I have put together the obituary and the bio for my husband’s memorial service. At ten days, I have nothing else to say, no angst, no heart-rending pain, no fear, not overwhelming sorrow. After he died, I felt relieved, and as if things had gone rather well, considering. Considering the different experiences of the friend who cared for a husband with a growing brain tumor, seizures, and psychoses, and my mother-in-law, who watched her strong, big-as-life husband waste away, experience chronic nausea, the insertion of a throat breather, stomach tube filled with soupy cocktails for meals, over a span of four years.
A low dose of opioids, increased a bit in the last day, had made my husband’s discomfort bearable. He was sweet and tender still, and eating, though not much. There had been no nausea for months, and regular fluid draining procedures at the hospital had eased pressure in his abdomen. The friends who had been praying for 100% healing were asking for things more along the line of soul healing, peace, joy, and rest. When nights got more restless due to needing to help my husband with essential functions he couldn’t manage any more, the move to Hospice House had promised me some respite. I brought my overnight bag and sent for a pillow and blanket from home. His mother and step-father (who was also my husband’s second cousin and part of the family by blood) came to join me there for a visit. Then, hours after arriving, my husband started slipping away while his parents and I were out in the garden and the caregivers were adjusting his bedding and tucking him under a lovely homemade quilt. We came back in the room and the young woman that was left was holding his hand and quietly said, “He’s very close,” and we gathered around him just in time to see him take his last breaths. Then he was gone, mouth and eyes agape, his face a greenish yellow mask. All the natural emotions washed over us, and we wept, stroked his cold hands, looked at each other, startled. It was finished. Only an hour before I’d said, honey, if you do have to go, I want you to know that you gave us so much, and we know you love us so much, we love you so much, and we’ll be okay. They say that’s the permission a dying person sometimes waits for. Did the experience of being carried out by six men in a soft stretcher, four of them close family, as the beginning of the big transition? Was he looking toward the light off and on in the hours afterward, and is that why he kept reaching upward with one arm or another for no other apparent reason?
It was weird to be texting on my smart phone while my husband was going, but I wanted to get through to my kids, thinking there might be time for them to be there, if they wanted. Three of them came shortly after he was gone, the other being indisposed, but assuring me she had said her goodbyes. My oldest daughter and youngest son came first, took one look, felt their throat muscles tighten, and went out to the garden with overflowing eyes, where we soon joined them. I can’t remember it all, except that my fifteen-year old son seemed so grown up, both weeping and reaching out to others with hugs. After a while they said they wanted to go, and a little after my oldest son arrived, they left to find comfort at home in the August afternoon light. Sometime in there, I called a funeral director. We drifted away from the corpse, got some cookies and coffee from the family room, sat on the benches, and later were glad to see that a hospice worker had found a way to relax and close the jaw and eyelids of the body.
We were told to take as much time as we needed, and that they offered a washing ceremony, where we’d wash with warm lavender water to warm him up a little. His mother and I participated, and found it beautiful and meaningful. They there was the option of a leaving ceremony, so when the five of us were ready, we lined up across from the staff by the entrance and he was wheeled there, where three bells were rung–one representing his birth, one his life, and the last, his death. It was perfect, and afterward we agrees that it was a blessing to have experienced the death with the support and experience of hospice workers, rather than at home. Better for the kids, especially.
It’s been ten days. Many friends, family, and co-workers have texted or emailed, a few have called and visited, and I find myself wanting to put them at ease, reassure them we are okay, and I’m using the same lines over and over. How he hadn’t been ready to go the day before because he liked his family so much, and then seemed to hear my words the last time as permission to go. How he had been a privilege to care for, and no trouble at all, how smoothly his illness had progressed compared to what we expected, how we had been carried along by grace through the help and love of friends and family, how my husband was flooded over and over with joy, thankfulness, and love for his family and friends, how the children were handling it well, at peace and secure in the knowledge that they were loved by their dad and that they would be okay. How fortunate it was that his siblings and I as well as a close friend and his parents hadn’t been working and could spend lots of time with him.
I didn’t talk about heaven, or Jesus, or God—that’s isn’t lingo I can roll off comfortably these days. But I think my story was pretty easy to digest, my way of seeing things acceptable, a balance of rational and relational. It seemed to have the desired effect.
I came home from a pizza supper one evening around nine after celebrating my daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Found I had missed a visit from a former pastor, a friend of my husband’s, PR and his wife, BB, who had left the most amazing loaf of bread, still warm, crusty and chewy, and bag of granola on the table. I texted them and they responded that were walking the neighborhood and could come back, so I invited them to do so. They get me, I thought, thinking homemade bread and granola the perfect gift, and are even willing to visit a friend after dark, which most people over forty hesitate to do.
After greeting my girls in the kitchen, PR, BB and I we sat down in the living room. The were observing me, and quiet, waiting, and I wanted to put them at ease. So I went through the same phrases, about the good death, the privilege of being a caretaker, the grace and joy, how my garden was my therapy and it was good to keep busy between feeling worn out and sad. How I had appreciated the commitment of certain members of the local congregation to keep praying for my husband.
They listened. Between the lines (to my sub-tweets, as my daughter would say). I felt it. Then PR told me that when he had received my text about my husband’s death, his phone had tagged it text #116, which was the same number as the Psalm he had read to my husband when he’d visited. He said that during the visit he had started to pray, but when he had used the language “if it is your will [God]”, my husband had corrected him, and told him not to pray that way, but to ask for healing, straight up, to believe and claim healing. PR realized then, he told me, that his role was not what he had thought, to comfort and encourage a man who knew he was dying, but to follow lead in asking for something that he wanted, specific and in faith, which is how he then prayed. Okay, he thought.
We talked a little more about how my husband had not accepted that his cancer was progressing, and his attempts to convince me of his views, my desire to avoid discouraging arguments but speak honestly. I saw how it was a good thing to believe, to hope for, and use as a basis for dreaming about the future. Some days my husband spent his mornings in bed shopping for a boat, truck, and trailer, calling to ask the sellers questions. He used his phone’s speaker, so I listened in, and wondered if I should caution him, or the sellers. He also wanted me to enroll him and the kids in a Coast Guard navigation class, but I stalled, saying we’d wait until he could sit for more than a half hour at a time. It was an all day class.
Did I believe God could reverse the cancer and heal my husband? If there is a God, then yes, of course–one can be open to the seemingly impossible. Similar things had reportedly occurred. But I didn’t expect, and this was not the end of the world to me, even considering our children. Death happens, and isn’t the worst thing, as I wrote already (here and here). But something about the visit with this former PS and BB was making me face my thoughts and feelings on that.
PR asked if he could be of any assistance in the service, which we had decided to hold in a local church building. I told him of all the pastors I knew, he was the one I’d be most likely to ask. I knew the governing body of the congregation there had caused PR, as well as my husband, pain in the past. They had fired PR and two or more other pastors they felt they could not control, and discouraged my husband from any real preaching and teaching role, though he has always wanted to preach and is qualified (his sermon was “too intellectual,” they said). They had turned us down for official church membership because we didn’t want to redo our baptisms; alas, we’d been infants at the time they had been performed and had not consented. The reasons I decided to have the service there were, one, some old friends from the the healing prayer team there which my husband had helped start years ago had been praying ups a storm for months, and Mark had gone on Sundays when he could for prayer. Two, it was very close to our house. And three, we’d lost touch with our last congregation and apparently hadn’t been missed. During the first months of my husband’s illness, we’d join in the worship time at this local place, sometimes listen to the sermon (sometimes not), Mark would go to the prayer room, and I’d walk home along the creek trail. At first he went by himself. Although there were two nice new pastors, both of whom reached out and one of whom visited several times, it was the same old theology, the kind that leads to the reading of a Jesus quote, and twisting it to fit., without even realizing it, the bias was so ingrained. Our excuse to step out was that Mark couldn’t sit that long. They prayer time was the Mark’s thing, and he didn’t care where that was.
I am a widow now. I spread a different quilt on my bed, one that isn’t really wide enough to cover two but that my mom gave me and I love for its bright and warm colors. I packed away the pills, set the walker, oxygen machine, and wheelchair in the front entry for easy removal. I answered all the text and email condolences, put the cards and letters in a box, and worked on the plan for the service–food, timing, talks, slide show, letting everyone know. Between times, I worked in the garden, visited by hummingbirds and abuzz with honey- and bumblebees.