Family MembersHead & Neck Cancer

The New Normal

Joyce Karney writes poetically about the pain of losing her soul mate Glenn, and the struggle of adapting to a new life without him.
August 2020 Vol 6 No 4
Joyce M. Karney
Coconut Creek, Florida

Hard to know where to begin. Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into words that explain, create a visible picture, and shape the journey of emotions. There are so many things I want to say, but I am in a state of confusion and deep despair. I try to make sense out of the last 3 years: the illness, misery, my husband’s struggle with horrific cancer, his pain, our constant fight not to lose hope. It’s impossible.

The Bond

Joyce's husband, Glenn

Nothing is more priceless or stronger than the bond of pure love that ties 2 minds and hearts together forever. Glenn and I were blessed to have had this experience. We were inseparable, soul mates, sharing a bond so strong and solid that we sometimes appeared to be as one, as close to each other as our next breath of life. He could make my heart swell with joy by simply a soft whisper.

Time is priceless, yet it cost us nothing. I recall warm memories of the early days of our marriage, days that were uncomplicated, just living and loving, years stretched out in front of us. No fears, just faith that the world was ours to explore, to learn, to grow together. We worked hard, planned for a comfortable future to be filled with travel to faraway destinations. But that was not to be our fate. Now, I can only speak of all the yesterdays that will not come again.

By His Side

When the doctors presented the grim news that Glenn had throat cancer, I immediately retired from my job; being by his side was the most important thing in my life. We didn’t have children, only each other. I accompanied him to every doctor appointment, countless procedures and tests, chemo and radiation, emergency trips to the hospital, and 2 surgeries.

Through it all, his face never revealed any emotion, his demeanor remained stoic; fear was not expressed. He could appear cold, distant. When he chose to reveal any inner thread of himself, he was profound, the depth of his feelings enveloped with love, caring, and trust.

Despite it all, we grew even closer, clinging to each other for comfort and support. He fought bravely, without complaint, saying that cancer was just “part of life.” We stubbornly remained positive, believing that there might be some adjustments to our lifestyle, but never acknowledging that this disease was an evil that could destroy our lives. We believed that nothing was fierce enough to penetrate our collective wills.

Chances to Relax

Our family physician wisely advised us not to let this illness consume our lives—to treat this disease as a nuisance, a challenge to be faced, but not something that could control our every thought or deed.

Travel was a passion that we shared, so we scheduled getaways around the treatments. The trips were brief, but provided an outlet from the stress, a chance to break free, to relax.

Fatigue was a factor, so naps were plentiful; activity such as walking was limited, but we lingered over delicious meals, spent afternoons on the hotel patio chatting with other guests, or slowly strolling through stores and shopping for keepsakes. Sometimes friends would join us, a reflection of their concern and support.

We created memories, snapping photos along the way, collecting lasting tidbits of our life and love.

Setbacks & a Stetson

There were setbacks; the side effects from the treatments were cruel and destructive without restraint. The cancer ravaged his body. Swallowing became difficult, so a feeding tube was inserted in his stomach; at one point, his weight was a mere 103 pounds. He lost his hair, so we bought him a Stetson cowboy hat to wear. Glenn was so handsome in that hat; he could easily have been mistaken for the Marlboro Man pictured on the famous billboard.

He got weak; walking the dog around the block was too tiring, so we had a fence installed in the backyard. He fought through a case of shingles, a blood clot in his leg required hospitalization, speaking was a hardship, so I had to be his voice.

He fought the good fight, and he rallied. His hair grew back—twice; he regained weight and managed to eat again. After a year, the feeding tube was removed, and we celebrated his success with trips to Las Vegas. He compiled a “bucket list”: the first item was to see Barbra Streisand in concert, so we did just that. It was an honor to be his wife, the love of his life. He displayed such exemplary courage and resolve.

Glenn’s Battle

Glenn never gave up, even after the cancer refused to die and returned again and again. He continued to cook every day; he loved preparing meals and shared his tasty dishes with neighbors and friends. He would appear for weekly chemo treatment with fresh home-baked cakes or cookies for the staff to enjoy. For Thanksgiving, he baked 18 pumpkin pies, one for each employee. He was so appreciative for the care they provided to him.

I was blessed with a good man. I hope he knew and felt the depth of the love I had for him. I remember Glenn whispering to me one night, when sickness didn’t allow any sleep, with our arms tightly circling each other in the darkness, “We’ll always be together; we’ll be married in heaven,” he said. I pray that is so.

Many nights I would lie next to him, I could hear his strangled desperate breath hurling out of his body in thunderclaps. Lungs struggled valiantly to remain alive. I found it unbearable to be the eyewitness to his suffering. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the person I loved most in the world was dying.

His battle continued for 3 years. Suddenly in the middle of the night, this evil monster of a tumor erupted in his throat and blocked his airways. As I awoke, I saw him standing by the side of the bed, frantically motioning to his throat; he was gasping for air. I jumped from the bed, he wrapped his arms around me, shuttered once and collapsed in my embrace. His eyes were dazed and helpless, a resignation to his fate. I quickly called 911 and started CPR, but he was gone.

Tender Moments

Life without him is sad, lonesome, and meaningless. I have memories that live in my head; some I toss aside, choosing not to remember the times when anger and hurt passed between us. I choose to dwell on only the magic moments, the recollections of tenderness and shared love that make my heart smile.

I’ve gone through the motions of trying to function; the days are long, empty, and lonely, and the nights are even worse. A bottle of wine remains on the coffee table, in the exact spot where he left it. His jeans were left on a bedroom chair where he tossed them on retiring for bed; our dog has claimed them, dragging the blue jeans into his dog bed, sleeping with his head resting on his master’s scent. Neither my heart, nor my mind allows me to touch or move any of these things. It’s as if a part of him is still here.

The vastness of an unknown future presents a range of emotions. I grieve for the dreams that died with him, the happiness that could have yet been. I ache to share experiences with him, to have the simple comfort of him sitting next to me, only a hand reach away. His death now lives in my face and my swollen eyes.

Appearing Strong

For the last 6 months, I have attempted not to put my grief on display, to appear brave in front of others. I did this for their comfort, not mine. It was maddening to be told countless times—“be strong.” My tears caused them uneasiness, they didn’t know how to ease my sorrow, so we had to pretend it didn’t exist. In the quiet hours of solitude, nestled in the emptiness of my home, I became comfortable in my despondence, sobbing alone, desperate for the warmth of someone’s arms to help soothe my anguish.

Despite the hardships that life often presented to us, we endured, together. I love books; I find solace in the written word. I remember the phrase in Kahlil Gibran’s masterpiece, The Prophet: “And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

There is some comfort in believing that he is now at peace, no longer suffering and in pain. But my heart suffers more than a void; it’s empty, hollow. He told me that it was “destiny” for us to be together; to live happily ever after.

“The New Normal”

A friend who lost her husband about 6 years ago tells me that the pain and heartache never lessen, but somehow you just adjust. You become accustomed to the quiet house, meals for one, restless nights, dimmed holidays that lack warmth; you adapt to living alone. She calls this adjustment to “the new normal.”

Every day I question whether I am strong enough to face a world without Glenn; time will tell. I embrace the past with fond remembrance blended with a longing for what is gone forever.

Apart and alone, I feel I’m crumbling. I joined a bereavement group seeking answers and support. Will I spend the remainder of my days yearning for my lost love, or will I become another of the many widows living the new normal?

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Last modified: October 30, 2020

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