by Alisa McNulty
She could not believe that after almost six months the pain could get any worse. It did. When the phone rang, she knew without answering or seeing the number who it was and what the message would be. What were the words? He’s gone…peacefully. Yes, a blessing. No, not a life for him. She knew all of these things, had said them to others, even agreed with them. And worst of all, she thought she was prepared. But oh my gosh the pain. That pain in her chest – nope, no elephant had taken up residence on her chest, no knife had been pushed into her heart. She knew this pain; it had started to ramp up when he got sick, but this wasn’t the first time she had felt it. It started a long time ago and came back every time she lost someone who really mattered. Right now, she thought she just might be dying too.
A little bit like that scar on her knee. How many times had she fallen and left that very same patch of skin in the dirt? Over time, it had softened and faded. Could losing someone and feeling this kind of grief leave a scar on your heart? This was not her craziest thought. Yet, that is where the fleeting thought ended, as any reasoned-thought was being drowned out by the ripping in her chest.
She thought back to the start of this and could remember the when and the where with complete clarity. In hindsight, what she had expected to feel was relief at receiving the firm diagnosis and being there to support them through the next steps. Because of course, they could beat anything thrown their way. No matter what. The conversation started, on the phone, because there was almost four hours between their houses, but that was okay too because they were going to have a plan. She was a good conversationalist, attentive, compassionate, empathetic, and her responses were natural. There was never a need to concentrate on the correct way to respond, to make the person feel she was paying attention. She really was paying attention. She really did care. She really was afraid. What they didn’t know was that with every word, she struggled to catch her breath. As her fear mounted, so did the pain in her chest. Not a heart attack, no, she remembered this.
The words swirled in her head but she couldn’t seem to hold onto them. What? What does that mean? Cancer…two weeks to two months…non-operative. This wasn’t possible. This wasn’t the plan! She had just seen him and he looked great. Okay, a little tired, a little quiet, and yes, there was the lump, but of course they were going to be able to remove that. She wasn’t ready for anything to happen to him. He had been there for every life event and she had more life events. He needed to be there for more life events. By now she was losing her breath, and the pain just wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t concentrate sirens seemed to be blasting in her ears making it hard to form the next thought. How was she going to concentrate if she couldn’t breathe and she couldn’t think?
They said goodbye and still she couldn’t think.
This was outside of her control. How was she going to get it all back under control? She asked herself the same questions over, and over again, and always got the same answer. They were not in control of this situation. The doctors were not in control of this situation either. They knew what could be done, even what should be done, and did those things, prescribed those things. A battery of equipment and a pharmacy-like drug supply became a part of the daily existence. She watched those she loved and who loved him, and knew that they felt that same pain and wondered if their scars all looked the same. She assumed that each would be a little different depending on their losses and the branches that might have developed.
She watched the champions in his life. You often hear so many positives come out of adversity and she witnessed it first-hand. They were in the midst of such a horrible and seemingly no-win situation, and yet blessed with caregivers who became friends administering care, a steady stream of friends and family who needed him to know how important he was and to affirm to him that their lives were better for having him in it. Not the least of the champions was his family – his daughters and their families, and most especially, his wife. Never had she been more proud nor had more respect for someone. She learned the true meaning of love – witnessed a true love story. Yes, they had romance, but that was separate from this. The love story was the silent understanding between the two of them that could be conveyed by a look, an answer that only the other would have, and a resting of foreheads to share a memory or thought that only they knew. The need for him to set eyes on her when there was a half dozen other people around that could come to assist. For him, it was her. His wife, his biggest champion. She advocated for him, encouraged him, and she protected his dignity every day.
As the days grew to two weeks, and then three, they heaved a sigh of relief, they had beaten the odds, and yet, no improvement. Slowly. Just one day at a time. Then finally, could it be possible she wondered, were they really going to get to work the plan?
Don’t be fooled they said, improvement yes, cure no. And so, they still moved slowly, one day at a time. With each passing day, she waited for the pain and heaviness in her chest to lessen. Surely, with everything that was happening and all this improvement, the scar would soften and begin to fade. However, the fear never let go. They wanted to have him there for Christmas and to celebrate a milestone birthday. Both were celebrated and they counted their blessings – they were now well past the two months and every day was another day to be celebrated. The milestone birthday was amazing and she could not believe the sheer pleasure she saw on his face at each story and as he noted each guest in the room.
As abruptly as this had all begun and in direct contrast to how slowly they made progress, life as they knew it took another wild turn for the worse. Like clockwork, and as though he had willed himself to meet a goal, the goal was met and now the worst was upon them. She watched as their lives spiraled from one day to the next, each seemingly worse than the previous. No amount of prayer or reasoning could lessen that pain and the fear continued to grow.
When she saw him, she was desperate to hold onto every moment. The plan wasn’t working; this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. What about all of those life events? When she closed her eyes, it was easy to remember such a short time before when the scar remained soft and there was no pain. She didn’t know if it would ever really go away again. She opened her eyes and he was smiling, his eyes soft, strumming an imaginary banjo and he too was remembering a time not so very long before then when there was no pain and scarring.
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