Dear Fellow Griever,
I want to share with you about my beloved, and how it was that she gave me an important gift – permission to make tough end of life decisions; to ultimately let her go.
She endured a clinical trial with over two years of chemo and radiation, and nothing eased the effects of treatment. She had major surgery that left a long scar on her midsection at just twenty-years-old. She had a never-ending smile, and love of life that would never reflect the reality of the battle being waged each day. This is but a brief description of the greatest gift that I have ever been given or experienced. To love and live with and wonder at this amazing woman: my wife, my lover, my best friend. To hear her voice, to feel her touch, to see her smile – how could I have been so lucky to have my life joined with hers? And yet, I was that lucky person.
As years became decades, we sometimes talked about the end. I would offer that I would surely die first because I was older: she would offer that she would likely die first because her body carried the “oncogene” and cancer would return some day. Each of us would instruct the other that when the first dies the other must continue to live fully and be happy. With or without another partner did not matter; most important was to be happy in life and continue to create memories.
Sometimes we would talk about what qualities of life were most important to want to continue to live. At times the conversation could be light and humorous, at other times much more serious and thoughtful. It was always clear to me that my wife had placed a lot of importance on this subject. It was also clear to me that for her to want to continue to live she required three things; not just one, but all three. First, she wanted to be able to care for herself; second, she wanted to be able to breathe on her own – no supplemental oxygen; and third, she wanted to be free of chronic pain with no opiate meds needed.
And so, it was for twenty-five years our lives unfolded together in ways that often made others offer remarks about observing a love that existed between us that was unlike any they had ever seen or known. Personal and professional achievements, life goals attained, wishes fulfilled, international travel as well as weekend escapes all happening and relished as memories were created.
And then on one beautiful summer day, a small swelling was noticed, followed by a terribly painful biopsy and diagnosis. The “oncogene” had gained another foothold and another very optimistic treatment plan of chemo and radiation began. Neither of us ever doubted that the cancer would be pushed back into remission and even “cured”. After each of the twenty radiation treatments, we would find a new restaurant for lunch. Treatment completed, celebrate with a champagne brunch and family, and back into life full speed. More of life to experience together and more memories to create.
And so it was, for almost five years. Once again, another beautiful summer day and another small swelling followed by a near painless biopsy. The “oncogene” had prevailed once again and treatment options were very few with the prognosis very guarded. One to five years was what the statistics and the oncologist shared with us. The quality-of-life conversations we had were now very, very relevant.
The smile never left her face, the passion for living fully never waned and so much was squeezed into the year that followed – many new life experiences and more treasured memories were created. Moments of quiet reflection and a few soft tears would find their way into our lives occasionally, but never dimmed the light of hope or happiness.
Not feeling well one day, the primary care doctor sent us to the hospital for tests and possible treatment. Neither of us imagined that this would be the last drive to the hospital that we would take together. After a few days I was told that my loving wife, the perfect patient who was loved by every nurse who helped her, would need to be in a rehab facility after the hospital so that she could regain strength before returning home. I thought that was fine. She would be in our home again and I would be with her every day and help her with anything needed. Another two weeks passed and one morning the doctor told me that she was not going to recover. Her lungs could not provide the oxygen needed to stay alive and only what was being provided in the hospital was keeping her alive. Her second quality of life requirement was not possible.
I knew that I had to let her go, but how could I do that? Did I really have the strength to honor her wishes and let her go? Could I be that un-selfish? As she lay in the bed in the ICU with the oxygen provided, I could still talk with her, I could touch and hold her, I could watch her sleep and wake. I could accept the limits of her lungs and live happily with her. How could I let her go? But I knew that because of the love we shared she would do this for me and I would now do this for her. As I laid beside her and put my arms around her and told her I loved her, I knew that I would never want to let her go. The oxygen tube was taken off, I felt the last breath being released from her body and she died.
Without question, part of me also died. Letting her go – the most life challenging choice I have ever or will ever make was made simpler by the most loving and thoughtful and caring person I have ever known. She knew I would suffer trying to decide what I should do if such a decision was needed and she let me know many years earlier which path she wanted for her life. Truly a gift in so many ways. If there’s something I may suggest, if you have the time and haven’t yet had those tough discussions with significant people in your life, they can be some of the most important conversations to hold onto during difficult and crucial moments.
Today our relationship lives on. It is different, it is as I have formed it and in a way that comforts me in a way that will last until I breathe no more. Her instruction to live happily guides most of my days and waking hours, even when moments of sadness or loneliness or longing may arise.
How could I have ever been so lucky to share my life with such a special person – without question my “happily ever after”?
With loving memories,
Written by: Les McCarroll