You Always Have Options
This past summer, our friends Nate, Sarah, and Sarah's parents, ran the Warrior Dash together. Mike and I took care of their one-year old son Solomon while they ran the race. But before it started, they shared some exciting news with us: Sarah was pregnant! Baby number two on the way!
They had other news, too. Nate had been visiting the doctor because of pain in his left shoulder. The doc wanted to do a biopsy to rule out possible causes. A few weeks later, Nate called and said he had been diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
It didn't sink in for me for awhile. I googled lymphoma. The types, the treatment, the length of time a patient typically does chemotherapy, radiation, alternative types of treatment, the odds. The more I read the more I felt the need to do something, and an ugly feeling of helplessness.
Nate and Sarah's family put together a Go Fund Me account for people to donate money, and news got around that Nate had been diagnosed with cancer. Support poured in. Not long after the news, I had the idea to photograph Nate and his family at different times throughout his cancer treatments. Nate and Sarah were quick to consent. This is a huge credit to the kind of people they are: trusting, open, and full of hope.
The first few photos I took remain my favorite, after all these months. They are of Nate and Solomon sleeping together in a perfect pool of window light.
I silently moved around the room taking pictures and as I tried to leave to let them sleep, Nate opened his eyes and asked me to come and talk. The next half an hour we whispered as Solomon remained curled up on his dad’s chest. Nate wanted to tell me where he was at that day - how he was feeling, and the state of his mind. The night before, he said, he went to a Vikings game with his friend, Doug. He wore a hat to the game, and they left about three-quarters of the way through. It was too much activity for Nate. He had recently received the first of six chemotherapy treatments and was not feeling well.
On his way home from the football game, Nate took off his hat to find that the band around his head where the hat sat was bare. No hair. It had been rubbed off. This was startling. His wife, Sarah, was already asleep for the night and had to work the next morning, so he didn't want to wake her. He had trouble getting to sleep and instead stayed up to shave his head clean. He shed tears in the process. This was not what he had expected, nor did he expect losing his hair would affect him in such a way. “It’s just hair, right?” he said to me.
Nate and I talked about how the physical manifestation of losing hair isn’t really sad because of the hair loss. It’s sad because he felt like he had no control over what was happening in his body. And even further, how this was affecting his whole life.
He talked about what it was like having conversations with people he ran into on a regular basis, like his neighbors. He caught one neighbor at the mailbox and had to explain why he was no longer working. He hesitated. Then, with no other alternative than to be honest, “I have cancer.”
He told me it's not an ideal situation to have to tell anyone that he has cancer. He hears the words come out of his mouth and dislikes that he sounds like a victim. It's not his comfort zone. He doesn't want to be thought of that way. So he gives them the news and quickly patches up the conversation - he's okay and smiles and life moves on.
Without a normal work routine, Nate has found other ways to occupy his time and help others. He picks up odd jobs doing remodeling work, helps around the house where he and Sarah live with friends, and - from what I have seen - does a hell of a job being Dad.
Nate and I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about God. He was raised Christian and still lives that life. But over time he has developed other ideas and ways of thinking along the lines of eastern religions such as Buddhism. Nate said he began searching for something more than strict rules - or doctrine - about God and living with God. What do you actually do, for instance, when you are emotionally distraught, need to forgive someone, or need to show love? What do those actions look like? One can't simply make up their mind to do these things or be these things and not change their outward actions or inward thoughts.
Similarly, he told me, being peaceful or quiet in his mind is not simply telling himself to be so. He must go through the actions to attain peacefulness. Nate meditates. I know he prays, too. He is an incredibly thoughtful person and can quickly get to the heart of a matter in conversation.
Some days are exceedingly normal. For example, dinner time with a child underfoot.
Other days are not so normal.
To date, these are the latest photographs I took of Nate and Sarah. They invited me to be with them during a chemotherapy treatment at the cancer center. This was Nate's fourth out of six treatments.
I'm not a doctor, but this is what I observed: chemotherapy entails pumping many litres of liquid medicine into a patient's body. The day starts normal, the patient feels normal - as normal as they can. But as the hours pass the patient grows tired, pale, and puffy. All that liquid swims around in their system. This isn't scientifically accurate, but chemotherapy is two-faced. One injected drug counteracts another. One kills the cells and the other is meant to make the body grow new cells at an accelerated rate. It's like the body dies and re-grows itself at the same time. I can't imagine how it must feel.
This happens all while a patient sits in a chair. They talk, make phone calls, read books, make plans. The manifestation of the internal battle is seen by the end of the treatment - a pale, tired patient in need of rest. Nate tells me that it takes weeks to feel recovered after a chemo treatment. He receives a treatment every three weeks.
As of today - the day I am writing this post - Nate has finished the six chemo treatments and will move on to radiation therapy. I said to him that it is amazing what he and Sarah have managed to navigate together. His reply:
"The best thing about tough situations is that we have options. We’re never truly stuck. We rejoice when we can, and talk through the things we can’t. We always have options."