Eight years after her initial stage-4 breast cancer diagnosis, my wife Dallis, the love of my life, succumbed to this horrible disease. She made a valiant and determined effort to live, and thoroughly enjoyed all the remaining days and years she was given, and yet on January 27 of this year, she breathed her last breath with me and her daughter Wendy by her side. Since then, my emotions and frame of mind have been swinging wildly all over the place, and I write to give voice to the internal struggles I feel and to try to make sense of my place in the world now that she is gone. Here is something I wrote a few days ago, and then let sit for a while before sharing. I wouldn’t read it if I were you!
Attending to the broken places (Just when you thought it was safe to read my writings)
Among the questions that grip me and won’t let go are: How was it possible for her to leave me? How could she say goodbye to our shared life? How was she able to give up on our future dreams?
The very questions trouble me, for they sound like accusations. They also sound unanswerable, and yet not considering them hurts too.
My intellect tells me that my beloved needed to choose personal agency over the constant intrusions of medical necessity. Her quality of life had deteriorated so much that no other path seemed tolerable.
In a sense, she had no choice but to say to everyone, including those dearest to her, enough is enough: I don’t want to do this anymore. I feel more like a bundle of problems to be tackled than the living, breathing human being who once found so much joy in being alive!
Still, the questions haunt me: How was she able to pull it off? Was my love for her too little to hold her here – at least long enough to bring her nearer to a time a healing, to tip the scales toward life and wholeness?
And lamentably there are other unanswerable questions: How did she think I would feel when she was gone? What did she suppose would be left of me without her? Did she not imagine how abandoned I would feel?
In case there’s any doubt, this is me stumbling around in the murky land of self-pity and blame. This is me doubting myself and the adequacy of my love. This is, in other words, the ugly, petty underside of grief where it’s all about me, all about my struggle to breathe again, all about my pain, my sorrow, my emptiness palpable in every room every movement every decision every discarded dream every flood of tears.
So, I urge you to avert your eyes. This is the pathetic, needy portion of grief. There is nothing lovely here, nothing beautiful, nothing worthy of admiration. Only sad proof of all the broken places where my wounded heart now lives.
Let us be in agreement that death is a thief that robs us of what we most cherish.
It may be the natural passage from this human life, it may be what is expected out of this crash course we call living, it may be the final remedy for being chronically mortal, but it robs us, nonetheless.
Let us be in agreement that death does not treat us kindly.
It creates a gaping hole in our lives that cannot be filled, it turns us inside out and upside down in our grief, it brings us to our knees where we can only beg for mercy, and it stings with deadly force.
Let us be in agreement that death takes no prisoners.
It causes us to question the worth of our own lives, it guilts us into wondering why we live when our loved one does not, it menaces us with our own imminent demise, and it cares not at all about trampling on our will to live.
Yet let us also be in agreement that death can never have the last word.
It cannot sever love’s bonds forged through unbroken daily loyalties, it cannot break apart the commitments we have made to one another, it cannot steal our memories of our beloved’s beautiful being, it cannot annul our deep affections for the one we have loved and lost, it cannot silence the resilient song of love in our hearts, it cannot prevent us from choosing to love still.
Even though it hurts beyond imagining, death does not have the final word – love is stronger than death!
Tomorrow will be one month since Dal died. In all of our nineteen years together we were never apart for more than two weeks. This is our longest separation and it’s only going to grow longer. I cannot make sense of it. I appear to be alive – I’m breathing by some miracle, I’m seeing friends and talking to people, I’m walking the dog, I’m eating occasionally, although I’ve lost twenty pounds – yet I don’t feel very alive. Contrary to the Bible, death does in fact sting! Not only does it sting, but it renders the one left behind feeling mortally wounded.
Dal and I talked about the end of life sometimes, and we always agreed that we needed to go out together because neither of us could imagine life without the other. We understood the foolishness of this thinking, of course; nonetheless, it was our way of naming how deeply connected we felt to one another, as though we were one flesh. Indeed, we were, and that flesh has been torn asunder.
The reality is, as I sit here in this home we created together, as I contemplate this life we built together, as I recall the future we dreamt of together, it all keeps coming back to this – I don’t know how to live in this world without her, not really. I can’t see the way forward. I can’t imagine ever feeling whole again. Often, I’m not even sure I have the desire to live. What’s the point? This is not me being suicidal. It’s me plumbing the depths of my grief where my desire to live lies beaten and bloodied, struggling to get back up.
You were playing in the clouds today as cottony puffs were slowly teased apart and feathery wisps were pulled out along the edges of a dramatic blue canvas of endless sky where your artistic vision could be unfurled.
So many times, you pointed out cloud formations and marveled at their enchanting possibilities for holding both memories and dreams as you paused in awe before each intricate display and wondered why delight didn’t meet everyone here.
Ashes to ashes dust to dust take on new meaning when the phone rings and a cheerful voice on the other end informs me that my wife’s ashes are ready
ready to be picked up ready to be brought home ready to remind me of all I have lost ready to humble me before my own mortality ready to make me weep at the sight of them ready to strip me down to my core ready to reveal the naked truth
our bodies return to earth’s body our finished flesh is accepted back into earth’s sacred folds we are never merely our own we are made of star dust and earth dust we live in eternity’s flow
There is no adequate consolation right now There is no this is going to get better There is no lessening of the sorrow I cannot see the path forward Only darkness, nothingness I see no future No home for me Not without my beloved Though I am told there is one
I am also told she lives now in my heart Or that she lives on in the memories we made Or that she will always be with me in spirit None of which is enough right now I want her Her body, her mind, her sprightly spirit Only her presence soothes me Only she gives a day meaning beyond itself
Being a partner with her in life meant everything She was my safe harbor in the storm She knew me better than anyone ever has She loved me fiercely in spite of my shortcomings She was protective of me and of our love She spoke so endearingly to me and about me In the absence of these, who am I
Most of all she made my heart sing Especially watching her love this life A life we were creating together And seeing her revel in genuine friendships And laughing with such ease And appreciating the small gifts hidden within each day And hearing her tender words to me And tasting her sweet lips And feeling her body next to mine There is no consolation for losing these things There is no adequate measure to the loss I feel
In the meantime, I will get up in the mornings as best I can I will look for life wherever I can find it If only for you, sweetheart I will remember our devotion to one another I will not lose sight of how deeply you loved me I will grieve, and then grieve some more It is the only thing to do It is the only thing You, Dally, make my heart sing Though for now the song is awash in tears
Sweetheart, I know I told you as you were dying that everything would be okay … that I would be okay … but it was a lie. I don’t like lying to you and I didn’t intend to do so; I was just trying to convince myself, and I was telling you what I thought you needed to hear so that you could let go and be released from a body that was failing you. But now I am utterly heartbroken. I feel completely lost without you. I want so badly to hear your voice again. I want to kiss your lips. I want to hold you and be held by you.
What touched my life so thoroughly during our love affair and marriage is how you would look at me with such affection in your eyes it melted my heart. You brought me to tears so many times just by being honest with me about how you felt. We told each other our deepest truths. We relied on one another to always care most about the other.
I can’t believe how lucky I was to have you in my life for nineteen years. If I had known sooner that our time together was nearing the end, I would have stopped working earlier and devoted all my time to you … to us! I would have reveled all the more in your smile and laugh. I would have asked you to tell me more about the greatest joys of your life, all the way back. I would have wanted to watch your New Zealand slides with you, and have you regale me about that favorite adventure of yours, years before we met.
I would also have wanted to hear more about the places of pain and disappointment in your life, many of which I know about and others I imagine were left unsaid.
This grief hurts beyond imagining. I feel like I’m dying inside. I struggle just to do the simplest things and get through each day.
I wish there was a way to communicate with you, my beloved. I write these thoughts I’ve been thinking and wish I could get this message to you. You were the very one I needed in my life. You cheered my successes, savored our relationship, and gave me every bit of yourself to love and enjoy. You were my anchor, my safe haven, my source of lightheartedness and joy.
I’m trying to figure out how to live without you near to me, your physical presence that is. I have never been through more painful days than these. A heavy sadness follows me everywhere, even to sleep. Nothing in my life experience compares to this aching I feel in body, mind and spirit.
Dallis, my beautiful one, it is my deepest hope that you are where there is no more pain and no more crying, and where you know deep and abiding peace. I also hope to see you often in my dreams.
This is the hardest day yet. I am worth nothing today. The grief has gotten hold of me and won’t let go. There is an empty void nothing and no one is able to fill. It follows me around. I want to go back to sleep and wake up in the past.
My grief is complicated by the fact that in my line of work our lives are set forth as examples of faith being lived out in good times and in bad. What if my faith isn’t holding up that well today? What if I’m more than a little pissed with God? What then?
As I hear from good people trying to offer me solace they don’t realize there is none to be found. All the greeting card talk of being comforted by memories leaves me feeling comfortless in these moments when it’s not memories I want.
I want her to peek around the corner and smile. I want her hug that lingers and won’t let me go. I want to hear her voice again calling me. I want her laugh, unique and contagious. I want her … not memories of her … but her.
This is where I am in this moment … for better or for worse … with tear-flooded eyes! Dallis, my heart aches for you.