Side Effects

“This is it? Where’s the entourage?”, I joke as the doctor moves past me to his chair in the corner, trailed only by the nurse practitioner and research coordinator today. The cramped room, normally packed with interns and fellows, all eager to examine my husband’s betraying body, seems strangely vacant even though there are still five of us for today’s checkup.

The joke goes unacknowledged.

“A number of people have died on your arm of the trial,” the doctor dives in, “most were frail, old; probably dying due to high toxicity in the body. I would’ve have allowed them to participate, but it’s a national trial and I don’t have much oversight. So, in any event, your arm of the trial as been suspended pending further review”.

I feel the blood drain from my face and then heat creeping up my neck; I grip the seat of the chair with my arm locked at my side, a reflex to keep myself from falling. I try to listen to the words he’s saying as he continues, but I only hear the word “died” on repeat in my head. I try to focus on the doctor. I remind myself that my husband is healthy, alive, sitting next to me.

I take a breath.

“How many people died, exactly?” I ask, hoping I seem unaffected.

“Around six or so, out of four hundred”, he says.

“And how many of them were old and frail, in their eighties, as you said?”

“I can’t say for certain”, he responds, crossing his leg, left ankle atop his right knee. He wears a pin in the shape of a heart with the letter M on his lapel. I focus on this as he speaks, “and this was all in the first twelve weeks of dosing.”

“So, to clarify, none of them after the initial twelve weeks?” I press him, wanting to know if my husband is at risk.

“Again, I can’t say for certain, but I think most of them did. We’ll know more after the review in six weeks, at which point we’ll let you know if the trial will continue or if we’re done,” he uncrosses his legs and sits a little straighter, pointing his body toward the door.

I glance at my husband, seated by my side, a buffer between the doctor and me. He has not spoken. My silence is his cue.

“So, I might be done with the trial in November? And then what happens?” he speaks, shaking off the surprise, stepping into his proactive patient role.

“Then that’s it, you’re done,” the doctor says, opening his hands. Ta-da!

Just moments before, I think to myself, we were scribbling notes about TSH levels, waiting for blood work results, thinking my husband’s high TSH levels were indicative of a pituitary gland side effect. We were worried about the wrong side effect.

We recap the news but it is clear that there is little else to discuss at this point. The doctor rises, shakes my husband’s hand, then mine.

“See you in six weeks,” he says as he strides out of the small room.

Some chit chat ensues, some tying up of loose ends. The nurse practitioner mentions a waiver she’ll provide for my husband for work, the research coordinator tells us to follow up tomorrow for the blood work results. All light and fluffy comments: have a great week! and see you soon!

We walk out of the cancer center at Georgetown and into the autumn sunlight, handing off our valet stub and waiting for our car’s return. I rest my purse on a cement pylon and lean into it, supporting the weight of the news. The breeze blows the first of the fall leaves across the circle drive and the scent of crisp leaves mingles with freshly-laid asphalt–a strange combination. I watch as college co-eds traverse the parking lot in groups, excited chatter, their enthusiasm written on their faces. An odd juxtaposition, these young students, entering and exiting the cancer center. I feel our life changing again, I feel us entering another state of flux, and I watch book bags full of knowledge bounce in front of me on the backs of students whose biggest challenge is a paper, an exam, an unrequited love. I watch them jealously, longingly.

“How are you doing?” my husband asks, leaning into my sight line and trying to make eye contact.

“How are you doing?” I volley back, wondering which part of this news hit him the most.

He shrugs as the car pulls up, scattering the co-eds, and we are back in motion.

“It’s just ironic,” he throws over his shoulder before he slides into the driver’s seat.

I remember a few hours ago, lunch on the other side of the Potomac, sitting across from my husband at an overpriced by lovely restaurant in the heart of our town–our favorite. I sip my latte and listen as he explains all of his career options and possible moves come the end of his clinical trial in May. I gaze out the window as the city bustles with lunchtime traffic, taking another sip. He continues exploring every option, every possibility. I pepper him with questions. The waitress delivers our lunch but he doesn’t slow down–too much to consider. I see a nanny walk in front of the window, talking on her iphone while pushing a stroller that cradles a sleeping toddler.

He pauses a moment to take a bite, then looks up and asks, “so, what would you like to happen?”

I consider the question as I cup my latte with both hands, trying to warm my chilled body with the hot ceramic mug. I am not ready for the cool weather.

“I’d like to not move for a little while,” I smile at him. I remember the four different homes in less than eighteen months, then shrug, “but I don’t know how much control we really have once the Air Force decides to put you somewhere after the trial.” I look again out the window, the tree-lined street hinting at the change of season with a few stray leaves, the busy pedestrians in long sleeves. The sky is a crisp blue, and despite the changing season, the sun still warm.

“I love this city, and I’d like to stay for a number of reasons; our family and friends are here,” I pause a moment, flashing back to the backyard party we threw a few weekends ago, a crowd full of faces who love my husband all gathered under a dark mid-September night sky, smiles lit up by patio lights and candles, raising their glasses to toast to his health. Knowing true friendship—one of the best side effects of cancer, I think to myself, then continue. “I’d like to know where our kids will go to school, I’d like to not pack up our stuff again, but namely, I’d like you to have continuity of care. Doesn’t that count for something? Can’t we be to stay here for a while based on that alone?”, I ask, hopeful.

“Well, in theory,” he leans back in his chair, his turn to contemplate the city just beyond the window, “but at least we have until May to figure it out and weigh all of our options”, he finishes his last bite and then picks up his coffee. “It is a great town,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

We are driving home again on this all-too-familiar route. “I stay in the left lane, right?” my husband asks as we leave Georgetown, crossing the Key Bridge. I nod but the question is rhetorical, he knows this part of town all too well. He is preoccupied by the news, distressed about what this means for our “plans”. I am preoccupied with six deaths. Always back to dying. The familiar sense of the unknown settles between us. Our life, only a few hours ago, was headed in a certain direction. We had options, we had time. And now on the drive home, it’s all up in the air–again.

***
Now it is morning, and again I clutch my warm mug and wrap my sweater tighter around me as I try to shake off the morning cold. My son brings me a credit-card sized brochure that he’s pulled out of his daddy’s wallet–he is always leaving it within their reach.

“Look, mommy! My favorite book!” He flashes the small packet and it registers as something important. I ask him for it, and his small hand presses it into mine. He watches me for a second, then decides to read another favorite book. I open it up: a credit card-sized quick-reference for my husband listing all of the possible side effects of his treatment.

All the information anyone would ever need, all in this tiny little brochure. And yet, even now, I am still unprepared for the side effects.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Counting Buoys

I rinse the shampoo out of my hair and feel the salt water, the ocean breeze, the warm sand, slipping away with it. Our summer vacation is over and our life is as it was before–fast, intentional, focused. As I let the warm water wash over me, allowing life to move forward even though I wish my spirit to remain in the waves, I remember our wine-induced conversation the last night of our vacation. We sit on the dimly lit front porch, screened-in but, after years of use, the screens have rolled away from their frames, inviting small, unwanted guests to our party of two. My husband sits across the glass table from me, reclined in a well worn patio seat, red wine in hand. He’s had too much to drink, and so have I. In his white shirt, his linen pants, he looks the part, and wears it well.

The question fell from my lips before I could stop it, encouraged by too much alcohol and too little inhibition. This vacation, so blissfully free of cancer, is about to take a turn.

“Do you think it’ll come back?” I cringe but it’s too late, the words are spoken and hang in the air between us. I pray for an ocean breeze to sweep them away but the pines are too thick. He has to answer.

Reflecting, looking into his glass, one hand behind his head while the other swirls the red liquid; he looks happy. A week of playing in the surf, laughing, half-naked babies and beach breeze-induced sleep agrees with him. He takes a swallow, leaving the tiniest bit left in his glass, then clears his throat.

“I hope it doesn’t,” he starts, softly. “But, if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about it.” He’s confident now, sitting up a bit more. “If it comes back, it’ll come back somewhere bad, and it’ll probably be stage IV. And then I’d have to find a treatment that would give me maybe five years to live instead of four, or something like that. So, what’s that they say? ‘Ignorance is bliss’? I just want to live a happy life. I don’t want to know.”

He finishes the rest of the glass and gives me a half-smile, pleased with his answer. And I am silent only because I know whatever I say next will be potent. I want to shake him, to scream “What about US? Don’t you want to know for us?”

Instead I feign a lighthearted laugh and say, “Well, of course you’ll find out, you’re on a trial. And that’s what they do, they monitor you.” I take a sip and then I add, “and by the way, if it comes back, we’ll get rid of it, just like the first time”. Somehow, the words didn’t come out as convincingly as I’d hoped.

I finish my glass and we are enveloped in silence. Not the awkward kind; the reflective kind. I am learning about him, still. And I understand him. I think back to the last few days on the beach. The secluded beach town, exceptional only in its unexceptional nature. Victorian homes from the 1920s, virtually vacant beaches, low tide stretching out for hundreds of yards, warm water lapping at baby toes. The perfect getaway for a family needing to get away.

We arrive on Monday afternoon and begin to unload the car and explore the beach house. It is old, but functional, a little musty, with mismatched furniture and a large front porch. It needs love, but it is footsteps from the ocean and expansive enough for two sets of tiny feet to run without impediments, and as those tiny sets of feet explore every nook and cranny, my husband wraps me in his arms and says, “I’m sorry, I thought it would be nicer.” I shrug him off–it’ll be great!–, and then search for cleaning products.

We fill our days with hermit crab and sea shell hunts, wave-jumping and rock climbing. I coax my baby into the sand but the first day he is wary of this new frontier, content to shovel sand from the edge of the more familiar feel of a blanket. My toddler jumps and splashes and runs in the water, never coming out unless to say he’s hungry. Our beach time is punctuated with naps and meals, and under the warm, late August sun, with the cool ocean breeze sweeping away all of our real-life troubles, we have found a haven.

I look at my husband across the table, lost in thought, far away. I reprimand myself for having brought up the ghost that we finally buried on this trip. Instead of apologizing, I say “Why are we even talking about this? Let’s move on. More wine?” But he declines and I decline and we decide sleep seems a better option. The seamless perfection of this week at the beach punctuated by the reality of what awaits us back in our real life.

As I reach for the soap and scrub the sand and sea salt off my skin in the shower of our city townhouse, I remember my baby just hours ago, our last jaunt on the beach. We grab our suits and race to beach an hour before check out to squeeze in one more ounce of summer. This time, our baby is ready for the sand and the water. Brave now, he holds his father’s hand as he wades out into the sea, giggling under his baseball hat, squealing when the waves reach his belly. My toddler counts buoys, then begs me to “be a mermaid”, so I dive under the shallow water and swim up to him, listening to my boys squeal with delight. My husband reaches down, grabs hold of our baby and tosses him in the air, then dunks him back in the water. We are the only ones on the beach, on the planet. We are in the middle of an ocean, and we are all we need. The words spoken last night have drifted out with the tide and we purge ourselves of the things we said with each dip in the ocean, each shallow dive. As I swim toward my screeching boys, holding a look of equal parts fear and exhilaration as they wait for me to surface, I leave, for these last few moments, all of our real life behind. Right now we are just bodies buoyed by the salt of the ocean; reflections in the water changing with the circling sun. We are imperfect, flawed, loving, adapting creatures that move with the tide.

The laughter rises up from my family and I feel the breeze at my back. I wish for the breeze to carry that laughter back to our real life, to remind me of the buoyancy, the light, the laughter we found at this exceptionally unexceptional beach. I hope that this laughing breeze can find me when I feel our life about to change–again.

I turn off the shower and bring the towel to my face. The beach is gone from my body, I’ve erased all signs of it. But in my soul, and in a forlorn beach house not far away, I know there exists a world where my husband is free, where burden is buoyed.

I will not forget that place.

Tagged , , ,

Magic

The steam of the shower clouds the vanity and as I close the mirrored cabinet, the fog receding at the edges, my stomach tightens again.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow my husband’s PET scan results come back. I remember him just before walking out the door on Friday morning, driving alone to Georgetown to make his 9 am appointment on time. He looks good. His polo and khakis, his belt showing off his trim waist, one of the benefits of his plant-based “kick cancer’s ass” diet. That’s the first thing people tell me when they see us for the first time since his diagnosis, how good he looks, always with a note of surprise in their voice, as if to say, “but he doesn’t look like a cancer patient”. His healthy look, it throws people. Cancer patients don’t glow. But this one does. I kiss him and say, “good luck,” as if that’s a thing to say when someone is about to consume a contrast drink to light up their insides in search of tumors, as if it’s an outcome to be controlled. It’s almost as cringe-worthy as saying “Hope you don’t have cancer!”, but I cut myself some slack; it’s our first time at this, after all. He bounds to the car as if going to complete his Saturday to-do list: enthusiastic, focused, ready to move on to the next item.

I’ve barely slept since Friday, and as the fog recedes in the mirror and I take another look at myself, my hair still slick from the shower, gray strands peeking out at the temples, it shows. The hollows under my eyes remain dark, a trait I’ve noticed that has not gone away since that fateful day in November. Regardless of the hours slept, my face betrays me: worry, stress, anxiety—signs of a life held hostage.

My stomach tightens again as I imagine receiving the news tomorrow. Another hospital date. And then I go to the worst place: I ask myself, looking at my tired, changed face, what will I do if he dies?

I’ve ventured down this dark path in my mind before, especially in the beginning, asking questions like, how will I support myself? And, do I know how to plunge a toilet? And what will happen to my boys? I will take them away, I decide, somewhere warm, somewhere to forget troubles. Hawaii. California. Water, surf, sand. A place of dreams. A place to leave the nightmare behind–if there’s a nightmare to be left.

***

I find myself again at the mirror–tomorrow has come today–again staring at the dark circles, dabbing makeup in an effort to hide signs of another sleepless night. Useless. My husband is in the bedroom with the boys–hospital dates merit a day off of work–and I smile as I hear the sounds of coins falling to the floor, rolling on the wood planks, scurrying under dressers and tables. Our baby has overturned the jar of Argentine coins that I can’t bring myself to remove from his reach simply because he loves this game so much. I hear him urging the boys to pick up the coins from obscure corners of the room. At least for a few moments, he fills the role I normally play on the weekday.

My stomach flutters again as I remember why he’s home on a Tuesday, directing boys and refilling coin jars, and as I stand before my reflection, tummy full of butterflies, jumpy and a bundle of nerves, I am taken back to a similar scene six years earlier–our first date. It is winter in Michigan, and the night is enchanting. It has snowed all afternoon on this late December day and the sun sets early, inviting the street lights to bounce off of each unique flake in the city blanketed by freshly fallen snow. The scene is literally dazzling. We have both found ourselves in town for the holiday and have finally made plans for a date; years in the making. As I gather my long, straight hair and pin half of it back, I take a deep breath in then exhale it all out, trying to shake my nerves. This will be big, I think to myself. I feel my whole life about to change.

A knock at the door signals he’s here, and we drive a few minutes into the quaint downtown where a window seat table provides views of Main Street, store fronts covered in thousands of christmas lights and fluffy snow flakes glistening on their way to the ground, fat, shimmery, tangible. As we eat and laugh through a seamless conversation that never stalls, a thought runs through my head: here it is, the rest of my life, sitting across the table from me.

After dinner we cross the snow-covered street to the Irish pub, and I clutch his wooly sweater trying to remain graceful in my 4 inch heels on the icy pavement (he will later tell me he was so nervous that he wore the wrong sweater, I will later tell him it took me three days to pick out my shoes); it’s in vain–I slip but don’t fall, almost taking us both out. We laugh and slush through the snow and cold and enter the warm bar that smells like fried food and beer, both of us trying to prolong the best date we’ve ever had. The sparkling night, the crisp air, the snowflakes landing on cheeks–it’s magic. It is us.

“Mommy, can I brush my teeth?” my toddler barges into the bathroom and stares up expectantly at me, his long curls creeping into his bright blue eyes. He brushes them away and I hand him his toothbrush. Magic.

***

Far from Michigan, we find ourselves once again on the oncology floor at Georgetown, my husband waiting to get blood drawn, the way we always kick off our “dates”. The room is busy, the busiest I’ve seen it yet. Our nurses are all business and no time for chit-chat today, working tirelessly to attend to all the patients in various stages of treatment. I sit on an uncomfortable but last-available stool next to my husband while he waits for a nurse to stab him with a needle and the metallic smell of medicine and the stale scent of illness mingle together as it reaches my nose and I force myself to stay seated, to resist the strong urge to leave. I am so tired of this place.

We head toward Starbucks without asking, now a habit; a hospital treasure hunt punctuated by caffeine. We find it virtually empty, the employees surely enjoying their summer lull; though an elevator full of fresh-faced, buzzing med students in their too-white lab coats point to a school year fast-approaching. In the waiting room at the cancer center downstairs, we wait for my husband’s name to be called. Again we wait to see if the cancer is back. I am beginning to realize I will always be waiting.

A woman in houndstooth suit with red sling backs has her back to me and fills out paperwork furiously. She looks different from the rest of the waiting room, all of whom are sad, tragic-looking. She looks like a first-timer. The rest of the waiting room is full of bandanas, too-large clothing on too-frail bodies, pale faces and tired eyes. “Typical” cancer patients. I’m tired of being here and pretending it’s normal. We don’t belong. I think of our looming doctor visit and my stomach flips again, a wave of nausea overtaking me for a few moments. My husband looks relaxed at my side as he sips a latte and reads a library book, leg crossed ankle atop knee, slightly slouched, very studious as he turns the page, his brow slightly furrowed. He looks more college student than cancer patient and as I glance around the room, I wonder if the other patients question our presence here. I catch a few patients’ eyes but no one ever smiles. It’s a strange place, a cancer center waiting room. People looking furtively at each other, holding gazes for seconds at a time, faces wondering what betrayals other bodies hold.

His nurse appears in the doorway; she calls his name but doesn’t smile. She has never. It’s time.

***

The appointment is over and we are hardwired for the rest of the journey: turn left out of the cancer center, up the ramp, left at the elevators, down the main corridor, up the main elevators to the oncology floor. But on our way, my husband beams. He bounces, he floats. I remember the conversation on our way to the hospital this afternoon. I remember asking him how he felt.

“I feel fine,” he says, shrugging, as we drive down 395. “It’s funny, I don’t even think about it, you know? There are all kinds of things that keep me up at night, but this isn’t one of them,” he pauses for a moment while I point out the bizarre exchange we just made as we briefly flirt with the Pentagon parking lot en route to the 110 toward the Key Bridge, his favorite driving trick. Then he resumes:

“It would make an interesting case study, you know, to see why it doesn’t get to me the way other things do. It’s weird.” Then he reaches over and grabs my hand, “I’m sorry it’s so hard on you, though.”

I try to think of the appropriate thing to say. It’s okay. It’s not hard on me. It’s not me, it’s you. All of which would be lies. Instead I mumble something cliche like “It is what it is,” and we keep moving toward the hospital on another muggy summer day.

“I guess you were a little nervous after all, huh?” I smile at him and ruffle his short blonde hair as we pass a nurse in the corridor. He smiles. “I guess so!” he tosses back, and kisses me without breaking stride. He slips his arm around my waist and we saunter down the hall like high school kids with a secret. A clean scan. Better than a secret. Magic.

We are on our way to the oncology floor, and we are free again.

For now, we are free.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Guilty Ones

“I go to her house after work every Tuesday and Thursday, then I come home.”

 He is unemotional as he conveys to me the news of his affair, his body relaxed as he stands in front of me, his wife, and I try not to scream in agony as the pain of his betrayal tears my heart to shreds.

 “For how long?” I force myself to speak.

 “Since February,” he replies, nonchalant, emotionally dead.

 Since February.  Every Tuesday and Thursday after work since February.  I try to piece this together but it just doesn’t make sense.  He was sick.  He was really sick.  I took care of him.  How could he?  How could he?  I remember all the tears I cried in fear that cancer would end my marriage before its time when all this time I should have been worried about the woman across the street?  My mind races as I try to put this together and make sense of the nonsense.  He was supposed to love me; I cared for him, I sat by his bedside, worried over his body, worried over his fate.  What was he thinking?

 I can’t look at him but I scream.  “I’m taking the kids, how dare you!  I loved you!”

 I am frantic as I search for the boys and randomly grab items I think I’ll need when I go—where?  It doesn’t matter, I just need out.  I just need the bleeding to stop.

 My face is wet with tears as I sit up in bed, heart racing, gasping for breath.  The dream has ended but the effects linger.  I stumble out of bed and find life to be normal: boys up early, chattering and demanding their breakfast.  I tend to them, starting the morning routine of pancakes and milk and refills and cleaning up spills, messy hands, messy faces.  I see my husband before he leaves for work and I can barely look at him, anger rising up in chest.

 He leans in to kiss me and I allow it, but then whisper to him with my back to the kids, “You cheated on my in a dream last night.”

 He smiles and says with a shrug, “Sorry!” but as he turns to head for the door, the feeling of betrayal still fresh in my soul, I grab him and whisper a forceful warning: “Don’t ever cheat on me.”  He looks at me with pity and a touch of confusion and says, “I won’t. Love you!” then waves goodbyes to the boys and he’s out the door.  As I watch him go I wonder to myself who the woman was.

 

 “I’ve had those dreams, too,” he replies after another sip of cold beer.  “But I never know why.” 

 An old friend is in our dining room, drinking a beer and settling into the chair at the end of the table as my husband takes his turn to quiet the baby upstairs who has decided he doesn’t want to sleep tonight.  Fighter pilot by trade, this friend is no stranger to life with cancer.   Although it’s been more than a decade, the pain remains, just under the surface.  I see it every now and then when he connects with me over this selfish, indiscriminate disease that stole his brother, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of his nephew, sister in law, family where a father, husband, brother, son used to be. 

 Easter weekend, after my harried text message to our Air Force friends with the news of my husband’s serious turn for the worse after becoming septic, this friend texted back four simple words that made me weep upon reading: “I’ll be there tomorrow”; his insight into our life leaving no room for formalities or indecision.  He sat beside my husband in the small, foul-smelling hospital room and waited patiently while my husband shuffled back and forth to the bathroom, filling in the spaces with his story-telling, reducing my husband to tears from side-splitting laughter.  The best remedy.  And he sits with me now, lending an ear as we wait for the baby to release my husband to us.

 I take a sip of my Corona and taste the lime on my lips, then inhale.  “What do you think it means?” wondering aloud what my subconscious is telling me.

 He shrugs and takes a swig, contemplating for a moment.  But before he can answer we are joined by my husband and the conversation moves away from dreams and back to reality.  We talk and drink and suddenly the room is dark; the sun has set without fanfare and we were too involved in stories to notice.  In the low light of the dining room I hear my husband laugh the way he did in the hospital, the way he’s done for years with his friend by his side.  And I smile as I take another sip, letting the buzz go to my head and feeling grateful for friendships that transcend distance and time and cancer.

 I do a quick google search on my phone while still sitting in the dim light at the table during a conversation that I don’t follow—too many Air Force acronyms and phrases I don’t understand—and read about the meaning behind dreams of spousal infidelity.  I survey a few websites and the answer is the same: the dreamer’s guilt is projected onto the spouse in the dream.  I laugh at the absurd assumption—what could I be guilty of?  I tuck away my phone and let the sound of my husband’s laughter fill my soul as the darkness settles in for the night.

 

 Morning light filters through the downstairs windows as the rest of the world quietly sleeps.  Early-bird dog-walkers and runners take advantage of the sliver of sun to beat the swampy DC summer heat.  But our day started an hour ago, our alarm clock squawking babes, with toys and books strewn about the floor as evidence to our early morning wake up call.  I watch over my coffee mug as my toddler chases sunbeams while he spins around the living room and my baby sits with legs splayed and a book cradled under his big belly, pointing to the pictures as he reads to himself.  Suddenly, a “code 531” interrupts the spinning and quiet reading and, donning fire fighter hats, my husband and the boys must rescue a kitten from a tree.  The boys are all giggles and swirls of jammies and joy and messy golden hair peeking out from under red plastic as they complete their mission between sunbeams and pancake debris.  Their three faces flush with laughter and they bask in the glory of their successful rescue and I know there’s nowhere else my boys would rather be than in the warm, safe embrace of their playful, selfless, loving daddy.  And now it all makes sense. 

 It should be me.

 And I feel guilty that it’s not. 

 Perhaps that’s why our friend and I share this dream, maybe we are both guilty that the better parts of us suffer.  That we can do nothing more than watch—hoping, praying, scheming that the cancer doesn’t win, that good prevails.  His brother should have lived, should have seen his son grow.  My husband must live; he must see his sons grow.  Teach them his generosity of spirit, his love of life; instill in them his enthusiasm for leaving things better than he found it.  Yet I am powerless to ensure it.  All I can do is hope, will it to happen; bargain, beg, steal, cheat.  Sell my soul.  Anything.  Everything.

“Babe, do you want some more tea?” my husband asks, balancing the baby in his arms, the red plastic hat still on his head as he carefully steps over our toddler on his way to the kitchen.  My heart aches, but I smile.

 It should be me.

 Maybe we are guilty after all.

Tagged , , , , ,

Ignoring the If in the Room

I carefully choose my steps as I descend from our bedroom, trying to remember where the floor creaks in this new home. After a day that began at 3:30 am with a teething baby, nap time comes as a great relief. But one of the adjustments of this new home is a shared room for the boys, who haven’t quite grasped the concept. At nap time, I settle for the baby in his crib and our toddler in our bed, surrounded by pillows and blankets. He covets his time in “the big bed” and I smile to myself as I remember his disdain for my company when I climbed into bed with him, reading until he drifted off to sleep and then trying to drift off myself, rewarding my long night with a few precious moments of rest. But with ever pillow shift, every adjustment, my three year old wakes and stares at me, first confused and then annoyed—he hasn’t yet mastered the art of subtlety. I allow him his rest and sneak out of the room, avoiding the squeaks and creaks, searching for a place to rest.

I feel the exhaustion clinging to the rims of my eyes and as I reach the last step to the living room, I find the couch occupied. My husband, also invited to the no-sleep party last night, rests peacefully on the small sofa.

Creeeaaakk

I misstep and his eyelids flutter open. He generously scoots himself back on the couch, allowing me some room. I lay with him but the sofa is small, not meant for afternoon naps, certainly not meant for two. I try to find a comfortable nook but end up entangled in him, perched on the edge, trying not to fall.

“If the basement were functional, I’d be able to lay on the queen-sized pullout down there!” I whisper, exasperated but smiling.

I remember the scene from just over a week ago. “What’s hell, Daddy?” I hear my toddler say at the bottom of the basement stairs as I put away dishes in the kitchen one floor up. The basement is their playroom and by far the most used area of this small house. Each word echoes up the basement stairs as I listen, curious for the response.

“Here! This is hell! Right here! H-E-L-L! Hell!”

Someone with my husband’s voice is yelling in frustration and I sprint down the stairs to gauge the situation for myself. I am stunned yet relieved to see it is actually my husband, for once, raging.

“The basement is flooded!” he shouts as he stomps the wet floor to illustrate. “I can’t believe how naive I was thinking this place wouldn’t flood!”

I grab the boys, “time to go upstairs,” I say, trying to be bright, cheery. I call his parents as a request for backup and then call the property manager, already busy with other basements full of water from the fast and furious rainstorms tonight. A clean-up crew will be here within the hour I tell my husband, but he is lost in a world he doesn’t often visit, and so I leave him there, moving boxes yet unpacked that were stored in the basement for a later date, soaking up water, cleaning up the mess. And somehow, I find his rage is calming. He’s finally feeling.

Three days later the basement floor begins to buckle and then three hours later, the floor is gone. The basement, an entire floor of our home, a play space for the boys, now unrecognizable, our things piled up into one corner of the room to allow the rest of the floor to dry.

If“, my husband smiles through closed eyes as he pulls me in closer, coaxing me to rest. I stay beside him but my mind wanders; I look out the window into the yard and watch the american flag billow in the breeze. I shift my gaze to a wall of paintings at the foot of the couch, illustrations of all the homes we’ve lived in during our marriage. Four paintings in as many years. I glance around the cozy living room, only a few ago filled with boxes stacked to the ceiling, and yet it already feels like home. If only I had known that we’d grow to love this house, already, as much as the others.

If.

***

Friday night, hot and unbearably humid, we wait in line for a concert at Wolf Trap. The doors open promptly at six and we make our way through the sweat-soaked crowd to a shaded hillside, sharing our blanket with our friends, our melanoma mentors. This couple that has already lived the life we are living sits next to us and shares stories and wine and we laugh so hard we cry. And I think to myself, If my husband hadn’t had cancer, we’d have never met this beautiful couple….

If.

We sip champagne and smile and act like teenagers on this blanket on the bluff. Harry Connick Jr. sings and talks and dances through his show, and as the sun starts to set and the fireflies begin their nightly dance, a familiar song plays. Our friends find their way to each other and, arms wrapped around each other, sway to the jazzy music. Their song—their first dance on the day they vowed to each other a lifetime—plays into the warm night air and floats up to us on the hill. They sway to the music and I snap a picture, saving this moment in time for myself as much as for them. Because they are still here—together—and still dancing, after so many ifs.

I hear the song but have ceased to listen, my mind is whirring with ifs. If they had known what had awaited them on the day they first danced this song together, if they had known the struggles they’d face, the pain, the tears, the sickness. But if they’d known all of that, they wouldn’t have known the good: the children to be made, the laughs to be had, the sunset dances on hillsides in the summer. The life to be lived.

If.

Screw the ifs, I decide as I turn to the group. The show is ending and I raise my glass in a toast to the two survivors, celebrating clean PET scans and the absence of the uninvited guest in the bodies of these men and in the lives of us all. We raise our glasses in health, and we toast to life instead of ifs. We celebrate the now, and I let go of the ifs–every last one.

Because Ifs are creaky floors and flooded basements and cancer—all the unwanteds and unknowns of life. And love is stepping around the creaks, cleaning up the water, toasting life. So we step, we mop, we toast. We love, we live. Every day. Together.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Seize the Date

April

I am sitting in an overstuffed recliner on the oncology floor next to my husband. My feet are up and I’ve been “working” on my ipad for the last half hour. The dosing station of about a dozen small rooms, comprised merely of retractable curtains as walls, is relatively quiet today. I look to my husband and find him sleeping, surely enjoying this mid-afternoon quiet; the guided imagery session we received earlier seems to have worked for him. I return to my work but then, on my periphery, I see a flustered motion. I shift my gaze and see a man rush past our door but then turns as he realizes this was his intended stop. He enters the room, gives me a cursory glance, then continues searching. He spots his target and takes long strides to the corner of the room. His shirt is wrinkled and he holds his rain-soaked jacket wadded up in his left hand. I notice his wedding band. He grabs a small stool, cozies up to the voice on the other side of a drawn curtain. I hear the quick exchange of a kiss. My heart skips a beat. He is me.

I lean back in my chair and think back to an hour ago; I am washing my hands in the bathroom down the hall. Lost in mechanics, I am gazing at my soapy hands as I rub them together, left over right, right over left, lacing fingers together, running them underwater, saving some bubbles and then beginning again. Rinse. I hear a dragging, shuffling sound outside the door as I shut off the water, paper towel between my hand and the metal faucet as I’ve been instructed by the hand-washing posters found in every hospital bathroom. I hear a rattling sound, then another shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag.

Knock, knock.

Lost in my imagination, trying to conjure up a sight to match the sound, I am flustered in spite of knowing the bathroom was their final destination. I open the door and catch my breath.

She is small and porcelain white, almost translucent. Her young eyes smile at me and she speaks: thank you, she says with an accent–Scottish? British? Did I imagine it?– as turn off the light and begin to exit the bathroom. A bright pink bandana covers a shiny scalp underneath. She is clutching her IV pole in one hand–rattle–and receiving what I assume to be chemo through a port in her chest. She looks to be only a few years older than me. Standing in the doorway to the bathroom I feel an overwhelming urge tell her how sorry I am, how I can understand a tiny amount of her pain; I want to hug her, to help her. I want to tell her how guilty I feel that she holds an IV pole while I hold the door. But I don’t. Instead, I reach across her and turn on the bathroom light. A quick smile at each other, as if I have done a great deed, and I leave.

My husband stirs and I am brought back to the present. I can hear the man speaking to his wife behind the curtain. Soft voices, then laughter. Her IV starts beeping and the nurse rises from her post to check the problem. “Air bubble,” she informs as I hear the snap of the tube back into place and the “beep” of the machine as it begins to administer the drug. The nurse has begun to make small talk and I, with no other distractions, listen.

“Where’s your baby girl today?” she asks, and I hold my breath. A baby girl who needs her mommy, a mommy that needs her baby girl.

“She’s at daycare, they’re open until 6 so she’s okay,” the mother replies, relaxed. Now they are back to soft voices and little laughter and I recognize this: it’s a “date”. My husband and I often laugh about the irony of our “dates” being spent on the oncology floor at Georgetown. But with our two little ones waiting at home, we take what we can get. We have created a small and simple routine but one that serves its purpose: we are here for immunotherapy but happen to get some respite from the overwhelming life of parents of young children. And I realize now that, though we are by far the youngest people on the floor, we are not the only ones trying to turn the paradigm on its head.

I think back to our “date” today: we arrive at the hospital and valet the car, then head to oncology to get his blood work done. It’s a quick procedure and I catch up on my magazine reading; I sit down next to him and try to bury myself in an article but I find myself surveying the other patients: across from us, an old woman wrapped up in a mystery novel while she reclines in the chair, wearing a turtleneck and sweater and winter coat; I remember being told that chemo makes you cold. To her left there is an older gentleman, wearing a baseball hat and reading the newspaper. He gets up to use the bathroom and grunts at us, and I’m unable to discern if he’s trying to be friendly or warning us not to engage. My husband squints his eyes shut and clenches his teeth; he still doesn’t like needles. The nurse is done quickly and we grab our coats and he jokes with his nurses on the way out the door, laughing and smiling as if they were his audience, his adoring fans. And I think they actually are.

We laugh over our teas outside the Starbucks in the student center as we wait for his infusion cocktail to be ordered at the pharmacy; we are recalling a fit of hysteria we had just minutes ago in the exam room. Even as we sip our tea, we can’t keep from laughing as we joke now about the morning I found him standing at the stove, pouring his tea, looking up at me with his entire face–even his ears–swollen and red, looking like the caricature on the cover of MAD magazine. The recounting of this story now reduces us to tears again–not funny 4 weeks ago, but hysterical today. We laugh again as we imagine what the doctor, two nurses, medical student, research coordinator and oncology fellow all thought when they walked into the exam room and found us laughing so hard we were crying.

May

On a proper date, we are seated outside a restaurant on a cool Saturday evening on Memorial Day weekend. Sitting along the sidewalk watching fellow patrons and seeing the bustle of the Saturday night crowd makes us feel a bit more metropolitan, a bit closer to our city living in Buenos Aires where we felt at the center of it all. Over a cocktail and a beer, we reflect on the last year of our lives.

“I can’t believe this is our life,” I say as I twirl the straw in my glass, mixing the basil with the cucumber in my martini, “and yet, I can’t believe this is our life.” A mama bird pecks near our feet trying to quiet the chirping baby by her side. I toss her a few crumbs.

He understands immediately what I mean. “I feel really blessed, you know?” he squints as his eyes mist over. “I make pancakes for the boys on a Wednesday just because I can. To be able to spend this much time with them….it’s a gift.” He takes a sip of his beer and then clears his throat, adjusting in his chair. “It’s a gift.”

My eye is caught by an older couple that walks out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. They are arm in arm, and he leads her gently and politely down the steps as they embark on their journey. Dressed to the nines, they have a rhythm that exudes years of love, companionship, care. With his free hand, he gives me a nod and tips his hat, then returns his focus to the love of his life.

The sun is setting and the breeze picks up, making our date colder than it should’ve been. We watch the setting sun a few moments longer, then scrape our chairs against the sidewalk and stand, ready to leave. My husband grabs my hand and leads me around the table and into the street as we move toward the parking garage in the fading spring light. The cold wind whips through the cement structure, a frigid reminder of our summer drought. We’ve spent the last year chasing summers just out of reach, moving to Buenos Aires at the start of winter and moving to DC just as spring had sprung south of the equator. In one year with two moves and three winters, I am starting to feel brittle. Another gust and we pull our jackets tighter around us and huddle together for warmth and I ask “Will it ever be summer?”

July

The day is hot and muggy and the cold hospital air is a relief. Now in the maintenance phase, my husband’s treatments are spaced out, allowing us to wander away from this disease on a much longer leash before being reined back in. Today’s visit is just a checkup, no infusion, and we are both lighter. Our new home occupies a large place in our hospital date conversation, but I’m grateful for a refreshing subject. He is seated next to me with book in hand but doesn’t read it. He’s enjoying his free coffee from the Kuerig machine for cancer patients and the ability to speak to each other without little hands and voices filling spaces between us. One of the perks of a date in the oncology wing.

A man walks into the waiting area, his youth making him an anomaly. He is dressed for work and carries a briefcase and his intense face relaxes into a smile as he spots his parents, sitting together and obviously waiting for him, to my left. His voice booms as he describes his battle for a parking space, which, as he explains, is why is late. He pulls out an enormous stack of papers from his briefcase–research–and begins to talk about what he’s found online, what they need to ask the doctors. I hear him mention “melanoma”, “Ipilimumab”, and “late-stage”. My heart aches. I realize quickly he’s talking about his father, the very old man who doesn’t speak, seated between his wife and son. I surmise his diagnosis is new. I want to comfort them, to hug them, but I do neither. I am lost in thoughts about what I might say to them when the nurse calls my husband. I realize I’ve forgotten why we’ve come.

“Finally!” he whispers under his breath, a commentary on the hour-long wait we’ve had. Hour-long but full of conversation and free coffee and laughter. An extra hour of together.

“Ready?” he asks me as he gathers his book and stretches out his hand.

“Ready,” I say as I reach for his hand and look at the family next to me. I offer them a smile as I pass but they are too distracted to notice me.

And I know just how they feel.

Tagged , , , ,

Constellations

We chase the fading light of the longest day of the year for as long as possible, but the sun relents as the stars give way. From the passenger side of the childless car I look up at the pale blue, darkness pursuing us in the distance, and see the constellations faintly appear. I remember our last night in Buenos Aires, eight months ago now, though it feels more like a lifetime; the warm breeze, the full moon. Our balcony spread before us offering us a view unparalleled; city parks sprawling below us like a carpet unfurled, the tree tops beckoning to us with their swaying branches. The water from the vibrantly lit Italian-inspired fountain a block away dances in a soft orange glow. My husband and I sip our favorite discovery: an obscure Argentine blend that makes us feel like locals. We star gaze and whisper and at some point I cry about the fate that awaits us: cancer treatment, no house, uncertain future. But on the balcony under the stars, under the constancy they provide, I can postpone my dread for a few more hours, and so we stay. Looking up, my husband wonders aloud about the brilliant canopy overhead that seems to shine brighter this night.

“I’ve always wanted to see the Southern Cross”, he muses, more to himself than to me, and then suddenly he’s a man on a mission, searching for the Ipad, searching with purpose. He returns a moment later, face buried in screen. “Didn’t my parents have some star-gazing app?” he asks me without looking up, though an answer is not required. He has already begun the download. We wait a moment longer, and then he points the Ipad at the stars, hoping to learn just one more thing about this magical place in the southern hemisphere before we are foreigners again.

He moves the Ipad slowly across the sky as he identifies aloud one by one the satellites and constellations. And then, victory.

“There! Right there!” he signals to a small kite-shaped cluster in the sky, switching between his Ipad and reality, “the Southern Cross!” A contented smile creeps across his face as he checks it off his list. There it is: gratitude. Cancer has stolen his ability to stay in this city he loves, working a job he relishes, but tonight he found the stars he sought, and he is grateful, happy.

I smile to myself in the car, remembering his fulfillment at finding the constellation just before we left for good. I turn my gaze over to my husband, steering us home. The ceremony this afternoon brought us back to yet another time; another part of his life out of reach due to cancer and circumstance. A squadron he flew with now to be run by one of his best friends; history coming full-circle.

I remember my husband’s anxious request. “I’d like to be there,” he says after receiving an email from his friend announcing his change of command ceremony. And I agree. We drive 7 hours south from DC to South Carolina to watch the ceremony. It is a breezy, blue-sky day on base and the roar of the jets makes me ache for our former life. I catch myself remembering the drives home from my job under the hot Phoenix sun, weaving through the back roads lined with fields of color–roses as far as the eye could see–as I try to catch a glimpse of my fiancé in his jet, wondering if he can see me from the sky. My husband stands in the hangar at attention as we watch the ceremony, wearing his flight suit for what is likely to be his last time. Among other things, cancer has stolen his ability to fly. The flags change hands and suddenly our friend has become commander, right in front of us. My husband smiles and tells me to watch the jet in the back of the hangar. I turn to see an airmen unveil the new commander’s name on the jet, symbolism and history all in one. My husband claps his hands together in pride and excitement, reveling in the experience. I wonder to myself if my husband is seeing what might’ve been…

An hour later we are celebrating and I am talking to the new squadron commander’s wife, the dermatologist, my friend, our first call after my husband’s diagnosis, the one who knew before we did what a stage III melanoma diagnosis actually meant. Between children tugging at her dress and a sprinkling of well wishes, we talk about the last year of our lives, the surprises we’ve encountered, the joys and the heartaches.

And then she asks, “How are you handling all of this?” and her eyes begin to mist. I take a breath. But the words come easily, because they are true.

“I made a decision. I have two options: I can either wonder everyday whether my husband will die from this, or I can enjoy every second of every day we have together.” I scan the room to find my husband. I spot him with the commander, laughing. He sees me and smiles. “And I choose to enjoy.” I catch myself wavering as I finish the sentence. This is not the place I tell myself.

She smiles and I smile and I know that in a different setting, we’d be crying. But there isn’t time and it doesn’t matter. We are celebrating. Life is happening all around us. And so we rejoice.

“The longest day of the year and now it’s over!” my husband’s observation brings me back to the front seat as he watches the dark envelope the sky.

“Do you miss it?” I ask him, and he frowns for a minute as he deciphers what “it” I am referring to.

“The flying?”

“Yes,” I answer, “the jet, the flying, your old life.” Life before cancer, I want to add, but don’t.

He takes a moment and adjusts his hands on the wheel, flexing his hands and then re-grips. “I do miss it,” he reflects, “but I’m really happy with the decisions we’ve made. Going to Argentina took me out of the jet, but I wouldn’t have missed it.” He takes a breath and then proceeds, his voice a little softer.

“I’m just so glad I’ve been able to do all that I’ve done. I really am.”

And there it is again: gratitude. The change of command, the jets he’ll never fly again, watching friends move on and up in their career while he is sidelined by cancer on “patient status” until the end of his clinical trial, none of this bothers him. He squeezes the good out and discards the rest. He is the person I wake up to every morning, and he manages to surprise me even now. In this moment, I remind myself to be more like him.

“Do you miss it?” he says with a grin, well aware of my weakness for a man in a flight suit.

I smile, “Just don’t throw out the flight suit.”

He laughs and we drive into the dark, watching the northern hemisphere stars burn brighter as we go. I scan the satellite radio and find a Jimmy Eat World concert and we sing when we know the words and listen when we don’t. Closer to the city he spots fireworks from a theme park in the distance and we watch like little kids. The moon is full and bright, and our drive nears its end. We stop at a red light and I put my hands over his eyes and kiss him, preventing him from seeing the light change, a game we played before marriage, before babies, before cancer. A game we played when the world was lighter. He laughs and kisses me back and I release my hands, and he drives. He is smiling in the dark, and as I look up at the stars overhead, I realize it’s not the stars that are the constant, it’s him.

And I am grateful.

Tagged , ,

The Dance

We sit in the oncology wing of Georgetown and wait for my husband’s name to be called. We both sip hot tea and busily avoid the reality that awaits us by reading articles on our iphones and sharing funny posts on facebook–anything to distract, to amuse, the lighten. It is Tuesday–hospital day–and soon we will be called back to a cramped, dingy room to be told the results of my husband’s PET CT. To be told if the cancer is back. I feel my eyelids get heavy as I struggle to read what’s on the screen in front of me; sleep did not come easily last night as my mind raced, filling with various scenarios of how today would go. And every time, it came back to the wedding. How would I keep bad news to myself this weekend at my brother’s wedding? Would I have to?

***

Saturday afternoon, 2pm. From the pew I can see my brother’s face perfectly; a mix of happiness and anxiousness and perspiration from the humid Tulsa air. He and his soon-to-be bride are seated on the altar, holding hands and listening to the homily written specifically for them this day. The priest likens marriage to a dance, and, in Oklahoma spirit, quotes a few country song lyrics. I smile inwardly at the bizarre way a priest reading a country song lyric from the altar actually sounds biblical. He reads another:

“I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance”

The priest expounds on this, reminding them that there will be pain, trials, difficulty, but that these imperfections form the unique love of marriage. I feel my face flush and my heart beat a little faster. The pain of these words is acute and too familiar. The church is hot and I can feel my brow start to bead with sweat. I try to look beyond the blushing couple over to the groomsmen to find my husband. He is hidden behind the priest. Probably better that way. I look at this couple on the altar; they are young and in love and wrapped up in everything wedding. And I want to stand up and plead with them, “Listen! This is the most important thing you will hear today!”; to warn them of what lies ahead in “real life”. But instead I am poised and steady, fighting the urge to crumble as I recall the enormous struggle we face after three short years of marriage.

I flash back to our wedding day–the 115 degree Arizona summer heat that, somehow, I didn’t even feel. The flowers, the dresses, the walk down the aisle, my three brothers by my side, happy tears streaming down my face as I walked toward the man I was about to marry. Giddiness at the prospect of a lifetime together…but, how long is a lifetime? I watch this couple and the couple in my mind’s eye about the embark on the unknown, and I ask myself: knowing the pain awaiting us, would I have still walked toward him? If I could have missed the pain, would I have?

***

“Such great news,” my cousin clinks his glass with mine, freeing golden bubbles from the bottom and sending them bursting to the top, and he gives me a nod as he sips, waiting to say more. The sun is sinking lower over the Tulsa skyline as we celebrate the day’s nuptials from thirty stories high. I open my mouth to concur but before I can utter a word someone grabs me by the arm and says “your brother says to be ready, your song is coming on.” A verbal drive-by. The music has stopped and, three guitar picks into the next tune, I know what my brother has done. In the midst of one of the most important days of his life, he has remembered the song: the one my baby claps his chubby hands to, the one my toddler sings the chorus of for days on end. The only song my husband has ever turned to me and said “this song always makes me think of you”.

My husband and I race to dance floor with our babies, watching their eyes light up as their ears recognize the beat. My toddler, in his glory, stomps his foot and claps his hands to the beat of a song he’s sung so many times from the comfort of his carseat. He wiggles in the middle of the small circle of uncles and cousins, laughing all the while. My baby spins in circles next to his daddy, then reaches up to be held, tired but happy from his exertion on the dance floor. We sing at the top of our lungs and laugh and twirl. We dance. My husband is happy, the kind of happy only someone who’s fought his battles can know. He is surrounded by his best friends, his family, and his two boys mimicking his every move. The news of a cancer-free scan cannot compete with the joy I see in his eyes tonight. I find my married brother, I take his arm and pull him close and, over the music, whisper “thank you”. He looks at me with love and I know he’d do so much more for us if he could. But this is enough. He gives me a spin and we dance some more.

The song is ending and I see my husband high-five our toddler and cradle our baby in his arms; I see my family, my dance, right in front of me. I survey the scene around us: a celebration on all fronts. And I want to try and explain to my brother all that he has just done for me, the incredible memory he’s just made for us. I want to remind him of what the priest said at the altar today, of the surprises that he’ll face in his marriage. That some of the surprises are painful but that, somehow, the pain makes the joy so much sweeter. I hug him instead because I can’t find words. I close the circle of my family, wrapping my husband and boys in my arms, overcome with emotion as the song ends. This is our dance, this beautiful, surprising, gut-wrenching life.

“I love you,” I tell my husband through the tears I’ve stopped fighting, my chin resting on his shoulder. A clean PET scan, a wedding, dancing babies and a beaming husband; this is the dance. I see a few guests through my tear-filled eyes watching us, and I realize some have also been moved to tears. “I know,” he says, “it’s okay, everything’s okay,” he reassures me. And it is.

I pull back from him to look at his face, the face I walked toward less than four years ago. And I answer my own question with one word: yes. Yes, I would walk toward him all over again, in spite of the pain, because I would never, ever want to miss this dance.

Like a drum my heart never stops beating for you
And long after you’re gone gone gone

I’ll love you long after you’re gone gone gone

Tagged , , ,

Motorcycles and Flowers

I walk out of the store with two bouquets of flowers and, as I walk to the idling car where my husband and boys wait inside, I wonder if these will be enough for four sites. I think it will as I open the car door and, with windows down, we continue on our journey to Arlington beneath a gorgeous May sunshine.

We are flanked by motorcycles on our drive down 395 toward the National Cemetery. My three year old points out every single one, counting them as they pass. At one point he counts to ten and then decides “there’s too many to count!”, and indeed, there are. Rolling Thunder has hit DC full force, and as we drive below each overpass we see each one lined with people, firetrucks, and american flags, awaiting the informal motorcycle gangs that rally and ride together into the city before the formal noon ride.

The highway bends and we drive alongside the Pentagon parking lot; we tell our son to look out the window so he doesn’t miss what’s about to appear. One more overpass and then a three year old’s dream: shiny chrome, leather jackets, loud engines. Motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, all waiting patiently in the Pentagon parking lots for their noon ride today, Memorial Day Weekend, to commemorate, to honor, to pay homage to and to thank our veterans. What began as a tribute to Vietnam vets has morphed into a pilgrimage of gratitude for all who serve. The sheer number of them is overwhelming, and as we pass, I feel a familiar lump in my throat and I blink back my tears.

We drive onto Arlington and, with visitor pass in the windshield, drive toward our first stop: Section 60. The cemetery is crowded today and tourists on foot are busy trying to see as many “attractions” as they can. But Section 60 is different. Here we find the headstones of those most recently lost: husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends. It’s more than a tourist destination; it’s a stark reality.

We unload the kids and then walk to the site. The cool breeze rustles the flowers in my arms and tousles the curls on my toddler’s little head. Beneath the crystal clear sky and bright sun, reality sets in. The harried departure from the house, the traffic from the Rolling Thunder tribute that made our commute 30 minutes longer–all of those distractions are now gone and we are face to face with a stone bearing the name of our friend; a father, a husband, a son, a brother. I show my son how to place the roses in the vase and he is an eager study. We place the flowers next to his name and then sit, pray, cry. Our sons, too little to understand, allow us just a few moments before reminding us that they are hungry, that they want to play; they allow us a few moments before reminding us that life goes on–because it must.

We visit three more sites–two other friends and one relative; the relative is my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Killed during WWII, just a boy at 22. My grandfather, also just a boy of 20, was notified by chaplain of his brother’s death while in the infantry in Europe. His older brother, his best friend, his protector, the head of their fatherless house, gone. Much like his brothers and sisters in arms who lay in eternal rest by his side, he was not given the chance to say goodbye. My two boys romp around my great uncle’s headstone, playing peekaboo and chase. I cut the flowers and place them in the holder, first placing it on the left side of the stone and then moving it to the right. I stay seated for a moment, watching this scene before me: my two small boys, playing on the grave of my grandfather’s brother and best friend. And I wonder, will they ever understand the sacrifices made for them? Can they? Can anyone, really, until they live it, see it, feel it?

I stand, and my husband pulls me in. With our two boys, there isn’t much time to steep in all that this day, that this place, really means. But he holds me close and whispers in my ear “thank you”. And I whisper back “thank you“, and then louder, “and thank them” as I gesture to the aged headstones, the young soldiers lost during WWII, their names faded, their shape wearing. Those without wives, children, or stories to tell. Suddenly our boys are off, running down the hill, indicating that our time is done. We scoop them up and as we walk between graves of those who fought decades ago, my three year old shouts “Thank you everyone!” as he waves to Section 12. I start to cry. And then I smile. He understands, at least a little. “Yes, thank you everyone!” I say back to him, to everyone. I whisper a silent prayer to our friend, to my husband’s friends, to my family. And then, hand in hand in silence, we walk back to the car.

The motorcycles are still amassing as we drive past the Pentagon on our way home. Again, I am overcome. The sheer number of bikers is overwhelming–all of these Americans rallying together, the camaraderie–it moves me. I notice that in the parking lots there is little more than bikes and people. These riders have come, some from hundreds of miles away, to do nothing more than ride. They ride for our veterans, they ride for fallen comrades, they ride to honor. But mostly, they ride in gratitude. And as we wave to the bikers, my heart swells. Each in our own way, we say thank you.

Tagged , ,

Dinner with our past, present and future

My husband is seated across the table from me under the glow of a box chandelier carrying what must be four dozen lit candles. With wine in hand, we smile at each other through the warm light and listen to our hosts discuss their children, the neighborhood, their secret romance when they were young. The dinner is homemade, deliciously fragrant, and the lower the sun drops in the sky, the more comfortable we all become, settling into our chairs and digging deeper into the depths of our conversations. One by one, each of their children has made an appearance tonight. They are introduced by their names, but also by their ages at the time of their father’s diagnosis with stage III melanoma–the eery parallel that unites us.

Our host, my husband’s age when was first diagnosed with stage III melanoma fourteen years ago, introduces his eldest, who was our toddler’s age. I observe him as he peruses the refrigerator: shooting up out of the ground, towering over his parents. He seems to be growing as we converse. He is quiet in a teenager sort of way and he disappears from the conversation given the first opportunity. I imagine my toddler in this teenage boy, this boy who is intimately familiar with his father’s journey with cancer. I shudder as I wonder how we will ever explain all of this to our two sons.

Their middle son bursts through the door as we are finishing our dinner, a mass of curls and energy and limitless hugs for his mother. “This is our middle son, he was the age of your baby when I was diagnosed,” our host informs. My husband and I find each other from across the table and I can read his thoughts: could this be our baby? Will they ever be this big? And, fearfully, I wonder if my husband will know our boys to be teenagers.

When their daughter is introduced I blink back my tears. She is younger than her middle brother by 4 years, and to me she shines like hope. Since my husband’s diagnosis, my body does nothing but crave more children, an improbability at best. But seeing her there I think to myself, just maybe… Our hostess tells me that she was born during the “relaxing years”–the three year period when our host was deemed cancer-free, before it reappeared in his groin, and allowed to carry on his military career as usual, sending them to their next assignment in Hawaii. I shoot my husband another look across the table: my dream; I hope we are this lucky.

In between the introductions, we exchange stories about cancer, hospital stays and our host’s experience in the stage III arena, divulging the details of their similar journey through treatment. I wonder if they see themselves in us as they listen to our stories and recall the darkest moments of their married lives. His story about IL-II treatments and the subsequent hallucinations makes my heart race and I can feel myself perspiring. I whisper a pleading prayer that this not happen to my husband.

Our hostess is leaning back with wine in hand, her foot up on the chair and her arm resting on her knee. With her crisp white shirt and faded blue jeans, she exudes both strength and calm. She begins the story of the end of IL-II treatments.

“It was his sixth treatment. He was sitting in the fetal position in the hospital chair. He started crying–do you remember that you were crying?” she asks him across the table. He shrugs, and she continues “–and he was broken. So I told him, ‘we’re going to stop now, okay?’ And we did.”

I look at this couple and feel as though I am looking into the future, hoping one day we can look back on this from a distance and breathe as easy as they. She speaks so simply, so unaffected, as if she’s recounting a trip to the grocery store. I am in awe of her, inspired by her. And I wonder, am I as strong as she? Can I be?

She takes a sip, then her eyes meet mine and she asks, “What has been the hardest part of all of this for you?” And then she waits.

I try to untangle my mind that is instantly crowded with a thousand answers. The abrupt end of our life as we knew it. That my husband might die. That my boys might grow up without him. That I might be a young widow. That there is no end to this disease. The loss of control, the thousands of unknowns. The pain. The crushing, relentless pain.

I start to speak, I can hear myself talking but the words aren’t clear; I am crying now, hot tears streaming down my face. I am embarrassed but mostly relieved; someone is asking me to talk about all of this. About how I am doing. It’s freeing and yet it’s too much to bear. I try to get myself together while our hostess instructs our host to find me a tissue. He is off and then returns a minute later, still searching, unsuccessful. And though I am no longer crying, the secret is out: I am not okay.

Our hostess speaks: “This is the part that no one tells you. For the rest of your life, people will ask you “how is your husband doing?”, but no one will ask about you. They just don’t know to. If he dies, you are the survivor. We are the survivors. We will have to pick up the pieces and keep it all together. They focus on their health; we focus on everything else. It’s really hard.”

She has said it. In front of my husband. She has acknowledged the enormous, cancer-filled elephant in the room that has plagued me since the November diagnosis. My husband could die. I look to my husband to gauge his reaction to this statement. He’s gazing right back at me, strong, unfettered–“unflappable” as his mother would say. I look to our host, also relaxed. Either they are too exhausted by their fight or too aware of their possible fate to care. I exhale, not realizing I was holding my breath. At this table surrounded by people who’ve been exactly where we are now, and, fourteen years later, are embracing us through it, we have found refuge.

Two hours later we are back at my in laws’ home. From our bed I hear the small voice of our toddler; he is crying out from his room down the hall–a rarity. I go to him and find he’s crying, maybe from a bad dream, but he doesn’t say.

“Mommy, will you lay with me?” he asks me in the saddest, sweetest voice. And though I would usually politely decline, tonight I indulge. I lay down, and he cuddles into the concave form my body creates. His breathing becomes steady and deep, and soon he is asleep. I lay with him a few moments more, thinking of the children I met tonight, those three warriors with so much to carry on their small shoulders. I feel I’ve glimpsed our future. I inhale deeply, trying capture as much of his little boy scent as possible. I play with his golden curls, and then wrap my arms around him and embrace his innocence, his blissful ignorance before he’s too big to fit into my arms; before he knows too much, before he himself is a little warrior with too much to carry. And though I cannot protect him from his future, from learning of his father’s diagnosis and all that it may bring, tonight he still needs me; tonight, I am his refuge.

Tagged , ,
%d bloggers like this: