At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.

Facing October

Mark took his last fluttery breaths at noon, a year ago October 30th. I’d been up with him all night, because he’d had a seizure at around 8:00 and then started that end-of-life breathing, with its long pauses and deep sighs.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

My daughter and son sat up with me. As we began the journey of losing and grieving the man who had been husband and father, we quietly played a favorite game, Ticket to Ride. We collected train markers and spread them across the map, not noticing at the time the reverberations from all those American love songs, the woman who stands sorrowing on the platform, the man called away by the train’s haunting whistle to adventures unknown.

When the sun came up that morning, Miriam and Jesse decided to go on to work. We’d had so many false alarms that month, none of us trusted any more that we would recognize the end, and we imagined Mark able to go on with his heroic breathing forever. I settled down to sleep a little. I arranged pillows so I could hold Mark’s hand, even though there was no indication he still heard me, felt me, or cared whether I was present. I woke a few hours later—maybe I’d heard a change in his breathing. I told him I’d be right back, and stepped into the bathroom. Crossing back into the bedroom I heard him sigh twice, softly. Then his body fell silent. He was gone.

October this year hit me with unexpected force. Our wedding anniversary on July 29th had been the last important date I’d spent for the first time without Mark this year. What I forgot was how hard October last year had been. Mark had stopped eating, and I hadn’t known how long a strong and relatively young man can live before his heart gives in. He was afraid he would have severe pain at the end, and he couldn’t hold on to the doctors’ and nurses’ reassurances, that when organs are slowly shutting down under the attack of cancer, they release endorphins—pain may ease up, not increase. He got increasingly confused. He thought there’d been a murder and didn’t know what to say to the reporters. He became convinced God would reject him. He thought I was trying to poison him. He woke up from a nap and told me he’d been “dukin’ it out with the Japanese devil”.

He also got increasingly helpless and needed to be turned, needed to be fed the few ice chips per day he was living on, needed to be given Adavan (to relieve his agitation) in a syringe with only the tiniest bit of water so he didn’t choke. The all-important morphine from his pump was going into a port in his arm, a temporary port only designed for a couple of weeks’ use, and it began to deteriorate and leak as the month dragged on. Could he make it over the River before we had to put him through the ordeal of opening a new port? The uncertainty wore on me. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mark was and was no longer my husband. It was confusing. It was agonizing. I wanted it over, but I was as scared as he was about what would come next.

I hadn’t thought of the date of his death as a new anniversary for Mark and my life together, but I learned on the 30th this year, as night fell outside my rain-streaked windows, that I will indeed shy my face aside and brace myself as I enter the next few Octobers. The actual date of Mark’s death will be a tender one for me for the rest of my life, but it is not a wrenching one. It was the date when what had become inevitable came to pass.

I asked my kids early in October if they wanted to do anything special on the 30th, and got no responses. It was a work day—we are in four cities, on two continents. So I groped for what would be meaningful for me. I spent the 29th at a Trappist Abbey outside the small town of Laffayette, along Highway 99W near Salem. I’d felt calm and upbeat approaching the end of October, though, suspiciously, I’d developed three small canker sores in my mouth and a blemish on my chin. I, who am usually so careful and responsible, knocked a wine glass off the shelf at Goodwill and stared, amazed, at the shattered splinters at my feet. I then left my teakettle on the stove so long, boiling so dry, that the nob on the lid melted down the side and into a blob of hard plastic on the stovetop.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God's love.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God’s love.

I also lay awake late into the night before my retreat at the Abbey. After morning mass I nodded off over my prayers and readings until I gave up and crawled under a throw on the couch and slept. At lunch, a Trappist-style silent meal, the Beatles’ most soothing song looped through my head, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,” as though to relieve my guilt over sleeping away half of my retreat. On the dining room’s bulletin board, the daily calendar’s wisdom for the 29th was Julian of Norwich’s reassurance: “But all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the afternoon I took a walk, meditated, read, prayed and journaled. In the end, the day was just what I wanted and needed—even the long nap. I did feel a little guilty that I was thinking and praying about my future, not remembering Mark. Those pesky “shoulds,” will I ever be free of them?

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

I woke early the morning of the 30th with the tender pop song line, “My darling, you are wonderful to me,” running through my head. The only idea I’d had for honoring Mark that day was to light a candle, thanking him for “lighting up” my life for almost fifty years (in high school we’d enjoyed a shy, sweet young-love relationship). I took a candle out of my over-stuffed candle drawer and lit it before I even got my breakfast organized. Holding the burning match, I looked around at the candles all over my new, single-woman’s home—on sconces, in carved candle holders from Kenya, on pedestals, in pewter candle holders, in crystal. Why stop with one?

I lit all my  candles (twenty-three of them) and spent the morning surrounded by their flickering light. Light that shines in darkness and isn’t overcome. Light that also represents warmth. Light coming directly from fire. Some anthropologists think it was fire that made us human, fire that made it possible to break down hard-to-digest proteins and expanded our food sources, fire that gave us time off from constant “gazing” and allowed us to take in enough energy to feed our ravenous brains and fuel higher thinking.

As moving into a rich, new life without Mark becomes more and more real, I find myself reacting to the implications of that with ambivalence at the best of times, with positively queasy emotional indigestion at others. I have to hold even tighter to mystery.

Sorrow and struggle do leave us deeper, richer, more complex if we submit to learning what there is to learn—all the sages say so. Places I was emotionally stuck have jiggled loose under the stresses of the last eighteen months. I feel lighter, freer. Grief has washed away some dross and left treasures I didn’t expect. Can I appreciate the growth without seeming glad for the trauma and loss? And if God redeems struggle by enriching me, does that mean I’m being lazy on days I find wider valleys and smoother paths? Can I assume plenty of trouble will find me, I don’t have to look for it? The new feelings of joy that are starting to come to me—can I enjoy them conscience-free?

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya,1999.

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya, 1999.

This overly-serious Calvinist inches forward on the journey, learning as she goes, deeply grateful for her long marriage and willing, just barely willing, to start letting it go.