I apologize for the long delay in writing here at Phantom City. As many of you know, it has been a difficult year for me. After a gut-wrenching separation from my true love and wife of ten years, she died suddenly on the very day we were set to formalize my return home.
If you know anything of my personal history, I have been through a lot in my sixty years of life. I’ve been through stage four cancer, bankruptcy, and divorce after twenty-five years of marriage. I saw the death of my father, brother, and mother, all in the space of three short years. But nothing could have prepared me for the separation, then sudden death of my true love, my sweet, beautiful wife, Jennifer.
There are some aspects surrounding her death that I am not at liberty to reveal, due to the highly personal nature of that information, and in consideration of the family, but I will share with you as much as I can.
I last saw Jennifer three days before her death. Even separated, we communicated every day or so by text, phone, visit or email. She was an instructor in culinary arts at our local community college. Because she had so few classes, her income was low. As the mother of a teen, my beloved step-son, Thomas, I provided her with more than 80% of her financial support during our nine month separation. That meant that to pay the bills of two households, I was left with less than $50.00 a week to live on, after paying expenses. It was a very difficult time, but I did it gladly from the perspective that by doing so, she would realize that I was the kind of husband that would be there for her, no matter what.
Because of stress, malnutrition, dehydration, and an unconscious sort of martyrdom, in the space of one year, I lost 52 pounds. During our separation, I was hospitalized several times at the VA, for short periods, to try and get me back on the right track. I was put on medication to combat stress. I had a nervous breakdown, unable to stop crying or randomly shaking when an unwanted thought or emotion came. It became increasingly more difficult to do my highly visible, very public job as restaurant manager – I could no longer “fake it.” Let there be no mistake about my practice; I turned to the Gohonzon like never before – not to win my wife back, but to navigate the turbulent sea of suffering that was sinking my ship.
Her death came as a complete shock. The night before her passing, I wrote a letter to her mother expressing my grave concern over her declining health. Jennifer refused to go to the doctor. For two years myself, her son, her mother, her sister, and her ex-husband literally begged her to get medical help, but she refused, saying she hated doctors, and that doctors misdiagnosed her father, who died of kidney cancer at the age of forty.
Her symptoms, which we used the Merck Manual of Medical Information to self-diagnosis were: bruises that turned into hard, dark festering wounds that lasted for months and would leak blood and lymph. She had shortness of breath, heart palpitations, frequent and severe migraines, night sweats, random swollen lymph nodes, blood in her urine, and other symptoms that I just can’t recall now. Anyone of these symptoms would have made the average person rush to the doctor, but not Jennifer. She was all about self-diagnosis and self-medication, and it literally cost her, her life. Our self-diagnosis was discoid lupus erythematosus, a serious, but not necessiarily fatal chronic disease, if found and treated early. The coroner, even on our urging, never tested for that or diabetes, or much of anything. It took 90 agonizing days to receive their cause of death. For the record, Jennifer was just a number on a long list to them, and they didn’t test for much of anything. I was appalled by their backwoods quackery. It was like they put stickey notes with possible causes of death on a dartboard and then had a blind person throw darts at it. The first note they hit was their cause of death. Pathetic!
I was set for her to come to my place that Saturday, September 18th at 10:00 a.m., but she did not show or text me. I tried repeatedly to contact her, but uncharacteristically of her, she did not respond. I drove to her place and her car was there. When I went to the door, the TV was on and after repeatedly pounding on the door, still, no one answered. I began to leave, then remembered I had my step-son’s phone number, so I called him. It was about 11:30 a.m. and he picked up right away, saying that he was sleeping and thought his mom was too. Teenagers!
He went to wake her up and I parked and came to the door which was by then open. The minute I got inside, Thomas yelled his mom was unconscious in the bathroom. He was on the phone with the 911 operator. I ran there and we had to squeeze into the bathroom as she laid upright with her head against the door. The moment I saw her I knew she was dead, but I didn’t know if it just happened. I sprang into action, chanting with a great sense of urgency and desperation. He held the phone up to my ear and I cleared her airway, breathed into her mouth, and started chest compressions while he held the back of her neck up. The 911 operator gave me commands and I told him, “I’ve got it!” He retorted, “How can you have it, I just started to tell you what to do…” I told Thomas, “Hang up on that idiot, I know what I’m doing,” and I did. I was well trained in CPR as a former coporate saftey manager. The EMT’s and sheriff arrived a few minutes later and shooed us out of the bathroom. In just a minute or two, the head EMT gave us the bad news, telling us that she was dead and had most likely been dead for at least several hours. My step-son and I exchanged looks of horror. He started to make calls to his dad and grandmother while I called my daughter, then my boss.
As when anyone dies for no apparent reason, it was treated as a crime scene. My step-son and I answered questions from the sheriff and then the deputy coroner arrived with a litany of her own questions. Soon, my daughter, and the parent of my step-son’s girlfriend arrived. They took him to find his dad, and my daughter and I sat there in stunned silence, waiting for the deputy coroner to finish. They made us leave while the body was taken out of the apartment. My daughter left and I sat there in the apartment and cried until there were no more tears left in my body.
Then came the aftermath. A financial nightmare soon became apparent. Within days of sorting through her bills, I discovered, with student loans and all the other bills or hers that I could find, she left more than $130,000 in debt with zero assets. I consulted with an attorney to find out what I should do and was relieved that anything I did not sign for, I was not obligated to pay. However, I had two credit cards in my name that I had never used with modest limits, and unbeknownst to me, she racked up more than $9000 in credit card debt that I was obligated to pay. All of this financial flim-flam that she conjured meant nothing to me as her death was the only thing that mattered. She left a 15 year old son who had to see his mother’s dead face with that far off look in her eyes, and cold, stiff body – an image I can still not wipe from my own mind or dreams. She left an adoring husband, a sister, mother, step-father, and a large family with countess friends.
There is much more that I cannot discuss, but let me assure you that I can handle death as well as anyone. Although her death was devastating, it was the other details I learned after she died from reading her journals and texts, that pushed me over the edge into what seemed like an endless freefall. I was forced to search for a suicide note because of the strange circumstances surrounding her death, but there was none. The coroner’s office designated her death as accidential.
Now, I am trying to pick up the pieces. My physical body began to rapidly break down and my emotional state deteriorated to the point that I had to resign my job of ten years. My counselor advised me to go on a vacation over Christmas to avoid all the familiar things that would remind me of better times at home. I was scheduled to return, stay a few weeks and train my replacement, but when I returned, my boss had already replaced me. Now, I was out of work, and the income that I thought I would have to tide me over for a month or so was gone. Furthermore, I lived in a building my boss owned, and he asked me to move as soon as possible, giving me less than a month. It was nothing personal, just business.
Is there something that I can share with you about how I was able to overcome the dark cloud of sorrow that had completely enveloped me, threatening my sanity and even my life? Yes, I have had extensive counseling from VA psychiatrists, several psychologists, and my doctor. All of this has been tremendously beneficial, but none of that counseling brought forth that aha! moment.
It wasn’t until I stumbled onto some random literature on grieving that was sent to me by my wife’s former employer, the local community college, that I had my major breakthrough. I cobbled together some of advice that they provided with another idea I had seen somewhere else, but can’t recall. This combination of actions and attitudes, almost immediately broke the curse of sorrow that was stangling the life out of me. Perhaps this approach will work for you or someone you know who is dealing with the death of a loved one and can’t break through or move on.
1. I wrote my wife a long letter expressing what was deep in my heart and mind. The joy of my love, my appreciation, as well as my anger, frustration, and sense of hopelessness. I forgave her and forgave myself.
2. I began to speak to her before going to sleep, as if she were in bed with me, pouring out my heart, yet telling her that I didn’t want to keep her spirit here and I had to let her go. Tears would flow, yet I felt cleansed. Also, when alone, I speak to her as if she’s in the next room. It’s a one way conversation, true, but it’s another way for me to unload the unrequitted emotion and pain that wells up from time to time. This really helps.
3. I set up a small shrine in her honor. It has many of the most precious love notes and letters on a large poster board. It sits on a table with a golden cloth of hers. I put essential oils on it like Egyptian Musk, Sandalwood, Jasmine, and Patchouly Musk, to make her special place gloriously fragrant. These precious, fragrant essential oils were her favorite scents, and when their aroma is sensed, I can feel and visualize her very presence. I put two red candles on the cloth, an incense tray that she made, a meditation chime and striker, and three of my favorite framed photos of us during our happiest times. There are a few personal items of hers on the table that meant a lot to her, including handmade juzu. Each day, after gongyo, I light the candles, burn a stick of incense, and ring the chimes three times. I wait until the ringing of each chime strike to dissipate into soundlessness, then stike it again, until I have rung the chimes three times. In between those strikes, I silently stare at her and the letters and notes, or I just close my eyes and imagine her sweet life, wafting away, like the dissipating vibration of the chime.
By doing these conscious, almost ceremonial acts, my mind, emotions, and my heart are healing more than anything that the counseling has managed to do thus far. I hope these acts or something like this will help you or someone else that is struggling with the heartbreak of losing a loved one.
There’s not much more to tell you other than I had to file for Social Security Disability because I am now physically and emotionally unable to work, but the conundrum is that I must work to just keep a roof over my head. All my savings are gone and I’m staying with a friend while I try to find work. It’s a cold, cruel world out there, but I’m not afraid – that’s what a strong faith in the Lotus Sutra will do for you. For those who might assume or ascribe my situation as botsu or the result of moving away from the organization or the mentor, have your judgmental moment. Enjoy it. Go ahead…smirk, tell yourself or others that that’s what I (or anyone) gets. All I know is that I take refuge in the Eternal Buddha. I take refuge in the Lotus Sutra.
I leave you with this: I will win. Compared to what Nichiren went through, this is nothing. I take great comfort in the fact that with faith and practice of the Lotus Sutra, winter never fails to turn into spring. I’ll let you know how it all turns out. Bless you all for your patience and support.