“Every now and then I cry
You keep staying on my mind
All my friends say I’ll survive
It just takes time…
But I don’t think time is gonna heal this broken heart…
No, I don’t see how it can if it’s broken all apart
A million miracles could never stop the pain…
Or put all the pieces together again.” ~ Anne Murray, “Broken Hearted Me”
Wednesday, January 3rd, 2001 was a bright winter morning. It almost seemed too bright, probably because we’d recently had an unusually harsh winter storm blow through, leaving nearly a foot of snow and ice blanketing the landscape, reflecting the sunlight. It was a particularly frigid day as well.
The call from my sister in-law Shannon, a free spirited Sagittarius with whom I’d been best friends for nearly twenty years, came around 10:30am.
“Well, he’s gone,” she told me, sighing. “He died at 9:16.”
I slid down the kitchen cabinet against which I’d been leaning, and dissolved into tears on the floor, burying my head between my knees, still holding the phone to my ear.
“How are we going to get through this?” I sobbed.
“We have each other,” Shannon reminded me gently. “And I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“So take the photograph and still frames in your mind…
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time…
Take tears and memory and dead skin on trial…
For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while…
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right…
I hope you had the time of your life.” ~ Green Day, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”
Although much of the remainder of that day, along with the next several days, are a blur to me, I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. The phone call wasn’t a surprise. I’d been expecting it, dreading it, waiting for it all morning.
That was the phone call that brought me the news that my first husband, David, a strong, healthy (or so we always believed), tall, handsome Sagittarius who was the father of my three children and who had celebrated his 33rd birthday just four weeks earlier, had succumbed to the lung cancer with which he had been diagnosed six and a half months earlier, over Father’s Day weekend in June 2000. We had ended our relationship several years prior and at the time of his death we had both remarried. But we had always remained close.
In hindsight, my grieving process began the day of his diagnosis. It seemed to come out of nowhere. David had always been active and healthy, a hard worker, who loved bodybuilding and boxing. Then out of the clear blue on a Friday in June 2000, I got a call from Shannon telling me that David had been rushed to the ER because he was having difficulty breathing and was in the ICU. That in itself was shocking. David? My David, who rarely took a sick day during our nine years together, let alone ever experienced any frightening symptoms that would have sent him racing to the emergency room? What the…
But it was true. David had been experiencing a sore throat for a few days, but was otherwise okay until he began having trouble breathing. He thought his throat might be closing up. But when he arrived in the emergency room, they discovered his shortness of breath was due to congestive heart failure…which was in turn due to what turned out to be a stage IV adenocarcinoma of the right lung. Advanced, late-stage, inoperable lung cancer. But he was only 32 years old, how could this be? David’s oncologist explained that although it’s true that the average age of someone diagnosed with this cancer was 60, it was unusual but not unheard of in someone David’s age. I thought surely his youth and otherwise good health would be on his side, allowing him to tolerate treatments much better and give him more of a fighting chance.
But the oncologist gently disagreed. Although David was young and his general health was good, probably allowing him to withstand the effects of chemotherapy more easily, the doctor sadly informed me that even with treatment, the most likely scenario would be that David would not survive another year.
“Are you telling me that he might not live to see our four year-old son start kindergarten next year?” I cried in disbelief.
The doctor shook his had sadly. “I’m sorry,” he told me, genuine empathy in his eyes.
In the end, his oncologist was right on target. David survived six and a half months, and he actually did really well up until right after Thanksgiving. So well, in fact, that we were cautiously optimistic. The only side effect of the chemo that had affected him was hair loss. But although he’d always been very vain, a not-a-hair-out-of-place kind of guy, David was totally fine with that; he just shaved his head and blended right in. Anyone who didn’t know him would never have known he was so ill. He stood out like a sore thumb at his chemo sessions because he appeared to be the picture of health. He was energetic. Sure, he had some shortness of breath and a chronic cough but that wasn’t anything new; David was a smoker (although he quit cold turkey after his diagnosis).
Meanwhile, during those months, we had the gift of knowing what was to come. It didn’t feel much like a gift at the time, but it definitely was. Nothing was taken for granted. Things that needed to be said were said. Things that needed to happen, happened. Everyone had the opportunity to finish any unfinished business. In fact, one of our deepest conversations occurred on December 14, 2000, three weeks before his death. David told me the best thing he’d ever done in his life was to be a father to our three kids. He said he just wanted me to be happy. He fought hard, more for our kids than for himself, but cancer beat him…though definitely not for a lack of fighting.
Still, when the call came that January morning, it brought me to my knees. As hard as you imagine getting that news will be, you end up wishing it had been that easy. It was excruciatingly painful. My life and the lives of our children had been dramatically altered and would never be the same again. We got through it, and it was an emotional rollercoaster of bad days and good days, gradually turning into more good days than bad, but it has been a process that literally has taken years. This past January marked the twelfth anniversary of David’s death. Our children are now grown, our then-four year-old son who went off to kindergarten seven months after his father passed away will be 17 this spring. Our 21 year-old daughter has a husband and a son of her own who turns six next fall: David is now a grandpa. Our older son is 23 years old and stands four inches taller than six-foot tall David stood. To this day, when one of our children celebrates a birthday or another significant life event occurs, I mourn for what David has missed in their lives. I wish I could call him or visit with him and just catch up with him about all that life has brought our way since he’s been gone. I wish I could see his reaction to our five year-old grandson…to him being four inches shorter than our older son…to everything. But I can’t. Although time does indeed numb the pain somewhat, it still hurts. But have I gotten over it? Nope, and I never will. I have simply learned how to live with it. It’s the new normal.
At the time of his death, I always reminded myself how fortunate we had been to have had those six and a half months to prepare. It could have been so much worse, I reasoned, because at least we had the warning of what was to come instead of David having been suddenly ripped away from us, such as if he had been killed in a car accident or suffered a massive heart attack. Looking back, I’m especially grateful for that time. We knew what was coming. We didn’t know when, but still, we knew. In many ways, that is such an advantage. But did that make his death any easier when he did finally pass away?
“And now, I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go…
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain…
But I’d have had to miss the dance.” ~ Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
New Years Day 2013. Primarily because 2012 had been wrought with a startling amount of death and loss – beginning with my sister and brother in-law experiencing a stillbirth just before New Years Day 2012…to the unexpected death of my lifelong best friend, David’s sister Shannon, in February at barely 41 years-old…to the loss of my former father in-law “Big Tom” Montgomery to cancer in late summer…to the sudden, tragic death of Mike’s friend and coworker in a car accident just before Christmas less than two weeks earlier…just to name a few – I was readier than ever for the promise of a new beginning that a new year traditionally symbolizes.
However, within less than half an hour of waking on New Year’s Day, I received the news that sucked the air right out of my lungs and shook me to my very core.
My phone rang.
“Tom died!” my daughter cried, harder than I could ever before remember.
Tom, a family-devoted, sensitive-yet-moody Cancer, was my second husband. He was killed in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2013 as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. Tom was just 36 years old.
I felt as though my heart had been ripped right out of my chest. Through my tears, I saw others looking at me quizzically, seemingly questioning my sadness, as if to say, “But he was your ex-husband. Why are you having such a hard time coping with his death?” While it’s true that Tom and I were divorced, our relationship over the years was much deeper than it appeared to the casual observer.
I met Tom in October 1996 and we became romantically involved just under a month later. We began living together in April 1997 and were married in December 2000. Although we had some great times, the clash between my fiery, impulsive Aries Sun and his watery, sensitive Cancer Sun proved too much for either of us to handle and we separated two years later; our divorce finalized in July 2005. During those years together, we went through so much including David’s illness and subsequent death, during which Tom was not only a huge source of comfort and emotional support to my children and me, but he had also promised David – at David’s request – that when and if The Time came, he would absolutely step in and be a father to my kids. He kept his word. Tom was never not there for my three children for the rest of his life. Even during the early days of our separation, while we certainly experienced the textbook anger and hurt feelings a couple endures when going through a breakup, we gradually came to the realization that we would always have love for one another, even if we were no longer in love, and we remained close friends. Shortly after Tom and I separated, I moved forward with a new man – Mike, the Cancer cusp man who I am in a relationship with today – and my Cancerian former husband began a new relationship of his own in the spring of 2003 with a young Libra woman who subsequently gave birth to their daughter, an adorable, bright-eyed Sadge, in late 2004. His relationship ended in 2008, mine went on hiatus in early 2011, and I relocated to Hot Springs, AR that same year. After some discussion, Tom followed suit, moving to Hot Springs in late 2011 and we attempted to reconcile. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, lasting just under three months, this time our separation was as pleasant as one could hope for. We understood that we “made better friends than married folk” (Tom’s words), Tom returned home to West Virginia, I moved back to Oklahoma, and we continued on our respective life paths. I suppose our friendship was a bit unorthodox, to say the least, and we remained as such, keeping in touch with one another…although in hindsight, I can now see that after I told Tom that Mike and I had reunited in August, the frequency of our communication decreased sharply, practically overnight.
“When the blues come calling at the break of dawn
Rain keeps falling, but the rainbow’s gone…
When you feel like crying but the tears won’t come
When your dreams are dying, when you’re on the run
Just remember I love you and it’ll be all right…
Just remember I love you more than I can say.” ~ Firefall, “Just Remember I Love You”
In early December, thanks to my employment with a major cell service provider, I obtained a new cell phone and along with it, a new phone number. I texted Tom one Saturday morning to give him my new number. He replied back to me, “Got it.”
That was the last time we would ever communicate. He passed away three weeks later.
“Got it.” The last words Tom would ever speak to me. Of course, if we had known that only a few short weeks later his time on Earth would be violently abbreviated, there is no doubt our final words to one another would have been far more meaningful, and our final conversation would have been much lengthier. There was much more left to say than “got it.”
But we didn’t know, and how could we have known? Unlike David, with whom there had been the opportunity to finish any unfinished business and say the words we felt needed to be said, I was completely blindsided by Tom’s death, as was everyone who knew and loved him. He was here…and in the blink of an eye, he wasn’t. We were robbed of any last chances to do those things. And I am here to tell you, I have grieved for and missed David since his completely expected passing every bit as much as I have Tom since his totally unexpected departure. I’ve shed a similar number of tears, felt the same ache of anguish, the same longing to hug each of them just once more, and the same intense desire to share things with them.
The Universe is our teacher and we are the students. And not unlike a schoolteacher who sharply bangs on the desk of a lazy student who is resting their head after falling asleep in class, the Universe tends to startle us awake from time to time when we’ve gotten too comfortable in our lives, keeping us on our toes, with the sobering reminder to take nothing for granted, because the only guarantee we have in this life is that one day, it will end. Treasure it and those with whom you share it while you can. It’s easy to assume that because we were alive and well yesterday and today, we will probably be alive and well tomorrow…and next week…and next year. And most of the time, I’m happy to report, we’re absolutely correct. Unfortunately, there will come a day when we couldn’t be more wrong. And many times, we will never have seen it coming.
I’ve found great solace in the fact that Tom knew I loved him…and I know he loved me too. He knew that he mattered to me, that I cared a great deal about what was going on in his life and how he was doing. Likewise, I know without a doubt he felt the same way about me. Had it been me who was killed and Tom had been left to cope with my death, I also know he would be having an equally difficult time dealing with it. Furthermore, these very same statements apply to David. The point is, whether death is anticipated or unexpected is irrelevant, at least in the grand scheme of things. The end result is the same: your loved one is gone. And when all is said and done, whether you knew what was coming as we did with David’s death, or you’re completely blindsided as we were with Tom’s death, you’re still going to wish you had one more opportunity to hold them, to let them know how much you love them, to share your joys and heartaches with them. It’s still going to hurt every bit as much.
As the saying goes, six of one, half-dozen of another.
“Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime…
And never let go till we’re gone
Love was when I loved you, one true time I hold to…
In my life we’ll always go on
Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Once more you open the door
And you’re here in my heart, and my heart will go on and on.” ~ Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”