I stop wiping the countertop, place my hands on the cold granite and gaze at my husband Rohn and our three daughters, seated at the kitchen table. They talk and laugh as they finish dinner. But I’m done. I’m always the first up from the table–a habit I picked up from my Dad, who would finish his dinner and be up from the table within ten minutes. Then he’d go outside to work on a neighbor’s car, complete a home repair or mow the grass. He was always busy, always moving. Rohn’s family, on the other hand, spent hours around their green Formica kitchen table after meals, just talking. His family’s habit has made its way to ours: not an easy task with three active daughters under fourteen. But Rohn insists on dinner together as often as possible, even more so now since his diagnosis of terminal colon cancer. It’s difficult for me to sit still, to remain at the table when there are so many things I could be doing.
I quickly learned that life doesn’t stop for a cancer diagnosis. I care for Rohn, our girls and our home; I continue hospital work as a lactation consultant/registered nurse, and Rohn works at his photography business as his health allows. I manage Rohn’s chemotherapy treatments and doctors’ appointments and respond to the numerous emails and phone calls we receive each day about his health. But I function in crisis mode, somewhat detached. At times, I feel like an observer of my own life. I stand outside of my body, on the periphery, and watch this awful, unstoppable thing happening to my family. Our girls are not aware of the severity of their Daddy’s illness, and I work hard to maintain our normal family life for them. To cope, I keep busy caring for others. This busyness muffles the murmurs in my head: murmurs of anxiety, uncertainty, and probable loss. Then there are times like these around the kitchen table.
The busyness dissolves and I hear a gentle whisper: This is your life: this beautiful, grace-filled moment. Savor it. You will lose him, and soon, but you have this now. Sit still; take it all in: every color, voice, scent, taste, touch and laugh.
I return to the table. With patience and genuine interest in his eyes, Rohn listens as our girls speak, like him, with great animation. We discuss their school days, world news, family plans, the meanings of Beatles songs. I admire him: I adore his probing questions and the patient, insightful answers he gives our girls.
Rohn splays his long body across the padded bench seat at the head of the table, his back propped on a pillow, his legs extended. This splaying has always been his habit after meals, both at home and, to my chagrin, in booths at restaurants. Our ten-year-old daughter tells the latest tween joke, and we break into silly giggles. I smile a smile from the inside out; and close my eyes in an attempt to capture the moment, wrap it up with a bow to save for the future when I know I will need it.
The girls get up and bring their dishes to me as I remind Rohn that the trash needs to be taken out. He goes limp, leans his head back and says, with an exaggerated whine, “But I have cancer! I shouldn’t have to take the trash out.”
At once, all three girls stop in their tracks, turn and say, “Oh come on, Dad. Stop your complaining! So you have cancer—you still have to take out the trash!”
After a split second of silence, we all erupt in laughter.
Rohn catches his breath, feigns defeat and hangs his head saying, “Dang, even a man with cancer can’t catch a break around here.”
The girls clear the table and start their homework. Rohn gives me a quick kiss on the cheek, pinches my rear, gathers the trash and takes it out with a smile. The back door shuts and I hear his merry whistle through the kitchen window. I drop my hands into the warm dishwater, close my eyes again and save another moment for the future.