Last week, my husband had his 23rd birthday. Being the first birthday I’ve ever been able to spend with him in person, and 23 being Collin’s lucky number, we were looking forward to being together and trying his luck at the casino. Unfortunately, his lucky number deceived us because Collin was sent home late from work and we were rear-ended before we could even get to the casino. His birthday was spent parked in the right lane of an intersection with firefighters, cops, a trail of angry traffic, and crying 16-year-old girls. Luckily, all of us remained fairly uninjured.
As I reflected on the history of our relationship, I realized this is pretty much how it always goes for Collin.
His military leave days were spent getting to know my brother before he died, rushing home for Zach’s wake (an over 20 hour drive), standing by me at the funeral after getting only 3 hours of sleep, and talking to strange white-haired relatives he’d never met before. While military leave is traditionally considered a break from chaos, Collin was diving right back into it. And, he never complained about it. All the while, he had to deal with me, a girl who has probably thrown gallons of tears at him without much of a ‘thank you.’ After many tear-sopped t-shirts, hours spent talk-crying til 2 a.m. on weekdays, and frantic phone calls, here it is: my big-huge-giant-way-too-late thank you to Collin, for not just being a shoulder to cry on, but an entire person who in some cases quite literally carried me through Zach’s death.
A lot of times, the second string (those who take care of the family of the one who is terminally ill. Collin was almost a first stringer, but we weren’t married yet and our relationship was long-distance, so I think he felt like a second string), doesn’t get enough credit, and I want to give credit where credit is due.
A couple weeks after Zach’s death, Collin and I were sitting in the car, and for about the billionth time I was talking about how empty I felt without Zach. I was telling him how lucky he was that all of his family members were alive, as if he needed some lecture to know it. He sat there, in the driver’s seat, patiently listening, when he quietly said, “You know, this hasn’t been very easy for me either.” I could tell he’d wanted to say this for a while. My gut reaction was anger and I thought, “What do you mean it’s hard for you?! You don’t even know what it’s like to lose someone! Nothing bad ever happens to you!” Then I realized how utterly arrogant, selfish and prideful I was being, as if my pain outweighed his. Here was a man who was thrown into the middle of my dramatic saga, who had to watch this happen from thousands of miles away while serving our country, who did all he could do to maintain my sanity, and I was essentially accusing him of having a perfectly painless and easy life.
As a first stringer, it’s way too easy to take people like Collin for granted, to compare suffering and pain, and to feel justified in using them until they run dry because their lives seem “better.” The reality is, cancer is hell for them too. Even worse, they don’t get the luxury of saying goodbye, or of having consistent conversation and access to the dying person. Society takes their loss less seriously though the grief is certainly there. They are constantly dancing around boundaries, trying to figure out what to say without coming off poorly, and feeling awkward a lot of the time. Collin had to give Zach his groomsmen gift early without addressing that Zach was dying, had to act like his trips home weren’t desperate attempts to try to get to know my brother before he died, and had to pretend like he wasn’t stressed about our wedding which was right in line with Zach’s illness. He had to put on so many performances, and he felt an immense pressure to fix what was un-fixable. He bore it with grace and a smile. For that, I owe him a lot.
So thank you, to all you second-stringers out there. We need you. Even if we don’t acknowledge it often, our gratitude for you is great. You carry us through the dark, not knowing where you are going, but you do it anyway. You lend us the strength we don’t have. And for that, our lives remain pieced together in more beautiful ways than perhaps they were before.