How To Be The Good Dead

How To Be The Good Dead

You don’t get to be a widow without a dead guy. So if you plan to be a good dead guy (and one day, we all shall be filling that particular role) it’s going to make it far easier on those left behind who love you. Do a little planning ahead. It helps a lot.

Have a will. Keep it up to date and be sure your loved one knows where it is. Make it as clear and extensive as you can think of. Ours was a very simple “I love you will”, essentially meaning everything that was mine went to John and everything of John’s went to me. If you have a more complicated situation, the more clear you can make your will the better. And the cheaper the attorney fees will be to settle your estate.

Keep your papers in order. Having all your accounts in one place and the paperwork all together, even if all just shoved in the same filing cabinet, makes things a world easier and eliminates any unpleasant surprises.

Have medical directives. This is so important. Even though John’s final illness took its own obvious course, it was enormously comforting to me to have his medical directives there to read, clearly outlined. They didn’t specifically apply in his final illness, but it helped a great deal anyway. I knew that I was addressing his medical care in line with what he wanted, he had said to me, “You’ll know what to do”. But to have written proof to that effect helped even more. You too might have talked about it in some abstract sense now and then. There’s always the chance that family members will passionately disagree about “What He Really Wanted”. Having it in writing will make it significantly easier on all concerned. We were lucky as we were all in agreement, in fact, the three people he named in the directive were there at his bedside but his wishes in writing were still a great comfort to all of us.

Don’t have bad secret stuff. Fortunately for me, all John’s affairs had been aired out in the open and I knew about his past transgressions. He was a scrupulous keeper of sentimental items, so had kept all kinds of… well, “evidence”. It had all come out during our marital woes and I had asked him to dispose of everything, but still I worried about going through his things after he died. As luck would have it, the only such things he kept after our reconciliation were sentimental items about me and our life together. That was a great relief. Besides, you never know who is going to paw through your things after you die. Try to only leave things that are how you would like to be remembered.

Good secret stuff is okay though. Part of dealing with enormous loss is the recognition of the transient nature of everything except for the love you shared. None of the stuff matters. Still, discovering sweet or funny things about John long after his death is lovely. He stashed baseball cards everywhere, it’s fun to find them. And he left a playlist on his iPod filled with songs named “Songs A. Should Like.” It’s like a lullaby to me now.

Pretty damn inconsiderate of him to die when you get right down to it. But I did appreciate that he left his life in order. It made it easier to shoulder the stuff alone.

Crisis strikes: The days around the death

Crisis strikes: The days around the death

John’s death was relatively sudden. Not as quick as a heart attack or accident but not as prolonged as terminal cancer either. He went into the hospital on October 30 and was dead by November 11. Through that week and a half, each day was harder to bear than the one before. I barely had the ability to make it from the hospital back to the house in once piece. Every iota of my being was sharply focused on the crisis at hand. So I was unable to function on any kind of normal level. Here’s some things that helped me get through the final days.

If you’re facing a medical crisis like this, go military: Make yourself the Commander-in-Chief and focus on your war. Everyone’s crucial in a successful army, from officers to privates. I had a tremendous staff of friends who rallied around. Making one friend the primary contact meant that I could funnel updates through her and I didn’t have to repeat the whole story over and over. One friend coordinated food deliveries. One was in charge of helping me to leave the hospital periodically, if only to walk around the block, getting fresh air and some exercise each day. Yet another neighbor helped care for the dogs and the house, ensuring all was well and looked after. And still another friend handled my work load, informing clients and finishing up tasks I left half-completed. I could not have gotten through without my army of support.

It helps if your officers are good at prioritizing and presenting decisions for you to make. You don’t want to have to answer to a million little details. On that same note, prioritize items yourself. Be clear about what you need. Generally speaking, and in the following order, it’s getting food and sleep for yourself, being sure your house and animals are safe (I don’t have children, that’s a different kettle of fish), and taking care of your job and work duties. Unless it’s critical and it’s going to cause genuine long-term damage, go ahead and let things slide. Allow your friends to work how they need to work. If your friends and family make some wrong decisions in their attempts to help, let it go for now. You can always fix things later. You’ll have time.

Regarding phone calls: During these weeks, I would wake up very early, around 5:00 a.m. to get to the hospital in time to share breakfast with John and to be there for morning rounds. I spent all day at the hospital, late into the night and sometimes even longer, depending on what was going on. So when I was able to stumble home I desperately needed to sleep. I grabbed sleep where I could, usually at odd hours, sometimes in the day or evenings. Well-meaning friends calling to check in would often be met with my panicked, half-asleep response as the ringing phone woke me in terror, thinking it was the hospital. Mail is better. E-mail is helpful and I could not only check it at 3:00 a.m. but I could also broadcast major news as needed. Funneling phone calls to a designated friend allowed people to be able to check in when they were able and messages to be passed to me when I could receive them. Remember too that many hospitals do not allow cell phones in the ICU areas so making or receiving calls can be difficult.

Mail. E-mail and snail mail. Write and send cards. They’re appreciated. But please remember. Until the moment death happens—the person is very much alive. If you know the situation is dire and terminal, probably not a good idea to send a “Get Well Soon” card. But a Thinking of You is always good. I was able to read e-mails and cards aloud to John and he loved them. One friend wrote long e-mails about the restaurants she had been to, since she knew John was a foodie. In the last week, he couldn’t speak because of the oxygen but he would scribble notes of thanks back to me.

Drop off books and magazines. Medical crises often involve long stretches of nothing with bursts of intense activity. Getting books or magazines that were easy to pickup and put down was very much appreciated. I like graphic novels, so those were good and I didn’t have to think much when I read them. John loved baseball, so I would read aloud to him from baseball books and that helped to pass time as well as something he very much enjoyed. One friend even brought over Mad magazine, which was fun and silly. Think airport reading—books that don’t require a lot of thought or attention but are lightly distracting from the task at hand.

My friend S. put together a care basket for me that included basic necessities such as facial cleanser, moisturizer, Emergen-C, good green tea, protein bars and the like. It was wonderful. It came in its own basket, so I could tuck it out of the way in the hospital room, and it gave me a way to freshen up that was easy and quick. Believe me, you need it after intense stretches in the hospital.

Long distance? That’s a tough one, it hurts to be so far and feel so helpless. But as long as your friend in crisis is covered with local help, you’ll have plenty to do as time goes by, just try to stay in touch and react appropriately. My amazing friend from my home town helped my mother attend John’s funeral. She also stepped in to manage immediate family needs.

After John’s death, a dear friend from across the country was there the very next day, staying with local friends, helping with day to day necessities and generally managing the flood of household chaos that came during those days. Just having her present to lean on, knowing she would handle anything that came my way and that she would quietly take care of me, was a reminder that I did not have to bear this alone. Others visited a month or so after the funeral was over, which was an invaluable reminder of ongoing friendship.

At the end, when it was obvious John would not survive this battle, I was lucky enough to be able to call in my own General Patton, my avenging angel: my stalwart brother who materialized the moment I needed him most and carried me through the darkest of days. I know I am extraordinarily blessed to have that in my life. There’s only one of him… but I hope you all have someone who can be there for you.

Cooking double, eating single.

Cooking double, eating single.

John was a fantastic cook and he just got better as the years went on. In the very beginning, I would try to help out in the kitchen, but he didn’t really appreciate it and I found it boring. He made every meal for me—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks—all of it. If he was out of town, or if he would be late, he would call and dictate exactly how to prepare something for me to eat until he could get home to do it for me. He did all the planning, shopping and preparation. The kitchen was his kingdom and he reigned with an iron skillet. We were sweethearts since I was 24, therefore I simply forgot—or never learned—how to prepare any kind of food on my own. Even during our separation, he would call me or come over to be sure I had enough to eat and that it was good food. I had to look up how to scramble eggs in his “Julia Child’s Way To Cook” book. I was, in a word, spoiled. Rotten.

Shortly after his death, I stood in front of the refrigerator, staring at the empty shelves and actually found myself thinking: Why didn’t he leave me anything to eat? The selfish bastard… didn’t he think ahead?

So I have had to learn to cook. I have two advantages, one being that I was used to having good, healthy food which kept me from heading to the KFC every night. And I would putter along after John in the grocery store so I learned good patterns of shopping: buy fresh, buy local, buy what’s seasonally available. That all provides for a good start.

I started a 30-minute-supper club to which I invited friends who could cook to come over and prepare a meal together. The rules were:

  • all dishes had to be easy with simple ingredients and no fancy cook’s tricks
  • all dishes had to be prepared within 30 minutes or less, something you’d do after work on a long day
  • you had to bring your recipe with enough copies for everyone
  • they had to be tasty!

I’d invite enough people to get a main dish, side dish, salad and dessert. I would provide wine & other beverages, sparkling conversation and the kitchen/dining room. I’d gather all the recipes together for everyone to take home and each person would show me how their dish was put together.

The dinners have been very fun and absolutely useful. I use T’s salad dressing regularly, have made Teacher Tuna Time (Surviving the First Year) for guests and myself, and RJF’s pork tenderloin whenever I find it on sale. And it gave me a way to gather with friends and have fun. It’s been a while since the last one, I’ll have to schedule one again soon.

My menu is still fairly limited. I can make broiled salmon, broiled chicken breasts, broccoli, green salad, grilled steak, cauliflower, pork tenderloin, roasted red potatoes, sweet potatoes and tomatoes & mozzarella. That’s about the extent of it. But you can go a long way on that. And it all makes great leftovers. Plus, I eat fruit like a jungle animal. I will eat fruit of any kind any time.

All that healthy stuff aside, I will also have a dinner of freshly popped popcorn and a bottle of wine. And make Jello for dessert. Or eat breakfast cereal for dinner. In bed watching TV with the dogs. What’s the point of being single if I can’t do all that.

John would be horrified at the thought.

“How long are you going to drag out this widow thing?”

“I don’t know. How long are you going to drag out that ‘we’re married’ thing?”

There’s variations on this theme, ranging from the blunt “Get over it” to the head-shaking “Why is she still talking about the dead guy”? I suppose these sort of comments come from nervousness on the part of the speaker. They don’t know what to say. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they blurt out this really wrong one. Or they’re trying to mold their world how they need it to be. Or they think if only you’d start dating again, things would be fine. Whatever the cause, it’s going to cause hurt feelings on both sides.

I think others just don’t quite get why it’s still hurting after all this time has gone by. I certainly didn’t understand this before being widowed. Unlike any other loss, this one has been such a profound sea change. It’s not just the grief of losing someone you love—it’s the grief of losing the definition of self you’ve worked so hard to create. You were a wife, a partner, and you looked at the future through that lens. You were entwined in a thousand ways—in bed, financially, sharing a house, chores, meals, vacations… the list goes on. And now all of those are on your shoulders, you’ve got to figure out which to keep, which to carry on, which to drop. On top of grieving.

I feel like a little sea creature that has been through a terrible hurricane, beaten up and tossed up on the land and left in a strange new world. Eventually, the little sea creature figures out the ocean is still there and starts the struggle back to it. That’s where I am.

Another widow pointed out the thought to bear in mind is the storm is now over. Now repairs must be made to all the things that were damaged, broken and destroyed. Now I have to find new things to replace the old things, like the dreams, hopes, and visions for the future and my heart.

The irony is the struggle is not just getting back to the ocean. There’s still storms going on out there—there always has been—and possibly another storm of the same magnitude. Just like the real ocean when I’ll get back into the water and what it will be like when I get back in is completely out of my control. And sometimes, just when I think I’ve made it, the waves toss me way back on to those dunes.

But the ocean is beautiful and necessary and life-affirming. So off I go back again across the sand. It’s been eighteen months since John died. The ocean is a lot closer than it used to be.

“What did he die of?”

It’s a legitimate question. Admit it, you’re curious too. What did John die of? It’s okay. I’d want to know if I were you. It’s usually the first thing people ask. Generally, if people didn’t know his background, I simply say “sepsis after a short procedure” or “pneumonia”. Both of which are true. And honestly I think that’s all people really want to know.

However, it unfortunately tends to opens up in me the need to qualify that simple answer. And for someone to die under the age of 90 from pneumonia, it always makes people want to know more. With his extensive medical history, it seems like his death would have been obvious and not such a surprise, but I just didn’t think he couldn’t also beat this one. It did not occur to me—or to John—until the bitter end, that he had won those earlier battles but we were about to lose the war. I’m fairly certain my audience doesn’t want that much detail. But I’ve caught myself going off far too long answering the question.

What’s difficult about this question is that it’s such a natural question for us to ask one another. Why would any young person die? It’s not in the natural scheme of things. So we want to know. We’re concerned and we’re curious. Totally understandable. We want to know what happened. There’s nothing wrong with that.

About a month or so after John’s death, I was in the bank, transferring some certificates to my name. The bank manager came unglued when he learned that John was my husband. He thought it was my father. To my surprise, he asked question after question, “What happened? Why did he get sick? When did it happen? How old was he?” He seemed genuinely shocked that anyone young could die. I’m not sure which age was his cut-off point for not being horrified. 60? 70? 80? Would it have mattered if it was my father? My brother? I could have thrown him that one as well, but my brother and I did not hold securities jointly. So he didn’t get to be surprised by how young my brother was.

I don’t mind answering the question, even though it’s complex. My brother’s big heart simply gave out one morning, so that was an an easier answer to give when I was asked about his passing. Many young people die of cancer, ALS or other common diseases. Those are also easier to answer.

But I can see that some widows might have a very hard time with the question. What if it was an accident? The natural follow up question to that: What kind of accident? It could be hard to answer, especially for a new widow or if it was a complicated accident. What if it was something even more difficult? Homicide? Suicide? Those then beget even more painful questions and both the widow and questioner get backed into a bad conversation.

I’d think the best way to find out the answer (again, I totally understand wanting to know) is to first say something neutral, like “Oh, I’m so sorry. He was such a young man.” and see what her reaction is. If she’s up to talking about the cause of death, then you’ll probably be able to tell or even just listen. If she’s not, well, either you’re going to remain in the dark or you’ll need to go ask someone else.

Do be gentle with the question, especially at first. Be ready for whatever door you might open up‚ the example being me telling you more than you want to know. Be careful of what you ask for.

And to my fellow widows: know that your friends are not being morbid or trying to make you talk about something you don’t want to. They are genuinely trying to express their concern. If you don’t want to talk about it, make up something neutral and non-committal. Have a convincing easy answer in the bank. “It was a sudden illness.” Then change the subject. “How ’bout them Mariners?” If you’re willing to talk about it, then go right ahead. It’s your call. Do thank them for their concern either way.

Still curious?

Okay, if you’re still curious I’ll give you, Dear Blogreader, the full answer to “What did he die of?” question below. If you don’t want to know, then here’s a link to the New York Times, which is a lot more interesting anyway.

Get comfortable, it’s long.

When you met John, you’d notice he was quite thin. But other than that, even after he needed full crutches and could barely walk, unless you were a medical professional you didn’t really see him as being sick. Or a medical marvel, which he was. He lived his life with a ferocious intensity that overshadowed any physical frailties. He worked a full ten hours the day before he went into the hospital. He was still expecting to get out of the hospital “next week” four days before he died, sending e-mails to colleagues to that effect. He fought until the end and he always wanted to live.

Here’s what was on the death certificate.

Immediate cause:
a) Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and Sepsis and Acute Renal Failure
b) Sepsis secondary to Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure

Other significant conditions:
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and Pulmonary Fibrosis and Radiation-induced Fibrosis

Manner of death: Natural

I didn’t have an autopsy done. Why bother? As my brother pointed out, he’d bamboozled the medical community since 1970. Why give up his secrets now?

Here’s more. It doesn’t even mention his most debilitating issue, the degenerative disability based in his spinal cord—radiation-induced lumbosacral plexopathy—that was increasingly painful and destroying his ability to walk. He was in a great deal of pain in the last year or so.

He had the CHF because a severe pneumonia six years earlier put too much strain on his already strained lungs. He needed the ERCP procedure because his liver was heading into certain failure since the main duct was blocked. Turned out it had been blocked twenty five years earlier, during emergency surgery to save his life when he was bleeding out due to a ruptured duodenal-aortic fistula. In that surgery, parts of his stomach, lots of his intestine, his duodenum, and assorted endocrine parts were removed. And as it turned out, they sewed up his primary liver duct into the resectioned gut, which is why his liver went into failure years later which required the ERCP to try to open the duct that set off the sepsis that killed him. The 1983 surgery also caused chronic rapid gastric emptying and severe hypoglycemia that caused diabetic-like symptoms.

Oh, and all this started because he had widely-metastasized testicular cancer in 1970. Back when young men did not have much of a chance of survival. He had mixed tumors, including carcinoma, seminoma, choriocarcinoma and embryonal carcinomas. John was lucky enough to be in Houston, where M.D. Anderson doctors undertook a (then) radical approach to treatment involving multiple chemotherapies—including vinblastine, bleomycin, platinum, cisplatin, fluorouracil, and others I can’t recall. Those chemo treatments in varying forms lasted six years. The heavy cobalt radiation treatments lasted a year. The surgeries included unilateral orchiectomy and nephrectomy, RPLND (retroperitoneal lymph node dissection), including removal of many more lymph nodes reaching up into his neck. All that radiation, all those toxic chemicals, all that surgery. They saved his life but they ultimately killed him… thirty-seven years later.

Got all that? Good lord! No wonder he’s dead.

Did you really want to know all that? Probably not. So now you see my dilemma with the question. It either doesn’t say what happened or it’s far Too Much Information. Next time someone asks, I’ll still say, “Pneumonia”. That’s close enough.

[side note: John’s cancer treatments, in much less intense dosages due to the damaging side-effects, eventually became standard protocol for testicular cancer. John’s survival meant they were on the right track to helping others with this cancer to beat it. In 1970, the chance for survival, let alone complete remission, was next to nothing. Now, it’s considered a treatable cancer if caught in the early stages. Hardly short of miraculous.]

“Did he leave you enough money?”

Yes, this gets said to new widows. I’m always temped to answer, “Are you offering some more?”

But that doesn’t get either of us anywhere. Remember, the most likely subtext is, “I know this is a huge change in your life and suddenly your income has dropped by half. I hope that it does not adversely affect you. I hope you’re still secure enough and you don’t have that additional worry hanging over you during this difficult time.” That or they are just nosyparkers scouring for idle gossip.

Good intentions aside, it’s simply not a question to ask. Unless you had that kind of relationship with the couple before one of them died and you would sit around together talking about your respective incomes and savings investment plans. Even then, it’s still not a question you should be asking. My estate lawyer told me hair-raising stories of other widows who discovered their spouses had secret credit cards and accounts maxed out to tens of thousands of dollars. Fascinating, but still none of my business.

I also had more than one neighbor come by the house after John died. (Neighbors, no less. Not even strangers!) I thought to offer condolences. Silly me. After a short while, they pulled out their business cards—they were Realtors! And wanted my listing. It’s like a call went out, “We Have Widow! She’ll be selling soon!” Sadly for them, I had no intention of moving. It’s the equivalent of ambulance chasing—it’s hearse chasing.

In many forms, the question does get asked. Instead of the clever quips I would later come up with (at 3:00 a.m. after the opportunity had long past) I generally answered, “Thank you, I’m doing okay.” I figured that was generic enough and they just wanted to know that I was alright.

It’s not like they’re going to do anything about it. Why give them the satisfaction of gossip. Let them make up their own.