Saturday, April 30, 2016

#SOL16: Two Futures. One Past.


So I'm following a link Simon Ensor (@sensor63) tweeted and when I read the poem he has posted, I slow down. It's a poem about many things, the least of which is an accounting of the death of the speaker's father.

I don't want to follow the speaker up the stairs to where I know surely, death has happened. I don't want to notice what only can be known by experience. My time with Rob. My time watching my husband die is still so raw, so immediate and the details of a death at home and all that comes with it are ones I understand too well. But Simon's words are a traffic accident I cannot look away from and these words compel me to look, to notice, to do what is the most human of things--to bear witness to another's expression of grief. It is this, this bearing witness that makes us human.

Simon writes:

"It was autumn in spring perhaps.

It wasn't winter surely.

It surely wasn't summer.

I backed out of the room.

I walked along the corridor.

I passed the embroidery.

Saying nothing.

My sister and my mother were sitting on the sofa.

Were they sitting on the sofa?

We said nothing.

All was drizzle.

A corpse is a corpse is a corpse.

I never saw the corpse.

My father lives differently..."

And it is the present tense in that last line I have quoted that stops me. "My father lives differently." A corpse is a corpse is a corpse and a father is not. A father lives, like a husband lives, like a mother lives, like the ones we love so deeply live beyond the body through our art and talk and sighs and grief.


The deepest despair blooms and that is a truth about time we can hold.  For time as we name it, know it is slippery, unreliable, and irrational.  It bends to our will and rejects our most deepest wants, our most private fears. We will all die and what that means is mostly informed by what we know of time as we name it now and how the body dies. For a corpse signals the end. What remains beyond the body is less known, less understood, less rational, less comforting in the aftermath of loss. We want the corporeal.

We have made time up and said it is the Truth and organized the story of an entire universe based on this single story. Time is an arrow moving forward. Once there was nothing then there was a bang and time began.

Time is an arrow. Boltzmann told us time flows forward. This morning like most mornings, the cream I pour into my coffee mixes with ease.  It does not unmix.  Here time moves forward.  But here is not the totality of possibilities; it is only the vantage point from which we hypothesize. Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercarti propose that the Big Bang produces a single past with "two distinct futures emerging from it." They write, "Any internal observer must be in one half of the solution and will only be aware of the records of one branch and deduce a unique past and future direction from inspection of the available records."

Where we stand frames what we know and in doing so, what we cannot know. Imagine that death is the movement from one future to another. Time then is never just an arrow. It is a slim truth we have concocted to organize what is irrational. We live here in these three dimensions and we call that whole and yet grief lives within and beyond that if we let it.


Each death slays us as it opens us to other ways of knowing, being, loving. I know this now.  I know how Rob's death opens me to what is non-orientable, what is unnamed. We know more than we can say is a better truth than time moves forward, leaving those we have loved behind.

Some nights, I sleep in flannel pants he once wore. When it is cool and misting, I wear a flannel shirt of his when I walk outside.  It is the absence and odd clarity of memory that travels with grief that moves me most; makes me most humbled when I read posts like Simon's.  Wallace Stevens knew, like I do now that there's such courage in the saying out loud what we see in the dark.

Friday, April 29, 2016

#SOL16: Temporary

Bokeh Blue  (M.A Reilly, 2014)


For the first time since Rob's death, I had a memory of him as he was prior to becoming ill. It was so fleeting, yet I could almost smell the way his neck often smelled. Warm. Flannel shirt warmed. I saw him laughing, head tilted, hair tied back, some strands escaping, falling down over a shoulder blade. His hair was still long, thick. His shoulders were wide and he was standing.

Mostly I remember Rob from the last few months of his life. This was such an emotional time for us. We were equally hopeful and terrified. It was early January, shortly after he had been megadosed with steroids. He had spent 9 days in the hospital, moving from intensive care to a surgical floor as he readied for spinal surgery. I was with him in the hospital room when he said to me, "I didn't even recognize myself this morning when I looked in the mirror." And this was true. The steroids had bloated and distorted his face so significantly that he didn't look like himself.

"You will," I told him.  "All of this is temporary."
"I'm a stranger."
"It's temporary."



There are things said that take on new meaning as time passes. Meaning never holds still regardless of what we purport as truth. Meaning is always negotiated. I think of this, how the ideas related to the word, temporary, shift, get crowded, over populated.

C. S. Lewis's  in A Grief Observed writes,

"If the dead are not in time, or not in our sort of time, is there any clear difference, when we speak of them, between was and is and will be?" (p. 24).  

Often when I write, I wonder how I might speak about Rob. How might I characterize his death, his leaving, his not being here anymore? How shall I refer to him?  

Is afterlife as simple as shifts in spacetime? Is death in some ways more of a question of physics than theology?  Will I ever have answers?


None of this lofty talk matters on Friday afternoons when I still arrive home somewhat breathless in anticipation of the weekend with my two favorite guys. For nearly three decades, Friday's arrival signaled the start of extended time with Rob and for the last 17 years--extended time with Rob and Devon. 

Now we are fractured. 

And oddly. Whole. Yearning. Wanting.

The pulse of life beats regardless of my grief. I bought red geraniums this afternoon to put in bright blue pots. I passed the blooms and pots as I head out the door, into late April rain to walk. Since Rob died I have walked every day.  

I have walked when he could not. 

These days I walk mostly to live. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

#SOL16: Putting a Burden Down

Rob and Max at the old house.

All day I have been revisiting old haunts. This was not my intention, but this was an outcome. This morning I brought in my car for service and as I took out the insurance card I found the post it Rob had written on that was still on the envelope. He did this every year--letting me know it was time to replace the old card with the new one. I realized some time later that he wrote the simple missive days before he would learn he had lung cancer. Not even a year has passed since we changed the cards.

On the way to have the car serviced, I passed the movie theater where we had Dev's 8th birthday party and remembered that Rob and I sat in the darkened theater holding hands. We were seated several rows behind Devon and his friends as they watched a movie I no longer can recall. Later there was chocolate cake, shaped like Scooby Doo, that the children and the theater owner ate.

I met some new friends for lunch at the diner Rob had breakfast more mornings than not. The last time we were at the diner together was back in the end of August, a few days before Rob would have face the first of five surgeries. And though this afternoon I listened as the others talked and laughed, I was feeling mostly hollow, thinking how we were seated on the wrong side of the diner. Rob, Dev and I always sat on the booth-side and Michele, the waitress, served us.

In the afternoon, Dev went to the doctor. A week ago I was there and when the nurse showed me into the last examination room on the left, I hesitated before passing through the door.  The last time I was in that room was the day we learned Rob had cancer. I can still see him leaning against the exam table. We could not know what the next five months would bring.

All week I have found remembrances of Rob in the most ordinary of places--places where we were together. And though these places remain--they are also changed somewhat through the passage of time. How we name a thing is how we know it. I am thinking about this because I was listening to the end of the Brian Lehrer Show today. I heard Tracy Smith read a poem by Sybil from Short Hills. She says, "Once there was a world before words" and I am thinking of Rob again and how often we discussed whether something can be without first naming it and this understanding catches my heart by surprise and as Seamus Heaney would say, blows it open.

I have been naming. Naming new. Naming for a world before words. It's like that Molly Peacock poem where she writes:

                                        ...Not to carry
all this in the body’s frame is not to see
how the heart and arms were formed on its behalf.
I can’t put the burden down. It’s what formed
the house I became as the glass ball stormed.

Every step is laced with some memory of Rob, informed by who he was and what he loved. I am walking down the street and the scent of curry curves around me, reminding me of the time when I cooked vegetables with curry and Rob and I ate it from a large blue  bowl in the empty living room while seated on overturned boxes we had yet to unpack. We had just moved into a house we were renovating and Rob wanted me to call for take out. We had left a townhouse, less then 1/2 mile from the Goerge Washington Bridge and Manhattan and moved an hour north to the country where there was no takeout, no Devon, and so I scrounged through bags and found some carrots, broccoli, onions, rice and curry and 30 minutes later we were eating from the same bowl and we could not know that 24 years later I would be walking down a Main Street in a town neither of had ever been to, alone, thinking of my husband who left this earth far too early.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#SOL16: A Throughway

Passageway (M.A. Reilly, England, 2014)

I think it was warm, unseasonably so, the afternoon Rob died. I hardly left his side those last three weeks and details like air temperature and the presence and absence of sunshine eclipse me now. It was late winter and I do recall thinking how the day was so like when my mother died--a too beautiful spring day when it ought to have been storming and grey and cold.

There's so much I do not know, less I remember. So much I continue to feel even though the shock of my husband's death remains. With the change of season, I have begun to refill planters with annuals--a task I've done since we moved to this house 14 years ago.  Every spring I find a new method to transform the side patio and the front steps into gardens.

All week I have been noticing the singleton bird, resting on a wire, perched on the bird bath, resting on the side mirror of my car. I wonder if my sighting of birds alone are a sign of Rob, or perhaps from Rob? Who can know such things?

What I do know is that grief is multidimensional and happens in waves. It swamps a body as it washes. A baptism of sorts. And though grief may not be pathological, the intensity of feeling is worrisome. When will I ever feel like me again?  Will I? I wonder. And isn't this simple question at the heart of the matter? Who am I now? Where might I find myself?

I realize that most days I am waiting for Rob to come home as if he was out for the afternoon, or perhaps away for a brief bit of time.  I am waiting. Holding my breath and waiting.

#SOL16: Suffering, Death, and Love

Love (M.A. Reilly, 2016)    

Everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery. —Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield: Volume IV: 1920-1921, p. 150.


I made the image above while Rob underwent spinal surgery in early January. While Rob spent the fall fighting his way through two very serious staph infections that resulted in the need for emergency thoracic surgery and the removal of his fifth rib, the metastatic lesions caused by the lung cancer were growing, compressing his spine. The compression would cause Rob to lose the use of his right leg by the end of December, making walking impossible. He would be admitted to Morristown Hospital on December 30 and remain there until January. The neurosurgery was to help him walk again. We could not know that less than eight weeks after the spinal surgery he would be dead.

The oncologist had told us that Rob's prognosis was good. You're on the right side of 65. He explained how Rob would not have been cleared for spinal surgery had he not had a prognosis of a year or more to live. I remember thinking how much living we could pour into the next year and how possible it all suddenly felt that Rob might actually be able to live with this cancer given the new treatments he would be starting in a few weeks. The new drug, Opdivo, that Rob had been cleared to take, looked so promising. How smart we all thought to enhance and then use the immune system to fight the cancer rather then replace the immune system as was done with chemotherapy.

At the end of the surgery I watched as a slight smile spread across Dr. Chun's face as he approached me. He explained that the surgery had gone well as he was able to open more space than he thought initially possible between the metastatic lesions and Rob's spinal chord. I thanked the surgeon, shaking his hand and watched as Devon, Robyn, and Jane each shook the surgeon's hand as well. We were so hopeful and I recall saying to Jane, "I want to remember this feeling when things aren't going as well."


Less than a week later, Rob was transported to Kessler Rehab in order to begin the process of learning how to stand and then walk again. We were delighted while Rob was in the ICU recovering from the surgery that he could begin to feel slight pressure on his lower leg.  He would remain at Kessler for a little more than a week and then on a Sunday evening after a January blizzard he would be transported back to Morristown Hospital as he had spiked a high fever, was delirious, and the doctor at the center could not determine what was wrong. We would learn by 3 a.m. that Rob was suffering from another staph infection--the third one in 4 months. This time it would be his Picc line that would be the source of the infection. Rob would remain in the hospital until his discharge from the Palliative Center in mid February.


In early February, on our son's 17th birthday, Rob was scheduled for his first Opdivo treatment. Because of insurance issues, Rob was not able to get Opdivo as a patient in the hospital. So he was discharged that afternoon and taken to the cancer treatment center which is located at the hospital. The plan was for him to get treatment and then to be transported to a subacute rehab nearby so that he could continue rehabilitation. By the time Rob arrived at the cancer center though, he was spiking a fever. No treatment could be given and he was quickly readmitted to the oncology floor. By 5:30 that night his fever continued to rise, he was no longer alert, and his oxygen level continued to fall, even though he was receiving oxygen through a nasal cannula. By 8 p.m., after another chest x-ray had been taken and more blood tests were taken and analyzed, an attending doctor motioned me to step out of Rob's room. In the hallway he quietly asked whether Rob had an advanced directive.

An advanced what?
An advanced directive, a living will. Has your husband indicated if he wants life support provided? 
He hasn't made an advanced directive, but he wants to live. He's doing all of this because he wants to live. I want him to live.
Both lungs are filling and the antibiotics he has been getting are not effective. We're not sure why he isn't responding. It could be the spread of cancer, pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism.  We're concerned because his oxygen level continues to fall. We don't know if he can make it through the night without intubating him. 
Do you mean putting him on a breathing machine?
Yes, he might need to be intubated. 
Today is our son's 17th birthday. His dad can't die on his birthday. Do you understand?

Devon celebrated his birthday at home alone and Rob was transported to a step-down unit so that he could be cared for by a full time nurse and so that his oxygen level could be monitored 24/7. He also was switched to high-flow oxygen which he would remain on, until he came home.

Rob would make it through the night, his lungs would mostly clear, and it would be the next week, after a cat scan was taken that we would learn that his illness was now terminal. Gone was the one-year prognosis. In its stead, was the raw knowledge that while Rob was waiting to fight the cancer, waiting to recover from thoracic surgery and then spinal surgery, waiting to recover from three staph infections--the cancer was spreading to his sternum, his left lung, his ribs, liver, and spleen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

#SOL16: Fictions


Some truths are too stubborn, too unflappable for deception.  For example, I could never mistake my husband's body after death for the man he was before he took that last breath. Immediately after death, the body reveals itself as nothing more than a carrier of the most temporary sort.  What makes us human, vital, present is immediately gone and leaves behind an absence we cannot fill.  


Some fictions though act as pleasant stories--ones we tell ourselves as we walk about in a day. Some mornings I walk and I imagine other ends for Rob, other alternatives, ones that are less traumatic, though no less final.

Instead of traveling to the hospital in the predawn morning of September 14--the very day my father, had he lived would have turned 98, we return to bed and refuse all treatments. We say no to the surgeon who only hours later will insert the infected port that marks the end to Rob's life.  In this new scenario, Rob lives for the next 6 months and we make the most of the time we have--time we never got to use due to the doctors, the infections, the mishaps, the carelessness, the surgeries, and the sad, sad collapse of our lives overnight.

In this revised version of Rob's life, the letter he told me he wanted to write his son, gets written.
The trip once more to Maine, gets taken. We lie down together, love sweetly. We see a movie.  We talk. He tells me where he put Dev's social security card.  We have time to say goodbye, to say all those things we thought were ours to give to one another.

In this scenario, Rob lives outside of the hospital bed. He does not spiral down.


What acts best confirm your fictions?
What confirms the truths you most want to believe? 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

#SOL16: Making

Birches (M.A. Reilly, 2016)
On Sunday mornings I paint. That is my new routine--one I began a week ago.

It has been so long since I have made any kind of art and I want to begin again and decided last week to keep an hour or so on Sunday mornings as a time for art experimentation. This morning, the birch trees in front of my home were the inspiration and I decided to use gouache paint after I found a piece of watercolor paper and a few tubes of paint and some terrible brushes. I like constraints when I paint as they are oddly freeing although the brushes were truly terrible. Cheap brushes aren't worth the effort. Nonetheless, it felt good to see a scene emerge on the page.

A friend told me the way I would work through Rob's death was by making things. Most painting is more about what is not there than what gets produced. John Berger in The Shape of a Pocket wrote,  "What any true painting touches is an absence -- an absence of which without the painting, we might be unaware." I thought about absence a lot after I finished painting and set the work aside.  This is the first spring without Rob.  Even the birches have budded, leafed and Rob is not here to see this. The pulse of life goes on even though he does not.

All around me this sad truth is proclaimed.  

#SOL16: A Cardinal's Wing

Cardinal (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. 
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

                                    - Rainer Maria Rilke   


Before morning arrives, the riotous call of birds wakes me from the first true slumber I can recall knowing in months. There is an odd joy in being able to be wakened. It's been more than 9 months since Rob slept in this bed and yet, I still sleep only on my side, preserving that which cannot be preserved. I listen as the rain falls lightly beyond the wide opened bedroom windows. In these moments between night and day, time is best measured by the rise of darkened shadows against the far bedroom wall as the whole room seems to breathe and gradually lighten. Where are you, Rob? Where are you?

Most nights my sleep is a very muddled affair; interrupted by a restlessness that keeps me company night and day.  I am in a constant state of anticipation.

And today will be no different--a day spent with Jane, walking beside her in woods, by ponds, and through gardens where the peonies are already starting to bud. Everything is too early this year. Too brazen. Too bright.  

I realize as we walk that the excited flutter I keep feeling is me anticipating Rob returning home as if he has been away for a weekend, or has spent the night before at a hotel he found just off the interstate in Maryland and is now heading North, heading home. These thoughts flash like bits of sharp light--momentarily seen--only to be blinded by the more difficult truth: My husband is never coming home. 


"I want him to come home," I blurt out, surprised too by my outburst as Jane turns towards me. And before she can speak, I am recanting.  

"No, No, I don't. I don't want him to return to that bed." 

Jane nods, confessing how she too hated the hospital bed Rob lived in for the last 21 days of his life--how she hated the way it filled the whole first floor of the house like some cancerous growth.  

"Wherever you sat or stood you could see that bed and Rob in it," Jane tells me. And for the first time I see how my husband's illness and death has weighed on her. 

After Rob came home to die, he would say to me most mornings, "Okay, help me to stand up so I can get into the bathroom." He would say this as he tried to lift the weight of his body from the mattress as if he might actually sit up on his own.

Each morning I would gently remind him what he wanted to forget: he had lost the capacity to walk two months earlier. 

"Just help me up then. Help me to stand," he would say forcibly.

"I can't, Rob. You can't stand up." 

He would look confused, baffled and now and then he would say how he must have forgotten. 

"I forgotImagine that. I forgot."


Much later in the day after Jane and I have returned home, we are drinking wine on the side patio in the too perfect spring dusk. And I feel grateful when the wind picks up and the air chills, sending me inside to retrieve an Irish shawl I can only imagine Rob must have bought for me some years earlier. 

Why can't I recall the simplest of things?

And returning to the patio, shawl in hand, Jane and I will laughed as she reminds me of the sheer absurdity of how we sat in her car in the darkened parking lot of a neighborhood Starbucks an hour or so after Rob died, waiting for Devon to return to the car with some water for each of us. I had forgotten all that. I must confess that I have forgotten more than any wife can remember or bear. Even now, I am hearing my brother send us from the house that evening so Devon and I would not be there when the men from the funeral parlor, the men sent to retrieve my husband's body, arrived. 

Across from me, across the span of lawn and late day light I watch as a cardinal resettles itself on three separate branches in a thicket of trees that edge our property. I pull the shawl closer. Where are you Rob?  

I look for signs as I walk each morning, each evening. I look for signs of my husband as I sit with a glass of wine in hand as if the atoms that made up his corporeal self might now be bits of sky, or leaves, or the sudden movement of a cardinal's wing in flight.

Friday, April 22, 2016

#SOL16: Courage is Fueled by Love

Grove (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

Last night marked the first time since Rob died that I have been on my own completely. Yesterday afternoon, I kissed my son goodbye and watched as he left with friends to go to Boston for a long, fun-filled weekend. God knows he deserves that fun and more. Even knowing this, I was a bit freaked at the idea of Devon being away from me.  Although he has been away from home since Rob died, it has not been for several days or located hundreds of miles away.

As I confronted this absence of power, I found my head filling with unhelpful thoughts: If I can't see him, how do I know he is okay?  What will I do if he should become hurt or worse? People die when you least expect it. Look at what happened to Rob.

I found sitting still with these thoughts difficult, troublesome even and so I took myself out for a long, long walk at dusk. Walking is a source of comfort and after watching Rob lose the capacity to walk, I treasure my walking time. As I walked, I listened to a meditation tape and the first words I heard focused on being still in order to create flow.

Find your still space. Let yourself be still. And from that center place all feelings can flow to the surface. They move through you rather then hold you and weigh you down. Our truest present moment is always filled with a sense of love and hopefulness. As your feelings flow you become lighter, heaviness--the weight disappears. And anything feels possible.  So let's move towards that space.

I walked for about an hour, cried a bit, felt shaky, noticed the light on the water, the call of birds, kayakers on the lake, and when I returned home, I began to settle--to find comfort in my home and my place in it. I watched a brief video on watercolor washes and found myself resettling. I began painting again last weekend.

None of this diminishes how much I miss my husband. The loss of Rob is a fairly constant sorrow and still a source of shock as might be imagined. But here's the thing I most want to acknowledge: there is also room within for other feelings too. That's a bit of a miracle.

And now, I feel hopeful because I can acknowledge the courage I showed by letting Devon go with love and keeping separate the crazy talk in my mind that is fear based. I acknowledged how I was feeling and affirmed Devon is okay and so am I.  He is with others whom I trust and off to have an adventure. I'm home and good with no need to outdistance the ways I feel. I can find that stillness with comfort.

This is the new normal. I am beginning to feel competent once again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

#SOL16: Grieving, Loving

Am I Blue? (Self portrait)


Yesterday afternoon a massage therapist gave me Neem oil. "Use it right after a shower. Rub it into your skin." And so I did.

Several hours later I was itchy. By 5 a.m. I was awake and back in the shower getting any trace of the oil off of my skin. By noon I was taking Benadryl as I was having a significant skin reaction to wherever the oil had touched. By 4 p.m. I was home, had taken another shower, changed the sheets on the bed, and taken another dose of Benadryl. Nothing seemed to work.

I I.

But this isn't just a story about a mishap with oil. This is a story about loss. You see it is the first time I have been sick and somewhat scared about my own health since Rob was diagnosed with lung cancer last September and since his death in early March. And though I can and do take care of myself, I haven't had to do so alone for decades. I have always had Rob. And I know that if Rob were here he would have made me tea. He might have sternly ordered me to go see our doctor. I realize now that I felt safer with him around even though I don't think I actually acknowledged that feeling prior. Perhaps that is the essence of love. It is mostly tacit.


And this story I am telling is incomplete. Well, what stories are ever complete? But after a good cry that coincided with remembering that six weeks ago at the very moment I was feeling so paralyzed, Rob died, my son appeared at the bedroom door and asked, "Why don't you go to the doctor. I can drive you."

And so after a moment of hesitation, I nodded yes and phoned. We went and our doctor prescribed a cure, along with a shot and now I am healing.

Tonight I am a bit of a mess. It was not lost to me how my son channelled his dad and how vulnerable I felt at that moment. And this too was bittersweet, though more sweet than bitter.

Each turn of the day reveals both loss and love, over and over again.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

#SOL16: No Parenthesis

Dark and Light (M.A. Reilly, Massachusetts, 2012)


There have been so many firsts this past week concerning our son and Rob's absence is always so much more present during these times.  He missed Devon getting his permit, visiting the first college with his son, taking 2 days of driving lessons, driving in the passenger seat of the car as Dev drove, and watching him pack a bag for a trip to Boston he will take without us. It's also been a tough week for Devon.  In the absence of school, he feels the loss of his father more.  We are hurting and I know we will continue to do so.

This pain circles back to more thoughts and I say, often aloud, that I will not, cannot allow myself to feel all of this, but I do. Not feeling is like trying to stop a river from running, from finding its own edges of containment. This pain is both blessing and curse, but even as the pain wells up I trust it is more blessing than not.  e.e cummings told us all, "since feeling is first..." And so it is. The thoughts that clutter my mind, break my heart are mostly of Rob passing. Sometimes it's an object that triggers a beautiful moment from our past--a sweater that smells like him or a pair of sunglasses I find in his car. And sometimes it is some other small imperceptible matter that opens me up to sorrow such as the way the late day light fell across the sofa 20 minutes ago and I remember Rob calling me in from the kitchen to see a similar light fading last October.

"You have to see this. Such an orange ball of light," he called to me. And drying my hands on a cloth, I am more pleased now to remember that I came to sit inside with him and watched.

But now, pain blooms too quickly. At these times, I try to speed the memory in an attempt to lessen its impact by seeing where it ends, where its devastation leaves me. But this does not work and I travel back to examine it, pick over it like an obsessed scientist dissecting a worm.

What did we talk about? I can't recall. Was I really present? Was I thinking about the dishes and if I had put up the dishwasher. What if I had known that this evening in October would be the last one we would watch the sunset, might I have been more present? And so on.

Rob's last hour on earth is seared in my mind like a loop I replay and it hurts to recall the slant of his head, the loosened jaw, the rattle, his eyes, only partially shut like a garage door that doesn't quite close all of the way. What was he seeing? What was my sweet husband minutes from leaving this earth seeing? Even now, the recollection wounds, my stomach clenches, my mouth grows watery, and I think I'll be sick.


This is a man who should have lived a long life. He did not. And most days I have trouble getting past that bold truth regardless of the flight of days that distance his death from now on a calendar. Time no longer works as it once did.

Poetry helps some and I smile a bit when I finish reading the e.e.cumming's poem--a poem I have read countless times and tonight its closing line strikes me differently than ever before.

                                            ...Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph 
and death i think is no parenthesis

No parenthesis

#SOL16: Cleaning Out Rob's Car

Rob turning to talk with Devon. 

Today, I cleaned out Rob's car. Each time I pull into the garage I see his car and for a millisecond think, "Rob's home"--just like I have done for the last 14 years that we have lived here. On Wednesday, I will be delivering his car to a buyer. Another piece of my husband's earthly life will be gone.

Each time something belonging to Rob is given away, thrown out, or in the case of his car, sold--I am so overwhelmed with sorrow that I must sit down as the crying is gut wrenching. It still seems at moments like this that it is utterly impossible that I won't ever see, or touch, or love, or kiss, or simply lie alongside my husband again. He is gone. How can a man who was so vital die so quickly?  So early?

Sometimes there is only pain.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

#SOL16: Imagining a Future


Create (M.A. Reilly, 2008)

Today, Dev and I went to Stevens Institute for a college visit.  It's Devon's first choice of schools as he wants to be a computer engineer.  The campus tour included an engineering tour, admissions counselor talk, and a general campus tour. 10,000 steps later we both said that we had learned a lot. Afterwards, we got a bite to eat and I saw the sadness lifted from my son's face for the first time in 7 months as he imagined a future for himself.

"I want to do the co-op program," he tells me as he eats an early dinner.
"It's exciting to gain experience in the industry where you want to work while at college," I add. "I also like that the locations of the co-op experiences can be varied. Imagine a semester abroad."


What the death of a husband or in Dev's case, a father does, is it strips you of the capacity to imagine beyond the moment where you stand. There suddenly is no future as a part of you is no longer present. This doesn't mean that there won't ever be an imagined future--just that it feels rather impossible to attain at the moment.  It was exciting to watch Devon reclaim some of imagination that had been suppressed.


At one point we viewed a chemical engineering lab and I thought of Rob. His major in high school was chemistry. He was a student at Brooklyn Tech. I knew how much he would have enjoyed being a student at Stevens and how much he would want Devon to succeed there.

When Rob was dying, I didn't think much about all that he would miss--what that loss would look like. There was neither time nor energy to be that reflective.  But now, as Devon moves forward with his life: college visits, driving lessons, weekends away from home, living at college--the absence of Rob has me thinking about the many beautiful events in our son's life that he will not be present to observe or participate in.

The tragedy of dying young is too full a weight to carry alone.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

#SOL16: Driving Permit

Devon getting ready to drive...

Dear Rob,

Today was so bittersweet. I finally took our son to take his driving permit test--the test you had planned to take him to last August before you became ill.  We arrived before the agency opened only to have to return home because I forgot the 6-points of identification. My mind these days is a bit vacant. When we returned to the motor vehicle agency, we waited on several lines for a couple of hours and finally Devon was issued a permit and was then ready to take the written test. I know how proud you would have been of him. He passed the test, had his permit stamped, and on the way home I found a large abandoned parking lot for him to practice driving. I held my breath a lot and only once had to yell, "Break!" No worries the concrete wall was at least 5 inches away (I kid you not). I so tried to channel your calmness as I sat in the passenger seat.

So you know, I don't hide how I am feeling from Devon. To say we have been devastated by your death is to understate the obvious. Today though, I did.  Although Devon mentioned you and how the day brought up your absence, I checked my tears as I didn't want to mar the excitement he was showing. Our son deserves a few light hours and days given the last 7 months. After dinner tonight (homemade tacos to celebrate), Devon practiced driving some more and he seemed to be picking up the feel of the steering wheel and breaking a bit more smoothly.  I know you would be glad that both of Devon's uncles reached out to congratulate him on his permit. So many people have stepped in trying to fill the holes your passing has left.

Tomorrow, I'll contact a driving school. Tonight, I'll cry a bit for all you are missing and for the holes that just can't be filled.

I love you,
Mary Ann

Monday, April 11, 2016

#SOL16: Rob, John Keats and Olivia - Throw The Lights Away

Rob at the window of a place we stayed on the seacoast in Ireland.

Let me begin my dream.
I come - I see thee,
as thou standest there,
Beckon me out into the wintry air. 
 - John Keats, from the poem, "To Fanny"


When I first met Rob I was just 29. We met at graduate school--each of us majoring in English and the attraction we each felt for one another was rather instant. Briefly into our courtship, Rob told me about a reoccurring dream he had for several years. Rob began having the dream when he was in his mid 20s. He was then 33.

In the dream, Rob enters a large room in a library. Old books line the walls and distant stacks and the room is all but empty save the lean young man who is standing next to a lectern towards the front of the room. High ceilings arc above the stacks of books. And maybe there is stained glass windows, or maybe not.

The dream is fluid, moving, changing.

As Rob makes his way towards the man he realizes it is John Keats, the English poet, who turns to greet him.  They are just two young men in their mid 20s, separated by 165 years meeting in an old library.  Rob and Keats exchange a few words and Keats motions to him to read the tome that is opened and resting on the lectern. With that, Keats dissolves or sometimes he steps to the side and Rob walks to the book and leans over the lectern to read.

"So, don't stop. What's in the book?"

"It's strange because in some dreams there is partial letter to Fanny Brawne from Keats written on the page. At other times there's only a name written by hand and everything else is blank."

"Who was Fanny Brawne?"

"His lover."

"Strange dream. Is the name, Fanny?"

"No it isn't and I'm sorry to say it isn't yours."

"That's okay."

"The name is Olivia."

"Olivia? Are you sure?"

"Yeah, and I don't know any Olivia's."

I am startled by what he says. And though I want to tell him a truth, it feels awkward somehow to
reveal what I know and so I am quiet reevaluating what this man is starting to mean to me.


Two years later Rob and I will be visiting Trinity College in Dublin and we are in the Old Library where the Book of Kells is displayed. After we take a long look at the two pages that were displayed that day, I ask him if this library is like the one in his dream.  He smiles and tells me, yes.  We are in Dublin, in part, for me to search the birth registries at the Joyce House to see if there is a record of my birth. I know the year I was born, the month and day and the place. What I did not know until I was 28 was that I also had a different name while I lived at an orphanage in Dublin.

"What do you mean I had a different name?" I ask my mom as we sit in her kitchen sipping tea.

"Oh, didn't I tell you?" she asks so matter-of-factly.

"No, you didn't."

"Well, you were Muldoon. That's right. Olivia Muldoon was your name when you lived in Dublin.'

It will be several weeks after Rob has shared his dream with me that I will tell him what I have learned at my mother's kitchen table.  For the span of two years, I was called Olivia Muldoon.


And it will be that name we have come to find in Ireland during the summer of 1990. And though there will be no record of my birth for us to find, we will spend the length of morning reading ledger after ledger looking for the name Olivia Muldoon before quitting Dublin and making our way north to the seacoast town of Grange. There I will sleep while Rob explores the seacoast and cliffs. Later he will take me in hand and we will sit well above the Atlantic watching the wicked surf fill and recede as the wind picks up.


Within our lives there is that which resists explanations of logic, which turns a deaf ear to matters of justification. We know more than we can say.

I think of this as I walk in the morning, recalling Wallace Stevens's lines from "The Man With the Blue Guitar."

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark...

Say what you see in the dark.
In the dark.

Now, after Rob's too early death, when grief grips--these matters of faith I pushed to the side feel more urgent, more necessary than I remember them in previous years. What calls to me, finds me restless. It calms me to think that in another space and time, John Keats and Rob are meeting--old friends who have passed beyond what we can know.

#SOL16:Lucas Films and Disney--Thank You

Coming through the Rye. This is an image I made of Devon years ago. I asked him to run through the field like he was in a Star Wars film. 


On December 19, Devon and I went to see the 10 a.m. showing of the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Devon and Rob had hoped that he would be well enough to come to the theater too,  but it simply was not the case. From the time Devon was 6, he was fascinated, like his dad, with Star Wars. I can remember filming Devon as he made his own Star Wars film in our home and showing the film to him. He and Rob watched and rewatched all of the films. They built Star War Legos. And so it was not a surprise that they had spent the better part of 2015 talking about the release of the film and making plans to see it together.

As Rob's prognosis grew worse, Devon said to me, "I hope Dad can see the Star Wars film with me. I just want us to see it together."

"When is it being released?"

"Digital downloads are supposed to be released March 15."


By this time Rob was in palliative care at the hospital and a week away from coming home. I did not think he would be able to hold on until the 15th of March and actually be able to understand what he was seeing. So I decided to write to Lucas Films requesting permission to purchase a DVD early.

Three days later, Cara, from Lucas Films publicity sent me a touching email explaining that the DVD could not be released due to piracy issues, but promising that she would reach out to Disney to see if someone could travel to New Jersey to show the film to us. In her email to me, she wrote:

Please know that Rob is in the hearts of all of us at Lucas film, and that he is always a part of our Star Wars family.   Thank you again for reaching out, our thoughts are with you during this impossibly difficult time.

I  didn't think much more about this as Rob came home two days later and Hospice care began and our world closed in as we supported Rob as he prepared to die. On the afternoon of February 26, I received  a phone call from the Disney Corporation. I'm sorry that I can't recall the woman's name who I spoke with, but she was calling to say that they were able to arrange a person from the Disney Corporation to come to our home and show Rob and his family the film. I was so grateful for their kindness and actions and so sorry that I had to decline their offer.  By that time, Rob was more in another world than here and he would not have been alert enough to even see the film, let alone understand what was being shown.

This was a  time when only family and very close friends were present in our home. Ten days later, almost to the minute, Rob died.

It has been on my mind  to thank Lucas Films and Disney for their responsiveness to my initial email and for working so hard to fulfill a son's desire. We were both so touched by their gesture. Devon and I were truly grateful for their offer and talked about it as we sat down last week to watch The Force Awakens. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

#SOL16: His Flannel Shirt

Rob and Max in Maine
I must force myself to look upon the familiar things, the coat hanging on the chair, the hat in the hall… To ease the pain I took over some of his things for myself. I wore his shirts, sat at his writing desk, used his pens to acknowledge the hundreds of letters of condolence; and by the very process of identification with the objects he had touched, felt the closer to him. —Daphne du Maurier 


I decided to pack Rob's shoes this afternoon. Devon helped and one pair of cowboy boots and an odd slipper that we both agreed Rob would not have liked were left when we finished. I asked Devon to put the cowboy boots in the bag with other pairs of shoes and I threw the slipper away. Rob purchased the Lucchese handmade boots on a business trip we made to San Antonio--a year or so before we married.

I was surprised when Rob returned to our hotel room from an afternoon with some other men attending the conference and showed me the boots.
"You're from Brooklyn. You work in Hell's Kitchen. Cowboy boots?"
He looked at the boots and then me and then at the boots again before he explained how his father and Buddy had gotten boots. "I may have gotten carried away," he told me, laughing at his own folly.


As I write this I am wearing one of Rob's flannel shirts--a Campbell plaid, I think. At first, Rob would get annoyed when I took one of his shirts to wear. This surprised me.

"You have shirts of your own," he said to me.
"It makes me feel wrapped up in you," I explained and he looked surprised at first and it wouldn't be until much later--years later--that I realized how this gesture of love baffled him. He hadn't known a lot of love before. Across the decades we helped each other to deepen and complicate our understandings of love.


Friends, well intending, ask, "How are you doing?" Honestly, I have no clear response as the sadness I feel seems to be without limit.  I read there are five stages to grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kubler-Ross). But grief is not about stages. Rather, grief works more like a Klein bottle, fully immersing while being non-orientable. I am still shocked by the illness and death of my husband.

I can recall him last July making a commitment to walk in order to lose some weight.

I can remember him joking with Devon's friends who spent a week with us in August, a mere week before the diagnosis.

And I can still remember him tucking those boots away in the closet of our bedroom and confessing later that they weren't as comfortable as he first thought.

I can remember.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

#SOL16: The Jar Pandora Opened

the necklace...

I'm waiting for coffee when the barista says to me, "I like your necklace."
I tell her thanks as she fills the cup with hot water, finishing my Americano. When she hands me my drink, she laughs and says once again, "I really, really like your necklace." 
"Thanks so much. It was a gift from my husband."
"He has great taste," she adds.  "Tell him I said so."

I smile a bit understanding there is no way for her to know that I will not be telling Rob anything. He gave me the necklace for our 24th wedding anniversary.

I thought we weren't going to be extravagant, I would later say to him, knowing we had agreed to not buy gifts.
I saw it and knew you would love it. Who knows where we will be next year. Enjoy it. I remember him saying this and both of us laughing and later beginning to plan a trip to Portugal for our 25th wedding anniversary, a trip we could not be able to make this past December.


It's been a month since Rob died and I find that thoughts of my husband filter through my mind constantly.  Memories abound and recalling him, us, then--fills a good portion of my day. Triggers also abound, like the young girl in the coffee shop this morning. These jolt me as I am not anticipating the shock that happens. And how could I not be overwhelmed with thoughts about Rob? He is not only within me, but across the last three decades he has given shape to person I have become and am becoming.  Breathing is a trigger.

Love shapes us and now I know so too does loss.


As I write this, Devon and I are struggling so much and watching my son hurt, undoes me.

When my mom died I felt like a weight was crushing me and I didn't know if I would ever feel like me again, I tell Devon tonight.  I can tell you that those feelings of despair and sadness and disbelief fade. The pain can still feel as acute, but the duration is far, far less. I now think of my mom and most of the time there is no slice, no pain, just love. 

I have no confidence left, he tells me. 
I get how you might feel that way. My confidence is shaky too. Our world has been upended and it's so hard to get oriented again--to have to be vulnerable again. You will though. I don't doubt that. You will get through this. Talking with a grief counselor will help. That takes courage and confidence.

When we got back from our mini-vacation on Sunday night we were too tired and it was too late to feel the loss of Rob.  But by Monday morning, the reality of Rob's death and how his death has temporarily rendered our lives so empty and untethered rolled over each of us and knocked us about in ways we had not anticipated.

We each loved Rob so greatly, so completely that a mini vacation does not fill that loss, in many ways it amplifies it. We woke up Monday to a house that was painfully empty.


I don't sleep through the night. I am restless, somewhat alert, waiting for some new horror to happen. My dreams are waking ones.

What's next? I wonder.  

Is there cancer growing within me? 

Is Devon okay? 

Will the sky fall, again?

And so when I notice that I am slowing down, that my interests beyond the walls of my home feel less vital, less necessary--I first think a lack of sustained sleep may be why. But that's not the reason, or at least not the whole reason.  I have always loved the work I do and now I notice that I feel less motivated to do anything. I can't imagine remaining in education.

I can't imagine.

I feel closer somehow to Rob when I'm home--where he was last alive. Those last weeks of his life were deeply intimate and insular and I crave both.  I want the past and I want to wrap it around me even as I know that it is more like William Carlos Williams's dirty mantle that he writes about in The Desert Music than some form of solace. The past is a corpse.

Williams writes,

from The Desert Music, p. 109.


Now, I am filled with an immense and heavy sadness--the likes of which I have not know prior and oddly I also sense a slim ray of hope within.

I am the jar Pandora opened and then resealed.

You may recall that after Pandora released the plagues and maladies, diseases and evils into the world, hope remained at the bottom of that jar. She put the lid back on keeping hope within.

Hope resides within and though it feels faint, I know it is there. Hope is the poem that Williams said must be made.  It is the present that always beckons.