The Fallible Caregiver Series: Helping Her Feel Normal
Last updated: March 2023
I know what abnormal feels like. I know how awful it feels to think that everyone around you sees you as messed up, broken, weak, and abnormal. Whether or not that’s how people see me, I don’t truly know, but that’s how I feel they see me. I know well the painful tears I’ve cried out to God asking, Why do I have to be like this? Why can’t I just be normal like everyone else?
How I process my feelings
Now, of course, we all know that no one is "normal" and all together. But I’m not talking about the reason here, I’m talking about those damn things called feelings.
My abnormal is that wretched bug that sneaks up on me from seemingly nowhere and compels me to go get drunk. Here’s my story in four sentences:
- I grew up in a good home with wonderful parents, but I started partying and drinking my senior year of high school, but not until then.
- At 19, my world turned upside down (in a good way) when I became a Christian and from 19 to 30, I never touched alcohol and had no desire for it.
- From about 28 to my mid-30s, I lived in a difficult and abusive marriage (her verbal abuse), and to find some type of relief, I started drinking again, slowly at first, but it got worse over time, and we eventually divorced.
- I struggled badly for a few years after that but by turning to God and support groups, the pieces of life came back together and that’s when I met Rebekah (the good wife) and we got married.
When I have fallen
In my last article, I talked about cancer introducing a whole new host of emotions, stressors, and temptations into a marriage—or just a life. So I don’t speak from theory, I speak from our own story, from real life.
In our almost eight years of marriage now, I’ve "fallen" more times than I wish. I’m not a daily drinker, I’m periodic, screw everything, three-day drinker. In Christian terminology, it’s when I fall.
I always get back up and slowly start fighting forward again. But it’s not without consequence in our relationship or my view of myself—which is in the gutter.
Geez, we're getting really real here, huh? But whatever, I promised to be real with you in my first article. My point in all this is that I know well how it feels to see yourself as an outlier, as broken, and as abnormal from all the rest of the beautiful people.
Who my wife is now
Stage 4 cancer has hamstrung my once lively, energetic wife. Fifteen rounds of full brain radiation permanently took her beautiful curly brunette hair. Her strength is half what it was before.
Her memory has lapsed and her desires for physical fun and intimacy ebb low to nil. She hurts both physically and emotionally. If you’ve read this far here, you probably know of the things I speak about.
Yet her heart cries out to be "normal." I know that cry. So one thing I always try to do is help her feel normal. I try to help her not know she has cancer.
Telling my wife's story
This idea of helping her not know she has cancer surfaced spontaneously one day when we were filming our documentary, A Brave Hope. A Brave Hope is a film about Rebekah’s life story (and our story as a couple) dealing with traumatic events in her early life and then stage 1 and stage 4 cancer in her young adult life.
It’s a remarkable story of hope and its won many awards at film festivals around the country. We released it to the public last November. You can learn more about it at www.abravehope.com.
Okay, I snuck a plug-in for our movie, but back to the point. During one session where our producer was filming me and asking me questions, I spontaneously said, "Cancer has definitely thrown a monkey wrench into life and changed everything. Cancer takes a lot away from people. It steals a lot, so you have to fight to keep that from happening… Fighting to help her not knowing she has cancer. Helping her to feel beautiful and normal."
Now I had been doing this all the while, but I didn’t realize it until I put it into those words. As I think about it, we both fight to help the other not feel abnormal. Rebekah is full of grace and never makes me feel like a second-class human. She helps me feel like a first-class winner. I’m very blessed.
I want to close this out by sharing three ways I try to help her feel like she doesn’t have cancer.
How I help my wife feel normal
First, I treat her normally in public as if she didn’t have cancer. But I try to go beyond normal; I try to exhibit pride in my girl. Rebekah is a white girl with an obvious white bald head. She’s a walking advertisement for cancer. But I’ve never felt embarrassed by it. I’ve never felt the desire for her to wear a hat, scarf, or wig. She tried a couple of wigs early on, but they were hot and scratchy, and so most of the time now she just rocks her bald head.
Of course, we miss her hair, but it is what it is now. She’s not embarrassed by it, so I choose not to be. In fact, I feel pride in her and her courage. When we go out anywhere, I hold her hand, stick my chest out a bit, and I try to be a walking advertisement that says, "This is my girl. She’s beautiful. I don’t want you; I want her. I’m proud of her." Something like that.
No kid gloves
Second, I treat her with velvet gloves, but not kid gloves. My faith tells me to work hard for my wife, to care for her needs, and to serve her. Remember, I’m the fallible caregiver, so I’m far from perfect at that. But I try. But I don’t do everything for her. I know she’s often tired and feels weak. Part of feeling fulfilled comes through accomplishment and service to others. I try to let her serve me too and I push her—gently—to move outside her comfort zone in life adventures.
For example, we may not be taking ten-mile hikes in the mountains, but we still go camping or take cruises and those are full days. When she feels fearful over something, I will (usually) push her towards that thing and help her find courage. Imagine what marriage would look like if each partner actively tried to out-serve the other?
Downplay certain parts
Third, I try to downplay freaky cancer stuff. With stage 4 cancer, there’s lots of dang freaky stuff. You probably know well the roller-coaster ride of scans, results, and new changes. Treatments are working and then not working. One chemo stops working and a new cocktail is ordered. We are on, I think, chemo-cocktail number six. An old stable tumor starts growing or a new one emerges somewhere.
Currently, Rebekah has an old brain tumor that was stable but is now growing again. She’s already done 15 rounds of full brain radiation and then later, targeted radiation on that one spot. She just finished an MRI, and her team of doctors is now discussing whether to do radiation again or do surgery to remove it. Brain surgery!
Stinkin freaky stuff! I’m freaked out! But what I try to do is not show it. Actually, I try to downplay it. Oh, we both know the reality of the situation, but it will do no good (to either of us) if I freak out and show fear all over my face. So, I will act as if it’s not that big a deal: "Babe, it’s going to be okay. It always is. You always respond well to radiation, and you will this time. We’ll get it, and then I’ll tell you so."
We have created a tradition
That last part about me telling her so is an inside thing with us. The dread always grips her before scans and especially after when we learn the results. She’s freaked out, heartbreaking, tears in her eyes.
That’s how I feel on the inside, but I say, "You’re going to be fine in a cool fashion. You’ll see and then I’ll tell you so." And the scans usually reveal she’s okay and I say, "I told you so," and then I punch her in the arm. It’s a love punch, but enough to leave a slight bruise.
Okay, let me explain. When I was a kid, when my buddies and I got excited about something, we’d punch each other in the arm. My little punch to her is a celebration, like a tradition we’ve created. I say, "I want to leave a little bruise so you remember every time you see it. You’re okay."
She always protests the punch, but she does it playfully, so I know she’s game. I do this because I know a day will probably come when she will want that punch more than anything.
Advanced breast cancer is an isolating and lonely disease.