Rollercoaster Journeys

The misadventures of a young widow.

Red Flags vs. Denial

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s diagnosis, the fact that he became as ill as he did was highly unusual. He hadn’t caught more than a cold since I met him, and hadn’t had the need to see a doctor in over 10 years. Between the two of us, Chris definitely came from “heartier stock,” while I was just grateful to have a pain-free day. The lifeguard definitely wasn’t on duty when I was swimming around in the health end of the gene pool. I was born with a rare congenital disorder, which caused numerous medical issues during my adolescent and adult years. On top of that, being a teacher meant that I came down with every cold, flu, or infection my germ-infested, but lovable students brought to school. I got sick more often and always took longer to recover than him.

At the beginning of October 2008, I came down with some kind of funk that I undoubtedly picked up from one of my kids at work. Chris started getting sick just as I was starting to feel human again. I apologized for passing off whatever crap I had to him. This wasn’t the first time, nor would it probably be the last, so he just laughed it off.

Not too long after that, it wasn’t as jokingly routine anymore. I started to get worried, really worried, but tried to convince both of us that he would kick this bug in no time (he later confessed to me that he was really worried too, and did exactly what I did). After two weeks of having flu-like symptoms, I suggested he take a ride down to Urgent Care. It was a Wednesday and our anniversary (first date, not wedding) was that coming weekend, on Halloween. I figured if he had strep throat, then he could get started on a cycle of antibiotics ASAP and have a shot at enjoying the plans we made for the weekend. He was sent home that day with scripts for penicillin and hydrocodone to treat what appeared to be a nasty pharyngeal infection.

As expected, he seemed to get a little better over the next few days and I thought he’d be back at 100% well before his 14-day antibiotic cycle ended. Even though he was feeling a little better, his energy level was still in the toilet so we postponed our plans, but decided to at least toast our anniversary. I made him a double Three Olive Kamikaze, his favorite. Chris and I were seasoned veterans when it came to drinking socially and we made the perfect duo when we went out. Throughout our entire relationship we rarely drank at home, but went out with varying frequency (depending on the time of year and ) to a handful of places in town, usually accompanied by an assortment of friends. Given our lubricated history, I figured he could handle the drink I mixed for him with no problem.

Two things happened that night that stood out in my mind; red flags that I tried to deny out of fear. We talked about something arbitrary while we had our drinks standing around the dumping ground for our laundry, known by name for a different function as the free-standing bar. Given the convenient location, he took his sweatshirt off and the t-shirt underneath came along for in front for the ride. It was the first time in a few days that I had seen him without a shirt on and he looked damn good! Don’t get me wrong, he was always an attractive dude, even with the 30 pounds of comfort-weight he had gained since we met several years ago. Overnight, it seemed, his Buddha-belly had shrunk considerably. I remember warning bells going off in my head, but I was able to push those back as I was simultaneously eyeing him with no less shame than a group of bros watching the stripper at a bachelor party.

Shortly after ogling my husband’s bare torso, I noticed he was becoming increasingly chatty and chipper. Now, one of the things I loved about Chris as my drinking partner was the type of drunk he was, the happy, sociable kind. The only drawback was that at 230ish pounds on a muscular frame, it took far more than a double shooter to get him buzzed, which accounted for his half of our healthy bar tabs. It didn’t take too long to realize that after one drink, he didn’t have just a good buzz, he was shitfaced! For the second time that night, warning bells were going off in my head, but yet again, I was able to block them out by my excitement over his heightened mood. He had been feeling like crap for over two weeks and I hated seeing him like that. He was feeling no pain and didn’t have a care in the world, and that helped ease my worries, while conflicting with the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right.

A few more days passed, during which time his recovery seemed to plateau and then his symptoms became worse than they had been prior to starting the antibiotics. That Thursday, a week and a day after he went to the doctor, I decided to come home from work and take a nap before heading to my class later that evening. This meant backtracking 25 minutes away from campus, just to turn around and add that time onto my long commute to class during rush-hour traffic. Apparently that day, for whatever reason, naptime was worth the sacrifice.

Shortly after I got back to the house, Chris came home from work. He looked like death; his skin was grey and it took an enormous amount of effort to take his jacket off (and it wasn’t even zipped up). I told him he needed to go back to Urgent Care and tell the doctor that since the penicillin didn’t seem to be effective, he needed to try another course of treatment. He complained of being too tired to go through the ordeal of getting checked out by the doctor. I pointed out that clearly, that was not a good sign and in fact, was an excellent rationale for expending the energy. I usually wasn’t insistent about anything he needed unless it was REALLY important. He was a big boy and I wasn’t his mom; furthermore, I certainly wasn’t the type to nag someone, but that day, I became the nagging wife. He didn’t put up too of an argument and agreed to go once he had a chance to lay down and take a nap. Since that was my original plan, I told him I was laying down too, but as soon as I got up, he had to head to the doctor. He agreed pitifully before crashing out on the couch…with his shoes still on.

I was up about an hour later and woke him up. He got up, shrugged into his jacket, and walked out the door. Little did either of us know, it would be six weeks before he stepped foot back in our house.



The day I was born (well, maybe the next day after sleeping off a 36 hour labor) I wonder if my mom, as a new mother, looked at her beautiful baby girl and thought, “I can’t wait to help this little bundle of joy spread her husband’s undocumented cremains, which she smuggled through security hidden deeply in her luggage, in international waters!”? I doubt it.

It all started a week after my husband died. Mom decided that what I really needed to take my mind off of my grief was a vacation. For those of you who have never been on this side of such a situation, taking a vacation shortly after the death of your spouse if a BAD idea.  Unfortunately for me, to a handful of friends and my family this seemed like an excellent idea.  I can see how this would make sense to someone on the outside looking in at me.  Here’s this person that just spent the better part of the last two years in concurrent states of perpetual worry, insomnia, chaos, and poverty, juggling the realities of being a cancer spouse. After what can only be described as a series of events straight out of Murphy’s Law for Dummies, she found herself widowed and lost in reality aided by a nice case of PTSD. Of course she needs a break; book her on the next flight!

And that’s almost exactly what my mother did. In her infinite wisdom, she decided that we should hold off for a few months before departing on I affectionately call the Anti-widow Tour 2010 (or AWT-10 for short) for very practical reasons. First off, it was April and seeing as my mom was a teacher on the traditional September to June school schedule, she had to work for another couple of months. Secondly, she felt I might need a few months to adjust to my new marital status before I was ready to party, international style. Lastly, tickets to the Caribbean tend to be cheaper during hurricane season, and since she was funding this little sabbatical on her ample teaching salary, cost had to be considered.

Four months was just long enough for me to accomplish several things. I moved out of the loft we were living in when (and where) Chris died and into the spare bedroom of a townhouse belonging to an old friend.  She was grieving the loss of her son just a few months earlier, and there’s nothing like commiseration to make the living situation a little more comfortable.

A week following my move, I had a complete nervous breakdown and slipped into a coma for four days under questionable circumstances. It was two days before anyone found me, after which I was admitted into ICU and given a botched spinal tap. Within hours of regaining consciousness, I mistakenly checked myself into a psychiatric hospital thinking I was signing discharge papers. The psych hospital wouldn’t even admit me, given that I was still too physically ill up for therapy.

Since I couldn’t play the starring role in my rendition of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I did a brief stint at my parents’ house, and it was here that I desperately tried to recover from what my mom affectionately calls my “crash and burn” as quickly as possible. Once I could sit upright AND perform any task requiring energy simultaneously and without the hassle of excruciating pain, it became clear that I needed to start dealing with my reality as a young widow…so I ran away.

Four weeks to the day after an ambulance was dispatched to transport my unresponsive ass to the hospital, I got in my car and made a beeline for the Northeast with my friend Karen, who was also seeking to escape life. After a few days of misadventures in Martha’s Vineyard (another story entirely) we found ourselves lost in the backwoods of Maine, trying to find our way to Karen’s friends’ place without getting raped by a moose.  It was here that I had my first experience of having to confront my status as a widow…and openly admit to it.

We spent the weekend crashing with a couple in their flat situated above the flower/antique shop they owned in a tiny town an hour north of Portland.  Obviously my current life situation came out during the course of conversation that first night, with the assistance of numerous libations.  A few nights later, we were invited to dinner at another couple’s house, where I let it slip that my husband had been a chef.  The hostess proclaimed how great it must be to have husband that cooked all the time and began asking questions about where he worked, what type of fare he specialized in, etc.  Thankfully, I had help explaining that my husband had previously been a chef but given the fact that he was no longer in existence, I no longer had someone to cook for me at home.  It was at this point that I increased my consumption of wine, but got through the evening regardless.

As we high-tailed it back to Virginia so that I could put a deposit down on another place (sans roommate), it dawned on me that I had survived my first experiences of conceding to the notion that Chris really was gone.  Once I got home I had to face the fact that I was starting a new chapter in my life, and moving OUR furniture into MY new apartment was definitely a blatant indication that I just couldn’t ignore.  A little over a month later, it was here that I found myself furiously packing for AWT-10 with absolutely no desire to leave my apartment, much less leave the country.

A friend of mine was cat-sitting for me while I was on vacation, as she finished up her summer internship nearby.  Thirty minutes before I needed to leave my house with just enough time to barely miss my flight, she asked me if I was bringing Chris’s ashes with me. Considering I hadn’t even thought to pack a bathing suit at that point, taking my deceased husband along for a ride on the cruise from hell hadn’t even crossed my mind. I ran up the stairs and dug the urn out of the back of my closet.

Earlier that summer, I spent the morning of my birthday divvying out some of Chris’s ashes to take with me to New England the following day. As a result, I had a few one-cup portions of Chris stored in the urn on top of the Bag-O-Ashes mom picked up from the funeral home the day of Chris’s memorial service. I grabbed one of double wrapped, quart size Zip-Lock freezer bags and an old jewelry box from my dresser, and ran back down to the tornado of clothes sitting in a pile on my living room floor next to my empty suitcase. Just before zipping up, I stuffed Chris in the jewelry box, wrapped the box up in a pair of cargo pants, and wedged it into the middle of the clothes pile, which I had successfully shoved into my suitcase. I ran out the door, threw my bags in the car, and took off to meet my mom for our flight, quickly forgetting to mention that her son-in-law was coming along as a stowaway.

A week later I found myself sailing on the “SS Nuptual’s Bliss,” inundated with cheesy commercialism of ginormous and ridiculous proportion. I also seemed to be the only single-ish woman on vacation. Everywhere I looked there were couples – nothing but uber affectionate, disgustingly cute couples! Three on-board weddings and five “Just Married” logos later (one of which was bejeweled across some chick’s bikini covered ass), I found myself taking solace in only three things: imagining myself diving overboard with no one noticing,  sleeping/passing out, and alcohol – lots and lots of alcohol (which went hand-in-hand with #2).

Apparently my sunny disposition was rubbing off.  Every time I ordered a drink, my mom (who NEVER drinks) found herself indulging in fruity concoctions of all kinds. For a woman who spent almost a decade telling me I was an alcoholic every time she got an inkling that I had had a drink (it sucks being the daughter of an over-sensitive product of an alcoholic family AND marriage), she turned out to be an unlikely drinking buddy and held her own pretty damn well.  I have always been a happy drunk and she actually admitted that I was more fun after a few drinks.  This encouraged her to put several rounds on her tab, thus encouraging me to become happy more frequently.  I think she realized that if you give a depressed widow alcohol, the results might actually be favorable!

As for our additional company, around the third day onboard Mom finally asked what the burgundy box in the safe was. “Oh yeah, I decided at the last minute to bring Chris along with us and totally forgot to tell you. Sorry.”

She took the news relatively well and asked where and how I planned on scattering him…or was he coming home with us too? Then she inquired about a fairly significant matter: had brought the certificate of cremation with me, just in case anyone asked (i.e. airport security or better yet, customs)? To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought to bring the certificate with me; in fact, I wasn’t sure where in the hell the damn piece of paper was! As for disposing of my late husband, again, hadn’t thought that part through yet, and now I had to. And so I did…and was paralyzed by the idea.

By the last night of the cruise, I knew I had to sack up and take care of Chris’s ashes.  While I really should have been motivated by the idea of closure and gaining some spiritual connection to Chris and the Earth, none of that came into play during this process. After dinner, as Mom and I walked back to our room to finish packing, she asked me if I wanted any help taking care of Chris. I declined, figuring this was something I needed to do alone, just me and him.

Our cabin was located in a forward corner of the sixth deck with a balcony just outside our room that seemed like the perfect place to start. Yeah…not so much! Just above us was the captain’s deck with panoramic windows. I had to find somewhere inconspicuous and this is where my odd assortment of experiences dealing with the ashes of other people came into play.

It all started a decade earlier with an episode of Frasier. Frasier, Niles, Martin, and Daphne drive out into the country to spread the ashes of their late aunt. The camera angle is looking into the car from the front windshield, focusing on Martin and Daphne (the dad and his nurse, respectively) having a conversation while sitting in the car.  This perspective also shows the brothers (Niles and Frasier, for those of you not familiar) standing outside at the rear the car trying to figure out how to open the urn. At one point, the top comes off (or the urn breaks, I can’t remember which) and the two guys are now caught flailing in a whirlwind of cremains blowing all over them. While I nearly wet myself watching this, I did pick up on the lesson of the episode: be gentle and never stand downwind!

A few years later, my biological father presided over his father’s funeral service, which involved spreading the ashes over my grandmother’s grave. He was really nervous about not only performing the ceremony, but also spreading the ashes in such a manner that wouldn’t attract the attention of the church’s staff, as the laws governing the disposal of human remains are quite complicated. He called me up the night before the service to get some advice so I told him the only thing that I could think to say in a situation such as this, “Make sure you stand upwind!”

Now my dad shares in my odd sense of humor, so his response was not one of revulsion at neither the pragmatic, yet mildly insensitive nature of my comment, nor the idea of being covered in his dad’s ashes. Instead, he laughed hysterically and thanked me for the dose of perspective, which he later told me helped him get through the service.

A couple of years after this, my grandmother passed away, and since the Pope said it was okay, it was her wish to be cremated. On the morning of my grandmother’s funeral mass, my mom charged me with getting my grandmother’s ashes out of the house without my grandfather noticing, and getting her safely to the church. I don’t know what my mom was thinking?! My family can count on me for two things: I will inevitably fall flat on my face in any attempt to do something that requires coordination, and I am always half an hour to an hour late for everything. Given these two major flaws, I was still expected to get my grandmother to her own funeral in one piece (well, the urn anyway) and on time – HA! As I rode to the church, situated in my dad’s truck between him and Chris, my grandmother’s urn was in a box on my lap, safely buckled in. When we got there, I managed to climb out of the truck (I’m short…the truck’s not) and make it across the churchyard to the side door with both of us intact. My husband’s version of this part of the story is so much better than mine, and it goes something like this:

When I got to the door, I awkwardly got the door open without putting down (or dropping) my grandmother. It was at this point that I paused for what he explained looked like a moment of contemplation, while holding the door open with my hip. For some reason that I can’t recall, I had to prop the door open. Chris said I stood there for a few seconds, looking back and forth between the inside of the church and the box in my arms containing my deceased grandmother. He was convinced that it looked like I was considering the notion of propping the door open with the box. It was at this point my mom screamed at me from the parking lot, “If you drop your grandmother, I swear I will kick your ass!” It was this comment that distracted whatever thought process was working in my head, so I can’t confirm or deny his suspicion. Needless to say, I managed to get my grandmother safely inside and did not use her as a doorstop.

These experiences definitely helped me work out the logistics of handling my husband’s cremains.  The hard part was facing the decision between letting some of Chris go over the side of a cruise ship in the Caribbean, or explain to US Customs the next day why I was trying to smuggle undocumented cremains in my baggage back into the country. My life was complicated enough; it was go time!

After wandering around the ship alone with my husband in my purse, I broke down and requested my mom’s assistance that I had turned down earlier that evening. I believe my exact words were, “Okay, I need a spotter.”

I had reasoned that the best way to do this was to find a secluded spot on a lower deck as far aft as possible. This would reduce the chances of some innocent vacationer enjoying a nice, evening breeze on their balcony, inadvertently traumatized by the taste of my husband as s/he got hit by a mini ash cloud.

Mom and I walked around for about a half an hour and found that the third deck was the lowest we could go with the option of open-air decks. It just so happened that this was also the deck that had the lifeboats mounted above. As we stepped out onto the deck, we were happily surprised to find it deserted. We walked all the way to the end, and as I surveyed over the railing to make sure there weren’t any decks downwind, I pulled Chris out of my purse and considered the best way to go about this. The railing was about two feet from the edge of the ship, which meant I was going to have to lie down in order to reach out far enough to get the necessary clearance. My mom looked at me as I was considering my options and asked the question that would prompt one of the most bizarre arguments I’ve ever had. “So, are you just going to toss the bag overboard?”

I was horrified! Of course not – I recycle! “No, I’m not going to litter! I’m going to empty the bag over the side of the boat, not toss it in!”

Her response was priceless.  “You smuggled undocumented cremains over international lines, breaking who knows how many laws, and your biggest concern is a fish choking to death on a plastic baggie?”

Hearing her reaction did in fact, make my argument sound relatively foolish given the circumstances and possible implications, but I stuck to my guns. “Point taken but I’m still not chucking the bag in the water. Can you just look out for anyone coming this way while I do this?”

Given that I was saying this while lying down to get into position, my mom decided the best way to go about spotting me was to take her long-sleeve, dandelion yellow, button up shirt she brought along in case she got cold, and wave it over me in an effort to obscure the view in case there was a camera mounted nearby. I had to turn my head to the left, smashing my face against the deck, so my right arm could get as much distance as possible.  When I was finally in position, I turned the bag upside down, holding it by the bottom. I expected the ashes to dump out in one, maybe two shakes. Nope!

As I furiously shook the bag for what seemed like an eternity, I got increasingly frustrated, and started cursing my husband under my breath. It was at this point that Mom, the avid photographer, gleefully announced, “Oooh look, it’s so pretty blowing through the light!” followed by “I wish I had my camera with me,” with a hint of disappointment in her voice.

“Are you kidding me?! This is not a fucking photo op! Holy shit, why is this taking so long? My vows said ‘Til death do us part,’ and I definitely fulfilled that. This was not part of the deal!”

It took another couple of seconds before the bag was completely empty and I could peel myself off the nasty floor. We walked down to the bench near the door and sat down so I could smoke a cigarette, while having the mini-meltdown over what I had just done. It wasn’t the first cup of Chris I had scattered and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Regardless, it was still heart(re)breaking to acknowledge that my best friend really was dead and I really was having to deal with it.  There was no harder reality check than disposing of his cremains, however little bit there was. Mom did the best she could to come to the rescue. She gave me a big hug, telling me how proud she was of the strength it took for me to do this.

I pulled myself together, and as I finished my cigarette, looked down at the baggie that was still in my hand. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of handling cremains, they are light grey and white in color; leave a powdery coating on anything they come in contact with, similar to that of flour or some other white, powdery substance. It occurred to me that on a cruiseship, it was unlikely that anyone who spotted the empty baggie in my hand would think it was flour that had been inside. Considering what the contents really were, I didn’t want anyone suspecting me of having a bag of blow, only to find out upon analysis that it was really human remains. Neither of those scenarios would look favorable during an initial observation. I quickly shoved the bag into the empty Sprite can I had, and as we were walking to our room, I left it on a littered room service tray in front of some random person’s door three floors below our room.

As Mom and I walked down the hall to our room, I asked her if this was on her list of mother daughter bonding experiences she imagined having with me in the future as she held her beautiful baby girl for the first time. “No sweetie, when you were a baby, this was definitely not something I could have possibly dreamed of doing with you. But if it’s any consolation, I’m glad I was here to help.”

Posthumous Debt Collection Fiasco

I don’t think there’s a crueler experience than getting phone calls for my late husband. Getting mail for him isn’t so bad since I don’t open my mail anyway, so I don’t have to explain to an envelope that the person they’re looking for is never going to contact them. Phone calls are a totally different story.

Late one October afternoon, just six months after my husband passed away, I left work and was making the 30-minute trek to meet some friends at a familiar hangout spot for a “therapy session.” The three of us taught at the same school and over the years, had fallen into the habit of meeting for a few drinks once a week to vent about work, life, PMS, etc. I hadn’t been driving but maybe five minutes when my phone rang. With one hand, I dug around in my bag, hoping to find it before my voicemail picked up. Success! I didn’t recognize the number (and should have known better) but answered it regardless. The woman on the other end asked for my husband by name and I replied, “I’m sorry but this is not his phone number.”

She identified herself as a customer service rep for a debt collection agency, which didn’t surprise me. Battling cancer is not the cheapest of ventures, especially when it’s funded by a public school teacher early in her career. I let her know that Mr. Gerdin was deceased and had been so for several months. After some brief interrogation regarding who I was (none of her business), she resolved to give me the company’s address so I could send her a copy of his death certificate. Just when I thought I was in the clear and could hang up and have a good cry over admitting, yet again, to a perfect stranger that Chris was gone, the CSR asked if my name was Elizabeth Collison.

Somewhat hesitant to answer, I replied, “Um…yes, this is she.”

“We have another account that is attached to this phone number that just came into our office. It’s not active yet but since I have you on the phone, how about we set up payment arrangements?”

I was stunned, which is not a good space for your head to be in while you’re driving. I had no idea what the bill was for or for how much, and didn’t she say the account wasn’t even active? “I’m sorry. I haven’t received a statement yet, but as soon as I do, I’ll contact you to make payment arrangements.”

“Well ma’am, we find it’s difficult to contact our customers, and many of them are less inclined to pay the balance on their accounts, so let’s do this now.”

Are you kidding me! This woman called regarding a matter of my dead husband’s and, upon finding out that the customer she’s trying to solicit is obviously not available, she has the nerve to hit me up for an undisclosed amount of money for who knows what on an unrelated account? Furthermore, did she seriously just imply that I was shiesty and wouldn’t pay up? The rage that washed over me was both immediate and intense. I’m generally polite to people who work as CSRs or telemarketers (hey, they got bills to pay too), but this chick definitely figured out how to push me over the edge in a matter of seconds. “Really? You call asking to speak to my recently deceased husband and after requesting his death certificate, you ask his widow to make payments on an account that isn’t even active yet? Couldn’t you have waited a few days and called back? Do you even have a soul?”

After a few more seconds of ranting and throwing some very colorful phrases in her direction, I realized I needed to hang up before the blinding rage caused me to swerve into an innocent motorist. So I did…just as I was midsentence through another onslaught of obscenities. I spent the rest of the drive gripping the wheel with such force that I probably lost a layer of skin peeling my hands off when I got to the bar, but was definitely too pissed off to notice. That evening turned out to be the most productive therapy session we had in the history of the tradition.

The Wrap

The thing I remember being the most resentful about after Thursday, November 6, 2008 was the fact that I didn’t get to finish my chicken wrap that night! That’s right, out of all the events that transpired on the night Chris was diagnosed with leukemia, the one that stands out is not being able to eat my entire King Caesar wrap from Tropical Smoothie! Is that too much to ask before having my life shoved into a blender?

It all started when the phone rang while I was eating. After getting home from a quick trip to grab dinner, I had settled on the couch to watch Scrubs while I ate. I had taken maybe three bites when I heard the familiar techno ring attached to Chris’s number. I scrambled to get the plate out of my lap gracefully, while simultaneously digging through my bag for the phone before it went to voicemail. Swallowing, I flipped my phone open and hit SEND. “Hey babe, what’s up?”

“I need you to pick me up from Urgent Care and take me to the ER…now,” he replied calmly.

“OK, I’ll be there in a few.” Later, I remember thinking that for a phone call which led to the most devastating event of our lives, the conversation was fairly anti-climactic.

It wasn’t a shocker that he was at Urgent Care in the first place; I was the one who insisted he go BACK to Urgent Care just a few hours earlier.  Shortly after leaving the house he had called just as I was trying to get myself out the door in time to make it through traffic to my seven o’clock class.  Apparently there was some mix-up between the clinic and his insurance company. He tried explaining what was going on but was too exhausted and frustrated, and all I got was that the insurance company had denied coverage and the clinic was refusing to see him. He had been there over a week before for what they diagnosed as a throat infection and this hadn’t been an issue, so I knew something was up. He had never dealt with insurance issues before and was so tired, he just wanted to come home until we could straighten it out.

Thinking that he just needed a different course of antibiotics, as he had been on penicillin for over a week and was worse than before, I knew if he came home he wouldn’t feel like going back out to the clinic that night.  I told him to stay put while I called the insurance company. After 20 minutes of answering questions via pushing “1” on my phone, I finally got to a real person. Looking at his account, it seemed that my charming, laid-back (albeit slightly absent-minded) husband had forgotten to pay his premium the week before, so his coverage was in the process of being cancelled. I really wasn’t all that shocked to hear this.

I was able to make a payment over the phone; however, it wouldn’t post to his account for 48 hours. Son of a bitch! Thankfully, the woman on the other end of the phone was really cool; either that or she really wanted me to shut up after my frustrated “I really don’t want my husband to die today!”  She offered to call the clinic so he could be seen that night. I gratefully thanked this saint of a customer service agent, happy that he was going to be checked out by another doctor, and I hadn’t missed my class for what would have amounted to a lot of energy and no outcome.

I got to the urgent care clinic within ten minutes of hanging up from our latest phone call that evening, I checked in with reception and had a seat in the waiting room. I don’t think my ass was in that chair long enough for the support braces to register my weight before a nurse came and motioned for me to follow her. We walked along the corridor maze to the back corner of the building, stopping at an exam room that was the size of my refrigerator. Just inside the door, there were three nurses standing together murmuring over paperwork on a clipboard with grave intensity. Behind them in the corner, another nurse was talking to my husband who, while still looking like he’d been hit by a Mack truck, was fully-dressed and standing up under his own power. Chris introduced me as his wife and one of the nurses in the huddle turned around and said, “Go straight to the ER at Sentara; they’re expecting you. Do NOT stop anywhere, not your house, a gas station, or anywhere else. Go directly to the hospital.”

“Oh…okay,” I replied oh-so-eloquently. Her delivery caught me a little off-guard, causing mild confusion by the fact that no explanation was offered up as to the reason for, nor expediency of, our venture to the hospital. Nevertheless, I didn’t ask any questions figuring that since Chris was conscious, alert, and mobile he’d fill me in sooner or later.

As we walked down the hall and through the waiting room, Chris’s body language made it clear that he wanted desperately to get the hell out of that building.  He had grabbed my hand as soon as we walked out of the exam room, practically dragging me through the waiting room. Once we got through the doors and hit pavement, my curiosity got the best of me. “What’s up, dude?”

He was barely able to get the words, “The doctor thinks I have leukemia,” before finally breaking down after what have must have been an eternity of holding it together in front of the clinic staff.  Given that he still had a vice-grip on my hand, my first response was to squeeze his hand reassuringly and say matter-of-factly, “Well damn…okay, we can deal with this.”

Once we got in the car, he explained that the doctor had done a CBC (complete blood count) and the results were typical of that of a patient with leukemia. Regardless of the fact that he was hysterical, he tried to find some amount of humor by telling me the doctor followed up his grave diagnosis with, “I really hope I’m wrong and in three weeks you’ll come back for a follow-up and call me an asshole for scaring the crap out of you.”

He lit a cigarette, remarking that he might as well smoke now since it might be the last chance he’d have for a while (and he was definitely right on that). I tried to calm him down, which was really just my way of keeping me from falling apart too, by reminding him that the ER needed to conduct further testing to confirm or refute the possibility of leukemia.  Until then, we just needed to try and chill out. I tried to be sensible about the whole thing, reminding him that it wasn’t a definite diagnosis but if he did in fact have leukemia, we would deal with it together as a team, just like we did everything else.

Before embarking on the “FFFFUUUCCCKKK!!! My husband has cancer!” freak-out, we needed more information and I was able to hold myself together relatively well by focusing on that. I didn’t want to worry anyone, or admit the possibly impending doom out loud, so I didn’t make any phone calls as I sat in the ER waiting room while he checked himself in. I did send a short text to a friend of mine who I taught English with at the middle school I worked at as a special education teacher. Paige and I had known each other for years, but weren’t extremely close and just happened to be teaching together out of sheer coincidence. In the three months we had been working together, we went out for drinks after work a few times a month and had gotten together for dinner once with our respectively nerdy husbands (who happened to hit it off…imagine that?). I don’t know why she was the one I chose to let know what was going on. I think I really needed to tell someone just in case his diagnosis was true so there was one person who wouldn’t be caught completely off-guard if/when we had to break the news.  Paige was the most logical choice in this respect because at least I could pretend I was telling her as a “heads-up” in case I had to miss work the next day. Her reply was pretty short and to-the-point and I told her I’d get back to her once we knew more. Okay, someone on the outside knew…I could go back to keeping my shit together.

From the moment he broke the news on me in the clinic’s parking lot, I realized this – Chris was the one who had just been told that he may have a disease that could potentially kill him in a relatively short period of time, and dealing with your own mortality is a pretty heavy thing. I’ve been down that road and knew that the only thing I could do was to stay rational so that he could process the intense possibility of having a life-threatening illness in whatever way his brain needed to. In other words, he had dibs on flipping out at the moment so I had to be the cool, calm, collected one.

Once we got checked into the ER in what became the shortest admin-time I’ve ever experienced, the doctor ran another CBC, which confirmed the first doctor’s suspicions. After he dropped the leukemia bomb on us, we were given a little bit of time alone together for our new reality to sink in. Chris began crying and going on about all the time he had wasted in his life and what he should’ve done differently. I didn’t necessarily think this was the most productive thing for him to do but he obviously needed to get it out.  I let him wallow for a little while before giving in to my inner voice and finally telling him to shut up – thinking like that was not going to help him battle this at all. I actually got kind of tough with him, which may seem like a bitchy thing to do to a dude who just found out he had cancer…and it kind of was.

“Stop! I’m not going to sit here and listen to you feel sorry for yourself about all the things you haven’t done with your life. If you need to use this as motivation for what you’re going to do in the future, that’s the best way to channel this energy. I will completely support you in any and every way to help you kick this cancer’s ass, BUT I can’t sit here and support or indulge your personal pity party. YES, you have cancer and YES, it sucks big time! You cannot change anything that you did, or didn’t do in the past, so this conversation is pointless. So what’s it gonna be, a solo pity party or tackling this head-on as Team Venture (his nickname for us)?”

He cracked a smile and gave me a HUGE hug. I didn’t feel like such a bitch after that for practically yelling at the sick dude to suck it up.  He whipped his face, took a couple of deep breaths and grabbed his cell phone, dialing his best friend’s number.  “Hey man, I got some bad news today.  I’m at the hospital with Liz and the doctors say I have some kind of leukemia.”  I could hear Wayne’s voice but tried not to interject, letting the two of them have their conversation.  After Chris filled him in on the evening’s events, I heard Wayne reply, “Well, at least now you can smoke weed.”  Both Chris and I burst out laughing – it was probably the best tension-breaker I’ve ever heard in my life…and it worked.

After hanging up, we decided to take a break from reality and turned on the TV.   Appropriately, or not depending on how you want to look at it, an episode of House happened to be on.  It dawned on me that maybe Chris would be upset by the similar plotline, but when I asked if he wanted to change the channel, he declined and I didn’t argue with the decision.  For some reason, watching a random fictional character sit in a hospital bed dying of an unknown disease brought a sense of comfort into the room.

About an hour after breaking the news to us, the doctor came back in and explained the implications of his abnormal blood results, specifically the low hemoglobin (red blood cells) count, the high white cell count, and the low platelet (clotting factor) count. At this point, his immediate concern was the lack of a sufficient amount of platelets in his blood which could lead to internal bleeding. He announced that the quickest way to check for such bleeding was to perform a rectal exam. Whew, this was my out!

I told Chris I would give him some privacy while the doctor did the exam; help him preserve some of his dignity. He started to tell me it was okay to stay, but I hauled ass out of the room so quickly, he didn’t have the opportunity to get his entire thought out.  In reality, my own freak-out was bubbling at the surface, and while I was doing a great job of concealing it, I really needed a few minutes alone to lose my cool persona.

I didn’t even make it through the doors of the ER before breaking down and crying hysterically. I managed to make it out of the exam room, and really hope that as Chris was rolling onto his side to get his initiation into the world of rectal-violation, he didn’t see the plastered smile on my face melt into a grimace.  I was a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ER lobby door when the oldest couple in the entire Colonial Capital got between me and sweet freedom. Considering I was holding my breath in an effort to stave off hysteria and violent hiccups, I just about shoved the two of them out of the way. Surprisingly, the old man’s peripheral vision, processing speed, and reaction time were on-point, as he quickly ushered his Golden Years’ mistress to the side just as the door’s automatic sensor kicked in. I slipped by Mother and Father Time, took two giant leaps through the lobby, and was outside where I could fall apart without the fear of my claustrophobia kicking in too.

I got outside, lit a cigarette, and called my mommy – I don’t typically refer to her as this, but I was definitely having an “I need my mommy!” moment. By this point I was so far gone I was hyper-ventilating, which is not very productive when you’re trying to simultaneously suck out all the nicotine you possibly can with each drag AND initiate a phone call. Given the fact that my anxiety had a stronghold on my diaphragm making talking nearly impossible, when my mom picked up the phone she only knew it was me on the other end by the sobs she heard. She instantly went into mom-saves-the-day mode, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“M, M, Momm(hiccup)mmyyyyyyyy…Chris…hospital…leukemia!” That’s about all she could decipher over the phone so she decided to come straight over. I managed to get out which hospital we were at and, given that the facility had just opened to replace the town’s very outdated community hospital, a landmark to help her find it.

Two hours later, we were walking circles around the parking lot; her trying to talk me through this and me chain-smoking. Being a very pragmatic woman, she was going through all the research hospitals in the mid-Atlantic region we could look into, the variety of ways we could cut our budget to accommodate the impending medical costs and loss of income, and a whole assortment of other practical issues that I would have to manage. On what was easily our eighth lap around the parking lot, I looked at her and asked, “Can I really do this?”

“Yes, of course you can. You are a strong woman and you love Chris very much,” she said as she gave me a comforting hug. It was at that point that my anxiety took a break and I was able to breathe again. As it turned out, she was right…but never again did my favorite wrap taste as good as it had before that day.

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Uncornered Market

The misadventures of a young widow.


The misadventures of a young widow.


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Mixed-up, Mashed-up, Mished-up.


a personal journey through widowhood and beyond


Savoring the Mystery

Peg-o-Leg's Ramblings

You say you want an evolution...