My dead husband haunts me

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.

 

For a serious chunk of my adult life, I have worked in newsrooms.

In early February, I was hired as an associate producer for a national media company. It also happens to be where my husband Mike worked before he died. I had visited him there many times. My son called it, and still calls it, ‘Daddy’s office.’

Since starting there, I have never questioned my decision. I love it for all the same reasons I loved my former newsroom at The Calgary Herald. I am at home.

My only trepidation? How would I cope with working in the same place as my beloved? How would it be working with Mike’s colleagues?

For the first few weeks, it felt odd. While walking the hallways solo, I’d get an odd feeling, a presence walking with me. OK, to be clear, I’m not talking Poltergeist here.

Instead, competing feelings of discomfort and comfort battled. I have fought back tears and then caught myself smiling, thinking of Mike walking these same hallways.

Turns out, Mike is still walking these hallways. Mike has a doppelgänger.

The first time I saw this man, his back was turned to me. He was standing 20 feet away, fiddling with a TV camera. He has the same body shape as Mike, tall and lean. He has the same curly black mess of hair that Mike once had. He wears black-framed glasses, like Mike once did. And he has the same, beautifully wrinkled face and fantastically bold nose that Mike had.

The first time I spotted The Twin, my heart leapt with joy. For a beat, my brain, heart and body forgot Mike was dead. And then, just as quickly, my heart hurt.

In the ensuing weeks since that first sighting, I now see this man everywhere. We have even exchanged a few words. He caught me raiding notebooks from the TV staff’s stash. I defended my filching and we had a chuckle.

Another time, we nearly ran into each other in the hallway as we cornered the same turn from opposite directions.

He’s everywhere. That’s not exactly surprising. The newsroom isn’t gigantic. I see everyone, everyday, I’m sure. But The Twin, jumps out at me from across the room, every time.

I know his name. (Someone mentioned his name one day in passing.)

Other than our notebook ‘drama,’ I have never spoken to him.

And that’s fine. He’s not Mike. And maybe he’s really a jerk. That would suck.

Somedays when I spot him, I think about running up to him and throwing my arms around him for a long, sweet hug. It’s a thought I would never act on.

Stalking and harassment aren’t my jam. Silently, staring at him from across a room is my jam.

The Twin does his thing, and I do mine. We live in the same world. And for whatever quirk of the universe, we work in the same space.

And, he’ll never ever know that his presence haunts me.

Grieving Pains

IMG_7497

 

Just recently, bumps, scratches and bruises have mysteriously appeared all over my body.

A quick inventory: On my left forearm I have an deep yellow, inch-and-a-half-long bruise. On the underside, I have an angry red scrape that curls around from front to back. On one palm, I have a wee boo boo. Further down, I have four pink slashes, in various states of healing, across my shin.

And yesterday, I slightly burned my right forearm accidentally blasting hot water instead of cold while  washing dishes.

Other than the singed forearm, I have absolutely no recollection of how I got these wounds. I don’t remember any fisticuffs in my recent past, or ever, really. I don’t think I’ve challenged anyone to a duel and don’t recall getting up in someone’s grill.

But since Mike died I am a one-woman wrecking crew. Unfortunately, my body is the demolition site.

I am more injury prone than my pre-K son. I run into walls, misjudge the width of door frames and walk into open cupboards with my face.

In the past, I have generally had control of all my faculties and all four limbs. I have never carried myself like a ballerina but I’m no lumbering galoot either.

Many bizarre things happen when your spouse dies, I am discovering. Along with your memory and day-to-day brain power, you lose a sense of your own body and the space you take up. Other than the obvious pain, and feeling like a dummy, it troubles me that I have become a klutz.

Turns out, I am a completely normal klutz. Clumsiness is directly related to stress, my social worker told me. At least I think it was her. My memory is shredded, along with the skin on my shin.

Even though I honestly and truly feel like I am doing quite well with this whole grief thing, my stress tank is full. And when your mind is whirling with every other little and big thing—settling the estate, raising a little man, and doing my nails, for example—there is simply no room for your body to naturally remember what to do and how to navigate through the world. While that’s not a scientific explanation for why I am suddenly Buster Keaton with bruises and a lot less funny, there’s some comfort understanding the method behind my body’s madness.

Like many stages in the grieving process, this too shall pass. Until then, I hope to retain all limbs.

The Bearable Lightness of Being

Tamara Gignac: Finding lightness. (Photo by Leah Hennel)
Tamara Gignac: Finding lightness. (Photo by Leah Hennel)

Tamara Gignac is a journalist, wife and mom.  She worked with my wife at the Calgary Herald, before Robin moved to Winnipeg to get her hands on my fortune (hundreds).

In June 2014, Tamara was diagnosed with Stage-4 colon cancer. She launched into chemo and her Facebook updates showed she was doing it with the right attitude: fierce and defiant, with humour. She’s enjoyed the restorative benefits of love and support from all around her.

A September fundraiser raised a lot of money for her and her family. While that is no cure, it really does alleviate fears over providing for one’s family in the future. (I was the beneficiary of two fundraisers, in Regina and Winnipeg, that are still helping my family. The fact that Tamara’s fundraiser netted more than mine only tells me I need to be a much better person.)

Last week, Tamara got the call all of the cancerous hope for: the tumours are shrinking. I know how that call feels. It’s not a cure but it buys time; another today with spouse and kids.

In June 2011, I was diagnosed. In August, I started chemo. By October, I was still waiting for news. Was the chemo working?

In my gut, I did not expect it to end well. So there I was, that October day, golfing with a friend and my father-in-law. My cell rang. It was my oncologist. His message, delivered succinctly and a bit excitedly, was that half the tumours were shrinking and the other half were gone.

I thanked him, and started crying  My golf mates walked up and put their arms around me. I finished the hole and called my wife, who tearfully asked me to hurry home. (I did, the minute I finished the round).

I remember most the palpable lightness throughout my body. I could feel something growing in my chest, like a balloon. My golf shoes seemed a few inches above the ground. For the first time in four months, I knew what genuine hope felt like.

I hope this is what Tamara is feeling right now. I am so happy for her.

 

Follow Tamara’s story at Team Tamara, a Facebook page started by her vast and loving group of friends and family. 

To Do or Not To Do List?

Behold the new gate.
New gate or gateway to the afterlife?

After 18 months of planning, delaying and postponing, I finally replaced the two rotting fence gates outside my home this week. This work was delayed so often it was a scandal: “Gategate.”

In finishing this project, I was able to cross off the biggest item on my “To Do” list. This list is driven largely by my need to leave everything around the house in working order for my wife, in case I die. The completion of the gates leaves me with a list of much smaller chores; the kind of things you can polish off in an evening (#9 – discard the paper towel cardboard tube).

So, why has my elation over building two gates been replaced by a shimmer of dread on the horizon?

Because once that list is whittled down, what’s left? Perhaps I have been given so much time, living with cancer, to secure my family’s physical and financial needs. What happens to that time once I have nothing left to complete?

I feel similarly about our fabulous summer. We started with a trip to Disneyland, rented a cabin in the woods and finally canoed our neighbourhood river. I built a sandbox for Will, finally read some Alice Munroe, introduced Will to camping and golfing (when we asked him his score on each hole, he answered “four” each time) and the other night we joined friends lakeside for the annual goose migration. It was a summer of new memories. Many activities were from my recreational To Do list.

There’s that black ship on the horizon again. With all these chores and adventures concluded, is Karma preparing me for my final exit?

Then I went golfing Monday. That afternoon gave me reason for hope… because I was terrible. I sucked so bad my golf bag was sponsored by Dyson. I had seven nines and shot more than 130. After six years of games, lessons and practice, I seem to be moving farther away from my goal of breaking 100. As long as I am so far from reaching one of my most coveted goals, I must still have some time left. Given Monday’s score, I would say lots of time.

My crappy golf game is keeping me alive.

(I just relayed this theory to Robin, who said: “If you get a hole in one, you’re f—-d.”)

 

One wobbly step sideways….

Need these in a 36" waist in a cotton- spandex blend.  (photo: whereibuyit.com)
Need these in a 36″ waist, cotton- spandex blend. (photo: whereibuyit.com)

 

Two weeks ago I began to experience vertigo. It wasn’t as interesting as in the Hitchcock movie. There was no murder and no Kim Novak — just a lot of swaying from side to side.

On Monday, it was worse.  I walked the dog around the block and I’m sure my neighbours concluded I’m a drunk.

Luckily, I was scheduled to enter hospital Tuesday for three days of chemo. I told them about it. They said, don’t worry, it’s likely an inner ear infection, not a brain tumour. They ran a CT scan on my head.

Tumours. Two of them, both small, sitting on the back of my brain, causing no ill effects at this point. (The vertigo was completely unrelated, which leaves me wondering what cosmic force gave me the spins in order to find two tumours no one knew existed.)

My oncologist called me with the news and did his best to put my vandalized mind to rest. These are tiny, very treatable, and “a minor setback.”  He told me I am an excellent candidate for a gamma knife procedure. That’s a newish technology that burns tumours with focused beams of radiation, without opening up the skull.

It sounded good, but later that evening I was struck by a frightening epiphany. Gamma radiation. Gamma rays? I know what that means. I’ve read the literature and I’m well aware of the risks.

I could transform into a hulking green rage monster with super-strength and an affinity for purple pants. I might turn into an elasticized man, a flaming torch or a walking pile of orange rocks. I could end up an invisible girl.

Where would I even find a pair of purple pants? I guess I could go clothes-shopping with my mother; she always found me clothes I wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Maybe my powers would be less jarring. Given the advances in medical science, they may have gained some control over the side-effects. I could, for example, gain semi-super-hearing, allowing me to listen in on conversations a full 20 feet away. (Maybe not the whole conversation, but enough to glean the gist of it.) Maybe I’ll be able to predict which elevator door will open first.

And then, how would I use those powers to benefit mankind?

With mediocre power comes a sliver of responsibility.

All right gamma rays, do your worst. Or best. And to the surgeon, please, don’t drop the gamma knife and cut my brain in half.

And thank goodness for vertigo. Now please make it go away.

 

My cancer, part II

My lungs, plus some unwanted visitors. (photo robin summerfield)
My lungs, plus some unwanted visitors. 

A cancer diagnosis brings on an immediate mental fog; a carnival swirl with everything moving around at once.

Do I have enough life insurance? Scratch that, I am NOT going to die. I’m just going to lose my hair and puke for a while. Worst case, I lose the leg. How will that  affect my golf game? Can I ask the doctor how that will affect my golf game? Since I am a terrible golfer, does it matter? Do I have enough life insurance?

And how much do I withhold from my mom, regarding the outcome, because the outcome,  prognosis, prediction is everything!

Back in June, 2011, my belief that Robin and I were in for a terrible but survivable year was challenged by the increasingly dour parade of doctors who came to see us. Each one seemed more pessimistic than the one before.

They said things like “Treatable, not curable.” There was a lot of sympathetic head-nodding, plus furrowed brows. Finally,  we asked, “Should we still hope”?

“Oh yes, hope is… Hope is good. (Head nod.) It can help deal with what’s coming. (Brow lowers.) Some people feel it can affect outcomes.”

That sounds a bit like undercoating on a new car. No one can explain what it does but, hey, why not? We left the hospital before they sent in a doctor carrying a scythe.

After a biopsy, even the Mayo clinic couldn’t answer unequivocally, but the consensus was that I had a synovial sarcoma (a soft-tissue tumour) on a muscle or tendon in my left thigh, above the knee.

And it had  metastasized.

That means travelled, and it is the worst kind of travel there is. Worse than a European bus tour with drunken Australians.  Worse than a weekend getaway on Cannibal Island.  Worse than flying United.

My sarcoma had travelled to my lungs, where it set up six small but deadly encampments.

My Cancer, part I

Meet the wife.
Meet the wife.

My cancer started with a sore leg, first noticed after walking many blocks of Toronto streets in December, 2010. I put it down to hard shoes and harder asphalt.

Three weeks later, my left calf was thick and spongy. I had a blood clot.

But why? I was in good shape, pretty active. I googled clots, and a few days later asked my family doctor if it might be caused by a tumour. Nope, he said.

A month later, a small round bump appeared on my inside left thigh. Cancer? No, said my doctor. A month later, the lump looked like half an egg. Cancer? No cancer, I was told.

Then the pain started. Excruciating lightning bursts up and down my leg. I was referred to a hematologist, who said “You should see an oncologist.” I felt relief, because if a doctor is going to dismiss my fears as uninformed  hypochondria, I want it to be a doctor in the appropriate field.

One MRI later, one of Manitoba’s top oncologists told my wife and I that she was “99 per cent sure it’s not cancer.” (Since you already know where this is going, let me stress that I am not exaggerating for effect: the figure quoted to us was 99 per cent.)

So, back to the hematologist who scheduled me for surgery to repair a leaking vein.  On June 15, 2011, I was in hospital, with my wife, waiting for the move to the O.R. They first sent an exploratory camera down my thigh to get a look at the battlefield. Standard stuff.

Then, they sent me to Radiology for a scan of my lungs. Not so standard.
Two hours later, the surgeon — the hematologist — entered my room.

“It’s not good news,” he said quietly.
To this day, I remain grateful for the straightforward and calming way he told my wife and I that I had cancer.

Short-term thinking

Welcome to the Big Diseasey. The blog has nothing to do with New Orleans, and everything to do with metastasized synovial sarcoma. A.K.A. Stage four cancer. Why “The Big Diseasey?”  Because all the good names were taken. A Sense of Tumour? Taken. Not Dead Yet? Taken. Six Feet Over? Taken. Lately, I wanted to call it Departure Lounge, but that was taken and, frankly,  sounds a bit final for someone who hasn’t yet abandoned all hope.

In fact, my prognosis is unknown. According to the many websites I visited following my diagnosis in June, 2011, the outlook is “grim.” And yet for three years now, I have woken up each morning, ready to squeeze at least one pleasant memory out of the day. So far, so good.

It’s not all bad. I finally have a good reason to stop investing in RRSPs. Or, more accurately, to not feel guilty about not investing in RRSPs. Come to think of it, even buying a calendar is a bit of a risk. Maybe if they came in three-month versions, I would. When I start watching a new TV show, I ask myself, “Am I willing to get hooked on this, knowing I may not live to find out if they ever co-exist peacefully with the zombies?”

Cancer keeps you thinking short-term. After my diagnosis, I stopped buying clothes or CDs, because I didn’t want to waste money. I wondered how many times I would actually wear a new shirt. Or how often I would listen to new music. Finally, this winter, I broke down and bought some clothes. I better get more than one season out of them. If not, my wife will have to give them away. Or look for a new husband in a 44 Tall.