Each day, we seem to awaken to a new tragedy. Newspapers are unfolded to reveal yet another disaster – sometimes distant, sometimes on our own doorsteps. Earthquakes, bushfires, cyclones and tsunamis sweep people away forever, and sad stories of upheaval become almost commonplace. The solid ground of ‘normal’ life transforms into what must have been for both the victims and the stunned survivors a sudden, terrifying recognition that nothing is ever secure – not even the earth beneath our feet.
My wife Stella’s death from breast cancer less than a year ago is still so raw and so much a part of me that I cannot separate other tragedies from my own. I remember last year’s story of the Australian survivor of the Samoan tsunami who reported how his wife was torn from his arms after a second wave hit them; no matter how desperately they clung to each other there were other forces greater, and she slipped away. According to the newspaper account, the two were on holiday to celebrate her 50th birthday, and I instantly recalled my own wife’s 50th.
Stella and I had flown to Thailand, and we arranged to have her son and daughter meet us there to share the occasion on a beautiful Phuket beach. We had 50 balloons delivered to our hotel room, and Stella released each one from the balcony with secret wishes. Six months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and ten years after that my wife simply couldn’t hold on any longer. She slipped from my grasp.
Except for the pain and fear that she endured so gallantly during those years while I often watched helplessly, I miss every single thing we did together. Though so many wishes have been unfulfilled, Stella and I were able to do what perhaps the tsunami couple and others cannot do in sudden, frantic moments of loss. My wife in her weakness and I through my tears expressed our love for each other a final time, and we also said goodbye. All this is little solace as I amble through our house alone, but it is something.
Tragically, many will lose the ones they love to breast cancer this year. However, we should be aware that many couples will experience – as Stella and I did for so many years – great joys and triumphs and closeness beyond description. And, yes, many women will indeed find ways to eradicate their cancer and live long lives. The thousands of women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year will more often than not display qualities that will astound their husbands or partners. Amidst the terror and the treatment, couples may fall in love again or perhaps truly know the word for the first time. Couples will learn that cancer defines a separate place from the cancer-free world and there is no going back.
Smart couples, loving couples, will enter this world and stay in it together, no matter what the outcome. Husbands, get one thing straight from the start: she will be doing all the hard work. You, however – for reasons you will never understand – are in the position of making good on your commitment and the promises and vows of your wedding day. This is the part about ‘in sickness and in health’, and this is the moment when ‘love’ becomes the action verb that it was always meant to be. You will do whatever it takes to help your wife at the time of her greatest need. Why wouldn’t you?
When the ‘second wave’ of recurrence hit her after five years, Stella was told that she was now ‘stage 4’ and her secondary breast cancer was ‘treatable’ but not ‘curable’. Instead of succumbing to the strange, dreadful language, buckling under the dire forecast, my wife defied doctors’ predictions and thrived. Be heartened by the knowledge that there are millions alive out there beating the odds their doctors gave them.
Anyway, Stella had little time to hold grudges against the medical establishment and how they went about their business – though she always wished that doctors would learn to dispense their words more carefully, use more language of hope and, like their patients, never give up.
My wife knew from the start that to stay on top of her illness she had to be proactive and become a student of health and, moreover, a student of her own survival. Guided by some excellent doctors and an absolutely angelic nurse, I believe it was Stella’s ownership and ultimate command of her treatment decisions that helped prolong her life well beyond her oncologists’ expectations. She had birthdays she was told she wouldn’t, and she got to be the loving grandmother she thought she might never become. This is something.
Sometimes, my wife Stella would sit cocooned in a hyperbaric chamber. Seemingly impenetrable, the cylinder was airtight and reminded me of one of those Japanese mini-submarines captured in Sydney Harbour during World War II. The technician equipped her with a mask through which she breathed 100% oxygen while the carefully engineered hydraulics pressurised the encompassing air to about two-and-a-half times normal atmosphere.
The principle behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy is that cells in the body will become flooded with oxygen-rich blood plasma. Cancer cells, I learned, hate oxygen and will therefore die in a kind of twisted version of suffocation. Frankly, I didn’t really care much about the science behind this or other treatments my wife underwent as long as they helped her to heal. With the hyperbaric chamber, my wife’s pain diminished and her energy level improved.
I cannot help thinking that my role as husband and care-giver in all this was a lot like the hyperbaric oxygen therapy. My wife’s health challenge required more of me than before. The ‘atmosphere’ of our marriage had to change. My wife’s healing was paramount and required an atmosphere of self-sacrifice. Of course, the wonderful thing about loving someone is that – as the song goes – it’s no sacrifice at all.
Despite, the lurking presence of the disease, there was a richness in the air that could not be denied. I realise that my commitment to my wife’s healing was simple and pure, like the potent, oxygen–rich air she breathed in the chamber. Despite my wife’s very serious illness, all the right things thrived for so long. On days when the beast was kept at bay, there was a stark appreciation of nearly everything else. A walk hand-in-hand on the beach was just heavenly, and a game of Scrabble simply great fun—and there were no losers.
I remember one evening a couple of years ago Stella and I watched a foreign film that moved us both to tears. We tried to analyse its merits the next morning, but neither of us could adequately explain what was so good or touching about it. Perhaps it wasn’t about the film at all. Maybe it was just the ‘air’ we were breathing.
Couples confronting the cancer challenge should remember that knowledge is power, and they should be aware that they are not alone. Couples should learn to share their acquired wisdom and insights. So often in the clinic, there was Stella in a recliner, IV tube snaking out of her arm, ‘mentoring’ a ‘newbie’ or simply offering advice or an understanding ear to a neighbour. Those affected by cancer are richly diverse and can become the ‘support group’ that couples need. Stay close to them.
My wonderful wife never wanted me to call her brave—and bravery is among the least of the amazing qualities she displayed. Stella wanted nothing less than to be cured and to be encouraged that, whatever her physical condition, there was always something that could be done to move forward with hope. Call it what you will, but it takes a lot of courage to be told you’re going to die soon and then to answer back, ‘That’s what you think!’
So when the cancer returned, we ventured to China for her treatment; we read and studied and researched and juiced; we practised qi gong and reiki – and Stella ‘lived’ day after day and year after year. I scoured the net searching for the latest treatments, graphed test results and tumour markers. I watched in awe as Stella, often in anguish, continued her regimen with a blend of grace and toughness that I had come to expect from her. She was my hero and led the way.
The cancer sometimes enraged Stella, tried to crush her, grinding her spirit into pieces of pain and fear that people without cancer can never fully understand. Somehow – until the final cruel wave – she always found a way to gather the pieces together again and move forward. This is Stella’s lasting lesson for me.
Chinese medical principles are bound historically by the concepts of yin and yang, labels that describe how virtually everything – every single thing – functions only in relation to other things and to the universe as a whole. Nothing exists on its own, but only in relationship to something else. As it is with objects or things in the natural world, so it is with people. We are all connected.
The Taoist leader and poet Lao Tzu taught that yin and yang control each other to create harmony and balance. These forces are continually transforming each other in a give-and-take dance of life. The poet writes:
Being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy complete each other…
The simple act of breathing, for example, demonstrates this transforming pursuit of balance and of life completion. We inhale. We exhale. And the dance continues.
So let us not be numbed nor disheartened by tomorrow’s headlines. Instead, let us respond with a heightened sensitivity to others around us – no matter what they are going through. Let us reach out more, listen more closely to those in need and take action when we can. Inspired, our genuine displays of strength, compassion and common humanity might truly honour those we love and care about and give comfort to perfect strangers caught in sudden turbulence somewhere faraway.
But don’t wait too long to look once more upon your wife’s face.
“… soon we shall die and all memory will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love
will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead – and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
(Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey)
About Michael and Stella:
Michael Riordan lives in Torquay, Victoria. He and his wife Stella Mikin were secondary teachers in Geelong, Victoria, for many years before they moved to Singapore, where they lived from 1994 to 2004. They returned to Australia when Stella suffered a recurrence of breast cancer. Stella passed away on 26 May 2009.
A secondary teacher and Department Head in Geelong, Stella Mikin successfully balanced home and young children with inspiring teaching. Stella met her husband Michael in 1989 when both taught at Sacred Heart College in Geelong. They married in 1991. Apart from all her achievements and qualities, she was most proud of being the mother of her loving children and her true legacy.
Michael Riordan taught English and Literature at several schools in Geelong, mostly at The Geelong College. There he was Director of Staff Development and Head of Humanities. He has published poetry and short stories in the U.S. and Australia and has written several musical plays for schools, community theatre and a professional touring company. He is currently writing and researching a book for carers.
‘Stella’s Books’, a private collection of over 500 titles on health and healing, is offered for people affected by cancer. Books and other resources are freely available from Michael’s home in Torquay for loan and reference.
Readers may contact Michael Riordan on 0423 664 126 or email [email protected] for more information.
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