The following essay is by guest contributor, Lea Grover.
Yesterday I learned that my husband, Mike, was supposed to be dead seven years ago. I had known he was supposed to be dead from the first time a doctor told me “astrocytoma,” and “glioma” eight years ago and then made a guess at a prognosis. But yesterday we learned that the arsenic Mike took to allow chemo and radiation to reach his tumor better was supposed to have failed according to the study. The Temodar he took five days every four weeks for eighteen months was supposed to fail, too.
Even if they had worked, Mike was supposed to die seven years ago, before we could celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We were never supposed to have eight years of chaotic happiness. We were never supposed to have three little girls who think he’s the funniest, strongest, most amazing man in the universe. We were never supposed to be here.
And yet, here we are. Not just happily married with a family of five and the regular stresses of everyday life that everyday people face every day. We’re here again, looking back on the thing that once worked and learning, no, that shouldn’t have worked, nobody knows why that worked, you shouldn’t have lived.
It really threw Mike for a loop. The look on his face was what I imagined it was three days before our wedding, when Ted Kennedy had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital, and Mike learned that Ted Kennedy’s tumor which was the same as Mike’s was not survivable — that Ted Kennedy would soon die, and that Mike could expect the same.
He called me that day, as I was getting my pre-wedding haircut, to tell me he’d read the news. All of it. All the research online he’d avoided, all the statistics he’d been keeping himself from looking up, all of them right there in the news, and he couldn’t stop reading. It had been nine months, and he learned he was only supposed to have nine more.
What do you do with that information?
“Do you feel like you’re halfway to being dead?” I asked him, and he said no. “Then fuck it,” I said, “Kick its ass. You’re not Ted Kennedy. You’re going to beat this.”
He told me he loved me, and I was so grateful to be standing on the sidewalk in Wicker Park, with the sun on my gorgeous new haircut, watching hipsters walk their dogs past, oblivious to the life and death happening right then, right in front of them — oblivious to the fact that to be loved by Mike was the greatest experience one could have on this earth, and that they were missing out on both the best and worst of life and they would never know. And although I felt sick with worry over the face I imagined him making as he collected himself and went back to work, knowing he was supposed to die, supposed to be dead, and that instead he was marrying me on Friday, I also felt giddy with gratitude.
Three days later we were married on a rooftop, the Sears Tower behind us jutting up like a middle finger towards the cancer that already felt so much in the past.
We had to learn over and over again that the cancer wasn’t in the past, but the lesson never stuck. Just as the idea that he was supposed to die, supposed to be dead, never took root.
Except for when it has. When I wonder what I’ll do every time the Foo Fighters come on the radio and I think about Mike and hear his crooning like an echo inside my head. When I wonder if anyone could ever love a dumpy, widowed mother of three, staring at decades of loneliness… or if I could ever want someone to. When I tell myself that if Mike is gone when the kids are older, I’ll find a way to take them to Moscow to the skyscraper their father helped design, and bring them to the glass-domed nightclub he worked dozens of hours of overtime on, and tell them this was what he loved to do, and this was what he wants to be remembered for, not a battle with a cancer.
“I want to spend more of my life married to you than not,” Mike said in the months before we were wed.
“It’s settled, then. You’re not allowed to die until our twenty-sixth anniversary.” I added, “If ever.”
“I promise,” he grinned, “I will never die.”
Last year I joked, “Six down, twenty to go.”
If it is, as I once almost allowed myself to believe, my love that has saved him thus far, what would it mean if I can’t continue saving him?
After all, brain cancer treatment is so changed since he was first diagnosed, recurrences are not the same as initial diagnoses, and new information, even useful new information, always feels like a punch in the gut. I had no idea we’d be so unfathomably lucky, with no reason or explanation for the luck, or that we would run across a burning bridge, only to find once we’d reached the other side that we had somehow stepped right over a tiger pit at its end.
And here we are, staring at a new burning bridge, with the knowledge now that there are vicious wild animals waiting to eat us if we make it to the other side. The path ahead is smoldering, but not impassable. It’s so hard, though, and we’re taking three helpless children with us, shepherding them through dangers and fears and carrying them through the worst to places where maybe we can all enjoy a little peace.
This isn’t new, but it’s hard. It is hard to grin and flip off fate every hour of every day. It is hard to know that reality objects to the conditions of your survival. It is hard to know it will never not be true.
But it is easy to love him every minute of every day. Even if it means planning his birthday celebrations in a future without him during my weaker moments. Loving him is easy. Believing in him is easy.
Believing that someday, when he’s really supposed to die, our grown children can come be by his side and tell him how they still believe he is the funniest, strongest, most incredible man in the world…
It’s the rest of this muddling through that’s hard.
Lea Grover is a writer, speaker, and vigilante educator on Chicago’s south side. When she’s not writing on her blog (Becoming SuperMommy), she speaks about Sex Positivity and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. She’s looking forward to the release of her first memoir, about the similarities between battling terminal brain cancer and postpartum depression. She’s active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.