Courage again

It’s probably a gross understatement to say that patience has never been my best talent. Since Richard began seeing the birds that were figments of his catastrophically swollen, pre-tumor brain late last August, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice patience. As with any kind of thoughtful exercise program, it seems to be working. Although I can’t tell if I’m becoming more patient, or just getting better at not letting my temper fly right away. I guess it comes to the more or less the same thing.


One thing that’s trying my patience is the weather, which has included two blizzards in less than a week, laying down thick blankets of wet snow each time. After the first storm, the sun came out, the daytime temperatures raced up to the high 50s, and the snow melted. And another storm promptly blew in and dropped more snow. I feel like the jonquil opening cautiously, one sepal at a time, in the photo above: hesitating, not ready to commit in case winter returns, again. (That’s our garden in the photo below as blizzard number two was winding up.) 

The other thing that’s hard on my limited supply of patience is life in the world of intensive chemotherapy. Richard’s current brain cancer treatment regime runs on 28-day cycles, involving five days of taking massive doses of drugs that kill your cells and make your body miserable and 23 days to recover. (Yup, five days of misery out of every 28, just like menstrual periods. There’s some dark humor in this particular chemo regime.)

I usually don’t have any problem being patient with Richard, especially when he’s as miserable as he was as the chemo drugs accumulated in his body earlier this week. But I do get frustrated sometimes, and snap at him. When I think over my response later, I realize it’s not patience that’s the problem. It’s fear.

Well, duh. He’s got brain cancer.

After I lost my temper briefly the other day, I confessed to feeling fearful. Richard looked thoughtful.

“Me too,” he said. “I could die; but it’s the same for everyone else.”

That’s true. But the reality that we all die is unusually present in our daily lives right now. I can’t look at Richard without noticing the backwards question-mark-shaped scar that traces the right side of his head, beginning way above his eyebrow and running straight back to behind his ear, then curving down the back of his elegantly shaped skull before coming forward across the top of his ear and down the front to nearly his jawbone. That’s from the brain surgery. And his sideburns, asymmetric now since the radiation treatments vaporized the hair follicles on the right side of his head. And the weight he’s lost, because even though I fix the most tempting and healthy meals I can think of, he doesn’t always feel like eating, and when he does, he often eats less than he used to.

He’s got brain cancer.

We usually live our lives without having to be aware of death. In some ways this journey with brain cancer is a gift. Richard and I can and do practice living in the moment, enjoying the now. But sometimes it’s all too much for me and my courage falters. When I look at that beautiful scar scribing the right side of his head, I remember how he looked when he came out of surgery, his body bristling with wires and tubes, hooking to monitors that beeped and huffed and pumped, the right side of his head so grossly swollen that I had to excuse myself, go out into the hall and sit on the floor. Before I fainted. Later, one of the residents who sat in on his operation said it was “horrendous.” I know that. I saw the evidence.

The man I have loved beyond reason for the last 27 years could die.

No wonder that fear creeps in. I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want Richard to die. Huh? There’s no logic to that, but fear is not a logical emotion. And courage is not logical either. It’s just the thing we call on to walk forward into a journey we didn’t expect and can’t know.

“Life is a crazy, consuming job that calls on an ocean of fortitude,” my writer friend Susan Ewing wrote in an email. “Glad your ocean is so deep.” Thanks, Susan. It feels like a puddle today, but I’ll act like it’s an ocean.

That’s easier to do on a day when the sun shone brightly and the snow melted away, its precious moisture sinking into the ever-thirsty soil. When the tomato sprouts in our bedroom “farm” began showing their first real leaves. When the house smells like whole-wheat sourdough bagels baked for me by the guy with that scar, mixed with green chile from the enchiladas I cooked for dinner.

When Richard looks at me and says, “I love you.” Oh yeah. There’s my courage. I’m just going to wrap it around me, take his hand, and go for a walk before the light fades. We’ll watch the moon float up in the pellucid blue of the evening sky and enjoy the moment–because it’s what we have.