Just a few miles away from my house, there’s a little Catholic church that’s over 100 years old. Although it’s not my home parish, I love the priest there: one time, his homily went a little long, and he confessed, “You know, when I became a priest, I decided that for my homilies, the first two minutes are for God; the second two minutes are for me; and the rest is for the devil.” So all of his homilies are about five minutes or less. Aside from the obvious appeal, the English teacher in me has always marveled at his ability to craft a cogent homily. Very Abraham-Lincoln-Second-Inaugural if you ask me.
So a few years ago, I found myself there one Sunday morning. Jeff had gone to an earlier mass, and was home with a one-year-old Kate and a two-year-old Jake. Eagerly awaiting the five-minute – I mean, inspiring – homily, I was disappointed when a guest priest made his appearance. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt as we finished up the gospel reading, and as I settled in for what was sure to be more than a five-minute homily.
And somewhere in between studying the stained glass windows while desperately trying to pay attention, I did catch one phrase: “Forgiveness is remembering without pain.”
I should’ve listened to his explanation, but instead, I vetted the statement. Was he right? I tested it against several scenarios. Yes — the idea seemed to stand up against my small sampling. And if it were true, then what did that mean for me? Had I forgiven people? Did it matter that I had forgiven people? Had people forgiven me? It upended the idea of “forgive and forget.” Indeed, to remember without pain meant that the wrong must be remembered.
I’ve carried that maxim with me since that sunny summer morning many years ago. I carried it with me, along with a backpack full of snacks and medical papers to University of Chicago. I carried it with me, along with my two children and a shovel to Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery. I carried it with me, as I approved drawings for my home renovation, as I accepted a new job, as Jake started kindergarten, and as Kate morphed from a baby into a little girl. I didn’t always know it was there, but recently, I remembered it again.
Because it occurs to me that it’s not just forgiveness that’s remembering without pain. You could replace ‘forgiveness’ with other words: healing; mending; repairing; resolving; reconciling. Remembering doesn’t have to be painful. Remembering can be a salve.
This time of year, I’m remembering. But now, it’s not painful. Even when I cry because I miss Jeff so much, it doesn’t last long. It’s replaced by a deep joy that I got to know him, got to be married to him, got to be best friends with him. The despair I once felt is replaced by an appreciation of the person he was, and of how his memory is still at work in our lives. Jeff may not be alive in his mortal body, but he is very much alive in so many other ways.
Oh Thanksgiving, I was remembering.
Two years ago, on Thanksgiving night, Jeff and I sat on the edge of our bed. His feet were swollen. His stomach, distended. We faced our closet, which housed our plastic bins of medical supplies, and I could see the tubes and Tegaderm and gauze and saline flushes.
“I think this will be my last Thanksgiving,” Jeff said.
I felt relief when he said it. Until then, we hadn’t openly talked about the fact that he was dying. Indeed, we never talked about what would happen after he died. The closest we came was this short conversation.
I felt relief because not only did I want him to admit it, but I wanted so badly to feel connected to him again — to operate in the shared reality that we had occupied for the 16 years leading up to his diagnosis, but which, for the past seven months, hadn’t existed anymore.
“I think so too,” I said, surprised by my own honesty.
“What will you do?” he asked.
“I will find a way to be happy,” I said.
And that was it. The entire conversation.
After Jeff died, I wasn’t sure I could ever be happy again. I wasn’t sure I could move beyond despair. Looking back on it now, there are parts of early 2019 that I don’t remember. Pick an analogy for grief. They were all true.
But I’m remembering.
I’m remembering that Thanksgiving conversation. Last year, it was painful. This year, it was comforting.
“I will find a way to be happy,” I had said.
And – you know what? – I think I have.
Part of that happiness has come from lessons learned from Jeff’s death. Lessons, the cost of which will always seem too high. But which I feel so grateful to be learning, because it seems like something horrific has been redeemed. Even though Jeff is gone, he is still teaching me, and giving me something to aspire to, just as he did when he was alive.
Part of that happiness also comes from knowing that happiness isn’t everything. A friend who came into my life when Jeff was sick – and who now, I cannot imagine my life without – put this in perspective. Happiness, she said, is fleeting. And she’s right. Happiness is overrated. But appreciation, joy, awe… these are worth my time. And I am not so afraid of unhappiness anymore. Because, like its counterpart, it is fleeting. And I’ll take that a step further: there are few emotions that I am afraid of now. I am not so naive to think that nothing bad will happen to me again. I know I will lose people I love. I know I will eventually get sick or die in an accident. Tragedy could befall me or anyone close to me. But I’ll be damned if I spend my life in fear of those things… because – guess what? The worst thing I could imagine has already happened to me, and to the person I loved most in the world. And as much as I wish those things wouldn’t have happened, neither do I want to give back the lessons I’ve learned from them.
Another part of the appreciation I have now is my capacity to love, to feel joy, and to hold dear the people and ideas closest to me. It almost seems unfair that Jeff’s and my love gave me even greater capacity to love. I loved Jeff completely when he was alive. But if he were alive now, I know that I could love him even more fully. I once saw a quote, “A true love story never ends.” And it’s true: love gives in dividends.
And so, I remember.
I’m remembering after Thanksgiving, when Jeff continued to decline. We went to Great Wolf Lodge. He introduced Jake and Kate to his love for rock candy. Even though he could barely walk, he wandered off without anyone noticing, using his wheelchair as a walker. After a few frantic moments, we saw him hobbling back, using that wheelchair, and with a shit-eating grin on his face… because he had been to the candy store, and had several bags of goodies. For the kids, you might assume. But really, a lot of it was just for him!
I’m remembering the day I drove to University of Chicago in early December. I walked into one of the familiar rooms on the 10th floor. Jeff was sleeping. Randy was keeping vigil in a chair next to him. Jeff didn’t stir when I came in, but Randy got up, gave me a hug, and said, “You two have a lot to talk about.” He left the room and went for a walk. I took his place, keeping vigil, and waited for Jeff to wake up.
“Jess,” he murmured drowsily.
“It’s me,” I said. I took his hand.
Jeff willed himself to sit up. He looked haggard, but I knew my husband was still in there. His back hunched, shoulders emaciated, and stomach distended, he sat on the edge of the bed and took a drink of water.
“Jess, it’s time to start hospice,” he said.
I felt a wave of relief, because – it seemed – for the first time since April 14, we were back in the same reality. Except now, that reality also involved him leaving it… and soon.
We talked about his conversation with his care team. We talked about how long he might have left. And then, that short conversation wore him out. Jeff dozed off.
I whipped out my computer and typed an update on Caring Bridge. I’ve told people that writing saved my life; and, although it might sound like hyperbole or drama to the uninitiated, I can tell you that it is not. Writing helped me make sense of that which cannot make sense.
I remember all of that vividly. I remember how Jeff lay in his bed. I remember the sounds in the room. I remember that it was a sunny day. I remember it all.
But now, I’m remembering without pain.
I remember when Jeff died. I was holding his hand. A tear fell down his cheek, which I knew was more a function of biology than symbolism. I was surprised by how quickly his body turned cold. I felt numb. I felt hope. I wondered if Jeff’s spirit was in the room, and if he saw me holding his hand, and if he could sense how bereft I was. I wondered if Jeff was with my grandma, and his grandparents, and if he was going to meet God, and what heaven looked like. But, if I’m being really honest, at that moment, nothing profoundly spiritual occurred to me, nor did it really matter to me. I simply wanted to know that he was okay. I wanted to know where he was. And I wanted him to be whole again.
I’m remembering the afternoon of the day he died. I stayed upstairs while they put his body in a bag and took it away. I put away laundry. I made phone calls. I sat on our bed, unblinking. I planned what to say to the kids when I picked them up from school. I had this thought – another word might be a ‘vision’ – of Jeff on his bike, riding with the wind at his back, a mountain range in the distance. Jeff felt most at peace on his bike — a true introvert, he used long bike rides as a way to fill himself up. With my limited knowledge of what heaven could be like, I would imagine it this way for Jeff: a bike, some mountains, and solitude.
Of course, I remember much more than this ‘time of remembering’ each year. I remember the day we got married — I cried walking down the aisle because I was so damn happy. I remember nights out in the city. I remember late nights playing Guitar Hero. I remember trips to Mystic, to Kansas City, to Jersey City, to Muscatine… to Purdue, to Indy… to Hawaii, to New York… to Colorado, to Key West… to Niece, Florence, and Rome. I remember how Jeff cried as we approached the bones of St. Peter under the Vatican. I remember how Jeff laughed when Jake or Kate would do something funny. I remember how he held them when they were babies. I remember how Jeff would lay with his head on my feet, as I rocked baby Jake or baby Kate in the red recliner chair. He just wanted to be close to us.
I used to feel that remembering Jeff without pain meant that we weren’t connected anymore. At one point, it felt like it might be betrayal. I hung onto the pain like a mooring, feeling like it somehow honored our relationship and Jeff’s memory. But now, I know that’s not the case. The best way for me to honor Jeff, and the love that we shared, is to continue to love. Because if love gives in dividends, then pain charges interest.
The holidays are notoriously difficult for people who are alone, lonely, suffering, addicted, afflicted… and now – because of this pandemic – many of us are in solidarity with some of the most in need among us. Just as I have tried, with a lot of effort, to reframe what I can learn from Jeff’s suffering and death, I’m choosing to look at this holiday season as an opportunity to learn, to reimagine what ‘tradition’ means, to find better ways to show people I love them, and to embrace the humility demanded when life doesn’t go my way. And although none of us wished for a pandemic, just as I did not wish for Jeff to get cancer and die, many lessons can be learned if I make space for them.
Years from now, I will remember this holiday season. I will remember that I wished I could have been with my whole family. I will remember that we couldn’t do the things we usually do. And of course, I will remember that Jeff died a week before Christmas.
But I also know that I will be able to remember it without pain. Indeed, I think I’ll even have the capacity to remember it with joy.