I’m trying to stop the “what was happening last year at this time”-thing, so this will be last of those posts.
It was today when I said, “It’s all-in time. I’m not taking no for an answer from anybody. I’m going to push, push, push. I’m not holding anything back.”
I think it’s also the day I said, “I believe I’m going to see you again.” I was sitting on the edge of our bed, and you were standing in front of the mirror. You turned me and said, “That’s why we’re married.”
And that was that.
I called the palliative hotline that night and said we needed someone to come to our house and talk to us. Tell us our options, which we knew were narrowing. The guy at the other end said, “Well, what do you want?”
“It’s not about what I want,” I said, “it’s about what options do we have left?“
If you press hard enough, there are always options, right to the end.
The next day, a doctor sat with us in our living room and said, “It’s obvious you have a lot to live for.”
Yes, but … we were there to discuss the best way to die. And what did we need to do to make it happen. What did I need to do.
A year ago today, there were 10 days left. We didn’t know that. We hoped for more, maybe a dozen or two dozen more. Maybe some months or a miracle. Didn’t you deserve one?
Later I told you, I love you, I’ll always love you, we’re going to be okay, it’s okay to go.
My God, what a body can suffer. And yet even in the final 24 hours I was heading back to the pharmacy to fill yet another prescription. All in. We’re not out of options until we’re out of options.
And it’s all right, now. You died at home, and you were worried that would freak out the kids, but it didn’t freak out the kids. Where I sit now is feet away from where you last breathed. It is where the computer is, and one of the kids’ favourite rooms in the house. Your “hotel room,” as you mockingly called it.
There, that’s enough.
The tomato plant pictured went into the pot yesterday in the middle of a hail storm. I couldn’t help but laugh and see it as metaphor. We carry on and choose life and spit in the face of adversity.
I was thinking today of the first time you had chemotherapy, November 2010. We took a video camera to the hospital. What were we thinking?! It was some kind of wild adventure that we would get through together, laugh our way out the other side.
Through the Black Humor, as your manuscript about the experience was called. Subtitle: One Lump or Two.
It was impossible then and remains impossible now that the force of your spirit could be eradicated from the earth. But what darkness of pain and depth of beauty you revealed to me along the way.
And I have seen you. Many times. And that helps. But I yearn for you, too, and I miss you.
Here/not here, you are.
This one is from 2011. A ten.
A year ago, we were at Sunnybrook to get the results of a test. The result was very bad. Very bad. We then had to come home and go to school to see the kids in the first of two play performances. The play — “Beauty and the Beast” — was good; the kids spectacular.
It was horrible day, with a bright, shiny centre. Love saved the beast, but that’s just a story. (Poetry makes nothing happen.-Auden.)
We didn’t tell the kids the result of the test until after the second performance, 24 hours later.
These things happen only once in a lifetime. The grade 6/2 play. Finding out you’re going to die, soon. (The soon part is the important part, obviously. Finding out you’re going to die shouldn’t be a surprise. It happens to all of us.-Auden again.)
The two events, however, should never be mixed, I tell you from experience.
And that’s about all I have to say about what happened on this day in 2012. The photograph is from May 12, 2007. Not exactly six years ago, but close enough. It’s from a series of photographs my father took, one of which became our “wedding photo.”
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
I pick this title not because it really reflects how I feel at the moment, but because it is the title of a blog post Kate wrote in October 2011, the month we discovered her cancer had metastasized.
Here’s a sample of what she had to say:
I find myself entranced with the minutiae of my life. The new haircut, sparkling t-shirts for Naomi, perfectly roasted chicken, a lovely soft smelling bar of soap, the guilty pleasure of the open house for the fabulous house you will NOT be buying, the fantastic sound of these awesome new headphones as I listen to Billy Joel [old stuff - not that pop crap from the 1990s and after. The real soulful piano-man.stuff]. The stuff of [my] beautiful life.
I can identify with that: the minutiae of my life. I’m still not sure what else there is, besides what is right in front of me.
Naomi and I seeded the back vegetable garden two days ago, blocking off a couple of areas with plastic edging. Peas. Radishes. Cucumbers. Beets. Zucchini. I tried to keep it simple. Tried to pick at least a couple of things the kids will eat.
Last year, the garden sat vacant. I couldn’t deal with it. This time last year, I said to Kate, “Let’s just not do the garden right now.” Full scale catastrophe cancer was enough for me. More than enough. Too much. But, no, Kate said, “We’re going to do a garden. Our friends will help us.” The minutiae of life. She never surrendered it.
(A year ago this coming Saturday she organized a group of friends to come by and pull weeds. A day before that she’d had chemotherapy. Two days earlier she’d been given very bad news indeed.)
And, of course, this past weekend every seed Naomi and I dropped in garden was weighted with significance.
And I thought, I know the difference between grief and mourning. Grief has nausea; mourning is just sad.
Last year, I couldn’t go out in the garden. Just thinking about going out in the garden caused me to stop breathing.
This year, I have been out in the garden three days in a row, watering. And, of course, I think of Kate. I hold the hose she held. I spray the ground she watered. And I can see the plastic edging that she bashed and bashed with the shovel, fueled by the anger (no, rage) at the news that the cancer had come back. She took out the froth of her anger in the earth she loved, and as I water it I can’t help but hope she (and it) feel some healing.
The photograph shows Naomi’s views on what we can make from the things we grow in the garden:
- Epic salad!
- Boring salad!
Now that’s hilarious. And beautiful on any day.
What were we doing a year ago today? Waiting.
At the end of April, Kate was in hospital as specialists considered what to do about the cancer in her back. Or what to do with what remained of her back, after they had blasted the cancer out with radiation.
We thought we had a strategy until we went to the oncologist and she said that Kate’s blood work had been irregular. She was going to order a CT scan. We went home, surprised, scared, waiting for the test, which was on May 2nd, the first Wednesday in May, or tomorrow.
We knew the test results would either be bad or very bad. If bad, then the oral chemotherapy she’d been taking would have been messing with her system and she would have to stop taking it, but she didn’t want to stop taking it. If very bad, then the cancer was growing again in her liver and that would be very bad.
While we waited for test (and then waited for the result), we lived. The kids both had parts in the school play, which was performed in the second week of May. We planted some seedlings and prepared for the spring garden season. We cooked our favorite foods. We played Scrabble on the ipad. We did not talk about what it would mean if the test results were very bad. All we had to do was look at each other and feel the connection in the moment.
And have that moment represent all time.
The picture displayed is by Naomi from last April. It’s a miracle picture, I think. Kate and I discussed it. It rains love, splendor and happiness. It was incredible, to parent through the full catastrophe of advanced cancer, and have Naomi produce a picture like this. It shines and made Kate shine.
On April 19, 2013, the Globe and Mail ran a review of Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. It is his memoir, essays, reflections on the death of his wife of 30 years in 2008 of a malignant brain tumor (37 days from diagnosis until death). I’m not going to rehash the review or the book here, but one quotation jumped out for me: “Grief is a state while mourning is a process, yet they inevitably overlap.”
Grief/mourning. A pairing I hadn’t thought about before, but Barnes is right. Grief is a moment; mourning is forever. There is a transition from one to the other. One cannot accept the loss, and then one does accept the loss, but also one ritualizes the loss. You have ways, multiple, numerous (some mysterious, some chosen) ways of remembering. Dealing with despair. Managing memory. Turning over the past and bringing it into the future.
These weeks, right now, are a magical time. I will never go through anything like what I went through last year with Kate. Waiting. Living. Beyond fear. In the liminal space.
Perhaps that is what is displayed in Naomi’s drawing. A place where fear has no habitat.
It is not just a place of hope. It is a forever place. Thank you, Kate, for being there with me.
It snowed today. How crappy is that? And yet, I am also aware that it was one year ago today that Kate took a “day pass” from the hospital and spent it in the backyard sunshine, laughing and playing with the kids.
Oh, that was a nice day. Warmth, sunshine, Kate.
I remember, we weren’t sure Sunnybrook would release her. Also, we weren’t going to bring the kids to the hospital. We never did that. Never wanted them to have that memory. All we were doing in the hospital at that point was waiting for test results, waiting for specialist appointments. Couldn’t we go home for a couple of hours? Okay, they finally said.
Somewhere, somebody today is in a similar position. My thoughts are with her.
Kate went to the hospital because she was supposed to be in a “holding pattern,” “just being. No crisis.” At the end of March, she’d had a series of radiation blasts. In early April, she’d been hooked up to a hydromorphine pump. These were not progressive events, but we were told they were mitigating strategies. A period of stability should follow.
What better way of illustrating the conflict than to say that Kate wanted to be in the hospital, because she wanted to get to the bottom of what the disease was doing to her, and also to say that she wanted to be at home with her kids, because at the hospital there’s just a lot of waiting around, and being with her kids was the ideal. Reduced to a single choice, she would choose them.
But they had no idea what was going on that weekend. They were surprised to see her home from hospital. Surprised that she was going to back to hospital. Surprised to see her doing so well (i.e., acting normal). Living as normal as possible was all she wanted.
This weekend a year ago brought all of that “surprise” into highlight.
Later Kate wrote this post about her hospital experience, a reflection on being a “person,” and I can see from the blog that I wrote “we are optimistic that a better period is ultimately in the future.”
I know what I meant by that. I meant to convey what the doctor had told us in the hospital: “There’s no reason to believe you’re in the final three months of life.”
But I wonder if I didn’t also mean to convey, whatever happens, we will survive.
(She died less than a month later.)
That might be a retroactive reading, but I believe it was also concurrent. The legacy of Kate is indestructible.
I remember my parents asking me last April what my biggest fear was, and I said, “My biggest fear is that Kate will tell me she has a headache, and then an hour later she’ll be dead.” Every day, every hour, I lived with the possibility that this might be the end.
But Kate wanted to live her life as normally as possible, and that was my mission, and I believe I delivered.
So when people ask me if I was surprised, as apparently many, many people were, I say, “No. I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I knew it was going to happen.” Any element of surprise, by that point, had evaporated.
Because we had meditated long and hard on the truth that the end comes for all of us, and no one knows when.
When the end came, Kate said, “It’s happening faster than I expected,” and I said I know. I’m sorry. I’m here. Some people get no warning at all. Every doctor I spoke to said they couldn’t tell me what would happen. I kept asking. We asked that question at virtually every meeting we ever had with a doctor for nearly two years, and they virtually all said the same thing, “We don’t know. It’s impossible to predict.”
So you just become experts on your own, regarding existential threats. Medicine is apparently useless in this regard.
Anyway, a year ago this weekend, we didn’t think things were ending, but we were well aware of the risks.
And Kate wanted to come home, hang out in the garden, be with the kids. All excellent ideas.
Even today, except it was snowing.
It has been a long time since I’ve attempted even a basic book review. Somehow last summer I wrote a piece on Hamlet. What?
My mind, meanwhile, is on the folks in Boston and beyond. Unneeded catastrophe. Devious murder.
“A tale of sound and fury.”
And then the last thing I wrote here was all about savoring the beauty of life. Well, keep doing that. While also giving your heart to those who are suffering.
And so, a book review. Seems right. Living fully, open heart and mind.
I’m not sure if these were the best short stories in Canada from 2012, but some of them are very, very good.
The anthology includes 10 stories, and I would like to celebrate what I consider the best of them.
Caroline Adderson’s “Poppycock” opens the book. Holy cow. This story will have me quivering for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t be out of place alongside the stories of Thom Jones’ The Pugilist at Rest. Paragraph by paragraph, it terrified me. The protagonist is a woman, a divorced mother of two, whose has been alienated from her family (father and sister, mother deceased) for over two decades. Her daughters are young adults and moved out. One day, her father shows up. She hasn’t seen him in 20+ years. He’s extremely unwell. Is this a chance for redemption? A corrective? A chance for explanation?
The whole thing tore my heart out. Unbelievable.
Or as Justin would say, Unbeliebable.
Lynn Coady’s “Dogs in Clothes” is another boot shaker. Ostensibly the story is about a young female publicist who shepherds a famous male (deep thinker) publicist around a metropolitan city (which seems a lot like Toronto during the G20 summit, when there were fences all over downtown and paranoid security apparatus[es] all over). Meanwhile, the publicist is texting a (female) friend and (married-to-someone-else) boyfriend and her brother (who is at the hospital where her father is under the knife for heart surgery). Grace under pressure? Is this Hemingway all over again? Are Coady and Adderson taking the same drugs?
Once again, a story about full catastrophe living. And not a Buddhist in sight.
Shaena Lambert’s “The War Between Men and Women” seems, at first, more straightforward. We’ve all lived through Phase I, II, III, IV, V, VI Feminism(s), so we all get this, right? Well, this is more like Faulkner’s “the human heart in conflict with itself” Nobel Speech (1949). [And isn't that great? Isn't the internet useful for something, once and a while?] “Endure and prevail.” Words post-Boston. Post-catastrophe. Eternal.
Lambert’s story starts: “It was 1968, and there was a war between the men and the women.” Holy crow. The story is told from the point of view of the child of two parents at war. As readers, we are once again in the middle of it all. In the middle of a war of all against all. Is it total destruction? Is there a chance for safety? Is peace an option?
What does all of this have to do with Canada, circa 2012?
“The story is constantly changing,” says the back cover, “and readers have to change as well.”
Well, okay, but why does it all seem so 1918?
Douglas Glover’s “The Sun King and the Royal Child” offers historical context as respite. In perhaps the “deepest” story in the collection, Glover offers (again, like the others) a narrator under pressure. Here is a young man who has had an long-running affair with another man’s wife. The other man is an archaeologist who has become famous as a researcher of pre-European contact Iroquois history/cosmology in southwestern Ontario. The “Sun King” and “Royal Child” of the title are Iroquois “artifacts,” except maybe they’re not, as the story eventually explains. Like much of the Glover-opus, the “present” of the story is both now and “then.” Or, to quote Faulkner again, “the past is never past.” (Though the quote is often paraphrased, as I have done here, according to Wikipedia: the real quote is from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)
Oh, Hemingway. Faulkner. Canada. 2012. What gives?
I don’t know. But it makes for a startling collection of short fiction.
Could use something by Tony Burgess, though. A little zombie ice fishing.