A 23-year-old woman, fresh from college and just beginning her career as a nurse, receives a sudden and devastating diagnosis: She has an astrocytoma—a malignant brain tumor—growing in her cerebellum. This is a really bad tumor to have, since astrocytes are the star-shaped glial cells that hold the brain together. When they start growing out of control, the resulting mess is almost impossible to remove, so even with successful surgery the prognosis is for a near certain, inoperable return. In order to put this off for as long as possible, she receives a lifetime dose of radiation.
Fast-forward six years. The young woman has, inexplicably, survived. She has fallen in love and gotten married. She has become pregnant. Then, once again inexplicably, her life is torn apart. Her husband is killed in a helicopter crash. A few weeks later, she miscarries, losing the life within her own body that provides a link with her former marriage and hopes. At 29, she is twice bereaved, and she is still a cancer survivor.
What are the chances that a woman in this position will live to have a family and children—her lifelong dream—and see those children grow to the cusp of adulthood?
I am speaking, of course, of my late wife Barbara. When I met her at age 32, she was settled in the condo she had bought with her own late husband, going to work and, in her own words, “just living.” It was hard for her to understand why she was still there, let alone what kind of prospects the future might hold.
I married Barbara in January of 1989. At the time, I probably didn’t look like much of a prospect either. I had no job, my trail of temporary positions after graduate school having dried up. I was overqualified for almost every other type of career, as I had found out through months of dogged, utterly unsuccessful searching. I am glad to say that Barbara believed in me, and that provided the shot in the arm I needed. It would be another five and a half years before I received a tenure-track college teaching job. Her faith in me was severely tested, as was mine.
By the time I got that job, we had two children, who were respectively two and a half years and five months old. These were the only children to bless our 23 years of marriage. You might assume that was because we used birth control. You would be wrong. We needed medical intervention in order to make it possible for us to conceive, not vice versa. What’s more, Barbara’s miscarriage turned out to have been due to a bifurcated uterus, which required surgery to repair. The odds were not in our favor, but we persisted, and our persistence was rewarded.
There were those who were cruel enough to suggest that by seeking medical help for our infertility, we were going against the will of God, who clearly did not intend for us to have children. It seems that some religious people feel justified in using their faith as an excuse to be as mean as possible to others whose circumstances they can’t begin to understand. I hope my reason for writing this now is clear.
Many have praised my courage and honesty in the two months since Barbara’s death. Truth be told, I have been struggling. There are days when it all seems too much, and that feeling still sneaks up and ambushes me at unexpected times, when my defenses are down. I’ve lived long enough to know that I have to ride with those feelings and not fight against them. Fortunately I have the kids, and they have been the world to me.
I have something else, too: a sense of purpose. By suffering through this loss, I have realized, I am still giving to Barbara. If we had not both hitched our wagons to an uncertain, unknowable future, I would not have been able to wait out the job market and fulfill my dreams for my career; she would not have had the family she yearned for. She suffered for her faith in me at the front end, through the doubts that many expressed to her about my prospects. Now I am suffering after her life has ended in the way I always knew was possible, even likely. By bearing it now, I am making it possible for my beloved to have realized her dream, just as she helped me realize mine. God bless you, Barbara—from all my heart.