The Anniversary Gift – a Memoir

The Anniversary Gift
by Katherine Billings Palmer

Our twentieth wedding anniversary was July 12th. It’s December 29th, and I just opened my gift.

I remember sitting with Rick under the gazebo in our backyard about a year before the significant event, drinking wine and discussing ideas about how to make it special. I asked if he wanted to renew our vows. He laughed. I’ve talked to other wives whose husbands had the same response, so I didn’t hold that against him.

Instead, we made and disregarded several other plans. We contemplated going back to Europe. We’d honeymooned in Amsterdam, and spent three weeks traveling from England to Germany ten years later, touring several countries along the way. Rick expressed an interest in returning; this time driving across the eastern European countries. His great-grandparents had emigrated from Prussia and he said he wanted to see his roots. I said I still wanted to see southern Italy and drive through wine country. The idea of going to Australia appealed to both of us. He nixed a cruise. We remained undecided, but we both knew we wanted to celebrate the milestone in a big way.

That was in July 2016. Three months later, Rick was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. My new hope for our anniversary? That Rick would live to see it.

By the spring of the next year, Rick had survived four rounds of chemo, thirty-five lung radiation treatments and a course of preventative brain radiation. He’d endured a bronchoscopy, a PET scan, numerous blood tests, CT scans, dozens of x-rays, a PICC line, low white blood counts, low platelet counts, the accompanying blood transfusions, Neupogen shots, and all the blood tests, IVs, and hospital visits that follow a lung cancer diagnosis.

Throughout the autumn and winter, he’d been nauseous and weak from the chemo and radiation, but by mid-February, he was miraculously, gloriously in remission! My six-foot, five-inch, 300-pound former college football lineman still wasn’t back to his full strength, but he was on the mend, he felt good, and he was getting stronger.

During the long winter months, as I drove Rick to the infusion center, or as I chauffeured him to his daily radiation treatments, I often had fantasies about passing the medical facility and driving on, on, on, without ever stopping. I knew the ordeal was taking its mental toll, and I dreamt of the two of us escaping and leaving it all behind. For Rick to have any chance of survival, that obviously couldn’t happen, but we did finally gain some respite from the trial. At the generous invitation of friends, we spent three wonderful weeks on the sunny beaches of Florida, eating seafood and tacos by day, drinking wine and watching the sunset on the gulf each night.

We arranged the trip around his treatment schedule, and Rick was antsy to get going. Doctors rescheduled appointments and procedures because they knew the getaway would do him more good than any treatment they could provide. We packed and were ready to leave the day after the final dose of lung radiation, one week after we’d received confirmation that Rick was in remission. Unfortunately, remission didn’t signify that the treatment was finished. Because lung cancer often metastasizes to the brain, Rick was scheduled for preventative brain radiation therapy in three weeks. But while we were in Florida, my friends convinced us to return after he’d completed those final treatments, and in April, we went back for three more glorious weeks of sun and relaxation.

The pain from the pneumonitis began on our last week in Florida.

Pneumonitis is a side effect of lung radiation. It’s similar to pneumonia, but can be caused by trauma to the lung, without the presence of an infection. His right lung was filled with it, in the exact spot where the tumors were discovered and the subsequent radiation therapy was focused. It was treatable with steroids, so he began an extremely heavy dose that would taper off after three weeks.

By this point, we had stopped talking of Europe and Australia. Instead, once the pneumonitis was under control, Rick simply wanted to take a bucket-list driving trip across the upper northwest United States. Despite his flight privileges as a retired airline employee, the two of us loved our road trips: days spent driving and talking and exploring. Nights at pleasant motels and dives. We liked never knowing where we’d end up, often taking the road less traveled. We enjoyed wandering and exploring, meeting interesting people on the road, seeing new sights, tasting the local cuisine. So, our revised plan was to wait for the pneumonitis to heal – hopefully by our twentieth anniversary – and hit the road for three weeks.

That was the plan.

The pneumonitis hung on, now compounded by complications from the steroids prescribed to treat the condition. Rick landed back in the hospital nearly every other week that summer. First, they discovered blood clots in his lungs, which began our new morning and evening regimen of me administering anticoagulant shots to his stomach. A few weeks later, he was weaned off the steroids too quickly and collapsed on the floor at home, too weak to roll from his stomach to his back, let alone stand or walk.

But we continued to hope for the best, for some improvement, because the big C had not come back. It’s true, when the cancer was declared to be in remission, the oncologist had predicted that it would most definitely return; it did in ninety percent of small cell lung cancer patients. But there was a slim chance he could be among those who survived, the lucky ten percent. After all, when he was diagnosed, the doctors told us the tumors had been found early, and months later, they’d been destroyed by the treatment, so we clung to that tiny hope that he’d once again beat the odds.

The pneumonitis stubbornly held on, and in midsummer, I started to see signs that something else was wrong – with his brain.

It began innocuously, the symptoms that many aged 60-plus people start to notice: the forgetfulness, forgotten words, and confusion that occurs, just at times. Then one day my tech-savvy web-designer husband admitted, with fear in his eyes, that he couldn’t remember how to use his mobile phone to text message. I gave him a step-by-step tutorial, as if he were an eighty-year-old grandfather with his first smartphone, not a man who had used and taught others a variety of software platforms in his professional career, a man who owned all the latest tech toys and gadgets.

When Rick’s cancer had first been discovered, it was following a routine blood test that found low sodium levels. The cause was hyponatremia, specifically a condition abbreviated as “SIADH,” which is often an early indicator of lung cancer. At the time, Rick experienced some confusion and disorientation. Destroying the tumors also cured the sodium issue, and doctors speculated that the confusion could be the result of any number of causes: the chemo, the brain radiation, or anemia, but I was worried that the hyponatremia, and the tumors, had returned. In any case, I began to ask some typical “test questions” to check Rick’s mental status.

What’s your name?
What year is it?
When is your birthday?
“August 23rd”

No matter how confused he seemed to be, he always knew the answers. Sometimes, I’d delve further: Who’s president?

This always elicited a scowl and a growl, “Trump.”

He’d always pass the test.

Then one day, early in July, when he had once again successfully responded to the typical queries, I tacked on a new question.

“When is our anniversary?”

He had to know this one. It was July 12th, just around the corner. It would be our twentieth. We had talked and planned and dreamed about how we would celebrate the event, long ago, months and months ago. Before life intruded. Before death loomed.

So, when is it, honey?

He didn’t know.

He guessed several wrong July dates. As our anniversary drew nearer, I began to ask the question each morning. Still no luck. Sometimes, he couldn’t pinpoint the month. One day, I noticed, “when is my anniversary?” typed into his Google search history. Another time, I received a text message, “what date is my anniversary?” I realized he hadn’t meant to ask me that; by this point, I had received many odd texts that were meant for the Google search window. He often confused the two.

When he was lucid, which was fortunately most of the time, he knew our anniversary was approaching and was adamant about one thing: he was going to buy me a new MacBook as my anniversary gift. Rick was always insisting that we buy some new technology, and as his cost-conscious wife, I was usually the voice of reason. However, he was adamant about the purchase; the MacBook, he argued, was long overdue. He had a variety of logical reasons lined up. I was using a 2010 model. We had a web and print design business, often needed to use advanced applications, and the old MacBook was often frustratingly slow.

As the big date drew near, every time I argued that he didn’t need to buy me an expensive gift, Rick continued to reiterate all the reasons for the purchase: it was time I got something new, it was a business expense, and, most of all, he really wanted to buy it for me. After several days of discussion, he finally convinced me to accept my gift.

Once I had agreed, we planned to go to the Apple store in a nearby mall. But then Rick continued to weaken; he’d lost sixty pounds in the nearly three months since we returned from the Florida trip at the beginning of May. He was losing muscle rapidly. He became exhausted walking from his chair in the living room to the kitchen or bathroom, often grabbing onto the wall to steady himself and gasping for breath. He finally conceded to using a walker, but he definitely wasn’t in any condition to traverse a mall.

Our twentieth anniversary came and went. We didn’t take our road trip. I bought him a boring terry cloth robe so he’d have something warm and comfortable to wear when we were done with the exhausting process of showering him in our step-in tub. On the actual day of our anniversary, we went to see “Dunkirk” at the local theatre and he struggled to make it from the the lobby to the auditorium, using his walker and dragging his feet. The walker was on wheels and had a seat, so we turned it around, and he sat, while I pushed him down the aisle.

Sitting in the theatre that day, watching the movie unfold, holding hands and munching on popcorn, I didn’t guess that we only had one more month together. We both still naively thought that his being in remission was what we should focus upon. He’d eventually overcome the pneumonitis, he’d rebuild his strength, and we’d have a normal life again. Of course, we were always waiting for that other shoe to drop, always wondering if the cancer would return, yet always hoping he’d be in the ten percent: those lucky few who beat small cell lung cancer for good.

So our routine continued and we patiently awaited the CT scan that would show the pneumonitis abating, or the day when Rick could walk more than twenty feet during his daily practice with his walker. Rick tried valiantly to regain the life of activity he missed so much. A man who was used to a ten-mile daily bicycle ride now struggled to rise from his chair.

Yet, rise he did. No matter how weak he felt, he got out of bed daily and dressed, then had me help him down the two front porch steps so he could lean on his walker and take short, labored practice steps across the sidewalk in front of our house. As hard as he worked hard to rebuild his strength, his body continued to weaken and betray him.

One day in mid-August, he seemed to have more energy. He felt a little stronger. Maybe the new dose of steroids was finally having an effect! We both felt a niggling of hope.

The next morning, after I had injected the vial of blood-thinner to his bruised stomach and he had consumed his daily doses of various other meds, I sat across from him in our usual spot in the living room, he in his lift chair, me in my recliner. He asked what was on the day’s agenda, and I had an idea for a “project” to boost his spirits. Why didn’t he take in the two empty garbage bins? They were on wheels, so he could walk slowly to the end of the driveway, retrieve them, and return them to their place by the garage.

His face brightened. He was excited to try something so mundane, yet “normal.” He longed to get back to his old life, his usual chores and his projects. Rick had been a strong and active man, had remodeled three homes. It seemed like he was always building decks, constructing fountains, working on some strenuous project or other. Sitting idly wasn’t his thing, and watching his wife turn into a caretaker and do all his chores was eating at his spirit. Moving the empty garbage bins from the street to the house could be the beginning of regaining some normalcy.

And so he did. I had gone down the hall to work in my home office and was writing a report on Rick’s status for my boss. Having been permitted to work at home during much of Rick’s illness, I was in the midst of typing an upbeat note expressing my happiness that things may be improving, when I heard the front door close behind him. A few minutes later, I heard the scream.

One of the empty garbage cans had gotten away from him. It was too light, it moved too quickly, and Rick lost his balance and fell. He couldn’t move his leg. He was sure he had broken his hip.

As we awaited the ambulance, he lay on the concrete driveway, his head on a pillow I’d grabbed from the sofa, his body covered by a hastily found blanket. I sat on the seat of his walker and stared down at him. His eyes conveyed all the pain and hopelessness we both felt. There were no words necessary. I couldn’t have spoken if I’d tried.

So we simply sat, my love and I, looking into each others’ eyes. When we heard the distant wail of the ambulance, I began to cry softly. For the first time since the diagnosis, the first time since this whole ordeal had begun ten months earlier, I saw tears in Rick’s eyes, too.

That afternoon, we sat holding hands in the emergency ward, both of us in shock, yet not truly surprised at his incredibly bad luck. We were able to talk now, and agreed the whole event was surreal. One minute we were sitting together at home, hopeful due to his small, yet encouraging, energy increase. A few short hours later, he was immobilized in a hospital bed with a broken femur just near the hip socket.

The doctors explained that Rick was fortunate; he’d only need an uncomplicated surgery to insert pins in the bone, since the actual hip socket was undamaged. They described the procedure that would take place the next day. He’d have surgery, then would need to stay off the leg for six weeks. The best part of the report was that there was no evidence on the scans or x-rays that the cancer had returned.

That night, Rick’s daughter and our two oldest grandchildren stopped by with some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m so glad they had that chance to see him, to chat with him, and bring him that one small treat he enjoyed. After they left, and it was quiet, we watched the Rachel Maddow show, then turned off the TV and talked a bit.

The surgery was scheduled for the next morning. I held his hand through the hospital bed railing and we made plans for how to rearrange the house in preparation for when he would be wheelchair-bound in the weeks ahead. Those plans settled, I tried to be upbeat, to encourage him as he sat quietly in his bed. I talked about how all we needed was each other, and to be together. Traveling or doing other things, be damned.

Who needs vacations or projects or anniversary trips? We didn’t need anything but to be together, and watch TV, and play word games with each other on our phone apps, while he recuperated for the next six weeks. We’d just cuddle, and talk, and listen to music, and love each other. That’s all we’d ever needed, to be together, and in six weeks he’d be fine and life would be normal again. After all, the cancer hadn’t returned. We kissed, we talked, we held hands; it would be okay.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

By the next day, fat embolisms from the femur break had invaded his already compromised lungs. Two days and four “code blue” resuscitation attempts later, I was a widow.

We never celebrated our twentieth anniversary with the big trip, but on what would have been Rick’s 64th birthday, we celebrated his life. August 23rd, ten days after Rick died, more than one hundred of our friends and relatives joined me under a rented gazebo in our local park. We wore Hawaiian shirts (Rick’s favorite attire), ate barbecue (Rick’s favorite food), and listened to a playlist of his favorite songs. We laughed (well, I tried), we reminisced, and, in an oddly touching ritual that had been planned years earlier by my unconventional husband and his daughter, she and her friend, “poured one out for the homey.”

As each visitor arrived, we’d walked slowly down the length of the three eight-foot tables that displayed his numerous layout and design awards, dozens of publications he had created at his communications job, many of the banners and signs he’d developed for a local nonprofit, and printouts of more than forty websites he designed for our clients and his own pursuits.

A large TV screen played a slideshow and Rick’s life passed slowly before our eyes, hundreds of photos displaying each stage of the life my vibrant, enthusiastic husband had lived to the fullest. There was Rick as a baby, then a strapping youth, and then a long-haired teen with a guitar, a few months before he’d hitch-hiked with his best buddy across the United States. I saw evidence unfold of what he’d endured in the past year, as the huge man known to many as “the Gentle Giant,” my strong and loving husband, turned into an aged and weakened cancer patient on the screen.

I relived scenes of him with his first wife, then with his young children. Then came our life together, dozens of photos from our wedding, our travels, the births of our grandchildren, the before and after shots of the homes we had remodeled.

But what I chose to focus upon were photo after photo of those glorious days we spent on the gulf in Florida, pictures of sunsets and Margaritas, beach scenes with our friends, palm trees, and swimming pools, dozens of scenes from that serendipitous trip we took that spring, the one that ultimately became our last. Each slide that passed before me confirmed what I already knew: I could rejoice in witnessing the proof of a life well lived.

Instead of wandering the continent of Australia together celebrating our twentieth anniversary, I stood alone and delivered a eulogy that celebrated the loving, courageous man who was my best friend, my travel companion, my business partner, my writing coach, and my champion. It was a send-off better than he could ever have dreamed when he expressed his wishes years earlier: when my time comes, he told me, don’t waste money on a funeral; use the money to throw a party and celebrate my life with our family and friends.

Now here I sit, four months later, a widow with my first solitary Christmas holiday behind me. The new year approaches and it’s an awful sensation, knowing I’ll enter 2018 by myself, leaving the man I love and the world we created behind. I’m seeing a grief therapist, and we’re working to find my “new normal,” still piecing together how I’ll continue on alone. Perhaps I’ll take those trips we planned without him, scattering his ashes along the way.

I don’t know what my future holds without Rick, but, tonight, I decided to write our story on the new MacBook I finally purchased yesterday, the last anniversary gift I’ll ever receive from my husband. What better way to honor the life and spirit of the man who gave it to me?