Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Lament, Keen and Wail
Most of the time I do alright. But then there are those days. The days when my well-practiced coping skills dissolve, become dust and I am bent in half by my grief. Nothing rational exists in these times. I am brought low while simultaneously I rage and spit bile at the world. I lament. I keen and wail. Triggers are unexpected, stealthy. When they hit I feel primal. Primitive. Clinging to survival. I feel rage. I feel frustration. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us. We were supposed to grow old together. Michael’s genes were supposed to carry him forward for decades. He was strong, fit, muscular, athletic. He was the beast. He could do anything. Anything but survive hideous Merkel cell carcinoma. The smack a bug disease that wouldn’t go away. That hid and lurked no matter how hard it was hit. I’m furious. Michael used to say that my rage and anger would be toxic for me. Look who’s still here? Maddening. So many stories stir up my sense of unfairness. A young friend visiting my home tells me about her parents’ unhappy relationship which finally ended in divorce. On a recent visit home, she saw her mother’s wedding rings for the first time – she’d never worn them. While listening, I look down at my own hand, wedding rings in place as if I’m still married. Which I am. I can’t imagine every putting them away. Another woman tells me that she feels like her husband is her brother. They’re good friends who sleep in separate rooms. Unimaginable. Michael and I were still in love, far away from being siblings. Why do they still get to share a life while we don’t?I hate the sight of old couples walking slowly together, holding each other up and I think, why you and not us? I tell myself that everyone has a partner but me and I know that’s a lie. I petulantly push the truth away. I have fury against those couples I know who have empty relationships that are habits instead of fulsome love and I want to say vicious things to them and make them hurt. I’m not a kind person in those moments but I don’t care. This is part of me. I want to use all my verbal skills to lash everyone. I am a relentless hater. I’m not fit to be with anyone when I’m in these rages. I had no idea that I’d feel this way. Michael and I would talk about my future throughout his illness. He would ask, “what are you going to do without me?” I would answer, “how the hell should I know?” Sometimes he would counsel me about how I should find someone else when he was gone. He didn’t want me to be lonely. He said I was full of life and energy and sexual drive and he wanted me to be happy. Easy for him to say. His unimaginable burden was dying, disappearing, separated from life, and everyone and everything he loved. He was inside that mode, looking out at me. He could never have imagined the view of the one left behind. He couldn’t see my angle and the toll his illness had exacted from me. I’m not sure I saw myself either. The exhausted, damaged eroded one left in familiar surroundings that are permanently altered. I had lost so many people before Michael got sick. Cousins, best friend, my father, brother and mother. I carried those losses. Michael had never mourned anyone until he mourned himself. He knew that. Somehow, he cruised into his 60’s without ever experiencing the death of anyone he loved. He was estranged from his parents. His father died at 98 but Michael hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. His mother is still breathing at age 96. They were unimaginably dreadful parents, not physical abusers but emotional ones. Michael was the second of two children. He was never close to his sister. As the first born, she received the brunt of their brutal efforts to make their child into someone she was not. By the time they’d wrought their damage on her and turned to him, Michael had built himself an interior fortress to protect himself. No one got in there in a substantive way until we stumbled into each other in 1971. I could see him, the real him that peeked out of that hiding place and saw the magical self that he’d tucked away for safekeeping. An unrelenting hunter and prober, I spent a lifetime pounding away at those walls and getting inside. That brought us gratitude and joy and also, my frequent annoyance. Undoing an unhappy history is a lot of work. I had armor too and the weight of painful times. He found his way inside me as well. Together we reconstructed ourselves, not without the occasional emotional lapse or battle, but for the most part, peacefully enough so we could shelter together against all that gets tossed at people moving through life’s unpredictable journey. I restored my protective iron when Michael got cancer. Except for him and my children and grandchildren, I kept myself guarded, focused on working frantically to help extend Michael’s life. When his last months came along, I had no real recognition that this steely resolve was all that was holding me together. My ancient self-protective device that somehow got me to the end. To his last breath, the last icy kiss, the last time he was taken out the door. And then came the recognition that all my efforts couldn’t undo the inexorable finality of his vicious cancer. My armor is what remains, that and my memories of what Michael referred to as this glorious life we shared. And anger. And the feeling of being robbed. Right now I’m furious. I don’t want to find a new companion. I still want Michael. I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to want anyone else. He’s only been gone 18 months. A speck of time compared to those 46 years we spent together. What could compare? I don’t want to take care of anyone again. I would make exceptions for my children and theirs. But aside from that, I have nothing left to give a sick, needy person. I gave everything I had to Michael. Truly, I gave more than I think I had. By the end, I was close to the deepest of flight responses. I didn’t think I could manage an extra ounce of patience, generosity or kindness. The love, though. I drew on it, though terrified I was making things worse for myself in the long run. I lay in Michael’s arms as we’d embraced for so many years. I would ask myself if I was crazy, knowing that cancer was eating his brain while we snuggled as if all was normal. It wasn’t normal. I decided to savor every second that I could get, thinking of the desert stretched out ahead of me, sere and endless until I’m gone. I know he felt comfort, despite his fear and confusion. That means something. And now I remain. Mostly alright but aware that the days of lament, keening and wailing are far from over. My mother outlived my father by 25 years. She never entertained the notion of a new partner. I know she cried alone, only occasionally loosening her emotional control during daily life. But she missed my dad mightily and wistfully spoke of all she’d done without him, of all the events he’d missed. As I sat at her bedside while her life ebbed away, she was agitated for hours. Eventually she grew calm. That last night, her eyes never closed. As we sat in the darkness, I watched her move her arm in front of her, as if trying to peer through a thick fog to see something shrouded just ahead. I’ll never know what that meant. Was it reflexive? Was she actually looking at someone or something? Of course, I like to think that my father was waiting for her out there in the universe. That eventually those two who moved through life like conjoined twins would eventually find each other on some other plane. That hope, despite my mother’s most frequently voiced concern that dad was chasing Ava Gardner through eternity. Still jealous of a movie star who’d been dead for years. Maybe Michael has caught up with his movie star, Greta Garbo. Hah! In my heart, I believe that if there’s any way our energy can reunite that’s what will happen.
Today as I got ready to fly away for a vacation, I wrote him a quick note to say that if anything happened to my flight, I expected to find him waiting for me, ready to resume whatever we were for the rest of time. But now, my plane is landing. I guess I have to keep waiting until my anger finally kills me. Or something else. Who knows?