Most of the time, I am completely fine. After almost 19 months, sometimes I go a whole day or two and feel totally normal. But every once in a while I get slammed in the face with realty and it suddenly and instantly sucks the air out of my lungs. Like today as I’m checking in for my first appointment with a new doctor when the receptionist asks my marital status and I have to choke out the answer “Widow.”
And I stand there, silently repeating that label, which still feels so foreign to me, in my head, willing myself not to burst into tears right in front of this perfectly nice girl, part of me desperately wanting to tell her about my husband who died a year and a half ago and how much I miss him, and instead pasting a smile on my face and pulling out my license and insurance card.
I guess it gets easier but it never goes away. And some days it doesn’t feel easier. #theywillneverknow #loveteumpscancer #imissmyhusband #livelikejohnny
About a year into John’s cancer battle, after I’d been writing the blog consistently and people started saying I should turn it into a book, I remember my standard answer was that I would write the book once I had my happy ending. At that time, the only happy ending I could imagine was John beating cancer and us living happily ever after. When he died, I honestly thought, if I did write the book, the best I could hope for was an ending where I’d come to grips with losing him and was managing to survive without him.
It dawned on me recently that I actually DO have my happy ending now that I’ve met Mark. Once I get to the end of the story when I write my book next month, the final chapter will be about love and hope and finding both again after suffering the most devastating loss imaginable.
I won’t say I believe in happily ever after anymore (because I have a very acute understanding of how fragile life is and how precious every moment), but I do know that what I’m feeling now is something I honestly never thought I’d feel again. Optimistic about a future spent with someone who gets me better than anyone (alive – since John was the only other person who fell into that category), loves me unconditionally, and with whom I can see myself building a life. I honestly can’t believe I’ve found someone so perfect for me after losing someone so amazing.It feels like I’ve won the lottery twice in my life. Just like I said on the day John died, in the end, love wins. Cancer loses and love wins.
I’d like at least 40 more years with Mark. That might be enough time to trust that happily ever after concept again.
We’ll see. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer
The day John died was one of those rare warm beautiful sunny winter days in Walla Walla. I stood by his hospice bed and watched the sun rise from the window in our living room from which he’d watched the world for almost three weeks. I don’t remember if it was a beautiful sunrise. If so, the beauty did not register for me. What I do remember was thinking that this was the day I would lose the love of my life, my husband. Forever.
It had been a difficult forty-eight hours. John did not succumb peacefully and easily to death. He didn’t want to die and he clung to life with every ounce of energy he had left. The morning before, as his kids and I sat with him, he had become very agitated and very emotional, clinging to the bedrails, literally and figuratively holding on. He didn’t seem to really know we were there and twice his face crumpled up and he cried, “I don’t want to go. I know I have to go but I don’t want to go.”
He used what was left of his conscious energy that day to wake up and say goodbye to his older brother and family when they visited and by early evening was in an unresponsive coma. I remember panicking a little, wondering if I’d said everything I needed to say to him because now it was too late. Then, as we changed his clothes and his twin brother took his shirt off over his head, suddenly he was there. He looked at me with that incredible smile that seemed always present and his eyes danced with love and recognition. “Well hi there!” I said, amazed and thrilled.
“Hi beautiful” he said as I held his hand. And then he was gone again.
Those were the last words he ever said. Even though he didn’t actually pass away for another sixteen hours or so, I believe that was the moment when his soul moved on. I never felt his presence after that moment. He just wasn’t “there” anymore, even though he was still breathing and his heart still continued to beat. It was a gift that he gave me, one final gift, that has stayed with me and sustained me hundreds of time since that moment.
I remember standing at his bedside at 3:00 on the morning that he died. I’d been snoozing on the couch, half conscious of his labored breathing and waiting for it to stop. Everyone else was asleep and I had thought, as I drifted off, that he would probably choose to pass once he was alone, knowing we wouldn’t have to experience that moment and wanting to spare us all. I remember being surprised when I awoke and he was still breathing.
I watched him for a few moments, barely recognizing the skeletal figure in the bed as the man who had changed my life and loved me so fiercely and perfectly. His eyes were open, as they had been continuously for the past several days. It was eerie and disturbing to know he wasn’t seeing anything out of them. I took his hand, pressed it to my cheek and said, “Babe, you’ve got to let go. We need you to let go. I don’t know how much more of this we can take. It’s okay for you to go now. We love you and we want you to go.”
I wanted to scream in frustration. I just wanted it to end. It felt like the only thing I wanted in that moment was for it to end, for it all, PLEASE GOD, to just be over. And he kept right on breathing. I remember when he finally drew his last breath, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief and in the very next moment, unimaginable agony as I realized he was really gone. I’ve never wanted and dreaded something so much in my entire life. I remember sitting on the stairs, comforting his beautiful daughter Chelsey and finally letting it all go and sobbing, sobbing, sobbing for what seemed like hours, two and a half years of pent up anguish finally spilling out of me in waves of grief.
Today is the one year anniversary of his death. It’s been a brutal, painful year. My mom always says it’s only through pain that we grow. This year has borne that out for me in spades. I’ve cried alone and with others who loved him and wondered multiple times if I’d ever feel happy or settled again. Sometimes, even still, as I look around my beautiful new home in a new city, everything feels temporary, like I’m renting space, living someone else’s life, waiting for the return of my REAL life.
It’s been a year of big changes, even though everything I read after he died said not to change anything for at least a year. I’m glad I didn’t listen to that advice. I’ve learned that I know what’s best for me even when it’s not the accepted standard or what someone else would do. I’ve had to be strong for myself, for our kids, and just because that’s what adults do. Whether I felt like it or not, work had to be done because the bills had to be paid (and I kicked myself dozens of times for never “getting around to” getting life insurance for him before he got sick. It certainly would have made this past year easier).
Most days, for the first few months especially, I had to talk myself into getting out of bed every morning. What always got me moving forward into the next day in my life was the knowledge that Johnny wanted me to move on, to be happy, to go live and love once he was gone. To do anything less would have sullied his legacy of life and love (#livelikejohnny).
On that bright, shiny morning in February when he died, I followed his body out of the house as they loaded it into the funeral home minivan. I sat down on the front stairs and watched it drive away, fingering his wedding ring on my thumb. I sat there for a long time, paralyzed and feeling like I could not go back into our house. Because he wasn’t there.
I knew, when I walked through that door, it would be alone. Without him. I knew that for the rest of my life nothing would ever be the same. Everything I thought I knew about my life was gone. Because he was gone. #lovetrumpscancer
I will not be sorry to see 2016 end. In fact, I can definitively say I’ve never been happier to see the new year in my life. 2016 was a long, brutally painful year of huge changes. The first month of the year was my beloved John’s last month, and watching him die over those last six weeks was traumatic and more painful than I could have ever imagined it would be. Before he died I had no idea how I’d go on without him.
As I approach the final day of this year, the one thing I can proclaim (loudly and with conviction), is that I HAVE survived. In fact, I’d say I’m actually thriving in some areas.
It’s been a very long road. I have cried an ocean of tears, but I don’t cry every day anymore. Sometimes I even go for days without crying. I’ve battled depression for the first time in my life, and fought my way out of it to find joy again. I’ve learned to hold both joy and sorrow in my life, often simultaneously.
I tried to jump back into love too soon with the wrong person and had my heart broken just a little bit. I survived that and am dipping my toe back into the relationship game again, hopefully with the right person this time. People have told me it’s too soon, that I need to take more time. I respectfully disagree. Here’s why.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this horrible year is that life is short. My life (and yours too, by the way), can change in the blink of an eye, in the beat of a heart, with a phone call from a doctor or a visit from a police officer. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. Today is truly all we have. And I don’t intend to wait one day to live my life to it’s fullest.
That means paying attention to the now. Why would I wait to fall in love again? My husband is gone and, if there’s one thing I’ve come to accept this year (even though it took a little time), it’s that he’s never, ever coming back. He wanted me to move on, to be happy, to live my life and love again. He didn’t expect me to wait a “respectable” amount of time to do that. Living full out honors our love and his legacy.
I’ve learned a few other things. I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be. I’m a happy person by nature and that happiness is firmly in place in my life again. I’m an action taker and action has restored my life this year. I sold my house, bought a house, moved 250 miles, dealt with everything that huge move entailed, and am settled and happy in my new home and town.
I’m a different person than I was a year ago. I’m wiser and more present. I can go a few days without checking my email. That’s something I NEVER did in the past. I’ve learned to define very carefully what’s really important in my life and focus my attention on that.
I let things go more easily and don’t sweat nearly as much small stuff as I used to (I say not as much because I’m still human and sometimes I do sweat stupid stuff, just not very often anymore).
Most importantly, I’ve learned to love and trust myself this year. I love my body, I love who I am, and I have my own back for the first time in my life. I don’t need anyone else’s love or approval to be okay with who I am. I can do that for myself. I’ve surprised myself a few times with this newfound confidence, but I feel like it’s the greatest gift I’ve taken away from this mourning experience.
I think it’s a huge gift. I’ll never say it was worth it, because I would never have chosen to go through what I have this year. But I made it. I’m here, almost on the other side, stronger and better than ever. And I’ll take that.
According to everything I’ve read about grief, the holidays are hard. It’s an emotionally charged time for pretty much everyone and navigating traditions and family obligations while you’re grieving can be especially difficult.
For me, December itself holds an even more painful reality, since every day marks a milestone in the journey toward the end of John’s life. December last year was a brutal month for us, with daily infusions to keep John hydrated, three surgeries (two of which happened in Seattle at the University of Washington Medical Center where we spent a week), and the rapid decline in his health. It was the month he started designing his headstone and mapping out his memorial service with our pastor friend Kathy. At one point right before Christmas he confided in my mom that he wasn’t sure he would make it to January.
I went through the motions, numb on my good days and very sad on my worst ones. I decorated my house, bought and wrapped gifts, had holiday get togethers with friends, and did my best to keep things “normal” in the midst of the chaos of caring for a terminally ill person nearing the end of his journey.
As I took down the tree the week after Christmas while he lay on the couch watching, I said to him, “This stuff isn’t coming out of these boxes for a few years, I can tell you that. I think I’ll just skip Christmas next year.” In his usual, positive way, John admonished me to never say never, that I had no idea where I’d be or what I’d be doing next year.
As usual, he was right. As Christmas approaches this year, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll be getting a tree tomorrow and decorating it and my house on Saturday. It feels good to be doing that in my new home and I’m actually looking forward to it. But I’m also just profoundly sad and have been for the past week or so. The only change has been the turning of the calendar but that seems to have reignited my grief.
I’m moving on and I think I took feeling pretty good for granted because these “December blues” have hit me unexpectedly and hard. I hate the feeling of not having control that grief brings. I can’t fight it, I know that for sure, but it’s exhausting. I’m not a sad person by nature and I am challenged by those feelings.
Today marks exactly ten months since John passed away. It seems like a lifetime ago most of the time. Ten months since I’ve heard his voice, felt his big hands on me as I lay in his arms, looked into the eyes of the person who loved me more than anyone ever has, or laughed with my best friend. And I just miss him still, so much.
As I decorate my tree in my brand new home on Saturday, I’m sure he’ll be top of mind for me. And just as I have for the past ten months, I’ll get through that day and the rest of the month. I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other and looking for the happy in every day. I’ll find people to laugh with and I’ll focus on what I’m grateful for.
But today, this week, grief is winning just a little more than usual. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny
This week I’m in Las Vegas for the Sweet Adelines International Competition. I’m competing with The Pride of Portland Chorus. We’ve been rehearsing all week and will take the stage tomorrow morning at 11:30 for the semi-finals round. We have the privilege of being one of the top five choruses in the world so it’s a big deal for us. The journey to get here has been joyful and challenging, exhausting and exhilarating, and lots and lots of hard work.