A young man was in line in front of me this morning. He was talking to the cashier about his next round of chemotherapy.
I noticed his bald head, with just a hint of stubble, and a large, U-shaped scar on the right side.
I had two choices: Stay silent or talk.
"Which chemo are you taking?" I asked.
He turned in my direction, unaware that I had overheard.
"It's in pill form," he said. "Temodar."
I nodded. "My husband had brain cancer. He took that, too."
"How is he?" the young man asked.
(That's why silence is often the choice -- because you don't necessarily want to tell someone currently fighting cancer that your experience with cancer doesn't have a happy ending. And it's why I should start using the phrase "late husband" with greater ease.)
I told him that my husband had passed away.
We kept talking. About surgeons, steroids, radiation, oncologists (he sees the same doctor at UT-SW that Steve did). We talked about his most recent clean scan and his next scan, scheduled next month.
I asked for his name. I told him that I would pray for him and his family.
He asked for my name. And he asked how he might pray for me. I blinked back tears, taken off guard that this stranger with a most ferocious tumor would even ask, and told him that I couldn't think of a thing.
He told me that his brain cancer is more difficult on his wife than it is on him.
"Seeing what she goes through," he said, the rest of his words unspoken.
And then he added, "It's making her stronger."
I nodded in agreement.
This young couple has a 2-year-old daughter. The same age as Katie when Steve was diagnosed.
I wished him good luck, and we said goodbye.
As I prayed for Ryan today, I also prayed that I made the right choice in speaking instead of staying silent.
Friday, March 8, 2013
A month after Steve died, our children and I escaped town for Legoland in Southern California.
As we were buckling our seatbelts for the flight out of Dallas, 4-year-old Katie looked around the plane and said, “I wonder if people think it’s weird that we’re flying without a dad.”
I patted her hand and answered, “It’s weird to us, but I don’t think they’ll notice.”
Of course, it’s all we could think about. Our grief was jagged.
For so long we had been an even set of four. A man, a woman, a boy and a girl. With Steve’s final breath, we became an odd set of three.
We’ve adjusted during the past few years. Steve’s absence has become more routine.
Right after his death, I would sometimes pause and wonder why I hadn’t yet told Steve about an important event or a conversation. Now I just wish that I could.
The grief remains, no doubt, but the edges are smoother. I’ve learned how to buy groceries for three people, not four. I’ve learned the optimum schedule for washing and drying laundry for three, not four. We instinctively set the dinner table for three, not four.
Because life as a trio has become so routine, just as with those strangers on the plane, his absence is often invisible to folks around us.
Last year, one of Katie’s sweet first-grade friends was playing at our house. Katie showed her friend a book.
“That was my dad’s,” she said. Her friend, in reply: “You don’t have a dad.”
Katie said firmly, “Yes I do! Everyone has a dad. Mine died. But I have a dad.”
Katie’s the youngest in our trio; she had the least amount of time with Steve. That doesn’t diminish a single bit of her strong devotion.
She frequently prays for him and wonders aloud what he’s up to in heaven. She shares stories she remembers and asks for details she doesn’t.
We often talk about him at dinnertime, when the three of us gather at one end of a table designed for six. I sit on the end, Katie on my left, Cooper on my right.
The other half of the table isn’t empty. It’s usually crowded with art supplies and spelling lists, flash cards and random books.
Saturday night, the whole table was crowded. Rather than disrupt projects midstream, we chose to sit at a card table temporarily set up in the entryway (left over from hosting Bunco the night before).
We placed napkins in laps. Cooper said grace. Katie looked at the empty chair to her right, sighed and said, “Daddy should be there.”
That little card table, designed for four, made his absence palpable.
Then we moved on to fascinating topics, including raccoons (current second-grade project) and the “Harlem Shake.”
At open house this week, I read Katie’s report on raccoons for the first time. (Did you know those bandits can run as fast as 15 mph?)
And I read her response to a writing prompt in advance of St. Patrick’s Day. Handwritten on a green shamrock were these words (edited by me, only to correct spelling): “I am lucky because … even though my dad died, he is the best! I love love!! You dad!”
Yes, our grief remains, the raw edges worn by the passage of time. The love remains, too, burnished even in absentia.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.