Have you ever thought what it would be like to be handed a clear plastic bag filled with thousands of puzzle pieces, each one unique, and asked to put it together with no picture? Imagine that. Some dark pieces, some bright. Some that look like grass, or could it be a tree top? Some that look like an animal's fur, or is it a carpet? It is impossible to know, unless you could put a few pieces together. But even then, you could never know what the full picture looked like, not without knowing where and how all the pieces fit together.
Now think of your life. We are given a piece. We may be able to fit together two or three or even four. But we will never be able to see our entire life, how we join with others, how things all work together for good.
I was given two pieces of the puzzle so far in my life, but still have not figured out how they fit together or even if they fit together at all. The one is very bright, with lots of greens and yellows, and oranges. It’s beautiful, but it’s just a puzzle piece. It makes no sense by itself. More recently I received my second piece. This was very dark. It’s nearly all dark. Very dark. Like a thick blackness that covers the entire piece. There is no connection with my first piece. Yet I can see on the one edge of my dark piece a hint of color, ever so vaguely, so foggy, but nonetheless there. Nothing of either piece makes sense to me.
However, I do know of the One Who does know it all, Who has completed the entire puzzle, and sees how all the pieces fit together. He knows where my pieces fit, how they fit with other peoples’ pieces, and how the entire thing looks when it is completed. One day He will show it to us, but for now, we must continue on with our pieces, ever hoping, ever praying for answers or more pieces, but always trusting that our loving Heavenly Father knows it all. It is not a puzzle to Him. It is a beautiful, perfect, glorious masterpiece!
For me, the very bright piece of puzzle reminds me of when I first met Todd and the following 17 years. Life was good. It was perfect. God brought us together, and we had the privilege of having seven children, one of which resides in heaven because of a miscarriage. We had a house. We had a dog. We had six living children through those years of bliss. Every day was a blessing. I never doubted Todd’s love for me….ever. I loved him with all my heart, and he loved me with all his heart. We had a great marriage and rarely “fought,” if you could even call it that. Todd made life fun, exciting, and bright! He was a great Dad too. He loved our children and the children loved him.
For me, the very dark piece was the time we first heard the word cancer. It was in December of 2004, and through those awful five months until May 6, 2005 when Todd went home to be with his Lord and Savior at age 44. It still, even at the writing of this book in 2012 (now 2015) (and now 2017-18), does not seem real. That dark time has spilled into every day of every month of every year since he went to heaven.I want to attempt to share with my readers what that time was like, and then show the hope, that hint of color on the edge of the black puzzle piece, that keeps me going even today. There is hope after such devastating loss. It’s there. It’s there for anyone who has ever lost a loved one in death. My desire would be to have anyone who has endured this kind of pain in grief, to see the hope in their own life, in their own dark puzzle piece. It’s there. The hope is there.
Chapter 1:Our Introduction to Cancer
The narrow dirt road leading to the Christmas tree farm made it very uncomfortable after an hour long drive with six children in tow. I had recently broken my tail bone, and I could feel every bump, turn, stop, and start. I couldn’t complain that much, though, because my husband was driving and had been complaining about back pain for months, and it was increasingly getting worse. If the doctors were correct, and he had kidney stones he was passing, I can’t even imagine the pain he was enduring. However, we both survived the trip, and I can remember commenting on how old we were climbing out of that van with our aching backs. We had a 13 month old, but also were fortunate to have two older boys, 13 and 15, who could help with cutting down the tree, and three older girls, ages 5, 9, and 12 who were able to help with the “baby.”
So we started looking for that perfect tree. Todd put on his happy face, even though I knew the pain he was in was nearly unbearable, so I tried to follow his “act,” and we all ended up having a great day together. I can remember the jokes, his smile, his laughter, and the children and I all having fun hunting down and finding our perfect Christmas tree.
But more than my lower back was bothering me on the way home. I had this nagging feeling that we would never be back to that tree farm. At least, never all together. It was a strange feeling, one that I cannot really describe, other than an inward uneasiness and sadness. I could see the pain in Todd’s eyes. Behind the smiles and laughter there was much pain and even fear. He had been complaining about his lower back for many months, and more recently seemed to lack the constant energy he always had. I just figured we were getting old, but yet, there was something deeper, something more, something even dangerous, that I had no idea was lurking in the near future.
I was told kidney stones were painful. Yet Todd refused to take any kind of pain reliever because of his job delivering bread to stores. His truck was a good size, and he said it just wasn’t worth it to be all “loopy” while driving, especially in Philadelphia. Todd had an excellent driving record. I’m certain this had nothing to do with his changing the number to call on the back of his truck asking about his driving. He said he was tired of people complaining about things like him blocking the entrance to a store while delivering, or not letting them cut in front of him in traffic, so he used a Sharpie to change a six into an eight on the back of the truck. Easy. No more complaints. Good driving record. Everyone was happy.
The only times I can remember Todd missing work was when he broke his ankle and had to have surgery, when he was hospitalized for pneumonia, and when we had a blizzard and the plow could not make it to our house. The day of the blizzard he fearlessly and relentlessly shoveled all day, dressed for work in his uniform, but still never made it to the street, which wasn’t plowed anyway. He was not happy about missing that day.
Todd loved his job and everyone involved with his job. He joked with his bosses, chatted with his customers, and even unknowingly helped two robbers escape the police one day in Philadelphia, when he opened the door for them, then heard the police screaming, “Stop them! Don’t let them out the door!” It was too late. They were gone, with Todd still holding the door open by the time the police came to give him dirty looks.
As we finally pulled up our driveway, Todd told me he wants to get the tree up right away. He said his back was really killing him and he needed to get this done asap. We sent the boys for the tree stand and they helped him carry our perfect tree inside. It was up and straight and perfect in no time at all. It was always the girls and my job to do the decorating, so we began working to make our perfect tree into the perfect Christmas tree!
We put the Christmas music on and everything was feeling wonderful, until I put the second strand of lights on the tree. I suddenly realized that Todd was not watching. He wasn’t singing along with the music and making wise cracks about our decorating. It was just me and the kids. Toby began to cry, and Todd wasn’t around to pick her up. That strange feeling returned. I suddenly felt alone.
I found him in bed. He wasn’t sleeping; the pain was too great. He just smiled at me and asked how the tree looked. I asked if he could read to Toby for a little bit, and he said not right then. My stomach did a flip. One of Todd’s passions was reading with the children. He always looked for opportunities to read in bed with them, normally surrounded by a minimum of two little heads, but usually three or more, all struggling to be the one next to Daddy. I loved those times and so did the kids. And now he can’t read to Toby? Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
Just two weeks later, December 17, 2004, Todd came home surprisingly early from work, barely walking. We always would yell, “Daddy’s home!” and race to be the first one to give him a kiss; somehow I would always win. This day he snuck in unnoticed, and I saw him leaning on the back of the chair, doubled over in pain, saying he was going to the hospital to see if they couldn’t help him with the pain until he passed the kidney stones. I guess most men are like Todd when it came to doctors.He hated them. Not because of anything else but that it took time out of his busy schedule to go see one. So when he came home early and said he was going to the hospital, it was quite shocking to hear. I asked if he wanted me to drive him, knowing the older girls could watch Toby, but he said no. He reminded me of the Christmas rehearsal at church later that night, and said if he wasn’t home for dinner, then he would meet me at church. And he left.
I was relieved.Finally this would be over.He would go to the hospital, pass the stones, then come home and eat dinner and go to church with us to rehearse the Christmas program. His niece, Wendy, was directing the program, and had Todd and most of the children involved. We were excited to see the kids sing and read Scripture, and Todd was also going to sing in a couple groups, one of them with our children. Everyone was looking forward to the rehearsal and for the program to come, so I felt comfortable making dinner for the children and patiently waiting for Todd to get home. His place was set, but he never came home. I wanted to call, but I was the only one with a cell phone, so I had no idea how to call him.
I remember it being a cold night. The children were bundled and ready to go. Left-overs were put away. We waited as long as we could, and finally I got everyone in the van. It felt funny driving all the kids without Todd. This was a family outing, yet we were not a complete family. I didn’t like driving alone with six children. While everyone was asking where daddy was, I decided I would check the hospital parking lot to see if Todd’s van was still there. I figured he would be at church by now, but just in case, I wanted to check.
From across the street, before I saw it for myself, their words hit me hard when the children yelled, “There’s Daddy’s van! ”Why? Why would Todd’s van still be parked here? Why was he still in the hospital? Todd never wanted a cell phone, but I sure wished he had one now. I needed to talk to him. I needed to see him. I needed him to be ok and on his way to church with us! Now there was only one way to do this…I would need to go into the ER and see him. I knew if I got all the children out of the van, unbuckling all the seat belts and car seats, carrying the baby and keeping close eye on the others, that I would not be able to give my full attention to Todd. I needed Todd to wait here in the van with the children while I went inside. But that was impossible. I felt suddenly alone. I could hear the kids asking questions and talking and the baby crying, but I could not distinguish what they were actually saying. I decided the only way was something I had never done before: leave the kids in the van and run in as quickly as possible to see Todd. It was so cold outside, so I needed to leave the engine running for the heat. I thought back to when my four year old niece climbed behind the wheel of a car that was running and broke her mother’s leg when her mom tried to stop the moving vehicle! I lectured my oldest, then 15, how important it was to stay away from my seat, the gear shift, the steering wheel, the entire area! As I quickly explained how I was going to run in and out, I reminded the older children to keep a close eye on Winter, our fifth child, and on the baby. I convinced myself the boys were older now (13 and 15), so the children would be fine.
Once inside the ER, still hoping and looking for Todd to be walking out of this place, I headed directly to the counter where the nurses and doctors were staring at computer screens, talking on the phone, and quietly going about their business. I felt like I was interrupting an important club meeting or something.
“Excuse me. My name is Wendy and I was looking for Todd?” The one nurse suddenly turned and looked at me. Her eyes stared at me and I felt uncomfortable. I kept talking, “He came up here because he was in pain and I was just wondering if he had passed the kidney stone yet?” Still staring, the nurse asked if I was Todd’s wife. “Yes.Is he ok?” The nurse suddenly swiveled her chair around and said, “Doctor, Todd’s wife is here.” The doctor looked up from his clipboard and over his glasses at me. He was balding, with white hair around each side of his head. As he walked towards me, asking if I was, in fact, Todd’s wife, I quickly asked again, “Did he pass the kidney stone? Is he still in pain?”
I was not prepared at all for what I was about to hear. It seemed the doctor stared at me for at least ten minutes before finally saying, “Todd doesn’t have kidney stones.The x-rays show there is a blockage on his right kidney. It looks like cancer to me. It appears there is a large tumor overtaking his kidney, causing it to not function properly, and being the culprit of his pain. It could also be a blood clot. I’m not sure. I’ve only seen this kind of cancer once before in all my years of study and practice.” A pause. I stopped really listening after I heard the “c” word. They must have the wrong patient. I meant Todd. I was the wife of Todd, the one who came up here to get help in passing a kidney stone. They must have had the wrong patient. “Would you like to see him? He’s feeling much better now that we have reduced his pain.”
Of course I wanted to see him! Oh, the children. I almost forgot. They are outside, alone, all six of them, in the van that was still running with the heat on. I wondered how long I had been inside. But I had to see Todd. There was no way he had cancer. It was probably the blood clot or other thing the doctor had mentioned. He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t cancer; I was sure of that. I was not even going to mention that to Todd. I just wanted to see if he was alright and out of pain. The doctor led me past curtained rooms to the corner of the ER, where he opened a door and let me in.T odd shocked me when I saw him sitting up on the end of the bed, with a huge smile on his face and saying, ‘Hi! Do you believe they said they think I have cancer?” My eyes immediately filled with tears. I don’t know where they came from. Was I simply relieved at seeing him smiling again? Was I upset he knew that they thought he had cancer? I just know I cried. I bawled. His arms tight around me, I just kept crying. He told me he was fine. He said he felt great. He sure looked and felt strong. Stronger than I. I felt my knees suddenly becoming weak. Nothing seemed right. Everything was wrong. Todd was supposed to be with us, driving us to church for the Christmas rehearsal.
“When can you come home? Will you make it to the rehearsal?” I was still under the delusion he was fine now and would be singing tonight with the rest of us. “We can stop by here and pick up your van after the rehearsal. The kids are in the van outside, so we have to go.” Todd’s eyes were suddenly filled with tears and that’s when I had to sit down on that stupid chair next to his bed. He stood up and bent down close to me.I couldn’t look at him in the eyes.I stared at the floor as he said,“I have to stay here.”
“How long? Will you miss the rehearsal?”
“They want to run some more tests. They are talking about admitting me, at least for the weekend so they can control the pain and see what really is the matter.”
“So you won’t make it to rehearsal?”
“No. I’m sorry. I wish I could.”
“So I have to drive the kids out by myself? We’ll be back. We’ll stop back here after rehearsal and see how you are.”
“I love you. I love you so much. I’m so sorry you have to take the children out to church by yourself. I hate this. I want to be with you guys so bad tonight.”
“I better go. The kids are in the van outside alone. I love you, too, and we’ll be back.”
As I stood to leave, my knees didn’t work and I fell back into the chair. “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.I’m fine. Lost my balance. I’ll see you soon.”
After another strong hug from Todd, one of his great kisses, and several “I love yous,” I opened the door and leaned heavily on the knob for support. I still felt like I was going to faint, but I needed to be strong for Todd. I could do this. I took a step out into the dizzying hallway. There were a lot of cloudy white-coated important people moving around, and many asked if I was alright. “I’m fine.” The floor seemed spongy. The air was cold. Outside it was even colder.
As I climbed into the van with tears running down my face, the questions started barraging me from everyone. “Where’s Daddy? Is he ok? Is he coming with us? Why are you crying?” This is not happening. I told myself I was in a dream of some kind. This could not be reality. The questions continued until I finally, with a shaky voice, quietly said, “Daddy’s fine.They want to keep him a little longer to run more tests. We are going to stop back here after rehearsal to see him.” More questions. They wouldn’t stop! I tried to do my best to stay calm, drive, hold back tears, and answer the questions the best I could.
“I don’t know if Daddy will be coming home tonight. I don’t know why they are doing more tests. I don’t know how long he will be in the hospital.” I didn’t even know what I was saying. I do know I was scared.
As I sit here now, I can honestly say I do not remember our time at church for the Christmas rehearsal. I think Todd’s niece was a bit upset because Todd was not there, and she had given him several “parts” for our Christmas program. When people asked me where Todd was, I said he was at the hospital, but that he was fine. I told them he might even be home tonight, so I had to go back to the hospital as soon as the rehearsal was over. I also remember someone coming to the van as we were leaving, giving me a hug and saying they would be praying for me. But my mind, heart, and thoughts were all on Todd. I kept picturing him sitting in the ER. I wondered if the pain medication had worn off yet. I wondered if they would really admit him over night, or if he would be coming home with us. I told the children that we were going to stop in and see Daddy. They were so excited. “Are we going to take him home? Who is going to drive his van? Can he drive? How is he?” I remained silent, just thinking about getting back to Todd.
All seven of us piled out of the van and headed towards the ER. As we walked through the first set of glass doors, I could see one of the nurses look up and then start moving towards us. She greeted us with: “You’re just in time! They are moving him to a room right now. You can follow if you want.”
Then we saw him. At first I was so excited to see him again, but that suddenly changed to disappointment and shock. He was lying on a gurney, and when he saw us he yelled, “Hi! Look! They are taking me for a ride!” The children laughed; I stared. We followed this scene down the hall. Around every turn, Todd had a comment. “Look at that beautiful clock!” or “Oh good! We’re going for an elevator ride!” and then there was, “Are you sure you have a nice room for me? I want a nice pretty room.” As the children continued to laugh, I grew quiet and wondered who that person was. The transport attendant assured me he was fine. It was just the medications. He was actually feeling fantastic and so high on those drugs that it frightened me. He was literally out of his mind! I didn’t like it. I hated it. At least the children thought it was funny. I wanted to run out of there, yet I knew I couldn’t. I was holding the baby. I was always holding the baby. It was almost like she was attached to me. We waited for a nurse or doctor or someone to come, but at first were left alone with this crazy man that they insisted was Todd. “Daddy’s funny,” I heard amongst the giggles. After only a few minutes (possibly seconds) a nurse came in, introduced herself, and asked everyone’s name. She commented on what a lovely family Todd had. Then she turned to me and said they were going to admit him and do more tests tomorrow.
“Then can he come home?” I asked hoping this was all really a big nasty dream.
The nurse wasn’t sure, but thought he would probably be here all weekend and possibly come home Monday or Tuesday. Our youngest felt unusually heavy. My knees again. They were starting to buckle under the weight. I was so thankful for the unoccupied chair and quickly took advantage of it for support. The nurse asked if I was ok. Sure. Why wouldn’t I be ok? I wanted to cry, but knew the kids were having so much fun, that my tears would probably alert them to some kind of problem or danger. Right now, they were all happy to see Daddy and laughing at how funny he was. I couldn’t cry, so I was ok. The nurse then suggested we say our goodbyes so Todd could get some rest. Todd’s eyes were already starting to close. We all said goodbye joined with lots of kisses and hugs. Even our 14 month old grabbed Todd around the neck and hugged him. It was a short break from the burden she suddenly felt like when I took her back in my arms. I promised Todd we would be back tomorrow and told him how much we all loved him, but his eyes were already closed, and he smiled and said, “I love you tooooooo.”
Just a little over a year prior to this, we had purchased the house where I grew up. My parents gave us a great deal, saying the equity was my inheritance. It has three bedrooms, four bathrooms, and sits on nearly an acre of land in a quiet tucked away neighborhood, yet only minutes from the Philadelphia International Airport and the city itself. We couldn’t ask for any place better to raise our children. It was perfect. Sure, there was a lot of work to do on it; between the electrical wiring and the plumbing, we spent every pay check each week! But we were excited. A new phase for our growing family. We put the three older girls in the bigger bedroom and then put the boys in the smaller one, and for the first time ever, Todd and I had a master bath, which made up for the fact that the baby stayed in our room with us.
Coming back home to that house alone without Todd, knowing he wouldn’t be with us that night, scared me a bit. Thankfully we were greeted by our yellow rescue lab, Rocky, and I felt a little safer. Feeling more safe is good, but feeling so lonely is not so good.