"Getting on" with life after a spouse dies is not easy. Forgiving cancer for its domino effect is even harder.
Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
I haven’t written a new entry for this blog in over six months. I think I was too busy trying to “get on” with my life. You see, although my husband died more than two years ago from bile duct cancer, I am still recovering from his cancer. I wasn’t the one diagnosed. I wasn’t the one who suffered endless treatments of chemo, radiation and their side effects. I was the one who watched. Those images are hard to erase. I think they will always be there. Some days they are cloudy; other times they are crystalline.
Getting on with my life meant finding a placement for our son who is 24 and autistic. Realizing that I couldn’t take care of him alone and that he had become an adult who would always need a caregiver, I had to make sure he was safe and cared for by others who could continue loving him when it was time for me to leave this earth. I found a place that he could call home. He now lives in a townhome with two other autistic men and their aides. He has his own aide, two jobs, a room we decorated together and a new life. I walk by his old room every night and cry. It is hard doing the right thing. It is impossible sometimes to know what the right thing is. Cancer had produced this domino effect. I blamed it for everything.
I continued to distract myself with work, social outings and relationships. I participated in an archaeological dig. I even went camping. Still, the loss of my husband and son had become a crevice deep inside me — a gaping hole that I couldn’t fill with food, adventures, dates or anything else I conjured up that I thought would help. I blamed cancer for this hole. Because of cancer I was in this mess. Could I ever forgive cancer and really “get on” with my life? Was there anything good to come from this?
Maybe. But then I thought about how cancer changed me. My core values remained the same, but cancer changed who I am in the world. Because of cancer, I am more likely to spend extra time with my students who are struggling to write. The terrible pain of seeing someone I love die made me feel equally joyous when someone I loved survived. Before cancer, I had always known I had a good heart. After cancer, I realized I had a soul. Somehow, I developed the willingness and capacity to connect with others, including myself, on a deeper level. My heart was what I tapped into as a caregiver. My soul was now bringing me closer to who I wanted to be as a person. I began to be at peace with what I could not control. Today I try to ask these questions:
1. Have memories of cancer made me unhappy today? If so, are these feelings I need to process?
2. Am I working toward healthy relationships with others?
3. If I’m having problems, have I asked for help?
4. Is the life I am living nurturing my soul? Is it a life that is useful and purposeful?
I still have anxiety, especially about seeing myself or someone else I love succumb to cancer. And that may very well happen. But until that time comes, all I can do is surround myself with beauty. I can find grace in that which is imperfect. Cancer may have broken my heart, but it saved my soul. I have a reason, whether by divine plan or circumstance, to show up for life. I needed to forgive cancer. I knew it would not happen all at once, but still, I had to try.