Helen & Warren's Archive

Warren, a grief observed – Toe in the water, a big step

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Helen’s garden. Warren can’t bear to see it yet

June 5, 2008 – Warren looked good, different. I said something had changed, I could see it in his face, and he said yes, he had decided to put a toe in the water and tentatively – and cautiously – begin the process of returning to the world. This, I have learned, read and heard is a significant milestone in what the social workers call the “grieving process,” powerful stages of grief that follow the death of a loved one.
“It’s like going to an ocean with cold water in the morning. You put your foot in first, and then, maybe, take another step,” he said. The first step is returning to work with a county historical society, running a committe that oversees the library, and fights for it.
He’ll go in once a week, he said. He thinks he’s ready.
Warren is confronting a number of challenges, and not all of them are psychological. His knees are increasingly painful, something he refused to even think about while Helen was alive. He almost fell in the bathroom the other day, and wants to install easy-access facilities. He wants to get a computer, and go online for e-mail and research. He is thinking of writing a book.
He is exhausted, he told me, with little energy. Is that normal, he asked? Yes, I said, even people from the World War II generation get depressed. I had seen it many times in Hospice. It is perfectly normal. His energy would return. He would start reading papers, again, watching the new again, grumping about high taxes again. He would also, I said, feel guilty about Helen’s death, and angry about it, and disoriented. All of these things were natural, inevitable even.
But even the discussion was a good sign, evidence of a man who wanted to go forward with his life, who, as he put it, “isn’t ready to throw in the towel.” His motto, recited often each day, is “stiff upper lip, kid,” and it works for him. He is determined to move ahead with his life.
We joked about getting a computer. He is nervous about it, a Luddite and technophobe. He wanted one, and we had talked about getting one next week, but he is nervous, and he might get one sooner or later, he said. Hey, I said, soon you will be 100 years old, and you can barely walk as it is. How about sooner?
We both burst out laughing. I take your point, he said.
He said that yesterday he went driving to do some chores and he saw some strange looking beef cows. All the years that Helen was sick, he said, and couldn’t go out, he made a point of spotting two or three things he could come back and tell Helen about, to be her eyes and ears. So when he saw the cows, he made a note to tell Helen. Then it hit him. “At my age,” he said, “it’s important to keep an eye on the road. But it keeps hitting me like that, at odd times.”
I know, I said, and it would probably happen from time to time for the rest of his life.
Good, he said.

Warren has a jar of treats for Izzy

Warren has a jar of treats for Izzy

Hospice Journal, Living Poem: Helen – “That Day”

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Picture of Helen, taken about a decade ago, by Warren, in the hill behind their home. 
I asked Warren to tell me about it, and that became our poem.

“That Day,” by Warren

I remember that day, clearly
We were running up the hill,
stopping from time to time.
Laughing, always laughing,
looking out towards the Green Mountains
and down at the farm,
the kids running and laughing.

And we came to that meadow,
the one in the picture,
the one Helen loved so much,
the one where we always stopped,
and Helen would sit among the Beebalm,
and there, you can see, she is sitting in it,
happy as a lark
surrounded by the flowers she loved so much
and surrounded by the sunshine,
and by the people who loved her.

I remember that day,
it was unusual for me to have a camera,
but when I saw her,
I couldn’t pass up an opportunity
to take her picture
and how glad I am that I did,
it captured what Helen was,
happy, loving flowers, the farm,
the family,
warm summer days.

I needed, wanted
to chisel that moment
in marble as best I could
You could see the joy in her face.
Think, just think, how beautiful it is.
She’s laughing, running through the hills,
a moment that will never turn to vapor.
It is always real.

Warren, Grief Observed

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Izzy and Warren saying hello to each other. You can see the impact each has on the other.
We worked on a poem about Helen,
to be posted later.

June 1, 2008 – Warren has taken care of most of the details, the insurance, the calls to relatives, the credit cards, the bank, the lawyers, and so the mornings, when he and Helen used to plan the day, are the toughest, and the evenings, when the talked about their day, and the weekends, when there is less work to do, and the grief and loss are etched in deep lines across his face. Sundays are rough. It’s been a month.
It will be like this, I gather, for awhile. There is loss, confusion, emptiness. There is guilt. “I should have done more for her,” he said.”I feel guilty that I am glad she was sick for seven years, so that I had her for seven years instead of one. And that’s wrong.”
Guilt, I wondered to myself? Is that really right? Is there anything he might possibly have done that he didn’t do? But I heard that before, from the mother whose seven-year-old boy was dying of a brain tumor, and from the daughter who gave up seven years of her life to tend to her gravely ill mother.  You hear it a lot in Hospice, this feeling that they could have done more, should have done more, when you know it can’t be true, but you can’t really convince them of that, and shouldn’t.
It is part of the process, and the process has a life of its own, as Warren is seeing and learning, and it is not alterable by people like me, or by anyone else.
Warren is a flag carrier for the World War II generation, of whom so much has been written and said. “I get up every morning and say, stiff upper lip, kid, and that’s what I was taught.”
Is that the right thing to say?, I wonder, to myself. Not for me to say. Warren is his own counselor, and his grief is personal and individualistic and he has to live it and shape it and survive it as best he can. Along with life, Hospice teaches people like me that I am not God, and cannot play God.
For Warren, Helen is not gone, but present every minute, and so the emptiness and silence are confusing. He tells me he is handling it, and is committed to the process of being open, to help others deal with it. I think he is handling it, and I am grateful he is open. This work, like all Hospice work, is a gift to me, in that it challenges me yet again, forces me to learn and listen, helps me as a writer, a human, a photographer. And again I am a bit in awe of my dog Izzy, who now comes to Helen’s sofa and lies on her quilt during every visit, and hovers over Warren like Rose over her sheep. What a generous spirit that dog has, and how much good he does. Warren absolutely lights up when he sees them and the two hug like old buddies reuniting, which I suppose, they are.
What can I do? I ask myself. What can I do for Warren?
I tell him he can call me anytime. He will not do that, he says with conviction, unless it is an emergency. He will not be a bother to other people, or intrude upon their time and work.
Okay, I say, then I will call more often this week. Maybe dinner or lunch. Fine, he says, but not if it interferes with my life or work.
So what I can do for Warren, I see,  is be present, and listen, and gently remind him that there is help if he needs it or wants it. So we went to work on a poem about Helen, inspired by a photograph of her that he has hanging on the wall. The poem is called “That Day,” and I will post it later tonight.

Izzy lies on Helen’s blanket each time we go to the house.

Unexpected Journey – Boys Night out

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Izzy on Helen’s blanket

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 – Cool, cloudy. -  The two men sitting at the Barn Tavern in Pawlet, Vt. were joking, laughing, relaxing like most of the people at most of the tables, and I wondered if anyone watching could have in any way sensed the wrenching passage my companion was going through, if they could see the grief and loss that permeates his life, but in no way defines it. I don’t think so. For much of dinner, it showed only in his eyes, and close up.
Warren and I are unlikely companions, in many ways. We come from different places, have very different histories, and are at different points in life. Yet we have become friends, a welcome, perhaps surprising benefit spawned by the death of his wife of 60 years, Helen. Friends are valuable to me, always, and finding them or losing them is no small thing.
Or maybe it is not so surprising. Warren and I shared an extraordinary experience, an intimate, unforgettable time for months and he knows that I saw deeply into his great love and loss, witnessed it, understand it. That does not really need to be discussed, just experienced.
This was Warren’s first social outing since Helen died, and he was looking forward to it. So was I. Izzy came in the car, and the two were also very happy to see one another, a visible and affectionate bond.
Warren is careful not to lose himself in grief, conscious of talking about other things, about me, my work, my life, my photography and dogs. He is determined to be aware of other people, to move forward. He told me some of his jokes and stories, and laughed at some of mine. He talked about my raindrop and dandelion photos, and said they reminded him to see the beauty in life, under the circumstances a remarkably generous and gracious thing to say, or even think to say.
This weekend, he said, he went to Helen’s gravesite to put some lilacs on her tombstone. He was, he said, dealing with loneliness, and it still felt strange to turn to Helen again and again and see that she was not there. Mornings, when they used to talk about the day and plan it, were especially hard.
That was rough, he said, going to the cemetery, and he couldn’t stay long. He was thinking about arranging for someone else to go to the gravesite and put lilacs down when he was gone.
He is keeping himself busy, he said, remembering Helen, cleaning out the house, getting their affairs in order, meeting with lawyers, making out his will, taking care of things so that they will not fall on his daughter Roberta.
He looked good, I thought. He is on top of everything, organized and alert. He laughed, smiled, enjoyed getting out, chatting with some other people at other tables.
His legs seemed to be causing him some pain, but his courage, resolve and sense of himself never fades. I told him he should not be bothered if he lost it a bit in public, knowing that is not likely to happen.
We talked for a long time, about his life and mine, Helen and grieving. We talked about the possibility of planting a Willow tree, one of Helen’s favorites, near the house. We talked about e-mail and the Internet and I coaxed Warren to consider getting a computer, and he lit up at the idea of doing his genealogical research online, maybe e-mailing his grandchildren, checking in with some other anthropologists. We talked about where he might put it, and what kind to get. We talked about my visit to Emma in Brooklyn, how strange to see your child in her own life, far from yours, and he understood that.
We did not talk much about grief, nor did there seem a need. He’d love to put together another poem about Helen, about the day on their hill captured in an old photograph.
Warren said he planned to come to Gardenworks on June 8 (2 p.m., 518 854 -3250) to see the Hospice Journal photos, and hear me talk, and see Izzy and Lenore, and see the pictures,  some of Helen and Izzy and Lenore. I told him he need feel no pressure to come, and if he didn’t want to that was fine, but he said he wanted to support Hospice, as Hospice had supported him and Helen.
And here’s the strange thing. I went out on this dinner as a Hospice volunteer, even re-reading some of my books and pamphlets on grieving and when I picked Warren up, he was at the door, ready to go. But I ended up having dinner with a friend, and we talked in the way of old friends who had seen a lot together, and while I was mindful of my role there, I also marveled at the strange way of life, and how it brings people together sometimes in the most improbably and unexpected of ways.
Warren grabbed the check before I could get to it, and he surprised me by moving so fast.  I said the next dinner was on me. He laughed, and said fine.

Memorial Day Weekend: Stiff Upper Lip, Kid

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

The Hospice dogs Izzy and Lenore bring a big smile to Warren
The Hospice dogs Izzy and Lenore bring a big smile to Warren.

May 21, 2008 – Cloudy, cool. The role of the photographer is as varied as the writer, but one mission, for me, is to capture moments, images and emotions worth remembering. I love stories in all forms, but I especially love photos that tell stories, as good ones do.  You can get so overwhelmed by the technical trappings of picture-taking that you sometimes forget the point – tell good stories.
Warren’s life is shaped, at the moment by two photos that tell stories, ones that are dear to him. One, on the mantle across from his new Med-Lift chair, shows Helen shortly before her death, lying in the hospital bed. She is smiling, in the way that Helen smiled, right up to her last day. I took that portrait.
The other, taken by Warren about 10 years ago on the couple’s beloved hill up behind the house, captures a healthier Helen,  in her 70′s, sitting in a field of BeeBalm, smiling.
Warren talks to the portrait that I took, because, he says, it is the most recent.  I tell her about my day, and I say “I love you, honey,” and I imagine she waves back and says quietly, ‘I love you, too.”
But he loves the other photo also, and looks at it all the time. “One shows Helen sick,” he says,”the other well.” He calls them the two Helens, and he loves both of them.
Warren had a rough day yesterday, perhaps the worst since Helen’s death, and the first time he called me to talk since she died, rather than wait for my visits. He spent several hours cleaning out her purse, the one she took on all their trips together, across the United States and overseas. “I can’t tell you how many times we would go into that bat – for passports, money, keys, phone listings. We called it the storehouse.” Cleaning it out of her keys, makeup, brushes and other personal affects, and then taking that and other of her belongings to the town dump was the toughest thing he has had to do, he said. “I just can’t tell you how awful that was.”
He and Helen often drove by a pond that had two swans living near it, and for years, the swans seem to have disappeared. Yesterday, he drove by the pond and saw one, and told himself he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Helen. Then he remembered, and felt a wave of sadness.
Warren is very conscious of not complaining, or being self-pitying, so much so that I urged him to permit himself the grief to which is entitled, and which he admits to feeling.
“I know you’re right,” he told me, “but when I feel down, or sad, I just tell myself ‘stiff upper lip, kid,’ and go on with my life. That’s what I was taught to do.”  He was, I am sure, like so many men of his generation.
I know from talking to bereavement counselors and reading about grief that this is common, this notion of a stiff upper lip, of not complaining, of getting on with life. Grief has a life of its own, I am told, and will have its own way. You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to, or bury it for long.
So I say little and I note that Warren looks better than he did yesterday, and is getting some rest and his aching knees have been helped by his Med-Lift chair, which moves upright and helps him get up without bending. And despite the grief, he has so much less work.
This will be his first holiday weekend alone, and he says he has plenty to do, that he intends to spend the holiday weekend cleaning up the house, sorting through Helen’s clothes and possessions, and plotting the historical and preservation work he hope to do in a few weeks.
I told  him I am going to New York City to visit my daughter, but would check in. We have plans to have dinner next week, Warren’s first social excursion outside.
It is hard to leave him for the weekend, but I sense that he is all right, as he puts it, as good as can be expected.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I have two Helens to keep me company, and there is nobody I would rather be with.”

Memory poem – Through The Portal

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Izzy on Helen's sofa
Izzy climbed on the sofa where he first met Helen and lay on the blanket that covered her until her death, and did not move until I made him get off.

May 18, 2008 – Sitting with Warren this afternoon, I recalled C.S. Lewis writing about the awful embarrassment of grief, one of the bewildering byproducts of great loss. Warren is constantly apologizing for the way he feels, for talking to Helen, thinking of her, missing her. He was moved to tears by a photo of Helen taken on her hill with her wildlflowers, that had been framed and given to him.
He said he was busy, dealing with the many details of death, insurance, credit cards, relatives. He was, he said, alone much of the time,  facing the enormous emptiness of life without Helen.
Lord, I thought. This is hard to see. Can I do this? I closed my eyes, took a breath. Because it’s difficult, I need to do it, and am needed.
The other Hospice work seems almost easy to me in comparison with this – while people are still alive, there is much to do, and I know what to do, and this grief has not yet struck like the tidal wave that it is. Now I know, and I will look at the process of dying differently, yet again.
Listening has never been harder, or more important. And there has never been less to say, a wider gap between me and them.
Warren is in his own world of grief, with its own language, ritual and it is almost completely beyond my understanding, almost something physical that you can see. But I can’t imagine it. I keep thinking Warren might want to be with people or get out, but the truth is he wants – desperately needs – to be alone with Helen and his memories of her, and is waiting to be reunited with her, in his mind at least.
This grief is transforming, awful in its depth and power. In our culture, where the dying are often hidden away, even shunned, we recoil so much from death and grieving that noone seems prepared for it, and perhaps that is nature’s way of making sure we can do what we have to do, before it strikes.
Warren told me that his gray hair has turned completely white, and I could see that is true, I noticed it when I came in, but wasn’t certain, and he is in shock. His new Med-Lift chair has arrived, and he is resting more, taking some of the pressure off of his bad knees.
He is also, as always, gracious, courteous. He is Warren.
This embarrassment, I told him, is something I have read about. His behavior is both natural and appropriate, and he has nothing to apologize for.  I gave him a handbook on grieving, which he had asked for, and he said he wold read it. He said he needed more time to think.
At the moment, and for as long as is necessarily, I said, he should be himself. He is not like most other people right now, and doesn’t need to behave like them. And it is perhaps true that most people can’t understand. He was comforted, he said, to hear that.
“I’m not usually like this,” he told me. I said nothing, and thought, well, why shouldn’t he be like this, why wouldn’t he be? He has just been on a long and difficult road. He is now on another one.
He said he’d like to go out to dinner this week. His treat, he said. Fine, I said.
Izzy visited Warren, then startled the both of us by hopping up onto the sofa Helen lay on for six and a half years, and burrowed his head into her blanket, and lay still. “My God,” Warren said, “he knows, he knows.”
I don’t know what Izzy knows. He is in his own world also.
Warren lit up at the suggestion we write a poem about his thoughts about Helen, a Memory Poem, I called it, and I thought it might be a useful way of channeling his grief, reassuring him about his memories, and before I knew it, I had the pen out, and we were into one:

Through the Portal,
By Warren
I’m thinking all the time
about Helen and about me
and our life together,
and sometimes I think,
the first 60 years are just the beginning,
at least that’s what I hope and believe

The other evening, I looked
out the window – I don’t go out to the garden
but I look out the window,
and there was a beautiful display
of flowers, still coming up
throughout Helen’s garden,
gold and blue and scarlet.

And I thought,
maybe the garden is a portal
and one day I’ll step through it
and see her up on that hill
in her meadow
touching her flowers,
calling out their names,
my hand on her shoulder.

I look out the window
and I see the two of us
and she touches the flowers
and her hand is on my shoulder, and she’ll say
“I’m glad you’re here, sweetheart,”
Whenever I would come home,
she would say, “I’m glad you’re home, sweetheart,”
and I would say, “I’m glad I’m home, too.

So perhaps this is the portal,
that I will walk through,
her garden,
and we will be together.

And do you know, Jon,
did I tell you, that there wasn’t
one time, in those 60 years,
that either one of us raised a voice
to the other. Not one time.
We always wanted each other to be happy.

Warren looking at pictures of Helen on her hill, greeting Izzy

Warren, – Grief Observed. Bereavement.

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Warren alone, with Izzy in a suddenly quiet house: "Half of me is gone."
Warren alone, with Izzy in a suddenly quiet house: “Half of me is gone.”

May 11, 2008 – Last week, I  signed up with Hospice as a bereavement counselor, and have begun studying and asking questions about “bereavement,” a clunky term for so powerful an experience. Warren has agreed to let me continue the Hospice Journal I began with Helen, this time to write about grief and loss, and to take photos,  “if it helps people.” I will try. I guess I hadn’t quite grasped the depth or reality of bereavement, but then, I never thought much dying either.
It is astonishing to me how little we know of this extraordinary process, living on the edge of life and beyond. I want to know more.
Helen died a week ago, and Warren’s family left early Saturday morning. This weekend, he was alone in a home for the first time after 60 years of marriage, and seven years of round-the-clock caretaking of Helen, who became ill in 2000. Hospice has taught me many things, and now there is a new lesson, or perhaps a reinforcement of an old one: most of the time there is nothing you can say, sometimes there are things you can do, and you almost always need to just listen, and can never go astray doing that.
Warren’s house has changed beyond recognition from just a week ago, when it was filled with a Hospital bed, countless vials of pills, papers, trash, food, lotions, towels, pads, and respiratory and other medical equipment. When I went in Saturday and again today, all of that was gone, and it was striking how big the house seemed. The equipment was not the only thing missing. Helen was gone,  and her absence was almost disorienting, as she and her illness had dominated, even overwhelmed the room.
“There is an emptiness,” he said, “and it is vast, endless.”
Izzy went right to Warren, but continues to look for Helen.
Warren has kept himself busy this weekend, going shopping, getting a haircut, calling relatives and insurance companies, getting rid of things. “I need to think,” he said. “My mind is racing with memories of her, and I don’t want to forget a single one. I’m 81, and I’m afraid of losing her in my head, and that is what is left.”
Warren told me he never grasped the concept of emptiness until he got up Saturday and Helen was not there to talk to. He said in six decades of marriage, they always made every decision together, and had never even had an argument he could remember. He said he had no desire whatsoever to travel without Helen. That, he said, was something they always did together.
My friend Becky MacLachlan, who lost her husband Bill a decade ago, runs a Griefshare workshop in her local Church, and she says the same thing the Hospice social workers say about the first days and weeks of grieving: Don’t let anybody else tell you how to grieve, and don’t make any significant decisions for awhile.
I have often noticed a tendency when people approach the grieving,  to try and lighten things up. Buck up, things will get better, get on with your life. Helen would want you to be happy. This makes the stricken often feel guilty, or incompetent. I was humbled in the presence of Warren’s grief, and can’t imagine telling him how to deal with it.
Grieving can take a long time, or in some ways, go on forever, and there is no right way to do it. You can’t cheer people up, and ought not to try. It’s certainly not my job as a bereavement volunteer to cheer Warren up, rather to listen to him work things out, and to suggest help if he wants help.
“I feel like I’m in a state of waiting,” he said. “I’m waiting to rejoin her. I keep thinking of her, along with my son, up there on the hill behind the house, waiting for me. I want to join them,” he said, adding that he also wants to live life, re-involve himself in restoration and preservation work.
It was hard to see Warren so sad, even bewildered, but it is also, I know, natural and he needs to be left alone to deal with the new reality of his life. I checked on the house, his eating habits, his health, and he talked about Helen for an hour. He is strong, brave and determined.
I am close to Warren, but deliberately chose to visit him as  Hospice volunteer rather than a friend. Good, perhaps for him, and good for me. I can see he has a lot of thinking to do.
I was touched to see that he put a portrait of Helen I gave him, the last photo I took of her face, and propped it up on the mantel. “I love that picture,” he said, “it captures her, and the smile she almost always had. A hundred times a day, I look at that picture, and I say “I love you,” and she says, “I love you back.”
Izzy is important to Warren, as he connects him to Helen, and our last months together. Izzy continues to do good work, to make a difference.
Warren often recalls Helen’s last night, when we all sat around her bed and told stories and jokes, a night of what he calls “merriment.”
I am reading “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis, to help me prepare for bereavement work, and I remember this passage he wrote about the death of his wife:
“It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly we talked together that last night.”
All during Helen’s last day, said Warren, who sensed the end was close,  he kept looking over at her and saying hello, and she whispered hello back and waved. At that point, he remembered, she could no longer speak, but he always knew what she was saying.
All weekend, he said, he found himself talking to her, telling her things, feeling her presence. Did that sound strange?, he wondered. No, I said, it sounded like Helen and Warren. There is no strange, I said, just what you feel.
We talked about writing some poems together that were about the memories he wanted to keep, so that he might feel safe that they were being preserved. He lit up at that.
Lewis wrote of his wife’s illness and death that they both knew it would be different.
“We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers; she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine. We were setting out on different roads. This cold truth, this terrible traffic regulation is just the beginning of the separation which is death itself.”
As the shadows deepened and a long night for Warren approached, I got up, packed up my camera, watched Izzy say goodbye, and I left, nodding. There was absolutely nothing to say, except that I cared about him and would be back. He said that was good to know.

Helen’s portrait on the mantle. To the right, a picture of them in Egypt.