At the start of 2014, I celebrated my half-century birthday. My New England home was packed to the rafters with friends, both old and new, family, music and food. I was enveloped in love and felt buoyantly optimistic about the upcoming year(s). My husband of 25-plus years, Ken, was starting a new senior role at a growing startup. I had launched a fledgling consulting business with a bunch of amazing clients. I had committed — finally— to getting on the biking bandwagon and going on a 62-mile race with my biking obsessed hubby. It was promising to be quite a year.
Less than a month later, we learned that the funky little squamous cell carcinoma that my husband had removed from his lip two years earlier, to little fanfare, had metastasized. Stage IV cancer. The cells had spread into at least four lymph nodes.
As a world-class problem-solver and fixer, I shifted into high gear. I researched and ranked doctors and surgical centers as my hubby, alternatively numb and angry, struggled to make decisions about his treatment. He finally decided on a hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering, as much for the doctor and incredible staff as for its stellar reputation.
The doctor said Ken would need surgery and likely radiation. Chemo, thankfully, wasn’t in the cards. He was reluctant to talk percentages or odds, but he gave us a timeline: April surgery, May surgical recovery, June and July radiation in New York City, every day, five days a week. August/September: Recovery. It was going to be a long haul, but at least now I could plan.
I reached out to friends and family to let them know the news. I set up a website. I set up times for people to provide meals, dog care and errands. Ken seemed disengaged from what I was doing, focused more on bike rides and what I considered quack cures (almond bitters anyone?) than on the upcoming course of treatment. I was sure — I KNEW — that on some level he appreciated it all, and I understood his increasing moodiness as more than normal under the circumstances.
On the morning of Ken’s surgery, we drove into New York City slightly ahead of the sunrise. We didn’t talk much on the drive in, but held hands, tightly, in the car, into the hospital and straight through into the prep room. I quizzed the nurse on procedure, timing and post-op care. I felt like I was falling apart but didn’t want him to know how scared I was about, well, everything — especially about the possibility of losing him. He had enough to worry about. So I kept up the strong front.
The surgery was thankfully uneventful and I spent three nights sleeping in a chair next to Ken’s at the hospital, making sure he was eating, buzzing the nurse when he was in pain but didn’t want to bother anyone. I updated the website and meal schedule. I was going on a trip for work the week after Ken’s surgery, so I set up a schedule for visits, meals and check-ins for him.
I realized I was missing out on why this was an experience for which I should be grateful. Yeah, you read that right. Grateful.
And that’s when it all blew up.
As I was packing from my trip, talking about nothing, Ken looked up from his emails.
“You gotta stop,” he said. “Really.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about . “Stop what?” I asked.
“This. These emails. The visiting schedules. The babysitting. I would say I appreciate it, but I don’t. I want to just be. I need to process all of this, decide for myself when I want people around and when I don’t. And I don’t need you deciding what’s best for me. I love you but you’re driving me crazy. I’m not going to die — yet — so you need to stop trying to fix things. Really, you need to stop trying to control everything. Because you can’t. Especially not me. And not cancer.”
Stung, all I could think was “ingrate.” Rushing for a train, I didn’t have time to tell him why he was wrong.
Over the next day and a half, I did have time to realize why he was right.
I didn’t stop being a fixer overnight. Far from it. But I did start to realize that more than anything, Ken needed me to spend time with him. And really, that’s what I needed, too, I was avoiding the just-being-present-and-spending–time-together piece of it. I was missing out on why this was an experience for which I should be grateful.
Yeah, you read that right. Grateful.
When I returned home, I started listening more and talking less, letting Ken take the lead on what he did and didn’t want to do. No argument, just some questions sometimes. I offered mostly supportive silence as he talked through his feelings. His anger, sense of resolve, and sometimes, feelings of helplessness. I wanted to be there, to really see, hear and listen to the man I married. He needed that from me. I needed that for me. And for us.
The next few months were a blur: Ken started radiation in May and we were lucky enough to have a room at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge so that we didn’t commute back and forth from our home in Connecticut. Our weeks were spent in New York City, our weekends back home, training in earnest for the Bloomin’ Metric bike race. It was less than two months away and while I tried not to show it, I was determined to do the entire 62 mile ride.
One night, without telling me, Ken rode over the George Washington Bridge. Another night, he ran down the West Side Highway.
I watched him, in awe. He was so resilient, so kind, so giving in a way that I couldn’t be.
The morning of the Bloomin’ Metric was absolutely gorgeous: breezy yet warm, sunny but not too much. I was amped on adrenaline. Worried about me, Ken reminded me that I could do a shorter ride if I wanted. With a set to my jaw, I reminded him that I did what I wanted. Just like he did.
He rode alongside me the entire time, offering up bananas and water and the occasional “awesome” when I cranked up a particularly rough hill.
As we approached the last few yards at just past the 4 1/4 hour mark, Ken challenged me.
“You gonna let the guy with cancer beat you?” he said.
“How do you know I’m not just feeling sorry for the guy with cancer and letting you beat me?” I snapped back.
And we both raced toward the finish line, full-tilt.
The race wasn’t some bathed-in-warm-light ending — or a new beginning. We still had more radiation ahead plus uncertainty beyond that. But we also had more biking and bike races, dancing, trips to the beach, great nights of music and wine and good food ahead of us.
We each are who we are, the good, the bad and the ugly. What made the year so special was that I was able to spend more time alone with Ken than at any other time in our over 25 years together. I was able to really be with him, in the present, in the moment in a way that I’m not sure we ever had before. What a gift.