The Locust Years

It was 1989. I had just turned 18, and he was 30. He called me his date with fate. How very true. Family and friends thought the age difference was too much, but it wasn’t. Someone we met maybe two years or so before Paul died recently described us as glowing when we were together. It’s true. We glowed. We also laughed. A lot. Our home was filled with laughter. Paul had a tremendous sense of humor. He was known for his humor and his dimples. He had the most amazing dimples. He was handsome and charming.

I could go on and on. Really. I could. So, am I glorifying Paul through my writing? I’m not even really sure what that means, but another grieving blogger addressed the dissonance between the living person and the memorialized persona in a post about her daughter, and it got me to thinking. Am I remembering only the best aspects of our relationship, only the good times, not being realistic about the challenges and difficulties we faced? Who does that serve? Am I painting him only in the best light? Is it a case of rose-colored glasses? Yes, it is, if rose is the color of love. I loved Paul. There’s really no other explanation. I have to go to another language (eros, pragma, agape) in order to amplify the word we use in the English language because l-o-v-e is not enough.

Paul was interested in many things; music, art, nature, science, engineering, how things worked. He was curious about the world, an intellectual, but he never managed to truly find his place in the world. He did, however, find his place with me, within our relationship and marriage. We both did. We were each other’s shelter from the storm. I fully realize that other people didn’t experience Paul the way I did though. He was sometimes lost in translation. He wasn’t always easy to love. He could, quite frankly, be a pain in the ass at times. Even within our own families, with his parents, with our son, and among our friends, Paul’s remarks and reactions to situations were sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. At times, I found myself translating Paul to other people because I understood him in ways that other people did not. He didn’t always communicate well, himself or his feelings, to others. He didn’t typically allow others to deeply know him. He was often emotionally defensive.

It is not a case of me remembering only the good times, the best parts of our life together, because I do remember everything, the good and the bad, the ease and the challenge, the joy and the suffering. I do possess a full-view perspective. Moving forward, I am reflecting on the experience of my marriage to Paul in its entirety and using it to inform current and future relationships with those I love. I am talking to God about what He wanted to teach me through my relationship with my husband, and I am grateful for ALL of it. Even the bad memories are good, valuable, useful, and cherished. So, you see, it’s not a case of rose-colored glasses. What it is a case of, is love.

Not too long after Paul died, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a very long time. She said she was sorry about Paul passing away, about everything I had been through, and then said this, “It’s just not what you signed up for, is it?” I felt like I had been struck by lightning. A burning hot rumble of thunder reverberated in my ears. I paused and then flatly said, “Actually, it’s exactly what I signed up for. When we took our vows, I said I would be there in sickness and in health and until death do us part. It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our promise. I’m proud of us.” To be totally honest, for all my bravado in that moment, I never really felt like I had a choice when it came to loving Paul. We loved each other and that was that, through thick and thin, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was never perfect, but most of the time, it was really, really, good. Except when it wasn’t. That’s marriage.

We are all broken and flawed, and Paul was no exception. He struggled with addiction. Let me be plain here. Paul suffered from alcoholism. I don’t like to say that Paul was an alcoholic. You may think that is just semantics, but it’s not. One is a disease from which one suffers and for which they can attain treatment. The other is a statement of identity. Alcoholism is not who Paul was. There was a time when I was confused about that. My confusion actually made it more difficult for me to help him fight the addiction because when I was confused about who he was, I mistakenly thought that meant that I was fighting Paul, and in some cases, I was, which was not healthy or therapeutic for either of us. When I learned how to separate him from the disease, I was finally able to hate it and still love him. It was a breakthrough for us that ultimately led to his long period of sobriety and our recovery.

Joel 2:25-32 “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

Yes, we had significant challenges and times during our marriage that were very difficult. We had locust years, but they were redeemed by God as promised. I recently had a conversation with a long-time, family friend whose son has grappled with addiction for the better part of 20 years. She told me that sharing our family’s story about our struggle with addiction was part of the beginning of her own family’s road to recovery. She told me it was because we had been so open in sharing our struggle that they were able to make some progress. When I heard that, my heart sang. Paul would have been so pleased to know that. It’s a good example of what I mean when I write about the correlation between being thankful for suffering and achieving true healing, redemption, and restoration. My friend had begun the conversation by saying, “I don’t know if I ever told you…” and admitted that she didn’t talk about it much. You know, almost everyone I talk with who has dealt with addiction says something very similar. You see, addiction, and, yes, I am intentionally referring to it in the third person, wants to be a secret. It wants to be a private matter because that is where it can do the most damage, where it can use shame like a vice-grip to continue holding its prisoner captive. The worst thing that can happen to addiction is to blow it up, as they say. In that way, it loses so much of its power. Every person you tell breaks another link in the chains. We didn’t truly begin to recover, to live transformed lives, until we blew up the circle of accountability, started being open and sharing our struggle, owning our addiction story, and treating the whole family through counseling and fellowship with other families who were also battling addiction. For us, addiction was not just the third person grammatically speaking. It was also the third person in our marriage. I am so thankful I learned how to love my husband but hate and wage war against addiction. I learned to stop patterns of behavior that supported the addiction not him. Addiction was not Paul’s identity. Addiction, in the third person, can be hated, fought, and defeated, day in and day out, and each day of sobriety can be counted as a fresh victory.

Years ago, when we were in the thick of the battle, this passage from Ephesians 6:13-18 gave me strength for each day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

This post is for all the men and women, children, and families who have been touched by addiction, for those in recovery and for those who are still battling, and there are so many. Addiction doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what family you come from, how smart you are, how much money you have, or where you work. In fact, it will use all of that to take the advantage if it can. If you are battling addiction in any form, take courage, friends, and fight. You are worth it. Your loved one is worth it. Start by firmly grabbing hold of that addiction and dragging it out into the light where everyone can see it and call by name. I know that is terrifying, but addiction is using that fear to terrorize you. Stop giving it the ammunition it needs to continue its horrific work.

Finally, I will leave you all with this. This hasn’t been an easy post in so many ways. The current revision count is 25. The highest ever for me. I have wrestled with it the way Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. As I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling with it, out-of-the-blue I received a text of pure encouragement, love, and positive energy from someone I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year, someone so special to both Paul and myself and who truly knew Paul as I did. Word-for-word she said, “…you rise to meet tasks with grace. Even when you feel like you can’t, you do.” Stunned, I replied that I was working on a post that I knew was important, but it was taking all the strength and courage I could muster, and that I was pretty sure she had just channeled Paul so that he could tell me I was doing the right thing. Her reply was that people needed to know that it’s hard, but it can change with God’s help. She said the cycle of destruction can end, and even in the darkest days, God sends light. And, she gave me a new name.

All my love, Melly

The story of Paul’s last day.

Friends, this post will be difficult for all of us. If you’ve had a very recent loss, it’s probably not the best time to read this one. Save it for later when you’re stronger. I am not even sure I should be sharing this. I don’t know who it will help. Maybe you, but maybe just me. I do know that I feel called to share it, and I am very sure that it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Modern medicine has essentially removed death from our everyday lives. People today don’t experience the number of personal losses to death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have readily available treatments and cures, accidents, and the prevalence of livestock in people’s everyday lives. We had so many rituals and social structures around death that supported and ushered people through the process. Mourning jewelry that contained images and remains were prevalent. People do still wear mourning or remembrance type jewelry, but it is typically disguised as regular jewelry so that no one but the wearer knows that it contains ashes, a lock of hair, or is actually a finger print or the impression of the electrical impulse of a heart beat from an electrocardiogram. Death has become something to be handled discreetly, privately. I believe that has made it more difficult for those who are grieving, and we are all grieving. We need to talk about it! Candidly. But we don’t. People don’t talk about it when they have been witness to the final moments of life. It’s painful. It’s intensely personal. It’s packed with conflicting emotions that are difficult to describe in words. Perhaps it’s not considered polite to share the contents of that experience. Honestly, manners—superficial, defined social structures—don’t matter that much to me anymore. People, feelings, experiences, being totally present, deeply listening, understanding, and questioning are the things that I care about and pour myself into these days. Transparency, vulnerability, truth. These are the conduits to healing.

The last two weeks leading up to Paul’s last day had been a constant effort to keep him comfortable. The cancer was pervasive. It was everywhere, lungs, brain, abdomen, colon, liver, intestines, everywhere. Our chief concern was, of course, managing pain. We soon arrived at a crossroads where, in order to manage the pain and keep him comfortable, we would have to relinquish his ability to remain conscious. This was an insanely difficult decision-making process for us to navigate. We knew every choice we made about the medications that were being used could mean that we were interacting with the essence of what made Paul Paul for the last time. Some of the drugs being used to manage pain could, in fact, lead to his death. During this time, Paul would have what we described as long pauses. There would be periods of time when he would just stop breathing. We would all huddle close to him thinking that the moment had come. Then, after up to two or three minutes (an eternity!), he would start breathing again. These long pauses happened multiple times a day for days on end. It was traumatizing. Because our son and I would frequently take turns going home to sleep, shower, changes clothes, and walk dogs, there were several times when a period of long pauses occurred when one of us was not at the hospital. When this happened, we would call the one who was not there and stay on the phone while we hurried to get back to the hospital terrified that we might miss Paul’s final moment. Like I said, traumatizing.

He had not been conscious in over a week. The Paul we knew was gone, but his body remained. It was hard to understand what was keeping him tethered. A member of the palliative care team explained that sometimes the dying have a need for privacy in their final moments. So, our son and I left the room for several hours at a stretch, both of us, for the first time since Paul was admitted to the hospital, but it only seemed to agitate him. Even unconscious, Paul rested more comfortably when we were in the room. I asked a member of our palliative care team why Paul was lingering when it was so difficult. I just didn’t understand how his body could possibly be enduring. The palliative care team member I was speaking to was an older doctor, and he gently explained to me, in the most beautiful way, something that had never occurred to me before. He said that, in his career, he had been present at countless deaths and countless births. He said that not all people arrive easily. For some, the birth process is difficult, a struggle, and that the same is true of the death process. For some, it is difficult. It is a struggle. I’m not sure why that had never occurred to me. Again, I think it might be because we as a society do not talk and share enough about the ubiquitous human experience that is the dying process. It makes sense, though, right? Birthing is called labor. There is pain. Then, so, too, dying is also a labor, and some labor more than others just as in the birthing process. Paul was in labor, struggling to be born into the next life, and we were witnesses, but after talking with the doctor, I saw myself as a coach as well and began to think about what Paul needed from me, how I could come alongside him as his partner in the process instead of merely his care-giver and advocate.

On morning of the last day, I arrived at the hospital early. Our son had been with Paul through the night and headed home for a little while. Shortly after our son left, Paul’s breathing became labored and noisy, loud. It was difficult to be in the room. It was brutal.

I sent this message out to family and friends. “We are on our knees this morning. This road is very, very difficult. But we are not alone. We feel the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. Any strength you perceive in us, I have to tell you is not us, but Him. I am running on His Grace alone. There is nothing left but His Grace. Everything else has been stripped away. We are laid bare in the pain and struggle of it. I have honestly never experienced anything worse than this, and yet I rest in the comfort of my Savior’s embrace. We love you all.”

In desperation, I cried out to God to be merciful. This was my prayer that day, “Please, Lord God, have mercy on your servant, Paul. He belongs to You. He has always belonged to you, Lord, and now I am begging you to have mercy. I am thankful for the days you have given us. I am sorry for the many ways I have fallen short. Please, Lord, be merciful.” Then, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Paul, the way a wife talks with a husband. I told him that we were trying everything we knew to keep him comfortable, but we were failing. I told him that we could not heal him, but God could. After 30 years of complete and utter love and devotion, I told Paul for the last time that I loved him, but that God loved him more. Yes, God loved him more. That was an important realization for me. I had always thought that I loved Paul most and best, but that was actually never true. God always loved him more. I also talked to Paul about all the wonderful, fun, sad, difficult, normal, extraordinary things we had done together. We were always together, but this was different. He would have to do this last thing on his own, and I told him I knew he could do it. He had to go on ahead of me, and he had to do it by himself.

Our son arrived back at the hospital about noon, and the labored breathing continued throughout the day. In the evening, he was suddenly quiet. The three of us spent the rest of night together peacefully. I awoke at about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why because on the surface nothing had changed. Paul was still quiet and peaceful. So, I just sat there with him holding his hand. The pace of his breath quickened, and I spoke with the nurse about a medication change. She administered the medication, but his breathing continued to be erratic. I woke our son up. He and I surrounded his dad with love and joy and gratitude and saw him traverse the threshold from this world to his eternal home.

When it comes to cancer, everyone prays for a miracle. Well, we did have a miracle. It was not a happy ending in the traditional sense as in a cure, but it was a peaceful, dignified ending. The miracle is that, given what we were facing, Paul died peacefully and with dignity surrounded by family, friends, and so much love.

I have used this picture in a previous post, and you may have thought, as I did, Why am is she (am I) smiling? When I saw myself in this picture, that was my first thought. Why am I smiling? Initially, I didn’t have an answer for that question. Over time, I realized why. For me, the hardest part was watching Paul in pain, watching Paul die, and that part was thankfully, blessedly over. I could not even cry. I felt so ridiculous, not being able to cry, but I was so happy for Paul, that the pain and suffering was over. My grieving was delayed by relief. I recently saw a picture of another young widow, an acquaintance of mine from high school. Her husband died of cancer, 49 years old. In the picture, the day of her husband’s funeral, she is smiling, just like me. I know why.

Be blessed, Malia