By Julie Rackliffe
Sometimes when climbing the ragged cliffs of grief, something will grab your wrist right before you tumble all the way back down. It may look like an insignificant thing, but if you let it, it can pull you up those last two inches to the next plateau. Something you didn’t even know was there, until it was.
Did you know that death is hard work?
It was all a lot. More than a lot—what’s more than a lot? A lot more? Anyway.
First my father died. Suddenly-ish. Whisked away in an ambulance, confused and non-compliant.
“Maybe a UTI?” they said at the hospital as he fought to yank the catheter out.
Okay. Seriously, I’ve had a lot of urinary tract infections in my day and they never ever did that to me.
Apparently it’s a lot worse when you’re 89 years old and already fighting dementia. One barely understandable thing led to the next and within a few weeks he was gone.
Our 16-year old daughter Madeleine was with her choir group at a monastery in Taizé, France when it happened. We didn’t even try to contact her, but we did postpone the funeral a week until she got back. She happened to find out on her way home, on the train to Paris, due to a stray text thread that she wasn’t supposed to see. It was hard to keep track, all those words and plans and feelings zipping from phone to phone, some cogent and others confused. Only one landed on her phone, but she figured it out.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’m coming. I’m bringing you the light,” the text came through the day before she was due home.
At the airport more than a day later, a day she had to digest this news alone as she traveled and traveled and traveled back, she threw herself at me the moment she saw me. Magnetic.
“It’s ok Mom, I’m here now. I’m here. You can let go, it’s ok,” whispered next to my ear, almost inaudible, telepathic.
At home she told me she had known anyway, because Poppa came to her the day after he died. While she was sitting in silence with 5,000 European teenagers. The village of Taizé in rural France houses a monastery that served as safe refuge during WWII. It subsequently became a destination for prayer and retreat for around 7,000 mostly European young people weekly, a kind of rite of passage and discernment. I didn’t know what she meant by ‘the light’ until I saw my perpetually unsure daughter that day at the airport She had been transformed into a peaceful and certain source of… well, light, I guess. Her time at Taizé seemed to have wrapped her in a blanket of love that radiated from her being. That light created calm all around her. And it helped. A lot.
She sang at the funeral, at the tiny Catholic chapel my mother loved. The unskilled organist didn’t know how to play Simple Things, so she taught him. (You know the one: ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free…) Then she stood by her broken grandmother, always touching, if only barely. A presence, the light.
At the funeral I was pretty sure my husband was sick. He wasn’t eating at the reception. And it wasn’t the first time. George was a bottomless eater. He would finish his own and everyone else’s and go back for more. I was concerned but preoccupied. My 89 year old mother needed support. My daughter had done her part but the long haul work was mine, and I knew it. I, after all, was a daughter too. When I asked George what was going on, he said,
“It’s just reflux, I’m fine.”
“Will you please call the doctor? Will you please take this seriously, so I don’t have to worry about it?”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine. I’m getting slim, see?” He patted his once much rounder belly.
“George… call the doctor. Please?”
He finally went to the doctor about six weeks later. It was esophageal cancer.
He agreed to treatment. Chemo, radiation, and then surgery to cut out the tumor and tie what was left of his esophagus back to his stomach. A full year of hospital basements and endless waiting rooms, leaking feeding tubes that beeped intermittently all night long. The chemo nurses are more kind than you can even imagine, and you have to imagine anyone doing that job would be kind. They were more kind. I wish I remembered their names. I wish I had sent something to them after.
There were so many needles. He was petrified of needles. We had to go three times for the pre-marriage blood test, he was so needle averse.
Madeleine received her first college acceptance email sitting next to his bed in the chemo room.
They took seven inches of esophagus in the second go at surgery. The first one they sent him back because they found polyps they needed to biopsy before they’d proceed. It was like a dry run. It nearly destroyed us. Well, not him. He went out for a hamburger and a beer. Then threw it up, of course. But he enjoyed it.
The light from Taizé that carried us through my father’s funeral wasn’t strong enough for this. The fear had snuffed it out. We did have hope though. We had lots of hope.
The recovery was understandably arduous. We expected that. So we didn’t know exactly when the cancer metastasized. We had no idea that it was already in his liver, but I’d pushed away suspicions for weeks. The day Madeleine returned from her first semester of college, we waited together by the luggage carousel at Logan airport for her bags. He happened to find a wheelchair by the window to sit. In the ugly airport light I could see this wasn’t what recovery looked like. That light reveals things you can’t ignore anymore.
We learned for sure two days before Christmas. He was gone February 5.
Did you know that death is hard work?
It took months after to get even a sweaty grasp on all that had to be done. The endless sorting, the business closing, the money stuff, the mountain of paper. Imposing order. And right after the funeral, COVID became real and we were suddenly in lockdown. Lockdown wasn’t good for anyone’s mental health.
I lost his family, too, incidentally. There were disagreements. Boundaries trampled. Unresolved resentments. I let go without a fight.
I needed the kitchen clean. I kept cleaning the kitchen. It was a thing, the whole time, but the end time, especially. I’m not normally ‘OCD’-ish but it felt like that. My two beloved jade plants turned 45 degrees a day for proper sun, were never overwatered. It was good to have a place to practice restraint. The counters were clear, the dishes were done, all food was put away. I owned my domain.
I kept trying to feed him. I’m a nutritionist so I would research and cook and as things got worse I would puree his food, and still he couldn’t eat. I couldn’t heal him no matter how hard I tried. But cooking calmed me, then. If I didn’t keep trying, I would never succeed and it would be over. I wasn’t ready for over. If I kept cooking over would never arrive. Near the end my friend Laura had a baby, so every day for maybe three weeks I would cook, and he wouldn’t eat, and I’d pack it up and leave it at her door while I was out walking the dog. I didn’t actually see that baby until he was a year old.
Those last endless weeks after we knew for sure, when his family was always always always there, it was winter. Late every night I vacuumed around the hospice bed that he refused to sleep in, choosing to stay in the chair. I vacuumed for an hour after they left to get ready for the next day. To have a moment of order. To re-establish control over my environment. My environment was the only thing left that I might be able to control. I’d asked them (several times, nicely) to take their shoes off in the hallway, before they came in. The salt, you know? It gets everywhere? Could you please? They didn’t. So I vacuumed.
But after, when over arrived? I didn’t really cook anymore. Just stopped. And the jade started leaning toward the sun. I was neglecting everything about the kitchen.
If I felt hungry I ate whatever my body wanted. If I wanted Cheetos and white wine, that’s what I had. I gave myself permission to eat anything that appealed to me, regardless of the value. Calories are calories, right? I knew I needed calories. I did actually also eat salmon and asparagus sometimes, I justified. My body may have been a battleground, but my kitchen stayed clean.
After a while, when I’d taken a volunteer job getting food to people in need, I slowly started cooking some other things. I spent more time in the kitchen. I let it get a little messy. I reconnected with my jade plants. They straightened up a bit, when I started turning them again. They sat in the window, succulent and deep green with health. I’d had them for more than a decade. Maybe a lot more, actually. They were always there in the window. They greeted me every morning, every evening, every time I went in the kitchen. They were stalwart. I counted on them. They’d seen me through. And I appreciated them, too.
One day perhaps a year later on an almost good day, I found that I could say to myself, “I’m OK. I’m doing OK. I might be OK for longer than this moment. It’s good.” I looked at those plants and thought, and might have said out loud, “But if I lose those plants, that’s it. It might seem like nothing, but I have had too much loss and if they die, I’m going to lose my shit. I will just let go and it will be over.”
You know what happened, right? Maybe six months later, first one and then the other within a month.
They were a bonded pair.
I survived. I did NOT lose my shit. I was damn proud of myself. This represented one of the biggest accomplishments I could point to. Not that anyone else would get that, but I did. “Look how far I’ve come!” I thought. “My jade died and I’m OK.”
Now, everyone says propagating jade is dead simple. But in all the years I’d had those plants I never succeeded. And I tried, believe you me. I had a solid history of failing to propagate jade.
But, the last plant left a few leaves at the end. They were just sitting there on the dirt. I had to move it out of the kitchen of course, I couldn’t just keep looking at the empty pot of dirt. I brought the pot to a corner of the dining room behind some boxes that had yet to be gone through (because the detritus of death lasts forever, no matter how hard you try) where, apparently, I had left the first pot with one or two stray leaves on the dirt. I don’t even remember doing that. I put the second pot down and left.
I could not, at that point, acknowledge any possibility for this. I was done with hope. Hope and I, we really weren’t on anything resembling good terms. It was going to take a long time for me to forgive hope.
Months went by. I bought new jade plants. Placeholders, I told myself. I swore I would not love these new jade plants like the last but I wanted something in the window. I saw them in a nursery where I was getting something for my mother in law. I put the two very different plants in the window and nodded hello occasionally. I refused to attach.
More months later I was looking for dirt for something else and spotted the old pots on the floor. The leaves weren’t dead. When I looked closer, there were tiny little roots hanging on for dear life to the dirt.
Those little plants, begot of the old plants, are still alive. I am perpetually surprised by this. In the kitchen window one is tiny, in a 2 inch pot but happy and growing. The other is bigger, maybe three inches high in a five inch pot. And healthy. They’re strong and shiny and filled with potential. And if they can do it, I muse, maybe, just maybe I can, too.
About the author:
Julie Rackliffe is based outside Boston, MA, and when she’s not rescuing food for Food Link she swims, bikes, meditates, cooks for whoever will come and does yin yoga. She revisited her need to write after the loss of her partner early in 2020, and embraces the power of story now more than ever. We all have a story. Sharing them connects us.