The reality of life and death

It’s twelve-thirty in the morning. I’ve spent the past hour going over in my mind my wife’s death, as she lay beside me, warm and soft, and very much alive. I’ve reviewed her final moments, her final few breaths. They won’t be in a hospital, not if I can help it. They will be at home, in her beautiful sleigh bed, its mahogany warmth curling around her, nestled in her pillowy down duvet. Where should our daughter be? Should she be beside her, snug against her breast, as close as she could physically be to the one thing in this world that has, for all of her two or three years (depending on how long she survives) most signified love and life? Or would it be more appropriate for her not to be there, but at one of Trish’s dear friend’s, playing with our friend’s children, removed from her mother’s struggle to avoid passage into the afterlife and be left with remembrances, though they may be vague as she grows older, of her mother’s very vibrant life? Where will I be? Will I be strong enough, emotionally put-together enough, to be close by? Will I have to be far removed, insulated physically and, with a few valium, chemically?
Trish, my wife, is not dying, not in the sense of an impending doom, not in a way that wouldn’t naturally and slowly exhaust her life in another forty-five or so years. She is the epitome of health, very seldom sick and never complaining of an ailment even if she is ill. But she’s forty-four, and a week ago she went to have a mammogram. She dreaded the procedure, the indignity of having a stranger cup and shape her breast into a cold, mechanized, painful eye, scanning her for signs of physical failure, cellular invasions against which she is largely unable to defend herself, and utterly, and perhaps blissfully, ignorant of. Until that machination of man’s inquisition suggested otherwise.
I was home from work that day and we — my daughter, Ella, who is eighteen months old, and I — dropper Trish off in front of the hospital. We waved goodbye and went to Home Depot to kill time. When we returned, had finished early and she was waiting for us. It had not been too uncomfortable; the clinic had a new machine and the technician was kind. But there was a lump, a cluster of calcium that the digital camera detected. It was probably nothing. Benign lumps are not that uncommon in women, and the new highly sensitive imaging devices detect the smallest distortions, often leading to unnecessary, but still worrisome, false positives, things that need to be checked out through what medicine calls “invasive” procedures. Trish hadn’t felt a lump. She’s a nurse, has been for twenty-two years. She knows her body well, and takes good care of it. I’ve worked in or around major academic medical centers for eleven years, as a newspaper reporter and a public relations guy. We both were aware of the commonality of diagnostic anomalies.
Today, the clinic called. The lump needs to be biopsied. Trish called me at work to tell me. She sounded worried. She’s known several women who have had breast cancer. My own brother’s wife battled the disease a few years ago. But in plenty of women, calcium deposits are normal and harmless. Lumps are benign. I reminded her of this. “Yeah,” she said. “Angela has had to have these biopsied many times.” But she wasn’t thinking of her best friend, or other women she knew who didn’t have cancer. She was, uncharacteristically, thinking of herself, and she was afraid. Trish is usually a very positive person. It’s me who worries, who stays awake nights fretting over insignificant details about work or whether or not we should paint the den. The clinic could take the biopsy Monday morning, almost a whole week away, she said. Ella awoke from a nap, and Trish ended the call.
I tried to file the information at the back of my mind. It was no big deal, this happens all the time. I let other tasks fill in my forethoughts, busied myself with work. But where some people have water-tight valves to regulate the flow of uncertainties into their mine is like a tired, rusty faucet, letting doubts and fears seep around the seems and dampen otherwise blissful days and nights. What will I do if the calcium turns out to be cancer? Just eight months ago I had uprooted us from our home in Nashville and moved us fourteen-hundred miles to Maine so I could take a new career tack. Now we’ll have to move back to Tennessee, closer to Trish’s family in Kentucky, closer to her friends, where she would be comfortable. (My mind was off and running, skipping over the imagined hurdles on an unrealized track.) We would have to find a small house, something affordable, because I couldn’t spend a lot of time working. I would call an old boss and ask for whatever job was available. Trish would die, and we would have enough money from insurance and from her investments, to sustain us for a while. I wouldn’t remarry, I’d be a widower dad, a bachelor father. But how do I take care of my daughter, alone?
In the course of the afternoon, between phone calls and setting up appointments, and answering emails, I had fast forwarded through my wife’s cancer surgery, chemo, radiation, her death and the funeral and wound up taking my then five-, eight-, ten-, twelve-year-old daughter (I played this out like a disaster drill, preparing for all possible scenarios) to soccer practice by myself, cooking her dinner by myself and then sitting myself down beside her at the kitchen table to do homework, surrounded by photos of Trish. It’s been a tough struggle, but we make out okay; we’re happy, we have each other. This gets me through the afternoon.
But tonight, in bed, I couldn’t bypass past the maudlin thoughts to a happy time. I rolled over and put my arm around my wife, placed my hand on her small belly, made soft from pregnancy. We’ve been married only four and a half years. She waited until late in life to marry; I waded through a first marriage and a divorce and dating until I found someone I fit with. Trish loved our wedding. And she loved becoming a mother three years later. Becoming pregnant had been a dream of hers, since she was a little girl. It didn’t come easily for us. After eighteen failed months of fertility, we had given up hope. We took a vacation and, like so many other stories we eventually heard, nature took its course once we relaxed enough to let it. Trish’s lean body gradually plumped. Her small breasts grew round, filling out shirts she never had before, much to her — and my — delight. Her stomach had been taught, toned, a flat stretch of muscle and skin any image-obsessed Hollywood actor would kill for. It grew slowly, oblong lengthwise, from top to bottom, the skin stretching tighter, a miracle of the human body and a metamorphosis of body and spirit. Trish loved being pregnant. She never had morning sickness, and worked until the day before she delivered our daughter. She was a glorious new mother. Her breasts delivered milk, and our baby latched on right away. I often think of the image in the final scene of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and marvel at how a woman’s body produces the sustenance for life, the fluid of survival, containing everything necessary for a human body to grow until it can care for itself. I know Trish believes deeply in her duty as a mother, and I know she feels a deep spiritual appreciation for the blessings of being a mother. She thanked God that her breasts wept, that hormones flowed through her body in new and different formulations. I remember now that she had also said being pregnant would reduce her risk of breast cancer.
Trish and I have had a very loving relationship, despite some very pointed, very sharp difficulties, many of which were caused by highly accelerated anxieties, like the ones I feel tonight. But having our daughter changed our world more than I could ever have expected. Trish is an excellent mother, and our little girl loves her mom immensely. At five months, she was saying, quite distinctly, “Mama.” She spoke this first word the day Trish went back to work, when Ella was five-months old, spending twelve-hour shifts at the hospital on Saturday and Sunday so Ella wouldn’t have to attend daycare. I quickly learned how difficult being a parent really is. That first morning, Trish left the house around six-thirty. Our daughter woke up around seven. I retrieved her from her crib and sat her on a queen-bed, a remnant of a guest room, so I could gather the items to change her diaper. Two seconds later I turned around to see her tumbling off the bed. I got a hand under her, and she landed on her shoulder and started wailing. This was the beginning of my attempts at flying solo as a father. A few weeks later she started crawling. One weekend morning, after Trish left for work, Ella crawled through our house saying “Mama?”, from the kitchen to the living room, into our bedroom, around to Trish’s side of the bed. It was the most pitiful, and determined, sight I had ever seen. If her mother was in the house, she was going to find her.
“Mama,” and the newly arrived “Mom,” will probably always be Ella’s favorite word. Most days, she doesn’t let her mom out of her sight for five seconds without asking for her. If Trish walks out of the room, “Mama?” If Trish steps outside, “Mama?” When Ella wakes up, in the middle of the night or after a long nap, it’s “Mama?” As long as she knows where her mom is, she’s OK. She can play by herself for long periods of time. She’s very outgoing; she recently entertained an entire plane full of people when the aircraft was delayed in Philadelphia. But our little girl has struggled with separation anxiety probably more than average; maybe not. We haven’t forced her into many situations where we weren’t around. We haven’t had many babysitters, simply because we prefer to be together. Our daughter says two words clearly; one is “mama,” the other, a recent acquisition, is “dada.”
I unwraped my arm from Trish’s waist and turned back to my side of the bed. Everything’s just fine, I said. Everything’s going to be fine. There are no problems. Trish is completely healthy. She would not allow herself to be ill. She can’t be. Even if the lump in her breast becomes rapidly reproducing, mutant cells, I’m going to be one of those husbands who remains positive. If we have to go through cancer treatment, we’ll go through it. I’ll shave my head, like my brother did when his wife went through chemo. I won’t dwell on the mortality statistics. I know cancer oncologists. I know breast cancer surgeons. Some of the best in the world. People like them would not let Trish die. And I will not, after her cancer is killed, let my mind be preoccupied by the nagging worry that nobody is ever “cured” of cancer, that remittance is always a possibility. I won’t go there.
But it’s my little girl’s voice saying “Mama?” that seeped into my fears tonight, that finally cause me to sob. I bit my lip to keep the cries from leaking out, but I couldn’t keep my shoulders from shaking. I had to breathe deeply to keep up with the sobs. Those pictures I imagined, the ones in which I’m strong and defiant? Now my little girl is in them, and she’s asking for Mama. When we’re at home, and Trish is in the hospital, she’s constantly wanting Mama. This is an incredibly powerful fear I have, this fear of being without Trish, alone as a parent. And there’s a separate fear of what Trish would have to struggle through. Anxiety creates demons that otherwise don’t exist. I have fought them often since I was a young child. The fear that the demons might appear — irrational but painfully vivid imagery — is almost as bad, almost as debilitating, as being in the demon’s presence. It has occurred to me recently that I might have passed on the tendency toward anxiety through my DNA to my daughter, hence her need to be held close to her mother more than other toddlers her age, her need, still, to awake in the middle of the night and cry, or plead, endlessly until her Mama rescues her from the isolation of her crib and sleeps beside her in our large guest bed.
And, so, the natural progression of these fears, these physical, mental and emotional energies wasted on the impossibly unknown and the improbable, led me to imagine what it will be like after Trish dies. The death, the funeral, are bad enough. What about the life ever after? What about the quiet morning two weeks after we have scattered Trish’s ashes in a garden, when my daughter awakes gripped by the choking realization that her mother will never again hold her, that when she pleas, “Mama?” her cries will never be answered satisfactorily.
I’ve been through enough therapy to understand that this isn’t about our daughter, or about Trish. In fact, I’ve amazed therapists, very skilled professionals, with a detailed clarity of self awareness and the ability to name my fears. I know what this is all about. But I also know it’s not entirely about me, that my daughter is her own person and that she has, and will have, her own distinct fears. You know what? It doesn’t help. Not much.
Perhaps as a distraction, I allowed myself to think of the deaths of other people I’ve been close to. I was too young to really know my paternal grandmother, but I remember the day of her funeral, how I stayed home with my other grandmother because I was too young to attend. My paternal grandfather died before I was born. But my mother’s step-father was probably my first hero, a former Marine with the globe-and-anchor tattoed on his forearm, who fought a Guadalcanal and forever battled his own demons. I remember the last time I saw him, how I was playing coy, as a little boy of nine, shying away from telling him goodbye at the nursing home. Early the next Saturday morning the phone rang. I was too sleepy to answer it in time, and when I finally picked up the phone I only heard a dial tone. A few minutes later it rang again. This time my mother was in the house. She answered it, and within seconds was saying, “No! No! No!.” I pleaded to know what was being said. “Wil’s dead,” she said. I screamed. For at least a year I grieved, very heavily. I blamed myself for not telling him goodbye that last time I saw him, for not hugging him as I normally would. What had gotten into me that day? Had he grown so well that I had completely forgotten how sick he had been, how I had been awakened in the night when the ambulance crew entered our house (I was living with my grandparents then) after he had a heart attack? Had I dislodged all the memories of seeing him lie sick, attached to wires and tubes, in the VA hospital time and time again? By five years old I knew about diabetes, heart disease, gout, and I knew which medicines my grandfather took, how much of each and when. I knew he had to put the tiny nitro-glycerin tablet under his tongue and let it dissolve. I had been instructed on how to call for an ambulance in the event I was left home alone with him and he suffered another heart attack. All that slipped away one morning when I had been silly, and that had been my last chance to love him.
Twelve years later, when I was still a struggling college student living at home, my grandmother died. She had been the quiet matriarch, the mortar that held together the fragments of my family — my divorced and depressed mother, my raging sister, my ineffective and absentee brother, my aunt and cousins and my sister’s small children. We were poor, poor pieces of people living poorly in a small town, my grandmother’s hometown. My grandmother’s meager income, and her financial shrewdness, helped us all survive. But age and illness fogged her mind. I forget the specifics but there was a financial discrepancy of some kind — she had written a bad check, or she had given someone money — and I was a cosigner on her account. A letter had come in the mail — maybe it was a notice of insufficient funds. I scolded her over it. I told her she had to stop doing things like that. She looked at me very simply. I was her favorite, the youngest of her grandchildren. She adored me, spoiled me, called me Son. And, most often, she had the only welcoming lap I could crawl into as a little boy. My very strong and determined grandmother had, by this time, been restricted from driving, her last piece of independence, because my mother had sold my grandmother’s car and bought a truck, which my grandmother couldn’t drive. She had suffered her own serious health problems recently. She was reduced to watching reruns of Perry Mason and Gunsmoke all day, and the mindless game shows she wouldn’t have paused for just ten years earlier. She looked at me very simply and said “alright.”
The next morning, a Saturday, my young nephew woke me up and said, clearly, calmly, almost as if he’d expected it, “Grandmother’s dead.”
I had been out late the night before, and when I came home I passed by her bedroom. I could see her sleeping. I thought I should go in and apologize for being firm that afternoon. I should tell her I love her. But I didn’t.
Some time in the early morning, but after my mother went to work at five thirty, my grandmother had gotten out of bed, probably to go to the bathroom, and collapsed dead on the floor. It was probably an aneurysm that struck her down, quickly and mercifully.
Shortly before that time, on another Saturday morning, my mother woke me and told me a friend of mine from junior high, who had moved away when we were in high school, had died. He and I stayed friends, but our interests diverged. I visited him once. I went with other friends to his funeral, and when I saw his father, a kind and soft-spoken Southern Baptist preacher, the man seemed surprised. He said, “Why, if Steven had known you would be here,” and he broke down crying. If my friend had known I’d be there, what? He wouldn’t have died? If I’d only visited the other times he had invited me? If I had stayed in touch with him as closely as our other friends had? What? Was this yet another missed opportunity to exercise some magical power I had to deliver a kind word and extend someone’s life?
Then, more recently, there was my dog, Paco. Paco and I had a lot in common, I thought. We had both escaped my mother’s short leash. He was sporting and playful but he had his anxieties; he barked incessantly if he was left alone outside, a characteristic that incensed my father-in-law, at the time, during holiday visits. Paco took ill the day after the fourth of July, 1998. His illness puzzled our vet. We transferred him to the vet school an hour’s drive from our house, but by then it was too late. A rare auto-immune disorder gripped his throat, immobilized the muscles that contract to swallow. Paco aspirated his own fluid and died of pneumonia. We had driven to pick him up — on a Sunday — to bring him home so our local vet could euthanize him on his bed, in his house. But our car had a flat tire, and the spare was flat. We called our insurance company to initiate a rescue, but the company didn’t call a tow truck like they were supposed to, and we were delayed getting to the clinic by several hours. By then, Paco was too weak to move. I held him — he at least was on his bed — and he looked up at me, his eyes vague, watery, as if pleading with me to end whatever it was that had taken control of his body. Days before, he had looked like he wanted to come home. On his last day, he simply wanted his life to end. I hugged him as the vet injected his body with morphine. Like in the movies, he took one last deep breath, sighed heavily, and was gone. His bladder relaxed and he wet his bed. That was it. We made arrangements for his body to be cremated. A tow-truck drove us the hour back home, and since he picked us up at the vet clinic, late on a Sunday, he knew our predicament. A vet student had put Paco’s bed into a trash bag, and the tow-truck driver gave it a few quick panicked glances; I imagine he wondered if he were driving home two young people with their dead dog in a bag. That, at least, offered brief levity. I mourned that dog more than I had mourned any person, and that, I think, led to the end of my first marriage, nine months later. My wife, at the time, couldn’t relate to my grief. Soon thereafter, she thought that was a good time to get off the ride and suggested we divorce.

I recalled these intimate death encounters quickly tonight, running through their familiar scenes as if fast-forwarding through old home videos. At the end of the tape I again hear my daughter, “Mama?” I wonder how much I should lean on Trish’s family, her sisters, for support in raising our daughter after Trish dies. Would Trish want me to involve them more or less than I would? Would she want me to involve her girlfriends, some of whom she’s known and loved for twenty years? Would she want me to remarry? Does she think I could handle raising our daughter alone? What are her fears?
I felt Trish roll over toward me. I knew she was awake. She knows me well, knows the demons I fight off, knows where they come from. I convinced myself that the best thing to do at the moment is to get out of bed and write this down. I call myself a writer, but these days I don’t write much of anything that’s of any significance. But this, this could be the most troubling event of my life. I know of no other outlet, at twelve-thirty in the morning, than to write. If I stay in bed I’ll only keep Trish awake. She has enough to worry about.
So, three hours later, I feel like this exercise has helped. I have jumped years ahead, fallen back a few decades, revisited parts of my life that include others’ deaths. Parts of life are very sad. Parts are unrealized sadness. Many parts, for me, are fears. But fears, anxieties, hearing my daughters’ cries when she’s fast asleep and seeing myself at a memorial for Trish, lying in rest in the beautiful catholic cathedral in Nashville where we were married, those are not unlike the fog of imaging on diagnostic tests. It’s best that those images, or imaginings, are penetrated, extracted, examined, to determine what’s real. And whether what’s feared is alive and threatening, or benign, it will be dealt with, just as every day ticks off minute by minute, until it’s tomorrow, until it’s a memory, sweet or sad.
At the moment, Trish lies sleeping in our comfortable bed, in our comfortable house. We have three dogs, asleep in the basement. And our daughter sleeps peacefully. That’s the reality of life.


One comment

  1. Clinton,
    Way to make me cry in front of the computer in the middle of the afternoon.
    I never told you how devestated I was when John Denver died back in 1997 and how much it meant that you called and left me a message of condolence even though I never even met him. Obviously you have a sensative soul. I’ll be crying on your shoulder when Dinah dies, even if your shoulder is a few thousand miles away. Kiss Ella for me. Jen

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