Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The hole in my life is where my new life will grow

I'm in between lives. The life I was living ended on July 12, four months ago.

Necessary parts of living have continued. I eat, I sleep, I get Gordon to and from daycare, I go to work, I pay bills, I tend to the house. I check on my little boy before going to bed and feel the pride of being a great dad. But very little is the same.

It's hard, but that doesn't mean it's bad. I have grief, I am grieving, but I am not my grief.

I spent so long being what I was doing that I'm going to have to relearn who I am and what I'm all about. I was Amanda's husband. I was Amanda's caregiver. I was Gordon's dad. Then I became a widower. But I'm realizing that those things are not all that I am -- I'm me, and sure, I do things, but those things aren't me. Okay, then, who am I? And what do I do now?

That's up to me.

Amanda's death blew a hole in my being. The aftermath made the hole bigger, more jagged and kind of infected.

I have some "good" grief moments, like when I'm tucking G into bed and start crying because I'd want his mommy to see what a wonderful little boy he is. And I have some "bad" grief moments, like yesterday, the morning after our wedding anniversary, when I began tearing up from bitterness and frustration on the way to work.

I'm doing what I can to accept the feelings as they come, but careful not to get stuck in any. I'm also working not to feel guilty when I have joy and optimism.

The hole in my heart, the hole in my life -- that's space for the life I will create for myself in the months and years to come.

The pain I've felt will drive me forward to make decisions for a fulfilling, loving, satisfying life to come.

Part of building the launching pad for my future self has been taking care of the physical space around me. In the weeks after Amanda died, I took steps to make our home less of a hospital and more of a living space.

Some of the many drugs I rounded up and disposed of.
I took a great big bag to the pharmacy. There was so much. It was probably worth a lot of money to the right people (or the wrong people). But I don't want it around.

Amanda's sisters came over and we went through closets and drawers and bags and boxes, sorting through clothes, purses and shoes. They took what they wanted. Most of the rest went to Goodwill.

I hope someone makes new memories with these clothes.
Before those bags went to the depot, I had an idea ... to get Gordon a couple of Amanda's favourite hoodies to wear when he needed a mommy hug. He loved the idea. Days later, I got a book called "Missing Mommy" that included a little boy whose mother had died ... and he spends most of the book walking around with a sweater he pulled from his mommy's closet.

How is the little dude doing, people ask. Mostly great, actually. Mostly great. He's very factual about losing mommy. He's able to explain that mommy had things growing inside her that weren't supposed to be there, and the doctors and nurses tried to stop them, and take them out, but they kept growing and growing until her body stopped working. And she died. And she's not coming back. And we miss her.

But he's mostly great. He's able to be an energetic little boy now without worrying about waking someone up, or leaning on a colostomy bag or incision, or rolling off a hospital bed. He has a daddy who'll play on the floor, or pretend the couch is a train, or stomp around the house like a dinosaur. In some ways, he's flourishing and thriving. He's mostly great.

That doesn't mean he has forgotten. I wouldn't let him. At bedtime, we often tell stories. Sometimes I'll ask him what he misses about her. One time, he said he missed doing puzzles.

"That's right!" I said. "Mommy would sit in the blue chaise and you'd sit there too, and mommy would build puzzles with you. And what did she teach you?"

"To find the corners and edges first," he said.

"Good! So, whenever you do puzzles from now on, and you get the edges and corners first, you can remember that mommy taught you that. And every time you do, that's a little bit of mommy that's still with you, forever."

"And when there's a missing piece," he added, "that's mommy doing a puzzle .... in my heart."


Amanda's birthday would have been last week. After her dad died, she made a traditional family banana cake each year on his birthday. She made the same cake for Gordon's first birthday. And his second.

This year, Gordon and I made the same cake. For mommy. I'd never baked from scratch before, but at every step of the process, I remembered little pieces of advice Amanda had passed along each time I watched her make this cake. Don't use butter that's too cold. Use vinegar to make milk sour. Use exactly the right amount of flour.

It was delicious.

Nana Hewitt's Banana Cake - a new tradition for the Simpson boys.

This in-between life is awkward and kind of scary. That's okay. I'm not afraid of being afraid. My grief will serve me well. I have the rest of my life to live, and it's up to me to make that happen. I'm going to stumble and fall, make bad choices, make great choices, be disappointed, be surprised, be inspired, be an awful mess, and sometimes be the greatest I've ever been.

This hole in my life is the place where I plant the seeds for my future self. There's no reason why I can't have a life of love, excitement, fulfillment, and prosperity. It may not happen soon. It may not happen easily. Or maybe it will. But grief will not hold me forever. It will catapult me toward whatever's next.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Two months later, bathtime still haunts me

She'd fallen a few times before the last day.

Once, in the driveway, while I was giving Gordon a bath. She cut her eyebrow on the asphalt and exploded her colostomy bag, and waited a while before phoning to say she needed help. Gordon ended up banging on the living room window from the inside, naked, wet, wanting me to come back inside. We ended up calling her folks over to help hoist her up -- I couldn't do it by myself. She was too big and couldn't move well any more.

She fell again, not long before the last day, in the bathroom, at home by herself. She said she'd fallen asleep standing up and woke up on the way down, like a cat tumbling off the edge of a highrise balcony during a nap. It took her more than half an hour to scoot to the kitchen, looking for her ringing cell phone so she could call for help.

That day convinced me it was time to take time away from work and keep an eye on her. Gordon would go into daycare full-time. Amanda was sleeping more and more, and becoming harder to wake. And when we did wake her up, she seemed to be stuck in a dream. She'd nearly stopped eating. Even she could tell the end was coming.

On the last day, I had a nap while Amanda visited with old university buddy Amberley. They sat out back and talked most of the day. I woke up in time for a scheduled visit by Amanda's lead doctor from the palliative care team, and her favourite palliative care nurse.

We had a great meeting. The doctor said we'd know when death was near. Amanda wanted a hospital bed set up in front of the big living room window, so she could see outside in her final weeks. We talked about the necessity of memory-making, tying up loose ends, having courageous conversations about end-of-life plans, and crafting the Expected Death In The Home (EDITH) plan, including the do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order.

We talked about telling Gordon that mommy was going to die. Amanda wanted to do so that night. Her nurse quietly organized the many bags of wound dressing, gauze, colostomy supplies and assorted medical gear into a couple of large boxes. It was a good meeting that left us knowing, again, that the end was coming, but in a few weeks at least.

I made hot dogs for supper, and Amanda was only able to eat half of one. Even that was a big effort.

Bath time rolled around, and Amanda got up and began puttering around, moving between rooms, putting a roll of medical tape here, moving something else there.

As I bathed Gordon, I looked up the American Cancer Society's booklet, "Helping ChildrenWhen a Family Member Has Cancer:Dealing With a Parent’s Terminal Illness" and printed it out from my phone to the wireless printer. We had a difficult discussion ahead.

Amanda walked by the bathroom door from the bedroom, saying she'd just lost her balance in there. I told her, with serious eye contact, "slow down, and be careful." I should've told her to go lie down.

I was rinsing the shampoo out of Gordon's hair when we heard a big crash in the kitchen, then a loud groan.

I rushed there and found Amanda, face down on the floor. There was blood on the floor, and a puddle of hot dog vomit. Her sunglasses had slid into a corner of the tile. Amanda looked panicked.

"This is it! This is it!" she said. She pushed herself up a bit and spat a broken tooth into her hand.

I grabbed her under her arms and tried to haul her into a seated position against the microwave stand. I thought it was just another fall -- a bad one. I urged her to "Sit up! You have to sit up!"

"Don't yell at me!" she answered, afraid.

Amanda said she couldn't breathe and needed her puffer from the bedside table. We'd both forgotten that I picked a full one up from the pharmacy an hour and a half earlier. I ran to the bedroom and back and handed her the puffer.

"I have to get Gordon out of the tub. I will be right back."

I knew I couldn't leave our little boy in the bath. That's rule number one of parenting, right? Don't leave a child alone in the water, ever.

He didn't want to get out. So I pulled the plug, hoisted him out, crying, and quickly toweled him off. I ushered him to his bed and told him to stay there and not move.

I rushed back to Amanda and she was motionless, glassy eyes open, bloody puffer on the floor beside her hand.

I tried to get a response. Spoke. Spoke loudly. Grabbed her face. Shook her hand. Looked for a pulse. Nothing.

Do I call 911? We'd talked a week earlier about how she didn't want paramedics and police and firefighters stomping through the house and scaring Gordon, and how just a few minutes without oxygen would cause brain damage she didn't want to be brought back with. But we never got that DNR signed, and didn't have the EDITH completed. I didn't have much choice. I phoned.

I calmly told the dispatcher I needed paramedics. Female, 37, with ovarian cancer, VSA (vital signs absent) on my kitchen floor. The dispatcher asked if she was breathing, but I didn't know. She had me lay Amanda back and listen for breathing, but I only heard a slight gurgle. She asked me to try chest compressions. I did. The dispatcher said we were going to count to 200 pumps. I lost track at 40, as my head began spinning.

The paramedics arrived at the door and went to work on her as I stood back. They asked if she'd been sick. Yes, I said. Very sick. Ovarian cancer. Should they continue, one asked? I asked whether she was gone.

"Yeah," he said, as if to say, 'you dummy.' "She's DEAD."

Okay, then stop. Thank you for coming so quickly.

They cleared out. The firefighters left. The police stayed.

I called Amanda's mom and had to tell her that Amanda had just died.

Gordon was still on his bed, crying. Not crying because mommy just died. Crying because he was naked and being told to stay on his bed. I managed to go through this without getting into the line-of-sight between his bed and the kitchen.

The police, obviously, had questions. What happened? Was she on drugs? (Yes, lots of drugs, many kinds.) Where are the drugs? (Here, here, here, here, and here.) Barb and Wendall arrived and attended to Gordon while I spoke to the police briefly.

Then I had to go in to Gordon's room and tell him the news. Mommy died. She's been sick for a long time. Her body stopped working. She's not coming back.

I grabbed the printout from minutes before and passed it to Wendall so we could all be, literally, on the same page with how we explained it to Gordon. This would be a life-changing night, and I didn't want him getting conflicting information from the people he trusts.

Ruth and Amy showed up, too. Everyone gathered around Gordon and helped get him dressed for bed.

I went to Constable Jenn's cruiser to give my statement. She asked a lot of questions, which I answered calmly. A Sergeant asked which funeral home to call. This was all happening so quickly.

We put Gordon to bed, and he asked if the officer standing guard in the hallway would come to say goodnight. Gordon went to sleep, not knowing his mother's body was sprawled out on the kitchen floor.

Gerry from Woodland Crematorium showed up, already damp from the hot, humid night. While the family gathered to talk in the darkness on the back deck, Gerry and an officer took Amanda's body away and cleaned up the mess.

As I showed Gerry out the front door, I saw a piece of paper sitting on the stool. It was the DNR order. Completely filled out .... except for her signature.

It immediately became clear how much we didn't know what was next. Amanda and I had only a brief conversation about her wishes for a service. We were all shocked. This wasn't supposed to happen this way. Not so soon, not so suddenly, not with such a crash.

Everyone went home and I was alone. I had to call a few people -- Amanda's friends, some family, and Amberley, who'd left our house maybe an hour and a half before she died. And eventually I'd have to go to sleep.

This all happened two months ago today.

Bath time still spooks me.

Every time I put Gordon in the water and sit down on the floor next to the tub, I remember that night. I remember Amanda walking past the door that one last time. I remember the crash. I remember it all.

Gordon is just having a bath, but I relive that night a little bit every time.