“‘You shouldn’t have come. This isn’t a good place for Maddie to be.’ I thought to myself, how could I not come? Yes, I had just had a baby, but I couldn’t leave my husband in the ICU alone. ‘Aaron! If I was in the hospital, would you stay home and be satisfied with text updates?’ ‘That’s different,’ he responded. ‘Maddie is so little, and you are breastfeeding. The ICU is not the safest place. I’ll be okay. You should take her home.’
It was 1:00 in the morning. I had dropped off my two older kids with my sister. She offered to keep Madison, but I had just given birth to her 2 weeks ago and I hadn’t built up any milk supply to provide her with. I had been feeling extremely sick to my stomach for the last few hours as I was having an internal battle with myself. Should I stay home with Maddie or take her to the hospital to sit with my husband? We didn’t know what was wrong but the pit in my stomach was yelling, ‘Something is very wrong.’ So, against my husband’s wishes I made my way to the hospital, two-week baby in tote, and on the verge of a panic attack.
When I walked through his hospital room door, I found a cartain amount of peace. Aaron was sitting up, he looked healthy and our concerns must have been an overreaction. The blood transfusion that he was informed he so desperately needed when first being admitted to the hospital must have been a mistake. Surely, they misread his numbers. He looked fine. At least that’s what hope was whispering into my ear. I sat with Aaron while Maddie slept in her car seat. He laughed and joked with his ICU nurse, and as the hours passed, relief began to set in. Whatever was wrong, it was something minor and they would fix it. The doctors had done a few tests, but they never showed any major concern and all we could do was wait for results. Aaron insisted that I take the baby home and try to get some sleep, and because everything seemed to appear to be ok, I went home, regretfully.
Early the next morning I got the phone call from Aaron. He told me I needed to come to the hospital. That’s all he said. I tried to pry and get more details over the phone, but he continued to calmly say, ‘We will talk when you get here.’ I hung up the phone and said to myself, ‘I think he has cancer.’ I don’t know why I knew, but deep in my core I knew he did. I cried. I cried the entire way to the hospital. No one knows how much I cried that day. I wasn’t ready for him to tell me what I already knew.
While sitting alone in a hospital bed, Aaron was told that he had Stage 4 Colon Cancer. He was told the tumor had started in his colon and there were many other spots that had spread to his liver and his lungs. I hate that he was alone in that moment and I regret everyday not being there, but I also know he would have preferred it that way. Our whole marriage he sheltered me from bad news. He worried about me. He didn’t like seeing me sad or scared. He always tried to fix things before telling me. I can picture him hearing the doctor share his diagnosis and immediately begin to draw up ideas in his head on the best way to tell me, or how he could fix it before telling me. He always protected me and said the right things to make me feel better.
I laid my head on his chest and cried. I told him I couldn’t live this life without him. He responded, ‘I’ll fight for as long as I can.’ I walked out of the room and returned to my little 2 week infant, carried her down to the car, sat in the back seat with her and sobbed. Kissed her toes and held her sweet little baby feet and asked the Lord to give me a baby that would be easy so that I could put all my strength into saving Aaron. The future we thought we would have died that day. The coming months would be filled with fear, anxiety, stress, and a lot of tears.
I didn’t really understand what it felt like to have your life change in an instant. I thought I did. Aaron and I had faced many major life events together. Getting married, having children, changing jobs… all these things we had prepared for. We planned them, so we were ready and welcomed them. Cancer just hit us in the face and all of a sudden, we were fighting for our life, fighting for our future. I resigned from my position as a teacher at my school so I could care for my husband, and not knowing then, but to prepare myself to become the head of the household.
Being a caregiver to someone who is dying is a very difficult burden to carry. Especially when you love that person unconditionally. It’s scary because you feel like you can’t mess it up, and if you do, the repercussions will be fatal. I had thoughts that if I don’t do things right, I’ll end up killing him faster. I felt under-qualified for such a difficult position, but I got the job anyways. Before Aaron was diagnosed, I had no knowledge of the role of caregivers, cancer, death, and all things scary. You don’t think your husband will be diagnosed with cancer at 31 and die 8 months later. No one does! I’m all about reading a great self-help book, it’s my favorite genre, but I wasn’t exactly checking out books titled, ‘How to care for your dying husband and keep the children alive at the same time.’ And anytime I did think to myself, ‘hey I could really use a good caregiver book, I might even buy one,’ I didn’t have time to read it. The point is, I felt unprepared. I smiled, I told others that I was OK, I hid my tears, and I became almost robotic in my daily routines.
I took on the role as Aaron’s caregiver as if it was my job rather than as his wife, companion, and best friend. Some days I was emotionless in our conversations. I often reflect on his last 8 months of life and our time spent together. Specifically, I think about a moment when Aaron asked me to come sit with him. He was a couple days out from his latest chemo treatment, so he had been very sick. I had just spent the last 2 days cleaning up vomit, I was pulling around the clock laundry service, and helping Aaron move from the recliner, to the bed, to the coach, to the bathroom, then back to the recliner and so on. So, when he asked me to sit with him my response was, ‘I don’t have time to sit.’ The sheets on our bed needs to be changed, the bathroom needs to be cleaned, and Maddie hasn’t been bathed in probably 2 weeks. He responded, ‘Robin please come sit with me. Right now, I feel pretty decent. The other things can wait. Just stop for a minute.’ You would think that after that response I would stop and sit with him. I didn’t. I responded, ‘Let me clean the bathroom and change the sheets and then I’ll come sit.’ When I was finished and made my way back to where Aaron was laying, he had fallen asleep. And in that moment, I sighed with relief because I still needed to do 80 billion loads of laundry, the dishes, and feed my children some sort of meal.
Then I had a moment with Aaron’s oncologist. Aaron had stepped out of the room to use the bathroom and for the first time throughout our cancer journey I saw real concern in his doctor’s eyes. Sadly, I know I wasn’t the first wife or husband he had shown those same eyes, but I remember feeling like I was the only one ever in the world that would see them. MY husband was going to die. I don’t remember everything he said to me that day because realizing that Aaron would die was pretty distracting (understatement of the century). He explained that they would try to do some things to help give his liver some relief, but it was under extreme stress and all his symptoms and numbers were pointing toward what usually kills colon cancer patients, liver failure. He took my hand and placed his other hand on top of mine and gave me his most apologetic eyes. I was getting really tired with all these different types of eyes. The only eyes I wanted to see were the ‘Aaron beats cancer eyes.’
Aaron returned to the room and I looked up from my mindless stare and for the first time since his diagnosis I saw him in a different light. He looked very sick. He was jaundice, had dark circles around his eyes, thin dry lips, and he had this distinct slump in his shoulders. His body was ready to rest. This terrible thing was happening. I realized that my husband would die, really die. One of my greatest fears was going to happen but when I looked at him in that moment, I felt only love. I saw Aaron, my best friend. I didn’t see Aaron, the cancer patient. I didn’t see Aaron, the guy who argues with me just for the sake of arguing, or Aaron, the guy who cannot rinse the sink out when he shaves. Maybe I did see those things, and if I did, I didn’t care anymore. I loved him, all of him, and I wanted all of him to survive. I wanted to go back and say that I was sorry. I wanted to go back and sit with him when he said, ‘come sit with me.’ WHY DIDN’T I SIT WITH HIM? I shouldn’t have been pretending that everything was OK…because it wasn’t. Acting like everything was alright made me value hope over action. ‘Things will turn out alright! so there is no need to sit with Aaron, I’ll have years of sit-down moments.’
I didn’t get years. I got 8 months. In fact, it was even less than that. From the time I realized how short time was to his death was only about 2 months. In Aaron’s final hours I tried to give him my most loving eyes. I played his favorite songs. I played videos of our children so he could hear their voices, and I sat with him. In Aaron’s death I’ve learned a lot about true expressions of real love. It’s not simply enjoying the good, it’s also enjoying the bad. Aaron and I struggled throughout our marriage with various things and, at times, I thought it meant that our marriage was a bad one. But it wasn’t. It was a great one, and it was all the good and the bad that made it that way. I regret not realizing this sooner because I think I would have felt more joy in those moments I needed it the most. ‘In sickness and in health’ has greater meaning for me now. Sure, it means that when you’re sick with the flu, or with a cold, or with cancer, or when you’re perfectly healthy… but is that all it means? I think that everyone will agree and say, ‘of course not!’ Yet we often give up so easily, we throw in the towel, and beat each other down when failing to meet expectations.
Aaron dying definitely was not what I had expected, but I pray that his legacy may save someone else. That my walk here on earth, even though filled with grief, will save another drowning soul. That my loss will bring an appreciation to love that is so often taken for granted. I by no means am an expert in understanding grief or know everything there is to finding peace, but I hope that as I move forward, I will always love what matters.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Robin Keele of Houston, Texas. 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:
‘My 30-year-old husband who was never sick, was constantly downing Pepto Bismol. He started eating less than me. He was missing work, which he never did. I knew something wasn’t right.’
‘John was my PATIENT, and I was married. With tears streaming down my face, I looked at him. ‘Do you want to get married?’ We held each other in the tightest hug, and just sobbed. Hard.’
SHARE this story on Facebook to encourage others to cherish every moment and love what matters most.