When I married Chad in 2009, his father’s prostate cancer was already diagnosed and treatment was underway. It’s been a long journey. For a while, there was much hope that maybe it was under control, but in December 2011, right around Christmas, we gathered as a family to hear the details of the cancer’s aggressive progress. About two weeks ago, it took Ned away from us.
I don’t come from a Christian family, but Chad does, which is good, because we have a lot of hope and comfort knowing that Ned wasn’t taken from us, but united with Jesus in Heaven. That, and the fact that cancer can no longer cause him pain, are the only things that really give one hope and comfort in this situation. And sometimes that’s enough to sustain us, but more often, it means very little compared to the pain and sadness that overcome us.
We live almost three hours from Chad’s parents, but we were there, with Ned, the day before he died. And then we came back quickly once we got the call that he was gone. I’m glad we there that night. I’m glad we got to say goodbye. I’m glad we took the time away from work to spend those precious moments with him. I’m glad I saw the vows of marriage play out.
Chad’s parents were married 39 years. As a wife myself, watching Ned’s cancer weaken him, confine him, and evenutally kill him, made me see Chad’s mom, Sue, with absolute respect and compassion (more than I already had). It was hard watching Ned fade away. But in some ways it was harder for me to watch Sue watch her husband become less and less like the man she married. But she never complained.
In sickness and in health. It doesn’t mean a cold. It doesn’t mean seasonal allergies. I mean, it does of course, mean all those things, but what it also means is that when disease takes hold, when muscles become weak, when faculties fail, you stay, you care, you love. You feed him. You change his clothes. You hold his hand. You hold onto every memory, every feeling, every tiny detail of the life you lived together, and put that into making sure the last moments they get are everything you can give them.
In sickness and in health. When you get married, you hope– even assume– these things will never happen to you and your spouse. Or at least I did when I got married. You say the words, share the sentiment, and then move onto the reception. I can only hope that it means more than words and sentiment to everyone who gets married, that it means convenant. It did for Sue and Ned. I watched. I watched her love him in the most uncomfortable moments, when it wasn’t pleasant or neat or easy, when the private became public, when his body failed. I watched God sustain them and their marriage.
My sister said that what has impacted her and her husband the most in seeing this happen to our family was that, through everything, Sue never complained. She would push his wheelchair when he was too weak to walk and make sure he had everything he needed, without complaining. It’s not the scene my sister and her husband are used to seeing. But it’s something they can strive for. It’s something we all can strive for. Because many of us say, “in sickness and in health,” and many of us do really mean it, but when it comes down to it, can you do it without complaint? Without complaining how annoying it is to take a wheelchair in and out of the car, without complaining about cooking special meals and trying special diets, without complaining about bad days and bad attitudes, his or anyone else’s.
I watched Sue lean on the Lord. When Life Alert called to say her 88-year-old mother had broken her hip, I watched Sue pray as she looked over at her sick husband, sleeping in the hospital bed in her living room, knowing she could only be in one place at a time, but God could be in both. And now I’ve watched for days, weeks as the Lord surrounded Sue, and all of us, with friends and family and meals and stories.
No one wants to be the wife– or the husband– who has to watch the person they’ve lived their life with fade away. No one wants to be the spouse who helps their mate go the bathroom or eat or put clean clothes on because he can’t do it himself, because the strong person you knew is now in a shell of a body that is failing in so many ways. No one wants to be the one left behind. But we don’t get to choose. We get the life God’s laid out for us and, then hopefully, the choice we do make is to be grateful for every moment we’re allowed– allowed by God to love them, allowed by God to serve them, allowed by God to be loved by them, allowed by God to spend our lives with someone who wasn’t really ours, but His.
I know our family’s story is not unique. I know many of you who read this have experienced, or are experiencing, the same thing, some with their wife or husband, some with children, parents, neighbors, friends, siblings. It’s hard. It sucks. But I’m praying for you, as so many are praying for us right now. I know in some moments that really helps, and in other moments, you just want your loved one back. But all the pain and sorrow and grief show a life well lived, a life well loved. So love well– in sickness and in health, and lean on God when you can.