The Tale of Us Against The Monster: Grappling With Faith

There is an old adage which says “to trust God in the light is nothing, but to trust Him in the dark—that is faith.” I was speaking to my sister the other day, telling her that the Monster had broken free of its chains and has invaded my husband’s lungs.  I felt hopeless.  This, I thought, is the beginning of the end.  The Monster’s return, my sudden despair, the unravelling of our world. It will all happen now.  I said, “he will die.”  This was not accompanied by tears, just a heaviness, a knowing, like standing at the bottom of a steep mountain path rising up into fog and gloom, and understanding it is a path I must unavoidably climb.  That somehow, my husband and I must climb it together.  But my sister responded by warning me not to speak death into my husband, but rather to have faith.  There is still life to be lived.  For a moment, I had forgotten that.

Faith, like life, is a tenuous thing. Fragile if not nurtured.  Weak if not nourished.  My husband and I have spent our lifetimes believing in God…or should I say, believing that there is a God.  I have learned, of late, that these are two different things.  I know my faith has been tested.  I know it has come under attack.  I know that it has caused me to question myself and my motivations, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a crisis of faith before.  It’s a strange thing actually.  It’s not that I doubt the existence of God.  What I have begun to doubt is whether or not He is as near to me as people keep telling me He is.  Somehow, somewhere, I fell overboard, and no matter how fast and hard I swim, I can’t seem to catch up to the boat.  It’s adrift, moving away from me, and I am flailing in the middle of the sea calling for a God Who doesn’t answer me. I’ve heard it called the ‘dark night of the soul’…lost, alone, and Heaven is silent.

My grandmother used to tell me that you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you must simply ‘hurry up and wait.’  And waiting takes patience.  And patience takes discipline.  And discipline takes determination. And determination takes strength. And strength takes faith.  In fact, nothing in this life is possible without faith. That we will wake in the morning, that we will eat food, that we will get to work on time, that we will make it home, that we will return home again to find everything where we left it.  That we will connect again with the ones we love.  That we will have the power of speech.  That we will see and hear.  That we will understand.  That we will breathe. Faith—we believe what we do not yet know.

You who are struggling as the Monster batters your faith, I have no answers for you except to say that I know just how you feel. There is darkness beneath the Monster’s consuming shadow; your eyes are not deceiving you.  It is cold here; your senses are not cheats.  But this is not the end.  It just feels like the end, as we sometimes imagine that ends must be.  Here in the darkness, I imagine the end, because what else is there to do in the dark but suffer horrors of my own invention?  I obsess about terrors and forget what is real and true and all around me, like my husband lying in bed right now propped against pillows with his glasses low on his nose and squinting at the small print of an article he is reading on his tablet.  He is sipping from a bottle of water.  The dog is laying across his feet.  He is comfortable and warm, and starting to feel like maybe it’s time to put the tablet down and sink down into his bed for the night.  All around him, there is light and there is life.  Only God knows tomorrow.  Still, it’s hard to make myself move and strike out in this darkness even though I can clearly see my husband from here.  He is where the light is, and I think I can get back there.  Perhaps it just takes a leap of faith.

#cancer #faith #surviving cancer #new normal

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The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Night Owls and Pajamas

night-owls

The other day I cleaned my kitchen, wiped down all the counter tops and the stove, swept the floor, started the dishwasher, and cleaned the guest bathroom. It was 3:00 in the morning.  I thought about vacuuming too, but the dog was sleeping, so I just dusted and tidied the living room instead.  Didn’t want to wake her up.  After my cleaning spree, it was about 4:00 in the morning, and so I thought I’d peek in on my husband.  See how he was doing.  He was fine—propped up against a pile of pillows, engrossed in whatever article he was reading on his tablet.  He looked up at me and smiled.

“Whatcha doing?”

I shrugged, “Nothing much. Just putzing about. Getting some chores done.”

“I can hear the dishwasher going.” He observed. “What time is it?”

“Just after 4:00.” I told him.  He laughed at this.

“We are upside down and all out of whack, aren’t we? Just cuz I am, doesn’t mean you have to be too.  You should get some sleep.”

“Can’t.” I sighed. “I can’t sleep when you’re up.  I know it’s weird.  But it’s true.”

“I know.” He said back, a little sadly, like this truth was a regretful one.

I leaned against the doorway and watched him for a moment. I know he can’t sleep because of his medication, or his pain, or his nausea, or his restlessness, or perhaps his dread and all the terrifying thoughts that come with it.  I know that he wants to sleep.  I know that he would give anything for a good old-fashioned eight hours.

“Want a sleeping pill?” I suggested. “Might help you relax if nothing else.”

“Nah. I don’t need any more pills.”

“Cup of tea?”

“I’m good. Don’t fuss.”

“I wish you could sleep.”

“I do sleep.” He said casually, “Just not when it’s convenient. I know it’s hard to plan anything. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just don’t freak out if I vacuum and do some laundry.”

“Why don’t you read for a while?” He lowered his tablet and looked hard at me. I could see his concern. “Your eyes will get tired and you’ll sleep. Go sit on your lazyboy chair, put your feet up and get under an afghan blanket with a book.  You’ll be asleep in no time.”

“Ya, maybe I’ll try that.”

“I’m fine, you know.” He told me. “It’s okay. Everything is okay.”

“Alright then. Goodnight. I love you.”  My hand went to door knob, starting to close it.

“I love you too, Pumpkin.” He called after me.  “Don’t stay up.”

“I won’t.”

Silence then.

I tidy up the rest of what I was doing. Pass on putting on the kettle, and grab a bottle of water instead.  Turn off lights.  Tuck the dog’s blanket around her and change her water bowl.  The doors are all locked.  The phones are charging in their cradles.  The living room is dimly lit.  I sit down in the lazyboy, draw my favorite fuzzy blankie over me, and pick up one of my “to read” books on my end table. The Picture of Dorian Grey. I open the book and browse through it.  It’s short.  Maybe I’ll start it tonight and finish it tomorrow.

I’ve always been a night owl. Even as a child.  Robert Louis Stevenson said, “there is a romance about all those who are abroad in the black hours.” I don’t know how romantic it is to be up and wide awake while the rest of the world—the normal people—are sleeping. I’ve also heard night owls referred to as Fire Watchers—those who watch over the ones who sleep.  I suppose there is a little bit of romance in that.

I have always shared Peter’s hours—even when he was still working, and preferred to do the graveyard shift. It’s always been that way.  When he’s up, I’m up. When he’s asleep, I’m asleep.  I was also like that with my son when he was very little.  I guess there’s a positive in that now though since sometimes my husband will wake and need something.  I’m usually right there, if that’s the case.  I know he gets relief from knowing this.

But what does it matter anyway? I ask myself this constantly.  We have to find out own normal in the midst of a very big abnormal. I have about ten pairs of pajamas—they are comfortable and washable—and I rarely wear anything else at home unless we have company, and then it depends on who is the company.  If it’s family? Pajamas.  Close friends? Pajamas. My husband is the same way.  We have thrown off all the complexities of matching socks and coordinating outfits for something that is fully functional, yet reflective of our desire for simplicity…we take it wherever we can get it.  He wears pajamas too…pajama bottoms and T-shirts.  It’s about the comfort. Comfort is everything.  People who know us well understand.

No bed times, no wake times, no set meal times, no schedule of any kind, except for the constant stream of appointments and medications. As an offset, there are lots of pillows and blankets in every room.  It goes that way for us now.  I suppose it’s normal for us to withdraw into our little world.  Neither of us can bear the stress anymore—the Monster is taxing.  In our jammies, we’re safe where we are.  This is not to say that we don’t leave the house.  We do.  We go for the odd walk when he feels up to it.  We sometimes slip out to a movie.  I do the grocery shopping and pay the bills. We get to our doctor appointments.  Sometimes my husband will go lay on his friend’s couch and watch the game.  But mostly, our life has become very quiet and slow-paced.  We prefer it that way.  The Monster is asleep, so we tiptoe around him.

I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about this “Us Against the Monster” series. I’ve re-read some of the past blogs and think that too much of them are either sad or filled with frustration.  I have to say that my husband and I don’t live in that sadness and frustration every single minute of every day anymore.  With this terrible “long goodbye” that we have been faced with, we have learned to cling to the myriad of other things that are normal to us.  We still lay in bed together, hold hands, and whisper back and forth. We still tell each other secrets. We just refuse the constant sadness, stress, and fear now. In truth, it does raise its ugly head now and again, it’s just that now it seems to lose its way in the dimly lit quiet of the wee hours.  I suppose we still are who we always were, but now we prefer to live our life together at any weird hour, and always in our pajamas.

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Gardening and Internal Sketchbooks

 

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.

 

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

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.

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Set Adrift

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 rainand 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Waiting and Breathing

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.

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Ming Li

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.”