October 11, 2010

Eight Years Ago Today . . .

I woke in a hospital bed, sliced across my lower belly, tubes coming from a variety of places on my body, cuffs wrapped around my legs, squeezing and releasing to keep blood flowing. I drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep.

Every time I opened my eyes, Dan was there, beside my bed.

"How did it go?" I murmured, referring to the surgery to remove what my doctor assumed was a cyst on my ovary.

"Fine," he said. "It went fine."

But I could tell by the worried look on his face that it didn't go fine. There was something more.

Finally, about three in the morning, I asked, "What is it? Just tell me."

He said, "Can you listen?"

I knew he meant that the morphine drip kept making me drift in and out of the world's most uncomfortable sleep. "Yes," I said.

Dan held my hand and said, "It's cancer."

The doctor had told him only hours before. The doctor had told Dan when he was alone, waiting to see how the surgery went. We lived too far from family. And our friends were watching our kids. The doctor told him this news, then left, having given Dan a phone number to call, if he had any questions. A phone number that led to an answering machine that was never answered, even though Dan had plenty of questions.

Dan telling me I had cancer did not devastate me.

The next day, when the doctor came in and confirmed this, it also did not devastate me.

Three days later, when I was home and barely able to hobble around and the oncologist called to explain my chemo schedule, I collapsed.

A heaving, sobbing mess, I'd shut myself in the master bathroom so our sons, then in second and fourth grades wouldn't hear. Dan slid the door open. He touched his forehead to mine. We were both crying. "A week of chemo at a time in the hospital," I managed. "Once a month for three months." "Plus another infusion once a week for ten weeks." I heaved and sobbed and repeated, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Dan had watched his mom wither from cancer as I'd watched mine. I did not want him to go through it again.

Dan would have none of that, though. "We'll get through this," he said. "Together."

He went out to get the boys ready for bed. I managed to go back out once they were in bed. But I could barely choke out their bedtime stories, thinking that I wouldn't be able to read to them before bed anymore. I wouldn't get to watch our younger son play baseball. I wouldn't be able to watch them grow up, help them deal with the hard stuff.

I was sure I wouldn't reach my twelfth anniversary.

The chemo was worse than I could have imagined.

At one point, my oncologist said to Dan, "She's getting every side effect in the book. I don't know how we'll get her through this."

He got me through it. Dan got me through it. My girlfriend, who travelled 1,200 miles twice to be with me, got me through it. Both sisters, who flew across the country to be with me, got me through it. The chemo nurses who set up a TV and VCR in my hospital room so our family could continue our Friday tradition of movie night got me through it. (We watched Gremlins, and the nurses brought our boys vanilla ice cream in little plastic cups with wooden spoons.) And my friends. My God! They got me through it with flowers and cards and meals and phone calls and visits and amazing acts of kindness again and again.

The days since that time have not been without challenge.

I watched a dear friend, Cary, pass away from the same thing I had. She was diagnosed four days before I was. Her hair fell out four days before mine did. (Mine fell out in great clumps on Thanksgiving Day.) Cary made a big party with cake and balloons to celebrate our fifth anniversary, but then she got thinner and weaker. And one summer day, I held her hand for the last time, kissed her cheek for the last time.

I often think of the husband and daughter she left behind.

Cary had talked me into going to Camp Mak-a-Dream in Montana. They have a camp session that's just for ovarian cancer patients/survivors. Some of the remarkable, fun, funny, dear, strong, amazing women I have met there have passed on. They left behind children and husbands and sisters.

Oh, there have been challenges in those eight years. My dear father-in-law passed away from cancer. And our dog, Lady, died as well.

But there have been joys.

2,920 sunrises and sunsets. Eight first days of school and last days of school. Eight delicious summer vacations. Apple pies. Pizza pies. Moon pies. Eight Christmases/Chanukahs to celebrate as a family. Books. Hundreds of books read and savored. Elections to vote in. Basketball games to watch our son play in. And school plays to watch our other son act in. Trails to jog and bike ride along. An ocean to dip my feet in. Camping trips, kayak trips and visiting family trips.

I toured Yellowstone National Park with my buddy, Maggie, and her daughter. And the Grand Tetons.

I held hands with Dan during a snowfall as we crossed a bridge to Georgetown, where we ate in a cozy restaurant by a blazing fire.

And after years of hoping and dreaming and working, I connected with the amazing Tina Wexler, an agent at I.C.M. and sold three novels (two of which have already come out), one picture book and am well into writing the next novel.

There have been joys.

But none more important than those two pains in the ass. I had prayed to God: "Just let me be there to help them through the hard stuff." And there has been hard stuff! But look, they are in tenth and twelfth grades now. And I'm still here -- miraculously -- nagging them and feeding them and loving them.

And Dan. We talk about what we'll do when the kids are grown. We make plans for next week and next year. We dream of places we'll travel to, like Ireland. And we're headed toward our twentieth anniversary this coming June.

I'm so happy to be celebrating my eighth year since I heard those terrible words.

Despite the challenges, I'm delighted to spend another fine day on this planet, enjoying the sunsets and sunrises, writing a few pages of a new book, walking with a friend in a park. And seeing the miracle of our children growing into young men. And having another day to tell my husband how grateful I am that he stuck by me through the worst of times and how glad I am to love him now in the best of times.


Unknown said...

Such a beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing.

Paul R. May said...

This is beautiful, Donna... a loving tribute to life and the people around you. Thanks for the inspiration!!

Jill N. said...

Thank you for putting life into perspective!

Wild About Words said...

Thank YOU, Paul and Jill!

Jay Hudson said...

Your story is inspiring.You have made it this far for a reason.I know how dark those days were because I'm awaiting a heart transplant that may,or may not happen.
I wish you the very best. God Bless you! Jay Hudson-Facebook

Wild About Words said...

Dear Jay, I can't imagine what you're going through. I wish you strength and support as you face your struggles.