We got the pathology report today from my husband’s cancer surgery and it was probably about the best a report like that could read. The tumor they removed was much smaller than it was before treatment. The margins (edges of the tissue removed) were clear of cancer, meaning they got it all. Of the 27 lymph nodes removed, NONE had any cancer in them. This was the news we’d been hoping and praying for!
So…why were my eyes filling with tears?
Back when my husband was first diagnosed, I had a hard time getting through my prayers. Jewish prayers involve a lot of reminders to take care of those less fortunate. There are many lines about “widows and orphans” and I found myself stumbling on those, getting choked up. I didn’t want to think about widows, not right now. Sure, I still cared very much about them in the abstract, but that reality was too raw so soon after his diagnosis. I used to pray with a minyan whenever I could because that would help me keep it together. I couldn’t break down with other people around, although I’m sure my face sometimes got pinched up in that ugly way it does when I’m trying not to cry.
I did not want to think about widows because I didn’t want to think about being one.
When I met my husband, it wasn’t butterflies and rainbows. Instead, it was just like he’d always been there. We went to lunch one day…and then we just ate lunch together every day. Even just a few months in, it was hard to believe he hadn’t been there with me my whole life and I would have to remind myself that he didn’t have the same memories that I did. Our kids would be the first to tell you that we’re both weird in utterly incomprehensible and compatible ways. When I wake up in the morning, I tend to growl a bit as I stretch before I regain the power of speech. He can translate that. I know the weird things that will amuse him.
I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it and now, suddenly, I felt like each time I prayed, I was being forced to.
Over time, that faded, but it reminded me of every time I’d taken him for granted or not fully appreciated what we had. During his treatment, I stoically faced each twist and turn like the veteran of cancer that I am. I’ve always been the family member, on the periphery of cancer. Now, I was beside it, but I knew the ropes well. This summer, as we daydreamed what we might do once our nest is empty, I said the words, but there was a part of me that didn’t dare to hope we’d be given that time. I wondered deep inside where he couldn’t hear my thoughts, “Would he want me to carry out these plans alone…if?” Then, I’d back away from that dark staircase, unable to follow it any further.
We updated documents and there was a part of me that felt it was safer not to think too much about the future, not to fully hope. I’d say the words, talking about how certain I was that he’d be ok, but there was still that dark place inside me that just didn’t dare hope. To hope was to invite disaster in some way. To hope was to somehow let my guard down and be open to attack.
Cancer has not often, if ever, given me back anyone I loved once it had them in its claws.
Somehow, the depth of my feelings for him made it seem even less likely that cancer would let him go and let me have him back. Sometimes, I caught myself trying to put distance between us…as if that would protect him in some way. Did I think my love was what doomed people? Each time I saw this pattern, I tried to fight it, knowing that was silly and besides, he needed me. In that dark place inside, though…some part of me prepared to lose him even as I fought to keep him.
As we walked down the cancer center hallways, too familiar now, I began to recognize my tears for what they were…relief, but also some release of everything I was holding inside. This news allowed me to feel safe enough to let some of it out, like a release valve, but only a little squeak of tears. It was a beginning, though. I remembered a wise woman giving me advice earlier this year when I asked her how to deal with all of this.
“You don’t,” she said, her eyes full of compassion, “not yet. You hold yourself together for your family. They need you. Then, later, you will have to go through all this and deal with it, but not now.”
She was right. I took all of it, all the fear, tears, sadness, even anger at the unfairness of it all and I locked it away in that dark staircase, tossing it down there to wait. Then, in the midst of this very happy news…the door cracked open just a bit, reminding me that there is work after this, after he’s better now that him getting better is a thing that I can begin to hope for. After his body heals, I will need to open up that staircase and sort through everything there and cry all the tears I just couldn’t face when I was in the midst of caring for everyone.
Hope is a fragile, fearful thing…but it’s here now and I need to make room for it and learn to live with it here. I’m thankful for this new guest and hoping it settles in for an extended stay, but I still need to rearrange the sleeping arrangements for it and learn how to coexist.
For his part, he’s still in the midst of healing and pain from his surgery, so this news sounds very far away and not quite real. There are more pressing matters for him.
So…I’ll just have to keep this newcomer hope company for a while for him until he’s ready to receive it.