Not too long ago, I stumbled across an email sent as an update to our kids and siblings on how my husband, Gary, was faring with cancer:
“We’re home from Hospice House,” I wrote. “Gary’s still pretty sharp, his sense of humor is still intact, but there’s been quite a bit of change in the past week.”
My husband came home from Hospice House on oxygen and packing a morphine pump.
“He’s now operating on only one nephrostomy tube,” I wrote.
Our daughter, Summer, who was standing watch with me, purchased XXL pajama bottoms to fit over her father’s lymphedema-swollen stomach. Gary held them up and said in typical deadpan mode,
‘Your next husband will have to be XXL.’”
“Summer has been an indispensable help,” my email continued. “Moral support. Cooking. Washing dishes. Grocery shopping. Picking up meds. Fetching Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve for her dad when the urge hits.”
Gary and I were surrounded by considerable support and love during those final weeks: “We’re being well looked after by the hospice team, by Summer, and by the locals who continue to think I can’t go a day without Chai tea (I may or may not have had something to do with this).”
And then this sign-off: “Feeling loved and blessed and at peace — Marlys”How can that be? How can one feel loved and blessed and at peace while the most precious person on the planet is dying? Maybe it comes down to these 4 simple things. Which means maybe we can work on them now, and not wait until our loved one is dying:
1. Strengthening our love story
Gary and I had maintained a strong marriage, but when these epic words—You have cancer—slapped us in the face, we were given the priceless gift of a wake-up call. We actually lived more fully during his cancer years—took more road trips, explored places in America we’d never been, hiked mountains and slushed through soft powder on snowshoes. As a result, we wrote a more beautiful love story.
2. Attitude check
Back before Gary was diagnosed, he was unemployed for two years when the company he worked for was sold. We made it through that time with our good credit intact, but we cashed out our 401(k), sold our home, and depleted our savings. We carried self-pity and anxiety around for a while. Hubby and I eventually checked in our crummy attitudes and instead of counting our ongoing losses, we learned to count all that was left:
One more day with Gary here beside me
These children and grands, these extended family members
These fierce, cancer-kicking friends
Chai tea left on front porch this morning
The meal being delivered later this evening
Snow glazing the rooftops across the street
Cinnamon-scented candle flickering
So many significant gifts and simple pleasures that make up a sweet life, even as we journey through loss.
3. Leaning into community
Gary was never interested in sitting in a circle to discuss cancer woes with other men. But we stumbled upon the local DEFEAT Cancer program with its educational dinner meetings and emphasis on Diet, Exercise, Family, Education, Attitude, and Thriving. And we were hooked. Later, when I was hired on staff as Survivorship Coordinator at the St. Charles Cancer Center, our support team expanded to include not only my fabulous co-workers, but also the community of survivors and caregivers we served. Blazing, compassionate, boisterous people who supported us in cancer, and now in widowhood.
4. Relationship with God
Not religion, but relationship with the God who created this wide, amazing world; who keeps our earth from colliding with the sun and moon; who numbers the legs on centipedes; who invented sunshine, and the wind that sends leaves skittering, and fluffy white snow drifting earthward, and flowers pushing up from the dark after a long, frigid sleep. Yes, cancer and death and wars and violent acts of nature happen as part of life in this fallen world. But having a firsthand knowledge of God’s character—that He is love. always love. only love—and knowing that while I have life on this earth, I will experience sorrow and loss and heart pain but all the while I am wrapped in God’s strong arms of love – this, this brings peace.
And there you have it: From my experience, 4 things that brought Gary and me a sense of love and peace and blessedness during our season of living and dying well with cancer.
Marlys Johnson is a blogger, speaker, author, and coach. She is also a cancer widow. Married to the same witty, courageous, wry-humored, kind man until November 2014. “We fought the good fight together for several years longer than he was supposed to live.”