December 2000

“You must be brave,” said my beautiful husband.

You must be brave? He must be kidding. The peril we faced suffocated me. Being brave was about as far removed from me as the life we knew and the future slipping from our grasp. Where would I find the means to be brave in the midst of this nightmare?

To stage Werner’s cancer and for subsequent care, we chose the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. The oncologist appointment ended with a more ominous diagnosis than the original diagnosis.

We walked out of the oncologist’s office staggered by the words, stage III adenocarcinoma of the esophagus at the stomach junction, with a few lymph nodes affected. Survival depended on a treatment protocol including months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation administered daily five days per week, followed by a massive radical esophagectomy, the likes of which I could not begin to comprehend. I wasn’t brave, I was numb.

Eighteen years ago, Werner and I spent another hospital stay and hours sitting in the grip of nerve-wracking waiting room chairs, while our eight-year-old son, Stefan, an avid skier like his dad, underwent neurosurgery for a brain tumor. Three years later, we repeated the vigil, when Stefan’s neurosurgeon removed a second more complicated brain tumor. Here once again, those nerve -wracking stints sitting in hospital chairs demanded our presence for more waiting and wondering. This time for Werner’s fight.

The long day of doctor consults and tests finally ended. Exhausted, we headed for the exit doors through the busy hospital rotunda. Head down, I didn’t see the exit doors ahead. I saw flashbacks of Stefan’s ordeal merge with the battle ahead for Werner. Terrified and discouraged, my emotions slid down like the worn seat of the hospital waiting room chairs. Not wanting Werner to see me disintegrate, I lagged behind fighting to harness my crumbling emotions before I caught up with him. I hurried on, once I thought my external expression masked my inner turmoil. It didn’t.

Werner wove around the steady stream of people exiting  the big glass doors and stepped outside to the portico sidewalk. The high ceiling portico hummed with the noise of cars idling along the curb to pick-up and drop-off patients. When I caught up with him, he walked a few steps away from the big doors, stopped abruptly in the middle of the people traffic, and blocked my way. He turned and faced me. Jolted by his determined expression and his uncharacteristic public emotion, I didn’t know his intent, but he had my utmost attention. He placed a hand on each of my shoulders. His eyes bore into me along with four words, “You must be brave.” Time stopped. Written in his eyes I saw his plea. Promise me you will be brave. I am forced to attempt the most difficult and life threatening climb of my life. You and I are roped together. If you let go of the rope, I cannot fight. I will suffer enough, but my suffering will be unendurable if I must watch you suffer too.

People moved past us in slow motion. Engine noise from the idling cars ground down to the sound of an old phonograph record played at the wrong speed. Encapsulated in that time frozen moment, he met the third challenge in his race for life; me. As abrupt as he stopped me, he dropped his hands from my shoulders, turned and walked down the sidewalk.

Did I respond to his request? I must have said, “Yes, I will be brave.” Of course I said yes. I don’t know if I said yes, or if I said anything at all. But I knew he had yanked me up and out  of  suffocating in an avalanche of fear.  His plea to me was a powerful and pivotal moment that defined the  way in which he wanted to fight this cancer- with courage. When I caught up with him, we did not speak. I just felt his fingers wrap into mine.  

An earlier version published 2006 in Guideposts Books, Copyrighted material

Next the struggle to answer his request, “You must be brave.”


1 Comment

  1. Martha says:

    Re: The Third Gate. Absolutely beautiful. Did you ever see the movie, The Doctors, with Wm. Hurt. There’s a scene in that where the wife is trying hard to be supportive and she says, “We’ll get through this,” and he turns toward her with rage in his eyes, and says, “WE don’t have it!” I’m looking forward to reading how you took care of your own needs (if you did) too. In my case, it took Prozac.


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