“I was sure by now, God, you would have reached down and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day, but once again I’ll say “Amen,” and it’s still rainin…” When the road seems overwhelming, this song, “I’ll Praise You in This Storm,” by Bernie Herms & Mark Hall, may be a refuge. Listen on you tube
You Must Be Brave, By Carla Zwahlen, Published by Guideposts Books, 2007
IN NOVEMBER 2000, WERNER, A LIFELONG ATHLETE AND DIRECTOR OF A NH ALPINE RACE TEAM ENTERED A DIFFERENT RACE.
This race did not begin on the white slope of a mountain. It started on the white sheets of a hospital bed.
“YOU HAVE ADVANCED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER.”
WERNER’S RESPONSE, “BUMMER.”
SILENCE HUNG BETWEEN DIAGNOSIS AND RESPONSE.
NO ONE SPOKE. WHO COULD?
THE DOCTOR SPOKE AGAIN, BUT WERNER SEEMED NOT TO HEAR.
WERNER SPOKE. ” WHY ME? WHY DID THIS HAPPEN TO ME?”
NO ONE ANSWERED. WHO COULD?
WERNER SPOKE AGAIN TO SOMEONE NOT TO US.
“WAIT, I TAKE THAT BACK. I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST SAID THAT.”
FACED WITH CANCER’S FIRST ASSAULT, WERNER ENTERED HIS RACE FOR LIFE AND WON THE FIRST GATE – SELF-PITY.
We walked towards the hospital exit doors. We left behind the patient beds, normal days, and life, as we knew it. We pushed open the hospital door, exited and entered the second gate of Werner’s Run, denial.
“Why did you tell her that I have cancer?” Werner sat at the long kitchen table looking at me as if I told a lie.
I had just said good-bye to my mother who telephoned to ask the results of the endoscope. I told her that the endoscope results were malignant.
Incredulous that he asked me such a question, I stood at the end of the kitchen table with my mouth hanging open…angry, stunned, speechless.
He wasn’t finished… “I don’t want my staff, the kids or the club members to know. I can handle this by myself. No need to make a fuss over it.”
Classic Werner, a stoic Swiss. He expects us to go on as usual and pretend that cancer has not entered our home. Am I to keep this a secret? I realize we are both in shock, but he can’t ask me to deny that we are walking down an unknown and frightening path. I am all too aware of his need to keep all things private, emotions, and what he accomplishes, but this confrontational question and request for secrecy is unacceptable.
Holding back tears, I said, “My love, you are going to lose your hair. How will you explain that to your staff and family?”
Without looking up, he sipped his tea. I sat down next to him. We didn’t touch or speak. In that long tortuous silence, I began to realize, when cancer strode across our home’s threshold, it brought with it other baggage containing its own set of psychological, emotional and spiritual rules. I knew if Werner left the table now and walked out the door enclosed in his usual silence, a wedge would develop between us. Shocked, stunned, sad, whatever I felt or he felt, we had to communicate right then or an unhealthy stoic silence would set the standard throughout this fight. I prayed, please don’t leave the table. Cancer without physical treatment will multiply, fester, and finally kill. Denial has the same possibility to kill us.
Smothered in the silence, I waited. Finally, Werner said without looking up, “OK, you can tell your family, but no one else, not yet anyway. Give me some time. I will figure out how and when I tell my staff.”
“I respect that. One thing we cannot do is to hide.”
Relieved, I still tread softly, because, not only is he an emotionally private man, he carries on with whatever he does, without the need to talk about it.
“We need to put everything about this cancer on the table, so that Stefan, Jurg, family or friends won’t be afraid to ask a question, or talk about it with us. I need to talk about it. I can’t bottle it up. You know that people will want to offer help and encouragement. Helping will also be a comfort for family, friends, your staff, and your racers, because they care about you. What happens to you will emotionally affect others. Forcing my silence will build a barrier between you and me, our children, family and friends. How can we handle this challenge if we can’t speak about it?”
He took my hand in his and finally looked at me. “Just give me some time. I know this is hard for you. We’ll be ok.”
He kissed my cheek smudging my tears. I stood up, picked up his cup and put it in the dishwasher. He got up from the table, folded me in his arms, and said, “I love you. We’ll be Ok. I am going out for a bit.”
Tasting my tears, I smiled at him and whispered, “Ok.”
Together, we made it through the cancer’s second gate – denial.
YOU MUST BE BRAVE
“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
THE FOURTH GATE- How I found