Friday, September 18, 2009


A young friend of mine's husband died after a bicycling accident last week, and since then she has been much on my mind. A good marriage is a rare and wonderful thing, and she had one. Her husband clearly adored her and they both adored their two small boys. Now, suddenly, that life is over. It hurts my heart to think of it.

It also takes me back to my own husband's nearly fatal accident more than twenty years ago. He had to have open heart surgery to repair the outer layers of his aorta that had been shredded by the impact and surgery to repair the arm he'd nearly torn off. Nearly every bone in his chest was broken, his urethra was punctured. The situation was so dire that the doctors didn't discover that he had a broken ankle till a week after the accident.

I remember looking at Steve in the hospital bed, unconscious, on a respirator, hooked up to a half-dozen different machines and thinking that he was the one I needed to talk to about this incomprehensible turn of events. Months after I knew he was going to be okay, I saw a guy walking down the street who was sturdy, like Steve is, and who had the same springy gait and Steve's had the same kind of springy gate and was sucker-punched by such a weird mix of gratitude and grief that I had to pull over to the side of the road and sit a while. I hadn't lost my husband, but in that moment I understood a little bit of what it would have felt like if I had.

These past few days, I've thought a lot about my sister, Jackie, too--how suddenly and completely the life she knew changed with the diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer and the disability that came with it. How, in the long months between the diagnosis and her death, she so often said that she wished she could just wash the dishes or vacuum or go to the gym. The large things—the tumor itself, the prospect of dying—were, I think, incomprehensible or maybe just too terrifying to consider. It was the small losses, the shock of them, that undid her.

One day, not long after she got home from the hospital, she decided she’d check her e-mail at the bank. I helped her to the chair at the computer table in the living room. She pulled up the site, pecking with her left hand, frustrated at the slowness. Then—I could see it happening, but couldn’t get there fast enough—she tipped sideways off the chair onto the floor. She sobbed and sobbed afterwards, for…everything. I felt helpless, heartbroken, as I did every time I was with her—as much for this loss of the day-to-dayness that had been her life as for the knowledge that her death was inevitable.

Our routines, whatever they are, joyful or annoying, are in great part the fabric of our lives. The loss of them that inevitably comes with the terrible, profound loss that death or incurable illness brings makes the heartbreak all that much difficult to bear. For my sister, they were things like the drive to work every morning with a good friend, lunch downtown, the bald spot on her head from radiation—just when she’d grown her hair out, missing a parent-teacher conference, fixing herself a snack when she was hungry, walking up and down the stairs.

Grief creates a kind of fog in our lives; it’s there, in the gray air we breathe, in the numbness we feel doing what we have to do, in the flatness of color and intensity of all that used to bring delight. It’s suddenly, repeatedly plunging through the holes in our routine made by the loss of small things bring us to our knees, make the large, unimaginable loss visceral and real.

I grieve for for my friend her two small boys—for the loss of the man they adored and who adored them and for the smaller losses of their day-to-day routine with him that I know will break their hearts again and again as they try to find their way in the world without him.

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