Looking Back, Feeling My Way Forward

Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California

A year ago, Richard and I were in Denver at what turned out to be his last appointment with Dr. Klein, his oncologist at the VA Medical Center. We looked over his most recent MRI, taken the day before. Dr. Klein pointed out that the rapidly growing tumor in his right brain looked stable for a change, a surprise, given his increasing difficulty with his left side and the skin sores that had appeared since his last visit. His mind was still clear, his sense of humor quick, and his smile positively incandescent. But his body was clearly beginning to fail.

That physical decline, she said, indicated it would be best to cancel his monthly chemo infusion. “Are you okay with that?” she asked. Richard looked at her, his gaze straight, understanding the implication.

“It’s not working, is it?” She shook her head, and after a moment, passed the box of tissues. We all sniffled and blew our noses. Richard and I held hands.

“I’ll call to check on you in a few days,” she said, after asking if we had any questions or needed anything else. “You can always reach me.”

We hugged her and left, Richard walking slowly but strongly, using the cane he needed then for balance.

I think back to that day as the wind howls up the valley and the temperature plummets because the nasty weather reminds me of the drive home after that visit with Dr. Klein. A frigid wind buffeted our Subaru, as if echoing the grief chilling my heart. Richard held my hand even when he slept.

Kayaking on the Columbia River off Portland, Oregon (Photo: Molly Cabe–thanks, Sweetie!)

He and I were partners in ways that are difficult to explain without sounding trite or sappy. We let each other in more deeply and trustingly than anyone before or since.

That kind of heart- and soul-connection is rare and precious, a gift I didn’t expect to receive and one I don’t imagine will come my way again. Which is okay. I say that only to explain why I haven’t, as some have asked lately, “moved on” yet.

We had almost 29 years to grow our love and partnership, and those years and that deep connection are not something to move on from. It takes time to sort out what my life means without Richard, just as it took time to grow what he called the “body of love” that sustained us, especially through the journey with his brain cancer.

Me in Alaska. Photo by Roberta Smith (Thanks, Roberta!)

It’s not that I’m not living fully. But learning how to be me without him involves a lot of trial and error, thinking–and practice. Decisions that once would have been simple are not. The path forward isn’t clear.

Over the past month, while part of my mind has been focused on moving Dad and then on catching up on writing deadlines and readying the garden, house and shop for winter (Which seems to be blowing up the valley today in roaring waves.), my subconscious has been sorting through decisions I need to make.

The first is whether or not to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance. I’ve decided not to–at least for now. Applying feels wrong, and I can’t really say why. It just does, and I’m honoring that strong, gut-level sense.

The second is adopting a Great Dane. The first dog I was interested in was a sweetheart, but had long-term health problems that felt overwhelming. The second had some pretty serious socialization issues. Considering the two forced me to admit my own limitations. Selfish as it may sound, after a decade of increasingly intense care-giving of various family members, including my love, it feels good to be responsible for just me right now.

As I was writing this post, I found a quote from the late Steve Jobs in my journal that’s just the reminder I need as I feel my way forward….

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.