Grief Makes Your Brain Work Harder

Featured

“To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.”    –Michael Chabon, “Moonglow”

One of the bits of conventional wisdom surrounding the death of a spouse is that the bereaved should wait a year—an admittedly arbitrary period—before making any big life or financial decisions. I’m not sure where that came from, but I’m gaining a little insight as summer approaches.

From the moment we’re born, our brains engage in a complicated process called mapping, trying to help us survive in our environment. As infants this helps us distinguish our mothers from every other human being on earth. As toddlers it helps us distinguish between a dog and a cat. Each moment as we progress through our lives, the brain is mapping new stuff and re-mapping changes to old stuff in the background, as it were. For most of our lives, this is a routine, everyday process. When a spouse dies, re-mapping our world in real time consumes a great deal of our bandwidth. Mentally, we don’t have as much capacity as we’re accustomed to having. Whether we register it or not this is a stressor to our brains.

Most successful long-term marriages approach some kind of “division of labor”, resulting in “his” jobs and “her” jobs. I would argue that in most marriages her list is way longer than his and requires way more thought. All of the kin work, all of the gifts and cards, planning and executing holidays, all of her household chores. Once she is gone, everything becomes “his” job. Suddenly, there is a surfeit of new tasks and responsibilities on top of the old ones. Whatever, it adds additional loads on our brains. More mapping.

The grief triggers we’ve discussed here before can disable our reasoning skills for discreet periods of time, on top of everything else that’s going on. In addition, if the marriage had been longstanding and ‘successful”, it is not uncommon for the widower to want, consciously or subconsciously, a new partner to take the place of the old partner. Perhaps this is because the mapping process is simpler and faster when replacing one person on a map with a different person. Simpler and faster than re-drawing practically every map from scratch. As most of us know or at least remember, finding a suitable partner is difficult at any age, more so as we get older. Pursuit of a new relationship can often place a heavy load on one’s emotional and intellectual capabilities, piling on the stressors. This is true whether the pursuit is successful or unsuccessful.

This could also explain the tendency of widowers to arrive at the end of their lives alone once they’ve been alone for some significant time. Once the maps have all been re-drawn, the brain is likely to resist impulses, romantic or otherwise, which would require starting over again with the maps.

I’ve recently begun attending a weekly group therapy session for bereaved men. During my first meeting, I tried to notice what percentage of these men, all in their 70’s and 80’s, were actively interested in a meaningful new relationship, a Chapter Two, and what percentage found the idea unthinkable. It appeared to be a fairly even split, although the pro-Chapter Two guys appeared more enthusiastic. Since my wife died I have been accused of wanting to plug a new person into the hole in my soul. At first, I resisted the suggestion. Now, it appears likely to have been true, but not so true as to drive me to seek the company of someone ‘unsuitable.’ I am clearly one of the Chapter Two guys.

One thing Chapter Two guys have in common, in addition to the extra loading on the brains trying to develop relationships, is the willingness to make grief for their spouse actually worse, if the pursuit of a female companion is unsuccessful. Then, we have the opportunity not only to grieve for our late wives, but to regret the failure to launch what might have been a lovely Chapter Two.

As regards Chapter Two, it begs the question whether it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. Proponents of this point of view may be more likely to seek a new relationship than opponents, whose experience of marriage may not have been entirely joyful.

The emotional trauma around the death of a spouse, in addition to the additional loading on our brains, certainly suggests waiting for some period of time before getting into the teeth of the earth re-entry system. Must one wait until the grieving is over to begin the process? If so, there are plenty of widows and widowers who will never get another chance to swing at live pitching. We are all well along the back nine of our lives, and we must decide whether we wish to spend the last years of our lives alone or in the company of an other. Our grief is highly likely to subside over time; we will never stop missing our wives, but that’s different from grieving for them.

Personally, I would like to seize the day.

How Do I Miss Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Featured

With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.”~ Patti Davis

It is an everyday occurrence for couples who have happily survived 30 or 40 or 50 years of marriage. One spouse dies; the survivor begins a period of mourning that can easily last for years. The intensity of mourning is proportional to the number of years spent together. I am one of those people. My late wife is in my DNA and her DNA is the genetic good half of our three children. At some point I will likely stop grieving for her, but I will never stop missing her.

Nancy died on August 17, 2021. We were approaching our 46th wedding anniversary. She had suffered through a five year battle with pancreatic cancer and the cancer, as is almost always the case, won. By the time the end came, it had robbed her of her intellect and her consciousness and had disfigured her almost beyond recognition. her once-beautiful features distended, her limbs bent, her luxuriant hair a memory.

Two recent occurrences, which I will describe below, have shown me that missing one’s spouse is not a discrete state of being. It is comprised of a number of different types of memories, and there are different triggers for each. It is easier to identify the trigger, and give an example, than to try to categorize the different ways we miss our loved ones. I have identified around a dozen different ways the bereaved miss their spouses . Most of them are sensory, the remainder are tied to events, calendars and places.

Seven Sensory Triggers

Visual triggers usually come to us through photographs and videos. We see our loved one in happier days, when they were young and healthy and vibrant and completely alive. I have an Echo Show in my family room which scrolls through a thousand photographs. Each time she appears on the screen takes me back to the time when the picture was taken. Our sense of sight inflicts this punishment on us; the blind are spared this particular agony.

Auditory triggers for me come in a number of different flavors, the primary one being the songs we fell in love to and countless others that we loved during almost 50 years together. We had our first dance as a married couple to Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” I play the piano, and there are several songs I’m unable to play anymore without weeping. Birds grace us with their whistles and calls. My family and I believe Nancy visits us in the form of a female cardinal–“Where cardinals appear, angels are near.” Even the sound of the dryer door closing can do it. There are times when I wish I was deaf.

Gustatory triggers come to us through food. She was constantly amazed at how vivid my memories of certain flavors from my childhood were, and still are. A made-from-scratch birthday cake. My mother’s cream cheese and garlic party dip. The salad dressing at the restaurant where I parked cars in college. Now, of course, memories of her come to me in her apricot cake, her pumpkin chiffon pies, the delicate almond cookies she hated baking but loved giving away. Her tomato, corn and bean salad. Miss Giddy’s fried chicken (a name well-known only to members of her family). My daughters and I remind the grandkids of the recipes that Nanny used to make. She spent weeks making a family cookbook for granddaughter Lila, who cooks from it regularly.

Tactile triggers, fortunately, are rare. I held a gold chain I had given her years ago in my hand the other day. Gold has a peculiar, almost soft feel to it, and I remembered her wearing it most days. Going through her jewelry, separating the precious from the dross, I recognized the textures of a number of pieces, mostly costume jewelry, that she enjoyed wearing. I will always remember and miss the feel of her skin, holding hands during Mass, carrying her around in the water at the beach. She took most of these memories with her.

Olfactory triggers, as I discovered again just the other day, are powerful reminders of those we have loved and lost. She favored two Innis fragrances, Moonlight and Free. They have similar scents and both infuse her sweaters, in her dresser and her closet. I began crying the other day searching for something in her dresser, and have not yet been able to approach her closet, which needs to be cleared out. But doing so feels like I’m sending her to Goodwill and Dress for Success. Simply can’t do it yet. Our daughters are going to have to get involved in this.

Proprioceptive triggers are associated with proximity and movement, both of which our bodies can perceive. As I sat through Mass on Palm Sunday, I was overcome by the sense not of her presence but of her absence. 98% of the time I’ve ever spent in our church she had been right beside me. On that Sunday I could feel her absence and it was palpable and overwhelming. I have decided to join a different church, one that we rarely attended together. This was a truly powerful experience, one I hope never to have again.

Kinesthetic triggers are associated with keeping track of our bodies. They are what keep us, generally, from accidentally hitting our bed partners in our sleep. When we roll over, something helps us keep our limbs close to our own bodies. I would guess that in almost 46 years of marriage I might have kicked or clubbed her in my sleep perhaps half a dozen times, which is statistically significant.

Other Triggers

Holidays bring their own set of clear memories to bear. Why is it that happy memories generally make us sad? Christmas, Easter (Nancy’s favorite), Halloween, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, even birthdays, are easy to remember clearly. I have very few memories of gifts, much more of the people who were there, where we celebrated, things like that. For some bereaved spouses, holidays are their own special minefield, to the point that some widows and widowers are unable to celebrate certain holidays or anniversaries after a death.

Vacation and location triggers can hit us looking through photographs, maps and globes, seeing ads for river cruises we never got around to taking. Visiting a city where we used to live (Annapolis and Cincinnati, in our case.) A trip to the art museum, of which she was a faithful supporter. Summer concerts outdoors at Conner Prairie. All these things are fertile ground for taking a few private moments to miss her.

Historical and calendar memories. Celebrating the Bicentennial on the Mall at the Washington Monument in 1976. New Year’s Eve on Y2K. September 27th every year, the date of our wedding in 1975. Her birthday, the day she died, the day she found out she had a terminal illness (June 2). The birthdays of our daughters, remembering being there in 1977, again in 1980, and the last time in 1984.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to understand that the world we occupy after the death of a spouse may be full of family and laughter and joy, but that painful memories are lurking in the corners and crevices. For the newly bereaved, one must be aware that some rocks have snakes under them; we must be careful turning those rocks over. We will certainly have happy times in our new world, but the memories, and the things that trigger them, are numerous and often unexpected.

“Then I will raise them up at the last day…”

Featured

© Bruce Allen October 27, 2021

John 6:40

This is the piece in which I expose my flimsy understanding of Catholic and Christian theology in the context of trying to deal with my wife’s death. These thoughts come to me around 4 or 5 a.m.most days when I’m sitting in a lawn chair in my driveway in the back yard, searching the stars, silently howling at the moon, feeling some sense of communion, some vague sense of her spiritual presence. Me with my coffee, she, in my head, with hers.

This got me to thinking about what Catholics (I’m a late convert) believe about death and salvation, which got me thinking about my understanding of what the majority of Protestants believe (I’m also a failed Presbyterian) on the subject. I’ll cut to the chase by stating my opinion that the Protestant take on the subject seems somewhat silly, like everyone can have their own “road to Damascus” moment. I’ll continue by saying the Catholic dogma is little better. Now that I’ve offended everyone reading this, allow me to explain.

Protestants, I’m told, believe one can be ‘saved’ while living on Earth, that they can have an encounter with the risen Lord during this life, that they can accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and can live the rest of their lives comfortable in the assurance they will go straight to heaven upon their death. Catholics, I’m told, believe that at death, one’s spirit remains, somehow, earthbound, and that those chosen by the Lord will have their souls lifted up to heaven, by Jesus in his Second Coming, on the Last Day.

One of the things I’ve accepted about being Catholic is that I will not know my eternal destination, if you will, until I pass from this life. That one can’t really claim an isolated encounter in which Jesus pronounces one saved, relieving one of any need to worship or pray or do good works from then on out. (One supposes there are no take-backs.) It’s all just too easy to say; while it may grease the skids of one’s standing in a church community, there is reason to doubt that it has, in fact, anything to do with one’s eventual spiritual destination.

The Catholic version has some holes, too. I suppose the souls that don’t go straight to hell go to this purgatory place to hang until the Last Day. But I’ve been told that some Catholics can get “Get Out of Purgatory Free” cards; don’t know what they involve. But if one rejects the concept of purgatory but accepts that these millions of souls will eventually be raised, as stated in the Bible, the question arises: what are these souls, these spirits, doing now?

Certainly we didn’t bury them in the caskets; we profess that by that time the spirit has already left the body. And they haven’t yet made their way to heaven, those that make the cut. Eliminating purgatory, which seems to be a convenient construct to explain conflicting elements of their own dogma, one is left with the conclusion that the spirits of our loved ones may be atomized in the universe, awaiting the day when they will be gathered together and reassembled. Or, better yet, they are running around loose in our world, with Nancy offering us brief, imagined glimpses of herself, or appearing openly as a female cardinal. In the homes and yards of my daughters and me. Awaiting the call on the last day.

I realize this is a superficial effort to deal with my own sense of loss. Regardless of the subject, I suppose one could argue that any 70-year old man sitting in his driveway at 4:30 in the morning weeping and muttering at the sky has a few issues. I say if one feels temporarily crazy it’s a perfectly harmless way to deal with the problem. The process, it turns out, is referred to as intellection. It entails the brain grabbing hold of an idea or problem and tossing it around, like a ball of dough in a bread machine, until some ideas start to emerge. That my problem is essentially insoluble makes for some interesting mental exercise. See above. How long this process continues is a mystery.

Those of you who knew me when I was in my 20’s and was a table-pounding agnostic are probably surprised to read this. I realize most of my FB friends lean to the left, the intellectual/scientific/skeptic side of the ledger which is fine. Perhaps it’s reassuring to find Catholics capable of declarative sentences and coherent thoughts, even if you suspect them of being deranged. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Personally, I’m playing on the safe side of Pascal’s Wager, for Nancy’s sake and my own.

old-couple in love

No greater love…

Featured

© Bruce Allen  October 26, 2021

In the days immediately preceding her death, our daughters and I were my wife Nancy’s constant companions, as one would expect. What one might not expect is that Nancy would have a friend who took this trauma willingly upon herself. One who came to our house and then to the hospice on W. 86th St., who would spend hour after hour caressing her, whispering to her, praying over her, holding her hand, during the worst days of the entire journey. During the days when the cancer had robbed her of her intellect, her sentience, and was in the process of disfiguring her, on its way to, finally, taking her, the train that was five years late at last pulling into the station. This, I suggest, is what they mean by agape love.

Many of you know who I’m talking about, Nancy and her friend, the Dynamic Duo of OLMC, the teachers, trainers, facilitators who made so many of the ministries work; I will simply call her Dee here in order to protect her privacy from people outside her wide arc of friends in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Dee is perhaps the holiest of all the people I’ve ever known who is willing to hang out with me. She and Nancy had a special relationship and a partnership that bloomed over several decades into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Nancy and Dee had complimentary skill sets and shared passions. They shared a passion for Mary, the Trinity and Christianity; Catholicism is up there somewhere, but these were the top two. Dee had two decades directing adult faith formation at a big Catholic parish north of Indianapolis. Nancy had trained as a corporate meeting facilitator, and together they put together some powerful presentations. People still talk about Nancy’s Myers-Briggs presentation at a marriage retreat a decade ago where she taped off the narthex and explained to everyone–all fifty couples–where the tension in their relationships arose. In about 15 minutes. Lights came on in people’s heads. She could do that.

When Nancy was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2016, she and Dee set off on numerous novenas and rosaries, healing masses, whatever. They kept right on working on little projects; Nancy was already working on several other projects with her friend Vee.

I have a clear memory of June 17, not only because it is our oldest’s birthday. Nancy and Dee were on a Zoom call that Dee was turning into a podcast. Nancy had her parts to contribute, and Dee hers. We were leaving on the long-awaited beach vacation, the last dance at Bethany, the next day. Nancy got all dressed up and made up and sharp-looking and sat at her computer actively doing her part, in great pain, as professional as usual. It was only afterwards that she confirmed to me that she had had to ‘dig deep’ to finish. She knew this would be her final project with Dee.

Dee was a regular visitor and texter during the time after we returned from Bethany in late June until Nancy’s passing. As July wore on we, the family, decided to limit her visitors, basically to Dee and a handful of others. In August, as things with Nancy became increasingly difficult, Dee was a constant presence, there to help, there to chat with Nancy while she was on morphine, another exercise of agape love, as the switch in Nancy’s brain had been turned from SEND to RECEIVE to OFF.

We had Nancy transported to inpatient hospice on Sunday, August 15th. Dee was there later that afternoon, after Nancy was ‘comfortably’ settled, to spend time with her. Nancy, at this point, was an hour-by-hour proposition. Dee was there on Monday the 16th for hours, talking with the family when she wasn’t keeping Nancy company. If you’re looking for a vision, picture Nancy with a humble path to Glory, and Dee out there with a broom clearing her way of dust and leaves.

We called hospice around 9:00am on Tuesday and were told that Nancy had just passed. Which I expect is not true, as we rushed over and she was waxen and cold; that doesn’t happen in an hour. Whatever. Dee, who had texted, comes in, sits at the bedside, says her final prayer over Nancy’s body, and turns to begin comforting us, the family, we who had just lost our north star.

And which continues to this day. I had dinner with Dee and her husband Jay the other night and they want to help me move forward in any way they can. With them, there is a holy element to almost everything and I need that these days.

Here’s what I started out to say. We, Nancy’s family, have all experienced trauma around her passing. Although it was a good as it could have possibly been, it was still gruesome to watch the disease’s final insults. But Dee willingly took on this trauma, made it her own, and lifted it up to God to make it endurable, to enable her to deliver Nancy’s eulogy without coming unglued. Unbidden, she took on her friend’s suffering in an effort to reduce ours. That is the next thing to laying down one’s life for a friend, the highest expression of human love there is. This is agape love at work. Dee was doing all these things out of love and love alone; there was no ulterior motive, no agenda. Just love.

Dee brought many elements to Nancy’s life that I couldn’t possibly bring, as I was so late to the party and so faint in my practice of the faith. Dee was and is immersed in her faith, and it just rubs off on everyone. I remember when she first corralled me to facilitate Bible Study, and later to lead the marriage enrichment ministry. I didn’t want either, but I couldn’t say no in the face of a woman who clearly encouraged the Holy Spirit to work through her to bring more people to her faith. She and Nancy could spend hours talking about scripture and the lessons to be learned therein; in effect, they were each other’s spiritual advisors.

So, in the midst of all these tears, we find reason to celebrate the Holy Spirit working through one of our friends to ease Nancy’s passing and the pain that follows for us. We pray, those of us who lean in that direction, that Nancy’s road to heaven was straight and short. If this entire heavenly construct is true, we should be celebrating Nancy dunking on St. Peter at the gates, reminding him that she’s from New Jersey. And we–her family–should remain grateful to Dee for our entire lives, for the selfless love she showed our mother and wife.

Running low on dreams

Featured

© Bruce Allen   October 21, 2021

I admit to never having been much of a dreamer. I’m sure there are a host of reasons why, but I can’t recall more than a handful of what one thinks of as dreams in my adult life, after the NBA and MLB became inconceivable.

Let’s see. Since high school I remember dreaming about meeting The Perfect Woman and living happily ever after; I grew to believe that I had checked that one off. In high school, I dreamt of becoming a guitar and keyboard player in a big rock band. That, I realized in college, wasn’t going to happen. In college, I dreamt of saving the world from itself. Right. Once married with children, I dreamt of becoming a captain of industry, one able to pay his bills without worry. For a number of years I dreamt only of getting out of debt. I dreamt briefly about working for myself; that particular dream cost us 300 large.

There was a period of time, a sweet spot for us, between maybe 2009 and 2016. We were happy, both working, she was making more than ever; I was working at Chase for insurance and gas money. But we were putting a third of what we were earning into retirement accounts, playing catch-up until maybe 2013, when, suddenly, and for the first time in our married lives, the prospect of a dignified retirement came into view. I allowed myself to dream about our golden years spent visiting kids and grandkids and going to graduations and weddings, doing a little more traveling, puttering in the yard until most of those dreams came crashing down in 2016.

Since then I’ve found dreams hard to come by. Nancy took most of the few I had with her when she left. I look at my future and it’s hard to argue against the observation that most of the good things that were ever going to happen to me in this world may have already occurred. I don’t make good use of my time. I am developing a list of low-grade health concerns, with outpatient surgery in the foreseeable future. Plus a crown. Plus getting my blood sugar under control. Plus my vision keeps getting worse.

Seems like most of the encouragement I’m getting to soldier on and find new things to do calls upon me to do a lot of stuff vicariously. “Take better care of yourself, so you can go to their graduation.” “They’ve already lost their Nanny, they can’t deal with losing their PopPop anytime soon.” Kind of like emotional sub-letting.

I can’t put my finger on anything I would call a dream at this point. All I know for sure is what I don’t want. I don’t want a long, agonizing descent into decrepitude. I don’t want the grands to have to watch me going down the tubes for months and years. So, yes, I guess I still have a dream, that of saying goodbye to this world not soon, but relatively suddenly, and before all the wheels fall off my brain and body.

Before The Flood, I had given some thought to moving after Nancy passed. I was looking at houses on the west coast of Michigan and around Burlington, VT, places that get real winters. But the closing of the show with Nancy made me realize that, living alone in a remote place and getting ill would become a cluster of the first order. That I would likely always live here, where my daughter and her family live. If they were to move for his job, I would have, I suppose, a choice of wherever they land, or Chicago or Seattle. I would have no reason to stay in Blood Red Indiana.

Reverting to cliche, I observe again that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Without dreams, how is one to know which road to choose? Isn’t it our dreams which guide us, which drive many of our decisions, which make it possible to endure the heartache that comes to the thousands and thousands of people who end up in my boat every day? I suppose my remaining dream is to not feel like this forever. I need to reach a point where I can tell Nancy’s story without falling apart. There is yet no shadow on the horizon suggesting what a Chapter 2 of my life might look like.

So, never having been the sharpest blade in this particular drawer, the introspection drawer, I feel as though I’m flailing, looking for something to capture my attention other than watching the birds feed in the backyard. As of yet, I’m not feeling ready to try to tamp down my grief and make room for other emotions, other friends, other activities. I’m pretty sure I’ll feel differently at some point down the road. All I know is that right now, today, the future appears dreamless.

A Summer Unlike Any Other

Featured

© Bruce Allen                            August 31, 2021

I’ve always enjoyed winter weather. I tend to run hot, and in winter I’m usually comfortable, inside and outside the house. Don’t mind plowing the driveway, don’t mind slipping and sliding in the car. Don’t like all the salt, but what is one to do? Of the four seasons, winter has been my favorite for a long time.

Early spring and late fall have always been nice. The change of seasons is in full swing; one of the few good things about living in Indiana is that one does get a taste of all four seasons, summer being the longest and most oppressive. My snowblower is now four years old and has about 20 hours on it, most of those spent plowing the sidewalks on my dogwalking route.

Fall was always my second favorite–baseballs and footballs filling the air, cool, crisp days, out in the country the look of farm fields getting prepared for winter. Fall dropped in the ratings back in 2005 when our dog Amos needed to be put down. The effect when we lost Gracie was not nearly so pronounced, so February is still okay. But the Ben Hur Lampman poem about where to bury a dog was written for a dog like Amos. October lost some of its allure after he passed.

I’ve never really liked summers. I inherited a pronounced intolerance to heat and humidity from my dad, who suffered mightily in the hot months and whose idea of a nice day at the beach involved a gin and tonic, an air-conditioned living room, and a color TV. He did like to open the sliding glass doors of their condo at night and listen to the waves. But summer for me has been, for a long time, something to endure, something to get through. Probably not a coincidence that I’m writing this on the last day of August, two weeks to the day since Nancy died.

Two weeks since the brutal struggle of her last week on earth came to a merciful close. Two weeks that have found me still in shock, immobilized, unable to stop weeping, unable to say why I’m weeping other an insightful “just everything.” Unable to write these damned thank-you notes because my eyes fill with tears and I can’t see down through my bifocals. I can’t talk about it; I can only write about it with dry eyes.

Most of the time, the feeling is similar to back when she would take a week in Seattle and I would stay home with the dog. Those ‘staycations’ for me were a way to spend a few unsupervised days attending to my various vices–smoking cigars, bad food, lots of CNN–with no fear of discovery. Only I can’t shake the fear of being discovered, can’t stop listening. Then arrives one of those moments that cause me trouble, when I have to hit myself on the forehead to remind myself that she won’t be back. I realize now that I probably asked her a dozen questions a day. Those questions are going unasked and unanswered. Where are her pearls? Where is the bequest ledger of all things? How is it that I ended up having cheese and crackers and a brownie for dinner last night?

We have a friend who is gravely ill with cancer and I’m taking some egg custards over there in response to my WWND–she would have me make egg custards and then drive her over there with them. So I might as well do it myself. WWND intended to drive me to that conclusion in the first place. But our friend’s prognosis is poor and about to get worse, I fear, and I may not get another chance. I will probably end up spending plenty of time with her husband; they were married forever, and he will be a mess. Next up will be our old friends on the south side who have myriad health issues themselves.

I’m trying to find someone to serve outside of myself, and these friends seem to be the first logical choices. There will be others. Going with my daughter next week to visit one of Nancy’s collection of disabled people over at his group home on the west side.

Things were getting bad for Nancy this past spring, but she was determined to get her last Bethany trip done. So she toughed through the pain for months in exchange for one last week in the sand with her grand kids. Things went straight downhill once we returned. Six weeks later she was gone. A lost summer, a memorable summer, a gruesome summer for the girls and me.

So far this has been worse than I had anticipated. It’s a guy thing, and I should have recognized it as such early on–the tendency to underestimate the difficulty of pretty much everything. The extent to which I have underestimated the emotional toll this is taking on me is laughable; I am going to have to seek counseling if things don’t improve in a hurry. For now, I am hunkered down, trying to discern God’s will in all of this. It seems to be venturing close to my motto, “Be humble or get humbled.”

My new bank checks arrived yesterday. Her name no longer appears on them; our joint account is now a single account. It feels disloyal. Lord please deliver me from too many more summers like 2021.

IMG-1131

Nancy and two of our girls, late in the game. Still smiling.

Re-learning Life

Featured

© Bruce Allen    August 27, 2021

I think I mentioned that my wife, Nancy Gillespie, died last Tuesday. We would have been married 46 years next month. Having watched her live with late stage pancreatic cancer for over five years, I knew how the story would end. I knew I would grieve her hard, having left a few things unsaid there late in the game. I correctly anticipated much of what is going on right now. One of the things I failed to anticipate was my sudden need to re-learn how to talk, perhaps how to think, now that she’s gone.

For the past 40 years or so, whenever I was away from work and was asked a question, I would almost always answer in the first person plural, saying “We did this, or we like that, or we went somewhere,” not thinking any thoughts that didn’t imply us, rather than just me. Lately, when asked a question, I have to hesitate, think for a second, before replying “I” something or other. It still feels like I’m cutting her out of the conversation, something I wouldn’t have considered doing before. Of course it’s dumb and stupid, but I need to re-train my brain. When discussing the girls, it’s always we.

I need to re-train my brain on how to shop for groceries. Up until recently, I was charged with shopping with the interests of both of us in mind. Naturally, this was harder with her stuff, since it ran kind of far afield at times, causing me to do a lot of backtracking at Kroger. Now, when I pick up something that’s not on the list, I don’t have to be concerned about possibly screwing up. Worse yet are trips to Costco, where I have to break the habit of wondering whether she would like some cheap fleece or shirt or anything. No more cruising women’s fashions at the Costco.

I have to train my brain to develop a system for attacking the large and growing bushel of cards and notes, each of which needs a thank-you note. WWND. I’m thinking that while I’m at it I might as well use a database package–Google Contacts–to start a real address file. If there are 250 and I can do eight a day that’s a month, which I should be able to do.

I thought it was a good sign that I was able to sit through Mass last week. Couldn’t talk, not yet, but was able to stand there for 40 minutes. I do enjoy going to 7 am which was never going to work for Nancy again. I slept through Adoration this morning, as I went in asking Jesus to help me rest, that I’m not sleeping well. He said why should I, when the only time you talk to me is when you have problems? I said You do You.

It’s the mental stuff that flits around your subconscious that is the most disturbing. I find myself waiting for her, then recalling that she’s never coming back, which makes me sad. I would like to talk to her again, see how it’s going for her, get her to help me find my passport. Not that I’m going anywhere, just because of this Real ID Thing next year. I’m trying to imagine sitting by the fire on winter evenings, not having her there to share the heat. Like Joni Mitchell sang 50 years ago, “The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide…” Wondering what she’d like to hear on the piano. Wondering if it’s 5:00 somewhere. Wondering what’s the purpose of having a fire when it was always to keep HER warm.

It’s kind of funny to hear her friends tell me how much she told them she loved me, that I was her rock, that she had depended on me for years and I had never once failed her. But it seems like the things I love to do, or used to love to do–cooking, gardening, playing music, writing–she mostly tolerated, rather than enjoyed. She rarely asked me to do any of these things, unless it was routine weekday cooking. She almost never read any of my stuff, other than the one time I accidentally shared my entire Word file and she got to reading the very private journal about her journey located elsewhere on this computer and in the cloud. She always had advice about cooking and gardening. The music she could do nothing about. My writing she could ignore.

I suppose we slip into some bad habits after living together for almost 50 years. A premature death interrupts any intention of doing a few repairs. Perhaps it was just the rather natural and predictable case of our interests having grown in somewhat different directions. The foundational stuff would always be there; some of the decorating accessories clashed, a reminder that we each retained a measure of our own pre-marital selves, that we hadn’t merged personalities. Hell, we hadn’t even merged last names. Had cancer not visited us, I’m certain our marriage would have continued along its merry way. More time happy than unhappy. The thought of trying to find happiness with someone else laughable.

There are probably lots of spouses out there, trapped in loveless marriages, who wish their spouse would contract a dread disease. Neither of us was ever going to be one of them. For being 70 years old we were pretty damned happy. Glad to see each other every time we did. Kind and thoughtful. Helpful and considerate. We had moved beyond passion, to devotion. It could have gone on a long time. Praise God that our relationship was in good shape when she entered her rapid decline. She had been anointed and received last rites and absolution two days before she died; her soul was in good shape, too. In her words, all would be well.

But I’m still here. You can see straight through the hole in my soul. How on earth can these things they call “celebrations of life” be celebrations if the main celebrants are all dissolved in tears? There are a lot of us, people who are going to miss the hell out of Nancy Gillespie.

Screenshot (559)

Nanny and Q at Bethany Beach, June, 2021

RIP Nancy Porter Gillespie

Featured

 
© Bruce Allen
 
March 19 1952–August 17 2021

‘Grateful No Matter What’

Nancy2007-12x12in

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness

Nancy Gillespie, 69, died peacefully at St. Vincent Hospice on August 17. She was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, and was preceded in death by her parents, Edward and Elizabeth (Harper) Gillespie. She is survived by a sister, Mary (Volk), Audubon, PA, brother Ed Gillespie, Glade Valley, NC, husband Bruce Allen, daughters Liz (Pearce), Seattle, WA, Ginger (Edwards), Carmel, IN and Cate (Collins), Chicago, IL and her six grandchildren, upon whom she doted. She will be greatly missed.

Nancy graduated from high school in Woodbury, NJ in 1970 and attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, graduating in 1974. She and Bruce were married in 1975. Daughter Liz was born in 1977, Ginger in 1980 and Cate in 1984. Nancy spent a dozen years as a full-time mom before re-entering the workforce in 1990. She worked at both Carmel High School and the Carmel Public Library and ended her career at OneAmerica as an Organizational Development leader.

After retiring in 2016, Nancy continued to pursue her love of travel, visiting Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, Mackinac Island, New York City, Seattle, New England and the Atlantic coast. During this same period she beat all the odds in a battle against Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She credited the combined prayers of her family, friends and complete strangers for her lengthy survival. She was an avid reader, loved her book club members, and stayed in close touch with old friends from Woodbury, Cincinnati, and Annapolis. She loved birds, especially hummingbirds and cardinals, and beaches.

Nancy was an active member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish for 37 years, volunteering for and leading a host of ministries over that time. A calling and eulogy will be held in the church narthex (14598 Oak Ridge Rd, Carmel) on Thursday, August 19, 2021, from 6 to 8 pm. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, August 20 beginning at 10 am. Interment will follow at Our Lady of Peace cemetery (9001 Haverstick Rd., Indianapolis). In lieu of flowers, the family requests your support of pancreatic cancer research through donations to The Lustgarten Foundation.

https://lustgarten.org/

Until Death Do Us Part.

Featured

© Bruce Allen   August 10, 2021

Marriage Blog Art

Note: Nancy Gillespie died on August 17, 2021.

We spoke these words in our wedding vows on September 27, 1975, part of the large ritual to which I paid little attention at the time. I was 24, she was 23, we were in fine health, the entire world laid out in front of us. The “until death do us part” line was just another piece in a large production. My belief we would always be together implied, as I’ve discovered, that I would pre-decease her. In other words, we would always be together as long as both of us lived. Once one of us were to die, the surviving spouse would only be able to say “45 years” or “a good long time.” Death interferes.

Death is busy interfering with our marriage at this very moment. She is lying in our room, in a hospital bed, an opioid pump attached to her giving her regular jolts. Mentally, she is 95% gone; physically, about the same. She has end-stage pancreatic cancer after over five years of chemo. She has fought the hell out of it. But, ultimately, as it almost always does, cancer wins. It may win here today or tomorrow. Actually, it has already won, since she is so far gone, a husk of her former vibrant self. Our adult daughters take turns hugging and caressing and whispering to her, all to little avail. But it makes them feel better.

My own instinct is to remove myself, as much as I can, from the scene in the bedroom, as I generally sit down, glance at her, and start crying, thinking about how I’m going to miss her. I went to Costco for a few items yesterday, and usually I glance at women’s clothing to see if I can find anything for her. Dressed by Kirkland, as it were. As I walked past the apparel, it occurred to me that so many of the things I buy I do with with her in mind, that I haven’t grocery shopped just for myself in over 40 years other than the odd week when she’s been out of town. Triggers.

Removing myself from her room I see as beginning the process of breaking 50 year-old physical bonds that will break completely some time soon. The hospice nurse said while here yesterday that when death is imminent she will start visiting everyday. She will be here today and tomorrow. I’m not sure all of this pre-grieving will help anything when the time comes, but I have no choice.

Just for the record, I do not buy into all of the “celebration of life” stuff they surround funerals with these days. When have you ever been to a real celebration where the main celebrants are all collapsed in tears? How does one go about celebrating a life cut short, a life with so much left to give? How does one celebrate a God who looks at a marriage, decides to take one of the spouses, and then takes the wrong one?

Our six grand kids will get hollowed out by this experience one way or another. For the four older ones, this will be a readily-understandable, if psychologically unacceptable, experience they will feel in real time, their grief ultimately replaced by real memories. For the two young ones, the older sister is, at 6, too young to get it completely, but she gets it, and is kind of stuck in no-man’s land–grieving with everyone else but not fully clear on the details. For the three-year old, this will be something she will only come to grips with when she’s older, seeing photographs of herself with Nanny, hearing about the pictured events, developing kind of virtual memories, having missed out on the real ones because her hard drive and RAM are still being installed.

Our hearts, though powerful pumps, are fragile things. They are subject to breakage, both slight–a chip here, a gouge there–and major, such as what occurs when a lover dumps you or a spouse contracts a fatal illness. My own heart is holding up okay thus far until the words goodbye, forever, I love you, I’ll miss you, won your race, made it home, time to let go, put it in God’s hands, or any of a hundred other phrases pop into the air, or even just my head, and I start to melt down. Hearing Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow singing two songs–When I Get Where I’m Going and Always on Your Side–gets me right here. We have been anticipating these days for five years, yet it is still such a shock when they finally arrive. Like a train that’s five years late.

So, we suffer with her, me and two of my daughters. Our eldest is stuck 2000 miles away, has been here twice recently, but may not be able to return until after The Flood, with her kids and her ex, who is also part of this family. She and her kids have already said goodbye to her mom and their Nanny. As hard as this is for me and my kids, it will be harder on their kids, as it is like Pearl Harbor for them, emotionally.

Some of the hardest moments in people’s lives are those where they must face their own mortality. People who died suddenly sometimes avoid this altogether. Most people don’t. Some, like my wife, confront it every day for years, a constant reminder that there will be some terrible days in one’s future. There wasn’t a single day in those five plus years when my wife didn’t want to live. Now, that the time has come for her to let go and rest on her laurels, she is having a hard time, her memories reduced mostly to muscle memory, the holding on having become strong and firm and terribly hard to let go of.

But she will, perhaps today. I just went in and sat with her. Put my hand on hers and got no response. She is still inside that body of hers somewhere, but she’s hard to reach and getting harder each day. My goal, as a writer, is to get my readers to laugh and cry in the same post. Which is why I’m ending this one with her final coherent words to me, after almost 46 years of civilized discourse. A few days ago she wanted to hold a small bowl of cut fruit I had made for her, and I wanted to hold it for her, to help her eat and avoid a spill. In the midst of this slight tussle, she looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t mess with me.”

I married her, in great part, because of her indomitable spirit, how she was impossible to intimidate. Small but powerful. I never wanted a life partner who would be subservient and “whatever you say” me to an early departure. I wanted a woman with some genuine intellectual horsepower and the willingness to speak her mind. And I had her, for almost 50 years. That girl is now gone, but I shall hold up my end of the deal and care for her remnant, until death do us part.

cropped-lse-masthead6.jpg

 

We Expect Too Much From Our Romantic Partners

Featured

From The Atlantic

How marriage has changed in recent years, and why staying married has gotten harder.

 

Tall, dark, handsome, funny, kind, great with kids, six-figure salary, a harsh but fair critic of my creative output … the list of things people want from their spouses and partners has grown substantially in recent decades. So argues Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in his book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage.

As Finkel explains, it’s no longer enough for a modern marriage to simply provide a second pair of strong hands to help tend the homestead, or even just a nice-enough person who happens to be from the same neighborhood. Instead, people are increasingly seeking self-actualization within their marriages, expecting their partner to be all things to them. Unfortunately, that only seems to work if you’re an Olympic swimmer whose own husband is her brusque coach. Other couples might find that career-oriented criticism isn’t the best thing to hear from the father of your 4-year-old. Or, conversely, a violinist might simply have a hard time finding a skilled conductor—who also loves dogs and long walks on the beach—on Tinder.

I spoke with Finkel about how to balance this blend of expectations and challenges in a modern relationship. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: How has what we expect from our marriages changed since, say, 100 years ago?

Eli Finkel: The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.

Khazan: As in our spouse should, just to give a random example, provide interesting feedback on our articles that we’re writing?

Finkel: That’s obviously a white-collar variation on the theme, but I think up and down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it isn’t totally crazy these days to hear somebody say something like, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.”

Khazan: Why has that become something that we are just now concerned with? Why weren’t our great-grandparents concerned with that?

Finkel: The primary reason for this is cultural. In the 1960s, starting around that time, we rebelled as a society against the strict social rules of the 1950s. The idea that women were supposed to be nurturing but not particularly assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not particularly nurturing. There were relatively well-defined expectations for how people should behave, and in the 1960s, our society said, “To hell with that.”

Humanistic psychology got big. So these were ideas about human potential and the idea that we might strive to live a more authentic, true-to-the-self sort of life. Those ideas really emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, but they got big in the 1960s.

Khazan: You write about how this has actually been harder on lower-income Americans. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Finkel: People with college degrees are marrying more, their marriages are more satisfying, and they’re less likely to divorce. The debate surrounds [the question]: Why is it that people who have relatively little education and don’t earn very much money have marriages that, on average, are struggling more than those of us who have more education and more money?

There basically is no meaningful difference between the poorest members of our society and the wealthier members of our society in the instincts for what makes for a good marriage.

[However, lower-income people] have more stress in their lives, and so the things that they likely have to deal with, when they’re together, are stressful things and the extent to which the time they get together is free to focus on the relationship, to focus on interesting conversation, to focus on high-level goals is limited. It’s tainted by a sense of fatigue, by a sense of limited bandwidth because of dealing with everyday life.

Khazan: What is Mount Maslow? And can you try to reach the top of Mount Maslow and maintain a successful marriage?

Finkel: Most people depict Maslow’s hierarchy as a triangle, with physiological and safety needs at the bottom, love and belonging needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. It’s useful to reconceptualize Maslow’s hierarchy as a mountain.

So imagine that you’re trying to scale this major mountain, and you’re trying to meet your physiological and safety needs, and then when you have some success with that you move on to your love and belonging needs, and as you keep going up the mountain, you finally arrive at your self-actualization needs, and that’s where you’re focusing your attention.

As any mountain-climber knows, as you get to the top of a mountain the air gets thin, and so many people will bring supplemental oxygen. They try to make sure that while they’re up there at the top they have enough resources, literally in terms of things like oxygen and warm clothing, to make sure that they can actually enjoy the view from up there.

The analogy to marriage is for those of us who are trying to reach the peak, the summit of Mount Maslow where we can enjoy this extraordinary view. We can have this wonderful set of experiences with our spouse, a particularly satisfying marriage, but we can’t do it if we’re not spending the time and the emotional energy to understand each other and help promote each other’s personal growth.

The idea of the book is that the changing nature of our expectations of marriage have made more marriages fall short of expectations, and therefore disappoint us. But they have put within reach the fulfillment of a new set of goals that people weren’t even trying to achieve before. It’s the fulfillment of those goals that makes marriage particularly satisfying.

Khazan: Is it risky to have your closest partner also be your harshest critic, so that you can grow?

Finkel: My New York Times op-ed piece focused on the challenges of having a partner who’s simultaneously responsible for making us feel loved, and sexy, and competent, but also ambitious, and hungry, and aspirational. How do you make somebody feel safe, and loved, and beautiful without making him or her feel complacent? How do you make somebody feel energetic, and hungry, and eager to work hard without making them feel like you disapprove of the person they currently are?

The answer to that question is, it depends.

You can do it within a given marriage, but they should be aware that that is what they’re asking the partner to do. They should be aware that in some sense, the pursuit of those goals are incompatible and they need to be developing a way of connecting together that can make it possible.

For example, you might try to provide support that sounds more like this: “I’m just so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and I’m so proud that you’re never fully satisfied with it, and you’re just so impressive in how you constantly and relentlessly work toward improving yourself.” That can convey a sense that I approve of you, but I recognize what your aspirations are. Right?

[What’s more], there’s no reason why it has to be the same person who plays both of those roles. I would just urge everybody, think about what you’re looking for from this one relationship and decide, are these expectations realistic in light of who I am, who my partner is, what the dynamics that we have together are? If so, how are we going to achieve all of these things together? Or alternatively, how can we relinquish some of these roles that we play in each others’ lives, and outsource them to, say, another member of your social network?

Khazan: That’s the idea of having a diversified social portfolio, right? Can you explain how that would work?

Finkel: There’s a cool study by Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University, where she looked at the extent to which people look to a very small number of people to help them manage their emotions versus an array of different people, to manage different sorts of emotions. So, one person for cheering up sadness, another person for celebrating happiness, and so forth.

It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.

I think most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship. I’m not saying that people need to lower their expectations, but it is probably a bad plan to throw all of these expectations on the one relationship and then try to do it on the cheap. That is, to treat time with your spouse as something you try to fit in after you’ve attended to the kids, and after you’ve just finished this one last thing for work. Real, attentive time for our spouse is something that we often don’t schedule, or we schedule insufficient time for it.

Khazan: What is climbing down from the mountain? Should we try to do that?

Finkel: There’s the recalibration strategy, which is fixing an imbalance, not by increasing the investment in the marriage, but by decreasing the amount that we’re asking or demanding of the marriage.

There’s no shame at all in thinking of ways that you can ask less. That’s not settling, and that’s not making the marriage worse. It’s saying, look, “These are things I’ve been asking of the marriage that have been a little bit disappointing to me. These are things that I’m going to be able to get from the marriage but frankly, given what I understand about my partner, myself, and the way the two of us relate, it’s just going to be a lot of work to be able to achieve those things through the marriage.”

Khazan: So what is “going all-in,” and what are the risks and rewards of that?

Finkel: The question isn’t, “Are you asking too much?” The question is, “Are you asking the appropriate amount, in light of the nature of the relationship right now?” The idea of “going all-in” is, “Hell yes. I want to ask my spouse to help make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to love somebody else and also [be] somebody who’s going to help me grow into an ideal, authentic version of myself. And I’m going do the same for him or her. I recognize that that is a massive ask, and because I recognize that that’s a massive ask I’m going to make sure that we have sufficient time together. That when we’re together we’re paying sufficient attention to each other, that the time that we’re investing in the relationship is well-spent.”

What Four Decades of Marriage Does for You

Featured

© Bruce Allen

This is a re-post from 2018 that I still like.

all you need is loveFour decades of marriage allows the two of you time to weave, with your kids and God’s grace, a family tartan of beliefs, values, standards and stories that will become part of their DNA and which they will, in turn, pass down to their kids.

It allows your relationship the opportunity to bloom, to struggle, and to emerge from struggle tempered, capable of withstanding decades of whatever the world throws at you. [It is during the almost-inevitable struggle stage, as kids arrive, that most marriages fail. To weather those storms requires commitment, which is bolstered by the fact that things tend to get easier as the children age and you can threaten to put them in iPad timeout.]

It allows you time to observe how your spouse likes things, things ranging from morning coffee to after-work drinks on the deck of a summer evening. Unless you’re a fool, you’ll do those things that way; it requires no extra effort.

It allows time to develop a sort of rhythm with your kids as they progress through school, a set of after-school routines that becomes standard and requires little discussion or negotiation. It allows them time to realize that the quality of their lives improves the closer they adhere to those routines. Studying, practice (sports and/or music), dinner together, free time, reading, prayer before bed, the whole deal. After a while they like it that way. Mostly.

It allows a steel bond to form between husband and wife that can withstand serious illness and show no signs of stress. Though the spouses themselves may experience stress, the relationship can shrug it off.

It allows time to influence the lives of grandchildren, should one be so blessed, and the luxury of having them around until bedtime, when it’s time to go bye-bye. Time to do grandparent things–coloring Easter eggs, decorating Christmas cookies, reading, playing on the floor. Getting one’s hair done by a four-year old.

It allows spouses to grow into an attitude where he or she is willing to give 60% in order to get 40% back. No 50/50 division of labor, no counting tasks​, no keeping score​. In a 50/50 relationship each spouse feels put out, as if he or she is doing more to support the family. In a 60/40 relationship each spouse expects to do more, and so it isn’t any big deal.

It allows time for traditions to evolve and get handed down. Our kids approach things like birthdays and holidays in the same basic way today they experienced them as kids. There are numerous variations of family or regional origin, all of which are good, all of which are variations on a theme.

cropped-sunset-lovers.jpgIt allows one time to, if necessary, drag one’s spouse to God. For which the spouse will ultimately be grateful.

It allows time for love to form in such a way that spouses learn to accept one another as imperfect people doing their best. To ascribe good intentions. To respect boundaries. To be happy to say, “You do you.”

Finally, it allows time for both of you to recognize and affirm that you spoke your wedding vows sincerely, believing every word at the time, and that you can gladly continue living them decades later. That you couldn’t imagine having lived without one another. That you did a fine job selecting a spouse.

These idyllic observations generally describe, somehow, our own family circumstances. Many people have far more complicated situations; I get that. People can only control things under their control. We have been greatly blessed. Beyond that, it’s important to keep praying and pray hard.

Marriage Blog Art