People expected that I would be sad in the early weeks and months following the death of my husband, Richard. But a year has now passed, and I’m learning there’s an expiration date on grief. Though unspoken, a shared expectation exists, at least here in America, that a normal bereavement lasts a few sorrowful months and then ought to come to an end.
Strangely enough, long before my husband Richard’s passing, even prior to the dark diagnosis that he had stage four cancer, I feared he would one day leave me. That’s because I grew up a bit too cozy with, and therefore traumatized by, loss.
Once a year, or every other year, my military family picked up and moved to a place we’d never been before, where we knew absolutely no one. By the time I left home for college at the age of seventeen, I had made and said goodbye to more friends than most people meet in a lifetime. If that had been the extent of my losses, it would have been enough. But I repeatedly bid goodbye to my father, when he left us for short and longer periods of time.
In my earliest memories living on the Island of Oahu, I’m sitting in the back seat of the car. My mother sits in the passenger seat, and my father is driving. My father stops the car on what he refers to as the flight line, and gets out of the car. My mother scoots across to the driver’s side. Wearing his olive-green flight jacket, my father walks a short distance, then boards a navy-blue Air Force plane I know will take him to Japan.
A number of years later when I was in the eighth grade, my father lived across the Atlantic in Germany. My mother, sister and I were forced to wait an entire year in a small New Jersey town, before joining my father, when housing became available on the Air Force Base outside Frankfurt where he worked. After living in Germany with my father for two years, my mother, sister and I returned to live in that same New Jersey town; and my father flew across the Pacific to his new assignment, at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in Vietnam.
The pattern of losing friends, family and homes that was set early on continued for me as an adult. I picked up and moved again and again, making new friends and losing them, just as I’d done as a child. What brought even greater grief was that I fell for men who, once we got close, would suddenly back away. Before much more time passed, I would once again end up alone.
Richard changed the pattern. He stayed. He stayed with me through changes in our jobs. He stayed when we rented an overpriced flat in the frequently foggy Richmond District of San Francisco. He stayed with me to purchase a Queen Anne Victorian that needed a great deal of work, in a charming Portland, Oregon, neighborhood bursting with colorful gardens and ancient trees. He stayed when we impulsively became the owners of a blue batten-board-sided cottage on the wild Long Beach Peninsula in Southwest Washington, where small black bears tramped through the woods behind our house; and we could hear waves crashing as we relaxed in the living room, warmed by a fire in the pellet stove.
He stayed for much, much more. In total, Richard stayed with me for nearly thirty years. Neither of us wanted children, so we had time to enjoy what this beautiful world had to offer and each other.
The evening a call came from Richard’s doctor bringing the frightening results of an MRI, showing likely metastatic tumors in his spine, I sobbed. After all the years we’d spent together and I hadn’t lost him, I realized I would this time. Thankfully, treatments made it possible for Richard to stay with me another four and a half years. But learning he had stage four cancer, I knew however long it might take, he would one day be gone.
During the years I cared for Richard, my mood rode a rollercoaster of emotion. Every three weeks, blood tests revealed if the chemotherapy treatments were killing cancer cells or not. Approximately every three months, PET scans brought more precise evidence of what was happening in Richard’s body. The closer we came to the days when he received the results, the more fear raced through my thoughts, with its constant battering of what ifs.
For the longest time, the anxious hours were followed by a bubbling joy, as my husband and I laughed and cried when bad numbers on tests went down, and the radiologist’s report informed us the chemo was doing its job.
Each time the rollercoaster ride headed down, my fears of Richard’s dying rose. At those times, I allowed myself to peek at what life might be like without him. What could I possibly do to keep going, if left on my own? Somehow, I thought I was preparing myself. That notion helped a bit. As it’s turned out, there’s no getting ready for such a grievous loss.
There’s a myth about grief, I’m gradually coming to learn. People who haven’t experienced it like to believe the dark sorrow lessens over time. As hard as I’ve tried, though, to move on, as some recommend, I now understand that it is impossible. I chose a man, a marriage, and a life I would have been thrilled to live forever. If given the chance, I would choose it all again.
Yes, mourning such a heart-rending loss is painful. But there’s something else. Grieving my partner and friend, lover and confidante, lets me be with him again, if only for the time it takes to sob. Letting go of the sorrow – if that were even possible – would mean erasing the last traces of what were the happiest years of my life.
Each afternoon when the weather allows, I sit in the garden and grieve, while I remember. In Richard’s final months, we met there, under the fig tree at the end of the day, and talked about our life. Not only that. We also talked about death.
Richard wanted to live. From the moment he received the diagnosis of terminal cancer, he dedicated himself to doing whatever was necessary to extend the life he had left. He also tried to make the most of his days, even after the treatments had robbed him of so much energy and strength.
I like to think that in our afternoon garden talks, we opened the door that for nearly four and a half years Richard and I had done everything possible to keep shut. I like to think that instead of pushing death away, we invited death in, and made the prospect less frightening.
Death came for my beloved husband on a beautiful autumn morning. He sailed away from this life to the next so easily, it was as if he already knew the way.
The image of his peaceful end comforts me. I hold onto it, along with so many other memories and the grief I will cherish, as I assured him I would do, for all the rest of my days.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.