I think a lot about what it must be like to be Jeff now.
The strangest thing is when your spouse dies. You’re married to someone. You share your most intimate moments with them. And then, poof! Gone.
Where does all of that connection go?
Before Jeff died, I could’ve anticipated his reaction to most things. I could’ve told you what he’d prefer to do on a weekend. I could’ve predicted what he’d say in certain situations.
If Jeff were here now, though, he’d be correcting me.
“Not EVERY situation, Jess. C’mon.”
So I suppose even my knowledge of Jeff had its limit. Case in point:
A few years ago, Jeff and I were out to dinner. Searching for an original conversation topic, I thought about how one of my students was really struggling. I thought about how Jeff had struggled academically for the first time in college. He joked for years after we graduated that he had absolutely no idea what he’d learned in thermodynamics.
“So, Jeff. When engineering got really hard… like, really really hard… what did you think? I mean, this was the first time that things didn’t just happen for you. You didn’t just learn it with little effort. What did you think?” I asked.
Jeff finished chewing his bite of food. He looked at me and said flatly, “You know Jess… sometimes, you think I’m deeper than I really am.”
I nodded. I laughed. I understood.
But now I don’t understand. I hate not knowing where he is, or what he’s doing. I hate that I can’t feel the familiar places on his hand or watch his familiar gait as he walks.
Soon after Jeff died, I read On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I remember crying involuntary tears, like I do when something feels capital T True. Her words seemed palpable. I remember being scared by it – if that’s the word – and I had to sleep with the TV on for a week, because the description overwhelmed me.
I reread it again recently, because I can’t stop thinking about it. There’s something deeply missing from the traditional notion of heaven and hell I was taught about. It feels oversimplified. And maybe it’s for a lack of a better explanation, but Kubler-Ross’s words struck something deep.
(I share all of this at the risk of seeming like a total crazy person. And then I think about what it must be like for all people who work with the dying and who provide end-of-life care. I think that, in some ways, it’s very thankless to care for the dying.)
Dr. Ross – who herself had a near-death experience – compares our bodies to cocoons, and says that, when our cocoons are irreparable, we are born into a new life. Not this life anymore. Our cocoons were just a place for our souls to stay for a while.
Once our soul is released, we are supplied with psychic energy. In this life, we were supplied with physical energy. We get to choose how we use that physical energy. “The greatest gift God granted man is free will,” she says. “Among living beings, free will is given only to man. As such, man has the choice to use this energy in a positive or negative way.”
“In general, the people who are waiting for us on the other side are the ones who loved us the most,” she says. She goes on to talk about cases of very small children and how even they are greeted by their personal guardian angel or maybe even the Virgin Mary… whoever “meant the most to you.”
And this next part, I just kept thinking of Jeff on his bike. It was the thought I had of him the afternoon he died, as I put Kate’s tiny socks in her sock drawer. When I had the thought, I stopped, turned around, and sat on the carpet, with my back against her dresser. I let my thought stay with Jeff, and I imagined on him on that bike, riding into the horizon. He didn’t look at me or even know I was watching. He rode and rode and rode, and I had the overwhelming feeling that he was so happy… and relieved.
Kubler-Ross says, “After you have perceived that your body is whole again and you have encountered your loved ones, you will realize that dying is only a transition to a different form of life. The earthly physical forms you leave behind because you have no need for them anymore. But before you step out of your physical body in exchange for those forms which you will keep for eternity, you pass through a phase which is totally imprinted with items of the physical world. It could be that you float through a tunnel, pass through a gate, or cross a bridge.”
That – I always think – that is Jeff on his bike. Of course it is.
“After… you are at its end embraced by light. This light is whiter than white… and the more you approach this light, the more you are embraced by the greatest indescribable, unconditional love you could ever imagine.”
She explains that people having a near-death experience see this light, but then they return to the body. But if you really die, the tie to your body snaps, like a navel cord cut between a mother and a baby. After that, you can’t return to your body.
“But you wouldn’t want to return to it anyway,” she explains. “[After this], nobody wants to go back. In this presence, which many people compare with Christ or God, with love or light, you will come to know that all your life on earth was nothing but a school that you had to go through in order to pass certain tests and learn special lessons.”
What were Jeff’s lessons? I wish I knew. Just because he’s dead, I haven’t stopped wanting to know everything about him, or do almost everything with him. We were two independent people who chose every day to love each other, and I ache for that.
“In this light, in the presence of God, Christ, or whatever you want to name it, you have to look back on your entire life from the first day until the last. On this level you are no longer in the possession of the consciousness from [physical reality] or of the awareness of [just dying]. You are now in the possession of knowledge. You know in minute detail every thought you had at any time during your entire life on earth. You will remember every deed, and know every word that you ever spoke. This recapitulation is only a very small part of your knowing because at this moment you know all consequences resulting from your thoughts, and from every one of your words and deeds.”
When I read that, I thought of a few things.
I thought of stories Jeff told me from his childhood. Stories Barb and Randy have told me over the years. Jeff was an intensely sensitive person — he didn’t like it when others were picked on or bullied. He felt it deeply when someone was wronged, and he took it hard when he felt complicit in someone else’s unhappiness.
One of my friends recently told me a story about the day of Jeff’s funeral luncheon. I’m sure I won’t get all the details right, but it went something like this: my friend had gotten turned around in the clubhouse and ran into a guy coming into work.
“Are you looking for the Jeff Thomas luncheon?” the guy asked.
“Yes,” my friend said. “Do you know where it is?”
The guy told him, and then said, “You know, I went to North with Jeff. I wasn’t very popular, and a lot of people gave me a hard time. Jeff played sports and he had a lot of friends. But he didn’t give me a hard time. And he told other people to knock it off. I’ll always remember that.”
“Yep,” my friend said. “Sounds like Jeff.”
So yeah — if Jeff had to feel the impact of his words and deeds, I’m sure there was a little bit of discomfort, but not much. Because Jeff was deeply good.
As Kubler-Ross explains more of what happens when you die, she goes on: “God is unconditional love. During this review of your earthly life you will not blame God for your fate, but you will know that you yourself were your own worst enemy since you are now accusing yourself of having neglected so many opportunities to grow.”
Growing through adversity seems a brutal way to learn. But it’s true. I can’t think of a ton I’ve learned through times of complete happiness. It’s the times of adversity, juxtaposed with the times of happiness, that produce the growth. I believe I have the capacity for more happiness and deeper love, because of my childhood and watching my grandma and husband be eaten away by cancer. But if I had the choice, I think I’d still trade in that lesson. I want them both back.
I don’t know if Kubler-Ross is right. If you read the full text, you’ll see that she addresses the common skeptical arguments. She explains how she has come to know these things.
But then – in stark contrast to Kubler-Ross – I sometimes think about Tyron Lannister in Game of Thrones. In the last season, he is facing execution. He talks with Jon Snow, who himself was dead and brought back to life.
“It just occurred to me, I’m talking to the only man alive who knows where I’m going. So is there life after death?” Tyrion asks.
“Not that I’ve seen,” says Jon Snow.
Tyrion quips, “I should be thankful. Oblivion is the best I can hope for.”
And that’s why I think about what it must be like to be Jeff. Is he in possession of knowledge from his entire life? Does he really know what it’s like to be in the presence of the Source or God or Christ or whatever we all come from? Or is he just… gone? Oblivion.
Earlier in her essay, Ross writes, “We have to accept, in humbleness, that there are millions of things which we cannot understand. This is not to say that those things which we cannot understand to not exist, or are not real simply on the grounds that we are not able to understand them.”
I’ll never know where Jeff is, until I’m there with him. But wherever he is, I miss him.
I missed him this week, when we took our annual Thomas vacation to the lake. We have some awesome memories of the Fourth of July. We kept making them this year, knowing that Jeff is always with us.
Last year, we made it there and through the whole vacation without a major issue. We drove home; we pulled into the driveway. Jeff went to the bathroom, came out, and said, “I have black stool. I have to go to the ED.”
I went back and reread the posts from that episode. He had varices.
Jeff’s back in the hospital. The short version is that he has some sort of internal bleeding, and the doctors believe it’s related to the blood thinners. Since Jeff is on the blood thinners, it exacerbates any sort of underlying issues that he has.
The plan is that they will do an EGD as late in the afternoon as possible, so the Xeralto has a chance to get out of Jeff’s system. He’s getting a blood transfusion right now, which should help him feel better, as well. His hemoglobin is 6.8, which is pretty low. On the up side, his bilirubin is 2.4, which is amazing. The EGD hopefully will reveal the source of the blood loss, and they’ll either cauterize or clip it. If they can’t find it on the EGD, then we’ll have to go to Plan B, and there are a few options for that.
When Jeff leaves the hospital, he’ll be on a proton pump inhibitor like Prevacid, to prevent this from occurring in the future. They’re also going to do an ultrasound of his abdomen to check the status of the portal vein and decide if the blood thinners are still worth it.
I hope it’s as simple as scope, zap, and fix.
This is when the episodes really started to pick up steam. The first big episode was the sepsis in June. These varices were the beginning of a long list of complications due to to the portal vein thrombosis.
A quick explanation of varices is that they’re enlarged veins around the esophagus. The portal vein carries about 75% of the liver’s blood flow. When it’s blocked, that blood has to go somewhere, so it’s rerouted to smaller veins that are not built to carry that amount of blood. It’s Chicago traffic on country roads. So, it causes bleeding. And the blood thinners only made it worse.
They way they treat esophageal varices is to band them… like, little rubber bands. After Jeff had those varices banded, he was in so. much. pain. Immense pain. In rereading my posts, I realize I kept a lot private, because that was Jeff’s request. And he was always worried that I would exaggerate things. But all of us remember it clearly: he was in agony.
When Jeff went to the ED this time, he had to wait for a while. We texted back and forth. Over text – the whole time he was sick – it felt almost normal. I could almost convince myself that we were just away from each other for the night.
And that brings us to now.
I’m rereading all of Jeff’s narrative medical files from UChicago. There are 8,179 pages. Granted, some info is repeated over and over, but I keep reading in the doctor’s notes, “Complexity Level: HIGH due to cholangiocarcinoma.” It reminds me how complex his disease already was, without all the issues tied to the portal vein thrombosis.
And despite all that complexity, despite wondering where Jeff is now, my prayer was pretty simple: I wanted him to live.
But my prayers have changed since Jeff died. Among them is that I make good choices, so that if I feel the consequences of my words and deeds, I will not regret the good choices I chose not to make. I can’t change what happened to Jeff. But I can change what happens to other people, based on who I choose to be.