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  • hollyrutchik

Life After Death - December 6, 2021

“The reality here is that Joseph has died.” Fr. Luke spoke these words as he delivered the homily at Joseph’s funeral. They drifted down from the lectern, hung in the air over Joseph’s casket and washed up on the shoreline of my soul. I sat in the front pew, holding our children and my breath. The harshness of my new reality spoken aloud comforted me more than any words said since my kids were in my arms and Joseph slipped through my hands, out of our home and into another.

Our home; once a messy sanctuary, then hospital and now a refugee camp for the weary. I went from caretaking around the clock, too scared to close my eyes, to stumbling in the dark. What I can make out is both foreign and frightening. My possessions have diminished to the fear of what’s ahead of us and the absence of what’s behind us. I’m doing all I can to avoid our home turning into a cauldron of sorrow.

Even with a current of sadness churning underneath the surface, there are small joys found in each day and laughter escapes us on occasion. A foreshadowing of the future I pray - and fear.

We’ve ventured back into our daily lives. The kids more than myself. I thought it important to get them back in school and back into a routine. I know us, and I know if we took too much time, we would easily fall into the dents of our spots in the furniture of our living room.

Mornings are rough. I put on my cheerleader face and assure them they CAN indeed make it through a day of school. Getting them out of bed seems like hostage negotiations at times, but they’re on the curb when the bus pulls up. Most of them with winter gear on.

I crawl into Joseph’s chair with a heat pad and a blanket before the school bus fully pulls away. I cry, pray, nap, read or write. It doesn’t really matter what I choose to do, I end up staring at the wall. By late morning I start to feel disgusted with myself and the waste of productive hours, so I get dressed. I take on a few hours of work or the dreaded tasks that are the paperwork associated with death.

By late afternoon I begin to feel nauseous at the thought of the evening hours that stretch before me. Hours I’ll need to hold it together (somewhat) and attempt to help five other people manage their grief. The school bus drops the kids off and we talk about our days as positively as we can. I make the rounds, one-on-one, with the kids. That’s when the pain of the day starts to leak out of each broken heart. I find something “fun” for us to do before homework/dinner/prayer and bed. Lately it’s been opening and trading Disney Doorables.

After the kids are in bed would normally be the time Joseph and I spend together watching a show or discussing our creative projects. Now I head into the long night alone. I lay and wonder if I can do this on repeat forever, and then I beg God and Joseph to help me do it all again tomorrow.

I disintegrate into my bed each night with an empty space beside me and an added weight encircling me. The pressure of guilt is stifling. For extra anxiety points I sometimes google “broken heart syndrome” and spend time worrying I’ll die and orphan these magnificent children.

Eventually I return to the same questions. Did I do enough today to show our children we’ll get through this? Did I do too much – falsely giving the impression that we’re okay without daddy? Is Joseph proud of me? I lie on the edge of this sharp sword nightly. On one side of the blade, love and loyalty feed my desire for us never to be okay without him. On the other, survival and parental instinct tells me to keep on keeping on. For now, I lay on the edge and bleed.

There are news things happening every day. Tessa has stepped up in true eldest child fashion but retreats into mama and daddy’s room to binge watch Law&Order of all shows. Anna’s still one with Joseph’s Jurassic Park t-shirt and Laney won’t physically leave my side. She wants to be holding my hand or hugging me. Elizabeth goes from sweetness to rage in half a second. I have a front row seat to the worst show on earth –James realizing what death means and crying about it more and more as each detail sinks in. Last night it was that he is the youngest so will have to live the longest without daddy. Over Thanksgiving we visited the cemetery and 48 hours later I learned he had expected to see daddy, in the flesh, on that visit.

It’s feels like Groundhog Day, except we see the shadow every day. We’re wrung out and dripping with sadness and anger and looking for somewhere to put it. The kids have taken to slinging it on each other one moment and loving on one another so beautifully the next.

The thing about living your worst nightmare is that you’re still living. There is no slumber to awake from. I’ve written before about how living things seeks the sun. Instinct turns us towards what will warm and nourish us. Safety and security feed growth – both physical and spiritual.

I am fairly impressed we’re at least functioning. Except I haven’t returned to my normal responsibilities. The past six months have given me whiplash at best and PTSD at worst. Soon I’ll have to weave both work and my own grief and recovery into my daily routine. The task seems impossible and frightens me terribly. I care about so very little right now. My physical body and soul are screaming at my brain, begging me to do nothing but snuggle with my kids, help them thrive, care for myself and - write.

Joseph is my life, so I don’t know how to live without him, and I keep forgetting to do so. I continue to order his favorite sandwich when we go through a drive thru and keep asking who is missing when I do a family head count. Once I realize what I’ve done I melt into a puddle of embarrassment and misery. Such an error cuts so deep it feels like I’m learning this is our story for the first time all over again.

When I sit down at night to unpack my day there is no one to share it with. I am never alone, as the children need ministering to all day and all night. I am painfully lonely but don’t really want to talk to anyone. “Nobody understands you, mama,” a child joked to me over the weekend. “No one but daddy,” I laughed back at her before I realized what had just happened. I had my first panic attack in front of my kids, and we canceled all the normal Christmas activities I had foolishly planned for the day.

The universal story teaches us that there is no resurrection without death. We witness deaths, we mourn them and eventually, we must surrender ourselves to our own death. “Joseph has died.” These words pull me down to the very edge of life. The bottom of my human existence. To a place I’ve known existed and have feared since I decided to marry Joseph. Joseph’s death. One we knew would likely come before most of our peers. A death that has shown me the depths anguish I didn’t know was possible.

And yet, most mornings, I rise. Something within us all knows that splendor is simply pain restored. Wherever Joseph is, he now has it. I’m fractured by the pain of missing him and my longing for the triumph he now baths in. I want it for my kids, I want it for myself.

The reality here is that Joseph has died. As have I, but in a much different way. I’m working on our new life and am thankful to those helping me build it.

I’m accepting invitations and then find myself unable to go. Right now, I truly think I just need more days in my bed with my books, my kids and my computer. But keep inviting us. Someday soon we’ll say yes – and even show up!

Until then, it’s time for me to be gentile with myself and our kids. I’ve tried too hard for too long to be okay. My body and my soul are fighting back against the pushing I’ve been doing since the oncologist looked at Joseph and said, “I’m sorry. Your life is almost over.”

The gentleness extended to us inspires and teaches me. We live in a palace of privilege and generosity. This is not lost on me, and I’m committed to the kids understanding it as well. I am grateful, humbled and for the first time in my life, receiving without (too much) reluctance. We do not deserve this kindness. We don’t deserve what we haven’t worked for ourselves, nor do we deserve to have to rely on others. “Deserve” is a confusing word. It implies a sense of earning which can be dangerous when associated with what should be freely available to all.

The story of the love and the family we built continues. Joseph and I aren’t on the same chapter anymore. He’s living in the epilogue, where all is revealed in its perfection. I’m behind him, wandering through a plot I'm not the author of. I’m no longer able to understand Joseph’s storyline, something I excelled at just a short time ago. This is painful and infuriating to me and I am despondent over it. Nothing will ever change the fact that for these chapters, we were together. We will live forever together under the same spine of a prolific book. Between the hardcovers of our book is the best story there is and ever will be -the universal story.

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