What It All Might Mean

A little over a year has passed since my lovely wife, Jeanie, was first diagnosed with cancer, just nine months since she finished her chemotherapy, and six months since she was finally declared to be cancer free. I wrote this piece back in April 2015, when the nightmare was in full swing, and the outcome of her treatment was still very much uncertain.

Jeanie and I have developed over the past few months the enjoyable habit of beginning our days sitting together in our “comfy-cozy” clothes (as Jeanie calls them) and watching the morning unfold outside our front room windows. Jeanie usually has a cup of espresso-strong coffee and a slice of toast slathered with plenty of butter and a couple of spoonfuls of that delicious raspberry freezer jam our friend Mary made for us. My digestion isn’t so tolerant of bread–or coffee–so I usually stick to having a cup of strongly brewed black tea made mellow with lots of cream and sugar. We watch our cats Andrew and Sparky wrestle with each other on the living room rug, or the occasional car running the stop sign–again–at the intersection our house is located on, or the distant, strange flock of turkey buzzards, who roost in the huge trees visible from several blocks away, as they rise en masse into the blue sky like a slow-moving black tornado, then scatter to begin their day’s foraging. Jeanie finishes working through the gobs of emails and Facebook posts that have materialized overnight on her iPhone. Mostly, however, we spend the time visiting with each other. Talking. We talk about anything that comes to mind: how well we slept (or didn’t sleep); the weather, of course; the passing on of some little tidbit regarding just about anything of interest, that one or several of her Facebook friends has shared with her; and then there’s the latest developments in our online sales business, and the dip in revenue we’ve experienced since Jeanie was first diagnosed with cancer.

Some days, obviously, our conversation is mostly about the cancer. How quickly it had developed. How few symptoms Jeanie had had. How smoothly her chemotherapy cycles have been for her, how few side-effects she’s suffered through.

This morning, we talked about how lucky Jeanie had been. Actually, the conversation started by my remarking how lucky I had been. I’d been looking out the window at the beautiful day, imagining (stupidly, I know) what it would be like to be sitting there alone with just the animals and the silence to share between us, after having lost Jeanie to her cancer. The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I looked at her. “I can’t begin to put my brain in a place that doesn’t have you in it,” I said to her. “I just can’t imagine going on without you.”

Okay, I’m a bit of a sap. But I was speaking the truth. And Jeanie knew it. She looked back at me and smiled and nodded appreciatively.

I looked back out the window. “So, as far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we both dodged a bullet. No. That’s not big enough. We dodged an atomic bomb. It’s that big.”

She laughed then. “Okay, I get it,” she said.

Yes, we’d both been lucky. Truly lucky. Tomorrow Jeanie goes in for her fifth out of six chemo cycles. Her last cycle will end May 5th, and we’ve already begun planning a celebration at The Rio, a local Mexican restaurant, to have dinner (along with one of The Rio’s famously huge margaritas) with any of our friends and local family who can come to help celebrate. Just three weeks ago, we’d met with Jeanie’s oncologist, Dr. Schuster, who’d beamed when he showed us Jeanie’s latest PET scan and announced, “I’d say your tumor is ninety-nine percent gone. You can’t even see it on the scan.” He pointed to some data on the screen. “There’s every reason to believe you’re going to be cured,” he said. And that is what we fully expect to be celebrating come May 5th.

But when we talked about these things this morning, Jeanie looked more troubled than relieved. I asked her what was wrong. “My friends all tell me how ‘courageous’ I am,” she explained, “that I’m some sort of ‘shining example of strength.’ That sort of thing. But when I think of many of the other cancer stories I’ve heard, what a lot of those people had to go through–the pain, the nausea–and how many of them actually lost their battle…well, I can’t help but feel a little–guilty, maybe.”

We looked at each other for a few moments without speaking. I couldn’t think of what I might offer in reply. What she had been feeling wasn’t so much a variation of “survivor’s guilt,” as I saw it, but was more the idea that her friends and relatives were giving her considerably more credit than she was due. “I haven’t really, truly suffered,” she said.

I didn’t agree with her, of course; I knew better. I hastened to remind her that enduring the presence of an obstructive eleven-centimeter tumor in her chest, and the resulting blockage of one major vein running from her brain to her heart (which, we learned later, was mere days from possibly killing her), as well as the total collapse of a second of these blood pathways–not to mention the surgeries to correct these issues, nor to further mention the administration of the chemotherapy drugs nor their resulting (albeit, minimal) side-effects–could hardly be called a walk in the park. I could have mentioned even more of her various trials, but by then she was giving me a look that strongly suggested I was going a little overboard, and I let the matter just sort of drift away.

A new thought came to her, however: “But, if I haven’t really suffered,” she mused, “then what’s this whole thing supposed to mean?” She looked at me. “What am I supposed to be learning here?”

I hadn’t any idea, at first. “I don’t really know,” I said. Then my mind shifted back a few minutes, to where I’d allowed that Jeanie and I have both (apparently) been coming out of this thing relatively unscathed. “Maybe,” I ventured, “it hasn’t been just for your benefit, if that’s the word. Maybe this was something designed to benefit several people.”

“Like who?” she asked.

I smiled at the idea blossoming in my head. “How about all the people who love you?” I said. “Me; your children and extended family; the vast collection of friends you’ve accumulated during your lifetime? Everyone who has rallied behind you from the beginning of your illness?”

She looked at me skeptically.

“Maybe they just needed a little nudge to help them remember how important you are to them, how much they really love you. Maybe you just needed that same nudge to remind you of the same thing: that you are loved, too.”

Of course, this brought tears to Jeanie’s eyes. I was reminded then of when she’d first been diagnosed with cancer and had begun calling or messaging close friends and relatives, how quickly, how forcefully, everyone had started communicating back, in various ways, to cheer her on, offering to help in any way they could, to pray, to send white light in her direction. It was a veritable cacophony of love. Jeanie had several times nearly melted in a pool of tears, crying out how overwhelmed she’d been by the simple, heartfelt kindness of people–and not just those people close to her, either, but acquaintances, childhood friends she hadn’t heard from in decades, neighbors on our street we hardly knew, even friends of mine she’d never met.

We chatted a little more, until the morning began approaching mid-day, and I got up and went to the back of the house to dress and to begin prepping for our breakfast of French toast. I like cooking for Jeanie, and, thankfully, she likes letting me cook for her. She understands my motivation for wanting to do so, an idea I’ve carried in my heart for most of my life: food is love.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking, as I worked, about what Jeanie and I had talked about. That question she had asked: What am I supposed to be learning here? We’re all connected, I have always believed, so the question could have as easily been put to me: What are you (Bill) supposed to be learning out of all of this?

And when I asked myself that question, I realized I already knew the answer. But as yet I had no words for it, just an image stuck in my head. The scene was in our kitchen, shortly after Jeanie had had her second cycle of chemo. She had been “knocked on her ass,” as we both called it: a sudden, tremendous lack of energy combined with an equally abrupt inability to taste just about anything. She’d been angry and (I thought) depressed: we had already cut off what was left of her thinning hair, and now she was encountering the continuing reality of her illness, the effects of her chemo, and the steadily growing magnitude of the work that still lay ahead of her. She was certainly working now, and hard. She was sitting at the kitchen table, staring into an empty space in front of her. She was pale and listless. I’d fixed her a cup of hot coffee and had made her a slice of buttered toast with raspberry jam. I watched her. She sipped at her coffee and worked her mouth a bit, trying, it seemed, to find a place on her tongue that might allow her at least a little taste of the coffee. Then she picked up a half-slice of her toast from the plate and bit off a little of that, chewing with small but deliberate movements of her jaw. She closed her eyes, then, and made a barely audible ummmmm sound.

“You can taste that?” I asked her.

She opened her eyes and looked at me, a slight smile playing on her pale lips as she chewed and swallowed. “Oh, yeah,” she said then. “That was good.” She took another bite and closed her eyes again and chewed.

There was something magic about this. Something wafted over me like a warm blanket, something I thought must be joy. I really have no other words for this epiphany. But my heart understood. I felt it swell in my chest until I thought it might burst out of me altogether. It was then, I think, that I finally realized: there is no calculating how much I love this woman or how much joy I feel in her presence, and no words to describe how grateful I am that this woman–the love of my life–is still in my life.

Perhaps, I thought, that was what I was supposed to learn.

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