Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Three weeks

I wrote this on Sunday, en route from Duluth to the airport in St. Paul: scattered thoughts jotted down in the back seat of the car.

It's been three weeks and a day. Counting time this way reminds me of counting Clark's age; at first each day and week that passes is significant. Later, years and half-years suffice. Scott died 22 days ago, but it feels like it's been months. It does not feel immediate. Duluth was physically distant, and my time there was filled with winter activities and Christmas preparations and celebrations that crowded out thoughts of San Francisco and hospice and nasal cannulas and morphine and Scott's skeletal thinness. I'm returning to the place where he died, but the medical equipment is gone, most of his clothing is gone, and he's gone. I don't know how acute his absence will be.

It's been three weeks and a day. On Christmas morning I realized that if he'd lived just two and a half weeks longer, he would have been with us for Christmas. But he would have been so sick, so tired. It would have been an additional 18 days of suffering for him (and, to some extent, for us). I couldn't imagine him with us for Christmas this year healthy and whole. That's in an alternate universe. My path split from that one a long time ago. Moments on Christmas Eve and Christmas were hard, and I missed him. But for the most part I was in the moment, in large part thanks to Clark. One evening after Christmas I glanced at the bottle of wine on the table and noticed it was a pinot noir, Scott's favorite and the only kind we ever bought. It hadn't hurt the previous night when we'd toasted him - I'd even commented how appropriate it was that our glasses were filled with pinot - but for some reason the next night I got very nearly teary. I didn't want to talk about it with my family just then (sorry guys), so I swallowed it. The lump in my throat surprised me, and I was glad for a taste of the sadness.

I've dreamt about him twice. The first time was a nightmare: I was in an old house, and I couldn't find Clark, and Scott realized that he needed to start using oxygen. The second time, I was stranded in downtown Duluth and needed a ride home. I called Scott but it went straight to voicemail. I realized I'd turned his phone off when we thought he was dying. Now that he was recovered, I dreamt, we needed to turn his phone back on.

His memorial service is three weeks from today. I still don't know what I'm going to say, or even how to start. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, but how strange that the last time this conglomeration of people from different parts of our lives occurred was at our wedding.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Too Many Metaphors

It's been two weeks and a day.

I went for a good long snowshoe this afternoon. It felt heavy with metaphor. There were tough uphills and easy downhills; times I followed a well-packed path and times I broke a new trail through deep drifts; moments of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty (the expansive view of the sky and the lake) and moments of quiet beauty that you'd miss if you didn't stop to look for them (the long delicate shadows of bare trees, blue on white snow); the chill I felt at first with the wind coming in through my sweater and the gradual equilibrium reached as my body warmed up with hard work; the way I was fueled by good food (love) from family and friends. Metaphors come in handy for putting life into a new perspective and exploring different corners; it's also useful to think about how a metaphor breaks down. My snowshoe today was solitary. My life is not.

My tattoo is nearly a year old - I got it last February on the day before Valentine's Day, an anatomical heart on my left forearm. It symbolizes my commitment to medicine: this is my life's work. And it symbolizes my commitment to Scott. I've known I wanted this image since a pre-med physiology course five years ago. As my professor described it, the heart is actually two pumps wrapped around one another. The left side, bigger and stronger, pumps oxygenated blood to the entire body. The right side pumps spent blood through the lungs. It seemed a perfect metaphor for my relationship with Scott. Two parts, working in synchrony on different parts of a whole. Separate but inseparable. Scott is the left side - bigger, stronger, and (conveniently) left-handed, I the right.

We learned in the cardiology unit last year that there are many ways for the left side of the heart to fail - high blood pressure, heart attacks, etc. It's less common for the right side to fail. The maxim we learned is that the most common cause of right-sided heart failure is left-sided heart failure. This, I decided, is where the metaphor breaks down. Scott, my left side, stopped working, but I will not. I learned that the mortality rate for widows jumps up in the first year after the death of a partner. I get it; every now and then, a piece of me wants to follow Scott. But I know that I am going to be okay.

These days, I've been feeling like I'm in a cocoon - cozy, protected, insulated. But I'm starting to feel just a little bit cramped. I'm planning to return to California at the end of the month and am preparing to be on my own (with Clark) for a bit. I think it will hurt a little to stretch my wings, but I think I will be ready.

The day after I got my tattoo, I realized I am wearing my heart on my sleeve.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Re-introducing this blog

I'm dusting off this blog to continue the story started on Scott's Caring Bridge site. He left us a week ago. I've been wanting to write something about my experiences, but Caring Bridge is his site, and Facebook feels too frivolous, so here we are... or at least, here I am. Writing here is partly to help me record and organize the thoughts rattling around in my head, partly to connect to the friends and family who have been so supportive over the past 16 months (and beyond), and partly to share a travelogue of my journey through widowhood.

My husband died 8 days ago - 11am, December 7, 2013. He was only 36, and his cancer was cruel, so it feels strange to say this, but his death was beautiful. He was at home, and sunlight was pouring in the windows of his bedroom. I was sitting on the bed beside him, and he was surrounded by his family. He breathed his last breath, and I said "Scott, you've made it." It was very gentle; I felt like I was watching sand run through an hourglass. It's a cliched image, but that day it fit. He died, and we stayed in his room for a bit, absorbing the enormity of it. I told Clark (who is two and a half) what had happened. He was quiet on the couch, with big serious eyes, taking it all in. He didn't cry, even though the rest of us were. I think he understood that something very profound had taken place. Scott's dad removed Scott's oxygen cannula, turned off the machines, lowered the head of the bed, pulled the sheet over Scott's face. I called hospice to report the death. Hospice sent a nurse out to pronounce the death. I called the UCSF Willed Body Program. They sent a transport team. They took his body away at 3 pm. I went for a walk with Clark and my mom and my sister.

I know that I cried a lot that morning. I know that I had to focus on relaxing the knot in my throat in order to call hospice. I know that the apartment felt incredibly quiet without the hum of his oxygen compressor, without his occasional coughs and gasps. I know that I sat in the room with his body and with my sister and that she encouraged me to let it all out, but I couldn't wail or sob. There were just lots of tears. It's hard to remember how I felt before his body left - it's like everything before 3pm is on the opposite side of frosted glass.

My transition into life after Scott's death has been much gentler than I expected. Compared to the sadness I experienced before he died, this past week has been calm, mellow. It feels lilac-colored, different from the shades of blue I felt before. When I went for that walk with my mom and sister after his body left, I felt almost normal. Monday, two days after he died, I spent the entire day napping, lounging and dozing - my body was recovering from a stomach bug I had the night before, and my brain was unwinding, decompressing. On Tuesday morning, my mom and sister helped me go through Scott's clothes. We gave away everything except his wedding suit and a few sentimental t-shirts. It was not hard to do this. Being in Duluth without him has felt... normal.

Somehow this normalcy has been the hardest part of the past week. I expected to be distraught, to be torn apart by grief, to be thinking only of Scott and of future life without him. Instead, it's been this dispassionate calm. Some twinges of sorrow: when our plane landed in Minnesota I wanted to text Scott to let him know we had arrived safely; during Clark's first excursion in the deep snow I wished I could report back to Scott about how much fun he was having. But plenty of moments of joy: connecting with loved ones from church, watching Clark over-decorate Christmas cookies. I know that I'm "allowed" to have whatever feelings come. Still, it's strange not to have sorrow. My therapist assured me that intense grief is yet to come, which is comforting. My friend Kate suggested that many, many other people in my life are holding my grief right now so that I can digest it in manageable chunks when I'm ready. This resonates. I know that grief comes in waves; maybe I did so much grieving before Scott died that I just need a break now. Maybe I feared his absence so much that the actuality is less terrible than I expected. Maybe he was fading away for so long that his diminished presence just dissolved into absolute absence. I know that I already missed him terribly in the months before he died.

Once in a while, Clark asks me what his dad is doing. I tell him the truth: I don't know, because he died and we can't see him anymore, but he still loves you very much. I believe there is a very beautiful and loving life after death, and I believe Scott is there now. I talk to him now and then, and I think I believe that he can hear me, that he is with me.