On the day my wife died, the house was overflowing. In the room with me were our kids, 2 1/2 and 14, and a few friends who had pretty much moved in with us those weeks when we knew it was the end. Out in the living room were people who had supported us through her illness, really supported us! They fed us, took care of our baby and helped our teenager navigate having a parent with life-limiting cancer. They had been there when we cried, and laughed, and napped; even for our difficult conversations. We all learned together to live at death’s door, claiming the word live. My mother would later say that although she had belonged to loving churches all her life, she had never experienced the kind of love she felt in our community of friends.
This was the first remarkable change in me as a result of her cancer and death — after eight years of living next to cancer. I was comfortable conducting my life in front of a crowd. Before cancer, I was shy and, at one point, even agoraphobic. Before cancer I was a one-on-one person, coming to a party when only the host was there and leaving before the guests arrived. Before cancer, I had trouble exposing my deepest feelings. Before cancer, I was anxious and feared abandonment, often fitting myself into what I thought others wanted me to be. Now I was take charge, sure of my own way, telling the truth about myself whether it was popular or not.
That night offers a perfect illustration. About to take a shower when she died, I pulled off my robe afterwards and laid down next to that body that I had loved for so long, holding her in a skin to skin embrace, the first for months that wasn’t inhibited by a fear of hurting her. She was no longer dealing with the pain of broken bones and degenerating nerves and I could bid her farewell with abandon. I realized later I had had no hesitation about nakedness, words of love, songs, whatever I wanted to do to say goodbye to her, disregarding the crush of people in the room, even including (as soon as they could get there) my parents! Where was that shy girl now? Where was my fear of being seen or heard? I had reincarnated somewhere along the way.
This person I had turned into hardly resembled me Before Cancer. I entered grief better able to matter to me. I committed to at least a year of giving myself whatever my grief asked for. Within the boundaries of (now) single parenthood and going back to work, I did that. In the quiet hours when the kids were at school, in between the clients I worked with as a therapist, I played music and dug in the garden and cried and meditated. I ate good food and depended on friends (who were now so much greater in number). Grief, for me, was an extension of the life I had had with her; rich and full and open to possibility. Those eight years of illness had taught me to face, unafraid, whatever I felt in a given moment, to ride the waves of it to my own shore, and to come home to myself in any situation. What could undo that? What could make me truly afraid when I had already lived through her death?
My life today rests on the shoulders of that time. What I discovered then, through deep pain and profound joy, informs everything I do and everything I am. I will never be glad she died, but I will always live in awe of what we learned together; life is a joy, a miracle, and love should not be avoided or wasted. Taking a chance on love is always worth it. I’m grateful for whatever I feel, because emotions remind me, each day, that I am alive.
When I couldn’t imagine how I would live through losing her, I was right. I couldn’t imagine it — not in my wildest dreams.