It was November of 2014. Our mouthwatering ribs on the breezy patio of Longhorn Steakhouse tasted even better being near the ocean. If the first item on our ToDo list was eating ribs, the second item was to discuss our future beach condo. This weekend getaway provided uninterrupted, relaxing time to dream. Retirement, my hubby’s reward for a lifetime of hard work, must include the romantic sound of the surf and sand between our toes.
In an instant, my husband’s eyes flooded with tears and he buckled in excruciating pain. He grabbed his napkin and covered his mouth with another moan.
Though we didn’t realize it yet, in that moment, life as we knew it, plus our hopes and plans for the future, vanished. We got through the night with ibuprofen, and headed home in the morning where the dentist confirmed sad news of immediate oral surgery. My husband’s wince of pain had come from a deep crack in a vital tooth. One procedure led to another issue, and in the end he lost all his teeth. I will spare you the details, but bone crushing was only part of it.
Anxiety and depression mixed with physical pain form a terrible force. Engulfed by sadness, we found that even normal hugging and tender kisses had to be suspended because of pain in neck, jaw, and gums. If that weren’t enough, my husband lost his appetite, and worse yet, his sense of taste. Over six months he dropped forty pounds. Also, we both faced a new face – one I saw every day for thirty-nine years, and one he once knew in the mirror whenever he shaved.
A few months later, with the hardest procedure only a week past, time ran out for “the biopsy.” During the holiday season our doctor had noticed his PSA lab numbers rise, putting him at risk for prostate cancer. So, in spring, not able to put it off any longer, he submitted to the prostate biopsy.
When “the call” came, my husband buckled once again.
Notice I said he buckled. I, on the other hand, sucked in my breath, set my (intact) jaw, and moved ahead. This cancer was caught early! We are in great position for complete recovery. We can get through this. We will be fine.
“Come on, Honey, we’ll hear the options and take the one best for us.”
We decided to go the route of radiation. Forty-five treatments, five days a week, nine weeks. As the treatments began, he slipped farther and farther away from me emotionally and physically. Tired to the bone, he fell asleep by eight each night. I inwardly railed. A sort of panic set in. What will become of us?
In actuality it was me. What about me? What about our relationship? What about our plans? Somehow the “us” got lost in the “me.” And the “him” got left out. As a result he felt even more pressure. He asked for space. He asked for time. Time to grieve and to heal. But I didn’t want to give it to him or take it for myself.
Walking the house at night, I planned how to engage and encourage. I cajoled him, and (there it is) I lectured him on “trust” in the Lord. I became that “‘dripping wife” of Proverbs. My situation went on the altar, then off the altar, then back on again. But much more off than on. I didn’t help us, or me, and definitely not him. How could I help when all I could see was my own agenda going up in smoke?
And I finally did it. I reached out. I called the American Cancer Society.
You thought I’d say I prayed. Well, I’d been doing that. Or you thought I meant I found a certain scripture. I have dozens of them, they are all wonderful. No, I called the American Cancer Society because, well, I couldn’t carry on any more without some expert terrestrial input. I needed someone to read between my “going forth” lines, ask the right questions, and get me to face my reality. It took a while to get there, though. Extremely condensed, our conversation went a bit like this.
“Hello, I’m calling about a support group for wives of cancer patients. Prostate cancer.”
“Okay, tell me your situation.”
“Well, I uh, so I like to help people, uh, and if there isn’t a group, I’d like to start one… because I want to know if other wives are experiencing the losses, uh, the problems, we are.”
“My name is Bonnie. Maybe I can help you. What are you feeling?”
“Well, he says he wants space, but I know he needs connectivity more than space…”
“He’s asking for space?”
“Uh, yes. But I just worry that if he sort of drops out of the game now, we might not be ‘us’ again when all the treatments are over.”
“Do you think maybe he’s asking for space, but you are the one needing connectivity?”
“Your husband’s cancer diagnosis, as well as his mouth situation, will mean a new ‘us.’ Can you accept that whatever you thought your life was going to be no longer exists? Will you not give him the space he needs to process that? And also give yourself a time of grief?”
At that, my wall began to crack. She went on.
“What you do have is today. Only today. We can’t mold tomorrow. Your husband needs support. And so do you. But you need support other than his. He has all he can handle on his plate right now.”
Saying goodbye to Bonnie, I decided to give in to grief. Just because I’m so good at denial doesn’t mean I hurt less. I work and work and fix and fix. I blame. I manipulate. I deflect the real pain of the situation. I put it off for another day – a day when it may be worse and there are hurt people to whom I must apologize. No, best face it head on. The plans, the dreams, irrevocably changed.
Yet that is not to say our future is dashed to pieces, either. To say things will never be the same is not failing to trust God. It is just reality. When I read Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes (“a time for everything under heaven…”) I see loss in a more eternal perspective. Loss can be refining. Loss gives us empathy for others. Loss is a vital part of life.
It seems that in Autumn losses begin to mount up. They actually mount down, because they are really holes. Holes that can swallow our joy and pull us down into their pit of sadness and depression. Yet, does anyone’s life turn out like they thought it would?
So what do we do?
I plan to grieve. I must grieve the loss of what I thought my marriage would be like. Mind you, I give God room to do “above and way beyond anything I could ask or think” for our final years. He’s definitely not through with us yet! But it won’t be like I thought it would. It will be His kind of good, His kind of wonderful, because He is good. Our future may involve ribs by the ocean.
But it may not.