A Widow’s Conundrum

A month had passed since the funeral.  I had stayed strong on the outside for all to see and succeeded in getting through it. Now, each morning when I arose, the reality seeped in a little more each day and the shock receded, leaving me raw and vulnerable.

I went from wanting someone to mention him or console me, to wanting to hurt in silence and avoid everyone. In this stormy sea, the squalls frequently came with drenching tears or became the doldrums of not feeling anything.

There was no direction. No goals. No plans for the future. I was adrift with no forward movement.  The only constant was the ache and the knowledge it would never be the same. I was bitter that life marched on, dragging me with it.

This stage, or whatever you want to call it, differs for everyone. I know this after spending hours talking with others who, like me, have gone through it. I wanted to hurry up this stage, get it over quickly, thinking the sooner I did; I could capture some normalcy again.  Now all I can do is record my journey and know that no two are alike.

Before Darrell passed, I had ample warning he would go before I would.  We talked.  I thought we covered it all. Finances, kids, what I would do after he passed. But no amount of planning or talking helps you prepare for the actual journey and the tidal wave of confusing emotions.

I thought it would go this way. I would grieve, hurt and then rebound.  I would become a missionary in Africa or serve the homeless at a local soup kitchen.  I would devote my life to my Lord. I would be a pillar of strength and guidance to my family.  I would go on living because I thought I could handle being alone. I would be a good widow in everyone’s eyes, holding my love for him like a beacon. I would be the example of true love that never dies.

Then one night in the ER when I was deathly ill, it all came crashing down around me. I finally admitted to myself there is a difference between alone and being lonely.

I was depressed. I had isolated myself in our winter home in Yuma.  I had lost weight due to not eating and sleeping. I couldn’t see a way forward because I was so wrapped up in my grief. Ending up in the same emergency room Darrell had on the same day a year later was a wake-up call.  A stern ER doctor lectured me on what I needed to do to get myself healthy.  I listened.

I reconnected with friends. Joined chat sites. Came home to the kids and started working on the house. I picked up writing again. Went out into the community and found volunteer work at the local cancer clinic. And ran into someone I wasn’t looking for.

At first, we just chatted. Then I tried to pushing him away in a panic because I didn’t want anything more than a friend. He firmly explained it was just an offer of friendship. Since he was four years out from his loss, I wanted to know about his journey in hopes I could glean from it some kernel of wisdom, a vision of hope.

So began a wonderful friendship and the year passed. On the anniversary of my husband’s death, family and friends helped light Chinese lanterns to remember the man who loved us all. The one I released hovered over the house as if he was saying he missed me.  I was gaining more peace every day, moving forward sluggishly, but still not wanting to release the life I had shared with him entirely.

His clothes still hung in the closet. I felt I lost more of him with each change, with each item of his that slipped away. But I also knew it was healthy and to heal I needed to move on with life.

My husband and I had blended a family. Three of his kids and two of mine from previous marriages had bonded well. In fact, the kids had done far better than I had. Still, I worried about them going forward. So I tried to be a good example.

Except then, my new friend proposed. We had slowly begun to date, even though we didn’t think of it that way. We met for coffee, had lunch, even a few dinners. All the while talking about our former spouses and growing closer.

What should I do? Darrell and I had never talked about having someone else in our lives if one of us passed on. I loved him so much I never entertained the idea there would be anyone else.  What would happen now? How could I replace the love I felt for one man with another? Where was my narrative of carrying my love for my husband until the day I died?  What would the kids think? What would my friends think?  What did I think?

It seemed a widow’s conundrum. It is not that I will ever love Darrell less, nor can I. And I could never, ever replace him. In fact, I struggled with the idea I could even love another man. But I had this same panic before my second child was born.  I remember watching my daughter sleep one night while her sister stirred in my belly.  I was worried.  How could I ever love another baby as much as I had loved my first? Yet, when the second daughter was born, I fell in love immediately. Not with the same love, but a love that was hers and hers alone.

I had forgotten the heart is inflatable. It can stretch to love many. The thing is – each love is different – because each person is different.

How could I explain to those who were still grieving the loss of their father or friend, that I could still love Darrell? That the love I felt for him was there and it would never go away. It left a permanent scar that would ache every time there was a family gathering, and he wasn’t there. Or I visited a place that we had shared, and I remembered our past life together. Every holiday, every memory that crossed my mind would have a bittersweet twinge of melancholy.

Yet, I needed to move on. Continue to experience life. New loves would come in. Not to replace, but to reside alongside all the other loves that were already there.

It is lonely to live without your soul mate, the love of your life. But there are still people I love left in my life. The love that grew and was shared by two souls, who became one, now overflows, fills and touches all who are still in it. I realize I can choose to honor that love until we meet again, by living alone and always in its shadow. Or I can go out and experience continued growth to my heart and spread the love I have received.

I decided to honor my love for my husband by giving more love to another lonely heart. There are those who may think less of me or feel I didn’t love my husband enough to stay a grieving widow.  I can say I totally understand.

I understand because I once thought that way. I have learned that until you travel the road, you don’t know how the trip is going play out. I remember what I thought it would be like to go to Africa and when I did, it was nothing like the journey itself.

So it is with grief. It is the most singularly, loneliest path we will travel in life.  No one can walk it with us, and you never know where the path might lead, or what emotions you will experience.

Love those in your life who are grieving. Understand their choices may not always make sense to you. And remember one day you too will experience this path. There is no way to prepare for it except watching how others travel it.

Know that love continues to expand. It grows and flourishes when it is fed and understood. It is not meant to be locked away to die, never to be gifted again.

 

 

Finding the Sign

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The morning of the surgery arrived. Everyone was in place. After a quick kiss and a squeeze of his hand I watched as they wheeled him down the long white hall towards surgery. I was adrift in a sea of restless feelings. My lungs restricted as the panic began to rise.

I followed his parents to the waiting room where the Doctor had told us it would be about a two-hour wait. The staff was positive and upbeat, his parents quietly hopeful, and I was a wreck. Nothing held my attention as my mind tossed around scenario after scenario.

It was 10:00 AM and I began to pray…..

Time is not constant. Sometimes it speeds by in a flash, at other times, it slows to a mush of a crawl. Right now, I had a good idea of what eternity felt. At the two hour mark, I found there was less oxygen in the room as my lungs struggled for air and tears threatened to fall. The elderly lady at the information desk informed me that everything was okay. She encouraged me to go have lunch, they would call me. Sometimes surgery took a little longer……

Food sounded terrible. His mother and father decided to find the cafeteria. I continued my vigil. I had the room memorized. Every tiny crack, flaw and dust mote. And another hour stretched out as I wandered the waiting room, looking out the one small window to the dreary, drenched world outside….

Then the surgeon appeared. His young face etched with left over lines of concentration. A smile lifted them away. “He’s doing well. It took a little longer than we anticipated. The tumor had eaten through the bowel wall and it was ruptured. He is a very lucky man. There was a lot of infection, and we couldn’t tell if we got all the cancer. During the process we also had to take out his spleen. In trying to get out all possible cancer it was nicked and we couldn’t stop the bleeding. He has metal marker clips in so they can do radiation for prevention. We removed several lymph nodes and those will be tested to see if the cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. Right now we are moving him to the ICU to make sure he is stable through the night. Give it about another hour for them to get him set up and you can see him.”

I stammered out my thanks as his parents stoically asked a few more questions. Even if Darrell hadn’t seemed to need them, I was grateful they had waited with me. They were staying with his sister and they decided to leave now that he was in the ICU. They asked if I wanted to go with them. I don’t remember what I told them, but it was convincing enough they left me alone. I held it together long enough to say my goodbyes then I fled to the chapel before the panic attack came on.

I was lucky enough to have the place to myself. The storm hit. Tears poured. My thoughts jumbled. The guarantees, the words I needed to hear, had not been forthcoming. I had wanted to hear they got it all. There was nothing to worry about. It was over. He would be fine. The cancer was gone. Instead, it seemed we faced more procedures and still no guarantee he would survive this.

Would I be able to care for him? What if this was going to be a lingering downhill slide? Was I up to caring for a bed-ridden husband? Could I go through the slow process of watching him die in inches? I thought of my great-aunt whose husband had been partially paralyzed by a stroke six years before. She was his constant caregiver. Bathing, dressing and feeding him was a 24-hour job. I remembered her gaunt features and tired smile. Could I do this for Darrell? My heart screamed yes, my mind said no.

I still had young children at home. A movie theatre business to run. Plus my own job at the hospital. My mind scurried to make plans, try to cover all the details. Exhaustion crept over me. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to a time before cancer.

A huge Bible lay open on the simple podium. I looked at it in anger. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted things to be okay, not a cloudy future of uncertainty. I found my legs moved on their own accord and I was standing in front of it. It was open to the book of Job. The voice in my head snorted. I didn’t need to read about Job’s life, I was living the life of Job.

It lay open to Job 33. Line 23 caught my  – If there is a messenger for him, a mediator, one among a thousand…..  I backed up, to line 16, hungrily reading to line 33. Tears fell.  I needed to pray, the Lord in His mercy, could and would pull a person from the edge of the pit of death, so that this person could be enlightened and healed.

I looked up at the jewel tone stain glass in front of me. A simple Cal-lily framed in blue. If even one person prays. I pleaded for his health, for more time, for healing. A peace stole over me. The tears ceased. I wiped my nose. I went looking for the ICU unit.

And Then….

I was hiding in the bathroom, crying.

Darrell had been admitted to the Oncology floor at the Deaconess. I knew this is where they treated cancer patients. I remember as they wheeled him into the room I wondered why.  I felt paranoid. What did they know they were not telling us?  Four long days of excruciating tests and they were still puzzled over what he had.  I was just plain scared at this point.

His room sat at the end of a hall which opened out into the nurse’s station. Next to his room was the family waiting area teeming with nervous people. Beside it were the bathrooms.

I was in what I called my ‘emergency mode”. Calm on the outside, ready to do what I had to do, but when it was all over I would flee to the bathroom to let the tears out. My family frowned on crying and I grew up seeing tears as a weakness.

And the tears were pouring at the moment. I had just watched and participated in the most excruciating test Darrell had gone through yet. They had taken a bone sample from his pelvic bone. In so many of these tests I knew what was going to happen, yet I stayed silent. Why inform him ahead of time so he could worry and fret? Wasn’t it just better to let it happen then console?

When the Doctor came in with the big burly aide, Darrell knew something was up, especially after he complied with the request to roll onto to his stomach and the aide held him down. I was in my customary place, clutching his hand, and soothing him with a quiet voice. I told him it was going to be okay, when in reality, nothing was okay.  After they numbed the skin, I watched as they bored into his back with what looked like a huge hollow needle. His eyes grew wide and I knew he was clenching his teeth. I smoothed my hand over his cheek and leaned in closer.  I had always seen him as a strong individual in both health and personality. I had thought I would die long before him, even though he was six years older. Now, he had a panicked look as his lips thinned into a straight line and a low groan slipped out of his throat.

“Just a few more seconds, Mr. Gabel, I know this isn’t pleasant.” Darrell’s brow furrowed, and if I hadn’t been wallowing in my own concealed panic, I would have chuckled. I knew that furious look well and what type of language was going through his mind.

Then I heard a soft crunch, my hand tightened on his. The bone had been penetrated. Darrell’s breath left him in a loud rush and before he sucked in another, a curse slipped from his lips.

“I know, I know it’s not comfortable. Just hang in there,” the Doctor encouraged.

Time can stand still. Really, it can. It elongates out and becomes sludge. Tears threatened to spill and I looked away, holding my breath.

How could they not be doing more damage than good to an already ailing body? He was low in blood platelets, yet they continued to take tubes and tubes of blood to test for various diseases. They interrupted his sleep at night to check to see if his heart was still beating and he was breathing.  He had a scope run down his throat and one up the other end, where nothing should ever go. And yet, they still had no answers. Now this procedure was definitely doing more harm than good.

I had thought the medical world advanced. I worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide and knew enough to be dangerous. But even with all my head knowledge, it was my heart that hurt the most. I could watch any procedure done on someone I didn’t love, but to watch it done on someone I loved, the empathy nearly killed me. And yet, my loved ones depended on me to support and get them through. It was torture. But I was quickly coming to realize that the medical field ran on one part clues, one part knowledge and mostly pure luck.

The body only gives so many clues and if they are not read correctly, a whole myriad of diseases can be misdiagnosed or missed. So as they poked and prodded him, I clenched my teeth and continued to reassure him things were okay.

The procedure was done. They gathered their tools of torture and left after reassuring Darrell he had done better than most.  Tears shimmered in Darrell’s eyes and in a hoarse voice he said, “That was the worst thing I have ever gone through. Do you know how much it hurt? They said it wouldn’t, but they lied. It hurt like hell.”

I had spent a few more minutes consoling him before I fled to the porcelain sanctuary I now cowered in.

It Begins

In May of 1990, I heard the diagnosis of ‘cancer’ for the first time.  The queerest feeling settled in my stomach.  My heart rivaled the cadence of a racehorse’s hoof beats.  At the age of thirty six, I had never dealt with this disease and to me, this was a death sentenced to my soulmate.

It had started quietly enough. Darrell was a hard working man, running his own theatre business. I worked at the hospital to supplement the income. So it was no surprise to me that after he got what we thought was the flu, that he would come home in the afternoon to take a nap.

You see the symptoms, but you attribute them to something else. Like maybe he just couldn’t shake the flu. Until one morning, due to an extreme pain in his left side,he couldn’t get out of bed.

“If you don’t go see the doctor today, I will call an ambulance right now,” I growled. I had been encouraging him to see a doctor, but like most men, he said he was fine.

“Okay,” he acquiesced with a grimace.  I helped him get ready while calling into work.

Two hours later I was breaking the speed limit trying to get to Billings, MT.  His hematocrit was 18, normal can be anywhere from 28 to 35. Somewhere he was losing blood. His doctor wondered how he had managed to walk in there, let alone be conscious.

I knew Darrell was sick because this was a man who never closed his eyes when I drove and he was passed out in the back seat. Normally I would have been gleeful that I was pushing the little K-car far beyond it’s limits at 80, but my mind was filled with fear.

I prayed.  Please don’t let it be leukemia, please don’t let it be an internal bleed, please don’t let it be……on and on. I didn’t leave out much it actually could be.

Finally, with tears scalding my cheeks, the road blurry in front of me, I slowed down. I decided I would just trust the Creator I had prayed to for so long. This was in His hands. Whatever the outcome, I knew He would get me through. It wouldn’t be the last time I would take this test.

A calm filled my heart and mind. As we checked into the Deaconess Hospital, Darrell revived enough to joke around with the receptionist.

“Yes, my last name is Gabel. All my relatives live in the Billings area. If their last name is Gabel, I’m probably related.” Billings was his home town. They had a lot to talk about. But I was thinking If she called me Mrs. Gabel one more time, I would smack her.

It seemed foreign to me. The oddest things stand out when you are under stress. Mrs. Gabel was Darrell’s mom, not me. It seemed so impersonal. Yet Darrell and I rarely used warm little nicknames, like ‘honey’ or ‘sweety’. Having started our relationship off by working with each other professionally, we always used our first names.

That was about to change. A lot was about to change in our world. Unfortunately I would become intimately acquainted with cancer.

I felt that sinking feeling when my husband’s mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2006.  We raced to fulfill her last few desires.  The last two months were agonizing for all of us.

In 2008, I once again heard that detested word. I already had a foreshadowing of what was to come when I noticed my husband limping across the living room, then discovered the lump in his thigh.  This time though, I was a little more battle scarred.  I knew the routine and dug in.

And just as I finally thought we had won the battle, I heard the word that I detested in March, 2015. The feeling that washed over me this time was pure anger and determination.

I realize now I will never hear the word cancer and not feel that moment of panic. No matter how many times I face it. Like any disease, it insidiously and slowly saps our energy. It takes our loved ones in pieces. Yet, as dark as this might sound, it is a mixed bag of blessings as well.

You never look at a relationship the same. It becomes more precious. You can never appreciate truly someone or the time spent with them, until you are stripped of the expectation they will be with you forever on this earth.

All I can say is cancer simply sucks.