Category Archives: caregiving

A legacy that is still alive

MuesPicnicRecently my son Evan drove west to California for a new venture in his career. On the way, he stopped by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Approaching the park, the snow was two feet deep, he informed us. He arrived in time to see the sun setting.

Back home, my daughter made note on her social media account that she misses nature. That can happen for all of us. But Emily has made a point of immersing herself in concern for nature. She’s learned the plight of bees and butterflies, and captures her instinctual love for these creatures in amazing photographs.

Their mother Linda Cudworth would have been 59 years old today. She would have loved to hear the enthusiasm of her son Evan as he sat on the canyon rim going Live on Facebook as his many connections shared the moment.

She would also have been appreciative of the fact that her daughter embraces those bees and butterflies with such verve and purpose. We all learned monarch ranching from Linda Cudworth during the summer months. In the years since she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013, we’ve ranched a few monarchs of our own. One summer we released 50 of the insects back into the wild after raising them from eggs detected on the bottom of a milkweed leaf. They would eat their way through the caterpillar stage and emerge from a chrysalis into free-flying male or female butterflies. Symbolic, you might say, of so many transitions in life.

Tattoos 

My daughter has a tattoo of monarchs and bees on her shoulder. My son has a symbolic symbol of flowers on his chest. But the real legacy is the tattoo she impressed upon their hearts through her exceptional care as a mother.

In all those years of marriage, I observed her dedication to such things. She invited the neighbor kids over to catch bugs and to show them the secret faces of nodding spring wildflowers and summer lilies. Some of these beauties have been transplanted from the garden we started in Batavia two decades ago. I gathered up the lily bulbs and inserted their yellow and white forms into the soil behind the house now shared with my fiancee.

These symbolize the fact that life indeed goes on. My children and in-laws have shared many memories of Linda over the last four years. We keep that legacy alive. But I am also fortunate to have met a woman that is not threatened or jealous of that legacy. As a result, it never needs be denied.

Additional roles

I believe my children can feel that in their lives. I certainly hope they do. It has been difficult at times to know how much to insert myself into their lives. On one hand, it is important not to helicopter their thoughts or experiences. On the other hand, a father to children that have lost their mother has an additional role to play.

What we have all tried to do, and I include my wife-t0-be’s family in this, is honor the legacy of the life we’ve lived and find the honor of the legacy we’re creating together. This is the true cycle of life, where love is at the heart, and people gather around it to share in the hope and determination required to embrace this world.

The fact that my children are now drawing upon nature for inspiration is likewise an inspiration to me. It shows that those many walks in the forest preserves (or ‘forced preserves,’ as my son once thought we were saying) were for good reasons.

Ashes and prairies

Following my wife’s passing, my children and I took some of her ashes and distributed them in the heart of a massive prairie. The sun was setting and we all recalled how she loved the place for its open spaces and its prairie soul. I thought about those ashes as I biked through the prairie yesterday, and how strange it really is that we all come and go in our time.

That is reason enough to hold on to the legacies that matter in our lives. And to make new rejoicing in the fact that we are here, and alive, where the flicker of butterfly wings demand our attention yet so many people seem to deny their importance in favor of this virtual mess going on this world.

No fan of fools

I can say without hesitation that my late wife would have been disgusted by all that has transpired in the last four years. She was a keen fan of the former President, whom she simply called “Barack” with a touch of respect and love in her voice.

While she was a loving person, she did not suffer fools gladly. We all loved her biting sense of humor that emerged at often unexpected times. There was always a touch of leadership in such remarks. “Don’t be fooled by fools,” she’d often intimate. So you can imagine how disgusted she would have been at the election of Donald Trump as President. A part of me is honestly glad she does not have to abide the mortal offense.

Because her dedication to the needs of small children and the practicalities of public and private education were evident in her preschool teaching. I specifically recall her admiration for a mother from the Hindu faith that brought their child to the Christian preschool where she taught. “There are many paths to God,” the woman responded when asked if there were any concerns with the educational format.

Achieving

Likewise, my late wife’s training in special education revealed her deep concern for the humble and less fortunate in this world. Arrogance by principle she did not abide, nor false pride. She worked with high school students with learning disabilities that included profound degrees of autism. Yet she also guided one of her students through the challenges of high school to make it through college and earn a playing spot in the NBA.

Many a social evening were spent with our close friends who were also teachers. Few people outside the teaching profession can comprehend the many ways teachers go beyond their job descriptions to positively affect the lives of young people in public education. And while my late wife genuinely thought the athletic world a bit vain, she also volunteered to direct the Cheer Club at the high school.

False vanity

Her amused disregard for athletic vanity could have its humorous consequences. When I took up cycling, she made fun of my tight-fitting cycling “kits” and called me Lady Legs for the tradition of shaving my gams, as serious cyclists do. Heck, back when we were dating, and I held back from going out the night before a running race, she teased that I had Golden Leg Syndrome.

Yet I persisted in my pursuits despite this brand of teasing, because every couple uses the other for balance. It does not pay to be too co-dependent either. So we found our respective spaces in this life, and worked together to encourage that same self-confidence and hunger for growth in our children. I see that belief at work in them still, and pray that they can continue to find love in this world among people who support it. That is the legacy that is still alive.

 

Advertisements

One long breath

CrowdThere 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.

Me with folksAll 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.

Stew and OlgaNot 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.

Stew and Evan and EmilyThere 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 IMG_4900general 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 Stew and Evan and Emilyfashion. 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.
Stew and Olga.jpgEarlier 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.

 

Lost and found on the day after my father died

Stewart Cudworth, born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.
Stewart Cudworth, foreground. Born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.

As I climbed in the car this morning the song In My Life sung by John Lennon of the Beatles was playing on the radio. I’ve sung and played that song many times on guitar, and know the lyrics well. But never have they sounded so prescient as today.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

Yesterday my father died at 3:00 in the afternoon. The call came from the hospital, a kindly doctor trying to ease me into the knowledge that my father had passed away. He was beginning to go through the medical aspects of how my father had been cared for during the week, but I already knew the details. So I stopped the doctor and told him, “Your entire staff was wonderful. You gave my father an extra week or so to live, and all his sons got to come and be with him.”

In fact, my youngest brother had just visited that morning. He was in town by chance for a collegiate volleyball tournament with his daughter. He was quite close with my dad in many ways, perhaps the main son in the family that has dispensed wth any felt difficulties over time, and it was appropriate that he was the last son to visit.

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

My father was a passionately curious and often insistent man, willing to challenge our perceptions on any front. I recall the evening I stated that I’d seen some ducks on the river ice that day. “They were huddled together for warmth,” I said casually.

“How do you know they’re huddled for warmth?” my father asked.

To which I responded with some sort of angry retort. But that was my father. He wanted us to know the world did not accept everything we assumed we knew.

That was a lesson to be learned over and again. But the need to understand his thinking became a quality fo life issue when he had a stroke in 2002. That was when I first began assuming responsibility for his care. At first, it was my job to support my mother in her decisions about how dad should live. He moved through several care facilities with good and bad experiences before finally returning home with a live-in caregiver in 2004.

Then my mother passed away in 2005, and the direct opportunity to care for my dad presented itself. At first it was enormously difficult, because my father lost his ability to speak with his stroke. There were still seizures, and his body was compromised with loss of function on the right side. He could grow angry and frustrated at times, and my caregiving skills were put to the test in those circumstances.

All those changes and challenges are compounded when there are emotional patterns at work. The father-son relationship we had was transformed over the years as a result of the need to work together. I became adept at asking questions in sequential fashion to ascertain what he was thinking. This was an ironic rehearsal and reversal of the challenges he had long put to us growing up. All those probing questions were his teaching style, but too often we took that as an exasperation

But as we worked together our relationship softened somewhat. The same thing ultimately happened for my brothers as well. So while we’ve ostensibly lost our father to this life, in many respects we also found him again.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. It is a chronicle of cancer survivorship, and available on Amazon.com. 

The garden zen and now

While walking the dog this morning a neighbor on the block who is a Master Gardener and works in the trade for a living was out trimming dead daisy heads off the profusion of plants in her front plot. “Did you have many visitors during the Garden Walk?” I asked. Her home was featured in a July tour of local gardens.

“Yes, but now the weeds are back. And I don’t really care. Summer’s over, as far as I’m concerned.”

She means the real growing season. For August marks the beginning of the dying season, as gardens go.

Not true out on the local restored prairies, but home in the land of prized perennials and annuals, it is indeed a period of mourning and acceptance among those who tend gardens. The lilies? All bloomed and leaning low. The spiderwort? It was a banner year for them, but their seeds have all shed except for the lone strange plant that cropped up in the front garden. I harvested those and will save them for a new spot come spring.

Zen growth

My garden is not the most carefully tended thing in the world. Keeping ahead of the weeds proved impossible at many points. I only won out late in July when a window of time allowed me to hack and yank enough to create some shape and beauty.

This latent response was insufficient for those who visit the home and care about such things. My daughter lectured on the bumper crop of maple trees. My companion lamented that gardens need more regular tending.

I am intensely aware of all that. But in defense of my approach this first three years of tending the garden myself, this is still a learning period. The first year was like the luxuriousness of an inheritance. The work of my late wife was everywhere. That was bittersweet. Then came the second year and my installation of another water feature along with a large expanse of additional woodland garden. I mulched deep piles of leaves and buried them under soil. This combination has produced good fodder for growth and recycled much of what otherwise would have gone into paper garbage bags to wind up who knows where.

This year I dug a sweeping curve of soil and made a ridge in which to transplant a fine line of nodding choral bells. At least that’s what I call them.

So my progress as a gardener has been measured in experimentation. Refinement, as a result, has had to wait.

It has also taken time to learn to identify the desirable plants in their early stages of growth. I moved some phlox around early in the season on a hunch and the results have been spectacular. Same with some coneflowers and other plants that I now know by heart. Many of the plants I now recognize. The lilies and the iris. The bergamot and sunflowers. Joe pye “weed” and many others.

Back of the mind

But I must not claim to have a zen relationship as yet with my gardens. The south section took off with weeds and creeping charlie and lurks like a bad thought in the back of my mind. I got out to lay garden cloth one morning and it rained on me during the process. Then obligations took over and the job never got finished.

Such is the life of a gardener in the learning phase. Many projects have gotten done. A nice new brick layout borders my fountain water feature.

There is still a party to be held in August. There will be new mums sprouting in my garden before then. August may be the end of gardening season, but it does not need to be the end of gardening. There is a zen component to keeping on with what you have. The official end of summer does not come until September 20 or so. That’s still seven weeks away.

There are still questions to be answered for the garden zen and now. I have yet to achieve that desired peace of a gardener in full flow. But it’s coming. Maybe next year. Or the next. It is a relationship that is both sustaining and challenging at once. It is the act of caregiving that gives back to the caregiver. The feeling may be fleeting and ephemeral when it comes. But the notion that all is right is worth pursuing for a lifetime.

Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride. It is available in print form on Amazon.com. 

On the gains of dealing positively with loss

IMG_8031This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.

Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.

This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.

Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.

Here’s what it all this means.

I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.

Sharing burdens

How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.

At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”

Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.

Recovering from loss

There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.

Maple leaf in rainBut even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.

I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.

It is what it is

In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss

Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.

But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.

Identifying with hope

Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.

When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.

Miracles happen

We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.

So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.

Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.

The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com.

RightKindofPridecover

The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is the light that shines through.

In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.

That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.

I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”

It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.

The Comeback

That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.

It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.

Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.

All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.

Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.

Haunted memories

But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.

And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.

Know thyself

He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.

That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.

Symbols

In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.

I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.

My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.

He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.

The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.

Happy Birthday Dad

And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.

Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride available on Amazon.com.