Life changes in a moment. My moment occurred September 12, 2011. We were
celebrating my husband’s birthday having brain surgery. Turns out, it would be our
last one together.
“Mrs. Malcom, it’s called Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage 4 (terminal brain cancer). It’s not good. It’s the worst of the worst and the prognosis for your husband isn’t good. Don’t google it mam, if you do, you will be debilitated. (There was a long pause here, or he said things I just don’t remember) Can I answer any questions for you?” That’s what the neurosurgeon at Barrows said to me after my husband’s ten-hour brain surgery. I wanted to laugh because it wasn’t what happens to people in real life. He had one headache last week and now he is here telling me the diagnosis is brain cancer?! This isn’t how it actually goes down on Grey’s Anatomy. There is usually a dramatic occurrence; we had simply been golfing in Tucson with friends on Labor Day Weekend. He came home with a headache.
After this doctor so eloquently rocked my world, I looked at the older man who had sat with me in the waiting room and I had tears starting to well in my eyes. He was my “person” in that moment although he is a stranger. I wanted to be alone during the surgery, I’m not sure anyone understood why. Maybe somewhere inside of me it must have been because of this moment. It was too hard because the person I wanted to have sit with me was my husband, but he was tied up having brain surgery. Quite frankly he'd probably rather be sitting with me in the waiting room sharing a piece of cake, however, we didn’t agree on the type of cake we both liked.
I hadn’t cried all the way yet.
It seemed profound and unrealistic, maybe even surreal. Tears hadn’t come but when they did, I’m not sure they actually stopped for a long time but it was later once I was alone with no one to see the immediate pain and just as critical, the fear I had. I was about to get the full understanding of what it meant ‘in sickness and in health’ that we had shared in our wedding vows.
I sat with lots of strangers on the 4th floor waiting room of Barrow’s surgery floor, most of whom I silently assumed their situation being so much worse than mine. Little did I know that my moment was ahead. Not once did it truly dawn on me that my life was about to take a dramatic turn just like on television. I believed that God wanted me to be happily married to this man for the rest of my life and that nothing bad could happen.
I had so many years ahead of me to look forward to with my sweet husband. We still had all of “firsts” with our kiddo ahead of us. First day of kindergarten for our daughter. First lost tooth. First bike ride. First daddy- daughter dance. First date. First time she drove her car. First day of college. I really didn’t want her next first to be the first time she went to the hospital to visit her daddy, or the first funeral she would attend.
The next moment started with my typical response of when I wasn’t really listening until something important came along in the conversation. “Doctor…. wait….what’s your name? I don’t think you fully understand my situation. We have a four year old daughter and I’m only 44. That’s really just not going to work out for me. So I should get a second opinion, right?” I responded as if it was a negotiation I could make. My husband used to say that life is a competition and everything is negotiable. Worth a shot. This is one of my most vivid moments during this conversation. Asking for a second opinion just seems like the thing you do when someone hands you a death sentence. Paying attention seems important, I also remember wishing I had a piece
of paper to write things down that he was saying but being glad that no one was there with me because I think I would have unraveled.
This moment to me in this very conversation would define my future.
I will never forget his response. This moment to me in this very conversation would define my future. “Mam, Mrs. Malcom, you can get a second opinion. You can get a third opinion. But the opinion will be the same. It is terminal and an extremely aggressive cancer. There is no cure and the longer you wait, the worse he will be. There are very little treatment options that are effective, but we are making progress every day.”
“How long. How long do we have before …” I trailed off because I wasn’t going to
say anything else. I was actually trying to remember what terminal meant. Now I
Two, maybe three months.
“Based on the size of the tumors we estimate you might have 2, maybe 3 months.”
Just. Like. That. I’m notorious for not responding at the appropriate time and thinking about things far too long with that awkward silence. Drives people crazy but my husband understood it and how I wish he was there to make this all go away. I don’t think I responded to this doctor at this point. I’m sure I just looked at him confused, void of words.
I didn’t like his words so much. I don’t think I could breathe. Or even worse, wanted to breathe. Yes, that moment. That’s the moment that literally took my breath away. The moment that changed my path. The moment that destroyed my future. Who is going to raise our daughter, I’m not good enough at parenting to do this alone. Who is going to take care of me (sadly, it is a selfish thought given that I wasn’t the one actually with brain cancer, but it was my reality in that frozen moment)? He was our rock. He was the sounding board for every thing I needed. I had waited until I was 37 to meet him and almost 40 to have our daughter. This really wasn’t working out the way we had talked about at all.
Here’s what I remember about the next few minutes of my life.
I saw my husband after surgery and he was mostly concerned with how his hair looked. I never knew he liked his hair so well, he did have good hair and to be honest, I was relatively surprised at how little of it was missing after such a long brain surgery. He was funny too, likely the drugs, but of course, he was wondering how I was doing.
(Sidebar: I lied. I told him I wanted to have a piece of cake for his birthday because I really just wanted to throw up and felt that might be slightly inappropriate to say at that very moment, but somehow saying I wanted cake seemed like the right thing. Later we would laugh about it. Now I realize we never shared another piece of birthday cake together.)
Time became irrelevant to me.
Moments became my focus. No more dates to remember, no more time to check on the clock. It became time for me to focus on moments. The moment I had to tell him he had cancer. That’s the moment everything changed. That’s the very moment I realized I was going to be a widow. It took me another three years to actually use that term, but that’s a story for another day.
What I Learned
Treasure your moments. Good ones, bad ones, they define who we are. Yes, even the bad ones. Sometimes mostly the bad ones actually. They make us vulnerable; they make us strong. Stronger wives, stronger moms, stronger daughters and just as importantly, stronger friends. But what I’ve learned is that all my moments just keep making me a better me. All these moments are my life.