My much-loved husband nearly died three weeks ago. When I imagine my life without him, I realize that there is no place to go, nothing to do that could feel okay. I feel homeless, lost and adrift.
What is home, but a tender heart we connect with? What is home other than acceptance and love?
What I would like in this ever-changing world is for my connection to god to be my home. I would like my ballast to be a conscious connection with the divine, with unwavering truth, peace, safety and love. But that is not the case. Instead, events shake me, leave me undulating like the waves outside our house, shimmering light and shadow – one moment bright, the next dark, lost.
The night before Mike’s hernia surgery was scheduled, he was writhing and unable to sleep from sharp stabbing pain in his ribs. The pain was so powerful he could not fully lie down and used a bathrobe belt around his chest to create pressure and help contain the intensity. I was not able to convince him to delay the surgery he waited months to have. The surgeon had his assembly line schedule to uphold, delays, and questions seemingly not allowed. Appointments are not quickly had. The flow of all that drowned out my small voice saying wait, something is wrong. Something is wrong.
This event of my husband’s near-death could not have unfolded any other way. Mike is strong and at times stubborn. Like Zeus, he is more connected to his invincibility than his mortality and vulnerability. He believes he is right even when he isn’t (don’t we all?). A closed mind is sometimes opened in increments event by event. Sometimes the pain must reach a certain intensity before a person will listen not unlike the Leonard Cohen quote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
After the surgery, he was so sick. Shaking, chills, coughing and knife cutting pain. Yet, neither of us knew how sick he really was. As each opportunity to get help came and passed, and he became sicker and sicker, and I became more and more agitated. I didn’t know why. I just didn’t feel right.
We went to a doctor on the island the day after we got back. In the car, I covered him with a blanket to help him to feel warmer and to stop shaking. Did he have pleurisy, a pulled muscle, costochondritis? The doctor suggested tests on the mainland. But Mike wanted to get comfortable, not go for more tests. The idea of a trip in the condition he was in, seemed beyond comprehension. He took Percocet; cough medicine and what seemed like a small pharmacy of other items. Slowly he appeared to improve.
Then he got worse. The coughing increased and the pain. He went to the see his primary care nurse practitioner. She took a blood test, diagnosed pneumonia and gave him antibiotics. Maybe they would help we hoped. The pain continued to increase, and the cold sweats and shaking. The coughing. The blood in the coughing that I didn’t know about.
A gap left in a life when the body exits is overwhelming. The sense of loss and loneliness – the desire to find a way to touch what was. Across the boundaries between here and there are those who I have loved who have passed. My cat Hank, my father, mother, grandparents. My baby pony Nichol with his rotund body and soft gray fur, my horse Specks and countless others who once peopled my world and gifted me with their presences. With some of those passings, my sense of home crashed and broke. And what of them? Without form, are they still bashed about as I sometimes feel? Do they still feel pain, loss, abandonment, grief? Are they happy? Do they feel a sense of home?
There was no way to maneuver around Mike’s strong will. Then three weeks or so into this misidentified and still unidentified illness Mike’s left leg swelled up huge. He showed it to me the next day.
Earlier that day, I had talked to an intuitive who said something was very wrong. His circulation wasn’t right. His organs were stressed. She saw something black in his lungs. My sense of internal pressure was increasing.
Mike went to see the nurse practitioner again to check on his leg. She took blood to test and see if he had a clot. It was a Friday. The results would come back later that day, or perhaps Saturday or Monday. She suggested he get more tests on the mainland in a day or two or after the weekend. A few days? Was everyone crazy? I raced to the computer and Googled blood clots. It was now obvious why his leg swelled. Blood clots are life threatening. Get help immediately the articles said. Mike wanted to wait for the test results. Perhaps they would be back that day. The idea of the ferry ride when sick was daunting.
Then it was evening, and the ferries were finished for the day. The test results had not come in. I began to get frantic. I began to push harder. Mike agreed to go the emergency room the next day on Saturday rather than wait till Monday as he wished to do. I looked at Mike sitting in the chair he was going to sleep in because he could not comfortably lie down. My body was screaming. I couldn’t get it to stop. I couldn’t make myself quiet down. I knew I couldn’t go to sleep because if I did, he would be dead in the morning. It was that simple. I didn’t know what to do. I called the woman who sits our dogs to see if she was available for the next day. She insisted I call the fire department right away. Her voice backed up mine. Another piece of support I needed. I told him I was calling the fire department. He said okay. I called. Then I called 911.
In 5 minutes, we had three people in our home. In 10 more we had a houseful of EMT and paramedics. (Thank you!) They put him on oxygen and a gurney. Off we went in the ambulance to the airport. Then into the plane and to the hospital in Anacortes. I began to feel relieved. We spent the night there having tests done. I saw the ugly dark black running through the ultra sound image. His entire left leg from knee to groin was clotted. His lungs were filled with clots. The doctor said this was too dangerous and too much for the medical capabilities of the hospital. She started looking for a more equipped hospital to send him to. She was worried that another clot could shut down his lungs entirely and kill him. In the middle of the night, I lay on the cement floor in his room waiting for them to find him a hospital with a room. He wasn’t safe yet. Another clot could dislodge from his leg and move into his lungs. I prayed that he would be okay. Finally at 5 in the morning we were ambulanced to Seattle. A few hours later two filters were placed in his veins to stop more clots from migrating to his lungs. He was given a new drug to stop future clots. The doctor told him he was extremely lucky. Finally, he was safe, but so fragile, like a thin broken bird.
Mike had been dying in front of me for three weeks. I didn’t know it consciously, but part of me did. Inside I could barely stand it. I had felt trapped. I had felt as if a dark weight was lying on top of me and pinning me down. Inside, a part of me was screaming.I couldn’t escape the feeling. I couldn’t get the blocks to open and make things happen. Until everything followed its logical course, and eventually the path to help did open – albeit in a dramatic and dangerous way. I now see the synchronicities that allowed this: the process over the weeks leading to a release into assistance and an opening into accepting one’s humanness and mortality.
I look at the eons of time that precede and follow our togetherness. This short span (of so far only over six years together) is nothing when I think of the time it takes for carbon to become a diamond, or a universe to unfold and expand. Our short human lives so precious and so fleeting and yet, I have moments with my husband that feel eternal. Moments subtle, but also so large that I lean into them with all of myself. I feel wrapped in friendship and love. Those moments are finite. I will lose them someday – no matter who dies first. How do I hold onto them when I cannot? How do I take these moments and tuck them into my heart, so that perhaps they can nourish me when we are both long gone and dust?
I look back now and see my battle – the battle of thinking I should accept and allow and not be so upset. Jennifer, why do you always feel so much? Why do you cry? Why do you get upset so easily? I remember the old accusations from childhood that were harsher than those words. “Crybaby.” “She’s so emotional, so dramatic.” Those old parts of me – those parts are my friends. The body that feels and knows what the mind may not recognize. So many of us have put away this part of ourselves to our detriment.
I can speak the truth now, say the words I couldn’t say before. I am screaming inside because I can feel you dying. I’ve been watching you die for three weeks now, and we are almost at the end. Thank god I can feel. Thank god I am so upset I don’t think I will survive. Thank god I feel so intensely I can’t completely silence myself.
Obedience is not all it has been chalked up to be. A noisy screaming self is sometimes exactly what is needed. Is this over? Of course not. Mike may not want to honor his fragility. He has a big will and wants to do what he wants. But I will not push away my discomfort and intuition again. I want him to live more than I want him to feel as if everything is okay, as if he is in charge, or in control.
I built my sense of home slowly. I remember years ago, alternating between regular life and days of intense darkness, having fallen into an altered reality, a loss of perspective, depression. I knew then that I had fallen, and I learned how to crawl myself out. It wasn’t quick or easy, but I could do it. I could remember there was light on the other side; that this wasn’t the only reality. I learned the darkness was temporary. I began to build a sense of home – not home with another so much as home within myself.
I’ve been developing a sense of home for a long time. In my previous not so great marriage, I found a sense of home in the path of my career – the people I spent time with and the work I did. I had a bigger outer world because I sought nourishment for myself outside of that relationship. And although that divorce was traumatic, I still had parts of my life that filled that need for home.
This is different. I was luckier this time. I found someone who also is my home. I know that the ideal would be for home to be a self sufficient and internal place in this ever shifting and often trauma filled world. I know that we are all here on a very temporary basis and clutching to the temporal isn’t the best strategy for security. And yet, I cannot imagine life without my husband.
I notice how the skin on his hands is thin and almost translucent, soft to the touch. They are delicate and have their own kind of beauty. Not the robust beauty of youth, but the soft beauty of age that comes from a life well lived with grace and generosity. I am lucky to be blessed with this relationship. I hope to spend many more years with him, chattering into the night together, working together and being the team that we are.
And so I hold onto my husband as I also seek god and a way to survive our transient world. I seek to know that there is goodness beyond the home I have with my husband. Someday death will pry my hungry fingers away. I will look up towards eternity and wonder how to fill the space that he created, the home I feel with him.
Perhaps I can prepare? Perhaps I can tell myself that I will be okay. Perhaps I can trust that even as I adore and find gratitude for our time together, that this little speck of home we have carved out together is bigger than it appears, that it will be a rock for me even after it has evaporated, that our time together is as big as the eons of the universe.
I get caught. Do I find god in detaching from what is impermanent or do I find it in appreciating the beauty of impermanence? I pick the latter. I choose to watch with delight the gray feathered blue heron lurching across the yard. I delight in the temporal, in the trees shifting in the wind, their tall, strong bodies reaching upward. I delight in the texture of the bright green moss on the garage roof and the swooping of the swallows that nest under the eaves. I feel grief as our world changes; as diversity collapses, as other beings, even entire species die.
That is the piece I struggle with. Death and transformation. If I could hold on tight and keep everything dear close to me – I would. It would be a more static and predictable world. I know that isn’t the answer.
Where are all those beings that have peopled my world with love now that they are no longer physically here? How do I reach them? How do I nourish myself when I have been left to live without the cloak of their love?
Outside it is windy, darkening, gray blue water, greens and browns. Mike is slowly getting better. Our home is cozy and warm. We have a fire in the fireplace. I am grateful we both are here. I am so grateful for this time we have together. The gift of the temporal is a more acute awareness of the specialness of this time, of each moment. I am left with gratitude for my relationship, my life; gratitude for the eternity of each moment even as I know that it will end.
I don’t know. I don’t know how we survive these losses. I don’t know how to hold on without holding on. I don’t know how to trust this thing we call god, when for me, home, and god is holding my kitty Hank or my dog Nutmeg, sitting on the body of this green planet, being with my husband.