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 Garp—told 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”