When you have cancer, you’re a living, breathing Rorschach test for the world. What does that inkblot, cancer, look like to the people around you? Do they see danger, hope, or both? History? Themselves? A chance to help? To atone? To give back? Does the inkblot inspire fear, anger, denial, compassion, rudeness, neediness, bravery, cowardice? It has only been a two weeks, and this Rorschach test/cancer patient has experienced all of those reactions. I am sure there will be more. It’s really quite fascinating, when you have the energy for it.
Yesterday, my husband Pete finally faces his inkblot. It is a difficult day. In the splotches and dots of my disease, he sees his mother.
Pete was born in the early 1950s, after many, many miscarriages. His mother was RH-negative. So Pete grew up the adored, hoped-for miracle son. He adored his mother back. His mother had had scarlet fever as a child and never enjoyed very good health. She had breast cancer when she was my age, about the time I was born. She didn’t die of the breast cancer, she died of a brain aneurysm about 10 years later. The point is, she died. Pete was 22. I think there has been a hole in Pete’s soul ever since. He rarely talks about this mother, but I’m sure he misses her daily.
Then I get cancer. Pete quickly morphs into the essence of the helpful, caring, loving husband of a cancer patient. He tells me it’s OK not to cook dinner, even though his culinary skill extends only to toast, cereal and scrambled eggs. He gives me back massages. He keeps the closest friends and family updated. He refills my glasses without my asking. He answers the phone when I’m too tired to tell the story again. He holds me when I cry. He goes to medical appointments with me. He goes even to minor appointments when I tell him it’s not necessary. He indulges my whims. He doesn’t complain when I misbehave and scream petulant things like, “This is NOT OK. I have BREAST CANCER.” He remains calm, every day.
But it’s clear there’s a lot more going on in the background for Pete. He’s not sleeping well. He gets up in the middle of the night and researches cancer topics; biblio-therapy is common in our household of journalists. I catch him staring at me soulfully. When he says, “I love you,” it often sounds like he’s afraid that he’s saying it for the last time. Occasionally, he whispers, “Don’t die.” He constantly asks me how I’m doing. If I throw down a rope that means an argument, he refuses to pick it up. He is wonderful; that’s why I married him. But, Jesus Christ would not be able to sustain this level of perfection.
I tell him being the husband of a cancer patient cannot mean being perfect. It cannot mean never being angry. It cannot mean never being annoyed. We have no idea how long this will go on. He’s got to be imperfect so that he can have the strength to be wonderful when it counts.
He wakes up, and I can tell that the sleep has not made him feel at all rested. He showers and shaves like he’s in a daze. He’s having trouble completing sentences, holding onto ideas. He has a scared look in his eyes. He’s going to meet a dear friend for brunch; we’ve both known her for almost 20 years. They worked at The New York Times together. I’ve pleaded with him to do this. He has to talk to someone he’s known a long time, someone he trusts, someone who’s not me. He has to let out whatever is in there. He has to let himself feel whatever it is.
He drops me at me at the subway station, and then almost runs a red light to make a right turn. I turn around in the crosswalk and call, “Pete, calm down! Breathe deep!” His window is rolled down and he nods earnestly. I smile, and hope with all my being that he gets to brunch without an accident.
I don’t know the details of that brunch. I do know that Pete cries. I do know that our friend says she’s never seen him like this, and she’s seen us through many, smaller crises. I do know that Pete figures out that my cancer is dragging all his grief and pain and anger over his mother’s death back into consciousness. The greatest pain of his life, shoved into the shadows for decades, is coming into the light.
One of life’s greatest mysteries is that we have to face pain and loss in order to live fully. True joy comes only with true sorrow. You need to face and feel both. That’s the contradiction, the mystery, that sends me to church every Sunday.
I am sorry that Pete is going through this. Will he ever really figure out what he thinks of his mother’s death? Do any of of us really figure out things like that? Is there a “right” answer to an inkblot card? Obviously not. The point is, he is learning to just “be” with the fear and the pain. I think that’s the best we imperfect humans can do.