For some years, I had been erratically hypersensitive to endings and beginnings. I cannot recall quite when it began, but it was after my husband left for Kosovo in 2000 and before he left for Iraq in December of 2004. I say that it was erratic because I could not predict the people or circumstances that would trigger it. For instance, our friend Andy Wilkinson would come for a visit of two or three days and the sense of a very real ending would wash over me when he left, for no apparent reason. But some other day, weeks later, I might wake up entranced by the way the sun filtered through the trees and feel a sense of beginnings. Again, for no apparent reason.
This happened again and again, often enough that the phenomenon did not escape my attention. But then, it couldn’t have because the endings were tug-at-the-heart endings and the beginnings were first-day-of-the-world beginnings. Objective reality was irrelevant. This was highly subjective and very real to me. Sometimes I felt that I was apprenticed to some archangel of endings and beginnings; at other times I felt that the accumulated endings and beginnings over many lifetimes were pressing down on me in this lifetime.
When Howard’s cancer metastasized to the dura, with tendrils threatening the brain itself, I had that sense of both an ending and a beginning, all in the same event. Earlier that year, I had begun to suspect that my hypersensitivity to life’s alphas and omegas had been a kind of training for what was to come with Howard. By late October and early November, I saw the wisdom of it. This was a time for him to lessen his grip on denial: an ending to the smoke and mirrors. It was also a time for accepting that death was closer than he would have it: the beginning of the end, followed by the ultimate ending, followed by a beginning into some state and condition that was a mystery to him—and is a mystery to us all if we are honest about it. And because I was his companion on the pilgrimage, these endings and beginnings were felt by me too.
I knew I would have my own endings and beginnings with his death, but life had placed me in the most elegant of positions for the time being and that position was both feet on the ground, right in the present moment. It was not an option. It was not some lovely payoff for years of meditating. Nothing so grand as that. It was simply the increased focus and amplified sensory acuity one has when they are with someone who is dying. I was witnessing and experiencing endings and beginnings on a daily basis.
Howard began to release his denial about the encroachment of death. He had a sense of urgency about seeing some people and one of them was Pat Wilcox. Howard had probably known Pat for somewhere between thirty and forty years. They had met when Pat was a journalist for a local paper and Howard was a cop with the Lakewood Police Department. They shared a love of writing and Howard was, no doubt, taken by her intelligence, keenness of mind, and riveting personality—the same things that drew him to certain women, in general. But Pat was special. It wasn’t a romantic thing; it had never been that kind of relationship. But there was a bond built from shared confidences, conversations both cerebral and earthy, teasing, and collegiality. He loved her and hadn’t seen her for a number of years. He wasn’t sure she still lived in Colorado and, in fact, wasn’t sure she was counted among the living at all.
But a chance comment at an event put him hot on her trail and he tracked her down at a retirement complex for veterans . . . on the other side of the metro area. He insisted on going to see her, despite the fact that his doctor wanted him to curtail his driving—both in regards to distance and frequency—and despite the fact that his old red truck was having difficulty getting into gear. He needed to see her and he did. I worried but mostly kept my mouth shut.
I recognized it as one of the signs that he was coming to terms with the fact that he didn’t have much longer to live. While he didn’t say it, I suspected he saw the radiation treatments not only as a way to mitigate some potentially nasty problems, but also as a way to buy him just a little time to come to some kind of closure within himself and between him and important people in his life.
This did not mean that he had developed a newfound willingness to talk about his condition. He was still vague about it with his friends. He did not even tell Pat Wilcox details—despite the fact that on at least one occasion, he went straight from a radiation treatment to her abode.
Before one of his friends came to town from out of state, I attempted to fill him in on just how risky it was for Howard to be driving around the metro area and asked him to meet Howard for lunch somewhere much closer to our home than they usually did. It wasn’t until they had that lunch—at the place they’d been lunching together at for years, a place many miles from our house—that his friend began to get an inkling that this might be the last time they would see one another. It wasn’t that Howard told him explicitly that he was dying. Howard had not told anyone that he was dying in those exact terms. But he had a way of leaving things unsaid, of leaving gaps in the telling, that allowed the observant conversation mate to at least have suspicions. That and the fact that he appeared to be a more fragile version of himself than anyone was used to seeing.
Those occasional meetings with friends left him spent. He would return home and head straight to bed. The radiation treatments were also draining him. And I was finding it increasingly difficult to interest him in eating, despite my complete about-face on what qualified as food. Howard had a sweet tooth and a tolerance for junk food. Left to his own devices, he would have happily chosen donuts over eggs for breakfast and apple pie over just about anything else for dinner—on a regular basis. Fortunately, I was a cook and he loved my cooking. Fortunately, too, I limited the junk food in the house. But now I was happy to present him with donuts, apple pie, or anything else that he was willing to eat.
One day Howard told me that he’d once heard of a man on his deathbed who, when asked what he regretted in his life, had answered, “Not enough apple pie. Not enough beer.” That became a private joke between us. Fortunately, we could still laugh.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall