Although I am posting this now, the following was written on my Southwest flight from Austin on the leg from Denver to Reno on Tuesday, June 16.
My flight has just lifted off from Denver. I am returning to Reno. To Tahoe. To the small slice of heaven I wrote about in the Powdered Donut Manifesto, Part 2. As we lift over the clouds and peek at the snow-capped Rockies in the distance, I return to Tahoe differently than when I left just over a week ago. Of course, there is the practical reality that I do not have a 100 mile bike ride ahead of me, like the last trip. This time I am simply heading up to spend a few days with Katelyn, my youngest daughter, who has been there for several days with her friend, Ella. Ella and KK are both rising 5th graders. To know their friendship is to know their unicycles, a story told in this beautiful trailer about the UniSaders at OneWheelManyChildren. I wrote more about the symbolism of the unicycle last fall in this piece, “Our Story | Are We Riding on One Wheel? Or Instead, Are We Free?”
Today, I write Part Two of a piece that I first published on October 29, 2011. On that day, Terri Wingham of A Fresh Chapter and I both posted on the same topic, having been introduced by a #FridayFollow, a #FF, on Twitter not long before. Our respective posts can be found here and here. The past week came to a head yesterday, as a roaring sea of emotions reached shore, reached my heart, and crashed across my soul. For those that have been following The Love of My Life, you know of my abiding love for Maureen, my beautiful bride of over 24 years, my BFF, my soulmate, my rudder. My rudder. That is the word I used yesterday as I walked around my house, alone. With all three kids on their own respective trips, I had 24 hours from yesterday morning to today that I was alone, by myself. Maureen’s pictures are everywhere in our home. I talk to her all the time, but it is nice to have pictures, so that I can see her with my eyes, not just my heart. As I looked into her eyes across our living room, I said, “Maureen. I’ve lost my rudder. You were always that quiet stability that cut through the raging storms.”
The wonderful thing about writing about love is that it brings back all of the beautiful memories I have from a lifetime of love with Maureen. However, as I spent the day with myself yesterday, I realized something else. Love is also a shield. It has been my armor. Yesterday, I began to comprehend what I was protecting myself from. Me. The storms. The other emotions. The pain. The feelings that are still just below the surface from the day Maureen passed from this world to the next. As I said to her mom and dad at her “celebration of life” just a few days after her passing, I love your daughter more than words can describe. That love drove me to strip everything from Maureen on the day of her passing that had anything to do with cancer. I simply was not going to allow last rites to be administered with anything that wasn’t her. Of course, I knew her soul was already washing over all of us on 7 North that day at Seton Hospital, but as with all of my rituals, this one had meaning to me. I took off her lymphedema sleeve, undid the gauze from her right hand that kept the swelling down, delicately removed the rock tape from her physical therapists. Other than her port, I needed Maureen to be Maureen.
As I write part two of Survivorship is Not a Phase, I am coming to realize that I have not yet stripped off my gauze, my sleeve, my armor. Although these insidious cancer cells (terrorists as Terri called them in her post in 2011) were in Maureen’s body, we had cancer. As I have written before, if it was biologically possible, I would have gladly taken Maureen’s cancer into my own body. She was my Eve. I was blessed to be her Adam. But, like my rudder would always do, Maureen quietly looked in my eyes when I would say this, and said, “No. I’ve got this.” And, that’s the thing I realized yesterday, the emotions beneath my shield of love. I am a survivor, and I have survivor’s guilt. I never ask “why Maureen?” because to do so would be to dishonor her memory and to dishonor God. At Heavenly Donuts just over a week ago, I came to understand that eternal life changes the equation. Only the physical Maureen is gone. She is not.
There was not a day along our journey with cancer, not a day across the 11 years, that Maureen didn’t choose to be a survivor, rather than a patient. For those that knew her, you knew her strength, her dignity, her courage. She was simply magnificent. For each of those 11 years, I was privileged to be not just Maureen’s husband, BFF, soulmate, lover but her caregiver. However, if you knew Maureen, you knew that my caregiving was of a different kind. If you are a survivor, not a patient, then your caregiver must act differently. As I say in this video for Rallyhood, my role as caregiver was simply to love Maureen. That is why I wrote Our Story last fall as her cancer metastasized. I simply refused to write about cancer. Maureen was never cancer. She was and will always be Maureen.
But as a survivor, approaching the 8 month mark of Maureen’s passing, I am looking within myself and asking the question “who am I?” I know that I am the son of Jean and Roy Thompson. I know I am the brother of Marcella Graham and the brother-in-law of David Graham. I know I am the proud son-in-law of Henry and Ann Diercxsens and brother-in-law of Suzanne Harrison and Dominique Gable (Diercxsens’ girls). I know I am the father of Taylor, Kyla and Katelyn. I am the proud Uncle of Joshua, Cybelle, Nadine, Miles, Hannah and Ian. Each of these is an answer to prayers I prayed as a young boy about my future. If I could go back and tell that young boy that his prayers would be answered and answered magnificently, it would be so amazing, because I have been richly blessed in my life, most especially by my love affair with Maureen.
As Terri also wrote in her Survivorship is Not a Phase, “Suicide bombers boarded planes, filled with unsuspecting passengers, and forever changed both the New York skyline and the North American psyche.” Suicide bombers, cancer cells, have forever changed my skyline. I know I am not the only building in this skyline. I know there are many, many more spouses, partners, parents, children, siblings that have gone from “caregiver” to “survivor” because of cancer. Much is written about “survivorship” as it relates to cancer. Terri has the courage to write about that journey in the first person. I only write about it in the second person. What I can write about in the first person, however, is my journey as a survivor, and it is not a phase. It has taken on a new dimension. Ever since I met Terri, I thought, oh, A Fresh Chapter is for someone else, not me. However, these words from her blog suddenly take on a new dimension:
There is no universal map to follow when embarking on the road less traveled. Instead, we learn by trial and error. By trusting our intuition. By grieving our losses and doing more of what lights us up. If you want to make a change in your life and don’t know how to begin or you’re facing challenges you didn’t expect and need a reminder to stay the course, join us for a behind the scenes conversation.
I plan to take down my shield more often as I write going forward. I will trust my intuition. I will get stuff right. I will get stuff wrong. I will never stop writing about love, because love will always be my rudder. However, just like I wrote in a post about the twin towers last fall, the New York skyline has changed again. In the midst of the carnage of those suicide bombers, another building has arisen, different than those that were there before but no less beautiful. As we approach the eighth Powdered Donut Day, this coming Sunday, Father’s Day, I am beginning to realize that Maureen wants me to architect a new skyline. Her love will permeate every aspect of my blueprints for the future. I am a survivor, and I am no longer afraid.