Wistful

adjective – having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.

Were you to visit my home, you would likely notice several things. The walls are devoid of any pictures or artwork. The decorations are absent. Only the most essential pieces of furniture remain. It’s a skeleton of a home. You see, we’re in the process of moving, partially due to circumstances beyond our control, and in part by choice. I have moved my share of times, but nothing could have prepared me for this. As I was relating all this to a friend, she shared a prophetic insight. Another layer of goodbyes, she said. Truth.

For me, these layers have looked strikingly similar to boxes, bins, clothing, keepsakes, crafts, and any other item that we humans accumulate when we’ve camped in one spot for a stretch. My summer thus far has consisted of peeling these layers back, one by one. Sometimes frantically, and at other times, with the care and detail of an archivist. And, as with an onion, each new layer peeled brings with it a fresh round of tears to sting the eye.

Which, reader, brings me to that seldom used adjective. In this process, I’ve felt its power most keenly whenever I’ve discovered a trove of forgotten photographs. Those images capture happier days of my life with Alicia. They were moments in time when we were unaware of the danger that lie in wait. Ignorance was bliss. But now, I find that my awareness of what was to come has somehow tinged those memories. The reach of her cancer is now felt within every image, every artifact. The inkwell of loss was upturned, its contents bleeding onto former pages, never to be erased. What to do? Am I ever to hold a memory in my hands without staining it with tears? After much layer-peeling practice, I have found one pearl of wisdom. It is this – to approach each piece as a search for gratitude. To settle into the moment. To recall any sense or emotion that can reinsert me, be it ever so briefly, back into that memory. And ultimately, to be thankful for the gift that moment represents on the scroll of time and human experience. Those moments were real. They really did happen, and they were so good. Ink-stained as they are, I’m learning I can still walk away from those encounters with a heart full of love, and yes, even gratitude.

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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.

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.

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.

 

When Reality Pries Your Fingers

We’ve all heard the saying “You have to let them go” in relation to losing a loved one, right? Funny thing is, I never had to think about it much until tragedy touched our lives. When I do pause to think about it, I struggle to wrap my head around what it is, how to do it, or even whether it’s a good idea in the first place. Nevertheless, I know that my “letting go” started well before the mournful day of March 14, 2016.

Letting Go – Take One: Late November. We’re sitting across from her surgeon and getting the results of her most recent biopsy. He’s telling us how sorry he is, how we threw every single thing in the toolkit at the cancer, how the cancer just took it in stride. Not even removing her entire tongue and half of her jaw would save her, probably only make what time she has left all the worse. As we drive home, she asks to go to the movies, so we do, hands held tightly. Finally, later that night, she corners me in the bathroom and asks, “Am I going to die?” We collapse into each other’s arms and weep uncontrollably, the unspoken truth strangling any answer I can muster.

Take Two: Middle of December. Now we’re driving all day and into the night to get to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. She’s delirious in the back seat from the pain and fatigue. At the appointment, they tell us nothing we don’t already know – no clinical trials, only a push for the very surgery she’s already courageously once denied. We run out of pain meds with one day left before our return to Idaho. It’s decided, she’s flying back with her aunt accompanying her. I’m going to drive like mad to Idaho, pick up the meds at the hospital, and meet her at the airport. As I leave her in the care of her Aunt Donna the next morning, she embraces me long and sweetly, whispering the most profound “thank you” into my ear. I can’t leave her, oh God I can’t leave her, I just can’t let go.

Take Three: Late December. We’re two weeks into a second-line chemo now, mainly just to control the symptoms. Just a week earlier, she was in such a deep sleep that it took me five minutes to wake her. I rush her to the hospital – she’s okay, just really low oxygen. She tells me later, “Josh, it’s okay, I haven’t rested in so long. It was kind of nice, sleeping with no pain for once. Please just let me sleep next time, try not to worry.” So I do, only one week later on January 2nd. She’s sleeping all day. I do her tube feeding, she doesn’t wake. I administer her meds, she doesn’t wake. It isn’t until eight o’clock when I try to wake her that I realize this is different. She’s limp, her breathing is so shallow, her eyes are open but not seeing, limbs are cold. She’s dying Josh. I call the paramedics. At the ER, the gentle young doctor pulls me to the side, light reflecting in his blonde stubble. Out of earshot of the boys, he asks me what I want to do. Stick a rigid tube down her trachea, go aggressive? No, she’s endured unimaginable pain in that very spot, I’ll not subject her to one more minute of unnecessary agony. Comfort measures only please. He advises me in so many words of how bleak the situation is – best to prepare myself and my boys. So we do. We do our letting go right there amid the din of monitors and the nurses’ bustle, my boys bravely and haltingly trying to choke something out to their vulnerable mom that they’ve never imagined having to say.

Final Take: She survives, she rallies, damn she’s strong. We commence hospice. I know it’s not a question of if, but when. So much letting go I can’t see straight. Nine weeks she fights for life, never really letting go herself. No moments of “I’m ready to go now.” She becomes delirious again. I’m draped over her and weeping a few days before she passes. She wakes, and with clarity pushes me up so she can look me in the eye and asks childlike, “Why are you crying?” Me: “I just love you so much honey.” Inside, I know it’s because her time is near. I’m having to square yet again with the “noble” art of letting go. But I can’t tell her that now, it would be too cruel in her state of mind. She replies, but the clarity of her speech has slipped again, I can’t make it out. I can tell from the cadence, the intonation, that it’s lovely and encouraging. She ends it by saying, “It’s true.” I nod my head in agreement. I don’t need to know the details to feel the veracity of her final words to me.

Alicia slipped into unconsciousness shortly thereafter. She never fully woke again. Yes, I did have to let go when she passed, when I helped the kind man that came to take her body away, when my boys and I made the trek to safely carry her ashes home, and every day since. Really, I think “letting go” is a misnomer. I think so much of it is just grieving, feeling the oppressive weight of reality sprawl over you and squeeze the air out of your lungs till you’re gasping and crying, “Uncle! Fucking uncle already you bitch!”

Letting go of dreams we dreamt together, yes, that I can vouch for. I’ve been forced to let go of the notion of a life spent together with her. No seeing our boys grow up, fall in love, and marveling together at the men they’ve become. No grandchildren army crawling up to her and biting on her toes the way she used to let Ben do. All of that, sadly – yes. As for the rest of it, I’m not letting go of anything. Not my memories, nor her strength, nor her legacy to me and our boys, nor her treasures, not even her locket of hair, nothing. That tub-o-lard I call reality can go fuck himself. I’m letting go of letting go.