Ten years ago, I was much older than I am today. I was 26, the caretaker for my husband who somehow managed to get cancer in his blood.
Ten years ago, I didn't measure time in years. I measured them in days or nursing shifts or fevers. The shorter stays only lasted six or seven days at a time, watching the slow drips of translucent red chemo and then the whiteboard which proclaimed his white blood cell count plummeting and then slowly rising again. On February 5th, 2010, we were at the hospital finishing up Nathan’s last round of consolidation before his bone marrow transplant in March.
Chemo is a poison. It's necessary; they have to use it to kill the cancer cells... But chemo kills cancer, because it's killing the person, too. Nathan went to sleep at 3:00 PM on Tuesday and slept until 2:00 AM Thursday morning. Twice, he woke up just enough to barely eat something. Both times he threw it back up moments later. He had a headache, muscle stiffness, and then on Wednesday, a fever as well.
After 36 hours of watching him sleep and holding my breath whenever it seemed to take too long for him to breathe in again, he felt much better, and so did I. His symptoms were gone, his body temp back down to 98.4. But the doctor on call-- not our doctor, but a different oncologist, wanted to run a test just to be sure. She called it a "lumbar puncture test." Everyone else called it a spinal tap.
His spinal tap came back completely clear, but he wasn't able to eat beforehand, so by Friday afternoon, he'd had one small meal in four days. I went and got celebratory chicken nuggets. We watched whatever we could find on the tiny hospital TV that hung from the ceiling -- a million miles away from the bed he barely left and my plastic couch in a dull teal shade.
There is a lot I can remember in sharp detail, and a lot that blurs together from the hospital stays. Hospitals always smell the same-- rubbing alcohol and cheap antibacterial soap. Unless you are in the children's areas, every hue has been turned down, so as to not be disrespectful. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the doors, are all eternally beige and white. The only bright colors come from your home: the red and white heart pattern of a blanket my grandmother crocheted for my high school graduation, the blue of a pillowcase so they would know not to take it when changing linens.
I know someone commented on his amazing attitude, though I can't tell you the exact words. I know the times he woke up during his long sleep I had to cajole him to eat, but I can't tell you what it was he tried to eat to make me feel better. Half a bowl of Cheerios? Carnation Instant Breakfast? I know that he smiled that stunner which charmed me from the very first, though I can't remember what he joked about. I know that I loved him with the fierceness of first love, first forever. Ten years ago, my life was only watching and waiting. I thought I was waiting for our life to restart after this detour. Death was not a possibility.
I was wrong. We didn’t have another whole year. Nathan had just celebrated his last birthday-- 25. One year in the future, on February 4th, 2011 we buried the most beautiful, passionate, kindest, man I'd ever had the privilege to love, and on this day I returned to an echoing apartment and a grief so overwhelming I had to physically hold myself together when I cried.
Anyone who tells you that grief is just a mental process hasn’t grieved, not yet. Grief is a hole somewhere between your heart and your stomach. It goes straight through your core and it hurts. It hurts worse than corneal erosions, a migraine, or waking up from emergency gallbladder surgery with not enough morphine.
But grief isn't an ending for the living. It goes along with you as you continue. I love Nathan, then and now. In the ten years, I've added Jason to my love. A second forever that's lasted longer than my first.
Cancer can make you ashamed to be enthusiastic about silly things, things that aren’t life and death and white blood cell counts. Ten years ago, cancer forced me to be an Adult with a capital A. Now my age is larger, but I’m not nearly so old. Now I am unabashed for the things I had no time to love while I was watching and waiting. Glitter. Rainbows. Unicorns. I've seen enough beige for two people's lifetimes.
Renee lives in Springfield, MO with her husband, Jason, and two dogs who are much more photogenic than their humans. She is a technical writer for a software company, and enjoys baking grumpy snowmen cookies, too many types of crafts, and watching the YouTubes.
Renee encourages you to get swabbed for the National Marrow Donor Program via bethematch.org. If you sign up, you are sent a packet to swab your cheek and upon return, you are put into the national database of bone marrow donors. There is no guarantee that you will be called up -- if you are, it hurts way less than donating a kidney but could just as easily save the life of someone whose body has betrayed them. If you are non-white, it’s especially important. Visit bethematch.org.