Though I am not a person generally given to noting anniversaries, I am writing now in commemoration of one. Ten years ago—on October 8th, 1999, at about the time of this posting—my first wife, Joellen Thomas, died after a five-year fight with bone cancer.
I am not a particularly sentimental person—though maybe it is more accurate to say that I try not to be publicly sentimental. When I write that I do not care much about anniversaries, what I mean is that I don’t feel as though I should assign celebration, or grief, or love, to one day more than any other. Am I happy to be married, only one day a year? No. And yes, I was, and am, devastated by Joellen’s death—but I want to believe I grieve her, and remember her, just as often on October 7th and October 9th as I do on the 8th of every year.
But ten years is different. I am a fiction writer, which means, in part, that what I do is see order in chaos; I look at the world, and, as a representative of a sentient, pattern-making species, I seek out particularly complex and meaningful patterns. A decade may mean nothing to a dog or a tree, but it means a lot to a person. And, it turns out, to me. Ten years feels substantial, noteworthy. For ten years I have been trying to move on, to survive. But now, all of a sudden, I feel like I’ve come too far, that time has moved faster than I wanted it to.
Maybe it’s because I’m pushing forty, and I time seems like a betrayer whenever and however I consider it. Maybe it’s because I’m finishing a book that has made me think a lot about grief, and about Joellen. Or maybe it’s just because a decade is a natural point of breath for us. I am deeply embroiled in plans and patterns that keep me busy and fulfilled. And ten years ago, this morning, a previous decade’s plans and patterns were destroyed.
Those plans had everything to do with being married for a long, long time to a wonderful, kind, brilliant, beautiful woman I’d met six years before, in 1993, at Miami University of Ohio. They were my only plan, really. A career? Writing? Teaching? Whatever. I had met Joellen Thomas, and, against all odds, Joellen Thomas had told me she loved me, and what else did I need to do?
That Joellen had gotten very sick, not long after I met her, was incidental to me and to my—our—plans. But she was sick, and at the last, just after our marriage, she got so sick I could no longer pretend that cancer didn’t matter. One afternoon, in the Arthur James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, a counsellor entered Joellen’s room, and, instead of the usual drill—speaking with Joellen and ignoring me—turned to me and asked if I wanted to talk. That’s when I finally understood how much trouble she, and I, were in. And then a few days later, Joellen’s heroic oncologist told her, at her bedside, that he could do nothing more for her. And then Joellen came home from the hospital. And then nurses came to our home. And then one day they brought an oxygen tank. And then, one sunny morning in October, while her family and I all had our hands on her, Joellen took a breath, and did not take another.
Ten years is a long time. It is a longer time than I knew Joellen, by several years. It has been time enough for me to redo my plans. To write a new life for myself.
Ten years has been time enough for me to meet and fall in love with another beautiful, wonderful woman, Stephanie Lauer. To marry her. To write a book and move to Nevada—near the mountains I always wanted to see from my window—and to work at a terrific job at a terrific school. To depend on my old friends, whom I love very much, and to meet and love many excellent new friends. To become the sort of man who doesn’t feel the need--as I used to, when Joellen had just died and I was very lonely—to tell strangers about her. I have said the following so often that the words threaten to lose their meaning: The man I was, then, would never have believed that he could be so happy, now.
And yet I am happy. And that is not only because of my work. I am a lucky, lucky man. I am lucky in love, in my friends, in my career. I have to know this.
It’s more complex than that, of course. More than once, every day, I stop and remind myself that I am lucky not only in the wake of tragedy, but because of tragedy. That while I most certainly would have been happy, had Joellen lived, I am certainly happy, now, here, because she died.
I do not know how to make any sense of this. There may be no sense to make. After Joellen died I could either live, or die, and I have never wanted to die. Joellen would have wanted me to be happy. We spoke, now and then, when I would listen, of what I would do when she was gone. Joellen told me, before she died, to write. She gave me permission to love someone else. Remember me, she said. Neither of us were religious (we were atheists in the foxhole)—Joellen did not die, thinking she was going to rise to a heaven—but she wanted to be remembered on this earth, by those who would and could. By me.
And so I do. I remember her every day, and not only in my mind. I remember her also in my choices. In the way I try to live my life, in the way I try to love the people I love. I fail—every day I fail—but it may be that I am mostly happy because I can look back at these last ten years and think I have remembered Joellen, in part, by being the man whose potential I think Joellen saw in me. My only regret, now, is that I did not yet know, when she was alive, how to be the man I became when she was dead.
This is not true. I have one other regret: I do not speak of her enough.
Anniversaries exist because of the observer and the observed, I’ve talked about the observer enough.
But it is difficult to speak of the dead. It is difficult for me to speak of Joellen. When I mention her to my friends, now—those who knew her and those who did not—I always feel a hitch, a pause, between us. I don’t blame anyone for this. It’s simply how we are. We keep looking forward, we keep talking about happy things. When I say Joellen’s name, people might think I want to take the conversation to a different emotional level. Maybe in the pause, they are assessing me: How damaged am I? Is a revelation about to come? Does he need to cry? Does he need something?
Sometimes this is exactly what’s going on. But sometimes I simply need to talk about a time in my life that was important to me. Sometimes I am just remembering. And too often, I think, I let myself be quiet. To keep my remembering to myself.
At home, by necessity, I say little—I don’t ever want Stephanie to feel less loved, or as though our house is haunted. And in the classroom, I must say little—I want my students to think they can write freely about, say, cancer, without imagining me and My Sad Story waiting on the other end to tell them how they got it all wrong.
Let me be clear. I’m criticizing no one but myself. I understand why all of this is the way it is. But I am writing this because, here on the tenth anniversary of Joellen’s death, I find myself losing bits of her. My memories are, in places, eroded. I remember our big emotional marks, but I struggle, now, to remember quieter times. Domesticity. Little kindnesses. I remember the timbre of her laugh, the look on her face—but why was she laughing?
Part of it is age, and distance. But I do wonder whether some of this erosion is happening because I don’t say her name enough. Maybe it’s because I am happy, and the cost of happiness is not often enough addressed. Maybe in trying to be circumspect I am forgetting, too often, the full nature of her bravery, which almost always involved tact and consideration, but never, ever, involved silence.
Maybe it’s because I live now in a place she never lived. Maybe it’s because I spend the vast majority of my time talking and laughing with and teaching people who never knew her. To them she’s only a story.
Ten years have passed. Maybe it is time to tell her story again.
Joellen Thomas fought. I say that word, fought, but do you know what it means? It means that, in her early twenties, after a bad engagement to a bad man, when she thought she was past the worst moments of her life, Joellen was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma: bone cancer. The worst cancer, her doctor told her, in the worst possible place: laced through a tiny loop at the bottom of the right wing of her pelvic bone. If you want to live, she was told, you’re going to have to fight hard.
And she did. This is what it means to fight hard: Over the next six years, Joellen underwent torment the likes of which few humans can understand. A yearlong course of the most intensive chemotherapy the doctors thought she could stand. A surgery that cut out part of her pelvic bone and left her leg two inches shorter than the other. And then, when the cancer recurred: a second yearlong course of chemo. But that chemo was cake, compared to a procedure called a hemipelvectomy—the amputation of her right leg and hip. Joellen was told she would not walk again, in the wake of it. However, she located a new prosthetic that might allow her to do so, and, with its help, she did indeed teach herself, again, to walk, with the use of a cane. The cancer recurred and recurred. She underwent numerous surgeries to remove metastatic tumors in the soft tissue of her abdomen and in her lungs—including one procedure that cracked her ribs apart from the front, as though she was having surgery on her heart. At the end she went through a monthlong course of experimental radiation.
This is what it means to fight hard: While undergoing these treatments, Joellen completed a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition at Miami University of Ohio. Then she finished a master’s in women’s studies at Ohio State. Then, after she graduated, she took a job in downtown Columbus, providing resources to battered women’s shelters around the state.
She fought. She fought the disease. She fought insurance companies--in particular, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, who dropped her coverage two years before her death. (We were lucky she qualified for Medicaid; if Joellen were alive, you can be damn sure she’d be fighting for a public option.) She fought for women’s rights. She fought for her students. She fought for her sister and her mother and her father and her friends.
And, though I can still barely believe it to be true, she fought for me. For our wedding, for our marriage, our future.
But here’s the thing. She never thought of it as fighting. She never thought of herself as brave, and was offended that anyone else would. She thought of what she did as her duty, for her loved ones, for those who had less than she did. But she stayed alive as long as she could because she liked to be alive. To work and to play and to love. She would not want to be remembered as someone brave, but sick. She wanted to be remembered as Joellen.
But what can I tell you? I remember her laughter; she laughed a lot. She might have been laughing because I told a bad joke. Or a good one: one night I read aloud to her an entire long essay by David Foster Wallace, and we both laughed so hard it hurt. Her sense of humor was wicked, sarcastic, but sometimes she laughed because small things pleased her. She loved music: the Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Sting. (“Fragile.”) We bonded over music; our first date was a Tears for Fears concert in Cincinnati, and I have some old emails in which we quote Steely Dan lyrics back and forth to each other. Oddly, she loved Harvey Danger. Also Christmas songs. Her love for The X-Files bordered on obsession. She loved animals, most of all her cat Midnight, but kept Animal Planet on TV as background noise. She loved babies, and wanted one of her own. She loved books. She loved a glass of wine, and maybe two (before she got sick she told me of a night she’d gotten so drunk that she curled up in a parking lot and went to sleep, mistaking a concrete bumper for a pillow). She loved Diet Coke more than alcohol. She loved her friends deeply. (She loved my friends, too, for which I am grateful.) She loved to sit beside the front window of our apartment, which looked out on the branches of a tree; she loved the leaves in spring and summer. She insisted on wearing makeup, even though not a soul who knew her thought she should. She talked to her mother every single day. She was obsessed with the death of Princess Diana. She liked stuffed animals. She’d been wild, once; she told me that one time, in high school, she’d jumped between two moving cars on a country road. She knew how to curse, especially when she drove. Sometimes she cursed with me, sometimes she cursed at me; she was not shy about expressing her opinions, though her anger never lasted long. Her voice was just a little bit raspy, as though she smoked, but she didn’t.
She fought for all of that. To be herself. To keep on living, as herself.
She would not want her life to be a lesson. To be reduced. It would either anger her or embarrass her or both. And so I come to the end of this not knowing how to make a summary statement.
When I began, I had vague designs on urging you to action. To donate your money or time or both to a cause that Joellen would have fought for: women’s rights, health care reform, animal rights. The general and continuous and endless fight against the world’s fools. And by all means, if you have been moved by this, do those things. Write a check, call your representative. Be a force in the world.
But that’s not enough, is it?
And here, again, we come to grief. The observer must imagine the observed. Joellen would tell me how to end this, but since she is not here, the responsibility to do so, and the failure to do it right, is mine.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the pattern, the meaning, I can find in the chaos and the loss: Joellen lived the sort of life that doesn’t allow for easy summation. She was herself, and because she was herself, she cannot be an essay, she cannot be a sentence, she cannot be a story or a lesson. However we remember her, she was more, and more, and more.
Until ten years ago, on this day, Joellen Thomas was alive.
What more could I possibly say?