After Aaron

7 minute read - a month ago - Full Size Images

It's been a little while since I last wrote about you. But in a few days our home will settle, and I think that's a major end to a chapter I shared with you for a long time.

I really searched deep and wide within myself to think of some great title and way to open this post. I think it's because I was hoping that I would somehow have the answers I left Australia to find all those months ago. But in all honesty, I ended up returning with more questions than I left with.

After what was months wandering the globe solo after experiencing what most would consider their worst nightmare, I write, now, to document this experience, and to tell Aaron's continuing story through my eyes. I'll talk about the people I met, the things I did, and the lessons I learned through each moment.

It's also for anyone who might face the unique set of circumstances I do and need reassurance that it is possible to survive. For those who know me well and want to understand how I'm managing. For those who don't know me well to peer behind the curtain. Or to those who may want to learn how some young guy is surviving with something truly devastating.

In my previous articles I've been highly introspective on the way I've navigated my grief and the lessons and mental models for surviving spousal death. This time, though, and through the stories seen from my camera, I want to share these past few months, shedding some light on the parts of this journey I hid from view that I have grown to feel more comfortable sharing now.

I also want to capture what life has been like as I settle back into living in Australia.

Beginning with the Ending

I'm sitting in my new home in Sydney. I'm on a small bench, with a bunch of pillows behind my back that overlooks the water. It's raining at the moment, and I've got some quiet music keeping me company. It's warm in here, especially under my blanket but it's cosy.

I've been at work for a few months now. While doing that I've also moved home to here a few weeks ago. Aaron and I's house settles on the market in a few days to a new couple; and I've resigned to continuing to clean and move out all our old belongings and deferred that to be done by some professional cleaners.

My life is now in an entirely new place, but it's a strange sensation because although I'm in a new place; old familiar emotions and feelings still return.

The Actual Beginning

My husband, Aaron, was diagnosed with cancer on the 23rd of December, 2022 while we were visiting family in New Zealand.

At this point, we had been living together for years. We shared our home with two gorgeous sausage dogs, Betty and Bravo, after the restaurant of our first date. We painted our bedroom green, our front room blue; our kettle and toaster was red. Our living room was guarded by a large magpie painting that I bought for us to celebrate our engagement. A tradition therein of filling our walls annually with a colorful tapestry - with brilliant cartography of French wine regions, to moody dancers, to colorful peaches.

Our home was scattered with wine bottles both filled and empty, a testament to the many parties thrown over the years there. Our living room adorned with a wonderful piano we fell in love with together, where I was granted the privilege of nights listening to his music - and I slowly learning, and returning the favour with my own.

We used to drive to work together, where we would squeeze each other's leg and bid our farewells as we wandered to our respective buildings. The city had a way of pairing our work up in places within walking distance of each other. But despite the proximity, we allowed each other the space to thrive in what was important to us - our careers. Him in finance, and I technology.

Aaron and I's lives were simple. We very rarely fought, and in the rare occasion where there was disagreement, we always settled it before bed. Even after seven years; we always found ways to generate small moments of joy in each others lives. We always ended our texts with I love you. We always hugged each other upon departure, or arrival. We always kissed each other goodnight.

We weren't perfect. And I don't want it to seem as though our lives were some fairytale - because it wasn't. But we truly accepted the flaws in each other, we worked through them, and we put in the work - to make us work. We were confronted with myriad reasons why we shouldn't work. There was a significant age-gap between us which brought social and familial complications in the beginning - which quickly faded as the years together tallied up on the blackboard.

We returned home a few days after he found out, and immediately jumped onto the task at hand. Fighting this wretched illness. And I really mean fighting it. Aaron's job was to get hammered with a cocktail of toxic drugs while mine was to keep everything else running like an oiled machine - hospital appointments, scans, sourcing second/third/hundredth opinions, cooking, cleaning - and occasionally sitting on the floor of the kitchen tiles with my face in my hands just trying to keep it together, because I didn't want to waste the little time I had with Aaron being sad.

An average day for us used to be:

  • A morning of chemotherapy - where I would balance doing some work to kill time and to take my mind off things, while Aaron quietly napped away being slowly poisoned by his chemotherapy
  • an afternoon in the office smashing out as much work as I could - where I spent time with amazing colleagues who were supportive of my insistence to keep working despite what was going on,
  • an evening of cleaning and running errands around for Aaron - such as heating metal utensils because the chemotherapy made touching cold surfaces agonising for him.

Just as I sat down one day, I recall Aaron quietly whispering in my ear that he's in pain but it isn't a big deal, because he saw how big of a day it had been and didn't want to be a burden on me. I remember saltily joking how he always waits until the night, or just before the weekend, just to make sure I couldn't get any sleep or rest - but that we needed to go to hospital, right now. He then (typically) insisted it was okay and that we should just wait, and wait, until eventually his stubbornness would fade and he would finally agree to me dragging him to hospital. I would hurrily pack the car with his favourite blanket, his AirPods (so he can drown out the noise of the ED), some Up & Gos (he loved those) and his PleurX kit (because the ED often didn't know how to use the various valves across his body, so I would have to train them or use our own medical supplies from home).

And yes, I kept working, but that's because Aaron insisted I kept working so I would still have a career to return to after... well, after he wasn't with us anymore. Little remarks like that always destroyed me, because from his perspective he still always tried to think of me and how hard this was. As if trying to fight his own cancer wasn't hard enough, he still found a way to incorporate me into his world view and genuinely care. He would even tell people his story, and remark how "it's always harder for the partner, because at the end of the day, they have to deal with what is and isn't left behind." Aaron was always deeply selfless like that.  

I mean it when I say I spent 2023 wholly focused on making it the absolute best it could be for Aaron. I put my needs behind anything and everything that could have made Aaron's life even just a tiny bit better. I would spend nights in the ED, sitting on a hard plastic stool by his side at 3AM waiting for him to be transferred to the ward - because then I knew he was safe, in a comfortable place and I just wanted to know that he would be okay. Only then did I allow myself to sit in a McDonalds carpark at 4AM, staring at a flickering fluorescent light in the carpark quietly sobbing while the rest of the world seemed to just peacefully slumber the early morning away.

After the next 9 months, where some weeks were easier than others and I could feel a slight resemblance of a normal life again, when we still had hope and the scans were looking good - Aaron died to what we now know was an extremely aggressive esophageal adenocarcinoma (cancer) on the 1st of September, 2023.

My Chapter

If I'm completely honest, for a brief period, I developed a deep level of resentment for the rest of the world. How was it possible that people can exist and navigate the world while mine was crumbling apart? How will I ever find normality amidst the greatest shift in perspective in my whole existence?

I hated the forces that power the universe for deciding that yes, it's Aaron that should be the one to die today.

I was indescribably devastated when Aaron died. And I put every ounce of my strength into trying to remain positive through this - trying to warp what was in front of me into something, anything, that I could draw meaning or strength from.

I’ve always described Aaron’s moment of departure as something “beautiful” and “perfect”, where some people along my journey have looked at me bewildered at how I could talk about my spouse’s death almost with a sense of awe - but others, who saw the depth of love I had for this man - always could really see behind my wide eyes and appreciate that it’s the only way I can deal with this loss in a way that doesn’t destroy me - and I have worked so, so hard to not let this destroy me.

I wouldn’t say the grief has at all shrunk over these past few months, but what I have learned is that instead of wanting the pain to go away, I now accept it as a souvenir. I can confidently now hold up my grief like a receipt shouting look here! Love was once mine! And I’ve done that on this journey.

I'm still writing Aaron's story. But today, on his 50th, I thought I'd share the start of this story through my eyes of the most beautiful man I'll probably ever know.