“I have cancer.”
Someone you love stands before you and delivers the blow. Your response is visceral. Though you will eventually have more questions than there are answers to give, at that moment no thoughts come to mind. Everything shuts down and you find yourself unable to speak or to move. The only sense that life still lingers is the shallow breathing that barely whispers from between your dry lips.
I remember the day the words came at me. I was sitting in the kitchen. Cecil stood in front of me at the open window. Colors of spring lit him from behind, as the hand of death snaked in and encircled him like a swirl of smoke. In an instant my husband had been taken. Nothing would ever be the same again.
There was no time to process the words, or to imagine all they would siphon from our lives. Cecil was at stage 4B. Chemo and radiation began immediately. He lost every hair on his body. He crawled to the toilet. He lay on the stairs because he couldn’t make it up. The kids and I were helpless to do or change anything. We could only watch him suffer as he all but died from the poisons that were meant to save him.
Months passed, and years. There was remission, followed by relapse. The devastating treatments came again. Then, out of nowhere, a secondary anemia that was as bad as the lymphoma. With it came exhaustion and hemorrhages and a new threat. More tests, more treatments.
There has been wishful thinking that it would all go away, but mostly there has been fear – never the peace of mind that allows you to travel along without watching every step. Peace of Mind is a cliché we toss about. When you don’t have it, you come to know what it means.
Cecil shouldered his pain with uncommon bravery. I tried to share it with him, but he would not let me. Eventually, I became convinced he didn’t appreciate what this was doing to the rest of us. I actually felt angry with him for being sick. I began to say my goodbyes, in small ways, creating a distance into which I could retreat from the thought of losing him. I think Cecil, on some level, began to resent that I wasn’t suffering the digging into my hip for marrow, the hours spent with my head in the toilet, the fear that all the suffering might end because it was no longer holding the killer at bay.
Illness is insidious. It can foster misguided emotions that tend to run amuck. We caught this happening and now stand vigilant against the intrusion. Still, its reach has been endless. I can’t think of a corner of our lives that has not been sullied.
It is ten years since those first three words. Despite the anguish, maybe because of it in some ways, we have had love and laughter and life together. We have even, on rare occasion, ignored the monster at the door who waits to claim his latest. For all of this, I am thankful. I never would have thought a moment without death upon us would be as good as it gets.
Cecil spends part of most every day at the hospital. Transfusions are keeping him alive. A stem cell transplant is his only hope. We just learned they have located perfectly matched donors. So, we are on countdown to Day One, when they, literally, will start killing him. Then, on to Day Eight, when they will try to rescue him with the new cells. On Day One Hundred, he will either be dead, or he will have wrestled and clawed and willed his way back to life. We are, at once, terrified and excited. It is a schizophrenic existence. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder… PTSD…I think I will have to look into that.
Right now, I am going to appreciate Cecil’s smile, his sweet voice, and the goodness within him. Perhaps most of all, I am going to remember how lucky I am to have known and loved a man who has felt like home.