I’ve become a bit obsessed with the obituaries published in the newspaper. They are as varied as the people they must represent. Some are warm and personal. Some are modified resumes, reciting in chronological order the accomplishments of the deceased.
I don’t even read the obituaries for those who were over 80 when they passed. Those deaths, though a great loss for family and friends, seem in accord with the natural order of things. We are all going to die, and to have lived a long and fruitful life before that happens is a gift. The deaths of the very young are tragic, most often the results of accidents or offered up in the obituaries without an explanation. Suicide, I suspect, in some cases.
I scan for people who died at about Mark’s age. Sometimes, when I find those, I’m frustrated because not all obituaries provide the cause of death, which is what I’m searching for. When the cause of death is included, it’s almost always the same.
Cancer. Not infrequently, pancreatic cancer.
When I find these I pause and then reread the obituary carefully, imagining the life and death reflected by the words. I can see another spouse, another family, another circle of friends crushed by this terrible disease. Maybe it’s vampirish, sucking at someone else’s loss and sorrow, but I don’t get a thrill from these recitations, nor comfort. Perhaps it’s just a jolt of reality.
Maybe, selfishly, I just want to be reminded that I’m not the only one who has been on this journey.
After Mark was diagnosed, I spent many hours researching pancreatic cancer, looking for new treatments, scrounging for hope. Even now, I still occasionally come across articles about pancreatic cancer.
I just found a 2010 study from John Hopkins Medical Center, titled “Surprise Finding: Pancreatic Cancers Progress to Lethal Stage Slowly.” Some of the timeframes the article put forward: “…it takes at least a decade for the first cancer-causing mutation that occurs in a cell in a pancreatic lesion to turn into a full-fledged cancer cell…After the first cancer cell appears, it takes an average of nearly seven years for that cell to turn into the billions that make up a cancerous tumor the size of a plum, after which at least one of the cells within the tumor has the potential and ability to spread to other organs. Patients die an average of two and a half years after this metastasis.”
In all likelihood, Mark had the ticking time bomb of pancreatic cancer inside of him for years, perhaps decades, before he suffered the baffling symptoms that triggered the diagnosis a year ago. All these years, we continued on our life path, making our plans for the future, not knowing that this dreadful disease was taking hold in his body.
This realization has been nagging me ever since I read this article. All those years, and we had no idea. This world is a bewildering place.
This week I visited my doctor for my annual physical. Nothing extraordinary: flu shot into the right arm, pneumonia shot into the left arm, several vials of blood sent off to the lab.
I’ve been Dr. R’s patient for several years. She’s practical, pleasant and an engaging woman to boot. We always chat about our lives during the exam. I’d gone to see her right after Mark’s diagnosis, when I was a sniveling mess, just to talk to her. As I told her now about the end of Mark’s life, she radiated sympathy.
We were getting close to the end of the exam, all the appropriate boxes checked on Dr. R’s laptop. My hands were cold, and I was looking forward to dumping the paper gown and getting back into my warm clothes.
Dr. R stared at the laptop screen and hesitated. “I don’t want to offend you,” she said, “but I think we should talk about sex.”
That stopped me in my tracks.
She continued, “I’m not suggesting that you’re necessarily going to have sex anytime soon. But it could happen, and…”
She looked right at me.
“Your age group has the most dangerous sex habits of any age group. Most teenagers have safer sex than those in your age group.”
For some unknown reason, I suddenly felt guilty—on behalf on my age group, I suppose.
Dr. R hurried to explain. “So as people are widowed or get divorced after long relationships, they’re out of touch with the realities of sex today.” She talked about herpes and HPV, and how some contagious diseases that have very serious consequences for women can be asymptomatic in men. “You should keep all this in the back of your mind. It’s not like any man you'll have sex with is going to be a virgin.”
I think my mouth must have been gaping open. I couldn’t come up with an appropriate response. Wowsers.
This widowhood business is certainly not for the faint of heart.