The Tale of Us Against the Monster: The Importance of Buckets

Tomorrow, my husband and I leave for Florida. His bucket list includes a trip to somewhere warm with palm trees, and to visit with his sisters while he is still well enough to travel.  Turns out both his sisters are going to be in Florida at the beginning of February, so yay, two wishes on his bucket list taken care of in one shot.

We hear the term “Bucket List” splashed around a lot. There’s even a movie with the title.  Of course, it comes from the term “kick the bucket” which is a colloquialism for “to die.”  According to Phrase Finder, “kick the bucket” can be traced back to the late 1700s. “The wooden frame that was used to hang animals up by their feet for slaughter was called a bucket. Not unnaturally they were likely to struggle or to spasm after death and hence kick the bucket.” There you have it…more stuff to cram into the useless trivia file in your head.

On closer inspection of the term…I would like to examine the “bucket” in “kick the bucket.” Buckets can be filled with anything, carried from place to place, used as a means to fill a larger container, as the receptacle to clean up a mess, or put out a fire…sometimes lots of good stuff can be loaded into buckets.  They used to carry bricks from the kiln to the builders—in buckets.  I like buckets.  It seems to me that buckets serve a very useful purpose.  They are meant to be filled up—it is their only true function.

I suppose the most important thing about the bucket list is to fill it with memories. To see and do and go and experience things.  To reach out and touch the sun-warmed brick of the Pyramids, or the cold iron of the Eiffel Tower.  To return to a place of enormous nostalgic meaning and walk the streets, cross the fields, feel the shade of the trees lining that special path.  To have with you that one person who will share the profundity of these times, who will savor them, who will remember them for you when you no longer are able…the person who will be the other you when the time comes.  One cannot build a life together without creating memories.

As for my husband and I, we have buckets of memories. Letters and cards, emails, photographs, videos. We had our wedding filmed.  We have recorded our life together, carefully, reverently. All these have been collected, and filed, and named, and labelled.  I have albums and disks, and tubs of photos I want to make into albums yet.  And each photo is a memory.  When I say I have buckets of them, I honestly, literally, do.  Number one on my bucket list is to fill more buckets.

There are never enough, you know, but you won’t know this for sure until you are faced with the actual time when the bucket list moves from dreams to reality.  You will fret about what is not in the bucket yet, and you will strive to see that it is in there…while there is yet time.  No trip away can do that.  Not really.  Not so much as saying the things you need to say.  And hearing back the things you need to hear.  The intimacies are what make the photographs and the memories live.  We look at the photographs someday, and remember the day and the smell of the breeze and the occasion, and we remember the one in the photograph, and then we remember love and joy.  Yes, I definitely will need more buckets….

 

Loving can hurt

Loving can hurt sometimes

But it’s the only thing that I know

When it gets hard

You know it can get hard sometimes

It is the only thing that makes us feel alive.

We keep this love in a photograph

We made these memories for ourselves

Where our eyes are never closing

Our hearts are never broken

And time’s forever frozen still…

Loving can heal

Loving can mend your soul

And it’s the only thing that I know

I swear it will get easier

Remember that with every piece of you

And it’s the only thing we take with us when we die.

So you can keep me

Inside the pocket

Of your ripped jeans

Holding me close

Until our eyes meet

You won’t ever be alone

And if you hurt me

That’s OK baby, only words bleed

Inside these pages you just hold me

And I won’t ever let you go

You can fit me

Inside the necklace you got when you were 16

Next to your heartbeat

Where I should be

Keep it deep within your soul

Wait for me to come home…

                                                                                Ed Sheeran, “Photograph.”

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: A New Understanding of Sleep

Anyone living with the Monster will tell you that sleep takes on a new meaning. Sometimes day is night and night is day. Sometimes a 24 hour period is a series of naps interrupted by The Big Bang Theory, Hawaiian Pizza, or a trip to the bathroom.  Other times it’s about whispering nose to nose, holding hands, and negotiating with the furry lump that is an immoveable fat Shih Tzu laying on her back across the bed, snoring.  Then there are times of waking to tears and knowing with profound certainty that we are mortal, transient things, meant to live only for an instant.  In those whispered moments between sleep, we learn that most everything we believed about men and women—or men versus women—is an illusion…a sad illusion.  As it turns out, we are all equal in strength and weakness, in pain and suffering, in life and death.  We are the same after all.

But I do understand the need for the masks we wear. Careers sometimes demand that we are impersonal.  In a world full of thieves, we hide behind our sunglasses, fend off the approach of a stranger with our cell phones, and we give very little information about ourselves to anyone we don’t know.  We use masks to cover our fears and insecurities.  We puff up our breasts and fan out our feathers to make ourselves bigger.  We are rarely who we truly are.  Only a very few see behind the many masks we wear and interchange daily.  Without the masks we are raw, usually scarred to some extent with the odd wound that hasn’t quite healed.  Sometimes we think our imperfect mortality makes us unattractive and frail and so painfully vulnerable, and sometimes we are right about that. But then, it all depends on who’s looking at us.  When it is that person, well then, we are looking back at them, aren’t we?  It is more than two people knowing each other. It has become now a meeting of souls, and a joining.

The Monster likes to tear off our protective masks, to bare us before a cynical world, and leave us broken and humiliated. However, that can only work in the presence of potential fear and shame.  For two who are beyond the need for masks, where all fears have been assuaged, and all shame has been removed, the Monster can only beat his fists against the impenetrable barrier of commitment and devotion that surrounds us.  If we are to be mortal, then we are mortal together.  If there is to be pain, then we suffer together.  If there are to be tears, then we will bathe each other in them.  I must tell you that there is peace in that assurance.  With peace, the spirit rests, and sleep follows.  Sleep is the result of the removal of masks.  Take that, Monster!

The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Time For Pretty Dishes

My husband and I were married later in life. We had both been married before.  My son was almost grown.  And each of us had a complete household.  Therefore, when we got married, we really didn’t want any wedding gifts.  I imagined getting yet another toaster… One only needs so many toasters, and as it was, my husband, my son, and I were going to move in together, and our newly forming household was replete with three toasters already—one each.  We each had our own toaster.  While I suppose another toaster could have been carefully preserved as the “guest toaster” we decided to nip it in the bud instead.  No wedding gifts, thank you.  Send us a card with your best wishes. Write us a letter or a poem that we will add to our wedding album keepsake.  But no gifts please.

However, after further discussion with my girlfriends, I finally admitted to wanting some china. Not just any china.  I had always loved Royal Albert china, and in particular, the Old Country Roses pattern. And what is Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses without a set of Pinwheel crystal stemware??  Yeah, alright then.  I fell face first into all the wedding registry nonsense that I swore I would avoid and had previously eschewed as unnecessary. So, my friends all went together and got me a four place setting.  My sister, sister-in-law, and mother threw in some stemware, and afterward, I bought flatware and some table linen.  Then I placed it reverently in an oak china cabinet where it remains to this day, beautifully displayed.  I have added to it as one does when one first gets china.  Now I can serve eight with all the serving bowls, tea pot, little extras, you name it.  I got it.  And if I don’t have it in Royal Albert, I have it in Pinwheel crystal.  Yep.  At my house you can eat off gilded dishes and hear the musical ring of crystal glasses.  It’s just that it rarely happens. In 13 years of marriage, I have used the dishes 11 times.  This is because they are set aside only for the most special of dinners.  Usually Christmas dinner.

I have another set of dishes. They are beautiful, hand-painted, and a design by a dish artist (yes there are dish artists) that she has moved on from.  This means that the art of her dishes, which I own in a complete set, is irreplaceable.  And they are absolutely gorgeous, super cool, expensive, and I love them.  There are pasta bowls and footed soup bowls and matching footed mugs.  All hand painted and designed by an artist.  I have a complete setting for 4.  To compliment this set, I have over sized wine glasses—you know, the kind that will fit an entire bottle of wine for THOSE days—and a gorgeous pasta platter, olive trays, and other little porcelain cute things.  In the past, when my husband and I have invited another couple to dine with us, there’s always a comment or two at how beautiful everything is.  But again, we rarely use them because we rarely have a dinner party.  We are just so caught up in our busy lives, that the special days to use the special dishes never come.

Now, I am rethinking the meaning of time and special days. As I sit here writing, I am sipping Chocolate Salted Caramel Dessert Wine from a long stemmed Pinwheel crystal champagne flute.  Not so long ago I would have saved this dessert wine for a time when my husband and I were having the dessert course after dinner with friends.  I would have cleared the table, and we would have sat afterward in muted light around a table and chatted and laughed and drank this lovely wine.  I would have set it aside, and we would have waited.  Like we wait to use the dishes.  How did dishes become so meaningful to me? What am I waiting for?

But we do that, don’t we? Maybe not all of us, but lots of us certainly have a “special” thing that is hoarded away carefully for a time when a special day matches the specialness of the special thing.  “I have save this bottle of champagne/scotch for a day like today…” or “I’ve been keeping this for you for when this day came along.”  I used to believe in that kind of sentiment.  I, myself, kept two bottles of the wine made specially for my son’s wedding.  I had planned to open one when his first child came, and the other on the day he bought his first home.  Landmark occasions to be celebrated with something that would bear special meaning to him and his wife.  Think. Do you have that special thing you are keeping back? That special thing you never use? That ring from your grandmother you are too afraid to wear outside the house?

You see, we all believe that the day will eventually come. There will be a day to open the wine, to wear the ring, to use the china, to dust off that treasure so carefully hidden away.  Sometimes though, we can wait too long.  Time runs out on us unawares and we must go, without ever having tasted the champagne.  Thus, I am learning to see the special “now.”

Two days ago, my son and his wife came over for dinner. I got out my special pasta dishes, and linens, and set the table, and poured expensive wine.  My husband asked, “Why are you doing all of this?  It’s just the kids.”  True enough.  My son shows up, and flops on our couch, and puts his feet on the coffee table, and always forgets to use a coaster.  He’s at home here.  But every time he comes over, he brings vibrancy and the incomparable gift of laughter.  Contagious laughter brought forth by a lightning fast, razor sharp wit. When he walks through our door, joy follows with him.  How is that not special?  In fact, it’s the most special thing in all the world to me, to have my beautiful son bring his beautiful wife to our table.  How lucky we are to have each other and to live so close by and to enjoy each other’s company as enormously as we do.  Not all families are close.  Not all families love each other. We don’t just love each other.  We really like each other too. I think that deserves a special dish.  How did I not know this before?

When my son and his wife had gone home, I put the dishes back in their special place. Then I sat for a while and listened to the abrupt quiet and felt that temporary cavity caused by the kids’ departure.  You parents whose kids have flown the nest will know what I mean.  How worthwhile it was, and how meaningful to catch up and laugh and enjoy a really good meal.  (Okay, so I’m a pretty good cook. Just saying.)

When the monster first attacked, I was of a mind to down-size. Sell things.  Give away my beautiful dishes.  The monster made me feel that everything was meaningless.  There was no point to anything anymore.  Just, whatever.  Here…take it.  Take it all.  But now, I am seeing that I was being hasty.  Now, I want to do the very opposite.  In fact, I think I’m going to use my china every week from now on.  It is now my mission to seek out and acknowledge the special.  My husband needs to be surrounded by beauty and happiness.

I want fresh cut flowers in beautiful vases decorating my home. Instead of waiting, the time is now. That little vacation fund we put away.  No time like the present.  I want to have little trips to see the theater in Vancouver.  I want to have weekly book and pajama days. I want to fill my house with company, rather than keeping people at arm’s length during the monster’s residence in our house.  I don’t want to play his game at all.

Monster!  You thought we’d shut down, turn up our toes, and die the death you’ve forced upon us. Instead you’ve reminded us about the precious moments of our life, and that they come every single day.  Each day has something priceless in it that deserves to be celebrated. And so we will celebrate indeed.  I’ll bet you never saw that coming, did you, you ugly bastard! You may dictate death to us, but you cannot take away my dishes!

The Tale of Us Against the Monster…Introduction

I have finished my Master’s degree now. Just as my husband and I believed this huge mountain was behind us, we immediately slammed into another one.  This one is bigger and meaner and we will not survive it together.

People talk about “living with cancer” as a thing that one simply does. One “lives” with cancer.  I don’t know how true that is.  I know, so far, that my husband has “suffered” with cancer.  By suffering, I mean that he has experienced intense pain, overwhelming sadness and grief that his life is ending, rage at the enormous unfairness of it, the terror of approaching and unavoidable death, and the utter indignity of losing much of his mobility and independence.  As for me and “living” with cancer, I simply die a tiny piece at a time, like a chisel is being applied steadily to my soul.  Little bits chipped away slowly.  There is no “living” with cancer, at least not when compared to how we lived before the monster invaded my husband’s body.

Our life together has changed catastrophically, permanently, and profoundly. I cannot NOT see minutes, moments, blinks, or inklings without the yellow-bile haze of the monster’s breath filtering the light.  We are polluted by this thing that not only follows us into our dreams, but also nags every word, smile, chuckle, or kiss that passes between us.  It is the rotting zombie, ever-present, mindless, and voracious that stands in the corner of the room—it watches us.

But… I still, strangely enough, hold on to my faith. I truly do.  But my faith has shifted…or it’s now focused on something truly solid, where before it was “in theory.” You see, I’ve come to realize that my husband has always been mortal.  At some point, my husband was always going to die.  And that truth was covered in my marriage vows, come to think of it.  That whole “til death do you part” thing.  That “as long as you both shall live” clause.  Death is already written into marriage, as a thing of certainty that, barring its own inevitability, the marriage will continue.  I did agree to it.  I did swear by it.  I did promise my husband that I would do it before God and Man.  I did.  It’s just that the other stuff, the “to have and to hold, to love and to cherish” part took pre-eminence and I narrowed my focus to the living my husband and I would do, and forgot about the dying we would also do.  I can’t be the only one who has done this, and so foolishly, so humanly forgot about mortality.  But how can we concentrate on the mortal while we are consorting within the realms of the immortal?

Love, true love, is forever. As a Christian, I believe that I take my love with me into Eternity and meet with my love there, again.  Reunited forever.  To me, love is immortal.  And I choose this belief in a world where love has become tenuous and throw-away.  Where marriage vows have changed from “until death do you part” to “for as long as you both are able.”  And this is not an assault on modern marriage vows or a holier-than-thou-only-Christians-understand-marriage thing.  It’s just one woman’s desperate attempt to attach a sense of hope to that which has moved so far from hopefulness.  I would shake my fist at the sky if it would help, but then I am reminded again that I did indeed marry a mortal man—and that I agreed to his mortality. I guess I just didn’t understand what I was agreeing to until I met the monster. Therefore, you who have vowed to love, be warned. Remember the “small print.”

So now, bucket list. His and mine.  My husband needs to clear up and order the paperwork of his life now.  And he needs to take his leave of everything.  The actual paper paperwork is almost done.  That was the easy part.  Now it’s done, the harder stuff begins…people, places, things.  Saying words, sharing hugs and kisses and tears as one person passes through the gate and boards the plane to their new home while others remain, and wave good-bye, holding on to each other as the plane lifts away until it merges with an ocean of blue.

I watched a television show yesterday where a character mused that there are people in our lives whose presence we simply take for granted as a part of our being in the world. They are such an integral ingredient in our daily living, that they are fused to us, they help define our meaning in life.  We don’t even think about losing these people.  Neither do we imagine what life would be like without them.  Maybe it’s because the mere thought is too agonizing to entertain even for a moment, so we never do.  Or, maybe it’s because losing them would cause such a catastrophic shift in our life that it’s frankly impossible to wrap our head around it.  I don’t know what it is exactly. All I can say is that it is a sudden and bizarre reality, and the person who wrote that television episode understands what THIS is.  The person who wrote the episode has been touched by a monster like mine, and understands the depth of finality it brings. Because whoever that writer is, absolutely nailed it.

Therefore, having admitted the truth to myself, I will return to faith. It’s what I know for sure.  And I know that within that safe place of faith, I can hold on to love and find joy and laughter. I will report on all of these things equally, as coins of the same value.  Telling this story will be my new project. Watching my husband’s struggle will be fearsome, but witnessing his splendid courage will surely become the yardstick by which I will measure everything that ever afterward enters my life.  And maybe someone suffering with their own monster will read this “tale of us against the monster” and know that they are not alone…

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