“I glanced at the clock. 11:48 p.m. It hadn’t been that long, but it felt like an eternity. We were curled up together in a hospital bed meant for one, me snuggled into the crook of his arm, our legs entwined. Waiting.
Brad, who was almost always hot, shivered in the cold room, covered only by the thin, itchy hospital blanket. Underneath, he wore nothing but a geometric patterned gown and blue hospital socks with the grippys on the bottom.
We were supposed to get the results of his scan in 20 minutes. ‘Just to rule things out,’ we were told. It had been an hour.
‘It’s almost midnight in the ER,’ I rationalized. ‘It’s actually good that they haven’t come back. It means we aren’t a priority.’ I’m not sure if I was trying to convince Brad or myself.
If Brad was worried, he didn’t show it. He was exhausted, but he remained light-hearted, telling jokes to pass the time. I was the worrier in the relationship. Brad always remained calm in a crisis. He never jumped to conclusions. Me? I always jumped to cancer.
I watched the second hand of the clock move painfully slow.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The door swung open and the doctor walked in. I leaned forward, dangling my legs over the edge of the bed to face the doctor. Brad grabbed my hand.
‘I’m sorry, it’s kidney cancer.’ The doctor’s voice was soft yet direct.
I wondered how many times he’d uttered those words to patients over the years. How many other couples had curled up in that exact same bed, in the exact same geometric print gown with matching blue grippy socks, and heard those exact same words.
My mind couldn’t process the words, but my body was shaking. Brad pulled me in to him, a tear rolling down his cheek.
‘It’s gonna be ok,’ he said.
Cancer wasn’t new to us. The week before Brad and I were in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, celebrating both our 8-year wedding anniversary and my 5 years of being in remission from my own fight with cancer. When I was 28, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. And after an all too brief stint with remission, I had a recurrence, flipping our odds from the ‘good’ diagnosis to the ‘this might kill you’ diagnosis.
For five years, we held our breath – hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. And the week before Brad’s emergency room visit, we finally exhaled. We talked about our future. About whether or not we wanted kids. About where we would we retire.
We hit my 5-year mark and released our grip of the fear we had been holding onto for so long.
And then Brad started having fevers and night sweats, symptoms I was all too familiar with. And then he started having back pain – pain Brad justified away because of his increased time on the golf course.
He had been symptomatic for weeks – maybe even months – but even with my own diagnosis, my brain couldn’t process cancer as an option. Me, the worrier, who always imagined the worst-case scenario, could not have prepared myself for this.
‘Stage 4. Metastatic. Rare.’
I was blindsided.
When we first met our senior year in college, Brad used to repeatedly and obnoxiously nudge me with his elbow and ask, ‘What’s your story?’ No matter how many times I avoided the question, he always wanted to know more. ‘What’s your story?’
‘I don’t have one,’ I’d tell him before switching subjects. I had no interest in sharing the messy parts of myself with this boy I had a crush on. I wanted to keep things light and fun. I wanted to keep my mysterious (and somewhat false) illusion of having my sh*t together. But Brad always wanted to know more. He wanted to know the messy parts of people. The depths of people.
Brad had this innate ability to break people open. Over the 12 years we were together, I’d watch him connect with strangers over taboo – and often polarizing – topics like politics, race, and privilege. Once, when a stranger vehemently disagreed with him in the comments section of an op-ed he wrote, he invited her out for coffee because he wanted to better understand her opinion.
At first Brad’s intense need for depth and connection intimidated me. It challenged me. But over time, it changed me. Once afraid to use my voice – afraid to stand out from the crowd – I started to speak up. I publicly shared my cancer journey (including some not so conventional choices) because Brad not only encouraged me, but allowed me the space to feel safe and supported. When I was nervous to publish my writing, he placed a sticky note on my computer that read, ‘Use your voice. Don’t apologize. Be honest. Have f*cking fun.’
Brad didn’t just encourage others to tell their stories, he shared his own vulnerabilities and insecurities as well. Like everyone, Brad had his own faults and demons but he owned his imperfections and his humanness, and never used those as excuses.
Even when he was given a terminal cancer diagnosis, he was never the victim. He just worked harder to connect and contribute and leave a positive mark on this world in the time he had left. Brad inspired and lead by example simply by being who had always been: a man who valued the people around him.
Brad’s fight with cancer wasn’t an easy one. Almost every week, we ended up in the hospital either because of the spread of cancer or the side effects of the disease. When he was first diagnosed, the cancer had already spread from his kidney to his renal vein, lungs, and liver. Over the next several months – and after surgery to remove his kidney and surrounding lymph nodes – the cancer rapidly progressed to the abdomen, spine, and brain. Brad developed double vision. He had a minor stroke. He lost the ability to walk without assistance. He lost the ability to stay awake for any extended period of time.
But he never lost his desire to connect. And he challenged us until the end.
His first night in the hospital, after learning about his diagnosis, Brad started a podcast called Defending Your Life. From his hospital bed, with his best friend Jeremy, we recorded a raw and honest conversation about what it meant to receive a terminal diagnosis. Brad knew how important it was to share not just his strength, but his struggle. He encouraged us to have difficult conversations about his mortality and the possibility of his death. Through the podcast, we openly discussed our anger, our guilt, our hopes, our fears, and our optimism.
‘Don’t treat me with kid gloves,’ Brad used to say to anyone that asked him what he needed post cancer. His biggest fear surrounding the diagnosis wasn’t death. It was – in his words – ‘that it would silence us, make us disengage, and force us to talk around the disease as opposed to working through it together.’
‘I don’t want this bullsh*t to stop us from having the hard discussions,’ Brad said.
So, like most other times, we followed Brad’s lead. We didn’t let the ‘bullsh*t’ of a diagnosis keep us from the hard discussions. We continued to share and connect and contribute to our story. When I felt weak, Brad built me up. When I closed off, he opened me up. But we kept sharing.
The last 10 days of Brad’s life were impossibly tough. His body was already failing him, but it was watching his mind slip away that was the most difficult. In the end stage of life (that’s what everyone calls it), it is not uncommon for confusion, fogginess, and hallucinations. As Brad’s organs began to fail, so too did his mental capabilities. He was still mostly his witty, hilarious, intelligent self, but this side effect was something I was unprepared for and was the most difficult to accept.
Brad’s mind – his words, his thoughts – were a gift to the world and acknowledging that I would never get another conversation with Brad being fully Brad was one of the most devastating losses before his actual death.
But those final days were also filled with raucous laughter and never-ending stories. Friends and family showed up from all over the country and filled our bedroom with singing and dancing and late night conversations. Brad finished his final lucid days with what he valued most – connection.
On January 22nd, 2017 – 101 days after his diagnosis – Brad took his last breath. We were curled up together, me snuggled into the crook of his arm, our legs entwined, his hand in mine.
‘We’re all terminal!’ Brad used to lightheartedly say. And he was right. We don’t know when our time is up on this earth, but one of the few guarantees is that it will end. Brad lived out his final days the same way he lived his previous 35 years – with an openness and raw honesty that embraced the intangible vulnerability that’s required to live an authentic and courageous life. And I hope I can do the same.
Because of his ineffable effect on me, after Brad died, I have continued writing and podcasting and sharing my story. I speak about grief and loss and about life as a young widow. I write about the extreme loneliness, my efforts moving forward, and finding joy through it all. I started the Forced Joy Project, an online community that provides grievers support and resources as well as a space for others to share their own stories of loss and survival.
Because of Brad, I live a life full of depth and connection. Some days it would be easier to close up and swim back to the shallow end of life. But then I think about Brad nudging me and obnoxiously wanting to know, ‘What’s your story?’ And it’s not just the surface level, everything’s ‘fine’ story he was interested in. It’s the messy, joyful story. The full-of-fear-and-hope-and-excitement story. It’s the real story that matters.
So I keep sharing.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dana Miles Frost of Lake Leelanau, Michigan. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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