A few weeks ago, I married the man of my dreams. Now in my fifties, with a number of relationships in the rearview mirror, I had longed for this kind of connection for most of my life and planned to spend the rest of my life with him once he appeared.
Brian and I are celebrating our union, but it’s not the kind of marriage where we expect to spend our golden years in side-by-side rocking chairs on the front porch.
My husband has incurable cancer. It first appeared in 2019 in the form of a 19-centimeter tumor that burst his small intestine. Doctors said Brian had a 50-50 chance of survival before they rolled him away into surgery that night. He made it through and slowly healed both physically and mentally. I spent those days going to yoga, taking walks and praying that the cancer they said was incurable would simply disappear. But the sarcoma returned like a lion in 2021, with multiple tumors in his abdomen growing very quickly.
To be honest, we don’t even know if this marriage will make it to the five-year anniversary. And dare I say it… I’ll be OK if it doesn’t. You see, I’ve learned that my circumstances, good or bad, don’t give or take away my hope.
It hasn’t always been this way. For most of my life, I measured my hope the way society (and the dictionary) taught me, based on how my circumstances looked at the time. I worked hard to control my bank account, relationships and the day-to-day world in order to feel OK. When we have this view of hope, we’re required to keep all the pieces of our lives lined up just right so that hope will stick around.
I was always pretty good at keeping things together externally. I gave birth to my second daughter while studying for finals in my second year of law school and two months after I split up from my children’s father. At the same time, I was managing the care for my mother, whose early-onset Alzheimer’s disease required placement in a nursing home, with me as her all-too-naive and overwhelmed guardian and primary family caregiver.
I forged forward and eventually founded an estate planning law firm and wealth management practice with many happy clients. I was voted Best Attorney by the readers of a local newspaper three years in a row. I looked successful from the outside, and in many ways, I was. But while I reached “professional success,” I still faced challenges, loss and destructive voices in my own head. I ran short of money and couldn’t make payroll. Loved ones got sick. Some died. And when the challenges felt too hard or painful, I sometimes felt like the floor was falling out from beneath me. There were many days that I truly felt hopeless.
Most of us were taught that hope is something that arrives when the future looks bright and our situation appears rosy. We’ve spent our lives trying to control our days, our relationships and the world to arrange things “just so” in order for hope to stay with us.
After decades of trying to control my outer world, I eventually learned that I’d misunderstood hope all along. The key to being OK is not to control what happens in my world (I mean, none of us can actually do this anyway).
Instead, the key is letting go of the belief that I can control what happens and getting in touch with the real source of hope, which is internal, not external. Hope is a wellspring planted inside each of us that’s available in any situation, including incurable cancer. That sense of joy and well-being doesn’t have to go away when life takes an unexpected turn.
I’ve had the opportunity to discover the truth about hope many times before Brian’s cancer appeared. During my mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and years of watching her slowly lose her mind. When my granddaughter was born nearly three-and-a-half months early and spent three months in the hospital teetering between life and death. While my best friend endured four painful, heart-wrenching years of treatments for aggressive leukemia as a single mom, leaving behind three children when she passed away.
I’ve been a student of hope all my life. In fact, I was in the middle of 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 an abundance of it, but rather just the opposite. For much of my life, I had the sense that every time hope finally came to visit me, something devastating would happen and it would quickly start to slip away through my fingers.
When I was surrounded by the pain of human life, I couldn’t feel hope ― all I could feel was the pain and I thought it would never end. I sometimes believed the thought that I would never be OK again. Over time, I discovered that the pain doesn’t have to go away to love my days.
There’s a bittersweet poignancy to life when mortality stares you in the face. Since the return of Brian’s cancer, some days I feel more alive than ever and more grateful than ever for this day with my incredible partner. I feel the wind on my face and hear the chirping of the birds more distinctly than I did before cancer joined our journey.
And yes, there are also days when I feel devastating sadness or terror at the thought of Brian dying. Not having him here to enjoy our grandchildren, or to talk with me about the deepest things of the world and help me see what I wouldn’t have otherwise, will be a devastating loss if he dies before I do. I feel best when I breathe deeply and focus on this moment I’m in right now. That’s one of the clearest paths for me to tap back into the hope that is always here.
Six months of chemotherapy have shrunk Brian’s tumors and they’re currently quiet; It’s been three months since his chemo ended and they haven’t regrown at all. But without a miracle cure, they will grow again ― we simply don’t know when. And so we’re spending today living like most other people do: one moment at a time. Oh, and celebrating our new marriage.
While we begin addressing thank you notes, we’re also allowing our hearts to break open more widely 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 ― the joy and the sorrow, the agony and the ecstasy ― is opening my heart beyond what I thought was possible. For so many years, I thought I couldn’t handle any more pain or hardship. I felt like I’d die if I had another great loss. But experience has shown that my heart can hold it all. Hope can hold it all.
There are plenty of reasons to feel hopeless in 2022. We’ve never needed hope in our lifetimes more than we do now, both globally and individually. And thankfully, it is here. It hasn’t gone anywhere, and it won’t, even if things look cloudy some days.
Hope is how Brian and I found joy in planning our wedding, despite the knowledge that our time together may be cut short. We don’t know exactly what the future holds for us. We don’t know exactly how we’ll be OK, only that we will be. We do know that we’ll have both fun and hardship, 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, to simply be with whatever is here. Ultimately, I don’t need to find hope but simply to remember it.
Catherine Hammond is an estate planning attorney, financial advisor and life transition guide. She makes her home in Colorado Springs where she loves all outdoor activities, especially with her three young granddaughters.