Sometime last week – as we were passing through Grand Rapids, cruising along the highway in our black Toyota Sienna – Kate said, “Ina wisten to some moosic.”
So I did the easiest thing: I put Taylor Swift radio on shuffle.
Kate loves all of TSwift, and I can’t blame her. It’s catchy. If Jeff were alive, he’d tell you that my musical taste is the equivalent of drinking Boone’s Farm, but even Jeff could get behind a guilty pleasure.
“Love Story” came on. And although my relationship with Jeff was nothing like the one Swift describes, the general gist of the song – the whole, girl meets boy and they get together despite forces trying to keep them apart – it tore me up inside. Luckily, my kids couldn’t see me ugly crying in the front seat as Kate and I screamed, “But you were everything to me, I was begging you, please, don’t go!”
Things like that remind me that my grief is still so fresh. It’s just under the surface. It doesn’t take much for me to tap into that apocalyptic crater of fire and brimstone.
“Love Story” might not be what happened to me and Jeff. But we have our own love story. I think it was pretty great.
I have known for many years that among the things that matter most, stories are at the top of the list.
I’m telling a story at my house tonight: Jake’s birth story. Tomorrow, he’ll be five. And this is the second time I’ll be celebrating one of of our kids’ birthdays without Jeff.
Last year, on this date, Jeff was at the hospital. But before that, we had just been to Mayo.
The day at Mayo – when we met with all of the doctors and Jeff got all manner of scans – things were so… weird. Barb and Randy and I have relived it over and over again. We have sometimes wondered if they wanted to say, “This is it.” I never want to go back there. They acted so strangely. I got in the car at the end of the day, and – after trying to be positive and engaged all day – I lost it. I just sobbed and sobbed, sitting in the back seat with Jeff next to me, and Barb and Randy in front. It wasn’t even quiet sobbing: it was wailing sobbing. It was awful. One of the worst days of my life.
We drove home. I wrote the Caring Bridge entry about how we had no good options: TARE might put Jeff into liver failure (which, we now know he had); chemo might not work. Both carried huge risks.
In many parts of our lives, people say to plan for the worst and hope for the best. With cancer, you can’t do that. Because planning for the worst means planning for death. And that requires a whole other level of acceptance of things; contemplation of what we can’t conceive; and strategizing what will happen after you’re gone. Only a special person can do that. A palliative care nurse – when Jeff was at the end – told me that most people in his age bracket either can’t accept their own death, or don’t until the very end. I think that was true of Jeff. But I think he accepted it in the end.
After we got back from Mayo, Jeff flirted with an infection for a few days. I didn’t sleep well at night. Every time I’d hear the beep that started his thermometer reading, my heart would race. It was worse than having an infant. At least, with an infant, you know it will get better – however far out that may seem. This, I feared, would only get worse. The day before Jake’s birthday, and his birthday party, Jeff went for a checkup. They wanted to admit him for infection.
“No,” Jeff said. “Do what you have to do, but I will not miss my son’s birthday tomorrow. I will not go to the hospital.”
Apparently, the nurses were all in tears. I think they gave him just enough antibiotics to get him through two days. Last year, I wrote:
The good news: Jeff made it to Jake’s party on Saturday. Hallejuah. All Jake really wanted for his birthday was a Lighting McQueen cake and a Lightning McQueen bouncy house. All I wanted was for Jeff to be there… and no rain. We all got our wishes.
The meh news: Jeff went back to the hospital again yesterday. As we knew last week, he was flirting with a fever all week. He went for a checkup at UChicago on Friday, and they were not thrilled that Jeff was having fevers every night, that went away by the morning. Jeff barely got any sleep last week: he’d stay up, tracking his temperature and heart rate until about 1am, when it would turn, and then he’d go to sleep. On Friday, though, Jeff told the nurse practitioner what was happening and then said, “I’m not going in the hospital. I’m not missing my son’s birthday tomorrow.”
The whole UChicago team bent over backwards to get Jeff through the weekend. Both Jeff and the nurse were in tears, and she noted in his chart that they had to get him through Friday night and Saturday. Thankfully, things held off until yesterday. We spent the better part of the day trying to find a way to avoid the hospital, but eventually, logic prevailed, and Jeff came downtown again.
I’ve spent the day with Jeff today, and I feel much better than I did this time yesterday. Jeff does too. Although he doesn’t want to be in the hospital, we knew something was wrong, and it was only a matter of time before he ended up back here.
The oncologist on call today is Randy’s oncologist, so Jeff and our family already knows him. Our big thing was, “WTF is up with these freaking infections!!!!!” Luckily, the oncologist agreed and seems to be more aggressive getting to the bottom of it.
(You know, sometimes when I write these posts, I think: did that really happen?! Is this really my life?! Is Jeff really gone? I thought that just now, when I pasted those paragraphs above.
When Jeff first died, I kinda told myself the story that he was out of town… we had once gone six weeks without seeing each other. After he had been dead for six weeks – and now it’s been seven months – I entered uncharted territory. I started a new story. I still. cannot. believe. it. And I hate it. I miss him all the time.)
Jeff was here for Jake’s party. He was exhausted afterward, but he loved every minute of watching Jake. Jeff loved being a dad. And I loved watching him be a dad. Our marriage changed after we had kids: we loved new dimensions of each other. We had a new story, new characters as part of our plot.
And that was last year.
But five years ago. Five years ago, Jeff and I had just sat down from dinner. Jeff had smoked ribs all day. My due date was August 2, so we knew we were living on borrowed time. We ate dinner, Jeff cleaned up, and we searched for something to watch on TV when I felt something.
“Um, I think my water just broke,” I said.
“Um, okay. I need to go take a shower first. I smell like smoked meat,” was Jeff’s response.
He ran upstairs. Took the fastest shower imaginable. Got the ‘go’ bag that had been lovingly packed both both of us four weeks prior, and off we went.
Turns out, he made an excellent call by taking a shower. The not-so-great call was eating ribs as my last meal before labor. Oh man, did I regret that!
I labored over night. It was brutal. Jeff slept next to me – our first lesson in Somebody Needs to Sleep. And Jake Thomas was born the next day – August 4 – at 2:30 p.m.
Jeff went back to work a week later. I cried when he left, wondering how in the world I could take care of this infant intruder in our house. And when Jake and I survived the day, and Jeff came home from work, he quite literally ran to the family room to scoop up our baby boy, to hold him and be with the two of us. Jake was so little that Jeff’s arms wrapped completely around him. I love that picture. I love the way Jeff is looking at Jake.
Both of us approached parenting like we did everything else: we managed every detail. Parenting, however, had other plans. Jake, simply through being who he is, taught Jeff and me so much about not only ourselves, but about life and other people. Jake still adds to my story every day, but he has mostly taught me that I am rarely the most important in the room. He and his father have also taught me that most character traits are two sides of the same coin: overly energetic also means fun; laziness can also mean calm and peaceful; critical might also be detail-oriented. You can’t have the good parts of a person without accepting all that comes with it.
Barb tells me all the time that Jake is just like Jeff was, at that age.
“You’re raising another Jeff Thomas,” Barb says. “It’ll be wonderful when he’s an adult, but it’s really hard on the mother.”
I hope she’s right. I hope Jake is his own version of the good things that Jeff brought to the world. I don’t expect him to replace his father or live in his shadow – what an enormous amount of pressure to put on a kid. But I do expect him to stick up for the bullied kid; find something – maybe sports or music or art or whatever he wants – and love it, because that’s what life is about; appreciate thoughtful people; have deep relationships that last 20-30 years, even if you’re only alive for 36. Stick things out. Have a voice. Use it for good. And know that being average is a blessing… being content with your life is a gift nobody can give you: it’s the most wonderful gift you can give yourself.
So just last week, when Kate and I jammed to Taylor Swift as we drove down the interstate, we were driving to go on vacation with friends. Through a serendipitous series of circumstances, Jeff’s two closest friends had invited us to come.
We spent the week on the beach, feeding ducks and tubing and swimming. And Jake and Kate got to hear stories about their dad… stories that I don’t know or don’t think to share with them. It occurred to me that one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is this: a story.
When I was a kid, I often rolled my eyes when someone in my family retold my birth story after singing “Happy Birthday”, but I loved it. I loved hearing the story of what life was like before I could remember it.
I loved hearing the story of how my grandparents got together: how my grandpa waited out this other guy, and refused to leave my grandma’s house. How he proposed, and my grandma said she’d have to ask her mom.
I loved hearing family stories as we sat around the table. It let me know we were connected by some invisible force that existed only in words. Without them, we might be some people who share DNA and a house. But with the stories, we were a family.
Last week, watching my kids be part of Jeff’s story that’s separate from me, separate from our family, I felt so deeply touched. I watched them with Jeff’s friends. Here are these two guys – with lives and families of their own – who want to stay a part of our lives. The fact that Jake and Kate can see that these people loved Jeff so much that they want to love us too… that’s pretty amazing. What a gift Jeff gave us: these friendships that he built over years and years and years. I wish Jeff were here to reciprocate that friendship. But since he’s not, it makes me happysad that they miss Jeff all the time. It reminds me that I’m not alone. And being with them, even if we don’t talk for very long, simply being with them makes me feel like part of Jeff is still alive.
One of his friends said, “We’ll have to make new memories with you.”
He’s right. The kids and I will have to pick up the story where Jeff left off. And the beautiful thing about continuing that story is that Jeff can still be a part of it. We don’t have to give him up. Ever.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell Jake again about the day he was born. I’ll tell him how the nurse washed his head and said, “You have a redhead.” I’ll tell him how he had jaundice, and Jeff slept hunched over that bilibed, with his hand on Jake’s chest so he wouldn’t cry. And then I’ll tell him how it all begin, how before he was ever born, before he was ever in my tummy, before all of that, his story started… with a love story.