I’m trying to remember a lesson I thought I learned a long time ago: I choose the hard stuff.
In the fall of 2001, Gruff (then my fiancé) was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Two surgeries followed in the next whirlwind month, and as he recovered in hospital after the last surgery we made a decision. All those plans for the April wedding – the sage green bridesmaids dresses, the dogwood sprays we’d carry, the delicate springy flowers I would use to decorate the church – were gone. Instead, we would marry in December; the new date was just six weeks away. Amidst the new flurry of rearranging and downsizing the plans, and the rollercoaster of Gruff’s physical recovery and appointments and meetings with the oncologists, I had a conversation with my dad.
“I love him. I need to be married to him, even if it’s only for a little while. I’d marry him in his hospital bed if I had to.”
“He’ll be sick. Chemo will be hard.”
“I know. But I need to be the one who takes care of him. Even if it’s hard. It should be me.”
But I didn’t really know – I couldn’t. I was just twenty-one years old (and barely that. I had my birthday, then started my first “real job”, then graduated from college, and then got married – all at two week intervals at the end of that year.) and I had no idea what chemotherapy would really be like.
One evening, midway through his treatments, my husband stood at the sink of our tiny bathroom in our postage-stamp one-bedroom apartment. Hands braced on the countertop, his shoulders shook, and he looked fragile for the first time since I’d met him. His head was newly bald – we had shaved it when his hair began to fall out in alarming clumps – and he was so pale. I crept in behind him, put my hand on his back, tried to comfort him.
And suddenly, he collapsed toward me. I think I let out a little scream – I was so scared. He caught himself, braced against me, and I helped him walk the few short steps across the hall to our bedroom. I tucked him in to our bed – my double bed from my parent’s home, which seemed so big to me as a teenager, now too small for my 6’3” husband – and fetched a glass of water, a pill. He was asleep before I knew it, and I hovered at the doorway listening to his breath in the dim light of dusk.
Then I ran to our sofa and dialed my parent’s phone number through my tears. I’m sure I scared them, calling with that voice – sobs and hitched breaths – but I told them about what had just happened, how scared I was. What would I do if he had passed out? My young heart was trying so hard to be grown up, but faced with the very real mortality of the man I loved, I just wanted to hear my dad’s voice.
“You chose this, hon,” he said. “You told me that day – you wanted it to be you who took care of him. You knew this was the hard part. You are strong enough. You love him enough. You chose this.”
Through the years, I have clung to that conversation. My dad’s voice rings in my ears now when something painful, or difficult, or challenging comes my way. I choose the hard part.
Today, I lay curled awkwardly on a toddler bed, my body molded around a sweaty, sniffling toddler. When we got home from our playgroup this afternoon, Smooch had a rough time with his nap. He got out of bed over and over, throwing himself on the floor and peering under the crack in the door, calling my name. I tried to stay calm, send him back to his bed, leave the room again, and pray he’d sleep – but after the third go-round I realized he was becoming hysterical. His little body was shaking, his voice was trembling, his head was covered in sweaty curls. I held him in my arms, and I heard my father’s voice.
We climbed into his bed together, and within moments he was fast asleep. His breath still caught in his throat, those trembly sighs that follow a long hard cry. My inner type-A wanted to hop right up and go DO something – but I resisted. Lately, we’ve been working at cross-purposes, my little Smooch and I. Two-and-a-half has been hard. He needs more independence, more control… and I’m pregnant, hormonal, and tired, so I haven’t always met those needs very gracefully. There have been potty progresses and potty battles. There have been the first aggressive incidents with little friends. These are normal things, but they are the hard parts of this age. As I tried to bend my knees a little, finding a more comfortable way to spoon my son in his little bed, I realized that I am simply re-learning this lesson.
The biggest part of love, I think, is choosing to be there for the hard stuff. You don’t pass it off to someone else. You don’t let the other person bear the load alone. Whether it’s your lover or your child, you come alongside them – you throw your lot in with them – you hear their hurts, feel their pain, share their fears. It sometimes pierces your heart, it sometimes seems insane. When you come out on the other side, though, it is always worth it.
So I stayed in that toddler bed until his breathing was still and calm. Easing my gravid belly off of the little frame, I felt a peace unfold deep inside me.