A couple of years ago on a Wednesday evening, Nickie was having a pain episode, and since I wasn’t comfortable leaving her, I couldn’t drive Sophie and William to their youth group meeting at church. So, I asked Evan to drive them. Since he was a big independent 17-year-old, he always drove himself to youth group in order to maximize wasting a) fossil fuels and b) my time. I insisted he drive his siblings, and he begrudgingly agreed.
At the time, you could say that William was not a fan of riding with Evan. My guess is that it was a toxic combination of the music being too loud, Evan driving too fast, conversing with other drivers, and the unfamiliarity of Dad not being behind the wheel. But after some cajoling, William begrudgingly agreed to ride with his big brother.
When they got home later that night, I asked the boys how the ride went. Evan exuberantly reported that it was great, flawless in fact, no issues at all. William did not appear to share Evan’s exuberance. He was pensive for a bit and responded, “medium.”
I think about that exchange all the time, more lately when people ask how I am doing, or how are the kids doing. It’s such a natural reflex to say “we are doing well” or “fine” or “hanging in there” or “good lord I hate them, when are they moving out” but it would probably be more accurate just to respond with “medium.”
Whether you consider a day, the week, the month, or the season, it’s mostly good, with some bad mixed in there. The sum total being…medium.
I had always expected the Hollywood version of grief to be my experience. I would go into a dark room and weep and mourn and feel terrible and refuse food and not shave and have long fingernails and stare out the window and pound my fists on the ground and talk out loud to myself and one day….wake up on the floor, in a puddle of drool, hear a bird chirping, look out the window and see icicles melting. I would then emerge from my room for a nice Hollywood happy ending. Maybe the kids and I would lock arms and skip down the street to a block party where there would be balloons and doves and everyone is dressed in Oktoberfest gear.
What actually happens is you need to sign someone up for camp. And they all need to go to the dentist. And they all need braces. And glasses. (Good grief these children are defective.) And you run out of milk. And you forget to take out the trash and have to chase the garbage men down the street in your red flannel plaid pajamas and Winter Park t-shirt that proudly states “I like big dumps.”
Life goes on, and you start to adapt, and even become comfortable. But grief is fickle companion and waits for the strangest moments to either flick the back of your ear, kick you in the shin or give you a full-on roundhouse in the teeth. (Times like Nickie’s birthday and Christmas.) It’s never at a time of your choosing, and you never know which dose you’re going to receive. You learn to accept it and live with it. As a dear friend told me, “what we resist, persists.”
The truth is, and I think I can speak for the kids on this too, is that most days are good. Most of the time you’re busy enough or engaged enough to be happy. Evan is having a ball at CSU (3.0 last semester and joining a fraternity!), Sophie is happy with school and cheer, Thomas is happy rehearsing for his upcoming plays and pretending to be busy with school. William, as always, is quite content just being William. (Which consists of asking me what is for dinner while he is eating lunch, and vigorously reminding me that the Christmas tree needs to come down now that it is almost March.)
What makes life medium is that when you’re completely engaged on a conference call, or out running an errand, or watching a movie, or at a happy hour with friends, or calling to make a dentist appointment, there are those moments. You say something, see something, hear something, or smell something and that triggers a feeling that hits you like a lightning bolt. Sometimes it’s a sweet memory of your kids or your life before cancer took over, sometimes it’s a horrible memory of life while Nickie was sick, and sometimes it’s the realization that something you are about to experience is something you never thought you would experience alone. And after that brief moment passes, you resume your life as you now know it to be.
The kids and I discuss these things all the time. The experiences are different for all of us. I talk to Evan multiple times a week, he usually calls me from school, and lets me know when things are good, and when they’re not so good. I get a regular report from Sophie, which typically has about 83% more content than I need, and I get in trouble when I try to fix things or offer solutions. Thomas, once I find him, is very forthcoming when I grill him for information. And of course William is always a couple feet away from me, letting me know we are out of cereal.
My experience with all the processing of the last 9 months has been interesting, to say the least. There have been many highs and lows. All of it with no roadmap or plan whatsoever. I’ve finally started diving into the stack of books on grieving that have been collecting dust on my nightstand for the last 9 months. Each one I halfheartedly pick up, start reading, and earmark pages. By the time I finish I’ve marked half the book.
A close friend recently sent me a link to an article that a gentleman named Matthew Teague wrote about his wife Nicole dying from ovarian cancer. They made a movie adaptation called Our Friend – great movie if you’re into human suffering. The movie and article may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Matthew’s friend Dane came and lived with them to help out the entire time she was sick. I was immediately grateful that I didn’t have one Dane, I had dozens, maybe hundreds.
So many parts of this article violently yanked me back to various memories of the last 4 years. The ruptured Appendix. Qualifying for and missing the Boston Marathon. Doctor B scrubbing out of a routine surgery on October 2nd, 2017 to tell me “there’s cancer everywhere.” The half hearted triumph of finishing the first round of chemo in 2018 and ringing the bell. A dark street in Warsaw, squatting helplessly next to her and gently stroking her back while she hunched over, wailing in pain, listening to her wonder out loud if she was going to die in a Polish hospital. Chemo failing in 2019. The grave and dejected look on the faces of the two best surgeons in Denver after they aborted her second HIPEC surgery in June 2019, saying “it’s on every surface, there’s nothing more we can do.” Going back to find Nickie in the recovery room, coming out of anesthesia, sobbing uncontrollably.
I recently started listening to a podcast for widowers. (I know - hit me up if you want to hang out – it’s a party.) There’s a lot of useful stuff in there on raising kids and grieving and finances and dating after losing your wife. But what always strikes me is that the host closes out every podcast with “celebrate your wife’s life by living yours.”
The first time I heard that it made all the threads visible, and made them all intersect. I started thinking about Nickie and the kids and all the great experiences of life before cancer. I thought about our journey and how many people tirelessly supported us along the way. All the horrible memories. All the beautiful ones. Nickie crying in a hospital room with a friend that stopped by, allowing me time to sneak out to find a quiet corner of the hospital so I could do the same. All the hope and false summits and fleeting moments of joy.
Writing on CaringBridge has helped me keep everyone informed on the broad strokes of our life over the last couple of years, but it has always been at a high level - for obvious reasons I kept everything positive as it was happening in real time.
One of the more difficult things about the last 4 years is that it felt like I was navigating these excruciating experiences alone. Just like I could never understand Nickie’s unbearable pain and fear, she could never fully understand mine. Neither could the kids. And even the kindest, most thoughtful, well-intentioned friends can’t possibly understand your experience…unless they have gone through it themselves.
Nickie always wanted me to write a book. I always pushed back…hard. When would I have the time? Who would want to read it? Sure, my mom would buy it. She has to, pretty sure it’s a law….but that’s about it.
Driving one dark night across Nebraska in January, listening to some guy say a tag line at the end of the podcast…something changed. I thought of the books that helped me, made me laugh, and made me cry, and made me feel less alone.
If I can help someone who feels alone, celebrate Nickie’s life, share her struggle, talk about little bit about our life together, and record this experience for the kids, then I’m all in.
So, last weekend, I started the outline for a book.
This immediately brought up some important questions:
- How much do I share?
- When will I find time to write a book?
- How do you write a book?
That’s as far as I have gotten. It’s going to take a while, but this is my next project.
I guess you could say I am moving on to a new medium.
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