Having lived through the cancer that took the life of my husband Jim eight years ago, I was thinking today about how similar some of my emotions are in this pandemic to those we faced in the aftermath of his diagnosis. Although then we knew how his story would eventually end, we had a lot of hope at the beginning that effective treatment could keep him around for a few more years.
The immediate period after his diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer was surprisingly unchanged, once we both got used to the small puncture in his back and the tube connecting to a urine collection bag that was always tucked under his clothes. Soon we were back to playing tennis, and going along in our lives more or less as usual. We went a spur-of-the-moment trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving rather than waiting for Spring Break, as we had planned. We laughed, we teased, we kept the bounce in our step.
The drone in the background was louder in my head than his. He was still denying the reality behind his PSA numbers. Treatment wasn’t working. He wouldn’t have the luxury many luckier prostate cancer patients have in their 70s, of being able to slow a 100% fatal cancer down so long they were liable to die of something else first.
He couldn’t go in the water in Hawaii because of his bag, so it wasn’t the same splashy-grinny trip we took the year before to Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, when we were blissfully unaware of the cancer already taking root. But we were there, together in Maui, and that was what mattered. We went because of the unsaid message running through my head that made me insist on taking the trip then rather than waiting. I knew we were making our last memories. I knew this was about the quality of the rest of his life. He died a few weeks before Spring Break. We had made a wonderful memory while we still could. It made him smile for a few months I am still smiling
It was always there, that drone in the background, brought forward occasionally by a jolt of awareness that something had changed. We still played tennis but for a shorter periods, then less often. Then we changed the rules so Jim didn’t have to run more than one step. Then we stopped playing. Jim ate and drank with the same gusto, then, slowly, he didn’t.
And then he fell off a cliff. That is what dying of cancer is like. You are okay, all things considered, then suddenly you’re not. We played very abbreviated tennis up to six weeks before he died. He was still making his own lunch three weeks before he hit that cliff. Just as the doctor predicted, he stayed in bed more and more until he was there all day.
Jim went to hospice when the cancer, or the medication—I’m not sure which— affected his brain and he was behaving erratically in ways I was afraid I could not physically control. He died three days later.
Why does this feel so similar? It’s that drone in the background. Maybe the virus is digging into my cells right now. Maybe it’s already too late. Maybe this is it and I just don’t know the details. Maybe this is something I will survive and end up dying years down the road of something else. Maybe this story is happening right now not to me, but to someone I love.
Life today is also similar because it is so disrupted. Our old lives aren’t on temporary hold. In some respects they are already over. By the time Jim died, our beautiful condo had been ripped apart because I insisted that his two East Coast children not leave it to me to communicate with them after his death about what of his they wanted. We packed up and mailed things while they were here to say goodbye, despite how horrible we felt because he was sleeping in the back bedroom while we went through his things.
Life became a slow, incremental process of losing a little, then a little more. Then losing everything, except what can’t be lost, and that is the spirit in the living that enables us to go on, and the dead to transition whatever, if anything, might be beyond.
When you acknowledge the possibility of a fatal process already underway in your body, it changes your relationship to the material things in your life. I look around and wonder what it might be like for my son to confront what I leave behind. This virus also makes us confront our non-material legacy— the story of what we have done with our lives. To come bang-up against what it may be too late to do.
Maybe I have this malignancy now, maybe I don’t. Maybe I will get it later, maybe not. But for now, I am going to navigate this changed world with the best, most hopeful spirit I can bring to it. I am still planning my future. I am trying to learn all I can from this. The drone isn’t entirely bad. It alerts us to what is really important, and to the value of things— like love— that no disease can take away.