Looking Back



Looking Back

 During a recent rainy day in Phoenix, I began reading a journal I kept when my husband, Michael, was dealing with esophageal cancer. I remember when he bought me this compact purple cloth book with flowers that danced on the cover. They had colorful petals that were painted on like bows. He knew how much I loved to write, but he also wanted me to keep track of everything that was involved during his illness—something I would have done anyway. I stroked the cover feeling the softness before opening to a random excerpt from June 14, 2010, exactly five months before he died.


Michael and I are at his chemo consultation with his oncologist. We arrive late, at 10:00 AM for a 9:45 appointment. We still have to wait. Six people sit in the waiting room. Four of them are patients. I can tell. Call it obvious; call it a nurse’s intuition, there is something about a cancer patient that I spot immediately.

One patient, male or female, sits in a wheelchair with a brown blanket over their head while his or her torso is shaking as if she or he was out in the arctic cold. Another patient sits across from us staring into space. Her right arm is swelled up and wrapped with an Ace bandage. She has on a suede glove fitting tightly over her wrist and fingers. Oh, did I mention my husband standing outside the entrance conducting restaurant business on his cell phone and looking damper in his linen English cap and brown leather lace up shoes? He is still able to hide his cancer, except for his weight loss and gauntness around his cheekbones. His salt and pepper hair forms a skirt around the base of his head. He looks well except for dark circles under his eyes and a prominent limp when he exerts pressure on his left leg. 

His cancer is hidden deep inside his bones and tissues. It hides inside the liver, his spine, his scapula and pelvis. Michael is here today for metastasized cancer of the esophagus. We’re waiting to hear the doctor’s choice of treatment, a chemo with no guarantees to cure, only to give us time, and that’s not a promise, just a guess. It’s a random choice of drug with no definite outcome in mind, only the inevitable—end-of-life.    

Monday afternoon

When we returned home from the doctor’s appointment, my car battery was completely dead. Michael was scheduled to receive his new chemo cocktail at 1:00 PM. I drove my car to the AutoZone after Michael charged the battery. Just saying or thinking the word “dead” leaves me numb. The sudden dying of a battery during the hot summer was both expected and unexpected. The prognosis for Michael will be both expected, yet not expected. There will be shock and disbelief. There will be grieving.

June 15th

A Tuesday

Chemo side-effects





Hiccups (throughout day (increase amount of Decadron)

June 16

A Wednesday





No hiccups    

 Wednesday evening (11:00 PM)

 Michael is still constipated.  We drive to CVS to pick-up Milk of Magnesia, Miralex, a cup of black coffee from McDonald’s, and some prune juice, not from concentrate. These are the ingredients from an old fashion hospital cocktail. (Guaranteed results within 30 minutes)

 11:35 PM

Michael yells a “thank you” from the upstairs bathroom. “I’m relieved.”

June 17

A Thursday

 I’m driving and thinking about Michael’s steady decline. My thoughts change to my son, Sky, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1999. I suddenly feel the urge to talk to him.

 “Sky, you were right. Michael is a keeper. Wait for him and take care of him. You never knew him, but he’s wonderful. Just the kind of man you wanted me to be with.”

 I pull over to the side of the road and sob uncontrollably.

 June 18

A Friday

 Michael’s tired. He calls me at work and says in a soft whisper, “I’m home. I feel so weak today.”  I glance at the clock on the wall. It says 4:15 PM. I tell Michael to lie down and rest. He answers, “OK.” I hang up the phone knowing he won’t take a nap.

 June 18

Evening addendum

 While cleaning Michael’s shower, I begin to sob and cry out, “I want my old life back. Give me my old life.” My sobs are drowned by the water splashing on the ceramic tile.

 I iron later that evening. Michael wants his shorts for a trip to Newport, California this weekend. While ironing, I complained to no one in particular, “Why am I ironing, especially when I have so much to do before we leave?” So I iron the creases with the pointed end of the iron and I think about the future when I might not have Michael with me, when I may never be asked to iron his shorts. Instead, I’ll be wishing he was there and asking me to iron. So I press the tip of the iron carefully into the creases, push down the steam button, and watch all the wrinkles disappear like magic.

 To be continued . . . . . .

About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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3 Responses to Looking Back

  1. Cassie DeReese says:

    I love your writing…it gives me comfort, makes me feel like I might survive. We learned in 11/2011 my husand has esophageal cancer too. At first they thought chemo and radiation would prepare him for surgery and a cure but before surgery the cancer moved to his liver and the tumors are increasing in size now. He was then given a different chemo, then he tried a clinical trial and now another chemo. My husband has gained all his weight back and to everyone he looks great, but I can tell it is taking it’s toll. His side effects are tireness all the time and forgetfulness and the ache in his back has now become a pain in his side. He is still able to come to the office but not out into the oilfield and that is hard on him because he is a salesman. Please keep writing because I know if it helps me it must help others too. Thank you!

  2. Connie Forbister says:

    I can’t wait until you write more. It’s so healing for me. It takes me out of any kind of denial because it’s so real.

  3. ayraud@cox.net says:

    Very touching, Thanks Terry

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