Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I’m not a big fan of flying. Being inside a container thousands of feet above the ground hits me in my weak spots, claustrophobic acrophobe that I am. But once the plane was over the clouds, I settled in and enjoyed the view as I pondered the two-week interlude I’d designed for myself. I was heading to the Gulf Coast of Florida for the first time on my own. I can’t count how many times Michael and I had traveled there together. Although I’ve taken several trips since Michael’s death, this vacation was a first for me, but not because of the destination. I chose to place myself in my most dreaded position, odd person out with a married couple. Granted these are two people I’ve known for decades. Although we’ve lived in separate cities and haven’t seen each other that often during the past thirty years, the bonds of our youthful friendship forged a reliable foundation for my new now, the single me. Both of them also knew Michael well and most importantly, they knew us as a couple. I was so happy to find that my feeling Michael’s constant presence and including him in my regular conversation wasn’t odd or alienating for them. In fact, after I went home, both of them remarked that while I was there, they felt like Michael had been there as well. How wonderfully validating. They said that back in those old days, anyone could see and feel how crazy we were about each other.
So my powerful feelings aren’t strange to them, but rather, expected. That acceptance made me feel surprisingly relaxed and truly able to appreciate my trip rather than spending time worrying about whether I’d be too far out of their loop. Maybe I already knew that somewhere inside me. Whatever instincts may have been operating, I’m grateful for my choice. I carry Michael close to me, always. I’ll willingly admit I was nervous about spending two weeks with anyone, much less married people. Frequently I’ve sensed, especially when I’m socializing with my peers, that referencing my constantly feeling Michael’s presence during a casual conversation makes some people feel uncomfortable. I don’t know exactly why. If I’m not uncomfortable, why should they be? Maybe people think it’s creepy. Maybe there are some expectations I’m not meeting. There’s the one year rule for example. Apparently you’re not supposed to make any major decisions or changes for a year after a spouse dies. Says who? Some people may be perfectly capable of altering their lives in less than a year. Others, maybe not. I categorize that stuff as “not my business.” Then there are the ones who think I’m not yet ready for male companionship, but likely will be sometime in the future. To me that implies that there’s something not right about preferring to be alone. When did that get to be part of the social discourse? I choose to spend a good deal of time as a solitary person. I always have. That is deliberate. I’m a stealth loner. Because I’m pretty adept at socializing, maybe people think it’s my go-to style. But it’s not. Michael and I often felt like co-hermits. It was okay. I like being by myself. Sometimes Michael and I would laugh and refer to ourselves as toddlers, doing parallel play. Next to each other but busy with our own things. We were really successful with that modus operandi for a long time. When cancer entered our life, we had to learn the art of living day by day. We got pretty good at that although with the onus of death always hanging over us, the challenge was indeed daunting. Now I have trouble looking too far down the road. I have no idea what time is left ahead of me. Maybe many years or maybe not. I still have so many projects that I want to accomplish, before I either become unexpectedly limited or because my life ends. Most of the chores on my lengthy list require concentration and isolation. I do maintain social contacts and interactions but I’m more concerned with getting my stuff done than hanging out with people. Right now I’m trying to find a balance and equilibrium that allows me to be mentally healthy – one hand in the relationship world and the other doing my self-assigned tasks.
I had a fabulous partner for the bulk of my life. The only void I feel is Michael’s absence. I don’t need anyone to fill that space. A lot of the time I still feel like he’s here anyway. I am not lonely for companionship. So this trip was a big deal for me. Being able to express my strong sense of Michael’s presence without being judged was a great gift from my friends. Being allowed to be my truest self made the deep appreciation I feel for the rich environment along the Gulf of Mexico easier to access. Setting aside the social pressure I sometimes feel about my ongoing relationship with Michael made this trip special. No arbitrary societal rules. Sweet relief.
For many years, Michael’s parents lived on the Gulf, so we visited regularly during our life together. Being in that familiar physical space again was evocative. We loved the water, the soft white, sandy beaches and the trees and flowers so different from those in our temperate climate. And the wildlife. Exotic birds, lizards, dolphins and fish just hanging around living their lives. The shells on the sand that hold stories of the ocean’s mysteries drew me just as much as they always did.
Nature was always a balm for Michael and me. Immersion in nature is restorative. I think there’s plenty of scientific data to support that statement. Like the powerful feelings stirred by staring up at a thousand year old sequoia, or gazing at the ancient red rocks of Utah’s national parks, the brilliant sky and water made both of us feel the transient relativity of our existence.
Nature’s wonders proved critical in helping us recognize how much less important we were outside of our daily worries and issues, even one as scary as incurable cancer. Compared to the sensation of timelessness the natural wonders aroused, we felt tiny. We could stop worrying about disease and the future for awhile. Our days on the beach, looking out at a seemingly limitless horizon, elicited a psychologically healthier sense of well-being rather than the usual nagging fear and worry. Perspective is everything. For us, what we often found along the shore was always a comfort which usually kept us away from cities as destinations. During the five year course of Michael’s disease we went down to the Gulf twice, once to Sanibel Island and once to St. Pete’s Beach.
As soon as chemo or radiation ended, we went back to the beach. We hit the Atlantic and wandered the Outer Banks, that fragile shoreline which may slip away under the sea one day. Another journey to the water’s edge took us to Mexico, to the Pacific shore beaches near Puerto Vallarta, where the turbulent water, crashing waves and wind again reminded us of just how small we really were in this great big universe. And twice we made it back to Lakeside, Michigan, the site of many family retreats. On the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, with waves rolling in and a horizon that shrouded the cities on the other side, we could conjure the feel of the ocean.
We are all little grains of life in the end, just passing through, like so many countless others who’ve come and gone. Michael is now physically absent but I’m still here to appreciate all of this endlessly beautiful and fascinating world. Big sky and brilliantly colored sunrises and sunsets. Moonlight shimmering and undulating clouds reflecting on the water, creating the sense of an impressionist painting. Anoles skittering around in the grass or up the screens of the lanais, foraging for snacks and somehow squeezing themselves through invisible small spaces so they are suddenly perched right above your head.
Thousands of shells and tiny rocks washing in with tides. Where did they come from? How did the little animals inside die and disappear, leaving their often spectacularly colored housing behind as a reminder that once they existed? The brilliant palette of the tropical environment manifests itself across a broad spectrum of trees, flowers, fish, and birds. The diversity is magical.
Standing in the midst of the largest ancient cypress tree stand left in this country and seeing the dazzling array of biota and fauna which abide in this sanctuary was profound. Given my anxiety about climate change and the fear that what I’ve been privileged enough to see in my lifetime might disappear, I found myself afraid to look away, afraid to miss something spectacular, something which might never happen again. The older I get, the more aware I’ve become of not wanting to look away. When I’m out in the natural world, how do I know whether what I see will still be there if I get a next time? When will I ever have another chance to see the gulls with the yellow legs, or the terns with black streaks on their heads who mingle together on the shore or soar in groups and then dive into the water, popping up to bob on the surface? Or the pelicans who patrol the skies, looking as ancient as pterodactyls or pteranodons? I marvel when they plunge into the ocean, resurface and swallow an entire fish in a gulp. What can they see and smell from up high?
One question leads to the next and the next. Instead of reading the books I brought with me on my trip, I found myself immersed in the internet, trying to learn more about what surrounded me. I learned about air plants which suspend themselves on the branches of trees. I learned that there are approximately 2500 types of palm trees that grow in southwest Florida. I have a favorite, the fan palm. But others are equally beautiful. I saw orchids hanging from trees like moss on the trees in a bayou. A visit to a local botanical garden was filled with eye-popping orchids and succulents. An itty-bitty houseplant in my climate towered above me at eight feet tall. The whole place was a sumptuous eye festival. A new intriguing sight every few feet. Being able to enjoy all this marvelous stuff really lifted my spirits.
But, as often happens, the reality parts of life slip into my more hedonistic moments and some of the joy diminishes. Long ago, when Michael and I were a few years into our relationship he told me that he’d figured out something about me that he thought was a bit of a drag. He said that he’d discovered that as long as I remembered that someone, somewhere might be having a problem, I’d get depressed. Over-empathy, he called it. I don’t think I’m that dramatic, but there’s truth in his perception. While I was busy enjoying myself and soaking up all the scenery and feeling all kinds of great emotions, I started to think of how unfair life is for people without means. Those who live far away from places that are so beautiful and mind-stretching, locked in concrete, skies blocked by buildings, skies so discolored by pollution that they no longer look blue. Those people deserve a chance to be exposed to all this natural majesty.
Climate change is altering the planet at an alarming pace. Extinctions are rising as habitat is destroyed. While the wealthy sit on top of the heap and can indulge themselves with escapes, the poor are too busy scrabbling around trying to survive. Their world is narrow and lacking in the space to stretch out and ponder their place in it. My issues are first world issues. Though far from being wealthy, I have enough money to allow for the mental space to ponder what all this means. I have food and a roof and enough discretionary income to afford a plane ticket to southwest Florida. What about all those inner city people working three minimum wage jobs? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to experience the natural world too? The glitter of sapphire blue sky and white beaches dulls for me when I go down this pathway. As it should. I start thinking about ways to tip the scales so everyone can have the same experiences. I know I can do little bits to help. But the big pile of problems rears its collective head even as I reflect on my own situation. Not exactly living in my moment. But then, would I still like myself if that’s all I ever did? The inner reflection continues…