“In January 2015, we were in Las Vegas for our daughter’s gymnastics meet. At the time, she was a competitive gymnast and we travelled all over. Between that, work and real life, it wasn’t uncommon for us to be tired a lot. But, on this trip, he was more tired than normal and complained quite a bit about not feeling well. He thought it was something he ate and just wanted to sleep it off. We got back from our trip and life went back to normal, but about a week later, he started turning yellow. So much so that one of his co-workers commented something to him about it. Now, my husband never went to the doctor. And when I say ‘never,’ I mean it. He went one time when he was forced to do a physical to be hired as police officer, but other than that, he never went.
After he brought up the yellowing to me, I noticed it too and quickly saw that it was in his eyes. The only thing I know about when it comes to yellowing of the skin is jaundice. So, I googled it. Most of the results were liver issues and hepatitis, which would make sense considering in his line of work, it’s easy to contract diseases when you’re arresting people. I made him a doctor’s appointment, but he went by himself because neither of us thought it was really anything to worry about. He would get some medicine, or it would resolve on its own. Never did we think it could be cancer.
After his appointment, he told me the doctor agreed it could be hepatitis and did a hepatitis panel and would have the results in a few days. After a couple of days, it got worse. He was getting more yellow. I called the doctor and explained it to them and they told me they were just about to call because the blood work came back negative. My heart sunk a little bit, but I still didn’t think about cancer because he was a 44-year-old strong, healthy police officer. Cancer wasn’t even on my radar. However, looking back, I do remember the urgency in his voice. ‘We need to get him to the hospital for a CT scan.’ I told Chad and he refused, which was no surprise. He did not want to go to the hospital and he most certainly did not want to go to the hospital in the community in which we lived and take a chance of running into anybody he knew. Look, I’m a pretty persuasive person but it took everything I had to convince him to go to another hospital further away. When we got there, we sat in the parking lot for a good half hour, me trying to convince him to go in, him not wanting to.
Once I convinced him to go in, they immediately took him back, got him prepped and took him for an ultrasound. I went into the room with him and as they did the test, we both earnestly tried to follow along with what the technician was doing, or how long she stayed focused on one place. When she started measuring things, I immediately flashed back to when I was pregnant and how, during ultrasounds, they would measure the size of the baby. ‘What in the hell is she measuring?’
We would find out later that it was a tumor. They had to give him a death sentence.
He nodded, and said, ‘okay.’
Pure grit, that man. Pure grit.
I saw him processing it in his head, and I saw him trying to make sense of it. It was quiet for a moment and I don’t think anybody knew what to say. We sat in that silence, as questions raced in my head. So, now what? Where do we go? He can have surgery, right? We will just fix this, right? It will all be ok, right? I don’t know what he was thinking but I am guessing it was along those same lines.
He teared up after the doctor asked him if he had kids. It only took seconds for the tears to come. From him. It was the only time I would see him cry during his 18-month ordeal, and it is something I will never, ever forget. And I will never forget the feeling I had of wanting to tackle that doctor right then and there. I think when somebody hurts the person you love, you can’t help but want to attack. I know this wasn’t her fault. I know there was no good way to tell him. But in an instant, she just became the association to me between life and death.
The rest of our time in that 8×8 room is a blur. I don’t recall anything. The next thing I remember is being in the actual hospital room they were keeping him in overnight. I did not want to go home. I did not want to shower or eat or do anything but sit there with him. It was a Friday, and my older kids were off doing whatever older kids do and my younger daughter was at a sleepover with a teammate as they had a competition the next day. I was not going anywhere. But, for some reason, I felt like he needed pajamas. I don’t know why. He could have stayed in a hospital gown, but I was bound and determined to get him pajama bottoms. And a real toothbrush. Deodorant. I didn’t know how long he would be there and I would be damned not to have some creature comforts for him.
At some point, when his mom was there with him, I went to the store. I walked to the car, still not totally processing what had happened. I got in the car and called my boss. I had to tell her I wasn’t coming to work, but she had also lost her husband a few years before that and for some reason, I vomited the whole story on her. She talked to me. Consoled me. Let me cry. Told me how to get to the store because I was in a place I wasn’t familiar with and had no idea where I was going. And after my crying session on the phone, she told me to wash my face, get the pajamas and then go back and figure out how we were going to fight this thing. She had faith in me. I’m glad one of us did. I called the mother of the friend who my daughter was staying with. I don’t remember if I gave specifics, but I asked her to keep my daughter for the weekend. She agreed.
It was the first of many, many, many fires I would be putting out over the next year and a half and the first of many arrangements I would have to make revolving around this cancer. From that point forward, my life was figuring things out, making appointments, reading articles, sending emails to doctors, praying for trials, and trying to find a cure. I became obsessed with saving him. One minute I was a wife and busy working mother and the next, I was a crazed maniac just trying to figure out what to do. But more importantly, I became his advocate; a role I will never regret.
When I got back to the hospital, he told me that the doctors were going to perform something called an ERCP to look at the tumor and put stents in his bile duct. Apparently, the reason he was jaundice was because the tumor was blocking the duct. He also told me he fully expected me to go to our daughter’s gymnastics meet the following day.
‘You’re crazy,’ was the only thing I could think to say.
He insisted, and, in the end, he won. I went to the meet in a complete fog and watched our daughter do her routines flawlessly, with an innocence that she would never get back after she learned of her dad’s fate.
Within a week, we sat with one of the best pancreatic cancer doctors in the world and listened while he explained what the ‘Whipple Surgery’ was and how they were going to take apart his intestines, remove the tumor and put his digestive system back together in a bypass.
Two weeks after that, we sat anxiously waiting in the surgery prep room talking, trying to joke around with each other, laughing and completely avoiding the fact he was about to embark on an 8-hour procedure that would likely determine whether he would live or die. We spoke nothing at that moment of anything realistic, as he had given me clear instructions the night before on certain practical things. There was no need to rehash it all. There was nothing we could do. In fact, the reality of that morning did not set in until the nurses came in and told him to remove his jewelry.
He slipped his wedding band off and handed it to me.
I pulled in a deep breath.
I swallowed hard.
My heart shook.
I bit my lip and smiled.
He smiled back.
The next time I would hold his wedding ring was the week before he died, 18 months later. Looking back, I now realize how sick he was but at the time, I still didn’t want to see it. He had experienced a stroke and after they let him come home, I had to take him back to the hospital every few days to the heparin clinic to get shots to prevent any more blood clots. He was so weak I ended up having to push him in a wheelchair and after one appointment, after we left, he mentioned he thought he lost his wedding ring inside the office. We went back in, couldn’t find it and I asked him again where he thinks he lost it.
‘I don’t know. I just heard it hit the ground.’
He was confused. He was tired. I couldn’t even be upset. I touched his hand and leaned in close to him. ‘We will find it. It’s ok.’ My heart said we would. My brain knew we wouldn’t. Right then and there I accepted the fact he was going to die, and he was going to do that without his ring.
He insisted we retrace our steps at the hospital, and we did. I pushed him through the hospital, the entire length of it, while he scanned the floor and corners for any sparkle that might catch his eye. We told security. We left our name at lost and found. We went home.
We did not speak about it again. He felt bad about it, and my heart was broken. There was no point in talking about either one of those things. I tried to reassure him that it was ok, but I don’t think he believed me. It wouldn’t be there first time in this awful journey that I tried to make something ok, even when it wasn’t. I didn’t want him to worry. I didn’t want him to ever think I had given up hope.
I found places to break down without him seeing me. The shower, parking lots, in the car – anyplace where he wouldn’t notice. A few days before he died, it was the laundry room. Sleep deprived and scared, I carried the laundry in there, put it in the machine and paused before opening the door to leave.
This was going to be the last time I would ever wash his shirts.
My mind could not handle that information. I could not process it fast enough. I could not process it slow enough. I wanted to throw up. I had been washing his shirts for fifteen years and on that day, I stood in the laundry room and was hit with the reality that I would never wash his things again. Throughout our marriage, there were times I was annoyed I had to wash his shirts. There were times I was irritated that his shirts were left in the dryer. There were times I didn’t want to wash them. And in this moment, this very moment, I promised God that if he let Chad live, that I would never be irritated with washing his shirts again.
But it was true. I will never wash his shirts again.
I don’t know how long it took me to slide to the ground, but with my back against the wall and my knees drawn to my chest, I bawled. I sobbed until I could not breathe. I instinctively covered my mouth to disguise any of the prehistoric sounds coming from my gut because even though he was heavily medicated and asleep, I still could not take the chance of him finding out I was slowly giving up hope.
There is this weird calming feeling your body has after you have cried like that. Your face gets swollen. Your lips tingle. Your eyes can’t blink. Your voice is quiet. Your thoughts slow down. You take deep breaths. You cleanse yourself. And in that moment of deep despair, you look around and memorize your surroundings and the things close to you. Up to the ceiling, down the walls, at the washing machine filling with water, then down to the floor. And suddenly, you see it.
A perfect, platinum wedding ring.
And the crying starts again as you pick it up and squeeze it into your hand, holding it close to your chest, grasping it as tight as you can, vowing you will never lose it again.
And now, that is all I have left of him because this pancreatic cancer stole my husband’s life. And, at the same time, it stole mine and the lives of my children. Pancreatic cancer stole my husband’s heartbeat, and at the same time, it stole my heart.
I hate this disease.
And since his death, in the last two years, I have lost over 20 friends to pancreatic cancer. How many people, besides those affected by something like this, can say they have lost that many people in such a short time?
The statistics for pancreatic cancer have not changed in over 40 years. There is no cure. There are no good treatments. This is unacceptable. I vowed to myself after he died that I would do my part to try to change that, and with November being pancreatic cancer awareness month, I am doing my best to spread the word. Know the symptoms. Take charge of your medical care. Be your own advocate, but above all, know that you are not alone.
November 15th is World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day. Show your support and wear purple. Take pics, tag #iam149 and start the conversation. And if you’re in Idaho on November 16th, it’s the James Chad Register Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day. Wear your purple again, grab a Dutch Brothers, spread glitter, tell people why, and never, ever give up hope.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Diana Register. Her bestselling book, “Grief Life,” is now available in print and kindle. Experience love, laughter, loss and hope in this raw, emotional, honest look at grief. Be sure subscribe to our best love stories here.
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