94: Losing a Wife, Mother, and Daughter

94: Losing a Wife, Mother, and Daughter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Losing a Wife, Mother, and Daughter

To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.

~Thomas Campbell

When someone you love is dying, it knocks you off balance and shakes you to the core. Roles shift and relationships change. Life becomes painful beyond words.

For fifteen months, my wife, Linda, battled a rare form of cancer called Primary Central Nervous System (CNS) Lymphoma. She underwent countless sessions of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Treatment after treatment was the same. She was hit hard, knocked off her feet. The only difference was that each treatment was more powerful than the last. The previous exhaustion was nothing compared to the next wave. Each time Linda thought that she had turned the corner, that the worst was behind her, and that her body was growing stronger despite the chemical and radioactive bombardment, she was actually growing weaker.

As the end grew near, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Neither were our children, Emily and Tyler, or Linda’s parents who had come to stay with us. The curative treatment was over, and now a new challenge was about to begin. I knew there would be grief, but I had no idea how much confusion, disorientation, fear, anger, and guilt our family would go through.

During the final weeks we lived day to day, moment to moment, in a kind of poised-to-flight tension. And with each passing day, a terrible agony pushed all of us closer and closer to the edge.

Linda’s parents were, understandably, at wits’ end. They were losing their daughter, watching her die before their eyes, and there was nothing they could do.

My job was to maintain stability in the house. Emily and Tyler still had to get to school. Meals had to be cooked, laundry done. There were Linda’s care and medical needs to attend to, as well as friends coming and going at all hours. At times, the tears and sorrow became almost unbearable.

One morning, my mother-in-law came in and found my blankets on the floor, next to Linda’s bed.

“Why are you sleeping here?” she asked.

I told her that I wanted to be close to Linda in case she needed anything during the night.

“What are you trying to be?” she said. “A martyr?”

There were other shots fired, lots of them. We argued over estate issues, religious issues, and who would be allowed to visit Linda during her final days. Finally something inside me snapped. I raged back at her parents, letting it all go. They met me head on. We stood in the kitchen, shouting back and forth at the top of our lungs, hurling threats and accusations at each other like steak knives.

In the other room, Linda lay dying.

How does one normalize the death of a loved one, the roller coaster of emotion with highs and lows coming at every turn, at every moment? How do you make sense of the anger, sorrow, and tears?

For our family, hospice was a great help. They were instrumental in keeping everyone sane amid a cacophony of confusion and sorrow, as well as keeping Linda comfortable and pain-free. In the weeks leading up to her death, they helped us immeasurably. They taught us how to confront death without fear and to find meaning in the midst of chaos. I’m not sure if we would have survived without them.

Hospice taught me another important lesson: in the midst of sorrow, one can often find beauty. I witnessed this in a letter my oldest son, Micah, wrote to Linda in the weeks before her death. In his letter he said:

I am who I am today because of you, my stepmother. You came into my life and colored my future with your love. I am creative because you nurtured my imagination. I am sensitive because I knew it was okay to cry around you.

I know that I am worth love, because I was raised in love. I know it’s okay to be different because you always accepted me, and when I faltered you never gave up on me.

When I was seven, and running a race, you cheered for me like I was your hero. I felt so important. When I was afraid at night, you came into my room. You rubbed my back and ran your fingers through my hair. Then you would say, “It’s okay.” I never felt alone or afraid after that. You hugged me like I was your own son and told me that you loved me. I knew it was true because it was real.

I love the way you show your love with a warm smile. I love the way you never yelled at me. I love the way you treat animals and respect nature. I love the way you see beauty in everything. You taught me to do the same. I love you, Linda. You mean the world to me.

I was with Linda the night she died. The hour was late and everyone was asleep. I sat beside her bed, holding her hand. Her breathing became irregular, and I could see the end was near. I felt a sorrow unlike any I had ever known, as if my own body was closing down along with hers.

But as something shut inside me, something else opened. I apologized to her for the way I had spoken to her parents. I told her it was okay to let go. I assured her that Emily and Tyler would always be safe, and they would grow up to be kind and compassionate people, just like their mother. As Linda took her final breath, I told her that we would never stop loving her.

Is life long enough to recover from the death of someone you love? I’m not sure. But when I think back on those final days, on the anger and sadness that surged through our family, I realize the healing had already begun.

Six months after Linda’s death, her parents returned for Emily’s eighth grade graduation. When the ceremony was over, I thanked them for taking the time to be there, and told them they were wonderful grandparents.

As we said our goodbyes, Linda’s father shook my hand and said, “Tim, I hope you understand the reason we acted the way we did when Linda was dying. We were losing a daughter. Imagine if you were losing Emily.”

His words explained everything. Over the next months we shored up our differences and became friends again.

Linda returns from time to time, not only in memory but in real life. She is here, of course, to watch over Emily and Tyler. She remains with us, absolute and unchanging, and is a guiding light for our family.

She returned not long ago on a clear summer day. I was in the backyard when I glanced up and saw a cloud overhead, one solitary cloud in an otherwise flawlessly blue sky. That cloud was in the perfect shape of a heart. It was a gift from Linda, of that I have no doubt.

It was her way of saying, “Thank you for understanding.”

~Timothy Martin

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