By 6:39 a.m. on May 23, 2017, Matt was at the gate at the airport, ready to fly to Duke for his second Avastin infusion. By 9:37 he’d landed and by 12:18 he’d been seen by the clinical trial nurse, had secured a promise that Duke would help him find a local oncologist to administer the third Avastin infusion, and was cleared to play tennis. The Avastin infusion wasn’t scheduled until 4:30, but by 1:02 he was in the infusion chair hooked up to the drug that no longer felt so dangerous. By 4:29 he was back in Newark. Less than twelve hours out of state. My guess is most of our friends didn’t even know Matt had gone to Duke and back that day.
That was by design. I’ve said before, these were the most hopeful days, the days we most wanted to separate ourselves from anything associated with cancer in our real lives.
Because a year ago today, Matt and I really tried to distance ourselves from anything cancer related. We played down Matt’s diagnosis and didn’t always mention that he was making a day trip to North Carolina for a controversial black box drug. We didn’t want to be defined by our fight. Now, I am forever defined by what cancer has stolen from my life. There is no distancing, and I wouldn’t want to, anyway.
I often compare then and now in these posts. At times, I’ve been surprised to find that things haven’t changed. Mostly, I end up devastated by the sheer magnitude of how much has changed for the worse.
Yesterday I went to an event for an organization that supports families impacted by cancer. It was my third year going. The first year, I stood outside on the balcony and cried with stress because I knew something was deeply wrong with my husband. The second year, I sat at a table, watched the promotional video, and welled up with tears, surprising myself because what did I have to cry about; Matt was on the road to cancer-free.
This year, I didn’t cry at the event. I didn’t feel the tears sting the back of my eyes during the video and I didn’t choke up during the speeches. I simply listened. Rather than stress or denial, I had an entirely different reaction this year, one that more closely resembled empathy, I think. I understood the hope pouring from the patient on the video who dreamed of one day seeing her grandchildren and I felt the depth of the loss in the words of those who spoke about family members who’d lost the fight against cancer in a way I couldn’t last year or the year before.
In the last weeks, when Matt was gone before he was actually gone, I started writing him letters because I missed talking to him. (Possibly with the hope of showing them to him when he got better.) I continued that project for a bit after. I don’t plan to re-read the letters but I remember wanting to tell him how loss could climb into your soul, change everything about how you see the world. I remember realizing, even back in those early days when nothing made sense, that I had changed, fundamentally.
So, my then versus now analysis. A year ago today, I couldn’t simply listen to the stories. Not in any real way, which isn’t a judgment on who I was last year; it’s simply a reflection of how I needed to cope with my own unraveling life. Now, I cannot hear a story about cancer without feeling connected to the hope and pain and fear and faith associated with the battle, without wishing I could lift some of the burden because I know the weight is so, so heavy to bear alone. Now, instead of just crying for the stories, I know to listen, too.
It might be a change for the better.