Dear Reader: This blog is way too long and contains material that I have written about before. This seems to be a timeline I feel compelled to write and share; it is a very personal account of the month before Bill’s death.
There is no way I could shorten it, so please be forewarned before you even start to read. Something happens when I put pencil to paper that cannot be addressed in any other way. I beg your forgiveness for repetition.
I just got back yesterday, September 9, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming where I attended the Western Design Conference. My friend, April and I brought up the Red Twig Desk as Bill and I had been planning all year. Bill even made a twig chair before we left for Brazil to complete the desk set. We went into the woods across the field and gathered enough standing dead aspen twigs and sticks to make two chairs. The chairs are truly a testament of his skill as a chair builder.
They made a very nice memorial to him at the Conference both in the Sourcebook and at the Awards ceremony. After all he was well known for his positive attitude of encouragement and praise for everyone exhibiting at the Conference during our ten years of attending this annual event. I was approached several times with the idea of setting up a memorial award in his name for future Conferences. My immediate thought was: Well they never gave us an award, why should I bother. But the next thought was: Bill would have said, “Give what you want to receive because it makes no difference what they do.” So I will work on this project for next year especially since I will be able to specify the criteria for receiving the award and I will enter the competition again with a glass sculpture with a wrought iron stand. My job this year was to continue his tradition of handing out spiritual cards to my fellow exhibitors and bringing enthusiasm, encouragement, and praise to everyone I could at the Conference.
Ok, so it’s been thirty-one days since Bill died, August 9th at 11:40 am. Today is a crying day. I went to the Social Security Administration to apply for final benefits. Ms. Brown helped me and we cried together, we are members of a sisterhood that we did not want to be a member of; she tells me that her husband passed nine years ago and the anniversary was just a few days ago. I gave her a spiritual principles card; at first she put it aside saying that those things are good but they don’t and can’t work all the time. We proceeded through the Social Security process. At the end I told her the story of the card; how Bill used to say that if he did those things today, he probably wouldn’t end up in jail. You know it worked! He hadn’t been in jail for years and years. Ms. Brown laughed and agreed to place the card on her computer and to make an effort to practice at least one a day. I asked,”Ms. Brown, do you accept hugs?” We had become friends in our sorrow.
This past month has been a blur to me. I really couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that Bill could die. Denial equaled hope for me and that was true for the previous fourteen months before he died. Bill tried and tried to remind me that he was given a death sentence in the very beginning of this journey, that after the completion of the whole brain radiation and when we were about to start with the chemotherapy, our oncologist had refused to say that there was any hope at all for complete remission of this cancer. I just didn’t hear her. I said to her, “OK, life is terminal when you really look at it, so we will bring as much as we can for as long as we can.” I also remember saying that we were going for a complete cure and nothing less and Bill agreed.
We entered into the chemotherapy regime with confidence and enthusiasm, going to the chemo room every day for a week of non-stop chemo then there would be three weeks off—just enough time to start feeling a little better. He received the incredibly expensive shots at the end of each week of actual chemo to boost his white blood cell counts with humor even though the shots made his bones ache with ten times the intensity of growing pains.
He had a smile for everyone he encountered and gave each and every one a spiritual principles card that we had made. The gift always produced a smile of agreement in the recipient even though they invariably turned it over to look for the advertisement they were sure had to be on the back. He encouraged and praised them all; saying to me that they were afraid and uncertain, that’s why they could act badly, just as he wanted to do.
All seemed to be working until December, 2012 when an MRI of his brain revealed two new small spots. There was talk of pin-point laser radiation to deal with them. In January Bill finished his final round of chemotherapy and started radiation to the upper region of his left lung. This was supposed to finish of whatever cancer was left. Then two odd soft lumps appeared behind his left shoulder; a CT scan and biopsy was ordered. During the biopsy procedure the attending physician refused to comment on the results of the CT scan saying it wasn’t his job. When talked our new oncologist, he said that we should enjoy our scheduled trip to Florida the next week and he would talk to us when we got back; he did say, however, that a couple of new hot-spots had been revealed by the CT scan. A brain MRI was already scheduled for the day after we returned from Florida. Needless to say, we were beginning to suspect there was something much more going on but we chose to not worry about it while we were in Florida.
The day after our arrival home on May 8th we go in very early in the morning for the MRI and we waited all day for the results; we hear nothing so May 9th I called the oncologist’s office to push the matter because the suspense was starting to eat away at us. A return call asked us to make a special visit to the office that very morning. The strange thing is that if the results are positive (I mean good for us) then we were informed right away, but when the results are bad, then no one will say directly. We immediately jump in the car and drive to the Skycrest Hospital Complex to wait in his office for way too long. Our new oncologist, a nice, earnest young doctor, beats around the bush for a few minutes and finally gets to the point. “Bill, you have six months to live, you can have no more brain radiation but there is a new drug that might cross the blood / brain barrier that could extend your life for a couple more months at the cost of feeling terrible, you should consider going into hospice now, and I suggest that you get your affairs in order.” It wasn’t until the last statement that it began to sink in and become more that gibberish. I turned to Bill and said, “I think he’s giving us the “TALK”, and we both started to cry. The nice Doctor asked, “Are you OK?” and other unanswerable questions. We wanted to leave, NOW—What can be said? We finally got to leave the office and stood in the hall, clinging to each other, barely able to stand up. We staggered to our car as if in a trance and as we sat there the thought came: We could go to see John of God in Brazil as suggested by a friend.
With renewed hope we drove to the lumberyard to buy wood for a table project. In the next few weeks he created a table, two twig chairs and set up five spiritual principles mirrors to be cut out and sandblasted on our return from Brazil. I continued work on the two huge eagle sculptures we had started during the spring of 2012.
By June 23rd we were on a plane headed for Brazil for healing at the Casa with John of God. Somehow we got our passports and Brazilian visas in record time. It all fell into place so easily, we were filled with hope. Today I know that the cancer was way too far advanced and much as we wanted you cannot just order up a miracle on demand like ordering a hamburger at a fast food joint. We wanted complete physical healing and nothing less. What we both received, however, was an extraordinarily deep spiritual cleansing and healing at the very core of our souls.
On July 9th between 11:00 and 12:00 am, we arrived at our home in the mountains of Colorado after at least twenty hours of travel from Brazil. The front door was festooned with red and pink hearts, flowers and silly balloons all over the place, inside and out. I think Ann snuck over and played welcome home decorator. Dusty picked us up at the airport and made sure there was food in the fridge and Thistle was there to greet us. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude at the thoughtfulness of these special friends.
Despite our best efforts, Bill had lost strength and was exhausted. We were thinking that because he was physically healing, of course he felt exhausted, so he slept and slept, trying to catch up, but he never really regained his equilibrium. He still insisted on being driven up to the Studio every morning and he made every effort to go to every meeting he could to participate and to help others.
I found myself grieving in private; I just couldn’t or wouldn’t give up hope, even though I think I knew what was coming. I had asked John of God to help me to accept with serenity whatever might come into my life, so I invented myself to fulfill my wishes. Since coming home from Brazil, Bill no longer came to the store with me, something we had always done together. He wanted to stay home and work in the Studio; to finish the projects he had started. Now I observed myself crying every time I was in the car by myself. I believe we all knew he was not healing in the way we wanted but none of us wanted to contradict his belief that he was physically healing. To the very end, he had hope; he did not want to die.
I believe I was preparing for the end even while holding on to the words of the oncologist on May 9th; he had said that Bill had six months to live. As I look back on that last week I can see he was failing fast. I had asked the oncologist during that meeting, “What would this look like?” He said in his experience, it looked like falling off a cliff; nobody could say exactly the timeline but it would become very apparent.
Many people suggested that we look into hospice care but he still refused to give up; holding onto hope while he could still move around by himself. Still he needed more and more help to walk. He celebrated his twenty-first sobriety anniversary July 28th. He attended that Sunday meeting, speaking eloquently about recovery, helping others, practicing the spiritual principles, his commitment to continue to “Be the Gift” and encouraging others to do the same.
Now he threw himself into building the frames for the five spiritual principle mirrors. It proved to be extremely frustrating; he was having trouble concentrating enough to remember a measurement on a short walk to the saw. He said, “My God, making frames was the first thing I learned to do in woodworking.” By the end of the week and three replacement boards later, he had produced all five frames. Over the weekend and into the next week he insisted on starting the bark and twig decorations.
Oh, God bless him, he had already come to the edge of his cliff, and looking back I can see that now. He still refused even the idea of hospice but by Wednesday, August 7th, my twenty-one year sobriety anniversary, he could barely walk with the aid of crutches to attend that evenings meeting at the Mountain Club. He stood up to present me with my sobriety medallion; he did not share but talked quietly with several people after the meeting. As the guys helped him to walk to our car my heart broke to see this once strong, beautiful man reduced to having four men help him walk.
We got home and he was able to walk into the house and into bed. We decided that we would go to our doctor the next morning to ask for better pain medications since what he had was no longer working and to ask about hospice care. When I called, we were asked to come in immediately; Bill walked to the car but needed a wheelchair to get into the clinic. Dr. Linn obviously knew but ordered oxygen to be brought to our house, better pain meds, a walker, and set us up for hospice care to start tomorrow morning.
About 1:00 pm, we were home—Bill actually walked into our house and breathed a sigh of relief as he sat on the couch. I quickly run to the store to pick up the prescription and race home. Bill had not moved from his spot where I left him but I could see that he was agitated with the intensity of his pain. I gave him one of the new pills and he started to relax. I run out again to get the walker at the other store; I’m in a panic to get home. As I walk in the door the phone rings, it’s the hospice care folks. We make an appointment to get started at 10:00 am Friday (tomorrow morning). Whew! I got everything done!
I get the walker put together (some assembly required) but he could barely use it to get to the bathroom and back to the couch. I tried to get him to eat something—the answer is—“I’m not hungry”. He is over the cliff edge and falling.
He tried to get up to go to bed but slipped to the floor into the corner of the couches. There is no way I can get him up so I have to call our friend Greg for help. He arrives in less than ten minutes. As he puts his hands under Bills arms, he needs to use all his strength to pull him upright Bill looks up and says, “Well, I guess you are not going to ask me for any executive decisions this week.” Oh God, we started to laugh, Bill looked directly at me and queried, “Why are you laughing at me?” I replied, “Oh darling, you just said something really funny!” and he seemed satisfied.
Cancer is mean and nasty; it doesn’t hurt, really hurt until the end, then it kills its host. It almost seems vindictive, calculating, and cunning as it consumes itself in a final act of defiance.
We got him down the hall, got his clothes off and helped him into bed. I think he got a little bombed for the first time in years but the pain was finally gone for a while. He awoke at about 3:00 am to request another pill then fell into a deep, twilight state, breathing very loudly with apnea (stopping breathing for a few moments). I slept beside him exhausted and sad. When I got up he stayed in the same position, on his back with his arms by his side. I moved around quietly not wanting to disturb him. His expression was peaceful, despite the harshness of his breathing.
Friday, August 9th was a beautiful, bright, and warm morning, sun streaming into our bedroom. The doors and windows were open with a light, cool breeze flowing through the room. I looked in on him over and over, waiting for the hospice people to arrive at 10:00 am.
A knock at the door marked the arrival of Rhonda, a social worker at Mount Evans Hospice. We waited for her partner and nurse, Terry, to arrive and chatted for a bit in preparation to get started on this new process of hospice care. After some difficulty finding this house, Terry arrived at about 10:20 am. She immediately heard Bill’s labored breathing from the back of the house over the sound of the oxygen machine and said, “I want to meet Bill.” So Terry and I walk to the bedroom and as I try to wake him she realized that he was in the process of actively dying—this was it!, This was the reason they were here. She tells me that there is no emergency; this is normal in this process. Her matter of fact manner calmed me immensely and we gathered to sit on the bed to tell Bill—It is OK to leave. We wish him well on his journey. I told that I love him and always would. Thistle licked his face and hand as I was holding it; I kissed his cheek as I have done so many times, caressed his ear and touched his lips lightly with my finger. We talked quietly and I told stories of our life together, his passions, how we got Thistle and named her, and why there are so many nude photos in our bedroom; we laughed and cried and held his hand. We waited and listened to him breathe, wondering which would be his last. Then it was quiet, so quiet. It was over, he was gone. His soul moved away and then came back to say, It is all good, there is nothing wrong and never has been. We will meet again on our rainbow bridge to continue this great adventure into eternity. Thank you Bill, you are the Gift.
Nurse Terry feels his pulse and announces he has passed. The time was 11:40 am. Rhonda and I return to the living room. I call my mother and Dusty. Dusty requests permission to come here to see him and say good bye. I am stunned; I never thought he could actually die; that he would leave me in his physical form. Terry asks for a bowl of warm water and a razor to shave him, she washes him and they both help to dress him. Thank God for these women from hospice, it must have been the world’s shortest stay in hospice ever—one hour, forty minutes. Their presence was calming and inspiring; they were not more upset than me.
Dusty comes over and we go back to say good bye and the strange afternoon proceeds. The county coroner has to be called. Do I want burial or cremation? Which one? They will come to get him and prepare him for cremation. We finish the paperwork for hospice.
As I sit at my dining room table in his spot, numb and unbelieving, here come the crematory people. They are driving a blue, anonymous looking, van; they are both dressed entirely in black with a properly somber and respectful demeanor. They wheel a gurney into the bedroom to place him on. As they return to the front door, I see that they have covered him in a beautiful quilt with his face uncovered as I requested. I remove his crystal earring, give him a final goodbye kiss and his beautiful body is gone from my sight.
Then the hospice people leave, Greg, Dusty and I sit and talk about these remarkable events. They help me with the bed, to turn over the mattress and change the sheets. Greg goes off to the Friday meeting; Dusty stays long into the evening. We talk and talk recalling memories and telling stories.
What a long strange day! The experience of being there for his awesome transition from this earthly plane is the most incredible gift I have ever been given. I cannot comprehend the entirety of it at this moment. Today I miss him, I miss talking to him, I miss arguing with him, I miss making love to him, I miss just spending time with him. Tomorrow I may begin to understand the depth of my sadness, grief and loss but today I have begun to see all the gifts he gave me. This is not to say that I haven’t been a crying miserable mess at times—I cry and cry then I stop and get up to do something. Repeat, repeat and repeat once again and then again. I have a mission. I will continue to honor his life and legacy.