Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I have deferred knee replacement surgery for so many years, I barely remember when the pain began. I think it was about 14 years ago. I was really adept at avoidance behavior. Eventually I coupled it with my fear of the length of recovery. I worried that as Michael’s cancer roiled about for years, I had to be ready. That always stood in the way of dealing with my badly needed maintenance. And I was really afraid. Except for birthing my children I’d never had a surgical procedure. And I was awake during those. The years of being by my parents’ bedsides, most particularly my mother’s, had me irrationally averse to lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, while people stood around me, talking, laughing while I was helpless and unaware. I’m really bad at that. Everyone I know has given me wise counsel about how help is really a good four letter word, and how a person needs to reach out eventually and let others give back what you have willingly dished out for a lifetime. Ugh. So what if I’m a little nutty about this stuff? The only person I hurt is me. And I think that’s my choice, no one else’s. I could hear Michael in my head. He never thought I’d finally cave in and offer myself up to a surgeon, despite any grade of agonizing, limiting pain. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. And mine have been deeply ground into my psyche and defy logic and reason. But my life changed. Without Michael to care for, my awareness of my own physical issues sharpened and felt really hard to manage. I got sick of trying. I think part of it was that if something went awry, I didn’t care as much as I used to. My life isn’t nearly as exciting or urgent as it felt when I was part of our team. So I saw the orthopedist and set the date for surgery.
And I decided that I would do my best to have my outcome be successful. My preparation for total joint replacement really worked. Months of swimming and physical therapy helped me glide through my procedure. I was up and walking within a few hours after the operation and was back home in less than 36 hours. Huh. Now I have to be mindful in order to recover properly. That means no overdoing. My doctor who informed me that I was very “Type A,” told my kids to basically sit on me so I don’t mess up his beautiful work. My pain level is minimal. I’ve snuck out the door a few times to breathe fresh air and look at my flowers that remain miraculously alive in my late October garden.
I’ve had the good fortune to watch a timely tennis tournament in Basel, Switzerland featuring my personal favorite, Roger Federer, which has accompanied me through the week.
The pain medications have been strange. I have a strong aversion to feeling too relaxed or mellow. Being hyper-vigilant is pretty challenging with a mushy brain. I declined home health care and today, less than a week after surgery, I had my first post-surgical physical therapy session. I’ve started weaning myself away from the painkillers.
Just a few weeks ago, I was getting my ducks in a row. I made a list of all my accounts and passwords. I put all of my important papers in an accessible safe so things would be easy for my kids if I didn’t make it. I even started planning for which personal items would go to each family member, thinking ahead to unknown grandchildren and spouses or partners of grandchildren I already know. Sometimes I go a little too far down the road. I don’t really have enough valuables to spread around to all the imagined recipients of my smallish bounty.
But while I was abuzz, I drifted around in my mind and found myself dwelling on some of the best stories about Michael and me. Thinking of giving away my little treasures conjured the romantic and sweet gestures that he showered on me during our years together. They linger and will warm me forever. Here are a few of them.
When we were married less than a year, we had no money. The truth is, neither one of us was very ambitious and acquiring piles of cash wasn’t high on our list. At the same time, Michael, a great secret-keeper and a wonderful gift-giver, really wanted me to have anything I ever casually mentioned wanting, even the teeniest bit. We were visiting his parents in December at their home in Florida. One of the people who lived in their building was a diamond broker who worked at DeBeers. So very strange. A whole other lifestyle. Everyone who lived there seemed to be about their possessions. Hy, the jeweler, who had a fairly down-to-earth wife named Renee, decided to bring a tray of his wares out for us to coo over and admire. As much as I was tempted to resist, the shiny baubles, so out of my league, drew me inexorably toward them, the proverbial moth to the flame. I had a pretty strong affinity for aquatic life and most particularly, dolphins. I’d read a book by Dr. John Lilly, a counterculture physician who believed that the dolphin’s brain size and seeming inclination for interacting with humans, made them ideal candidates for learning computer-synthesized language. A truly appealing concept. I’d already decided that if reincarnation was a thing, my logical animal of choice would be one of those generous, joyous and intelligent water leapers, cruising the seas with a family and practicing random kindness. Tucked into one of the black velvet slots on Hy’s tray was a gold dolphin with a ruby eye. A multi-use jewel that could be worn as a pendant or a pin. I was filled with longing and also annoyance at what an easy mark I was. I pined a bit and then turned away. My wedding band was a silver hippie band with a few flowers on it. My engagement ring came from my mother-in-law, via Hy. She was embarrassed that I didn’t have an engagement ring that she could talk about with her friends. I wore it for years, a facsimile of one I would’ve wanted if I allowed myself the luxury.
Michael and I returned home and went back to work. Our wedding anniversary was May 1st. I will never forget the delighted look on his face as he slid a box across the table, the gold dolphin nestled against velvet, my chin hanging down in astonishment. That first anniversary was the beginning of all the secret negotiating he’d practice throughout our life, finding a way to give me something precious that I’d long since forgotten about.
Another fun memory started with the first time we ever left our daughter after her birth. As parents who got started in our 30’s, we were really ready to be committed to our kid. We’d had a good ten years on our own and the mad love we felt for our daughter bordered on the ridiculous. When she was three, we finally decided to leave her with my parents and go for an extended October weekend to Galena, Illinois. I still remember my anxiety. When I called to speak with her, she was busy and uninterested in our absence. I was a bit disappointed but we relievedly threw ourselves into enjoying the historic town, visiting the surrounding sites, eating well and just being alone with each other.
We wandered in and out of restaurants and shops, feeling romantic and refreshed. Invariably, we hit an antique store and just as invariably, there was a ring. An old simple aquamarine that fit perfectly. Michael and I had our usual conversation during which he explained why I didn’t need it and I reluctantly agreed. We finished our trip, picked up the kid and went home. But of course, Michael had written down the name of the shop, contacted the owner and arranged for the purchase which fell into my lap during the December holidays. The funniest part was that he’d described the wrong ring and instead of getting the aquamarine, I got an amethyst one that I didn’t love as much but which fit as well. In truth, I loved the idea of what he did more than anything else and I’ve been wearing this ring for 34 years. I can’t take it off. Our honeymoon which took place 15 years after we were married produced a caymanite charm for a necklace representing our fabulous but delayed adventure in Cayman Brac. Another surprise that turned up months after we’d returned home. For our 25th anniversary, our life was a little dicey. Michael had decided to leave his record store where he’d worked for 27 years to return to school to get certified as a secondary school history teacher. I remember when we told our kids they were stunned and worried. He was an old guy making a big career change. But it was our 25th wedding anniversary and we had the sensibility that we’d only get one of those. So despite the fact that there were three family members in school and my public servant job wasn’t likely to make me rich, we took a Caribbean cruise on the Norway, an old-fashioned-looking ship that reminded us historians of the Titanic. We promised each other no gifts. We decided to dine alone in The Bistro for our anniversary dinner. That night Michael produced a single rose from somewhere, roses being his signature anniversary gift. But then, he slid a box across the table and inside was a grownup ring, a fancy amethyst that truly stunned me. This man. A dazzler.
Another summer trip that included a street fair where artists were showing all kinds of amazing, unique creations brought me the bracelet I didn’t need, the one made of old typewriter keys to remind me that I really could write, yes I could, if I would only get down to it. And there are other lovely vignettes that popped up over the years. But I’ve saved the best two for last.
One afternoon during the Christmas season, I was out shopping and walked over to the jewelry case with multiple discounts, the big clearance. And there, staring up at me was the real engagement ring I’d wanted, a lovely deep green emerald in a simple setting that had been marked down enough that I thought I could swing this one. I tried it on and of course, it was perfect. I asked the jeweler if we could set it aside for just a few hours. I ran home and told Michael about how this was the one, the real one and I’d never want another ring again. Out came the same old arguments about how it was too expensive and unnecessary and all those other annoying rational ideas. As usual, they all made sense and I reluctantly called the store and told them to put the ring back on display. Two days later, my daughter and I were out shopping and I asked her if she wanted to see my ring. She was agreeable and we strolled over to the display case to find that it was gone. I was sad and furious that some terrible person was going to wear what rightfully belonged to me. I remember going home and being my most excellent snarky self to Michael. Eventually I got past it.
That May was our 30th wedding anniversary. We went out to dinner at an eclectic place which featured lots of seafood. I have a serious shellfish allergy and forgotten my epipen. I went into a lengthy explanation with our waitress, describing how I couldn’t afford to have any of my food grilled on the same surface as shrimp or lobster, that there could be no touching of my food to any hand or surface which brushed crustaceans, and on and on until the poor thing was a nervous wreck. Michael ordered shrimp and I had steak. All appeared to be going well. And then the moment came. A little box magically appeared on the table and Michael gently shoved it toward me. I was truly bewildered and then overwhelmed when I opened it and found the emerald he’d stashed away almost 5 months earlier and hidden until this night. I burst out crying, bringing the terrified waitress running to our table, certain that I was going to die on the spot from shrimp juice. What a moment. I told Michael again that I’d never look at another ring and I haven’t. I’m still so married, I wear it every day.
And then there was his last, most moving and heroic sneaky gift. When he was given only a few months to live, with perhaps a year with treatment in 2013, he set out to leave me a lasting symbol of his love, something that would comfort me when he was gone. During his chemotherapy, he went to a local jewelry designer and created a heart pendant for me. My daughter went with him. His hands shook but he was able to make an impression in his handwriting that read, “my life, my love, my heart” which the jeweler imprinted on gold. When it was made, he put it away because against all odds, he stayed alive. He finally gave it to me almost two and a half years later. He also had the presence of mind to make a mold with his handwriting in the event that if anything happened to the original, I could have it remade. He knew I would never be able to stand the loss.
So there it is. Somehow my process of going through my surgery and facing my fears swung me around to remembering the delights of my marriage, the special little moments that helped me survive the hard parts, that rejuvenated my feelings for Michael over and over again. They continue to connect me to that magic that has always eluded my best language, my absurd number of words. Life is so unpredictable. I wouldn’t have thought about these stories all in a row absent my pathetic knees. What’s next?