Your life can change forever, in the blink of an eye. Maybe we all know this on an intellectual level, but what a terrible surprise it still is, when it happens.
We’d moved into our new house the week before. I was upstairs with the enthusiastic sales rep from the window coverings company, and we were measuring windows and discussing the merits of various styles of wooden blinds, when Mark answered the phone call from his doctor. Only a hint of a mental alarm sounded in my brain when Mark called me downstairs, because the doc wanted to talk to both of us at once.
Mark hates any and all medical interventions. Earlier that week, he had finally agreed to see a doctor after experiencing uncomfortable bloating in his abdomen for several days. He had been on a course of strong antibiotics following a minor throat procedure. Both he and his doc suspected that the antibiotics were the source of the problem, but the bloating hadn’t disappeared after he stopped taking them. The doc thought that the bloating was probably caused by gas, but he ordered an ultrasound. When Mark underwent the ultrasound, the technician had followed it with an unscheduled CAT scan, explaining to him only that a better view was needed.
We were both clueless. Neither of us was prepared for the follow-up call from the doctor that Friday afternoon, telling us that Mark had a mass in his pancreas and spots on his liver which were most likely cancer. The bloating in his abdomen was caused not by gas, but by an accumulation of leaking fluid. We sat on our den couch, huddled over the iPhone on the table in front of us, holding hands. I stopped breathing and I could feel the blood drain away from my face. It was a mistake. Mark had always been absolutely healthy. We ate well, he exercised almost every day, and he didn’t smoke and barely drank alcohol. It had to be a mistake. Surely this was not cancer, but something else, something resulting from Mark’s recent throat operation. That’s only a coincidence, the doc said. No connection.
I heard the sales rep walk down the stairs, and I knew she was in the front hall, holding her sample books, waiting for me. A few minutes ago I was ordering shutters. Now I was sitting next to my husband as the world we knew crumbled and we entered Cancer Land.
I’m very sorry, the doc said. It’s very bad.
A permanent hard lump coalesced and nested in my stomach. Pancreatic cancer, we learned quickly, is a terrible diagnosis. The first cancer doc we saw talked of six months, perhaps more, maybe just three months. I was so angry at him that I walked out in the middle of the consultation. My choice was to walk out or hit him in the face. I really, really wanted to hit him, to smash the stupid words coming out of his stupid mouth.
Stage IV pancreatic cancer wasn’t part of our plan. The plan was to grow old and tottering together, to enter old age entwined, to watch our son and his wife-to-be marry and give us grandchildren to cherish. We would travel, Mark would continue to work on his golf game, we would visit with old friends and make new ones. We would remake our new house into the home we would enjoy for years to come. Gone, all gone. And in the place of those dreams, a dreadful dark path appeared, leading Mark towards a predicted early and probably painful death, and for me, a continuing life without the man I’ve loved for decades.
The truth is that while we perceive that we have control over our lives, we really have next to none. Every moment of every day might turn as we planned or anticipated, but it just as likely might not. Although we hear and empathize with the terrible and tragic events that happen to others, we don’t really believe that those things will happen to us. Most of us just can’t live our lives embracing the chaos that envelops us. Remember the legend about the sword of Damocles: Damocles ruled while sitting on a throne over which a sword was suspended by a single thread, to never let him forget his own vulnerability and mortality. The supposed moral of that story is that the lives of those in power are always in peril, but I think the real message is that we all live under a sword suspended by a single thread, not just the powerful among us. When something unexpected and terrible happens, we are forced to remember that the world does not conform to our expectations, and our plans, as the saying goes, make God laugh.
But in spite of the dire medical predictions, we can’t and won’t give up hope. Mark is not a statistic, and while the odds are not in our favor, we are looking ahead with optimism and hope. After all, no one can tell us for sure what’s around the next corner. Perhaps this is denial on some level, but if so, I choose denial over despair.
This is the beginning of the story of Mark’s and my journey on this new path. There is much to learn, much to endure, and hopefully a few things to chuckle about. We are like a ship under full sail heading into an impenetrable fog bank on the horizon. Like it or not, we’re going in.