Friday, May 6, 2011

Cancer Class

You signed up for art class, but instead you find yourself in cancer class. It’s a really, really hard class and you don’t want to take it, but you’re not allowed to transfer out to art class or even English or calculus. You have to learn this new vocabulary and have lots of different types of tests; some hurt and are hard, others easier; some involve horrendous preparations, others none at all, but you never know how you did. There are also lots of extra meetings and classes with a variety of different experts. Some things you lean by trial and error, like when to call the advice nurse or 911. You learn medical terminology and pharmacology. You share hints with other people you know who are stuck in the class, too. The make-up of the class participants is always changing. Some get to go on vacation for awhile; some leave permanently, having flunked out; some even graduate, but there are always new people and you feel sorry for them and try to give them help and advice when you can, or when they ask for it.

I first went to cancer class when I was four years old. My cousin Kathy, a year older than I, was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer. She was my closest girl cousin, my friend and playmate. I didn’t rally know what cancer was, except it meant I couldn’t play and be noisy and run around. Then it meant the hospital, only I was too young to be allowed inside. Stupid adults, only a child could help another child, or so I thought at the time. It meant she was gone and never, ever coming back. Oh, and I wasn’t supposed to cry about it or say her name or be sad.

I was allowed to go on vacation after that until high school. Friends’ parents or friends of my parents or grandparents and John Wayne went to this class. They usually died or had horrible operations during which parts of their body were hacked off, but they survived, deformed. These times in cancer class were usually of short duration, sort of like summer school or intersession.

Later, I went to cancer class with friends, learned a little, tried to make them laugh. I didn’t know then how often I would have to go this class and that I would even have to take advanced classes.

When my best friend, Deonn, got assigned to cancer class, I learned a whole lot more. When it got really, really hard for her, I spent a part of every day with her in class. Sometimes we were alone in class, but most often others were there with us. We talked, spoke the truth, told stories, laughed and cried. I knew she was going to flunk out and she knew it too. It brought us even closer together. We shared our deepest secrets. Deonn asked me to look out for her kids and her friends, even the ones I “didn’t like”, as she put it. She gave me treasures. It was a precious time. After she left, I cried and cried. I wanted her to come back, even though I knew she couldn’t. And besides, she yelled at me, “I can’t”, her voice as strong and crystal clear as if she were in the room with me. It has been hard to live without her in my life. Although I know on some level that she is still with me every day. Deonn taught me so much more than cancer class teachers ever could about cancer and life and living. I miss her every day.

Then I got assigned to the very advanced cancer class you have to if your beloved, soul mate, best friend, husband, has to take Stage IV cancer class, which no one ever survives. They definitely flunk out, for sure, no matter what. Oh they might get to be in class for fifteen years, or even a little longer, but they all flunk out eventually. My class was pretty bad, but I suppose classes Stage I-IV are worse.

I thought that because my beloved, my darling Jim flunked out, I didn’t have to go to cancer class anymore. But I did get assigned to this very difficult advanced class called Grief for Widows/Widowers. The only harder grief class I imagine is the Parent of a Child Lost Permanently. So. I’ve been stuck in this advances grief class for a while now, trying to find a way to make it not so painful, thinking this was my only assignment. It seemed enough of a class load; the hardest I’ve ever taken.

But…oh, no. I suddenly find myself assigned to cancer class again because two dear friends just got assigned to breast cancer class. Crap. I hate this damn class, but I guess I’m not going to graduate from it. Only maybe, just maybe, hopefully soon, or at least in my lifetime, someone, some brilliant person or team, is going to find a cure for this dreadful disease and then no one will have to go to cancer class anymore. Won’t that be awesome?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bittersweet Musing Moment

Last weekend I was at my friends' annual St. Patty's Day party. As usual, there was the best traditional Irish corned beef, cabbage and all the fixings. Yummy homemade desserts: mint chocolate brownies, green cream filled cream puffs and key lime pie. Of course the usual Irish martinis were served. Over the last few years, the party-goers have been a variety of people from work (ones who have become friends) and neighbors. I have know some of these people for many years and some are new to me and only know me through this annual event. Much good cheer and laughter filled the evening. At one point, I realize that I am the only "single" there; everyone else is a couple. It is a moment of sadness and I am struck by the presence of Jim's absence, as he had attended these parties in the past. As I listen to the conversations, I know that I have been excluded from some of the social events of the different combinations of the group. It's one of the things about which new widows are warned. I don't know what this phenomena is, but I am acutely aware of it in the moment. Somehow the "extra" is not included in the "couples" events. It feels strange and sad. There is much "let's get together for lunch soon" with the "girls". Almost never is there a dinner invitation, unless the "extra" initiates it, or you have dinner with another "extra" woman. Why is this? Deep seeded social norms? One widow had a theory that it was the fear; fear of the "extra" taking away another's husband. I don't buy that. But I really don't understand this phenomena. Do the even numbers make everyone feel more comfortable? The "extra" makes the "odd" number, which somehow makes the "evens" uncomfortable? Could it possibly just boil down to math and that human nature just makes us feel more comfortable with "evens"?

This is not the first time I have felt and experienced this and I certainly don't want my dear St. Patty's party friends to think they did something "wrong". After all, if I were brave enough, I'd say something. I just don't know how. My dear step-mother told me after my father died, "Let's face it; it's a couple's world." At the time, I thought that was true for her generation. Turns out its true for mine, too.

My grief counselor says that we have to teach people how to be with us, what to say to us. She's right. We sometimes practice how to word these thing in our group. I encourage others, but haven't figured out how to do it myself with my friends.

So "evens", what's the deal? Anybody out there have a reason for this phenomena? Are widows really that scary?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why Am I Here?

It's the ultimate question that we all ask, after all. I am in a writing grief group with two other widows. Often, our writings and our talk comes back to the issue of how we create a new life for ourselves when such a huge piece of our lives has gone and the unimaginable pain of it. The truth is, do we really want to create new lives? What choices do we have? We agree we are not suicidal and know that our beloved husbands would not want us to have this sense of not wanting a new life; they would want us to go on; be happy. The problem is, its just so damn hard! And, there is no roadmap, no special guide, no secret way to survive, no class you can pass to make it better. You just breathe in and breathe out; time passes. There are the constant reminders: mundane and not so mundane tasks that were once shared: trash night, driving the kids to school, taxes, grocery shopping. You learn this list is endless. The single life is harder having lost your partner who once shared tasks of daily living. I was spoiled and didn't know it.

What's worse is the loss of the one who validated you, that would listen to your vents and agree the other person was really the ass, not you. The one who told you how special you were in words and actions. The one who cheered you on, supported you in the worst and darkest times, and shared in your joy and happiness, laughed and cried with you.

When we knew Jim was terminal, he told me that he was going to find me a new husband before he died. My immediate response was "Shut up!" I didn't want to hear it. It made real what I wasn't ready to face. As was our way, I made a joke of it and told him the next morning that I knew who I wanted for a husband. "Paul McCartney, he's single [was at the time], doesn't believe in prenups, and I always thought he was the cutest Beetle." I then would pick other "new husbands" based on how "hot" I thought they were. What I know is that Jim was serious about this and had sincere conversations with friends and relatives about helping me find a new husband. So I have a deep understanding, knowing how he loved me, of what he wanted for me in this life without him.

The question I have: what do I want? What do I want to create out of this? Sometimes I wonder how many more years I will live, how many more I want to live, really. I heard the other day that the average American lives to 78 now, or maybe it was 79. Holy crap, that's a lot left for me, if I live for the average. I keep waiting for the universe to guide me. I contemplate all the ways I could volunteer or help others, all the causes to get involved in. Nothing sticks. I suppose I am still in the survival mode. Making room for the time to grieve and not pushing myself to answer THE QUESTION.

When my father died, my stepmother told me that it was really only her life that would change. I didn't get it; thought she didn't understand my pain and sorrow. Now, of course, I see how right she truly was. Oh what I wouldn't give to have a long conversation with our SuSu about this now. (Or what I wouldn't give to not need that conversation.) Somehow, she found a way; I hope I will too.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Taste of Grief

It is not sweet, nor savory, nor flavorful;
It is cold. The kind of cold that causes brain freeze,
pain in your teeth and sinuses; and it is bitter,
like the pill you attempt to swallow without enough water
that begins to dissolve into bitterness in your mouth.

Don’t chew! It would be like chewing a mouthful of aspirin tablets
or a plate of those disgusting things some people eat on reality game shows.
Too gross and disgusting.
Try to swallow quickly and hope you don’t regurgitate,
as that would only make it worse.

Grief regurgitated. EEW
Regurgitate: to surge or rush back.
Yes, grief sometimes surges or rushes back at you.
We all have those moments, unexpected,
when the pain of grief comes rushing back.
We are ambushed by it.

Regurgitate also means to give back or repeat,
especially something not fully understood or assimilated:
to regurgitate the teacher’s lectures on the exam.
Ah, well…grief not fully understood or assimilated is regurgitated.

So, can that cold, bitter taste of grief recede
and not be so often regurgitated or be a frequent regurgitant?
I am hoping so as the new year begins.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who am I?

I stare at the form. Name, easy. Address, easy. Phone, easy. There are a list of boxes one is supposed to check. Easy...used to be. The choices: Single, Married, Divorced. Trying still to be the good girl, good student, get an A, I suppose I should choose Single. OK, eliminate the one you know isn't the answer: Divorced. Nope, not me, ever. If I chose Married, then I have to fill in all the info for my spouse, who will then end up on some stupid mailing list, I am sure. Which of course implies, I would have that constant reminder he is gone, as if I needed one. But, if I choose Single it denies this entire life of thirty plus years I have lived in joy with my best friend, soulmate, husband, my cherished Jim. How can I possibly choose that? It would be as if he didn't exist; we didn't exist. I can think of nothing more horrible in my life to deny; to wipe-out with just a check mark. Nope, can't do that. What to do? What to do?

I realize it is just a stupid form and it really doesn't matter. If this company doesn't want my business based on what I mark for one of these three limiting choices, then the heck with it. Who's going to check anyway? I just don't want the associated junk mail filling my mailbox reminding me Jim is dead.

I make my choice, mark the box. Leave the spouse part blank. Recently, I described this seemly very simple task that threw me, gutted me to a long-time friend. He thought I should have checked all three. Wish I had. They'll be a next time, of this I am sure.

Who makes up these forms anyway? The first time I checked the "widow" box made my gut clench. I hate that box. Can't we just be who we are? Do we have to be attached or unattached in a particular way? I don't fit in anyone's box. Who does?

Maybe it's time to start some game playing with these forms! I'll let you know which games I decide are the most fun or get the craziest response. You know someone will have a crazy response. Let the games begin...