Thoughts on Holidays and Thanksgiving

I am a pretty strong introvert. People exhaust me. I need alone time to recharge. I'm incredibly awkward and uncomfortable in large groups and meeting new people. But I have one extrovert trait - I like to process things externally. I like to hash through things with someone I trust. I often don't really know what I'm thinking or feeling until I say it aloud (or write it down.)

Recently I attempted to process externally, made a discovery about something I was feeling that I hadn't been able to fully pinpoint before, and was hurt by the person I was processing with.

The blessing and the curse of cancer is that its usually slow. Even with an aggressive fast acting cancer like Bryan's it will still be slow enough for the patient and those around them to see the end coming most of the time. It's not like getting in a car accident. It's not sudden. You have time to think about it, to process it, to say goodbyes, to prepare.

This is a blessing. It enables you to do things you want to do, to cross stuff off your bucket list, to make sure you say the things you need to say to the people you love. But it is also a curse. It means you have to find rest and peace amidst a sometimes long season of pain and uncertainty. It means you have to live with the reality and stress of death hanging over your head and staring you in the face. It means a lot of waiting. It puts a good and yet heavy pressure on you to make every day count.

With this in mind I have been feeling a lot of pressure about the holidays this year. I have felt the heaviness that comes from knowing that there is a chance that this will be Bryan's last Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact even with the AMAZING statistics that this new trail was able to give us it still leaves us statistically with a more than 60% chance that these will be Bryan's last holidays. Now we are not a statistic and I believe and hope that God will work good things on our behalf, but I still have to live amidst this statistical reality.

And so... even though we are only a few days away from thanksgiving I am still second guessing our current plan to stay in Arizona.

I don't want to look back and have any regrets. I don't want anyone else in Bryan's close circle to look back and have any regrets. I don't want Bryan to look back and have any regrets.

With that in mind about a week ago I suggested to Bryan that maybe we should change our plans for thanksgiving and go up to Seattle. He seemed stressed by the idea and I dropped it, but a few days ago I started thinking and talking about it again.

I don't want to get to the end of his treatment in December and say, "I wish we had gone up to Seattle for Thanksgiving. I wish we had traveled while we could, while Bryan was still feeling good."

I had of course thought about this fear months ago, but my safe guard against it was trying to make thanksgiving here really good and really memorable. I told everyone around me that I wanted a big thanksgiving - the kind my family is known for. I thought if we had a memorable thanksgiving here then even if I at some point thought "oh I wish we had gone to Seattle for Thanksgiving" I could quickly follow that thought with "but at least we got to be with a lot of people we love and have a lot of fun at my parents."

I felt the pressure of letting Bryan's parents down by not being with them for thanksgiving, but I also knew that wasn't entirely on me - they had been invited here and were able to make that decision themselves. I carried the fear that they would regret not spending thanksgiving with Bryan but I also carried the hope that they would choose to be here with us.

That was at least a month ago.

Now only a few days out from thanksgiving I know a few things that are making me second guess our decision to be here for this holiday. I know that Bryan's family is not going to come here. They had already made plans and they will likely need to be down here or with us in Maryland soon enough so they have decided to stay in Seattle. I also know that there are very few people my mom invited for thanksgiving here - in fact right now it looks like it will be just my siblings and my mom's parents. A good group, but not exactly the big full-housed thanksgiving I had been envisioning.

I have been trying to process through my feelings about all of this. As I did so I realized something about why I was holding on to doing a big thanksgiving at my parents house. It was because big thanksgivings at my parents had always been really significant in Bryan and my relationship.

It was thanksgiving day after one of my dad's famous 10 course meals that we stayed up all night talking for the first time and got reconnected. It was the following thanksgiving that Bryan first told me he loved me in my parents living room. We have spent many happy thanksgivings cooking in the kitchen with my dad. Bryan and I both have a bit of the foodie bent and my day's gourmet multiple course thanksgivings have always been a favorite for both of us. When I think back on our relationship and think about thanksgivings I think about being at my parents surrounded by friends and family (and often strangers). And I love those thanksgivings.

When I think about Christmas with Bryan I think about Seattle and when I think about New Years I think about Prague - but those are other stories for other blog posts.

If there was a chance that this was going to be our last thanksgiving I wanted it to be in the place that felt most like thanksgiving in our relationship.

As I processed through my feelings about thanksgiving with someone recently I shared this thought and was met with this response:

"It's not your last thanksgiving, Beth."

This stung. Because of my own insecurities I heard in this a judgment that was not intended. And I was hurt. I felt bad for being so hurt by these words because there is so clearly a lot of truth in them. The message I heard in them was "stop being selfish, this isn't about you, you aren't the one dying." The truth is that there is a lot of selfishness in my thoughts about the holidays.

But there is also a falsehood in this message that I think only those who have walked a spouse through the valley of death can really understand. The message "it's not about you" is a lie. Bryan's cancer is very much about me - in some ways it might be more about me and the kids than it is about Bryan. He would be the first to say that him having cancer has been way harder on me than it has on him.

In the worst case scenario he gets to be with God in a way that he has never been before (pretty sweet deal), but it's the kids and I who have to continue living in this beautiful and terribly broken world without him. It's the kids and I that will have to live with the regrets we may have about his last days, it's the kids and I that will have to live with the constant reminders that he's gone. If there has ever been a time when I think a wife should be allowed the privilege of being selfish about how her time is spent with her husband it is now.

This may not be my last thanksgiving, but when you are facing the loss of the love of your life you are also facing the loss of your own life as you know it. It is painfully clear to me that this could be the last thanksgiving as I have known Thanksgivings with my husband. And if this is the last, I am the one who will be reminded of this last thanksgiving for however many more thanksgivings God chooses to give me. If his end comes Bryan will not carry that, I will.

But I am painfully aware that I am not the only one who will carry that.

There are a number of others who like me will be left with a vast void if Bryan were to die. There are a number of others who will potentially carry their own regrets and hurts about Bryan's last days and this is something that keeps me up at night.

I worry about this constantly. I continually think what can I do to make it so others don't feel as much regret if the worst happens, how can I help others to have closure if it comes to that. This is the reason I wanted a big thanksgiving where lots of people who care about Bryan could be with him. This is the reason I keep trying to talk people into coming out to Maryland to visit while we are there for Bryan's treatment. It's the reason why I want to take the kids with us to Maryland for at least part of the time.

And it's the reason why over the past week I have been the one bringing up the possibility of going to Seattle and between the two of us have been the person pushing for that more.

This is really why the statement pointing out my selfishness stung so much. Because I feel stretched so thin carrying the burden and fear of how others might handle Bryan's potential death and the regrets they may have. I feel stretched so thin trying to play caregiver to everyone, trying to balance Bryan's needs and desires with our kids needs and desires and the needs and desires of others who deeply care for Bryan. Having carried all that, it hurt to have this response when I expressed some selfishness in a moment of externally processing.

I have spoken with the person who made this comment. I know now that the way I heard it and the message I took from it were not at all what they meant or intended. The comment was meant as comfort and said in love, but was colored in my mind by my insecurities - and my own guilt over the selfishness I saw in myself during this season. Interesting how that happens, isn't it?

How I heard the statement was influenced by the tension I feel as I am trying to balance the needs and desires of my husband AND the needs and desires of those he will leave behind - and yes I am included in that. I realized in the message I took away from this innocent statement that perhaps there is some part of me that thinks I shouldn't be included in that. At times there is a part of me that feels guilty for wanting to selfishly shape how Bryan's last days might look.

I think I needed to process this statement the way I heard it, and write this post as an attempt to try and convince myself that its ok for me to take my needs and desires into consideration when planning what might be my last holidays with my husband. I needed to convince myself that there is a time and a place for being at least a little selfish and taking advantage of the blessing and curse of time that cancer provides.

Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany

MelanomaBethany Stedman