What I wish I knew before my husband Bobby was diagnosed with cancer: real strength can be found in vulnerability. My relationships were about to change. All of them. Some got stronger…and they weren’t always with the people I expected.
There are emotional highs and lows with a terminal illness, and a lot of personal battling between unrealistic hope and realistic easing of the pain and sadness for the patient. I’ll never forget the look of utter devastation on Bobby’s face as we were told the diagnosis and prognosis. My 45-year-old husband was incredibly smart, had the daring and confidence of a jewel thief, and an unrivaled comedic wit. As he weakened and declined, his face and stomach became bloated by steroids, his personality and speech were childlike, and he slept all of the time.
The people I thought would handle this well were not able to for many reasons. Some of the reasons were selfish. Some of them were entirely innocent and circumstantial. All of them are forgivable because who plans cancer? I spent a lot of the time putting on a positive front (especially with our 14-year-old son Jack), when I was aching and falling to pieces inside. I felt it was important to stay strong and let Jack remain a child. I had to find people who could comfort me and talk it all through.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer a month before Bobby’s diagnosis, so she was unable to provide the support I needed. Unexpectedly, my sister became my rock. She listened, lent a hand, went with me to appointments, added a touch of humor, and respected me when I wanted to be alone. I lived in Tucson, and she lived in Richmond. I am truly grateful for family ties despite the miles.
Unfortunately Bobby’s mother’s grief came tumbling out in very negative ways. Not once, not one single time did I hear Bob complain or cry “why me” or curse the fates, or express any of the anger or bitterness that I think I would feel. He gave me, Jack, and his lifelong friends the ultimate example of manly courage, of uncomplaining stoicism, of quiet and unassuming heroism. His mother devoted her time to her own unhappiness and fears. She wouldn’t help me take care of him and left two days before he died. I’m a mother…who leaves their dying child?
Possibly one of the saddest moments I shared with Bob was when he asked me (a week before he died) why his best friend since sixth grade had not come to visit him. I didn’t have a response so I just told him I thought he was afraid of bringing drama into his own life. A couple of my close friends abandoned me when Bob was diagnosed, and they are not a part of my life now. If I see them I am polite, but they are not my friends.
After Bob died I slowly withdrew from friends and family, and the weight on my heart was like a boulder. I realize now that if you spend a lot of time alone while you’re grieving, it can make the feelings of loss worse. As bad as the pain may be, do your best to do something productive and worthwhile, and have a normal routine while you grieve. Be kind and patient with yourself. I am happy again. The weight of the boulder is more like a pebble. I carry that pebble in my pocket to remind me to let go of the trivialities of life. It is said that people who have faith can turn to it in order to help them through a loss. I believe in life after death…and I know Bobby is always with me. I feel him every single day.