Farmer Don is an 89-year-old man I meet every so often on my morning walk. Sunrise changes our habits during summer, so I hadn’t seen him for a few months when I ran into him in September. After the initial, “Where have you beens,” my mom asked him how he had been doing. “Not well,” he said, turning his eyes to the dirt path. His wife had been ill. He was taking it hard. She had a biopsy. Her primary doctor had been treating her for some misdiagnosed something or another. If she lived two more weeks, they would celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary. “I have to leave before I start crying,” he said. His feet began moving before I could say another word.
words + photograph JULIE JOHNSON
My heart broke for him.
On Sept. 22, we met again. They had made it. Seventy-one years of marriage. Last year, they ate a banana split at a local eatery. He laughed when I mentioned it. “So many memories,” he said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of.” His wife had received her test results and the news had grown worse: gallbladder cancer. “Her cancer doctor said there isn’t anything he can do.” They were to call hospice the next day. “Hospice is very helpful,” I said. “We need all the help we can get,” he said. They attend church in Springfield, Missouri. “My wife says she’s just changing her address.”
His grief is a reminder.
On April 1, 2012, I stood at the end of my sister’s hospital bed. My mom sat beside her. My dad sat in the chair. The doctor came in and said she had the results of my sister’s tests. She looked at my sister and asked if it would be OK to share. The way the doctor said it, I felt like a joke had been played, but I was missing the punch line. Come to find out, my sister knew what was coming.
The doctor muddled through. Something about a mass. Somewhere in my sister’s stomach. Not sure, something, blah blah blah. Through all the words, my ears finally organized enough to where I heard: We think it’s pancreatic cancer.
I stood at the foot of her bed. I looked at my parents. My sister. The doctor. My parents. My sister. Be strong. My internal voice began a pep talk, knowing just enough about pancreatic cancer to know. You’re doing good. You’re not crying. Look at you, being the strong one.
A knock at the door and the doctor excused herself. My uncle, his wife, their daughter, I think, asked to come in. My mom’s brother came to stand by my side. He placed his arm gently across my back. The tears began to burn my eyes. I moved quickly to the door, hoping no one would notice. I wanted to make it to the bathroom, where my sister couldn’t hear, but the hallway was too much. I passed the doorframe and began to weep. Everything inside my body fought to rebalance, to recalibrate, to move past the darkness of the moment. It wasn’t fight or flight; it was fight and flight, together, inside, at the same time, all or nothing. It was loud tears that would not, could not stop. I had no control, and I did not care.
I began to lose weight because whenever there was food in my mouth, I thought I was going to choke on it. Eating became a dreaded, necessary burden.
I hid my eyes from others while in elevators and was able to hold in my sobbing until I was in the parking lot.
I found ways to make my sister laugh, while catching my breath as we talked about giving homemade strawberry jam as Christmas presents.
My sister passed away three months after her diagnosis. She pressed on valiantly.
Each of this month’s storytellers include in their writings actions they have taken to grieve well. Allison Adler writes about women in her support system and how critical their listening ears were. Lori Matthews writes about the importance of living life to the fullest, something her husband taught her and modeled for their sons. Heather Priebe writes about seeking counseling during the initial grief stages and how important counseling continues to be. Jennifer Harrison writes about celebrating heavenly birthdays. Amy Tyndall writes about grieving through music.
We each continue to grieve, but we each also continue to find joy.
To those who have loss, grieve:
Before my sister, my brother. The phone rang late on a Monday night. The caller asked for my mom. Her voice changed, and she shoved the phone toward my dad. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain that moment or what to do with that moment. I was 26, pondering graduate school. Sorrow, confusion, so many questions, so much yuck followed.
I grieved but not really. I was concerned about what my family needed, how to play hostess for the well-wishers, the moving on from the sadness. For those who have loss in their lives, be it the loss of a dream or plans or a job or a home or a friend or a pet or security or someone you love deeply, grieve. Feel all the feels, Reader. It will hurt, but it will hurt more if you don’t allow yourself to go through the process. Be broken hearted. “If your heart is broken, you’ll find GOD right there; if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath,” (Psalm 34:18, The Message).
To those whose friend is grieving, be the trusted one.
I went to the hospital to visit my sister during a lunch break. When I arrived, the nurse was testing her swallowing ability. My sister was struggling with water. The nurse said it was okay; water is difficult. The nurse asked my sister if a feeding tube was an option. “No,” my sister said. My brain tried processing the quick developments when my parents walked in. The phone rang, and the doctor asked to talk to my mom. I listened in. The doctor-to-Julie translation was this: Her kidneys were failing. If something didn’t change soon, my sister would be gone by the end of the week.
I needed to return to work for a meeting. I returned to work, but I went into a co-worker’s office, sat in a chair, and sobbed. She had no idea why. But she allowed me the time, and she offered comfort the best she could. I will be forever thankful for my co-worker’s kindness and for being someone I trusted. Reader, be someone who can be trusted. Vulnerability is difficult. Vulnerability while grieving is one more complex layer in a big, fat, stinky, complex onion. Allow the vulnerability while being cautious of becoming the one needing to be consoled.
To each of us, do hard things and love big.
After her diagnosis, my sister began calling me every day. Every day. It became a habit. Some days, I didn’t feel like talking: too tired, too many things to do. Some days, I enjoyed dreaming with her. Often, I thought how hard it would be when this new daily thing was gone. She called me at work too. I missed her call, but she left a voicemail message. I still have it.
When my diabetic dad lost the ability to oversee his own medications, I took over. This was never a plan. My sister once commented what a great nurse I would be. No, no I wouldn’t. After he came home from a hospital visit, I had to fumble my way through checking his blood sugar and shooting insulin into his system. This was the first of many times in which he didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. He was angry and said not nice things. I was scared, angry, sad, scared, unsure, tired and said unpleasant things. I will always be grateful he allowed me to take care of him.
Each of us has something to grieve. Each of us has a reason to not be all in. But we were not created to stay in that place. Grieve, yes. Take the time, yes. But do not punish yourself away from loving, doing, giving. Continue to do hard things. Be grateful for the moments spent.
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