Caring for my cat Fred, as he slowly weakened and until he died, was emotionally crippling. One of the worst aspects of providing palliative care for a cat is you can’t talk to the cat about what you’re doing and why it has to be done. They can’t understand why they have to bear the discomfort of syringe-feeding, in the hopes that the food will comfort and maintain life. You can’t tell your cat; “This is for the best. This is because I love you so much.” They may understand the loving tone of your voice, but they can’t understand the meaning of the sounds. They can’t forgive you for forcing irritating drops into their eyes. They can’t know that the nasty medicine might cure what ails them.
But what do you do when it’s a human, not a cat, who is nearing the end of their life? What do you do when that person was your ex-husband and you can’t talk to him because his wife would flip out, but you want to say goodbye and offer him some comfort?
©1988 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve ready to bowl. We loved to visit old bowling alleys. Steve was pretty good (though I admit the view from the rear as he was throwing the ball was my favorite).
My brother-in-law called me this morning. I don’t refer to him as my “ex…” because I still have a heart-connection to the Olson clan in Minnesota. We may not speak often, or get invited to a family wedding, but when the need arises, we are there for each other. We still care. We still say, “I love you.”
©1987 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve in his studio holding his cat, Chanel.
He told me that my former husband, Steve, was on his deathbed. Salivary gland cancer first reared its head as jaw pain and maybe a bad toothache that went unchecked last year. Steve didn’t have insurance, so he wouldn’t go to the dentist. When he finally went to the ER, in excruciating pain, they told him he had a suspicious growth in his jaw that needed to be checked out. With no way to pay for expensive care, his second wife urged him to go to her homeland of Bulgaria, thinking they could get the treatment Steve needed for free (it didn’t turn out that way, sadly and still cost over $10,000.00 just to get started).
So Steve found himself in Bulgaria, hoping to find a cure. They diagnosed him as being in Stage IV, which has a very few percent chance of survival over 5 years. Life expectancy is typically much less.
©1988 Robin A.F. Olson. Chanel on the stairs (yes, we let her outside back then).
I was told that a few family members are hoping to make it to Bulgaria to see Steve one last time. His parents are in their late 70's/early 80's. It would be too hard on them to travel so far, where they don’t speak Bulgarian and I’m not sure they have a very comfortable relationship with Steve’s wife. Steve made a choice to remove himself from the people who love him most and who are hurting over their inability to do anything more for him. If only he had stayed in the USA, his brother would have found a way to pay for his care. I was even going to tell him he could live here with us and we could take him to Yale New Haven hospital for care.
For me, the problem is that I can’t even call him or email him to say goodbye. I know his wife would freak out, as she has the handful of times I’ve ever tried to talk to him. I even had to change my phone number because of her angry calls in the middle of the night after I talked with him once. It’s ironic that she was the one who wanted him so badly, to get her precious Green Card. I bet she figured she had a good meal ticket in Steve since he was a workaholic to the extreme. She’d get to live in the USA and have someone pay her way, but she ended up getting the short end of the stick when the job market dried up and Steve was left floundering and scrambling to avoid bill collectors.
But here I go, thinking dark thoughts, when I should let this all go. It’s time to put aside the bullshit and focus on life lessons.
©1988 Robin A.F. Olson. Scenes from our wacky wedding featuring a cake with bowling ball trophy figures on the top.
Steve was a snappy dresser. He loved to preen in front of the mirror. What a narcissist, but I thought it was also charming that he dressed better than I did. He kept me on my toes.
©1988 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve, smoking. Oh how I wish I could have stopped him doing that, perhaps this story would have ended differently.
He often wore a wide-brimmed Fedora, his red, white and blue vintage 1950’s high school letter jacket, tight black jeans, a black shirt with bold geometric patterns on it, and his signature Tony Lama cowboy boots. He always wore glasses, which he needed but made him look even cooler. With dirty blonde hair and clear blue eyes, the glasses gave him a know-it-all-look hence my nickname for him - Mr. Peabody (Of course I was his sidekick, Sherman).
©1988 Robin A.F. Olson. My mother with Chanel.
Steve was gregarious and loved art and design. He had a cat named Chanel; the first guy I ever dated who had a cat. I could talk for hours with him about anything. We got along so well that I did everything I could to get him to fall in love with me. It was stupid and desperate, and though we didn’t have great physical chemistry, we had this amazing ability to be together without any trouble at all. We loved doing the same things, especially going to flea markets and tiny antique stores that dotted the Midwest, where we lived at the time. We would drive 1000 miles in a weekend, before Ebay, before cellphones. All we had were flyers, maps and the lure of the open road. Steve taught me it was okay not to know your destination; that the journey could be better than the goal and he was often right.
A post card from our honeymoon. Paul & Babe the Blue Ox are in the Trees of Mystery in Klamath Falls, CA.
Steve also smoked constantly. My father smoked, so I was used to it, but I didn’t care for it and I often encouraged him to stop. After our first year of marriage he decided to quit. He ended up weeding the entire yard and eating so many carrot sticks I thought he was going to turn orange. There wasn’t a nicotine patch then, so he had to do it cold turkey.
©1990 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve and I dressed up for the Star Trek convention where I ended up sitting on James Doohan's lap.
He managed to quit for almost a year, until a friend came to visit who offered him a cigarette. Steve thought he could have just the one, but not long after that he was smoking again, though not in the house. It was too nasty on all our collectibles and on me. Now I wish he had managed to stop for good, or even stopped after we divorced.
Steve was my peacock and sometimes I really wished it had worked out, but I wanted something from him I could never have-and that was him to stop being a workaholic and be willing to be part of a relationship instead of avoid any confrontation or partnership with me. Steve was perfect about knowing exactly what to say to get me to back off, but do it in a nice way. He always told me he loved me and that his working for days in a row without a break would end and we’d have time together, but it never happened. He’d often fall into a death-like sleep after his work-jags. I could not wake him up.
©1989 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve and Chanel share a cat nap.
He slept through our First Wedding Anniversary and didn’t understand why I was so upset (because you never have another First!). He slept through my birthday and I had to go to a concert at the last minute with a friend. He was either working or asleep and rarely available to me, to us. I knew he wasn’t cheating on me because we often worked together, but what I couldn’t fathom was that I was some times his boss or his co-worker and I could go home at 5 or 6pm and still have a life, whereas he had to stay and work with a coffee in one hand and a cig in the other.
He would clean his desk and organize his files all night long and not do any real work. He never got anything done until the VERY LAST MINUTE when everyone in the office was screaming at him to hurry up to make the client meeting or deadline. He always made it at the last second, coming up with a brilliant concept that always wowed the client. Although his talents were truly special as a Creative Director, how he accomplished his work had ripple effects that gave me such horrific anxiety I went into therapy. After all, I was part of the design team so what he didn't do, I had to get done. I ended up realizing I was “managing” his life and turning into a nagging harpy—something I never imagined or wanted to do.
©1989 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve and I a million years ago.
Our marriage lasted for 11 years, but most of that was spent living apart. Even when it was over and we were with other people, I longed for the way Steve and I could just be together. I think we could have been really great friends and not husband and wife. One of the last times I saw him, I gave him a book that changed my life. It’s about the Tibetan form of Buddhism called Shambhala. After reading the book and beginning my journey to become a less neurotic person, over the years my path focused on becoming a Buddhist. I was finally able to step back and focus on forgiveness and understanding. I also began to live independently, something I protect about my life even now. I'll never live in someone's shadow ever again or foolishly believe I can change someone. I know better now.
Sadly, once Steve’s girlfriend (he hadn’t married her yet) found the book she freaked out and threw it out the window into the street below. I think it would have helped Steve a lot to read that book, but it was not meant to be.
©1998 Robin A.F. Olson. One of the last photos of us together.
I had to forgive myself and him for our failings and move on with my life.
This morning after I hung up the phone, I looked around the room. Most of the décor in the house were things Steve and I bought on our trips. We divided a lot of things up in the divorce, but he left some of it behind.
And now my dear Steve, your last days are here. I look back at photos from our Wedding and know all the sadness that would come after that day-all the people who have passed away, the divorces, the misfortunes. It makes me wish I could have cherished that day, instead of be worried and upset about whatever stupid things I was bothered with at the time.
©1989 Robin A.F. Olson. Steve and his beloved, Morticia. I hope there are gorgeous classic cars in heaven and that Steve can drive a different one every day.
I think I know that he did love me, even if it wasn’t going to be a happy ending for us. He put the bitter days behind him and I did, too. We can rest in knowing there is peace between us that brings stinging tears to my eyes. It is a goodbye to what once was and what will never be and I have to be okay with that and so does Steve.
Steve can no longer speak. The cancer stole his voice, but he understands and communicates by writing or nodding. I’ve been told he’s on pain medication and the doctors are keeping him comfortable. I don’t know if he’s in a hospital or in his own bed, or if he even HAS a bed. I just know if he could hear me, I’d tell him I love him and that I’m so very sorry for everything and that if I could I would take this pain away.
I burned most of the cards Steve gave me because I felt betrayed and angry during the dark days of our divorce. Going through photos, I came across this lone survivor written not long before we called it quits. His words cut me through the heart. Now I can read them and accept them, but then I could not. Did he really mean what he said? I'll never really know because that leads to a road of what could have been that shall never be. In his own words: “I want to put that sadness behind us whatever that takes, whatever that means. I know our relationship is at a crossroad right now. I know that new roads lie ahead, I also know that I would like to travel those roads with you. I truly love you, Robin. I always will.”
When it comes down to it, Steve taught me a lot-a lot about myself, about graphic design, about music and about letting go of expectations. I thank him for that and for the Olson name I've had all these years. Now it's time for me to say my goodbyes and to wish him a very sweet, painless journey to whatever lies beyond.
…a few weeks later…
June 26th 2013, 5 AM, Sofia, Bulgaria.
Steve is gone. He died peacefully in his sleep. It’s too soon to know if there will be a funeral or even what country his body will find it’s final resting place. All I know is my ex-husband is dead. The man who made me an Olson is on his journey to the Great Beyond. My heart is broken, even after all these years of being apart. I can't stop crying. I look around and see all the silly things we bought on our trips. They remind me of him-of what once was and what is now gone forever. There is no putting something off until tomorrow. This chapter, as Steve used to say, is closed and the story is over.
Steven Leon Olson
April 28, 1956—June 26, 2013.