I went back and forth in my mind about posting this video, from Sept 2010, which is the month of Kate’s cancer diagnosis. But, hey, it’s cute. Guinea pig kisses cat. Perfect for the season.
Share the love, people.
Hearing Kate laugh makes me smile every time, too.
I may not write any more now until the new year. This seems a good way to close off 2013!
Last night I watched Piers Morgan interview Mike Tyson on CNN. The interview provided unlikely insight from Iron Mike, who is promoting his autobiography, Undisputed Truth (also a movie directed by Spike Lee).
By insight I mean to me, my life, and this post-grief thing I am trying to articulate.
Near the end of the interview, Morgan asked Tyson that if he would change anything in his life. Tyson said, no, except for one thing. His daughter would not die. (Four-year-old Exodus died in 2009 after getting caught in a cord dangling from an exercise treadmill.)
Tyson recalled being at the hospital with his daughter after the accident, gathered with other parents whose children were also dead or dying, and he said something like, “I realized I was just like everyone else. These other people were losing their children. I needed to deal with this (loss) as well as I could.”
Morgan said it must have been devastating, and Tyson reiterated that you just have to do the best you can. “I could have committed suicide to get rid of the pain, but I don’t think that would have been a good idea.” (According to Wikipedia, he has seven other children.)
Tyson’s life, of course, is rife with controversy, and the man is in a confessional place right now. In the interview he talked about how he had “bought love” and how it was a bad strategy. (He wasn’t referring to prostitution; he was referring to buying gifts to make up for relationship failings.) Pressed on this by Morgan, Tyson explained, “You have a fight with your spouse. You go buy something to make up for the fight, instead of talking about what is really the cause of the problem and solving it.” He said repeatedly that he had followed this strategy over and over and that it was bad. He said it was the pattern that he had witnessed with his mother when he was a child. It was one of the many personal failings he acknowledged and said he struggled against.
In the interview, he was a man wide open and, frankly, I was moved. Asked about the fact that he had made (and spent) an estimated $400 million in his career, he shrugged. “I don’t care about money.” What did he care about? “The recognition of my peers.”
So what does this have to do with post-grief? What does this have to do with me?
First, Tyson acknowledged that his biggest regret was the death of his daughter, and he showed grace in saying you’ve got to carry on the best you can (and stay in the main stream of life where grief is universal and connects us all).
Second, he is clearly a man taking stock of his life and trying to make a transition to a new stage. Incredibly, Morgan asked him if he would ever fight again, and Tyson’s eyes went wide. “No way!” Asked about the toughness of his personality as a fighter, he said, “That’s the person I had to be to do that job.” Now he does performances. He described himself as an entertainer. They showed a clip of him singing from one of the Hangover films. He has a charity to help impoverished youth. He spoke repeatedly about his wife of five years, saying he never thought he’d be able to deserve that kind of relationship.
There is much to worry about here. Only months ago Tyson said he was an alcoholic at risk of death. He told Morgan he was now 100 days sober. And, yes, much of what he said was “therapy talk.” But contrast this with the lunatic denials and self-justifications (“I’m not perfect, maybe you are”) of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Tyson not only comes across as sane, he’s sympathetic.
And real? Well he was marketing a book, and he did say he was a performer, but … that was as open and transparent a celebrity interview as I’ve ever seen.
Tyson has an incredible personal history and an immense amount of baggage, and he has laid it all out there as he tries to construct a new, progressive identity for himself. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Tyson is doing his darnedest to prove him wrong.
And so I found him inspirational. Not to blow it out of proportion, but I feel I am trying to do the same thing.
In my last post, I asked what is this post-grief thing? I think Tyson is right. You just carry on with grace as best you can. You make the best of your new identity. I am a 45-year-old widower. It’s something I never aspired to, it’s something I have delayed accepting, but I think acceptance is the only thing that gets me to a better future.
This, of course, is predicted by grief theory (denial, anger, sadness, acceptance). Integration of the loss into a new identity activated into the emerging future.
This is the transition Gatsby couldn’t make (to return to Fitzgerald). He kept staring at that green light at the end of the dock, instead of accepting his loss of Daisy and moving on.
Hooray to Iron Mike for being brave and talking about his life and accepting the challenge of this change. Now you might ask, What choice did he have? Well, he mentioned one choice: suicide. And another choice: alcoholism. Death, denial, delay: these are easy solutions. Being honest about the bad things you’ve done; the hopeless strategies you’ve repeated; the pain you’ve inflicted that can’t be un-done; and doing your best to move beyond all of that. That requires courage, bravery, nobility … and hope.
That thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson wrote.
My life is nothing like Tyson’s, yet I have found this connection. It’s like I am with him in the hospital waiting room and we have nodded to each other, an acknowledgement of shared humanity.
Good luck, buddy. I feel your burden. I wish you brighter days ahead.
I’ve been wondering what to write. My last post was about letting go of grief and getting back to “living.” Easier said than done, of course. I have been living through all of this. So what are the stages I’ve been trying to chart. States of mind? Emotional currents?
And I don’t think “letting go of grief” is quite right. It’s more like grief is letting go of me. And what am I supposed to do now?
In some ways, this being released by grief is even harder than living within grief. Grief is painful, but it has purpose. What am I left with now? Sadness. Loneliness. But a clearer mind. A calmer disposition.
Now, what next? What to aspire to?
Increasingly I see that I can’t just continue the life I had with Kate. For one, the kids keep growing; I need to keep up with them. For another, if Kate were here, we wouldn’t keep doing the same things over and over. Our lives would have evolved, and now I need to evolve without her.
Most difficult for me has been letting go of my role as her protector. I have thought a lot about the final weeks and months of her life. They were very intense. They are full of material for reflection. I’m sure I will keep thinking about them for a long time to come, but also … they do not contain the clues for my future, as I once thought they did.
I feel at the beginning of a new phase, and I’m curious about what it’s going to be. It does not feel like a “return to normal”, so I have called this post “turn to normal.” Dissolve to next scene.
Yesterday I read Shaena Lambert’s short story “Oh, My Darling,” which is narrated by a malignant breast cancer tumor. Essentially, forty-something-year-old woman, kindergarten teacher, mother of fifteen-year-old daughter, wife of a lawyer whom she senses has eyes for another woman, feels discomfort from her bra, reaches in, finds the lump. The disease speaks to her: You have found your destiny.
First, that’s exactly what happened to Kate. Her bra didn’t fit, she felt the lump, she went to the doctor. The cancer in the story, however, reveals many details that we didn’t learn until much later. Such as “stage three.” In fact, Kate’s doctors refused to give it a stage. “That’s not what’s important. What’s important is how well it responds to treatment.” However, this is where Lambert’s story ends. With the discovery of the lump, with the flattening of all previous anxieties, with the cancer speaking the voice of fate.
I have been pondering this story for the past twenty-four hours and I must conclude that if I were to give it a letter grade, I would give it a poor one. Because it ends where the real story begins. It affirms fear. While it’s true in as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. It only tells us, that is, what we already know. Finding the lump is terrifying.
I bring this story up here, because I am trying to chart a period of time at the far remove of a process that started with the discovery of the lump. Yes, all of our previous anxieties were flattened, and yes living through the catastrophe of cancer was often horrible, but it was still life and it was often awesome.
Thom Jones’s story, “I Want to Live,” from The Pugilist at Rest, is about a woman with breast cancer who dies. The story follows her through the progression of the disease to death. At the beginning, she is drifting through assorted anxieties, but as the disease progresses she finds more and more reasons to keep living. Once resigned to her fate, she is moved to rage against the dying of the light.
I read the Jones story a month or so before Kate died (though wouldn’t have known that at the time), and it shocked me by how accurately it portrayed what we were then living. The emotional stages, the drugs, the physical symptoms, the desire through the pain and the suffering to go on no matter what.
I cannot say that I am living in pain and suffering. I saw what Kate endured and how she bore it with dignity and grace. And how she lived in hope in the face of insurmountable odds.
So what’s my problem? Well, if you put it that way, I don’t have one. But I do. I miss her like heck. I lived to help her achieve normalcy in the face of chaos, and then the void took her. Saving myself has turned out to be just as hard. I wonder what Shaena Lambert’s cancer lump says to the husband. “You will have to watch her die and then carry on, bearing the knowledge of the horrors you have witnessed.” And with a daughter susceptible to the same fate.
What is this thing, this state, being left behind? As far as I can tell it doesn’t have labels or banners or require aspirational slogans like “hope.” It’s more of a slow grind to establish a new foundation. Back to base camp. Back to mission control. Awaiting new orders.
If anyone knows of stories/novels/movies, etc., that articulate this after-grief state, I’d be glad to hear about them. I think Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter might be one, but that’s about the death of a child, not a spouse.
Last month these words bounced around my head in this order: Living, Dying, Grieving, Living. Ah, I thought. That would make a good book title. There it is, the process I’m trying to complete, the cycle I’m trying to close out.
Kate and I had our life (newly married, integrated family, high hopes and expectations). Man, we had fun. We vibrated with the ringing happiness and productivity of newlyweds. We were still building our foundation, when it was attacked. A month after our third wedding anniversary, Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Though we were told initially “there’s no reason not to expect a good outcome,” I can only look back now on the twenty-one months that followed as a period that led to her death. We knew immediately the risk was real, and Kate was determined to live as normally as possible for as long as possible. And we did. But it was different from before; in some ways better; in many ways worse; different.
Life goes as life goes. In different directions at once.
And it has now been eighteen months since her death, a year-and-a-half of grieving. Has it been all grief, all the time? No. It fades. The moments of panic and deep sadness become more infrequent. But in my experience, the totality of grief remains. It can come out of nowhere and be completely consuming, and then you cry, you breathe deeply, you distract yourself as best you can. And you return to something resembling normal.
Now that fourth state: Living. Is it the same as the first: Living? I cannot accept that it is. There is no going backwards, only forwards. But part of the past remain: both literally (I live in the same house) and imaginatively (I have memories). My aspirations to be a good step-parent have never wavered. My relationship with my step-children is rooted in my wedding vows, and our love for each other is now so interwoven as to be indestructible. So this requires no “going back”; it is actually the solid line that cuts through everything, from the beginning to the present to the distant, infinite horizon.
Grief disorients. As does catastrophic disease. Dealing with crisis, you focus on what needs to be done immediately. You lose the ability to reflect, to let yourself drift in time, to engage in aspirations for a long- (or even intermediate-) term future. Regaining this ability, I think, is the fourth state. Sliding out of catastrophe. Letting go of the disorienting control of grief. Escaping the obsessive thoughts about the loved one’s final days, the questions raised by survivor’s guilt: Could I have done more? Was there anything else I should have said?
Reflecting on these things I remembered a metaphor from Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye. I read this book twenty-five years ago, but I feel confident about this memory. There’s a passage where Atwood goes all Stephen Hawking and describes time as a pool of water. You look into it and memories pop to the surface at different points and in any number of sequences. Time is not linear, is the point. It is also never gone. My memory of reading this book is an example!
Before I married Kate, I was a single guy, living alone. I had no intention of going back to being that person. The thought terrified me, and yet after Kate died and the children were at their dad’s place, there I was. Alone again. Except in the house of my marriage, with my wife’s cat. I had no one else to cook for. No one to turn and chat to. No one to snuggle with in front of the TV. No one to make plans with for next Tuesday. I could look into the pool of time, yes, recall a host of memories. But nothing to prevent reality from being real: I was a single guy again. Kate would never make me another mango salad. If I wanted one of her pork tenderloin’s, I would have to figure it out for myself (which I did, but not until 16 months later).
But I am not that person I was before I met Kate. As I told her, “You made me a better person.” (She said, “You were pretty good already.”) But I am also not ever going to be the person who was married to her for decades, either. Start over? Perpetuate the past? Muddle along? A little bit of all of the above, surely. The past is never gone, and, honestly, I don’t believe Kate is either. She is in the pool of time where she can be recalled frequently.
My aunt sent me an email last year. She’d dreamed about Kate. She was with my paternal grandmother, who died in 1983. They were having a good time. “Of course they were,” I wrote back. I always knew they would hit it off. My past is much more interesting than it used to be! I must continue to work on my commitment to Kate to make my future interesting, too. I have not lacked hope that this would happen, but I have lacked strength and endurance. These are rising as the next stage of the journey opens and the horizon beckons.
The photograph is of a wreath of shells Kate made. It hangs in our (note the pronoun) main floor bathroom. As you can see, on the left side there is a gap. Some shells fell off. I have them. I have Kate’s glue gun. I haven’t reattached them. It’s been over a year. Why not? It would take 15 minutes. I’m not sure why not. I just just can’t. I think it’s because I want to leave something for the future. I want to have work undone that I can still do “for her.” There are a few other things like this. Not much, but a few. I think when I finally do feel like doing them, then I will be ready to move on.
Incidentally, I had a dream a couple of days ago that Kate and I were divorced. No more “our.” It wasn’t one of those dreams where I felt like she was visiting. It just seemed like a dream. We never divorced, of course. In the dream we were in a school gym. I was at one end and she was at the other. It was some event. Other people were there. We were not together, was the point of the dream. At the same time, I was aware that this was a “memory,” a false one. She was dead. The dream was a memory of a false past. I didn’t like it. I woke up unhappy. Of course, I reflected on it. Should I think about her as if we were divorced? That day, I was wearing my wedding ring. Should I take it off? (Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don’t; sometimes it feels good, sometimes it feels better to be without it. I attach no significance to either feeling.) Was the meaning of the dream that she was telling me from the beyond to let go? Was the meaning of the dream that we had divorced before she died? (But we didn’t.) I think the meaning of the dream is that I feel guilty that I didn’t do enough. That survivor’s guilt thing. But also I think she was telling me to let go. Because I feel better after this dream, even though I woke up unhappy. I try not to anticipate dreams or attach expectations to them. Whatever happens, happens. This isn’t a dream I wanted, but its results are okay. I still have my wedding ring on, though! I like it. I’ve earned it.
I will be brief. Eighteen months ago my wife died of breast cancer. She was 44. She had two kids who are now 13 and 9. She wanted, as you can imagine, the best for them. I think, “What would she say about Rob Ford?” I think she would say what that mother who called you on 1010 said. Something like, “I tell me kids what the Mayor did was wrong.” It was reported that you said, “You are a good Mom.” So, Rob, listen. You can’t be Mayor any more. You are forcing the entire city to lie. Your problems are not limited to public drunkenness. Your problems are such that you cannot even speak them. This silence, this lying, is not how we raise our children. We ask them to live in reality. You, on the other hand, live in fantasyland. You force all of us to live in fantasyland with you. It’s wrong. At a minimum, you must take a break. You must get help. There is no conspiracy against you, Rob. There is reality, which the rest of us insist upon. Once you return to reality, you can be Mayor again. Until then, for the sake of the children, you must leave. Must leave, Rob. Must get help. This is what my late wife would say to you, if she were lucky enough to be here. You are lucky enough to be here, Rob. Now stop messing up your life and the life of the City of Toronto and the lives of all of us who live in it. You must stop this nonsense and get real. Talk to the police, for God’s sake. Tell what you know about other Councillors. Tell the truth. It is the only path that will rescue you. It is the only path that will show our kids the right way. Only you can do this. Confessing to public drunkenness is not enough. A young man is dead. A young man who stood beside you. You must speak about this. Your task is to bring healing, not brokenness to our city. It’s not too late for you to lead, but you must stop lying. First, to yourself. And for that you need a break and professional help. This will require a lot of you, but it will be worth it. It’s clear that you don’t even know how silly you sound most of the time. Your bullying behaviour is unacceptable. Once you get help, you will understand. Go for it, Rob. You deserve it, and we deserve it. Good luck to us all.
I was listening to my ithing on the subway today on random shuffle and it played Sam Roberts’ “Wreck of a Life” from his album “We Were Born in a Flame.”
I hadn’t heard that song in a long time and I wouldn’t have sought it out, but it gave me a spark.
Things are gonna get better.
Yeah. Thanks, Sam!
Ah, then someone (Lisa!) posted a link to Heart performing “Stairway to Heaven” in front of Plant, Page, and Jones.
And then I decided to tie it all up with Mary Prankster, whom I saw at a small club in Toronto in 2002. Is it possible???
That was a fun night!
What fun! It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I was busy ignoring this fact, but then I picked up Naomi from school and she was wearing a pink and white bracelet. Someone had made it for her. She was happy.
I don’t have anything against a Breast Cancer Month, but what is this “awareness”?
The disease is pretty dang popular, people. It’s pretty well known.
Did you know the whole pink thing ticks off a lot of those who’ve experienced the disease? Like this lady.
Did you know the journey through the disease up to and including death can be beautiful? As these photographs display.
Did you know that cancer in the breast never killed anyone? It’s when the cancer takes the next step that it turns terminal.
Did you know that the panic that comes with the diagnosis never really leaves, but because you are forced to focus on living each day as it comes, living can become more intense and meaningful than ever?
Did you know breast cancer can put you in a wheelchair?
In June 2011, Kate posted a photograph of her mastectomy scar. She wanted the world to know. This is what it looks like. This is what I have to live with/without. This is the price I have to pay in order to keep my life.
But she didn’t get to keep her life.
I don’t think she ever wrote about being in a wheelchair. She didn’t find the wheelchair humiliating, not like the surgery, the pain, the burning, the drug side-effects (I can’t even bring myself to list them), the hair loss.
The wheelchair was kind of a comfort, I think, but it remains a traumatic symbol for me.
At one point her oncologist said, “We don’t see many people become quadriplegics these days.” Holy shit!
Do you have any awareness about that?
Kate died before that could happen, but not before we had conversations with a spinal surgeon. Yes, they could fuse her vertebrae and insert some steel rods. Is that really what you would like? Yes, she said. Her T1 vertebrae had been blown to bits by radiation treatment. The cancer had been pressing against her spinal column. Now her back collapsed in on itself. Hydromorphine is seven times more powerful than morphine. She got a shot every twenty minutes, to make life bearable.
She had no interest in being connected to a hydromorphine drug pump 24/7 for the rest of her life (years, surely). She never surrendered her desire to live as well as possible, to seek solutions. But she had less than a month at that point, and talk of surgery was quickly displaced by renewed chemotherapy and radical drug trails (not eligible, too sick).
The 24/7 hydromorphine drug pump stayed. It wasn’t enough to relieve her suffering at the end.
You brave, strong and powerful women! How can we honour you?
Your stories from the land of the sick are essential tales of our common humanity, as Kate made clear here.
Our Common Humanity Awareness Month? How Deep Can Pointless Suffering Go Month?
Celebrate the Moment Month?