Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Making the Transition from Caregiver to Widow. Wear Comfortable Shoes. It's a Long Walk

I remember those first few days after Thomas died. As soon as the funeral home got him from the medical examiner I went to see him. They'd done the embalming and they let me see him after asking if I was sure.

He was covered from the neck down laying on a table. I stood there staring at him trying to let what had happened sink in. I went back several times for various meetings with the funeral home staff. It was a long walk down the hallway carrying a baby carrier, but it still seemed like I was watching this play out from somewhere else.

Finally the day before his funeral after he was dressed and put in his casket I went for a private viewing. I sat on a bench outside the viewing room and watched the video they made with the photos I'd given them first with tears streaming down my face still trying to let it sink in. Holy crap this had really happened to us. Then the guy opened the door to the room he was in.

I got up, put my hands on the stroller (my son was with me), gave it a push and went inside. I remember how heavy my feet felt. I took it slow, noticing they'd used the right casket, that the burial flag had arrived and was draped over the end. The guy turned on the lamp on the casket lid and left the room.

I hesitated to look down at him. I checked the bible verse I'd paid to have inscribed on the cloth inside the casket lid. It was fine. II Timothy 4:7. I have fought a good fight. I have kept the faith. I have finished my course. I allowed myself to look down. There he was…my husband-what was left of him, dressed in his favorite suit. His beard had been groomed like I asked, his hairline shaped…it was all done. I thought to myself…my God, it's really over…all his struggling...all his pain…all his suffering. Then I thought…my God, he's really gone. His smile, his laugh, his way of telling a story, the little sayings he used everyday…my husband, my children's father…he's gone. I have to bury him tomorrow.

Then Elijah began to cry. I picked him up. He was so tiny. He was just 2 months old. He'd just gotten here and his father was gone. How in the world did this happen? Elijah stared at his dad for an amazingly long time. I'd never seen a baby that small stare at anyone or anything for that long when the person or thing wasn't engaging them in some way. I held him there until he turned his head. It had to be well over a minute.

Thomas looked about as well as anyone can look in that state and that was a relief. How he looked when he was dressed up was very important to Thomas. Not sure if it had anything to do with how messed up his insides were, but looking good, especially wearing a Sunday suit was extremely important to him. And he was known for it. Several people when informed of his passing confirmed who they thought it was by asking, "You mean the guy who wears all those fancy suits?"

I looked at the door. I knew that in two hours they'd be opening that door to the public. His co-workers, fellow church members, people from the community where he delivered mail, people from the community where we lived, people from his past and his present, his mother, biological and adoptive father, his sister, brother, his older children and several other relatives would all be coming through that door. I'd be at the salon getting my hair done as people began to come in to see him. As I'd done several times during his life when he couldn't do it himself, I gathered myself and inspected him for detail.

I opened the door to find the guy who had let me into the room was still waiting. I asked for a few more adjustments to make sure everything Thomas did during his Sunday morning routine was done before that happened. Then I gave the stroller a push and walked away. Dang that hallway was getting longer and longer.

I returned that afternoon with both children. My daughter was walking this hallway for the first time and the walk seemed longer than ever holding her little hand and pushing the stroller. The room was full of friends, aquaintances and family members.

We funeralized and buried Thomas the next day without incident. That is unless you count the blow-out diaper my son had just as my pastor began the eulogy. That was it for him and his first suit. I'd painstakenly purchased our clothes the day before. Apparently we were lovely color-coordinated in pink, gray and white. I'm told we were the perfect picture of a grieving family resting on faith. I'm told I looked heart broken but was the picture of strength and hope.

Was this the look I was going for? Hardly. I just found a lovely pink dress for my daughter and saw the suit my son would wear a few feet away. It was mostly gray, but the pink shirt was the exact same shade as my daughter's dress. When it came time to get my own outfit, I thought…why not. How I looked during the funeral was the result of who my husband had required me to be during his illness. Cry if you need to, but stay on your feet and get this done. It was another long walk into the church that day. Stoic as I may have seemed, I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world. I was wearing high heels for the first time in almost a year because I'd just given birth 2 months prior and to take precaution against falls, I don't wear heels during pregnancy. They were a bit tight. I was exhausted. I was nervous. I just didn't want to drop my son. I also could not bring myself to hand him to anyone else. I'd purchased a sling, but he hated it and all well and good as it was recalled the next day. His Godmother did keep him with her after she and a friend changed his clothes and my daughter had laid her head in my lap and stayed there the balance of the service.

The end was coming…the last. At the final viewing I walked up to him. I bent over him for the last time. I stared at him for the second to last time. I touched his face for the last time. I held his hand for the last time. I rubbed his hair for the last time. I nuzzled his face for the last time. I felt his beard for the last time. I stared at him again. I remembered all the other times I did those things…how his breathing would change…how it would calm if it was ragged. I remembered how he would respond by just moving one finger to touch me back or by telling me to go to bed if we were at home or by telling me to go home if he was in the hospital. None of that was happening no matter what I did. We weren't at home. We weren't at the hospital. We were at his funeral. He's gone. I straightened up, asked my daughter if she was okay to go and sit back down. When she said yes, I turned, and walked away. I watched the funeral home staff as they situated everything inside before they closed the lid. I let out a deep breath. I told myself again, "He's gone."

Leaving the church I got my son back and we followed them as they pushed my husband out to the waiting cars. We moved slowly on yet another long walk. How many times had I walked from the front to the back or from the back to the front of this church in the 13 years I'd been a member there? I didn't know. The last time I'd done the walk this slowly was my wedding day…wow.

That's what this journey has been. Both life as a caregiver and my life as a widow can easily be described as a series of long walks. My life as a caregiver was 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days. It was 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days of loving, fighting, praying, crying, parenting, laughing and learning. It was 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days of frightening nights, hopeful days, moments of anger and frustration with periods of understanding and peace. It was a walk of faith…unyielding faith, shaken faith, unyielding faith, wavering faith, unyielding faith, shattered faith, unyielding faith.

In preparing for marriage I thought I knew who I'd be. It was 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days of something much different than I expected. Thomas seemed to see me as someone much more independent than I wanted to be and he had no problem telling me that. Half the time, I didn't want to hear about that. I didn't want to be in charge. I wanted to be taken care of like the other wives. A large portion of those 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days, I wondered why. Why him, why me, why us. But who were we really. We certainly were not the only ones with these types of issues.

It felt that way sometimes though. I spent a lot of that time feeling alone, isolated, like I didn't fit in with the couples we knew, like we'd never have what our friends had. And hardly anything hurts like feeling alone in a crowd of people who love you. But Thomas pushed me. For most of those 10 years, 2 weeks and 3 days he pushed me. He expected me to rise above it all. I got tired of rising above it all a few times. A few days I stayed under it, in a corner refusing to come out. He did too, but by the grace of God, most of the time one of us was able to pull the other one out and back into the game, sometimes with tenderness, others with verbal force.

Then he died. Care giving was over and I was widow. I was a widow with two little children, one of whom was still attached at the breast. If I got into that corner now, I was going to have to reach inside myself for God and pull myself out of it. I'd have to do it without even Thomas' prayers going up in the background.

Over the past 14 months, I've had ample opportunity to hit that corner. The ups, downs, surprises, exhaustion, and the of emotions that go with widowhood…the lonely parenting without even an ex I normally can't stand available to call when I need help..total responsibility for 1900 square feet of living space and the grounds and appliances that keep things running. It's been 14 months of loving, fighting, praying, crying, parenting, laughing and learning. It has been 14 months of frightening nights, hopeful days, moments of anger and frustration with periods of understanding and peace. It has been a walk of faith…unyielding faith, shaken faith, unyielding faith, wavering faith, unyielding faith, shattered faith, unyielding faith.

Only now, the challenge is to love myself without him. The fight is with my own occassional thoughts of inability as a widow rather than my inability as a caregiver. The praying is about the unknown future rather than the strength to face the unchanging challenges of the present. I cry because of his empty chair rather than because he can't get out of it. I'm finding the adventure in parenting as opposed to wondering how I will find it and be a caregiver at the same time. I'm still laughing to keep from crying. I'm also still learning who I am and in the process, seeing that in order to do this, I really need to be who Thomas was trying to get me to be for a long time. He's become to me like that coach the athlete doesn't understand. The coach rides him or her relentlessly and almost coddles the others. The athlete is frustrated to the point of quitting until one day it becomes clear. The coach did that because he or she believed in the athlete more than anyone else. Thomas used to say I was the right wife for him because even when all hell was breaking loose, I could stay calm. With ever step I take on this walk I try to remember what he said. Cry if you need to, but stay on your feet and get this done.

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