By all accounts, my 2013 has been pretty awful. As I approach Thanksgiving, I begin to reflect on those things for which I am grateful.
I realize that looking back I can find little pockets of joy that were preserved in the worst months of the first half of the year. More recently, those pockets are beginning to look more and more like full pairs of trousers. There may be some ratty cuffs and torn knees, but my joy seems to be growing as time passes.
I knew this would happen, I just wasn’t sure how quickly. Everyone says, “Give yourself a year.” Many say, “Some days the grief is crippling.”
I’m happy to report that I don’t feel like I need a year, nor do I feel that I’ve been crippled by guilt.
Now, it took a lot of courage to write that. Before you go judging me, I will assure you that I miss Francis terribly. There is a hole in my heart that will never be filled.
However, what I didn’t realize until recently is that my life began to move on as soon as the hospice nurse and chaplain walked into the room to join me next to Francis’s body.
Time stops for no one, not even a grieving widow. It may march a little slower at times, but it also may speed right by without so much as a wave.
Everyone grieves differently. Everyone has a very different experience. But my grief is my own, and no one should judge someone else’s grief experience by a yard stick that is their own.
My counselor often reminds me that grief has no timeline. She’s correct. Some may never move on from the death of a loved one. Others may not even seem fazed by it.
One thing I am thankful for is that I am blessed with two amazing little kiddos. They give me reason to get up in the morning – albeit earlier than I would like – and plenty of opportunity for gut-busting laughter (when they aren’t too busy making me their referee). Our children are terribly ticklish. I need only hear that tickle-induced laughter to feel better about my day and the days to come.
One other experience for which I am so grateful happened just a little over a month ago.
When our family returned from Houston, Francis and I had many conversations about what my life may look like after he was gone. He was insistent that I find a way to get back in touch with who I am.
Over the course of nearly three years, I had redefined my life. I am a woman who found great pleasure in my identity as a successful and hard-working political insider. I worked long hours and had some incredible opportunities that came to an abrupt end with Couper’s birth. Much of that change was a choice, though some was unexpected. It has all been worth it.
I went back to work after maternity leave. But just two months later, I found myself in an SUV packed to the gills, with a nine-month-old who hated his carseat and two completely freaked-out cats. We were headed to our new home in Tallahassee to start a new chapter in our family’s life. I found out I was pregnant seven months later, and six months after that Francis’s health began to deteriorate rapidly.
I write all this not to complain but to explain why there was an urgency to Francis’s request. He was making sure that I was taken care of after he was gone, and that I was in a position to take care of that which we loved most – Couper and Riley. I had been a caregiver for so long that I needed a break. He may have recognized this more clearly than I did, but deep down I knew I needed to refresh after such a long, difficult period of caregiving.
His request was specific – go take a trip, without the kids. Take some girlfriends along, and get back in touch with the part of myself that had to be tucked away due to life’s circumstances.
So I did. I went to Florence with three friends. Not the Florence in SC, AL, AZ, WV, KY, WI, or MI (sorry if I left any others out). I went to Florence, Italy.
I was there for about 40 hours in 2004 and fell in love with what little I had seen. I knew I had missed a LOT, and have always wanted to go back. I thought this was as good a time as any, so I took the plunge.
There was no agenda or scheduled itinerary (other than an AMAZING tour of Amedei Tuscany Chocolate Factory – seriously, go). It was the best way to do Florence. We wandered the city (miles of walking each day). We embraced the Italian way of eating long and delicious meals. I didn’t do any speed walking and didn’t eat a single meal interrupted by urgent runs to the “potty” or small hands reaching onto my plate for a bite or twenty.
It was truly what I needed. It was also even better than I could have imagined it would be.
While Francis wasn’t there, he was the reason that I was. He was present in all that we did and perpetually on my mind.
The best part wasn’t finding amazing art, food, fresh air, or chocolate. The best part was that I found myself there. I found small pieces of what makes me who I am in places all over Florence and through building closer friendships with some amazing women in my life.
What I found was the me I am afraid I would have lost completely if I waited much longer to fulfill Francis’s wish. And thankfully, that is the me who flew home.
I left the worst parts of my widowhood – bitterness, anger, frustration, short temper, and impatience – stranded in transit like a much less pleasant Viktor Navorski in the movie The Terminal.
I hope that me doesn’t ever find it’s way home. This me is a much better and more content woman and mother.
The trip also inspired me to help other women find the same renewal that I did. The seed Francis planted, over six months ago now with his request that I make a fresh new start, has grown into a full grown dream.
Francis and I merely discussed an inspiring idea. I shared this crazy idea with a fellow young cancer widow. From there, it’s developed a life of its own and inspired other fantastic people to join us in our efforts.
Now, thanks to the dedication and inspiration of that amazing group of people who have become both my cheerleaders and teammates we’ll see that dream become a reality. I’ve found my new purpose – one that is far more worthwhile and rewarding than my career path to date.
I will gladly pour my blood, sweat, and tears into this dream to see other young cancer widows refresh, renew, and restart their lives after the death of their spouse. It’s thoroughly worth it.
Stay tuned for a more details in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have questions/comments or want to discuss this endeavor in more detail, feel free to contact me through the contact link.
I will close by saying that I am happy with where I am. I have many people to thank for that, including you, but I am more thankful for the value that falling in love with Francis has added to my life. Without him, I wouldn’t have Couper and Riley or all the other amazing adventures we shared. And now, thanks to him I have had an amazing new adventure of my own that has allowed me to begin to feel growing excitement for the adventures I will have in the future.
Doctors don’t know everything. Just ask one – gently. I imagine your doctor will tell you in one way or another that doctors are not all-knowing. If he or she claims to be the exception to the rule, find a new doctor – immediately.
The idea for this post has been bouncing around in my head for a long time. I was inspired to put it into writing this past week during a great lunch with my friend, Paige. We talked about the shortcomings of the medical field and the hope each patient has that his or her doctor is looking out for the patient’s best interest.
We discussed how our culture teaches us to respect authority. In addition, we put a high value on education. The more education one gets, the smarter one must be. Doctors find themselves somewhere near the top of the educated heap. The rest of us fall somewhere below that level, especially in the field of medical education. No, Google and WebMD aren’t good substitutes for a medical degree.
When these two facts are combined, many well meaning people take a back seat in their own healthcare out of respect for the doctor. After all, they know more than we do.
Unfortunately, our healthcare system has just the opposite approach. The system expects us to be in the driver’s seat of our healthcare decisions, not our doctor. The doctor is more like the navigation system, it’s up to the driver to accelerate, brake, or turn and any mistakes that navigation system makes don’t affect it, they affect the driver.
Francis and I learned this lesson the hard way, but the important part is that we did learn it. We learned that the most important thing you can do in a consultation with your doctor is to be a skeptic. Don’t be afraid of skepticism because, frankly, it could save your life.
I’m not advocating for patients to be know-it-alls. No one likes a know-it-all.
What I am saying is that we all need to get back in touch with our inner three-year-old when it comes to our doctors. We need to ask, “Why?” Over, and over, and over, and over, and…you get the point.
I’m raising a three-year-old. I hear this question a lot during my day. I suspect it should be as commonplace in a doctor’s office as it is in my home. I also imagine that, in the course of a day, patients don’t ask that of their doctors as often as my son asks me that question in the car to and from preschool.
Everything your doctor recommends should be met with a three-year-old’s sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn. After all, it’s your body and your doctor doesn’t have to live with it.
While stretching yourself to be a skeptic, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion after a diagnosis. As a matter of fact, that should be your first instinct. Even if that doctor giving the second opinion arrives at the same diagnosis and course of treatment, consider it a learning experience. Each time you talk about your medical situation you learn something new. Embrace that knowledge and don’t be afraid to be a skeptic with them either. The doctor giving the second opinion is probably expecting it.
Then, ask for a third if the first two doctors don’t agree. And this is important, tell your doctor what you’re doing. Don’t go behind their back and sneak off to another doctor. You’re not cheating on them. Your first doctor could have valuable input about who to see. Even better, they could be willing to call and discuss the case with the other doctor.
If your doctor gets angry or defensive, that’s a really bad sign. Doctors should be taking the lead from you. The best doctors gave Francis referrals to other doctors for second opinions and then called and discussed the case with them.
Two heads are better than one, and three are probably even better. There is a reason that places like Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson operate with a team approach to diagnosis and treatment. Much can be gained by sharing ideas, debating diagnoses, and challenging treatment options.
We should question everything we are told until we have a complete understanding. We should be asking “why” until our curiosity is quenched.
Take a notebook to every appointment with all of the questions you want answered, no matter how mundane the question seems to you. Don’t be embarrassed to ask anything. Don’t let them rush you out of the office before you’ve asked every question in your notebook.
After waiting over three hours past our appointment time on our first visit to MD Anderson, we were told by another patient that we should relax and stop watching the clock. The appointment time there is merely a suggestion. The doctors there take the time needed to answer every question a patient has. Be thankful if your doctor does the same with you, and try to be patient in the waiting room. I admit that I still struggle with being patient, but I do expect them to make time for me to be a skeptic.
I’ll close by driving this point home, be sure to take your inner three-year-old to the doctor’s office with you. Then go ahead and set him or her free to unleash a barrage of whys. A good doctor will appreciate it.