In June 2016, I wave goodbye to Amy. She’s radiant, framed in the doorway by an early California sunlight, arm in arm with her sister, Jen. Knowing that this may be the last time I see her, I hug her and whisper in her ear, “You are beautiful.” On August 1, 2016, Amy Petrolati died of metastatic breast cancer.
It is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. As a way to draw awareness to the effects of metastatic breast cancer on loved ones, I invited Phil Kohlmetz, Amy’s husband, to reflect on his journey since her death. What follows is a poignant letter–addressed to Davis, another husband whose wife recently died of breast cancer–which explores the pain and wonder of what life goes on truly means.
I’m so sorry for your recent loss. Thank you for sharing those heartfelt and authentic words about your late wife at the Day of Remembrance a few weeks ago. It was very brave of you. We only just met, but I felt an instant connection with our lives and circumstances. I had meant to write earlier, but I find myself with a few moments now.
I’m sitting in LAX, a city within a city. People buzz like bees. Everyone has somewhere to go. I’m on my way to see a brother I haven’t seen in 2.5 years, thanks to COVID. Why I am writing you this? Because it’s a trip I should be taking with my late wife Amy, who died from Metastatic Breast Cancer 5.5 years ago.
There’s a lot I could say about Amy. But what I want to convey to you, as much as to myself or to anyone who has lost someone, is that life does go on, and it’s paradoxically both beautiful and painful.
This is, admittedly, a very, very trite phrase.
One that, had someone said to me in the first year after her passing when every day was a deep sentence, a punishment of grief, I would have spit at. I’m not usually the violent type, but I might have well hit the speaker of such treacle in the face with all the force my 125-lb-mountain climber frame could muster. And then I would have spat the kind of spit Billy Martin used to spit at umpires’ shoes.
But it’s another 5 years on. Things have happened. Slowly, incrementally, but they’ve happened. Small changes at first. Repainting a wall in our shared house. Then, deciding to rent the house part-time. Then, moving out, and moving to the other side of a mountain range we shared, to look at it from a new angle. I gave in to impulses I only imagined when she was alive and we were married, and traded the Bay Area for the Mojave Desert, to be closer to the high peaks and impossible passes I dreamt of while looking at maps, as I tried to escape the unimaginable truth that Amy was going to die from Breast Cancer and that there was nothing her nor I could do to change or stop that fact.
There has never been any big epiphany for me. Certainly, there were big moments: scattering her ashes in… Bell Meadow with 60 of her closest friends and family while dodging thunderstorms, … and on her beloved Desolation Peak, … and in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, … and in our backyard in a very private, mostly drunk, but nonetheless deeply poignant ceremony that involved me carving stones to bury at the roots of a tree we planted. Me, taking mushrooms and swimming in a lake invoking “the river of tiny deaths.” Staring into campfires and talking to spirits. But no complete “aha” moment. Just a lot of small moments that, in a strange way and like cancer itself, slowly move each of us to an inevitable, almost fate-lake horizon.
The horizon that she reached first is the horizon we will all finally arrive at: the horizon of death, the end of earthly conscious existence. Hopefully, this is just one phase of existence, and not the whole kit and kaboodle. Certainly, as you alluded to, there must be more. Please, let there be more. But our spouses got there first, and Amy has only sent periodic messages back that seem encouraging, and I know are full of love.
The horizon I’m now detouring towards is the height of human existence. Quite literally, the highest places we can stand on this beautiful and rare spinning planet, and the highest ideal of peace, acknowledgment, and enlightenment. Freed from the everyday concerns of her cancer, I’m now admittedly freer to contemplate my own eventual demise, as well as my own precious life.
Even freer, my new friend, to contemplate your own precious life.
For so so long, I placed Amy and her needs for a fulfilled life ahead of my own. What fulfillment I got I either got through her or pursued as a “side project” and not a central focus. This may be a beautiful and selfless act, but there’s a cost to this that I’m now aware of, so I hesitate to say it is completely altruistic.
Having experienced such profound love, loss, and pain, I believe and feel that I’m now uniquely qualified to let all of it pass. To detach to some degree. Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is freedom from attachment. Perhaps we have to be supremely attached before we can be ready to let attachment go (even there, there is some forcing involved).
Thus, I can now view my own life, and yours, with less subjectivity. I like this. (Maybe you might like it too.)
Although liking is itself a form of attachment, generally I’m calmer now, less agitated, and less fearful. I accept that I was supposed to take this trip East with someone I loved, who was supposed to be “the one,” and instead I’m now taking it alone. So it goes. Maybe someday, I’ll take it with someone I love. And maybe someday in another realm, I’ll talk to Amy about it. I hope so. I may be developing my non-attachment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe in eternity.
Phil Kohlmetz is an explorer of intentional and unintentional communities, a long-distance backpacker, and a mountain climber who believes that love is abundant. Trained in psychology, sociology, and Public Narrative, he has participated in local and State politics, organized artists to affect change, led museums and theater companies, and officiated numerous marriages, funerals, and remembrance ceremonies. He often dreams of trains.