My world revolves around my three boys – none of whom are “boy” aged and none of whom quite appreciate their “boy” status. I tend not to care too much about this. When you’re the lone female in the nuclear family, you get special permission to refer to all other members as boys, which of course implies they require looking after. To be clear: I truly believe that any of my three boys would be fine without me. There are no notions of grandeur that go along with playing mother hen to them. But I do believe that boys (ok, men) sometimes need a little looking-after by a responsible woman. I also believe that many responsible women prefer to rely on a man for certain things when possible. (In my case, that would be things related to cars, a few animals I’m irrationally scared of, and cleaning the bathrooms in our house.)
My husband, TJ, is a studly gentleman who I’ve been with for more than seven years. We met during our first year of college and began dating our second year. After more than three years of dating, he proposed over dinner; two years after that, we were married. Though I’ve loved him for quite awhile, our love really went untested until my mom’s diagnosis. It’s easy to be in love when everything around you is easy, too.
My mom was diagnosed less than three months before our wedding. In the course of one week, I went from “Should I wear heels or flats?” to “Should we move the wedding up or push it back?” It was not a comfortable decision to make. At the time of her diagnosis, we were told that if chemotherapy wasn’t effective almost immediately, she could be gone within 3 months. By moving up the wedding, we would forfeit all our idealized planning for the sake of having my mom present – something she didn’t want us to do. Then there was the idea to push the wedding back a few months. If chemo was working, she might be able to Cupid Shuffle at the wedding like we’d talked about for the last year or so… but we also ran the risk that she might be taken too soon and not see us marry at all.
Many men might try to dictate the best thing to do. Others might shut their mouths and leave the decision completely up to the woman. For me, the right response was to help me weigh the pros and cons, and to serve as a voice of reason and level-headedness when my mind was too clouded with despair to make a rational decision. And that’s exactly what TJ did. While supporting me through whatever emotion I was feeling, he was also crunching numbers, figuring out how much money we could lose by changing the date. He was coming up with solutions to get my mom in and out of a church or reception hall in whatever state of mobility she was in. He was telling our family and friends to stand-by for possible last-minute wedding changes.
We eventually decided to leave the wedding right where it was and take our chances. We were taking our chances no matter which option we went with, so we kept to our middle-ground and left things as they were. And then just three days before the wedding, we received a miracle – the news that my mom’s chemo was not only working, but that she was coming home from the hospital. Though she wasn’t strong enough to walk down the long aisle at St. Teresa, she could be pushed down it in a wheelchair.
Cancer continued to test the bonds of our relationship after the wedding. As my mom swung back-and-forth between “the cancer is stable” and “the cancer is spreading” I spent varying amounts of time with my family in my childhood home. I spent days, nights, weekends there. And in truth, it maybe wasn’t fair to TJ. For the first year of his marriage, I wasn’t necessarily all there. It may have been selfish of me not to give it all up for marriage, but it’s incredible how consuming cancer can be. Nearly every decision we made had to take the cancer into account: “Should we go away for the weekend when her condition could worsen?” “Do I have time to stop for a visit with my mom before we go to your game?” “Can we stop at the grocery and pick up more food for her?” And through it all, he was exactly what I needed, and what my family needed. He cared very deeply for my family as a unit and my mom individually. He cared enough to empathize with us and feel with us, but was able to remain practical and rational when the rest of us were crashing.
When she passed away, he gently led me through day-to-day life until I was ready to push myself through it on my own. He tolerated my hours in bed crying, soothed and consoled family members at her funeral services and wrote thank you notes to people who sent condolences when my hand and mind were too exhausted and overwhelmed to do anything.
We had a life together before my mom had cancer; we had a life together while she had cancer; and we have a life together now that she’s gone. He has managed to adapt gracefully – consistently being just what I need even when I can’t articulate it. Everyone deals with “baggage” in a relationship. For some it’s past relationships or children; for others it’s the way they were raised or a situation they’ve endured. My baggage is that I’m grieving, even now. It’s a hard baggage for a spouse to deal with, because it’s not always obviously present. Little things, like the sight of her photo, the scent of fresh laundry, seeing her favorite shade of blue, can set me off. It takes a very strong man to not just deal with that, but to embrace it and let me feel the things I need to feel. That Teej has got it goin’ on.
On our wedding day. Happy.