Eric and I had a few “big” conversations during that first year, but they were mostly to pass the time while we were in the hospital and occurred while I was heavily medicated. Round two, brought on the need to actually have some of the bigger conversations, preferably while I was off the narcotics. Tim McGraw has a song named “Live Like You Were Dying,” it seemed plausibly appropriate at the time. At the very least, it brought me to tears. Eric and I are both oldest child, type A, regimented, and fairly practical people. So, to us, was the bigger picture asking you to “live like you were dying’ or “live like you were living?” It sounds weird, but it was a practical decision that needed to be addressed. We were both under 40, had 3 kids, a new mortgage, a car payment and even a small amount of college debt. We weren’t crazy spenders, but we had previously been enjoying two incomes and even if you are Warren Buffett himself, cancer isn’t cheap. Even more so, living with cancer is probably signing yourself up for a mountain of debt. We were lucky enough that Eric worked for a large company with benefit of a corporate health care plan. I was blessed with the opportunity that few cancer patients had; I could quit work and concentrate on beating cancer. Eric took care of the bills and the hundreds of hours spent on the phone arguing with our insurance company. I’ve become friends with so many cancer warriors that didn’t have the luxury to do the same. There must be nothing like the pressure of toting your laptop and IV pole at the same time.
Hence the dilemma. Do you throw in the towel mentally, do what you can to slow down tumor growth and start chipping away at your bucket list? The list you thought you would have had until at least eighty to accomplish. Or, do you choose living because you know that the mortgage isn’t going to pay itself and the kids current growth charts look unlikely for professional sports or the salaries that correlate. Perhaps, cultivating stability and routine would be a smidge less damaging to our children’s mental health in the long run than running away to Belize and pretending cancer doesn’t exist. It’s not that it didn’t cross my mind. Maybe, we should slow down enough to cultivate friendships that would turn into family so our kids would have a village to lean on should the unspeakable happen, while working enough to keep the lights on?
Ultimately, we decided upon the Gehringer version of somewhere in the middle. Although, over the next several years, I would bring up running away to Mexico more times than I can count. We decided we would keep on living. Somewhat, the opposite of Tim McGraw’s song. This meant informed decisions to not drain the savings account for a last bash vacation and to seek out clinical trials. Supporting Eric in continuing to work crazy 12-hour days with lots of traveling in order to be in the running for senior roles within his company. To continue to plan as though someday cancer would not hold the main stage. To have “boring” days and most importantly in the honesty of potential dying to commit to a large financial burden and one of the hardest emotional commitments (a phase 1 clinical trial out of state. A story for another time.). However, we were going to intentionally slow down (some forced by treatment and its side effects) and enjoy the “little things.” We were going to say “yes” to any scaled back version of our bucket list activities.
Intentionally choosing a life direction doesn’t make following through easier. The challenges rolled in. Mostly, on Eric’s part. While he never complained, that man does not have it easy. Keeping up with the workload at his job while always trying for that next promotion meant basically not sleeping. He was known for working all day, running home to have dinner with the kiddos and coming back to sleep at the hospital (in a recliner no less.). He knew the company gym only in the sense of its ability to offer him a way to go straight from the hospital to work and still get a shower in. Early on, he would come home to have dinner with the kids, tuck me into bed and take Ethan back to work (chilling in his car seat under Eric’s desk) so my mom could get a few hours of sleep. It was made only slightly possibly by his genetic ability to require little sleep and my mom’s amazing live in help. He perpetually lived in a state of blood shot eyes and large amounts of Diet Pepsi. Later on, when we decided to go for the out of state clinical trials, there were eight hours travel time between home and the hospital. We are the first to admit that we missed a lot. Even today, because of Covid, Eric’s work schedule, having three kids and two dogs, and existing in what feels like an eighty-year-old body …. We miss a lot. My body doesn’t care if it is a holiday; it shuts down at nine pm. As in, I get a monster of a headache, word finding becomes non-existent and my ability to concentrate goes significantly downhill. It is rare that you will find me driving after eight pm. For some reason (ha, ha), my kids activity schedules don’t really seem to care. Positively though, they are independent and realize that their life does not end if they don’t have a large cheering section at each activity. One adult can provide a whopping of a cheering section and our friends that are our family cheer just as loud (if not louder) than us.
It wasn’t all bad though. We also said “yes” to a lot. In an attempt to live as normal as possible, some choices were disastrous, but most were magical. Eric is a huge Michigan football fan made even stronger by the Gehringer “house divided” status. Half of his family cheered on Michigan State while the other the University of Michigan. How you “choose” your team as a child is still an unknown to me. Eric’s dream was to take his father and Garrett to a University of Michigan home game. Eric had never been growing up and tickets weren’t exactly cheap twenty years later either. But, we took the moment of being off treatment and feeling decent for Eric to fly back to Michigan with Garrett. A home game win, amazing tickets with the first snowfall of the year and three generations together made for one hell of a “mini bucket list” win. Before cancer, we would have pragmatically said no because of the expensive football and airplane tickets, the time off work, or feeling like there would be a “better time” in the future. We were all so happy we did it.
So, you do you. What works for your family. Either way, make your informed decision and don’t look back. That is tough. The clinical trial could have easily gone the other way. I guess it actually did … the first one only worked for three months (and we took a wild Disney World trip right before that,) but we pulled our big girl pants up and tried again. I’ll have to save our Disney trip for another day.
Until next time,