Whoever coined that phrase is such a genius. They probably know the person who also first decreed, “Everything happens for a reason.” I hate those people. I know life isn’t fair…welcome to some of mine. But I’m never copping to things happening for a reason. The best you’re getting from me is that shitty things happen to good people, and if you dig hard enough you might get a lesson out of the crap.
When Mark was diagnosed with a rare, certainly fatal cancer in November 2005, he faced various treatments with the single most positive attitude that existed; he died 23 months later of peritoneal mesothelioma. They don’t make a ribbon for a cancer that strikes less than 100 U.S. citizens a year; they certainly don’t make one for a cell biology ultimately deemed one-in-a-million. He always called cancer a journey he never expected to be on. We thought if anyone was strong enough to fight and win, it would be someone who completed the New York City Marathon twice and had also been an anonymous bone marrow donor.
So what lessons can be taken away from experiencing life, love and loss in an intimate relationship ripped apart by an unseen force?
First, I learned about infinite courage from Mark’s everyday example of coping with the first shocking news, ensuing treatments and coming disappointments. He set the tone for a positive attitude, mixed with a dose of reality, that we don’t always get what we hope for in life – but you kick and scream every moment you’re still here. He showed time and again that the most we can do is to do our best to get through the devastation of cancer together without it defining every aspect of our life.
Mark was inspired by the public struggles of Elizabeth Edwards, Tony Snow and Jonathan Alter. Likewise, he inspired those in his life by championing the cause of living with cancer through our local cancer support center. And yet when praise for his outstanding example came back his way, he was genuinely surprised that people thought he was anything but a regular person just trying to get through an irregular circumstance.
I also learned that laughing your way through numerous doctors’ visits, treatments and other procedures helps keep your sanity. I referred to Mark as a Chia Pet or Chihuahua much the same way I teased him Before Cancer Defined Our Relationship. And it was okay for him to remark upon my very startled reaction to his appearance during a head-to-toe rash episode, “Didn’t I take your breath away years ago?” After catching him in a pair of bleached-stained undershorts in the doctor’s office, I never failed to remind him afterwards that procedures involving the removal of clothing require one’s Sunday-best britches: “What would they think of me after seeing your crummy old underwear?!”
I learned that full-body baldness, blistering skin and numerous surgical scars do not diminish true attractiveness. The inner beauty of a cancer fighter shines through any surface side-effect: Mark’s blue eyes radiated his true self no matter how he appeared on the outside. An immediate allergic reaction during chemo which turned him a sheet of red in minutes just made those baby blues blaze even more. His smile returned once six nurses and a crash cart restored his vital signs, and he joked about stealing the spotlight from all the other chemo patients and having a flock of women at his beck and call. Having once been the lead singer of numerous obscure local bands, it was just his nature to want the center of attention, even with cancer. Mark’s favorite joke was that since music didn’t make him famous, perhaps his unusual case would bring him immortality in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Someone who found his own image increasingly repugnant turned to me and said, “I look terrible…but you look beautiful.” Being 11 days from death at the time didn’t lessen his capacity for seeing me the same way he always did. He still had a smile for me, our kids and those around him who came to shake his hand one final time before he was forced to leave us sooner than the 120 years he was planning on.
Life doesn’t sparkle as much without Mark in it. Our ears are empty for his big loud voice leading a topical conversation or cheering at a basketball game. He was only 48; we had things to do. But the lessons and examples he imparted during our time together continue to support and inspire me.
“Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” ~Robert Cody