In Sickness and In Health

I cannot tell you ever just how much I love you.

For the past year and a half you have been my rock, my light, my love. If someone told me six years ago, on our wedding day, that it was possible to love you more than I did at that moment, in that lifetime, I would have laughed, because you already held my heart, my whole heart, in your hands. But as I said, that was another lifetime, and so much has changed since then.

Us, for example. We're not newlyweds anymore, no longer wrapped in the innocence and bliss of recent matrimony. But more than that, I've changed.

I'll never forget that moment, almost seven months to the day after our wedding. That day everything in our lives changed dramatically; nothing would ever be the same. Normally, I know, that when those phrases are uttered by a woman recently married, it means that an unexpected but not unwanted stranger will soon be arriving to create upheaval in a couple's life together. But for us, it was not to be. Our uninvited and unwanted stranger would invade our lives, and my body, creating chaos everywhere, and leaving nothing untouched.

When the doctor told me, when he informed me that the weakness, fatigue, and nausea I had been experiencing was not attributed to a bundle of joy, but that it was caused instead by a malignant defect within my own body, I was crushed, broken, and defeated, right then and there.

I debated telling you for a few days, during which I was crabby, easily offended and set off, and so you knew something was wrong despite my slight efforts to keep you in the dark. But still I did not tell you, even though I knew that every moment you didn't know meant less time for us. I couldn't tell you though, I didn't know how you would react, and I was torn. I wanted to tell you so bad because I needed you; I was scared, terrified, and I needed you to hold me and make everything all right again, but I also wanted to protect you from the harshness and cruelty of this information. Fear soon won out though, and I broke the news to you, and broke down myself.

I remember the day I told you. I said I had been to the doctor recently, and that I had something I needed to tell you. Immediately, your face brightened, and you got this silly smile on your face. You thought I was pregnant, and you were thrilled. I almost began to cry then, as my heart broke, from both the fear in my soul, and the thought of seeing that smile disappear when I told you what was really going on.

I stood, shaking with fear, with tears that I could barely hold in, and told you that all those plans we had made for the future, all our hopes and dreams, were in jeopardy, and that I might never see them realized. I saw your face fall, and that beautiful grin slid down, down, down, until it was no longer the happy smile of an expectant father, but the hollow confusion of a widower-to-be.

You didn't cry, though in my most desperate visualizations of this moment, you bawled along with me. Instead, you gathered me up close, tight to your chest, like you couldn't bear the thought of letting me ever go, and declared that we'd beat it, that we'd be fine, that in 50 years, surrounded by our children and grandchildren, we'd look back on this as nothing but a very bad memory.

I remember I liked that, the "we." You declared us a team, and if I was to believe all your high school glory stories, your teams never, ever, lost. I remember too, that in the midst of my fear, you made me feel safe, secure. I believed right then and there that as long as I had you with me, holding my hand, by my side, that we would beat this, because our love was stronger than any threat.

That whole day, you barely let me out of your sight, out of your reach, out of your hold. Looking back, I realize that you were just as terrified as I was, but you didn't feel you could show it. You were strong for me, and I thank you for that; it must have cost you more than I'll ever know. But there were moments when it got too much for you, and you broke down, but only during those moments when you didn't think I would know. Like that first night, we lay in bed; sleep a long way off for both of us. You held me close, my back to your chest, your lips on my hair, by my ear, whispering "I love you" over and over. I heard you cry that night, I felt the wetness of your tears on my neck when you wept, thinking I was asleep.

It's odd now, I can barely remember the next few weeks; they flew by as a fast, confusing lump of time. I have to look back in my journal nowadays to refresh my memory about the events that occurred then.

I went back to the doctor the next day, but this time, you were at my side, walking next to me, our hands clasped together between our bodies in a silent show of unity. We walked down the hospital corridor, a corridor that would become very familiar over the next few months. Even now, I can conjure up the unique blend of odors that make up that corridor without thinking: there's the disinfectant, the smell of urine and feces barely masked by cleanser, the bland but odorous food, the smell of fear and death and pain.

A few days after that, I started the cure, a vile substance that was almost worst than the disease as well. The first round was rough, it knocked me flat on my back and landed me in the hospital--the first of my many admittances. I barely remember being in the hospital that first time, but from what you've told me, I was there over a week while they experimented with different drugs to counteract the violent side-effects wreaking havoc on my weakening body. I've looked at the medical chart, and it astonishes me now even, just how bad the chemo was.

I was bruised and aching from the bone marrow draw, the one that confirmed not only that I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but that it was considered high grade, and therefore, extremely life threatening. The oral drugs they gave me really messed up my digestive system, I vomited for about a week straight, and I got an infection in my arm where they inserted the catheter used to administer intravenous drugs. I was black and blue, horribly ill; I probably looked like hell, and still you stayed by my side. The few memories I have from those first few days all consist of you: you sitting at my bedside; you holding my hand; you talking me through another needle prick even though I was barely conscious enough to feel it. Mainly I remember you telling me that you loved me, over and over again, every time I opened my eyes, or moved.

Unfortunately, that wasn't our only hospital episode. I ended up there every few months, each stay lasting longer and longer; each one harder to recover from. But still, you were there and so I had some comfort, some constant other than the disease to keep me company.

When I think back on those first few months of treatment, before it became familiar and routine, there are always certain moments that stick out like snapshots in my memory. One moment in particular stands out over all the rest.

It was the day I discovered that I was losing my hair. I was standing up in the shower-which is unusual in itself because during those early days, I preferred baths for the small amount of energy they required-and while shampooing came away with a large chunk of hair in my hand. I screamed, like a banshee, and you came running into the bathroom, completely naked, slipping and sliding on the bathroom floor, with this look of terror upon your face. Funny as your entrance was, I was too shaken by my discovery to laugh, and could barely hold my hands still enough to show you what was wrong.

I'll never forget what you said when I actually calmed down enough to tell you why it bothered me. "Babe," you said in your 'I'm the quarterback' voice, "babe, listen, this is a good thing because when I go bald next year we can dress like twins and finally prove to the world that old married couples really do grow to look like each other."

I laughed right then, still crying a bit, and ended up spraying both of us with my runny, weepy nose. And I knew then, that everything would be fine; you would still love me, bald and beautiful, and so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. But it still helped that you kissed me and told me that you loved me.

That day, I had Alyson come over while you were out at work. I had decided that if my head was going to be stared at, it would be on my terms, and baldness wasn't in my plans; at least not yet. So Alyson and I-hair care professionals we are not-went shopping.

We got bottle after bottle of brightly colored hair dye and went back to our place. After a long soul searching session, during which I decided that a pink and green Mohawk would be a little too extreme for my purposes, it was decided that I would go multi-colored. This explains why you came home that night to a wife with more color in her hair than the class valedictorian of Clown College. I have to give you credit though; it only took you a minute to recover and inquire whether I had just spent too much time in the pool or if the Fruit Loops had rebelled and I was just a helpless bystander.

But my plan worked. People thought I was just nutty, and so no one had the slightest suspicion that I was sick when I shaved my head a few weeks later after the unwelcome realization that the hair loss was neither imaginary nor a temporary side effect. That day, because I refused to wear a wig, you played hooky from work, and we went hat shopping. There's this one hat-big, comfy, and not too scratchy-that I absolutely love, and still wear whenever the opportunity arises.

There's one other "mental photograph" that I've been thinking of lately. I was in the hospital again. This time there was no sign of release in the near future. I could barely breathe on my own, my kidneys were being problematic, and I was so weak; walking and even sitting up under my own power were goals of the past. The doctors had no expectations of my being released from the hospital, though they tried to be optimistic for our sake. I wasn't fooled.

I woke up one evening, late at night; but for once, it wasn't due to an intrusion of a nurse or doctor, it wasn't even a flare of pain-it was just me, startled by something, some thought, and awakened.

You were at my side; somehow you had obtained permission to stay after the closing of visitor's hours. You had pulled this extremely uncomfortable chair right up to the bed, on the side you knew would not be in the way of the staff, and were sleeping in it. You were leaning forward a bit, head on my bed, my hand grasped firmly, but gently, in yours-even in your sleep you refused to let me go.

There were tears on you face, one of the few times I'd ever seen evidence of you crying. Right then and there, if it had been possible, I would have given you up if it meant that you would never have to go through this hell. I would have sold my soul if it meant that you wouldn't have to cry over anyone ever again; if you would never have to experience loss. I would have given up given you up, even though you were my everything, because I loved you.

I knew then, though you didn't, that my chances of making a recovery were slim; that it was very likely I wouldn't be here to celebrate my next birthday with you. Thinking that I could save you some of the pain, I started to push you away, breaking my heart. I told you that you should go back to work and stop spending all your time in the hospital, pitying me. I picked fights with you deliberately, over silly, insignificant things, hoping that you would take the opportunity I was giving you and just walk away. But you were too smart for me.

You saw right through my intentions; saw how much it was hurting me, and you called me on it. I remember every word of that careful, deliberate argument: "If you truly don't love me, if there is no love left for me in your heart, just say the words and I'll go. I'll leave, and you won't have to pretend to love me ever again. Say the words, tell me you don't love me. Tell me to pack my bags and get the hell out of here, and I'll go." You looked at me, taunting me, challenging me, daring me to say the words and send you off.

I sat silently in that hospital bed for a long time just staring at you, fighting my heart, trying to get the words I despised so much to form in my mouth, but I couldn't even remember how the words sounded much less how to shape them. It was a moment of selfishness, pure and simple. Altruism was beyond me at that point. I had given you a chance, and you refused it. Now I was staring death in the face and I wanted; no, I needed someone to hold my hand. I'm sorry for it now, because I never wanted you to feel like you had to stay.

But I'm glad that you did; stay that is. I'm glad that you were there, shocked and amazed, when the doctors announced a slight turnaround in my test results. I'm glad that you were there holding my hand when the doctors told us that it looked like I was entering remission. I'm glad you were there, sitting at my side when the doctors proclaimed that, for the moment, I was cured, that I was temporarily cancer-free. And I'm glad that you're still here with me now.

It's been six years now, since our wedding day. Six long, hard, worry filled years. It's been three years living cancer-free. How wonderful that sounds! Granted, it's been three years spent looking over our shoulders, waiting for it to bite again. But for now, we're still safe. At least, we were.

I've been feeling tired lately, and sick again. I ignored the symptoms, telling myself that I was just coming down with a cold, or the flu. But last week I almost fainted, and I couldn't ignore it any longer.

Please don't be angry with me for not telling you. I couldn't, not until I knew for sure that something was wrong. I didn't want anything to intrude on our tranquility, but now it's too late. The doctor did his tests; not once, but twice, just to make sure. Once again he told me that my life, our life, was about to be disrupted; that our life would again be changed irreversibly.

My heart grew heavier and heavier. I asked him how bad it was, if he had any clue of a time frame, how soon would time be up for me; a year, a month, a week?

He looked at me straightly and said, "Six and a half months; around August 30th. But I'm going to have to refer you to a different doctor. I'm not experienced enough to be of any use with this type of growth." It was then that it clicked, and I could piece the clues together. But you still don't understand, do you?

In about six and a half months, our life will be changed forever, as a result of this mass of cells growing in me...

Baby, I'm pregnant.

The End