On Wednesday morning, Bridie was back to see me. She was alone. Doug had returned to work. Her sister in law Dianne was looking after two of the kids. Bridie looked way less perky and way more tired. I expected that her skin likely always paled against her dark curls but today, mauve half circles broadly underlined her eyes. I wondered if this was just a might of bad sleep or if she had been pushing herself to look more composed when she was here with her husband. “You look tired” was my way to introduce my observations.
“I haven’t been sleeping well.” She agreed in a voice not fully committed to conversations. She sounded even more wounded than she looked.
“Tell me what’s been going on for you in the past few days?” I encouraged.
Without hesitation Bridie laid it out. “Doug and I went around to some of our other family and told them in person about my situation”.
“Wow. That must have been tough,” I added although it wasn’t a question I needed an answer to. I just wanted her to know that I understood this was difficult.
She puffed out her cheeks as she exhaled with force. “Pheeew!” Then she crumpled into her chair, as though someone pulled the plug and released the air from her body. “Yes, it was tough”.
“How many times did you have to go over it? How did you find the strength to share this news face-to-face with so many people?”
“Doug’s family is all in town. His sister Dianne already knew something was going on because she kept the kids while I had all the doctor’s appointments. But she hadn’t asked for details so she didn’t know the extent of it. So, we told her and Marc first. Marc is her husband. We are real close to them…” Bridie halted. I didn’t interrupt while she willed herself to continue. “She knew something bad was coming but she didn’t know it was this bad. Doug kinda lost it…they lost it together”. She strained to see something, anything, of interest out my tiny window… something that would distract her from recounting, no reliving, this pain.
“How did you do with it all?” I asked gently, knowing that part of Bridie’s worry is her ability to keep providing support to everyone else, physically and emotionally.
“I went numb, Hattie. I drew a blank. I was no help. I couldn’t remember all the details about what the doctors told us. I couldn’t explain it all. You know it was like on TV where everything is in slow motion. It felt so weird…”
“Were all the visits like that, or just Dianne and her husband”? I was curious about how she managed the series of disclosures. Understanding how she managed now might give me some idea about how to build on those strengths down the road.
“I felt a little more in control, a little more able to get into talking with Doug’s brother Bart. Strangely the easiest person to tell was my mom. She’s living in a home over in Geneva about half an hours drive. I just told her blunt and when she started crying I just hugged her. We didn’t say as much”. She didn’t ask so many questions and she…”
I waited for at least a minute for Bridie to finish that sentence. I’ve learned over the years that the idea or message that trips someone up is generally pretty complex. It can’t be rushed and it can’t be forced. Sometimes people use that pause to filter and edit what they want to say. I try to file it away and come back to it because its usually important. Sometimes people just don’t have the language or even the experience to express what they are feeling, so finding the words with them helps them get it out. The most emotional pieces never come out clean. They bump around in the swell before a person can shore them up; if they shore up. Bridie was working hard to understand these new emotions. “It’s hard to find the words sometimes.” was all I added as encouragement.
Holding back tears, Bridie resumed. “I feel like I’m disappointing people.” Pause. I feel like I ought to be fighting this.” Sob. “Everyone knows somebody they call a survivor…at the hospital the doctor told me I was too advanced. They said all they could do was reduce the tumour so I didn’t have as much pain. I didn’t know I had to fight…” She cleared the stream of tears from her cheeks with her sleeve. I reached over gather the handy tissues.
“Bridie, when you first told me about your diagnosis, well really your prognosis, I was skeptical myself. There are so many advances in cancer care these days I thought there must surely be something that can be done to halt, if not slow, this disease for you”. She looked deeply into my eyes, maybe my message added to her deep haunting hurt; that’s how I felt it. “But I listened to you. I heard you explain what you’d been told. I also heard it straight from the oncology team. Your cancer is aggressive, and very far advanced. Your pancreas is involved. But don’t miss this point: you can fight. You are fighting now. Only for you the fight is different. You are fighting to manage this disease to the end; to support yourself and your family through the worst. That’s not giving up by any long shot, as far as I’m concerned.”
Bridie drew a deep breath, raising the fingers of her left hand to cover her mouth while she closed her eyes and folded forward. “I know.”
When she had gathered her thoughts, Bridie regarded me with a gentle certainty. Softly, she confided, “When we met first, me and you and Doug, you said there were things I could talk about just between me and you?” I nodded, not wanting to interrupt her. “Well, you were right, there are some things I need to work through without Doug. Well, work out is the wrong word. I have to talk about this straight. No window dressing.”
“Of course. I replied.
“ We talked to the social worker and the oncology nurse at St. Germaine yesterday about the kids. It was a really hard afternoon. I have mixed feelings about telling them but we have to because we let other people know and they suggest we control the information.”
“What else did they suggest?” I encouraged.
“Mostly it all makes sense. Because they are all different ages, and they will understand it differently, they suggest telling them alone, then bringing them together afterwards so they know to support each other…except Lynne, of course.” Bridie looked up and away, breathing in deeply then exhaling slowly through pursed lips.
I didn’t interrupt. In time, she resumed. “Since, they already know something is wrong with me the social worker said to verify that I am sick and explain all the appointments. And explain why Auntie Di has been there to help…”. She enunciated slowly and perfectly, clearly working hard to contain her emotions. “They told me to talk about the pain and the medicine. Kids are concrete, they said. Jamie will understand better than Joey. They said to use the right words, don’t sugar coat it. Tell them I will die. My heart will stop beating and I will stop…breathing.” She rocked back in the chair, shoved her hands under her thighs and leaned forward, inspiring to the bottom of her lungs, as if to compensate for her eventual failure to breathe.
“I’m sorry Bridie. This is so hard.” I felt my eyes prickle. She noticed my suspicious blink.
“I…we have to do it Hattie. There’s no way out. The social worker and the oncologist said they would meet with the kids if they had questions and I’m sure if there was no way Doug or me could do it they would tell them but I have to do it; there’s no way out of it.” Pause. “They offered to meet up with the kids right afterwards, and then as much as they wanted after that, to answer questions and make sure they were okay. They said to expect disbelief and denial but that kids understand when things are wrong and of course, over time, it…my condition will all be so much more obvious.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I offered gently.
“Keep me afloat Hattie!” Bridie responded quickly and with vehemence. “Keep me together; keep both Doug and I together. That’s what we need right now. Once the boys get the details of my condition, and it’s outcome, the social worker suggested we talk with the kids about how to keep my memory alive and to keep my love for them alive, even, even…even when I am dead.” She looked me straight in the eye, without wavering. “I especially need Doug and the boys to keep my memory alive for Lynne. She will have no real memory of me.” No effort on my part could prevent one slow tear from rolling down my right cheek. “I know Hattie. This is real sad, isn’t it?” was Bridie’s barely audible reply.
The rest of the meeting transitioned to more practical issues and some rehearsal of what Bridie may say tonight when she and Doug tell their children about Bridie’s illness. Bridie and Doug have talked about who will say what but neither really knows what to expect. They have both supposed certain reactions from the boys and they have considered how to respond but really, neither is entirely sure what to expect. Dianne will help them out, occupying and supporting the alternate small boy who is not in the process of being handed the most devastating news they will get in their whole lives. “We are telling their teachers this afternoon. I’m not fussy on Jamie’s teacher but I think Joe’s teacher will be very kind to him”.
“What’s going on with Jamie’s teacher?” I wondered. I hadn’t thought about the significance of telling the teacher but the oncology team was correct, they needed to be on board because there would be absences and maybe some behavioural regression.
“I just don’t get a good vibe from her. I can’t put my finger on it but its like she expects a lot from the kids. I hope I’m wrong. I guess I’ll know soon.” Bridie unhitched her hands from under her legs and rubbed some blood back into them.
“I’ll give you a call tomorrow and see how it went. You can call me anytime too.”
“I know Hattie. I do appreciate it” She nodded. I noticed a slight flinch as she reached for her coat. Without comment, I held it out for her as she slipped her arms down through the sleeves. “Thanks” she replied knowingly as she turned and walked out of my office, toward and eventually through the waiting room.