The story below was written by a widow living in Rockville, MD. She originally read it at a memorial event at Hospice Caring, Inc. in Gaithersburg, MD:
My name is Iris and I want to thank the Hospice Caring staff for inviting me to speak with you at this annual Tree of Love and Luminary ceremony. This is not an assembly we would have wanted to attend, but here we all are, determined to transform perhaps one molecule of our grief into honoring and remembering our loved ones. When Penny asked me to tell you of my journey, I told her I was concerned I would not be uplifting. She told me to tell it anyway!
So in an effort to be uplifting, I will start with a story:
Once there was a family. Nice people. Not perfect, because no family is perfect. It was close though. There was a mother, a father, a daughter and a son. They loved each other. They supported each other. They laughed together. They fought…they had tempers. They were moody. They nagged. Mostly, though, they loved each other.
The father was a successful business owner, physically active. He was a yogi, a cyclist, a kayaker. The mother was a therapist. She enjoyed her job in which she helped people with big problems. The daughter was happily married to her father’s business partner and had 3 young children, beloved by the whole family. The son was a veterinarian, his life’s goal, and was looking forward to marrying and starting a family. The family lived within 10 minutes of each other, which had always been the father’s dream.
One day in the fall of 2013, the father is diagnosed with a glioblastoma, after acting strangely for a few months. The family is devastated and realistic, but also optimistic; there are people who beat this cancer and the father’s surgery, radiation and chemotherapy prove successful, at least for a while. He continues working, although it is harder now. He celebrates his sixty fifth birthday with his family and close friends.
In the spring of 2014, the MRI shows tumor growth. The father has difficulty with his gait and is tiring more easily. He reluctantly uses a walker and briefly a wheelchair. He goes to physical therapy to learn how to best get up when he falls.
He is hospitalized the week before Thanksgiving with blood clots in his lungs. The family spends Thanksgiving in the hospital, eating turkey between blood draws. The father comes home to a hospital bed in the living room, where hospice and full time aides await. The mother sits as near the father as possible while they watch repeats of “Frasier” on her Ipad. The daughter visits daily, often with the grandchildren. She can sometimes be found curled up next to the father in his hospital bed as he deteriorates, but the son, who is called upon to shave and cut his hair, has difficulty seeing the father so helpless. Throughout it all, the father is a model patient, handling his situation with grace and gratitude.
In December 2014, the son has an operation to repair a celiac artery dissection, a rare occurrence that was diagnosed the previous May. The recovery is more difficult than expected. The mother goes between home and hospital, but the son finally feels better and returns to work.
On January 11, 2015, the father passes away at home. He has no pain and is calm up to the end. There is a large funeral, with family, friends and clients in attendance. They listen to eulogies, extolling the father. There are seven days of Shiva, as the daughter insists. The son moves in with the mother for a while. The family tries to move on with their grief, and feel grateful to still have each other.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the son’s favorite day of the year, he is hospitalized with acute pain. Doctors find two aneurysms, unusual for a “healthy” 35 year old, and begin to suspect an underlying connective tissue disorder. The decision is made to operate on the larger aneurysm first. The operation is on March 13 and the son comes through the surgery well. The doctors are now aware that the son’s arteries are weak and fragile, confirming their suspicions of a vascular disease. They are elated that he is talking, writing and breathing normally. The mother kisses the son goodnight when the visiting hours are over. He will be transferred to a regular room the next day. The mother drives an hour home, calls the ICU to check on the son, only to be told he has had a massive stroke. The mother and daughter return to the hospital as many specialists confer through the night. Too much damage has been done to the brain and doctors advise removing the son’s breathing tube. The son has left specific medical directives as well as letters for his niece and nephews. Family and friends stream into the hospital over the next 2 days to say their goodbyes. The breathing tube is removed March 15 and the son dies.
There is another funeral, again standing room only. Shiva is held for 2 days, as the mother insists. The family of four has been cut in half in 2 months, each death by a goblin both completely incurable and unexpected. The mother and daughter cling to each other, struggling to process what has happened and wondering how they can go on with this huge hole in their hearts.
Sometimes it is easier to pretend the story is about someone else. Unfortunately, it's about me, my family.
Ironic…that is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think of my life. Could I ever imagine that at 65 I would lose the 2 most important men in my life? Within 2 months of each other? Me, who had counseled victims of crime for 25 years, mostly people who had lost loved ones to homicide? Did I unconsciously believe that absorbing other people’s misery would somehow protect me from that kind of loss?
We wanted 3 children. Our 2 were 14 months apart. We had our hands full. Our parents said ”Why tempt fate? You have 2 healthy children, a boy and a girl.” Ironic?
My husband, Bruce, was thrilled that we all lived 10 minutes apart. Most of my friends had to travel to see one or more of their children. I was so lucky, I was constantly told, to have them so near. Ironic?
Bruce ruminated constantly about the health and welfare of members of the extended family; who was ill every winter, who was having trouble in school, who was unable to pay his mortgage. He, the healthiest, strongest, most careful man in the neighborhood, the man who subscribed to every health and nutrition magazine published, the man who ate organic food and in moderation (seriously, how could he eat ONE cookie?) is the first one in our family and community to die. Ironic?
So many clients remarked how they never could have retired without Bruce’s guidance through the years. Yet he, on the cusp of retirement, would never enjoy it. Ironic?
When both Bruce’s and my parents died we were, of course, sad. But they lived long and good lives. We’d say to each other “As long as it’s not one of the kids.” When Bruce was diagnosed, he told me, “It’s okay. As long as it’s not one of the kids.” And then it was. Ironic?
So I am left with the task of living. I turn to my natural optimism and tell myself to be grateful—for the wonderful years we all had together, for the years with my son who was my biggest fan (and me—his,) for my daughter, who is remarkable and amazing in so many ways. For her husband, who takes over every odious task that most widows must face, for their children whom I adore and who love me (I’m the “candy “grandma) and for my “posse” of friends who circle protectively and prop me up. I tell myself to be grateful that neither Bruce nor Zach suffered the way so many have and to be grateful for my own health.
It’s not enough. So knowing the power of community and commonality, I search for a group. And I find Hospice Caring. Not once, but twice. I come to 2 meetings of a widow/ers group and find immediate understanding. You would think that so much nodding in agreement would lead to stiff necks! I left that group the week before Zach’s surgery, promising to come back when he recovered enough. And they wanted me back, afterwards, knowing that Zach died. Imagine!
I waited…and a group of parents who had lost adult children was formed. We ached for each other, and for ourselves, every week! We shared pictures and stories and tears. And, somehow, strength. We shared secrets about how to survive. We laughed! And, now, long after the group has ended, we still meet. Over meals, at Hospice Caring Comedy Night, even at the beach. We are in each other’s phone contacts. We will be bonded together, wishing it was over anything else, for the rest of our lives.
Without my knowing, Hospice Caring was also reaching my daughter. That first year when I was trying to be so grateful, my daughter was just plain MAD! At people who had siblings, at uncaring and negligent doctors, at the world. And somehow she was steered to Hospice Caring’s 3 day training. And then additional training to work in the schools with children who had lost loved ones. And her fury was eased, just a little bit, by those children who found out they had lost a brother on “Fox News at 10.” And the rest she channeled into a most painfully honest blog. Now she is the one telling me, the now MAD one, to be grateful!
My daughter and her 9 year old Yoni ran a Turkey Trot 5K over Thanksgiving. Jess had been training with Yoni but he had never run that far. She ran next to him and thought he was going to quit a few times, but he finished. She asked him, “Did you ever feel like giving up?” “Yes” he answered. “What did you do instead?” “I just kept going.” And so do we, in this room, keep going.
It will be 2 years January 11th that Bruce is gone and 2 years March 15th for Zach. I had thought I would take the training myself and lead a group. I don't know if, as the country song says, I am getting better or just used to the pain, but not strong enough yet. Someday, though.
I’ll end with a quote from another great man who died recently, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. His music was so often the background for experiences Bruce and I shared in those early years of our relationship:
“Ring the Bells That Still Can Ring
Forget your Perfect Offering
There is a Crack in Everything
That’s How the Light Gets In.”