Friday, May 24, 2013

The Furies

You know those famous "Stages of Grief" that, if you are lucky, you only ever learn about in a psych 101 class? All neatly lined up in a row, like levels in an old Nintendo game? Complete each emotion and Congratulations!  You win 1000 gold coins and two extra lives. Maybe even the ability to shoot fireballs out of your hands.

Denial, Anger, Bargaining,  Depression and Acceptance. 

In real life? It doesn't work like that. For one thing, there are a few that got left out. Fear. That's a big one. What will happen to my loved one? Did they suffer? Will I survive this? Will this be the thing that turns one of my children into a prize winning medical researcher and the other into a crack addict? Will I be alone forever? Will I end up making awful decisions that will haunt me for the rest of my life?

Remorse, followed by its creepy uncle, Guilt. Why didn't we make the time to be together more? Why did we spend so much time sitting in front of the tv instead of going out and living? Why did I get angry over stupid shit? Why didn't I appreciate them more? Why didn't I know something was wrong? Why wasn't it me? And the What if's... those are endless.

I remember Bargaining,  at first. In the beginning,  reciting in my head (and sometimes out loud) all the ways that I would change, the sacrifices I would make if something, anything would just keep him alive. That ended pretty quickly for me. I felt stupid beseeching a universe that obviously had no regard for my family. And then there was nothing left to bargain for.

There was nothing to deny. When you are faced with watching the love of your life be hit by a freight train in slow motion, well... there isn't really anywhere else to look. The reality of it punched me in the gut and ground my face in the dirt, I didn't have the energy to pretend it wasn't happening.

Depression?  Oh yes. Though as someone who has been clinically depressed (as in, I'm just one of those lucky people who just cannot produce enough happy juice in my brain) for most of my life, I have to argue for another word. Yes, the feeling definitely has aspects of depression- despair, the inability to enjoy anything, sleep and appetite disruption, wanting seclusion from the world in general- the depression following a loss is much, much... more. Because the feelings make sense. Your world is torn apart, why should you enjoy anything? Why shouldn't you sleep away days? Why eat when you have absolutely no desire, for anything? Nothing will make you better. Nothing will make your world bright again. The bleakness settles into your cells and it feels like it will never go away. And you've seen it, firsthand... someone who never quite got back to living. Who plodded through life with no joy and eventually withered away, lonely and broken. I hope someday I will be able to do more than go through the motions. I have some hope, because even now I am able to laugh. I'm still alive, at least a little. If I weren't I don't think this could possibly hurt as much as it does.

Anger. Yes, I am angry. I am furious. So much so that it leaves me cold and petty and graceless. Want to know a horrible truth? Everything makes me angry right now. I avoid grocery shopping because you, over there with your perfectly nuclear family? You piss me off. Everything and everyone is a reminder of what I no longer have. I'm angry that the new Star Trek movie is out, because I can't stomach going as a third wheel. And I don't want to go alone, and that makes me even madder. I've never been afraid of doing things by myself... in fact I've often prided myself on the fact that I am comfortable in solitude. Except now that solitude is poison. Suffocating.  I hate that I can't even induldge in my celebrity gossip guilty pleasure because It. Is. Fucking. Infuriating. Fuck you, Angelina Jolie, for having enough money to just cut out the parts of you that might someday give you cancer. I hope you get malaria and vaginal warts. Fuck you, bill collecters. I don't care right now. I don't even care that not caring right now will bite me in the ass sooner or later. I don't care that you are just a person trying to get by with a horrible,  demeaning job. Fuck off. I hate the fact that my own body cannot even give me a break and that emotional pain isn't enough, how about some physical suffering to go along with it?

Yes, it is safe to say I am a seething black hole of fury and resentment the moment. I snap at the people I love most and am rude and impatient with the public in general.  And I am too sad and angry to even feel that bad about it.

Acceptance is a long way out. I catch a glimpse of it, every now and then. Fleeting. But enough to give me a little hope, that someday I will be human again.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Gifts

There are moments in life that you can pinpoint as life changing. Sometimes, they are small: a sudden realization that shakes your faith or an encounter that makes you question the path you have chosen. When we are young we tend to think birthdays, graduations or promotions will be the events that will change us but often those moments come and go, leaving us fundamentally unchanged.
Your wedding day will change you... but not as much as the bottom-falling-out-of-the-earth moment that you realize you are hopelessly and completely in love with the person you have chosen - that they have become air to you and you cannot possibly live without them. Finding out you will be a parent will change you. And looking into your newborns eyes, your heart will fill with wonder and hope and terror and a new, alien love... yes, your world changes. But not as much as the day you break down and let that same sweet child watch tv for hours on end or shove a lollipop in their screaming mouth so that you can please-for-the-love-of-god-get-one-moment-of-peace... when you are humbled and doing the very things you swore you would never - EVER - do? Yes, then you are changed.
Some changes open our eyes to the universe, we find a greater compassion for humanity or reach new levels of despair.

The day they found Jason's cancer, we changed, yes. In the face of that shock and terror my world shrank and my focus sharpened. My love, lying in a hospital bed in agony, became the only thing I could see. I had a few satellites in my field of vision... our children (it is hard to admit that, but it is what it is.), our family and the people we loved. Everything else faded to black. Every ounce of frenetic energy I possessed was focused solely on making Jason Ok. And then came the moment he was diagnosed and my world contracted and expanded again. We gripped hands as the doctor's words floated in the air- dark, menacing things. I hid my head and held my breath. The moment the doctor left I climbed into the bed with my husband, careful of all these new wounds, and held him so tightly my muscles began to shake. If I didn't let go, we coud stay just like that and he couldn't be taken from me. If I was strong enough, I could make him Ok.
When he came home, I took care of him possessively. I gave him his meds, changed his clothes and blankets and endless cups of ice. I cleaned his colostomy wound and knelt beside him as he began vomiting up pieces of his stomach, wiping his face with a cool washcloth and watching, always watching. If I left him for more than a moment, I panicked. While he slept, I curled beside him and researched treatments, emailing copies of his pathology report everywhere and anywhere that might offer some hope. I spoke with doctors and patient advocates and took a blow to the stomach each time they told me the same thing. Too late. Way too late.
And then, a day after being discharged, he began to vomit blood. He was grey, disoriented and confused. I called the doctor and my friend, our nurse Nessa, who told me to take him to the ER. He fought me, told me to leave him alone. He begged me to let him stay home, let him go in peace. My heart broke again as I became increasingly frantic and shrill- pleading and then threatening. Finally,  he got into the car and my dad drove us to the hospital. I hld his hands and apologized over and over, I was so fucking scared. I watched him lie back and resign himself to what was happening. I thought I was watching him give up.
He continued to lose blood, the room was a horror. Nessa arrived and gave me some quiet strength, helped me protect him from the worst of it. After they tried to force a g tube into his nose as he screamed he had enough. He or I or someone made them stop. He got more medicine and drifted for a moment and I dragged my friend into the hall. "You know what I need to know. Is this what I think it is?" I forced the words out, my brain screaming for my mouth to stop. She awnsered me with the frankness and honesty that was everything I needed and more. I knew. He knew. But we hadn't acknowledged it yet.

I went back into the room and sat, memorizing his face. He woke up and looked at me and in that very moment my whole world changed yet again. This man who I knew inside and out, who I loved from nearly the moment we met, who could always speak volumes to me with a look... his eyes told me everything.  I remember whispering "You know what I asked her." He came back to himself and pulled me close. "I know." He asked me to get him a paper and pen and then Jason layed back in the hospital bed and made me a graph, a timelime of his symptoms and decline. He was always so damn logical and he wielded practicality like a weapon sometimes. I asked him what he wanted, and all he wanted was to go home. He wanted to take our children to Disneyland and give them one last memory. He wanted time to hug them and hold them and sleep next to me in our bed. He wanted to see his friends and family, even if at that point he barely had the energy to speak much. He wanted to go peacefully,  with dignity and on his own terms.

Maybe I should have fought him. Maybe if I had kept searching, kept pushing for a miracle, maybe we would have had a little more time.

But, I didn't.  Instead, my world changed again. Some deep part of me accepted it, just a little bit. Enough that I made the decision,  then and there, to do whatever I had to do to take care of him, to ease him out of this world as gently and tenderly as all the love he had given me through our years together. He went into hospice care that night. The hospital moved us to a private room in the ICU and he was given comfort care. My parents brought the kids to the hospital since we were not certain he would make it through the night. We had talked to them already about cancer and treatments and all the possible outcomes, but we hadn't yet had time to talk to them about finality, about saying goodbye. That conversation was a whole new kind of heartbreak.

Jason grew up without a father and it had left an indelible mark on his soul... our kids and their futures were the driving force behind everything he did. He loved them fiercely. The night we got engaged he very bluntly told me that- no pressure,  but he really wanted to have babies before he turned thirty... and he wanted two kids, first a boy and then a little girl. He was convinced that, his contribution being the deciding factor in thier genders, he had the power to make that happen. A few weeks after we found out we were expecting Ozzie, he cradled my still flat tummy and proudly announced that it was a boy... and then crowed like a rooster when, months later, his prediciton was confirmed. (He did the same when I was pregnant with Ivy, convinced he felt a "feminine energy" emanating from my now not so flat stomach.) If anything broke him, it was knowing he would not be there to see them grow up.

Ultimately,  his death was not the peaceful and painless one that he deserved. I will save that for another time, when I can visit that horrific time without spiraling into despair. But, that is not what I wanted to write about tonight anyway. What I want to talk about are the gifts we were given in the too short time before his death. Because, in the midst of all the pain and suffering,  there were blessings. And they are all I have to hold onto now.

 We had a strong marriage to begin with... I never worried about falling out of love or boredom or the possibility of divorce. We were going to grow old together, travlel around like gypsies and annoy one another with stories we had told hundreds of times before. We loved each other, day in and day out, through thick and thin. But, as with any couple, the daily grind has a way of softening the passion of the heady early days of love... its so easy, when you are both working and raising kids and making the paychecks last, to lose sight of what is really important. To argue over petty issues and to take for granted that the person you love will always be there. There is always time for tomorrow, until there isn't.

But we had the gift of a little time... time to fall in love, all over again. Time to say all those things that float in your brain & your heart, stockpiled away like nuts for winter... the scary things that lay your soul bare. Neither of us ever very comfortable with vocalizing deep emotion (more on my end actually), we had the chance to tell one another how much we loved and appreciated one another. He had time to hold the kids and tell them how mu h he loved them, how proud he was of who they were and who they would become. He packed a lifetimes worth of important daddy talks into the the they spent together. He did his very best to reassure them that they would hurt, but that they would be ok. That he hoped his death would be something that would make them stronger, more compassionate people. He gave all of us the gift of perspective and he changed our world again by articulating just what the things that truly matter in life are... love, family, self respect and acceptance.  He did his best to prepare me to take over the things that he had always taken care of and constantly assured me of how strong I am, that this would not break me... and that I needed to find a way to be happy again someday - that he desperately hoped I would find someone to love again. I didn't want to hear that, but I had to let him tell me. I kept the feeling that I will never love anyone else the way I love him to myself, but he knew.

We were also blessed to have an outpouring of love and support from everyone in our lives... and even some who weren't. Our family and friends stepped up and made it entirely possible for us to just be together.... feeding us, cleaning for us and distracting the kids with fun when we needed them too. There are so many of you that I will never be able to repay the kindness and care you gave us... but know that should tradgedy, in whatever form, strike, I will be the first in line to do whatever I can to help you through.

Saturday marked three full months since Jason left us. I am struggling, we all are. But I will always have these stars in the darkness and I know with time thier light will shine brighter, softening the darkness.

I love you Jason. There aren't words big enough to tell you how much, but I know you know.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Introduction, of sorts.

My name is Valerie. I live in California, in the same small town that I was born in. I'm 33, which, if you buy into the Hollywood/Cosmo version of life means that I should have just settled down with the man of my dreams, thousands of dollars in student loan debt, with a solid block of single gal career woman status behind me and the prospect of starting a family in front of me.

That is not my life. I've way more in common with a family friendly mid 90's sitcom than Sex in The City. (Though admittedly,  my role would more likely be the eccentric aunt than the frazzled mom behind the wheel of a minivan.) I am the mother of two kids: O is twelve and walking that balancing beam in between full fledged adolescent & little boy and I is nine, still content to play with littlest pet shops and steadfastly obsessed with all things kitten or puppy. Not pink though, she's way over that.

Up until 81 days ago, I was married to the love of my life, Jason. He was, though I have often scorned the concept as lofty and irrational,  my soulmate. The yin to my yang, the bread to my butter. He was my first love, my best friend and my rock... the one person who knew everything about me, saw my ugly parts and terrible character flaws and silly bad habits and loved me wholly despite it all. We were married just shy of 13 years, an anniversary we had planned to celebrate by skydiving in a characteristically twisted poke at the whole unlucky # 13 superstition. The weekend we had planned to go and jump out of a plane together was instead spent in a hospital,  reeling from a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic,  stomach and esophageal cancer. It was the beginning of a surreal, nightmarish three weeks that ended with my strong, capable and quietly magnetic husbands untimely death.

And so, I am now a widow and a single mother... two things I had never, even in my most wildly neurotic , anxiety ridden moments of white middle class existential musing, imagined would apply to me. My children are fatherless and our future is uncertain. I am fractured, heartbroken and in the thrall of a sadness so deep and dark and all encompassing that I am not entirely certain I will survive it. My grief is a burning sun that I cannot look at directly... to do so would scorch me until I am nothing more than a pile of ashes.

And so I take my grief in doses. I peek at it from half lidded eyes and let it wash over me while I gasp and struggle and lay on the shore exhausted and terrified and bruised. And I pick myself up and gulp down my sadness and push it out of my way while I hug my children and walk my dog and try to pretend that I am ok with this new normal. Because I have to be.

I'm still here.