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.’
Today was a good day. After my husband’s second cycle of his drug therapy, the oncologist came back to us with pleasing news. For once, we were glad to be at the doctor’s office. Seems as though the drug therapy has had a positive effect on the tumors on his ribs. And while the ones on his spine get bigger day by day, just knowing that something, anything, is working in his favor is simply, well, elating. Not that he is going to be turning somersaults any time soon, but it’s a relief and for this, we are grateful.
So, when we have good days, they are splendid. Not that we did a whole lot. My husband puttered about in the yard…like he used to. We worked together on a couple of ongoing projects. We drank coffee in the morning, took an afternoon break in the sun with bottles of ice cold water, rummaged through the fridge for some lunch, and ordered out for supper. We didn’t go anywhere. We had no profound conversation. Sometimes he was at one end of our property and I was at the other end. But we were together. And life was very…normal. We don’t want excitement or days filled with a dizzying amount of adventures. What we truly crave now are the nondescript days where nothing very important happens other than a complete fullness of ordinary. A day without the type of extraordinary we have experienced lately—extraordinary pain, extraordinary sadness, and extraordinary anger—is a day we happily meet. Quiet co-existence within a well-learned, comfortable routine is such a blessing.
In our marriage, my husband and I have had excitement: we’ve traveled, seen sights, been to events, shared memorable occasions. We’ve laughed together, and cried too. But mostly, we’ve led a quiet life. We’ve loved our home, our garden, our little dog, and our families and friends. Our evenings usually consist of quiet activities, a walk with the dog, and an early bedtime. Actually, we’re kinda boring, I think. But we like it that way, and we love the comfort and peace we have always found in each other. The Monster has stolen the wonderful mundane from us. But not today. Today we are celebrating our little island of typical on a roaring ocean of turbulence.
Right now, my husband is in the living room dozing on the couch with his remote control in hand. I think he started watching a movie on Netflix. Ming Li is sleeping on the rug, on her back, with her paws in the air. She’s snoring. They’re both snoring. I’m just finishing up here. The dishes are done and the kitchen is dark except for the dim light above the stove. The window is open, and when there’s a breeze, the vase of cut roses from our rose garden fills the air with perfume. The laundry is all folded and put away, but I can still smell the fabric softener. I’ve put out fresh towels and turned down the bed. The garbage is on the curb with the recycling because it’s garbage day tomorrow. I took a small roast beef out of the freezer, and it’s thawing overnight in the sink. I’ll make a slow cooker pot roast tomorrow with baby potatoes and carrots. I’ll probably make gravy and a small lettuce salad with Ranch Dressing. Red Jello for after—it’s my husband’s favorite. Red Jello and Dream Whip.
I’m sitting in my pajamas at my computer for a few minutes more. I’ll post this, and then I’ll go wake my husband and put him to bed. I’ll turn off the television, and lock up. Then I’ll read in bed beside him. I won’t notice his snoring. I’m so used to it now. Ming Li will join us, and splay on her back across the bed. She’ll snore too. I know I will fall asleep with my glasses on my nose and my book on my chest, but in the morning, my book will be laying on my bedside table with my glasses folded on top of it. The lamp will be turned off. I will have a foggy memory of my husband making me scootch down in the bed, and planting a good night kiss on me. May God grant us another unremarkable day tomorrow.
“The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!”
Robert Browning, excerpt from Pippa Passes
This blog series has been about the journey of my husband and I during his battle with Cancer. Cancer being “the Monster.” I am fortunate in that my husband is also my friend. My true friend. And I have begun to contemplate this truth about my husband in the past little while. He is certainly my friend in all the ways a person must be a friend, and he is devoted to that friendship first before all other aspects of our relationship. It was a devastating realization for me. I am not only losing my husband, but I am losing my friend. And now I have begun to contemplate friendship anew, and how enormously important it is.
Several weeks ago, the Monster murdered my sister-in-law’s best friend. A couple of days ago, it did the same to my sister’s best friend. These women it killed, women who were both at the age when most women are their most strong, intelligent, resourceful, independent, creative, sexy, and beautiful—their 50s and 60s—died with dignity, loved by many family and friends.
It’s interesting how we tend to compartmentalize the ones we love to display their levels of value to us. For instance, “He/she is my spouse/partner”, “She’s my daughter”, “He’s my son,” “She is my grandmother/auntie/mother/sister.” And in our minds, we rate the value: a child has more worth than a cousin, a spouse has more worth than an uncle, etc. Our employers do that too. We’ll get a week off for the passing of our mother or father, a month if it’s our child, three months if it’s our spouse, and so on. Some places even give a couple of days if the family fur-person dies. But not too often is there any time given if it’s a friend who has passed. For some strange reason, friends don’t count.
Many years ago I knew a man whose best friend committed suicide. He had known this friend since they were four years old. Both coming from difficult home lives, they found comfort and comradery with each other. They experienced all the firsts of boyhood together, camped out together, explored together, fought each other’s enemies, and were devoted to each other. All their lives. They knew each other better than their respective families knew them. I would even say that who they became as men was partly due to who they were together as children and by the many ways they impacted each other. When he tried to get time off so that he could attend his best friend’s funeral, the request was denied. The response was that it would be different if it had been a family member who had died. Yet, these two men had an intimate relationship that spanned a lifetime. They were so much more than mere family. Nevertheless, their relationship was not treated with value by those outside of it.
My sister has come up against this already…this just a friend wall. She has been relegated to cooking. She can cook for everyone. That’s how she can help the family and support them in their time of loss. No one has asked her how she feels and if she needs anything during her time of loss. No one knows, of course, that she went to her dying friend nearly every day and rubbed lotion on her feet. That she slid into bed beside her, held her hand, and silently sat with her while she slept until her friend’s husband got home from work. She fed and bathed her. She watched funny movies with her. Took silly selfies and videos and told each other secrets, and kept all of these treasures for the day when her children would need them. She was there when her friend knew death was near and experienced her first true feelings of terror. She was there when her friend wondered what would become of her husband and children, and then entrusted them to her. Because she knew they would be safe with my sister watching over them. Because she trusted her with what she loved most. Because, that’s what friends do.
Not everyone is close to their families…those people about whom we had no choice. Friends though…our friends are different. Our friends are the ones we have chosen. No relationship was forced or provided when it comes to our friends. Every moment, every week, year, decade of friendship was built and nurtured by us. We work at our friendships and we work on being a better friend than we were yesterday. We learn, we evolve, and this never stops so long as the friendship remains.
Friendships differ from close acquaintances and “pals.” It’s like the cooking thing after my sister’s best friend passed away. Pals and acquaintances were all saddened by this woman’s death. They are there, organizing everything, taking care of details, and helping out the family. They are moved to tears, but they are not devastated. They brought a plate of cookies or a lasagna so her husband didn’t have to cook. One vacuumed the house. Another did all the laundry. And they don’t understand why asking my sister to help out with these necessary chores at this time is inappropriate. They don’t understand because they were not “friends” in the truest sense of the word. This does not make them bad people. They were just outside the friend relationship, because friendship is utterly, completely, profoundly personal. The loss of a friend is also utterly, completely, profoundly personal. And I know my sister is stumbling about right now, bumping into memories, and tripping over shared intimacies, and wondering who she is going to be now…now that the person she had been, with the one who first made that person come alive, is now dead. Anais Nin said that a friend “represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that the world is born.” When a friend dies, they take with them that identity they created in us and the world in which we lived that identity. When our friend dies, we lose the world.
People make jokes about friendship: Acquaintances bail you out of jail, but friends are in the cell with you. Acquaintances will help you move, but friends will help you move a body. Yes, these are comical, but actually, the underlying message is true. Friends are with you through thick and thin. Friends will come to your rescue. Friends will help dig you out of crap, even if it means they might fall into the crap pit with you.
My sister talked to me about being in the just a friend category, because it grieved her so, and she needed to talk to someone who also has “friends.” We who have friends will totally understand where she’s coming from. She doesn’t want to intrude on “the family”, but she also feels that she has a place within the circle of grief. And that’s the bad thing about being in the just a friend category. If our sibling dies, we can hold on to our other sibling/mother/father/grandparent and share our tears. We can comfort each other in a grief shared. But what does the best friend do if the family members do not always know how the friend was loved, or do not care? Friends have no say, no legal rights, and usually no part of the inheritance. Yet a person’s friends, their true friends, were probably the most meaningful, most defining relationships of their lives.
The Bible speaks often about relationships: husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and youth, but the relationship it speaks most to is the relationship of friendship. Of all human relationships, Jesus put the most value on friendship—those relationships we choose. The people we meet that we choose to love and whom we draw to us for no other reason than a desire to nurture and cherish them. Isn’t that bizarre, actually? I heard someone once say something to the effect that we choose a person who was a stranger to us and say to that person, “it is to you that I will divulge my secrets.” Then we love that person, and they love us back for the very same reason, because they chose us too. With 7 billion people on this earth, what are the chances??
That’s why it is friendship that is the “pearl of great value.” It is our friend who is the “one who sticks closer than a brother.” How can that possibly be accurately measured for worth in a world that seems to thrive on betrayal, despair, and a BFF/Frenemy mentality that states “we will be friends until we are not.” What does that even mean? I am who I am today, not only because of my parents, or the high school I attended, or the job I do. I am also who I am today because of five women and one man of all the millions of people on earth who impacted my life in ways that I cannot fully verbalize and to depths that I don’t quite understand.
Euripides said that “one loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” Hahaha. Sometimes this is true, but I am not saying that friends are somehow better than family because family consists of a different set of relationships, each with its own complexity. We love our moms. I am saying, however, that friends and family are of equal importance. There is no such thing as just a friend.
I have been blessed in my life to have a circle of friends who have been the gardens I watered with tears, the clowns who made the milk come out my nose, the mirrors who revealed my truest self, and the immovable rocks against which I beat my fists. You friends out there, you just a friend friends, the Monster would have you walk about numbly, feeling the weight of this on your shoulders, wishing you knew just what to do. Wondering where you belong amongst the bereaved. It wants you to believe that no one seems to know your pain, and everyone who does know belongs to an inner circle that for some incalculable reason does not include you. The Monster thrives on suffering and division. But maybe this will comfort you when you remember that while your friend created an identity in you, you also created an identity in them. Maybe you can make some of those secrets places you knew together with your friend into coins of gold, and bring them into the gathering of family—not to give away—but to display and to trade. The Monster doesn’t want you to share. He sure doesn’t want feelings of love and gratitude to overshadow loss and anguish. Beat him at his own game—be your friend’s friend even in their death.