autumn days

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lessons Learned through Dying and Living

I am so grateful for my life!  I am so thankful for getting to mother these three beautiful children.  I am so thankful for all I've been through, all the lessons I have learned, all the tears and laughter I have gotten to experience.  Months ago I took notes of the important things I wanted to talk about after my husband died of non-smoker's lung cancer at a young age.  These notes aren't comforting or thrilling.  They are part of my lessons.

Avoid working in old buildings.
Get radon testing in your home.
Stay healthy in all ways.
Balance mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health as best as possible.
Give great thanks for these extraordinary lives we get to live.
Each life and each day is an immense gift.
Focus on what makes you happy, on what feels good.
Laugh, cry, smile, touch.
Love those around you as completely as you can.
Fall deeply and madly in love with yourself.
Everything else will fall into place.

Digging into the dying process

My beloved partner of 18 years died nine months ago.  As I hear of my husband's uncle's dying process, it brings me back to my time traveling the path of supporting a loved one through this grand transition.  In my reflective state, I have found several messages that capture what it felt like to support my dying partner through the dying process.  These following entries are from three weeks before my beloved's death.  A few days after these messages were sent, M left our home to spend his last weeks in the hospital.

Dear Asma,

M is actively dying.  Each day is hard.  We are loved, supported, held, blessed.  Friends are coming to take care of our home and children and us each day.  I feel sad, devastated, hopeful, angry, calm, hollow, overwhelmed, supported, loving, full.  So many contraries.  Too soon, too young, too good, not ready.  Thank you for asking and wanting my honest response.  I cherish you.

Jennifer


Dearest Pamela, 

I am writing here so I don't wake you with a text.  I'm just awake.  You know sleeplessness is a part of the ride.  M's heart rate is rising, blood pressure dropping, pain at a 7 all day yesterday.  This is so hard to watch him suffer, but I am also holding on to having him here with us, as I let go.  This is so hard.  I am calm and gentle with my children and everyone, so I took an hour to cry alone and with a friend yesterday, even forgetting to pick Hannah up from class at a friend's home.  My focus now: time with M, care for my children, find out what accounts to use to pay for (3!) mortgages, credit card receipts, sign will and other important paperwork, and primarily to do what M wants me to.  I think that covers it.  It's suggested M go in for an exam today, but I don't know if he can.  Any exercise pushes his physical limits.  He has declined night care and I leave my phone on for him to call when he needs me.  Anything big I'm missing here?  

So much love and gratitude,
Jennifer


Margaret,

M's blood pressure is dropping and his heart rate is high, but I'm not ready to say his organs are shutting down or to hear this repeated back to me.  Cancer is a yoyo of a ride with so many ups and downs.  Is there a way to let people know I need help with my home (dishes, laundry, etc.) and children (food, helping them play and laugh and do chores) and not about talking with me about M's condition?  I find with my friends coming they want to talk about their lives and adventures and M's current condition.  When I want to talk about how he is, I will.  My hospice people on Facebook are on it.  When others talk talk about their own things, I just keep moving and eating and doing my own things.  This is all such a delicate balance.  I just wanted to say it... at 4am.  Thank you.  For everything.  You bring such comfort to our family.

Jennifer


Another letter from two weeks before his death...

Sue and Shannon,

There are 15 new cancer spots on M's brain.  His oncologist said he needs to improve his numbers on vitals in order to do immunotherapy this next Monday.  If numbers stay on the consistent trajectory they've been on, he says there is likely 1-2 weeks left for M to live.  It took this for M to realize the severity of it.  I think he's shut down a bit after the diagnosis of the spots on his brain.  I went to visit him twice yesterday, once with kids.  I am stretching myself between M and our children's routines.  

I met with a memorial service yesterday and looked at plots and urns and services.  M said the death industry is "all such a racket."  So he wants just an urn instead of a $3000 plot.  Tommy said yesterday people may want to visit M's ashes somewhere.  It isn't as awesome as a headstone and space in the grass, but a wall urn is still beautiful in its own way.  I'd like to have mine there with him, for our children and grandchildren and friends to visit.  So I will do what feels right in my heart.

I love my M.  I am there for him in the ways I know, there to hold his hand, ask him what he needs, what he wants me to do for him, for our family, for his treatment.  I cry when alone, letting so much flow.  Tommy shed some tears for me yesterday.  This is a beautiful intense process.

I love you.

Jennifer

Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Love

Each Wednesday I have a beloved friend, whom I call "my favorite wife", love on my children while I go play with other adults.  This is a way for me to see a different friend each week, investing in relationships that feed my soul.  I've been on thai-curry-and-ice-cream dates with a friend whose husband has just died.  I've been on watching-ducks-on-flood-plains-in-the-park dates with a single dad friend in Washington.  I've been on Goodwill-bins-and-Irish-car-bomb-drink dates with my attorney's legal secretary, my smoking hot friend who wears all black and gifts me mixed CDs.  I've been on bibimbap dates with groups of laughing and crying homeschooling girlfriends.  I've been on talk-about-everything-in-our-hearts dates with my beloved cousin-in-law's wife.  I've gotten to go on dates with my cross-country-motorcycling-line-dancing-farmer friend.  Other dates too.  There are wild plans for many more dates without children.  What an adventure!  I look forward to and cherish these playful Wednesday night dates!

Six weeks ago, with a last minute cancellation, I couldn't find a Wednesday night date.  I sat in my car outside the accountant's office, crying over the intensity of assembling all my family's financial information for the last year.  This is one of the zillion responsibilities my partner used to manage that I know get to tackle and embrace.  The many firsts as a widow can be surprisingly hard.  In planning my evening, I dried my eyes for a moment to look at movie listings.  With a good movie, attending a show alone can be awesome.  My choices that day were children's movies, war films, and horror flicks.  I would rather sit alone in my car than choose one of these.  And I was going to... until my friend J said he could step out of his son's class for a walk.  This stepping out of class shifted more than either of us expected.  I had met this friend in my Dougy Center Pathways Program group in July.  My partner died last autumn and my family transitioned out of the Pathway Program.  J and I somehow forgot to exchange phone numbers, though I kept in touch with others from the group.

Four months later, my son wanted to go to a specific arcade, and we couldn't go until Monday after errands.  When we were a block from the arcade, I spotted two familiar people.  I didn't know in that moment who they were, but I knew I needed to stop to talk with them.  My family got out of the car and we visited with J and his son for 45 minutes.  We greeted each other with hugs and were so happy to see each other again.  J held my wee babe as our big kids played in the trees.  We all endlessly talked and laughed.  I noticed how much I was laughing with J, knew it had been a long time since I'd laughed that much, and thought of how I'd like to spend more time laughing with J.  When it was time to go our separate ways, J buckled my wee one into her carseat and we worked through our busy schedules to plan a play date for six weeks later.  So it was J who agreed to a spontaneous walk on that date night when no other friend was available.

For that first walk, we strolled into the sunset, holding hands, and laughing.  We went on a hike the next day.  Sitting atop Rocky Butte, holding hands, we shared more details of our personal stories with one another.  J said he didn't think he was ready for a romantic relationship.  I said, "Me neither,... but doesn't this feel nice?"  The next day we went to the library and snuggled into a corner with windows and books with my wee babe.  Since then, we have had a "hot date" with each other every night via text or telephone.  And our connection and love for one another continues to grow.  We are so grateful for each other, feeling like our partners have hand-selected us for one another.  We feed and support and heal each other in ways others cannot.  J loves my children so gently, playfully, and lovingly.  As his only son grows more independent, he treasures this connection with my younger children who still want to hear bedtime stories, talk about their day, and hold hands.  My children and I are discovering new depth within ourselves, feeling more grounded, excited, supported, and playful than we have in a long while.  With our new loves in our lives, my children are laughing their way to greater independence, resilience, perseverance, and joy.

Just a few days ago we opened up our schedules and got to play with J's son again.  We greeted each other with hugs and then spent an hour slamming each other with dodge balls in a room of trampolines.  Pizza, puns, and chocolates were the sweet ending to our first family date.  It is such a surprising experience for my children and me to fall slowly and fully in love with J and his son.  We are thankful for these extraordinary people every day as our connections grow stronger.  I hold no specific destination in my heart for where this new love will lead.  I trust we are following our hearts and moving in the right direction.  I trust myself in these choices, in leading my children to more loving connections with each other, in finding more patience and grace within my parenting toolbox, in moving more completely into my own strength and color, and in following our hearts to create space for those that love us back so fully.  I am so grateful every day for this new love that reflects for me my own strength and beauty, for this love that brings new light into our lives, and for this love that brings my children and me closer to our true selves.

Manifesting overflowing hearts everywhere...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Falling in Love

Ten months ago, my beloved partner was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  Losing him six months ago has been an intense and devastating experience for our three children, our family, friends-who-are-family, and me.

I am feeling especially grateful for my gratitude practice right now, as redundant as that seems.  I've spent years focusing daily upon what I appreciate in my life.  And now I am seeing more side effects from this practice of shifting and shaping my own thoughts.  With an intentional turn of perspective, I get to see the many blessings that have come about as a result of this journey in the last ten months.  I believe there are silver linings or helpers in any situation.  Sometimes they are harder to find, yet they are still present.  Most people in our world are well-intentioned, helpful, and want to show up for one another.  To move forward in this world, this is what I believe.

Our biggest silver lining was, upon diagnosis, the family and friends-who-are-family who showed up for us in every way imaginable.  We were and are surrounded by incredible love and never alone, even though sometimes we felt alone.  They were there to hold me while I sobbed in the grocery store.  They were there to drive my partner to appointments.  They were there to talk with my partner while I ran errands.  They were there to be with our children so I could sit at my partner's side and attend appointments.  

We were able to join the Dougy Center support groups right after my partner's diagnosis, both the transitional pathways program and later the bereavement groups.  Through Dougy, my wee family has found so many loving families in similar situations.  We see these friends at least twice a week to play and connect, along with our twice-monthly support group.  These families are our primary support network when it comes to brutal honesty in our raw moments, our surprising and intense feelings, watching the flow of storms through our core, and knowing we are not alone in searching for the light through painful experiences of losing a loved one.

As I experience the privilege of turning 40, knowing many others won't have this same privilege, I step more fully into myself, into knowing myself, trusting myself, discovering myself.  As a single parent, I get to explore and play and create in ways I couldn't as part of my wonderful co-parenting co-habitating relationship.  Now I get to choose what I want to bring into my life, what I choose to leave behind, and how I choose to move forward with my children at the forefront.  My children benefit from getting to watch me explore and expand.

I am writing from a little room in a small house in Waldport, Oregon.  My children are here with me in this room and on this adventure.  My son is now driving a car across bumpy terrain on an electronic screen, my oldest daughter is asleep on the couch, and my youngest wee one is on my lap drawing pictures in this morning's window condensation.  I hear and see the ocean.  I don't have telephone service, so all the world of talking and texting others falls away.  There is a calm and quiet within myself that I haven't known in this way before.

I am growing in trusting my instincts, in trusting my connections with others, in trusting the resiliency of myself and my children.  I trust my children are growing in beneficial ways by watching me grow into myself more fully, in their growing independence.  I get to fall in love with this life in all its intensities: full time parenting, taking over every aspect of home care and choices, life with tears and laughter and melancholy and beauty, learning as I go, leaning on my people in ways I haven't before.  I get to learn more about my own strengths, weaknesses, interests, perspective.  I get to dig deep in the quiet moments, fewer quiet moments than ever before.  I get to connect with others in ways I haven't before.  I get to be responsible for my own (oh-so-early) bedtime.  I get to fall in love with the details of this moment, in my relationships with my children, in how my child grates slowly upon every carrot in the communal bowl, in how long it takes me to finish a sentence, in how I slowly grow stronger in who I am so I can more lovingly support my wee folk.  What a privilege to get to fall in love with my own life, again and again, and then share that with my people.

Living at the heart of it all

Butterflies

In my new life as the single mother of three young children, everything is simultaneously new and unknown.  It is as if I am reborn into a different reality that I get to create.  Along with this newness is the beginning of spring after a very long winter and the approach of my fortieth birthday.  When others feel anxiety and nervousness, I intentionally call these flutters in my gut butterflies.  I intentionally try to find the delight and play in new experiences, even as awful as removing my partner's name from utility bills.  I have worn my wedding ring nearly every day for the last 11 years, aside from the days when I was super angry with my partner.  Those were tiny bumps held by a big love.  I was completely committed and faithful and devoted as a wife and mother.  I still am, though the rules of the game have changed.

I have now been a widow for five months.  In leaning upon those in our support groups, I cherish deep connections with those who really understand my experiences.  I lean in and hug these friends, needing that physical touch with safe adults.  Last week I was able to take an hour walk with a friend.  We walked on the sunny side of the street into the sunset.  When his arm was sore from the way I held it, he asked if I minded holding hands.  I told him that was uncomfortable for me, but I'd like to try it.  Hand holding is very intimate for me.  Like kissing.  I was wearing my late partner's wedding ring and my own ring on that sacred ring finger.  The very act of holding hands with a man produced the butterfly effect in my gut.  Along with that familiar flutter came a deep grounding from the balance of feminine and masculine energies.  This was an incredibly nice, grounding feeling.

The next morning, my finger was sore from the bulky tight rings.  I struggled to get the rings off to rest my hand.  My fingers tend to be cold now, as I am not eating all that my body needs, a painful thing to admit.  My wedding ring then would not go back onto my finger.  So here I type with butterflies in my gut and no ring on my finger.  In tears.  With children at my sides searching for their layers of nourishment and comfort.  There are so many emotions on this part of the journey.  This lovely man and I aren't really ready for a new romantic relationship, though we take comfort in each other's company.  In holding hands and talking.  We have full, busy lives as single parents that center on raising our children and putting one foot in front of the other.  We have created beautiful lives we love, aside from the devastation of being without our most beloved partners.  We collect hearts and relationships and look for the light in our world.  What an interesting place to find myself.  Everything is new and uncomfortable and somehow there is so much beauty in the melancholy.  I am so thankful for these experiences that torture and expand me, that comfort and connect me.  I am so thankful for this pickle I am now in and the butterflies that accompany it.

Searching for hearts

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Saying Goodbye

My dear partner lived only four months and one week past his devastating diagnosis with lung cancer.  From the day of diagnosis, his main focus was on how to stay alive longer to be here to raise his children.  His children were his life.  With this extreme focus on saving his own life, to the very last waking moments of his life, there was also a loss of getting to say goodbye.  When he focused so entirely on his survival without fully entertaining the possibility of dying, in my opinion, there was an inability to say goodbye.  My partner wrote me a two page love letter in the middle of his suffering, in case he didn't survive a biopsy surgery.  He penciled two pages of life lessons for his children.  We made a two hour video of him with his family talking about his childhood.  He also planned to make other videos of his teenage and adult years.  We were so thankful he was able to make that one video for his children.  The cancer moved so quickly we just tried to keep up.  A core team of family pulled in all the resources possible, conducted extensive research, communicated for hours each day, in hopes of finding something to slow down the angry attacker.

For a few days near the end of his life, I was able to spend a couple hours daily holding my partner's hand in the hospital, to lean in on him ever-so-gently, to rest my head against his, to talk to him as he slept.  It was then I was able to tell him about the depths of my love, how grateful I was for him in my life, how grateful I was to spend so much of my life with him, how we would hold him with us forever and always, how he could go to his meditative happy place for reprieve from the pain, that his parents were waiting for him and he could go to them when he was ready, how he was surrounded by such deep gratitude and love.  I talked and talked and talked as he slept.  When he was awake, we spoke with hope for healing and also of the details in preparing for the possibility of life without him.  It was more natural when he slept to talk about the true possibility of his dying.  We shared our hope of him surviving or at least of having a lot more time with us.

In his last couple weeks, I sat with my partner and played the sound of the Pacman game, sharing with him my visualizations of the immunotherapy acting as Pacman characters eating up the cancer cells, changing the tide of growth in his body.  Our support team visualized with this same analogy.  I put everything I had into it.  I was there for him and our children as much as I could.  I know I did my best.  It was so hard.  I wanted to do more.  We all did.  Every week received more devastating news.  One of the hardest days was when he said casually shared news with me as our children walked into the hallway with an uncle; the cancer was found in 12 additional places in his brain.  That's when it became clear where our road would lead.

I wish I could go back and hold him more, be with him more, smell his neck, kiss his lips again.  I wish I could bring his children to his side to talk with him and kiss him more.  I miss him dearly.  His smell, his voice, his skin, his heart, his everything.  These yearnings for him will continue for the rest of my life, though they will ebb and flow and maybe grow slightly more tolerable.

In support groups, I connect with others in similar situations who have partners or children battling for their lives, or those who have lost a partner or child.  It is a safe place to be vulnerable and open up about how hard this path really is.  These people have become my dear friends, my extended family.  I lean on them and they lean on me.  We walk the walk together.  I have been with my closest female friend from support groups through the months of juggling and balancing and staying sane while supporting children and a dying partner.  She shared intimately with me the details of his dying, of their transformed connection, of the love that healed and blossomed between them along the way.  This friend was able to fully say goodbye to her beloved in ways that I wasn't able.  She got to kiss him often, tell him how she would miss him, bring him his favorite meals, talk openly about death, to be alone with him, to hold him, and to share a bed with him until his last breaths.  I didn't have that experience.  I wanted that.  Holding my friend through this process allows me to experience the loss of my partner in different ways.  I get to have this long goodbye experience through my dear friend and her willingness to share it with me.

In my partner's dying process, I invited all those in our circle to participate, to see the dying process, to connect with us, to spend time together, holding one another.  I shared my feelings openly through the process, once I knew this was not a small detour for our family.  I invited others to process with us, to step more fully into their lives, into their dreams, and into their connections with others.  My dear friend allowed me in this same way to share her experience of caring for a dying partner.

My friend and I are finding the silver linings together, and processing the density of this new reality as well.  We talk about our feelings of the vases of dying flowers, of the question to wear or not to wear the wedding ring, how to make way for play and rest while also keeping the health of our children and ourselves at the forefront, how to balance so many things in our new lives.  It has been healing to share this experience with others, to be vulnerable and safe in sharing the details of this unexpected and uncomfortable journey.
  
While I didn't get to say goodbye to my beloved partner in all the ways and in all the hours I desired, I do get to experience a deeper goodbye through my friend's different experience.  There is great treasure to be found in opening our hearts to be with others.  I am thankful for the many ways to grieve and say goodbye.  I am so thankful for this life in which I get to find new ways to intentionally connect and enrich our collective journey.  I am so thankful for my life and the gift of knowing how precious it really is.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Self-Nourishment

In the four months my partner fought cancer, I lost weight.  In the 16 weeks since he died, I have lost more.  Food is a tool.  In times of stress, we each use it differently.  I had been telling myself I was not hungry and was too busy to eat.  When my older children are home, we sit and eat meals together.  Once they are off at school, each moment is full of meeting the needs of my toddler, running errands, planning meals, figuring out financial details, arranging counseling, various scheduling, construction home details, and many other matters of business.  This means I am sitting down for 1.5 meals each day.

After having a business lunch date with my partner's best friend, a meal I barely touched, I had a meltdown.  My partner wasn't there to remind me to step up the self-care.  I realized I was the only one there to take care of myself.  My health is vital to my children's health.  I must take care of myself if I expect to be around for my children.  The way I treat myself is how my children will treat themselves.  My example is important.  Food is a priority.  On this wild day after the business lunch, I reached out to a friend to keep me accountable for eating enough.  I asked her to help me keep track of what I was eating.  Just admitting to myself and a friend that I needed help with food alleviated much of the stress.  After a few more hard days, I began to eat enough.

There are still occasional hard days, though I am generally meeting my goals.  Now when I sit in front of food prepared by others, I eat until I am full.  When I sit with meals I've created, I eat an average adult portion.  I have also indulged in simple meals and snacks for our family to get through this hard place.  In these small ways, I am committing to my children's long term well being.  They are my reason to take care of myself, to slow down, to sit while eating, to model healthy habits, and to commit to my being fully human.  I am so thankful for the privilege of getting to parent these young people.  While I focus on their short and long term health, I also get to take care of myself.  What a responsibility.  What a gift.