Shortly before the July 4th holiday in 2006 and three months before his 50th birthday, my husband Kevin discovered a lump on the front of his left shoulder right next to his collarbone when the seat belt pulled against it. Immediately upon arriving home, he came to me, took my right hand and placed it over the lump. His face was pale, eyes opened wide and edged with tears and his hand was shaking.
As my fingers touched that long, cylindrical-shaped, hard lump for the first time, a deep tingling began in the pit of my stomach and traveled through my body, ending at my fingertips, toes and head. Simultaneously, I felt his heart beat against my palm and my heart joined in rhythm.
It was an intimate and poignant flash of joint love, fear, and commitment that radiated out of our souls in harmony. We each sensed with certainty that this lump was going to force us to embark on an unexpected, uncertain and unwelcome journey. It also cemented our commitment to face whatever was ahead with our hearts and hands joined together.
It took a week to get in to the doctor. Despite the doctor’s initial evaluation that this was a simple cyst, we asked him to remove it. Our instincts continued to tell us that something wasn't right.
Unfortunately, we were correct. And our new journey began.
In early August, test results came back. The “cyst” was actually an enlarged, cancer-filled lymph node. Kevin was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). Additional blood tests were run, a bone marrow test was completed and CT scans exposed swollen lymph nodes throughout his body. These tests revealed that the "cancer to have", normally diagnosed in men over the age of 60, was aggressive and terminal for Kevin. Thus he started chemo in September, 2006. They hit it with the "big guns" for 4 days every 4 weeks until February, 2007. The goal was to knock it into remission and allow research to find new treatments for the cancer that has no cure.
We achieved that goal and were given the gift of 4 years of remission.
Late June, of 2011, Kevin was not feeling well and wound up spending time in the hospital undergoing tests. Initially, the doctors believed it was his heart. The good news was that he didn't have any cardiac issues. The bad news was that the cancer was raging and active again. This time it was dressed up with a special mutation that no one wants to find in their bone marrow called the "p-17 deletion". Coupled with his other health issues, the doctors didn't offer a very positive outlook.
I began to capture our journey on a Caringbridge site and once again we moved into the battle. With the support of friends and family, a new drug called Campath in our bag of tricks, and the knowledge that we never walk our journey alone, we moved ahead in hope. Over the course of 6 weeks and following a number of treatment modifications, the Campath worked its wonder and the symptoms were driven back. He took his last treatment on September 4, 2011.
Unfortunately, the symptoms returned quicker this time and exactly one year after completing his second round of treatment, we again began to battle the beast. Kevin had the heart of a lion. Our doctors were honest, caring practitioners who strove to arm us with the best weapons available and protect him with cancer-resistant armor. Our family and faith community carried us and sustained us with the power of prayer and presence. God never left our side.
The battles raged on – this time without breaks between treatments -- and eventually my lion-hearted husband’s body began to fail. He entered the hospital’s critical care unit in early November, 2013. On December 3rd I brought him home under Hospice care. On December 7th his earthly life ended as he left his physical body behind and moved victorious into God’s kingdom.
And the first year of my journey without him began….
I felt as though my life had been ripped apart. It didn’t matter that I’d had over 7 years to prepare. The loss was heart-breaking and it tore through my soul.
On the outside, I did everything I could to shove my grief away and keep it in a tightly wrapped box. I returned to work. I put on a “normal” face. I desperately wanted a spot in life to be like it used to be. I put together a plan for my grieving. I decided my grief needed to fit into the weekends and only in controlled environments like a grief support group. At all other times, it simply didn’t exist.
I developed my own little “armor” to protect me. The prayer shawl I received at his visitation would wrap me in warmth and stave off the cold pain. Twisting the bracelet on my wrist reminded me to stay focused and avoid tears. Kevin’s wedding ring on a chain around my neck kept him close to me.
Sometimes the pain would pop out in unexpected moments. A song on the radio, the smell of certain foods, a worn place on the couch from where his hand always rested, an ad for our favorite restaurant. Each time I would shove the pain down tighter, stay at work longer.
But grief will not be controlled. It can’t be contained. It can’t be ignored. It doesn’t fit into a box.
After years of battling cancer with Kev, it was exhausting to fight grief. Eventually I lost. I came down like a flaming meteor rushing through the atmosphere, crashed into the ground and left a deep hole and debris scattered across the earth. I was a mess.
Finally, I recognized that grief must be revealed, experienced, acknowledged and lived. Despite the setbacks, fear and despair, I knew that I couldn’t avoid the journey. In order for me to survive this process I had to lean into God. If I kept moving forward, acknowledged the pain and stretched my arms out to God, He would help me heal and discover the new life that was ahead of me.
During the first year following Kev’s death, I used his Caringbridge site to keep people updated on my journey. I don’t want to forget those stories and that critical part of my history. Therefore, it’s still in place here as a reminder of the last three years of his battle and the first year of my life without him. Feel free to stop and visit the site and explore our history.
Our story created the foundation for my ability to love deeply, grieve intensely, and ultimately find healing and comfort in writing. As I've gently sifted through the memories of love, joy, laughter, loss and pain that combined to make up this thing we call life, I've uncovered treasures of hope and grace. I believe it is the promise of God -- to be present in all that is and to help us find newness in all that will be. With His help, I'm becoming new....
Photos on this page are from my personal collection and are shared with appreciation to Nikki Real (casual photo), Mark Edmonds (wedding photo), and Lucy Hayes (dance photo).