© Bruce Allen August 10, 2021
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.