Finding Love And Happiness In Life After Cancer

Young couple hugging on Bournemouth beach, Dorset, UK
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At 31, Nora McInerny Purmot was a widow devastated by the death of her husband from brain cancer. Here, she candidly explains how she survived the utter desolation and carved out a future for herself and her son.

My marriage came with a built-in spoiler alert: a very malignant brain tumour that would certainly kill my husband-to-be, though the date was TBD. We’d been dating for a year when Aaron had a seizure at work. The seizure turned out to be a rather large brain tumour, which had been growing undetected throughout our year together, and maybe longer. I didn’t like the idea of an unknown third wheel tagging along for our entire courtship, and I liked it even less when it turned out to be stage IV glioblastoma, which is a medical term for … “oh, crap”. A month after a very handsome brain surgeon sawed his skull open, we were married in the art gallery where we first met. We chose to have a baby a few months later, and our son was born just a few weeks after his dad had a second brain surgery, to remove a second malignant stowaway. But even though there was a big, undefeatable villain chasing us the entire time, our story was a happy one.

I know this because I keep a daily diary, and at the end of each entry, I charted our overarching mood for the day. While Aaron endured chemo and radiation and brain surgeries and blood draws, we remained, each day, happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Love is nuts like that. It makes even sleeping in a hospital bed built for one feel like a vacation. A really expensive and generally terrible vacation that you would give zero stars on Yelp, but still. Even if you know how the story ends, it still tears you apart at the end. You know this because you are alive in a world where comes a funeral” would have a nicer ring to it, and maybe even a cheery ending with a hero to save me from all this sadness and make me happy again. But that is not how it works. I really hate when signs tell me what to do, which is why I nearly always pull on a “push” door. But the church by my mother’s house proclaims in bright orange letters that “happiness is an inside job”, and pain me though it does, that sign isTitanic was at one point the highest grossing movie of all time and it still makes you cry every single time you catch it on TV. Still, my daily diary entries insist that I am happy, even if I’ve spent that day crying while walking through the streets of downtown Minneapolis listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits (feelings are weird), or trying to explain to a toddler what death means.

It’s a well-known fact that most people are stupid. It’s why I didn’t get too bent out of shape when so many people approached me at my husband’s funeral to let me know that at 31, I was still young, still pretty, that I would find someone. They all gestured about the room where my husband was occupying a few plastic bags on an altar made of folding tables, as if to say, “right here! Your next husband could be right here, mourning your first one!” “Being plunged into darkness does make the light shine brighter once you see it, and this pain has made happiness,whenIhaveit, seem all that happier.” right. A part of me always knew that I would be my own hero. I wasn’t a little girl who dreamed about her wedding, so why would I wait around for someone else to save me from this pain? And why was I assuming that the pain is something I needed to be saved from? I hesitate to say there is a bright side to losing your husband, for obvious reasons. There isn’t a part of me that wouldn’t take Aaron back in a heartbeat, no matter how much self- actualisation I’ve gotten since his death. But it’s a fact that being plunged into darkness does make the light shine brighter once you see it, and this pain has made happiness when I have it, seem all that happier. Those dummies were just looking for a happy ending for me, and who could blame them? Happy endings are awesome and lovely, which is why movies end that way, all tied up with a little bow. It would make the people around me so much more comfortable if, after the death of my husband, I could just move on, find a nice guy, start anew. Then, the story that started out “first comes love, then comes brain cancer, then comes marriage, then comes a baby and then”.

Those dummies were right, by the way. I did find another person. And the love I have for him is there in my heart alongside the love I will always have for Aaron. I’m basically a polygamist. My life isn’t simple. It never was, but it never will be. It’s a life lived in contrast, with a kaleidoscope heart that can feel it all, sometimes all at once, and I know nowthatIcanweathertheshifts.Itdoesn’thavetobe perfect for you to be happy – or happyish – ever after.

This piece can be found in the IMAGE July issue which is now available nationwide.

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