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.
I was texting with a new friend yesterday about life’s struggles and challenges. Her daughter (and only child) is heading off to college this month and she’s facing lots of changes in her life. I told her the best advice I got when John died was to “feel all the feels” and lean into them, even if it was painful. She said my story inspired her and, since I hadn’t yet, I sent her the link to this blog. I told her to start at the beginning (you can scroll down and click on the link to do that) if she wanted to read our whole story. She thanked me and said she needed some inspiration right now.
I responded, “It’s an inspiring story but spoiler alert…the hero dies in the end.” As I stepped into the shower after sending that text, the floodgates opened and I had what they call in my grief support group, a “grief storm.” They hit me less frequently but still like a hurricane when they come, blowing through my day, out of control and yet controlling me. They only last a little while and then they’re gone, but just like a hurricane, often the devastation they leave behind takes me some time to clean up.
When I am hit with this type of grief and I cry, I don’t recognize the sound. It’s a wailing, keening, utterly painful cry that comes from somewhere inside me I’d never tapped into before John died. The first time I heard myself cry that way was about five minutes after John took his last breath, as I sat on the stairs holding his daughter Chelsey, trying to comfort her through my own unbearable grief, and finally letting go of all I’d been holding on to for so many months as we fought through the end of John’s life. It all came out in huge, loud, messy, uncontrollable sobs that lasted about ten minutes. And every time it’s happened since, I’m still a little amazed at the sound of it, so unfamiliar and anguished that it catches me off guard.
This week I cried because I’m finally here, in my new home, settling in alone. I cried because the sale of my Walla Walla home had come through on Thursday and that stressful time was finally over, along with that part of my life. It was a bittersweet realization. I cried because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone but I also won’t settle in order to NOT be alone.
But mostly, I cried because I miss my husband and best friend. So much, every single day. Even in a new place with no actual “memories” of him tied to my house or surroundings other than the pictures I’m hanging, I still just miss him and the way I felt when I was with him. Finding someone who accepts you for who you are (in fact, loves you because of it and not in spite of it) and who makes your life sweet and fun and happy just by being in it is a huge gift. I never took it for granted but it makes me miss it even more for having had it.
Yesterday, I was sharing some of this with my friend Scott, and I told him about the text conversation. He corrected me about the hero dying in the end. From his perspective, the hero died in the middle of the story, and now I’m writing the ending. He’s right. It’s an ongoing process and I’m learning from every step of the journey. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny
Today is Johnny’s birthday. He also died exactly 6 months ago today. I’m writing this from an airplane on my way to San Jose to spend a few days with his kids Chelsey & Chad. We’ll reconnect after too much time apart and share stories, memories, and probably a few tears as we remember their dad and my husband. He would have been 52 today and he died far too soon.
He still had way too much to do to go…adventures to have, road trips to take, future grandkids to hold, and a lifetime to live with all of the joy and love he couldn’t help but spread in this world. In the last year of his life he aged a lot, but as the months pass since his death, so does my memory of the toll cancer took on his body. More and more, I remember him as he was before he got sick and lately I’ve thought about how he’ll never age in my memory. He’ll always be that good looking, middle aged man with just the right amount of gray hair at his temples to make him irresistibly sexy.
I’ve made great strides in my own life in the past few months and feel as though I’m moving forward in a really positive way without him physically here with me but also with his clear support and presence. I’ve moved back to the Pacific Northwest where my family and many close friends are and am re-defining my life and myself without him. Some days I almost feel normal again, like I’m waking up from a bad dream a little at a time.
As I mark his birthday and this half year milestone of this death, I’m pretty much where I expected to be…not done mourning by any means, but healthier and happier than I’ve been since he died. I’ve actively and intentionally grieved losing him and the life we had (and were supposed to have but never will), and am proactively creating a new life for myself on a daily basis. I’m not the same, will never be the same, but I like who I’m becoming as I integrate the learning from this most devastating time in my life into my new life experiences.
So today I honor John, how I’ve changed because of how he loved me, and who I continue to become because of his impact on my life. He was a true light in this world and was taken from us far too soon, but he made a huge impact on everyone he touched in the brief time he was here. Happy birthday, babe. I’m sure wherever you are, you’re living it up today, skydiving or whitewater rafting or jumping off a cliff somewhere, and laughing your ass off at the sheer joy of it all. I miss you every single day but I know you’re still with us, “just in the next room,” somehow, as you fully expected, experiencing everything in our lives right along with us. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer
Today I’m packing up the last of my stuff in my Walla Walla house. Tomorrow is moving day. I’m praying everything fits into the twenty-four foot U-Haul truck I’ve rented. I’m praying that I can drive away and never have to come back. Now, more than ever, I need to put this house and this part of my life behind me in order to move forward.
I moved my bed and most of my kitchen stuff into the new house I bought in Vancouver last weekend. From the moment I stepped foot into that house on Friday afternoon I felt myself slowly but deliberately coming back to myself. I felt grounded and stronger than I’ve felt in months. Strong for myself, not for John or my kids. I felt myself more capable than ever of standing on my own two feet and being happy on my own. I was relaxed and happy all weekend.
Monday night, I sat on my bed in my big new master bedroom in my dream house and thought about heading back to Walla Walla the next morning to tie up loose ends and finalize my move. A heaviness began to settle over me and I realized that this house here in Walla Walla, where John and I shared our entire lives together, has been energetically draining me since the moment he died. It’s not just the memories and sadness surrounding that time or the haunting memories of him crying the day before he died, skeletal and barely recognizable, half unconscious, and telling us he was sad because he didn’t want to go but knew he had to. That’s huge, for sure, but I realized it’s more than that.
This house is energetically sad. I’ve spent most of the past two months deliberately gone from here, making myself busy with things to do in Portland. Every time I drive back here, the sad creeps back in, little by little, as I drive east up the Columbia Gorge. I dread walking into the house, living and working and sleeping here. It’s just permeated with such a huge amount of sadness that it’s overwhelming. I’ve adjusted to it over the past six months and I don’t think I really even realized how powerful it was until it was absent this weekend.
It was like I could finally unpack the sweet, wonderful memories of John as I was unpacking my dishes and pots and pans. It was refreshing to be able to think about him and our life together for the six years we had before the brutal final six months of his life. And I felt such relief and happiness at those memories. They weren’t tinged with sadness like they always have been in Walla Walla.
I feel John with me more and more now. And I know he’s happy for me. I’ll move all of the good things I remember about our life together with me and I know energetically he’ll come too. His positive energy, the best part of him, will always be with me.