My Window

You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months.  It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now.   I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.

You wonder how I am.

What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.

I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.

This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.

You wonder what you should say if you see me.

Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.

No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company.  So, again—you’re fine.

Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.

But don’t

Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.

And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.

Ashes

Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.

 

I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window.  If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.

Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing.  And then I will be better than I am.  The ocean is big enough for everything.

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Deep Space

I didn’t write this; I came across it this summer in an article about Lady Diana’s death, and I copied and pasted it into a Word document on my computer so that I could come back to it later:

“Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?”

There’s so much there, I don’t really even know where to start.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot—all of it.  I’ve been thinking about Sadness and how well/poorly-prepared we are for its arrival.  Because it comes.

I think maybe the Victorian’s were onto something.  And I think we modern folk are stupid, trying to convince ourselves that some type of forced cheerfulness in the face of loss has any spiritual merit whatsoever. It perhaps provides some relief to the audience, but it is of no help to the person performing it.  If you ask me how I am, and I tell you I’m fine, does that make you feel better?  Do you believe me?  Why would you?

And we are wise not to confuse Sadness, sorrow, even, with depression.  They are not the same.

I’m terribly sad right now.  I’m not depressed.  How do I know that?  I do, and it is your job to believe me.  No, I’m not happy.  Yes, I cry sometimes.  No, I often do not want to talk to anyone.  Yes, sometimes my favorite activity is looking out the window for a good long while.  And no, I repeat, I am not depressed.  If it disturbs you to hear about my sadness, I don’t have to tell you.  But if Sadness frightens you or makes you uncomfortable, well, what can I say?  That one’s on your plate.

If we feel fine about being happy over happy things, why should we be concerned about feeling sad over sad things?

Yes, I can laugh and enjoy things.  Yes, I have been accepting dinner invitations from Pio’s family, not crying over my pizza at them, and having a perfectly good time.  Yes, I still try to like something about every day.  Maybe walking.  Maybe shopping.  Persimmons.  (OMG, persimmons!)  Maybe looking at pictures of Pio and me.  Maybe packing my suitcases.  I love packing suitcases.  If all else fails, I can fill the bathtub up with water so hot it makes me dizzy, and just feel warm.

I never thought I would say this, but I would love it if social custom required me to wear black (or specific in some other way) clothing right now.  It would be a relief.  It would speak for me.  Then I wouldn’t sometimes think, when I find myself having a good time, that perhaps I have for one moment forgotten to feel appropriately sad.  Then, when I am crying into the telephone at the train station, no one will wonder if I need them to phone the police.  The haunted look I sometimes catch on my face in the mirror would make sense to other people who see it.  No explanation needed.

I have no intention of being sad for the rest of my life.  I know Pio would not want me to be sad for the rest of my life.  But I think he would be alright with me being sad right now.  He did not want to leave me—he told me he didn’t—and if dead people can have terrestrial emotions, I think he’s sad too.  Or he was at first.  If dead people have terrestrial emotions, for how long do they have them?  So please don’t try to cheer me up.  We can have fun together.  We can talk about something else.  You can distract me.  You can make me laugh.  But it is breaking the rules to try to make me feel any particular way.

You want to know what it feels like?  Don’t be scared.  I will tell you.  Because this could be you someday.  Death is normal.  It feels like instead of being full of blood and bone, inside my skin, I am full of deep space.  Light years.  Deep, deep, deep silence.  Complete stillness where nothing moves or makes a sound.  And it’s not frightening.  It’s just very deep, and very quiet.  Still.  And infinite.  And now you’re thinking, “Oh—dark cold nothingness!  See! She’s depressed!”  Shut up.  I didn’t say dark or cold or nothing.  All of that is beside the point.  Besides, the less you say, the closer you are to being right.

Shhhh.

Yes.

Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet,” the only book you ever need to read, has an entire letter devoted to Sadness.  It’s Letter #8.  You should read it.  I would paste the whole thing right here if I thought you would read it all, but I think you might not, so I will only paste  one paragraph:

“So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”

So anyway.   That’s where I am.  That’s what I’m thinking about.

Four weeks and about 1 hour ago, Pio left me here with you.  Tomorrow, I will pick up his ashes.  In 10 days, I will take him home.

Deep space is where everything ends and begins.

Positive

I walk a lot. I usually have an actual or imaginary purpose for my walks other than just wandering around. I walk to the grocery store, the pharmacy, a street market, or I explore a new street. There’s something I’ve been thinking about while I walk. Hablando sola. I’ve been talking to myself about it for a long time and I haven’t known how to break it to you. I think a lot of things I can’t say, because there are things you say when your husband has a late-stage metastatic cancer, and things you don’t. Trust me.

This one, I think I’ve got broken down into bite-sized pieces.

So when you find out that a loved one has something bad that isn’t going to go away, people reassure you with things like, “Be positive. You never know,” and, “I’m going to pray for a miracle,” and, “Ten years ago my uncle had stage 4 brain cancer and how he’s running marathons and writing computer software,” or some such thing. And when you first find out there have been monsters lurking in the shadows all this time, those things are very reassuring. Obviously, Hope is essential for Life and Survival, and the last thing a sick person should do is give up hope. Same for his wife.

I’m just going to say that personally, three months in, I’m a little bit beyond the everything-might-be-alright stage. Nothing is alright. And when you tell me to “be positive,” I feel like you don’t get it. I’m not mad. And I’m not going to leap off the balcony. I’m just saying.

Before I go on, let me state that gigantic, cataclysmic miracles are always invited. I know they happen, and they are welcome any time. But if they were normal, or something you should hold your breath for, then they wouldn’t be called Miracles now would they? They would be called Normal. So forgive me if I’m not counting on one. I would love one. You can keep praying for one. But please don’t frown sideways at me if this is all I have to say about miracles. Thanks.

Pio is a really positive guy. He always has been. Me too. I think we’re both about as positive as they come. So don’t tell me to be positive. I was born positive. Pio was born ridiculously positive. Nobody is sitting around the house moping, and all things considered, I think that should serve as evidence that we both ARE positive. Even our blood types are positive.

But I’ve been talking to myself a lot about what “positive” looks like when you have metastatic stomach cancer. Or your husband does. Two months ago, the doctor told us that this isn’t going to go away. So where’s the line between being “positive” and sticking your head in the sand? Hm? A month ago the oncologist told us that she didn’t even want to agree to give him chemo at all, and here he is 3 treatments in and still fighting like a badger. They told us the chemo, if it is successful, could slow down or stop the progress of the disease. Did they actually use the word “stop” or did Pio add that in? I don’t remember anymore. At any rate, let’s not pretend we think they meant “stop indefinitely,” if they even used that word at all. Or, oops. Would that be not-being positive? Is there any value in being realistic? How about reasonable? They very specifically stated that this does not have a cure.

I can’t tell you what’s going on inside anyone else’s head; I can only tell you what’s going on inside mine. And in some ways it isn’t fair, because I’m not the one with anything wrong with me. I feel a guilty doing all the talking, and fear that I may be misunderstood as trying to make this all about me. So, read on at your own risk. Yes, this is about me. It isn’t about cancer. It’s about holding on and letting go.

To me, today, being “positive” means putting my big-girl pants on every single morning when I get out of bed.  It means finding the courage to be a cheerful presence in the house–not too much; just enough.  It means finding a reason to go out for a walk in the fresh air, and going. Being positive means looking right at all the ugly things that are happening and taking a deep breath. And naming them. It doesn’t mean pretending they aren’t ugly. Or pretending tomorrow they might wake up suddenly pretty. Or pretending that any day is going to be better than today for a long, long time. Being positive right now, means acknowledging that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because I’m sorry but it is, and it doesn’t help you or me to pretend it’s not. And it means believing that someday things are not going to be like they are today.

Being positive means that I find the good things about each day and deeply enjoy them. The red ball of the sun rising quietly over the Duomo at 7 AM. Whatever crazy neighbor that is who has a ROOSTER in Milan that I can hear crowing before traffic noise starts. Giggling with Pio at breakfast about his crazy hair. Peaches. Proscuitto cotto. Homemade chocolate pudding. A visit from Kiara. A silly tv commercial that makes us laugh. The bread Pio suddenly got up from the couch and made on Saturday. Thunder. A rainbow. A long walk during which I talk to myself like a crazy lady, sneak out a few tears, hum a song, buy an ice cream cone. Checking the surf on the surf cam in Tamarindo. Watching the evening news with Pio as night falls. Getting up to click the light on so I can keep crocheting while he snoozes. Drinking chamomile tea together. Listening to him breathe while he sleeps.

Send love. Send light. Send good vibes. Send thoughts. Send prayers. Pray for a miracle if you dare, but pray for an atomic one, which ends in surf boards and motorcycles. I’m not interested in piddly little miracles where we all suffer for miraculous amounts of time. Wish us a good day. Wish us more good days than bad days. Wish us sleep—that’s always a blessing. Wish us peace. Wish us unexpected laugher. But don’t bother with, “Be positive.” I am positive. Absolutely positive. Entirely, and without the shadow of a doubt.

Who Would Have Thought

Who would have thought that being tired could be a symptom of something so sinister?  It seemed so normal, especially for someone who works as hard as my husband does.  Especially in Costa Rica where it’s so hot.

Who would have thought that the pain in his shoulder wasn’t a strained muscle or a pinched nerve?  Who would have thought that it was a reflection of things going wrong in an organ that can’t feel pain–his liver?

Who would have thought?

But then pain started under the right side of rib cage, and the tiredness grew into a constant sort of pallor and an uncharacteristic exhaustion.

Who would have thought that when that ultrasound showed something that the doctor would refer to as “metastasis” in my husband’s liver, I would be the one having to lie on the floor with my feet up because of the dizzy spell that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go?

Who would have thought, or even begun to guess, how many things were silently going wrong?  But blood tests don’t lie.

Who would have thought I would find myself sitting at my desk on a Thursday afternoon, refusing tears, buying plane tickets for Italy two days later?

Not me.

But that is exactly what happened.  As an Italian citizen, his medical care will be nearly free here, and let’s not compare the doctors in Milan with the ones in Liberia.

Who would have thought that it takes 10 days to get the results of a biopsy?

Who would have thought 10 days could take so long?  When you watch your husband become weaker by the day and all you can do is smile and try to breathe, it seems like 100 years.

Who would have thought I could put on my shoes in the morning, go outside for a run, and could run 7 kilometers before I was tired enough to stop?  Not me.  I don’t even like running.  Although I like it better than waiting.

I keep reminding myself of what I wrote a few months ago about being fearless vs being brave.  Right now I am being brave.  Because I am scared to death.  I’m afraid of what might happen.  I’m afraid of what might not happen.

Who would have thought that exactly two years after my husband and I came to Italy on vacation we would be back in the same city, staying with the same brother at the same time of year, but with for the purpose of saving his life?

A month ago, he was complaining about being tired.  He thought he had dengue.  Two months ago he had a sore shoulder.  Three months ago we were getting up at dawn to go surfing.

Who would have thought life could unravel this far in two weeks?  I guess, really, all it needs is a minute.

Albertina Talking to Jaguars

a poem for a girl who isn’t born yet about a woman who has passed on

Your bis bis abuela
Albertina
knew about the danger of
jaguars at the quebrada.
She remembered when the
mapmakers came to town and
tried to change its name to
something holy like
Santa Barbara down the road, or
San Lazaro further on.
She said she told them no.

Your mamá was
too little to listen to stories back
when Albertina’s mind
was clear, and then Albertina
started seeing angels.
She walked
barefoot to Santa Cruz with
comales on her head and
sold them each for one colon
to buy sugar and
coffee–
things she couldn’t grow or grind herself.
Then she walked home.

She knew the old stories
the old ways.
She had seven sons and
no husband to obey.
Me decía “mi nieta”
because she knew I belonged to her
even after she forgot my name, and
sat on the porch talking
to jaguars until
she turned one hundred.