WhiplashWhich is what you get if you ride this damned cancer-rollercoaster long enough. Emotional whiplash: from the tearful getting ready to say goodbye (as if such a thing were possible) over and over again, then finding some small hope that cannot be extinguished. Intellectual whiplash, from thinking you know where this is going, and then being wrong. Professional whiplash, from being snatched in and out of your classrooms, your career, your own thoughts.
We've been through only one round of the modified chemotherapy our newly-promoted cancer doctor recommended for Mr. D., and it seemed to have stunningly positive effects: a near-immediate, visible and palpable reduction in the tumors that had recently become so alarming. That and a liver intervention seem to have slowed the jaundice and liver failure; perhaps even reversed them a tiny bit. Mr. D is more awake and animated than he has been in the past 2-3 weeks, during which he had sunk into a kind of semi-conscious haze. These are all good things.
Balanced against that (and dooooowwwwnnn we go) is the unbelievable toll of the treatments, the sickness, the incessant drugs routines, the lack of nutrition--these are frequently the final culprits in cancer, and we are forced to see why. Several weeks of semi-consciousness means very, very little nutrition. A body devastated by chemo means lowered blood counts that preclude more treatments. A weakened immune system means opportunistic infections and a severe case of shingles. For every time he pulls himself back "up" (a point that is, of course, relatively lower every time), another aspect of his body seems to give way. There's a sense that we are shoving a few feeble sandbags in the face of the oncoming flood, or rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. Every dose lovingly administered is a tiny bit of torture for both of us: is the discomfort worth it? Will it do any good? But what would we do, if not keep trying?
These last weeks have brought me up against the cruelties of dying. Which is worse: to have the one you love slip away mentally, so that at last he is just a breathing body on a bed whose release (and yours) you pray for? Or to have him alert and aware, resisting to the final moments the unseemly destruction of a body that is so young and--despite the ravages of the disease--so healthy? We "joke" that if we disregard the cancer, he's in perfect health. But it's not so funny now, when every step reminds him how frail he is, and how far down we have come. Scenario A seems easier--the slow decline and then release, the comfort that "there's nothing more we can do," the knowledge that "he's not suffering." But that scenario also means that I go through the worst event of my life--and I cannot but pray that there will be none worse--without my other half. Scenario B means we go down together, fighting and crying and clawing for more time, but aware at least of the other's presence. In the end, of course, we won't be allowed to make the choice. It will happen to us. The choices in dying are pretty severely limited.
What we have had the chance to do in these past weeks is realize how amazingly happy we have been together, despite everything: how much we have laughed, how close we have become, how beloved each of us feels in this marriage, and what a joyful surprise our lives together have been. We were married for only one year before the diagnosis, and the two years since have been devastatingly difficult and yet the best we have ever known. To find happiness like this and then to lose it is unbearably sad, and frightening. I'm smart enough to know that I will probably survive this, and that I will find reasons for joy in the life to come, but I realize every day that I will hever again experience the base-line comfort and happiness that I have in my marriage.
What my husband is going through is infinitely more tragic and terrible, but for me this feels like a loss of optimism and hope, a fall from the belief that a happy life (in some ongoing, sustainable sense that underlies the daily tempests) was possible into a world where I know that it is not, and yet must find the courage to get out of bed anyway. Hope will be the final victim here.