I told her in the summer of 2005, when she first suspected that something was very wrong; that if it was, God forbid, cancer - we would deal with it, and we would deal with it together.
Her diagnosis hit us like a baseball bat to the stomach. May you never have to sit in a doctor's sterile, cold, and business-like office and hear "You have an uphill battle ahead of you".
By the time she underwent the initial surgery, the original tumor had perforated her colon and spread (medical word alert: Metastasized) to her liver and her lungs.
We generously gave ourselves 5 years. It was an optimistic number, but a number was necessary. There were plans to make, wills to write, people to tell, and although the movie had not been released, we wanted to have a "Bucket List". I called it her "make a wish list". I often told her to make a wish and if it were in my power, I would make it happen.
She made a few wishes. I made them all happen. It was ridiculously easy, and I kept after her to make one that would give me the opportunity to do something heroic, herculean, a gesture befitting my love for her.
She never did that, I suppose she didn't want to impose, or she couldn't think of anything, or time got short before we were ready.
It was three years of bi-monthly chemotherapy in July 2008, just a blink ago really. We had traveled, we had loved, we had cried ourselves to sleep many times. Some days were so good we allowed ourselves a few hours to forget the evil little growing menaces in her organs. (Well, I did - and I hope and pray that she also allowed herself some time without that nagging worry)
We were on vacation when she got really sick, couldn't eat, kept throwing up, we blamed a few days of poor diet eating vacation food. The next morning with no improvement I took her to the Outer Banks, NC emergency room, one of many pending trips to many different emergency rooms.
In the coming months, we identified this event as the beginning of the end. She began to die that day on vacation, she began to lose a scary amount of weight, she began a slow descent into organ (liver) failure.
20 nights in the month of August she was hospitalized. It's painful to have your liver swell to three times it's normal size. It pushed on her stomach, making her unable to eat without considerable pain. It pushed on her intestines, making it difficult and painful to pass stool. It pushed on her abdominal wall and diaphragm making it hard to breathe, and causing her abdomen to become rigid and to push out past her ribs.
My darling wife was taken from the hospital to a hospice on the last day of September. Her oncologist said there was nothing left to do but control her pain. Upon hearing this, my wife showed me what she was made of. She said to her doctor: "Thank you for trying, thank you for giving me some extra time, and thank you for doing everything you could."
In contrast, I was weeping quietly in the corner, unable to speak to him, unable to control my emotions, unable to accept what Dona had already bravely stood up to - her pending death.
Hospice is a hotel room with nurses, and thankfully, a pull out single bed so I could stay with her. I slept in that bed for 23 consecutive nights until I no longer had a reason to be there.
I promised her three years ago that she would not die alone. I was there, holding her shoulders, watching the pulse in her neck slow and stop simultaneously with her last breath, my tears spilling out of control.
For those of you that are still reading - thank you for sticking with me and allowing me to make you cry with me. I will end this diary with something I wrote while sitting at her bedside in Hospice.
A Life of Grace: Sixteen thousand, Six hundred and Ninety Seven Days was just not long enough.
I want to celebrate the life I’ve lost, to not be where I find myself now, I want to stop feeling the sharp edged knife of grief, to get beyond mourning the years that have been stolen by an insidious disease modern medicine cannot seem to control...yet. I am torn between embracing this pit of despair as all I have left of Dona, and numbing this feeling of loss – an indulgence I promised her I would not allow myself simply because I’m an alcoholic.
When speaking about Dona, I remember a woman of incredible bravery. She was a woman without pretense, without manipulation, and most importantly to me, she was a woman that gave our marriage joy by participating fully in all the best parts of our relationship.
Dona, my darling wife of too few days, had uncommon courage through her 3 year ordeal. She had long demonstrated every day a quality that I remain struggling to achieve, the quiet acceptance of her bad fortune. I think it appropriate to describe her innate ability to roll with each new challenge as "Dona’s Grace".
Dona’s Grace reconciled living with a disease that ultimately took her life as she faced down every single obstacle before this one. She knew what had to be done, she set about doing the right thing, and she accomplished amazing results. Dona’s Grace allowed her the ability to face days of pain with a smile. Dona’s Grace kept her from complaining. Dona’s Grace delighted in giving people all the rope they needed to hang themselves. Dona’s Grace allowed her to accomplish whatever it was she conceived could be done.
Dona’s major was in Philosophy, a word that means "love of wisdom". How very appropriate for her. Dona admired a philosopher named Kant, who said: "Do what is right, though the world may perish." For as long as I have known her, Dona always told the truth, often it was a difficult truth, but she knew that telling the truth was the right thing to do, and therefore, the right thing for her to do. Dona lived an incredibly honorable life that I can only hope to honor by emulating.
In a universe existing for billions of years, with billions of galaxies, on a planet of average size, circling an ordinary sun in an unexceptional galaxy, I am eternally grateful that you and I have arrived here on this spinning rock at the same time as Dona Sanders, at such a moment of serendipity to be touched by this one woman's life, to encounter her incomparable spirit and something I call "Dona’s Grace".
That is no small thing. Having been exposed to Dona’s Grace, I am a better man because of her, I will always appreciate the calm patience she exhibited, and I will forever be in awe of her quiet acceptance.
I’ll close with a few quotes from the Prussian Philosopher: "To be is to do." "It is not God's will merely that we should be happy, but that we should make ourselves happy." "By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man."
I love you Princess. I miss you more than I ever thought possible. I take comfort in knowing that you are at Peace and Pain Free at last.
11:40 EDT - Thank you all so much - top of the rec. list, an honor for Dona given selflessly by my Kossaks. You are all truly my friends, and your support has lifted my spirits. I love you all,
In heartfelt gratitude,
6pm, EDT - You have all been a tremendous help to me today - I wanted to share a line from Thornton Wilder:
The greatest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.
I'm going to try really hard to give Dona the gratitude she deserves.