Through a Glass Darkly
By: Kathy Godfrey
Because we were all so moved by Kay Loveland’s nomination of her husband Bruce for the Room Makeove Project, we decided to profile them this month, even though they were not chosen for the makeover.
Author’s note: I had the pleasure of sitting with Bruce Schell and his wife Kay Loveland. We talked about the challenges of two life-altering diagnoses; we talked about their relationship to each other and the world; we talked about living and dying. What follows is an impression that remains much with me.
You say that sometimes you Sufi-twirl to the get the morning paper. You say that twirling shuts off the habit-brain. Allows you to connect. Then comes that euphoric experience of the moment in which colors are so luminous that you are the sky and the hemlock, and the woman in the kitchen next door, and you are the earthworm writhing where your dancing foot left off. You forget for one second and eternity that the part of All That Is called Bruce is on the path to goodbye sooner than you two planned.
Then, you say, the shadows of afternoon fall and with them fatigue, frustration. The gardens and the cottage office and the big house remain less changed than you planned for them to be at this point in ticking time. Your portion of infinite energy apprehended like Saul on the way to Tarsus. Blindsided, enlightened by a hijack. And she says it just sucks, that divine interruption, revelation notwithstanding. It sucks, it’s awful and awe full and as your Kay confesses, not worth the trade off.
A new humble aware version of self grown from your new blind-sighting or the old healthy arrogant version? No matter which you choose, something is lost. You see her as she was before her own Saul interruption, the golden athlete with the golden life, before the constant uncertainty threatened to show up in immobility, debilitating exhaustion, suffocation that you say caused her to claim spoiled goods status, that made her refuse your proposal. You see her.
She sees you, stoic doubled over to rock the pain into grudging momentary submission. She says that she is happy you allow her to make you eggs for dinner, that you accept blankets warm from the dryer, from her hands, from true knowledge of your grief. You say that Hildegard says there is no pain like impotently watching the one you love suffer. You two look into the terrible beauty of her face, of your face, see pain circling like reeling black carrion birds, feel ragged wings scraping your own image.
Now, she says, you can take in how much she loves you. That’s been a major struggle, she says with soft eyes on your face. She says she tries to think of things to make you go ahhh, make you smile. You nod, agree and confess stoicism, especially now. Calculate the damage of sharing the pain. Weigh it against the damage of shutting her out. Apologize for both. Neither is right. Both suck. When you hold her at the end of a dark afternoon already in bed at cocktail hour, you say sorry sorry sorry for causing her to suffer, for having no good choice. Sorry too for skipping B12 even though it helps, for eating pickled herring even though you shouldn’t. Sorry and pissed off and sorry she is the target when you’re pissed off.
We are nobody special, she says, not nobler or better at this than anyone would be. The truth is you and she feel angry, get sick, love, and argue about what to do or be and whether to get a new puppy which you have. She with multiple sclerosis drove all the way to Alabama to get a puppy she didn’t want you with gastric cancer to have. She went because your reason was sound: you wouldn’t tell a therapy client to postpone enjoyment until he felt better. You enjoy the puppy. So does she.
You collaborate on your story of coming together. She tells of your work partnership, dating other people, finding yourselves kissing, declaring that she would not marry you. You tell of her erroneous belief that she would be a burden, of your frustrating pursuit of the right time and place and words to change her mind. She finally said yes. You two have spent a decade and a half in sickness and in health, your own and others’. Is it irony that two healers live with such dis-ease? Does it feel like mockery? Like absurdity? Or just, as you say, an awe-full gift.
She says there is a cancer gene in your family, that you lost your son years ago when he was only forty-three. He was so dear, you add, and doing such good work. He was a clinical psychologist too. One day he forgot how to work the latch on the garden gate and it was brain cancer. You are grateful that he soon seemed to know nothing of his condition relative to anything. Then he was gone. Your father and uncle too died of cancer in their fifties, she goes on. You, she says, thought you were home free at fifty-nine, but it came at sixty-four. After you and she bought the lovely old house where Thomas Wolfe visited, where you planned to have gardens and friends and sweet life. After you made plans, before you could live them, it came.
You say you have a new plan: a rendezvous with the new Goldendoodle puppy, a good bottle of rum, falling snow, your mountain, and death on your terms. That, you say, is your fantasy and that you somehow failed to consider the excruciating pain that comes with the awful gift. It lately has reminded you of your negligence. Then what? I’ll be dead, you say with only a little grin. Then what? She says that you two differ on that issue. You are the more spiritual. You both agree. Spiritual and comfortable with uncertainty. You agree with Thich Nhat Hanh that we inter-be with everyone and everything else. You think maybe some part of you will join with something greater, some essence call it god or not, that field where we inter-be. Or not. How can we know from here? You’re OK with the dying, she says, but the pain scares you.
Then what for her? It will be hard. She says she may not be able to live in the house where you planned so much life, but that she doesn’t really know. Can’t yet know. You talk about it sometimes. You worry about leaving her alone. In a way, she says, all the loss and recovery she has experienced in twenty years has prepared her for this last leg of your journey together. It has been a toughness training for life she says, and admits she’d rather have been left alone in her lovely life. The self-improvement does not seem worth the pain. Yours or hers. It sucks. She says that maybe we are here to learn to connect and love in the midst of loss. Is she quoting you?
Looking at her? You say that beauty is god’s way of reminding us that we are more. You say don’t plan a life. Live it now. You say get the puppy.
In your office without you, she says do you see what an amazing man he is? Just so wonderful? So beauty-full. I see, I say.
I do, Bruce. I see.
UPDATE: Bruce completed his transition and began his next adventure on the evening of December 27, 2011. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/citizen-times/obituary.aspx?n=Bruce-Schell&pid=155234962
Kathy Godfrey is a writer who was born asking, “Is there more to life than this?” Now she writes from mountain forests, island beaches, and infinite inner landscapes and knows the answer. There is definitely more.