Relationships

The Upside of Cancer

To know how much you are loved at the exact moment you need to know it

Pat, my life partner for the past 20 years, and I had been living in California, an infinity away from our original home in New Jersey, when we found we out that he had cancer, again.

"Pancreatic cancer, with metastases to the liver," the oncologist said with an uneasy mix of sadness and resolve. He could barely look at Pat, like the gastroenterologist who had first seen the scans and promptly referred us to him. Nobody would look directly into our eyes. We put it together: Pat was very, very, very sick.

When we left the cancer center that day, we nodded weakly to each other and squeezed our interlocked hands, knowing that this was the worst possible news, that his life had just been shortened. Yes, we both knew, but neither spoke.

I opened the door to the car. I screamed "FUCK" once inside. We took our seats, smiled feebly at each other, and agreed without words that we'd get through this, both knowing it was going to be horrible and long and that he would probably then die.

As I started the car, Pat asked me, "Can you do this again?"

"I can if you can. You Superman, me Lois Lane. I'm following you," I said.

We called Pat's mother and sister from the car and, just like last time, they begged us to come home so they could love him back to health. Pat shot back, "We are home, Ma—we live here now, we have a family here."

But I wasn't as sure as he was. We used to have a lot of friends and a big social life, but his health had kept us a bit isolated. We just didn't see people that much anymore. Ever since his last bout with cancer, eight years earlier, we canceled more plans than we made.

Driving silently, I wondered how I could go through this again, so far from our siblings, cousins and his mother.

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I drove through the streets of Beverly Hills, but my mind wandered recklessly through the memories of his last big sick: the chemo, the vomiting, diarrhea, the weight loss, constipation, the night sweats, day shivers, the constant threat of a temperature warning of an infection, followed by rushes to the ER when infections raged. Long hours waiting while he writhed in fear and pain on a gurney in the halls of some unknown hospital, waiting for his IV antibiotics. I shuddered to remember how quickly his hair had left him; it fell out in tufts, running away—the way we all wanted to.

I thought about how much all our friends had already done for us, the rides to chemo and radiation, meeting me in the ER in the middle of the night, bringing food, the visits ... just a constant wave of love and support.

Oh my God, I thought, will they show up for us again?

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But I turned to the passenger seat of the car. "Of course we can do this. We have a surrogate family here," I faked.

I offered up my fears to one of my best friends later that day on the phone and she promised me, "You will not be alone." I agreed, nodding until I thought about the moment when he would pass. I wondered who would be with me at that exact moment, I couldn't imagine. However would I cope? Who would hold me up? It sure wouldn't be Pat, I sighed, tearing up.

But my friend's prediction turned out to be prophetic. During this past year, while Pat took his chemo treatments desperately trying to kill this overwhelming cancer, we were barely alone. Our lives were crowded with love. These same friends rose once again to the occasion, showing up relentlessly, month in month out.

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Pat's frown always turned into a smile as one of these friends walked into our bedroom, DVD in hand, custom-made CDs in their pockets; bringing music and films from periods of his life reminding him of happier days. Homemade soup was delivered to our door so often, I could have opened my own soup kitchen. GrubHub coupons were sent so meals would never be a bother. Groceries were dropped off, forms were filled out in my stead, my dog picked up and cared for days at a time. My laundry was picked up and delivered that night folded, cleaned, loved. Massages were delivered to my stressed body at home. Humorous videos and cartoons were posted daily on his special Facebook page, friends, siblings and cousins from around the world chimed in on that page as well. Friends flew in from various cities to help me with this overwhelming task of trying to keep Pat comfortable and alive one month longer.

Meanwhile, our Jersey family was able to sleep soundly, assured that we were being cared for the way they would have done.

When the news for us leaned hopeful, they rejoiced. When the news became dire and Pat's body withered down to 115 pounds, they wept along with me. They never stopped showing up. In fact, the sicker he got, the faster and more furiously they came. Pat called it the upside of cancer. It brought out the best in the best.

Toward the end of his life, when Pat went into the hospital for a few weeks, these friends patchworked wall-to-wall visits in his room so he would never be alone. Shifts overlapped shifts and music blared from his room, underscoring laughter and stories from old and new best friends. It was a homecoming, a reunion, a celebration of a life filled with friends. Precious time spent with those most beloved. One of Pat's nurses in the hospital asked, "Who are you?"

When Pat took in his last taste of his life, I stood by his hospital bed surrounded by five beautiful friends, all of which had been there all year, as constant as the cancer. They were his old best friends, who stood vigilant during that last day, to make sure he knew that his life mattered.

We held each other at the moment that Pat left the room and the world. We hugged one another comforting each other. They all came back to my empty house, so I wouldn't be alone. That, to me, is another upside of cancer: to know how much you are loved at the exact moment you need to know it.

Pat's oldest friends in the world are now my newest friends. I can't wait to see them again, for they are who have held me up and continued to make sure that I am not alone at the exact moment when I feel alone.

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