Today is nine months since my 56th birthday, which means it is also nine months since my life fell apart. I set in my living room tonight listening to Obrecht and watching Barbara's and my Marriage Encounter candle flicker and burn for the fourth time since the visitation last December, when I awakened it from its long slumber. On the way home today I stopped by the cemetery and wept. A grief observed takes many forms. Today I want to recount some other significant dates in our all too brief history together.
May 17, 1988—I have my
first date with Barbara Elaine Hutter Sellers. I take her to a nice
restaurant, even though I'm not sure I can afford it. We eat rack of
lamb and share a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Afterward she tells me about
the brain tumor diagnosed on her 23rd birthday that she barely survived
and the first husband she lost in a tragic accident. I tell her about my
history with depression and my ongoing struggles to find a job. We
instantly bond, and so begins the love of my life. We are both 32.
14 1989—We are married in the same small Lutheran church in Pomona,
California in which she had been baptized nearly 33 years earlier. I am
unemployed, but she has just received a large financial settlement over
her first husband's death. This allows us a memorable honeymoon, even
though it is plagued by uncertainty about my future.
1 1991—After a series of medical interventions for infertility, we
complete a successful pregnancy and our first child, Jennifer, is born.
For most of the next two years I will be her custodial parent while
Barbara supports us through her work as a home health nurse.
24 1994—After further interventions, our second child, Jeremy, is born.
I am still under-employed, although I now have an adjunct teaching
position that provides enough income for Barbara to take an extended
May 1994—Ten years after receiving my
PhD, I am finally offered a tenure-track teaching job at Converse
College in South Carolina. Our family, launched amid uncertainty and
conceived on faith, will move cross-country that summer to a new home
and a bright future. We are both 38.
February 1999—After four and a half years of professional fulfillment and administrative purgatory, I am awarded tenure.
At 43, I have finally achieved my professional and personal goals. I
have a secure job that I love, two children that I adore, and a devoted
wife who means the world to me.
March 2000—While I am
attending a regional meeting as President of the Southwest Chapter of
the American Musicological Society, Barbara suffers a stroke: the first
sign of complications from the massive dose of radiation that saved her
life exactly 21 years earlier. For a few months her vision is seriously
impaired, and she retains a lingering visual aphasia that will baffle
and frustrate her for the rest of her life.
2000—Barbara wakes up and is unable to hear out of her right ear. She
gets out of bed and falls flat on her face. The hearing never returns,
and the balance only returns gradually and with great effort. The
diagnosis is six months in coming, but it is grim. She has suffered
another stroke, this one in the small capillary that feeds the inner
ear. All of the blood vessels in her brain were damaged by the
radiation, we are now told. In order to postpone or minimize future
complications, she is put on Plavix, a blood thinner. She will take it
for the rest of her life.
June 2003—On the very day
that we plan to travel to Texas and look for a house in Waco, where I
have just gotten a senior appointment at Baylor, Barbara suddenly loses
the hearing in her left ear. With no warning, she has gone completely
deaf. This is a devastating experience that completely dwarfs everything
either of us has been through previously, and it casts a pall over what
should have been one of the happiest episodes in our life together. Two
weeks later, we dutifully go through the motions of the house search
while barely able to communicate.
receives a cochlear implant in her left ear. A month later, on my 48th
birthday, it is activated. The results are disappointing, and a long
period of retraining now begins in which she will struggle to learn to
Dec. 2004—Barbara receives an implant in
the other ear, and it too is activated a month later. We now know not to
expect too much, but we are tentatively encouraged by the improvement
in her hearing. We are confronted, though, by the stark realities of
advanced hearing loss. Among the things we will never be able to do
successfully: hear a concert, attend a movie, attend a public talk of
any kind, participate in a group discussion, talk on the phone without
struggle, carry on a family conversation. At the dinner table, the kids
talk to me and largely ignore Barbara. In the car she can't hear them even
when they do talk to her. We make furtive lunch dates simply to find a
quiet place where we can talk to each other. We continue to hold out
hope that her hearing will improve, but it never really does.
in 2007 (the dates seem to be getting less clear as they grow closer to
the present)—After several dental procedures and a tooth extraction,
the increasing pain that Barbara has been experiencing in her right jaw
is diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia, an inflammation of the main facial
nerve that is known to cause the most excruciating pain that a human
being can experience. (The condition's nickname: the suicide disease.)
The only effective treatment for this debilitating condition, also
likely caused by the radiation, consists of large doses of
anti-epileptic drugs, which make Barbara's balance problems much worse.
She now begins to walk with a cane, and the rest of her life will be a
trade-off between her compromised ability to walk and the attempt to
attain a respite from the unbearable pain. Repeated surgical procedures
bring only temporary relief.
Dec. 19 2011—As we are
preparing to go out to dinner to celebrate my 56th birthday, Barbara
suffers a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Because she is taking Plavix,
nothing can be done to stop the bleeding, which pools around the base of
her brain and chokes off not only her consciousness, but her ability
ever to regain it. A little over three days later, in the wee hours of
Dec. 23, she dies.
We were together for a little over twenty-three and a
half years. For thirteen months we had it all: a secure job for me,
children, health, prosperity. The rest of it was lived under the shadow
of financial insecurity, career frustration, infertility and, finally,
declining health and dire suffering. Every minute was precious—and, I now see quite clearly, snatched forcefully from inexorable fate. We loved, and we gave of each other in ways that are hard to describe and precious to remember. I
have now completed a gestational cycle of grief and mourning, and I
know that it is from the hard times that the most lasting memories were
forged. So much joy, so much love. Life so fragile that there is none of it to waste. Tears that sting and memories that burn in my heart. Every moment is ours, Barbara's and mine. Every moment we love, and the loss follows as does the fall that will now turn to winter. It was in the spring that we met, and in the winter that we were parted. The winter will now come again, followed by the spring, and it is only love that continues unabated through it all.