Bob died in the spring of ’09. He kept pushing until the very end. That was just the way he was. Only in the last two weeks of his life we were forced to bring in the hospice folks, those angels of mercy who moved in and made all the difference.
I admit, at least from this distance, that I secretly kind of hoped he’d stop his relentless and obviously futile fight to find some miracle cure, that he might be able to live his final few months, or weeks, embracing the time he had left. It broke my heart to hear him keep arguing for one more trial, one more treatment, when even his doctors were gently advising him that the odds had so definitively turned against him.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of death as some ultimate dead end, pardon the pun. I knew that Bob’s instinct to rage against the dying of the light was a deeply human need. But for me, the hardest thing was watching him suffer, and I found it almost unbearable to see what he’d been reduced to, in body and spirit. I ached to talk to him, about what I believed, what comfort I took from my spiritual source, but I had to face the fact that his cancer, in that sense, had built a wall between us. He remained on the side of science and some kind of rational objectivity, even while the pain was taking him into some distant country. No one could follow him there, not even me. His body remained, but the rest of him was beyond my reach.
It was during those black days that I really began to appreciate the metaphysical lifeline I’d been given access to. I knew my view of death would never be his. At the same time, I felt the separation between us as an additional death in itself, the death of all we’d shared.
Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night, a surprisingly moving version by Rodney Dangerfield.
But in the end, Bob had his own journey to make; I had to honor that, and honor it I did, respecting his wishes, and doing everything I could to handle things the way he wanted, even when it meant arguing with the doctors for the very thing my heart said was wrong.
And finally, I was the one who made the decision to call in the hospice people. Bob was too weak to argue any more. Even then, I was terrified to leave the apartment, terrified that I wouldn’t be there when, well, wouldn’t be there for the end.
The hospice staff tried to reassure me, and even suggested little errands to get me out of the house, to take a break. That’s how I ended up sitting in my car one afternoon in the supermarket parking lot. I punched on the radio, unable to stand the silence, and here came Foreigner, singing, “I want to know what love is, I want you to show me…”
Foreigner, I want to know what love is
Reader, I lost it. This must be what they call keening, that primal wailing expression of grief. The sound widows in cultures more emotionally expressive than ours make over their husbands’ bodies, throwing themselves over graves, hurling themselves onto funeral pyres.
Maybe keening is the bookend to the beginnings of love. We’re lost in the daze of discovering new love: then, we’re lost in the final losing of that love.
It’s just that, dammit, there’s supposed to be more than a couple of cancer-filled years in between.
My keening was interrupted by a tentative knocking on my rolled-up window. The security guard on the bicycle was staring in at me, apparently worried that I was having some kind of seizure.
I wiped my eyes with my palms, and my runny nose with the back of my hand; I didn’t even care anymore.
“No, I’m not all right,” I responded heavily to his question, rolling down the window and looking up into his wary face. “My husband is dying.”
It was the first time I said that aloud.
The poor guy was way out of his depth. He asked me if I was okay to drive. I stared at him. What a stupid question.
“I don’t have a choice,” I snapped.
Something in my face must have scared the daylights out of him. He kind of backed off, clearly seeing he was not going to do any good here. I had the window rolled back up before his feet could find the bike pedals again.
I sat there, feeling something draining out of me. Feeling the weight of my own words sinking in. Letting myself hear what I’d said, know it. Own it.
My husband was dying.
I took a deep breath. I remembered to offer up a short, silent, incoherent plea, not for much, just for sufficient calm to dry my eyes and make it home in one piece. And that much I got, a sharp stab of compassion, for Bob, for myself, a wave of tenderness that brought an unexpected, though still weepy, smile to my face.
I started the engine and drove home.
I won’t say I felt better after that, but maybe it was more that I’d been standing at a turning point, refusing to peek around the corner at whatever might be coming, even though I knew intellectually what was there. Now that I’d allowed myself to actually speak those words, turn that corner, the future lost at least some of its power to terrify. We were both headed – in our own individual ways – into undiscovered country, whether we wanted to make that trip or not. All I could hope for was to communicate some little measure of my newly dawning sense of peace to Bob, whatever he could still sense through his painkillers.
The hospice staff was wonderful beyond description. Loving and unflappable. At the end, Bob was on just the morphine drip, and we sat for hours, watching his breath grow shallower, weaker. He’d last been conscious that morning, opened his eyes and smiled some ghost of the great smile that had hooked me the first night we met. His hand lay on top of mine, even though he was too weak to return my grip. That was around mid-morning.
At 4:07 p.m. he took his last breath.
We’d made preparations, thanks to the hospice people. The funeral home came for his body. Bob had left very specific instructions. Neither he nor I believed in the ceremony of funerals. He wanted his ashes scattered out over the Pacific Ocean. His only real friends, the ones he started his company with, were still there. I flew out with a full urn, returned with it emptied. Returned to an empty apartment and a life so empty it felt like a vacuum, sucking what little was left of me into its own inescapable nothingness.
I had no say, of course, about the obituaries that showed up in the Post, the Times, papers all over the country. Bob was a notable man.
Now he was gone and I didn’t want publicity, didn’t want condolences. I fell back on caller ID, didn’t answer calls unless I really wanted to, which I almost never did.
I would have left, then, I think, gone on some kind of retreat, but Mom was still alive, and, though most days now she didn’t even know me, I had responsibilities.
Lester Worsham sent a fruit basket, so big I could barely lift it, along with the perfectly phrased note of sympathy. I gave the basket to my elderly neighbor, as fast as I could get it out of the house. I just hoped she wouldn’t turn up poisoned.
The weeks after Bob died, after I came back from California, took me to a place I’d never been. I didn’t try to resist the emptiness, but embraced it, pursued it. I rarely went online; I didn’t give a damn about the news. It was all bad, anyway. I knew only that I had to go into this void, fall into it, and somehow, at some point, I trusted that I would claw my way out the other side. Something deep within me sensed that this was my time to let go of everything, and suddenly all I wanted in the world, was to let go of the world.
It wasn’t like I was suicidal or anything. I actually began to find a profound, wondrous comfort in the silence and emptiness. It felt like my heart was filling up with emptiness, and the emptiness itself was somehow buoyant, like something was holding me up, something I couldn’t quite see or touch.
It was also profoundly disorienting, because it wasn’t just Bob who was gone, not just Mom, who was emotionally gone, taking the last of any collective family memory with her, even though her body lingered on.
No, it was everything I’d known about myself, who I was, what I was about, my place in the world. I simply didn’t know….anything, anymore.
For a while, all I wanted was silence. Then, one day, I found myself scanning through iTunes, and pulled up a song I wasn’t sure I had the strength to listen to: Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Sand and Water, written after her own husband died.
I let her lovely voice fill the apartment. I sat on the floor and cried. And cried and cried, playing it over and over again. I let myself grieve, for what was lost, for what never had the chance to be. Even the lines in the song about raising her son alone, those lines went straight to somewhere deep inside me. The child I could never have. The child I knew, honestly, I’d never really yearned for, not like other women. It really hit me, that a child of my own was never going to be part of my path; hit me, the realization that I was completely alone.
And in the depths of all this, I allowed myself to feel, to feel and then release it all. And in the releasing, I fell even more deeply into an understanding that was still, solid, all-encompassing, and saturated with Love. I knew now, knew with crystal clarity, that all this loss was for a purpose, leading me onward. I understood that my life not only had changed, but held new changes in store, incredible, amazing changes, hovering right over the horizon – I could suddenly feel the New, like a slowly-approaching and inevitable promise.
That flash of insight was all it took. I unspooled from my fetal position on the floor of my living room, stood up, blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and went to the kitchen, suddenly starving. The kitchen was, not surprisingly, bare. I couldn’t remember when I’d left the apartment, but now all I could think about was a gyro sandwich at the Greek place down the block. Yeah, a gyro, with fries, and maybe some retsina. I threw on jeans, one of Bob’s favorite sweaters, way oversized on me, and still smelling deliciously, painfully, of him. The baseball cap he’d worn to chemo all those months. And I grabbed my laptop on my way out. All at once, I was ready to go back to work. Not because it was important, but because it didn’t matter at all any more.
Is it wrong to say that Mom’s last few months were easier because she was so far gone? She slipped on past anger and paranoia into a miasma of forgetting that wiped out almost everything in her life. Gradually the forgetting spread from her mind to her body, and all her systems simply forgot how to keep doing what they had always done.
I was out of the room, on the phone, when she finally slipped away. The nurse came and touched my elbow, and I knew. As much conflict as we’d had over the years, as much as I’d wanted from her so much more than she was capable of giving, I still stood by her bedside, holding the cold thin hand, and felt a sweet sadness for the life she’d led.
An hour after she passed, I was still sitting silently, Mom’s frail little body still lying there, no urgency now, no one to call, no one to share the moment. The nurses knew me, and wouldn’t interrupt, wouldn’t break in until I let them know I was ready. There was a knock at the door, and a deliveryman staggering under the weight of a stunning floral arrangement. We’d had flowers sent from time to time, by people who knew me, or Bob, always with some bland message, some “best wishes” or “thinking of you”, generic and dutiful. But these were particularly spectacular. I took out the card, almost absently, feeling a wave of regret: too late, too late for her to appreciate them.
But the card wasn’t addressed to her. It was addressed to me. I opened the little envelope, read the card, and let it fall to the floor, frozen by the impossibility of the message, which read, with eerie timeliness, “Please accept my condolences, sincerely, Lester Worsham”.