Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying to understand

Sometimes a series of events seizes you, shakes you hard, bewilders you. You search for words to comfort those who have lost a loved one, but words sound hollow. Like a snake chasing its tail, your thoughts circle, with no resolution and little rest.

It started with a pet, a sweet, companionable, blue-eyed cat who was losing weight. No problem, I’ll intensify my efforts, take him back to the vet, try this, try that; I’ll nurse him back to health. 

I know how to give TLC to a cat. 

Instead, he continued to decline over weeks before my disbelieving eyes. On a Friday another trip to the vet reassured us that his blood work was okay, but over the weekend he spiraled downhill. By Monday we tearfully made the decision to end his struggle.

Helpless. I was sure I could mend him, but I was powerless to save him. Some would say he was just a cat, but when he looked into your face, there seemed to be a soul behind those eyes. I stroked him for the last time as the vet put the needle in Blue’s leg, and his big round blue eyes closed.

A friend of over 15 years, Jim, who sometimes picks up a day’s work with my husband, dug Blue’s grave while we took the kitty for his last trip to the doctor. Jim is empathetic that way, and was glad to help out.

Days later, Jim’s wife, Lillian, took her own life with a shotgun blast to her head. The scene was so awful that seasoned police officers cried. Lillian left behind children, grandchildren, and a shell-shocked husband.

Words come out of your mouth, but you know they are no comfort. Or pitifully inadequate comfort. But you say them anyway. Jim’s previous wife had died of cancer, and now this.

A few more days passed, and a neighbor, 36, went out alone on her paddleboard in the afternoon. Extremely physically fit, she somehow met with an accident. Sheriff’s deputies and another neighbor in his boat found her body floating in the creek hours later. She had drowned. A phys-ed teacher, she was a wife and a mother of two children under six-years of age.

A week passed, and a former student, Frank, who visits about once a year, stopped by to see me. He’d lost a lot of weight, and told me he had bad news. Oh, no, the cancer, I thought, knowing from his last visit that he’d had a biopsy. But the shocking news was that he had lost his wife of 35 years to a botched routine surgery at the end of June.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he said. “I was supposed to go first. Why am I still here?”

We chatted for a while, and as we talked about religion and the possibility of life after death, Frank mentioned that he’d read Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander.

Strangely enough, I had also purchased that same title, but hadn’t worked up the courage to read it—I thought it would undoubtedly make me cry, thinking about my own lost loved ones, even if it gave me hope to think that a formerly disbelieving doctor had experienced death and returned convinced of an afterlife.

I did my best to comfort Frank—he’s a “no b.s.” kind of guy, so the normal platitudes were quickly dispensed with as we talked about death, and how a healthy woman can die with a careless slip of a surgeon’s blade for the simplest of procedures. Frank blames himself, too, for not listening when his wife said she didn’t like the doctor.

Frank has grown children and a couple of grandchildren who have rallied around and give him emotional support. I was impressed that he had come to school to tell me what had happened; it seemed to be a difficult mission he’d worked himself up to perform. Perhaps it was a station on his road of grief.

My heart ached for him in his sorrow, but after all the other recent deaths, I was also somewhat numb. My midlife wisdom, often a comfort, let me down.  My efforts to understand why all these tragedies were happening to people in our circle were futile.

Intellectually I know that difficulties do converge at times, but it’s hard not to feel broken when so many are suffering in every direction. Just like when I was trying to nurse Blue back to health, I want to make it all better, to mend the broken friends, to mend myself. I used to have much more confidence that I could make it all better. Part of the lesson here seems to be that not even a smart, capable midlife lady with all the good will and determination a woman can muster, has the power to fix broken hearts. The owner of each heart must fix his or her own. 

No one else can do the work.And it can be slow, hard, messy, lengthy work.


  1. I am so very sorry that you've had to feel all these losses and hurts, my dear friend, for each one takes a piece of our heart with it. I pray God gives you the strength you'll need to see yourself through this painful time.

    Please remember, dear Amiga, I love and pray for you, always.

  2. Thank you, sweet Virginia. I can always rely on you to understand. Your prayers mean more than you know! <3

  3. Melanie: It is so very coincidental or perhaps a blessing that we are both experiencing sorrow at the same time. In any case, I lost my stepmother this past weekend after spending several weeks helping to care for her. I didn't want to say anything on Facebook because of the awful family dynamics that I had to endure. We buried her on Monday. I am not telling you this to get sympathy or add another burden to your load, but want to share my conclusions in hopes of helping you with your loss too.

    1) I believe that I am better off after having had Arlene in my life. She showed me how to have dignity even in the worst possible pain.

    2) Death, while our loss, is a blessing. Guess that is so because I believe in a heavenly place. She was a peace.

    3) Death gives us a reason to reflect on life and our loved ones. I for one am more appreciative of my loving family members and friends who have helped me through a very challenging time. And, I am happily relishing the joyful stories about life, including chickie stories, from those who didn’t know.

    4) When someone dies, you can reflect on all the good things that person - or kitty - brought to your life. I too have an older cat that I love so very much. She has been with me for about 15 years and was dropped off by my daughter who found her at a fast food store in Texas near the Air Force base she was at for flight training. My sweet little kitty has been with me ever since to greet me and give my fluffy warmth. Like your beloved cat before you helped her rest peacefully, she is loosing weight and is in early stages of renal failure. Your story makes me appreciate, even more, the time we have left.

    While I don't have magic words for you as you struggle through some of what you shared, dear Melanie, I truly believe we have to go through the sorrow to dance in joy for the life we are left with. When someone dies for no apparent reason, it is hard to find the good. But that is when we have to step away and find the joy in what is left. With my stepmother, I am glad I was able to do for her what my father would have wanted. There is peace in that, for sure.

    A very big hug to you and may you have a long break from any further losses.

  4. A hundred thoughts and realizations and wonderings are swirling through my head, but only two seem clear enough to express: 1) I'm so sorry for the pain you're having. 2) This is some of the finest writing I've ever seen from you.

  5. Wow, you have had your share of bad punches this past while. I noticed you hadn't been blogging much lately (me, either), but then to get this heart-wrenching account of your past few weeks almost leaves me speechless.
    It's like another blog friend I hadn't heard from for three months and the first thing I see is a blog on her diagnosis of ovarian cancer. It's so hard to know what to say or even what to think.
    Just know I have experienced grief, knowing yours.

  6. "Words come out of your mouth, but you know they are no comfort. Or pitifully inadequate comfort."

    They may be of no comfort but they are more comforting than saying nothing at all.

    I'm so sorry for all the grief you've had laid at your feet recently. Most especially for the loss of the love of Blue.

  7. I think the idea that we are sort of helpless in the face of loss--especially someone else's--is one of those very difficult life lessons that we end up learning over and over. There are no magic words, but I also think that just being willing to listen, just being present for someone else's struggle can help immeasurably in their healing.

  8. Hi ladies-- I was in so much distress when I wrote this that although I read your responses, they didn't really register. Re-reading them today I am so grateful to have met you all in the blogoverse. Thanks so, so much for the words of comfort. I hope you all are well, and I haven't given up on my blog yet.