My Uncle Mike passed away last Sunday, January 27th, from cancer. It was almost six years to the day after his son died from cancer. At the age of 20, my cousin, Chris, died January 28, 2002. Uncle Mike was in his early sixties. Both died before their time, if you ask me.
Uncle Mike had always been healthy and full of life. He was a physical therapist who ran marathons. In fact, he was so passionate about running that he ran nearly every day of his life. He also loved cars, football, wind surfing, camping, and the outdoors, so you can imagine how devestating it was for him to have the tumors in his spine paralyze him.
It's difficult to make sense of his death, although I wouldn't be surprised if the death of his only son was a contributing factor. Chris's death was such a severe blow to the whole family. Coping with the death of a loved one seems to be a skill that escapes most of us. We all die. It's part of life. Logically, you would think that because of familiarity, eventually coping and accepting death would get easier as we get older. Instead it's the other way around. The longer we live, the harder it is, because our bonds grow deeper, and our appreciation for life grows stronger. It seems to go against the very nature of our own survival instinct to accept the death of a loved one. Yet, if we don't find a way to cope and move on, we put our own lives in peril.
I am speaking from my own pain, and my inability to let go of guilt stemming from my husband's death. I don't want to let go of the guilt, because I feel like it's the only way to hold on to him, even though reason dictates that's insane. It goes deeper than conscious reason to a subconscious level. It's affecting my health, and I'm not the first to have this battle.
I watched Uncle Mike struggle with his own mortality as I helped with his care during his final days. He would say to me, "I just need to get to where I can stand and pivot for transfer." This is a physical therapist's term for what a patient needed to be able to do before going home. To me, his words are so poetic. He needed to find his own way to prepare for his death. He needed to stand and fight it in order to prepare for it.
Of course, all that we, his family, wanted was for him to be able to go peacefully without a lot of suffering. We didn't want him to have to struggle and fight, because we couldn't stand to see him in pain. Death was inevitable for him at this point, and he knew it, but still he fought it. We tried to do everything we could so that he wouldn't have this struggle, like pain medication, moving him, stretching his legs, and emotional support. I know that he deeply appreciated everything we did for him, but he wanted to fight. He wanted to "stand and pivot for transfer".
One day while he lay sleeping, I tried to imagine myself in his place. What would it be like to know that I'd never be able to do what I love most [in his case, run], or to know that everything I spent my whole life working for would soon just be a memory in the hearts of those who loved me? The feeling of hopelessness that suddenly overwhelmed me was too acute to fathom. Like a reflex reaction when touching a flame, I pushed the thought as far away from me as possible. I wondered, "by wanting him to be peaceful and without pain, are we asking him to give up?" Sometime after getting home here in Houston, I thought, "I'd rather die fighting, than give up."
Everything about death and dying is contrary to life, yet it's part of life. Reconciling the two is very complex. I don't know how it can be done without some kind of spiritual belief. Uncle Mike had his faith, and I don't think he had any fears about what was going to happen to him after his death. It went against his nature, though, to give up, and it went against ours to watch him suffer or let him go. There's a desperate need to reconcile the two.
Today, my family will be celebrating his life with a memorial service complete with Jimmy Buffet music [he was a "parrot head"], Badger paraphernalia [University of Wisconsin], and photos of him. I won't be able to be there, because I live so far away, but it sounds like a good way to start the coping process.
This is how I want to remember you, Uncle Mike.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
I wrote this while sitting in an airport two weeks ago after two weeks of watching my uncle slowly start to die. I had just spent two weeks thinking about the reality of life and death. What it must be like to realize that everything you've spent your whole life working for, your family, your home, your career, is about to be taken away from you. I was sensitive to these things, because before going to my uncle's in Milwaulkee, I had quit my job and moved out of my house. These are the things that I had worked so hard for, and the two things in my life that I turned to for solace after my husband's death. Now I'm volunteerily losing them in an effort to move on. Where, I'm not exactly sure. I just knew that I couldn't stay there anymore.
Jan. 16th - I think that I've avoided contemplating death ever since the loss of my husband. I always try to avoid funerals. Their sorrow is too overwhelming for me. When I have to go, I tune them out as much as possible. Oh I know that it's appropriate to cry at funerals. I also know that I can tune them out so completely that I won't cry, so I'll let a few of the preachers words leak through my wall. The tears always start to flood uncontrolably. I have to push them back down, think of something else, to keep from making a scene or drawing attention to myself. I hate for people to see me cry, and these tears aren't for the deceased. They are for my own pain, and for the loss of my husband.
Now I'm sitting in an airport fighting my tears. The words blur as I write. I know that I'm supposed to come away from these last two weeks with something that will help me move on. I can feel it. I was here for a reason, though I'm not sure what it is, yet. I'm too emotional over the fact that I will never see my uncle again.
Later... After thinking about something my aunt said to me, I wonder if what I'm supposed to get out of all this is the fact that what I've been working so hard for, I have already achieved. I thought I needed to be more independent, so that I wouldn't ever be left so alone again. My aunt sees me as independent, because I've been alone for so many years. I felt like I needed to be more independent financially and emotionally, and not have to rely on a husband to make me feel good or support me. I buried myself in my work and my house, clinging to the guilt of becoming too dependent on my husband which created stress for him, but these are the things I need to let go of to find what is really important. I need to find myself, and let go of my idea of independence.
Nobody can be completely independent. We all need each other. My aunt and uncle needed me these last two weeks, and I needed my family to help me be there for them. I'm good at helping others. That's why I did so well at my job. I'm a people person, and I need companionship. I am independent enough to know what I don't need in a relationship. My fear of dependence has taught me that. Now I need to find balance, so I can become what I need to be. I can't be so afraid of dependence that I spend the rest of my life alone. I know if I ever remarry, I will probably, eventually end out alone again. I've survived this time, and I'll survive again.
I watch my aunt as she's losing her husband. I know what lies ahead for her. Now it's my turn to help her in the same way others have helped me. These are the more important things in life, and I'll need help to do them. I can't do them on my own.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Yet another meme. Tagged again by Mary. This one should be fun. I'm supposed to write seven new random, or weird facts about myself. I'm actually really normal, it's the rest of the world that's weird, so I'll do seven random facts ;].
- This is the first real snowman I have ever made. Real in that it is larger than a few inches tall [I've spent most of my life in Houston, and we don't get much snow here]. I made it today in my Aunt and Uncle's backyard here in Milwaukee where I've been staying for the last couple of weeks.
- I hate loud noises. They unnerve me. I was born on the 4th of July, and I can't stand fireworks. I would never play any games that involved popping balloons as a kid. I even used to cringe when my dog barked.
- I don't own a TV set, so when I'm around one, I'm like a deer in headlights. I cannot carry on a conversation with anyone if the TV is on in the background. Yet, I can't just sit and watch one. I have to be doing something else while watching. Figure that one out.
- I'm dyslexic with a reading disability. I went through 10 years of school, and never read a book. I learned everything by listening. I can read, obviously. I'm just a little slow.
- Most of the time, I'm a raw foodist vegan, but since I'm in Wisconsin, home of the Cheeseheads, I've not been on my regular diet. I love cheese. My ancestors were dairy farmers, and the first settlers of this state. It's a cruel twist of fate, that I am allergic to dairy. Oh well. I'll be swollen, bloated, and have the sniffles until I get home and detox.
- I have been collecting beads for 15 years for a bead curtain that I have yet to design, much less start on. As of January 1st, I no longer live in the house where I planned to hang it. I used to tell my husband, "it's cheaper than therapy", but now I'm in therapy. Maybe someday I'll make that bead curtain. Probably when I finish therapy, and my body no longer rejects dairy, I'll put it together while watching someone else's TV. Don't hold your breath.
- Hmm. One more random fact... people think my ears and pinky fingers are too small. I broke one of my pinky fingers playing basketball as a kid, and now I can gross people out with the way it pops when I move it. Always a fun thing to do.
Now some of you might be thinking I'm a little weird. If so, let's see your list of seven facts. Leave me a comment here if you participate.