From Cancer Fatigue to Vitality to Irony – Whew!

Michael sitting in his herb garden when he was too weak to stand.

I suppose it’s possible that one day, the technicolor, 3-D memories I have from the first five months of 2017 will ultimately fade. Six years later they’re still pretty vivid. By January, 2017, Michael and I had already spent the previous four and a half years riding the cancer rollercoaster of remission and relapse. We knew that he was already pushing the survival envelope of his wicked Merkel Cell cancer, having had metastatic disease from its onset in the spring of 2012. I don’t think there’s any emotion we didn’t share during that time, alternating between despair and euphoria so often, while always struggling toward a neutral place from which to live day by day. The grind of treatment coupled with facing loss and death is beyond wearing. I described myself as hyper-vigilant during those years, not an usual stretch from my core behavior of trying to live a proactive life instead of a reactive one. My parents fell into the latter category and it didn’t suit me. Michael, never quite able to process the fact that he would be unlike virtually every member of his family who lived into their 90’s, was more likely to gloss over any newly apparent issues, hoping they’d go back where they came from so he could stay alive longer. That January was a bad time for us as I was seeing scary signs that his personality was changing, signs which he thought were all in my head. At the end of the month, after finally getting a brain MRI which revealed the dire reality of a brain effectively riddled with a meningitis-like mushy cancer,Michael looked at me from his bed in the ER and said, “baby, we’re not going to get our time together.” What a miserable moment for him, who was sometimes himself and sometimes not, and me, getting ready to walk that final path together. 

Michael in the ER, waiting for a brain MRI.

Michael was admitted to the hospital on the night of January 31st. Within a few days, he was given a prognosis of 4 weeks’ survival without treatment, and with treatment…well, no one really knew. We lived on the cancer floor for 32 days as he underwent brutal whole brain radiation and uncertain targeted therapy. While he was exhausted and confused, my brain was spinning away, trying to stay present, but constantly imagining the looming future when I would be without my life’s partner. I’d always thought that based on our families’ health histories, Michael would one day be crying about my absence, not this awful scenario. I struggled with massive anticipatory grief while continuing to support and care for Michael. The emotional issues were enormous and pervasive and amorphous. I started thinking about concrete stuff, trying to grasp something tangible in the midst of the consuming and abstract pain. I’d wind up trying to understand how I would manage our big house and garden on my own. Those were reality issues. What would I do? I know it sounds crazy, but I knew I didn’t want to be sensible, to think about downsizing to a smaller place more suited to just me. I wanted to stay in our home where we’d lived for decades, where our whole life had happened. I wanted to be in our yard which we’d labored in together, creating a beautiful space that replaced the weedy neglected one we’d initially found. We’d both developed as first-time gardeners, Michael focused on vegetables and herbs, while I was the flower, shrub and tree person. In the midst of the profound emotional pain of the moment, I was thinking that I could never do what he did, growing all that delicious produce and turning it into wonderful summer and fall meals, then canning and freezing the rest for the long winter months. I’d never been interested in the food except for eating it. I’d found a problem I could tackle while in my nightmare. Before we got to go home, I was already planning on converting his big vegetable beds into a pollinators’ garden. I would create an inviting space to draw those visitors, worrying especially about the endangered butterflies and bees. Instinctively I knew I needed to make a place for life after the past five years of focusing on death. I also needed to be making some kind of impact on the natural world, so traumatized by climate change, to feel like I could make a difference, however small. I knew I couldn’t do Michael’s thing – I had to do my own. We came home from the hospital on March 4th. While Michael slept, I’d race out to the yard, leveling ground, digging and preparing for my new venture. 

April, 2017, behind me and my grandson, the beginning of the pollinator garden.

Somehow, Michael stayed alive, stretching out that awful four week prognosis as the good parts of his immune system asserted themselves against the advancing disease. In April, his visit to the oncologists was basically one in which they were speechless, with no explanation for why he was still alive. I remember he’d wondered aloud if he’d ever have another good day. 

April, 2017 – Michael at a return visit to the oncologist’s office.

He did. One day, I got him out to an in-town basin often occupied by waterfowl. A peaceful place to visit and feel part of nature. And we did get to spend time with our daughter and her family who lived right across the street. 

A good day.

But those were ephemeral moments. As April blurred into May, Michael became more and more debilitated, until finally it became clear that hospice was mandatory. For the final week of his life, my kids and I kept vigil during our last time as “the four of us.” Finally, early on the morning of May 28th, he died. He’d lived for seventeen weeks, more than four times longer than predicted. Not long enough.

Me and my kids, two days after Michael’s death. We thought the light behind me was him, still with us.

I was utterly exhausted, maybe from the previous five months and more likely from the previous five years. I put off having Michael’s celebration of life until the end of the year, when many of his former students would likely be in town for the winter holidays. In the meantime, Michael’s oncologist, who was mightily worried about me because of my round-the-clock caregiving months, told me I was at a high risk of deathat this moment and advised me to do nothing but sleep, eat and exercise for the foreseeable future. I was taken aback by her urgency, but after taking care of the wretched bureaucratic affairs entailed by the death of a loved one, I decided to take her advice. I didn’t do much but the basics. I swam, feeling pretty pathetic after so much time away from the pool. And I worked in the garden. I laid in a thick covering of wood chips to minimize a weed invasion back in the former vegetable garden and watched the spring return of Michael’s beloved perennial herbs. The chives, sage and thyme were a great comfort to me. I remember working in that dirt and feeling infusions of Michael’s presence that seemed to surge up from the soil. Otherworldly and wonderful. I planted some summer blooms, all intended to draw in pollinators. I knew that establishing my sanctuary would take a few years. In an homage to my vegetable lover, I planted a few tomatoes, peppers and annual herbs like parsley and basil in the raised beds he’d built a few years earlier. The whole process was therapy for my aching brain. Sometimes I’d sob out there but at others, I’d feel a remarkable surge of the energy which was the core of my lengthy relationship with Michael. I couldn’t make sense of those feelings but I didn’t really care. Whatever they were, they felt restorative and something which I desperately needed.

A look at that mostly empty garden space through the garage window in May, 2017.
The garden with Michael’s blooming herbs and the few plants I’d put in the ground.
The first plants I put in the ground, summer, 2017.

Despite the dire warning from Michael’s oncologist, I began to make my physical recovery during the summer months of 2017. When I was in my most despairing moments during our last painful spring, Michael would reach out from his own impossible journey to support me, frequently telling me that I was much stronger than I realized. In those moments I found that encouragement annoying, thinking that he couldn’t possibly understand my blurry future when in the midst of his own dire struggle. But he was right. I had more resources than I thought. I learned that I had a core of vitality that bubbled up from somewhere in my core. I resumed daily swimming, getting stronger.

East view of the pollinator garden, spring 2023.

I brought that exercise energy back into my pollinator project. I kept track of every plant I hurled into the ground, every insect I could identify and all the other birds and little mammals who visited my yard. Ad the years passed, I think the highest compliment I ever received was a comment from my biologist son, who told me I’d created an incredibly welcoming habitat for diverse species right in our backyard. Below are some photos of the ever-evolving pollinator garden during the last few years, along with some of the marvelous visitors who’ve chosen to show up in my space.

Still, if I’ve learned one thing from past experience, it’s that change is a constant. My garden is evolving on its own, subject to the whims of weather and the opportunism of creatures and plants just doing their thing. If that wasn’t true, weeding would be a thing of the past. As time passes, I’ve ruefully recognized how all my plans and designs for my garden are easily foiled by the interventions of all that’s beyond my control. For the past few years, drought in my part of the world has presented a considerable challenge to maintaining even the status quo out there in plant world. I’ve had to water every two days this summer to keep my patches alive and even then, some flowers never showed up or bloomed, while others died fast. Will they return next year? Who knows? Meanwhile, dry-weather-loving weeds have deposited themselves all over the yard. I don’t know who feels more withered out there in the unrelenting heat, me, wresting them from the earth, or the tired plants. But in perhaps the most ironic moment of this summer, I was reminded of that moment in Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum’s character is debating the concept that all the baby dinosaurs hatching in the park would be female. “Life finds a way…, “ he said. Indeed.

My yard is much bigger than that magic area where all the butterflies and bees hang out. Periodically, I rush around, trying to keep the invasive plant species under control. While working to pull all the weeds behind my garage and in the front yard, I discovered that I had volunteer tomato plants flowering and covered with fruit out back. Also, a random green pepper plant. The front yard had sprouted multiple raspberry shoots from two bushes I thought I’d purged long ago. After spending the last six years focusing on drawing pollinators to the garden, the ground itself has become a host for the food plants that I’d wiped out. How ironic. Michael is probably laughing at how the longevity of his love for food is still asserting itself in our shared dirt. That’s actually instructive and okay with me. 

Tomatoes behind the garage
Raspberry plants running through the front yard. 
Michael’s 30 year old thyme, still going strong…
Same for the sage…
And the chives
Tomato blossoms
Unexpected harvest from volunteer plants. 

Along with a shrug goes that humorous comment, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.” The truth is that in the long run, I’m just borrowing this garden of mine with its rich, black soil. After I’m gone, maybe someone will come along to maintain what I’ve done. Or maybe someone will yank it all out and start over. Or even more likely, maybe it’ll just go wild and do what it chooses. In the end, the best that all of us visitors can do is make good use of our time. I’m grateful to this ground for helping me rediscover my vitality after living through my worst hard challenge, losing my partner. I’m grateful to Michael for all we shared here, and for his inexplicably constant presence that I feel whenever I’m out there. And I’m grateful to the volunteer plants that showed up to remind me that life is going to happen without necessarily consulting me. Moving right along…

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