I have been thinking about this blog post for several days. There’s something I really want to share, but not at the expense of offending anyone who we are fortunate enough to call a friend or family member. One of the hardest things about being a survivor’s wife is learning a different way of communicating. The Big C is a scary topic that most people don’t understand. I know that questions are not being asked and comments are not being made maliciously, but I want to give a little perspective on the emotions and memories that those questions and comments can provoke.
On Monday, we attend a wake. One of my husband’s very good high school friends passed away. This was especially difficult for him because this friend was diagnosed with Leukemia around the same time he was diagnosed with Lymphoma. They had a special bond because they endured months of chemotherapy at the same time and could commiserate about the experience. Not only was my husband devastated by the loss, he also carried a certain amount of survivor’s guilt – the “why me” of remission. Although he was determined to attend the wake and provide whatever comfort he could to his friend’s family, he also harbored the fear that people would look at him and silently ask “why did you survive when he didn’t?”. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been intentional, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done it had the situations been reversed.
We also knew that this would be the first time my husband would encounter some classmates and former friends since being diagnosed in 2011. Everyone would want to know how he was doing. Their concern would be genuine, but they would have no way of knowing that he couldn’t talk about it there. Too many emotions were already swirling around in his heart. He really didn’t have the ability to keep his emotions in check while discussing his own condition.
The moral of the story is, if you ask someone who has or has had a potentially terminal condition of any kind how they are doing and their answer is short, please do not be offended. They greatly appreciate your concern, they are just unable to express their feelings. My survivor does the best he can to talk about it when asked, but it is a difficult conversation for him. The best gift you could give any survivor (or survivor’s wife) is compassion and understanding. They will appreciate it always.
In the meantime, it is important to remember that life is precious; it is also very unfair at times. No one should lose a spouse or a child or a parent at the young age of 42. Treat every day is it was intended – as a gift. You never know when it will end.
Saturday was an interesting day for us. We woke up at the crack of dawn because my sister, mother and I had the fabulous idea that we should have a multi-family yard sale to purge all of the things we no longer needed and clear out some space for the holidays. I had mixed feelings about this, since selling these things, even to families who needed them, felt like selling memories. I remembered the first time I took our 12-year-old daughter out for a jog in her jogging stroller. I remembered changing our son into his first Red Sox outfit in the pack ‘n play. It was definitely a nostalgic day for me.
After wrapping up a successful yard sale, we were able to check Facebook for the fist time all day. Part of me wishes we hadn’t. Our news feeds delivered the message that one of our survivor friends had lost his fight with leukemia in the early hours of the morning. This news hit my husband very hard. A high school friend, they had been diagnosed around the same time and experienced chemotherapy together. They carried a bond that most of us are unable to comprehend.
I suspect that this loss brought a little bit of nervousness. Even though he has been in remission for over three years, there are triggers that will cause him to become apprehensive about his success. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m sure that losing a friend is one of those triggers.
For me, this news put the items we sold into perspective. Even though they carried tons of happy memories, they are just things. The memories live on in our hearts. It made me remember what is really important; the people who touch our lives and leave a positive, lasting impact. Rest in peace our friend. You will never be forgotten.
I’ve known my husband since I was 8 years old. Although we drifted in and out of one another’s lives for the first 28 years, the man who I married was not much different from the boy I met in the 2nd grade. He would give anyone the shirt off his back. He always thinks of others first. He has always been a risk taker. Prior to his back surgeries, skydiving and dirt biking were two of his favorite activities. The world has always been his oyster and that balanced out my serious, studious nature. We were always the yin to the other’s yang.
In the face of dealing with the re-diagnosis of several friends, I have watched my husband transition from a free spirit to a much more serious person. He has become more reflective and sadly, fatalistic. Today, in speaking about a friend he lamented that “my time is my time”. I know this is his way of dealing with the reality that if people he knows can relapse, so can he. I am now the positive thinker that believes with all my heart that we have beat the Big C for good. Essentially, we have switched roles. He needed to come to grips with his own mortality and I need to believe that we have a lifetime ahead of us. I didn’t realize that I loved him until I had known him for 27 years. Life is not cruel enough to take him away from me before we have the opportunity to make up for lost time. I am going to continue to believe that – and I have enough positivity for both of us.
Although I’m happy to be back blogging again so soon (which is a rarity for me), my motivation for doing so is a little less positive. I can see this exercise becoming a regular feature, so I’ll try to stick to the topic at hand.
As I mentioned I my last post, we have several friends who have not been as lucky as we have and are no longer “remission families”. We have learned recently that one of those families has come to the end of their treatment options and has begun to prepare for the next phase of this tragic journey – loss of life. This family has elected to involve their teenager in the decision-making process. I, for one, think that this is commendable. Every member of the family will have to deal with the loss. Help them to transition by allowing them to be an active part of the process. Remain a family unit as long as possible, especially when you know the dynamic will be changing in the not too distant future.
Whether or not you agree with the way a family chooses to cope with illness and/or loss, criticizing their methods is never the answer. Blasting them on social media or to their friends is counter productive They are already dealing with a very, very sensitive issue the best way they know how. If you cannot actively support their decisions, please stay silent. Not only are you making a horrible situation worse by being critical, you are potentially destroying your future relationship with the family. Everyone deals with pain and loss in a different way – your way is not better or worse, but it is not the path they have chosen for their unique situation. Be a supportive friend or family member by honoring their wishes. Your opinions are your own. The consequences of sharing them will be felt long after the damage is done.
American author Gail Sheehy once wrote, “People in grief need someone to walk with them without judging them”. Please be mindful of the pain words can inflict on those already suffering before passing judgment on decisions you cannot begin to understand. When in doubt, be kind. Life is too short.
One of the first experiences I had after my husband became a survivor was of loss. In the traditional sense, we very rarely associate surviving with loss. As a survivor’s wife I did not experience the same loss as I would have had my husband lost his life, but I did lose something nonetheless.
In 2012, when remission was confirmed and life started to go back to “normal”, I realized that what we both had lost was our optimism. Gone were the days of long-term future planning. I saw us living our lives from PET scan to PET scan. It was as if we were afraid to believe that he was healthy. Our lives had become so consumed by cancer; we didn’t remember how to live without it. His initial diagnosis was so unexpected and so sudden that we were sure that the next time he went for testing, it would be back.
We have come to realize that our children not only deserve, but thrive off of our optimism. We owe it to them to give them a positive childhood. Although our son is only 2 ½, he is visibly responding to the change in our behavior. Our daughter, who was 9 when her dad was diagnosed, is becoming a much less serious young lady. We hate that she had to grow up so fast at such a young age. This is the time for her to have fun. We need to lead by optimistic example.
It has been 2 ½ years since my husband went into remission and we are finally starting to come out of the fog. We have already made plans for our summer vacation next year. We talk about the future. We are still very aware that life is full of uncertainty, but understand that it cannot control our lives. Now, we take the time to appreciate the things in life that too often go unappreciated – the colors of the fall leaves, a spontaneous hug or a chance encounter. Whatever those little things are to you, enjoy them in the moment.