Friday, November 28, 2008

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving! It's been two months since Jeff died. Sometimes it feels like forever ago and almost like he was never here to begin with. Other times, it seems like he never left. Jeff missed Thanksgiving last year, too. He was too sick to participate. He was so nauseated and fatigued that he was sleeping approximately 20 hours per day--knocked down by proliferating tumors and the after-effects of whole brain radiation. His neuro-oncologist prescribed a drug for him called Provigil--normally used to help narcoleptics stay alert--and it perked him up almost instantly, or enough so that he was able to enjoy Christmas and, shortly thereafter, start the anti-CTLA clinical trial.

And as each momentous occasion passed--Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, etc.--we tacitly understood it would be the last. Even so, we did nothing out of the ordinary to commemorate the occasions. There were no grandiose gestures or over-the-top celebrations. Likewise, there were no tears. Surprisingly--no videos. Few pictures. I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't remember how we celebrated our last anniversary (or if we celebrated at all). I can only recall one of the gifts Jeff gave me for our last Christmas--a $10 bottle of perfume that he got for free with a $10 off coupon (he was very pleased with his thriftiness). I'm sure he gave me more than that, but that's all I can remember. My last Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are completely forgotten.

I tell you this, though, not because it makes me sad or because I regret that we didn't preserve these historical occasions, but for precisely the opposite reason: Jeff lived everyday like it was a holiday. He was no different any other day of the year than he was on Christmas or his birthday or on Father's Day. Despite his illness and despite knowing, almost for certain, that he would soon die, he treated his last holidays as he did all the others. Jeff had absolutely no regrets and was, I believe, so comfortable in his knowledge that the kids and I would always love him and remember him that he didn't feel he needed to make desperate attempts to memorialize the "last" everything. I can only assume that most of us, given the same death sentence as Jeff, would panic and try desperately to immortalize ourselves or would, at the very least, find something worth changing about our daily routines: we would stop going to work; stop worrying about how much we spend at restaurants; we would fulfill all of our ambitious pledges to jump out of airplanes, visit France, or swim with Dolphins. I know it was a great comfort to Jeff that he found nothing so compelling as waking up to the same exact life he had created for himself before cancer as existed after his diagnosis. He changed nothing. Regretted nothing. That's the way I want to go.

That's not to say it was easy for him. In Hospice, Jeff said again how grateful he was that we took a family vacation to Atlanta and the Great Smoky Mountains the summer before he was diagnosed. He said he wished we had spent more time taking trips like that as a family--just him and I and the kids. He had planned Mount Rushmore as our next great destination and said, "I hate knowing I'll never see things like Mount Rushmore again." But that was the extent of his wistfulness. He was otherwise very resigned to his fate and did not attempt to deny or resist it.

And so, this Thanksgiving, though it may seem a strange thing to be thankful for, I am thankful for Jeff's death. I don't mean that I am glad that he died--I could never feel that way. But I am glad for how he died. I am happy that he died secure in his relationships with me and the kids; I am thankful that his illness allowed him to confirm, both to himself and to our family, what a happy life he had. I am thankful for all the time that he had to prepare himself and us for his death; I'm thankful for the guidance he has given me and for sharing the last wishes I am to carry out on his behalf; and I'm especially thankful for all the friends Jeff has given me--in life and in death, some of whom I would have never met and others who might have never had an opportunity to show us the extent of their love for and commitment to our family if he hadn't died.

So, although I hear a lot about how the holidays are hard after a death and can be particularly depressing, I have to disagree. The holidays certainly condense opportunities to illustrate how often I'm alone: I will shop for the kids' presents alone; I will not be bringing a guest to the Christmas Party at work; etc. But, I am certainly not lonely. So far, my Thanksgiving weekend has included a movie night and drinks with some of my favorite friends; Thanksgiving dinner among other favorite friends; a call from the Archbishop; wreath-hanging with another friend; bowling with the kids (don't even get me started on all the fun they've had in the past two days: a bonfire party; games with friends; bowling; ice skating; and a slumber party--and it's only Friday night . . .). We have more fun coming up--a get together for dinner tomorrow night; lunch with neighbors on Sunday. It's hard to feel bad when we're having so much fun.

And I know Jeff would not want us to feel bad. I received a lovely gift today--Jeff's uncle sent me all the cards and letters that people sent to him in sympathy of Jeff's death. It was quite an impressive stack of papers--from priests and nuns and parishioners and deacons and friends and strangers. But, what stood out to me was the common theme that emerged in their expressions of sympathy and personal remarks: Death is to be celebrated. I'm sure that wherever Jeff is now, he would find it amusing (if not irritating) that we should be so morose about his death. I'm sure that now, more than ever, Jeff would be pleased if we could celebrate--not only the holidays, but everyday, just as he did.

With Thanks!


Jeff's Daily Update said...

i remember last valentine's day and mother's day :D maybe i can jog your memory mom!

Linda said...

What a lovely post. My son died last March after a five year battle with melanoma and that is how I came about your blog. He was 27 years old with a wife and young son. We are celebrating our first holidays without him and it has been hard. We too, knew last year would probably be the last holiday season with him but we celebrated in the same fashion. And we will continue to do so because life does just keep going on. Lets just hope we can make some positive advances in melanoma because young men such as my John and your Jeff should have had more time with us.

Tracy said...

Kelly, it is a joy to read your blogs. It is a joy to pass them on to my friends. Maybe you already know, but your lives and Jeff's death have sparked many conversations and much contemplation amongst people you've never met about family and love and life. This may not have been your mission but it is sure an amazingly powerful and positive side effect. (We also have a son named Finn, 18 months, with an obsession with our small dustpan and broom. Your past posts about giving your Finn the swiffer made us laugh since that is one of our very own tricks. What is it with these boys?) So on Thanksgiving, thank you for putting your words and thoughts out there for anyone to latch onto and find comfort within because sorrow grows bigger when sorrow's denied. Love, Tracy & Adam Treu

Laura Gilbert said...

Kelly -- I'm so thankful that I got to spend the time with Jeff that I did, even if it was so long ago. But I'm just as thankful that I was able to read your joint blog for almost two years, and that I've been able to read your comments and thoughts since his death. I'm thankful for the lessons the two of you are teaching me. Best, Laura

Peggy Wilkins said...


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Katie Clancy said...

Kelly, I thought of you and the family over Thanksgiving and am grateful that all of this is such a special and insightful experience for you. Just recently someone asked me for tips on where to go when visiting Ireland and I realized it has been 16 years since I knew Jeff back when we were there in 1992. Ironically, it was with Jeff that I became greater friends with when we returned from Ireland - returned from the hype, excitement and newness. Just as you explain, Jeff was the one who was consistent and reliable in his actions and the way he treated others. He always remembered birthdays and was religious about thank you notes. Jeff was the one who was constant in friendship over the years when most friendships fade away over time. It's kinda like when all the hype of an experience or holiday is over, the relationship is just as strong because it was never about all the other things. Jeff was never a material guy in many ways.

And now that Jeff's life on earth has ended, he'd be proud to know his family is consistent in their love for him and their own lives. It's just how he would have wanted it.

Lots of love - let's catch up soon. It's been too long. Love ya