A look back at 2020

We all had high hopes for 2021–knowing that the effects of 2020 would linger, but hoping that the chaos would abate, but the curse of 2020 has continued. These pains were universal. I know 2020 was a year of sadness, adaptation, and utter tragedy for many. We all have a story, but maybe more for my own sake and sanity than for anything else, I want to share a glimpse into what 2020 was for my husband and I. It hit us hard.

The year in its entirety could be split up into five chapters. The first, which really started at the end of 2019, was the loss of my longtime, childhood dog, Cappi. Diagnosed with cancer, she struggled until February of 2020 when we had to say goodbye. It was my first real up close and personal experience with death. I didn’t know it then, but it would just be the beginning

Cappi the dog

Cappi girl

Cappi was loved by everyone. She was a yellow lab and the sweetest, gentlest girl you’d ever meet. She’d fetch until she collapsed if you’d let her and she always put up with the pokes and pulls of kids without a fuss. She was born with a malformed paw that left her right paw looking more like a hand. Her handicap is what gave inspiration to her name, “Cappi.”

We weren’t ready to give up on her when we found the lump in her mouth so we made the trek to and from Athens every other week for radiation treatments. In the end, though it bought us time, it wasn’t enough. She stopped eating, drinking, and couldn’t move on her own. It was about the hardest decision I ever had to make when we decided to put her down, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering through one more day or being the one to cause her death. I still wonder if it was the right thing to do. Her limp head in my hands is a memory burned into my heart forever.

I was utterly useless for the next several days as I figured out how to live without her in my daily life and routine. Even now, I have a hard time seeing her sweet picture and remembering all the moments we had snuggled together. But I would never trade this sorrow for all the time we had.

Not long after we found out COVID-19 had hit the states and was more serious than we were originally expecting: Chapter 2 began. Things were shutting down right as I was looking for a way to stay busy, a way to forget the pain of losing my nearly life-long companion. At first it seemed like it would be a time to be home, to slow down, to process. All the things I didn’t want to do yet. It was not that time.

COVID mask drive

Covid Mask work

We ended up with a team of over 30 volunteers and donated over 9,000 pieces of PPE including fabric face masks, face shields, medical gowns and caps, ear savers, and filters. We were working 10-hour days for over a month. It was incredible and so rewarding to hear how thankful those who received these products were.

We heard our fair share of criticism for our work too, and I know people reading this a year later may think they know better than us, but we took action doing what we could for a group of people who were risking their lives every day to take care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. We followed all the guidelines of the CDC, adapted as information changed, never charged a penny for the gear we made, only making what was requested of us. I don’t regret a moment of it, but it was exhausting. In a way it was perfect because I didn’t want to think of my heartache, but I didn’t realize I would need my strength even more in the months to come.

Chapter 3. We found out my dad had been brought to the ER for pain in his side in April of 2020. My dad and I had what is probably an all too usual, unusual relationship. He and my mom divorced when I was in high school. He had cheated and lied to my mom, and yet he was the one to leave even though my mom was willing to keep working. He was still in our lives, but from that time on my siblings and I seemed to become the adults taking care of my dad.

the Olivier family

Our last Father’s Day, 2020

He had shadows he couldn’t get rid of and even his most well meaning choices proved marred by his flawed outlook. He could be generous to a fault and his mix of insecurities and pride never made for a healthy mental state. He was silly and loved to play the guitar. He loved us deeply and told us so often. He knew he had messed up, but also couldn’t apologize or ask forgiveness. In the end his story was a sad one, but I like to think the three of us being there with him at the end of his life showed him that love really does cover a multitude of sins.

My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 Pancreatic cancer in May of 2020. I left Savannah to live and care for him from early May – June 27 when he passed away. At first, we were trying to improve his diet, help him gain weight, and seek treatment options. But ultimately, we were told there were no treatment options for him because of how much the cancer had weakened him already.

All we could do then was keep him comfortable and try to help him live out his last days as enjoyably as we could. For a depressed, dying, and weak man who is used to being strong, independent, and spontaneous, the task seemed impossible.

A hospice nurse visited one evening and she pulled me aside to say that things were declining more quickly. These were his last few days, she said. If you’ve never been on the receiving end of that news about someone you love I hope you never have to be. We moved him to a friend’s beautiful lake house they generously let us use. It was the last day I would hold a conversation with my dad. It was the last day he could tell me he needed the bathroom or could even go by himself. It was the last day he could look into my eyes and see me. But it wasn’t his last day on earth. My siblings and I shifted him in his bed to keep him from getting bedsores. We changed his diapers, and we gave him medicine to keep him out of pain. We wiped the drool from his chin and played him his favorite music.

The day my dad would pass, my uncles came to stay with him while the three of us took a break out on the lake. It had been two days of constant care. After swimming for a while, we got home, showered and got ready for another day of caretaking when my uncle, a doctor, told us he was seeing some signs of final stages. We gathered around him and cried as we saw his breathing slow. I remember my sister crying out to him, “You can go, dad, we love you, it’s ok to let go.” I couldn’t say that for myself. Even though my body and mind had been pushed to the limit of caring for and mourning him for the past 8 weeks, there was still a part of me praying for a miracle. I’m glad she told him and that he knew it was ok even if I couldn’t. I’m glad she told him that we would be ok. That we loved him.

His heart was the last thing to stop minutes after he had taken his last breath and we held him as he went.

My husband had stayed in Savannah most of this time to work and take care of our house and animals. My dad passed just two days before Jonathan’s flight was scheduled to arrive. He still came in to support me as we then started the terrible work of logistics after death. Having to think about things like bank accounts, burial paperwork, and social accounts feels unnatural. All wrong.

Alex and Jonathan

before they hit…

But then Jonathan couldn’t sleep. Chapter 4. He was pacing the floor, clenching his jaw in pain, and eventually throwing up. We knew these could be the signs of kidney stones, but we weren’t home with the hospitals we knew and were hesitant to take on the expense of an ER visit. He tried to wait it out, hoping the pain would pass, but it didn’t.

We went to the ER and he thankfully got a bed immediately. They put him on pain meds and scheduled some imaging which told us it was not just a kidney stone, but one of the largest they had seen… about the size of a skittle. This was not going to pass on its own so they scheduled surgery for the next morning. This was all another first for us. First time in surgery, first time spending the night in the hospital.

After Jonathan got out of surgery, they moved him to a recovery room where I was finally allowed to see him again. They pumped his bladder full of liquid so they could make sure he could use the bathroom before he left. Of course, he couldn’t. More liquids, more pain, no pee. They eventually tried several catheters as I watched Jonathan writhe in more pain than I’d ever seen a human being in. It was terrible to have to trust in the experience of the nurses and doctors during a time they seemed to be doing nothing right.

Eventually, they gave us the option of trying one more catheter or going back into surgery to see what was happening. We immediately chose surgery. It turned out the first surgery had caused a blood clot and it took a lot of cauterizing to keep it from continuing to bleed and clot further. We were home later that evening after another round in the recovery room. It’s another experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

And that wouldn’t be Jonathan’s last trial this year either. Not only did we find out his blood pressure is dangerously high for no apparent reason (he exercises, eats well, isn’t obese, etc.), but his 94 year old grandmother fell and was rushed to the hospital.

Chapter 5. Jonathan’s grandmother has lived with his family since he was four. Out of necessity, she became a parent to him and his twin sister. Their father was out of the picture and she, in many ways, filled that role in their lives. She was a complex woman with a strong personality. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but after watching my father degrade over the last two months I didn’t like the sound of how she was doing either.

She never did leave the hospital until they finally told us it was time for hospice. It was terrible to watch my husband and his family go through the same grief I now knew all too well. When you are the one watching a loved one die every moment feels like a day, but after they are gone you realize how little time you actually had. Grandma passed just two days before Thanksgiving… and my birthday. Gathering around the table without her for the first time so soon after her passing makes your heart feel like it’s being squeezed and pulled in every direction at the same time. I hated the timing for them, but was glad they were able to give thanks for her life and all she did and meant to them.

So now we find ourselves in 2021.

It’s only January 12th and yet two major events have been added to the list of things we weren’t expecting or ready for. First, the Capitol building was invaded by Trump supporters hoping to delay the electoral count for Joe Biden. I won’t say much on this subject as it’s well covered in the news. I just want to say the escalation that brought about this event is scary and barbaric. I am so glad that it did not turn more violent than it did, but I am also so surprised that more force was not used after the violence we saw at so many other peaceful and legal protests during the height of the BLM movement. Say what you will, but that should never have happened. National surprises are one thing, but we were in for another personal one as well.

Less than two months after saying goodbye to his grandmother, Jonathan got a call from his mom with more bad news. She had been contacted by a police officer in San Antonio telling her her ex-husband and estranged father of her two children had passed away. They had no other contacts to call and Jonathan and his sister were the only legal next of kin. A man Jonathan only met once in his life since he was 4 years old was now their responsibility to make after-life arrangements for.

Mourning the loss of someone you knew and loved is hard enough, but mourning the loss of hope for a relationship that no longer can be is something else entirely. The man was a loner who shared little with even the few people closest to him. His death is still shrouded in mystery and there will be many questions left unanswered. I hate that this is a part of my husband’s life, and I hate that both of our fathers came to such early endings.

I don’t know how people get through grief like this without close friends, family, and faith. Even with those things I was sometimes teetering on the edge. So often this confession would come to mind and I’d have to remember that God is sovereign. Great or terrible, all the things that happen to us are part of His good plan for our lives, even if it takes us a long time to understand why. God does not condemn me for my questions, my anger, my confusion, or my grief.

“My only comfort in life and in death is…”

That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

-Heidelberg Catechism

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