Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

Widowhood 101

January 22, 2012

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be fine.” The naïveté and hubris of those words are breathtaking. But, then, I’ve had some time to learn just how wrong I was about it.

I had lost both of my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, beloved animal companions. I thought I had some experience with death. In fact, I did have experience . . . I just didn’t have experience with losing a husband.

I made that pronouncement within days of Howard’s death. I used it as a shield against the pain I saw reflected in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. Even when they said little or nothing, their eyes were a mirror of the grief I held and refused to admit to others. I’d already been through the hard part—the long process of his dying. If I’d handled that, I was certain I could handle what came next. As it happened, I was right . . . and also just a little wrong.

Within twenty-four hours or so of my husband’s death, I’d packed up most of his clothes and shoes (with my sister’s help) and handed them off to my friend Gretchen Minney for donation to the Birds of Prey thrift store. If anyone but family and close friends had known how quickly I divested myself of his clothing, they would have been stunned. But I’d had a long time to plan the chain of events following his death. Months later, I saw the wisdom of it. If I’d waited, I might have clung to more than the few things I kept. It was a good move.

I also wasted little time rearranging the house. It was a relief to have the hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and other accoutrements of end-stage cancer out of the house. Just looking at them made me weary. I moved furniture around, too, and got rid of a few pieces. I needed to reclaim my home for the living, so I bought a comfortable reading chair for my bedroom, moved Howard’s leather wing chair from the living room, replacing it with something new and comfortable, and rescued my small secretary from sickroom status.

Within a month, I held the post-death party I’d promised to have at the house. It was something of a homecoming for Lakewood PD people with whom Howard had worked in the 1970s. Many others came, too, including some of my friends, colleagues, and clients. I was grateful for that. Still, it was something of a blur. I fortified myself with champagne to serve as hostess—rather than crumbling widow—and got through the day.

My friends and colleagues in Boulder Media Women sent cards, many with checks. It was more than a thoughtful gesture, it was a gesture that saved me from worrying about the cash I needed to live on for that first month following his death, a time when I was completely unable to even contemplate work.

For the first several months after Howard’s death, I moved through my days, attending to the administrative and mundane details that had to be managed. I filed the will. I got Howard’s name removed from the vehicle titles. I battled with the annuity company to distribute the funds coming to me in a way that would benefit me optimally over time.

I learned a thing or two in that battle with the annuity company. Those who have just lost a spouse are easy prey for questionable behavior on the parts of those who have something to lose by that death. If I had folded in my grief, it would have cost me a good deal of money—at least a good deal of money for a simple woman with limited funds. Howard had worked hard for that small bit of money he’d tucked away and I refused to allow it or his efforts to look after me with it to be disrespected by problematic practices on the part of the annuity company. Besides, I knew I would need those funds over the next few years.

They gave IRS citations I knew didn’t apply. They blithely argued that they simply couldn’t do what I asked. The agent who had sold the policy—one of Howard’s oldest friends, a man who considered him a mentor—had difficulty believing that if the company said they couldn’t do something, they could be wrong.

I called in my own version of the “big guns”—my longtime broker and financial advisor. I’d always been a minor client, but he rose up to offer support as if I were a major account. Ultimately, I didn’t have to press my broker into service. My tenacity got the case taken all the way up the chain of command to the highest levels of the company for a decision. They agreed to distribute the funds as I requested. I wondered how widows and widowers with less tenacity dealt with these things. I was sure I knew the answer: many didn’t—and got run over by big companies during the most vulnerable time of their lives.

But I didn’t expect the fog that hovered over me. Hadn’t I removed the cords that connected Howard and me during the death ceremony before he died? What was this miasma enveloping me? I was a shaman; I read energy. What in the world was I experiencing? It took a while to understand. Howard’s energy field and mine had overlapped more than I had ever guessed. He was gone, but remnants of that field remained and the part gone felt like a black hole. It felt a little like being blindfolded, spun around, and set loose in a room that was completely familiar but disorienting because it wasn’t being experienced in the usual way.

I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word “widow” yet, but I was beginning to understand what it meant.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Sacred Space

December 7, 2011

I wasn’t exactly sure when it happened, but sometime in December of 2010, I realized that my home had become a church.

I had always taken care of myself and my appearance, but now I found myself taking special care to dress well and attend to my grooming. I traded in shoes that clicked on my wood floors for those that were as quiet as . . . well . . . a church mouse. I became more attentive than usual to the cleanliness and neatness of the house and I wanted only soft music playing. I felt calmer, more congruent, and more at peace with myself than usual and I found myself speaking in hushed tones. I carried myself with a kind of dignity I had never before noticed. And then one day I realized that I had made sacred space of my entire surroundings. It was clear to me that Howard was nearing death and the very air seemed charged with all that was holy.

It wasn’t that my husband was a particularly “holy” man. He was a man, with all the idiosyncrasies, charms, failings, peculiarities, gifts, talents, and personality eccentricities of a man. But that was actually the point. He was human and he was dying and I seemed intuitively bound to treat this moment in time as the significant and ephemeral instant of magic and mystery that it was. He was my husband and, therefore, important to me. But he also seemed to stand for humankind itself and the essential goodness of humankind.

So my house had become a church without my consciously making it so. And the space seemed poised, waiting for something important to happen.

This is not to say that there was little activity. In fact, there was so much activity, it was sometimes dizzying. Hospice is a blessing and an army of help, but that help rings your doorbell on a fairly regular basis and has to be let in, communicated with, attended to, and put in interactive mode with the dying party. That dying party was Howard and he remained intent on being entertaining—that is, when he was not being a curmudgeon. He carried both with no apparent paradox.

Apart from hospice, friends began to appear at the door. The word had gotten out—through the phone lines, Internet, and thin air—that Howard didn’t have long. He had refused to allow people to see him in bed, but one day, Joe Schalmoser stopped by without notice and Howard allowed him into his sanctuary, where Joe found him propped up in bed. A month earlier, Howard had been downright rude to Cindy Morris—a friend of mine who had become his friend, too—when she followed me upstairs as I announced her arrival. He’d refused to be seen at all. He simply had not been willing to allow anyone to see him in any kind of compromised condition (as with an open bag of Depends nearby). And now he was welcoming Joe into his bedroom, treating his bed like a throne.

Then Pat and Mary Ahlstrom—old friends from the early Lakewood PD days—came by. He had softened to the idea of people seeing him in bed and with their visit, he softened further. He now wanted to see people more than he wanted to appear to be something other than he was—a dying man. Diana Wilson came on a regular basis. She had been a dispatcher at the Broomfield Police Department when Howard was chief. Years later, they connected again because of art. They were buddies and my sense was that she understood, very clearly, that the chances to see Howard were running thin.

Tom Deland, Broomfield’s chief of police since Howard left the post, came and brought his two deputy chiefs with him. It was an act of respect.

A woman who had been his paramour years before I was in the picture came to see him. She had been important to him and there was still an easy intimacy there. She’d also had cancer and knew what she was seeing in him.

She was one of the few who did. It was excruciating and frustrating to me that many of his friends and some of his family still did not seem to understand that he was dying—and going quickly. Those out of town just couldn’t see what I was seeing and Howard did his best imitation of a robust man when he talked with them on the phone.

When I wasn’t tending to the revolving door and Howard’s needs, I found myself doing things I did not want to do at all, but knew needed to be done. Like calling All-States Cremation to see what they needed from me before Howard’s death. I talked with them and faxed them information surreptitiously, which was not difficult since Howard slept when he had no visitors. And he hadn’t been downstairs to my office since the day I brought him back from his last transfusion.

I also called the assistant to my Raymond James broker to get some money because I knew my attention would not be on work for some time and any monies coming to Howard via direct deposit would stop, abruptly, with his death. Early in December, I finished an editing project and energetically shut off the flow of work so I would not be distracted by potential clients I knew I would be unable to serve until sometime after his death.

I had no time for clients anyway. Everything—and I mean everything—took more time than I would have thought. The incoming telephone calls, the visits, tending to Howard, the updates on his condition for family and friends, keeping the house and yard tended to—everything took more time. When I was in my office, I would sprint up the stairs to his room, two floors above, every twenty minutes, just to check on him. Even after my friend Helena Mariposa sent me a baby monitor so I could keep tabs on Howard more easily (one of the best gifts anyone can give to the caretaker of a dying person), I continued to wear a path up and down those stairs, just not quite as often.

Just making sure that I was there if Howard fell or otherwise found himself in a fix took time. If he had to go to the bathroom, he slowly and painfully pulled himself up in bed, swung his feet over the edge, sat for a long time to rally his strength, hefted himself up, and slowly, over many minutes, inched his way to the hallway bathroom, which was just steps outside the guest room door. Then it was half an hour before he made the slow and treacherous trip back to his bed.

Everything took on an enhanced level of difficulty and we were both behaving like Olympic gymnists, taking on the difficult moves and intent on mastering them.

But I was also on the receiving end of some remarkable acts of kindness. Out raking leaves in early December—thanks to cottonwoods that held on to their leaves like Scrooge clutched his money purse—I felt overwhelmed. I’d already raked and bagged at least twenty-five bags of leaves earlier that fall. The prospect of more sucked the life right out of me, but head down and shoulder to the project, I started in.

Then neighbors from across the street called over to me. “You look like a lady in distress,” Glenn teased. It must have been that obvious. He and his wife Kathy came over, rakes in hand, and the task was accomplished quickly. They hadn’t known that Howard was dying until I told them that day, barely able to hold back the tears.

Heather McBroome, who had been doing shamanic work with me for several years, stopped by one day, wanting to help. When you are in the thick of crisis, you can’t even readily see what someone else might be able to do for you. I told her the only things that really needed attending to were things no one else would want to take on, things like taking Howard’s truck in for an oil change.

I have no idea why it seemed urgent that this task be done. He certainly wasn’t going to be driving that truck again. Perhaps I knew I would and that it would be a long time before I’d have the presence of mind to get the oil changed. Heather didn’t blink. She took the truck in for an oil change.

Some of my friends—most notably Antonio Arguello, his wife Helena Mariposa, Cindy Morris, and Gretchen Minney—understood what was happening perfectly and were rock solid support. There was support, too, from Boulder Media Women colleagues, clients, old friends, and new friends.

But Howard’s sister Ann was right there at the center. She and Howard were very close. I knew that what was happening to him was felt by her five hundred miles away in Ogden, Utah. Through the ether. Through the blood. Through a lifetime of energetic connection. I called her regularly to keep her abreast of what was going on. She’d been a nurse for many years, so we could talk in a kind of shorthand. Then regular calls became daily calls. I didn’t want her to be blindsided when he slipped away. But in truth, I also needed her. I needed to talk to someone else who loved him, I needed a witness to what was happening who had a deep heart connection with him. That would be Ann.

I’d always loved Ann and, over the years, I’d come to feel that she was my sister, too. But that sisterhood took on a new depth. I didn’t want to burden her with the details, but there was something important in sharing them with her. The details allowed her to be there with us. And she could not be there physically. She’d had polio as a child and that had developed into post-polio syndrome, decades later. She could get around, but she couldn’t get around easily, and there was no way she could handle the stairs in our house. I knew that it pained her to know that her big brother was dying and she couldn’t be there with him.

And I needed her, even if only by phone. I didn’t have to explain my exhaustion to her, didn’t have to explain my tears. She understood the term “incompliant patient,” which was the precise term that described him, and she understood it not simply because she had been a nurse, but because she knew her brother. I felt that Ann and I were bonding in the most intimate and painful of ways—through the dying process of someone we both loved.

That was sacred space of a kind, too. The space between me and Ann, me and Howard, me and my friends and family—it was all becoming sacred space. I knew it was a little like holding one’s breath—it couldn’t last forever. But much of my daily experience, it seemed, was becoming one ongoing experience of holy communion. I was hyper-focused on Howard and his process, under the kind of stress that one is mostly unaware of while experiencing it. I was sometimes exhausted, sometimes manic with energy, and sometimes cranky. And yet, everything took on a quality of sacredness and every interaction had become one of holy communion.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Specters and Human Angels

November 27, 2011

Sometimes when Howard slept, I could sense that much of his essential nature—his soul, if you will—slipped out of him and stayed out until he awoke again. One evening, the sense of it was so powerful, I felt he was already gone, already dead, even as he lay sleeping in the next room.

Late in November, I awoke in the middle of the night and sensed that the entire upper level of the house, the bedroom level, was filled with spirits. I could identify some: my council of guides, my mother, what I sensed were his guides and some of his ancestors. Others I could not identify. These specters returned, again and again, over the coming weeks. When I first sensed my father, I was surprised. While my mother had adored Howard (and he her), my father had died long before Howard and I met. They hadn’t known one another. Then I realized the sense to it. Like Howard, my father had been in the military. Like Howard, he had been an intellectual and a writer. Like Howard, he’d enjoyed chess. Of course he was there. They were going to be great friends on the other side. I was eventually able to discern what I thought were Howard’s parents and his cousin Jack among the ghostly visitors. It was comforting, and it was also telling. I knew that they were all there to help him with the process of leaving his body.

I was happy to take comfort in whatever form it came. After years of bucking up, I cried every day, multiple times a day. I mostly kept it from Howard, but not always. He didn’t question it. He knew his time was short. Some nights, I crept into bed with him, put my arms around him, and just lay with him. Sometimes we talked; other times we just soaked up one another’s presence. And sometimes we wept together. Those were sweet times, those nights. There was a deeper level of intimacy than we’d had in years—maybe a deeper level of intimacy than we’d ever had. It wasn’t about words and it wasn’t even really about physical proximity. It was about the partnership, the unstated contract between us to be partners during this pilgrimage to his death. The unstated understanding that we were what we had been saying for years: best friends. And best friends sometimes just witnessed one another’s lives. I was his witness.

He slept most of the day every day. He could no longer get up and down the few stairs from the bedroom level to the living level without a struggle. He only struggled to do so once or twice a day, mostly to get to the kitchen. I was happy to bring food to him, but he needed to demonstrate to himself that he could still make the stairs. He made one effort to sit in the living room, then asked for a chair in the bedroom. Antonio helped me move a comfortable one from the journey room (the room in which I did shamanic work with people) in the lowest level of the house up to his room. He used it only a few times, but just having it there made him happy.

Everything was beginning to make me nostalgic. I turned on the television to find an episode of Globe Trekker on Fiji. We had been married in Fiji. Another day, the movie When Harry Met Sally was on. I smiled and cried because it was one of many movies he liked a good deal. And while Howard often referred to the house as my house—an accusation more than anything else that I’d arranged it according to my own tastes and needs—everywhere I looked in it, I was reminded of Howard and our life together. It was as if he were already gone. And in some ways, he was. He was slipping further away from me every day.

Yet, a few days after Thanksgiving, he asked if we were going to see the new Harry Potter movie. He had almost died days earlier and he was completely unable to get down the series of stairs that led outside. Still, he seemed to have told himself that he could do this. When I finally got ready to return the borrowed oxygen tank to the cancer center, he said, “I’d like to go with you.” Again, it was a physical impossibility for him. Did he sense that he would never again see the nurses and doctors who had been so kind to him? Perhaps, though it did not occur to me at the time. What did occur to me was that he was becoming farther and farther removed, mentally, from his physical reality. Getting to the bathroom was a major undertaking. Leaving the house? No chance.

Finally, in the last days of November, he agreed to hospice. But even here, he insisted on doing it his way. He slept until he had just enough time to get himself up and together before they came to the house to meet with us. He dragged himself to the shower, dressed, and struggled his way downstairs to the dining room because he did not want them to see him as an invalid. He did not want hospice to see him as an invalid.

The meeting was a negotiation. The hospice staff quickly determined what he was made of and that he would need more than their respect, he would need their agreement to participate in the hallucination that he was not the dying man they saw before them. They stepped up. They’d done this before. He had feared that bringing in hospice meant he would no longer have access to blood transfusions. I knew that he’d already had the last one he would need in this life, but it was an important consideration in his mind. They assured him that it was not beyond the realm of possibilities and that it could, in fact, be done at home.

At one point, during the discussion with hospice, he said, “Maybe I’ll just disappear . . . leave the house, drive away, and not come back.” It was a threat. He wanted them to know that he was still in charge. He wanted them to know he’d already had enough of his body betraying him, before signing on with them, and he didn’t want nonsense from them (or me).

Of course, he would have needed me and a couple of strong men to get him downstairs, outside, and into his truck by this point. Still, I had no doubt he could still drive if he could be helped to his truck. Where would he drive to? No question about that. He would be off on another adventure. Maybe the trip to Alaska he’d been sorry to have never made. No Thelma and Louise action from him. Never.

Unbeknownst to him, hospice and the nightly cadre of spirits were preparing him for his next adventure. No escaping to have an adventure on his own. Not this time.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Cheating Death One More Time

November 18, 2011

If Howard wanted to be the inconspicuous recipient of a blood transfusion, collapsing at the hospital entrance was not the way to do it. The medical staff crowded around him like a pack of vampires on a warm body. I could do little to help. He was already annoyed with himself and with them. I did not want to say or do anything to make matters worse. I stood back while they attended to him, wondering what the split in their attention was between fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath versus mitigating hospital liability.

He was taken to the emergency room, as opposed to the ambulatory care unit where he was to receive his transfusion. We were in for a long day. There is irony in coupling the word “emergency” with that particular unit in a hospital because there seems to be little urgency to the treatment received there. But on this day, the emergency room was bustling. On our way to the hospital, we had passed a serious looking accident, not half a mile from the medical center. If you’re going to have an accident, being close to a hospital is genius. By the time Howard was ensconced in a treatment room, the human wreckage had arrived at the hospital.

Still, they were living up to my expectations, at least as far as my husband was concerned. He was not a priority and we were mostly left alone for long periods of time. Ultimately, the medical staff wanted to admit him and keep him tucked away in a room at least overnight, thereby providing me with an opportunity to demonstrate that I could be trusted on the “no ambulances, no hospitals” pledge. He and I were a united front: no admission.

Hours—and endless frustration—later, he was placed in a private room in the ambulatory care unit and they were beginning preparations for his transfusion. Even as an outpatient, he was going to be there all night. The transfusion would take that long, not only because they were going to give him four units of blood, but because he had to be given saline infusions after each unit of blood. This would, of course, put a demand on his already overworked urinary track. Fortunately, there was a bathroom right outside his room. Unfortunately, he was hooked up to a monitor because of the earlier incident. In theory, that meant he would need to buzz an attendant every time he needed to go to the bathroom. In practice, I knew he would simply rip the sensors off, thereby setting off alarms, and struggle unassisted to the bathroom.

It didn’t take him long to prove me right. It was not only going to be a long night for Howard, but also for the ambulatory care unit staff. After helping him order some food, I made my escape. My presence all night would be of no help, and I was not keen to be an observer to the paces he was going to put the staff through. It had been morning when we made our way to the cancer clinic and it was now past sundown.

In a moment of stress induced practicality, it occurred to me that I should make a stop at Gretchen Minney’s house on the way home. She had some of my canning jars and I needed to collect them. I called to see if she was home. She was. I told her I would swing by to get the jars on my way home from the hospital. Hospital—the magic word. That was all I needed to say. By the time I reached her house, she had a plate of hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of champagne waiting for me, along with an open heart and a willing ear.

Every once in a while, a friend not only proves herself, but demonstrates her keen understanding of your precise needs. Even the best of friends do not often manage that, but this was one of those moments. It had taken me ten minutes or so to get from the hospital to her house, yet all was waiting for me when I arrived.

Awards are given for all manner of heroic acts, but never for an act like this. How would it be submitted? How could it be described? I couldn’t say that she had saved my life. Technically, she did not save my life that night. But I would argue that a glass of champagne, some nibbles, and the simple act of bearing witness to a story of crisis are highly underrated as life saving measures.

I was gravely worried and with good reason. When I brought my husband home the next morning, he went to bed immediately and slept most of the day. The following day, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving, he was no better. In the past, transfusions had perked him up and brought color back to him. This transfusion had done neither.

That night, he was uncomfortable to the point of admitting it. His entire body was rebelling and in pain. Breathing was especially painful. He had been prescribed Ambien to help him sleep and oxycodone for pain, but had taken little of either. Now he asked me to bring him both. My husband, the stoic, was moaning and I found it unsettling. I couldn’t imagine how bad it had to be for him to be moaning. This was the man whose pain measurement was based on the level of pain provided by a gunshot wound. I gave him the requested medications, climbed into bed with him, and held him. After an hour, he felt no better and he looked scared.

I knew I needed to act and I knew whatever actions I took would be further demonstration—or the lack of it—that I could be trusted to follow his wishes. I asked if he wanted an ambulance. He was adamant that he did not. I had to honor that, but I also had to do something. I told him I was going to call Antonio. He fought against it, wanting no one to come, but it was either an ambulance or Antonio.

Antonio, the shaman to whom I had been apprenticed, was not only a shaman, but a nurse. He had urged me, over the last few months, to call him—night or day—if I needed his help with Howard. It was after 11:00 p.m. and I was ready to take him up on his offer. I called to find that he was still awake. I explained the situation and I think he must have been getting his clothes on, preparing to leave, before he hung up. I knew, from years of driving between my house and his, that it was a thirty-five minute drive. He arrived a good ten minutes earlier than it should have taken him. He had clearly ignored the posted speed limits all along the way.

I crept into Howard’s room to tell him that Antonio was with me. Howard was delirious and nearly incoherent. He muttered, “No, no. I’m asleep. I’m asleep,” thinking, in his confusion, that I had called an ambulance. I explained that it was Antonio, no one else, and that he had come to see if he could help.

I had never witnessed Antonio’s work as a nurse and was stunned by his ability to gain Howard’s compliance and trust with little more than a few well chosen, calm words. Well . . . that and summoning up the kind of energetic power few but those of us who practice shamanism can muster. He took Howard’s vitals. Blood pressure: 60/40. Pulse: forty beets per minute. Respirations: almost undetectable.

Antonio met me outside the room and told me it was unlikely Howard would make it through the night. In fact, he thought Howard would pass very soon. We sat, side by side, on the cedar chest at the foot of my bed in the master bedroom. And we waited. I had some Jameson’s I’d bought to make hot toddies with and I got each of us a slug of it. He might not have needed it, but I did. Years of treatment and months of declining health had skidded, abruptly, to a stop early Thanksgiving morning.

But after an hour, Howard was still among the living. Weak vitals, but still alive. Antonio went home, expecting that the next call from me would be the call to say that Howard had passed. He had no sooner left than the moaning began again. I called his cell and asked what to do. He suggested I give Howard another small bit of medication.

Sunrise found me exhausted and anxious . . . and my husband still alive. Thanksgiving Day. It was not clear to me if I should be grateful that Howard was still alive—my immediate instinct—or sorry he hadn’t passed during the night. And there was no way to know if he would make it through Thanksgiving Day.

What I did was so predictably Melanie-in-survival-mode that I saw it for what it was, even then. While Howard remained semi-conscious, at most, I made stuffing, baked the twenty-two pound turkey, and otherwise carried on as if there would be someone other than me to eat Thanksgiving dinner. And I gave thanks for everything good and true in the world.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

The Beginning of the End

November 1, 2011

There are pivotal points in life. Life is often compared to an hourglass, our days like the sand dropping one grain at a time until all the sand runs out. Maybe, but the sand does not trickle at a constant rate. Certain events speed things up. Like the pebbles in a rain stick, there is a point where the trickle that sounds like raindrops becomes a flow that sounds like a downpour.

The radiation treatments were coupled with a regimen of steroids. The steroids made Howard a little cranky. Then they made him easily annoyed. Then they gave him the kind of short fuse he’d had twenty years earlier and which he’d gotten over as age and life softened him. At first, I didn’t like the transformation. Then it scared me. He accused me of trying to control him when both of us knew that neither of us could actually control the other. That had been worked out years earlier. When he became instantly angry over something trivial and actually raised his arm, as if to strike, he frightened both of us. He didn’t know what was happening to him. Neither of us was sure it was the steroids, but I suspected as much. He called his doctor and quickly went off them. Within a couple of days, he returned to the kind of equanimity we were both more comfortable with.

In only a couple of weeks, the radiation treatment was complete. In a matter of speaking, Howard was fully cooked and he was weakening before my eyes. I had become proficient at determining when he needed a blood transfusion and I was sure he needed one. For a couple of weeks, I nudged. He wasn’t ready. Then I pushed. He still wasn’t ready. Finally, I asked him what was going on, why he seemed reluctant to call for an appointment to have his blood tested. He’d had blood transfusions when he needed them for months. Why was he dragging his feet now?

Something in my tone, combined with his weakening state, broke through the defenses. He admitted that he was putting off having his blood tested because his radiation doc had told him that if there was a reoccurrence of his symptoms, he should have his wife drive him to the hospital. I was certain that his doctor was referring to the symptoms related to the cancer having spread to the dura—the numbness in his face, for instance—and not the weakness associated with needing a blood transfusion. But it was the word “hospital” that had brought him up short. He feared that all of the doctors were giving up on him and he would now be consigned to hospitalization. And that was the last thing he wanted.

It took him a good minute or two, after dropping this bit of information, to add that he did not want to complicate his life—meaning the hospitals and everything that went with it. He was near tears. I bust out laughing.

“Complicate your life? Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? Complicate your life? Could it get more complicated than it already is?”

And then I invoked the Gretchen Principle. Gretchen, meaning Gretchen Minney. The Gretchen Principle was a reference to something she had done when her husband, Bill, was dying of a brain tumor and found himself in the hospital. He wanted out. Gretchen understood the implications of doing so, but broke him out anyway. She commandeered a wheelchair and they escaped.

I told Howard that I would not allow anyone to keep him in the hospital against his wishes. I added that I was in agreement with him to stay out of hospitals if at all possible. I promised to break him out, as Gretchen had done for Bill, if necessary. He was relieved and seemed to relax a bit.

It was a good agreement. We would need it soon.

The morning he finally decided he needed that blood test, he slowly made his way from the upper level of the house to the lowest level and took a seat in my office, where I was busy editing.

“I need you to drive me,” he said.

I turned to face him, raised my eyebrows, and told him I would drop what I was doing and take him. “I need you to drive me” was code for a lot of things.

I had been concerned about his driving. His doctor had not forbidden him to drive because he hadn’t had a seizure, but driving seemed risky at best. He’d fallen more than once coming to or going from the truck when he felt particularly weak. He’d made it into Newsland on one occasion, only to fall once inside. An ambulance was called. He was mortified and talked his way out anything but a quick check. That he’d actually told me when he returned home was a surprise because he had been embarrassed and it was exactly the kind of thing he might have kept to himself. Apparently, he had come to the conclusion that he needed a confidant about such things and I had proven myself trustworthy. Not an easy decision for a former Marine and Chief of Police.

When I’d expressed my concerns about his continuing to drive, he had promised me that should the day ever come when he felt he could not drive himself somewhere, he would ask me to drive him. I hadn’t believed him, but he was doing just that—right in front of me. I was not so much surprised by the fact that he was too weak to drive as I was him admitting it.

He was so weak that I’d told him, wryly, that he’d be dead soon if he didn’t go for a transfusion. It was that critical. I had seen him in need of a blood transfusion before but I had never seen him this weak.

Slowly and with care, we got into my car and made our way to the cancer clinic. It was only my second time there. He had insisted on going alone for all the time he’d been treated there. I’d gone with him when we discussed the matter of radiation treatments, less than month earlier. When we arrived, the nurses immediately saw what I had seen. They took a blood sample and assured him that even without seeing the results, they could tell he needed a transfusion. I offered to place a bet with them on the number of units, knowing it would be at least three. That told them pretty much all they needed to know about the wife. They could see that I was neither naïve nor weak spirited. They could also see that I was not going to be placated or assured. I was calm, I wanted answers, and I wanted to know what we needed to do for my husband—right then, right there.

Three was an underestimate. He needed four units. The nurses were very concerned. He was used to having the blood work done one day and the transfusion the next. There wasn’t going to be a delay this time. He was going to get that transfusion as soon as we could get him to the outpatient unit at the hospital and he was going with an oxygen tank in tow. His blood oxygen level was 82-85%. No compromises, no leaving without the tank.

He objected. They persisted. He growled. They were adamant. He did not want to be seen as an invalid. Didn’t matter. They rigged him up with a tank while they made arrangements for the transfusion. Arrangements made, we left the clinic with an oxygen tank trailing us. I got him settled and the tank settled. Just as I was about to drive off, heading for home to grab a few things before continuing on to the hospital, he said, “Be careful,”—meaning that I should take care with my driving.

I left the car in “park,” turned to look at him, and said, “Are you kidding? Be careful? We can’t get into an accident. We have an oxygen tank in the care. If we’re hit, we’ll blow up.”

The absurdity of it was so funny that it was verging on Monty Pythonesque. It wasn’t quite . . . but we would be all the way there shortly.

At the hospital, I swung around to drop him off at the door. He was not going to let me help him in and he was not going to let me get him a wheelchair. The best I could do was drop him off, snag the closest parking spot I could, and sprint back to him. I found a spot very close and was away from him for less than sixty seconds. Too long. As I approached the hospital doors, I could see that he had never made it inside. He was on the ground with a flock of people around him. To make matters worse, the automatic doors kept opening and closing on a woman who was also on the ground. I soon found out that she was a nurse assistant who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was coming in as he was and when he began to go down, she tried to catch him. She was a small woman. Even ill, he was a large man. The doors thwamped and thwamped on her until someone finally stopped the beast.

Howard was on the ground, conscious and annoyed. Doctors and nurses were gathered around him. That part was good. Someone called for a neck brace and a board. That part was also good. But numerous people kept asking him the same questions, over and over. “Are you conscious? How long were you out? Did you lose consciousness? Can you move?” And on and on. One time would have done it as far as Howard was concerned. He wanted to answer the questions and get the heck out of there. He was embarrassed, unhappy at being prone, and becoming increasingly annoyed by the mantra being murmured by the medical staff in the form of questions.

If there was any chance that Howard might get a glimmer of understanding that he had waited just a tad too long to go in for a blood transfusion, it would happen right there as he lay on the cement in front of the hospital doors. It was alarming, but it was so . . . so . . . Howard. There was something just a bit funny about it. The thwamping doors. The fact that I knew some version of “Just shoot me” was being muttered just enough under his breath as to be imperceptible to anyone but me. The surreal quality of it all.

Not funny at all was my internal radar. It was on alert and sirens were going off inside. I knew that this was the beginning of the end.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

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


August 3, 2011

I reclaimed my right to cry at a very good time because my husband’s decline was speeding up.

He began to require transfusions on a somewhat regular basis and had a reaction to one of them, a day or so afterwards. Since he’d had transfusions previously with no problem, we did not immediately make the connection. But the rash on his arms, legs, and chest, coupled with welts on his arms, prompted an emergency trip to a doctor.

That summer, our twenty-three years of sleeping in the same bed as a married couple came to an end. Howard had such difficulty sleeping that he would come to bed, only to get up again after a short time. He would make a trip to the bathroom (which was often the reason for his waking), sit at his computer a while, return to bed, get up again, and sometimes repeat that cycle several times during the night.

His desk and computer were in what otherwise served as a guest room and he disliked disturbing my sleep, so rather than return to our bed, he began to just lie down on the guest room bed in the middle of the night when he felt he could sleep a bit more. He eventually spent more of the night on the guest room bed than in our bed. It prompted the rather inelegant comment on my part that if he was going to sleep there, I should at least put sheets on the bed so he could be comfortable.

It did make him more comfortable, and he came to use the guest room as his bedroom. It was logical, practical, and . . . not very satisfactory. Despite the fact that he had come to it himself, he felt a bit as if he’d been banished from our bed. And while I was thankful to have more restful sleep, his absence was a black hole next to me, making me vaguely ill at ease even in my sleep.

But it was inevitable and it made his life easier. He’d begun to shuffle from the guest room to the bathroom and back again, all day, barely lifting his feet at all as he went. When he navigated the four steps from the sleeping level to the living level of the house, he clung to the wall. On the return trip, he clung to the bit of wood that passed for a railing. He had become a frail old man right before my eyes.

Other changes were more humiliating for him. Continence had progressively become more memory than actuality. Its lack thereof put him and the bathroom on the closest of terms. And I couldn’t keep the carpet between the bedroom and bathroom clean because there was a trail of urine being dribbled between the two. When he left the house to go anywhere, his first concern was whether there would be a bathroom nearby. And many times he returned frustrated because he hadn’t made it home in time and had a telltale wet spot on the front of his pants.

No one talks about these things and I’ve no doubt that many people would rather I didn’t speak of them here. But if no one speaks of them, how can we be prepared for them? And how can we know that others have managed through them before us?

One day I approached him as gently and respectfully as I could, telling him that we needed to deal with the issue and he needed to begin wearing something. I had put off the discussion for a very long time because I winced at the very thought of bringing it up. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I didn’t want him to feel less a man. And while he talked a good game about being impervious to hurt feelings, he was, in fact, one of the most sensitive people I knew.

He knew what I meant by “wearing something.” No need to explain. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t argue against it. I had, in fact, already bought something called “guards” which were made for men and seemed the least noxious alternative. He took it in with the same equanimity he would have had if I’d told him I had just bought him a new brand of shaving cream. He used them and, I think, was relieved that I’d brought the subject up and had helped him deal with it.

One of his closest friends later commented that a man would almost prefer to die than be reduced to using Depends. I had great empathy for that sentiment and found my heart lurching at the thought of the dignity with which Howard had surrendered to it.

Howard also surrendered to the fact that his own internal power plant was providing too little energy to carry him through much of the day. He wore a path between his computer and the guest room bed, taking naps throughout the day. In part, the lack of energy was due to the fact that he got so little sleep at night. In part, it was related to the ongoing need for transfusions. But it also seemed to be his body’s way of telling him that it was beginning to shut down.

He took a lot of naps, but refused to give much heed to the message about shutting down. His mind was as vital as ever, even if his body wasn’t, and he wasn’t shutting down if he could help it. But that mental vitality—something important to him and one of the things I loved most about him—was not going to last much longer, either.

Neither of us knew it that summer and early fall. Sometimes not knowing is a blessing.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Hailstorm and Storm Within

July 17, 2011

He was deteriorating and the deterioration was speeding up. By May, I feared he would not make it to the end of the year, but I’d been surprised over the past three years by just how tough he was. Still, I was happy when two of his sons planned to visit over Memorial Day weekend. I wanted Howard to spend as much time as he could with his family and his days of traveling to Utah to see them were over. Even if I drove, the trip would be too difficult. His gate was a shuffling one at this point and he needed long naps throughout the day.

I’d often said, “May waits for no one,” as a way of explaining why I spent so much time in my yard and flower gardens in May. Winter ends abruptly in May on the Front Range of Colorado and spring is a fantasy that materializes and disappears into summer quickly. Some years I managed to get cleanup done and perennials in the ground in April, in between late snowstorms, and some years I found myself up to my ankles in grass and weeds and early blooms in May, wondering why the weather gods couldn’t show a little mercy in March and April.

Not only were the boys coming late in May, but early in June, I was hosting a Boulder Media Women potluck. I’d been a member of the organization for several years and had been to many a potluck, but this was the first time I had volunteered to host one. And I planned to have the potluck outdoors. May waits for no one and neither did I that May. I spent every moment I could pry from work, household duties, and the increasing attention Howard needed to get the yard in shape. That included the yearly ritual of bringing out the geraniums, which I over-wintered indoors. And in 2010, I had forty or more I’d been caring for all winter. The geraniums would spend the summer hobnobbing with bacopa, diascia, annual and perennial grasses, tomato plants, and other potted plants on the deck. And the potted plants on the deck lived amongst numerous flower beds.

Memorial Day weekend came and the boys arrived. While I hadn’t felt they understood just how sick their father was, I believed they would have a better idea of it after a couple of days with him. We went to a movie that weekend, Howard doing his best imitation of a mobile person and pulling it off because I could drop him off close to the ticket area before parking the car.

The hail came and went while we were at the movie. I think my brain registered the pounding on the theater roof, but it didn’t register any thought more than heavy rain. And, in fact, that was all we saw upon leaving the theater. The drive home was another matter. Within a mile or two of the theater, we began to see little heaps of hail along the side of the road. The closer we got to home, the more hail we saw. I knew what hail meant to my yard but remained eerily calm on the drive home. None of the men were alarmed by the hail, but then, none of them had been racking up enough hours to constitute multiple work weeks in the yard.

Back at the house, I peeked into the backyard before going inside and saw that it was going to be bad. Once inside, I went to the kitchen door that opened onto the upper deck and ventured out, nearly falling on my butt because it was slick with hail. A few plants on the upper deck had been sheltered enough by the eaves that they did not appear to be too badly damaged. I allowed for a second or two of unfounded hope as I carefully made my way down into the yard. I caught sight of the Annabelle hydrangeas and hostas first. Shredded. Nothing left of them. In what can only be described as gardener shock, I made my way around the rest of the yard. The roses had fared the best. Maybe having thorns is a good idea. The geraniums, some of them plants I’d tended for several years, were mostly gone.

I began to cry. It wasn’t just the loss. In fact, it wasn’t primarily the loss. It was all the work, all the hours I’d spent getting the gardens and yard in shape in an otherwise packed life. And the fact that there would be many more hours ahead of me cleaning up the mess. And the fact that the potluck was only nine or ten days away. And, more than anything else, it was the weariness from the more than three years of walking Howard’s path with him, of watching him struggle with the cancer. The hail had been a trigger—not unlike the “triggers” once made at Rocky Flats for nuclear devices—innocent sounding enough, but deadly. The hail just triggered everything there was to cry about. So I began to cry.

Back inside, Howard took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong with you!” His voice was terse and stressed. He was not happy that I was crying. In part, it was because he had never been comfortable with tears. He was a stoic and expected me to be one too. But it was also embarrassment. He didn’t like the show of emotions in front of his sons. It’s hard to keep the smoke machine going and the mirrors in place when one member of the supposedly united front is falling apart.

It probably wasn’t even just the emotion. It was more specific than that. It was the tears. If I had displayed anger over what the hail had done to the yard, he could have probably handled that. He understood anger. But tears he could not understand. And he certainly couldn’t understand that the tears were about more than the loss of some plants.

In his inimitable style, he stalked off, visibly angry with me. His oldest son, Jim, a bear of a man, came to me and wrapped me in his arms. He had the good sense that was lacking in his father at that moment. I’d never viewed Jim as particularly sensitive and was a bit taken aback by his tenderness, but I just let him hold me for a couple of minutes while I cried.

Howard didn’t reappear for dinner. He was that annoyed with me. And the longer he was annoyed, the more righteous indignation rose up in me. His behavior seemed to me to be a very bad example for his sons. It was an interesting thing upon which to rest my indignation. They were both men—both in their forties, for heaven’s sake. In fact, Jim was only twelve years younger than me. They had, no doubt, long since formed their own ways of walking through the world with whatever example Howard had set for them years earlier and with the accumulated wisdom gained from life experience. Still, I thought it a very bad example to set. To their credit, the boys seemed unshaken by either his or my behavior. I made dinner and we had a nice chat during it . . . without Howard in attendance.

But something shifted in me that day. I had spent years of fighting my own tears because Howard disapproved of them. And I had particularly avoided them during the long battle with cancer. I wanted to be honest about what we were going through, but I wanted to do that with as much loft as possible. That is, I wanted to remain positive and uplifted. And I never wanted to forget that he refused to be defined by the cancer. I had only cried a few times, and then only when he’d been gone for several hours. And I’d made sure I didn’t look like I’d been crying by the time he returned.

But all of that was swept away—or more accurately, hailed to hell—by the hailstorm. I realized that to stay shoulder to shoulder with him on the march towards his death, I was going to need the freedom to cry, regardless of his reaction. My tears would be a part of my own salvation, even though I knew I couldn’t save him.

And there would be things to come to weep about.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Smoke and Mirrors

June 26, 2011

From that moment in early 2007, the life we might have had upon my husband’s return from Iraq dissolved into a very different life than I had imagined. His life—and mine, because I loved him and lived with him—became one of carrying on with life while, simultaneously, attempting to hold the cancer at bay. He began chemotherapy and, over time, worked his way through pretty much all of the treatment options available. If one drug did not seem to be working or seemed to have been working but had now stopped having an impact, another was proffered. There were infusions, injections, oral medication, regular blood tests, and scans of varying kinds.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff quickly came to know and love him. He did his best to stay upbeat and entertaining. He was that kind of patient. He did it for the medical staff, but he also did it for himself. He refused to be defined by his cancer, so medical appointments were more than occasions to get treatment, they were occasions to trot out his charm and wit, occasions to get to know the people who were prodding, poking, and testing him. It wasn’t just business, it was his life.

He managed through the shifting treatment protocols as a body builder might manage through ongoing changes in diet and training to gain optimal impact. He just did it—thoughtfully, but without much fuss, knowing it was needed to achieve the desired result. Of course, in his case, the desired result was to cheat death one more time. And he behaved as if he could.

Seldom did a treatment manage to waylay him. One treatment made him nauseous enough for me to give him candied ginger and ginger tea. Another inspired him to shave his head because his hair began to fall out. He did take frequent naps, but it was difficult for me to determine if the fatigue was caused by the cancer or the treatment for the cancer. And walking became progressively more difficult for him. He managed to make his way around the house and yard but it was slow and painful if he had to walk as far as a block. Of course, he refused to even consider getting a physician’s note so he could use a handicap parking spot. That would have cleared away the haze produced by the smoke and mirrors he was employing to convince himself and others that all was good—or at least good enough.

The smoke and mirrors made my life difficult. He was declining but doing his best to hide it. It was impossible for me to know how long he had, but I knew he wouldn’t be there when I reached social security age. I alerted his (and my) friends and family to the seriousness of his condition, but I usually sensed that I was being viewed as Chicken Little’s sister, claiming the sky was falling when it was just another sunny day.

I developed an appreciation for Cassandra’s plight. She saw what was coming but because of Apollo’s curse, couldn’t get anyone to believe her. Neither could I. I came to understand that friends and family are often willing to believe the smoke and mirrors because doing so is less painful than seeing situations for what they really are. And unless you are living with the cancer patient, it is not that hard to continue believing that the slight of hand is real when the slight of hand artist happens to be the cancer patient.

He not only held it together, he expected me to hold it together, too. He had never shown much tolerance—let alone compassion—for tears. Not from me, anyway. I often suspected that he mistakenly thought I could turn tears on and off and might try to manipulate him with them. I could tell, too, that tears from me agitated him. He didn’t seem to know what to make of them or what to do about them. So he usually became angry if I wept. I had learned to suppress my tears over the course of our marriage. His willingness to just be with me and the tears trickling down my face the day he told me the cancer had metastasized had been an outlier, seldom repeated over the next three years or more. But on that day in 2007, he’d been in a state of shock, himself. My tears had probably allowed him to avoid some of his own.

My willingness to stuff the tears came to an abrupt halt Memorial Day weekend of 2010. And it all had to do with an act of God—a hailstorm.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall