Friday, September 24, 2021

Peg Solitaire and Single Parenting

You guys know the game. You're at a hole-in-the-wall diner before smartphones existed. Breakfast has been ordered (even though it's noon) and you know you have a solid 30 minutes to kill because there's a half dozen orders in front of you that want that same chicken fried steak you asked for.

The cook can only move so fast, so you wait at your table with a glass of ice water, salt and pepper shakers, a sugar holder with white, blue and pink packets and--if you're lucky--a plastic Smucker's caddy that still has some Seedless Blackberry in it. And peg solitaire.

Peg solitaire doesn't have the sophistication of card solitaire games like Spider or FreeCell. No. Peg solitaire is multiple rounds (about 30 minutes worth) of hilarious futility. This is the game where you end up laughing at yourself because you can't seem to quite get what appears to be a simple concept.

Oooh, I know. I'll jump here. Wait. No.

Here, then here, then here and...

OK. Three pegs left.  I almost win!

Steve Fishman (CC by 2.0)

Let's start over with the empty hole at the corner.  

From here to here to here. 

No. No, that's not right. Right here. NO. Seriously?

---

This is what single parenting is like every day. It doesn't seem like such a complicated thing. The end goal is right there in front of me. Somehow I keep running out of moves but I never run out of pegs.

Days happen, the clock spins and somehow stuff just gets past me. Come on. I'm better than that! Let's go again cuz we got this! 

(by 11 PM the next day) REALLY? It's like that!?!

Next day: Nope.

The next day: What?

The day after that: Two pegs to go and I almost win!!!

Yet another day: Is my chicken fried steak here yet?

I'm outnumbered. I'm tired. There's small details and intricacies of life that are no longer even considerations. Every seam is strained with necessity. Options are no longer optional. Out of moves, but the pegs are still in their places and they're laughing at me.

Can I tell you that I enjoy it? For some reason in this short season of life, I'm here playing the near-unwinnable game that was never meant to be a solo endeavor, but God has placed me at this table for a little while. And He's given me something to do. Something seemingly futile, but somehow there's laughter and love and understanding.

I cannot tell you the newly-gained respect I have for the single parents that I know. Especially, considering that so many of them I know are doing it well. In all of these amazing stories, I just think a lot of times the joy gets lost between the order and the steak.

---

A few months ago I was talking with a fellow single parent trying to understand what it is I could do better. During the conversation, I told them how amazing their kids were and how much I admired them as a family. My friend replied with two words:

I've tried.

Same, my friend. Same.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

20 (I Wanted This)

Today would have been our 20th anniversary.  Why do I feel selfish for saying that I wanted this?

What's strange is that if we went back nine months ago to Christmas Day--a month before I lost her--I would have told you that we would make it to today.  How could I have been so na├»ve?  All the signs were there, but I just knew we could go one more round.  It couldn't be over.  She was too strong and I was too determined to not let that happen.

And we were stuck on 19. No one wants to be stuck on 19.  You don't party because it's your junior year.  They don't throw you a parade when you win the primary election but lose the general.  The date can't end on appetizers.

I wanted this.  If only so she could prove one last time that this spiteful, heartless, family-destroying disease couldn't determine our destiny.  To prove (for maybe egotistical reasons) that we kept that commitment to each other for two decades.  There's more we needed to prove.

And I wanted that one more trip.  That one more stroll down the Riverwalk.  One more memory.  To be able to say "We did it."  We hit that milestone of that number with that zero on the end.  There's more we needed to do.

Maybe we could have renewed our vows.  Or taken that second honeymoon we'd talked about so much.  Made a little photo album of each year with one of those internet services.  It's all so pointless and punishing to think about now.  There's more we needed to share.

19 years, 4 months, 16 days.  

We were close, but not that close and it hurts.

---

Last weekend, I took the kids, some friends and my mom back to Astoria to stay on the Columbia River, practically next door to where Anne-Marie and I stayed a year ago.  The city was full of Labor Day vacationers but to me it was a collection of snapshots of only one person.  Anne-Marie told me that the best memories of her entire life were found on those streets.

I was surprised that I couldn't feel angry or cheated.  What I had was 19 years of happy memories.  All of them happy.  One year less than I wanted, but 19 more than so many are given.  While the whole thing had an essence of wrongness to it, there was a sense of wonder in knowing that this urban scrapbook told the story of a (half?) life well-lived.

Like the fireworks show you wanted to last forever or the novel you couldn't put down.  You were mad when they ended but only because it was all so great.  Could you blame it for being wonderful?  And if it went by too fast, why?  Were you caught up in it?  I hope you were.

I love you forever, Anne-Marie.

Us throwing 20 roses for 20 years into the Columbia River



Saturday, July 24, 2021

I Would; I Wouldn't

I would have pushed her around in that wheelchair for another 19 years; I wouldn’t have her in pain for one more day. 

I would have been fine with a boring life that didn’t include all this pain; I wouldn’t change the life we shared together. 

I would pray that God would ask this of somebody else; I wouldn’t wish this on anybody else. 

I would love to tell her so many things that happened these last six months; I wouldn’t think I’d care once I saw her face. 

I would try to move beyond all of this; I wouldn’t say I’m not afraid of what’s beyond. 

I would hope that when I told her that “we’d figure it out somehow” that I was telling the truth; I wouldn’t look at today as a very good example of that. 

I would have learned how to cook if I knew how this was all gonna play out; I wouldn’t eat that meatloaf if I was you. 

I would think that we could have had it happen some other way; I wouldn’t accuse God of being unwise. 

I would have said all the things that I needed to say; I wouldn’t be so easy on myself to admit that I really did. 

I would give everything I have for one more day with her; I wouldn’t take her away from the peace she enjoys now. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Celebrate You Once More

Today is not your 42nd birthday because the time for those is through. I’m pretty sure today is a celebration where you are. Tomorrow will be, too.

I saw you, yesterday, for a moment on the corner of Broadway and Alder, but the truth is that 18 months has passed since your feet last walked there, so full of life and happiness. I could see you smiling as you roamed the city streets with the kids. Christmas lights in the square reflected off your eyes and nothing could ever change. 

But our town feels vacant with your shadow no longer cast on its bricks and the streets so in need of revival. The ring of children’s laughter was carried away on a stiff December breeze, yet the late spring calls for a reunion. Will it ever come? How could it ever be the same?

It’s still raining on Southwest Morrison. The even drizzle sticks to everything and makes it hard for the few passing strangers to see my tears. I know that in the land of endless sun, you probably don’t need rain. At least, not nearly as much as I need it today.

All the complete incompletions of our young lives float in puddles here on these streets and I keep hoping to catch a glimpse.  It’s as if you’re there, outside of time and space, in an ever-fading flow of memory, but still I search.

Won’t you come find me?



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Free: 15 Years After Diagnosis

Friday, May 12, 2006, was Diagnosis Day.  

I remember the time of day.  

I remember how the room looked.  

I remember what the doctor was wearing.  

I remember the tone of his voice when he told us.

I remember that we went to Biscuits Cafe in Oregon City afterward to talk it over.  

I remember getting sick on the meal.

I can still see us driving to Sunriver for the weekend to try to figure it all out.

15 years might have been too much to ask.  Or too little.  Or just enough.

I truly do not know anymore.

5 years later, we returned to Sunriver when 2012's recurrence happened during the same week in May.

That was 10 years ago this week.  You told me the five reasons you didn't want to die:

  1. You were too young
  2. You didn't want the kids to have their mother taken again
  3. You wanted more time with me
  4. You had more things you wanted to do for God in ministry
  5. You hated cancer and wanted to show it that it wouldn't win
Well, you were too young, Anne-Marie, and the kids' mother was taken.

You got 10 more years with me, but wanted more.

You didn't get to finish all the stuff you wanted to do for God through your ministry to others.

But #5?  Cancer didn't win.  I'm calling that a unanimous decision for you.

So enjoy your 2021, Anne-Marie (if there's any time to be had where you are).  

You're cancer free.


Monday, March 29, 2021

Departure

It was the early morning hours of January 14 and Anne-Marie could no longer stand up.  The walker she'd been using for the previous six weeks wasn't enough to help her get around, so I did the only thing I knew to do.

I carried her.

10 days.

By 5 AM, adrenaline was shooting through every part of my body and I couldn't sleep. I’d carried Anne-Marie from the recliner and back half of the night. The next treatment and consult with Dr. Solti was now in four hours and in my wired exhaustion, I knew. After all that had happened in the previous months, I finally reached a point where I just knew

"I'm not ready!" I said to myself over and over again as Anne-Marie slept in the recliner by the foot of our bed.  I wept as I grieved the news I knew I was about to hear.  Then my thoughts changed.  They changed in a very angry way. 

"Yes, I AM ready.  We've been preparing for this day for fifteen years and I'm as ready as anyone else could possibly be."

I couldn't lie there anymore. I immediately made plans to move our bedroom from the basement to the dining room on the main floor.  Anne-Marie could no longer climb the stairs to get to the driveway and I was hurting myself trying to carry her, so my mom helped me carry Anne-Marie to the car for our appointment with Dr. Solti and then stayed at the house with the kids and began changing our dining room into a bedroom.

That morning's consult at Compass Oncology became what I still cannot believe was the last one. Dr. Solti informed both of us that the cancer was terminal, that our current treatment plan was canceled and that the end was soon. Though the timeline was unknowable, an estimate was made of "a few weeks to a few months". Options were offered for further treatment to slow the cancer's progress with the best having 18% efficacy.

I wheeled Anne-Marie back out to the car where we sat in shock for the next 20 minutes. We talked about all the things we'd hoped we hear or hoped we wouldn't hear.  And about life.  And about death.

For years I've made personal phone calls to close friends and family after major news about Anne-Marie's condition.  Oftentimes, those conversations would add up to hours on the phone.  The evening of Thursday, January 14 was the same, but the conversations this time were thick with disastrous grief.

After hours of updating people on the situation, I was surprised by an incoming call to my phone.  Dr. Solti called me to let me know--regardless of the estimated timeline for survival discussed in the earlier consultation--that Anne-Marie may pass away on any given day.

(Any given day?  How many would we be given?)

We had to come up with a plan that was broader than living in quarantine, so for the next seven days we had as many visitors come by the house as we could.  Friends and family--many who hadn't seen Anne-Marie in at least 10 months, due to COVID--came by the house morning, noon and night to spend time with her.  Well over 60 people came from Thursday through the next Wednesday, January 20.

In the middle of our week of visitors, Anne-Marie and I had to get together and have the talk.  The one no couple ever wants to have: if God allows this, what do I do after you're gone?  Anne-Marie first wanted to be sure that I continued to pray for a miracle. (Of course, I would.)  Much of the rest of that conversation will remain forever private, but Anne-Marie did let me know that she desired to be buried nearby her mother in Zion Memorial Park in Canby, Oregon.

She talked about how the greatest times of her life were walking the streets of the small coastal town of Astoria, Oregon, and how she regretted that we never got to take that second honeymoon to London.  Though we both agreed that our decision to buy this old 1941 minimal traditional home 3 years ago, instead of going to London, was the right decision.  She assured me that she loved our home.  Though that missing piece still hurts, in many ways her words were a great comfort to me.

I told her that I chose to believe that we'd done just as much in our 19 years together as many couples do that grow old together. "We sure packed a lot in, didn't we?" she said.  It was Saturday, January 16.

We had seven days.

Wednesday the 20th, the pastor of our church came to install sliding barn doors to cover the opening from our living room to our dining room to allow us more privacy than the curtain we had been using.  We had to make this work for us.  Who knows how long this would be the only private haven we had left?

We had three and a half days.

On the Thursday the 21st, we paused all the visits and had to decide whether to risk a new chemo regimen or enter into hospice.  The choice was very difficult, but after hearing that it would take months to see any improvement from the chemo options available, Anne-Marie decided to apply for hospice. Dr. Solti agreed that it was the best decision.

Hospice visited on Friday the 22nd to get us registered.  When you sign up for Hospice, you relinquish your right to the use of 911 emergency services or any of the previous services your doctor has to offer.  In a sense, it's an agreement with death.  You're saying that if it comes, you will let it take you. However, as a measure taken for Anne-Marie's comfort, Hospice allowed us to schedule Anne-Marie for a surgery to drain the fluid from her lungs so she could breathe more easily.  The date was set for Monday, January 25.

We felt comfort in knowing that at any point, we could call the home office of PeaceHealth SW Hospice and go off the program if we wanted to try additional treatments or un-enroll if new treatment possibilities developed.  After all, they assured us, we've had some patients that have been with Hospice for years.

We had 39 hours.

That evening was like many others we had spent over the past few weeks, except that I was carrying or wheeling Anne-Marie everywhere and my shoulder was going out.  Phil and Ramona came and sat with us.  We laughed and shared memories.  Anne-Marie didn't feel like eating much, but we shared a meal as best we could with Anne-Marie joining in drinking her watermelon-flavored Hint water.  

Everyone was ready to wrap up the night between eight and nine, which left Anne-Marie and I alone with each other to talk. Honestly, I don't really remember what we said that night, but I'm sure it mirrored the typical casual, teasing commentary that filled our previous 19-plus years of our marriage.

How many times we blew kisses to one another from my easy chair to her hospital bed and back.  How many "I love you's" were said.  How many precious wasted-but-not-wasted moments we had in each other's company that would never be shared again.

Just after midnight on Saturday, I knew something wasn't right.  She was weaker, her skin color had started to change.  Her breathing was weaker, but heavier.  The strength had gone out of her body.  I didn't know everything I needed to know about death and dying, but I knew enough to see that the situation looked dire.  I sat in the chair by her bedside for hours until I collapsed into fitful sleep.

Early in the morning, I woke and let Mom know what I was seeing and asked her to stay with Anne-Marie while I contacted Hospice to get help and called family to come in a hurry.  Anne-Marie's close friend, Erica, had flown in from Baltimore and was planning on arriving to visit by midday.  I got word to her to please come as soon as possible. By nine in the morning, people began arriving at the house.

We had 18 hours.

Anne-Marie woke up and didn't quite understand what the big deal was.  I let her know that the Hospice nurse had instructed me to tear open the emergency "comfort packet" they had left us and give her the pills inside of it.  She took them and began to drift in and out of sleep.  I believe she was still puzzled by the look of concern on my face.

Tears. Prayers. Family. Singing. Memories. Laughter. Tears.

Soon the Hospice nurse arrived in person to check in.  She quickly saw Anne-Marie's condition and began preparation to administer Morphine.  She took the first dose around one in the afternoon and fell asleep soon after.  She would wake for a few minutes to talk to one of the many visitors for a few minutes.  She struggled to keep her eyes open.  Apart from everyone else, the nurse privately expressed her doubts that Anne-Marie could survive the surgery on Monday.  

Prayers. Tears. Tears. Tears. Tears. Tears.

Around 3 PM she woke up from the two-hour dose of Morphine and realized how many people had arrive and asked for her privacy.  I shut the doors.  She didn't want any more Morphine.  Fifteen minutes later she changed her mind.  

As she began to drift off, I told her, "I love you and God is with you!"

She struggled to get the words out as she looked at me, "I don't feel like He is."

(And how could I judge that statement of her feelings?  Didn't Jesus Himself express nearly the same?  After 25 years as best friends, I knew what she meant.)

And we both wept as I grabbed her by the shoulders and said, "NO! God loves you! And His presence is here. And He's coming for ya!"

12 hours.

It was our last conversation, and this time the woman who held me through my tears and encouraged me so many times had the roles reversed.  And she faded into sleep.

The next eight hours were spent with me by her side as family came in one by one to talk with her and pray.  And I was left with uncertainty.  Could she hear me?  In the first few hours she would nod her head to reply to questions, but that soon stopped.  Was she in pain?  Should I let her dose of Morphine run out just in case she might wake up and we could talk one more time?  (I decided against it.)

It was 10 PM and the family was ready to get some rest. They all went home and Mom and I decided to share responsibilities to make sure my wife had her medication and everything she needed every two hours.  I asked Mom if she could help me move Anne-Marie over in the hospital bed so I could lay next to her for the night.  We woke what seemed like just a few minutes later to give the 11 PM dose and check on things.  No change.

At one in the morning, we woke up to do the same.  As I laid back down in the bed with her, I looked over at her and told her that I loved her and I thought that she deserved better.

The next thing I remember was Mom waking me up. 

"Eli!" I awoke.

"Anne-Marie has stopped breathing. Anne-Marie has died."

I looked over at Anne-Marie's body leaned against mine, kissed her and checked the clock.

3:04 AM.

Departure.