A story of Love, Strength and Survival
I am a physician who has practiced Obstetrics and Gynecology for thirty years. During that time I have counseled thousands of women on self-breast examinations and breast disease.
I am a husband whose wife had cancer of the breast for twenty-two years of our twenty-four-year marriage. She died of cancer of the lung approximately sixteen years ago.
I am a man who had breast cancer in 1991 and underwent a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy.
My first thoughts . . "October 13, 1966. It was cold in New York at this time of the year, cold and dreary. As a first year resident, I was on call tonight. I was already exhausted from twelve hours of heavy duty, six of which had been spent in the operating room assisting the private physicians. Part of my duty now was to go see the patients whose cases I would be scrubbing on the next day. I was to do a history and perfunctory physical, and lastly draw all the preoperative bloods.
As I left the elevator on the fourth floor the head nurse looked up and said, Wait till you see what we have for you tonight. She's gorgeous and a well-known singer. I grabbed the chart and all the blood drawing paraphernalia, knocked on the door and walked in. As I entered the room, the dreariness left and I felt warm all over. There sitting on the hospital bed was the most magnificent woman I had ever seen. She had medium length reddish hair (a color so different I really couldn't describe it), was wearing a mini nightgown, and had a body to kill for. She looked up as I introduced myself and she told me to call her Myrna. She then attacked me with a smile I couldn't even describe, a smile I was later to find out was described by Ronald Reagan as the most infectious smile he'd ever seen! Sensuality radiated from her mouth. I was flabbergasted and started stuttering as I described my reason for being there. She then introduced me to her sister Wendy, who was sitting in one of the chairs comfortably relaxed and drinking Scotch from a glass with Myrna's straw. Alcohol was allowed since this was a private room. They had every setup imaginable including pretzels, peanuts, potato chips and candy.
Myrna March as I first met her!
After I took her medical history, I went to get my syringe and needle. She looked startled and asked what was it for. I explained, I have to draw your preoperative bloods. Again that smile as she looked at me and said, "You?ve got one fucking chance." I laughed enjoying the challenge because as she said this I realized it didn't even sound crude. My mother had the same type of mouth and I loved my mother. That provocative smile just kept shining through but little did I realize the total significance of that statement. I obtained the blood on the first try, very proud that I had met the challenge, put everything together and with sorrow took it all to the nurses' station. I had a few more patients to make rounds on but was very anxious to get back to Myrna.
This was very strange for me since I was a married man and had never had this reaction before. The evening dragged on. When I completed my work, I checked to see if she was still awake. Fortunately she was, so I went into the room, sat and we began to talk. That conversation was probably the most significant one I have had in many years. It was if we had known each other forever. There was a flow of words, all significant. We talked about my training, her work as a singer, her past in Hollywood and all the people she had known. I really felt bad when I had to leave the room. I told her I would see her first thing in the morning since her case was at 8:00am with Dr. Aldrich. My God, assisting him, the head of the hospital and the Queen mother's physician, and having her as the patient was going to make the next day really significant.
I could hardly sleep that night. I was anxiously awaiting the surgery and when my alarm rang realized I had very little sleep. Just the honor of assisting Dr. Aldrich and being in the room with Myrna was all I needed to find the strength to get through the day. The surgery went without a hitch and I made sure that I was in the recovery room when she woke up. I wanted my face to be the first one she saw then. As she awoke, that fantastic smile greeted me and then she went back to sleep. The next seven days were like a dream for me. I spent every spare minute I had in her room. We talked, and talked and talked. So much was said and a great friendship had begun. I was called into her room the night before her discharge. Myrna complained that she had a Migraine headache. I talked quietly with her and was very rapidly able to figure out that she didn't want to go home the next day. This was the cause of her headache. By the time we finished our long conversation she felt much better and was able to go to sleep. She went home the next day. I didn't want her to leave.
Myrna's first thoughts . . ."It was a few weeks before my birthday and here I was sitting in a hospital bed about to be operated on for a most annoying tumor on my ovary. This was something that was supposed to have been done since puberty. I had shopped for doctors like a pair of shoes, canceling God knows how many potential surgeries. My sister stopped as many surgeries as I did as she believed, which I didn't know at the time, that this procedure meant no babies for Myrna. Finally, after many painful ovarian attacks, my new manager, who was involved with the Sinatra crew, sent me to Dr. Albert Aldrich, the Queen Mother's doctor. He examined me and laughingly said to his nurse, "get her in the hospital tomorrow so we can take it out of her mind as well as her body." I really liked him. It's close to nine now and I know that the hospital protocol is that all visitors must leave. My sister and I were having a last cocktail together and I suddenly became frightened of being left alone when this boyish, adorable, wide blue-eyed resident sort of tripped into my room with a large needle in his hand. As terrified as I was of needles, please excuse my immodesty when I say, I had to notice the look of awe on his face when he saw me. I know I was very rough in the way that I told him he had one chance to find my vein. There was much tension in his face as he did his procedure. When it was over there were sighs of relief from all of us. He had such a good bedside manner I invited him to stay awhile. He said he?d be back when he took my blood to the lab.
When he left the room my sister and I both simultaneously said, "Now he's adorable." I was married at the time but not beyond a little innocent flirting. My sister had to leave and I began crying hysterically when a big buxom Irish nurse, who I found out later was one tough lady, took me in her arms. At this point Roufa came back into my room. The nurse gave him one hell of a look. Both seemed to understand each other's language and she allowed him to stay. We began chatting as though we had known each other forever. Through all of my tears, because of undergoing surgery the next day, Roufa held my hand and I suddenly felt a kind of warmth inside that seemed to drown those fears.
When I awakened in the Recovery Room, those big blue beagle like eyes were staring at me. He touched my face and I felt mellow and safe. The next seven days I really looked forward to our talks. I was unaware that my big Irish nurse, who I adored, had spread the rumor that there was definitely something going on between the Doctor and the Redhead. On my last day in the hospital I had a severe migraine attack. I had migraines all my life, whenever I was upset. I was unaware then that I really didn't want to go home. Strangely enough, though the type of migraines I had usually required heavy medication, just talking with Roufa all evening took my headache away. I never thought of myself as naive, having been in show business all my life. I had dated all kinds of men, but there was something different here. I talked myself into believing it was only the development of a strong friendship. When the time came for me to go home, the migraine had returned."
And so the story began.....Myrna went home and back to her routine life. I continued my medical training and went back to my routine life. I guess I couldn't really call it routine though. By this time I had a beautiful home in Englewood New Jersey, two beautiful children, a full time maid, a swimming pool...and yet I realized I didn't have anything. I was very lonely and was using my relationship with the patients I had at the hospital to fulfill my need to be needed. I certainly didn't feel that anyone at the house needed me or much less wanted me., including my wife. My life felt so empty. I spoke to Myrna a few times on the phone and felt so good after our conversations. I really felt she was the only human being who ever understood me. We were building a relationship based on a very strong foundation, friendship.
The next few years passed rapidly. My training was intense and I really wanted to succeed as a good physician. My attention and love went to my work. I'm the first to realize that I just didn't know how to deal with an interpersonal relationship.
Interpersonal relationships... I don't even think I knew what that was, especially when it came to me. My wife and I certainly didn't know how to communicate, unless it was to scream at each other. That we did very well. I had very little time with the kids since I was busy losing myself in work every day, another defense mechanism. By the time I completed my specialty training, I was finally aware that my marriage was a failure but couldn't accept it. I guess it's because I felt if my marriage was a failure then I was a failure. My wife wanted me to find an apartment and asked me a multitude of times. I kept telling her I was looking but, in reality, I wasn't. Finally, in a fit of anger I packed up the car and left the house. I had no place to go so I went into the city to find a place.
The building blocks continue:The first person I called was Myrna. I don't really know why except it just seemed so natural and right. I explained to her what had happened and she told me she was in the process of leaving her husband. I settled into the hotel, as much settling as was possible, and went to her apartment.
Although Myrna was still living with her husband, she was also planning to separate. Besides her singing career, which was well on its way, Myrna had gotten very involved with a well known talented black songwriter and arranger. She was the first white woman to form a black and white partnership to pen tunes and groom and produce young black acts. My office was only a few blocks away and I loved Myrna's music. I dropped into her office as often as possible and we talked incessantly of our problems and even people we were potentially interested in. Myrna's husband kept accusing her of having an affair. Of course he made certain he meant of the mind. Then Myrna threw a big Christmas party for her company and invited me. Myrna's husband was standing next to a famous photographer who was taking pictures and not knowing that Eddie was her husband, looked at him and said, "Wow, the looks that go on between those two, and pointed to us, is better then a porno movie." All hell broke loose. Eddie dragged her behind closed doors. The shouting was deafening. He stormed out of the house. Even close friends caught the same looks the photographer had seen and knew that something had to be going on, even if Myrna and I didn't.
The best of Friends...Everyone rapidly left the party except for me. I stayed on to try to calm Myrna down. After all, weren't we the best of friends? A few minutes later we both began laughing over how ridiculous we thought the situation was. Both of us, fascinated by astrology, said simultaneously, "Two Scorpios together can't have a relationship. We'd kill each other." In the weeks that followed, my visits to Myrna's place became more and more frequent. Myrna was trying to get Eddie to leave and find his own apartment. She felt that she was treading on thin ice. She was sleeping on an army cot while he was in the king-size bed. She even offered to put a deposit on an apartment Eddie had seen. I found out that Eddie had asthma and I immediately bought Myrna a magnificent red Persian cat. I thought that with Eddie's asthma this would expedite his move. Instead, Eddie fell in love with the cat!
Myrna had just finished writing and producing a new song called Anyone Can with a young black group her company had signed and placed on Paramount Records. I said, after listening to the song, "Everything you say can either be related to a man or a woman." I began listening over and over to the sensual lyric I related to so strongly and pointed out what I meant. . .
Anyone can have what we have.
What we have wasn't planned,
only love understands,
what the touch of two hands can do.
Don't be playing games with one another.
Just be you, and love will always come through.
I then returned to the beginning of the tune and we began to dance. We got closer and closer and soon both of us were trembling and blushing. We looked at each other and it was all we could do to keep from kissing. This was our first body contact. Thus, the embryo began.
Myrna and Eddie didn't have the right emotional makeup for a good marriage. She really liked him a lot as a person and was very close to his daughter from his first wife and a good friend of him. This of course, made her feelings for me much tougher. With all the many guilts involved, every morning she promised not to see me that day, but we couldn't stay away from each other, and somehow or another we got together daily even if just for a few moments. Myrna's psychiatrist became extremely fond of me to the point where he said, "No matter how many men have been in her life, this could be her first real love." However, he strongly preached timing, and told the both of us not to rock the boat yet.
Just one of the many incidents, before Myrna and Eddies final separation, which now seems ludicrous, but then not so funny, occurred when Myrna invited me for coffee one morning. Though her hours were erratic as a night person, with her company now in full swing, she was up early every morning. Eddie, doing national promotion for United Artists, was also night people but left promptly for his office at 10:00am every morning. In fact you could set your watch by it. Knowing this I would call every morning at 10:10. On this particular morning, I didn't call, Eddie left as usual. Myrna jumped into her robe and did a quick primping job as the door suddenly opened. It was Eddie. Myrna stuttered, "What are you doing back? He said, "Have you seen my glasses? Then screamed, "What the hell are you doing out of bed at this hour?" She quickly snapped back, "My partner and I have an early appointment." By this time her heart was racing, her hands were shaking, her face turned beet red. Guess what, it was 10:08! She knew any minute the doorbell would ring. She spotted his glasses on the sink just in time. As Eddie went down the front elevator, I came up the back. Needless to say, no more mornings at March-On Music.
Marriage was just around the corner...I was finally learning about "interpersonal relationships." I saw Myrn every day. We talked constantly. I loved music and she loved medicine. The building blocks making up the foundation of our relationship just kept getting stronger until we both finally realized that we were the most important people in our lives and we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We planned the wedding to be just after our divorces were final. We were married three days later.
July 29, 1973 Our Wedding Day
Many high points evolved around how the difference in our professions had been one of the many assets in our lives. Roufa, the Doctor, could very well have been Myrna, the performer, and visa-versa. My musical background and Myrna's psychological orientation often helped us to integrate our professions for pleasure and even sometimes for profit. Myrna and I ran a continuous open house filled with people from all walks of life, and of course artists from every area of show business. Everybody had a story, which made for a continuous flow of exciting, heart rendering and many hilarious situations. We threw incredible parties, referred to by all attending as happenings. The people that knew us always remarked about our warmth for each other. The same warmth, as host and hostess, always had everybody letting their hair down. Every party had a theme and always a show time, both spontaneous and planned. Whoever happened to be in town performed. Even I, after taking up the piano again, accompanied Myrna who always ended the show singing a couple of her latest original compositions. To say the least, we were a very colorful couple.
And then...Just as we were beginning to feel we had finally found total happiness with one another, cancer hit! Eighteen months after our marriage, the night March 9, 1975, we attended a Gala for Josh Logan at the Majestic Theater. Myrna's artist, Nell Carter, was one of the stars of the occasion. Nell always liked Myrna representing her looking as beautiful as possible. Myrna donned a dazzling white low-cut gown and looking incredible immediately attracted autograph seekers. Nell gave her one of her comedic looks and said, "Okay Miss Thing, you sign the autographs and I'll do the work." Myrna recalls,
"I bent down to give a little boy an autograph. My left breast began to fall out of the dress. As I pushed it back in, suddenly I felt a lump at the top. A feeling of panic shot through me. I knew I had cancer. As I sat in the theater in a total state of anxiety all I could hear was my mother who used to say to me before she died, "If you're a bad girl I'm going to show you my scar, and that 's a fate worse then death." We all went on to a press party after the show and one drink felt and acted like twenty .
The medical work-up...She immediately had a mammogram, which proved negative and was told by several surgeons that the mass was moveable and not stationary, so it was definitely a cyst. Myrna, having seen her mother die of cancer at the age of 39, wasn't about to accept this analysis without the tissue going under the microscope. Any other person who had been given that kind of clean bill-of-health would have gladly waited a year for her next examination. She, of course, insisted on a biopsy. She did have cancer in its very first stages. This is why when Myrna lectured she made it clear to all that if they have anything feeling strange in their breast they should have immediate microscopic evaluation. The night before surgery her hospital room was filled with flowers from the executives of Record Companies and theatrical people from all over the world as well as her personal friends and all of the doctors I was associated with. They brought candy and liquor and because I was on the staff we were allowed to drink freely while the hospital authorities looked the other way. When her surgeon, Dr. Miller, complained about the crowd Myrna responded, "It's like watching my own funeral." I said, "I was afraid to come into her room to let her know what I was really feeling. I would cry out in the hall and then put ice on my eyes to conceal the tears." The biopsy having been done, surgery was scheduled the next day. Myrna knowing it was most important to be psychologically counseled, before and after surgery, drank a bottle of ginger ale when she wasn't supposed to, thus canceling the surgery temporarily. After two days of heavy counseling from her psychiatrist, the time had come. Being as big busted as she was, the biggest frustration was the thought of living with one breast so she requested the removal of the second breast. She figured the removal of the second breast would not only keep her figure balanced but more important would keep her from having to go through a potential second mastectomy should there be the need for one. Eighteen years ago that was considered insanity. Today, having been so much ahead of her time, it's even suggested as a medical precaution to high-risk patients. I sat outside of the operating room while the surgery was going on and made sure that the first face Myrn saw when she woke up was mine.
DO NOT DISTURB...I had a cot put in her room and did just about everything I could to make her laugh. In fact, this being Woman's Hospital, "Little Roufa Sunshine" was found watering all the flowers with a disposable douche bag. Being a gynecologist, and treating women all my life, I knew how very important it was for them to feel whole. Consequently on the third night, with a naughty look in my eyes, I put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door and began my mount while Myrna was lying terrified with one arm in a sling. She was afraid we'd get caught. The quickie was over, and as I was sweating and pulling up my pants, the nurse's aide walked in. Not respecting the DO NOT DISTURB sign she asked, "Would you like apple juice, prune juice or graham crackers?" We laughed so hard Myrn thought her stitches were going to break. Always with a sense of humor, when asked how she felt, she said, "Like a Unicorn" Many asked how this was going to affect her sexuality. She replied, "I loved my breasts. They were gorgeous. I developed them when I was eleven years old." The whole family had said, "My God, she's going to be a man-killer." "The emphasis in my life placed on my breasts was ridiculous. What the hell do they do anyway?? I remember when Errol Flynn after knowing me three minutes said, "I want to take you to bed. You can fall in love with me there." I replied, "Making love is the friendliest thing two people can do. I believe in taking your head to bed." "With that in mind, and a good sense of self, I have learned to come to terms with what I once thought of as mutilation."
Ten days after the surgery I took Myrna home and we both began to go through the "recuperative" period.
The first day home...I remember the day that Myrn came home. I thought she might feel better if she could stand in the shower for a while, but didn't think she could keep the incisional dressing on. I remember she had told me many times that as she was growing up her mother would say to her, "If you're a bad girl I'm going to show you my scar, and that's a fate worse then death." Myrn didn't want to look at her scar and hadn't while in the hospital. I was standing at the shower door setting up the water and I noticed her standing in front of the mirror. She had slowly started peeling the dressing off her chest while looking intently into the mirror. I saw her getting angrier and angrier. Finally she grasped the dressing, pulled it off quickly and while looking at her incision screamed, "Fuck you, you're not going to win!" I was so proud of her I immediately ran and hugged her. She was the one to win. She was so brave. She had just gotten rid of years of feelings based on her mother's. I realize now that it was then that my codependency with her began. I turned away from my needs and was only concerned with her needs and comforts.
The big moment...Myrn had been told that her incision had to completely heal before she could wear a prosthesis but as usual she was in a hurry. Ten days after her discharge a big hospital party was scheduled. She wanted to attend, so the next day we went to have her fitted with a prosthesis. With one large breast now left she had to have a prosthesis that mimicked its shape and weight. It was amazing. The new prosthesis weighed 1½ pounds, which is amazingly heavy. We got the bras and the prosthesis, she found a beautiful formfitting gown to wear, and the night of the affair we were ready. She looked magnificent. Everyone oohed and aahed when we entered the room. We went to the bar so she could order a drink and the bartender started talking to her. She was a very friendly person, having been in show business most of her life, and continued talking and joking with him. At one point I overheard him say to her, "Please forgive me but I must say you have a magnificent figure and gorgeous breasts." She looked at him and laughingly said, "Well thank you kind sir, would you like to know which breast is real?" That gave her a fantastic feeling and set the tone for the rest of the time she was to wear a prosthesis.
For the next year she tried to convince the surgeon to remove her other breast because of her high risk. He thought she was crazy and refused each time she asked. One and one-half years later she felt a lump in the other breast and immediately scheduled surgery. A second mastectomy was done. Now when asked, how do you feel, she replied, "None is better then one." Then she would laugh and say, "I use to be Marilyn Monroe, now I'm Susie Parker." Myrna knew there was a double edge to every coin and she could find good in bad. Everyone that knew her always said, "You sure have a way with words."
AGAIN....Four years later a third indefinite lump on the sternum was found to be cancer. Both Myrna and I called this the straw that almost broke the camel 's back, personally and medically. I was sitting outside the operating room that fateful day thinking:
"What's going on? My wife is being taken from me piece by piece. How much suffering is she going to have to go through? I wish she would die so it would all be over" I immediately ran to Dr. Helfand to work this problem out. "I knew I really loved her and didn't wish her dead. It was only symbolic."
....................................and life went on. We tried to live every day as if it was the last we were going to see. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
Myrna hosting July 4th party, 1981
(after 2 mastectomies and
As always the
July 4, 1981
Now it's my turn...While striving to pick up the pieces, the elephant flying overhead wasn't through. In June of 1991 I was also hit with cancer in one of its rarest forms as it relates to men. Cancer of the breast is reported in 900-1000 men annually, whereas it is reported in 175,000 women. I too ironically underwent a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and Myrna now came to my aid.
I said, "I can't believe that I had cancer, much less cancer of the breast. Doctors aren't supposed to get sick." I was very confused when my oncologist said, "We really don't know how to treat you, since this is so rare, and so we're going to treat you like a postmenopausal woman." "I thought, how ironic, after all these years of treating these same women, I'm now being considered one of them."
Myrna said to me, "I really thank God that you managed to get infected just in time. Without that infection they would not have discovered cancer and you wouldn't be alive today."
The City of Lights...Lines of communication began breaking down between us out of the fear of losing each other. We even faced financial setbacks. If our house wasn't built on a strong foundation before all these tragic setbacks occurred, there would not have been a 20th Wedding Anniversary, July 29, 1993. In November 1993, we celebrated our 20th Anniversary in Paris, a special place for a special occasion. What a beautiful city, that city of lights. It's a pity it rained most of the time we were there, ten glorious days. If there was something to see, we saw it! Myrna sang throughout the city and the Frenchmen went crazy for her voice. She had such a fantastic time until our last day when she got sick. We had to call in the hotel physician who gave her antibiotics for the upper-respiratory -infection he diagnosed.
Myrna and me in Paris.
Our 20th Anniversary.
Just before she sang in Paris!
The flight back was a nightmare. She was so sick and I really felt bad for her. Here I was , a physician, and I couldn't help her. That was a thought that went through my mind all of the time. When we got back to New York we went to her ENT doctor who evaluated her and said one of her vocal cords was floppy and she had chronic bronchitis. Multiple x-rays were taken and were compatible with bronchitis. She was told to stop smoking and went through a regimen to do that. All she needed was rest. She felt better from the rest but from that point on she wasn't able to sing. She just didn't have the control she was used to. Of course being the good husband and strong codependent, I immediately stopped playing the piano. I didn't want her to feel worse because she wasn't able to sing along with me.
and AGAIN....In February of '94 we noticed that the scar from the third surgery was starting to retract and the sternum (breast bone) at the top was starting to enlarge. She saw the surgeon who was not impressed with the findings. The changes continued until the scar began dimpling. I spoke to a plastic surgeon friend and asked him if the scar could be revised. He said it would be no problem but because of her history it would be best to get a CAT scan first. I spoke to her oncologist who ordered it. That was like opening Pandora's Box. As the date of the procedure came nearer both Myrn and I grew more anxious. During the test I sat with the doctors. As each picture flashed before them the radiologist began pointing out soft tissue densities that shouldn't be there. There were also changes compatible with radiation burns. I kept thinking, "Don't tell me this is happening again to my love? " It was then suggested that a biopsy be done and quickly was arranged. The next two days were like a nightmare. Myrna and I spent most of the time crying and holding each other in our arms. I made sure that the procedure would be done under sedation so that Myrna would be as comfortable as possible. It took 1-2 hours to set up for the procedure that only took two minutes. Afterwards we went home and that dreadful wait began for the pathology results. Every time the phone rang the next day we just looked at each other and cried. Finally I couldn't wait any longer. I called the surgeon to see if he had the results. Twenty minutes later he called back, "It's positive. The biopsy is compatible with cancer of the breast!" Now the long weekend was ahead of us and plans had to be made for further testing and ultimately treatment.
All the testing was done within the next two weeks. The results: The cancer was below the sternum; seedlings were in the lungs and the 4th thoracic vertebra. While all of these results were being told to us in the oncologist's office the two of us sat silent and almost not breathing. The treatment: chemotherapy to start immediately. This was something Myrna had sworn in the past that if it were ever suggested she would kill herself. Funny, how when you're confronted with life and death, everything changes. The first injection was given and unfortunately Myrna had all of the negative side effects possible, including the lost of her beautiful hair and an inflammation of the vein where the injection had been given. Because of this, the next injection was delayed for two weeks. Two weeks later, when her blood count was taken, she was still not a candidate for the second shot and her doctor then realized she was right when she told him, "Don't give me a normal amount, I react drastically and like a five-year old to what the average medication is for an adult." We went back to the oncologist one week later. No shot again given due to the low blood count. The next shot was scheduled for the following week and during that time the inflammation on her left arm was moving rapidly. She had her chemo that Friday, her doctor was out of town over the weekend and Sunday night her arm was a swollen as a German sausage and so painful that I took her to the hospital where she was admitted as an emergency. She went through every type of procedure imaginable and when the veins in her arms broke down, blood had to be taken from her feet. It wasn't until she came through all of these procedures that she was told she was touch and go with death. While in the hospital it was decided to start a course of twenty-four radiation treatments. These were completed as an outpatient. Little did we realize what a nightmare the next three years would turn out to be. The chemotherapy was then restarted. Most of the time she was extremely tired and would stay in bed so I took over the entire house. I worked all day and was doctor at night. I wasn't able to handle this too well so I began sneaking sips of vodka to kill the pain I was feeling. She had her good days and her bad ones. I had my good days and my bad one. If it was a bad one I drowned it in vodka.
Time passed slowly. My life was basically turned over to her. I didn't ever think of my needs or wants. I only wanted her to be comfortable yet I began sneaking more alcohol. She questioned me many times realizing that my eyes changed when I had a drink. I wasn't able to tolerate any amount of alcohol and I promised her that I would stop. I couldn't. I went to the psycho-pharmacologist who started me on anti depressants and sent me to an abuse specialist. He started me on Antebuse, medication that would make me sick if I drank. I still tested it and found that I was able to drink even with the Antebuse. So, I continued to drink and promised her that I wouldn't!
Life continued with work at the hospital every day and work at home every night. It became such a routine way of living that I really didn't realize the damage it was doing to me. I never thought of me, and then couldn't understand why I was so angry most of the time and found alcohol a relief.
and A G A I N ...In early 1997 Myrna began complaining about back pain, was told by the oncologist that this was from a collapsed disc from osteoporosis. She was having so much pain that I started her on Demerol around the clock and taught her to give herself shots during the day when I was not home. The oncologist repeated the X-rays and found a shadow he didn't like in the lung fields and after more diagnostic tests it was determined that she now had cancer of the lung. This was the third primary cancer that she had in the twenty-three years we were married. In May of 1997 she was admitted back into the hospital to have the bad lung removed. She spent the last four months of her life there, on and off the breathing machines.
July 29, 1997. It was our twenty-fourth anniversary and I didn't know what to do. Suddenly the thought came to me and within two hours I was able to arrange for us to retake the marriage vows. I invited people at the hospital, even had one of the secretaries pick a song, and had the head of religious services do a ceremony. The nurses put make-up on her, combed her hair and had her sitting up in a chair at the appointed time. During the ceremony she sat there smiling and the tears were running down my eyes but we did get the chance. I felt great that I had thought of the renewal. At the end of August we were told that what was left in her chest was not compatible with life and she asked to be taken off of the respirator. Of course at first I wouldn't agree, but I then remembered that when she first got cancer she made me promise that if she ever got to a really bad state that I would give her a shot to end her life and symbolically that is exactly what I did. She was taken off of life support after I signed the consent.
It took seven days for her to die. During that time I didn't go to work. I still used denial and thought she was getting better. I still went home every night, just as I had been doing the previous four months and drank enough vodka to kill the pain and cause me to pass out. Now I know that God was watching out for me and allowed me to answer the phone the morning of September 8, 1997 when she died. My biggest guilt was that I was not there the moment she died. Later a friend said, "Maybe God did not want you there at that time." Another friend also said, "Maybe Myrna didn't want you there I that time. You had suffered enough." I buried her on September 10 and went back to work on September 15, 1997.
That morning I was called into a meeting with administration and told I needed help and was given a number to call. The next morning I was in Williamsburg, Virginia for a four-day evaluation to see what kind of help I needed. I did not know how to ask for help. Little did I realize when I went there that I would spend the next twelve weeks of my life in this place for physicians who were drug and alcohol abusers. I considered this Divine Intervention, Myrna stepping in to make sure that I got better. It was the most important twelve weeks of my life.
December 13 I was sent back to New York. I was promised my job as long as I followed the recommendations from Williamsburg and on January 15 I began working again. I went to AA meetings, got a sponsor, and learned how easy it was to live one day at a time; learned to believe in a power greater than myself. My life seemed to slowly get better. I was recovering from alcohol abuse and learning to grieve at the same time.
Everything seemed to be going well. That following June I went to Greece for the wedding of a very close friend. I was wearing a bracelet that I had designed made from the wedding rings that Myrna and I had. I felt it was something I really wanted to wear. Whenever I had it on I would have part of her with me. Once settled on the plane I looked at my arm and realized the bracelet had fallen off somewhere. Rather then getting hysterical I realized it was Myrns way of telling me she would be with me without the bracelet. I should start living. I had a spectacular time. It was as if I had been reborn. I lost weight, let my hair grow long, had my ear pierced and began to enjoy life again. In looking back I never though my life would be as good again.
My new life begins in Greece.
In July I started communicating again with a friend that I had gone to high school with. She had been the only person I had maintained a relationship with from New Orleans. She had been in New York quite a few times, had met Myrna and even arranged the hotel the last time Myrna and I had gone to New Orleans. Ironically, she had lost two spouses to cancer. We began communicating every night on the computer and she came to New York on September 6, 1998 to accompany me to Myrna's unveiling. What a fateful date that was in 1998 just as it turned out to be in 2001. After that our relationship escalated, we realized we were in love, and we have learned to enjoy life one day at a time. We were married April 24th , 1999 at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. With a new relationship there is luggage that we bring along. The luggage that came with Arlene was true Gucci: another son, another daughter and son-in-law, and two more granddaughters. How lucky can a man be? We've now celebrated our tenth anniversary and every day I realize my wife is not only a great friend, but she is also beautiful inside and out, talented, a magnificent cook and a perfect soul mate for me.
April 24, 1999 For the rest of our lives!
I have proven to myself that there is life after the death of a soul mate. I have proven to myself that there is love after the death of a soul mate. I have proven to myself that there can be more than one soul mate. I have learned to ask for help. In retrospect I find it amazing that not once, during all of our bouts with cancer, had I called upon God. It's as if I didn't realize that a God existed. I have learned and accepted now that I am not in charge, only God is. God has given me another chance and now I just want to share all that I have been through with others who are not as fortunate as I have been.
"No One Stands Alone"
"When I'm down and need a helping hand,
you're around to always understand.
Where would I be, without your love,
on my own, on my own,
and no one, no, no one stands alone."
© A. Roufa, MD