I started this blog last week. I didn't realize how much of this was in me, just waiting to come out. The final blog was so large (around 8,000 plus words!) that I didn't post it (or anything) at all. I wanted to put it up for a few days, come back to it, and see if I really needed to say all of it.
But, in the interest of how much anyone else wants to read of it at once, I am posting it in sections. So if you wish to read the whole story, tune in on Wed for the next installment!
As a culture we spend so much of our lives wishing and waiting for others to hand us the happiness we deserve. We live for the next lover, friend, job, car, degree, house, furniture, computer, camera, pair of shoes….to fill up a void that cannot be fulfilled through anything external. That kind of bliss comes from deep within and cannot be found until we are able to dig deep into our own selves, and see it was right there inside us all along. We have to discover gratitude for all the gifts we already possess, both in our own minds and bodies, as well as from those who surround us. Then and only then, will all the other trimmings of a wonderful love filled life find their way into our lives.
Before I met my husband Rick, I was a single mom for 5 and a half years. I had only dated once, about 2 and a half years after my divorce, and it only lasted a few months. I then let go of what was a very unfulfilling “relationship” (I even hesitate to call it that.) The main positive I got from that whole experience was that finally, at 33 years old, I had learned when to throw in the towel. I gave it a couple of months and saw it was heading no where quickly. In the past, when I was very much younger, I would have held on for fear of being alone again. Yet, though I had not dated at all after my divorce, I let this person go, with very little ill feelings. We didn't fit. It was that simple.
Not too long after that, I became involved with an old flame. Over the next two or three years, we went through a devastating and heart breaking, on again/off again relationship. We did fit it seemed, though our life circumstances most certainly did not. Even when we mutually decided not to see each other anymore, I kept holding onto to him in my heart, well after we had both decided it was best to part and go our separate ways. No matter what I did, however, I just couldn’t seem to completely let go of him and move on. I trudged along, through mothering the boys, going to work, going to class. I was treading water emotionally, over scheduling myself so that I could be continually moving, and dodging my deepest most painful feelings.
A year after we said goodbye, I was seemingly no closer to letting go completely and moving on with my life.
I was stuck.
Then I had an epiphany. But finally seeing the light came at a high price. That is, having a young friend, only twenty-six, see the proverbial light herself, and have to walk into it.
In March of 2005, I lost my young, twenty-six year old friend Lita (short for Elizabeth) to cervical cancer. I was so busy, and had so many colds that I only got to visit her a few times in the hospital. But when I did we spent several amazing hours talking about life, death, dreams, and letting go...
When I first visited with her she had blood clots in her lungs, and cancer spreading from her where her uterus used to be. All she talked about was not being able to let go of never being a mom, being pregnant, giving birth. I remember thinking, "Oh honey…please get through that disappointment. Because you have more urgent realities to address now." But she was stuck herself.
The last time I saw her, she had let of ever having children, but not of life. She was convinced she had a purpose here yet unfulfilled. We talked about this for a long time, and I listened more than talked. When I did respond I told her that she did have so much to offer. That she needed to pour all her energy into getting better and keep her mind focused on how she will feel once she is healthy, as well as the new dreams she was creating for herself. She was vibrant and in wonderful spirits. She was thrilled that I came and stayed so long, because she said a lot of her younger friends seemed to have a hard time seeing her ill. Our talk turned more serious after a while, and it was then she expressed a fear of not being ready to let go of life if the time came.
I told her of my experience with my Mother-in-law, my first husband Ken’s mom Maryanne, who passed away of liver cancer in 1990 in her own bed, surrounded by her children. How when Maryanne was diagnosed after exploratory surgery in 1989, her children followed her physician out to the hall to ask all the important imperative questions regarding her prognosis. That I had initially followed their lead, until looking around us all in the hallway I realized Maryanne was lying in her hospital bed alone, having just been told in essence that she was dying within the next 6 months to a year.
I went back into her room and asked her, “Do you want to be alone right now?“
She reached out her frail hand to me, tears welling up in her eyes and whispered, “No.“
I took her hand. I believe it was the first time I ever held it since first shaking it when I met her a little over a year before. We stayed in there, me standing beside her bed, holding each other’s hands, until the rest of the family returned.
The last time I held her hand was almost a full year later. It was two days after her 61st birthday. Two nights after we had a huge party for her, where all of her friends and family came (over 50 of them) to essentially celebrate her birthday, her life, and say goodbye to her.
The evening after her birthday, she had a near death experience, where she was panicked, frightened, and unable to speak for what seemed forever. While Ken and Phyllis held her hand, I called their two other siblings, Rick and Karen, and told them to come right away. All of the kids, the grandkids, and everyone came over and took turns holding her hand until the frightening moment passed, and she could breath normally, and talk again.
Then she seemed to have what would be her final “second wind.” So we all stayed up late into the night, joking and laughing about all the silly crazy family stories. Like when Rick, the oldest brother, along with his friends, set a field on fire and sent his younger sister Phyllis for water. She return with one glassful. Then there was the time that Ken and his sister Karen decided to do home improvements in the kitchen, and nailed two by fours to the floor through the linoleum. Or when Rick allowed Ken, 14 years younger than him, to row the fishing boat on an outing with Rick’s college buddies. But they “forgot” (accidentally on purpose) to tell Ken that the anchor was down. So Ken rowed and rowed forever, going around in circles and never reaching the shore, only to look up and sigh about how HARD it was and valiantly continuing his efforts to impress his older brother‘s friends (who were trying not to pee their pants they were laughing so hard.)
It was a beautiful evening. But the earlier episode that brought everyone running to Maryanne’s bedside was scary.
That night, we all just wanted to keep talking with her, keep her smiling and laughing, as if we could suspend time and thereby keep her with us just a little longer. I think we all knew that she would be gone before another sunset.
We each had a moment alone with her before she went to sleep. I don't know what she said to each of her kids, but to me...
She said, "I am so very thankful Ken has you to help him through this. You will forever be a part of our family now. I love you." Those words came back to me many times throughout my marriage, whenever I was thinking of leaving. I just really hated to disappoint Maryanne.
As I said earlier, this was the night before….
The last time I held Maryanne’s hand.
Throughout the night she had a few more scares, lots more pain. Per the standing orders the hospice nurse gave them, to give her as much morphine as she asked for because it really didn’t matter about addiction at this point, Ken and Phyllis came close to the maximum does possible. Ken told me later what the hospice nurse had actually said to them- “If she asks for it, give it, as much as you are comfortable giving to her. I leave that to your discretion.”
This is one of the most amazing and important gifts of hospice. No judgment. An understanding that sometimes, too much morphine is ok, when someone is in that degree of pain.
Ken said he came close that night to the maximum does…just shy of going over. If she had asked for more, I’m sure he or his sister would have given it.
She was holding on for one more goodbye.
The next morning Ken woke me and told me to call the kids again. He was sure this time, she would not be coming out of the episode. She was so frightened, again she couldn’t speak, and that seemed to upset her the most. It was so hard to be brave and help her to leave us, but we knew it was what she needed us to do. I could read, quite clearly on her face, the fear of leaving us behind, the wish for one more chance to tell us she loved us. We stood encircling her bed, all of us were holding her hands, caressing her legs, arms, and face, smoothing her hair, wiping her silent tears. We told her over and over that we loved her, that she could stop fighting, that it was ok to leave us, that she had done such a wonderful job raising her family, that we would all be alright and would help each other through.
In an hour or less, she took her last, deep, desperate breath, and then she passed away.
I was 22 years old. Not being married to her son yet, it was a privilege I think, to be there, to be a part of helping her let go of life and move on to wherever her spirit was going next.
I did not share all of that with Lita. She was hell bent on recovery and I didn’t want to bring her focus to preparing for the alternative. I do believe, especially in Maryanne’s case, that the Dr telling us 6 months to a year, gave her a year at most.
I happen to know of a pancreatic cancer patient, our next door neighbor and father to one of my sister’s best friend’s growing up, who chose not to know how long he had. The Dr told his wife the same prognosis as Maryanne’s was, but he had no clue himself. He lived 3 or 4 more YEARS. I shared THAT with Lita. And she was reading all these “Beat Cancer” books centered around diet, attitude, and alternative treatment. She was in a really good place, and where she needed to be if she had a chance to live.
So I simply assured her that I had never known a person going through what she was, that was not ready to let go, if in fact that time came. Not that they weren't afraid to go, I think we all are, but they were also ready to let go when it was time. We also talked about making the most of every day. And I shared my favorite Maryanne quote with her.
One morning the last month or so Maryanne was alive, Ken went into her room one dreary April shower filled morning and opened the window for her. He turned, saw she was awake, and said to her, “Sorry Mom, looks like a dreary day out there.”
To which Maryanne smiled and said, “But it’s a day.”
Lita liked that story. We both so enjoyed our visit that we promised to have another as soon as she got out.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw her.