Desire (part 1)

Lately I have been having such intense periods of loneliness that seem to be triggered by my yearning for Susan, as well as a lot of physical desire for her. I am wondering if this is the loneliness speaking. I know we were very aware of the physical intimacy in our relationship, how we expressed our love, how we found our way back to each other from it after short periods of separation, how it soothed our hurts and heartache when one neglected the other in some way. And so I suppose that in my time of heartache, I am missing Susan’s gentle touch and loving embrace.

Desire arose in many ways between us. For me there were two predominant triggers. The first is what I will call a fairly classic male stereotype: visual pleasure. Something in the way Susan would move, or something she was wearing, a dress perhaps, or a ponytail. Watching her walk up stairs, the shape of her body, her curves, her eyes, her smile. They were all physical attributes connected to her that could bring on strong feelings of desire for her. Physical desire, which at times became sexual desire.

And then there was this other thing, something I’d not experienced before knowing Susan. If I disclosed something to her, perhaps something shameful, or something I was embarrassed about, I would become aroused by the trust I was placing in her. My disclosure laid bare my vulnerable side and in doing so I seemed to be saying, here is my heart, flawed, damaged, dark, or just silly. And because I knew she would never judge me, I always felt safe to disclose. This disclosure of my true self caused me to be so attracted to her, to be so in love with her, that I would experience this physical sensation running through my body that I can only describe as physical desire. At times it didn’t even feel like sexual desire, at other times it did. 🙂 And I think, or rather feel, that my body was responding to her deep love, our love, and was asking to be closer to her physically. Other times, it was not so much a disclosure but an apology. If I had done or said something hurtful, even something that didn’t elicit a reaction from her but I felt in my heart had been unkind, I would have the need to apologize. And her gratitude at my thoughtfulness was expressed by a smile or her words, or she’d reach out to touch me. This was also an intimate moment for me, and one that created a flood of physical desire through my whole body, but sometimes just in my loins. It was so incredible that I would often tell her that I had become aroused by the moment, to which she would be amused or touched. Sometimes it was appropriate to act on that physical desire, but most often it was not the right timing or location. And that would wait. And it would find its way into our lovemaking at some later point.

The past few days, I have experienced intense physical desire for Susan. Desire for pre-cancer Susan and cancer Susan. However, my desire is more so fuelled by memories of her before she was diagnosed. I see images of her, remembered or imagined, and her beauty draws me into these waves of physical desire, like the ones I experienced while disclosing truths to her. And I guess the paradox that is now happening is that I am picturing the image of her physical self, but the waves of desire are more similar to the type I experienced through intimate disclosure. It has been quite wonderful.

I haven’t felt the need to take these feelings any further than just my awareness of them, or felt a need for any physical intervention, for lack of a better word. I have been enjoying them as they come and go, much like a memory or an image of her. I suppose the one thing I am happy about is that I am feeling my body again. The last few weeks when Susan was in the hospital and then the days following her death and funeral I was physically numb.

So those visits by Susan as waves through my body have been a catalyst for me to reconnect. I started back at the gym, ever so lightly. I went to my first yoga class in a few months. It has also helped me see where the anxiety that manifested itself last week was residing in my body. And perhaps, oddly enough, it allowed me to immerse myself in the natural wonder of Susan’s yard in Sutton.

I wrote this post a few months ago but only recently published it. I have written further on the subject of desire, physical intimacy, and comfort. I will publish those thoughts a bit later.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

of Susan, seventeen syllables on first day of twenty nineteen

a morning listening to Bach
and shrugging off fears
of the new year

turn thoughts ‘round she says
embrace joy find pleasure
ah there, in my coffee

take this day as it is
let slip yesterday
don’t compare to ‘morrow

the sun poked out
pierced through my citrus tree leaves
photosynthesusan!

the last blooming sweetpea of 2018

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Thank you, Nick

One of the very few moments I experienced comfort was while watching One More Time with Feeling, a documentary film produced during the recording of Nick Cave’s album Skelton Tree. This is a clip from the film and one of the songs.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

On Susan’s breath, body, and burial

Her Breath

“Her breathing has changed.” That was a text message Susan’s son, Oliver, sent to me about an hour before she died. Susan’s breathing and love summoned us to her.

Susan entered the palliative care ward at Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre on Saturday, August 25, 2018 and died the following Friday. She spent the week prior to this in a different hospital where she was treated for severe side effects from the chemo. It was exactly what she hadn’t wanted to happen — to get caught up in treatment and then to suffer from side effects. While in the hospital, two weeks prior to her death, she used two words with me that she never had before: “misery” and “weary”. She used “misery” to describe the suffering she was experiencing from the side effects and “weary” to describe the effort it took to get through her days. Susan had a rich vocabulary and I loved how carefully she chose her words. But to hear those powerful words used to describe her state of being was heartbreaking.

The days and nights in the palliative ward were calm and peaceful. Having somewhat recovered from the side effects, she was comforted by the care she received there and by the loving family and close friends around her. She slept a lot, but remained lucid and comfortable when she was awake. Her pain was managed wonderfully. Her sons, Oliver and Nathan, visited her the most. I sat or slept by her side. It was what she wanted. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were fine days. She slept, we talked, she slept some more. Her sons came to see her, as did other family members (when she was feeling up to it).

Susan holds my hand

On Thursday morning, Oliver and Nathan arrived early. We entered Susan’s room and gathered around her bed. “Happy birthday, Oliver,” Susan said with a smile. Oliver smiled back. Over the next few hours the two boys spent quiet time with their mom. It was so tender and loving. Susan drank in the faces of her sons and a look of such great love washed over her own. It was incredible. She glowed with love and pride and her eyes twinkled for the first time in weeks. I could see the love moving between the three of them. She fell asleep later that afternoon and never really gained consciousness again. Just past midnight I whispered in her ear that it was no longer Oliver’s birthday. That day had come and gone.

The next day, she rested comfortably, calmly. She breathed steadily and gave no signs of discomfort. She was stable. Oliver was with her in the late afternoon when her breathing began to change. He sent me the text and I hurried back to her room. Nathan, who had left earlier in the day, returned without being summoned by a text or call. He was on the metro, going home, but rather than get off at his stop he felt the need, the urge to remain on and go see his mom. The three of us stayed close by her bed. Susan’s breathing became apnea-like, with a pause between each breath. The nurse came and administered something to reduce the apparent distress and within minutes her breathing calmed once again.

The sun was about an hour away from the horizon. A beautiful bank of clouds passed across the sky outside her window, the light a bluish grey and orange. I put my hand on top of her head, held her hand. I was close enough to hear her soft exhales. After about ten minutes of soft breathing, she exhaled and then did not inhale again. I looked at the boys, whose eyes were wet. As we watched her face, Susan let out one final, soft breath. And then she was still.

Susan had hoped to die at home, but that was not to be. She had wanted her sons and me to be with her when she died and she had wanted to be free from pain, even if it meant sedation. Those wishes she was granted. I am certain that she knew the three of us were in the room. I am certain she heard us whispering to her that we loved her. We watched her let go of living and say goodbye in such a loving way. Perhaps this goodbye was her final gift to the three of us, a poem composed in beautiful unwritten and unspoken words. And that last quiet breath, as with all her breaths, filled our hearts with love.

Her Body

Susan had hoped to die at home. Her children were both born at home and she felt it was a natural and fitting place to die. She did not want any funeral home intervention or embalming. She chose a wicker casket that would facilitate her decomposition and return to the earth. After her final breath, family and friends came to visit her at the palliative ward. By late evening her sons, friends and family had left, save for her sister Tracey and her dear friend Mary, who stayed behind to wash Susan’s body and dress her.

Mary and Tracey looked at a beautiful green dress with a lovely floral pattern, and a green wool sweater. But as the two women placed the clothes over Susan the colours did not suit her. There was a second dress selected, a softer green one, with purple and pink roses. It was a dress that Susan had worn many times, she loved it. It was free-flowing, with wonderful flowers all over, and pockets in the front! How she came to love pockets in her dresses. So we decided on the pinkish/purplish dress. But the green sweater didn’t match. I bicycled home to Susan’s house less than a kilometer away to find a purple or pink sweater.

While I was gone, Mary and Tracey washed Susan’s body with soap that Mary had brought. The day before, on Tracey’s suggestion, I brought a large purple wool blanket from Susan’s couch to wrap her body in. When I arrived back, the two women had washed Susan and dressed her in the rose and pink dress. I pulled out a bright plum cashmere sweater, moth holes and all. We slipped that onto Susan. With the dress, the sweater, and the blanket, she was bathed in the colours she loved. Susan, of course, looked beautiful.

Susan in her dress and hanging out with her greatest loves.

It was near or past midnight. Tracey and Mary left, having promised to return the next morning when the hospital would be able to process the paperwork and release Susan’s body to the funeral home. I stayed behind to spend the night. Around 1 a.m. I crawled into bed with her. But there wasn’t much room, and Susan seemed quite content to rest where she was, and did not cede any space to me. Instead, I lay on a couch at the foot of her bed, her sentinel for one more night. I woke many times and rose to look at her. I touched her face and head. I kissed her forehead. Her eyes remained open ever so slightly, and her gaze was calm and relaxed. It made me calm and relaxed. Susan believed that whatever happened to her spirit after death happened right away. She did not intend to stick around her body after she died. But I talked to her anyway, like she was still there. I thanked her for everything. I spoke of tender things that lovers share in bed late at night, and my words were met with her soft eyes gazing back at my wet and blurry ones. It seemed completely natural, to stay with her. I knew she was dead but when I looked at her I saw all the different Susans I had come to love over the course of our relationship. A few times during the night when I looked at her, I saw how much of her vitality the cancer had stolen and what it had left behind in its wake. That part was heartbreaking.

I arose the next morning as the grey light of day entered the room. Sipping a coffee, I talked with Susan about the coming day. It was similar to most of our mornings, with time together by a window or outside, musing on thoughts for the day. Tracey arrived around 7 a.m. Mary arrived shortly after that. The nurse placed tags on Susan’s body and clothes. The nurse was very respectful and he supported our wishes to take care of Susan in whatever way we wanted.

Mary, Tracey and I waited for the porter to take Susan down to the morgue. We talked about the experience we were all sharing. We had processed and interpreted and caught sight of specific things, and each one of us took away something unique. It was beautiful to hear how the two women spoke of Susan’s death, and how they had lovingly taken care of her body. Now we had to trust the people in the morgue to be kind to Susan, because we couldn’t go with her after that.

Later that morning the porter arrived and asked us if we wanted to spend any last minutes with the deceased. I told him the deceased’s name. He nodded. Then he asked us if we’d like to spend any more time with Susan. I can’t recall what I said, but invoking Susan’s dark sense of humour I made a slight joke. We all laughed, and I think that gave him some idea of who she was, and how prepared we were. Then he said he had heard from the nurse that we wanted to accompany Susan down to the morgue. We all nodded. He said that was against hospital protocol, but that he was going to let us do it anyway. Big smiles all around. He transferred Susan to a gurney and placed a black cover over her body, which kind of bothered me. I am not sure if it was to provide some modesty for Susan, or to save others from seeing a dead body. We rode down in the elevator to the basement where a security guard arrived to open a large metal door. This was as far as we could go. He peeled back the black cover from Susan’s face and offered us one last look. Tracey and Mary embraced and cried. I smiled. My last looks had come during the night, as Susan’s eyes gazed into mine. I had already seen all I needed to say goodbye. He rolled Susan behind the big door, and that was the last time I saw her body.

Her Burial

Susan was buried in a private ceremony the next day, Sunday.

I was quite stressed for the remainder of Saturday, the day after Susan died, as I did not like leaving her unattended. I had to place my trust in the universe. Serendipitously, her body was retrieved from the hospital by an old grade school friend of hers, who had recently taken on a funeral director’s position. It was comforting to know that a friend was taking care of her. In Quebec, only a funeral home can transport a body. Susan and I were quite certain that her body and wicker casket would have fit in the back of my ’99 Volvo station wagon. But she did not die at home, and I am also quite certain her body would not have been released to me from the hospital if I backed my car up to the morgue doors. On Sunday, her body was driven about 125 kilometers outside of Montreal to Knowlton. Her family has a country home there.

The family, the pallbearers and I arrived at her parents’ house. We were invited to pick flowers from Susan’s mom’s garden and then we walked up through a field and woodland trail that brought us to the cemetery. Susan’s body was already there. The pallbearers, Selma Greenberg, Jackie Cohen, Miriam McCormick and Mary Harvey, each put a hand on the casket. The man who had driven Susan out was a bit nervous, as he wanted there to be 6 people. Susan’s casket weighed about as much as two sparrows in a straw hat. But he was concerned, so he helped them. It was great to see all these women carrying Susan. She would have been so pleased. The casket was laid to rest across her grave. Mary Harvey led a beautiful ceremony and we all had a chance to place a flower on Susan’s casket while we recalled a fond memory of her. It was a wonderfully warm day. And a light rain began to fall. Not droplets of water, but more like a misty sprinkle.

Honouring Susan’s gift as a writer, Mary had brought some bits of paper and some water-based ink pens. We were invited to write a word to/about Susan, and Mary put them all in a cotton bag and placed them on her casket. Susan was lowered into the ground, and her dad and brother planted a pin cherry tree at her head. Some of us placed some dirt at the base of the tree, and it was watered. The tree will blossom white flowers each spring. Mary had also brought biodegradable ribbons that people could tie on her tree if they wanted. It was a participatory event, such a beautiful way to honour Susan. No one had to wonder what to do with their hands because we were so active! Those of us who had been to other burial ceremonies knew how lucky we were to be in the presence of so much love and compassion. The entire ceremony was serene and peaceful and graceful, just like Susan.

Slowly, everyone made their way back down the woods to the house. The funeral home guys packed up their stuff and drove away. The only people left were Jackie, Mary, Miriam, Susan’s son Nathan, myself, and John, the man who drove the tractor that dug the hole Susan’s body now lay in. John quietly and unobtrusively was waiting for everyone to leave so he could fill in the grave. Nathan had removed his shirt and was sitting next to his mom’s grave. I talked to Jackie and she said she thought he might want to put some earth on his mom’s grave. I went to him and asked him. He said that ever since he was a little boy he always imagined that he would be the one who buried his mom when she died. I asked him if that was what he wanted to do. He said yes. Okay, let’s do it. There was one shovel near the fresh soil. Nathan picked it up and started shoveling earth onto Susan’s casket. John brought more shovels and a rake.

Jackie, Nathan, Mary, Miriam, and John on tractor

Mary, Jackie, Miriam, and I helped Nathan bury his mom. As Jackie noted, Susan would be so thrilled. It was hard work in the humid air but we soon had it filled in. Nathan groomed the top with care and attention and smiled as he smoothed out the edges. I think her friends discovered this act was unexpectedly loving and sacred. Unexpected in that no one really thought that doing it might feel like this. And for Nathan, well, he had thought about it. Long ago. And now, he had completed his boyhood imaginings and taken good care of his mom.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

What to say to someone whose spouse or beloved has just died

It has been a few months since Susan died. Over 300 persons attended her funeral and many thousands have visited her blog. I have been sheltered a little bit from public interactions, first by taking some time off work, and by spending more days and weeks with my two sons. As Susan was very open about her illness and coming death, and as I was writing when I could about my own experience with her, it was safe to say that it was a public affair. Many people heard about her death through Facebook or her blog. When I was requesting time away from work, I was asked by an administrator if it was okay to inform my department chair. (I work at a university and the chair is kind of like my boss, but without much or any real power.) When I told people that Susan was ill 18 months ago, I was confronted by the same question around secrecy. I had asked the department to inform people that Susan had died. It wasn’t a secret.

For me, this just seemed like the right thing to do. It would explain why I was away, and it would give people some time to gather their own thoughts about any number of things around death and dying and grief. I also did not want to go through the task of informing people firsthand when I encountered them. Though not as tiring as when Susan was first diagnosed, I felt it would be easier for anyone who encountered me, and for me as well.

I received some beautiful emails over the first weeks. Lovely, touching, heartfelt. I responded to them all. It was healthy for me to do that, as it helped me connect with people who cared about Susan and me. I liked that part. I also received a few cards in the postal mail! That was also very pleasant and helpful. I have not responded to those people just yet.

Running into people since Susan died, I have experienced an array of responses from them. Many people who wrote emails to me confessed that they didn’t know what to say and were thus explaining why their note was so late in coming. So in the spirit of all that Susan was doing, I have decided to write down some of my thoughts on the matter of what to say to someone whose spouse or lover or partner has just died. This post follows up on one by Susan and one by me on sharing the news of a terminal illness. Some of these suggestions are meant to be a first response, something to say that is kind, and to allow a bit of time to assess the needs and state of the bereaved person, and to collect one’s own emotions. For some, finding the appropriate words comes naturally, for others, like me, I need a bit of prethinking. These, of course, are my opinions on my situation and might not be for everyone.

I have to admit I have been a poor responder in the past to hearing the news from someone about the death of their loved one. I have opened my mouth and a whole bunch of anxious, nervous, stupid words came out of my mouth. Or I avoided talking about it, or avoided the person all together. I don’t want anyone to replay any of our interactions and wonder if they misspoke, or acted weird. I don’t judge and I am forgiving! This whole death and dying topic is treated like an elective that we can avoid taking and still graduate with a degree in living.

  • If you know someone has lost a lover or spouse, here are some things that were helpful for me to hear when I ran into people in public spaces

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan. I am so sorry to hear the news.”

This was the most common reply. We often think of the word sorry to mean “to apologize” and in that context we think the other person is to blame or somehow responsible. As in, “I’m sorry I spilled coffee all over your new pants.” I recently told someone I was sorry for the hardship that their spouse was enduring with a cancer treatment and they replied with, “ That’s okay, it’s not your fault.” To which I had to explain my use of the word sorry. So, depending on how one interprets the word sorry, I think maybe sad is a better word.

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I am saddened to hear of your loss.”

“I heard about Susan’s death. It is so sad, for everyone. How are her sons?”

I heard these a few times. To which I often replied, “Yes, it is sad, it really sucks, for her and all of us.”

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I can only imagine what you are going through, that this is an extremely difficult time for you. I am so sorry for your loss.”

This one is pretty good! Expressing that you can imagine what I must be going through suggests a level of empathy, a capacity to imagine my grief. Calling it a difficult time is a pretty good adjective.

“She was an exceptional person. You must be missing her so much.”

Either one of those on its own is a kind thing to say. And both statements are not about the person speaking, but rather about the deceased and the bereaved. This is the type of thing one says when they knew the deceased person really well. I think one can express their own longing for the dead person after acknowledging the grieving person’s longing. And oh yes, I am missing her, dearly! If you want to see me cry on the spot, you can say: “you must be missing her”.

A few weeks ago, I walked across the street from Susan’s home in Montreal to knock on the one door that housed a friendly family. The neighbour knew about Susan, had spoken to her over the summer as Susan watered her garden. The woman was wondering where we were but had no way to get in touch with us. I told her Susan had died. Then, without really saying anything, she threw her arms around me and gave me the kindest hug. She didn’t have words. That might be the best response yet.

Offering to help in any way is a most gracious ending to the conversation. Just be sure to honour that offer should the person contact you.

And please please, mentioned the dead person at the beginning of the conversation. I’ve had numerous conversations, in which a person starts in about the weather and the rain and how many errands they ran that day, and then as an afterthought, they offer condolences. That’s hard, because as you are talking I don’t know if you know that Susan died, and I’m trying to think of ways to tell you while you chat about the humidity. I don’t feel present in the space when this type of avoidance is happening. The conversation running in my head is completely opposite to whatever you are saying. And I’m standing there, listening, and waiting to either to tell you the news, or for you to acknowledge her death.

If you yourself have lost a spouse, I think this is helpful information, but not right off the top. Being a good listener is more important. Mentioning that your spouse also died and then offering to be there for additional conversations is a nice closing gesture. I have had a few people tell me that their spouse died, months or years prior. And this helps deepen a connection, and it helps me rehear their words.

  • Things NOT to say when you already know that someone has died and you run into their spouse at the grocery store or the gym

“I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

This phrase is highly subjective. And some people may not have any problem hearing that response. But to me, this phrase makes it sound like you are incapable of empathy and it makes me feel incredibly alone in that moment. I wonder if people who say they can’t imagine what I am going through really mean “I am terrified of my partner dying and I hope I never have to think about it.” Because I feel even the most creatively challenged person has some capacity to imagine a significant loss. Better for me to hear: “I can only imagine how you feel.” In that way I have a sense that you are making the effort to empathize. The important word in that sentiment is “only”. If you say you can imagine what I am going through, it might sound presumptuous. But by saying you can “only imagine” I feel it suggests a certain effort on your part without implying that you actually know what it is like. And the above rationalization might just read like an unbalanced person whose skin is thin in the moment.

“How are you doing?”

I’ve had this question so many times. How to answer that question? One minute I’m fine, thinking about something wonderful, the next I’m a puddle on the couch, or weeping behind the wheel of my car. Then I’m stable, meditating, managing the grief, then I’m not. After a while, I just told people that I didn’t know how to answer that question. I know, it’s an automatic interrogative right after we say someone’s name in almost all of our greetings. Hard to catch oneself. I found “How is your day going?” to be a better alternative. Grieving is not linear. It’s not a nice sloped landing strip. It’s fraught with unexpected twists and turns and numerous black holes.

  • Things NOT to say when you are just hearing for the first time that someone’s partner has died but you knew they were ill

“Well, at least you had 18 months together.”

Yes, except I don’t need to be reminded to be grateful that she outlived her expected prognosis by a few months.

“Shit happens.”

Yes, a direct quote heard just last week. I know shit happens, but that’s not what I need to hear.

“God has a new angel. God works in mysterious ways. All part of God’s plan.”

I suppose if you know the person was devoutly religious this could be helpful. But for me as part Buddhist, part agnostic, part Susanist, this sounds condescending and completely fake. It doesn’t feel like it is from the heart. To be honest, I’d rather hear “Shit happens.”

“She is in a better place.”

She was alive, vibrant, positive, super cheerful, kind, brilliant, fit, beautiful, funny, fully looking ahead to numerous creative projects, contributing to the world, and enjoying her life. Hearing someone tell me she is in a better place denies all of that. Maybe there is a better place, but from my vantage point it was a lot to lose. It does nothing to make me feel better and actually makes me feel worse.

  • What to say when blindsided by the news of someone’s spouse dying

This one has a bit more latitude but I think there are some general replies that everyone could write down and put in that little wallet where one keeps their bank card and driver’s license. Take it out every once in a while and practice saying them. Because even in spite of all our connectedness through the online world, there are times when one won’t hear about every death. So chances are you’ll be buying unsweetened soya milk at the IGA and someone you haven’t seen in a while will pass by and you’ll ask them how they are, or what’s new, and they’ll tell you that their partner or lover died recently.

“Oh no, that is awful news. I had no idea. I am so sorry. You must be hurting a lot.”

“Oh boy that sounds so tough and so sad. I hope you have family or friends close by.”

If the bereaved person gives you some details about the deceased or their death, just listen. Don’t feel pressure to respond and make it a conversation. Don’t ask questions about the death (What did she die of? How old was she? Did she try CBD oil?). Sometimes questions and conversations are draining. Allow the bereaved person to have your ear. Listen to what they are telling you and it will help you determine your response. Don’t jump into a story of your own, and don’t offer a bunch of advice. If they ask for help or ask a question, then you can respond. If you feel like offering anything then make the offer. If you don’t feel comfortable about offering help, then tell them you hope they grieve well and find whatever they need to make their way through this difficult time.

Someone who did not know Susan or of her illness asked me what I had been up to. I replied: “I am grieving. My beloved long-time partner died a few weeks ago.”

“That’s unfortunate,” was the response. I felt bad for the person, because they had been caught off guard, and without a lot of practice, those are the kinds of things that come out. I responded with, “Yes, it is unfortunate, thank you.” I am not sure if that was a good or not so good thing to say, by either of us. Her comment did surprise me though, as it didn’t make me feel better, but it didn’t sting either.

Other things to avoid saying, in case your filter is damaged and your brain is on cruise control, and maybe avoid in any situation.

“I heard Susan passed away. You look terrible. Are you eating?”

“So, what are you going to do with all your spare time?”

“Are you sad?” (Yes, an actual question asked of me recently.)

Questions in general are sometimes just difficult, no matter what. I have been in conversations with close family or friends and expressed my worries and fears or whatever I might be feeling. They have asked: “What do you need to help with that?” Which is actually a pretty good question because it gives me pause to reflect on an answer. What do I need? I admit often that I don’t know, or perhaps there isn’t any answer. This can lead to some frustration and fatigue, as though I am attempting to solve a puzzle that I don’t have the knowledge for. In my case, the answer is often self-compassion. I need to be kind to myself. And perhaps that can be a nice way to end a conversation with a grieving person. Merely tell them to be kind to themselves. Because in many cases, as a lover or a spouse, they have been the primary caregiver, and have averted many of their own needs to pour love into their partner. I did not neglect myself over the past 18 months, I did my best to take care of my health and to remain Susan’s trusted partner, not just someone who cared for her needs. But I can now feel how the last 18 months chipped away at me, physically, spiritually, and most of all emotionally. And the one person most able to comfort me is no longer available. So being reminded to be compassionate with myself has been a mantra over the previous weeks. People often close off a letter or a conversation with “take care”. And it becomes an unheard imperative. One needs to deliver the message to a grieving person in a direct, loving way, so it is not just a tacked on ending to an email. “Be kind to yourself” feels easier to hear.

  • Knowing that someone has died and then pretending like nothing happened when I run into you

This is the one that is both completely understandable but also the most painful of all. I have been in social areas, like the gym, with people around that know me. Some knew Susan was dying, some did not. Someone asked about her and I told them she had died. The response was polite and kind and fell amongst the many simple things to say to someone. But there were people around us, who knew me by face and had engaged in small talk with me over the years, who heard my brief conversation declaring Susan’s death. None of those people came over afterward. I spent an hour in the gym and those people avoided me. When I say I understand their response, it’s this: we live in a death-phobic culture. We don’t practice what to say, and we don’t process our emotions or understanding of a situation in order to respond in the moment. I get it. We are mostly ignorant. But even knowing those reasons, it still felt awkward. It’s okay to say you overheard me speaking in a public place about the death of Susan, and that you want to recognize the journey I am now taking. It doesn’t have to be a lot. “I heard you talking to so-and-so about the death of your girlfriend, and I’m sorry for your loss.” I would respond with: “Thank you, I appreciate hearing that.” It can be as simple as that. Otherwise, I feel a huge disconnect in the room. Perhaps you might think you are intruding on my private space if you approach me. Now that I am grieving Susan’s death, I think it is worth the risk. I had no idea in the past how much of a difference it makes to hear acknowledgement from others. And, you know, much like an apology, it’s never too late to offer another person your sympathies. There will most likely always be another opportunity. I’ll be at the gym again, you can take some time at home over the days, and think about what to say. Maybe even google a query and find this blog with some suggestions. Or if you are a fan of the TV show Seinfeld, you can channel your inner George Castanza, and when you come up with the perfect response to a previous missed opportunity, in which you didn’t have a good reply, you can wait for a second chance and roll out your well rehearsed words!

To back up my point about it never being too late, I recently expressed condolences to a colleague who lost his sister many years ago. I realised I had avoided him at the time and never spoke about it. He accepted my belated sympathies, and we had a good conversation about death and avoidance. I also got to hear what he was going through at the time, which I appreciated.

  • Honouring Susan

I am sometimes playful with people who have been reading Susan’s blog and know how candid she was. Neither of us like the terms “passed away”, “passed”, “her passing”. So when I hear them used in a conversation about her from someone who knew her, I smile. Sometimes I offer the person the chance to use the word death. I tell them I am the perfect person to practice using the words “death”, “died”, “dying”. One friend took me up on the offer, in the grocery store no less. When I saw her she said: “I heard about Susan’s passing and I want to tell you how sorry I am.” I smiled and made my offer. She paused for a second and rephrased her sentiments. “I heard about Susan’s death and I want to say how sad I am for you and her sons.” Using the word death even changed the content of her condolence! It was more sincere, not sanitized, and in some ways I feel it allowed this person to reach a deeper understanding.

It wasn’t so hard, to say or hear. Susan and I always found those humorous terms to be part of the phobia around talking about death. Susan’s end-of-life event? I have not heard that one yet. If you have read Susan’s blog and learned anything from it, then you can honour her perspective and the gifts she shared with you by calling her death what it was: her death. It honours her life, as well as all the things she was giving to us through her writing on The Passing Away Blog, er I mean, The Death Project.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Same

Today is one of the saddest days yet. Returning to work seemed to have triggered a technicolor image of what my life used to be like. And yet, it’s missing Susan. She is gone. But the hallway at work is the same, my office is the same, the classroom is the same, the people are the same, but my life is not. And the vivid sameness of everything only serves to remind me that nothing is the same for me. I feel like a ghost, walking in my own life.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

It is so beautiful this early June morning

Since Susan’s death I have spent numerous nights at her house in Sutton, Quebec. Susan’s yard is an expansive, one-acre property on the edge of the town. I have revisited the many paths and places we ventured during this past summer. There are two places where I can see that the deer bed down at night. One is near her apple tree just past her driveway, and the other is behind her pond. I can see deer scat, and even the trail they walk through the yard as they come and go. I had set my alarm the first few nights to get up before dawn to catch a glimpse of them. It is very dark at 4 am, and just as dark at 5. I stretched my eyes over Susan’s yard, hoping to see the deer. But the undergrowth was just too thick, and the light (or my eyes) too weak. I am sure they silently walked right past me.

The view from Susan’s window looking on to the back forty

This spring I embraced all of Susan’s yard. As I looked one April morning from her living room window out onto what I called the back forty (old homesteading term), I suddenly saw it as wondrous. There is an escarpment of about 15 feet, with a rock wall, and below that stretching out is a wooded area with open meadows. In the middle is a pond with a liner that was built by the previous owners and was landscaped at one time. But Susan let the universe back into the space, stopped grooming it, let the plants move at will, let the trees seed as they desired (seeding liberties had been revoked from the sumacs, however). And so as I looked down on the yard I believe I caught a glimpse of what Susan would see. Nature was awakening, and reclaiming and beautifying the area. One of the problems that prevented Susan or us from spending more time down there was that by June, the wild raspberries and flowers and grasses and the diverse bio mass would overtake the place and it almost required a machete to venture through it. I told Susan that I wanted to help her reclaim that part of the yard. She smiled.

Where’s Susan? Taking photos on the back forty

During all the weekend visits in late April and May, I set about cleaning debris and deadfall from the previous year. I would rake and haul mounds of deadfall on a wagon or a wheelbarrow to the back corner of her yard where she had a compost pile going. It was fun and rewarding work. I came to be able to work in only shorts. No shirt or shoes. My body seemed to withstand the foliage scraping me. My step was sensitive to the ground and if anything jagged like a rock or a stubborn stem poked at the soles of my feet, I was able to navigate around it. I did use gloves to pull the wild raspberry stems that had invaded many parts of the yard, smothering out other things. It was simple but physically demanding work. I loved it.

Deadfall and Roy, photo by Susan

As I cleared out deadfall, the new budding plants underneath danced upward. Within a few weeks the green buds of a flower garden appeared amongst the beige and browns of last year. It still had a wild untamed flare, but growth was accelerated. It made Susan so happy; happy that her yard was getting some much needed love and attention, and that I was genuinely receiving joy from the work.I wasn’t just doing it for her. We were both in the moment, happy and grateful to be in nature.

Me (in purple) with my wagon, photo by Susan

 

When someone has a terminal disease there isn’t anything anyone can do to change that. Accepting that fact made it a bit easier for me to feel less, for lack of better word, useless. Nothing can be done to change her disease or diagnosis and so doing nothing about it didn’t feel like doing nothing. There was a release from that challenge. And with that came a release from the idea of hope. Susan and I found that hope was the one thing we both dreaded hearing from someone else. To have hope, as we discussed, meant to be living for a future moment. It meant missing out on the current moment. Having hopes also meant that one had to deal with what it felt like when they were dashed. Of course, there were always accounts of some miraculous story of a person near death, springing back to good health without any medical explanation. Susan sought treatment, a palliative chemo, which was undertaken to lessen her symptoms and/or temporarily halt the disease progression, so she might enjoy more moments and days and weeks. And for the most part the treatment delivered, but Susan didn’t wait for, or hope for results to enjoy future days. Today’s moments were what mattered. To spend one’s final months hoping for a miracle really seemed to Susan like, well, a waste of precious good time.

The house and Bee Balm as seen from the back forty

And so I couldn’t change the diagnosis, couldn’t conjure up some obscure cure. (There were always the many cannabis crusaders, vitamin C evangelists, coffee enema enthusiasts, etc. who repeatedly offered suggestions on cures even after she had already asked for people to refrain from advice.) But I could help Susan live in this moment of her life as best as she could. I would process things emotionally and intellectually with her, witness her tears, be comfort for her, be her lover and confidant, her most trusted partner. And she mine.

Susan, May 2018

Susan loved gardening. Loved to be in the earth with her bare legs, bare feet, hands full of dirt. I recall one summer she was working in the garden in only a dress, maybe gloves, and she scraped her thigh on a rose bush. She had this eight-inch wound (she called it a scratch) across her leg. It healed but the red mark on her skin remained well into winter. In her last two summers, her heart ached that she was no longer physically able to do many of those things. But watching me, seeing the results of my effort, made her happy.

I groomed numerous narrow paths at her request through the entire yard. Always with a serpentine shape, sometimes ending at a meadow or a tree, or swirling back to another path. Sometimes a path just ended where I felt it was a good spot to pause and look.

One of the paths led to her pond. Any remnants of the previous landscaping were lost. The manufactured pond had become Susan. There were two meditation stones that she had placed there years before.

The pond and meditation stone

They were now covered in moss. Numerous trees: oaks and maples had volunteered and had grown in behind. I had dredged part of the pond. Years and years of fallen leaves from the surrounding tress had turned it almost into a bog. I dredged about three wheelbarrows of beautiful compost and spread it around the yard. Susan didn’t want me to do the entire pond, only about a third. She was concerned about the tadpoles. I found an elaborate plumbing system that the previous owners had installed to pump water from the pond up the escarpment and then fall back down a stream into the pond. Susan wasn’t interested in a noisy pump so I found the buried conduit at the top of the escarpment and set about connecting it to the drain from the eaves of her house. I was able to add much needed water to the pond through the buried pipe.

Susan and I went down there often, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Sitting next to the pond, one could imagine a fairy tale about a magical forest. The dense trees and foliage covered us from all sides. There were water lilies and some type of tall grass plants shooting out of the water. Wild flowers everywhere. And frogs and snakes!

The other paths Susan loved just as much. She had this wood nymph persona that loved the feeling of following a path through the green. There was something of great comfort for her in these paths. She used her new smartphone to record her walk along these paths, perhaps to look at them again when she was no longer able to be physically on them.(I’ve embedded a video that Susan shot at the end of this post. Take a walk with Susan and see what she saw!)

Daffodils in springtime

I found myself becoming sensitive to the flora. Barefoot, I could feel the ground, the energy ever so slightly. I was/am a complete novice when it comes to identifying weeds from flowers. Which was fine, because to Susan there really weren’t any weeds. Just life. (With the exception of two things: an invasive vine that crept up other trees and smothered them, and the sumacs, which, like the zombie hoards in popular television today, always seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate and threatening to choke out everything around them.) But the rest was pretty much to be left alone. There wasn’t any weeding per se. I used a battery-operated weed whacker to carve out 12-inch-wide paths. This is when I needed information on which plants were going to become beautiful tall flowers. Susan would walk with me and point to a low plant. “See that umbrella-shaped set of leaves? That’s a flower, don’t cut that.” So I would wind my way around, suddenly noticing tiny, tiny flowers, low to the ground. I’d stop and kneel. Yes, some type of plant was flowering. And then I looked and saw another next to it, and another, and soon I saw hundreds where before I saw none! What an awakening! This reframing of my gaze happened over and over again during the spring and early summer. I was becoming dialed into the natural world. And this type of shift of perception was something that Susan did for me long before I came to love her home in the townships. She often helped me shift my perspective ever so slightly, on so many things. Politics, environmentalism, feminism, racial bias, living while dying… And in the conversation of shifting perspectives I would present my own view, and it helped her see something new as well.

As I spent time in the yard, clearing out dead branches or pulling wild raspberries that had encroached on the periwinkle, my comfort level – no, not comfort, my awareness of the life underfoot expanded. The ground, the bugs, the vines, the flowers, the trees, the bushes were no longer just a forest. I was seeing the trees. And my awareness made me love all of nature. And when one loves all living things, it changes the way one approaches everything.

I guess Susan practiced democratic-socialist gardening. She let nature run its course so that each living thing could have its own agency and right to be. But she also protected and nurtured those who needed her help. She cleared away the mint around her blueberry bushes so they might get more light. She removed the sumacs because they invaded the space of the crabapple tree. And the blossoms of that tree were a work of art in the spring, and Susan loved to drink in its beauty. And then the apples that hung on it would stay the winter and feed the birds. She left some sumacs because the birds in winter continually returned to feed on them. The forget-me-nots along the path needed only a little tending from the occasional overbearing something or other. If a branch from a tall shrub fell over from its own weight, she would tie it up, or prop it against another rather than cut it because the flowers it bore attracted the bees. And when plants and flowers volunteered to grow in new places, all on their own, she would smile at the marvel of seeds moving from one place to another, taking root and reaching upward. The beautiful willow tree in her front yard, over 100 years old we think, is so majestic and gnarly. A fairly large branch split during a wind storm and the end toppled to the ground but remained attached to its larger branch. And so we thought we might need to get that cut off. But as spring progressed it became apparent that the branch was still very much alive. Its buds produced leaves, and it looked no different than the rest of the tree. She left it alone. The tree is fine. It’s more than fine, it’s magnificent.

The Willow

Susan let things grow in her yard as long as they didn’t bully anything else. There was a stinging nettle plant that currently grows just inside her garden gate. It was small at first. Susan pointed it out to me, I touched it, got stung and wondered why she just didn’t cut it down now while it was manageable, and then neither of us would have to worry about it. Susan’s response: it was a living thing. Leave it alone and just be careful coming and going. I was mindful of the nettles each time I went into the garden. We got along fine.

Now as I walk along these serpentine paths, alone, I often feel like I am going to round a bend and see Susan sleeping, curled up like the deer, or that I will find her caressing the branches of a tree. And always she is smiling. I am grateful for many things. Grateful that Susan brought me out to her home in Sutton. And she never preached to me about nature, nor lectured me, she let me find my own path there, in oh such a subtle way. Like the flower and tree seeds that found their way across her yard, or the way the young new buds pushed up from the ground, or the way a manicured pond became an image from a book of fairy tales, I too was welcomed and nourished and blossomed in Susan’s garden.

(Click full screen to enjoy a ten-minute walk with Susan.)

(Click full screen to watch a 30 second clip that Susan shot of her willow.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

At Susan’s pond

It was a week after her funeral, and I was sitting on a rock next to Susan’s pond and crying when she came to me. I had wandered down to the pond because I had some fear running through my mind that fuelled my anxiety, and I wanted to be close to Susan. It was well above 25 degrees so I took off my shirt and walked barefoot down the paths to the meditation stone she had placed there years ago. I removed my shorts and sat bare butt on the mossy stone. It was cooler than I expected. I startled two peeper frogs as I arrived, and they hopped into the water. I took off my glasses and things went soft.

Susan's pond green

The pond at Susan’s.

I sat looking out at the pond and the trees and listening to whatever sounds presented themselves. In my stillness, one of the little frogs jumped out of the water and sat on the edge of the pond. Without my glasses I could not really get a good look at it. We sat together, both of us still and quiet. Images and memories of Susan began sifting in. I closed my eyes, and allowed my limited meditation practice to take over. Deep waves of sadness began rising in my body. A fierce longing for Susan accompanied it. And I guess somewhere in that sadness and longing, the fear of the future without her startled me. I began to cry, and then intense feelings of loneliness fell upon me, and my cries turned to sobs.

And then, for the second time since her death, she came to me. She walked out of the woods from around the pond and approached me. She was smiling, her long brown hair shimmering in the sunlight, her slim, plum-coloured dress moving side to side across her hips. My crying continued and my head hung down. She stood next to me and took my head in her hands, running her fingers through my hair. This was something she did often when comforting me. I felt my arms around her thighs even though they hung at my sides. I embraced her and I could feel her strong legs. I conveyed my fears about the future to her, about the unknown whereabouts I was headed to, how much I counted on her wisdom and love, how much in that very moment I needed her to take care of me. It may have been the most vulnerable moment I had felt in all my years with Susan. And then, quite simply and soothingly, she told me I was going to be okay. And my whole body became enveloped by tiny tingles, somewhere between goose bumps and the sensation of a limb reawakening after it has gone to sleep. It was brief, but completely head to toe. I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle because the feeling was almost like a tickle. I sensed she had many things to do and she couldn’t spend much more time with me (the afterlife seemed just as busy as her regular life). But I had already been so filled with her love that I didn’t mind her leaving. I went to thank her, and she put her finger to my lips. Shhh. And this part, I am not sure, but I feel as though she was thanking me, or perhaps reminding me that these are just the things that lovers do for one another. Then she stepped away, around the pond, under the oak tree, and looked back at me. It was the same look, the same smile she gave me when she caught me looking at her as I was falling in love with her at the backyard party in 2012. And there I was, my face wet and salty, sitting bare butt on a mossy stone, and suddenly not so alone anymore. She vanished around a bending path of wild flowers and trees. I stayed for a while, sitting with the little peeper frog, both of us content with each other’s company and in the stillness of the pond.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

She reminds me

I started reading The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I suppose I felt the need for a love story to help manage my way through the grief around Susan’s death. Early in the book I found a sentence so lyrical that it held a beauty all unto its own. And I thought, how beautiful this is, and how beautiful it is that I am able to see its beauty. And I thought of Susan, of how she was like this. How she could drink in a song, a flower, a word, a face, a moment, and feel all of it, feel what it was to be alive. And I thought, yes, this is me now. I have travelled with Susan and now I am learned. Yet a part of me was sad, because having gone through the journey with Susan I have evolved into something much more than just Roy. I don’t know what it is, not yet anyway. But the sadness was this: I wished the newly evolved Roy could now share himself with Susan. Then a thought struck me, that as I grieve, and things simmer inside me, slow from this heavy boiling of emotions, that I might return to normal. But I don’t want to return to normal. And so like waking from a dream that one doesn’t want to forget, I thought I had best keep retelling myself who I am, what I have learned, how much I can appreciate things. And I do this so I won’t forget them, won’t forget how rich Susan has made me. As I turn toward that fear of losing sight of who I am, and who Susan was, I imagine myself shrinking down to a person who is consumed by things, gets caught up in pettiness, possession, drama, conflict. And I don’t want to be there. I want to stay in this world of enriched awareness. And so I am writing this down to remind myself of that. Oh how I wish I could tell Susan this. It would be such a wonderful morning conversation over a coffee, and she’d be happy and encouraging me to follow that thread. It would bring us even closer together, and the dialogue would lead us someplace new and most likely creative. Even just visualizing our time together grounds me in awareness.

Susan was so thrilled by this piece at the Tate Modern.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

O Susan! My Susan!

Below are the words I read at Susan’s funeral service on Saturday, September 8, 2018. As with most things we wrote, we invited each other to read drafts and offer comments. This piece was no different. I started this particular remembrance about 4-5 months ago and showed a draft to Susan at the time. She offered her first impression, made a few literary suggestions, cried a little, and noted a sentence with four prepositional phrases that I might want to revisit. 🙂 This draft has revisions that she did not see because I finished it after she died. I could feel her arms around me as I read it aloud in the church.

O Susan! My Susan!

Susan and I were sitting on her front balcony on Marlowe Street. Both of us had our laptops open and were working on something. We had been together for over a year, and I guess I felt secure in our relationship. Secure enough to make a confession. I am not sure what prompted it. “Susan,” I said. “Hmm-mm,” she mumbled, still fixed on her writing. I cleared my throat. “I have read Stephen King novels.” She looked up from her screen. “Really?” I nodded. “About two dozen.” Then she looked away for a second or two as she did when she needed to be alone, and then back at me and said with her trademark smile: “I still love you.” She returned to her laptop screen and continued working. After another few seconds, without looking up, she said: “Just don’t tell any of my literary friends.”

Susan’s sense of humour was quite odd, often dark, and sometimes just weird. She would recount something to me and laugh and laugh out loud as she shared the anecdote. At first I just looked at her and thought maybe it was nervous laughter but it turns out she just found humour in odd things, and enjoyed laughing almost as a gift to herself. Sometime in the last year, she made a blueberry crumble cake. As the crumble baked, the blueberries would secrete juice and it would collect on the bottom of the pan. So as to avoid a soggy crumble she poured out from the pan about one-half cup of pure, undiluted blueberry juice left over, which she put into a mason jar in the fridge. No lid on the jar. That evening we were in the kitchen with Oliver and Lauren, and we were going to have the crumble. She went into the fridge to get some cream, which was behind the jar of blueberry juice. She took out the jar of juice, and I think the door may have bumped her a little and she dropped the jar, the one without the lid. The jar fell perfectly perpendicular to the wooden floor. It hit with a smack between Susan’s feet. The jar didn’t break but the blueberry juice exploded like a geyser right out of the top and splattered Susan from head to foot, and ceiling, and across the room, and into the fridge, and well, everywhere. She looked like Sissy Spacek at the end of the movie Carrie (which, ironically, is a movie based on a novel by a writer whose name I won’t mention again). But in the kitchen in Montreal, Susan is laughing. Laughing and laughing. She said: “I must look like I’m in a horror movie.” I nodded but didn’t mention the movie by you know who. Her face and arms were freckled with blueberry juice, her long dress spattered everywhere, her bare legs and feet too. And still she was laughing. The rest of us, I believe, were only thinking about the mess we would need to clean up, and how this was going to slow down getting to eat the crumble, but Susan was in the moment, laughing at the absurdity, at the mess, at her humanity. Her laughter made it easy to relax, to laugh with her, to share with her what became silliness. “I still love you,” I said, as I went to fill a wash basin.

Aside from loving her sense of humour I also came to love flowers, and to understand the meaning of compassion, partly through her own love of flowers. Wild flowers mostly, the kind that grow where they want, without boxes or pots or any type of restraints. It was so beautiful to see them expand across her yard as summer moved along. “Don’t step there, that’s a young bee-balm, watch out for the forget-me-nots.” And on the occasion that we brought flowers into the house, we were both very mindful of cutting them. It was almost a sacred act: we quietly gave thanks to the flowers before cutting them, and then took good care of them once inside the house. She had such great love and compassion for all living things.

Such compassion. I’ve had some struggles with anxiety and depression, and while I am highly functional most of the time, I often slip and fall into shadowy states of being. Of late not so much, ironically, but over our nearly seven years together I’d stumble along the way, and swirl into some vortex that made me dark and distant. Susan had an admitted impatient streak; it’s a family trait, so she came by it honestly. But I never felt that she was impatient with my emotional slumps. On the contrary, she was kind and caring towards me. Compassionate. Susan always looked for ways to help me, to listen, to back up, to come closer, to be there for me; she offered comfort in many ways. Sometimes it would take hours or days for me to feel ready to express what was happening. She waited, patiently. One time, after a few days of a dark mood, I expressed a completely irrational fear of some kind, that type that leaves a non-worrying person rolling their eyes. But ours was such a trusting love that we could confide anything to each other. Susan took my face in her hands and said: “You really are fucked up… but I still love you.”

I told Susan earlier in her diagnosis that if she should slip into a deep sleep, she need not doubt where my love was. It was still here, in the room, in my heart. And I promised Susan in a love letter last year that wherever I go I will plant wild flowers for her. And that she can nourish them, and I can talk to her through them. Hopefully I’ll receive some comfort from those flowers through the sad times and worry. And while I can’t be certain, I’d like to think that those flowers will look back at me with Susan’s big smiley smile and I’ll hear her voice saying: “I still love you … I still love you … I still love you”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments