You may have to break your heart,
But it isn’t nothing to know even one moment alive.
When Jimmy’s brain cancer spread into his spine for the first time, six years past his initial diagnosis, I had to face the suddenly very real possibility that we could and probably would lose him. We hadn’t run out of treatment options but there were no more that offered even the hope of a cure.
His bad scan had been a terrible shock to all of us, even Dr. Nicholson, as Jimmy was symptom free and living his best life as a rising college junior. The side effects from his current low-dose treatment protocol had been minimal, and he’d been looking forward to a long, hot summer at home watching Molly play softball. His death didn’t feel imminent but somewhere deep inside me, a clock began ticking, reminding me to slow down and be more mindful.
I found this prompt to be present hard to hang onto in the face of our summer schedule. Softball practice three times a week, tournaments on the weekends. Coffee and walks with friends. Hikes on the horse trails with Buster, our energetic black Border collie. Trips to and from UCSF for Jimmy’s new IV chemotherapy protocol. Feeding the kids’ friends who flowed in and out of the house. San Francisco Giants’ games on the occasional weekend off. Life felt busy and normal. The more I pushed away the thoughts of what might be happening inside Jimmy’s brain and spinal column, the easier it was distract myself by staying busy.
It wasn’t until we knew that Jimmy’s death was at best a month away that I let everything go and focused on him. Clean bathrooms and to do lists stopped mattering. Dan and I spent hours sitting with Jimmy, watching our favorite shows or talking, Molly joining us when she got home from school or practice. As his time grew short, I lay next to him on the guest room bed, my arm around his chest, my head on his shoulder. Feeling his chest rise and fall, his breath on my forearm and hearing him laugh felt like a gift.
We had spent the eight years of Jimmy’s cancer journey traveling the world, attending concerts and sporting events, saying ‘Yes!’ as often as we could to both kids. We wanted to make as many memories as possible, hoping to wrap ourselves in them like armor after he was gone. But for all the adventures we had, what stays with me now are the moments when the world slowed down, and I allowed myself to be fully present. Jimmy wearing a Viking hat, standing on the bow of the Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik with his fist raised triumphantly in the air. How green and perfect the grass looked on a sunny day at AT&T Park just before Giants took the field to start the game. The way Jimmy’s face lit up when his cinnamon French toast with mascarpone cream arrived at the table on our breakfast outings to Park Chow in San Francisco during our six week stays for radiation therapy. The companionable silence when we orbited one another in the house, each busy with an activity of our choosing. All moments when I had stopped thinking about the future I so desperately wanted and was never going to get and just let myself be where I was.
Loving someone with a limited number of days, instead of the lifetime supply you thought he was promised, is both agonizing and beautiful. Full of despair sprinkled with moments of joy and holy grace. So often it takes a dire diagnosis or life-shattering loss to fall in love with what is, or worse, with what was and is no more. But we can’t live that way indefinitely. There’s always laundry and meals, dust on the shelves and that ugly dark ring around the toilet that will turn pinkish orange if you ignore it for too long. So we cook and clean; wash, dry and fold. But if we allow ourselves to, we also notice the wisp of grass wafting down from an outdoor light fixture and stop to watch the red-breasted nuthatch building her precarious nest. We allow the hoarse honks of Canadian geese to call our attention upward as the gaggle flies by in a V formation. We pause behind the couch to bend over and breathe in the smell of our children.
Eventually, we will all come to the place when there are no more questions, and there is no more wondering. There is only the time left and how we will live it. The sweetness of those final moments spent with the people we love best, the ones who will stay close until the end. The dark path leading to our departure when we join the people already gone who made our life worth living while we wait among the stars for the beloveds we leave behind.