Picking at the scab

At my grief counseling appointment last week, I expressed to my therapist, Vaiva, that — as I start to feel more “myself,” stop thinking about Rick continuously as I had for the first few months — I’m more afraid of the pain that I know will come when I do think of him again. She said, it’s analogous to picking at a scab that’s beginning to heal. The pain from the wound isn’t as great now as it used to be, but, as the scab tears again, it causes fresh pain from the wound all over again.

Today, as I returned from breakfast alone, missing him more than ever, and feeling my heart break again at the thought of a future without him, I realized the truth of the analogy.

I had major surgery August 13, 2017. My husband was surgically removed from my life.

Do I even compare him with a cancerous organ? That seems a vicious analogy, but actually, the healthy vibrant “real Rick” was changing. He was sick and weak and rarely laughed out loud anymore. I was reading an old email I found among the papers he had saved. He had printed and filed an email I sent him from early in our relationship. I met him in March 1996 and the email was from May. Apparently, he had expressed his love for me and hadn’t felt that I reciprocated. In my email to him, I told him how much – and what – I loved about him. I even included two poems. Right from the beginning, Rick was effusive with his words of love, but that had never come naturally to me, so I told him in writing all the strong feelings of love I was unable to express, and he kept the email.

In my writing, I included all the things I love(d) about him. I said that one of the traits I found so endearing about him was his enthusiasm for life. By the time of the “surgical removal” of Rick from my life, that enthusiasm was nearly gone. It had been worn away by all that he had suffered.

His extremely intelligent mind (another of the things that I loved) was still there, but he’d had lapses of confusion and distorted thinking – perhaps from the preventative brain radiation, or the effects of chemo brain, or maybe caused by the lower sodium levels – who knows? I only know that his mental state was one of the most difficult things I encountered in the ten-month ordeal.

I lost my father to Alzheimer’s, and now those scary episodes were being relived with Rick. I could handle the physical traumas “we” both endured. It was difficult, of course, but nothing like going on a dinner date and having Rick ask me to buy him dancing slippers that he promised he wouldn’t use when working in construction. Or ask me how to send a text message. Or ask if there was a correlation between what we were watching on TV and the effect of his pain medication. Did I think it didn’t work if he was watching something violent on TV opposed to a nice show?

Those were the worst of times. Watching his muscles dissipate as he lost weight, was horrible. His thick, sinewy calves became nonexistent. Yes, that was horrible, but watching him lose his mind was the most awful thing I experienced, and knowing he was aware of it was truly horrifying.

So, back to the analogy. The Rick I knew and loved was fading, physically, emotionally, and mentally. He was being completely eroded by the effects of cancer and its treatment, until, finally, he was ripped from my heart and soul – the surgical procedure.

At first, the painful loss of this vital “organ” and the accompanying wound left me in a mental fog, my mind’s natural way to cope. I stayed in that fog for the first few weeks, possibly the first few months. As the pain lessened from the minute by minute “contractions,” (my niece’s apt phrase) to hourly pangs instead, I began to be able to function in the real world. I went back to work, I went out to social events, yet the pain was always looming. I thought about Rick and longed for him constantly – Where is he? Wasn’t he still here, in another room? What would he think of something I just experienced? How had I failed him? Would I really never touch him again, or feel his warm, strong embrace?

I often needed to return home to freshly bandage the wound – as best I could, then curl up in a ball and sob through the continued ache of his loss.

Now, at nearly five months, I’m aware that the fog seems to have nearly lifted, at least I think it has. How often are we not aware of our real condition until we look back and compare it to how we feel now? But, at the least, the pain can be managed. I can function more like my “pre surgery” self. Most of the time.

But then there are the complications that can come after surgery, and something rips open the wound: a photo of him, seeing his clothing, walking into his office, a waitress I haven’t seen in months at our regular diner who asks, “Is your husband coming?”

I’m digitizing old video tapes, attempting to gather every possible photo and memory of the time we had together. As the videos are being re-recorded, I start up the process, click play on the camera, click record on the computer, and leave the room.

But sometimes, I stay, although I know myself, and I know it’s too early to handle some of these memories. Sometimes, I can’t help but watch him as he demolishes our old house to ready it for the remodel. I see him flex his huge biceps and easily tear out huge pieces of lumber as if they were paper. I see again the “old Rick” and how vital and strong and full of life he was.

Or I watch a trip I recorded – he scoffed when I kept the tape rolling on our long driving trips across country – but those tapes documented our banter, our real-life conversations, us, as we once were.

Of course, I’ll cry softly through the short scenes I’ve dared to glimpse, but one tape I happened upon had a different effect, a rare response that gives me hope that in the future, I may be able to enjoy the memories and find them less painful. I laughed out loud as I watched a scene from 15 years ago. I was recording as I ran backwards down the hallway, as he tried to grab me, tickle me, get even with me for admitting that I had hung his new abstract art print upside down two weeks earlier and he hadn’t noticed.

I felt absolute joy at seeing my vibrant, fun-loving husband, chasing me – in his underwear. He was laughing his deep throaty laugh and I was giggling as I tried to elude him, then the tape stopped suddenly. Apparently, that’s when he caught me.

But, more often than not, as I watch the memories unfold, I’ll come to terms, yet again, with the fact that this is it. He is not coming back, ever, and all I have are memories. The wound spasms afresh and is nearly as bad as the day of surgery. I know I’m healing, but this scar will linger for a long time.

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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