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

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