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I was on a work trip in California when I received the message that I didn’t want to read: “Can you call me when you get a few minutes?”
My boyfriend, Jeff, had gone to the doctor earlier that day for an endoscopy, a procedure that we considered precautionary. But, there it was, a request to call him. Whatever news he had received at the doctor, he didn’t want to type in a text message.
I excused myself from the cup of coffee I was sharing with colleagues and found a sunny bench outside the Disneyland Resort. Tucked away from the coworkers and colleagues from the conference, I actually smiled. I was in the happiest place in the world, it was Valentine’s Day, Jeff was only 40, the news couldn’t be that bad.
Thus composed, I called Jeff. He didn’t waste time with preliminaries.
“They don’t know if it’s cancer, but they did find something,” he said calmly.
“Something,” I asked?
“A tumor,” he stated bluntly.
I knew something was wrong
If I’m really honest with myself, if I probe into the dark places of my gut, I knew that Jeff had cancer.
There was the persistent cough that developed over the Holidays, causing me to joke with him, “you know that cancer always starts with a chronic cough.” There was the discomfort when he swallowed — a symptom we had dismissed as the development of a rather severe case of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) — that had caused Jeff to stop drinking his beloved IPA, saying that the GERD seemed to flare up when he drank.
And then there was the weight loss. On that fateful Valentine’s Day, holding the phone and listening to Jeff plead with me to stay in California — “there is nothing that you can do now, Jen, we just have to wait for the test results,” — my mind flashed to a recent evening when Jeff had proudly sauntered into the living room dressed in a full-blown yoga outfit, complete with the breathable shorts I had purchased in the hopes that he would join me in a yoga class, and a Powell’s Book Store T-shirt from his recent trip to my hometown of Portland.
I took a picture to mark his conversion to a “Northwest hippie” like me, my laugh masking my concern as I stared down at the photo on my phone. He was skinny. I wondered if he had ever been described as skinny. Even when he was at his fittest, swimming for the University of Richmond swim team, his pictures reveal a goofy, smiling Jeff who looks muscular, broad, and sturdy. Never skinny.
I told myself that he must be showing the results of dating a yogi with a nearly vegetarian diet and, of course, he was drinking less due to the GERD. How could a 40-year-old, otherwise healthy man have cancer? No, it must be the improved diet.
I continued to playfully tease him about going to the doctor about his GERD and his cough saying “we have plans for the future, babe.”
He would agree and postpone calling the doctor.
Diagnosis day changes everything
That is, until one cold January day when we sat down at a bar in Chicago’s West Loop to warm up over an oyster special and a glass of red wine for me. Jeff swallowed his first oyster and his eyes teared up. He actually listened to the rest of whatever story I was telling before politely excusing himself to go the bathroom to throw up. The oyster, he explained upon his return, had just sat in his throat. It wouldn’t pass through his esophagus.
Jeff booked a doctor’s appointment for the next day. They told him it was probably GERD, and that an endoscopy was probably unnecessary given his age and his good health. Jeff persisted. He felt that there was something very wrong and he wanted an endoscopy. It was scheduled for Feb. 14th, 2018.
Valentine’s Day day is our diagnosis day.
Sitting on that sunny bench, I set down my phone and let the tears flow. They didn’t know, I reasoned. They didn’t know that the mass was malignant. It could be benign. I held onto this hope as I packed my bags and headed back to the same airport where I had landed only a few hours earlier.
Jeff sent another message as I booked a new flight:
I smiled at Jeff’s irresistible and irrepressible optimism and shot off a quick message as I raced for a flight bound for Chicago:
The longest flight ever
On the flight, though, as I stared out over the cloudless horizon, tears dripped down my cheeks. I didn’t need the biopsy results. I knew.
But I never could have imagined that he would be gone just four months later.
I dislike it when people say that Jeff “lost his battle” with cancer. Certainly, Jeff battled. He fought hard for his life, harder than I would have fought when facing the brutality of the cancer that Jeff stared down. But this wasn’t a battle. No, this was more like a coordinated, group ambush on a neutral territory.
And, through it all – against all odds – Jeff maintained his optimism to the very end. In a very short period of time, he taught me – and his family and friends, doctors and nurses – just how to live.
And that is what I call winning at life.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Jen!
I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.