There was a nurse who sat with me, that I remember. I can’t really recall what she looked like, but I remember what it felt to have her arms wrapped around me as I sat on the floor of the emergency room, unable to stand.
“I know what this means,” I kept saying over and over. “My husband has spots on his liver. I know what this means.”
She didn’t try and tell me my fears were misplaced. She knew what it meant too. But she sat with me on that disgusting floor. Eventually, she took me somewhere to pull myself together. I called one of my friends. I can’t remember who it was. Maybe Becky because she was watching my kids?
Shawn had finally fallen asleep – a welcome relief after watching him endure the worst pain possible. The initial dose of morphine hadn’t worked, and the doctors had eventually given him something stronger. It felt impossible to me that he was so incapacitated by the pain. He was a man who was so tough that he once performed surgery on himself in order to continue with his military training. “How did you do that?” I asked him when he told me about cutting a massive boil off of his skin. “Well,” he said, “I knew that if I went back for medical care, I couldn’t complete the training. So I sterilized my knife in the fire and then I cut it off. I got in trouble for it later, but it was worth it.”
Shawn was a man who could take pain. And even he had finally succumbed to it.
I didn’t find out that he had cancer in the ER that day. Technically, as he laid in his hospital bed and I was crumpled on the floor outside, we only knew that he had scans showing spots on his colon and liver. All I really knew that day was that his scans weren’t good and that there was a very real possibility that he had stage 4 cancer. But the doctors wouldn’t say for sure without a colonoscopy, so they admitted him and prepped him for that procedure the next day.
I didn’t eat for the next 24 hours. I bathed my kids that night and I prepped their backpacks for the next day. But I didn’t eat. They had cereal for lunch in the morning and I think we even played Christmas music. But I didn’t eat.
So when the doctor looked at me the next day and told me “it’s cancer” I could only dry heave in the trash can.
They told me first, before Shawn woke up. Once I managed to pull myself together, I told the doctor that I wanted to tell Shawn. I wanted to be brave and be the one who told him the worst news of his life. I wanted it to be from me. But when the time came and he opened his eyes, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. The doctor told him instead.
I cried, a lot. Shawn could barely move but he stroked my hand with his fingers. After a few minutes he took a breath, and looked right at me.
And then, in true Shawn Brimley fashion, he laid out for me exactly what I needed to do:
1. Call the financial planner and make a plan to keep the house
2. Make sure his funeral was at St. Columba’s and his wake was at Guapo’s
3. Get remarried, eventually
I just cried and cried. “It will be okay,” he kept saying, first lovingly and then increasingly as a demand. “You will be okay.”
I pointed out that I wasn’t the one with metastatic colon cancer, so maybe we should be more worried about him.
But he wasn’t. Through it all – every horrific day of the six weeks that followed – he was constantly worried about me. Because that’s the kind of husband that he was.
The night we found out the news, I collapsed on the floor of my shower at home. I sat there, unable to move, and put my head on the wall while I let the water run down my back. I begged God and anyone else who might be listening to please help Shawn get better.
Please. Please. Please.
The choking sobs that came out of me that night were like nothing I’d ever heard come from my own body. They were the sounds of grief. I would hear them again, many times, in the next six weeks. And then for many months after that. But that night was the first time I truly realized what lay ahead.
Shawn would leave me.