Life happens

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Annie and I were busy planning our future, and retirement. So full of promise, hope, and love. Then life played a dirty little trick on us. One day, out of the blue and with no warning, the phone rang in my office. It was Tracy, an oncology nurse from the cancer center. She told me Annie had three, maybe four weeks to live, depending on whether or not she could take chemo. She further stated that after going over Annie’s medical records for two days at the cancer center, they couldn’t even figure out why she was still alive. I was told I was a very fortunate man to still have her. It seemed she had a deadly blood cancer, multiple myeloma.  My dreams, aspirations, retirement with my love, were now just an illusion.  That kind of information is almost impossible for the mind to digest on such short notice. In an effort to make the words go away, the filters in my mind were on overload trying to filter out those dreaded words I’d just heard only moments earlier.

As difficult as it was hearing her diagnosis/prognosis and watching so many traumatic events as they unfolded, that was nothing compared to what was happening to me internally. I found myself locked up in a place where no one wants to be…fighting my anticipatory grief, while dealing with Annie’s.

Anticipatory grief

There’s many ways to look at anticipatory grief, but I think the term Half Heaven, Half Heartache, would probably trump most of them. The term comes from an old Gene Pitney song from the early 1960’s.

In my case, anticipatory grief was apparent the minute I hung up the phone after my conversation with Tracy. She didn’t even give me any wiggle room. Annie was not going to survive the cancer, and it wouldn’t be a matter of if, but when.

It’s difficult, but one has to be very mindful when dealing with anticipatory grief over an impending loss.  Annie was grieving too.  It was imperative to me that I didn’t display my grief openly around her. The deep sorrow I felt over what was sure to come, had to be put on hold until I found the right place and time to release my emotions.  To Annie, my grief could easily become a source of insecurity to her, and she didn’t need that. I allowed all my feelings to be quieted, out of love and respect for her and the terrible out of control battle that had to be going on inside of her.

My first strong release of emotions came flooding out two days shy of her second month with cancer.  That morning when I woke her up to get her day started, she was blind.  It happened so quickly, over night. And I guess her mortality really started staring me in the face that day, over the seriousness of this event. She went into a coma with no expectations either way. They would only say she was a very sick lady, but holding on. Later on in the day when my daughter Melissa came up to the cancer center to see her momma, I took the opportunity to dismiss myself and go downstairs and sit outside under a big oak tree and weep.  I don’t know if my heart was breaking, but it sure felt like it.  Even before this day she’d already been through hell.  And being an eye witness 24/7 caregiver for the woman you adore, yes, I was grieving, having a pity party, feeling sorry for myself, and so hurt over the pain and suffering she was going through from her broken and badly diseased bones.  It was just one month earlier that both her femurs were fractured, with the right one breaking off and taking part of the hip with it. On top of that, her spine collapsed during surgery to repair her broken femur and hip.  And she’d already suffered four broken ribs.  At this point in her illness, the second month, it was not clear to me what was going on inside of me.  All I knew is that I was hurting and doing everything I could to keep my sorrowful feelings away from her.

As the months slowly slipped by, every day was like being on an emotional roller coaster.  I never knew from one night to the next if this would be the last time I’d get to hug her and say, “I love you.”  Every night when I laid down on the couch beside her hospital bed, I never knew if, when I woke up she’d still be with me.  It was difficult falling to sleep at times.  On those nights I’d simply lay on the couch, watch her breathe and find myself falling deeper in love with her.  Some nights she would snore terribly bad. It was so loud, one would think it would be very disruptive.  To me it was like sweet music to my ears.  It actually helped me rest, knowing she was alive. I didn’t have to fight to keep my eyes open and keep checking on her.  I knew, for that moment in time she was still breathing.  Often times when she awoke the next morning I’d be laying on the sofa staring at her. Her eyes would come open and I could see them searching for me, and when I came into focus she’d say, “Hi Babes with a lovely smile,” and I’d return the greeting by answering, “Hi Sweetie.”  And that’s how many of our days started.

In the summer of 2010 her cancer came roaring back. And on the day she was told, a timeless question unexpectedly popped out of Annie’s mouth. She looked straight into Dr. Moore Sr’s eyes and said, “How long do I have?”  He shrugged his shoulders a bit and with a sigh and soft voice said, maybe five months, followed by, but I’m not God.  Dr. Moore Sr. was fond of Annie, and I know he dreaded giving her that news, after watching her fight such an epic battle, which he described as probably the worst case of multiple myeloma he’d seen in his 39 years of practice as an oncologist.  He knew, and by this time so did I, she would not be able to take treatment again.  She was too weak, her body was too diseased and tired from all the pain and suffering she’d endured.  He did try her on the smallest dose of chemo possible, but her body completely rejected it.  Hope was now taken off the table barring some sort of miracle.  Annie slowly started accepting her fate, and I had to do the same.  There is no question, that when the cancer came back we knew what it meant.  However, we did what we’d always done throughout the difficult times of her journey, we simply got on with our day. What else could we do?

From the summer of 2010 on, our love for each other was like glue.  For the next five months we were stuck together at the hip. We loved each other with every breath, every word, every motion, and every kiss.  We had discovered the “Perfect Love.” How special!  But what a price we were paying.

The Reality of Anticipatory Grief

On October 26th, 2010, we paid a visit to Dr. Moore Sr. Annie’s blood counts were dangerously low and she was at a very high risk of bleeding to death.  Dr Moore Sr. scheduled Annie for six trips to the infusion center over six days to receive platelets and blood.  He was making his last stand for her.  If the platelets didn’t work, we would simply be on our own.  There would be no hospitalization as they couldn’t help her.  She would now be past the limits of what modern medical technology can do.  Hospice was out of the question too, as it wouldn’t work for her.

One evening during the six day time frame, I was sitting at the dining room table when I heard Annie shuffling to the bathroom. I just sat and stared at the bathroom door until she came out.  As she walked out she was looking at me, her little lips were quivering as if she wanted to cry, when she said, “my urine is full of blood.”  I walked over to her, put my arms around her and with a hug said, come on, let me put you back to bed.  There was nothing I could say to her that would make it better, it was simply a helpless feeling. So I told her I would call the on-duty oncologist and see what he thinks. He told me what I already knew, she was now starting to bleed internally, and there was nothing they could do. He didn’t know what the cause was and simply told me to keep an eye on her.  So I told her the partial truth…I was to keep an eye on the bleeding.

When Annie had surgery to remove part of her small intestine, she had an ostomy bag placed for her bodily waste. After the blood in Annie’s urine event, I started watching the bag closely for any bleeding.  A day or two after the urine incident we were at the infusion center where she was getting blood products.  While she was asleep in her chair, I made a routine check of her ostomy pouch to see if it needed emptying.  When I saw the bag it was full of blood.  It really caught me off guard, and for that instant sucked the life out of me.  I must of gasped or something, because the two nurses came walking over, and when I showed them the bag, I could see the horror in their eyes as one of them said, oh no, oh no.  The two nursed really cared for Annie.  The sad reality was, when I took Annie to the bathroom to empty the bag, she was going to see all that blood.  In the toilet it doesn’t take much blood to color the water, but that bag would be holding about eight ounces of blood.  When she woke, we were through at the infusion center. I got her up and took her to the bathroom, not saying a word about the blood. She stood in the bathroom while I opened and released the blood in a container.  I looked up at her and it appeared her eyes were empty as she stared at the blood. I was heartbroken for her, but once again, kept it to myself.  For the first time since she’d been sick, I was lost for words.  Even as I write this little story, I can’t think of anything I could of said to her that would have helped.  She knew what it mean.  She was clearly in, end times, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do, other then give her a loving hug. Words would sound hollow and be meaningless.

When a person is totally cognizant, as was the case with Annie, you can’t just put them to sleep. It’s not right. I loved her, didn’t want to lose her, so I fought for her. Even at the end, every moment is precious to our dying loved one.  And I didn’t want to cheat her out of one moment of something that most of us take for granted. Life! So we fought until the end. Annie died a few days later, comfortable in her hospital bed, surrounded by love. Her pain and suffering was now over.

The lead in picture to this story is a prime example of half heaven, half heartache. It truly was heavenly having Annie around so long after science said she should not be alive, and always telling me this is it, only to be able to steal another day, than another.  The half heartache, was the other side of the story.  My heart ached every day.  However, when half heaven and half heartache were mixed together, it wasn’t so bad.  It was simply a balancing act.  We both learned the true meaning of love, and how to make the most out of every day, even under such extraordinary circumstances.  It was also about discovery…How much did I love Annie?  Was I willing to care for her in a meaningful way for as long as it takes, facing challenges never known to me with total selflessness?  And of course, I learned that it’s the little things in life that became the most important to us.

The picture was taken seven months before she passed, and approximately one month after a fifty-one day stay in the hospital for pneumonia, a bowel obstruction that required major surgery to remove eighteen inches of her small intestine, and other related blood problems, including weight loss down to 79 pounds. At this point she’d been in remission for fourteen months, but as you can tell by the picture, Annie’s remission after her body was ravaged by the cancer, high dose chemo, continued pain from many diseased bones, and one infection after another, was a very informal reminder that no two remissions are the same and Annie was not going to survive this disease.

Even today, four years post Annie’s death, I look at this picture of her preciously laying in her hospital bed, always fighting against the odds, trying so hard to make it just one more day, knowing the end was always lurking just around the corner.  I so much admired her courage and strong will to live. It was the little things she said to me that really hurt the most and brought out the reality of my loss that was sure to come.  One of the things was–“Bobby, if you meet someone when I’m gone, make sure she has a kind heart and loves you.”  She said that earlier on in the cancer too when she was in the middle of a raging storm, but back then I was living on hope and could tell her things are going to be okay Annie, we’re going to get through this event, while not acknowledging her statement. I could no longer do that…Things were not going to be okay!

Note: Platelets are our blood clotting mechanism.  Normal platelets in a person are 140,000 to 450,000. From the late summer of 2010 Annie’s platelets were 0 to 3 thousand.  So when she started bleeding internally, there was no way to stop the bleeding as the blood wouldn’t clot.  Surgery was out of the question. With low platelets, as soon as an incision was made the person would bleed to death.  Annie had a rare disorder that recognized newly transfused plates as foreign and destroyed them, and with her cancer being back full force, it was killing the few good platelets she already had.  Without being able to take life sustaining platelets, she was going to bleed, and eventually die. Annie had a rare form of cancer, multiple myeloma, and she passed from the rarest form of death with that cancer, low platelets. Folks don’t usually die of low platelets, as transfused platelets are normally life sustaining.

Because of Annie

Written by Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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  1. Sorry for your losses. What you speak of is heartbreaking, and the anticipatory grief would have been strong in both cases. Keeping a person drugged these days seems to be more common place than we think. It being said by many that the nursing homes are bad for that. Thank you for stepping up for your Dad, even though your relationship had been rocky with him. You know, that is a real sign of character and speaks volumes for you. Not that, that will change anything. But for you, because you cared, you’ll always know you did the best you could do. I applaud you for that. I care about others, and love hearing stories where a child steps up or into the fray and takes charge and cares for their loved one when the other siblings won’t. Hold your head high, you proved your worth. They can’t take that from you. Your poor mom must have been suffering, pancreatic cancer can be very painful, and almost always fatal. She got overlooked like my Annie. Annie wasn’t well for a year and a half or maybe a little less, and of course when they found the cancer, rather like your mom, it was too late. They said your moms weight loss was stress, they said Annie looked to good to be too sick. Different logic, same results. But in all fairness, pancreatic cancer is normally caught too late, and is usually discovered accidentally in the early stages. And that is the survivors. Thanks for your comment, and feel free to comment again if you like.

    I know all about the bitter-sweet feeling, and I also know a lot about grief, having gone through 4 years of it. Annie’s been gone 4 1/2 years, the last 6 months have been okay. I’m a survivor, and you will be too. Take care, Bob

  2. I almost wish I had not read this as I knew I would melt into a puddle of tears…and I did. My losses are still new and I am still trying to heal my soul. We lost Dad to esophageal cancer in September 2014. His battle lasted 18 months but the last six were quite taxing on our family. Dad had no long term care coverage and he wished to remain at home until the end. He had been Mom’s caretaker so my siblings and I had to step in and provide care for them both. I was never the family favorite and had a very rocky relationship with Dad yet I was the only one able to be there 24/7 five days a week. I grew to like my father as a person and appreciate things I never understood about him. The whole time my heart was breaking for I knew death was knocking on the door. I went through hell with other siblings who refused to respect his desires for remaining clear headed because drugging him was easier. He was a strong and stubborn man and remained somewhat mobile right up until the last days. I will forever be grateful that I was able to be there for him. Unfortunately what none of us realized was that Mom was also battling cancer. I had major concerns regarding a consistent weight loss and her doctors kept dismissing it as stress. A month after Dad passed I finally had brought Mom to another doctor who sadly told us pancreatic cancer was the culprit. Mom passed on Dec 1.
    Thank you for sharing your story. It is difficult to explain the bitter-sweetness that accompanies caring for a loved one in their end days.

  3. Thank you Sheila. I think the greatest gift we can give our loved one that is struggling, as is your mom, is the gift of our unconditional love. Of course we want them to live forever, but as you and I both know there is a limit to what modern technology can do. Once that threshold is reached, all we have left to fight with is our love for each other. And that’s all we can do. So my suggestion to you would be, simply be there for her when you can, and love her.

    You will reach the point when nothing you can say or do will make things better for her, I did. When that time comes, and I believe you will know, gaze into her eyes, and tell her how much you love her, thank her for being your mother and all that she meant to you. Remember, it’s now the little things in life we do for our loved one that are the most meaningful.

    There is two blogs on The Caregiver Space that came out a couple of months ago. Both were written by me. They cover the last two days of Annie’s life. I think you would find them helpful, as they will answer many of the questions you have circling in your mind at the moment. Their called, “Only Love Can Break A Heart,” Part 1, and Part 2. I was very fearful too.

    I’m sorry for what you’re going through, and I know at the moment it’s not going to get any easier, but educating yourself on the unknown might help. Death is the unknown entity.

    I wish you, your family, and certainly your Mom the best.


  4. Your story has touched me in many ways Bob. My husband and I were married in 1973 so that makes us around the same age. We are currently blessed with good health but I am experiencing a similar situation as yours with my dear mother. Mom has pulmonary fibrosis and severe aortic stenosis. Her name is Anne and like your Annie, she is a real fighter. We were told in January that there is nothing more medically that can be done for Mom. Some days I see little glimmers of the Mom I used to know and then there are days when I don’t know if I’ll get to see her the following day. You were such a brave man to take care of your Annie the way you did. Caregiving is not really my strong point because I’m too afraid of something happening to Mom that I won’t know how to take care of. Mom now lives in a retirement home that provides 24 hr nursing care. I feel better knowing that there are professionals there to help her when the need arises yet I wish I was strong enough to take care of her. Unfortunately I still work part time outside the home and our two storey house wouldn’t be easy for Mom to navigate. I never knew anticipatory grief existed until a family friend connected me to this wonderful online site. At least now when I experience all these odd emotions I know it’s normal. Your story is one I will remember for some time and I truly admire how you so lovingly took care of your dear Annie. I cherish each and every day I get to spend with my dear Mom and I simply try to spend as much time as I can with her during this difficult time in our lives.


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