My dead husband haunts me

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.


For a serious chunk of my adult life, I have worked in newsrooms.

In early February, I was hired as an associate producer for a national media company. It also happens to be where my husband Mike worked before he died. I had visited him there many times. My son called it, and still calls it, ‘Daddy’s office.’

Since starting there, I have never questioned my decision. I love it for all the same reasons I loved my former newsroom at The Calgary Herald. I am at home.

My only trepidation? How would I cope with working in the same place as my beloved? How would it be working with Mike’s colleagues?

For the first few weeks, it felt odd. While walking the hallways solo, I’d get an odd feeling, a presence walking with me. OK, to be clear, I’m not talking Poltergeist here.

Instead, competing feelings of discomfort and comfort battled. I have fought back tears and then caught myself smiling, thinking of Mike walking these same hallways.

Turns out, Mike is still walking these hallways. Mike has a doppelgänger.

The first time I saw this man, his back was turned to me. He was standing 20 feet away, fiddling with a TV camera. He has the same body shape as Mike, tall and lean. He has the same curly black mess of hair that Mike once had. He wears black-framed glasses, like Mike once did. And he has the same, beautifully wrinkled face and fantastically bold nose that Mike had.

The first time I spotted The Twin, my heart leapt with joy. For a beat, my brain, heart and body forgot Mike was dead. And then, just as quickly, my heart hurt.

In the ensuing weeks since that first sighting, I now see this man everywhere. We have even exchanged a few words. He caught me raiding notebooks from the TV staff’s stash. I defended my filching and we had a chuckle.

Another time, we nearly ran into each other in the hallway as we cornered the same turn from opposite directions.

He’s everywhere. That’s not exactly surprising. The newsroom isn’t gigantic. I see everyone, everyday, I’m sure. But The Twin, jumps out at me from across the room, every time.

I know his name. (Someone mentioned his name one day in passing.)

Other than our notebook ‘drama,’ I have never spoken to him.

And that’s fine. He’s not Mike. And maybe he’s really a jerk. That would suck.

Somedays when I spot him, I think about running up to him and throwing my arms around him for a long, sweet hug. It’s a thought I would never act on.

Stalking and harassment aren’t my jam. Silently, staring at him from across a room is my jam.

The Twin does his thing, and I do mine. We live in the same world. And for whatever quirk of the universe, we work in the same space.

And, he’ll never ever know that his presence haunts me.


Chemotherapy is the ultimate frenemy. One day it hangs out with you at the mall. The next day it tells your friends you’re a bitch. It can save your life, but it will make you so very sick.

I was initially on chemo for 12 months and then off it for 13 months. Then new tumours appeared, and I began a second course in August, 2013. That’s 19 months of chemo, or about 24 rounds and counting. The drugs in question are ifosfamide and doxorubicin.

Here is a list of all the side-efffects I have experienced, in the rough order that I encountered them. Some were temporary; some appear after every round.

Fatigue: I had an infant son, so this was nothing new.

Nausea: Not as bad as you think, thanks to six different pills.

Infertility: That one hurt.

Hair loss, head: For a few terrible days, I became one of those knobs who wears a fedora.

Sore mouth: Gargling salt helped.

Abscessed tooth: With a depressed immunity system, a minor infection ballooned and I lost a molar. It made a crunching sound when the dentist pulled it from my jaw.

Dehydration: Which lead to…

Constipation: The worst. So bad that I have twice gone to Emergency. Both times, I walked out after a six-hour wait, because Emergency nurses prioritize the guy with the gunshot wound above the guy who can’t poop.

Change in taste: Even water tastes gross after chemo.

Infection: The port implanted in my chest to receive chemo injections became infected. I went septic. My doctor, who can be dryly funny, called it “a minor life-threatening incident.”

Hair loss, eyebrows: I officially looked “sick”.

Hair loss, eyelashes: My eyes compensated by secreting a protective goop overnight. Most mornings, I literally pull my crusty lids open.

Cracked, soft fingernails: This one costs me money, as I cannot pick up a dropped coin from a flat surface.

Neuropathy: Tingling “pins and needles” feet.

Hair loss, everywhere else: Great, it’s grade nine gym class all over again.

Mucositis: Inflamed esophagus caused heartburn and made every meal feel like I was swallowing rocks.

A blood clot in my leg: I spent a week on the couch, unable to move. Painful, but what really hurt was daytime television.

Low platelets: My nose bled like water. My doctor called this “a major life-threatening incident” that could have triggered a stroke. He reduced my chemo load by 20 per cent.

Rashes: Two types at once, on my face and body. Itchy!

Then there’s the most dangerous side-effects: the ongoing damage to my heart, kidneys and bone-marrow.

On the plus side, the periodic loss of appetite has me at my ideal weight!

Some side effects you work around. (Photo by robin summerfield.)
Some side effects you work around. (Photo by Mike O’Brien.)

About a Boy

Meet the boy.
Meet the boy.

Since I was a teenager, I knew I wanted children. I didn’t meet Robin until I was 43, so I knew I would be an old dad, if at all. We didn’t have to wait too long. Will was born in the summer of 2010.

Our happiness was cut short. Exactly one year later, I was back in the same hospital where he was born, enduring my first chemo treatment (we moved the date of his first birthday party.)  For months afterward, when I cried about having cancer, I was really crying about saying goodbye to Will. The thing that made me happiest was the same thing that made me saddest.

That “thing” is now three and a half. His curly hair is from me, his good looks come from his mother, and his blue eyes remain a mystery. (Right, Robin… Robin?)  He loves tools and trains and superheroes. He is one of the happiest kids I have ever met.

He is also our secret weapon against cancer. Because of him, I have never wondered if the struggle was worth it.  We used to bring him to medical appointments, hoping he would charm the doctors into doing a better job at saving my life.  If he were just a little cuter, I could use him to get tickets to Book of Mormon.

When I was first diagnosed, I hoped for remission, but told myself I would settle for five more years — just long enough to ensure he had a good foundation: kind, confident and strong enough to grow up without a father.  It’s been nearly three years and he’s off to a great start.

The “cancer and death”  conversation seems far away, right now. He knows I go to hospital, and he’s seen me hooked up to the chemo drip. We’ve told him it’s to take away my cough.

I was in hospital the other day, for a pre-chemo blood test. I took Will with me. I sat shirtless on the edge of a bed, waiting for the nurse. Will sat in a chair, asking me questions about the medical equipment in the room. Then I stared into space, thinking about cancer, death, and Will, like I always do when I’m in a hospital.

Will looked at me. “You’ll be okay daddy.”

Well, I’m okay today, Will. You make for great todays.


Short-term thinking

Welcome to the Big Diseasey. The blog has nothing to do with New Orleans, and everything to do with metastasized synovial sarcoma. A.K.A. Stage four cancer. Why “The Big Diseasey?”  Because all the good names were taken. A Sense of Tumour? Taken. Not Dead Yet? Taken. Six Feet Over? Taken. Lately, I wanted to call it Departure Lounge, but that was taken and, frankly,  sounds a bit final for someone who hasn’t yet abandoned all hope.

In fact, my prognosis is unknown. According to the many websites I visited following my diagnosis in June, 2011, the outlook is “grim.” And yet for three years now, I have woken up each morning, ready to squeeze at least one pleasant memory out of the day. So far, so good.

It’s not all bad. I finally have a good reason to stop investing in RRSPs. Or, more accurately, to not feel guilty about not investing in RRSPs. Come to think of it, even buying a calendar is a bit of a risk. Maybe if they came in three-month versions, I would. When I start watching a new TV show, I ask myself, “Am I willing to get hooked on this, knowing I may not live to find out if they ever co-exist peacefully with the zombies?”

Cancer keeps you thinking short-term. After my diagnosis, I stopped buying clothes or CDs, because I didn’t want to waste money. I wondered how many times I would actually wear a new shirt. Or how often I would listen to new music. Finally, this winter, I broke down and bought some clothes. I better get more than one season out of them. If not, my wife will have to give them away. Or look for a new husband in a 44 Tall.