“Stability” by Jennifer Hildebrandt is our first essay of 2024! Hildebrandt, a writer and movement coach, uses this essay to explore grief and the body in the aftermath of her husband’s passing. “When I’m not moving, or teaching movement classes,” Hildebrandt writes, “I spend hours hunched over my laptop, immersed in anatomy books, poring over my husband’s medical records, collecting yet another teaching certification, thinking too much, writing too much, searching for words to define, redefine, stability.” This crushing essay is one you won’t soon forget.
The center of gravity for a distribution of mass—you, me, an owl perched on a low oak branch —is the point at which the applied force of gravity causes the mass to move in the direction of the force without rotation. In other words, the point at which you, me, or the owl on the branch balances. The line of gravity, or gravitational pull, is always in a vertical line straight down toward the center of earth, regardless of the orientation of the mass in space. The properties of gravity literally bind our galaxy together, simultaneously binding you, me, the owl, to Earth.
Other terms for gravity are weightiness, heaviness, alarming importance.
* * *
The night my husband died in our home, I lay on my living room floor, weighted by something heavier than grief. An oppressive, suffocating force bore down without release, and at the same time, threatened to heave me into the atmosphere. How can a body be so weighted and so empty at the same time? Both fragile and substantial, a parchment paper exoskeleton, heavy as lead. Under this crushing load that made it hard to breathe, it became alarmingly important to me, in a place deeper than words, to find my center of gravity. As the heart knows how to beat and blood knows to flow, I knew this truth without words. But the night my husband died, I didn’t know if it was possible. That night, I believed my center of gravity was on its way to the crematorium.
* * *
The center of gravity in an adult human body in a normal standing position—the bones positioned in an assumed ideal alignment—resides in the sacrum. Anatomy texts depict this precise alignment with an imaginary plumb line that penetrates specific points in a body as it travels toward the center of the earth. From a side view, beginning at the crown of the head, the line passes through the ear canal, the vertebral bodies of the cervical spine and the shoulder joint, continuing through the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine, hip socket and knee joint, until it bisects the ankle joint on its way to Earth’s center. From a front view, this plumb line slices dead center through our skeleton, creating mirror images of our left and right sides.
In this precise alignment, gravity penetrates our body proportionately, and the energy expended to hold our bones together is elegantly efficient. Muscles continually contract and release, moving our bones through both minute and grand ranges of motion. Joints glide with spacious ease, blood flows freely, neurological messages travel without interference, lymph washes through cells effortlessly. Science calls this equilibrium, from Latin, aequi (equal) + libra (balance), or, homeostasis, Greek in origin, homeo (same) + stasis (standing still). We might simply call it balance.
Normal standing position is a questionable assumption, as our modern world is causing rapid and dramatic deviations in our skeletal structures. My husband often said that because texting, iPads and other electronic communications are taking over our lives, the human form will eventually evolve—perhaps devolve is more accurate—into two big thumbs.
As a movement teacher, I witness every day in my work that his off-handed observation was more prophetic than absurd. Research suggests the shift from thick-boned hunter-gatherers to the frail modern bodies that are barely getting us through life today happened relatively recently and rapidly in terms of evolutionary timelines—we’re talking a couple thousand, versus the several hundreds of thousands of years that evolutionary transformations tend to occur.
I am one of those bodies, a dilemma of motion and stillness. When I’m not moving, or teaching movement classes, I spend hours hunched over my laptop, immersed in anatomy books, poring over my husband’s medical records, collecting yet another teaching certification, thinking too much, writing too much, searching for words to define, redefine, stability.
* * *
This distribution of mass that we call a body craves stability, and the body is stunningly adaptable in its attempts to achieve it. However, adaptable doesn’t always mean an improvement. If our skeleton is off-balance more than it is balanced, if our sacrum spends more time out of alignment than in, all the systems of our body work overtime to hold us together in this precariously state, desperately trying to pull us back toward equilibrium. These heroic efforts speak to us loud and clear in the form of aches, pains, injury, disease. Dis-ease. Adapting without ease. I once read somewhere that our soul loves us so much, it will use our body to get our attention. After all, a body can only withstand imbalance for so long.
* * *
When my husband died, I became untethered, hurtling through space. How could this happen? For a year and a half, cancer had become our new normal—he’d been battered by the disease and treatments for fourteen months, in hospice for five months. I saw the progression of the disease, the disintegration of his body. I read the hospice literature, I spoke at length with his medical team. I was intimate with the stages of dying: changes in appetite, disrupted sleep patterns, skin color, breath fading. But still, I was not prepared to be launched so off-kilter when he finally died. Can you ever prepare for the death of someone you love? Even in hospice, when the whole point is to prepare to die? I don’t know that anything could have prepared me for losing the ground beneath my feet.
* * *
Curiously, the sacrum is one of the few bones in the body that doesn’t derive its Latin or Greek name from anatomical position or shape, like the bones of the ears for instance: the malleus, incus and stapes, better known as hammer, anvil and stirrup bones in English. Similarly, the patella (knee cap) translates to “little pan” and pelvis to “basin.” Other names, such as femur and humerus, are simply the Latin names for what they describe: the thigh bone and shoulder bone, respectively.
The English word sacrum is a truncation of the Latin os sacrum. Sacred bone. Prior to the mid-1700s, this bone was called the holy bone in both English and in German (helliges Bein), where it’s now known as the Kreuzbein, or cross bone. The sacred or holy connotation of the bone’s name is vague; theories about its origin vary wildly. Some speculate it’s because the bone is cross-shaped in some animals (particularly large, four-legged creatures such as horses, cows and lions) and its supposed role in animal sacrificial rites due to its proximity to reproductive organs. Others surmise that because of its density, the sacrum is one of the last bones to survive cremation in a funeral pyre.
* * *
My husband took four years of Latin as an undergraduate, with the intention to go to law school. We lived two and a half hours from each other when we began dating; long-distance phone calls were an expensive luxury, so we took to writing hand-penned letters. I saved each of his and after we had married and stopped writing letters, I tucked them inside a Rubbermaid tub along with 4 my high school year books, a pile of photo albums and other evidence of lifetimes-ago and stashed them in the basement.
I didn’t know that he had also kept my letters. I exhumed them from his file cabinet a few days after he had died, while collecting documents for our mortgage lender to prove financial hardship due to death. He had organized my letters chronologically in an unmarked folder.
The mortgage lender could wait. Instead, I went to the closet to the Rubbermaid tub and retrieved the letters I’d stashed away, which weren’t chronological but were neatly bound by a disintegrating rubber band. I took the two stacks of letters and a bottle of wine to bed and spent the rest of day and into the night reading each letter, stacking these pieces of evidence together, in he said, she said chronological order, collapsing intermittently onto piles of words and tears.
His letters to me often included a Latin message; this was long before home computers became a mainstay in our lives. I remember attempting to decipher them on my own. The shapes of the words of this dead language appeared familiar enough that I felt I should know, on a cellular level, what they meant but I didn’t, and would have to wait for a visit or a phone call from him to tell me what he had written.
Sometimes his cryptic messages were instructive. Ubi nihil erit quod scribas, id ipsum scribito (Cicero): Even if you have nothing to write, write and say so. Sometimes simple. Te amo: I love you. He often signed his letters, I’m always with you, in his distinct, fluid script, sometimes in English, other times in Latin: ego semper tecum. When we got married, we walked down the aisle to Joe Satriani’s surfy, ethereal electric guitar magic, Always With Me, Always With You.
Toward the end of Bob’s time in hospice, due to the progression of the disease and high levels of narcotics, he was so weak and unsteady, he’d fall asleep anywhere, sometimes even while standing. As such, I usually accompanied him to the bathroom, for fear he’d fall off the toilet if I wasn’t there to make sure he stayed upright. One night, I was curled up on the bathroom floor, waiting for him to finish so I could help him to bed. My cheek rested on the porcelain tile, tears pooling onto the beige speckled squares, which felt cool and soothing on my hot skin, like menthol. I was staring at Bob’s swollen, stockinged feet resting at the base of the toilet, lifeless as inflatable bath toys and could no longer be trusted. He had fallen asleep on the toilet, snoring softly while holding himself upright with kickstand arms braced atop the aluminum walker squared in front of him. The walker was speckled with faded and peeling stickers that used to be SpongeBob and Patrick and Squidward and used to be funny, but had long faded to gray, ghostly outlines.
I suddenly pushed myself up from the floor and crawled across the bathroom tile to his legs. I knelt in front of him and took his swollen, whiskered cheeks in my hands, and whispered into his face, “I will take care of you like this forever, as long as you don’t leave me.” Bob lifted his head, his eyes were still closed.
“You say that as though I have a choice.” He laughed softly, still half-sleeping. His fingers reached for my hair, tangling deep into my curls and find their way out again, as they’d done for nearly twenty years.
“Will you promise me that after you die, you’ll give me some kind of sign to let me know you’re okay?” I was crying so hard, I gasped my words out.
“I can do that. As long as you quit saying I’m leaving you.”
“But don’t do anything scary, like throw something at me or whisper my name in a disembodied voice in the middle of the night, like in those creepy ghost-stalker shows you watch.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that to you.” He paused, then said, “I’ll send a great horned owl.” My heart dropped. The most common owl in Minnesota. Latin name, Bubo virginianus, Bubo, horned owl, virginianus, of Virginia, where first specimens were collected. There were great horned owls all over the place out where we lived. I thought he was just humoring me.
“I won’t know which one is you,” my words barely squeaking out.
“Don’t worry,” he said, opening his eyes, very wide awake. He looked directly at me. “You’ll know.” He didn’t believe in scriptures or ghosts, so I didn’t know what else to do but believe him. Unwittingly, already grasping for stability, I held tight to his words.
We sat like that, me kneeling at his bloated feet, him on the toilet, his fingers tangling in and out of my hair, until he finally said, “Okay, babe, I think I’m ready.” I rose to my feet to help him from the toilet. I washed him, gently touching his skin as I cleaned the shit and blood from his backside. I helped him step out of soiled pajama bottoms and Depends and into fresh ones, before slowly shuffling our way back to bed.
* * *
In the human body, the sacrum is the largest vertebral structure, forming the base of the spinal column. In utero, it begins as three to five separate vertebra that gradually begin to merge in adolescence, solidifying as one bone by our early 30s. The sacrum is a keystone of sorts, connecting two large hip bones, the ilia, to form the basin-like pelvis. Like the axel of a car, the sacrum transfers force through the body, between movement of our upper and lower limbs. This bone also encases and protects the terminal end of our spinal cord which exits through several holes of the sacrum which fan out into a dazzling, delicate array of nerves that supply electricity to the lower half of the body. The sacrum is a powerful pedestal, bearing the weight of the spine, ribcage, skull, upper limbs and all tissues connected to these bones. In other words, in the human body, the sacrum is a really big deal.
* * *
Late effects is the term given to the delayed aftermath of cancer treatments. My husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, when he was ten years old. He was treated with heavy doses of radiation and chemotherapy for nearly a year. Five years following his treatments, despite suspected sterility, despite the stunted bone growth of his pelvis, spine, ribcage and shoulders (the areas most heavily radiated during his treatments), he was declared cured, because doctors found no evidence of the disease in his body. Thirty years later, cancer reappeared in my husband’s body (does it ever leave? I often wonder) in the form of a bone tumor—an osteosarcoma—on his sacrum. It’s a common area for tumors to appear in Hodgkin’s survivors because the pelvis has a high concentration of lymph nodes, which is where the bulk of radiation is focused. I learned this after his death; volumes of research exist about late effects of cancer survivors. The radiation used to treat my husband’s first cancer three decades prior caused the second, we were told. One could say the cure caused cancer; I certainly do.
The curative treatment for my husband’s second cancer was to remove the tumor. That’s what his doctors named the thirteen-hour procedure: curative. Derived from cure, Latin in origin, cura: care, concern for, a means of healing or restoring to health. This leaves much to interpretation. Cure, to me, meant they’d give my husband back, with care and concern, in the same condition he was in before all this began. Healed. At the very least, better. Cure, to his doctors, meant no evidence of disease.
* * *
A few years after my husband’s death, I attended an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a collection of Renaissance artists’ work side-by-side with medical treatises of the time, titled Revealing the Body: The Art of Anatomy. In the 1500s, artists, like medical students, studied cadavers to learn intricate details of anatomy. The corpses weren’t simply laid out on a table in a lab to be reproduced; rather, they were flayed. Skin was peeled away to reveal complex systems of organs beneath. Melding art and science, artists often staged the bodies in dramatic poses, sometimes mimicking great works of art, sometimes the product of a highly imaginative artist and/or physician—suggestive, athletic, playful, alluring—corpses pulling away their own skin in a provocative, macabre burlesque, to reveal bones, muscles and organs beneath. Countless anatomical treatises resulted from the scientist-artist collaborations of the 15th and 16th centuries. Coupled with drawings, prints and other items from Mia’s collections were numerous documents on loan from the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where my husband was treated for his cancer. I was astonished by this unique collaboration between two seemingly disparate sources, both celebrating and venerating the human body. Anatomy as art.
* * *
The sacrum is secured to the pelvis by an intricate webbing of ligaments. Thirty five muscles connect to the sacrum at various attachment sites and an elaborate superhighway of nerves, blood and lymph vessels pass through the sacrum to the lower extremities. Essential life functions emanate from this bone: the transfer of power to our limbs, urinating and defecating, feeling the touch of a hand sliding up our thigh, or gritty sand between our toes. Making love. Expanding the pelvis to give birth.
* * *
Removing the tumor also meant removing my husband’s sacrum—his center of gravity—as though it were incidental. Never mind that the sacrum was the bone holding his pelvis together, that bore the weight of his spine, ribcage, arms and skull. Never mind that the electrical system operating his lower body also shared space in the bone that encased the tumor. Never mind that at that time, I wasn’t a movement teacher or an anatomy geek. I didn’t know a thing about the sacrum, much less the body as a whole. If his sacrum were removed with the tumor, what will hold him together? I asked his doctors. On a cellular level, in that deep place that doesn’t need words, I knew that removing such a vital part of his body couldn’t possibly be a cure. But, we weren’t living by my rules any longer, and I didn’t want him to die. His doctors couldn’t answer my questions, still, I held tight to their cure. What else could I do?
* * *
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni dissected bodies and sketched their parts. Though he didn’t produce an illustrated anatomical treatise himself, Michelangelo’s extensive knowledge of the glorious complexities of the human form is apparent in his detailed work, a treatise in its own right. Leonardo Da Vinci also honed his craft by dissecting and examining the intricate details contained within flayed corpses. His renditions of the spine are thought to be the first accurate depictions found in art or science, so painstakingly faithful that 500 years later, they are still highly regarded in both fields. I stopped in my tracks when I read a placard on one of Michelangelo’s sketches in the gallery: “There is an essential relationship between architecture and the proportions of the human body, and he who has not made himself master of the human form and especially of anatomy, will understand nothing of architecture.” Art as anatomy.
* * *
Doctors tend to use simple, benign images as placeholders for unfathomable things, whether for the benefit of the patient (or his hysterical wife) or themselves, I don’t know. The tumor that was removed from my husband’s pelvis was the size of a grapefruit, or a softball, depending on which doctor we talked to, as though it were an ordinary object that wouldn’t be missed. But, removing the tumor couldn’t be done without also carving out integral, intricate body parts of my husband that would be missed: bone, muscles, tangles of blood vessels, clusters of lymph nodes, bundles of nerves.
Like open pit mining, skilled surgeons gouged a gaping cannonball blast of a wound into the landscape of my husband’s body. This was not flaying, this was not art. The hole went right through him, front to back. Organs were shoved aside to excavate the tumor, along with two-thirds of his sacrum. They carved out a portion of his right ilium and a litany of other body parts, then sewed both sides of him closed, like a rag doll. The entire process consumed more than half the hours of a day. I was horrified. I asked his doctors what would happen to him without those parts, what would replace the softball-sized void that they covered with stitches? They were unsure, but they were confident his body would regenerate new tissue to fill the cavity. Our bodies do it on a continual basis, they said. On such a scale? I couldn’t reconcile that thought. I didn’t want him to die, but I did not sign up for this.
Could the reverse of the commentary I read about Michelangelo also be true, that he who has not made himself master of architecture will understand nothing of the human form?
* * *
Building implosions are a magnificent feat of engineering and design; the carefully orchestrated series of blasts is a jaw-dropping scene to behold. An imploding building is almost beautiful as it folds neatly into itself, like a ballerina collapsing into billows of tulle in the final act. Though gravity is what ultimately brings the building down, carefully planted explosives in lower stories are first detonated, which cause upper stories to buckle accordion-like under itself, destroying the structure while leaving surrounding buildings unscathed. Long before the implosion happens, demolition scientists must study blueprints, tour each floor to understand structural supports and building design, then input data into predictive computer programs. They study the physics of how the building might fall with various explosion alignments.
I took physics in high school for science credit, barely passing with a C-, which sent my grade point average tumbling and caused me to lament: When am I ever going to need physics again in my life?
* * *
The irony of advances in medicine and technology is, that while they’re making our life easier, they’re also making things harder on our bodies. The easier our lifestyle, the less we move. The less we move, i.e. when our pelvis and by association, our sacrum—our center of gravity—deviate from their ideal alignment for prolonged periods of time, the more chronic and debilitating conditions are created. The geometry of our bones and the physics of our movements become alarmingly limited for all their potential, yet we derive a false sense of stability because we remain upright without tipping: look ma, no hands!
Our bodies can tolerate a multitude of alignment transgressions for quite a while, until suddenly they can’t. A litany of physical ailments begin appear: tight muscles, aching joints, headaches, digestive and circulation issues, nerve damage. Osteoporosis, pelvic floor issues (incontinence, sexual dysfunctions, menstrual disorders, organ prolapse), shortness of breath, anxiety, sleeping disorders. Disease of the affluent, first world problems, some call these afflictions that begin with violating a basic law of physics, a simple shift in our center of gravity. When our sacrum deviates from its rightful place within our body—surgically, or by acts of free will—it all comes tumbling down. The sacrum is hardly incidental. It is absolutely holy.
* * *
How did my husband’s doctors expect him to live without his sacrum, without his center of gravity? Without this bone that held him together, this bone that bore the weight of his body, that channeled his movements, that’s strong enough to withstand the flames of funeral pyres? Did they believe their work defied laws of physics? Or something more holy? I didn’t ask questions like this when he was sick; instead, mine were clumsy versions: Will he ever be able to hike or kayak again? No. Will he ever be without pain? No. Will we ever share the same bed again? Probably not in the way you’re hoping. Will he shit in a diaper for the rest of his life? Probably. What’s keeping him from collapsing into himself? We don’t know, they said. But he’s alive—isn’t that what you wanted? Like this? By their definition? How does anyone answer that?
* * *
My husband’s doctors couldn’t answer my questions then, but I can answer them now. Without the sacrum and the vital elements radiating from this holy bone, a body will implode. Unlike a building collapsing, however, this will not be well-planned. It will not be elegant. It will take down everyone close to it.
The effort required of my husband to live without his sacrum was gruesome. His legs, once lean and defined, became engorged with fluid—heavy, like swollen sandbags that he heaved from room to room with the aid of a walker (recall: networks of blood vessels, dense colonies of lymph nodes reside in the pelvis); we wrapped them excruciatingly tight, twice a day, in unforgiving bandages, to wring excess lymph fluid from his limbs.
Muscles were excavated, others paralyzed, leaving his right leg lifeless. Sex, no longer possible. Skin, too tender to touch. Searing pain, a relentless companion. Shitting in a diaper and pissing through a catheter, his “new normal,” infections incessant, danger of bleeding always imminent (recall: Over thirty-five muscles, a network of nerves and a sheaths of connective tissue attach to the sacrum, to transmit force and sensation, to provide support and stability). A body cannot withstand this disturbance in equilibrium for long. Hospice followed soon after.
Recall: The removal of my husband’s sacrum was the cure.
* * *
What becomes of the wife who witnesses the consequences of this cure? I can answer that, too. I am taken down by the implosion, pinned under the rubble, then violently flung into the atmosphere, and the landscape I encounter when I land is not at all what I knew before cancer. The people are different—friends disappear. The language is different—words like passed away and widow don’t fit in my mouth and I refused to say them. I move all the furniture from the first floor to the basement and the basement furniture to the first floor, I paint the kitchen and bathrooms, empty closets and garage of his belongings, desperately trying to scramble the setting and the memories, but none of that works. I try to escape the deafening quiet of our country house by moving to an ancient, drafty home in the noisy city, then back to the country, then back to the city when the mortgage lender decides death of a spouse doesn’t translate to hardship in their language. My thick hair falls out in handfuls like the chemotherapy patient I’m not, though I am filled with something as toxic as chemo. I stand on our deck in bare feet the cold black of night and scream into the darkness, until my voice grows hoarse and my dogs run for cover. I wonder what, exactly, defines hardship? and will my hair ever grow back? and will the ground beneath my feet ever feel stable again?
Perhaps I should have consulted an architect, Michelangelo or my high school physics teacher—someone who intimately understood the consequences of removing a weight-bearing wall from a structure.
* * *
Our life is made by the death of others. ~ Leonardo da Vinci
“The divine design,” I say in the movement classes I facilitate, when speaking of the human body. I tell my students, “Whether you’re religious or not, the architecture of our body is a marvel to behold.” Nothing is random. The evidence is all around us, within us—in the geometry of our bones and the physics of our movements, entwined within the galaxy of connective tissue, the basketweave of muscles, the infrastructure of vessels, right down to the kaleidoscopic cellular level.
I came into this work the year after my husband died, and have been at it for over a decade. At first, I didn’t connect the two events in my life. What I couldn’t see then is now so obvious: I have been searching for evidence that what I saw him endure as a cancer patient was absolutely unholy. He was not just a tumor, or a heart attack or a colorectal blockage that could be treated without considering the impact on all his other parts. He was a whole being, every single part of him interconnected.
Every day, I talk about him in my work, when I speak of the spine and pelvis as the source of our strength and stability, and our ability to be flexible. I think about him when I talk about the sacrum, this holy bone that is the epicenter of our body. Our balance point. It is always with us; its impact on our body is only acutely apparent when it deviates from its rightful place—surgically or by acts of our own free will. So much depends on it, so much we can’t see but inherently know. If only we would trust this cellular knowledge.
I tell my students that there is actually no such thing as “ideal alignment” in a real human body. Our bodies are a living biography of how we live, what we eat, how we move, or don’t move, who we love and lose. Continually adapting and changing, written and rewritten, our bodies tell a fierce and fragile story of every single thing we’ve ever encountered in our lives.
* * *
My heart ached for a long time after my husband’s death, it still does at times, believing I was partly to blame for his suffering because I didn’t listen to this inherent knowledge, I didn’t trust it. If I had, would it have stopped me from trying like mad to save his life? Would we have instead focused on the quality, rather than quantity, of the life we had left together? Would it have made his illness and our time together, less traumatic and instead, more sacred? Would it have made my transition between life, death and living without him less fractured and turbulent?
I didn’t know the answers to any of those questions then, but I know now, with unwavering certainty, that the answers—my center of gravity—have always been inside of me. It is my holy obligation to heed them. They appear in our language, in our bones, in the nucleus of our cells. They are evident in the words that the living and the dying say.
They are in the owl that alighted on a branch outside just beyond my deck in the middle of a sunny afternoon two months after my husband died, on the day I signed a lease to move out of our country home, into another life. The owl was so close, I could see its penetrating eyes blinking at me through the leafy shadows of our backyard.
We stared at each other, the owl and I, until eventually, it broke the spell. The owl turned its head 180 degrees to look behind, then back, to give me one long last look before pushing off from its perch and silently gliding into the woods of our backyard. I stood on the deck long after the owl disappeared, staring out into the woods that had swallowed it.
Jennifer is an author and movement teacher living in Mankato, MN, with her rescue dog, Lucy. She is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program in CNF, and a 2019-2020 fellow with the Loft Literary Center Mentor Series in Minneapolis. She is a grateful recipient of grants from both the Minnesota State Arts Board and Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Center for projects in memoir. Her work can be found in the Eunoia Review, Iris Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, HerStry, and other publications. Her essay, “Jacket,” was named Honorable Mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s nonfiction prize in 2017, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.