“If you’ve been marked by what might have been, you don’t forget. You know the day, the years… you know exactly what anniversary you’d be celebrating…you’ll never forget the…last time cancer was a word about someone else’s life, or the day that changed absolutely everything. It makes the calendar feel like a minefield, like you’re constantly tiptoeing over explosions of grief until you day you hit one, shattered by what might have been.”
March 14 is the start of Mary’s minefield. This is her story…
Jim and I had been trying for awhile to get pregnant. We found out we were expecting while painting the house we were moving into that fall. We were both so very, very excited to have a little one on the way. We didn’t do any of the major testing because we both said it wouldn’t make any difference what we found out, it wasn’t going to change anything.
My best friend gave me a baby shower on February 23. In my mind, that is the last happy day we had together. Jim left for a work trip the following Monday. He called me from the hotel each night, always sounding extremely tired and kind of out of it. I chalked it up to having too much fun. He was going to sleep around 8 or 9 each night; usually he stayed up until midnight or later. When he got home and it seemed as though he was a little sick.
Jim went to work the next week, telling me he wasn’t feeling very good and he hadn’t eaten much. One day he vomited, however he had never really told me how awful he was feeling. On Friday, March 14, he asked me to make him a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t get to it, I had too much to take care of at work so he had to make the appointment himself. I still feel very guilty about that. The doctor ordered a blood test and Jim told me he’d lost 15 pounds since his last visit to the doctor 5 weeks earlier. Hadley was due the on March 24th, this was the last weekend to set things up and get the final few things for the nursery, so off I went while he stayed home. The doctor called…on a Saturday…to give him the results and told him he wanted him to go in for a CAT scan on Monday the 17th. On Monday afternoon, the doctor called to tell him they’d seen spots on his liver and he needed to go in for a biopsy the next day.
Tuesday he was feeling horrible and when we talked to the the biopsy surgeon he said if Jim had taken an aspirin he would be unable to perform the biopsy. We were going to have to wait. Wednesday, as I was leaving for work I checked on him. His stomach was swollen and he was in pain. I called the doctor to get him admitted to the hospital. Thursday, they did a biopsy and confirmed that it was pancreatic cancer. Thursday, the 20th. 4 days before our baby was due. The hospital was terribly worried I was going to go into labor. I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that Jim was probably going to die in less than a year. On Friday, they discharged him. If he was going to be hospitalized, I wanted him in the hospital where I was delivering so at least we wouldn’t be separated for Hadley’s birth.
On Sunday the 23rd, I took him to the ER at the hospital where I was supposed to be admitted later that evening for an induction. I delayed my admittance as long as the doctor would let me, but finally had to go up at around 9 that evening. Monday, Hadley was born. Monday night at 7, Jim started vomiting blood. They discovered he was bleeding into his stomach and if they didn’t operate, he would bleed to death. The operation had a 50% chance of success. At that moment, it was possible that our daughter would come into my life on the same day that my husband would go out of my life.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
When I was discharged, I moved into a hotel room at the hospital and stayed there for a week and a half. Other people took care of me. I was dividing my time between an infant and a sick husband and I’m sure I didn’t serve either one very well. Thank goodness for my sister who stayed with me for a week and then for my mom who stayed with me the rest of the time. The rest of my family took care of all the other things that needed to be done.
On Thursday, April 3rd, the oncologist stopped in to see Jim at 10:30 pm. As she left, she told me that he maybe had a month because the cancer was much more aggressive than they’d thought. Typical Jim…he had to overachieve on the aggressiveness of cancer. Couldn’t be satisfied to just let it progress at a more controlled pace. Jim was supposed to have an operation Friday morning to drain fluid from his abdomen and relieve some of the pressure. That was the last thing they could do; hospice was going to take it from there.
Friday morning came and his surgery got delayed…and delayed…and more delayed. At 11, I told the nurse to call the doctor because we weren’t doing the surgery and Jim just wanted to go home. I wish I’d told them that at 9, because it was 5 in the afternoon before he was discharged. Another thing I feel guilty about…
On Saturday, my brothers came to finish replacing the fence around our new backyard. Jim had built the first fence, but the architectural committee decided they didn’t like it and wanted it down. Jim held on until my brothers finished the fence. I’m sure he knew they were done; I’m sure he wanted to stay until he knew I was taken care of on this one last thing.
And then I sat with him.
I told him he could go, that I would be all right, that I was glad we’d had the years we did and that I’d rather have a few good ones than 60 mediocre ones.
I told him thank you and that I would take care of our daughter.
I don’t know if he heard or understood any of it.
I don’t know if it made me feel better.
I do know that I wanted everyone to be gone but I didn’t want to be there by myself.
At 3am on April 6, he was gone.
Hadley was 2 weeks old.
Last year I asked Mary if she’d be willing to tell her story when she was ready. It’s one that deserves to be told and she is a woman who deserves so much support for everything she’s been through. Especially at this time of year. People with stories like Mary’s are around us everyday, everyone is damaged in some way. But everyone is unbelievably strong in some way whether they realize it or not, and strength needs to be recognized.