The First Days After the Last Days

(What follows is a collection of notes I wrote in the week following my wife’s death, going all the way through her Celebration of Life ceremony)

I always thought that I would be prepared to pick up the pieces when Shannon’s end came.  We fought the cancer together for 3 and a half years, knowing what laid at the end of the road.  But much like riding on a sled down a snow hill…you just never know how far you have until that sled stops.  In our case, we thought we’d see it slowing down, and be ready for the stop.  But, life chose a different setup.  It chose to have us hit a rock and just stop.  So while I knew this was coming and I had some ideas how to handle, I find myself rocked and tumbling through a brand new world now.

Every day with Noah is an emotional marathon.  I guess I’m glad that he and I can share our grief together well.  But the constant worrying about how he’s reacting, the constant observation for signs of deeper problems, it tires me out quick.  Because it takes away from the job I have to do as a husband closing out his wife’s final affairs, it takes away from my time to grieve for missing my best friend, and it impairs me just being the Dad I’m used to being with my kids.  I know that being able to have him around family has been good.  Each day since she died, we’ve had time with other young family he could look forward to and time to play with them to help get his mind off everything.  And last night, when we came in from New Year’s activities, I tried to lay him down in my bed as we had been doing.  He got up on his own, and walked out of the room.  I asked where he was going, and he said “Nowhere” with his normal inflection of “I’m okay, Dad”, and he went straight into his room, climbed into his bed and fell asleep.  Maybe that is the sign that he’s feeling safe again.  I hope so, because I know Darcy is beginning more and more to look like now she needs that protection and comfort to know that I’m not going anywhere.

Darcy has begun feeling out pieces of it.  She got me the most today, when she asked me to paint her toes.  I know many Dads probably learn how to do this, but this was always Shannon’s thing.  I just passed her along, Shannon painted, and that was our system.  I did…something…with those toes.  There’s polish on them.  They look pretty to her now.  I guess for now, that’s good enough.  But just realizing that Shannon won’t get to paint those pretty nails, or help her with makeup in the teenage years while I’m polishing my rifle, or talk boys with her, or ANY NUMBER of the Mother-Daughter things she’ll miss.  We knew that would happen, but nothing could’ve prepared me for that pain.  I croaked out some tears (Between writing her eulogy last night and how much I cried yesterday, I feel tapped out.  Empty, sad, but can’t cry because my body has no more tears to give).  And then she did something that found the reserve tank.  She went over, got a tissue, and handed it to me.  No words, no questions.  Just a tissue.  Well, it was monsoon season here after that.

New Year’s Day, I had my first dream about Shannon.  Noah had one the first night after she died, and I believed it was because he needed her most at that time, needed to see her when she was healthy again.  I had a dream that I was in our room, sitting in bed talking to the kids, when I heard Shannon call out to me “Joe, what happened to me?????”.  I bolted into Noah’s room, and she looked like she did after her surgery.  Not in hospital gowns and such, but back when she had shorter hair.  It looked like she was more…groomed?  Not that she wasn’t groomed when she was alive in recent years, but like someone at the hospital had cut her hair, cleaned her up a bit, things like that.  And I rushed in and started to tell her to relax and began telling her the story of what happened.  I was about to end it by saying “And so they had to take out some of your lung, but you’re okay now”.  But that is where my consciousness took hold, and made me realize, she can’t be asking me what happened.  Because she never woke up.  I was sad at first, and I was even somewhat angry.  But the more I think about it, maybe this is what I needed now.  I kept being so frustrated and upset that I couldn’t talk to Shannon in the hospital about what was happening to her, couldn’t explain to her why I called an ambulance (She would’ve hated me for it, she would’ve been mad I’d gone to all this trouble and thought she was fine, which I know she was not, but….I knew my wife, I knew how she’d react).  Maybe, this is what I needed now.  I would’ve liked more time to tell her what we’ve done since the hospital, tell her about what the kids have done, our families, me…But, maybe that’s just not what I need right now.  Maybe that will come in time, when my unconscious mind has had time to catch up.

It’s hard to wrap your head around how grief is “supposed to feel”.  You have these images in your head of wailing widows, just flinging themselves to the ground in despair.  Yes, those moments were there.  But the body can only sustain so much of those feelings before it begins to turn to something else.  What really gets me, the feeling that is darkest to me…is the “settling”.  The realization that the way things are right now, walking around, not having her to talk to or ask questions to, not having her to share in the kids’ triumphs…It’s not going away.  It feels so exhausting to walk around with that emotion.  It feels like this huge stone around my neck, realizing the months and years I’m going to face without her around.  THAT is the worst grief I have experienced to describe.  This mind numbing realization that all the things around the house, all the decisions in the kids’ lives, all the memories…They are my responsibility now.  And not even the work associated with that, but the weight of potentially failing or having problems.

I was told that as things become more commonplace, you might feel okay for a bit, but have the random moments of sadness.  And it’s absolutely true.  There were times yesterday where I felt like “Okay, I still miss Shannon, but this feels like it did when she would just be sick in bed and I’m taking care of both kids”.  All the way through the kids bedtime, seemed like I was feeling “steady”.  But all it takes is the right combination…In this case, a Bryan Adams song on Darcy’s radio and a mutual friend sending me pictures of Shannon.  I’m surprised my wailing didn’t wake Darcy up.  It all just rushes at you in that moment.  The loss, the desperation, the downward spiral of thinking about months and YEARS of this sadness to come.  You have to make sure to break yourself out of the spiral, you have to make sure you can keep going for the kids at least, and for your own self-preservation.  But it feels like I’m wearing a necklace made of boulders.  And each time I have one of those “breakouts”, we add another boulder to the chain.  I ended up sleeping on Shannon’s side of the bed last night when Darcy crawled into bed and nudged me over, rather than just rolling over to Shannon’s side.  And that sure felt strange.  It almost took a morbid turn, as I tried to imagine her last moments at home and what went through her head.  But I quickly moved on from that.  It won’t do me any good, it’ll only bring pain.  I’m really getting nervous for her Celebration of Life.  Not even the ceremony itself, I think that will go beautifully.  I’m worried about what happens AFTER.  After, when we no longer need to plan it.  After, when I have to start facing the challenge of getting the kids and myself back into school and work.  After, when I don’t have it to occupy my time and thoughts to stave off more grief.  I don’t want to imagine it, but I feel like this HUGE wave of emotional heaviness is going to crush me as soon as we’re ready to move on.

The  Celebration of Life is today, and I have to be honest, I’ve never been this scared before in my life (Well, only once…when I thought I may have to be the one to decide when to turn off the ventilator, THAT was the scariest moment in my life.  And being in the room with her when the end came…Alright, 3rd scariest).  I’m so nervous for everything to go smoothly, but I’m most nervous about my eulogy to her.  I was working on a letter to her to give when she decided to end her chemotherapy eventually.  A letter I never got to finish and read to her.  So I will be reading that letter instead, along with my final wishes/promises for her and the kids.  I’m actually scared that I WON’T end up crying.  Lord knows I’ve done that so much in the past week, but I feel like giving the eulogy, I’m going to end up focusing on words on a paper and look emotionless.  But, maybe that’s for the best, since the alternative is losing it so badly I can’t even finish.  I just want to get it done, and get it done right.  And I know there’s no “right” way, but as with anything I do for the kids or did for Shannon…it has to be perfect.

In the end…everything went well with her Celebration of Life.  I was so nervous about the eulogy, I just focused on the words on paper.  I cracked a few times, got a lot of compliments that even though my eulogy was heavy on the sad side, during a “Celebration of Life” that was meant to be happier, not a funeral…it made people learn a lot about our story together and about Shannon’s life in general.  I felt like I talked to about 70% of the people there for a total of 5 minutes each, 25% for less than that, and about 5% of them for 10 minutes total.  So many people, I could barely even keep track of my own kids.  I suppose that’s a good thing, it was great to see many people touched by her life.  But it made for a day where I felt like I was disappointing people who wanted to spend more time with me.  Then again, I feel like I got so many emotions out during the ceremony, it was like a strange calming effect Sunday night.  I felt just a little less empty.  And with that, I think we’re ready to start the next chapter…

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The First Days After the Last Days

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