My wife’s name was Mary. Mary lived with metastatic breast cancer and, though cancer has taken her life, her spirit remains within me and, I believe, within the hearts of so many people she touched with kindness. As her days dwindled to a precious few, Mary expressed no bitterness, no self-pity—only dismay that “I keep waiting to feel better…and it’s not happening.”
Cancer proved a relentless, rapacious force. It sapped Mary’s stamina. It stifled her outrage at Donald Trump. It quelled her ardor for the Cubs, particularly Cubs with “cute butts.” It silenced conversations with friends and stilled her fingers from clicking the “Send” button.
Near the end, when I learned that hearing and smell linger as death approaches, I surrounded Mary with flowers and the sound of music. Then I lay next to her, held her hand and, as twilight fell on the last day of July, felt Mary slide into that deep pool.
Now, these stories, this blog called Jalapenos in the Oatmeal, always has been and continues to be focused on blindness, on my life as a blind man. Four years ago this Christmas, I wrote about how I became Mary’s in-home caregiver after her surgery. Last Christmas, I wrote about how our respective prognoses led us to move into LSD, the Place, the senior high-rise with the view that nourished Mary’s heart and spirit.
This Christmas, I write how Mary and I found the toughest part of caregiving came when Mary could no longer speak and I could read neither her facial expressions nor her body language. I write how we relied on touch. And I write about how I know there were times when I zigged when I should have zagged and did Step 2 before Step 1 and I write about how we did our best with what we had and as what we had diminished, how our enjoyment of one another endured, how our laughter was never silenced. ”The best thing about being married to a blind man,“ Mary once told a friend, “is that, on days I don’t look so good, he won’t even know.”
Now, I write about the care we received from a Certified Nursing Assistant, an angel named K, who treated Mary with love and dignity. They found joy in simple things—multi-colored manicures and mini-makeovers. K described to me how Mary chose a different shade of polish for each fingernail and made a face at blue eye shadow. Then, when K told me how brightly Mary smiled at the sight of me, my heart filled with joy. And I swear I can see how beautiful Mary was that day and always will be—with a touch of color on her cheeks.
People say my wife was a breath of fresh air, that she was a shining light. But I say no more metaphors. She was a woman named Mary and she wanted only to be the best woman, the best person she could be. Mary was my wife. She was my best friend and confidante. But I did not possess her. Where our lives intersected, we found love and laughter. Mary inspired me to want to be the best I could be. And I was at my best when I supported Mary in becoming the best she wanted to be.
A times, each of us hated cancer and blindness. Together, we tried to accept the unacceptable and bear the unbearable. Our bond was that no challenge would divide us, that no tragedy would defeat us. That I am writing these words is a tribute to Mary, a commitment to her spirit, a testament to the process of life and death and the recognition that energy is never destroyed, rather, it is transformed and eternal. That last is not a theory; it is a force I feel living within me.
Postscript. Here are some songs I played for Mary as daylight dimmed to twilight:
“I’ve Been High” by REM, from the album, “Reveal”
“I’m Not Throwing away My Shot,” Original Broadway Cast of “Hamilton”
“September Song” by Frank Sinatra and many others
“Now and Forever,” by Carole King, from the album, “Essentials”
“Ask Me No Questions” by The Bangles, from the album, “Doll Revolution.”
“Lilac Wine,” by Jeff Buckley, from the album, “Grace.”