Human Being Manual

Hope is a Creative Process

My father in law Harry passed away in January 2015. He was 87 and had a wonderful life, surviving many brushes with death from chronic medical illnesses. One thing that kept him going was his hope to see my daughter Tessa’s Bat Mitzvah. He did.

My wife Lisa passed away from lung cancer in September 2015. She was 55. She never told Harry she had lung cancer, hoping she would outlive him. She did.

Lisa’s cancer progressed during the winter of 2015, and eventually she couldn’t keep that secret from her mom, Cyvia. She was hoping she’d outlive her mom, too, but she began requiring a series of hospitalizations due to complications of chemotherapy and progression of her cancer.

Cyvia had just lost her husband and now she discovered that her daughter had metastatic cancer. She was filled with grief, yet she handled the news with enormous strength. She frequently flew from her home in Florida to New York, where Lisa, Tessa and I lived, to help support and take care of her daughter. Cyvia and Lisa had a pretty rocky relationship over the years, sometimes not speaking for months, but they managed to set that aside during the precious time left in Lisa’s life. Two weeks before she died, Lisa began calling Cyvia “Mommy.”

A few months after Lisa’s death, in the fall of 2015, Cyvia was herself diagnosed with lung cancer. She was a dignified woman and faced this challenge with bravery and realism, having learned much from Lisa and Harry.

Despite excellent medical care, Cyvia declined over the subsequent seasons and in August of 2016 it was clear that she would be dying. Tessa and I flew from New York to Florida to say goodbye to her. We both loved Cyvia very much.

When we arrived, Tessa and I gave her a hug. Cyvia was holding court in the living room, sitting in a reclining chair, clothed in pajamas, a satin bathrobe and a cocooning blanket. A scarf wrapped around her head. She had stopped putting makeup on weeks before. Cyvia had once been a stylish, energetic woman, but I saw at that moment it was taking much of her strength just to sit in a chair.

Her grandchildren ran back and forth through the living room and her children and their spouses tried to keep the mood upbeat with discussion and laughter. Cyvia was quiet and her lips were drawn. A nurse’s aide provided by home hospice sat by her side and held her hand.

After a while, I asked if I could speak with her privately in the other room. She nodded. Her aide and I transferred her to a wheelchair and moved it to a nearby bedroom. The aide left and I closed the door. I pulled up a chair next to her.

“Cyvia, I came down to thank you for being such a great mother-in-law. You’ve been like a mom to me.”

“You’ve been like a son to me. Thank you,” she said.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Not so good.”

I nodded.

“I’m scared,” she said and paused.

“What scares you the most?”

“I don’t want to have a lot of pain.”

“Are you in pain now?”

“Just a little. The medicines help.”

“I’m glad. They have a lot of ways to manage your pain. Let us know if you need more medicine. The worst thing that will happen is that you might feel drowsy.”

She nodded.

“Are you scared of anything else?”

“Of dying.”

“Cyvia, you’ve been through much worse.”

She smiled and nodded. We were both thinking about Harry and Lisa.

“I know you really well,” I said to her. “You have what it takes to handle this.”

“Thank you. That makes me feel better.”

After another pause, she asked, “Was Lisa angry at me?” It was the kind of question one asks with urgency near the end of life.

I thought about saying, “No, she loved you very much.” Instead, I said, “Yes, she was.”

“Why?” she asked.

I thought for a while and said, “Because she never felt you understood her.”

“I never did understand her!”

It was true. Lisa was hard to understand.

“She was a complicated woman,” I said.

“Yes, she was.”

I asked, “Is there something you’re hoping for now Cyvia?”

“Yes. That Harry, Lisa and I will sit down and talk all this through.”

“That would be a good thing,” I said.

“We’ll talk it all through,” she said and nodded. Of course, she meant after she died.

We reminisced for a few minutes about the years we shared together. Warmth filled the room. After a bit of time, Cyvia became tired. I stood up and gave her a hug and a kiss, then wheeled her back to the living room.

She died two weeks later, one year to the day after Lisa died.

I didn’t believe in heaven then, and I still don’t intellectually. Yet I miss Lisa a lot, so it gives me comfort to hope that she is looking down on me and Tessa, and that Cyvia talked it all through with her and Harry.

Hope is a creative process.