University of Rochester

Alumni Review Point

For Always . . .

A battle with brain cancer forces one alumna to rethink her connections to her husband and son. By Rebecca Housel ’97, ’98 (MA)

Over a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At the time, I was 20 and a new mother with an infant son, Gary. The tumor was malignant, and after five hours of exploratory brain surgery, the tumor was determined inoperable. I became the guinea pig for an experimental radiation, better known now as radio-surgery. The highly focused radiation stopped the tumor growth. The experiment worked. Life went on. Sort of.

Life did go on—but in a warped way. I became busy trying to do every possible thing for my son that a mother can do, to the exclusion of my husband, Bob. A wild desperation drove me. Because the tumor was malignant, it would be back. Even with the radiation, the doctors thought I had five years—10, tops.

My heart, much like that of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, grew. I had room for my husband and for my son.

So I figured I had only one abbreviated shot at raising my son. I became uber-mom. The PTA, volunteering at all the school functions, room parent every year of elementary school, coach of my son’s soccer, basketball, and baseball teams—that doesn’t even describe the half of it. I bought clothing for my son three years in advance. All the basics, like pants and shirts, even anticipating winter coats.

Gary has finally outgrown the coats I purchased more than five years ago. But his closet is packed with T-shirts from American Eagle, Aeropostale, and Abercrombie and Fitch that still fit. Several years’ worth of birthday and Christmas gifts were stockpiled in my basement: classic books like The Three Musketeers and Edgar Allen Poe’s Collected Stories and Poems, and toys like Lego sets, Robotix, model rockets, and cars—timeless items that any kid would enjoy at any age.

I kept the collection of future gifts locked in big, plastic containers, along with wrapping paper, ribbons, and cards tucked in a storage area of our basement. And we were not rich. In fact, we still have a huge chunk of debt because of my stockpiling—even worse than my Rochester school loans.

My husband, ever patient and kind, stayed out of my way. He knew I was on a mission. I even told him outright that our son was my priority, not him. We didn’t have a conversation. I just told him flat out one day, as nonchalant as any human can get, “Gary is my priority, you know. He’ll always be first to me.” Harsh.

I never really considered how Bob must have felt. Gary was my only focus. Lucky for me, my husband did not turn away from me the way I had him. He stuck by me, despite my behavior. But then, the catch—because there always is a catch: Malignant cancer comes back. That’s what malignant means.

Ten years later, at age 30, I faced a similar diagnosis. Surgery to remove a new growth was required. Thirty was not going to be a good year.

My fears had finally come true. My 10 years were up. Every movie ever made about women who die from cancer came pushing to the front of my mind. I was drawn to that type of movie, like a moth to a flame. Like Sleepless in Seattle, where the husband and little boy are alone after the wife dies of cancer and then the husband, Tom Hanks, meets Meg Ryan and falls in love, and the three live happily ever after. To imagine a life without yourself in the equation while still very much alive is heart wrenching. It’s the kind of thing that makes a person go crazy.

There was an excellent chance of paralysis after the surgery because the new growth was near the area of my brain that controls movement in my body. Initial recovery after the surgery would require at least one month in a rehabilitation hospital. After that, nine long months of chemotherapy.

Death was never an option. I’d worked too hard to let some pretty, blond Meg Ryan type take over, but uber-mom was no more. It’s difficult to facilitate insanity when paralyzed.

I had lots of time to think, and think, and think. As I was thinking, my husband was doing . . . everything. He bathed me, dressed me, fed me, kept me comfortable, tirelessly took me to appointments almost daily. All the while, he was the most wonderful father to our son, taking him to and from school, making lunches, coaching soccer, arranging sleepovers, helping with homework.

I could not help but notice Bob, my loyal and loving husband. There wasn’t exactly one epiphany moment where I realized how horrible I’d been to him—it was more like a slow revelation over time. During the acute moments of the illness, I was too sick to care about anything or anyone. Just waking up and moving was an accomplishment.

The revelation started to take shape as I began feeling better. Toward the end of my chemotherapy treatments, when my stomach could digest food again, my husband would bring me breakfast in bed in the mornings, always with a smile. He’d make me laugh, keeping my spirits high when frustrations ran higher. He shopped for groceries, made dinners, and ran our entire house on his own, often working late into the night to pay the bills. He remained positive, never wavering in his faith that I would heal.

How could any human be so generous of spirit to someone who all but ignored him? Bob blew me away with his tenderness, love, and caring. Humility is something earned, and under the weight of the surgeries, paralysis, and chemotherapy, my humility was earned at last. Bob was no mere mortal, he was angelic, divine, a titan among men—and women, too.

A shift occurred as I healed. And I did heal. It took almost two years, but I now walk with the help of a brace and a four-wheeled walker called a Stingray.

But it was more than my body that healed. My soul was cured of the wild desperation and the rack of unspeakable terror that I would die and not raise my son. My heart, much like that of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, grew. I had room for my husband and for my son.

Then a new desperation took hold. I became desperate to live—for my husband. The man who gave me a life, even when I did nothing to deserve it, deserved a life of his own. He chose me as his life partner. All the many instances of generosity during my illness and over the span of our marriage finally broke through. I am willing to die for Gary, of that there is no question, but I want to live for Bob. For some reason beyond my limited understanding, Bob loves and wants me.

Longevity runs in his family—time to honor the vow I made on our wedding day, “to love, honor, and cherish my husband . . . for always.”

Every day we spend together is a gift. We are more in love now than ever before. We eat together, laugh together, dance together. We face the future together. I always thought being a mother made me a better person. It turns out that being a wife has helped me become a whole person.

You can’t get much better than that.

Rebecca Housel ’97, ’98 (MA) is an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she teaches writing and literature.