What About That “Eternal Promise”?

It’s been over 10 months since the passing of my beloved wife, Sally. I look back and find it hard to image that everything I worked for, my home, my way of life and Sally is gone.

For such a long time, it was just me and her. We made some friends on our journeys and when we moved to Vermont and Idaho. But, at the end of the day, it was just us. We never had children as it wasn’t meant to be.

On many occasions, we said it would be her and me forever. That was the promise. Now, I’m forced to try to move forward despite the pain.

I realize that I still have a long way to go with the grief and loss. She was the “love of my life” and I believe that no other woman will love me the way she did. Our connection was special and deep. People would notice how we looked at one another, even when we were in our 50s.

As far as happiness in the future, I can only hope at this stage. I’m going to be 55, but making plans to get my master’s degree and resume teaching, a job that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m doing the best I can. This was not part of the original plan for the rest of my life.

I think that we live by a set of rules that we create for ourselves or, perhaps, instilled in us by others over time. Regardless, my I have either been blessed of cursed with keeping a “promise.” It’s what I do and a rule I live by. Once I make that promise, no matter how big or small, I will do everything in my power to fulfill it.

For those who read this, I’m certain that most will think that all of this will change in time. However, my “programming,” at least at this point, forces me to honor any promise that is made, including an eternal one I made to Sally. I do remember the wedding vows, “til death do you part,” but that does not overrule the “promise.”

I saw a great blog by “Ten Thousand Days” that, in my opinion, hits the point. I’m moving forward, but not moving on.  This situation has become my new normal and I have no choice but to accept this big change. I try to “go with the flow,” but still find myself trying to swim against the current.

Prior to her passing, she told me that it was okay for me to find someone else. I also hear from friends and relatives that she would want me to be happy for the rest of my days. On a logical level, this makes sense, but on an emotional one, that’s another matter. Living the life of solitude is not exactly what I had in mind.

What do you think?

 

Coping With Survivor’s Guilt

I managed to get through one of the “big dates” of my wife’s passing. March 24 would have been our 34th year together. It feels like you’re standing and cringing as that date approaches. How bad will the first one feel? Who will I get through the day?

The day started off as expected, emotional. But, friends and family came through and helped out, for which I’m extremely grateful. It would have been so easy for me to just stay in bed.

This first wedding anniversary without her made me realize the grief and guilt will not be going away soon. I fully admit that “survivor’s guilt” is a part of the pain and sickness in my gut.

Those two little words, “what if,” still run through my head. A lot of my guilt stems from not forcing my wife, Sally, to go to the doctor, just for annual checkups with she turned 50. I get it when I hear the saying, “you can force a horse to water, but can’t make it drink.” Still, I can’t help but wonder.

For a long time, she was healthier than me. Sally worked out on the elliptical in a room in our house. Her job required her to be on her feet all day long. She ate well, much better than me. Honestly, I set up our insurance and future based on the fact that I would be the one that would leave first. Life threw me and everyone else a massive “blindside.”

The thought that goes through my head is that if I would have been more persistent, this cancer could have been caught early and things would be different. My sister, who is a doctor, tells me that this type of cancer would have likely not made that much difference in terms of the outcome. Logically, I understand. Emotionally, that’s a different story.

I’ll never know if things would have been different. Perhaps not knowing allowed us to live life to its more fullest. We traveled a lot the few years prior to her diagnosis. Maybe her “quality of life” would have been far worse if we did know and went through the long and painful treatments. Regardless, I still wonder “what if.”

This process of grief is relentless. You can run, but you can’t hide. One of the steps I’m trying to work on is “forgiveness,” especially for myself. It’s far from easy. Happiness is something I don’t feel entitled to, at least not now. It’s a matter of trying to be “less sad.”

But, I try to press onward with each day. I try my best to be functional. Making plans for one, two or many months down the road is hard. However, I do make them, just to get some sort of sanity.

Now, I will be bracing for the next two days, her birthday and the one of her passing. I already know the road coming is going to be rough. Again, I’m doing my best.

 

The Task of Going Through “Stuff”

From conversation and personal experience, the most difficult task that a widow or widower must face is going through the “stuff” of their beloved. Shortly after my wife, Sally, passed from rare cancer last year, I made the decision to clean out our house and sell it.

Deciding to sell the house was an easy one for me. I could no longer live in a place that had so many memories. It was also expensive and too big to handle on my own. However, because the home is located in an area that gets snow, I had no choice but to clean it out and get it on the market as soon as possible.

I literally made about 30 trips to the local dump and sold much of the furniture and other possessions. Those things, possessions, clothes and other things are not the same without Sally as we got them “together.”

Going through the majority of this stuff on my own was painstaking and emotionally traumatic, but had to be done. Each item, especially clothing, had a memory attached. I completely understand that they are “things,” but there was still an attachment to my wife.

I’ve talked with many people who still hold on to many possessions of their deceased spouse. I do understand why some of these people do that. It’s so hard to let go of anything. In my case, I gave away all of her clothes. The only thing I wished I would have kept was a beautiful green dress that she would wear on special occasions.

Despite keeping most of her jewelry, I still think about that green dress. Let’s face it, the thing would have been in the closet, but it would have been close by. However, I did make a trip to Atlanta to see my sister. We went to one spot that had a beautiful waterfall. It was a chilly day and she gave me a purple hood to wear. It was chilly enough that I decided to wear it, even though it looked a little feminine.

At the end of the day, after our nice excursion, my sister, Susan told me that purple hood belonged to Sally. I asked to keep it and without hesitation she said yes. That hood sits on top of a 3 by 5 frame with our picture.

I’m not an expert on whether it’s a good idea to keep things or to give them away, sell them or whatever. In my case, I don’t have the green dress, but I do have have the purple hood. You can let me know what you think and what you’ve done as well.

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Once the Grieving Starts…

It’s been nearly 9 months since the passing of my adorable wife Sally. They always say that “time heals all wounds.” The pain in my heart may say otherwise.

I had a conversation with my sister, Marylynn, who just celebrated her 75th birthday. I am amazed by the energy she has. However, over the last 7 years, she has lost 2 sons. She recently told me that “once the grieving starts, it never stops.”

After Sally passed, Marylynn literally became my grief counselor. She’s extremely intelligent and became a medical doctor in her 40s. She reminded me of the day I called and said, “we need your help.” Marylynn said that after the passing of her first son, Dan, she felt that her experience and insight would help me. She was right. Many people who observe this say I’m making great progress, but there is an internal war going on inside me and my weight loss of 35 pounds shows it.

Prior to all of this, Marylynn and I only spoke a few times year, if that. Since then, we talk almost every day. My brother and I visit more and even have breakfast every other week. My sister Susan, the one who helped care for Sally, I also owe my deepest gratitude. My other sister, also named Sally, has also been there for me despite other family issues.

My mother and stepfather, Rich, let me stay with them to help get through this. In my 54 years of life, I’ve never been alone. I met Sally when I was 20 and we were together ever since.

I must confess, I don’t think I would have survived this without them too. Rich lost his first wife due to a car accident about 50 years ago, so there is an unspoken bond. He’s been very understanding and very helpful as I have received a lot of wisdom and insight. My mom also makes me feel cared for. Most of my other family members have stepped up for me, and I am grateful and lucky. But, it’s very hard to feel that way, especially since my entire life has changed.

After this experience and talking with others who have shared this unwanted journey, I’m realizing that there is no timeline to this process. I have been told of people who still struggle after decades of losing a loved one. I remember talking with a woman who lost her husband about 3 years ago. When I told her that Sally had passed 6 months prior, she told that this experience for me was still “raw.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Another one of the sayings I’ve heard is that, “is doesn’t get better, but it gets easier.” I’m not a doctor or any kind of expert, but have I’ve already had too much knowledge about this subject. As time passes, I’m learning to live with the pain, which hasn’t subsided in the last 9 months.

For those who begin this awful phase, it’s like getting on a huge roller-coaster that never stops. I’ve had a number of days when things are looking a little better. Then, out of nowhere, the grief overwhelms, and the sadness consumes. I wake up every morning wondering how this could have happened.

I realize that I have a long way to go. It does feel like every time I take a few steps forward, I will take one-and-a-half back, sometimes more. It’s just day-by-day.

There Will Never Be Another Sally

Sally’s final days were handled with pure dignity and grace. Her attitude was amazing. Her best friend, Donna, flew in from Oregon for a last visit. Other co-workers came by the house. My two other sisters, Sally, Marylynn and her husband Loo also came out. The picture below shows them all.20170507_142230 She was well enough to celebrate her birthday on May 8. That one-year anniversary for me will be here soon and I know it’s not going to be easy.

My sister, Susan, helped out with the cooking and other household chores, plus taking care of Sally and looking over me. She stayed for three weeks and I told her to go back home, especially when I knew it was getting close. Susan refused to go home as my wife Sally asked her to stay.

The pain was getting worse for Sally as morphine doses had to be increased. Hospice was called in for occasional visits and check-ups at the house. On May 20, Sally told me that it wasn’t going to be long. We decided to take her to the Hospice House, a facility often used for the terminally ill, in Idaho as we were no longer capable of providing her with the best care. This became so real that I couldn’t ride in the ambulance to the Hospice House, something I still regret.

I spent her final 5 days in the room. I never left her side and let me know how I felt. She had visitors, but Sally went almost comatose due to the medication. However, the Hospice people said that they “can hear you” in that state. I always took conversations outside that related to Sally and that situation. I only wanted her to hear the positive.

My sister Susan was exhausted and emotionally strained. Neither one of us had been through anything like this. In one sense, it felt like a long funeral. On the early morning of May 25, my wife, partner, and great love passed on. Susan was at my house and I was with the doctors when it happened. I was in the middle of doing a project on my computer.

When it happened, I went and sat back down at my computer, completely emotionless. Some say that is normal, but I don’t have an idea of normal is. Susan drove over from my house and took me home, which would be the last night I would ever sleep in that house. The following day, Susan flew me to her home in Georgia.

Sally and I had many discussions, and nothing was left unsaid. She told me that it was ok to eventually find someone else. I quickly said, “there will never be another Sally.” I once heard that George Burns say, “there will never be another Gracie,” and he never remarried. I completely get it. We took a lot of trips, especially in the past few years. We both agreed, “it was a great run.” But, I never counted on it ending like this and so soon.

Writing all of this down is very tough, but maybe it will help someone else. But I have to say, the Hospice people are amazing and wonderful. My good friend’s sister works at Hospice and I don’t know how they do it. They are indeed special people.

Cancer Finds A Way

When dealing with cancer and treatments, it’s like an emotional roller-coaster that doesn’t stop. When my wife, Sally, went through the rigorous treatments of 6 chemotherapies and 32 radiations within 7 weeks, there was hope that her Stage 4 vulvar cancer was going to at least be contained, but there was a strong chance it would return. We were hoping for years, not much sooner.

At the time, things were looking promising. She actually went back to work in early March, but it wasn’t going to last. After about 3 weeks, Sally was starting to experience pain in her abdomen. She wasn’t scheduled for a scan for another several weeks, but the doctors pushed through a new scan, something the insurance company didn’t want to do.

Waiting for the results was agonizing. In the waiting area, one of the doctors came out and said that her main doctor would call her. The look on his face told me that it wasn’t good. The next day, her cancer doctor called and was crying on the phone. Her cancer had spread into her lungs, spleen and bone. I talked with her separately and the doctor said that the love of my life only had months to live.

At the doctor’s office, her doctor mentioned that they were going to try another treatment. But, I’ll never forget what she said to Sally, “cancer finds a way.” I’m sure that many others can relate to this as I’ve heard other stories of cancer returning to people, even ones I know indirectly.

Sally went through two more brutalizing treatments and the lymphedema got worse again. After a month, the doctors decided to stop the chemotherapy as the cancer continued to spread. A few months was now turning into weeks.

My sister, Susan, flew out from Atlanta to help me take care of Sally. We had no family in Idaho as they were spread out. I couldn’t have gone through this part of the journey without her.

I was already going through the grieving process, but I mostly did it alone. I thought I could handle what was coming, but one of my good friends, Bryan, told me that it was going to hit me very hard when she passes. He was right. From my experience, there is nothing that can prepare you for the loss of the great love of your life, even when you know it’s coming.

The picture is one of the last ones that was taken with the both of us.

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A Brief Period of “Normal”

Sally finished all of her treatments in early January of 2017. Things were starting to look up. The lymphedema seemed to be subsiding and after four to six weeks, she started to feel better. I was starting to think that things were going to be okay.

My wife was one the hardest and most dedicated workers you would every meet. She worked at the cosmetic counter at Macys in North Idaho. She managed the Estee Lauder counter and helped countless people with makeup, fragrances and skin care.

Sally wasn’t just good at her job, she was the one of the best. She rarely called out sick. One year, on Black Friday, she developed laryngitis and could barely speak above a small whisper. The mangers were told about her condition and they asked to her come into work anyway as they were short-handed. The next thing I know, she’s getting ready for work, but I decided to drive her.

At the end of the day, she had one of the highest sales totals for that day. I was surprised, but yet I wasn’t. She had so many people who would come to Macy’s just to see her. Other associates who were available, tried to help Sally’s loyal customers. Instead, they would stand and wait for Sally to finish up with another customer. It drove the other associates nuts, but I thought it was awesome. At the end of the day, though, her coworkers loved her. The picture below was taken on New Year’s Eve. How Sally got the strength to go to that party was nothing short of incredible.

I used to television weather at the local station. Sally was a good sport when people would come up to me as ask about the weather, say they recognized me or in a few cases, have her take a picture of me and a fan. But, there were many days when I thought she was famous one. I lost track of the many times we would have lunch and a Macy’s customer would come up and say hello to her or ask when the next gift with purchase was going to be.

When Sally put her mind to it, she could sell anything. When she first took a job selling fragrances at another department store when we lived in Vermont in the early 2000s, she was very apprehensive as she never sold a single fragrance. However, in about six months, Sally was breaking sales records.

When Sally was first diagnosed with cancer, I told her to “life her life,” and she did. In late March of 2017, she went back to work. For a brief time, I thought that things were going to go back to some kind of normal. We would go to lunch during her break and watch TV in the evenings, just like we used to.

I remember one day when I overheard her telling a customer that she was cancer free, hoping that she was right. A short time later, things changed.20161231_203507

Doctors and Treatments. A New Way of Life.

When a loved one gets sick, especially a long-term illness, you find yourself becoming very familiar with hospitals, doctors’ office, pharmacies, physical therapy offices and other places along that line.

When my beloved Sally was diagnosed with vulvar cancer, we had to adjust our lives and schedules for her treatments. The strength she had for this was amazing. The doctors said the treatment was going to be intense and were uncertain if she was going to be able to so much in a short period of time. But she did, with dignity and grace.

In a span of 7 weeks, during the holiday season of 2016, she had to go through 6 chemo therapies and 32 radiation treatments. In addition to those treatments, there were numerous trips to the pharmacy, a trip to the emergency room when her fever spiked from the chemotherapy, plus other trips that had to be made for blood tests, blood transfusions and magnesium supplements and other procedures that I can barely remember. She rarely complained, and I didn’t either. You do what you have to do.

Watching what the treatments did to her was hard to say the least. She developed a new side effect called lymphedema. We never heard of that one until her legs and feet swelled to the point she could barely walk. It’s a blockage with the lymph system due to the treatment. Physical therapy and constant massages was the only thing that could be done. No medication is available for that condition.

Going to the doctor’s office for checkups was difficult. I literally could not sit in the room when she was being examined, even though the doctor said that I could. I would go outside to the waiting room and sit and wait.

I remember one occasion when one of the doctors pointed at me to come over. I braced myself for the worst, but at that time, he informed me that the tumor was shrinking, and things were looking better. That’s the one thing with hospitals and doctor’s visits. There are good days and very bad ones.

There was one trip to the emergency room when they did x-rays. There was a blood clot in her leg and a spot on her lung. I worried about that spot, but there wasn’t too much concern for that at the time as the focus was the area for the cancer treatment.

I remember the trips, sometimes two days a week, to an office that specializes and tests for blood thickness. They were amazing and wonderful to Sally. They were very saddened when I had to break the horrible news.

I will say that practically all the medical people that treated my wife were extremely kind and supportive. There were a few days when she was feeling worse than usual and the medical facility would take her in right away. Sally had me bake cookies for them during the holidays. I’m not much of a baker, but I was glad to do it. At least the cookies tasted pretty good.

On her last chemotherapy treatment in late December of 2016, at least I thought it was before the cancer spread, the nurses came out and played the song, “Hit the Road Jack.” I thought it was very cool.

Becoming a Caregiver

When your spouse is diagnosed with cancer and requires extensive radiation and chemotherapy, your entire life will change, practically overnight. My wife, Sally, did a lot of the housework, cooking, working and, of course, taking care of me.

Yes, I did help out when I could, but it was her home and wanted to take great care of it. I managed the finances, worked on my own business plus going to various jobs. One of my jobs was to gas up her car. That was a chore she refused to do, and I was ok with that. We made a bet that if she ran out of gas on the highway, I had to let her buy a $1000 worth of clothes. There was one time I almost lost that bet, but in the end, she got the clothes anyway.

In early November of 2016, my wife, Sally, was diagnosed with a type of cancer called vulvar cancer. It’s very rare and occurs on the outer surface of the female genitals. The doctors informed me that it’s one of the most deadly forms of cancer, especially if it gets to advanced stages.

Watching a loved one go through the treatments for cancer is brutal. One of my relatives told me that I was going to be a “caregiver,” and it was going to be very difficult. They weren’t kidding.

From the diagnosis to that fateful day, it was about 7 months. I understand that many people will care for someone else for much longer, and I can honestly say that I have complete admiration for their service, dedication, patience and understanding.

From the beginning of treatments, in addition to working whenever I could, I did all of the household chores. A goodnight sleep became a thing of the past from that point as I had to get up two to four times a night and help her to the restroom. Because the cancer and treatments were focused on the genital area, using the restroom was difficult for her. I had to sit outside the bathroom and talk with my wife to get her to relax. One could only imagine some of the conversations that took place.

Her appetite was almost gone. I had to come up with any kind of simple food dish to get her to eat at all. Her favorite was scrambled eggs, cheese, potatoes and a little bacon mixed in. My sister taught us how to make it, and I got pretty good at preparing it.

To have someone completely dependent on you is a feeling I had never experienced. To be honest, I was willing to do anything to make her comfortable. It’s kind of unusual to say, but sometimes I felt honored to care for the person who made my life so complete.

I was amazed that I didn’t get sick as flu season was in full force. Perhaps I wouldn’t allow my body to shut down because there was no family close by to help out. The stress of the situation brought me close to a nervous breakdown numerous times. But, I somehow managed to hang in there.

I have a new appreciation for caregivers. Their sacrifices are enormous and thank goodness there are people who walk that path, even when they haven’t chosen to do so.

Getting the News is like a Big Earthquake with Lots of Aftershocks

I have found out the hard way that losing a spouse is one of the most stressful events in one’s lifetime. I saw a study that this type of event ranks at the top for stress, but I will never begin to understand divorce, losing a child or other traumatic events. Regardless, the emotional toll on my body has been enormous.

I will never forget that fateful time in October of 2016 when the doctor who examined my wife came out to talk to me in the waiting room. She almost looked pale and said, “we’re going to look at this and take care of it.” At the time, I really didn’t know exactly what she was talking about, but I did have an idea.

On Thursday morning, October 20, 2016. I’m trying to wrap my head around the news that the love of my life, Sally, may be stricken with cancer.

My friend Tom once told me, “you can only be shocked once.” There is a lot of truth to that statement, but the “aftershocks” of that news kept on coming after feeling of what was the biggest earthquake of my life.

I’m tried my best to be strong for my wife while going into my office to cry. I’m tried my absolute best to be positive and not let her see my breakdowns in my office. The last time I cried was when my father died over 15 years ago. Since then, I lost track of how many breakdowns I’ve had.

I knew something was wrong for quite some time, but getting her to the doctor’s office wasn’t easy. I could do was to there for her and tell her it’s going to be fine and “life your life,” which she did. I told her for a long time that you live life to its fullest, because you never know what’s around the corner. You see and read how this type of thing happens to someone else. Well this time, I’m was that someone else.

Not to sound like it’s about me, but I would have traded places with her in a heartbeat. Honestly, I always thought that something like this would happen to me, not the other way around. At the gynecologist office, I had to call my big sister, Susan, and give her the news. It literally took everything I had to not to lose it on the phone outside of the doctor’s office.

In the beginning of all of this, the doctor did say that it does look like cancer, but uncertain how far it has progressed. I remember taking the phone downstairs, away from the possibility of Sally hearing the conversation. All I remember was that he said, “it’s not good.”

The rest of that day when we got the news, was sitting and watching TV as we both dozed in and out of shows we had on our DVR. She was on vacation from work, but some vacation. Without children, we would spend the time off visiting family members or try to see new places. From this experience, I tell my friends to “take that vacation” or “appreciate what you have,” because as my stepfather, Rich, told me, “tomorrow is promised to no one.”

I awakened the following morning as Sally went downstairs. Hard to sleep when it’s “not knowing,” or fearing the absolute worst scenario. In the back of your mind, you know that one day something will come along and turn your world inside and out.