Recovery

Be wary of anyone who tells you that recovery from any type of abdominal surgery will be “a piece of cake”.

A piece of cake is delicious and a totally good time. Abdominal surgery, and the recovery that goes with it, is neither.

My first experience with any sort of abdominal surgery was August of 2005. After less than two months of marriage, I had to rush Cortney to the hospital to have his appendix removed. Emergency surgery like that is frightening anyway, but our circumstances were complicated by the fact that I was rushing Cortney to the ER moments after he said goodbye to his dying dad.

The recovery was complicated by needing to be able to dress up in a shirt and tie, walk up a church aisle, and read scripture at his dad’s funeral three days after surgery.

My first abdominal surgery was an emergency C-section. That recovery was complicated by postpartum depression. As was my second C-section.

The recovery from my third C-section was simpler, but I would not classify it as “cake”. It still hurt. I still had frustrations and setbacks.

Hernia surgery was, by all accounts, the easiest abdominal surgery yet. The recovery was not what I expected, although it has been textbook. I wanted to be back to normal in days. I wanted to be back doing what I do with no lingering pain or other inconveniences.

But that is not how recovery generally works, is it? Recovery is usually at least a little hard. Because as soon as the initial numbness wears off, we have great pain. And that great pain can be controlled, but it’s not gone right away. Things are not “normal” just because we take some meds.

Other people are generally affected when we need to recover too. It’s obvious that when Cortney had his surgery, I took over household chores, and he took over pretty much all of life when I had all my surgeries. Once we had kids even more people rearranged their lives to help us out: people to care for our kids, help out at work, bring us meals.

And in all cases, once recovery is declared over, there are scars left to show what we went through. I have a long scar on my lower abdomen: the exit route of all three of our children. And now I have a little frowny face over my belly button (or as Charlie calls it, “a button rainbow”).

Recovery has been on my mind lately not just because of my own recent surgery, but also in terms of recovering from a pain that isn’t necessarily physical, but emotional. Which brings me back to Cortney’s abdominal surgery: his appendix.

We had been married just under two months and just left his dad and stepmom’s house where his dad lay prone on a Hospice bed, unresponsive, barely breathing, dying of lung cancer. We weren’t even out of the subdivision when I got the text that he had passed, but we couldn’t go back because Cortney was having an emergency of his own.

Once it was confirmed that he would have an appendectomy, I went to work making phone calls so everyone knew where we were and what was going on. I called my parents to please come sit with me at the hospital. I called my best friend and told her Cortney was having surgery…and that his dad died…and could she please start a phone chain to all our close friends. I ran home and threw some clothes and toiletries into a bag and grabbed my pillow in hopes they would let me stay the night with him (they did).

It was a whirlwind in every sense of the cliche.  We’ve been in recovery ever since.

I don’t think this is the kind of recovery you call call complete, although it does leave scars.

Sometimes, even after almost 18 months, my C-section scar will bother me a little. Sometimes it itches, sometimes there is a twinge. Grief is like that. Each time our children to things that make us think about what their grandfather is missing, our heart hurts where the scar of loss is. Each time I see the dimple in each of their smiles, I think of their dad’s dimple, and then I think of their Papa’s dimple. Each time Cortney has a house project to work on or tells me he is going to ask my dad’s opinion of something, the scar flares up.

I think of him at least once every single day.

Sometimes it’s a fleeting thought or a smile. Sometimes it’s a “what if he was here…” thought. And sometimes it just hurts.

Then I think about how if this is how my “recovery” is going, how much more hurt it must still be for Cortney and his siblings. For Cortney’s stepmom. For his Grandma. For his aunts and uncles.

He was my father-in-law for 57 days. The only photos I have of me with him are from my wedding to his son. How much deeper are the scars of those who had a lifetime with him?

I can’t even imagine.

With time after our surgeries, Cortney and I were finally deemed fine. And now, eleven years after Steve’s death, we are fine.  But the scars don’t go away. The emptiness doesn’t go away. The memories of the hurt don’t go away.

We will always be in recovery.

I love this picture for a thousand reasons, but one of the big ones is that Cortney now looks and acts so much like his dad then. And Charlie now, looks and acts so much like Cortney then.

I love this picture for a thousand reasons, but one of the big ones is that Cortney now looks and acts so much like his dad then. And Charlie now, looks and acts so much like Cortney then.

It Was A Sunday…

It was a Sunday ten years ago.

I’ve told the story over and over. Sometimes with lots of details. Sometimes with almost none.

But I still remember every single detail.

It’s almost all I have.

Cortney had abdominal pain. I went to do his Fantasy Football Draft. Lots of phone calls about coming to his dads. Finally we went.

Just in time to say good-bye.

Just in time to release him from his pain.

Just in time.

Then there was the appendix surgery.

We were still newlyweds. I didn’t even stand when the doctor came out to get the next of kin to come in the recovery room.

I forgot that it was me, not his mother, who should go in.

Temporary bliss of forgetting.

His dad was gone.

“My dad died today,” he told the nurses.

The looks of disbelief that I had to confirm.

Everyone agreed he won “shittiest day ever.”

I had to make phone calls.

“Cortney’s dad died. Cortney had his appendix out.”

That night we slept in a tiny hospital room together.

I couldn’t leave him alone. His dad had just died.

I couldn’t go home alone either. My father-in-law had just died.

It was a Sunday ten years ago.

Today is Friday.

The sad truth is that I really didn’t know him.

The more time that passes, the more I realize, I didn’t know him.

I know he loved me.

I know he was happy I married his son.

But I didn’t get any time. None.

Not once did I sit down and chat with him by myself.

Never were we randomly alone in a room together.

I think of all the family gatherings we have had in the past ten years, and wonder what it would be like to have his jokes and observations and laughter injected into it all.

How significantly would our lives be different?

It’s impossible to imagine.

That impossibility is what hurts the most–the things I will never know.

He was my father-in-law, and I didn’t know him at all.

And yet, every day I think of him.

Every day I miss him.

It was a Sunday ten years ago that my father-in-law died of lung cancer.

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9 years later

You’ve been gone 9 years today.

9 whole years.

That boggles my mind.

When I think about your diagnosis, the treatments, and the end…it hurts almost worse now than it did at the time.  At the time I was so in the situation, and such a newbie in the family. I didn’t know all the people who were throwing their arms around me and praying over me. Shedding tears that fell on my skin.

I didn’t really know you.

I have pictures and stories, but because you were diagnosed in that one year I had with you before marrying your son, you were always surrounded by friends and family. I can count on one hand the times we spent as a normal “family” in the time after Cortney and I were engaged.

But it’s more than others got.

I have never ever forgotten how lucky we were to have you at our wedding.

Every single happy moment in our lives since then have had a small ache because you were missing it.

What would your reaction have been to each pregnancy announced by your children? What about the adoption of your grandsons? How would you have comforted your children through child loss? How would you have danced with your daughter at her wedding?  Or rejoiced to see your son marry his high school sweetheart?  How proud would you have been of the graduations and degrees we are all racking up?  Your your son-in-law’s first children’s book? How would you have gotten along with your kids in-laws?  What things would you teach your grandchildren?

I can’t help but see you in my own boys.  It makes me smile and breaks my heart.

I have forgotten your voice, your laugh, even what you looked like outside of photos. But I have never forgotten the twinkle in your eye. I see it in Cortney, Cody, MacKenzie, and all of your grandkids…especially Charlie.

This morning I was lying awake thinking about how proud of Cortney you must be. He is such a wonderful dad and husband. He is handy and smart. And he is a business owner. Just like you.

Sunday we all sat on MacKenzie and Dave’s new lawn and beach and had peach pie for your birthday. I looked at each member of the family and tried to see what you would see. I got choked up. Gosh. If there is bragging in heaven, you must do it heavily.

Today I took Eddie and Charlie to the flower shop. We ordered a lovely arrangement of happy flowers to go in front of the church on Sunday in your memory. We will be on nursery duty, but I hope people enjoy them. I hope they make people smile, the way you always did.

After the flower shop, we went to the bakery (or the donut shop, as Eddie calls it). Eddie and I have been coming here on August 14 for the past three years. Today Charlie was with us. I showed them some pictures of you. Eddie asked me why you looked so different at our wedding and I explained cancer to him for the first time. I also showed him your marina photo. He said, “now THAT looks like daddy!”  That made me smile.

We sure do miss you.

Each of us differently, of course, but the pain is still there.

9 years or 900 years…I think it will still hurt.

For now we see the joy in that hurt. The pain means there was a lot of love there.

Love and laughter.

Pops - Formal - Anchorage

Lost

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Eight years and 3 months ago Cortney and I sat in these chairs for the first time. They were wedding shower gifts from someone. A couple’s wedding shower. I don’t want to tell that story (or maybe ever because it’s sort of embarrassing), but Cort’s dad had a lot to do with that shower since it was held at the marina where Cort’s dad and stepdad slipped their boat and it was all the boating people Cortney had grown up with plus both of our families and our wedding party.

We still have these chairs eight years later.

I’ve sat in them numerous times, but this summer I have found myself in one or the other almost daily. They are on the back patio and they are the perfect chair to lean back and read or watch the boys play in the backyard. It has quickly become my favorite spot.

At one point this summer I put my book down, breathed in deeply, and thought about my father-in-law.

I didn’t know him long, but whenever I went with Cortney to the marina to visit with him and his stepmom (they were there in all of their free time), he was sitting in a chair just like mine under a specific tree by the docks.

The first time we ever sat in these chairs.

The first time we ever sat in these chairs.

I have thought of him often this summer as I plant myself in my chair.

Each time the wind blows, I close my eyes and try to feel his presence. I look at my children–his grandchildren–and I try to imagine what he would be like with my kids. How would he laugh as Charlie runs at full speed with his curls flopping around behind him? How would he play with Eddie?

And I don’t know.

I can’t remember.

I try so hard to squeeze my eyes shut and imagine his face…but it’s fading.  We have his picture out, yes, but it’s hard for me to actually remember him from my own mental photo albums. I remember seeing him when Cort and I were dating. I remember telling him about our engagement. I remember all the times we were along for doctor visits. I remember the events before he physically changed from himself into The Cancer Patient.

But I don’t remember him.

Before I knew him, with Cort's stepmom

Before I knew him, with Cort’s stepmom

I stare into the eyes of those photos we have living in our computers.

I see Cortney and his brother Cody and their Grandma Sluiter the most in those eyes and cheeks and chin and nose and smile.

When I look from this photo to one of my boys my eyes burn, and my heart hardens.

Why do I have to search for similarities and guess at their relationship with each other?  Why will I never ever get to see them together?  Why can’t I remember his laugh, damnit?

The only picture we have of us with ALL our parents

The only picture we have of us with ALL our parents

Already he was slipping away in that photo. He is so small and not the same man in the physical sense. By that time, I had already started to forget what he was like before Cancer.

And it had only been four months since his diagnosis.

He was always in his chair after that and surrounded by friends and family. He was never ever alone.

This meant as a newbie to the family I never ever spent one on one time with my father-in-law. But I knew he was a great man who everyone loved.

always the goof.

always the goof.

I never knew him in the normal, every day way.

I can’t remember anything other than moments that were touched and tainted and special and beautiful because we knew he wouldn’t be around for more of those moments. But they were not private moments. At least not many of them.

There were always other people around.

Cortney says his dad could tell a great story.

I don’t know.

Cortney says his dad was a good listener.

I don’t know.

Cortney gets tears in his eyes and talks about how much his dad would love to be a Papa.

I. Don’t. Know.

Laying Cort's dad to rest in his favorite place.

Laying Cort’s dad to rest in his favorite place.

Lots of people see my last name and ask me if I am related to him. I proudly say he was my father-in-law.

People often smile and simply say, “he was a really, really great man.”

I nod. I know.

But I don’t know.

I miss him.

Not because I knew him, but because I didn’t.

And hell yes, I am bitter about that because I should have known him.

He died two months after Cortney and I were married, eight years ago today.

It doesn’t get easier to have him gone. The weight still presses on my chest thinking about “never” and “forever”.

But just in case “never” and “forever” don’t mean what I think they do, I have a seat saved for him in the backyard to watch his grandsons laugh and play.

green undies and what is missing

“You know,” he told Eddie as he dried him off and helped him into his Green Lantern underwear, “Papa Steve had green underpants too.”

A smile spread across Cort’s lips and the rare twinkle appeared in his eye as he shared this small piece of memory with his oldest son.

“He called them his Green Hornets,” he finished with a smirk tugging at his dimples.

As Eddie and I giggled, I saw that elusive twinkle in Cort’s eye gleam brighter for just a second it go out with a snap.

I swallowed hard as a lump caught in my throat and tears burned in the corner of my eyes.

It was ridiculous that a brief recollection about underwear would make me miss him so much.  Would remind me of what Cort was missing so much each and every day.

I know these things should make us smile.  And it does make us smile.

But it’s also a stinging reminder of what is missing.

Cort has fathered two sons…just like his dad.

I’ve heard him call Eddie his Number 1 son and Charlie his Number 1 Young Son…just like his dad did with him and his younger brother Cody.

He’s told Eddie lots of little things…like the green undies…about his dad and each time it is bittersweet.

He is a dad without a dad.

I take for granted the fact that I can call up my mom with funny stories about the boys and jog her memory about mothering littles.  I get to hear her tell me about her perspective from when she was in the trenches like I am.

Cort doesn’t get his dad’s perspective on raising boys.

I cry to my mom about the tough parts of motherhood and ask questions about how she and my dad did it.

Cort remembers as best as he can and gets his mom’s input, but he doesn’t get to ask his dad what was tough about being a father.

Last summer I sat back with my mom at a cottage my parents rented for the family. It was one of many cottages we had frequented as a family when my brothers and I were little.  She and I talked about how relaxing is different with small kids around.  We joked and cracked a beer as I watched Eddie run around with his uncles while Charlie entertained his aunts.

Cort doesn’t get to kick back with his dad and a beer on the family boat they spent weekends on when he was a kid.  He doesn’t get to recall the trips to various marinas up and down the West Coast of Michigan.

As children life looks a lot different to us.

I have found one of my favorite activities to do with my parents is remember all the memories we made.  My parents are always amazed at what my brothers and I remember…and how our memories compare to what they experienced alongside us.

Cort doesn’t get to do this with his dad.

My relationship with my mom changed when I became a mother.  It was subtle and slight, but there was a shift.

We had a new connection.  A new something-in-common.

We were both mothers.

She has much she can share with me and I have much I can learn from her.

Cort never had that shift with his dad.

He never got to share the sameness.

He never saw his dad as a Grandpa and, maybe more difficult, his dad never got to see Cort as a Dad.

Cortney is not a story-teller by nature.

I am still learning stories about his childhood–mostly from his sister and his mom, but sometimes from him.

When his memories are sparked,  the twinkle in his eye gleams, and the dimple in his cheek deepens, I know it will be a memory about his dad.

Even if it’s about the Green Hornets.

*************

Cort and I have decided to start a Relay for Life Team in Memory of Papa Steve.  I have never done it before, but I think you can join our team, donate, or…um…I am not sure.  Our goal is $250 and my personal goal is $100.  So far it’s just me on the team, so I have some work to do.  Anyway, this is the link to my page if you are interested in helping out.

he was there

In the time since I started dating Cortney eight years ago, I have only had one Christmas with his dad.

The first year we were together, Cort and I had only been dating a few months, so we decided not to try to cram family Christmases on each other.  I didn’t go to either of his parents’ houses and he didn’t come to mine.  It’s not like we didn’t know each other’s parents.  We were 25 years old, dating for 3 months, but we had known each other for most of our lives.  We just decided not to make things crazy at Christmas that year.

The following year we were engaged.  We did the Big Christmas Run Around.  We did all the parents and all the grandparents and it was hectic, but fun.  I was glad I was about to join such a loving, awesome family.

It was the only Christmas I ever had with Cort’s dad.

And I just realized that I can’t remember it.

Well not much of it.

I have no idea what we had to eat, but I am sure Cort’s stepmom, Lynne, had crab dip and shrimp cocktail.

I do know that I brought cream puffs because they were Steve’s favorite.

I don’t remember the gifts.

I do remember all of us kids cramming onto the couch in the basement in front of the fireplace until Steve decided it was time to shoot pool.

I don’t remember all the funny things that were said or even if my sister-in-law, MacKenzie had a boyfriend at the time.

I do know she wasn’t dating her husband yet, though.

What I remember are the laughs and the joking and how my father-in-law-to-be made me feel like part of the family in a way no one had yet.

And looking back, he was less than a month from finding out he was sick.

He had no idea he wouldn’t see another Christmas.

Every Christmas since then, we have all gotten together with Lynne.

Tonight, we hosted the get together.

As I looked around I saw Steve’s three children.  All married and extremely happy.  All joking and teasing each other and laughing.

I saw three of his grandsons and felt the fourth kicking around on the inside.

I saw us embracing his wife and loving her and keeping her a part of the family.

And I felt him there.

His oldest son giving his only daughter parenting advice.  His youngest son making his oldest grandson giggle.  His daughter fitting the role of “momma” so well to his new grandsons.

There was warmth.

There was a feeling of family.

Because he was there.

 

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