Death & Guilt & Moving On

It’s been three weeks.

Three weeks since life ended.

Three weeks since life resumed.

And I still haven’t figured out what to say.

When the process of dying is prolonged, it messes with a person. Not just the person dying but the people who care for him as well. Your emotions trick you and betray you and guilt you and sometimes overwhelm you.

Am I sad? I think so. Do I look it? I doubt it.

Do I miss my father-in-law? I think so. But not the recent him. The him from before. Except…

That smile. His smile over the last few weeks. It was so genuine, so simple, so pure. It lit up his face like a child. It would come on suddenly like a flash of lightning across his face. I couldn’t get enough of it. It stood in such stark contrast to his personality before he got sick. He was fairly negative during the time I knew him. Not toward me. He wasn’t unloving. But his outlook on the world was glass-half-empty.

And now the guilt sets in. How could you? How could you say anything bad at all?

But I don’t see it as bad. Just fact.

 

Guilt.

 

I think it surrounds so much of this process. Guilt at getting my husband for five days at the expense of his father staying in a nursing home that he didn’t want to be in. Knowing that his outlook took a nose-dive the day it was time to go. But overjoyed that I got my husband anyway.

Guilt at hoping for release. Guilt at getting impatient at the rebounds.

Guilt at slipping away to see my mom and leaving my husband there to tend to his dad. Guilt at seeing my naked father-in-law as I helped change sheets and wondering if he knew or cared.

Guilt at getting put out with my husband for not appreciating all that I was doing when he was living a life I can’t even imagine.

Guilt at not bursting into tears when I found out. Guilt at being a little upset that I had been woken up to receive the news.

Guilt at taking so long to write this blog.

Guilt at how quickly I resumed “normal life” after. Guilt at not recognizing that my husband was not resuming normal life nearly as well as I thought. Guilt at failing to notice his struggle.

 

The kids didn’t cry.

 

Jane, when prompted, said she had already come to terms with it. Daryl got still for a minute and then went about what he was doing. Hal matter-of-factly stated, “Two things. First, a good thing. Daddy is coming home. Second, bad. Poppy passed away.”

How is one supposed to act when the news you knew would come finally does? It’s not a surprise. The horror and anguish and anger and great sense of unfairness of it all has already been lived out. What is there to do besides nod and continue on. Say a prayer of… what? Thanksgiving? The suffering is over. Whose suffering? Sometimes I wonder who gets more of the release. The living or the dead.

 

I suppose the dead.

 

Now we have the house and the accounts and the notifying people and decisions, decisions, decisions. My husband has become a monotonous accountant droning on to me about the various options for dealing with this or that fiduciary obligation. I know he needs me to listen, to help him decide, to be present, but…

 

Life doesn’t stop.

 

We need to spend time there. At his father’s house. Sorting through papers and clothes and artwork and… stuff. But basketball. Destination Imagination. Church. Choir. School. Work. Meetings. Bells. Laundry. Dishes.

How can life feel on pause for two and a half months yet not pause now? How did all that stuff get done while we waited, while we were apart? Why is it all overwhelming us now? When do we fit in this settling of an estate?

Despite all these words, I still haven’t figured out what to say.

To you.

To people who express their condolences.

To my husband.

To my children.

To myself.

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A Tale to Remember

As we sat around the breakfast table, Poppy motioned to Hal to come sit in his lap.

“Tell me a story,” he said softly as the liquid Morphine began to kick in.

“I don’t know a story,” Hal attempted to demur.

After his initial attempts to not participate with “Once upon a time, the end” and his father’s admonitions that a story has a beginning, MIDDLE, and end, he offered up the following.

“Once upon a time, there was a booger and his mother died and he was very sad.”

I adopted a sad face while everyone around the table giggled nervously and Jane commented, “Well, that escalated quickly.”

“Ok, Jane. Now it’s your turn,” said Poppy.

“What?” she asked, confused by this break from how breakfast at Poppy’s would usually go. But these are not usual times for us. They are special and sad and stressful and precious end times.

“You take the story from here,” he said.

“Um, ok. So the booger lives in a nose and that’s organic so a new mother was grown out of the walls around it and they lived happily ever after.”

“Did you actually take Biology last year?” asked her dad.

“David,” said Poppy, impervious to the extraneous commentary surrounding the storytelling, “you pick it up now. It’s your turn.”

“Well, so Bob – that’s the booger’s name…”

“No!” cried Hal, now regretting that he hadn’t provided more details in his tale. “His name is Joe!”

“You didn’t name him,” admonished his dad. “You didn’t name him on your turn so David did.”

“Ok, so Bob,” continued David, “went on a journey to find a new nose to live in.”

“Was he a on a ship? Is he a Nasal Officer?” asked my husband.

“His name should be Casileous!” said Daryl.

“So he’s a Roman Nasal Officer?”

Everyone laughed until Poppy told us it wasn’t our turn and to let David continue. Jane’s boyfriend of a year, gamely continued.

“He went looking for the biggest nose he could find…”

“And then he found Mount Rushmore!” said Jane.

“Yes, he got to Mount Rushmore and crawled inside and was so happy.”

“Crazy Horse would be better. I think his nose is bigger,” said my husband. “You know, he came across an Italian booger named Luigi – he was a loogie…”

“Ok, it’s not your turn son. Daryl, take over the story.”

“Well, Bob shot out of the nose on a big sneeze and landed in a trashcan in an alley. And this guy came by and his name was Barry.”

Everyone groaned as Daryl’s obsession with the Flash was woven into the story.

“But he’s a life-size booger!” complained Hal, increasingly agitated yet fascinated at the deviations from his original idea.

“It was a Titan’s nose that he blew out of and it was a really big trashcan,” clarified Daryl. “He began to crawl out of the trashcan…”

My husband began contributing to the point that his dad told him to pick up the story.

“Well, Robert Casileous Luigi the Third, a Roman Nasal Officer did not crawl out of the trash can. He ate it. In one big bite. And he took on all the qualities of the trash and he was big and strong and impervious to Barry’s powers so it didn’t matter how fast the man was.”

“I’m going to make an injection here,” Poppy said. “Tell us about the knife.”

I was confused because I had no recollection of a knife being mentioned at all. But my husband, having spent all week with his sometimes very loopy father, didn’t miss a beat.

“It was large and green with a wide handle…”

“And it was made of porcelain,” I added.

“Yes! So it could pass through security and you could take it wherever you wanted. He used the knife to begin peeling an apple.”

He tried to pass the story off but was reprimanded by his dad who sternly informed him that he didn’t get to choose the transitions and he should continue.

“Well, he peeled the apple and shared it with all the creatures in the alley. The Daryls and the Hals and everyone else were happy.”

“Ok, your turn,” my ailing father-in-law said to me.

“Bob left the dark shade of the alley and entered the bright sunshine. His gelatinous skin began to sparkle.”

“Because he’s a vampire?” everyone asked.

“Yes, Bob is a vampire booger. And as he traveled along in the sunshine, it was very, very hot and he began to melt.”

Suddenly, I was hit by spraying liquid. My father-in-law, sitting next to me and listening intently to the story, had found a melting booger vampire extremely funny. Caught off-guard, he had just sprayed his coffee across the table – just like you see in the movies. Everyone began laughing as we cleaned up the mess.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just in all the different ways I’ve heard of vampires dying, melting has never been one of them. I wasn’t expecting that. Go on.”

“As Bob melted, he began to run down the street.”

“You mean run? Like with legs?” asked my husband.

“Ok, he oozed. As Bob melted, he oozed down the street and as streets curve down toward the curbs, he oozed to the curb and…”

“Not all streets do that,” he said.

“Well this one does. He oozed to the curb and then dripped down into the sewer where…”

“He met Donatello!” said Daryl.

“Or Splinter and he began to learn,” someone added.

“He dripped down into the sewer,” I repeated. “and plopped onto a wise rat. And as the effects of the sun wore off. Bob solidified on the rat and became a rat-shaped booger…”

“Who knew Kung Fu,” finished my husband.

“But what happened to Splinter?” asked Jane.

“He became part of Bob the super booger,” I said.

“He was assimilated,” added my husband.

The story ended as my father-in-law stood and thanked us. Later, he told my husband how much he loves “your family” before telling me he needed his oxygen and we worked to get him into his hospital bed.

He’s sleeping now. I can see him from where I sit. The rest of the family is outside, sanding and painting the handrails for the ramp we built last week, while I try to capture the details of our morning before I lose them in my tired, stressed-out, only half-functioning brain. Then I’ll fold his laundry and dispose of the rice grits he prepared but then decided not to eat.

You see, Poppy is dying. His cancer has won the battle on how long he gets to live. Now we are fighting instead to spend as much time with him as we can. We are fighting the cancer and the pain it causes him. We are fighting the pain medications and the mental confusion they cause. We are fighting against our physical and emotional limitations. We are fighting to make what time we have left matter.

Life has become simple. Yet harder than any period we’ve gone through so far. What is important and what is not is obvious. New pastor at church? There will be time enough to get to know him later. The tiles falling apart in our hall bathroom? Everyone can shower in the master bath. A fence for the dog? She’ll just have to spend time in the crate when we aren’t home, which is increasingly often. Our flailing budget? My responsibilities at church? Bell choir? Destination Imagination? Even work?

Those things are all important. But they can all wait. We are dealing with bigger and harder things. Can Poppy be by himself or does my husband need to stay again – like he did last week? Can we keep him safe and comfortable if we are in the next state over? How long will we spend in this state of being? How long can we hold up?

{Note: I wrote this on Sunday, October 30th but didn’t get to finish it and was always too tired to revisit it until now. The kind of tired that sleep doesn’t seem to erase. Of course, much has happened since then. Two weeks is a long time in the situation we find ourselves. Some of the questions I posed at the end of this post have been answered. Some still hang in the air. Maybe I’ll write more soon. Or maybe I’ll keep floating in an exhausted, tense haze.}

 

Underwear Memories

This past weekend, Daryl, the eleven year old, announced that he had no clean underwear.  We had recently removed the much-too-small oldest underwear from his supply and he was running short.  I had purchased some more but was saving them for that oh-so-favorite Christmas gift.  But now he was out.  I offered him the much-too-small pairs that he had been wearing just a week or two ago but apparently they were no longer acceptable.  And asking him to wear dirty underwear when I had ten clean pairs tucked away in my closet seemed petty and gross.

So I announced with as much enthusiasm as I could muster that he was going to get part of a Christmas present early!  Yay!  And then I opened the package of new underwear and extracted a pair.  Gosh, it looked so big!  I took it into him and he frowned at me.  “That’s going to be too big,” he said.

“Just try them,” I responded.

He did and they fit just fine.  As I folded laundry later that weekend, I thought about how hard it had been getting to tell Hal’s underwear apart from Daryl’s.  Now, as I folded my husband’s, I thought about how it was going to get harder to tell Daryl’s from Daddy’s.

And that reminded me of a major source of contention between my brother and our step-dad.  My brother had a really bad habit of stealing our step-dad’s underwear.  I can’t recall now whether he extracted them from the laundry before it got sorted or if he actually ventured into his room to steal them out of the drawers.  At any rate, he was always walking around in Bill’s underwear and Bill was always irritated.

So one Christmas, or maybe it was for Bill’s birthday, I hatched a plan.  I bought a package of underwear and stitched colorful “B”s on the fly of them.  Some were small, some were quite large.  All were brightly colored.  When he opened them, I triumphantly announced that now my brother could not claim that he didn’t know the underwear he was wearing was not his.  Problem solved.

It wasn’t too long before my brother was seen walking the house in underwear with bright “B”s stitched on the fly.

Today would have been Bill’s 66th birthday.  He left us nearly nine years ago when his cancer returned with a vengeance.  I’m pleased that memories like this one still return periodically and still make me smile.

Eggs

I’m responsible for providing the bread for visitors at church tomorrow so I checked supplies before heading out to drop Jane off at her Etiquette Dinner. As it so happened, the only carton of eggs in the fridge was full of boiled eggs, their little penciled B’s looking up at me when I peeked in the carton.

We live outside of town and the dinner was further outside of town. Oh, well. I’ll just have to stop at the convenience store and pay convenience prices for the eggs, I thought.

After dropping her off, I noticed my stomach starting to cramp. Just slightly. It had been painfully cramped all day yesterday. I started thinking about whether I should go to the doctor because this seemed to be happening too frequently. That made me begin to wonder what could be the cause. Diet? Some new food sensitivity? Something scarier?

Before long, I was having one of my full-blown dark fantasies. I was diagnosed with cancer, needing surgery and chemo. I started examining what the effects of such news would be. I wouldn’t be able to secure additional life insurance anymore. If I died, my husband wouldn’t have a lot to support him while he struggled to get on his feet. Even if I didn’t die, what would change?

I still don’t know if this imagination of mine is a good thing or bad. On the one hand, it allows me to explore how I would handle traumatic news without it actually happening. On the other hand, it chokes me up as if it is really happening and just seems kinda creepy.

At some point, I realized that I had driven past the convenience store. I pulled over and waited for the other cars to pass so I could turn around. Then I realized that I had not actually passed the convenience store. So once the road was clear, I resumed my journey.

I pulled into our driveway and verified Hal was still asleep in the backseat. I wondered if I could leave him sleeping without him being too scared when he woke up and was alone in the car. That reminded me that I had planned to leave him sleeping in the car while I ran into the store, which I had not done.

I circled out of the driveway, returned to the store, picked out a carton of eggs, and drove home without incident. Hal woke up when we got home so we entered the house together. I sat the carton on the counter and gathered the other ingredients. I fixed the batter and put the pan in the oven. I began cleanup.

Opening the door of the fridge, I looked for a spot to put the carton of eggs. There was room on the shelf under the carton of boiled eggs. I slid it into place. Right next to another carton of 12 raw eggs.

Perhaps it’s not cancer I need to worry about.

Your Laugh

Dear Papa Bill,

I thought about you a lot tonight. It was my first year to participate in Relay for Life since shortly after Hal was born. I lined up next to the track for the Survivor Walk and before the first survivor reached me, I was fighting back tears. You were a survivor for quite awhile but eventually cancer took you from us. I was 32. Jane was 5. Daryl was 2.

Mom moved on. She’s happy again. I think you’d be pleased to know that. It wasn’t an easy trial to pass through but she’s doing alright. She has a good man in her life. He knew you and respects your memory. Five years ago, they sold the house that we lived in all those years and moved across town.

I was pregnant with Hal and picked the move day to share that with her. It might not have been the best idea I’ve ever had. Telling her that news on such a fragile day. She burst into tears, which surprised me… until she explained why. It was you. You wouldn’t ever meet Hal. Wouldn’t hold him, smile at him, make him laugh.

That was one of the last things that you and I talked about, there in the hospital when we all knew it was the end. You wanted your grandchildren to remember you. You were pragmatic about it. You knew that Aaron’s kids and Daryl were too young.

And so it was that I found myself walking the track tonight, holding Daryl’s hand. He asked me why I was sad. I told him that I missed you and then he asked why.

“Because he was my Daddy,” I said.

“I thought Grandpa Ed was your Dad.”

“He was. And is. Papa Bill was my step-dad, but really he was my daddy too.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember him?” I held my breath. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Not really.” {long pause} “Wait. Didn’t he have like a little beard? And glasses! I remember his glasses.”

Maybe he just remembers you from pictures or maybe he really remembers you, but I’ll take the comfort he threw my way tonight.

Later on, I was walking the Luminaria Walk with Jane. We walked hand-in-hand as I thought about you. And Aunt Barbara. And the kids’ godmother. And other people. But mostly you.

I thought about how we were so close when I was little and how we had grown apart when I married. I thought about how you weren’t perfect, how I had struggled with that once I was old enough to see it. I thought about how much you loved me and Aaron and mom. I remembered when I scratched my initials and yours in the wallpaper of the bathroom with a plus sign in between and “= love 4ever” after it. And then I began to sob.

Jane wrapped her arm around me and we continued to walk in a silent hug. I was grateful for the dark that hid my tears but even more grateful for the beautiful, wonderful girl walking beside me. I battled inside about whether to ask her the same question I asked Daryl. I was scared to hear the response.

You see, when we talked that last time, you knew Daryl wouldn’t remember you. It hurt, I could tell, but you accepted it. It was vitally important to you, however, that Jane remember. You were confident that she was old enough. Your greatest fear was that she wouldn’t. You didn’t want to be forgotten.

She remembered you intensely for a very long time. She’d burst into tears at random moments and tell us that she missed her Papa Bill. For a couple of years, she was very sensitive about sad events. She cried watching Because of Winn-Dixie because it reminded her of losing you. Now, everyone cries at the end of Old Yeller, but when she cried, she was thinking of you.

Most everyone moves on, given enough time…especially if they are young, and eventually she did too. I can still hear her little preschool voice saying “Papa Bill” – she said “Bill” more like “Bea-ul”. But now, her life is full of many things. I didn’t know if she remembered you or not.

So I kept warring with myself on whether to ask her. To know that she did would warm my heart. To know that she didn’t would break it.

She let go of my shoulders and took my hand, mumbling an apology about it being too hot. I tentatively asked her if she remembered you.

“Barely,” she responded, with a careful look at my face. “I remember what he looked like. And I remember his laugh.”

She remembers your laugh. I think that if she was destined to remember only one thing, that was the best thing to remember. She remembers your laugh and I hope that’s enough. I love you and miss you.

Your daughter,