In fall 2003 I bought my husband Brett a card with the following passage from Oliver Wendell Holmes on the cover: “I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we Stand, as in what direction we are Moving.” There was no particular occasion for the card – no birthday or anniversary – but with Brett’s health and spirits plummeting, his life and our entire future at stake, the card was intended to be a note of encouragement. Keep Going. We believe in you. Our toddler twins and I gave him the card along with a cinnamon roll.
By now I knew that Brett was dying from brain cancer, regardless of his clean MRI scans. After six years of battling his disease with every imaginable combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, gamma knife and tissue transplants, Brett was only now showing real signs of cognitive impairment. He’d had many, many periods of remission and wellness, but something urgent seemed to have shifted for him. He was having trouble remembering the details of his day and what was expected of him at work. I helped him, of course, because back then “his job was our job.” I understand that work not only gave him a sense of normalcy, but also allowed him to feel husbandly because he was still providing for his family. With the prospect of his disability hovering, and no life insurance to buffer his inevitable death, I also understood that it was in our family’s best interest for him to keep working as long as possible.
Keep Going. We believe in you.
It wasn’t long after we gave Brett this card that everything fell apart. One morning in bed he had a massive seizure that rendered his speech unintelligible. His eyes were wild as he tried to communicate. Mine were equally wild though I would not scream because what kind of mother does that in front of her two-year-olds. Within minutes our neighbor came upstairs to watch the kids while I rode the ambulance with Brett to the hospital. In spite of chemo being delivered direct to his brain through an Ommaya Reservoir, tumors had sprouted in multiple places on his brain and spine. Our options had run out. Hospice was called.
Brett died ten years ago today, on February 21, 2004 at 4:45 p.m. EST.
We played two songs at his funeral, Amazing Grace and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. One resonated with grace, the other with life’s uncertainties. Both Sides Now became the catalyst for my book, the metaphor for me to frame the whole of my experience: life and death; health and illness; joy and sadness; surety and vulnerability; past and present.
Keep Going. We believe in you.
I did believe in Brett. I believed in his doctors, our families, our friends, and the life we had built together. The truth is that he kept going with unspeakable grace the duration of his long illness.
His death meant that I would need to find a way to keep going for me and my children. We owed him that, and we owed it to ourselves.
Seeing takes time.
This decade of loss and healing has brought many changes to our family. We left the ghosts of New York City in search of a fresh start in Colorado. Here we found breathing space in the expansive landscape of mountain and sky.
In many ways I felt closer to Brett in Colorado; he’d always dreamed of moving here, and I could feel his gentle spirit all around us. We even placed a mosaic stone with his name on it in our new garden.
Life does not stop when a loved one dies. Life goes forward. Keep going.
And so we did. For me that meant reaching out to a widower who’d also lost his wife to cancer and was raising two boys on his own. Steve, a popular TV news anchor, was featured in a local magazine as one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. I sent him an email and photo thinking we could be friends.
We fell quickly into a committed relationship and married in July 2008, blending two families torn by loss. It took guts on both our parts to risk love again but not for the reasons you might think: neither one of us could imagine losing again. Each year we grow stronger as a couple.
Many people call my story a happy one. I smile and say thank you but never once do I feel giddy. The past is still with me. The same is true for Steve. Brett and Steve’s first wife, Pam, and the lives and children we created with them, live on. They exist in the slender feet of my son Casey, in Ryan’s blue eyes, in the memory blanket Rebecca sleeps with every night, and the picture Dylan keeps with him at all times. They exist in the stories we tell to keep memory alive, and in the recipes we prepare to savor all that Brett and Pam meant to us. They exist on birthdays and holidays and milestones like today. Ten years.
Among all the lessons borne from losing my husband to cancer, the one I see clearest is this: The best way to memorialize a loved one is to choose life.
When life feels hard, I tell myself to keep going. I tell my children the same thing.
In memory of Brett, who never lived to see his fortieth birthday, keep going.
In memory of all the other families whose lives have been robbed by cancer, keep going.
In honor of all those who fight cancer today, keep going.
We believe in you.