His 30th birthday brought the gift of sweet love, and the end of life as he knew it. But he still has hope.
It was Saturday, September 22, 1990, a day that I had been dreading for months: my 30th birthday. I‘d been lying awake at nights all summer thinking about being 30, scared about being 30. I wouldn’t be in my teens or my 20s anymore, but someone who was getting older in their 30s. Thirty really bothered me. I just couldn‘t get it out of my mind. And now it was here, and I didn‘t want to wake up that day. I was feeling weird, realizing the sun was coming in around the window shades. My eyes were still closed, but I could sort of sense and feel the light. I was trying to shut the brightness out of this shitty day. I just kept thinking I wanted to go back to sleep, I didn‘t want to be 30.
I started realizing someone was up next to me, rubbing, hugging, kissing me, and it felt pretty fantastic. That someone was my wife, Mary, who didn‘t do that very often. She normally let me start things, so this was a nice change. When Mary saw me waking up, she smiled real big. She had big brown eyes, and I thought she was beautiful, and she said, “Happy Birthday!” So I guess turning 30 had some benefits.
Looking back these 21 years to that moment, I remember everything. It was the last time we truly made love before her left breast was removed. It was the last time we made love without worrying if it would be the last time that we made love, and it would be the last time we made love without a big, black cloud hanging over our heads. I still remember how Mary looked. To me, she was perfect. Her waist, her breasts, the whole body, you know. At least it was perfect to me. I loved her and she was the mother of my child, the woman who loved me, my best friend.
Between my birthday and the discovery of the lump in Mary‘s left breast on October 1, we had a couple of quickies that married people do with an 18-month old son, but on my birthday, that was the last time that my mind was truly free to just relax and be with Mary. That last time has stayed with me in my mind these two plus decades. Never again would I be able to look at her and marvel at how beautiful and perfect she was. She wouldn‘t have agreed with me, but there was something unspoiled and unquestionably picturesque about a woman‘s body when a man loves her and knows that woman loves him.
I didn‘t see the extra weight that Mary never lost after the birth of our son. I never saw the few scars she got growing up on the farm. I never saw anything but the perfect giving that we expect in the fairytale marriages that few people ever get to experience, and I was experiencing it. Other than I was turning 30 that day, my life was a fairytale up until then.
This is my story, a story about a husband‘s war with breast cancer. And when I say war, that‘s what I mean. It was and still is a war of survival, of existence, of gut-wrenching pain and agony that most people will never understand and never experience. In some ways, the war never ends, even almost four years since Mary‘s death from breast cancer.
My story isn‘t about how great I was or am because I could have done so much more, nor is this a story about how romantic a terminal illness is, if we believe what Hollywood movies say.
Hopefully, my story will help some other men whose wives or significant others are battling breast cancer, because I‘ll talk about my feelings and my weaknesses along with the dogged desire to keep getting up after getting knocked down and not giving up hope. Sort of like in that Rocky Balboa movie when he‘s talking to his son and he says, “It‘s not how hard you can hit but how hard you can get hit by life and still keep going forward.”
It isn’t a hope that cancer will go away magically, but my hope is that of rebuilding my life and the lives of my children now that Mary‘s gone, and to do what‘s right by my children, Tom and Sarah. It‘s a hope I have that God will bless me with a loving wife, a giving partner, and a best friend to share life with. Somebody to kick my ass and motivate me when I need it. Someone to comfort me in bad times, and someone to hold me when I feel alone.
When my war with breast cancer started, I had my father, my Grandpa and Grandma Stalter, along with a healthy mom. I don‘t have any of that now. My Grandpa Stalter died before Mary was even done with her first round of chemo, and my Grandma Stalter died three months after Grandpa and eight months after Mary was diagnosed, right after she was done with her first round of chemo.
My Grandpa and Grandma Stalter were like a second set of parents to me, and their love and support for the first 30 years of my life is something that I think about every day, and I draw strength from their memory. My dad died of a heart attack four and a half months before Mary. All the people I started this war with now are gone.
My story is one of loss, losing the ones that helped give me the strength to fight this worst fight of my life. And I‘ve had a lot of fights. I grew up an only child, and maybe that made me a little different. Maybe that singled me out to possibly be picked on a little bit. But from grade school all through college, I seemed to get into fights.
I wrestled in high school and college a little bit. I tried boxing a little bit in college, and then I started taking Tae Kwon Do in 1987. So I‘ve been fighting and sparring with people just about my whole life. I‘ve won more than I‘ve lost, but that‘s not important. What is important is that I never gave up, no matter how many times I got knocked down, I never gave up. I always got back up.
From taking Tae Kwon Do for over 24 years, I never thought about not picking up a challenge, not sparring with somebody. When my dad died, and I didn‘t want to get back up. Why was God doing this to me? What did He expect of me? Why did He keep giving me challenges? I felt so broken when Dad died, I felt no desire to keep on fighting. Even my children didn‘t seem to motivate me. I had truly given up.
Whatever would happen to me would just happen. When Mary saw these things change in me, it scared her. She stopped trying to distance herself from me, which she thought would ease the pain of her death when she died. Mary got closer to me again and kicked me into gear. She motivated me to keep going and to keep fighting for our children because they had no one else. I was really all Tom and Sarah had left.
Everyone that was close when this war started is gone. This war with breast cancer has taken a toll on me. Even my old friends seem to be amazed that I can keep on going and talk about what I went through. And they all tell me that I should share this story—my war with breast cancer, so that other men facing this can realize that there are others fighting the same fight and maybe not give up and maybe ask for help.
My friends are surprised that I‘m not mad at God and that I haven‘t given up hope of finding the fairytale life I once had. I did and do still believe in fairy tales, and even though fairy tales have monsters that we have to conquer and get by, I still believe in them.
As I write this introduction to my book, I do see hope on the horizon, a flicker of hope at the end of a tunnel. I had a date on May 14, 2011, 28 years to the day that I had my first date with Mary. When I started writing this book I didn‘t know if this was just a date or the start of a fairytale, but as I finish writing this book I realize it wasn‘t just a date, nor was it the start of a fairytale. It was a wink from God to never give up hope because every date I have until I find my fairytale has to start with that first flicker of hope. My hope won‘t let me give up on life. I still have faith.
*Adapted from the introduction to Still Have Faith
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