The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, June 24, 2006

I think we all want peace, but it's too much to face and it's too far to reach

Well, well, well… What do I blog about today?

Perhaps I should blog about the way death actually happens.

Yep, you read that right.

I lost two readers this week. One reader stopped reading because of what I wrote. This reader, henceforth known as “TR”, read too many bits of my writing. TR saw a few too many bits of this blog – or perhaps “recognized” is the right word – and felt that I was being too blunt, too honest, too much TR-focused. Perhaps TR was right, although I have to admit, I don’t think so.

The other reader I lost to cancer. Jeanne Michele Russell, born April 27, 1961, died June 23, 2006, at 1:40 pm. She fought a 6 month battle with cancer, and won.

She didn’t like talking about it as a fight – because that suggests there is a winner, and, worse, a loser. She didn’t want people to think she “lost” – because she was afraid that people would think she didn’t try hard enough.

Trust me, she tried hard enough. She went through chemo. She went through so many surgeries I can’t even remember them all. She had three different tubes in her. She couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds with her right arm because of one of the tubes. Yes, she was right handed.

Did you know that she was a bodybuilder in graduate school? And that when we started dating, she could do more sit-ups than me? But she couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds with that arm.

She weighed 95 pounds at the end. While she was still stronger, I used to rag on her to get her to do some core exercises, on an Aerex pad, or on the Bosu ball. She did her best – she was a trooper. But eventually, a while ago, her balance got too bad.

She used to sleep on a bed that I bought and put in our living room, so we could be together when she needed to rest. When I bought it, she asked me – in a horrified tone of voice – if it was a “sick bed”.

I lied. I told her it wasn’t. But I knew better.

Sometimes a lie is the best path.

When her balance got bad, and as she lost weight, she got very weak. I promised that I'd care for her. What I said was something rich like “Honey, when you need it, I'll carry you up these stairs. I won’t let you get hurt.”

Rich, huh?

What I didn’t understand, at the time, was that she was terrified that I'd have to do so.

Last week, she wanted to come downstairs – see, she’d been spending all day in her bed, upstairs. Anyway, she wanted to come downstairs, spend some time in front of the TV, with me. I think we watched a House episode. Or something. Anyway, it took us 5 minutes to get downstairs. I walked in front of her. That way, if she fell, she’d fall on me.

The advantages are obvious. I'm heavier than her, and stronger. So if she fell, I could catch her. How sad is it that we were planning for her to fall.

Well, regardless, she didn’t fall.

But when it came time to go back upstairs, she was so unsteady that she had trouble walking across the floor. I was afraid of her climbing the stairs. So I carried her. And she was, at the same time, grateful AND incredibly sad.

I had to carry her. I didn’t mind. But she did. She never wanted to be weak, or vulnerable. And she was.

She was dying.

She never came downstairs again.

Except on a stretcher. In a bag.

People don’t die the way they do in Hollywood movies. It doesn’t take 5 minutes.

JR’s death was mostly very peaceful. I was there, holding her hand, telling her I love her, and that it was time to let go, and that we’d all be ok.

There were a few minutes where she was choking. She was terrified. I will carry the image of her, in those few minutes, for the rest of my life. I couldn’t help her. The nurse told me that I shouldn’t do anything, just comfort her, tell her it was all going to be ok. So I did.

Strangely enough, that didn’t help. So I lifted her head. That helped.

But she died anyway.

However, she didn’t die terrified.

She died quietly. Her breathing just stopped. I was holding her hand. Did I say that already?

About ten minutes before she died, she opened her eyes, looked at me, and said “Ok, it’s time. I'm ready.”

I told her goodbye, and thanked her for being in my life. She smiled at me.

Then she died.

But she didn’t quite die. She started showing incredible apnea – her breathing would stop for almost 30 seconds at a time. In fact, I couldn’t tell when she died. I had to keep looking at the nurse to see if she was alive, and the nurse was able to see what I couldn’t – little micro-breaths.

When the other hospice nurse came that morning, she noticed that there was no pulse in JR’s feet, and they were red and swollen. She didn’t tell me there was no pulse there—but they told me later. When the primary hospice nurse came that afternoon, she told me that JR’s pulse in her wrist was so weak that she couldn’t feel it. She found a pulse in her carotid – barely – and could hear it in her stethoscope. JR’s blood pressure was 60 over 40.

For those of you playing the home game, that’s pretty darn low.

By the end, the nurse couldn’t even hear her pulse in the scope, but could still feel it faintly in her carotid.

She lasted a long time on these awful breaths, with her eyes fixed, and no pupil response to light. The nurse said that her heart was strong, it was lasting longer. She actually said “healthy hearts resist dying longer”.

I think I shall never exercise again.

The hospice people cleaned up the house, after, and dressed her in a lovely blouse that her mom and I picked out. They put makeup on her, and lipstick. She looked beautiful.

I kept seeing her breathe, just like when she was sleeping. She had almost a smile on her face.

Before she died, she kept saying “Lift me up, lift me up.” Do you think she was talking to me, or to someone else?

At one point, she looked at a corner of the room and smiled and said something like “hi!” to nothing. At the same time, my Dalmation looked at that corner and barked softly.

Minnie – the Dal – had a boyfriend named Flanagan. Flanny was JR’s first dog. Flanny died several years ago. Do you think Flan came to help JR find the way after? I want to believe that. JR would have followed Flan anywhere.

I hope he led her well.

We went to mass today. We, in this case, includes an old friend of JR’s who was there when she died, and my best friend. I kept crying through mass – it was embarrassing. I mean, really, what kind of man am I, anyway? Boys don’t cry, as you know.

The mass today was about fear, and how God wants us not to be afraid. The reading was about the Apostles getting afraid of a storm, and waking Jesus up, and he told them not to be afraid.

Hmm. I could get away here with comparing myself to Jesus, although I think it’s an unhealthy habit.

Regardless, the only thing of substance I said to JR in the last day was not to be afraid. I think she wasn’t.

I can’t describe how hard it is. I thought I was ready for her to die.

I was wrong.

Or maybe I am ready, but it’s harder than I thought. Kind of like when you pick up a weight to deadlift it, but it’s heavier than you expected, and there’s that period of unsustainable pain when you lift the weight.

How long will I feel this way? Will it pass soon?

The hospice people took all the medical supplies – we had a lot of excess stuff, and some of it was expensive. I hope other sick people can benefit. JR’s mom and friend have cleaned up the room where she was sleeping. I returned a painting we had moved to its original location.

I am sitting here watching TV. Next to the TV is a guitar, in a box. I bought it because JR said she wanted to learn to play guitar. She never got around to learning.

Maybe I will learn.

I think a successful blog post is one where I say at least one thing that makes me uncomfortable. One of my friends described me as a “not of one the good guys, one of the fabulous guys”.

I don’t know if that’s true. But I hope I did what JR needed me to do. I hope that she felt safe, and warm.

At the end of it all, I did my best. That will have to be sufficient.


  • I have been reading your blog for about 4 months. I found it after I saw you speak at an event in Tucson. I thought it would be about technology in business. I became interested in other things that you wrote about.

    My mom died on July 5th, 2000. It was 5 days after finding out that it was cancer of the pancreas that was making her feel sick for the past 2 weeks. She died with me, in my home, after her doctor had the wisdom to get her out of the hospital.
    I will tell you what I learned:
    1. The experience of sorrow you are going through is different for everyone.
    2. There is no right way to feel.
    3. Allow yourself to feel every emotion you experience as it happens.
    4. You will never get "over it", but each person can learn to get "through it".
    5. Do not activly try to repress any thoughts or actions. You must go through this trauma now.

    This is all I know. I learned it on the way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:24 AM  

  • I wrote this in my blog last week:

    This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is a flash of lightening in the sky. Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.

    I sit here knowing that in a few hours time my friend will die. I wish that the words of the Buddha comforted me but they do not. Perhaps they will in time, but right now I am angry, sad, confused and I find no fluid beauty in thought of her passing.

    You should learn to play

    All my love

    By Anonymous Dona Croston, at 9:30 AM  

  • You are in my prayers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:33 PM  

  • Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true. -Robert Brault, software developer, writer (1938- )

    By Blogger Andre, at 7:02 AM  

  • I wrote this last night.

    Thank you for trying

    He was at her side, by morning light
    said i didn't get to sleep, at all last night.
    I tossed and turned in our big, old bed
    going over all the things, you had said.

    the list of instructions, to help me day to day
    the tapes for the girls, dated when to play.
    there was just so much, we had to talk through
    that i never got a chance, to say this to you

    baby, thank you for trying
    when others would have, said that's it
    you held strong, and wouldn't quit
    gave everything you had to give
    lived every moment, as a borrowed gift
    baby, thank you for trying

    now, when i feel, i can't face, another day
    i lean on every word, that you didn't say
    your courage, love,your strength within
    gets me back on track, to livin' again

    He placed a dozen roses, on her headstone
    said, there's one more thing, that i want you to know,
    I'll be doing my best ,so, that when I come join you
    You'll have every reason, to say this too

    baby, thank you for trying
    When others would have, said that's it
    you held strong, and didn't quit
    Gave everything, you had to give
    lived every moment, as a borrowed gift.
    baby, thank you for trying

    copyright protected

    By Blogger linda, at 12:13 PM  

  • Wow. This is one of the most touching pieces of writing that I've ever read. Someone told me at your bday party yesterday about this blog, so I came and read it.

    I'm very sorry to hear about your loss. It is such a horribly painful situation. I wish you the best, in dealing with the aftermath.

    I hope writing about it is carthartic for you. It is beautiful writing. Thank you for writing it.

    By Blogger Niniane, at 12:33 AM  

  • hey douglas,
    long time reader, first time commenter.
    this post really struck a chord with me.
    my mom was diagnosed with cancer 6 years ago and it's been an up and down roller coaster since...she's at her weakest right now and gets chemo every 2 weeks.
    it sucks because i can't imagine life without her.
    life already seems hard (i'm 22 and trying to figure out what i want to do with my life)....with relationships, work, figuring out my purpose in life, etc....
    that to even try to live without her love and constant support and guidance is unfathomable.

    anyways, i just wanted to say that your post really touched me. and i just know you're going to be ok.
    you are letting yourself feel all the emotions that come with an experience like this and i think that's really healthy...and i love that you're honest and sincere with your thoughts and actions.
    i'll be praying for you.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:08 PM  

  • I am really not sure how I ended up here. Strange the way things work. I was on today, and saw an article about you, which led me to your blog. We have much in common. I am an ex-CIO (left the corporate world to start my own consulting organization), about your age, but more importantly, I lost my soul mate to cancer. She passed away in 2003 after about a year bout with cancer, and after 9 years of marriage to me, and 15 years together (we were high school sweethearts). The first message I saw on your blog was the birthday wishes to JR. I then found your post about her death. It just really brought me back to 5/25/03, the day Kim passed away. At any rate, I hope that your new gig goes well in the music world, and that you keep JR near and dear to your heart. It sounds like she was an amazing person, that provided great support to help get you to where you are (just like Kim did for me), and I know that she would be proud of what you have done in your life!

    By Blogger Darin, at 11:13 AM  

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