Friday, April 17, 2015

On Becoming an Old Crone

I never understood what was meant by the wisdom of our elders, I just took it for granted that they were. Wise, I mean. And I tried to listen to what they had to share, I really did. I tried to live mindfully. I wrote gratitude lists. But I never really understood.

Until now.

My handy-dandy on-line journal minder tells me that on this day three years ago I was suffering from disappointment. Mr. Simply and I were at my state professional association's annual conference in the mountains, which coincided with a photography club shoot that weekend. There was to be a meteor shower of epic proportion, and there was a mountain-top park nearby that would have made for perfect viewing.

Had it not rained, and the mountain been socked in by the fog.

I had rented a very nice prime lens and a primo tripod for the occasion, and was bemoaning the expense, given that I could use them for absolutely nothing else. 

My point?

I know now that none of that matters. We were in the mountains, for gods' sakes! The azaleas were in bloom. There were woods dripping wet and filled with bird song right outside the door to our room. We ate fabulous meals at a nearby roadhouse. Two of our friends were up there, too, for the weekend.

We were alive!

That's all that matters.

His bird likes to ask, "What? What? What?" This morning I told her I didn't know. I was still learning. Things I wish I'd known 10, 20, 30 years ago. I would have been a lot happier, and maybe Mr. Simply would have been, too.

I know you can't tell people these things. Without the lived experience, it means nothing. But I'm still thinking about setting up as the old crone on the outskirts of the village, that people come to see, bringing little gifts or doing little chores around her cottage. (Think Grandpa Sam Reaches in Thunderheart).

Go watch it again. And then think about coming by tomorrow, or maybe the next day. Bring fresh-laid eggs. I will tell you what I have learned. Maybe it won't be too late for you.


Friday, February 13, 2015


I wrote this a year ago today in my Penzu​ journal, under the title "Frozen". Sorry, it's long, but seems so apropos to the grieving.
It was one of those moments I wished I could freeze in time, but of course one can't. I remember once, standing outside the gates at [my college] with [my college boyfriend], the light just so, at the end of the school year, I guess, and we were saying goodbye for the summer (pretty much forever, as it turned out), and I wanted to freeze-frame that one. Of course I'd done it before -- bound to have -- and certainly have done it since, but I was conscious of the effort then and kind of startled by it. Daisy and the butterfly was another one such moment. The bluebird in the snow on the branch of the blooming dogwood in our yard yet another. The eagle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area during my Outward Bound vision quest. The foxes barking when I was camped with Daisy at her first hunting trial. 
This morning it was the snow. It was piled high on all the branches, which were stark against a grey sky. The cardinals were at the feeder in back and in the dying dogwood tree, the male a brilliant red against the white snow/black bark/gray sky, the only real color around. It was like the winters we had when I was growing up in NC. I feel blessed to have had not one, but two good snows this winter, when with global warming I've had such a sense of loss and sadness that I'd probably never see another one. And now to have two! 
I was glad to have been up to see it before it started to melt, which it is doing pretty rapidly. I was sorry to see the sun start to peek through. But as Cheryl Strayed wrote towards the end of Wild, "There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that." 
Just being present for what is, as it is and as it changes, is the hardest thing when what I want with every cell in my body is to go back, to make something or someone stay, to freeze a moment, to hold on to the feeling of wonder and joy that I had this morning when I first opened the drapes and looked out on the magical world. 
And as I typed those words, feeling sad and empty, the phoebe flew into the yard for the first time in days (if not a week or more), and I felt that same surge of joy again to see him, and tears came to my eyes. He's so beautiful today: He fills me up all over again. 
One glorious thing gives way to another. 
So although I can still hear Paula's laugh, see the puppy Daisy lunging at the end of her check cord for that brilliant yellow butterfly, feel that bitty animal scampering over my sleeping bag that chilly August night on Lake Superior, it is over. There is no way to go back, to make it stay. There never was.
--And as I was reading this, and thinking that I have to believe that one glorious thing will go on giving way to another, as has been true time immemorial and forever shall be, that the good life isn't over because Mr. Simply died and I'm getting old, and not having much faith in any of that, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew into the yard, landed right outside my window for a few seconds, looked right at me, and flew on. 



Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's the Little Things

Mr. Simply's hunting clothes are mostly in the back of the truck now, ready to go to Goodwill tomorrow morning. Looking at his side of the closet, standing almost half empty now, makes me sad.

The boots were the most difficult to let go of for some reason -- his Herman Survivors, the work boots he loved, and his hunting boots. There was something especially touching about the hunting boots, still caked with last year's dirt and smelling faintly of doe lure. They brought back memories of lying in bed in the dark at 4:30 of a Saturday morning as he dressed in the light from the closet, trying not to disturb me. His camo, his boots, his suspenders. . . and then he would tell me goodbye, and I would always tell him to Stay safe, have fun, don't forget to call me, tell everybody I said Hi and he'd be off to meet the guys for breakfast at the Waffle House in Newnan. So many seasons, so many mornings like that.

He used to say that an hour in his tree stand was worth three in therapy.

By July his bucket list had shrunk to two things: one last trip to visit with family, one last hunting season. Why all his stuff was still here, why he didn't give it away with his fishing gear and his climbing stand last summer.

When it became apparent he wouldn't live even that long, he began to hope for just one last opening day. The guys spent all summer building a special stand for him where he could sit, under cover and wouldn't have to climb, and Chris C. was set to take him, to stay with him for a morning. But by the time opening day rolled around he was too sick, half out of his mind, weak, incontinent, his bones too fragile to go anywhere, never mind into the woods. In two weeks he would be dead.

I had to take a photo of the boots, like I did my hikers, before I was finally able to let them go. I hope they'll make some other guy as happy as they made Mr. Simply, and that they'll bring him luck too.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Charlie Mike

It means, "Continue the Mission." When I was working at the mental health center, I read a novel called Charlie Mike, written by Leonard B. Scott, a veteran of Viet Nam. His theory of PTSD, not a bad one at the time, was that when you are in the shit you don't have time for tears or navel-gazing. If you are going to stay alive, if your buddies are going to stay alive, you have to Charlie Mike -- Continue the Mission. It's only when you are back in The World and nobody's shooting at you any more that you think about those things, and feel them.

I think most of last summer and fall I was Charlie Miking. This afternoon, while fixing lunch of all things, I burst into tears remembering how he didn't get into the study, and how much I would have given for two more years. (His doctor had told us that there was a "little statistical tail" of people in the study who were still alive after two years. Whereas, according to all predictions, Mr. Simply at that point had less than two months.)

Two more years! How rich that would have seemed! Instead, in four short days he was in hospice and dying. In six weeks he would be gone.

I don't remember if I cried the day he called me and said he'd been rejected from the study again, this time because of his liver function. But I sure as hell did this afternoon.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Someone posted on one of the widows' pages on Facebook that I belong to that she felt today that her life was a test for which she had not studied. I hit "Like" and then immediately un-Liked it, for I realized that I did not feel that way at all. Which kind of surprised me.

I've been thinking about her all day, but now I can't find the post to respond to it. What I have to say is probably a bit long for a Facebook post anyway, so.

I realized that I've been studying for this since I got sober some 28 years ago, give or take. The purpose of AA is, after all, to fit us to live life on life's terms, is it not? In one of my favorite stories in the Big Book, "Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict" it says that ". . . acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation - some fact of my life - unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment." And well over 10,000 recitations of the Serenity Prayer will go a long way to teaching you acceptance.

Plus, I've been practicing Zen sitting meditation for years. Studying Buddhism and meditating has helped me develop a degree of non-attachment. Buddhism teaches a Nine-Point Meditation (Buddhists, like widows, seem to like to count things) that says we are all going to die. We likely will not know when or how. And when it happens, our friends and family can't help us, our things and money can't help us, our own bodies can't help us. The only thing that can prepare us is meditation.

Have these things helped? I believe so. I am better than I used to be about not clinging to things, being afraid, wishing things were different (nay, demanding that things be different!), bargaining, lashing out when things do not suit me. I think I added to my own suffering in these ways last summer and fall far less than I might have 30 years ago, or even five years ago.

It is possible to look at life as a test, although that is not a point of view that I recommend. But if it is, then Mr. Simply's death was the mid-term. I'll pass my finals if I can face my own death with the same kind of grace, equanimity, courage and generosity as he did.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing

Was looking for music to put on a soundtrack of our lives to play at Mr. Simply's memorial and found this:
"Don't you worry 'bout a thing
Don't you worry 'bout a thing, pretty mama
'Cause I'll be standing in the wings
When you check it out"

-- Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing
 Stevie Wonder (1973)
It came out the year we started dating. Not long after I added it to my playlist, I got a package and went out to get it. My leg was bothering me, sore and weak, my arms were bothering me, and I felt a moment of real fear. What if?

We are so vulnerable when we lose a mate, when our life partner is no longer there in the wings to step up, pitch in, catch us when we fall. 

Mr. Simply was quite the caretaker, and when we met set right out trying to do things for me and worrying about me even in areas in which I had been functioning quite competently, thank you very much. He wanted to find me a rollbar for Orville (my 1973 MGB). He worried about how I'd get to work if there was ice on the sidewalks and parking lots, and on the stairs at my apartment building. And over the years, I became more and more dependent, forgetting quite literally how to do some things, just getting out of the habit of others. And then of course there were the myriad ways in which even normal healthy couples do for each other.

He didn't get my graduate degrees for me, but he was "in the wings" both times, supporting me (literally and figuratively) every step of the way. He was literally in the wings when I defended, slipping in and out to check on Daisy's progress in emergency surgery and signaling me with a thumbs up from the back of the room each time he returned from talking to the vet.

Over the last few years, he was doing less and less, and I was doing more.  And what we couldn't do just didn't get done. The yard hasn't been raked in so long, for example, that the leaves and pine needles are becoming soil and changing the shape of the yard and the way rainwater flows around the house -- or doesn't any more, to be perfectly frank.

But still. Even after he got cancer the first time, he managed to move my office for me not once, but three times. Three times! Of course, the last time I was down to some boxes of files, but still. He did all the grocery shopping, right up until he went into chemo last year and was too sick to, because my legs would no longer support me that far or that long.

Two years ago, he took money out of his IRA to buy me a van to carry my scooter, and a lift to get it in and out of said van. There were the new windows on the house that he paid for, also out of his retirement fund, last summer. The old ones were so old (and so was I, for that matter) and sticky that I could no longer manage them. And he was always there for emotional support or just to bounce things off of.

Last spring, he came to the hospital, even as he was dying, to be with me when I needed him. "Do you want me to come down?" he asked on the phone. I had not even wanted him to know until after I got home that evening and it was just a funny story, but then they decided to admit me for observation overnight and I had to tell him. "Yes," I said. And he came, even though he was loaded up on pain pills and had to get a neighbor to drive him. He came when I needed him.

I'll never have that again.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

An Open Letter to My Late Husband's Oncologist

Dear Dr. A- :

Of course you know by now that Mr. Simply died November 2 -- you signed the death certificate. You had been his doctor for about 18 months by that point, and I have no complaints whatsoever about his medical care. Neither did he. I am convinced that he got as good a care at N--- Center as he could have gotten anywhere else in the country. We discussed this more than once, particularly when his treatments failed and we briefly considered getting a consultation elsewhere, so I know that he agreed. And he liked you personally, trusted you, was grateful to you for everything you did, not only for him, but for his friend Donnie as well.

But we do need to talk about your compliance -- or lack of it -- with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Every time I brought him up there, and over an 18-month period that adds up to a lot of visits, I had to struggle to overcome obstacles from the minute I rolled off the elevator.

Parking always seemed adequate, wheelchair lanes were plentiful and wide, and the curb cuts were easy to locate and use. But once I rolled off the elevator into your suite, everything changed. In the first place, there's that sofa directly across from the doors, and the unused wheelchairs parked there, and the unnecessary silk trees in giant pots. Add in any foot traffic at all, and of course there's always bound to be some, and there was no longer enough room for me to exit the elevator on my scooter!

The reception counters are too high for someone in a wheelchair to use comfortably, as are the computerized sign-in kiosks. There are rules, with the force of law, I might add, about this.

The in-house pharmacy around the corner is nearly impossible for a wheelchair user to access, as it is off on a narrow, dead-end corridor which is partially blocked, one again, by waiting chairs.

Speaking of chairs, there are way too many chairs in the waiting room: The rows are too long, and too close together to meet ADA rules. There are rules about how wide travel lanes need to be between rows: You probably need to remove at least one full pair of back-to-back rows in order to make the spaces in between wide enough. Keep in mind that those rows look great when you first arrive in the morning to open up. But when you put people in them, of course their legs and feet stick out, and the lanes become too narrow for a wheel-chair user to navigate without inconveniencing and annoying everyone. And let me tell you, it is no fun, no fun at all, to get the side-eye from a dozen people, coming and going, every single time I had to visit your practice.

You also have rows that are too long. Not only is there nowhere for me to sit in my scooter except out in the middle of the room, but the rows run too close to the walls at each end, and I can't get around them if I need to get to the water fountain in the back corner. You probably need to remove at least one chair from each end of each row, not only to allow travel around the ends, but also to allow us to sit in a row like every one else does. You could probably easily afford to remove chairs: I was there on some pretty busy days, but I never saw them all filled.

That's a key phrase, by the way, "like everyone else". The ADA is about civil rights, about being able to have the same access to businesses and facilities that every other citizen has. It is federal law. But I digress.

Once we left the waiting room, there was the issue of blocked corridors. The ADA specifies that hallways need to be a certain minimum width, and that they can't be cluttered with furniture and storage items. Yours are, beginning with the lab waiting chairs in that first hallway. Once people sit in them, their legs and feet and purses close off enough of the corridor so that it no longer meets federal standards. It is virtually impossible to navigate without everyone having to shift as I come by in order to give me room to pass. And again with the side-eyes, you know?

Once there, there was nowhere for me to park while I waited for Mr. Simply to get his labs drawn except smack in the middle of the hallway, rendering it impassable for staff and other patients. If you are going to have rows of chairs out there, I would suggest at least having the rows short enough that a wheelchair user could back his chair in alongside, or that someone in a scooter like mine could at least pull out of traffic onto the shoulder, as it were.

The back hallways are even worse, given that they are not only narrower but also cluttered with computer carts and such. The examining rooms are so small that there is barely room for me to back my scooter in so that I could participate in Mr. Simply's consultations with you. And then you acted irritated that I was in your way whenever you had to reach past me for a blood pressure cuff or something out of one of the cabinets over the sink. At least one of the rooms was so small that even backing in was not an option. Whenever we met you in there, I had to leave the scooter in the hallway -- adding to the illegal clutter.

Then there's the treatment rooms. I understand the need for every possible square foot of this area to be making money for you, but as many people as I observed coming to chemo unaccompanied, I think you could remove some of those guest chairs so that I could have backed my scooter in next to Mr. Simply's treatment chair. Instead, I sometimes had to park my scooter in a storage area (or yet another hallway) and leave it there for an hour or two while he got his infusion. This was an option, however troublesome, for me but is obviously not for a patient or family member with para- or quadriplegia. Once I was instructed to leave it in the walkway at the exit door to the waiting area, blocking that path for everyone else.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that I myself might one day need your services. But what all of this tells me is that you and your colleagues have not given any thought or care at all to making me welcome there or enabling me to use your services with any degree of comfort. Possibly you do not even care about my needs: I certainly could interpret my experiences there over the last year and a half in just that light.

The thought of having to overcome all those obstacles on a several-times-weekly basis while sick, weak, in pain, and dying is overwhelming even to think about. I personally would be grateful if you would avail yourself of one of the consultants who specialize in bringing practices into compliance with the ADA, and getting your facility cleaned up so that people like me can use it. We make up 20% of the population -- 32% in the over-65 age bracket, which I bet is where you get most of your patients -- and you would more than make your money back if you invested in these small improvements.

I can find another practice if I have to, but I would not want to. So how about it?