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Category Archives: Places & Experiences

It’s all in the air, except for the chocolate

I’ve put my fall color quilt on the bed–the white with yellow and soft cherry and lime given to me by my mother appeared garish in the golden fall afternoons and rainy mornings, instead of light and cheerful.The rust, rose, and blue green one is sedate and classy, if somewhat Victorian. It was made by my mother-in-law. Our home is blessed with many quilts, several for each person to take when they move.

Also paintings. My father just sent two more, one for each daughter, Newfoundland seascapes. I have more artwork than walls, now. But I may change that, as I have designed some a remodel that would add a porch, a dining bump-out, and a two-story flex room/writing loft expansion. Each will have walls.

Perhaps this is a distraction from my grieving process, but the idea is a very old one in some form, at least fifteen years on hold, and revived because it’s about time, and I need not have anyone’s approval any more. I picture a comfortable chair, wood desk, a view of the garden, and prisms cutting the morning light into rainbows all over the walls. It has been a back burner sadness that I have not had the space to be materially creative and have had no upstairs room. I could take out my sewing machines, card designs, art supplies, even use the space as a place to refresh my guitar skills and repertoire.

That last idea has also been smoldering, now a little more warmly; this afternoon I went to the gig of a teacher colleague at a local tap house. He has been trying to get me to play more. My ukulele is under my desk, but my guitar is at home, happily now regularly played by my oldest daughter, who needed only a few basic lessons to get learning. When I hear performances, especially of someone on a small stage, it motivates me to get back singing and playing again, for a goal, say, of doing a small gig with a few friends in the same little local festival next year. Sharing something people enjoy, facing fear, getting attention, making my children proud, improving my skills, all good reasons. The main obstacle, it seems, is my shyness about playing at home–I feel it so deeply, when I sing and don’t want to be that vulnerable around my own family. Strange. I want to stretch out the berry season as long as possible, can hardly bear to have it end, though my freezer is well stocked.

My days are so full, long hours I work. Early every morning I grind and press coffee, dish up granola, my special recipe, and yogurt, with walnuts, dried fruit, and raspberries from the yard. If necessary I go with a flashlight and bucket in the dark to pick enough, even though I am aware that they contain a significant proportion of fruit fly eggs and larvae. If they don’t taste any different or have any negative health effects, I don’t care–they are a cheap protein source, is all.

I fill a canning jar with soy milk and espresso, grab a container of leftovers for lunch, load up my arms and tuck everything out into my Nissan Leaf, unplug and go, heating the steering wheel and my seat against the foggy chill. Exiting off the freeway and making my way across the north edge of town, I roll along the straight road at 53 mph, letting the V8 pickup trucks roar by me on the straightaways and whipping by them at the roundabouts. The pheromones of their young, male drivers bounced uselessly off my side windows as I pass. Mist rises up off the corn stubble, with the look of holy spirits, and the aroma of fermented cow manure.

I finished my second professional learning day training today, having made a good impression, I feel, on my colleagues in the district, in the discussions about improving student learning. I was aware that I was mainly aiming my efforts at the most interesting and intelligent men in the room. I am a little needy, wanting attention, I told my daughter on our night walk down to the grocery store to buy chocolate and wine. I added that it helped that she and her sister had assured me that I looked really good for my age. I know dating is not right for me now, I said, that it would just be a distraction, but it seemed to be enough to imagine that I was turning heads with my cuteness, astuteness, and, no doubt, pheromones.

The wine we bought was awful, even mixed with lemon and soda. Good chocolate, though. “Down with Love,” I declared. We had watched the movie together, a favorite of my husband and mine, just the other week–the chocolate reference was not lost on her. She too is between satisfying romantic relationships, although she prefers a different brand of chocolate.

 

 

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A podcast Idea: Two old friends reunited

A few years ago I tried to look up an old college friend, AK, searched online and came upon her husband’s obituary. She lost him to cancer, she and their four children about the ages of our four. I had spoken to her only a few times and exchanged a few letters since their wedding a year after ours, and then, flash! So much living and then his death, and life still goes on. What must that be like, to lose one’s partner and have to raise children alone. Though she has a loving and large family around to lean on.

The obituary was posted as a closing piece on his blog. It was correct and appropriate, befitting his role as Anglican priest, but did not remind me of the young man I’d known. But who was he, really, and who am I to say the “real” JW was just that laughing, fun-loving curly-headed housemate that kept the heat too high in his basement bedroom and came up for food and laughter now and then. He was highly intelligent, Oxford classics scholar material for sure, but I was surprised when I heard he was going for the priesthood. The college we attended had full high Anglican chapel services several times a day, complete with fat priest who spoke with an imitation English accent while waving the incense thingamajig solemnly. JW had a beautiful, deep speaking and singing voice, though I know he would never use it to put on airs. Even when intoning on a serious subject, with us it always seemed to be a prelude to a crackup or digression into a Monty Python skit. He’d double up his spider-thin body and shake helplessly with laughter when we got going on this or that imitation or parody. Being goofy was such an important part of stress relief during exams and through that long, dark, slushy winter. For some reason we got into sound plays, which I’d record on cassette, complete with sound effects and voices. I found a recording which I plan to send to the family, featuring both JW and me doing a skit, and AK and me interviewing late night party lingerers about life, the universe, and not much of anything. We lit a fire in the fireplace of our gigantic Victorian living room, which had so little furniture, served peanuts in the shell, allowing the guests to throw the husks on the floor to add crunch to our movements.

AK, proper and devout, the oldest of five and by all accounts the responsible one, with a love of honest engagement, deep conversations, the occasional glass of wine, a commitment to seek God and follow Jesus, and a willingness to dance up a storm with me when the weekend came. She was ever kind and patient with me, accepting of my lack of orthodoxy, always finding something valuable in my attempts to articulate meaning, laughing at my jokes, praying for me a good deal more for me than she let on, I’m sure, as I stumbled through relationships and tried to stay on track with my studies and life. I strayed a lot, and she became a kind of shepherdess to me, by coming into my pastures instead of trying to hook me into hers. She was a true friend to me. We kept in touch after graduating, visited few times, and she was maid of honor at my wedding. I soon got the invitation to her wedding, and it’s a mark of my relational near sightedness that I hadn’t seen the match coming between her and JW, though I knew there was something there at times between them. I guess I didn’t listen very well, just wrote him off as the funnest kind of friend but not the marrying kind. Which worked out well for all of us anyway. JW and I made goofy tape recordings, he being the natural comic and I goading him on and doing sound effects, and during the other hours she and he were falling in love.

We drove over the mountains with our baby son to attend the wedding. I knew it would be a busy day, and I do hate to be in the way, so I didn’t get in touch with AK or her family. It was a lovely wedding–everyone was radiant and the flowers and homily and setting were superb, lots of guests from the upper echelon, her three lovely sisters as bridesmaids and brother ans groomsman, and was that the youngest sister with the buzz cut? Afterward we went the few blocks to the hall where the invitation-only reception was to take place–such an elegant room of well appointed tables, each with shining tableware and printed name cards. We went along the first edge reading these, and suddenly I was filled with self doubt and anticipated humiliation as I pictured not finding our names anywhere and having to slink away. Meanwhile was thinking I’m not dressed nice enough, and I don’t belong here, and I got a lump in my throat and dragged my husband out protesting and told him I didn’t think we were even invited–it was invitation only and I didn’t have one with me, and let’s get out of here, and let’s just go to the evening get together at the family’s house. None of his protests would budge me, nor his offer to go scouting for our names.

This is a hard memory for me, as is the memory of our conversation with AK that evening as she greeted us with tears of welcome, wondering where we had been. I explained my confusion, and saw that it upset her–she said how could I think we weren’t invited–I was one of her most honored guests. I was so embarrassed, and my husband was saying I told you so, and AK had been planning to say a few words about our friendship.

I don’t know why, but I get the wrong idea lots of times about my role in others’ lives, sometimes feeling so much an outsider, other times not noticing I am being welcomed in. So I err on the side of staying out of the way, assuming I’m not wanted or important, and would only be in the way. A holdover from really being in the way as a middle child, my mother always caring for younger ones and older ones doing their own things, my father being mobbed by everyone when he got home and just wanting to have a quite read or at least visit with one at a time.

In academics, topical discussions, or my profession, it’s different—I go boldly and feel confident, knowing my role and prerequisite skills, forgiving myself when I mess up, and feeling I have a reasonably balanced sense of ego. In friendships it’s different, and it takes me a long time to feel secure, and I find it difficult to do the work I need to do to maintain friendships from my end. So you see why all of my true friends have a lot of patience, and don’t assume that because I haven’t said anything to them in months that I do not value them. I really have to work on this fear of rejection or marginalization. Comes out most in informal group settings, when I really don’t know who I want to be in relation to, well, so many unique individuals, and why might what I’d say to one be appropriate for another? I’m not much good an breaking ice or small talk either, and tend to get impatient when no one broaches anything complex or debatable or asks sincere questions about things they’d like to learn. If most of my local family had any taste for alcohol and I enjoyed the occasional social drink, I suppose I’d still be using alcohol on occasion to help me with my social inhibitions, as I did in my first few years of college. Then I rededicated my life to God, and it became preferable to “get drunk on the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit may be empowering, but doesn’t make up for a lack of social graces.

I tried again to reach her this moth, after the death of my husband, and as I waited to see if she’d get the email I sent to what seemed to still be her place of work, I reflected on the similarity of our places in life–both of us teachers, both with fours children grown or almost grown, having lost husbands to cancer. My mind wandered into the prospect of going to visit her in Alberta next summer and taking a trip together, and making our conversations in to a podcast. Because along with the similar experiences, I was sure that there would be some very different points of view to discuss. I had given up efforts to be religious, while I was sure she had not. What would she think of that?

About a week later she replied, with comfort and sweetness, and a religious take on how I could best orient myself in the grieving process. I did not relate, though the words were very familiar. Jesus, well acquainted with grief. But his grief, I think wasn’t about loved ones dying to much as powerful people blocking others’ path to God. I guess we’d talk about that in the podcast.

But we’d start with our childhoods—a study in certain similarities and other contrast. Then college, same there. Then marrying and raising children, teaching, and having our husbands die. I think it could be an interesting show, and I might just propose it.

 
 

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Temptations, Resolutions

I shall address this to you, DD, because I need to feel I am writing to a woman friend this time, and you have proved to be someone who allows our friendship to survive, even thrive, on truth telling. Like when I told you that I am filled with frivolous, selfish desires after the death of my husband, rather than weighty, somber pearls of wisdom won through suffering. How although I had been growing through the demands of loving service, now, with the whole horizon there open before me, and no one of whom to ask leave, I feel giddy, and eager to plunge into any number of endeavors. Such as choosing my home decor, expanding the garden, traveling, organizing my business and publication ideas, and hosting bonfires with strung lights and guitar playing.

I told you I want to keep growing, not descend into a second adolescence. So help me God, I said, I might need to suffer more, because other than mourning my husband, whom I loved, and mourning for our children, who will no longer have a father, I have it easy. He provided well for us, I have a meaningful job that suits me, a nice little house, good friends, family, and interesting prospects. I have lots of time, relatively, to write, could join a book or writer’s group, could do my Master’s degree, could try that business dream.

You told me I could do no wrong, because I am the grieving widow. Though I appreciated the grace extended, I objected on the basis that one’s duty is always to consider others, even in difficult circumstances. No excuses. I made the same argument to a friend who told my husband to disregard others’ needs and focus on his own as a man with a terminal diagnosis. I told him he still had to be nice, at least in order get better care. People have to feel appreciated. He accepted that, as it fit into his life-long drive to grow and become more like Christ. He had visitor after visitor, and nurses and physicians assistants, go away feeling appreciated and encouraged. They told me so. It was a pleasure and an privilege to be his caregiver in the last months, he was so tender and kind.

I want to honor Mark’s memory, spend time properly aware of the loss of his life with us, and the hope that he is continuing some kind of even more meaningful existence in another dimension. I sense he has been lingering in some way with the family he loves, and even checking on us. In my case, through visitations from hummingbirds, and in dreams. My daughter also dreams in that way.

I have been warned that grief takes many forms and happens on different time tables, and the fact that I feel peace, calm, and even happiness, not despair, depression, anger, or a sense of loss and loneliness, does not mean something more intense won’t arise in my emotions and/or body. I want to stay in tune, and allow the process to unfold, as well as be a support to my kids as they walk this road.

So I will do my best to resist these worldly temptations. I asked my kids to keep an eye on me in case I move to make any big decisions this year, as some kind of distraction, release, or suppression of feelings. Though I release myself to be creative with my hands and words on a small scale, to stay physically fit, to build my relationships, to have fun with my kids and extended family.

Early on, I researched houses I could buy and fix up, ways I could add on to my house, and car sales (I would trade in two for one to consolidate–maybe a small truck or VW Westfalia for the trips I wanted to take?). I bought a few new clothes. I started having a nightcap some evenings. I watched two to three episodes of Grand Hotel a night in bed. And I looked up my first love on FaceBook. He’s still the same handsome, smiling guy I fell in love with my second year of college.

I was surprised at myself—usually, in my own estimation, a level headed person. It’s not that I have felt needy; it’s been a rich time of connection with friends, and with my husband, albeit in a new way. He and I related more as friends, without the pressure of other duties. And it was a relief, not a disappointment, to not be pursued sexually by him for a while. A story related to that: He was in his wheelchair in preparation for going to the hospital for a procedure, and I was bent down putting his slippers on, and showing a lot of my cleavage (such as  it is). His cancer was advanced month, and his high potassium levels were beginning to cause some delirium and odd thought patterns. As he sat, He looked down my top, as he had always done, but this time said, “I don’t know what it was about breasts–why they were so popular…”. And we shared a laugh. He also said, “Women smell so nice.”

I’ll work, come home at a reasonable time, take it easy. See how things go, behave myself. I do feel the seasons changing, and that things will be getting stormy soon.

 

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“There are no words…” is not a comfort to me, if I take it literally.

I’m getting a lot of words drafted, but not ready to post any of it, so just a few: My husband died a month ago. We are processing, as we were when he got his diagnosis seven months ago–yes, it was a gradual thing, though not drawn out. His goodbye week was very precious, his death was peaceful and attended by me and his parents. It happened hours after we had him transported to our hospice house, where I was to stay with him and get some rest while he was attended by skilled workers. He was eating and drinking until the last day, though and enjoying time with his loved ones. He started slipping away while we were in the garden. He had reassurances from me that we all loved him a whole lot and that we all knew he loved us a whole lot, and that he’d given us a tremendous lot. And that we’d be okay, and understood if he had to go soon. We wept, comforted each other, and then bathed him and said farewell to his remains. They are now  only ash minerals, in a heavy box by my bed.

We his family planned the memorial service and spoke about him, prayed, reflected, sang Be Thou My Vision, range a bell three times, projected a slide show. Lots of friends helped, as they had been doing in the previous months. My house is full of flowers and cards, and my freezer is full of food. The sweet peas outside our bedroom window that provided fragrant bouquets all summer are going to seed, producing a thousandfold what I planted.

One of the emails I received back from the death announcement I sent out read, “There are no words.” This struck me as standard polite lies. How the hell would I be able to gone if there really were no words?

But I thank you for your patience while I arrange them carefully.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2018 in Places & Experiences, Relationships

 

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The man, the legendary deceased, healed in spirit if not in body, and the tearfully thankful, grieving widow

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 bad and sent for a pillow and blanket from home. 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. 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 while my husband was going, but I wanted to get through to my kids. Three of them came shortly after, the other being indisposed, she assuring me she had said her goodbyes. My oldest daughter and youngest son came first, took one look and went out to the garden, where we joined them. I can’t remember it all, except that my youngest son was great, both weeping and reaching out to others with hugs. After a while they said they wanted to go home, and a little after my oldest son arrived, they left. Sometime in there I called a funeral director. We got some cookies and coffee from the family room, sat on the benches, and were glad to see that a hospice worker had fond 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, 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.

 

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Bereavement can be a gradual thing

Is this a frog in a slowly heating pot scenario? If so, ithat’s not always a bad thing. When there’s a necessity of radical change to avert disaster, such as climate change, the frog dies a stupid death. But if something has to die, if death is coming slowly closer just because it’s natural and inevitable, well then, let’s not have any shocks along the way; let’s splash around, enjoy the view through the beaker glass, and hardly feel those nerves as they cook and shut down.

Sometimes I stand back and observe myself in action, amazed. I putter in the kitchen or garden, joke with one of my kids, get irritated at a mess on the counter, post a photo online, respond to my husband calling, plunk down to chat with him, check to see whether he wants his pain meds on time, rub some essential oil onto his tailbone, all normal-like. There I am, in the moment, as if nothing unusual is going on. I receive visitors and care givers, arrange hospital visits, make up to-do and grocery lists, take my son to drum lessons, and go to bed with my husband at night. We adjust without noticing to an infinitesimally shifted normal each day. It only seems shocking and surreal if we compare our life now to a few short months ago, when my husband weighed sixty pounds more and was concerned with work, the games on TV, the newest iPhone, and trying to get the kids out skiing more, wondering how our oldest was doing in his final year of college. And staying awake to welcome me into bed at night with more than a bony, hand extended hand and a sleepy “I love you” before dropping off to a fitful sleep.

The last few days the neighbors and we have been painting our new shared fence, the one that my husband built last year, with sealer. I’m thankful the neighbor is driving this project—I wouldn’t have had the gumption, but do enjoy seeing the progress and being able to offer our youngest son some paid work. Other projects will be picked up in the wake of this—finishing the top of the new retaining wall my husband built, improving the soil by the fence, and planting some nice shrubs and flowers–some daisies, foxgloves, currant bushes, maybe strawberries to hang down by the hot tub my husband installed less than a year ago. There are the trees to prune, and next year’s…next year’s compost pile to layer up. Berries to freeze for the new year, canning and picking for the future. The future will come, and be full of more ordinary moments. Right?

Things will change soon, though–the water temperature will jump and we’ll feel it. My husband’s body continues to lose the battle to pancreatic cancer, despite his belief that he is getting better. I’m trying to prepare, trying to help the kids, and my husband, prepare, but it’s my first time with this, and I don’t know what I don’t know. I try to learn as much as I can, stay level headed, ’cause that’s what I do, as an Enneagram Type 5, but there’s no way to preview what’s about to happen, when, how quickly, or how each of us–wife, children, parents, siblings, and friends, will go through our grieving process.

 

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Upsize, same-size, downsize

When tech was bubbling, our software business was there in a minor way, my husband contracting for a billionaire who wanted his MP3 and image collections database set up and made accessible from his various homes and yachts, and was willing to hire a whole team and pay well. We bought land then and paid off our “starter” house in town, a 1200 square foot rancher plus garage. Not a dream home, but acceptable, and affordable. We invested not in the stock market, thank heaven, but in land–our own twenty acres, the dream property that satisfied my husband’s longing for woods and mountains and water view, and mine for enough light for a garden and lots of cool places to explore with the kids.We got to work on it right away–smoothed the driveway, cut down alders and blackberry vines (after harvest), scraped away a ledge for the garden, planted and watered it from the dusty well, planted miniature daffodils around an old willow, and fenced the garden to try to keep out deer. Then we planted apple trees, killed a porcupine that was devouring them, and skinned it at midnight back at the house, me holding the light and giving directions as a former novice trapper. I don’t recommend learning this skill on a porcupine.

We worked on a house design, a modified mirror-image of one we found in a magazine. It was to be a homeschooling family house with room for crafts, a shop, lots of light. But it always ended up too big, too overwhelming to tackle, and too much of a leap, seemingly, into exclusivity, and the promise of an enormous tax bill once the land was changed from woodlot to view residential status. I couldn’t imagine myself living such a privileged existence anyway. And in trying to combine our ideas and preferences, we kept getting stressed and stuck. One wanted a soaring ceiling, one wanted a cozy height. One wanted a huge shop, the other a small one. One wanted rooms for every type of activity, the other didn’t wanted to multi-use to cut down on housekeeping. And we both cared about wood finishes, colors, styles, and furnishings, so even that couldn’t be divided and conquered. The discussion was taking too much, time, too much energy, and was generating too much conflict. We had children to raise, other things to accomplish, so we shelved the house plans. We didn’t have time and mental space, as my husband was commuting to the city and I was raising the four kids, homeschooling, keeping the books. It was a very busy, absorbing time without extra projects.

The property sat idle, produced trees, thistles, deer, butterflies and spring peepers faithfully. We’d go now and then, drawing in our breath at the beauty and peacefulness—a fern-dressed creek hidden in the gorge at the back, the aroma of live woods, at the view–southwest over the Puget Sound, but it never did feel like the right time to build our house. So we just camped there when we could, set up a big tent, a repurposed sink to wash up, solar shower, gas barbecue, even electricity for the cooler. The kids ran around, dug miniature rivers and lakes, carved sticks, built forts, caught lizards and snakes and hunted for shed antlers and fossils. We had all their birthday parties there, with Capture the Flag, water fights, an evening campfire and sometimes tent camping. kids running around in the woods, up and down the gravel lane between tall alders and arched blackberry brambles. The parents visited around the food tables and campfire, and sometimes we camped around in various clearings. We mowed now and then, tried to keep back some of the brambles, and left it houseless (though we did pour a foundation for a cabin above the main site).

A neighboring property sprouted a castle-like house, complete with emerald lawn, tidy ferns, picnic park. The neighborhood gate opened and closed to its various coded inputs, we paid our dues to help with road maintenance, but went to the property less and less. We started looking for an already built house elsewhere in the county, but everything we both liked, and these were few, and overpriced, because it was the Bubble. Then tech slowed down, and instead of investing in overpriced real estate, we banked on our savings for a two and a half year study sabbatical overseas. The property would be a fun place to visit, and a long term investment to atone for low retirement savings. It grew cedars and regrew alders where we were away. for another few years while we were away

We came back rich with experiences, but financially broke–more than broke, as the economy continued to flag, and we had little work. We chose to resettle in our same town instead of closer to urban-based tech work, and I was to return to teaching. But my credentials were outdated and I had no recent references, and responsibilities at home were still heavy, our kids adjusting to life back in the states, to public school, and getting involved in athletics, music lessons. Plus our house had been water damaged and needed updating, so when my husband got work, extra cash went into the remodel, which we did mostly ourselves, and so it took a long time. We couldn’t afford to add on, so reconfigured the inside and set up a bedroom in the garage for two of the kids. Smaller than our overseas apartment had been, it was tight with six of us; there was tension, our oldest two moving into adolescence and wanting more space we didn’t have. A psychiatrist friend mentioned research on rodents kept in cramped quarters.

We pressed on to finish the fix-up so we could upsize, but to that rare entity, a house with arable land on the south side. Prices were down–in some cases to almost half. But so was our income, we couldn’t get a loan because of our years off work, and savings were non-existent. We’d even dipped into retirement and borrowed from family on both sides (and paid a penalty).

The castle next to our dream property, one our neighbors there built on spec, sold for several million. We met with the neighborhood association for the first time, all very nice people, but not the type of cultural experience I wanted for us–I felt like an oddball among such wealthy and semi-retired people with no children at home. I foresaw feeling awkward about sharing my home with friends because of my obvious privilege, rather than enjoyment of the perks of the gated life. I hated the message of the gate, though I understood its usefulness- don’t explore, camp, dump garbage here; we paid for this spot. And I could see myself being lonely way out there, especially as the kids started to go on their ways to university, college, work, travels. I’d miss my runs on the trails, walks down to the local coffee shops, random encounters with neighbors and friends living close by. And access to the pool was so easy for the kids and me. The prime time for a happy family home in the woods had passed.

We took up the possibility of adding on to our little house instead of buying another one. I used CAD to design a two bedroom, one bath addition with cozy library, my husband got ready to dig the hole for the slab, and then suddenly we dropped that plan too. We’d go back to house hunting, he decided–cheaper overall, and less hassle, and we’d built up some savings and a better income history. We went to open houses, had our realtor keep his eyes open, and searched online and across the county by car in our spare time for what turned out to be another impossible dream– a house on property that we could afford, that we both liked, and that was in the right spot to commute to the city and had a neighborhood I felt I could relate to. I brought my husband to the table three times to make low ball offers on fixer-uppers he thought were acceptable and I saw some magic in, but over a span of about five years, nothing. Instead, I was expanding my garden, with my husband’s help, no longer willing to wait for the dream garden property, under the guise of improving the attractions of out little place to future buyers. People are into raised beds and mature fruit trees, I reasoned. But in my heart, these became MY apple trees, MY blueberry bushes, and I was ready to settle down. We had lived in the place almost twenty years, after all, way past the average of seven before up sizing. Yes, it was a tighter fir than ever, and our teens were going out a lot to socialize in friends’ houses, struggling with covetousness at times, or finding their personal devices useful in making them feel spaced out.

The other factor was two were just about ready to head off to college, and the years would fly by, and soon we’d be empty nesters. Sure enough, in two years, we had some more space. Not to use for new purposes, because the bedrooms had to be kept, but relational space, at least. It wouldn’t be long, I said, and our house would be just the right size again, so I held the line. My husband, tractor parked in front of the Subaru in the driveway, still longed for a mini-farm. My longing was fading, along with my sense of the likelihood of our finding the place, and as my attachment to my nurtured soil, fruiting young trees, and plans for a rainwater harvesting system and bike shed grew. I quietly turned over another foot of lawn’s edge to convert to vegetables. My husband’s protest was out of habit only–his vision of playing touch football and croquet with the kids on an expanse of green lawn was fading. He even seemed to like my ideas for a writing studio/office extension on the tool shed. We replaced most of the fence, which was falling down, and build a retaining wall in the process, although my husband chose to view that as improving sales appeal. But then, I admitted that I would be okay with getting a hot tub–something he’d wanted long ago but we’d decided wan’t necessary, as the kids could swim at the pool down the road, and what time did we have in those days to hide away in a spa, anyway? Now the kids were grown, and they could enjoy it with us, or with their friends, and we had mid-life stresses to soak out. We installed oneon the windowless side of the house in a corner of the fenced area, and the house didn’t feel too small at all any more. The hot tub became our away room.

As it turned out, we all needed that spa. Not so much as a place to hang out together, but to get away and de-stress, calm down, process feelings, and shed tears. In the process of setting up the hot tub, my husband we fighting some kind of gut flue, it seemed, that didn’t o away. An herbal cleanse made it worse. There was something wrong. He finished installing the hot tub,  but was feeling so bad, with bloating, nausea, and sensitivity to smells, he didn’t want to try out the steaming, bubbling waters in case the bromine made him gag. During the process of seeking answers about his condition, cancer was suspected, and then it was confirmed though various scans and biopsies that he had through the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Expected survival of three to six months. He started a super-healthy diet, and started a few medications, decided to stay away from the even greater discomforts, and uselessness for cure, of chemo. He also stayed out of the hut tub. For the rest of us, except my oldest son, who was away at college, it became our refuge. A soak in the steaming water that winter, looking up at the dark trees, the stars, feeling the cool rain, and sometimes, snowflakes, was so, so, soothing and healing.

I wanted my husband to enjoy it too, especially as he became more bedridden and butt sore. I urged him to see if he too found it comforting and soothing, promised to let the bromine dissipate, and finally, in he went. It was so good. For the next three months, he  soaked for a few hours several times a day, finding relief for his body as well as that sense of being enveloped in warmth that feels unspeakably comforting. Sometimes we’d soak together, not saying much, or just me chattering away about the kids, the garden, whatever.

To me the discussion about upsizing is irrelevant now. My husband still enjoys talking about the dream, even seems to plan on it–they tractor stays in the driveway, and he is ever hopeful. But now, it really is just a dream.

Our house is, if not perfect now, a home I see myself living in for a long time. The garden is my exercise, my useful work, and my interesting distraction between times of caring for my husband. There’s life, change, always a new season past and another one coming, but so much in the present every day. I planted sweet peas and sunflowers by our bedroom window where my husband can see and smell them, and each morning now I pick berries for his breakfast granola. Whether we, I ever make any more improvements has become less important, and the feeling of our mortality and the shortness of this life has made home mean something different to us all. All four children are home, even our oldest, who is in transition between graduating from college and having enough to get his own place. It’s way too early in my husband’s life for something like this to happen, but here we are in our little easy-care, nothing fancy, neighborhood house with a garden, all together, and life is good.

 

 

 
 

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