Years ago when my wife was first learning what it meant to deal with cancer, and my caregiving skills were being put to repeated tests, a longtime friend and former running and baseball coach called to offer his support. “Your whole life has been preparation for this,” he told me.
It was a compelling notion. Our connections were not only through sports, for we’d become friends and even partners in business as the years went past. Yet sports were the first component of our relationship. He coached me in baseball when I was 13. Our small town had no Pony League team for the 13-15 year age group, and I’d just thrown a perfect game against the younger kids after to moving to Illinois from Pennsylvania. So the parents got together and asked me if I wanted to pitch for the American Legion team. Of course I did. That went well enough and my coach for the next couple years was the fiery, motivated man that would by circumstance also later coach me in high school cross country.
It was a seemingly providential union, therefore, that drove us together. So he saw me at my best and worst over the years. I was the top runner on the cross-country team he coached. We dared enough to defeat a school that had not lost in more than 60 dual meets. We won the first-ever district team championships. We ran hot, sweaty miles together in August and thrilled to the feeling of cool fall air up our shorts as we kicked in race after race, winning and grinning.
Yet we also got our asses kicked a couple times toward the end of the season. So the lessons learned from life on the run were profound. You do your best, and you don’t always win. Yet the miracles that happen along the way make it all worth it.
The friendships from those days have lasted 40 years. I still ride and run with two of those teammates. How is that not a great thing? When I got married and had two children, I parted ways for a while with that former coach. Yet we’d keep in touch through parties and reunions and occasional phone calls. In a very direct way he’s always cut to the chase when it comes to observations about life.
As my high school coach he watched my basketball career thin out to the point where as a senior it was obvious there would be little playing time. I was good enough in many ways, but had not attended basketball camp that previous summer. Walking through the gym during the first few days of practice, he noticed that a fellow senior and I were basically sent off to a corner to practice passing. My friend and coach walked up and told us both, “If you haven’t figured it out, you guys aren’t going to play this year.”
Sometimes the hard advice is the best thing you can receive, of course. We both walked out of the gym that day and never went back. So you have to take into account that early, tough decisions do have formative value in later years. It’s not like we are one person when we’re young and we turn into another person as we age. We’re the same person inside and out. We live in our bodies and act through our brains. We feel with our hearts and we dream with our souls.
As life goes on and we meld ourselves with another person such as a wife or a partner, things get naturally more complicated to the point where you sometimes cannot tell yourself from the relationships in which you’re involved.
That’s true especially with your children, who both depend on you for guidance and rebel at your authority. Or if they do not rebel, they wish somehow to understand where to draw the lines.
When something like cancer enters this matrix of relationships and hopes, one can only hope to draw on past experiences to help you through. You fear for the person who suffers from a disease like cancer. But you fear for yourself as well. What will become of the person you’ve become, this flesh and soul mixed with the life of another person? And then there are the children, her family, and her friends…
Thanks to my wife’s terrific determination and will to live, those considerations lasted 8 years, and that is something to be grateful about. Her diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2005 seemed terminal the moment we learned from her gynecologist that the cyst removed from her ovary was cancerous. Ovarian cancer is a kicker, you see. It does not go away easily. Yet my wife kicked it many times over those 8 years. Her ability to tolerate pain and discomfort was almost legendary among her friends and even the strangers who signed on to help with our caregiving group.
And that’s where the miracles truly began. We had so much help and hope come from friends and people we barely knew. It was not just from church, although that channel was massive in propping us up when we tottered. Help came from the preschool where she taught, and from people who simply heard our story and wanted to be part of helping out.
Miracles do happen. The sign nailed to our tree out back of our house has hung there for years. My wife and I saw it every day because it was placed where we could see it in a direct view from the kitchen sink.
It works like this: You live and pray and work through problems and suddenly something happens that is unexpected and wonderful and a blessing. You can’t predict when it would happen or why. You just know that at that moment there is enough hope to sustain you when you need money or patience.
Miracles happen. From my experience growing up, I knew this to be true. My old coach knew it too. He saw the work and he saw the joys in my participation in sports. He knew that athletics is a quirky, devlish sort of teacher, but that the angels do win out now and then. That’s what he meant when he said “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
You learn how to learn from defeat when you put your heart and guts on the line. That’s what my wife was doing every day. That’s what it took to be a caregiver in support of that effort. If you’re going to be a good teammate you have to sacrifice at the right time. Be selfless as you can.
It got more true as time went by. About a week before she died, it became necessary for me to engage in the most humbling of acts as my wife’s strength was waning and she needed help in everything she did. It was hard for her to even stand on her own two feet. I looked up at her naked before me and whispered, “One flesh, honey. I am you.”
Understood. Through all our challenges we were suddenly united in the most practical venture of all, which is dying the best way we can. She passed away on March 26 one year ago today. It took me many months to process the trauma of those last weeks.
Perhaps I even escaped a bit into daily life. It had been a long journey. It honestly felt good to coast a little after years of uphill climbing. I ask forgiveness for that. And yet the abiding feeling was, and is, one of love and pride for her. She lived extremely well through treatments that would flatten your very soul at times.
Yet she’d rise again to be there for her children. And to laugh, and drink wine when she could. It was a good life she led. So hard that it had to end. Obviously the shock rippled through our family when it was finally evident that this seemingly unstoppable women was in fact going to die. She had made it to one graduation, and another.
She had opened her heart to accept a dog in her life when for 25 years it was her joke that she would one day write a book titled “1001 Reasons Not To Own a Dog.”
So it’s not some pat story that gets written about a person’s life. Not hers or mine. But when that coach called and told me “Your whole life has been a preparation for this” it really rang true. It was true while she was alive and it has proven true as I’ve grieved and kept on without her.
I believe that Miracles Happen. I truly do. While she was alive all those years, my wife was a cancer survivor. She deserves so much credit for that. For what it gave all of us. But none of us lives forever. In life you have to keep your heart and mind open to possibilities. Some of them are so strange they do not make sense to everyone.
I can only say that during the 8 years of caregiving there were moments of terror and trepidation, but there were just as many, if not more, blessings that came our way. Miraculous blessings. Things I now try to share with our children and her family so that they know she was cared for by this world as well as them. And that is the strange and wonderful lesson of everyone’s life. Yours and mine.
We must not let daily worries or even fearful circumstances get us down. Our miracles may not always be profound, or save the one we love from something so inevitable as death. Yet the real healing of our grief comes from knowing that everything we’ve done before and everything we’re doing now is indeed the ideal preparation for life. It’s all we’ve got, and it’s everything we need. Just be prepared to share your worries and miracles may indeed happen. Be ready when they come along, or wake up to the moment if you must. Whatever it takes. And say thanks to whomever brings them about. Gratitude goes a long way in this world in healing our grief and casting light on the path ahead.