A Christmas Carol Without The Ghosts – Broken Hearted

Since my last post about my father’s devastating news, a lot has happened.

On August 4th, around noon, my father died. The last 36 days of my father’s life were pretty terrible. Although we tried to make the most of them…how can you possibly enjoy the moment when you know each moment could be the last you spend with that person. Obviously death is possible each and every day for everyone, but getting an expiration date thrown into the mix just makes it far more real.

After his death, nothing was the same. How could it be? The void left was infinite.

My mother did her best to cope, but after 53 years of marriage, it is hard to contemplate a single day without the person you spent so much of your life with. Zeb took the loss especially hard, because although my father was his Papa, he was also his best friend. So I spent much of the past 4 months, 24 days consoling both my mom and my son, all the while doing my best to come to terms with my own grief.

For the most part I thought I was doing okay. I planned activities for my mom and Zeb, I threw myself into cooking and baking, and I became very involved in Zeb’s school’s Parent Group and developing a website for them. With all this distraction, I really thought I was doing good.

With the holidays approaching, however, things got more complicated. They say that all the “firsts” after losing someone are especially hard. Christmas being a holiday that was always celebrated heartily in our family, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I pushed forward. I bought tickets for all of us (including my Mom) to see A Christmas Carol play, to go to a theater to see a professional choir perform holiday carols, visits to local holiday displays and functions, and a trip to the Toledo Zoo to see their holiday light display and tree lighting. My mom was doing great, truly enjoying the events.

Being that there were so many of our traditions that my father was responsible for or a huge part of, I also took it upon myself to start a few new traditions, while letting these old traditions rest until we were ready to deal with them. One of them was to have a gingerbread house decorating contest. I cut out and baked three different house designs, assembled them (they would have to sit too long to dry before being able to decorate), and then assemble all the icing and decorations for the great decorate-off. This turned out to be an awesome new tradition that my mom is already planning for for next year.

With all the happenings for the past month and a half just for the holidays, I really kept all my emotions in check while still helping my mom and Zeb deal with the ever mounting emotions that were sparked by the upcoming holidays. Or so I thought.

For me, Christmas Eve marked the beginning of the end. It was the last “Christmas” event with my mom, as my brother was spending Christmas day with her. We were going to church for the Christmas Eve service at 3:00, then the traditional Chinese dinner back at my mom’s and opening presents, plum pudding, and relaxing. Christmas day I figured would be very calm because it would be just Hubby, Zeb and Grace. Easy-peasy.

Well, we headed to church at 2:30 and the moment we entered the parking lot, my anxiety level spiked. Walking into church I was immediately flooded with memories of my father and last Christmas when we went to church. Fighting back the tears began immediately. After finding our seats, my mother began to cry. Of course try as I might, at this point I could not control the tears either. For the entire service I sat next to my mother, trying to silence my uncontrollable sobs. By the end of the service, my head was throbbing and I was exhausted.

Once outside the church, I took a deep breath and regained my composure. We then drove to my mom’s while Grace went to pick up our Chinese food.  Everything was going good. We were laughing around the dinner table, enjoying a good meal, sharing memories about past Christmas’s with my father–handling it quite well.

With dinner done, we retired to the great room and began to open presents. First Zeb and Grace, then Hubby and I and then finally it would be Mom’s turn. Zeb and Grace finished their gifts, as did Hubby, but I was slowly unwrapping mine, feeling not quite myself. My head was hurting me, my chest was aching, and I was having a hard time breathing. Still, I pushed forward, thinking this was just because of the pending let down that almost always follows a holiday.

At 6:12 p.m. (I know this because Grace noted the time, knowing from her CPR classes this would be important) I opened a 12″ cast iron fry pan. Without commenting on the pan I asked Zeb to bring me some water. My mom turned and asked me if I was okay. I said, “No,” and grabbed my chest.

Hubby who was sitting next to me with his feet up, shot up, as did Grace who was sitting on the floor. In unison they asked, “What’s wrong?”

I told them my chest really hurt me. Then as I was talking I couldn’t catch my breath. Grace asked if my arms hurt. I told them my neck and jaw and ears were throbbing and hurt terribly. Hubby ran to the entrance yelling behind him, “We’ve got to go.” My mother wanted to call 911, but Hubby knew he could get me to the hospital quicker. He grabbed my coat, put on his shoes, and he and Grace got me to the car. By this time the pain was so intense in my chest, I thought it was going to burst.

It took 14 minutes to get to the hospital and the entire time I was hunched over in agonizing pain. At one point I really slouched, and Hubby told me later that he thought at that moment — That’s it! She’s gone. I heard him yell my name, and I lifted up slightly. I really couldn’t focus on anything. Everything was a blur.  Hubby tore into the Emergency entrance and Grace got a wheelchair. They pulled me from the car into the wheelchair and Grace ran as fast as she could while pushing the wheelchair into Emergency.

For the next seven hours I had three EKG’s, a CT scan, x-rays, blood drawn, and after nearly an hour and a half of sitting in the hallway they finally gave me a nitroglycerin pill and some baby aspirin. At about the hour mark, the pain lessened. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the pain I felt while at my mom’s, I’d say it was a 7.

So what was it? Was it a heart attack? Was it just chest spasms? Food poisoning?

The unofficial diagnosis was Broken Heart Syndrome or a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. A heart attack in every way, other than there is far less likelihood of permanent damage to the heart and I have no blockages to my heart or in my arteries. A portion of the heart stops working brought on by stress and grief and the heart becomes inflammed and surrounded by liquid.

What a way to celebrate Christmas! Hubby tried to make light of my dismay later by telling me, “This will definitely be one Christmas we never forget.”

What now? Well, against doctor’s orders I checked myself out of the hospital at 1:30 Christmas morning. They wanted to keep me to do more tests, give me drugs for a heart attack, and basically treat me as if I’d had a heart attack with all the whistles and bells. I am not a doctor person. I do not like hospitals or trust that they are there to do much more than pad the bill for as much as they can. I’ve had too many bad experiences with both doctors and hospitals to take a risk like trusting them.

Hubby got me home. I laid on the couch with Zeb until he calmed down while Hubby sat on the computer scouring the internet for as much information as he could find on Broken Heart Syndrome, heart attacks, treatment, side affects, and risks for death, repeat attacks, and permanent damage. Knowledge is power.

Needless to say, Hubby got no sleep that night. I was so exhausted from the pain and emotional toll everything had taken on me that I did fall asleep but not before sobbing for fear of never waking up.  Hubby sat right next to me all night checking to make sure I was still breathing continually.

Obviously Christmas day there is no way to see a cardiologist (not even if I’d stayed in the hospital could they guarantee that one would actually come see me), so the day after Hubby called and talked to one in our area. He told them everything we had gone through, read the diagnosis from the doctor, and gave them as much information as he could. They scheduled an appointment for me for the 14th of January. I guess it’s not as serious as one might believe.

On the 14th I’ll go and have new tests done to get a completely unbiased opinion and take it from there. Hubby, Grace, and my mom have me on the couch until such time as they deem me better. I cannot eat much, as when I do my chest hurts. My chest is very sore and walking short distances winds me and makes my chest hurt more. I’ve rinsed a few dishes, but have little strength.

Our research tells us that it will take between 1 and 6 weeks for me to recover, but it could be a lot longer if by some rare chance there was damage to the heart. Hubby has made it clear that my days of consoling my mom and Zeb are over and it is time for me to concentrate on myself. My mom has not so much as mentioned my father since she’s had me to take care of.

I had a heart attack. Not for the typical reason (heart blockages) but real nonetheless. Broken heart syndrome can kill you, can happen again, and could increase my risk for a more traditional heart attack. I had my heart attack on Christmas Eve, the day more heart attacks happen than any other. My father’s death took more of a toll on me than I thought — it literally broke my heart. Now I am concentrating on building myself back up with meditation, calming exercises, laughter, rest, family support, essential oils, and love — no drugs. I feel really stupid for allowing this to happen. I keep thinking I should have handled this a whole lot differently. Well, duh! Hindsight is always 20/20.

As I sit here on the couch, listening to Hubby putz around in the kitchen and Zeb vacuuming the dining room, I can’t help but feel far more than Simply Grateful for this second chance. Stress and grief can literally cause heart attacks that induce blockages to the heart and kill you. Broken heart syndrome is bad, but this could have been so much worse. I cannot shut off the grief over my father’s death, but I know he would not want me to ruin or lose my life over it. If nothing else, to honor him and his memory I am going to do whatever it takes to get through this set back. Hubby’s favorite saying is, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Nothing about this will be lost on me. This was my A Christmas Carol without the ghosts and for this I am Simply Grateful. ~ Tilly

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Nothings Ever New — It’s All Been Done Before

Fifteen months ago my family received a devastating blow when we learned that my father had stage 2B pancreatic cancer. He was 74 at the time, in seemingly good health, and had been working on losing weight by living a healthier life style for about six months prior to his diagnosis (adding insult to injury).

Being an avid journaler you’d think I’d have written volumes on my feelings, thoughts, concerns, etc. but the fact is I haven’t written anything. I haven’t been able to separate myself enough to put pen to page in anything more than an angry outburst or two. For a year I watched as my father went through surgery, chemo, radiation, and physical therapy and slowly saw my once vibrant, robust dad become a weak, frail, empty shell of who he used to be. Heart-wrenching doesn’t begin to convey the emotional toll it took on the family.

In January of 2017 my father weighed 230 pounds. In April when he was diagnosed he was around 200. Today he is barely 160 and continues to lose weight. He is 5’10” and was never thin. Even as a boy he was considered chubby, but never really fat. He carried his weight well. I can’t say that now. In fact to see him from the back or the neck down, I doubt anyone who knows him would even recognize him.

We knew with the diagnosis that the prognosis was not good. Five years tops was what we were told. Of course, who believes that. Hope takes over and no matter what your head tells you, your heart won’t believe that “my father is going to die from this.” No matter how weak he’s become, no matter how much weight he’s lost, I still kept telling myself, “This can’t be happening. Not to my family.”

This afternoon around 2 p.m. my mother knocked on my front door. I knew immediately this was not going to be good. As I walked to the door, I took a deep breath, telling myself to calm down and be strong. My mother couldn’t look at me but just said, “I wanted to make sure you were home. I’ll get your dad.”

She walked to the car and helped my father out of the car. He nearly fell when he stood up, his legs not strong enough to hold him up. My mother grabbed him, steadied him, and led him to the door. I helped him up the stairs, gave him a hug, and out of habit asked, “How ya doing Dad?”

“Pretty terrible.” he said without looking at me and went into the house.

My mother followed him, without looking at me and told him to sit in the chair in the great room. She sat on one couch, and I sat on the other.

Once we were all seated my mother looked at me for the first time and said, “We don’t have good news.”

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, but told myself I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t break down and make this harder on them. I had to be strong. I did everything I could to push the tears deep inside me.

“We had the appointment with the oncologist this morning, as you know, and the news isn’t good. Your father has seven large tumors consuming his liver. He has three options, but no matter what he decides to do, the doctor said he doesn’t have more than 6 months.”

At this point I went numb. My mother continued talking about the scans that were done, the test results they received, the options of heavy-duty chemo that wouldn’t buy him more time but would make him sicker while hopefully stopping the cancer from spreading or clinical trials or doing nothing. I sat there, I think asking questions at appropriate times, I don’t really remember. All I remember is glancing at my father in the chair and watching as he stared bravely straight ahead, emotionless.

When my mother was done going over everything the doctors had done and said, I turned to my father and asked, “So what do you think you want to do Dad?”

He cleared his throat and said, “I’m not sure but I don’t think I want to be sick for the remainder of what time I have left.”

I then asked more specific questions about the chemo and what it would do to him and about the clinical trials. My mother explained how the chemo would make him lose his hair, lose more weight, make him even more tired than he already was, and make him sick. It wouldn’t buy any time. As for the clinical trials, well those needed to be checked into to see if he qualified for the type of cancer he had but were only an option if he did the chemo. Again, the trials probably would not buy him any time.

I didn’t know what to say. My mother picked up on my silence and offered that my father was very concerned about all of us. That he wasn’t upset with the prognosis for himself, but rather for how those he was leaving behind would be affected. At that my father said, “I haven’t been that great a father, but I know this is going to be difficult.”

At that the tears could no longer be contained. I told him that he was a great father and there were so many wonderful years that we had together that not having him around … well would be unbearable.

All the while this was taking place, all I kept thinking was: I’m not the first person who’s been told that their father is dying. I won’t be the first daughter to lose her father. My mother won’t be the first woman to lost her husband. My children won’t be the first grandchildren to lose their grandfather. My father isn’t the first man to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This has all been done before. So why does it feel so utterly horrible? Why can’t I come to terms with this? Why do I feel like I’m the first person to go through this? That my pain is so much worse than anyone elses? That this is far too much pain for anyone to bear?

Hubby wasn’t home when my parents were over, he came home about 30 minutes after they had left. There was nothing he could say. What could he say to make me feel better? Nothing. I sat on the couch the rest of the day, staring out the window. Hubby checked on me periodically, trying to find words, but there were none. The one thing that he said was he didn’t know which was worse–losing someone quick and unexpected or watching someone die over a period of time. Of course I think watching someone dwindle away is worse, but that’s probably because that’s what we are going to have to do for the next several months now.

I have always found it interesting that everyone always feels that what they are experiencing is either better or worse than what everyone else has experienced. The pain and suffering one endures from injury or sickness, is worse than any anyone has ever faced. But in reality, is it?

I know what I’m going through is not unique. Thousands of people die every year from cancer. Thousands of families go through the pain and anguish of losing someone they love. Thousands of lives are changed forever more, never to be the same again with the death of someone close to them. Honestly though, this is no consolation. This pain is unlike anything I’ve ever felt. Losing my grandparents was very hard, losing pets seemed almost unbearable, losing friends was sad and painful, but my father…I have loved him for 50 years and I can’t imagine going into my 51st without him.

At the moment I am finding it hard to find anything to be “Simply Grateful” for, but one thing I will be FOREVER GRATEFUL for is my father and all the years we have had together, good and bad. I hope I can find the strength to make the most of the time we have left.

Jingle Bells, I Love You Too Much!

You can say any fool thing to a dog, and the dog will give you this look that says, “My God, you’re RIGHT. I NEVER would’ve thought of that!’ – Dave Barry

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Jingle Bells

It isn’t healthy how much I love my dog. She is with me every moment I am home. And when I have to go out, I worry about her. So much in fact that I am hesitating even planning a family vacation because I worry how it will affect her. These feelings are so close to how I felt about my children when they were babies and to some extent still now, I feel guilty. In fact, since my kids are getting older and less dependent on me, Bell has eased herself right into the would-be empty nest spots that they used to occupy.

Nearly two and a half years ago I decided I wanted a dog. Up until then my husband pretty much forbade me from getting one. I tend to get over attached to animals — okay, let’s face it, I am a sentimental slob and love them to a point well beyond what would be considered “healthy.” Every time we have had any sort of pet, I become so close to them, that when they leave this world, I am a basket case for weeks.

I have lost some close family members and a few close friends, but losing a pet is different. It is like losing a piece of yourself. This isn’t to discount losing family or friends, because that is also nearly unbearable, but for some reason I cannot accept a pets death as readily as I have been able to accept people’s. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh.

Death is never fair and I am never ready for it, regardless if a person has been ill or has lived a long life, but maybe because when a person dies, a piece of them is carried on in the people whose lives they’ve touched, it is somehow cushioned. My grandmother died nearly 15 years ago and I still think of her if not every day, pretty close. There are so many things I learned from her that I use in my daily life and traditions she instilled in me that it is as if she is still here. I suppose as long as I remember her and the gifts she left me, she will never truly be gone.

When our pet rabbit, Pepper died four years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever get over it. We found him after someone set him “free” at a state park. He was a domestic rabbit and would not have made it through the night in the wild. For seven years he was a part of our family. Not to the extent that Bell is now (I tend to think dogs are more loving than rabbits, at least in our case), but a loving addition none the less. Even though he died peacefully and I knew he had lived longer than most rabbits his breed, the loss was palpable. It left a hole in my heart that mere memories cannot heal. To this day I mourn his loss.

I’m not sure if it was the loss of Pepper or that the kids were finally old enough to join me in “ganging up” on my husband, but one night when he got home from work, we were waiting for him. He walked into the great room and found us sitting on the couch. He knew something was up. He cautiously sat on the opposite couch and I told him, “We want a dog.”

No begging, no justification, no preliminary conversation to cushion the blow, just “We want a dog!” He sat there a moment staring at us. I assume he was weighing his options. Before he could come up with a million reasons not to, I flipped open my laptop and continued. I told him I had found an 8 week old border collie/Australian shepherd puppy that needed rescuing. I turned the monitor toward him with Bell’s picture full screen. He looked at her and I could see him physically soften.

I’d done my homework. One thing my husband could not stand was a dumb dog. I think all dogs are great in their own way, but for my husband, a dog had to be smart. This breed was rated number 1. How much better could it get?

Without argument, my husband stood up, walked out of the room, saying over his shoulder, “If that’s what you want.” Done! He might have thought I would follow him to fortify my case for a dog, but I didn’t. I let it go. I didn’t say another word about it. I’d won. He didn’t say no and that’s all I was looking for.

The next morning after he left for work, the kids and I got in the car, drove 30 miles to where Bell was and brought her home. When my husband came home from work, I set Bell in the middle of the back hallway floor, right where he would come in. The kids and I hid around the corner and waited. The door opened and in a funny, baby-talk voice that I hadn’t heard since the kids were babies my husband said, “Well hello there! Aren’t you a cutie.” He was hooked.  Since that day, Jingle Bells has been our baby-dog. My husband refers to her as our “love child” and “the daughter that loves me.” My daughter loves him, but she is a teenager, so it’s only natural that there be a little friction from time to time.

Being a stay-at-home mom, I spend the most time with Bell. I feed her, bathe her, walk her, play with her, and twice a week when hubby is working, she sleeps with me. The other nights she sleeps with my daughter, Gracie. She is spoiled rotten and that’s the way I like it. I look at rescuing her as justification for making her life as happy, fulfilling, and easy as possible. She gives us unconditional love beyond anything I could have imagined, so the least I can do is let her sleep on the couch all day, walk her every morning, play with her, feed her healthy food, and love her with every ounce of my being. See — just like a kid, except my kid’s days of sleeping on the couch all day are numbered, they aren’t much into exercise, playing has nearly been outgrown, and healthy food does not always win over the junk food they try to sneak. Still, there’s the love.

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I can’t imagine what I’m going to do when something happens to Bell. Just typing that statement my eyes have filled with tears, there is a lump in my throat, and it is taking everything inside me to hold back the tears welling up in my eyes. So today, I am going to love Bell as much as I can, sneak doggie kisses as often as she’ll give them, and do my best to give her the “dog’s life” that she deserves, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.