And so it ends: On Halloween, the cancer train that carried my wife for over two years moved on as we sadly disembarked. Standing on the platform, there was a sense of relief that her tortuous journey had ended.
Now we prepared for the wake and funeral we had hoped would not happen. Family and friends gathered to offer support. The house was constantly full with people coming and going and making sure I was all right. Although operating in a daze and with much help, I was able to make sure all her last wishes were realized. Her “send-off” was exactly as she would have wished.
The activity soon ends and one is left alone to absorb the loss. Most painful is the knowledge that she will not be coming home. Her comforting presence I took for granted. That loss will slowly heal, but the pain will linger. It is embedded in my memory.
I begin the journey of the rest of my life alone. Despite the support and love of family, for which I am so grateful and upon which I depend, there remains that hole only Joan could fill. For over 53 years, she was always there, even when we were apart.
Death, the most common of all experiences, is not shared. Each individual faces it in his or her own way. Those who prepare for it are probably better equipped to endure the inevitable. Knowing there is no escape, fear eventually gives way to resignation and acceptance. While the divide will be crossed by all, no one is certain as to what, if anything, lies beyond. Faith is a choice. It is hope affirmed, offering comfort in the belief of a joyous reunion. Oblivion is embraced as a satisfactory and more realistic alternative by non-believers.
I heard Joan’s cell phone ring a few days after her death. It was a text from one of our granddaughters that read simply: “Nana please come back,” Nothing in the entire experience moved me more than that plea from one who loved her dearly. I could only try to assure her that her nana still loved her and would remain a presence in her life.
Both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers died before I was born, so grandparents were not a part of my growing up. We were fortunate enough to be able to participate in the lives of our nine grandchildren. Joan, in particular, was close to them all, planning family events, never forgetting a birthday, and her specialty: “Nana never says no dinners and shopping sprees.” Poppas are okay, but I think most would agree that when it comes to grandparents, nanas (by whatever name) know best.
An odd thing happened the other evening. I had taken something up to the loft, a guest bedroom we rarely used over the garage. As I was leaving, a picture fell off the wall. I picked it up and saw that it was an aerial photograph of the campground in Marshfield where we had a trailer on the water for 43 years. My wife loved it there.
Both the wire on the picture and the hook were fine, and as I hung it back on the wall, I said aloud: “Are you trying to tell me you’re okay and at the beach?” Fortunately, there was no reply or I would have had a heart attack then and there. Was this a “Joan wink,” as one of my daughters suggested, or just a coincidence? Why would this particular picture fall off the wall for no apparent reason while I was in the room? I prefer to believe it was a comforting message of reassurance.
Whatever it was, it made me feel better. Life is a mystery, but now and then we may get a clue, a hint of what lies beyond. After six weeks of watching my wife struggle to live, I needed a sign. A picture falling off a wall will do.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.