Final Strands

Final Strands

Love forms bonds, like strands of yarn.

Like yarn, those bonds can be fragile, or get all tangled.

But when they’re kept and cared for, they can bridge any distance.

-from the game ‘Unravel’

I did a very hard thing this week. I knew that I didn’t have to go through with it, and I nearly didn’t. But the time, setting, and circumstances came together in a beautiful and sublime way.

Earlier in the week, I found myself driving all day to Arizona, the boys sitting in the back seat. I wept on the way while they slept, recalling the last time I had to make this drive. Alicia was still with us then. She was suffering, but very much alive. She made this present trip under different circumstances. It wasn’t in a desperate search for a cure at the Mayo Clinic.

Once in Arizona, I felt the need to drive to the places that once meant something to us. I showed my boys the dingy apartment in south Scottsdale, where a blue lantern once hung over a stuccoed archway. I showed them the ever more massive apartment complex where she hid eggs at Easter for Ben. I showed them the old building where I did my graduate research, and where we all spent much time together on lunch breaks. I took them to the Phoenix Zoo, situated within Papago Park, home to a collection of bizarre, yet unforgettable sandstone buttes. Alicia and I both played in the shadows of those rocks on different occasions as children, eating our PB&J sandwiches and sipping our sodas from cans wrapped in foil to celebrate the end of a field trip.

The next day, we found ourselves in Sedona. Words can hardly do this landscape justice, so I’ll not try.

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It was the place of our honeymoon, where we stayed in a simple bed and breakfast for just two days. Economics didn’t allow us to stay away any longer, but we consoled ourselves with the notion that we would one day return for a much longer stay. Perhaps, just perhaps, at our 20th anniversary. As we drove through town, that wound was prodded repeatedly with each memory that drifted back into my mind. We made our way slowly, windingly, up Oak Creek Canyon, my eyes searching for the spot that would meet my heart’s expectations. There musn’t be any people around. Not close to any cabins or retreats. Safe enough for those in my party to climb down to the stream. Eventually, I found it – a stretch of creek that passed through a living arbor of cottonwoods and sycamores, water gently bubbling over smooth, dark stones.

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This was where I was to lay her ashes to rest. The loving sadness that had been building this entire trip finally came out. I had bid goodbye to her body once before, on the night she passed. Though her body was now much changed, I was to bid goodbye yet again. I did so with a message of love – that it was the privilege of a lifetime to have known and loved her – that I hoped I did enough in caring for her – and that I hoped this act would be a continuation of that loving care. Her body flowed into the creek with no difficulty, as smoothly as water running over stones. Her ashes looked less like ashes, and more like golden sand in the midst of those mossy stones – standing out as a testament to the beautiful light she gave to so many. Caleb remarked to me, “Dad, you can still see where she is.”

Should you ever find yourself in Arizona, and have a chance to restore your spirit in the cool, green shadows of Oak Creek Canyon, just know, and remember, that those waters have kissed the body of a bright, beautiful, tender human being named Alicia.

Reflections for “Evening of Memories”

Reflections for “Evening of Memories”

Dear reader,

I was recently asked to share at a gathering of people who had lost a loved one over the last year. The following is the text from what I shared that evening. I wanted to share this as a way to honor Alicia. What’s more, I wanted to write this in memory of the anniversary of our engagement, December 16, 1999. It was 17 years ago that I, penniless and reeking of gasoline from my piece of shit ’76 VW “Super” Beetle, asked her to place her trust in me and face the great unknown together.

Cheers, as always, for reading,

Josh

Though most of you may not know me or my family’s story, you can safely assume why I’m up here speaking tonight. I, like many of you, lost someone dear to me. This someone was quite remarkable. She was a fast friend and a great mother. She loved intensely and loyally. She could be childlike and goofy, yet she was also capable of facing up to some of life’s most sobering truths. She was an amazing wife…she was my wife. She resisted the dying of the light with every fiber of her being. For her, it wasn’t so much that she had to leave because the party was over. Rather, it was because she had to leave while the party was still going. She had much life yet to live. She had sons who had not yet become men. She had dreams of growing old beside her husband. She was on her way to becoming a counselor to the broken and the hurting. Her name, if you’re wondering, was Alicia, and she was taken from us nine months ago. Much too soon in my estimation.

When I was asked to share with you all tonight, I struggled for some time to think of what to say. What words of hope and healing could I offer that might speak to so many? Quite a daunting task given the fact that our stories involve pain and loss. But one thing you should know about me is that I’m an observer, of things both outward and inward. So I realized – maybe that’s something I could share with you, my observations of this reality that we’re living. I can’t take away the pain of your loss, nor mine for that matter. But, as I’ll explain in a moment, I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. Instead, what I can offer is simply a part of myself, or at least my reflections as a fellow traveler on this path, someone who just gets it, no lengthy explanations needed.

So, as we’re gathered here tonight, in the midst of the holiday season and remembering loved ones, I want to speak about duality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines duality in this way: “The instance of opposition or contrast between two aspects of something.” In our case, I’m referring to the act of grieving and of living simultaneously, side by side. To illustrate my point, I brought a silver dollar. It’s one coin, yet it has two sides. You see, I think each of us is carrying around a coin like this in our pockets, figuratively speaking. It was placed there when our loss occurred, and we’re all somewhere in the process of figuring out what to do with it.

Let’s start with the side that deals with grieving. If I can offer any advice, it would be not to avoid this side of the coin, even during the holidays. I would suggest that it’s good, in fact necessary, to mourn like hell over the loss of your loved one. Our loved ones are so worth it. They’re worth the pain and the tears. They’re worth the sadness, the anger, the confusion, and the longing. Fill in the blank with any emotion or state of mind you’ve experienced – your beloved is worth it. Is this not what we would want if we were in their shoes, if the situation tonight were reversed? Would we not want those who remained to miss us terribly? To mourn over the gaping hole that’s been left in their lives? Not only that, but in my own experience, the pain of grief also serves as a reminder that what I had was truly memorable. It validates that it was good and that it was real. We don’t typically mourn the loss of something that didn’t mean much to us, so take comfort, friends, as strange as it may sound, in the pain of your loss during the holidays. It must mean some very special things happened around these times – good memories, fond relations, moments filled with love.

And what about the other side of this coin, the side that deals with our commitment to living this life? For, just as we would want our loved ones to mourn our deaths, would we not also want them to go on living? Would it not cause us grief to see our loved ones withdrawing from life on account of our absence? One thing I became intimately aware of as a result of my experience with Alicia is that the time we are given in this life is a rare, precious, and wondrous gift. Our loved ones would not want us to squander that gift. Now I imagine this commitment to living life can take many forms. It may mean taking that college course or pursuing that job, or jumping out of that perfectly good airplane, or travelling to that far flung destination. It may mean getting that crazy tattoo you’ve always wanted, or agreeing to go out for coffee with that intriguing man or woman that’s invited you. At its heart, I believe this other side of the coin involves making new memories, forming new bonds or strengthening old ones, choosing to live new experiences while we still have time on our side. It’s important to say this – I don’t think it means leaving our loved ones behind. Rather, we take them and their legacy with us into our futures. To ask me to do otherwise would be no different than asking me to leave an arm or a leg behind. You see, they are a part of us and always will be.

And there, my friends, is the duality of this whole experience. Some perhaps would call this proposition a type of insanity, but I’m not speaking to those folks, I’m speaking to you all. And for us, it’s not insanity, it’s just reality – reality that was forced on us without our asking, and since that day we’ve been figuring out how to live and to grieve simultaneously. We will have moments, including during these holidays, when we simply want to crumple to the floor and weep. And I’m here to say that’s okay. It’s okay to pass on the holiday parties at work; it’s okay to bow out of having to cook for Aunt Beatrice and all the family. Likewise, it’s okay should we feel like experiencing a little revelry. It’s okay if we have moments where we smile and laugh and feel perfectly contented. We can do both, we should do both. For my part, I think it’s what Alicia would want, just as I can picture your own loved ones placing a reassuring hand on your shoulder and releasing you to do the same. So, in closing, I wish you peace of mind during this season. Be kind to yourselves; send any and all unrealistic expectations packing. May you be enveloped with the love of those around you, including the love that persists despite your dear one’s absence. And above all, I wish you the courage and the compassion to live both sides of the coin.

This Time Last Year

This Time Last Year

This time last year, my little tribe was on the island of Kauai. My brother Jeff and his soon-to-be wife, Ashley, had made a way for us to attend their wedding, knowing we were stripped of resources after weeks of cancer treatment and lack of employment. Our second day on the island, I asked Alicia if she would walk on the beach with me. It was late afternoon, so the danger of a reaction from her photosensitive medications had passed, she could emerge out-of-doors. She wore a shirt I had bought her to wear as an encouragement through treatment. The saying on it became her mantra:

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Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.

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Wearing her mantra, she watched the sun as it set behind mountains jutting up like teeth from the dark rainforest below.

This time last year, my older brother, Vince, sat with me and listened as I broke in front of him. The tears issued forth as freely as the expletives. We had finished a round of golf for Jeff’s bachelor party, and were relaxing together when Alicia called. She was in the hotel room; she had used the last of the liquid pain medicine; her mouth was on fire. It was my first acknowledgment that the cancer never really left her body. The healing process from the treatment had already run its course. She should have been feeling much better by then, only she wasn’t.

This time last year, my big brother lovingly shuttled me away from the golf course. We found a drug store on the garden island of Kauai, where I bought every bottle of grape and bubble gum liquid children’s Tylenol I could find. It was the only thing we could put through her G-tube. All those boxes in my hands, each one with the same crude drawing of a smiling child looking up at me, made to look as if some six-year-old scrawled it and sent it in as the winning pick.

This time last year, we watched our handsome sons clamber around a reef while wedding photos were being taken. Ben was focused on taking the perfect sunset shot. And Caleb? He was trying not to look too proud of the fact that his dapper little cousin, Tristan, was following his every footstep.

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This time last year, Alicia leaned over to me at the reception as everyone was eating dinner.

  • Honey, I took a few bites and could actually taste it!
  • That’s awesome! I’m so glad for you honey.
  • Me too, but I think I’ll stop there, I may have overdone it a bit.
  • Okay, that’s a good idea. I’m proud of you.

This time last year, I stood up to give a toast to my brother and his bride. While I don’t remember all that I shared, I recall saying how happy I was to call Ashley “sister”, how we had all been anticipating this happy day. In closing, I shared a sentiment that came to mean much after our last few months of going from home to hospital and back again, that it’s not what you do, or where you go, but it’s who is beside you that counts. I looked at Alicia as I said it, knowing my words were for her as much as they were for Jeff and Ashley.

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This time last year, when we were back in Idaho, she came to me and expressed regret for having gone to the lovely island of Kauai. She was a burden, she said. She took away our fun, she said. She should have stayed home while the boys and I went alone, she said. No, I said. I never could have gone without her, I said. The boys and I would have thought of nothing but her, I said.

This time last year, though I had misgivings about her fate, I really didn’t know anything for certain. I didn’t know that the word “terminal” would be handed to us just five short weeks later. I didn’t know the depth of suffering she was yet to endure. I didn’t know I would feel the need to close her eyes when the boatman ferried her away to a shore unseen. Nor did I know the depth of unspoken love that could exist between two people. I was unaware of the reserves of strength that were to be drawn upon and of the sheer will and determination required to get up and face each day.

This time last year, I didn’t know I would return to our closet time and again to find that purple shirt; I didn’t know I would crumple it to my face while inhaling long and deep, as if doing so would draw her forth, genie-like.

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As the days, weeks, and months pass in this, my year of “firsts” without her, these are the thoughts that come and go. These points on the calendar conjure memories – some beautiful, some painful, but always going something like…this time last year.

 

Ballroom 101

Ballroom 101

I recently finished participating in a grief support group, composed mostly of people who, like me, had lost a spouse. I remember the chaplain sharing a story at our very first meeting. He told us of an older widower from a previous group who, at the first opportunity to ask questions, raised his hand and asked in a no-nonsense manner, “How long is this going to take?” The chaplain, not catching his meaning right away, responded very matter of factly, “The group runs for about seven weeks.” “No”, the gentleman clarified, “how long until I start getting over this…the pain?” Instead of offering him some platitude about how time heals all wounds, etc., the chaplain asked him a question of his own. “How long did it take to get over the birth of your first child?” The man answered that he never got over that event. The chaplain replied with an air of sincere wonder, “Why do you think it’s any different – getting over the loss of your wife?” The story ended there, but I imagine it gave the pain-stricken man pause to reflect, as it did me.

Like the man in that group, I too entered this process with an eye toward getting over the pain. I viewed grief as something to be outlasted, as if I could just grit my teeth, hunker down, and wait it out until someone popped the lid off the crucible.  Six months? A year? Two years? How long until I can say “I’ve made it!” Not so, friends, not so.

Which leads to my final group meeting, where the chaplain is sitting back after a woman just finished unburdening herself of something truly painful. He was struck by what she said, responding only to say, “Going through grief is like a dance, isn’t it?” I’m not sure what the others thought of that comparison, but it certainly stayed with me. In fact, both his question to the widower, and his analogy at the end became so closely related in my mind. One doesn’t get over the loss of a loved one. One shouldn’t. For me, life will never again return to “normal”, as if that ever really existed in the first place. Rather, I’m finding that I must go through a process of integrating this loss into my daily life – for the rest of my life. I’m told the pain will lessen, but this dance has no time limit. Just like the emotional undertow I wrote of earlier, grief can show up at any time, tapping you on the shoulder for a dance. Do you engage? Or, do you pretend not to notice – choosing to brush her aside and remain a wallflower? As uncomfortable as it can be, I choose to engage. I say that only because I’ve experienced firsthand the result of not engaging. It turns you toxic inwardly, outwardly, or both. That, and I know that should I live long enough, I’m sure to experience loss again with others that are in my life. Whether faced with my own mortality or that of a loved one, I don’t want to be caught dreamy-eyed and unprepared, not knowing the most basic of steps. So for now, I’ll choose to take the time to remember…and to feel. I’ll choose to bring Alicia up in conversation with others, even if it causes me tinges of sadness. I’ll listen with intent when one of our sons needs me to help them process. I’ll work through the awkwardness of sitting in a counseling room, wondering what on earth I’m supposed to say. I’ll identify myself with others who are getting tapped on the shoulder, hoping I can in some small way act as a beacon to them. Friends, the next time grief comes my way, I want to fix her with a clear-eyed gaze, extending my hand to meet hers, my other hand firmly placed on the small of her back, ready to move around the floor at the first note.

Featured Image: The Singing Butler by Jack Vettriano

The Return of Dreams

The Return of Dreams

Two mornings ago, rather than getting up immediately upon waking, I remained in bed, arms folded beneath my head. You see, I was replaying the first dream I’ve been able recall in well over a year. I don’t know exactly when the ability to have them, or recall them, was lost. I imagine it must have been around the time that nights became long and hard for Alicia. The details of the dream are irrelevant. It consisted of the usual mix: bizarre plot line, invented characters, and abrupt ending. I had all but forgotten what it felt like to dwell in that space between wakefulness and sleep, savoring the last impressions of the dream before the details start to fade with the coming of day.

To what did I owe this? I’d like to think it was the fact that Ben, Caleb, and I had spent the previous evening watching home movies of their much younger selves. Though Alicia was extremely camera shy, we nonetheless caught glimpses of her. More importantly, we heard her. Her voice was forever altered as the tumors progressed in her mouth and neck – that sweet, beautiful voice that I longed to hear each month when I could afford a phone call from some noisy street corner in Spain. Our boys were robbed of hearing their mother articulate her ideas so eloquently and clearly as her tongue lost mobility and became ever more painful. On more than one occasion have they mentioned to me that they couldn’t recall the sound of their own mother’s voice before she had cancer. But for a few sweet hours that night, we were bathed in her infectious laughter. We were audience to her sharp wit. I got to witness, once again, what beautiful creations she and I made – products of our sincere love for each other. I was reminded how fully and deeply I loved that girl. How I love her still. It was more than my heart could bear to see her nurturing our children, caressing them, tickling them with her slender fingers and hearing their muffled laughter in the carpet. To see her carrying our second born in her lovely womb. My brain must have been awash with love chemicals as I saw anew the first girl I ever dared to really pursue. Deep in my brain, some tightly bound knots must have been ever so slightly loosened, if not undone just yet. And yet, it was enough space for the memory of one nonsensical dream to slip through into my seeing mind.

Featured Image: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

This Pilgrim’s Progress

This Pilgrim’s Progress

 

One day I hope to walk the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage that dates to medieval times. The journey typically starts in southern France and ends in the province of Galicia in the far northwestern corner of Spain. The Romans called it Finisterre, Latin for Land’s End. It’s a tumbling, green, rugged coastline swept by ocean gales. Even more fascinating is the blend of Iberian and Celtic cultures that characterize the people of Galicia (you can hear bagpipes there). What I think I would treasure the most, however, would be the encounters with fellow travelers and with the hosts who staff the refugios along the way. Refugios are hostels reserved just for those making the voyage to Santiago de Compostela. For many of the hosts, it is a labor of love to welcome strangers into their hostels, to feed them, and to provide a clean bed. Algún día quizás. Someday perhaps.

Most of you reading this, whether you know it or not, have been a refugio for me, for the boys, and for Alicia when she was still with us. Yes you, dear reader. And this in spite of creed, nationality, color, sexual orientation, political persuasion, socio-economic status, or any other label that we try to define ourselves with. The unifying theme was love and a desire to offer a place of comfort to desperate people in need. When we were tired along the way, when we felt our feet couldn’t carry us any longer, when our backs were burdened from the load we had to carry day and night – reader, you were there, keeping the lantern lit for us. When I was at the end of my rope, torn between supporting my family with work or remaining by her side full time through treatment, money was sent our way. Vacation time was generously donated. When I couldn’t think of planning meals or going shopping, food was provided. When it was time to bring her home from the hospital for her final weeks with us, a clean home was waiting for her. Dedicated family members came and stayed with us to ease my load as her caregiver. When I had forgotten how to laugh, or even smile, friends came and took me out for times of brief but sweet respite. Shoulders were cried upon. Ears were lent. Prayers were offered. I have a box overflowing with beautiful cards and sentiments, all of them precious to me. So many kind words and loving thoughts were shared through so many avenues. But most important of all, reader, is that in being a refugio for us, you gave us the most precious gift of all – time. We were able to take refuge in your hospitality, a cool retreat behind whitewashed walls where the dusty road is kept at bay. In the end, that was all that really mattered. Time to be with each other, time to properly care for her in the way she deserved, time to remind her that while we could not bend the arc of her disease, we could still go with her each step of the way. Priorities have a way of coming into vivid focus when faced with circumstances beyond your control.

Dear reader, I have the best intentions of writing ‘thank you’ cards for all of the words and deeds that buoyed us. However, I’m reminded daily of my limitations. My legs feel like lead and my head is full of cobwebs. I struggle to find sleep and, when I do, I wake in the late watches of the night. Most days, simply showing up and going through the motions is enough. So in the meantime, please accept a tear-filled, quaking, loving expression of gratitude in the language spoken on the Camino. Os agradezco con todo mi corazón. Lo recordaré para siempre. Os amo.

Con cariño,

Josh

 

Of Clouds and Silver Linings

The skies in my world have been pretty overcast as of late. Now I know this is often used as a metaphor for sadness. Granted, there’s been plenty of that to go around. But for me, sadness comes and goes like a storm. Much more pervasive and persistent are the clouds of loneliness and yearning.

Loneliness. I’ve plumbed the depths of this emotion more than I would have ever cared to. I’d consider myself an extrovert. I grew up a twin, never more than a few feet from my freckle-faced “brubber”. Then it was off to college, where I always had a roommate. Lots of friends and lots of good times. Seemed like there was no end to the opportunities for an extrovert like me. I suppose I did a stint on my own after college, before I figured out that I didn’t want the moments that Alicia and I were spending together to stop. Then we were newlyweds trying to figure out what marriage was, and what it certainly wasn’t. Lots of bending and stretching, tearing and mending until you finally fit each other like a pair of those fancy shmancy Isotoner gloves. And while I had time to get broken in to this process of becoming a husband and companion to someone full-time, the same was not true of my exit from the blessed institution of marriage. Bam! You’re single now bro, get the hell used to it. The only way I can describe it is to picture yourself getting slammed into a concrete box for solitary confinement when you’ve walked freely in the sunshine for the last 16 years. That incredible human being, the one reliable safe place in whose presence you could be anything, is now gone. And yet the desire for that connection remains. So I write her, a lot. Only I get no responses. You start to suspect that the warden on this unit is stashing her replies in his top drawer, that mean bastard.

And now for the yearning. My God, the yearning. What do I even say? When you’ve put in the hard work and are tight with your partner, you get the keys to a cabinet full of perks. I’m talking the kisses goodbye and the kisses hello, the check-ins throughout the day, the pet names, the ribbing, the debates and the challenges, the lovemaking, the blissed out spooning after lovemaking, the just simply sitting around and doing nothing but you’re cool with it because you’re with your best friend. And again, you’re not given time to adapt to this new reality when she’s gone. No slow weaning from the intimacy you’ve shared on a daily basis. That cabinet was slammed shut on your fingers. All you’re left with is the marrow-deep throbbing and, of course, the yearning that keeps fucking with your mind. On my worst days, I just want to take to the streets like a beggar, wandering and pleading for alms of affection, for anything. It sure as hell feels vulnerable and pathetic, but it is what it is. About the only thing that dulls the ache is to strap on my Pearl Izumis and head out the door. Not to beg, but to run my ass off until I’m too spent to dwell on anything else but the taking of that next step and the in-out-in-out of my breath.

And now for those bittersweet silver linings – memories. In my case, these initial encounters were difficult to handle. The pain was so fresh that any recollection plunged me into despair. But slowly, quietly, the sweetness of them all started to bubble up from somewhere deep below. I suspect they were always there, they just never had need to arise. And it’s not just cognitive memories I’m referring to. No, these are memories of touch, of scent, of hearing, of her very presence. I knew Alicia was wired into my senses early on in our relationship. From the very beginning, she always loved it when I “played with her hair”, as she called it. Shortly before I moved abroad, I was sharing a bed with that very same freckle-faced twin only to wake to myself, yes, playing with his hair. (So sorry brubber Jeffy!) Fast forward a couple of months, and my flatmate in Spain is having a sit down with me, asking me if I’m gay. What? Turns out I’m playing with Gerardo’s hair too, and giving him tender little kisses on the head to boot. (Lo siento muchísimo Gerardo!) But back to my point. I really don’t know where these sensory experiences come from, and I really don’t care. Though they will never be a substitute for the real thing, they are still so precious and healing. Unbeckoned as they are, I am learning to give them a warm welcome any time they arise.

I know I’ve referenced the movie Castaway in a previous blog, and I’ve got to do it again. Hmm, there must be something I really like about that flick. All too often I don’t have the answer when I’m despairing from loneliness, from yearning, from sadness, from anger, or from whatever else that comes with this process. But I find wisdom in these words:

“And now I know what I have to do, gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” (emphasis added)

Here’s to breathing and keeping a weather eye on the tide.