What I've Learned: A Support Spouse Point of View
My husband, Carl, has written a series of posts that we will feature over the next six weeks to give you a spouse’s view of what it’s like to go through the cancer journey. In his first piece, he reflects over the past year and some lessons he has learned.
We started 2018 not too different from the last handful of years: Jennifer at home with the girls and me in Los Angeles for work. We had our list of things we wanted to get done in 2018, along with the places we wanted to visit and the people we wanted to see.
In January, we purchased tickets for a concert that would take place in July - The Avett Brothers at Red Rocks in Denver. We planned to fly out and meet our good friends Patrick and Christy for a long weekend of relaxation and music.
We reserved our AirBNB reservation not too long after we purchased our concert tickets. The last thing to purchase was our airline tickets, but we were waiting for prices to drop before we bought them.
We woke up the morning of Tuesday, March 20 and noticed the prices were a bit lower than they had been the past couple weeks. And it was a direct flight from Raleigh to Denver...so we got them. That was it!
Now we had everything we needed for Denver. We just had to wait for July.
Six days later, we’d be sitting in Dr. Matthews’ office for the first of many, many doctor’s appointments.
I’ve cried a lot this year, and I’ve hugged a lot this year.
I’ve grown a lot this year, and I’ve learned a lot this year.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned are ones that I heard dozens of times before, but they don’t really sink in until you get put in certain situations.
Lesson 1: Pay it forward
I don’t know where we’d be without all of the help we’ve received throughout this process. Whether it was a box of goodies to help Jennifer through chemo recovery, earring or flower deliveries before each infusion, gift cards to our favorite restaurants, or just a call or text to check in on us, we had everything we needed at just the right time.
We are extremely fortunate to have such a supportive group of family and friends behind us. But, what about those who get the unfortunate and unexpected diagnosis who don’t have a support group?
One North Carolina-based organization, The Helene Foundation, provides assistance to mothers going through active cancer treatments. They helped us throughout Jennifer’s treatment with biweekly house cleaning (a luxury we’ve never had before!) and gas money for transportation to/from the many appointments on the calendar. Whether we are able to directly help another couple in a similar situation of ours or not, we know that money donated to The Helene Foundation is one way for us to pay forward a small portion of the help we’ve received.
Lesson 2: Everyone is dealing with something
Everyone is dealing with something. We just don’t realize it because either we don’t know them, we don’t listen well or they don’t feel comfortable sharing it with us.
We’ve met a ton of people throughout this process and heard some crazy stories. It didn’t take me long to come to the realization that everyone, no matter what their circumstance, is hurting in some way.
How we treat others truly does matter. Every personal interaction we have is a way for us demonstrate kindness and love. We can build each other up, even if it is just providing an outlet for someone to share something that is going on in their life.
I’m so proud of Jennifer for sharing her story in an approachable and honest way. She may not have all the answers, but she has created an atmosphere of openness.
Lesson 3: It’s OK to be vulnerable
Guys are tough. At least, we’re supposed to be. Put a group of guys together around a table and ask them to share their feelings...crickets!
I am incredibly blessed to be surrounded by a great group of friends, some friendships that date back to 1992.
My family moved to North Carolina when I was in 3rd grade, and some of the friends I met at Millbrook Elementary are still good friends to this day. About five years ago we made a conscious effort to get together on a weekly basis.
The five of us would meet for a beer and talk about life. Sometimes we’d read through a book together, sometimes we’d study the Bible. Other times we’d just catch up and laugh about stupid things we did growing up. Everyone in the group is married now and most of us have kids, so we aren’t able to get together as much as we did.
It started with this group though. We made an effort to get together on a regular basis and that helped us feel comfortable sharing things with each other. We could put our hesitations and doubts aside and share what was really going on in our lives. We truly listen to each other and offer love, support and prayers.
Once Jennifer was diagnosed, these guys were some of the first that I called to share the news. At the time, I didn’t need them to solve any problems or fix any my issues. I just needed them to be there for me and listen to me, to let me open up and share my deepest fears with them. Sometimes I cried. And that’s OK! It just takes that first sense of vulnerability to open the door for others to share.
I liken it to asking questions after a lesson in class. Teacher finishes the lesson and asks if anyone has any questions. Of course you have a question...you just don’t want to be the first to raise your hand and ask. You’re hoping that someone else asks the same question you have so you don’t have to feel awkward. Then, someone raises their hand to ask a question and the flood gates open. Now, others feel comfortable and start asking questions.
In 2019, I challenge you to find a group of friends that you can meet with with on a regular basis. Get to know them better and share life with them. Be vulnerable and open up your heart to share your thoughts and feelings. You never know which one of them may be dealing with a similar issue. And you never know when you’re going to need to call on them for a listening ear and support. Maybe you only start with one or two people, but find your people and get together regularly.
Lesson 4: You can’t do it alone
It didn’t take long for us to realize how much help we were going to need, and how blessed we were to have help with anything we needed from our community of family and friends.
Even something at simple as reading with the girls was a big help to allow us to focus on other things and not worrying about what the girls were doing.
It’s not that I can’t accept help, but sometimes I just want to do everything myself. Given our situation, that wasn’t going to be possible. Whether with meals, groceries, childcare, or house cleaning, we were helped throughout every step of the process. Sometimes you need to let go and realize you can’t do everything on your own.
It’s OK to accept help - whatever your situation.
Lesson 5: Spend more time doing things you want to do
Since Jennifer was scheduled to be near the end of her chemo treatments during the weekend of the planned Denver concert, we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to make the trip. Maybe we’d be on some sort of a travel restriction due to her immune system or maybe the chemo treatments would be scheduled so that Jennifer physically wouldn’t be up for the weekend away.
Once we got our infusion schedule from Dr. Moore, the weekend of June 30 was the first date we looked at. Jennifer’s fifth chemo treatment was scheduled for Thursday, July 5. So, the weekend of June 30 was absolutely the best possible weekend for travel, given some of the physical side effects that Jennifer dealt with after each round of chemo.
We made it to Denver in July and it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.
Life is short. Maybe it takes a tragedy or a scary diagnosis to make you realize it. Why waste time doing things that we don’t want to do? As Americans, we’re blessed with a lot of opportunities that other people in the world just don’t have. Yet a lot of times we find ourselves complaining...about what car we drive, our job, the bills we have to pay...you name it!
My uncle died from a rare lung disease in 2005 at age 45 after 29 bronchoscopes, a lung transplant and multiple radiation treatments. After his diagnosis, he made an effort to accomplish some things that he wanted to do before the disease took his life. He sent out a Christmas letter in 2004, just one month before he passed away. I’ve kept the letter for all these years and think of it often. In the letter, he talked about being at peace with the reality that everything is as it should be. That he was meant to have the illness and a lung transplant and that it took a life threatening illness to wake him up.
As he prepared to die, he urged us:
Why do we need a tragedy or a sudden diagnosis to wake us up? Do the things that make you happy! Do the things that you desire to do. Stop wasting time on things that don’t matter and don’t bring you any happiness. You never know...you or someone you love may be the one in that appointment six days from now.
We know a lot of people read this blog who are going through tough life situations. What have you learned this year? Share it in the comments so we can continue to encourage this digital community.
If anything, be reminded and reassured that YOU are GREATER THAN your circumstances.