A Survivor's Tale

The Wrong Guy

It's been almost 14 months since my husband died and I'm still in disbelief

He walked in to the Verizon store to see about a new iPhone. Actually, a pre-used one. He said his apartment burned down and all his gadgets went with it.

He wore ASICS hiking sneakers, a sports watch, khaki straights and a green, short-sleeve button-down shirt. No coat though — a bit odd, considering the chill in the November air. He was tall and handsome — in a generic way, but certainly handsome enough for me. As the saleswoman left to scope out the back room for his replacement phone, he turned to browse the store, revealing an ankh tattoo on the back of his forearm. He might have been a consideration for me, were it not for this. But as I eyeballed this attractive young guy, it occurred to me that I was at least allowed to consider him. It was now within my guilt-free, moral right to do so. The problem was, I don’t much go for tattoos.

It had been about three months since my husband, David, died of brain cancer in August 2012 — three swift months that followed twenty tortuous long ones. The madness began in December 2010, when we discovered something was terribly wrong. David had begun what seemed like a normal day feeling “off” — nauseated, headachy and, later on that day, confused. When our son Julian asked David for a new battery for the Wii remote, David brought him a glass of water. On our way out to a party that evening, I had to repeatedly remind him what we were doing and where we were going. He didn’t remember where the subway was, three short blocks away. David was not himself — in fact, I didn’t know who he was. So we hailed a cab — to the Mount Sinai ER.

Within 24 hours that included a CAT scan (a possible stroke?), admission to the neuro ICU and an MRI, David was informally diagnosed with a brain tumor. The formal diagnosis, a glioblastoma, followed a few days later.

“It’s occupying the majority of his brain,” the neurosurgeon said matter-of-factly, indicating the few darkened areas of David’s MRI on the computer.

Glioblastoma. A brain tumor and a thought so ridiculous, even my spell-checker underlines the diagnosis with a confounded, red squiggly line. The most fearsome of diseases since my childhood, since I saw “Death Be Not Proud,” a TV movie starring Robbie Benson as Johnny, the teenage son of journalist John Gunther, who died of brain cancer in 1947. The illness both Ted Kennedy and New York Mets’ retired catcher Gary Carter succumbed to in 2009 and 2012, respectively. A disease extreme enough for kids to use in the mind games they play to while away the hours: “How would you rather die — by falling off of the Empire State Building, being shot by a gun or getting a brain tumor?”

“What’s the name of dad’s tumor?” my older son Max asked, as he sat in front of my laptop. It was just a couple of days after the diagnosis and it was time to give this anxious young man, who has always had trouble with uncertainty, something solid to grasp onto. There would be no sugar coating, no underplaying — just the cold, hard facts.

“It’s a glioblastoma,” I told him. “But if you’re planning on searching the Net, I just want you to be aware, you won’t like what you find out. I’m just telling you …”

“Umm ... Mom …” Max said tentatively, after examining the page on the screen. He closed the lid of the laptop and faced me. “It says a survival of 16–24 months. Is that true?”

Goddamned Wikipedia: “Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the most common and most aggressive malignant primary brain tumor in humans … occurring in only two-three cases per 100,000 people in Europe and North America … with treatment, survival of 1–2 years is common.”

David returned home after three weeks of hospitalization and acute rehab, after which was six weeks of daily radiation with chemotherapy, followed by a regimen of blood tests, more chemo and MRI monitoring. As the months passed and the scans showed promising results, we’d become cautiously optimistic, hoping — fantasizing, I realize now — that David would beat the brain cancer odds and become the outlier.

We soon accepted life on what was our new planet. I’d become the family driver, the health insurance fighter, the ultimate problem-solver for whatever came up along the way, for everyone. David’s main tumor, the one that initially clued us in, had begun to shrink significantly, while the others smaller ones had stabilized. David’s energy improved and we began to live a little — dinners out, weekends away, a trip to Cape Cod, and even the occasional ‘Wii Fit’ activity. His personality, which was his endearing Israeli charm, had returned, almost in full force.

But not quite a year after the diagnosis, David began to show signs of progressing tumor activity. He’d begun to have seizures, for which he’d been hospitalized; he suffered episodes of confusion; and he slept more often during the days. It was a quiet seizure — one we’d seen him have before — which landed him in the hospital for the final time, never to return to his own bed again. After five excruciating months, which included signing a DNI and DNR, near death and resurfacing (twice: the last second wind including a sushi dinner), palliative and, finally, hospice care, David lost his battle with brain cancer, leaving his family and friends reeling, despite the fact that we’d known since those early days what was coming down the pike.

It’s unbearable to consider the depth of this devastation. At times, I tend to regard David’s death as something that has happened to us — just happened.

These days, almost 14 months later, I’m reminded I can start “looking around” when I’m ready — a drink with a divorced friend of a friend? A widower, perhaps? Maybe even a chance meeting with a Verizon customer, who knows? It’s all entirely possible; however, none of them would seem right to me now at all.

My mind wanders back to my home, and my heart. Where the hell is David? Where is my husband? When I realize this loss, again and again, I am in disbelief. It has to be some kind of mistake. Surely, they’ve got the wrong guy.