Several weeks ago, I got a series of cryptic texts from a good friend’s husband. She had been hospitalized for a couple of weeks and had been moved into rehab. While she has an incurable form of breast cancer, with treatment the oncology team said she could live another ten years. That was three years ago, but lately she’d developed an intense headache that wouldn’t go away. Numerous tests and scans showed nothing, but after a year of non-stop head pain, it had increased to a point that was unbearable and she was experiencing blackouts.
Neurological tests, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, and more revealed little. Medications were tried, some were adjusted and there was some relief of pain…sort of. While all this was happening, she was also unable to swallow and was losing weight that she couldn’t afford to lose. After some time, the swallowing issue was finally addressed and she was able to start nibbling some food again.
But the doctors remained perplexed. She was moved to rehab to work on various therapies to strengthen and keep her balance. That made me quite hopeful. During our visits I always made jokes to make her laugh. I love to hear her laugh and laughter is good medicine.
But then the texts came. Could I come by the rehab around six? No, my husband and I had plans to go out to dinner but I could come after. That wasn’t going to work but he wouldn’t say why. He started floating out other times for the next day, I kept texting questions and he kept dodging. Finally I called him, but I was still not getting any straight answers. I told Mike something was up and we changed our plans. I texted that I was coming and with that, in my flowing long skirt, I went to Mary Free Bed to see my friend for another time that day.
Her husband met me at the ground level. He was still obfuscating but I figured I’d find out soon what was up. It was her birthday in a few days - maybe they wanted help planning something. It was a long shot, but I just could not figure out what was happening.
When we got to the room, another couple was there. They are close friends of this couple and I am acquainted with them so we chatted amiable for a bit and then, as calm as could be, my friend told us that the doctors had finally discovered the problem. It seems that one percent of breast cancer patients develop a secondary, aggressive form of cancer. This is what had happened and it had wrapped around a nerve cluster in the brain stem radiating pain to the left side of her head and face.
And then she told us the prognosis. Four to six months to live. That was with the radiation that was going to be started immediately. We talked, asked questions, teared up a bit, and laughed a bit. She was tired and we left her to rest. Hugs, kisses, and ‘see you soon’s. I talked a bit with her husband in the hall. He was devastated but holding up for her sake. So much to do with out of town family coming. Lending support as much as I could, keeping myself composed. I left him to go back to his wife while I made my way to the elevator.
Down in the lobby, I took off my badge, went through the first set of double doors and then to the parking lot. Next to the door was an iron bench with a worn chartreuse cushion. The parking lot was empty and I sat on the bench and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed some more.
And then, because I have a convoluted artist’s way of thinking, I thought of the Van Gough drawing titled “Weeping Woman.” It captures the expression of grief. Then I pictured my black flowing skirt, the bench against a concrete wall with the solitary light fixture illuminating the entrance with it’s cold light. And I thought it would make a good composition for a painting reflecting grief. Solitary, hard, barren, with washed out color.
I am entering that world - the world of grief - again. But to wish away the pain is to wish away the love. And the is something I cannot do.
A few weeks ago, Hospice called to let us know Dad was entering into his last stages. He had been winding down for a long time and often the end stages of the death process can last weeks. We kept visiting, but did not see a precipitous decline the way my own mother had died. After some consideration, I decided to take a quick trip to Muskegon while Mike visited Dad. His first visit found Dad sleeping so he came back in the evening. Dad was still sleeping so Mike stayed with him about an hour just talking to him. He decided to go and come back the next day. Half an hour later, when the aides checked up on Dad, he was gone.
Mike felt he should have stayed longer. I felt I shouldn’t have gone to Muskegon. But the truth is, we took good care of Dad, loved him well, and a few days short of his 98th birthday he was ready to go.
The following day found us taking care of business. Contacting the funeral director, calling friends and family, arranging with my sister-in-law to come and stay with us, contacting the church to arrange the funeral, and by the end of the day we were spent and sad.
I was staring out of my office window when I noticed a butterfly in the back yard. Frequently, there are monarchs or cabbage whites in our yard but this one was unusual. It was an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Usually butterflies will flit from plant to plant and then leave. Photographing them has always proved challenging. This one stayed in the yard for over twenty minutes. It was if she were posing for the camera. I called Mike to see it and we watched for several minutes. I decided to get my camera and take some photos. I opened the window, hung out the side of the house and took about fifty shots.
There is a tradition among some that believe that the happy dead in the form of beautiful butterflies will visit their relatives to reassure them. A sign for those who are grieving. It is a comforting thought that Dad stopped by to say goodbye. There are those who would criticize me for being superstitious at this point. I prefer to look at it as a gentle kiss from God assuring us that all is well. After all, God is an artist and a poet.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.