I didn't know she would be joining us for brunch. In fact, had I known that Helen (not her real name) would be meeting us for brunch, I would have declined the invitation. It's not that I don't like Helen. On the contrary – I like her very much, but I don't know how to be around her anymore. Helen lost her husband a couple of months ago to lung cancer. He had been suffering for years, and while I saw what cancer did to this funny, thriving, wonderful man, I had no idea how to interact with his widow.
As a bystander at first, I heard about his lung cancer diagnosis and added him to my prayer list. The changes in him were so subtle initially that I almost missed them. Some slight weakness, a softer voice, thinning hair, slimmer arms. He battled on while I continued to live my life: driving carpool; staying up late on conference calls to the West Coast; writing marketing copy; folding laundry; washing dishes. Our life continued with our day-to-day concerns: paying bills; switching our wardrobes from summer to winter when the weather changed; buying the kids the latest trendy shoes. Meanwhile, his life consisted of frequent hospital visits and grueling side effects from treatment. Our lives were being lived in parallel, with one consumed by sickness and the other consumed by parenthood.
Until one day in November 2017, when our life journeys converged. We were both battling cancer, and suddenly I felt more of a kinship towards him. We were fighting two very distinct and different types of cancer: stage 4 lung cancer vs. stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but suddenly I understood, ever so slightly, what those years must have been like for him. I no longer imagined the effects of chemotherapy, I felt them through my fingertips as the strands and then clumps of hair fell from my head after my first chemo treatment. I empathized with his pain when chemo built up in my back and shoulders; when the Neupogen shots caused cramping and bone aches. I understood the deep circles of fear underneath his eyes.
I was nearing the one-year mark in remission when he died. I mourned his absence while raging internally about the unfairness and ruthlessness of cancer. We couldn't find a babysitter, so I didn't make it to his funeral, although my husband went as our representative and tried to give comfort to Helen. The weeks slowly continued on and we went back to our new, post-cancer routine: summer planning for the children; writing marketing copy for clients; walking the puppy; scans and checkups every three months. I would frequently think about Helen and wonder how she was adjusting to her new life. No longer a full-time caregiver and with a home devoid of her spouse and companion, I could only imagine the scenario I feared most for my husband, should my own battle with cancer end badly.
When Helen walked into the room for brunch that day, I didn't know how to behave. I stood up from the table to make room for her to sit down, and then tried to hide myself away between my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. I wanted to disappear. I was afraid that my presence would make Helen upset or angry. I didn't want to cause her any additional pain.
I wondered, was she asking herself why I survived, when her husband did not? Did she feel anger and resentment towards me for making it through to the other side? I felt choked by survivor’s guilt and had a hard time breathing. My husband insisted that I move back to my spot next to him at the table and reluctantly, I joined him. I was now inches away from Helen and struggling to come up with the words.
Do I mention him? Should I offer words of condolence? Do we talk about him at all or just act like it's normal that he is not with us?
"Can I please have some smoked salmon?" she asked me, handing me her empty plate.
I placed forks full of fish onto her plate until she told me to stop and then handed the plate back. She thanked me and returned to her conversation with someone else. When I could, I excused myself from the table and went inside. I tried to distract myself by reading a fashion magazine, while counting down the minutes until we could leave. Helen left before me and, with her absence, I was finally able to breathe again.
On the walk back home after brunch, I tried to explain to my husband why I had such a hard time. But survivor’s guilt is such a difficult emotion to express; it's such an intense feeling that manifests itself differently each time it rears its ugly head.
As with all of the other after-effects of cancer that I deal with on a day to day basis, survivor’s guilt is a part of my new normal and something else that I will have to figure out how to live with.