hey friends! can't wait to share some thoughts and photos from a special wedding which we attended this weekend in charleston, sc. but today, i want to wish a happy first anniversary to two very special people: em and bobby. i mentioned last week that their first twelve months have been, well, different than most couples'. but at the same time, i know there are folks who have not-so-different stories too. i hope that this post will be encouraging to both.
What I’m Learning in this Season of Life
One year ago I was told I had cancer. We had been sitting at Rudy’s Pizzeria with a big group of friends thinking it would be the last Wednesday we lived in Bellingham, four days before our wedding, and there’s nothing else we would choose to do than go to half-price pizza night at Rudy’s. My maid of honor had journeyed with me that day from the bright (rare) sunny day into the chilly air-conditioned building we took two U-turns to find for a CT scan.
“Things don’t always go as planned.” –Anyone who’s ever lived
Elise has asked me to share what I’ve learned about marriage, seeing as we’ve undergone some strange circumstances, but the truth is [spoiler alert] I don’t have things very figured out. I am still learning. I have almost called my dear friend up several times to say, “I don’t know anything about marriage, I only know about cancer.”
After two biopsies I was officially diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymhoma. They estimated I was Stage 2 since it hadn’t gotten into my bone marrow, but the stages are less important in this type of cancer. Since it wasn’t quite classic Hodgkin’s, after getting a second opinion from an oncologist in Seattle, they decided to incorporate a fifth chemo drug into my 8 chemo treatments and insisted on radiation following.
Our first seven months of marriage revolved around doctor appointments, treatments, and surgeries. We went into survival mode with the mentality, “We just have to get through this.” Two weeks into marriage, our pots and pans still unused in their boxes, I was talking to an egg preservation specialist about whether we wanted to harvest embryos in case the chemo made me infertile. It seriously made me crack up that after having sex for the first time, we were in family planning and I was having pregnancy tests. I received injections that put me into menopause. The hot flashes made it impossible for my fatigued body and mind to sleep more than two hours at a time. Our life was a lot of numbness, catching up on all the TV shows and movies I’ve ever wanted to watch to distract my mind because I couldn’t even get through one page of reading. We went through hospital stays, fear, and anxiety. I experienced more than you’d like to know physically from the treatment side effects. I desired for the C-word to not be a part of me, to not change everything I ever thought the year would be. We were supposed to move to Seattle. I was supposed to start the MIT program I’d been patiently waiting to begin in June. Bobby was supposed to be able to get a full-time teaching position in Seattle. We were mourning the loss of expectations, of what should have been, of what we believed God had laid out for us. We were robbed of the first year honeymoon phase. The five months [and counting] following treatment has been processing. We’re trying to piece things together. We just moved to Seattle, Bobby has a teaching job, and I’m starting the teaching program in two weeks after successfully deferring my admissions.
Instead of pretending to be able to reflect with certainty on a year so fresh to us, that I know we are still processing, I will share some things I think Bobby and I are learning more about together. Most of them we have known but are gaining a deeper understanding of through this season. I will go ahead and put it in list form to make it seem like I am super organized and put together!
1. Life is guaranteed to be full of ups and downs
When people would say, “Well, at least you’re getting through your storm earlier on so that you can coast through the rest of your marriage,” I understood they meant well, but also that it wasn’t true. Bobby’s cousin, one of our bridesmaids, Molly, and her husband Seth lived one floor above us this past year in Bellingham and were invaluable supporters through the worst of it. She has repeatedly, wisely asked the question about our experience, “Why is it weird? Why do people see it as so abnormal?” Cancer is a part of the brokenness of life, as is divorce, losing a job, death, mental illness, infidelity, and hurt. Molly was one of the few who were able to really enter into the ickiness that is life with us because she understood it to be part of life. We react strangely to it because it’s not what we hope for or desire.
Focusing solely on the happy or on the hard doesn’t tell the whole story. My hair was supposed to fall out and didn’t. What a gift from God! My oncologist had an old golden retriever I would hope the whole day leading up to appointment he would bring with him. I offered to dog sit. Only in this season could I really appreciate meeting the only goal I had for the day: showering. Embracing both is crucial. Having a hard time with cancer doesn’t mean I was losing faith or wasn’t a good enough Christian. Having a hard time with cancer means that cancer can infect every part of your life without your approval. Not being able to say, “We’re really embracing the fact that I have sweat caked on my neck, I want to cry all the time, I’m constipated, and I have to stay at home all day for fear that I’ll catch a cold from strangers at a coffee shop” does not make me unaware of God. When you’re in it, don’t expect to fully understand it.
2. Flexibility- the want versus the need
Bobby is one of the most flexible, low-key people I know. We felt like we had the reins pulled from our hands, realizing nothing was in our control. Going in for my second chemo, they had my port all hooked up, our station was all set up with our computer and books and snacks, we were mentally prepared for round 2, and they delivered the news 45 minutes after my blood draw that my counts were too low and we’d have to wait one more week. Also, they would start incorporating a Neulasta injection the day after every chemo to boost my counts. They de-accessed me, and we were on our merry way. Cool, no chemo, right? My first thought was that meant the bridal shower I had helped plan for Elise would fall on the fourth day after treatment instead of the eleventh day, making it much less likely I would be able to help, much less attend.
Being flexible did not just affect us- it made it difficult to plan for anything in advance. We weren’t able to go to a party celebrating the work of our close friend and mentor, Jim, who married us. I wasn’t able to go to the bridal shower. We missed out on important events out of necessity. We’ve moved three times in the past year. We have learned to hold our plans loosely.
3. God is unchanging.
Again, something I knew to be true, but not until everything around us was changing did it hold such meaning. When I would make it to church, I would weep while singing, overcome by the extraordinary feeling that God is there unconditionally. He is always the same. He is our ultimate rock, our shelter in the storm.
4. God uses people to do His work.
Being so tied to my body, even mentally detaching so that I could get through the worst if it, I appreciated the ways people met my physical needs. James has something to say about this very phenomenon: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:14-18
It was hard to be able to focus on the abstract when my needs were so physical. Bobby and I could see God in the ways people helped us. I could list all the people and ways people helped us know we were loved and cared for, but this isn’t the place. We learned to receive. Our choice to stay in Bellingham instead of moving to Seattle as planned was a good one because we were surrounded by community. Meals, cleaning our apartment to kill germs, going on walks with me, getting a glass of water, did I mention meals? God uses people to bless others...
One night before chemo I realized I was out of the lidocaine cream I used to put on my port one hour before going in to numb it for needle injections. I realized it late at night after our pharmacy was closed. The next morning was an early one already, but Bobby went and got it for me in time to put it on. When I was feeling down, he would try and make me laugh or smile. These million little acts of service combined with knowing him so long have made Bobby my rock. He loves me so well. It’s amazing how quickly I became dependent on him. Our union has strengthened and we are learning together, and for that I am thankful.
Little things meant so much and encouraged us when we needed a LOT of encouragement. A friend of Elise’s I barely knew sent me a card in the mail, friends would come watch a movie with us, a text asking how I was doing made me aware someone was thinking of us, e-mail responses to my updates made my day. I felt thankful when the guys would take Bobby out for a beer so he could relax. It doesn’t take much to love on someone- just a caring heart and intentionality.
5. Perspective is important.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my swirling thoughts. I believe it is valuable to recognize that, while everyone’s experience with hardship is different, not being afraid to enter into the ickiness will benefit you both. Be sensitive to what people need. It may take some time for someone to be ready to talk. People deal with hardship in many ways, even when they are not the person directly affected.
Our friends in Bellingham went through cancer one year almost to the day earlier than us. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-20s and they ached to see us going through a similar agonizing process. They even had the same oncologist, Dr. K. They had us over for dinner a few times and sent us encouraging cards. Bobby and I hope so much to be able to connect with others and inform people in an honest way. We’re ready for a new start but hoping not to chalk up our first year of marriage as awful; for we also laughed, and cried, and held each others’ hands through life, which might just be what marriage is about.
thanks em for your heart and your honesty. i love you to pieces. and happiest first anniversary to you and bob. cheers to year one, and cheers to year two.
ps, here is a link that em wanted to share about how to talk to someone with cancer.