Before and After
A single call from my husband's doctor divided our lives in two

By Jill Smolowe
Sunday, April 12, 2009

I'm sitting on the couch in my husband's home office, listening to his end of a phone conversation with his doctor. "Oh," he says. "Oh." I have no idea what the hematologist is saying, but the fact that she's talking to Joe at 6 p.m. on New Year's Day, 2007, cannot be good. Suddenly, Joe's voice rises. "Oh!" During the next silence, he scribbles on a pad. "Is there a name for it?" His next "oh" is so quiet and flat that my skin prickles. Take your time, I think. No rush. I stop listening and turn my attention to the framed photos above his bookshelves, the paperwork on his desk, the drawings by our 12-year-old daughter, Becky.

This is not an act of denial; it's the expression of a bizarre clarity. I am clear -- very clear -- that I'm looking at relics from before. Once Joe names this "oh," I will be hurled into an after, stripped of my comfortable assumptions about our life together. Usually impatient, I feel no urgency to meet the woman I am about to become. Will she be a rock? Will she crumble?

Finally, Joe hangs up. He says only one word: "Leukemia."

I cross the room and fold him in a hug. His next words shatter my calm: "This is because of my arrogance," he says. "I have a good wife, a good daughter, a good job. I should have known my luck wouldn't continue."

I stare at my husband, not recognizing him. Through 22 years of marriage, Joe has never shown a hint of fatalism. He is steady, determined, so bent on finishing what he starts that he and I jokingly call him a "completist." Is it possible he's not going to wage the battle of his life? With that question, the after woman begins to emerge: Crumbling is not an option.

That night as we hold each other in bed, I whisper, "Feel sorry for yourself tonight, but tomorrow you have to come out fighting." Hours after Joe falls asleep, I tiptoe downstairs, thinking, I need to tell someone. The minute my younger brother comes on the line, I burst into tears. When his shocked gasp gives way to, "Oh, Jill, oh, Jill," I get off the phone quickly and go to my computer. "Talking about this, just saying the word leukemia, is a trigger to cry," I write. "Not useful. Gotta be strong. For Becky. For Joe."

I needn't have worried about Joe. By the time he begins his first round of chemo four days later -- a bombardment that tethers him to hospital IVs for 28 days -- the threat of surrender is gone. As the first chemicals drip into his body, Joe is very much the man I knew before: steady and determined. A completist.

By then, I have morphed into a dry-eyed woman unwaveringly focused on supporting Joe's needs. Fortunately, he sends unambiguous signals. No visitors. (Too risky, given his compromised immune system.) No phone calls. (Too tiring.) He wants only one distraction: me. So when I'm not at work, I'm with Joe, eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week. There is nothing selfless about this hospital vigil: The only thing that stills my dark imaginings is seeing Joe right in front of me. I am grateful he wants me there.

I'm also grateful for the outpouring of support uncorked by news of Joe's illness. The tide of cards and e-mails seems to give him a lift. For me, the well-intended sympathy is exhausting. From that first, "Oh, Jill," I turn away from consolation. When people ask, "How is Joe doing? How are you doing?" I quickly change the subject. If I absorb others' shock and concern, it may diminish my strength.

Instead, I find myself fortified by people who offer practical assistance. Weekend after weekend, my sister makes the four-hour drive from Vermont to New Jersey to look after Becky and to stock my freezer with fresh-cooked meals. A close friend gathers information about disability insurance. Long before doctors mention the word "transplant," relatives and friends offer their bone marrow. Others hear me when I answer their offers of "anything, anything," with, "Take me for early morning walks, and tell me about your life." They walk with me; they talk to me; they renew my spirit.

Three rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant later, Joe is back at work and healthy enough to provide the space I need to reflect on these last two years. Repeatedly, people have told me, "Joe is so lucky to have you." Now, for the first time I'm able to see that, yes, I have honored my marital vow to be there "in sickness." That recognition fills me with gratitude and relief, but no sense of victory or self-congratulation. I am too aware that this now could become another before. If a more devastating after lies in wait, I have no idea what woman will emerge. She may be a rock. She may crumble.


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