Today is not the day that Jennifer lost her battle with cancer. She never stopped fighting. Today is the day, however, that we, together, surrendered. The damage is too great, the returns too slight, to continue.
Jennifer fought harder than even I knew. I only just learned, as her oncologist transferred our case to a social worker on our way to hospice, that her last round of chemotherapy was aggressive, even dangerous, at her insistence. “I want to do whatever it takes,” she told them. And she did.
She stood firm, brave and optimistic, as cells and chemicals clashed. And the all-out assault on the cancer cells scattered throughout her body took a toll, flayed her nerves, battered her brain. It was the doctor, not Jen, that ordered a stand down three weeks ago.
The hope then was that she would, once again, rally back for another attempt. She’d charged the hill so many times before, getting to savor the glorious view from the top. But the haze lingering over this last battlefield didn’t dissipate, it thickened instead. It darkened and roiled. We couldn’t see the enemy. We couldn’t see each other.
The last two weeks have been so hard, and yet, so priceless. Every so often the air would clear and Jen and the kids and I could all see each other, and huddle together, and talk, and even laugh.
And when she would fall back, exhausted, her body heavier and heavier, her mind launched skyward.
Then I could sense Jen’s spirit soar and twirl, traveling seamlessly across time and space. Every few moments she’d send word back to our world through whispers and mumbles. She was in school. At the beach. She was in Florida, California, New York. She was hiding in a castle, she was late for a fancy dinner, she was putting her grandkids to sleep, she was with her high school friend.
Her epic streaks in language learning apps may have lapsed, but now she transcended language. Glasses were rings. Towels were pillows. Her blanket was a cloud. Many, many things were books. Her pills were Buffy and Angel. Sometimes she’d get frustrated, but sometimes she thought it was as amusing as we did.
I tried to write everything down. A travelogue of her mind as it skipped across planes of existence.
Sometimes she would wake, suddenly and instantly afraid. A few times, she was inconsolable, remembering again that my mom was gone, or hers. Once she was so, so mad at me, she hollered with a raging voice that I had never heard before. But then she’d forget, and fall peacefully back asleep.
The worst moments, though, were when she was fully present, clear eyed, just a moment or two a day, when she knew exactly where she was, and exactly what was happening.
But she could be giddy, too, especially yesterday. She wanted desperately to get married to me, and she reminded me that I promised her I would. She rediscovered her anniversary ring and was delighted to be wearing it.
She thought the kids were hilarious. She thought the cat was hilarious. She suddenly understood the punch line to a hundred jokes that she just couldn’t tell us. Even though we had a horrible day of falls and scrapes and bruises, even as we cried, we laughed.
She just laughed, just now, again, in her sleep. It’s my favorite sound in the world.
So, we begin hospice care. At home, which was her wish, put in writing a year ago at a palliative care meeting that I thought was premature at the time. Now I’m so glad to have her wishes in black and white, as neither of us are in our right minds today.
Some people, I was told, stabilize and regain strength in hospice and even return to treatment. Some people live for weeks, even months, in hospice. Anything is possible, especially with my amazing Jennifer, ten years past her Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis and five years past what were then optimistic estimates of her remaining time with us.
Whatever time is left, Alex, Zac, Kate and I will stuff to the gills with big fat messy love.
I am so lucky, so blessed, so grateful for every one of the five million bonus seconds our family has had together since 2012. We need them all lined up solidly behind us now to face what’s ahead.