Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
One widow's journey to stay in her home honors her husband's memory and brings healing.
After my husband died in 2015, the first thing I wanted to do was to move. The townhome we shared with our son felt large, cold and sad. Dan spent his last days in the living room looking out onto the garden where he could see cardinals gather on the ledge of our deck to feed each other a worm. He sat in a brown, leather recliner that lifted him to standing position when he was too weak to do this on his own. His spirit filled the house, and although he was a joyous person, all I could see and feel was a heaviness of someone who suffered. For a while I couldn't look at photos of us, let alone sit in his chair. It physically and mentally hurt me to see a man, once so rich with a love for life, never be able to enjoy retirement, see his son become independent or spend his last years doing whatever pleased him. I wanted to flee. I spent months looking at condos, scouring the “FOR SALE” signs and calling realtors. Finally, I made a decision.
I decided to stay on one condition: this house would be redecorated with a focus on the new relationship I have with him versus the relationship I had with him when he was alive. Our relationship still exists, but in a different realm. Although it may seem one-sided (I do all the talking), if I listen quietly and with intent, I can hear his spirit guiding me in the background. I think to myself that he would have liked certain things, such as the new furniture, cozy lighting and inspirational sayings that I have scattered throughout our basement.
People have said to me, "Make this into your own space." So, I tried to. It entailed hanging a big, bright mural of sunflowers across newly painted gray panels. I'm not sure Dan would have gone for that. I can imagine us discussing the matter and almost predict what he would say. Then I would remind him that we planted sunflowers in our backyard the year our son was born and that I had photos in Alex's baby memory book to prove it. I try to visualize him smiling and tentatively giving in. In this new relationship, I see him joyful—the Dan before the cancer took over.
There have been times when I sit in this newly rejuvenated space and marvel at life. Other times I cry because Dan is not here to enjoy it with me. Old pangs of guilt return. I start to visualize the sick Dan. I remind myself to dim those memories that are painful because I want to have a new relationship with my husband. I want the chapter of his sickness and death to close so we can move onto the next chapter. Cancer owes this to us.
Deciding not to move and redecorating turned out to be an integral part of my healing process. It allowed me to use my creative energy to engage both body and mind. Some days my body ached from going up and down the stairs and moving furniture. Other days I was exhilarated from re-purposing a window from a thrift shop into a cool piece of artwork. I incorporated Christian, Buddhist and Native American spiritual practices to make the room a serene, safe place to meditate and relax.
I moved the electric armchair that was bought for Dan to use when he was in the last stages of cancer into this new space. I placed a warm blanket and pillows on it. When I sit in it, I think of Dan as free. He is free from pain. I allow myself to sit quietly with the Dan that is free, and it is hard. But the room is beautiful. It has a fountain, gorgeous multi-colored tapestries and a salt lamp. The sun sets above the sunflowers, creating a sky of cobalt blue and orange. I, too, want to be free.