There are little partially used rolls of medical paper tape all over the house. I keep finding them, and have been removing them and little strips of paper tape about six to eight inches long from end tables, night tables, the kitchen table, window sills, bookshelves, and chairs. Last night I found a piece sticking to one of the blankets on my side of the bed. Rick was always having to tape something, or change the tape and dressing on something, and he’d tear off strips and stick them up to use, or he’d tear off used strips of tape and stick them up to be forgotten, little bits of detritus last touched by his hands.
We used to have rabbits and gave them the run of the house. After they were gone I found rabbit pellets for years – usually under a base board heater. The rolls and strips of tape remind me of the rabbit pellets. If this association offends you, tough.
It has been a little over a month now, and the new normal is slowly sinking in. He’s not coming home from work in the evening like he did for 35 years. He’s not sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper, or writing in his journal. He’s not lying in bed looking out the window at the trees, the ravine, the sky. He’s not watching the squirrels doing their aerial acrobatics in the tree tops. Nope. He’s gone. I’m beginning to get it.
It came to me last night that I have been grieving for his passing for years. It has a name: “anticipatory grief.” It’s when you know it’s bad, and it’s getting worse, and there’s only one ending in sight. You grieve for what was and never will be again, and for where you are going.
I had a moment last fall at the Ivar’s walk up fish bar on Lake Union. I was chatting with the young man behind the counter. I was getting the fish and chips, Rick’s favorite fast food, because Rick didn’t feel up to getting out of the car and getting them himself, which he’d always done before. I said to the young man that my husband and I had just come from the hospital, and my husband was quite ill.
The young man asked, “Is he going to get better?”
I stopped. I stared. I blinked, and the truth answered: “No.”
The young man was sympathetic, and kind, and expressed his condolences.
No one had asked me that question before, and I hadn’t asked myself, either, but to have it so boldly stated took me by ambush. The doctors don’t speak to you that plainly, at least while they are still trying to treat a patient’s conditions.
The Rick I first knew and loved was gone for a long time before he died. His spirit and personality were intact to the end, but they were affected by his illness, for we are whole creatures, body and soul together we are made, and one part of us does not change without affecting every other part. When he felt worse, he was less sarcastic and funny, and I came to recognize sarcasm as a sign of health in him. He did have a wicked, wicked sense of humor.
It was wonderful, after he passed, to meet the old Rick again in the love and memories and words of people who’d known him years ago. He lives on, in them, and in me. But for about five years there he was going down, and I was watching, and we both knew where it would end. The last year especially we were both having to adjust to more and bigger and faster changes in his physical being, and I realize now that I was grieving, in anticipation of the inevitable.
So here comes the sermon.
If you wake up this morning and you aren’t dead, you are charged to live life to the fullest extent of your ability today, even if all you can do is lie there and do nothing. Who you are contributes to the universe.
If someone you know is dying, don’t treat them like they’re already dead, because the difference between dead and alive is enormous, even if they’re lying there in a coma. Trust me on this. Talk to them like you always did, like they’re going to get up and you’re going to play some music together, or go fishing, or have a beer. Tell a joke, sing a song, read out loud. That person is in there, even if she or he can’t talk, or get out of bed. Yes, you are sad and frightened and angry and depressed about what’s happening. How can you not be? How can they not be?
Still - give being you and respecting the divine spark of life that is in that person your best, because you’re going to miss them when they’re really gone, and there will be plenty of time then to think about what happened.