February 26, 1977 - January 21, 2017
"I'd like the memory of me to be a happy one.
I'd like to leave an afterglow of smiles when the day is done.
I'd like to leave an echo whispering softly down the ways
of happier times and laughing days.
I'd like the tears of those who grieve to dry before the sun
of happy memories that I leave behind when day is done
I want to be upfront about something, and that is the purpose of this blog entry. This is not solely to eulogize my wife. I did that already at her memorial and on my Facebook page, and from what people have told me ... I did her proud. This isn't that exactly, though I suspect that there will be passages that will invoke her memory in a way that will feel like a eulogy. In truth, this is more about my personal observations and thoughts over the last few months, and some thanks. Musings about the randomness of life and death, its inherent unfairness will abound. This blog's emotional theme, if I were to suggest it has one, would be sanguine ... with a heart shaped cherry on top.
The Story Ends
Two months ago today, my wife Jessica passed away. Her journey ended in peace as she took her last breath at out home, surrounded by her family, cradled in my arms. She had the faintest hint of a smile, but perhaps that is just in my head. I'm not completely sure what the rules are, but I think I am allowed a little leeway to believe that was the case. This all happened as the the window she lay next to highlighted a gorgeous beginning of a sunset. All day there had been a gentle breeze, a perfect temperature, and blue clear skies. I say this, because it seemed poetic. A little sentimental, I know, but it was something that many of us pointed out later as something we noticed. It sounds absurd to me when I say it, but her last moments were ... well ... beautiful. It was as radiant as the life she led.
My wife and I met in the early 90's. Started off as practical adversaries with common friends, and eventually grew to be friends, and later in college ... much more. I touch on our beginnings here and here. Before we started college we were best friends. She saw me through the sickness and death of my father, the realization that I would need to take my kid sister across the finish line of adulthood, and the ensuing fallout. We grew even closer after I transferred to a university in Orlando, one that she attended. I would come to find out that she harbored a desire for a relationship since high school, but never acted on it. Eventually she got tired of waiting for me to come to the same conclusion, so she took the initiative during what I thought was going to be us simply decompressing before finals. This was one of the few times I can say that Jess truly came across as nervous, but there was this endearing and adorable quality to it. I said yes, obviously.
Looking back a few years later as we were married, started careers, had kids ... it all felt like destiny. There was a fairy tale element to how we met, became besties, dated, and fell in love. Some of the moments we experienced seemed that magical. If you were to ask me today, I would say our story has a definite Nicholas Sparks quality to it. We were living a romance novel bathed in a dream. The odd thing about that is that even through the fairy tale nature of it all, it seemed natural somehow. I often remarked in those first few years that we must have started our relationship on easy mode, because we were so much in tune and synced to each other. It never felt hard. When arguments came, they were rarely dramatic. In fashion, the holy grail of clothing is finding that perfect fit for your body. That was us. We just ... fit. She was my 'perfect'. I was her 'perfect'.
23 years, 7 months, 8 days, 22 hours, 16 minutes. I had to pull out an old box with things I saved to confirm this, and even had to go to the library to look at theater showtimes to be certain, but from the moment of our first interaction at the movie theater to her poetic last breath, we had known each other for 23 over years. I look at that figure, and even though the clock stopped the love doesn't, I find myself reassured by a simple inescapable thought ... I would rather a limited slice of magic, than a lifetime of mediocrity. What we had was ... well ... a living dream of the heart, soul, and mind.Jess was my guide, my partner, my lover, my collaborator, my greatest friend, my staunchest ally, and one half of the strong parental powerhouse that was Jess and Joe. I was blessed to have her by my side, and honored that she picked me for this unbelievable ride. I have to laugh, as I type this, I can almost hear her voice in my head, refusing to accept these accolades with a simple redirection, "You weren't a passenger in our relationship Joe, just remember that."
When, several years ago, we found out that she was sick, we were told it would be manageable and that it would not be a real issue until she was in her 50's. We went forward with our lives, made long term plans, and ... expected the best. In the midst of this, I rediscovered MLP, joined this forum, talked to what seemed to be an endless supply of diverse and interesting people, grew close with a goodish amount of them, and even found the opportunity to pitch in as a member of the staff. As the months wore on we came to find that her liver was anything but manageable. In April 2015 she was in decline and was eventually hospitalized, but recovered. It was a preview of what was to come. 2016 proved to be a nightmare. It started with my wife receiving a procedure and shunt to prevent a build up of ammonia (hepatic encephalopathy). That failed by May and it caused her brain to swell. She recovered mostly and found herself listed for a liver transplant. It was short lived as they found malignant carcinoma on her liver and had to remove her from the transplant list. It was at this time that her team re-managed our expectations. They prepared us for the possibility that she would not be a candidate again, and if that happened they gave her through the end of the year and even though they rarely hang their hat on prognosis ratios ... they estimated 20% odds of her beating cancer and getting a transplant.
We reset our expectations, but that woman refused to give up. Following the aggressive cancer treatment the tumors shrunk allowing her to be relisted. We finally received the call that they had a liver and she underwent liver transplant surgery which was successful. Her recovery was grueling, but still going amazingly well. She nailed every single benchmark, and her prognosis was very good. Months went by and everything was coming up Jessica. At this time we started allowing ourselves to make plans again. She was even looking at the possibility of a loan for a clinic and preparing to get back to work. She beat every major obstacle, and was going to live. For the few people who were in a Skype and later Discord group with me during this time ... my optimism and joy was palpable. It was short lived.
She caught an infection, likely during a routine outpatient procedure. She was on immunosuppressive drugs... required to ensure her body doesn't reject the new liver. If they fought the infection, they lose the liver. If they don't she could die anyway. The medical staff worked for days trying to fight the infection without impacting the liver. The infection became dangerous and required an aggressive approach. Left with little choice they stopped her liver meds and fought the infection with a vengeance. It worked ... it worked too well. The treatment fought the infection and her liver started to enter acute failure. It was being rejected. They tried to restore function, but at this time her other systems started to fail. It became a matter of stabilizing her. We spent Christmas in the hospital, and as the New Year approached, we were made aware that there were no more options. No emergency status liver transplant as her body was now too weak to survive the operation. No miracles. Instead of speaking and game-planing with her medical team, I was now making arrangements with home hospice. Jessica was dying ... and decided to do so in grace and within the place she most loved ... our home.
In her last weeks, Jessica seemingly had boundless optimism and surprising energy. She went to work immediately recording messages, writing letters for family to read after she was gone, talking to old friends, putting affairs in order, and spending as much personal time with family. There were countless personal moments and touches. Conversations over simple activities like building a puzzle, or constructing famous buildings out of Play Doh were typical fare. Looking back at these conversations, I found validation in the truth that the world was soon to lose an irreplaceable person. She dedicated her life to helping people cope with trauma, tragedy, and pain. It seemed every waking moment in the last weeks and days followed that philosophy of hers. She was helping us prepare mentally and emotionally. She even made arrangements for upcoming birthday gifts, and little touches that would serve as reminders of our shared love. She tried to tie up as many loose ends as possible, even making certain that she could talk with people she recently found a kinship with, like a particularly generous Texan and her husband.
The vividness of her last waking day is remarkable. I will save most of that for myself. Some moments are so blessedly personal and perfect. I will share this though - after we finished a long and poignant conversation she called the kids over for a hug goodnight, whispering something in each of their ears. Tearful goodnight's followed. She commented that she was tired and asked me to sit next to her for a few minutes. I leaned over her in my chair to kiss her goodnight, something I had done countless times before. As I did this she pulled her signature move - her palm placed flat upon my chest over my heart - the origin of that slight gesture made this instance far more emotional for description. After our embrace, she looked at me tears in her eyes, smiled, and mustered one last exchange.
"You know when your life was worth it, that the people in your life were worth it, when you realize you have said everything that needs to be said."
"Kitten, you never had to tell me anything. I just needed to see your face to know how much we all meant."
She welled up, and nodded. Her palm was still over my heart.
"I love you. Thank you, Smiley."
She gracefully lowered her hand, closed her eyes, and drifted off to sleep. She would not wake up.
A Family Says Goodbye
The memorial was a small personal affair. We tried to keep it down to 100 people, but at last count some 250 found their way to the house and paid their respects. It was more of a celebration than a sad affair, though tears weren't uncommon. There were a lot of planned moments that Jessica secretly set up for other family members and friends. Two moments showcase the type of person she was - a sentimental and a clever troll.
I linked that above in this overlong document, but it's important enough to do it again, besides you would have to scroll up.
That is my sister-in-law on that recording. Jessica asked her sister to sing this during the gathering at an appropriate time. It was one of our songs, and contains a extremely personal line that invokes how we felt about each other, and the fact that we started out as ... well ... rivals of sorts. She asked her sister for another reason though. You see, Jessica and her youngest sister sound identical. I can't tell you how many times that they have screwed with family using that uncanny vocal likeness over the phone. This time, it seems that Jess and her sister used their powers for good.
As her sister started to sing during a outdoor balloon release, you couldn't help imagining Jessica singing it herself. If I closed my eyes, it isn't just the message that felt personal. It was Jessica's way of telling me and the kids ... she is still with us. I think it took me 30 minutes to stop feeling goosebumps. It was one of many such moments.
Then there came an impromptu musical moment or a different sort. About 60 minutes into the party (I can call it that, because it certainly felt more like a party than not), a familiar song came on .... the Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Many of her friends, myself, and my kids rushed into place ... we knew what this was about. I don't know who was responsible for this little gem, but for the next few minutes all of her high school and college friends started to do the Time Warp. The look on the older crowd (what Jessica and I would amusingly call 'the adults') was priceless. Here we were, in the middle of a memorial party, gyrating and stepping and having a blast. Gg Jess. Gg.
I've been to post funeral gatherings, and rarely did they feel as festive and emotionally healing as this. People will be talking about it for a while, that's for sure. The whole affair seemed fitting, and it was as perfect a sendoff as you can have.
On Grief and Grieving
So I intend to answer the question that I field at least once per day: "How are you doing?"
You know all of those clichés you have heard about? What it feels like when you go through the pain of losing someone close to you? The weird thing is that they they are all accurate, yet ... they are laughably insufficient. If you ever want to a rather accurate description of grief, check out Patton Oswalt's Facebook post on his view regarding the turmoil one can face. Since this is already a huge ass blog, I'll quote the part that seems the most descriptive below.
Thanks for making depression look like the buzzing little bully it always was. Depression is the tallest kid in the 4th grade, dinging rubber bands off the back of your head and feeling safe on the playground, knowing that no teacher is coming to help you.
But grief? Grief is Jason Statham holding that 4th grade bully's head in a toilet and then fucking the teacher you've got a crush on in front of the class. Grief makes depression cower behind you and apologize for being such a dick.
Yeah, that is our very own Daring Do loving pony, Quibblepants. It may be a tad over descriptive to some, but the thing is, he isn't entirely wrong. Everyone has heard that saying right? "Each person's grief and grieving process is unique"? At least something to that effect. I would have to agree, but even though dealing with the loss of a loved one seems like a 'custom made' experience, Mr. Oswalt's rather expressive and revealing detailing of his journey does at least do justice to what one can go through. Yeah, this sucks ... so ... bad. So bad. This sucks for reasons that are obvious to all, and it sucks for the less obvious reasons.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I thought pretty highly of my wife.
We lived a fairy tale story, and I couldn't imagine how we could have done any better with our marriage and relationship in general. It all felt perfect. With her by my side, I felt like I was living in paradise. It was that kind of good. The more luminous the light, the greater the blackness feels in the light's sudden absence. She had been sick before, had been battling declining odds for so long, it was hard not to try and mentally prepare you for the possibility she wouldn't be around. As my wife and I discussed the home hospice option, I accepted that my wife was going to die. I prepared myself. Well, I thought I did. I had faced death before. I lost my father to suddenly when I was 18. Years later, Jessica and I had to bury our third child. I thought those experiences prepared me well enough. My God what a fool I was to think that. Not all grief is the same.
Grief is potent. When you think of emotional suffering and loss, it's easy to treat it differently than physical pain. Well, the emotional pain certainly feels physical, and also so completely engulfing. There are times that it feels as you have a physical weight in your chest. I think I can empathize with those that have described a panic attack or anxiety to me. I thought I could imagine this pain, but the truth is you really can't. Grief is suffocating in nature, and can be downright paralyzing. John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars writes that 'Some pain demands to be felt'. I have to agree.
Grief is a sneaky bastard. Yes, there are obvious things that I miss, namely Jessica's presence. The big things hit you. For example, mornings and evenings were rather difficult as my wife was no longer the last person I saw at night and the first person I laid eyes on in the morning. She passed away weeks before her favorite holiday, my birthday, Valentines Day, and even her birthday. Her absence was almost its own presence, holding a flashing neon sign declaring, "She's not here." Then little things hit you. I caught a wiff of jasmine and ... bam. I get a letter in the mail addressed to her ... bam. A check box on an IRS tax form asking if my spouse is now deceased ... bam. I start cleaning out the fridge and I find sauces that only she liked. I went grocery shopping and as I grab something that I always have on these trips, I realize that Jess was the only one who ate it. These little things have the devious ability to break through any defense you have, simply because you can't account for them.
Grief makes you do odd things. I talk to her. Meaning that I will make an aside as if she was right there in the room. I would tell a joke when I am alone that I know she would react too. I know that speaking out loud to a deceased love one is common, and it does help, but it in't me. Or, I should say it wasn't me. The night she passed away, after the kids finally went to bed, I started to purge the house of any and all prescriptions and items specific to her illness. I called the medical equipment supplier the day after begging them to prioritize a pick up of things like her oxygen tank, medical bed, etc. I wanted it out of our house. Looking back, it have no doubt you would have seen the eyes of desperation. And yes, I have listened to saved voicemail, watched home movies, and gone through more photo's than I ever knew we even had.
I can tell you that every single day that Jess has not been here, not been by my side, that it has felt like I have stumbled into an alternate reality. A bit like I have stepped into a life that isn't mine but has many of the trappings of my reality. It is disquieting sensation going about the day feeling that the world is off, askew ever so slightly. I remember reading that Stephen King's favorite description of horror is walking into a room that is exactly the same as it always was, but feeling that everything was replaced. That. That is what I feel like most days, it doesn't always last long, but it is there nonetheless.
There is an inherent selfishness about grieving that doesn't exactly agree with me. I'm not a selfish person in general, yet there is no escaping that ... well ... I miss her. I miss everything she was and what we had. I miss all the moments we had and I mourn the memories that we will never create. Yet, with each of these thoughts, part of me feels a bit like a selfish prick. She is the one whose journey was prematurely cut short, not me. There is a strange guilt in that. Not survivors guilt, but finding myself focusing on how I was impacted. I absolutely hate that part of this process. I know what she would likely say. Something along the lines of, "Mourning what you miss about me is just proving how much you loved me you dork." She would be a bit on the mark, though it doesn't make hat icky feeling go away. Turns out, the perfect remedy for that is actually the worst aspect of grieving.
I have kids. I know I am not even coming close to doing it justice, but the weight of what you feel ... it can be soul shattering. The scary thing, and perhaps the real horror for me, is that I am not alone in bearing this torment. Our kids are amazing and as much as I talk about her as a phenomenal wife, she was just as successful as a mother. Our kids are kickass ... plain and simple. (This is objective of course ... not at all biased. ). Each time I feel the weight of Jess no longer being here, I am reminded that they bear that pain, likely to an even greater degree. She will not be there for their graduation, for college, for weddings, and should they decide they want kids. I feel my loss, and I think of them ... and I imagine theirs. it all feels overwhelming. You can easily feel helpless against the torrential onslaught of it all. Even though you feel as if your kids are coping well, you don't trust your instincts. I put every ounce of energy into them, and it still feels like it is not good enough. I admire their bravery and their strength. I can't take away their pain though ... it demands to be felt ... but God damn it they don't have to feel it alone. So we do the only thing we can, we talk, we cry, we mourn, we remember, we love.
One final thing on grieving. You know that "stages of grief" thing. Guess what? It is really accurate ... except it doesn't quite work the way you think. It isn't sequential or ordered. You can feel them in any order, and they can come back with a fun little angle when you feel you have already dealt with it. Nope. Grief does not have stages or levels. It works far more like Chutes and Ladders. You climb up to Acceptance and two hours later you spin a 'five' and ... down the chute to denial. I always hated Chutes and Ladders. Stupid game!
We lost someone who was our fulcrum, center, and heart. No denying it, this is what a shit storm feels like. So, the answer to "How am I doing?" is simple ... I'm here. No. That is not an answer. That is the blasted answer I give that people expect to hear. No. The truth of the matter is that I am ... well ... I am OK.
Gratitude and Moments of Peace
I'm OK. As impossibly hard as this is, somehow I find the strength to find my motivation to move forward. I actually did a dumb and answered a question Jessica asked me in early January with honesty. I must have had a look on my face, but she knew there was something bugging the shit out of me. She was good like that. She asked me what was on my mind. I said, "I'm worried how I am going to react ... how I am going to cope. I'm scared Jess. I'm worried I won't be able to deal with this." She laughed. It was a forceful enough laugh to actually cause her pain. I thought she was reacting to the fact that I was focusing on me when she was the one dying. I'm going to be paraphrasing a little here but when she caught a second wind she finally said,
"I'm not worried one bit, not about you. My parents, yes. My sisters, yes. The kids, well, of course I am worried about them, but then I know that they have you. You aren't built to self-destruct. You don't know how to quit on people you love, it's a skill you never learned, thank God. I know the kids will be fine because you are you. You don't even need to pretend strength for them. Shit, do you know how much that is used by people. They don't face what they feel because they need to be strong for someone else. They sacrifice. You don't even need to worry about that. You don't bottle-up. Some people are diamonds. They are impervious to life's challenges. You are different. You aren't a diamond. You allow yourself to be affected and to feel it as strongly as anyone else, but you are not broken by it. Joe, you call people a rock all the damn time it is like a cliche with you. Look in the mirror, you are a mountain. You see the world and people as inherently good, and you use that optimism to keep you strong. If there is something that could break you, I can't imagine it. I'm not worried, you got this honey."
Damn I miss the fuck out of her. That was one hell of a pep talk. I don't know if she is right, but I do know that ... I'm OK. The hurt of her absence and its impact on those who were closest to her is still there, and frankly, I don't think it will ever completely go away. I smile and laugh at jokes, I make jokes, I am making plans for tomorrow, looking forward to future events, I am going about the day to day aspects of life. I am there for my kids propping them up, helping them through this, and being their lantern holder so they aren't enveloped by the darkness of this shadow. What I don't know is how much is really me. I almost think Jess missed something in that little ego boost she gave me, a few little somethings actually -- how much she will play a role in my healing.
I still feel immense sorrow when I am reminded of her. It isn't strange when the tears start to well up or come freely. However, the tears don't come alone, they bring a date. You see, every overwhelmingly sad moment, comes with a smile. One of our songs comes on, I feel like crying, but he memories behind the song jump right out and blunt the sadness. In death, her memory is what helps me bear it all. Perhaps there is some innate or learned strength I have, but when it comes down to it to this strength seems to come from her, at least in part. Jessica is still inspiring me. My strength is partly what we built together. At her memorial I talked about living on through our actions after we are deceased. The lives we touch will have influence when we are gone, both profound and subtle. Our lives are tapestries of moments built from threads of memories, but as we weave ours, we also help each other weave theirs. Jessica's life is how I help cope with her death. Each moment of bliss is a thread she helped me weave - a thread I helped her weave. This life we experienced together, the tapestry, insulates me from the dreariness. For that I am eternally grateful.
My kids have been phenomenal sources of inspiration. I do see some of their mother in them, but mostly I see two independent young adults who will carry her torch through their own active virtues. They lean on each other and comfort each other. They carry on. Their mother would be immensely proud. I sure as hell am. I think about their sibling bond and I am reminded of Jessica and her sisters, and even my relationship with my own sister. I don't think that I could have weathered this without my sister, who was instrumental in taking some of the lead with the minutia that comes with the passing on a loved one in the hours and days that follow. Her help allowed me to be with the kids, and to process this whole thing.
Old friends of Jessica, old clients, and family made their condolences known. The steady parade of support never was tiring, it was a reminder of how impact a life can be, even one that is shorter. Then there were my online friends. People that my late wife would affectionately call my "Pony People". As news spread of her passing among a few, many reached out to me, usually with condolences and an offer of an ear. I may not have responded timely, or even at all, but these meant the world to me as they came. I was hesitant to name anyone specifically, but there were some people who Jess interacted with directly, and others she developed a strong admiration for.
Troblems, I know that you aware of how much Jess liked you. What started out as a great amount of respect for how my kids had taken to you became a deeper affection. You and your husband are that couple that every couple wants as friends, and should try their damned hardest to emulate, and one of my many regrets is that we didn't have the time or health to all get together. I said this before, and I'll say it again, your husband is insanely generous (or generously insane ... perhaps both ... snrk!). You knew what Jess meant to me, and you got a front row seat during this ordeal. You were always there, and I would be obtuse if I thought that this didn't effect you. I can't thank you enough for your friendship, but I suspect you and your husband horse already know that you rock.
Pirate, I'm known for talking about serendipity ... all the time. There is a weird sense of it here because your handling of the MCM is what brought me back to MLPF. That and Jessica promising to actually join in. She had a blast, mostly at my expense but she was a fun troll to contend with. I wouldn't be typing this if it wasn't for you. You have heard some of this before, and like Trobs ... you were there as a friend when things got bad. You even caught me at what may have been my near breaking point.
Spoon. I may not be a diamond, but you sure as hell are. I'll leave this one short and sweet, the thoughtfulness behind each and every thing you do ... runs deep. I didn't want to burden you with the emotional fallout of everything, even though I have no doubt it would have helped tremendously. Instead, our discussions seemed to run the gamut of the geek universe helped me feel normal at a time when the world feels a little askew.
So many names. Hugs, Batbrony and your constant Rariart, SFyr and your skill at nailing a moment in pony form, Eloquence, Tai, DQ, Yozer, Path, Shaun and Kiwoy for all your support as well even though some of you won't read this. Thank you. I know there were more. I'm sincerely sorry if I left anyone out. I just want you all to know how much your care meant.
The Story Never Ends
"You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart, And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend..." ~ For Good - Wicked
Its been a long tiring and tear filled eternity pretending to be a year. I started this thing over a month ago, and as you can probably tell, there are tonal, POV, and tense inconsistencies throughout it. I want to be raw. I didn't want this to be my magnum opus, polished and pretty. Basically, this isn't well written and I am not going to pretend otherwise. It's genuine, and possibly inspirational. Depends on what you take from this whole thing i suppose.
I know each day will feel easier than the last (most days) and some days will suck hard. My wife is right about me when she says I will not let this break me. I love life. I love its surprises (most of the time), and wallowing on sorrow just isn't ... well ... me. That isn't how our story ends, how my story ends. I move forward, keeping my love as a shield, blanket, or any other handy metaphor. I'm ok, and I am both amazed and blessed that she chose me and I carry that proudly. Like I said, I would rather 20 years of paradise for a lifetime of ordinary. Wherever this road leads may now open up to a mystery, but I'm ready. Let's do this!
Jess always liked the whimsical way I would tell some of the sillier moments of our lives together. I'll likely continue this blog since its purpose was as an outlet to help me talk about her when she was sick. A coping mechanism. She got a kick out of this and actually wanted me to finish. Hell, I have enough material for a damn sitcom. Unfortunately for you all ... Jess was the funny one. You get stuck with me.
So closing this out ... it's been two months. I love my wife. I always have and I always will. Hoof print on my heart ... achieved.
I love you Kitten <3