Love in the time of cancer

Trauma impacts a person in ways they don’t really realize themselves until much later.

Real trauma – such as illness, the experience of war, or other violence – changes you, and either makes you stronger, albeit damaged, or it renders you into a quivering mass…and sometimes, it does both at the same time.

The event or news itself is horrific, but I think that it is the time afterwards that is worst — the way that the trauma of the experience settles into your life that stays with your forever. It’s a lot like the bits of debris left in an intersection after an accident.  With time and traffic, it slowly migrates into a small drift in the untraveled area of the intersection where it remains like a messy monument to an unremembered event for everyone who was not in the accident.

For me that “event” was the morning my wife’s headaches merged into slurred speech and lethargy.  I took her to the hospital.

“Probably just a migraine,” they said.  “But we’ll take a few scans just to be sure.”

After the scans we waited, and then we noticed nobody was coming in and out of our room at the emergency room as they had before.  That was when we knew something was very wrong.  Then, the doctors came in with solemn faces.

A waterfall of words – large brain tumor, swelling of the brain, immediate surgery…they came fast and furious.  Our 5 year-old son who was playing in the corner was unperturbed.  But things moved so fast.  They told us she couldn’t get the care she needed at that hospital and they were going to transfer her to another within the hour.

I had to drive home and get her personal items.  Somewhere along the way I stopped, pulled over, and lost it.

Our son Jibril, who had been oblivious the whole time, had never seen me cry before — he didn’t understand the horrors of what was happening and would continue on from that day.  How do you explain such a thing to a 5 year-old?  I called my wife’s parents and my parents and gave them all the news.  I was an automaton going through the motions of all the things that needed to be done.

I was told that she only had a 30% chance of making it through the surgery, due to her history of asthma.  They told me there was a good chance that she may have speech problems.  I steeled myself for all these scenarios.  Our son by this time knew something was terribly wrong, but I could not explain it to him as I was not coherent myself.

Thank God, she came through the surgery fine and had no speech problems.  But here is where the “real trauma” started.  Her cancer had spread throughout her body and after recovery from the surgery we had – and continue to have – a long, long road to travel.

It has been 6 years now.  She still has cancer.  We have gone through 7 or 8 chemotherapies. Some worked for a while, some didn’t work at all, and some caused more damage to her health than healing.  She has been sick so long that cleaning up after each illness is something I almost don’t notice any longer.  When she is stable, sometimes you would not even realize she was sick. When she is sick, I go through every dreaded possibility.

Through all of the pain, the loss of personal goals and dreams, the sickness and therapy, and the resentment that is bred as a result – we have kept our faith and strength.  There have been life lessons in real acceptance, real patience, real perseverance and very real compassion.  I used to think I knew what these things were.  I read about them or acts of them in books. Now I know what they really mean.

It means that I love her.  And because I love her I will stay with her no matter what.  I will care for her.  I will do my best no matter how often I fall short or fail.  I will have the courage to keep moving and push her to do so as well.  I would never be able to live with myself if I do not do this.  I will pray.  I will pray some more.

When you realize all of this and you subsume your ego, you grow.  I am not the same person I was before my university education – that experience helped me grow and understand the world better.

I am not the same person I was before my son was born – through him, I learned about the beauty of life and potential.

I am not the same person I was before this real trauma, before becoming a caregiver – I have learned who I am completely.

And I have learned how to love.

Alan Howard is an Engineer and Operations Manager with Cisco Systems Inc. and has worked for them for the past 15 years.  He is based out of Atlanta GA and enjoys kayaking, hiking and writing when he has the time and energy.


7 Comments on “Love in the time of cancer”

  1. Safiyyah says:

    May Allaah t’ala reward you, Alan. Thanks for sharing your story of love and commitment.

  2. HD says:

    What a poignant love letter you have written to your wife, we should all be lucky to have a partner so determined to support us in life. Sadly, I know this doesn’t always come about except when there is tragedy to respond to. You are right, real trauma transforms people (for better or worse) and teaches us the REAL meanings behind these virtues we aspired to but didn’t know what they truly meant. It means night after sleepless night, day after exhausting day… picking up the pieces so someone else can heal. It is a testament to the strength of marriage vows, as the West says, “in sickness and in health” means going through difficulty and staying together through it all.

    I do wish your wife the best in her health. Cancer is so random and thoughtless, and I hope she will live the best life she has (with or without cancer) every single day. I work at a pediatric hospital and I know what you are going through — six years is a LONG time to battle this disease, and its threads are now woven into every fabric of your lives. So, I wish you and your family the best on your journey. Stray strong and have Faith.

  3. Asiila I. says:

    God Bless You and your most blessed wife (to have you) and son…

  4. Aisha says:

    Beautiful poignant post from one half of a couple I admire so very much. Love you guys and praying for you all.

  5. Leigh Ahmad says:

    What a life altering experience- so very sad and painful. Thank you for sharing and reminding others what true love and human kindness is all about. May you reap the rewards.

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