When I look at my husband, I at once see two parallel worlds: one with him in it, and one without. I see myself calm and contented in the first, and lost and changed in the second.
When I see him sweetly tucking in our girls at night, I imagine how close we came to never having them. This thought always stops me in my tracks. It cements my lungs. Because how could I ever walk this planet without any of them?
And yet I came close to this outcome 14 years ago, when my husband, just 18 months after our marriage, was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal cancer. Our dreams of togetherness, of starting a family, of growing old as each other’s main witness to life seemed about as unlikely as his survival.
So when I see my husband now in his man cave—the detached garage—doing endless pull-ups and chin-ups and lifting weights each day in his quest to maintain his good health, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with not only our luck, but also with the randomness of it. Given less than a 10 percent chance of living another five years after his initial diagnosis, he and I are both well aware that the other 299 or so souls diagnosed with adrenal carcinoma in the United Sates in 2001 likely didn’t fare as well. I imagine few of them are running early-morning miles in an attempt to keep their blood pressure and cholesterol at enviable levels. Maybe none of them are around to kiss their kids—who it’s possible were never born—good night.
When Lean In mover-and-shaker Sheryl Sandberg posted a Facebook note yesterday about her husband, Dave Goldberg, who tragically died while exercising on a treadmill during a family vacation in Mexico last month, I read it in tears and recognized so much of her sentiment. I also felt my heart break for her and her kids. I wanted a different outcome for them, too.
Yet she continues to inspire me. She wrote:
“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.
But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”
When my husband was battling the worst of his illness, I sometimes felt lost in that void. When his doctors openly compared his medical protocol to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, I felt like I was drowning, too. When I spent nights sleeping on uncomfortable hospital chairs in cold intensive care unit rooms, I considered where his possible death—unthinkable, unfaceable, impossible—would leave me. For if my beloved partner left this earth so abruptly and in such tragic fashion, how would I continue? In misery? In emptiness? With the salty taste of loss to flavor everything and season all, forever after?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out. Luck fell in our favor. My husband beat those terrible odds, even if no one understands why or how. And I thank God, or randomness, or whatever may be responsible for this fact, every single day. I embrace him and my children, who might never have been born, with fierce resolve and with such frequency they sometimes roll their eyes and push me away. “Enough, Mom!” my kids moan, although I believe they secretly love it. What they can’t know is it’ll never be enough. Not for me, or their Dad. Our hugs for them and each other are endless. Because we know what miracles they, and he, truly are.
My husband and I sometimes sit on our front porch swing and rock back and forth in silence. We don’t have to remind each other of how narrow our miss was. We are grateful, and we tell each other so.
We are actively choosing life and meaning—and we’re fully aware of how much easier it is to do so after averting a terrible ending to our sweet start. We are leaning into our life together. That leaning will continue long after his cancer becomes something that happened long ago.
If you love your partner, your children, your life, please, lean in to it—all of it—and say so. Go find whoever moves you. Tell them. Go and tell them right now.