I am not unlike much of America: I am obsessed with Game of Thrones. Yes, I read the books. Yes, I stopped at book four, when all of the narrators changed. Yes, I have watched every episode of the TV series.
Jeff used to sit at the kitchen table – working – while I would treat myself to 55 unadulterated minutes every Sunday. He said he didn’t want to watch it… that he didn’t care. But occasionally, he’d peek over his laptop.
“What’s happening to the khaleesi?” he’d ask.
“Whoa — is that girl wearing other people’s faces?!” he’d say.
So when the last season started a few weeks ago, I was on the couch, watching TV… which I have rarely done since Jeff died.
In one of the recent episodes, the characters are talking about memories. How we need to preserve them, remember them, keep them close.
Sam – one of the main characters – says, “That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. Just animals.”
As I often do with a good TV show, or a good book, I had to pause. I looked up, expecting to see a memory play out on my ceiling. The memory was Jeff’s visitation.
People started coming at 3 p.m. I got there around 1:30 p.m. Barb and Randy were already there. I looked around at the pictures of our lives… of Jeff’s life… of Barb and Randy and Trish’s lives… of Jeff’s life with his friends and life with his family. And it occurred to me that the most important thing in life isn’t life… its relationships. Relationships with each other. A relationship with God. Life doesn’t last. But the relationships do.
And even as I knew that to be comforting, it made me so damn sad. I looked at Randy and started crying.
“I want him to be more than just a memory.”
“He is so much more than that,” Randy said.
And he might be. But Jeff isn’t making memories anymore. He isn’t an active participant anymore. I can’t call him on the phone. I don’t hear him laugh. I don’t receive e-mails from him, and I don’t see his clothes in the dryer.
But when I heard that line on Game of Thrones… the idea that memories are precious… that is what gives us our humanity. I thought, “Maybe it can be enough that Jeff is a memory. Maybe I’ve underestimated it.”
Because remembering Jeff… that is a gift. He gets to live on in all of our lives, if we choose to remember him. He gets to still teach us, to guide us, to make us laugh. It’s not how we would’ve chosen, but life can change at any minute to any of us, and the best we can do is be resilient. And build relationships in the meantime. Those will last. Life will end.
I’ve had a lot of memories over the past few days.
Yesterday – one year ago – Jeff told me he had cancer.
Jeff woke up for work as usual. Took a shower. Got dressed. Was gone before I got up at 4:30 a.m. to run in the basement.
I went for that run. I took a shower; put on a black cotton dress with a gold, white, and black scarf; and dropped my kids at school. I was having a mostly normal day. I was waiting to hear about Jeff’s follow-up with the GI doctor. The appointment was at 11 a.m.
I finished teaching 5th period. During the passing period, Diane walked in.
“Come with me,” she said. “Grab your things.”
She was caring, but her look was one of concern and importance… immediacy.
I got my stuff, even as my 6th period students were entering the room. They were waiting for me to greet them, to encourage them to get their stuff out, so we could start right when the bell rang. But I didn’t hear anything. I barely saw anything.
My initial reaction was that I was in trouble. What did I do? Did I say something to a kid that was misinterpreted? Did I assign something controversial? Was I too sarcastic in an interchange with a kid or colleague?
But just as quickly as those questions floated in my head, I knew. And I don’t mean that in the hindsight-is-20/20 kind of way. I mean it in the I-really-think-I-knew-deep-down-that-my-husband-had-cancer kind of way.
“It’s Jeff,” Diane said. “He’s outside.”
I started shaking. Involuntarily. Diane asked for my username and password, so someone could cover me for as long as I needed. She was planning ahead. I wrote it down as best I could. I remember letting out some sort of cry, some sort of guttural sound. I felt sick. I apologized for crying. A few people gathered around me, and they all told me to forget it. Not to worry.
Diane walked me out to the parking lot. Jeff was sitting there in his Altima. I got in the car.
“Bad news, Jess. I have liver cancer.”
I screamed so hard. I screamed in the theatrical kind of way that you might see in movies. If I were a cartoon character, tears would have started shooting out the sides of my eyes. But it wasn’t a cartoon. It was our lives.
I did that for 30 seconds, maybe a minute. I’ve thought about what that must have been like for Jeff. How badly he must have wanted to protect me from that news, to fix it, to get it to go away however he could. I’m sure he knew how I would react. I didn’t look up at his face. I’ve wondered if he cried when I was crying.
But I eventually stopped. I looked up, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay. What are we going to do?”
He resettled in his seat, shifting from sad mode to get-shit-done mode, and said, “Okay. I have an oncology appointment tomorrow. It’s the first one I could get. I’m sure we’ll go to a specialist, but we will go tomorrow just so we can take some steps.”
Jeff drove me home. I don’t remember how we got my car home. I sat on the couch and cried and cried and cried. I held Jeff, and he held me. Occasionally, I just wanted to sit there alone. Jeff would go to the dining room table and work or make phone calls or send MyChart messages.
Eventually, we had to pick up the kids from school. Throughout Jeff’s whole illness, I would be thankful for, but also dread, seeing my kids every night. It was like I had to shut off my emotions at 3 p.m. That. Was. Hard.
But. They also kept me grounded. I had to remember that there was life outside of cancer, because I had to take care of two little kids.
And that was my version of the day.
It’s strange, but that memory is just as comforting as it is horrifying. Horrifying, for obvious reasons. But comforting because it’s a paradox that loving someone that deeply means you have something precious to lose. And I’d choose that over the alternative any day. Give me nine years of my marriage with Jeff over 50 years of a different marriage. I’d make the same choice.
The thing about memories – someone once told me – is that they’re like clay. You start with something, but over time, you can shape it.
I don’t know for sure what Jeff’s memory is of that day. Add that to the long, long list of questions I’d like to ask him. But I can tell you what I know of Jeff’s day.
Jeff’s version is that he went to work. The GI follow-up appointment had been cancelled on Saturday when the doctor called Jeff with the news. On April 30, 2018, Jeff logged into his MyChart 10 times. That’s more than any other day, at least, for this medical practice. The first login was at 5:36 a.m.
At 8:15 a.m., Jeff got a confirmation e-mail that he made an appointment with an oncologist. I also know, from Jeff, that he went into work and met with Human Resources. He wanted to clarify his benefits, to let them know what was going on, and to ask for discretion. They kept that promise. Some people that Jeff worked with didn’t know Jeff had cancer until he was on hospice. Some people didn’t know until after he died.
(Do you want to know how I know this? Because a guy that Jeff works with texted three other people the afternoon that he died. Jeff’s cell phone dinged at about 2 p.m.
The text said, “Jeff Thomas died today. Pancreatic cancer.”
Someone responded, “He couldn’t have been older than 40.”
Someone else texted, “He wasn’t.”
I saw this all on Jeff’s phone. It was super awkward. He had obviously texted the wrong Jeff on a group text.
So, I texted back. “This is Jeff’s wife. He was 36. He died of bile duct cancer.”
“I’m so sorry. I thought this was someone else.”
“No worries at all. Just wanted to clarify the information.”
The poor guy came to Jeff’s visitation, and fessed up as “the guy who sent you that text,” and I laughed.)
So, Jeff spent that morning getting things organized. And God love him for that. I have no idea how he kept “you have cancer” to himself for almost 48 hours. I wouldn’t have the strength or self-control.
After that meeting, he drove to Barb and Randy’s. Randy was out for a bike ride. After Jeff walked in the house, Barb knew something was wrong. Jeff wanted to talk to both of them at once, but Barb insisted he tell her.
“Mom. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this. I have liver cancer.”
Shortly after, Randy walked in. Jeff told him too.
Barb has told me that they all cried. That she felt herself go cold from her head to her toes. Randy told Jeff that all would be okay.
When she found out that I didn’t know, Barb said, “You go to that school right now. You tell your wife right now.”
Jeff texted my friend Adam who then let Diane know. And the stories join here: Jeff drove to school and told me as we sat in his gray Nissan Altima in the Metea Valley parking lot.
When Jeff told me that he had known for two days, I was deeply hurt for a split second. Then, I realized it was what he needed to do.
But now, in hindsight, I realize he did it just as much for me — if not, more for me — than he did for himself. Because when he told me, and I said, “What are we going to do next?” He could answer that. He had an answer. He had a plan. He protected me the best he knew how… softened the blow the best he knew how… was still my husband the best he knew how.
“Please don’t do that again,” I said. “From here on out, we both need to know everything. We have to be on the same page. We have to attack this with both brains.”
Jeff agreed. We started googling.
None of it was good. We made a decision that we would listen to the doctors. We wouldn’t google too much. We’d be informed, but not nuts. It’s a decision I would make again — it gave us hope. And with cancer, you’ve got to have hope. If you don’t have hope, all is lost. But this decision came at a cost. I don’t know what we paid for that hope.
That night, I tried to fall asleep on Jeff’s chest, as I had done for nearly nine years. He was hot. Just hot enough that it was uncomfortable. His temperature was 99.5 degrees.
The next day, at Jeff’s first oncology appointment at a local practice, we would learn that it was “tumor fever.” And just like that: cancer had invaded the most intimate parts of our life.
Yesterday, I thought about all that happened. I thought about how – on this same day a year later – someone else was finding out they had cancer. Someone else was dying of cancer. Someone else had gone into remission from cancer. Someone else was finishing treatment from cancer.
I have relived the memories of that day like I have relived the birth stories of my children: I tell anyone who will listen, and I don’t really want them to say anything back. It’s cathartic to say the words. And having someone be witness to a moment in your life… it’s validating.
I suppose I want to share the memory with someone. I didn’t realize that until I was watching Game of Thrones. Because by remembering, the person lives on. By remembering, we confirm our humanity.
And so, if Sam and the infinite wisdom of Game of Thrones is right… if death is forgetting, of being forgotten… then Jeff isn’t dead at all. Indeed, he is quite alive. Because we won’t forget. To the people who love him, Jeff is immortal.