I guess I have reached a point of ending this blog. I think back when I began writing. I was a scared and worried and I found the most unlikely of out lets for me, writing in a journal. It began in July 05 days after Andrea and I were told her cancer had returned. We left for Texas to be with her family the weekend before she would start chemo. I found myself in turmoil early the first morning; I had turned to the Bible for my strength as we did when we first heard the word cancer. Such an ugly word isn’t it? It’s filled with such hate and anger. When I hear the word cancer it puts a knot in my stomach. As if the word takes on a personality or a form of a physical enemy. Cancer chooses you; it comes on its own terms. Cancer chooses the time and place of the battle. No matter when you hear the word you are ill prepared for the fight and you are on your heels. It comes with such power and intimidation for such a small word, six simple letters that change your life in an instant.
Anyway, that first morning I awoke and went out on the back porch and began to read. Andrea had bought me a book to journal in a while back, she wanted to pass on her love of journaling to me. I’m so glad she taught me that. I can still feel the pain in my stomach as I adjusted to the fight we had ahead of us. It is an empty feeling that gnaws at you, it is a nervous feeling, it is fear, it is worry and it is thoughts you don’t want to entertain. It is awful. But it was mine and I could not make it go away. There is a heavy feeling and a great sadness when you realize there is no easy way out. So I went out on the back porch to be alone and fight back with the only thing I knew was greater then the word cancer, and that is the Word, the Bible. I had no particular verse I just opened the book and began to read hoping that the pages would open to some message that would tell me this was a mistake and everything was okay. My mind was racing as I read, searching for something anything to ease this pain in my gut that medicine could not take away. I knew God’s word held the key; I just had to find it.
I will confess that I went through a similar experience in 2003 when we first heard the word cancer. I found so much strength and hope in the Bible as Andrea and I fell to our knees trying to make it through the most awful chemo regiment we ever had. I watched my wife go from this youthful, beautiful woman to a shell, so weak and so tired. She lost her hair and part of what made her a woman, yet she clung to her faith and I hung on with her. I felt as if we were in a movie with Andrea hanging from a cliff by her fingertips and I was hanging on to her legs. Both of us looking into each others eyes both seeing the fear yet feeling strength that we were in this together. It was a time of tremendous growth in our life, our faith our relationship and I would not have traded one day for all that God showed us in those 9 months. We saw our first casualties in the chemo room as Andrea radiation buddy passed away. Joyce, the woman who held the treatment appointment after Andrea and they both became friends over the next 6 weeks of treatment. I remember when Andrea called Joyce and her son answered and told Andrea Joyce had passed away. Andrea was so taken aback, she came face to face with the reality of cancer that day, and it shook her. This was no game and life became that much more serious. When we left Alaska in 2004, Andrea’s hair and her strength had begun to return, we took a vacation to Europe to celebrate Andrea’s graduation from treatment. It was a trip I promised her as she suffered the effects of chemo in the dark and cold Alaska winter. I told her “Come May, Andrea I will take you to Tuscany.” That became our phrase when the chemo left us with little hope of ever living again. When sickness and utter weakness made life hardly bearable we would look at each other and say, “Come May.”
We made it to May and we made it to Tuscany. It was a great time in the sun. I have many great memories of that trip. We went as a family and we celebrated what turned out to be the last few months of Andrea’s life where she felt “normal.” We returned to our new home in DC and we began to try to live post chemo, but not post cancer. There is a strange fear when you finish treatment. During chemo all you want to do is finish but then when the day comes you suddenly feel so alone, so unprotected from an enemy you never know is defeated. I will never forget out last treatment in NC. I did not want them to unhook Andrea from the IV, it had become a source of comfort in a weird sort of way. At first all we wanted to do was get out of the chemo room and then I found myself in need of being there with people who had become our friends. In my mind I wondered if there was any cancer cells left flowing through Andrea’s veins. Where was it going, had it taken root in her body, was it growing as we speak? When would it show itself? Had one cell lived through that barrage of chemo? It seemed impossible as Andrea herself barely lived through it. It was far scarier then I ever thought. You live waiting, waiting to make it to the magical five year point when they say you are “caner free.” The point when the odds were the treatment worked, but we had faced odds before and there was little peace or comfort in the odds. As best we could we returned to life, Andrea’s short hair was just a modern style and people no longer identified her as a cancer patient. For me the ten months in DC were a spiritual vacation. A vacation I felt I deserved after the intensity of the past nine months. I was tired and I felt I had deserved time off for good behavior. That was a mistake I regret to this day. The thought that God was important to me only when life overwhelmed me was a lesson I hope I never forget. I withdrew from my daily reading seeing no need for such devotion when life did not demand it. I was tired of cancer, I was tired of thinking about death, and I was tired of needing God to make it through the next hour.
Then came June 2005, and the news that our enemy had returned. My vacation was over. I regretted the time I wasted enjoying my “time off.” It was then on that July morning that I ashamedly returned to the one place I knew could offer me the strength I needed. It was then that I turned to the Word and once again began writing down my thoughts. It was then that I began to read and cry out to God for answers I could not find. It was then that He began to speak to me. It was then I learned God was there despite my absence from Him. He waited for me, and there He was that morning ready to meet with this scared and embarrassed man. He did not scorn me, He was the father watching for His son to return, He was the father that ran to His son and put a robe on his back and a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. If you know me you know Andrea and I wore rings on our right hand, a silver ring with a cross. I bought those for us to remind us of this day, the day my father ran to me and put a ring on my finger and welcomed me back home.
To always remember the moment we had “Luke 15:21” in the inside of our ring. The only two things I buried Andrea with was this ring and her prayer shawl.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
These journal entries were the beginning of this blog, me on the back porch trying to come to terms with my life and what was happening to Andrea. As I wrote the words began to pour out of me in ways I did not understand. Sometimes so fast I could hardly keep up with the thought. I would read them to Andrea when she would wake up, the two of us alone on the porch. Most of the time I could not finish reading them without tears in my eyes because I read words I did not remember writing. As I would read them it was God speaking to me. It was an amazing experience. I wrote in the journal until around February 2006 when I decided to transfer them into the computer. And in March I started posting some of the writings into a blog so our friends could keep track of Andrea and how we were doing. I had been sending monthly updates since Oct 2003 and I started to feel like I was forcing people to go through this awful experience and maybe you had to read updates that at times were difficult to write much less read. It was then that I decided to post my updates on the blog so it was a choice for anyone to read. I was writing mainly for me to have an outlet for my thoughts. It was a way for me to think through what was happening to us. It was of course the most difficult two years in North Carolina as we fought for life itself, in a give and take battle with our adversary that was proving a worthy opponent. But in spite of all the difficulty, God was proving Himself in ways not possible if life was “normal.” I savored the growth Andrea and I experienced in those years and as I said then I would not trade one day of those years. What we were gaining was of far more value then what it cost. I still say that, knowing that it has cost Andrea’s life. I do not type those words without thought. I can not type them without feeling the loss of my best friend, but I can not type them without knowing what a loving a faithful God I serve. My Father who calls me son. I can not type those words without feeling His love for me.
So after two and a half years of journaling and almost one year of posting blogs I find myself writing the final entry in “Our Journey to Healing.” Is my journey complete? I think not, but this phase is definitely over. For some reason I find myself ready to move on, maybe it was having Andrea’s memorial service in Goldsboro, where the trench warfare began. It was a natural point of closure for me. It was the last event in my life that involved Andrea. I left there, Jim, no longer Jim and Andrea. I was now just a man in society, no longer identified as Andrea’s husband or even seen as a widower. No one will ever know that about me unless they happened to ask. I look like any normal man on the street. Inside I know, but it is not my identity. I am now free to just miss Andrea. She is a memory in my life, a great memory, a cherished memory, but just a memory none the less. Just the thought of that as I type seems unreal to me. I have noticed that Andrea’s pictures have a different meaning to me. When I look at them I see a moment frozen in time they are the past. Before I when I saw a picture I always knew I could take another one they were not the last just another one in a series. Now they are precious gifts, a frozen memory of my past. There can be no updates there will be no additional pictures to compare them to. I will not be able to look back on them and see how Andrea changed. We will not sit and compare are wedding pictures on our 25th anniversary next month. They are just what they are an eerie reminder of my past, the end in a series. Andrea forever frozen at that age. It hurts to see them. To look into her eyes knowing I will never see them again. To feel the love in her smile, how she adored me. They were once was my comfort now they are my greatest source of pain. I guess that is why I feel it is time to close this blog. I feel I have said all I feel right now. Though Andrea will forever impact me and my thoughts the force at which she does wanes and other influences begin to rise above the woman who once dominated my every thought, and my every action. I’m sorry I have to say such things and I do so with tears in my eyes. I loved Andrea and I never desired to love anyone else. I was not looking to escape a bad relationship and somehow found a way out. I was living my dream and I was forced out. Thrown into the cold, one instant I was with Andrea, fighting together so consumed by our battle and our enemy that I never had time to consider anything else. Then in a moment she was gone and I stood there without direction. I went into the hospital on Monday Dec 17th not knowing what awaited me. I thought we were in for another day of sitting together, Andrea calmly waiting, me battling doctors, praying and making calls to family. But it was obvious when I arrived that this was not a “normal” day. This is what I remember in my final 4 hrs with Andrea.
I walked into her room to find the team of doctors doing their daily rounds. They were trying to get Andrea to respond but she would not wake up. I leaned over and called her name, “Jokie.” She opened her eyes for a moment looked at me and closed them again. During the night her lungs had taken a turn for the worse. The levels of Co2 were building indicating she was not breathing enough. The levels had gone up 40% and the doctors felt she might have a collapsed lung. I watched them spring into action ordering tests and an ultrasound to find out what was wrong. In minutes the doctor had the ultrasound machine but there was no indication of a collapsed lung. I pulled the doctor aside and told him he need not do anything else. Andrea was telling me all I was afraid to hear. I had told a few friends my greatest fear was to have to make this decision. In fact as I drove in to the hospital that day I prayed God please don’t ask me to make the decision whether Andrea lives or dies. I think in my spirit I knew this might happen. When I left the night before Andrea had become somewhat unresponsive and only looked at me if I called out to her. I remember the last time I talked to her. We prayed as we did every night and I said communion as we did every night and I kissed her and started to walk out. When I got to the door I looked back at her. I still see her in that bed, her body now very swollen from her liver beginning to fail. She was staring off into the distance again. I went back to her and said Andrea, “Tell me you love me one more time.” She barley mouthed the word “Love.” I thanked her and kissed her goodnight. It was our last kiss until she passed. So when I walked in on Monday I knew this was the day I had dreaded for over 4 years. Cancer had caught up with us. Andrea fight was over. Just as I wrote about in a previous blog, “Run Andrea Run” Andrea was like the weaker one singled out of the heard and being chased by the wolves, Andrea was too tired to run any more and she sat down and awaited her fate. It was as sad a sight as I ever saw. I wanting her to fight, yet loving her enough that I wanted her to have relief. Just that her relief was the beginning of my pain.
I asked her ICU doctor to give me time to have Dr. Osswald (Andrea’s oncologist) come and help me know this is the right thing to do. I could not live with myself if I had turned off that vent when Andrea had a chance. I had to know it was right. I began making calls over the next 2 hours. First to Nic to have him pick up Anthony from school and get to the hospital. Then to Dr Atkins (Andrea’s Oncologist in NC) to get his opinion. He said it was time. I called our families and then close friends and asked for prayer for Andrea. It turned out those calls were harder then on me then making the decision. Nic and Anthony had arrived by now and the only other time Andrea opened her eyes was when Nic came in and said hello. Other then that she was unresponsive. I went back to Andrea’s room and as I walked up Nic came out to meet me at the very moment Dr Osswald arrived. Nic said, “Mom is spitting up blood.” That was all I needed to hear. I thanked Dr Osswald for driving across town but I knew what I had to do. I ask for the ICU doctor to see me and I went in to be with Andrea and the boys. It was about 12:15, we were less then an hour away. I stood by Andrea with a tissue (which I keep in my Bible along with the Co2 readings from that morning) and the suction tube and I suctioned the blood from her mouth and wiped her lips. It was then 12:28 that the nurse arrived with the Morphine to keep Andrea “comfortable.” They turned off the vent and all the monitors in the room. It was so quite as we waited for cancer to do its final work. I waited for the cancer to finally die. I hated it. I hated it and I still do, I hate everything it did to us. I hated that it had cut our time short and I hated what it was doing to my wife. I hated it had won. I hated I was there. I hated the vent. I hated the oxygen machine in our house. I hated the oxygen bottle we had to carry every where we went. I hated the tubes and wires on Andrea. I hated that she had no privacy in her last days. I hated we had to turn her, clean her. I hated seeing her that way. I hated what cancer had done to her. I hated how it changed the way she looked. I hated she died without hair. I hated she looked sick. I hated the hospital. I hated the doctors. I hated my family was being torn a part. I despise cancer with every part of my being. God forgive me if that is a sin.
Once the vent was off we waited. The doctor said there was no way to tell how long Andrea was last. Even though the vent was off they attach a tube that blows oxygen over the trach opening and Andrea is still breathing just without the vent providing pressure to force the air into her lungs. The boys and I stood with Andrea and waited. We each held her hands and stood by the woman who had stood by us. She was our comfort when we were scared, she was our encouragement when we doubted, she was our joy when we were sad, she was our healer when we were sick, she was our strength when we were weak, she was our faith when we doubted, she was our biggest supporter. She loved us. And we stood by her, just the three of us thankful we could be there in her final moments. Thankful she was not alone. Wishing we could do more for her. I pray she felt us near her. That she was not lonely or afraid. I pray she knew how much we loved her and how proud we were to be her boys. Each of us is who we are because of Andrea, Nic soon to be a college graduate, Anthony a loved son and me a father.
When Andrea’s breathing became labored the nurse who stood by the IVs would increase her morphine drip, now the lone IV and Andrea would immediately become clam. Where once up to eight or ten IVs were hooked to Andrea all trying to sustain her or heal her now there hung one lone IV and its purpose was no longer to heal her but comfort her in dying. Where once our hope hung now hung a peculiar glass jar unlike all the plastic IV bags, its purpose was not to give hope but speed the inevitable.
I prayed for Andrea. I told her it was okay to go that we would be okay. We would take care of each other. I told her to go to her Father and hear Him say, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” With that I leaned to her ear and sang a verse from a song we used to sing in our church in NC. The song word in the verse is actually “life” but I changed it to wife. It goes like this, “Here’s my wife I lay her down, I lay her down, Here’s my wife I lay her down, I lay her down. I surrender her all to you, I surrender her all to you, I let go and give her to you.” With that I stood up and the doctors walked in. I looked back at Andrea and she was gone. Her color changed her lips whiter, her skin ever so slightly cooler. I looked at the clock it was 1:07. And I was a widower. My sons had no mother. I had no wife. I had no purpose. I was very much alone and very much numb to what just happened. I had no tears for I cried those many times over the past 22 days. I had no idea what to do. Soon the doctors drew up the paperwork for me to sign and we all went to the hospital office to sign the paperwork. I was faced with questions I was unprepared to answer. What funeral home, when would her body be picked up. I had no idea but Christmas was one week away and I knew I had a lot to do in a short period of time. I fell back onto the training the military had given me, time to make a list and start getting things done. Thankfully family immediately began to arrive and help me with the details of a funeral. Making arrangements, picking a casket and Andrea’s clothes, what flowers did we want, where would the service be and who would do it. There were hundreds of details and I realized how many people stepped in and just made it all happen. By Thursday night we had a beautiful memorial service down to the smallest detail and on Friday we had the funeral. I sat in the service holding our Bible, one of Andrea’s journals, and several pictures of Andrea. My most vivid memory was her casket draped with Andrea’s prayer shawl. I remember walking out behind the casket, unable to comprehend that my wife was in there. It all hit me, we were going to bury my wife, and she was gone.
Why? Why her? Why now? Why me? Why? I did not know then nor do I know now, but I know it was right. It was God’s will for Andrea and I knew I would more fully understand His timing as life went on. And I have, I have learned that a nurse needed to meet Andrea. I learned another life was changed and Andrea’s faithfulness was used. Just like her conversation with God about being asked to go to the hospital in NC, God needed Andrea to go once again. Only this time she would not come home. She would give her all and part of the reason was a nurse, a friend. Andrea passed on a part of her as she left this world. She left behind a part of her in many of us and many of our children. She left us by faith. She left us with faith.
I think about my future and what lays ahead for me. I know it involves Ginger for God has placed her in my life to complete me. It is a future I never imagined. Actually I don’t think I could have even thought my life would be where it’s at. Yet here I am, and I follow God’s leading in my life just has I did during the suffering we endured over the past 4 ½ years.
So I end this season and this era of my blog. I do so with tears in my eyes making the keys hard to read. I do so with a great heaviness in my heart. I do so with much thanks in my heart. Thankfulness to God for all He did. For Andrea not having to suffer in pain. For every day I had with such a magnificent woman. For being chosen to be her closest friend. For all of you. For all you have done. For your understanding and your love you expressed to me and my boys. I can’t believe this moment has come. I guess I just need to finish.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey. I do not end my journey to healing but I close this chapter. I’m sure in time I will post more of Andrea’s journal entries and maybe a few of my earlier ones but right now I need time to heal. I need time to just be and allow the loss of Andrea to settle in my mind. I loved her. I loved her with all I had. I will always love her. My Andrea. My Jokie. I miss you. Thank you for loving me.