Six years ago today, I stood in the ICU at my husband Randy’s bedside. A few tubes and wires trailed from his body to the machines at the head of his bed, but the hated breathing tube that had kept him alive for the past three days had been removed.
Two weeks before, the word “cancer” had never entered my head as the possible cause of his pain. Randy had suffered from back pain for years due to a work-related injury, and the recent intensification of his back pain seemed to indicate there was more damage there and possibly more surgery needed to relieve it. But then he started feeling intense pain in his abdomen.
That prompted a trip to the emergency room and exploratory surgery and the discovery of cancer. A lot of cancer. Pretty much everywhere the doctors looked. They believed it had started in his pancreas (which explained the increase in back pain) and spread from there. On that particular day, they did some repair work but essentially told me that he wouldn’t have long in this world. I was shattered.
Randy and I had recently begun planning for our 25th wedding anniversary, discussing ideas for how we wanted to spend it. We were still 18 months away from celebrating it, but we knew we wanted to make it special. We were pretty sure we wanted to go on a cruise, but to where? That was where we were stuck. Alaska? The Caribbean? Mexico again? We had already taken one 4-day and two 7-day cruises to our southern neighbor, so we thought something new would be better. Unfortunately, that ugly monster Cancer got in the way. There would be no 25th anniversary celebration for us. We knew that now.
On this date exactly six years ago, the doctor met with me along with our kids, Randy’s mom, and my parents. Randy had been intubated three days prior to that because he was struggling to breathe, essentially being suffocated by the fluids that were building around his lungs. What did we want to do about the breathing tube? Leave it in and prolong his time somewhat, but also prolong his discomfort and frustration? Remove it and possibly hasten his death but allow him time to talk to us before he died? The doctor left the room to allow us some privacy to make our decision.
I looked around the table at the faces of my cherished family: Randy’s mother who was still in shock that her middle child was nearing death; our four children, all adults, all strong in their individual ways, and yet all breaking apart on the inside with grief; and my parents, the ones who had propped me up during many difficult times in my life, but more than ever during this most recent heartache. I asked my mom to pray, and though I don’t remember the words now, I remember the sense of peace that settled upon the room as the Lord filled it with His presence.
In one accord, we decided to have the tube removed. We all knew it was what Randy wanted, and our hope was that he would be able to speak to us afterward. We waited outside his room, the curtains drawn, as the medical staff performed that task and readied him for us to come in. I was impatient to hear his voice again, to be able to talk with him, not just to him.
Finally, the curtains were pulled back and we hurried in, our smiles growing as we saw him grinning at us from his bed. The head of the bed had been raised some so Randy was able to look around at all of us as we surrounded his bed. We had a wonderful time of laughter and sharing as we chatted with him. Though his voice was raspy and his sentences short, he was fully aware and his characteristic humor shone through. At one point as I stood next to him, brimming with love for him and gratitude to God that we were able to have these moments, he looked at me and said, “One book for you.” I must have looked puzzled, because he repeated himself, “One book for you… Get it?” And then I realized what he meant: he wanted me to write about this, our story. I nodded, and said, “Yes, I get it!”
I stepped from the head of his bed and let some of the rest of the family get in close for a few minutes of personal time with him. My mind began to focus in on some critical things that needed doing, the most urgent being that of contacting Randy’s close friends to let them know he wouldn’t be with us much longer. I knew I couldn’t make those calls myself, so as some of the family members left the room to leave just the kids and me with him, I turned to Janelle for help.
Janelle. Randy’s oldest child, my much-loved stepdaughter. First-born strength, Type A, one who is always doing, like her dad. I needed help and she willingly accepted the task. She took her dad’s phone and started calling people from his contacts, people who really needed to know right now. She stepped out of the room to make the calls while the other three and I gathered around their dad’s bed.
Randy looked at each of us in turn, his eyes still bright but growing heavier from fatigue. His gaze turned back to me and he asked, “How long?” I responded, “Not very long, honey. Maybe a day or two. Your cancer is really bad.” He nodded and then asked me, “Are you ready?” I didn’t hesitate, but my insides were in turmoil. “Yes.” Such a short response, spoken firmly because I know he needed to hear that answer of yes and not the one my heart was pounding within me: No, no, no. Don’t leave me! I’m not ready!
Randy looked at Michelle and Mike and Joel in turn and asked each of them the same question, “Are you ready?” They each bravely answered “Yes”. Then we all asked him, “Are you ready?” and his response “Oh, yeah!” was confident and firm. The look on his face was one of certainty, a peace I had not seen in years. He knew he didn’t have long, and he knew where he was headed. Death, yes, but also life, forever. Death was just the door to the Life, the Real Life, that awaited him.