Theresa Rath: In the wake of Winter

I can see the life trickle out of you, day by day. It’s a slow process but I can see the illness drawing lines on your face, I can see how your skin becomes transparent and how a weight seems to dangle from your lips when you try to smile. You hold up well for a while, it’s invisible from the outside, we just know the illness is there. And then you don’t hold up that well anymore, even though I can tell you are fighting hard to not let it show. But all the fighting doesn’t do it. You become less and less, until I feel like I were embracing myself when I hold you in my arms. We shave your head and take a picture and the colorful rags we bought for you hide the fact that your eyes have already grown dull.

There was never any hope. They discovered it far too late and nobody ever tried to deceive us. We know what we are facing. And so I sit by your bed as often as I can as you keep vomiting until I fear you might choke from all the retching. When you have a good day we go for a walk and at night I cuddle up to you in bed like I did when I was young and the nightmares were chasing me. You try to talk to me about what is going to happen, but I won’t. I don’t want to talk about it, I want to push the thoughts away as far as I can, I don’t want to think about you as of somebody who has already ceised to exist, whilst you are sitting right in front of me, weak, but still undeniably alive.

While they are chasing you from treatment to treatment, trying to save you months, weeks or even days, I take up a students loan and when I see the first rate on my monthly statement I feel my stomach stinging as if I had drunk acid. I don’t want this money. I don’t want any of this. I want everything to be like it was before or at least go home, crawl into bed, pull the blanket over my face and wait until everything is over. But that is not the way it goes.

One day they call me from the hospital. Your body doesn’t seem to tolerate the chemo anymore. I pick you up and when we get to the car I start to talk about options, options that I am desperately looking for, but you grab me by the shoulders and for a second I can see the old spark in your eyes, as you say: Let it be. There is nothing we can do. It’s okay.

But it’s not okay. Not for me. Your husband is making plans to move away with my siblings. Closer to his parents. I lose it and scream at him how he can be able to think about something like this, when you are still here, and when I see the look on his face all my anger evaporates and I hug him like I have never hugged him before while he cries in my arms.

And then finally the day comes. I have hardly left the hospital in the last weeks, I wanted to catch every minute that I had left with you, and deep inside I was still waiting for a miracle, some unexpected solution, some twist of fate that never came. You are very peaceful when it happens, and I try to feel the same, feel it for you, so you can leave without worrying about me. But on my inside everything is still fighting against reality. I cannot take this. But I cannot keep you from going either. And when you are gone, I feel I am falling apart.

But no. I didn’t have to take it. Because this never happened. Almost none of this is true. Yes, you were sick, but there was hope. Not much in the beginning, but also not little. And the hope grew month by month, as they started the treatment. And when we shaved your hair and put on the rugs, your eyes weren’t dull. And the illness carved lines in your skin that were never undone, but your smile came back. And the weight you lost you put back on by now and when I hug you I can feel your body moving as you breathe in my arms. I am paying back the student loan. I never used it. And my siblings are growing up and no lasting sadness is written in their children’s eyes.

Over the years the fear that used to take hold of me in the mornings has weakened and often enough I don’t even think about it. Only sometimes when I call you, I can hear a slight reminder of the illness in your voice, I can feel your anxiety and the question if this was really all. But I don’t expect you to call me and tell me that the cancer is back anymore. I know it might happen, but I am positive it won’t.

The dark veil that has been thrown over our life has lifted. It’s like witnessing the first days of spring, when nature slowly recovers from the deep cold of winter. We begin to laugh again, to talk about different things, our sceptical looks are wiped from our faces and we start to open the eyes to the world, which is still there and that you still form a part of.

We don’t forget, but we don’t try to remember constantly either. Just one thing remains. Whenever I see you I know that this is nothing to take for granted. I think about those who were less fortunate and about how their families have suffered. It takes a heavy weight from my chest when I realize I didn’t have to be one of them and at the same time it reminds me that I have to cherish every moment that you are healthy, that I am healthy, that we are alive. We are lucky. And I am thankful.