In Keeping

Published on November 28, 2016 by Michelle Wirth

When my wife died of lung cancer, poems landed around me in the ruins like ashes after a forest fire.

Raymond Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall, was rested gently against my door.

He died of lung cancer, too.

Her downturn was so sudden there were ways in which we never got to say goodbye, ways in which we never said, “thank you.” We broke a thousand times and I cared for the pieces while my wife as I knew her was gone to me and I fell in love with her again, again and again.

I wanted to trade my life for hers. I failed. I never quit.

I am the adult who wanted to care for her out of love for her and the child who wanted to get it right so she would never leave me, get grief right so she would come back.

She lived her life according to her values, investing deeply in relationships in which she gave hundreds of people her undivided attention one massage appointment, one park walk, one art date, one phone call at a time, over decades. Her last chemo treatment was the beginning of the end. Nothing meant more to her than connecting with these people. Housebound in a western Pennsylvania winter. Neuropathic pain, cold-induced nausea, medicine induced hallucinations, a body that turned night into day and day into night. We put a visitation calendar where her massage appointment schedule used to be, and filled the book with appointments to visit.

One day she woke to find a friend in her room, and she came out to find me to complain about how weird it was to wake up to someone staring at her.

One morning she woke in the early dark, the house empty, and she wailed, “I need something to feed my heart.”

Friends come, and she is awake, and when they join her in our bed she relaxes into their presence and falls asleep.

She switches back and forth between our marriage bed, and the bed she had set up in her favorite room in the house, the room in which she used to practice massage. When hospice sent the bed to the house, she had them put it in the massage room and she renamed it the day room. She loved to work while she watched the western light pour in through the window and blush across the wall as the sun set.

On the winter night she began to die, I hurried to text the friends who weren’t there, but could be. I missed one. I’m sorry. She died in her favorite room, filled with family and friends. I can’t go after her. I’m here in the ruins of the last gathering we hosted together. I was true to my word, in spirit and in keeping. I failed without quitting. I have this going forward, and I shine this as a beacon into the ethers, into the void. She is not coming back.

I remember one beautiful summer morning years before, in Georgetown, as we walked in warm sunshine to have brunch at Cafe Napoleon. She said she thought I would lose her possibly another way, to Alzheimer’s. She thought she would lose me, failing to see me in plain sight. She said the only thing that stood in the way of her ending her own life in this event is that first she would want to say goodbye to me, but if she said goodbye to me then she knew I would stand in her way, but she couldn’t leave me without saying goodbye. So we stood in glorious sunshine on the sidewalk of Georgetown, stood facing one another, looked each other in the eyes. We said, “I love you.” We said, “Thank you.” We said goodbye. We held each other tightly there on the sidewalk in glorious sunshine. We kissed. We walked to brunch.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

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My Wife Died of Lung Cancer

Published on October 1, 2016 by Michelle Wirth

I’m waiting for her to come home so I can go to bed.

Today I emptied the dishwasher, took the dogs to the park, went grocery shopping, did a load of laundry, took over the kitchen table to do a few hours of legal research for a friend. It could have been any day from 2010, 2011, 2012.

But this time of the year in 2014, we did not know that we were two weeks away from the chemo treatment that would cause neuralgia and the beginning of a quick end, a nightmare from mid-October to mid-January. And whether I’m awake or asleep I’m living that nightmare, except for the times I forget and I’m doing what I’m doing, waiting for her to come home.

This keeps being impossible.

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Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Published on May 30, 2014 by Michelle Wirth

One of my elderly family members is in the hospital, so I go to his apartment to pick up more comfortable clothing. He lives in a Jewish-run assisted living center in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood. As I sign in at the front desk, I notice a woman who has passed the time where guessing her age would be polite. She is petite, less than five feet tall, with short white hair swept away from her face. She wears a denim jacket and talks to the woman at the front desk about how much she enjoyed having breakfast in the garden with her daughters. Arthritis has reshaped her hands and she wears no wedding ring. I didn’t know there was a garden in the back yard. I live three hundred miles away from my mother. We had been talking on the phone at breakfast time about her plans to celebrate Mother’s Day when I received a text message saying yes, thank you for your offer to bring things to the hospital, please pick up a blue tee shirt and a pair of his eyeglasses but not the ones from the 1970s. This woman, with her warm presence and sparkling intelligence, reminds me of my mother.

We meet again at the elevator. I move past the three elderly gentlemen on board, to the back. She commands the front, asking each gentleman for his floor. There are three more floors and someone calls out for each of them. A man with a thick head of silver hair and the chiseled cheekbones of a model wears aviator classes. His hands are elegant, unturned by arthritis and perfectly manicured. If not for the way he leaned on a walker, I would expect him to fly our plane or pose for the Banana Republic catalog. He walks into the elevator last, and does not turn around to face the door – the walker is too bulky to maneuver in such a small space.

We reach the second floor, and he pulls out backward, followed by the other men. She calls out after them, “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow.”

They shuffle onward, and I wonder if they heard.

The elevator doors close on her performance, and she turns to me and says, “No one ever knows the words of The Great Bard, Shakespeare.” She has sized me up and deftly returns the conversation to her daughters’ visit. I wish her a happy Mother’s Day. She asks me if I am a mother, and in my pause she answers, “No.” There is so much space between the second and third floor of this building. I pause a moment more and to meet her in this conversation I tell her, “I would like to be. I hope one day I get to adopt.”

The doors open.

Something shifts in her. She squares her shoulders. With a concise lift of her head she says, “That is very necessary.”

I am trying to make sense of the almost imperceptible shift in her, this woman who may have fled a place of pogroms, lived through a time of hiding, distributing, shipping children to safer shores. Or she might have lost one of her own children in the distribution of babies that flowed from our eastern seaboard during the early years of the Baby Boom. In the confines of polite conversation I have no way to turn these images around into appropriate questions. The moment has passed – ever agile, she is gone.

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Looking, Leaping & Longing

Published on May 28, 2013 by Michelle Wirth

Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky has a beautiful post about the encouragement given to a young girl as she crouched at the edge of the high dive. She walked down off the board, returned later to take the leap, and propelled herself off the board into the cold water below. (But you should still read the blog post – the writing is wonderful and I promise I haven’t ruined the story.)

My father in law grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York City. Someone hit the ball onto an apartment building rooftop, and he went after it. He got as close as he could – the rooftop of the neighboring building. As he stood there, looking across the chasm between the rooftop he could climb and the rooftop that held the small rubber ball, so close yet out of reach, his friends shouted – JUMP! JUMP! You can make it in TWO JUMPS!

The little boy had climbed, surveyed, considered the advice, and reconsidered his original plan. He came empty handed to his friends who had counted on him to retrieve the ball and save the game. I don’t know if they played another game that day, but the history of stickball in New York suggests that eventually they found a new ball and played more games.
I’m glad for the little girl who listened to her gut, respected herself enough to back away from the edge, reconsider, return, and leap into blue skies and cold water. I’m glad for the little boy who thought better of advice given by people who couldn’t see the flaw in their plan, glad that he didn’t feel compelled to sacrifice himself in order to save face with his friends.

Kudos to the people that cheered on the little girl, who shouted encouragement when they could have shouted anything – could have soured the opportunity with taunts or jeers, or left her alone with her fears in deafening silence. I tip my hat to those long-ago children who gave their best advice and welcomed back the little boy who didn’t take it and came back empty handed.

How many times do I say “tell me what to do to get this to work out” when what I really need is: tell me that I can come back empty handed and still be okay with you, remind me that I can still play with you. Help me turn down the howling wind of this fear so I can better listen to my gut, sort out my own mind, consider feedback and the options and not feel rushed to step back from the best and scariest vantage point here at this edge.  “Leap, and the net will appear.”

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Published on May 28, 2013 by Michelle Wirth

I’ve had a Rumi quote taped first to my kitchen wall and then to my office wall for more years than I can remember:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

For years his words landed with me as a re-minder to have my prayers be my practices. I got the gratitude part, but I knew I was missing something.

Tonight in a moment of otherwise unremarkable ceiling-gazing, the meaning of the quote slipped into focus.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

It has been easy for me to know what needs to be done – pay bills, fix squeaky wheels, answer emails, vote, feed the cats – but I have been dragging around this idea that there is Something Significant I am supposed to do with my life, to make my life worthwhile and to have my time on the planet amount to Something. Significant.

And I have been counting on some powerful feeling or sign from the Universe to tell me The Thing.

As if. As if there was only one big Something. And I would know what it is. And I have to do it, and when I do it my life will have Turned Out.

I’ve been trying to do The Right Thing for The Right Reasons in The Right Order and in Good Time.


There is so much love, so much that moves me, so much unruly potential. So much possible.

I’ve just been worrying about getting it wrong, missing the window. Like that scene in I Love Lucy when Lucy and Ethel work at the chocolate factory. They set out to wrap individual pieces of chocolate candy in paper as they move down a conveyor belt, but the belt runs fast, their timing is off, they wind up shoving candy hand to mouth rather than let a piece slip by unwrapped – there’s candy flying everywhere and it is mayhem.

Lucy says to Ethel, “I think we’re fighting a losing game!”

Ethel can’t say anything, because her mouth is full of chocolate. You couldn’t hear her anyway, because the audience is laughing loudly at the spectacle of these women being overwhelmed by having so much chocolate in such a short span of time.

Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates, and those chocolates are flying past you faster than you can neatly wrap them for public consumption.

I want to work my best, side by side with people I am proud to call “friend,” shove chocolates in my mouth, laugh with the glee of freedom, and marvel that there are so many opportunities that some slip by untouched.

I am going to pursue what calls to me and watch the results shake out in their own good time, worry less about doing in the right order, the right time frame, or whether I get to do it all – because there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

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