January 16, 2001
I started the enclosed letter on December 16, 2000. I had in mind a letter which honored and celebrated all the events of 2000. Little did I know the journey on the grief road continues. This letter has slowly developed and become part of my continuing living process, especially now as February 8 approaches.
This may be more than you ever wanted to know - or you may not have wanted to hear from me again, so the waste basket might be a good choice.
You may choose to stop here and say "well, I told you so, Dave" - or continue on.
Whichever your choice,, I want to acknowledge how helpful you have been. The phone calls, cards, letters and visits have been significant to me. In no small measure every, bit of support has guided and led me along the path I am following today.
2000 was a dramatic year. Beginning as husband and caregiver, then suddenly a grief stricken widower, then the silence of an empty home, the challenges of grieving, the fear of leaving painful grief, the joy of seeing a new sunrise and the return of early summer, being out on my own, releasing the "guilt" of being "happy", discovering Judith as a love in life and resuming the role of a joyous and happy husband - almost too many steps to recall - yet they happened and I have to say that as the new year begins life is good to me.
Throughout all of this I learned God must have many ears, as I kept Him busy, many times a day - and He provided me guidance and the ability to learn true acceptance and faith. Without God and my faith in God there would be a different story to tell.
Judtih and I are looking forward to a brand new 2001, with time for new experiences, new memories and lots of happiness.
The lesson half of our predecessors learned has finally come home - the loss of a dearly loved one is not something that ever ends. It might change from agonizing mental anguish to fond loving memories, whichever form it takes the memory of the lost one continues on with the survivor for the rest of their life.
I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and health. I wish for you all the joy and happiness that life can provide. I encourage you to give all the hugs you can every day, and to get all the hugs you can every day. They are a precious commodity and you should accept no substitutes!
As 2001 unfolds I pray we stay connected.
This year I decided to forgo the Christmas letters of the past millennium, century, decade and year. I deeply honor the past, but somehow retelling the events of the past year did not truly coincide with or reflect the spirit of Christ's birth, and seem better suited for the New Year.
I am a traditionalist at heart. Somehow I never have 100 bales of hay until the digits look like 100. I count my years the same way, and so Happy New Millennium!
Many of you were kept close to events that transpired this year, and some of this letter will be difficult to read. Please keep in mind that for every door that closes another opens and the memory of loved ones is a treasure that exceeds all gold in human possession. As I pass through the many doors life has provided me, my memories sometimes yearn for expression and so I'm led to this long letter.
December - Ah, a truly wonderful time for Judith and me. We started the month with dear old friends and once more acknowledged Ellen's short but awe inspiring life. A memorial service conducted by a local hospice was humbling and joyful as our group honored loved ones for all and for both of us. Two hand-blown glass hearts given to us have become part of a new Christmas tradition. We quietly ended the year at home as Old Man winter hit Judith with a bug and the end of the year passed quietly. Christmas Day saw us and Keith dedicating the holiday to Ellen's memory by volunteering at St. Mary's in Aberdeen. A great experience. On Christmas Eve we had lunch with Judith's Mom, attended Church services in Oakville and a family gathering with Aharon and Sara. TTY's for Aharon and Judith topped the surprises, though Keith was taken back by a very special laser disc (pre DVD technology). Leigha spent a week with Grandpa and Judith. Leigha decorated a special tree downstairs and we lit and displayed a treasured ceramic tree which Ellen had created in 1981.
November - We became active in the Oakville Chamber of Commerce. Not too different from the Chehalis River Council, the Chamber is going through reorganization and growing pains. It was a good time for us to start participating. The CRC continues as a major interest. Judith and I erected most of the flood wall, and I got a chance to see Judith on stage in front of an audience as part of an annual Thanksgiving Dinner provided to Senior Citizens at the Center. This was one of two banquets, and along with Senior Health Fairs (think flu-shots, etc.) she had a busy month. Keith joined us for Thanksgiving and we dedicated the day in Ellen's memory by volunteering at the oldest continuously active Catholic Church - St. Francis in Toledo.
October - Boy has life picked up in terms of activities. We're in the process of helping Aharon through job assessment activities (basically what work skills can he accomplish) as Judith continues helping him prepare for independent living. I thought our medical systems are complicated and out of whack, but compared to what the handicapped have to deal with, our medical system looks healthy.
September - We had a terrific visit with Lee, Dawn, Leigha and Jasmine. Without a doubt it was wonderful and quite possibly the best reunion of families in years. Thanks to another doctor's detailed exams, the AAA surgery was exposed as unnecessary. My heart and blood pressure meds were stopped. Amazingly I started feeling much better. A test later in the month disclosed a digestive condition which caught me by surprise - something which apparently had been going on for years. Some stomach meds were the recommendation and a follow-up test is planned for early next year. The CRC had a rousing general membership meeting and 20 or so folks followed that by floating (some underwater) the Chehalis in canoes. For once I let discretion be my guide and I avoided the water. I finally got the old farm tractor running - this is a major accomplishment - and one in which I take pride. After so many disappointments over the past years, it was nice to "fix" something. Pastures finally were mowed, and Judith turns out to be a pretty darn good tractor operator! At the end of the month we finally completed the process which allowed Judith's Mom to move to an assisted living facility in Chehalis. Talk about red tape and insane procedures, dealing with the needs of the elderly certainly comes close to the top of the list of complex topics. The state agency does not deserve the right to include "Services" in the department name.
August - Our first full month as a couple. It started in a "different" manner. We met with a psychologist (Sam) who has counseled me for years, and then with the grief counselor (Martha) who conducted the grieving support group meetings. Judith and I are determined to look under every stone and behind every tree as we start this new relationship. Our meetings with Sam and Martha were both difficult and rewarding and we found support and encouragement. Much like the minister who counseled us before our marriage, they each shared encouragement and enthusiasm for us and perhaps found me sane. The month became busy as dear friends of mine from Eugene stopped by for breakfast (we did the restaurant bit), Keith visited us, then Leigha arrived (her first train trip ever) and she and I purchased and planted a rose bush in memory of Ellen. We went to the county fair and had a great visit. Later I had a visit with the cardiologist and then 3 days later had a stent placed in my heart, the next day the hummingbirds left and I started developing flu symptoms, which later turned out to be medicine induced. Towards the end of the month we learned that the assisted living facility which has sheltered Judith's Mom for 10 years was closing their doors and evicting all residents without even as much as a cab fare.
July - The last two days of June I had picked up Esai and then Leigha for the start of a 9 - 10 day visit. It was fun to have two grandchildren all to myself! We invited Judith to join us at the Oakville July 4th parade (held July 1) and some of us saw the parade. The kids were more interested in things and sales at a small store. The rodeo was after the parade and I think I introduced all three of them to a new experience. We had a blast and the kids got their own "cowboy" hats with feathers and the works. July 1 was the start of haying and it also signaled the end of the growing season. As luck would have it the rain started on July 2, so haying slowed down just a bit.
One day midweek I noticed strange behavior in the horses - and discarded it right away. Later that same day Esai and I noticed their behavior again - and we then noticed a still shape in the field. I called Judith, as I suspected something beyond my ability to deal with. After Judith arrived from her home I found that "Grandma Cloudy", Ellen's first horse, had simply laid down and died earlier in the day. Thank God Judith was there to help Leigha and me. It was one of those difficult times that no one wants to ever face. Leigha had dreamed, for years, of riding Cloudy. Now Cloudy lay dead, and my dear granddaughter had another loss to deal with. It was a heartbreaking time for each of us. A friend came to my immediate rescue and brought his backhoe and he artistically dug a narrow grave and gently, without breaking the skin, moved that giant horse into her grave, in a standing position, facing the rising sun. It was, and still is, another tearful moment in all of our lives. Esai was a giant - and though only 10 years old - he grew immeasurably in that afternoons events.
Later, Betty and Keith visited, Lee and Dawn, the kids, Judith and I celebrated my birthday and Leigha's birthday. This month seems destined to be unusual. A routine treadmill exam in June revealed some news - and so in July a angiogram was necessary and then an echo-cardiogram. Before I knew it people were talking about open heart surgery, abdominal aorta aneurysm surgery and more things like bypasses, etc. Quite a surprise, as I had never felt healthier.
Sometime during the early part of this month I proposed to Judith. We bought our rings and decided to join in marriage as our relationship was founded not only on attraction to each other, but on common beliefs, convictions and honesty. We visited with her minister for a lengthy consultation, and with my psychiatrist (Sam). Individually with each of them we discussed a lot of hard issues and spent a lot of time on my mental health as it related to Ellen's death and the grieving process. A little over a week later, we rehearsed the church ceremony and on the 23rd we were married. Our idea of a small service was shattered in a pleasant way by a host of guests - and to this day we are amazed, thankful and blessed by the support shown by all the families brought together by our marriage and by the friends from 3 walks of life who gave us so much support and kindness, as Judith and I started a new life. I need to mention that Judith selected "Amazing Grace" without any knowledge of the past. I found it a beautiful tribute and transition in my life as Judith started the ceremony. As the minister, Amanda, described - we recognize full well the instrument of God that allowed us to meet. We've not looked back at our decision. We have looked back on Ellen's death and we try to include her memory in our celebration of the present. Our families and friends have been wonderfully supportive. I truly bless Lee, Dawn, Kenneth, Donna, Leigha, Keith, Betty, Esai, Leandro, Jasmine, Dave, Pam, Eric, Bill, Helen, Jere, Margaret, Merrily, Bill, Martha, Pat, Norma, Randy, Grace, Sandra, Mack and the many, many others who knew me over the years and have welcomed Judith into their lives too. This is truly a blessing.
From July 23rd on, life has been wonderful, exceedingly different and full of events which weren't on our calendar. Judith's job keeps her busy. Each work day starts at 5:00 a.m. (no I don't get up that early) and ends around 6:00 p.m. She loves her work with Seniors and from my own observation she is well loved by the Seniors. So in addition to a busy professional life, she suddenly was married, commuting further and starting out on journeys with me, her mother, and her son (Aharon).
June - Not busting out all over as the old song says - it starts out to be a continuation of the process started in February. A "Cancer Walk" to honor the dead turned into a very uncomfortable process. Not only did they not list Ellen as a victim, but the entire event seemed to be driven more by publicity than by emotions of caring or honoring. I walked for hours, sometimes crying, sometimes happy, and came out it awakened to the fact that death is final for the deceased - but lives as pain for as long as the survivor wants to live in misery. I think it was then that I finally understood, in the grief part of my brain, that Ellen did not want me to live in misery. The following day I learned that the wife of the dearest of friends had suddenly died in the hospital. A quick trip to Eugene two days later and once again I was facing the agony and pain that death brings to the living. My wedding rings were removed as I finally realized I was on my own. It was in early June when I wrote positive affirmations about Ellen's death and about my desire to honor Ellen's life, my love for Ellen, my respect for Ellen while respecting my health, healing, need for life, need to grieve and the ability to participate fully in life. Keith came for a welcome visit. In mid-June another visit with my psychiatrist (Sam) and I discussed my new feelings. Sam laughed and congratulated me, and encouraged me to take it easy, as a single guy I would be a "hot commodity". At the grief group meeting that night I was in touch but out of place - I was having trouble dealing anymore with continuing to live in a personal, self-created world of pain. The next day I had lunch with a friend, and mentioned I was getting up nerve to go out. After lunch I took one of my last boxes of donations to the Senior Center and ran into Judith quite by accident. She walked out a door that I was standing by - we both stuttered and before I knew it I had asked permission to call her later to see if she might possibly consider going out to lunch with me. She agreed to that weasel worded invitation and a day later I called her. We somehow negotiated a date for lunch in 6 days, and then I learned she would be caring for horses again at my "next-door neighbors" that evening. I left the CRC office, did my chores and 3 or 4 hours later swallowed my fears and walked through 3 pastures and over 2 fence lines and very luckily ran into her as she was leaving in her car - a minute later and we would not have met. She volunteered to drive me to my gate. She left her car there and we walked around the property and started 9 hours of conversation. It was a conversation that could best be described as a tennis game that paused only because the participants called time. There was no competition, no winner and no loser, just a continuous volley of topics, words, thoughts, beliefs, convictions. I learned something of Judith's morals, family, beliefs, religion, social needs, politics, honesty, convictions and dreams. We tried to go grab a bite at the local cafe, it was closed, we ended up with salads at 11 pm at the local casino, and then 4 hours of conversation (part of the 9 hours) over the phone. Over the next couple of days the conversations continued - by phone and on the property. 5 days later, when Judith surprisingly appeared at the hospital where I was scheduled for a treadmill exam, it dawned on me that something unusual was happening. The next day was to be the "day of our lunch date" and by then I knew I had to take the initiative and take Judith down my "history wall". Those of you who have known me for years know that I am a recovering alcoholic, that I was married before Ellen, and that I have an sometimes unbecoming history . The pictures in the house tell the story, and so I invited a reluctant Judith into the house for her first visit and a trip down my history wall, as the time for my total honesty had arrived. The next day we met with her minister. We were getting very serious about each other and we needed an "attitude check". Amanda, the minister, and I talked for a long time about Ellen's death, my grieving process, the steps I had and was taking along the grief road, and the circumstances which led to meeting Judith, my vision of Judith, and the steps that led to this meeting with Amanda. At the end of that interview, Amanda very simply "affirmed" that Judith and I were on track with our relationship and that she could see no issues, past or present, that would detract from us pursuing the relationship. Needless to say Judith and I were elated and ecstatic and very humble about the circumstances which led to our meeting.
May - Ellen's wedding ring joined mine in a permanent union. Keith continues to help me down this grief road and provide the support I need to stay in the present and get into the future. I am walking, mowing, weeding and doing everything I can around the property. Grief group meetings continue - they are extremely helpful. Weekly trips to Oakville, Chehalis and Elma result in warm feelings as folks express their gratitude with the gifts provided through Ellen's life. I have orders from the psychiatrist (Sam) to visit different people each week. My "next-door neighbor" becomes a frequent destination.
April - Helen and Bill (dear friends) joined me to brighten early April. I was madly taking daily walks and mowing grass as often as I could. Ellen's garden became my garden. I was driven to stay busy . Esai joined me for a wonderful time. I ventured out on my first volunteering (Easter Sunday) and my wedding ring became a necklace close to my heart. My weekly trips to Oakville, Chehalis and Elma continue. I saw Judith once during this month. We had an awe inspiring discussion of grief. It was comforting and terrifying - both at the same time. On another trip I met my "next-door (1/2 mile away) neighbor". My "cancer support group" meetings end and I start attending "grief support group" meetings twice a month. At the first meeting I can barely same my name. My first visit to my psychiatrist (Sam) and his first question: "Tell me, where is Ellen right now and how is she?" A question seldom asked of a grieving person. It brought home some thoughts and helped me more than one would dream possible
March - In March of 2000 I was in possession of a wealth of medicines and a wealth of wonderful craft supplies and clothing. Rather than dump it on family members or try and sell it for a profit, I listened to what I knew Ellen would say. She had a strong sense of community and she had a long history of volunteering and giving to others. That made the decision to donate her gifts an easy one. I worked with a hospital, two senior centers (Elma, WA and Chehalis, WA) and the Oakville clothing bank. Every week I would go to at least two and leave a quantity of supplies or clothing. It was through this process that I first met Judith. (In late July I still had clothing and materials, the process was long, involved and something I believed in.) Keith returned to shore me up and Leigha made a delightful guest for a few days. I even risked my first meeting in public. Best of all the swallows returned bringing moments of sadness, but a lot of cheer too.
Shortly after Ellen's death, I felt compelled to write a guide for new cancer patients. It is a rather short introduction to the new world of medicine specifically for cancer patients. It pulled together, in one spot, all the things that Ellen and I learned after we found out what "oncology" meant. This guide became sort of a " things they didn't teach you in school about cancer medical care". Surprisingly, it has been well received and over 1,500 folks have gotten a copy of it. Through this guide Ellen is still teaching people, something she did quite well during her life. It is truly sad that there are so many in need of this information.
Unless you've been through similar grieving, some of the things I call accomplishments seem like grains of sand on the beach. But putting unused medicines into good hands, finding useful ways to place articles of clothing or sewing materials, each represents a mountain from my point of view. Over time these things might look like sand to me, but right now, with numerous tasks in front of me it seems like a mountain range is between me and tomorrow.
Life was like a melting pot, more like paint store after an earthquake. The range of emotions, support, loneliness, desperation, anger, learning, reaching out, feeling abandoned, feeling in deep and dark wells, was beyond description. I eventually woke up and realized all that had transpired was a normal part of life. Some of us - maybe only half - experience it as I did - yet at the time I would gladly have traded places with someone from the other half. I wrote about that period of time in this way:
"The most painful event was Ellen's physical death. It haunted me for a long time. It was followed by the emotional death related to our "coupleness" and then the emotional death related to "our future" (the hopes and dreams that were shattered). These emotional deaths came to me well after the physical death. They were extremely painful to face and deal with. These emotional deaths came close together, but it still took separate events to handle them - and by events I mean really painful periods of tears or fears or pure anguish. They were hard to give up - but I learned that I couldn't be a "couple" or have a "future" with someone who was dead. I was finally and actually alone - I also had to face and look at my care-giving for Ellen and how it might have impacted her or caused her death. It took a lot of effort to come to grips with care-giving and to realize that nothing I did led to her death. But that "guilt" was hard to wrestle with and it took some tough reading (as in "How We Die"), to show how limited my care-giving impact really was. It sort of forced me to face the realities of cancer and the amount of energy expended in trying to defeat a disease - even if it costs the patient some quality of life . Not a nice topic to have to review and think about . Sometime after that it dawned on me that I was no longer loved and cared for. I was now totally alone and there was no one, no where, anyplace in the universe - who loved me as much as Ellen had. Boy that was a shock. I really felt alone - and scared and terrified. This was a painful time. It was uncomfortable. But it was a confirmation that Ellen was dead and could do nothing to help me ever again. Then I had to wrestle with "I don't care about anything either". That was a dark period for me. I just quit caring. I sort of thought, if no one cares for me, then I don't care for anyone or anything either. As you can tell I was really hitting the bottom of the well. It was cold, dark and wet. It was not a nice place to be."
That was when (by then late May) I started climbing out. I knew I could stay there - at the bottom - or I could try to climb out. I didn't want to stay there and blame Ellen's death for my troubles. I began to realize that my troubles were simply a mental prison that I had climbed into, so I had to climb out.
It was about then that I finally yelled out in defiance about Ellen's death. Up until then I had been sort of quiet. Then one day I screamed my anger out loud and broke down sobbing - that was a real purging experience and almost immediately things began to change.
That was when I started to care about myself and look forward to caring about others. I really knew that everything about Ellen was dead, and I knew I didn't want to die - emotionally or physically.
February - started off wonderfully well. We were so close to finding an answer to Ellen's nausea and we both rejoiced that brighter days were coming. On Feb. 3 we saw the oncologist, on Feb. 4 we went to the hospital for stomach tests, on Feb. 7th we went back for more stomach tests. On February 8 I wrote to our support group and others:
"Dear Friends This is the note no one wants to write or read. Ellen began a new journey this morning, with new wings, perhaps a new form - but certainly the same wonderful soul. We were not ready to start a journey in separate worlds, but God provided a path and Ellen was able to choose to follow it, with all my love and support. Our 4 year journey was aided and comforted by dozens if not hundreds of you. You are a gift of immeasurable value. I will always be in your debt. Her new journey began at 7:30 a.m., very quietly and with a great deal of peace. A compassionate emergency room staff aided me in one of the decisions no caregiver ever wants to exercise. Our cancer support group is led by a minister and a MSW, and a second hospital minister befriended us over the months. With their love and support my separate road started with their prayers, compassion and realistic support - and I am thankful for that."
As Ellen said in May of 1999 "If dreams were wings we would each be butterflies" - and I think of her beauty, love, honor and generosity much of the time, but especially when I see a butterfly.
Ellen's death brought to a close a romantic marriage of 20 years. Her personal journey began in 1996, and it was the highest of honors to be her best friend, lover and husband throughout all of our marriage and especially those last years. She was a courageous, devout and exceedingly compassionate cancer victim. We knew at the onset that there was and is no cure. Together we tried all avenues of help. As death approached she had a vitality and optimism that still shines brightly in my heart and memory. Her death, while anticipated, was a total shock.
February, March and much of April and May then became a blur. Oh I have daily notes - but I recall most vividly her death in front of me, the Memorial Service with the many tributes and Chris playing a beautiful and soulful "Amazing Grace", the trip to the Pacific Ocean (her requested destination) surrounded by family and the dearest of friends. Then I was all alone, yet surrounded by years of memories, and staring down a long dark road of grief. Keith visited me two times and was a stalwart friend and son through this period of hell.
January - The Palmer Christmas - New Years letter for 2000 never reached you. It started out: "The Holidays and Y2K are behind us now and it appears I am still stuck in the last century. We had wonderful plans for this holiday season, including promptness. Along came the newest member of the grinch family (shingles) and we fell behind. The century starts with both of us hoping to be around for quite a few more years. Then we look back on 1999, 1998, 1997 and 1996 - we sometimes wonder just how we got this far ."
Now in January 2001:
Throughout all of this I learned God must have many ears, as I kept Him busy, many times a day - and He provided me guidance and the ability to learn true acceptance and faith. Without God and my faith in God there would be a different story to tell.
A book I read nightly for 5 months (How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies) includes these words: "And, in the end, this moving forward with that scar is the very best that we could hope for. You would not want to forget your loved one, as if she had never existed or not been an important part of your life. Those things that are important to you in your life are remembered and kept in the very special places of your heart and mind. This is no less true with regard to the loss of a beloved person. Keep this loss, treasure what you have learned from it, take the memories that you have from the person and the relationship and, in a healthy fashion, remember what should be remembered, hold on to what should be retained, and let go of that which must be relinquished. And then, as you continue on to invest emotionally in other people, goals, and pursuits, appropriately take your loved one with you, along with your new sense of self and new way of relating to the world, to enrich your present and future life without forgetting your important past."
You are each in and a part of my memory, you enrich my present and future life, and I will not forget you.
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