One of my new work cohorts encouraged me to take an Enneagram test to see where my personality fits on the spectrum of such things. I signed up on Truity and paid $19.99 to get the full results. The outcomes were interesting, with all my best qualities and flaws laid out in black and white.
Somewhere late in the PDF, which is replete with graphs and charts about personality and life traits, I noticed a quote highlighted in the headline of this article. “True strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” I sat there a minute and thought: “That’s exactly what I meant by calling my book “The Right Kind of Pride.”
The Right Kind of Pride is precisely that: the consistent action of taking pride in the willingness and courage to be vulnerable.
As for that book, I’m pretty sure that some people are scared or uncomfortable about reading a book about cancer survivorship. But it’s not JUST about that. The eighty-plus blogs I compiled speak to the the value of authenticity in all situations.
Here’s the basic fact: All of us must be survivors of one kind or another. Plus, none of us gets out of this world alive. All I can say is that when it comes to getting through the tough things in life, vulnerability is truly powerful.
Over eight years of caregiving that was the principal way that I found hope and support.
Originally, I oversaw my mother’s journey through lymphoma and pancreatic cancer, followed by a stroke and finally hospice. Her passage left me in charge of caregiving for my father Stewart Cudworth, a stroke victim from 2002. I would remain his caregiver through his passing in 2015 at 89 years of age.
That all began in 2005, the same year that my wife was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer. Immediately I was graced by an offer of support from the preschool director and her team of teachers at the school where my late wife Linda taught. For the next eight years, those people and many others (thank God) were willing to help us through the ups and downs of cancer treatments, including surgeries and recovery, chemotherapy, prodigious drugs and side effects, and emotional challenges deeper than we’d ever imagined possible. We’d make it through one segment of treatment to remission only to have the cancer return. That progressed with rapidity like the sound of a ping-pong ball as it taps out from its original dropped height.
During all that time I blogged to our caregiving support group about the blessings and challenges we experienced, and things we learned along the way. Those blogs formed the bulk of the book I wrote titled The Right Kind of Pride. Then I wrote a prologue and epilogue, including A Goofball’s Guide to Grief. Because I am. A goofball.
But I also kept a personal journal for thoughts that were not ready for public consumption at the time. I’d actually forgotten about those words until recently when I opened up a thick journal given to me by my mother-in-law for my July birthday in 2012.
I’d been thrown out of work earlier that year by an employer who fired me the day after they learned my wife had cancer. So I was freelancing and trying to cover everything from COBRA insurance costs to the daily costs of living. Fortunately, I was able to find bits and pieces of work to tide us through, all while dealing with the difficult fact that Linda’s health was decreasing in quality. She started having seizures in the fall of 2012, and then we discovered a brain tumor that required surgery, radiation and steroids to treat, and after that, things got really tough.
At that point in February of 2013, I landed a new job and was trying to do my best at it. But the daily challenges of helping her through were significant. By February 11, it was even tough for her to get around. “Linda sleeping on the couch upstairs,” I wrote in the journal. “Chuck is on the Ottoman, leaning on my leg until a few minutes ago. Following me around all day. Linda improved a bit, for a while anyway. Big day tomorrow. Meeting Dr. Ferris and Dr. Dolan.”
We made it to the appointment with the medical oncologist Dr. Ferris. But things didn’t go all that well. She could barely stand to lie on the table, and the doctor pulled me aside and made a calm recommendation of palliative care going forward. I knew what that meant. And besides, Linda was too exhausted from gut swelling and fatigue to make the trip from Warrenville to Advocate Lutheran General to see the physician that treated her so well from the outset. I could barely get her home.
I wrote in the journal on February 14, Valentine’s Day 2013, “Well, my objective with this journal is to focus on constructive thoughts rather than destructive, which so many other journals in this house seem to have been. In a constructive fashion, therefore, it is still important, most important, to acknowledge that Linda Mues Cudworth––or Linda Ann––is in the process of dying. She has been a most wonderful wife all these 28 years, and wants to continue if only she could. But her cancer is catching up with our dreams of going places together and doing things. We had both promised to get to Glacier this year––together, if her health would allow it. Now it seems more likely she will be gone, the earthly part of her that I so love anyway. Our relationship has gotten richer these past 8 years. Richer than money and wealth combined. Our mutual failings and weaknesses have fallen away. She has told me that she loves me and I believe her now. I have told her that I love her and she knows it now. Our wedding vows have been fulfilled; for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
Reading those words again nine years after she passed away on March 26, 2013, gives me both sadness and satisfaction. We did the best we could all through those years. “Sunrises and sunsets still await,” I continued writing in the journal that February. “And spring as well. Hurts so much to know that she may not be with me. So soon. So sudden. Yet we have lived well together, the best we know how. I love you Linda. I always will. God Bless your kind and spirited heart. Forever.”
The promise of vulnerability
It would still be weeks before the end of her life came. But we opened our lives at that point, trying to bring our children and family, friends, and associates into the sphere of vulnerability. If you absorb nothing else from these words, please embrace the truth that “true strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” We lived that reality and I can promise you that while things don’t always happen or end how you’d like or expect, the courage to be vulnerable is one of the most valuable human traits of all. It expands all the good things that life has to give.
It’s fascinating to study yourself objectively through a test like Enneagram. It’s a valuable thing to learn what emotions and character traits drive you from within, and how that translates to life and relationships. And it’s the core of who we are that matters. Letting others see that in you can be a wonderfully empowering force in life.
Linda Cudworth passed away on March 26, 2013. While appreciating her life, I am grateful for the things life and love continues to bring.
The day after Christmas in 2012, my wife Linda and I were scheduled to meet with a neurologist at the Central Dupage Cancer Treatment Center. We managed to have Christmas together with her family that year even though her father passed away that winter. He’d had a heart attack while sawing up a giant oak in his own backyard, Following that incident, he developed dangerous swelling in his legs that ultimately led to kidney failure.
All that fall, we teetered back and forth between hope and reality for my father-n-law. He did kidney dialysis, and it seemed to work, but swelling kept coming back.
Meanwhile, Linda was experiencing an series of seizures. We thought they were a side effect from yet another set of chemotherapy treatments. In any case, it was scary stuff. We’d be out for a gentle walk and her body would start to tremor and shake, but she refused to give up her love of movement and being out in the sunshine.
A combined team of oncologists from Central-Dupage hospital and our longtime gynecological oncologist Dr. James Dolan conferred on her condition. Finally a test was ordered to check the condition of her brain. On December 26, we found out the disturbing news. The ovarian cancer that had afflicted her since 2005 had reached her brain.
“It’s not supposed to be able to breach the blood-brain border,” an oncologist told us. “But here we are.”
We sat together facing yet another shock on December 26, 2012.
It had been a long and difficult year. Back in March, I’d been fired from my job the day after the company learned that she had cancer. We’d kept her cancer a private matter when I started the job, but I finally had to tell them when it came roaring back late that winter. I knew that she’d require more attention with driving her to appointments, staying with her through chemotherapy and taking care of her in between treatments.
Granted, we had a wonderful caregiving team built up around us, but there are always some things that only the immediate family can handle, especially in a life-threatening situation. So I explained our situation in simple terms to the company where I worked, and they promised us support. That was on a Monday, but by Tuesday morning they came forward with an accusation that I’d breached company policy by posting an image of the work I’d done for a client on my personal website. When I walked into work that day, I came face to face the owner, an HR director and a lawyer equipped with all kinds of documents telling me that I’d somehow put the company’s reputation at risk.
No consideration was offered for the stress I might have been under, or how that situation might have affected my judgment. I was out the door and soon forced to pay $2000 a month in COBRA premiums to hang onto medical insurance. All because the owner was frightened that my wife’s condition might increase the company’s insurance premiums.
I appealed the case to the Unemployment system and was blown out of the water by the judge holding the teleconference. He introduced all the evidence the company presented and disallowed everything that I’d provided in relation to the case. I was railroaded, in other words, by a labor-sympathetic judge. Even my best friend, a labor law attorney, was disgusted by the outcome.
But rather than dwell in that space forever, I chose to reach out to that owner in subsequent years and we talked about all that had happened. Forgiveness took place.
But that didn’t help us in the near term.
That summer we struggled to make bills, and sat together praying one night that I’d find a freelance job to cover the $3500 we needed to make ends meet. That next morning an envelope arrived through our front door. It was stuffed with $3700. We hadn’t spoken to anyone about our situation. Other money from our church came our way as well. We hung on, kept her treatments going, but the cancer was relentless. By fall, a tumor was discovered next to her colon. If it could not be removed, the whole colon would need to come out. Then she’d need a colostomy operation. I admit that I was not looking forward to that outcome.
The gynecological oncologist did miracles in the surgery room and my selfish prayers were answered. And then, the day my wife got out of the hospital after surgery, we drove straight to the hospital where her father lay dying.
As if that had not been enough challenges to face in 2012, I was still recovering from a bike accident that happened earlier that fall. In September I was cycling in a rare weekend getaway with friends while my wife staye back home to spendtime with her family. During the ride, I was cruising down a long hill at 40 mph when a case of bike wobble set in. I crashed in dramatic fashion, flying off the bike and tumbling down and embankment where I lay in shock with a broken collar bone. My friends didn’t know where I’d gone. One of them was ahead of me by fifty yards and the other had not yet crested the hill when I crashed. So I got help from a band of other cyclists who called for an ambulance. I wound up in a tiny Wisconsin hospital in Dodgeville. They pumped me full of Vicodin until someone finally reached the wife of one of my friends. She’s a nurse, and she came to gather me up for the trip back to our campsite.
All that time, my wife was at her parent’s house having yet another seizure. My daughter begged her to go to the hospital, but in typical fashion, wife refused. When the call came that I’d been in a bad bike crash my daughter was in the center of all sorts of trauma. A dying grandfather, a mother shaking to death from cancer, and a father now injured badly after a bike accident.
The effects of trauma
We tend to take these traumas too much for granted in our lives, but they do have long-term effects. We grieve, but perhaps we do not fully process what’s gone on. We move out of that emotional space, but probably not all the way. We deal with what we can in the moment, but life has its demands. So we trundle on. Not fully healed, yet not terminally damaged. If we’re lucky.
During the late stages of my wife’s life, my son was working in New York City. He had to deal with all this strange news from afar. “Do I need to come home?” he asked. It was hard to tell him everything that was going on. It was even harder to figure out what expect of him. My wife said, “Tell Evan I’m fine. I don’t want him to worry.”
My daughter was finally off at college after two+ years of coursework at a community college. She was doing amazing things in her communications studies, even doing live spots on public radio that summer. Her mother was so proud and amazed. We’d sit close to my Mac listening to the live stream and she’d turn to me and go, “That’s Emily!?” Hearing our daughter work professionally on the radio was a welcome joy.
Dealing with the options
But the events of that year kept overwhelming us. And that brings us back to that moment in the cancer treatment center when we found out that my wife’s cancer had moved into her brain. “Here’s what we can do,” the neurologist told us. “We can go in through the top of the head and excise it. Then we’ll apply radiation.”
We sat there thinking about those options. My wife did not have to think long. “Yes,” she said with resolve. And she smiled, “I mean, why not?”
Why not, indeed. We’d been through multiple surgeries, countless rounds of chemotherapy and many times, we got back to some form of ‘new normal.’ But this felt different to me. I looked over at her and smiled. She gave a thumbs up sign when she was ready to go.
So we came back for the treatment. They didn’t even have to shave her head. She’d lost her hair several times over through treatments, and this time her hair had not come back at all. She stripped off her wig and they began the process of affixing a stabilizing unit to her skull. It consisted of a circular metal band with screws that would be used to hold her head completely still. She posed for a couple quick selfies using the Photo Booth application in my little black Mac Laptop, and off she went.
The treatment worked. They captured and killed the cancer in her brain. The seizures stopped. They gave her a steroid prescription to deal with the swelling caused by the surgery and radiation. From there it was off to the races. Those steroids turned her into a Survival Machine. Her personality became magnified. She cleaned and cooked and sat up writing lesson plans for the preschool classes she taught. But as the steroids added up in her system, her sense of judgment disappeared. She spent money we didn’t have. One night she researched a new car, and that next day, we drove to the Subaru dealership and bought it. I wasn’t sure if she was getting money from her parents or what, but I sensed that something final was happening, and decided to go with the flow.
The steroid effect
Toward the end of February, she could no longer handle teaching at the preschool she loved. Her spaciness increased, and it frankly put the children at risk. I collaborated with her director to ease her out of the position. That was absolutely necessary. Yet despite our efforts to be kind, something in her broke the day that she learned she could no longer teach.
Once the steroid prescription was eased, her body and mind fell slowly back to a normal state. That was when I knew that she would not live much longer. The stress and fatigue of eight years of cancer survivorhood wore her out. During one of our last visits with the oncologist before bringing her home for palliative care, she was too damned tired to even get off the treatment room table. I spoke quietly with the oncologist that day. She was kind. And honest. And earnest. “Take care of her,” she told me.
Linda Mues Cudworth passed away peacefully in our home in March of 2013. My son and daughter were together with me that night. It is both a blessing and a strange truth to be present when someone you love that much passes into eternity.
We’ve all gone through gyrations in the wake of her passing. My son suffered through depression and a period of addiction. He’s emerged with a will not just to survive, but to help others process their mental health in constructive ways.
My daughter was just coming into her own as a young woman when my wife passed way. In many ways, that left a void in her that is hard, if not impossible, to completely heal. Every year, she recognizes more of her mother in herself, and the pain of losing her mom keeps turning over. Those are legitimate feelings. I know other women that have lost their mothers. I wish at times they could all talk with my daughter.
As for me, I’m not sure that I fully processed all that happened that year, or perhaps the many years before. During my wife’s eight years of cancer survivorship, I was also the primary caregiver for my father after my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005. That was the same year that my wife Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
My father lived another four years after Linda died, and I did my best to take care of him. After my wife’s passing, I admit that what I wanted most was to be free of the constant pain and fear involved in caregiving. But there was still a job to do.
During the eight years of caring for her, I’d been on and off supportive medications such as Lorazepam to help me deal with the anxiety of caregiving. It did its trick as needed, but some of that stress sinks deep into your soul.
I recall trying to ride my bike with friends during that period. I’d be out on a fifty or sixty mile ride with them, but when it came time to ride hard or compete, as cyclists love to do, I often did not have the will to keep up. I’m pretty sure that what I experienced was an active sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not the kind that comes from being in a war, or witnessing a murder, but the kind that comes from not being able to deal with personal shocks over and over.
As a form of therapy, I started blogging to our caregiving group to communicate some of the feelings I had about the things we were going through. Much of that was quite positive, and I’m proud that we found ways to find blessings and hope in all that trauma. That’s the right kind of pride. This blog is an echo of all that.
But this year, when December 26 rolled around, I realized it’s been ten years since that strange day when we found out that the cancer had moved into her brain. Once we knew the cause of her seizures, it explained quite a bit about what was going on with her body
But it also brought on conflicted feelings in my mind. Should I hope for her to continue going through the stress and pain of cancer survivorship? At that point, I began to grieve in real time. I understood that I no longer wanted to see her go through the awful stuff. The sickness. The numb feet and hands. The fear. The trauma of surgeries. The loss of life quality. Giving up the things she loved to do. None of that is ever what I wanted for her. It certainly wasn’t what she wanted. Some part of me was relieved when the pain was over. Through faith and reason and love of life, I began to move on.
For these reasons, I got ahead of most of the people in my life by recognizing that she was not going to make it through the year in 2013. I didn’t know how long it would be before she died, but I knew for certain that it would happen. Even her doctors were astounded at the job she’d done for so long in staying alive.
That’s not the kind of news that people want to hear from the primary caregiver, so I kept it to myself. Perhaps that was a mistake of some sort. But my wife had plowed through so many obstacles during her years as a cancer survivor that none of us could imagine it coming to an end. She was so tough about staying alive it did not make sense to question her. She surely showed us all what it means to love life. She loved her children fiercely, almost to a fault at times.
So we didn’t make end-of-life elaborate plans. We were so occupied with keeping her alive that we never discussed what to do when she died. But earlier in life, we’d talked about cremation, so that’s what we did. Her ashes rest under a grave marker next to her father in the Lutheran cemetery in Addison where she grew up. That town was the place where she attended the church gradeschool, then moved on to Addision High School. She graduated Magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University.
We met in October of 1981 and she lived until March of 2013. In all, we had a great life together; full of family, friends and most of all, our children.
She also loved her garden so much that it’s hard to describe the satisfaction she got from her green craft. She’d sit in our LL Bean Adirondack chairs staring at her garden with a glass of wine, or a margarita, or one of her strong gin and tonics in her hand, and just enjoy.
Perhaps that’s why I moved on quickly from the trauma of her last year of life. That’s not how I wanted to remember her.
I chose to remember her cherishing the work she loved. She also told a close friend, the preschool director who served as our close caregiver for all those eight years, that she knew I’d date if she ever passed on. But that friend waited a full year to share that quiet bit of insight with me. I thanked her for waiting. We all need to make decisions on our own terms. I’m grateful to have had a wonderful life with my late wife.
I’m also enormously grateful to have found love again.
Life is often complicated, and even the people closest to you have a hard time understanding the reasoning or motives behind some of the decisions we make or the changes and impacts that come with them.
Ten years on from December 26, I hope that people gain from reading this and find ways to embrace life even in the face of trauma, and even if life turns out different from what they expected.
It’s indeed a strange thing to go from the traditional joys of a December 25th to facing moments when the world itself seems to shift underneath your feet. Sometimes the best thing to do is to keep those feet moving, to find traction in the things we do and love every day. And please, let’s forgive ourselves for wishing the world would just stand still now and then. Take some time. Look at your garden, whatever that means in your life. It is the work of your life.
See that iRobot® Roomba® coursing through our dining room? That’s a recent addition to our household, purchased by my wife to sweep up dog hair and detritus on the downstairs floors.
She named the Roomba Stacey. “I don’t know why,” she told me when I inquired about the name. “It just seems to fit.”
This is not a paid endorsement. The arrival of Stacey in our household is a direct result of my wife getting sick of looking at dog hair around the house.
My wife also loves a good bit of technology. She taught our musical friend Alexa to instruct Stacey to begin her morning rounds at 9:00 a.m. The sound of Stacey whizzing around bumping into walls is audible for an hour as we work in our respective home offices upstairs. Then Stacey rolls back to her dock to charge up for another day. That makes my wife so very happy.
That’s not the only tech my wife adores. She’s got a heart monitor for her many workouts as an Ironman Triathlete. She wears a sleep monitor strap to track the quality of her overnight rest. For everything else, we have Garmin tech to measure swims, runs and rides.
When we first met we kept the “L” word off the table for a year or so. She was coming off a divorce and I was a relatively recent widower. But the more time we spent together, the more commitment we felt. She even asked the point blank question: “Are you sure you don’t want to date someone else?” I said no. Then after a year or more, one or the other of us said the word “love.” From then on, we didn’t look back.
I’ll admit that it’s still a little hard to write about the L word in relation to my wife to this day. Having loved my first wife for twenty-eight years of marriage (and four years of dating before that) through the day that she died of ovarian cancer, there’s a touch of guilt associated with proclaiming love for this woman to whom I’m now married. But loving again has nothing to do with not having loved the person before her. If anything, it affirms the fact that love is real, and that I’m capable of it.
That’s the right kind of pride.
So I’ll say it again. I’m in love with Stacey’s mom. Here are some of the things I love about her.
We laugh together in the car quite often. To stoke our conversations, I’ll raise an idea about some doubtful topic on purpose that she inevitably swats down with a bit of joyful skepticism. “No…” she’ll intone when I gigglingly make an inane statement, “That’s not how that works.” Then we riff on the subject by making even more jokes about it. I love that in her.
I love her head to toe. She takes good care of herself and we have an affectionate relationship. I love giving her hugs and feeling the strength of her back and arms and the warmth of her arms around me. When I give her massages her leg muscles feel like broad ropes or sheaths. Over the last eight years, I’ve gotten to know her typically sore spots earned from workouts in swimming, riding and running.
She has a sudden smile that attracted me instantly on our first date. That smile is my reward for pleasing her or making her laugh. She often compliments me on finished projects when we’re working on around the house. Hearing her say, “Nice job, honey,” is one of most satisfying statements a man can hear.
We enjoy seeing aspects of the arts together. Exhibitions. Musicals and concerts. She knows music well and though she’s a bit younger than me, our musical tastes line up well. Except for certain artists. She’s not a fan of Todd Rundgren or Dan Fogelberg, for example, nor Rufus Wainwright. So I don’t tell Alexa to chime those up unless I want to tease her. Then I might tell Alexa to play Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” and give her an Ear Worm for the next day or so.
The dance of life
I like how she dances too. Her moves are both alluring and demure at the same time, and when she’s lost in the music, she doesn’t care much about whatever else is going on. “Dance like no one is watching,” is the popular phrase, and I follow her lead. Catching the shine of her eyes while we’re dancing makes my heart jump.
And I’ll also say that I’m ardently, physically attracted to her too. Even with all the images floating past our eyes in this digital day and age, it is the site of her that makes the sap within me rise. We lose ourselves in each other.
So while the song “I’m in love with Stacey’s mom” celebrates cross-generational lust through the naive notions of a young boy fixated on a friend’s mom, there are more ways than one to love a woman.
After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
For Valentine’s Day, my wife and I drove to her hometown of Roselle, Illinois to take a tour of the neighborhoods and village where she grew up. I’ve kidded her about it for years, but I genuinely wanted to learn more about her youth because we came together later in life and were married three years ago.
I’ve called the trip the “Suzie Tour” after the fact that she chose to be called by her middle name fairly early in life. We’re a few years apart in age, as I’m a bit older, but talking about our lives made me realize there are many commonalities in the way we grew up.
Thus it was fun to see her family home perched on what is now a shady street. Her neighborhood was new then, and the small model home used to the market the houses on that block once sat on the lot where her folks built their home. It now sits in the park nearby, purchased by the city from the developer to serve as a warming house for skaters in the wintertime.
We stood out in front of her former house to take a photo and share it with her sister Julie, her mom and brother Tim.
From there we toured the nearby park where she grew up and played. Our dog Lucy joined us on a snowy, mushy walk around the town pond where her brother once hauled out a giant catfish.
Walking to school
She recalled nice memories of walking to the elementary school about five blocks away from her home. We drove slowly past the school that is now repurposed as a center for special education. So many of those elementary schools built in the sixties have that same low-slung look. I could imagine her life back then, carrying books back and forth to class, meeting up with cherished friends and growing older by the year, hardly knowing what the future would hold someday.
Then we drove to the Middle School and High Schools. Sue related how she and a close friend would sometimes walk home two or three miles from high school on warm days. “And I bet you talked…” I smiled over at her. She was looking out the window from the passenger seat of the car. “Oh, yeah…” she said dreamily.
March of time
We cruised through the massive parking lot where the marching band practiced. The band was highly regarded, and there may have been some majorette time in there at one point. But the practice. Oh, the practice involved in marching band. That’s how memories always seem to be built. The hard work we put in at various stages of life, especially those formative years. It does eventually pay off. It is good to have pride in those experiences.
As we drove around and talked, she chuckled in recalling how she was kind of the nerdy one (the ‘brainiac’) while her sister was involved in both athletics and was a cheerleader, “The popular one…” she laughed with a degree of sisterly sarcasm. “We had our sister fights now and then,” she replied when I asked about the social dynamics of her relationship.
The highlight of the trip for me was tracing the route she used to ride on her bike from her house to the public pool. That’s where she grew up competing for the swim team, working as a guard and riding her bike back and forth on warm summer days. I asked her about the color of their guard suits and she said “Blue,” I could imagine her tan skin against that blue suit fading after all those hours in the summer sun. “I used to take on extra shifts when other guards went on vacation,” she mused. “Sometimes I’d be so out of it…”
And she swam. She’s still a great swimmer to this day. Her back muscles and shoulders are strong and well-developed.
Those pool memories had me recalling my own summer days at our local pool. I fell in love with a lifeguard or two as a child. Now I’m married to one. It’s funny how these years tend to wind together in the DNA of our lives.
And that’s why I wanted to go on the Suzie Tour with her.
10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog
The lessons we can learn from the simplest acts in life are often the most valuable of all. I’ve been walking our family dogs since 2007 and along the way have learned quite a few lessons applicable to life and business that can be learned from walking a dog.
Shit almost always happens. Like all great lessons in life, we often set our minds on the processes that we most enjoy (like the beauty of a nice day outside.. or that pending great business deal) while conveniently forgetting that expected and unexpected shit always happens along the way. Being present and ready for these eventualities is far better than getting out there with no poop bag and being forced to flick a stick or hide that shit under a leaf or snow. There’s a lesson there for business and life, for sure. Be ready for that shit.
Motivation comes from affirmation. Dogs pay a ton of attention to their surroundings, but typically like to lead by their nose. That means it is important to maintain their attention and confirm who is in charge all during a dog walk. It’s great to affirm the character of the dog and understand them, but a good owner learns to lead by communication and connection. The dogs like it better because they’re actually wired that way. There’s an element of truth to that with people too, because everyone works better when they are affirmed in their efforts.
Set expectations and give directions. Typically this involves instruction given to a dog (or dogs) before one ever goes outside. A simple “sit” or “stay” inside the door is the same thing as stating “Alright let’s bring this meeting to order.” Walking a dog is a meeting of minds. Teaching a dog how to walk with you takes practice and consistency. That doesn’t mean you need to control their every action, at first focuse on those that contribute to the greater goal of having “a good walk.” A dog tugging and pulling and wandering off-trail every twenty feet is not necessarily a happy animal. Nor is a dog left to fend for themselves in the presence of strange or unfamiliar dogs. Some will work it out, but they can also wind up being dominated or intimidate, setting the stage for future fears. Set expectations in all these situations and life will be better for everyone. “Is your dog good with other dogs?” is a polite and simple question to ask. And be smart about time: keep human meetings and dog walks under an hour. Honor expectations and be rewarded with loyalty.
Vary the routine. Dogs do love a bit of routine. But they also get bored if there is nothing new along the way to see or sniff. So whether you’re walking your dog, making dinner for a spouse or managing a department of eager employees, it always helps to vary the routine. Change it up. Make it fun. That includes the bedroom. Woof woof.
It costs money to feed a dog right. The shelves at your local pet store are filled with row upon row of dog food bags and cans. All claim to be best for your dog’s health. But one must remember that much of what is available in both human food and dog chow is often manufactured from the lowest possible quality of available ingredients (such as sugar or carbs) while runing light on real food including genuine protein or vegetables. Ironically, it can be cheaper and better for you to shop the “perimeter” of a grocery store where food is loose and real rather than purchased prefabricated and sold in boxes, cans or other marketing tools that only raise the cost. A dog’s life can be better on a raw diet just like us. And when it comes to the rest of life, these principles hold true when buying products or creating services to sell to your customers. Authenticity is the name of the game, these days. And healthier for everyone. That’s as true for the information we consume as the food that we eat. Best to check it’s real before gobbling it up.
Have a plan and communicate it. When you buy a puppy (especially a stray or rescue dog, which you should) you can never quite tell what their prior experiences in life have been. Some arrive with fears and baggage from mistreatment, But just like people, these tendencies can often be healed through communication, kindness and loving direction to build trust. Knowing how to do this can require the help of a dog trainer. That dynamic is just ike a human resources department brining in objective, outside help in the form of specialists to talk about sexual harassment or other critical management policies. In every case it matters that we use consistent, clear language and develop a plan that everyone understands so that both the dogs in our life and our fellow associates know the importance of respecting the plan.
Know your limits. Sometimes it is tough to handle all the things that raising dogs or managing associates can throw at us in a day. Thus it is important to know when to “back off” and calibrate our own emotional stability before proceeding to the next steps. With a dog, it can be enormously helpful to crate train them because animals need time to regain a sense of control in their own space. On the human front, many companies now realize that granting associates the right to govern their time or engage in recreation actually brings them back with fresh attitudes. The byproduct of this approach is that it gives managers and executives a reasonable respite from constant demands, and they need time to recreate as well. That’s a wise way to go about the whole program. Productivity can actually increase by giving people license to expand their minds and relieve stress. it’s all about knowing your limits and respecting those of the people (and the dogs) with whom you work.
Embrace the cause. Walking your dog is an important tool for their health and wellness. It balances their body and minds because many breeds retain instincts to move and hunt and play. Embracing this as the “cause” for the walk really can put you in tune with the dog you love. It can open your eyes to their world. And while sniffing out dead frogs in the grass seems gross from a human perspective, to a dog that activity is like finding a cold, unclaimed Snickers bar in the back of the company fridge after moving the ice that’s been sitting there four months. We all love surprises. Embrace the cause of joy no matter how simple it can be. And nothing beats a truly cold Snickers.
Get out more. Taking your dog new places is an exercise in collaboration. Helping your dog meet new people or other dogs is a great way to socialize them and improve their ability to handle diverse circumstances. Bringing your dog to a local coffee shop will often produce many interesting encounters as people ask if they can pet your animal. If that’s in your dog’s nature, it can open up all-new human connections as well. Recently I encountered two obviously homeless men sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop. Both lit up with joy at the sight of our dog’s wagging tail and happy expression. She did not judge the men by their appearance, nor did they object to her over-exuberant and somewhat nippy greeting. So get out more. It’s a compassionate thing to do for you, your dog and for other people in this world. It’s also good for your soul at work or in life to go out for lunch with friends or even all alone and keep an open mind to talking with others.
Forgive your dog and forgive yourself. No animals acts perfectly all the time. While we try to raise “perfect pets” that mind our every command. But occasionally they’ll still pee on the neighbor’s lawn when you’re not looking or threaten to run after a rabbit of squirrel. Our pets can be a bit ADHD at times, drawn to distractions or possessed by their instincts. First and foremost, you need to learn to forgive them. And in the process, you’ll learn to forgive yourself for not raising a perfect pet. There’s especially no reason to be cruel to animals as a means to assuage any inner guilt or disturbance in your emotional matrix. It is clear from all the abandoned or abused pets in this world that too many people take out their aggressions on innocent animals because they have not found healthy ways to deal with their own inner torments. If you have these instincts and can’t find ways to be patient with you dog, then human relationships are not going to be any easier to manage. The same goes for projecting prejudice or fears on certain breeds of dog, or for that matter. That brand of prejudice parallels resistance to human cultures or races of people different from our own. Until people learn how to overcome these fears or prejudices, the world becomes a battle for control that never ends. Thus it is important to learn to forgive yourself, how to manage internal conflicts and how to change your ways and attitudes. Your pet and the people around you in this world will no doubt return the favor with kind appreciation.
During eight years of cancer caregiving for my late wife Linda, who passed away six years ago this day on March 26, 2013, I grew to understand many things about other people. How some have such a heart for others. How giving they could be. How friends willingly took on chores too difficult to imagine. All of it done without judgment. These things came true in our lives.
There were also mysteries that were beyond explanation and should remain that way. During one period of time when I was out of work to take care of her needs, we sat together at our dining room table and added up the money needed to cover our bills. We’d already paid the $2000 COBRA monthly premium for health insurance. That was absolutely vital or we’d be broke in a minute from a running list of medical bills that came our way. These included chemotherapy treatments and surgeries that cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the days before the Affordable Care Act and protection from pre-existing conditions, clinging to your health care was a life or death matter.
Somehow we made it week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year. But sometimes we just turned to prayer for help. So it was that we determined the need for $3500 to cover the rest of our bills. During periods when I had to be out of work to take care of her, I’d hustle up freelance work to cover our bills and more.
But it was stressful. Sometimes we’d be pressed financially, and it was on one of those nights that we added up the bills, said our prayer and got her into bed to rest.
The next morning I came out to the kitchen to make her oatmeal and heard the front door mail slot creak open and shut. Whatever fell through the door made a solid thump on the floor. I walked out to check on the delivery because people were often bringing us food and other requests made through our caregiving website.
This package was different. The envelope was thick and bulging. I picked it up and opened the tab. Inside was a wad of money. $3700 worth.
I broke into quiet tears and stood there looking out the door. Whoever dropped off that envelope and collected that money was already gone. To this day I have inklings about who might have gathered that cash but in many respects prefer to leave it as a mystery. That’s what the folks who gave us the money apparently wanted. We used it wisely and gave a prayer of gratitude in response.
Yes, it’s been six years since my late wife passed away. But the kindness and grace of others that sustained us has never left my mind. I know it never left her mind either. In so many ways the support of others kept her alive during all those years in and out of remission after her initial diagnosis. We drew on that support for strength and hope during periods of both sickness and health. Our children felt that support, and in the ensuing years that remains an important part of our collective grieving process. Last year we held a memorial gathering in her honor. Rightfully so.
She and I met in 1981 and were married for twenty-eight years. Yet in many ways, we were also married to the world around us. It was that bond of vulnerability and hope that drew on the strength of others and became our main source of pride. The Right Kind of Pride.
There are tons of things that I thought I’d be in life. Being a widow is not one of them.
When I was a kid I had dreams of being a pro athlete. Then in college, I dreamed of becoming a college All-American in running, and that happened on a team basis.
Then I went on in life, becoming a writer, an artist, an environmentalist and a liberal Christian. Some of these things have earned me friends. In other cases, enemies. It’s only proof that there are some things we seek in life, while others come our way no matter what.
And yet, becoming a widow was not one of the things I ever imagined happening.
Not so early in life, anyway. Three years ago this March my wife passed away after eight years of chemotherapy, surgeries and side effects resulting from all those cancer treatments. Cancer finally migrated to her brain, for God’s Sake. That was December 26, 2012. She submitted to brain surgery and radiation, but the tale was already written. Bravely she stood before mortality and only briefly did she admit that might not work. Three months after that numbing, post-Christmas diagnosis, she passed away in her own home in the company of her two children and husband.
Thanks to her strength, we enjoyed eight years of survivorship together. However, I must admit that the first day we learned my wife had ovarian cancer was the day that I began imagining life without her. There is no way not to think about that. I remember crying in my car, sobbing after hanging up the phone, wondering if I’d have her a month, a year or a lifetime. The answer was: “All of the above.”
With each successive, concussive treatment for cancer, that reminder or her challenges got a bit stronger. As time went by, the cancer came back repeatedly. It was like a ping-pong ball bouncing on the table., Rap….Rap….Rap..Rap..Rap.RapRapRapRapRap…until it became evident we were not going to kick this thing.
So truth be told, my brain began to recognize that I would be a widow well before she ever died. That’s an unfair advantage in grieving compared to those on the outside the widow sphere.
However my active role and belief were different than that. We maintained hope despite this developing realization that the cancer was so persistent. After all, who was I to determine the length or outcome of her determination? Miracles do happen. Miracles did happen. Multiple times over. We were grateful for that.
What you lose when a spouse dies is a big component of your personal history. A simple act like putting ornaments on the Christmas tree is not the same when the person with whom you’ve spent 25+ years is not there to corroborate their origin. You hang those ornaments with echoes of conversations past. Yet you live in the present. There is no escaping that.
So you carry on as a widow, because that’s what widows do. Initially that feeling of separation occurs on many fronts. You want to honor the memory of your loved one; parent, spouse, child or friend, and there are so many reminders in the first year or two of grief. Anniversaries and events. You especially want to respect and protect those memories for your own children, whose own unique and shared qualities are an extension of that life.
It’s as if there are Christmas ornaments hanging in every conversation you have with them. Sometimes they shimmer in the light. Some are fragile. Others are transparent. They bring laughter and joy.
It was not long after my wife passed away that I met a woman with whom I have forged a significant relationship. This was perhaps initially painful for the people in my life. My friends were immediately supportive, knowing that I enjoyed her company and we were both helping ourselves to new experiences. Yet, it was tough for people used to seeing me in the company of my wife of 28 years. These included my own children I’m sure, and my in-laws and family. They could not help be upset by the change.
Yet I know myself well, and at one point a year into my new relationship, my wife’s best friend, and former preschool director, turned to me at dinner one evening and said, “Did I ever tell you that Linda said she knew… that you would date if she passed away?”
That was like a Christmas ornament of its own. It was something my late wife never said to me. That was not really her style. But it meant quite a bit to hear it from so close a friend.
As I’ve taken Christmas ornaments off the tree this year and put them away as carefully as possible, it has become obvious that there is a dynamic at work in all our lives. We’re all widows in some sense. Memories are often attached to things, and things are attached to experiences. We lose grandparents and parents and people we love. We end marriages or relationships in love and work. Along the way we try not to misplace, damage or otherwise abuse the better ornaments of their memories. But it’s tough to do.
On a broader scale, being a widow is also like being an architect. You build these experiences in your life. That’s where your memories reside. But you must learn that it is not necessary to knock down one building to create another, nor should you.
After all, we don’t often live in the same houses all our lives. Yet we keep the memories of those homes in our minds, or feel them in dreams, our imaginations and ourselves. Because that’s the real place where we live. It’s a process of grieving the past while embracing the future.
We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.
Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.
And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.
Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.
And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.
All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.
Shred of guilt
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.
None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.
Before my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.
Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.
The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.
This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.
That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?
Bad dreams and divorce
The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.
It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.
Dealing with loss
In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.
Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.
Sharing burdens and friends
Also, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done, is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values. And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.
We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.
Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”
Protection and risk
That is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.
We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.
Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.
And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”
That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.
We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.
That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.
We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.
There were more than 2000 people milling around the start line of the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in our hometown. My racing instincts from long ago sent me out to a quiet street for a one-mile warmup jog. It had already been an eventful week getting my house ready to host 12 people for Thanksgiving. I was looking for a place, I suppose, to take a deep, long breath before doing the race.
Perhaps my mind was trying to take in a bit too much information at that moment. We had scheduled a Memorial Service for my father Stewart the night before Thanksgiving so that family could visit and join in celebrating my father’s life and grieve his passing.
All those years of caregiving for him were not quite over. There were still financial issues to manage, and the sale of his home to discuss. All that functions like a practical soliloquy that must be sung in order to gain closure.
But the emotional bank accounts remain open forever, and it is best to invest some time sharing memories with others, and learning how they view the life that has passed on. This is particularly true for a parent, as not everyone has the same perspective on what they mean, and how they should be honored.
As principal caregiver, my role kept me close to my father all those years after his stroke in 2002. He lived a full decade after my mother pass away in 2005. My job had been support for her initially, which quickly transitioned to full caregiver after her survivorship with lymphoma and pancreatic cancer came to a quick close in November 2005. That meant a full-time caregiver was necessary to join Stew in the home.
Not knowing what to expect after those quick changes, it struck me one day while walking into the home of my father that there were no real rules to this game. I was in charge of his life in consultation with my brothers. That meant there were always bills to pay and issues to discuss about his health and needs.
Sometimes that made it difficult to address much else in life. Stewart was not fond of making small talk when there were things bothering him. That list and how to address it could take quite a long time during my visits two or three times a week. He’d lost his ability to speech due to the stroke, which meant that we had to engage in a series of yes or no questions to ascertain his concerns. Early in the stroke recovery he’d quickly grow frustrated. His emotions were also hair-trigger thin at times, setting him off on a session of arm waving and barking “NO NO NO!” whenever I failed to get the questions right.
There were many times I’d try to push the conversation toward something more pleasant such as memories of his that he might like to share. That was a tough gig too, because we could easily stall if I did not guess the name of the person involved in the story he wanted to relate. Even before his stroke we all had problems not knowing all the friends and family he thought we should know.
“Dad,” my brothers and I would say, “I never knew that person…” we’d reply, and he’d get frustrated and demand, “Yes you do!”
But we seldom really knew them. My father was a highly social man and had many acquaintances from golf and bowling and work and life in general that we, his sons, had never actually met. Or if we had, we did not remember them. Which was worse?
That meant it was a work in progress over the years moderating discussions with my father. It hurt me to hear that my brothers were frustrated with their visits. Stew would store up a memory bank full of things he wanted to share and try to communicate it all in one grand session rather than being patient and happy with a few satisfying stories.
There was a whole lot of life lost after my father had his stroke. He’d share photos and get bits of information out, often in beautifully abstract fashion. But my dad always was an impatient man in some respects, and one could go there with the best intentions to have a nice talk and come home hurt by the exchange.
His caregivers had the same problems. But we ultimately made it work for thirteen years. He lived in his own home until the very week he died. All three of his other sons made it for a visit by circumstance, and my father passed away on a Saturday afternoon.
All this was coursing through my head as I warmed up for the race. It felt like I’d been inhaling and dealing with the stress of trying to please him for so long. Now it was over, for the most part.
We held a nice memorial service with both laughter and tears.
And on Thursday morning I jogged up the quiet street away from the crowds. The air was clammy and grey. I felt tired and slow. And as I reached a spot near the river I stopped in my own tracks and began to cry. Tears fell down on the wet sidewalk and I told my father that I loved him.
Earlier I sat in McDonalds before warming up. My cell phone had some photos sent to me by my daughter and son the night before. They were photos of my father holding each of them in his arms. Truly, those images felt like yesterday. I felt sad at the time that had passed yet thankful for those memories. He was a wonderful grandparent and a good dad.
That’s about all you can say. The rest is part of one long breath we take throughout this life. It seems we’re always holding our breath for what comes next. Which is why I encourage you to let out a little air. Breathe out and let the air come back into your soul a bit. Breathe in the essence and reality of the people around you. Because they want your attention. They love you. The demands of life can wait. They seriously can.
Then take one long breath and smile. It’s worth it.