2016-06-30
Editor's Note: On Saturday, January 29, 2000, Gil Schamess died at his home at the age of 34, just six months after learning he had metastatic liver cancer. Before his death, Gil and Lisa wrote a column for Beliefnet on their struggle to live with his illness. Now in this ongoing series, Lisa writes of her new life with their 15-month-old daughter, Mona.




Mona discovered her shadow yesterday. It was there at the playground, dark and definite against the bright sand. My own shadow was less distinct, thrown up in crazy angles onto the slide. I pointed and said, "Mommy." Mona took it in briefly, the same way she briefly considers pictures of Gil when I show her. Then she was off and running.

She can climb almost anything now, but needs my help to get down. Little is safe from her grasp, and I can scarcely keep up, snatching plants and knickknacks and beloved mementos out of her hands in the nick of time. "No," I say, and "Danger" if the object is sharp or breakable or poisonous. I'll have to do better than this soon. I'll have to put even more things away.

Already I'm making changes. I am beginning to look beyond the days of Gil's beloved clutter of collections, beginning to restore my pre-marriage aesthetic of clean corners and plain surfaces. The sealed boxes are piling up in the basement, and slowly I am relinquishing things of Gil's I always loved, finding homes for them with our family and friends: the pots and vases he threw, his old fountain pens, all the gorgeous ties and tailored shirts, the New Englander's ton of wool sweaters and assorted foul weather gear. Some days I want it all away, away, away, and on those days I have to stop myself from hauling all of it to the alley. Other days I unpack the boxes I just taped up. And on those days I have to hold myself back from repeopling the shelves with those sharp edges and breakables.

It's no wonder my shadow is half on the ground, half climbing who knows where. I am neither fish nor fowl, neither young mom nor old widow, unwilling to cleave to my past but not yet coupled with my future, numb with anxiety one moment and cocky with plans the next. The only given is that I am still standing after a year in the grey zone. That's cancer's blessing and curse: time to become accustomed to the devastation, guilty nights spent wishing toward an end, a fat downpayment on grieving that has left me confused but ahead of the game, or so I hope.

The house we bought together is a precarious shelter for mourning like this. Even after parting with so much, I still come face to face with the art Gil framed, still spend hours prone on the comfortable sofa he died on, the one we only just paid for. A door upstairs is off its hinges, we're running out of air filters I don't know how to order, and our shared basement office is full of projects I can't even look at, much less finish. Day by day I carry out Mona's soothing routine, feeling like a big cheat for teaching her life can be safe and happy when it simply is not.

"I'm not afraid of dying." That is my mother's voice, circa 1969. I was six and puzzled and worried. I don't remember who had died recently, or whether I had simply awakened to the fact of death as a constant all around me. We folded laundry together and watched the Viet Nam War unfold on TV.

"Do you think it hurts?"

"Sometimes," she said. Her death 22 years later, at 63, of liver failure that may have been caused by a drug reaction, would actually itch, then burn, then destroy her in a low flame of anger and disappointment.

"Where do we go after?"

"I don't know," she said. "I guess it doesn't concern me much. I like it here, and I am planning to be an old, old lady."

Most days our housekeeper, Elaine, was also in the house, and on those days my mother often disappeared into her room or out into the bright summer day to study for her master's degree. I climbed into Elaine's lap as readily as I did my mother's, and I surely must have asked Elaine the same questions. I don't remember specific answers, but I grew up knowing Elaine believed in the healing power of Jesus and prayers, in heaven's mercy, in enduring life on earth to receive that final reward. She minded her business and mine too, for most of my childhood, picking me up from school and walking me home through the quiet streets. Her answer to most puzzling issues was "Oh, dear!" Always with a little laugh.

This past Christmas Elaine sent me a brief card: "I know how hard it is for you, because I am going through the same thing myself." I thought she meant she was also caring for her husband, and in my turmoil never answered her card. When I received a call from her sister a month after Gil's death to say Elaine had just died of the same liver cancer that had killed Gil, I simply sat alone watching shadows gather in the clean corners of my cozy house.

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