A few weeks ago someone posted a graphic on Facebook that read a bit like this: "there is something to be said about driving and singing to very loud music." I have always agreed with that and found myself doing just that as I returned from Chicago where I spent four days attending the long awaited celebration of my brother's 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Given his health from age 28 (2 weeks after ordination he was in cancer surgery not expected to live) until today, he should not have made it this far.
Those who know me know that my buddy and companion Golden Retriever Bentley, was diagnosed last summer with a slow growing form of lymphoma. When the UW (University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine) could not determine the cause, they recommended I send his blood to Colorado State University (CSU) where research to determine why 60% of our Goldens die of cancer when the rate is 40% for other breeds. They are both too high but that is a subject for another day. The Goldens in the CSU study diagnosed with this newly identified form lived 6 to 33 months and some did not die of lymphoma. This length of time is quite unusual. They also see, now, that some of their symptom free (i.e. normal) subjects (sweet Goldens) also have the cells found in and used to diagnose Bentley. This is early in the study for them to know all the pieces of this newly identified form of lymphoma. So far, one year later, I am blessed to have Bentley with me and doing fairly well. He is happy, eats well and outside of periodic rounds of infections, hot spots and loose stools, he is comfortable and I believe, pain free. As I write this on May 8, he and I are dealing with his fourth round of problems in as many weeks.
Each year when February arrives, my mind travels back to 1965, the year my brother was ordained a Catholic priest. In an Irish Catholic family, especially back then, having a priest in the family was (and still is) a great honor. My mom and dad were thrilled and proud as their many siblings, families and friends attended the ceremony and his first Mass the next day.
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Little did we know as our rather large extended family gathered from all over the country that just two weeks later, I would be sitting with my parents and sister at an ICU waiting for a surgeon to tell us whether my brother Jim would survive surgery and melanoma, a cancer discovered just days before his ordination. He was 28 years old. As I sat in that waiting room, I remember thinking how all of us were so happy and excited just a few days before and now we did not know if Jim would live through the surgery let alone survive cancer. Treatment for cancer in 1965 was pretty limited compared to what it is now.
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Just about the time many who are grieving put the holidays behind us, another one, a tough one for many, comes along. It is, of course, Valentine's Day. While those around us make plans to celebrate the day, we who have lost a lover, partner, or spouse feels bombarded with ads for romantic dinners, films, trips, greeting cards and more. The world starts to feel dominated by couples deeply in love (true or not) when we are without that one person whose death changed our lives forever.
So many of us who have lost those we love know all about waiting. Waiting for a diagnosis, waiting for a test result, waiting for medical appointments and more . Time seems to drag at these times.
As a child I could hardly wait for Christmas and then I waited to be 16 years old so I could drive. And I waited for the love of my life, Bill, to come along and share his life with me. But waiting took on more difficult challenges as the years passed.
When I started this blog post a few days ago I was waiting for the results of some blood tests for my companion dog/friend/fur baby Bentley. The University of Wisconsin Veterinary Hospital suggested I send his blood to the Colorado State University national lab where they study Golden Retrievers and cancer. I was aware that these results could results in a diagnosis of lymphoma in my beloved Bentley but hoped the problem was an easily treated inflammation.
This piece was written for my newspaper column, Reflections, less than three weeks after Bill died in 2010.
It is now three weeks since Bill crossed death's threshold. Spring has arrived here in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The cardinal has taken over our Maple tree perching himself at the very top each day and announcing his territorial claim with birdsong. In the back yard, the rabbit races across the yard when our dog, Bentley, chases him. The rabbit knows exactly where the hole is that gets him beneath the fence. S/he created that escape route. Birds of all kinds empty the feeders on an almost daily basis. A dear friend gave me a new birdbath in Bill’s honor and it now graces our yard along with the one left to me by my Dad and next to these feeders. The yard is alive with birdsong. The trees are budding and the sun is higher in the sky.
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All of these make my heart smile for a brief moment. I think of how we both love/d spring. We could hardly wait to get out to the hills and soak up its beauty. The cycle of life goes on. Spring arrives in all its glory and soon summer will present herself with the fullness of life. When the leaves fall from the trees next autumn in preparation for winter, the cycle will once more have completed itself. Over and over again…dawn to dawn, spring to winter, and birth to death to birth. The wheel keeps turning. People come into our lives and people leave our lives.
I wrote this newspaper column for my husband Bill well before Alzheimer's disease invaded our lives. Bill died March 27, 2010.
There was a time when his hands carried a Bible to school every single day. Over the years he used those hands to reach out to an almost endless number of people. As a minister he blessed others with them. As a clinical psychologist he helped people in pain. He hugged his daughters as they succeeded in life and greeted friends. As an artist Bill restored a Victorian house, built an elegant clock and more. With those hands Bill writes poems that stir souls; cooks meals just as he did as a small boy with a sick mother; draws house plans. He has used his hands to fix just about anything as well as create lovely bowls on his wood lathe.
He had soothed those around him and been tender and loving, gentle and warm knowing how vulnerable people are when pain haunts their days. Bill has had fun restoring an old Model T Ford and an old rusty Rolls Royce to their original conditions winning ribbons along the way and using only original parts. Playing Frisbee with our dogs, driving his tractor on our land and conducting choirs bring him joy.
The Rolls Royce Bill restored.
An Easter poem to share with you...
This first post on my new blog will hopefully provide you with an idea of who I am and the journey I am on. To read my welcome or introduction to Reflections, click Welcome to Reflections.
Grieving the death of my husband Bill was, in the first two years, mostly about gut wrenching pain; tears; feeling lost, alone and confused. I fumbled about; missed him and our life; grieved all he lost; and lived in a fog of sorts. I was overdoing and under doing and more. However, as I look back now, those years were also about insights, learning, growth, and incredibly compassionate wounded healers who know grief well. These people, strangers for the most part but now friends, came into my life, heard me, helped me and still support me as I walk my journey through pain. Wounded healers are real people; people unafraid of pain, tears, loss, death and grief. Many of them are deeply involved in changing attitudes and knowledge about loss, death and grief as we relate to it (or not) in our culture. These years taught me how poorly we as a society understand and deal with grief. Many, too many, do not know how to reach out to someone in the throes of grief's agony. Instead some disappear quickly following a death. Others try and want so much to help, but just do not know what to say. It is that lesson that drives my passion to assist those who grieve and to help change the way our death phobic society deals with loss, end of life issues, death and grief.
I am launching this website on the fourth anniversary of Bill's death. It seems impossible that it has been four years since I felt his final heart beat beneath my hand...his final exhalation on my cheek. It also feels like a century ago since I have seen him, hugged him and heard his wonderful voice. Bill was my husband, best friend, soulmate, and colleague. We fit hand in glove. He was a clinical psychologist with a long history of clinical work and always a waiting list. We practiced together for many years. Losing him, as every one who has lost a spouse knows, meant losing a part of me. It meant losing our lifestyle, my co-worker, and well...our normal.