Et in Arcadia, Ego.

What do you say to someone whose spouse is dying? Of course she doesn't want to talk. Why should the wife of a cancer patient need to speak with a cancer widow?

I have this urgent mission to spread the word that we're mortal. But my tools are so primitive. My sharing is on the wrong damn side. There is no gentle message with the word "widow" in it. My very name spotlights the most fearsome, unholy, unhopeful state this wife, this mother, can imagine.

Don't get me wrong. If it were my body invaded by cancer, I'd start over at square one of "Fight, fight, fight." When would I stop? I don't know. But that's not me. And it's not you, either.

But I have worn your shoes. I was the partner, the one holding him up, framing the world for our friends, families, and our own dear child. How could I have explained it to her? She wouldn't have understood. Not any better than the rest of us did, even as we caught glimpses.

I wish I could build you an offramp, or at least draw one for you while you cope with a terminal disease and run, faster now, out of treatment options. I fired doctors. I wagged my fingers at them. Unlike you, we had no heroic measures left to take, but we wouldn't look beyond, couldn't see.

Can any of us look that loss in the face and say, "why, hello, old friend?" Because we've met. Otherwise we wouldn't be scared, except the children, who know what a primal, lizard-brain fear is and not the layers we've stuck on top of it. Layers of cake decoration, of gladiola and ivy.

A book about cake decorating is called, "If you make a mistake, put a rose on it." Are those flowers glorifying the hole or concealing it?

I am motivated to push ugly truth because we are all so grossly unprepared. But how to be any other way when we're in the middle?

All I can do is witness. I never understood this when we studied it in art history. What's written on the grave is not a judgment, not really a prophecy, but an observation. If the dead could speak to those in Eden, or on our green earth, what would they say?

"Et in Arcadia, Ego." It's classical culture, a later civilization's interpretation of the dead Greeks (in Latin, of course). "As you are now, so once was I."

I know, it's easy for me. I'm the one who lived. I hated having to do both at once: to lie about hope. But I had to have something left for the next job: my own and my daughter's survival. I hated the lurk of the dark trees on the opposite bank, far off but facing me.

Maybe easy is not the right word for being where you are now, on the near side of the river. Living must be easier than dying, no? I don't think so. Looking back on it, my job was harder than Gavin's, more complicated.

I wish I could help you ready your heart and soul, just in case, you know, on the off chance that a tiny bit of probability (let's just pretend) indicates that he won't pull through.

Because I so see myself in you. And I want you to be well. I want your heart to be full, and your family to prosper. I know I can't fend off your grief or the gray fog or the fact that (if it happens, or if it doesn't) you'll be changed forever.

But can I just hold your hand?

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Candy Cane

This dropped out of the pantry today when I pulled out a snack. It was way in the back.

It fell and sat on the floor, looking up at me crookedly, sweetly,* ready to tie together two recent posts, one of the super-heavy variety, about my husband’s terminal illness, the other, light and playful about my child. This candy cane called me to talk about parenting a small child and giving care to a dying man at the same time.

You people must hate me. I’m a schizophrenic with these themes, and I know they affect your emotions because you tell me so. I can’t help it. It’s the nature of the creative beast, Shiva the destroyer and creator are in the same body, always. But still, apologies for the mood swings.

During the period when there could be nothing on the floor – because Gavin was at such serious risk of falling from his near-broken spine, then the surgery, then the surgery’s failing – Christmas arrived.

And we had a darling little girl, about 20 months old, walking and running and chattering all around. Sharing her intelligence everywhere through analogies.

She grabbed a candy cane and walked around the dining room with it, stooping to match how close it was to the floor. She laughed. We all laughed.

Gavin’s cane was black and much larger. (It was one of the last "clothing"-type things I donated to charity after he died, though I couldn't look at it.). His mother had one, too. My toddler's little cane joke reminded me I was the only able-bodied person in the household most days. But how could you not laugh?

We always laughed, and it wasn’t just denial, it was a good observation of the world around her, no sign of doom, not portentous, not serious. Bless my child for seeing, for not understanding, and for laughing.

*I’m really sorry. Yeah, okay, not really. (But sorry for not being sorry. I know.).

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Fish and Lessons

“Call 911, Mommy! Call the Police!”

I could tell what was going on inside my daughter’s tiny body: her heart breaking, her mind racing for a solution. What do you do when the world falls apart?

Goldy had disappeared. Nowhere to be seen in his bowl, or behind his plant, or burrowing in the violet gravel she’d chosen in the hot, smelly basement pet store.

I’ve joked about goldfish dying, pets as mortality lessons, but seriously? I didn’t want to cope with another loss. Not yet.

Maybe Goldy had jumped out? I remembered a terrarium pet frog from long ago. I figured I’d look outside his bowl first. There was a chance, and aren’t Betas pretty hardy? Maybe he’d still have one breath left. It would be traumatic but it was worth looking first. Certainly before calling 911.

I rustled among the papers outside Goldy’s bowl. Many pieces of orange and red notepaper, some taped to his bowl so he could learn from them: because she was going to teach him tricks.

My daughter noticed that he could easily do two moves: swim straight, or turn around. Because “we don’t understand fish language,” she’d write him some notes: sequences of dashes and circles in crayon, the little square instructions taped on his bowl, facing in. “That way he can study while we sleeping. It will be easier for him to remember his instructions.”

Later, she said, she’d put on a show. She visualized the playroom with every chair in the house, all the way to the back wall, even some behind the couch. “And we’ll invite everyone we know, who loves Goldy, and all the kids from kindergarten, to see our show.”

I tore the notes off the fishbowl. He really wasn’t in there. Gathered up all the papers around it, gently, holding them together in one hand. Not there either. The shelf below? On a box of puzzles? No. Maybe behind the shelf – is it carpeted back there? A few inches of room. Definitely no fish there either.

“Mommy! You have to call 911 NOW!!!!!” She’d been crying at me the entire time.

How do you explain to a 6-year-old that you can’t even call about a missing person for 48 hours? I mean, that’s real life. I know because I see it on TV. Never mind a fish… it would break her heart to know that the official world that’s there to protect us didn’t give a crap about a missing pet fish, at least, not unless it was very very large and carnivorous, possibly not even then unless it were able to walk on land.

She jumped up and down, so angry at me, and sad, and I didn’t know what to do. One last ditch… pick up the treasure chest ornament. Maybe he’d gotten way under there…. I was sort of right. His tail, a swash of delicate Siamese fighting tail, wiggled from a crevice behind the hinge. He was head first in a fishy crawlspace, possibly not even stuck. Gently I raised it higher, tried to help him swim out.

He was out, and alive, and fine. My child and I cried in relief and hugged each other. A near-miss, to me; to her, proof that Mom is still powerful enough.

But our bodies are still mingled and kid logic’s still intact. This week she’s mad at me because I said I love her more than I love Goldy. Also, she loves fish sticks more than Tater Tots. Why? “Because… Goldy is a fish and I love him.”

P.S. Mr. Fresh told a cop friend, who said, if this ever happens to you, DO call the police (after you look for the fish). If they have free time, they will send an officer over for a civics lesson your kid will never forget. (I’d suggest calling the local number, not 911)

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On the Floor

I never thought I had PTSD from my loss because Gavin died so slowly. You know how they say, “at least you had a chance to say goodbye.” And now that I’ve met women who saw their husbands killed in car accidents, or had to order the ventilators turned off, or woke up to find a heart attack in progress, I don’t feel I have much to compare.

He dissolved before my eyes, but it was so gradual, it was easy to think I wasn’t paying attention.

But every time there’s a pencil on the steps, or a piece of paper on the carpet, I get a tinge. I pick them up compulsively, or bark at my child. We can’t have things on the floor, I go straight back to protection mode. Protecting my husband, now gone four years, from a fall that would break his spine.

Without telling the whole gory story – because there’s a lot of detail, and it is truly the tale of the end – I’ll tell you that Gavin spent his last year in some fear of falling and damaging his spine, which despite advanced medical care and a hugely traumatic surgery, was in danger of collapse for nine months, mostly spent at home with a toddler underfoot.

Underfoot is the trick. If you’ve had a toddler, you know how it’s a constant game of blocks and balls, and every piece of junk mail that becomes an object of fascination. There was always something on the rug, on the hardwood, on the busted up kitchen vinyl that we so wished to fix. Always something to pay attention to, a falling hazard, a risque de tomber.

And this, it turns out, is PTSD. Still alert, still snappy about anything on the stairs, even in our new house. Always looking down. This is PTSD, an everyday thing. Not as hard to get as you might think.

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The Widow's Mite = the Widow's Might

The parable of the widow’s “mite” (a small, rough-cut, nearly worthless coin) from the Gospels tells is usually mentioned in the context of fundraising and commitment. The story is that after all the wealthy and middle-class members of the church donate gold and silver from some portion of their income, perhaps even the glorious tithe (10%!), a destitute widow at the end of the line hands over two tiny pennies – all that she has. In this interpretation, it’s the person who has nothing who is generous, giving literally her last coin. (The story’s also interpreted lots of different ways, including as a justification for anti-Semitism ... hey, not everyone chooses to play nice with the Bible).

I've seen this happen, and I've done it myself. Folks who are poor often have no trouble giving – those who have, understand how to “spend” some on one thing, some on another, building a reasonable budget from categories. Those who have nothing know that things and categories are irrelevant. They’re grateful, and they have, literally, nothing to lose.

And so, a few weeks ago as I consulted with my own minister about the call I heard to serve in Unitarian Universalist ministry, to lend my skills and gifts to the church which has given me so much, and to which I’ve given fairly substantial financial gifts (when I was facing bankruptcy and radical economic straits myself), I found that she and I had come to a fork in the road.

She mentioned she was stunned to see three young widows in her own flock who’d gotten as far as I had. One was ordained last year, the first from our congregation to complete her training and don her own mantle; another enters seminary this fall, and I was at that moment sitting with her in a restaurant trying to find whether this direction is the one that speaks to me most clearly, the one where I can have the biggest impact.

My beloved minister marveled at the phenomenon. Of how many people called under her gaze? -- not dozens -- three have been women, widowed young. She wants to get us all together for a lunch or something, so she can observe, what is it that unites us? What is it about the three of us that makes us all think this next journey should be the one to develop us? Because ministry is a very difficult path. In a recent sermon, she called ministry hard, thankless, unremunerative work that asks us for our strongest effort, for sacrifice, for stretch and reach and flexibility.

But see, I don’t find us three remarkable at all. Because the young widows and widowers I know are extraordinary, unlike anyone other group of people I've ever met. Not only are we deep and hilarious, we have perspective, we’re tough, and like all mothers, we’re tender and warm at the drop of a hat. We expect hats to drop, and the second shoe, too. We love fiercely, we’ve learned what works for us, and we brush off difficulties more easily than we did when we were young. We’re hopeful and we are pretty sure things will never be as bad as they were. We’re always moving forward, even when we’re nursing injuries. I think of young widows as momma wolves.

I know the other two widows in this clutch and we’re all quite different in most other ways. We’re united only by loss, and thus by our stage of life.

Of course, I’ll plan the lunch, it will be fun, and I’m sure I’ll learn something. But I’m not surprised at all to find widows on this road.

With this emptying of her pocket, the widow’s mite becomes the widow’s Might. When she has nothing left, still she digs deep. She's already given her all, and found out there’s more. Something that’s been there, all along, that she can see once there’s no more static. We each find something different, but we’re all changed radically after loss.

Maybe breaking has helped us to tune in to the pain of all the world. Maybe we learned to rise back up, singing. Some find they have the power to lead others to light. The widow is sure she can hold her child through a dark night and laugh as the dawn comes. Grief has forged us and we burned until we began to shine.

A widow has found the riches within her, invisible to others. And sometimes, she may be moved to share, knowing that if others haven’t been tested yet, they might need to see that penny as proof. (And fortunately, they can buy one on QVC...)

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Your Birth Story, Part 4: Afterbirth. Reflections.

(Part one is here)

And this, dear daughter, is where the part of your birth story that’s addressed to you ends: “It was the best day of our lives for your Daddy and me, although you’re even more fun to be with now, six years later.”

But, dear readers, the story wouldn’t be complete without the “boring grown-up stuff.” Readers, you know how the first chapter ends and you understand that parenting is complicated. There’s no way for me to experience the story without reflecting on the monstrous loss that was to follow.

Gavin was diagnosed with a stage 4 cancer before this child could stand: at seven months. That shock and stress, the barbaric surgeries, the chemicals, the invisible and then precipitous decline, and his departure are intermingled with all my experiences of parenting her from first crawl, to walking, learning to speak, far into weaning and potty training.

So I wonder, how would the day of your birth have felt if we had known what was brewing, or how things would turn out?
That thirty months later, my husband of nine years, my partner for fourteen, would be gone, leaving me with his child, alone?
That he’d welcome our girl onto the planet only to leave it himself?
That likely, as he witnessed her crowning, his body was home to a cancer that was bound and determined to spread everywhere, destroying everything, top to bottom, as he walked and breathed?

Because the tumor, in November, was 14 cm long. For his cancer, it had to have been there a while.

Would we have felt differently? Would we have made different decisions?

Of course not, we’d both have said. Not from the time of her birth, or from any time in the pregnancy. Getting to that point was the victory in what we’d hoped was the one and only great fight of our lives.

But what if we’d known before we conceived her? That question, no one asked, thank God. We wouldn’t have answered. But now, I wonder.

In the shock after diagnosis, we said several times, Thank God she’s here, because we never would have had the strength to go through fertility treatment once the cancer showed up. Our cups ran over with that cancer gratitude.

Sugar, little one, you were the best thing that ever happened to us. I hate to say that the cancer was the worst thing and point out that it had surely already arrived. I hate to put you opposite the Beast. But the cancer and the child were so close. It’s hard not to draw a line between them, to pose them as two ingredients in a crazy, non-returnable gift basket.

A year later, in the heart of the battle, I suggested we have another child. Our girl was learning so much, to speak, catch, run. She brought us so much joy, redeemed every minute, gave us an excuse to go on. He shook his head, sadly, shrugging away discussion.

So I think this would have been another situation where we disagreed. Another one where we couldn’t talk about it, where there was no chance of reconciliation, just the sure knowledge that the distance between us was growing and, one day soon, it would span the worlds.


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