I picked up her ashes today. They weighed more than I thought they would, but then, they put her in a box first and then burned her. I had to sign something acknowledging that some of the ashes would be cardboard ash or plywood ash or whatever the hell they used. I asked if they would at least be my wife’s ashes and not Random Kern County Residents’ ashes, but of course I asked it more politely than that. They assured me that they are a strictly regulated industry.
We’ll scatter 99% of the ashes off the North Coast, and keep a small amount in an urn. Going to make a trek up to San Jose (as part of a bigger vacation with Jake at the end of the year) to Kogura, a Japanese ceramic store. Karen and I were very fond of that store. We bought at least one of our friend’s a wedding present there. And I still have a vase that I think we bought for ourselves at Kogura — I’m not sure, actually. It just sort of showed up on the shelf. I didn’t even remember that we had it. It’s dark gray with herons on it. I want something nice.
Had this moment of dissonance when the Funeral Home called to let me know the ashes were ready for pickup but they’d store them for me, if I preferred, until I brought the vase. On the one hand, I thought, “What difference does it make? She isn’t her ashes.” But on the other hand, we’ll scatter the ashes. So the ashes must have some significance to me. So I brought her ashes home.
When I was interviewing for med school — this was at a time when Karen was still healthy and my biggest care in the world was whether I’d get into med school or have to settle for grad school — no cares about Karen, really, because we were supremely confident in one another and knew without ever saying it that we’d be together regardless — I met a prof, I think it was at UCSF, a young guy in his early forties, whose wife was bedridden due to some sort of back pain issue. I’m not sure why he volunteered this information to me. People have a bad habit of opening up to me, and I realize this must be my fault somehow, but for the life of me I don’t know what I do. Anyway, I remember he seemed stunned by the way his life had turned out. I even thought I could understand it. Clearly he loved his wife; I’m not sure how that was clear, it just was. He was powerless to do anything about it. Prof at UCSF, an academic success by almost anyone’s standard of academic success. They had undoubtedly had all kinds of hopes and dreams for themselves, and now he was in this inescapable situation and she was in pain.
Assholes bale out. I’ve heard stories like that. Maybe they aren’t even assholes; I don’t know. If the love isn’t there, are you an asshole to bale out? (Or is it bail out? Too lazy to search right now.) Love narrows your options. I almost wrote “trapped by love” but that’s unfair. I imagine he was still able to have some good times with her, even with her limitations. Karen and I managed to live a good life. A hard life for both of us, a hard life for my son, too, although I’m not sure he realizes this. So “trapped” is unfair. We had some joy. We raised a family together. We both did the best we could, and we both fucked up at times, and this whole thing is just so hard.
I’m not sure about these Kubler Ross stages. Right now it feels like they’re all mushed up together, like when you’d do watercolors as a kid and mix everything together and wind up with a nameless color. Purple brown mud.
For me, anyway.
First few days: talking to people, anyone who would listen, but I tried (mostly) to pick on close friends and family.
After that: getting back to work right away, staying busy, filling the hours with chores or movies or whatever just to make sure the time passed. Sitting in my bedroom doing nothing (or next to nothing, like watching TV) was pretty awful. I didn’t do much of that. (And even as I’m writing this, I’m looking forward to getting the hell out of here.)
Last night, I think, was the first time I worried about the medication. I’m on something to help me sleep, but it’s an antidepressant, too. Is it numbing me up? Will there be an emotional price to pay once I get off the stuff? Before this all happened, I had mastered my insomnia and could get to sleep, stay asleep, and manage about six hours a night without any medication. I’d like to get back to that, eventually, but I’m afraid of that overwhelming grief I felt in those first few days.
We had our building’s Christmas party last night. During the White Elephant gift exchange, I had too hard a time hearing the ticket numbers (I’d explain, but it’s probably not worth it). So I volunteered to call them out, since I can project my voice fairly well. And while I’m up there calling numbers I’m flashing on Camus’s The Stranger, and how the jury convicted the narrator not because he shot the man on the beach, but because he did not grieve properly after his mother’s death. Yeah, yeah, more guilt. I’ve lost track . . . but the worst thing (which varies from day to day — what I consider “the worst thing”) is that a few days before she died, Karen asked me about vacation time, and couldn’t we go back to our house in Oregon and stay there for a week? I squashed the idea, and it seemed like her feelings were hurt. She didn’t get angry. She just seemed so sad for a minute or two, but then she seemed to get over it. I thought she was sad because my tone of voice was annoyed-verging-on-angry, but I’m wondering if maybe she was looking for something to live for. Did she know this was coming, somehow?
Okay, not feeling numb any longer. Not sure writing all of THAT helped. (Folks keep saying that it helps to write these things out. Hmm.)
I think I’m experiencing those Kubler-Ross stages simultaneously. There’s denial and depression and acceptance all rolled up inside of me. Yeah, I know it’s contradictory — how can you be in denial and acceptance at the same time? But it all varies so much from moment to moment.
As for Karen knowing: I’m sure she would scoff at this. She was not one to believe in the paranormal, and I don’t think she did anything to contribute to this. So how could she have known? No. She, like I, didn’t realize how serious this was. By the time I realized, it was too late.
Okay, I need to get out of here and start doing my chores for the day. You don’t want to know how long my to-do list is.
I’m here with the rest of the leadership team on a two-day retreat: The Speed of Trust, which is genetically related to the whole Seven Habits thing. Not kidding. I’m imagining dynasties in which fathers tell their sons, “You shall author a book about . . . Hmmm. Decisiveness. Yes, decisiveness. That sounds about right. And there shall be twelve aspects of decisiveness, and the number of aspects of decisiveness shall be twelve. And you shall sell this book far and wide, and yea, you shall hold great meetings at expensive resort hotels where the tables are festooned with little minty candies. And the book, and the meetings, and the assorted shwag shall make you a gajillionaire, and you shall wallow in caviar and champagne for all the days of your–”
“But Dad, can’t these twelve aspects be neatly summarized into these three statements, two of which are self-evident?”
“NO! You are no son of mine!”
Yeah, I have a bad attitude.
I’m doing better today. Choked up a few times but no crying. Had seven hours of sleep last night, and that helped. (Hell, I used to get teary after a bad night’s sleep even before Karen passed.) Being away from home helps; let’s see how I do back home.
. . . and I’m still having to do the math. 9 – 4 = 5. The time dilation of grief is easing; it seemed like those first two days took a lifetime. By comparison, yesterday and today went by like lightning. I went back to work yesterday, and that has helped. Still crying my eyes out and telling too many people my business, and Karen would be turning in her grave (she was very private and would NOT have approved), except we’re going to scatter her ashes, so no turning in the grave for Karen.
Honestly, I do not understand how anyone would want a grave. Or would want to be embalmed. Or want an open casket funeral. Think of the people you leave behind: they’re left thinking of your body stuck in that one place, forever (the grave, I mean) not even decomposing naturally (the embalming, that is), and they have to have one last look at someone else’s conception of what the deceased looked like in life (talking about the open casket funeral, now). I don’t want to see Karen’s dead body or face. I want to look at the pictures of her alive, thriving as best she could thrive, and I want to think of her voice.
Which is another thing. The only recordings I have of her (that I can think of at the moment) are a youtube video, and a voice mail message in which, in an irritated voice, she’s saying, “DOUG. WHERE ARE YOU. CALL ME BACK.” I find that one strangely soothing, even if she does sound pissed off. She sounds pissed off in such a strong, healthy way.
As for the YouTube video, you can hear her at the beginning of this one saying, “I. Disavow. ANY responsibility.”
Don’t let her fool you — she loaned me her camisole, after all.
Oh, and here’s a third. Watched it just now and it made me very, very happy. (With special bonus of Jake’s pre-pubertal voice!)
Now, that’s the girl I married. I love you, Karen.
I thought about that this morning. How many days has it been? And I had to do the math. I know (because of what I saw written on the death certificate) she died on the fourth. Today’s the seventh. So that means this is day three. Really? Day three? Time is crawling.
Sleep has been the big issue. I didn’t sleep at all the night she got sick, of course, and I got only six hours of sleep the next night. Night after that I got three hours of sleep. I saw our group’s psychiatrist yesterday and she got me something for sleep. Last night . . . I woke up, looked at the clock, and it said 6 AM. Great. That meant I’d had about seven hours of sleep, which was an improvement. But I felt terrible — lightheaded, heart racing, presumably from the medication. Brushed my teeth, took a shower, came back out, and the clocks all read 3 AM. What the hell! I had misread the clock as 6 AM when it was probably 2 AM. So, another night with three hours’ sleep. Fortunately, I was able to get back to sleep and get another three hours. So, we’re up to six. Six isn’t so bad.
Jake’s doing better than I am. I guess that’s only natural. Karen was my whole world. Well, there is work, too, and I know that’s important to me. It’ll be even more important to me now, and I have every intention of going back to work tomorrow. I just hope I can keep myself from blabbing my grief to every single patient. Karen was intensely private and I know she wouldn’t want me to do that. As it is, yesterday when I picked up my prescription, I saw the parents of one of my pediatric patients, and when they talked to me and heard my voice and asked if I had a cold I said, “No, my wife died two days ago.” And I could hear Karen in the back of my head saying, “Oh, Jesus Christ.”
I’ve been trying to foster this sense of her there, inside me, able to talk to me. It helps. I don’t know if this is a healthy thing to do or not. I’m not sure if I even have control over it. When I broke up with my high school girlfriend (whom I had been with for three years), I had her voice in my head, sort of an extra conscience, for years. Karen and I were a couple for nearly 32 years. I have no doubt she’ll be with me forever.
Goals for today: eat. Fold the laundry. Try to figure out Quickbooks and pay some bills.
Trying to internalize the Samuel Beckett quote: “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I was looking at Beckett quotes on Goodreads. Another good one: “The end is the beginning and yet you go on.”
I cross-posted this at Daily Kos, but thought hey, wouldn’t Karen want me to start writing again? Somehow, I know she would. With the increasing difficulty of our lives, I’d had less and less motivation to write. Partly it’s because that would be time away from Karen, partly because writing made me testy — if I was concentrating and she interrupted me, I could be a real shit to her. Hey, I once quoted that scene from The Shining when Jack gets pissy with his wife over her interruptions. So to keep from being such a shit to Karen, I found myself writing less and less.
Well, she’s gone now. No one here to be a shit to. Maybe I’ll start REALLY writing again — I think she would have liked me to do something constructive (with my grief, with my time here on earth, with everything).
Of course I never realized this would be the last photo we would take as a family. Karen died yesterday after a sudden and unexpected illness.
We weren’t the kind of couple who told each other “I love you” all that often. If anything, we were vaguely suspicious of couples who did say that all the time — as if they were so shaky in their commitment that they had to constantly reassure one another.
But we don’t respect how fragile life can be. If anything, being a doctor makes me even less aware, since I see so many examples of folks hanging on against all odds. And when life is gone, it’s too late to say all the things you want and need to say.
We met at Berkeley just before Christmas of 1982, and we became a couple just shortly thereafter. There was an almost instantaneous sense of belonging, of having found that one person who understood you and whom you could understand. I remember using the cheesy “soul mates” expression when we were courting. Some couples take years to get that reading-each-other’s-mind phase, but we were there pretty early on.
She developed multiple sclerosis in 1984, Christmas, so we had one year to build a relationship before we were tested by fire. It hasn’t been an easy thirty years, but whenever something new and terrible would happen, we could look back and remember all of the tough things we had worked through together.
I’m so angry at the hand life dealt my beautiful wife, but that is not the point of this diary.
She wasn’t a perfect person. No one is. But she was pretty damned awesome nonetheless. I miss her so much.
That’s our son Jacob in that photo. We conceived him against steep odds about 19 years ago. He’s such a wonderful young man — but that’s not the point of this diary, either.
So: life is fragile. It really is. So tell your children and your parents you love them. Most of all, tell your husbands and wives. Tell them all of the things you need them to know, even if you know they know it already. Say it out loud.
I love you, Karen.
Sunday evening Skype:
[5:04:35 PM] Jacob Hoffman: btw do you wash sheets like clothes or what
[5:04:35 PM] Douglas Hoffman: hot wash
[5:04:49 PM] Douglas Hoffman: they don’t shrink, so why not use the hottest setting
[5:05:21 PM] Douglas Hoffman: first time washing your sheets, eh?
[5:05:30 PM | Edited 5:05:40 PM] Jacob Hoffman: yes lol
Read more: Teach your children well
But in fairness, I’ve been writing steadily since August, and I’m maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through what I think will be not only a publishable novel, not only a hell of a novel, but a maybe just maybe important novel? Nah, it’s science fiction, so strike that last bit. But hell of a novel? Yeah. This one makes me look back at Gator & Shark and say, What the hell was I thinking?
I feel good about it. That is all. And now I’m going to write.
WordPress used to be such a friendly place to blog. The vast majority of themes were free, and functionality was not an issue. Now, it seems like everyone wants money for their themes, and the few seemingly slick-looking ones I’ve tried do weird things. The last one would justify text by cutting words anywhere. A lot of them clutter the header with page-links. Even the default theme (which I’m using here — as of this writing) puts the nonsense “#b3c0a9# @print(“”); #/b3c0a9#” at the top right corner.
I’m not happy with the narrowness of the format, and I have hardly any ability to customize the appearance, but it beats having paragraphs that end l
ike this. That really sucked. On the upside, the ugly page-links are gone and my search function is back.
Enough procrastination. I promised myself I would try to get some writing done this morning.
. . . Right after I fold some laundry and find a good pot roast recipe.
I have a new project. I figure, those of you dogged enough to stick with Balls & Walnuts deserve a treat, even if it’s a decidedly incomplete treat. It’s Baked Alaska without the meringue. Pizza without the pepperoni. Foreplay without the orgasm.
But I had a decent writing day today, at least 1000 words, and they were good words, too. Lots of great show-don’t-tell world-building. The new stuff is from Chapter Two, which I have not yet transferred to the blog. I’m getting a better feel for my protag — that’s been my biggest roadblock all along — and most importantly, I see my way forward on the plot.
This will be one of those novels where I won’t know my way until I get there. I mean I have only the most general idea of where this is going. I haven’t constructed a well articulated puzzle (like How to Write a Damn Good Mystery says I should); I’m relying on the Muse to get it right. The result will be messy, the way all of Philip Marlowe’s mysteries were messy. But this is fine. Really.
I went to see Sara Gran at a bookstore in Hollywood about a month ago, and one of the questions I asked her was, “Do you know how your mysteries will end, or do you let your novels grow organically?” She liked the way I phrased the question. She also answered organically. If it’s good enough for Sara Gran, it’s good enough for me.