Half & Half

June08In our household the most important items on the grocery list were always coffee beans and “Half & Half”. Still are. People could find substitutes for other things, but no Half & Half to go in the coffee? All hell broke loose on a nice quiet Sunday.

You can’t even get Half & Half in the UK, where my husband was from. There is only milk, or cream (heavy cream), neither of which are quite right. We tried mixing them on a visit to London once, to simulate Half & Half, it didn’t work. It’s about ratios, people! Ratios. Same goes for a latte. I am a coffee and latte snob. Truly. I grew up drinking european espresso, lived in Seattle as coffee and Starbucks became what they are today, and have been perfecting my taste for all things coffee for close to 20 years. When we moved to Madison, I said to my husband, as long as I can find a Bikram yoga studio and decent coffee, I’ll go. Good thing I also had some job offers.

So secure am I in my coffee snobbery, that I used to claim to my husband that if he blind-folded me and fed me lattes from the different coffee shops in town, I’d be able to tell which one came from which locale. Oh, how I wish we would have done that! I really wanted to impress him with my distinguishing tastebuds. Especially after I failed the “blind taste-test” of the pickle chips…that’s right, I also have a strange obsession with Lays brand Dill Pickle flavored potato chips. Once hubs brought home a different brand, and I complained that they were sub-par. I insisted on proving their inferiority with a blind taste-test, which hubs eventually obliged to, after we got some Lays back in the house. And guess what, I couldn’t tell the difference. Ha ha!

Whatever. Back to the coffee. My parents, too, loved their afternoon espresso and pastries. It was a ritual part of their lives together. When I still lived in the same town, I’d often go over for coffee. My dad was the barista, and my mom the patissiere. It was something they did every sunday, “Kaffee und Kuchen”, as they call it in Austria.

A lot of criss-crossed memories have been running through my head. Especially since Father’s day came and went.

I’ve been thinking about how I have always described myself as being 1/2 like my mom, and 1/2 like my dad. Split right down the middle, half and half. I’ve also been thinking about how when my dad died, it was a huge loss for me. But it was a loss that got drowned in another loss.

I really admired my dad, he was a great father, a great person. I thought he’d live to become a wonderfully stubborn old guy, still insisting on driving and skiing into his 90’s. My dad lived one of the healthiest lives of anyone I have ever known. Never smoked, drank little, ate right, had a positive, light-hearted attitude, didn’t carry grudges or negativity around, exercised his mind and body his whole life. Yet he still ended up with heart-disease, and kidney disease. Neither of which had anything to do with the way he lived. When he called to tell me he had made the decision to stop dialysis, my world stopped. Then only one month after he died, we found out my husband had terminal cancer, and he died four months later. The shock of the unexpected loss of my husband, right after losing my dad, overtook me. It has been very hard to understand it, to absorb it, to separate it, to lay out the pieces in nice little strands and work through each one. It’s a tangly mess of grief, where my sadness is split between the loss of my dad, and the loss of my husband.

Logically, of course, I know their deaths aren’t related. Yet, there is nothing that will change the fact that they both died in short succession of each other and the tsunami of grief that came my way was one big monster of a wave that swallowed everything in sight. A big knotted mass of sea kelp and salt, coffee and cream, my dad, my husband, my past, my dreams.

And here my mom and I are, sharing this unusual journey of becoming widows together. A mother and a daughter. Each of us lost our other half, and are trying to catch our breath on this lonely shore. But if she’s a half, and I’m a half – even if it’s faulty logic – I have to believe that together we can become whole again.

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4×6

There are days when I want to burn them all. Every single flat, one-dimensional photo that I have of him. Because I hate that it’s all I have. I hate that I can’t feel the stubble on his face, only run my fingers across the high-gloss sheen of a 4×6 from Walgreens. Is that all you’ve got for me? A shiny fake finish on a life that was so much more? It’s not enough to fill the void. Not. Enough.

Actually, hold on, we can frame it differently if you’d like, we give him 4-6 months. How do those dimensions work for you? 4-6? 4×6? More like getting smacked in the chest with a 2×4.

I never thanked his oncologist. I think it’s because she was the one who said those words. She wasn’t to blame; she tried to help. But it was on that day that I felt the floor give out from under us, and down the rabbit hole we went. It was infuriating and sickening to look up and see them all watching helplessly, with pity in their eyes, knowing there was nothing they could do. But 4 months is more than some people get. And cancer? I guess I can be thankful that I have a convenient enemy to direct my anger at.

And so I continue to flop around, some days thankful, other days resentful. Surrounded by photos, and his folded t-shirts. Memories. A drawer full of socks. His shoes, sitting in the closet, empty, never to be filled again. And the photos, a precious, precious facsimile, but devilish in their trickery. I hate them and love them. The reminder of everything I had, and everything I lost.

Sacred things.

It’s still very hard for me to think about the day he died. While I have visited the hospice grounds several times, I haven’t visited the memories of his last days that often. It’s still too painful. Even thinking over the entire year that is now behind me, I revisit bits and pieces, grief flings certain moments back in my face, but to absorb it all, I’m still not able.

But I would like to share one thing that I really loved about my husband. He had beautiful hands; big, strong, perfectly proportioned, and soft. He loved holding hands. He also liked giving foot massages, and had funny names for the self-taught techniques he’d employ. My feet loved him. All the animals loved him, too, because he’d woo them to sleep with full-body rubs. His touch was magical at taming a beast, at turning a grouch into a slouch, at kneading the hard edges out of a tough day. Man, it was good to be a pet in our house…or a foot. Or a wife. My husband had a lot of love to give, and he wasn’t shy about showing it.

I remember noticing his hands on one of our first dates, we took a picnic to the lake, went swimming. Afterwards, as we dried in the sun, he put his hand on my back. I completely melted. I felt so cared for, protected. Instantly safe in his love.

He also became the designated jar- and bottle-opener in the house. A small thing, but a big trigger of his absence. I’ve actually thrown out several full, unopened jars of spaghetti sauce this past year, in a complete rage. I really wanted to hurl them against the wall, a red messy burst of anger against cancer and death, but at least my rational mind was smart enough to aim for the garbage bin.

* * *

My husband died early in the morning on May 28, 2012. He had been breathing heavily all night. I lay next to him for a while, but then moved to the chair, worried that I was bothering him, worried that he needed room, to breath, to be…to die.

It’s the strangest thing, you go to hospice knowing you are there because someone is going to die. But, truthfully? I didn’t understand that he was going to die there, on that day, on that morning. If I had, I wouldn’t have left his side for a second. But my mind could not make the leap from “before” to “after”.

It has taken an entire year, navigating this stoney path of loss, for my mind to grasp it. No wonder I am tired. My psyche has been working hard, and there’s no one here to massage my feet. I’m the only left walking the dog, a dog that we used to walk together. Every day. We’d walk, talk, hold hands, critique our neighbors’ gardens, discuss what we were going to plant in our own…

So I often think about him when I am walking. I think about his hands, and how I miss them. How I miss him. And sometimes I think back to his last day. How, after he died, I left the room for a while. In shock. I don’t even remember where I went. When I returned, they had folded his hands across his chest. They looked so perfect, as if they’d been carved out of marble. I remember thinking that maybe I should take a photo, so I would never forget.

But some things are sacred. Too sacred to be photographed. Some too sacred even to be to talked, or written about.

And why would I need a photo? The image is etched in my heart. Me, looking at him, touching his hands, one last time, as if captured by the great artist above, the day that my world turned to stone, my husband’s beautiful hands never again to touch my back, my feet, my face, his hands never again to open a jar, or soften one of life’s many blows.