One True Sentence
I was in the middle of an in depth study of Ernest Hemingway with Professor Hilary Justice at Illinois State University when I sent her the email about my husband – subject line: “It’s Time.”
“Tim had a Pet Scan today that revealed new aggressively active tumors in his brain. The doctors said that any additional chemotherapy would cause more ‘horrific’ side effects than benefits. Dr. Howard recommended that we start to bring in hospice services, and we have decided to go to Racine so that he can be with his parents and home church. We are coming home tonight to get things in order in Normal (such an ironic name for the town we live in – lived in?).
I’ll try to visit you in person before we leave to discuss what this means for the semester. Although I want to tell you that I will make every effort to accomplish the work on my own and beg you to let me keep going independently, I am not confident I can back that up yet.
Thank you for your support over the past couple of months. It has been beyond the requirements of your job, and I appreciate it very much.”
That afternoon Tim and I sat in a Panera, each at our own computer, trying to gently communicate the news of his diagnosis to friends and family. He sipped a caramel latte and stared at the screen in front of him, his face tight trying to recover the thought I had interrupted when I spoke to him last. Eventually, he just shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and plopped his hands in his lap.
No one around us had any idea what was going on. They ate and talked. Oblivious, they kept going on with life as if life just kept going on. It was best that they didn’t know; they wouldn’t have known what to say any more than we would have.
My friends called it “business mode.” I shut off my emotions in order to take care of business. We had just been given the news that my husband’s brain cancer had progressed beyond what was treatable; the doctors might as well have said, “Your husband is going to die from this soon, and there is nothing else we can do to try to stop it.” There was no way for me to survive if I let myself process that information, so I sat next to him in a Panera and checked my email.
Professor Justice responded within the hour. Graceful and insightful as always, she instructed me in her response:
“Angela, do not worry about our class right now. I will come up with a solution; I just can’t think that clearly at the moment. If you have time, and energy, and inclination, keep reading; if not, not. It’s okay.
We will sort all of this out when it becomes a priority, and right now, by professorial fiat, I say that it is not. Read and write and think about what touches you and brings you inspiration and comfort and peace. If that’s Hemingway, great. If it’s your own writing, great.”
I did read and write in the beginning when he napped or when we were just hanging out together because there wasn’t too much nursing I needed to do yet. I remember Tim sitting next to me on the couch eating a piece of cheesecake and playfully antagonizing the dog. He was still my Tim. He still smiled; he still made me laugh. It was so strange how doctors called me every day to check on his condition as if it could change overnight. (They said it could.) The hospice nurses kept ordering weird supplies for the house like oxygen tanks and pain medication packs in case we needed them at some point. (And they said he would need them at some point.) I kept wanting to stand up and tell these people to look at him; couldn’t they see it was not time for all of that stuff yet? When he was well rested, we could take him to Barnes and Noble, for goodness sake.
Being so much less active was tough on Tim, though. A 6’2’’ naturally talented tri-athlete, he preferred his road bike to the wheel chair hospice encouraged him to use. All the medications made his belly bulge. It was the first time since the 11th grade that I had seen him without six-pack abs. He missed them. My problem was that he was just too heavy. When the right side of his body went numb, I became the human crutch he used to make strategic location changes. I braced him as we shifted from the wheel chair to the couch. I lowered him into bed at night. I held him up in the shower. Within a week of arriving in Racine, even with my help, going anywhere in the house that wasn’t on the ground floor was no longer an option. We spent most of our time in the living room and slept on the hide-a-bed in the den.
Thirteen days into the process I wrote an update to my confidant, Professor Justice,
“We have had a long day, but Tim is resting comfortably now. This time two weeks ago I could not fathom that we would need all the equipment the hospice workers offered us, but today in this room alone I see his wheel chair, portable commode, and arm sling. (The numb arm is heavy and causing pain in his shoulders.) As Tim gets weaker, his balance while going from sitting to standing is more compromised. After another hard fall tonight we finally agreed to have a hospital bed delivered tomorrow. We wanted to hold off on that as long as possible so we could still sleep in the same bed, but we have to do what is best for him. I will stay as close as I can.
He can still understand everything but he has not been able to vocalize a word for a couple of days now. He tries hard to find other ways to communicate, and we try hard to understand his gestures. I would give anything to be a mind reader. Our eye contact is incredibly intense these days.”
Later, when I tucked him into bed for the night I started to break a little. Caring for my husband as he literally died a little more each day was the hardest thing I had ever done, and ironically, I needed my husband to get me through it. I suppressed a lot of my grief in front of Tim because I never wanted him to think he was a burden. I cared for him willingly, out of love. Back in July during a premarital counseling session Pastor James asked me if I had prayerfully considered the very real possibility that I could become a young widow if I married Tim. But I replied, “I would rather get to be his wife for one day and accept whatever that day brings than have to sit in the back of the church at his funeral and pretend that I didn’t love him.”
On this night in November, when his death was more than just a very real possibility, my strong-at-heart husband was not scared, but I was. And I began to cry, hard. Wearing my pink ISU hoodie and an unkempt ponytail, I leaned over him and let him hold me with the one arm he could still lift. I soaked in the feel of his shoulder on my cheek and his hand on my back. And I shook, and I whimpered.
Mindful of his fatigue, I forced myself to lift up, but I stayed close enough to see his face in the dark. He had something to tell me. With his left hand, he started motioning as if to indicate the notches on a timeline. I followed it with my eyes. When he paused I let my eyes droop for a moment until I felt his hand on my face guiding it back to where he had left off. He continued the timeline further.
“You’re telling me I have to keep going,” I conjectured. He nodded and tagged on two more notches. “You’re telling me I can keep going.” He nodded more emphatically and cradled my face again with his hand. “I love you so much,” I cried. He nodded and closed his eyes. He was also saying that I would have to move on someday, that I could move on someday. But I could not say that out loud.
One week later, at 2:45 in the morning, I watched his chest fall still.
Three weeks – that’s how much time we got to say goodbye. It was too fast. The semester wasn’t even over yet. Of course, I was in no condition to return to school, but I did have something else to say in response to Hemingway. He claimed, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” I sat down quietly at the computer, alone this time, and kept going – “He is gone now, and that changes everything except how much I love him.”