They say you never get over it, you just get on with it. A year later, one woman is learning this lesson. It’s not easy, but it has to happen, for life must go on.
Everyone has a story.
I am Mark Brodinsky and this is The Sunday Series.
I think the year of “firsts” taught me a lot. When he first died I thought there was no way I would make it on my own, but going through the first year taught me to trust myself implicitly and know that life can and will go on. I’ve survived and thrived in one year. I’m pretty sure I can handle the rest of my life!
– Cecilia Volkman/Sept 19th, 2015… a little more than one year since she lost Ken, the love of her life.
The Sunday Series (# 60, Revisited): A Single Tear
In nearly a quarter-of-a-century together, it was the first time Cecilia had ever seen Ken cry. She told her husband she loved him and that she knew he loved her too. Unable to speak, Ken nodded in agreement, and a single tear slowly rolled down his cheek.
It was all going to be OK now.
Up until that time it was OK. Ken and Cecilia Volkman were living in the dream home they bought just four years earlier, a house they gutted and rebuilt together and now were enjoying their lives, along with their 14-year-old son Mason, in Timonium, Maryland. Ken, a truck driver for Durrett Sheppard Steel Direct, was well-respected, a great family man, always the calm, confident man of the house as husband and father. And at 50 years of age, Ken was in great health.
But back in September Ken said he was having some sinus issues and asked his wife to make an appointment with the doctor. The doc told Ken his sinuses were clear, he was just having some cluster headaches, common in middle-aged men, but it couldn’t hurt to have an MRI. The test was scheduled on a Thursday and the following Friday morning Ken’s phone was ringing – he should make an appointment with a specialist as soon as possible, the MRI showed something wasn’t right. Cecilia made an appointment the following Monday with a neurosurgeon and as soon as the doctor put Ken’s MRI picture in front of the light, Cecilia’s heart went dark.
The mass in his brain was huge. The doctor said it was so large he couldn’t believe Ken was even walking, he should be having seizures by now. Surgery would be scheduled by Thursday, the mass had to be removed. The surgery, supposed to take about four hours, went on for more than double that time. The tumor, described as sticky, was a challenge for the surgeons, literally having to be scraped away from Ken’s brain. Because of the intense nature of the surgery, the doctors left Ken in a medically induced coma until Sunday.
On Sunday morning Cecilia was by Ken’s bedside, as the doctors dialed down the sedation – waiting – hoping that Ken would be Ken – that he would know who he was – who she was – that he would remember their son Mason. “He saw me and I could tell he knew who I was”, says Cecilia. “I just started crying. I told him what happened. He tried to say something but he was intubated and couldn’t speak. That’s when I told him I loved him, and I said you love me too. He nodded yes and a single tear rolled down his cheek. I never saw him cry in his life.”
The follow-up tests were good news. Ken’s nerves were intact, the surgeons had done a fantastic job, nothing was damaged. As Cecilia says, “Ken was perfect.” The road ahead was clear, some physical therapy for Ken and a daily changing of the dressing on Ken’s skull, which Cecilia watched the doctors do on Monday morning, since it would be her responsibility once Ken was home to make that happen. On that same Monday the couple finally let their son Mason visit Ken in the hospital – Cecilia had shielded Mason from seeing his father in a coma – but now Ken was awake and the reunion was a great one, all fist-bumps and father-son bonding.
Cecilia called the hospital late Monday night to check in and the nurses told her all was good… “really, really good”, says Cecilia. The following Tuesday morning Cecilia checked in again, being told Ken had a good night sleep and was going to be moved into the step-down unit, with a goal of being released from the hospital by Friday. Cecilia, an agent for Erie Insurance, had work to do that morning, helping a customer with a homeowner’s policy and so she decided she would go to see Ken in the early afternoon.
During her work appointment Cecilia’s phone started lighting up. Not one to normally let the personal life interfere with her work, Cecilia told her client her husband was in the hospital and it looked like she had missed a call. When Cecilia called back – she could hear the urgency in the nurses voice – “they started yelling”, says Cecilia, “Mrs. Volkman, you need to hurry up and get here we think your husband threw a blood clot and we are putting him on life support.”
A good 30 minutes from the hospital, Cecilia was in a panic. Though saying she could drive, her customer insisted he would take Cecilia to the hospital. It turns out she needed the help, since on the way to the car Cecilia collapsed, her customer lifting her up and putting her in his car. As soon as the car made it to the hospital front door, Cecilia jumped out. “I ran in screaming”, says Cecilia. “They gave me a pass immediately and I ran up to Ken’s unit, running, yelling, ‘my husband is dying. I ran right through security and then I could hear the nurses say, ‘here she comes'”. A team of doctors forcibly grabbed Cecilia and stopped her from running into Ken’s room. They sat her in a chair. “Is my husband alive?”, she asked. “The doctors told me no, Ken didn’t make it. I just fell apart…” Once allowed in to the room, Cecilia just held on to Ken for hours. If not for her friend Jamie, who Cecilia says she could spend a year explaining what Jamie has meant to her in this tragic period of her life, she might never have been able to leave the hospital that day, she just couldn’t bear to let Ken go.
Cecilia says as hard as it is to keep re-telling the story, “every time I do I take a piece of the pain and get rid of it”, she says. Now nearly six months after losing her husband, just talking about it and the passage of time are helping her to heal. When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure. It’s the memories of what she and Ken and Mason shared, the celebration of their lives together that is helping make her stronger every day.
And Cecilia is doing what she can to keep Ken’s memory alive. This past January she visited Ken’s former co-workers at Durrett Sheppard Steel. She was there for their quarterly safety meeting at 4:30 am, to tell the men how much they meant to Ken and offer them a Tree of Life Charm which holds pieces of Ken’s ashes. The charm can hang from the rear view mirror – and the men lined up to get one and to give Cecilia a hug, including the driver who had taken Ken’s place at the company. Ken’s boss later told Cecilia how much her gesture meant to the guys and how now they have an “extra piece of safety with them”, since Ken was all about safety first, at work and at home.
Cecilia says Ken was such a great family man. “He never wanted to go out with the guys after work”, she says. “He always wanted to come home to be with his family.” And he took care of his family as well. “Ken had life insurance”, says Cecilia. “Because of that life insurance I can keep my house. Can you imagine losing your dream home four years after you bought and rebuilt it because there was no life insurance? I went on a grief message board after Ken’s death and half the posts were about people losing their homes. I have enough to worry about and I really didn’t want to worry about losing my house, or not being able to pay the bills. The day Ken died and they told me they were taking me home I couldn’t imagine walking into the house without him there, now I can’t imagine selling it because it meant so much to him.”
The importance and meaning of Ken’s life is also being launched toward the heavens now and then. Shortly after Ken died a friend of Cecilia’s attended the Rise Festival in Arizona and learned about a Chinese Wish Lantern. She immediately told Cecilia about it and Cecilia ordered a dozen of them. On these lanterns you can write your personal message to your loved one and then launch it into the sky. The lanterns float in the sky for miles, heading toward the heavens, with messages of love. “You are basically writing on the lantern and then in a way letting your loved one go” says Cecilia. “They are very cool. It’s like going to heaven. I need this.”
Cecilia says right after Ken died she thought there was no way she was going to make it. “There was no way I could carry on, move on, or breathe”, she says. “And it actually scared me because I have a son to raise, but I really never thought I would be able to breathe again. And it was a good two months before I didn’t cry every single day. When people ask me now I tell them when someone asks to help you, take it, because they really mean it. If not for the help from others I wouldn’t have made it. But you get stronger every day. I am stable now, I have to do it. I’m stronger than I want to be, but you have to tap into it and trust yourself.”
Up until that moment in the hospital Cecilia had never seen Ken cry. But then he shed that single tear, the one Cecilia will hold in her heart, forever.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, SpeechWriter, Emmy Winner, USHEALTH Advisors
Author: The #1 Amazon Best Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
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