As Long As We Are Alive, We Are Alive

During the last months of my life mate/soul mate’s life, his brain was so riddled with cancer, he lost the ability to hold a thought long to enough to have a conversation, so his communications seemed more like lectures than exchanges. I remember bristling during those lectures — gritting my teeth and clenching my fists. It seemed as if he were being paternalistic, as if he didn’t trust me to take care of myself.

I knew he was ill, of course, though at the time, I didn’t know how bad off he really was. He’d been ailing for so long, I thought that’s the way it would always be, his getting weaker and weaker, maybe for many more years. But he died, shocking me to my core. And then guilt and regret descended on me. How could I not have listened to every single word he spoke during the time of his dying? How could I not have treasured his concern for me? How could I have been so impatient, so irritable, so resistant to what he had to say?

In the five years since Jeff’s death, I’ve worked through my guilt and regrets, even came to the realization that it wasn’t he I was resisting but his dying. Still, it wasn’t until my father’s death when my personal history repeated itself that I truly understood the dynamics of what had happened between Jeff and me. (In the case of my father’s last days, he wasn’t lecturing me so much as expecting to be waited on, and I simply did not want to do for him what he could do for himself.)

In my writing, I’ve been calling the last months of both men’s lives “the time of his dying,” but it was only their “dying” in retrospect. It was actually still a time of living for them, which makes my less than perfect behavior understandable. We were still involved in our relationships and roles, and it was only death that made my reactions seem horrific. If they both had continued to live, of course I could not have tolerated spending many years being lectured to or being expected to wait on someone who was able to do things for himself. These are just normal conflicts of living. And though they dying, they were still alive. Still living. And so was I.

I remember crying to the hospice social worker after Jeff died, lamenting his ill health. “He never had much of a life,” I wailed. She said, “He had a life. Being sick was his life.”

It seemed like such a terrible thing to say, but now I understand what she meant — that he was alive until he wasn’t.

This is one case where understanding can’t change anything. If I am ever thrust into such a situation again, I’d still do the same thing — carry on as if the person were alive and going to be alive for a long time. The one change will be that I won’t have regrets. Although my regrets over Jeff loomed large, I have no regrets over anything I did or did not do for my father. We were involved in playing out our roles the best way we could up to the end. And there is nothing to regret in that, nothing to feel guilty about.

I did learn something from both men, though, and that is to live until the very end. As long as we are alive, we are alive.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Doors of Grief

Years before my life mate/soul mate died, I wrote a character who grieved for her dead husband. It astonishes me that I got any of the effects of grief right since at the time, I hadn’t a clue what the loss of a mate really did to you, how it turned you inside out and upside down and left you reeling with shock and disbelief, regrets and sorrow. A Spark of Heavenly Fire begins:

Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.

Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?

One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.

She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

***

Later, she explains to a new friend:

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out.

“Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”

***

doorI didn’t have a real door to close — I had to leave our home and come look after my aged father — but there are plenty of doors in my head that I slammed shut. It’s only now, after thirty-four months that I’m able to open them a crack, peek at the ghosts of my ungenerous and petty moments, and understand.

For the most part, I handled the stress of his dying well, but there were times I resented him, even hated him, though now I know it wasn’t he I resented or hated, but his dying. Everything that irked me — his skinniness, his rocking when he stood talking to me (he was so weak, it was the only way he could keep his balance), his inability to carry on a conversation, and his testiness — were all facets of “dying man” not the man himself. To a certain extent, he died long before his last breath. He never blamed me for my resentment because he too hated what he had become. He once admitted he didn’t even recognize himself anymore.

Death does appalling things to people, not just to those who are dying, but to those who have to continue living. Whatever our problems, those last terrible months, we had a chance to reconnect for a few weeks before he died, and I got to say good-bye to the man I love, not just the shadow of that man he had become.

And that is what I will remember — not all the petty secrets I’m gradually bringing out from behind closed doors, but our sweet good-bye.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

What words would you like to leave the world when you are gone?

I’ll be leaving the world my books, which are words enough, but besides that, this is how I’d like the world to see me:  “Pat Bertram has a marvelous ability to write the longest parables in all of literature. She unglues the world as it is perceived and rebuilds it in a wiser and more beautiful way.” — Lazarus Barnhill, author of The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday.

Here are some other authors’ responses to the question of what words they would like to leave the world when they are gone. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Jim Magwood, Author of “The Lesser Evil”

Some goals are so worthy that even to fail is glorious.

From an interview with June Bourgo, Author of Winter’s Captive

Hmm…my writing career has come late in life for me. I have been a late bloomer with many things in my life. So I guess I would say: You’re never too old to follow your dreams and accomplish your goals. I don’t mind getting older, if I have followed my dreams. But I don’t want to get old and have regrets.

From an interview with Charlie Kenmore, author of “Earth Angel”

“There’s been a mistake.”

From an interview with Cynthia Vespia, author of “Demon Hunter: Saga”

Wow, that’s huge. I don’t know about words but I’d like to know that I made the world a better place for somebody just by being there for them. My words have always been “Live Your Dreams” Because life is short and dreams shouldn’t be dashed.

From an interview with Linda Nance, author of Journey Home

I tried…I really did and I did not give up.

So, what words would you like to leave the world when you are gone?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)