I met my husband Pat in high school. We started dating after graduation and fell in love. He was funny and sarcastic, a gadget geek with a photographic memory and no sense of direction! He was affectionate, always told me he loved me but couldn’t buy a romantic gift if his life depended on it. He was silly and sweet. We got married at age 20 and started having kids. We both always wanted a big family.
Pat enlisted in the Army as a combat medic and paratrooper and eventually went to PA school. He loved his job and we loved the military life; the friends we made, the places we lived and the adventures we shared. As a couple we were best friends and soul mates, two halves of a whole. We grew into adulthood together, facing every obstacle as a team with a positive outlook no matter what the situation. Pat deployed 3 times, twice to Iraq. I held down the fort with our 4 children and we made the best of it, always rejoicing when he came home safely. After his second time in Iraq he experienced a watery eye off and on for almost a year. I teased him about it and called it his ‘terrorist eye’, little did we know that it was the first domino in a chain of events that would leave me alone without my dearest friend.
Chalking the eye issue up to ‘allergies’ and then a recurrent sinus infection, Pat did all the right things- eye ointment, antibiotics..etc. Shortly after Christmas 2006, we rejoiced in the news that I was expecting our 5th child. The very next week after severe sinus pain and unusually wiggly upper teeth, my husband got a CT scan and then all hell broke loose. Medivac to San Diego, biopsies, tests, scans- all the while I am clueless, nauseous with early pregnancy symptoms and 5 hours away in the middle of the desert.
I run in to a neighbor at the mail box and am greeted with a hug and “I’m so sorry to hear that your husband has cancer”….what?? The nightmare was just beginning, January 2007.
The next year would bring 2 painful disfiguring surgeries, a compassionate reassignment, cross country move, intensive radiation treatments, chemotherapy and the birth of our 5th child, a son. Through it all we stayed positive, vowing to do everything we could, raising money for cancer charities and all the while trying to keep life as normal as possible for our older kids ages 8 to 16 at the time.
I was taking care of a newborn and a sick husband. I was always exhausted. Pat’s cancer had unfortunately spread to his lung but surgery and more chemotherapy had seemed to keep it at bay. Just when things were turning around, I noticed a swollen lymph node in my neck. My husband reassured me it was probably nothing to worry about. I got it checked and the roller coaster continued. I had cancer too, Hodgkin Lymphoma. Now it was my turn for biopsies, chemo and radiation. My hair fell out. We bought a house. All summer of 2008 we went on ‘dates’ at the chemo ward, both of us too tired to cook or clean but managing with the help of our kids, family and friends. People around the world prayed for us daily. We raised more money and I blogged our journey, staying positive that together we could beat this, both of us.
By 2009 I was in remission but battling weight gain left over from pregnancy, steroids, stress and a damaged thyroid. Still, we were so thankful to have made it that far and never wavered that our family could survive this cancer battle. Then the Army decided to retire my husband. Pat was devastated. The only thing he loved more than me and the kids was the army. He spent most of the year getting chemo, sleeping and watching the Food Network. In late 2009 he suddenly didn’t recognize me and couldn’t walk. He had a brain tumor. More surgery, more radiation, our last Christmas together as the realization began to sink in that although we were in this fight together, we were not likely to come out of it as winners. Happily, Pat recovered from the tumor and we continued forward as we were granted a few weeks of what felt like a ‘normal’ time again.
January 2010 brought 4 more brain tumors and grueling high dose radiation. Our daughter moved home from college to be near her dad and to help out. In March our doctor recommended that if we wanted to take a trip we should do so as long as we didn’t fly due to seizure risk. We spent Spring Break in Memphis and went to Graceland. We both celebrated our shared birthday week and turning 40. We came home and Pat’s back was in extreme pain. A spinal tumor this time and more radiation. We decided to bring in Hospice, the most difficult decision that left me feeling like we’d somehow given up. I sat with Pat every day, playing with our 2 year old and watching Scooby Doo. I was helpless as the love of my life struggled to walk, to sit, to eat, to sleep. I dosed out his many pills and tried to keep him bathed and relaxed. My strong and handsome paratrooper was fading away before my eyes. Thankfully, even with brain tumors popping up everywhere, Pat’s personality remained. He still cracked an occasional joke and remained positive that everything would work out, no matter what. He didn’t want to talk about dying. Even as it was happening, he embraced life and encouraged me and the kids to keep living just like always.
The week before Memorial Day, we got news that there was a bed available at the VA Hospice unit. Pat was relieved to go to the hospital, he never wanted to die at home and leave me or the kids with that memory. At the hospital he relaxed and finally slept peacefully. He suddenly perked up, smiling and chatting with the kids, family and friends who visited. He was the sweet boy I married, the man I loved for over 20 years, despite his illness. He didn’t want us sitting around his bedside. Our oldest son was graduating from high school and Pat insisted that we not let his sickness interfere with the celebration. He told us he wouldn’t make it to the graduation so my son came to visit in cap and gown and Dad was beyond proud!
After one week at the VA hospital the nurse called me and said my husband was asking for me. He wouldn’t wear his oxygen mask and was having trouble breathing. I rushed to his side, held his hand and called the priest to perform last rites. Pat told me how much he loved me and that he’d miss me. I thanked him for giving me such a wonderful life and great kids. He was not in pain and gave me many signs that I knew meant he was ready to go and also that there was some sort of presence welcoming him. He held out his arms and smiled at something I could not see. He snapped a crisp salute and appeared to be giving invisible hugs. He said he heard children singing. Our older kids arrived in the wee hours and he told them he loved them and would miss them. I promised him I would not leave his side, I smiled through my tears and reassured him that we’d be okay. I told him it was okay to go even as my heart was breaking. My older son decided to stay with me. We tried to sleep but Pat would hold his breath and we’d hold ours thinking that was it. Finally Pat closed his eye (our pirate lost one to his tumor surgery) and seemed to be resting easily and breathing normally. I held his hand, he smiled and my son and I both relaxed and dozed off ever so briefly. I awoke with a start thinking the nurse had come in the room but no one was there. I then realized the room was silent. Pat was not breathing. My hero had gone. His hand was still warm, I kissed his cheek and called for the nurse. My son and I sat in awe and sadness. Our battle was over.
As heart-wrenching and painful as it is, I am so thankful to have known such love. I wouldn’t trade a single day of any of it. I am so proud of Pat, not just because of his job as a US soldier, but as a soldier in the battle against cancer- his and mine. I miss him every day in so many ways. I will never ‘get over’ him. Instead I honor him and the life we made and planned together. I continue to live and he continues to live in me and our five children. He is in our hearts and in our memories.
We could sit around crying all day and be sad- (and we do have some of those days!) but the kids and I have decided to let our grief happen and infuse it with life. We talk about Pat often, laugh at something he would have found funny and will continue to keep his loving spirit alive. When Pat’s stuffed one-eyed Mike from Monsters Inc toy randomly started saying “I’ve Got My Eye On You” or when our DVR mysteriously taped a Food Network show about the “Joy of Okra” (a food no one in the family except Pat could stand!), we all shook our heads and smiled, we know Dad is watching over us. He is gone, life will never be the same again, but life can be and is STILL good! My husband fought so hard to live and to have as much time as he could. I know he would want me to look back with love but to continue moving forward and living with hope so that is what I am striving to do every day. That is how I honor my hero and our battle.