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.

 

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Coming Clean

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As many already know, my boys and I (and many others) have experienced a tragic loss this year with the death of Alicia. As I’ve tried to stumble my way through the grieving process, I have been stunned at how my mental faculties have been affected. Normally a voracious reader, I can’t seem to even get through the headlines on a newspaper. On the other hand, I have been writing more than at any other time in my life, strangely. It seems to be the most direct route to connecting with my grief. My hope is to find healing through writing, and to offer an honest reflection of my own response to the reality I’ve been faced with.

Now to the “Coming Clean” title. I’m an atheist. There, I’ve said it. I know this is a curve ball if you are one of my beloved Christian family members or friends. Knowing full well the negative connotations this term carries in religious circles, let me explain. The simplest definition is one who lacks a belief in a god, which pretty well sums me up. I’d love to choose “agnostic”, as it implies I’m seeking or just in a state of uncertainty, but that’s a bit disingenuous, more to soften the disappointment than an honest account. Now, to dispel any assumptions that may have been made:

“You’ve faced a terrible trial, and have turned your back on God.” No, I did not stop believing in god as a result of Alicia’s death from cancer. My deconversion (yes, it’s a legit term) occurred many months before cancer ever darkened our doorstep. True to our marriage commitment of keeping no secrets, she was the first to know.

“Why wait until now to say something?” My decision at first was a very private matter, and I only told a few others besides Alicia. My intention was to broaden that circle in time. Then, cancer hit. My utmost priority once we started that journey was to love and support Alicia no matter the cost. Airing that decision would have been selfish and awkward at a time when we could ill afford it. But know this, I agonized over my change in heart daily, knowing what it was like for Alicia to be “unequally yoked”. I would have gladly put Humpty together again if it was such a simple matter.

“But, you thanked us for our prayers, you were even there and said nothing!?” What else was I supposed to do? My wife and best friend was dying, and many of her dear family members and friends were coming forth in support of her. Should I have raised my hand and said, “Uh, sorry folks, I don’t buy this anymore, please excuse me.” I did my best under the circumstances. And, to be honest, I was and am thankful for the prayers. Although I don’t believe in a god anymore, those prayers, for me, were a representation of the many hopes that so many held, and of their sincere love for her and for my family. So yes, I swallowed my objections, kept my mouth shut, and remained by her side, exactly where I belonged. What’s more, when she was afraid or would lose hope, she would often ask me to pray for her (even knowing where I stood). I would pour out my heart, giving voice to my own hopes and desires for her. She was worth far more than my own personal hangups.

“You’ve removed God from the throne of your heart, and want to be your own god, doing as you wish.” While no one has said this to me, I’ve heard it said of others who have gone before me. Sorry to disappoint, but my deconversion was pretty uneventful. No descent into drunken debauchery, no hedonism, no pornography addictions, no gambling, etc. I’m still Josh. My values really didn’t change, only my beliefs. I was the same husband to Alicia after my decision, as I was before. My actions toward her were motivated by a deeply felt love and devotion. They were never motivated by the prospect that a god would punish me if I somehow didn’t live up to my wedding vows.

“What does this have to do with your grieving process?” Quite a lot. I’m  grieving  differently in some ways as an atheist, than I would as a Christian. Which is why I chose to open this blog in this way. Some may pity me, thinking I have no hope for the future, of ever seeing Alicia again in the afterlife. I don’t know what to say to that, other than you’re right. I know the logical end to my line of thinking. While the idea of heaven is a comfort to many, it has become a false comfort to me. Rather, I’ve found comfort in knowing that I did my utmost as Alicia’s husband and caregiver, both to ease her suffering throughout that wretched cancer, and to give her every chance at survival. I take comfort knowing she was never alone. I’ve taken so much comfort in the love and support of friends and family. I also have no regrets that I did everything I could to support her spiritually, knowing how important it was to her. And, having a change in perspective meant I endeavored to cherish every moment we shared, every touch, every word, every act of kindness shown us by others. Just simply lying next to her in bed as she fitfully rested took on a whole new meaning for me. After she had passed in our home, I remained next to her for over an hour, smelling and caressing her hair, kissing her lovely face, holding her delicate hands, knowing it was likely the last time I would be able to do so.

This has taken considerable courage to pen. I have been, and likely will always be a people pleaser to some degree. Know that it is not my intention to cause disappointment or distress, but I realize that I’m being unrealistic in that regard. I would only ask that if you are a believer, that you treat me with charity upon reading these words. Alicia was the real deal. Although it was hard for her, she only continued to show me love and acceptance. I feel regretful for not being at liberty to share this earlier with so many loved ones, and you have my apologies if you feel I deceived you in any way. I only wish to live, and to grieve, in the most authentic way possible, and this is my sincere effort to begin doing just that.