This past Saturday, July 21, marked 9 years since my husband was told he had stage 4, inoperable cancer. He was only 47; he had exhibited absolutely no symptoms; there was no family history at all; he had just carried, along with my son, a couch up 12 flights of stairs, lifting it over the railing at the 90-degree angle in the stairs mid-way through each flight, for goodness’ sake! He couldn’t have cancer, and he certainly couldn’t be dying!
Because of that horrible news, his birthday “celebration” 4 days later was awkward. His parents invited us over for
bar-b-q, cake, and home-made ice-cream; his brothers and
his sister-in-law joined us. What laughter there was, was forced. There was none of the typical “remember when Steve was 4 and we . . . “.
The proverbial elephant in the room was the ultimate party pooper.
That was the last birthday Steve celebrated.
Today would have been his 57th.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that. When I picture my husband, I see the supposedly-healthy 47-year-old from prior to his 6-week cancer battle. When I’m feeling particularly strong, I try to picture what he would look like now. What our life would look like now.
But I can only let my mind touch on that for a millisecond. Like a tongue testing the wound left from a just-removed tooth, my mind jerks away almost as soon as I entertain any thoughts of what-was and what-could-have-been.
Oh, I think about the past (probably too often) and talk about it with others when it comes up in conversation, but those thoughts are always very general. When the conversations turn to specific incidents involving Steve, we keep the conversation light.
And when I’m alone every evening, my mind only allows itself to admit that I am, in general, alone and lonely. My subconscious stops me from thinking about the specifics of why. Of who and what I’m missing.
Every year, though, my body somehow remembers. Around July 4th, I notice I’m getting a bit more emotional, a bit more restless. The first year it happened — the 2nd year after Steve passed away — I was a bit confused as to what was going on. I mentioned it to a friend, and she said her mother did the same thing each year as certain anniversaries — of her father’s birthday and, later in the year, of his death — neared. I did a little research and found that medical experts agree that our bodies often recognize the “anniversary” of painful events even if our mind doesn’t allow us to openly or directly recognize it. As a result, we react emotionally without recognizing the cause right away.
As July moves on and the temperatures rise outside, the sadness inside me grows as well. I become even more restless. I long for activities and the company of people, particularly my children. During the day, I take walks to get out of the empty house; at night I drive around town or go watch a baseball game in one of the city parks. When I finally go home, I turn on the television and pick up a book. The background noise allows me to pretend I’m in a busy household filled with loved ones; the book allows me to escape that flimsy illusion.
Every year — and this one is no exception — I plan to post a really great tribute to Steve on his birthday. Each year I fail. He deserves it, and I feel horrible that I can’t yet write it.
I comfort myself with the knowledge that, given the modest, “don’t-shine-the-spotlight-on-me” type of man he was, he’d be touched but uncomfortable by such a tribute anyway.
Those who knew him know what a fantastic man, father, husband, son, brother, and friend he was. They don’t need to be reminded.
Those who didn’t know him . . . well, you can see the man he was in his children, our son and daughter.
Someday I will write that really great tribute to him. Someday my mind will let me move beyond the general and really focus on the specifics.
Today, though, will be a day of long walks and a short drive or two, reading a book, and sorting the spare bedroom in preparation for my move next month. There will be a longer drive to the cemetery and a call to my father-in-law to check on him, and we’ll talk a little bit about his son, my husband, the father of our children.
The marking of Steve’s birth will not be a cake and ice-cream and presents celebration.
It will be the quiet remembrance of the life of a wonderful man who was with us for far too short a time.