We sat in front of the doctor as he gave us the news. “You don’t need any more tests, you have ALS. I’m very sorry.” he said as he rose from his stool. “I’ll leave you now. If you have any questions, please contact my office.”
We’d been through half a dozen doctors. Visited three separate neurologists. And after over a year of searching we now had an answer as to why wife’s right hand was becoming a useless appendage. It wasn’t good news.
Do you want a successful life?
Have you planned for EVERY conceivable contingency? Because if you’ve missed one, that’s the one that will bite you in the ass.
I planned for every one I could imagine. Or so I thought. I carried a million dollar life insurance policy. On myself. Because I thought I’d die long before my wife. And she would need the resources to successfully raise our four children. But I never really considered that she might get sick and die first. And long before those kids were all grown up.
I put a lot of money away for retirement too. Because my wife couldn’t. And I figured she’d need that if she were going to have the time and resources to be a proper grandmother in her later years. Truly, I never even considered that I would be the only one to get a chance to be a grandparent.
But here I am. Financially free after a lifetime of trying to make sure the people I love would have a chance when I was gone. And I AM successful. In most ways.
But I lost the one person who gave meaning to success in my life. And that’s something you can’t plan for, no matter how smart and capable you might be. Real success doesn’t come from anything you achieve in life. It comes from the people you love and the gift of love they give back. If you lose one of them, you have to start all over again. And you’ll be way poorer than any lack of money could ever make you.
I used to be a nearly impenetrable rock. A stoic, storm proof container with no visible emotions. It wasn’t an act. It was who I was and how I approached all of life. I never really got hurt. But I also didn’t feel those elevated emotions that launch the spirit and bring true joy. There were almost no tears. But there wasn’t a whole lot of bliss either. I see now that it was a safety mechanism. I haven’t figured out yet why I cultivated it or from what it was protecting me. Maybe someday that’ll come out in therapy. Or hypnosis. I’m not sure I care anymore.
When my wife died though, that stone was fractured. Permanently. In the hours before she died, my mother in law told me to go back to bed and get some rest, that she would sit with her. I could tell she wanted a little time alone with her daughter. I was almost afraid to walk out of the room, but Mary assured me she would let me know if anything changed.
I know now why mourners wail. When I laid down in those predawn hours, I curled up into a fetal position. The sobs felt like bubbles in the center of my body. I tried to hold it all in. I didn’t want to wake the kids. But I literally felt like I was being lifted from the bed with each expanding bubble and violently thrown back down as it burst forth from my chest. I wanted to wail. I wanted to let it go with all the force bottled up inside of me. But I had the kids to think about. And my mother in law. I think I would probably even have awakened the neighbors. So I held most of it in. But my shell was broken. Forever.
As I write these words, eight and half years later, little tears form at the corners of my eyes. The memory of that morning is still very powerful. But it’s no longer too much to bear. The relationships that have come after have filled some of the cracks. But like the Japanese kintsukuroi, the repairs are of a precious nature. Even though the women have moved on with their lives without me, they each left something of value to me.
The relationships I have with my children are different now too. For a while I didn’t quite know how to be their father. Single parenthood is a challenge under the best of conditions. Trying to do that job for three teens and a preteen, with a broken heart and very little outside support, still seems like a monumental undertaking. They don’t say anything about my failures but I know. I was only able to do it because they stepped up and became adults. Long before they should have had to. More priceless repairs to the cracks in my soul.
This is life. All the pain. All the tragedy. All the brokenness. But there’s so much more. People step in and fill the little cracks with joy and tenderness. Some give you the gift of love. Even if only temporarily. One of them gave me the gift of writing. Another gave me the gift of just quietly being there with a space for me to heal. My kids waited for me to come back to them. Because even the glue that one uses to repair oneself needs time to set if the pieces are to stay together.
It seems a bit strange to write that, since you’ve been dead for over ten years. But, just because death separates us, doesn’t mean I’m not married anymore. Or not still deeply in love with you. Yeah sure, I’ve tried to move on. I’ve even fallen in love a couple times and skipped down the path towards something new and potentially wonderful. But I keep tripping on the rocks and ruts of my history. Of what we had.
No, it wasn’t perfect. But neither is a favorite sweater, or the gloves that fit like a second skin. It’s not perfection that builds a successful relationship. It’s the way you stretch and shape into each other. The ability to grow as a team while still maintaining full autonomy and security as two separate individuals. Truly, a great relationship brings a whole that is so much larger than the sum of its parts.
That’s what we had. Something more than either of us could ever have been as individuals. The reason I know this is because of the holes I’ve had to fill since you went home. I’ve had to become the mom, as well as dad. To pick up the mantle of bad cop, as well as that of the good cop. Four kids need four different kinds of parents. Even two would be barely enough. And yet I had to try to be all of them. I failed, in myriad ways that I’ll probably never even begin to understand. I could never fill the emptiness but somehow we kept ourselves from falling into the abyss created by your death. Together, the five of us found a way to draw the strength and resources from each other to get to this place and time. You left some really, really big empty shoes. And it took all of us to fill them just enough to keep taking forward steps.
The truth is, I would never have made it this far if it weren’t for the kids. Parenting these humans to adulthood is the only thing that kept me here. When you died the foundation of my world crumbled away leaving only those four pillars to hold me up while I slowly and methodically built a life without you.
I’ve also learned how to care about people that aren’t family members. It wasn’t until long after you were gone that I found out there was an empath buried deep inside of me. Yeah, funny eh? The stoic man you married has trouble keeping dry eyes when a sad song plays or he reads a post about immigrant children in cages on our southern border. As the world I live in has grown harder and colder, I’ve become softer and more emotional.
And just look at this! I write blog posts and share them with the world. I even get responses to some of my posts. I’ve been told that I offer hope for a better tomorrow. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I do it because I feel like I was called to it. I’ve become a sensitive man. Or maybe that’s what losing you has done, broken me open and let out what was in there all the time. Culturally conditioned and socially inept, I showed the world a cold, stoic, seemingly heartless man. Until you died and my heart and soul were cast into the hellfire of grief and loss. I’ve since learned how to express that in my own unique way. If it helps other people find a way out of the darkness, I’m more than happy to light the candle.
Even as I sit here today marveling at all the ways I’ve grown and how different my life has become I still struggle with questions of why. What kind of karma am I working off that I should spend a fifth of my life in mourning? And even now, after I’ve clawed my way through hell and come out on the other side into a sunny and warm existence, I think I’d still give it all up for just one more day with you.
I’ve always been prone to darkness. Friends would say I was moody or even in some cases, morose. I had very few friends growing up. And although I have five sisters, none of them had much time for an annoying brother. Almost all of my early memories are of me doing things alone. I had snowball fights with snowmen I’d built on the other side of the road. I read A LOT. I roamed the woods, hunting, fishing, exploring. I was drawn to solitary adventure. What’s on the other side of that hill? Where does that path lead? What’s new, what’s different, what’s unknown? I constructed elaborate fantasy worlds in my mind. I still do it. Someday, I may take to writing novels. I’ve got hundreds of fully formed stories still in my head.
This morning I read a story by Iva Ursano. And it sent me into a world I have been very reluctant to visit. Mostly because it’s a painful place to go. And therein lies the reason I must make this trip. There’s a disrespectfulness about much of the self-help, “live in the now” culture that is incessantly preached to all of us. But particularly to those with traumatic history. It glosses over the fact that there is deep pain that, at the very least, needs to be recognized and honored. Yes, there is only NOW, but everyone’s NOW is informed by all the moments that came before. We are the people we are, not because of now, but because of what happened before this moment in time.
I had about seventeen really great years with my wife. That’s what it turns out to be when I do the math. A couple of years in which we lived together before we got married. Then fifteen years before the beginning of the end. There were three tense years after that. Two people absorbing the news that everything they’ve built together is being taken away from them. Not because of the choices they made, not of their own choosing, but because, in the end, none of us really have any power over the future at all. We didn’t know how to deal with this knowledge. I’m not sure anyone ever really does. That final year had a little more tenderness than might otherwise be expected given the stress and strain of the previous three. Maybe we’d figured it out a little bit by then, but the last five months were consumed by impending death.
We had four children together. We bought a house in 1999. We attended school plays and took the kids to the town pool. We had giant piles of Christmas presents under the tree every year. And a basketball hoop outside by the mailbox. We played with the kids, changed diapers, and talked about our work lives. We made love almost every Friday night. I know we did these things. There are shadows in my mind that hint at the love we once shared. And photos in boxes and on the computer that prove there was joy at one time in my life. But I can’t remember any of the details anymore.
I spent three years impotently watching while the love of my life lost, cell by cell, the ability to move or control any part of her body. As the disease took her physical capacity away it built a towering stone castle in my psyche. Memories of what came before she died are locked away on the other side of those walls. And I don’t seem to be able to access them from the universe I live in now.
So, what do I have left? I mostly see her, sitting in an electric wheelchair, head slumped over. She died a mere silhouette of the beautiful, vibrant warrior goddess she personified for so many years. The last three years of her life did nothing but take; life, love, hopes, memories. I lost way more than the love of my life when she died. I lost our history, the family we created and the future we had dreamt about. I still have four wonderful children, even a grandchild, but the family we are now is a family with a gaping hole in the center.
I can’t even properly honor the good times we had. They’re ghosts flitting amongst the shadows in my mind. Behind me is a fortress where my past and my memories are locked away. I stride forward into a future that’s unknown, unknowable and I don’t even have access to my history to help guide me on my way. There was a battle fought in my past. I’m standing in an empty field with a bloody sword in my hand. I don’t know who I am, where I come from or which road leads home.
I’ve struggled for a long time to find a way to tell this story. I’ve talked with a lot of people with a history of trauma. Most of it was inflicted upon them by someone else. It seems to me that they all carry shields, and often swords, around with them. Understandably so. But nobody inflicted this pain upon me. And, unlike the phrase “everything that happens to you is a result of your own decisions” this isn’t a result of anything I chose. Neither is the trauma most people survive at the hands of another. It’s platitudes like that, that blame the victims. We don’t all control everything that ever happens to us. Life happens. It’s terminal. And if you think otherwise, go ahead and make the choice to live forever and never get sick. Let me know how that turns out for you.
Yes, I own my response to what happened. Insofar as I did what love, honor and the promise I made dictated that response. I’d do it again, without even a second thought. But I suspect the construction of that giant citadel behind me is to protect me. From memories that would make creating a new life much more difficult. I remember echos. Of a life that was easy. Nothing that has come since that world ended has been easy. If I remembered more, I suspect the road to a new, rich life would be impossible to find. No, the universe is protecting me by requiring me to take a different path through the wilderness that lies before me. One that can be filled with unforeseen triumphs from entirely unexpected directions. There is a path out there. Despite the darkness of many of my days, I know it’s there. I don’t have a map and I don’t have a compass. But I don’t have a past to hold me back either. All I get for this trip is my imagination and my fearlessness. And they are all I need. They’re all any of us really need. And THAT is the power of living in the NOW.
I scanned through the e-mail thread.
“How’s Dick taking it?” read the question from one of her old college friends.
“He’s pretty stoic, I’m not really sure what’s going on in his head.” was her response.
It felt like an invasion of her privacy. She’d only died a couple days earlier. I was still in a state of shock. Even if none of it was unexpected. We’d been preparing for that day for three years.
And yet, there’s something about death you really can’t prepare yourself to grasp. The end of a life. The end of a marriage. The end of everything you’d built in the last twenty two years. A barrier between who you were before and who you are now. Nothing about life would ever be the same again.
I searched and searched through the computer. I was desperate to find something, anything she had left. But there was nothing there, nothing of any substance but that email. I was hoping, at the very least, that she would have left something for the kids. I guess she didn’t know what to say to them either.
Time passes. Few people would call me stoic anymore. Not when it comes to showing my emotions. Tears flow down my face with embarrassing regularity. All it takes is a memory. And not just of her.
Everyone I’ve ever lost took a piece of me with them.Even some who are still alive. It took losing my wife for me to feel those losses. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case but it seems like one can only hold so much pain inside. And when it comes bursting out, the dam is forever breached.
Grief is an honorable emotion. Show it the respect it deserves. Give it the time it requires. And always remember. Because that’s how those we love continue to live.