Before we received my husband’s cancer diagnosis, when we were still the family that I had always wanted to be, I received three prophetic signs that my world was about to implode.
First: I had a dream. My husband Mark and I were cruising along, side by side in a small convertible. The top was down, the sky a glorious, sparkling blue. We turned to each other, laughing and happy to have a day all to ourselves. Suddenly the nose of the car tipped over an unseen edge and we were falling into a black valley, out-of-control. Rigid with terror, my scream stuck in my throat as we gained speed. Then, shockingly, I became aware of a shadow even more overwhelming than the heart stopping descent. Across the valley was a mountain made of rock which rose so high that I knew, in a deep and inexplicable way, it was not of this world. I forgot about falling, forgot about my husband next to me in the car, and could only focus on that monolith with a top that stretched into and became part of the sky. My heart melted in recognition that what I was seeing was somehow a reflection of God Himself.
I woke up, anxious, and reached over to touch my husband’s back to reassure myself. I remember thinking, what would it be like if he wasn’t here?
Second: A few weeks later my best friend and I were together. For no reason at all a question popped into my brain so I asked her.
“What is your worst fear?”
She didn’t hesitate and named a specific fear she had, then reflected the same question back to me. “What’s yours?”
“I’m afraid something is going to happen to Mark,” I said.
Why had I thought that? What part of me detected that our life winds had changed before there was any conscious indication of it?
Third: The last sign occurred twenty-four hours before we found out. I was in Philadelphia on a two night mother-daughter trip with our 12 year old. As we stepped into a funky boutique on South Street so she could look for a t-shirt, I began to get a sense of foreboding like an amorphous, pressing dread. Something cold and frightening was squeezing my heart. Thinking it would pass, I pushed the feeling down, but over the next hour the sensation grew into a full blown anxious compulsion that I had to obey. We had to get home. NOW. I had never experienced anything like this, yet knew there was no other choice but to act on it. Trying to keep my voice neutral I turned to my daughter,
“Would you mind if we cut this trip a day short? I think we should get back early.”
We took a cab back to the hotel to gather our things. Though it was past 4 pm, the hotel clerk let us check out without charging us for the second night. That was odd. My heart raced the entire 90 minute drive back to Lancaster. Mark was surprised to see us walk through the door, but nothing seemed amiss.
The next day Mark had taken off from his busy dermatology practice so he, himself, could go to two doctor’s appointments. Since I was home, I decided to go with him to both. His shoulder had been bothering him so the first appointment was with an orthopedist who was also one of Mark’s a colleagues. He examined the shoulder, did not find anything seriously wrong, and discussed physical therapy as a starting point. From the orthopedist’s office we drove to an outpatient facility where Mark was scheduled for an abdominal ultrasound. He had been experiencing stomach irritation for the past half year, something he attributed to the stress of running a busy and successful solo dermatology practice, while trying to build a new surgery center where he could perform his skin cancer and reconstruction surgeries.
I was sitting with Mark in the darkened room while the ultrasound was performed. I remember that shortly after she got started, the tech turned Mark’s face away from the screen, but in such a way that neither of us thought anything about it. Afterwards, she walked us out and stood watching our backs as we, in blissful ignorance, swung hands while exiting through the sliding electric doors. Looking back all these years later, I wonder what she was thinking as she witnessed our last few minutes as a carefree couple still deeply in love.
After the ultrasound we headed straight across town to meet with Mark’s primary care doctor, another medical colleague. Mark had been feeling especially run down lately and we had plans to leave for a hiking trip later that month to celebrate his 46th birthday. I don’t know what we talked about in the car but remember thinking that he probably just needed some sort of antibiotic. In the time it took for us to drive the 15 minutes to the doctor’s office, someone from the ultrasound facility had called ahead to convey the findings.
It did not strike me as unusual that we were herded into a tiny conference room immediately upon our arrival. Moments later Dr. Bieber walked in along with someone else, maybe his nurse. It didn’t take long. Just a few sentences to tell us the news. Mark had cancer and it had spread to his liver.
I did not grasp right away that this meant we were beyond hope. Mark did. He and the other doctor locked eyes for a moment and then both their faces crumpled. I don’t remember much after that.
According to the experts, 2% somehow survive this diagnosis. Oh to be in that 2%. We tried. So. Very. Hard. Ultimately we got nineteen more months.
We were alone in our bedroom when I held Mark as he took his last breath. The transfer from my arms to God’s occurred in the quiet hours after midnight as our three children slept upstairs, and my brother and his wife dozed in our guest room where they had camped out to wait with us for his death. Days later, our house swelled with family and friends, food and flowers, and so much sadness that it’s a wonder the walls didn’t crack from the pressing weight of it all. Then we buried him – my brilliant, wise, strong, athletic, funny, handsome, gifted and generous husband.