autumn days

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Saying Goodbye

Three weeks ago I said goodbye to my beautiful partner.  I chose to.  I had to.  Cancer left me few other options.  I said goodbye to the love of my life because his body couldn't stay alive any longer.  I lay with him several times in his last couple weeks in his hospital bed, starving, his organs shutting down, his humanness slowly devoured by cancer.  I rested my head against his and told him how much I love him, the ways I love him, how he has brought so much beauty into my life, that his children would make it through this.  I told him something he told me weeks before, that he would soon get to be with his parents again.  I held his arm, stroked his hand, put my hand on his forehead just the way he loved his mama to touch him.

I stayed in the hospital with my children for seven hours the evening he died.  We said goodbye again and went home for dinner, not knowing what lay ahead.  About forty-five minutes later we got the call that our beloved partner and papa had died.  My children and I wailed.  I said from deep inside, "This is the hardest part."  We held each other.  We brushed our teeth while wailing and headed back to the hospital to join my partner's family who never left his side.  Our daughter chose to spend the night with a cousin, our son chose to stay to participate in our Buddhist chanting ritual, our baby travels everywhere on my hip.  When I saw my husband without breath, I went to him, touched him, told him how much I loved him.  My son climbed into his daddy's bed under the covers, holding him around the middle, showering his body with love.  He said, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my papa you'll be."  It was so beautiful and so awful.  I hugged those around us.  Then I fled the room, wanting to be alone.  I sat alone and cried and cried.  My sister-in-law followed me.  All I could say was, "I am so f@#$%&g angry cancer did this to my husband, to my family."  It felt good to say it over and over, as a true expression of what I felt in that moment.  I'm still angry, though I let it come out in different ways now.

I returned to my partner's body's side.  His family and I chanted over his body for four hours with Buddhist monks, then sat and talked around him for four more hours.  We told stories of my partner as a child, as a dad, as a brother and son.  We laughed, we cried, we were quiet together.  Then we headed home for the night.  Cousins followed us home as guards for myself and our two sleeping children.  They stood at the garage door in the middle of the night as we said goodbye.  These cousins still have our backs in so many ways.

My two children and I returned to the hospital with an aunt and uncles the next morning to clean my partner's body.  His cornea have been donated to bring sight to others.  Nothing else could be donated because of the extent the cancer had impacted his body.

Cousins, siblings, our children, and a friend joined us for my partner's cremation.  We viewed his body, contributed things to the cardboard coffin (In & Out Burger bag with drawings of favorite foods, workout outfit, University of Washington clothing, letters and drawings, etc.), and said goodbye in our own individual ways.  My daughter didn't want to see him like this.  My son did.  "He looks worse than I thought he would," he told his aunt and uncle.  This was very hard.  After the viewing, he was taken to the cremation room.  We again said goodbye, then walked by his side as he was moved into the machine.  His children, siblings, and I pushed the buttons necessary to start the cremation process.

A week later we placed the large urn with his ashes under his parents' pictures in our prayer room.  His sister had ashes sealed permanently into a beautiful purple necklace, purple to show love for her brother and his love for the University of Washington.  My children and I now each have our own little urns of ashes.  These parts of our beloved partner/papa can travel with us wherever we go.  This may be a bit morbid, all of it, perhaps.  These little things help us to come to terms with the awful ending to our favorite man in the entire universe.  These mementos help us hold him here with us in our hearts and memories.

I continue to say goodbye to the man who was tortured by and died of lung cancer.  That was easier to do that what lies ahead.  Now as I come to terms with the large loss our family has experienced, I again see the man I feel in love with, the man I talked into marrying me, the man I loved and held for 18 years, for most of my adult years.  The man who joyfully fathered and raised his adored children.  The man who was there for us when we wanted him and needed him.  When I go back to seeing my partner as the man he was before his diagnosis and treatments, that has been the hardest part for me.  Harder than speaking about how deeply I love him to a room full of our favorite people.  Harder than letting his body be cremated.  Saying goodbye to my healthy, extraordinary partner has brought my biggest pain.

I continue to very intentionally focus on the beauty in my life, the gifts in my life as a result of being with my partner.  Our children are our biggest blessings, the three (out of four) biggest loves of my life.  I search for the silver lining, the miracles, the touching moments we shared.  The pain accompanies these thoughts, dragging behind like a dark shadow.  There is nothing to fill the hole left by the loss of someone so beloved in our lives.  I yowl like a wounded puppy, I sob, I sing, I talk with others, I take walks and create routines, I gather with those who loved him, I find quiet, I cuddle my children.  The only way through this grief is straight through.  There are no shortcuts here.

I miss my partner.  I miss my children having their daddy here.  I miss his voice.  I miss holding his hand.  I miss him saying, "my beautiful wife."  Nothing will change that.  Each day feels harder and easier in different ways.  I can pay the bills on my own now, though I yearn to see him more.  As I experience my sadness, my immune system echoes these emotions.  My children and I will get through this immense loss, one little step/breath/moment at a time.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.  We hold each other, practice our patience, humor, and determination.

I love my life.  I love this life I get to share with my children and my extended in-laws.  I love this world we get to create together.  I love finding the silver lining together.  I love naps, rest, reprieve.  I love togetherness and togethering and letting it flow in and out, expressing it as it comes, as long as it does not wound others.  I trust this journey.  I trust myself on this journey.  I am so very thankful for this moment in which I get to share what flows through me.  I am thankful for taking the next step into my life, hand-in-hand with these beautiful little and big people.  I am thankful to get to share it with you.  What a life.  What gifts.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giving Thanks in New Ways

I've heard all my life that holidays are rough for those experiencing loss.  I finally know what that really means.  My partner died of cancer three weeks before Thanksgiving.  Our extended family joined us for this day, making for a lively party of 22 beautiful people.  I love the preparation, the baking, the expectation of a crowded, lively home.  I love knowing my children will soon be galavanting with six cousins (in contrast to my isolated childhood).  All was well on this day, even when my son and daughter made the chocolate chip cookies their dad usually made.  When a cousin arrived with mashed potatoes that my partner carefully crafted each year, that was hard.  When I filled in his absence by taking on his role of making sure every guest had a drink and a plate, that was hard.  When I sat alone with the mashed potato-making cousin, I finally cried.  "I don't miss all the things my partner did for us.  I don't miss how hard he worked for us.  I miss him.  I miss his skin, his touch, his voice, his face.  I miss his presence.  I miss him."

My partner's brother has taken on the tasks of the family business.  As part of the transition, he brought us one framed photograph from my partner's office.  After our shared meal, he presented me with the beautiful photograph I had chosen and placed on my partner's desk seven years ago.  In it, my daughter is looking up at me, beaming her delight, sitting upon her daddy's belly on a hammock on a warm summer day.  She was her daddy's universe, his only child.  It was his birthday week, two weeks before his mother would die after a fall.  Our world was more whole than it is now.  Our home was the life of our world, full of my partner, his beloved mother, our miraculous child.  I love this photograph and how it represents a fullness and a blossoming of family.  Now, instead of a family of five, my home shelters our three children and me.  I am the only original owner of our home that is still here with my daughter.  I spent a minute gazing at this photo, feeling the wholeness that used to be here.  Contrasting that with what dwells here in its place.  I set it down on the counter for others to see and quietly left the room.  I looked out the window at the dark mountain that will one day soon be full of hundreds of houses' lights.  And I cried again.  I cry to release the sadness, to feel the rawness of losing the love of my life to a devastating disease, for watching him slowly transform, suffer deeply, and die, leaving me a single mother for our extraordinary children.

I miss him.  I miss us.  I miss holding his hand and hearing his voice, watching him whip creamy purple mashed potatoes (from purple potatoes I've grown in the garden), laugh with our guests, and wash loads of dishes between loading his own plate.  I miss watching him play with his children that he waited all his life for, cherishing them as the brightest lights and joys of his life.  I miss the jokes that I often didn't find funny.  I miss how he decorated our home for Christmas, the only holiday I didn't decorate for.  I miss him.  Deeply.  Fully.  Devastatingly.

In these days of fresh loss, a mixed tape of memories (as my brother-in-law so eloquently described it) flood my mind.  I see my partner in all the places and grooves of his life, in the choices and roles that became routine in the last 18 years we spent creating this amazing life together.  Now I fully understand why holidays are harder than other days.  In the holidays, we have created a certain rhythm and routine that sits apart from the average day.  I am thankful for this deeper understanding, this deeper compassion.  I am thankful my children have me in their lives to cherish them.  It is a job for more than one person.  I am thankful for the privilege of hosting our party of 22 beautiful humans.  I am thankful for the infinite blessings in our lives.  I am thankful for the ability to process these feelings of loss so deeply.  I am thankful to share my grieving process with my children, to model healthy ways to release emotions.  I am thankful to know this loss will eventually grow lighter instead of heavier with each day.  I am thankful to hold these children, to remind them of the beauty of their daddy and how deeply he cherished them, how they provided him with strength to step boldly into every treatment in the hopes of extending his life.  I am thankful to know for myself that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.  It is because I have chosen to love that my life is what it is and continues to grow in new ways.  I am thankful for his life.  I am thankful for finding a medium (here) to share my processing in the middle of the night as my children slumber (in my full bed).  I am thankful for trusting this writing is larger than myself.  I am thankful to know one day these words will help my children in their own healing processes.  I am thankful for this life I get to share with my children and the other humans in my world.  Moving through many other emotions, I am thankful to return often to gratitude.  Intentional, focused gratitude.  An overflowing, yet sore, heart.  I am thankful.  I am blessed. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Getting to Volunteer at School

I got to volunteer in my children's school for the first time this week.  My oldest child is nine, so this may be a strange declaration.  My children were homeschooled until this September.  We had chosen last spring to give public school a try after too much time together was not benefiting my relationship with my persistent, determined son.  He now loves kindergarten, playing with peers, dressing for the occasion, and daily free choice time with different art mediums.

My children's school is having a canned food drive.  Last week they could have a popsicle at lunch if they brought in a certain number of canned goods.  As the parent of children going through a lot right now, I wanted my children to be like the other kids (whose parents prepared for these things in advance) and get the prize this time.  My children don't make a big deal out of most things, though this day I felt I wanted to show them I show up for them in this way.  After my children went to school, I put their canned goods into bags, wrote a love note on the outside of each, and delivered them to their respective classrooms (unlike the lunch bag mix up that occurred the day before).  When I said to a teacher I wanted my children to be able to have a popsicle, I really meant I want them to know I am here to support them in a variety of ways.

Teachers hugged me and expressed their condolences for the loss of my partner to lung cancer two weeks prior.  Now that I am no longer struggling to simultaneously care for my ailing partner, my home, and my children, I get to have the energy to reach out and connect with others in new ways.  I talked with the third grade teacher about how it would be fun to team teach the group of 38 students together, and volunteered to grade papers at home.  (Before my first was one year old, I had the privilege of teaching third grade.)  Near the office, there was a great project underway with an artist in residence.  What a colorful, child-crafted scene!

So this week I returned to school with a cracker-eating toddler on my back to spread and coax charcoal grout into a permanent mural.  I found such delight in meeting new people, having small conversations with other adults, working without talking, caking my hands with black chunks, pouring buckets of black water outside in the sunshine, narrating my actions for my toddler, using my body to do things other than care for children and tackle mountains of paperwork.  Simple delights.  I got to volunteer in my children's school for the first time this week.  I look forward to an unfolding of relationships and new delights within each new day, and within this new-to-us community.

Whatever Place We Need to Be in this Moment

Dearest Readers,

So much has come to pass since my last entry.  My daughter's use of our computer for homework led to my inability to access the site for weeks.  In those weeks I had a lot to say.  And when I finally had access, my life was too hectic to make space for writing for myself here.

I spent the entire day with my three children yesterday, half of it in pajamas.  We cooked, brined a turkey, counted up 24 guests we will host for our Thanksgiving feast today, ran the dishwasher and washing machine three times each, ran to the bank and library, chatted with friends there, read a pile of children's books, and somewhat cleaned our home.  I also paid bills, called several agencies about account changes and inquiries, and sat down with my children for two meals.

All that productivity leaves me a bit of space to roll away in the wee hours of the morning from my breastfeeding-while-teething toddler.  Just for a few precious minutes, until my warm place in the bed begins to cool.

My beautiful, loving partner of 18 years died two weeks ago of lung cancer.  Only four months after diagnosis.  This horrible disease has left me the single parent of a then-13 month old, six year old, and nine year old.  I am so thankful for my partner's extraordinary siblings and cousins and the supportive community in which we find peace and respite.  I am thankful for the planning and generosity of our people.  I am thankful to get to host Thanksgiving in our home, to have help with cooking and playing and resting.

There is a hole within myself that my kind, young partner used to hold.  Now I try to fill that hole with mindfulness, gratitude, productivity, patience, and chocolate.  And I take the time to lay on the kitchen floor to sob and gasp and feel many emotions before my children arise for their day.

I am able to tackle the tasks my two-parent household could manage, with less grace and time for play.  We will slowly regain these two, though it will never be what it was.  My son talks about how we used to do things when Papa was around, how he wants things to be the same, yet nothing stays the same.  My friend with cancer says "We would give everything to go back to the day before this illness began."  This gets to the heart of my pain.

My partner had an amazing life.  With all my pushing to come up with a bucket list, he said he was perfectly content in his life to raise his children.  I always respected his perspective, even more so now.  Raising healthy, whole children in our world is a big job.  While I thought about one day learning to surf, my partner's focus was at the bull's eye of the matter.  What a focus.

Today I try to bring in that focus.  I increase my focus, my efficiency, and I try to hold onto what is most important: loving and caring for my children, teaching them the principles of a life well lived, nourishing our relationships with extended family and friends.

On this day created to sell turkey and an outdated story, I choose to give such great thanks for the blessings we have known, know now, and will know.  I am thankful for my ancestors who allowed me to be here.  I am thankful for this land with clean water on which to grow.  I am thankful for rising to the occasion in these extraordinary times with these extraordinary children.  I am thankful for this life I get to live and getting to share in this human adventure with my children.  I am thankful for being proactive in standing up for what I believe is most important: kindness, respect, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, soulfulness, and loving one another in our human family.  I am thankful for the ability to stand in a dark kitchen and write about where I am and what I love.  I am thankful for you reading these words and moving into a place of love and grace and gratitude with me, or to whatever place you need to be in this moment.  Such infinite blessings.