Sunday, April 19, 2009

Foresight and Style

Among the many incredible gifts Susan left us was her foresight about what we would need after her death. Her long journey allowed her lots of time to contemplate those needs. Some of the initiatives she took were in partnership with me – such as remodeling the house and minimizing the attention it would require for a while. But she did other things that, even though I might have been aware of them taking place, are only having their impact now. In addition, she taught me how to be more proactive, to look ahead, anticipate, and prepare for things that were never on my radar screen before.

She had an extensive wardrobe. To be more direct, she was a self-admitted clothes horse. But she also had a great sense of style which not only kept her well-dressed, but also kept me from looking like a clueless geek (at least in the eyes of most, I hope). Packing for any trip, no matter its length, was an obstacle course of decision-making for her, complicated by the choices she had. Which shoes should I take with which slacks and which tops? Are we going to any dressy places? What if it rains or snows? What if . . . ? It always took her hours to pack and she was always mildly chagrined that it generally only took me about 15 minutes or less.

Because of steroid-related weight gain, much of her earlier wardrobe became unwearable. Throughout 2008, and to spare me from having to do it, she and her friends worked hard to go through everything and give away most of what she no longer needed. In one particularly meaningful time period last fall, her sister Barb came for several days to help. It was an emotional time and they were as close as I’ve ever seen them, making it a meaningful step in the dying process as well as an exercise in practicality. I will be eternally grateful for Susan’s proactive nature.

There were still a lot of clothes (and shoes) left after she died. After several months of not being ready, I finally decided that the time had come to deal with them. I asked Peg to help – because I knew Peg would take charge, make me her assistant, and tell me what to do. She'd already helped Susan with the bulk of her earlier giveaways in 2008. The act of handling and recording the items as we categorized them was not in itself particularly difficult. But it set the stage for a conversation that we had not been able to have since Susan died. Peg was the first one on the scene just minutes after Susan took her last breath. Like so many others, she had spent time with Susan in the prior weeks and had gained some pretty incredible insights. Discussing those was an emotionally cleansing experience for both of us. I realized in talking to Peg, that Jon and I (and Patrick when he was here) were so busy being stressed-out, exhausted caregivers, that we were unable to appreciate any of the beauty and mystery of her dying process. As a result, I intend to circle back with others who spent special time with her during those final weeks. I think it will help me appreciate a more beautiful picture than the one we saw at the time – and I hope it will be good for them too.

There continues to be no particularly good answer to “how are you doing?” Everything I’ve read about the grieving process indicates that it takes its own time – and I’m finding that to be true. I do feel progress. But almost the moment I acknowledge it, something else reminds me of all that has transpired and I realize there is much more healing to come. It’s a little like hiking in the mountains or in a very hilly area. Just when you think you’ve reached the topmost peak and expect to see a panorama of the world, you discover that there are other, sometimes higher peaks that are still obstructing the view you were hoping to see. I have to remind myself that it’s still a beautiful view, made so by all of the caring, supportive people around me who seem to understand what I’m experiencing.

One of my “summit” moments was particularly remarkable – at least to me. I’m sure only a few people would truly understand it or not think I’ve gone wacky. It was the morning of March 31. I was on my way to work by train. I had finished reading my newspaper and was sitting quietly, aware of the rising sun over my right shoulder and appreciating the beauty of a spring morning in Colorado. I must have been thinking about her because I suddenly felt Susan’s presence leap into the huge hole that her absence has left inside me. At least that’s what it seemed like. The feeling was pleasant and comforting. It stayed with me for most of the day and made me feel like she was intimately close rather than in some elusive, external place waiting to be discovered. In retrospect, it almost seems silly – except for the impact it clearly had on me at the time and the way in which I remember the moment. Part of my awareness that day was a deep sense of appreciation for the courageous and dignified way in which she chose to live with that terrible disease. I’m so impressed with all the things she did for us in preparation for her departure in spite of what she was experiencing herself. I was also aware of the reality that she will always be with me – just not in the way in which I yearn to be.

So – how am I doing? Some days are OK. Some days it seems unbelievable that she’s gone. Every now and then I have a rare melt-down. But the reminders of her wonderful life are everywhere.

And somewhere in the world beyond, she is a model of foresight, organization and style – making things ready for us when our time comes to join her.