It was late August, a Monday evening. After supper, we took our mugs of tea out to the patio. We watched a handful of chickadees fussing around the feeder.
We’d been with friends the day before for drinks and then a barbecue — ribs, fresh corn on the cob, salads, a nice dessert.
“You know, we should go out more often,” Brenda said. “We said we were going to, but we never seem to get around to it. We should get a reservation for that place we went to for our anniversary. That food was really good.”
In June, we’d gone out for a fancy meal to celebrate our 51st wedding anniversary.
“Yes, we should do that,” I said.
When we finished our tea, Brenda said she was going to do a little deadheading in the flower bed in the backyard. I went inside to play a game on the computer.
At some point, I realized I hadn’t heard her come in. I went to the back steps to check. She was coming across the lawn, but something was wrong. She was walking oddly.
“I fell,” she said faintly. “I fell.”
Blood was running down the side of her face. I helped her inside and got her to sit down. I staunched the blood as best I could with a wad of paper towels. The blood kept coming.
“Oh, Brenda. What happened?”
“I was moving that cement lawn ornament and I lost my balance and I fell on it. Stupid. My fault. I should have gotten you to move it. I’ll be OK.”
“The blood’s not slowing and I can’t tell where it’s coming from,” I said. “It doesn’t seem to be coming from your eye. We’ll go to emergency and get it checked out.”
She protested a bit and then agreed. It was a 10-minute drive to our small rural hospital.
Two stitches on her cheek stopped the blood.
“You can drive into the city now and get a CAT scan to make sure the eye socket isn’t damaged, or you can wait until morning,” the doctor told us.
I wasn’t looking forward to driving into the city that night, so we drove early in the morning. Around nine o’clock, a neurosurgeon led us to a monitor. Brenda sat down in front of it. The doctor and I stood behind on either side of her chair. The doctor pointed to a white egg-sized area at the front of Brenda’s skull.
“It’s a large tumor. It would appear to be malignant,” he told us. “I can remove it surgically. There are two other smaller tumors. One is deep and inoperable. Both will continue to grow in size. There is no cure. I’m sorry.”
We both stared at the monitor.
Things got blurry fast. The pre-admission assessment was a nightmare. Brenda was exhausted, battered and stressed, and she was showing early signs of the cancers that had invaded her brain. The admissions nurse was overworked, stressed and impatient. There seemed to be endless delays in finding the people she had to meet with in order to get clearance for the operation.
On the morning of the operation, a nurse wheeled Brenda’s bed to the double doors of the operating room, then stopped.
“This is where you do your hugs and kisses,” she said.
“I’ll always love you, Richard,” Brenda said.
“I love you, Brenda,” I answered.
We hugged. We kissed. The nurse pushed the bed through the double doors.
Brenda underwent a nearly six-hour operation. There was a stay in the neurosurgical ICU, then a transfer to the oncology ward, and then the start of chemo and radiation therapy. It was made clear that the best the doctors could do was “buy Brenda some time.” During chemo and radiation treatment, I brought Brenda home on weekends.
The average life expectancy after a glioblastoma multi diagnosis is about a year.
Brenda was transferred to the palliative care unit of our local hospital. I spent time with her every day. I was, I thought, preparing myself for the inevitable.
I started writing in a journal when I was 16. I started making art in my 40s. Writing, drawing and painting have helped me get through some of life’s more traumatic events. I kept a journal about the progress of Brenda’s cancer. I titled it, “To Bear Witness.” I created some dark paintings.
Brenda slipped away peacefully on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, early in the morning.
That sentence looks so bald. Her breathing got slower and slower, then stopped. I did a thumbnail pencil sketch. In it, the oxygen tube snakes down onto the bedcovers.
I went to inform the nurses and followed two of them into Brenda’s room. They began the hospital’s protocols for dealing with death.
“Stay as long as you need to,” one nurse said.
I looked at Brenda’s face. Pale before, she was now even paler. Maybe, I’m not too sure. Things are a little hazy in memory. I gave her a final kiss and left the palliative care unit.
It was a bright, cold January morning. I drove to the coffee shop. On the radio, a band from Canada was playing a song that goes, “Have you seen my ghost?”
The coffee shop had just opened and I was the first one there. I stared out at the few passing cars and wondered, not for the first time, What now?
Three regulars, widowers I’d come to know, came in. They joined me at my table.
“Brenda died a half hour ago,” I said.
One of them looked at me. His face contorted in a look of pain, his way of sharing with me what he felt about his own recent loss.
“I’m sorry,” another said. He was sitting across from me. His wife had been dead for six years. He looked down blankly at his cup of coffee.
The third sat beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder for a moment. I could smell a whiff of the scotch that he usually started on later and sipped throughout the day.
I thought I was prepared for the death of someone I’d loved for more than half a century. I wasn’t. Even though the diagnosis came months before, and even as I’d watched the slow process of dying, when the moment of death came and Brenda took her last breath, I wasn’t prepared for the sudden quiet. And I wasn’t prepared for the continuing quiet.
This was especially true when I went home. Everything I saw was a reminder of our life together.
In the basement by the grow lights I’d set up for Brenda to get an early start for the flowers she loved so much, the tears came. There was no stopping them. I howled alone in the basement, staring at the trays of neatly prepared soil that Brenda would have been seeding in a few weeks.
“It’s a strange feeling to know that I made people uncomfortable when I was by myself, alone with people whom Brenda and I had known all our married life. It wasn’t that I was unwelcome, but the feeling was there that it was best not to be around me too long. It was like I had caught something and I was now contagious.”
The loss of a loved one is uniquely and deeply personal. Websites that offer “help” for dealing with grief seem to have been put together by people who haven’t experienced a deep personal loss. Other sites for coping with grief offer “worksheets” that amount to ticking off items on lists that itemize “how to deal with grief” ― like checking off items to ensure you’ve correctly completed a homework assignment for school.
I found out that being with other people can help — but only up to a point. In a group, whether it was with family or friends, I was more aware than ever that I was now on my own. When I was with other couples, it was with the realization that I was once with someone, too.
It’s a strange feeling to know that I made people uncomfortable when I was by myself, alone with people whom Brenda and I had known all our married life. It wasn’t that I was unwelcome, but the feeling was there that it was best not to be around me too long. It was like I had caught something and I was now contagious. Be careful. Richard lost Brenda. If I spend too much time with Richard, I might lose someone too. It was a strange and bizarre feeling ― that death might be catching.
One of the suggested ways of “dealing with grief” is by “keeping busy.” I found out that being busy for a purpose is different from being busy just to keep busy. That amounts to spinning your wheels and staying in one place. When I found myself doing that, I stopped. The words of a former schoolteacher came back. She had warned me once about purposeless activity. “Make sure, Richard,” she’d said, “that you’re not just cross-piling sawdust or shoveling smoke.” Keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy is just shoveling smoke.
The simple passing of time has helped me deal with a grief that never completely leaves. Anything can bring back the reality of having lost Brenda. Some object we bought on a trip reminds me of a happy time together. Photos, of course, are a reminder. Anniversaries and birthdays and holidays can be emotional. So, too, can someone’s casual remarks about some almost forgotten incident. Someone says, “Remember that time when we were with you and Brenda and ...” and I immediately recall some part of that incident and I feel the sudden pressure behind my eyes. A tissue becomes useful then.
Memories come back less frequently as time passes. The oddest things bring back a wave of grief that stops me in my tracks. I’ve found that I need to let it wash over me. Sometimes it’s a ripple, sometimes it’s a tsunami, and there’s no telling ahead of time. And there’s no telling what can bring back the full realization of what I’ve lost.
“You need to move on with your life” is something you hear and read about in terms of “dealing with grief.” It’s well-meaning, but it’s crap. I don’t want to “move on” from all those wonderful things that Brenda and I shared. I want those things with me forever. A longtime friend who lost her husband around the time that I’d lost Brenda told me, “You don’t want to move on with your life. What you want is to move forward with your life.”
That’s worked for me.
Another friend told me how she was handling her own grief. “You have to learn how to dance on one leg,” she said.
What’s worked best for me in dealing with Brenda’s death has been seeking out people who can talk openly about death and about what the death of a loved one means to them. Death remains a forbidden topic in our society. But there are those who will talk about death without clamping their hands over their ears and mouths. Seek out those people. Talking with them helps.
I got incredibly lucky. I found someone else. Ruth is open. She lost her husband. We can talk about grief in ways that we can both relate to.
On a final note — and this seems so obvious, I probably shouldn’t mention it — reconnect with nature. A walk in the woods is restorative. A walk along the shore is restorative. A walk in a park, through a flower garden, beside a stream, beside a marshland is restorative. Plants grow, birds fly, clouds move, bees buzz, the breeze blows. And that will always be. That’s restorative. When Ruth and I go for a walk together, it’s even more restorative.
I miss you dearly, Brenda. And the tears come again. Thanks for the memories.
Richard Toth was born and raised in Alberta. He moved to New Brunswick in 1965 and married Brenda Moffitt. Brenda died in 2019. Richard was a teacher, a school principal. He sold real estate and investment securities, and he worked in an automobile dealership. He began keeping a journal when he was in his teens and began painting when he was in his 40s. His artworks have been exhibited across New Brunswick and are included in a number of corporate and private collections. His published writing includes poetry, short stories, magazine articles, parts of a memoir and two novels. He has won a number of literary awards, including the David Adams Richards Prize. He married Ruth Maclean, a romance author, in 2021. Richard and Ruth live in Riverview, New Brunswick.