I Gotcha

I’ve always known I believed in God, but there were plenty of times when that meant little more than an occasional fervently whispered prayer when I needed something. I’d engage in religious debates with other Christians – Christians much more learnèd and devout – and non-believers alike, but I didn’t know much beyond what I’d learned through years of religious classes. I didn’t really seek to know God.

My faith hasn’t grown deep and true in churches or on prayer kneelers. It’s grown slowly, over the course of the past couple of years, in hospitals and on winding mountain roads.

When cancer struck, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand how or WHY something so terrible could happen to Casey – to us. I was angry and confused and hurt. So I prayed, but I didn’t hear anything. For a long time after that, I was indifferent. I didn’t hate God. I didn’t turn away from Him. He just wasn’t a priority.

Then things got bad – really, really bad.

Visit after visit we received terrible news. The cancer had spread to his brain. The cancer had grown in his lung. The cancer had spread to the other lung. Shingles covered his right leg and the pain was excruciating; he could barely walk. We were defeated. We were lost. We were broken.

We went on vacation – just the two of us – in an attempt to forget, to heal, and to rest. While we were there, we stumbled on a beautiful little chapel. We drove past, in a hurry to play, and forgot about it. We passed it again on our way back. Compelled to enter, even as a vicious storm brewed, we stopped and walked and prayed. Then we called my dad and shared the photos and mostly forgot about it.

The next week, on our way to an appointment, I asked Casey what cancer had done to his faith. He said, “nothing good.” I asked him if he was angry with God and he nodded, nearly in tears. I wanted to comfort him, to whisper, “I gotcha.” But I didn’t think words would help. Anxious and afraid and desolate, neither of us spoke for the rest of the drive.

That day we got our first bit of good news. The radiation had begun to shrink the brain tumors.

Some of the tightness in my chest eased and I felt a glow of warmth I could barely begin to understand. Though of course I knew this meant the medicine was finally working, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that it was this particular medicine or this particular time.

A few weeks later, a friend from my dad’s church, moved by dad’s prayers during rosary, shared his own experiences with cancer. He gave my dad a bottle of holy water and a container of holy dirt and asked him to give them to us. We could sprinkle it on Casey, blend it as a smoothie, leave it on our mantle, pray over it. It was ours to use as we pleased, but he gave it to us to use in good faith. We accepted gratefully.

Both sat on our mantle for over a week as we thought about it. We finally made the decision to use them. Zoey and I rubbed the water and dirt on Casey’s chest, leg, and head – everywhere the cancer and pain was worst. Then we bowed our heads and prayed together.

A few weeks later, we got more good news. The tumor in his right lung was gone. The tumors in his left were shrinking.

We were overjoyed. Casey danced. I laughed. We both cried.

God was everywhere in this. It was like He’d reached out, wrapped His giant, celestial arms around us, and held us. We basked in His warmth and more of the tightness eased. We were finally able to breathe again.

We started talking about going back to church, something we’d done off an on since we’d been together. Church was tricky for us – I was raised Catholic and he’d been raised Lutheran, but what we wanted was a church we felt comfortable attending together. It was a struggle. I felt comfortable in the Catholic Church, but didn’t agree with or believe in all of its teachings. He didn’t feel at home or at peace there. We argued about it, prayed about it, struggled with it. We knew we needed to find a church, needed to raise our daughter knowing God, but we didn’t know how.

On a whim, one Saturday (after yet another church-related argument), we decided to try our friends’ church. I was convinced I wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t want to return.

I was wrong.

God was everywhere. He was in the people, in the music, in the sermon. He spoke to me.

I thought it was a fluke, but had nothing to lose so we went back the next week.

I was wrong again.

God’s presence was even stronger this time and I knew, I just knew He was speaking to us. I could feel Him pressing on my heart. I felt safe. Loved. Comforted. Peaceful. Joyful.

I felt like I was home.

We went back to the doctor yesterday and heard more good news. The tumors continue to shrink. The medicine continues to work. The cancer is under control.

God is with us.

All this time, He’s been with us. Even when we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t care, He’s been there. He’s just been waiting for us to hear Him saying, “I gotcha.”

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Tomorrow

I creep into her room before we leave this morning, my hand hovering over her back. I have to leave her with my sister again. It’s only the first time this week, but it’s the fifth time this month that I won’t be home when she wakes up, that I won’t be home to put her to bed. I want to cry because I miss the days when I don’t kiss her sleepy face or when I’m not there to listen to her early morning chatter. I miss her when I’m gone. I know she loves her aunt, but I also know there’s no substitute for mommy.

“I’m sorry I won’t be here today, baby. I’m sorry your daddy is sick and we keep missing things. We love you so much,” I breathe the words over her, praying she understands, hoping she forgives us.

*                *                *                *                *

Casey can’t hold her today. He had a scan with contrast this morning and is possibly radioactive so he isn’t allowed to be close to her for 24 hours. She runs to him when we get home, arms out, calling “Dada!” He gently pushes her away.

“I can’t hold her, Michelle. The radiation…” He stops talking and turns away. He looks sad. He looks sad more than he knows we realize, both Zoey and I. She starts to fuss, hurt by his rejection, not understanding the difference between can’t and won’t. So I scoop her up, kiss her cheeks, and tickle her until she laughs. I put her down in front of her toys to make dinner as Casey lies on the couch.

“Book, Dada! Book!” I hear her from the living room and look over to see her climbing on him. I take a deep breath and walk over to them, pulling her into my lap.

“Daddy can’t hold you right now, baby. Mommy will read you a book.” I smile at her, aware that my smile is different, stilted, and false, but I read and I hold her until it relaxes into something natural, until I feel the smile in my eyes, in my heart.

*                *                *                *                *

After her bath, I wake Casey from his nap so we can play with Zoey before bedtime. He still looks tired, but he grins as he takes her from me.

“Hugs for Daddy!” He says as he squeezes her. She squeals then slips from his grasp and drags her blocks over to him. We build a tower and cheer as she smashes it up. She laughs and we clap for her, our queen of destruction.

“Do you need me to get anything ready for you before chemo tomorrow?” I ask him.

“Nope. It’s just chemo – I’ll be fine!” He responds with false cheeriness and high-fives Zoey. She loves high-fives so she brings him more blocks to build more towers for smashing, knowing that we’ll cheer each time, real happiness bubbling from us.

We play a little bit longer, until it’s time to brush Zoey’s teeth. We have a routine: I hold her and Casey dances next to her, singing a song about brushing our toofers. But tonight he has to sit down as the pain and the anxiety overwhelm him. So I brush her teeth, then sing her a song, and lay her in the crib by myself. Then, just like I do every night, I kiss her and say, “Goodnight, baby. I love you.”

As I walk out of her room, I hear a small voice. “Nigh-nigh! I yuh you!” I smile and my eyes fill with tears as think about how even in the midst of all the awful, I am so lucky.

*                *                *                *                *

We pull up to the house, bursting with excitement. After almost a year, we needed some good news. Casey’s parents are in town visiting and what could have easily been a week of sadness, of constant consolation, is now a week of celebration. His dad asks us again what the doctor said, still in disbelief, needing to hear the good news once more.

“He said there’s a tiny, active spot in my lung and it’s probably just inflammation from the radiation so he wants to do a biopsy but it’s not a big deal.” His mom looks at me for confirmation and I nod. Relief fills her face. I want to feel that but something holds me back, something keeps me cautious. Zoey starts to whine, hungry as usual.

“Daddy’s going to be fine,” I whisper into her ear as I strap her into the highchair. “He has to be.”

*                *                *                *                *

We continue our celebration at the brewery. Mid-sentence, he stops talking and I know – something’s wrong.

“I have this weird spot in my eye. No matter where I look, I can’t see out of it.” I feel the panic rising as he experiments, looking up and down, side to side. He tries to reassure us, “It’s happened before, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

I chase Zoey around, tossing goldfish at her to keep her happy, ignoring the fear that’s nestled deep in my belly. She falls and scrapes her knee and reaches back for me, crying. I pick her up and hold her, soothing her, soothing myself.

“Shh, you’re okay. We’re okay. Everything’s okay.” I murmur the words until they feel like truth.

*                *                *                *                *

I can’t stop crying. He was supposed to be better. We fight on the way back from the hospital, our emotions high, the news too much to process. He leaves me sobbing in the car and stomps into the house on his own. Even though it hurts, I know he needs some time to think, to deal with the news on his own, and frankly, I’m in no place to be of any consolation. My mom and sister walk out of the house, but I pretend not to see them. I cover my face and whisper, “Please don’t come talk to me,” over and over again, willing them to leave me alone.

When I calm down, I walk inside and take the spoon and yogurt from my mom, hoping that doing something normal like feeding Zoey, will keep me grounded.

“Did he say anything?” I ask.

“Just that they found a brain tumor,” my mom answers me, her voice gentle, so gentle I feel my heart break. I put my head in my arms and start to cry again and feel two pairs of arms wrap around me.

But all I can focus on is the tiny hand that pats my head and the sweet, raspy voice that says, “Hi, Momma!”

*                *                *                *                *

“Everything hurts,” he tells me as coughs wrack his body. I tell him to go lie down and rest, Zoey and I will play on our own tonight. He doesn’t want to miss it so he sits on the recliner, pretending the pain isn’t nearly as bad as I see etched in his face.

She doesn’t like to feel ignored so she walks over to him and touches her nose. “Nose. Nose, Dada.”

He smiles at her. “Yes, nose.” She holds out her arms, waiting to be picked up but he can’t do it. He wants to but he can’t.

“Tomorrow, baby. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Somehow she understands. She walks to her shelf and carefully picks a book and brings it to me. She sits in my lap and I start to read quietly, “In the great green house…” And we all hope tomorrow doesn’t take too long.

Tomorrow1Michbelle

 

Note: I originally submitted this piece to a contest (with fake names instead of our own) in December. Obviously, I didn’t win, which is why i’m able to post it here now. I do, however, consider it a personal win since I still get to publish and share it with all of you. Since then, Casey’s tumor has been treated and is shrinking and he’s started a new round of medicine for the tumors in his lungs.

This piece has been published on The Huffington Post.

#CancerSucks

A few nights ago, I woke up from two horrible nightmares drenched in sweat. I sat up and frantically reached over to my husband Casey’s side of the bed, seeking comfort. He wasn’t there so I got up and walked out to the game room where I knew I’d find him snoring in the recliner. I woke him up to come to bed and when he stood, I clutched him, crying a little bit. Disoriented, he returned my hug and then stumbled into bed and fell back to sleep. I calmed down, checked the monitor to see if the baby was still breathing, and settled back in hoping for sleep.

Six months ago we were focused on figuring out how to be parents to our still new baby girl. Six months ago we were finalizing Christmas plans with our families. Six months ago we were planning for high school reunions and weddings and summer vacations. Then, six months and one week ago Casey was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In November, I forced him into going to the doctor for a cough he’d had for months and a throbbing ache in his side. The diagnosis was a healing rib fracture from the cough, a cough which was a result of acid reflux and high liver enzymes. Eat better; it’s nothing to worry about, they told us. So we continued on, business as usual. He left for a work trip to Alaska, excited about working in the North Slope. We talked about the Northern Lights and polar bears and snow, happy because he had Christmas off and would be back in plenty of time to spend it with us.

He called me the day after he got there at 7:30 in the morning. He couldn’t breathe, his chest hurt, what should he do? My first thought was heart attack and I tried not to panic as I told him, in no uncertain terms, to get his ass to a hospital immediately. He was in enough pain and nervous enough that he did it. When he got there, they did a scan of his chest and found, what they called “a juicy nodule” in his left lung. They strongly recommended he fly home to Houston that morning and see a Pulmonologist.

Insert copious amounts of fear whilst trying to keep the anxiety at bay HERE.

It was nothing. It had to be nothing. It was a fungus or an infection or something easily wished away. It wasn’t anything scary or permanent. It definitely wasn’t cancer.

He had a biopsy done on Wednesday and by Friday we had a diagnosis. He texted me to ask when I’d be done with finals and I knew it was bad news. I’d done the same thing when I went into labor, texted to ask if he was busy before calling to say I was having our baby. He called me a few minutes later and asked if I could meet him at the hospital.

“What did they say?”
“It’s malignant.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it’s cancer.”

I deposited the confused senior who was making up a final in the teacher across the hall’s room, stopped by my boss’s office, and left. Rain and tears falling as I drove frantically to the hospital. I calmed down and made my way inside. He wasn’t crying so I couldn’t cry. Instead, he smiled at me when I came in. Smiled.

I took notes as the doctor spoke, processing processing processing…

Adenocarcinoma. Lung Cancer. Make an appointment for a PET scan. Don’t Google cancer. Cancer.com for reliable information. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Cancer board meeting.

We made more appointments and we didn’t cry.

If you know me, you know that holding back tears in the face of even the slightest sign of adversity is next to impossible. I don’t know how I held it together but I did. Because I had to, I guess.

We had to wait until the following Wednesday, until after the PET scan, for more accurate results from the oncologist. We’re fortunate that his best friend was in town because he was able to help make light of the situation, to diffuse the fear and bring laughter where there otherwise would have been none. He sent cancer memes and we all made cancer jokes and somehow made it through the weekend.

Wednesday finally came. The oncologist, a dry, removed Frenchman, confirmed the diagnosis and then stared at us, not speaking. Casey was silent. I asked what stage. 3B – it’s moved from his left lung into the lymph nodes surrounding his mediastinal area. I asked what this meant, if we should be scared. I’ll be honest; yes, it’s progressed beyond surgery. He would need both chemotherapy and radiation.

He stared at us some more. We stared back. I tried not to cry. Casey smiled. Smiled.

We got in the car and drove home, making idle chitchat along the way. I wasn’t sure if I should bring up what the doctor said but when we were a few minutes from home, I couldn’t take it any longer and I asked.

“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re acting really strange. I think you’re in shock.”
“Yeah, probably.”

We pulled into the driveway, he turned and smiled at me, and held that smile as we walked inside where he his parents were waiting for us. They asked how it went and I turned away from him to pick up Little Z, giving him a chance to answer. And finally, he broke. He dropped his head into his hands and wept.

“I don’t want to die.”

I’d never experienced anything near true pain until that moment. I’d never seen my resilient, overly optimistic, hulk of a husband show any sort of weakness and I’d certainly never seen him cry. I watched helpless as his parents wrapped their arms around him, giving him comfort the only way they knew how, and still I didn’t cry. I let them console him first and then I sat at his feet and joined them, still holding onto my baby for dear life. And when he’d calmed down, I excused myself and went outside to the back porch and finally let myself sob.

He found me outside. He sat down, stretched out his arms, and held me until I’d calmed down. Somehow he managed to make me laugh. Christmas was in two days.

The next few weeks were full of sadness and fear as we waited…and waited…and waited for the doctors to give us a treatment plan. First it was the holidays, then it was a meeting with the cancer board, which hadn’t met at its normal time because of the holidays, then a doctor was on vacation. We were anxious and scared that the cancer would spread. The oncologist had told us to be afraid and Casey still hadn’t started chemo?! What kind of place was this?!

And then the platitudes started.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
When God closes a door, he opens a window.
God only gives us as much as we can bear.

I bore them as long as I could but they pissed me off. Because while I understood that people were unsure what to say and wanted to make us feel better, they weren’t helpful. Who wants to hear that whatever happens, it was all in God’s plan when you’re afraid your husband could die? That is NOT comforting. Don’t ever say that to me or to anyone dealing with cancer. It’s a shit thing to say.

One night after Casey fell asleep, I called my parents and woke them up. I was in hysterics. I didn’t know what to do think feel say. I didn’t know how to breathe function take care of myself. I could barely see straight. They didn’t know what to say either and whatever they did say made me scream in pain because I couldn’t handle it. I made them cry. And I felt horrible about that because they just wanted to give me solace. But I was terrified and I was angry and I needed to unleash some of that.

Eventually, I let go of some of that initial fear and started to convince myself that nothing was as bad as it seemed. I started to ignore everything except what we were currently facing. I had to deal with each day, one at a time, and look no further. I didn’t make plans beyond the week, I didn’t think about later. I focused on the right now. I had to or I would have been crushed beneath the weight of the Dread Pirate Cancer.

I had my moments, of course, times when I would call my best friend crying and she would listen, crying with me, not sure what to say but giving me what she could – an ear to listen. Once I collapsed in the middle of Kohls, sobbing about how unfair it was, how I didn’t understand. My mom ushered me to the dressing room area and a woman offered me a tissue and asked if I was all right. Most of the time I was but sometimes I wasn’t.

Some of the fear and anxiety abated when we left the hospital we started with and got him into MD Anderson – a world-renowned cancer center. The doctors there listened to us. They made a plan immediately. They started his treatment within a week. They knew what they were doing and what they were talking about.

As we stopped for lunch one day after a doctor’s visit, I asked Casey how he felt. He thought for a minute and then said he felt fine, that the only way he was going to get through this was to stay as positive as possible. He didn’t want to get depressed. He didn’t want to live in a world pervasive (okay, so he didn’t say pervasive) with fear. And then he asked me to do the same. He said he was going to need me to go against my very nature and try to be upbeat and optimistic.

“If I start to get depressed, I won’t get back up so I need you to do this for me. And if I start to feel sorry for myself or if I get down, I need you to slap me, tell me to man-up, and offer me a glass of SITFU.*”
“I’ll try.”
“No, I need you do this. Promise me.”
“I promise.”
“And if you start to get down,” here he hesitated, then finished with “I’ll give you a hug and comfort you until you feel better.”

And then he smiled at me. Smiled.

So I smiled back, against the emotions welling up inside – against the fear, the anger, the pain – and I took his hand, because I’m his wife, because I love him, and because he needed me to.

#CancerSucks2Michbelle
*SITFU – Suck It The Fuck Up