‘I have something I need to tell you.’ He was rubbing his hands together nervously. I looked him in the eyes, and said, ‘You can tell me anything.’ My brain couldn’t process it.’

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“He told me the night we met.

We starting texting online through a dating service. It was late 2013, and we were both very newly divorced after long term first marriages. After a few weeks chatting online, we agreed to meet. I remember I walked into the restaurant and saw him sitting at the bar. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he is so handsome.’

Courtesy of Anne Sabatos

He told me on the way to our wedding that when I walked into the restaurant that first night and he saw me, that his heart leapt, and then sank. I remember asking him why it sank? He said it leapt when he saw me, and it sank when he immediately thought I was out of his league.

We talked and talked that first night. Towards the end of the night, he looked across the table, and said, ‘I have something I need to tell you.’ He was rubbing his hands together very nervously, and I put my hands across the table on top of his, looked him into the eyes, and said, ‘You can tell me anything.’

‘I have cancer,’ he said. I sat back in my seat and thought I must have misheard him. He didn’t look sick. My brain couldn’t process what I was hearing. I said, ‘Oh, but you’re fine, right?’ As if you are ever fine after a cancer diagnosis. ‘No,’ he said. ‘In fact, it is a deadly cancer and I have been told I don’t have long to live.’

I was floored. My first thoughts were compassion and sympathy for him. I remember saying that I needed to think about all this. I was newly divorced, looking to sow my wild oats after being married half of my life, certainly not looking to date a man with terminal cancer. I had no experience with cancer, nor with sick people.

He walked me to my car, and looked down at me and kissed me. I had to put my hands on his arms to steady myself while he kissed me. My knees went weak, I literally thought I was going to fall. He drew back, looked me into the eyes, and smiled the biggest, most beautiful smile.

He knew.

We both knew.

Whatever our future was going to be, it wasn’t going to end that night after our first meeting.

Courtesy of Anne Sabatos

I went home, and I did some research on cholangiocarcinoma. It is a deadly cancer. I remember crying that night, that this wonderful man had this terrible disease, and that maybe I could be a friend and support to him, but I didn’t want to  get emotionally involved. No one would purposely bring this kind of pain on themselves.

As I got to know Mike, I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. He was so gentle, and so kind to me. He had been given this death sentence, and had fought pancreatic cancer at age 30, and now again 15 years later another horrific cancer, and it just wasn’t fair. He didn’t complain. He was very positive that he would beat it, and handled the whole thing with much more grace than I would have.

He didn’t look sick, and in fact was so athletic that he raced motorcross, golfed, and continued his regular schedule throughout his chemo.

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I respected him. I respected the way he carried himself, and the way he went to work every single day, and the way he lived his life. We agreed to date, and in many respects we were like any other new middle aged couple trying to combine kids, homes, careers, and history. Except we had chemotherapy, bouts of extreme pain, illness, fear, and exhaustion thrown in for good measure.

After a year of dating, we got married in November 2014. Mike was too sick for a honeymoon, and only a few months after we got married we found out that the chemo, and the treatments weren’t working, and that the tumor was blocking the exit to his stomach, and that if he didn’t respond to a new clinical trial our new marriage would be over very quickly.

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We were praying the Immunotherapy would work, and when Mike was hospitalized because he couldn’t keep any food down, we had to make a tough decision. We could have stents put in to buy a little time,  or we could have them insert a feeding tube, and hopefully the immunotherapy would shrink the tumor enough that he would be able to eat again.

We did the feeding tube. Mike was just so positive he would beat the cancer. There was evidence that Immunotherapy was working miracles with other cancers, and we just chose to be positive. We were driving 4 hours each way every 2 weeks for Mike to receive treatment, and I became an expert on immunotherapy and its side effects. I would fiercely advocate when he would have side effects, and more than once I was mistaken for a nurse, or medical student.

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We settled into an uneasy routine. Mike wasn’t able to digest food. He was on a feeding tube, so only liquid. If he drank too much liquids, he would get sick. If he drank soup or something sometimes the tube would get clogged, and he would get sick. He was going to work every day, but would get home and go right to bed, and would be so weak I wouldn’t even think he could get out of bed the next day day, and yet he would.

The day came and we found out the immunotherapy was working! I was so excited, and so happy. We both thought we were going to get bad news, as he had been so sick. He was actually kind of angry that day, and not responding the way someone who just found out his life was being extended would react. I found out later he had actually resigned himself to the idea that he was dying, and was so exhausted from fighting, that he had prepared himself to stop fighting. At that low point, I was begging him to keep fighting. I did tell him that if/when the time came that the hope was gone, I would support his decision to stop fighting, but this wasn’t the time!

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Several months later, the tumor had shrunk enough that he was actually able to get the feeding tube removed, and eat again! He ate, and he ate. I would wake up in the morning and look on his side of the bed, and there would be empty cracker wrappers, Cheez-Its, cereal, pretty much any kind of snack food  we had in the house he would eat all day and all night. After months of not being able to eat, he enjoyed food in a way most never do.

It was such a happy time for us. We were able to actually go on vacation, and even though he had a lot of side effects from the immunotherapy, and lasting side effects from chemo we were so hopeful, and positive.

We made a good team. We were able to connect in a way that people who know they don’t have a lot of time remaining together do. We rarely argued, spent a lot of time together talking, slept holding hands and loved each other wholly and completely. I have never been so happy in my life as I was for those few short years that I had with Mike.

The time came that Mike started having severe blood loss. We had no idea what was going on, his scans didn’t show any growth in the tumors, but he was exhausted and needed several blood transfusions. Eventually we found out that the clinical trial wasn’t working anymore, and unless he qualified for a new clinical trial we were coming to the end.

Mike started having serious issues, and after a middle of the night trip by ambulance to the hospital where they thought he would go into cardiac arrest at any time, and with a chaplain standing beside me, we were told he had sepsis and things were very grim.

He fought and fought, but after a month in the hospital where he couldn’t digest food again, the decision was made to put in another feeding tube to buy some time, and this time he would go home with hospice care.

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People assume the worst day of my life was the day he died. It wasn’t though. By the time he passed, I was in some respects relieved. He was out of pain, the nonstop nausea was gone, he was finally at peace.

The worst day of my life was when they told me there was nothing left they could do, and to take my handsome, tall husband home to die. I remember he was sleeping when the surgeon told me, and I was sobbing quietly beside his bed. He woke up, and heard me. He asked his sister why I was crying, and I told him I was just very sad, and worried about him. He couldn’t move without pain, and asked his sister to console me. He was always so concerned with how I was feeling, and how I was dealing with it.

Even when I brought him home on hospice and I had to help him walk and help him shower, he kept his dignity. Cancer does that. It tries to take every last shred of hope, dignity, and grace that it can. Mike didn’t allow that. This fiercely independent man allowed me to help him shower, dress him, help him in and out of bed, and down the stairs. He didn’t complain, he didn’t waste his precious energy wondering why. He simply went on, loving and living each minute, as cancer took his independence from him.

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The day came where I was afraid to help him down the stairs from our bedroom, and we began sleeping in the living room. He in the hospital bed, and me on the couch. I was exhausted all the time. I slept so lightly that if he moved in the night I would wake up. We had issues with the feeding tube, issues with the pain pump, issues with the hospice company that was going through a buyout, and was absolutely awful. I was operating on the edge of hysteria pretty much all the time. I never lost it, never screamed or cried out even though I wanted to. I figured if Mike could do it, I could do it. I would walk around with tears streaming down my face, but Mike wanted his last weeks to be happy, and we did what we could to make that happen.

The last week of his life we had close friends and family staying with us overnight. I was afraid after months of not sleeping, that I would oversleep if something happened, and honestly I was just emotionally exhausted.

The weekend before he passed away, he told me he thought the following weekend would be a good time to go. His son was coming from out of state, his siblings would all be there, and he wanted a huge party with him in the middle of it. I laughed, and said it’s Gods will when you will die, but inside I knew he had held on for so long for all of us and that he was exhausted from the struggle. He was ready. He seemed to be in a different place, a place of acceptance. Never much of a sleeper even in the end stage of his disease, he started sleeping more.

He planned his funeral. He called people he loved and asked them to come see him. He asked people to speak at his funeral. I laid in the hospital bed with him as much as I could, and we held each other. He gave me detailed instructions about how he wanted me to disperse his things, and even told me how each member of his family would behave after his death, and he was right on everything.

He was worried about me, and how I would deal with his passing. I was worried about me as well. He had become my whole life. I could barely fathom being away from him for an hour, and the idea of being away from him forever was just horrific to me.

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Exactly 5 days after Mike had told me he was going to die, he fell into a light coma. He responded to touch, and could hear us talking to him. He had made me promise not to leave him alone those last days as he was scared, and someone held his hand night and day the last 72 hours of his life. His family and friends came and went all weekend, and Sunday his breathing got very shallow, as he drifted away from us. His son had to leave to go back home, and Mike hung on until his son called to say he had safely gotten home. I remember saying to Mike as we all stood around his bed at 3 a.m. that his son had made it home safely. Mike stopped breathing 1 minute after I told him, and exactly one week after he said he would die the following weekend, he died.

It has been 2.5 years since that night. The first year was a blur. I really don’t remember much, except that I was frequently sick, and so sad.

It doesn’t really get easier. I think I have just learned to live with it. After losing my husband, nothing really affects me like it did before. I suppose after suffering devastating loss, things pale in comparison.

You can’t help but be changed by this kind of experience.

The grief bursts are rarer, I don’t cry in the grocery store anymore. When they hit they still take me by surprise, but I have learned to just sit with them, and they will pass. I am more compassionate to other people. I feel things deeply, and I know very clearly what my priorities are. I don’t sweat small stuff, and I tell my people I love them frequently because you never know.

I have been asked many times if knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Would I date and marry a man who had a terminal cancer diagnosis? The answer has changed several times. When he was alive, I was absolutely happy to have had the opportunity to love, and to take care of him. I have been reminded that not everyone gets to experience the kind of love and commitment that Mike and I shared. I am grateful that I was able to give Mike the care he deserved at the end of his life, and that I was the last love of his life.

However, it has been very difficult. It isn’t a movie ending, it is real life. This life is lonely, you walk widowhood alone, even with people around you. People don’t recognize the new you post-loss, you hardly recognize yourself.

I feel in many respects though that for the first time in a long time that I am really living. I have started exercising again, and taking golf lessons which he would have loved, as he was an avid golfer. I spend a lot of time with my friends, and with my family. I’ve started to work really hard again at a career I love. We started a blog when Mike was sick to get the information out to our friends and family about his treatment, and I continue it today documenting my attempts to restart my life post loss.

I have realized that in answer to the question was it worth it, it was. I would do it all over the exact same way. It is all about love. It is the most important thing in life, and continues on in death.

Death did its part, but the love lives on.”

Courtesy of Anne Sabatos

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anne Sabatos of Canton, Michigan. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories from those experiencing grief and loss:

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