Stephen Lewis: All she was, all together we were

Stephen Lewis

Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that because our eyes are in our forehead not our hindhead, we should look ahead. It has been two months since my wife died, but I am finding it difficult to follow that advice.

The more immediate past when her early onset dementia made clear its intention to end her life prematurely imposes itself unbidden. I can be sitting in my usual chair in the living room when out of the corner of my eye I see her lying in the hospital bed where she spent the last months of her life. Only the bed is no longer there. I donated it along with other medical equipment associated with the last two years when I was her full-time caregiver.

I still see on the counter the blender with which I learned how to puree her food when her swallowing became difficult. I disposed of all her medicines and I gave away the protein drinks and protein bars purchased in a vain attempt to keep her body strong, and this morning I threw out the frozen breakfast sausages I had served her every morning.

The house is filled with artifacts that recall our lives together, far too numerous to even begin to list. The only way to free myself from the assault of the memories these items provoke would be to wipe the slate clean by moving into an entirely new environment and fill it with new objects.

But those replacements would underscore how big a hole her dying has created, a hole that no new things can fill, no replacements satisfy my intense desire to hold on to the good memories, the ones that predate her disease, the ones that attest to all that she was as well as all that together we were.

The process that will enable me to apply Emerson’s dictum begins with my dealing with a brief interchange we had not too long before she died. At that point, I was no longer sure she knew who I was but she did occasionally call out my name even though she rarely was able to articulate words.

On that day, she was in the bed and I was sitting on the couch a few feet away and she said quite clearly, “Steve.” I answered, “I’m right here. Steve is right here.” And then she said, “Thank God.”

Whether it was or not, to me that was a cry for help I could not deliver.

If I can loosen the hold that seeming plea has on me, perhaps I can move to the next step that has me accepting my present reality represented by intensely contrasting images. On the day of her interment, standing by the freshly dug grave, small enough to accept the urn containing her ashes, the sexton asked me if I wanted to place the urn into the grave. I declined. I wanted nothing to do with that urn. I had asked the sexton to pick it up for me from the funeral home.

I could not then, nor can I now, reconcile the image of that small, biodegradable container holding its cold ashes with my still vivid memory of the warm breathing body I had so often and even recently embraced. Until, and unless I can accomplish that reconciliation, I will not be able to switch my gaze to the future without being dragged back into the unrelenting grip of the past.

I wonder if Emerson, whose young wife died from tuberculosis, and whose 5-year-old son from his second marriage died from scarlet fever, managed to take his own advice.