when we first started dating as I saw it in her apartment’s bathroom. She said she got it on a trip to Vegas with her then-husband Chris, and I remember the little pang of jealousy I felt at that moment, to hear her talk about being with someone else. Every time I see it, I recall that conversation, and Elvis still hangs in the bathroom by the mirror.
Here’s another one that we laughed about quite often.
This is her stuffed animal collection. Or at least part of it. It used to be a larger collection, but some are in other parts of the house. One, Erika’s absolute favorite, a brown bear named Fred, found a new home with Violet, to be loved every day and night. This menagerie wasn’t always displayed on top of the dresser though. Oh no. They were in the bed with us. All of them. And they took up space to the point where sometimes we’d have conversations about whether I could borrow a little space from the avocado. (His name is Guac). There’s also a sloth, a couple of turtles, a moose, her elephant from when she was little named Friendy. And then there’s the dog on the far right— “Baby Jaro,” —that looks a little like our dog, Jaro. That was the birthday gift that I gave to Erika on her first day in the hospital. Her birthday was just two days after she died, so we had made plans to celebrate and I’d already gotten her this as a birthday gift. I was on the fence about bringing it into the hospital, because I kept telling myself we’d celebrate and I’d give it to her when she came home. I’m really glad I didn’t wait. She wasn’t feeling too well, but when she saw Baby Jaro, she got a really big smile on her face and kept it right by her side. Every few minutes, she’d pet it and just whisper, “Baby Jaro.” It made her happy during a really terrible time. I’m glad I decided to bring it to her.
The shower caddy and supplies.
This is another one that might seem pretty mundane. It’s a few bottles of shampoo. But to me, it’s been so much more. Like her bicycle, sitting right where she left it, these are also hers, right where she left them. When going through this experience, this grief, it really can be the little things that make your person seem still with you in some way. This was one of them for me. I’d look at them every day when I’d get in the shower—her special shampoo for curly hair, her charcoal face wash, which we called “face dirt”—and could still feel like she was here.
Maybe this one is a little gross, but I don’t care. What is it? Well, many of you know that Erika loved cheese. All kinds of cheese. So I’d often buy bags of mozzarella cheese sticks for her snacks, which she’d sometimes eat while reading in bed. Sometimes when I’d open the drawer in a night table and see one of these wrappers, it’d lead to a playful argument. I’d give her a scolding look, like a parent does to a child. She’d start laughing at the ridiculous look on my face and the silliness of the fact that she put the wrapper in the drawer instead of the trash. In the last year, there have been many sad, lonely nights, when I’d go through something of Erika’s to remember her, whether it was her closet or her drawer of T-shirts. One sad evening, I opened the night table drawer to look at things Erika had put in there. And there was a cheese stick wrapper. My mood broke and I just burst out laughing. It felt like it was one last joke that she’d left behind for me, to make me happy. Anyway, it’s still there. I didn’t put it in the trash either.
These are some of the things in our home that have helped me to remember her every day for the last year. I see them and I remember these stories and many more. Virtually everything in our home has a story attached. I remember conversations that we had around each of these things and I can vividly recall her face as we talked about them. The memories attached to those things in the house also bring me some sadness. The sadness of knowing they were hers and she will not get to see or use any of them again. I recently realized that another reason I hadn’t moved any of those things was because I subconsciously thought that she still needs them. That she will be back to use them, so I can’t do anything with them. Or that when she does come back, she’ll ask, “Why did you move or get rid of my things?” As silly as that sounds, I believe that’s what my subconscious was thinking, because it doesn’t make sense. Once I understood that, I also realized that it’s time for me to move her things. Other than more-than-year-old cheese wrappers, I won’t be throwing them away. I’ll just be putting them away. I think it’ll be time for me, and it will be ok.
I’ve shared a lot of my thoughts about my life with Erika and my loss of Erika. I’ve told stories in the last year but going forward, I don’t know if I’ll write any more. I certainly will if I feel it, but I don’t know that I will. If anyone ever wants to hear stories, I’m more than happy to tell them. Just let me know.
Erika made so many of us better for having known her and wanting to be like her. In closing, thank you for being here, thank you for reading this and your support, thank you for remembering the great person that was Erika Niedowski.
Many people have said, “A person only dies when they are forgotten.” If that is true, Erika will live on forever.