The love of my life has terminal cancer – and we just got married. Here’s what I learned about hope.

A few weeks ago, I married the man of my dreams. Now in my 50s, with a number of relationships in the rearview mirror, I had yearned for that kind of connection for most of my life and planned to spend the rest of my life with him once he would have appeared.

Brian and I are celebrating our union, but it’s not the kind of wedding where we expect to spend our golden years in side-by-side rocking chairs on the porch.

My husband has incurable cancer. It first appeared in 2019 as a 19 centimeter tumor that burst his small intestine. Doctors said Brian had a 50% chance of surviving before he had surgery that night. He pulled through and slowly recovered physically and mentally. I spent those days doing yoga, walking and praying that the cancer they said was incurable would just go away. But the sarcoma came back like a lion in 2021, with multiple tumors in her abdomen growing very rapidly.

To be honest, we don’t even know if this marriage will reach the fifth anniversary. And dare I say it… I’ll be OK if it’s not. You see, I learned that my situation, good or bad, neither gives nor takes away my hope.

It has not always been so. For most of my life, I measured my hope by how society (and the dictionary) taught me, based on the situation at the time. I worked hard to control my bank account, my relationships, and the day-to-day world in order to feel good. When we have this vision of hope, we are bound to keep all the elements of our life well aligned so that hope remains.

I’ve always been pretty good at keeping things together on the outside. I gave birth to my second daughter while studying for my second year of law school and two months after my separation from the father of my children. At the same time, I managed the care of my mother, whose early Alzheimer’s disease required placement in a nursing home, with me as guardian and family caregiver, who was too naive and overwhelmed.

I moved forward and eventually founded an estate planning law firm and wealth management practice with many satisfied clients. I was voted best lawyer by the readers of a local newspaper three years in a row. I looked successful on the outside, and in many ways I was. But as I achieved “professional success,” I still faced challenges, losses, and destructive voices in my own head. I ran out of money and couldn’t pay. Relatives fell ill. Some are dead. And when the challenges seemed too hard or painful, I sometimes felt like the ground was falling under me. There were many days when I felt really desperate.

The author and her husband, Brian, exchange their vows.

Courtesy of Marisa Youngblood

Most of us have been taught that hope is something that happens when the future looks bright and our situation looks rosy. We’ve spent our lives trying to control our days, our relationships, and the world to make things “just so” so that hope stays with us.

After decades of trying to control my outer world, I finally learned that I had always misunderstood hope. The key to being OK is not controlling what happens in my world (I mean, none of us can actually do that anyway).

Instead, the key is to let go of the belief that I can control what happens and get in touch with the true source of hope, which is internal, not external. Hope is a spring planted within each of us that is available in any situation, including incurable cancer. This feeling of joy and well-being should not disappear when life takes an unexpected turn.

I had the opportunity to learn the truth about hope many times before Brian’s cancer onset. Over my mother’s early Alzheimer’s and years of watching her slowly lose her mind. When my granddaughter was born almost three and a half months early and spent three months in the hospital between life and death. While my best friend endured four painful and heartbreaking years of aggressive leukemia treatment as a single mother, leaving behind three children when she died.

I have been a student of hope all my life. In fact, I was writing a book about hope, “Hope(less),” when Brian’s cancer returned last year. Originally, I didn’t dig into the topic of hope because I felt like I had plenty of it, but quite the opposite. For much of my life, I felt that every time hope finally came to visit me, something devastating happened and it quickly began to slip through my fingers.

When I was surrounded by the pain of human life, I couldn’t feel hope – all I could feel was pain and I thought it would never end. I sometimes believed in the idea that I would never be well again. Over time, I discovered that pain doesn’t have to go away to enjoy my days.

There is a bittersweet emotion in life when mortality is staring you in the face. Since Brian’s return from cancer, some days I feel more alive than ever and more grateful than ever for this day with my amazing partner. I feel the wind on my face and hear the birdsong more distinctly than before the cancer joined our journey.

And yes, there are also days when I feel devastating sadness or dread that Brian is dying. Not having him here to enjoy our grandchildren, or to talk with me about the deepest things in the world and help me see what I otherwise wouldn’t have, will be a devastating loss if he dies before then. me. I feel better when I breathe deeply and focus on where I am right now. It is one of the clearest paths for me to find the hope that is always there.

The author and Brian on their wedding day.
The author and Brian on their wedding day.

Courtesy of Marisa Youngblood

Six months of chemotherapy has shrunk Brian’s tumors and they are currently calm; It’s been three months since her chemo ended and they haven’t grown back at all. But without a miracle cure, they will grow back – we just don’t know when. And so we move on today to living like most people do: one moment at a time. Oh, and celebrate our new marriage.

As we begin to send thank you notes, we also allow our hearts to open wider as we contemplate our mutual mortality. Thanks to my estate planning work, I have a daily reminder that just because I don’t have cancer doesn’t mean I won’t die soon.

Allowing all of life to unfold―joy and sorrow, agony and ecstasy―opens my heart beyond what I thought was possible. For so many years, I thought I couldn’t take the pain or the difficulties anymore. I felt like I was going to die if I had another big loss. But experience has shown that my heart can contain anything. Hope can contain everything.

There are many reasons to feel hopeless in 2022. We have never needed hope so much in our lifetime as we do now, both globally and individually. And luckily, it’s here. He hasn’t gone anywhere, and he won’t go, even if things look cloudy on some days.

Hope is how Brian and I found joy in planning our wedding, even though we knew our time together might be cut short. We don’t know exactly what the future holds. We don’t know exactly how well we will be, only that we will be. We know that we will have both pleasure and difficulty, joy and sorrow. It’s all part of life, and it’s all part of hope.

That’s what life asks of each of us, just to be with what’s here. In the end, I don’t need to find hope, just remember.

Catherine Hammond is an estate planning lawyer, financial advisor and life transition guide. She calls Colorado Springs home where she enjoys all outdoor activities, especially with her three young granddaughters.

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