Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Month: March, 2017

Hard Drive

My heart, like a hard drive, is permanently partitioned. Part of it comprises my 26-year marriage, the raising of my children, the hopes and dreams I had, and the sickness and death of my wife. The other part is unwritten upon, ready for a future I can’t even begin to understand. The problem is that at any given point it can switch between partitioned sections rendering my personal operating system glitchy and subject to crashes.

Such was the case this past week. While performing within normal parameters, my system suddenly switched to the hidden partition, and it has left me grief stricken and paralyzed. There was no warning. I understand that this switch was not the result of bugs or a virus. It is the result of a significant loss and the fact that I know I will never be whole again.

The hard part of all of this is that while attempting to begin a relationship with a woman, my first since I was 22, this wave of grief has me questioning whether I am being unfair to this woman; if I am incapable of giving myself wholly to another given my permanently partitioned heart. The grief tsunami that hit me this week, like all others before it, came without warning. There needn’t be a trigger. More likely, it was a thousand paper cuts, memories rising up during the past few weeks, poking me in the heart, not causing any immediate damage but collectively, over time, shattering my heart again. Now I am emotionally frozen, inextricably operating in a painful past, and incapable of addressing the present or the future.

I like to write because, while I assume that no one will ever read what I write, it usually helps me to understand my position on a topic or my underlying feelings if I put them down on paper (or up on a computer screen). However, while this usually is the case, dealing with grief is a topic no reasoning or processing can vanquish. I was incredibly sad for several days over the past week. It seems that every small event over the past few weeks correlated to something either my wife did, we did together, involved our kids, or it was something we planned to do together. Today I find myself bridging the realms of sadness and anger, perhaps on the path toward processing this wave and getting on with life, perhaps not. Perhaps these steps lead nowhere. Perhaps I will transition back to sadness, or onto negotiation, maybe even onto acceptance. I don’t know how to end this note. All I know is that I am stuck where I am, and no good wishes or caring hugs can hope to dislodge me.

Tony Webster, the protagonist in Julian Barnes’ excellent book The Sense of an Ending comments at one point that he “avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival” and “for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels.” He is a character who, like all of us, has a faulty memory, and has used Time to smooth out the jagged parts of an ordinary life to put meaning to his existence. I have never been one to live in the past. In fact, because of a terrible memory, I remember very little about my past. You would think that would force me to live in the present, to appreciate those around me, to smell the roses and embrace those around me. However, while I did not live in the past, I neither lived in the present. I did not appreciate those around me and assumed daily events had no significant bearing on my expectations of the future I believed would exist. No, I tended to live in the future. Everything I did was for some future date. At 15, I had figured out that in the incredibly far off year 2000, I would be 35, imagining what life would be like. I have always faithfully contributed to my 401(k) in the expectation that I would cash it out at some point and travel the world with Lisa or buy a two-room shack on a beach somewhere to live out our lives together. Now I find that I live in the past. Not the archetypical love of any lost high school glory, but of my life with Lisa. Even after eight years of caring for her as she underwent one barbaric medical treatment after another, and experiencing her withering and eventually dying while our children and I sat around her, I cannot help but to relive the life we lived together as a couple and a family and lament paradise lost and a future that will never be.

And so, awash in memories and residing in the past, my permanently fractured hard drive (my heart) is expected to give over control of the operating system to a brain that understands that life goes on. A mind that knows that while these waves of grief will never recede and will continue to destroy me forever, the troughs between them will, over time, expand, and it is in these troughs that I am expected to forge a new life and build a new future. It all seems so logical for a computer system, but my heart bleeds blood, and my eyes cry tears, not bits and bytes. Makes me wish I were a computer sometimes. I don’t know how to end this note. It just is what it is.

Sonny and Pam

When we first moved to Texas in 2008, it was for the worst possible reason, and naively, we thought, only for a short time. We rented a house thirty minutes north of Houston. It was a cute house, and it had a pool. To be honest, the only reason we rented it was because we needed a rental period of less than a year and finding a property owner willing to agree to that was becoming a problem. My wife had recently been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer and, after witnessing the confusion regarding her treatment here in Rhode Island, I had done my homework online and found that her best chance of survival was if she was treated at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. We broke the news to the kids, and within weeks found ourselves living in Texas. We rented furniture and swam in the pool. The kids were enrolled in a high school four times the size of their Rhode Island school, I was working remotely from the house, and we were constantly on I-45 between Spring and the Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston.

The house was on a busy neighborhood street. Cars were always speeding by, and it seemed the police were always pulling someone over right in front of the house. When we moved in, the people who lived directly across the street came over to introduce themselves. They were older than we were and had lived in the neighborhood for many years. They could not have been nicer to all of us. Pam, like thousands in Houston, worked for a company involved in the energy sector. Sonny was an artist. Not the paint or clay kind, but in leather. He was a master bootmaker. He only worked a few days a week, but he loved it and was helping his nephew get his cobbler business established by teaching him how to use several of the dedicated machines in the shop. Lisa and Pam hit it off immediately, laughing as much as talking. Pam and I also shared an interest. We both loved To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Sonny and I also hit it off, and soon he was inviting me to go fishing with him to a secret spot on an estate his friend had access to. I cannot overemphasize how kind they were to us and how much it put us at ease having moved our family to a new state for the worst reason.

In those first few weeks, it amazed me how quickly life finds ways to get us to go about our routine, even in the face of devastating news and life-changing decisions. Groceries still need to be purchased, dirty dishes still need to be cleaned, and the grass continued to grow. We had handled the first two eventualities in our new life, but the third one stumped me. I knew we were not going to be in Texas forever. The plan was chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and we’d move back home to Rhode Island, cancer-free and ready to resume life as we knew it. Why would I buy a lawn mower for such a short time? Lisa suggested I ask Sonny if I could borrow his mower for the brief period we expected to be there. I looked across the street and saw Sonny sitting in a lawn chair in his garage looking out over the street. I walked over and asked him if I could borrow his mower – weekly! He never hesitated in saying yes. He got up from his chair, walked me through the side yard into his back yard, and showed me where he hid the key to his shed where he kept the mower, gas can, and all manner of lawn equipment. And so it was that once a week, I would walk across the street, help myself to Sonny’s lawn mower and mow my lawn.

Having grown up on an island, I had done my share of fishing. Either from the causeway connecting Goat Island to downtown Newport, or at the piers where the Navy used to keep its ships, I caught mackerel, choggies, and basically whatever was running. Sometimes I would take a choggie, still on my line and cast it onto the pier where a seagull would swoop down and take it. I would then battle the gull with my fishing pole, reeling it in until it would release the fish and fly away. I used to take the squid I’d caught and bring them to my grandparent’s house where I would clean them for my great-grandmother to cook. I once went deep-sea fishing with my college roommate on his father’s charter fishing boat. I was allowed, between vomiting and violent seasickness, to fight and reel in a 636 pound Bluefin tuna. I share this background in fishing because the one time I was able to go fishing with Sonny, you would have thought I’d never seen a pole before, much less what to do when I caught a fish. Everything I did that day was a disaster. I jammed my reel trying to cast. I dropped fish I’d caught. I almost fell into the lake trying to put a fish onto the string we had set up in the water to hold the caught fish. But it didn’t matter. I was spending time with one of the gentlest, kindest men I had ever met, deep in the unknown parts of Texas. I had a beautiful day. One of those days that you know, while it’s happening, that you are creating a memory that will last forever.

When we returned to Texas because Lisa’s cancer had returned, this time not temporarily, but until the end, we moved back to the same town, but not the same subdivision. Such were the vagaries of real estate options available to us. And while we lived across town from Sonny and Pam, we still kept in touch and were always invited to their family Christmas Eve party. I no longer needed Sonny’s lawnmower. Having moved permanently, I bought a mower. As Lisa became sicker, we limited our time visiting and when Lisa died the kids and I knew it was time to go back home to Rhode Island.

I can’t say I liked much about Texas. But meeting Sonny and Pam was one of the great highlights from our eight years there. I heard from Pam the other day that Sonny isn’t doing too well these days. I can only hope that he continues to do as well as possible for as long as possible. This world needs people like Sonny and Pam, perhaps now more than ever before. I count them among the nicest people I have ever met. I can’t thank them enough for how well they treated Lisa and the kids during the most difficult time in their lives. There are very few people we encounter in life who show us the grace and compassion we wish we could display at all times and for which we would like to be remembered. Sonny and Pam are two of those people.