grief journey

Life Takes Its Toll

It’s really hard to watch your husband’s work disappear day by day. The beautiful things he built around the house and in the yard get older and more worn out. The wonderful websites he designed get taken down, because the clients move on or go out of business – or because I was forced to cut the client list in half since I just couldn’t keep up with his work on top of my own full time job.

Today was a tough one. I was organizing and cleaning out paperwork, and so many little things cropped up that screamed: HE’S DEAD. HE’S GONE. HE’S NEVER COMING BACK.

There was the huge pile of medical bills from when he was sick. How long should I keep them for proof that I paid them? Then there were the letters from so many businesses and banks and pension managers: Sorry to hear about your husband, but you need to do this, file that, send a death certificate, blah blah blah blah. How much of this do I need to keep? Who knows? I just put it all in a folder called Rick. I chose a blue folder, because that was his favorite color, so you get an idea of the mood I was in.

I slogged on through the paperwork, sorted and discarded. I was organizing the invoices for our business from the “to file” folder. As I was matching them with client’s checks, I took a look through the old invoices in the Palmerworks folder and noticed that there are so many sites that are gone now. We used to have around forty and now there’s only half that. So many sites I remember working on with him, so many clients that he enjoyed meeting and getting to know. He was so INTO his work, and then, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I had to start thinking about the big picture, about what’s really so sad about getting rid of all these beautiful sites he created. I remembered how excited he was that the business was becoming successful because it meant that he would achieve his goal – his dream that he’d be able to enjoy having this to work on during his retirement.

And oh how he loved the work! I remember the day I told him that he now had so many clients that he earned more than he did when he was working his “real job” for the airline. He had taken an early retirement buyout that we really couldn’t afford, but there were other things to consider, like the medical insurance they were offering from his old contract that was probably better than if he waited to retire under the new contract. So he (luckily, I guess) retired at 58 and worked his butt off on the website business.

The business was perfect for his designer instincts and his independent nature. He designed magazines and brochures and signs and menus, he took photos of golf outings and had a small event photos sideline, but his main business was websites. He wanted to give the clients everything they needed so they’d be happy and tell their friends to use Palmerworks. Part of our deal was that we provided personal service for small businesses. We weren’t a do-it-yourself service, like Wix. We were THERE for you. Rick would meet with the clients, talk about their business, discover what they provided, the kind of site they wanted, then he’d do it all. He’d write their content after studying all about whatever the topic was. He often laughed that he knew about mud-jacking, counseling, restaurants, hair removal, spirulina, plumbing, countertops, asphalt… you name it, he got involved in the subject and ran with it. He’d go to the site and take photos of the employees, the jobs, the food, whatever was needed to showcase their wares. He even did things outside the scope of a typical web business, like help them set up email clients on their home computers, and other things the non-technically savvy people needed.

We had started the business more than ten years earlier in anticipation of our retirement. The main goal of all Rick’s hard work was that he wanted to build it up so it would be a full-time income that he could work on while we traveled the globe. It’s a pretty portable business, after all. You just need a laptop and a mobile hotspot. And so he kept at it, and he planned to do it until he got too old to see.

We used to joke about it – how funny it would be in the future, when some new client found us online and called us to come meet with them. They’d be expecting to see a couple of hipster web designers and in would walk this couple of 80-year-olds! We’d hobble our white-haired selves into the office and plunk into the chairs, and it would probably freak the clients out! We got many a chuckle over that. He had no intention of retiring completely. He was looking forward to creating websites until he died.

He got his dream in a way. He developed websites until he died. But the plan was for him to do it for years and years more. Until that white-haired couple was ready to really retire and sit back in their rockers in the nursing home. And the idea of how hard he worked to achieve that dream, only to have his life cut short before he got the payoff – that’s the thing that got to me today. He worked so hard for this and now half of what he created is gone. He’s missing the rest of his life…he’s missing the dream.

I decided I had to stop this line of thinking or I’d get too depressed, so I kept sorting papers, making a mental note that I was getting a bit sad and maybe I should stop for awhile. But no, I’m kind of persistent, so I wanted to finish. And then the oddest thing finally made me break. I found a notice from the Florida Department of Transportation for a toll we paid two years ago. There was a road we’d had issues with a couple of times when we were down there. We always picked the wrong lane somehow and missed the toll booth. A couple of months later, we’d receive a notice that we owed money for the toll. This one was from May 2017. It was from our last trip to Florida.

I stared at the little picture of the back of our car. That was us. That was us returning home because Rick was starting to get a pain in his chest – right where the tumor had been. I noticed that he was starting to get winded each evening after watching the sunset. As we left the shore the last week we were there, as we walked up the sandy slope of beach towards the parking lot, he had to stop and catch his breath. He seemed tired, and he finally told me about the pain, and said he just wanted to go home to his own bed.

So we went home from our last vacation on the gulf and we found out that his fears were unfounded. The cancer hadn’t returned. But we didn’t know it didn’t matter – that other health issues could intrude. On that day in May 2017, when the automatic camera took the picture of a car from Michigan that missed paying a toll, the passengers of that car had no idea that they’d only share two more months together, that the husband would be dead within 90 days.

I stared at the picture of our car on its way back home, and I knew that two people very in much in love with each other were inside that car and that they were living on borrowed time. I stared at the picture and I finally let go and cried my heart out for the man who didn’t get the retirement, the man who just wanted to work on websites and travel with his wife until he was 80. And then, I cried a bit for the woman who’s sitting alone on a Saturday afternoon sorting through old paperwork and watching the fruits of her husbands hard labor disappear before her eyes.

When I was finally all cried out, I wasn’t sure what to do with the toll enforcement paper. The fine was paid long ago. I really don’t need it. But there’s that picture of us in our car, and today I’m obviously feeling a bit sentimental. I filed it in the blue folder, titled “Rick,” and finished sorting the rest of the paperwork. Then I went outside to enjoy a little time on the deck Rick built because it really is a lovely day.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *