Introduction…

I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Galileo

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. This article was written by me and previously published by me on another blog. I will be collecting other previously published blogs and re-publishing them here. New blogs will appear when the “moving in” process is complete. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

I have finished my Master’s degree now. Just as my husband and I believed this huge mountain was behind us, we immediately slammed into another one.  This one is bigger and meaner and we will not survive it together.

People talk about “living with cancer” as a thing that one simply does. One “lives” with cancer.  I don’t know how true that is.  I know, so far, that my husband has “suffered” with cancer.  By suffering, I mean that he has experienced intense pain, overwhelming sadness and grief that his life is ending, rage at the enormous unfairness of it, the terror of approaching and unavoidable death, and the utter indignity of losing much of his mobility and independence.  As for me and “living” with cancer, I simply die a tiny piece at a time, like a chisel is being applied steadily to my soul.  Little bits chipped away slowly.  There is no “living” with cancer, at least not when compared to how we lived before the monster invaded my husband’s body.

Our life together has changed catastrophically, permanently, and profoundly. I cannot NOT see minutes, moments, blinks, or inklings without the yellow-bile haze of the monster’s breath filtering the light.  We are polluted by this thing that not only follows us into our dreams, but also nags every word, smile, chuckle, or kiss that passes between us.  It is the rotting zombie, ever-present, mindless, and voracious that stands in the corner of the room—it watches us.

But… I still, strangely enough, hold on to my faith. I truly do.  But my faith has shifted…or it’s now focused on something truly solid, where before it was “in theory.” You see, I’ve come to realize that my husband has always been mortal.  At some point, my husband was always going to die.  And that truth was covered in my marriage vows, come to think of it.  That whole “til death do you part” thing.  That “as long as you both shall live” clause.  Death is already written into marriage, as a thing of certainty that, barring its own inevitability, the marriage will continue.  I did agree to it.  I did swear by it.  I did promise my husband that I would do it before God and Man.  I did.  It’s just that the other stuff, the “to have and to hold, to love and to cherish” part took pre-eminence and I narrowed my focus to the living my husband and I would do, and forgot about the dying we would also do.  I can’t be the only one who has done this, and so foolishly, so humanly forgot about mortality.  But how can we concentrate on the mortal while we are consorting within the realms of the immortal?

Love, true love, is forever. As a Christian, I believe that I take my love with me into Eternity and meet with my love there, again.  Reunited forever.  To me, love is immortal.  And I choose this belief in a world where love has become tenuous and throw-away.  Where marriage vows have changed from “until death do you part” to “for as long as you both are able.”  And this is not an assault on modern marriage vows or a holier-than-thou-only-Christians-understand-marriage thing.  It’s just one woman’s desperate attempt to attach a sense of hope to that which has moved so far from hopefulness.  I would shake my fist at the sky if it would help, but then I am reminded again that I did indeed marry a mortal man—and that I agreed to his mortality. I guess I just didn’t understand what I was agreeing to until I met the monster. Therefore, you who have vowed to love, be warned. Remember the “small print.”

So now, bucket list. His and mine.  My husband needs to clear up and order the paperwork of his life now.  And he needs to take his leave of everything.  The actual paper paperwork is almost done.  That was the easy part.  Now it’s done, the harder stuff begins…people, places, things.  Saying words, sharing hugs and kisses and tears as one person passes through the gate and boards the plane to their new home while others remain, and wave good-bye, holding on to each other as the plane lifts away until it merges with an ocean of blue.

I watched a television show yesterday where a character mused that there are people in our lives whose presence we simply take for granted as a part of our being in the world. They are such an integral ingredient in our daily living, that they are fused to us, they help define our meaning in life.  We don’t even think about losing these people.  Neither do we imagine what life would be like without them.  Maybe it’s because the mere thought is too agonizing to entertain even for a moment, so we never do.  Or, maybe it’s because losing them would cause such a catastrophic shift in our life that it’s frankly impossible to wrap our head around it.  I don’t know what it is exactly. All I can say is that it is a sudden and bizarre reality, and the person who wrote that television episode understands what THIS is.  The person who wrote the episode has been touched by a monster like mine, and understands the depth of finality it brings. Because whoever that writer is, absolutely nailed it.

Therefore, having admitted the truth to myself, I will return to faith. It’s what I know for sure.  And I know that within that safe place of faith, I can hold on to love and find joy and laughter. I will report on all of these things equally, as coins of the same value.  Telling this story will be my new project. Watching my husband’s struggle will be fearsome, but witnessing his splendid courage will surely become the yardstick by which I will measure everything that ever afterward enters my life.  And maybe someone suffering with their own monster will read this “tale of us against the monster” and know that they are not alone…

#cancer #living with cancer #surviving cancer

The Journey’s End

I didn’t sleep well that night in the hospital.  Our city’s hospital provides beds for the family of patients, and it’s a lovely thought, but oh my, how uncomfortable they are.  I tossed and turned, and lay in the half-light listening to my husband’s breathing.  He snored, but his breathing had changed.  It seemed shallower to me.  It worried me, but finally, sleep took me for a few hours.

I woke with a start just after 8:00 the next morning.  I checked on him, and saw that he was the same as the night before.  I ate breakfast, and drank a cup of coffee.  I went into the bathroom and freshened up.  Then back to his bedside, to watch his breathing, to kiss his forehead, and to run my fingers through his hair. 

The nurses had assured me earlier that he could hear everything, so I got my cell phone and put on some music.  Laying in the bed beside him, we listened to Josh Groban sing “To Where You Are.”  And then, suddenly, my husband’s breathing began to change.  Startled, I called the nurse.  She was there is a flash, and encouraged me to speak to him as she fit her stethoscope into her ears. I drew my arms around him, and whispered in his ear, “When you see Him, you run to Him.  You run and you don’t look back.”   Then he cried out, “Oh!”  And while I told him that I loved him, and held his wasted body to mine, he took one more breath.  Then, as that last breath came forth from him like a sigh, he slipped away from me into Eternity, forever free from the hideous claws of the Monster.  Our love story ended as it had begun—in each other’s arms.

And now the grief…

Oh, you souls who have battled the Monster and lost your loved one, I know your pain.  For me, I know that the ground upon which I once safely stood has now cracked and shifted beneath my feet, and I am falling.  I am incomplete.  I am hollowed out.  I am not me anymore.  There have been times over the last month and a day since he passed away when I have felt not right in my head, my thoughts have been confused, and I have been consumed and blinded by my rage.  Because it’s not fair, and if you feel as I do, then know that I agree completely.  IT IS NOT FAIR!!  You’re not wrong about that.  The Monster has murdered yours as he has murdered mine.  It’s not right and it’s not fair.  I have no other words…

My husband’s Celebration of Life came and went in a mad blur.  I think it was a beautiful tribute though, and there were tears and laughter and tears mixed with laughter.  For an hour or two, I gathered together with others who also mourned him, and we shared our sorrow.  Then that time passed, I paid the church, and went back to my home.  Family and friends returned to continue their lives, and when they were all gone, I was left to face the penetrating silence alone.  That is when I at last began to comprehend the finality of his passing, and it was as though someone had hit me with a hammer. 

I know that I wept and I raged and I prayed to die…just die.  What was left, after all?  The life we had lived until that point was over completely, and with that ending, all the hopes and dreams and plans and joys of that life vanished too.  It’s almost unbearable.  My vows to him are over.  I am his wife no more, and this knowledge is revealed in dreadful, echoing silence.  For you who are now facing that silence, I know.

And then the world out there…

There are those who will make a valiant attempt to comfort you.  They will say things like your loved one “is in a better place,” or “you will learn to find new happiness,” or your loved one “wouldn’t want you to grieve so,” or “hold on to the happy times.”  I know this will be difficult, but I urge you to try not to hold their lack of understanding of your pain to their account.  They want to sympathize, but cannot.  And really, upon who amongst your loved ones would you wish your pain?  To truly know, they must first truly lose.  If they have not lost, then they are blessed. 

Then there are the other kind of people—those who are indifferent to your pain.  Your world is broken, and you stand frozen in time as the world continues to rush past you.  Most people don’t even glance your way in spite of the sorrow oozing out of you, expelling itself like blood from your pores.  Some of them might even expect you to somehow behave the same as you did before your loved one died, or to pull up your bootstraps and get back to business.  And when your reactions are blackened by the shadow of death, they will neither see nor understand.  Some of them might even think of you as weak or foolish or worse.  Perhaps you have a boss who is impatient with you to return to work.  Or a creditor that demands payment.  And, of course, the government will give a standard, unfelt “sorry for your loss” followed by “we cannot process this request until you send us the completed form.”  You will see the cold reality that, contrary to your overwhelming feelings, the world did not stop moving. The earth continued around the sun.  Tuesday became Wednesday.  Furthermore, you must keep breathing in and breathing out. 

But, and here’s the thing, that is okay for now.  Just keep breathing.  Just keep watching your feet, one foot in front of the other, as if on a tightrope over a ravine.  Focus on that, and know that you are not crazy.  You are in the midst of a terrible, life-altering grief.  This may well be the worse pain you will ever know in your life, so be gentle with yourself, and for all the rest, let that dissolve from your mind into the ether of the Universe.  Life, regardless of your pain, and seemingly in conflict with everything you are feeling, generally keeps a balanced chequebook, and you are still part of Life.  There is still Beauty…everywhere.

Because I think of my husband and our last lucid conversation in that hushed and darkened hospital room.  It was his most cherished desire that I would find happiness and meaning in life after he passed away.  He wanted me to engage with my future and “move on” in spite of everything.  He asked me not to hold on too tightly, and gave me permission to be free and to love and laugh again.  Then he told me that he could not have wished for a better wife and partner, he assured me that I had kept my vows and done right by him, and then, as he fell into a sleep from which he would never again fully waken, he whispered that he loved me.  They were his last spoken words and so perfectly gave the summation of his entire life…I love you…and were to me more precious than diamonds. I will honor his life by leaving on the porchlight of my heart, in spite of the unrelenting sadness I feel right now.

For those of you who have come to your own journey’s end, I know your loneliness and your pain.  I urge you to seek grief counselling and to speak to God, however you define Him.  Speak out your grief and solitude.  Refuse to be consumed by silence.  Recognize that grief has stages, and give yourself permission to be in your grief, because your pain is as real as it feels, and you are not wrong.  Know that there are others—those of us who belong now to this horrible club of lost love.  Find an understanding hand to hold, a knowing heart to listen to you, and know that you are not alone.  Do you understand me?  Right now, wherever you are reading this, say these words out loud:  I am not alone.  Know it to be true simply because it is actually true…you are not alone.

#Cancer

#Living with cancer

#Grief and loss

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Warrior

My husband lies asleep in his hospital bed.  He feels no pain now, and he is comfortable.  We knew this day would come when he would face down the full wrath of the Monster, when his fight would be gone, and he would pass into Eternity.  It seems so unreal to me how he sleeps so peacefully.  You who face the Monster now, clutching your loved one at the precipice of Forever, and seeing your love story come to the end, I know your anguish.  I have wiped away tears pouring like lava down my face, I have felt my heart bursting in my chest, I have whispered bargains with God, and I have beat my fists against the aloof blue sky. You feel alone, but you are not.  I know. I know.

It is almost over…the pain, the suffering…the waiting.  There’s nothing you can do now, but speak your heart.  Your loved one hears your weeping, your whispered heartbreak.  I have told my husband all my words now.  I have spilled forth my soul and let loose the dam of my heart upon him in an ecstasy of emotion and words of sweetest love.  Here was my heart opened, and my soul bared.  It startled me.  It cleansed me.  I know now that I would do it all again, no matter the pain.  No matter the cost.  Our love, in its final hours is without regret, and while I suffer the agony of the first pangs of the coming grief, I am not broken.  I remain whole.  So will you.

Tempered steel is the strongest.  It gets this way by being put first to the fire and then reformed. It is poured shapeless and seething into a new mold, cooled in water, beaten on an anvil, and honed on a stone until it is razor sharp. Then it is polished and made perfect.  Practically unbreakable. In truth, it cannot be made perfect without the fire.  When you come toward the end of your journey with the Monster, you might feel as I do: worn down, exhausted, frightened, battle scarred.  You might feel a sense of relief that your loved one’s terrible struggle is almost over.  Or an overwhelming shock of disbelief.  Or terror of what tomorrow brings. Or all of the above.  Your feelings might be complicated and turbulent, or simple and peaceful.  I have personally been through all of the above while my husband grappled with the Monster. I often believed that I could only stand by, not much more than the constant spectator to his exquisite agony.  Perhaps you have felt the same way.

Yet, you have done more than you know.  Even by simply holding a hand or whispering words of encouragement.  Just think back to the long nights, running with glasses of water, a wash cloth, or a bucket.  Sometimes you changed the linen at 3:00 in the morning.  Or administered pain medication.  Sometimes you helped them ward off their own demons or soothed them through nightmares.  You were their comfort, their taxi, their cook, their nurse, their confidante, and even their priest.  No, my friend, you did much more than you think. You went through the fire with your loved one, hand in hand.  You survived the emotional beating, and now you have been tempered.  You might lose the battle with the Monster, but you are more than when you started.  The Monster attacked your loved one, but never accounted for…you.

There is a verse in ll Corinthians that says the following, “…you will be enriched in everything for all liberality…”  This means that your terrible fight with the Monster has made you better, stronger, wiser. Your struggle with the Monster has created in you a new heart.  It has reformed your spirit. It has redefined for you the meaning of love. You have come through the flames as tempered steel.  You have become a Warrior.  Be liberal now with your heart of steel.  This is how we, the Warriors, will defeat the Monster.

Kindness, Love, and Mr Rogers

I have been a fan of the movies since I was very young.  I’ve seen all manner of movies on the silver screen, from scary and thrilling, to sci-fi and war movies, to drama and rom-coms.  I’ve seen Disney and musicals and Pixar movies.  In fact, I have forgotten all the movies I’ve seen—there’s just been so many.  Some extremely good.  Some very bad. I have watched the Oscars every year since I was 15 years old.  I have been in crowded theaters, empty theaters, drive in theaters. Beautiful theaters and broken down theaters.  I have watched people walk out of theaters in a disappointed huff.  I have seen other people stay in their seats to watch the credits, hoping for a few seconds more.  No matter old or young, rich or poor, movies cross cultures and borders, languages and belief systems. They are blind to skin color and gender.  Movies are part of the human experience because they portray the human experience.  Movies reveal our truest selves to us, and perhaps that is partly why we love the movie stars—we see our ideal forms reflected back to us by them like magic, and then they themselves become these magical creatures that seem to transcend their own humanness in our eyes, for better or for worse.  And movies…the movies tell us the story of us…all of us.  There’s nowhere they cannot go, and no one they cannot present to us.  Someday, hundreds of years from now, perhaps historians might look back at humanity’s love affair with the movies and learn who we were and why. 

Therefore, being the old movie soul that I am, when I tell you I saw something extraordinary at the movies the other night, you might find my words credible.  It was extraordinary in its simplicity and honesty.  It was natural, completely natural, and very real.  I took my mother to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”  If you haven’t heard about it, it stars Tom Hanks as the iconic Mr Rogers.  The movie was a simple narrative that examined complex issues of family dynamics and the power of forgiveness, while exposing Mr Rogers for who he was—a kind-hearted, modest man whose love for his fellow human beings exuded from him with such force that it literally changed people’s hearts and lives.  And people loved him back.  Everyone who met him liked him instantly.  It’s a story worth seeing and knowing, because it provides proof that the dark places in the human heart can be driven away by the illuminating power of simple, genuine kindness.

And I don’t know what it was exactly.  Perhaps it was the powerful story of a truly good man, or maybe it was because such a beloved actor, Tom Hanks, revealed Mr Rogers to his audience with his usual deft brilliance.  Maybe it was both.  But it was a palpable thing that scented the air and caused a peace to fall over the audience.  And then people stood up to leave after the movie ended, slowly, and effected—all of them.  People who were strangers paused to speak to the people around them.  My mother found herself engaged in a warm conversation with one couple, while people all around me were chatting and smiling and then sifting toward the doors. Wishing each other a safe drive home and a Merry Christmas.  It was something I had never seen before.  It was as though the entire theater was filled with a large group of friends.  I watched it happening around me, astonished, and then realized Mr Rogers’ message had been heard and understood. “If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person” (Fred Rogers). Everyone there took a piece of everyone they met home with them. It was a lovely, humbling experience.

But what does this have to do with battling the Monster day by day?  Yes, it was a “feel good” movie, but surely not worthy to stand against the dark, ominous Monster.  Why mention it at all?  Well, again, it was a story of the power of love, kindness, forgiveness, courage, and human frailty.  Sometimes, often times, battling the Monster can take its toll on the mind and spirit…the struggle itself can become embittering.  Fatigue.  Misery.  Melancholy.  We can feel so alone in the world.  We sometimes wonder how much longer we can withstand.  I look at my husband and believe him when he says “I’m done.  I can’t go on much longer.”  He’s not afraid.  He’s not looking for the easy way out.  He’s just bone tired.  In these times, I find myself frustrated and sharp.  My smooth edges vanish, and I am now a thorn bush.  But I always long for the softness to return so that the exasperation goes away. I am reminded that while the price of love, true love, is sometimes more than we are willing to pay, it is never more than we are able to pay.  So I choose…every day.  And so must you all who battle the Monster.

The strength to endure with your beloved until the very end is comprised wholly of love, just as it is the very same love that gives your beloved a sense of peace and security.  When life becomes all said and done, there’s nothing more that remains but love and everyday simple kindnesses. It is the best, most evolved and fully realized intimacy you will ever know in your relationship with your precious dying one.  The Monster cannot compete with it, and the more he roars, the stronger your love grows. 

Mr Rogers talks about remembering those who molded you into who you are. He said, “From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving” (Fred Rogers).  To know this truth at your core, is an essential component of “soul health.”  Also, it fills anew the bottomless well of love you have inside and will sustain you through the very worst of times—both life and death.  Trust in it and believe.  I know my husband is the one who put a song in my heart, and I am changed forever.  Love does that, doesn’t it?   

Thank you for your words of wisdom, Mr Rogers, you are still the best neighbor.     

Ming Li

In September of 2005, my husband and I went to Ottawa to visit his family. We stayed with his parents whose home was typical of their generation: knitted things everywhere, seldom used china in a dusty cabinet, blue mountain pottery and glass candy dishes, lots of family pictures of my husband and his sisters as children, a few science projects in the back of the fridge, and lots of comfortable well-loved furniture.  Dad had his favorite chair with a small table beside where he put his remote control, his half cup of coffee, and his book.  Once, there had been an ashtray too, but mom had since sent him into the bowels of the garage to smoke his cigarettes.  The house smelled always of cooking and baking.  Mom was usually in the kitchen preparing food for now or later.  She tried to keep the house cleaning up, but age and dimming eyes slowed her down.  However, everyone who entered her house came to see them, and not to inspect the odd cobweb in the ceiling corners.  Personally, I like cobwebs—even though I hate spiders—because I think cobwebs give a room character.  My in-laws’ home, while comfortable, warm, and fragrant, was a little too quiet for my husband and I after a few days though.  Not enough movement.  So, we borrowed their minivan and went sight-seeing, or to visit my husband’s sisters.

In one of our excursions, my husband and I happened upon a small shopping center and decided to snoop through the mall where we found a pet store. This pet store had little puppies, just weeks old, newly weaned, fluffy, and oh so cute.  My husband wanted to make a purchase at the drug store across the way, so I chose to wait in the pet store so I could look at all the puppies.  He told me before he left the store, “Do NOT pick those puppies up!”  I therefore asked the store clerk to show me one of the puppies as soon as my husband’s back was turned.

The clerk put a little wriggling ball of fluff into my arms. So tiny and soft.  She put her little paws around my neck and licked my cheek. Her tail was wagging so fast that it was just a white blur.  Yes, it was love at first sight.  She was mine, and I was most definitely hers.  My husband came back to find me falling in love with this pretty little Shih Tzu puppy, and his countenance fell immediately.  “Oh no!” he groaned.  “I told you not to pick them up.” Then turned to the clerk. “Why did you let her pick one up??” The clerk shrugged and grinned. Then my husband huffed,  “I guess it’s done now.”  And it was.  He came over and kissed me, then the puppy, then sighed. “How much?” he asked the clerk.  And that is how a little energetic vibrating bundle of white and caramel fur became our “Ming Li.”  Her name is Cantonese for “beautiful and bright.”

Shih Tzus are strange little creatures, as we soon discovered. First, they are born spoiled.  This is because the breed was a favorite of the Chinese Emperors who would put Shih Tzus in the front of their robes to keep warm. The emperor’s Shih Tzus enjoyed their own lavish apartments in the palace, personal staff, and ate from bowls of solid gold.  There are many ancient paintings of Shih Tzus—which means “Lion Dog”—and they are depicted as included in all parts of the emperor’s life, including riding into battle.  Most dogs are born with a skill that has been bred into them: Pointers point, Retrievers retrieve, and Shih Tzus comfort.  The breed is 5,000 years old, and they are the original “lap dog.”  If you don’t feel good, Shih Tzus seem to know this, and they will lay themselves down beside you.  They become extremely attached, and all they want is to be everywhere you are.

Second, Shih Tzus know they are beautiful. They don’t walk, they prance with their heads and tails up.  They have a way of looking at you, and batting their long lashes, as if to say, “See how pretty I am?  You will now love me and give me everything I want.”  Yet, while Shih Tzus are proud and vain, they are never rude or snobbish.  Which brings me to my third point: Shih Tzus are fairly laid back at all times.  They are like hippy flower children: “Peace, dude. What’s all the worry about?”  Then they stretch out beside you and snore. Fourth, Shih Tzus snore.  And it’s cute.

Ming Li was the most Shih Tzu of all Shih Tzus. She loved life, and she was the queen of unadulterated leisure. Watching Ming Li pass a Saturday could be an inspiration and a lesson to all people stressed out in their lives.  Relaxation, play, food, and drink was Ming Li’s wheelhouse.  She had a coat that required grooming, and was groomed often.  She hated bath time, but was very happy afterward.  She loved being brushed and combed.  Ming Li was not a “morning person” and if you startled her out of a deep sleep, you ran the risk of being nipped.  She was not terribly fond of children or other dogs…that’s because she considered herself a human adult.  She tolerated the pettings and clumsy attentions of young children, but dogs were simply not welcome in her house, or on her property.  That’s because we, and all that we have, belonged only to her, and she was jealously possessive of us.  Still, in spite of her foibles and oddities, she was constantly good-natured and happy, and remained so for her eleven years with us.

When she was diagnosed with cancer this past summer, we were told that the disease was inoperable and incurable. We were no stranger to this kind of harsh diagnosis, and our hearts sank even further when the vet told us there was no treatment that was realistic for our Ming Li at her time of life.  Every treatment known to vet science, at best, bought her a mere few months more, would make her violently ill, and would cost the same as a small car. We could not bear the long good bye when the outcome was inevitable.  We chose to let her go with nature, and that we would love and care for her until the day that her relatively painless cancer became painful.

That day came yesterday. She lay between us on a couch in the “quiet room” of the vet clinic.  This room is set aside for the passing of pets and for privacy of the bereaved pet parents.  It was so quiet there.  They gave her a sedative and a pain killer first.  She went to sleep then, and snored her little snore.  A few moments later, they came in and gave her another injection.  She slipped away within moments, silently, and without the slightest tremble she was gone.

Buddhism teaches “impermanence.” Nothing lasts forever.  Change is inevitable. As it turns out, some things are forever. There is something that is indeed permanent and unchangeable: Death.  Ming Li has passed out of our lives with a permanence that is beyond salvation, and in this lifetime, we will never have her back.  It’s a difficult, terrible reality that we must now come to terms with.  We will definitely have another dog someday, but never our beautiful Ming Li. The monster stole her within a few short weeks and now I contemplate both her life and her death, and why we loved her so deeply.

My husband and I married later in life. For both of us, our marriage is a second marriage.  My son is grown now and married.  My husband and his first wife did not have children.  For us, Ming Li was the child my husband and I could not otherwise have together.  We were a family.  Before my husband and I met, we had both been in a weird type of limbo, cut off from the worlds we had loved and wanted.  When we married and settled down together, Ming Li added another dimension of stability to our lives.  She made life more real.  Even when my husband and I have been on the outs and fought each other, we always both loved Ming Li.  Sometimes Ming Li was a bit of glue that made things a little more solid between us.

I don’t think she could possibly understand how she impacted our every day. That’s because life was so simple for her.  Everything about her was pure—what she loved, what she disliked, and how she enjoyed things.  She lived right “now.”  That is the very truth of her—she lived in the present.  She was not hung up with the past—every day was new.  She forgave easily.  Her love and devotion were complete.  She didn’t know how to lie. Her heart was incorruptible. She had no regret, no secret shame, no crippling addiction. She was always smiling. Her spirit was perfectly at peace at all times because she was not tainted by the sin of this world.  She was love and light, beautiful and bright. How could we not love her?  The monster has taught us about grief, but all the best of Ming Li remains with us still. 

Ming Li, “if love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”

Many Kinds of Good-byes

My cousin Edward was beautiful: well over six feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed, built like a marble statue of a Greek god. However, more than physically beautiful, he was funny, intelligent, full of love, and wonderfully kind…to me anyways. He was beautiful inside and out.  When he moved to BC from Manitoba, he used to pop over to Vancouver Island to visit me occasionally.  When he first visited, he thought he might like to live on Vancouver Island, and slept on my couch while he scouted out the prospects for carpentry work. In the evenings we had lots of time to catch up, hang out, get reacquainted, and reminisce about childhood memories of our grandparents.

Eventually, unable to find work as a carpenter on the Island, he settled on something in the Interior of BC. I was sorry he couldn’t be closer.  The last time we saw each other, he told me he thought I was a great gal, and thanked me for my hospitality.  Said he always had a great time in Victoria and would be back to visit again really soon. A few weeks later, on his way to work, some time around dawn, he hit a patch of black ice, swerved into the other lane, and crashed head on with a big truck.  The driver said that Edward saw it coming. Trembling still, he told the police that the look of utter disbelief on Edward’s face would haunt him forever.  After the collision, Edward moved slightly, and then not again. Quietly, tearlessly, he died a short time later.

My sister phoned to tell me the terrible news, and all I could think in that moment was that Edward had left his grey knit pullover at my place. I’d called him and asked if he wanted me to send it, but he told me to just hang on to it, and he would get it next time he was on the Island.  I wept for a long time.  The waves of grief and incredulity in my large connected family, that our Edward, so dynamic and larger than life, could be gone forever, was devastating. Edward’s sudden death at such a young age—he was only in his 30s—shattered his father, my uncle, and he was never the same again.  How could Edward be dead when he was so fully alive?  How could he be so fragile when he was so big and strong and young and healthy?  And how do we negotiate the instantaneousness and permanence of the emotional transition from Edward “is” to Edward “was.” Things undecided. Arguments unresolved. Parting words flippant and presumptuous.  Edward and people like him disappear in the very middle of their lives—they leave the bath running and the kettle whistling on the stove. It’s agonizing and surreal. The “sudden good-bye” is in its own category of sorrows.

There is also the “short good-bye” where you know the person is going to die after a heart attack or sudden illness and they are not expected to survive. In my experience, this is usually the way with old people. My grandmother was 92 years old when she fell ill and died within a few weeks.  We all had time to rearrange our schedules and get to her bedside to take our leave of her.  It was very sad, but it was fairly quick, and she was not in an enormous amount of pain.  I was with her when she died; her breathing became labored over the last hour and then silence.  She slipped noiselessly into eternity—here one moment and gone in the next.  I held her hand as she died, smoothed her hair back, and kissed her forehead.

I didn’t shed a vast amount of tears when my grandmother died—not that I didn’t love her deeply because I certainly did—but because I knew she died “finished,” her life complete, her leave taken, and with her friends, most of her family, and her husband having gone on before her. It was her time, and there was no feeling of being robbed of her too soon.  I expected that, at 92, she would leave us.  It was not shocking when she took to her bed the last time, because she was already frail and confused in her mind.

The nurse and I bathed her body after she passed, and dressed her in a linen nightgown. I took my grandmother’s jewelry off her body and combed out her hair.  Then, I tucked her into a freshly made bed, and sat with her, holding her still warm hand as the dawn approached.  I felt that I needed to stay with her as she waited to embark on the final leg of her journey on this earth.  Again, I was gripped by the finality of death, and the nurse told me very kindly, that there was nothing more for me to do.  She said I could go home and I had done all I could do—there was nothing more to do.  Because, quite simply, there was nothing left.  She wasn’t there anymore.

It was a strange, strange feeling to look at my grandmother, whom I knew and loved so much, and come to the understanding that the familiar form lying still in that bed was no longer the person I knew. The total “gone-ness” of her body, the echoing silence in that room, the shiver at Death’s dissipating presence, and the futility of mortality, brought upon me a cold “aha” moment. So this is the end of life.  It was a sad and unwelcome Knowing, but nonetheless, a short good-bye.  I left the room with a sigh, stepped into the light of morning, and called my parents to let them know she was gone.

The “long good-bye”… In the case of my husband and me, we are trapped in the long good-bye, held in pendulating suspension by the Monster.  We can neither stop nor go, turn right nor left, sit nor stand…we are in a holding pattern where we don’t know what to do. Or what we are able to do.  It’s like the text we got from his sister in Ottawa this morning… She gave her best dates this Fall for us to visit, because my husband would dearly love to visit Ottawa.  He has family to see there, and this might be his last opportunity to go before he gets too weak and sick to travel.  I’d like to book the tickets and plan the days around his cycle of medication, but then, how can we be sure his week of travel will be a good week?  What if he is too ill to go on a trip?  Can we cancel our tickets at the last minute without losing our money? What if he gets sick in Ottawa and needs his doctor? What if he hurts himself en route to Ottawa? Everything is so “up-in-the-air” that we are both suffering from a bizarre type of vertigo.

You see, we have put all our affairs in order: wills, living wills, investments, insurances, funeral arrangements, last wishes, etc. We’ve filled out all the forms.  Everyone that needs to know, knows. All we have left to do is to put a Power of Attorney in place—and that will be done next week.  We have discovered resentfully that it is a complicated and expensive process to die in Canada.  But now, as all is said and done, we wait…and we try to reinvent the days and weeks and months we have left into a semblance of real living where we can still glean happiness and quality. Now it is time, while there is still time, to visit family and friends—to make a final appearance.  It’s time now for my husband to sit with his sisters, look at old photos, and recall the sweet abandon of childhood; it’s time to say words that will, in coming years, be repeated back and forth in bittersweet moments.  The gloomy limbo of the long good-bye has begun.

For now, my eyes have dried and I have become numb. And weary.  I’m too tired to be angry and emotionality is so exhausting.  My husband and I sleep in a lot.  Unashamedly too.  There was a time when we would’ve hidden the embarrassment of over-sleeping. We’d pretend that we’d been up for hours—even on our days off.  Now we don’t care.  It is what it is.  Best to call ahead now because it’s 11:00 in the morning but there is no guarantee that we are up and around yet.  We let things go now because nothing really seems to matter anymore.

The long good-bye skews our priorities, or rather, rearranges them, and together, my husband and I are transformed into weightlessness, attached only to each other. It is frustrating, I suppose.  If only we could have known this type of intimacy during our healthy years—we always thought we were joined at the hip, but now we are learning true closeness that is only known as life begins to draw away from our grasping fingertips. We are one, but now we comprehend the implications of our oneness.  Eventually, one of us must live on as half.  Now, as I wait to do just that, I have time to memorize my husband’s face, every line and curve, and to contemplate half-ness.

It is the constant pending sadness that gives an unbearable feeling of endlessness to the long good-bye. I have been to the cancer clinic with my husband, and I have seen the partners of the Monster’s victims, and the gray hair, and the darkness under the eyes, and now I understand. The Monster sucks life from everybody it touches.  You, who are grappling with the long good-bye, sleep all you want. I know well your lethargy and lack of appetite for everything.  There’s no shame in not wanting any more of what life is presently giving you.  So rest now.  Let yourself be quiet.

Thus, I am going to book a short trip to a very nice hotel in Tofino for next week. My husband and I will sit in front of a fireplace and watch the storming ocean through floor to ceiling windows while snacking on chocolate covered strawberries.  We’ll take lots of pictures. Perhaps watch some television. Most of all, we will sink between the crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets of a pillow top king size bed, and sleep some of the endlessness away.  We aren’t sure what phase of this journey we are in, but we can wander aimlessly through it, snuggled together as the fire roars in the hearth of a splendid seaside room in a five-star hotel.

Feeling Sorry For Ourselves

Through my school years, I saw kids who were really good at a particular thing: drawing, singing, playing the trumpet, running, gymnastics, soccer, etc. For me, I was very good at Language Arts. That is, I could spell anything. I had a weird sixth sense about what constituted correct grammar. I was a talented reader. And I could write stories.  Therefore, when my school had a regional spelling bee, I entered with enthusiasm.  After a grueling tournament, it came down to me and Cheryl…my nemesis.  The word was ‘chieftain.’ At the eleventh hour, I froze.  I couldn’t remember whether or not the “i before e” rule applied in this case.  I racked my brain, and finally spelled it c-h-i-e-f… and then misspelled the second syllable t-a-n. WRONG!!! And Cheryl knew it as soon as I had done it.  She smiled at me with a smug twinkle in her eye, and with her bell-tone voice, spelled it correctly for the win.  I could not believe I lost!

I went home that day, and licked my wounds, at once sad, angry, and ashamed of myself. I moped around all weekend until my mother had enough of my sour face and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself.  She explained that feeling sorry for oneself was an unattractive trait that I needed to quell and control. Furthermore, feeling sorry for oneself was a waste of time and did nothing to improve upon the thing that created the self-pity in the first place.  Her advice was to study, become a better speller, and, most importantly, accept that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.  It’s a fact of life. No one likes a spoiled sport.  I took what she said to heart, and found that what she taught me that day about winning and losing and sportsmanship and hard work and being gracious no matter triumph or defeat was true for the most part.  But now, I have begun to rethink my mother’s wisdom, or rather, I’m wondering if it applies in every circumstance.

My husband is slowly dying as the Monster tightens its grip on his aching body. The Monster is also murdering my father. It’s a quiet murder, painless, like putting someone to sleep before killing them, but it’s murder just the same.  And now, our little fur-baby Shih Tzu may be the latest victim of the Monster’s rampage through our life.  So much sadness.  Unbearable sadness.  I am lost for words, and when people ask, I have begun speaking in clichés: “I’m hanging in there,” or “I’m managing, thanks,” or “It’s been tough, but we have to focus on the positive.” I nauseate myself.

To be honest, it’s not fair! I’m so angry at everyone and everything. I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to talk to anyone or answer an endless stream of the same questions or be smiled at in THAT way: it’s where people smile, but you see the sadness in their eyes, yet they try to encourage…present a brave front…and they have no words to offer.  It’s the smile that says, “Your husband is dying, and I’m very sorry, but here’s a pleasant smile for you.”  How can that be said with a smile??  I know I sound unreasonable…but then, nothing in my world is reasonable right now, so…

It’s not fair!! How can this be happening to us? I was a good wife to my husband—a dutiful, old fashioned wife, who cooked for him, washed his clothes, baked cookies, and canned homemade jam from the berries I planted in the garden I made.  And our little dog!! She ate the best food, drank clean water, was walked every day of her life, had a spa treatment every two weeks, had regular checkups with her doctor, and even saw the doggie dentist.  Shih Tzus can live healthy lives at 15 years old; our Ming Li is only 11.  It’s not fair.  Meanwhile, about a 90 minute drive away, my father lies in his hospital bed, gravely ill, already dipping the toes of one foot in the cool peaceful waters of Eternity. Beside his bed, his wife of 56 years, my mother, sits vigil, staring at her once bearlike husband’s sunken cheeks in dismay and disbelief.  Utter bewilderment.  “What does this mean?” she asks me. “What will I do?”  And I don’t know the answer to her question any more than I know the answer to my own.  Indeed…whatever shall we do?

And I am sorry…very, very sorry…for me. It’s a feeling difficult to explain.  There is definitely a childish component that shrugs attention off angrily and shouts out a petulant “Go away!” I have a terrible urge to scowl at people, which is puzzling because a smile is so characteristic of me.  Or was.  I don’t want to share or play nicely.  I have terrible feelings of rage, like sudden electric surges that overwhelm me suddenly while I am loading groceries into my trunk in the busy Super Store parking lot. “Why are you people so happy?? Don’t you know the world is ending??  Look at me!! THIS is what the end of the world looks like!”  No one cares though…it’s not their worlds ending.  Just mine.  So, yes, I feel sorry for myself.  Someone’s got to.

Neither do I feel obligated to offer excuses for my newly adopted peevishness—my self-absorbed “woe is me” because I know something far greater is happening to me now.  Pema Chodron wrote in her book When Things Fall Apart, about a concept called “maitri” which means “loving kindness toward oneself.”  She said that she had taught often about maitri and “developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and the pain of others…that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation” (ix).  There are two things that struck me in what Chodron wrote. First, that becoming compassionate to my own pain is linked to feeling compassion toward the pain of others.  If I don’t feel that I deserve my own compassion through a life altering tragedy like this, how will I ever allow it for someone else? Won’t I become more of the “suck it up and take hold of yourself!” kind of martinet, and less of the one who holds open her arms and offers an embrace? Now I can say “I know how you feel” and that these words will bear authentic meaning to another anguished person.  Because I have learned this one absolute truth: there is genuine comfort in sharing with someone who knows how you feel.

The second thing that stood out to me was that we can relax in “groundlessness.” My mother’s bewilderment is normal.  My inability to filter my feelings right now is also normal.  My fury that the Monster has come and invaded my lovely little life with my lovely husband in our lovely little home with our lovely garden and our lovely little dog is so fierce that it bubbles up in me like hot lava and threatens to vomit fire on everything.  Some days I just want to watch this horrible world with its horrible diseases burn to the ground.  I’m so angry I can barely contain it.  I want him back the way he was.  I want him back without pain.  I want our dreams back.  I am so incredibly, unfathomably sorry he has to die!  And I am so sorry for me…for the horrible, unavoidable inevitability of the coming grief.  My breath stops short just thinking about it. Oh God, it’s so not fair!

I walk about in a red cloud, feeling that I am cut loose with nothing firm to hold to. I struggle and flail toward anything that seems solid, only to be disappointed every time.  This is the truth about groundlessness: there is no firm thing to hold to, there is no comfort from the thing causing grief, and you have no control over anything…not really.  But I have found something out…all of that is okay.  It’s actually normal to have a feeling of groundlessness.  Here’s the thing, it’s not my job to be in control of what is uncontrollable, and to keep trying to control it is, well, nuts.  Also, I should stop seeking for anything that is going to give me comfort while my husband dies, because if such a thing existed, what kind of love am I to him?  Love is all or nothing at all.  “Kind of” loving is like being “kind of” pregnant…you either are or are not.  And that is why there is no firm thing to hold to, because that firm thing, that foundation, is crumbling beneath my feet.  My sister said that someday I will find a new normal, but until that day, I will die inside.  Harsh and accurate.

Therefore, you who are fighting the Monster, and waiting for it to kill everything you love while you watch helplessly. Go ahead and feel sorry for yourself.  It’s okay to break the childhood rules about being a good sport.  You don’t have to lose this fight gracefully.  You can be the sorest loser you can be, cuz it’s not fair!  It shouldn’t be happening to you.  If you feel like being grumpy, be grumpy.  The Monster is visiting Death upon your house…anyone would be angry.  As long as you hurt no one, release yourself to your anger, pain, and self-compassion.  Feel this freedom at least.  Let yourself drift in groundlessness because the laws of the Universe insist that you must return eventually to Earth, and when you land again, it will be at the start of something new. I have no other comfort to offer.

I will leave you with some parting thoughts from the late great Maya Angelou:

When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors.  I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else.  I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return.  Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake. I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’

An Ordinary, Wonderful Day

Today was a good day. After my husband’s second cycle of his drug therapy, the oncologist came back to us with pleasing news.  For once, we were glad to be at the doctor’s office.  Seems as though the drug therapy has had a positive effect on the tumors on his ribs.  And while the ones on his spine get bigger day by day, just knowing that something, anything, is working in his favor is simply, well, elating.  Not that he is going to be turning somersaults any time soon, but it’s a relief and for this, we are grateful.

So, when we have good days, they are splendid. Not that we did a whole lot.  My husband puttered about in the yard…like he used to.  We worked together on a couple of ongoing projects.  We drank coffee in the morning, took an afternoon break in the sun with bottles of ice cold water, rummaged through the fridge for some lunch, and ordered out for supper.  We didn’t go anywhere. We had no profound conversation.  Sometimes he was at one end of our property and I was at the other end.  But we were together. And life was very…normal.  We don’t want excitement or days filled with a dizzying amount of adventures.  What we truly crave now are the nondescript days where nothing very important happens other than a complete fullness of ordinary.  A day without the type of extraordinary we have experienced lately—extraordinary pain, extraordinary sadness, and extraordinary anger—is a day we happily meet.  Quiet co-existence within a well-learned, comfortable routine is such a blessing.

In our marriage, my husband and I have had excitement: we’ve traveled, seen sights, been to events, shared memorable occasions. We’ve laughed together, and cried too.  But mostly, we’ve led a quiet life.  We’ve loved our home, our garden, our little dog, and our families and friends.  Our evenings usually consist of quiet activities, a walk with the dog, and an early bedtime.  Actually, we’re kinda boring, I think.  But we like it that way, and we love the comfort and peace we have always found in each other.  The Monster has stolen the wonderful mundane from us.  But not today.  Today we are celebrating our little island of typical on a roaring ocean of turbulence.

Right now, my husband is in the living room dozing on the couch with his remote control in hand. I think he started watching a movie on Netflix.  Ming Li is sleeping on the rug, on her back, with her paws in the air.  She’s snoring.  They’re both snoring.  I’m just finishing up here.  The dishes are done and the kitchen is dark except for the dim light above the stove.  The window is open, and when there’s a breeze, the vase of cut roses from our rose garden fills the air with perfume. The laundry is all folded and put away, but I can still smell the fabric softener.  I’ve put out fresh towels and turned down the bed.  The garbage is on the curb with the recycling because it’s garbage day tomorrow.  I took a small roast beef out of the freezer, and it’s thawing overnight in the sink.  I’ll make a slow cooker pot roast tomorrow with baby potatoes and carrots.  I’ll probably make gravy and a small lettuce salad with Ranch Dressing.  Red Jello for after—it’s my husband’s favorite.  Red Jello and Dream Whip.

I’m sitting in my pajamas at my computer for a few minutes more. I’ll post this, and then I’ll go wake my husband and put him to bed.  I’ll turn off the television, and lock up.  Then I’ll read in bed beside him.  I won’t notice his snoring.  I’m so used to it now.  Ming Li will join us, and splay on her back across the bed.  She’ll snore too.  I know I will fall asleep with my glasses on my nose and my book on my chest, but in the morning, my book will be laying on my bedside table with my glasses folded on top of it.  The lamp will be turned off.  I will have a foggy memory of my husband making me scootch down in the bed, and planting a good night kiss on me.  May God grant us another unremarkable day tomorrow.

“The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillside’s dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!”

 Robert Browning, excerpt from Pippa Passes