The Bear

A long time ago I worked with a lady I’ll call Susie. Susie was in her 50’s and she was a motivated high-achiever with blonde hair and a bubbly personality. Although we weren’t friends, per say, I respected Susie greatly and loved her energy.

One day she and I were chatting, and for some reason things took a serious turn. She began to confide in me about her husband. They had married young, were madly in love. All their friends thought they were the perfect good-looking couple and they were teasingly referred to as Ken and Barbie.

Susie and her husband were as successful in business as they were in their marriage and they bought a large five bedroom house and began to plan for a baby. Susie said they were on cloud nine. Life was perfect and the future beckoned only excitement and joy.

But before one of the new bedrooms became a nursery, Susie’s healthy, handsome husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Being the effervescent optimist she was, Susie went to all of the oncology appointments, all of the treatments… she was a positive force of nature, she was a fighter, she knew they would beat the devil and then carry on with life as normal.

Except her husband slowly got worse and he was eventually hospitalized. Susie began to put together a scrapbook with dates and times and pictures. She said she wanted to document their victory. She imagined them one day pulling the scrapbook out to show their children and grandchildren. “Look how brave he was!” she’d say proudly. “Do you see how difficult situations can be thrown at you but you can overcome?” The book would be inspirational, a real tribute to strength and true love.

But bit by bit, day after day, Susie’s husband drifted further and further away. His body, ravaged from the treatments that were meant to save him, couldn’t take any more and he lost his battle. Stunned, Susie returned to their empty house, now a monument of unfulfilled dreams. There would be no beautiful baby in the nursery. Indeed, there was no more Ken and Barbie.

While Susie was sharing all of this with me, I began to cry. At the time I had no experience with cancer, and very little experience with loss. I told her I was sorry, which I knew was so insanely inadequate. She said it had all happened long ago, it didn’t hurt as much as it used to. “But I still love him, Chelly. All these years, decades that have gone by, no one else could ever measure up.”

She had sold the house, but kept the scrapbook. “I looked at those pictures of him when it was all over… they were a progression of his illness and… I can’t believe I didn’t see death coming. It never once occurred to me I could lose him.” Her eyes were far away when she whispered, “I should have known…

Those four words have haunted me ever since. I can still hear Susie’s breathy voice, thick with anguish, uttering what sounded like her own personal self-recrimination torture.

As an overthinker, not being mentally prepared for any and every catastrophe is totally outside my comprehension. I don’t want any horrific surprises. I don’t want to be shocked. I want to feel the sadness before it happens so that I can deal with it responsibly at a later date. And if whatever it is never comes to fruition then fantastic. At least I wouldn’t be caught unawares.

I don’t ever want to say, “I should have known…

Well, as you and I both know, that just isn’t the way life works. Things happen or don’t happen, and a lot of it we haven’t much control over. Being an overthinker is pretty much a waste of time- and that energy could be put to use in better, more productive ways.

I think Susie’s husband was lucky. She never let his illness get her down because she believed he would get better. Wreathed in smiles, she sashayed in and out of the hospital with absolute certainty that their perfect life would be reinstated. What sunshine that must have been for him!

I think about that a lot when it comes to me and Mark because I fear he’s gotten the raw end of the deal having a partner always on high alert. Yes, I can make him laugh and I can still be goofy, but for the most part I tackle each day in flight or fight mode.

Rosamunde calls cancer The Bear. She said The Bear is a threat and he’s always in my perimeter. Sometimes, like during surgeries and treatments, The Bear is closer. When Mark is doing well The Bear is very far away. And during this last cancer diagnosis, when I fell apart, Rosamunde said The Bear was on top of me which is why I couldn’t move, why it was hard to breathe, why my heart pounded in my chest.

She said reassuringly, “Even if The Bear is on top of you he is not going to eat you.”

I whispered back my greatest fear, “I know, but I’m scared The Bear might eat Mark.”

“Maybe or maybe not. But, Chelly, it won’t be today.”

She is right.

There’s no point in wasting time on preparing for the future when you don’t know what the future holds. I’m trying to live in the present, the here and now.

Mark told me this afternoon he is having pain again at the original cancer site. My thoughts started to fly all over the place and The Bear bounded toward me.

“DANGER! DANGER!! DANGER!!!” My mind shrieked. “Do we need to call Dr Wang right away tomorrow? Should they do a scan? A biopsy? Does Mark have enough lidocaine if the soreness gets worse? WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING TO HIM????”

The Bear laughed cruelly in my face as I tried to calmly say to Mark, “Do we need to be worried about this?”

Mark shrugged. “Nah, I don’t think so.”

“DANGER!” I couldn’t tell if this was my brain or The Bear.

I fought back, “Mark says it’s ok!”

“What if it’s not?” The Bear sneered. “What if you do nothing and it’s YOUR fault when one day you are whispering to yourself, ‘I should have known…’

“STOP IT! I’m working on not thinking about the future. I want to be like Susie. I want to be happy and positive and in the moment.”

“Yeah, and see where that got her.”

It was then that I looked The Bear full in the face. “It doesn’t matter where it got her. It was always about HIM.”

I’m never going to feel like I’m doing anything right, or that I’m doing enough. I’m never going to experience the bliss of ignorance no matter how much I wish for it. And although I’m not Susie, I can try to emulate her and take life day by day, with my eyes fixed on a glorious future. Because no one, not even cancer, can steal hope.

The Bear is far away again and while I’ve beat him back for now I know he could return tomorrow or next month or next year. 

But it won’t be today.