Heartbreak

Watching My Wife Die Taught Me To Love Better

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
photo of author's wife provided by author

Less than five years ago, we were diagnosed with breast cancer. We fought it and we beat it. Five months later, she mentioned some back pain that we initially wrote off as just getting old, but it ended up being cancer in her spine. A month later, cancer showed up in her spinal fluid, and just a few weeks later, it invaded her brain.

I’m so glad she chose me.

…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…

Nearly 10 years ago, Rachel and I stood in front of hundreds of loved ones and exchanged those words. We may have added some flair into our vows, like the promise of endless candy in the pantry and unlimited back rubs, but the “for better or worse” part meant the most.

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And boy, have we lived up to those vows.

I mean, she’s always stayed by my side and supported me at my “worse.” And believe me when I say that I’ve had a lot of worse. A whole bunch of worse. She was also my number one supporter during our “poorer.”

And believe me when I say that we’ve seen some poorer. She never wavered, never faltered, never gave up on me — no matter how bad things may have gotten. She was always willing to pick me up when I’d fall. She deserved so much better but, for some reason, she chose me.

I remember our wedding day like it was yesterday, and thinking that the “‘til death do us part” would come someday. Never in a million years did I think that “part” would come so soon. That part was supposed to happen 50 or 60 years from now, not today. For sure not now.

But as I sit here today, watching her sleep, in the same hospital room we’ve been living in for almost a month, death is exactly what we are facing.

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Less than two years ago, we were diagnosed with breast cancer. We fought it and we beat it. Five months ago she mentioned some back pain that we initially wrote off as just getting old, but it ended up being cancer in her spine. A month ago cancer showed up in her spinal fluid, and just a few weeks ago, it invaded her brain.

We’ve talked to the experts. We’ve gotten opinion after opinion. We’ve even explored some pretty radical ideas suggested to us by complete strangers. But at this point, the team of doctors we’ve assembled has assured us that any treatment may do more harm than good. And we all agree.

As of now, the main goal is to keep her as comfortable as possible. And they’ve done that. She’s more comfortable than she’s been in months.

She doesn’t have pain like she once did. The “cocktail of medicine” they have her on is doing the trick. And if it weren’t for her short-term memory loss, most days, you’d wonder what we’re even doing in this hospital.

Each morning, when she wakes up (could be ‪3 a.m.‬, could be ‪8 a.m.‬, could be ‪11 a.m.‬), she asks me — and whoever else happens to be in the room — the same question:

“What’s the plan for today?”

And each morning my response is the same. For almost three weeks, my response hasn’t changed.

I ask her if she’s comfortable. She says yes.

I ask her if she has any pain. She says no.

And then I say, that’s perfect, and reassure her that the plan is working. That she’s doing an awesome job with the plan. She smiles and says, “good.” I love that smile so much.

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I assume she asks this each day because she’s forgotten that there isn’t a plan. That we aren’t going anywhere. That we are literally just waiting. Waiting for her to die. But other days, I bet she just hopes. Hopes that the plan has changed. Maybe today is the day we’ll bust out of this place.

I’ll never again hear that question the same way. “What’s the plan for today?”

I dread it each morning because I hate my answer so much. I wish I could offer her more clarity. I wish I could tell her that things were getting better. Or that eventually, they will get better. I wish I could encourage her by telling her that we’re heading home, any day now. I wish I could fix this. But I can’t do any of those things.

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We have come to a really awkward point in our journey. There are no more treatment plans. The doctors have exhausted all their options. At this point, we just wait.

And I know each day that passes is one day closer to me losing Rachel.

One day closer to our three kids losing their mommy. To her parents losing their daughter. To my sister losing not only her sister-in-law but her best friend. To her brother losing his only sibling. To my mom and dad, to all of our family, to her friends, and to those who know her from afar, all grieving the fact that we are losing such a beautiful person.

As ugly as this all sounds, she’s continued to have an enormous impact on so many people. As one friend put it the other day, “I don’t even think we’ve begun to see where she may take us.”

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This time is so hard. But in all the pain and suffering, between the tears and the fear, there is something so beautiful happening.

“People come to this room to be ministered to,” is what her dad said to me the other day. And when Rachel overhead this, her response was perfect.

“I know that I’m dying. I am at peace with that. And at this point, where I am today, all I have to give is Jesus.”

I’m not simply watching my wife die. That would be terrible and unbearable. I’m watching her live and love in a way that is beyond beautiful. I’m watching her minister to the masses. Each day, I have a front-row seat to something indescribable. You can’t comprehend it unless you’re here.

There is so much beauty in the brokenness. And Rachel’s helped us all find the beauty.

I’m watching doctors and nurses in tears as Rachel shares stories with them about what she’s feeling and where she’s heading. And then I get to watch Rachel reassure them that it’s going to be okay.

I’m watching friends flock in from all over the world just to spend five minutes with her, and I’m watching her comfort each and every one of them before they leave.

Every single day, I watch as people come to say their goodbyes. And though you’d think it would be a brutal thing to watch, what I see is people who enter the room one way and leave the room completely transformed.

I can’t explain it. It’s something you’d have to experience to understand. But it’s beautiful. There is so much beauty in the brokenness. And Rachel’s helped us all find the beauty.

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I have no idea how much longer we have. And we still have hope that Jesus will fix this. We’ve never wavered from that. But we’d be crazy if we didn’t recognize all the miracles that He is performing right in front of our eyes, every day, through Rachel’s story. Not just in this hospital room, but all around the world.

If you’ve never met Rachel, I’m really sorry. I hate that for you.

I wish you could all have just five minutes with her. I promise you that you’d look at life in a completely different way. I promise you that you’d enjoy the everyday moments so much more.

I promise you that you’d complain less and laugh more. If you could just have five minutes with her, you’d understand what loving others really looks like. You’d leave so much better and you’d love so much harder.

I’m so glad she chose me nearly 10 years ago to walk this walk with her. I’m so glad she chose me to fight this fight with her. I’m so glad she never gave up on me. And as ugly as this chapter should be, I’m just so glad she picked me. Every single day I’m grateful that she chose me. Our story is my favorite love story. Because she chose me.

’Til death do us part.

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Brandon Janous is a widower, daddy to 3, writer, and storyteller. Follow him on Instagram. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.