Leaving the Life: A true story of love, loss and gratitude, by Patrick McKenna Lynch Smith is a brutally honest account of true love, coping with loss and the struggle for survival.
Go inside the private lives of an ordinary couple as their world is turned upside down by a terrifying diagnosis. In the aftermath, one of them touches the cheek of madness, but escapes its embrace. There is a surprise happy ending that not even the author knew was coming. Their journey will leave you grateful for what you do have, and for what you do not have.
This page-turner should be required reading for:
- Anyone who wants to see what it's REALLY like when life as you know it unravels.
- The millions of people whose lives have been affected by serious illness, especially caregivers
- Anyone who has experienced loss, including widows and widowers in search of a story they can relate to
- Friends and family trying to understand what caregivers and the bereaved experience.
- Medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses, hospice workers, clergy, social workers and counselors.
(NOTE: You do NOT need an Amazon Kindle to read this eBook. Amazon offers free apps that will let you read this eBook on any computer, Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.)
- "It was the best and most original thing I've read in a long time."
- "Powerful, painful, poignant"
- "It read like a thriller"
- "I couldn't put it down"
- "elegaic, heartbreaking, bittersweet and touching beyond measure"
- "Anyone who has experienced loss can relate to this astounding and touching story and will want to join the author's journey of one of the most original books that has been written on this subject in a long time"
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EXCERPTS from Leaving the Life
Prologue to Leaving the Life
Without story, there is no meaning.
I found a swing out in the mess of the garage. It was finely made of weathered grey teak, with solid brass fixtures through which passed braided ropes for attaching to a porch ceiling or a tree branch. A handsome swing, wide enough for two people, a sweet thing, but otherwise meaningless. Until I say that this was Claudia’s swing. I gave it to her for her birthday. For twenty years it hung from the branch of the enormous sugar maple in our yard. On early summer mornings, or in the cool of the evening, or during brisk autumn afternoons, Claudia could sometimes be found here, swinging back and forth ever so gently, reading, or simply resting for a few minutes. I have pictures of her in the swing. This was her swing. Heavy winds tossed it about when it was empty. But it was there, always there, a fixture of the life. And now I had come across it among so much junk in the garage, buried in the back. If I had died, and then a stranger had come to clean out the house, this would have been just a swing, just a finely made swing of weathered grey teak. Because meaning is not in the thing, meaning is in the story.
This is the story of what happened to Claudia. And then to me.
From Chapter 2 Nature's Progress Click to open
That fish on the line, well, it looked like a shark to me. And indeed, it was: a mako. I had never seen a live shark before. I was the new guy, the rookie, and I was astonished. I looked about and saw that we were surrounded by the endless blue of sky and sea. No land, no other boats. Nothing. We were, as they say, in the middle of fucking nowhere. And yet we were inviting this very large predator to come on board our little boat.
But this wasn't just any predator. This was a mako shark, which is defined as sharp teeth in a bad mood. It is an aggressive animal, fast and strong, with an absolutely vicious grin.
I stepped back.
The boat rolled toward the shark that was hooked, but still in the water. Bill and Jamaica John gaffed the creature in the head. Then, using the momentum of the boat rolling away, the two men tried to pull the fish through the doorway and onto the deck. But the shark was too fat, too heavy. Captain Bruce and I each grabbed a box hook – a steel hook with a short shaft and a wooden handle. We set the box hooks into the creature’s head, waited for the momentum of the rolling boat, and then all four of us pulled in unison. Still, we could not get it through the doorway. Jamaica John somehow managed to wrap a rope around its tail. We then used the winch and boom – a mechanical means of lifting things that were too awkward or heavy to lift otherwise. The enormous fish came slowly up out of the water. Well, some of it did. The shark was longer than the winch mast was tall. Gaffs were reset, and with the aid of the winch and tail rope and the four of us pulling and tugging, the shark was finally brought on board.
And it was not happy. The beast thrashed about on the deck. Bill hacked at its head with a machete; blood-red streaks appeared at once. The jaws opened and closed. Jamaica John approached it with his knife. Sticking the knife into the area above the eyes, into the brain, and giving the knife a twist would provide a quick death. But the shark was moving about so much that John could not get close enough to stick the knife in. Bill again hacked at the head with the machete. Still, the gargantuan fish thrashed about. Its tail knocked against the legs of the bait table; the table collapsed and baskets of line and hooks went flying. Bill scampered to safety on the hatch covers. Then Captain Bruce appeared with the shotgun. He drew close to the shark and shot it in the head, twice. This certainly slowed the creature down. But just to be sure, Jamaica John put his knife into the skull, gave a twist, and then removed the knife. Finally, the fish was still.
I was enthralled, horrified, mystified. I had never seen such a thing.
Jamaica John guided me through the process of cleaning. First, I severed the cartilage with a saw, removing the head, then the fins. The rest was done with knives. The shark’s skin was tough, and coarse, like sandpaper. With Jamaica John’s guidance, I sliced the beast down the middle. I had been terribly seasick. This did not help. My stomach lurched at the outpouring of blood, slime and bile. Later, back at the dock, it would weigh in at over 600 pounds, so the entrails were enormous, many times larger than those of a human.
As I struggled to remove the innards, Jamaica John sliced open the stomach sac; a small swordfish popped out. My amazement distracted me from my disgust: the swordfish was entire. It had probably just been swimming around looking for something to eat, and instead was eaten, taken from behind, swallowed whole. There wasn't a mark on it.
Then Jamaica John sliced open the swordfish’s stomach and out came another fish.
“Mackerel,” he said.
I was even more amazed. He sliced open the mackerel’s belly and out came something partially digested, unidentifiable.
I glanced over at the shark’s severed, massive head. It lolled from side to side with the motion of the boat. The mouth was partially open in a savage grin. I touched the glistening teeth with the knife blade. The jaws clamped shut. A response of nerves. I jumped back. Another response of nerves.
This creature had been gaffed in the head, several times. It had been hacked at with a machete. It had been shot in the head, at close range, with both barrels of a shotgun. It had been hacked at again with a machete. Its brain had been pierced with a steel blade. Its head had been severed, stomach opened, entrails partially removed. But the jaws were still capable of causing harm. And there was more to come.
I gasped at the sight.
Out of the birth canal slithered three live miniatures of mother. In shape and coloring each was identical to her: blue above the median line, white below, dark eyes and sharp teeth. Their mouths opened and closed as they thrashed about the deck in a mixture of sea water and their mother’s blood.
Are there any questions?
This type of fishing seemed a far cry from my days as a young boy when I used hook and bobber at a neighboring pond, but actually it wasn't. Only the size was different. The situation was the same: whether you’re large or small, aerobic or anaerobic, whether you crawl, swim, fly, walk on four legs, two legs, or slither on your belly, carnivore or herbivore, live in a house or a nest or a burrow, you must endure the backwards logic, the threat of life. Death is a mere consequence; life is the menace, has always been the menace.
Nature sustains Herself by devouring Herself. In this regard, our strange and sleepless Mother is often symbolized as Uroboros, a serpent with its tail in its mouth. Out of that one shark had come the complete circle. A small fish had been eaten by the mackerel; the mackerel had then been eaten by the swordfish; the swordfish had been eaten by the shark; we had caught the shark; the shark had given birth. And now the three squirming baby sharks were swept out through the scuppers, back into the sea.
Round and around.
Nature’s progress is demise.
From Chapter 4 Comparative Deliverance Click to open
I stumbled over the peculiar vocabulary: squamous cell, small cell, non-small cell, adenocarcinoma, doubling time, chemotherapy, resection, adenopathy, restaging.
I researched doctors. There were thousands of cancer specialists all over the world. What about near us, say, in Boston? Hundreds of cancer specialists in Boston. How about lung cancer specialists? This narrowed it down considerably. One name jumped out at me: Dr. David Devonlaker, a thoracic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Would we need a thoracic surgeon? If so, how would we ever get into this expert’s office? I printed out information about his education and training, complete with photograph.
The next morning, Tuesday, just before we left for the meeting with Dr. Gallagher to learn the results of the scan, I called Jon, one of Claudia's brothers. When he answered the phone, I was suddenly overcome by a surprising wave of tension and fear, and found myself unable to speak.
"Hello?” he said. "Are you there? Are you all right?”
I managed to blurt out, "Don't hang up!"
He waited while I regained my composure.
Jon was in the medical industry. He had a doctorate in microbiology and was conducting research on arthritis. A scientist. And we all know what science is about: control. Jon was Mr. In-control, whereas I was a mess. This would turn out to be a pattern between us: me grasping for control, he never relinquishing.
How had I become such a mess so quickly? Because as far as I was concerned, cancer was how doctors spelled “doom.” And my gut told me that Claudia was in trouble. When I was able to speak again, I asked Jon if he knew how we might get into see Dr. Devonlaker. Since Jon was in the industry, maybe he had information about how all this worked. But he had never heard of Devonlaker.
"Besides, you don't even know if it is cancer," Jon said.
Which was true.
"And if it is cancer, then you need to know what type of cancer it is before you can decide what kind of doctor to go to," he said.
He was making sense.
"You're going too fast," he said.
Yes, slow down, Patrick. Slow down.
Claudia and I went to the medical center for our appointment with Dr. Gallagher. We were led to the examination room. We waited. Claudia was quiet, pale. I paced. She didn't like it when I paced.
I sat down beside her.
Finally, Dr. Gallagher arrived, folder in hand. "The report...," she said. She sat down in front of us. She looked at Claudia. "I wish I had better news," she said.
Claudia clutched at me. "Oh God…. No… no...."
"I'm afraid it does look like cancer."
"No. Please, no…."
Claudia put her forehead against my shoulder. "Oh… God… please...."
This was the first death.
From Chapter 5 House on Fire Click to open
The morning was cold. Claudia sat on the chair in the kitchen, a white tissue in her hands. She looked small, childlike, vulnerable. She was weepy. She brought the tissue to her mouth and when she pulled it away, the tissue was tinged with red. The garbage can beside her overflowed with red stained tissues.
"But if I cough and swallow, does that mean the cancer is going to my stomach?”
I paced. I wrung my hands. "I don't know," I said. "I don't know how it works."
"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry," I said.
Coughing up blood?
We had to get her into treatment. We had to speed this process up. Why must everything take so long? I didn't know whether to….
"I wish I had better news," Dr. Gallagher had said.
"You're going too fast," her brother had said.
Yes, yes, slow down, Patrick. Slow down.
The doubling time of a lung cancer tumor may be as quick as sixty days.
Claudia shouted: "Patrick!"
"Sorry," I said, and for a few moments I managed to stand still, as she added another red stained tissue to the pile.
And then I was pacing again.
From Chapter 6 Leaving the Life Click to open
The car was packed. The dog and cat were at the kennel. Our room was booked at the hotel. Claudia was crying. She didn't want to leave. She wouldn't get in the car. We were in the driveway by our house, where no one could hear us or see us, where no one knew what we were doing, where we were isolated in our broken universe, and she was crying, crying hard, almost hysterical.
"I don't want to go!" she shouted.
Now into her voice came sadness, fear, despair. "I don't want to leave my life," she said.
I took hold of her arm, trying to guide her toward the car, but she broke away and ran off a short distance.
I went to her and took a more forceful hold of her arm. I urged her to the car and opened the door. I pushed down on her shoulder, easing her into the passenger seat. I leaned in and fastened her seatbelt.
She was as a child thrown into adult terror. She kicked her feet and cried out: "I don't want to! I don't want to!"
I shut the door.
She looked at me through the window glass. “No…please…I don't want to leave my life.…”
But she did not try to undo the seatbelt. She did not try to open the door.
From Chapter 9 Nothing with Wings Click to open
In order to reduce the chances of an allergic reaction, Claudia had to take a steroid named Dexamethasone the day before, day of, and day after the Taxotere was administered. Steroids can prevent nausea, reduce inflammation and inhibit allergic reactions. They are also typically horrendous because they tend to cause people to swell up, make them irritable, sleepless, and even more irritable. Surprisingly, though, for Claudia, sometimes the steroids were both effective and uplifting, making her even more garrulous than usual. Once, as she sat on the examination table, the doctors stood around and waited, and waited. Claudia wouldn't stop talking. Talk, talk, talk. The doctors couldn't get a word in. Plus, the steroids changed the tone of her voice. Now there was a slightly higher pitch to it, giving it a girlish timbre that was extremely appealing. The doctors looked at one another. They smiled. I smiled.
"What?” Claudia asked. "Am I talking too much?”
And we all laughed.
But mostly, the steroids drove her crazy. She couldn't sit still. She couldn't sleep. “I want to crawl out of my skin!” she said.
She vacillated between anger, irritability and sorrow. One day on our way back from Boston, she told me that she was going to take the rest of our savings and our retirement money and buy a new house and go there to die. I, being a fool, reacted. I was irritated by her irritation.
We stopped at the store to buy groceries. I became even more childish, purposely not getting a carriage for the purchases: let her get the carriage for once. We argued about this and that as we moved through the store, still with no carriage, our arms becoming laden with food, even a carton of eggs. Finally, I asked, “Why the hell can't you take the initiative and go get a carriage for us? Why must I do everything?” After that, we were silent until we were back in the car. Then she broke down crying.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don't know what’s wrong with me.”
She yearned for everything to be normal again, to be cancer free. Tears rolled down her cheeks and dropped to the car floor.
We arrived home. I stopped the car in the driveway. She was still crying. I put my arms around her. She cried. She cried and cried. The sound of it pierced my heart. I never heard anyone cry so completely before. Once again, I was powerless but to hold her.
From Chapter 10 The Long March Click to open
Not only were we physically exhausted from the trips to Boston, we were emotionally and psychologically exhausted, and perhaps most destructive of all, we were philosophically exhausted. Trips to Boston brought nothing but bad news. And more bad news. And then even worse news. Nothing was working. This cancer was unstoppable.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, in reference to the disease. “I’m so sorry, but I….”
She screamed: “Sorry doesn't help me!”
I may have just grabbed what was within reach, or I may have chosen the crystal wine glasses because they were wedding gifts and I knew she cherished them and that to break them would be to genuinely hurt her. Either way, I threw one into the kitchen fireplace. Then I grabbed another and threw it into the fireplace, too. One right after the other, they shattered.
“How dare you!” I shouted. “How dare you get so sick!”
She stormed out of the kitchen, went outside, walked the path, disappeared from view. I paced the kitchen floor.
But soon it was time to go yet again to Boston for yet another treatment of brain radiation, which meant that we would have to sit in the same car with one another, which we did, like reluctant children. She told me I had frightened her when I threw the glasses. I apologized for losing my temper. She accepted my apology, but I don't think she regretted that I had lost my temper. To the contrary, I think my display of anger showed her that she was, after all, not entirely alone. I was not merely a chauffeur, not just an advocate. I was also still her lover, her friend and her husband. I cared enough to be angry. Thousands of people had cancer, millions of people, but I had not thrown a single crystal wine glass into the fireplace over their predicament. For her, however, I had thrown two. So my behavior may well have been confirmation for her, yet another affirmation of my love for her. Our mood lightened quickly as we drove to Boston. We were friends again, in love again, husband and wife again, a team. We arrived for her treatment. We sat in the waiting room. She was smiling, communicative, humorous and playful, right up until the nurse had to call an ambulance for her.
From Chapter 19 Little Bones Click to open
In Charlotte, I met up with my five brothers and sisters. This was a healthy distraction. We talked and laughed.
That Sunday, we all went to church, at Cavalry Church. Whereas our New England churches hold about two or three hundred people, this place had seating for thousands, a gargantuan and spectacular building, with windows soaring three, four, and five stories high. A full orchestra played the music, a full choir sang, and the words to the hymns were projected onto an enormous screen lowered from the ceiling so that the congregation need not bow their heads to read. And then the preacher ruined it all by talking about God. He had a fine speaking voice, with a Scottish lilt, a beautiful accent wasted on religious nonsense. Typically, I received religious discourse and sermon with argument, an inner dialogue of acceptance and refusal, separating wheat from chaff, credible from incredible, but now the arrow went right through me: it neither struck a chord, nor met with any resistance:
“A caring, loving, merciful God….”
“God is looking out for you….”
As I sat listening in the pew I realized that, for me, religion was no longer to be wrestled with, defied, or even ridiculed. My argument with religion was done.
I had been humbled beyond the slightest consideration of religious faith. Hell, I had been humbled beyond repair. And, unless I’m the most mistaken of all creatures ever created, God had nothing to do with it.
After church, we all went out to lunch, and I was astounded by the ease of the world. People sat at tables, in the calm of everyday life, in the privilege and pleasure that a pain-free existence offers, and I was astonished because I was still living life as an emergency. I had forgotten that one might sit and talk and be comparatively idle, with no need to check on pain medications, or to ensure that we would not be late for the next procedure or scan, and then live in fear and apprehension about the results of those procedures and scans.
Morphine. Did we bring enough morphine?
I was the marathon runner who has just crossed the finish line. Yes, yes, I know the race is done but, please, I need to catch my breath. I was still in racing mode. And during that meal that’s literally what I did, several times: I left the table and went outside. To catch my breath.
That life could pass so effortlessly in the placid moments between ordering food and receiving that food, to talk and laugh in the mild of the day, this was something that I did not realize I had been away from, and now, to return, was startling. And painful: I had returned from Hades without my Eurydice.
I don't think anyone in my family was fully aware of my condition. Not even I fully grasped how weakened I had become, frail as a December stalk of wheat. I broke at the slightest breeze.
From Epilogue Life after Death Click to open
...when we are young, we are advised to save as much money as we can for when we are older. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the school of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Of course, the risk with the first is that we might die young, and thus have saved for naught; the risk with the second is that we eat all the food and drink all the wine in our youth, and then live for a very long time. That is the balancing act – how much for now, how much for later.
Before Claudia and I were married, I had purchased an expensive bottle of wine. The salesman was a friend and convinced me this vintage was worth buying and saving for a special occasion. It was a 1983 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. I didn't know anything about fine wines, but on a whim, I bought it.
I didn't take very good care of it. I stored it in the furnace room of our little gatehouse apartment for many a year. That poor bottle endured the heat of summer and the cold of winter. It moved with us to the Killingly house, where it was in the front hall, and then the dining room for more than twenty years. Sometimes it was standing straight up, and sometimes it lay on its side. Then it moved with us to the lake house.
.... I came across that bottle. It was stuffed in a box under the bed in the back room; one of the many boxes we never got around to unpacking in the midst of her illness. The label was peeling and smudged with dust. I held the bottle in my hands and considered: had there really never been an occasion for Claudia and me to drink that wine? Not one? After all those years? Was no birthday, job promotion or other celebration worthy? How about the first or even fifth wedding anniversary? Or the tenth? Fifteenth? Twentieth? Absurd! ....
So I took that bottle to Claudia’s sister, and she and I and her husband drank it together. It was delicious – flavorful, light, almost airy. The occasion? The drinking of the wine was, in and of itself, the occasion.
Burn the reserve!