On Loss

It began just as 2020 was coming to an end. Evander, my first ever wild animal friend, stopped coming around. I started noticing him late spring, early summer (though a recent browse through old photos showed a pic of him I took over 2 years ago!). Evander was a small desert cottontail, with the tip of his right ear chewed off, hence the name (a reference to Mike Tyson’s unlucky opponent.) He would stretch out on our sidewalk, leaning right up against the house, in the late afternoon, when the northeast side of the house provided shade from the blistering desert summer sun. I would leave him small bowls of water and occasional veggie treats in the bushes. He began coming around to the back of the house, where I fed and watered the other bunnies regularly. Searching for small threads of connection to something during this strange and lonely time of (mostly) quarantine, I looked forward to our daily encounters. Since that time, not more than one day would pass without seeing Evander. He would always run up and greet me before moving onto the food, a small thread of joy in a sensory-starved time. He eventually began to trust me enough to eat out of my hand, though I never actually got to pet him. I was aware of the danger of a wild animal putting too much trust in a human. Not all humans are safe. As much as I wanted to hold Evander, I also wanted him to hold onto his survival instinct to be wary of humans. It was a fine balance.

Then one day, Nov 30, 2020, to be exact, I didn’t see him. That happened, occasionally. Then came day 2. That never happened. The desert is a harsh place for wild animals. Likely, he became a meal for a coyote, or perhaps fell victim to the horrible Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease that has been plaguing the desert for months. I thought it was over in this area, as I hadn’t seen any bunny corpses for quite some time. Then I found one under the deck soon after Evander went missing. It was not Evander, though Evander could have met the same fate. I knew it was time to grieve this small loss, though many people tried to convince me otherwise. Maybe “he” was a “she,” and she was having babies! That was a lovely thought. Maybe he just is hiding underground. I gave into the idea of holding onto hope, just a little, though I knew in my heart that it was over. I knew this day would come, and I knew I would be sad. It’s strange how not KNOWING what happened can kind of screw up the grieving process. I didn’t grieve when I felt there was a loss, because I didn’t have PROOF that there was a loss. Almost 2 months later, still no Evander. I’ve slowly had my moments of feeling sad for this loss, as it has become clear that the loss is real.

Little did I know then how much preparation was going on for what was to come.

I’ve always been a fan of true-crime TV. I discovered an add-on channel to Amazon Prime for $4 a month that includes all kinds of true-crime documentaries and things of that nature. Tony and I began watching a fascinating show called “I Survived: Beyond and Back.” It’s about people who died and came back, with detailed accounts of their experiences. Almost all of the people (with a few exceptions) had incredibly beautiful experiences and did not want to come back. But they knew (or were told) they still had work to do. Some of them even argued with “God,” telling him they did not want to come back. Several people talk about how the colors they’ve seen are more brilliant and beautiful than anything describable or comparable on earth. One thing this show did was take away a lot of fear of death for me. It sounds like a cool ride. One day. Tony actually did have the experience of dying in 2007, when he had his Abdominal Aortic Aneurism that caused his paralysis, but he has absolutely no recollection of anything other than having a really good nap. He also rarely remembers his dreams. Some of the stories are mind-blowing – one teenager was “dead” for more than 30 minutes, with no heartbeat, and eventually came back, with no lasting damage. Some come back with abilities that they did not have before. All have incredible stories of “beyond.” It’s reassuring.

I’ve been studying with Danish cartomancer Camelia Elias for several years now, whose catchphrase is, “Read Like the Devil.” This is in reference to cards – tarot, playing, Lenormand, etc. Last year I signed on for her “Nonreading” program, a three-year commitment of bi-monthly assignments in Cards and Zen, basically with the aim of destroying the notion of “self.” A recent assignment, performed on Dec 18, asked me to ask for the impossible. I ask for the money and means to build a new and bigger studio on our property, with concrete poured to make it easily accessible for Tony. Within two months. What are you willing to sacrifice for this? I add, “in a way that harms none.” I know I will inherit some unknown sum of money from my dad one day when he passes, but I’m not ready for this yet. I’m willing to sacrifice small pleasures to make this happen.

Jan 1, 2021. I have a dream about our old Bassett Hound, Lloyd. He brings me comfort in my dream, as I see him running toward me after I chased off the foxes and coyotes I accidentally lured toward me and another man I was with on a strange desert hill. I rarely think about Lloyd, as he was only with me for the first 5 or 6 years of my life. But I have fond memories of him. He was my early protector. Especially from the vacuum cleaner.

That same day, I get a call from my stepmother, Anita, in Florida. My dad is back in the hospital. He recently had all the toes on one foot amputated due to a bone infection. He seemed to be healing up from that well, and was at home, on IV antibiotics. He now likely has sepsis, something that I am all too familiar with from my experience with Tony and his two bouts with sepsis a couple years ago. There were a couple other things going on with my dad as well, such as possible mini-heart attacks, but it all seems a blur right now. This was not unusual, though. Anita calling me and telling me my dad was in the hospital again had become pretty commonplace over the past few years. It’s always concerning on some level, but he always seems to come out ok. This time, for some reason, I had an ominous feeling about it. I didn’t tell anyone, because I didn’t want to make it true. But I felt it.

I recently received my new limited edition Leonora Carrington majors-only tarot deck. A couple days later I took out the cards and asked them what the result of this new hospitalization would be. Ouch.
Wheel of Fortune, The Hermit, The Tower. His health takes a turn for the worse (a direct quote from Anita). He retreats, going toward the light. Life as he knows it implodes. The bottom card of the deck is Death, so with this as the underlying theme, the outcome is obvious. Damn.

The top and bottom layout cards are “do” and “don’t” cards. Do – The Sun. Do send him light. I was confused about the “don’t” card, Judgement. Don’t be vocal about it? So, like don’t announce it on Facebook? I did make a post with a pic of my dad and me saying to send good vibes to him, with no specifics. Many people responded and said they were sending him healing energy. Which was wonderful. But then I heard something different in his voice. What if he doesn’t want to get better? He’s exhausted. What if he doesn’t want a “full recovery,” as someone commented on my post? Did I somehow interfere with his destiny by announcing this, and inviting a barrage of incredibly well-meaning healing energy that was not what he wanted? I actually felt terrible about this for a short while. I posted this reading in a very trusted group of card-readers, and asked for feedback on this Judgement card in the “don’t” position. Don’t wake the dead. Of course. If he has decided this is where he is going, let him go. And send him light on his journey. The Sun card strangely mirrors the gesture of the Death card here.

Immediately after, I hear he is going into palliative care. It’s happening. Wow. The beautiful thing about someone who has lived a full, happy life, and is completely aware of their declining health while still mentally sharp enough to talk about it, is that you get to say goodbye. We had a couple incredibly tearful conversations about all the great things that we did over the years, in which delicious meals came up over and over again. We talked about The Inn at Little Washington, Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, and many others. I told him about my dream about Lloyd, which made perfect sense now. My dad was happy to hear his name. I didn’t ask, but he sounded like he had no fear of death. He was tired of fighting. The chronic health issues had worn down his body and spirit. He was ready to be relieved of this burden.

A couple days later, he was going to come home with a full-time nurse to look after him. I spoke with my cousin Alex, who had also just talked to my dad. We both said how strange it was to know how grim his prognosis was, but to hear him sound so completely lucid and sharp. This did not sound like a man who was about to die. It was confusing. I also wasn’t clear on whether my dad being sent home from the hospice facility meant that his condition had improved, or his Medicaid had run out. And do I go visit him in Florida? With Covid? How do we do this? Tony has never met him. That can’t be. My dad can’t die without meeting Tony. I decide we need to get Covid tests before we make any decision.

Jan 6, 2021. Still waiting for Covid test results. Insurrection at the Capitol. Does my dad know what is going on? As someone who has always been an extremely politically vocal and opinionated Democrat, my dad’s lack of interest in this event was alarming. He’s clearly got bigger battles to fight right now.

Jan 7, 2021. Covid tests negative, for Tony and me. As we sit at the dining room table, trying to figure out where to go from here, I keep hearing a buzzing. What the hell is that? It sounds like a fly, but where is it? It’s an odd time of year to hear a fly. It’s cold. Finally I figure out the buzzing is coming from inside the wall. There is a fly inside our wall. A harbinger, perhaps.

Jan 8, 2021. Tony’s late father’s birthday. Mario Buhagiar, who passed in 1979. Today is the day my dad comes home from the hospice facility. I will wait until he gets settled at home before I make travel plans. I go to my friend Beth’s house to do socially distant yoga. When I get home and see a missed call from both Anita and my aunt Nancy, I know something is up. I call Nancy first, as Anita didn’t leave a message. He’s gone. He made it home, and about 4 hours later, he passed, at 10:18pm EST. Wow. Thank God he made it home. He didn’t want to be in that facility. He said it was “not a good place.” He passed with Anita and her cousin Susan by his side. He knew he was loved. And he was ready to go. I think of him floating through one of those beautiful places that the people on that TV show spoke of. He must be at peace. But I am still so incredibly sad. I can’t believe I will never see him again.

I’ve had experiences with others who have passed who I’ve felt have spoken to me through things like birds and ladybugs, and sometimes even cloud formations. Though I don’t doubt my dad’s ability and desire to connect, those things just didn’t seem like my dad. I wondered if I would get some kind of sign from him. What form would it take? How long would it take?

Jan 12, 2012 – I go outside before going to bed to look at the stars. I stand on the deck, looking across our canyon, when something tells me to turn around. Directly behind me, clear as day, I see the Big Dipper. That was the first constellation I learned about on camping trips with my dad as a kid. My dad also referred to himself as “Big D.” There it was. And it was perfectly him.

Throughout all this, our beautiful 5-year-old FIV-positive rescue cat, Thor, is not doing well. He’s been declining steadily over the past few weeks. He’s down from 13 lbs to 8 lbs. He has a mass on his abdomen that is probably lymphoma, one of his kidneys is bigger than the other, and he may have fluid in his lungs. We are giving him steroids orally and injecting him with subcutaneous fluids daily. The vet here in Yucca Valley says that Thor’s condition is beyond the scope of what he is capable of treating. He refers me to a specialist in Ontario. I finally make the call to see how much it will cost to have him evaluated. They are booked into March and are not even taking new appointments yet, but they will put me on the list. I look at Thor and see a cat in a condition that I have never seen a cat recover from. Am I just being negative? Am I not believing in miracles? The next day, Tony tells me that Thor killed a mouse and ate the whole thing. That gave him a little boost. Briefly.

I cry over the fact that our main interaction with Thor now involves poking and prodding and sticking him with needles and shooting foul-tasting fluid that he hates into his mouth. That’s not how I want him to remember us. His old dad, John Nikolai, who rescued Thor (and many others) from a dangerous place in downtown Los Angeles, pays us a visit with some salmon flavored CBD oil for Thor, and a pizza for us. Thor surprises us by jumping on the table and tearing the pizza crust out of Tony’s hand. He devoured that entire piece of crust!

Thor is eating and drinking, but only a little. By the Tuesday after my dad passed, Thor hasn’t eaten in two days. Nothing. I can’t bear to stick a needle in his frail little body anymore, even if the result will make him feel better temporarily. Meanwhile, I hear another fly in our house. It’s too cold for flies. But there it is.

I make the difficult call to a mobile vet to come put him down. She comes the next day.

Jan 13, 2021 – We have some beautiful quiet time in what we call the “red room,” before she comes. My idea was for just Tony, Thor, and me to spend some time together, but our other two cats, Cricket and Lila were there, too. They stayed, which made it even more special. We all sat together quietly. I think we all knew what was happening. It was sad, it was beautiful, and it was peaceful. I find it odd that as I’m sitting on the floor, I find this card in a dish on our coffee table. I have no idea where it came from, but it’s right in front of me. It says, “The memories of those we hold most dear will forever remain imprinted on our hearts. Gone from your side but not from your heart.”

Thor stays on Tony’s lap while he gets his last injection. It was tough making that decision for such a young cat, but we knew he was suffering. It was beautiful to watch Tony and Thor bond over the past year and five months. I’m so glad that he had a safe place to end his life, and that he knew love. And that he was physically connected to Tony as he took his last breath.

I dig a hole in our yard to bury him. I even used some tools that used to belong to my dad to break up the rocks that come with the territory here in Morongo Valley. I wrap Thor’s sweet body in my old nightgown and lay him in the ground. We light some sage, throw in some rose petals and fish flakes, and say goodbye. As the final covering of dirt goes on, the sky turns a beautiful shade of pink.

A time of loss, a time of shedding old skins, a time of difficult and painful transitions. It hurts, and there are big gaping holes where these things used to be. My dad, like Anita says, was such a BIG presence. Now there is a big void. A huge one. But it all feels natural, too. This is what is supposed to happen. This is what happens. I move with the flow. I allow myself time to retreat. I allow myself to be sad. I take on a little bit more each day. But I allow myself to rest and recharge. I experience loss. But I am not lost.

Here is the tribute I wrote for my dad, Bill Gadzuk, on Facebook:

Bill Gadzuk was born on March 28, 1941 in Philadelphia. He passed away Friday, Jan 8, 2021 at 10:18pm EST at his new home in Fernandina Beach, FL, with his wife Anita there by his side, as well as her cousin Susan and her brother Levan. His health issues over the past several years just wore him down, and his body and spirit were tired. I don’t know the official cause of death, but the neuropathy that caused the constant bone infections, and the antibiotics that he seemed to be chronically on, just wore down his organs. He seemed to be at peace with passing, as I think he was tired of fighting.

He was my dad for 50 years. He earned a PhD in physics from M.I.T. in the ’60’s, where he was also heavily involved with their rowing team and took much pride in their reunions (hence the profile pic). He worked his entire career at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), which, when I was growing up was called NBS (National Bureau of Standards). He taught me to drive in their grounds, which contained many linked parking lots. This was before there were massive security checks to enter the property.

I hear many people talk about how sad they are that their parents never really fulfilled their dreams. I don’t feel that way at all about my dad. He had a full life, and he enjoyed it. He loved his job (hell, even years after he retired he would still go into the office every day. I still don’t know what he did then, but he loved being there.) He believed in “the system,” and somehow the system worked for him. He loved scientific research, and he got to travel the world to connect with fellow researchers and got to take me with him much of the time when I was a kid. He smoked Marlboro 100’s back then and I remember crawling into a cab late at night in Italy after we got off a plane and burrowing into my suitcase because I was tired of the smoke. But that’s how it was back then. I survived, and I eventually started smoking, and then we both quit. He loved food and fine dining. In fact, a few of my oldest friends have sent me messages saying how glad they are that he introduced them to a world of cuisine that they never would have experienced without him. He was extremely generous in this regard. He loved turning others onto that experience and would pay handsomely often for good meals. But God forbid if they were out of NA beer! However, he was not always extremely generous with the cookies I would send. Anita, my stepmother, recently told me that he let her cousin have ONE.

He loved playing tennis when I was young, but a knee injury from playing basketball eventually ended that for him. He then took up swimming as his main form of exercise. I remember when I was a kid sitting in the lounge of the Athletic Express, where he would swim, eating fried potato skins with cheese, doing my homework, while he was doing laps.

And he loved the Caps! The Washington Capitals, that is. He took me to my first hockey game when I was 7, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The whole game, I thought they were called the Toronto Make Believes. He said he thought that might be a better name.

He and my mom, Marilyn Wood, met in college in Boston. She was in Wellesley, while he was at M.I.T. They eventually moved to the D.C. area where he was offered a job, and I was born in 1970. I have no siblings. They got it right. They split I believe in 1975 and shared joint custody of me throughout my childhood. There were ups and downs to that experience. I had both parents in my life, but I did feel like I was constantly living out of a suitcase. But I got two Christmases, and two bedrooms, and my dad was cool enough to let me do what I wanted with mine, including plastering the walls with Circus Magazine pictures and writing and painting all over the walls, too. Though one night, when I didn’t come home (during my troubled teens) he tore up my Van Halen and Def Leppard posters and left them in the middle of the floor in shreds. But he was always the cool dad when it came to food. I remember being at friends houses and hearing them say they weren’t allowed to eat the good stuff in the cupboard. I assumed that’s what parents did. I remember asking him, when my friends were over, if we could eat something. “Well yeah, that’s why it’s there.” That made sense to me.

He began singing in the Montgomery County Masterworks Chorus in 1977, where I sang in the children’s chorus and did the Carmina Burana with them that year. He continued with the chorus, which later became the National Philharmonic. Seeing him perform Handel’s Messiah at Strathmore Music Hall in Bethesda, MD, was a Christmas tradition for many years, until his health issues prevented him from standing for that long. Because he was tall, he was always in the back row, and the bleachers they would stand on had no support from behind.

He later remarried a wonderful woman named Anita Yergy, who he met at the local swimming pool because they both had the same kind of car. She came into my life in 1986 and has been here ever since. She has been a rock in helping my dad through all his recent health issues and I’m so grateful for her presence and love. She’s a sweet southern lady from Jacksonville, Florida, who also worked for the government, and my dad would always tease her for calling the Thanksgiving stuffing “dressing.” He never got tired of that, even decades later. And if she wanted to make rice (a southern tradition) for Christmas or Thanksgiving, his response would ALWAYS be a grumbly, “What, are we having Chinese food or something?” For decades. Right on cue.

I don’t have many regrets, but the fact that he and Tony Buhagiar never got to meet in person is crushing to me. They both have had (surprisingly similar) health issues that prevented travel. They would have loved each other. At least we had some Zoom time. And if it weren’t for Covid, I would have been there when he passed.

He was a scientist, father, husband, big brother to my aunt Nancy Gadzuk, uncle, hockey fan, staunch Democrat, lover of classical music and opera (he used to play classical guitar, too), art lover (a large canvas print of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ hung in our front hallway throughout my childhood), food and fine dining lover, cancer survivor, idealist, rational thinker, and was extremely sentimental, sarcastic and witty (and sometimes stubborn.) I will miss him dearly. As Anita has said, he had such a big presence. Now there is a big void, though he’s still around somewhere.

I also recently learned (through some old school papers of his that he sent me) that he used to play varsity football, and at one time he wanted to be a criminal lawyer.

I’ll share one of those papers here, from 1956. This is untitled, but he got a “C” on it:

“Finally everything was planned. We had the tin cans ready and the wood blocks ready. In five minutes, the nine o’clock bus was coming into the station. We had planned to tie cans to it, block up the wheels, and then throw tomatoes at it. Just as the bus got in sight, a trooper came by, so we couldn’t go ahead with our plan.”

Rest In Peace, Dad.

13 Comments

  1. Mary G. Hyde

    Oh, Wendy. What a beautiful, personal sharing of your feelings and of Bill’s wonderful life. Yes, there must be a time when we are ready to let go and accept whatever may be next. Peace for the soul. Love to you and Tony.

  2. Fur

    My sister and I scattered our mother’s ashes into the ocean at Fernandina beach June 2017. A beautiful mystical place protected by the parks department. So nice that your dad got to live with a lady who loved him in that beautiful place.
    I’m glad to know you’re okay. That you have a higher understanding, that you dreamt about your old pup right before your dad passed, cuz you know that he helped your dad find his way.
    It’s all so big, so good, so natural, if we let it all be the way it’s supposed to. Thank you for allowing me to peer into your experience a little bit. Thank you for your loving and kind heart, and your mastery in your art!
    Love to Tony and your other little babies, past, now, and soon to come.
    You rock it, honey!🤩

  3. Judy shapiro

    What a beautiful remembrance Wendy. You have so captured his soul and the soul of your relationship. He is such a personal loss to us and real loss to science and humanity. But you were right in the end he was ready to go. He called the night before he died or two nights to say goodbye.And I responded will talk to you later Bill, and he said “no this will be the last time we talk”. He was at peace I believe. But we are left with good memories of him. We so loved him.

    1. Judy shapiro

      What a beautiful remembrance Wendy. You have so captured his soul and the soul of your relationship. He is such a personal loss to us and real loss to science and humanity. But you were right in the end he was ready to go. He called the night before he died or two nights to say goodbye.And I responded will talk to you later Bill, and he said “no this will be the last time we talk”. He was at peace I believe. But we are left with good memories of him. We so loved him.

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