The Endowment

When my husband, Kevin, died, I did an unusual thing.  In the obituary I indicated to friends and family that in lieu of flowers or donations, we, the family, had set up an endowment fund.  I chose this route for two reasons – first, the cancer society is one of the most exorbitantly funded research and development agencies in the world, from big Pharma to personal donations to government funding, this is a rich industry.  It is already well funded and quite frankly, I don’t believe that the monies resulting from charitable donations go to frontline research in the manner that I would want, they more likely serve to support the extensive administrative overhead.  So consequently, after Kevin died, I didn’t want donations to go to the Cancer Society.  I wanted to find a way to benefit our local community.  Second, and most importantly, I wanted to keep Kevin’s passion for the arts alive and vibrant, to create something tangible in his memory that would endure over time.  The generous contributions of friends and family have made this possible for at least the next 10 years and, as the donations continue to come in, potentially longer.  Remarkable, truly a remarkable response.

The Endowment Fund was established with our local art gallery.  The gallery made a tremendous effort and we were able to present the first award on October 8th.  It was a very well attended evening especially since there were two prizes being awarded: the Carmichael Landscape Prize of $2,500 and Kevin’s Emerging Artist award of $1,000.  The evening turned out even better when a local artist was awarded the Emerging Artist award, and truly, she earned it.  It was a lovely evening, but pulled at the heartstrings, since the very reason for why I was there was really the absolute worst reason.  I was there because Kevin had died and we had set up an award in his memory.  Cause and effect at it’s most basic level.

The emotional impact of these events tends to build up now.  I find that I can get through them for the most part, but they are cumulative. Looking back I realize I used to weep at things as they happened, no reprieve, the tears were not to be put off.  Now, I find that I can make it through an event or function, usually, and the tears find me later, at home.  The tears are different now too, as are the thoughts that go through my mind.  Now I have very specific memories that come to me.  After the art show my memories were of Kevin hunched over his easel, two months before he died, determined to finish a painting despite the fact that he couldn’t lift his right arm.  He adapted and put the canvas on the table and he finished the painting. Then my mind flit to another recent event, the birthday party that Kevin should have been at, and I remembered how, for his buddy’s last birthday in 2014, Kevin had given him a painting; I saw that painting last week at the party. Not exactly light thoughts to have right before bedtime.  Perhaps this is a good topic to discuss at my next grief counselling session – although I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change it.

Ah, The Book…

Unfortunately, I have fallen behind in publishing Kevin’s book, Harmony in a Box.  There’s nothing I can do about it.  The book is 13 chapters long.  Thirteen gut-wrenching chapters to edit.  A story he wrote and I transcribed for him in 2001.  His handwriting and notes are all over the pages.  I made it through the first four chapters, but have to take a breather before I can face the next four.  My intentions are good, but my capacity to work through it is not.  So – another week or so and maybe I will be ready then, just not now.

The family is now approaching the six month marker of Kevin’s death from lung cancer.  Oddly enough, the days are getting harder, not easier.  The emptiness and loss seems stronger and more intense.  Not just for me either.  The realization that he’s gone for good seems to be pressing down heavily on all of us.  In the next week or so another grandchild will arrive, and this little baby will not meet his or her grandfather.  This is the new reality for the family.  Granddad will live in stories only.  The stories will be legend, but still only stories to grandchildren who never got to meet him.

All the emotion drains me of any ambition or productivity.  I feel so old and worn out.  If left to my own devices, it would be easy to turn on the television and zone out completely until I fall asleep; the next day get up, go to work and repeat the same mindless cycle.   Fortunately, that’s not my lot, and between family and friends my days are as busy as I can manage.  It’s good to be busy, but it doesn’t stop the inevitable sadness from settling on me when I am left alone with my thoughts.  For now, nothing can stop it.  Sometimes the sadness is a sweet memory that reminds me of all the good things life gifts us with; other times the sadness is full of bitterness of all the things that life has taken.  Most times it’s a sadness tinged with bewilderment as to why someone who loved life so much was taken so early.

In my head, when I think these thoughts I hear Kevin’s voice urging me to ‘let it go, honey, let it go’; ever grounded in reality; recognizing that some things can’t be fixed or changed. I will get there one day. I’m trying, just not doing so well at it right now.

Take a little trip

The last week of August into the first week of September have always been emotional weeks for this family.  Within a span of seven or eight days this family would go from an extreme high to an extreme low.  This was because the 28 of August was my husband’s birthday and the first week of September meant a return to work for him – it was back to school.  Unlike the vast majority of teachers my husband was never ready to go back to school.  When the calendar flipped to September he’d become very quiet and irritable.  Don’t get me wrong, he loved his job, he just didn’t like working.  Seems contradictory, but it isn’t.

Kevin, my husband, would always laugh and say ‘I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.’  He loved music and he loved art, and that’s what he taught.  He was an Art, Drama and Music teacher in the elementary school system.  The perfect gig.  He’d done it for so many years there was little prep required to get him ready for the new school year. He didn’t have a classroom so there was no classroom to open.  It was just a matter of going in a day or two before school started to get his schedule and unlock the cupboards that held the instruments, and then to show-up the first day of school. This aspect of the job was easy enough.

Nope, it wasn’t the job he performed  that he didn’t like.  The fact that he had to “answer to the man,” was a big part of his reluctance to go back into the classroom.  The rigidity of the educational system was one of his concerns; that something as personal and expressive as art was evaluated using standards that actually curtailed creativity.  It irked him that the music programme was so far down in the valuation system for most educators, it ‘didn’t matter’ as much as mathematics, English and science.  He was passionate about how musical training would improve a student’s performance in academic endeavours, and how essential creativity was in the development of well-rounded personalities.

Overall, the biggest contributor to Kevin’s dismay about returning to work was that it forced routine and structure back into his world with a resounding thud. Throughout the summer he could follow his heart’s desire.  Especially after the kids were grown, he’d paint all night if the mood hit him, or drive to Algonquin Park to sketch for the day, stay at the cottage to just putter around and think.  Usually, I’d have to work most of the summer so I never knew what I was coming home to.  Sometimes a coffee on the deck while a lovely dinner cooked on the barbeque, other times a call at work to say let’s go out or meet me at the cottage.  Other times, when his creative mind was at work, I’d know he was getting ready to travel someplace to find something to spur his artistic expression, he just didn’t know what he was looking for.  In these cases he could be gone for a day, sometimes more.  If I wanted or needed him to stay he would, but seldom was that the case.  He’d be renewed when he came back, having satisfied some intrinsic need. He was a free spirit then and is likely still.

If only it were that easy to move past the sorrow, if I could take a little trip and find my renewal.  Right now the feeling of loss is incredibly intense again.  I wake in the morning missing him, throughout the day I find myself weepy.  I guess it is just the ebb and flow of the grieving process.  The end of this month I start with the grief counselling group, eight weeks of sessions in a small group setting.  The coordinator for the group told me I am likely to ‘strike up a friendship or two’ as a result of it.  Maybe, maybe not – so much depends on the group demographics.  Regardless, I know that the grief counselling programme is a tried and true one and that I will benefit from it.  It’s a fool that turns her back on a helping hand.

Ghost Dad

I wrote this post the first week of June 2015.  I couldn’t put it up for a variety of reasons; the primary one being that it was to be a week of joy, not sorrow, and consequently it just didn’t seem appropriate.  That first week of June I watched my daughter struggle with emotions, fatigue and obligations, and there wasn’t anything I, or anyone else, could do.  She did struggle, but she got through it, a summer challenging enough for a new mom, but even more so for a grieving daughter.  This is what I wrote:

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The week ahead looms fairly large for my daughter. There are two significant events that occur this week for her.  On Thursday it is her birthday and on Saturday her best friend gets married.  Happy events, but for my daughter, these could be difficult.  She’s just put in a solid 12 months of turmoil.

My daughter discovered she was pregnant and told her father and me on Monday, June 23, 2014.   Short-lived joy for my daughter, since on Thursday, June 26th, we had to tell her that her father had cancer.  Stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones; the radiologist gave him a 3 to 6 month prognosis.  She would spend her whole pregnancy watching her father die.  In August, her aunt (her dad’s sister) would be diagnosed with bowel cancer and end up in ICU in a coma for six weeks.  Then in December her partner lost his grandmother, ‘Nan’, in her early 70’s, her death was completely unexpected.  The toll on the family was indescribable, the joy of pregnancy was overshadowed by fear and anxiety.

In February of this year, she was identified as a high risk pregnancy.  She ended up delivering a healthy baby boy by caesarean section.  Her father, so very sick, held her newborn child in his arms; I think he held the baby three or four times before his death one month later.  I cannot imagine what the hormones in my poor daughter’s body were doing as she went through this.  She often confided in me that if she could, she would stay pregnant forever, if it would keep her dad alive.  She knew he was only hanging on until the baby was born.

My daughter heads into this week painfully missing her dad.  On Thursday we will celebrate her birthday in the same style as we would have had her father still been alive – with gifts, cake, a nice dinner and with memories.  Her dad’s presence was so strong in life that, as she informed me, the thought of losing her father altogether is unbearable, so now she considers herself to have a ghost dad.  Her ghost dad is always with her and although she can’t touch him or see him, she knows he is there for her whenever she needs him.

After her birthday then it’s the weekend, when she is maid of honour in a wedding for a friend that she loves. With respect to her friends, she’s in uncharted waters – all of her girlfriends have both of their parents and none of her girlfriends have children.  Although they think they understand how she is feeling, they don’t have a clue.  My daughter is obviously happy for the bride, but that doesn’t make all the other stuff that has happened go away. She’s still recovering from the C-section, continuing to adjust to being a first time parent, and trying to work through her grief.  The wedding traditions won’t be the same for my daughter, she will not have the joy of her dad walking her down the aisle.  Her father will never speak at her wedding, she won’t have that first dance. My daughter, like her brothers, fiercely loved her father, and he was remarkably involved in every aspect of all of their lives; not a passive man, my husband.

While everyone around her is celebrating, she’ll be tired, she is tired.  All she wants to do is rest; she has a three month old baby, it’s only two months since her dad died, and I know she’s worried about losing me as well.  You see, the thing about grief is that it takes us all hostage.  After her father died, essentially for a little while she lost everyone. She lost me as I wrapped myself up in pain and sorrow; she lost her brothers when they went inward to find a way to make sense of it all, and her support network was nonexistent with her friends, not because they weren’t there – but because they weren’t THERE from a life experience perspective.

The summer looms large for her.  There are five weddings in the next two and a half months; she is in two or three, I can’t remember. There will be showers and parties to celebrate new beginnings.  She will be expected to, and will want to, participate in the events.  Small baby at home, grief eating her up, but she’ll give it her best.  Each wedding will have a father in attendance, there will be THE dance, the speech, the pride and love – it will remind her of what she has lost.  She will be jealous of what her friends have and don’t seem to appreciate enough.  Its cliché but true, you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore.  For my daughter, she’ll have her ghost dad, and no one can ever take him away from her.

It just is so unutterably sad.

Crepes anyone?

June is almost over and it looks like it will end rainy.  I have no problem with this at all.  I seem to think that last year this time it was sunny and bright.  I remember sitting on the deck with Kevin strategizing how we were going to tell people about his cancer, and what we would tell.  Our three kids were the hardest; our eldest lived five hours away, our daughter had just discovered she was pregnant with her first child and our youngest had left the province the previous fall to commence a four-year apprenticeship.

Life goes on, Kevin said, and it needed to especially for our children.  They had the rest of their lives to plan for, he didn’t want his illness to influence their life-choice decisions.  In his mind if they made decisions based on his health it would be short term gain for long term pain. Thus he wanted to provide initial messaging about his disease that was moderated.  He chose to tell them that he had lung cancer and that he would be starting his treatments as soon as possible.  For our sons, they received the information over the telephone, for our daughter she received it in person.  Either way it was exceptionally difficult.  For the boys all they had were words without any visual cues, for our daughter she had both, visual and verbal, and try as he may, Kevin’s words and actions didn’t quite align.

He was trying to tell people about his illness before he had even processed it himself.  He had a thousand questions, a million worries but not one answer.  With every person he told the impact and enormity of his situation became more and more weightier. With every retelling of the circumstances he felt compelled to try and comfort and console the person he was telling.  He knew he would fight his cancer with all his might, but he also knew that his prognosis was grim.  He was told in July that he had three to six months at best.  Chemotherapy would give him perhaps eight to ten months.  He opted for life and took the chemo.  That way he would meet his grandson, that way he had more time to say good-bye, that way he could hope a little bit longer for a miracle.

Today I had an intimate brunch at my house.  My sister, my sister-in=law, my daughter, her fiancé, and my infant grandson.  We ate in true Kevin style.  We had savoury crepes filled with egg and peameal and topped with hollandaise sauce, bacon wrapped sausages, home fried potatoes, and sweet berry and cream crepes for dessert.  This is what we likely had as brunch for Father’s Day in 2014.  This is what we had today to celebrate a special man.  He loved his food and he loved his family.  Today we did the best we could with what we had, and I know he would have loved it.