The Waiting Room

As mentioned in my first post (The World Still Out There), this blog grew out of  succinct administrative updates I sent out to a cyber-community (under the umbrella of Lotsa Helping Hands) of family and friends eager to do whatever they could to help us after my husband’s diagnosis.   The posts gradually grew more descriptive (if not outlandishly long-winded), and I found writing them vastly therapeutic.

“The Waiting Room” was one of the first posts that followed my husband’s death:

I have used the phrase “I’ve got good news and bad news” for comedic purposes, but I never used the words “I’ve got bad news” until the Monday Jim was diagnosed, when I quivered into a friend’s voice mail: “It’s Auntie Steph. I’m with Jim at the Lahey Clinic and we have really bad news.”   

I couldn’t break the news to my family, but for calling my younger brother the next day and saying his name in a way that made him ask if he should pull over the car. 

When I asked if he was driving, his drawn-out, somehow multi-syllabic “yes” made it clear the question had been delivered as if I had asked, “Are you sitting down?” 

Jim never used the phrase “I’ve got bad news” with me or our children.  

Perhaps the closest he came was the night of his  diagnosis, when we both independently tried to make arrangements with our sons’ friends to get our sons home–without panicking them–as soon as possible.  

Of course, there is probably no better way to ensure panic will ensue than to alert someone to the possibility of panic.  (My elder daughter later apprised me I also need to eliminate from my repertoire the opening line, “I don’t want to freak you out, but . . .”)        

Only after his death did I realize what it was about Jim that kept him from ever having told us “I have bad news” about himself.  

I began to understand this a few weeks afterwards, when I became increasingly irritated at the way someone else’s patient was prattling in another doctor’s waiting room.

The woman was morbidly obese and in her sixties.  When she checked into the orthopedist’s office she launched a loud, HIPAA-to-the-winds conversation which she made impossible not to overhear. 

After checking in with the receptionist and being told she could have a seat, she continued gratuitously to discuss her past cancer treatments.  No one had asked her about this: all the receptionist needed was her name.  But she announced she was doing quite well, although she mentioned being uninterested in hewing to portions of her internist’s advice. (Her internist, whose name she broadcast to the room, happened to be ours.)

Jim probably had had countless patients like this one.  In fact, our internist may well have inherited this very patient from Jim’s primary care roster.

I sat in a seat only a few feet away, waiting for one of my daughters. 

The woman made her way to a seat in the waiting room.  After a few minutes, a nurse opened the door to the examining rooms and called the woman’s first name.  She looked up. 

The nurse introduced herself by name, then directed to the woman the rote pleasantry, “How are you?”

“I’m a survivor,” the woman announced theatrically, in place of a “Fine, how are you?”  She made the declaration as if the fact of surviving cancer evidenced some personal virtue on her part.  Continue reading “The Waiting Room”

A Man of Faith

A photograph Jim took while hiking with our daughters (c) 2008

In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai wrote: “The passionflower was a glorious bizarre thing, each bloom lasting just a day, purple and white striped tentacles, half sea anemone, half flower—all by itself, it proffered enough reason for faith.”

My husband described himself to one of his sisters as a man of faith, if not necessarily of  ceremonies of the church into which he was baptized.

At his “Closing Ceremonies”–a name my husband created when asked by hospice personnel whether we had “made arrangements” (one of the fuzzier euphemisms we heard, although everyone immediately knows to what that term refers)–the Reverend discussed how each of us can pursue our journey on our own terms: “God understands.  God is big enough for that.”

As one of my favorite authors’ characters noted, “As the poet said, the pine trees may wave at the sky, but the sky does not answer.  It doesn’t answer men either, even though most of them have known the right prayers since they were children, the problem is finding a language that god can understand.”[1]  I think Jim found that language, whatever the nature of what may lie beyond.

When I held our first newborn son and touched his cheek I asked Jim if it made him believe in God.

No, he said, in his matter-of-fact way; it was but one of the things which every day confirmed his faith in life, in marriage, in family, in hope, in love–each of them to him a miracle of its own and on its own terms.

[1]   José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), p. 175.

(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon

Drawing on Darkness



                     Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
                     Every poem an epitaph. . . .

                                                                                                        —T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding 

When I began writing it had been exactly hundred days since my husband Jim was diagnosed.

After he was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer Randy Pausch pondered what to do for his three young children: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them.  If I were a musician, I would have composed music.  But I am a lecturer.  So I lectured.”[i]

Of course, I was not the patient.  But any caregiver who also is a parent will think endlessly  of those young hearts, and wonder how to help them.

What are my skills?  I put together criminal cases and I write, and while the former had no evident application in this situation, a friend suggested very early on that I write.

But I simply could not start until the first hundred days had passed.  I will never know how that season’s passage and distance may have colored what I wrote, and may color it now.  My children have my husband’s tendency to observe meticulously, to prepare themselves and learn all they can before jumping in.

The season (summer) of my husband’s aggressive treatment became a time for me to observe and learn, although no number of seasons will allow me to process this profound change in our family.

What I write is not really a story about my husband’s death, although his last four days would prove extraordinary, and I cannot imagine ever will be duplicated for anyone else.  It is a story about a lifelong caregiver and teacher who would not have thought of himself as being either of those things.

The experienced criminal defense lawyer will tell his or her client not “Tell me what happened,” but “Tell me your story.”

The prohibition is against knowingly putting on a witness stand a client he or she is aware will be lying under oath.  Putting on a criminal defense case can be akin to what Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, described of a foot soldier’s stories: “I want you to feel what I felt.  I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”[ii]

But trying to tell a life story and a family story is not as simple as separating truth from fiction: so much is a matter of perception, of trying to grasp and recount what happened during that slipstream of time.  Even the biological encoding of different types of memories can affect what the mind holds.

Jenny Fields–better known as Garp’s mother in The World According to Garptold her son, “Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”

Jim had a real adventure having a life.

Dying at home, as he wanted, also proved to be far more of an adventure than anyone could have anticipated. Continue reading “Drawing on Darkness”

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