It has been over a year since I have posted a blog. You might be wondering what happened? How or why does one disappear?
I could wax poetic and say I have emerged from the long, dark night that grieving can bring about. Or, I could point out that it has been a crazy three years. But if I was pressured to come up with a simple reason or bring it down to a single word, I would have to simply say, OVERWHELMED.
After my husband passed, I spent a year lost. Then a year re-engaging in life. Then there was the year of getting married again, cleaning out the house, putting it up for sale and rearranging my entire life schedule.
Now things seem to have settled a little, I have found the characters from the last book I wrote demanding to be released into the world by publishing their story. Being so rusty and out of touch with all that it takes to do that, I hired a Life Coach to get me back into shape. So I’m working into the area of marketing, production, social media and just plain organizing.
Interestingly enough, the desire to write has come back as well. I feel like a hermit coming back out into the light of day! Gosh, it’s bright out here!
I hope you will join me as I continue to journey again in the world of the written word.
A month had passed since the funeral. I had stayed strong on the outside for all to see and succeeded in getting through it. Now, each morning when I arose, the reality seeped in a little more each day and the shock receded, leaving me raw and vulnerable.
I went from wanting someone to mention him or console me, to wanting to hurt in silence and avoid everyone. In this stormy sea, the squalls frequently came with drenching tears or became the doldrums of not feeling anything.
There was no direction. No goals. No plans for the future. I was adrift with no forward movement. The only constant was the ache and the knowledge it would never be the same. I was bitter that life marched on, dragging me with it.
This stage, or whatever you want to call it, differs for everyone. I know this after spending hours talking with others who, like me, have gone through it. I wanted to hurry up this stage, get it over quickly, thinking the sooner I did; I could capture some normalcy again. Now all I can do is record my journey and know that no two are alike.
Before Darrell passed, I had ample warning he would go before I would. We talked. I thought we covered it all. Finances, kids, what I would do after he passed. But no amount of planning or talking helps you prepare for the actual journey and the tidal wave of confusing emotions.
I thought it would go this way. I would grieve, hurt and then rebound. I would become a missionary in Africa or serve the homeless at a local soup kitchen. I would devote my life to my Lord. I would be a pillar of strength and guidance to my family. I would go on living because I thought I could handle being alone. I would be a good widow in everyone’s eyes, holding my love for him like a beacon. I would be the example of true love that never dies.
Then one night in the ER when I was deathly ill, it all came crashing down around me. I finally admitted to myself there is a difference between alone and being lonely.
I was depressed. I had isolated myself in our winter home in Yuma. I had lost weight due to not eating and sleeping. I couldn’t see a way forward because I was so wrapped up in my grief. Ending up in the same emergency room Darrell had on the same day a year later was a wake-up call. A stern ER doctor lectured me on what I needed to do to get myself healthy. I listened.
I reconnected with friends. Joined chat sites. Came home to the kids and started working on the house. I picked up writing again. Went out into the community and found volunteer work at the local cancer clinic. And ran into someone I wasn’t looking for.
At first, we just chatted. Then I tried to pushing him away in a panic because I didn’t want anything more than a friend. He firmly explained it was just an offer of friendship. Since he was four years out from his loss, I wanted to know about his journey in hopes I could glean from it some kernel of wisdom, a vision of hope.
So began a wonderful friendship and the year passed. On the anniversary of my husband’s death, family and friends helped light Chinese lanterns to remember the man who loved us all. The one I released hovered over the house as if he was saying he missed me. I was gaining more peace every day, moving forward sluggishly, but still not wanting to release the life I had shared with him entirely.
His clothes still hung in the closet. I felt I lost more of him with each change, with each item of his that slipped away. But I also knew it was healthy and to heal I needed to move on with life.
My husband and I had blended a family. Three of his kids and two of mine from previous marriages had bonded well. In fact, the kids had done far better than I had. Still, I worried about them going forward. So I tried to be a good example.
Except then, my new friend proposed. We had slowly begun to date, even though we didn’t think of it that way. We met for coffee, had lunch, even a few dinners. All the while talking about our former spouses and growing closer.
What should I do? Darrell and I had never talked about having someone else in our lives if one of us passed on. I loved him so much I never entertained the idea there would be anyone else. What would happen now? How could I replace the love I felt for one man with another? Where was my narrative of carrying my love for my husband until the day I died? What would the kids think? What would my friends think? What did I think?
It seemed a widow’s conundrum. It is not that I will ever love Darrell less, nor can I. And I could never, ever replace him. In fact, I struggled with the idea I could even love another man. But I had this same panic before my second child was born. I remember watching my daughter sleep one night while her sister stirred in my belly. I was worried. How could I ever love another baby as much as I had loved my first? Yet, when the second daughter was born, I fell in love immediately. Not with the same love, but a love that was hers and hers alone.
I had forgotten the heart is inflatable. It can stretch to love many. The thing is – each love is different – because each person is different.
How could I explain to those who were still grieving the loss of their father or friend, that I could still love Darrell? That the love I felt for him was there and it would never go away. It left a permanent scar that would ache every time there was a family gathering, and he wasn’t there. Or I visited a place that we had shared, and I remembered our past life together. Every holiday, every memory that crossed my mind would have a bittersweet twinge of melancholy.
Yet, I needed to move on. Continue to experience life. New loves would come in. Not to replace, but to reside alongside all the other loves that were already there.
It is lonely to live without your soul mate, the love of your life. But there are still people I love left in my life. The love that grew and was shared by two souls, who became one, now overflows, fills and touches all who are still in it. I realize I can choose to honor that love until we meet again, by living alone and always in its shadow. Or I can go out and experience continued growth to my heart and spread the love I have received.
I decided to honor my love for my husband by giving more love to another lonely heart. There are those who may think less of me or feel I didn’t love my husband enough to stay a grieving widow. I can say I totally understand.
I understand because I once thought that way. I have learned that until you travel the road, you don’t know how the trip is going play out. I remember what I thought it would be like to go to Africa and when I did, it was nothing like the journey itself.
So it is with grief. It is the most singularly, loneliest path we will travel in life. No one can walk it with us, and you never know where the path might lead, or what emotions you will experience.
Love those in your life who are grieving. Understand their choices may not always make sense to you. And remember one day you too will experience this path. There is no way to prepare for it except watching how others travel it.
Know that love continues to expand. It grows and flourishes when it is fed and understood. It is not meant to be locked away to die, never to be gifted again.
Last night, my friend stopped over and asked me to look something up for her on my computer. As my screen saver popped up, one of my favorite pictures of Darrell appeared. His eyes were crinkled in one of my favorite grins.
She looked sadly at me and asked, “Do you really think that helps?”
I didn’t have to ask what she was referring to; I knew it was about my grief over his passing. They say anger is part of the process of grieving. I had been fortunate that there hasn’t been really anything to be angry about. Yes, I missed him, yes, it had been hard to lose him, but really his final days had been peaceful and our relationship up to the last minute, had been so good.
Yet, a comment like this, even eleven months out, had a way of worming under my skin and setting off a bigger spark of anger each time I was questioned on how I was handling my grief.
Aren’t we all different? Isn’t it refreshing we aren’t all the same? Each of us sees through different eyes and perceives the world in so many wonderful ways around us. This is why I have always respected how differently each person handles things in their lives. Sometimes I worry their coping methods are destructive to their health or way of life, but still they have the freedom of choice to do this.
I had so many people who were wonderfully supportive. My favorites were the ones who just listen. Or ask me how I’m coping and really wanted to hear how I was doing it. My least favorites were those who had a preconceived idea of how I should be doing it.
I’ve been questioned about such silly things. Why are his clothes still in our closet? Why haven’t I spread his ashes and why do I wear my wedding ring? To them, there is a rule somewhere about this. I respect that through the years there have been some common customs developed to help people move on, but they aren’t set in stone.
I still have need of feeling some normalcy in my life, so the clothes remain until that need passes. We had wanted our ashes spread together, so I must wait to add mine to his. The wedding ring was my version of wearing black. I needed that support, that closeness to my husband, to the way of life I had. It also helped keep away others and not have the dreaded question asked, “So are you married?”
Whatever my reasons, they should be respected. Pictures of my loved one should be a normal thing. As my granddaughter pointed out, I could have asked if she had pictures of her grandchildren on her phone. They live in another state, so why wouldn’t she want to have pictures of them when she couldn’t be with them. She still loves them even though she doesn’t see them every day and wants a reminder of them. Why wouldn’t I continue to have pictures of Darrell decorate my living space? Just because he has passed, doesn’t mean he never existed. I can’t wipe my memory clean. Starting over is hard enough, but I need the foundation my married relationship created for me to continue on.
Grieving people are just touchy, each in a different way. No wonder people avoid friends who have lost loved ones. It is hard to determine what will and won’t offend or hurt them. I was on that side once. I had never lost a loved one and felt a deep agony over what to say to someone who had.
But don’t worry, no matter what you say or do, we understand you are trying to help and just overlook the unintentional mistakes. Just don’t be surprised at tears, a growl or a blank look. Just keep being there for us. We will heal; it is just going to take a little time.
You can almost touch the feelings in an ICU waiting room. It can be one of the loneliest places in the world or one of most miraculous. Either way, it changes your life.
This was my first time in one. I looked around. There was a man standing at the glass window that looked out into the hall. His eyes stared unseeing, worry drawn in every crevice and line in his face. Over in a corner, a mother sat with two quiet children. That was enough to draw my attention. No scampering about or babbling in their own language. Just two sets of large eyes, staring at a foreign world.
Then there was the little old lady. She sat hunched in her chair, arms wrapped around her as if trying to hold everything in. Red-rimmed eyes showed tears were at the ready. I was drawn to her. Is it true misery loves company?
She nodded as I sat down, then like a dog waiting for its master, her gaze riveted back to the stark doors of the ICU. For a few minutes, I argued with myself. Say something. She needs comforting. Can’t you see that? Talk to her!
My voice sounded out of place in this room of waiting. “Are you okay?”
Her shoulders stiffened, her head lowered, and I was about to get up and move to another seat, embarrassed I had intruded when she spoke softly.
“My husband could be dead right now.”
Now it was my turn to rivet all my attention on those two doors.
She looked at me, and I was drawn back to meet her gaze. I was surprised by the calm I could see in her eyes. She opened up, pouring out the story of her husband’s years of heart disease. How, right now, after another heart attack, they were trying to revive him. She wondered, out loud, her fears. Should she tell them to stop? Was he ready to go? Was he already gone?
Turning back to stare at the doors, tears falling from those reddened eyes, she said, “I just wish they would tell me what is going on.”
I’ve never spoken about my faith unless asked. Always felt it was a private thing. I could never be a good evangelist. But at this moment, a wave of impulse took over. I grabbed her hand, squeezed and words I had never spoken before tumbled from my mouth. “Would you like me to pray with you?”
My inner voice went into a panic, screaming, what are you thinking? My heart argued back; she needs this.
Her countenance changed into the loveliest dawn I have ever seen. Her eyes widened, a smile tipped up aging skin to reveal beautiful white teeth and her tears stopped. Age spotted hands eagerly found mine, and she bowed her head.
There seemed to be an eternity of silence before my brain engaged my voice. Words I will never remember came out in a mumble. She added a few of her own, and then with a mighty squeeze, we went back to before.
Now she questioned me about why I was there. I told her about my husband’s cancer. For a moment, she looked wistful before she said, “All disease is terrible, but I wish my husband had cancer instead. It would be so much easier for them to be able just to cut out what is killing him.”
From where I was sitting, I would have liked to disagree, but I understood. To her, in the valley of the shadow of death that she walked in, all other valleys looked greener.
The doors silently opened, and a very professional nurse came out and called to the lady beside me. “Your husband is doing well; he is asking for you.”
Her veined hand squeezed mine. “Answered prayer! God bless you and your husband too.” Then she disappeared behind the forbidding doors.
Another hour passed by before finally it was my turn to hear that Mr. Gabel was doing fine, and I could see him.
Even though I worked in a hospital and was no stranger to an ICU unit, I was shaken when I saw him. Until it is one of your loved ones hooked up to all that tubing and beeping monitors with flowing alien-green lines, you really can’t understand the fear you feel.
His nurse had obviously seen that look before. Funny how I knew many male nurses, but I had never seen them as the nurturing type. Only female nurses fit that description in my book. I was having a lot of firsts.
To this day, this male nurse remains vividly in my mind as one of the most caring, tender, nurturing human beings I have ever met. “Don’t be afraid. I know it looks scary, but he is doing well.” Staring at my strong husband, all I could see was a mound of cotton blankets, his bruised arm with several IV lines and a plastic protrusion coming out of his mouth. He was as white as the blankets he was under. His chest rose in an odd mechanical way, and I knew, sensed, he was not conscious.
The nurse’s rich baritone stood out against the beeping. “Right now, he is in a medically induced coma because of the trauma of the surgery and on a ventilator. The doctors will start bringing him up tomorrow. You can touch his hand; he hears you. He may not remember it, but he knows you are here. Talk to him. “
I slid my hand into his cold one, swollen from the fluids being pushed into him. Gently I rubbed the only spot free on the back of his hand, murmuring, “I love you,” over and over. Tears of exhaustion slid out. Finally, I sat in a tiny corner of the very equipment-crowded room and felt grateful. Darrell stirred, fighting the ventilator, his arm moving towards his face.
I jumped up, grabbing his hand, noting his eyes half opened, a vacant stare meeting my own. The heart monitor beeped, and Darrell groaned.
“It’s okay Mr. Gabel. You are in the ICU. You are doing well. Everything is okay,” the nurse said soothingly.
I squeezed his hand, once again murmuring “I love you”. My heart rejoiced when I got a gentle squeeze back and he rolled his head towards me, not seeing me, but sensing my presence. The heart monitor leveled out.
For the next hour, this was my routine as the nurse bustled around, taking notes, checking fluids, watching monitors and reassuring his comatose patient.
“Mrs. Gabel, where are you staying?” the nurse asked.
I still couldn’t get over being called Mrs. Gabel. That was Darrell’s mother, not me.
“I planned on staying here.”
The nurse’s assessing gaze was now turned upon me. “I can’t tell you no, but I was just curious, do you trust me?”
I was taken back for a moment. “Well, yes. Why do you ask?”
A boy-next-door smile of warmth appeared. “Your husband is in the safest place on earth. Surrounded by all these machines, and my capable skills, even if he had a problem, which he isn’t, you couldn’t ask for him to be in a better place. I bet you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Call the relatives, take care of yourself. Do it now while you can, because you will be taking care of him soon enough. It is my turn to have the night watch, and no offense, but there’s nothing you can do for him. Trust me, he’s in good hands.”
He was right, I was exhausted. I watched him carefully lift my husband’s shoulders to slide a plumper pillow under his head. My mind was made up. Gently I leaned over and kissed Darrell on the cheek and squeezed his hand, saying my customary, “Goodnight Darrell, I love you most.”
The morning of the surgery arrived. Everyone was in place. After a quick kiss and a squeeze of his hand I watched as they wheeled him down the long white hall towards surgery. I was adrift in a sea of restless feelings. My lungs restricted as the panic began to rise.
I followed his parents to the waiting room where the Doctor had told us it would be about a two-hour wait. The staff was positive and upbeat, his parents quietly hopeful, and I was a wreck. Nothing held my attention as my mind tossed around scenario after scenario.
It was 10:00 AM and I began to pray…..
Time is not constant. Sometimes it speeds by in a flash, at other times, it slows to a mush of a crawl. Right now, I had a good idea of what eternity felt. At the two hour mark, I found there was less oxygen in the room as my lungs struggled for air and tears threatened to fall. The elderly lady at the information desk informed me that everything was okay. She encouraged me to go have lunch, they would call me. Sometimes surgery took a little longer……
Food sounded terrible. His mother and father decided to find the cafeteria. I continued my vigil. I had the room memorized. Every tiny crack, flaw and dust mote. And another hour stretched out as I wandered the waiting room, looking out the one small window to the dreary, drenched world outside….
Then the surgeon appeared. His young face etched with left over lines of concentration. A smile lifted them away. “He’s doing well. It took a little longer than we anticipated. The tumor had eaten through the bowel wall and it was ruptured. He is a very lucky man. There was a lot of infection, and we couldn’t tell if we got all the cancer. During the process we also had to take out his spleen. In trying to get out all possible cancer it was nicked and we couldn’t stop the bleeding. He has metal marker clips in so they can do radiation for prevention. We removed several lymph nodes and those will be tested to see if the cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. Right now we are moving him to the ICU to make sure he is stable through the night. Give it about another hour for them to get him set up and you can see him.”
I stammered out my thanks as his parents stoically asked a few more questions. Even if Darrell hadn’t seemed to need them, I was grateful they had waited with me. They were staying with his sister and they decided to leave now that he was in the ICU. They asked if I wanted to go with them. I don’t remember what I told them, but it was convincing enough they left me alone. I held it together long enough to say my goodbyes then I fled to the chapel before the panic attack came on.
I was lucky enough to have the place to myself. The storm hit. Tears poured. My thoughts jumbled. The guarantees, the words I needed to hear, had not been forthcoming. I had wanted to hear they got it all. There was nothing to worry about. It was over. He would be fine. The cancer was gone. Instead, it seemed we faced more procedures and still no guarantee he would survive this.
Would I be able to care for him? What if this was going to be a lingering downhill slide? Was I up to caring for a bed-ridden husband? Could I go through the slow process of watching him die in inches? I thought of my great-aunt whose husband had been partially paralyzed by a stroke six years before. She was his constant caregiver. Bathing, dressing and feeding him was a 24-hour job. I remembered her gaunt features and tired smile. Could I do this for Darrell? My heart screamed yes, my mind said no.
I still had young children at home. A movie theatre business to run. Plus my own job at the hospital. My mind scurried to make plans, try to cover all the details. Exhaustion crept over me. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to a time before cancer.
A huge Bible lay open on the simple podium. I looked at it in anger. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted things to be okay, not a cloudy future of uncertainty. I found my legs moved on their own accord and I was standing in front of it. It was open to the book of Job. The voice in my head snorted. I didn’t need to read about Job’s life, I was living the life of Job.
It lay open to Job 33. Line 23 caught my – If there is a messenger for him, a mediator, one among a thousand….. I backed up, to line 16, hungrily reading to line 33. Tears fell. I needed to pray, the Lord in His mercy, could and would pull a person from the edge of the pit of death, so that this person could be enlightened and healed.
I looked up at the jewel tone stain glass in front of me. A simple Cal-lily framed in blue. If even one person prays. I pleaded for his health, for more time, for healing. A peace stole over me. The tears ceased. I wiped my nose. I went looking for the ICU unit.
It amazes me how child-like we become in a hospital setting. It is also interesting how much you have time to talk. Things you would never stop to discuss during a normal day become common subjects when facing illness or death.
In a moment of silence, I voiced the subject I knew lay between us. “So are you scared about the surgery?”
“Yes, wouldn’t you be?” Darrell answered solemnly. I scrambled to fill in the silence.
“Do you want me to call your parents to be here?”
He shook his head ‘no’. “I don’t want to bother them. If they want to come up, they will. It should be their decision.”
“Ugh. I don’t like stoic German genes. Why can’t you just ask for them to come if you want them here?” I got a stoic German glare in return.
“You know, I have only one complaint about growing up. I had it pretty good, but Dad never would say he loved me. Even to this day, if I say ‘Dad, I love you,’ he says, ‘Same to you.’”
I shook my head. In my family ‘I love you’ was said quite often. Maybe not always with sincerity, but it was common.
“Was it the way he was raised maybe?”
“My grandmother said it all the time. Don’t think I ever heard my grandfather say it though. Maybe that’s where he got it from. But it always bugged me.”
I couldn’t believe it. Darrell had grown up with a “Leave It To Beaver” family life. His mother was a stay-at-home mom who had fresh baked goodie always ready for Darrell, his brother and sister when they got home from school. They had traditional Christmas’s and Thanksgiving with the Norman Rockwell of family gatherings. I was lucky to get a TV dinner or fast food for a late dinner. Christmas was a time of depression and anger in my childhood home.
Yet, here he was yearning for something deeper. I decided I couldn’t stand by and allow him to do this without family support. I gave the excuse of needing a snack and slipped out to the nearest telephone.
“Does he want us there?” his mother queried.
“Yes, I think he does. I know he’s worried about the surgery. He is just too stubborn to ask you to come up. He doesn’t want to bother you.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake. Well, we will be there this afternoon. We were just waiting for him to call.”
I shook my head as I hung up and slipped back into his room, deciding not to tell him what I had done. I wanted it to be a surprise to him. Yet, for all of my judgement on his family’s lack of communication, I was blind to my own.
Before we had gotten married Darrell knew I believed in God. I asked him once, and he assured me he did also. He had attended the German Congregational Church growing up. And the conversation ended there. I had started attending church and hadn’t ever asked him to go. I believed if he wanted to, he would just do it.
Right now I was clinging to the words I would read in the Bible every night. I was searching for a sign in the scripture to reassure me everything was going to be okay. I would slip from the room taking the Bible with me to the waiting room just next door.
After my little ‘good deed’, I wondered how I could comfort someone else during this time of trial. I knew one of the ways to help myself during stress was to reach out to others. I naively asked God to show me how I could help someone else.
I picked up the Bible and headed out.
“So where are you going?” he asked.
Startled, I turned to face him. “Just next door to do a little reading.”
“Okay,” he said, turning his attention to the TV. NHRA racing was on, a hobby of his.
I had just settled in with a warm cup of tea when a young woman stormed into the room. Slamming a Styrofoam cup down on the counter, she angrily dumped sugar into it. I looked away but out of the corner of my eye I saw her glance at the open Bible on my lap.
“How can you read that? I’m so mad at God, I can’t even pray!”
I froze, staring at her, my mind scrambling to think of something to say.
“Why are you mad at God,” I squeaked out.
“I prayed and prayed and prayed, asking him to heal my father. The colon cancer is back. Why would God do this to him. To me.” Tears glistened for a moment, then rolled down her cheeks.
Why God would allow cancer to steal away our loved one’s lives had crossed my mind more than once this last week. I took a deep breath.
“I don’t know. But I think it’s okay to be mad at God.”
It was her turn to freeze, looking at me wide-eyed. “You don’t think it’s a sin? I mean, I really am so angry I don’t even know if I believe in him anymore.”
I gave a quick mental prayer asking for the right words. “When you tell a three year old they can’t have any more candy, it doesn’t make sense to them. Why can’t they have something that tastes so good? They get angry at you. But you understand. You know they are not old enough yet to understand the reasons. You just have to say no. When they throw a temper tantrum, you don’t hate them. You don’t punish them. You understand. You scoop them up and hug them. Wipe away their tears. Yet you must stand firm.”
It was quiet for a little while.
“So you are saying we are just like children, that we don’t see the bigger picture. But I’m still hurt. He didn’t heal my dad. He’s a good man. I can’t stand the thought of losing him. Why is he taking him away from me? God could heal him if He wanted to. I’m afraid I’ve been so mad at God for so long He can’t forgive me. And I don’t want to pray. I don’t want to forgive him.”
I shrugged. “I think that’s okay. Father God understands. He says He forgives all our sins, when we ask for forgiveness. You just aren’t ready yet. You may never be. That’s between you and Him. But can I ask a favor of you?”
“Do you mind if I pray for you and your father?”
She squinted for a minute, thinking, and the anger faded away as the furrow between her eyes relaxed. I noticed for the first time they were a sky blue. She stuck out her hand, lips turning up into a sad smile. “I’m Sarah, my dad’s name is John. Do you have someone here too?”
The conversation turned towards Darrell and his condition. He was a very private person and he asked me to keep the door to his room closed all the time. Sarah commented she thought someone was dying because that is what the staff usually did for the terminal patients.
“No, he’s not terminal. There is still hope. He also has colon cancer.”
The conversation then turned to statistics, survival rates and symptoms. I realized Darrell was blessed to have his cancer found so early. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to meet up again. After she left I scurried back to Darrell’s room.
As I put the Bible back into my bag, Darrell spoke.
“You know you don’t have to leave the room to read the Bible. Can you read me something from it?”
I froze for the second time that night. “Sure, what are your favorite passages?”
“How about Psalms?”
Obviously I needed to work on communicating with my husband as well.
I like hospitals best on weekends. The weekly hum of diagnostic staff, nurses and doctors is replaced with a quiet hush throughout the halls. Things slow down as the ancillary staff takes the weekend off.
As I went through the glassed walkway to the cafeteria I could see the dreary skies outside the Deaconess Hospital in Billings, Montana. It had been overcast and raining on and off for a week now. It mirrored the darkness I felt on the inside. The only bright spot was when we were able to take Darrell out for a small ride with his sister and brother-in-law. Darrell grew up primarily in Billings, so I had listened, with a smile, when he related different childhood stories. He pointed out places that were still there and their history and other places long gone. I got to see where he had started his own business as a young gas station owner until he figured out it was a lot of hard physical work for little pay. But still, I admired his entrepreneurship.
Now, we were back in the reality of life and death. The breaking of the monotony of staring at four sterile walls was only done by lab tests, preparing for tests, and procedures.
For instance, he had to drink a gallon of a thing called “Go Lightly”. His bowel needed cleansed before surgery. “I don’t who came up with the name for this stuff,” Darrell joked, “it should be called ‘Going Tsunami’.” This was after about his twentieth run to the bathroom in less than a half hour.
The next adventure was when the student nurse came in to place the IV for the blood transfusion he had to have before surgery. She was a trembling, quiet little blond-headed girl that I thought looked more like fifteen than the twenty-five she said she was. Darrell had notoriously small veins, like his mother, and it was a nightmare for anyone to get an IV needle in his arm.
Patiently he stared at the ceiling, as she tried, failed, blushed and stammered an apology four times. On the fifth try, Darrell did something I had never seen him do. He grabbed her wrist and quietly said, “Enough. Find someone who can do this.” I know I had a dumbfounded look on my face as she fled in tears.
The room door flew open next to admit a tall, Amazonian looking woman in a helicopter life flight suit. Her voice boomed in the small room. “I hear we have a problem in here.”
Darrell growled back. “Yes, I need someone who can put an IV needle in the first time instead of poking me five times.”
The Amazon smiled. “You got an expert here Mr. Gabel. Let’s see what the problem is.”
Within seconds they were best friends. Darrell had that ability to connect to people in a warm, gregarious fashion. Joking around, she proved her expertise by getting it in with one try, while tisking about the new crop of student nurses. She apologized for the little blond, stating that she should have come and gotten someone after the first failed try. Darrell apologized for scaring her by grabbing her wrist. In the end, all was forgiven. The Amazon even checked back before his surgery the next morning to make sure all IV’s were done to her standards.
Meanwhile I was busy making phone calls and dealing with nervous family. In times of stress, we all say things that are slightly, well, off. Take for instance my father. He was always a man of few words, very smart and yet socially clumsy. I grew to understand this, take his wisdom and not be offended. This was one time I failed.
After a long description of Darrell’s health problems, my fears and the impending surgery, he tried his best to comfort me.
“Well honey, you are still young enough if something terrible happens, you can always remarry.”
It floored me. How could he even think that? Didn’t he understand Darrell was my soulmate? I hung up and fled for my stainless steel sanctuary. On the way a beveled glass doorway winked at me in jeweled colors. I held the storm of tears long enough to be able to read a sign that said, “Chapel.” Cautiously I entered the quiet sanctuary. No one was there. I let loose the flood.
The chapel was simple and non-denominational in appearance. Wooden pews glowed with a warm polish. A Bible lay open on a podium. One wall was lined with books of all faiths, and pamphlets filled with hopeful words.
My heart cried out in desperation, asking for healing, wanting more time. In situations like this, you sometimes bargain. I asked simply for fifteen more years. Why that number was important, I don’t know. It just was. But slowly I realized, it didn’t matter how many years, it would never be long enough. I never wanted to be parted from him. I wanted it to last forever.
I stared at the stainless steel walls. Stainless steel in a hospital made sense because it is a metal inhospitable to germs. Nothing else at the moment made any sense. On the inside I cried out to the Lord. I didn’t know where to go from here. Darrell and I had been together for such a short time. It was our fourth wedding anniversary and I remembered well running this very scenario through my mind the night before I got married, wondering if I wanted to marry a man six years older. I reasoned then that none of us know how much time we have on this earth so it was better to love than to miss out on it. I knew anything could happen at any time. But in the vision I had, we were going to live happily ever after to the ripe old age of ninety something. Of course, there is never enough time when you love someone.
We never really think about our mortality until faced with it. And even now, I refused to accept it. There had to be something that could be done to reverse this. Hadn’t the Doctor said that they had made great strides in the medical filed in the area of cancer? Didn’t he mention experimental drugs, procedures, and surgery? But my greatest fear, outside of losing Darrell, was the thought this might be a long, lengthy, lingering illness for him and I would have to nurse him through to the end. Could I do it? Did I have the strength? Would I spend most of my time cowering in bathrooms?
We all choose different survival tools. I had just recently returned to my spiritual upbringing. I had been praying all through this. I never asked why. It was a waste of time. I always thought, why not? Why not me? Everyone has to go through life experiencing some type of pain. So rather than ask why not, my motto had always been what now? How could we move beyond this moment? What would this journey teach me?
I pulled myself up by my boot straps. Wiped away the tears. Prayed to Father God to give me strength and direction. Most of all I prayed for a sign that things would be okay. I had been gone for an hour and a half.
With new resolve drug up out of a reserve I didn’t know I had, I headed back to his room. His sister had come to see him while I was out. The lines around Darrell’s eyes relaxed and a tentative smile turned up the corners of his mouth.
“Are you okay?” he asked hesitantly.
I stared at him. How could he be asking me if I was okay after he had gotten news like that? I should be asking about how he felt, consoling him! His sister was staring out the same window I had just a while ago. I could guess what was going on inside her head.
“I’m fine,” I said, “just needed a break, that’s all.”
“You ran out of here so fast you scared the doctor. He asked me if it was something he said.”
“Oh yeah, it was something he said alright,” I responded wryly. But I could feel the emotional storm rising again. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of him cutting into you,” I choked out.
His eyebrows rose, a frown crinkling the skin on his forehead. Puzzlement shone in his eyes. “What? Don’t you hear this stuff every day at work?”
“Well, yes, but when it comes to being one of my loved ones getting cut on, or hurting, I can’t take it. I have too much empathy for them.”
My favorite ornery grin transformed his features. “Nice to know you care. For a moment there I thought you might not be coming back.”
His sister turned away from the window. “He really was worried.”
The rising emotional storm turned into disbelief. How could he think I would leave him?
“Honey, I just couldn’t take the ‘cut you this way, or cut you that’ way statement. I’m not leaving you. I love you.”
“Well you better explain that to the Doctor. You really shook him up when you ran out. They are going to do surgery on Tuesday. But first I have to have a blood transfusion. ”
As we discussed the schedule for the next two days, I thought to myself how brave and calm he seemed to be in comparison to me. Darrell accepted his fate commonly and reassured us things were going to be fine. As he said, there was nothing else he could do about it, so no need to worry about it.
This was a side I had never seen of him. As his confidence calmed me an odd little thought crossed my mind. This was how heroes were made.
Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this! I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before. And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.
It had started that morning. Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.
The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.
“This is against hospital policy, ma’am. This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.
Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”
She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye. When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.
Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.
The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings. “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer. The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”
I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy. I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it? A misdiagnosis? There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.
I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”
The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”
Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”
“For how long?”
“Well for a couple weeks at least.”
The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?
Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”
I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.
He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable. Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.
The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.
A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor. I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”
The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “
I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….
“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”
He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen. I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.
The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”
It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.
It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.
Darrell had been admitted to the Oncology floor at the Deaconess. I knew this is where they treated cancer patients. I remember as they wheeled him into the room I wondered why. I felt paranoid. What did they know they were not telling us? Four long days of excruciating tests and they were still puzzled over what he had. I was just plain scared at this point.
His room sat at the end of a hall which opened out into the nurse’s station. Next to his room was the family waiting area teeming with nervous people. Beside it were the bathrooms.
I was in what I called my ‘emergency mode”. Calm on the outside, ready to do what I had to do, but when it was all over I would flee to the bathroom to let the tears out. My family frowned on crying and I grew up seeing tears as a weakness.
And the tears were pouring at the moment. I had just watched and participated in the most excruciating test Darrell had gone through yet. They had taken a bone sample from his pelvic bone. In so many of these tests I knew what was going to happen, yet I stayed silent. Why inform him ahead of time so he could worry and fret? Wasn’t it just better to let it happen then console?
When the Doctor came in with the big burly aide, Darrell knew something was up, especially after he complied with the request to roll onto to his stomach and the aide held him down. I was in my customary place, clutching his hand, and soothing him with a quiet voice. I told him it was going to be okay, when in reality, nothing was okay. After they numbed the skin, I watched as they bored into his back with what looked like a huge hollow needle. His eyes grew wide and I knew he was clenching his teeth. I smoothed my hand over his cheek and leaned in closer. I had always seen him as a strong individual in both health and personality. I had thought I would die long before him, even though he was six years older. Now, he had a panicked look as his lips thinned into a straight line and a low groan slipped out of his throat.
“Just a few more seconds, Mr. Gabel, I know this isn’t pleasant.” Darrell’s brow furrowed, and if I hadn’t been wallowing in my own concealed panic, I would have chuckled. I knew that furious look well and what type of language was going through his mind.
Then I heard a soft crunch, my hand tightened on his. The bone had been penetrated. Darrell’s breath left him in a loud rush and before he sucked in another, a curse slipped from his lips.
“I know, I know it’s not comfortable. Just hang in there,” the Doctor encouraged.
Time can stand still. Really, it can. It elongates out and becomes sludge. Tears threatened to spill and I looked away, holding my breath.
How could they not be doing more damage than good to an already ailing body? He was low in blood platelets, yet they continued to take tubes and tubes of blood to test for various diseases. They interrupted his sleep at night to check to see if his heart was still beating and he was breathing. He had a scope run down his throat and one up the other end, where nothing should ever go. And yet, they still had no answers. Now this procedure was definitely doing more harm than good.
I had thought the medical world advanced. I worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide and knew enough to be dangerous. But even with all my head knowledge, it was my heart that hurt the most. I could watch any procedure done on someone I didn’t love, but to watch it done on someone I loved, the empathy nearly killed me. And yet, my loved ones depended on me to support and get them through. It was torture. But I was quickly coming to realize that the medical field ran on one part clues, one part knowledge and mostly pure luck.
The body only gives so many clues and if they are not read correctly, a whole myriad of diseases can be misdiagnosed or missed. So as they poked and prodded him, I clenched my teeth and continued to reassure him things were okay.
The procedure was done. They gathered their tools of torture and left after reassuring Darrell he had done better than most. Tears shimmered in Darrell’s eyes and in a hoarse voice he said, “That was the worst thing I have ever gone through. Do you know how much it hurt? They said it wouldn’t, but they lied. It hurt like hell.”
I had spent a few more minutes consoling him before I fled to the porcelain sanctuary I now cowered in.