February 2018: There are 202 people on Facebook who are very excited that my husband’s cancer hasn’t spread to his lymph nodes. They are rejoicing, hallelujahing, and praising God with excitement over that clear pathology report.
Greg and I didn’t even exchange a glance when we got the good news. There was no warm hug, no hand squeeze, no smile across the room. We wordlessly let the receptionist validate our parking and headed to the van.
After about an hour in the car, I asked him, “Why aren’t we happy?” His reply was quick. “Because we are so tired.”
The media forces cancer archetypes and a code of behavior for all participants: patients must be perky, wear ribbons and participate in fundraising walks; caregivers should be long-suffering, level-headed, and, above all else, self-sacrificing; and the cancer journey must be only minimally clouded by cancer itself.
The media’s prescribed cancer journey is NOT about a disease that can kill you and orphan your children: it’s about inspiring others–always.
Above all, this cancer paradigm requires that you never grow weary.
But from the outset, cancer number three found us weary, our twenty-six-year marriage in one of those separate-corner lulls that the long-married know: you read novels while petting a cat; he dozes while watching MASH; you both hope that someday you will like each other again.
Last September, I even started a blog with the working title, “Sitting Past the Hate.” It read, in part:
In the category of “things you probably shouldn’t say,” I really don’t like my husband right now.
I don’t think he likes me much, either.
You’re not supposed to say that, at least not out loud, in print, to the world, but he’s already said that he wouldn’t marry me again. Since I shared the sentiment, making it unanimous, I think I can say that there’s some dislike in my house.
Still, I feel bad typing that. Except for the two words at the end: right now.
I didn’t get much further–didn’t get to the part about how, if you have been married a for decades, you learn how to wait–to be quiet, cook a good supper, and to move very slowly forward . . . because you know that there will come a time, the right song on the radio during a family trip, a simultaneous blue heron sighting, a long laugh over a private joke . . . you know that something will come and make you reconnect to the very spouse whom, right now, you wish you’d never met.
You know you will love again, so you sit past the hate.
We were doing that most of the winter before his diagnosis–skulking around, talking some days, silent others. No one ate dinner together, but a Phase 10 game could still draw the whole family to the kitchen table and, with a bowl of peanut M&Ms, we almost passed for normal.
Most weekends, even in the worst of our marital doldrums, my friend Tasha usually wanders over, collapsing on the love seat after planting her son in front of the Wii.
On the Friday after Greg’s cheek was biopsied, we all sat chatting while watching her son enthusiastically kill Wii chickens. One of us asked Greg about the biopsy–whether it was painful, if he thought he had cancer.
I was too stricken that night to write his words, and I’m too stricken still to remember them–whatever they were, they were coldly terrifying.
When I walked Tasha out to her car, we stood under the full moon, the garage cats swirling at our ankles. “He believes it’s cancer,” I hissed. “He never believes he has cancer. It’s cancer.”
“I know,” she replied. Her eyes were wide.
In January, I couldn’t navigate the distance between “I don’t want to drive five minutes through town to go eat a donut with you” and “I’m going to go hear your third cancer diagnosis, then ride in a car with you for almost two hours.”
I couldn’t see any way the post-diagnosis car ride would not plummet into disaster. I knew I would be unable to say anything comforting or helpful–for I knew, innately, that on cancer #3, there would be neither comfort nor help.
I knew cancer #3 would take us to an awful place.
Still, if he wanted me in the car, I would be. I asked repeatedly, “Do you want me to go?”
“I want you to do what you want to do.” Always polite and firm.
“I want to do what you want me to do.”
And so it went, even the morning of the appointment–when he went alone.
There was a lot of “not wanting” during that time: Greg did not want me on the drive; I did not want to wait three weeks until surgery; we did not want to go through every painful thing again. After the lymphectomy and facial reconstruction, I did not want to clean his neck wound; he did not want me to either, but there was truly no one else, no other option. It had to be done, and there I was.
I wasn’t stoic. I couldn’t clean the wound with the practiced neutrality of a veteran nurse. During the leukemia battle of 2001, I saw inside his esophagus, stomach, and lungs–I stood right beside the doctors as they ran the scopes. I measured his urine, charted his bowel habits, sat in the hospital for thirty-one days. I passed those tests, but now, I was failing.
I could give him neither apologies nor promises. All I could do was make the observation that in our wedding vows, if silently cleaning up a bloody slit neck three times a day for weeks upon weeks been announced as a requirement, I would have run back down the aisle screaming, “I am not the girl for that.” Oh, how quickly I would have left this life.
I have not left this life.
It is September again. Our nest newly empty, we are at my brother’s timeshare in Hilton Head, South Carolina. We are in separate bedrooms. It is considered a kindness if one of us brings the other something from the next room. If our elbows accidentally touch, we jerk away instinctively.
I am not his. He is not mine.
But it is September again. We have made it through one year of misery. We have sat, separated by rage and weariness, each of us carrying an anger that would have been inconceivable to the Christian kids we were in 1991. (They are long dead now, but Tasha tells our daughters about them, stories that start with, “Your parents used to be . . .”)
I think it is a sadness that couples do not talk about the sorrowful times that they sit through. No one confesses that marriage is sometimes a long heartbreaking train ride where all you can do is look out the window. People pretend that all is well when nothing is–and, in doing so, they do a disservice to others. We need to see one another’s hard times firsthand. We need front row seats to sorrow and tragedy, not for the spectacle of it, but so that we know that our someday tragedies will be survivable–because we know others who have survived.
I don’t know why Greg and I are enduring the race that we are–so unhappy, angry, and broken–yet we are still here, enduring.
It is September again.