I can feel again. I know it because of the tightness in my chest and the weight I’ve carried on my back, heavier than ever before. I know it because I missed him more this Thanksgiving than I did last year. Looking back, I know it’s because grief had anesthetized me last year, locked my broken heart in a box so that all the pieces would be kept close together in one place, ready to be reassembled someday.
I’m not there yet, but I can feel again and that’s progress. Even if the feeling isn’t happiness, the fact that I feel again is a fact that ought to be celebrated. My heart is beating. I am alive.
I have never felt so alone.
A lot of people have told me that the firsts are harder than the seconds and that every year after the second year, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries become easier to bear. I’m not sure that’s true. I returned to Phoenix after a week in New York, a week in a city that Mike and I had lassoed and ridden together for 11 years, and sobbed as Flora slept on his side of the bed, sobbed all night curled up on the yellow couch that he and I had bought online two weeks before he received his pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
The couch arrived on the day before Mike left the hospital to die at home.
I survived the second Thanksgiving, though, and I managed to smile and have the kind of small talk that is required in social situations, some of it with a man who had lost his wife to cancer a year before I lost Mike. He is a writer and, mostly, we talked about writing.
Christmas is coming up. Flora and I are going to spend it with Mike’s parents in Massachusetts because that’s what Flora wants to do and I live for her. All I hope is that I can take it, that the pieces of my heart that are still locked inside that box can take it.
I’m not going to spend any energy thinking about Christmas because what I’m focused on right now is making through the day. I celebrate small victories and today I celebrate the fact that I cried, and that I laughed, and that I fulfilled my responsibilities at work and also found time to write.
It has been one year and 29 days since Mike died and I’m still taking it one day at a time. It might be that way for a while. Please, bear with me.
The other day, I left home to get a mammogram, an annual routine since I turned 40 five years ago. I see the doctors at the Mayo Clinic now, the same place where that Mike and I had gone to so many times to see the doctors who couldn’t save him. (I’m healthy, or so the doctors have said.) The Mayo campus in Phoenix is a cluster of short, glass-and-concrete buildings that rise from an expanse of dirt off a busy east-west highway on the northern edge of this sprawling city and across from a shopping mall. People come from all over the world to receive treatment there; there’s a Residence Inn right off campus. I live six miles away.
It was my first mammogram at Mayo. Until then, I hadn’t returned to the cancer center. I had only eyed it from a safe distance, trying to push away the memories I’d rather forget. I didn’t find out until I got there that the imaging department is inside the building that houses the cancer center, a place that reminds me of defeat. My exam was on the first floor. Oncology and the infusion center, where I left in a chemotherapy pod all the hope I had that Mike would get better, are on the third floor.
As I walked into the building, I saw, to my left, the bank of elevators that he and I rode together on our visits to the oncologist who prescribed Oxycodone for his pain, and then morphine, and then more morphine – and, still, he died in pain. I remembered the firm steps he took toward those elevators on our first visit. I remembered the grip of his hand on mine. I remembered the four people we saw around a circular table as the elevator doors opened on the third floor. They were working on a big puzzle with tiny parts. One of them, a woman who looked older than us, had the ashen color of cancer stamped on her skin and a scarf wrapped around her bald head. The scarf was green like moss growing on the forest floor.
I remembered that his steps grew weaker with each visit, and that I finally got the courage to ask him one day if he needed a wheelchair. “I can walk,” he said, and he did, his grip on my hand as feeble as his legs, legs that shuffled like an old man’s toward the elevators.
I had to use the restroom after the mammogram and the restrooms were beyond the elevators. I looked away as I walked past them.
Inside the restroom, the cleaning lady hummed a happy song. She was wearing a light-blue polyester uniform of short-sleeve shirt and pants. She was taller than me, darker than me. Her hair was wrapped in a bun high up on her head. In the stall, I felt angry at her, angry at her humming.
“And how is your day going today?” she asked me as I washed my hands, sounding like a teacher greeting her kindergarten class.
I considered the question for a few seconds, I think, considered whether to tell her how annoyed I was at her chirpiness.
“OK, I guess,” I replied.
“Are you ready for Christmas?”
I froze. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. I didn’t answer.
“I’m going to cook for 150 people, and I can’t wait to cook for 150 people,” she told me.
I was intrigued – “How do you cook for 150 people?”
“Just like you cook for three. You add a lot more of everything,” she said.
I smiled and wished her good luck.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I have a family that loves me. I have a job. I can pay my bills. How could I complain?”
As I walked back to my car, I thanked him. I thanked Mike for sending that woman my way to add the perspective that was missing from a day that had been going wrong only because I had chosen to look at it through the wrong lens.
Because one way to look at it is that I lost my husband and another way to look at it is to that I lived nearly 19 years of pure happiness by his side.
I have a family that loves me. I have a job. I can pay my bills. How could I complain?
“He lives in you. He lives in me. He watches over everything we see.”
- The Lion King
WHY – AND HOW – I WRITE
The key to writing a good story is knowing what you don’t know and finding the right people and documents to help you learn it. You have a fundamental question that leads to a bunch of other questions that need to be answered so that your fundamental question makes sense. This is how I write.
Follow along with Fernanda and get occasional stories.