Posts Tagged ‘Andy Wilkinson’

Coming to Terms with It

October 24, 2011

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

Worst Fears

September 26, 2011

What we fear most sometimes ambushes us when we are otherwise preoccupied with challenges we believe are, in themselves, about as much as we can take. My husband had a brilliant (if sometimes perplexing) mind. He was a wordsmith and the keeper, in our household, of obscure words and interesting etymology. He was a deep thinker, though he occasionally proclaimed that if personal depth could be compared to the depth of a pond, his would be revealed as being only ankle deep. I felt it would be measured in fathoms, not inches.

The decline he experienced the summer and early fall of 2010 was mostly a physical decline, not a mental one. He could handle the physical decline, even if he did not like it. His worst fear—and mine for him—wasn’t physical decline, but losing his mind during the downward spiral.

The threat of that ambushed us in mid-October. One of his closest friends, Andy Wilkinson, was visiting from Texas. I had urged Andy to visit because I feared that Howard might die before they had a chance to see one another again and something in my sense of urgency had gotten through to him.

Neither Howard nor I thought much about the MRI scheduled during Andy’s visit. There had been so many scans and tests over the previous three years that I no longer gave them much mental or emotional air time because they almost never revealed anything important or even useful. But the MRI had been scheduled because Howard had reported some rather puzzling symptoms during a checkup. He’d been having a certain numbness on one side of his face that seemed to be present when he was prone and went away once he was out of bed and moving around a bit. He hadn’t been quick to tell me about it and when he had, he hadn’t seemed overly concerned. The fact that he had actually informed me of the symptom should have told me more than his seeming lack of concern about it. But my antennae must have been slightly misaligned that day.

I’d chalked it up to his overall lack of mobility. The blood just wasn’t having a chance to circulate like it should. I had little fear of stroke because it didn’t fit the kind of numbness connected with stroke. He and I had both noticed that words were occasionally failing him, too, but that didn’t alarm me, either. It wasn’t severe and I thought it to be symptomatic of his overall decline.

The MRI was just a minor interruption to an otherwise lovely visit by Andy. In fact, Andy went with him to the appointment.

His doctor called the house before they returned. The cancer had metastasized to the dura—the covering of the brain. There were also a half dozen nodules between the dura and brain, one of them large enough to be putting some pressure on the brain. That was probably what was causing his symptoms.

This was the first time in fifteen years his oncologist had seen this kind of metastasis in one of his prostate cancer patients. The online research I did later suggested that cancer metastasizes to the brain in 1-2% of prostate cancer patients and that this percentage might actually be inaccurately low based on the autopsy results of some men who had died of prostate cancer. It would seem that the cancer might be finding its way to the brains of these men more often than assumed, but when it did, they often died before it was discovered.

As his doctor talked, it seemed to me that the fear I’d never allowed handhold, foothold, or any purchase at all in my mind was standing in front of me and making faces, instead of just climbing around in my head. If the cancer continued to spread in this area, any number of alarming and deadly things could happen, depending on the part of the brain impacted. He could have seizures. His ability to swallow, breathe, see—in other words, his ability to perform one or more bodily functions necessary to live—might be impaired. He could lose his ability to speak . . . or even think. The possibilities were ugly.

I was in tears when he and Andy got home. One look at me, before I said a word, told Howard that something was very wrong. I don’t think he immediately connected it to the MRI because, like me, he hadn’t expected the MRI to tell us much. Andy was an innocent caught in a drama he hadn’t auditioned for. Fortunately, Andy was as good a friend and as strong a man as I had always believed him to be. But he’d come to our home without having seen, first hand, Howard’s decline over the past few months and was now finding himself in something of a B-grade horror movie.

I think Howard’s doctor had been in shock, too. He didn’t hold out much hope for doing anything about this newest development during my initial conversation with him. But by the time we saw him, less than two days later, he had a plan. We could do nothing about this newest development. Or . . . Howard could undergo a round of radiation treatments, not to effect any “cure,” but to mitigate some of the potential consequences of the metastasis. In other words, if we were lucky, Howard might continue his pilgrimage toward death and ultimately die without losing his senses or his mind.

Neither of us was keen to have him undergo radiation treatments, but we were both relieved by the sliver of hope that having them might allow him to maintain some of that keen mental prowess so important to him.

I found myself supporting the idea. Howard had chosen an allopathic, conventional approach to the treatment of his cancer. It was not an approach I liked. It was an approach I doubted I would take if I were diagnosed with cancer. Yet, here I was—the woman who mostly disdained the entire approach to medical “care” in the Western world—not only supporting radiation treatment, but feeling grateful that it was an option.

As for Howard, he never wavered from his stance that Death was going to have to do more than show up and invite him to depart, it was going to have to wrestle him—like the angel who wrestled Jacob through the long night. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that it is not winning that tempts the man who would wrestle with such an angel. On the contrary, the man who would undertake a match like this would have the wisdom to know that being defeated by such a powerful being would make him more than he had been before the match.

Perhaps, but Howard wasn’t quite yet ready to surrender in this way. He wanted to hold on to any shred of his physical presence that he could . . . and as much of his mind as could be bargained for in the delicate negotiations between Death, allopathy, and his own considerable will.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall