Time on My Hands

It’s tough to go on vacations now…too much time to think. I’m up north at the family cottage for two weeks, and the weather is beautiful. I have nothing to do but bask in the sun, play with the grandkids on the sandy beach of Lake Huron, enjoy time with my family, and take in the beauty of these natural surroundings.

I also have plenty of time on my hands, time to think and reflect on the past. And, as I would expect,  this vacation brings up memories of vacations past, and the bittersweet joy and sorrow that accompanies each remembrance.

Last night, alone in my tent at the end of a long, pleasurable day, I lay back on my inflatable bed and my mind immediately took me back to the two of us sleeping in a tent on this very beach twenty plus years ago. We arrived late, so we pitched the tent at night and didn’t realize we had put it right over a little stream caused by the creek diverting towards the house. When we ducked inside the dark tent, we got drenched! It was hardly the romantic evening we had planned, but it was an unforgettable memory and we laughed about it for years.

That seems like a long long time ago, a distant memory from our first year together. But then earlier today, I was down on the beach staring out across the lake, feeling the sand beneath my bare feet, and – in an instant – I was transported back to the gulf in Florida. I’m watching you get ready to go down to the beach. The SUV hatch is open, and you’re sitting on the back edge of the car, taking off your socks, putting on your beach shoes. I’m waiting impatiently, longing to get to the beach to watch the sunset, to get to our favorite place to sit and drink wine, so I can share one more memorable evening with you.

This memory doesn’t seem that long ago. In fact, it seems like yesterday. I can almost touch you, you seem so close in my mind. But it wasn’t yesterday. It was more than a year ago, our last vacation together in April 2017. We were on the vacation that was so bittersweet because deep down I feared it would be our last, but couldn’t bear to think about.

I remember that part vividly, too. I can feel the pain of living each day with your impending death looming over us. The doctor had just pronounced the cancer in remission, but said there was a 90 percent chance that it would return within the year. When we left his office, already packed and ready for our trip, you said that it was unbelievable how anticlimactic, how surreal it was. We were waiting and hoping for the good news that the chemo and radiation had killed the cancer cells, that you were in remission. We had already been informed in secret by a nurse the day before, and were so looking forward to the “official” news from the oncologist. So, yes, he told us the official excellent verdict – you were in remission. BUT…..it will be back. With small cell lung cancer, it’s never truly “gone.” It’s lying dormant, and it will return, and there is no known treatment that works when it does. He pronounced that ominous news without a shred of doubt. Well…he hesitated a bit, and tossed us a bit of hope: you could be in the lucky 10 percent of those whose cancer didn’t return.

And so we left town, neither of us knowing how to feel about that. We wanted to believe the best. We wanted to retain that tiny glimmer of hope. But sitting across from you in Florida, relaxing and holding hands in our beach chairs, I remember looking at you and trying to memorize your face. Looking at you and thinking, next year, he’s not going to be here…drink him in, drink him in. Live in this moment. Love him while you can.

I was mourning the loss of you in advance. I’ve since learned this is called anticipatory mourning. I was already mourning all that I would lose if – when – I lost you. Yet I tried my damnedest to hope. Hope fought with logic for the ten months after your diagnosis. Hope fought with fear. Hope fought with sadness. Hope lost.

All these very real memories of those sunsets seem like yesterday, and I wonder now, how can this be? How can it be that our last trip to Florida was more than a year ago? How can it be that I’m nearing the one year anniversary of your death? You were just here. We were just talking and kissing and loving one another – and hoping – hoping we’d have many more years to do the same.

But no, it’s over. It’s more than a year since our trip to Florida, and I’m here on vacation in northern Michigan, alone in my tent overlooking the lake. And I have lots of time to remember, too much time to think. And so often this week, I find myself reaching back, back, back to you. And you? You’re slipping away from me, receding deeper into my past, to a time that’s longer ago than I can believe possible.

Yes, I know I am blessed to have this place to come to. I’m fortunate to have a family and friends who love and support me. I’m luckier than many to have found you – the love of a lifetime – and make thousands of glorious memories in the twenty one years we were together. I’m even appreciative of every second of that ten months after the cancer diagnosis because life reminded us both very painfully, as life often does, that you wouldn’t be here forever, that we are all mortal.

A cancer diagnosis reminded us to savor the time we had left, to live every single moment IN that moment, to seek out the sunsets on the beach, to eat the ice cream cones at 10 pm at McDonald’s, to enjoy lunch in the park, to take long naps in each others’ arms – to love each other desperately and completely in the last months of your life.

And now, as I continue on without you, and I enjoy my relaxing vacation at the cottage, I’m trying to live in the moment, because I’ve learned not to take life for granted. I’m trying my hardest to live my life to the fullest on my own. And – for my own sanity – I’m trying like hell to stay busy so I can avoid having too much time on my hands, too much time to think, too much time to grieve all that I’ve lost.

But I also know how lucky I am to have those thousand wonderful memories of our time together, all the love we shared in the time between the first year up here in a soggy tent on the beach and our last vacation on the gulf in the final months of your life. I have years and years of memories to cherish and relive and look back on.

Those visions of the past usually come to me unbidden, triggered by being in a familiar location, or the feeling of sand between my toes, hearing a song we used to dance to, or seeing a photo from our past. But I can also call upon any favorite memory in these quiet times, times when I have too much time to think, and I’m aware that having a lifetime of memories of times shared with the man I loved is a very very fortunate thing.

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 Amazon.com.

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

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