It’s never a good thing when emergency room personnel know you by name. Diane had suffered from gastrointestinal problems for some time and had visited the emergency room 27 times in the past year for nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Over a period of nine months, her gastroenterologist performed two colonoscopies and one endoscopy. He eventually made a diagnosis of arteriovenous malformations. “Don’t worry, he said, there’s no sign of cancer. Most people with this disease can lead normal lives. In Diane’s case, he was wrong – absolutely wrong.
March 1, 2022 was the day our lives changed forever. We thought it was just another ER visit. I was expecting the usual testing protocol: an injection of promethazine or Zofran for nausea, followed by discharge. This time it was different. An imaging test had revealed two spots on Diane’s liver – likely cancerous, they said. I was stunned. Further testing would surely provide another explanation. It had been less than a month since the gastroenterologist had done the endoscopy and found no malignancy.
Radiology confirmed the diagnosis of cancer. Worse still, it was inoperable colon cancer that had spread to the liver, and the GI doctor never saw it. My wife, my wife of 52 years, my high school sweetheart was going to die, and there was nothing anyone else could do about it including me.
Supporting a loved one who is living with terminal cancer is the second hardest thing I have done in my 73 years on earth. The hardest thing for me was when Diane stopped living with it and started dying from it. The visual evidence of his decline and the relentless approach of his death were terrifying.
She did her best. We were referred to a local cancer center and the clinical team assured Diane that the liver tumors were relatively small. She was an excellent candidate for chemotherapy. Another two years of life was a reasonable expectation. Three or four were not out of the question. I felt a surge of hope. Chemotherapy would give Diane the precious gift of time. Meanwhile, there was the possibility of new drugs, new discoveries, maybe even a cure. A light, however dim, flickered at the end of the tunnel.
We confirmed an appointment for the chemo port procedure a few days later. When Diane canceled at the last minute, I was surprised and alarmed. The clock was ticking, the tumors were growing; we had to do it now. At the same time, I didn’t want to push her. It wasn’t my body, my illness or my decision to make. I breathed a sigh of relief when she rescheduled the appointment and kept it.
During this time, I had started researching and learning from a few top cancer institutions, including the Mayo Clinic. I even asked our cancer office to send Diane’s records to one of the other hospitals I had contacted. Nothing came of it; I haven’t heard from any of them. Ultimately, that was a moot point, as Diane said she was not interested in traveling for treatment.
That glimmer of hope I had felt didn’t last long. Wearing chemo was uncomfortable and Diane was embarrassed by it. She eventually stopped wearing a bra. It helped with the wearing problem, but did nothing to reduce her nausea from the treatment session. The discomfort was exacerbated when they sent her home with a portable unit that slowly dispensed the drugs through her port.
Diane’s next appointment was rescheduled because her iron level was too low for treatment. They gave her an injection to boost the iron and postponed the session. That’s when Diane told me she was done with chemo for good.
“It took me a while to realize that a few months of quality life was a gift she wanted to give to both of us.”
At the time, I viewed her decision as a death wish – a rejection of the life we had together. Would she really rather speed up the timeline of her death than have more time with me and our daughter? I accepted and supported Diane’s decision, but I couldn’t understand her. It took me a while to realize that a few months of quality life was a gift she wanted to give to both of us. Two or three years of uninterrupted misery from drugs and side effects, with virtually no chance of a different outcome, was not something Diane wanted for either of us.
The cancer center tried to convince her to continue the treatments, but I think they realized the weakness of their argument, given the situation. They gave us a referral to the hospice and wished us luck. Hospice is accepting patients who are deemed to have less than six months to live. The clock was ticking. We would have one last summer together.
I think back to the magic of those ordinary days that make up a life. I helped Diane wash, dress and go to the bathroom. We would go out every morning for breakfast to a restaurant where people liked it. Shopping, shopping, outings to the park filled our days. I tried to stay strong for her, but I could feel the time slipping away.
July gave way to August and Diane began to decline. One of the hardest things for a caregiver is to watch your loved one slowly disappear, physically and mentally. The world shrinks, the light at the end of the tunnel fades, until only the tunnel itself remains.
Diane could no longer leave the house. I couldn’t handle it. Even if I was younger and stronger, I’m not sure I could have kept her safe.
I got the hospital bed around mid-August after she fell out of our bed the second time. We put her in the living room, where she could watch TV and feel involved in the day’s activity. The hospice was wonderful, offering counselling, support, nursing services and bed baths. I couldn’t have made it without their help.
The end of August was difficult. I tried to feed her. On good days, Diane ate half a honey bun and drank ginger ale. I waited to see if it would last until our anniversary on August 24th. She succeeded. I wished him a happy birthday. Maybe she understood me; maybe she didn’t. Diane’s ability to speak was now almost gone.
I chose a funeral home and started sleeping in a room closer to the front of the house so I could watch over it at night. Diane stopped eating at the end of August. His time was short. My daughter and my son-in-law were driving from Virginia.
I write this on Monday September 12th. Diane died last Wednesday afternoon, September 7, at 2 p.m. My daughter and I spent the morning by her bedside holding her hand and showing her our love. The hospice nurse was there to help us when she died.
“I believe that a life is measured by the footprints you leave behind. Diane’s are imprinted in my heart and in the hearts of many others.
They say you never forget your first love. In my case, Diane was the only girl I ever loved. I took her ice skating on our first date in 1966. It didn’t take long to know she was the one for me. Finding my soul mate at such a young age was indescribable. She felt the same. Life was perfect.
And now she’s gone. I am reassured to know that his life was full. Diane was a wonderful wife and mother; she was a competent and compassionate nurse. I believe a life is measured by the footprints you leave behind. His are imprinted on my heart and on the hearts of many others.
What did I learn from this experience? I can tell you that dealing with Diane’s death is the hardest thing I have ever done. I carry sadness like a heavy blanket. My mind is fuzzy; I drift through the days looking for something, for someone who isn’t there. It’s surreal. Maybe time will help. Maybe not.
I sometimes feel a sense of peace knowing that I did what I could to make her feel comfortable. Her urn sits on a memorial table, along with a picture of the two of us and some personal items that were important to her. I visit Diane every day. She will be with me as long as I live.
The house is quiet now. I try to move on, but it’s hard. I thought we would grow old together. We did, but not old enough. Diane’s death taught me that no matter how much we love someone, we all have our own lives to live. The best way for me to honor the life Diane and I had together is to live the rest of my life the best way I know how.
It’s late. I should try to sleep, but I think I’ll turn on the television. I need something to drown out the sound of crying.
Ronald Paxton was born in Richmond, Virginia and currently lives in Conway, South Carolina. He sold his first short story in 2008 and has since published eight novels, over 50 short stories, a children’s book and poetry. Mr. Paxton’s short fiction film was nominated for the Pushcart Award and the Best of the Net award. Her novel “Tears at Sunrise” is a State Library of Virginia Fiction Selection.
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