Firsts and Lasts

Here’s another entry in the Lexicon of Grief that you might not be familiar with: The Year of Firsts. This refers to the first year after your loved one has died, specifically the first time that you have to do all of the things you used to do together without him or her. You have to do these things, because that is how you establish The New Normal (another term of art that I find annoying). You soldier through the best you can, mostly so that it can be behind you.

We have now traversed most of the Firsts. We had Michael’s birthday – our friends put together a beautiful tribute and I succeeded in not having a nervous breakdown. I had a birthday (on which I was less successful in avoiding a nervous breakdown, but on the plus side I got a sick tattoo). We had Thanksgiving (fled to DC) and Christmas (fled to New Zealand). The kids each turned a year older. There were recitals and soccer games. Griffin finished fourth grade and Shennie finished first. We did all of our annual events. New first things happened, like the first time Shennie lost a tooth and when Griff did his first 30-mile bike ride. The seasons changed, and changed again. All of these things, of course, Michael would have treasured. We had to do them all without him, some with more success than others.

Pretty much the only thing left are the First First Day of School, which is next week, and the First anniversary of Michael’s death, which is next month. So I am now finding myself more preoccupied with the Lasts. As in, the Last Time he ever did things. Now is the time for all of those Last anniversaries. Thinking about them hurts more than the Firsts, because he and I both knew they were the Lasts at the time they were happening. Here’s a little timeline:

The last time he saw the ocean: April 1, 2017. We were at his favorite beach, Kamaole III in Maui. He had gone there with his parents and me something like 20 times throughout his life. Now we were there on the last day of our vacation, at sunset. The kids were playing in the surf. He and I walked down to an empty stretch of sand so that he could do a haka to the sea. I cried and sniffled as the sun sank out of sight. It was time to go but I couldn’t, because I knew what it meant. Finally we had to get the kids back to our hotel. I saw Michael look out over the ocean, with a sad, sweet look on his face. He gave a brief two-figured salute and a nod to the darkening waves, then turned and walk quickly away.

The last time he saw Griffin do a violin performance: May 14, 2017. It was the school talent show. It took place in the “Music Mansion” of Grant Elementary School, which is actually just a small trailer. Unfortunately, Griffin’s performance was scheduled for close to the end, and people with no home training were rudely and loudly getting up and leaving while the show was still going on. The door was hanging open, loud noise was coming in. Griff was rattled and had a hard time getting his performance together. Michael, whose tolerance for bullshit was low BEFORE he got cancer, freaked out. He was really sick, pale and sweating, and he yelled at the assholes to get the hell out. Griffin did his best to finish the performance but it was brutal. Afterwards, Michael was a mess of sadness and anger and regret that this was how the last time would have to be.

August 2: When he got the drain surgically placed in his abdomen.

August 7: The first time he was admitted to the hospital.

August 15: The second time he was admitted to the hospital.

August 19: When he was discharged to Hospice.

The last time we ate at a restaurant together: August 31 2017. We had lunch at Billiards on Broadway. He had already started having trouble digesting his food by then. The doctor told us his system was shutting down, but if he wanted to try one last bacon cheeseburger he totally should. It was hot outside. I was in a hurry because I was taking Griffin to a therapy appointment.

The last time we went for a walk: September 6, 2017. The kids were upstairs in bed. Michael insisted that we go for a short walk. It was a strangely cold night for early September – you could see your breath, and the wind was swirling the trees around in the silvery moonlight. It turns out that Michael wanted us to talk about his death arrangements. He had gotten the prices for a cremation and visitation. Visitation would be too expensive so he thought that we could nix that idea. He wanted me to buy a nice urn or box from Bluestem Crafts for his ashes. We made it just around the block and had to rest on the front steps before we went it.

The last time we had sex: Well, I won’t be going into detail about that. Just let it be known that it was spontaneous and normal, but when it was done we knew it would be the last time.

The last time he slept in our bed upstairs: September 14, 2017. He had been struggling to get up the stairs, and he ended up falling and bruising his thigh. The next night he slept on the hospital bed we had set up for him downstairs, which is where he died.

The last time we ate dinner at the table: September 15, 2017. Michael’s parents were here. We ordered Michael’s favorite, ABC Chinese. Michael couldn’t actually eat much of it, but we all sat there together.

The last – and first — time he saw Shennie play soccer: September 16, 2017. He was so sick we had to take him in a wheelchair. He was too hoarse and tired to cheer. It was hot. Shennie got scared and refused to play. I bribed her with the promise of a Barbie CamperVan.

The last time he watched a rugby match: September 16, 2017. New Zealand spanked South Africa. So that was good.

The last time he spoke to our children: September 19, 2017. Just before they went to bed, he told them to have a good sleep and that he loved them.

The last time he spoke to me: September 19, just before midnight, when I decided to go to bed, too. He said “Go be with the children. I love you.”

Maybe it’s a privilege to be aware of the last time your child will hold your hand, or you will eat your favorite meal, or your spouse will say they love you. Maybe it’s better not to know.

Either way, no matter what, there will be a last time for everything. My year of Firsts and Michael’s year of Lasts will end on September 20.

Much love…

A Real(istic) Conversation This Morning

Hey, last week did you see how I got all the bikes tires pumped up, loaded the bikes into the van, found the way out to McBane Junction myself, unloaded everything AND successfully attached Shennie’s tagalong to my bike?

I did notice that. Good job sweetie! I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure you could it, especially after that time you tried to attach the tagalong last year and the bikes came apart and Shennie crashed.

Oh god, I remember. I felt terrible. And then you made me stand out in the driveway with you for an hour, and it was hot, while you showed me how to do everything and made me practice. You were getting a little annoyed.

Well, you needed to learn and I was afraid you weren’t taking it seriously. Just like that other time with setting up the tent. I had to make sure you knew what to do.

I know. I should have paid better attention to the tent lesson.

Obviously. I saw what happened this spring at the Pedaler’s Jamboree campground– Gavin and Barb had to set up our tent for you while you pretended to “help”.

I was hoping you might have missed that. I did help, a little! …Oh, and while we’re on it, sorry about losing Shennie that night. That was so scary.

No worries, sweetie. That could have happened even if I’d been there. Jesus Christ, if I had been there I probably would have made such a scene someone would have called the police. The important thing is that you found her and it was all fine. And you really did nail hooking up the bikes for this latest ride. I’m proud of you.

Thanks, sweetie. It was hard, and I thought about you the whole time. It was a good little ride. Griffin did great. We missed you.

I know. I wish I could have been there…

By the way, don’t think I also didn’t notice the trouble that you had loading the bikes back into the van when you were done. How you couldn’t get them all the way in and decided to just say screw it and drive all the way home with the back of the van wide open, no bungee cords to hold anything in place, with the kids screaming the whole time and you praying under your breath every time you hit a bump…

Oh. That. Ha! Not my finest moment. That would have never happened on your watch. But we made it!

You made it.

Home Economics

Before Michael got sick I was, what I assume to be, a fairly typical married middle-class working mom. Which is to say that most of the time I operated at a slow burn that was a mixture of exhaustion and resentment. Exhaustion because of course no one can be everywhere and do everything for their family, and working outside the home makes that even harder. Resentment because no matter what Michael did to help out I was still the “primary parent”; most of the shit that goes into running a household fell to me and I was frequently pissed off about it.

We had two demanding jobs, two kids, plus a house, a car and a bunch of pets and I was the default Manager of the whole enterprise. Even though I Had It All (sorry, that’s gross, I know) I spent a lot of time wanting to punch a hole in the wall because Shennie spilled a jar of salsa on the couch, the Check Engine light was on, and I forgot to bring the kids’ updated vaccination forms to school sign-up.

BCD (Before Cancer Diagnosis) this was the main stressor of my life. I say that I think this was fairly typical because I would spend what little free time I had drinking boxed wine and reading millions of articles and blog posts (and even a book!) about this phenomenon and its implications for feminism, for parenting, for the modern workplace, for modern relationships, etc… etc… ad nausem. Good god, just typing this makes me wonder why in the hell I would spend a single minute unwinding from my frazzled middle class working mom existence by reading lots of mediocre venting crap about frazzled middle class working moms.

I promise this is not more of that crap.

ACD I was so frazzled I occasionally cried and screamed profanities in public. In addition to working my job, parenting two little kids, and being Household Manager, I was also taking care of a cancer patient who almost certainly was going to die. Suddenly, feeling my soul seep out over the fact that it was ALWAYS me who scheduled the dentist’s appointments seemed a just a teensy bit trivial.

Michael’s voice is booming in my ear right now, insisting that I tell you all that during his 18 Months of Cancer, whenever he felt well enough he made a point of doing whatever he could for our family. He practiced violin with our son right until the end and spent a week getting their coordinated Halloween costumes together (they went as Indiana Jones and his dad, it was adorable). He discharged himself early from a biopsy at a hospital two hours away and sped home so that he could take our then 6-year old daughter to her 30 minute-long piano lesson. Even before he got sick, Michael did stuff – notably the laundry and watching TV with the kids so I could go to the gym. He was Deputy Manager. But like in a lot of households, even the well-meaning feminist ones, I, the Mom, did most of the shit (I’ll estimate 75-80%). And now, well, I guess I do 100%.

Here are a few observations about all of this:

First, I am genuinely regretful about all the time and energy I spent in my marriage fuming about how much I had to do and the lopsided division of labor in our house. Make no mistake, I have no doubt that if Michael were to return from the Great Beyond today, perfectly healthy, we would go right back to the same dynamic within a few months. It was life. It is life for shit loads of people. Its sad but I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Weirdly, I am a lot less pissed off on a day to day basis than I was BCD. Don’t get me wrong. Its not like I am happy. I am still filled with rage. But now its much more diffuse and impersonal. I am mad at the Universe, which can be a Dick. I hate the very concept of a sentient god who would allow my husband to be outlived by Donald Trump. But I am no longer mad at my husband, or the Patriarchy, or the Modern Workplace, or Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. I don’t read angry mom blogs anymore because they no longer apply to me.I just got involuntarily booted off the hamster wheel of Being a Normal Person who Gives a Shit. I have a Widow Pass: I am late to everything, am still wearing my pajama pants, didn’t put sunscreen on my kids, never have cash, and forgot snack — again. A lot of those things used to happen BCD but the difference is that then I would hate myself and all the other Usual Suspects (patriarchy, etc…). Now I just give the Universe the finger and call it another day that we all lived through.

Also: I was leading an unbelievably privileged life before. Two professional incomes, a nice house, not to mention two amazing kids. It was a luxury that I could be mad at my husband because he walked past a sink full of dirty dishes for three whole days and did nothing. That I could lay awake at night worrying about the fact that Griffin’s outgrown another pair of shoes or because I forgot to buy kitty litter. Its not that I don’t have to worry about things like this now, its just that they now rank behind a *few* other things as my primary stressors.

Also: I recognize that I am still in a privileged position. I’m not falling into the gratitude trap – my husband is still dead. My life plan for the next forty years just got blown to shit. I deserve my fury and despair. But I can acknowledge, based on zero sociological and historical evidence, that there have been at least a billion other people who have been single parents for one reason or another, and most of them have had it worse than me.

Related: Thank god I have my job. It was incredibly stressful being on the tenure track at the same time I was having babies. Although I never  considered doing things differently (because I love my job), I often felt bad and selfish, like I was letting my family down. Now it turns out that my job (and the Social Security Survivors Benefit and life insurance) are what keeps me and my diminished family afloat. And it was also a good thing I was already the incumbent Household Manager, because now there is no Deputy. Michael used to say that he was glad it was him dying and not me, because at least I had a good pension and I knew where everything in the house was kept.

In a way, its like being a frazzled working primary parent was actually training for this Young(ish) Widow position that I never wanted.

Much love…

So this sucks…

Today I met with my daughter’s therapist. My daughter is 7. She was 6 when her dad died.

Therapist noted many awesome, wonderful characteristics about my daughter, which I already knew: she is expressive, self-aware, strong-willed, task-oriented, imaginative, and perceptive.

But she is in denial about Daddy.

When asked to draw a family portrait, she apparently refused. She said she didn’t know how to, because she doesn’t know what her family looks like.

Therapist assures me that this normal, self-protective kid behavior, and that she’ll open up more when she is emotionally ready to.

But still. Fuck.

Another True Story

A few days after Jen died, I went over to her apartment to help her mom clean and sort. I was operating on very little sleep and it was emotional, as you might imagine, being there in the place where we had spent so much time, surrounded by all of her stuff. Her mom suggested I take a bag with some of the things that were most special to me and so I did.

Then I walked back to my place. At the time I lived about four blocks away, down Lincoln Park. It hadn’t even occurred to me, but it was 11 o’clock at night and pitch dark.

I saw a man standing on the corner of my deserted street and the park. Just standing there like he was casually taking in the spring air — as literally no one in Southeast DC did at that time – not smoking a cigarette or talking on the phone, nothing in his hands.

On a normal evening my self-preservation instincts would have kicked up to DefCon 5 and I would have gotten the fuck out of there. But because I was exhausted and wrung out I just shuffled right next to him, with my giant overstuffed purse over my shoulder.

Of course he tried to mug me, because the Universe is a Dick.

He grabbed my arm and yanked me over to him. “Gimme that bag,” he said, “and don’t fucking look at me.”

I fucking looked at him. Right in the eyes.

And then my voice came out of my mouth and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that. My best friend just died and these are her things.”

He looked back at me. Right in the eyes.

Maybe he also knew what it was like to lose a friend, or someone else he loved. Maybe he was just thrown off by the fact that this ponytailed little twinkie with the thousand yard stare had actually said no. It was probably a combination of both.

All I know is that he let go of my arm and said quietly, “Well alright then. You just keep walking.”

And I did.

Letting Go

Here’s a beautiful poem. I added emphasis to the last line:

In Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The thing I am focusing most on right now is the letting go.

I was present for the decline and deaths of two people who I loved. Both of them were ready to die — cancer had destroyed their bodies to a point where nothing was left but pain. Jen had gotten to have her final weekend with friends and family, but in her final hours she was unable to eat, talk, or walk without help. Michael was so sick it was horrifying, and he was very vocal about how he wanted to be able to die about five days before he actually did. So I had the dubious benefit of knowing that both of my loved ones were basically ready to go.

But that doesn’t mean at all that I was ready to let them.

When someone you love is dying, its like you are watching the sand run out of the hourglass. You know its coming, but you can’t stand to see the final few grains slipping down.

With Jen, we were caught by surprise. In retrospect, I can see how close she was to death in her final hours, but at the time it still was way too soon, before any of us was ready. She laid there in the front seat of the car, gasping out her final breaths, as her father implored her to keep breathing. I admit to feeling relief each time she drew in another breath, even though her time left was obviously measured in minutes. I thought we would have a few more days together. Even though she had been dying for eleven months, it was impossible that she was gone so fast.

When Michael was in his last hours I was still trying to tether him to the land of the living. I kept showing him photo albums from our honeymoon and from our family vacations. He couldn’t even look at them. I tried to joke around with him, but he couldn’t really talk. Our minister came and prayed with us, a prayer of release so that he could go in peace. He was sedated. He woke up enough to say goodnight to me and the kids. But still, right up until the Hospice nurse came to get me in the middle of the night, I thought there would be more time. I thought there would be at least one more day when I could sit by his bed, and he might wake up and I would squeeze his hand and give him a kiss and we would be together just a little more.

Maybe when someone is really old, or they have suffered from Alzheimers or some other disease that robs their memory, maybe then it is easier to let go. I don’t know. Jen and Michael were 32 and 44 respectively, of sound minds to the end, and way too fucking young to die.

So both times, I couldn’t peacefully let go, even though my loved ones were clearly leaving.

After they died, I grabbed on to everything I could. The contents of Jen’s purse (four different lip glosses – one of which I still have!). Her platform flip-flops. Her old Better Homes and Garden cookbook. A set of Sex and the City VHS tapes.

With Michael, I don’t even know where to begin. I live with the furniture we picked out from catalogs when we moved into our first house. The bushes he planted in the yard. The Trader Joe’s Vanilla-Almond Crunch cereal stockpiled in our basement. I am the custodian of his clothes, computer, books, and personal effects. I can’t do anything without stumbling across a pair of his sunglasses or a baseball cap or a bottle of his body wash. The other day I found an old grocery list which had “Sri Racha Sauce” written in his scratchy handwriting. I can’t possibly throw that piece of paper away. Just like I can’t toss out that mostly-empty bottle of Watties Tomato Sauce (New Zealand ketchup) in our fridge. Just like I can’t wash the last load of his laundry, even though it contains a t-shirt that he bled out in when I failed to correctly clamp off a line to his port.

Everything Michael has touched has suddenly become sacred. He wrote letters and cards for us. He recorded several hours of videos for the kids to watch in the future. We have eighty billion family pictures. I tell stories about daddy to the kids and we laugh, and I think they remember. I have a hard time remembering his voice, although I hear it when I can bring myself of watch the videos I have of him on my phone. I still talk to him in my head, though he answers less frequently now.

All of these are shadows. Echoes. Copies of copies. Tangible ephemera (say what you will, English Professor friends, but I believe that is not an oxymoron). Although none of these things are actually Michael, I am still not letting go, even though Michael has been dead now for ten months.

I recognize that letting go and moving on are loosely related. At some point you have to release the daily felt presence of the dead person in order to get on with living your life. And I probably have, in the sense that I no longer walk around the house constantly expecting to run into Michael. I no longer think to call him whenever I have a slow time at work (in fact, I deleted his number from my favorites list because it kept making me sad to look at it).

But I am still trying to figure out the balance between letting go and hanging on. I am responsible for keeping Michael’s memory alive for my kids, who were 6 and 9 when he died. And I don’t want to let go of him because he is part of me — the love of my life and the father of my children. I don’t want to let Jen go either, although I know I already have to some extent over the years. Being with any person when they die is a powerful and intimate thing which I don’t know anyone can or should ever get over completely.

Right now, I’ve let go enough to allow me to get through my daily life, but not enough to deal with the piles of photographs and neckties (that were father’s day gifts from us) and the grinding reality that I was with Michael for sixteen years and our lives were as intertwined as they could be and now he’s gone.

So how do you let go of a person? And how, when the person is dead and memory is all that is left, is letting go not an obliteration of that person? And, assuming you have about forty more years of life left, and kids who are still in elementary school, what exactly does it mean to let go? Can you? Should you? How do you? Hopefully you aren’t looking to me for answers, because I obviously don’t have a clue. But I certainly understand if you don’t either…

Much love…

 

 

 

 

Triggers

Today I had to go back to the Cancer Center.

…Don’t freak out! It was just for a follow-up mammogram that my doctor recommended out of an abundance of caution. I got the all-clear right there on the spot. My doctor suggested that while I was there, I might as well get the routine blood work (cholesterol and blood glucose tests) that I apparently need to have done once a year because of my ancient age. Again, I expect this to be all fine.

BUT, this meant I had to go to the same place where I spent so much time with Michael during the 18 months he battled cancer. His chemo was done at another place two hours away (and if I had to go back there I think my head would explode). But our local hospital and Cancer Center was where he went for his biopsies, bi-weekly Neupagen shots, blood draws, weekly abdominal drains, scans, and palliative care consults. It is where he had the endoscopy that first revealed he had cancer. It is where he had two week-long hospitalizations, almost exactly one year ago, the second of which resulted in his being discharged into Hospice care.

In short, I have been to this place a whole lot, usually under the worst possible circumstances. Going back there today brought it all back. The dark, dirty parking garage. The quiet elevators. The gift shop. The coffee stand. The fellow patients, usually older couples sitting quietly, looking tired and worried. The cheery waiting area with inspirational sayings stenciled on the walls. (True fact: One wall reads, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” I shit you not. Every single time I saw that quote I would shake my head and consider filling out a comment card asking just what the fuck they were thinking putting that on the wall of an oncology ward.)

I suspected that being back in that exact same place, in those same rooms, sitting in those same chairs, signing in on that same clipboard, would send me scrambling for the Clonezepam, but I didn’t realize just how upsetting it would be.

A few observations:

It would have been hard to go back to that place even if Michael hadn’t died. When you spend enough time being scared, sad, tense and exhausted, getting awful news, getting awful news again, watching your loved one go through unimaginable physical pain, you don’t just leave that behind no matter what the outcome is. Everything could turn out OK, but you basically have a form of caregiver PTSD. (And if everything doesn’t turnout OK, well that sucks even worse.) There are calendar triggers, sensory triggers, and place triggers, and ordinary shocks that just hit you out-of-the-blue. I don’t know how long it takes for these to go away, but apparently ten months wasn’t long enough for me.

Also, this time I was the patient. As I sat there in the same hospital gown that Michael had to wear, with my clothes in the same white plastic drawstring bag beside me, it hit me again how scary it must have been for him. This time, when it was me, I did what most of us do when we find ourselves at the doctor in a drafty gown with some sort of potentially scary issue: I told myself that everything was going to be fine. This was just a routine test and blood draw. I am a healthy person with no history of cancer in my family. And all of this was correct – the nurse was gone for one minute with my scans before she came back and cheerily told me there were no problems at all, the doctor didn’t even need to see me. I was able to walk out, with my healthy, functioning body and go about my day. But literally EVERY TIME I was in that place (or any of the other hospitals) with Michael, we knew that everything was not going to be fine. There was no good news. He was in for an awful time – chemo, needles, surgeries. He was going to stagger out of there or else be riding in a wheelchair. He was never going to get better. Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office, wearing the gown and the plastic bracelet on your wrist, and NOT being able to tell yourself that you are going to be OK. Now imagine doing that forty or fifty times. That is what Michael went through and what I went through with him. Just typing this sounds insane, much less actually going through it.

No wonder it was hard to go back to that place.

Anyone else have triggers? Take care of yourselves, caregivers.

Much love…

Another Regret

About a year ago I was looking for a book on Amazon. The algorithm started suggesting all sorts of other books based on something or other and at some point a Travel Guide for Iceland popped up. I have always wanted to go to Iceland. Michael and I had been talking about taking a family trip there before he got sick. I looked at the book and its pictures of Northern Lights and volcanic hot pools and for a minute I thought about how nice and exotic it would be to go actually go there. I impulsively clicked the Buy It Now button because I really wanted to leaf through the pages and plan a hypothetical trip. Then I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

A few days later Michael was lying on the couch in the front room resting, which was what he did for most of the day. From my office upstairs I could see UPS truck pull up. The doorbell rang. After a pause, in which I would have expected Michael to call out what had just been delivered, I came downstairs. Michael was sitting on the couch, looking at the book with tears in his eyes.

“You ordered this?”


I immediately felt awful. I realized just how this looked and what it meant, and how impossible it was that Michael and I would ever go to this place together.

“Yes. But it was just a thing. Amazon showed it to me and I bought it. I wanted to look at the pictures. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well, I guess you might use it someday.”

He handed the book to me without making eye contact and went back to lie down.

Lessons in Dying

After Michael’s death, a friend commented that he had basically taught a Master Class in dying. Michael would have appreciated that. He prided himself on doing important things well. He graduated from college with three Bachelor’s degrees. He signed up for a parenting class when our son hit his Terrible Threes and, unlike me, he did all of the homework. I watched him try a bunch of cases and I can say, with no empirical proof whatsoever, that he was the best fucking lawyer the criminally accused population of Boone County, Missouri ever had.

So when he got his terminal diagnosis he approached the fact of his dying with the same intelligence and methodical force of will he used for living.

Of course, he had a template to work from. When we were all 31, Michael and I had been dating for a little over a year. The only source of tension in our relationship was that I still expected to spend a lot of quality lady time with my best buddy, Jen. Michael and Jen were so alike: both charismatic individuals whose personalities filled the room, often relegating me to the role of following them around reminding them to use their inside voices. They loved each other, but clashed sometimes, as strong personalities sometimes do.

Then Jen got diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and Michael had a front row seat as Jen, our friends, and I tried to navigate her illness and eventual death. Of course, that is not how we were viewing it at the time. In early 2004 we were just a bunch of over-educated kids in our early thirties trying to figure out how to eke out a meaningful existence and maybe steal the neighbor’s cable. None of us were grounded, mature, self-aware individuals who were prepared to deal with mortality. We were the sort of people who kept a mostly empty two-liter bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper on the fire escape for people to use as an ashtray during parties.

When Jen got her diagnosis she fought. Although she was young and otherwise healthy, her survival odds were terrible: 1-3%. But, she said, she’d been in the top percentile of things for most of her life, so why would this be any different? She also kept living her life as fully and as much as she could. I don’t think this was a conscious choice, more that she just didn’t consider any other option.

Jen lived for 11 months from her diagnosis to her death, and throughout that whole time she lived on her own terms. She stayed in her apartment. We went out. We celebrated her birthday at a cabin in the woods in rural Maryland. She had a New Year’s Eve party. We took a girls trip to Miami and Key West. The last week of her life was spent at her family’s vacation home, called the White Elephant, in Guntersville, Alabama, because she wanted to spend Easter weekend there with her family and friends.

She lived well and fought hard. But her final days and her actual death were not what they should have been.

Let me first say that I don’t mean to blame ANYONE for this turn of events. Jen was stubborn and headstrong, a relentless optimist and a fighter. Despite her truly shitty odds she refused to spend a lot of time thinking about or planning for the event of her death. Which makes sense because she was only 31 and in any sane universe wouldn’t have had to deal with something like this. And it isn’t like I was any help. I believed that my job as her friend was to help distract her from the notion of death and to keep her spirits up—it was us against Cancer. Any talk about dying meant being on Team Cancer and FUCK CANCER, RIGHT?!

Of course, at some point she knew what was up. There were a few times when she tried to talk to me about death and being scared. Once, she asked me what items of hers I’d like to have after she died, and I made a joke. I laughed and said I only wanted a stupid stuffed Cavalier doll (our University of Virginia mascot, look it up) that her brother had won in a claw-game at a Cracker Barrel and that we had been convinced was watching us one night after we may or may not have smoked some weed. (I still have that fucking Cavalier. He’s in a lockbox with my birth certificate.) Anyway, the point is, the few times when she brought up death, I refused to go there with her. And she dropped it.

At the end, Jen was still insisting that she would return to Washington DC after the Easter at the White Elephant, even though she was skeletal, could neither eat nor drink, couldn’t walk without assistance, and was clearly dying. I was delusionally convinced that I would fly back there with her. Her mom was the sane one who realized that Jen couldn’t do this. She was the one who finally thought to call Hospice. They were set to come to Jen’s childhood home in Tennessee, which is where we were going next.

Jen never made it – she died in the car as her brother and I were driving her from Guntersville to Tennessee. We managed to pull into the driveway, and her mom, dad, and sister-in-law were able to come be with her, all of us crowded in the car as she took her last breaths.

Jen’s death – not just the fact of her death but the actual circumstances of her death, were unbelievably traumatic for me. I know how self-centered this sounds. No, I am not complaining that Jen’s death made *me* feel bad. I am complaining that her death did not occur the way it should have. She should not have spent her final night on this earth on a recliner with me, watching The Notebook on Lifetime TV. She was in obvious pain but she couldn’t swallow the Vicodin pills we had, no matter how small I broke them. Her mouth was too dry. And I had to carry her to the bathroom. (She was all embarrassed. I was all, “Woman, please, like this is the first time I’ve ever carried you to the bathroom”).

I am glad that she got to spend her final week at the White Elephant the way she wanted to. And I’m not sorry she spent her last night with me. It’s good that her family got to be there with her at the end. But she deserved better than dying in the driveway an hour after we’d stopped at a Carl’s Jr. drive-thru.

It should have been more peaceful, more comfortable, more dignified. Better. We should have called Hospice back in DC. She should have been receiving palliative care for months after the immunotherapy was stopped. She could have had a hospital bed, therapeutic massage, IV fluids, help bathing, good drugs. (Now I know they even have special mouth-wetting stuff, because cancer patients’ mouths dry out.)

Michael lived with my pain about this. We talked about it a lot. Me dealing with Jen dying was a formative aspect of our relationship. Just when we were at the putting-together-Ikea-furniture stage of things, I was drafting Jen’s obituary. So we had had plenty of opportunity to hash out our feelings and perspectives about death. In particular, we spent many nights discussing how we would deal with a terminal diagnosis, ours or someone else’s. I was adamant that I would address death honestly and directly the next time someone I knew got sick. No pussyfooting around.

This was all fine as far as hypothetical conversation topics go. Imagine my goddamn shock when the next person in my life to receive a goddamn terminal cancer diagnosis was none other than Michael himself. I would take a moment here to rail against The Universe and a god who I don’t believe in, but that is for another post (or three).

Anyway, Michael wanted to emulate a lot of Jen’s journey toward death, but also to avoid the unnecessary pain and chaos she had at the end. To begin, it was important to him that he have the most accurate, realistic information about his prognosis so that he could get his head around his timeline. We consulted a top specialist, gave him a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to write down a range of numbers. He wrote “6 Months (without chemo), 12 Months (with standard chemo), 18 Months (with aggressive chemo)”. I still have that piece of paper (typing that sentence causes me to reflect on WHY DO I STILL HAVE THAT FUCKING PIECE OF PAPER). Michael took the aggressive chemo route and died almost exactly 18 months later.

Michael’s plan, much like Jen’s, was to live as fully and as much as possible. So we did everything as normal, and then some. He took our WWII-buff son to see Pearl Harbor. We karaoke-ed the night away on his 44th birthday. He ran a 5-K (which I can’t do even healthy and not on chemo). We rode bikes. We went camping and on float trips. He ushered at our church on Christmas Eve and gave a presentation at our daughter’s school about New Zealand.

There was also a lot of planning for after he was gone. We consulted a lawyer and a financial advisor. We had nice family photos taken. He left detailed instructions about his memorial service and where he wanted his ashes scattered. He recorded hours of videos with a friend of ours, which I still can’t bring myself to watch.

Our friends and community stepped up amazingly. They made t-shirts. They organized outings and parties. They gave us food and money (I never wrote thank-you notes, so let this be it: THANKS SO MUCH YOU GUYS, I LOVE YOU). One of our favorite restaurants named a special after him. Another named a cocktail. When his hair started falling out he decided to shave his head, but he wasn’t just going to that. He decided to raise money for St. Baldrick’s childhood cancer research. He and several friends got their heads shaved in public in front of a cheering crowd. It was a really fun day and he looked good bald.

Then there was planning the actual death part.

When the living part was over, Michael wanted to, in his words, “meet death bravely.” This meant that, when the fight was lost, he would walk calmly into the abyss, like Obi Wan Kenobi when Darth Vader tries to strike him down in the first Star Wars movie. This didn’t mean he wasn’t scared or sad about dying. We both cried. A lot. Because dying when your kids are still in elementary school is fucking bullshit and calls for sadness. But the actual death part Michael did his absolute best to be calm and strong for.

So the day we learned that the first-line chemo had failed, Michael was immediately prepared to reject the second-line chemo (which he knew was garbage). He did it decisively and without apparent emotion. The Doctor nodded a brisk, appreciative man-nod and replied, “good choice – it’s what I’d do.” All this happened while I sat there fumbling for a Clonezepam, blowing my nose into the copy of Real Simple magazine that I had been leafing through and asking no one in particular if we could just have a few minutes to make sure that the most recent scan wasn’t some sort of mistake. “Cheer up,” Michael told me, squeezing my hand when we were finally alone again. “At least now we know.”

In our meetings with the Palliative Care Coordinator, a lovely older lady named Pam with spiky frosted hair and rings on every finger, Michael pressed for details on exactly what would happen in the last few weeks – dehydration, frailty, organ failure. He took notes. He was the one who told me it was time for Hospice, even though I was still insisting that his problems could be overcome with more medication.

Hospice was 18 days. During that time Michael had a visit from his best friend from childhood. His parents and sister were here. He watched Australia spank South Africa in rugby. He watched our daughter play in her first soccer game. He helped our son practice his violin. We finished watching a series on HBO and started another – we got two shows in. We had his favorite Chinese food for dinner, which he was unable to eat. He looked at photo albums. Our friends all came to visit one last time (and sing Christmas carols — long story).

On the last morning of his life, Michael got out of bed and with help from me and the Hospice nurse he had a shower. He shaved, put on deodorant and brushed his teeth. Then he put on one of his favorite T-shirts. He went back to bed and we sat there quietly. Our minister came and sat with us for a while, then blessed him on his journey away from us and into the unknown. We waited for the Hospice Doctor to come with the sedatives. He was late. Michael was getting impatient.

Michael asked if he could go to the front room, so I helped him to the wheelchair and brought him to where he could sit looking out at the sun shining on the trees. We listened to his beloved Beethoven and then some folk music. That was where we were when the Hospice doctor finally arrived. We moved Michael back into the family room, where the hospital bed was set up, so the Doctor could place him under a heavy sedation. According to the Doctor, Michael would enter a deep sleep, from which he might periodically awaken. Although it was impossible to say, he could live a few hours or a few days.

By then it was evening. A friend brought our kids home from soccer practice. I had just given them a bath and got them into their pajamas when the Hospice nurse came upstairs and said that Michael was awake and asking for the children to be brought to him right away. I brought them down. He was clearly exhausted, but he asked them how soccer was. He gave them each a hug and a kiss. He told them he loved them and to have a good night’s sleep.

I got the kids settled down in our bed and then came down to sit with Michael. He was drifting in and out of wakefulness. I held his hand. I was exhausted. After a few hours he woke up a little and I told him I was thinking about going upstairs to get some sleep. “You go up and be with those children,” he said, “I love you.”

Around 3:00 that night I was in bed with both sleeping kids when I heard the Hospice nurse’s footsteps on the stairs. I jumped up before she even got to me and went down to meet her. “I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s just happening really fast.”

I ran into the family room and stood over Michael in his hospital bed. it was clear that he was in his last moments. It was just like Jen had been – some final gasping breaths, eyes looking someplace that no one else can see. I climbed on top of him just as the life ebbed out and it was obvious and unmistakable. He was gone.

In the end, Michael died peacefully in bed, at home, with all the best medicine and nursing care at his disposal. Yes, he would have preferred to die a few days earlier, before the pain and debilitation got really bad (and he should have been able to do so), but all things considered he had a good, brave, dignified death. I am proud of him. I hope he found some comfort in the way he met his end. It gives me some small comfort, and it occurs to me now writing this that maybe part of Michael’s good death was actually for my benefit, too.

I hope that I have the same care and strength when death comes for me. I don’t know that any of us really knows how we will handle it until it happens to us.

But at least now I have had two very good teachers.

Anniversary Season

When someone you love dies, the calendar becomes your enemy. Between the “good dates” like holidays and birthdays, and the “bad dates” like the date of diagnosis or the date the person died, the calendar provides an endless source of reminders that you are wearing Grief Pants. My son’s due date was projected to be the same date that Jen died on, much to my horror. Fortunately, he came a few days early. I still raise a glass of boxed wine to Jen on her birthday. Michael’s birthday was brutal. Father’s Day sucked.

And now we find ourselves in June, which (according to Facebook) is when everyone in the goddamn Western Hemisphere is celebrating their wedding anniversaries. Last week would have been anniversary number eleven for Michael and me. We got married sometime in mid-June, 2007 — I honestly can’t remember the date offhand because we never celebrated it. For us the more important date was the date we met: June 21, 2002, also a June anniversary…what’s that, Calendar? You say it’s today? Well so it is. Thanks, asshole.

The story of how we met is actually pretty funny, one that Michael loved to tell. So please, indulge a widow for a few minutes and let me tell you How It All Began, sixteen years ago today:

My friend Trish was having a birthday party at a nightclub. I had broken up with my long-term boyfriend a few months earlier. He had been a shitbag for a long time and I was fairly depressed. I had zero interest in going anywhere except to Jen’s apartment to watch TV (Mr. Shitbag having taken the TV when he left). I only went to Trish’s party because another friend, Stephanie, showed up at my apartment and wouldn’t stop ringing the downstairs buzzer until I agreed to go with her. On the long Metro ride there Stephanie informed me of the rumor that Trish’s brother, Michael, might be at the party. I had never met him. He had the mythic status of a unicorn: apparently he was quite good looking and he had just graduated from Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, like all unicorns, he also had a long term girlfriend. 

So we walked in to the club and I looked over to see a *very* handsome guy sitting at the bar, surrounded by a bevy of women. He looked over at me and our eyes met. I had to stop and catch my breath. It was like a physical hand had reached out and squeezed my rib cage. “I think that’s Trish’s brother!” said Stephanie excitedly. We made our way over the bar and I found myself standing next to him. We started talking and right away I noticed three things (1) He had a ridiculously sexy New Zealand accent, (2) He had piercing green eyes, and (3) He was super into me. This last one was actually a problem because he had a girlfriend. I believe in the Sisterhood, which has certain rules, number one being Thou Shalt Not Mess Around With Someone Else’s Boyfriend. Even if I had had no compunction about it, the fact that this guy was willing to flirt outrageously with me while his girlfriend was up in Cambridge meant that, unicorn or no, he was another shitbag.

I decided then and there that it was time to get even with men. I had the upper hand — I knew a lot about this guy but he knew nothing about me. So I played it dumb. I pretended I didn’t know where he lived or what he did, and then I pretended to be incredibly impressed. “Ohhh, Cambridge…does that mean Harvard? Harvard Law School?! You must be sooo smart!” “Wow, the New York Bar Exam! That sounds super hard!” “I can’t believe you’ve got a job at a law firm, how a-MA-zing!” This, of course, stoked his ego (which I would later find was considerable). He went on and on, egged on by me, about how smart one had to be, how difficult trials were, how impressive everything was, blah blah blah. Poor guy thought he had found the most adoring audience in the world.

Finally, he asked, “So what about you? What do you do?”

I smiled. “I’m actually a trial attorney for the Justice Department. I graduated Order of the Coif from Stanford Law School, which I believe right now is ranked above Harvard. Oh, and I took the New York Bar — its not so bad.” I chugged the rest of my beer, slammed the bottle next to him a little too hard, and said “Have a great night!”

With that, I dragged myself away from those green eyes, marched out of the bar and took the Metro back home, laughing all the long way about how I took that Michael chump down a few pegs. But that night as I was going to sleep I couldn’t help being sad — he had actually seemed nice. He was obviously intelligent. He had dimples. Why couldn’t I meet a guy like that and fall in love and travel the world with him and have babies and stay up late into the night debating Supreme Court jurisprudence? I spent the rest of the weekend in a funk, eating ice cream in my sweatpants and listening to Liz Phair.

A few days later another friend, Lynn, called me, wondering why I had blown off Michael so spectacularly at the party. “Because he has a girlfriend!” I hollered indignantly. “That is so uncool!”

“Um,” she replied. “Apparently they broke up back in April…”

FUCK

“…he looked up my work number and called me. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about you. He was really impressed at how you put him in his place, but he didn’t know why. Would it be OK for me to give him your phone number? Would you be willing to talk to him?”

He called five minutes later.

And we fell in love and travelled the world together and had babies and stayed up late into the night debating Supreme Court jurisprudence.

We would always laugh about the night we met and how it reflected our best and worst selves: me righteous but mistaken, him pompous but willing to swallow his pride. Both of us young, with a future full of everything in front of us.

In the end, according to the calendar, we had fifteen years, twelve weeks, and six days.

Happy sixteenth anniversary to me.