by Elna Nugent
(Lenox, MA USA)
My husband, Jack, lived for nearly ten years after he was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer in 1999. However, he chose not to have chemo after the first six weeks of it.
He was able to function quite well without. He never smoked or drank alcohol after the initial surgery, and yet I don't think any doctors actually spelled that out to him. He just figured it out.
He eventually had to have two more operations during the following decade because the disease had initially mastisized to the liver and kept "returning" after a few years. He also had celiac disease and vascular dementia, so his memory was going fast.
The four children and I set up a scrapbook of his life and Jack's sisters eagerly helped us with info and photos. He looked through that book every day and seemed to get very "nourished "by it, because it was easier for him to remember that past than remember what he did an hour ago.
Our children suggested I write a memoir of my own while I could still remember everything. I decided maybe I should-- even though I knew most people would not be able to believe much of what I had experienced. Still I worked on it at about 3:30 am every morning. The last chapters tell of the struggle with Jack's dementia.
Award winning writer and my mentor, Susan Dworkin ,talked me into writing this memoir for the general public not just for the family. She said no one wants to talk or write about these experiences and therefore many caretakers feel alone and very isolated, thinking they are the only ones that feel this way.
After the last operation, the hospital began making plans for Jack to go directly to a nursing home- taking for granted that I would not be able to take care of him at home. I knew he would be dead within a week if this happened because his home meant everything to him.
Hospice finally set up a bed in our living room for him. He had stopped wanting to eat, which is a sign of impending death. Eventually he somehow climbed up and out of the bed one night and I found him the next morning leaning up against the fireplace in a kind of stupor. He was 6'3" and I was 5'5" . I knew I could never get him in the bed again.
I panicked but at that moment the phone rang. It was one of my sons who was vacationing at Cape Cod with his family . He called to check in on me and his dad. I told him of my predicament , and he said he would immediately call a co-worker of his who used to work in hospitals and that he could come over and help get Jack back into bed. I had gotten him a pillow and able to get him down on the floor with a light blanket covering him.
My son's friend came very soon and knew right away that Jack was in his last moments-- but I didn't. He told me Jack had begun the deep breathing and it would take 8 breaths before he "left". I went over and talked to Jack, told him what a great husband, father and successful person he was, and how much he was loved by us all.
The breaths began coming as if a powerful cosmic machine was at work, hollow rhythmic sounds, not like regular breathing. I felt I was witnessing a birth but these birth pangs contained no pain. I was in awe of witnessing Jack's death experience. Believe me we can trust this. We can respect and be in awe of it. It is a wondrous transition, another kind of carefully and brilliantly executed "birth".
I feel that Jack is "often around", and I have had many experiences that seem to affirm it. I feel he knows what is going on in the family. And the most precious gift I can give him is to let him see that I am okay and the family is intact and flourishing.
I feel that his life is now much more real, vibrant and purposeful than we could imagine. ( I have had past experiences that help me know this) . And it is as if our greatest gift to him is to live a meaningful life about which he can be at peace.
But oh, how I miss his incredible sense of humor that would break me up daily. How something like humor and little unimportant things become so important. I know he knows I'm writing this. And we're both smiling.
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