Elk River, Minnesota
The Wedding Day. It is this wonderful blissful day filled with joy and expectation. I did have a bit of perspective on my own wedding day, as my Dad was skipping his final Chemotherapy treatment in order to have the energy to walk me down the aisle.
I said my vows, knowing in my head that there was a reason for them, but my heart was just so happy, I kind of refused to think that any of those negative things would ever happen to us. We would be richer and healthy and happy… right?
Those vows are no joke. Two years into my own marriage, the sickness arrived and tore our bliss to shreds.
When my 23-year-old husband had a heart attack and was in the ICU, I had to choose between being with him and caring for our 3 month old daughter (they should put that warning in those parenting books: you can’t take a baby into the ICU).
The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with his heart, he had no damage, but he had a heart attack. So Brett was placed on a regimen of heparin and check-ups with the cardiologist and sent home.
For four months that was our sickness, we managed over the summer, me working part time, grandma watching the baby, and Brett taking it easy and taking his blood thinners. October 2002 the occasional blood in my husband’s stool, became frequent and profuse thanks to those blood thinners. Doctor Tom, who helped us with Brett’s heart attack, did what many doctors before had refused to do and ordered a colonoscopy “just in case.”
Two years into my marriage, a new mom with a 7 month old daughter, my husband was diagnosed stage IIIC with colon cancer. Doctors cried. I tried to ignore the statistics that my husband was hung up on. The ones that said he probably wouldn’t live longer than a year.
After two years of being married and 7 months of having a child with my best friend, I was slammed in the face with the possibility that I would be raising my daughter alone. I told my husband to shut up when he told me that I should re-marry after he was gone.
I fell on my knees and prayed and then got up to feed the baby.
A baby is a living breathing piece of perspective. You can’t wallow for long, there is just too much to do. Sad cause your husband might die, too bad, change the baby’s diaper. Stressed about medical bills, pay it and move on, cause the baby needs a bottle.
Two weeks after my husband’s first colonoscopy, Brett, his mom, our daughter, and I were at the Mayo clinic. The amazing people at Mayo, my Mother In Law and our stroller are what got us through that first whirl wind of appointments. I’ll be honest, those 7 hour trips to Mayo have all blurred together.
For the most part the baby would sleep in the car. She would really only fuss when she had a diaper. You know what doesn’t mix well, like oil and water… poopy baby diapers and chemotherapy patients. You know who has to be man and change a poopy baby diaper, a new dad on chemo. You know who pukes when they change a poopy baby diaper, even though they are super tough and really have nothing to prove to anyone, a new dad on chemo.
I remember maybe half of those nearly 2 years. Doctor appointments for baby, doctor appointments for Brett. Wait on baby immunizations so that the guy on chemo doesn’t get mumps or polio. Baby is growing well at this point, she’s so healthy, 90th percentile for height, 50th percentile for weight, consistent growth is good.
The doctors gave us Brett’s chemo infusion bag, “he’ll get a 24 hour drip, if the bag bursts, get the baby out of the house and call 911, here is your toxic chemical spill kit.” Carry diapers, formula, pacifier, toys, snacks, anti-nausea meds and toxic chemical spill kit in the diaper bag. I couldn’t forget to take my birth control while Brett is having radiation treatments and for at least 6 months after he is done.
Oh and “do you want any more children?” We had to quickly decide if we wanted to bank sperm, so that we could get IVF when you want to have more babies. Don’t worry insurance covers 85% of his treatment costs, (wait how much is 15% of $400,000!!?). Emergency fund? We have no emergency fund, we’ve been married for two years, he is a Lutheran School teacher, we thought we were doing good paying rent and paying for the baby medical bills.
We had a lot of firsts that year, first smile, first ride in an ambulance, first teeth, first medi-port, first sippy cup, first colonoscopy, first time pulling up on the coffee table, first fanny pack of chemotherapy, first steps, first radiation treatment. This was my life. Trying to be a good mom to a beautiful little girl and trying to be a good wife to a man who just wanted to be normal.
The initial shock of the diagnosis and our new way of life lasted at least those first 3 months of chemo. I held on to my sanity by a thread. There was no question of not holding on. With a baby and husband who needed me, I begged God to help and somehow I was able to prioritize and focus on immediate needs.
I had to differentiate between what was real and important and what was fear and I didn’t have time for. I made a lot of mistakes. I put chemotherapy and radiation bills on credit cards when the red letters came. I forgot to get regular oil changes on the car. I fed my kid too much McDonald’s. I didn’t fight the cancer patient on drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes. I listened to the cancer patient when he said he was ok to drive himself to the hospital for a CT (the police officer didn’t arrest him for drunk driving when he saw Brett puking up barium on the side of the road).
But I did some things right too, I knew that the chemo nurse would take care of Brett so I could let the baby sleep. We read books with our daughter and Brett played his guitar so she could dance. We celebrated all the babies “firsts.” I let people help us when they offered. I took the meals that Church family brought and I thanked them even though it was humbling. I took the baby to play group. I bought a new mattress when our adjustable mattress sprung a leak.
When I contracted Hepatitis A during Brett’s recovery, I got Grandma to take the baby. I managed to feed and bathe myself and my family daily. The dog and cats were fed and watered and let out and back in. We made our trips to Mayo and got home safely. We did what the doctors told us to do, when you are being treated by the best gastroenterology department in the world, you listen to the doctors.
Fifteen years later we have learned so many lessons from that time in our life. I have a solid no B.S. policy. The potential for real drama in our lives is always there, so trivial drama is scoffed upon in our home.
We ALWAYS say “I love you.”
Life is too short to not tell people you love how you feel, several times a day, and always mean it. When you come that close to loosing your best friend, your partner, you don’t mess around.
We fight for what matters and everything else isn’t worth our time. Brett’s body still has the after effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and colon resection, but he has also run numerous half marathons and several full marathons, he is the Principal at a small Lutheran School and is working on the Capstone to his Master’s degree.
While we didn’t bank sperm, we tried for years knowing that it was unlikely, then about a year after doctors told us the radiation killed our chances at another baby, we got pregnant. Cora is 7 now and the happiest little girl I’ve ever known. Cancer has taught me to focus on what is truly important in life, to value every day with the people we love, and that miracles really do happen.
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Heather has found healing though sharing her story as a caregiver. Fight with courage and share your story.