My wife got cancer and I couldn't fix it. Finally I learned that's not what's required
At work I fix problems. Here I had to learn that just holding my wife was enough
This First Person column is the experience of Miguel Salinas, who lives with his wife, Maria Carmona, in Calgary. They each wrote their story of Maria's cancer journey. Read Maria's piece here.
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I'm trained as an engineer and I'm a pragmatist. So when my wife fell sick with cancer five years ago, my approach was to tackle it problem-by-problem to make the problem go away.
But did I ever have a lot to learn.
I'd say my journey in caregiving started five years ago, in a hospital room where my wife Maria was lying on the bed, barely awake after surgery. She looked tired, had a tube in her throat and was in pain. I mumbled a few words — "You don't have anything to worry about, you need to rest" — but her eyes told me she knew I was lying. This procedure confirmed she had ovarian cancer.
I kissed her on the forehead and headed home.
In the car, I remember being stuck in a long exercise in futility, trying to justify what I said, trying to find the silver lining, trying to find hope. The headlights illuminated the descending fog; the streets were empty. I never felt so much hopelessness, so alone.
My own mother died of cancer when I was 11 years old. She was in her early 40s. I don't remember being told what was happening and I have no memories on how my mom and dad dealt with it. But that might be where I started with my coping skills — "just deal with it."
During the first three months after Maria's surgery, this "deal with it" approach seemed to work. Medical appointments, surgery recovery, food, kids in school, job — we had rhythm, a routine, a plan.
But I have to smile now looking back. There is a quote attributed to former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson: "Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face."
It was late January, we were supposed to be celebrating our oldest son's 17th birthday. Instead, we were in and out of the hospital again, completing the third treatment cycle. Maria struggled with tiredness, a metallic taste, mouth sores, difficulty going to the bathroom, cramps, was unable to sleep.
I walked into our room and I found her crying. "Why is this happening to me? I don't deserve this. What if we are doing all this and it's not working?"
I tried to help by showing her a verse from the Bible, 1 Peter 1:7: "These trials will show that your faith is genuine.…"
But as I finished, she just looked at me. I could feel the despair.
"How is that going to help me? I am still going to die."
I didn't know what to do. I could only hug her, cry with her. She was wailing on my chest. I felt so helpless, vulnerable and useless. I had no plan at all.
After that night, it was clear that while I was taking care of certain tasks, I had no idea how to really help. Books on caregiving don't really prepare you for moments like this. Yes, they have information but how you individually react to the experience, that's all on you.
I realized I had to check many preconceived ideas on how to tackle problems. Because this was not a single problem. This was life, and suffering is part of life.
Slowly, I learned to be vulnerable, to appreciate outside help and to listen — I mean to really listen to what my wife was saying and to let her lead me where she wanted to go.
Today, five years later, my wife continues her journey, taking medication once a day as part of her treatment. I'm amazed at the love she has for life and her family. And amazed at her willingness to find happiness in the middle of adversity, trying to be calm during the storm. I can only be proud of her and try to be her best support.
I don't know what the future holds for us. But I now know it's possible to live and grieve at the same time. I learned to appreciate what's around me: the sunsets, the sunrises, the birds chirping in the garden, breaking bread with my family, seeing my kids going to school or playing with a puppy.
In the end — no matter how difficult, crappy or challenging the situation is — at one point it will end. This shall pass.
People believe that winning is cheating death but we'll all lose that battle. I learned the real winning is the journey.
Telling your story
As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop, run out of the Central Library in partnership with the Women's Centre of Calgary.