The Harpeth Blocked, or A Way Out

I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.


Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.


Put in at the Rec Center on Hillsboro Road

Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.


Paddling the Harpeth

We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.


Son and Me

We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.

Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.

“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”

I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.

“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”

They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.

“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.

“What do we do now?”

“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”

I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.

“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”

“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”

“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”

They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?

We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.

I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.

Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.

“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.

I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.

I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.

Then Cory was there at the top.

“Come on, Mama!”

I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”

“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”

I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.

“Grab hold!”

I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.

I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.

I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.

I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.

I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.

A hand. Reaching down. For me.

Five Years

Last week I was on vacation in Maine and Canada’s Maritimes, and on the fifth anniversary of my husband’s aortic dissection and death, I was in Nova Scotia, and I was surrounded by dragonflies. Dragonflies have become special to me because their metamorphosis describes my journey through grief during these past five years, as I have survived the darkest time of my life and found my way onward and upward. The dragonfly nymph lives in the water and climbs up a plant to get out, as he transforms to an adult with wings, and then he takes to the skies.

Remember the Dragonflies is the title of my book about the grief journey.

The past month I’ve been telling Charlie I needed to see him again on that five-year milestone. I needed him to come to me, I needed a sign, I needed some tangible, physical connection to him, and that’s what I got. I got dragonflies.

June 27, 2013

At the beginning of vacation week, on the road to see the Anne of Green Gables house, we stopped by the two-thousand-square-foot showroom of Gaudreau Fine Woodworking Artisans, halfway between Charlottetown and Cavendish on Prince Edward Island. The shop also features the works of twenty Maritime potters. In a far corner on display were a few pieces with a dragonfly etched in them. I picked out a square tray in dark earthy tones of sage, olive, gray, and black. I could set this plate on a display stand and it would be a reminder of Charlie, of my grief journey of uncoupling and rebuilding, of my book.

It is five years to the day after Charlie’s dissection and my family group of travelers visits Peggy’s Cove, a small fishing community on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia. The landscape of Peggy’s Cove was carved by the migration of glaciers. Four hundred million years ago, movement of the Earth’s crust allowed molten material to bubble up from the interior, forming big rocks there. The melting and movement of the glacial ice left scouring marks in the bedrock, still visible today. Scars like loss left on me. Sitting atop the rock is a lighthouse.

As I walk away from the lighthouse, across the parking lot of the Sou’Wester Restaurant and Gift Shop, adjacent to the lighthouse, I see an injured dragonfly on the concrete. It is brown-speckled with clear wings, still alive, still trying to flap its wings. Its lower abdomen has apparently been run over and is stuck to the surface, and it will most likely eventually die. I can’t just leave it there to be run over again. I pick it up, put it on the flat inside surface of my hand, and it walks to the tip of my fingers like it is going to take off and fly away from there, but it doesn’t. I give it a resting place on the grass next to a rock.

I cry and let the tears soak my face. Because it is June 27, and here is a dragonfly for me. Is this Charlie coming to give me assurance, or just a coincidence? Is it a tidy miracle box wrapped up as a gift for me? Some would say I am crazy to think so.

Later, in Lunenburg I shop at Window to the Sea, where I find a bronze coin stamped with a dragonfly on a bronze chain. I buy it as a reminder of Charlie, my grief journey, my book.

June 28, 2013

Five years today.

Today we drive up to Maitland to go tidal bore rafting on the Shubenacadie River with a company named River Runners. A guide will take us out on a Zodiac boat to ride waves up to fifteen feet as the tide rushes up past eagle nests, Acadian dykelands, and geological formations. The Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tides in the world, creating the Shubenacadie’s tidal bore. The bore is the point where out-flowing river water and incoming tide water meet, creating a strong wave. The office has a porch across the front and on the wall were three silver, metal-like dragonflies, each about three feet long.

The staff sends us over to Bing’s Eatery & Socialhouse for a quick lunch before our rafting excursion. Bing’s is a gathering place combining visual art, music, and conversation with good food and drink. The walls of the dining room are covered in original paintings, all for sale. I keep noticing a big, colorful, abstract piece on the front wall and as I finish my pizza, I realize it is a blue dragonfly among a chorus of other colors. I walk over to take a picture of it and read the title/author tag. The piece is named “Genesis.” Like Charlie’s business name: Genisys.

We dress in orange survival suits, find spots on the edges of the Zodiac, and hold on to ropes positioned along the sides. Then we head up river ahead of the advancing tide to wait for the tidal bore to form. When it comes, we’ll meet it head on and then surf and jump the surges. But first our guide takes us to a sandbar and instructs us to get out and walk around on the red sand.

“In ten or fifteen minutes,” he says, “the sandbar will be under thirty feet of water.”

I lean over and draw a dragonfly—one long swipe, then two loops for wings on each side.

In a matter of minutes, the dragonfly is under water and wiped away from the surface.

And I hang on for the ride of my life, and I make it without washing out of the boat.

A Whole New Life

This is way too long for a blog post, but it sums up all I’ve tried to say, didn’t say, said in other words over the past months. So here goes anyway, and if it’s too long, just don’t read it, and it’s a rough draft so the opening isn’t very compelling, and it’s not at its best, but it’s out there. In more ways than one.


July 29, 2012. Four years, one month, one day after Charlie died. Today, I have worked in the backyard of my brand new house for nine hours, taking short breaks to get out of the over-one-hundred-degree heat index, guzzle water, and let my heart rate slow. When I bought in December, the backyard was stone-solid sienna clay with red strains running through it. Fescue seeds had been scattered on top of it and covered with straw. Spring rainwater wet the clay and pounded the straw in to mesh as part of the earth’s hardscape, and now the summer sun has baked it. Pottery, that’s what it is.

Lord, I think, this is going to kill me.

The yard is wide and shallow—room enough for two maples, a crape myrtle, a hemlock, and a tulip poplar, once they reach full stature. I did the landscaping myself. I was working with that god-awful, slippery, rubbery clay-dirt, and rainwater would not soak in, but just sit on top of it, and what little finally did settle in stayed four inches beneath the surface, so the roots of my plants were sitting in stale, stinky water.  It’s like this, they told me at Riverbend Nursery: When you dig a hole for a tree, you create a bowl, like a hard clay pot. Picture it. When it rains, water sits in the bottom of that bowl, like milk after you eat your cereal. You’ve got to amend the soil. Mix in soil conditioner, new dirt, and native soil. Tamp it in tightly around the tree roots to keep it from having the bowl effect. At the Home Extension office they told me: Don’t make a perfect hole. Use your shovel to break up the sides, leave little clods in the bottom, make it jagged.

I’ve just finished the last segment of a stone path that runs from my deck to the little vegetable garden at the back fence, where I can eat warm-off-the-vine tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, cucumbers, and cantaloupes.

I overdid it, I ache all over, and I’m stiff from carrying rocks, bending, squatting, digging, pulling weeds. I can barely lift a foot to walk up the four steps to the deck. I stand and lean on the railing and look out over my handiwork. A dragonfly zooms by close to my head. There are lots of them, all abuzz. Seem desperate, in search of something. They sparkle in the sun.

Dragonflies have iridescent wings and bodies. Iridescence is the property of an object to show itself in different colors depending on the angle and polarization of light falling on it. The magical property of iridescence is associated with the discovery of one’s own abilities by unmasking the real self and removing the doubts one casts on her own sense of identity. Self-discovery.

For me, the last four years have been a period of self-discovery. When your spouse dies, your life stops. You don’t know it at that moment, but everything that was, is no more. Each moment of every day finds a way to remind you that you are alone, things are different, and life will never be the same. You scramble blindly in a flood of adrenaline to pull together a new life within your new reality. You learn who you are and what you’re made of.

Some say dragonflies are the souls of the dead. Some say the deceased send us dragonflies to give us reassurance.

First, off the deck, aiming west, there’s a brick-lined, mulched walkway with six round stepping stones in it—three had belonged to my mother. She walked on them to go from her back door to an enclosed patio. The walkway goes to a concrete-stone pad with a fire-pit and passes a semicircle flower bed with a cobalt-blue bottle tree, a birdhouse-on-a-pole from the Franklin Main Street Festival, a pot with tall, ornamental grass, a cobalt-blue sea ball from Oregon, and assorted blooming perennials.

Then there’s a circular herb garden, made like a medicine wheel, outlined with stones, with a square-stone pathway inside it running one side to the other and top to bottom, forming a cross, plentiful with parsley, sage, rosemary, sweet mint, and thyme. I planted a hibiscus bush there, too, to give shade protection to the tender plants. I thought it was going to be like the one my mother had on the side of the house I grew up in, but it is a Rose of Sharon variety with a pink carnation-like flower.

Turning north, the stone pathway I just completed passes a bed of plants I’ve mostly begged off my sister and friends—Siberian irises, black and blue salvia, coreopsis, cannas, creeping jenny, Carolina jasmine, ajuga, nandinas, forsythias, and other things I don’t remember the names of.

I’ve placed decorative items out there, too, among the plants to add meaning: a piece of the original tombstone of my Revolutionary fourth great-grandfather Mahaffey; a flat rock from Three Mile Creek in Ohio on land that once belonged to another Revolutionary ancestor, Jacob Boone, cousin of Daniel; and a block of a pecan tree my father planted in our backyard on Deering Street when I was seven, felled by the Great Ice Storm of ’94. These represent the substance I’m made of. Also, there are two statues of little girls I took from my mother’s garden after she died, and a bird bath that belonged to her. There are my husband’s collected arrowheads from boyhood sitting in a pottery dish. There’s a painted wooden gull I bought on the Oregon coast last year, two tall handcrafted birdhouses, and a cobalt-blue gazing ball.

I built all of this. I planted every tree, bush, and flower in a desperate attempt to give life, to have life around me, to give something a chance to grow and bloom. I amended the fretfully annoying clay-soil, added nutrients, and watered diligently to make it all healthy, make it last, because life is fragile, life is fleeting, and everyone needs a chance at life.

I sit down in the Adirondack and look at the bright yellow sky with gray clouds, back-lighted, gathering at the horizon to crown the setting sun. Dragonflies are still zooming above. They’re fast, their life span is short, they spend most of their lives in the larva stage, and when they fly, it means they are near the end. Their winged stage lasts only a few weeks. When you see a winged dragonfly, you know death is near. Right now, they are getting all the life in they can before they die.

Four hours after Charlie died, my sister arrived from Memphis and said, “You’ve got to build a whole new life.” It didn’t sit well. I wasn’t yet used to the fact that I’d lost my life. I didn’t want a new life. I just wanted the old life. I scrambled to pull every thread of him back.

Tears roll down my stinging-hot cheeks. Yes, I did all of this. All by myself. I wheel-barrowed in a hundred or more bags of topsoil and mulch, then spread it all with my bare hands. I hauled in all of these stones, four hundred three of them, and set them in place. Some of the rocks and stones, I brought from my old house, the one my husband and I built in 1994. Twelve, I brought back to Tennessee from New Mexico in 1992. Some came from my grandparents’ farm, family land since 1850. Most, I bought.

The neighborhood grows still and quiet. It comes to me that this is my home. I have built a whole new life. I cry harder. Out of pain, out of pride.

My fingers are tight in the joints. Brown is worn in around the nails, dirt under them. The nails are jagged and broken. A mulch splinter is stuck down in the quick under the nail of the ring finger, left hand, the one where my wedding ring used to be.

I lean my head against the back of the wooden chair. My hair at the roots is soaked with sweat. I hear the hum of traffic on the interstate a half-mile beyond the woods and creek in the distance. I think I need to stain and seal the deck. Need to paint the Adirondack chairs a sea green as a contrast color to the cobalt. Dragonflies keep buzzing and darting.

The dragonfly symbolizes new beginnings. As a creature of the wind, it represents change—change in the perspective of self-realization and the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life.

Change is all about the dragonfly’s ability to fly and the way it is comfortable on water, on land, and in the air. The dragonfly’s agile flight and its ability to move in all six directions exude a sense of power and poise—something that comes only with age and maturity. The dragonfly can go forty-five miles an hour, hover like a helicopter, fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down, and to either side.

When your spouse dies, your feet are knocked out from under you, you are slammed to the ground, your face mashed in the dirt. The loss of a spouse begins a chain reaction of layers of losses—companionship, possessions, activities, income, future hopes and dreams—until everything is gone. Everything. Even the home you built together.

I look around. Yes. I have built a whole new life.


“Since the death of your loved one, you’ve started a journey. It’s not a trip you planned, but it’s a trip you must take.”

Three and a half years, I’ve been on this journey and two weeks ago, I did the final big thing—selling our house and buying my house. From our to my. That characterizes the journey.

So how fitting when unpacking boxes in my new house, I pulled out the purple GriefShare workbook, “Your Journey from Mourning to Joy.” I followed the distraction and flipped through the chapters and read answers I had written down during two sessions of grief recovery support group exercises. There it was written on page 14.

“Your efforts to heal shape your journey. Complete the five tasks of grief.” In black-ink cursive I wrote:

1. Accept that your loved one has died; he is not returning.

2. Give release to all emotions.

3. Store memories.

4. Separate your own identity.

5. Reinvest in life.

I’ve done it. I’ve completed the five tasks of grief. The first three were never a problem for me. It’s the last two. Emotionally, I just didn’t want to give up my old life. I wasn’t ready, I will never be ready. I just had to do it, to make a decision with my head and follow through.

This is not to say that when I lay claim to this purple book and open it and see my handwriting on the pages, my emotions don’t plunge back to that time, because they do shoot straight back to that time when my bones were in agony, when I had “a tingling that rolled down from the backs of my arms, leaving me weak all over, and legs that didn’t want to step forward.” When my heart pounded and I had to get the grief out, and so even late at night I’d go outside and run and weep and let my warm tears mix with a cold falling rain.

There’s no way around grief. There’s no way it can’t absorb you. You have to walk through this valley, only it’s not a valley, I don’t care what the Bible says, it’s a trench, a trench that you stand in and the top edges are higher than your head and the dirt walls touch your arms and threaten to tighten on you like a vise. You don’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under your fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out and pulling yourself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until you reach the top and then clinging onto grass and weeds and tugging some more and watching and waiting for those fragile stalks to give way and drop you down again because you don’t know if you can make it out. But you keep working at it and one day you realize you are there.

And all that time of chipping away at this alone—yes, alone, because when it comes down to it, you were alone in this, and it had to be that way—you have become a new and different person.

Page 38: “Discover your new identity.” My quick cursive scrawl: “Grief can positively re-orient my identity. The other person died; I didn’t.”

Three Now

Once again, June comes and brings with it that sinking, gut-punching remembrance of that day. It was three years ago; it was the twenty-eighth; it was yesterday; it is today.


We go through the shock and grief of losing someone. We miss their physical presence, we miss talking to them, getting in the car and going somewhere with them, we miss laughing at them in their faded-down-to-pink shorts and we even bring ourselves to throw that worn piece of clothing away. We also finally throw away all the ties, except the UT one; nobody wants them. We clean out the bathroom cabinet and find pieces of their hair and so we hold on to the comb, the travel kit, the baby food jar of safety pins. We finally throw away more things from the garage: photo lamps that haven’t been used since the 1980s and transistor bulbs that date back to God-knows-when.

After three years we have built a whole new life. We work, we laugh, we take care of business, including putting the house built together up for sale. We are okay. The pain, though, in our chest that was once shock and adrenalin and stabs of loneliness and excruciating loss and what-am-I-going-to-do-now? is now a genuine sadness. For him. He doesn’t get to live anymore. Life keeps going on without him. He was pushed out of it. I imagine some giant hand ramming into his back and saying GO! He was singled out for early death. I don’t know why. It’s not fair.


And so, for now, I am here. I am letting go piece by piece of life as I knew it to be, and I am stepping into newness. I am finding out who I am now. I am living to discover.

It’s In.

It all started with my mother-in-law’s couch. She moved to assisted living years ago, and her sons and grandchildren divided up her furniture. I got living room tables, a Twelve-Colonies Secretary, and this couch — long, tapestry material, mahogany carved wood outlining it, an antique. I didn’t have anywhere to put it, but we thought we could find a nice home for it.

Turns out, we couldn’t. And so it sat in the northern bay of our garage in place of the Forrester, then Outback that replaced the Forrester. It was there a good five years, maybe more, while my husband’s car sat out in the driveway through rain, sleet, hail, snow, sun, pollen dust, and leaves falling.

Then when he died and the kids were home for a week, they took on the task. I’d mentioned I needed it gone. My husband had owned a computer networking and service business and I now had an office — three rooms and an inventory closet with shelves stacked to the ceiling, full, and all this, from the biggest desk to the tiniest computer screw would either be sold, thrown away, or would end up in the northern bay of my garage. The kids found an antique dealer who came, laid out the money, and hauled the couch away.

He died at the end of June, so our deposit — final month’s rent — paid July’s rent on the office suite, and I had four weeks to pack up and get out. I spent two weeks hauling stuff to the dumpster at the back of the office complex, then a week of packing everything else in boxes. I put stuff up for sale. Then my sons and I rented a UHaul, loaded up a career lifetime of things, and hauled them home. My garage bay was packed to the ceiling with desks, shelves, electronic tables and stools, software boxes, books on every operating system in existence, customer files, boxes of office supplies, ten or more computers and monitors, boxes of inventory.

Slowly, inch by inch, step by step, as the aftershock of death wore on, I filtered through it all — sold some things, threw outdated things out, gave some things away — chipped away at that tall stack, until there was hope. Hope of getting it all dealt with and my second car back in the garage. It was a daunting task because all these things meant something to someone who was no longer here to use them or take care of them. It was emotionally draining because with each item moved, I cried from my core and apologized to my husband. “I’m so sorry, but you are not here and I don’t know what to do with this and I don’t have room to keep it.”

And so yesterday, I got there. Only a couple boxes left, inventory stacked on garage shelves, office supplies moved upstairs to the home office, a half-dozen computers stacked at the front because I can’t get rid of them because they have customer data on them, all old software thrown away, I took a broom and swept last season’s dried up leaves out and knocked down the cobwebs … and pulled my car in.

It’s in, it’s in, it’s in. I lifted both arms in a V and said “Yes!” I did it. I actually did something my husband couldn’t have done. I know he couldn’t — he was too busy. He’d let things like that go for the things of the moment. But I did it, and I did it all by myself.

He Chose

Don’t let me linger, he always told me. If I’m irreversibly ill, if I cannot be whole again, let me go, let me die. No heroics. I don’t want to be less than what I am.

You need to know, I’d answer, that if I think there’s a chance for you to survive, I will take it. I will let them hold on to you for a while. I will give you every opportunity to live.

I don’t want to linger, he’d repeat. And if I do, you find a way to let me go. There are ways and there are places to go to find out how.

I could never do that, I’d say.

I would want you to, he’d say.

He’d tell me this when there wasn’t a thing in the world wrong with him. Then on June 27-28, 2008, the situation came up.

The doctor at Williamson Medical Center told me his organs had been without oxygen too long, maybe even his brain. With the mention of brain, I closed my eyes and let my head fall hard against the stone wall of the hallway. I couldn’t bear to hear that the brain of this brilliant man had been compromised.

Fix him, I said. He’s got to be at work Monday, he has customers depending on him, he owns a business.

It was an order. I meant it. I needed him, too.

So he lived through five hours of surgery. Then the doctor said his only chance for survival was to go to Vanderbilt, and he only had a 5% chance with that. And at Vanderbilt he had seven more hours of surgery. They fixed part of him; they repaired his heart, rebuilding it after the aortic dissection ripped it to shreds. But there was the issue of the other organs that had been without oxygen because of clots formed by tissue of the inner layer of the aorta. They’d take him off the heart/lung machine and he couldn’t make it.

So the doctor came to me and said, there’s one more surgery we can do, I think the outcome will be the same, but I’ve got a team ready if you want us to go ahead with it.

With that, it was all put on me. Do I carry out his wish and say no, enough, let him go, or do I give him another chance and put him through more surgery? The doctor stepped away for a moment and let me wring my hands, look beggingly at my brother-in-law, tell my son that I cannot walk away from this place without giving him every opportunity to live. My son said okay, of course, okay, sure, we’ll tell the doctor.

I cannot walk away from this place without giving him every chance to survive, I repeated.

Okay, the doctor said, and rushed away.

It wasn’t long into that third surgery, maybe ten minutes, before it happened.

I was sitting in the waiting room, leaning back, looking up at the lights, shaking with fear. I felt a calming warmth I’d never felt before in my life slowly brush against me from the front and take hold and wrap all the way around me and soak into my being, and then I heard my husband say urgently, I’m going, I’m going.

I went home from the hospital without him and as I walked in the front door, it hit me to go read that story, the one he had written two months earlier, titled “The Will to Live,” about the Styrofoam cup tossed about in traffic on the busy street in front of his office and how it finally found a resting place on the grass beside the curb. I went immediately upstairs and pulled it up on the computer. I knew he was trying to tell me something.

In the two years that have now gone by, I’ve read it again and again and found different meanings and have now reached another conclusion.

I thought of placing the cup back in the middle of the turn lane for another go, but decided it may prefer the resting place it had chosen and worked so hard to reach.

The cup chose its resting place. Did he choose his?

Such an adventurer needs freedom and would not fare well in captivity. So I left it where it was, and carried away the memory of its struggles and the lesson of perseverance it taught.

He didn’t want to live in captivity, less than he was, unable to do the things he wanted to do. He didn’t want to be less than whole. He chose to give it a good fight, and then quickly go to the other side where he was whole once again. He chose.

He chose.