Navigating The World Without Richard

We are wired for contradiction. This is one of the characteristics that keeps us from being dull and predictable. Like most of us, my husband was — and was not — what he seemed to be.

Richard was a fact based scientist, who marvelled in the unexplained mysteries of nature. He never attended church, but could not resist visiting churches, churchyards and cathedrals, everywhere we travelled. He was a hymn-singing-atheist. He was a Socialist with a weakness for luxury. He was a dreamer and a realist. He was worldly and innocent. He was optimistic and pragmatic. He was open and cautious. He was an introvert who loved entertaining. He was elegant and down-to-earth. He was sensitive and selfish. He was content and restless. He was handsome and self-conscious. He was affectionate and remote. He was a brave man. The bravest man I have known.

He was an Old World, over-educated, English gentleman, from his stiff upper lip, to the soles of his Clark shoes. And yet, when he finally got around to marrying, at the age of 49, he chose a twice married, exceedingly well-fed, Amazonian, Californian, Native American, serial entrepreneur, political activist, living an ocean away, for his wife.

He was generous, genteel, cultured, inquisitive, intuitive, determined, domestic, poetic, solitary, double jointed, romantic, and tidy. He could wear white linen on a 12-hour, transcontinental flight, between London and San Francisco, without picking up so much as a speck of white pepper.

Recently, Richard and I would have celebrated our anniversary. Our anniversary, like birthdays, was a big deal to us. Often, we spread our marital celebration over two or three days. One of our few traditions, was to travel London’s River Thames, by boat, to Kew Gardens. In a country packed with gorgeous gardens, the 250 year old Kew Royal Botanic Garden is likely the most famous.

We met on the internet, in the autumn of 2002. Living an ocean apart, I fell in love with his seductive, fertile mind, long before I had the opportunity to experience the rest of him. About six months into our courtship, before we met in person, I was talking to him on my cell phone, lost in the bowels of Brooklyn. I had never been to Brooklyn before — and neither had Richard. In fact, he had never been to America, but that didn’t stop him from pulling up a map of the borough and skillfully navigating me back to Manhattan. It was past 2:00 a.m. in England.

Besides his talents as scholar, naturalist and chemist, Richard was the world’s best navigator. I was never once lost with him. Not only could he read a map better than anybody, in any country, he was equally gifted with an excellent sense of direction.

By the time he met up with me in New Jersey, nine months after we began our long distance courtship, he knew the lay of the land better than I did. Equally impressive, he knew the Latin names for all our flora and fauna. He instantly recognized our birds by sound and sight, thrilling at his first sighting of iridescent hummingbirds in California, and brilliant red cardinals in Pennsylvania.

We married, at the end of a month long honeymoon, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, joking we chose to go there because it was neutral territory. Several months later, while travelling through California and Oregon, Richard could not resist buying hummingbird feeders and hanging them outside the door, or window, wherever we stayed. He introduced a lot of people to bird watching this way, including my parents.

A well exercised brain is irresistible. Besides being brilliant and well read, my husband was also the most observant man I’ve ever known. Nothing escaped his eyes and ears. He noticed everything, even if he didn’t comment. The only criticism he levelled at others, was to observe privately with me, “I don’t believe they have read much.” This was, in Richard’s world, a sorrowful situation.

One day, a short time after I moved to England to start our married life, Richard called me out to the front garden. Joining him on the lawn, he pointed out dozens of boring, brown, ant holes. “Watch this,” he said excitedly. “Any minute, thousands of queens will leave their nests, flying off to start new colonies elsewhere.”

And they did, with hundreds of black, newly hatched queens, rising purposefully out of the ground and crash landing in my dark hair. Richard spent the rest of the evening carefully picking them out of my traumatized tresses. He didn’t want a single queen to perish. Had it been up to me, they would have been washed down the drain in seconds.

My husband had enormous respect for all of life. He wanted to live more than anything, at any cost. In the three-and-a-half years he struggled to stay alive, he underwent seven surgeries and the lifetime maximum chemotherapy and radiation. With each new treatment, intended to eradicate the osteosarcoma of the jaw threatening his life, my husband lost another vital part of himself.

His lovely voice and speech were amongst the first to be affected, along with his ability eat and drink. Eventually, he lost the hearing in his left ear and one of his beautiful, hopeful brown eyes. He lost the ability to produce saliva and a good many teeth. He lost the feeling in his mouth, lips and the whole left side of his face. He struggled with post-chemo peripheral neuropathy in his hands and feet. His back gave out. He lost jaw bone, arm bone, back bone, and tummy flesh, as parts of him were harvested in an attempt to re-build everything the cancer and treatment took from him.

When my husband could no longer eat or speak; when he was robbed of his hearing and vision; when he could not walk, or stand without falling over; when even I struggled to recognized him; when he could not sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time; when he could no longer lay his sweet head down, because of the baseball sized tumour trapping his neck, or get comfortable in any position; when he was reduced to skin and bones; when he had not eaten, or drank anything in six months, with a plastic tube drilled into his deflated belly for nutrients; when the pain was unbearable and nothing eased it; when he was denied every single pleasure of being alive; when he was pumped so full of drugs he didn’t know what day it was, Richard continued to fight with everything he had left. He fought with his whole heart — and most of mine. Forty months after the first surgery, my warrior of a husband was dead.

If not for Hospice, I would have turned to euthanasia to relieve my husband’s suffering. There is no way I could have witnessed what he went through, in his last six months of life, without coming to his aid. Even with tremendous Hospice support, there wasn’t a day I didn’t sob my eyes out over what was happening to my beautiful man. That euthanasia remains illegal in Britain and America, save for the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana, defies reason. No living creature should have to endure what we experienced.

Knowing how desperately my husband wanted to live, makes me all the more determined to shout a resounding YES to life; to live with gratitude; to take absolutely nothing for granted; to be more compassionate; to spend myself wisely; to love; to listen to the silence; to revel in nature; to dance in the moonlight; to allow this raging river of tears to take me to another place; to journey forward with the full knowledge that life requires us to be our bravest self.

For Valentine’s Day, while too weak to leave his bed, Richard went online and surprised me by ordering an update for our car’s ancient satellite navigation system. This was the last purchase he made. He knew a big part of me will always be lost without him.




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Marsha Coupé

Marsha Coupé

See Things Differently.

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