I am chagrined to realize that the last post I wrote in this blog was a year ago. On that front, I can simply state that my energies went into completing a book now published. It is titled Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs A Reality Check and How to Make It Happen. If you want to keep up with that project and how it relates to the world we live in today, you can find me on TikTok as @genesisfix.
Today, on this blog, I have a testimonial to write. It has been ten full years on March 26, 2013, since my late wife Linda Cudworth passed away after eight years of ovarian cancer survivorship. She’s the reason I wrote the book The Right Kind of Pride, A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. The book talks positively about vulnerability, the aspect of character enabling people to be honest about their circumstances and trusting that other people will understand.
The actual definition of vulnerability is somewhat harsher than my description above. Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Perhaps that’s why people shy away from the idea of being vulnerable at all. Fearing attack for showing their true selves, they feel safer keeping their distance or even letting a sign of supposed weakness show at all.
For us, I can testify that showing weakness turned out to be a sign of strength. We were blessed by the support of so many people that at times the help almost overflowed. That’s not bragging. That’s an expression of gratitude. Without the help of others through years of cancer treatments, chemotherapy, surgeries, medical challenges + emergencies, emotional breakdowns, loss of work, financial stress, and finally, a move into palliative care and hospice, those eight years would have been hard to endure. My brothers helped. Our friends helped. Even strangers helped. In some cases those people became friends. In others, they were practical angels when needed most. All were appreciated.
We made it through to enjoy periods of remission where things sort of felt normal. She got to attend school plays and concerts, see her kids graduate from high school and watch one of them graduate from college. She only missed seeing her daughter “walk” during college graduation by a few months.
So this isn’t a complaint or a “woe is us” moment. This tenth anniversary of her passing is a statement of respect and love. She lived as fully as anyone that I ever met. In fact, her example resonates to this day with all that knew her. I still get messages from people whose gardens still blossom with the plants she divided and gave them over the years. I also meet the parents of the former preschool students that she taught. They recall her kindness and loving nature with fond hearts and gratitude. Those were her two loves outside God and family. Her garden and her “kids” were always close to her heart.
She loved so many things that I used to kid her that I was glad to be ranked in her “Top Ten” any given week. She’d laugh a bit because we kidded each other often. But Linda was also known to have a biting sense of humor on many occasions. Despite her sweetness, there was a sharp intellect and cutting sense of humor inside her. She used it mostly with those she loved the most, creating inside jokes that made potentially dull moments more interesting. She’d also tease our kids sometimes, but mostly she found ways to praise them.
She looked for ways to bring unity to many situations. During a family reunion up north in Minnesota, she wryly nicknamed the handsome young (often shirtless) dock attendant Mr. Boat. That was his job, fetching fishing boats moored away from shore, and whenever one of us wanted to go fishing she’d chirp, “Better call Mr. Boat!” Her powers of observation were that way about many things in life. She chose her favorite shows based on a high standard captured in the phrase, “This is interesting,” which was not given out to just any old show. Usually, that meant the show was either refined or educational. She also loved historical dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs the series Downton Abbey, and nature shows narrated by Richard Attenborough.
And yet, she loved the silly stuff too, as with shows such as 30 Rock, where an episode could send her into fits of giggles if the absurdity caught up with her.
Nothing captured her imagination quite like gardening, however. She’d pore through catalogs seeking the best new plants, especially specimens few other gardens had. A walk through a typical garden center with her elicited winces and looks askance at the colorful yet commonplace pansies or petunias. Her garden pots as a result were works of genuine, living art. And once during my participation in an Artists In Action event in downtown Geneva, Illinois, her dried plant arrangements outsold my artwork by a far margin. I didn’t hear the end of that for quite sometime.
I loved her for all these reasons. Yet I also knew that once the cancer diagnosis hit, it would be tough for her to live it out beyond a certain number of years. Had I not chased her to the gynecologist that spring of 2013, she might not have lived even a year beyond whenever it showed up at last. But getting checked out saved her life in many respects. It took aggressive surgery and chemo treatments to knock back cancer, but she/we did it time and again. She was tough as nails so many times. Even her doctor, a highly respected gynecological oncologist with many years of practice told her, “I don’t think I could do what you’re doing.”
That was her will to live at work. Obviously, I was her closest admirer, but there were many whose involvement in our lives proved vital to her survival. But by early March of 2013, when the medical oncologist saw that she could not rise from the examination table on her own, I was pulled aside to learn that it was time to prepare for the end. That’s when I really knew. It was time to say goodbye.
In truth, and I don’t say this with shame, I’d been preparing myself for many years before she passed. This is called anticipatory grief. It takes place when you see parts of someone you love being taken away. People dealing with situations in which loved ones or friends aresuffering from diseases such as dementia or Parkinson’s know the process too well. Bearing witness to the disappearance of that person you knew is painful. Indeed, my freshman-year roommate and running teammate Keith from Luther College was diagnosed with Parkinson’s not long after losing his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. He dealt with its effects for more than a decade, including slowed speech and movement limitations. Yet he kept his wry sense of humor. Yet what a strange thing to have to happen in life. Those two 18-year-old kids that roomed together as cross-country teammates at Luther College could never know that both of our wives would battle the same disease.
Keith and his wife Kristi had been together since they were high schoolers. She and my late wife had quiet conversations about their respective cancer journeys whenever we were all together at college reunions or other events. Recently, one of his daughters sent me a Luther College Bear made from some of his tee shirts. We keep each other company in spirit.
I wrote a poem about the anticipatory grief experienced in preparing for Linda’s passing. That’s the only way I could put all the thoughts together. I’ll place that poem here for your consideration. Perhaps you’re experiencing a change in your life that brings grief about in some way. I hope you know that you’re not alone. And if you feel moved to do so, you can share your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve communicated with many people over these years. Sometimes it helps a bit to share.
At four o’clock a.m., she woke me from sleep
and shook a sheet of paper calling out, “I found the car!”
She’d been up for an hour researching new Subarus
on the Internet and that fact alone was shocking
because she despised almost everything
about technology and how it seemingly ruled our lives.
She dug into the website of Gerald Subaru to look through the selection of Outbacks and found the bronzy brown color she desired and printed out the sale sheet with all the stats so that we could go that day and buy the car.
Already we’d experienced the side effects of steroids
from the cancer that passed through the blood-brain
barrier even though it is never supposed to do that.
On December 26 we met with the neurologist
who explained the procedure he proposed
in fine detail, with the clamp on the head
for excision and radiation followed by
a prescription of steroids to stop the swelling.
Her personality grew my increments as the drugs
did their job, reducing inhibitions dramatically
as she spent money we did not have and looked up
cars that we probably should not buy
because I was taking time out of work
to care for her needs.
Fortunately, my credit rating was so high up on the charts
that the car dealership didn’t ask too many questions
and we drove the new vehicle off the lot
with that strange sense of hope enhanced
by that new car smell.
She would get to ride in that car just three more times
as the steroids wore off and her body slowed down
unable to keep up with the rolling effects of ascites
and everything else that goes with ovarian cancer.
It had been years since her first diagnosis
in late spring when my mother also learned
that she was fighting a different kind of cancer
and my father was tied down with the effects
of a life-changing stroke.
Upon hearing these bits of news, a longtime coach
and friend called on the phone with encouragement
saying, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
All that run training, patience, and perseverance learned in athletics
was called upon in caregiving for years to come.
There were late nights sitting in hospitals waiting
for surgeries to finish, and days spent perched
on partly comfortable chairs waiting for her body
to recover with some sign of digestive activity
usually indicated by a loud fart of some sort
at which the nurses often cheered.
We found humor where we could and between
repeated rounds of chemotherapy there were periods
of remission in which she could return to gardening
her primary love in life along with God and family.
My job was supporting these efforts no matter which direction
they tended to move, and without the help of so many
there were times when I might have frozen in place
lacking hope where there should be some despite all the worries.
The prayers piled up as high as they could go
and people even laid hands on her in a religious attempt
at ridding her body of disease, but she hated it,
the ceremony I mean, because it felt to her
like testing God, or what we knew of such things.
Her main goal was to be free of cancer somehow
and did not like being the center of so much attention
or the need to get so sick that life itself felt like a cruel prank
in the face of nausea, neuropathy, and skin peeling
from her hands as she was gardening.
Eventually, her hair was all gone and never came back
while the veins in her arms were so tired from injections
that the nurses had to warm and slap the skin
just to find an entry point for the medicine
or whatever one might try to call the poison
that cancer treatment so often requires.
The wigs she chose evolved from modest
to a bit wilder as she said “Fuck it!
I’m going to look like I want to look with the time that I have.”
Yet she was never negative, only resolute.
For exercise, she wanted a bike because walking
numbed her feet so we picked up a matte green
Trek and she went pedaling on the Great Western Trail
while I rode along behind because I did not want
to pressure her to go too fast. That was how we proceeded
in many things, because I wanted her to last.
She let it all out that day with a burst of speed, clinging to the wig
on top of her head as the tires rolled on crushed limestone
taking her away from the feeling that life was limited.
I rode along behind feeling the breeze of anticipatory grief across my face.
In some way she knew what was coming as well,
and that Subaru was a last grasp at life itself.
A week later she could hardly get off the examination table
And by early March of 2013, when the medical oncologist
pulled me aside, there was true empathy in her recommendation
that we go to palliative care.
In many respects, I’d been there for years
because the woman I’d known, or the person she wanted to be
had been slowly stripped away by cancer’s rigors
and all that it represents. That means letting parts of yourself go
because there is no other choice.
She gave up calling me by the nickname “Lover”
and used the name Chris whenever we talked.
During those last weeks, I sat by her bed
asking forgiveness for whatever ways I might have failed her
if that was the case. In response, she turned to me and said,
“Oh, Chris, I’m sorry about all the stuff.”
She referred to all the keepsakes and everything kept in boxes
throughout the house from basement closets
to kitchen cabinets, and while she was no hoarder
I found more than thirty baskets in different styles
along with some money kept in quiet boxes
as a stash for new garden supplies.
Never did I begrudge her a dime spent on her love because
she’d sit outside facing her garden with a gin and tonic
admiring her work as the sprinklers graced the lilies
with moisture and the bergamot shared its wild bee scents
on summer evenings. Bats flew overhead and an occasional
nighthawk with its odd reaching up to a partial moon
as evening fell.
These things sustained her determination,
as she didn’t quit living even to the day she died.
We had to move her from the back bedroom
to a living room medical bed
and the EMTs rolled her through the house
on a computer chair in an act of inelegant
practicality. When she was settled back in bed
She looked up at me with a laugh and said
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer.”
As the medical team went about its work that day
It was advice from her gynecological oncologist
that stayed with me. “This is coming to a close,”
he advised, “There’s nothing to be gained
in being negative. So be positive. Lie if you have to.”
Those are the mercies of reality
because let us not fool ourselves with false positives
or true negatives. Instead, reckon with the truth
in each our own way. Years before, I’d ushered her
through an emotional breakdown brought on
by the fact that the cancer was back.
That truth was far too hard to condense
and much harder to swallow and I lost my wife
for a while to wherever the mind goes
when it can’t take it anymore.
A close friend and nurse then told me
“She’s going to need you now more than ever,
as her entire affect is off, and she’s afraid
of everything but you.” That was true,
so we held hands everywhere we went
until the shock finally wore off
and we invited short visits from trusted quiet friends,
those women she loved that could comfort her soul.
We never knew how cancer took hold, the disease
perhaps emanating from baby powder or talcum
as the legal advertisements later implied,
yet far too late for a cure, or recompense.
There is no room for second-guessing the past
when the future bears down on you from behind
and the difficult part about dealing with death
is how to handle it with children still facing most of their lives.
Surely, I did not handle that perfectly well
because anticipatory grief is an advance
salve for the soul before it all comes to pass.
That is also why on the week that she died,
I attended a Good Friday service and my brother told me,
“Dude, you’re walking straight into the pain.”
At the service, an interim pastor greeted me
with a tear in his eye and said, “It’s good that you’re here.”
Who knows the proper way to handle
the passing of a spouse of twenty-eight years
and four years of dating before that?
The immediacy of life’s endings all depend
on practical facts such as when
the afternoon nurse gives way to the night nurse,
and things seem to be winding down.
I recall her presence well, a slight woman with deep dark skin
and an even deeper appreciation of all that was about to transpire.
She stepped in the door and greeted me with something different
than a smile, but not sad, instead taking a long look across the room
at the woman in the home hospice bed breathing deeply.
Then she moved into the kitchen to prepare for the evening.
My son and daughter and I remained in the living room
with their mother and my wife for hours as her breathing grew heavy
and finally the night nurse came into the room and gestured to us
to gather at the bed, each family member holding a hand
or gracing her face with a kiss. Then it grew quiet
because there was nothing more to say.
I glanced at both my children, as each had come
from different places, one in New York and the other
from college to be back with their mother
who’d survived eight hard years to see them
grow into adults, or at least part of the way.
Then the arrangements began and we knew not what to do
but retreat from the finality of her last presence
as the funeral people took over for the transition to ashes
as were her wishes, but not her hopes.
That night the three of us could not bear to be apart
so we joined as children to watch the movie “Wreck It Ralph”
and its playfully destructive theme seemed just right
to distract us from the woes of loss and pain
and numbness, a heartfelt stain that does not always go away.
Our family was always able to talk
But never so amusingly as the day
that I dragged them all to therapy
when the news first hit
that Linda would be fighting cancer
and I wanted us all to be on the same page
in holding our bonds together.
They all participated patiently yet after the session
my son turned to us and said “I could have done all that.”
He proceeded to describe all of us in terms of personality
and how we got along and then he said some words
that I vowed to respect when he advised,
“Dad, just tell us the truth.”
That is what we all tried to abide during all those years,
allowing concessions for caution when the news
was not clear or the prognosis was still being determined
and only then could we be truthful enough
to offer direction, a parent’s prerogative.
These words are begging forgiveness for my own vain need
to tell all these stories as the means to process
what so many others go through in so many different ways.
I only hope they aid some others familiar
with these transitions in life.
I will also confess to needing affirmation on many fronts,
even going so far as self-aggrandizement on more than one occasion.
Also noted are mistakes made during all that caregiving
and one stands out in my mind, the day that she
needed to choke down the most awful liquids
in advance of a barium treatment test
and I grew impatient with her knowing
that her chemo regimen made even good food taste bad.
Yet I still stepped out on the back porch to chide her
with a call to just get it done. Her eyes flashed
and she raised two middle fingers with just two words
that to go along with that gesture,
and I deserved that.
The real object of her fury was the disease itself,
because it was the cause of all that trouble
and deserved to be told to go away
in the harshest of terms.
As they say, we “lost a good one” on March 26, 2013,
and yet there was one more moment of mysterious reckoning
when a friend of my daughter stayed over one night
as night as a gesture of support in the week following
her mother’s death.
The young woman lay on our couch with her feet facing
the spot where my wife’s head had been positioned
in the medical bed, when a set of three orbs of light,
one green, one white, one red, appeared glowing
in the darkness. Her scientific mind hesitated to tell us
that next morning, but we trusted that what she’d seen
was genuine and real.
These events form a helix of memories and realities
that we all seek to unravel with time, yet my perspective
on finality has forever been changed by the people lost
to life’s vagaries and its inevitable conclusion.
Call it anticipatory grief if you will, but I’ll not forget what
the night nurse told me after my wife had passed away.
“She was already gone before I arrived.”
A year after the world changed I sat next
to one of my wife’s closest friends who told me,
“You know, she told me that she knew you’d date
after she was gone.” I thanked her for that,
but related that I was glad she waited to share
that information because we all still need to make
our own decisions in this world. They are often
no easier to make than any other, and whether
we lose a wife or a father or mother,
there still remains a path to walk or run
and it takes resolve to not come undone.