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By Linda Campanella

Today I brought two yellow roses to my father. Two days from now, my late mother would be turning 80. Yellow roses were “their” roses ever since their romance began in 1956. Mom lived just long enough to celebrate their 52nd anniversary before succumbing to cancer in the fall of 2009, one year and a day from her terminal diagnosis.

The flower shop is less than a mile away from my dad’s house. While driving the short distance, en route to one of my more or less weekly “lunch and laundry” dates with him, I realized I had started to cry. It still surprises me that the tears can come so quickly when I indulge memories of my mother and find myself yearning for her to not be gone.

I don’t often ask my father how much he yearns for her to be with him again. I’m reticent largely because I don’t want him to be sad. My mother’s dying wish – her instructions to him, I suppose – were “Don’t be sad.”

When I handed him the roses, he didn’t say “thank you”; instead he said, “I know.”

“What do you know?” I asked, without needing to. “I know,” he said again. “It’s coming up.”

He has bought yellow flowers himself in the past. I remember being deeply moved when I discovered a big bouquet of yellow roses on his kitchen counter while visiting a few days after February 14, 2010. They were roses for Mom on her first Valentine’s Day without him.

My parents’ love for each other was never more in evidence than during their love story’s final chapter.  I’m often asked how my dad is doing, especially by people who’ve read my memoir of Mom’s final year and therefore experienced vicariously Dad’s wrenching heartache and anticipatory grief. When asked, my response is – and the truth is – that he is doing really great. I desperately hope that wherever and in whatever form she is now, my mother bears witness to her sweetie pie’s strength and resilience.

He’s become a much more social creature, which would surprise her. Soon after her death, eight or so of their cul-de-sac neighbors started a monthly get-together, with hosting duties rotating among them month to month. To my surprise, he accepted the invitation to attend the inaugural gathering. Maybe he said yes because he knew how much my mother would have loved this kind of thing. (And it’s quite possible he would have sent her off without him if they’d been invited as a couple!) I went to visit him that afternoon and prepared an appetizer for him to bring. As he was leaving, he told me I might as well stay put in his house, because he’d only stay a half hour or so at the party and we could play another round of rummy upon his return. An hour and a half later, he called to tell me I might as well go home; he was having a good time – though his actual and understated report had been “It’s not bad.” Five years later he’s still going – and hosts when it’s his turn. My offers of assistance were declined ages ago.

Though long past retirement age, he’s still working on average three days a week as a radiologist. In April, I took care of his dog for five days so he could take a course at Harvard and earn continuing ed credits. Last month, he renewed his medical license for another two years. He is much in demand by the radiology department he chaired in his younger days, highly esteemed by his physician colleagues and the young residents whom he teaches, and genuinely loved by the technicians who work with and occasionally flirt with him. He’s always been a real charmer.

He arrives well before 6AM to get a jump on reading films left from the prior day. Two weeks ago, he turned 83 on what happened to be a scheduled work day for him. Since I thought it was a big deal to be turning 83, I called the radiology department mid-morning, just to give folks a heads-up in the hope they might wish Dad a happy birthday. I hated to imagine no one would acknowledge his special day.

“Honey, we are way ahead of you!” was the surprising response. Apparently he was welcomed that morning with balloons, posters, pastry, and a string of requests from female colleagues wanting to be photographed with him. The tech on the phone told me that each time he accommodated a request to pose for a photo, he said to the woman next to him, “Be careful; Nan is watching!”

“Nan is so happy you have all of us to love you!” was the rejoinder. How perfect – and perfectly true! My siblings and I also are so happy about this. We believe work has given our dad a reason – and the courage – to keep living. And we know the sense of being needed and also loved has been balm for a heart broken when the person who needed and loved him most left him alone.

I marvel at many things about him, including his stamina and legendary work ethic, but most of all I marvel at my father’s mind. While my own gives hints of growing dimmer as I grow older, his mind seems sharper than ever. English is his second language, yet I venture to guess that his vocabulary is exponentially larger and his grammar far better than 99.5% of Americans’.  Don’t challenge him to Scrabble, Boggle, or any other word game and expect to win! With a steel trap for a memory, he has an especially uncanny ability to remember details of history, and he can correctly identify just about any piece of classical music after hearing only the first few measures played; then he’ll recite the life story of the composer and provide a brief lesson in the history of the period or place in which he lived.

Last month I took a three-hour trip with Dad to visit my sister in New Jersey, and because he has never been a conversationalist, I decided to break the silence and pass some time by playing an old car game; “Let’s pick a letter and name all the places that start with it,” I suggested.  He jumped at the challenge, of course expecting to destroy me. We started with “A.” As we progressed through the alphabet, I managed to keep up with him pretty well, but I failed miserably when he digressed occasionally to ask me a question related to a place one of us had just named.

We spent a lot of time on the letter “D,” I recall. “What do you mean you don’t know what happened in the Dardanelles?” he asked in disbelief. (I had already confessed to not even knowing where the hell the Dardanelles are located on a map!) An urgent geography lesson evolved quickly into a riveting history lesson about the Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and World War I. And although I earned a point for naming Dunkirk while we were thinking of places beginning with “D,” I didn’t remember enough as I should have about the famous battle there, and another lesson replete with astounding detail ensued. By the time we got to “G” I was feeling both much smarter and totally humiliated by my relative ignorance.  He, always a great teacher, was in his element.

I felt like one of the luckiest girls alive on that father-daughter trip to the Jersey Shore.

How lucky I am that my dad is still in my life and that his life is still so full. What a relief that his broken heart has mended, that his mind is still so brilliant, and that his body remains so sound. He is a little more stooped over, his hair is a little thinner, and he eats too many frozen meals and not enough fruit; but other than that, he is doing just fine. Five years a widower, he is healthy and he is happy; he is needed and he is loved.

What better present could we possibly give my mother for her 80th birthday than that?

Linda Campanella is the author of a Nautilus Award-winning and life-affirming memoir about her joy-filled last year with her terminally ill mother. WHEN ALL THAT’S LEFT OF ME IS LOVE: A DAUGHTER’S STORY OF LETTING GO is about love and loss, family and faith, hope and hospice, grief and gratitude.  Since her experience and her book’s publication, Campanella has become a passionate advocate for compassionate end-of-life care. More information about the author and her book can be found at www.lindacampanella.tateauthor.com.

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The sky is grey today.  My boots crunch and my body tenses when I first step out into this frigid January morning.  I move slowly, huddled against  the cold,  still baring the gravity of  grief and the weariness of long nights with too few exits and too many echoes.

Getting out of bed took little effort yesterday,  my mind was alert,  my movements fluid, and the sun was shining.  I breathed a sigh of relief, finally able to recognize the promise of a morning  without my mother in it.  I didn’t have to force myself to leave my house, and I jogged and jumped and danced during my water aerobics class. My body felt light and graceful.  It was going to be a good day.

Someone began to sing, “these boots are made for walking” and I cheerfully joined her in song, hands on my hips and legs lifting high.  And then my eyes met those of a woman who is older than my mother and the pain slammed into my chest without warning.  I was breathless as a memory consumed all of my oxygen. My young and sexy mother is singing that song while I  prance around her in my imaginary boots.  We are pointing at each other, warning that “one of these days these boots are going to walk all over you.”  In that moment, all was perfect.  The depression had not found her, she was cancer free – healthy,  happy, and ALIVE.  I was safe.

My eyes filled with tears and to my horror, it occurred to me that I could start crying in a public pool surrounded by perfectly nice and normal women. I took a deep breath, clenched my jaw, called upon my well practiced will, and pulled myself together.

Rumi wrote that our lives are like guest houses. If my life truly is like a guest house, then grief, an unwelcome guest, has settled in for the time being. I cannot move out, and there will be no eviction. And so, If I’m to avoid structural and collateral damage, then I’ll  need to make accommodations.  Grief, I will make a place at my table for you, but I will not feed you.  Instead, I will infuse my cooking with love and gratitude and nurture my family with them.  And I will stop wasting energy trying to lock you out, instead, I’ll open all of my windows and invite beauty in.

My walk is complete. I return to the home that I now share with grief, close the door, absorb the heat, and resolve to not long for spring, but to listen to winter…

The Winter of Listening

“No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,
what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.

Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.”

David Whyte

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Today was a perfect autumn day, the kind that calls me out of my head and into my senses. The kind that finds me with my car windows rolled down and the music loud. The kind that makes me feel giddy and free. The kind that’s drenched in vibrant color and sunshine during the day, and graced with the scent of baking apples and cinnamon at dinner time. The kind that says to me, “hey, just maybe you can spend each and every day living in ‘radical amazement’ – each and every day – even the hard ones.”

There’s such sweet celebration and melancholy in autumn – temperatures drifting down, mists rising, the ancient choreography of birds embarking on their long migration, the harvest moon – an enchanting paradise so soon to be lost as nature once again begins her inevitable journey into the frigid arms of winter.

While the autumn advances and the leaves deepen and dazzle before relinquishing their hold on the bodies that have sustained them, my mother’s own grasp weakens as her cancer progresses and her spirit quickens. My love of nature has never been more acute than in autumn and I have never loved my mother more fiercely than right now.

I walk along the shore of Wolfe’s Neck woods, hear crows cawing in the distance, tilt my face up towards a gentler sun that caresses now instead of scorches. I’m both awed and saddened at the same time. I wonder how much of life is at its most beautiful just before dying. Is this the truest bitter gift of death, that life becomes oh so much sweeter?

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Ammidst the loss, the longing, the life, and the love, I am amazed……

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I haven’t written a blog entry in over a month, the longest I’ve ever gone without writing. Sadly, inessential activities (like this blog) have been overshadowed by my mother’s cancer and my daughter’s illness, and the lion’s share of my life energy is being poured into sustaining hope and tending wounds.

The trajectory of my mother’s illness is too final and predictable to contemplate, while the weight and course of my child’s suffering is crushing and unknowable. It seems that we have set upon one of those night passages that Sue Monk Kidd observes can “blister the spirit and leave us groping.”

As I tentatively feel my way through a murky shadow land, I remind myself that the whole of my life is still abundantly blessed with love, and sweetness and light even as it requires me to be stronger and wiser than ever before – demands that I do/think/feel more than I have ever done/thought/felt before. Even though it insists that I. must. become. more.

Julia Cameron reminds us that “creativity – like human life itself – begins in darkness.” For over two decades as a psychotherapist I’ve witnessed so many transformations that were initiated by heartbreak and cultivated in darkness. And while there have been times when I could hardly bare to look into the depths of despair and suffering, I am especially grateful for them now, each and every one of them, because I have seen with my own eyes and heart what we are capable of surviving, overcoming, and becoming. Because I have seen, I can believe.

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  I just finished Linda Campanella’s book, “When all that’s Left if Me is Love: A Daughter’s Story of Letting Go” about a daughter’s experiences supporting a mother who is LIVING with small cell lung cancer. I stress LIVING because that is exactly what her mother did. She LIVED right up until she died and Campanella remained determined and committed to helping her mother do exactly that throughout the entire process – to LIVE as fully as possible.

One example of how they made the most of each and every day was that around 4:00 in the afternoon Linda, her mother, her father, and anyone else who happened to be in the house at the time settled in to celebrate ‘happy hour’. There was much laughter during this time, and the sharing of news, stories, small gifts, and great love. No one in the room was in denial of death or free from grief, however each was acutely aware in the moment of how precious life is when savored, how beautiful and even luminous in can be in the face of its impending loss.

While Campanella’s book contained heart break and grief, it also offered me, a daughter whose own mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in August of 2010, much needed comfort and perspective. While I have so often felt powerless when confronting my mother’s cancer, Campenella has reminded me of my families’ strength and essential proficiencies. We are masters of loving, and as we weave our love throughout each and every moment that we’re together, we can create a sacred container which honors life and offers healing even in the absence of cure.

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During this journey through my mother’s lung cancer I am relying heavily on the concepts of positive psychology to help us get through. In “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science,” Richard Layard wrote, “cultivate the sense of awe and wonder, savour the things of today; and look about you with the same interest as if you were watching a movie or taking a photo. Engage with the world and with the people around you. In one sense, as Leo Tolstoy said, the most important person in the world is the one in front of you now.”
We leave before sunrise each week day morning to make it for mom’s radiation treatment on time. Yesterday, while pulling out of the drive way I noticed how incredibly beautiful the full moon looked hanging in the pre dawn sky. I pointed it out to my mother and we stopped the car and savoured it. Within a few moments I began to feel my breathing deepen and my body relax as I allowed myself to drift toward the pull of the moon. We hadn’t needed to venture into the wilderness, or even stroll through a park, all we had to do was to simply pause and look up to be connected with something vast and beautiful and transcendent. I reached out and took my mother’s hand and allowed myself to fully take in the blessing of it all….

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