Tag Archives: Loss

Cancer in a COVID World

There are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us — the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away.

Mary Oliver, The Veil

They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.

Dad emailed on Monday. ​

“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”

There are five of them, my dad and his siblings, stair stepping, like a single slinky, one child pouring into the next: girl-boy-boy-girl-girl. Trisha, Bill, Maynard—my father, then Barbara, and Pammy, the youngest. Maybe it was their humble beginnings, growing up with working class parents in a small mountain town, poor, but happy. Maybe it was my grandparents’ tough love or the necessity of relying on family, but whatever the reason, my father and his sibs are tight. Throughout life’s adversities, into their 70s and 80s now, they’ve remained best friends and one another’s fiercest champions. They have faced and conquered everything together.

Until pancreatic cancer.

The last time I saw her was six months ago when I flew up for Grandma’s funeral. Six months and a lifetime ago—before the coronavirus pandemic. The matriarch of our clan lived until she was nearly 104; those are some great genes I’ve inherited. At times immortality seemed a real possibility. I hadn’t seen Aunt Barbara since diagnosis, but there were photos. Plus I know how this disease ravages and torments. Reassurances from my family, however, emphasized Barbara’s resilience. Her spirits were fully intact, her faith strong, her smile as radiant as ever. 

Chic in a pale silk pantsuit and leather ankle boots, she wore a floor-length fur draped over her shoulders to ward off the chill. Still strikingly beautiful, cancer had chiseled her porcelain features into a sharp likeness, a sculpture of herself, without rounded curves. The gauntness in her face pained me, but when I wrapped my arms around her fragile bird bones, I felt the wracking of her body reverberate through mine, and the tears I would not show her collected under my closed lids. ​


I pictured a photo of Barbara, circa 1970-something snapped as she posed seductively next to a white Jaguar parked on the beach in Southern California. The blue sky merged with blue ocean. Her Breck girl hair whipped in the wind. With savvy sophistication, she embodied the beauty I aspired to in my little girl hero-worship.   

We spent days circled up on sectionals, recliners, and pulled-up kitchen chairs. Hours of conversation, catching up on years worth of life, reminiscing about the past. Barbara was there for much of it, though sometimes, succumbing to exhaustion, she’d curl up on a stretch of couch, unwilling to miss anything. Her husband, Richard would unfold a soft blanket and tuck it around her edges, pat her gently while continuing the conversation. Even if she drifted in and out, she was still there, dammit.

She was still there.

 I noticed with amusement through the waning of the hours that she wasn’t the only one who dozed. At some point or another, every one of my elders nodded off. With arms folded, chin dropped to chest or sitting erect and perfectly still, eyes closed. With opportunity, a head might loll back, the mouth open slightly. Upon waking, the process of re-orienting played across their faces. The catnaps obviously granted these septa- and octo-genarians a second wind, for their stamina far outpaced mine. 

Wiped out by 10:00 pm on my last night, I retreated to the quiet darkness of Aunt Trisha’s bedroom. Intending only to rest my eyes, I crashed hard despite the cascading laughter coming through the walls. Blearily I roused when light flooded the room through a crack in the door. 

I jumped up, seeing it was Barbara.

“You’re not leaving, are you?”

“No,” she whispered. “Just getting my coat. Go back to sleep.”

“But, don’t go without saying goodbye,” I said urgently, emphatically. “I’ll get up. I want to see you before you go.”

She eased the door shut with a soft click and I laid my head back down, fighting to stay alert. I kept my focus half-cocked toward the door, intuiting how like her it would be to slip out quietly so as not to wake me. I later emerged to find everyone still chatting leisurely around the dining table, except for Barbara. Richard had taken her home.

Time was up.

Tomorrow morning I’d leave for the airport and I knew I would not be back to say goodbye. Considering it had taken me years to make it up to Seattle from my Midwestern home, the crushing knowledge landed: I would not see her again in this lifetime.

Not in person, at least. She did appear in a small window on my computer screen. The lock-down birthed a weekly Monday family Zoom, a calamitous Brady Bunch-style cacophony of technical gymnastics that proved to be quite entertaining. Close-ups of foreheads, noses, and blank walls, interference and background noise, competing conversations both on and off the digital airwaves.

“Can you hear me?”

“We can’t hear you. You have to click unmute!”

“I can’t see anybody.”

“Can you see me?”

“I can see you!”

“Who said that?”

A scan of the familiar, beloved faces revealed our shared genetics. Dad and Uncle Bill, ruggedly handsome, channeled my beloved Grandpa, Shorty he was called, gone some 22 years. I compared my sisters faces with my cousins, finding the same eyes, cheekbones, smiles. Across the generations, across the country, we gathered in this virtual space, in real time, in a way we never could in a physical sense. We compared notes about work, school, developments from state to state, how we were all coping. We scheduled around Barbara’s chemotherapy treatments and she attended as many as she could, bantering along with the rest of us.

Between one Zoom and the next, she was admitted to the hospital in horrible pain. The tumors overtaking her digestive system had obstructed nutrients and were beginning to prohibit organ function. She’d been there before—deathly ill, touch and go, but she’d always rebounded. This time there would be no rallying. 

Even knowing the eventuality, it is never palatable. It is never acceptable.

But here it was.

Barbara found Richard, the love of her life, when she was nearly 50, when she’d seen enough of the world to know what she wanted. A devoted, adoring couple, they built a rich, beautiful life, though 25 years was not nearly long enough. They fully intended to ride out any challenge as they always did. Now, they were being told there was nothing left to try. Palliative care and end of life decisions had to be made and as excruciatingly difficult as that was, navigating it through a global pandemic held heartbreaking ramifications.

Visits were allowed, but only Richard and Pammy. The other sibs were too high risk themselves, and in my father’s case, too far away. Restrictions and time limits applied. My first thoughts were stories of nurses who, acting as proxy, held the hands of dying patients when their loved ones couldn’t be with them. In my mind is burned the stark image of an elderly husband outside the window of his wife’s hospital room, desperate to comfort her through the glass separating them. I’d heard of FaceTime death vigils, FaceTime confessions, FaceTime farewells.

Through my personal losses, I’ve learned the most brilliant epiphany of approaching death is the invitation to embrace life fully. The mundane becomes holy. The simple act of breathing, a gift. To love and be loved, a sacrament. 

For Barbie, and Richard, and everyone who loved her, the most significant blessing came when she got to come home. She would not be isolated in a sterile hospital.

She would not be alone at the end of her life.

Once settled, on one last morning of lucidity, she was showered with texts and emails and videos and songs from her large family. She talked with her siblings and gave them the goodbyes they desperately needed. 

On the small screen of a phone held close to her face, my dad told his little sister how much he loved her, then asked tenderly, “Barbie, are you afraid?”

“Oh, nooooo,” she cooed peacefully.

It was permission. If she could walk into the next world without fear, her family could let her go. 

She died on Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, our next Zoom began with the usual fits and starts as folks logged on, checked their mics, adjusted camera angels. Simultaneous greetings and conversations zig-zagged across the gallery. The geometric family tree took shape as new people blinked into existence in their individual cubicles. There were jokes about how Richard’s love of Jack-in-the-Box tacos required a detour on the way home from the hospital, followed by the question, “Jack-in-the-Box has tacos?” followed by incredulous laughter. There was good-natured ribbing from Richard to Pammy about in-laws who get into their fridge and overstay their welcome. 

Then we got down to the hard stuff. 

“What can we do for you?” everyone asked Richard.

“I can’t believe it,“ he said. 

“It doesn’t seem real,” Pammy sobbed despondently. She’d lost her best friend.

With minimal detail, they told us how once home from the hospital, they’d never left Barbara’s side. When she took her last breath, they were there. They said she passed three days nearly to the minute after slipping into unconsciousness.

“I’m so proud of her,” Richard said and rubbed the stubble of his unshaven chin.

His understated grief not only triggered my own, but the empathy I felt for him brought me to the ugly cry. I covered my mouth with my hand and let the tears come. Lately, my emotions are scrubbed up raw. Tender, like new skin. My nerve endings fire all the time. I feel everything without a buffer, as if there are no more desensitizing layers laid down with busy, distracted, numbing activity.

The pandemic has stripped me clean. 

This, too, might be a gift, though it hardly seems so when it hurts this badly. Everything shines with meaning now. Grief begs me to take it in and absorb the simple, extraordinary presence of love, wherever and however it shows up.

The funeral will be live-streamed via teleconferencing software, much like our family Zooms. Music, prayers, memories will be shared. A eulogy. A slideshow. Through the window of our computer screens we’ll view the service from our living rooms. We’ll reach out for comfort through the interwebs. We’ll mourn together while we’re apart which seems nearly poetic in its brutality. We cannot be together, even to commemorate our beloved’s life, yet nothing can keep us apart. The connection is stronger and resonates beyond any tangible barrier. It cannot be severed by cancer or COVID or even death.

At the end of his email to me and my seven siblings, Dad wrote, “Life is so short. Forgive each other. My parents are gone, a younger sibling is gone. Our lives will be over in a moment. Be thankful for every day that God gives you breath.”

In these moments I’m comforted, when I see beyond the veil. Brief, fleeting moments of unobscured truth. Nothing can separate us, for we are never apart. Not here, not now. Not ever. 

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Filed under Aging, Cancer, COVID-19, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Pandemic, Siblings

Resurgence of Hope

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
and the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.  

My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, my husband and I christened the 22 acres we bought in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.” 

It was Steven’s idea, owning property, a dream of his for years. I’m not sure what shifted from casually keeping an eye out for good deals to hunting in earnest for a prize parcel. Maybe the fact our youngest would be heading to high school or the approach of his 50th birthday, but his vision became a quest. 

Property moved quickly and several times choice lots were sold before he could make his move, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me one Sunday from an open house.

“I think this is it, but I have to make an offer now.”

“I trust you,” I said, and meant it.

Still, a purchase that large, sight unseen left me a bit unsettled. It was his dream, I reassured myself; it didn’t matter much what I thought. I knew my husband worried about pleasing me, so I was determined to reserve judgment. We wound around a rural two-lane highway for miles before turning off the asphalt onto a gravel county road. We passed the stares of grazing cattle and a herd of goats that ran for the fence. After a mile or so, Steven rounded a corner and drove up the hill to park the truck in front of a green metal house and carport which sat overlooking a grassy meadow. The view showcased an open field sloping down to a small pond flanked by walnuts and maples and oaks. Spreading out from the clearing, thickets of woods covered the swells and ravines of the terrain. In the heart of winter, the trees were bare and the forest floor, a bed of leaves. I’d adjusted my expectations, but I could not have possibly known it would feel like coming home.

That first spring, the place greened up like Jumanji as Missouri is wont to do when a sunny day follows drenching March rains. Weekends found us driving out to work on the cabin, making it livable with paint and flooring and furniture. We slept with the windows open, the cool breeze carrying in nocturnal sounds of the wildlife that seemed unperturbed by our presence. 

A pair of geese made their home near the pond, and judging by their protective behavior, closely guarded their future family. One night we were awoken by horrible, guttural shrieks. The primal quality of the squalor struck my heart before my mind was able to identify its origins. I heard ferocious terror, the sound of survival in the endlessly shrill honking. Come morning our fears turned prophetic. A predator had invaded the nest and our geese were gone. We were left wondering if the parents had been injured or even killed in the attack, but we knew for certain, there would be no babies. 

The second year Steven built a nesting box out in the pond, safe and elevated away from prowling raccoons and foxes and skunks and out of reach of foraging turtles and snakes and muskrats. But the geese missed our offer of a safe haven and rebuilt their nest in the same long grasses on the bank of the pond. That year, our anxious anticipation of babies was suspended by the sudden absence of the parents and abandoned, broken eggshells.  

Last year, we watched, hopeful the couple would discover the stilted rubber tub, but it remained empty. Neither did they return to the pond. No geese, no eggs, no tragedy. But my disappointment felt like loss. Sadness filled the void where their presence had been the two years before.

This year, busy travel schedules, illness, and weather have kept us away. Additionally, amidst global crisis, we’ve submitted to the confinement that saw our 25th wedding anniversary come and go, any plans postponed indefinitely. But in truth, the lack of overt gestures and social pronouncements pales compared to the surprising gift of this pandemic: time together.

We’ve come out to the farm with our brood to hunker down, but also to expand into our wide open spaces. We play games and solve puzzles and cook food and watch movies. We have conversations and we take walks.

As Steven and I set off this morning, he stops me short. 

“Shhhh, look!” he says, pointing down the hill to the lull of meadow between road and pond.

I squint, shielding my eyes as I make out the silhouettes of two geese. The male stands guard, stock still. In profile, his head is raised, his long neck extended. He is a sentry. The female bends over, feeding in the grass. I bring binoculars to my eyes, adjusting the dial until the image swims into focus. Two fluffy balls hop near the mother’s feet. Goslings. 

“We’ve got babies!” I say excitedly to Steven, handing him the binoculars. “They’ve got to be the same geese, right?”

Lest we doubt these geese are ‘ours’ and mistake the sight for a mere coincidence, the father, sensing our watch, suddenly ushers his little family toward the safety of home. Mama noses the little ones along, scooping them up from behind with her bill as they bob and trot fuzzily through the grass. Daddy brings up the rear and disappears into the marsh at precisely the same place as the years before, where previously the nest lay empty.  

Tears well in my eyes, a daily occurrence it seems lately. I experience a cocktail of emotions: the resurgence of hope after loss, a resilience borne of grief, holding steadfast in the face of uncertainty. The dignity of the natural world teaches me a simple lesson: Life will go on. My mate and I will follow our instinctual path. We will protect and provide for our family.

We’ll be all right, I think as I take my husband’s hand and walk down the road into the morning sun. 

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Filed under Babies, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Marriage, Motherhood, Pandemic

Love in the Stitches

The older I get, the more I’m drawn homeward. When the weather turns cold, my craving for soup on the stove, a fire in the hearth, and time to knit begs to be slaked. Chilly temps find me cruising arts and crafts stores, feasting on colors and textures of yarn, imagining new projects. Winter sends me digging for my stash.

On hands and knees with the bedspread flipped up, driven by this seasonal hunger, I drag out baskets and totes of knitting supplies, including fifty years of my mother’s accumulation I inherited after she died. Unlike my messy stockpile, hers is meticulously organized: stitch holders, markers, and gauge rulers, and dozens of pairs of needles—aluminum, plastic, wooden, double point, circular—all collated by size and labeled. Dog-eared pattern books date back to the 1950s. Her handwriting marks their pages. Expensive skeins of alpaca wool, unused, leave me to wonder at her plans.

I was eight when she taught me to knit, my first undertaking, a self-portrait: painstaking and earnest. My stitches were tight, my fingertips sore from pushing and prying the work tenaciously hugging the needles. Though rife with mistakes, the baby booties provided my first taste of accomplishment. Booty, that is; I never finished the pair. My mother lost the pregnancy when her fourth child, a boy, was still born. We didn’t talk about it much and it wasn’t until I was a mother of four myself that I realized the magnitude of her loss. I wish I’d asked her about it when I had the chance.

The last thing she made me was a pair of fingerless angora gloves featuring intricate latticework. With skills far surpassing my own, she remained ever my teacher, sharing new techniques like a sweater pattern with knit-in pockets, a gorgeous moss-stitched cardigan she made for her mother (a knitter, as well), who was newly widowed and alone. When my Grammy died, the sweater passed to me. I gave it to my daughter who wrapped herself up during breast cancer in three generations of maternal safeguarding.

With my derriere in the air, I reach past balls of leftover yarn to find what I’ve been searching for: a not-quite-finished, nearly-forgotten afghan I started decades ago. Comprised of individual squares with unique patterns of cable twists, tweeds, and herringbone, it is, in effect, a knitted patchwork quilt.

Threading the yarn through my fingers, I deftly cast on, sliding the right needle behind, wrapping the yarn and pulling the stitch through. Reading the pattern, I begin to knit. K4, YO, SSK, (K1, K2 tog, YO, SSK) 6 times, K3. As natural as breathing, the rhythm is soothing. My hands know the way. Like my mother’s: lightly spotted with age, blue veins under thin skin, taut tendons like a puppeteer’s strings making the fingers dance. When I knit, my mother is close. More than that, when I knit, I become my mother. I’m comforted by her presence.

I lay out the completed blocks. Placing right sides together, (unconsciously holding the darning needle in my teeth as she did), I whip stitch piece after piece together until a flowing blanket is formed, a mosaic of complexity. Like a lifetime, the whole is comprised of many parts; seasons of joy and pain, of blessings and loss, merged into a single work of art.

I stand back and take it in, gratified by having fashioned something so lovely. Aware, too, that the doing of it fulfills me as much as the finished product itself. Yet, I’m most rewarded in the giving. Creating a beautiful object that brings joy to others is immensely satisfying. An intimate expression of love, the creation carries the giver’s very essence. This afghan will keep my family warm now and long after I’m gone. My mother knew this. And she taught me well.

Published November 29, 2018 in COMO Living Magazine

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Filed under Aging, Family, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Motherhood