How Do I Miss Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

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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.

No greater love…

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© 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

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© 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

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© 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.

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

Re-learning Life

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© 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.

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Nanny and Q at Bethany Beach, June, 2021

RIP Nancy Porter Gillespie

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© Bruce Allen
 
March 19 1952–August 17 2021

‘Grateful No Matter What’

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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.

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© Bruce Allen   August 10, 2021

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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.

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