Washing for My Hero

by William Thompson

William and Sylvia - smallSylvia and I were at a very good point in our lives in November, 2004. Having just returned from my father’s funeral, we were proud of moving to El Paso, Texas and starting our own business so we could provide 24-hour care during his 2 years of illness.

Sylvia wrote poetry, and I was training to become a professional football scout, and playing guitar in a band in Dallas. We believed we’d made it through the most difficult part of our lives together and we were starting the best part.

That belief was extinguished on Sylvia’s birthday, February 2, 2005. A colonoscopy revealed a large mass. The doctor was sure it was malignant, and oncologists demanded chemotherapy and radiation immediately. Sylvia chose to wait until after surgery and diagnosis to devise a plan.

I was horrified at her decision, until learning that the chemo drug they recommended had no survivors past 18 months. After surgery, the biopsy revealed metastasis into her lymph nodes, classifying her late stage 3, to early stage 4. My head spinning, I had nowhere to turn, no one to ask I couldn’t protect her from this Monster.

Sylvia wanted to write a book, but didn’t know if she’d have enough time. She didn’t want to be altered while writing, so decided not to have chemo. I supported her, staying strong on the outside, while panicking inside. She started immunotherapy, with diet, exercise, and meditation. One day, she showed me an invitation to Cancer as a Turning Point, in Greenville, SC, in June 2005, and asked if we could go.

We made the trip a vacation, visiting people she’d probably never see again. When we got to the conference, we felt welcomed and among friends. We even met some people who supported her decision, which was a first for us.  I saw the strongest, most courageous people I had ever seen.

My definitions of strength and courage changed during the presentations of Annan Paterson, Terri Tate, and many others.   We learned that for some people “fighting” cancer can drain all your energy.  I stopped trying to fight, and put that energy into making the “journey” as comfortable and pleasant as possible.

Sylvia was relieved I’d found a way to approach this, and concentrated on writing. In July, 2006, as she finished her book, In The Garden Of Illness: I Sit by the Well of Hope, 5 tumors were found in her liver. Still refusing chemo, she was given 6 months.

It wasn’t until September, 2007, that she went into Hospice here at the house. By November, her book was published and being promoted. Though mostly bedridden, she planned a book-signing on Jan.13, 2008. A friend took her to the signing because I wanted her to fully experience the limelight for herself. Having played professional football, I’m still recognized and I didn’t want any attention diverted from her. She returned tired, and I could tell she was excited to receive that recognition, even through the fatigue and painkillers. I was SO proud of her!

By her birthday, 2008, having survived twice the time she was expected to live if she had chemo, she was on the final stage of her journey. She was weak, leaving bed only to go to the bathroom, with me lifting her in my arms. When I’d say something funny only the corners of her mouth turned slightly up, but her eyes still shined, and I loved her 1,000 times more than ever. She was my hero.

On March 20, her breathing became labored. I told her that if she had to go, don’t worry about me, I’d be okay. I told her I loved her, and she barely whispered, “I love you.”

At 4:00 AM, I got into bed with her, held her hand, and fell asleep, exhausted. At 7:15 AM, March 21, I abruptly awoke.

I squeezed her warm hand, which was holding mine tightly. Her breathing was no longer labored and I softly called, “Honey?” No response. I noticed she wasn’t breathing at all. I felt her head, hands, feet; all still warm. Calling her name, and gently shaking her shoulder, it dawned on me – she’s gone. My tears fell on her face and nightgown. Putting my forehead against hers, I told her over and over that I loved her. My world stopped.

I can’t remember anything else that happened in 2008. I felt amputated, without legs, without arms. I knew she was counting on me to finish what we’d started, but I only left the house for necessities to stay alive, I didn’t want to be alive; I just wanted to be wherever she was, with her. This went on until late summer, 2009. No one was promoting the book and I had not played with the band since 2007.

On New Year’s Day, 2010, I resolved to her that I’d get moving. On her birthday, I told her I was going to celebrate, not mourn. Washing a load of clothes that morning, I remembered Sylvia teasing me that watching her husband wash clothes was the sexiest thing in the world.

I started laughing, and had feelings I hadn’t felt in almost two years. I washed five loads of clothes that day! I’m now determined to honor her memory by celebration, promoting her book, and playing my guitar again.

I have faith I’ll complete my “journey.” I have a tremendous role model in Sylvia Thompson, my wife, my all-time hero. I still use what I learned at Cancer as a Turning Point, in Greenville, 2005, applying those lessons to non-cancer situations as well.

Finally, I’ll say to anyone, you CAN overcome anything by keeping faith in yourself or those who have faith in YOU! Their support is there, whether they’re here or in the next realm; you’ll always feel their love. I won’t let my hero down! I’m going to wash a load of clothes now!

Bio:  William Thompson was the caregiver for his wife, Sylvia, who died of colon cancer in 2008. He was an all-star football player at Texas A&M University in the mid-70’s. He played in the NFL, with New Orleans in 1977, and with Cleveland in 1978.  He played guitar in the band, Dallas Air Posse, located in Arlington, TX. Their last CD was recorded in 2007.