Before her illness, we tried to live by the “never go to bed angry” rule. But we were not always perfect. There were precious moments lost to pettiness. After the cancer diagnosis, not only does the wisdom of that rule make sense – it is simple to live by. Life can be short.
It started innocently enough. Her head had been throbbing off and on for a week or two. She went for a migraine shot. While the medicine brought temporary relief, she soon got an excruciating headache and felt nauseous. Still, it seemed like another migraine.
Theresa, my wife, had gliosarcoma, an aggressive, untreatable form of brain cancer. Gliosarcoma comes with a life expectancy of around 16 months. Theresa was only 48 years old.
A magical history
It was only 27 years prior that I saw a photo of Theresa at a friend’s house. And although he promised to introduce us, it would be another year before I got a chance to ask her on a date.
At that time, we both worked at Toys “R” Us. It was her last day of work. After a night of youthful indiscretion left me in an unproductive state, I carried the same box from the storage room to her aisle…over and over. After I started to recover, I told her I could finally ask her out because it was her last day and wouldn’t violate my policy against dating coworkers. She agreed.
It was a magical time.
But now we were in the emergency department at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center with Dr. Marc Squillante telling us she had brain cancer. If you have ever been hit in the breadbasket, hearing ‘you have cancer’ is like that. It sucks the air out of your lungs. Later that evening, as my wife was leaving the emergency department, Dr. Squillante gave her a hug. His compassion encouraged Theresa and touched our hearts.
‘It is what it is’
Theresa was a realist and “it is what it is” was a mantra that helped her with the diagnoses. It allowed her to compartmentalize the situation so she could fight the fight as well as try to enjoy what was left of life. Looking back, that mantra also helped get our relationship off the ground.
On our first date, we went to dinner at Agatucci’s, and then I drove her to my family’s farm. She was freaked out because she had no idea who I was or where we were going – out in the middle of nowhere, well outside the Peoria city limits. She couldn’t have gotten home if she tried. I turned up the drive and spun around the yard, using my headlights to spotlight the cows and my horse. She thought I was crazy, driving my car off road. She met my horse and my parents on our first date. We clicked.
We married four years later. Our first son, Zach, joined us 10 days before our first anniversary, followed by John, in 1997 and, finally, our only daughter, Elizabeth, in 2002.
A passion for family
Her passion was the kids, hands down. She loved being a mom – doing for them, watching them, volunteering to help them in everything they did. She made the food for school parties. She went to band performances and competitions throughout Illinois. She went to out-of-state high school robotic competitions. She watched our daughter at dance practice. She led our daughters Girl Scout Troop. She encouraged both boys to be Eagle Scouts, as well as encouraging our daughter to pursue her own goals like the Girl Scout Gold Award, which she is still working towards.
Our family spent a lot of time at the farm – bonfires, weenie roasts, hayrides, campouts, working to help keep it going. My horse loved Theresa more than me. And she also fell in love with a few of the calves we raised for beef, so that was a life lesson she had to endure. Many great memories were created on that farm. Time was endless, and I never imagined she would soon be battling cancer.
Making the most of time left
OSF HealthCare and the Illinois Cancer Center helped Theresa make it an additional, eight precious months longer than expected. When the conclusion became apparent, she knew she didn’t want to pass away in our home. She wanted to make the most of her time and chose to stay at the OSF Richard L. Owens Hospice Home.
Going on hospice can be a hard choice. Nobody wants to give up. But that is not what hospice care is about. The goal of hospice care is to make you feel comfortable so you can have quality time with your loved ones. It’s about getting the most out of your life.
The rooms and garden at OSF Hospice Home provided a sense of warmth and comfort. We were able to take her bed outside to enjoy the fresh air. On some occasions, given she was getting closer and closer to the end, she would smile or verbally respond. But for her, she enjoyed the hydrotherapy bathtub the most. It helped her relax and made her feel clean and fresh.
Dr. Phillip Olsson, director of Medical Services for OSF Home Care, gave me advice during those final days that I will always cherish. He told me: “Take the time to stop being a caregiver and be the loving family member you are.”
Theresa needed her husband, not a male nurse. She needed LOVE, hugs, kisses, kind words and prayers. That is what your loved one needs, too. Make every second count.
The OSF Hospice Home provided us that opportunity. One particularly special moment occurred when her nurse, Chelsey Judy, coordinated a pedicure for Theresa and Elizabeth. We captured some special pictures of Elizabeth enjoying time with her mother.
Quality time is a gift
You can imagine what losing Theresa was like for me and the kids – how someone that special could make us feel. It was her special ability to connect with people that has been the biggest loss – that sense of love for all. Some of my relatives said she made them feel more comfortable and welcome at our family gatherings than their actual blood relatives.
Theresa was introverted and fierce. Her stance and facial expression could hold you at a distance. But once she got to know you, she was a great friend and ally. We balanced. She was unique in that she could make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. You were special in her eyes and she was totally in the moment with you.
Theresa wrote me a note that I was to read after her funeral. She said we had nothing more to forgive or say besides how much we loved each other. She was happy to be my loving wife and mom to our kids. She thanked me for being a loving husband. She validated us as a couple and me as a husband. Outside of the kids, each a living testament of our love, that note is the most precious, lasting gift she could ever have given me.
Theresa didn’t go to her final resting place angry or bitter over her cancer. She tried to make every second count. Life doesn’t come with a guarantee. We thought that time, quality time, would always be a basic commodity. But quality time is precious and should be cherished.