A writer named Gail Sheehy wrote a best selling novel titled Passages back in the 1970s. It described the stages of adult life we all pass through on the road to our destiny. The basic premise was that each phase of life was a passage to the next phase. It was so long ago that I read it I can’t remember how she described each passage. I remember she used clever phrases like “the dirty thirties” to title each one. What I can do is tell you my version on of them as related to my life with my wife, Yvonne and that is what I’d like to do in this chapter.
If I had to title the first passage of our relationship as man and wife, it would be “Total Bliss”. We were so in love and happy that life was one big endorphin rush. From there, with the birth of our children and the practical demands of married life, we entered the disillusion passage where she discovered I’m was not really superman and I discovered she was not really Cleopatra and we both realized that keeping a marriage together is a real challenge. It was sort of like the sophomore jinx in professional sports, where the rookie of the year star player has on off year his second year, usually due to coping with the responsibilities of her newfound role. The next passage was one of growing confidence, where our children were flourishing and I was beginning to experience real success in my profession. It was the “we got this” time of our lives. Then we went into the peak performance phase of our lives; our children on their way to acceptance into first class universities, me at the top of my profession (the go-to guy when excellence was required for complex dental problems), Yvonne highly successful and a pillar of the community and money rolling in from multiple sources. This was the top of the world phase of our lives. Then we moved into the passage of uncertainty – children gone away to college, in my case, finding it more difficult to stay on top of the profession (much easier getting there than staying there), in Yvonne’s case faint signs that the extraordinary beauty she was most known for was beginning to fade, just slightly. I call it the second passage of disillusion. It was characterized by the rhetorical question, “What was it all for?”
Now, we’re in the final passage – the passage before death do us part. If I had to title it, I would call it, “The Rebirth of Love”. It began around my retirement seven years ago, with the first recurrence of Yvonne’s breast cancer into her bones. It was the mother of all wake up calls for me. It was the first time in many years I realized what a blessing she is to me and how fortunate I am to have her to share my life with. I remember a tear filled declaration of remorse given to her on bended knee for all the lack of attention and kindness I was guilty of from time to time, over the past several years. My declaration came with a plea for forgiveness and a pledge to show her how much I love her in some way every day, from that day forward. We both felt years of stress and anxiety melt away, and from that day forward we began to relive the life that the material pursuits of adulthood had denied us for so many years.
I find it interesting that the little quirks in her personality that I found to be so cute when we first married, that became sources of annoyance after we had children and took on mortgages and car notes, were again becoming cute and endearing to me. For example, her propensity to be unorganized and late whenever we were going out was once again amusing to me. I reasoned that I was past the point of caring how people would judge me if I walked into an affair late, so I just enjoyed the show of her starting and stopping to leave two or three times for something forgot, or thought she forgot. I began to notice things about her that I had taken for granted for so many years that now seem like hidden treasures or works of art that I have had in my possession since the day of our marriage. Like that broad smile, framed by full lips stretched paper thin and perfect teeth under the most beautifully pink gums. That smile conveyed a sweetness and lovingness that can’t be found anywhere else in the world but in her essence. Her mischievous laugh that always made me feel she was hiding a sweet surprise of some sort that she would give me when I least expected it. Her wispy brown hair that framed the most beautiful face the world had ever seen.
I could go on for page after page talking about her physical beauty, but as time went on I started to realize that the outward manifestation of her was not really she, but only a reflection of her true self – her soul. Could it be that these things about her that I thought were so beautiful were things that only I could see, because I and I alone could see through the window to her soul?
I don’t know if she meant to or not, but Yvonne has taught me what love really is over the past seven years. I’ve watch cancer slowly erode all of the beautiful physical attributes I enjoyed so much over the years. And yet, with each pound of body weight lost and physical feature deformed, she became more beautiful to me. Her attitude and her seemingly endless degree of optimism, in spite of the worst prognosis, has displayed a character defined by courage and determination, which makes her even more appealing. Most people don’t know it but cancer, as it progresses, destroys the mind as well as the body. It begins almost unnoticeable with a tendency to have to search for the correct word to finish a sentence every now and then. As it progresses, more short-term memory is lost and I noticed her always making lists for everything she planned to do the following day. I didn’t think much about it at first. I thought she was trying to be more organized and efficient. But what was actually happening was that she couldn’t remember the daily routines she had been following for at least a decade. Things like nails done on Monday, grocery shopping on Tuesday, etc.
As the mind diminishes, the true self emerges. Like the movie The Curious Life of Benjamin Buttons, a person’s psychological and emotional development regresses from mature adult, to adolescent, to preadolescent, to toddler, to infancy. With each phase of regressive development, you get to see what the true nature of the soul is at that time of life. If you can imagine what a teenager would be like if they were completely loving and trusting and caring at that age, that is what I began to see in Yvonne. Like an adolescent, very eager to impress that she had done everything she was supposed to do at any given time, very expressive, emotions on her sleeve. At the same time very concerned that I was cared for, in good health and happy. The same can be said all the way down the developmental later. The words to describe her are sweetness and kindness.
The things about Yvonne that draws people to her like a magnet are her eyes. Clear and light brown, they are the brightest eyes I’ve ever seen on a human being, full of zest and gratitude for life. Now that she is in the end stage of her disease, each day that light grows dimmer and dimmer. And that is the most heart breaking part of this process for me. Natural death doesn’t happen like you see on television and in the movies. It occurs in stages over a period of weeks. For the love ones surviving the death, it’s like psychological torture. What you see acted out on TV and movies are all phases rolled up in one dramatic scene. The part of Yvonne that all who knows her would recognize as Yvonne (her ability to express her feelings and understand and respond to the feelings of others, and exchange of communications around those things, expression of opinions about life, etc.) died a week ago. The children she gave birth to (my youngest son and daughter) and I where present early last Saturday morning. We were all a little depressed that my son was heading back to Atlanta since he was scheduled to return to work the following day. She was in the hospital bed in our family room that hospice had provided so she didn’t have to climb stairs. There are large windows on both sides of the room, creating a much lighter environment than our darker, more private bedroom. The early morning light shined gently over her bed. She called each one of my children in separately and spoke to them in private. I don’t know what she said to them, but after she spoke to them, she sent my son to call me into the room. I sat on the bed close to her and the children gathered around. She said in a very weak voice, as though having to muster up all the energy she had left in her body,
“I’m sorry. I’m so tired I don’t think I can live but a few more days. I want you to take care of each other. I want each of you to say a prayer for me.”
My children each said beautiful prayers that expressed their love for her and gratitude for having her as their mother. When my turn came, I held her in my arms, and with my forehead touching hers I said,
“Dear Lord, please watch over my sweet little Yvonne. Spare her the pain of death. Take her in your arms and gently take her to your kingdom and give her everlasting life. Amen”.
She then closed her eyes. Her head dropped limply to the side. There was a deep audible sigh and she fell into a deep sleep that she didn’t wake up from for five hours. When she did wake up, that part of her that said those final words was gone. She was unable to speak in complete sentences, only partially in control of her bodily functions and perpetually frustrated at being unable to communicate her desires. She had become a very sad toddler.
Today she is an infant, unable to stand by herself, completely unable to care for herself. I spend my time with her holding her hand and gently stroking the silky hair on her temple, gazing into her eyes, hoping to communicate through my eyes the love I have for her and my gratitude for having her as my wife. What’s left of her is not long for this world. I will sit by her side as much as I can until the end comes.