My husband and I were told 20 months and 3 days ago that the Monster would kill him within a year. We did all the right things…got our house in order, filled out paper work, filed files, contacted many official offices starting with 1-800- and ending in .gov.ca, where we often spent hours—precious hours mind you—on hold waiting for the next civil servant to nearly answer nearly all the questions we had and to be almost forthcoming about which highly paid, bilingual civil servant we needed to contact next. Oh the web of government bureaucracy involved when a Canadian soul departs this Canadian mortal coil!! What a series of sticky-webbed doorways to navigate, with faceless android millennials on telephones and screens, answering only what you know to ask, but not volunteering information on what you do not know to ask. It’s like they are paid according to a standardized word count quota per day, but cap out at a specific number. And everything costs money! The Canadian government bills you when you die. I guess the civil servants in these departments must get paid somehow. Do I sound bitter? Am I ranting??
All that being said, we are still “Us” for now. And summertime!! We have plans for our summertime while we take advantage of the Monster-In-Chains, and dare to slip tentatively into something of a new normalcy. My husband worked in the garden today, plucked at weeds while the dog lay beside him and chewed a water bottle to bits. I watched him through a window as he worked, slow and steady, and etched the scene deeply into my mind’s sketchbook…for later, when I need to refer back. The sheer blissful banality of my husband in the garden on a Saturday afternoon, sipping a cool drink, and listening to old 70s music on a ghetto blaster. Yes…a ghetto blaster. Or later, fixing the wheels on the lawn mower. Or chatting over the fence with the next door neighbor. I file these things away. I suppose it’s surprising what we think is important. Today was a series of snapshots that, five years ago, I might have shrugged at or ignored completely. Now everything is important.
But the garden’s in!! A bit late, but in all the same. We have blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Red grapes and white grapes. We have two types of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, four types of herbs, lettuce, radishes, onions, beets, carrots, and peas. Plus an apple and a cherry tree. And very soon, potatoes. We also have plenty of flowers, and pretty things to look at. We love our garden—it’s always a work in progress, and it is a place of satisfaction and contentment for us both. But it’s work. And needs constant attention. My son thinks we need to scale things back a bit to something that takes less work. In the Fall, after the garden is done for the year, he is going to tear down and rebuild our raised garden beds into something smaller, taller, and easier to access. Everything is changing, and I feel a deep sigh coming.
I’m off to Victoria shortly as my friend buries her brother…my friend’s sister in law buries her husband…another victim of the Monster. I’m afraid to see this woman, to see the “widowness” creeping over her like a grey shroud. To see her bewildered eyes. To see her new, raw sorrow. And then to know…just know the terrible truth of it. To feel moments slipping through my fingers like sand. The dread of it—but I shall go just the same, if only as a silent witness, a supporter as this woman shakes her fists at the Monster and curses him.
But for today, my husband is in his feisty self. Right now, he is laying on the couch, watching a docudrama about people in Alaska who live off the grid. The dog is laying beside him, on her back with her paws in the air, snoring. Every so often, he wiggles her paw, and she stops, licks her nose, and falls back into her dreams. He is surfing the web on his tablet looking at motor boats, because he loves them. He is daydreaming about a boat that would be small enough to not cost a lot in moorage, yet with enough size to travel between the Gulf Islands. I love that he has dreams…the Monster has no control over those.
He’s going to bed shortly. I’ll remind him to take his medicine, and he’ll remind me that he’s not a baby. I’ll tuck him in. He likes that I do that for him. Then I will let the dog out for a midnight pee, put the tea cups in the dishwasher, wash the counter tops, and turn off the lights except the stove light. I’ll do my usual walk through, let the dog in, lock the doors, and go brush my teeth. The dog will curl herself at the end of the bed after she completes her nightly grooming regimen. I’ll wash my face, brush my hair, and watch my husband already half asleep against his pillows. He’ll murmur, “Did you lock the door?” I’ll kiss his forehead and say, “I’ve taken care of everything.” He’ll breathe deeply then, and wander off to sleep.
Peace. Quiet. Gratitude. 20 months and 4 days.
So, my husband and I took some trips this year. Three to be exact. We went to Las Vegas, Harrison Hot Springs, and Manzanillo in Mexico. We went because we discovered that the medication my husband has been taking faithfully, has put the Monster in chains. While there is no remission for his type of cancer, there is a place of “stasis”. The cancer does not recede, as in remission, but it doesn’t advance either. So, here we are…static. Unmoving. Up in the air. But this stasis is temporary—we don’t have any guarantees on how long it will last—so we ae making hay while the sun is shining. Away we went!!
We’ve been to Vegas before and we have made the most of our trips to Nevada. We have explored Vegas—the new strip, the old strip, shows and attractions, shopping and restaurants. We’ve been to the Hoover Dam where we took the obligatory selfies, and then did the hop back and forth on the border between Nevada and Arizona which also happens to be the time zone. “1:00…2:00, 1:00…2:00…” and so on, because it amused us, because we are easily amused, because we’re kinda immature, and sometimes have far too much time on our hands.
We’ve also been down the Extraterrestrial Highway out towards Area 51. Yes, we have. We’ve posed beside the ET Highway sign, beside the “Black Box” (which is white, by the way), and beside the flying saucer being hauled away by a tow truck in Rachel, Nevada at the “Al-ee-Inn” Restaurant. Get it? “Al-ee-inn?” Lol. Again, we are easily amused. This restaurant and area is where they filmed the movie “Independence Day” way back when. The burgers were pretty good, and we both got a great T-shirt and a funny fridge magnet.
But seriously folks, the earth in that area sometimes vibrates, causing the stones on the ground to move. There really are strange lights in the sky sometimes at night. Sometimes there is a low, distant, steady humming sound emanating from the dried up bed of the lake in the forbidden zone. There actually are SUVs with dark windows, and they really will definitely arrest you if you step one toe beyond the fence line. I don’t know much more than that, except to say that we were definitely “out there.” What a hoot!
We’ve stayed on the strip. We’ve stayed off the strip. We’ve even stayed across town. This time we figured we’d stay at the Luxor because, well, it’s a big black pyramid. And that’s cool. How was the hotel? Meh. We saw the Titanic exhibit—which was fantastic—and went to a Cirque du Soleil burlesque show that was bawdy, dirty, and really fun. We even went to see a movie. Of course we threw a few dollars at the slots. My hubby played poker. It was the Las Vegas we knew and expected. But there was one difference of course…we didn’t walk around as we have in the past. We spent time in our room watching television—which we rarely do on vacation. And I went places on my own while my husband slept in. It was slower, more subdued than before.
Harrison Hot Springs was an interesting place. It was my first time there, and my husband’s second time, although the last time he was there was like twenty years ago. He didn’t recognize anything. We stayed at the big resort in one of the newly built wings. The enormous balcony of our room looked out over the lake to the blue, snow-capped mountains beyond. It was an amazing view. The food was pretty good. The pools were warm and clean. The town was cute and kitschy. We dined at a Bavarian Restaurant one night, which was simply awesome, and then at the famed Copper Room another night.
The Copper Room is a “dine and dance” and, since it was after all our wedding anniversary, we danced together—for the first time in a long, long time. I forget the song—some old Sinatra tune—but I could see faces around the floor, smiling as they watched us dance, and then clapping as the song finished. My husband broke the rules and had a drink with me. He even ate dessert. When the lights were down, and through the warm glow of cocktails and red wine, his eyes were bright, I couldn’t see the new grey slowly fading his once lustrous chestnut hair. His face had color, and when he smiled his beautiful smile at me, in that moment, I could see only him…in that moment, the Monster had vanished.
We’ve been to Mexico before. Last time we were in Hualtuco, but his time we went to Manzanillo. The resort was gorgeous, and our room—or should I say “suite”—was enormous, with an ocean view beyond manicured grounds and tall, swaying palm trees. There was a huge soaker bath tub and a king sized bed and his and her sinks and closets. The food was fairly good for resort food, but I gotta say that I don’t ever expect a lot from resort food. It’s always middle of the road, not too spicy, with such an enormous variety that nothing is truly done to perfection. But the guacamole was the best I’ve ever had.
A word about iguanas… There were iguanas everywhere. Sitting around the pools, every so often something would dive, like a torpedo, into the water, shoot along and then, amid shrieks from the odd startled tourist, fly up on the other side. Or, the tranquil afternoon sun would be sliced in half by another sudden cry as a face emerged from the bushes around the wall, mere inches from where a patron lay sun bathing on one of the blue loungers. Waiters stepped over iguanas on the pathways, or shooed them out of the way. I learned to sidle carefully around them, and just mind my own business. They certainly were minding theirs. Only once did one eye me up and down and then shake its “skin” beard at me. I felt the urge to apologise to it, but rushed away, intimidated.
My husband and I survived a cab ride into the surrounding towns to sight-see and shop. We took a lot of great photos, came across a cool market stall where my husband haggled with the merchant over a beautiful clay Aztek style mask overlaid with turquoise and mother of pearl. They dickered and postured, hands were thrown in the air, and there was much insulted sounding huffs and puffs. They went between glaring and congeniality. My husband has spent a lot of time in Central and South America. There is an art to the haggle, and he’s pretty good at it. I always give in because I feel guilty. However, in my husband’s opinion, only the weak give in. I suppose that’s a good thing because, finally, an equitable price was reached, and now the Aztek mask is displayed in my living room. Later, we found a breezy seafood restaurant where we whiled away the evening as waves crashed on the beach just a few steps away from us. However, the next day he stayed in bed all day. I brought him offerings of fruit and cakes but he preferred to sleep. The Monster, though chained, still required payment for the active day before. It was a sullen reminder.
I think it was Confucius who said something to the effect of “no matter where you go, there you are.” This saying means that you can’t escape who you are, what you are, or your own internal issues. That’s because where ever you choose to go, if nothing else, you always, and without fail take one thing along every single time—you. For my husband and I, no matter where we went, the Monster came with us, and stasis or no, still had a partial hand in dictating what we would do and to what extent we would enjoy our holidays. We felt the Monster’s shadow on us all the time, even though we put much energy into ignoring its imposing presence.
This is not to say that we regret going. We don’t. We felt and still feel that it’s important to travel and to make memories and take a lot of photos and be silly in as many places as possible, and wherever it is that tickles your fancy to go. Some people choose Northern Asia. Some people prefer Iceland. Wherever it is on earth that you long to go, if you have the time, the ability, and the means, then go. Absolutely, and don’t wait. Go! Go while you can go. Go while you can still dance. Go while you can still sink into a floaty chair and sip on a cocktail while yellow and green iguanas shoot through the water beneath you. Go, but don’t be deceived. No matter where you go, you cannot change what’s happening to you. Certainly, go take the waters in warmer climes, but don’t be surprised if the going is slower. Be clear on why you’re going in the first place. Travel is neither a cure nor an escape. It has to be only about the memories.
I learned something after we came home from Mexico. I unpacked clothes that my husband never wore because he spent so much time either sedentary beside the pools, or asleep in his bed. I told him I was sorry that he wasn’t able to enjoy the trip as much as he wanted. His response was simple. “Don’t worry about that…did you have a good time? That’s all I care about.” And there it was. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter where we went, as long as we enjoyed each other. And, for the most part, barring the horrors caused by the Monster chained up in our basement fighting to break free of his chains, we did.
I was glad the trip was over though, because there is another famous saying said, I think, by a little girl named Dorothy: “There’s no place like home.” My husband and I are happy now to relax in our little nest together, and look at all our pictures of iguanas.
Those of you who battle the Monster will know that there comes those days, without your own awareness perhaps, when your nose starts to turn up at everything. The world becomes cast with a gray pall, and Earth’s gravity seems stronger. Getting up in the morning is a test of sheer will power, the smallest tasks become arduous, you begin questioning why you ever liked reading philosophy in the first place—a bunch of old wind bags blustering on about nihilism. What has that to do with you?? Strawberries aren’t as sweet. Roses aren’t as fragrant. You’re frustrated with the state of the world such that an asteroid seems like not so bad an idea. You’re tired all the time…the kind of deep in the bones weariness that no amount of sleep can remedy.
And then, you start avoiding the people you love…family and friends. It’s not that you don’t love them. It’s not that you don’t need them in your life…desperately. You just want them to leave you alone. Because you can’t answer one more question, you can’t retain another once of compassion…you have reached saturation. And mostly, you simply cannot focus on a conversation—it’s so hard to maintain involvement. My friends will talk to me, and halfway through, I have already lost the plot, and need to scramble to catch up. It’s like I’ve come down with a “stupid” virus, and an overarching feeling of dull-wittedness. That’s why I haven’t written this blog in so long.
I wanted to try for something quick-witted and meaningful, but everything I have written, or tried to write, has lumbered forth from me and plodded along insufferably…either so emo that I began to retch, or just daft and disconnected. But, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s the exact thing about this stage of grief…the depression. I’ve been set adrift on the Monster’s ocean of apathy where all is disconnected. I could ride a roller coaster every morning, yet still feel as though life is one monotonous day that melts into the next. However, I have discovered that this is normal. What I’m feeling—this strange blah—is perfectly normal.
And so, I do what it is that I do—I research. But not depression, or the stages of grief. I wanted to see what other people had to say about emptiness, or rather, how they defined it. I at last turned to the poets, and thought I will for sure find something in the pages of Emily Dickinson “I’m nobody. Who are you?” or Sylvia Plath “the years draining into my pillow”, but I settled on Robert Frost. In a poem by Frost, I found emptiness described as abject loneliness. Here is his splendid model for desolation:
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The Voice in this poem describes his aimless wanderings…going out, coming in, looking—not exploring—down streets, and avoiding human contact. He feels separated from the stir of life, like everything happens on the next block, and he’s not welcome. The cold and unbiased moon is the only thing that communicates, and its message is simply to validate his disconnection—“the time is neither wrong nor right”, it’s neither here nor there, it’s six of one and a half dozen of the other…even the banality of the cliché lends to the loneliness. Just blah, blah, blah… In this poem, the night is a metaphor for the dark days of life. Aren’t we all, likewise, acquainted with the night?
You who are battling the Monster… If one day soon, you wake up to find yourself slumped in a boat, alone, at the very heart of a boundless and dreary expanse, you’re not nuts. You aren’t losing your grasp on reality. This IS your reality right now, and your mind is looping while it catches up. Just lay back, and bob along until you reboot. Watch television and forgive yourself. Who cares if the beds don’t get made today? If you forget to get dressed and stay in your pajamas all weekend, the world is not going to explode. The key is to recognize that this is happening to you, it is a process that you must endure, it will pass eventually, and it will not consume you if you refuse to allow it to do so.
The pattern of activity in Frost’s poem might also provide a way to avoid being consumed:
- He went outside, but you can simply stand on your back step and breathe fresh air during the day for at least 20 minutes. This can be achieved in your pajamas, boxer shorts, bare feet, towel, housecoat, etc.
- He went out in the rain. Basically, shower every day. It will invigorate you, and don’t we all feel better on the inside when we feel fresh and clean on the outside? Plus, the task of showering fully counts as a daily accomplishment. Yes, it does.
- He kept to himself. Well, it’s okay to “hermitize” for a while. Sometimes it’s okay to not feel the need to unload again and again and again. That time will come all too soon, most certainly. Sometimes it’s nice to be quiet for a time—both inside and out. Allow yourself to acclimatize to the shit storm swirling around you. You are not obligated to visit at all times, to be all things to everybody. Have a call-free week end. Turn off your cell phone, put it down, and back away from it. Honestly, the Earth will not spin off its axis without you texting or posting to Facebook.
- He didn’t get involved with other people’s activities. Don’t involve yourself in the drama of other friends or family. The Monster is giving you the worst drama you will experience in your lifetime, except for your own death, so unless someone’s died, your shit trumps their shit. It’s okay to be a little selfish some of the time. Lick your wounds…they need attention, or they will get infected.
- Finally, no matter what happens, the world is continuing on with or without you. So, if you think that hiding for a day or two here and there is wrong somehow, think again. It might well be that no one was any the wiser. They were probably dealing with their own nights with whom they are also well acquainted. It’s “neither wrong nor right”, it’s just life, and you are not alone.
We know that the best way to fight the Monster is to out-maneuver him. He’ll whisper to you that you are losing control of everything, and then he’ll cause you to obsess over the unwashed laundry. If you’ve showered, eaten something, got some fresh air, and actually managed to redress yourself in your pajamas, congratulations. You’re good to go. Your pajamas will last another day, and the laundry will still be there tomorrow. Know that you will eventually get up and do it, and feel comforted by that. When you feel better, everything will get done. Leave it at that, turn on the television, and watch something mindless. Believe it or not, it’s actually what you need right now. Just relax and breathe. You’re not losing your mind, and you aren’t doing anything wrong.
This is going to sound a bit weird, but grief is not always a bad thing. Okay, okay, I’ve heard all the platitudes: “grief proves you loved” or “grief is the price of love” etc, etc. Yes, I know. Loving someone – that someone = grief. It’s a life component so true it can be proven mathematically. But one thing I have noticed since the Monster first entered our lives, is that I got so bogged down and stressed out that there seemed no time for anything else. In fact, I was just telling a friend of mine earlier today that I haven’t been able to keep up with my normal activities, and I’ve had to refuse invitations. You see, my time has been consumed with being stressed out, busy with stressing, completing stressful things, and stressing out about stressing. And when you have that much stress, it pollutes everything…every little thing. So the simple question one asks oneself such as “should I get dressed before or after I make breakfast?” becomes something like this:
“If I get dressed now, then I have to wait to make breakfast because I should probably have a shower first before putting on clean clothes but then if I wait until after breakfast, then I should wait until after breakfast for my shower too because then I have to put on yesterday’s dirty clothes and then cook in them but then if I put on clean clothes before my shower then I will need to change again and isn’t that a waste because I’m not being careful with things, and this is how wastefulness becomes a habit and that’s how people lose everything they own and if I know this and do it anyways, am I not aiding my own disastrous consequences and for that matter do I then deserve those consequences because I am a wasteful person who deserves no better than they get and that’s why my life is falling apart because I can’t make the simple decision of when to get dressed in the correct way so that I don’t lose everything I have by putting on dirty—or clean—clothes.”
So, yep. Where was I? Oh ya…stress. Stress is the most toxic thing I have ever known. It can kill you and or drive you mad—and I’m not being metaphorical. Stress is pure poison, which is probably why the Monster wields it as his weapon of choice. Not only does he want to kill you, he wants to make you insane first. That’s what was happening to me for the weeks before my father’s death. My husband and my personal struggle with the Monster aside, I have elderly parents, and in their vulnerability, my father also fell prey to the Monster. So it became about dividing myself into little strips of me—some were left at home, some were left with my father, and some left with my mother who was so stressed out that she was confused and couldn’t remember details from day to day.
When my father first went into the hospital, we didn’t imagine for a moment that he could actually die. However, as the days turned into weeks and he was no longer able to care for himself, it became all too clear. He was never coming home. The pain of it settled in…the KNOWING that he would leave us.
The stress was mountainous then…just staying clear-headed enough to complete the ponderous task of preparing for him to die was, well, unbelievable. The settling of affairs while he was yet alive in order to make my mother’s transition from wife to widow as smooth as humanly possible, was wildly bureaucratic. It is an expensive and complicated undertaking—to die in Canada. It is much easier to be born, or married, or divorced, or anything else we Canadian humans do ceremoniously…and believe me when I say, there is ceremony to the dying process. All that was just the financial stuff and performing the hoop gymnastics required by our government on behalf of the ones we love when they pass away. It’s rather a cold affair. This, of course, speaks nothing to the emotional and spiritual stress.
It’s standing vigil during the last days of a loved one’s life and it is the ghastly duty most of us will complete at some stage in our lives if we are blessed to care for our dying parents. This involves much standing at a bedside, offering sips of water, or teaspoons of ice cream or chocolate pudding. There is a lot of soft whispers at this time, hand-holding, tender kisses, hugs, and gentle caresses. It’s tucking blankets around a body that is much thinner now, and reading aloud from favorite books. It’s about involving them in conversations even though they have lost the power to speak. Mostly, it’s about enduring a long, unspecified wait while presenting a positive and happy face. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait… His heart still beats, and you are already mourning him. Believe it or not, this is natural. You’re not a cold and twisted psycho hoping your parent will hurry up and die. You’re just…weary.
Then the day happens. My father passed away on a Sunday morning, just as his family arrived and gathered at his bedside. We sat with him for a long time after as we waited on the coroner to come. But now, the wait was no longer “waiting.” I remember how my eyes burned as my mom shrunk into my sister’s side, my brothers wept unashamedly, and nothing seemed real as we followed Dad’s body down the hallway of the hospital, and watched the elevator doors close between us. The nurses and staff were silent, and respectful, watching that long walk to the elevator of a newly bereaved family…they had seen it so many times before. And then we went back into Dad’s room, and gathered all his things.
That afternoon, we all sat together at my mom’s and talked. We talked about Dad. There were more tears, but there was also laughter. Yes. Laughter. Because our Dad’s life was not defined by the last three months of his sickness. He had lived 80 years before that, and 58 of those years were spent courting, marrying, having a family, and living with my mother. Believe me when I say that there had been plenty of laughter. In fact, there had been more laughter than tears. My father’s life with us had not been joyless, and as we remembered him with such an indefinable mixture of grief, love, and gladness, the laughter could not help but filter in. With the laughter came the fresh air. We all began to breathe again.
That’s where grief becomes a good thing…and maybe I should explain that further. Grief brings the air, even though you feel like you can’t breathe at the time. The thing is, you will breathe again. I think the healing begins (slowly to be sure) as soon as we begin breathing, although it doesn’t feel much like healing. There is, at first, too much sadness to consider that the waiting is over. When introduced initially to the utter finality of death, it is always shocking, even though we waited on death, and knew death was coming. Yet, death stays but a moment; it comes to collect the dying, and then leaves immediately…it does not tarry with the living. Death shuts the door behind itself securely, and this door is shut forever. It is truly over. Grief is the bridge we cross over on the journey toward acceptance. And then life, somehow, goes on.
In September of 2005, my husband and I went to Ottawa to visit his family. We stayed with his parents whose home was typical of their generation: knitted things everywhere, seldom used china in a dusty cabinet, blue mountain pottery and glass candy dishes, lots of family pictures of my husband and his sisters as children, a few science projects in the back of the fridge, and lots of comfortable well-loved furniture. Dad had his favorite chair with a small table beside where he put his remote control, his half cup of coffee, and his book. Once, there had been an ashtray too, but mom had since sent him into the bowels of the garage to smoke his cigarettes. The house smelled always of cooking and baking. Mom was usually in the kitchen preparing food for now or later. She tried to keep the house cleaning up, but age and dimming eyes slowed her down. However, everyone who entered her house came to see them, and not to inspect the odd cobweb in the ceiling corners. Personally, I like cobwebs—even though I hate spiders—because I think cobwebs give a room character. My in-laws’ home, while comfortable, warm, and fragrant, was a little too quiet for my husband and I after a few days though. Not enough movement. So, we borrowed their minivan and went sight-seeing, or to visit my husband’s sisters.
In one of our excursions, my husband and I happened upon a small shopping center and decided to snoop through the mall where we found a pet store. This pet store had little puppies, just weeks old, newly weaned, fluffy, and oh so cute. My husband wanted to make a purchase at the drug store across the way, so I chose to wait in the pet store so I could look at all the puppies. He told me before he left the store, “Do NOT pick those puppies up!” I therefore asked the store clerk to show me one of the puppies as soon as my husband’s back was turned.
The clerk put a little wriggling ball of fluff into my arms. So tiny and soft. She put her little paws around my neck and licked my cheek. Her tail was wagging so fast that it was just a white blur. Yes, it was love at first sight. She was mine, and I was most definitely hers. My husband came back to find me falling in love with this pretty little Shih Tzu puppy, and his countenance fell immediately. “Oh no!” he groaned. “I told you not to pick them up.” Then turned to the clerk. “Why did you let her pick one up??” The clerk shrugged and grinned. Then my husband huffed, “I guess it’s done now.” And it was. He came over and kissed me, then the puppy, then sighed. “How much?” he asked the clerk. And that is how a little energetic vibrating bundle of white and caramel fur became our “Ming Li.” Her name is Cantonese for “beautiful and bright.”
My husband and I agreed on several rules for Ming Li. She would always have nutritious food and clean water, regular check-ups at the veterinarian, lots of exercise and toys, bi-weekly “spa” treatments at the groomer, and lots of love from us. She would never be mistreated or purposely frightened. No one would be permitted to tease and/or annoy her. And she would never be forced to perform tricks and “beg” for her supper. We discussed everything on the first day she belonged to us and decided on the type of life we wanted to provide her. To this end, we bought several books on Shih Tzus along with a crate, her own dishes, warm clothes, towels, shampoos and various grooming accessories, a bed, blankets and cushions, a collar with a personalized name tag, toys, human grade food, treats and cookies, barrettes and ribbons for her hair, snow shoes, a small window level couch so she can look out the window, camping gear, car toys and day bag, and her own set of luggage for travelling. Then we introduced her to her veterinarian, updated all her shots, and fenced our back yard. Some people laughed and said how spoiled she is. But to us she is simply well cared for and loved.
Shih Tzus are strange little creatures, as we soon discovered. First, they are born spoiled. This is because the breed was a favorite of the Chinese Emperors who would put Shih Tzus in the front of their robes to keep warm. The emperor’s Shih Tzus enjoyed their own lavish apartments in the palace, personal staff, and ate from bowls of solid gold. There are many ancient paintings of Shih Tzus—which means “Lion Dog”—and they are depicted as included in all parts of the emperor’s life, including riding into battle. Most dogs are born with a skill that has been bred into them: Pointers point, Retrievers retrieve, and Shih Tzus comfort. The breed is 5,000 years old, and they are the original “lap dog.” If you don’t feel good, Shih Tzus seem to know this, and they will lay themselves down beside you. They become extremely attached, and all they want is to be everywhere you are.
Second, Shih Tzus know they are beautiful. They don’t walk, they prance with their heads and tails up. They have a way of looking at you, and batting their long lashes, as if to say, “See how pretty I am? You will now love me and give me everything I want.” Yet, while Shih Tzus are proud and vain, they are never rude or snobbish. Which brings me to my third point: Shih Tzus are fairly laid back at all times. They are like hippy flower children: “Peace, dude. What’s all the worry about?” Then they stretch out beside you and snore. Fourth, Shih Tzus snore. And it’s cute.
Ming Li was the most Shih Tzu of all Shih Tzus. She loved life, and she was the queen of unadulterated leisure. Watching Ming Li pass a Saturday could be an inspiration and a lesson to all people stressed out in their lives. Relaxation, play, food, and drink was Ming Li’s wheelhouse. She had a coat that required grooming, and was groomed often. She hated bath time, but was very happy afterward. She loved being brushed and combed. Ming Li was not a “morning person” and if you startled her out of a deep sleep, you ran the risk of being nipped. She was not terribly fond of children or other dogs…that’s because she considered herself a human adult. She tolerated the pettings and clumsy attentions of young children, but dogs were simply not welcome in her house, or on her property. That’s because we, and all that we have, belonged only to her, and she was jealously possessive of us. Still, in spite of her foibles and oddities, she was constantly good-natured and happy, and remained so for her eleven years with us.
When she was diagnosed with cancer this past summer, we were told that the disease was inoperable and incurable. We were no stranger to this kind of harsh diagnosis, and our hearts sank even further when the vet told us there was no treatment that was realistic for our Ming Li at her time of life. Every treatment known to vet science, at best, bought her a mere few months more, would make her violently ill, and would cost the same as a small car. We could not bear the long good bye when the outcome was inevitable. We chose to let her go with nature, and that we would love and care for her until the day that her relatively painless cancer became painful.
That day came yesterday. She lay between us on a couch in the “quiet room” of the vet clinic. This room is set aside for the passing of pets and for privacy of the bereaved pet parents. It was so quiet there. They gave her a sedative and a pain killer first. She went to sleep then, and snored her little snore. A few moments later, they came in and gave her another injection. She slipped away within moments, silently, and without the slightest tremble she was gone.
Buddhism teaches “impermanence.” Nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. As it turns out, some things are forever. There is something that is indeed permanent and unchangeable: Death. Ming Li has passed out of our lives with a permanence that is beyond salvation, and in this lifetime, we will never have her back. It’s a difficult, terrible reality that we must now come to terms with. We will definitely have another dog someday, but never our beautiful Ming Li. The monster stole her within a few short weeks and now I contemplate both her life and her death, and why we loved her so deeply.
My husband and I married later in life. For both of us, our marriage is a second marriage. My son is grown now and married. My husband and his first wife did not have children. For us, Ming Li was the child my husband and I could not otherwise have together. We were a family. Before my husband and I met, we had both been in a weird type of limbo, cut off from the worlds we had loved and wanted. When we married and settled down together, Ming Li added another dimension of stability to our lives. She made life more real. Even when my husband and I have been on the outs and fought each other, we always both loved Ming Li. Sometimes Ming Li was a bit of glue that made things a little more solid between us.
I don’t think she could possibly understand how she impacted our every day. That’s because life was so simple for her. Everything about her was pure—what she loved, what she disliked, and how she enjoyed things. She lived right “now.” That is the very truth of her—she lived in the present. She was not hung up with the past—every day was new. She forgave easily. Her love and devotion were complete. She didn’t know how to lie. Her heart was incorruptible. She had no regret, no secret shame, no crippling addiction. She was always smiling. Her spirit was perfectly at peace at all times because she was not tainted by the sin of this world. She was love and light, beautiful and bright. How could we not love her? The monster has taught us about grief, but all the best of Ming Li remains with us still. Monster, you’ve lost again.
Ming Li, “if love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”
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 or 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 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.
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.’