Lover's Key, Florida

Lover's Key, Florida

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

My bed is way too big.

The sun shone most of yesterday and that made everything better.   Last night I attended a mass at 5:00 that was said for Gwen's intention.  I met a support group friend who joined me with her significant other.  We went out for a little pizza and salad later.  It was then that I remembered  that I had been her boyfriend's guidance counselor in junior high school way back when we first moved to Ann Arbor.  I joked with him, it must have seemed strange to have someone who was only ten years old as a guidance counselor.  I don't feel that old.

Nights are always a little tough, I try to maintain many of the rituals and routines that Gwen and I followed.  It's still hard to be alone in bed. Doing many of the thing I did with Gwen like writing, reading, even reading aloud, and talking with her about my day helps some.  Sooner or later it's time to turn off the lights.  That's the time when a great sadness can often overtake me.  It's reality hitting me square in the face and there's no denying it.  A while ago I learned that it helps if at a time like that I do the loving thing and ask Gwen to be there with me.  I don't wish to go into detail about how or why this works, but it does.  The poem that follows is my attempt at capturing what that feels like:


Each night
When I finish reading
I come to the same realization
My bed is way too big
It’s so empty
Without her.

I invite her to join me
She always does
I’m safe for another night
Until morning comes
Pull up the sheets and blanket
Fluff the pillow on that big bed.

We were told about the empty nest
No one thought to warn me
About the empty bed.

John A. Bayerl, January 30, 2011

I am quite certain that no one could have warned me about the empty bed.  I've learned that there are certain things that must be experienced before I can talk about them with any sense of authenticity and integrity-- back to the idea that things don't mean anything until they mean something.  Being able to feel Gwen's presence in bed with me is such a blessing.  As soon as I am able to do that I drift off to sleep.  In the morning when I make the bed it doesn't seem all that big.

On Eagle's Wings

Today is one of those cold, crisp, sunny days that is so welcome after a week of seemingly unrelenting cloudy days.  Gwen loved days like this in the winter.  Neither of us are fond of the slushy, indeterminate weather that is so common to Ann Arbor.  When we decided to move to Marquette in 1998, friends would give us a curious look and remind us (As if two born and bred Yoopers would need a reminder.) about the cold winters in the U. P.  My response was always the same, "But it's a dry cold."

Today 's bright sun reminds me of a day when we had driven from Marquette to visit Gwen's folks in Gaastra.  We were on a side-road heading to Gaastra when we rounded corner, and on the side of the ride there appeared a bright, golden,  shiny object.  As we drew nearer and the angle of the sun's rays shifted we saw that it was an eagle eating road kill.  We both marvelled at our good fortune at having had the chance to see what could only be described as an apparition, and, even when it became clear what it was, it is not a common occurrence to come upon an eagle at such close range.  Eagles play a prominent role in  lore that has accumulated around funerals in Gwen's family.  What prompted this was the song On Eagles' Wings  that was sung at Gwen's parents' funerals as well as her own. In my eulogy to Bertha, Gwen's mom, I talked about having seen eagles on the drive over to her funeral.  Afterwards, several others also mentioned having seen eagles.  Shortly after Gwen's funeral her brother, Ted, told me about having seen eagles on more than one occasion.  Did the mention of them heighten awareness to their appearance, or are they to be seen as messages from our loved ones?"  I cannot be the Judge of that; all I know is that I take comfort in a verse from  the song  On Eagles' Wings:

And He will raise you up
on Eagle's wings
bear you on the breath of dawn
make you to shine like the sun
and hold you in the palm of his hand. 

Like poetry and literature, music also has the ability to help someone like me who has lost his perfect partner to begin to rediscover and redefine who I am.  I take great comfort in these words from the song.   Am I not fortunate to have the memory of Gwen and me actually seeing an eagle that was "made to shine like the sun"?  Here, on this bright, sunny January afternoon I take great pleasure in thinking of Gwen being "borne on the breath of dawn."  And He will raise you up. . .

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I am not resigned..

Got up early this morning, dropped off a lab at the hospital, just something routine my doctor ordered.  Went to the gym, worked out for an hour.  My heart wasn't in it.  Then I went to a little Coney Island place for breakfast.  Gwen loved their spinach pie and  pecan pancakes. I had the pancakes.  Sometimes going to old familiar places we enjoyed together will jump start my day.  That didn't happen today.  For some reason, I've been thinking of this poem Gwen had stuck away somewhere; I don't even know if it has a title:

Down, down, down

Into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful

The tender, the kind,

Quietly they go, the intelligent,

The witty, the brave,

I know.  But I do not approve.

And I am not resigned.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Found among Gwen’s belongings, 1-5-11

I know that's the kind of "in your face", hopeful attitude that she always had and wants me to have .Most of the time I do.  It's just that today, I wish we could jump in the car, drive up to the cottage on St. Joseph Island, build a fire in the stove, pop some popcorn,  and get away for a little while. On my way over to the gym, I reached over to the seat where she would sit and held her hand for a while, that helped some.  I love you, dear, and I miss you.

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's just not right.

As part of my effort to restore  life to what it was before Gwen died, I supervise two students from NMU who are placed in student-teaching assignments near Ann Arbor.  Yesterday I visited with a young man who gave an excellent lesson on AIDS prevention to a high-school health class.  The lesson included a videotape of young people who were AIDS victims being interviewed.  At the conclusion of the video, in the credits, it was noted that two of the young people had died since the video had been completed.  Of course I cried.  (I'm sure the young man whom I was observing was moved that his teaching performance could bring an old guy to tears.) 

When I arrived home ,  I walked in the front door anxious to tell Gwen all about my interesting morning.  Is it the emptiness of the house, or the quietness that first hits me?   It's kind of like being in a Roadrunner cartoon.  I come toa screeching halt, knowing that all I can do is wait for the rock that Wiley Coyote has alread pried loose to come crashing down on me. And it does.  I've now learned that  it is possible to go through life all flattened out like that. 

The urn with Gwen's ashes is on the mantel.  As I do each time I return to the  house, I take a few minutes to talk with her and tell her about my day.  Next to the urn, there's a picuture of our second wedded kiss.  Now there's a poem waiting to be born:


Just when I think
thing are getting better
there’s a little reminder
that gets me whimpering
and whispering her name
and asking why.

Today it was
That picture of us
Kissing on the porch
Of the church in Gaastra
Right in front of  God
And everybody

Just the thought  
Of those warm, delicious lips
Excites me yet today
And I feel her wedding lace
Under my hands--
Know again what it celebrated.

The church in Gaastra
Has been moved to
The Iron County Museum
In Caspian.
The picture is on our mantel
Next to the crematorium urn.

The picture and the urn,
It’s still so hard
To comprehend
The meaning
Of those two

John A. Bayerl, January 28, 2011

I wish I could say I remember that kiss.  I don't, not exactly.  What I do remember is that, after all those month of waiting, it was not a mere peck on the lips.  Also, church or not, it was more than a  kiss for the photographer. Much more.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Morning Mountain Air

A short time after Gwen had died, I gathered a folder of pictures of her that had been taken during the years of her illness and sent them to my children.  One of my daughters commented that it had helped her see that we had enjoyed a decent quality of life over that period of time.  With the help of a light-weight wheel chair that the children had bought for us, we had indeed not allowed her disease to control our lives.  Beginning with a trip to Cancun at Christmas , 2006 (shortened when Gwen broke an ankle), we spent time in New York City, visited our children in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, spent time with Gwen's brother and sister in the U. P., took a farewell tour of St. Joseph Island in Canada, stayed at a friend's condo in Florida, and accepted an offer to spend a week with my sister Mary and Brother-in-law Milt at a place in Green Valley, Arizona.  At the same time we spent a couple days with our friends Tom and Marge Mackenzie in Phoenix.  I'm sure we did even more things that I've since forgotten.  It was while we were in Arizona in March of 2009 that I wrote this poem, dedicated to the members of the support groups Gwen and I attended:


In the middle of March,
in the desert,
I turn my face to the sun
and cool, dry, morning, mountain air
blesses my sense.

My mind, my heart, my soul,
are cleansed of burdensome winter
by the chattering of birds
and scent of flowers.

I bring to mind my friends,
who each Tuesday night tell their stories.
 Of doors slamming shut on bricks  in their heads.
Working hard so that sweat hides the tears.
Flopping like a fish out of water.
Marching in place in endless circles;
like a snowball forever rolling downhill.

They take comfort that
this feeling of being on a bongo board
 will someday stop.
This train I didn’t choose to board
will return to  the station.

For now, they cry, my happiness machine
is missing its battery pack,
and even when I feel good
I feel bad.

And here in Arizona
on this cleansing morning,
I keep these friends in my heart
and pray for them to have
sunlit faces
and cool, dry, morning mountain air.

John A. Bayerl
March, 2009

Friends and relatives have asked me to spend time with them in their homes or rental in warm climates.  I am not ready to do that yet.  Although I feel good when I feel good, the battery pack for my happiness machine is still on the charger.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Prepare and Hope

When Gwen was originally diagnosed with cancer she was told by her doctors that she had a likelihood of living from nine months to a year.  She refused to believe that, and opted instead for what Dr. Kalemkarian at The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center told her:  "Probabilities are for statisticians, when it comes to individuals we must consider only possibilities."  Her daughter Anne, upon hearing this, asked her mother to go for five more years, a goal she came within five months of achieving.(In her eulogy to her mom Anne ruefully reflected that she wished she had asked for ten year.) Certainly chemotherapy and radiation treatments contributed to Gwen's ability to enjoy those years with a reasonable quality of life.  Above and beyond that, simply put; she had an indomitable spirit.  As her children so eloquently stated in her obituary:  "Refusing to let life after cancer define her, she chose to cope with her disease the way she lived her life; with undaunted strength, unshakable courage, limitless hope and her characteristic, unflappable good cheer." 

Because of her background and years of service as a nurse, Gwen was realistic about her disease.    She was always anxious to learn what other treatment options might be available.  She knew that her ability to maintain hope was hinged to her ability to remain physically strong and active for as long as she could. During the winter of 2009 she participated in a program a the YMCA called Live Strong, sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Foundation.  I was fortunate to participate in the program with her, and also saw the value of preparing for the worst while hoping for the best.  This is a poem about that:

It’s a healthy thing to do,
preparing for the worst,
riding my exercise bike
with its heavy, steel flywheel
and automatic speedometer
that counts the miles I’ve
travelled from where I began
to where I remain;
and the only change in scenery
is The View on the TV.

It’s a healthy place to be,
hoping for the best,
riding my fancy bike
around the circle of life
with my group of friends
who tell their stories
and cry their tears
and laugh out loud;
as we mourn the missing
and celebrate those who remain.

John A. Bayerl,  September, 2010

I attended a bereavement group this morning.  The task we face in the group is not that different from the one Gwen taught me to face as her caregiver--how to remain grounded and somewhat stationary while at the same time learning to ride hopefully around the circle of life. There is a painful difference;  no matter which bike I ride, I ride it alone. And, I mean no disrespect to my many friends. And, I remember and try to emulate this about my perfect partner. . . ." undaunted strength, unshakable courage, limitless hope and her characteristic, unflappable good cheer."  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Then we hug.

Today I attended, for the first time, a bereavement group that is offered by the hospice that  worked with Gwen and me for the final six months of her life.  Gwen and I belonged to and attended three different support groups during the time she was ill.  One was at St. Jospeh Mercy Hospital, where she was being treated, one was at The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, where we went for second opinions, and the other was at was then called The Wellness Community of Southeast Michigan.  The first two of these groups met monthly.  The one at the Wellness Community met weekly, and Gwen attended a group for cancer survivors while I attended one for caregivers.  In their own way, each group was immensely helpful in that it provided an opportunity for us to connect and communicate with others who shared our experience of dealing with cancer.  Although the poem below was written with the groups at The Wellness Community in mind, it could have been written about either of the other two:


Each week
we begin again
as strangers;
talking about
talking about

Being positive,
being real,
spirituality trumps reality.

Words are said,
tears are shed,
grief replaces fear,
the new normal becomes
never being normal again.

Now friends
more than strangers;
hand in hand,
we draw near
the campfire of hope.

Then we hug.

John A. Bayerl
July, 2008

The many friends Gwen and I made through our participation in these groups continue to support and enrich me as I learn to live without my perfect partner.  Each time I encounter any of them, the last line in the poem tells us what to do.  And we do. And sometimes that's all we can do.

Monday, January 24, 2011


I suppose that in many ways this it a bit of whimsical positng.  There isn't anything a whole lot more common than the juice we drink at breakfast.  What I am learning is that weighty matters are determined not by their physical presence, althougn a big jug of vegertable juice is pretty darn weighty, it's the emotional weight of these commonplace items that counts the most.  Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would one day write a poem about V-8 Juice.  Here it is:


She loved certain foods
V-8 low-sodium vegetable juice
was a real favorite.
She drank some every day.
She made me buy a big jug of it
the day before she died,
always the optimist.

That juice is not only good,
it’s good for you.
with all those vitamins
and mineral and such.
I get an added bonus,
it’s really good
for my soul.

Now I drink a glass of it every day.
I resist the urge to add a little salt.
She wants me to stay healthy.
Today I got a little worried,
That big jug of V-8
low-sodium vegetable juice
is nearly empty.

John A. Bayerl
January 24, 2011

To make matters worse, I don't really like orange juice that much.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Family matters.

Today's posting contains a verse that was read at Gwen's funeral. This reading was suggested to me by Sister Dorothy Ederer.  Sister Dorothy has, as have all members of the clergy, staff and parishioners at my faith community, St. Mary Student Parish, been of immeasurable assistance since Gwen's death.  She is one of the most genuine, spiritual and loving people whom I know--and, she also writes books about golf.  Who am I to not follow her recommendations?  This is a part of that reading from Collosians 3 12-14:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another,  if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. 

When my children and I talked about who might be the best person for this reading we agreed that her brother Ted should be the one.  The reading talks about the values that Gwen loved so dearly and tried to put into practice in everything she did.  Above all, she valued family. Living in a family always requires that we remember little and forgive much, "bearing with one another and forgiving one another", as the reading states. It was fitting that her oldest sibling represent her family by reading it.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, all mentioned in the reading, were also characteristics that we loved so much in Gwen.  Most of all, she had a generosity of spirit, especially when it came to her family.  As our daughter talked about in her eulogy, Gwen would literally give you the shirt off her back.  As Jeanne put it, if one were to compliment Gwen on a blouse she was wearing, she would launder it,  iron it, put it in a box, wrap it, and make up a reason to give it to you as a gift. We miss that, and so much more about you, Gwen, and we thank you for your years of  love that lives on and continues to bind us together as a family.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Fridays are hard for me.  Gwen died on a Friday night.  A week and a day before she died, she asked the nurse "How long do I have left?"  The nurse said that she wasn't God and didn't know the answer to that, but maybe Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year.  I recall being stunned to hear those words.  The nurse then asked Gwen whether she was at peace with that.  In her inimitable, understated manner, Gwen said, "Of course I'm at peace with that. I've had almost five years to get ready.  I'm OK as long as John and the kids are."  The next day I reminded her of that conversation and asked whether she was still at peace.  Again she said she was fine with it as long as the kids and I were.  I thought I was.  Events a week later would prove me wrong.  I thought I knew what it would be like to be without the one who had been at the center of my life for all those years.  How could anyone be prepared for that?  In spite of books and articles I had read, lectures I heard, even the first-hand accounts of others whose loved ones had died I was unable to take in the fact that my pal, my beloved, my perfect partner,  would soon die.  This poem is about that:


She awoke from her afternoon nap
and asked when we were going home.
We are home, I assured her
see, here’s our family picture, the TV,
the crystal bell from your folks’ 50th.

This time it was different.
No, she said, I’m at the train station
I’ll soon be going on a trip
Get my suitcase.
Oh, I said.

A little later she wanted to know
when we were leaving for the cemetery.
Cemetery?  Whose funeral is it?
Mine, she replied.
Oh, I said again.

I couldn’t, or wouldn’t,
Or simply chose not to
Hear what she was telling me
In that final act of love.

On that sunny, early November afternoon,
I couldn’t imagine what lay ahead.
I remember everything she said
yet I never heard a word of it.

John A. Bayerl, January 22, 2011

And maybe it's OK that those of us who dare to love deeply prefer the anesthesia of denial to the cold comfort of knowing.  I recently read a quote from Thomas Merton:  "As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it."  I marked the page where I found that quote with a marker that the funeral home provided.  On it is the picture of Gwen with the happy smile and straw hat.  Each time I move that bookmark I find that I have to kiss her picture.  Maybe if I were to stop doing that I would have to stop believing something.  I'm not sure what it is that I'm not ready to accept, what I am sure of is that I'm not ready to do it yet.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Courting Gwen

When I look at  pictures of Gwen taken through the years and realize yet again what a beautiful woman she was, I sometimes experience a rather unique feeling; I am jealous of myself. Jealous of the guy she wound up sharing her life and love with.  That, of course, was me. We didn't always get along, over the course of 50 years there were bound to be many misunderstandings, and periods of what we came to call "silent movies", those times when we weren't speaking to each other.  As most couples who are in it for the long haul learn to do, we found ways to resolve our differences and tried always to live by the "don't let the sun set on your anger" rule.   The point I'm getting to is that for the entire time that Gwen was ill it would have been laughable and totally ridiculous to get caught up in one of those "silent movies". What a wast of time that would have been. When time is all that matters, there is nothing more precious than time.

Early on in our relationship things didn't always go smoothly either, as evidenced by a poem I wrote then:


Some words fall on a young man’s ears
And cause him a world of joy,
Words like “success” and “I love you dear”
Will never him annoy.

And there are words to trouble his mind,
That cause him naught but woe,
These words come from lips of wine
The words are “I don’t know.”

For a young man’s world consists of dreams
Of a future filled with bliss,
Of someone to share in all his schemes,
Of loving that uncertain Miss.

But dreams must be built on certainty,
On faith, devotion and trust,
Less they someday become non-reality,
And lie shattered to bitter dust.

                                                       John A. Bayerl,  circa winter, 1962

Ignoring the really bad poetry, (I  removed the last stanza, it was stupid, something about feeling nine feet tall.),  it tickles me now  that even then I could see that my future bride was someone who would complete my life.  Just today I heard a friend talking about someone who, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, decided to leave her.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, and it is not up to me to judge the circumstances that lead to such a decision.  For me, I was so jealous of myself for all those years that there was simply no way I would ever, ever consider leaving that woman to whom I had entrusted my soul all those years earlier.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Waves of Grief

Not only is grief painful, it is also sly, sneaky and cunning.  Just when I think it's not going to appear in my life quite as dramatically as it initially did; something happens that lets me know how wrong I am about that.  On Tuesday a gentleman from the funeral home where Gwen's wake was held called and informed me that he was a grief counselor.  (Good, I thought, grief could use some counseling!).  Among other things, he told me that he had a little book for me, and would I like to come by to get it.  Of course, I did, not having any idea what he might be talking about; I hadn't ordered any book.  He presented me with a book that had tastefully and beautifully incorporated Gwen's obituary, pictures of her, and on-line comments from friend as well as quotes apropos to the pictures.  Needless to say, as I read through the book, my old friend grief  came to visit and, as usual, overstayed its welcome.

It is important for me to remind myself about what my therapist friend told me about grief.  First, it is a healthy and important part of the process of dealing with the loss of my perfect partner who occupied such a large, loving part of my life for so long. Second, when grief has me on my knees, my only choice is to find a way to stand up.  I now find myself standing most of the time, and, when I am on my knees it's usually because I'm in church.  As the poem below tries to explain, I have found ways to leave behind the stormy seas and cling to higher ground:


I will find other seas.
A line from a song
sung at her funeral
now sustains me
when waves of grief
pound my shores
and take me to their depths.

Feeling the pain
of their relentless surge,
I struggle to stay afloat.

Then I recall warm summer nights
swimming at the lake
gently floating in her warm embrace.

Once fierce waves
that carried me out to stormy seas
 now take me to higher ground.

 John A. Bayerl
December 14, 2010

How fortunate we were to have those warm summer nights at Chicaugoan Lake in Iron County, so long ago.  How fortunate for me, to have them now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Holy Ordinary

This morning, as I reached in the cabinet to get a cup for my coffee, I realized that it was time to run the dishwasher.  There was a cup left, but I couldn't use it--it was Gwen's favorite cup.  I chide myself about this; after all, I use "her" bowls for cereal that I eat with a spoon that she used.  For goodness sake, most of the air you breathe is air she breathed.  The coffee cup has joined what I have come to call the holy ordinary, list; those ordinary items in my life that are in some way made holy through their association with that which makes all things holy--love. That cup reminds me of so many late afternoons spent enjoying a cup of tea with Gwen, something we both loved doing.  Later this morning, as I pedaled the Nu-Step at the gym, the song Red Red Wine played on my i-Pod.  Let the tears begin.  The song instantly took me back twenty some years to a week vacation at a resort on St. Kitts.  One day we took a ride on a catamaran to St. Nevis, and that song was played incessantly. I clearly recall Gwen's delight at the amazing life we discovered beneath us as we snorkeled for the first time.  The conch shell on display in one of our bathrooms I found on a beach there.  It will be looked at with much more reverence today. I'm sure any of those who might read this will be generating their own holy ordinary  lists as they read. We who love find holiness in those we love and all things close to them.

In addition to coffee cups, songs and other artifacts that Gwen and I shared, during the years she was ill we shared a bedroom in a lower level of our home.  Most of that time we shared a big old queen-sized bed, but, as her disease progressed, she slept in a hospital bed on loan from the hospice, and I slept near her in a twin bed.  Immediately after her death my children wisely moved me to the bedroom Gwen and I had used prior to her illness.  The hospital bed was returned to the hospice, and another bed replaced my twin bed in the room where she died. This is another instance where to talk about it too much will profane it, so I offer this poem about the room where I often spend time and can feel Gwen's presence:


The room in our house
where she took her last breath
is my hallowed place.

I meet her there often.

You really did it this time!
I say to her.
It’s Christmas, the kids will be home.
How could you?

I lie there, in that room
where we shared it all,
and I ask her to be with me.

I learn the truth
about the price of great love;
grief of equal proportion.

I discover that I love her
in ways I never knew I did,
or could.

John A. Bayerl 
December 9, 2010

This poem  was written about a month after Gwen died.  As I read it now I find that the anger I had then has somewhat dissipated.  The waves of grief, tomorrow's topic, are not as frequent, and I get an occasional glimpse of what life without Gwen at my side is going to look like.  It's not going to get better; just different.  As for the new normal, who want to be normal anyway?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Little things mean everything.

Things don't mean anything until they mean something.  This explains why it is always the little things that add meaning to what are often the most ordinary of events in life. The nurse from the hospice who came to offiicially document the death of my dear wife placed a stethoscpope on her chest and listened for what seemed like forever.  I recall starting to say something to her, and  then stopping because I wanted her to be able to hear better.  One of Gwen's and my favorite songs was the Simon and Garfunkle classic, The Sounds of  Silence.  I thought of that as the nurse listened in vain.  She then said some words making the time of death official, and told me that the funeral home had been notified and their representatives would soon be here for the body.  I know, even as I write these words more than two months later, that people are dying right now.  But, on November 12, 2010, at 9:40 P. M., it was my perfect partner, my soulmate, who had died.  That means something!  To me, that means everything!  These words that I write won't bring her back to life, I hope they will keep her memory, and, more importantly, her meaning, alive.  Gwen lived a rich and full life, and it meant something.  I'm selfish to the extent that I don't want her to be soon forgotten.

In an hour or so, two men arrived to take Gwen's body to the mortuary at the funeral parlor.  They were polite, respectful and unbelieveably sympathetic.  I remember that about them, but what I remember most of all is that one  of them had beer on his breath.  Again, it's the little things that add meaning.  I couldn't bring myself to accompany them to the room where her body was.  I soon heard them carrying the stretcher  up the stairs. They let her lie in state in the hallway near the front door.  I kissed her good night, and,  prepared to spend my first night without her presence under my roof.  My youngest sister and her husband live nearby, and I had called to ask them to be with me.  Her husband had to return home, but she stayed with me that night. I am now becoming  comfortable with spending my nights alone;  It would have been a hard thing to spend that night alone.

I knew that whatever it had been that animated my wife's body, her spirit, her life force, or, as I believe to be the case, her soul, had now left it, and what remained was just that, her remains.  Yet, all I could think of as I watched the two men carry her off to the waiting hearse, was that she was going to be so alone.  This is a poem about that:


Early in  October,
on her 68th birthday,
she was so happy
as her children carried her
in her wheelchair
out the door and down the porch steps.
 She was off to the movies.

Now, a month later,
two strange men,
one with beer on his breath
carry her lifeless body
on a hospital stretcher,
out the same door and down the same steps.
I can’t say where she was off to.

I know where she has gone.

 John A. Bayerl,  January 2, 2011

As I was preparing to write this a friend of mine called.  She knew Gwen very well.  I read the poem to her, and asked for her response.  She cried and  said, "It sucks."  I agree.  I don't think she meant that the poem sucks.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Doing the Loving Thing

We do not find it easy, in our culture, to talk about death and the events surrounding it. There are certain things I remember about the night that Gwen died that are forever burned into my memory. There are also many things about that night that I don't remember at all. Those who know know about these things tell me this is not an uncommon occurrence.

This is something I remember vividly and lovingly. On more than one occasion Gwen and I had discussed having me bathe her and dress her in clean clothes after her death. Those of you who knew Gwen know how important it was to her that she always look her best. As events transpired, even in death, I was able to honor her in that way. I was not at all sure that I would be able to do it, but as it turned out, it is now my most loving memory of that whole evening.

I recall filling a basin with warm water, being careful that it was neither too cold nor too hot. (I would treat her no differently in death than I had in life.) I removed her clothing, soaped a washcloth and gave her a final bath. Then I sprayed on a little of her favorite perfume, patted on some of her favorite "Youth Dew" dusting powder, dressed her in some favorite clothing and combed her hair. As she had bathed and carefully groomed and dressed herself before all of the important events in our life, beginning with our wedding, I was now able to prepare her for her last journey. It was the loving thing to do. My memories of this are so tender, personal and poignant that to attempt to describe them in more detail would make them meaningless. The poem below tries to capture a little bit of what it felt like:


I hold her lifeless body
In my warm embrace,
a soft sigh of false hope escapes her lips
as I gently raise and bathe her.

I hold in my arms
the same loving body
I beheld with wonder
on our first night together.

She was soft and giving then,
when our lives as one began,
sharing our love,
completing each other.

Her beautiful blue eyes, now closed,
filled with tears of joy
on that first night
as she gave me all her warmth.

Now, it is my eyes that fill with tears.

John A. Bayerl, January 4, 2011

Those, like myself, who hold the belief that life does not end with death, it changes, will readily understand how liberating it felt to prepare my wife in this way. Later that evening her body would be taken off to the funeral parlor; the topic for tomorrow's posting.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Small things left behind.

Yesterday I wrote about the joy of finding a year's worth of letters that Gwen and I had exchanged the year before we married.

Shortly after my daughters had done me the favor of removing all of Gwen's belongings from our home, I found a drawer they had forgotten to empty. The drawer was filled with undergarments. Most of them were "everyday"undies. However, way down on the bottom of the drawer were two pair of black silk panties.

Others who have suffered the loss of a loved one have told me about how it's often the discovery of little things that make it so difficult to adjust to the "new normal" of living without the normalcy provided by one who died. Gwen and I were both born and raised in the U. P. It goes without saying that a proper "Yooper Woman" wouldn't wear those black, silk panties on just any occasion. They were meant for special events, as I allude to in the poem. And, I, a "Yooper Man" to the core, understood that better than anyone. It is the reminders of those special events that comprised our life together that now conspire to prevent me from dashing headlong into whatever the "new normal" is to become for me. As far as I'm concerned, the "old normal" was just fine--at least for a while longer.


Black silk panties

with frilly lace around the edges,

how they teased and pleased me

on those special times she wore them,

birthdays, anniversaries, nights out,

a hotel room in Las Vegas.

Now they lie in a box

there on the closet floor

so out place, on their bed

of white cotton underpants,

like the living among the dead.

And they tease me still.

John A. Bayerl

December 16, 2010

While there is the risk that special things with their special meanings will keep me tied to the past and prevent me from becoming the strong, centered person Gwen asked me to be after she was gone; I know that I will get to that point eventually. As I've told my children; it will take as long as it takes. Meanwhile, I find great delight and no harm in enjoying the teasing reminders of my perfect partner that I happen to encounter. I believe them to be messages from her.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Letters from the Past

One of the things I've discovered since Gwen's death is that, although most of her belongings have been donated to charity, I continue to discover things she left behind. Sometimes these items, which would have seemed terribly insignificant a year ago, now take on great emotional meaning. Among the items that have affected me this way are a box of body powder, black silk underwear, the pillow she slept on and a photo of her kissing me on the steps of the church right after we were married. The biggest discovery of all was letters we had written to each other from April, 1962 through June, 1963, when we were married. During that time, we had decided to get married, and, after a great deal of discussion, Gwen decided to drop out of college at the end of her sophomore year and take a job as a bookkeeper at a lumber yard in Iron River. (The decision for her to leave college was not taken lightly, she was a scholarship student, and her parents would have preferred that she remain in school. In our wedding vows I wrote in a sentence where I promised that I would help her complete college, and was so happy when her parents attended her graduation from nursing school at EMU in 1980.) She stayed at home with her parents that year, and I began my first year as a commercial teacher at Stephenson High School only a few miles from my home . I stayed at home with my parents and younger brother and sister.

So, there we were, madly in love with each other, but living 100 miles apart. Each weekend during that period of time I drove to Gaastra and visited with her. In the days between we wrote letters to each other. These were the letters I recently found hidden away in a storage bin in the basement of our home. What fun it was to read them all. I've told friends that it was kind of like seeing the movie Secretariat, which Gwen and I and all of our children and grandchildren did just a month before she died. As was the case with reading the letters, I knew how the movie would turn out, but there was the lingering doubt that maybe there was something I had forgotten or some historical truth that I didn't know existed. Maybe it wouldn't turn out the way I knew it did! To my relief, Secretariat won the Triple Crown of horse racing, and I won the Triple Crown of love and marriage! It was all there, in the movie and in our letters.

During the almost five years of Gwen's illness it was not always easy for me to be her caregiver, and it was harder yet for her, the strong, assertive, independent woman that she was, to consent to my caring for her. Yet, as she made it easy for me to love her during 47 years of marriage, she also made it easy for me to care for her during the years she was ill. After re-reading our letters I can now see in them the core of the love and commitment to each other that would sustain and nourish us not only the through the "for better" parts of our marriage but especially during the "for worse" times. I tried to express this in a poem I wrote:


She saved everything;

I found the letters we exchanged

the year before we wed,

when we lived apart.

They were neatly bundled

wrapped in plastic;

each letter carefully

returned to its envelope.

All were placed in order

day to day, month to month

John wrote to Gwen 137 times,

Gwen wrote to John 134 times.

I read them all,

on New Year’s Eve

and on into New Years Day,

every last one of them,

There was lots of ordinary stuff

like headaches and cold sores

and wedding presents.

Always, love was there--in each letter.

It was a love that would grow

on into the years, until death do us part.

In those 271 declarations of that love,

there was never a waver or doubt.

Death did us part,

as we knew it someday would.

The words in the letters

now carry new meanings.

The one who completed me

has left me incomplete

asking me to pursue our dreams

without her at my side.

I will love you forever

is made more real

each day since she’s gone.

I wish she could write me one more letter.

John A. Bayerl, January 2, 2011

In upcoming blogs I plan to write about events that have occurred since Gwen's death that I choose to see as "letters" from her.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Firsts aren't always best.

Yesterday I had another of what I've come to call my "firsts". The first time I attend an event or activity that I formerly attended with Gwen or as Gwen's husband. This was a monthly gathering of UM retirees. There's always an interesting speaker, and we often met people we knew there. Yesterday there were two of them. One was an ex-neighbor. The last time we saw him was at the UM Comprehensive Cancer Center a year or so ago. At that time he had just been diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer. (Swam every day, never smoked a day in his life.) Yesterday he was happy to tell me that surgeons had been able to remove the cancer, and that he was now "cured". I, of course, was so happy for him, as I am for the many friends and relatives I know who have beaten cancer. Yet, that joy is always twinged with a little jealousy that Gwen wasn't so fortunate. (There, I've said it.) Anyway, the inevitable next question from my friend was, "And, how is your wife doing?" Always a tough one to answer. Others who have walked the trail I am walking tell me that I can expect to encounter this for an indefinite length of time. So be it.

The other person I met at the meeting yesterday was a good friend of Gwen's, also a nurse, who had worked at the Kellogg Eye Center with her. She had indirectly heard of Gwen's death, but was under the mistaken impression that we still lived in Marquette. She was glad to hear from me about Gwen's final days and funeral, and there were lots of tears and hugs. All of this reminded me of my very first "first", about three weeks after Gwen had died. (It's still so hard to type the words "Gwen" and "died" in the same sentence.) The poem is about a breakfast meeting with retirees from the last high school where I worked.


One by one

They shake my hand, look aside

Pat me on the back.

Tell me they’re sorry for my loss.

And they are.

Then they order their French toast

And bacon and eggs,

And continue their conversations

About winter in Florida,

And they laugh at each others’ jokes,

As it should be.

And I wonder

Don’t they know?

Should I tell them?

Twenty day ago

My wife, my sweet Gwen,


And I miss her.

And I miss her.

John A. Bayerl

December 3, 2010

And, happy as I know she is now, I'll bet she misses me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Help me make it through the night.

Sleep is always an issue with those of us who are forced to confront cancer and its aftermath. Sometimes, when depression rears its ugly head, too much sleep is the issue. (A long time ago a friend described depression to me as "Preferrring to wallow in the dirty bath water rather than step out clean.") More frequently, as was, and continues to be the case with me, not being able to sleep is a common occurence. Way back in September of 2009, I had one of those nights where I couldn't sleep, and, rather than fight it, I wrote a poem about it.


At 3:13 a. m.,
when sleep won’t come,
is the time
the many mantras
prolifically parroted
by positivity police
lose their meaning,
and we appreciate
moments in the company of friends
who share and understand
sleepless nights;
when we dare to peer deeply
into the quiet corners
of our hearts,
where the pain lies.

John A. Bayerl
September, 2009

Most nights, Gwen and I had little trouble sleeping because of our pre-sleep ritual. She loved it when I would read to her, and, because of some after effects of total brain radiation, she really liked it if I would scratch her scalp while I was reading. (Sometimes I think it's so silly; these little things we remember that have such great emotional impact now. It's always the little things, isn't it?) So, for many a night, I scratched her head while reading all three of the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series to her. Yes, I read all those Swedish words out loud, as best as I could. Then, we would read something spiriutal or biblical to settle us down for the evening.

The friends I refer to in the poem are those support group members, Gwen's survivor group and my caregiver group, who meant so much to us in our battle with cancer, as well as our many friends and relatives everywhere. The over the top alliteration having to do with the "positivity police" has an explanation. Both Gwen and I always took exception to what we considered to be a simplistic view that if we just stayed "positive" everything would be fine. This isn't to say that we were proponents of a negative point-of-view. We just felt that "positive" was such an arbitrary designation. I often liken it to the posts on the battery in your car; one has a + sign on it, and the other has a - sign on it. That's all there is to it, it's the interaction between those two posts that makes it possible for your car to go down the road, not the + sign on one of the posts. And, isn't that how it is with life? It is the positive energy that is generated in my interactions with the many friends and family who have shown me such love in the days since I lost my perfect partner that helps me through those sleepless nights. Bless you, each one of you.