You Didn’t Want to Die

IMG_2097.jpgNancy, after being diagnosed with Stage IV Cancer, leaning up against daughter Maia in 2013, less than a year before she died.

**This blog was written within a year of Nancy’s death, but I wasn’t ready to finish it until just now.

You didn’t want to die.  No one really wants to die, do they?  I’ve heard of 94 year olds who went out kicking and screaming, certain that it wasn’t yet their time, begging for one more chemo treatment, more time, more life.   You were 59, not quite young enough to be considered truly tragic, but not quite old enough to say: okay, she’s lived her life, fulfilled her mission.  You left behind two teenaged daughters and a widow whose despair at losing you would inhabit her days for months and years to come.  Not quite time for me to be a widow, I say, although at 61 it wasn’t exactly shocking to lose a spouse.  Two adolescents who looked around at all the friends they knew who had two living parents.  Even those with divorced parents who hate each other still have two living parents. And those with a parent who has vanished from the scene know that they inhabit the earth, somewhere, somehow.  Some day that missing parent might be found.  I’m not sure which is worse, the potential of a parent being found who has vanished, or one who has vanished permanently.   There is no hope of being found.

But, no, you really didn’t want to die—in part, because you knew how terribly we would miss you; in part, because you couldn’t bear to think that you would no longer be a part of our lives.  You couldn’t imagine not seeing the hallmarks of our daughter’s progress through adulthood: graduations, first jobs, maybe even weddings and grandchildren.  You couldn’t imagine not going to the garden shop with Linda first thing in the spring looking for something new to plant or watching for the lilacs to magically appear after a miserable Michigan winter.    Perhaps you wondered what it would feel like not to have me by your side, holding you and sharing the stories of our lives together. You suffered unbelievable agony thinking that you might not see the ocean of Cape Cod once more, where you spent every summer of your childhood and where your brother and his wife and children now reside.  You wondered at not only how you would bear to lose your closest family but your dearest friends, who surrounded your bedside with heartfelt vigilance during your last days.

You relished the beauty of this world: sunsets, moving water, grass, plants, and animals.  I brought you home from the hospital one summer afternoon, and—sick as you were—the first thing you did was to lie down in the grass, staring out at the blue sky and sun. Some days I would find you sitting in the winter in the outside yard, with your hat and coat on, just sitting, wanting to feel whatever dim glimmer of sun might be found on a winter day in Michigan.   You wanted to be in and of this world.

You lashed out at me at the end.  How could I be sitting in your hospital room with a Starbucks cup of coffee in my hand, fortunate enough to be able to leave the room, walk through the hospital, and even outside of its doors to fortify my need for expensive coffee?  When, finally, you asked me if you were really dying, about three days prior to your actual death and I said, “yes,” you said, “Thanks for sharing that with me!” with sarcasm unexpected from someone who was dying.    And, yet, you also listened to my cough as you lay there, and in your most urgent dying breath said, “Go to the doctor!”  And in between the grumbles and complaints, there were murmurs of “I love you,” as I moved in and out of caring for you in your last weeks of life.

When we got you home to hospice, I could finally lay by your side.  The morphine had ensured that no bones would hurt as I cuddled next to you.   We held hands, and I felt your grip, warm and firm.    Hey, I’ll take what I can get.   We had only a week in hospice at home, hardly time to come to grips with what was happening, at what we were losing, before you slipped into unconsciousness.

And there was the time—maybe a month before you died—when we confessed how happy we had been to have found each other; how each one of us had worried that we might live without love.   How fortunate we were to have made a home for ourselves and our children.  We had those moments.  But not enough of them.

I’ve come to terms with your anger after 3 ½ years.   You were given the short end of the stick, while I was given the gift of life, even when it didn’t feel like a gift at times.  But still, when I catch sight of a shimmer of peachy sun against the background of our luminescent Michigan winters, I can sense the longing that you must have felt as you said goodbye to the earthly world.



Idle boats

Today I walked on the beach in the footprints of past walks with Nancy. We were in Chatham, Cape Cod, for the winter holidays. Chatham was the home of Nancy’s brother and his family, as well as the village where she had spent many blissful summers as a child.    Nancy’s brother, Jack, his wife Beth, and their five grown children would be joining us for various of the festivities: Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and Jack’s birthday the day after Christmas. But the festivities were all a bit much, just shy of three months after Nancy’s death. I would have to walk alone in my grief, trying hard not to spoil the enjoyment of those for whom the Christmas festivities should not be marred by tears and lamentations.

One morning I rose before the others and walked down to the fish pier, just a short walk from the house. The winter sun did not warm but illuminated the sharply evanescent cold blue of the sky, with the promise of lightening the dark blue of early morning waters.

This brief walk to the fisherman’s pier was one we had taken time and time again. From the pier you could see not only boats, small spits of sand, and sea birds, but even seals, especially after the fishermen had brought in their haul.   It was an annual pilgrimage for our family to arrive just as the fisherman came in and discarded their trash fish to the hungry seals that awaited them.   I don’t think that the children were more excited than we were, when we saw the seals diving for fish, playing with each other, going down deep and seeming to disappear before they popped up again right in front of your eyes. Now that the children are aging into young adulthood and Nancy is gone, how many more such walks will we take as a family?


Walking down the beach, I noticed the foot prints of other walkers: a child’s footprint next to the three-legged print of a sea bird, then a larger footprint, maybe that of a father.   Now I saw what I took to be a father, his dog, and his child. Did they realize the memories they were making? Nancy and I and the children had made many such footprints through the years.   The footprints, so finely etched, would be washed away, but what would happen to our memories?  Without these written words would they too gradually or quickly lose their contours?

I heard the seabirds calling, some of them sounding almost ethereal, like ancient musical instruments. Once I had seen them as ordinary sea gulls, too ordinary to notice. Now I forced myself to listen and look not only for the remarkable but for the ordinary, newly realizing how attention to the ordinary is one of the great blessings of being alive.


I stopped to take photographs of the lonely boats, idling in the cold waters at the fish pier. I found some boats to be beautiful floating vessels on the sea, but to Nancy boats were more than just physical constructions but embodiments of pleasure.   She dreamed of boats, constantly cruising Craig’s list for the perfect little sunfish she could find to putter about in Nantucket Sound in Cape Cod, then bring home to put on Lake Lansing. I worried about the finer details of bringing the boat from the Cape to Michigan, let alone whether her health was good enough to maintain and use a boat during the summer, which would end up being her last one.   If she had lived, she imagined joining the skipper of a sailboat and navigating the waters off the East Coast or even some more remote area for some lengthy period. When she verbalized these wishes, I was secretly skeptical of the possibility, given her poor health, but felt guilty about my inability to dream along with her.   And, worse still, I knew I could not remain on a sailing vessel for long and feared that I would miss her were she to take off on such a trip.

What she saw in sailboats continued to elude me. During my one stretch overnight in a sailboat of her friend’s, we all got seasick from the swells of an unforeseen storm, the friend’s baby throwing up and crying endlessly.   I was struck by claustrophobia.  Day trips off the shores of Cape Cod with Nancy’s brother were delightful, but I dreaded the experience of actually living on a boat for more than one night. But this was not my dream, but Nancy’s.

Nancy was a big dreamer, always imagining the possibility of having spectacular adventures, while I limited myself to more mundane and affordable visions of the future. Although a dreamer, more than most people I know, Nancy really knew how to partake of the pleasures of the world, putting petty issues behind her to focus on what was really important: like the first bloom of spring or the first warm rays of the sun after a tough Michigan winter. While I worried about laundry on a Sunday morning, Nancy wanted to sit on an easy chair in the sun with a cup of coffee and experience a day without being encumbered by my trivial annoyances.

The ordinary moments, the extraordinary ones, and even the ones we may or may never have speak to me in new ways as I seek to experience and remember all that Nancy has left behind.   I mourn the footprints of where she been, as well as all the new ones she will never make and the rays of the sun that will never warm her back again.