by Gloria Schramm
My vacationing husband and I were swept up in the snowcapped magic of Alaska’s Mount McKinley and the blue-streaked chunks of ice breaking off a looming glacier, meeting the sea in a thunderous roar. After celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary, we returned home to another kind of roar. My husband was told he had colon cancer, discovered during a routine colonoscopy. In an instant, our lives were turned upside down.
Some days I felt like I was burning alive from the inside out. I thought that surely someone had played a macabre joke on us.
After my husband’s surgery, I took time off from my job to become the duty wife. But I wondered, Do I have what it takes? Can I meet the myriad needs of someone cloaked in shades of fear? Will I be able to remain upbeat enough to help him cope with all sorts of physical issues while his body readjusts after colon surgery? Can I love enough?
Being a duty wife was an unfamiliar role on foreign terrain. I would not leave my husband’s side. If I could have, I would have ripped the malignancy from him with my own bare hand.
I didn’t want my husband to own this disease. I saw how illness tries to wrap the afflicted in a cocoon – as if it has a mind of its own – promoting the illusion of separation from loved ones. I yearned to bridge this divide, to forge a new kind of closeness with my husband, feel what he felt, comfort him in a way he’s never known comfort before. But I felt woefully inadequate.
If I could have, I would have ripped the malignancy from him with my own bare hand.
“I do feel close to you,” he would reassure me. “You’ve been wonderful.”
I couldn’t own that “wonderfulness” of which he spoke. Instead, I sickened myself with worry. What if this happens? What if that happens? I felt as if it would have been easier to be the one who was sick because being the sentry of someone you love … well, it can almost kill you.
“I’m sorry that this happened to you,” I told him.
“I’m sorry that I put you through this,” he said.
We finally did get a clean report. He will be followed closely every three months for two years to ensure no recurrence of cancer. I will still need to take care of him as he recovers. I can handle that. I can take out the brimming garbage pails and lift heavy objects in a single, swift muster. I no longer feel under siege.
“Thank you for everything,” my profusely grateful husband chants many times throughout the day.
“I owe you,” I tell him. This life-threatening event opened a window into what could have been had we not caught the cancer early. This small glimpse has made me appreciate our life together more. As each day rolls into the next, he returns to more life. He’s a little ornery at times. And soon I will go back to work. I know he is getting better, and we can smile at life a little.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.