Chasing Sunrise

(c) SMG November 30, 2012

On your very next birthday, I’ll give you the moon

On the end of a string, like a golden balloon . . .

When our children were young and birthdays still held the magical power of persuasion  that the earth stood still to welcome one’s arrival at the party, we would read these words to them on their birthday eves.  The book–among the most precious gifts one can be given–was from Aunt Laurel.

I never let go of a good children’s book, though some of them these days are difficult to come across.  Last week, I fished through another of my random boxes of family belongings.  (Aunt Laurel also masterfully packed up and labelled boxes during last month’s move, including the jackpot: “Official George Carlin Box: ‘Move your s*** over so I can put my stuff down!'”  She has mad organizational skills.)

I found the tiny swirling blue hardcover, Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, and remembered how our children would love sitting on Jim’s lap as he read it to them, unfolding the pop-up pages with big-eyed wonder, believing that their impossibly tall, protective, superhuman dad really could procure a star for them if that were their wish.

Continue reading “Chasing Sunrise”

Disbelieving Dark


Messenger (c) October 30, 2012

“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

A  strangely compelling Boardwalk Empire character–a World War I  sharpshooter who carried his talents back to a morally complex civilian life during Prohibition–dispensed this worthwhile advice at an Easter gathering.

A fellow blogger whom I count as a cyber-friend writes movingly of her own life, love, and loss of a beloved mother.  She wrote this morning that, surveying the bright colors of visible reminders of el dios de la muerte, she wishes she were “one of the haunted.”

She does not receive from her the mother the signals she hoped to receive–those elusive thin spaces in which she still can feel her presence.

I do not consider myself a believer in the afterlife in a traditional sense.  But I am unquestionably  haunted. I recently fled one haunted home, but remain surrounded by what I choose to believe are signals from Jim.

After my husband Jim spoke of his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, one of our friends looked at him–a young, outwardly robust, healthy man who betrayed no sign of illness, let alone such a devastating one–and said, with a hint of the abject disbelief we all felt, “The good kind or the bad kind?”

My ever-unflappable and good-natured husband replied, with his trademark wry grin, “I’m not sure there is a good kind of pancreatic cancer.” Continue reading “Disbelieving Dark”

A Couplet and Complicated Compassion

Mill Pond, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
(c) June 2012

Yesterday it did not seem as if today it would be raining.”

Last night actually did give just a hint of rain, after a glorious evening outside at Prescott Park in Portsmouth.   This time Shawn Colvin was not driven from the stage by lightning.

And today it is not raining; it is a perfect summer day, and one of my sons is leading a pack of children up a magnificent mountain.

But I don’t believe Edward Gorey was speaking of the weather.  I think he was addressing those unpredictable, turn-on-a-dime reversals in life that almost all of us will experience and witness with the people we love most.

Today is an odd kind of anniversary, which left its mark like only a handful of other days has.  The word “anniversary” itself seems too inherently festive, because there is nothing celebratory about this day.

It is not the day we found out that my husband’s condition was decisively incurable.  That came a handful of months later.   But on this calendar date, after several hours of waiting for a CAT scan at a hospital outside Boston, a surgeon pointed to the image of Jim’s pancreas on her computer screen in a windowless room and said, gently, “This is your tumor.”

Continue reading “A Couplet and Complicated Compassion”

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”

%d bloggers like this: