12: Not Quite Unbearable

12: Not Quite Unbearable

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Not Quite Unbearable

Baby let me be, your lovin’ teddy bear.

~Elvis Presley

When we fell in love and married at the start of the millennium, each in our sixties with grown children, we anticipated endless years together. So even though he’d struggled with one debilitating illness after another in the nearly nine years of our marriage, even though I’d watched him wizen away, and even though we’d known since Valentine’s Day that Ken couldn’t survive... I still couldn’t believe we wouldn’t spend another cozy Christmas together. Ken was my big, tough, durable teddy bear.

He’d hinted at his own awareness in December 2008. “I’m asking the boys and the grandkids to write me stories this year for Christmas,” he’d said. “I don’t need more objects that I’ll just have to give away. So don’t go shopping for me. I have enough of everything to last me for the rest of my life.”

I nodded, but secretly vowed that I’d find something he could use. I’d already written a couple of stories about our life together which were set to appear in a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology, Tough Times, Tough People, in the late spring. So I settled on a couple of token gifts, a small bottle of Tuscany cologne and some sweat suits. Even if he didn’t do much but lounge in his favorite chair, he’d still smell deliciously of oak moss and orange flower, just as he always had. And the fluffy fleece cardinal and azure sweats would replace the frayed and faded ones he’d been wearing daily.

By January he began to sort through his ties and tie tacks, deciding who would get what. I helped him box up his books on photography, poker and magic and lugged them to the post office. Still, I wrapped myself in denial.

By February he’d lost his appetite, even turning down my offers to prepare chicken fried steak or meatloaf, his favorite dishes. He lost nearly 40 pounds, became jaundiced and had to be hospitalized for tests, and then needed a stent procedure because there was a blockage in his common bile duct.

The surgeon who performed that procedure was frank. “What is causing the blockage is ampullary cancer. Because your husband’s kidneys are so weak, we can’t perform surgery or administer chemotherapy. All we can do is send him home to be comfortable.”

He was approved for home hospice. Soon there were days when he couldn’t manage more than a spoonful of chicken noodle soup or two or three grapes. The nurse confided that his time was growing short. Still, I simply couldn’t imagine a future without him.

Ken knew the Chicken Soup books would arrive in June. In late May he’d dictated a list of the people he wanted me to send them to, as a final gift for relatives and friends. The books arrived on June 5th, the very morning of his death, shortly after I’d phoned the Neptune Society and the hospice agency. I already had the labels affixed to the envelopes. All I had to do was stuff them in the envelopes.

But now I had to phone his family and my friends. Then my things-to-do list burgeoned. In subsequent weeks I made trips to the county courthouse to take care of title deeds. I phoned and corresponded with banks and credit unions. Earlier I had agreed to participate as a reviewer in a federal grant program. The grants arrived two days after his death, and absorbed my time for a while. Since I serve on various boards and commissions, I had meetings to attend, material to review, reports to write. His sons visited in August and we planted a plum tree in his memory.

Then one late autumn morning, three months after Ken’s death, I woke up with an urge to hurl things at the wall. Though I’d stayed busy, busy, busy, I felt empty, empty, empty. That afternoon I received an envelope from the Neptune Society chapter that had handled his cremation. I pulled out a certificate telling me a teddy bear had been named in memory of Kenneth D. Wilson and would be donated “to a child who may be alone, hurt or frightened.”

A few days later I received an unexpected package from an old college friend who I hadn’t seen in decades. It held a stuffed honey-hued bear. She’d included a note that suggested I could sob into its fur when woebegone, shake it when angry, or slam it on the floor when overwhelmed.

Just cuddling the bear calmed me considerably. Even now, some nights I tuck the bear into Ken’s side of the bed. Ken had always liked bears.

Our first Christmas together, a Panda Wish Bear mysteriously had appeared under the tree. One not-long-ago Valentine’s Day morning I discovered a hefty mulberry-hued heart-holding bear perched behind the wheel of my car. There’d been the evening I’d come home from a business trip to find a five-foot-high carved bear positioned in front of the house, with a sign proclaiming our names. Additionally, a bevy of ursine creatures line a shelf in the guest room: a British teddy that wears a Union Jack sweater, a lady brown bear in an elegant lacy lavender gown and granny glasses, a tiny polar bear that peeps out of a Christmas stocking. All Ken’s picks. He had great taste in bears.

As the 2009 holiday season neared, my first in a decade without Ken, I realized that when my honey bear had arrived, I too, like the recipient of the Neptune Society’s teddy, had been alone, hurt and frightened. After it had appeared, I’d felt less forlorn. Maybe I could soothe others’ grief by providing bears in Ken’s memory.

I immediately found several ways. I donated 15,000 of my frequent flyer miles to the American Cancer Society’s Miles of Hugs and Smiles campaign, enough for two “Hugyou” bears to be given to children undergoing treatment. Then I discovered that the National Wildlife Federation sought people to symbolically adopt black bears. Small stuffed bears would be given to designees. I ordered one for Ken’s youngest granddaughter and one for Toys for Tots. I visited the local Tree of Sharing and nabbed two tickets for toddlers who’d asked for teddy bears.

This year I couldn’t quite bring myself to put up the Christmas tree. It’s too soon yet to gaze at the ornaments we gathered on our trips together, the Pinocchio from Venice, the Alaska totem poles, the angels from St. Petersburg. But I did set out some of Ken’s Santas, and... his Christmas bears. I sprayed a little of the remaining Tuscany onto their fur.

When I hit the local shops the day after Christmas, in search of next year’s cards, I grinned to myself when I found a few boxes featuring teddies fashioning toys in Santa’s workshop. Next December as I sign them, I’ll be seeing Ken’s smile.

I’ve no doubt now that Ken forever shall remain my tough and durable teddy bear.

~Terri Elders

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