I've read so many books about cancer I don't even remember which author described how she prevented herself from crying in public by pinching the bridge of her nose firmly.
After my husband David's oral cancer diagnosis in 2006 I had many opportunities to test that strategy; in the hospital elevator on the way up to ICU knowing I would be facing his obvious pain, when I sat with him in the chemotherapy room as he fell asleep in exhaustion during a treatment, even at the bank's drive-up window or in the grocery store when someone would innocently ask how I was. If they'd only known the effort it took to reply "fine," without breaking down, they would have abandoned that meaningless exchange. I felt like crying a lot back then but for my husband's sake, I tried desperately to maintain my composure. I knew how important it was for David to keep a positive attitude and I didn't want to burden him with my fears.
So whenever I felt like crying, I would turn my head slightly for a second and pinch the bridge of my nose. Surprisingly, it often worked. Occasionally, it didn't. More than once I found myself fighting back tears that threatened to embarrass me; while filling a shopping cart with soft foods for a husband who could hardly eat, driving in the car and hearing a song on the radio from our dating days, when folding David's tee shirts fresh from the clothesline, taking out the garbage that my husband had always taken out, and once, when changing the toilet paper roll.
I'm not sure why it worked out that way, but in our family changing the toilet paper roll had always been David's domain. In the house where we lived while he battled cancer the toilet paper hung off to the side at an awkward angle, and frankly, I preferred it loose on the tank or on the shelf in front of the commode so I usually just left a new roll in one of those areas. And the kids didn't really care where the toilet paper was located and never even bothered replacing it. David had often commented about being the only one who would change the roll.
By the middle of his cancer treatment my husband was no longer going for walks, taking out the garbage, reading to our toddler, or doing much of anything beyond sitting in a rocking chair dozing. He was too tired and weak from the fight to survive the tortuous treatment that was necessary to kill all the remaining cancer cells. Caring for him, watching him, I just prayed it wasn't killing him too.
Then one day when we ran out of toilet paper and I reached for a new roll, I slammed my head against the sharp edge of the cupboard. It hurt so badly I actually started crying, at first just with hot tears pouring down my face and then with my shoulders shaking. Next thing I knew I was holding my hand over my mouth to mute the noises of gulping sobs and the soft keening sound I heard coming from deep in my throat. Once I started crying, I could not stop. It was the kind of crying I would not have wanted anyone to witness, least of all one of my children. I let loose with all those pent-up tears I'd held back so long. I knew I wasn't crying about my sore head anymore, but about all that David had gone through, all that we had been through together. And when I was finally done, I washed my swollen eyes with a cool washcloth, powdered my face, brushed my hair, and then quietly and efficiently replaced the roll of toilet paper on the holder. It was just one small thing I could do for David. And without saying anything to anyone about my brief breakdown, I continued doing that simple chore through the rest of David's treatment and during the months of his recuperation, until one day, after he'd returned back to work, I stopped doing it. Even when we moved to a different house where the toilet paper set-up wasn't quite so awkward, I still left the new roll on the edge of the bathtub upstairs or on the sink in the downstairs bathroom.
Recently David asked in an exasperated tone, "Why am I the only one who ever puts the toilet paper on the holder?"
Reaching over to hug him, I answered, "Because now you can. And you are here to do it."
Then I pinched the bridge of my nose, real hard.
Mary relishes each and every day of her life that she shares with her husband David, a four-year oral cancer survivor. They live in Manchester, Iowa with four of their eight children. Mary blogs about writing, motherhood, and the unfortunately too close subject of cancer at: http://marypotterkenyon.wordpress.com/ Since the writing of this piece, her mother died of lung cancer and her five-year-old grandson Jacob was diagnosed with a Wilm's tumor. He is currently undergoing a 30-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. Mary is working with her agent on a book about extreme couponing.