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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.

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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.

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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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