My husband is seated across the table from me under the glow of a box chandelier carrying what must be four dozen lit candles. With wine in hand, we smile at each other through the warm light and listen to our hosts discuss their children, the neighborhood, their secret romance when they were young. The dinner is homemade, deliciously fragrant, and the lower the sun drops in the sky, the more comfortable we all become, settling into our chairs and digging deeper into the depths of our conversations. One by one, each of their children has made an appearance tonight. They are introduced by their names, but also by their ages at the time of their father’s diagnosis with stage III melanoma–the eery parallel that unites us.
Our host, my husband’s age when was first diagnosed with stage III melanoma fourteen years ago, introduces his eldest, who was our toddler’s age. I observe him as he peruses the refrigerator: shooting up out of the ground, towering over his parents. He seems to be growing as we converse. He is quiet in a teenager sort of way and he disappears from the conversation given the first opportunity. I imagine my toddler in this teenage boy, this boy who is intimately familiar with his father’s journey with cancer. I shudder as I wonder how we will ever explain all of this to our two sons.
Their middle son bursts through the door as we are finishing our dinner, a mass of curls and energy and limitless hugs for his mother. “This is our middle son, he was the age of your baby when I was diagnosed,” our host informs. My husband and I find each other from across the table and I can read his thoughts: could this be our baby? Will they ever be this big? And, fearfully, I wonder if my husband will know our boys to be teenagers.
When their daughter is introduced I blink back my tears. She is younger than her middle brother by 4 years, and to me she shines like hope. Since my husband’s diagnosis, my body does nothing but crave more children, an improbability at best. But seeing her there I think to myself, just maybe… Our hostess tells me that she was born during the “relaxing years”–the three year period when our host was deemed cancer-free, before it reappeared in his groin, and allowed to carry on his military career as usual, sending them to their next assignment in Hawaii. I shoot my husband another look across the table: my dream; I hope we are this lucky.
In between the introductions, we exchange stories about cancer, hospital stays and our host’s experience in the stage III arena, divulging the details of their similar journey through treatment. I wonder if they see themselves in us as they listen to our stories and recall the darkest moments of their married lives. His story about IL-II treatments and the subsequent hallucinations makes my heart race and I can feel myself perspiring. I whisper a pleading prayer that this not happen to my husband.
Our hostess is leaning back with wine in hand, her foot up on the chair and her arm resting on her knee. With her crisp white shirt and faded blue jeans, she exudes both strength and calm. She begins the story of the end of IL-II treatments.
“It was his sixth treatment. He was sitting in the fetal position in the hospital chair. He started crying–do you remember that you were crying?” she asks him across the table. He shrugs, and she continues “–and he was broken. So I told him, ‘we’re going to stop now, okay?’ And we did.”
I look at this couple and feel as though I am looking into the future, hoping one day we can look back on this from a distance and breathe as easy as they. She speaks so simply, so unaffected, as if she’s recounting a trip to the grocery store. I am in awe of her, inspired by her. And I wonder, am I as strong as she? Can I be?
She takes a sip, then her eyes meet mine and she asks, “What has been the hardest part of all of this for you?” And then she waits.
I try to untangle my mind that is instantly crowded with a thousand answers. The abrupt end of our life as we knew it. That my husband might die. That my boys might grow up without him. That I might be a young widow. That there is no end to this disease. The loss of control, the thousands of unknowns. The pain. The crushing, relentless pain.
I start to speak, I can hear myself talking but the words aren’t clear; I am crying now, hot tears streaming down my face. I am embarrassed but mostly relieved; someone is asking me to talk about all of this. About how I am doing. It’s freeing and yet it’s too much to bear. I try to get myself together while our hostess instructs our host to find me a tissue. He is off and then returns a minute later, still searching, unsuccessful. And though I am no longer crying, the secret is out: I am not okay.
Our hostess speaks: “This is the part that no one tells you. For the rest of your life, people will ask you “how is your husband doing?”, but no one will ask about you. They just don’t know to. If he dies, you are the survivor. We are the survivors. We will have to pick up the pieces and keep it all together. They focus on their health; we focus on everything else. It’s really hard.”
She has said it. In front of my husband. She has acknowledged the enormous, cancer-filled elephant in the room that has plagued me since the November diagnosis. My husband could die. I look to my husband to gauge his reaction to this statement. He’s gazing right back at me, strong, unfettered–“unflappable” as his mother would say. I look to our host, also relaxed. Either they are too exhausted by their fight or too aware of their possible fate to care. I exhale, not realizing I was holding my breath. At this table surrounded by people who’ve been exactly where we are now, and, fourteen years later, are embracing us through it, we have found refuge.
Two hours later we are back at my in laws’ home. From our bed I hear the small voice of our toddler; he is crying out from his room down the hall–a rarity. I go to him and find he’s crying, maybe from a bad dream, but he doesn’t say.
“Mommy, will you lay with me?” he asks me in the saddest, sweetest voice. And though I would usually politely decline, tonight I indulge. I lay down, and he cuddles into the concave form my body creates. His breathing becomes steady and deep, and soon he is asleep. I lay with him a few moments more, thinking of the children I met tonight, those three warriors with so much to carry on their small shoulders. I feel I’ve glimpsed our future. I inhale deeply, trying capture as much of his little boy scent as possible. I play with his golden curls, and then wrap my arms around him and embrace his innocence, his blissful ignorance before he’s too big to fit into my arms; before he knows too much, before he himself is a little warrior with too much to carry. And though I cannot protect him from his future, from learning of his father’s diagnosis and all that it may bring, tonight he still needs me; tonight, I am his refuge.
Originally published May 6, 2013