On our 20th anniversary I gave my husband an anniversary card: on the front was an old black and white photograph of a Timex watch. Inside it read “It’s taken a lickin’ but it’s still tickin.’ At the time I thought it was cute and pretty accurately expressed our marriage. Whose marriage hasn’t taken a lickin’ at different points? Our arguments were pretty standard-I think: finances, household responsibilities, kids, beers consumed, eating habits were in our top tier. I’m a ‘talker-outer,’ he’s a ‘it’s settled now’ but somehow we kept tickin’. Did I seethe inside that I was the one who planned all the vacations while he argued for reasons we should just stay home?.. oh yes I did. But I got my way most of the time and if he didn’t love the new experiences he tolerated them and most of the time put on a good game face. Then that game face became my lifeline.
I didn’t believe him when he told me the tumor was cancerous.
“Oh Jack, you’re crazy. You got that wrong. Why didn’t the doctor tell me himself?”
I was completely dismissive of my husband having to deliver this news, absolutely sure he was exaggerating.
“Hon’ It’s okay. You’re going to be fine. He said he thinks they got right down to clear margins, “ he replied. And so my summer of cancer began. OUR summer of cancer began.
“Liz. I got 3 kinds. Chocolate, strawberry and banana. Rite Aid had them cheapest.” He’s proferring 3 flavors of Ensure which has become the only nourishment I can tolerate. It’s Ensure or a feeding tube. It takes me an hour to drink one bottle. The mouth sores, distorted tongue and inflamed throat from radiation have made it impossible to eat anything solid, anything too hot, too cold, too thick. He thins the Ensure with ice cubes and then leaves them to melt and warm up on the counter.
“Okay, hon, are you ready?“ he asks. We’re headed into Boston for another treatment. “I walked Jasper. He peed and pooped.” My husband doesn’t like dogs. He tolerates Jasper because he knows I love him. My illness has forced him to break his vow that he would never walk the dog. Put this scene on repeat for 3 months and that was our summer.
“C’mon Liz. Let’s take a ride.” Once or twice a week Jack would try to get me to go out. Not to a restaurant or a movie but just outside to breathe in some fresh air and see other scenes besides Route 93 traffic or the inside of LL3 at Mass General. We had reversed roles. My homebody husband was asking me to go out while his social-craving wife couldn’t get off the couch. Sometimes I would relent and go but most of the time I was just too tired. Ask anyone who’s ever had radiation. You are powerless over the exhaustion.
I encouraged him to go out and meet his friends for a beer but he wouldn’t leave my side. He never left my side. In spite of his visceral distaste of traffic he drove me to my two non-negotiables: my monthly hair appointment in Boston and my bi-weekly nail appointment closer by. My sister and brother offered to take me but he refused. He gave me constant pep talks. “Five down, twenty-eight to go. Twenty-six down, seven to go,” as he counted down my treatments from 33. He held his breath as I held mine during my weekly weigh-ins knowing that if I dipped too low the doctor would insist on a feeding tube.
Ironically I sometimes look back on that summer wistfully. It was just the two of us and we found a closeness I don’t think either one of us expected. This was our summer of love and we kept tickin’.