Resiliency, running, and “the long goodbye”
Debra at Breathe Lighter (among many others) commented on my last post, and she stopped me in my tracks. Thank you, Debra, for holding a mirror up to my words and reminding me that the journey I am on is difficult but that I am navigating it well, all things considered.
Some would say, “Only six months? You are doing so well after only six months.” Yes, it is six months since Kurt died, and I have been anticipating December 9 with some dread, but it turned out to be not so bad. In reflecting on it and guided by Debra’s comment, it occurred to me that it has been, at least in some sense, much longer than six months.
A diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer is rather definitive, and the only real question was “how long do we have?” I recall that we were quite rational, each in our own way, in the days immediately following 7/21/10 (initial cancer diagnosis). We talked about how we were two mature adults, and how given our age difference I’d always halfway expected to be a middle-aged widow. We looked at our wills and agreed that no changes needed to be made (I now know we were wrong about that part, but the legal/financial hurdles have not been all that difficult).
We both sort of fell apart when the staging process revealed, on 8/30/10, that it was stage 4, and that statistically we had eight months. After that the experience is largely a blur, and the only hard data I have is contained in my spreadsheet in which I tracked his appointments, and the determinedly optimistic entries in his blog. Things went wrong at every step of his treatment, and by the end of October we were already feeling defeated. The blood clot in mid November just added to our feeling that there was nothing we could do to change this path we were on.
So I was already thinking about life beyond Kurt, not just in theoretical “age difference” terms, but in very concrete “I am going to lose him very soon” terms, more than a year ago. Some people who write about grief discuss “pre-grief” — the realization that very soon you will lose your loved one and that now you are in the process of saying goodbye but without being able to acknowledge that this is goodbye. We were so busy “fighting cancer,” as the medical profession frames it, that I couldn’t have said directly to him, “I know you are going to die and it is going to be terrible for both of us, but I also need it to be OK for both of us that my life will go on.” By a year ago he was already in so much pain that we were sleeping in separate rooms simply so that I could sleep without worrying about disturbing him. I needed to sleep so I could care for him and also hold down my job during the day. But I lay there awake night after night crying. Yes, I have been grieving for over a year, so in some ways it has been much more than six months for me.
In that respect, a cancer diagnosis is something like the “long goodbye” of Alzheimers. The diffference is that with Alzheimers, you know there will come a point when you can no longer rationally discuss with your loved one what is happening, so (I assume) you try to make a point of saying the things you want to say before it is too late for your loved one to understand what you are saying. Kurt was such a rational being that I didn’t expect to miss out on that opportunity with him. I didn’t foresee that by the time we both knew without question that the end was near, he would be in so much pain that he couldn’t talk about it with me. So we never finally said goodbye, and that fact will haunt me for a very long time.
Through all of that horrible year and the six months since, my only release has been running. I could go out on the trail and run and cry and not think and come back to myself and cry some more. Resiliency is forged one step at a time, one awful realization and adjustment after another, until one day you wake up and realize — look what I’ve just been through, and I’m still alive, still getting out of bed, still managing somehow to thrive.
Tonight I am feeling very sad but still very proud of what I have done. I have held my life together. I have paid the bills. I have kept promises that I made to him about places that I would go with or without him. I have managed to keep my job. I have dealt with almost all of the legal and financial matters. I am still running, setting and exceeding fitness goals and enjoying the fact that I am looking pretty damn good for 56. No leaping onto funeral pyres for me. I am woman; I am strong. I will survive.
This is not the life I wanted for myself, but it is not beyond the realm of my imagining. I can do this. I kicked the two day headache and woke up Thursday 15 minutes before my alarm, eagerly anticipating going out and running again. I ran a very brisk 3 miles before sunrise; it was 41 degrees but clear, calm and dry. I came home with ice-cold hands and did my post-run stretching indoors (I wish I’d gotten a picture of my cat Salsa, who put his forefeet on the wall and stretched with me). Then I went to work (I got on the phone and went to a meeting) and laughed my way through a crisis-filled morning on the remnants of a runner’s high.
I can do this.
I never got to say goodbye, but I had 25 years of absolutely wonderful hellos. It is “hello” that I am remembering and holding close tonight. And on the strength of that “hello” and accepting fully that I am worthy of “hello,” I am welcoming the rest of my life, whatever it is that is just beginning for me.