It has been five years to the day since the woman to whom I was married for 28 years passed away. On March 26, 2013 she died quietly in the living room of our home where over the last couple weeks our friends and family had gathered to share in the waning moments of her life.
Yesterday afternoon we held a celebration of that life by inviting folks to a restaurant where we shared wine and stories. My daughter Emily brought lots of photos and many people were moved to relate moments or experiences that represented their relationship with Linda Cudworth
Like a phoenix
Those stories were met with smiles and laughter. And there were serious discussions as well. How she’d been so strong through eight long years of cancer treatments. “She battled back from every round, her best friend shared, “Like a phoenix!”
As a firsthand witness to those challenges, I can relate the fear we both felt in that first round of chemotherapy. How she writhed on the couch wishing only to be free from those feelings. The stinging chemicals poured into the human body during chemotherapy mess with your systems and senses. She endured all that to stay alive through multiple treatments and years of trepidation on whether the cancer would return. And it did, unfortunately. Time and again we pushed it back, with a year or so of relative peace between.
She did it to be there for her kids through life’s landmarks of family events and graduations and more. But also to be alive in the moment, and to get back to her joy in gardening and to teach the preschool children she loved. Those were her personal missions of God.
Those of us who run and ride can appreciate some aspects of dealing with pain to get to a point of joy.
We know what it’s like to live with pain in the moment. We can even understand how its effects and the fatigue that come from hard effort can linger.
But imagine dealing with those difficulties when you don’t choose them. When they are forced on you by whatever odd algorithm the universe allows to introduce cancer in one person and not in the next. It can certainly feel unfair. And that’s the tough part. How to participate in a race where it feels like the only goal is to keep on running. It reminds me of the cycling axiom: “It never gets easier you just go harder.”
My freshman college roommate and cross country teammate also lost his wife to ovarian cancer. The likelihood of that has always struck me as odd. His wife was a sweet and lovely woman named Kristi. She had a soft voice and big brown eyes. She was an excellent runner who broke 40:00 for 10k.
When cancer came to her, she went through all those treatments as well. On a couple occasions during visits to Luther College over the years, the two women had quiet conversations about the cancer they both were trying to overcome.
When Kristi lost her brown hair during one of those treatments, it came back curly and gray. But it came back. That is symbolic of how the struggle of cancer can change you. She looked different, but she also looked lovely.
Changes all around
Cancer changes the people around those who are going through the struggle as well. My children kept close tabs on their mom, of course. They wanted to know how she was doing and trusted me to tell them. Yet she was resolute about what she was willing to share when things got tough at times.
When our kids were busy with college or starting out their lives in other ways, she parsed out what she felt they needed to know. “I am doing well,” she’d make me promise to say.
This was true despite all the changes it wrought in her body and mind. The neuropathy in her feet from chemo made it tough for her to walk through the garden. Her numb hands and fingers were just as bad, and one type of chemo drug made the skin of her hands peel away. Yet’s she’d still put on gloves and get out there and dig. When she’d lost her hair the third or fourth time, it refused to come back. Yet she’d be out there in the garden sweating right through the scarf covering her bald head. She was a gamer, you might say.
That’s how she was from the get-go. She was more of a walker than a runner by habit. But the one time she ran a road race with me, she chose a 10K and trained a few weeks to get in shape. On that base she ran a solid 59:00. Her whole family has a high oxygen uptake. Her brother Paul raced bikes at a CAT 3 level and rode 40K in one hour to help us win a team duathlon at one point. That’s a 24 mph average.
His sister was a goof about the whole ‘take exercise seriously thing.’ I recall one of the first times we ran together. We were trotting along and her long blonde hair was flying behind her. She mentioned that her stomach felt a bit full, and then revealed that she and some friends had just imbibed in quite a bit of wine. My jaw dropped and I laughed at the thought of it.
Golden Leg Syndrome
See, Linda often teased me about what she called Golden Leg Syndrome. On the night before races I would seldom agree to go out and party or anything like it. I didn’t want my legs to feel dead from standing around some kitchen for three hours. I’d worked too hard to get into shape to waste it on some social occasion. And that’s the other thing I would not do; drink the night before an important race.
For the most part, she understood all that. She also came to watch me race many times, and more than once I was fortunate enough to win.
Yet the hierarchy of race prizes always bugged her. “They give all these nice things away in the raffle and you win the race and don’t get shit,” she laughed. Which made it even funnier after I won a big race and received Marathon Santa Christmas ornament as the prize. The race was held in August.
Lessons in humility and life
To this day I don’t know if that prize was a mistake or not. But the point was moot. It was a lesson in humility and the fact that life is more about what you’re doing than it is about what you get in return. From that perspective, we evolved a motto during the cancer treatment that was simple and practical: “It is what it is.”
We didn’t ask for more than we should expect, and tried not to complain. Linda’s sole gripe was that she hated having to be the center of so much attention at times. There was a caregiving group of 80 people that grew up around us to help with rides and meals and other needs. It was all coordinated by one of her best friends and the director of the preschool where she worked. Her name was also Linda, and I joked that during those eight years she acted a second wife to our family. But it wasn’t really a joke. It was true. That woman looked after us like an angel from God.
Celebration of life
Because the true pain of all this was its impact on our children. Yesterday’s celebration of life for their mother was wonderful. And while it doesn’t change the fact that their mom is gone, it does point out that she is present with them through all her friends and even through the woman to whom I am now married.
Everyone gets it. We are family in ways that we don’t even understand sometimes. That was a keen value in my late wife, a love of family. And the fact that that exists in so many ways is a great testament to her influence on so many of us.
And we all shine on.