Who Am I?

Renewal (4 of 4)

Lauren came to stay with me while Diane was in hospice care. By the time Diane died I was alone except for Lauren. We prepared a memorial service for Diane and started planning a trip to the west coast. I had the idea of scattering her ashes at Mirror Lake, where we met. After the memorial Lauren and I finished planning our trip, and we spent six weeks together on the road in our camper.

After we got back, I started writing my book, and I began to reflect on the past and the future. I began to look for ways to connect with the community again. I still belonged to the spouses’ support group and kept attending weekly meetings. I joined a few other groups—hiking clubs, a ski club, a writers’ group, and a running club, as well as alumni groups I joined years before. None of them provided the kind of personal contact I needed then. I found out about the Unitarian church close by. I looked into it and found that their basic principles agreed with my own. I wanted to know more. I attended a service, with Lauren and her husband Kevin along for “moral support.” It was their semi-annual all-music service. The choir sang many of the songs I liked. When they sang, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, Lauren leaned over to me and said quietly, “Dad, these are your people.” I joined the church the following spring and became active.

***

Grief is complicated when your love dies after a long illness. I spent years caring for Diane, and my mind was full of the time she was incapacitated, diminished by disease, and less and less capable of knowing what she experienced. When she finally escaped the bonds of that life, she could rest.

During that long decline I said farewell over and over again. Each time I did, I lost a little more of her. At last, the end came. She was released from her pain, and I let go.

Losing the victim of a long illness is a lot different from suddenly losing someone you love when you didn’t expect it. In 1981, my daughter Jennifer had radiation therapy for cancer. After years of problems due to the radiation, she had surgery in 2015 to repair the damage to her heart and lungs. The surgery failed. Her scarred and damaged heart couldn’t stand the strain any longer and stopped its struggle to keep her alive. Jennifer’s husband Mike, Lauren, and I gathered by Jennifer’s ICU bed. We all knew that her situation was hopeless, and we gave consent to stop her life support machine, ending her life. While we were with Jennifer, Diane stayed in a waiting room with friends, not even knowing why we were at the hospital, unaware anything was wrong. Jennifer was once Diane’s reason for living, and to know the truth would have shattered her.

We stayed by Jennifer’s bed for a short time, then rejoined Diane in the waiting room. I took her home, saying nothing about what just happened. Later, when she asked why Jennifer didn’t come to see her, I told her Jennifer was working on a big job in California and would be away for weeks. Every time she asked, I told her the same thing. After a few months Diane stopped asking when she could see Jennifer again.

I continued to care for Diane with no change in her life, except we no longer visited Jennifer, and I didn’t mention her. There was no time to mourn Jennifer then because I had to see to Diane.

This winter I was watching a show on TV called “This is Us,” where the main character died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was killed by severe damage to his lungs from smoke inhalation, which placed an unbearable burden on his heart to deliver blood. The strain was too much for his heart, and he had a fatal heart attack. The story was so much like what happened to Jennifer that it took me back to that hospital room with the still body of my daughter. Then, at that moment, I felt the impact of her death and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I held my friend, who comforted me as I mourned the death of my daughter fully for the first time.

***

When I wrote the book about our lives, I began to remember and rediscover the woman I loved and the life we once had. I’m still doing that, four years after Diane died and ten years after I took over her care. As I rediscover love now, I can remember how love was once, and those memories remind me again of what we lost. Losing love has made me appreciate how precious and fleeting all of it is and cherish what I’ve gained in the present.

It takes time. A year and a half after Diane died, I started to date. I made mistakes, as anyone might do who didn’t date much before. As I learned more about myself and who I was looking for, I found Ann. We were right for each other, and we grew close. That doesn’t stop me from grieving. That will go on, in some form, for the rest of my life. It will always be a part of me. But I am going to live.

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