In 1997, my husband, Denny, was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer that started in his lungs and invaded the rest of his body. His symptoms were so dramatic that he had to be hospitalized for ten days before aggressive chemotherapy could even be started. His prognosis was not hopeful, for we learned there was no cure. Our lives were turned upside-down. I felt that two trains had flattened me—one was cancer and the other was Denny’s approaching death.
I spent each day at the hospital and went home each night and shut the windows and howled a wild primal cry that only I could hear as I stood naked under the shower. I knelt at the side of my bed wailing, not knowing what words to say except, “Help us, help us.” But I returned to the hospital daily and wore a brave face and wondered if Denny could tell that my eyes were swollen. If he did, he never mentioned it. He was too busy trying to persuade his bloated limbs to move so he could get out of bed every fifteen minutes to pee. He refused to give up and focused all of his energy on staying alive. I was torn between believing him or the doctors who said that he would be lucky if he had twelve months left to be with us.
And the doctors were right. Denny died on July 9, 1998, almost ten months after he was diagnosed with cancer.
After Denny died, I needed to talk. Since there wasn’t always someone to listen, I started to write on anything that would take the mark of a pencil. That scribbling became my tool for healing. I grieved, I laughed, and I wrote so I wouldn’t forget what it was like. Writing affirmed that I was alive and that my experiences were important. To my surprise, that writing became a vital connection to others who were alone.
Dancing in my Nightgown is a collection of the stories I wrote after Denny’s death. They show how I dealt with the life-altering experience of losing my life partner and what I did to start over. I learned to embrace the rhythms of widowhood, which wasn’t easy, and I finally realized that my old life was over. Nothing would ever be the same again. It took a few years, but I came to view widowhood as an opportunity to find out what I could do on my own.
I had more to learn than most women. I had never been single before. I was barely nineteen when I married Denny, an old man of twenty-three, and I went straight from my parents’ home to my husband’s bed.
After Denny died, I had to find out how to put gasoline in our car. I was not freeway literate nor had I ever used a computer. Income taxes were what other people did, and I’d never paid the bills myself.
When I looked at a billing statement, I didn’t know what a minus sign by the “amount due” meant. Some amounts due were mysteriously higher each month, but I paid them anyway. When I finally called, my cell phone company said I was so far ahead that I didn’t need to pay the bill for at least three months. And the business manager at Mervyn’s said, “Mrs. Auchard, PLEASE stop sending us money.” I felt like Mrs. Stupid.
I’m still learning, and I make big boo-boos every week. But the road to recovery and self-sufficiency has been as filled with laughter, creativity, connection, and transformation as it has tears, self-doubt, and lonely nights. Now I’m doing so well that I sometimes feel guilty. But after suffering a loss, surviving and thriving are imperative for recovery and should be celebrated. I’m more than content. I’m eager to see what happens next…