One of the most lasting pieces of wisdom my father has ever imparted to me was during a deep conversation about why I went in to therapy for the first time in my twenties. I had admitted in a workshop that was work related (I was a Psychiatric RN at the time) that I didn’t know how I would live if my father ever died. The facilitator pulled me aside after the class, concerned and suggested I get myself in therapy to deal with that. So I did.
I shared all of this with my father, well I generally share everything with him, and he said this:
“Sometimes the hardest part of any dreaded event occurs in the anticipation of it.”
My father, having lost his father and wife within one year at the age of 35, then his oldest born, knows of what he speaks.
That was over twenty years ago but I can’t count the times I’ve reflected on those words or shared them with friends, clients, loved ones. So I’m sharing them with you now. With myself again.
Years later, possibly around the time I was home after Cindy was killed, I was at my parent’s then home. I’d never lived in that home but we spent our holidays there and other visits for the several years they lived there. It was the home we were all in when we got the news about Cindy’s death.
I was poking around in boxes one day that had been brought down from the crawl space above the garage for some reason. I found this old green trunk filled with letters. They were letters that my Grandma Buddha had saved of correspondence with my mother. Now that I’m reflecting on the day I found them, I do think it was very close to the time Cindy was killed as my grief was too great to go through all of them but one stands out in my mind. Another thing I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
My mother, in her perfect script, was writing her mother in law, confiding in her, as she lay dying. She clearly knew she was dying. She had come home on a rare weekend and was in that big grey rental house we lived in in her hometown of LeRoy , Ill. She wrote these words to my Grandma:
“Kathy came to my bed today and said to me “Mommie, you’re dying aren’t you?”. How do you think I should have answered that?”
I probably stopped sifting through the letters after finding that one but it told me volumes about my mother, who I have very little memory of, my Grandmother, their relationship and myself. I would have been five years old when I asked her that. I’ve always preferred the truth over secrets, even at that tender age.
July 1965 just three months before she died
I always assumed everyone knew she was dying and we were being prepared. That her death was anticipated.
Until a few years later, when I asked my father about it in one of those late night vulnerable moment conversations, where you tell secrets and the truth.
He told me the real story of my mother’s death vs the one I’d assumed my whole life. That he’d gone up to Chicago, 150 miles away from where we lived, to the hospital where she was being treated for the weekend, like he did every week. My father worked all week, took care of us kids, then went to visit his dying wife in the hospital for the weekend and stayed at the YMCA because it was close to the hospital. Now that I write this, his lifestyle then is much like mine has been the last few months with John.
He shared with me that he’d come home from that one weekend where the doctors were actually feeling a bit optimistic about her condition. “Everyone thought she was taking a turn for the better”.
By then though my mother had lost both breasts and the cancer had spread rapidly to her bones. But still, something had turned for the better. He shared this with her parents and I’m sure his mother, Buddha, who was living with us. He said people were actually optimistic at that stage.
Monday morning when he came back home, he went to work as always and got a phone call from my mother.
“Your mother was not the type of person to ask for something unless she really needed it so I knew something was wrong when she asked me to come right back up”.
He’d just left the night before and she asked him to come back. In my whole life that is the one thing I know for sure I inherited from my mother, beyond her nose, is the not asking for things I don’t desperately need.
By the time he got back up to Chicago, to the hospital, she’d lapsed in to a near coma. He described to me how he got in the room and her breathing was labored. “It was that death rattle” he choked out between held back tears as he painstakingly described this day to me on that late night. He talked of how he got scared and walked out of her room and called for the doctors. How they rushed in the room, came out moments later and said she was gone. Just like that.
I asked him what was the hardest part of the whole thing and he described pulling the station wagon back up to the hospital and loading it with walkers and bedpans and acoutrement associated with illness wondering “why am I taking all of this?”. That the hospital told him it was his to take home and so he just robotically loaded it in the car. All by himself.
And of course, he drove all the way home, wondering how he was going to break the news to everyone.
I have scattered memories of the next day but my Dad and I also talked about that. About how he loaded us up in the grey VW van and drove us to the cemetery where she was to be buried to tell us the news. Cindy is buried in that cemetery right next to her now by the way.
Cindy, being the oldest, was sitting in the front of the van with Dad, I was behind with John in the second seat. I blurted out “Mommie died didn’t she?” on our way.
Cindy immediately started screaming and rushed all the way to the back of the van yelling “make her stop saying that! Don’t let her say that!”. I have this very vague memory of being calm and taking her seat in the front. Which, as I type this, is kind of a metaphor to where we are now in life. My father and I in the front seat together. Me having moved forward.
We got to the cemetery and he took us to this big open field that had four huge marble chairs in formation on all four “walls” of this open grassy area. He sat us down in one of those chairs and told us she was gone. Cindy, again, went screaming and crying and running across that grass. I, again, sat there calmly right with my father.
I don’t share this as if it’s some sort of feather in my cap. My stoicism has been a blessing and curse throughout my life. Being “the strong one” has it’s own pitfalls.
Of course, I think I behaved that way because I knew. Something in me early on could see this coming. Was prepared in some way.
This was two weeks before my sixth birthday.
When I was at the Ranch last month, I was sitting at dinner making conversation as usual with other ladies about their experiences. I asked these two best friends, in their sixties I’d guess, who got them there. What got them interested in the Ranch as it was their first visit, how they found it. One of them, the more shy one, immediately stood up, tears in her eyes and said she had to go back to the room. I didn’t know what had happened.
lounging cat at Rancho La Puerta during last night’s dinner party
Her friend and I then had a long talk where she explained to me that she’d just lost her husband a month ago. That he had chosen the date of his passing through the “Death With Dignity” program as he had a progressive lung fibrosis condition that was literally shutting down his lungs in a major way. She described these last months to me as I sat there fascinated listening about how he’d planned everything out, including this trip, pre purchasing it for his wife and her best friend to have something nurturing to look forward to after he was gone. He’d had daily meetings with loved ones who flew in , written letters filled with cash for them, prepared everything himself. This all sounded, to me, like pretty much the perfect way to pass.
Then the next night, the woman who’d left in tears approached me and hugged me and apologized. Of course I shared there was no need to apologize, that I understood completely and I was here if she ever wanted to talk, that I’d like to talk to her about how she was doing if she ever wanted that. I am very comfortable talking about grieving with people and being with them.
Lo and behold we were on the same shuttle headed for the airport on our last day there so we sat together and that’s when she opened up to me. We both cried and held hands as she shared about those last days with her husband. It was such a wonderful process in so many ways. Yet she still had to get up that morning, knowing those were her last moments with her dear husband. She had to walk right in to that with her eyes wide open.
Just like I woke up this morning.
I laid in bed last night petting Buddy til very late. Neither of us was sleeping well. He was restless. I stroked him, felt those fast growing tumors under his chin, consuming his poor throat and realized I can’t wait until Friday to let him go. He is in pain. I’m prolonging his agony and suffering and I need to move it up. I texted the Vet who I’d arranged to come to the house on Friday to euthanize him and said I wanted to move it up. Do you know she texted me back at midnight saying she was so sorry but understood and we changed the appointment to today at 6:30.
I woke up an hour ago with Buddy right next to me, purring. As I got up, as always, he ran in to the bathroom with me, then waited at the top of the stairs and scampered down for his breakfast. He didn’t eat as much this morning and went back upstairs quickly stopping to do that tongue maneuvering thing, clearly trying to manage the swallowing. It’s time. I don’t want him to try and swallow through those tumors one more day. I just know he’s in pain now. I saw it all over him last night in bed.
So today is my last day with Buddy. My heart is so broken. I can’t stop crying. Sabine is wistful and coming more near me now. She knows something is up too.
Buddy is taking care of himself. He’s coming around me when he wants and isolating when he needs. I need to let him do what’s organic for him without intervening with my selfish desires to have him beside me all day. It’s going to happen the way he wants it to happen, his last day on Earth.
Steve is coming over this morning as I have three clients to see. It’s just the way it is, I need to go in. It will be interesting to see what needs they bring, with me in this state. Steve will be here with Buddy and then there will be a few hours before the Vet comes. I’m so impressed with this Vet who offers this valuable service.
She will even make a clay paw print for me to have, in memory.
I’m so moved by people who’s calling is to help people and animals cross over. We sure do need them on this Earth. I’m not a person who incarnated with that skill set but I’m good with the aftermath part. I’m grateful though for those hospice workers and people like this Vet who honor this particular calling, comforting those in transition.
Reflecting on my Dad’s words, I realize I’m in the worst of it right now. The anticipation. And here I am, drinking coffee, writing, surviving.
It’s natural to want to scream, run to the back seat, deny, avoiding it in any possible way. But I’m going to walk right through this with Buddy holding his little paw the entire way, letting the last sounds he hears on this Earth be my voice in my high falsetto calling his name “Buddy….Buddy…”.
Oh my dear Buddy, I’m so grateful you came to me. And so sad I’m losing you.
No matter how prepared you think you can be, you are just never prepared for losing someone you love. It’s just the hardest thing any human endures in life, I’m sure of it.
Every death, every call to grief, recalls all those that preceded it. And prepares you for the ones that are yet to be.
But we all go on don’t we? In spite of that pain, the next hardest thing is choosing to love again.
Yet in some small way, it’s the best legacy we can live on for that loved one I think.
My heart is breaking. While it’s open I may as well use it wisely.
Thanks for being there, for and with me, all of you out there.
Let’s let all of these tears be healing ones today.