This Was Us
Decades before Jack and Rebecca (in full disclosure, I had to look up their names as I have never seen the television show “This Is Us”), there was my fiance and I.
We had been dating for a couple of years, in actuality, most of it as “engaged”. We were social butterflies, looking for parties to attend, just wanting to have fun. She was slightly older than me, and she had an established career. At age 22, I was still barely “legal” drinking age (yes, having to stress the word “legal”). I still really had not figured out my life, and it did not matter. I found someone that I wanted to hang around with the rest of my life, which sounds different than “spending the rest of my life,” and perhaps it was. All I knew was that we were happy with each other. We had fun with each other.
In November of 1988, that all changed. I had just come from two other locations in this order, an oncologist (cancer doctor), and my employer, who would be the first person to find out, that I had just been told that I had cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was an odd choice that he was told before my fiance, but it really just happened to be circumstance. My fiance lived forty-five minutes from where I was, and I was upset enough, I struggled driving and knew that I should pull my car over. My workplace was actually on the way to her house where I planned to tell her in person. But as I drove by my work, I saw a light on in my boss’s office, and I pulled into the parking lot, and went inside. This story is for another post, but long story short, we talked about what just happened to me in the last two hours.
While that detour actually ended up being unintentional, it ended up being a dry rehearsal, for gathering my thoughts, what and how, I would tell my fiance, that I had cancer.
When I got to her house, she was in the back room with her mother and father. I asked her to join me up front in the living room, that I had something I needed to talk to her about. She was expecting me that evening, as was usual, but did not expect what I was about to tell her. She got the cliche “you need to sit down for this.”
“The doctor thinks I have Hodgkin’s Disease (it was referred to as disease back then instead of lymphoma).” She looked confused, not sure what that meant. I had to clarify for her, “cancer.” A tear welled up in her eye, and she uttered out, “so what does that mean? Are you going to die?” More tears were coming out, a lot more. At that moment, I just hugged her.
She had a previous boyfriend that was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was certain that she did not want to face another tragedy of another significant other. But I had one conversation in my head up until that moment, some further testing that needed to be done, and likely treatments, to hopefully reach remission. That is not what came out.
“Listen, this is not what either of us had planned on. And while I do love you, I love you enough to understand, that this diagnosis is going to change everything that we had planned for our future, and what you may have dreamt of, quite possibly in a very bad way.” My mind had switched from caring about my needs, to thinking about my fiance. I knew her well enough, that she would not just bail on me because I had cancer. She had a great heart, and would never do that. Even if it meant exposing her to yet the possibility of another boyfriend dying. Call it arrogance, but I did not want that to happen to her.
“Listen, I am about to undergo a lot more tests, including a major surgery, all to determine how bad this is going to be. And I could have to go through chemotherapy and radiation therapy, all which have the potential to interfere with our wedding plans. We may have to postpone, or even if we go ahead, I have no idea what will happen to me. There is a chance that we could not have children. There is a chance I could die.”
She had been listening carefully to everything I was saying, yet she remained stoic. And then I said to her, “I would totally understand, and be okay with, if you wanted to call things off. We would part as friends, and I would completely understand, because I know what you have gone through before and do not want you going through it again. I would never hold this decision against you, because in the end, our lives will never be the way we had planned after this.”
As I now read what I said, and wrote here, what a stupid thing to say. But as I said, I was 22 years old, and clearly not ready to even make a decision on getting married, let alone, face the road that I was now on.
She made the decision to stay with me and we were married six months later, following six weeks of intense and extreme levels of radiation therapy. Our honeymoon was nowhere near what we had planned, as expected due to my recovery. When we returned, my follow up appointment revealed that I had new disease located, and this would mean highly toxic chemotherapy. This course would leave me unable to have biological children. It seemed, what I had warned her about ended up being correct. Our lives together would never be as we had imagined, and now, we were “stuck” with the decision of having gotten married.
There is a common expression amongst many cancer survivors. “Don’t let cancer ‘define’ you.” That is not to say that you cannot change, but perhaps even improve. You do not need to go through the rest of your life with a huge “C” on your chest. But there is nothing wrong, with seeing things in a different light, another perspective, a reorganization of priorities, or what might or should be important in life. When you have faced something life threatening, it is an understatement that there is a new lease on life.
One problem that can occur, while the survivor definitely knows what the experience has done to them, those around the survivor, caregivers such as spouses or other family members or friends, do not. They may have witnessed the struggles, and may have been able to empathize, but those closest to the survivors have no idea the changes that have taken place, and may continue for many years later.
That is what happened with my wife after my treatments ended. My wife was ready to move on with the lives that we were living prior to my diagnosis, which relied a lot on socialization and partying, fun. Again, while cancer has never defined my life, it did have an impact on it, and if there is anything good that did come of it, it was the change and awareness of what I felt was important in life, things that should matter, wanting to make a difference. The only problem is, my wife did not share that same direction. And though we gave the appearance of getting along as a married couple to those looking on, inside our house, we just co-existed. We both were going in our own directions. Until…
My wife was hit head on while driving home from her night class, a dark, two lane rode, with high embankments, nowhere to go. She was driving a Geo Storm. The other driver was driving a Ford Crown Victoria. The result was like an army tank running into a Mattel Big Wheel toy. My wife was flown by helicopter to the hospital with serious injuries. As I went to the junkyard the next morning to retrieve her belongings from the car (if I was able), the image of what was left of the car, left me with a sunken feeling of my skeleton having been removed from my body, total collapse. The front end of the car was completely crushed as easily as a soda can, and the top cut away to remove her from the car. The other person’s car, hardly any damage except noticeably broken headlights. How my wife ever survived this accident, I would never know how.
Now remember, cancer is a life threatening moment. And I was not going to let it define me. It could lead me to want to improve myself, appreciate things and life more, good things. I had been frustrated that my wife could not understand what I was going through. But as the weeks went on following her accident, I held out hopes, that now, having been put in her own life-threatening situation, she not only would understand how it felt for me, but that she too might see the difference her life could have, our lives, I felt, for the better.
As time went on, and her healing continued, change of perspective did not happen. And I did not fault her for that. Epiphanies do not happen to everyone. Her goal upon recovery, was to get right back to what she was doing and enjoying before the accident. She was not interested in anything different. From that point on, we continued in our separate directions, albeit civilly, until one fateful conversation, that resulted in not being able to turn back from, leading to our divorce. As I said, our situations affected each of us differently, and looking back on that fateful day, when I broke the news to her of my diagnosis, I wished either she had taken me up on my offer to walk away from me, or perhaps I should have just ended it myself.
While this was not a period in my life I am happy with, combined with my attitude of not letting cancer define me, the changes in my life that occurred because of my cancer, and the many challenges since, have made me the person that I am today, most importantly, an example for my daughters to look up to and respect. That when the time comes for them to get involved with someone, they expect someone who will share their similar values and dreams, not just be willing to support in difficult times.