Imagine a wave…
I am twenty, and a behemoth of a man has entered my apartment. He is tentative, awkward. Not at all smooth, not suave, not confident, but smiling bravely. I can see I terrify him, although he outweighs me by a hundred pounds, although he’s a foot taller. He tries not to offend me. He tries not to make me uncomfortable in my shoebox apartment, full though it is with him. He is a perfect gentleman. He is curious and thoughtful and funny, so funny. I don’t know if I want to kiss him, and he makes no moves to attempt it.
He keeps a respectful distance for almost two and a half years, knowing this is not the time for entanglements between us. But when the time is right, he makes his move. He reaches out for me, puts his hands on my hips, so gentle but so bold, and pulls me against him. Two months later I miss him every moment we’re apart. A year later we move in together. I have already known I want to marry him for a long time. When he finally proposes, our joy is brief. The next day brings brain cancer into our lives. I will never again know happiness as pure as the day he asked me to marry him. Everything in my life, every moment, will be colored by the knowledge of his rapidly impending death.
Imagine a wave, he says…
Despite all this, we are happy. We are unbelievably happy. Our love is an island on which we live, encompassing us and us alone. Only we aren’t alone. It encompasses everyone. Everyone we meet, we bring onto our island. We love them, and who knows for how long? But it’s our island.
We have children, and our island both grows and shrinks. We are unfathomably happy. We laugh all the time, argue about pop culture and song lyrics, and never get mad. In nearly thirteen years of marriage we never really fight. There are rough patches, PPD, unemployment, overwork, toddler twins and an infant, brain cancer recurrences. There are sad times, lost grandparents, grieving friends, international crises, hurting friends.
We have each other. It is always enough.
Picture a wave in the ocean…
And then cancer comes back. Really comes back. Comes back as it never has before. Depression, exhaustion, surgery, a stroke, and then hardship.
The times are so hard. Not the love, that is still easy. Loving him is as easy as it ever was, though happiness is harder. His brain rejects it. He knows he has to fight, for the kids, and he does fight it. But fighting is so hard. It’s not a battle with chemical depression, it’s a battle with a tumor living in the part of the brain that causes anxiety, in a man already prone to self-blame. He knows he needs to do the work, and he does. He tries. He takes the medications. He goes to therapy. He goes under a knife to remove the tumors in the part of his brain hurting itself.
But the surgery can’t keep up. He gets sicker, and sicker, and sicker.
It’s only a shape, a constantly changing shape.
He is losing things. Not objects, but experiences. The night he falls tucking in the kids and puts his head through a wall, I don’t think to myself, “That was the last time he’ll ever tuck his daughters into bed.” The last time he holds me in bed with both hands around my waist, I don’t know it. The last time he nuzzles my ear, the last time he holds me while I cry. I don’t know these are lost until they are gone.
Our daughter sobs once it’s clear he’s unharmed, despite the massive hole in her wall. “It’s my fault Daddy fell,” she weeps. “If I had cleaned my room he wouldn’t have tripped, and he wouldn’t have fallen. It’s my fault.”
The last game of Catan. The last dinner party. The last road trip, singing along to mix CDs for the kids’ benefit, belting out Foo Fighters lyrics at top volume. The last time we go to a movie in the theater. The last time we take a walk together.
Many of these are stolen from us by covid, to be sure. But they were on their way out. In hindsight, I can see them slipping away. I remember a movie theater seat full of spilled Slushie. A twisted knee setting up a tent. Struggling to remember a song name when it would have come so easily not long ago. The last time he pre-ordered a new album. The last time he played a new video game. The last time he asked for surf n’ turf for Father’s Day.
You can measure it, it has height, and depth, and velocity…
He’s getting sicker, weaker. He falls at a funeral for a friend, lying in an open casket, her three-day-old infant shrouded at her breast, and at the sight of the photographs of the baby, he is overcome. He knows he is on his way out but that doesn’t matter to him. It is his grief over this woman he loved, this baby he never even knew but loved, because loving is all he has done since we entered our island. It doesn’t matter that she was “my friend,” that he hadn’t seen her in years. Loyalty, thy name is Michael Grover. His heart breaks, even as his brain is beginning to choke itself out.
And then the news, surgery again, and so soon. In the midst of an oncoming pandemic, no less. He is resigned. He will fight to live, because he knows we need him to. He will fight to live because he believes his life has value. But he has no fear of death, and he is tired.
You can watch it move across the ocean, growing and changing…
Every two weeks, he nearly dies. This is no exaggeration. First, pulmonary embolisms. Then failing off chemotherapy. Then tumor progression. Then bleeding in the brain. Swelling in the brain. Falls with head trauma. (Children in a darkened window, their faces illuminated by the ambulance lights, watching as their father is taken away on a stretcher.) Enlarged ventricles. Another pulmonary embolism. Extreme fevers. Chemotherapy failure. (“Give your Daddy a kiss and tell him you love him,” I said, “I don’t know if he’s coming home this time.”) Antibiotic-resistant E Coli. More head trauma. And then… a lull. A month of calm. Of hope.
I had given up on hope. I had tried to give up on hope. Watching him suffer was too much, I wished no more for healing. I wished only for peace for the man who had spent a full year suffering, and for what? To show his children he loved them so much he would do anything for them. So they would never doubt his love. So they would grow up knowing how much they meant to him, and how proud of them he would always be. He doesn’t want to die, but he is becoming so tired. And he made his peace with mortality thirteen years ago.
But after a month of calm, I began to hope. Or at least to plan. I started up classes, for when Mike was stable enough for me to leave the house as the primary breadwinner. I did well. I wrote our annual holiday card letter. I rearranged the furniture for his accessibility.
It was a good month.
Eventually, the wave crashes…
A slow, steady, relentless decline, months of doubt, months of worry. No sudden dramas. No more trips to the hospital to fix broken things. Months of watching more hopes slip away I never knew I had. The last night with my husband in my bed. The last time he used the master bathroom shower. The last time he talked easily with me while I drove.
But what is hope for, anyway? It was never hope that I relied on, it was certainty. Thirteen years ago, I knew he had time. Whether by sheer force of will or some supernatural ability, I knew. We had time, then. We had a future. We would get married, we would grow our family, we would surround ourselves with people we loved and cherished and we would laugh every day. I knew these things as well as I knew the sun would rise and that eventually all life on Earth would cease.
I knew. I could see it.
But when it was time to know something else, I knew that too. It was never hope. Hope is what breaks your heart in the face of what cannot be. Hope is what makes you believe that maybe the impossible can be true. I never needed hope to believe we would have a life together. And I never believed the two of us would grow old together. I only knew we would have a life, a brilliant, beautiful life. I could taste it. I could touch it.
It was my entire world, and it was real.
A few days before we tell the children their father is entering hospice care, another young friend dies suddenly and tragically. I watch the funeral on zoom. Sit shiva on zoom. Go to yoga on zoom. Then walk downstairs, to where Mike and the kids are watching Inside Out. Riley is starting to feel her feelings again, and I feel mine. When I start to cry, I leave the room. I sit on my dead sister’s couch in my living room and I weep until my daughter comes past. She sits next to me and hugs me, and I sob for a while. “I’m so sorry your friend died,” she says to me. I cry again, remembering, because I wasn’t crying for him, I was crying for her. But I cannot tell her this. Not without Mike.
Eventually, the wave crashes against the shore.
And here it is. Sitting with our three children, Mike distracted and uncomfortable, me struggling with the new reality that it is no longer safe for me to be alone with my family, that I need another able-bodied adult in the house to help, all the time. Not so that we can take shifts, but because one person alone is not enough to keep him safe.
“Daddy’s chemotherapy isn’t working anymore,” I say. “There are no other medicines we can use, and so Daddy is going to stop taking medicine, so we can spend all our time together, the five of us, having fun.”
“Does this mean Daddy is going to die?” one daughter asks, eyes full of tears, just as when she asked five years ago.
This time, I say yes. He has been saying this to them for a long time, but now it is real.
“But it’s okay,” he says. “I’m not scared. I’m only sorry to have to leave you.”
“It’s like a roller coaster,” I say, and explain that the ride was always going to have to end. Our youngest runs to another room, but I know she’s still listening. One remaining child sobs, the other is silent. “We can try our best to enjoy the end.”
And as they sit in their grief, he turns his head towards them. “Imagine a wave,” he says. “Picture a wave in the ocean. It’s only a shape, a constantly changing shape. You can measure it, it has height, depth, and velocity. You can watch it moving across the ocean, growing and changing. And eventually, the wave crashes against the shore. The wave is gone. But the water is still there.”
“Everything that made Daddy who he is will still be there,” I say. “Daddy’s love isn’t going anywhere.”
I tell the children they will get time away from school to play with Daddy. I tell them it’s okay to be sad, and angry, and confused, and it’s okay not to be those things, too. I tell them they can always talk to me. I feel those feelings, too. I am hurting, too. I tell them I’m not going anywhere. I tell them that if I look calm or if I don’t seem to cry, it’s not that I’m not sad, or not hurting. I tell them my heart has become floppy. I can’t fight against my feelings anymore. Sometimes it even feels to me like I can’t feel them, but I do. I have lost all my resistance to them. Just as I have accepted that Daddy must die, I have accepted that I cannot control my feelings about it. I hold them when they cry. I cry in the car, listening to the songs he chose as his soundtrack for the end of his life. I cry, and I sing.
Between appointments, I write poetry. Not only about him but about all of my grief, all of the overlapping pain of watching everyone I love suffer. I tell myself I am only the messenger when I break their hearts. It is not my fault. I know this. I know it. But my floppy heart accepts the blows of my guilt without resistance.
I write a letter to the family, to tell them what is happening, and don’t send it. For weeks I meditate upon what should be said. I breathe into it, my mantra, “Embody Grace.” I am sad. I know it, even if I don’t feel it. I feel my hands shake. I know I snap more, there are more outbursts, I yell a little louder. I know my mouth is dry and my head is achy. But I don’t feel the sadness very often. My brain is protecting me from it, perhaps, or maybe I’m just so used to being happy and full of certainty I don’t know how to be fully sad anymore. It’s good to be able to tell this to him, that he has made me effortlessly happy for so long, when before we met I often believed I was incapable of joy. He grins at me, the biggest smile I’ve seen on him in a week. “That makes me feel really good,” he says.”
“I’m going to be okay,” I say. “I don’t want you to die, but I’m ready.”
We go for one last MRI. We know this without saying it. The last MRI. And it’s a disaster. But there is so much closure. The end is coming, it is inevitable, it is absolute. He is wearing the shirt his daughter gave him for Channukah. It says, “I Love You 3000,” and every time I see it, my eyes burn.
With this news, the truth of it, the absoluteness of oncoming finality, I update the letter again. So many people have told me over this last year that grief is love with no place to go, but my love has an island the size of a continent to cover, and there is grief, too. An ocean of love rises up from inside me and across distance and pixels I send it rushing over the island, knocking down certainty and security, and soaking everyone we know with it. I don’t tell myself to embody grace. I let myself grieve, I let myself despair, and I let myself share the comfort of knowing it is time, and it is right that it is time. And waves of that love flood back over us all day. The water didn’t go anywhere.
I crawl into the bed my husband chose for us, alone. Both sides are mine now, even if that feels wrong. The closets will all be mine soon. The dressers. The cabinets. The sinks. The razors. The half dozen unopened sticks of deodorant. The responsibility of deciding what goes where.
Or I lie in the dark on our daughter’s trundle beside his hospital bed, listening to him breathe. I cannot rest my head on his chest to hear his heartbeat, but I know the sound better than my own. It’s the sound of safety, and warmth, and comfort, and love. It’s the sound that has lulled me to sleep nearly every night for nearly fifteen years. It’s the sound that kept my nightmares away in the grips of PTSD, that quickened my own pulse in the dark, that kept me warm when winter storms raged outside our garden apartment windows. It’s the sound I listened for after each surgery, resting my head on his chest. The sound that lulled me to sleep after throes of ecstasy and days full of frustrations, the sound of the greatest love I have ever known. With the solemn knowledge of my changed understanding of happiness, I add, that I will ever know.
It’s the sound of a wave crashing on the shore.
You can donate to a GoFundMe for Mike’s end-of-life care here: Love for the Grover Family
Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is spam-free, and you can opt out at any time.