|Photo taken July 1st, 2007 by C. Lemanski|
You see, yesterday was Independence Day. And, just as it was five years ago, it fell on a Wednesday.
Five years ago, yesterday, we woke up late. We lounged in bed for hours. We got up and, in our pajamas, I made us an epic brunch of California Benedict. We ate a dozen eggs. We went back to bed, laughing and full. We napped lightly, and then showered and got dressed.
Five years ago yesterday, M and I enjoyed our mid-week day off by heading to a friend's rooftop and backyard barbecue, drinking some Shandy, and sweating and smiling in the absurd Chicago heat.
We walked through Pilsen, where we lived, as though through a different world. Every other block was blocked off, many illegally, for parties and concerts and fireworks. There were music and colorful explosions everywhere.
I remember one moment in particular. We were drinking beers at the party, and I caught M pointing and me and grinning. His friend Bradley gave him a high five. I had no idea what they were talking about.
It turns out, M was telling Bradley that he was going to ask me to marry him.
You see, M had this grand master plan. On Friday, M was going to take the day off, and we were going to go up to Guppy Lake. We were going to spend an entire week up there, TWO weekends even. M was going to bring a bottle of champagne and a ring, and take me to my favorite picnic spot, and propose to me.
But on the Fourth of July, five years ago, he couldn't wait. We walked home from the party just after dusk, completely surrounded by fireworks. In the air, on the ground, shooting out of windows... everywhere. We laughed, we held hands, and we went back to our incredibly cool and comfortable basement apartment.
And M asked me to marry him. No ring, no pretense, just the colorful showers of light filtering through the curtains.
And I said yes.
We had one wonderful night. We both went to work the next day. At lunch, we met up and picked out a ring. And then I went home after work, while M went to play in his company softball game.
I got in my pajamas, and read through an inbox filled with congratulations from friends and family. And then the phone rang.
It was my future MIL. She was in a panic. A coworker of M's had called her, he was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. By the time the coworker called me, I already had my shoes on. With my pajamas.
It took me less than fifteen minutes to take the usual half hour drive to the hospital- at rush hour, during the infamous congestion of the Taste of Chicago.
I cried most of the way. I got lost for a harrowing moment on lower Wacker Drive.
Filmed on Lower Wacker Drive. It is one of Dante's circles of Hell.
Horrifically, this song came on in the car:
I nearly crashed the car I was crying so hard.
The first time that, outloud, I called M my fiance was when I was looking for him in the ER. A very nice, older doctor told me to calm down. That he would be fine.
I didn't know then that that would be my mantra.
On the Fifth of July, five years ago, M had a gran mal seizure and strokelike symptoms. He awoke in the ambulance. He had several CAT scans.
They showed several masses in his brain.
I spent the latter half of the Fifth of July, five years ago, shivering in the hospital in my pajamas, joking with M about the copious amounts of dirt that just kept coming off of him. He got three sheet changes while he was moved from gurney to gurney. They were all completely full of ballpark sand.
When we finally left the hospital, there was already a new plan. We weren't going to Guppy Lake. We were going to spend the weekend with both sets of our parents, who up until then had never met, getting ready for M's exploratory surgery the following Tuesday- the Tenth of July.
On Tuesday, we went in early in the morning for M's surgery. My parents, M's parents, my sister, two sets of M's ants and uncles, and M's grandfather and his wife were there.
M was so brave. He didn't show a moment of hesitation. We were going to do this brain surgery thing.
I have never experienced a longer day in my life, sitting in that private waiting room, next to the phone that was bolted to the table which might ring with information about the surgery. Across from the clock that was bolted to the wall. Cruel room design.
It took all day.
Finally, M's surgeon came into the room, told us that M's surgery went well and that a few of us could go see him in the recovery room soon. But first he wanted to talk to "the parents and fiancee."
He took us to a tiny little consultation room. Tiny. And in that room he told us what he had found in surgery.
The masses were cancerous. They were worse than cancerous, they were stage four of an incredibly malignant brain cancer called astrocytoma.
They were inoperable.
He kept using the phrase, "extremely aggressive" to describe the cancer. Not the treatment, but the cancer itself.
And then, bravely, my future father in law asked about the prognosis.
Sometimes, the doctor said, you see patients surviving five or ten years out. Sometimes.
He told us that we shouldn't expect it.
He told us that, with the advanced stage of the cancer, with its placement... most of the time patients only have about two years. Maybe less.
But, he added, M was young. He was healthy, otherwise. Who knew?
It was like a dream. I didn't cry. Well, I cried a little, but mostly because I just didn't know what else to do. I followed my future in-laws back to our private waiting room, where almost a dozen people were waiting for the news we would have to deliver.
M's grandfather, the pastor, prayed.
I did nothing. I stared at nothing, I thought nothing, I felt nothing.
And as my family, and M's family, began hugging me and weeping, I heard myself telling them that everything was going to be just fine.
I told my future in-laws, M will be just fine. He's going to beat this. He's going to be okay. Everything is going to be fine.
I said it over and over and over again. I said it and I willed myself to believe it, because believing absolutely anything else was going to destroy my entire world.
Over and over and over.
|From our "Save the Date" shoot- M newly hair-free|
And nobody contradicted me.
I saw him in recovery, and he was groggy and in pain and confused. But he told me to go home. To sleep. To come back in the morning.
I wouldn't have, if I had the emotional energy to argue with my parents and in-laws and sister.
I slept on the couch that night. My future in-laws slept in our guest bed, and my parents slept in our bed, and I pulled out a blanket and curled up on the couch. As I lay there, too conflicted to rest, my father came up and sat down next to me. And while he sat there, and hugged me, I wept.
I wept like I have never wept before, or since.
I cried and cried and cried, because I had been happy. I had been so happy. I had absolutely all that I wanted from life- I had everything. And after only sixteen hours... it was gone. My life was gone. I wasn't newly engaged and in love and ready to start out... I was preparing for widowhood.
I let myself mourn.
And in the morning, I started telling myself again, he's going to be just fine.
We went to the hospital, where he was slightly less groggy. And we prepared to introduce him to the news. To tell him that he had terminal brain cancer.
But we didn't. We couldn't. Nobody did. We told him what kind of cancer, what stage, and that it was very aggressive. But we didn't give him the prognosis. He said he didn't want to know.
I thought he was so brave. And I knew I was right- he was going to be just fine.
We spent the next ten days getting him into a clinical trial for an additional treatment. Banking sperm. Fighting with his HMO.
And I kept telling everyone, he was going to be just fine.
Three days before our wedding, Ted Kennedy was taken to the hospital by ambulance. It was big news. It turned out that he had seizure.
Of course, M kept up on the developments of that news.
...and then the news came that Ted Kennedy had the same kind of cancer that M had.
...and along with that news, the reporters did their job of giving the whole story. The entire story. Including the prognosis.
M learned that Ted Kennedy probably had eighteen months to live.
That was three days before our wedding.
Nine months after his diagnosis.
He was halfway there.
And I told him, he was going to be just fine.
|M's speech at our wedding, |
"Thank you for your thoughts
and prayers. We heard every one."
Five years ago, and he has had no new growth, no new symptoms.
Five years, and his MRIs are clearer and clearer, less and less frequent.
Five years, and my husband is just fine. His cholesterol is his biggest health problem.
Every Independence Day, we celebrate our engagement. And we celebrate the one incredibly happy day we shared. Most years, I make California Benedict for breakfast. Each fireworks display reminds us of one of the happiest days we will ever have.
I love my husband more than I can possibly say. The last five years have been more than wonderful, they have been a gift. While I can't claim to have cherished every day, I can promise you that I have never once gone to bed feeling bad about the course our lives have taken. No matter how hopeless it seemed during the year of M's unemployment, with two new babies... no matter how exhausting it was with M working insane hours, with both of us in school, with me pregnant and with the girls at home... no matter how frustrating it has been to live our lives together, we have been unfathomably fortunate.
My husband is alive and well. He is just fine. Five years later.
His medical team doesn't talk about his prognosis. They talk about the weather, our children, their children, even politics.
M? He's just fine. We're just old friends with the neuro-oncology department now. Bitter enemies of our old pharmacy technicians.
The Fifth of July is always an odd day for us. On the one hand, it is full of bad memories. Memories of fear and confusion and pain. On the other hand, it is a victory. It's another Fifth of July that we can spend together.
Five years. And no sign that there is an end in sight.
Shortly before our wedding, M told me it was his goal to have spent more of his life married to me than not.
Five years down, twenty to go.
I am so glad to spend every minute of them with my husband. I am so grateful to have him with me, not folding laundry and forgetting to take out the trash.
There is nobody on this earth I would rather spend the next twenty years with.
Or the twenty after that.
Or the twenty after that.
Five years is a long time. But not nearly long enough.
Here's to the rest of our lives- the long and open-ended ideal we all mean when we say "for the rest of our lives." Not "eighteen to twenty four months." Not, "for as long as we have." Not for, "as long as you're mine."
Forever. Until we are old and gray, and our children and grandchildren are grown, and death comes to us as the natural end to a life well and thoroughly lived.
Here's to every five years.
Here's to the Fifth of July.
|...and to the Twenty Third of May|
Here's to every single day.
|Our family, nearly five years later.|