Being an obsessive list-maker, if given the assignment to sum up the things Hubby’s cancer taught us about living and dying well with cancer—and if the assignment required an alphabetized list—it would look something like this (you’re going to need to work with me on a couple of these):
It happens. None of us are exempt. But we do get to choose how we live with and beyond adversity.
Hubby decided he was going to go bald on his own terms. Our niece was assigned the job of shaving his head. But first, a little fun. An Oregon Ducks “O” sculpted on the back of his head. And then a Mohawk. Photos. Facebook postings. This message from Daughter Summer from the east coast: “What is going on back there?!” Ha! Take that, chemo.
The best thing I did as caregiver was come alongside Hubby — not sitting in the bleachers cheering him on; but in the game, running alongside him, picking him up when he stumbled, letting him help me up when I got tackled.
Yes, there are too many sudden tragic lonely senseless deaths. But standing watch as a loved one dies can be a sacred and sweetly sorrowful experience: patient and caregiver surrounded by love, saturated in peace, saying everything that needs to be said.
Having the discussion about end-of-life wishes before a crisis occurs is wise. As the medical professionals were honest with us about the approach of Hubby’s death and their goal to keep him comfortable, there was a noticeably lighter spirit in my husband.
Our faith was a critical component that helped us weather the hard road, beginning with financial reversals. Yes, we struggled with self-pity, frustration, anger at God. If there hadn’t been a sense of purpose that eventually settled over us, this hard road would have been devastating. And yet it wasn’t. In its place was meaning and deep peace. Because God was part of the equation.
We can count our losses and all that will never be the same. Or we can focus on what remains. Although my husband is gone, the list of what still remains is quite long, beginning with children and grands and extended family who want me around.
“If you didn’t get your hopes up so high, you wouldn’t be so disappointed,” said the pessimistic, analytical, left-brained guy I married. But he changed with cancer. We both carried boatloads of hope during the cancer years.
Cancer ignited a passion to live the remaining years of our lives in a way that mattered, and it lit the desire to encourage others to do the same. To that end, we established a non-profit, wrote for grant funding, and shared our proactive story across the country. Working around our day jobs.
In our tenth year of dealing with cancer—Hubby wasn’t supposed to live this long with late stage metastatic disease—I learned to pick up simple things that could be enjoyed in the same room with the guy in the hospital bed – knitting, Words with Friends, a good book. Quite an accomplishment for someone who gets her sense of worth from her accomplishments (pun intended).
A silver chain bearing two small sterling silver dog tags is my most prized piece of jewelry. One tag is engraved with “I love you” in Hubby’s hard-to-read penmanship; the other is signed with his name. It reminds me that I was once loved by a most astonishing brilliant accommodating kind selfless wry-humored man.
It probably should go without saying that we ought to live while we have life. Hubby and I spent the first thirty years of our marriage working and saving for someday. Cancer taught us that someday is now. It prodded us to explore the red canyons of Utah; navigate the New York City subway system; laugh from mountaintops in Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado; drive across Florida’s Alligator Alley; explore the back roads of New England in the fall — while we still had life.
I scattered Hubby’s ashes at the top of one of our favorite trails. Ceremony. It’s not simply something we humans invent to mark milestones in our lives; it’s critical for saying the things that need to be said upon closure of an important life event.
Getting outdoors was instrumental in helping Hubby and me dispel the stress and depression of cancer. There’s nothing like summiting a mountain, or hiking within sound of water rushing over large boulders for the ultimate in well-being.
Hubby was the analytical sort who first saw all that could go wrong. He liked to refer to himself as a realist. “No, honey, you’re a pessimist.” He’d grin his cute grin and then meet me halfway: “Okay, I’m a realistic pessimist.” (I don’t think there’s such a thing.) When it came to cancer, though, I loved that my realistic pessimist husband faced cancer with optimism.
Hubby and I were never interested in sitting back and hoping cancer treatment was all he needed. We were a proactive engaged team, and even though we were novices, it was the right attitude to carry.
Quality of life
Hubby’s life was extended by several years longer than originally projected, and his quality of life was incredible for someone with a terminal diagnosis. He used to say: “It’s up to me to determine how I’m going to live the rest of my life.”
Hubby and I put together a tag-team presentation and dared to think there would be audiences across the country who would be interested in our proactive cancer message. Risky stuff. Jim McMahon, former pro football player, says this: “Risk-taking is inherently failure prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.”
I would never wish our wilderness journey on anyone. But I am grateful for the hard lessons learned. I am more compassionate. Kinder. Stronger. I spend more time noticing the wealth of blessings that make up my everyday life. This is what suffering and loss did for me, and I like this person better.
It takes a full team to win championships. Not only did we have a full cancer team comprised of good nutrition and stress management and finding meaning, but there was the team of crazy ridiculously kind creative loving people who helped carry our load. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
While I was out on FMLA, two co-workers came to visit. We chatted, Hubby in his hospital bed, my girlfriends sunk into the sofa. After a while, one of them said, “It’s so peaceful here.” Does that strike you as odd? We’re sitting in a room with a man dying of cancer and my friends linger long because it’s peaceful. Priceless gift, this peace of God that pervaded our home, our hearts.
Hubby and I combined our skills and interests and passions and established a non-profit; created a couple of websites — central Oregon trails and nutritional recipes; published a book of cancer heroes. But what happens when a vision dies along with a loved one? Here’s the amazing answer: The vision can be repurposed, a new sense of purpose to accompany the new season.
“Doesn’t this get monotonous?” Hubby asked one morning after I changed his dressings, drained his bags, flushed his tubes. No, never my darling. Hubby knew I loved living life with him. He knew because I told him. Frequently. And in so many different words. Words are powerful.
If your doctor isn’t on your team, it’s time you fired him/her. Gary and I didn’t hire any of the physicians who didn’t recognize the importance of our cancer team — nutrition, physical activity, stress management, etc.
Yes, thank you.
Hubby’s cancer (and our daughter) taught me to say, Yes, thank you. Family and friends really do want to help ease our load in meaningful ways. Repeat after me: Yes, thank you.
There are a zillion good things that came out of the hard. Like the Porch Fairy, for example. If Gary hadn’t gotten cancer and if we hadn’t gotten plugged into the local cancer community, I never would have met our Porch Fairy who left designer beverages on our front porch for weeks so as not to disturb the man in the hospital bed in the living room. And that’s just one of a zillion amazing good things.
This from Epicurus: “The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.”
What could you add to this list? What has adversity taught you?