A year ago this weekend, Jill got really sick. I guess she was already really sick. But...sick enough we had to get her to the hospital in a hurry. Bad weather that Friday in Florida had me grounded. I got home the next day...well...I got to Minneapolis the next day and went straight to the hospital.
The doctor who was leading her care in the ICU pulled me into a consultation room. She showed me the CAT scan. She told me all about five of the tumors. They were huge. They were surrounding and invading her major organs. There were more but I asked them to turn the damn thing off.
“You need to understand how serious this is.”
“Will explaining the rest of the tumors change the punchline? That she’s dying?"
The doctor was a wonderful person with the really bad job of having to break the news. She’d had other doctors from other medical systems look at the data and confirm the diagnosis. She spoke to me in very direct terms but with a kindness and a sorrow that was visceral.
“We really can’t predict that like they do in the movies.”
I think I just stared at her. She finally said, “You need to get hospice care set up but it’s very advanced. She might not make it home. I’ve never seen cancer this far along on someone who was still living.”
Which, weirdly, made me smile. Of course, cancer was winning. Of course, Jill Harper punched back with an unprecedented fury. My girl...she was a fury.
She made it six more weeks.
It began my time, still going, of being angry at God. While simultaneously praying with a devotion and a sincerity I’d never before mustered. All the while growing angrier for not getting my prayers answered.
Which wasn’t true. There was only one I didn’t get answered. The ridiculous one. The selfish one.
“Please, don’t take my baby. Please, don’t let her die.”
You’re doing one of two things when you do that. You are either asking God to grant immortality, which ain’t gonna happen. Or you’re leaving out the rest of the prayer.
“Please don’t let her die before me.”
In the movie I’d written of my life, the last thing I would see was her beautiful face, her dancing freckles, her soft, sweet lips. The last touch I’d feel would be her hand on my forehead. The last sound I’d hear would be the perfect instrument that was her voice. On this side of the experience I can now see what I couldn’t see then. How horribly selfish and cruel that prayer is. Because it’s essentially asking God to spare her until it is my time and then let her suffer and grieve as I have. I think I’ve learned God is too smart or good or wise or kind to grant a prayer that inflicts suffering on others. Even if that’s not what we’re intending to do.
All the other prayers, big and small, came through.
Jill was stubborn and independent. Didn’t matter we had round the clock nurses aides living with us once we got her home, as long as she could walk unassisted, tenuous though she may be, she was gonna walk on her own, dammit. The doctors told us there was no reasonable explanation for how she had the energy or strength to walk on her own, let alone make it down the stairs. There wasn’t a logical explanation, maybe, but there was a reliable one. My girl was a fury. If something was gonna kick her ass, she was gonna make damn sure that something knew it was in a fight.
So, I prayed she’d not take a fall. She’d not die from a bruise or a broken bone, in agony and bleeding. She didn’t.
When I’d lay on the air mattress at the foot of her bed I’d pray I’d not fall asleep and then realizing I couldn’t keep fighting it off, I’d pray that if she needed me I’d hear her. I’d be there for her. Somehow, when she’d wake up in the night I’d start awake a few seconds before she’d say my name.
When I’d doze off and then come awake, I’d listen. Hoping I’d hear her breathe or shift or something that would let me know she was still there. Please, God, let her still be there. And I’d hear her snore lightly. I’d get up as quiet as I could. Stand next to her bed and stroke her hair. She loved it when I’d stroke her hair. And she’d smile in her sleep from my touch.
When we got closer to the end. A week or so away. When she was fighting so hard to stay and it was hurting her, breaking her, and her suffering was at a peak. An awful period where she felt so betrayed by her body, by her God...by us. When she was scared and angry and terrified and in pain even with all the drugs we were pumping into her…
God, help me. I prayed, as hard as I’ve ever prayed, I prayed for God to bring her peace. I prayed for her to let go. I prayed that God would take her home and she’d leave us. I prayed for the best thing, in my obviously biased opinion, this world had ever known to die.
And there at the end, there was some peace. There was some letting go. And my baby died.
It’s taken me until now to acknowledge the prayer that was granted to me that I never issued. I never prayed for Jill to come into my life or to find love or to have a relationship or any of it. Still, this woman, this tempestuous, maddening, magnificent, beautiful, formidable and perfect-for-me woman dropped into my life. The gifts I received from that one thing are too numerous to list. Among them though, was she taught me what love is and how to do it.
Jill loved those people that were part of her...Erin, Kim, her family, a small cadre of friends...me...brazenly, unabashedly, ridiculously, unconditionally. My fury of wife loved furiously. To be on the receiving end of that is both terrifying and beautiful in a way that every poet who has ever lived has tried and failed to capture. It knocks you on your ass and threatens to consume you and once you experience it you never, ever want it to go away. You find yourself striving every day to be worthy of it and to match it. To be that fearless. To be your own fury.
When it leaves, when it’s taken from you by time and human frailty, it will crush you. It obliterates you in ways you anticipate and ways you can’t see coming. It hurts like hell. You come to understand words like grief and longing and loss and heartbreak and sadness with a depth and clarity that they’d never before carried.
And you still wouldn’t trade it for anything.
As the New Year came and went I wanted to write something about what I wish and pray for all of you. It wasn’t until this weekend hit and I spun out on the memories and the yearning that I understood what I wish for you, now and every year to come. I wish for you the courage to love unbridled. I wish you the gift of being loved in the same way.
I wish you a furious love.