A Two-Time Widower
This story was written as a series of posts on FaceBook. All of it is true.
Post 1 — You’ve got to start somewhere
I need to tell you the story of my wives. How I became their husband. How I became a two-time widower. It’s not pretty, but it’s my story. It’s their story.
I’m broken, and that’s alright. I used to be broken in thousands of pieces but lately it’s more like only a couple hundred pieces. I’m OK with it. I try my best to be in the moment; to be with the pain. I’m OK with it and we’re becoming friends.
I still sleep on my side of the bed. I have for almost 40 years. Old habits die hard I guess. The only bad part is it makes it easier to reach over to spoon in the middle of the night; only to find that it’s just me in the bed. That’s hard, but I’m getting used to it. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to try sleeping in the middle of the bed. I’ll let you know how that works out.
Netflix and I are going steady. It shows me romantic dramas, I laugh and cry in all the right places. It’s like having real feelings without all that long-term emotional commitment stuff. I mean it feels like a real commitment, but it’s only for 90 minutes. Small, bite-sized chunks.
The rest of the time I’m studying computer security for regular home users. While I’m into it, writing about security is not the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s maybe the 53'rd. But I still think I need to do it.
Most users just don’t understand how dangerous a computer is, don’t get me started on smartphones.
If I could go back and live my life again, I’d change everything. I know you’re supposed to say you wouldn’t change a thing, but that’s not how I see it right now.
Well, I’d stop caring about being right all the time. For a long time, I thought being right was the most important thing in life. It just isn’t. I’d listen more and talk less, a lot less. I must have really loved the sound of my own voice. I missed out on so many things other people were trying to say. I’d ask people how they are doing and not let them get away with, “fine.” I’d be way less of a dick to people. I was a serious dick. I’d also take better care of my teeth.
I wouldn’t become the Shitty Boyfriend. I wouldn’t become the Shitty Husband.
Doing the dead people thing made me less of a dick, but it took a long time, and the price was very high. But I paid for it, so I’m going to claim it.
Teeth are important.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do for my third act, and I realize I’ve developed a skill that my 18-year-old self would never have imagined. It might even be my super power.
I’m pretty good at being with the dying. I admit it’s an unusual skill, but I think I can make use of it. I can listen, talk, clean house, go shopping, read out loud and do most anything that a person needs. I’m very good at sitting in silence while holding a person’s hand. I know that my third act will be about service, and this would fit the bill. I give a good sponge bath and don’t have a problem with doing the messy bits. A Hospice volunteer would be a good fit. I’m pretty sure Hospice saved my life; twice in 15 years. It’s time for me to give back to them.
This is where I am right now.
Now that my wives are dead.
Now that I’ve returned from Cancerland for the second time.
After I had to always be right.
After I spoke in absolutes.
Yeah, I’m going to call Hospice after the holidays.
Post 2 — An unscheduled break in the story
Dear Richard, are you OK? I mean I know you’re not OK but are you OK? Don’t you dare say you’re fine either. Are you eating right, taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep? It seems like you’re being hard on yourself. Exposing yourself in a very public way? I’m worried about you. What gives?
Love, a couple of your friends.
Dear Friends, I should be telling you the story at this point, but thanks for your heartfelt concern. I love you all. I’ve been eating well since coming back from Myanmar. The food in Burma was good, but I just couldn’t eat very much of it. I got to under 200 pounds during the time Saw Yu was dying, and I’ve gained it all back since being home. Losing 20 pounds in 3 months was pretty liberating if I do say so myself. Gaining it all back in 3 months was significantly less so.
I get plenty of sleep, I shower every day, sometimes more. I’ve started exercising again and, all in all, I’m doing a pretty good job of taking care of myself. I learned that lesson when Ani died. I didn’t take very good care of myself then, and so I was sick for months after her death. I’m not going to do that again. Nope, not me.
It’s taken many years, but I do like myself now. I’m a pretty good guy, and I’m willing to put in the work. If you know me, you know my natural state is one of complete laziness. I still make myself do the work; like this writing.
This writing thing is also part of taking care of myself; it’s incredibly liberating; it’s scary.
Most of us come to a realization, either through therapy, age, reading, or a moment of supreme clarity. The realization that if you hold shit in, it poisons you. It colors your thoughts; you lose yourself. Part of you dies or goes into deep hibernation. By saying it out loud, you take away its power. Its grip on you lessens. You may have to do it hundreds of times, but calling out its true name causes it to dissipate, eventually. To leave you alone. Well, not alone but more at peace. I’m not being hard on myself. It’s my way of driving out the darkness, lighting altar candles.
There’s another benefit of saying it out loud, of writing it down for the world to see. You are giving people permission to call you on it when it happens again. That seems like a good thing to me. It’s not, “conditions apply” approval either. It’s full on permission.
The third benefit; is it might help someone going through something similar. Or at least, let them see they are not alone. That feeling of aloneness is so destructive. Everyone struggles at different times in their life. We’ve all had to plaster that smile on when it is literally the last thing we want to do. But if I know that I’m not alone in this then sometimes that smile shows up on its own. It’s the second best smile I know of. It’s so good it can make your cheeks hurt.
Like seeing your first triple rainbow. That’s going to make you smile no matter what.
When you’re a teenager and you go through your first breakup you are completely and totally destroyed. The devastation is complete. It’s worse than nuclear winter, and you are 100% certain you’ll never survive. But you do. You really do and it becomes one of the most important lessons in life. Shits going to happen and you will survive. Really bad shit but you will survive.
Even when the people you love more than life itself die you know that you can survive. Yeah, you might long for the occasional nuclear winter because it would be way easier to get through but you will survive.
So I write it down, I expose the wounds and in doing so, I heal.
I promise I’ll start the story now…
Post 3 — I get James Taylor in the breakup
Before I can talk about my wives; about my marriages; about their deaths. I need to go further back in time to show you some patterns in my behavior. These behaviors no longer control me but for many years, they were what I did. They very much defined me. It ain’t pretty, but it’s how it was.
Music is important to me; I think it’s important to most of us. When I hear a song that I associate with a relationship, I’m transported instantly, back to when I first heard it. I’m with that person. It’s an extraordinary feeling, not always a happy one mind you, but sometimes it is.
Here goes: When I was 15, I fell hard for Kay. The crush to end all crushes. It was 9th grade at Redwood Junior High. I remember her as being tall, slim, with long dark hair and great lips. It was over 45 years ago so I could be totally wrong about her height, weight and hair color, but I’m not wrong about her lips. Trust me.
I lost the war, but I have an important musical memory from that time. The first of many.
Spoiler alert, I was heartbroken. I was devastated, destroyed, and inconsolable for 2 or 3 weeks. I survived. I was 15. At that age, you completely heal, this isn’t always the case when you get older.
That first crush, learning how your bodies work. Holding hands while walking to class; sneaking a kiss near the lockers. Those first kisses held the promise of a world I had only dreamed of. The first time I went to her house, she put on James Taylor’s, Sweet Baby James record. I miss records. We sat on her sofa, held hands and got better at kissing. I love kissing. Of course, every guy thinks they’re a great kisser. We listened to that record every time I went over.
15 years old. Really? Everything was ever so important then. Life and death hinged on a look, a word.
Side note: as I write this I have no idea how we got together. Did I approach her or did she approach me? Funny, you think you would remember a thing like that. That first crush. I remember that both my wives proposed to me. I didn’t forget that. Forgetting that would be a total dick move.
Kay and I were only together for a month or two, and then she dumped me for an older guy from Napa High. In retrospect, I would have dumped me too. No, I really would. I was constantly asking her what she was thinking. What was she feeling? Can you hear the earnestness in my voice? I’m sure it must have worn her out, and she couldn’t wait to stop hearing me speak. OK, maybe it wasn’t earnestness at all. It was probably more like a plaintive whine. I had no idea what it meant to be a boyfriend, and I was years away from being a real partner. I thought I was supposed to pay attention to her and trying to get her to talk seemed like paying attention. Ever the romantic, right?
Another side note: in retrospect I can now see this as phase 2 in my Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome. I need to write about phase 1 and the whole SBS thing later.
The upshot however, was that I got James Taylor out of the deal. Fire and Rain still kills me every time I hear it. Most people think of James in the hospital and the girl that didn’t make it. I think of Kay and her parents’ sofa; of being a romantic amateur.
Yet another side note: I listen to old relationship music every year or two. It’s part torture, part joy. A tender torture, exquisite torture.
I got another thing out of that breakup. I started hanging out with the hippie crowd at school. I made several friends in the second half of 9th grade that I’m still friends with today. Hi, Brad. Hi, Pete. That hippie thing saved me. It defined me, and it’s who I became. Who I still am to this day.
I have no idea what happened to Kay. We lost touch by the time 9th grade was over. I hope she’s had the life she wanted. She was very nice, even with the whole dumping me thing. Dumping me was not a dick move. It was the right thing to do at 15.
I didn’t know it at the time but within six years and 5 or 6 girlfriends later I would meet Ani, who would become my first wife. The love to end all loves. I know I have to write about that. Fuck. That’s going to be hard. I was able to write this chapter without crying. Writing about Ani is going to require many boxes of tissues and a big drop cloth because I’ll go be gutted by the time I finish it.
Let’s just say brain cancer was not a good thing.
I also need to tell you that I knew I would outlive Ani. Really. I knew after the first week we started dating. I only told one person that before now. I told my mother about it just before Ani and I got married. I knew I could save her. I knew I could make her happy. Fuck, I feel shitty about saying it out loud, but I recognized a level of brokenness in her that I knew would be fatal. The worst part is, she knew it too, but we did everything we could to make it work. I really don’t want to tell our story, but I will have to. Almost 24 years’ worth. Obviously, it still occupies more of my brain that I would like.
So much for not crying.
Post 4 — Another unscheduled break
I know you’re expecting me to tell you about Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome now. I intended to. I’m done with those chapters, but Christmas is coming. I’m afraid to publish those chapters. Christmas is two weeks away, and I love the holidays. For me, the holidays are this magical time when families and friends get together. You talk about how the year has been. You eat great food that has been prepared with such love. You play with the kids and remember how beautiful it all was before you decided to be an adult. Kids. You have no idea how much I regret not having kids. Shit, I have to write more about that later.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Now here’s the thing. Both of my wives, Ani and Saw Yu Wai, hated the holidays. Each for very different reasons but they hated this time of year. I had a hard time with that.
For Ani, it was a reminder of the fighting, the bullying, the complete dysfunction of her parents at what was supposed to be the happiest time of the year. Every time the holidays came around, we would fight. Bad fights. Say the shittiest things imaginable to each other fights; killing with words.
I would always want us to go to Napa and be with my family. She would always want to hole up at home and not go out for a month. “Me or your family, Richard. Choose”. A good husband is supposed to choose to be with his wife. That’s how it’s supposed to be. That was the deal when we got married. I wanted both. I loved them all so much, wanted to be with everyone during that time of the year. Why couldn’t she understand that I needed both? So we fought. We fought like only lovers can fight. Lovers that never learned the rules of engagement. Lovers that know your every secret. It would be years before we learned how to fight without killing each other. The cost of those lessons were paid for at the highest price; the dearest price.
So blood was drawn. Hearts were broken. Waiter, could you please bring some more sadness for everybody? Thanks.
To understand Saw Yu’s view of the holidays in America you need to learn one of her most used phrases; “Too west for the east, too east for the west.” The commercialism made her angry. The pretense of ‘Peace & Love’ grated at her nerves in the worst way possible. She was Buddhist, Christmas didn’t mean shit to her.
You know what Chinese people do when they want to get together? They get together. They show up at someone’s house with a week’s worth of food for the day. The kitchen is this glorious cacophony that leaves you speechless. And if people need things, you buy it for them. You don’t wait for a designated time of year. You take care of each other because that’s how it’s done. Ain’t no party like a Chinese party. It was so much fun to sit in the middle of it all.
Christmas in America was hard for Saw Yu because her old traditions stopped happening enough and the western traditions kept inserting into her life. I did my best to understand and honor what she needed to do. Sometimes I was really good at it; sometimes I sucked. We didn’t fight about it. We knew how to disagree. We could fight without drawing blood. Most of the time. We were in our fifties. We were smarter. We were fucking grownups, thank you very much.
So Dad and I will be driving up to Napa in two weeks. I’ve booked a hotel room for him, and I’ll be staying at my sisters. Dad needs a real bed. I’m happy to pay for it. We’ll talk and eat great food. I’ll mourn Saw Yu. My first Christmas without her.
Saw Yu and I were married on December 24, 2002. In my sister’s front room. In Napa.
Yeah, I know.
Post 5 — Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome — Part 1
To tell the stories of Ani and Saw Yu, to tell the story of A Two-Time Widower, you need to know who I used to be. Who I was when I became their husband. It’s ancient history now. I’m not that guy anymore. I’ve forgiven myself. I’m only haunted by the occasional ghost. I can live with that.
It wasn’t until after Ani died that I was able to identify a pattern of behavior in myself that I’ve come to call, Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome.
Life, relationships, they’re about sharing for me. I’m alright with being by myself. I enjoy my company and all that. But, when I get down to it, life is a shared experience for me. It took years to realize it, but its how my heart and brain are wired. I can enjoy a sunset on my own, and that’s fine. But, when I share it with someone, that’s where the magic happens for me. I prefer collaboration over being a sole contributor.
I went into therapy after Ani died to help me process the grief but also to understand behavioral patterns that could affect future relationships. I was 45, I hoped that I might meet someone, and I was really afraid that I would fuck it up. Based on my past behavior there was a high probability of that.
I did meet someone; she saved my life. I almost fucked it up, several times, but I stopped myself. She stopped me. Cancer would fuck it up for us.
Over several sessions, I described every relationship I had ever been in. I then began to look into what had worked and what hadn’t. I could clearly see a pattern. I run away. Yup, I was a runner. A relationship would go along, and at some point, I would get scared. Terrified that I was the wrong person for this woman or that they were the wrong one for me. I don’t think I was afraid of commitment. I was afraid of making mistakes. Afraid of being a disappointment; terrified of being found out.
For the record; turning your heart off is the same as running away. Trust me on this.
I would sabotage those relationships by stopping all contact with them. No phone calls, no dropping by for a visit, nothing. Zip, nada. Hence the term Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome. By the 5th or 6th time, I should have had Shitty Boyfriend Material tattooed onto my forehead. It probably would have saved those women a lot of time, frustration, and anger.
I was afraid to open up and put my heart on the line. Without your heart on the line, what’s the point? I was a kid.
Yeah, most of those relationships would never have worked. But a couple of those people became exceptional women. Make the world a better place kind of women. Our relationships probably wouldn’t have survived for all the normal reasons, but I never gave them a chance because I was afraid. Fear.
Exhibit A — boy and girl meet in Junior High PE class; co-ed square dancing. Girl likes boy; boy likes girl. Boy avoids any meaningful interaction for months. Finally, boy stops acknowledging girl’s existence. I would call this Premature Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome.
Exhibit B — see Kay from Post 3.
Exhibit C — boy meets girl from a different school at the local recycling center. They hang out. They hold hands. They kiss. Can boy step up his game and take it to the next level? Bzzzt, wrong answer. Boy stops calling; boy stops talking to girl. This is more refined Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome behavior. Proper SBS.
Exhibits D, E, F, and G — More refinements on SBS behavior. I’m getting pretty good at this.
Exhibit H — All about Nancy…
OK, I can’t treat Nancy as an exhibit. She was too important. She was sweet, and kind. She was smart, much smarter than me. She was also a year older than me, but that doesn’t factor into this story. Age will factor into a different story later. Being attracted to smart women is a theme, though; you’ll see.
I’m 17 now, more grown up. Still immature, still an amateur. Nancy is 18, and I like her. She likes me. I’m pretty sure I’m in love with her, but I don’t think I ever said it. We go out; we do stuff in the real world. We have fun. Most every night we stand outside her house where her parents can’t see, and we kiss. We become Olympic level kissers. Our bodies fit perfectly in that backyard. We did this dance for six months or so. And then Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome kicks in. I don’t see her again. No calls, no dropping by her house. I become invisible. Nancy is shy; she’s not going to seek me out. That’s not how she’s wired. Crisis averted; relationship avoided. Another total dick move. I’d love to talk to Nancy again. I want to know how her life went. I want to apologize for my SBS. Not to try and recapture the relationship, but to acknowledge my mistakes. To say I’m sorry, that it wasn’t her.
There’s one more woman I have to tell you about before I talk about Vianne. Vianne is not her real name. Using her real name would be wrong. She’s retired. Has children that have children of their own. They don’t need to hear this shit. Vianne is the name of Juliette Binoche’s character in Chocolat. I have a painful crush on Juliette, so this is a good name to use. She fits into my plus or minus ten-year rule.
Exhibit I — This is about Catherine. Also not her real name either. Yeah, I also have a crush on Catherine Deneuve. Who doesn’t? Ok, Ms. Deneuve is three years older than my plus or minus 10 rule, but I’d make an exemption for her.
I’m a senior in high school. I’ll graduate from Vintage in a couple of months. I was part science geek and part drama geek. A few of my friends were in the final show of the year at Napa High. I had to support my homies, right? I’m in the old Napa High Theatre; the show is getting ready to start. The house lights go down to half, and the cast comes into the theater from the rear. They’re talking to audience members, teasing them, sitting on laps. All of a sudden there’s a girl sitting in my lap. She gives me a playful kiss and while still in character says, “Come find me after the show.”
I couldn’t tell you what that play was about if my life depended on it. I just wanted it to be over so I could go find the girl with the long hair. I had to know if she meant what she said, or if it was just part of the act.
It wasn’t part of the act. Catherine and I dated for six months or so. We were in the summer show at Pretenders together. She the ingénue, me the hero. I was totally in love with her. I told a friend that she was the one. The one I would marry. I was 18 and I was clueless.
I joined a political theater group. I loved it. I was not going to grow up and become anyone’s husband. Besides, if I was honest with myself; I was not the right guy for her, not even close. In what may be the only act of bravery in my romantic life I broke up with her. But I did it in pure Shitty Boyfriend fashion. In a succession of monumentally shitty moves.
Catherine went on to marry a great man. Her equal in every way. One of the greatest men I’ve ever known. They had kids. They built the life they both deserved. Vianne and I went to their wedding, and I was so happy for them.
Catherine didn’t live to see her grandchildren. She would have been the greatest grandmother since the dawn of time. Life is seldom fair. Cancer is never fair.
OK, Vianne. I’m not ready, but I’m ready.
Post 6 — Shitty Boyfriend Syndrome — Part 2, Vianne
I first met Vianne when we were both part of the Fall show at the JC. It was a mixed bill, some one-acts, some music and this modern dance piece by Vianne while her friend sang Joni Mitchell’s, Marcie. I didn’t know the song. I thought the singer had written it. The whole piece was very powerful. I’d never seen modern dance before. It was stunning. I can still see her dancing every time the song plays. The record is playing as I write. Yeah, I know.
We talked a few times during rehearsals. She was the smartest person I had ever met, and she had those dancers’ legs. She was so far out of my league that it never entered my mind to ask her out. She was 6 or 7 years older than me. I might have some game, but nothing at that level.
A month or so later I was asked to join a political theater company, Sunseed. To be in a new show, they were writing about agribusiness in America. Food Follies A La Carte. Best show I was ever in, period.
I get to the first rehearsal and I know most of the people in the show. Vianne is there. I’m glad she is because I want to know her better. I have no thought or intentions of ever asking her out. I’m just fascinated by her politics and want to learn more about them. I know I’m a kid and she is a real woman.
I need to point out that I was not 19 yet. In retrospect, I still wasn’t boyfriend material. I was as mature as an 18-year-old male can be. I spoke in absolutes. I talked until I was right. I was driven by the wrong part of my anatomy. I was the three-year-old at another kid’s party trying to make it all about him. I was probably good enough to have spend the night, but for Christ’s sake, get him out of the house in the morning before he pees all over the carpets. Which is to say, I was being the only me I knew how to be; I was a kid.
A month into rehearsals Vianne asked me over to her place. We could talk more; have some tea; listen to music. I got there around 10, it was winter, and it was cold. She invited me in. Made tea and we went into the front room because she wanted to play me the record the song where the dance came from. I had asked about it earlier. The record was Song to a Seagull, by Joni Mitchell. By the time the song Marcie came on I was hooked. I wasn’t cold anymore. What on earth could she see in me? This statuesque dancer who looked like a goddess was interested in me. To this day, I don’t understand how that could have happened. Whatever she saw, I wanted to be. It wasn’t long before I moved in with Vianne. Did I mention that I still wasn’t boyfriend material?
We were together for a couple of years. The first year of our relationship was wonderful for me. For the second year, I peed on the carpets. I peed on our relationship. I peed on myself. I peed all over everything.
During that first year, everything we did, everywhere we went was part of a journey that opened my eyes, opened my mind. It was the best parts of a Truffaut film without the heartbreak in the script. But, my heart wasn’t open as much as it should have been. I still spoke in absolutes; I still talked until I was right. I didn’t know it yet, but I was getting ready to fuck up. Big time. Epic portions of fuckup.
I wouldn’t be a tenth the man I am today had I never met Vianne. I’m not exaggerating. That’s the impact she had on my life. She taught me to cook. I learned what it meant for a man to support women’s issues. I learned to love art films. Dance, I learned to love dance. I saw Judith Jamison dance with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater 5 days in a row. Google Judith Jamison and thank me later. I learned how bodies worked. I caught glimpses of the Altar of Oneness. I heard music from different countries. I ate the food of those countries. I developed a world view. My politics became better, stronger. I was growing up. I was getting ready to blow it.
Toward the end of that first year, Vianne was planning to go to Europe for a few months to see an old boyfriend. They had been planning it for a long time. I knew it was coming. We talked it through, and I thought I was alright with it. They had stuff to work through. I understood.
I didn’t understand. Not in any way, shape or form. When she left for Europe, I became the most jealous man on the planet. I drank. I got high. I had affairs. It didn’t matter that Vianne was still coming home to me. I went on a self-destructive tear that lasted for the rest of our relationship. Everything I did while she was gone I did when she came back. I had taken Shitty Boyfriend to a level that I’ve never surpassed again. I acted out in ways that can make me cringe even now 39 years later. It’s the second most embarrassing part of my life. She finally asked me to leave.
Well, I would surpass it one last time. As Ani’s husband. You have no idea how much this is going to hurt.
As with Kay all those years before I would have kicked me to the curb too. In a second. Vianne took a job back east. Found a good man. Had children. She’s a grandmother. We last spoke when Joel Mills died. I’m glad we did. Our relationship wouldn’t have lasted even if I hadn’t gone all scorched earth. I still needed to grow up a lot.
Fuck, I need to write about Joel too. He was too important. That’s a different book.
I realize that most of the women probably view our relationships differently than I do; that I’m dwelling on my faults and not talking about the good stuff. But that’s the thing. This was my baggage I took to the dumps. This was the clutter that I dealt with after Ani died. I learned to forgive myself. I had been the only me I knew how to be. I would be better if I ever got the chance. I learned to be better to myself. I Survived.
Most of these ghosts are gone. They had great lives. I’m a better man for having known them.
Song to a Seagull has just ended. Funny how that worked out. I have to start thinking about Ani’s story.
Guess how I feel about that.
Post 7 — Ani, The beginning
In the fall of 1977, I moved into a Victorian on the corner of Randolph and Oak in Napa. People from Napa know the house I mean. It had been turned into apartments during the war. My place was on the third floor. I was working as a music tutor at the JC and playing guitar a lot. My friend Michael was managing the place, and I knew many of the people who lived there. It was a good time to be alive.
I’d been living there a few weeks when I came in the main doors after grocery shopping. While the place had been chopped up to make the apartments, the grand staircase was still intact and was my favorite way to go up to my place. As I’m just starting the climb, I see two women coming down the stairs, and I recognize one from High School. I say hello to Kathy and we engage in the small talk that people do after High School is a memory. The problem was, I couldn’t stop looking at the woman with Kathy. Now, Kathy was very petite and incredibly beautiful. Unobtanium in high school. But the woman with her was even smaller, prettier, and she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen.
Kathy introduced us, and we said hi. Her name was Ani. Kathi and Ani then continued down the stairs and headed out the front doors. I know I must have stared the whole time they were walking. As stunning as Kathy was, Ani knocked me over. Ani was the woman who lived next door to me on the third floor.
Yeah, I fell for the girl next door. You can’t make this stuff up.
In truth, it was several months before there was any falling. We’d meet in the hallways and say hi. Brief conversations about music and restaurants. I learned she was a waitress in one of the conversations, so the restaurant talk started making more sense. I told her of the fascinating world of music theory. There was some tentative flirting, but nothing serious. Just playing around like you do when you’re 21, and you have all of life ahead of you. I seem to remember a couple of hugs too. We were doing the dance.
As it turned out, Ani and I had 24 years ahead of us. Much of it wonderful beyond imagining. Much of it so painful, so tragic.
After a couple of months of this dance, I was coming out my door on my way to the JC to work with some students. I see Ani trying to open her door, she kept dropping her keys, and I saw that she was crying.
I gave her a hug and held her until she stopped crying. I let go, and we just looked at each other. A long look where all you see is the other person’s eyes. I’m making sure she’s alright. I later learned she was thinking; can I trust him? And we kissed.
I didn’t kiss her; she didn’t kiss me. We kissed each other. A long kiss that neither of us wanted to end, so it didn’t. It was, the kiss. The kiss that tells you everything you wanted to know about each other. The most important kiss of your life. The kiss that haunts you in your dreams long after she’s dead. The kind of kiss you tell people about at her memorial. It was, the kiss.
We kissed again and then she asked me if I wanted to come in. Now I really said this. “I want to come in more than you can possibly know. But I can’t. I have to get to school to work with some of the students.” And off I went to the JC.
It was the longest 4 hours of my life. I remember one of the students asking if I was alright. I have no idea how I responded. I don’t even know if I responded. I just needed time to pass as quickly as possible so I could go home. So I could knock on Ani’s door and see if we looked at each other in the same way as before. We did.
I think we finally went to sleep around five the next morning. The world was ours. The next few weeks were the same. Wake up, I’d go back to my place, make coffee, breakfast, and take it over to her place. She’d go to work, and I’d go to school. We’d meet back up in the evening in her room eating whatever I managed to cook for dinner. We’d talk. Tell our stories. Compare life notes. She’d refer to Vianne as Army-Boots, and I called her ex, The Drooler. Then we’d explore each other in the way that only new lovers can. Before there were scars. Before there were things said that could never be taken back. All of that was off in the future. It was going to happen, and if we had known, we would have prevented it. Each would have died rather than hurt the other. But we didn’t know.
We didn’t prevent it. We couldn’t. We were still kids. We didn’t know.
I could see she was broken. So broken. I was going to save her. I could take away her depression and replace it with happiness. Such arrogance. I was 21 and didn’t know any better. I know better now.
But, back then, I spoke in absolutes. I always had to be right, no matter the cost.
Post 8 — Ani, A lot of time passes
I need to describe what Ani looked like all those years ago. You need to understand her physical presence because it plays a big part later. She was four foot eleven and weighed a hundred five pounds. Yes, she was tiny. Later on, when she was a competitive bodybuilder, her nickname was Killer. But for now just know that she was voluptuous and tiny. A heady mix for 21-year-old Richard. 32–22–30, she had a Double D cup size. Normally I would never talk about that, but it matters in this story. She owned her body.
All you need to know about me was that I was a six foot, one hundred ninety-pound hippie with long hair; wire-rim glasses, overalls, flannel shirt, and Chucks. I was 20 pounds’ overweight. I was always 20 pounds’ overweight. Except later in life when I was 100 pounds’ overweight. I’m 20 pounds’ overweight right now. My weight was important later on. And I still spoke in absolutes. I still had to be right, no matter what the cost.
We had dated for over a year before we moved in together. Two people in a 200 square foot, one room apartment. Bathroom down the hall. Shower on the floor below us. Just before moving she sat me down and asked me to marry her.
I had been trying to work up the nerve to ask her, and she beat me to the punch. She was like that. Even with all her damaged areas, she could be fearless. It would be 19 years before I could get even close to that level of fearlessness. I said yes before she finished asking. I was in. We were almost 23. We should have waited. We didn’t know.
We set a date. Told family and friends about it. We were excited, and we were ready.
As the date approached, Ani’s mother got sick. Madeline ended up in the hospital and died a month before we were to be married. It was a hard time for Ani.
Madeline’s death was just another in a series of deaths and events that shaped Ani. The death of her father when she was 16. The death of her older sister when she was 18. An abortion at 20. And now the death of her mother at 23. These losses had an impact on her that can’t be measured. It took me years to understand how big that impact was. It took me years to understand that she never recovered from those events. How could she? She didn’t know how.
We got married later that fall in Fuller Park and then walked across the street to my parents house where we had the reception. It was a great day. Family and friends were there. We wore hippie white. We celebrated as newlyweds, and we were happy. It was time to go on our honeymoon.
I have to talk about sex now. I don’t want to, but it’s important to the story. I don’t think I have a right to talk about my wife’s or anyone else’s sex life. It’s personal; it’s theirs. It shouldn’t be shared in public. But it played such a huge part in our marriage that to not talk about it would be dishonest. You wouldn’t get to see the shittiest thing I ever did in my life. The chain reaction that caused more hurt than I could ever have imagined. When I took Shitty Boyfriend and turned him into Shitty Husband.
We went on our honeymoon, checked into the room, went to a wonderful dinner and came back to our room. We didn’t have sex. We wouldn’t make love for almost a year after that.
For the two years before we got married, we made love like only two people that age can. We relished each other’s bodies. We worshiped at the altar of oneness. That place where you don’t know where one body ends and the other begins. We didn’t return to that altar until we were 40. Six months before cancer.
I didn’t understand depression then. Didn’t know what it meant to be bipolar. I didn’t understand her fear of getting pregnant. That no amount of birth control allayed those fears. I was 23, and all I knew was that I was being rejected. It was about me. I couldn’t see it was about us. That it was about her. She was broken, and I had to fix her. I wanted kids. I love children. We talked about it and fought about it many times for 5 or 6 years until I gave up. If you don’t have sex, you can’t get pregnant. Problem solved.
I’m not going to say that sex was the main problem in our marriage. In truth, it was pretty far down the list. But in hindsight, I should have seen it for what it was. It was a symptom and I made it about me.
Our lives went on. We moved around, got different jobs. Most of the time we were friends that were sometimes lovers. We were also growing apart. We still didn’t know how to fight. We could be cruel; we could be tender. We didn’t stop caring for each other so much as we didn’t have the energy anymore. We were not 23 anymore. We were in our 30’s.
There were also many tender moments. Holding each other and laughing at the jokes that lovers tell each other. Those inside jokes take only make sense to the two of you.
During these years, I would gain and lose weight. One time I got down to 175 pounds. It felt great. Ani had said my weight was a problem for her. She didn’t find fat Richard attractive in any way. We didn’t make love for the two years I weighed 175. I drank a lot. I’d black out. She finally told me that if I continued drinking she’d leave. I wasn’t ready for her to leave just yet, so I quit. I lost weight again. I gained it back. We did this dance for many years.
She became a champion bodybuilder with endorsements. Her picture was on supplement bottles. She was fucking hot. I was the luckiest man on earth; time passed.
Ani became a massage therapist and was great at it. We were living in Ojai. She had some famous clients. It was a fun time.
We decided to move back to the Bay Area. I needed to be closer to my family, and I wanted her to be closer to hers. So, we moved to Marin. We both wanted to move; we were happy about it.
Then she started having back problems. Her breasts were too heavy for her small frame, and it was interfering with her massage work. She was constantly in pain. A doctor recommended breast reduction, and she decided to do it. I supported that decision. I got good at back massages. She needed them a lot. It was a good time for us. We grew very close again for a couple of years.
She was concerned how we both would react to the scars. How we would react to the new her. I got it. We live in an image-conscious, youth-obsessed culture. We shame women if they are too tall; if they are too short. We shame them for being too thin and we shame them for being fat. Shame your boobs are so small. Oh honey, your boobs are too big. Hair, we obsess about the latest celebrity hairstyles. We shame the ever loving fuck out of a woman if she has gray hair. We are not the sharpest tools in the shed. We can make women doubt everything about their bodies. We start the shaming during childhood. We never let up until they are dead. Then we shame them some more.
Here’s our truth about your bodies. If we’re your partner, if we’re your lover; we are going to love your body. We are going to love it in youth; we’ll love it in old age. We love it, you. Your body is the vessel for your heart, your brain, your soul. We will love your height, weight, hair length, and color. We will love every one of your gray hairs. We will love your ass and all the changes it goes through. We will never tire of holding your hand, ever. We will love your breasts, no matter what size they are. Big or small, we will love them. Will love them after they’ve nursed four children. We will love where they used to be when they’re gone, and all that remains are the scars from your cancer. Every change you go through, we will love, kiss, lick and explore the newness like that first night we spent together. We will love the changes. So should you.
Some of us might need your help. Tell us what you need; even if we’re both afraid. Close your eyes and put our hands where you need them to be. Be courageous. Be the top, be the bottom; be brave. Take our hands and help us reclaim the altar with you. And if we can’t do what you need; whatever it is. Show us the door, because honey, to not love those changes, to not join you on the adventure, is the biggest dishonor we can do to you. Seriously.
Things changed as those later 30’s went along, as 40 was getting closer. Ani grew more distant, colder, more erratic. I didn’t help. I was looking for a way out. I was giving up on us and just wanted to get the fuck out of Dodge.
Her depression was worse than ever. She wouldn’t see a therapist. She wouldn’t consider medication. We fought about everything. When we talked at night, in bed, the discussions were tragic. Heartbreaking. One night I said what are we doing? Why are we still together? I’m miserable, and I’m sure you are too. And she said if you’re so miserable why don’t you leave. That was my cue.
Right here, this is where I did the shittiest thing I have ever done in my life. When Shitty Boyfriend became Shitty Husband.
I broke Ani’s heart.
Post 9 — Ani, A second bite at the apple
I didn’t just leave; I left with a vengeance. I completely reverted to form. I can’t talk about most of it other than to say, scorched earth Richard was in charge. There was an obsession. Inappropriate letters were written. Drunk phone calls were made. The person I obsessed over in my pathetic, lonely, unloved state, shut me down with a quickness. She is a very smart woman. We’re friends again.
I saw Ani a few times during the months I was away. During the time I ran away. I could see how she was suffering. How her heart was broken. I finally asked if I could come home. I was able to see that my heart was also broken.
She told me to fuck-off. That wasn’t a dick move. It was the right thing to do.
I asked again several times in the following weeks. Eventually, she said she might consider it if we went to couples therapy. We went twice a week for a while before she said I could move back in. I spent the next four and a half years showing her I was wrong, I was sorry, that she was the most important person in my life.
The day I moved back home is the day I finally grew up. I had just turned 40. I was a late bloomer.
I learned to open my heart to her. We learned to tell the truth to each other. We learned how to disagree, argue and fight without drawing blood. We built a new altar and reclaimed our oneness. We became adults. Things got better. We still made mistakes, but we were able to work through them.
As the months went along, Ani started having headaches. They seemed to happen mostly when she woke up in the morning and would go away as the day went along. Her doctor thought they might be migraines and prescribed some medicine. It helped for a while. I raised the head of our bed, and that helped a while.
I had taken a new position at work and was traveling a lot. Her headaches got worse; she stopped her massage practice. I had gone to South Africa where one of my teams was. I got to the office and called her. She sounded horrible. Her voice was shaky, constricted. She said the pain hadn’t stopped for days. I told her to call the doctor and get a scan scheduled. Tell the doctor something wasn’t right.
I was on the plane back to her the following day. I got back on Friday, and the scan was scheduled for the next day. She looked horrible. She could barely talk. She couldn’t eat. We went to the appointment the next morning. That Saturday, that day, six months after I moved back in.
If you’ve spent time in Cancerland, this will be a familiar scenario. She got the scan. A little while later the Scan-Tech came out and said the doctor would be here in a while to go over the results. Ani was so out of it that she didn’t know what was happening. I don’t think she understood what the tech was saying. I did. Doctors don’t come in on a Saturday to tell you everything is fine. They come in on Saturday to give you the worst news of your life. I held her. I told her everything would be fine. I lied to her because I knew what was coming and I was powerless to stop it.
The doctor came, he sat down with film in his hands. We looked at him, and I knew what he was going to say. He had that look that most doctors get when delivering bad news. Ani tuned out. She was in shock. I listened, I asked questions, I got my first lesson in reading scans. Something that I got much better at over the years. We learned she had a mass the size of a tangerine in her brain. It had fingers reaching out. It went into areas that the surgeon said he wouldn’t be able to get. After the surgery he said he was able to get 70–80%.
She was admitted directly to the hospital from that waiting room. She had her brain operated on the following Monday morning.
Welcome to Cancerland, party of two.
We traveled around Cancerland for the next four years. We met with doctors. We went to support groups, I went to support groups. We went to cancer conferences. We learned everything we could. We tried to prepare ourselves.
I saw things in those groups that helped. I heard their stories. Partners that cared for each other because they had to. Because half of their life was in pain, suffering, and that to be their real selves they had to be there to support their partner. Their lover. They couldn’t save them but could damn sure let them know they weren’t alone.
I also saw things, horrible things that were impossibly sad. That caused your heart to break. That made you angry. That made you hold them and cry with them. Stories of partners who left. Partners who couldn’t deal with this reality and weren’t ever going to. The newly single parent whose partner left because their child was sick. Because their child was no longer perfect. Because their child was going to die. I heard too many children ask if daddy or mommy was coming.
One of the hardest parts of being in an Oncology waiting room isn’t your time waiting. It’s seeing the people that are there alone.
She started chemo. That first round knocked her out for weeks. It takes some nasty shit to get through the blood-brain barrier. She was supposed to take chemo every four weeks. It took six weeks for her white count to recover enough to do round two. It took eight weeks for her white count to recover for the next round. Her white count never recovered after round three. It almost killed her. It put her in the hospital for days. She was so sick from chemo that I didn’t think she would survive to do radiation.
She made it to radiation, 33 trips to San Francisco. A good friend organized the trips to the city so that I could go to work; so I could have a break. I did 10 of the trips, and they covered the rest. These friends and family were amazing. They did so much for us. They brought us food. They cleaned our house. They held our hands and just loved us. Unconditional love.
Between surgery, chemo and radiation, Ani’s hair was mostly gone. Less than half grew back and what did was in bad shape. So she bought wigs. Three wigs, all bobs. Red, black and blonde. Her body had betrayed her; tried to kill her. So she did what any hippie chick would do. She raised her freak flag high and flipped cancer off. She became a cancer goddess. She owned it.
In the middle of cancer, funny things can happen.
Ani loved Halloween. The day she was released from the hospital was October 31, 1997. She made me stop at the store and get lots of candies. She was going to hand out candy that night. I had no intention of stopping her.
Here’s this tiny woman with a bald head. Her face still swollen from surgery seven days before. There’s still Betadine on her head. And there are 24 staples in a U-shaped pattern covering one side of her skull. She owned that shit like nobody else could do. She had the best costume of her life, and she was going to wear it.
After we got her pathology report back, we learned that there were two types of cancer. One was a stage three fast growing type. The other was a slower stage two type that had probably been growing for years. I asked her Oncologist if the slow growing cancer could have affected her behavior. He said, given the size and location, yes, definitely.
Yeah, I know.
Post 10 — Ani, Goodbye sweetheart
We made the most of those four years. We talked, we cried, we rediscovered each other and fell in love again. Even with the terrible shit she was going through, we did the work. With everything I put her through, I did the work. We were never able to return to the altar after her surgery. Her body wouldn’t work. It was just the first of many betrayals her body, cancer, would force on her. I just held her and let her know it was ok. Because it was.
I was who I needed to be then, because of everything I went through before. Shitty boyfriend, Shitty Husband. When I say, I would have changed everything if I could go back in time, I mean I would have tried to become who I needed to be for Ani, without causing so much pain. Without drawing so much blood. But it doesn’t work that way.
When you have four years with the Sword of Damocles over your head, you can accomplish much. You can work through 20 years of shit. You can get to that place of acceptance, of love, that is necessary. You put most of the baggage out with the trash.
You hold her when she wakes up crying in the night. When she wakes up crying for her mother, for her sister; I could be there. You help her shower when she can no longer stand on her own. You help her go to the bathroom. You wipe her ass and make her feel like it’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your life. When the smell of cooked food makes her throw up, you learn to improvise so that you keep up your strength. You do everything you need to do to make the most of the time you have left. Because your wife is dying and you are powerless to change it. Your power is to comfort. It’s your superpower.
Ani got an MRI every few months during those years. Three and a half years into the journey her MRI told us what we knew would eventually happen. That cancer would return, and it had.
There was a new, experimental treatment that her Oncologist said she could try. She tried it. It was supposed to be; get the infusion, spend the night in the hospital for observation, and go home. She was in the hospital for a week.
Her body began betraying her more and more as those final months went on.
Many people lose weight from their cancer and the treatments. She gained weight, and she wasn’t eating. It pissed her off. She weighed 160 pounds when she died. In those final months, her legs stopped working. She’d forget, go to get out of bed, and collapse. She would drop what she was eating because her hands would stop working. After dropping a bowl of frozen yogurt for the fourth time in ten minutes, she just screamed. The kind of scream that breaks your heart. But the worst thing was that her mind started betraying her. It started small. Forgetting what day it was. Not remembering who had visited the day before. Small things. The best way I can describe it, it was like Sundowners. After she’d been awake for an hour or so, my Ani would be there. But as she got tired, as it got dark out, her memory would go. This is how it was until she could no longer get out of bed those final weeks. Until she went into a coma.
She watched the same Star Trek videotape every day for the last six weeks of her life because she didn’t remember seeing them before.
Here’s the funniest thing Ani said during those last few months. She was standing in front of the mirror, naked, looking at her body and said, “Fuck, they’re back.”
Here’s the greatest thing Ani ever gave me. Probably two months before she died. In the middle of the night she said, “Richard, I forgive you.”
You learn to give your wife pain medication. It takes a lot. More than your inner junkie can imagine. You learn to add Thorazine to the Dilaudid. You have to use Thorazine because the amount of Dilaudid and Fentanyl is so great that she gets delusional. She thinks it’s 1961, and she’s at the Holiday Inn near LAX. A place our 25-year-old selves had stayed. Your heart breaks again, and again, every day, thousands of times a day, but you keep going because her heart is yours.
I told you I’d die first.
I know honey, go back to sleep.
When the end was near, when she was starting to drift in and out of a coma I called her sister. Sue came, and we sat with Ani. We comforted her. We held her hands; we stroked her skin.
Ani was very specific about who could be there when she died. Who was allowed see her die. She was very private that way. Everyone she cared about had already come to say their goodbyes. It was now just Susie and me. The two people that she loved the most. The two people that loved her the most.
In the late hours of the second day she died. I witnessed her last breath and the silence that followed. We undressed her. We cleaned her. I removed her catheters, and we dressed her in her blue spaceman pajamas. We did everything she had asked us to do before the men from the Funeral Home took her body away.
Ani’s memorial was a two weeks later. We all gathered to celebrate her remarkable life.
When we were first dating, talking about our goals and fears, Ani told me her greatest fear. Since she was a girl, she had a recurring dream that terrified her. That something would be growing in her head and that a man would have to look at her brain. I had heard about that dream for 24 years.
At her memorial, I told the story of, the kiss.
Post 11 — Ma Saw Yu Wai
My need to tell the story, to tell Saw Yu’s story. I’m bargaining. Bargaining for time. More time than the three months we had from diagnosis to death. Because I had four years with Ani, the three months I had with Saw Yu wasn’t acceptable. Four years was acceptable. Three months just wasn’t fair.
This is the hardest part of the story I have to tell. Because, everything to this point is ancient history. Water under the bridge. This is the wound that’s still open. This story of the woman who saved me.
It was 2002, and I was 46, Saw Yu was 48. I had been through therapy. I had a better understanding of who I was and who I wasn’t unwilling to be again. I was a widower. I knew I would make mistakes, but they would be new mistakes. I wasn’t looking for love. I thought it would be great if it happened again but, I had stuff to process, I had shit to do.
I had known Saw Yu, Ma Saw Yu Wai, for several years. We worked together in the same division at a big tech company. As much of a geek as I was, Saw Yu was way geekier. She could code circles around me. She was the creator of “Saw Yu’s Cheat Notes” the notes many of us used to do our jobs. She was a Sales Engineer, and her work with customers made the division money.
She was smart and she was beautiful. If I were using my, explain it to a child mode way of speaking, she’d give me this look that said. “Really? That’s what you’re going with? Really?” I say, really, a lot now, because of her. Because of that look. Once she pointed out that way of speech, I tried to never use it again. I thought about asking her out, but she was out of my league. And I was scared. I hadn’t asked anyone out in over 25 years. I had no game.
We were on a project that required 6 of us to work together in the computer lab. Saw Yu was one of those people. We chatted, talked about the tech we were doing. Being in that room 8 hours a day together made me really want to ask her out. I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but she was so intriguing. I was smitten. So after trying to work up the nerve, I asked her out. It had only taken me three months. Yeah, I know.
What I really said to her was; “Uh, I haven’t done this in a long time, um, and I’m not sure how to do it. Uh, would you like to go out with me sometime? Get some coffee. Maybe go to dinner? It’s ok if you don’t want to, I understand. We’re pretty different culturally. I won’t be offended. I hope you aren’t.” Yeah, I know.
She said that sounded nice. I went home and started thinking what I was going to do next. Later that night, around 7, Saw Yu called.
“Why haven’t you called me yet?” And she laughed. I fumbled around with how to respond, and she asked if I’d like to come over for some tea. I went to Saw Yu’s for tea. Three months later I would move into that condo with her.
She made tea, and we sat in her front room and talked for hours. That exploratory kind of talk where you’re learning about each other, likes and dislikes, but at a more intimate level than you ever could at work.
Later we kissed and explored each other’s eyes. She said I should probably leave now; she needed to go to sleep. I went home and was fine with that. Taking it slow was fine by me.
The next day she had things to do and was going on a week-long trip with her cousin and a few others. That we would see each other at work. The following Monday we saw each other at work and she asked if I’d like to come to her place for dinner. “Yeah, I’d like that. Very much.” Like I was ever going to say no.
That night, I ate the spiciest food I’ve ever eaten in my life. My face turned red; I started sweating, it felt like a thousand needles were being stuck into my scalp. They laughed and gave me some things to eat that helped take the burning pain away. Resuscitation may have been required. Over the following weeks and months, they slowly indoctrinated my system to chilies. They started slowly and increased the heat until I could eat the regular cooking, mostly. I survived.
After that first dinner, Saw Yu said we should probably go to my place, so her cousin could have her privacy. I went home, and she joined me an hour later. Remember ‘cat fur’ for later.
And here’s that body image thing again. Saw Yu had to have a hysterectomy the year before we started dating. We talked about it. She told me she wasn’t sure how her body was going to respond; that it scared her. Her bravery was something to witness. When she came into the bedroom, she had on a sheer white nightgown and she was stunning.
We had a lifetime’s worth of experience to guide us; we built our altar.
We had dinner every evening at her house and spent the nights at mine. It was the perfect thing for us to do.
It gave us the time we needed to talk about everything. I loved talking with her. I told her the stories of Shitty Boyfriend and Shitty Husband. Everything I’ve told you, I told her that, and more. I had to tell her, so she would know what I’ve been capable of in the past. That I would do everything I could not to repeat my mistakes. That I might make new ones but I would rather die than ever to fuck up like that again.
I did fuck up, I would hurt her. Not like before, never like that, but in ways that we could recover from. Saw Yu had a temper, her hayfire as she called it. She could wound me too.
Saw Yu told me her story. Growing up in Myanmar, going to the University in Yangon. About her Burmese boyfriends and her Burmese husband. Her wonderful daughter. Coming to America at 32 to build a new life. Of her American boyfriends. How it took ten years to bring her daughter to America. She told me everything. She was much braver than me in opening up that way. I never tired of hearing her stories. Her life was so fascinating to me that I waited on every word. I fell in love with her very quickly.
She was born in Burma, June of 1954, in the small town of Kutkai, Shan State. Less than fifty kilometers from China’s Yunnan border. Most people in Kutkai were either Yunnan or Shan. Both of her parents were Yunnan. Her father was the adopted son of the town chief. Her mother was one of the chief’s daughters. They were Lee’s if you know your Chinese family names. Her grandfather had seven wives during his life. Saw Yu had over 60 first cousins. Yes, 60.
Saw Yu’s sister was born two years after her. When she was 3, her father died. She thinks it was during one of the influenza outbreaks. Her mother became a single parent at a young age, never to marry again. I can tell you; she raised two amazing daughters. I wish I could have known her. Although, I understand she wasn’t very fond of white guys. I could have won her over. Yeah, I know.
Post 12 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, Building a life
Not long after I moved in, Saw Yu asked me to marry her. I was beaten to the punch again. I said yes. It was important to us, at a time when marriage wasn’t the most important thing in society, it was important to us.
In those months we had to talk, we were able to acknowledge what was important. What our truths were. That we loved each other but that we probably weren’t the loves of each other’s lives. We were very much in love but found we were something more. We were the friends, the companions of each other’s lives. We wanted to grow old together. We talked about growing old with each other in a way that our younger selves would never have understood.
After her death, I realized that she was my soulmate, even if I wasn’t hers. I believe we have as many loves of our lives as we need.
We got married at my sister’s house on Christmas Eve, 2002. It was a gift to our family, and it was our gift to each other. They didn’t know what we planned. Surprise! My friend David Brown married us. The same man who married Ani and I. Saw Yu insisted on that.
By the following year, we bought our first house together. We loved that house. We made it our place, and we were happy. We took long walks after work and on the weekends. We held hands as we explored every block. The empty fields that had been an army air base during the war. It was our neighborhood, and we loved it. We planted flowers. I discovered the joys of lawn maintenance and pergola construction.
Cat fur; you should know that Saw Yu was not of fan of pets. Pets were not a Burmese thing growing up. I came with two cats as part of the deal. Buy one, get two free. She could say, Cat Fur in Burmese, in a way that made, fuck you, seem like a compliment. She hated cat fur on the furniture. She hated cat fur on her clothes. Cat Fur. Why do I have to live with cat fur? Because I made a promise. She spoiled those cats more than I ever could. Aren’t you cats dead yet? The last cat, Yummy, died three days after I returned to America. After Saw Yu had died. I’m sorry honey.
Life was good for us. We’d have arguments, disagreements, and fights. But we were good at doing it. Minimal damage, minimal blood, acceptable losses. Most of the time.
I became comfortable, complacent. I started taking things for granted. Taking her for granted.
My trigger is complacency. It had been a long time since I last got loaded. I leapt off the wagon. A Greg Louganis going for the gold kind of jump. A wake up two days later in the hospital kind of dive. She should have kicked me out. What I put her through. Going to the police, giving them my picture in case I turned up. She was able to forgive me, but there were a lot of hard nights. A lot of hard talks. “You promised we would grow old together.” I did the work. I forgave myself. I’m no longer tempted to play with dragons. I like life too much now.
We took a trip to Burma. She wanted me to see where she came from. The place she loved more than any other in the world. The place she would die ten years later. I loved it. I got to see so much beauty. All the great people. I could see myself living there when we got older, and it became our plan. It’s an unbelievably beautiful country.
Saw Yu wanted to open an orphanage when she retired. A thing that is needed in Myanmar because of heroin, because of Aids, because of the fighting between the government then and the different tribes of Burma. She would travel back and forth to Burma, and I would work in America, sending money to her as needed. I would go there when I could, until I too could retire.
I loved this plan; this plan drove her.
We bought other houses. Tech paid well. When the market got higher we would sell all the houses and use the money for her project.
Time went on. We did pretty well. I only got in trouble when I took things for granted. If she thought that I was getting complacent, not opening my heart when we talked, she could become merciless during those times.
Like most of us, there were two Saw Yu’s. There was the public Saw Yu. That woman was sweet and kind, who would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. At work. At social situations. The other was Tiger Mom Saw Yu. The one that if she had let you into her heart, had given her love to you. That Saw Yu would, push, dig, yell, would be relentless with you to do better. To be the best you could be. That Saw Yu would take no prisoners. That’s the Saw Yu I mourn. The woman who wouldn’t let me take it all for granted. I am not alone in this feeling.
Early on when we were dating, around the third time I told her I loved her, she said, “talk is cheap.” “I just told you I love you Saw Yu, that I’m in love with you.” “I know you love me, Richard. I’m in love with you too.” “I don’t need you to tell me all the time, what I need is for you to prove it. Show me how you love me.”
That was what she needed. She put my hands where she needed them to be. She could be fearless; she was extraordinary.
For an old-school romantic the challenge was on. Flowers weren’t going to work. No candy on Valentines. I would spend the rest of our lives trying to show her. Whenever we got into trouble, it was because my words were louder than my actions. She was relentless, and I was forever her student. I failed often. I rose to the occasion more. When I mourn, that is the woman I see. The woman in my heart. The fearless woman who wouldn’t accept a half-assed take at life. Our joke was that she was the cowgirl and I the cow.
Most of our money was tied up in houses and condos. When the crash happened in 2008, we lost it all. Short sales, a foreclosure. All gone. We had our retirement accounts; those 401K’s were safe, down, but safe. We had our jobs. We would make it.
We started over.
Water follow, fish follow.
Post 13 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, and so it goes
As time went on, our old division had shut down. I was let go years before her. When she was finally let go, she knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going to shave her head and be a Buddhist nun for a while. She would go to a monastery in Myanmar and later to one in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha had gained enlightenment. She had talked about doing this since our first talk on her living room couch.
She was gone for a year. It was hard being apart for that long. Not being able to hold hands; not sleeping together.
We emailed each other, used Skype when there was enough bandwidth. I didn’t write as much as I should have. Not my best moment, that not writing enough. But when she returned, we worked through it. It took a while.
We needed to find jobs after she returned. I got a project management gig in the city. She got a GIS job in San Mateo, in the South Bay. You do what you need to do make money, to keep that future dream alive. She moved in with her best friend. A house full of Burmese-Chinese people and food. Mahjong in the kitchen corner, cooking in the rest. It wasn’t easy, but we survived.
We’d see each other on the weekends and talked about what we were going to do next. We talked about renting an apartment in the South Bay that we could live in. She could continue with her job; I’d get a job down there. We looked at apartments on several weekends. It wasn’t feeling right to either of us. Saw Yu said she was tired of her new job; it wasn’t the right thing for her to be doing anymore. She wanted to quit and to something else.
Saw Yu’s first Master’s Degree, was from Yangon University. She was a geography major, first in her class. She was always first in her class; it was one of her super powers. And when she got to America, she started her education all over again. She made Chinese Tamales at night for years to pay for school. She needed to become good at English. She needed to experience the American education system. In truth, Saw Yu loved being a student, and would have been one for her whole life if she could. She never tired of studying, learning. Most of the time she read technical manuals. But every once in a while she would read the old Burmese novels, the poetry she grew up on.
She graduated, with her second Master’s Degree, from San Jose State, in Geography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). She also TA’d in the computer lab, helping students with their GIS work. She became a computer geek of the highest order. There were no computers in Burma, but in America, at 35, she took to them very fast.
While we were still in the Bay Area, Saw Yu started working on a DNA visualization project with our friend Alice. They would work on this project until she died. Saw Yu had always done side projects and this one, working with Alice, was something she really believed in and loved doing. Alice was, and is, one of the smartest people I know. Like, went to Stanford smart. The reason Saw Yu liked working with Alice was because they both had big brains, they understood how to work together. They’d get together on Friday night, worked through the weekend, fueled on wine and coffee, and then she’d come home Sunday evening. This project will have one more role to play later on.
Saw Yu was Big Data before Big Data was cool.
Early on in our dating, I could tell that Saw Yu wasn’t always happy. That there was sadness, weariness. We talked about it a lot. It was the grind of life. “Make me happy!” I told her that I couldn’t make her happy. That from my experience, happiness didn’t come from external forces. It could only come from within, to stop thinking happiness was the destination; it’s the journey. All the standard therapy stuff. This did not go over well with her. “Then what use are you? I might as well get a dog.” I reminded her that she didn’t like pets. Dog Fur. We had this discussion many times over our 13 years.
When she decided her job was not working for her anymore, we talked about moving to the Central Valley, to Merced, where her godparents lived, with their daughter and son-in-law. She had been close to them since her university days in Yangon. They are wonderful people, and I liked Merced, we had visited them many times over the years. So we started house hunting in there.
We looked at a lot of places and saw one that we really liked. A 100-year-old cottage style on a quarter of an acre in town. The first rule of house shopping is not to fall in love with a house. Saw Yu fell in love with every house she ever bought. Why stop now. I’m a Real Estate Agent now. It’s a haven for gray hairs. It pays the bills and gives me free time to do other things. Like writing. I love being a Realtor.
The closing on this property was going to take several months because of, well, stuff. When it was near to closing, I packed up our house, hired movers, and went to her godsister’s place in Merced. It was only supposed to be for a week or two. I was there over two months before escrow finally closed. Saw Yu was still working in San Mateo, waiting for the house to close so that she could quit.
Saw Yu used to surf the internet for different things all the time. She loved Craigs List for cheap things that she thought she might use, but would never pay new prices for. Like the shoe rack on our back porch. Or, the two, ten-foot church pews in the garage. Hidden treasures, yeah. She looked at houses for sale all over the world. Look at this place in Thailand. Twenty acres in Mariposa. When we first started dating she said, I hope you like going to open houses. I did. I hold open houses now, it’s my favorite part of the job.
She also looked at job postings. Her favorites were on the GIS job site. About a month before our house in Merced was supposed to close; she saw a GIS posting for the Irrigation District in Merced. The job was supposed to be filled three or four months before she saw it. But being the ever positive type, she sent off her resume and told me about it on our phone call that night.
The day after she sent in her resume, the hiring manager called. They talked for over an hour and then he schedule a group interview to happen in a couple of days. The meeting happened and before the end of the next week, she had the job.
I read the job description. It was as if someone wrote it just for her. They were looking for, GIS expertise, programming, strong in databases and someone who could take it all, and put it on the web. She had been doing this in one form or another since getting her second masters years before.
Saw Yu worked for four different cities doing GIS. Helping them all to be early adopters of this new technology. At the tech company where we met, her work with customers in the field, creating prototypes that became important websites for their businesses and communities.
She moved into our new house a week after me. She had the weekend to get ready for her new job.
We spent the time unpacking and setting up our new home. It was great. We were back together, falling asleep in each other’s arms. Do your job man.
Post 14 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, We’re moving again
Saw Yu settled into her new job, which she loved. I started working on the house and yard. We were happy, the routine we settled into was a good one. There were disagreements, arguments, and sometimes, fights. I know she probably wanted to kick me out a dozen times. I didn’t always react well to her hayfire.
But we worked on it. We went to sleep every night, holding each other. Being people that were going to grow old together. We held hands when walking around our new neighborhood. We loved it. If she woke up in the night and I wasn’t holding her, she’d say again, “do your job man.” I got good at my job.
Where I got in trouble was when I took what she said, literally. English was not Saw Yu’s first language; it might have been her fourth, but I’m not entirely sure about that. When we were talking about the hard stuff you talk about in a relationship, her words weren’t always the best choices for me. Instead of thinking about what she was trying to say, I would react to the literal words, not the intent. I got better at it; she got better at it.
When my reaction was not the best, she would say; bad cow, pay attention. I really should have learned Burmese. I’m not a smart man, Jenny.
Alice and Saw Yu continued to work on their DNA project. Sometimes with others, even I helped on and off. But, it was those two women that were the core for years. Big brains, in their natural habitat. Saw Yu would program a prototype with Alice. And Alice would then present their work at Genomics conferences. Present the work to potential customers.
My father was going to have heart bypass surgery, and we decided that I would go to Napa. I’d be there for the surgery and then live with him while he went through the recovery process.
Do you remember me saying earlier about how Saw Yu was always looking at houses online? Yeah, then this happened. We talked every night after she got home from work. We’d talk about her day, I’d tell her how dad was doing. We talked a lot about Burma. But, when I called her three weeks after being in Napa, she said, we’re buying a house. We’re moving. I got the details and looked at the listing online. It was great. The house was 2-story and smaller than the house we were living in. But, it was on an acre, and it had an enormous detached garage. Best of all, it had a beautiful porch that ran from the front door to the back door.
How much did you put in the offer for? I liked the price. After looking at the listing, I hoped we’d get the place.
Wait a minute, honey. We don’t have that kind of money, and no lender is going to loan us a dime with the short sales and foreclosure on the books. We’re going to cash out on our 401K’s. That should cover it. Do you want to own a home outright, or do you want to be paying a mortgage until you die? Fearless.
We got the house in November and moved in during January. I painted the inside because it had the ugliest wallpaper we had ever seen. It was the sixth time we moved in 11 years. Some people like shopping for shoes, clothes, guitars. Saw Yu, she liked shopping for houses.
Before her cancer, Saw Yu had only been sick once that I saw. No colds, flu, or anything else. We’d been married three years, and she started losing weight. She was tired a lot. And then, she started losing hair, when she showered, when she brushed her hair. I finally put two and two together, and we scheduled a doctor’s visit.
It was her thyroid. It had gone into overdrive; they gave her the radioactive iodine pill. It worked, sort of. They had to give her a second dose to kill her thyroid a few weeks later.
We set up our new house. We worked in the yard, planting flowers, planting fruit trees. We loved it; we had fun doing it.
I didn’t speak much in absolutes anymore and my need to always be right was mostly gone.
We often listened to Buddhist lectures by many different monks. Her favorite was a British guy who had studied in the Forest Tradition of Thailand. He’s an excellent speaker. During one of the talks he told the story of the husband, the wife, and the chicken. An older couple is taking their afternoon walk when they see a chicken on the side of the road. The wife says, “What a beautiful duck.” The husband is just about to correct her when he realizes there’s no benefit in correcting his wife. Nothing will be gained. All that will be accomplished is that his wife will be upset for being wrong. The husband says to his wife, “you’re right, that is a beautiful duck.” And they continue their walk.
A few months after we started dating, talking at night like we always did. I asked her, why me? Why did you call me that night to come over for tea? In her typical straightforward way, she said; I saw what you went through with Ani, you were always there for her. I was thinking, if he could go through that, he might be a good companion, someone I could grow old with.
Growing old together was always our plan.
In another of those late night discussions, early on in our relationship, she asked if I was over Ani. Did time heal the loss? It became a long talk.
I told her that the loss never goes away. There’s no closure. I told her that the grief is always with me, and as near as I could tell, it would always be there. This was not the beginning of a good talk. The way I see it if a new love comes along; if I let it in, my heart would just expand to hold that new love. It wouldn’t diminish the love I felt before. The heart is not static in size. My heart keeps everyone I’ve ever loved, in it. Family, friends, girlfriends, my first wife, they’re all in there because they are a part of who I am. Without them, I couldn’t have fallen in love with you. I wouldn’t have known how to.
We say our heart because it’s the metaphor for our entire being. It’s the least amount of explaining we can do when describing ourselves. Letting people into our hearts is our job; it’s what makes us human.
At the time of loss, we give into the grief. We surrender to it for as long as necessary. However long that is, we do it. It becomes our lover in a way. We let it consume us, willingly, unquestioningly. We wake up every morning having survived that prison of grief. It becomes our friend; we become comfortable with it. We walk around, go about our daily routine sharing our pain with the world around us. Over time, we become so comfortable with our grief that we start to allow others in our heart, not knowing what may come of it. The happiness drowns out the noise of grief.
Early in this discussion, she said; so I’m rattling around there with a bunch of ghosts? It was a long night. I think she understood what I was trying to say and by morning, I made coffee and breakfast.
After being in our new house for almost a year, my father came to live with us. His place had burned to the ground as a result of the 2014 earthquake in Napa. Saw Yu insisted he come live with us before I could open my mouth. It’s how she was.
The following March, she started having stomach pain. Her doctor gave her a prescription for Norco’s to help. It didn’t help.
Post 15 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, No no no
Saw Yu went back to her doctor on March 31st for a follow-up. Her doctor said this amount of pain was not right. “You need to go to the Emergency Room right now, tell them what’s going on, they will have to do a scan.” Saw Yu headed to the ER, calling me when she got there. I left work and met her there.
The ER was overflowing. We waited 10 hours before going home in frustration, determined to try again in the morning. We got to the ER at 7 AM the morning of April 1st. She got to see a doctor in a couple of hours. He ordered up the scan, and a few hours later lead us from the waiting room to an office. The doctor sat down, we sat down, and when I looked at his face, I knew what was going to happen. He had the look. Fuck, I hate that look.
You have a 3-centimeter lesion on your pancreas. Lesion, that’s what doctors say instead of cancer. It’s less scary. Is it cancer? Based on your symptoms it probably is. I’ve already scheduled you an appointment with an Oncologist at the UC Davis — Mercy Cancer Center, here at the hospital.
No no no no. Not her, not Saw Yu. No. We’re supposed to grow old together.
We went home, got in bed, and held each other. We held each other in that way couples do when they’re scared and don’t know what else to do. I don’t remember sleeping that night. In the morning, I made coffee for us like I always do; we got ready to go to the cancer clinic.
When we walk into the clinic, I recognize the landscape. It’s Cancerland. I fill out her paperwork, and we sit in the nice chairs, holding hands. She has the look. I know that look.
We go in and see her Oncologist; he’s nice, he takes an hour explaining everything. He takes the time because he knows we have to process what he’s saying. He knows we can’t ask questions until we’re comfortable with him. Of all the Oncologists I’ve ever talked with, he’s the most patient, shows the most compassion, and takes the time we need.
We ask our questions, and he tells us what the next steps are. She’ll need more scans. A biopsy will need to be done.
Welcome back to Cancerland. Did you miss me?
Two weeks later the scans are done, and we go back to see him. Until this point, we know she probably has Pancreatic Cancer. And that Pancreatic Cancer is almost always at end stage when it’s discovered because you don’t know anything’s wrong until the pain starts. The pain is the signal that it’s too late. There are no early warning signs with this.
Saw Yu asks, how long do I have? The typical survival rate is six months after discovery. There are no treatments at this stage. No radiation, no chemotherapy. The NIH recommends no treatment at this stage because all the current treatments do not increase longevity. You spend a lot of your remaining time in the hospital because of the side effects. We would later learn that all of the experimental treatments are even less promising. You might gain a month or two, but you’ll spend a lot of time in the hospital.
He asks if we want to see the scans. Saw Yu doesn’t. I do. I’ve seen enough film to have a good idea what to look for. I need to see. It’s my job. Do your job man.
We go to a station in the hallway to review the scans while Saw Yu waits in the room. He shows me her Pancreas first. There’s the original lesion, but there’s a bigger lesion on the back side of her Pancreas that wasn’t visible on the first scan at the ER.
Her liver scan went up. Fuck. I count twelve tumors and stop counting. There’s more than twelve, but I don’t need to know how many anymore. No.
She doesn’t have six months.
Probably not. We can’t say for certain.
There’s one possibility for a little longer life. We’ll need to do the biopsy to see. In a very small percentage of these cases, if it’s a certain type of Pancreatic Cancer, that it will respond to treatment for a year or so. It’s the kind of cancer that Patrick Swayze had. When the biopsy came back the next week, it wasn’t that type.
I return to the consultation room; I take her hand. I look into her eyes and in that sliver of time between heartbeats, wordlessly, silently. I scream, I yell, I punch holes in the walls. I let the darkness of grief consume me. I am again its prisoner. I cry for a hundred days. And as the second heartbeat happens, I return. I go into caretaker mode. My job now is to show her that she’s the most important woman in the world. She’s my love. That I will do my job. I know how to do this. I will survive even knowing that she won’t. I summon my superpower.
Her sister and brother-law were with us for this trip to her Oncologist’s office. They had come to the states to see their kids and came to our house to be with Saw Yu. They had already been planning to come. When Saw Yu and I came out from meeting with the doctor, we had to tell them the news. It was so hard, so hard.
We went home and her sister cooked Saw Yu’s favorite Yunnan food. She and her daughter and other friends cooked for the next two weeks. By the time they left to go back to Burma, our refrigerators and freezers were full of food.
Saw Yu’s daughter got to our house a week after she got the news, the diagnosis. I was so glad to see her. Over the next two and a half months, she would be the person that kept me sane. Kept me focused while my heart was breaking. Her mother was dying, and we helped each other. She helped me.
Over the next few weeks, Saw Yu’s friends came to visit. They brought more food. Saw Yu would come down and visit with them. They would talk for hours. Past the point of exhaustion. No one said goodbye; they were just there for her.
The amount of narcotics it took to keep her pain level manageable was immense. If she took enough to make the pain go down to a 2 on a 1 -10 scale, she’d sleep for days. Fewer meds meant unbearable pain. It was a delicate dance. The pain only increased each day. It was that way until she died.
Her DNA buddy, Alice, came to visit for a few days. They talked about her cancer; they talked about one final project. Saw Yu wanted to map her cancer using the software they had been working on for all those years. They decided on a game plan, how it should look. Saw Yu gave Alice permission to get the data from her doctors. Whatever Alice needed, she could have it.
We got ready to go to Yangon. We were going to stay at her sisters for a while because Saw Yu needed to see Myanmar one more time. See her friends there one more time. Saw Yu and her sister needed to spend time together. I thought it was a good thing to do, that they needed it. She was also planning to stay with her daughter in London after Burma. We never got to London. Saw Yu was to die at her sister’s house seven weeks after we arrived.
Alice presented Saw Yu’s cancer at a Genomics conference a few months after her death. Saw Yu would have hated the attention. She wasn’t good at being the center of attention.
At her sister’s house in Yangon, she was the center of attention. That’s the last part of the story I have to tell you. I don’t want to, but I need to. You need to see who she was at the end.
Here’s a preview, she wasn’t afraid to die.
Post 16 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, Yangon, Part 1
We flew from San Francisco to Yangon. I had a wheelchair ready at every location. She was so tired, in so much pain, and the narcotics took their toll. I was worried that she would be sick during the flight because she was already having trouble keeping food down. But, she did great. She was able to sleep on the plane. I’m the one that got sick on the flight. Yeah, I know.
We arrived at Yangon after midnight; family and friends were there to get us through customs and immigration. I looked through the windows at the waiting area; there was her sister and three of her oldest friends. Two of the women she went with to Bodh Gaya. I showed her who was out there, and she smiled, with a few tears running down her cheek. It was the perfect arrival present. I knew this was going to be good for her. I had no idea how good it was going to be for me.
Three cars left the airport headed for her sister’s house. The roads were pleasantly empty because of the time, and we got to the house quickly.
At her sister’s house, we ate, visited for a while and then sleep our first night in Yangon. Exhausted but happy to be there. There’s also a nurses’ aid in the room with us, sitting up all night, making sure Ma Saw Yu Wai is ok.
Saw Yu’s friends stayed a couple of weeks at the house with the family and us. During the day, they would visit. We’d eat together and then I would work on my nephew’s guitars upstairs in his studio. I loved being in that studio. It became my home, away from home.
Her aid would be with her during the day, and I would be with Saw Yu from 7 PM to 7 AM. We talked in the night as we have done our entire relationship.
Talking in the night started in the first few weeks we were dating. It’s what we did. “Are you awake man?” “Yes, sweetheart.” Every important talk we ever had seemed to occur between 1 AM and 4 AM. It’s the time when you’re most vulnerable, most honest. It’s when I wake up in the night that the loss hurts the most; that waking up on my side of the bed.
After we had been dating a few weeks I started having this recurring dream. I had it once or twice a week. The situation was always the same. Ani was still alive and knew about Saw Yu and I. I knew she had died. She knew she had died. She was living in a house I didn’t recognize, but I’d manage to find it and talk to her. “You’re dead. I saw you die. How can you be here?” “I don’t know Richard. I remember dying, but I woke up here. We need to talk.” And then I’d wake up.
A couple of months before she died, Ani told me that if I met someone, she would be happy for me. That whatever I did after she died was alright by her. The dream would always cause me to wake up conflicted, guilty.
Saw Yu could sense that I wasn’t telling her why I was waking so upset. I’d tell her it was nothing. Just a nightmare. And in her relentless pursuit of honesty between us, she didn’t let it go one day. “You’re going to tell me about this dream, and I’m not going to leave you alone until you do.”
So I told her. Saw Yu believed in ghosts. Her initial response was that Ani was haunting me, she said only half joking. She asked what I thought the dream meant to me.
It’s my subconscious self, trying to work out how to honor my past with Ani while allowing myself to acknowledge the love that’s growing between us. Past and present. I think that’s exactly what it was. We worked it out together. Me being able to honor what came before, what made me who I was. And to accept and commit to the love that Saw Yu and I were building. It was yet another example of her fearlessness in our relationship. Doing the work necessary so we could grow old together.
She would go to the room her friends were staying in and along with her sister, the five of them would tell stories and laugh, over fifty years’ worth of stories. If she was too weak or tired, they’d come into our room and do the same. It was the most beautiful gift. To be dying and yet to share such happiness with these women she’d known since being a girl. “I thought I wanted to go home, back to Merced, die in my bed, in my room, but I don’t need to anymore. Staying here is ok. It’s ok for me to die here.” “I know honey. I’m glad we’re here too.”
When I say, Saw Yu saved me. What she did, was to help my heart to open again. No small task, but she wouldn’t accept anything less than all of me. “I want all of you or none of you.”
Water follow. Fish follow.
We don’t know it, but we only have a month left together.
Post 17 — Ma Saw Yu Wai, Yangon, Part 2
When your love is dying. When the woman you were going to grow old with is dying. You become acutely aware of the impending loss. It colors everything. You become snippy and cranky over trivial things. You see grief coming for you and tell it to wait. You’ll get your time grief. You’ll have your way with me, but not yet. I have a job to do. As long as she is still here, you can fuck off.
So you let yourself cry at night. When she’s asleep, and the drugs are keeping her pain manageable. You cry. You bury your face into your pillow and cry, so you don’t wake her. You lay your head in the emotional wet-spot, and you hold her hand. You have no idea how many more times you’ll get to do it, so savor each moment, each time you get to hold her. She doesn’t know. No one knows. It’s your secret. It’s your ritual.
It’s how you survive your time in Cancerland.
My sister in-law’s house is, in a word, epic. If we had been there for a holiday, it would have been the perfect place to hang out and visit. As a place to die, it was also perfect. We could care for her, and she could have her privacy. Privacy was always important to Saw Yu. It’s how we ended up in a rural part of Merced. “I don’t want anyone to hear me fart!” That was always the overriding factor in any house purchase for her.
Every day we were there, friends and family came to visit Ma Saw Yu Wai. It was hundreds of people paying their respects to her and the family. I got to meet people I’ve been hearing about for years. She had always been a force of nature and these people who knew her when she was younger told me stories. Saw Yu the naughty girl, who worried her mother, growing up in Kutkai. Saw Yu the High School student, who was smart and several years younger than the others in her class. Because of being smart, she was moved ahead a couple of times in school. She was always a nerd.
So many University classmates, talking about how she was always first in Geography all through school. My nerd.
If she was feeling good, she’d come out and talk with everyone in the big visiting room. If she was tired, they’d come into our room and visit there. If she was asleep, or in too much pain, everyone would talk in the visiting room without her. They understood.
Meals were the same way. When she could, she’d eat in the dining room with all of us. The rest of the time she’d eat in bed. Eating became harder and harder for Saw Yu. And what she could eat rarely stayed down. Cancer changed the way food tasted and how everything smelled. That started in the states and got worse in Yangon. Everything tasted salty. We’d leave the salt out of the cooking for her, but it didn’t work. Even her plain rice porridge was too salty to her. All it contained was, rice and water.
Her sense of smell was amplified. Every smell was too strong. Her clothes had to be air dried so that they didn’t smell of the dryer. No perfume or aftershave could be worn in her presence. I had to wash my hair with fragrance-free shampoo. I didn’t use deodorant while with her.
There were six of us in the house that last month. Her sister and husband, their oldest son, Saw Yu’s daughter, her and I. Her sister, daughter and I, planned out her medication, and we would give it to her or the nurse would. Every four hours around the clock.
We were concerned about her energy and weight. We tried everything we could think of for food. We convinced her that she needed to drink Ensure as a way to help feel a little better. In pure Saw Yu fashion, she would only drink strawberry powdered Ensure, made with warm water. Yeah, I know. She couldn’t have weighed over 90 pounds when she died.
When you’re in Cancerland, you will do anything to help her feel better. Her sister did so much. We lacked for nothing. If she thought Saw Yu would benefit from something, she got it. Food, clothing, recordings of monks, everything. My step-daughter was the same way. She spent as much time with her mother as she could. Even when Saw Yu was asleep during the day, they were with her. Allowing me to get some rest because they knew I wasn’t sleeping when I was with her at night.
Saw Yu always talked in her sleep. It was always very soft; I could never make out what she was saying, even on those rare occasions when she was speaking in English. The narcotics caused her to talk at full volume in her sleep. It could be funny. She’d go from Burmese to English to Yunnan to Shan and back again in a few minutes. They could follow; I couldn’t.
The pain was escalating now. It was taking massive amounts of pain meds to keep her comfortable, and it often wasn’t enough. She was running low on drugs, and the only thing we could get in Myanmar was Morphine. Morphine made her violently ill; delusional. The reason we brought pain meds from the states was because Morphine didn’t work for her.
I was going to have to return to Merced and get another month’s worth of meds from her Oncologist. I didn’t want to go. She didn’t want me to go. She was in pain. My wife was in pain, and it was my job to get her meds. I did my job.
Post 18 — Daw Saw Yu Wai, Yangon, You already know how this ends
I’ve put this off long enough. I’m ready for the last of the story.
“Please don’t go, Richard. I don’t think I can make it until you get back.”
If my heart wasn’t broken before, these words surely broke it. She knew I had to get more medicine. That she was running out, and a lot more was needed. Her daughter booked me a flight, as she did for all our flights. Not having to deal with timetables and connections was a blessing.
“I’ll be gone a week sweetheart. I’ll be back before you know it. If you need to die before I get back, it’s ok. I understand.” And I did understand. She was in so much pain.
We said our goodbyes; we kissed, we cried.
I didn’t know it was our last kiss, a kiss where she kissed me back. When you realize this later, you would change everything to have one more kiss. One more look in her eyes.
I got back to the states, survived the clusterfuck that buying large quantities of narcotics is, and waited to catch my return flight to Yangon.
My step-daughter and I talked every day I was gone. On Wednesday, July 24th, she said her mother wanted to talk.
“Yes, she’s doing very well today.”
My wife and I talked for over 30 minutes. She was completely lucid. Her voice and wit were not betrayed by cancer. She was my Saw Yu, my chit-chit. I was so happy; I couldn’t wait to tell my father about it.
I forgot what it meant; that last stage of lucidity.
We talked for 5 minutes the next day. It was hard for her to speak. Words didn’t come out the way she wanted. She finally said she was going back to sleep; she was in too much pain.
“Saw Yu, it’s ok if you need to die now. It’s ok to let go. I love you.”
It was the last time we talked. When I got back to Yangon the following Monday, she was in a coma. The pneumonia was taking over. I understood.
I should never have left.
Daw Saw Yu Wai, died on July 1st. I witnessed her last breath, just as I had with Ani. And just as I had done 15 years before, I held my wife’s hand one last time, kissed her, and said goodbye. She was 62.
I let grief have its way with me again, welcomed it like an old friend. Its grip is only now loosening.
Buddhist tradition is different in almost every way from that of the west when it comes to death.
The day after she died, a monk came to the house. We all sat in our bedroom. The last bedroom we shared. They chanted. The monk talked. It was beautiful. This happened every day for a week. Many people came to the house to pay respect to the family. I was in a daze for much of it.
On the last day of the week, several monks came to the house. Everyone went to the Buddha room. More chanting, more talking. Food was served to the monks and donations were made to the monastery. Robes, shoes, school books. I had never seen so much donated as I did then. It was perfect. She would have liked it.
Later that day, everyone, including the monks went to the Crematorium, to say our final goodbyes. There were a lot of people. Many were ones that visited her at the house in Yangon. But, some women and men I hadn’t met before came up to me saying, we went to university with her. We were students together all those years ago. We saw her obituary in the paper and had to come. She was the smartest of us all. She was always first. She was so beautiful.
That week helped in ways I’m only now able to see.
My stepdaughter booked me a flight back to SFO, and I started the journey home a few days later. I remember being cranky during the ride to the airport but I don’t know why.
The first leg of the flight was from Yangon to Incheon, South Korea. I slept for most of it. I woke up several times crying. The person next to me asked if I was alright. Just a bad dream, I lied.
If you have to be stuck in an airport for a 10-hour layover, Incheon is a fine place to be. I got a room in the hostel/hotel inside the airport for a few hours. Showered and napped, and then went on a food hunt.
Cold noodles and several different pickled veggies, with some hot tea. I got my iPad out and started the outline for what became this story. It felt good to eat while writing about Saw Yu and our life.
This wasn’t supposed to be an autobiography. But to understand my loss, you needed to know the path that took me to Ma Saw Yu Wai. Why not getting to grow old together hurts so much.
During those final late night talks in Yangon, she would wake up crying.
“Are you afraid honey? Are you afraid of dying?”
“No, dying is just samsara. I’m sad I wasn’t a better mother. I won’t get to see my sister be a grandmother. We didn’t get to grow old together.”
We had this talk many times before she died. All I could do is hold her. Comfort her until she fell asleep again.
Do your job man. I did my job.
The first thing I wrote in the outline is the first thing in this story.
I’m broken and that’s alright. There are things worse than being broken.
I want to thank everyone who read the story. For all the kind comments and encouragement. It was a labor of love and has done what I needed it to do.
To bastardize Dickens, It was the easiest story to write, it was the hardest story to write.
It’s a strange thing to find a voice that worked for me after all these years and tries. The unfortunate part is that it took Saw Yu’s death for it to happen.
I would give it all back in a heartbeat.
I always intendeddd this story be on FaceBook first. There are a lot of reasons, but the biggest is that so many of you were there for parts of the story. Friends, family. So many people.
By posting it on FaceBook, I could take liberties in style and form that would never work in another format. The abuse of passive voice. Incomplete sentences and comparisons. Repetitive use of repetitive words. The absolute slaughter of punctuation. I needed to write like I speak. As a musician, I see words as notes and punctuation as rests. The beat is just as important as the melody for me. I couldn’t allow myself to search for the perfect, precious word or phrase. I needed to write the first draft, do a few edits, and then let it go. If I hurt and was crying as I wrote, then it was working.
Some people have said I should write the story as a book. I thought about it, but the truth is; I don’t believe I have the courage for that. It was easy to do in small, bit sized chunks. Chunks of time where I could invite the ghosts back into my life. Open up the old wounds and let them bleed once more. To do that for months on end, to be that vulnerable for a prolonged period seems impossible. I’m simply not brave enough for that. Perhaps in time, but I don’t know. I’m weary of past-tense. I am tired of bleeding. I am so tired of crying. At least, for today I am.
It’s time to think of words to describe the now. To write different songs to read.
So, thank you, everyone. It’s been wonderful to share my wives with you.
© Copywrite 2016 — richard couch — all rights reserved