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My little family drove together from Leipzig to the small village where my German wife grew up, Beiersdorf in Saxony.
It was a tiny village not too far from Dresden, Germany. It was a perfect day in July, sunny and breezy with the smell of jasmine and cut grass in the air. We were all frazzled after months of cancer, but had high expectations for the day.
We were a family of four. My wife was German,
I myself from the U.S.
Our two teenage kids, 14-16, were products of the east- west reunification of Germany. Reunification babies, I thought of them as. They were both born in Leipzig but also had American passports.
We all lived together in Leipzig. Lilly was 16 and John was 14; still children, really. My wife was terminally ill. She was dying of skin cancer, stage 4, and she was nearing the end of her battle. She was only 38 years old and the ravages of her illness had punished her.
I had been nursing her for the past 2 years, cooking vegan meals, creaming her rashes; giving her a few shots, although she preferred to do this herself. I was also driving her to dr. appointments and therapies in faraway cities.
The worst of all her ailments was dementia caused by her brain tumors. She was disappearing in front of us. For example, “James, where is my tea?” she’d ask, “You’re holding it, ” I would say.
That was NOT the wife I’d known anymore.
It was heart breaking to watch my kids interact with their confused mom; to try and talk to a mom who had always been there rock solid for them.
She always gave everything she had to the kids as they were growing up. She could now not finish a complete sentence or remember her thoughts from minute to minute. She was naturally grouchy.
We were all sad and nervous, all the time.
She was, however, experiencing a break in her confusion thanks to a medicine prescribed to her by her family’s village doctor. Thanks to Dr.Reinhardt, she was lucid and able to function almost as normal again. The worst side effect was that she became very bloated very quickly and along with the fact that she had lost her long beautiful blonde hair, she was no longer the lithe beauty she had always worked hard to be. I didn’t care, still loved her, and accepted this as the face of cancer but my poor kids saw their mother turning into someone or something else they couldn’t recognize; someone who talked nonsense to them. They still loved her, also, of course. She was our mother, wife, and our happiness. This was our little family. We were in the middle of a prolonged crisis with a small chance of any happy ending.
Today as we visited her home village, we watched her remember her childhood and reminisce about growing up here. She had that old spark back in her eyes. She remembered a good childhood and her strength, her beauty, her happiness and her childhood innocence, cancer was far, far away. It was an austere childhood in the DDR but by all accounts a good one.
We walked across the street to the Sunflower Café and had a nice lunch. I ordered for Jane, things she never would have ordered for herself because of the fat content but I knew she loved Ragout Fin and a banana split with cherries. I cherished the joy she was feeling this day, her day, our day. It was going splendidly.
We were all so happy to be together. The sun was shining on us all. She was not showing any signs of dementia.
Only I really knew what was coming in a couple of hours and I avoided thinking of it!
We never knew how long she would live; one month or another six months but it would not be another year, which seemed certain. But there was hope.
The children would soon be flying to New York City the following day for a 3 week vacation in New England with my family and friends. They really needed to get away from the cancer situation and they needed to see their old friends and family in the USA to re-charge their batteries. We had discussed whether or not they should even go, with their mom so ill, but we all thought she would be here when they returned and the kids would be then stronger to face the last phase of her illness, her death. My children had made it clear to me they did not want to see their Mom as they had witnessed my mother die of cancer, and they would not accept an open coffin under any circumstance.
Whether or not my decision to send them off was right or wrong I’m not sure. Whether any of my decisions at that time were the best, I’m not sure, but they were left with a final vibrant memory of their mother, on a sunny happy day, with us all together, happy, not final memories of the dead remains of their mom in a box with the dreadful scent of orchids everywhere, in a roomful of confused people.
I felt somehow inside that Jane was nearing her end. It surprised me. Her new medicine was wearing off quickly and doctors said that in a week she would become demented again, her tumors killing her thought processes, her ability to walk, talk, be Jane, and be most of all, mother her kids. Somehow I still thought she would live for months longer.
She never accepted dying, not ever. She could not bear the thought of leaving her children, not even at the end. It was her only horror.
This broke her heart.
After our wonderful afternoon we all drove back to Jane’s family farm nearby, I knew it was coming. I knew there would be… the goodbye. I would leave Jane with her parents and the kids would come back with me to Leipzig; to fly to New York. I knew that she may not see the kids again and that they might not see her again in this life. She was for the first time talking of her death, after 2 years of illness. Jane would be staying at her beloved family farm in Bärwalde where she wanted to be taken care of by her mom and dad, and where she wanted to be buried.
As we arrived back at the farm that day, Jane complained of being completely exhausted. We would be leaving her very soon.
We all said what a great day it had been, perfect in fact. The kids mentioned to their mom that they would send her postcards and see her soon. She knew what they had been through and wished them only good on their trip, ”have fun and say hi to everyone for me,” she said, three times actually. In retrospect there would never be a better goodbye than this.
We made our family hug circle. We snuggled close to one another, all smiles and warmth. This circle can only be earned, and we had earned it over the years. We then said a prayer for our little family. I knew this was the big goodbye and that no one should ever have to experience this in life, but here it was. I watched the last embrace of a child with their mother. I witnessed our little family circle for the last and final time. I knew.
I was collapsing inside but as always I played the strong man, the dad, the husband. It was my duty, a hard one. My heart was breaking. I had witnessed my children’s first embrace at birth while their umbilical cords were still intact, as they lay in their mother’s arms. They were one, mother and child. I hugged tightly for a long time, my mind incredulous and melting. Driving away and waving, the kids yelling out goodbye, I had the second round of heartache. Be a man, I said to myself.
Jane died two weeks later. The children missed her total breakdown. They were still in New York City. I had been carrying her to the bathroom, medicating and feeding her along with her parent’s help. The telling moment came when her pain pill just sat on her lips, with eyes open. She could no longer swallow it. She needed hospice now, immediately. Oddly, this was my birthday…
She could no longer speak or eat. She didn’t recognize anyone anymore. Her eyes slowly closed. It really was a horror for me and I’m glad the kids missed this. This must have been heartbreaking for Jane’s parents. The ambulance came and coincidentally also her childhood best friend who saw the last of her comrade, and she kissed her goodbye. I don’t know if Jane even realized she was there. Later she told me she did recognize her.
We delivered her to a hospice where she died peacefully a week later. I could stay with her in the room 24/7.
I was asleep when she died and I will have to forgive myself for that. Someone mentioned that maybe we said goodbye in my dream world. I hope I held her and gave her a kiss. I hope I said I always thought she was beautiful and I really DID love her.
The children were now on their way home after I had called my brother to send them back early. At the Berlin airport when I picked them up there was no mention of their mom. I think the children sensed something was up and waited with their inquiries. Lilly did finally ask about her mom but I briskly skipped over the subject. I was purposely not speaking of their mom which sent a message, I think. I wanted to get back to the airport hotel and speak to them in the quiet of our room. We all took a nap as soon as we got to our room. We all just fell down and slept. Sadness is a heavy burden to carry around, especially for young adults.
They just flew across the Atlantic, 10 hours and it was exhausting. When we woke I asked the kids for their attention and then told them tenderly that their mother died.
I felt as if I was cutting their umbilical cords again from their mom and the crying began again; quiet cries that steal the air from one’s lungs. There was no screaming, just tragedy, wet tears and the quiet sobbing. They had just received the worst news any child can receive. Their mom was dead. We stayed the night at the hotel and then drove back to Leipzig to start a new life, a new life without my wife, my children’s mother, my friend and the only person who could have really helped us in our hour of need.
Ps. Before my daughter left for New York she gave me a note to give her mom. It was written on green paper and expressed the child’s love for her mother and wishing her well until she returned. Throughout all the stress of Jane’s dying I forgot to give it to her, or instead, read her the note. This is another thing I will have to forgive myself for doing , not doing. I still to this day cannot look at that letter. I have somehow lost it. I’m still losing it years later…