As if it were needed, here is more evidence that I possess a strong inner female. I am addicted to the Modern Love column that runs every week in The New York Times. It’s a first person true story from a Times reader. The paper says it receives more than 1000 submissions every week for the one slot in the Sunday Styles section. I don’t think I’ve ever entered anything like that–and certainly not anything with those daunting odds. A few days after I sent my entry in, I did some research on the column. (Yes, I wrote 1700+ words, sent it in–and then decided to do the research. Fire, ready, aim.) What I found out was, the column’s guardian doesn’t want any more cancer stories. He says they outnumber any other two or three topics combined. So you won’t be reading the following in the paper. I was rejected on perfectly reasonable grounds; I know what it means to be sick and tired of cancer. Here’s my submission:
My daughter-in-law recently told us something about our 36-year-old son that my wife and I had never noticed before. For his whole life, someone very close to Jason was fighting a life-threatening illness. For Jason, death has always been nearby.
Of course, since Jason was born 18 months after Ginny and I were married, death or its prospect has been a constant companion for the two of us, too. It’s just that we’ve never looked at our lives that way.
A quick history. When Jason was very young, Ginny needed surgery for melanoma. Then Jason’s grandfather, to whom he was extraordinarily attached, had a series of heart problems. Dad died when Jason was seven.
Meanwhile, Ginny had begun a long, enervating battle with breast cancer.
By the time that crisis passed, Jason’s older brother had been diagnosed HIV positive. Preston would die in 2001.
In the mid ‘90s, Jason’s uncle, a North Carolina policeman, was shot and nearly killed. Recovery seemed to take forever.
Through much of this time my mother-in-law—Ginny’s mom, Jason’s grandmother—was dying a long, agonizingly slow death, a deathwatch that lasted too many years.
A few years after her death, one of her grandsons—the policeman’s son, our nephew—committed suicide. None of us had seen that coming.
In 1998, even though I’m a lifelong non-smoker, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was told there was an 84% chance I’d be dead within five years. If you survive lung cancer for five years, you’re supposed to be cancer-free. I obviously didn’t die, but I’m not cured either. I still have it.
Since 2005, I’ve been in Stage IV Lung Cancer. (There is no stage V.) I was told then that my life expectancy was about 8 months. Ha!
In January of this year, there was for a change for the worse. Over the years I’ve had major surgery, at least seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy and three or four rounds of radiation treatments. But the program I was starting at the beginning of this year wasn’t working. I was feeling pretty bad, my tumors were growing and spreading—and the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering told me I had two days, maybe two weeks to live.
Two days before they gave us my prognosis, I asked one of the doctors to take a look at a bump on Ginny’s neck. They scanned it the next day. On the same day I’m getting off the treatments and entering hospice, we learn that Ginny now has Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Having survived both melanoma and breast cancer, she is now undergoing chemotherapy while I’m in a hospice-at-home program with lung cancer that’s spread to my brain and liver.
Of course, everyone’s family knows sickness, death and tragedy. But as I write this, I can’t imagine how Ginny and I had failed to notice this particularly intense, morbid, unremitting pattern in our lives. The fact is, we’ve always considered ourselves extraordinarily lucky. We still do.
We were always an unlikely couple. She was the 33-year-old divorced mother of a 12-year-old son. I was a geeky 26-year-old from a very Catholic family. She was gorgeous and sexy—a model. (No kidding.) I was a geeky 26-year-old from a very Catholic family.
She had a house. I had an apartment, a roommate and a couple of beanbag chairs. Moving in with her was an important decision: I wasn’t considering partnering with just a woman. I was considering partnering with a woman who had a 12-year-old son. If I didn’t have Preston’s approval, this relationship wasn’t going anywhere. Preston welcomed me into the family from day one.
As beautiful as Ginny is, this wasn’t the marriage my mother had in mind for me. Mom started calling my apartment every night. My roommate (bless him) kept the fiction alive that I was still living there.
On the other hand, Ginny’s Bible Belt Baptist family wasn’t exactly thrilled about having a papist at the dinner table. Especially after Preston told them that I was lucky Ginny wasn’t a black widow spider because if that were the case, she would have eaten me after we “mated.” (We hadn’t yet told my God-fearing future mother-in-law about our living arrangements.)
The Catholic Church proved very difficult for us. The routine they wanted us to follow to be married “in the church” would have cost us a lot of money and required some things of Ginny’s previous husband that we weren’t about to ask. In the end a Baptist minister from Florida, who was very gracious about the Catholics and their cocktails at the Friday night rehearsal dinner, married us in my parents’ backyard. Both new mothers-in-law choked back tears. We chose to believe they were tears of joy.
Ginny’s family has a history with lots of divorces. My family doesn’t. We were both committed to the death-do-us-part ending, but it hasn’t always been easy. The clichés of modern marriage haunted us. I’m a workaholic who put in nights and weekends on a regular basis. I couldn’t figure out a way to be home as much as I should have been. I loved my work and I’ve always been useless around the house. Ginny was (and is) completely capable of handling everything at home.
She spent money in a way that made me uneasy. She had a temper. She was right that I didn’t know how to fight. Things were plenty strained at times. We were both diagnosed as clinically depressed. (It probably helped that there was never any suggestion that either of us caused the depression in the other. In fact it became clear that we’d both been depressed at least since our respective high school days.)
So how did this unlikely marriage survive? We both give antidepressants and therapy some of the credit. She gives my never-say-die determination to make it last a lot of credit. Although I long ago abandoned my Catholic faith, I’ve always held onto the Catholic commitment to one marriage. More than Ginny, in the rough times during the early years, I insisted that the marriage survive.
I wonder now if we were helped by the medical and life-changing challenges all around us: did they give us common purpose–a shared cause that united us? Stories float around about couples coming apart when one partner is diagnosed with cancer or when a child dies: I can’t conceive of that. We never failed to come together when we needed each other.
The most frightened I’ve been in my life was in the early ‘80s when we kept getting increasingly bad news about Ginny’s breast cancer’s progress. It reminded me how much I loved her—but also, selfishly, how much I needed her. I couldn’t imagine raising our sons on my own. When she was finally done with the brutal surgeries and savage chemotherapy treatments, the workaholic took three-and-a-half weeks off. With Preston in college and our seven-year-old in tow, we headed out on an adventurous journey through Korea, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. That trip, plotted by my sister, became a model for us. If I wasn’t able to stop working nights and weekends, at least I could take off a month or so every couple of years and we could go where the office couldn’t find me. Far away places brought us closer together—and I’m not sure I would have taken those long vacations if the cancer scare hadn’t rearranged my priorities.
Preston’s HIV diagnosis knocked the life out of us. He had been a handful to deal with for a number of years, coming to grips with his sexuality and with life in New York City as a student at Columbia. He survived 14 years while the disease morphed into AIDS. After Columbia he was accepted in the graduate architecture program at Catholic University in Washington. When his partner David called late one Friday to tell us Preston was being taken to the hospital, we immediately drove to D.C. from our home in Richmond. It was three days after 9/11, so even though it was late at night, traffic was slow around the Pentagon as drivers reduced speed to get a good look at the damaged building. We arrived at the hospital two or three minutes after Preston died.
That was devastating. It still is. Parents aren’t meant to outlive their children. To this day, nothing brings tears to our eyes quicker than some random memory of Preston. Again, it’s something we share.
Until the beginning of this year I was never able to piece together the work-life balance Ginny wanted us to have. Now I can. I work for a wonderful company that allows me to stay involved without expecting me at the office every day. My 60+-hour workweek is dramatically reduced. I love my work, but Ginny was right: the extra hours for the two of us are irreplaceable.
Even with the great help given us by the hospice nurses and social workers, a lot of work comes with illnesses. I try, but I’m never much help in these situations. That always fell to Ginny. She took care of Preston and her mom. When my sister needed help in caring for my mother, Ginny jumped in. Ginny has been my caregiver for the 38 years we’ve been married. She insisted that I get tested for depression. She knows what medicines I need and when; I haven’t got a clue.
And when Ginny’s needed help because of her cancers? She’s a great nurse, but a lousy patient. She insists on taking care of herself. She usually drives herself back and forth from her chemo sessions. I’ve never even met her Richmond oncologist. (Of course, who would trust me? I was scatterbrained long before tumors started showing up in my head.) We’ve received a whole lot of help from my son and his family, my sister, my coworkers and all of our best friends. Best of all, we’ve been given every reason to believe her cancer will be brought under control. (We’re lucky, right?)
Here’s the surprise ending. Ginny and I have never loved our life together more than we do right now. We both have good days and bad days health wise—but even the bad days are days we didn’t expect to have. We finally have the time together we both want. I was supposed to die right on Feb. 14. Every day since then has been a Valentine for us. I might die tomorrow. We’re as ready for that now as we’ll ever be. And, besides, we know our love will never die. Just look at what it’s survived already.