From that moment in early 2007, the life we might have had upon my husband’s return from Iraq dissolved into a very different life than I had imagined. His life—and mine, because I loved him and lived with him—became one of carrying on with life while, simultaneously, attempting to hold the cancer at bay. He began chemotherapy and, over time, worked his way through pretty much all of the treatment options available. If one drug did not seem to be working or seemed to have been working but had now stopped having an impact, another was proffered. There were infusions, injections, oral medication, regular blood tests, and scans of varying kinds.
Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff quickly came to know and love him. He did his best to stay upbeat and entertaining. He was that kind of patient. He did it for the medical staff, but he also did it for himself. He refused to be defined by his cancer, so medical appointments were more than occasions to get treatment, they were occasions to trot out his charm and wit, occasions to get to know the people who were prodding, poking, and testing him. It wasn’t just business, it was his life.
He managed through the shifting treatment protocols as a body builder might manage through ongoing changes in diet and training to gain optimal impact. He just did it—thoughtfully, but without much fuss, knowing it was needed to achieve the desired result. Of course, in his case, the desired result was to cheat death one more time. And he behaved as if he could.
Seldom did a treatment manage to waylay him. One treatment made him nauseous enough for me to give him candied ginger and ginger tea. Another inspired him to shave his head because his hair began to fall out. He did take frequent naps, but it was difficult for me to determine if the fatigue was caused by the cancer or the treatment for the cancer. And walking became progressively more difficult for him. He managed to make his way around the house and yard but it was slow and painful if he had to walk as far as a block. Of course, he refused to even consider getting a physician’s note so he could use a handicap parking spot. That would have cleared away the haze produced by the smoke and mirrors he was employing to convince himself and others that all was good—or at least good enough.
The smoke and mirrors made my life difficult. He was declining but doing his best to hide it. It was impossible for me to know how long he had, but I knew he wouldn’t be there when I reached social security age. I alerted his (and my) friends and family to the seriousness of his condition, but I usually sensed that I was being viewed as Chicken Little’s sister, claiming the sky was falling when it was just another sunny day.
I developed an appreciation for Cassandra’s plight. She saw what was coming but because of Apollo’s curse, couldn’t get anyone to believe her. Neither could I. I came to understand that friends and family are often willing to believe the smoke and mirrors because doing so is less painful than seeing situations for what they really are. And unless you are living with the cancer patient, it is not that hard to continue believing that the slight of hand is real when the slight of hand artist happens to be the cancer patient.
He not only held it together, he expected me to hold it together, too. He had never shown much tolerance—let alone compassion—for tears. Not from me, anyway. I often suspected that he mistakenly thought I could turn tears on and off and might try to manipulate him with them. I could tell, too, that tears from me agitated him. He didn’t seem to know what to make of them or what to do about them. So he usually became angry if I wept. I had learned to suppress my tears over the course of our marriage. His willingness to just be with me and the tears trickling down my face the day he told me the cancer had metastasized had been an outlier, seldom repeated over the next three years or more. But on that day in 2007, he’d been in a state of shock, himself. My tears had probably allowed him to avoid some of his own.
My willingness to stuff the tears came to an abrupt halt Memorial Day weekend of 2010. And it all had to do with an act of God—a hailstorm.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall