Cancer Suffering

Minus One Whole Person

And so the year of remembering begins.

I’m strangely not upset today. It’s actually been a nice day — the kids and I had cinnamon rolls for breakfast; we went to an Easter egg hunt; we went for a long walk. It’s sunny outside. Things could be worse.

But I suppose I should know this about myself: I’m not affected on days that I should be, and I’m overcome with grief at the strangest times… when I shouldn’t be. Jeff was so sensitive in March, since he knew that’s when my grandma died. He’d often suggest we go to church on March 16, or honor her death. But I honestly didn’t want to. I didn’t feel the need to, for myself, or for her. I think about my grandma every day, and to me, that’s more meaningful than feeling like I have to remember her in a certain way on a certain day.

But you know what does it for me? Mother’s Day. I absolutely hate Mother’s Day. The first year after she died, I went to church, and I had to leave several times because I was crying. Every song reminded me of her — “Ave Maria” was the worst. And after that year, I decided I would never again go to church on Mother’s Day. Jeff went by himself every year, but I didn’t even feel a little bit guilty for not going. I still don’t. 

So, today I’m remembering, but I’m not sad. I’m sad it happened, of course. But I’m not inconsolable or in the fetal position in my kitchen. I’m thankful it’s spring, and I’m thankful it’s sunny. My kids are healthy. Life is okay. 

But here’s what happened a year ago.

After breakfast, Jeff drove himself to the Northwestern Convenient Care by our house. I came home with the kids, since it was nap time. He had blood work done. They sent him to CDH. 

I remember being annoyed that he had to go to the hospital. I was a little worried, sure, but I was more annoyed than worried. Because putting two kids down for a nap by yourself is hard! And the rest of the day was hard, all by myself! (I laugh at the thought of that now. It’s still difficult, but it’s much more natural. I have help once or twice a week, but it’s all me now. And the kids are older, so they can do more. We’re going to make it.)

So Jeff called and said he was going to CDH. They admitted him under “observation”. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with this 35-year-old triathlete. They did an ultrasound of his abdomen. Nothing. 

They should’ve done a CT.

Now, I can look back and know that the tumor didn’t show up, because it spread in all directions. It wasn’t one big mass — it had fingers, and although I avoided ever looking at Jeff’s scans, I did look once. As the doctor clicked the wheel on the mouse — and the CT went frame by frame — I could see parts of the tumor that were there in one click, and gone the next. I always imagined it looked like a spider or octopus or something. Rather than a softball or football. His primary tumor measured about 6 cm by 7 cm. 

Can you imagine something that size, growing inside you, and having no idea? 

I’ve thought about that question many times. And every time I think about how unsettling it is — how we can try to prevent health issues and extend our lives — ultimately, I come back to surrendering to the idea that I can make my own choices, but I will die from something at some point. I feel like I’m evangelizing here, and I don’t mean to, but God created us to live eternally. It was his major competitor that let death into the world. And so, when I die, that promise of eternal life will be fulfilled. In the moments when I can really, really realize that, I am at peace with dying. And now that Jeff is gone, I’m even more at peace with it. (But, I still take vitamins every day, and drink wine at night because… hello! I’m not dead yet!)

So Jeff and I talked on the phone that Saturday night. Him, in his luxurious hospital room at CDH, and me, in our bed at home. Rarely did Jeff and I not sleep in the same bed. In fact, when one of us was gone, we’d leave a stuffed animal in our place. We didn’t want the other one to be lonely. Jeff’s Bear was his usual choice. His teddy bear from childhood, that’s a worn brown color and has a metal pin on the back. The pin – in the 1980s – would play music from the box inside Bear. But it stopped working by the time I met him. Bear wasn’t in Jeff’s place that night. 

The next day, I didn’t go to church. I didn’t know how I could do it with two kids (another feat that now seems natural). Instead, I fed them both breakfast, packed up backpacks full of toys, and we headed to CDH. 

And here we are then: Jake, watching Paw Patrol on the couch. And Kate, playing with magna tiles with Jeff on the floor.

And here we are now: a year later. I’m eating my Asian chopped salad as I type this (Asian chopped salads totally remind me of Jeff), with 1.5 kids asleep upstairs. (Jake slept for maybe 15 minutes before the temptation of his toys overcame him.) There’s a dog that wasn’t here a year ago. There’s a new kitchen table, but other than that, the pictures are the same. The furniture is the same. Everything’s the same. Minus one whole person.

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