Friday, January 10, 2014


First, let me apologize for not writing recently. The last phase of Pat’s illness cascaded so rapidly, beginning with a nursing home calamity in October and ending with his death just five days before Christmas. There was no time or energy for writing it all down. He died on the solstice, as the dwindling light gave way to the new lengthening of days.

In future entries, I will try to catch you up, dear readers, on what transpired for us during those weeks. It’s important, because it’s the last part of the dementia/Alzheimer’s journey and I learned a great deal. Not only about the end stage of the disease and the difference between dangerously poor “skilled” nursing and excellent professional care, but also about the spiritual transition that my dear husband made in that time, and the emotional stress, wonder and exhaustion that I experienced as a caregiver--my own spiritual journey through the last days of our marriage.

“This is life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
--Frederick Buechner

Writing the words, My husband Pat is dead, makes it real. It’s no longer a possibility or even a probability; it’s what is.

I am in a strange spiral of feeling and not feeling, of not knowing whether to cry or hide or be with people or act as if I’m okay or actually be okay, or fall apart. The problem is there’s no real way to process death except through time, a long time. You know death has happened, it’s unmistakable. The body on the bed is the empty container and the bright spirit has gone away.

But your beloved has been imprisoned behind a wall of loss and fear and frustration for years because of dementia. You are grateful he is finally free of confusion and terror and pain. You are so relieved to be done with the terrible burden and hopeless decisions of caregiving. Joy for him and a kind of gladness for yourself complicate your grief.

As people share their wonderful memories of Pat—his ready wit, his far-ranging knowledge, his energy, his remarkable artistry and skill as a designer and builder—I feel sometimes like they’re talking about someone I knew a long time ago. Or else, the memories of how much I admired and loved him in the early years of our relationship overwhelm me. I lost so much of Pat before his body finally gave up.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been truly carefree, truly happy—years and years. Part of me—most of me, honestly, doesn’t want to go through the long months of grief’s stages—denial, anger, depression and acceptance. I’ve been through them again and again and again, every time Pat took a step down. I just want to be happy, to live something like a normal life once more. But I can’t be happy in a way that doesn’t take into account the reality that I love this man and I can no longer touch him or converse with him or take his hand.

So far, grief isn’t quite what I thought it would be. It’s more of a daze, a confusion, a disorientation. For two weeks over the holidays, I nestled in at my cousins’ house in the joys of their Christmas, trying to be part of it and yet separated from them by the strangeness of a holiday following hard on the heels of death. As if I were a foreigner dropped into the midst of a celebration I know a little about, but don’t really understand. That’s not quite it, either. Because I understand it; I just couldn’t feel it. Or I felt it for a moment and then remembered Pat’s still form on the hospital bed.

I’ve known for some time now that I would be a widow before 2013 ended—when my eldest sister died in 2011, I told my other sister that Pat would die within the next two years. Was that foreknowledge or self-fulfilling prophecy? I think it was the former. My tenure as a wife was so attenuated by this utterly hateful disease, this destruction of Pat, of “us,” of life as we knew it.

A cousin said, “You’re a widow now. Your status is different.” Widow is an ugly word, with its connotations of lifelong grief, shriveled prospects and withdrawal from life. I don’t want that label. I got to be “wife” for twelve years; I don’t want to be “widow” for the next forty. Call me a woman who lost her beloved to calamity. But still a woman, still living and warm and filled with passion—for life and adventure, for enjoying the destiny that God will unfold within and around me. I need to live fully again—it’s what Pat wants for me, what I want for myself.

First, though, the dark midwinter. The rest and the nurture of those who love me. Sleep. Walks alone on the beach. Riding a beautiful horse as the day draws down. Good food and gatherings with a score of relations. Preparation for the celebration of Pat’s life, with all the hilarious and touching stories that will be told about him. Preparation for the next part of my life. The acknowledgement of this moment, this turning point, as the “pearl of great price.”

I really must live through this holy liminal season, allow it to have its transforming grace and not rush the future. There is a weird kind of peace and goodness to be found here. To just stop and breathe and for the moment, do whatever I feel like doing and nothing more. 

Mornings are usually okay. I wake up fairly early and walk. The Southern California sunshine bathes my eyes with an energizing light. It feels good to walk, to greet other runners and walkers, to admire architecture and flowers. Sometimes I don’t want to stop walking. It would feel good just to keep moving all day, to keep sorrow and memory and the hard jobs of memorial plans, obituaries and burial options at bay.

But I come home after a mile or so, eat, read, meditate and pray.  Then I try to face the day. Some mornings, I just can’t, so I crawl back in my warm bed and sleep till noon. But most of the time, I launch into dozens of calls to plan Pat’s memorial, deal with banks, make an appointment with Social Security, contact the hospice that took two weeks to get the death certificate signed. It’s not like there was any question about why Pat died. But it took two weeks to get the doctor’s signature so the cremation done.

Note to reader:  Try not to die during the holidays, especially if Christmas and New Year’s fall mid-week. Getting bureaucratic things done when four holidays and two weekends intervene is almost impossible. For that period of time, I tried not to think about my husband’s body lying in a refrigerated space somewhere in the city. It’s not that I thought he still occupied it, but it just seemed awfully disrespectful. Even at the end, nothing is easy. Expect this, if you can. I understand now why our forebears had the body in the ground in three days. This modern limbo is unnatural, stressful. 

By evening, I’m usually exhausted. I find myself sobbing in the car on the way home from the grocery store. Or in the grocery store itself, hiding behind displays of canned goods, when I realize that Pat and I will never again buy coffee together, or oranges, or vanilla ice cream.

Week before last, I went with my cousin Sue to a New Year’s Eve Labyrinth walk at the cathedral. We entered the high shadowy chapel where the gothic arches were still decked with garlands and wreaths. A man handed me a white rose. I set down my purse and stepped into the circle of votive candles around the labyrinth. Based on the medieval labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, it’s an intricate pattern that doubles back on itself, loops around in broad curves, doubles again and again, and finally guides you into a central space shaped like a six-leaf clover.

At first, I was aware primarily of the flute and violin music, live and a tad too loud. And of bumping shoulders with other walkers who were ahead of me in the narrow doubling lanes. I wanted to do it right, to feel something—who knows what? It wasn’t till I reached the center that I realized I would have to walk out again by the same convoluted route. If the walk to the central medallion symbolized this past year with its terrible and miraculous twists and revelations, the center itself was the moment of Pat’s death, the moment when my identity changed from wife to widow.

The thought of walking back out into the world, of leaving behind the comfortable and comforting identity that’s been mine for twelve years, of leaving life with Pat behind, glued me to the floor, there in the middle of the labyrinth. Taking the next step seemed unbearable. I clutched my white rose, trying to look like I wasn’t crying as tears rolled down my face.

And then I took a deep breath and began the journey out of the labyrinth. This is my choice, the only choice that can lead me back into life. I have to trust God that I am not lost in a maze of grief, running up against dead ends, unable to move back into the river of the living.  A spiritual labyrinth has a plan; its purpose is to get you deeper and deeper into the heart of God, so that you can then walk out knowing that each twist and spiral ahead is mapped already, guiding your feet into a future that Love has created for you.

This is what I learned on New Year’s Eve, the year my husband died.