Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Different every time

I thought I was an expert on grief.  Or at least an expert on my own grief.  I thought I knew what to expect of myself when it came to dealing with the loss of a loved one, considering I’ve gotten the master class in the 9 years since A died.  I thought I knew what was coming for me with the imminent death of my beloved friend, B, and although obviously losing a best friend and losing a true love are not the same, I supposed that my grief for her would follow a similar pattern of ups and downs and feelings unique to ME.

She’s been gone 2 months now, and the truth of the matter is, I didn’t know shit, because my reaction this time is nothing like I expected.  I cried for days and nights and months on end when A died, aching, breathless sobs until I could do nothing but stare into space. For B, I have had some tough moments like that, but I can count them on one hand, and remember them specifically.

For a long while at the end, and since, I’ve felt nothing about it.  And when I have managed to catch a glimpse of how I’m really feeling, the sadness is largely intellectual.  What I’m really feeling is anger.  A lot of simmering anger.  And I’ve been wondering if that numbness is denial and self-protection, or whether I’m too pissed to be sad.

There’s a lot to be angry about, and not all of it is selfish, though I admit a fair bit of it really is. I’m angry that I lost one of my best friends of my whole life. I don’t have so many close friends; I can’t afford to lose any, and yet I keep losing them anyway. I’m angry that I lost ANYONE I loved, in that bit of widow magical thinking that goes “Being widowed is bad enough; I should be exempt from bad shit from here out.” (I know it’s ridiculous, but I know I feel it on some level, and I suspect I’m not the only widow who does.) I’m angry that my other best friend has been widowed, and that they had so little time together. They found each other in mid-life, and while they had more time than A and I did, of course it’s never enough when you love someone. I’m angry that B’s mom (widowed 7 years ago) lost her baby, even if her baby was 57 years old.  I’m angry that she left the state for one last goodbye visit with friends and family back home, and never made it back here.  I never really got to say goodbye.  Again.  And I’m angry at that relentless, cruel bastard, cancer, who takes so much from people long before it finally takes their last breath from them.

I am angry FOR B, at how much she lost as the cancer spread.  Her job, her hobbies, her energy, all taken from her.  Her ability to feel good at all.  Her physical relationship with her spouse. Her memory, every time they zapped the brain tumors.  Bit by bit, her life and world shrunk until it didn’t extend beyond the chair she sat in, and still, she didn’t want to go.  She appreciated life in a way I’m not sure I’m capable of.

I am beyond angry at the medical industry, who at every turn in this process treated B’s cancer like it was no big deal, and about all the waiting on top of waiting for this test and that scan and this insurance approval and that appointment when it was obvious from the beginning that time was not on her side.  Weeks and weeks wasted due to inefficiency, miscommunication between her medical professionals, a fair amount of ball-dropping, and what I can only assume is professional apathy; it wasn’t their cancer, after all.  And that while they insisted up and down that this cancer was entirely different from the cancer they took out of her 3 years before, it seems likely that in fact, it wasn’t different--she was stage 4 at diagnosis this time around, with mets to the brain that soon went into the bone, and colon cancer likes to go to the lung, which is where this “different” cancer started.  But they never did chemo after the surgery 3 years ago, and they didn’t do heavy-duty chemo when they found this, dicking around for 6 months before trying the big guns, which were just too late.  Of course the oncologist is going to say it was a totally discrete cancer event; for him to suggest otherwise would be to admit that he blew it 3 years ago.  Would it have made a difference? No one can know that; but there was enough incompetence to place a fair amount of reasonable doubt upon the situation.

Not that it matters now, of course; we can’t get her back.

It hurts that she isn’t at her house when I go over there.  It hurts that we no longer have our Sunday night dinners, because it was always a couple thing, and her wife, P, just doesn’t want to do it on her own.  Which is totally understandable.

I had a panicked moment the other day, because I’d told my mom I was fine with German chocolate cake for my birthday, and then remembered “B doesn’t like coconut!”  And then was sad when I realized it didn’t matter.

So it’s not that the sadness isn’t there; it’s just that it’s overshadowed by anger.  And it feels like I skipped right over active grieving and right into the long-term quiet missing and existential crisis.  Which is familiar enough, even if the timing seems wrong.

But a lot of the time, when I ask myself how I’m feeling about all this, the answer genuinely seems to be that I’m not feeling at all.  Yet it’s not the same numbness I felt after A died and I cried myself to emptiness multiple times a day.  And I begin to wonder if I broke my grieving mechanism, grieving for him--if I just plain wore it out through such heavy use for so long.  Because I just don’t get as worked up as I used to.  I acknowledge pain mentally, academically, but it’s like I refuse to wade in emotionally anymore.  Is it because I can’t? Or because I can’t afford to?  Is it that I’ve felt so much pain losing A that my heart just refused to go there anymore, on anyone’s behalf?

I felt like I had a clue where I was at when the news of the Paris terrorism came out.  153 (or so...I haven’t confirmed latest numbers) people dead in horrifying planned mass murders and while I freely acknowledge it’s horrible on so many levels, from the personal to the international, emotionally I feel nothing.  I don’t know if it’s a question of do not, or cannot, but I’m not engaging with it emotionally.  In 2001, after 9/11 and before widowhood, I read the paper and cried for months afterwards, reading about people and the messages they gave their families before they died.  I was engaged.  But not anymore.  I don’t even want to read the news because it’s always bad.  And more often than not, I mentally shrug and think, “More sad people in the world. Welcome to the club. Sorry you had to join us.”

I don’t think it’s apathy.  I care that horrible things happen in my world.  But I don’t think I have the bandwidth myself to engage with them whole-heartedly anymore; I’ve got my own sorrows, and it doesn’t do me any good to wallow in someone else’s when there’s not a damn thing I can do about them.  And if I’m going to live another 40 years on this planet, I have to protect my heart, broken and scarred though it may be, to the best of my ability, because the hits will keep on coming.  I have to maintain something for myself, to keep me going, in the face of tragedy, and the only way I know how to do that is to not borrow more trouble than life was going to throw at me anyway.  It sounds selfish; but I’m not convinced it is anything less than survival.

Whatever it is, it’ll work itself out.  That much I DO know about grief:  there’s no point arguing with it; you can’t persuade it.  And if this is how I feel right now, I’ll keep feeling it until I feel something else.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

I just don't know

So I came home from my friend B's house tonight in a foul mood.  I wasn't in a foul mood when I left my house, and nothing horrible happened while I was there that would explain it.  I think it was just the reality of tonight:  we were supposed to have dinner at our house, but she took me up on the offer I made Friday night that if she wasn't feeling up to it, we would bring dinner to her.  As she shuffled to the door, doped up on various pain and anti-nausea meds, she looked tired and sick.  Because she is tired and sick.

This new chemo kicks her ass constantly--not the couple of bad days after treatment and then back to normal that the earlier (and useless) rounds gave her.  She's still sick from the last round when the new one comes around.  And because she is in the first wave of people across the nation to receive this newly approved drug, no one knows what to tell her to expect.  She feels like hell.  Is it the cancer or the cancer treatment?  No one knows.  Is it going to be worth the suffering in the end?  No one knows that either, of course.

It grows harder and harder to maintain any kind of hope as I see her feeling worse and worse, and growing weaker by the day.  Sometimes it's the pain, so bad that she has to take pain meds on top of pain meds for the break-through pain from the cancer in her bones.  The radiation beat that back some, but not for long.  Sometimes it's the nausea.  She tells me she wakes up with both and starts the rounds of meds that are her new and only hobby, aside from a lot of sleeping.  Sometimes it's the confusion and memory loss in the days right after brain radiation that gets her down, and I read the repetitive texts my bright, sharp friend sends me, and I feel the tears damming up behind my sternum.  If it were working at all, wouldn't she be feeling a tiny bit better?  And yet she keeps at it, because she wants to live, and I wonder if it's worth it.  I imagine she does, too.  That's the problem with this.  You don't know whether it was worth it except in hindsight.  And by the time you realize it wasn't, you're not here to realize it at all.

While I had considered what it would be like in the aftermath of her death, for me and for everyone else who loves her, I hadn't realized how much a person loses throughout the entire process.  Thus far, she's had to let go of her work, her avocation, her normal routines, driving, sex, food in large part (because nothing appeals, or she feels too sick to eat it), and probably a hundred other mundane things that a person should be able to take for granted that I'm not even aware of.  How do you keep fighting for life when you have lost so much of what constituted it?  You might be able to keep doing it if you knew this was only temporary, something you could suffer through and come out better on the other side.  But what happens when it starts looking like you're losing the fight?  That it's not going to be temporary?  I think this may very well be the cruelest part of advanced cancer:  that you lose your life long before you die.

I don't even know what to say anymore.  I act normal.  I even treat the whole cancer thing as normal, and pretend it's normal when our conversation caroms between hospice and the hope of another trip to guitar camp when this is all over.  Because right now, that IS normal.  That's what's going on.  And I bring little pick-me-ups over in the hopes of raising a smile or two for her and her wife, who is exhausted from taking care of literally everything in their lives.  There is so little I can do, and when I do it they thank me so profusely I'm embarrassed; if I could do more, I would.  What I can do is so paltry it seems ridiculous.

There is this horrible waiting, with only 2 possible resolutions, the best of which seems increasingly unlikely.  I just really don't know how to get right with the idea that this life requires us to leave so many bodies in our wake.  It is the best argument for the nonexistence of a loving god that I can think of.  No entity that was all about love would ever set up a system where we learn to love people that will just be taken away from us, and ripped out of their own lives-in-progress.

Friday, June 5, 2015

I didn't need this lesson

Amongst the bereaved, especially the newly bereaved, there is occasionally a tendency toward grief Olympics, and I suppose it's not impossible to understand.  When you're going through the worst thing you've ever been through, and feeling the worst you've ever felt, you might be forgiven for feeling pretty sure that it's the worst ANYONE has EVER felt.  Among the widowed set, there was often a debate about who had it worse:  those who'd lost their loves suddenly without warning, or those who'd lost their loves after a long illness.  

A died suddenly, but my situation was so unusual that unless others were also hiding details (out of self-preservation instinct) on the widow bulletin board, I was probably alone in my particular situation that made being widowed hard for me, specifically.  But I figured out pretty early on that no one gets a break when it comes to death.  It sucks if they die suddenly.  It sucks when they die slowly.  Unless your spouse is an abusive monster, their death just sucks.  And I wish to dog I had a word besides "sucks" that could encompass the vast, painful reality of this kind of suckage.  Much like today, when I went to look for a "Fuck Cancer" image and decided that "fuck" was inadequate to my feelings of the moment.  Usually, it's a useful word for me, but today, it just isn't enough.

Because life has seen fit to give me experiential confirmation that there is no grace, no comfort, in watching someone you love die slowly.  In this case, it's B, one of my best friends in the world.  She is going to die from metastatic lung cancer, and I fear it will be before the year is out, because it's been terribly aggressive, and getting more so.  3 weeks ago, the only ill effects she felt were right after treatment, side effects from the brain swelling after radiation or from the chemo drugs.  Now, she's in pain pretty much all the time.  I found out today that they fear pathologic fracture in her femur and don't want her to walk on it.  She went from cane, to crutches, to walker, to electic scooter in the last 3 days.  She gave her notice at work today, and it seems unlikely she'll go back, because she can't do her job because of the pain, and can't take her pain meds if she wants to be clear-headed enough to do her job.  And as she is the major income earner in her household, that's going to hurt on top of everything else they're worrying about.

I got another call a couple hours later, and they said that she is not as at-risk for a fracture as they feared initially, and will radiate all the bone tumors.  This is not with any hope that they can stop the cancer; it's just palliative care and should lessen the pain considerably.  A small favor in an ocean of terrible.

This is where we're at, after months of questionable (at least to my mind) treatment plans and, worse, delays due to incompetence and inefficiency on the part of the medical staff that are supposed to help her and the hell that is dealing with insurance approval, and while there are no guarantees that aggressive treatment early on would have saved her life, I don't think there's one person who's traveled this journey with her, including her, that doesn't wonder WTF they were thinking, because it might have.  When you have a lung tumor and mets to the brain already at diagnosis, time is not on your side.  But evidently, those involved in oncology in this town weren't feeling any need to rush.  Why cancer and mental health patients don't get pushed to the front of the line automatically is beyond me.

Given that she was stage 4 at diagnosis, I suppose this time we've had since the fall is somewhat miraculous in itself, but now it's getting bad.  Really bad.  Canceled get-togethers because she is both in pain and exhausted.  Hard talks with her spouse regarding a future they never imagined but have to navigate nonetheless.  There is so much to hate in all this, I don't even know where to begin.  Because I am sad and angry for her, sad and angry for them, and sad and angry for me, because I'm going to lose my dear friend and there's fuck-all I can do about it.

That is the worst part.  It's a slow-motion car crash unfolding over months, and all you can do is watch and wait for the final impact.  Chocolate and flowers and encouraging cards and cracking wise, all my specialties, become increasingly useless in the face of this horrible inevitability.  I don't know what comes next, or how fast it'll come.  Maybe none of us do.

And I find I've been ridiculously blasé about death when I've said I'm not afraid to die.  What I really mean is, I'm not afraid to be dead.  Either it'll be cool on the other side, or there will be nothing but oblivion, and in either case, I'm fine.  Dying, however, is a whole other thing, and it's terrifying.  It's terrifying for ME, as I stand by my friend, and I'm not looking it straight in its too-close eye.  When I say, "I'm going to die," this is merely an existential truth that acknowledges my, and everyone else's, mortality.  But for B to acknowledge she's going to die must be scary as hell, because it's going to happen sooner than she, and everyone else who loves her, wants it to.  How much will it hurt before she goes?  How bad will it get?  Will she be able to make the exit she wants to?  How will her wife cope without her?  How do you say goodbye when you don't want to, when you're not ready to, when you'll never be ready to?

And how do I, who know the pain that's coming for her wife, also a close friend of mine, help?  I have always said I would never wish widowhood on my worst enemy.  I certainly would spare my friends, and I don't want to share this with her.  We are close enough; we don't need this horror to bind us.  I would that this cup had passed them both by until they were very old.  I would wish that for anyone.  But there's nothing I can do but be there later and say, "I know."  

Frankly, that's a shitty and altogether inadequate option.

I feel helpless, sorry for myself for my impending loss, and then annoyed at myself for focusing on how this affects ME when my friend is equally helpless, despite accepting all treatment possible, and is looking at losing her life sooner rather than later.  It's a muddle of emotions, it's a mess, and there is no silver lining in this.  We just wait and hate that it's happening.