Today, 4/28/21, marks the 2nd anniversary of Pat’s passing from complications due to Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). As someone recently said, “yes, we should commemorate these events.” I agree.
Why? Well, for the living, it is more than marking the passage of time. It’s a way to measure our growth, our acceptance of nature’s rituals, and our reach for self-actualization.
Pat would be the first to agree with that. She was pragmatic. Life goes on and we should not dwell on the past. That doesn’t make the loss any less or the sadness go away. More than half my life was with Pat, her string of guide dogs, and those aspects of her world that weren’t mine but certainly included me, as mine included her.
I don’t dwell on the sadness, though. I feel it. I acknowledge it. I move forward. We truly were soulmates, each helping the other to dampen our worst instincts and bring out our better ones. Together, we achieved balance.
Yet I don’t feel out of balance without her because she is still with me, albeit in a different way. Her courage reminds me to speak up when I see injustices. Her advocacy reminds me to reach out and help others along the way. Her sense of humor blurts out of my mouth—sometimes quite unintended.
We’d discussed moving west many times over the 36 years we were together. Jobs, then, her cancer held us close to Boston. Looking at her odds in 2001, which were said to be 3-5 years, we worked together to fight this. Her first words to her oncologist were, “When we beat this . . .”
Not “if,” but “when.” That positive attitude helped her dig into research. She could discuss treatment protocols and upcoming drug trials with her doctor (Dr. Leslie Martin (retired) from St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, MA) on a level most people cannot. And Doc Martin, as we called her, recognized Pat’s bright mind and sometimes said, “Why am I even telling you this, you probably already know it!” She’d share news from oncology conferences and the two would discuss future options about treatments.
In 2004, Pat showed no evidence of disease (NED). Pat told Doc Martin that meant No Expiration Date. Another laugh, of which there were many over the years. As I intimated earlier, she had a wicked sense of humor.
In 2007, IBC reared its ugly head again. By now, Pat had named it Draco. She said if it ever got unmanageable, she’d add its last name, Malfoy. A huge Harry Potter fan, Pat had decided that if she named her disease, she could more easily dismiss it as something other and not her. She wasn’t a cancer patient or survivor; she was a person with cancer, surviving cancer.
I stopped working for myself in 2008 and took a job with a former client, as Pat could no longer work. We needed the stability and peace of mind of a steady paycheck now. From 2007 to 2019, we had a well-established routine. Every three weeks was a treatment day, with the occasional cycle off if it was too close to Thanksgiving or Christmas. That was our normal, along with knowing that our plans for outings or events were subject to change at the last minute if she was too tired to go out. She’d urge me to go without her, saying, “I’ll be playing at the computer, reading, or napping. Go to your event.” And so I did. Neither of us wanted to feel guilty about the other, and we each had our own lives along with our intertwined one.
Over the last year of her life, I saw Pat’s energy and patience decline. Still, she fought to have a normal life. She and Beacon, her latest guide dog, took almost daily walks along King’s Beach in Lynn, MA. Sometimes they’d walk the almost 2 miles to Stop ‘n’ Shop in Swampscott and take the bus back. I’d come home late from work and there’d be a fresh soup or stew for my dinner in the slow cooker. Her goal was to keep things normal.
I’m actually happy that I lost my job in March 2019 because I’d not have had the stamina to deal with work when she got sick in early April. After 12 years of treatments, there was only so much her body could take. An eye infection—caused by a dissolvable suture that hadn’t dissolved many years earlier— robbed her body of the strength to keep Draco at bay. At least, that’s how I look at it because, then, other issues cropped up and overwhelmed her defenses.
Pat’s concern, while she was still functional that month, was whether she would lose what little vision she had in that eye—her good eye. I fought to hold back the tears because I realized she didn’t know that losing her vision wasn’t going to be her only loss.
Beacon and I spent the month visiting her daily at the hospital, then rehab, then the hospital again, back to rehab, and finally—hospice. We’d set up in her room, me with a book and Beacon with his toys, and just be with her. I’d read to her when she wanted, take Beacon out for walks and potty breaks. After dinner, the two of us would say our goodbyes and go home. Our new normal.
Her sisters joined me every day in hospice and one even stayed overnight, sleeping in the chair, while I took Beacon home. I returned early the next morning after a bath and morning walk with Beacon. After only two days in hospice, Pat passed away quietly with her family there. The way it should be.
When I drove across country last summer to live with one of my sisters in Phoenix, Pat was with me in spirit and in a box (her ashes, anyway). We’re setting up a garden area on the back patio here and I’ll have a place to put her urn and keep her close. But she’s always close anyway—in my heart.