Monday, March 26, 2012


My husband will be dead 3 months in 3 days. Yesterday I watched ted talks categorized under comedy. I probably learned as much from Emily Levine's talk "Theory of Everything" as I've ever understand about anything. She's a trickster - an agent of change. Her comedy crosses boundaries encouraging people to hold ideas lightly to let in room for new ideas and contradictions - a new way of seeing through creating different connections in the brain.

Stephen and I believed it was extremely important to be rational, stoic and valued whatever it was in the English psyche that enabled them to endure through WWI & WWII. When I was picking out which of Stephen's theology books to keep, I chose the systematic theologians writing during those war years.

We were so in our heads that neither one of us could tell when we were sick, when we were injured. In all the years I was married to Stephen, I never made a doctor's appointment because I was in pain or I was ill. Now I'm thinking that what may have killed Stephen was that neither one of us ever considered that perhaps Stephen should have swung by emergency on Christmas eve after he hit the raccoon. Stephen didn't even mention the incident to me that night. Even if he had, he would have said he was fine; I would have believed he was fine; he would have told the doctor he was fine; the doctor would have believed he was fine - the result being that going to the hospital wouldn't have ended with a scan of his aorta. Maybe the accident had nothing to do with his death. Maybe it was the beginning of his death. Maybe the autopsy will give answers. Maybe it won't. It's too late for Stephen. It won't bring him back but knowing might save me. Maybe the mind shouldn't say I'm fine without having a consult with the body and respecting its wisdom as well.

But like I said, I packed the systematic theologians. I like living in the head and being clueless about the body. Both Stephen and I had mothers who were always sick. We didn't have carefree childhoods. Neither one of us was up to feeling any more anxiety about the health of a loved one. We were both always fine no matter what happened because it was what we most wanted from each other and from ourselves. The parish and Diocesan expectation is that the clergy family will do their duty whatever the circumstances. Anne Ortlund wrote,"...feelings come and feelings leave you, but the disciplines of life are what get you to where you want to go." If you aren't aware of her, she's a writer, composer, organist, speaker, clergy wife raised in a military family who wrote several books on being a disciplined woman.

Now I'm questioning the value of the dogmatics books I thought I'd spend the rest of my life studying. Those books distanced us from the reality of our being. They kept us in a head space where we could never be hurt, never feel pain, where all could be explained. We thought we had built our lives upon a rock - the space where theology and science crossed.

So today, I'm going back to those bookcases that I had so carefully arranged with the books I'd take with me to a desert island. What books lead to the truth? Do I pack philosophy? Do I pack fiction? Is it poetry? Does it have anything to do with books at all? Perhaps truth and reality lie in places where I will never go because truth and reality may be the stuff of nightmares and not a thing of beauty. If it's a choice between a well-turned sentence and just about anything else, I'll chose the words. I still believe that the power to create and sustain the universe rests in the power of words. "And God said, let there be light and there was light." "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Media image of widows

They say that man doesn't process the possibility of his own death. Not true. My brother died of glomerular nephritis at 30 when spaces on dialysis machines were rare and there was a rating scale used when a precious space became available. At the time I was 18 and was cut off by the telephone operator in the midst of all the phone calls that happen when the acceptances to colleges and universities arrive for the message saying to go to the hospital. My entire adult life, I was always aware of where I fit on the rating scale.
No, the possibility I had never processed was that I could outlive my husband. The collective unconscious hears the word widow and goes back to the beginning of time when life truly was over for a widow. The exploitation of widows and orphans was a huge theme in ancient texts.

So I've been watching movies for a better image. In "The Body", the widow is an archeologist. The church should be forever grateful that I didn't see Susan Sarandon as widow in "Elizabethtown" until yesterday. When Susan's husband dies, she has an enormous burst of energy and learns all kinds of skills that she'd always intended to learn. At the reception following her husband's funeral, she gives a speech about her crazy whirlwind of cooking and auto repair. Then she tap dances a song to express her love for her husband. I actually had a friend who learned to tap dance in her 70s. Pretty sure the sight of me tap dancing wouldn't be inspirational. But I do love dance. Saw a really great youtube video last night of Martha Graham dancing Lamentation Love to sing but don't have the voice. Love to dance but don't have the body. Love art but don't have perspective. Big plans for doing them all for my own enjoyment once I'm living in solitude.

Line of Sight Internet

Surprise, surprise. I am going to fall into the category of "rural Canadians unable to have high speed phone internet connection". This is my best hope href=""> It's all dependent on how tall the trees are between my house and the receiver. Otherwise, I will be charged mobility rates which at my usage level would be huge. So now I'm thinking that I should go Walden Pond and disconnect myself from all my electronic distractions. If I do that, maybe I'll become as wise as the Yukon Indian elders.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Packing Books

Stephen and I were both huge book lovers. He was a priest without his own house so I would be moving back to my roots. Old rectories tend to be huge because they had to accommodate however many clergy kids would arrive with the new priest. I like getting books at the used book sales sponsored by community organizations. Stephen liked used books stores and book sales at universities where retired clergy would bring boxes of books from their personal libraries. He bought history, theology and how to do an art or craft. I would held toward music books, health books, anything on how to organize your life.

I'm not sure what the ratio is - maybe 1 book can move out of every 10 or perhaps 1 out of every 15 or 20. I'm thinking 3 tall bookcases with a few milk crates.

Some part of me thinks that if I get the book choices right, everything else about my future will fall into place. The ratio of kept books from my library and kept books from Stephen's library always come out 1:1 no matter how many times I sort the books. Back when we were in high school, the textbooks ended with World War II. Stephen had a fascination with German and Swiss theologians writing during the two great wars. They are moving to the farm. I didn't bring his history collection of war books. But I did decide to bring historians who wrote multi-volume series on the rise and fall of civilizations.

So what did I keep - books for sharing with grandchildren, survey books of English literature and poetry, music books, lots of books on word usage, and how-to books. Dictionaries received a shelf on each of our his/her bookcases - one in the theological bookcase and one in the General Arts bookcase. Perhaps finding the right word is as important as finding the right book.

So in the end what did I choose to move: the reference section of our libraries. I want the books that you go to when looking for an answer - the books you pull off the shelf on a regular basis. I just remembered that I have a book called Total Breathing. Maybe that's the most important "how to" book - how to breathe both consciously and unconsciously for the benefit of both mind and body. Stephen did 4 rapid snores and stopped breathing. Life is breath. So many little things take your breath away but like the song says, "Breathe, just breathe".

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Giving a Medical History

Whether or not the doctor's had a medical history to work from that night is unclear. I'm not sure if his medical records exist in a central computing system but what I forgot to mention wouldn't have been there anyway.

The first to arrive at the house were the emergency rescue personnel. They asked about what Stephen was doing just prior to losing strength on his right side and the ability to speak. They also asked about whether or not he was on any medications which he wasn't. Stephen always gave the persona of perfect health. When the ambulance arrived, the same couple of questions were repeated. Just before the ambulance left, Stephen got back full use of his right side and went weak on his left side. He went from being totally unable to speak to speaking clearly and intelligently.

The rule is that family can't go in the ambulance if there is any other way of getting to the hospital or allowed to follow the ambulance. There's definitely the possibility that Stephen gave a more complete history during the ambulance ride or during the initial assessment period in Chatham or during the ride and assessment period in London.

I was the one that made the initial 911 call and assumed that he had had a stroke because of the weakness on one side and inability to speak. He must have assumed the same thing because I could see him trying to work his hands. He had this theory that if you moved your muscles immediately that your brain could overcome the loss of function. Our old German Shepherd had had a stroke and loss strength in one side. The dog had also had a flee on his ear that he'd really, really wanted to itch. When we woke up, the dog was happily scratching his ear and he always dragged his paw a bit but was otherwise fine. In the midst of the crisis, Stephen was thinking about his old dog and was hoping to be as lucky.

When the symptoms had been on the right side, Stephen looked severely brained damaged. When the symptoms switched to the left side, he was totally himself - articulate, no distortion of his appearance. Being an experienced clergy wife, the first thing I did when the ambulance left was call the church warden. I thought it was pretty obvious that we were looking at immediate early disability retirement. Being rector of 6 churches in 6 different communities requires being in peak condition. The more experience the priest has, the higher he is on the pay scale. Most parishes are struggling these days and are hesitant to call someone with a lot of years of service so I doubted he'd receive another position. The church warden needed to journey with me to the hospital and handle what would inevitably be as huge a crisis for the parish as it was for us personally.

As soon as I arrived at the hospital, the emergency room doctor told me to bring the family members in as Stephen would most likely die that night. They were going to transfer him to London but it takes time to make the necessary transportation arrangements. Again I couldn't go with him to the next hospital so if additional history was given, it would have had to come from him.

So what did I forget to mention. I had spent the evening upstairs following links on google reader, facebook, twitter, etc. I have a very extensive personal learning network and take Massive Online courses. While I was upstairs my son and husband had been socializing and drinking rum and coke. I didn't think to mention the rum because I hadn't been drinking or watching them drink. All I thought to mention was that the pain in his chest started after we'd finished making love. I'm hoping the rum helped with the aorta pain but was far enough out of his system by the time he arrived at hospital to not influence any pain relievers prescribed.

The other possibly relevant thing I forgot to mention was that Stephen had hit a raccoon on Christmas eve. This had been a bad autumn for deer accidents and there had been several warnings issued in the local paper. I'd done much less travelling around the parish with him and we both weren't that keen about doing any unnecessary night drive. I have a Roman candle type personality. Telling me about the accident would have caused me to go ballistic and I would have said too much until my brain kicked back in a few minutes later. It's 5 minutes of awful and then I drop the subject as each day has troubles enough of its own. So I didn't know Christmas Eve. Did know Christmas day but we'd gone to our daughter's house for a wonderful Christmas supper and then we'd gone to our youngest son's house for a wonderful time on boxing day. On the day after boxing day, he had officiated at a funeral. There had been so many events and the car thing so minor in the scheme of things that in the crisis it failed to come to mind.

At the funeral, Stephen's sister talked about Stephen's last deer hunting visit. Stephen had had severe groin pain climbing into the deer blind. It happened on one side so the following day he used the opposite leg for the climb and experienced severe pain on that side. As dissections usually spread downwards, I doubt that the deer hunting incidents were relevant but a complete history would have included them. Again it was an event I didn't witness. Stephen was loving the hunt too much to interrupt it and went right into his Christmas preparations when he returned. He phoned when it happened but he never mentioned it once he came home. It's our custom to spend the night before a doctor's visit in a hotel and see the doctor the following afternoon as we never changed physicians when we changed parishes. Chatham-Kent has a doctor shortage and we had an excellent doctor in LaSalle so we didn't mind the distance thing. Unfortunately the distance thing is an issue for a priest when he's busy running around giving pre-Christmas communion to shut-ins and nursing home and hospital patients. Maybe he would have checked things out if the doctor was local but Stephen was mainly an annual physical kind of guy and never one to talk about his health.

Unfortunately even if digital health records were available, the rum, hitting the raccoon and the deer blind wouldn't have been on them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On going home again

"And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." ~T.S. Eliot

Ask me a year from now whether or not it's true. I'm thinking that I'll be moved into the house I was raised in by the end of the month. When I was in Gr. 13, the Gr. 13s were given a room to hang out in during their spares. Most of the talk centered around how we were going to get from our small town to London, Toronto - anywhere where something/anything might happen. The guys seemed to do a lot of fantasizing about how great life would be if they became gynecologists. All that fantasizing paid off as I remember being asked often why such a small place managed to produce such a large percentage of the gynecologists at the closest major teaching hospitals.

Somehow I always knew my destiny would be to return to the farm I couldn't wait to leave. Could it be because my father had night terrors right until his death about all the various ways the farm could kill me - drowning, fire, drifter, attack by a rabid fox, pesticide exposure, being run over by farm equipment, etc., etc.? My personal fears were attack by rooster or being chased like Captain Hook by a crocodile. We don't actually have crocodiles but thanks to the marshland being turned back to a wetland, snapping turtles and copperheads have returned.

It is wonderful to have a place to go when life figuratively explored. With most things being different, home is an anchor, a rock, something familiar. As the weather warms, packing seems less daunting. I had built it up in my mind to be an enormous hurdle. In reality, I not only know belongs in each room but also what my mother used to keep in each drawer, cupboard, closet.
I even remember the books that my mother and grandmother kept in their bookcases and packed up books accordingly. At 60, one has as many family members on one side of the veil and the other. I get to be the living memory so the future can truly understand the past.

So now the big question is how many of my friends stayed and how many of my friends will be coming back to end the journey where it began. Maybe I should create the equivalent of our old Grade 13 room - a place for planning, dreams, hopes, a future. I understand people are healthier and act younger if they are surrounded by the music, gadgets, etc. that remind them of their days before they became whatever adult role they took on. Perhaps moving home is the fountain of youth. Ask me next year.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Didn't See It Coming

Hunting for a quote I read this week about death being all around us while we fail to comprehend that the next death could be our own. I'm obese, inactive and don't take medical warning signs seriously so wouldn't have been the least surprised if I had died that night. What totally blindsided me was my husband's death - the most obedient patient a doctor could ever hope to encounter. He'd had an annual physical recently, was conscientious about having colonoscopies, did 100 situps and pushups every morning, gardened, walked every day, had a very limited medical vocabulary because he wasn't medically curious or talkative about health. It's enough to make me want to throw out my entire collection of preventative medical books and declare it's all in the genes or the length of string the muses have knitted or in the stars.

I requested an extensive autopsy and I want that report like I've never wanted anything before in my life. If I could have, I would have followed his body to the autopsy room and made diagrams of everything (can't draw a straight line or get my circles to close but we're talking desire not skill here) The doctors and hospitals were excellent - more upset about Stephen's death than I was. I accepted that he wasn't going to make it as soon as I knew his aorta had dissected from the heart to the groin. The heart surgeon stood by the phone waiting for confirmation that the aorta hadn't separated inside the heart right up to the moment of Stephen's death. He really, really wanted permission to rush him into surgery. Even after Stephen died, the medical staff worked really hard to resuscitate him. I thought he was lucky to leave this world quickly with just enough times to say his goodbyes, prepare his soul and have some quality family time. He talked to me until the second he died. I can't talk running around the block not that I ever run around the block. What were the chances that someone could be so lucky twice. Why bring someone back from an easy death so he can get to do it all over again in some agonizing, nightmare of an exit?
I want that autopsy so I can intellectualize the process in depth. Know exactly what I failed to observe. I don't have any guilt about failing to pick up on things. It would be like a colorblind person feeling guilty about not being able to accurately describe the colors in a painting. I wasn't the kind of wife who checked her husband's outfit before he left the house. In 31 years of marriage, I wouldn't have been able to describe what my husband was wearing to the police on any day. In fact, I'm begging my son to sort through the clothes in the laundry room and tell me which ones are Stephen's. I'd sort clean clothes into 2 categories - clothes belonging to guys and clothes belonging to girls. Stephen wasn't any different. In fact I'm really pissed that he wore my brand new jacket to the hospital instead of his coat. And I'm hoping when I find the bag of clothes returned by the hospital that his new running shoes are in it because I don't want to replace my totally worn out ones when I know his fit me. No, I just want to visualize what was happening inside him. When I fall into bed at night, I see him jumping out of bed and grabbing his chest that night in December. I want to be able to visual the story from beginning to end - from whenever his body first started becoming unglued until the blood reached his brain stem. Did it happen quickly or had my husband slowly and imperceptibly become unglued cell by cell over the course of our marriage?

I feel like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. This odd thing happened. I need to write about the inexplicable. I need to visualize it, understand it, communicate it because that's who I am. I don't want to identify myself as the widow. I want to be the observer, the writer, the curious one.

Need to Blog

How do you thank your 500 closest friends for all the help and support they provided at the time of your husband's death? The basket of cards, notebook of who brought what, registry from the funeral home, phone calls, volunteers who have been working on my new accommodations, people who stop me on the street and want to help has been overwhelming. And then there's the social networking crowd. I'm been really committed to MOOCs (massive online courses) since 2008 and all of them have been about forming personal learning networks in cyberspace.

There really is only 2 ways to handle this. I'm creating a mid-Lenten newsletter for those friends with known real world addresses. Included in the things my husband left me are over 600 sheets of Easter letterhead paper in a half dozen different styles and lots and lots of boxes of cards. Stephen was known for being excited about Christmas 365 days of the year but so far I've only found 100 sheets of Christmas letterhead and fewer boxes of Christmas cards than Easter cards so I guess spring was his season for looking at liturgical clothing and coming home instead with a package of paper. I guess that's the priestly equivalent of studying the latest styles and contenting oneself with some small item in the currently hot color.

On a larger scale, I've decided to return to blogging and talk about the little discussed topic of grief. It's really important to do so because the next big money maker for the pharmaceutical companies is convincing the medical establishment to include grief extending beyond 2 months in the compendium of psychiatric disorders that require a prescription. This is foolhardy because grief is one of those times when neuro-plasticity kicks in and the brain forms all kinds of new connections the leave one more than a bit wiser. It's really a lot like coming home with a new baby - a totally new world view requiring an amazingly large number of new skills. Mostly you wonder how you could have spent your entire life surrounded by widows and have no idea that you were entering a life phase which would give you a new perspective on everything.

In addition to widowhood, I've also had a total hysterectomy, turned 60, am receiving forms about my retirement when I haven't had a job since 1984, am moving from parish housing to my childhood community and am expecting to have an empty nest soon so I'm not even going to pretend to be able to sort out which change is related to which life event.

So click the link to Martha Beck's blog article about what she has learned from skiing - an activity I could learn nothing about without bloggers as I had a serious knee injury when I was in elementary school.
What I need at the moment is the line of insight that will show me how to get from the rectory to my own house. Stephen was always the one excited about the new possibilities that would open up with a change of parish. He would go into overdrive and do all the moving stuff. My stuff would get purged; his stuff would get moved. He'd work like a whirling, twirling Dervish and I'd get into the car on moving day. I wasn't one to throw out anyone's stuff but my own. So this whole sorting through Stephen's things and organizing a move is totally new and as exciting as baby throw-up and stinking diapers. If he'd had any warning whatsoever that he was about to die, he would have been excited about the journey he was about to embark on and have down his whirling, twirling Dervish tossing, cleaning, moving thing and I could just have dealt with what he hadn't tossed of my stuff.