Tag Archives: cancer

Speak Softly, Love…Again

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up!” (Charles Dickens, 1812-1870)

He was only in my life for a little over a decade. Ten short years. But we lived forever in that short time. Our anniversary is coming up; at this time of year, I always go back to the words I wrote two years ago, on the first anniversary I spent without Kevin:

Kevin liked to say he waited a long time to get married because it takes a while to find a girl who will let him have The Godfather at the wedding.

I was that girl.

I sang Speak Softly, Love for him as we lit the unity candle. He never knew there were words to the love theme of The Godfather. But there are and I found them and it was my gift to him that day.

Speak softly, love, so no one hears us but the sky
The vows of love we make will live until we die
My life is yours and all because
You came into my world with love, so softly, love

We were so happy. So in love. The formality of the ceremony couldn’t keep us apart. We laughed and talked quietly and entwined fingers and arms at every chance because we couldn’t bear the inches that separated us on a day that joined us forever. The music swirled around us, the lyrics lingering as the minister prayed for health and happiness and long years together.

____________________________________________________

The doctor stopped me in the hospital hallway on New Year’s Eve and the soft-colored walls and carpeted floors couldn’t mute the sound of his words because I still heard the fragments: “counting time in months” and “less than a year” and “I’m so sorry.” When we were finally home and watching the ball drop in Times Square, I dropped to my knees and cried in my husband’s arms and he promised me that he wouldn’t die. Not this year.

Two weeks later, we sat in the social worker’s office at the cancer center and listened to her explain disability and Social Security and forms and deadlines and then a question about our anniversary, except she didn’t come right out and say it because when you’re dying, no one reminds you that death sits silent in the room with you. And I must’ve startled because Kevin reached out for my hand and squeezed my fingers and he reassured me, “Of course I’ll still be here for our anniversary.”

So we got back to living and I circled the date on our new desk calendar, with the oversize boxes to mark the busy-ness of life. I marked it Anniversary #10, the letters inking his promise to be here. It’s on the calendar — in ink — so it has to happen. He will be here and we will wake up with kisses and “I love you” and the sickness won’t scare us because we’re together, for better or worse.

‘Til death do us part.

We were married just less than ten years.

I cried when I ripped away July and the empty expanse of August stared up at me, with only the reminder of our anniversary marking the page. The boxes quickly filled with appointments, life moving me closer to the day that I can’t celebrate this year. I should be shopping for a tin anniversary gift to give him, and teasing Kevin for his appallingly bad attempt at pronouncing “aluminium” with a British accent, even as I search eBay and Etsy for a pendant necklace that fit this anniversary’s gifting criteria. There should be a chocolate pie in the refrigerator and bags packed for a weekend away with our daughter.

Instead, I’m feeling numb, worn out from the dream that haunted my sleep last week. I dreamed Kevin came back, wrapped me in his arms and gently chided my disbelief: “Of course I came back, baby doll. Did you think I’d miss our tenth anniversary?”

___________________________________________________

I watched our wedding video earlier this week because I think it will hurt too much on our anniversary. I smiled at my nieces and their toddler antics as they tossed flowers along the aisle. I laughed out loud as I watched myself turn to Kevin and say, “Look at me” and he mouthed back, “I can’t” because he was fighting emotion and trying to compose the tears of happiness bright on his cheeks; and I pulled him closer and our heads touched as I discreetly handed him my great-grandmother’s handkerchief, the “something old” I had wrapped around my bouquet. I cried as I watched us promise everything to each other and dance up the aisle with stupidly happy smiles, love spilling everywhere.

And through my tears, I heard echoes of Don Corleone:

“Well, there wasn’t enough time. There just wasn’t enough time.”

We did not have enough time, Kevin, but death cannot stop my love. I love you. Happy Anniversary.

I found him whom my soul loves. Song of Songs 3:4

I Will Remember

She doesn’t sit and cuddle up with me as much as she used to, so when she snuggled her head into my shoulder and I felt her warm breath soft against my neck, the song rose unbidden and filled the air around us. I didn’t even think about it – just closed my eyes as her fingers tangled in the ends of my hair – and sang the words low into the night.

Toora-loora-loora
Toora-loora-li
Toora-loora-loora
Hush now, don’t you cry
Toora-loora-loora
Toora-loora-li
Toora-loora-loora
It’s an Irish lullaby

I remembered all the words, though it’s been years since I sang my Bear to sleep. I sensed, rather than saw, her beautiful mouth curve into a smile as she curled more closely into me. She remembered, too.

My voice broke as I struggled to finish the song through the tears that filled my throat and threatened to spill from my eyes. It’s so lonely, sometimes, being the only one who remembers. Her daddy fought so hard to stay with us long enough that she would remember him, to have her own stories to tell of him, but I’m the only one who remembers so many of the details of her life – our life as a family of three – before he died. If she’s to know the stories, the anecdotes, the inside family jokes – it’s up to me to hand them down, like some modern-day minstrel, wandering the lanes of my life with Kevin, weaving our story and giving her a sense of the family we were and the one we’ve become.

I could buckle under the pressure of being the family bard, and in that first wicked wave of grief, I did. I was frantic to remember everything and I showed myself no mercy. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I wandered around in the night, blearily, wearily, trying to hold on to every memory that flooded my mind. Distraught, discouraged, drained – I knew I was going to fail at this one simple task: telling my girl about her Daddy.

I had to remember.

Then Grief’s heartless cousin Guilt moved in, making itself at home in the wreckage of my life. And I felt bad that I couldn’t remember the name of Kevin’s summer-league baseball team, or the names of the guys he roomed with in college, or the only phrase he remembered from high school Spanish. He’d told me all these things, but our daughter hadn’t heard them yet, and now…well, now, it was up to me and the answers weren’t right at my fingertips. So I got mad. Not at Kevin, but at cancer. Stupid, hateful, life-destroying cancer. If cancer hadn’t taken him away from us, our Bear would know these things, and more, about her Daddy. We only had ten years together – we were still learning things about each other, and now I’ll never know what I didn’t know about him.

The guilt and the anger and the grief pulled at me. I searched for joy and snatched moments of happiness, but those three dogged me and I worried about the things my girl would remember about me, about this time after Daddy died. I didn’t want her to think back to a frightened, irritated, worn-out mama who talked about keeping on and trusting God, but didn’t really seem to live it, who cried and yelled and desperately needed sleep. I needed to trust in the Lord with all my heart and seek His will and pray without ceasing and let Him comfort me in my mourning.

I needed to remember that my God will supply all my needs.

All my needs.

Even my memories.

He didn’t bring Kevin into my life, didn’t walk with us through the days of infertility and sustain us in the years of cancer, only to abandon me when Kevin died. He didn’t shower us with blessings, with comfort and joy and happy days, with heartachingly wonderful moments, and a beautiful Bear, only to leave me with no love and hope and no memories to hold on to in the dark days.

We will remember we will remember
We will remember the works of Your hands
We will stop and give You praise
For great is Thy faithfulness

You’re our creator, our life sustainer
Deliverer, our comfort, our joy
Throughout the ages, You’ve been our shelter
Our peace in the midst of the storm
….
When we walk through life’s darkest valleys
We will look back at all You have done
And we will shout “Our God is good
And He is the faithful One”

So I stop and I float and I pray and hold tight to His promises, and I live and love my girl and believe that all will be well; God’s working it out. He is good and He is faithful.

And I will remember. When I need to, I will remember, and she will, too. Words to a long-ago lullaby, stories of Kevin’s childhood, crazy travel mishaps, funny things that he and Beary did together.

But more than that, I will remember the love. Oh, the love. The glorious, life-altering, fill-me-up-to-overflowing love that spilled over and streamed through this home and bound the three of us together and created a family story we will tell again and again and again. That’s what I want my girl to remember most of all. The love. Whatever else I remember to tell her or forget to tell her, I want her to remember the love. God’s love. Her Daddy’s love. All the love we had for each other.

I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of thing you never forget.

“We Will Remember” by Tommy Walker

Live it, Learn it

“You live it, you learn it.”

The nurse’s melodious, accented voice soothed our nervous minds. At least a little. Just three weeks ago, a surgeon had removed a tennis-ball sized tumor from Kevin’s colon, and now it was time for Phase 2. Chemotherapy.

We were scared.

We walked across the parking lot, his fingers entwined with mine in a painfully tight grasp. I think we both took a deep breath as the doors automatically slid open before us. Outside the door to our left, an understated sign named the office and listed all the doctors. I saw the name of the oncologist we’d been referred to, and pointed it to Kevin.

“This is the place,” I said.

His grip tightened.

We went in. He wrote his name on the patient sign-in sheet, and sat down beside me. Later, after many months, which turned into many years, of this routine, he’d joke around with the receptionists and empty the candy bowl of his favorite hard candy – peppermints to quell the nausea. But today – our first visit – we just sat quietly, holding hands, holding our breath.

A nurse came into the waiting area. She called off some names, Kevin’s among them. All of us first-timers. All of us nervous, wondering what to expect in this new chapter of our lives. I remember words, lots and lots of words. Various chemo drugs for different cancers. Side effects. Tests. I wrote some of them down to look up later. This new vocabulary was overwhelming, I didn’t know how to spell the things she was telling us, and I worried that I was already failing in my role as Kevin’s consigliere. How could I help him get through what came next, if I didn’t actually understand what came next?

We’d brought a bag with books to read during chemotherapy and to that bag I added handouts. So many handouts. So much literature. When we finally stumbled out of that meeting room to the exam room, waiting to meet the oncologist who would guide us for the next five years, we just sank into the chairs and stared at the floor. His nurse entered, then her beautiful voice filled the air and we exhaled. She told us not to worry about all the literature we’d been handed: “You live it, you learn it.”

You live it, you learn it.

For the next five years, we lived it. Six months of chemo here, nine months there. Some nice, well-earned, well-deserved breaks in between so we could enjoy a life with the Bear. We became a familiar fixture in the halls and when the social worker saw us, she’d call out, “It must be Friday!” As the Bear grew older, she came along, too. She liked to watch the nurses draw blood through Kevin’s port, always checking to make sure it was red. “It’s red, not green!” she’d cry out with excitement, eyes focused on the small tubes filling quickly. “That means Daddy’s not an alien!” She logged many hours in a chemo chair, wrapped in a warm blanket like her Daddy, watching Dora the Explorer on her portable DVD player, then filling her art pad with colorful sketches.

It sounds odd, I know, but that chemo room became a home to us. And the people there felt like family.

I found a stack of reports the other day, from those early days of chemotherapy. The words are clinical, sterile, listing lab reports and exam notes and chemo regimens that are seared into my memory.

We lived it. We learned it.

But among the office notes and status updates, I found bits of humanity. The name of the nurse who cheers on the Pittsburgh Steelers and could always be counted on to talk football with Kevin. The name of the technician who took his vitals and shared recipes with me. Dr. T’s nurse, always ready with her dry humor, waiting for Neil Diamond to whisk her away. The nurse who is an amazingly talented artist and who is convinced the Bear will be President some day. And the nurse who didn’t send me back to check-in that horrible December day when Kevin was delirious and dehydrated and couldn’t stand up; I pushed his wheelchair directly to her and said, “Please help him” and she did.

I looked at those reports and tears ran down my face. I felt a tug, a sadness, inside and it took me a second to realize: I was homesick. Homesick for the chemo room, for a place that had been part of our life for such a long time. I was homesick for our cancer family, the doctors and nurses and technicians who laughed with us, rejoiced with us over good CT scans, and cried with us when the prognosis got worse and worse. I was homesick for a place that, against all odds, is filled with hope and compassion and laughter.

You live it, you learn it.

She was right. We did. We learned so much in those years of living with cancer. We figured out all the words and initials and reports. I learned how to unhook his infusion pump and administer nausea meds.

But that wasn’t all.

And, as it turned out, that wasn’t even the most important.

No, the most important things we learned had little to do with cancer and everything to do with life. We learned how to joke about cancer, how to fill the moments with joy, how to live with strength and grace – and we learned it in the chemo room.

Thank you so much for those lessons, my friends. And keep an eye out for me and the Bear – the only way to cure homesickness is to go back home. We’ll be seeing you sometime soon…

Facing August

“Is it a new year now, Mama? Even if it’s not January?”

She asked me the question as her pencil hovered over the open grammar book, ready to make the first mark on its pristine pages.

“Yep. Sure is. The new school year starts today,” I answered, and pointed to her workbook. “Back to prepositions for you, young lady.”

She giggled and got down to work, studying the words, then quickly darting her pencil across the page, identifying prepositional phrases “right and left” as she likes to say.

August has always felt like the beginning of a new year to me. Even more so than January first, after which comes January second and it feels the very same. But August? There’s a definite break there, from summer vacation one day to back to school the next. It feels different. The weather starts to change, getting hotter and hotter for a few weeks in our part of the world, before settling down to the autumn that I love so much.

Yes, August means a new year, a new beginning.

It’s more than back to school, though, or even the final approach to fall. For me, August was the beginning of the most wonderful parts of my life. On August 17, Kevin and I had our first date. That began our romance – the one that had slowly been growing from our two-year friendship. Just over a year later, in late August, we got married. That began the best ten years of my life. Being married to my best friend. Having someone who understood me, who loved me, who supported me in everything – whether he understood and agreed or not. Having been single for so long, I knew exactly what I finally had; I loved and appreciated everything he did for me.

I was down the other day: glum, despondent, sad, unhappy. The words themselves are so gloomy, but they described my feeling perfectly. Despite all the fresh start, new-beginningness of August, emotionally, it’s a hard month for me, a bittersweet month, because the man I love most in this life isn’t here to celebrate the anniversaries of our wonderful beginnings. Our first date day came and went, and Kevin wasn’t here to say, “I love you, Baby Doll! I’m glad my last first date was with you.” Our wedding anniversary is coming up – it would’ve been our eleventh – and Kevin’s not planning some weekend getaway with me and the Bear.

I sent Beary off for her silent reading time, then sagged into Kevin’s recliner, feeling more miserable than I had in months. As I sat there, trying to float, the words of an old Garth Brooks song kept streaming through my head:

If tomorrow never comes,
Will she know how much I love her?
Did I try in every way, to show her every day,
That she’s my only one?
And if my time on earth were through,
And she must face this world without me,
Is the love I gave her in the past
Gonna be enough to last
If tomorrow never comes?

Silent tears slid down my face as the words looped in my head. The hardest new beginning ever was the first morning I woke up without Kevin. I huddled in our bed, our daughter curled up beside me on his pillow , and he was gone, his time with us was over. I felt like the best part of my life was over, and I had no idea how to go on without him. Wracking sobs filled my lungs, shook my body. I hated the tomorrow that had come. I didn’t want that tomorrow. I wanted the tomorrow where we woke up and caught a plane to Mexico for our honeymoon. I wanted the tomorrow where we finally got to take our baby girl home from the hospital. I wanted the tomorrow after his colonoscopy, when we thought we’d go home and put the cancer nightmare behind us. I wanted all the tomorrows that we’d dreamed of spending together.

I wanted what I couldn’t have.

But I had what I needed. He’d made sure of that. It just took me a while to realize it, and gratefully embrace it.

He’d given me enough love in ten years to overflow my life. For the rest of my life. For all the tomorows that will come. In all the Augusts that will come.

Did I try in every way, to show her every day, that she’s my only one?

He won’t call me from work in the afternoon anymore, to ask how my day is going. But when the clock chimes two, if I stop and listen, in my mind I can hear the phone ring, and his voice: “Hey, Baby Doll, what’s going on?”

Showing me his love.

I won’t hear the garage door creak up, or the kitchen door squeak open and slam shut. I won’t hear his footsteps cross the floor behind me as he nuzzled in for a kiss. But if I stop at five o’clock and close my eyes, I can still feel his arms wrapped around my waist.

Showing me his love.

I won’t kneel on the floor beside our bed, my hands trembling as I unhooked his portable infusion pump. But if I pause while making the bed, and lean in, I can hear him mutter groggily, “I’m okay, Baby Doll. I’m gonna be okay.” Years of chemotherapy, trying to beat the cancer, buy more time, more tomorrows.

Showing me his love.

If tomorrow never comes, will she know how much I love her?

I do. I know how very much he loved me, how very happy our life was, and how very much I still love him.

Facing August isn’t easy. I can only do it because Kevin filled my life with all the love I’ll need to get through all the new beginnings and new years and tomorrows without him. He was always showing me the greatest love.

Thank you, Kevster, I thought. It’s going to be enough.

The Playdate

My daughter made a list the other day. A “Mama + Beary Playdate” list, written in her Daddy’s scrawl and taking up two pages from the notepad on my side of our homeschool desk. She stapled it together, added a sketch of the two of us, then brightly asked me, “Mama, do you want me to read you my list?”

She positively glowed as she ticked off all the fun stuff she had planned for us to play.

1. doctor
2. babies
3. school
4. restaurant
5. archery/nerf gun
6. snack
7. storytime
8. fort
9. dentist

She even included a list of snack ideas: garlic pretzels, tea, Triscuits, and pizza. “Because,” she reasoned, “we could order Domino’s and it could be delivered while we play.”

The sketch was of a blanket fort, with stick figures of her and me, a towel spread with our snacks in front of us, arrows pointing out “Mama” and “Me” – no Rafael, though. “He’s in the basement while we eat,” she informed me, “so he doesn’t try to sniff our food.” She included him in a second sketch, one where we’re all curled up together taking a nap – presumably after our full day of fun.

I smiled when she finished her presentation and I laughed and I hugged her to me. She grinned her Daddy’s grin and squeezed my neck back. “You’re the best Mama in the WHOLE world,” she declared, “and no, I don’t know all the other mamas, but I know you’re the best one for me!”

We’ve had a hard month, the two of us. Not hard between us, but hard because the permanency of Kevin’s death is settling in. He’s not coming back. And every day that goes by makes that fact a little more clear, despite the ridiculous notion in my head that he just stepped out for a minute and he’ll be right back. Even though it’s been a year, and he still hasn’t come right back. I’d read that the second year of grief can be harder on children, and I think it’s true. My beautiful little Bear has been more emotional lately, more anxious about us being separated. She’s become very protective of me, of my health, of me working too hard, doing too much. She’s trying to take on more tasks than her little eight-year-old self can possibly do. She guards our time, holds my hand, clings to me when I hug her good night.

I’ve been so careful to not juxtapose my grief with hers. She has a wonderfully unique brain, wired so differently from mine, and a distinctive way of processing the world. She experiences life so differently, and I can’t expect her grief to mirror mine.

But we’re struggling with the Kevin-sized abyss in our life.

We’re struggling with the motions of daily life, knowing Daddy is gone and with him, some of the goofy joy that the three of us created.

We’re struggling with being two, when we’re used to three.

We’re struggling with the crushing reality that every day for the rest of our lives we will wake up each morning and he will still be gone.

She sees the bruises of my brokenness. I hear the wistfulness in her words when she talks about her Daddy. We are surrounded by friends who help us at every turn, and we are held close in God’s hand as He comforts us. But still…we are just the two of us, holding closely to each other, trying to figure out this new life.

So…

She plans a playdate. Just the two of us. And she cocoons us in a blanket fort, sheltering us from our grief, if only for a while. And in this world, on this day, everything runs according to her plan. A day when everything turns out okay in the end, because that’s how it works in the books she reads. It’s a day when we can laugh and play and eat our snacks and cuddle and read books. A day when daddies don’t die of cancer, and they never have to say good-bye to their little girls.

She’s planning this day for the end of May or early June.

I think it needs to be sooner.

Like now.