Sign X Away
X marks the spot
X the place to sign
Sign we’re losing him
Sign of a changing future
Future a little darker
Future schism approaches
Approaches with the crazed growth
Approaches with multiplying cells
Cells that mark the spots
Cells that create spots
Spots on his pancreas and liver
Spots on the emergency room screen
Screen the predicts the future dimly
Screen that offered fictional hope
Hope that it was only a fatty liver
Hope it was a minor sign of aging
Aging love growing
Aging love deepening
Deepening understanding of who we are
Deepening ability to communicate
Communicate a love that remains
Coommunicate a love that sustains
Sustains us as we face his illness
Sustains us through devastation
Devastation marked out with an X
Devastation growing near and swift
Swift passage of time flies by
Swift moving cancer ravaging
Ravaging his once-strong body
Ravaging this man I love
Love can’t cure him
Love can be an embrace
Embrace while we have the chance
Embrace what is as best we can
Can this strange nightmare be true
Can we still find pockets of joy
Joy marked out in X’s and O’s
Joy an art form in times like this
This is life wrapped in death
This is death still clothed in life
Life twists and weaves
Life lived at two speeds at once
Once we thought life almost a dream
Once we thought we’d grow old together
Together we face this concrete reality
Together until death came and he slipped away
Away from disease and away from great pain
Away from wife and children and life’s promise
It all started to change on August 24, 2017 – although we didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time, and, by then, it was already well in progress in its hidden state.
The what was Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that had made a leap to Jim’s liver. We’ll never know how long it lurked there, unnoticed – but Jim had been feeling less than great more often for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, before that day.
I remember the date so well because it was the day after our twentieth anniversary. We’d gone out to dinner, just the two of us, and eaten rich foods.
The next evening, he told me, rather casually, that his right side had been bothering him all day, but the pain was intensifying, and now he was worried that it might be appendicitis. The pain didn’t go away, and then he had a spell of vomiting and severe chill, and I all but insisted we were going to the emergency room.
That’s where we first heard about the spot.
It came, couched in comforting language, and after the likely diagnosis of a sludgy gall bladder irritated by the rich anniversary meal…”and we found a small spot on your liver. It’s probably fatty liver disease, but you should have it checked out in the next week or so with your primary care physician, to rule out cancer.”
Yup. It was just that casual, the moment that changed our lives.
Jim didn’t check into it with his doctor. Maybe he was already worried it might be true, and didn’t want confirmation. Maybe he thought that, since he had an answer, and he’d struggled with his weight most of his life, so fatty liver made sense. I can’t say, because, when I mentioned it, he basically dismissed it by saying that he hadn’t talked to her yet, but he would.
So it would be mid-November, almost 3 months later, before he received that terminal diagnosis. Would it have been better to have known sooner, to have been able to trace back all his odd health complaints in the intervening weeks to that one deadly source?
It’s hard to say. He was increasingly plagued by belly pain he thought was maybe an ulcer, or the sludgy gall bladder again. He was constipated more often than not. Occasionally, he vomited, but attributed it to the stomach pain. He never said so to me until after he was diagnosed, but he was increasingly exhausted, and his appetite faded.
Looking backward, it seems obvious, but it wasn’t at the time.
We were growing his hot-sauce business – a dream he’d had since before I met him – and took our first romantic weekend away, to Acadia National Park, which was a dream from early in our marriage. In truth, we argued rather a lot, but it seemed to clear air that had long been heavy – one of those places in a marriage where we needed to clean house – and things felt better, after that.
He decided to get to the root of not feeling good. He had a colonoscopy, which, to our relief, was negative. But, at the same time, his right leg was swelling painfully, and, eventually, he went to the emergency room, was admitted with deep vein thrombosis that probably would have killed him in days if left untreated, and then the diagnosis of terminal cancer was made – the culprit of all those random, seemingly minor, concerns.
But it was that first X – the spot on the emergency room ultrasound screen, that ultimately X’ed Jim out of the future we’d hoped to share.