This is part three of our story as written by Patrick Durand.
We faced a situation we hadn’t remotely considered only three weeks prior – stage IV breast cancer. And more specifically – death. After the diagnosis, Melissa and I were in a complete daze; we could not concentrate on anything. Our minds continuously processed the possible outcomes: How long? How bad? Our girls. When should we tell them? How would we tell them? How would they react? How would it impact their lives? And an extra question for me, how would I fare as a caregiver? I always assumed it would be me that would go down first and I had total confidence that I’d be in good hands with Melissa as a caregiver. She is a natural caregiver. But now our presumed roles would be reversed…and I was petrified. I envisioned her becoming more and more ill. Weaker and weaker. How she would age twenty years within the next three years as she consumed the poison necessary to stave off the cancer. And that poison, the chemo. We only knew what we’d seen on TV: the infusions, the vomiting, the shakes, the sweats, the hair loss, the weakness, and back to that word – death.
We spent our evenings watching reruns of “The King of Queens”. It was easy for us to follow because we already knew all the episodes by heart. It was the only show we could follow. We tried to distract our minds with movies, but we couldn’t make it through the first fifteen minutes before we were lost. We tried to find a Netflix series we could binge, but they required too much effort to understand the characters. We never made it through the first episode of any of them. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, Orange is the New Black, Chuck. We just couldn’t follow anything. Our thoughts were consumed with cancer and our girls. (We’ve since watched all of them.)
We hadn’t yet told our girls about the progression. Somewhere I had read – yes, I Googled that too – that we should only tell our kids the facts. Since we did not yet have any facts, we didn’t share what was happening. Abbey was a busy high school junior. She ran Cross Country and practiced late into each evening. She’d come home, spread her homework out on the kitchen table, and remain there long after we went to bed. Even she was quoting the familiar lines from “King of Queens”. Emily was going through her Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) schooling in Twentynine Palms, CA. She was doing so well. We didn’t want to worry her until we knew for sure what was happening.
To make matters worse, we were stuck in a holding pattern. Before treatment could begin they had confirm that the spots on the Pet Scan were in fact, cancer. That meant we had to schedule yet another appointment for a biopsy, and then another appointment to learn the results. Time. More time. Something we didn’t seem to possess. Yet here we were…waiting.
During that time I reasoned that the necessity of a biopsy to determine if the spots were cancer also meant that there was a possibility that they were NOT cancer. Perhaps there was hope. I once again consulted Dr. Google. By that time my medical Googling proficiencies had improved. I Googled “benign liver spots” and was instantly overjoyed at the results. Liver cysts. I learned that liver cysts occur in 5% of the population. They show up on Pet Scans and are not terminal. In fact, most people don’t even know they have them. Of course! Liver cysts! I became convinced that Melissa simply had a liver cyst! Within a few days we would be praising God, celebrating the great news, feeling such relief at how close she had come to terminal cancer. Life would soon be normal again.
And so, early one morning we arrived at the U of M Hospital in Minneapolis. We met with the Physician’s Assistant in yet another small exam room. He explained how he was going to perform the biopsy. I happily told him that I was holding out hope that this was just a cyst. He smiled at me, kind of a half smile in which his lips curled yet his eyes stayed serious. He then said “typically if there is cancer elseware in the body, that is what it is” He went on to say that he’d never seen it otherwise. My hopes began to fade. Then he asked us if we’d seen the scans. We had, but we were so shocked at the time when Dr. Thomas showed them to us that we didn’t really pay much attention. So he slowly explained the scans, starting from the top, just as Dr. Thomas had. The brain, the neck, the lymph nodes, the breasts, the lungs, the stomach, the liver. He zoomed in on the liver. And there it was – a bright yellow blob glowing on an otherwise monochrome image. My dreams of a cyst vanished. My last ray of hope that this had all been a total mistake was gone. As we exited the hospital we were both sick, deflated, shocked and spent.
We mindlessly wandered down a small trail which switch-backed down the steep Mississippi River embankment. Upon reaching the river we found a small boat and sat down. The paradox struck me. Here we were on the banks of the Mississippi River. A river we had come to love from our years in Winona. Winona is a small river town in southeast Minnesota which we called home after we were first married. We owned a small runabout and would spend our summer weekends on the river. Just the two of us, our boat, on this magnificent river.
Above us the picturesque Minneapolis skyline glistened in the sun. I love the city of Minneapolis and all it has to offer. I love its history. I love it’s skyline. It welcomes me home each time I see it. I love that my girls grew up here.
And finally, we were sitting on the grounds of my new school – the University of Minnesota. I was inspired to go back to school after seeing Emily graduate Marine Corps Recruit Training (boot camp) – seeing her success gave me this desire to take on a real challenge like she had. One night I researched different MBA programs and before I knew it, I had filled out an online application. Within the next week they called me in for an interview. And a few weeks later school began. For the past month I had proudly attended the Carlson School of Management Executive MBA program. My classmates were executives with large Minnesota companies: US Bank. Target, SuperValu, Best Buy, Medtronic, Land-O-Lakes, 3M, and of course Carlson. Most were about ten years younger than me. I didn’t care. I loved it. I enjoyed my new friends and they seemed to accept me for who I was as well.
Thus the paradox: here we sat on the grounds of my new school, the mighty river quietly flowed beneath us, and above us was the Minneapolis skyline. How strange that we were surrounded by the things I love – while at the center of it all, the reason we were there in the first place – was this deadly disease which threatened to steal our lives. We held hands and prayed out loud. We prayed out of desperation. We prayed for strength, for understanding, for God’s plan, His will, we prayed for our girls. Then my phone buzzed – it was Emily.
Trying to gain composure. “Hi Emily” I greeted
“What’s going on?” She asked
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been trying to call Mom all morning and she hasn’t picked up.”
“Oh sorry, we’re in the basement of the hospital at the U, no coverage.”
“Hospital!? Why are you in the hospital? Is everything OK?”
“We’re just getting more tests, Emily. Everything is fine” I responded – acutely aware of how close I came to lying to my own daughter.
“Dad, Mom’s going to be Ok right?”
I weighed my response. How do I respond? I can’t lie to her.
“Yes Emily” I said, justifying my response based on the fact that going to heaven is OK.
“She’s not going to die from this is she?”
And there it was. Emily has always been a great communicator and, unlike me, has never shied away from tough questions. I was stunned by her directness. I didn’t know how to answer. I can’t lie to her. But I didn’t want her to find out this way. Not now on a cell phone.
“No, Emily” I lied to her.
“Good, because Dad, Mom and I are finally getting along. I just love her so much, I can’t stand the thought of losing her”
“Emily, look, we don’t really know anything yet. We’re still getting tests. I don’t know how this is going to turn out.” I felt better that I’d rectified my lie but still knew I was skirting her question.
“I know, Dad. I just love her so much. This is not fair”
The following week was the meeting with Dr. Thomas to learn the biopsy results. Her cheery optimism from our initial visit was noticeably absent as she quickly confirmed the biopsy results and our treatment plan. 12 weeks of chemo, weekly infusions, then rescan to see progress. That’s as far as she would project. 12 weeks. She would then decide the next step based on how the cancer responded to treatment. Now, the main question was how much time we could buy – she wasn’t offering anything and, probably for fear of the answer, we weren’t asking. At this point we pretty well understood that everybody was different in how they responded to treatment. But one thing was blatantly apparent– our lives would never be the same. This would never go away. We would be fighting cancer for the rest of Melissa’s life.
Now that the diagnosis was confirmed, we had to break this dreadful news to our girls. This time we couldn’t follow it up with the original optimism. This was about as bad as it gets. Because of the severity, we decided it wasn’t going to be over FaceTime. I needed Emily to see Melissa, to touch her, to hold her. This had to be in person. I also knew that my next 12 weeks were going to be that of a caregiver. I could not be concerned about homework when I was trying to hold my family together. I dropped the MBA program. We then booked our travel to Palm Springs for the following weekend.
The next Friday we arrived in Palm Springs and traveled the 90 minutes to the Marine Base at TwentyNine Palms. At first, I was all business. I wanted to get our two girls isolated and tell them what was going on. We’d then have the entire weekend together to let reality sink in. I hadn’t anticipated the collision of emotions that was about to occur.
We met Emily at the guard station of the entrance to the base. Seeing her in a Marine Corps uniform never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. Knowing how we struggled with that girl, knowing how she challenged us, and now to see her thrive. To see her so happy, so proud. We all cried together when we greeted each other. Emily was crying because she was happy to see us – Melissa and I were crying because we were about to break their hearts – Abbey was probably just crying because we were all crying.
Emily proudly paraded us through the Marine base: her barracks, the chow hall, the Marine Corps Exchange, and her school house. On each building the Marine Corps proudly flaunted its core values – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – in its signature format of gold lettering on scarlet backdrop. Each set of stairs displayed the 14 Marine Corps leadership traits – one on each riser. She showed us all the equipment – tanks, assault vehicles, Humvees, transports, recovery vehicles. Each branded with the initials USMC. Wow! I was in heaven. Along the way she introduced us to her new brothers and sisters. We must have greeted no fewer than 100 Marines. As I shook their hands I silently prayed for each one of them. These young men and women willingly chose to serve our country, I was so proud of all of them! I wanted so badly to forget about our situation and just enjoy this time with these Marines.
After the tour Emily took us to a nearby park. I thought this was going to be a perfect place to sit down together and talk, but Emily was so excited to show us the points of interest. We quickly moved from one attraction to another. I just never found that moment to drop the bomb. So I figured I’d do it over dinner. But the restaurant was packed – our table was so close to another that we could hear each other’s conversation. It just didn’t feel right. After dinner we drove the ninety minutes back to our condo in Palm Springs. Both girls instantly fell asleep in the back seat of our rental car. Melissa and I remarked how it was as if the last ten years had never occurred – like our girls were six and eight years old again. How simple those days seemed compared to these. I conceded it wasn’t going to happen today. Perhaps it was all for the better. When we arrived to our condo we went right to sleep.
The next morning Melissa and I woke early – we decided to start the morning with a walk. Despite our situation and the dreadful task of the day – we were in Palm Springs, and our Condo was nestled on a beautiful golf course. This condo had been home base for three of our most enjoyable spring break vacations. It is owned by my aunt and uncle – they generously allowed us to stay there. It was the site of many happy memories – memories that now seemed even more precious.
By the time we got back from our walk the sun was just beginning to peak over the mountains. Both girls were awake, lazily starting their day. We took our coffee to the patio overlooking the golf course and joined around the table. It was quiet, it was peaceful, this was a safe place. I finally had my moment – and I took it. I explained what Melissa and I had been through the past two weeks and the new diagnosis. As I transformed our girl’s perception of reality, Melissa quietly wiped the tears from her eyes. I ended with the words “treatable, but not curable.” When I was done – we sat there in silence.
It was Emily who responded first “I just know everything is going to work out. I just know it.” A sense of relief overcame me, the tension which had built up over the last few days began to fade.
Then Abbey chimed in. “So that’s why you guys have been acting so weird lately” as she mentally related our behavior over the past two weeks to this new revelation. “Yes”, I agreed. “We didn’t want to tell you until we knew for sure.”
I was quite surprised when Abbey then reprimanded us for hiding the diagnosis. She requested that we share news with them as we learn it, not to wait for confirmations. She wanted to be there for us. She wanted to go through exactly what we were going through so we could be in it together. Yes, I agreed. Quite surprised by the wisdom of my sixteen year old. They were not little girls anymore – we didn’t have to hide anything. Google was wrong.
And then a funny thing happened. We all started laughing. Then crying. Then laughing again. It was as if we were the Who’s in Whoville carrying on the Christmas tradition despite having no presents. Yes, we were dealt a crappy hand, yes, our lives would never be the same, but we were still a family, we were still together. And Melissa wasn’t dying today. We enjoyed the rest of the day as if it were a normal vacation day.