Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Tag: loss

365 Paper Cuts

 

bleeding heart

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”     ― Thomas A. Edison

It was one year ago tonight that my best friend died. God, it hurts to write that. It seems like a lifetime ago and also as if it happened last night. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. I rest my hand on her pillow every night before praying that sleep will gently take me away to her, but I never dream, about her or anything else. I have come a long way since that night in September, but in other ways, I feel I have never left that room. The kids and I have experienced the “year of firsts” without Lisa as if this is some magical milestone beyond which grief is forbidden to pass. I miss so much about her that my heart aches just thinking of the reasons.

I miss her laugh. I miss her smile. I miss her voice. I miss her nose. I miss her driving. I miss her honesty. I miss her eyes. I could go on for as long as my fingers can pass over this keyboard. Edison’s quote seem particularly applicable today because I don’t feel that I’ve survived one year without Lisa as much as I have endured 365 daily paper cuts without her that will never heal.

 

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”     ― John Wayne

One thing I do not miss is the suffering she had to endure. I taped the above quote on the refrigerator of the house we rented in Texas during her first round of treatment. I put it on the fridge for her to see, but now I see that it was meant for me. From chemotherapy to surgery to radiation, she never questioned or hesitated. She enthusiastically embraced every option offered to her until her physician assistant (in tears) told her there were no more options. Lisa was prepared to do more, but medicine had failed her. I look back at that quote now and see that the courage I wanted her to embrace is now exactly what I must adopt to survive her death and carry on.

My brother was in the hospital recently for treatment of a minor infection. It was the first time I’d visited a hospital since Lisa’s death. I hadn’t given any thought to how visiting a hospital would affect me. It was just what you do when a family member is in the hospital. My children were both concerned how visiting the hospital would affect me. As soon as I walked through the doors, all of the emotions swarmed me. Fortunately, my brother was well enough to be discharged the next day. However, shortly after that, my mother in law was taken to the hospital because she bumped her head when she fell. It was nothing serious, she was only taken to the hospital due to a state regulated precautionary requirement, but it required me visiting another hospital in the same week. As I sat there with her, waiting for her discharge papers, I can’t tell you how much I wanted to get out of there. Nothing happens quickly in a hospital and the memories exposed while sitting there were not healthy. Everything took me back to Lisa and her seven years of treatment. After having called M.D. Anderson a second home during all of her cancer treatment, I can’t conceive of a situation where all of the hospital memories won’t come flooding back to hit me in the face. We knew every corner of that hospital and felt like unofficial ambassadors because we ended up helping newcomers so often. In the end, there was no longer anything they could do for her so we both went home where she would die. Thoughts of hospitals paralyze me now.

 

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”     ― Seneca

Lisa’s suffering is over, and we’ve had a year to establish a life, living only with her memory. We have made progress because life goes on. The kids have graduated from college. We have moved back to Rhode Island. We live in a condo in an area we’re not familiar with but which is close enough to family and familiarity to provide some comfort. However, the idea of starting a life without her is at times challenging and at other times seemingly impossible. I still feel guilty for living. I feel guilty for never dreaming about her. I feel guilty for not making the most of this time with my kids, who will be gone this time next year. If our roles were reversed, I could imagine Lisa doing much better than I am now. I feel as if I’ve aged 50 years in the past 365 days. But life goes on, and I am trying to do the best I can. I hope the next year sees me and the kids continue to develop a new “normal” where we can laugh about the good times and not dwell on the bad; where we can think of Lisa as the beautiful, energetic whirlwind she was, full of flowing blond hair and a joie de vivre rather than the pained shell we saw at the end. I’ve survived 365 daily paper cuts without her. The wound will never heal but hopefully, the nerve endings will dull a bit. This week will be particularly strenuous. In addition to today’s commemoration, the kids’ birthday is Tuesday, and Lisa and my anniversary would have been Friday. At least I have the kids to lean on. I treasure my children and am so glad to have them around for the time that I do. They have gotten me this far. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them.

I’m ending this post with a poem by Hermann Hesse titled Stages. I hope you appreciate its message and hug your loved ones tighter today.

 

As every flower fades and as all youth

Departs, so life at every stage,

So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,

Blooms in its day and may not last forever.

Since life may summon us at every age

Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,

Be ready bravely and without remorse

To find new light that old ties cannot give.

In all beginnings dwells a magic force

For guarding us and helping us to live.

Serenely let us move to distant places

And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us

But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.

If we accept a home of our own making,

Familiar habit makes for indolence.

We must prepare for parting and leave-taking

Or else remain the slave of permanence.

Even the hour of our death may send

Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,

And life may summon us to newer races.

So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

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Dear Lisa

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Dear Lisa,

It’s been seven months now since you left. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re not suffering anymore, but from a selfish perspective, I miss you dearly.

In case you haven’t been able to keep up, let me tell you a few of the things we’ve been up to since September.

As you can imagine, none of us wanted to do the whole Christmas thing, not even putting up the tree. Instead, we took a trip. We went to NYC and saw a couple of plays. We spent some time with Sue, Phil, Bella, and Jackie. They were kind enough to invite us to spend Christmas dinner with them. From NY, we flew to Burlington, VT to spend a couple of days with Mark and Martha. It was beautiful. You would have liked it so much. Then we went to Rhode Island for a few days just to relax. It was the first time (and probably the last) that I had to get a hotel room in Rhode Island.

Since Christmas, the kids have been running flat out toward graduation. Cam has been writing feverishly on his thesis. He completed both parts and the conclusion late last week. Now he has to edit it with his professor and prepare for his defense in May. Sam has been working on her painting and installation projects. She laments the fact that she doesn’t have studio space this semester. She’s a lot like you.

I’ve been working and trying to get the house in shape, so we can move back to Rhode Island after the kids graduate. I bought a condo in East Greenwich. You would like it. I’m relying on Sam’s interior design sensibilities, a talent she got directly and completely from you! I’m sure there will be a call for milk pail paint on the walls. I’ve involved a realtor here in Texas to get our house on the market. He thinks it will go quickly thanks to the beautiful job you did designing the interior.

The kids and I have been doing the best we can with the fact that you’re gone. The hardest part for me is when I’m in that space between sleep and being awake when I begin to dream and then snap out of it. Invariably, I want to talk to you about something. Then, like someone with the beginning stages of dementia, I learn all over again that you are gone. I can’t tell you how much that hurts. No amount of rationale can remove that pain.

I’m also worried about meeting people. As you know, I’m not the most outgoing person in the world! I don’t want to go to a restaurant alone or a movie alone, much less a bar. Also, since I’ll be working from home, there is even less opportunity to interact with people. It will be good having the kids around until they go off to graduate school, but after that, I have to come to terms that I will likely be alone after that. I can’t imagine how I’ll meet people. And don’t even get me started on dating again.

As I’m sure you know, Delbow died last month. I can only hope that he is with you, and you are keeping each other company, both of you happy and healthy. He is missed, especially by me because he was my only companion at home. He wasn’t just a dog; he was my friend. The house is even more desolate without him. No amount of television or music din can replace life in the house. The kids were with me when he died. It was awful but the right thing to do. He was miserable and in so much pain.

I donated blood again this past week. I donated plasma, which took about half an hour. It was an interesting process, but I got such a headache from it, along with being lightheaded with chills and nauseated. I can’t imagine how you did it with all of the sticks you were subjected to during your seven years of treatment. And yet you never complained. Even now you continue to amaze me.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on since you left. The kids and I miss you so much. If you have the power, take away some of Sam’s and Cam’s pain. I’ll figure it out myself, but bring some peace to them. That’s all I’ll ask.

Missing you like crazy and still deeply in love,

Me

Sharks and Cancer

quint

So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest…”  Quint, Jaws

It has been a very difficult year and a half. First, in November of 2014 my father died after a brief but excruciatingly painful fight with lung cancer which had spread to his bones. Almost one year later, last September, my wife died after a long fight with breast cancer which had spread to her lungs. And then only six months later, my dog died after a painful fight with a soft tissue cancer which had spread to his bones. One year, then only six months, part of me wonders what horror will befall us in three months. But I have to believe that the pain and suffering have ended now.  I can’t help but appropriate Quint’s quote to, “So, five of us went to Texas, three of us come home, cancer took the rest…”

Cancer has targeted my family for far too long now. I don’t want it to have any more power over us. My children have spent fully one-third of their lives living under the threat of cancer taking their mother and then their dog. Almost their entire teenage years, years difficult enough without cancer moving in to live with us, has been spent living under that dark cloud. They are 21 years old now and, in spite of these added pressures, will both graduate on-time from the University of Texas at Austin, each with over a 3.5 GPA. How they have been able to stay focused amazes me and is a testament to their strength of character.

I know people have had it harder than we have. I don’t claim to have a corner on suffering. And I am grateful for the seven years we were able to steal from cancer by moving to Texas and seeking treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I’ll never regret that decision. But if we could have a break from any additional pain for a short time, that would be great.

Each of us is dealing with these losses in our own individual manner. Certainly, grief counseling has helped, but we still face a world in which neither Lisa nor Delbow will walk with us any longer. We have had long discussions about faith, heaven, philosophy, and all of the accompanying topics. We disagree as much as we agree but the discussions are always lively and fascinating. I hope that we can each find some comfort in our positions.

Finally, there is the issue of moving forward. The house, already quiet from Lisa’s absence is now even quieter without Delbow’s rambling about. The kids are on spring break this week, so I have a respite before facing that still house alone. I now have six months of experience without Lisa and living alone. I hope this serves me well when the kids return to school. But before we know it, school will be over, graduations will have been concluded and we will be packing up for our trip back to Rhode Island. I hope it goes well and we can begin our new lives healthy. No sharks, no cancer.

Phoenix (or Ashes and Brambles)

compass

 

Too often during this process of grieving, I have been angry. As I addressed in the last post, I had been charged with creating an imaginary entity to which I can assign the anger. I chose God. The next chapter in this process is to determine what will make me happy. How do I want my life to look in five years? As one who has been burned by planning in the past, with ashes the only remaining vestiges of the future I once built, this is an immeasurably more difficult assignment.

I want my children to be happy and successful in whatever endeavor they choose. I want them to live wherever they want but I want them to remain close to me emotionally. I want to be the person from whom they seek advice or from whom they seek comfort when life throws them a nasty curve. Outside of that, I want to continue in my job, which brings me joy and satisfaction. I would like to travel. I want Sam to be my tour guide in Italy and Cam to be my guide in the UK. I would like to learn French or Italian. Not because I plan on living there of traveling extensively, but because I have always had problems learning a foreign language and I like the challenge. I would like to learn to play the piano. I would like to read all of the classics. I would like to learn art history.

But will doing these things make me happy? What will people say of me five years from now? Will they say that I survived my wife’s death well? Will they say that I was able to move on and formed a new life outside of my new identity as a widower? Will I be alone? Will I find love again? Will I survive?

The answers to these questions plague me. In many ways, the question is the same: What will make me happy and what will people think of me five years from now? These both boil down to having a fulfilling life following a major upheaval. When I applied for the job I currently hold, I was asked by my boss’s boss where I saw myself in five years. That was four years ago. Rather than dazzle him with my ambition and tell him that I wanted his job in five years, I reflected on the future which lay in tatters before me. And so, I told him that I did not know where I would be in five years. That I respected that I was new to the company and that I would need to learn the company and the industry before laying out a career path. I don’t know if that was the perfect answer, but he told me I was correct to temper my ambitions with reality. I got the job.

Today I feel that I am being asked the same question. Where do I want to be in five years? But rather than a career path question, this is a life path question. Again, I feel that I must have the same response. I need to learn the landscape of this new life, acknowledging that it is new and different than the life I lived before. In many ways, I am newborn. I have the second part of my life before me. But I must respect that I have little in the way of plans or ambitions that bear any resemblance to the life I led before. True, I’ve always wanted to travel, but now I face the prospect of travelling alone or as a third wheel when my children take their eventual families on vacation. This does not excite me. It’s a little like being the afterthought invitation for a party after you’ve heard about the party but hadn’t been originally invited.  Other ambitions (reading, learning a foreign language, playing the piano) are nice wishes, not life plans. True, they will bring me joy and occupy my time, but are these life plans? I don’t know. My life plans before were to work until I was ready to retire, then Lisa and I would travel together around the country and around the world, with or without the kids, depending on their station in life. We would spend our time in our home together or on the Cape. But as I pull at that thread now, there is little desire to travel alone and the thought of an empty, silent home (soon to also be devoid of our little white ball of canine love) terrifies me.

And so, to this question, I have no firm response. The future before me is a blank slate, equal parts terror and excitement. Perhaps over time, I will see the shimmering outline of a path through the thicket, but right now there are only brambles and thorns, silence and loneliness. And so I read my classics, look forward to studying piano, and tackling French or Italian. My future, in ashes, will rise like the phoenix, whether I want it to or not, whether I plan it or not. Better to have a say in the process than be overrun with other’s expectations. To the question, how do I want people to see me in five years, I can only say that I hope they see me as living my life, a different life, maybe a better life maybe not, but a life denied my wife.

Dear God

Creation of Adam“Take your anger and put it into an imaginary being. That way you can yell at the entity and throw it out when you don’t want to feel the pain of the anger anymore or if you don’t have the time to deal with the anger.”

These are the words of the grief counselor, to whom we (the kids and I) have been going since mid-December. I told her that I am angry about the fact that cancer first took my father, then my wife, and now will take my dog. First she said, “Why do you have to do anything with the anger? Aren’t you allowed to be angry? Aren’t you justified?” My response was that there is no outlet for the anger, no target. I cannot remain so angry for so long that I shut down emotionally and socially. I have enough problems being social as it is!

So I, as my homework for this week, am to create an entity, an imaginary being, to whom I can ascribe the evil characteristics necessary to house my anger. I could create a virtual punching bag and anthropomorphize it to the point where it has horns and a tail upon which I can stomp and to whom I can scream. However, that form does not appeal to me and seems shallow and unfulfilling.

As an atheist, I have a better solution. God. How could a benevolent God inflict my wife with a terminal disease that would kill her? How could a caring God do that to my children? To me? How could a loving God condemn a dog to three separate forms of cancer within it’s short life? How could a generous God condemn my father to an incalculable amount of pain in the months before his death? And on a grander scale, how could an altruistic God kill thousands of children each year through malnutrition, starvation, disease, or war? Because I can conceive of no rational reason for such a dereliction of duty, I choose to believe there is no supreme being above. It is easier for me to believe that nature simply evolves in chaos than to believe a God could be so inept or uncaring.

So, if there is a God, I do not believe he/she is omnipotent and all powerful. That said, and as part of my grief counseling homework for this week, here is my creation of an imaginary being to whom I can bequeath my anger. God. And now my letter to God:

Dear God,

How could you? How could you either give my wife cancer or allow her to contract it? How could you do that to my children? How could you make her suffer through the barbaric treatments you have allowed medicine to create in an attempt to counter your unholy and defective DNA? How could you take her when she was still so young and we had a future planned together that now is reduced to ash? How could you? Why?

How could you put my father through so much pain that it killed him? How could you allow that much pain to transfer to my mother who now survives him but cannot live without him? How could you put my brother and sister through the act of watching him suffer with no ability to alleviate his pain? How could you? Why?

How could you give my simple, silly dog, whose sole purpose in life is to love us and make us happy, three different forms of cancer in his short life? How could you take his eyesight and force him to endure countless surgeries to save his back legs from your poor design? Why do you make him suffer so much and force us to euthanize our pets without allowing us to end the suffering of our human loved ones who endure so much pain? How could you? Why?

How could you allow the children of the world to endure unwarranted pain and suffering simply because of the circumstances under which they were born? How could you allow men to create war against one another for, ultimately, silly political, geographic, or religious reasons?  Why do we have to suffer so much on this earth? How could you allow all of these things to occur while remaining unseen and unresponsive? How could you? Why?

Are we simply to fall back on “faith?” A faith that you are really there and listening and that we will be rewarded in paradise for all of our suffering. Well, I don’t buy into it and find that if you do exist, you are either malevolent, uncaring, or incompetent. If you are malevolent, you are not worthy of our deference. If you are uncaring you are also not worthy of our blended knee. If you are incompetent you are to be pitied and not revered. Occam’s Razor demands that the most likely solution is that you simply do not exist. But for the purposes of grief mitigation, I will allow that you exist, but only for the purposes of my derision, my anger, and my pain.

Most sincerely,

Thanksgiving (or Fortunate Enough to Hurt)

45604227_mIf you’re lucky, once in a lifetime a love comes along that shakes you to the very center of your being. If you are lucky enough to have been afflicted with such a love, you must acknowledge that one result will be that time will speed up. There is a phenomenon known as Vierordt’s Law, which states that short-term time is overestimated and long-term time is underestimated. In short, days seem to last incredibly long and years fly by. This can be best summed up in an example. When the kids were first born, everyone we met told us to enjoy these times because time would quickly pass. At the time, all I wanted was one good night’s sleep. That was 21 years ago, and I finally understand what those wise people meant.

Now I suffer from another phenomenon, hiraeth, which is a Welsh word meaning “homesickness for a place you can never return to.” It is when you lose that special person that these two phenomena fuse in a pain we simply call grief. Time has slipped away, and we cannot go back to that happier, simpler time. It is simplistic to suggest that one has a choice to appreciate the time spent with that great love or to begrudge the time stolen by disease. To choose the former is to ignore the heart-wrenching hiraeth felt by the loss. To select the latter is to ignore the joy of a lifetime spent in Vierordt’s miasma. Rather, it is reasonable to expect to experience both options (often within the same day). To acknowledge both the joys spent with a great love and the pain of their loss is the price of having such a great love. To easily overcome such a loss indicates that the love was not as interwoven into your soul as you thought. To find the loss debilitating at times means a genuine, deep love and an equally devastating loss.

And so, today I must give thanks for both the time I had and the pain I feel now because I now know I cannot have had one without the other without preceding her in death.

There was a time when I was alone and happy to be so. At least I thought I was happy. What I was was lonely and determined that I didn’t need anybody. High school friends were off doing things I was not comfortable doing (drinking, drugs) and I was unwilling to give up that kind of self-control.

Now I find that I am lonely and determined that I do need people. However, after spending a lifetime eschewing friendship as an unnecessary protuberance of my streamlined and happy life, I find myself without friends when I need them most. I have many acquaintances, genuine and sincere, but no friends. It is my own doing and based on the platform that I had married my best friend so any more friends would be superfluous. Besides, I was not bright enough or socially sophisticated enough to handle more than one friend. Now she is gone, and I am both alone and lonely, left to my thoughts and memories. I miss her so much. And I acknowledge that I must suffer this great pain because I have such wonderful thoughts and memories.

To all of my acquaintances, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving and hope you appreciate, most importantly, your family and friends. Thanksgiving is a day to appreciate those who have given you so much, especially love.

Quirks

She had too many clothes

She drove like a madman

She was always running late

She was honest to a fault

She shoved her leg under me while I was sleeping

She drank Diet Coke for breakfast

She never put milk on her cereal

She put too many lights on the Christmas tree

She recited silly campfire songs

She was not perfect

Thankfully

It is the differences that make us interesting

It is the differences that attract us

It is the differences that can repel us

When we accept the differences in another

We call them quirks and learn to live with them

Now that she is gone, it is the quirks I miss the most

I don’t have too many clothes

I don’t drive like a madman

I’m never running late

I believe in the value of a white lie

I miss her leg under me

I now drink Diet Coke for breakfast

But I still put milk on my cereal

I don’t want to put up the Christmas tree

I miss those silly campfire songs

Because she was perfect to me.