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.