After their romance and June 2009 wedding, chronicled in The Washington Post’s “On Love” feature, Jim Cieslak and Ellen Tauscher set sail on a week-long “familymoon” to celebrate with their children and a pair of close friends.
Then the couple settled into what Cieslak calls a “very unconventional start of a marriage.” Tauscher, who had served as a California congresswoman for seven terms, began her new job as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Cieslak, a retired airline captain from Georgia who’d been married to his first wife for 30 years but spent the last three of them watching cancer overcome her, started commuting between his Atlanta suburb and Tauscher’s home in Kalorama.
Because Tauscher spent so much time traveling, she and Cieslak fell into a routine of meeting up for long weekends.
But early in the summer of 2010, Tauscher began to notice that she had trouble swallowing bulky foods. A doctor at home told her “100 to one, it’s nothing” but performed an endoscopy anyway. After the procedure, he told Tauscher she had a tumor in her esophagus. “Well, no going to Las Vegas with you,” she told him. “You don’t know how to handicap anything.”
To Cieslak, it seemed like a repeat nightmare. “I knew enough to know that this was not one of the good cancers,” he says.
The tumor was diagnosed as Stage 2 cancer, and Tauscher began the first of eight rounds of chemotherapy. Next would come 24 rounds of radiation and surgery to remove her esophagus.
Cieslak moved full time to Washington as Tauscher underwent treatment. The two navigated a new relationship as caretaker and patient, as Tauscher trusted him with some of the control she had to give up. Cieslak tried to help without overstepping his bounds.
“I felt guilty about having him go through this again,” Tauscher says. “But I also perversely thought, perhaps, this was a chance to change his luck.”
On Dec. 24, after a 22-day hospital stay following surgery, she and Cieslak headed to Georgia for Christmas. Before she checked out, her doctors declared her cancer-free.
At the onset of the ordeal, Tauscher told Cieslak, “I have to go fight this thing, and I’m gonna go do that,” she recalled in early February as her eyes filled with tears and Cieslak squeezed her hand. “But I need you to stay in our marriage and stay in our life and let me come back. When I’m done, I’ll be back. And that’s where we are now.”
“She’s back,” he adds with a smile.
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