I got a text message, six years ago. It was late and I was already in bed, exhausted by a day of bad news. By months of bad news, actually, crawling and lurching its way into our reality until it never left us. It never does, it turns out.
And on July 6, 2011, we reached the peak, where it was easy to look back. In August 2010, my wife’s long struggle with her eyesight, with headaches, with word-finding difficulties, with all sorts of oddities had become understandable: She had a brain tumor, and she needed to get rid of it. The next few months would all be about this, surgery and recovery and adjustments.
In the spring of 2011, demonstrating technique to a young singer, my wife suddenly had pain. The next day she couldn’t climb stairs, and so on. We added a heart attack to her medical history, then, and there would eventually be anticoagulation and stent placement, and recovery from that.
While she was being worked up, routine mammograms detected what we thought were probably calcifications in both breasts. We thought wrong, and so the specialists talked to each other and juggled treatments, needing to keep her blood thin to treat her cardiac condition and yet needing to do a biopsy. It was tricky, and took weeks of waiting, but a biopsy was eventually done.
We sat down together, at home, that July 6, and listened to her doctor on speakerphone. This was a strange throwback; this physician was actually my first doctor on moving to Seattle. I remember bringing my infant daughter with me for an appointment, and my doctor coming out to the waiting room to admire this beautiful baby.
Now my daughter was 26, living in Texas and waiting by the phone, as we were. This doctor was calm and measured, describing the cancer that had invaded my wife, explaining that it was early and treatable.
But, again: We’d been climbing this mountain for a while.
I posted a cryptic Facebook message, then we headed out to a long-scheduled picnic. I baked a couple of pies, nothing new but now I wonder. Have I made a pie since then? Funny what you think about.
This is old news, of course. I wrote a book about these years, about how one goes about negotiating with dispassionate fate. No one to blame, nothing to attack. Bad stuff happens. Occasionally it keeps happening.
And six years is nothing. I know all about that July, and how July bucked us up. It’s our beginning of summer up here, and the sunshine and warmth buoyed us, a little. As did love and friendship and good surgeons, whose care was personal and kind. And expensive, although by then the costs had faded into fatalism. We were spared bankruptcy, but not going broke. If you can appreciate the distinction. It wasn’t a great time of life to go broke, but tell me about a better time.
This text message, though. I’ve discovered an intimacy to this, a few words that travel a thousand miles and nudge me in bed, keep me from dreaming for a moment while I read. It was from an old friend, just getting around to Facebook. She thought she knew what my comment was about. She wanted to touch us, comfort us, rail against the universe with us. It was a kindness.
People mostly didn’t know what to say. Mostly, they just showed up, and most of that was a digital presence, opening my eyes to the ways of the world. Proximity is nice, but long-distance love is still a pretty sweet deal if you can get it.
So love was good. Support was good. And time, ultimately, was good. The five-year mark has come and gone. Chemotherapy is over, and my wife counts fewer pills these days. Her routine appointments in three specialties have spread out a bit.
Live long enough and tragedy will sharpen its outline. You’ll see it when it happens, and understand that it happens all the time, to everyone. I have nothing new to add. Two months after the cancer diagnosis, our beloved pet, Strider, left us. My wife’s father died in 2012. The love of our lives, our grandson, was rushed to the hospital in diabetic ketoacidosis, changing everything. These moments come and go, the devil being in the details but the details keep changing. It’s just life, and it happens to all of us.
Six years later? I’ll stick with my thought from that particular summer. If the sea is so big and your boat is so small, prayer is good, friends are good. Love is good.
But maybe you need to get a bigger boat. Ours is six years wide now. We know every inch, and we know that ultimately we are not the captains. The sea will never give us a break. It’s beautiful to look at, though.