I'm sitting cross-legged on my therapist's couch 4 months after my husband's announcement that he wants a divorce when my therapist informs me that he thinks I should start dating again.
I had told myself and others that I was going to take time off to concentrate on myself for once. Between a husband and three boys, I didn't know who I was anymore. I just wanted to hang out with my girlfriends, drink martinis like a fish, and let the hair grow long on my legs if I wanted. I had even gone so far as to announce to my friends that I was going to take a full year off from any kind of relationship.
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I awoke this morning, thinking of my uncle. There is an old black and white photograph of my aunt and uncle hanging on their bedroom wall. It was taken on their wedding day, both of them young, my uncle the handsome Frenchman, my aunt, the beautiful, young bride. As I awoke, I was thinking that I wanted to talk to my aunt about getting a copy of the photo. I was hoping she could scan it for me.
Suddenly, something told me my uncle was gone.
I’m no psychic. As I’ve watched my uncle deteriorate over the past four months, there have been many times when I found myself bracing myself for the moment of his death, but this felt different and more imminent. Based on the information I had regarding his condition–on Tuesday, he had been diagnosed with pneumonia–I knew that this time the voice in my head was most likely correct.
A half an hour later the phone rang and I was told he was gone.
After trying to help with his care for two months, I was not there when he died. I am in Seattle for Christmas. I wanted to try to make Christmas as normal for my boys as possible, and, knowing my uncle’s condition, I had decided that if he was still with us on Monday, the 26th, I would drive to Eastern Washington to be with him.
My uncle never really liked Christmas very much. His father had passed away on Christmas. Somehow it seems appropriate that my uncle would make his exit before suffering through one…more…Christmas…holiday.
The photo above is from another wedding day. That’s my uncle and I rehearsing the hand-off from him to my groom. K2 is standing in for STBex during the rehearsal. I prefer to remember my uncle as he was here with his dry, sarcastic sense of humor, evident here as we’re all turned looking toward him and laughing.
I wish I had something more profound to say at this moment, but the words won’t come.
Adieu, mon cherie.
The past two months of my life are a blur. I’ve been back and forth to Eastern Washington to help with my uncle’s hospice care several times. I took a leave of absence from work, sent Thor to stay with friends, and asked my son to fend for himself. I would return to Seattle only to attend my MBA classes, catch up on personal business, and replenish the fridge so my son wouldn’t think I had completely abandoned him. It’s been physically and emotionally grueling.
In late October, minutes before I was about to leave Seattle, once again, the mail arrived. It was a package from Amazon. I tore it open, and inside, I found a book called “Final Gifts.” There was no note to indicate who had sent it, but it was about the hospice experience and communicating with the terminally ill.
I searched for a note and found nothing. I even threw the packaging away and went back to the garbage to dig it out to search for a note again, but found nothing that would tell me who had thought to send this to me.
Since it seemed extraordinarily timely and relative, I stuffed it in my bag and packed my car. It seemed like it would be immensely helpful, and, oddly, lighter reading than my “Capital Budgeting and Investment Analysis” textbook.
Each time I would return to Eastern Washington, even if it had only been a few days, I would find my uncle worse off than he had been when I left. I don’t know why this seemed like such a shock to me; even when I was with him, I could see the day-to-day progression in his cancer. I saw it in the amount of times he asked for morphine. I saw it in how easily he became exhausted and needed to sleep, and I saw it as numerous visitors came to see him, causing him to cry when they were gone, knowing that it would be the last time he would see them.
When he first came home from the hospice facility, we had a morning regime of breakfast, medications, newspaper, hike, always in that order. Most of the time, he would shuffle around the house in his slippers, but at around 11 a.m. every morning, he would let me know he was ready to go. He would put on his old hiking boots, jacket, and hat and want to go for a hike.
As always, I let him dictate where and how far we would go. Surprisingly, with his pain under control, he had a lot more energy than he had when he was in the hospice facility. The first time we went out, I asked, “Do you want to take your walker, just in case.”
He’s a pretty proud guy, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t want the neighbors to see him pushing a walker up and down the street.
The first day, we went around the block, and he was soon exhausted. I felt relieved that we didn’t go too far, because I was concerned about him falling or having the pain break through his medications. The next day we went a little farther, and the next day, the same thing. Each day, we progressed until we were walking to where the sidewalk ended at the end of a nearby street, and then, walking along a natural trail, through the sand, behind the housing development he lives in. We would end up back in the development, a few blocks away from his house.
He hated being cooped up in the house and wanted to get out every day, so our routine soon looked like this: breakfast, medications, newspaper, hike, morphine, nap, lunch, golf channel, more medications, another nap, nightly news, dinner, more medications, and finally, bedtime.
I started to sleep with a baby monitor in my room, so I could hear him if he got up in the middle of the night.
It was painful each time I had to leave and come back to Seattle, and one day during our hike, I said, “I hate leaving. Every time I leave and come back, you’re worse,” and I started to cry. My uncle reached for my hand and he too started to cry. We walked like that in silence for several minutes. These are the moments, the conversation, the gifts that nobody will be able to take away from me from this experience.
Sometimes we would just sit in silence. Other times, he would tell me stories from when he and my aunt lived in Cameroon, South Africa, or Alaska. I guess in a way, he was completing a survey of his life. He had done a lot over the years. On one trip, he sent me home with the horns of a Central African Giant Eland, ranked 8th in the world. He had shot it on safari in 1962, and the next day, over the bucket of water that he was soaking the horns in, proposed to my aunt. I jokingly let him know that the scenario did not seem very romantic.
“I suppose you were letting her know you could provide for her, huh?”
The neighbor gave him a hard time about trying to bag two prizes in two days. (Ironically, in later years he had become opposed to the idea of safaris.)
He talked about teaching himself Swahili, so he could one day hike Kilimanjaro. He had given up the idea when my aunt got sick several years ago, and regretted that he never got to go.
By my fourth trip to visit him, he could no longer go out for our long walks.
Increasingly, he talked about hiking Badger Mountain, and said that he wanted to leave with me and go hike Tiger Mountain one more time. I could imagine him hiking up and never coming down. This is where the book, “Final Gifts,” was useful. The book talks about how, as people near death, they often talk about doing things that involve going somewhere or doing something like they did in life. Basically, my uncle knew he was too weak to hike Tiger Mountain, but he was preparing for a journey.
One day my uncle said, “Tomorrow I think we should hike Badger Mountain.”
My aunt and cousin didn’t get it, saying, “Now, you know you can’t go hiking.”
The effect on me, having read the book, was to consider that the following day perhaps he would go on his journey and not come back. Whenever he said these things I would go through a little checklist in my brain, making sure there was nothing left unsaid that I still wanted to tell him. Plus, it was an extra reminder to tell I love him.
My uncle is really the first person with a terminal illness to whom I have been extremely close. Helping him through this transition has been some of the most difficult work I have ever done, but, I have to say, in a strange way, perhaps it has also been the most rewarding. It has taught me a lot about myself and my capacity to love and care for someone. There are only a handful of other, similar milestones in my life, the births of my 3 children and my marriage.
I am back in Seattle once again. I have been back since the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My uncle had told me, “Bring the boys. I want to see them, and then that will be the last time.” “Final Gifts” explains that oftentimes people will signal the timing of their death, and I don’t expect my uncle to be with us at Christmastime. I think he knows. He told the neighbor the other day that he was counting the days. I could be wrong, the doctors didn’t even think he would make it to Halloween, but for some reason, I feel an intense urgency to finish this post before he passes.
Some things I’ve learned over the past two months:
- Don’t dismiss the messages of the dying as “chemo-brain” or the effects of the medications. Pay attention to everything the dying person says. There are important messages and lessons there.
- If you don’t understand, don’t dismiss. Ask open-ended questions.
- Sometimes silence is the best gift you can give. You don’t have to have an answer for everything.
- Touch communicates much more than words.
- Leave nothing important unsaid.
Yesterday, fall quarter ended. I have two more quarters left in my MBA. While I’m in Seattle, I can’t visit with my uncle. He can no longer finish his sentences and therefore, has a hard time communicating over the phone. I’m grateful for the precious time I’ve spent with him over the past two months. Although difficult, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And, one final thing I learned…
Over the past month and a half since the book arrived, I have asked all of the usual suspects, and hadn’t found the sender until last Thursday. Thank you, ElderBaud, for such a tremendous gift.
“Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” – Rossiter Worthington Raymond, 1840-1918