15 10 2014

Between times.

I am between times.

These are between times.

September 19 is my big one every year, the anniversary of the greatest loss I have known.  There is a season of the soul that starts for me then.  My birthday comes less than two weeks after that.  His birthday is three weeks after mine.  The world is not itself for that month, not for me.  That month is my between time.


The day before September 19, my son’s partner suffered the greatest loss she has ever known, when her father died.  It resonated all the way through our family as well.  There is no official state-sanctioned tie between my son and the woman he loves; the tie of love binds us all together into a new family, and we grieve together the loss of a good man.  I didn’t know him long.  Not nearly long enough.

The between time was a day early this year.


On September 19 my father-in-law entered intensive care after throwing up blood.  He is 90 years old, on a bunch of medications that all interfered with recovery, so he ended up getting unit after unit of blood – to replace what was flowing out of him, and to help him keep what was left.  The first check showed a bleeding ulcer.  The second check showed cancer.  There is no curing someone at that age, but you can make the remaining time easier, and he had surgery to remove the cancer the day before my birthday.

He got better.  And then he didn’t.  Fluid started backing up into his lungs and his tissues.  He came down with a severe hospital infection.  And another check, to find out where the fluid was building, showed that the cancer had outrun everything and had spread faster than we could ever have imagined.

He went into hospice two days ago.  The wires and the tubes have been removed.  He is kept clean, warm, and as comfortable as possible.  That means morphine now.  I watch his caregivers as they wash his diminishing body, shave his still-abundant beard, and trim the mustache that annoyed him with its length.  They are tender.

He sleeps much of the day.  He wakes up occasionally for a drink of water, or for a few spoonfuls of the lemon ice his oldest daughter brings to him.  He sleeps again.  And in sleep, he waits.

He is in his last between time.


My beloved’s birthday is in five days. I wonder if my father-in-law will end his between time before I end mine.  I don’t wish for his death.  I will wait with him.  And yet, I wish every day for this good man to finally rest.  He has had such a long time of pain and confusion.  I love him.  I wait for him to move on.

I think of him taking the hands of his wife and his son, leaving this behind, and I breathe…go.

And I wait.


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.


18 04 2014

I lost a former coworker this week.  He wasn’t much older than me – only three years – but a couple of weeks ago I heard that he was in the hospital.  Then I heard that he was “septic,” that things were bad.  And then earlier this week he died.  As always, death is a mystery to me, how someone can be a living, breathing presence in one second, and in the next second they are gone, with nothing to announce their absence.  It seems like there should be something, the sound of creation rushing into the space that they used to occupy.

My cowrker lost his job at our former company the same way I did, but a year later.  He started with the company right out of college, and had worked there for 33 years when he was laid off.  He was, as a mutual friend described him, “a man of helpfulness and industry”.  He had been with the company long enough that he remembered the history of the various processes we supported.  He knew where things were, where to find the equipment you needed… and if the equipment didn’t exist, he could improvise something that would do the job.  He took care of business.

He had some idea that the business would take care of him as well, and was left bitter by the layoff, by the realization that the passion he brought to his job was largely unrequited.  I remember the emotion well.  I was bitter for a while.  And beyond that came detachment, of no longer tying so much of what I believe about myself to the job I have.  For the years I was with our former company, I described myself as an employee of that company first, and as a scientist second.  Now I am a project manager.  And I only mention where I’m managing projects if someone asks.

The detachment is good in many ways.  You shouldn’t define yourself through something that can be ripped away so easily.  But it comes with sadness.  There was a time when I didn’t think companies worked that way.  I believed that my company was decent, that there would always be a place for me.  I wanted to think that if I sacrificed for that company – the long hours, the weekends and holidays that I was in the lab – somehow the company would recognize that and be loyal to me.

Now that belief seems laughably quaint.  It certainly isn’t the way business works any more, and it’s getting more heartless out here in the corporate world every single day.  Corporations owe us nothing.  And they know it.  But at the same time they are still using the old beliefs of those who have managed to hang on, the ones who still cling to the idea that the company thinks of them as more than an interchangeable cog in the machine.  Corporations will happily use that unwarranted loyalty to milk ever more out of those employees, until they have wrung them out and tossed them into the same heap with the rest of us.

I am not bitter about my former company.  But I’m a lot more cynical about employment in general, and I will never again willingly offer myself up the way I used to in my younger days.  And I don’t encourage today’s young workers to do it, either.  If a company is willing to discard their experienced workforce, if they are willing to use contract labor to fill entire departments – then they have committed solely to short-term profit and aren’t committing in any way to the people doing the work.  I can and will commit to doing a decent job during my work day.  But when I finish at the end of the day, I’m done and I walk away from it.

My coworker spent the last year of his life bitter about what our former company had done to him.  He felt betrayed and discarded.  His feelings were accurate.  Some would say that his last year shows that life is too short for bitterness; I think the truth is that life is too short for loyalty to a corporation.  I lost a lot of time doing more than I needed to for my former company.  So did my coworker.  And life really is too short for that.


16 10 2013

Austen has been with me for about six weeks.  He is a lovely cat, social and friendly and loving.

And Clara is having none of it.

Clara has always been both very shy and very rigid.  She wants things a certain way, and if they aren’t that way, she won’t participate.  When she circles my ankles, she always goes clockwise.  The only change in this that I’ve seen as she’s gotten older is just to be… more Clara-like.  More rigid.  More unbending.

And this has been a problem since Rosalind’s death and Austen’s arrival.  I read Clara’s very visible mourning as a need for another cat in the house.  And I believed that Austen, with all his sociability and friendliness, would be just the tonic that Clara needed, the cat that finally convinced her that another cat could be a loving companion.

Clara did not share my belief.  It seemed for the first week or so that Austen might be able to overcome her defenses, but she eventually retreated to her tower in my son’s room.  She would slink down to the basement to use the litter box, but she stopped coming down to eat during the day.  She would only come in for her breakfast of stinky wet food.  So she started losing weight.  And then she stopped going to the litter box, and my son discovered her pooping in his room.  So he understandably shut her out of his room, because who wants to live with that?!??  Denied her sanctuary, she took to hiding in the basement.  Austen still searched her out.  I could tell when he found her by the loud noises of angry protest beneath me.

My son noted that she was getting thinner.  I knew from petting her at breakfast that her coat was getting rougher.  This morning she came up for breakfast and she was smeared with her own waste.  This from a cat who has always been fastidious in her grooming and upkeep.  There were hollows under her eyes, there was eye gunk on her face.  And suddenly knowing: if I keep trying to do this, Clara is going to die.  Not metaphorically.  For real.  She will isolate herself, she will stop eating, and she will die.

The rescue organization Austen came from has a policy of taking cats back when an adoption doesn’t work out.  So I wrote to them and told them the situation, and then wrote to my sister and mother about what was happening.  And I cried.  Because Austen is such a good boy.  None of this is his fault.  It isn’t his fault that Clara refuses to deal with him in her life.  He is nothing like the bully that Rosalind was.  It isn’t his fault that Clara doesn’t see his goodness.

My mother wrote back and offered to take Austen into her home.  I had to ask her a couple of times if she was sure, because it’s a big commitment to take an animal into your home and life.  She called me and said she was sure, that she hadn’t even had to think about it before making the offer.  So this afternoon, I packed him up with all of his toys – especially crinkle balls because OMG CRINKLE BALLS – and I moved him to her house.

I have cried today over this.  I will cry again.  I have failed some lovely animals this year, cats that I made pledges to, pledges that I couldn’t fulfill.  I promise all my animals that I will be there with them at the end… but Rosalind died without me there.  And I told Austen that he was home with me, that he wouldn’t have to deal with a new life ever again… and now he’s in a new home.  Austen didn’t fail, but I did.  I know that if I hadn’t made this choice, Clara would have died, which would have been the biggest failure of them all.  But that doesn’t erase what I feel like I’ve done today.