Keeping Secrets

When our son David and I arrived at the hospital room that morning in 2008, Vic sat upright, his bare legs hanging over the side of the bed. He looked exhausted and uncomfortable, but it was the only position that allowed him to breathe. His eyes were half-closed and full of misery and love.

“While you picked David up at the airport yesterday, Dr. Friedberg told me cancer growth is causing the fluid in my lungs,” Vic said slowly, pausing for air. “A full report came from the new skin biopsy. Now there are two kinds of lymphoma.” Vic whispered that information. “They aren’t optimistic. Friedberg suggested salvage chemotherapy…or hospice.”

Salvage chemotherapy? The aggressive end of the line possibility when nothing else worked? Vic knew this last night but hadn’t said a word?

“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” I asked.

“I wanted you to sleep,” Vic said, struggling for each breath. Really? We’d shared every decision about Vic’s illness, even ones that had to be made in the middle of the night. Vic paused and looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

“Friedberg promised he’d come back this morning to talk to you, E. I needed to figure this out alone. I want to try the chemotherapy. It might give me a few good months or I’ll die faster.”

Dr. Jonathan Friedberg

For the first time in two years of cancer, he’d kept a secret about his health. His need to decide alone hurt because I couldn’t help him, but it didn’t make me angry. I understood. He knew I’d choose hospice, so he needed solitude to make his life-or-death choice.

Salvage chemotherapy meant hospitalization two hours from home for one out of every three weeks with gruesome symptoms as if he wasn’t sick enough already. It meant I had to witness more suffering, even if he got a few “good” months. Good months? What would that look like? Mouth sores, skin breakdown, exhaustion? Death would still hover and threaten. There was no escape—only possible delay. I saw surrender as the right path, but Vic was a warrior, so I wasn’t surprised by his decision as much as how he’d made it.

Alone.

Dr. Friedberg arrived around noon. He wanted to start chemotherapy that night.   “Let’s do it,” Vic said in a weak voice that sounded unable to do anything. I reluctantly agreed with a pounding heart.

Mount Hope Cemetery

Needing calm, I left David and Vic in the hospital room and walked the peaceful paths of Mount Hope Cemetery, considering Vic’s no-win situation. I wouldn’t make the same choice, but Vic and I had discussed his options many times. He knew my choice, but his was different. I didn’t complain that he kept this life-and-death moment a secret rather than talking it over with me again. It was clearly time for me to let go.

That night, I thought it through again. I wanted Vic’s suffering to end, but didn’t want him to die. If he lived, he would suffer even more, so I prayed Death would come quickly for his sake, but also for mine.

Elaine & David, 2008

The next morning, I didn’t share my prayer with Vic. Like him, I kept my secret locked in my heart.

***

This is a new version of a section of my book Leaning Into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief. It took me years to face that Vic wasn’t the only one keeping a secret at the end of his life. Have you kept secrets from someone you love? Do you regret it or was it the right choice? Vic died less than a week after our conversation. He’d made the right choice for him and also for me.

For another post about facing cancer, see Betrayal of the Body: The Secret Life of Cancer. For an article about Vic introducing his last book a few months before he died, see “I Am Because You Are”: Community and Compassion. In that talk, Vic spoke about the South African term Ubuntu and our mutual interconnection. He shared a dream in which his friends gave him a healing cocoon made of silver threads. He choked back tears. So did I.

18 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Wise Woman and Friend,

    That was beautiful. May is almost here, as the Goddess and Her Green Man prepare for their sacred wedding. Nearly three years ago I dreamt that Vic spoke these wise words to you in a dream “kindness is all that matters in the end” and as I reflect on them today I see that both of you gave so much kindness to each other … in the words you did, and did not say. What tough, no-win choices you both had to face. It makes to weep to think of both you and Vic being “warriors” to the end! There are no words.

    The peaceful paths you took that day through the cemetery sound like they were just what was needed. Time to let go, and surrender. Big sigh! To gift Vic the right to make his own choice and not to refuse him must’ve been deeply distressing, and yet I wonder if you feel a little comfort in knowing that you and Vic, each made the right choices. Me, I believe in secrets, especially those kept between oneself and one’s soul. For I know I shall be taking several with me when I say goodnight. It feels right somehow.

    Love and light, Deborah.

    • Yes, the sacred wedding on Beltane. The Lupines are growing in my fields and they usually flower around Vic’s death day in early June, so they were blue and prolific in his last days and after his death. Since we planted those, they feel like my marriage bouquet. We were kind to each other (usually) and tried to make the death separation as conscious and gentle and honest as possible. I knew what he would do and he knew how I felt about hospice and surrender, so it didn’t need to be said again.

      I spent lots of time in that cemetery during Vic’s hospitalizations because it was right across the street. Famous abolitionists like Frederick Douglas and women rights activists like Susan B. Anthony are buried there. It was the first public cemetery open to all religions and races in the US and the trees are majestic. It took a little inner talk to accept that Vic was making a good choice for me, too, because he didn’t want a prolonged period of being an invalid. Ah, I’ll think about secrets between myself and my Soul. There must be many since we can never make the Soul completely conscious. There will always be secrets. Love to you in this time of light and flowers.

      • “In this time of light and flowers” Beautifully penned! And how poetic of you to see those tall blue lupines as part of your marriage bouquet. One of my favourite Mary Oliver poems comes to mind …

        Wild Geese

        You do not have to be good.
        You do not have to walk on your knees
        for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
        You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
        Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
        Meanwhile the world goes on.
        Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
        are moving across the landscapes,
        over the prairies and the deep trees,
        the mountains and the rivers.
        Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
        are heading home again.
        Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
        the world offers itself to your imagination,
        calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
        over and over announcing your place
        in the family of things.

        • Deborah, this may be the first Mary Oliver poem I ever read–and it’s still exquisite and makes me cry. We had a printed copy on the cabinet in the office where I worked. These are emotionally loaded times for me, dear friend–and that’s no surprise. I’m still amazed by nature and love. Vic and I were married on May 18 and our 40th anniversary was celebrated by me reading him love poems in the hospital. He wanted a big celebration of our marriage because he thought love was the best thing that had happened in his life, but we cancelled the party and a few other things like his last scheduled workshop. He wasn’t well enough and died June 3. There were probably lupines blooming somewhere on May 18, 1968 if I’d known where to look for them or known anything about them at all. I gathered daisies, buttercups, and other wildflowers for my wedding bouquet and made my own very short pale yellow dress.

          The lupine plants we planted here in a wildflower mix are growing strong and spreading throughout the fields, mixed with the grasses and other wildflowers. There must be thousands of them and after the rain we’re having today, I expect to find flower buds. Blessed spring, Mary Oliver, and you.

  2. There is no easy answer in a situation like this. It seems like there are three people involved in these decisions – you, me, and us, and each has a voice. When we’re dealing with life and death matters, often we don’t have the option for what we would really want. Even when a couple is deciding where to go on vacation, each of them has to know where they’d like to go, and then they figure out a compromise if the destinations aren’t the same. I know that I used to compromise before I knew what I wanted, and then I wasn’t quite so happy with what we ended up doing. We will always second guess life and death situations. Every time I hear of someone who was declared brain dead by doctors waking up, I wonder what would have happened if we had waited longer for my wife to wake up. I admire your courage back then, as well as now for sharing your story.

    • Thank you, Mark. I’m surprised to find myself revisiting this again, but it was a big turning point in my life. It seems I needed a new level of digestion. Vic and I discussed our death wishes many times during his illness and before that when writing our living wills, but when the actual moment came everything felt open to question. Talking more about the difference between what I would choose and what he needed to chose as the sick one would have been another way to prolong the suffering. I needed to let him go and I did with love and sacred grace. The doctor clearly warned Vic he might not be strong enough to live through the chemotherapy. He wasn’t, but his death was gentle, conscious, and quick after months and months of exhausting symptoms and no sleep. He was tired. I was tired. There was no escape. I know you didn’t get time for last discussions about the options with Evelyn. That was difficult in a way I don’t understand. My best to you as you visit the mountains.

  3. Oh my dear Elaine, how well I can understand you in these moments. Yes, the sad memories, and we can never forget them. And I feel you fully when you talk about making a decision. I had all these when I spent ten days in the hospital with Al, and at the very last night, I pray to God; please take him to you, and liberate him and me, from this pain. Newly, one member of Regina, my wife’s family, died of cancer. As I have heard, he had accepted to go under Chemo-Therapy, only because of having a little more time with his wife.
    We had no secret, Al and I, even in the latest time, when he still was aware of his conditions, kept telling me that he didn’t fear death, and when he’s gone, he will come back to anger me, like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, whose soul came back after she died, to anger Heathcliff. This was one of his favourite books. I believe that we have to keep these memories, even if they are sad.

    • Thank you, Aladin. In one way we had secrets–but Vic knew my secret and I soon knew his. We needed to contemplate his death alone. It was letting go time and after seeing the Dalai Lama 5 weeks earlier, Vic didn’t fear death. He didn’t want to spend a long period as an invalid and I understood. As much as we loved each other, he also didn’t need to spend more time with me, but it broke his heart that he couldn’t promote the book the Dalai Lama had asked him to write. It only came out 3 months before Vic’s death and without a living author, it’s hard to promote a book. That book was his last child, created with devotion while he had cancer and was undergoing treatment. He got it published and it’s been translated into a few languages and is still available from book sellers. He fulfilled the request. It was time to go. I love hearing about your sweet love for your brother Al. We’ll carry them around in our hearts forever.

  4. This is so beautiful. It seems to me that the openness and honesty you and Vic shared about your death wishes more than compensate for the secrets. As you said to Deborah, “There will always be secrets.” Sometimes keeping a secret from one you love is the kinder thing to do. And some are too precious to share with anyone.

    • Thank you, Jeanie. Yes, they weren’t true secrets since we both knew the other’s wishes. There was no point in discussing it again since he knew the choices and made the best one for him and I can now say for me. I hadn’t thought about my own secret prayer until I began rethinking what happened in those days.

      My NC son is visiting for Mother’s Day and suggested we have a family ritual for Vic. I’m glad my sons aren’t afraid to share their feelings. I know there will be lots of jokes, too.

  5. One commenter, Mark, mentioned that when life-and-death decisions loom, there are three involved: you, me and “us.” But near the very end, Vic decided to spare his precious “E” yet another tortured night: “I wanted you to sleep,” Vic said, struggling for each breath.”

    I am happy you and your NC son will be able to visit in May. What a blessed reunion Mother’s Day will be for all three! Until then, stay well and enjoy those showy lupines in your meadow. 🙂

    • Marian, I think Vic also needed to make the final decision unencumbered by my emotions and our mutual attachment. He wanted me to sleep but he was meditating on his Death or possible Life. I’m glad I didn’t protest when I learned about what the doctor had told him. I truly knew it was time to let go. It’s important to know that moment.

      I’m waiting for the lupines because we’re having a cold spring. The greens are growing, but no flower buds so far. We’re expecting a light freeze tonight.

  6. Your new version of your book sounded very familiar Elaine – I read your book some while ago and loved it. Maybe in this revised version you’re asking the question, when is it right to keep a secret and when not so right. No doubt yours and Vic’s ongoing exposure to the teachings of Buddhism and other depth philosophies prepared you both for this. I’m not so sure Vic’s was a secret … in spite of everything he seemed to know – as you did too. Thank you for this beautiful post, much to consider here. I love cemeteries by the way – a long while ago I was very interested in an old house that backed onto a cemetery – my sons and husband didn’t think so. Have a wonderful weekend – Love, Susan

    • Susan, there is no new or revised book, but I wrote up my new understanding of that experience and faced that I had a secret, too. I agree we both knew without words being necessary, but we usually talked everything through. We always had. This time he was done talking it through and I accepted while being secretly relieved. As you know, I walked in the large and very old cemetery across from the hospital in summer and winter while Vic had a nap in the hospital or if someone was with him. The trees were protective as well as the burial of so many famous people in the emancipation of slaves and the rights of women.

  7. Elaine, this reminds me of those terrible times when the bad news can’t be ignored, when decisions and personal paths forward are bound to upset some of the loved ones involved. The secrets I remember dealing with were really just the things people didn’t know how to share. There have always been a lot of secrets in my family. No one teaches us how to handle bad news, devastating diagnoses. When things get tough, I do believe we are solitary animals needing to crawl off alone to hear ourselves and lick our own wounds.

    • Thanks Robin. This was the only time for us that something about Vic’s cancer wasn’t discussed–even if we had discussed what we would do in this “theoretical” situation many times before. He never committed to my preference for hospice. Marika wouldn’t have allowed that either and it seems she didn’t want to talk about it and digest and digest again–and yet she was writing her reactions for your to find later. We have to allow that need to withdraw. The only person we didn’t discuss things with was Vic’s mother because she refused to admit he was dying, so she closed that door. She had no idea how to face what felt impossible. I agree no one teaches us how to face the final decisions and doctors are evasive or vague and forever hopeful that a new treatment will work. I was amazed Vic’s doctor admitted it might kill Vic, but Vic still needed that night of silence without my tears and without our bond which held him here.

  8. Elaine, my heart goes out to you. May I ask, is this book that your husband wrote out on the shelves? I’d love to read it.

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. This experience happened in 2008, but it still comes rushing in with fresh energy–and I needed to explore my own secret desire to have an end to his long suffering. My husband’s name is Vic Mansfield. He has 3 books. The first two have his author name as Victor Mansfield, but he hated being called Victor, so for his last book which was requested by the Dalai Lama, he used his preferred name Vic. That book is ‘Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge.’ His first book was ‘Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making.’ Both titles plus his third, ‘Head and Heart,’ are available at Amazon or by ordering from your local bookseller or the publishers. If you search the titles on line, you’ll come up with many options.

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