Thursday, December 17, 2015

Widowed and engaged

Over 3 years since Scott was diagnosed, 2 years since he died.
Over 1 year since I met Mike, 4 months since he proposed.
Only 5 months until our marriage and my graduation, less than 7 until I start residency.
9 months until Clark starts kindergarten.

Last month was a hard one, not unlike November the year before, with a sadness that’s hard to articulate. Certainly it contained echoes of Scott’s last month - our joy when he was able to join us at the table for Thanksgiving dinner and swallow a few bites of mashed potatoes, the horror when he coughed blood into his napkin, the sadness when he had to go back to bed even before anyone asked for a second helping of turkey.

Over the last month, I’ve wished more often than usual that Scott could be here to see his son. Clark is four and a half now and asks great questions (Why do things look small when they’re far away and big when they’re close up? If triangles make buildings more stable, why do the triangle plates under the Earth’s surface still move?) He’s a railway affecionado and engineer who can describe in great detail the differences between various trains and then draw how one might assemble them. He’s constantly coming up with new track configurations that combine his wooden train tracks, plastic car tracks, marble maze gutters, and Magnatiles. He’s bigger and stronger; this month he hiked five steep miles through Muir Woods. (Last time we were there, I carried him the whole way, and Scott was with us.)

The November grief contained more moments of irrational anxiety - what if Mike and I are shot by a crazy gunman at the movie theater and Clark is orphaned? What if Clark gets cancer and dies? As an antidote, Mike and I tried to come up with equally irrational positive events. It was surprisingly hard. (Cue Scott explaining evidence from behavioral economics about how humans are more motivated by fear than desire.) What came from that exercise wasn’t a list of things like winning the lottery; it was an articulation of something I’ve known for a while now: that what I’ve got, and where I am, is perfect. I am in exactly the right place, right now. Some moments are heightened: reading a train book with Clark on a sunny park bench; running side-by-side with Mike through Lands End, all three of us on the couch, teasing and tickling and giggling and cuddling.

I remember having these heightened moments with Scott when he was sick. I often felt the knowledge of impending loss tempering the pleasure, like a chilly breeze on a sunny day. That “tempering” persists, not because something bad will happen, but because it could. And because a moment passed will forever be past - there’s no going back to three-year-old Clark, just like there’s no going back to pancakes at Delafield or log-rolling at Wellesley or dancing in The Nutcracker in Duluth. The trade-off for this loss of innocence (that’s what it feels like) is a gain in mindfulness, feeling truly grateful for the here and now.

I came across an issue of The Sun (August 2015) with an excellent interview with Stephen Jenkinson, an expert in grief and dying well. He says:
“If you’re lucky, something comes along and ruptures your artificial sense of well-being, which is preventing you from really living. If you’re lucky, something like this will show up - you don’t go looking for it - and you’ll never be able to see anything the same way again.”
“Death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life. The centrality of death gives you the chance to live, because it says, ‘Here’s the bad news: It’s not going to last.’ And here’s the good news: It’s not going to last.’”

Alongside my grief is my growing relationship with Mike. I’ve struggled with how to write about my engagement here. This blog has been a place for me to outwardly chronicle my experience of widowhood and inwardly process chunks of grief. Looking out, I know that many who read this blog also love and miss Scott, and writing about my new relationship feels like a little bit of betrayal to Scott’s community. Looking in, holding onto my sorrow feels like a way to hold onto Scott, to prove to myself that my love for him is still real. I know that love will outlast sadness - many others have written about this - but it can feel strange to give up.

“Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. And it does go away, because you can only drag yourself around and rend your clothes for so long. Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures. It’s not something that happens to you; it’s something you do. You can grieve, but you can’t “sad.” Of course, most of us choose not to grieve. We decide to stay busy, to join a protest, or whatever. It’s understandable, but none of this is grieving.”

I will be a widow forever. I love Mike and am so happy and excited to be entering into a lifelong relationship with him. But it won’t erase the experience of having lost my spouse.* So it is helpful to separate out grief and sorrow, and to value ongoing grieving as ongoing awareness of the transience of so much of our experience.

“Otherwise” cuts both ways. Things could be otherwise, and Scott would be here to to teach Clark how to swim. And things could be otherwise, and I wouldn’t be here, on a plane bound for Minnesota with Clark asleep on my lap. And as I move forward - widowed and engaged, donating Clark’s 4T shirts and replacing them with 5’s, preparing to graduate and preparing to start internship - what can I do but be present?

Things to read
* There was an opinion piece in the NYT a few months ago about marrying after being widowed and the misconception that one "moves on" from grief - beautifully written and well worth reading, even for all you non-widows out there.

This blog post that helps visualize and think through what it means that our time on Earth is limited. How many more books will I read? How much more time will I spend with my parents? Very powerful.

Excerpt from “Improvement” by Danusha Lameris
I’m grateful for small victories.
The way the heart still beats time
in the cathedral of the ribs.
And the mind, watching its parade of thoughts
enter and leave, begins to see them
for what they are: jugglers, fire swallowers, acrobats

tossing their batons in the air.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Father's Day

Father's Day was bittersweet. Sweet in being able to celebrate with Mike, who is fully invested in being Clark's dad. Sweet in being able to celebrate with the dear Gruver-Kelly clan - a family I grew up with in Duluth, now transplanted to the East Bay; who have been surrogate family for me out here; and who remembered and toasted Scott. Bitter in remembering how much Scott loved Clark and adored fathering him, how fiercely he wanted his love for Clark to sustain his life and overcome his cancer.

In the last year of Scott's life, I began to feel that the happiest moments were often the hardest to bear, as though I were being simultaneously warmed by the sun and chilled by a breeze. I feared (and sometimes knew) that those idyllic moments - a trip to the beach, a pancake breakfast, an afternoon coffee date - were rapidly coming to an end. I was nostalgic for the present. Now, looking back, many memories from my relationship with Scott get that nostalgic glow: dinners with friends in DC, Saturday morning butterflies before an Ultimate tournament, crazy cooking experiments. I miss our life in DC and our life in Davis; I miss his circle of friends from Amherst; I miss our young love, the newlywed period, embarking on the grand enterprise of parenting with him. I'd miss most of these things even if he were alive today; they're from a different era (except for his crazy cooking; I'm pretty sure that spark would have kept going strong). Is this another chunk of grief to process or just nostalgia? Maybe both. Maybe his absence accentuates the loss of so many other parts of our shared experience. Our common memories - things that were just between the two of us - are now held by one less, and talking about them with someone else feels like telling someone your overnight dreams. The listener wasn't there, so can't partake in the vividness. If Scott were here, he would have been able to join me in the memory; and he would have enriched it by reminding me of other details I hadn't thought about. (All of this makes me wonder how important memories are - so long as I remember his spirit and our love, is the rest more or less clutter? A topic for another time.)

I think Father's Day was also hard because the previous Father's Day felt so momentous (We were in Amherst for Scott's memorial service, surrounded by people who love him.), and because the year since then has been so full. Clark blossomed at his new preschool. I started feeling like a real doctor during my clinical rotations. Scott's nephew was born. As much as I believe in life after death and Scott's enduring presence in my life, he wasn't here, on the ground, viscerally engaged. There's a lot he's missed out on. And Clark now knows him from stories and photos rather than from breakfasts and dinners and goodnight kisses.

In a very strange way, it's reassuring to still feel this grief and longing and nostalgia. It's different from how it was during the first year postmortem, much softer. But I don't want to stop missing him. Many people have assured me that just because you stop grieving, doesn't mean you stop remembering. This makes intuitive sense, but I'm glad the transition away from grief is a gradual one.

Related reading

1.  Inside Out, the new Pixar movie, articulates nostalgia beautifully, showing how memories change and develop complexity over time. It's a fantastic movie; go see it if you haven't already. Here's a Washington Post article about the great emotional lessons of the film.

2. Here's a good article on nostalgia - the birth of the word, high school reunions, and looking forward.
You can go home again, at least to a place—whether Ithaka or a childhood manse—but you cannot go back in time, except in memory, or accidental encounters with old friends, or those occasional moments of high-spirited jollity, planned but not imposed. 
3. One of my very favorite essays from The New Yorker, on "what the dead don't know."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Plate tectonics

Clark has been interested in earthquakes lately, trying to understand the massive power of an earthquake as well as the concept of plates moving below us all the time. I've been thinking of it as a metaphor for my grief. There haven't been any major upheavals lately, more an awareness that things continue to move and rearrange themselves under the surface. Scott's death was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, a simultaneous disaster and a reliever of tectonic stress. There are aftershocks, of course, diminishing in frequency and intensity, but still disruptive that continue to subtly transform my landscape.

During my most recent rotation, I worked at the hospital where Scott had most of his oncology appointments. I had one or two moments of sadness, but more often just a certain hypersensitivity about being there. Walking through the front doors brought memories about particular appointments and events that happened there: not the big turning points, rather the mundane follow-ups. I found myself looking at patients and families, wondering how they were dealing with their cancer diagnoses, the hills and valleys of their journeys.

I've been spring cleaning, sorting through closets and donating or discarding things that don't belong here anymore.  Some things are easy - clothes I'll never wear, books I've outgrown.* Going through Scott's things is harder. What to do with his CD collection? I never fully appreciated his taste in music, so I'd be just as happy to donate it and let it bring joy to someone else. But will Clark find some meaning or connection in it 10 years from now? (And, will there be a practical way to play CDs 10 years from now, or should I just keep a list of the artists and albums so Clark and I can track them down and listen to them later?) What about his books, his photos? His wedding suit?

We celebrated Clark's fourth birthday this month and marveled at how much he's grown in a year. He's becoming literate and numerate, always thinking about phonics and sums. He's passionate about outer space. He rattles off the eight planets, constructs all kinds of rockets and shuttles from household materials, asks about nebulae, draws constellations. All of this new since Scott left.

Last week was Scott's birthday, and I found myself wondering what his life would have been like had he turned 38. I grieved for the lost connections and relationships. He had been hoping to collaborate with researchers at UCSF to continue his work in Uganda, and who knows what other relationships and opportunities would have sprouted. Who knows what adventures and experiments and mischief he and Clark would have found for themselves. Who knows how our marriage would have grown. Fruitless questions.

I remind myself that I am still in relationship with him. I had a dream in which he got me out of an embarrassing bind. It was the first time I'd seen Scott in a dream, and it was both jarring (Where did you come from?) and extremely comforting. The dream came at the end of a stressful rotation, during which I'd neglected to meditate or to (consciously) draw on my spiritual resources in any way. Scott's dream-presence felt like a reminder that I can (and should) tap into that greater power of God-Goodness-the Universe for strength and support.

I'm nearly done with my third year of medical school, which is a notoriously difficult year. I was talking to my therapist about what a struggle it's been, how I don't feel like my brain even works the way it used to. He commented that burnout is a common (nearly universal) phenomenon during third year, and that I was probably burned out before I even started the year. It was a revelation; though I'm living a transformed life, it's surprisingly easy to forget the trauma. It's a relief to be on the other side of third year now, but I'm still anxious about everything required of me during fourth year - sub-internships, Step 2 board exams, residency applications and interviews. I'm pretty sure that if I've made it this far, I can get through one more year. But I've been thinking about how to go into with the mindset of thriving, rather than just surviving.** I certainly feel more stable. Mike and I continue to have a strong, committed relationship. I feel less and less like a single parent. My grief is quieter, less intrusive. The tectonic plates are still moving, and we're all still moving forward, adjusting, helping each other up and forward.

* I give credit to the strange but good The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
** I've been inspired by The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Highly recommended!