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Lessons From The Relay For Life

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As most of you know I vanished this weekend to do the first of two Relays for Life I have signed on for this month. I decided to do them because I want to find a way to kill the cancer that killed my wife on December10--six months ago this Friday--and I suspect I will need your good thoughts that day.

But what happened last Friday was far more than raising money for a good cause. It was more than spending the night with friends from school or meeting Tammy (Perkins808) and her daughters--precious as all those things were to me--and I hope to them as well.Tammy is as wonderful a person in person as she is here in electronic form--and i have a real sense now of the person who formed that positive thread so many of us enjoy and write on. Tammy, you wondered in another strand about purpose. I have to tell you that part of your purpose may be proposing that we each try to write something positive each day. It is a godsend for me. It makes me look for the upbeat moments that counter the sometimes crushing downbeats we all experience. Bless you woman. I am not sure that what happened that night was not--in part--set up by those daily meditations on the blessings we all encounter but are sometimes too fogged in to understand or see.

That i got time to spend with the two younger teachers my wife and i more than half adopted as our elder children these last few years also set the stage. Having Scott and Morgan there was a great joy that is hard to describe. Scott was there in the hospital with us at the end. Morgan took Jane's death as though she had lost her own mother. That we at last, all three, were creating a positive new memory with Jane at its center was important for all three of us.

Our team name is Walking with Jane. Thursday night I bought each of them and Arlyn--another young teacher Jane and i both admire, and who took on the baking tasks and stayed late into the night--walking sticks as the alternate captains of the team. We were joined by a number of other close friends and former students. All of them conspired to keep me off the track and behind the counter for much of the first part of the night--knowing the small hours of the night would fall on my shoulders. I walked some--the luminaria lap, for example--over the course of the evening but only began my non-stop duties about 11 p.m.

Gradually the rest of the team went home to bed. Morgan was fighting a cold, Arlyn had to cater a wedding the next day. John and Gail--our oldest friends--left about 1 a.m. so they could be up he next day to care for their aging parents. That left just Scott and me rounding the course from then until 3 a.m. We talked about Jane and our memories until I sent Scott to the tent to sleep so i could meditate on the walk and our life--and the lif before me.

So I paced on through the night. I could see my breath but my body was warm. Slowly the number of people walking dwindled to a mere handful. One group came out in full force at the top of every hour for the theme lap but quickly retired to the warmth of their fire pit. I trudged on, lost in thought, lost in memory. The stars wheeled above me. The Big Dipper held its place over our campsite pouring out blessings and threatening to unleash the music of the spheres. I saw Mars--and Venus in her glimmering sphere, which called up memories of the time before I came down off my mountain, found Jane, and fell in love.

And suddenly the air was filled with birdsong. And Jane's voice erupted in my head: "Just so love sprang into our lives. Just so it may do so again. But for now, just listen to the wings and the song of the birds." It was as though i could hear the celestial music in my ears. Suddenly there was peace all around me and i could laugh again--that free, unfettered laughter Jane always told me she loved to hear. At 5 a.m. the clowns came out and raised such a din they woke most of the camp. i found the red clown nose i had so half-heartedly packed the day before and popped it onto my nose. I felt like Father Flote--a character from a musical comedy about the Black Death in Europe who discovers the way to defeat death is to laugh--and to teach others to laugh.

My sister-inl-aw arrived about 5:45. We walked together until nearly 7, when Scott woke up and people had begun breaking down their sites. She kept the team on the track as I helped Scott break down the camp. I counted out what we had raised over the night and took it over to make a final deposit, sent my sister-in-law home to take care of her father--he is on dialysis three days a week.

Scott and i packed up the cars, drove into Taunton to a little diner for breakfast, then parted company--he for his house and me for the cemetery to water the plants on my wife's grave and spend a few minutes talking with her before going home to unpack the car and sleep.

It was the first peaceful extended sleep I have had in a year or more. I slept 18 hours in all and dreamed the dreams of another time, before this awesome and awful discovery of the real dimensions of death. on Sunday morning I woke up refreshed and alive. I felt like Lazarus--or Orpheus--newly returned from the land of the dead--and at peace in a way I have not been for many months. Somewhere in that long overnight walk I had experienced something that has left me--if not quite fully healed then at least with the hope that I will be complete again someday. That day may be years away--or a lifetime or more--but it will come in its own time. For now, patience is the thing I must again learn to practice.

My wife is well. She builds herself a new vessel as I write. She is not done with journeying. I am not done with journeying. In time, she will come down from her mountaintop. In time we will be reunited.

In the meantime, the birds are singing. In the meantime, there is work to be done. In the meantime, the stars shine. And in the meantime we have the grace of saving laughter.



P.S. We raised just shy of $1800, most of it in the four days leading into the Relay. In 18 days we have the next. I wonder what we can do between now and then.


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Harry, how happy I am for you as a result of this experience. And more than a little envious, truth be told. :blush:

For you to find this place after only 6 months is inspirational. I'm just past 7 months and although I'm working hard at accepting this nightmare that my life has become, I have not found "peace". I try not to let the grief and the anger dominate my life, but sometimes it's very hard and I envy anyone who can have the moments of respite that you talk about.

And I second MartyT's words... your way with words is quite something and just the beauty of your writing is soothing.

Congratulations on raising all those funds.



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So glad to hear how well it went! Keep on thinking positive!

It is not unusual to suffer setbacks in the grief journey, but the thing to remember is when we take three steps forward and two steps back, we are still progressing in a forwardly fashion. We just need to keep that in mind for when it happens so we are not caught off guard.

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Dear Kay and Di and everyone,

I think, sometimes, that i come off more positive than I feel.

I read a passage in a book i am reading of daily meditations on grief that really sums up some things for me. I can't recall the exact quote--but it was to the effect that if we act on the faith that things will get better--and truly believe that they will--then that faith of the mustard seed will bring that more positive frame of mind into being.

I was brought up--in part--on a steady diet of Dale Carnegie and the Power of Positive Thinking. I remember an ad I used to wake up to frequently as a young man for the Dale Carnegie course. In it they talked about this old man whose job was to wax and polish doors before hey were shipped out of the factory. One day someone asked him how he knew the door was finished. His reply was, "It's never finished--they just come and take it away."

Jane and i were not finished with what we were doing, but it was time for her to go where she was needed most. In less than a month I will leave off teaching high school students. I have students there who are not finished--and that I am not finished teaching. But there are places that need me as much as they do--and some pieces of work that need me more than they do. I have faith that they will get what they need--and that they will learn more from my absence than I have left to teach them by staying behind--just as my students this year learned important things when I was not available because I was in the hospital with Jane.

Neither of us were religious in the traditional sense of the word. I think if you had asked Jane if she were Christian her reply would have been no. But she tried to emulate that entity every day of her life. The result was someone I loved and admired--but who was admirably human. We did not put names to what we knew and/or believed. To quote the Tao: there are names but not answers in words. A plant is judged by its fruits, not by whether it has a particular name. To steal from Shakespeare: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Each day she sends me some message that she is well and that I should not be concerned about her welfare--that my concern needs to be with the living. Her constant messages remind me that these bodies are just vessels for our souls to journey in. That knowledge sometimes makes her physical absence marginally easier to bear--and other times makes it seem a thousand times harder. That is the thing we both forgot in our conversations about death and mourning--that our bodies would miss each other as much as our souls might think otherwise. But then I remember where she is and what she is doing--and I am glad for her--even as i am sad for myself that I do not have that spirit with me the way she was when she was alive in this world. Then I kick myself for my greed--and promptly forgive myself for it. I am still here and i miss her desperately. She is the one who died--and I am the one who lived. We both have new lives to contend with--each with very different challenges.

I remember meeting this couple one day in the lobby outside intensive care when they had thrown me out to clean Jane up or do some tests they did not want me in the room for. He had been the patient and she the caregiving spouse. He talked about the importance of my staying positive even when my wife was feeling down. He made it seem easy and I felt embarrassed that i might not be doing what I was supposed to be doing well enough. Then he got a phone call and his wife took me aside. "He is right, but he was the patient. He does not know what it is like on this side--or what it costs."

Dying is hard. Leaving this world, this body, the loving embrace of spouses and children for a world we have forgotten is truly terrifying. But being the one left behind has its own difficulties. We confront a world that is just as alien--and that no longer feels like home. It is a world in which our greatest love no longer has any physical presence and in which we are suddenly as alone as we can be. Friends who have not experienced this have great difficulty understanding why we can't just get over it. Family have an equally difficult time. One of my brothers called me a month into this process and harranged me for an hour. He said he knew all about being alone--he had been divorced! How to explain the huge gulf between divorce and death to someone completely assured of the correctness of his view? And having never been divorced I did not have the vocabulary or the experience to show him the wrongness of what he was saying. Who knows--he might even have been right--though from what those of you who have been through both have said, the difference is significant.

In two days it will be six months since Jane went home to the Garden. I will make a trip to the cemetery Friday afternoon. I will take flowers with me. I will stand at her grave. I will likely cry.

I will leave three kisses on her grave stone and I will say three "I love yous" as I place them. I will walk back to my car. I will drive back down the hill to the house we built, to the gardens we made. I will sit on the deck and wait for the hummers to appear for their dinner. I will go to the play my students are doing. I will stand outside at intermission near the display of things we are selling to raise money for the next Relay. I will come home to the empty house and sleep alone in our bed.

And I will get up Saturday morning and put my hands again on the wheel and do the work that comes to me. I will remember the code we lived by--and that I continue to live by--that the first commandment is to love one another. It was our rock before she got sick, it was our rock when she was sick. Looking back, I have lived it by rote these last few months. Early Saturday morning it became again a conscious act that informs what I try to do every day.

If we believe with the faith of the mustard seed--if we act with that faith that we will find tomorrow better than today--then the emptiness will fill and we will slowly--sometimes far too slowly--heal.



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