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The Silent Cry of the Caregiver

Tending to his dying wife, he did what guys do: He hunkered down and tried to fix it

If I were a woman, it might have been different. Studies show that female caregivers are more likely to share their emotional burdens with friends, family or organized support groups. But guys tend to try to fix things on their own. We knit our brows, hunker down and go about the business of caregiving with the solitary determination of Thomas Edison toiling over his first lightbulb. Of course, there are exceptions — women who keep their own counsel, men who reach out. But to me, that whole support-group thing seemed like living in one big episode of The View. The life I was living was more like 24, with me as Jack Bauer, alone against the world.

And as the months wore on and Cindy went through the deceptive ups and devastating downs of cancer and its inescapably inhumane treatments, I grew even less willing to discuss the ordeal with anyone else, even my family. We were already spending hours a week consulting specialists. For me the only escape from the maelstrom lay in not talking about it. In truth, my longest conversations about what was happening to Cindy were private ones between me and God. And for all the comfort and encouragement those chats gave me, the Lord was understandably silent regarding such matters as whether Avastin should be the drug of choice for a patient with stage IV ovarian cancer.

Naturally, we didn't go through Cindy's illness in a vacuum. Close friends and dear relatives, including our four grown kids, appeared, almost magically, when we needed them most. And every other Tuesday I went to a men's prayer breakfast at our church, a practice I'd followed for years before Cindy got sick. A simple "Pray for Cindy" was just about all I'd allow myself, but I knew that those guys cared, and that was something.

Still, there are things I wish I'd had the strength to tell someone. No one knew about the night a semidelirious Cindy, mistaking a disagreement for some kind of threat, called 911 to have me thrown out of our house (a belated thanks to the two kind cops who came and talked her down). Nor was anyone aware of how Cindy, in an irrational panic about being abandoned, begged me to sign over our home and savings to her in a new deed. "Don't worry," she said, "if you're still here when I die, you'll get everything back anyway." On paper it was insane for me to comply, but I did. I'd have done anything to ease her mind, which was increasingly tormented by cancer and the drugs.

To the world — and in reality — Cindy was a sweet, devout, courageous woman: a loving wife and mother enduring unimaginable pain and loss at a tragically young age. For me to talk about those dark, untethered moments, I feared, might have diminished her in other people's eyes, and I couldn't bear the thought of that.

Like the worst days, the best days of those last years were provided by Cindy herself. Barely four months before the end, nearly doubled over from constant pain, Cindy traveled from Washington, D.C., to California, where she was the radiant mother of the groom at our youngest son's wedding. Not five minutes after Cindy's oncologist relayed, over the phone, the news that he was discontinuing chemotherapy for good, she rolled out of bed and said, "Well, life goes on; let's go make dinner." And on her 56th birthday (less than two weeks before she died) our family was sitting around the dinner table when I realized Cindy was out in the kitchen, icing her own cake.

That was the Cindy I'd fallen in love with my sophomore year in high school: devoted and talented and practical to a fault. And it was the one we all saw, in flashes, right up until the end. So no one could ever understand the wave of betrayal I felt when I learned that, two days before she died, Cindy had signed a new will that gave me less than 20 percent of everything we had scraped together, splitting the rest among our children and grandchildren. Facing the end, she wanted to leave them all a legacy. I didn't contest it. I love those kids, and no money was worth prolonging the ordeal we had all gone through.

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