Those that know me well know that my attitude towards this time of year is ambivalent at best. It makes me think about my late wife and how she held on to life through Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year’s Day in 2005. She passed soon after the calendar changed.
I’ve been reluctant to share my experience because it brings me back to a dark time in my life. But after nearly four years, I’m used to the loss and am able to share with the thousands of caregivers watching their spouses dance with this malevolent illness.
What really got me writing this Sunday morning are blog comments. Whether it’s someone who knew my wife from her school days in Italy or a stranger, comments have a way of pullling me up from my self-absorbed trench. That’s the case with John Rigo, a poet, writer and blogger from Texas. He left a comment on my blog about a month ago.
John understands that the role of caregiver is a tough one. Your job is to provide comfort, care, love in the face of incredible odds. As much as I aspired to be upbeat and optimistic about my wife’s disease, I knew that the odds of her recovery were slight. That’s something I kept to myself during those years. I even refrained from making sarcastic comments when we collected holy water at the Vatican, knowing that my wife was trying every avenue, even a miracle, to escape the disease. Each round of chemo, each plunge of the surgical knife was an opportunity to focus on recovery and pray for a successful outcome.
We finally confronted reality this time of year in 2004. Being the stronger one, she started putting her affairs in order. There’s nothing like going to the lawyer to draw up a will as a sign that the baton of life is about to pass. I resisted her urgings to learn how to manage the household expenses, but eventually gave in to the cold logic. These conversations were a tacit acknowledgement of what was to come.
In retrospect I would have done a few things differently.
1) I would have spent better time with her. She learned how to live in the moment and treasure those around her. It took me a while longer to learn that skill. I spent too much time preoccupied with the future and carried around too much anxiety.
2) We should have talked more to the kids. They knew things weren’t good, but at 11 and 14 years old, they had no point of reference for the situation. They need more care too.
3) We should have spent more time imaging the future without her. As difficult as it is, we didn’t do much of this until the last 30 days. At that point, with the fog of the drugs, I’m not sure we were able to imagine anything but a blank wall.
4) I should have gone back to work sooner. I took time off to remodel a house and be the caregiver. I don’t regret that one bit. What I do regret is letting my professional network wither for four years. I felt like Rip Van Winkle when I started becoming active in my industry again. I faced the same dilemma as a housewife returning to the workforce. My re-entry took longer and was harder than I ever expected.
5) I should have taken better care of myself. The stress takes its toll and you can see it on my waist even today. Being a caregiver is a very outwardly directed state of mind. Don’t forget about yourself. Eat well, laugh with friends and get some exercise. Maybe that’s my New Year’s resolution!
“She hasn’t been gone long enough for me to miss her”
“Except every minute of every hour of every day when I wish I could possess her”
— Elvis Costello