After the loss of my husband to cancer, I am still learning to live free of cowardice— to live bravely for as long as I have left.
Last weekend I was traveling through an airport and saw a guy going through security who was pale, bony thin and sitting in a wheelchair. He had no weight to his face and in his eyes, I saw desperation. I knew with almost 100 percent certainty this young man was fighting cancer. I knew because in him I saw a shocking resemblance to my late husband, Matthew. He looked the same when we took that last trip to Florida to spend time with the kids at the beach. I know it was hell for Matthew to go, being that weak and sick, with medicines and feeding tubes and having to explain it all to airport security. He also looked that gaunt, that frail in those last several months. He, too, looked as if the life was being sucked from him by the minute. His eyes, once vibrant and beaming, also showed tired, frustrated despair. God, I remember that look.
I stared at this man and couldn't look away as I held back tears. I wanted so badly to tell him anything or say anything to let him know I understood his sadness and appreciated his pain. I appreciated his suffering and even though he probably doesn't know it or feel it, that he is fighting a noble fight.
I didn't say anything though. I chickened out. I wasn't brave enough to interject and meddle in this stranger's life. I couldn't because it was too close to what I knew and had become accustomed to for the last couple years.
I wanted to say something to him because I never got to say the things I needed to my own husband when he was still alive. I never got to express to him my love for how bravely he endured his fight. I got caught up in all the "doing" during that time. I was too busy worrying about the kids' schedules and logistics —practices and games, homework and dinner. I ran around here and there, errands and grocery or the pharmacy, hurrying through bath and bedtime routines each night so I could flop in bed at night and zone out or fall asleep to Mad Men episodes on Netflix. I didn't go to as many chemo appointments as I should have with him —and the ones I went to—I often changed the subject from sickness to something I saw in a magazine or I tried to make jokes with him rather than focus on our reality. I wanted to push aside that sad atmosphere and avoid talking about the grim fate that awaits people who sit in that room. I was such a coward.
I thought I had more time. I was apparently terrible at reading the faces of all those doctors who always seemed to project a small sliver of hope that he'd beat the odds. Matthew had had numerous health scares over the course of time that were a direct result of his 1995 kidney transplant or related to the medicines he took over the years. But he always got better. Cancer was a different beast. But I kept telling myself he'd beat that too.
I never wanted to accept that I'd run out of time. That we'd run out of time. But I did. We did.
Matthew was always the strong, sensible one. He always knew what to do in every situation or how to handle things when they went awry. In 20 years, we had a shit-ton of awry. But I don't ever remember a time where I doubted his ability to take care of it —whether it be when our boat broke down in the middle of the Ohio River with me and the kids stranded in it; or the time his family business was in such financial distress that he chose not to take a paycheck in order to save some of his employees. He was strong in every single thing he did
That didn't change after he got sick. Yes, he was scared. I will never forget diagnosis day when he fell to his knees in our bedroom as if being sucker punched with a fate we never imagined. I was never the strong one, never the one with any idea on what to do or where to turn. I didn't know what to say. I didn't have an answer and couldn't come up with anything positive to say or a silver lining. My heart went dark that day. I could only cry with him, there at my feet, realizing I was going to lose him.
I didn't know yet, when I woke up on that Sunday before Thanksgiving of 2017 and walked downstairs that morning, that I was already a widow. I didn't know the time had expired on my window to let him know how much he was loved and how brilliantly he handled being so sick for almost two years. How, despite being so scared to leave us, he magnificently endured as the life was being ripped from his body each day.
I've realized, too late, how steadfast and brave he was in the face of death. He tried every day, knowing he'd never see them to their next birthdays, to show our four children even the weakest smile. He even tried to smirk for the nurses when they took his vitals or drew blood for the umpteenth time. He nodded appreciatively to friends and strangers who said they were pulling for him. After he lost the use of his speech, he still managed to send his friends an upbeat text or message me a "love you" following his request for more morphine.
He clenched my hand so tightly before I went upstairs to bed the last night I saw him alive. I didn't say anything. I didn't know about the time constraint I was under at that very moment, but maybe he did. He shed no tears and he said no words. He only used quiet bravery that last night, to endure a little bit more. Which is what I will always remember. I see now—in the culmination of months and months of his suffering and misery—he showed me what being brave really was.
I am still learning to live free of cowardice— to live bravely for as long as I have left. I'm going to hopefully show my kids, too. If only all of us on this side could be so brave in living as he was in dying, we'd all be pretty ok.
My husband's last trip with my kids to the beach, when he was weak and frail— but not enough to keep him from holding our 'baby'.