By His Side:

A Love Story That Cancer Could Not Kill

By Rennae de Freitas

            Standing by his side, preparing to board the Medevac was not how they planned to leave the island. In fact, they had only just begun to live out their God-given dreams when he started coughing. Just a few weeks ago, it was just an annoying cough, but on this day of their departure, the cough had a name. It was Mesothelioma.

            Sitting next to him in the clinic, she heard the doctor say the name. She thought that he was speaking Spanish. The doctor was completely bi-lingual, speaking perfect English, and yet the name was so foreign. Still, in the fog of that dreadful diagnosis, she heard a familiar name being pronounced by the physician. It was the one that no one ever wants to hear at the doctor’s office. Mesothelioma was cancer.

            Her husband had the profile of the typical Mesothelioma patient. He had honorably served his country for six years in the US Navy and enjoyed a successful career as an electrician until retirement. In his work and military service, he had been exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma occurs as a result of inhaling or swallowing asbestos fibers in the work place. The fibers become lodged inside the body and the cancer can appear several decades later, and such was the case for her beloved.

             She had loved him for over 47 years, they had built such a beautiful life together raising the two boys, and now enjoying six amazing grandchildren. Together they had served the impoverished children of their city and been leaders in their church. Now they were in the retirement years. When most of their peers were looking to spend their days on a golf course; they had different dreams. That is what she adored about him; he wanted to live a life that mattered.

            So instead of buying golf clubs or setting sail on a Caribbean cruise, they packed their bags and some power tools and headed for Costa Rica. His years of experience as builder for companies was now put to use building churches and camp facilities for the children of Costa Rica. She was always by his side cooking for the teams of workers, a faithful prayer partner, living their “dream come true” together. His heart was always moved by the poverty that surrounded him both in the inner city and now in the developing world.

            That is why they couldn’t ignore the call to the Caribbean, but it wasn’t for a cruise or to the beautiful beaches and wealthy islands, it was to some of the poorest people of the Caribbean, the Haitian sugar cane workers. News of the devastating earthquake and the thousands of refugees in the neighboring, Spanish-speaking, Dominican Republic, caused them to pack their bags and the power tools once again to make a move.

            She would watch him in the pew of the American churches as he shared his burden for the Haitian people, often with tears running down his cheeks, asking for support to serve the poorest people in the Western hemisphere. He would describe his love for the Haitian people as though he knew them personally, as though he had walked with them in the sugar cane fields and felt their suffering.

            And as she watched, her love grew. How does love grow after four decades? She often wondered. Young people may admire and pursue the newness of romantic love but it could never compare to a love that has grown through the journey of life. This kind of love is the real deal; it is what makes every day worth living, no matter where you live, no matter what your circumstances.

            So they would arrive together to serve the poorest of the poor, only to have it all cut short by the circumstances of that annoying cough with a horrible, cancerous name.  Mesothelioma had arrived in their world like a bandit of destruction to the life they were building and the gifts they were giving.

            She would step on the Medevac with him that day as they left the island that they loved together and never return with him by her side. She would sit by his hospital bed, stand vigil in prayer, and never give up on a miracle. Ultimately after a battle of only a few short months, the last place she would be by his side would be at the grave when Mesothelioma delivered its most devastating blow.

            Still it was impossible for Mesothelioma to steal anything that their love had given to the people and the places that he had touched. Their love story would suffer the pain from the attack and abuse of this horrible cancer, but the attack could not weaken their love. It would only grow stronger and in the end, even death could not extinguish the impact of their love story.

            As she stood by his coffin, her prayers had changed from imploring supplications, to onerous questions. Why would his life be cut short when he was doing so much good? Why would a man who honorably served his country, didn’t smoke or drink, loved his family and his wife faithfully, be taken by such a dreadful disease? It was hard for her to hear the answers that day in front of the coffin.

            Previous days of standing by his side would turn into the cherished memories of their love and life together. She had walked down the aisle with him, rocked their babies with him, attended the football games, danced with him at their sons’ weddings, traveled across oceans with him, served hungry children with him, built churches with him and suffered mesothelioma by his side. His absence was an emptiness that inflicted indescribable pain caused by their cancerous enemy. Yet those same memories were the seeds of the legacy that mesothelioma could never rob.

            Cancer feels like a thief. Yet when a life plants the seeds of beauty into the earth, those that are left behind get to water and watch a garden that grows from that love. Today she is watering those seeds, some of the seeds are in her grandchildren, others  live in Costa Rica and still others work in sugar cane fields.

            They lived a beautiful love side by side and it seemed like mesothelioma would  audaciously take him out of their love story. Maybe that would be the case if you only lived in romance, but when you live in the middle of a real live love story, the result of two people in love is a garden of blooming flowers that the weeds of cancer could never destroy.

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