ABOUT ALISON PENA, BAD WIDOW

My name is Alison Pena. My husband, David, and I were together close to 25 years, almost half my life, and we missed our 20th anniversary by three weeks. I was the primary caregiver for my husband for 11 months. I am now an unwilling widow, doing the best I can with my loss, unable to even inch over to his side of the bed.

Between July and October of 2015, my husband lost 60 pounds and we could not figure out what was wrong. He was in excruciating pain and nobody could tell us why. He decided Jello was a food group because everything else hurt to eat. I was furious at him and terrified.

3 ER visits, I urgent care visit, 4 doctors. Finally on October 9th, he got a CT scan and was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer on October 12th, 2015. And we knew. Google sent me straight into despair – life expectancy, 6 weeks to 3 months. The news was ‘Prepare to die.’

So we got wills done. And then we made an unusual choice. We decided that this meant living full out every minute of the remaining time we had together. For us, it was die on the way to death or live on the way to death.

If my whole marriage, we had appreciated each other the way we did at the end, ooh la la!

The oncologist kept telling us we needed to take this seriously, slow down, do less as David’s energy waned. Leveraging my work, I provided an environment as a caregiver so that my husband could continue doing EXACTLY what he loved, within the limits of his capacity, until three days before the very end. The doctors found this to be an extremely confusing tactic which we thought was hilarious. In order to do this, I needed to take exquisite care of myself somehow, too. 

Living fully meant not just him. On my own bucket list, I had speaking about my affluence code work on a stage and singing cabaret solo on a stage. In those eleven months, I I spoke on 3 stages and sang in 2 cabaret shows on 4 stages. David helped me practice my lines the week before he died and I cried every single show. But I did it anyway.

David and I talked about wanting to be alone together at the end, no nurses, no hospital, at home. And so it was. Monday to Wednesday, Dave was lively, talking, painting, loving me, his mom and his friends. Thursday, he was a lot worse and Friday, heading downhill fast.

By Friday, people (hospice, social workers, friends) were starting to push me to have him go to hospice in the hospital. I was pushing back but caring for him on my own was getting harder. I whispered to him that I wanted him at home with me at the end, what we both wanted.

He was lying in my arms at home when he passed away on September 10, 2016, a rare gift. When I heard the music from the movie, Ghost, on Pandora, I knew this was the day. It was the best ending either of us could have imagined, given the circumstances.

I live alone. My arms, bed and home echo with emptiness. I have moved ALL the furniture around. His last painting setup is still intact and I can’t bring myself to take it down yet.

My life as a widow is very different from my life as David’s primary caregiver. Being a caregiver was about dealing with constant, unexpected and unpredictable crises. I called it Whack a Mole! because almost every solution created a new problem. I woke up with daily panic attacks which are only now starting to subside.

Being a widow is about not being sure who I am. It’s about trying to take action and focus against a landscape of grief light to despair, always in the background and sometimes, in my face. It’s about honoring my truth and my timing, non-negotiably.  Learning to trust and forgive. Feeling without being overcome and incapacitated.

Faced with Dave’s illness and death, I learned how to live richly. And I won’t give that up.  With every challenge, I looked for and found solutions which I am eager to share with you. Like for that day I could not go home to my empty apartment. I created a short list of close friends I can call when times are too sad and go see them, sit on their couch, drink tea and watch children do homework or whatever. I’ve discovered I was taking my plentiful hugs from David for granted. Who knew, until they were gone forever.

Bad Widow is about all of it, from agony to ecstasy, peppered with hilarity, comfort and community.  I’ll go first. If this resonates with you, you are welcome to come along too.