Goodbye Sweet Emily: A Love Story

Goodbye Sweet Emily: A Love Story

I meet Emily, age 42, at a small writing group a month after I’d lost my wife Danae to brain cancer. She knows some of my history and is not afraid to ask how I’m doing. I know her story as well, at least the cancer facts, and ask her questions that might normally be inappropriate were it not for a mutual trust born out of grief. And later in the evening as we share what we’d written, I snort with laughter as she reads a vignette about a large, blind woman sitting on top of her while, as a child, she’d been using the toilet in a public bathroom. The portrait she paints is both hilarious and tragic. Vulnerable. Already a survivor at a young age.

I see her from time to time at the writing group, and it’s always the same easy connection, my appreciation for her intelligence and compassion growing with each interaction. We make plans to hang out, but it just doesn’t happen as I’m semi-insane trying to raise two small children on my own while going to graduate school and grieving the loss of my wife. I have nothing to give. But, when our paths cross a year after the initial meeting, I’m drawn to her big, bright, beautiful presence and cackling laughter. We make plans again.

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A week later, I stumble onto her porch depleted and delirious from a 24-hour timed exam, an exam that pushed me to a dark point. Even though it’s the first time we’ve hung out independently, conversation flows as if entering a familiar river. Mostly we laugh, even about dying, and I’m struck by how different her journey with terminal illness is compared to anything I’ve ever witnessed. Rather than withering after her diagnosis eight-years earlier, she’d become a high-school English teacher working with at-risk youth, a dynamic political advocate for better state-wide education and health-care, and a writer with a reaching voice. She’d built upon her trauma. She’d become a wounded healer.

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Conversation dives deeper. And when I describe how my children had thought their mommy was still alive after seeing her in a home video, Emily rises from her chair, tears streaming down her face, and hugs me. In her arms, I feel weightless, and, without premeditation, I kiss her. And then we’re kissing more, the feeling shifting from tender into something else. After a moment, however, she says, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” Her nose is bleeding and dripping into my beard. Instantly I reply, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. I don’t mind.” It’s not the first time my beard has gathered the carnage of cancer. But something is wrong and Emily senses it. As she gently wipes away the blood with a washcloth, she says, “Maybe we should think about this first.” I nod agreement, the dreamlike nature of the day still consuming me. And that night, as I lie in bed, I start to imagine Emily dying, her body ravaged by cancer, another lover I cannot save. My body shakes as the snot and tears come. I text her at midnight, the coward’s way, and try to explain that the past had blurred with the present that afternoon, that I can’t do this, that my children can’t do this. I figure I’ve blown it, made things awkward, allowed my trauma to wreck this budding friendship.

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I’m wrong though. The next day we meet for coffee and begin our pattern of talking things through, of setting boundaries. I tell her it’s quite possible that, despite how much I like her, I could disappear out of her life for stretches of time, that she can’t count on me. She sets her own terms including that she doesn’t want me to play the role of caretaker or visit when she’s in the middle of chemo. “I have enough people doing that,” she tells me. “I want to spend time together when we’re able to truly enjoy it. Plus, to be honest, I don’t want to have to worry about how my illness is affecting you. Does that sound selfish?” Shaking my head, all I can think to say is, “You’re so damn cool.”

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I begin spending as much time with her as my life will allow: coffee shop mornings while we chat and I pretend to work, lunch dates at the burger place by the university, sunny afternoons on her porch lounging to the sounds of the 70s, evenings at my house cooking dinner and playing with the kids, and nights out on the town while we swap stories, play pool, and make generally unhealthy choices. One evening at St. James Brassiere, after we share a mound of pulled pork and sauerkraut, I return from the bathroom to find Emily telling a funny story to a group of laughing hipsters; she’s literally glowing . . . though, I realize, it might just be sweat—she didn’t earn the nickname “Sweaty-McSweater” during high school for nothing. And while we have a blast during these times, there’s something else happening, something more profound. Every secret shared, every tear witnessed, every truth unveiled forms a unique relationship. We are intimate without romance, though, as we discover in the end, life has its own agenda.

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However, our relationship is not without complications. Em disappears for chemo and maintains her desire for me to stay away. And, with shame, I realize I’m relieved by this boundary. My own struggles interfere as well. I get stuck working 80-hour weeks and virtually ignore Emily other than sporadic texts. Then I have a brief correspondence romance with a young widow from Oakland, a connection both beautiful and heart breaking, a connection worthy of its own tale. I’m excited and tell Em about it over dinner without consideration of her feelings. She’s supportive, but, too late, I see the hurt in her eyes—I get to move on with my life and she does not. Likewise, she comes over one evening to watch Coco. As the film portrays a young boy crossing between this life and the land of the dead, my children nestle in Emily’s arms like it’s the most natural thing in the world. She and I exchange a look and know we can’t keep doing this; the children have endured enough loss. But, we sort through these issues. No bullshit. No lies. And the intimacy grows stronger.

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One Saturday, a small group of friends gather at my house for a healing ceremony. We talk for hours first, Emily telling me about a surgery that could potentially extend her life by years. I want this for her so badly. I want this for me. Then we take the plant medicine, and my little candlelit house expands with the presence of a love so beautiful and immense that I feel as though my heart might burst. At one point in the night, Emily travels somewhere else entirely for ten minutes. Later, she describes having flown over a coastline and spotting a pit of frantic, black creatures clamoring to get her. “I was so terrified Matt . . . and then Danae was there. I know I’ve never even met her, but it was her. She held my hand and when I asked her how we were supposed to get past, she said, ‘Just fly over them. Duh!’ And then we did. We flew over them and . . .” Emily pauses as she starts to cry, “It was so beautiful. I know what’s out there now. It’s an eternity of love, it’s exploring the universe, it’s seeing my children whenever I want. It’s not the end; it’s total freedom. I’m not afraid to die.”

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A few days later she’s told that the hopeful surgery is not possible and that she’s go months left at best. Emily is, of course, upset, this final hope yanked away. Yet, after the shock wears off, she tells me of peace and acceptance, of an infinite future she’s ready to find. And a few days later, she joins me on a road-trip to my childhood home in Santa Cruz, CA where I’m to play music with my dad for Church. The normally tedious drive from Reno to the coast transforms into fun as Em and I chatter and sing along with the Kinks at the top of our lungs: “Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola!” The rest of the weekend follows suite as if every moment had been preordained.

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We dine with my dad on a restaurant patio beneath a sunset that looks more like an explosion of paint than reality.

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We sit on a beach, warm sun and cool breeze battling for dominion, and she tells me, “Matt, whatever happens, I don’t want you to have any regrets or guilt about our relationship. I know how easy it is for this to happen after someone dies. But don’t do it. I love you.” We go to my childhood church and, as I play my mandolin, I watch Emily’s attention shift between a Bible and the music. Afterward, we walk outside and Emily starts to cry. “Are you okay?” I ask. She looks up at me, her mascara running. “It’s just that I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way in a church again. I’m just so grateful Matt. I think I must be the luckiest woman who ever lived.” And when we drive back to Reno on Monday, we both agree that the weekend had been a gift from somewhere else.

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Two days later, Emily nearly dies from a rectal hemorrhage. I rush to the hospital where her ex-husband Devon hugs me and escorts me into the ICU even though it’s only supposed to be family. I nearly panic as I pass a patient, a woman far too young to be bald, shrieking like a wounded animal, gown wide open. But when I see sweet Em connected to a series of tubes and beeping equipment, it’s not terror but utter compassion I feel. I hold her hand and quietly sing as she slips in and out of consciousness. At one point, she looks over at me and says with surprising gusto, “The nurses are great, but the doctors need to get a fucking clue!” I start to laugh, and she gives me a crooked grin. Her spirit will not be stifled.

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The next day, the bleeding stops, and she’s moved to the oncology ward. I ride the all too familiar elevator to the third floor and pass the very room where Danae died. And though emotions flood, it’s not trauma I’m feeling but, rather, overwhelming gratitude for Emily, for this woman who brought healing into my life. She looks much better than the day before and when we finally get a moment alone, she says, “I know this isn’t part of our deal, but would it be okay to cuddle?” In response, I take off my shoes, slide into bed, and wrap my arms around her. The scene is so familiar and a part of me wonders if I’m completely insane. But the answer is clear: I choose this. Despite the consequences. I choose Emily. And later, as I’m about to leave, she echoes my concern. “Are you going to be able to let go?” I nod and answer truthfully, “Yes.” She wraps me in her big arms and we kiss for the first time in six months.

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Emily leaves the hospital, declaring that she’s going to die at home on her own terms. And, by God, she means her own terms. Cousin Greg, sister Laura, and, especially, her closest friend Theresa deal with the brunt of Emily’s unfettered will as she insists on eating gummy worms, walking unassisted up the stairs, posting videos of herself talking in the bathroom, micro-managing medication, arranging for too many visitors, and generally being a pain in the ass. But I get a privileged position, probably the only position I’m capable of handling. My only job is to be her friend and lover. Sometimes this means dinner in her stylish dinning nook. Sometimes this means lying in bed together watching the office and talking shit about obnoxious people. Sometimes this means our bodies gently intertwined, sharing our lives, assuaging each other’s fears.

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Sometimes this means making out like teenagers, passion and urgency surprising us. But like teenagers, there are limits to what we are supposed to do. One afternoon, it seems as though we might make love anyways, but things halt when she suddenly bursts into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t do this. It’s too risky.” And my heart breaks; so much has been taken from her. As a I trace a jagged scar on her abdomen, I say, “It’s okay. It’s probably too risky for me too.” She cries for another minute, her head buried in my chest, before saying, “But, you gotta admit, if you killed me with your cock, it sure would give you bragging rights.” I stare at her utterly speechless for an instant before we both erupt into laughter! “Come on,” I say, “let’s watch The Office,” and we cuddle in tight letting life move in its own direction.

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Days pass in a bizarre haze as her body rapidly deteriorates. Medication demands reach borderline lethal levels. She speaks to entities we cannot see. There are still moments of lucidity, but these come less and less frequently. The smiling Emily of just a week earlier is replaced by a woman halfway on the other side. And despite all of this, I find myself thinking that it is okay, that it’s the way she wanted to leave this earthly plane. She is at peace. Those who love her are at peace. It’s time for the struggle to finally end. And when it does, when her pulse disappears and something changes in her eyes, we are there to bear witness, to surround her with love, to honor her extraordinary life. I tell her, “You did so good sweetheart. We beat cancer. You can go home now.”

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Playing Doctor

Playing Doctor

The Universe, she’s wounded
But she’s still got infinity ahead of her
She’s still got you and me

~Gregory Allan Isakov

I’m cutting a pizza into ridiculously narrow slices for my four-year-old daughter Arya and my five year-old-son Finn when they call me into the living room. “We’re playing ‘doctor’ Daddy!” they shout and by “playing doctor,” they do not mean it in the way I thought of it when I was a kid. No, to them it’s serious business, and, apparently, I’m being recruited to play the part of the standardized patient. Soon, I find myself splayed out on the gurney—a.k.a the futon—surrounded by an assortment of plastic tools from a kid’s medical kit, a kit surprisingly impressive in scope and sophistication . . . though the presence of a bone saw strikes me as a bit intense!

“Hurry Finn!” Arya shouts. “Get the shot. This is an emergency.” Interestingly, she’s actually found a legitimate issue and is pointing Finn toward a patch of eczema on the soft side of my upper arm.

He shouts, “I’m coming Awe-we-ah! (‘his pronunciation of Arya’)” and soon has a thick, plastic syringe jammed with surprising force into the center of the eczema. “Ow!” I squeak, no longer faking it, and realize that it’s starting to feel like I’m actually at the doctor’s office! This thought makes me laugh, and Arya immediately hisses, “Shush. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.” And next, when she raises the bone saw, I think “Oh shit! She’s gonna amputate,” and for some reason, this thought makes me laugh harder. Arya, extremely displeased now, says in the most serious tone she can muster, “Okay Finn, you’re going to have to sit on Daddy so he stops laughing”—the children’s version of a straight-jacket.

The very fact that I am laughing at all in the midst of their doctor play is radically different than when I’d first found them playing doctor a little over a year ago. At that time, they’d hung a pretend IV line from the top of a chair and were taking turns connecting it to each other’s arms. To say that I had been horrified would be an understatement. Quickly turning, I’d fled to the garage before they could see me sobbing. Normally, I don’t hide crying as modeling grief is important, but there was something different about this. As I’d sat in the garage, I thought about how often they had watched the chemo poison slowly drip into mommy’s body. I thought about how they had witnessed at least two of mommy’s seizures and how, even months after she had passed away, part of their medical play sometimes involved one of the stuffed animals saying words that “don’t make sense.” I thought about how much time they’d spent on the oncology ward because their mommy was desperate to hold them—in fact, they were there so often that Arya would say, “Mommy’s house” any time we drove to or even past the hospital.  I thought about how both kids had come along to the ER several times, something we had tried to prevent but became necessary in moments of crisis—gushing nose bleeds and extreme disorientation don’t offer much time for finding a babysitter. And the list, sadly, could go on. So, when I’d found them reenacting aspects of this nightmare, it was more than my heart could take.

But as time passed, they continued to play doctor, and Arya even set up a little clinic under her loft bed to treat hurt stuffed animals. As a result, I got used to their medical scenarios, even those involving mock trauma. But it’s not until tonight, it’s not until I find myself laughing, it’s not until I catch myself looking upon their play with a sense of pride, that I realize something has radically changed. But what?

Four months earlier I’d sat at a long conference table with seven medical students as they read their illness narratives a loud, narratives that either had to be about one’s own illness experience or that of a loved one. The only guidelines for the assignment were that it had to be from one’s own perspective, and it needed to be as honest as possible. And my God, the stories were honest. Of the nearly seventy students who wrote illness narratives and cycled through the little conference room in small groups, not a single one blew off the work though their writing varied in style and intensity. And for many it was no simple task. Vulnerability is not something that typically comes easily to people, and the fact that they were willing to share their suffering, trauma, and shame, spoke of its importance in their lives and their desire to become healers. They were damn protective of each other too! Classmates who broke down into tears were immediately validated, given Kleenex, and even hugged. The poor block director, the woman who had graciously created space for our work to take place, was given the unfortunate task of interrupting us once when a session had run late. The students were so upset that one of their classmates had been interrupted in the middle of his narrative that they wrote an official complaint. Perhaps what surprised me the most—though in retrospect, it seems somewhat obvious—was the severity of the trauma many of them had experienced and the influential nature of the medical intervention they or a family member had received. For some, the medical intervention had been horrific and their mission, their calling, was to practice medicine differently. For most, however, a physician had saved their life, saved a parent’s life, saved a sibling’s life, or even just shown incredible compassion during a time of extreme duress. In essence, a shocking number of the students had been severely wounded physically and psychologically, but these wounds became their motivation, their source of strength and empathy.

My eczema has now been officially treated, and as I rise from the hospital bed in hopes of procuring a cold beverage, Finn firmly pushes me back down and shouts, “Oh no Awe-we-ah! Daddy’s heart needs help!”

Oh my, I think, they have no idea how true this is. A second later, Arya has carefully placed one hand over the other, interlocked her fingers, and is attempting to deliver chest compressions—something I’d shown her one Sunday afternoon after she’d asked what a heart-attack was.  Her hands are more in the middle of my chest, but I’m impressed all the same. But when she leans forward to deliver the rescue breaths, I tell her, “Save that part for your teddy bears honey.”

She pauses thoughtfully before launching back into frenzied action. “Okay Finn. Grab the mouth tool! Look at Daddy’s teeth.” Finn, playing the dutiful assistant, follows orders and has one of those angled dental mirrors jammed in mouth within seconds while Arya continues chest compressions. After a moment, Finn cheerfully announces, “No cavities.” The absurdity of getting a friendly dental check-up while simultaneously receiving CPR is too much for me and I break into howls of laughter. “Daaaddddyyy,” Arya whines, “You’re not playing right.”

“You want your patients to smile and laugh,” I tell her. “Believe me, it means they’re feeling better . . . or at least that they trust you.”

She purses her lips thoughtfully and then, with a curt nod, says, “Okay. You can laugh now.”

And I do, her deadly serious tone both touching and comical.  Clearly, this is an important game to her, and she wants me to take it seriously. It occurs to me in this moment what has changed, why the kids’ version of playing doctor is no longer driving me into the garage to cry alone. While it will always have an edge of sadness, of grief, I now see blooming potential. My students reminded me that trauma can be a source of strength, of motivation to help others. Who knows, perhaps someday my children will help save someone else’s mommy. So, keep playing doctor my little ones. Be wounded healers.

Online Dating and the Dark Side of the Moon

Online Dating and the Dark Side of the Moon

I click a heart icon beside her profile causing the thumbnail pic to zoom up to my “liked list.” They might as well call it “shopping cart,” I think, and when a new link appears on the screen stating, “See more like her,” I have to laugh. Their prewritten “message suggestions” are hilarious too: “Hi, I see that you like _____, I enjoy those activities as well.” If I need the dating site to write my communication, I’m probably already sunk.

I continue browsing, reading profiles, trying to imagine dating the ones who look interesting: there we are on a cross country trip; there we are wine tasting; there are our kids playing together and . . . wait, she’s got four of them? Pass. I’m not looking to recreate the Beverly Hillbillies. I feel guilty about it, but I also pass on some profiles based solely on the image. To me, this illustrates a flaw of online dating as I’ve known many women who became beautiful in my eyes after I got to know them and, likewise, attractive women who became increasingly hideous the more their personalities emerged. On the other hand, I like that the online dating platform provides some immediate filters. One woman’s profile states that she’s a traveling nurse who loves creative writing. That sounds good, I think, and click on her icon (but wait . . . “traveling” nurse? Don’t they move every few months?). I delve into another profile solely because she’s hot. A line in her “interests” section states, “Any relationship I’m in has Jesus in the middle.” I click X. Beyond the bizarrely suggestive wording, it indicates a religious fervor that does not interest me.

I continue browsing. It’s after midnight and I desperately need to get some sleep, but I feel paralyzed by the faces, the eyes, the stories, the life. Yet, am I even ready to date? I brought this dilemma up with my friend who has been battling cancer for seven years: “I don’t know,” I tell her, “I think I probably need to work through my grief more before I can even begin looking around; I mean, I’m still crying every day.” Her response had been insightful. “Well, I’m not in your shoes, but it seems like it might be more about learning to live with the grief than working through it.” Such a simple concept, yet had I considered this?

I continue browsing but the list of doubts, of polarities, nag at me. For example, my children are at the core of my life, yet I don’t want to involve them in any part of dating (at least not at first). I long to lie in bed with a partner, laughing, caressing, watching dumb TV, whatever. Yet, the idea of going through the dating process and learning to be intimately vulnerable with someone new scares the shit out of me. I ache for my children to have a loving woman in their lives. But wait . . . am I ready to share my little tribe’s heart? I’m often lonely. Yet, do I have time for anyone new in a life where I’m on the move twelve to fourteen hours a day? Doubt and desire dance.

I finally decide to quit browsing at 1am. Before I do, however, I open up my list of saved profiles for a last peek at the night’s search. It’s not until they are side by side that I see the pattern, a pattern I can’t believe I missed. Of the six profiles I’ve saved, five are nurses. And the only one that is not, is a curvy, almond-eyed elementary school teacher with a passion for yoga—a profile that, in basic terms, would have described my wife. I turn off the laptop, settle back onto my pillow, and look up at the little box of ashes on a ledge above my room. “What the fuck am I doing?” I ask her. Only silence replies.

The Christmas Waggle

The Christmas Waggle

How do I wake my spirit cold?
Most people die but others just go
She’s still out there and the chasm grows
Steady are the feet in the morning glow

~Tall Heights

It’s a sex dream. And what’s odd about this is that it’s the first one I’ve had since she died. In fact, I barely dream of her at all. I don’t know why this is the case. After all, I can’t seem to stop thinking about her; her spirit seems to dwell everywhere. Probably the toughest surprise attacks are when Facebook pulls up random pics from the same date years earlier. Suddenly seeing her holding our children, kissing them, is not all that different than a kick to the gut. The sex dream is like this but exponentially worse and better at the same time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ellie emits a single shrill bark and I’m wrenched from the dream, from her fingertips on my body, from her hair framing my face like a caress; it feels like I’ve fallen through a trap door, the interruption leaving an unanswered question. I look at the time on my cracked cell phone. 5am and pitch-black outside. Shit. I try to return to sleep but can’t get her feel, her smell, her eyes out of my thoughts. Instead, I move in the opposite direction, allowing the fantasies to fill my mind, forgotten scenes from our love making throughout the years playing in mind like a super 8 film. I see our first house together. Our first room. The pellet stove emanating heat. Our plush red velvet chair. The record player crackling out Dire Straits while she dances above me, her eyes bright, her body one with the music. A private paradise. I go with this memory, my body responding, my hands becoming her. Intensity builds. Memory shifts from a narrative to something else. Something immediate. Something I haven’t felt in a long time. Something I’d almost forgotten. And in that moment of consuming light, of being so embodied that I’m out of my body, she’s alive. And for a split second, this may be true. We are joined, reunited in that timeless space. Then it’s gone. Replaced by racking sobs into my pillow so as to not wake the kids. Please don’t ever do that again, I think.

It doesn’t take long to realize that returning to sleep is a joke, so I walk downstairs, nearly falling on a Hot Wheel that Finn, my five year-old-boy, left on the stairwell. I brew coffee and then sit in the dark cuddling Ellie, telling her secrets.20180104_130412

The morning is rough. My brain isn’t functioning right. I keep snapping at the children over little things and then embracing them repeatedly. Neither action feels right, so I consciously stop doing both. Finally, they are dropped off at school, lunches in hand with napkins upon which I’d scrawled “You’re part superhero” tucked beneath their sandwiches. I head to the Hub, a coffee shop on the Truckee river, to study. The book I have designated to read this day is Michelle Payne’s Bodily Discourses: When Students Write about Abuse and Eating Disorders. The writing is intelligent, passionate, and heartbreaking advocacy for disenfranchised students who choose to write about vulnerable experiences regardless of prompt or structure of the writing course. I relate to both the experiences of the student writers and the teachers reading and responding to their work. In particular, I’m interested by research Payne presents demonstrating that students choose to write about vulnerable experiences in their composition courses precisely because their audience will be an instructor and other students whom they do not know, people who are not truly invested in their lives. Another reason she cites is that for some students who have gone through severe trauma, there is a fear that friends and family are sick of hearing about the experience and expect them to move on and quit talking about it.20171117_152154

I set the book down, both loving it and wishing it wasn’t hitting me so hard emotionally; that, yet again, I wasn’t crying in public. I might as well be reading an autobiography in some respects. I wonder if the tears are for the hurt students or for myself. Yes, I think, relating to their desire to manifest trauma into words. It’s almost Christmas and my wife is dead. Not a damn thing will change this, but I feel a craving to tell my story to someone I don’t know, someone who isn’t weary of my grief.SCP57384

A priest takes the chair adjacent to mine, both of us positioned to look out a large picture window at the river. He’s some kind of Jesuit I think . . . at least he’s wearing a robe, carries a very worn and archaic looking Bible, has prayer beads, and appears to be praying when he’s not looking at his cell phone and texting (now there’s post-modern image if I ever saw one). I think he notices my distress when he sits down. And I actually want him to engage me. I’ve never talked to a priest before—at least not for comfort—and I think about how I might respond if he asks if I’m okay. I want this stranger to know how much I loved my wife, to know about how she’d make Christmas decorations for our tree, to know about how she liked to dance in her underwear to Michael Jackson tunes, to know gently she held our children and the silly sounds she’d make when feeding them, to know about the words I’d spoken to her that can never be taken back. A tribute? A confession? A catharsis? I want this stranger to know how tired I am and how I want the hurting to stop. I want to tell him that I wish I could pull a runner but that I know that what I’d be running from something that cannot be evaded.

I risk a glance at him and we make eye contact again. He smiles, concern in his eyes, but rather than speaking like I expect, he rises from the worn, padded chair next to mine and carefully makes his way out of the coffee shop. A minute later I see him across the street walking along the river, Bible in hand, seemingly deep in thought. Perhaps, I think, he’s lost in his own suffering. I return to my book, hoping to find my priest in between the lines.

But my ability to focus is low. So, after three hours I pull the plug and pick up the kids from school midday. I’m met with flailing embraces and enthusiastic tales of playing 20180106_145432Ninja Turtles at recess. Arya proudly holds up a Christmas ornament, her hand print on a tile, she’d made that morning. It’s perfect. I imagine being old and showing her children what their mommy made when she was little. I pray that this future will manifest but a sense of dread sinks in; I absolutely do not trust the future.

The day is frighteningly warm for mid-December, so we head to a park. We aren’t the only ones with this plan and the place is fairly crowded for midday on a Tuesday. My kids are off and running in seconds flat, leaving me to sit and watch from the grassy perimeter. The adults are primarily composed of mothers, though there are a few couples strolling about, looking festive and happy. In contrast, I feel anonymous. faded. I know, of course, that it’s foolish to judge my insides by other people’s outsides—who knows what their true stories are. But I do anyways, feeling a now familiar resentment that my partner is not here with me. I want to want to get and decorate a tree. I want to want to drive to see family and open gifts. But I don’t want to. It sounds too painful, like my dream from early that morning.20171125_141810

After following the kids around, pushing them on the swings, and getting increasingly bored, I grab my mandolin from the car. Ensconced back on the grass, I quietly pluck a melancholy tune I’ve been working on. I’m in the middle of this when I hear braying, snorting, and belly-shaking laughter. Scanning for the source of the sound, I see a special needs girl, perhaps 12 or 13, swinging on the other side of the playground. She looks both delighted and nervous.

Her reaction triggers a memory of a fairly big wave day in Monterey with my buddy Tim, a man who would drown a year later diving. He’d talked me into paddling out into 12-14 foot swells. After a grueling journey past the breakers and time to rest, I’d paddled to catch my first wave of the day. As the wall of water began to jack up and I paddled as if my life depended on it (which I felt like it did), there was a sublime moment in which I was dropping down the face of what felt like a multistory building. The feeling was something between terror and ecstasy. Once I cleared the section and was presented with a glassy wall of water to play on, I relaxed and began to move with the wave like lovers on a dance floor. The entire time I was shouting and hooting and laughing without any thought to the sounds coming out of me. I probably even brayed. But once the wave finally collapsed on itself, I did not paddle back out. It felt too risky to try again.

My revere is broken when I realize the girl is standing about ten feet away, staring at me with mesmerized fascination. Her eyes are full of life, bright, and she sees me. Without premeditation, I shift from my sad melody to “The Ants go Marching.” It’s like a pale of honey at a bear convention and soon I’ve got an audience of eight children and a couple of smiling mothers encouraging their toddlers to dance and sing along. Would Danae have been proud of me or would she have accused me of trying to be the center of attention? Who knows. I play for about 15 minutes before the special needs girl gives me a massive grin, turns around, and then waggles her butt at me for a good ten seconds before running back to the swings.

It’s not until later, after I’m done playing, that I think about a night a few weeks after Danae’s death. I’d checked into the Atlantis hotel in Reno to get away from home and to hold a one-man wake. In the middle of the night, I’d been deep into ceremony, candles and sacred objects from our life lovingly positioned around the room, when one of Danae’s fairy books had opened with the breeze from the heating vent. The image that displayed was one of a fairy, her grinning face peering over a petite shoulder as she moons the reader. As the breeze continued to blow, the page fluttered, causing the image to literally dance in candle light and waggle her naked, fairy butt in my face. I would never try to convince anyone of this, but in that moment, I knew it was Danae reminding me to laugh, to dance, to remember that life is fleeting.fairy

I also think about an email I’d recently gotten from a mentor and friend, a woman who’d lost her father as a teen. I’d asked her how she dealt with the holidays following the trauma. She responded by telling me that she’d hung onto traditions, little actions that spoke of Christmas and the life she’d shared with her father. She also mentioned that it became important to forge new traditions in place of those that had been shattered by the hole in her life. Christmas at her house is now filled with friends who are without family for various reasons. The stragglers.

I gather up the kids. “We’re going to get a Christmas tree!” I proclaim. And we do, the guy at home depot even giving us a discount when the tree Arya wants is sold out and she burst into tears. It’s the first time I’ve ever had an artificial tree, but it’s beautiful and it’s ours. The kids seem to like the box it came in more than the tree itself and I find myself laughing as they take turns “playing tree.”

Two nights later, my friends Jo and Tres come over to help us decorate it. I miss Danae like hell but am also grateful that the kids and I have such a loving community. We listen to corny Christmas music, eat sloppy mac’n’cheese that turned out poorly, and help the kids hang ornaments. Somehow, I’d forgotten that during Danae’s service last year, people had brought special ornaments as a memorial and hung them on the Christmas trees we’d positioned around the perimeter—the forgotten memory is more dream-like than linear. As homemade and autographed ornaments are unwrapped, what I feel is part grief and part gratitude—maybe the child of those two emotions.20171202_112103

As the evening dims to coals, “Silent Night” comes up on the Nat King Cole Christmas station. I think about the story of the WWII soldiers calling a temporary truce, putting down their weapons for the night, and crawling out of their fox holes so that they could celebrate Christmas. I think about Christmas Eve two years ago, lying on a couch with Danae stroking her chemo damaged hair, trying to simply be present with her. Not trying to fix. Not trying to understand. Just being.

A special merry Christmas to anyone who feels lost.

 

Against the Wind

Against the Wind

And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then
~ Bob Seger

“Writing is, at root, an externalizing act. When we write, we bring what is inside to the outside; we put words, however indirectly or metaphorically or imperfectly, to what’s inside of us, feelings or experiences that previously were not concrete. Language is the realization of thought—it is how thought comes to be in the world, and it is the way that one recognizes it”
~Rita Charon

“My grief is about me, which is the kind of thing I say at dinner parties . . . used to say at dinner parties—I don’t get invited to dinner parties much anymore. I’ve witnessed a world where people don’t talk about grief, about loss, they can’t.” ~Rebecca Peyton

When the last light warms the rocks and the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones
And rise with me forever across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes and the wind will be my hands
~The Handsome Family

It’s evening time on what would have been Danae’s 39th birthday and the kids and I are at my parents’ house in Santa Cruz, CA. I didn’t want to make the trip for many reasons, but I do anyways. This is a common theme in my life now—doing things I don’t want to because either I’ll be happy I did later or because it’s the “right thing to do.” In this case, we made the trek over from Reno because good friends from Danae and I’s life in Monterey, CA were getting married and asked me to play a few songs during the ceremony. Another reason for the journey was to come celebrate Danae’s birthday in Santa Cruz with her family. Both events are positive. Both are difficult. Both make me miss Danae so damned bad that my chest aches—her absence feels like a black hole threatening to consume anything that drifts too close. And yet, I want to bear witness to the beauty and love shared between my friends. I want to rejoice in the life Danae led. I want to be present even though it hurts like hell.

The kids are in their PJs and want to read a book before bedtime. I rarely say no to this request as I want them to love reading, and I still recall the intimacy I felt during my own childhood when my parents would read aloud to us. Arya comes trotting out of the guest room with a large book in hand. Not for the first time, her wispy blond hair and fierce stride make me think of a miniature Hulk Hogan. I scoop her up and start peppering kisses. “Daddy!” she protests, “No kissies right now!”

Coming to her rescue, Finnley suddenly launches himself from the couch ledge onto my neck. “That’s my sister!” he proclaims while making superhero punching sounds (and delivering actual punches). Feeling both amused and in pain, I flip him over my shoulder and now I’ve got them both wrapped in my arms. The emotion that floods through me is not easily identified. While it’s mostly comprised of profound love, grief and fear also seep in like urine in a fresh bath—an emotional conflict I will try to explain later.

The book Arya thrusts into my hands is not one I’ve read before but my heart sinks when I read the title: “Saying Goodbye is Hard.” Damnit, I think; can’t I just get a break from grief?  But, the truth is that my efforts at “taking a break” usually result in an emotional buildup that is toxic to my soul. So, I stifle the urge to ask her to pick something else and, instead, we plunge into the story. As I read, I realize that while it’s not an unflawed portrayal of grief, it’s about as comprehensive and accurate a depiction as I’ve read. The secret, I think, is in its simplicity. Without meaning to, I keep pausing on pages while my mind races through images and feelings. Only the children’s prods to continue keep me moving (the metaphor here is not lost on me).

The book is about an orange fish who has just lost his partner, a green fish. The first picture shows them happily together in the fish bowl. The next picture shows the orange fish alone crying. Just like that, his love is gone. The caption reads:

 “It’s hard to say goodbye to someone.”

I’ve talked with people who have lost an important person in their life suddenly and unexpectedly and the one thing they’ve all expressed is sadness at not getting the chance to say goodbye. They wish they’d been able to apologize for calloused things they’d said, the types of things we all say to those we love when navigating daily existence. They wish they’d had the opportunity to say, “I love you” one last time and to hold that person in their arms. This unattainable desire makes total sense to me. Yet, they are also blessed in some ways. Saying goodbye to someone while disease slowly robs them of every fucking thing is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. What made it even harder was the unknown ending. When she was first diagnosed, the love, forgiveness, and passion for each other poured from every cell in our beings. We’d made love, our bodies joined so tightly that it was if we thought we could seal out suffering. We had time to make amends, to share courage, to really see each other. But how long can two people say goodbye before exhaustion and frustration set in? How can two people say goodbye when maybe it’s not goodbye? Two years of living under the constant threat of death and yet, not having the luxury of knowing one way or another takes a violent toll.

Just recently, a misguided, albeit well-meaning, friend told me that Danae had expressed doubts about our marriage in the final week of her life. She wasn’t sure that we would make it on the side of cancer and was questioning the very essence of who she was and what she wanted out of a partner. I don’t share this lightly. Yet, it does not dishonor Danae. In fact, in my opinion, it shows her strength of heart and soul that even in her battered, fragile state, she was still independent and thinking in terms of following her soul. But hearing this still broke my heart. Logically, I know that she had a tumor pressing into her brain, she was medicated beyond belief, and we’d just spent nearly two years going through hell together—of course, our relationship was strained to the point of structural damage. And, in fairness, I’d expressed my own doubts about the marriage’s ability to survive if her personality remained forever altered. She seemed increasingly upset with me and I remember asking her once: “Do you even like me anymore?” In response, she’d thrown one of her coloring books against a wall (a very un-Danae thing to do) and said, “Do you really have to ask me that?” But the poor girl with the battered face, decrepit body, and horrible smell of death had never answered the question. Sometimes it felt like we were two prisoners of war who bickered because there was no one else in range. Despite my cognition of the rough circumstances and mind altering factors, despite having expressed my own doubts, when I heard she had questioned our marriage and her very being, I heard: “She didn’t love you anymore and you didn’t even know who she was.”

It’s not until a week later, after my therapist suggests: “Why don’t you try asking Danae for insight into the new doubt and emotional pain,” that I find some relief from this new anguish. I light one of the candles from her ceremony, a candle with a beautiful picture of her grinning and the caption “Shine on” and pray: “Sweetheart. I’m so battered right now and it’s breaking my heart to think that you weren’t in love with me anymore. Didn’t you still love me?”

No answers find their way into my consciousness, so I decide to work on some writing. The computer, much to my annoyance, is dead and I cannot find part of my charger cord. I remember that I have an extra extension in my MacBook box. Digging around the garage, I find the box and open it up. Turns out though, I’d found my old MacBook box from eight years ago, a box that had been stored in our trailer and had been shoved in with a miscellaneous assortment of junk after the trailer just recently sold. What I find inside, however, is not a MacBook cord—it’s my collection of love letters from Danae, a collection I hadn’t been able to find for years. The first letter I pull out of the stack reads:

“I don’t want to be without you in this life. You mean so much to me. I love you each and every day and I want that to continue to grow and root deeper in my soul. I suppose that means letting go – opening and weathering these storms . . .I don’t know, but I need your help, don’t let go of me. Love your chaotic wife, Danae.”

And there’s a good twenty such letters, varying in content and mood, but all rich with love and passion. I also find a dreamcatcher she’d made for me and a few scattered photos of us holding each other. “Thank you sweetheart,” I whisper.

“You might not know what to feel”

 The illustration for the next page depicts the fish, a little girl, and a doggy all blankly staring at the space where the green fish used to be.

When Danae and I first got together and were living in Seattle, I worked as a counselor at a children’s home. One oversized, fourteen-year-old kid named James had a disorder that resulted in odd emotional reactions to situations. He would laugh at horribly inappropriate times and, most notably, tended to cry when shown affection from the staff. The lead psychologist told me that James’ father had shot mom in the head before turning the gun on himself. James was still in a highchair crying when the police arrived. “For James, feelings of intimacy trigger feelings of terror. He’s trapped in a loop of both desiring and fearing human connection.” I might be experiencing a version of this reality.

It hits me like hammer one evening. We’re getting ready for bed in the new house, our own beautiful, candle-lit, private space. The kids and I are going through some cute yoga postures from the Goodnight Yoga book. They beg for this nearly every night and while everything about bedtime yoga is healthy and positive, it is drenched in Danae’s touch. So, I don’t know how to feel when I see Arya, a miniature image of mommy, arching in pose that I’d seen Danae do many times. Joy, pride, heartbreak, fear. It’s like a dam breaks and every feeling imaginable is rushing through me. “Why are you crying daddy?” Finn asks, suddenly concerned. I don’t know what to say, so I pick him up and hold him to my chest. He allows this for a moment, soaking in the affection, before protesting: “Daddy! I’m still doing yoga!” I put him down and laugh, the emotional train suddenly shifting course.

A few minutes later, I’m tucking Arya into bed. A Raggedy-Anne doll made by great grandma, the Goodnight Yoga book, a battery-lit candle, and a few small Hello-Kitty toys neatly surround her pillow like a protective wall. There’s a beauty, a craftsmanship in her sensual, organized clutter. This also makes me think of Danae and without meaning too, I emit an odd laugh that, if left uncontained, could become a rogue sob. But it doesn’t. She sits up and declares: “Because I go poo poo on the toilet, I’m a grown up now. Then I go to Little Dragons and I have a uniform like Finn.” I reach down and hug this little, blond lifeform. “Yes, you can start Little Dragons soon. Or gymnastics. Whatever you want.  I’m so proud of you.” She grabs my arm, makes a little cooing sound, kisses the back of my hand, and then says, “I love you daddy.” Finn tells me this all the time. Arya, while generous with hugs, is more reserved with statements of affection, so it goes straight to my emotional core. It’s not that “I don’t know what to feel,” as much as I don’t understand what I am feeling (is this the same thing?). I kiss her again, tell her to get some sleep, and walk quickly to my room where I begin to cry uncontrollably. The depth of my love for her and Finn is terrifying. What if something happens to them? They’re so innocent, so sweet. I couldn’t bear it. It would too much. And they don’t have a mommy. It’s just us, all alone. Left behind. And I see her in them so much. It’s beautiful and it rips me apart. It enrages me. I don’t want the love from my children to break my heart, to terrify me. I don’t know how to fix it though.

“You might be very sad”

 The orange fish floats alone in his glass bowl and cries.

 One afternoon, I’m listening to a Ted Talks session on grief and loss while I try to catch up on house cleaning. That morning, when my alarm had shattered the relief of sleep, I’d felt a heavy sadness seep into my chest and gut where it lodged. I tried exercising, listening to music, calling a friend. None of it helped. Finally, I decided to look for podcasts from writers who had been through the loss of a spouse or close family member. A good idea? I’m still not sure.

In her essay “Widowed,” Rachel Jamison Webster writes, “I am so aware of the other side of life that I feel asymmetrical in my relation to others. Or perhaps what I feel is just a stranger symmetry, as I experience life always in relation to death, as I encounter what is always in relation to what it is not.” Sadly, I relate all too well—one part of my soul is in the land of the living and one part, the part I’d freely given to Danae, has crossed over. I mourn my loss of innocence, of the beautiful naivety of assuming that things will work out in the end, that those I love will be safe, that death will be fair in its timing and selection.

The most striking part of the essay is when she describes the loneliness of single parenting, the “absence of someone to laugh with.” Her is example is a scene while giving her daughter a bath: “She is most excited about the ‘dead man’s float’ in which she lies on her back with her body and face slightly underwater and sees how long she can hold her breath.  I look at her little body nearly taking up the length of the tub now—how he would have loved to see her growing body, how I wish he could see how beautiful she is becoming.” Of course, I’m well aware of how lonely I am and how badly I wish Danae were here to witness these miraculous creatures flourish. Yet, it’s not until I listen to this essay that I really connect the dots. The kids’ hilarious conversations, their sticky fingers wrapped around my neck, their undiluted love all hurt because I do not have mommy here to share it with me. It’s a joy that craves witnesses.

I think about Arya’s recent success with potty training and her bizarre ability to work the “cookie reward system.” Somehow, she’s able to produce a single, gumball sized turd per hour. After each, she says, “Oreo cookie now please.”  When I’d promised a cookie for a successful poo-poo event, I hadn’t anticipated that she would be able to somehow parse her bowl-movements out as a means for collecting a dozen cookies in a single day. By evening time, I tell her, “Okay, no more cookies. We have to find a different reward.”  She sticks out her lower lip in a classic pout and says, “This is a catastrophe.” I burst out laughing and when she stomps a foot in an angry response, it makes me laugh even harder. For just an instant, the briefest of moments, I glance around for Danae. But of course, there’s no mommy for me to put my arm around; no other witnesses to Arya’s wild spirit. Sure, I call my parents later and tell them about it. We laugh on the phone, but it’s bitter sweet because they are surrogate listeners and I know it.

I continue cleaning and listening to essays on grief until one written by the parent of a child who is battling terminal cancer sends me over the edge. The essay is quite positive and talks about how when she and her husband finally realized that they couldn’t “fix it,” they became more present for their little six-year old boy. Their mission was to give him as much joy as possible. While I really do appreciate the wisdom, what happens to me is that I start imaging Finnley and Arya dying of cancer. I think about the little children in Syria with chemical burns all over their bodies. I’m in Finn’s room putting away clothing, and even the sight of his Thomas the Train shirt breaks my heart, as if I were looking at the shirt of a dead child. My body begins to shake uncontrollably. I’m hyperventilating. I’m pacing. I feel trapped, caged by invisible bars. I run to the bathroom and vomit. Why? Why? Why? Something’s seriously wrong with me. Something’s broken. “Sad” isn’t even in the ballpark of severity.

Later, however, as I sit on the floor of my therapist’s office across from her, telling her about this reaction, she says, “Of course you feel this way Mateo! Look at what you’ve been through. You don’t trust life or death and the more you value something, the greater the fear surrounding its potential loss is. So, it makes sense that your children, the beautiful little beings that mean more to you than anything in the world, will generate confusing emotions. The good news is that as you rebuild and recover, the debilitating terror will be replaced by healthy concern for their well-being. Danae will help you with this too.

And I believe her. At least I want to.

“You might not feel like talking to anyone”

 A large cat peers into the fish bowl and appears to be giving the little fish advice. The little fish looks tired and trapped.

I don’t want to be left alone. In fact, one of my fears is that as time passes, I will continue to hurt while the rest of the world will have moved on. So, the following description is not meant to discourage advice givers or give the impression that I do not want people to ask me how I am doing. Just the very act of acknowledging what we are going through as a family is an act of love, of bearing witness.

Having said this, advice can be particularly difficult. This is especially true in that much of it, even the aspects that make sense, directly contradict each other. Here are some tips I’ve been given:

  1. Do not date for at least a year.
  2. Find a safe partner and have a fling. You need human connection!
  3. Don’t even consider moving until things have stabilized—you’ve got enough chaos in your life.
  4. Move into a fresh space, get a fresh start. Your old house carries too much grief.
  5. Don’t make any major decisions for at least a year.
  6. Find a way to take a year off and process what’s happened.
  7. Stay busy and immerse yourself in work.
  8. Slow down, take time to grieve, work will still be there when you are ready.
  9. It’s imperative that you stay sober.
  10. Don’t beat yourself up over your use of pot—it sounds like it might be serving a healthy purpose.
  11. It’s going to be difficult to move on if your house is decorated like a shrine to Danae.
  12. Keeping Danae’s pictures and possessions visible in your home is a way to honor her and to help you transition.
  13. You ought to really consider getting back on antidepressants; you need all the help you can get.
  14. It’s probably a good thing you’re not on antidepressants. As rough as it, you need to process and feel this to heal.

This doesn’t even cover all the parenting advice I’ve gotten. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from a generation that assumed men were ill equipped when it came to child rearing and household duties or if I am genuinely unusual (I’m guessing the former), but some of the “tips” I’ve gotten have cracked me up. One woman (again, very well meaning), said, “It’s important that you put the kids down earlier than your own bedtime because they need more sleep than adults.” I almost laughed thinking she was being sarcastic when I realized that her advice was in earnest (isn’t this an obvious truth? Maybe I’m being narrow minded on this one). Another woman suggested that I dress the kids in their school clothes the night before to save time in the morning. I did laugh at this one, ruffling her feathers a touch, before realizing she was serious. That tip sounded more like a classic guy move to me! But, perhaps I’ll give it a shot and hope they don’t look like they just finished sleeping on a park bench.

I digress from the point “you might not feel like talking to anyone.” I suppose that what I’m trying to relate is that I’m stuck in a position where I both desire and dread communication. And, while people mean well, advice often serves as a reminder that I am doing this alone. So, don’t stop talking to me, asking me how I’m doing, even giving advice. Really, please don’t. But don’t feel bad if I seem reserved, skeptical, or even defensive. Sometimes the outside world is too much for me to handle.

“You’ll have days when you feel up, and days when you feel down”

Arrows pointing in a circular pattern from up to down, the fish smiling when up and grimacing when down.

I’m skipping ahead in the book now. There’s plenty I could say about the other pages, but for the moment, I think I need to get to some positive aspects—the “feeling up”—because life is not fully eclipsed by darkness.

I pick up Finn from his Superhero summer camp at Freestyle martial arts at 2pm and we head over to the waterpark. It feels somewhat wrong to not bring Arya, but she’s too little to ride on the “big boy slides” which means that the three of us are usually confined to the little children areas of the park. So, I decide it’s going to be just Finn and I. When I tell Finn this, his eyes widen into saucers and his voice cracks with excitement. “Just a boy’s trip daddy!? Are we gonna ride on the big slides?” I smile at him through the rearview mirror. “You betcha,” I say with a Yooper accent just to be silly. With even more volume he asks, “Can we ride the Viper!!?” And the conversation continues in this manner—enthusiasm mounting—all the way to the water park.


It’s 103 F outside and the parking lot of the waterpark feels like a brick oven. We hustle toward the gate, his little hand pulling me onward. They scan our season passes and we’re inside. After quickly spraying ourselves with toxic sunscreen and ditching our swim bag on a chase lounge, we charge up a long flight of cement stairs. The lines are short on a Tuesday afternoon and soon it’s our turn. Finn’s enthusiasm wavers as he realizes that he’s about to launch down a surprisingly steep slide. He peers up at me, eyes betraying fear, small body encased in a bright orange life jacket. “Daddy, maybe we shouldn’t do this one.” I squat low, pulling him close, and say, “You got this dude. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” He crawls into my arms and I hold him like a baby for a moment before he says, “Okay, I’m ready now.” He goes first and as his little upright form disappears down the chute, I pray that he has fun. It’s my turn now, and I lean back, allowing the slide to sweep me through turns and dips. It’s damn fast and when I get to the bottom, I half expect to find a terrified Finnley. Instead, he’s literally hopping around with excitement. When he sees me, he shouts, “Yes!!” and pumps his fists in the air. “Can we do it again daddy!? Please, please, please!”

So we do. And then we do it again, only switching slides after a half dozen times. An hour later, we grab a two-person inner-tube raft and launch down Tortuga, a wide green slide designed for simultaneous riders. He’s positioned in the ring in front of me with my legs stretched around the edge of his section. As we shoot down the rapids, we both hoot with excitement and my heart feels as though it might burst with the overflow of love surging for this boy. Like the night that he and I played music together, it feels less like “parent and child” and more like two buddies hanging out.

We take a break after two hours, get a slice of pizza, and people watch. “Woah, look at that guy! He’s a real superhero!” Finn says as he points towards the entrance of the park. I look toward where he is gesturing and burst out laughing. A man with a military style crew cut, diamond studs in each ear, pink sunglasses, and a body like a G.I. Joe has just entered through the main gate with two scantily clad women, one on each arm. On his washboard abdomen is a cursive tattoo that reads: “Freedom” and below that, “Fuck Yeah!” For some reason, this makes me happy and I tell Finn, “I think you’re right bud. That guy is a superhero.”

Finn doesn’t want to leave but it’s time to pick up Arya, so we reluctantly head back toward the Child Garden to get sister. She doesn’t know that we’ve been to the waterpark (one of the rules of the trip was that Finn had to keep our trip to himself), but I want to do something special for her as well, so we head to Frozen yogurt. When she realizes what we’re doing, she stretches out her arms to me and says, “Huggles.” I pick her up, realizing that it won’t be long until she’s too large for me to do this, and we all head in for a messy, cool treat.

Back at home, I make Ellie a special bowl of wet food and we all settle in to watch Trolls (for the twentieth time). It’s been a good day and that night, as I lie in bed, I tell Danae about it. The tears I cry are an odd combination of longing and gratitude.

The most recent relief from the weight of life has been the longest lasting and most sustainable: work. I can’t believe it either. I have spent two years now trying to juggle brutal trauma and a PhD program. The result has been that school and work have, rightfully so, taken a position on a backburner (and become a source of severe anxiety). However, last week I began a project that I am hoping will be my dissertation work and the focus of my energy for the next several years. In a nutshell, I’m working with this year’s incoming medical school class as a writing specialist, guiding them through reflective writing practices surrounding pinnacle events as well as private interview sessions. It’s meaningful work that involves vulnerable, authentic communication. Furthermore, it seems to be fueled by my grief rather than overshadowed by it—a unification of my intellectual pursuits and the needs of my soul. It’s still early on, so the pessimist in me is leery of too much excitement. But, regardless of the outcome of this specific project, it’s offering me a vision of the kind of work I want to do after school, a vision of working in medical schools, hospitals, and/or non-profits. I’m happy to hang up the English professor jacket and pipe, though who knows what the future will actually hold.

There’s so, so much more to tell, to share. But, I’m weary of writing this lengthy, “past its expiration date” blog. Instead, I’d like to leave you with a piece of writing I did for my medical school work for anyone interested in how I’m integrating my life writing with work (our team is actively producing reflective writing alongside the students). As always, thank you reader for being a part of my life; without you, this writing would not mean nearly as much.

Day One of Orientation and the Reflective Writing Project

 I’m sitting in the little Learning & Resource Center trailer with Mac, eating a Jimmy John sandwich and preparing for our reflective writing presentation to the incoming med school class. My emotions occupy a space somewhere between anxiety and excitement. It’s the same feeling I get on the first day of class despite a decade of experience teaching. I used to hate the sensation (reminded me of a first date) but now I’ve learned that the nervous energy can be harnessed, channeled into a presence in the classroom, transformed into enthusiastic interaction. The opposite of apathy.

As we rehearse through our slides, we arrive at one related to the importance and power of vulnerability in stressful situations. It’s my slide to present and, as I think about what I might add for context, an example comes to mind. I rule it out immediately as it’s too much both in terms of the amount of time I have AND vulnerability for a large lecture hall filled with students who are seeing me for the first time. But, I share my example with Mac, a man I’ve come to know both professionally and personally (we share an interest in bluegrass, working on bicycles, and have both lived in Monterey and Seattle area).

I begin by telling him, “Well . . . this isn’t an example I actually plan to use, but it does seem to connect with the power of vulnerability and sharing of burden.” I pause, take a breath, and continue: “I saw a psychiatrist—a young guy—for the first time last week and told him a bit about my story.” Mac nods. He knows that I lost my wife to brain cancer after a brutal two-year struggle. He knows that I’m raising two small children on my own. He knows that I’m torn between a fiery enthusiasm for the work I’m doing with reflective writing and dread over the arduous and overwhelming journey through the requirements of a PhD program (many hoops that feel irrelevant to reality). “I expected him to want to prescribe anti-depressants or begin giving me suggestions on how to manage my life.” I pause, then continue, “Instead, he tells me, ‘Matt, honestly, I have to wonder how in the fuck you are holding it together and doing all that you are doing. I just met you, but I already admire you greatly and I’m not just saying that. What I’d like to give you is permission to fall apart—to take a semester off for your own mental health if you need to. I think you can survive without doing this, but if you need to—want to–It won’t be the end of your career or opportunities. You will be okay either way.’”

As I tell Mac this, I lean back in my chair, my eyes growing cloudy with tears and my throat catching. “The thing is Mac, he saw me. He heard me. He recognized my suffering. My fear. My stress. And in that moment, I felt like I could continue moving forward. Like having someone give me permission to shut down relieved the pressure I was putting on myself. Since Danae died, I’ve felt like I’ve had to keep moving for the kids, for school, for my family’s future. Like I had no choice. But, when I felt like I did have a choice—do have a choice—I didn’t want to take a break. I wanted to push forward.”

Mac is actively listening, leaning forward, eyes telling me he’s engaged in what I’m saying. “I guess the parallel I’m getting at is that a lot of these students might feel as though ‘failure’ in medical school, or even struggles with testing and curriculum might be catastrophic, a failure in life. If, through writing, through the communities we will be building, they can learn that their life, their identities, are not tied to success or failure in medical school, we might be able to relieve that pressure enough for greater success. Plus, if they see that they are not alone in these anxieties, their vulnerability, this will not only build community but also foster courage and resiliency. At least, that’s the connection I’m making in my mind.”

And, as I sit here the next day, in my bedroom writing (reflecting), an analogy comes to mind. I grew up in a family of highly competitive, marathon runners (even my grandma was hoofing them out into her sixties). They could literally turn any activity into a sport. When I was perhaps eight or nine, my dad and grandfather used to time how long the grandkids could stay underwater. We’d hyperventilate for about thirty seconds, grinning at each other, and then plunge under. I recall being able to stay under for times of over 2 minutes (lungs not yet exposed to the recreational activities of my teen years). Desperation would sink in around 1:30 but I was able to hang on, to calm my mind, to distract myself. Most importantly, I knew that I could come up for air whenever I needed to. No one was holding me under and there were no negative consequences of coming up other than not achieving the time I wanted. The challenge was fun.

Around this same period in my life, we took a trip to Hawaii and spent the majority of the time in the water. One spot we visited had a large cliff with an underwater tunnel leading from one side to the other. I’m guessing it was about the length of a personal swimming pool, so not all that long—the kind of length in which I could normally do three lengths underwater. Yet, it was dark and the consequences for failure would be . . . well, death. So, it was scary and dangerous. But, the older children with whom I was swimming goaded me into doing it. I will never forget the mounting terror I felt as I swam into that abyss. As I pushed onward, the fear rose, the darkness threatened to swallow me whole. I started to rise and hit my head on rock. Panic set in. Desperation. Fortunately, the light from the other side grew in visibility and I finally made it out. As I surfaced, I was gasping and coughing even though I probably hadn’t been under the water for more than thirty seconds—nowhere near my actual capability.

The difference was CHOICE. The difference was AGENCY. When I had the capability of surfacing, when “failure” was acceptable, my ability to withstand suffering and prevail (and even enjoy the experience) was night and day to when “failure” carried loss of self.

I want choice and agency for myself in my academic and professional journey. Likewise, I want our students, this beautiful new class of first year med students, to have choice and agency. I’m hoping this reflective writing project will engender—or, at least, strongly contribute—to just that.

The Things She Left Behind

The Things She Left Behind

20161219_091642On the front porch there is a pair of black Adidas tennis shoes with pink trim. They are far too big for my daughter but too small for either of Danae’s sisters. I should move them, but I don’t. Instead, I see them when I come home from work, sitting next to the pumpkins the kids decorated with glitter–as if Danae were right inside. They get dusted by snow and still I leave them. No one comments on the lonely shoes. Perhaps they too don’t know what to do. Perhaps they fear any words will fall short.

Mail continues to come for her. Mostly bills. The people that matter are aware that she’s gone. One day, I decide to call the half dozen hospitals who want money from us—from me. The bills sit, growing like the cancer they represent, in a file cabinet that is covered with pictures of us traveling and stickers from the packaging of sports equipment we bought together. I’m put on hold. I’m transferred. I talk to a woman who says that she cannot talk to me because I do not have power of attorney. “So,” I ask, “then I’m not liable for these bills?” “Unfortunately you are,” she replies. “You can make a payment; I just can’t tell you the amount or any other details. I suggest you contact your wife’s insurance company directly.” So I do.  They transfer me three times, disconnect me twice, and finally, after an hour and twenty minutes, a woman says, “I understand your situation sir, but I’ll have to speak directly to your wife.” I tell her something colder than I’ve ever said in my life. “Maa’m, I hope that you get to watch your husband or whoever the fuck you love slowly die!” Before she can respond, I hang up the phone and throw it against the wall where it breaks into pieces. Instantly, I feel stupid and helpless. Rather than calming down, I scream into a pillow and then throw a tantrum that would make a spoiled two-year-old embarrassed–we’re talking full on writhing on the ground kicking and yelling. Afterward, I dig around the garage until I find some old, dry tobacco and sit on the back porch smoking an awful tasting cigarette and listening to a sad Gregory Isakov song.20170204_094614

Under the sink in the master bathroom is her territory. Really, the entire bathroom was her territory, but I’ve reclaimed a majority of the lost ground–that is, except for under the sink. Nearly bursting at the seams, it remained too daunting of task until one day, I put on U2’s Achtung Baby and get to work. And by “put on,” I mean fucking loud. House rattling. The children are at school. My mother is not visiting. Uncle Luke is at work. I dive in. She has space saving baskets filled and piled. The first one I pull out has maybe 20 different nail polishes. In her last months, she became obsessed with doing her nails and anyone else’s who would let her. It was something she could do even in the hospital. I put them in a pile to give to family and friends. One sparkly blue color catches my eye and I set it aside for my daughter. Does nail polish spoil, I wonder. All the emery boards go in the trash. They disturb me, especially remembering the infections she got on her feet towards the end, infections that I told her weren’t gross when she cried about how disgusting her cute midget toes had become. Another basket contains masks. These remind of death. Into the trash they go. I discover a box filled with small vials of essential oils for aroma therapy, vials that proclaim healing potential for just about every ailment. A memory flashes through my mind of a mocking comment I’d made to her about “hippie scam products.” Why did I feel the need to say that, to put down on her excitement? Fuck. I keep digging and sorting and the piles grow larger. Nail clippers, an eye lash curler, two hair driers, boxes of unused contact lenses, cue tips, cotton balls, an old toiletry kit from Emirates airlines, a beanie baby seal, a neti pot, and various disinfectant mouthwashes and rinses. Some of it I keep. Some of it I set aside for her mom and sisters. A lot goes in the trash. I feel pulled between a desire to keep it all and to throw it all away.

20170120_083405She left behind her preferences for little things. At Winco, I grab Fuji apples because those are the kind she likes. This is not sentimentality. It’s habit. Not until three months after she’s gone, do I grab Granny Smiths, carefully selecting each green apple and feeling a sinking in my stomach as I do. Likewise, when I dress Arya one morning, Danae’s good-humored criticism of my outfit choices echoes and I find myself deciding against a particular pair of leggings because “stripes and plaids don’t belong in the same ensemble.” I put on Buffy the Vampire Slayer one night when I can’t find something to watch—this was always her go-to when we couldn’t decide on something. But when the character Angel utters some ridiculously moody line, she’s not there to hear my teasing, to laugh and tell me, “I can’t help it Matt! I love this show!” So I turn it off, the fun gone. And it goes like this. I wipe up water from the bathroom floor after my shower because it bugs her. The Alfredo sauce remains off the pizzas I bring home from Papa Murphy’s because it makes her feel bloated. In the used bookstore, I automatically reach for a title from the Outlander series in case it’s one she hasn’t read. Fourteen years of a shared, intimate life leaves deep patterns, like old familiar ruts on a country road. A friend who also lost his wife told me recently that he eventually came to realize that his past self had died as well. I get this. I’m not really sure how “to be” without her.

Cleaning out our walk-in closet is a project still underway. Like the bathroom, the closet was her domain for the most part, and is filled with hat boxes, small treasure chests, plastic organizing drawers, shoe racks, and a wrapping station. To me, a wrapping station was just one of those “woman things” that served as place to find and steal scissors and tape when the need arose (an action that used to seriously piss her off). Now, when Finn is invited to a B-day party, I scour the wrapping station and find a Ninja Turtle gift bag and colorful tissue paper. Thank you Danae! And rather than leaving the scissors and tape out, I carefully put them away—I want them handy for the next time. I also find myself saving gift bags that were given to the kids, thinking, “Hey, that’s a cool one; I bet I could use it later.” In the past, I couldn’t chuck them into the recycling bin fast enough. My perspective on holiday nick knacks and decorations has followed suite. Danae loved holidays regardless of cultural origin and left behind boxes of holiday things. It was always “clutter” in my mind and if I was left in charge of putting any of it away, it got recklessly tossed into the garage (or even the trash if I could get away with it). This year, on January 5th, I tenderly pull Christmas ornaments off of the increasingly flammable tree, carefully wrapping each one in tissue paper and packing them away for the next year. Some of the ornaments are new, gifts from friends and family at Danae’s memorial service, and some carry the energy of her loving stewardship. They are my responsibility now and I will not treat them with the same careless disregard as the ghost of my Christmas past. While I perform this task, it occurs to me that I used to consider it a “task” as well, not realizing that having her by my side, listening to music, chatting, sharing in the holiday effort was a privilege.20170129_193839

She left words behind in different forms—emails, cards, videos—like beautiful ghosts, ghosts who extract tears from me even when I believe my reservoir to be dry. In a stack of old letters, I find a homemade Birthday card she made for me out of a map of Paris. She writes, “Happy Birthday Matt! Life with you is an adventure and I look forward to many, many more years of exploring. I love you! Yours, D.” Another night, I find the courage to open up my old Yahoo email, an account so riddled with spam that it hasn’t been used in years (why do I get all the penis enlargement adds? Makes me insecure). There are close to a hundred emails from Danae beginning in 2005 and ending in 2011 when I switched accounts. The messages range from everyday life details—”can you take Roy out for a walk this afternoon? I’m stuck in a stupid staff meeting”—to love letters like this one she sent to me while I was commercial fishing in Alaska:

“My love,

I miss you. I want to cuddle in your arms, kiss your sweet lips, hear your melodic voice in my ears…I want to talk about life and the thrills and woes that drop into my head and swim about at night. I want to roll over in the morning and put my arms around you and feel the warmth of your body heating me up…devouring me. most of all, I want to see you, just look into your blue daisy eyes, clasp your hand in mine and walk along the water…Roy running ahead and then turning to see if we are still heading in the same direction. You are my love forever and for always….enjoy the fish and tundra.

Yours, Danae.”

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Videos offer a lighter vision of the girl. Whereas her writing is mystical and sentimental, the Danae caught on tape is usually laughing and telling stories that bubble over with valley girl cheer. Arya likes one in particular and asks to see it regularly (both kids want to see mommy on the computer at least once a week). It’s a video taken at a Zytkoskee family vacation at Sunriver Oregon, a clip that I took without Danae knowing I was videoing. She’s telling my mom about her and my dad’s experience killing time at a local karaoke bar while they waited for my arrival at the train station. She’s wearing a funny tie-died shirt and her hair, streaked with summer reds, is long. Voice bright with mirth, she says, “This guy is older, wearing glasses, and is—I don’t know—maybe sixty. And he gets up on the stage and is singing this song like, ‘I stroke it to the East, I stroke it to the west, I stroke it to the girl, I like the best,’ [Danae and my mom laugh loudly] and he’s dancing all sexy, like doing all this kind of stuff [Danae jumps up and starts gyrating her hips in imitation]. I mean it was sooo hard for Tim and I not to laugh! It was so funny. And after the guy finished, the DJ’s like, ‘I don’t know about east and west. I got north and south down!’” As Danae and my mom laugh on the video, Arya laughs loudly too, her eyes glued to the computer screen, her little mouth forming smiles. She doesn’t understand a thing from the video but she likes seeing mommy, likes hearing mommy laugh. It breaks my heart. But when she says, “again!” I start it over.20170205_153133

War journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger writes that for soldiers that have seen action, seen death, “It’s coming home that’s actually the trauma.” They return to a place that no longer exists, to a world that moves forward without them. I am not a soldier, but I have seen incredible suffering, writhing in agony, puking blood, lying naked on the floor in urine after falling on the way to the bathroom. I have seen loss of self, loss of dreams, loss of faith, fear so palpable that it hung like black death above a hospital bed. I know what it means to find that home no longer exists, at least not in the way it did. During the battle and the immediate weeks following, weeks filled with planning and family and tears, I was in “soldier mode”—lugging my pack and riffle ever onward. Now, I’ve returned home and found that, despite all the things, “home” is not something Danae left behind. Night terrors remain instead. Fear that everyone I love will die while I watch.20170129_223812

But, but, but, I will not stop, not give up, not drown though the tears may sweep me downriver. I tell the kids over and over again, “We are a family and good one too!” At night they ask for “Z-time,” which is the term we use for reading on my bed, cuddling in candlelight, and talking about whatever they want (usually Ninja Turtles or Princess Sofia, though mommy and other life details do come up). We carry Danae’s memory with us and when we need to cry or watch videos of her or look at her rock collection (another thing she left behind) we do. When we need to ignore grief and just have fun, we do. There’s no manual, no play book. No set stages of grief (disregard psychology texts).

At least, though I’m badly wounded by her loss, Danae left behind a better Matt than I ever was before she filled my life.

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This Time We’ll Ride the Winter Out

This Time We’ll Ride the Winter Out

“The weather has turned. Fall is now evident in the sky. I’m looking forward to a brooding winter. My feelings for Mateo confirmed. Career possibilities underway, I’m still trying to formulate my next move. I want to get the most out of my time. I want to take a firm stance on my life and be a part of my community. I think I am, or still striving to. Matt said it’s an ongoing process. You never reach a stopping point. We are always trying to reach a level that we will recognize as hotter or more elevated than the one we were on. But we never stop growing. That’s definitely a good thing. That means we are always improving.”

~Danae

 You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.

~Buddha

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.” 

~Stephen King 

We’ll have to ride this winter out. This time we’ll ride this winter out.

~Modest Mouse

I don’t use an alarm clock anymore. Or, should I say, the alarm clock I use either wears Princess Sofia or Ninja Turtle jammies. That’s why I’m surprised when Arya, hair tousled, doesn’t crawl into bed with me until 8:30am, two hours later than normal. This means that I have a little over an hour to make the kids breakfast, pack their lunches, get them dressed, gather my own supplies for the day (picture a backpack that looks like it just spent two hours eating at Sizzler), load the bike onto the truck, buckle the kids into car seats that manage to be irritating even after two years of use (I’d love to Office Space the seats), drop them off at daycare, find a spot to park, then ride my bike to the lecture hall.

It’s a tall order, but we’ve all gotten plenty of sleep and the process begins fairly smoothly. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree, turn on the Oak Ridge Boys’ Christmas album, and begin making breakfast while the kids embark upon the crucial work of scattering every toy they own around the house. Despite the slight rush, I rule out cold cereal and decide to make scrambled eggs and turkey sausages. Now that I’m a single dad, my mindset has changed. I’ve always cared about the kid’s health but it was easier to be sloppy, to cut corners, to be indulgent when mommy was around or Nana or grandma. “Gotta run a tight ship,” I think as I spatula a wiener.

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“Look daddy!!!”

A few minutes later, I’m in the middle of cooking and packing lunches when Finn wanders into the kitchen and says, “Come to the living room daddy. I need to show you something.” I almost say no, but his eyes are pleading and his tug on my pants feels urgent. So, I acquiesce, shifting the eggs off the burner and follow him. He points down to the ground where he’s gathered a Thomas train, a hackie sack he got at the Gold’n’Silver Diner with Uncle Luke, and several other trucks and Hot wheels. They are arranged in a ring around a small piece of train track. Off to the side of this group, Finn’s current favorite toy—a robot Spider Man action figure—is lying on one of Arya’s small dolly blankets. Somewhat to my surprise, Arya seems to be involved in whatever game Finn is playing and is placing random objects around the perimeter of the blanket. She reaches for an old pacifier—perhaps her own at one point—and carefully positions it at the top of Spider Man’s head.

Finn points at the ring of toys and says, “These guys are sad.”

“Why,” I ask, my heart churning, though I’ve not yet heard the answer.

“Spidey went to sleep but he can’t wake up.” Pointing toward the other group he says, “They are doing a fire and they wish Spider Man would wake up.”

Arya pipes in, “They’re sad daddy” she says as she lays a Lego at “Spidey’s” feet.

How should I respond? I make a quick choice and say, “You know what? We can wake Spidey up. He just took a nap. Sometimes people can’t wake up, like Mommy, but Spidey isn’t sick. He has super strength, right Finn?”

Finn’s face lights up and he pumps his fists while making little boy action sounds (who teaches them these?). “Yeah!!”

“Arya,” I say, “Will you wake Spidey up?”

She leans over Spider Man and shouts, “Waaakkkkeee upppp!”

I grab Spidey and launch him into an Irish jig. Soon we’re all wrestling and when Arya farts—followed by Finn’s verbal declaration of the act: “She did a Fart!”—the sorrow seems momentarily shelved.

Ten minutes little, just as I’m handing myself a “Daddy of the Year” award in my mind, Arya throws her cup of juice on the kitchen floor where it splatters on the linoleum and all over Finn’s pant legs. She barks, “I don’t want that!”

And there goes my serenity. Fuming, I grab her, one arm in each hand, and set her roughly butt first on the linoleum. Not yelling, but damn close; I speak slowly, enunciating each word as if it were a brick being laid: “You do not do that. Ever! If you don’t want something, just say so. Now you get to clean it up!”

I stand up, grab a dishrag from the fridge handle, and toss it toward her where it lands on her little head. She sobs great heaving cries, head tilted back, eyes and face covered by the towel. Finn, sitting at the table, begins to cry as well, tears falling like acid rain into his bowl of “super man oatmeal.”

I look at this scene, at the feeling of violence, anger, god damned desperation. I sit my own butt roughly of the floor. I’m so weary. I don’t want to do this alone. My own tears are rolling and though I wonder if it’s the wrong thing to do, I choke out: “I miss mommy so much.”

Four little arms wrap around my neck. Finn says, “I miss mommy too.” “No, I miss mommy!” chimes in Arya who’s no longer crying. I expect Finn to counter but instead he asks, “Are you going to die daddy?”

I look up and without thinking I say, “No buddy.” Then I revise my statement, “Well, everybody dies someday but I’m not going to die any time soon. Daddy’s very healthy.”

Arya says, “Daddy kicks monsters in the butt.”

“That’s right,” I say, tears still spilling but I’m smiling now.

There’s a pause and then Finn, voice uncharacteristically quiet, says, “Don’t die daddy because then we’ll be all alone.”

Too fast, I think. He’s having to grow up too fast. And then I feel the puddle of apple juice I’d stupidly sat in soaking through my pants. There are no words for me. I just pull them in close and hug like it’s a lifeline.

Forty-five minutes later, all our pants are changed, the kids are dropped off at school, and I’m having a typical argument in mind between healthy and crap choices for the day. You might think that the “healthy list” would easily win out, but the “crap list” is often quite appealing. After all, who doesn’t like to shirk work, eat poorly, get addicted to some HBO series like a pill habit? The little devil sitting on one shoulder tries a different approach and suggests “speed cleaning,” something I haven’t done in years. “Speed cleaning” is my term for drinking a strong pot of coffee, smoking a fat bowl of marijuana, and then cleaning the house at a breakneck pace, literally running between tasks. And of course, extremely loud music—usually something electronic—is the driving force. Before I got sober, this was something I would do as a way of “eating my cake and having it too”: the house would be sparkling clean, I’d get a workout, and I would get to be high in the morning.

After Danae died, I cleaned out our room thoroughly, moving out piles of art supplies, books, multiple tissue boxes, scattered knickknacks, and anything that reminded me of sickness. I even rearranged furniture and hung some new pictures. It wasn’t an attempt to erase Danae. As I mentioned in the last blog, pictures of her—of us—adorn the room like a bouquet placed graveside. But I also needed to regain a sense of purity, of cleansing, in the space. In this cleansing process, I found a lot of drugs: oxycodone pills she’d accidently dropped behind the dresser, Ativan in her underwear drawer, even a bottle of liquid morphine in the vanity. I’d gotten rid of it all . . . except her Tolkien style, glass, weed pipe. Don’t get rid of it, I’d thought. You should give it to someone—a keepsake for some friend who also smokes. And of course, the little jar of weed needed to be saved as well. A few days later, after the kids were asleep and I could hear Uncle Luke sawing logs in the room below mine, I put on a Mazzy Star album, drew a bath, placed a tea-light in Danae’s owl candle holder, and took a few hits, careful to blow all smoke out the window into the frigid Reno night. The bath felt good and the bathroom twinkled in steamy candlelight. But I didn’t feel good inside. My stomach was twisted, blocked, like energy was unable to flow through my body the way it should. And my right calf, always a weird barometer for anxiety, began to cramp slightly. “Damn,” I whispered and took a few deep breaths. I imagined Danae watching me, judging me, and the energy of conflicts with her, of arguments, of tears, of hiding things, came flooding through me. Just as I was able to access her beauty, love, and playfulness during the strong mushroom ceremonies, I saw in that moment that the negativity also remained, threads waiting to be grasped, data available for access. Why did the pot trigger this, I wondered. Why did it feel like relapse whereas the mushroom trips seemed to be healing journeys? Don’t get me wrong, it felt nothing like picking up a drink or popping narcotics and I didn’t have a major, “Oh my God, what have I done,” panic. But it didn’t feel right all the same. I tried watching some television and then playing my guitar. Nothing clicked. In fact, the opposite was true: I felt bored and depressed by everything. Not until I made the choice to hit an AA meeting in the morning, rat myself out, and get rid of the pipe and pot, did I feel better.

Days later—while I hadn’t smoked again—I also hadn’t gotten rid of the pipe (You surprised? Probably not). So, back to the present. While I consider the idea of “speed cleaning,” I make myself play the tape all the way through: imagining the potential anxiety, the disappointment I’d feel, the need to go back to my support network and share the choice. “Pass,” I decide. The truth is, I don’t even really want to smoke. What I really want is to not feel the way I feel inside—grief dragging me down like a lead anvil tied to the ankle of a swimmer. My buddy Ryan, a Gulf War veteran, told me: “Grief is like rafting down a frightening river in a rain storm. You can paddle to shore, sit in the trees, delay the process, but eventually you’ll just get hypothermia or starve to death. The only way out is to stay in the raft and make it through the rapids.” So, while I can’t bring myself to go home and grade essays (what I really should do), I decide to hit a Jiu Jitsu class and to bring Danae’s oncologist flowers and a letter of thanks. The “non-high high road.”

Where I normally train is closed for the morning, so I drive out to Gracie Jiu Jitsu and drop in on a “no-gi open-mat.” Though I’d been there once before, I feel anxiety when I walk in and see hard, bearded, tattooed men warming up for combat. For those who don’t know, “no-gi” is Jiu Jitsu with tight rash guards and durable trunks rather than the typical thick, sleeved kimono. If you’ve ever watched a UFC fight and seen the fighters grappling on the ground, angling for arm bars, slithering in to choke the opponent, this is employment of no-gi Jiu Jitsu. It’s a much faster game than traditional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and while I’m nervous, I’m also drawn to the controlled, good-natured, brutal violence. Something I crave. A healthy steam-valve.

“Matt!” booms a deep voice. I turn to see Glen, A.K.A “The Mountain,” striding toward me. Glen and I have trained together at my regular dojo and are often paired together because I’m the only one even close to his size. To say “close to his size,” however, is vastly inaccurate as he is a 6’6, 260 pound Marine without an ounce of fat. Both he and his wife—a woman who manages to be beautifully feminine and tough as hell at the same time—had been incredibly supportive of me throughout the cancer journey. I hadn’t seen Glen, however, since Danae had passed away (died, crossed the great divide? I don’t know what the hell to call it). He wraps his monster arms around me in a full embrace. “I’m so sorry buddy. I’m so sorry,” he says quietly as he holds me like I’m his child. And I don’t resist. There’s no awkwardness, no concern for the other people around. In fact, in this setting, a display of friendship and concern such as that would be viewed as authentic and the embodiment of the sport.jiu-jitsu-christmas-eve

Twenty minutes later, after Glen had nearly bent me in half in a “crucifix” submission, I’m paired up with a shirtless guy covered in tattoos from head to toe. Though I’ve easily got three inches on him, he probably weighs ten pounds more thanks to his time at the gym. We exchange a friendly introduction, bump fists, and it’s on. Circling each other, we feint at leg take-downs and grasp for arms. I finally get a hold of his left wrist with my right hand, yank his arm across his body, and try to snake around to get his back. He’s too experienced for this though and spins into my momentum and scoops my front leg out. I’m falling hard but quickly switch my grips to his armpits and manage to pull him down with me while wrapping my legs around his waist into what is called “full guard.” He seems surprised by this turn of events, postures up, straightens his arms, plants both palms into my gut, and begins the process of trying to angle his way out of the tight clench of my legs.

This goes on for twenty seconds before I feign exhaustion and loosen my grip just slightly. In response, he makes the mistake of moving his straight-arm posture on my gut toward my legs to tries and push them off. If I’d actually been exhausted, this might have been a viable move. But I’m not. As soon as his hands release, I retighten my legs around his waist and pull him down as hard as I can. He crashes forward onto my chest, sweat from his baldhead spraying into my eyes. A natural human reaction, he splays both arms out to ward against the fall and plants a palm on either side of me. With my right hand, I grip his left wrist and effectively pin the palm to the ground. A mat-burn on my elbow has been agitated and a line of blood trickles down my arm.

At this point, even though I’m underneath him, I hold the dominant position as he’s in my guard, his posture is completely broken, and I have one of his wrists pinned. He knows he’s in trouble and struggles to sit up, to regain his posture. This is exactly what I’m banking on and as he exerts himself upward, I come along for the ride, allowing him to drag me with him. Now we’re both upright, my left arm curled around his neck and my right maintaining the grip on his wrist.

This is the moment in which I have to be fast or I’m gonna fail. I release the grip on his neck and shoot it across his body over his left arm. The goal is to reach over and then back under his arm in order to lock onto the wrist of my other hand; this move, a kimura, creates a vice with a lot of leverage. I succeed and feel the power of the position immediately as I pull us back down and shift my hips out from under him to the right while pushing his arm up and away to the left behind his back. He’s belly down on the mat now, struggling against the trap. I shift further to the right, lying beside him, and extend his arm behind his back in cautious increments. He taps the mat loudly, two quick slaps, and I release his arm immediately. “You okay?” I ask as we roll to our knees. “I’m good,” he says, grinning sheepishly. “I’ll admit, that kimura surprised me. Nice submission.” We spar again at the very end of the open-mat and he gets a carotid artery choke on me within the first minute of the round. I tap as the world grows grey. He tells me, “You’ve got some things to work on but you move well—like a natural grappler.” Later, when I find out that he’s several belts higher than me, I understand the gravity of my small victory and the compliment. I drive away with mat burns, a scratch on my nose, and a neck that aches like I was in a car wreck, but damn, I feel good.

An hour later, I’m at a florist trying to decide on what to bring Dr. Margo Vaser. The floral arrangements are pretty but something about them is nagging me. Then it hits me: I don’t want to give anything to her that will die. I explain this to the empathetic woman behind the counter and she brings out an odd succulent plant in an Aztec designed clay pot. “It’s not Christmasy,” she says, “but it will live forever as long as it gets a bit of sun and regular water.” I smile. Perfect.

Walking into the doctors office, seeing the haggard and anxious looking people waiting to find out test results or get their infusion of poison, my pulse begins to race and my body feels like the blood has drained out of it. Images of sitting in there with Danae, waiting, always waiting, always hoping, always wondering if we would be getting a reprieve or a death sentence, flash through my mind. I suppress the urge to turn and run.

I don’t expect to actually see the doctor—don’t even know if she’s there. So, I’m surprised when, as I go to hand the card and little potted plant to the receptionist, she walks by, sees me, and earnestly beckons me into an empty exam room. “I know you’re busy,” I tell her. “I just wanted to bring you something. A small thank you.”

She waves off the comment about being busy though clearly she is and says, “I’ve been wanting to call you actually. But, well, I thought maybe you needed more time. How are you holding up?”

We’re seated in much the same fashion as was typical of previous visits: her on a rolling stool and me in one of the slightly padded chairs against the wall. This time, however, she’s closer, the distance between us warmed by the shared intimacy of sadness, concern, acknowledgement of each other’s humanity. I clear my throat before speaking. “To be honest, that’s a complicated question to answer. It seems to depend upon the day I’m asked.” She nods her head but doesn’t interject, so I keep speaking. “For example, a couple of days ago, the kids and I were getting ready to go to the mall to Christmas shop and I gave myself a spritzer of cologne. It was a bottle Danae’d bought for me in Dubai—she claimed it was what the Sheik wore—and I’ve been . . . well, the smell makes me feel good. Anyways, Arya saw me put it on and asked if she could have some too. So I gave her a squirt of Danae’s perfume. The smell . . . .” I trail off because I can’t finish the sentence. The smell had carried with it a thousand memories, memories of going out on the town, to parties, traveling through Prague, of making love after a night of dancing in Paris. It smelled like the good times. It smelled like her. Like she might be standing around the corner.

Though Dr. Vaser was always compassionate with us far beyond the call of duty, I’m still surprised when I look up and realize that tears are streaming down her face. She says, “When I got the call about Danae, I was at home with my family, with my daughter. I kept thinking that it could just as easily have been me—she and I were actually only a few months apart in age—and even though I’ve done this job a while, her loss felt different.” She pauses to wipe her eyes before continuing. “And we tried so hard. We tried everything. I really had hoped that we could get on top of this thing.”

“That’s something I wanted to tell you, one of the reasons I needed to come here today. I know that a couple of family members had a lot of questions. Questions about exactly how things happened the day she died. Questions about the radiologists report on the tumor’s stability. Questions regarding your opinion versus the oncologist who was on duty that morning. Questions that imply culpability . . . I got the same kinds of questions myself.” I pause, hunting for the right words. “I want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for my family and that I know you did everything you could for Danae. The reality is that it was a shitty situation and a horrible disease. Something that could not be controlled. And the hugs you gave her when she’d break down, the time you took to sit and talk with us even about medical issues outside of your field, your willingness to contact other doctors and to check up on her, these thing mattered. They fucking mattered.” Emotion halts me again.

Now it’s Dr. Vaser who seems to be picking her words carefully. “Danae made it easy to show compassion; she was a bright, beautiful person.” (I’m struck by her use of the word “bright,” an adjective that has appeared in relationship to Danae constantly since her death). “And as far as blame goes, we see this a lot with family. They want, they need, someone or something to blame. To make sense out of what often is, honestly, a senseless death. This can be especially true of family who weren’t necessarily on the front lines of the fight. They want to ‘do something’ and it’s too late. It’s heartbreaking really.”

Though we’re talking about other people, my mind shifts to myself. I say, “Intellectually I know I made the right decision. Hell, it’s what she told me she’d want in the event of a situation like what happened. But I can’t stop thinking, wondering, if they’d been able to bring her back, if by some miracle, they might have saved her. What if I made the choice I did because I was tired? What if I just wanted it to be over?”

Dr. Vaser shakes her head firmly. “Don’t do that to yourself. You made the only decision to be made. Our entire team agrees. Anything else would have been selfish and, assuming she even could have been revived, it would have subjected her to incredible suffering with the same result. We were out of options. The tumor was growing. It was affecting her brain’s ability to regulate her body. She was in pain and her cognitive functioning was failing.” She reaches over and puts a hand on my knee. “I don’t care if you have to come back every single week for me to tell you this. You were good to her and you did the right thing. This grieving process will be hard enough without you beating yourself up. Please, please don’t do that. You would not believe some of the things, some of the behavior, we see from spouses and caretakers here. You did right by Danae.”

We talk more. I tell her about writing Danae’s story. She recommends a book called When Breath Becomes Air. I remember that I’m still holding the little plant and hand it to her, explaining the part about it being able to stay alive indefinitely. A quizzical expression crosses her face and she says, “It’s so strange, but just this morning I was discussing succulents with my husband and told him that I wanted to grow a few in the house. That is downright weird.”

I smile. “Sounds like Danae at work to me.”

I went to Dr. Vaser’s office to express my gratitude and to give her a gift. It was me, however, who walked out of that office with a gift. As I drove toward the kid’s school, I noticed that my heart felt a fraction lighter.

Merry Christmas dear reader. Thank you for the gift of listening to me ride out this winter.

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Kids, Nana, and Papa