Five

The fifth one is the worst. By now, you’ve watched her struggle with the poison four times. And the bad days are bad. You don’t want to go to work. You want to be by her side. You want to help ease the pain. But you can’t do a damn thing about it. And that’s the worst part. The two of you actually agreed to pound her precious body six times, hoping that you’ll kill the monster without doing serious damage to the victim. That’s what you keep telling yourself every time the poison goes in and through every minute of those bad days when no amount of medicine can take away the side effects.

I preach the Stockdale Paradox. “Face the brutal facts of your current unpleasant reality, but never lose faith that you will ultimately prevail.” It’s easy to be a preacher, until you actually walk a few steps in Stockdale’s shoes. And that happens the fifth time she gets the poison.

By then, this routine of missing days of work is starting to wear on everyone, especially in an organization where there are so few of you that even one person’s absence ripples throughout the team. The things you have to reschedule pile up so your work days begin when you hit the alarm and immediately grab your iPhone to read the mail. They end when you look at the clock on your Mac and realize she asked you three hours ago to come hold her while she fell asleep. And you told her you would “be right there”.

By then all but the best of friends have probably had enough and would just as soon not hear about it. When they ask, “How is Colleen?” you’re pretty sure that they don’t really want to know. You answer, “Doing well, all things considered.” They don’t want to hear the visceral details. They have their own troubles. They want you to be that good listener. To ask them how they are doing. Because beneath the veneer, they hurt too.

By then, you have become numb to the nausea, her coloring, the hair that keeps falling out and the things people don’t want to read about in a blog post. Things that when you were younger, you hoped you would never have to witness.

By then, the insomnia, the inevitability of the suffering and helplessness of it all has sapped your strength. You tuck her in and ask, “are you ready to sleep?” The timber of her voice when she says, “I’m ready,” reminds you of someone else who said that to you, the day before she died. You wait and watch until her breathing is regular and she is temporarily released from the pain. That’s the moment when lose it, thankful that she’s not awake to be a witness.

That’s the worst of it. It’s that bad because you have come so far that you know exactly what will happen and when. And it’s bad because you know you’ll have to go through it all one more time.

But she is strong. The worst day ends and you can see her beginning to come back to you. She’s still exhausted but now she’s standing beside you and telling you how to clean the kitchen instead of whispering directions from the couch. There’s a different look in her eyes and you can see her brain switch away from survival mode and back toward the outside world. Her first concern is always for other people. You know when she reaches for her cell to check in on a fellow survivor that things will get better.

She’s still tired, but manages to conjure up super powers to be able to face time with Hudson, until it’s his attention span and not hers that brings the visit to an end.

That next day, you find a friend to stay with her so you can go back to work, but she might not need the help after all. She improves by the hour and is beginning to rally by the time you come home. You know then that in a few days she will again be the trail boss. Projects will move forward. You’ll smell scrambled eggs when you get out of the shower. And there will be a list of things you’re expected to get done that have nothing to do with chemotherapy, the drug store or the doctor’s office.

Because she got through it, so can you. And even though you know there is one more time you’ll have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you can make it. Because it will be the last time.

We are navigating Five right now. And we’re through the the darkest part. I don’t blame you if you are tired of all of this and decide to take a break from following our adventures. I would, if I were you.

There’s a coffee cup I keep on my home office desk. I don’t drink coffee but it’s always there. My friends at Stop at Nothing gave it to me years ago. It says, “You have to experience the depths of the valley to fully enjoy the view from the mountain top.”

Five is the deepest valley. The next one may be just as challenging. But it will be different because we have faith that it will be the last one. We have faith that we will soon be climbing the mountain again, doing our level best to enjoy the view.

Postscript: Colleen is celebrating 5 years since her Ovarian Cancer diagnosis. She has been cancer free for almost two years. We are both building a future where careers and grandchildren are the main focus… But we are always looking over our shoulder. And always will.