Generally speaking, it’s a good thing we can’t see into the future. But if I were required to know in advance what the wilderness years would hold for Hubby and me—that season of unspeakable loss—then here’s what I’d say to a younger version of myself:
Younger version of us, l to r: Summer, Gary, Marlys, Jeremy
Dear twenty-something me,
This is to let you know there are some hard things ahead. But much good will come of it. Trust me.
First, the bad news: Gary will be unemployed for two years when the company he works for is sold. You will eventually sell your home, cash out your investments against retirement, and deplete your savings.
Your mother will move in with you for a few years, sinking into dementia. During that time, Gary will receive a terminal cancer diagnosis. He won’t survive cancer.
Now that we have the bad news out of the way, here’s what you need to know: There are dozens of good things that will come from your wilderness years.
Because of Gary’s unemployment, you’ll need to get a job with benefits. You’re going to end up on staff at the St. Charles Cancer Center, working with and serving some of the most amazing people on the planet. And so many of these co-workers and cancer community friends will stand on the frontlines of cancer with you and Gary, surrounding you with love and support at a time when your heart is overwhelmed.
Live-in elderly parent
Your mother, due to health issues, will live four-and-a-half years with you and Gary, and you will carry large amounts of guilt. Know this in advance: It will be impossible to hold down a full-time job, care for your husband with cancer—including weekend hikes and snowshoe treks as part of your battle plan—and be everything your mom wants you to be for her. Impossible. So don’t pick up the guilt. One of the good things that will come from this season is improved caregiving skills that will serve you well in Gary’s last year of life.
It’s a scary word, isn’t it? But after you get over the initial devastation, you and Gary will undertake things you never imagined, such as establishing a non-profit and speaking across the country, including at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. (I know it must be difficult for you to imagine Gary—who has never enjoyed the spotlight—speaking in front of crowds, but he will do an amazing job.) Your life will expand into something richer and fuller because of this disease. And you will be amazed at what God accomplishes in and through you during the cancer years.
South Sister, left, and Broken Top – two favorite mountains in the Cascade Range
Death and dying
On the whole, we humans don’t like to think or talk about death. But one of the good things to come out of this season will be the knowledge that walking beside the dying can be a sacred and sweetly sorrowful experience. Daughter Summer will stand watch with you as Gary dies, and your home and Hospice House room will be saturated in unexplainable peace.
Even though peace will pervade during the daylight hours, in those final months of Gary’s life, you’ll wake up often in the middle of the night with anxiety over the thought of being widowed. But widowhood won’t be as horrific as you imagine. Widowhood will provide you with some amazing brave-making opportunities. As you say Yes to unexpected invitations that come your way, you’ll hike in Switzerland, conquer stand-up paddle boarding in Puerto Rico, meet long-lost Mallory relatives in Wisconsin. And with each Yes, you’ll grow stronger, braver, more resilient, more tenacious.
You’ll struggle with each piece of bad news as it hits—we’re talking self-pity, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, hopelessness—but in the long run your faith and relationship with God will be strengthened. You’ll come to understand more deeply in your heart what your head has known for a while: You are the beloved child of your heavenly Father, and he is able to bring good out of the hard.
Here’s a sneak peek at a poem a friend will send your way that beautifully describes the process of loss:
The tide recedes but leaves behind bright seashells in the sand,
The sun goes down but gentle warmth still lingers on the land;
The music stops and yet it echoes on in sweet refrain,
For every joy that passes something beautiful remains.
Wishing you a hope-filled life, Marlys,
From an older, more experienced, more compassionate version of you.