Friday, July 31, 2015

Looking Back

It's been almost a week since Ashleigh's funeral.  I almost said "my wife's funeral", but she's not my wife anymore.  The marriage vows say "til death do we part", and those vows have been fulfilled.  I'm very thankful for the fact that together we fulfilled them about as well as anyone could hope, given a shortage of years.  I have very few regrets, we had a whole year to say goodbye, and we loved each other well through the end.  For such a horrendous disease, Ashleigh only had about two weeks out of 13 months since her diagnosis where her quality of life suffered.  So I'm thankful for many things.

Jesus was clear about marriage as an earthly, not heavenly, institution (Matthew 22:30).  As new and foreign as it was 8 years ago to call Ashleigh "wife", now I have a whole different set of habits to unlearn.  I still call this building "our house", though it's suddenly much more vacuous than it has ever been.  If I were a director doing a biopic of this stage of my life, I would set the tone with several long, silent pans of the empty rooms and hallways after the boys are asleep.  I miss wearing my wedding ring; I often find myself absentmindedly going to fiddle with it, only to be reminded why it's not on.  I know no one would fault me for wearing it a while longer; I recognize my desire to press on is mostly self-imposed.  Well, it's what Ashleigh would have wanted for me, too.  To be uncomfortable, get out of the house and be around people, and generally embrace life moving forward.

Were it not for the boys I'd be tempted to sell everything I have, buy a motorcycle, (learn to ride said motorcycle), and ride until I hit an ocean.  I'm thankful for the boys, they're keeping me grounded.  A cross-country motorcycle tour (or equivalent boondoggle) would just be a kind of escapism.  I'm also thankful for so many friends reaching out and being welcoming and understanding, despite the fact I'm not particularly effervescent company right now.  I'm thankful for sympathy cards from so many people.  So many of you wrote in your cards how they feel like an insufficient gesture, but I assure you they are not.  Your words of encouragement and of Ashleigh's impact and legacy buoy me up.

It's been predominantly a week of logistics - cutting up credit cards, cancelling subscriptions, closing online vendor accounts.  I know it surprises you that it's helpful for an engineer to retreat into logistics.  Still, the last friends and family have returned home and at some point I will have to step back and survey the new shape of my life: as the dust clears, see what has become of the structure with one of its central load-bearing beams removed.  At least the foundation is intact.

Before Ashleigh died I told myself I wouldn't do this - turn to the blog or facebook to post morose and introspective thoughts as though loss had made my thoughts somehow weighty or worth sharing.  I scoffed at other people who over-shared like this, but now I'm eating my prideful words.  It turns out the reason I never felt compelled to over-share is that I always had a loving, listening ear nearby with whom to share my innermost thoughts.  So I appreciate you humoring me this once as I'm missing my usual outlet.

After the gala and a few more posts I still plan to wrap up the blog.  Not only was it Ashleigh's blog, but I'm somewhat afraid of what I might post without her editorial oversight.  That is a small example of the more general fear I hinted at above: what does life look like without Ashleigh?  If (ok, when) I do something embarrassing, who will help me laugh at it later?  What if I dress the boys in mismatched outfits for church?  How can I ever hope to make good decisions without Ashleigh to construct the objective function?

There are two books that have been comforting during this time, and I would commend them to your reading.  I have been tempted to post large portions of each of them to the blog, but I will spare you that (and myself the risk of copyright infrigement).

The Weight of Glory - an essay by CS Lewis whose central thesis is that our feelings of nostalgia point to our in-born desire to be a part of a heavenly, eternal frame.  He exposes man's desire for eternal things, and points out that desires don't make sense where they can't be fulfilled - that a man may starve to death without bread, but the feeling of hunger indicates at least that we come from a world of eatable things.

A Severe Mercy - a memoir by Sheldon Vanauken about the loss of his wife.  I hope it is not entirely hubris that causes me to see similarities between the love he writes about and the love Ashleigh and I shared.  "...he chuckled at the memory, and then, in the instant, tears were burning in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks.  That was always the way of grief: laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.  Almost from their first meeting they had been in love..."

I'm also planning to re-read Lewis's A Grief Observed.  Doubtless I will quote it here if I find it as relevant as I expect.

There are two stories I would share with you from Ashleigh's last week on earth.  I'm tempted to keep them to myself, as though a miserly attitude about memories would make them last longer.  If Ashleigh taught me anything through this blog, it's that sharing thoughts and experiences is what makes them meaningful and grants them longevity. 

Three nights or so before she died (I was on the night shift then), we were alone in her hospital room.  I was sitting next to her bed holding her hand and talking to her, not really expecting a response.  She opened her eyes and very lucidly asked me "what about the boys?"  A mama-bear to the end.  I assured her that the boys would be well-loved and well-cared-for by me and an army of others.  She closed here eyes and nodded, and I thought that was the end of the conversation.  But then something odd happened.  She turned her head to face to the opposite side of the bed and put her arms up in an empty circle, as though hugging someone's neck.  She sometimes did this to me or Jim when we leaned in close to tell her something.  She nodded again, smiled briefly, then said "ok then, I guess it's time to go".  She dropped her arms and went to sleep.  Say what you want about terminal delirium or drug-induced hallucinations.  This was the second-to-last interaction I had with her where I know she was lucid.  And I believe that there was Someone Else in the room with us that night, holding her other hand.

The next night, two nights before she died, there was only one very brief moment where she woke up.  She didn't open her eyes or talk to me or shift positions.  You see, one of the things that I frequently did by her bedside was sing to her.  Mostly hymns or songs from our past.  I was singing "How Great Thou Art", and for about two bars during the refrain, she started singing.  I went looking for a video clip to link to the title of the hymn, but nothing I found did justice to my memory of it.  She joined me on the high harmony, as perfectly and clearly as any duet we've ever sung together.  Then she fell back asleep.


  1. We are still here, listening for as long as you need someone to talk to, Brad.

  2. God Bless you and your little boys. I'm a total stranger and I doubt we will ever meet. But yours and Ashleigh's words have touched my soul. It is clear to see that she will forever hold a part of your heart and all those that were special to her. However, Ashleigh has found her way into my heart, a utter stranger, as well and I will forever carry her love of God with me for as long as I live, and I will strive to be as devoted to God as she is. I hope I can meet her in Heaven. Take care of yourself; you are in my prayers.

  3. Brad, You're doing exactly what Ashleigh would have hoped... working on continuing your life and loving your sweet boys. Those last 2 memories you shared bring me to tears because they demonstrate that even if she wasn't "with it", she was still there with you in those moments. And I'm confident going forward that you'll continue to experience moments where she is with you. Even if heaven is more distant, she'll find ways to be there with you.

  4. Brad, Share as long as you feel compelled to share and be very patient with yourself. Grief lingers and will hit you when you least expect it, as I experienced that with the loss of my dad recently. The fact is losing someone as significant to you as Ashleigh will likely change you forever. Although life will be different, that's OK. What beautiful final memories you had with her...cherish them.

  5. I thank you for sharing your thoughts and your grief. It is a gift to me as I process my own grief, and struggle to find a new life and a new definition of myself. I prayed for your family throughout Ashleigh's illness, and used your journey to help me keep my problems in perspective, and find gratitude. I pray that you continue to heal and find peace, and that eventually the joys outweigh the sorrows.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Brad. I still think about you and your family often. We're all still here, and we'll keep listening as long as you keep talking.

  7. Please continue to share with us.. even if it gets to every 6 month updates on you and the boys. So many people still care about you all.
    God Bless

  8. You are a beautiful soul and Ashleigh was so lucky to be loved by you. Forget engineering, you're also an excellent writer! The IM loves you so much and can't wait to see you at the Gala!

  9. Brad...bless you and your sons. You share as long as you need to. You'll know when it's time to stop. Your story of Ashleigh's hug of Someone on the other side of the bed reminded me of my own experience the night my husband died unexpectedly. I struggled so to help him, to revive him and cried out to God for help. There was a touch on both of my shoulders (I thought that EMS had finally arrived), and when I turned to tell them what happened, no human was there. But, I know Who was, and am thankful. Comfort to you in the hours and days ahead. There will be days that you take a step forward, two or more backward perhaps. There will be days in which you take great strides. But, He is faithful. He will be there. Always.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts - your authenticity, how real and how raw is appreciated. I hope you continue the blog. The Gala is sure to be a fantastic event and will make Ashleigh proud.

  11. Hi Brad... wow what a testimony. I am Allison Loukanis, Terry Arnold's sister in law. Your blog made me cry. It was beautiful. Thank you for posting. Allison ( I'm gonna post as anonymous cause I loathe these hoops that these blogs make us jump thru for posting.)

  12. Brad, please continue to have Ashleigh live on in your thoughts, stories, memories, and through the boys. I will continue to live out my life as Ashleigh saw it for me and appreciate whatever time I am given just as she did.

  13. I hope even if you choose to stop writing (please don't), you will still keep the blog up to help IBC sisters.

  14. Your writing helps not only yourself but others struggling with the same issues. Thank you for sharing and helping.

  15. Sobbing. I have been reading this entire blog, front to back - and reading snippets of it out loud to my husband, who is an oncologist and researcher in the Dana-Farber/Harvard system. I want to thank you so much for having been willing to share your experience with others, as it is so valuable - I even wonder if you would want to look into publishing it. For physicians, it offers great insight into what their patients might be thinking and how they might be processing information. For physicians' wives (like me), it puts a very human face on the career that so often robs us of evenings, weekends, vacations, and companionship (I myself am a big blogger and over-sharer ... but I'm never online the rare weekends my husband is around, so I think you're spot-on with your assessment of why people blog). For Christians, honestly especially for me this was a very compelling read. I didn't grow up in the church and I struggle *a lot* with what I see as the incompatibility of the severe and nearly universal human suffering and pain, and faith. It was really good for me to see that someone who considered herself to have previously been fairly sheltered from such suffering, but who clearly went through one of the most extreme forms of it imaginable, could maintain her faith and do so with such beauty and heroism even in the face of such repeated and desisting setbacks. It's definitely a story that will forever shape my faith journey, and forever enter my mind every time I struggle with these questions. It's funny because I don't know if Ashleigh and I would have really clicked in real life... I have 100% respect for those uber-perfect uber-driven people but whereas she describes herself as having succeeded because of her drive (which I do doubt... you can tell from her writing that she's quite bright) I feel like I succeeded in spite of my lack thereof :) Staying home with my kids is about all I can manage on my plate, at least with a crazy-busy husband, and my contribution to our finances is purely because my blog (which I do for fun) has been moderately successful. But... I just love her. And wish so much I could meet her, or will meet her soul someday. Although I don't often pray for things (really only out of desperation) because I remain skeptical of the "power of prayer," I will definitely be praying for you and the boys, for healing, health, and happiness as you continue your journeys.

  16. Brad, you are a beautiful writer, and we are pleased to be your outlet during this time. Having experienced a loss recently, I can assure you that "A Grief Observed" will serve you well. I also recommend "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion. I read it about 6 months post, and it was incredibly helpful to understand the range, frequency and inconsistency of emotions I was feeling.

    Peace be with you,
    Kristen Hector

  17. You and your sweet family and lovely wife have been in my thoughts and prayers. I pray that your boys will always know how much they were loved by their mother and you.

  18. Thank you for sharing your raw feelings and those special stories. Your words help others as they help you grieve and heal. Please keep sharing - it keeps Ashleigh's memory alive.

  19. Thank you for continuing to post. You and sons are in my thoughts and prayers. May Jesus continue to be your greatest confidant, in this difficult time.

  20. Thank you Brad for sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings. The insight you give the readers here on Ashleigh's and your journey and now your journey helps us to understand and grieve with you and pray for you. With this knowledge we can be a blessing to others who are in the same place you are now. Hugs and prayers

  21. Wow! Chills! You are a beautiful writer. Please keep sharing. Praying for you and your boys.

  22. Brad - enjoy reading what you write, and you greatly underestimate the living testimony you are documenting. Christianity has been modeled on this blog by both of you.

    Moreso, I look forward to being there to listen in person or via phone any time day or night.

    Chad King

  23. Brad,

    your "sharing" is lovely! It gives a glimpse into the solid, incredible marriage that made up the reward for Ashleigh for simply being a devoted child of God. The glimpse you share with us, shows us what a Christian marriage is meant to look like. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for continuing to be the godly man Ashleigh brought into her life, thereby brought into our lives by association. YOU are loved by many and repected by ALL!
    Terry Howerton
    (Sabrina's Mom)

  24. Continuing to pray for you and your boys. Can't even tell you how much yalls story has touched my life. God bless you!

  25. Brad, you are an extraordinary writer. Your words and descriptions flow so smoothly, as if God himself is writing. Bless you and bless your sons. So sorry for your loss.

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