Before and After: Cancer’s Toll

This is where I check all vanity at the door.

My new driver’s license came in the mail this week.

The picture wasn’t good. To repeat: It wasn’t good.

I know, I know, I know… everybody says that about their photo ID.

But mine is bad. To repeat: It’s bad.

It’s really, really bad.

Cancer takes a toll, even if you’re the one driving shotgun.

When you’re in it — living with near constant stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety and fear— it’s your new normal. You adapt. You move forward. You get through the days.

I know that I’ve paid a physical price for Mike’s cancer.

But aging is supposed to be a gradual process, isn’t it?

In my case, cancer put the pedal to my mettle.

And here’s the proof….

The first photo was taken three months before Mike was diagnosed with Stage 4 synovial sarcoma.

The second was taken four years later and nine months after he died.

Things can only go up from here right?


My Valentine: A love letter from beyond the grave


Mike was a romantic guy.

My husband’s gestures of love were big and small. He slipped them in seamlessly throughout our days. He did it with a word, a look, a touch.

I was loved. He made that clear.

On Valentine’s Day two years ago, he bought me a book of vintage Valentines. He wrote on all 36 cards. It was the story of our love. His messages were poignant, sweet, romantic, and even a bit goofy.  The notes are snapshots of our life together. (For anyone currently in love, I recommend this idea. Please steal it. Make someone happy.)

The following year, I copied his vintage Valentines move.

This Valentine’s Day, I obviously wasn’t expecting a gesture of love from my dead husband.

But I was wrong.

Three months before his death he sat on the floor in our closet. He culled paper work from our filing cabinet, tossing out old files, taxes and letters.

A few days ago, I was going though the cabinet looking for nothing in particular. I randomly grabbed a folder. Inside was a document titled ‘The Thing.’

Mike was an avid list maker. He wrote lists for everything; long and short term goals; places he wanted to see; his favourite meals, movies and books; and so on. And on. And on.

‘The Thing’ was his step-by-step plan detailing how he would propose to me. He came up with two options: a New Year’s Eve proposal over dinner; or popping the question at Winnipeg’s English Garden, our favourite spot.

He went with option B. He asked me in the garden on his 44th birthday. He produced his great-grandmother’s engagement ring. Later, he had chilled champagne waiting for us inside our room at the Fort Garry Hotel.

Back in the closet, I scanned the note. Joy washed over me. Sadness came next. And then a rush of love for my dear love.

He left the note for me to find after he died.

And I found it one week before Valentine’s Day.

When I need Mike the most, when I need to feel his love around me, he sends me a sign. ‘The Thing’ is his sign.

The universe is on my side.

And Mike is still on my side.

I know it. I feel it. And with this note, I see it.

Wear your Dead Spouse’s Undies: A Guide to Modern Grieving

“It’s alive.”

The ‘it’ is me.

First things first: My dear Mike started this blog to document his life with cancer. He did it with honesty, grace and humour.

I promised myself that I would carry on and keep The Big Diseasey alive after Mike died. Refresher: He died of cancer, specifically metastatic synovial sarcoma, on May 24, 2015.

So, I soldiered on, wrote a few posts, wrote an essay for the Globe and Mail on our loss, and the Huffington Post asked me to become one of their regular bloggers. I desperately wanted to write but something was holding me back.

I regret not capturing the depths of my grief in words but heck, the best intentions sometimes get laid to waste.

But life also happened: My son started kindergarten; my cookbook, Winnipeg Cooks was published in October 2015; and CBC Radio Canada hired me to pinch hit as a national food columnist for three months to cover a paternity leave. (Here’s one of my radio pieces.)

Here’s what was also happening behind the scenes: My heart hurt, my body ached, my brain went on low-power mode and I put one foot in front of the other. Some days I lived from minute to minute. Other days I measured and managed time from hour to hour.

My hair started falling out. I ate more. I moved less. I lost more sleep. Chest-tightening, flop sweat, anxiety attacks struck. I cried. I stopped crying. I kissed pictures. I put up more pictures. I crawled into Mike’s closet, wrapping his shirt sleeves around me.

And I started wearing his underwear.

In my defence, the first time it happened I was out of clean undies. His dresser was full of fresh ones.

Truths were revealed as a pulled on his snug boy shorts.

Firstly: We now have empirical proof that his butt was smaller than mine. So there’s that.

Also: Men’s undergarments are very comfortable and don’t ride up.

And: Wearing your dead husband’s underwear should be a prescription for grieving.

It felt good, right, sad and comforting. It was a hug, a pelvic hug, from beyond the grave.

So to recap, between the crying, kissing, hair loss, flop sweats and cross-dressing, there was some by-the-book and also off-the-hook grieving going on.

Moving forward. There has been progression since then. Five weeks in New Zealand over Christmas and New Years helped.

I am back. I am back home. I am back writing.

Better late than never? I hope so.

Better than ever? Not quite.

But getting better.