|Wolf Waiting (M.A. Reilly, cut and torn paper collage, 2015)|
To the left of his desk were a pair of brown thongs, Rob liked to wear. I came upon them accidentally a few weeks ago when I moved a bag Rob had used to carry his computer. Who would have ever thought that a cheap pair of shoes could cut so deeply? As I stood looking--looking because I felt I must--I realized that Rob had likely slipped them off sometime in mid-September on the day he contracted a staph infection. He discarded these shoes with the easy care of one who expects to return to them another day.
These finds are private glimpses at grief. These are the moments when invented dialogues and imagined events flood the heart. To grieve is to hypothesize, to dwell in possibility--Dickinson's "fairer House than Prose." Each omission, each slanted truth helps us to rewrite the death of our beloved as a more comfortable truth we can fit into a back pocket. But these truths lose purchase when we confront the unexpected, inconsequential object, like discarded summer shoes. For it's the rather small things found suddenly that allows us to see that our loss is too hard to calculate, to quantify, to wrap up neatly. I can still see Rob's feet in those sandals, recalling how he enjoyed kicking them off as soon as he got home. Tonight, I am imagining he slipped those sandals from his feet in mid-September after seeing the surgeon. That afternoon we entered our home through the garage downstairs. I went upstair to the main floor of our home while Rob likely lingered downstairs in his office.
Last week, I looked around Rob's office--a space we have shared these last 14 years--and saw him in the trinkets and pens and notebooks that still remain. There are notes he left on his desk that I have not had the courage to remove. It's as if they wait there for him to return. There are notes he scribbled that are attached to a curriculum board he was working on when the diagnosis was learned. My husband was always scribbling notes. He left behind 40 years of notes and 50 notebooks and frankly I don't know where to begin.
Three weeks ago, I finally packed up his Joyce books--the multiple copies of Ulysses he wrote in and sent them and other books to New Hampshire for Michael to keep. It seemed what Rob would want. Among the Joyce books I found two copies of Minne and Moo paperbacks--stories Rob delighted in reading to Devon when he was a young child. Oh, the laughter at bedtime as Minnie and Moo found trouble and friendship and escape and love. As I held the books I wondered why Rob had tucked them away. What was he thinking?
My husband was a man who loved his son. I imagine Rob wanted to savor those days when he read to Dev at night before curling up beside him. More nights than I can count I would find Rob snoring away next to Devon--both of them asleep.
In a week it will be the one-year anniversary of when we first learned Rob had some type of cancer. How odd and cruel is it that he's been dead for half of those months? My husband went from walking around in the world able bodied to being a tragedy in 6 days.
Just 6 days.
We had 6 normal days after that initial diagnosis before the speed of the infections and illness undercut every forward step we tried. Nothing was ever able to reset the illness, to clear a path through the too many battles with infections and blood clots and narcotics. And still, every time, yes every time, I think of his death, my stomach sours and on some of those days I am violently ill. Every day the shock of his death feels new.
In September, I'll return to work in earnest again. I stopped working full time in November, tapering the days I worked each month to a number I could count on one hand. And so now, months later I want to believe it is time to return, but I know this too is more story than truth for there is no returning. If I could manage such a trick I would surely do so.
But would I really? Would I want to travel back in time? It hurts me to say, No. Not that.
Though I would be greatly tempted to return to the past to just glimpse a moment of Rob--once I recall the terror, the brutal pain he shouldered, the way the narcotics altered my sweet husband, his sadness and confusion, and how I watched him day-by-day edge more and more out of the frame we once called out life--my desire to see him, to touch him once again wanes.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed questioned his desire for his beloved wife to 'come back'. He wrote:
What sort of a lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers? Even the insane call, ‘Come back,’ is all for my own sake. I never even raised the question whether such a return, if it were possible, would be good for her. I want her back as an ingredient in the restoration of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? (p. 32).
For the last six months I have been playing a date game. I have spent time these last months recalling what we were doing a year ago on let's say: March 9 or April 2; May 14th or June 10th and so on. I have attempted to resurrect some sense of innocence I had known before death came knocking. On September 11th of last year, a Friday night, Rob took a tank of oxygen with him and we went out to dinner at friend's home. How could we ever have known that it would be the last social outing we would ever take? Rob would never again leave the house for any reason other than medical and by December 30th he would never walk again.
Catastrophic illness forces a family to reside in the present moment. Looking backwards makes every past moment more important than it was when lived. Imagining a future is something that quickly leaves when the diagnosis is terminal. Rob and I did not live as if it the passing moments could be a last day. When Rob edged closer to his death, I sat up most every night next to the hospital bed, holding his hand, murmuring reassurances, and feeling so damn hungry to find an end to this misery.