The Breathing Widow

April 02, 2022 THE MMA TEAM

I sat up in bed reluctantly as I realized that I was facing another day of caretaking. Another day of loneliness. Another day of tragedy and sickness.

The weight of my circumstance saturated my mind, and I knew that I didn’t have a choice to breath. It was automatic and keeping me alive. I swung my feet out of the bed and onto the cold, wood floor. I pulled myself up and pushed on. I pushed through my tragic reality and started my day. My sick husband needed me. My two young children needed me. I was the strong core of the home, and I couldn’t give up.

This was the day that Benji started throwing up black mucus, which we were told was a sign of a blockage. He was gaunt and thin. A shell of his former self.

Benji had taken up weightlifting a year before he got diagnosed with cancer. He had morphed into a bulky, and healthy man. He had lived with Crohn’s disease since his late teens, but he was learning to take care of himself.

During his years of going to the gym bright and early every morning, he had more energy than ever before, and we even started camping with the boys. Benji had been weary of camping because he always needed a bathroom close by.  We were finally able to add that to our summers. Our lives with disease was working, until one day it wasn’t. The Crohns disease had taken over and grown into several tumors which ravaged my poor husband’s body. 

It seemed that he had turned into an old man overnight. The muscles disappeared, his skin changed color and his eyes became dark. I would see a small glimpse of his former self when he would make a sarcastic remark or tell a joke. His liveliness was in there somewhere, but it was disappearing before my eyes.  That bitter day we knew we were in for devastating news as we headed to ER.

Benji was halfway through his third round of chemotherapy. That past June we had the privilege of meeting with a world-renowned Oncologist in Houston, Texas. We had been hopeful that this new type of chemo would kill the cancer, but we were wrong.

That night in the ER, the doctor told us that Benji needed emergency surgery to remove part of his colon. Benji’s body was breaking down from the chemo. The doctors needed to do all they could to protect him from infection, so they placed him in a negative pressure room.

It was here in this room that I listened to Benji tell me this was it, he was leaving me. Our life together was over. I didn’t believe it until days later when the oncologist said the same words on the phone as I stood in our kitchen. All I remember hearing on the other end of the phone, was “We removed part of his colon but in terms of the growth of cancer, there is nothing more we can do.”

In that moment standing in the kitchen, the house flooded with memories of our growing family. We bought our home on Sherman Avenue ten years earlier. We adopted two puppy pugs and 3 years later welcomed our first son, Jonah and Isaac arrived 18 months later. Our home was filled with love and joy. The memories swirled in my head. Bringing our baby boys home to meet the pugs. Our annual Christmas parties, summer back yard get togethers and our living room lively with wild wrestling matches.

Our home was the hub for our friend group. Our backyard was often filled with people on warm summer nights. The tiki torches burning and fresh homebrew in our glasses.

In that moment I stood numb encircled with shock, grief, awe and confusion. How could this life we had created be coming to an end? It was my turn to tell him that we would no longer be together, except this time it was the truth. 

On the short drive to the hospital, I called his brother to share the news. His brother was speechless as he was the optimistic one. He didn’t think Benji would die. No, not his little brother.

I pulled into the hospital parking lot, walked to the elevator and pushed the five. I starkly remember that moment. It was the beginning of the end of our life together and the journey ahead would be perilous and unnerving. It was the beginning of the worst tragedy of my life. My anxiety rose with the elevator.

The doors opened, and I walked with shaking hands to his room. I sat next to him, studied his handsome face and told him the bold truth. “There is nothing more we can do.” I said. His response. “I know”.

There was no room in my soul for all the emotions my heart needed to process something like this. I was numb.

We celebrated his 33rd birthday in the courtyard of the hospital. Benji sat in the wheelchair with his hospital gown on, hunched over and looking more aged than ever. His family surrounded him as we snuck him a small glass of his favorite whiskey. We all knew that this would be the last birthday we would celebrate with him. We knew that next year at that time we would be sitting next to his grave. I don’t remember the conversations, but I do remember our boys clinging to him, singing to him and bringing him joy. 

Two weeks later, I brought Benji home with the help of a hospice. Hospice workers I learned, are the people that care for you when you are sick and dying, whether you are old or not.

They were at my house every other day for my thirty-three-year-old husband. They changed his ostomy bag and dressed the wounds from his surgery. I still breathed everyday but only because it was automatic like I didn't have a choice. If I had a choice, I don't know if I would have chosen to keep breathing. If it wasn't for the two sweet souls of the boys we had created together, I would have been okay going right along with him.

In the last days I felt I was living in a strange realm between life and death. I would walk into our bedroom to see the boys snuggled up with their Daddy watching Captain America or playing Wii U. I remember their last wrestling match.

I could see Benji’s struggle as he lifted them up and threw them on the couch. He recognized that it was the last time his body would allow him to do that. As his body deteriorated, mine followed suit. I lost weight. I lost my appetite and only had enough energy for the bare minimum. I was losing half of myself. I was preparing to step out on my own.

Benji and I were only sixteen when we met. We were high school sweethearts and fell head over heels on our first date. We married at twenty years old. We spent the first 6 years sowing our wild oats, traveling and pursuing our careers. It terrified me to undo my dependence on him and regress from the life we had created. I would have to become unmarried. My soul and body would have to morph into a new single being. This inevitably would bring single parenthood.

It was difficult to envision raising our boys on my own. They didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and I did my best to shield them from any pain. I knew at this point that having to walk them through a parent loss was something I was going to have to do. 

Sitting on the front porch watching the world was our favorite place. We would often sit out there after the boys were in bed. We would sip a drink and pour over our lives and our future. Yet, our last front porch night was much different. We were no longer talking about our future, but my future. He told me how he wanted me to move forward, find new love, have more children. He told me that he wanted me to marry someone with a daughter, something that I had always wanted. These conversations were surreal and heartbreaking. I am eternally grateful for his release of me. He did all he could to ease my transition into my new life and knew I needed to be freed from him.

As the days passed, the visitors increased. The food stacked up and the waiting became unbearable. As much as I didn’t want him to go, I also couldn’t stand the anticipation. I felt guilty for my feelings but longed to get it over with. I found myself running up the street in a fired frenzy of emotion. A dear friend found me under a tree in a nearby park and comforted me with her loving words. Every day brought us a little bit closer to the end. I google searched for signs of death. I became well versed in end-of-life lingo and began watching for purple knees, yellow skin and sunken eyes. He soon became less active and slept twenty hours a day. 

It became more evident that the end was coming, and so we decided to move him to a hospice center. He wanted to die at home, but I couldn’t allow it. I imagined a conversation with him, stated my case and he agreed. He was no longer lucid, and I was having to make decisions based on what I thought he would do.

We spent our last few hours in our home together. I cried on his shoulder as he slept. We listening to our favorite music, Coldplay, Radiohead and David Crowder. I thought about the last ten years in our home with our pugs and our boys. Our life had progressed so beautifully, and we had so much ahead of us. We had a life to live together, and I couldn’t see my life without him. I counted down from one hour, thirty minutes, ten minutes, one minute and finally walked him to the car. He didn’t know where we were going. I had him pet the pugs, and we drove away from our home together for the very last time. The boys were at school, so they didn’t witness this dramatic exit. 

We drove four minutes to the facility, and I checked him in. It was a sweet place very unlike a hospital. There was a bed right next to him so I could be with him. Later that day I met the boys at home, and we found a familiar place in the yard where we would play baseball with Daddy.

I gently told them that Daddy was in a cozy place now and was never coming home. Their reaction was less intense than I had imagined. They understood it was coming in only the way a small child could, with short ‘uh huh’s” and little nods. “It was no longer going to be the four of us”, I told them. We were down to a threesome now. Isaac refused to go see his Daddy which he now regrets. He has struggled in his grief more as he didn’t get the closure he needed. But he was only five years old, and I could never have forced it. Jonah wanted to go see him. He didn’t care that Daddy couldn’t acknowledge him, he caressed his arm and said “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” 

That evening the room filled with family, friends and agonizing goodbyes, we waited for heaven to take Benji home by laughing, crying and singing worship songs. Early the next morning, a September morning, my beautiful husband took his last breath as I laid by his side. I felt the energy leave his body and watched him cross over into eternity. I no longer had a connection to his earthly body.

His soul was gone from this world. He was now in the arms of Jesus. We had many talks of heaven, and it was incredible and comforting to know that he was there. I climbed out of the bed and took my first, struggled steps away from his body. These were my first steps of a new life. A life without him.

I stood in the doorway and felt every muscle in my body relax as my body went limp and I hit the carpeted, concrete floor. My body succumbed to the utter exhaustion that had taken over my life the past few weeks. As I fell, I wanted to sink into the floor and never return. I wanted to die. As I watched my other half leave this earth, I didn’t want to live anymore. Half of me was gone. I woke up in the lap of my loved ones and knew I had to start to pull myself together.

I arrived home later that morning and climbed into bed in my new space. My family had rearranged all the furniture and replaced the bedding and curtains in my room. They knew I would immediately need change. My style of grief process would be proactive and intense.

I wanted to feel all that I could, make all the hard choices and move through grief as quickly as I could stand it. I thought this would be possible. I was wrong. God was with me somewhere. I grasped for Him. I could not understand why He would allow this, but I chose to trust. 

As I lived and breathed through a celebration of Benji’s life and his funeral, the reality had hardly set in. The next day we flew to Disneyland. I watched other children with their Daddies. It took all that I had not to shake them in the unfairness. I didn’t bring children into this world to live without their Daddy. The questions swirled and I began to ask why. Why did my boys have to lose their Daddy? But I clung to God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future.”

Although, this felt harmful and the grief was almost too much to bear, I had a small grain of hope that one day it wouldn’t be this hard. I trusted that God still had good things for me and there was purpose in the pain.

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