And in the middle of my chaos, there was you.
I like to believe that I am really good at living the phrase “fake it ‘till you make it”. I am a teacher and I stand in front of a classroom full of stinky kids every day and I smile. I smile when I’m mad. I smile when I’m sad. I smile when I’m tired. I smile when they are wired. (apparently trying to write the next Dr. Seuss book.) I smile when they are mean, and kids can be really mean. I smile when I would rather yell, “SHUT UP you crazy little hooligans! Don’t you know I’m trying to teach you the secrets of life, you unappreciative tiny humans.” Somehow, I am also able to smile when my 5th grade boys hug me after P.E. That I don’t throw up is a major test of willpower because they REALLY smell! Attention parents: teach your kids about deodorant early. It could be critical to their teacher’s survival. Also note that just a dab of cologne will suffice or even better, none at all. Too many smells with too much curriculum and not enough time is a recipe to lose one’s mind, the life of a teacher. And did I forget to mention the ridiculous amounts of tears shed by my overly emotional girls? “Ms. Keele! Emma doesn’t like me because I’m friends with Jenny and Jenny likes Robert who doesn’t like Emma, which is why Emma doesn’t like Jenny and now she wants to fight me! So when I asked to go to the bathroom I actually texted my Mom and now she is coming up to the school to yell at the counselor because I told her I was being bullied!” The children and the events are 100% accurate except for the fact that I left out 99% of the conversation to avoid continuing this massive run on sentence that I am forming. The names have been changed to protect the innocent). It’s not easy being a teacher and the best advice I have for all new teachers is to smile and fake it, and I promise, you’ll make it. As I reflect over the years of teaching I stop and ask myself, “how much longer will I have to fake it, and when will it get easier?” Every year I improve on something from the year before, but every year I also face a different set of struggles. Different kids with different problems, new parents that are either impossible to reach or too involved. The curriculum changes, new principals with new “non-negotiables”, new and “improved” teaching techniques that will somehow change the world (sarcasm). Learning to work with new co-workers, some that I love, and others not so much… and the list goes on and on. I try not to curse, but most of the time I say in my head, “I’m not a teacher. I’m the Ring Master of a Shit Show”. There will always be a slew of problems and I will never have enough time or energy to solve them all. I keep telling myself that once all the problems are solved, I’ll finally be able to teach the way teaching was truly intended. At the same time, I’m learning that teaching will never get easier. (I Hope I don’t discourage any future teachers out there because teaching stinky brats is quite fulfilling) You might think that I really hate my job and all the problems associated with it, but I really do love those unappreciative tiny human beings, loving referred to as students. They make me laugh, they have taught me patience, they fill me with pride, they give me hugs, they tell me great stories, they thank me in the most unexpected circumstances, and most of all, they have taught me that we are all people learning how to walk the same line even though our individual circumstances are different. But why am I sharing this story with you? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about grief and loss? I didn’t realize how important and valuable certain parts of my life were to me until I faced the real Shit Show. Again, apologies for the vulgarity. Aaron’s death was tragic, shocking, and heartbreaking but it has also made me a better teacher, mother, and person. I’ve learned a powerful lesson during my experience with cancer. One that I hope I will never forget, that real love is found in sickness, and when we embrace and accept the ugly parts of others, or our lives, or whatever the case may be, we will be able to really enjoy what life has to offer. Love. True Love.
Being a caregiver to someone that 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. Hooray! Before Aaron was diagnosed, I had no knowledge of the roll of caregivers, cancer, death, and all things scary. You don’t think that 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, but I didn’t have time to read it. The point is, I felt unprepared. Life basically sucked after his diagnosis, so I did the same thing I’d do at work when everything sucked… I faked it! Looking back, I’d suggest that you not do that. 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 actually feel pretty decent. The other things can wait. Just stop for a minute.” Heartbreaking, right? You would think that after that response I would stop and sit with him. I didn’t. Instead, my response was, “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. Thinking back to that moment I wish with all my heart that I would have stopped and sat with him.
A couple months before Aaron died his doctor visits were becoming more and more depressing and hope of recovery was slipping from my fingers. With Colon Cancer, when it metastasizes it is common that it to spreads to the liver. Once this happens it is much more difficult to treat. The liver is a very critical organ. When Aaron was diagnosed, it had already spread to his liver and to his lungs, and his tumors were described as ‘swiss cheese’, or ‘freckles’. The tumors were speckled all throughout, making surgery not an option. His prognosis was not good considering how the cancer had spread, but he was young and strong so I felt very hopeful that he would beat it. Within that hope I became a work horse. In my mind Aaron would not die so my time spent with him was focused on trying to fix all our problems. I thought if we can get out of this terrible place in our lives that we could be happy again, our love could once again thrive and grow to become all of our happy future memories. That’s how love was designed to work… right? You’re happy when things are good, sad when things are bad. Love the good parts of your life and hate the bad parts. To appreciate the strengths of your spouse and to despise the weaknesses.
Then I had a moment with Aaron’s oncologist, about 2 months before he died. 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 had 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.” I would have liked to have seen those eyes. I think doctors must have a course in medical school, “The Art of 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 actually 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??? It was in Aaron’s sickness that I realized how much I truly loved him. I loved the good, the bad, the annoying, the success, the failures, our steps forward, our steps backward. I realized that real love is found in the best parts of us, but also in the worst parts of us. I think that I would have claimed that I already knew that, but I didn’t REALLY know that. I said that I loved him unconditionally, I believed that I loved him unconditionally, but looking back there were certainly moments of conditional love. “Sorry dear I can’t sit here and love you right now, the laundry is piling up” or ” You don’t care about my needs, I have asked you to rinse out the sink 500,000,000 times. You must be intentionally ignoring me”. The things that you ask me to do is completely different though, because Well, that’s not important to me, but I “love” you! Seeing Aaron stand at the door in his most vulnerable state and realizing he will be gone and never come back was truly an AHA! moment. I thought that I was expressing my love before. And, not to be too hard on myself, I was expressing it the best way I knew. The advice that I was given…Fake it ‘til you make it…was completely wrong! Or at least it was the way I understood it. 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 that I realized how short time was to his death was only about 2 months. We don’t expect the worst, but we should because it happens all the time. Life sucks. People experience terrible things every. single. day. Life is a terminal sickness! We merely choose to not see it that way, otherwise how could we ever be happy with something so depressing always looming in the background? That is just too sad but, it is in our sorrow that we can know joy, in our failures that we find success, in our chaos that we recognize peace, and in death that we value life. 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 and I realized that without goodbyes we could not enjoy reunions. In Aaron’s death I’ve learned a lot about true expressions of real love. It’s not simply enjoying the good, its 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…during the shit show. ‘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!’ and yet we often give up so easily, we throw in the towel, and beat each other down when failing to meet expectations. I think it’s because we only permit good things to happen. We want life to work out how we imagined it, the fairy tale ending. In every part of our lives, whether it be in our classroom with our unappreciative students, or in our completely chaotic homes with our children that may or may not have a home cooked meal, we measure success by counting only the positive moments. Maybe you have an overworked husband that snaps when you ask him to take out the trash or you feel inadequate as a mother because you fall asleep before your children do and Netflix fills in as a nanny with bedtime stories more nights than not. ALL ME! But I’ll take it. All of it. In sickness and in health and in wherever love is found.