I figured this post could use a kitten photo
It’s one of those things you always hear: loss is hardest around the holidays. I can already feel the approach, weaving its way around me like a boa constrictor, ready to start tightening its grip without warning. Do I make an attempt to flee, or will any movement simply trigger it into action?
Last Thanksgiving, Scott felt good. He was on a rest day in the middle of the conditioning chemo that preceded his stem cell transplant. His neutrophils were high enough for him to be allowed off the hospital ward for a few hours. Spontaneously we went grocery shopping and then back to my little temporary flat, where I whipped up a surprisingly good facsimile of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. We watched the parade online while I cooked. We Skyped with family back in the US. It was almost like a real holiday.
Last Christmas, Scott didn’t feel as well. A few days before, things had been going as planned. The transplant had taken, and his release from hospital was imminent. Days away. But then some troubling complications started creeping in, delaying his expected release date by days at first. We were still hopeful. We thought the worst was behind us. He came over to my wee flat again, the first time since Thanksgiving. I made pasta. It was nice, but he was in pain. I drove him back over to the hospital, as he wasn’t up for the short walk. Even though he was there until April, Christmas day ended up being the last time he left the hospital alive.
So, yeah, this year the holidays are going to suck. I have wonderful friends here who have invited me to join them, for which I am extremely grateful, but I’m not sure if being around people will make things better or worse. I’ve decided to start some new holiday traditions for myself: so far my new plans for marking Christmas Day include drinking too much and sobbing uncontrollably. Do I really want an audience for this?
Scott died over six months ago now. How have I survived this long? I’m OK most of the time, except when I’m not. The permanency of his death has started to settle in, making me feel as if I’m trapped in a fish tank, unable to breathe. Except I am able to breathe, somehow. It’s a secret talent I didn’t know I had.
Autumn is the season of nostalgia for me, every year. The smells of the desiccating leaves and the first wood fires of the season, the crispness in the air. Even the dusty smell of the heat kicking on in our 200-year-old flat. I love venturing out into the newly-chilled air, and also being all cozy inside at home. It should be the season for cuddling on the couch and reading, but Purrcules is stubbornly illiterate. She prefers watching the washing machine in action.
I also love the foods of fall. Scott and I loved them together. I’d make him pumpkin soup, roasted brussels sprouts, squash casserole, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin pie. When the cold really settled in, it was time for homemade glühwein, raclette, and fondue. Melted cheese could make any day into a special occasion. I haven’t yet learned how to get excited for these things alone.
On rainy days, I’ve been wearing Scott’s raincoat. It’s much more waterproof than mine. He didn’t own it for very long before he got sick, so it doesn’t smell like him the way his old winter coat does. I’ve gotten rid of most of his clothes by now, but I’m keeping that winter coat until I have inhaled every last drop of his scent.
The festivals are over, and Edinburgh is starting to shake off its hangover and get back to work. There are still plenty of tourists in town, but nowhere near the numbers of the past three weeks. It’s nice to be able to stroll around without being constantly stuck in a crowd.
That said, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the festivals this year. It’s hard to predict if I’ll be able to enjoy things without Scott, since everything brings up memories and feels different without him, especially everything about life in Edinburgh. And sometimes, a wave of grief will hit, and I’ll find myself crying as I wander around George Square trying to decide what I want for dinner and wishing I could tell Scott about the covfefe stand. But the wave will pass, and later I’ll be clapping along to 9 to 5 at Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows.
The book festival held its place as my favorite again this year. Continue reading
One of this year’s themes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is ‘Reading the Final Chapter‘, a collection of events centered around death. This feels very well-timed for me, as much of my recent reading (and writing) has been on this topic. I appreciate the open and frank discussions that are being held. Death and grieving are nothing to be ashamed of, so why not speak about them freely?
On Sunday I went to see Richard Holloway, a well-known local writer and the former Bishop of Edinburgh (who has since left the church). I found his mix of thoughtfulness and kindness very appealing. He spoke of the importance of living in the present, rather than in the past, even as one approaches one’s own death – also good advice for the bereaved as well as everyone else, really.
Holloway declared it a tragedy to die without knowing who you were. An audience member suggested the exercise of writing your own obituary from other points of view – how would others sum up who you are? I don’t think I really know the answer to that.
Today I went to see Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist who specializes in grief counseling. Many people in the audience had gushingly positive things to say about her book Grief Works, sharing how it had helped them. She spoke in part about the history of grieving in the UK, how in the Victorian era mourning was fashionable but sex was taboo, but the reverse is true today.
I confess I’d never given much thought to how we talk about death in today’s society before Scott died. Now I’m confronted with the topic daily, never knowing when/if/how I should bring up my recent widowhood. Some people seem to be uncomfortable when I mention Scott at all, even when it’s to relate a memory that has nothing to do with his death. Part of me always wonders – am I talking about him too much? How can I make people more comfortable around me? Am I doing grief wrong? These events at the book festival haven’t relieved me of my ongoing social awkwardness, but they have definitely made me feel less alone in my grief.
I once heard a comedian (it may have been Ed Byrne) talk about how amongst comedians, the month of August is simply known as ‘Edinburgh.’ ‘What are you doing for Edinburgh?’ ‘Oh, I’ll be spending it in Florida.’ Here in Edinburgh, August often just gets called ‘the festival.’ Locals discuss their festival plans, whether or not they involve any actual time at festivals. If you’re in Edinburgh during August, the festivals will be impacting your life whether you attend them or not. They are inescapable.
This year most of my planning for August has involved preparing for a large art exhibition I’ll be putting on. (If you’ll be in town, please come see it!) It has been good to have something to work towards, a way to focus my energy in this post-Scott reality where I am still finding my feet. I’m kind of impressed with myself that I’m doing anything productive at all these days.
Purrcules was as excited about the arrival of the Book Festival programme as I was!
My favorite of all the August festivals is the Book Festival. I haven’t gotten around to acquiring any tickets yet, but I have scoured the programme and used it as inspiration for my summer reading choices. The big names (Zadie Smith, Paul Auster, Ali Smith, Alexander McCall Smith) will have sold out on the first day. (One of the things I love about Edinburgh is the around-the-block queue which forms in the wee hours on the morning the Book Festival tickets go on sale.)
I’ve spent four Augusts in Edinburgh so far. Scott was receiving chemotherapy during two of them, but even those years we managed to see a couple Fringe shows together. I will miss him most during the nightly fireworks at the end of the Tattoo, which we could see from our kitchen window. Whatever we were doing when the first booms sounded, Scott would insist we run to the window and watch them, every night of the festival.
Thirteen years ago today, Scott and I got married. We had two weddings (the second one was in Italy a year and a half later), and enjoyed the excuse to celebrate our marriage twice a year on anniversaries. It makes me happy to know we crammed in some extra celebrating while we could.
I watched the movie Other People recently. It’s the first movie I’ve watched since he died. I did most of my movie-watching with him for the past 15 years. It’s hard to settle in for one alone. Anyway, the movie’s title refers to the notion that cancer, especially the deadly kind, happens to other people. That’s me: other people.
My recent reading has been a selection of ‘widow lit’, as I have been calling it. In Joan Didion’s writing, I recognized the unhinged feeling I’ve had while trying to adjust to my new reality. From Liz McNeill Taylor I learned that I won’t be invited to dinner parties anymore because women are afraid I will try to steal their husbands. From Sheryl Sandberg I learned that society will judge me harshly if I ever start dating again (which might be a fate I avoid entirely by choosing the crazy cat lady route). So, surprise surprise, this widow thing is not all fun and games.
The household duties in our relationship mostly fell across traditional gender lines. My newly-acquired jobs include taking out the trash, cleaning the kitchen, going into the attic, driving the car, calling the roofers when the roof leaks, cleaning the bathroom, changing light bulbs, and administering all of the household IT. I’m managing reasonably well at some of them. I’m trying to just ignore the attic, but the heat wave of the past couple days has reminded me that the fans are up there, and I may want them before the summer is over. So far I have been keeping the IT afloat by occasionally turning the router off and back on again, but I’m guessing it is only a matter of time before this becomes an inadequate method for dealing with issues.
Scott was allergic to cats. It is a testament to my love for him that I was willing to forgo having a cat in order to have him all those years. The plan was for us to get a kitten after he had his new immune system installed (stem cell transplant recipients often see their allergies change). We even had a name picked out for her. One of the last things Scott said to me was, ‘Have fun with Purrcules.’
So I had to get one. I thought I was going to wait a bit longer, but a visiting friend convinced me that now was the time. It’s kitten season, after all. Say hello to Purrcules Mulligan (she needs no introduction).
Many sources of advice for the recently widowed suggest getting a pet. Having something to take care of and talk to can help keep one from sliding too far down into the pit of despair. While Scott was sick, I constantly reminded myself to keep myself healthy so that I was able to take care of him to the best of my abilities. After he died, that motivation for self-care went away. I’m not entirely sure what has kept me going since then, to be honest. Shock and adrenaline, maybe. And some little part of my brain that is convinced that there is a reason to go on.
But I digress. This post is about a kitten! Such an adorable ball of fluff. Distractingly adorable, actually – I have a hard time getting any work done these days, what with her sitting around being cute and all. The fact that she likes to wake up with the sun (before 4am these days) and play with any exposed body part is also not helping. But when I come home and find her here waiting for me, or when I sit on the sofa and she jumps up to sit on my shoulder and snuggle my neck, I know getting her was a good idea.
Scott died in April.
Last November we headed to Glasgow for the stem cell transplant that was supposed to cure his relapsed leukemia. I rented a little flat near the hospital so I could be close by. The first month or so went well. Then the complications and side-effects kicked in, nothing terribly serious at the time, but they kept him in the hospital through the holidays, then through January, February, March. Sometime in late March, things took a turn for the serious, for the life-threatening. We rallied, full of determination. He died anyway. I came home to Edinburgh exhausted, heartbroken, widowed.
For those terrible last weeks of Scott’s life and the first weeks after his death, I was surrounded by friends and family who helped me get through the immediate hurdles of life. Feeding myself, registering the death, arranging a cremation. It was all so much.
Now I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I’m learning how to be a widow (it’s not something they teach you in school). I’m discovering my new habits, the habits of widow-me. What do I cook for dinner? What time do I go to bed? How often do I see friends? Even little things seem different.
I am so grateful for the years I had with Scott. Just scrolling back through this blog is a wonderful reminder of some of the fun and adventure we shared. We lived in five countries together, and traveled to many more. We ate, drank, hiked, skied, sledded, wandered, zip-lined. We loved each other, and our life together, very much. I am so lucky to have had him.
Remember back when Brexit was our biggest problem? Yeah, I miss those days. A few weeks after the referendum shock, we received news that made us forget all about Nigel and his bus. After three years in remission, Scott’s leukemia has come back.
So here we are again, life revolving around rounds of chemo, infections, and hospital stays. Enjoying the days he feels well, and getting through the ones when he doesn’t. The big difference is that this go-round will include a stem cell transplant, if and when a matching donor can be found.
I’ll post updates occasionally here on the blog, possibly mixed in with some other posts about fun stuff we’ve been up to over the past year or so (since there are still many tales that I haven’t gotten around to telling). There probably won’t be much in the way of news until a donor is found and we are assigned a transplant date. The transplant will occur in Glasgow, which will be an interesting change of scenery, I suppose.
If you happen to be moved to action by this news, there are a couple ways you could help Scott and other folks effected by leukemia:
- Donate blood. Scott gets a lot of it these days.
- Sign up to be a potential stem cell donor. It is really easy and you could potentially save a life. The procedure is different in each country and depending on which registry, but a quick google should let you know what to do in your place of residence. In the UK you can sign up here and in the US here.
- Buy some art. Through the end of 2016 I’ll be donating at least 10% of all my art sales to charities which support leukemia research and patients. You can shop online here.
A huge thank you to everyone who has supported us in ways big and small. We couldn’t do this without you.
When he found out he wasn’t going to be going to work anymore for a while, Scott decided he needed to dye his hair purple. He’s bald now, but looks forward to returning to the purple again someday.
I’ve lived in the EU for a third of my life. I’ve always dreamed of the day when I’ll have my very own EU passport. Unfortunately, it now looks like that day may never come. You see, I’m being dragged out of the EU against my will. It’s possible that I’ll be doing a little kicking and screaming along the way. Continue reading