Friday, October 29, 2010

Love and the Cathode Rays

At some point in the next week, I will finish watching season 6 of The Office on NetFlix and part of my connection to Verna will dissolve. I’ve been half channeling, half mirroring Verna since she died, and at the conclusion of season 6, the last one available instantly, I will probably stop watching the shows Verna viewed for the last several months of her life.

Shortly after she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006, family and friends brought her DVDs to watch while she recovered from her biweekly doses of chemotherapy. We were reformed TV addicts at the time, but Verna quickly renewed her habit out of necessity.

A cancer memoir that appeared shortly after Verna first got sick captured Verna’s state of mind. Cancer Made Me Shallow Person, an illustrated narrative by another woman who ultimately lost her battle to cancer, is funny, irreverent, poignant, and a brash statement of identity amid a terminal illness.

Verna loved the book (which I also read) and used it to defend and rationalize her sedentary lifestyle. So she watched Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, The Sopranos, 24, The Medium, Curb Your Enthusiasm, MI5, both the original British and later American versions of The Office, countless movies. She said she just didn’t have the energy or ability to concentrate long-term on reading books, though she still devoured them, albeit more slowly.

I alternately resisted and embraced her TV viewing. I preferred reading, but TV is so mindless and, yes, watching a show together meant being together even if it was a very passive form of connecting. Sometimes I would read on the landing leading to our garage, huddled against the first step while Verna, resting in her recliner 20 feet away, cackled at some comedy or was engrossed in a tense drama. And at other times, I employed a can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach and sat on the couch and watched with her.

When we were laughing together or nervously awaiting the outcome of a show, I still preferred to be engrossed in engaging fiction or non-fiction, but it wasn’t as if Verna and I had no prior TV viewing history.

When we were first married, Thursday nights were Cheers. Then we drifted to Mad About You, a show that resonated because it was, like us, the story of a Jewish guy married to a non-Jewish woman. Tears of laughter streamed down our faces at the various family situations, often involving Paul Reiser’s neurotic Jewish relatives, Paul and Jamie navigated.

Then we had Miguel, and TV became less and less important. Verna went back to work, I did some writing, and we spent our evenings cleaning up or relaxing with books, magazines, or the newspaper. We still watched movies, pretty faithfully every Friday evening and often on weekends, but we avoided the boob tube (no pun intended).

So, now as season six winds down, and Jim and Pam just got married, escaping their own ceremony to secretly wed in the mist of Niagra Falls, I feel wistful and miss Verna so damn much. I sit in her electric recliner and, like her, have the computer propped on my knees, and I imagine myself laughing at the same scenes and instances in The Office as she did.

And that is why the soon-to-be conclusion of season 6 is so sad. In some ways, I feel Verna is with me when I watch her show. Once the show ends, I will have to confront in even starker terms what I have been living with since August 30: Verna has died and is not coming back.

Then, again, another one of our shows, the surprisingly witty and often hilarious How I Met Your Mother, season five, is now available on DVD. Verna and I watched seasons 1-4 together. I’ll have to see this one alone.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Technicolor Salvation

It's official. The family bed has been revived at our house. I am now sharing my California king-size bed with Miguel and Maya. Eight years after Miguel left our intentional family bed, both kids are sleeping with me. Maya joined me two weeks after Verna died after waking up two nights in a row in a state of terror. She would not be comforted until I came to bed and she was tucked next to me.

Miguel signed on last week in that casual and coy preteen way. "Dad," he said, lying next to his sister as I read to her, "your Tempurpedic mattress is so comfortable."

"You can stay here anytime you want," I said.

"OK, I'll just stay."

And he did. Given what has happened to him this year I was surprised he didn't express the need to be closer sooner. He was mugged in the late spring; his mother died at the end of August; and not quite two weeks ago one of his friends, a 13-year old eighth grader, committed suicide on October 10 (10/10/10).

Miguel spent that weekend with his best friend, who lives two or three houses away from the boy who killed himself, so Miguel saw him all three days, including his last day. I saw the boy twice, once on Friday when I dropped Miguel off on Friday and tossed the football to the boys, and on Sunday when I picked up Miguel. The boy jokingly and harmlessly put a neighborhood cat on top of my car before we left.

When I found out on Monday the 11th what had happened I was shocked (as was everyone in the community), but I was also concerned about Miguel. Would the roiling emotions swirling inside of him surge out of control? He and I talked, though I wasn't sure exactly what to ask him.

"Miguel, how are you feeling?"

"I was a little depressed when I found out about-----"

"Depressed enough to hurt yourself?"

"No," he said.

"Would you tell me if you had anything planned?"

"No," he answered. "But I am not planning anything."

Whew. There have been two parent meetings with school officials, group counseling, grief counseling, interventions, including having several students taken into psychiatric custody, and an open door policy at the school for the community. Miguel's home room teacher phoned me to say Miguel was being watched. I spoke with the principal and the school counselor. I met with Miguel's therapist, spoke to her twice on the phone, and Miguel saw her once.

A full court press of assistance is in place. Everyone says Miguel is doing fine. And they will alert me immediately if he changes. He is eating well, playing with friends, participating in sports, and doing well in school.

But, still, a nagging fear gnaws at my shaky psyche. What if reverberates over and over in my mind. So I bought two tickets to tomorrow night's National League Championship Series game in San Francisco because Miguel (and I) deserves the bubbling excitement of a playoff game in our backyard.

I am not normally pessimistic, but my optimistic nature has been battered this year. So it was Maya, as usual, who provided me a measure of comfort. She came to me last week and said, "Daddy, I had a dream last night about you and Mommy."

"What was it about?" I asked.

"There was green. And red," she said. "It was beautiful."

I still don't know what nocturnal images Maya saw in her sleep, but the coupling of colors was oddly comforting. The smile on her face and twinkle in her eyes made me feel that, yes, this too shall pass and the beauty of a preschooler's dream can conquer all and provide me strength to cope. Something like that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Birthday Blues and Revelation

Tuesday was Verna’s 46th birthday, so I feel compelled to share something about her. Though she was generally quiet, she possessed a finely tuned sarcastic wit. One time, at a party where we dressed as grown-ups, Verna in a long, low-cut black dress, me in a striped suit with a floral-print tie, we capped on each other so much that by the end of the evening our excitement levels had soared into the stratosphere. We traded barbs all night long and the result was a combination of verbal competition and lust.

I miss Verna. I miss being able to joke and tease and cuddle with her.

I celebrated her birthday by talking to her more during the day. After work I went to the cemetery. A few of our neighbors had left flowers. Our friend Amanda left flowers and a postcard, which ended perfectly: “Wish you were here.” I felt tears well up in my eyes.

We celebrated her birthday as a family at a local brew pub. Verna’s father, my mother and stepfather, and Miguel and Maya joined me at the Broken Drum, though I was feeling like the Broken Heart. I ordered my meal as soon as we arrived. I had to dash out for my first support group at hospice: Spousal or Partner Loss.

Our friend Tony said, “Don’t stay in the group if it doesn’t work for you.”

So I got there early and watched people enter the bereavement wing of the hospice building, thinking, “If I am the youngest person here, I am not coming back next week. I can only relate to people in my situation, those with young children.”

I sat in a large sofa chair, lips pursed, arms folded across my chest, just expecting everything not to work out.

Once the group settled in, I was clearly the youngest griever by at least ten years. We began by briefly sharing our stories. Of the ten people there, half had lost their wife, husband, or partner 8-12 months ago, and half of us had lost someone within the past 4-6 weeks. One woman’s partner, a man, died in early September.

On an intellectual level, I know that loss is loss is loss and that age is unimportant. On a visceral level, though, I felt I’d be unable to connect to people so far beyond my age cohort.

I was wrong.

As the evening wore on, I saw and felt how similar we all were. One woman spoke about crying outside the Safeway, unable to go in because she’d always shopped there with her husband. Another woman said how sad she was now just going home to an empty house and having no one with whom to share her day. A 61-year-old man talked about the double loss of his wife’s death in late August, a week before Verna died, and seeing his 18-year-old daughter off for her first year in college.

So I realized something deep inside of me that I already knew inside my foggy brain: loss is loss is loss. We are all grieving, together, apart, and this group of strangers, I knew, could come together and ease each other’s pain.

Another woman, in her early 70s, spoke of feeling lost without her mate of 55 years. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

We also shared what have been our hardest challenges since our loved ones have died. I said telling the kids that Verna had died, and now it’s balancing my overloaded life as I am back to work 30 hours a week. One woman, a corporate officer in a bank, said she may working too hard too soon. Her husband died two months ago.

As I scanned the room I saw and felt the loneliness and sadness, emotions that are part of my daily existence. Through grief and pain and moments of joy and blessing I felt extreme kinship to those people. When the facilitator asked us why we’d joined the group, I said, “Misery loves company. And being to share with people who really get it.”

Almost everyone nodded.

I guess it was fitting that I began my support group on the evening of Verna’s 46th birthday, as the raw emotions of grief still bubbled on the surface. I am not much in the mood for sarcastic repartee, but I’ll get there slowly.

Happy Birthday Verna. I love you.