By Denise Wiesner-Berks
I sat in a red chair in the waiting room at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. I felt like a bag lady, having brought with me my computer, snacks, the phone and its charger, a jacket, a scarf, a book to read, and my breakfast: a blended smoothie. I knew the drill. Over the past two years, I had sat in this room — and the hospital’s infusion center across the street — many times. Today, I was waiting for Alex, my husband of 15 years, to finish a procedure. I shivered, not because it was cold, but because I was worried. I had lived daily with anxiety since Alex was diagnosed with a sarcoma — a connective tissue cancer. Since then, the cancer had metastasized to his lungs and now it was causing a blockage.
As I pulled my sweater over my shoulders for warmth, I noticed Alex’s doctor. Why was he approaching me in the waiting room?
The doctor, who had graying hair and a large frame and protruding belly, walked toward me. “Mrs. Berks, hello.” He paused for a very long time. “I am sorry to tell you that it doesn’t look good. When we went in to remove the tumor, I saw that it was too big. I am sorry.” There was a longer pause as he looked into my disbelieving eyes.
Though I hoped this was a nightmare from which I would awake, my legs started to give way, my breath turned into uneven panting, and my eyes swelled with tears. I was sure that the doctor with the big white lab coat was speaking to the wrong woman. I was sure that my 6’6” otherwise healthy husband couldn’t die from cancer. I was not prepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that there was no longer a possibility for healing.
Once I understood the implications of the doctor’s words, I knew I would have to help my husband and children face the challenges in front of us. I had heard the saying “God gives us only what we can handle.” I knew I would have to draw on an abiding and deep courage to face my fears and to help those around me face theirs.
Worry about my husband’s declining health ate away at me in the middle of the night and woke me up each morning. How would I survive without the father of my children? How would I support my family alone? Who would support me emotionally as he had? He was the one who listened to me endlessly about everything, the one who cared about our family. He was the one I loved. I couldn’t imagine life without him.
I looked up and met the doctor’s eyes. “What happened?” I started to wail, tears washing my face as he tried to explain about the tumor, the lungs, the breathing: all words I couldn’t focus on. I was so unprepared for this — today or any day. How do you prepare for death?
I knew I was frightening all the other people who were waiting for their beloveds in that waiting room. The doctor gave me a hug; or maybe it was that he put his arms around me so I wouldn’t fall over.
Over the next five weeks, as Alex became weaker and sicker, I wanted to speak with him about dying, his fears, his reality, his life. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t entertain the possibility that there was no possibility. I couldn’t fathom the idea that he wouldn’t make it.
There had always been hope. He would be among the percentage that survived. We would write a book together about how he had beaten cancer.
In retrospect, I see that he wasn’t able to talk to me about death because he didn’t want to upset me. One day at the hospital, he wrote, “Death is not glamorous.” He wanted it to be over; he could barely breathe. I was the one that had a difficult time acknowledging the situation and letting him go. It was only during his final hours, when I gave up on possibility, that I came to terms with his dying. Then, I became present to his every shallow breath, his every irregular heartbeat. I started to live in only the moment before us. I stayed attuned to every inch of my beloved. This focus became the bridge that helped to lift me from despair and inevitability. Being present was the gift given to me when I faced Alex’s death, because, in reality, death is certain. Life really is moment to moment, one breath at a time.
Denise Wiesner-Berks practices acupuncture, herbology, and Chinese medicine in Santa Monica, Calif. While earning her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine from Emperor’s College, she spent several months studying and treating patients in a hospital in Shanghai, China. Having studied integrative oncology with Donald Yance, author of Herbal Medicine, Healing and Cancer, Wiesner-Berks supports cancer patients and their caregivers. She lives in Los Angeles with her two sons, Noah and Ethan.