Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
On The Clock
I think what really stopped me in my tracks recently was having to cancel my train trip to Glacier National Park for the second year in a row. In 2017, I’d planned to go there, just a few months after Michael died. I wanted the perspective that breathtaking natural beauty always provides, particularly the kind that emphasizes how small each of us and our problems really are. Last year, Glacier burst into flames, the fire moving from west to east, eventually encompassing the parts of the park I wanted to see the most.
When it happened I felt despair but managed to reroute myself at the last minute to Sedona and Flagstaff which provided me some balance and perspective that I desperately needed at the time. I felt the urge to strike out on my own and establish my identity as an independent person, as a woman who would now live alone, outside of a long term relationship which I’d been engaged in since barely out of my teens. I guess I never considered that lightning could actually strike twice in the same place, as fire engulfed the identical parts of Glacier this year. What I know now is that climate change and dry conditions throughout the west have made a September trip there a poor idea – better to go in spring when the likelihood of raging infernos will be lower. At least I hope so. Somehow I know I’ll dip my toes in Lake McDonald, even if it’s freezing, and I’ll look down on those magical colored rocks painted by years of glacier activity and minerals. That’s my plan. I haven’t given up yet.
When I was still working at my long held job of thirty-three years, I was up to my eyeballs in being a good partner to my husband, a good mom to my kids, a good daughter to my parents and generally, what I hoped was a compassionate, supportive person to my family and friends. I didn’t have a lot of spare time. My son, the science guy, told me I was maladaptive, definitely shorted out somewhere in my DNA, missing the “selfish gene,” and continually putting other people’s needs ahead of my own. Abnormally altruistic. Whatever. I believe that people have a fundamental nature and mine has been consistently that of a caregiver.
But sometime during my 50’s, I started carrying a small notebook in which I jotted down every thought or wish I had about what I’d do, given a little more opportunity. I retired from work earlier than I’d initially planned, to take care of my first grandson, a plan which would benefit him, my daughter and her husband, and me as well. My close coworkers were all older than me and were eligible to retire from our office before me. The place just didn’t feel the same, so the new babysitting plan seemed like the perfect choice. The hours would be long but rich. I always loved babies, the most innocent and least manipulative little people.
What I didn’t know was that within a year, I would need to move my mother into my home, as she was beginning to fail in her ability to care for herself independently. Nor could I have guessed that my strong, seemingly invincible husband, would be diagnosed with hideous Merkel cell cancer, turning what was supposed to be our “golden years,” into a dogfight with a relentless predator. During those years, I think I worked harder than I ever did in my life.
Eventually my grandson went to daycare, my mother died and I plied all my wits to use the time Michael and I had as best as we could. When he was well, we traveled. Each day was a gift that we were acutely conscious about, trying our best to maximize every hour, to live with no regrets. We got five years, miraculous for someone with metastatic Merkel cell. And then, we ran out of time. Michael died. For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t need to care for anyone but me.
While mourning Michael, I knew that what I needed to do for myself was honor the powerful desire he showed for life by living as fully as I could. To do otherwise felt like disrespect for everything we believed. So I found my notebook and started trying to accomplish all those thoughts and wishes I’d been writing down for years. And the notebook wasn’t the end of it. Going from two to one happens in a breath. When it’s the last one, the survivor’s life begins. There are so many things to do, to process, to complete. My lists grew longer all the time. And I hurled myself into them. My normal pace is just this side of breakneck speed. Age and bad knees have slowed me down somewhat, but I know that I still accomplish a lot more than most people in a day, certainly in my peer group. The hardest part about all of this has been the loss of the structures in my life. No particular time to sleep or wake, no particular place to be unless I choose it, no one’s needs to define my behavior.
For over a year and a half I’ve been searching for my lost Circadian rhythms. Staying up all night long, and then being unable to sleep enough to cover the lost hours is a repetitive, nagging task that I’ve been unable to master so far. I planned every detail of a celebratory exhibit of Michael’s life that was so massive I needed to rent our local civic center to accommodate the display and the huge number of people who attended. And yet, I can’t make it upstairs at a reasonable hour. I’ve traveled, taken classes, and been a major player in planning my 50th high school reunion. I’m writing stories about Michael and me to give to our children and grandchildren. I’m going to be an expert witness in a trial connected to my old job and I wrote a CV for the first time since 1977. I’ve gotten translations done from old family letters in unidentified languages that I inherited from my mom after she died. I tossed three trips into a short time to compensate for the loss of Glacier. But I started feeling uncertain about the one I had for this week and cancelled it so I could dig around inside myself and try to understand what felt wrong.
I realized that I’ve been racing along, “on the clock,” as if I’m being chased. On the clock is a phrase used most frequently when a sports team is trying to select a player during a draft. A team will get a certain amount of time to choose their person and when time lapses, they either have their choice or trade it to another team.
My clock is self-designed and the hands have been spinning at a remarkable clip. In my mind it looks like clocks in movies, when to show that time has passed, the hands move rapidly around the clock face at a crazy pace. I suspect that part of my intensity has to do with the fact that next month I’m going to have my first surgery, a knee replacement. In practical terms, I think it’s very lucky to get into your seventh decade with so little medical intervention. My two children were caesarean births but I was wide awake and only numbed for those. This will be my first general anesthetic. I think I’m so unused to the idea of being the patient, the person who needs help, that I can’t see past that uncomfortable position. I’m having trouble understanding that being temporarily dependent is so disconcerting that I’ve been packing my days with activities, as if I’m on a timer that will run out before I’ve made my choices. Except I’m the player. I’m already chosen and I’m already playing on my own team. I’m moving so fast that I’m outrunning myself. If my trip to Glacier had gone ahead as planned, I’m not sure I’d have become aware of my mad dash. Maybe it’s one of my coping skills to deal with Michael’s death. But it’s also my heightened awareness that anything can happen at any time. I know I can’t get everything I’ve ever wished to do accomplished. I’m not sure that really matters. I need to get used to accepting the fact that some limitations are to be expected as I move through this part of my life. Also that moving a little more slowly is acceptable. And that my subconscious message to myself, to cut away a vacation that didn’t feel appropriate for this time, is acceptable.
I’ve noticed that the only times I feel I can move more slowly and accept that more moderate pace as a positive rather than a negative thing, are when I’m swimming or working in my garden. I’m needing to figure out how to adjust my clock and stop judging myself against the number of items I cross off my list. The truth is, that as long as I live, if I continue to live in a continuously evolving way, my list will never end. And that’s the way I think life is supposed to be. We don’t get done until we’re done forever. My expectations are unreasonable. Time to get off the clock. I’m still figuring it out.