Archive for the ‘Cancer’ Category

Be Ginger Rogers: how to talk to widows and others who are grieving

31 July 2010

This essay aired 30 July 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 WVPE. 


“The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief”


I am here today, dear listener, to help you better understand how to talk to a person who has had someone very close to them die. It is not an easy task because everyone who mourns mourns differently and has different needs from their social encounters. I offer you this suggestion: be Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers did all that great dancing with Fred Astaire, but in high heels and backwards and with a smile on her face.

This means that the person in mourning is Fred Astaire to your Ginger. And you need to follow their lead, hyper aware of every nuance of the encounter: listen closely to what the person is saying and try to discern where they want the conversation to go: are they pushing here, pulling there. I cannot emphasize enough the need to mindful of the direction they are taking you, not the direction you want to take them.

I say this because two and a half years ago we learned that my husband had cancer and in October of 2009 he died. And because he was well liked by many in our large circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from the Michiana community. But at times this outpouring became almost too much for us to bear, for every time we went to the grocery store for months afterwards, even as recently as last month, we would run into people who hadn’t seen us since he died and who were eager to express their sympathy. This may sound cold, but we had been living with the illness and death for so long, and often we would run into two, three, four people we knew at the grocery store who would, of course, want to know how we were doing, and we just didn’t have the energy to keep condoling every time we went out.

We craved normality and a break from our sadness. We just wanted to go to the grocery store and have it be a fun outing. Instead, the face of almost everyone we ran into fell when they saw us. I so appreciated the friends who followed my lead when I chirped that we were doing great and who didn’t press us with a second, more serious, “But how are you all doing.” The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief, describing my insomnia (or worse, my children’s insomnia) or the crushing pain that feels as if it is reducing my bones and organs to the ashes that my husband’s body has become when the enormity of his absence does sometimes compute for me and I feel utterly bereft.

Going out in public became particularly difficult for my children. To be reminded continually of their loss, to be asked constantly to condole and grieve, to have friends only be sad with them became extremely trying and they would often excuse themselves from these conversations.

We began complaining too much about this until we started reminding ourselves that this wouldn’t be happening if so many people did not truly care about us. This became my mantra to myself and my children until one day I finally realized that these friends were also grieving Scott’s loss, that they missed him and were working through their grief as well, a grief they had in common with us.

So, what to do? Be Ginger Rogers, beginning with my friend April’s advice: smile warmly and say “It’s good to see you,” or make some other positive acknowledgment of the person before you instead of the loss surrounding them. Save the grief talk for a private moment. or, better yet, write a note to your friend. My favorite notes, the ones I absolutely treasure, are those from people who described how evident Scott’s love was for me.

Sometime this past spring I read a letter in the newspaper from a woman who complained that no one in her community would talk to her about her husband’s death, not even when she would bring up the topic. I was immediately struck by the very opposite experience this woman was having. But then I realized that she had lost her husband twice, both in her home and in her community. I have the solace of knowing that if I need to talk about Scott or my pain, there are so many of you out there ready and willing to dance that dance with me. In high heels and backward.

Husbandless Wives

12 June 2010

This essay aired 18 June 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 FM WVPE. 

“She…held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, revealing an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo. She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.”

I recently traveled out of state to the university where I earned my master’s degree 22 years ago to begin a program for an advanced certificate of study.  I learned a staggering amount about rare books and paper in the two courses I took over a two-week intensive session.

But the biggest lesson I learned began on my first day back in that beloved University town where I met and fell in love with my husband 24 years ago.  I had dinner with his mentor, a woman who from that time onward took great pride in his professional accomplishments and who loved him like a son.  This was also my first opportunity since his death to talk with another widow.

As we were comparing stories, I noticed that after more than thirty years of widowhood, she still wore her wedding band.  This surprised me, though I understood.  I myself have not been able to remove mine nor to change my status on Facebook. I have told myself that I can wear my wedding band as long as I still feel so married.

When I returned to my hotel that night and went to the bar to cash-in my coupon for a complimentary drink, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and two sisters in their sixties who had very recently attended a family reunion in Mishawaka.

After talking quite a bit about how much the Michiana area has changed in the decades since the sisters had grown-up here, they started asking me questions about myself.  When I disclosed that I was recently widowed, the bartender, who also wore a wedding band, told us that she, too, was a widow of 12 years.  She reached down into her purse,  took out a black-and-white snapshot of her husband taken sometime in the mid seventies, held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, revealing an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo.  She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.

I was flabbergasted.   Unlike a wedding band that is easily removed, she had marked her heart as his for the rest of her life.   This woman was not much older than me, yet by indelibly marking herself with his image, she had closed herself off from falling in love again.  For what man would make love with a woman with a 2 by 3 image of her dead husband staring him in the face?

I learned that night that I will not be wearing my wedding band for years to come because I want to be open to the possibility of love, and maybe even marriage, again some day.  But doing so means letting go of my beloved.

Grieving is a process of many big and small goodbyes.  Every day during my two weeks in that University town where we fell in love,  I walked through the quad,  back and forth from the parking lot to my class room, avoiding a certain path.  It wasn’t until I left my last class that I was able to walk on the sidewalk where Scott first told me he loved me, the moment, in my heart, that cemented us together.  Just ten months ago we had stood in that same spot, celebrating that first declaration of love, kissing, crying, holding each other very close.  Eight weeks later he was dead.

I breathed in deeply as I walked through that precious space on the sidewalk, as if I could breath Scott in through time and into my soul.  I said a goodbye.


He was everywhere and nowhere.

Chronicle of a Death Told in Facebook Postings

8 March 2010

This essay aired 12 March 2010 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM as a contribution to Michiana Chronicles — a nice wedding anniversary present for Scott.  

Elizabeth Van Jacob and Scott learned that, like creatures from a horror movie, Scott’s tumors have again repaired themselves and grown significantly. Scott will no longer receive treatment for his condition. We are meeting with hospice later this week.  September 23

Elizabeth Van Jacob is taking a leave of absence from work effective immediately to live la dolce vita with her dolce amore.  September 24

Elizabeth Van Jacob just shared the very last cherry tomato of the season with Scott in the garden that was ours and ours alone.  September 26

Elizabeth Van Jacob is so very pleased that as Scott comes out from under the fog of the chemotherapy drugs, his inner light is shining through brighter than ever.  September 27

Elizabeth Van Jacob was amazed at how cheerful and matter-of-fact the hospice nurse was about driving from Elkhart to South Bend after midnight.  October 1

Elizabeth Van Jacob observes that while Scott’s body declines rapidly, the light within burns determinedly.  October 6

Elizabeth Van Jacob is glad this chilly morning to finally fulfill this inexplicable urge she has had the last couple of days to cover Scott with a cozy blanket.  October 7

Elizabeth Van Jacob sadly watched her husband say goodbye to his dear friend.  October 7

Elizabeth Van Jacob‘s Scott is fading fast. We are all snuggling together on the sleeper sofa in the living room, reminiscing, singing Christmas carols, expressing our love. No phone calls, please. Scott cannot hold the phone or focus his attention for conversation.  October 8

Elizabeth Van Jacob just kissed Scott goodnight.  October 8

Elizabeth Van Jacob notes that in the 8,000+ days she has known Scott, yesterday was the first that he did not have a bite to eat. After a restless night, he is finally sleeping. Unfortunately, every time he starts to fall asleep, he thinks he has to say his final goodbye to us. Scott really enjoyed hearing all the messages and emails everyone sent yesterday. Thanks for being with us through these final days and hours.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob is glad that Scott said goodbye to family and friends and had a delightful spurt of energy and lucidness while hanging out with his girls last night. The Scott we were with yesterday is no longer here today since he is barely conscious. It is difficult for me to fathom that I will never really speak with him again. I am overcome by a profoundly sad and lonely feeling.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob and Neil Young are singing Harvest Moon to Scott via youtube. Neil is a great back-up singer.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob reports that yesterday a Becky daisy blossomed in her garden; they usually finish blossoming in mid August. When Scott was wooing me, he brought me a big bouquet of Becky daisies.  I still see him dressed in a white t-shirt, his long blonde hair illuminated by the late afternoon sun glowing behind him as he held them out to me. Scott died at 4:41 this morning.  October 10

Elizabeth Van Jacob requests that friends attending tomorrow’s memorial approach her children with upbeat voices and give them quick hugs. They crave normality at this very difficult time.  October 14

Elizabeth Van Jacob is grateful to everyone who also played the youtube video of Neil Young last Friday night and sang Harvest Moon to Scott from Vermont to Indiana to Oregon to Thailand, across town, across the continent, across the ocean, and half way across the globe. Thank you for helping usher Scott so tenderly out of this world. If ever there was a prayer that was one.  October 16

Obituary for Scott Van Jacob

19 October 2009

Scott Van Jacob was born 16 July 1956 in Klamath Falls, Oregon and grew up on cattle ranches in Klamath County. Scott was a devoted husband and father who loved his wife and daughters deeply and took great delight in their lively spirits. A devoted father, he rarely ever brought work home and spent his evenings playing and reading aloud with his family.

Scott attended Oregon College of Education where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. and co-founded a chapter of Big Brother/Big Sister; after his studies in Monmouth, he taught at an American school in Medellin, Colombia for 18 months. Scott then earned his Masters in Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he met and wooed his wife. Professionally, Scott was a highly regarded Latin American bibliographer who was awarded both the President’s Award and the Foik Award at the University of Notre Dame during the 14 years he worked there. Beyond Notre Dame, he forged strong professional relationships with Latin American bibliographers around the country and with librarians and book dealers in Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain.

An accomplished amateur runner, Scott won the Harrisburg Mile at the age of 38 and had a personal best time of 4:07. Scott dabbled successfully in the yeast arts, producing delicious beers and breads. A summer’s barbecue on the porch with family and friends was his idea of a perfect evening. He was a voracious reader who had an encyclopedic knowledge of running statistics and an impressive collection of track and field biographies. He had the great fortune of overseeing the acquisition and study of an important collection of manuscripts of his favorite writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Scott loved to travel, and he and Elizabeth and their daughters explored North America from sea to shining sea, much of South America (particularly his beloved Argentina), and lived for a short time in Barcelona where Scott studied Catalan-language publishing.

Scott is survived by his wife Elizabeth, his daughters Nina and Gemma, and his step-daughter Amy. He has joined his mother, Lois Field, who passed away over a year ago. Scott is also survived by his father Norman Jacob, step-mother Jacque, brothers James Jacob and David Jacob, and step-brothers Robert Edwards, Mark Wolter, Phillip Wolter, and Gregg Jacob, as well as dear friends Norman and Maureen Eburne. He will be deeply missed by his wife’s family and the many dear, dear friends he leaves behind.

A celebration of his life will take place on Thursday 15 October, from 1:00 until 4:30 at Pinhook Park Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.  In Oregon, a celebration of his life will take place on Sunday 15 November from 1:00p.m. until 4:00p.m. at Gentle House 855 Monmouth Ave N in Monmouth, on the campus of Western Oregon University. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Van Jacob Family Education Fund at Notre Dame Federal Credit Union.

Scott Van Jacob was well loved by many. He had seemingly infinite patience and kindness, was gentle and loving, ready to help anyone who was in need. He was the kind of person who not only saw the glass as half full, but who also appreciated the beauty of the glass itself and the contents therein. Though he called the Midwest home, Oregon and its saw-toothed horizons, its mountains and fields and rivers, reigned in his heart.

He was also a great kisser.

Across the Universe

26 August 2009

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in March 2009.

One day, six or seven, maybe even eight years ago, three large, yarn-filled cardboard boxes arrived at my front door, sent to me by my beloved mother-in-law in Oregon.  When I called her to thank her, she told me that she did not want to die and have people find all that yarn in her house and think she was crazy.  I informed her that everyone already knew that she was crazy, but loved her all the more for it.

There were many beautiful and expensive yarns in the box, some in skeins, some in partially knit projects long ago abandoned.  This collection doubled my already respectable stash and seemed to me an embarrassment of riches.  Many of the colors were not to my taste: where I prefer rich tones, my mother-in-law preferred pastels.  She also had a weakness for mohair, a yarn that drives me berserk.

Last week I finally found a pattern for a pair of fingerless gloves I wanted to make for myself: simple in design with an eyelet pattern at the end giving it a sweet, interesting touch.   The only problem was that the pattern called for a yarn in a size (weight, in knitting terms) that I have not worked in.  I just was not up to doing the math to figure how to use the yarns I had on hand, when I thought that I should dive into my stash to see if there was anything in there I could use.

I will confess to you, dear listener, the vast extent of my stash: I have two cedar chests, a basket in my living room, and six tote bags full, as well as a new collection that I will tell you about shortly.  I used to think of myself as a fiber slut, but I realized when I absolutely had to turn my car around and go back to the yarn shop in Valparaiso that I had just spent three hours in so that I could buy the Mistletoe-colored sock yarn for my youngest child, that I was instead a color slut.  When I confessed this epiphany to the talented and prolific knitter who was ringing me up again, she looked at me knowingly, almost painfully, and said, “I know.  It’s almost as if they are calling you.”

No one else in my house knits, but they all exclaim with delight when they see the cedar chests full of yarn thrown open like treasure chests full of sparkling jewels.  I adore my family for responding that way.

Sure enough, in one of the cedar chests there was a bag of DK yarn from my mother-in-law, an abandoned pair of matching children’s sweaters.  She must have put it down for too long, forgetting how quickly very small children grow, and when she picked it up again, there was barely enough yarn for a sweater for one child.  Much to my delight, I found in that bag a few balls of a deep, reddish purple of which I am particularly fond, and a couple of balls of a deep dusty-purply- rosy pink that provided a gorgeous complimentary contrasting color.

My dear, dear friend April was over for a visit that day, and I began the project as we chatted away an early afternoon.  After she left, I looked at the couple of inches I had completed and thought, “I can make something prettier.”  I pulled out my Vogue Knitting where I found an intriguing stitch pattern for the body of the glove, tracked down a pattern for the gusset from an Interweave Knits magazine, used the original pattern’s eyelet ending, and bound it off with technique from my Vogue Knitting that I had never used before.  I felt such a sense of pleasure and accomplishment as my eyes danced up the deep reddish-purple crossed-diagonal rib to the dusty-purply-rosy pink eyelet finale with the spot-on perfect bind off.

I visited my mother-in-law for the last time exactly a year ago this week.  Her always plump, tireless body was now delicate and frail, rapidly losing the battle to cancer.  A lifelong sufferer of ADHD, she lamented to me in private how torturous it was for her to have to sit in a chair day in and day out in the house her parents built over eighty years ago on the farm whose daily chores had given her ADHD an outlet.   The third round of chemotherapy had adversely affected her brain and she asked me to teach her to knit again so that she would have a pleasing activity to help pass the time.  She was barely able to grasp the needles and was completely unable to grasp the motion of pulling one loop through another to create a knitted fabric.

To see this woman who so delighted in yarn and knitting, who taught herself how to knit while struggling through the lessons of AA some 30 years ago,  unable to tap into the pleasure and solace that the colors and rhythms of knitting gave her, absolutely broke my heart .  She was stoical about her inability to reclaim her beloved craft and gave me her collection of needles to take home with me.

A few weeks ago, two immense, yarn-filled cardboard boxes arrived on my doorstep, sent to me by my beloved brother-in-law a few weeks after the funeral.  My mother-in-law had died with a house full of yarn, this time increasing my stash by at least 25%.  But this time when I opened the boxes, the colors and textures of the yarns danced from Lois to me across the universe as I laid them out in my living room.  I don’t know where she is now, but with these needles and this vast quantity of yarn, she remains in my hands and in my heart, lifting my spirits and soothing my soul.