It was 2005 and we were on a roll! My wife Terry had fulfilled a life-long dream of earning her college degree in business, we had simplified our lives so that we could do more of the things we were passionate about, my career was going well, and we had just returned from a great two-week family vacation with our 10 year-old daughter… And then our lives changed in a few brief moments.
Terry received word from her doctor that the lump in her breast was cancerous, and all of a sudden we were thrown into an unfamiliar arena and forced to make life and death decisions. Theresa and I had made good health a life-long priority and mission: we exercised, managed our stress, and made sure that we had the right nutrition. So the first question was, “How could this happen?” Nothing in life prepared us for the journey on which we were embarking. Nothing! Even when we do the right things, cancer can still strike.
First, Terry underwent a double mastectomy. She made an excellent recovery because of her great health and strength; then came the chemo therapy. As a man and husband, it broke my heart to stand by and watch as they pumped toxins into Terry’s body. It made her weak and I felt powerless in my ability to help her. Again by the grace of God and a desire to live, Terry came through chemo with flying colors and her tests showed that there were no signs of cancer. She received her implants and she joked that she could now have the breasts she always wanted. I admired the way she looked at the glass being half full…
10 months later Terry was suffering mental disorientation; the simple process of putting on her blouse became difficult as well as operating a car. Terry underwent an MRI and the doctors found that the cancer now appeared as 5 brain tumors. The tumors required radiation with extreme measures such as the gamma knife procedures at the University Hospital. At the time they were discovered, the tumors were growing so fast that without treatment they would have taken Terry’s life within ten days. These procedures slowed the cancer down until four months later when she started losing function in the lower part of her body. The cancer was now growing out of control in her spinal cord and pinching her nerves. With no place else to turn at this point, we gathered as a family and shared the devastating news with our now 12 year-old daughter.
Two and half months later, the woman I had loved for 32 years and the mother of our delightful 12 year-old daughter passed away. It is said that a person’s true character is shown in how they face death. Terry, in those last days, was as loving and caring as she always had been and she continued to bless those who were around her. She left a great legacy for her daughter.
There was a very poignant point after the cancer had been discovered in Terry’s spine where Terry and I had to openly talk about the fact that this journey was not going to end the way we wanted it to. All of the dreams we had of growing old together, traveling, watching our daughter grow up, playing with grandkids, and just sharing life with each other – were not going to happen. This was most difficult conversation to begin in my life, but it turned out to be the most beautiful and blessed time we had ever shared. You see there was no more planning for tomorrow, there was no more deciding which chores were left, and there wasn’t any more talk about life here on Earth. There was only talk about the connection of our souls, what that meant now, and the magnificence of where she was going.
The grieving for me started at that point and has continued since. There have been so many miracles of healing for both me and my daughter that were the results of people caring enough to embrace our pain. They came at unexpected moments and we will be forever grateful. For my daughter there were school teachers, church youth leaders, and friends who stepped forward to help. May I say how amazed I was at how compassionate 12 and 13 year-old young women can be?! There were also college-age girls who walked beside Mikayla; but most of all I saw what God was able to do working through ordinary people in our lives!
I am so grateful for all the wonderful people who helped Mikayla because I was grieving myself and could not always be everything that my daughter needed at this time.
As a man on this journey, I discovered that many men did not want to talk about grieving and if they did, they expected you to be through it and on with life within a few months. Again I was blessed with a few close friends that stood by me and were there when I needed an ear, but most of all were patient with me as I experienced my ups and downs.
I of course reached out for some counseling, read many books, and prayed through the journey. Now five and a half years later I can honestly say that God does heal us and He does prepare us to move on in life in new ways. I recently heard a song at a Philips, Craig, and Dean concert entitled “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” that reinforces this idea. After healing we need to tell our heart to beat again, we need to choose to live again, and we need to find passions for our life.
This is the word to hang on to, this is the promise of a new tomorrow. Within weeks of Terry’s passing God put three words onto my heart: Renew, Transform, and Restore. Our lives have been forever changed but there is life ahead of us. This time of grieving is not only for the loved one we lost, but also for the life we once had. As we move from that life to the new one we will have, we grieve loss, we are restored to health, we are renewed and transformed so that we can experience a new life. As bad as the loss is, we need to hang on to hope that what is ahead will be wonderful as well.
My beautiful daughter Mikayla is graduating high school this spring and moving on to college. I still feel grief when I think about the reality that Terry will not be there for Mikayla’s graduation, 18th birthday, and the trip to take her to college. Mikayla is moving on in life as a healthy young woman, mature beyond her years due to life’s reality and hardships. But thanks to her mother’s legacy, she is ready. And so am I.