Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Uphill Both Ways, and In The Snow (Love Will Come To You)

The woman who was once our marriage counselor is now my grief counselor. I recommend marriage counseling. May I give you a head start and confess that there is economy in those three short words, “You were right.” You win twice if you’re married to someone who says that to you, and you can refrain from saying, “I told you so.” 

On my way to grief counseling, the words to an Indigo Girls song I haven't heard in years were going through my head, and I sang them over and over as I drove uphill: 

And I wish her insight
To battle love's blindness
Strength from the milk of human kindness
A safe place for all
The pieces that scatter
Learn to pretend 
There's more 
Than love 
That matters…

I walked into the counseling office waiting room with Hannah, a dog I named after my wife's grandmother. Hannah walked up to a woman who welcomed her, and the woman told me she also had a dog named Hannah. Then we realized we knew each other - she had been Madeleine's hospice nurse. She nursed Madeleine in our home through her dying. She cared for us after Madeleine died. Now she pet Hannah and said, “how are you doing?” I looked around the counseling center’s waiting room. I thought about the horror of the months behind me, the comfort of my present moment, and the abyss ahead of me, and I said, “I’m getting counseling.” 

I was born under the sign of Cancer... (love will come to you)
Like brushing cloth, I smooth the wrinkles for an answer... (love will come)
And I'm always closing my eyes
And wishing I'm fine
(Even though I) Even though I'm not this time

That night I went to the wedding of my friend and his beloved. They had planned on a longer engagement but after this presidential election, they decided to get married before the political climate changes. So they stood in their freshly painted living room, surrounded by the love of family and friends, and gave their vows in their new home on top of a hill. 

The wide world spins and spits turmoil
And the nations toil for peace
The paws of fear upon your chest
Only love can soothe that beast...”

Madeleine and I had been married by our own vows and the blessings of our family and friends, four years after our first date and 15 years before it would be legally recognized in our home state. Our community had our back, and when one of us thought of walking out the door they got out ahead of us, too. She cared deeply about marriage and wanted our friends and family members to be married by someone who cared deeply about their marriage, so she became an officiant. She loved facilitating conversations about partnership and love, and I suspect she found something slightly subversive about being licensed to help so many people obtain legal recognition for their unions where we could not. I became a booking agent of sorts because with uncanny frequency people would spontaneously tell me they needed someone to officiate their marriage. We were good partners. 

Going to weddings without Madeleine hurts twice over. I miss the pleasure of seeing her joy, and I’m at a loss when she is not here to share my joy. My heart reaches for hers the way your foot might move forward for the next step on a staircase only to find the ground gone beneath you. So much of grief is turning to share something with her, and falling into the abyss.  

For two decades we magnified each other’s joy. One of our favorite ways to multiply joy was to bring people together with a comfort food potluck. We invited friends to bring their favorite comfort foods and friends. First we agreed to make the party an annual event, and then we argued over which date to set. Madeleine lobbied hard for the Saturday closest to Valentine’s day. I balked under the pretense that I believed people would rather be with their sweetheart somewhere romantic that weekend, but I let go of my position when I realized my primal motivation was a fear left over from childhood that I would throw a party and no one would come. 

Madeleine insisted that the right people always show up to the party. I let go of my unfounded certainty about the future and realized that we could throw our party on Valentine’s weekend and only then would we know what the turnout would be. The turnout was a home full of warm, happy, comforting people. Every year for over a decade we held the party on the weekend closest to Valentine’s day, and Madeleine never said, “I told you so.” 

She died in January 2015, after three heartbreaking months of intense and loving care. I had been getting by on tenacity and fumes, burning the candle at both ends with the ferocity of wanting to save her life, or clear the way for her and die with her. 

I did not want to survive her. 

After she died, I felt combustible. Our family was too spent to sit shiva. And so one month later her family and friends gently adapted our annual celebration of love and comfort into her first memorial on February 14, 2015.  

Our friend had met his sweetheart just the night before, on Feb. 13th, 2015. 

After their wedding ceremony, he invited me to step outside. We stood on the front porch of his new home and he told me that in February 2015, he had tickets to fly to some place sunny and warm, but he canceled his reservations and changed his plans to be at Madeleine's memorial. The night before her memorial he went to a bar, met a beautiful man, and fell in love in the falling February snow. He had pulled me aside to tell me that meeting the love of his life felt like a gift from Madeleine.

Madeleine, my love, wherever you are - you were right. 

...And my words are paper tigers
no match for the predator of pain inside her. 

And I say love will come to you
Hoping just because I spoke the words that they're true
As if I offered up a crystal ball to look through
Where there's now one there will be two.”

Note: Thank you to the grooms for permission to share a part of their story. Congratulations!

If you would like to help marginalized people find “A safe place for all/ The pieces that scatter,” please consider contributing to the support network formed by over 200 people in rural Indiana, Pennsylvania: http://welcomehomeindianapa.weebly.com/our-mission.html

You can also support the network by buying some of the (punk/ adult) art created by artist Darcy Trunzo, who initiated the network: https://www.etsy.com/shop/Snatchelorpad?ref=l2-shopheader-name

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Keeping

When my wife died of lung cancer, poems landed around me in the ruins like ashes after a forest fire.  

Raymond Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall, was rested gently against my door. 

He died of lung cancer, too. 

Her downturn was so sudden there were ways in which we never got to say goodbye, ways in which we never said, “thank you.” We broke a thousand times and I cared for the pieces while my wife as I knew her was gone to me and I fell in love with her again, again and again. 

I wanted to trade my life for hers. I failed. I never quit. 

I am the adult who wanted to care for her out of love for her and the child who wanted to get it right so she would never leave me, get grief right so she would come back. 

She lived her life according to her values, investing deeply in relationships in which she gave hundreds of people her undivided attention one massage appointment, one park walk, one art date, one phone call at a time, over decades. Her last chemo treatment was the beginning of the end. Nothing meant more to her than connecting with these people. Housebound in a western Pennsylvania winter. Neuropathic pain, cold-induced nausea, medicine induced hallucinations, a body that turned night into day and day into night. We put a visitation calendar where her massage appointment schedule used to be, and filled the book with appointments to visit.

One day she woke to find a friend in her room, and she came out to find me to complain about how weird it was to wake up to someone staring at her. 

One morning she woke in the early dark, the house empty, and she wailed, “I need something to feed my heart.” 

Friends come, and she is awake, and when they join her in our bed she relaxes into their presence and falls asleep. 

She switches back and forth between our marriage bed, and the bed she had set up in her favorite room in the house, the room in which she used to practice massage. When hospice sent the bed to the house, she had them put it in the massage room and she renamed it the day room. She loved to work while she watched the western light pour in through the window and blush across the wall as the sun set.

On the winter night she began to die, I hurried to text the friends who weren’t there, but could be. I missed one. I’m sorry. She died in her favorite room, filled with family and friends. I can’t go after her. I’m here in the ruins of the last gathering we hosted together. I was true to my word, in spirit and in keeping. I failed without quitting. I have this going forward, and I shine this as a beacon into the ethers, into the void. She is not coming back. 

I remember one beautiful summer morning years before, in Georgetown, as we walked in warm sunshine to have brunch at Cafe Napoleon. She said she thought I would lose her possibly another way, to Alzheimer’s. She thought she would lose me, failing to see me in plain sight. She said the only thing that stood in the way of her ending her own life in this event is that first she would want to say goodbye to me, but if she said goodbye to me then she knew I would stand in her way, but she couldn’t leave me without saying goodbye. So we stood in glorious sunshine on the sidewalk of Georgetown, stood facing one another, looked each other in the eyes. We said, “I love you.” We said, “Thank you.” We said goodbye. We held each other tightly there on the sidewalk in glorious sunshine. We kissed. We walked to brunch. 

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.” 

Friday, September 30, 2016

My Wife Died of Lung Cancer

I'm waiting for her to come home so I can go to bed.

Today I emptied the dishwasher, took the dogs to the park, went grocery shopping, did a load of laundry, took over the kitchen table to do a few hours of legal research for a friend. It could have been any day from 2010, 2011, 2012.

But this time of the year in 2014, we did not know that we were two weeks away from the chemo treatment that would cause neuralgia and the beginning of a quick end, a nightmare from mid-October to mid-January. And whether I'm awake or asleep I'm living that nightmare, except for the times I forget and I'm doing what I'm doing, waiting for her to come home.

This keeps being impossible.