Do you believe in love at first sight? You know, the kind in romcoms where the dreamy guy catches the eyes of a pretty girl across the street, and they make an instant connection, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after?
I didn’t either. Until I met John.
John and I first laid eyes on each other in early 2014, and not necessarily in the most conventional way.
I was working in a busy, private oncology clinic. I was two years into a not so healthy marriage, going to school, and trying to convince myself my marriage and life wasn’t falling apart.
John was a new patient to our clinic. He had recently been diagnosed with Metastatic Melanoma and had been referred to the clinic for treatment. As I called him back to the exam room, I couldn’t help but notice his sparkling eyes, and his nervous smile — one I would soon figure out would transfer into an enormous, squinty eye, full teeth smile that he was known for. Ask him about something he loved (his dog, the outdoors, or snowboarding) and be ready to be hit with that earth shattering smile. I knew he was a special human the first time we met. I just didn’t know how much he would go on to impact my life.
Now, let me stop you right there for a second. John was my PATIENT, and I was married. We chatted from time to time in the clinic, but, I’m not some creeper who goes full Izzy/Denny and preys upon handsome young men I am caring for (Grey’s Anatomy reference for those who aren’t into medical dramas). I ensured that our patient/caregiver relationship was professional and safe.
Fast forward to summer of 2015. I had started a new job at a hospital, was divorced and had just moved into a tiny little duplex within walking distance from work. I had made an online dating profile and had been swiping haphazardly here and there. I was standing in my kitchen eating takeout from a box when suddenly, a new profile popped up on my screen:
John W, 34. Puyallup.
And there was that earth-shattering grin staring right at me from the screen of my phone. I swiped right, he did too, and the rest was history.
John and I went on our first date. And our second. And our third; all within the same week. We quickly became inseparable. If we couldn’t be together, we were texting, talking on the phone, dropping off lunches to each other. Anything we could do to be ‘together.’
Remember that love at first sight thing? This was it. The real deal.
You must be thinking, ‘John is free of cancer and found the love of his life! How sweet!’ Only part of that is true. You see, when John and I first started dating he was deemed ‘No Evidence of Disease’ (NED) term that many cancer patients dream about. The thing is, when you have been diagnosed with stage IV cancer as John had been, even though there is no visual ‘evidence’ of cancer on his CT scans, it’s still there. Microscopic little cancer cells just floating around waiting to settle down and start making tumors. As John not so lightly put it, it’s essentially like having a guillotine hanging over your head.
About [six] months into our relationship, John found out his cancer was back. He immediately started on immunotherapy and radiation. Just [six] weeks into this new treatment, we again learned he was NED. John was told he’d need to continue on the immunotherapy treatment for life. Thankfully it was a low side effect treatment, and we went on living the next year in bliss. We bought our dream property, spent time skiing, working in the yard, preparing delicious meals to share on our patio, we were hopelessly in love. Life was perfect. So, freaking perfect.
John and I had an unworldly connection; It’s hard to describe unless you have felt it. He was my soul mate, and I was his. We had the same thoughts, finished each other’s sentences, and shared a unique, whole, pure love for one another. It was almost as if we lived in another realm before this, and our souls were old friends. It was a beautiful miraculous and rare thing. Something you are lucky to find even once in your lifetime. I remember laying next to him in bed one night and thinking about how much I loved him; how rare this love was. I had a fleeting terrifying thought that passed through my head completely uninvited: This love, this life, was too good to last forever.
In September of 2017, John began having concerning symptoms. He began vomiting and was unable to keep anything down. I rushed him to our local hospital. His mom met me there and took over so I could go home and pack some things for John. I’ll never forget the phone call from his mom. ‘Kelli, The cancer is back. He has a large tumor tangled in his intestines. They are transferring him to the university.’ I sat on our bedroom floor and sobbed.
John was started on a new treatment. And aside from getting on a clinical trial, this was his last option for treatment. The hope was that this treatment would shrink the tumor enough that it could be safely removed by surgery within several months. John came home from the hospital. He couldn’t eat, so every 12 hours I’d mix up his IV nutrition, hook up his IV, and set his pump. Good thing I was already practiced at this!
One afternoon we were sitting on the porch in silence after a hard follow up appointment with his oncologist. At the appointment, she sat down and looked right at John and I. ‘If this treatment doesn’t work, this will likely be the end. I recommend you consider going on hospice.’ It was sobering. We had never considered this journey would turn out any way but positive. Call us naive, but we were so in love, we just KNEW we could never be separated.
We sat on the porch holding hands and just looking at each other. Beginning to process this may be the beginning of the end. With tears streaming down my face, I looked at John. ‘Do you want to get married?,’ I asked him. ‘Of course,’ he said. We held each other in the tightest hug and just sobbed. Hard.
One week later, on October 8th, 2017, we got married in our beautiful yard in the shadow of Mount Rainier. It was hands down THE best day of our lives.
In January of 2018, John had a major 5-hour surgery to remove the tumor along with parts of his small intestine and large colon. Surgery was deemed a success, and again, John was declared NED. Our happiness and relief was short-lived, however. At a follow-up CT scan in March, we learned the cancer was back, and this time, it was everywhere.
We traveled to Portland to enroll [in] a clinical trial. For this treatment, John was required to stay in the hospital. We spent our days snuggling in his hospital bed, watching movies, and just talking. As the days went on, I could see John getting weaker. I knew in my heart this treatment wasn’t working. John’s belief that he would beat this never once faltered. One night while sitting in his hospital bed with him, he said, ‘I so badly want this to be our fairy tale. Our happily ever after. I have to beat this. For you, for us.’
In May, we learned the treatment didn’t work. By this point, John had lost 20 lbs and was too weak to walk out of the hospital by himself. We were sent home and John was told he needed to recuperate before he could be considered for any other clinical trials.
By June, he was hardly eating and was so weak he could hardly leave our bed. I never left his side. I bathed him, fed him, loved on him, and tried my hardest to make him feel so loved and appreciated.
One morning after a night of vomiting, I brought him to the hospital. The cancer had spread rapidly and there was nothing else that could be done. His doctor came into his room, held his hand and looked into his eyes with tears in hers. ‘It’s time, John.’ John looked at me with his beautiful once sparkling eyes; now slightly dulled from the pain medication, and yellow-tinged from the tumors in his liver. I squeezed his hand hard, and while trying to stifle a sob, I just nodded in agreement with his doctor.
Let me tell you something about John. At age 18, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident. He was told he’d never walk again. Guess what? He did. And snowboarded, and hiked, and coached CrossFit. He was quite possibly the most optimistic person I have ever met. He would set his mind to something and he would make it happen. He knew he was going to beat cancer; he KNEW it. And nobody, even his doctors, could tell him otherwise. He was MY rock. When I was sad or scared of what was happening, he would hold me tight, smile and say, ‘Babe, don’t worry. We got this!’
It was my turn to protect John now. As we signed his DNR papers and spoke with the hospice coordinator, I reassured him this was not giving up. He told everyone he was going home to get stronger so he could get on another clinical trial and beat this, and I was his hype man; I put on my brave face and followed his lead. Though we both knew this was the end, neither of us wanted to admit it to each other; we had to protect each other’s hearts.
We got home from the hospital and set him up in his new hospital bed. Our once shared bed was as close as physically possible to his hospital bed so I could still hold his hand, rub his back, and be ready at a moment’s notice to get him anything he needed. We were surrounded by our beloved dogs, our families, and so much love. John was comfortable, he knew he was safe and loved. He was at peace.[On] June 17, John drifted into a coma. I laid in his hospital bed all day; snuggled up as close to him as I could get. Smelling his hair, feeling his heart beat. Admiring his long eyelashes, his strong hands that could envelop mine. Our families drifted in and out of our room loving on John and telling him how much he impacted them.
Around 10:30 our families went to bed, and it was just John and I. I snuggled up to John and told him how much I loved him and how much I always would. I told him how much his family loved him; his brothers, his sisters, his parents. I thanked him for changing my life, for loving me and for saving me. As we laid quietly together in our dimly lit room, John took his final breaths and slipped quietly into eternity at 11:15 p.m.
John was an incredible human. At his standing room only memorial service, person after person came to the podium to share how John had changed their lives. How he never backed down from a challenge and was the first person to help out anyone who needed it. John inspired me to be a better human. To never quit; even in the face of adversity. He taught me how to LIVE. And most importantly, love with my whole heart.
It has been 10 months since I had to say goodbye to John. In that time, I have taken up trail running and started riding horses again. These two passions have helped me [to] survive. In July, I hope to make my first attempt at summiting Mt. Rainier. It’s something John and I always talked about doing, and I want to do it for him. I started the hashtag #johnwoulddoit in attempt to record all of the epic things myself, as well as John’s loved ones, are doing in his honor. Because, well, if you challenged John to do anything, he’d probably do it!
I don’t know what life has in store for me on this new journey. I’m not sure if I’ll be in love again, stay in our house, or even in the same state. I still live my life day to day; sometimes moment to moment, as that is all I can manage. One thing I know for sure is that I’ll carry John with me always. His spirit, his legacy, and his love will never die.