Strong is hard

1 10 2014

I have written of my son’s lovely partner, of the illness that her family is dealing with.  It came to an end a few weeks ago when her father died, felled by a cancer that had been diagnosed three months earlier.  Three months.  It is no time at all.

It is normal, in the face of great loss, to rationalize that what you’re going through isn’t as bad as what others have gone through.  So in the days after this wonderful man died, his widow held my hands and told me again and again how my experience had been so much worse, how she didn’t have it so bad because she had had the time to say everything that needed to be said.  I get that.  I lost my husband very suddenly.

But we too had said everything that needed to be said.  We spent a lifetime doing it, and the last thing we said to each other was “I love you”.  There is nothing else.  And I didn’t have to see him sick, or in pain, or suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy.  I didn’t have to see him afraid of what would happen to his family.  He lived until he was done.  And then he stopped.  It was sudden, and shocking, and I was left in the aftermath.

But that is true of every death, regardless of how you get there.  A lingering decline or a sudden exit, the final silence is a shock.


His widow told my son a few nights ago that she wished she could be more like me, that I was so strong and independent.    I am.  I don’t always feel that way, but overall, yes.  I take care of things.

And she will as well, for the same reason: there isn’t a choice.  She will take care of things because nobody else can or will, and these things must be done.  She will take care of emptying the house, of figuring out what the next step is.  She will deal with the loneliness of an empty bed.  She will straighten out the finances, cook for just herself, shovel her own walks when the snow begins to fall.  These things are hard.  She will become strong by doing these hard things.

Being strong is good.  People speak admiringly of strength.

Becoming strong is hard.



5 09 2014

I married into a wonderful family.  Unlike so many people I know, I love all of the people I married… and yes, I subscribe whole-heartedly to the notion that you don’t just marry the person, you marry the family.  I lost the man I married far too soon.  Blessedly, I still have the family.

I’ve written before about losing my mother-in-law three years ago.  Her final decline was actually not that long, a few months – but they were long months, mostly in the hospital trying to get all of her systems to work at the same time.  I was blessed in being able to spend time with her during those last months.  She left behind a wonderful family, a legacy of love, humor, and compassion that we all strive to live up to.  And she left behind a man who loved her always, who loves her still.

He is an extraordinary man.  When I married his son, he introduced me to everyone as his daughter – he couldn’t be bothered with making the distinctions between genetics and love.  It caused no end of confusion.  I never asked him to stop doing it because it was such a sweet habit… but also because of how loved he made me feel, that I was also his child.  He was the terror of several generations of high school history students, people who meet me now and say “THAT man is your father-in-law?”  Yes, he is.  He has been in my life for nearly 40 years and I love him.

He is now 90.  He suffers from the degenerative illnesses of age – his eyes don’t work as well, his hearing is failing.  And he misses his wife.  He repeats the stories of meeting her, falling in love with her, marrying her and starting a family.  It doesn’t matter how many times I hear the stories.  I want to hear them again.  His body is betraying him; he has had a series of small strokes that have steadily shrunk the scope of his world.  The social and gregarious man of 40 years ago has become frail, unsteady, and afraid of his own vulnerability.  The man who told stories constantly, who learned Chinese because he could, has now found himself unable to string the stories together, or to find the words he’s looking for.  The constriction of his world has left him sad and isolated.

This week he was diagnosed with carotid stenosis, severe enough that endocardectomy was indicated.  His first response was: hell no.  After some discussion, he agreed that perhaps the quality of his life could be improved with the surgery, and he had the procedure this morning.  I have spent more time in the hospital with him… and I want to believe that this can make things better for him, but what I see is a man who is just so tired.  He is ready to leave.  I want him here.  I want will always want him here.  I will never be ready for him to leave.

I hope I am wrong.  I hope that I have several more years with him.  And maybe it’s just the discomfort of coming out of surgery – but he seems like he just wants to go.  The burdens of his body are more than he wants to deal with any more, and he wants to put them down.  I resist.  I deny.  I am not ready.

He is ready.

I am not.

Unexpected mindfulness

2 09 2014

I had a couple of lengthy drives this weekend.  Nothing that required overnight stays anywhere – just drives of over an hour each way, which for me is a different mindset than hopping in the car to run errands.  But really all my driving has become more mindful recently, and I’m grateful for that even though it was entirely unexpected.

A few months ago I traded in my much-loved SUV for a more practical but (in my mind) much less cool Prius.  I adored my SUV.  She drove through any weather, on any surface, and got me where I needed to go without fail; the only time she didn’t start in nine years was when a door didn’t get closed, and the dome light drained the aging battery.  She did, however, use a ton of gas.  Mileage for the kind of driving I did – mostly to and from work – hovered right around 20 mpg, sometimes a little less.  And she was getting to the age where I knew that repairs were going to start costing more.  So I traded her in.  I cried over letting her go and was grateful that I couldn’t see her when I drove my new Prius out of the lot.

There are some philosophical changes I had to make in changing from the enthusiastic V-6 of the SUV to the smooth and quiet hybrid.  The biggest one was that I was no longer going to beat anyone away from a stoplight.  I didn’t realize – until I couldn’t do it any more – how much energy I had spent in maneuvering into positions where I could “get ahead” of traffic clumps.  I was constantly calculating in my head which lane was moving faster, how I could be behind the fewest cars at a stoplight so that I could be faster getting through.

Drive a hybrid and those decisions are largely meaningless – yes, you can still punch the engine and get a surprising kick of acceleration out of it, but that takes a lot of fuel, and efficiency was one big reason I wanted this technology in the first place.  So driving in a fuel efficient way meant breaking those old habits.  It meant learning to accelerate smoothly and evenly while other cars tore away from the lights.  It meant braking smoothly and evenly to capture that braking energy – while other cars zipped into the space in front of me to get that coveted spot as far up as possible at a stoplight.

And oh my, cars got ahead of me.  They got away from lights faster, they pulled ahead of me, and by my previous V-6 standards they were winning while I was losing… and I stopped caring.  Driving a Prius took away my ability to compete on the road, and I hadn’t even realized that I had been treating driving that way.  And I certainly had no idea of the mental ravages of going through this competition every time I got behind the wheel.

I’ve been driving Lily for almost six months now.  There are days when the driving is rough because holy cow, do the competitive drivers bring it some days, and it’s all I can do to stay out of their way.  But mostly?  I have found a much more peaceful means of getting around.  I’m not in the competition any more, and suddenly the drives are… nice.  Lovely, in fact.  I see the things around me – fog hovering over a field in the early morning, deer lingering in the dawn, sunsets on a stormy day.  I decide what music to listen to while I’m driving and I actually hear it.  And nearly every time, I get to my destination and think, that was a lovely drive.

I know.  I could have been driving mindfully this whole time.  And technology isn’t the answer to all our life problems.  But I wasn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been strongly pushed in that direction by new (to me) technology.  That wasn’t why I decided to buy a hybrid; I was entirely motivated by economics when I made the decision.  The benefits turned out to be much greater than I expected.


24 08 2014

I have a friend that I’ve had for almost twenty years.  Until last week I had been with him for less than two hours.  My friend was in prison.  I met him when he was already inside, writing to him because another of friend of mine was already writing to him and knew he could use all the mail he could get.

Let us not mix words here or make this in any way romantic.  He was in for murder.  He stabbed his fiancée to death.  In the course of that horrible night, she also stabbed him – but the key difference is that he survived while she did not.  He was sentenced to thirty years for the crime.  And he was paroled a little over a year ago, having served twenty of those thirty years.

Her family is furious.  I understand on the most superficial, basic-human-kindness level.  I can’t understand what they truly feel, and fundamentally I don’t even want to.  I simply cannot imagine the loss they have gone through.  I don’t know what I would feel in that situation.  I don’t want to know.  I do know that, for them, the time my friend has served will never be enough; their cry will always be “But she is still dead.”

Yes, she is.  There is no answer to that.  No matter what, no matter how extreme the punishment for the crime, she is still dead.  I would hope for myself that I would be able to move beyond it to a simple “she is dead,” without that unexpressed hope of the word “still,” as if there were somehow a way to make her not dead, like the situation could somehow be reversed to make the outcome different.

It is not directly comparable – but I know what it’s like to have a crater blown in your world.  It doesn’t ever go away, it doesn’t ever disappear over the horizon of your life.  If you’re lucky and you work at it, you can put some distance between yourself and the crater, though.  It can still be big and overwhelming, but it’s part of the larger landscape of your life.  It’s not the only thing any more and it doesn’t define who or where you are.

I wish her family could move away from the rocky slopes of their crater.  Not because their continued fury is so hurtful for my friend – although his remorse is considerable, and it does hurt him – but because the crater is so unforgiving, so unlikely to support life on its glassy, molten sides.  There is no love there, no memories that end in anything except sorrow and loss.  There is no comfort.

I wish I could tell them of a better world.  I have no standing and they would be justified in driving me off by any means necessary.  I do grieve for them, for the loss they suffered and for what they still feel.

There are no winners here.


1 07 2014

My son is dating a lovely young woman, a woman I would be thrilled to call my daughter one day.  And this amazing woman is surrounded by the most delightful family that I could ever hope for.  I wrote of what it was like to land in their arms at a time when things are potentially quite dark for them.

Her father is still very ill, and right now is dealing with a series of infections that make it very difficult to move on to the next phase of treatment. He has been hospitalized several times since the first diagnosis, trying to get things stable enough to move forward.  He is in again as I type this.  I went to visit him today, and as I walked into the room, I saw his wife leaning over him to gently kiss him – not kissing him goodbye or hello, but just kissing him because that’s who they are.

It was beautiful and profound.  One of those moments when everything stops, for this moment of utter tenderness and connection between two people.  I was blessed beyond description to witness such a moment.

It is a hard thing, taking the journey they are.  It is likely that there will not be a good outcome to this, and all of us know it.  Thankfully, none of us are looking away.  And again: grateful for the embrace of family.

But also: furious at how unfair this is.  How unfair our loss was, nearly eight years ago… my husband shouldn’t have died the way he did.  He should still be here, and he should be part of this new family we’re forming because he would have loved it so much, and they would have loved him, and this is everything he ever worked and hoped for… and DAMN IT my new family shouldn’t have to be facing this kind of loss and uncertainty.  And oh, how this hurts.

You can’t die.

There is still so much to do.

We have so many stories to tell, we have children to enjoy together.

There is still so much and why can’t there be enough time?

Don’t leave.  Please.

Stay here.