I’m a lucky guy.
Those are often my closing words after I’ve shared the terrible news with someone that my girlfriend, Susan, has an aggressive, incurable cancer. Most people are taken aback by that comment, and I’m sure many walk away from the conversation thanking their lucky stars they are not me. But with Susan, dying has brought all sorts of unexpected gifts.
Susan and I have been together for six years. Both single parents, we were teaching at post-secondary institutes and pursuing creative careers when we met online. It’s been a wonderful, loving adventure — with some tough moments thrown in. But of all the challenges in my life, I think Susan’s diagnosis of a terminal uterine leiomyosarcoma has offered me the greatest opportunities to know love, to grow and evolve as a person and to be happy.
When Susan was getting sick but was not yet diagnosed, I did my best to remain positive and optimistic, despite my anxiety and depression. However, Susan’s approach to her diagnosis was remarkable from the very first moment, and this experience has shown me the limitless power of love. I sensed right away, almost a year ago, that I was in for an awakening.
My father died of cancer when I was 11. I felt angry and abandoned. I became bitter for a long, long time. I am so grateful that I do not feel abandoned by Susan’s impending death. I had deep sadness, and the grieving was almost immediate, but I never really had any of the expected anger or denial or wishful thinking. By skipping all of that, Susan and I were able to mindfully, with gentle love, begin the journey to the end of our relationship.
By skipping anger or denial, Susan and I were able to mindfully, with gentle love, begin the journey to the end of our relationship.
I often hear stories from others about their experience of losing a loved one. Often the dying person is in denial, doesn’t fully disclose their condition or shuts themselves off from the world. Susan did the opposite.
Somehow, she had been given the gift of acceptance at the moment of the diagnosis, just before surgery. And I guess in some way, I was also given that same gift. She was completely open and honest about it, and when she told me it was OK ― she was OK ― I immediately fell deeper in love with her.
Sitting next to Susan in the hospital a few days after abdominal surgery to remove what they could of her tumors, we held hands as she told me how she wanted me to be happy after she died, to not be lonely. I felt something inside my chest that must have registered on my face (I’m guessing it was similar to the look on an old TV Western character’s face when they get shot: surprise mixed with pain) because Susan asked me what was wrong. I looked into her eyes and said: I think my heart just broke. We both cried.
When Susan returned from the hospital, she set about the business of dying. There were numerous intense moments of sadness as she noted the things she would not see, the things she would not do, the grandchildren she would not know.
My job is to witness her sadness and offer comfort with love and affection. Such witnessing has been the foundation of our love throughout our relationship. It has meant that I’ve been able to trust her, share things with her — even the things I’ve been ashamed of. In doing so, she has trusted me.
I am not sure a terminal diagnosis means healthy living for all relationships. In fact, I know it doesn’t. I think the two of us are navigating the unknown as well as we are because we listen to each other with compassion and trust each other enough to be completely honest. We have loved with open hearts and we move forward without fear.
People often ask how I‘m doing, and to be honest, I was doing fine in the beginning. I thought that maybe I had gone into a hyper-survival mode and had shut everything down. But no, I just kept moving along, grounded with purpose, as I accompanied Susan in exploring these experiences called dying, terminal illness and death.
Only recently did I discover that it isn’t strength or courage that gets me through the days. It’s love.
People have told me to be strong. Or have courage. Strength is needed for something requiring great power and stamina. Courage is needed when facing fear. I felt like neither of those applied to me. Only recently did I discover that it isn’t strength or courage that gets me through the days. It’s love. And I guess it makes me feel lucky ― to be loved by Susan, a woman who can face death and still smile.
Loving a dying person has come to feel normal, like life itself. Yet it is both normal and not normal. It’s normal that we all die. It’s not normal that dying is in one’s face every day. I have managed to create a balance between my life with Susan, spending time with my sons, working, creating and simple pleasures. I am grateful that normal for Susan is being positive and cheerful and full of life.
Our openness about her dying and death has allowed us to become closer, to explore deep connections, to merge into one with only the look of an eye or a kiss on the mouth. We are learning to move toward her death like everyone should move in life: connected to self and connected to loved ones ― openly, honestly, vulnerably, fearlessly and gracefully. Susan’s diagnosis has accelerated my own evolution so that I am coming into a greater sense of being alive. And for that, I feel pretty lucky.
The days are often sprinkled with small moments of bliss and joy. The finite nature of the terminal illness encourages awareness of the simple pleasures we have in life. And it is comforting to ride a wave of simple beauty. But every once in a while other feelings will build, which on the surface seems painful but actually provides the opportunity to deepen our connection and to learn more about ourselves.
Last month, Susan was hospitalized and my emotional stamina waned. Part of me did not want to bother her with that, thinking that she might find me burdensome while she was struggling with pain. But she reminded me that if I didn’t share my hard times with her, then we lose our intimacy. We both recognize that regardless of the terminal illness, we are still in a relationship, and our intimate needs — our desire for comfort and physical affection and need to be honest — remain the same.
I had been making a point to be in the moment with Susan, to experience the simple pleasures of our days together: a morning coffee, a conversation, light bursting through a cloud, laughter. Being in the present meant not reflecting on the future. But in my alone time, between work and my own parenting, I did imagine the future. And I was afraid and anxious. The anxiety was like a rogue wave, sweeping me off my feet and out to sea.
We are learning to move towards her death like everyone should move in life: connected to self and connected to loved ones ― openly, honestly, vulnerably, fearlessly and gracefully.
When my dad died, no one told me I was going to be OK. Though I was just 11, they told me I was now the man of the house. I’ve overcome that trauma only recently. So I sat with Susan and told her about my worry. I told her I was worried that I would make bad decisions. That without her presence, my anxiety would distort my decisions and I would regret them. I worried that I would crumble. And my tears came. She held my face to comfort me, and she said, “You’ll be OK. It’s going to be OK.” And for the first time, I actually felt it to be true.
There isn’t much either of us can do about what is to come. Susan can fill me up with as much love as possible to get me through the future without her, and I can offer as much love as I can in the coming weeks and months to comfort her. But that’s all. I can’t die with her, I can’t lessen her symptoms and she can’t stay with me.
Soon, I’ll be alone, but I will be OK. I’m grateful to love and be loved by Susan, even through all this. Even if my heart is broken, I’m a lucky guy.
Loving Someone Who... is an ongoing HuffPost Personal series that highlights intimate stories of relationships that radiate with the power of love. Whether it’s romantic, familial or platonic, this series shares the authentic, sometimes difficult and compassionate reality of loving another human who may have a radically different experience or life circumstance that may challenge ― but ultimately strengthen ― their bond.
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