It’s finally March, my least favorite month of the year. Really, it’s just one day–March 16th–that puts the stink on the whole month. March 5th has its pleasant memories from our wedding, if I don’t look at pictures and see how sick Richard was by that day. March 6th was the anniversary of when we met (more on that later in the week). But there’s March 16th, 6:25pm, casting a pall on the whole month.
I was in the grocery store this evening. Reached into the milk case to get two gallons for my slurpy baby boy…and I was stopped in my tracks by the stamp on the jugs. March 16. Expiration date.
Two years ago, my friend Elizabeth and I were pregnant at the same time. She posted on Facebook one night: “Y’all! I just bought milk with an expiration date AFTER my due date!”
I totally got what she meant. Something as real and institutional as the mandatory expiration date on milk makes the hazy future seem credible, like it has to happen if you’ve already got milk. The day WILL come when you’ll have a baby and milk in the fridge!
Part of the endgame of cancer is not knowing what each day will bring. Richard refused to accept that he was dying. If there was a .000001% chance of living, he seized it and ignored the rest. His lead doctor at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Judith Karp, is a world class leukemia specialist and also a kindly grandmother. When it was time for the family meeting with Richard, when all of his doctors and nurses gathered in the room so that the doctors could tell him that there were no further treatments for him, Dr. Karp sat on the edge of his bed and put her hand on his knee. After so much time in hospitals, I knew the significance of that–doctors don’t sit on the bed and touch the patient like that on regular rounds. She was doing that because he wasn’t going to be a patient any longer. Even in the face of all that NO, Richard said, “If I go home and beat this fungal infection, can I come back?” Dr. Karp took a slow breath then said, “Absolutely!” as she patted his knee. Even she got choked up. The only thing she could give him at that moment was hope in a hopeless situation. He insisted on hope and she made space for it. I will always respect her for that. That was simple kindness.
So what’s my point? I don’t know. Even milk can’t stop the inevitable? Something like that.
When we came home from Hopkins, I honestly didn’t know if it would be for three days or three months. It turned out to be three weeks. Richard kept things from me at the end–he didn’t burden his family with the hopeless messages that his doctors were giving him. I found out how hopeless things were when I called his local doctor on a Thursday morning and the doctor said, “I told him on Monday that it was time to call hospice.” Oh. OK. Thank you. I hung up the phone and sank down the wall.
He died that night. In March.
We make so much of the firsts–the day we’re born, first steps, first birthdays, first day of school, first kiss, first love, first job, first home–because the lasts are so hard to see coming.