It was nine weeks ago this weekend that I drove around this same curve, heading home from Grand Rapids from a day and a half of classes with my doctoral cohort. As I looked at that curve, the sun shining on a chilled nearly leafless late fall landscape, I could feel the chill of that time nine weeks before, as I gripped the steering wheel and screamed in an agony of anticipated grief.

It would be exactly a week later that my husband of 30 years would die after a very brief battle with an aggressive and merciless cancer. My diary from the night of my drive home read as follows:


Well, I survived my weekend class meetings and even cleared my head enough to avoid getting lost the second day. For a little while, I was able to enjoy the time with my classmates… not forgetting, but not focusing on my pain. But as I began my trek home, I began to feel the overwhelmingly dark clouds of sadness and pain. So much so that at one point my chest hurt, like a knife stabbing me in the heart, and I screamed from the depths of my soul in emotional and physical pain. My car’s clock read 5:57 pm as I drove up I-96 towards home. Sting, song – After the Rain has Fallen. My body shook as I sobbed and screamed at the omniscient being(s) that seemed to rule our lives. How could you do this to us? To Keith? He is such a good man! Always lived a kind life. Not a cruel man, a loving one, father, husband, son. It was unfair that he should suffer so! MAKE IT STOP, I screamed in agony, an order to no one in particular. MAKE IT STOP! My pain, Keith’s dying, his suffering, our suffering. WHYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!! I screamed in agony. My screams were contained within the confines of my rolling bubble, my hands clenching the wheel in fear I would lose control of the car.

Yet once my screams had subsided and my breathing deepened again in an attempt to regain control, a sudden calm came over me. I don’t know why. It just happened. I wondered if that was Keith’s spirit calming me. I even asked out loud: Keith, is that you? It seemed so sudden. Yet, my chest still held the shadow of the pain left behind to cloud my heart from joy. Later in my journey home, as I realized how much closer I was, my anxiousness grew again. I needed to be home again, to see Keith, to reassure myself he was still there. It worried me that my screams were from an empathetic moment of pain that Keith might be suffering at home without me. Or worse, that he had died and I wasn’t there to be with him.

With this blog entry, I hope to recapture some of the key moments in my process of saying goodbye to my soulmate, my best friend and husband. We had been together for 34 years, two-thirds of my life. It wasn’t until last week, after the last of visitors had gone, and my younger daughter had decided to stay back in Ann Arbor on her days off, that it suddenly occurred to me: I’d never lived alone. Yes, there were times when I’d been on my own for a week or two at a time, even a month at one point. But I’d never actually lived on my own. Keith would always be there to come home to, or be coming home to me. Now, it occurred to me that it would be just me, two large dogs, and a tortoise named Flash. I had to chuckle a bit. Guess I’ll have to work on better company.

There was another time when my journey home was painful, knowing all too well that the uncertainty ahead would be a road pockmarked with pain. When I was on my return flight from Russia, a week earlier than planned, I faced the real potential that my worst nightmares may be coming true. No, strike that. I’d never had those nightmares. The only dreams I’d had until then had been mysterious but uplifting, occasionally weird but always intriguing. This, however, was an impending nightmare. In my diary, I wrote:

“Skype is a wonderful thing, especially when you really need to call people around the world. So late on 5/9, when Keith told me that he’d gotten preliminary results from a CT and Ultrasound … I was thankful to this one small blessing of communication that allowed him to share the news. There were tumors in his liver. At first, though, I didn’t quite understand the meaning of that news. Keith seemed a bit too calm. Possibly metastatic liver cancer. He said they were scheduling a liver biopsy for 5/16. But it didn’t take long to find out what that could mean. And, when we spoke again the next day I asked him if he wanted me to come home and he said “yes” and thus began the first step for me in the journey back to the ultimate reality check.

… This journey together may likely be our last and I’m devastated by it. But the reality is that I will outlive my love and need to hold it together on the outside so I can be that “rock” everyone says is needed for him and for my girls. But this rock feels like an empty shell, sometimes filled with explosives that want to burst out and scream.

When I got back from Russia late on Friday, 5/18, I was really hoping it was all a dream. That was the longest flight ever in my life (even while I’d experienced longer time-wise). But I was hoping that when I walked through the front door, there would be a happy healthy Keith laying on the couch, standing up then to greet me with a hug, a kiss, and a passionate reunion… That was how it had always been with us. Thirty years of marriage hadn’t cooled that reception. My favorite part of traveling – though I’d done it many times on my own – was the reunion. He would miss me and we would curl up together in bed … and talk about the previous week’s happenings. That was how it was supposed to be this time, too.

But this time, the greeting was different. He walked downstairs to the hallway, barely could say anything due to the cough that he was still fighting. He’d taken a shower and was preparing to go to bed. It was very late for him, now nearly midnight, and he’d tried to stay up to greet me. Mark and Sarah had picked me up at the airport. Their concerned looks on their faces spoke volumes. Things were not going to be the same at home.

I went to hug him, but only two days out of a liver biopsy, his frailness already apparent under the henley longsleeved shirt he wore that hung on him like it was on a coathanger. How could I have missed his weight loss? I had seen that he was having issues with his pants, and even had worn a belt a couple of times… something he abhorred, and I could never have predicted before. But when I went to hug him, he pulled back. He was in a lot of pain from the biopsy and all he could do was summon a brief kiss. I sent the kids home with thanks and put him to bed.

I remember waking very early the next morning. I needed to put the house in order and my body clock was off by 11 time zones. Washing dishes, unpacking some things, putting in loads of laundry… I kept busy from about 5 am until he awoke around 7 or 8 am. It was a Saturday and we talked about what we would do if the biopsy came back positive for cancer. What a joke. Did it matter? He was still having fevers and night sweats, his fever hitting 102 or more at times, burning precious calories. His weight loss continued. His cough and hoarseness had continued. He slept most of the time. But I tried to stay positive. By Monday (5/21) afternoon, while I was on the phone with Michael, Keith got a call from his primary doctor’s office that the biopsy came back and they did not find cancer. The cells were benign and normal.

Unfortunately, the findings from that biopsy were wrong. About two weeks later, we would have the confirmation of Stage IV cancer of unknown primary, already spread to the lungs, liver, spine, stomach, with potentially the lungs or pancreatic biliary system as primaries. The only thing chemo was expected to do was possibly shrink tumors and therefore extend his life a bit. But after only two and a half cycles of chemo, Keith would die anyway, his tumors more than double the size, and his weight nearly half. The fact that he lived at all under such conditions was a miracle in itself. As they say in the movies, he was doomed from the start.

So why am I writing about this now? Because I have things to share, insights, fears, angers, emotions, grief… The rock has gotten stronger even after many meltdowns. I am told I must face my grief, allow it to happen. I do.

I cry. I write. I keep busy.

The night I drove home from Grand Rapids, that week before he died, I wrote the words to a potential artist’s book, a prose poem that captured the summary of Keith’s life. After that awful diagnosis, Keith and I lay on the sofa, curled up beside each other, crying softly. We could not talk to others. So I did the unthinkable. I texted the news. But then we talked to each other. We shared what we had done together, so much joy, so many challenges that we’d overcome. A loving marriage where we had grown together rather than apart. He talked about how he’d always been able to do the things he wanted, because we had supported him. Likewise, he had always done the same for me and the girls. Living overseas, we had made many more friends, while – ironically – becoming closer to those back home. We’d learned to depend upon each other more, become closer as a family, taking the world on together, as husband and wife, as the parents of two beautiful intelligent daughters. Keith said he had no regrets about the way he had lived his life. He had lived it fully, with the people he loved. He did not want his life to be defined by his cancer.

I wrote the poem that night when I returned from Grand Rapids nine weeks ago from this weekend, and only 14 weeks after my return from Russia, a poem that described Keith’s journey through life. I read it to Keith the night he died, September 1, 2012. And Sarah, our oldest daughter, read it at Keith’s funeral less than a week later.

Tomorrow night is a full moon. Keith died the night before a full moon, the waning gibbous. It was a bright starry sky that lit his path to the next universe. That parallel plane where I believe he now resides, still sharing with me the future in that other plane of existence out of reach, out of sight. Or is it?

I’ll try and explore that in a future post in this corner.

In the meantime, you probably have noticed that I find myself counting time. Everything seems to be measured in terms of certain landmarks: Travel dates, the summer of chemo, Keith’s final week, his death, his funeral, and the weekly anniversaries. Events, moments trigger a count. How many days has it been? When did I see that curve on the highway before, from this perspective? Ah yes, it was nine weeks ago, one week before Keith died, less than three months after Keith’s diagnosis, ten days after our 30th wedding anniversary, which was also just 16 days before…

It’s all about time, isn’t it? And it changes, depending on which side of the highway we’re traveling.

– Mara


Photo: These roses were blooming on the climbing rosebush outside my kitchen window the morning after Keith’s passing. The two unopened buds are like our children, as Keith and I are the roses, his looking slightly away. Still, I smelled the roses for the first time in months, the morning after his death. It was the start of the next dreamstate. – mjf