On February 1, 2013, we celebrated Robynn’s 61st birthday in the gathering hall of her church in rural Missouri. The room was filled with people whose lives she filled: old friends, parents she parented alongside for over thirty years, a decade worth of swim team kids, fellow teachers, students, church friends, neighbors, and the people that filled the lives of her husband Dan and their two sons. It was a love fest. And she was thrilled. At least, she seemed to be thrilled. Robynn was seven months deep in her fight against brain cancer.
She was in a wheelchair with limited physical abilities and limited speech. We were unsure of her cognitive abilities. We searched for slight turns of the mouth, tiny breathy words, a brightness in her eyes.
I miss her terribly, my mother-in-law. She had been a mother to me since the day I walked into the family with her son Bin six years prior. She had a way of knowing your favorite dinner and having it ready for you when you walked in the door, of knowing when you needed a walk and talk, a cup of coffee, or a new dress. She cared deeply. She was logical, gentle, easy to talk to about anything. She kept her word. She was my example of a loving, working marriage. She was Bin’s first love. She demonstrated to me that giving yourself to love was worth it. She grounded me in this human dimension, taught me that walking through it was possible and could even be good. I had never known a love like hers.
Bin and I received the phone call from Dan in July of 2012 while we were visiting friends in a beach house in Cape Cod. Or was it a series of phone calls? It’s all a blur now. Headaches, CT scans, tumor, brain surgery, terminal brain cancer. It seemed as though the earth had been removed from under our feet. We imagined the worst-case scenario: an adulthood without Mom. We had just buried our beloved dog Largo, who died of lymphoma, and we hadn’t yet fully grieved. We felt full-up, angry, frustrated, confused, and incredibly sad and scared. And when it felt our eyelids had turned inside out from crying and could cry no more, we decided we were not going to grieve until there was grieving to be done. We were not going to wade in fear of the unknown. We rooted our feet into the earth.
We were going to stay positive, fill ourselves and everyone around us with love, and believe wholeheartedly that Robynn would be that slim-chance survivor. Our childlike hope for a miracle was real and it drove our decisions and actions throughout the months that followed. I am deeply grateful for our friends and family who let us hang onto that dream. Although possibly naïve, it encouraged us to be present, a practice that continues to shape our lives.
No one in the family knew much about cancer treatments. Research, at that point, seemed futile—too late. Everything felt so urgent; decisions needed to be made at a moment’s notice. We never had the time to discuss options. We relied entirely on the advice of the local oncologist: brain surgery as soon as possible, and chemo and radiation starting in early August. The surgery impaired her speech and movement along her left side. I so wish we had known more. We would have tried anything.
We were living in New Hampshire at the time, where I had just finished my first year of grad school. After five months of juggling school, work, caring for our elder dog Blue, and long-distance trips to visit Robynn, we proposed to Dan that we move in. There wasn’t much discussion. Robynn’s speech and abilities were declining, Dan needed the support, Bin and I needed to be with his mom, and I could finish school remotely. Though it seems as though time should stand still when we are encountered with these intense calls to care, love, and witness—to face mortality—it certainly doesn’t. We stuffed our belongings into a pod, packed the essentials into our car, and headed west with Blue. Home by Christmas Eve.
Circles of love and support
Our previous caretaking experiences revolved around our elder dogs and the example Robynn and Dan gifted us through their lives of love and care for others. We filled ourselves up with this selfless love and jumped right in. Looking back (and after other caretaking experiences), we can see that our care plan took the shape of concentric circles. Like ripples in a pond—a natural response for a sudden disruption in the fabric of life. Robynn was in the center. The first, most intimate ring around her focused on her direct 24-hour care. At first this was just Dan. Encircled around him were Bin and I, supporting Dan’s care and tending to Robynn’s less immediate needs. Around the four of us was a loving circle of supportive friends who provided meals, visits, gifts, gratitude, and stories. The circles wove in and out of each other, with people stepping in and back when needed or invited.
For a short while, Bin and I stayed in the second circle. We got Dan back onto three meals a day. We tended to Robynn’s mini poodle, housekeeping, houseguests, meal train logistics, etc. Some of my deepest conversations with Robynn happened during this time. I would sit on the floor and hold her hand while she rested on the couch, confessing my love and my gratitude, confiding my questions, my hopes and dreams, and my promise to look out for her boys.
Slowly, over time, Bin entered into the inner circle. He attended Robynn’s doctor appointments and assisted in feeding her meals, clipping her nails, and combing what was left of her hair. Then there was the moment when Bin stepped shoulder to shoulder with his dad, joining him with the most intimate calls to care: bathing, clothing, toilet assistance, and cleaning up messes. He and Dan were a team to be reckoned with, confiding and sharing every moment, big and small.
These were my most challenging times. Besides meals, housekeeping, spending time with Robynn, tending to my graduate studies, and caring for Blue, whose health was quickly declining, I also deeply felt the responsibility to care for Bin’s, Dan’s, and my mental health, only I didn’t know how and certainly didn’t have the capacity to do it.
In those darkest of times, I came across the words of Stephenie Meyer: “Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.” I searched for glimmers of light–love, grace, gratitude, generosity, stories, the rich connection growing amongst family and friends. Knowing there were glorious stars sending light through the darkness, even if I couldn’t find them, kept my head above water.
Through our shared love for Robynn and for each other, Dan, Bin and I vowed to stick together, to communicate what we needed, to be honest, to be trusting, and to be patient. I helped wherever I could and eventually I, too, was invited to help with the most intimate of tasks—a gift I cherish deeply. Close friends moved tighter into the circle of care, filling in the gaps.
Bin, Dan, and I rotated taking time off, a mental health necessity. I took my space walking farm trails, conversing with the trees, cows, and rivers. It’s as if the old barn, the field, the stream, and the giant oak could hold all of my unspoken feelings. These visuals are my most peaceful memories from that time, balancing the ugliness of cancer.
Bin and I took turns sleeping with one ear open for night assistance while the other slept soundly. Robynn would sometimes fall out of bed or fall while trying to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. And before we discovered piddle pads (the ones made for puppies), there were nighttime sheet changes as well.
Sometimes the scenarios would seem so outlandish, so impossible, that Bin and his dad would burst out in uncontrollable laughter. With tears streaming down their faces, they would stumble and hug one another with sheer shock and wonder at their reality. The laughter was cathartic. The most intense moments, shared, carried the three of us into a lifelong friendship. I wish those moments never existed, never had to happen. And at the same time, I am so incredibly grateful we went through them together.
Though Robynn’s ability to speak nearly disappeared and her physical abilities waned, Bin and I refused to give up hope. “Better, faster, stronger” was the motto she and Bin held together. Friends offered reiki, my brother sent herbs from South Korea, we cheered her on while she pedaled away on the stationary bike—five minutes a day. Her 61st birthday came and went. Close friends spent more time with us in our home, cooking, caring, crying, hugging, laughing, and trying their damnedest to do everything they could to make it better.
Then on March 17, 2013, after an eight-month fight for her life, cradled in her bed by her husband, sons, and dad and surrounded by her circles of care, Robynn transitioned peacefully into another world. “Free-er,” she whispered. I stood in the doorway, taking in the depth of love that filled the room. When she gave her last exhale and Bin fell apart, I ran to his side and fell apart with him. Family and friends said their final goodbyes and slowly left the room. I stayed to help wash and clothe Robynn’s body—a peaceful and precious moment that I hold very sacred to my heart.
Downstairs, we all gathered in a lost sort of way. Together, we cried. We cursed, we drank, we laughed, we hugged, we loved, we gave gratitude. We ate ice cream—with whiskey—for breakfast. We felt held and supported by a network of friends and family that we share this experience with to this day. Letting people in to help was the greatest gift of grace we gave and received.
Our team kept going. We met with the funeral director together. We ran our errands together. No one was thinking clearly. It took the three of us to make even the simplest decisions, like what type of gas to put in the car or how long to bake the egg casserole.
And then, as a nod to Robynn’s love, Bin and I wrote thank-you notes, hundreds of them. It was a practice that Robynn felt strongly about and writing them felt like a way to keep her alive. The work was cathartic and helped our whole bodies grieve, helped us move through each moment and stay present. We still handwrite thank-you notes to this day.
Bin and I made a pact that we would learn and grow from the lessons his mom taught us in life, in sickness, and in dying. So in the misty nights after she died, we committed ourselves to love even deeper. Within a month, we realized we were pregnant with our firstborn. A gift? A living reminder that life begets death begets life?
Almost exactly one year after we moved back to Bin’s childhood home to take care of his mother, we gave birth to our son, Rhyze. So named to remind us that after the sun sets, it rises. Like a phoenix, we can rise up out of the depths of despair. Like mycorrhizal roots, we are connected to all things and all things are connected to us. We often don’t know what beauty lies in the depths of the dark water. And then a fish rises to the surface, gifting us a glimpse of something more than meets the eye. A glimmer of hope. To this day, Rhyze and Robynn remind us to live fully, love large, embrace every moment, stay curious, lean in, and when we might be tempted to freeze in fear of the darkness, to delight in the mystery and go in search of light.
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