There’s no warning before the moment hope extinguishes. There’s no signal or hint that the life you’ve been desperately clinging to is about to shatter. There’s only that moment, that second, and then everything will always be divided into a before and after. A Hope and Post Hope.
January 23, 2018 is the day the sky burned and the last ember of hope extinguished.
Earlier in the day, the stars had aligned. A spot had opened up in the MRI schedule at the same time that Matt’s anger settled. He was finally taken for that full spinal MRI. When the results arrived, the nurse in charge of Matt for the day couldn’t tell me what the radiologist had found—and that should have been the first warning. She would only say that the doctor wanted to speak with me—a second warning. I tried to charm the nurse, suggested she just leave the radiologist’s report out on the tray and I’d just glance over it when she walked out of the room. She’d smiled kindly, indulgently, and said I looked too young to be married. I told her I appreciated that, but I didn’t feel young and we were going to celebrate ten years this year. And, for some reason, the nurse paused then, rather than walking out the door. She paused and sighed and said she wasn’t sure what the radiologist’s report said, but she thought they (whoever they were) had maybe found something at the top of Matt’s spine. But she cautioned that I should wait for the doctor to confirm.
I took her advice. I very carefully, very purposefully, pushed away the nurse’s reluctant words. I should have known better than to ask for information without context, anyway. I’d learned early into this process that context mattered more than test results.
Because I’d promised G and H that I would be home for their afternoon, when Matt’s mom arrived to spend the rest of the day with Matt, I secured an assurance from the nurse that the doctor would call me and I left. I picked G and H up from school, drove them to activities and playdates, and listened to stories about their day.
The doctor called sometime between 4:30 and 5 when I was on my way to pick up H from a playdate. I pulled over in the parking lot of a pizza place not far from the friend’s house and conferenced in Matt’s mother. And then the doctor began to talk, her voice low and somber. And while I listened, while I listened to the words that destroyed that last glimmer of hope, I stared up at the sky, the setting sun and the clouds that looked as if they were being devoured by flames. I remember thinking, absurdly, that I should take a picture of this, because this is what it looks like when the world ends.
Afterward, I wiped away the tears and somehow put the car into drive and drove down that tree-lined street that was settling into darkness. I somehow knocked on the friend’s door and apologized for being late and listened to stories about H’s playdate. I somehow picked up G and drove home. Somehow cooked dinner and helped with homework. Somehow read a bedtime story and tucked in two kids. I remember feeling numb, disconnected from myself, but aware enough to realize these emotions were too big to be felt all at once by one person. I didn’t text or call anyone for hours. Because I didn’t have any words nor did I have the capability to process the doctor’s words, that final truth. This final truth: The MRI revealed that the cancer had spread; not just onto Matt’s spine, but into the bones of his spine, throughout his entire spine.
The doctor had given us a choice: do nothing or go forward with that small dose of radiation to his lower spine. But either way, our fight was over. Either way, the last ember of hope had burned away.
Now, like then, I’m not prepared for this moment. I should be—in many ways, this post was a year in the making. And yet, it seems to have snuck up on me again. Maybe because January 23, 2018 feels like a lifetime ago. Maybe because no matter how many times you re-live some moments, you’ll never be ready for them. Maybe because I’ll always hope for a different ending because this ending still seems impossible.
So I’ll end today’s post with this:
That night, one year ago today, I sat to write another letter to Matt. I wrote about memories that are like snapshots of moments and wondered whether it was possible to pinpoint the day I lost him—his smile and humor and spark. And I ended that letter to Matt with this line: I hope when you fall asleep tonight, you dream of our life, and I hope some part of you remembers that, at least for a little while, we soared when everyone had told us to walk.
On January 23, 2018, the day I watched the sky burn as hope extinguished, I wrote the words “I hope.”
As I’ve said before, I’m not writing simply to tell a tragic brain cancer story. I’m writing to tell a story of a hope that persisted, even though in the moment, I had believed it to be destroyed.