I will be weaving parts of my story throughout this blog. How can I challenge others to bravely share if I am too timid to do the same? My husband, Patrick, and I have had the chance to share our story with our church a couple of times over the past year or so and he has a gift in articulating this part of our story that still can still feel so raw for me. In this challenging time I have learned to appreciate his strengths (Analytical, Harmony, Responsibility, Relator, and Intellection) . They are so different from my own but compliment them well. I haven’t always understood his strengths as I do now. This hard place has opened my eyes anew to how well his strengths work with mine. Patrick is very logical. He can sift down the data and experiences and produce something beautiful. I am grateful for his voice here telling our story.
We had good reason to celebrate. Within the past six months my oldest daughter, Emily, had graduated from both high school and Marine Corps boot camp. She had earned the title of United States Marine and was now the responsibility of the United States Government. Although the past four years had been extremely challenging at times, we were so very proud of Emily and the woman she was becoming. In addition, after an eventful year – our home was peaceful.
As for work – I had just completed several large projects and had a pretty quiet year in front of me. Our business was off life support and I no longer had to incessantly worry about meeting payrolls and cash flow. We had also filled many human resource holes so my time was not spread over multiple fronts. My job, similar to the home front, was quiet. Peaceful.
I had just enrolled in the University of Minnesota Executive MBA program – a two year program. Logically it seemed to fit perfectly. Our youngest daughter, Abbey, was a junior in high school. In two years we would both graduate. I would have my MBA, she would move away to college. Melissa and I would then enter the empty nester stage and we had marvelous plans to enjoy our new found freedom! We had no idea how futile those plans would become.
My school began in early August and I was immediately saddled with tons of homework. I spent most of my days and nights in my home office either working or studying. On Fridays and Saturdays I could be found at the Carlson School of Management building at the U of M.
I was in my home office, knee deep in statistics, when Melissa stood at my door and told me she was a little nervous about her latest mammogram. She said they were acting kind of weird during her exam. For years she’s had lumps and we’d learned to tolerate without much worry. I dismissed her concern. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” I said. We didn’t discuss it again.
A few days later I was once again entrenched in homework when I heard the phone ring – I waited for Melissa to answer. “This is Melissa” I heard her say, then I heard the patio door open and close. She routinely would go outside to talk on the phone. Five minutes later I heard the patio door open and close again, then her foot steps up the stairs until she stood by my door.
“That was the clinic” She said “ It’s…” She couldn’t say the next word – she broke down crying.
“Cancer?” I asked. Dumbfounded. She nodded and began full out crying.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I hope that I got up, wrapped my arms around her, and comforted her – but I’m pretty sure I just sat at my desk. Stunned.
Over the next week we met with a surgeon, Dr. Schulte, who then referred us to an oncologist, Dr. Thomas. Both Doctors were very optimistic about our situation – we’d discovered the cancer early and there was a 95% chance of survival. The treatment plan was pretty simple. She would start out with 12 weeks of chemotherapy and then get a mastectomy. And that would be the end of it. We should never have to think about it again. But before the treatment began, Dr. Thomas wanted a full set of tests.
On the way home that day we discussed how this was going to change our lives. Although we knew that this battle would consume our lives over the next year, we wanted Emily to continue her path in the Marines and we wanted Abbey to have a normal high school experience. This would be a temporary setback for us, but things would be back to normal with a year. Next we strategized how to tell our girls as well as Melissa’s parents.
We decided to tell Melissa’s parents first. We met at their home in St. Croix Falls. After the initial small talk about the weather, I took charge of the conversation and dropped the bomb. As the words came out of my mouth, her Mom’s jaw dropped, she looked at me with complete horror. Her Dad kept a straight face, but a tear slowly fell from his eye.
I’ve always had a ton of respect for Melissa’s Dad. He is self-made. An entrepreneur, a man’s man. He is whip smart. And a doer. Just as comfortable looking at a company’s financial statements as looking under the hood of a car. Yet he is quiet and humble. 23 years ago when I asked him for his blessing to marry Melissa – his only response was “no backs.” I never forgot those words – occasionally when Melissa and I struggled in our marriage – I cursed those words. With as much respect I have for him – I would have never been able to tell him I couldn’t honor his simple yet profound request. But now – I’m sitting across the room informing him that his daughter has cancer. We ended the conversation optimistically and spent most of the afternoon discussing the advancements in medical technology.
That evening we facetimed Emily. It still felt like a rare treat to be able to communicate with Emily so freely. During the 13 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp we could only send her letters. We had no communication with her whatsoever for the month she was at Marine Combat Training. But now she was able to use her phone freely and each phone call was a joyful occasion. As our phones connected , her glowing face appeared on the screen. She had no idea that this call would be anything but joyful. I hated the fact that I had to wreck her happiness.
Melissa and I stood together as I broke the news. “Your Mom has breast cancer” I said. Her happiness quickly turned to confusion. “My Mom?” she asked. I’m sure she was expecting it to be my Mom or Melissa’s Mom. Not HER mom. And for the rest of my life I will never forget that moment. It was the moment that I had changed Emily’s life. Everything that was normal, consistent, and fit her definition of home – was now changed. We reassured her that everything was going to be OK and that we wanted to continue her life in the Marines. We finished the call on a high note – an optimistic note.
Later that night, while we were sleeping, Melissa’s phone rang. As she answered the call I heard Emily sobbing. She told Melissa how much she loved her. How she didn’t want to lose her. She kept saying “this isn’t fair!” Melissa just listened to her and quietly assured Emily it was all going to be OK.
I laid there listening to their conversation. I knew exactly had happened to Emily. She had tried to carry on with her plans that evening – which we had encouraged her to do. She was likely at a bar with her fellow Marines; they were laughing, playing games, and having a good time. Emily was watching the world carry on normally, as if nothing had changed. And yet, her world had changed – drastically. Nothing fit anymore – everything was out-of-order. How could they be laughing and having fun when Mom is back home with cancer? How can the world go on as if nothing is wrong? I knew that’s what she was thinking – because that was exactly what I had been thinking.
The next night we broke the news to Abbey.