July 14th, 2016
| Caregiver: Colon and Rectal Cancer
My wife Tonia was initially diagnosed with cancer when she was only 38. We were told it was stage 3 ovarian cancer. But a few weeks later, we learned that it was a misdiagnosis - it was far more aggressive and far more along than that. It was stage 4 colon cancer.
As soon as we found out, we did everything we could to take control over this diagnosis. Living in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and New York City allowed us to see multiple oncologists and many prominent doctors. Our lead oncologist was amazing - she had beautiful bedside manner and did everything some of the others did not. There’s one moment I’ll never forget, when she hugged my wife and told her, "You’re not sick, you have cancer."
But even the top doctors in the world couldn’t help. After more than 5 surgeries in the period of a year, and the unsuccessful treatments, she started a clinical trial. It was our last hope. But as we were walking out of the center, they told us: “we can’t help you anymore”. As a father, husband, professional athlete and control freak, hearing that sentence resulted in an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
I realized that I couldn’t control this cancer. I couldn’t control what was happening to Tonia, nor the range of emotions that she was going through and the impact it was having on our young family.
I was trying to learn how to be a husband with a dying wife. I remember my kids going to lay next to their mother in the hospital bed and my wife telling them, “no, not now.” I can’t forget the look on their faces. Once she knew she was going to die, she went through all of these different phases, including separation. She was trying to protect them by separating herself. My wife was angry, that was the reality. She didn't have to hold back anymore. She was trying to take control of her death.
As the father of her two children, her caregiver and her best friend, I wasn’t sure how to help her anymore. She needed that assurance that she was gonna be okay, and I tried to give her that. I don’t know whether or not that was right or wrong. I look back and remember her saying she’s going to die and me telling her “no, you’re not.”
But then 30 days later, she was right.
On the morning of my Tonia's death I held her in my arms and whispered to her that I love her with all my heart and that it was OK for her to go and that I would be able to handle everything with the kids.
It’s been 7 years since her death now. I’m still learning how to be a father to children without a mother. And I’m still struggling. As a spoiled boy in a big Greek family, I was the last person who should be a single parent. I had no skill sets like my wife, I had to create new ones. There are a lot of things I don't remember towards the end of her battle - I was consumed by making her comfortable, while also acting as the interpreter and coordinator, on top of everything else. But what I do remember is everything else - the wife and the mother that she was, and the way that she handled things.
I’m working on being a father and a mother all in one. I have to fill both roles of parents now. Sometimes I’ll be a dad and freak out...but then I’ll come back as Tonia and be more considerate.
I couldn’t control what happened to my wife back then and I cannot control the way I still feel now, but I can control the way that I deal with these emotions. At some point along the way, I had to admit that I needed help. I never feel weak for expressing my sorrow in front of my kids. I talk to them. I tell them I miss her. I listen when they tell me they miss her. When a song comes on that makes us think about her, we reminisce about old times. I don’t hide anything from them.
Trust me, that’s not always easy. Last Mother's day, after going to church, I went to the cemetery to hang out with Tonia. As I drove up to her grave, I saw my son sitting in front of her tombstone, talking and crying to his mom. I drove by and didn't let him know I was there - I sat in my car crying because I saw my son hurting and at that point realized maybe I couldn't do "this" - I thought I could handle anything thrown out at me because that's how I was programmed - work harder, become stronger and faster but this time cancer beat me down emotionally. But we are working on it.
Since Tonia's death, my kids and I have been working toward a new normal and we are still figuring it out day by day. As a widower, I want people to recognize that time doesn’t always heal everything. We still have bad days, years later. It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. People heal and cope differently. It’s not like the movies.
I recognize that, everything in my upbringing prepared me to deal with adversity. I was a professional soccer player- I played on national teams and at UNC. When there was a problem on the field you fought and worked harder. I’m definitely a Type A personality and a lot of men don’t have that same confidence to share how they feel. It made me think: How do they deal with cancer? We’re human, but most guys can't get a hold of that. Most of us don't go out and say how we feel all of the time, so that’s why I am here, saying it.
If you are a man dealing with your own cancer or a loved one’s diagnosis or passing, please realize that everyone needs help and admit that you do too. As soon as you say it outloud, you will regain some of that control. And remember, it is OK to have a bad day.
We can’t ever get our loved ones back, but we can move forward with our lives in honesty and with the confidence to talk about how hard it is to figure out how to be a father, without his wife.
Have you ever faced your new normal after losing a loved one? Share your experience in the comments below.
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