Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"In sickness and in health..." It's for more than just the flu

On May 19, 2009, my husband died. He was 57. As foreign and inconceivable as these words still appear to my present consciousness, I have awakened each morning since to this stark reality with the deepest and near palpable sense of loss imaginable. I not only loved my husband. I was also still very much in love with him when he died, which is what, perhaps, has tipped the scales towards my ultimate acknowledgement that this profound experience of losing a spouse is nothing akin to a divorce. After the failure of my first marriage, I had come to the unfortunate conclusion that divorce was like a death, except the person from whom you were now divorced was still very much alive. Now, I realize the falsity of that conclusion as I am humbly and indelibly struck by the finality of “till death do us part”.

Over the past year or so, I have watched with careful interest the struggles with cancer of the late, former White House press secretary, Tony Snow, "Last Lecture" sensation Randy Pausch, and UK reality-TV celebrity Jade Goody, as well as actors Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett, and certainly identified closely with different aspects of their much-publicized scenarios as only one who is “walking the walk” can. To be sure, I was not the one diagnosed with colorectal cancer that later metastasized to the liver and to both lungs; it was my husband. But I had become his fierce and unwavering advocate, determined to remain one step ahead of his current treatment options and beat this “mistress” that threatened to consume and snatch him away at will. And we were a team. We had been college sweethearts. We had been separated for 22 years not because of a row or argument but by extenuating circumstances, without either of us knowing how to make contact directly. And we had been reunited – by God, we were certain – through extraordinary circumstances on Christmas Day 2001 when my father died, and it was only God that we determined would separate us a second time.

And, make no mistake, my husband fought the good fight. And I was proud of him, proud of how he conducted himself throughout his journey with cancer, proud of the very real inspiration he became to everyone with whom he had contact. Doctors, nurses, fellow patients, our neighborhood supermarket cashiers and checkout personnel, the neighborhood florist, fellow church members, siblings, our immediate family, and close friends can all attest to this. But, perhaps, no one knew better than I did his private struggles and the depths to which he had to dig spiritually to remain optimistic and upbeat despite endless rounds of radiation treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy sessions, alternative interventional radiology procedures, and holistic remedies. Without a doubt, there were times I was in awe of his courage and his strength, times when I knew I would have personally given up were our situations reversed. But I dared not say or imply such a thing. I was his "air" he would tell me, and I was not about to let him suffocate. My husband determined early on not to allow this disease to define his walk, his legacy, or the quality of life that he resolved to enjoy with us. Truthfully, it was not until the last five months of his valiant four and a half-year battle to remain with us that most people became aware of how seriously ill my husband truly was. And I was honored and happy to care for him and attend to the details he no longer could.

On August 24, we would have been married five years. Over the past four and a half years since my husband’s initial awareness that something was very wrong and his official diagnosis, we have looked back often to the time we got married and the vows we took on our wedding day, “…in sickness and in health…” For one hundred percent sure, neither of us were thinking cancer. I very much doubt, in fact, that any typical couple getting married does. Sure, you think the flu…or even a broken something…and yes, you’re willing to run to the corner store for Kleenex and Tylenol, and are even willing to make the proverbial chicken soup. No one’s thinking cancer. Or, something terminal. But, there we were…almost straight out of the starting gate within a few months of our wedding vows with the wind sucked out of our sail. Would we still have gone through with our marriage had we known what was coming down the pike? To be sure, we have asked that question of ourselves several times over the past few years and have come to the unmistakable conclusion: Yes, we would. Has it been an easy road? Unequivocally, no. But, somehow, perhaps because of our faith, we were able to look past our daily circumstance and see God’s grace over our entire situation, if only in bringing my husband full circle and back into my life, which is where he wanted to spend precious time if these were destined to be his final days on earth.

All of which brings me to the unfortunate recognition that not everyone would have chosen to remain together. In fact, as we journeyed through each hospital visit and stay, we became aware of the fascination we provided to several people, from doctors to nurses to patient care technicians. “We’re so glad to see you two together!” they would say, which meant what exactly, we used to wonder at first? Simply, they had seen enough to know that too many couples never make it through such a journey with illness. And we heard the horror stories of men who bolted the minute the diagnosis was given and the wife was facing a double mastectomy, or the women who left for “greener pastures” once the husband was no longer able to support the household or perform sexually as before. “Who are these people?” I would ask, if only to assuage any insecurities my husband might have in that regard.

Without question, I understand the stage of the journey that Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze are now in, and I pray for a miracle for them. I know also the torment their respective partners are going through…and my heart goes out to them. Their journeys have been different with respect to the nature of their relationships. Patrick has been married to his longtime sweetheart, Lisa Niemi, for 33 years while the path for Farrah and Ryan has hardly been a straight one. And it really makes one wonder, doesn’t it, why, now, after a tumultuous but long-term 29-year cohabiting relationship, Farrah is finally saying yes to Ryan’s marriage proposal? Is it just because she knows she is dying and won’t have long to put up with his “bossy” ways? Is it because she has finally seen that commitment has been the watershed issue of their relationship? Or, is there something more fundamental to these marriage vows, when taken with our eyes wide open, which recognizes that marriage is not just about a “piece of paper”? It is a deeper, spiritual acknowledgment that you are willing to walk the walk and not just talk the talk in a relationship, and that you are in it for the long haul, “forsaking all others, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, in sickness and in health till death do you part”. Somehow, “let’s live together, baby” doesn’t quite have the same feel ultimately.

Finally, no divorce could bring the sense of peace I now have that I did everything possible to remain faithful, supportive, and committed to my marriage, and to loving my husband in the way he demonstrated so visibly every day his consuming love and commitment to me. Certainly, I rest also in the knowledge that my husband and I didn’t part because we could not reconcile our differences. And I am grateful for the life lessons I have learned throughout, the insight on and the deep compassion I have now for the millions of couples struggling with prolonged sickness and health issues within their marriage. I am a better person for having walked this walk with my husband, and I would do it again in a heartbeat because of the man he was. If I go back to our beginnings, I remember thinking from the outset what a breath of fresh air this man was. And he proved me right. He knew straight up what he wanted - me - and has continued to love me unconditionally through the years. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, I am left with a distinctly vacant feeling of having lost something extremely valuable, magnified, perhaps, one hundred-fold. But now, my children have seen a fine example of manhood and fatherhood and, as women, what they ought to expect and value in a good husband. That alone is a gift beyond compare. The rest – and our restoration – is now up to God. And He has our full attention.

Editors' Note: We note sadly that Patrick Swayze passed away on September 14, 2009 after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer. Farrah Fawcett succumbed to anal cancer on June 25, 2009 after a near three-years battle. We convey our deepest condolences to their respective families.

RELATED ARTICLE: Coping when a partner has a terminal illness Times Online- UK, August 28, 2008
Confronting a fatal illness in a partner can put intolerable strain on a couple. But society expects saint-like behaviour. . .

RELATED ARTICLE: Taking Their Lives into Their Own Hands Gainesville Sun, By Lauren Levy- Newsies Contributing Writer, April 17, 2009
When my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer four years ago, I was not aware of the journey this would take my family on. . . . . . Throughout this process, it has become evident that patients, especially when dealing with multidisciplinary diseases like cancer, need to be thoroughly proactive when it comes to their health care treatments; simply relying on the diagnoses of their doctors without doing their own research can cost them their lives. . .

Once-fatal cancers now treated as a chronic disease International Herald Tribune, By Jane E. Brody, June 17, 2008
Fisch calls the new therapy for advanced cancer "the hitchhiker model." Time is bought by going from point A, the first-line therapy, to point B, the second-line therapy, to point C, the third line of therapy, and so on. The approach can continue indefinitely, as long as new therapies become available and patients remain well enough to withstand the rigors of treatment. But Fisch noted that adding meaningful years to the lives of patients with advanced cancer depends in part on avoiding the attitude, prevalent among some physicians, that cancer is hopeless after it has metastasized. . .

RELATED ARTICLE: Fear is a waste of time Free, By Tony Snow, September 16, 2005
Still, the last few months -- my time of surgery and chemo -- have been the happiest and most thrilling of my life. They have confirmed lessons that seem at once too good to be true, and too important and vital not to be. Here is a short inventory: Faith matters. Prayers heal. Love overcomes. People want to do good for others; they just need excuses. Fear is a waste of time. The worst that can happen is that we'll die -- which happens to everybody, anyway. Until the Grim Reaper comes knocking, we're alive. . .

A diagnosis of cancer is trying for any marriage Boston Globe, By Judy Foreman, August 22, 2005
Obviously, when cancer strikes, there's no easy role in any marriage, whether you're the patient or the spouse. What makes some marriages fall apart under the strain of cancer and others get stronger? That's a tough one, but researchers are finding some clues. . .

Posted by Donna Kassin, President & Founder- The Real Proposal magazine