Give Thanks For This Imperfect Life

family in spring 2008

Last family photo, spring 2008

What if Vic’s cancer had been caught earlier? What if the diagnosis was a mistake? What if they’d tried a different treatment? Maybe he was sick because of foot x-rays in his childhood shoe stores or the irradiation of a scar on his neck before he was ten. Maybe there was a hidden cause for this strange cancer with no known risk factors.

Vic and I soon gave up the game of alternate realities and settled into life as it was—chemotherapy interwoven with publication of his new book or a day at the hospital followed by watching white geese dancing over our fields.

After his death, I was that harsh word “widowed”—a woman by herself, black inside and out. My old life was over, but time and I would go on. Without Vic. I didn’t imagine otherwise. I didn’t want to throw myself in the cremation fire. I wanted life. I wanted to live my grief and not pretend it away. I wanted to learn what I was being taught and get to the other side of the abyss.

Family, Thanksgiving 1977

Family, Thanksgiving 1977

Maybe I caused Vic’s cancer because I cooked too much tofu or didn’t use enough turmeric. Since that led nowhere, how fortunate I remembered how to make Grandma’s tapioca pudding when his mouth was sore or he had no appetite.

I focused on gratefulness for the many years with my best friend, lover, and sparring partner. Gratitude for our family and friends, too. I thanked the heavens that I was loved fully as many never are. I praised the good fortune that I was not forced to make fast decisions after his death to survive.

I was given the gift of time to grieve. I wept and ached and never lost sight of my good fortune.

I remembered how his warm arms felt as he held me just days before he died, how he told me he would never stop loving me, how he snarled when at wit’s end and I snarled back. Was I sorry we snarled? A little, but mostly I was glad we trusted one another enough to growl, weep, and apologize. I was grateful Vic and I wrestled with his fear of death until, by grace, he was no longer afraid.

I watched his strong body go the way of all bodies. I watched him suffer and hang on. I saw his courage and my own. I learned that kindness is an essential spiritual practice at the worst of times.

The Dalai Lama said, “Kindness is my religion.” I learned the art of kindness by watching Vic. A nurse stuck Vic ten times as she searched for a vein. It hurt and he had been hurt so much already, but he didn’t wince. She was nervous and clumsy. He reassured and soothed her. He breathed deeply when she poked again and found a vein. He smiled, thanked her, and apologized because it had been so difficult for her. Kindness created an alternate reality on the spot. It became my religion, too.

Family 2013: David, Anthony, Liz, and me

Family 2013: David, Anthony, Liz, and me

When I miss Vic, remind me to be grateful for the world that remains rather than longing for a world that could have been. Remind me to be thankful for my friends as we light our candles and say our prayers for the missing. Tell me to rejoice that I get along well with my family and that’s the biggest gift of all. Remind me that I still have love and life is good just as it is.

***

For articles about creating a personal grief ritual, see Creating a Grief Ritual or Flowers for the Living, Flowers for the Dead. I highly recommend Coping with the Holidays by Marty Tousley of Grief Healing. Marty has a kind wise heart, healing ideas, and a long list of resources.

34 Comments
  1. “I was glad we trusted one another enough to growl, weep, and apologize.” Such a wise woman you are, Elaine. Your sons and daughter-in-love are richly blessed to have you as their mom, and I am certain they need no reminders to be thankful for YOU. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. Vic and I had honest and deep relationships with our sons and that is still true. And now I have a daughter for the first time! If I could have chosen anyone in the world for David, I would have picked Liz. These three have much wisdom to share, too, and I’m grateful and thankful.
      I hope you have a peaceful holiday, wherever you are. I somehow imagine you are in AZ during the winter, but perhaps not. It’s a stormy night here, and I was grateful to pull into my driveway, back the car in the garage, shovel a little snow, and load the stove with wood. It’s cozy in here, and I will stay put until the storm is over.
      With love and gratitude for YOU,
      Elaine

  2. Elaine, although we’ve never actually met, you truly inspire me to be a better person. For that, I am so grateful.

    You sustained one of the greatest losses a person can face, and not only did you survive – you managed to thrive. By sharing your experience, faith, love, and kindness, you make the world a better place. Thank you for that.

    Much love,
    Ann

    • Ann, I’m deeply honored by your comment. I first connected to you when your mom was dying. You were raw and honest about your experience, and I felt drawn to you then. Now, I watch your work as an Alzheimer’s educator and patient advocate and powerful writer. I have great respect for the way you turn your hard experience into service.

      I’ve had many wise helpers and much love as I think you have (I think of your mom and daughter), so we are lucky ones. Today, a friend of mine died in the Hospice residence here. She was surrounded by her husband, siblings, and a niece keeping vigil. I came home because of the storm and because I wasn’t needed. She was surrounded by love. I want to do a little Beatles dance tonight for her: “All you need is love, love, love is all you need.”

      I send you love and wishes for a joyful and peaceful day of thanks,
      Elaine

  3. Elaine, I so look forward to your beautiful writings. You truly touch the soul of so many. No, we cannot go back, but must move forward and you are learning this on your journey, while holding all the love and memories in your heart and sharing your love story with so many. God bless you and Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. I hope you have a week of thanks and love and warmth. It’s cold and stormy here, so I’m hunkering in by the wood stove with Willow. I look forward to the skies clearing by Thanksgiving Day so I can share a feast with friends. (I found your comment in the spam files–and tagged it as not spam to put it in the comment file. I always check the spam file before deleting, but don’t ever find comments there–except yours. I’ll keep checking, because now I know this is possible.)
      With love,
      Elaine

    • Thanks Elaine for you lovely wishes….and for ‘digging me out of the spam trash’, I am jumping all over to blogs I follow and letting them know I can’t comment, sheesh, I’m beginning to get a complex, I’m a spammer? Lol. Enjoy the day of thanks, have a look at my Thanksgiving poem for a little inspiration! 🙂

  4. You are officially my gentle, strong grief mentor, Elaine. I enjoy and learn from your year round thanks-giving that you generously share with all of us in your circle. Sounds like a cozy night with Willow. I’m sorry for the loss of another special person to you. Warm hugs, Patti

    • Patti, we are partners in this world of love and grief. You’ve had a heavy load. As far as I can tell, it’s our human destiny, no matter how we squirm and wiggle or how fortunate we are. Yesterday morning, I spent a short time with my friend who lost his wife later in the day after a long harsh illness (and he lost his first wife to cancer around 15 years ago). We quietly walked in the snow and he smiled about how surprised we are by illness and death, how we think we don’t deserve it, but it happens anyway. Every great teacher and many literary masterpieces warn us. There is also much comfort, beauty, and wonder in this world (as you know through your writing and camera lens), so it seems the trick is to cherish the positive and surrender to inevitable difficulty. Easy to say. Much harder to do, but we get plenty of practice.

      I love hearing from you, hope you are well, and wonder if you’ll see your little ones on Thanksgiving,
      Elaine

  5. Elaine, how true your words; they are laden with emotion, yet there is a trust in the future.

    I love these words “My old life was over, but time and I would go on. Without Vic. I didn’t imagine otherwise. I didn’t want to throw myself in the cremation fire. I wanted life”

    We grasp for a positive in each day, all the while our souls knowing, our loved ones contract on this earth was complete. They had come to do what they were suppose to, and we were left to carry on. Their love had left its imprint and we would be fine, for we understood the meaning of a deep intimate love. It would take a bit for us to get our “boots back on” but we would be fine and our souls understood that.

    I look so forward to reading your book, as we have a lot in common.. take care of yourself, you are being guided and you are needed… love and hugs tonight…XXOO

    • Thank you, Jean. I’m glad this resonated with you. I’m grateful for your kind encouraging words. I did want life, and before Vic died, I promised him I’d find a way to make a good life without him, but I was so exhausted and heart-achy after his death that it was hard to imagine I’d find light again. I often work with women who recently lost a partner and I remember those dark confusing times. I had lots of help from friends, my sons, therapists, my dog (right up there with therapists), nature, and time. We humans crave love, but this means we’re vulnerable to loss and heart-break. We want to be hopeful, but we might get disappointed. I love Pema Chodron’s advice to be curious instead of hopeful. I think that’s the only way, so that’s my goal.

      In the Finger Lakes, we have freezing rain and snow–not a lot of either, but enough to make the roads a mess. I saw a few cars in ditches on my way home last night and was grateful for my new snow tires. I’m glad to stay home today and it looks like it will clear up tomorrow so I can have dinner with friends. Wishing you a peaceful holiday.
      Warmly,
      Elaine

  6. You are touching many with your honest chords of feeling. I am happy that you have loving sons and a wonderful daughter-in-law to provide comfort during this season. Out of your pain, you are blessing others as is obvious from previous comments.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    • Thank you, Marian. Pain does soften, so while I’d rather have Vic here, I can see all the good things that remain. That was harder in the beginning. I appreciate your encouragement. And yes, I have a wonderful family and look forward to being with them in December. And tomorrow, a simple feast (is that possible?) with friends.
      Have a peaceful Thanksgiving full of gratitude,
      Elaine

  7. Thank you for sharing this Elaine. So from the heart. I am grateful for your willingness to go into the depth and to share with all of us.

    • Carrie, you know first hand. Holidays are hard, but it’s good we shared life with the ones we loved when they were here. I imagine you’ll create a ritual of remembrance and thanks for your dear partner. I know I will. Candles and tears.
      Wishing you a peaceful healing week,
      Elaine

  8. I am grateful for Vic’s powerful teachings about kindness at the end of his life, that gift remains. I am grateful to you for standing in the winds of pain and grief and speaking your experiences, the fears, the wisdom, the love. Your stories teach about how to live in the chaos of life, full on.
    Right on.

    • Thank you, dear Lauren. Kindness was Vic’s spiritual practice throughout his illness, as you know. He was a persistent practitioner in the worst of times (and could also be discouraged or grumpy occasionally, since he wasn’t a saint). But he kept practicing to the end and I absorbed it all along with others who watched him. It’s a gift that doesn’t disappear. Thank you for encouraging me, dear friend, and for being there when I needed you the most.

  9. I am reminded how blessed I am to have you in my life. I feel the presence of Vic through your love and your words. xoxo

    • Thank you, Liz. I just want to call you my daughter, but publicly that could be confusing. That’s how I think of you. Have a blessed holiday with your family. Give my love to everyone. Are you doing the 5K race this year?
      A big hug of gratitude and thanks for showing up when I needed you. David? Well, OK, he needed you to show up, too.

  10. Elaine, thank you so much for this moving account of acceptance and gratitude for what we have, as well as the sadness and pain for what we’ve lost. I woke up this morning sad and lonely. I called my sister, who lost her husband recently, too. Being able to share the sadness is such a gift–and knowing that we will go on, that we will make Thanksgiving into whatever it can be with the people who are still with us.

    • Lynne, I’m sorry your sister lost her husband, too, but glad you both have a sister to help you deal with your loss. It’s a huge gift to share the sadness with someone who sticks with you no matter how sad you are. And yes, we will go on, create our new lives, and handle new challenges. For me, part of going on is leaving space for longing.

  11. I have had cancer for ten year
    Due to the surgeons incompetence
    I refused all treatment
    For my stomach cancer,that had
    Spread to my liver and kidneys
    I found hospitals very cold places
    Yes! missing veins with needles is a common complaint
    My arm were black and blue from their incompetence,
    You have been treated badly
    By the medial profession
    You have my deepest sympathy ,

    • Thank you, Kenneth. It sounds like you had a rough go of it. We never felt treated badly except in the very beginning with a local oncologist who couldn’t make a diagnosis and wasn’t supportive. We moved on to wonderful doctors. We found much kindness during Vic’s illness in chemotherapy rooms, the stem cell transplant unit, and elsewhere. His spiritual practice during those years was kindness and it reflected back on everything and was the gift he gave his sons, me, and friends. There were many blessings and much trauma. He had a kind of lymphoma that no one could diagnose for months–super rare and only seen before as a secondary cancer in people who had radiation therapy. The bad luck of a DNA mistake. He was 65, the picture of health, and had never had cancer or radiation therapy before. Precious, trying, and exhausting years, but I assure you we were not treated badly. I used an example to show how kindness transforms a difficult situation. The young nurse was scared of hurting him and in her fear she made more mistakes–plus his veins were shot by then. When he softened her fear, she found a vein. He was kind to everyone from oncologists to custodians, and they loved him. He kept in touch with them when we visited the hospital for later treatments–especially a black custodian who was recovering from drug addiction who worked a night shift. They bonded and had deep talks at midnight.

      I appreciate your comments and I hope you are writing about your experience. It’s not uncommon, I know.

  12. Elaine,

    Another moving essay. My favorite line is this one: “…I was glad we trusted one another enough to growl, weep, and apologize.”

    Trust. That’s what I see coming through all of your work about your life with Vic. That you both trusted each other in every single facet of your marriage and life together as friends, lovers, and keepers of the land.

    You both were free to be yourselves and had such love and respect for each other.

    Kathleen

    • Kathleen, you have the picture, although there are always sacrifices and compromises made for love. I’ve written more about these in earlier posts. I don’t want to pretend there were never disagreements or difficulties. Through the lens of loving memory, the small bumps in the road seem even smaller now. A few days after Vic died, our sons asked me if Vic had ever betrayed me. Talking together, they realized he had never betrayed them. They thought that was remarkable. “No, he never betrayed me,” I told them. We might get angry at each other or lose patients (and both my sons had witnessed that), but betrayal? No. We trusted each other to tell the truth, say the hard stuff (including open discussions about his coming death and my life without him), stick around to work things out, forgive, and be there when needed. A good marriage.

      My new life is built on the strength of what Vic and I created together–trust, a sense of place, our shared spiritual journey, and love. And I am still free to be myself.

      Thanks for your comment. It made be think things through.
      Best to you,
      Elaine

  13. I totally relate…i have also known great love. we never lose the love…that is the only constant. thank you for the posting.

    • Randi, understanding that I wouldn’t lose the love became the core of healing from loss. The grief stays around although the raw edges soften, but I am still held in love. I’m glad you experienced the gift of great love, too. We are the lucky ones. Thanks for reading my post and taking time to make a comment.
      With gratitude, Elaine

  14. I loved it Elaine. You have inspired me so much with how you can give of yourself in your writing. Thank you for sharing and for being my friend.

    • Thanks for reading my piece, Robin. When I read Pema Chodron, I know the only choice is to focus on the bounty and beauty of this life while allowing grief to be part of the mix. There is also the excitement of creative possibility. What will we write or photograph next?

  15. Thank you for this, Elaine. I had so many regrets, but in the end, they are not useful. I am touched by your examples of his kindness. My Stan was so kind, always kind, no matter what was happening in his life or how bad he felt. I am glad that you have your boys and your daughter-in-law. Today would have been our third year anniversary and my brother is here with me. I am grateful for that. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Love, Tricia

    • Oh, Tricia. I’m glad your brother is with you on this anniversary, and I know nothing touches the heartbreak of this day. But what would we do without those who sit with us? Our regrets just seep in no matter what we do to say no to them. The fixer in us wants to change the outcome, but it can’t be changed. I struggle with feeling pulled under by life. My brother’s illness and my mother-in-law’s age and mental confusion tug on me–as well as Paris.
      I’ll spend Thanksgiving with friends here in Ithaca. A quiet day with good vegetarian food. One son is in San Francisco and the other will be with his wife’s family. We’ll all get together for Winter Solstice and a celebration of my mother-in-law’s hundredth birthday. Blessings and love to you, Tricia. Please remember to let me know when you write something. I don’t want to miss a thing. Will you still be in FL in March?

  16. I sometimes wonder what my life would be without my husband. Somehow I decided (being diabetic and all) that I will die sooner. I was a bit crossed when he agreed with me tough! So yes we keep laughing together and appreciating our moments. Thanks fir sharing yet another appealing and intimate story.

    • Thank you, Susanne. I couldn’t have imagined a widowed life after a 42 year relationship, but I’m living it. Maybe that’s always the way it is. Please stay healthy. It’s been nice to see you sharing posts again.

Leave a Reply