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Coupling

The same old us

Terminal illness changes everything – and nothing at all.

By Patricia A. Geller
April 17, 2011

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On our 27th anniversary, we got the devastating news that my husband had lung cancer. He looked and felt fine, but he had a funny cough that I’d been bugging him about all summer. The tumor was large, and chemo and radiation were needed before they could remove it. After months of treatment and a second extensive surgery, we learned the cancer had spread.

Luckily, we had a remarkable network of friends who helped with meals and daily tasks. They let me come over for a good cry when I needed one. My husband and I updated our old will and walked through cemeteries to choose a plot for his ashes. We took a number of expensive “last vacations” with and without our two sons. We talked openly about his eventual death and what needed to be done to help me manage family life without him.

In the two years after my husband’s diagnosis, our boys grew quickly into young men. Our older son moved home for several months to be with us as we walked into the world of cancer. Our younger did a semester closer to home so he could have a weekly lunch with his father. Both boys blew the crowd away with their remarks at a “roast” my husband’s colleagues and friends gave him last fall. They were funny, sweet, and poised, and their affection for their father was clear in their gentle ribbing and reflections. The three of them were in constant contact when the Red Sox made a trade or the Celtics trounced their opponents. (As a former hippie from the New York area, I still can’t believe how much my life revolves around Boston sports teams.)

I’m proud of how well we faced this life-robbing disease as a family, and as a couple. But even after the diagnosis, my husband and I still fought about the same things we always had – one being who worked hardest around the house. In an earlier time, we’d once flagged our housework with his and her Post-it notes that said things like “There was a dirty cup here, but I washed it.” We had a good laugh seeing every household surface covered with squares of paper. I still burst into tears when he suggested I call the car mechanic, which I’ve never seen as my job, even if it is my car. He still bristled at my inability to shut a cabinet door or organize my papers in anything other than piles. Once he went to the hospital, and I was unable to reach him for hours. When I called my son, scared and crying, he pooh-poohed my fears, reminding me that his dad had always been forgetful. It turned out my husband had forgotten his phone. Ah, yes, we did the same dance. No longer the rock ’n’ roll of our youth but a lovely waltz, as we each grew more charitable in our reactions to the other’s foibles.

Humor had always been integral to our relationship, and with cancer, gallows humor blossomed. My husband chuckled and played along one day when I suggested we pull a Thelma and Louise to avoid another trip to Mass. General. Given the age of our cars, they probably would have stalled instead of plunging us over the edge. (He begged me to get rid of mine so he could die with less guilt.) When he developed a terrible infection and they wheeled him off for a chest X-ray, I said, “God, honey, what will we do if they find out you have lung cancer?”

A few months before my husband died, I came home from work after a long week to find he hadn’t left his bed all day. I chastised him for not eating, in the same way I used to when he went back for seconds on dessert or fed the boys Hamburger Helper while watching episodes of The Simpsons. Then he told me he felt useless and blue, so I changed my plans and made him dinner, which we ate in bed, reading and talking. It was a lovely way to spend the evening.

The next morning he felt much better. “Starbucks?” I asked, as was our longtime routine. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll have a grande Christmas blend.” “Good,” I replied. “You can get one when you pick up my venti half-caf.” What could he say but “Yes, dear,” and off he went.

Patricia A. Geller is a psychologist who lives in Watertown. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.