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Watching My Fiancé Die Taught Me How to Live

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Jeff just two months before he was diagnosed with cancer

I cringe when I think about the moment when Jeff’s doctor told him he was dying. But not for the reason you might think. It’s not because of the doctor’s words or Jeff’s response that this memory brings me discomfort. No, it’s because of my own response that I recoil.

In retrospect, the doctor was doing Jeff a great kindness by leveling with him so clearly, and so directly. Though diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer three months earlier, we had never used the words death or dying.

But this doctor looked Jeff straight in the eyes and introduced a new and looming possibility into that suffocating hospital room. Her voice was soft but her eyes were firm when she said:

“I’m afraid that we are losing control of this. I think you are dying.”

I was stunned into medically-induced silence. Sure, we knew things were bad. But dying? He was so strong. So young. It couldn’t be. My brain would not process this. No, I insisted to myself. Everything would be OK.

My late partner stayed optimistic until his last days. His death taught me how to live.
Jeff around the time the doctor told him he was dying

It is the only memory I have of Jeff where his eyes appear blue. He responded with his usual pragmaticism to that first use of the word “dying.” Speaking clearly despite the shine of unshed tears disguising his hazel eyes, he asked:

“How long are we talking here? How long do I have?”

It would turn out to be days rather than weeks. But that didn’t stop my campaign of fierce denial.

The paper cranes that people made for my late partner who died of cancer at the age of 40
Everyone Jeff knew made an origami crane for him. He didn’t make it home to see most of them.

The moment that the doctor left the room I told Jeff that she was wrong. I promised him that he would live. Holding tightly to his hands, I willed him to believe my next words:

“You are going to be OK,” I insisted. “We are going to beat this.”

He nodded. Quiet. Thinking. Absorbing the doctor’s words and already sorting out how he would make the best of his last days. A tear escaped his eye and slid down his cheek.

He knew that he was not OK.

my late fiance reading a card days before he died
Jeff reading a card days before his death

It’s OK to be “not OK”

I changed everything when my partner died. Watching him die taught me how to live.

When a friend called to see how I was doing as we approached the two-year anniversary of Jeff’s death, I took a deep breath and said some words that Jeff never heard me say.

“I’m not OK,” I said. “I’m not OK right now.”

It took a year of acute grief and another year of quieter grief to really understand this lesson from Jeff’s death.

Acknowledging to myself and to others that “I am not OK” does not make me weak.

Instead, this acknowledgment encourages me to face my feelings, process them, dig into what’s going on in my mind and my heart, and to come out on the other side some kind of semblance of “OK”.

I can’t go back in time and change my response on that horrible day in Jeff’s hospital room. But, if I could, I would hold his hands and say:

“it’s OK to be not OK right now.” And I would cry with him.

Choose joy

Accepting that you are not OK does not mean you have to wallow in it. This is a lesson I learned from Jeff that dismal day in May.

While I fought back the reality of death, Jeff thought about how he would like to live in the limited time he had left.

It may have been dark inside that hospital, but outside the sun was shining on a Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, and Jeff wanted nothing more than to barbeque for his friends.

Northwestern Hospital oncology wing
View from the oncology wing at Northwestern Hospital

Nevermind the fact that he didn’t have the strength to flip the burgers; nevermind the fact that he wouldn’t be able to swallow the food that he cooked; nevermind the fact that he couldn’t drink the IPA he wanted to rest on the side of the grill. Nevermind. It was the joy of the moment that he wanted.

It’s not that easy to buy a grill in downtown Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, but his dad managed to find one and to have it delivered to our balcony overlooking Millennium Park.

We told Jeff about the grill; he told us about the ingredients he would need for his perfect burger.

Though he never made it home as we all hoped he would, and he never met that grill, Jeff was buoyed by the very thought of a simple BBQ with his friends on Memorial Day.

I thought about that a lot as I quarantined in my backyard over this past Memorial Day weekend. The two-year death anniversary hit me a lot harder than the one-year did, and I was achingly sad about what could have been.

So, I took a page from Jeff’s book. I closed my eyes and felt the promise of summer on my cheeks, and I pictured Jeff at the grill making his perfect burger. Mushrooms, goat cheese, and peppers, if I remember right from his bedside description. A toasted bun and, of course, an IPA to wash it all down.

There is no harm in being “not OK” but in surrounding yourself with joy anyway.

See the best in people and situations. Always.

I was tempted to write “search” for the best qualities in people, but I don’t think Jeff searched. He didn’t have to search, because he either didn’t see flaws in people or, maybe, he chose to search for strengths.

He had a way of really listening to people. Conversations with Jeff meant both light-hearted jokes and thoughtful insights.

In Jeff’s last days, his friends flowed through his hospital room, transforming a suffocating space into one made sweet with friendship and covered in the gifts of flowers and origami cranes that soon hung from every corner of his room.

Jeff’s Friends making cranes

The paper cranes Jeff received were as diverse in shape and color as the people who made them.

Jeff loved every visit and every crane. He wondered out loud how he could be so lucky to be surrounded by so much love.

Paper cranes brightened my fiance's last days. He said "I am so lucky," even even though he was dying of cancer at the age of 40. He taught me how to live.
Jeff with one of his cranes

He chose to see the best in people and the best in every situation. To the extent that he could wonder in amazement at his good fortune even as he died of cancer at the age of 40.

I am still working on this lesson from Jeff. But whenever I am feeling down, I think of Jeff and the way he looked at his paper cranes and saw so much more than paper. He saw simple joy and great love. He saw a life well-lived.

Live like tomorrow may not come

Sometimes, when I look back at the way that Jeff lived his life, I wonder whether he somehow knew that his time here would be short.

For all of his amazing qualities, Jeff wasn’t much of a planner when it came to his future or his finances. His ability to plan, however, was unquestioned when it came to a Halloween party, and you should have seen the meticulous packing list he once made (and kept!) for a camping trip to the Bonnaroo Music Festival.

Jeff on the only Halloween I got to spend with him

Jeff seemed to soak up every moment that he had on this Earth, packing his life with fun and activities, and choosing to work in a job that paid him little in terms of dollars but made up for it in terms of joy.

Jeff worked with disadvantaged children. Kids who had failed within the Chicago Public School System, and were at their last-chance school — Jeff’s school. “His kids” he called them. He brought home stories about his students, finding humor in their antics, and pinning their artwork to his refrigerator.

Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood where the Shining was filmed.
Jeff goofing around at Timberline Lodge and imitating the movie “The Shining”

He chose to make a difference rather than to make a buck.

Me on the other hand?

I was a traveling salesperson who ran from one city to another to make a buck, forgetting to really live along the way.

Not any more. I quit my job after Jeff died. Now I am a freelance writer. I make less and I live more, and I’ll take that tradeoff any day.

Life-changing moments take place outside the comfort zone

I took Jeff’s camping tent out to the Willamette National Forest. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me, and it would have been to Jeff.

Before my partner died I didn't own a backpack. After he died, I took his tent on an overnight camping trip. He taught me how to live.

He loved to camp and swore he would get me into a tent. I dug in my high-heels and said “No way, I don’t sleep outside!”

Why did I think that? I hadn’t camped since I was a kid. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to camp, I just shunned anything new. Anything outside of my comfort zone.

I’m that girl who fell off of her bike as a kid and never got back on.

Since Jeff died, though, I’ve tried to live the way that he did. I’ve done big things like pursuing my dream to be a writer and my desire to see the world. But it’s the small steps outside of my comfort zone that allows me to say that I hardly recognize that high-heeled naysayer of two years ago.

I learned how to ride a bike in France after my partner died. He taught me how to live.

I learned to ride a bike and took it through the vineyards of France; I learned to surf and rode the waves in Bali; I swallowed my fear of crowds and danced the night away at the Full Moon Pary in Thailand – alone.

Before my partner died, I wouldn't go to festivals. After he died, I went to the Full Moon Party in Thailand alone.
No Full-Moon Party outfit is complete without a bit of neon paint.

And then I walked the Camino de Santiago — a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain and lived out of a small backpack for 35 days. That’s a big change for a girl who didn’t even own a backpack. 

when my fiance died, I didn't even own a backpack. And then I walked across Spain. He taught me how to live.

Sometimes I tried something that I really didn’t like. For instance, I tried and failed to become a scuba diver, dropping out of my scuba certification course on the Thai islands. But now I can say that scuba diving isn’t for me because I tried it.

I once stayed in the confining but safe space of my comfort zone. I could have easily existed there, happy enough, but never truly living. Now, thanks to the lessons I learned from Jeff during his life and after his death, I know that transformative experiences are found outside of the comfort zone.

It hurt to lose Jeff and it still hurts. But I am so glad that I had the chance to love him. Because the way that he lived, and the way that he loved will forever influence my life for the better. For that, I am forever grateful.

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. 


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2 Comments

  1. This must have been painful to write. Thank you for your honesty and your openness. It is beautifully written and clearly from your heart. Enjoy your travels, you will never regret doing this.

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