I felt tremendous anxiety. When I’d be up with Kella in the middle of the night, I’d stare out into the darkness and focus on a pinprick of light in the neighbor’s yard.
“There’s a light! Over at Frankenstein place,” I’d sing to her. (I always loved the Rocky Horror Picture Show.) Somehow, it felt like a gospel song.
My husband insisted that I not come to the appointment with him. He promised to call me.
After I dropped Esther off, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from him yet. I saw a street sign. “Robert St. Dead End.” My husband’s first name. Was this an omen?
A few minutes later, he texted me. “Cancer is back. Starting clinical trial December 20.”
Shit. The day after his 35th birthday. Five days before Christmas.
When he came home, I learned that it was a small amount of cancer, but the chemotherapy was not expected to kill it, only to contain it for an uncertain amount of time. And after that? The doctor had no idea.
I felt like I’d been body slammed. For days, all I could do was stare into space. I could not concentrate. I could barely speak. I would look at all of our wedding pictures and cry. I’d see a particular snapshot that I loved and imagined placing it by the guest book at his funeral.
Three days later, I told myself to knock it off. The future was imaginary, so I’d better imagine a good one.
I glanced over at the front page of the New York Times, and my eyes practically bugged out. “In Girl’s Last Hope, Altered T-Cells Beat Leukemia.”
Emily Whitehead! This was the little girl from my hometown! I had gone to high school with half her cousins. The news article explained how she had been close to death. There were no more treatment options, so they tried something that had never been done. They deactivated an HIV cell and reprogrammed to attack the cancer. Miraculously, it had worked! Six months out, remission.
The article went on and on about all the science, but I knew the back story.
The doctors had told her parents that she had a 1 in 1000 chance of surviving the night following the experimental treatment. My facebook feed had been blowing up with prayer requests. (My mother-in-law and I had prayed for her.) I heard somewhere that tens of thousands of people were tweeting about it. People hung purple ribbons all over town in her honor. “We believe!” was their mantra.
And she was from Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. My connections to Philipsburg ran deep. It was a tiny, middle of nowhere town where I had spent my teenage years. At the time, I felt like I didn’t fit in there, but I later learned that my paternal great-great-something grandfather had settled there in 1760, after he’d completed his 10 year stint as an indentured servant. I could write a whole book about why I took this odd coincidence as a good sign. (Maybe I will.)
I thought, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing I got put to part-time because now we live close to New York, and my husband is seeing the very best doctors in the world for this particular type of cancer. Problem is, there’s not much research happening, as the cancer is so rare.”
I felt discouraged for a moment. Then I thought, “I guess I’ll just have to support the research, too, and get as many people as I can to pray for him.”
I laughed to myself. It seemed so hopeless. “Maybe I need 100 million prayers.”
That struck a chord. “That’s what I’ll do! I’ll start a blog, and I’ll raise a whole bunch of money. Then I’ll get a prayer campaign going, too. Who knows what could happen?”
I was getting revved up. I was sick of feeling so helpless. Plus, I was hating my life. All this stuff had just happened. Could I turn around and make something happen? What did I have to lose?
I immediately called my husband’s oncologist. “How much money do you need to research this cancer? Ballpark.”
“$250,000 could do a lot. $500,000 a whole lot more. $1,000,000 could fund a whole program.”
“If I could raise it, would you study his type of cancer?”
“Yes,” he said. “But how do you intend to raise it?”
“Social media. I’ll start a blog. I do PR,” I said, with some bravado.
“Talk to my development department. I’ll send you their contact information next week.”
After we hung up, I cold called the development department.
“How can I raise money to support research for my husband’s type of cancer?”
“Do you want to start a memorial fund?”
“No, my husband is still alive. Wouldn’t it be great to give money toward a cause that might actually help?” I laughed nervously.
“What fund do you want it to go in?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I want it to go towards studying his particular type of cancer. Can I just start a fund in his name?”
“We don’t open funds in someone’s name without a $25,000 starting amount.”
“I’m on it,” I said, feeling like I was really talking out of my ass.
Next up, convincing my incredibly private husband that I wanted to share our story.
“No way,” he said. “I’m still trying to get a full-time job. I don’t want my employer to know I have cancer.”
“Who cares about your job, I want you to live!” I cried.
“Just don’t use my name, OK?” Fine.
I was thinking, thinking, thinking. When I picked up Esther the next morning, I barely spoke to her.
“This is insane,” I thought to myself, pausing at the stop sign. “Truly, my craziest idea yet! How do I even know if God answers prayers?
That moment a huge, red truck drove by. In big, gold scrolling letters, it said, “God answers prayers.”
My mouth gaped open. If I was waiting for a sign, it couldn’t be clearer. I knew then I was going to go for it.