I can see myself reflected in the grief of my loss and that reflection is not static. It is dynamic and moves forward the in ripples and eddies of a stream even as I stand in place.Read More
I guess my first goal is to find the peace in the solitude of writing, the book, blog posts, and not jump up to do something else. To learn to sit and listen quietly to my inner voice. To not look at what’s next or what do I do to fill the time with chores and acts.Read More
Grief is a playlist playing in the background. It is the sound track of your life after the loss of a loved one. Some turn it off and find a new list. Others listen to their and dance to it or sing or cry or let it just play. It is your playlist and your choice.Read More
When we grieve we live in a world created by death and memories. That world does not have to be stagnant it can be dynamic and healing. Grief mimics the worlds Sims players create and thrive in. We can thrive in our Sims like world of grief and memories.Read More
During her time in hospice she was on the knife edge of death yet there were some very Donna moments. She did not loose herself to death she remained true to her being. At the end she gave me the gift of being Donna.Read More
Those memories (skills) Donna had died with her. Though they were effectively removed from my heart they were not lost as much as witnesses to deficits in my life now. Twice a year when I am faced with changing the shames and duvet I remember what I didn’t remember, Donna did this.Read More
It seems when I come to a point in my grief journey that I feel I have a fixed end point or place of repose I find a new fork in the road. A new path to examine and come to another understanding no matter how brief or tenuous. Grief, in a fashion, is organic learning.Read More
Helpful, timely social support is the single strongest determinants for those grieving to arrive at positive psychosocial outcomes. The ability to modify many if any of the factors impacting our individual grieving journey cannot be modified after the fact to the extent that social support can.Read More
It's not as if grief speaks to me per se. It is more that in this state of grief whether roiling or calm grief heightens my awareness. I hear a phrase, read a passage, listen to a song and think about it. Just think and learn. Learning is the only thing that changes our consciousness. Even within this state of grief driven knowledge I wonder, am I missing today and tomorrow because my vision is in my rear view mirror? Can I untangle myself from looking back to construct a new environment for my emotions to reside?Read More
I am not sure I ever really tried to achieve closure or even considered it. Closure is a myth. Closure is indifference. Closure is denial said pretty.Read More
Hospice is about dying well. There is no good death. Any death is bad and painful but dying well surrounded by friends family loved ones changes the dynamic for both the patient and the family. It makes the time to the finite end better and kinder and comfortable but more important is the time after death. That is our long darkness, the time after death of a loved one.Read More
Identifying my journey as starting at caregiving seems odd since there is a whole shit load of years prior to that 2009 moment when you learn your wife of 28+ years has advanced cancer and six months to live. I guess that is where life for me began, with the specter of death looming over us both. Life begins at death? How oddRead More
From July till August the waves of memories rage and roil within me so much so that I go back and bring forward what was to what is. I wish I could follow one of Donna’s mantra’s “There’s a reason they call it history. It happened then.” During Dying Season then is now.Read More
At 8:45 plane engines overhead rattled the building so severely I instinctively ducked my head into my keyboard. Seconds later there was what could only be described as an explosion.Read More
“Now would be a good time to have end-of-life discussions with her,” the Hospice Rabbi and social worker said. “What does she want for her funeral? What are her regrets? Did she find joy in her life?”Read More
Loss, grief, and mourning is the furniture I've placed in the rooms of my life. I rest on them, sleep on them, put my feet up to watch TV, and game. I move my grief furniture around to see what works better where. What I don’t do is put them in storage nor leave them for Goodwill. These are the emotional elements of my life.Read More
Monday July 11 Dr. B had scheduled an MRI and other tests. I mostly sat and texted friends to let them know where Donna was and why. I was trying to escape where I was with thoughts of chores: heading home to free Nina from doggie daycare, feed her, and give her insulin before returning to the hospital. Donna returned to her room after the MRI. Donna rested in her hospital bed looking so small. She was a figure on the horizon moving away from my sight.
We sat and talked. We didn’t speak about the future which felt like a dense fog settling around our shoulders. Our hopes reflected off the mist. Of course there was a future. There always is a future but not one you could see it or want to. There was only the immediate moment to navigate to get to the unseen future. The future never stops and waits for us. It just hides while you struggle to visualize what it may be. I left that evening and entered an empty home.
The next day Donna was to have a thoracentesis to drain the fluid around her lungs.
I held Donna’s hands and watched her grimace as the resident pushed the catheter through her back, into her lung cavity. “This will work,” I thought. “This will work, she’ll be home soon.”
The next day there was good news. The thoracentesis had worked.
Until it didn’t. The fluid came back. I held her hand again, watched her face again, as another catheter stabbed her back. This time it worked. Until it didn’t.
“We need to discuss palliative care,” Dr. B. said.
“Great,” I thought, “this will give us, her, me, more time.”
Normally there were two chairs in the room. Today it looked like a makeshift conference room with four additional chairs. They were perfectly arranged to project a sense of community and comfort. Dr. B. orchestrated where the chairs were placed, who sat, and who stood, thinking all the while of how this meeting would affect her. Palliative care was going to be a major change in her status. No longer was Donna living and being. She was Donna at the end of life.
The residents, social workers, and Hospice staff attending the meeting followed Dr. B.’s lead, staying focused on Donna the person, her life, and my status. Nobody was making the rounds with a clipboard.
Donna wasn’t engaged. Her eyes followed the chairs being moved and the white coats assembling. Her shoulders slumped in surrender. It was the first time I’d ever seen her passive. She wasn’t asking questions. “Don’t give up,” I thought. “Don’t, please.” I couldn’t say it out loud because it would expose the obvious, that she was unable to rise and take flight from her bed.
Dr. B. and Dr. S. suggested Home Hospice. When the Hospice intake staff spoke with me, they weren’t wearing white coats. This was not clinical. It was business. The conversation felt like a sales call, done in a busy hallway of rushing physicians and nurses, with families of patients sitting nearby. Here I was, speaking and answering questions about Donna’s death, in the most public of venues for the world to hear. Intake handed me papers to sign. I did not feel like a person about to lose his wife of 28 years, being offered hope and dignity. I felt like a transaction. The home hospice staff scheduled a delivery of the bed and other items. The next day I sat home and waited. I bought sunflowers to brighten up what would be her death bed.
That Saturday Dr. S was reviewing charts on the unit. We spoke and he said the staff, Dr. B, and hospice thought the in patient hospice unit would be a better alternative for Donna and me.
I had been holding on to that trope of a wonderful, peaceful death at home, surrounded by friends and family circling her bed like supplicants kneeling to receive the communion of her life passing. Now I was hearing that even if she came home, she wouldn’t have that. I wonder to this day if Dr. S. was straight with me, or if they all thought I was a caregiving failure and couldn’t be trusted.
On July 18, 2011 Donna was transferred to the hospice unit.
Donna and I returned from Maine July 2, 2011. Our time at the cottage Donna tired easily and found walking, especially the stairs from the deck down to the driveway very difficult. I held her arm as she navigated the stairs one painful step at a time. This trip to Maine was precious. We walked to the beach with Nina, cooked lobster, went for ice cream, and shopped in Portland. As I look at the photos from that trip she seems resigned to her reality.
A year later, October of 2012, I went back to the cottage with Nina to spread some ashes in the cove where we once sat and stared at an infinite horizon of the ocean. When Nina and I arrived at the cottage I sat in the car unsure of why I went back. I was afraid of the memories. I felt lost and alone. Being here without Donna was a slap in her face coming to the place she loved without her. Yet here I was after six hours of driving. I took the bags to the bedroom. When I closed the door, there behind the door on a hook, as if waiting for our return, was a scarf Donna had forgotten. It was going to be okay she was there with us.
July 4, 2011 was quiet and I made hamburgers. Donna’s oncologist scheduled a CT for July 7 to determine if the new round of chemo, Gemzar, was working. His hope was that if we could shrink the tumors this might resolve the pain. Donna’s first and second rounds of chemo in 2009 and 2010 worked why wouldn’t this one. Why? The pain from the hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropthy was not resolving and NSAIDs were the drug of choice. NSAIDs gave her some relief. Just some.
On July 7 we went to the CT center. I helped her put on a gown and lifted her onto the CT table for her scan. It was freezing and Donna’s teeth were chattering. We covered her and I walked to the waiting room fearing of what would be seen. At home we had dinner and watched TV. It was an early night since the next day Donna was scheduled for her next round of Gemzar.
At the oncology center we checked in at the desk and sat to be called for chemo. I stood to go get some soup for Donna which she liked while getting an infusion. As I was about to leave looking at Donna to make sure she was okay. Dr. B came out and asked us both to an exam room. As always he held the door and asked about us. We walked the hallway with exam rooms on either side. We entered exam room 5 and sat. I remember feeling I was living in the burnt edges of hope.
Dr. B a generous oncologist with heart, spirit, compassion, and brains said the CT showed that the Gemzar was not working. The tumors had grown a bit. He was not sure what the next line of treatment would be if any. More troubling was the finding of fluid in the pleural cavity, the membrane surrounding the lungs. It needed to be drained.
Dr. B scheduled a thorcentnesis for Monday July 11. Donna would be admitted to the hospital for two days and sent home.
Needless to say we spend the weekend in a fairly low key fashion. That is being generous, it was more zombie like. On a usual weekend the events were menu selection for Sunday, shopping, either eating in or out on Saturday. Then a movie. Sunday was cooking. I didn’t have the energy or drive to shop or cook. Besides Donna was going to be in the hospital. Sunday we walked to a local restaurant three short blocks away, the Odeon.
The Odeon has been a staple in the neighborhood since 1980 when it was a great dinner spot (still is) in Tribeca, best brunch for a hungover Sunday, and a late night post disco SNL crowd. We knew of it and visited before we moved here. The food was French bistro.
We left our apartment and slowly walked to the Odeon. The pain was evident on Donna’s face and breaths as she navigated haltingly stepping up the curb even with a wheelchair ramps. We sat and had dinner mostly in silence. Generally we can spend time together just being us without talking. This evening the silence was not wanting to speak about tomorrow for fear the devil would take notice. The walk back was a slow and telling. It said so much than any scan, lab report, or medical file. It felt like a final chapter of a novel. We finally and painfully made it home. I helped her change into PJ’s. We watched some TV but turned in early.
The next morning July 11, 2011 we woke as usual. I made Donna a latte. I had espresso. I took Nina to doggie daycare. When I returned I helped her dress and we headed out. The exercise of closing and locking the door done a million times felt different. I did not completely understanding that moment in our lives. Mostly in her life.
I carried her to the corner and got a cab. We arrived at the emergency entrance of the hospital. I ran in got Donna a wheelchair and pushed her into to admitting. We were told to head to the 9th floor. Donna needed to use the bathroom. I carried her in helped her sit and carried her back to the wheelchair. This was a first for us and I am sure she was mortified. We made it to the 9th floor her room was waiting or was it laying in wait.
On Instagram (loveltrs2d) my followers and those I follow are widowed. Some have lost a child or parent. Many are fighting grief while offering us hope and help. Key to their collective posts are memories. We embrace memories because they act as mortar holding the worn bricks of our lives together. Memories refresh our thirst for meaning of the unknown. Memories huddle in the dark to revel themselves at times frightening us to our core. I have written about memories A LOT
- Grief is the Space Between Memories Known and Unknown
- The Barbs and Cortege of Memories
- Grief is Vivisection to Those Left Behind
- The Symbiosis of Grief and Love
- Grief Is An Artesian Aquifer of Memories
There are second order memories that gives me pause to smile. These are the memories of Christmas as a child. Memories of my first bike. A vacation to Cape May. They are moments or places that for the most part I evoke as needed or when reminded of a past. These first order memories are a place setting of context for my years on earth.
Then there are memories of Donna and us. These are first order memories. The memories of Donna are mostly painful because I remember what was in relationship to what is not. The memories of Donna are chisels chipping away at my days. I cover my eyes to keep from being blinded by the sharp fragments flying off their edges. I will admit at times these memories warm me, comfort me, hold me, and I am happy.
I love all my memories. These second order memories are bits of light we all hold. I cautiously respect the first order memories of Donna because of the power they hold over my well being and life. They are a narrative of my future reflected in a rear view mirror. I believe they speak to me and wake from the somnolence of my life even if they hurt me. Which means I'm alive.
Are Memories Symmetric or Asymmetric?
Memories sit there in my mind, before my eyes, in my ears, or on my taste buds. Some are dusty yet have not faded into black and will suddenly raise themselves up and dance before me in a silent ballet. I have collected these memories like shot glasses or salt and pepper shakers from travels near and far. When Donna died I cleared a shelf and began to assemble those memories. Some were centered on a shelf others lined up according to height. Neatly displayed and ready.
So my memories sit and wait. Or are they waiting? I wonder. Do I reach for memories for reasons known or unknown or do the memories in some anthropomorphic fashion decide to come to me? The first order memories of childhood I reach for randomly or through provocation by an image, a word, or a taste. Second order memories of Donna feel different. Many times I reach for them for comfort, peace, joy, or just because. Other times they charge at me full bore slamming into my conciseness like fly buzzing against a screen trying to find freedom. It is these moments where I think memories are alive, yes they are alive in me and only me. They have a life and will of their own.
After seven years of folding memories like origami swans I wonder do they love me? Are these memories active participants with me? I would say yes to the later because it is me who gives them life and permission to enter my world. Do they give me life? Do they love me? Am I simply projecting what I want the memories to do?
Donna left me her memories when she died. But without her they are just memories. As Donna like to say “There is a reason they call it history. It happened then.” It is not then it is now and they are here crisp as the day they occurred. As real as they are they are just neurons and synapses crashing together to create emotions that fit a broad spectrum. I own these emotions because I drove memories to me like logs speeding downhill in a sluice to the mill and made into chairs and tables to furnish my life.
Donna and I loved each other. After her death I still love Donna. Did Donna stop loving me when she died? I have her memories from the land of then. I give them life. I love them. I hope they love me. It is the best I have. Donna will never return but I can go to her anytime I choose.
Donna called out from the bedroom, "I am going down to Century 21 to pickup some things."
I rolled my eyes and took a breath, "Okay but don’t spend a lot."
Now in the kitchen Donna is looking at me with that smile of WTF, "I work, my money, I pay half the bills, and add to savings so shut up. Besides there is always a sale, so it is free."
Tugging at my logic, "Its not free, even on sale, you pay something."
Turning to head out she notes, "It is free, kind of free, especially if I buy two for the price of one. One is free."
I can’t win, "Okay I am going to start the banana bread. You can have some when you come home. Bye."
“Bye bye, la la la la" she sang as the door closed behind her.
It’s Sunday. My bike ride is done, her lattes were made and finished, the Sunday Times devoured, played with the dog, and now looking at recipes resting on the stainless steel island.
I run my fingers over the listed ingredients to animate them. I conjure these black letters and words on white paper to come to life. These words will fill the kitchen with the scent of warm embracing flavors and create a home, the home, our home, for us.
As a child Sunday meals anchored the family. That and going to church. We’d pile into the Ford dressed for church head to the 11am service. My brother and I in ties and jackets feeling constrained and starchy. Dad in a suit. Mom in a dress and my sister in print frock. Most of my teen years I was an acolyte so I needed to get St. Andrews early to put on the cassock and cotta to light the candles.
The service ended at 12:30. And then we’d pile into the Ford loosening our ties and the top button on the starchy white shirts. Driving home for the Sunday afternoon meal. We’d race into our rooms strip off the church clothes getting yelled at for not hanging everything up.
Mom would do most of the work but we would be charged with setting the table, the dinning room table not the kitchen table. Forks on the left. Knife and spoon on the right. Water glasses and plates. There was always a table cloth. It felt elegant, stately, and formal as if we were dinning out within our own home. Afternoon sunlight came though the dining room window and the settings cast shadows on the white table cloth in a still-life moment.
While dinner was being cooking the Sunday paper was read which included the comics in the Star Ledger for the kids. Mom and dad would fight over the Sunday Times Crossword puzzle.
The food was only part of this day. It was the act, the real life moment, of sitting and eating that made it Sunday. “Please pass the carrots. May I have some more chicken? Can we watch Disney tonight? May I be excused?” And then there was the instructional moments, “The fork in the left hand!” "Use your knife with your fork. “Sit up don’t slouch over the plate.” “Put your napkin on your lap. Chew with your mouth closed."
During the teen years there was the sullen jealous arguing of siblings. The sharp retorts to imagined insults or hurts that fractured the meal which at times ended with “Leave the table and go to your room, now!”
The specifics of the meals were there but the memory has a larger life. It is the family gathered around the a table like an alter offering the warmth and comfort of a meal in a split level suburban home. Eight steps up to the living room, dinning room, kitchen, three bedrooms, and bath. Eight steps down to the rec room, spare room, utility room, door to patio and yard, the utility room, and garage. Sitting in a small subdivision in central New Jersey. NJ was a long way from the tenement in a Worcester neighborhood where the entire side of my mothers family lived. Sunday meals there were events of a magnitude that rivals King Arthurs Court. Extended family members grandmom’s, aunts, uncles, etc. sitting around the table talking and arguing about everything and anything. Politics, something called the stock market, work, and the crazy uncle who was not there. Mom, grand-mom, and aunts all jammed into an apartment kitchen cooking without a bump or foul. A ballet of food and fire.
This was as close as I got during those early years to imagine what it must have been like living in a village. This tenement in Worcester translated well to the split level in NJ. The warmth of the kitchen the food aroma, the chattering over dinner and the sense of family. Family is less about a birth order and more about environment. Sunday dinner was the environment that reinforced family.
She didn’t really have that family Sunday dinner environment. Loss of her dad when she was young. An older brother with issues. A mother who worked to keep a roof over the family. I think more importantly was the fact her mom was not a cook.
I wanted to return to those Sunday meals for me. It was less an active choice and more instinct or DNA. Since it was only Donna and me. Our Sunday meals did not begin as a plan to make up for what wasn’t. It happened over time. Beginning in small cramped apartments and kitchens making something, eating together, sharing a bottle of wine, and steeling ourselves for the week to come. By the time we ended up here 28 years ago the Sunday meal was an event. She would set the table. On the Sundays she cooked I set the table and washed the pans etc.
She would select the dishes as carefully as she planned to set type. Was it to be the midcentury Jetson looking dishes, her mothers traditional set, the Martha Stewart set in taupe, or the Fiestaware. Dishes were chosen according to the meal and the season or the date. Placemats matched and the silverware pulled along with water glasses and wine glasses. And of course linen napkins. It was Sunday no paper napkins.
This preparing the table was independent of my youth yet resembled it so well. There is that part of us deep within the brain that seeks order, family, comfort, peace, etc. It was less about trying to give back what she lost as child but more that we as humans crave that prehistoric life around the campfire. In my mind I began to rationalize it as me returning to her what was lost.
Right now the table could wait till she was back from Century 21. Make the banana bread.
I went to the pantry and pulled out the container of flour. Removed the cover and reached in for the scoop. Slowly sank the plastic scoop into the flour and watched the puff of flour escape. Pouring it into a one cup measuring cup. I took a knife and scraped it over the top to ensure its level with the rim and emptied it into a bowl. I repeated it again and returned the flour to the pantry and took out the whole wheat flour. Measured 1/2 cup repeated the actions. Added 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt.
Two cups of sugar and two sticks of butter were placed in the bowl of mixer and turned to low. Slow steady turning of the paddle attachment pulling the butter and sugar together. The color and texture changed from white and yellow to golden softness.
Now for the fun part mashing six bananas. The bananas were lying in the bowl like small logs speckled and ripe. I picked up the potato masher with the red plastic handle which was given to me by my mom when I got my first apartment after college. It and the other utensils were from the 1950’s. They were classic and weighty. I slowly pushed down on the bananas and watched the fruit squish and rise up between the ends of the masher. The repeated mashing produced a grey colored wet paste similar to the mud at the edge of pond.
To the mashed bananas I added four eggs and whisked. The gold of the yolks blend into he mashed grey bananas. The yellow swirled in a vortex and slowly disappeared into the bananas changing the grey to a yellow tinted gelatinous mass.
The blender was mixing the butter and sugar and I added the bananas and eggs. The aroma of the ingredients filled the air and the bowl took on a more formed shape. Now to add the flour mix. Slowly it was added. The dry flour melded in to become a batter of grayness. Scrap the sides until the scars of dried flour was gone. I pour this into two loaf pans and placed them in the oven.
Forty minutes later I removed the loafs of banana bread and cooled on a wire rack. The house smelled like home. I sat on the chair and closed my eyes. Startled awake by a dream which I have no memory.
Where was she? The aroma of banana bread was there that was no dream. The mist of sleep evaporated. I remembered she is not coming home. Donna died seven years ago.
It was still Sunday. It was still our home. There is no reason not to continue. I imagine she can smell the banana bread?