I sat in front of the fire, not because the wind was whipping the tree branches side-to-side, and not because the ice had started to cling to my car windshield over the past week. It was cold, to be sure, but the inside of our house was warm on that November night. Still, I shook. Confused, I put my face close to the flames, hopeful that it would stop the involuntary shaking that had taken over my body.
Shawn was upstairs, finally asleep. I had held his hand and pretended to sleep as I waited for his grip to loosen mine, so that I’d know that he was unconscious. He had slept so little over the past month, though he often spent entire days in bed, and I was glad that he was finally resting. Plus, I needed to call my dad.
It was my sister’s birthday and I hadn’t called her for much of that day. I was trying to process the facts on the ground first: that my husband was much, much sicker than we’d previously thought and that the scans they took at the ER showed spots on his liver. I didn’t want to ruin my sister’s birthday, so I didn’t call her. She finally called me that evening, and she was crying. It struck me, because I hadn’t cried yet. It was the first time I realized that things were really, really bad. But I didn’t really cry, even then.
I was still in shock.
That night, as Shawn lay asleep upstairs, the shaking grew steadily worse. I hadn’t yet called my father back. I hadn’t yet started to really understand what it meant that Shawn was so sick. I hadn’t really processed anything besides the fact that Shawn would need a colonoscopy soon. My head hurt. My thoughts were slow, as though I was underwater, not quite able to rise to the surface.
I dialed my father’s number. His voice was soft at first, becoming more urgent as he talked to me. “It’s bad, and you need to plan,” he said, when I asked him to tell me the unvarnished truth.
But plan for what? I was red-hot angry at my father. What was he suggesting? That Shawn could actually die?
I stared into the fire for a long, long time after I hung up. I actually opened up the screen and put my hands closer to the flames in an attempt to warm myself. Eventually, probably out of sheer exhaustion, the shaking partially subsided, and I rested my head on the nearby chair. Next to me, the Christmas tree was lit up, sparkling as though the world still had joy.
My husband couldn’t die. It wasn’t possible. He had cancer but lots of people get cancer. Lots of people do chemo and are fine. What does chemo even mean? He’d lose his hair, maybe, and feel a bit weak, right? He’d be okay. He had been doing Cross-Fit every day for years. He was strong. He was going to be fine. It was Christmas time and he was going to be okay.
But the shaking came back, again and again. I shook again that night as I crawled into bed next to his warm body, slid one hand across his chest and put my other hand on his. I shook again when I brought him back to the ER the next day and watched him double over in the waiting room. I shook again when they brought me back to the little room by doctor’s office and said that yes, it was cancer and we had only a little time left.
I shook and I shook and I shook.
He was going to be fine, I kept telling myself. He was strong and he was the rock of our family and we had three young kids, one of whom wasn’t yet potty-trained. We were just starting our lives. He was going to walk our daughter down the aisle and he was going to negotiate with world leaders and he was going to make love to me during our retirement trip across Europe. He was going to do all of this because he was going to be fine.
But as I sat by the fire that night, calming myself with the twinkling tree lights and the warmth from the flames, I saw my hand start to twitch again.
Shawn was going to be fine, I kept telling myself.
But my body knew what was true.
My body knew.