There is always a moment in time that sets the foundation for what is to come. With my husband’s illness, it was that day early in 2007 when he returned home from his medical appointment, announced that the prostate cancer had returned and had metastasized to the bones, and then, after a bit of conversation, announced, “We have to get on with our lives.”
That statement set the tone for the next almost-four years. He refused to be defined by the cancer. He refused to give it purchase on his soul. He refused, even, to acknowledge that it might do him in—at least he refused that acknowledgment for a long time to come after that day in 2007.
When he gave me the news, I got up from my chair and went over to sit in his lap. Tears welled up in my eyes and spilled over. Despite the fact that he hated tears, I did nothing to suppress them. He held me and we were wordless for some time before his pronouncement that we had to get on with our lives. Neither of us could know, in that moment, what getting on with our lives would come to mean between then and his death on December 29, 2011. We quickly began to understand, though.
During his illness, people often asked me what it was like for me. My answer was that it was like have a low-grade fever . . . all the time. What was “normal” was different than it had been. You carried on—you got on with your life as Howard put it—but it was always there in the background, dampening things a bit. Oddly, though, where our day-to-day lives were concerned, it also had a vivifying effect, as paradoxical as that was.
Years before, I had written about the shamanic concept of making death your ally. I had never had such ongoing, personal validation for that concept as during Howard’s illness. None of us really know when the transformative magic of death will come, but most of us behave as if that particular whole-system makeover can surely be deferred until some distant point in the future, like something we can postpone until the fact of it can no longer be ignored, staring back at us in the mirror as sagging jowls.
Still, some come early to the understanding that Death is our closest companion throughout our lives, the one who will never abandon us, the one we cannot un-friend on Facebook, the one who hovers nearby even when we ignore it. Life threatening illness can make you one of those people—whether it is your own or that of one almost as close to you as Death itself.
Those last years were the best of our marriage. Actually, something remarkable had happened before the pronouncement of cancer. Howard had been in Iraq for two years, serving as an international police instructor and, ultimately, as the director of the police academy in Irbil, Kurdistan. Both of us were writers and we’d had a lively and intimate email correspondence during that time. We had also seen one another during a wonderful couple of weeks of vacationing in Italy and during his brief visits home. But like any marriage of duration, ours had its accumulated sludge. We were good companions to one another—if odd ones, because he was as grounded in the world of proven facts as I was grounded in the world of metaphysics. And we appreciated one another as complete packages—not in spite of or because of our idiosyncrasies and faults, but with them. But there was sludge. Somehow, though, those two years of fundamental separation washed away that sludge. The year he’d spent in Kosovo, early 1990 to early 1991, had not done that. If anything, that return had been something other than a soft landing for both of us. But this time, something had shifted and our marriage felt renewed.
It shifted even more with the news of his illness. Far less about the other annoyed us. There mightn’t be time for such self-indulgence. But we each also became far less annoying. Again, there mightn’t be time for such self-indulgence. Serious illness can bring things into focus like little else can. We found in ourselves an enhanced appreciation for daily life, a life we were happy to be sharing with each other.
We were committed to getting on with our lives, whatever that meant.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall