There is a drawer on the far-right side of my entryway table that I do not touch.
This is ironic because before Andrew died, I resorted to the drawer religiously. Every hour, I rushed to it in hopes of finding something, anything, that might put out whatever fire we were currently staring into.
This drawer holds hundreds of dollars worth of vitamins, and mucus aids, and CBD everything, rollers, drops, essential oils. This drawer holds everything I could find in hopes of keeping him alive.
I remember talking to Andrew’s sister shortly before she left me for the first time since he passed. I had returned a few spare items to that drawer, but for some reason I clung to and carried around this bicycle horn that I had purchased just a few weeks before so Andrew could get my attention if I was across the house. I held the stupid horn, not really knowing what to do with it, what purpose I had for it now. I just couldn’t seem to add it to the rest of the drawer contents yet, and I certainly couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, not when Andrew’s own hands had held it just days before.
Her eyes dropped down to the horn, then she looked back up at me, and my eyes filled as I said, almost begging her to believe me, “I tried so hard.”
She nodded and said, “I know. I did too.”
We all did. We put our heads together constantly to strategize, to think up new positions or cushions or anything to help– to stop the pain, the dyspnea, the dying.
I bought him a horn so he could always get my attention. I rubbed his feet every single night because I read once, just once, that frankincense on the feet might separate the nucleus from the cancer cells. I researched and cooked meals with ingredients to fight off whatever the newest issue was- mucus, inflammation, cancer.
I tried absolutely everything that I could, and I watched his sister, and his mom, and so many others do the same, and yet here we all were about to return to our new normal, life without him. It just didn’t make sense to me. That isn’t how life worked for me before all of this.
When it matters, when you want something badly enough, you buckle down and you work for it– that’s how it has always been. You achieve what you set out to do if you are determined enough to put in the work. But never in my life had I wanted something more than my forever with him. Never in my life had I worked harder to achieve anything than I did to beat this beast of mutated cells in my love’s body. Never in my life had I worked so hard, and never in my life had I ever felt like more of a failure than I did in that moment that I physically felt his heart stop beating beneath my left hand.
That’s the hard thing about death to achievement-oriented people. We don’t handle the news well. We personalize it. We don’t stomach the fact that sometimes you can leave everything on the field and still not achieve what you set out for.
We don’t like to lose.
And for way too long, that’s what that drawer said to me. That drawer told me that I lost. It said that despite my constant research, prayer, and essential oil concoctions, I lost my husband. I lost his battle. I lost the war. I failed.
I failed him. I failed me. I failed our friends. I failed our family. I failed the perfect little family I had dreamed up with him. I failed.
Sure, statistically, we entered into an impossible battle, but that doesn’t mean you don’t fight it with full intentions of victory.
And we did fight. And yet, here I am sharing words that I prayed I would never have to write.
When someone close to you dies, you hear a million different ways to euphemize? Or rephrase? I’m not sure… just a million different ways to basically say “died.”
“He passed away.”
“He went to heaven.”
Or my personal favorite if you ever want to get an uncomfortable reaction from those around you, “He croaked.”
I don’t really have an emotional response to any of these when said about my husband. I mean, he’s dead, and no matter how you phrase it, that fact remains.
However, there is one phrase that I’ve heard a couple times, and I don’t really know how to process it.
Sometimes when someone passes, particularly if they pass from a long-fought illness like cancer, people phrase this passing with the words, “lost the battle.” And I understand this phrasing. I don’t fault people for speaking in this way, and before all of this, I might have said that too. Because logistically… this happened. Logistically, this sarcoma, this teeny tiny thing that started in his knee, moved to his lungs and ravaged him.
I think any referee in the world would raise the cancer’s fist in the air after that boxing match. Cancer’s purpose is to kill, and it did.
But it died too.
That’s all I could think about in that hour or so following Andrew’s last breath.
When I walked out of that bedroom- when I walked to my front door thinking that I might need to go around the block, and then I turned around because that sounded impossible, and I walked toward the kitchen, then stopped. When I saw his siblings sitting at that kitchen table, so brokenly knowing of why I was no longer in that room or by their brother’s side. When I felt my parents walking behind me like puppies, completely helpless, with absolutely no clue what their baby girl’s grief was about to do to her or make her do. When I leaned my back against the hallway wall, and my feet slid out from under me, and in a brief and numbed moment I was on the floor.
After all of this happened, after I found a breath, just one more breath after another, my lips, in pure rebellion of both my broken heart and my devastated mind finally spoke, and what they said were the words, “The cancer died too.”
I’ve said that time and time again since that moment. The cancer died too. My husband went to paradise, and those demonic tumors returned to the pit of hell. And my biggest hope in life, the greatest affirmation I can give myself after this unbearable journey is to believe that they looked their evil, horrid, hateful master in the eye and said, “Don’t you ever send us back to that crazy woman’s life again. Don’t you even think of reassigning us to her task.”
The tumors died too, and we didn’t make it easy on them.
I don’t particularly enjoy being a 25-year-old widow. There are a lot of other attributes I would have much preferred to put on my current resume.
I would give anything, I tried to give everything, to bend and break and manipulate biology in a way that allowed my husband to live while the tumors died. But that just didn’t happen.
My husband died, or passed away, or croaked… whatever. Twenty-five years, seven months, and twenty-six days– that’s what his clock was wound to. I don’t get it. I don’t understand. I don’t know a lot right now, and I don’t know if I ever will on this side of those gates.
But I know one thing for sure- we didn’t lose. I didn’t lose. He didn’t lose.
Andrew rarely lost anything, any game, to anyone, and no way in hell I’m letting cancer claim such a rare victory.
The tumors killed my husband. I won’t deny that. I loathe them for it.
Cancer killed my husband. But my husband, he did not “lose the battle to cancer,” and he certainly didn’t lose the war. In order for someone to lose a battle, someone else has to win. Those tumors did not win.
The cancer died too.
And here we are… the people who love Andrew and have the privilege of telling his story. Here we are, each so imprinted on that his mannerisms and phrases still slip into our day to day lives. Here we are keeping this beloved man alive.
Raise that fist in the air, Hans. You win. You always win.