Josh and I were on our way to the hospital. I had been experiencing symptoms for some time now. Test after test had been done and we were now driving to the hospital to get my results. My heart was pounding and I was sure that Josh could hear it from the driver's seat. As if on cue, I felt him looking at me. “What!” I said. A little too sharply in my tone but the situation had put me on edge.
“What is it?” I repeated when he didn’t answer me.
“I was going to ask you the exact same thing” he said, reaching for my hand at the same time. “What happens, happens,” he said. “We can’t change it, we have to roll with it and do what we can…together.” I nodded at him, more to please and settle him than myself. With a squeeze of my hand, he pulled out of his space and carried on driving in the direction of the hospital.
Fifteen minutes later, there we were, sitting in the waiting room with the rest of our lives ahead of us. The trouble is, the rest of our lives were under someone or something else’s control. “Mr and Mrs James, come on in” said the voice. The voice belonged to the Dr and I tried desperately to detect an undercurrent to it, something that might dictate what was to come. The Dr gestured towards the seats and we sat together, subconsciously pulling the chairs closer.
“Well, I have your results Jo,” said the voice.
“Ok, let’s have it” I said, playing up my tone as if that was going to help. To be honest, I had no idea what would help. Josh reached for my hand at the same time. I felt the pressure, comforting as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’
The Dr looked at me. “I can’t beat around the bush here and I won’t. You know your symptoms and you know what it could potentially be from the discussions we’ve had.” I nodded at him as if my life depended on it. Then came the ten words I will never forget.
“You have lung cancer Jo, there’s nothing we can do.”
I looked at Josh and saw tears streaming down his face. No noise, just tears. His hand stayed on mine as if his touch could cure it, cure anything. I giggled.
I’m not ashamed to say that I giggled. I had complete disbelief. As much as I knew the potential illnesses I could face and the ramifications, I didn’t for one minute believe that I would hear those ten words. I had cancer. Of course, the natural reaction was to ask what can be done, and I certainly didn’t let the side down. I blurted out those very words. Josh looked at me and in his eyes, I read everything I needed to know. I was dying. I could do nothing about it.
“Ok, so how long?” I said. I heard my voice but it didn’t sound like me. The tone had dropped and I could hear the heaving in my chest. Was I going to be sick or cry? I really didn’t know, to be honest, I didn’t care. The Dr handed us pamphlets on palliative care, hospices and people we could expect to hear from. Then he dismissed us with the advice of going home and enjoying what’s left. Just be together.
Josh and I walked to the car. I wanted to go to the pub. I wanted to and needed to drown my sorrows. Why shouldn’t I? I had nothing to live for. I wanted to get drunk. I knew he’d honour whatever I wanted and I’m not ashamed to say I took advantage of that. I had planned to wait until I got to the pub before I spoke. It was very evident that while Josh had a lot to say, there was nothing to say. So it was up to me.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said. Original, wasn’t I.
Josh looked at me with disbelief.
“I’m not kidding, I don’t know what to say…” Then it came and I couldn’t stop.
“This fucking force of nature, we can’t control this. I’ll deal with winds, rain, floods, family dramas, anything you throw at me. But I cannot fucking control this. I can’t beat it. I can’t cure it. I can’t have surgery and get rid of it. It’s beat me already.”
The pressure of Josh’s hand on mine seemed to be all I needed to calm a little. I looked out of the window and realised we were home. He looked at me with eyes that I suddenly realised I wanted to remember forever.
“We need to be here, to talk.”
I knew he was right. We sat and ate together as if it was a normal night. Then I took that breath.
“Ok, Josh let’s do this. We both agree this sucks , right?”
“We both agree that we need to plan together, right?”
“We know what it is, this force of nature. I’m not calling it the c word by the way. I can’t.”
“It’s ok, we know what it is. What else?"
“We know how long I have and what is likely to happen, yes?”
“Yes that’s true but…..”
“Hey, hear me out,” I said. “Now, I’m going to die, then it’s going to be on my terms Josh. You know what I’m saying don’t you?”
I realised that I needn’t have even asked that. My voice was calm, my hand on his was steady as a rock and my eyes bore deep into his soul. I did not look away. I watched his face, his eyes, for any flicker of reaction to my words and then, there it was.
“You’re talking about Switzerland aren’t you?”
“Yes, Josh, I am. I’m not going to be leaving you with lasting memories of me that will haunt you. You should have beautiful memories that you can be proud of. You should be sitting beside me as I take that medication. You should be laying beside me as I take my last breath. This is the biggest thing to ever ask a person. Can you do that for me?”
Josh didn’t need to speak. He nodded. He hugged me and then, it was time to let the emotions out. We cried together. We held each other. We fell asleep together.
Three months later, after the conversations with families, Drs and friends, after a pre-funeral party for me, we boarded the plane. It was a silent plane ride fueled by alcohol. We weren’t driving and I’m not ashamed to say we even went first class. This was a last trip for me. I had asked no one else to come but Josh. The plane landed and the car that met us brought us safely to my final destination.
We had three final days together. As long as my health held out, three days of sightseeing and making lasting memories for Josh. Three days of mental images of every line in Josh’s face to be uploaded to my brain. I stared at him, I couldn’t stop. How the hell had I gotten so lucky?
The final day saw us sitting in a local café. We were going back to the facility that evening for the last time. I gathered my breath and started to talk.
“Now Josh, you don’t disturb me while I say what I want to say.”
Josh nodded and I saw his eyes well up.
“I've done a lot in my life but the day I married you, was the proudest of all of my achievements. You gave me a wonderful married life. Today it will be over but this is what I want from you."
He nodded again, tears now flowing.
“You are to go home and celebrate me. Have a party and scatter my ashes in a place that will suit us both. You choose that. I would want to be with you. You must take time off. You’ve had a hell of a few months caring for me and you need a break. There is one final thing in life I want you to do. That’s this.”
Now it was my turn to stop and wipe the tears. “You are to let yourself be loved again.”
I’d also done something for him, I’d written him a note which said:
“Do you remember I called this a force of nature once? For most people, a force of nature is something like weather events or a conflict. My force of nature is my conflict with disease. But you know what, we called its bluff. I know this force of nature got me. But, you live to fight another day. You did beat it. You’re the other half of me. Make me proud.”
The envelope said ‘open after, 831’