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It’s a perfect afternoon in June, about 2 p.m., and we are up on the seventh floor. I stand looking past everyone in the room out through the parted curtains at the clouds, and I can’t take my eyes off them. Jesus, these clouds are breathtaking. My youngest daughter and her cousins sit on the empty bed, my wife and her sister lean against the counter under the t.v. which is bolted to the wall near the ceiling. Beneath the window my in-laws are parked on a hard teal leatherette couch.

I simply must see those clouds.

I hug my wife, then move to the window. They are sculptural, pure white with pink scalloped edges, icing on a wedding cake — at once they seem to absorb and reflect the sun, are emboldened by it. They’re tricky, these clouds, because they have now taken the soft mechanical hum of the hospital and made it their own, fooling me into thinking they have sleek and efficient engines as they float like blimps, casting shadows over the green hillsides. The view is every cliche that usually makes me cringe — it is all so Thomas Kinkade; the only thing missing is a cottage beside a creek with a waterwheel, wisps of smoke trailing from the chimney.

But today I am too exhausted to cringe.

Someone tugs my arm and makes me sit, everyone shifting left or right, magically enlarging the couch. No one knows what to say, so we make smalltalk, try to make the each other laugh with silly family memories.

Just moments before, I’d hugged Pauline, my mother-in-law, and said firmly into her ear, “We will talk to each other later, guaranteed,” as if my saying it with enough calm determination could make it so.

I’d been the last one to hug her. In the 20 years I’d known her, I’d never seen her look so terrified.

* * *

The surgeon had said she might not survive the surgery, adding that the tumor in her brain had doubled in size since the previous MRI two weeks ago.

Hours later, the clouds having moved along and the sky resembling the normal Georgia sky again, the surgeon returns. He confirms the worst: Glioblastoma multiforme grade 4. Very few, if any, survive more than a year, even with therapy. He gives her six months, tops.

You can feel the room drop. Eyes go bloodshot and shimmery, everyone weeps. Paul cries, “The Lord is calling her home,” and I think Goddamn it. This woman doesn’t need this with all she’s been through her whole life. Shit, shit, shit, and then my wife is in my arms, her face buried in my neck and I just keep staring at the surgeon’s hands, his thin tender fingers motioning in the air as he speaks — the worst form of cancer anyone could have — imagining those pale fingers poking — could not resect even a small portion — prodding, slicing, helpless in the end — it just kept bleeding, I’ve seen so many, but this one … .

Deep hugs all around, everyone is weeping and the memories start flowing: Remember the time…? She’s tough, she’ll beat this just like the time … and I say, She is tough. She helped Sue and I move into our first place. Let us borrow her pickup in the rain, God that was an awful day. And then out of the blue I remember the time I walked in on her while she was in the bathroom when Sue and I were first dating, and everyone cracks up. It’s the best laugh I’ve ever gotten. And the saddest.

I’m in the hallway later with Sally’s husband, Ed. We’ve sensed that our spouses need time alone with their siblings, so we’ve convened out here. We listen to Pauline’s older sister, Virginia, talk to Darryl on the phone back in Iowa. She seems to be talking at him, and it’s likely he has removed his hearing aids because she’s shouting while trying not to, She’s not gonna make it, just a few months — can you hear me? I said it’s not good. She won’t — can you hear me? Oh Darryl. Ed has been through this before with an uncle years ago. He knows the ropes and just shakes his head, tells me what will happen in the next six months or less.

Virginia is sobbing now and I don’t want to know exactly what happens next, so I go to her and she turns and practically throws her arms around me, tears soaking into my shirt and I hold her tight. I’ve hugged her before — those holiday “good seeing you again” hugs — but this is a huge release of grief in an overwhelming embrace, and I am the recipient of it from this woman I’ve only seen maybe a dozen times.

An hour later in recovery, Pauline was awake and looking like a Muslim cleric in her bandage, but talking like her old self. Ed says this is typical, and dammit if he isn’t right. The next three months will be Pauline’s last, and they will be trying, to say the least.

During that time, we learn that hospice nurses are the most loving and saintly people on earth. We would have been lost without them.

* * *

I am completely in awe of Susan’s family. Dozens of them fly or drive in from Florida, Indiana, and Iowa to be with us all, and Sally takes on the excruciating role of main caregiver in Pauline’s house, as she lives nearby, and she does this with dignity, grace, humor and style. Susan and I make weekend trips over the mountain to help out, and she takes time off from work to help Sally. Getting through this, they will be closer than ever.

Susan’s midwestern cousins are the salt of the earth, taking the time to drive day and night to be with their Aunt Pauline. They come and go and the house spills over with laughter and love. This is true family loyalty, something that is completely alien to me. In my family, we send greeting cards. Maybe flowers. (Although I am not keen on hugging, I’ve always gladly hugged my wife and kids often and with gusto.)

We sit on the porch and laugh, drink, or linger around a backyard campfire, and everyone helps out — each of us has something to offer. Even me. Surrounded by carpenters, police officers, farmers, handy outdoors people, I am the only writer. What was once a handicap — What does Jim do exactly? Stories? Graphics? Never hung drywall? — is now a valuable skill. (Susan understands, as she is the only college graduate in her family.) I willingly write the obituary and the letter to the editor thanking the small Georgia mountain community for their support.

On Labor Day evening, I had taken our kids back over the mountain in the dark for home and school the next day. Susan was falling asleep just before midnight when she realized she needed to check on her mom for the night. In the next room, she kissed her good night and told her she loved her, just as Pauline sighed and was gone.

Born on January 8, 1940 — Elvis’ fifth birthday — Pauline Archer died at age 69.

Christmas will be bittersweet this year: her struggles are over, but we miss her terribly.

I will always remember this generous, caring, thoughtful, tough woman who had a bullshit meter not even the slickest salesman could fool. She raised four kids on her own after her husband was killed in a car wreck in ’78, came to our girls’ birthday parties every year (and, we later discovered, saved every invitation) whether she was feeling up to it or not, knitted baby blankets, and sent Christmas ornaments to them every December. She gave us an espresso machine we still use every weekend, was a staunch and lifelong Democrat, was a child advocate after she retired, and could grow just about anything in her garden. Plus, she always laughed at my lame jokes. She wasn’t perfect, but she did the best she could.

Through it all, Susan has tried to be strong. Sometimes I’ll see her standing at the kitchen window watching for wild birds in the yard and I know she’s missing her mom. I don’t have a long history as a hugger, but with my newfound Power of the Hug I often gently take her in my arms and let her pour all of her sorrow and loss into me.

And then I mention the time I walked in on her mom in the bathroom.

 

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Jim Simpson JIM SIMPSON is an award-winning fiction writer and freelance music critic. A native of the wilds of Florida's Gulf Coast, he now resides on the scruffy fringes of Atlanta, Georgia.

He frequently writes about music, with his taste spanning all genres: Bluegrass, Americana, Classic Country, Alternative Country, Western Swing, Blues, Classical, Rock 'n' Roll, Punk, Reggae, Klezmer, and British Isles Folk (to name but a few).

He once sang Happy Birthday (with about 10,000 other people) to Joni Mitchell, and has seen such legends as Miles Davis, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, Rockpile, Blue Rodeo, King Sunny Ade, David Bowie, Joan Jett, Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan live in concert. He has interviewed such musical luminaries as Those Darlins, John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, Marshall Chapman, Charlie Louvin, Derek Hoke, Jim Avett, the Secret Sisters, and Meghan McCormick.

Jim has been at work on his first novel for longer than he originally planned, and if all goes well it should be in bookstores sometime before his death.

16 responses to “First Christmas Without Her”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Jim,
    What a lovely tribute to a fine woman. You have given us a glimpse of someone who we will never know but who we now do know for her strength, courage, warmth and as you say – a fantastic built in bullshit meter.
    I’m sorry that your Christmas this year will be without Pauline, but how wonderful for you to write such memories that will live on, just like the laughter.
    Best wishes to you and your family.

  2. I’ll echo Zara’s sentiment and say that was a really beautiful tribute to someone I didn’t know, but whom I can tell was a really wonderful person. I’m sorry this Christmas will be your first without her, but I hope you still manage to enjoy the day.

  3. Thomas Wood says:

    It’s a lovely piece, Jim, and a heckuva nice way for me to meet you as a writer on TNB. My dad also died of a brain tumor, and I had much the same experience of seeing a lot of family and friends come together in the end to say their goodbyes.

    From a writing standpoint, I was impressed that you were able to start off with the observation of the clouds without getting too lost in the observation or losing anything of the initial flow. Really well done. Personally, I would have been held up by my similar contempt for the Kinkade style, and probably would have indulged an extra paragraphs worth of cobble-stone rants.

    That’s enough out of me. Lovely piece.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks, Thomas. Oh, the Kinkade stuff makes me ill, but so many people love it that I won’t crap on it too much. Whatever. It’s just not for me.

      Sorry about your dad; knowing what I know now about brain tumors, it’s a cruel and slow way to go, but at least it gives loved ones a chance to say goodbye, as opposed to sudden death, if that’s any consolation. Still, it’s that progressive and inevitable wasting away that’s tough to deal with. Either way, Death can kiss my ass.

      Thanks for reading, and nice to meet you.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Jim, but this is a beautiful and moving piece.

    Death has the power to both bring people closer together and drift them farther apart. It’s a testament to your and Sue’s wonderful family, and to Pauline herself, that you all feel closer now, and that you have discovered the Power of the Hug.

    Walking in on her in the bathroom. Oh, man…

    • Jim says:

      Thanks, Greg. She left too early, but at least we were all there for her.

      The bathroom incident, not funny at the time, happened just before Sue and I moved in together. It was in Pauline’s house, and she was in the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night, her little poodle sitting next to her, when I wandered in. I fumbled around trying to find the light switch, but touched her shoulder, she said “Whoa there!” and the dog started yapping at me and I backed out, apologizing profusely. Luckily, I hadn’t been able to find the light switch. The next morning she just smiled at me and said, “Well, we know each other a little bit better now, don’t we?”

  5. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Oh Jim, this is so desperately sad. I’m so sorry for your loss and that of your wife and her family and her community. She must have been quite amazing to have so many people come to visit. Believe me, this is not what happens in my experience.
    You are all lucky to have had a wonderful woman like this in your lives.
    You are all unlucky to have lost her so painfully and so young.

    The power of the hug and the power of laughter. Those are important tools. I’m glad you know how to use them.

    • Jim says:

      I really had no idea how many people loved and admired her, everywhere she lived: Indiana, Iowa, Florida and Georgia.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Jim, what a beautiful elegy of grief, rage, and healing.

  7. Matt says:

    Very elegant and moving piece, Jim. I’m saddened that your family must endure this holiday season without Pauline, but this was a beautiful portrait of her, and a loving testimony to her memory.

  8. Ah, Jim. I’m so sorry to hear it. My deepest sympathies to you, your wife, and your families.

    From the sounds of it, she was a wonderful woman, and brought a lot to everyone’s lives. This is a really beautiful elegy, and it speaks volumes about both Pauline and the love you and everyone around you had for her.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Simon. I debated whether or not to write it, but in the end I just had to get it out there. I’m glad to see 2009 come to a close. Really, it was a dark year in many ways, as you know.

      Now, to concentrate on the good things that happened this year, like TNB 3.0! And Totally Killer, Banned For Life, Pop Salvation, and all the others I’m forgetting.

  9. Mary Richert says:

    Oh wow, Jim. I’m so sorry for your loss. As Zara said, this is a great tribute to Pauline.

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    When you’re small, anything over the age of 10 seems ancient. You can’t imagine ever being 40. But you get older and suddenly, 69 is young. So young. Too young. It’s not fair, is it?

  11. jayne says:

    Hi,

    This is superb. I am so sorry for your loss. I would not have known about this if it wasn,t for Cassie. She posted on facebook that it was her auntie and she was proud of that fact, and how proud she was that this was written. God bless you. xx

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