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Starting Over

One woman shares her story of caring for her husband as he battled cancer, facing devastating loss and learning to pick herself back up again.

July 20th, 2012

Courtesy of Donna Williams

My husband Justin passed away from a feral form of cancer that invaded and ransacked his brain and spine, and proved invulnerable to both chemotherapy and radiation. The time from his diagnosis to his demise: 17 months. Our time together as newlyweds and parents: 23 months.

We saw our once carefree and breezy relationship of equals become battered and twisted and reconfigured into some other thing, an imbalanced partnership of a patient and his jailer, trying to keep him cognizant for the last six months of his life.

MORE: How to Talk to Your Doctor About Stress Issues

When you care for someone who's ill and dying, the onus on you is staggering. You're McDreamy, McSteamy and Doogie Howser all rolled into one, minus any script. I had vials of morphine in my fridge—along with prescription Haldol for confusion and suppositories for constipation—lined up next to our toddler's sippy cups and containers of milk. My medical prep to date had consisted of purchasing Advil at the local drugstore. I played at being a doctor mostly on my own, because our families lived both in other states and other countries.

It fell to me to enforce dietary restrictions, meet with doctors, dispense medications, make appointments and supervise showers and meals, and all the other myriad things that functional adults perform on their own. All this while presumably working, tending to my own seemingly insignificant needs and doing the mundane stuff that keeps a household operational. Toilets don't clean themselves.

This is why, I often think, wine was invented.

You want to believe that life's greatest trials will bring out the best version of you, the one with the harsh edges sandpapered off. In my case, you'd be wrong. Pre-diagnosis, I was impatient, pugnacious, headstrong, irascible. Post-diagnosis, it was more of the same, but worse. And when Justin became bedridden, I morphed into some sort of shrew who vacillated between love, rage and frustration.

MORE: The Upside of Anger

It's like cancer holds up a funhouse mirror to you and magnifies your flaws hundredfold. I'd yell at Justin to share the comforter with me, unwilling to accept that he wasn't aware I was next to him in bed. I'd urge him to get up, move around, walk faster, incapable of comprehending that he couldn't. Once, he looked up at me as I was moaning yet again about having to transcribe an interview for an article, and said: "I would give anything—anything—to have those problems and be able to work." That shut me up. For a day.


Work became even more of a respite, something I could manage and excel at. It's so much simpler and gratifyingly measurable to interview someone and craft a well-written piece about them then it is to helplessly watch the man you love melt away. My powerlessness was softened by moments of tenderness: the time Justin told me he wanted to spend what weeks he had left with me and our son—how he would hold my hand and kiss it every day—how he would tell me that his smartest move in life was marrying me, the most loving and most resilient woman he'd ever met.

To cope with the increasingly frequent dark times, of which there were plenty, I became a cliché: the boozy mom, uncorking chardonnay once the baby was in bed. This was so much more effective and simpler than going for a run in the park. And yet I held it together so that every morning I was supermom, chirping good morning to our son, making him breakfast, walking the dog. And I knew that if anything should crack (I nearly broke an ankle when I slipped in my clogs on a wet sidewalk one morning, eliciting a major panic attack), the flimsy Sheetrock that held our little family together would collapse. 

Over time, I stopped recognizing myself. Back when Justin was healthy, I'd put on lip gloss, straighten my hair and slide on my skinny jeans, and he'd tell me how hot I looked, how proud he was to be with me, how foxy my butt was. It's amazing how all that becomes so insignificant when the adult you care most about can't even register that you're in the room, much less what you're wearing while sitting right next to him. Eventually, I couldn't pull together the energy to even bother with primping.

MORE: How Your Mood Affects Your Beauty

My daily wardrobe consisted of leggings—some with holes in the crotch, but who cared?—long shirts and sneakers. Grooming came down to a five-minute shower, spent hoping my son wouldn't use that time to impale himself on something, followed by slapping on some lotion, brushing out of the tangles and pulling my hair back with a headband. I began breaking out, partly from stress and partly because I just didn't care for my skin anymore. Mirrors became items non grata, for obvious reasons, as grays overtook my once-glossy chestnut hair and the bags under my eyes rivaled Chanel's spring collection. Let's not even discuss the condition of my hands, feet or brows. Or the last time I pulled out a lipstick. Or filed my nails.

While my own beauty habits fell by the wayside, I was busy writing celebrity grooming articles and what stars did to prep for awards shows. The care bestowed upon them left me almost breathless. How I would love to have someone come to my house and rub the knots out of my neck and spray mist on my face and clean out my cuticles, I thought. And yet, it all seemed so silly, really, and so pointless. Here, my husband lay dying—this emaciated, gray, hairless almost-corpse flailing around in our bed—and I wanted to be at Frederic Fekkai salon chatting about the weather. How insulting to him and his disease.

A friend who lives in another state, and whose husband was similarly ill, encouraged me to care for myself—to take Pilates, to get facials, to not allow myself to physically or mentally decompose. But when? And what if Justin had a seizure while I was at SoulCycle, or what if he had wandered around the house and set something on fire? The ifs piled up. Perhaps I was making excuses. Perhaps not.

In the end, the decision was made for me. As the cancer ransacked his brain, Justin suffered multiple seizures. He never regained consciousness and went into a hospice, where he died 24 hours later. I sat with him on his last day, watched him get a sponge bath, read a crappy paperback thriller and wondered how this was my life. I am eternally grateful he never woke up to see what he had become, through no fault of his own.

MORE: How Nail Polish Got Me Out of Bed

Now, at 39, I'm starting over—something that was never part of any plan. Life is diametrically different, yet in some ways the same. My dear friend Julia and I hit Saks the other day and found Chanel shoes that were 60 percent off. For a few glorious minutes, perhaps even an hour, I forgot that I had nowhere to wear them and certainly no one to wear them for and ended up buying a pair of frivolous, gleefully gorgeous silver heels.

Mostly, I owe whatever sanity and stability I have left to my son, who, in therapy-speak, mobilizes me to get out, to run, to laugh, to pretend to vacuum him up when I'm cleaning our house.

Are you caring for a loved one? Find healthy ways to cope with the chronic stress of being a caretaker.

Courtesy of Donna Williams

My husband Justin passed away from a feral form of cancer that invaded and ransacked his brain and spine, and proved invulnerable to both chemotherapy and radiation. The time from his diagnosis to his demise: 17 months. Our time together as newlyweds and parents: 23 months.

We saw our once carefree and breezy relationship of equals become battered and twisted and reconfigured into some other thing, an imbalanced partnership of a patient and his jailer, trying to keep him cognizant for the last six months of his life.

MORE: How to Talk to Your Doctor About Stress Issues

When you care for someone who's ill and dying, the onus on you is staggering. You're McDreamy, McSteamy and Doogie Howser all rolled into one, minus any script. I had vials of morphine in my fridge—along with prescription Haldol for confusion and suppositories for constipation—lined up next to our toddler's sippy cups and containers of milk. My medical prep to date had consisted of purchasing Advil at the local drugstore. I played at being a doctor mostly on my own, because our families lived both in other states and other countries.

It fell to me to enforce dietary restrictions, meet with doctors, dispense medications, make appointments and supervise showers and meals, and all the other myriad things that functional adults perform on their own. All this while presumably working, tending to my own seemingly insignificant needs and doing the mundane stuff that keeps a household operational. Toilets don't clean themselves.

This is why, I often think, wine was invented.

You want to believe that life's greatest trials will bring out the best version of you, the one with the harsh edges sandpapered off. In my case, you'd be wrong. Pre-diagnosis, I was impatient, pugnacious, headstrong, irascible. Post-diagnosis, it was more of the same, but worse. And when Justin became bedridden, I morphed into some sort of shrew who vacillated between love, rage and frustration.

MORE: The Upside of Anger

It's like cancer holds up a funhouse mirror to you and magnifies your flaws hundredfold. I'd yell at Justin to share the comforter with me, unwilling to accept that he wasn't aware I was next to him in bed. I'd urge him to get up, move around, walk faster, incapable of comprehending that he couldn't. Once, he looked up at me as I was moaning yet again about having to transcribe an interview for an article, and said: "I would give anything—anything—to have those problems and be able to work." That shut me up. For a day.

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