“Elizabeth is my soulmate. I knew it the first time our eyes met, long before the cancer claimed her life. Well, I didn’t know it then, but looking back, it’s the only explanation for the feeling I got when I looked at her. My heart raced, my mind became dizzy, and there was an excitement surging from somewhere deep inside my soul that would remain there every time I saw her. It felt like the whirlwind of all the moments of happiness and joy that we would come to share, had come racing back to the instant it all began. The exhilaration billowing from experiencing all those moments at once, a brief flash that appears and then is gone. All that’s left is the subtle rush that the rest of your life just passed before your eyes, leaving your heart beating in a new cadence. You just met your soulmate for the first time. It was a signal I couldn’t miss.
The start of our relationship was very organic and authentic. It started slow and fun. We flirted and alluded and built attraction for each other. The more we got to know one another, the more we saw that we were cut from the same fabric. We had the same sense of humor, got excited by the same things, had the same guilty pleasures. We stood for having good character and being good people. Who we were and how we carried ourselves with honor and respect towards each other and the world around us were more important than the things we owned or titles we received. We were building a world for us to be happy in.
As our relationship grew, so did our bond, our love for each other. It tethered us together. It was a connection that was deeper and more real than anything I had ever felt with anyone. A mysterious comfort and knowing between two souls, that you humbly trusted and wore with quiet gratitude, a secret to tell but kept to ourselves. We never argued, always communicated, and we constantly made sure the other person was being heard and validated. Every day we fell more in love than the day before. It was the kind of love you read about in books or see in movies.
Elizabeth was stunningly beautiful, made more beautiful by the fact she had no ego. She put everyone else first. She was down to earth and made everyone feel accepted and important. She would laugh with you and never made you feel less than who you felt to be, like you were the only person in a crowded room. She was musically talented, a singer and worship leader. I never heard her ever sing out of tune. Never. She was a proud and independent woman, patient and strong. She was a preschool teacher, watching carefully over 12 two-year-olds. At family gatherings, she would be on the floor playing card games or putting puzzles together with my nieces and nephews. She was not just someone I respected but someone who inspired me to be a better man, and in turn, inspired us to be better towards each other and to love each other unconditionally.
We didn’t have much money to spend, so we would often just hop in my truck early on a Sunday morning and head out, get our favorite coffee, pick a direction and drive until it was time to return home. We got to explore new places together and experience them for the first time. It was exciting. We traversed the rolling hills of the wine country, cruised the California coast and visited the small towns along the way. Our day drives turned into weekend trips to different parts of the state, once making it all the way to Oregon, a new frontier for us to explore. We would listen to music, talk about our future, about opening up a bacon and coffee shop, and about leaving a legacy for a family that we would start. One of our favorite shows was “Aerial America”, a TV show that featured the history and landscape of each state in the U.S., all shot from the air. We would talk about how when we retired we would buy an RV and see all the national parks and historical sites that were featured on that show.
I knew I wanted this woman to be my wife and on one of those weekend trips, on a sunny day in October on a mountain peak, amongst purple wildflowers and butterflies, overlooking an ice blue lake, I asked her to spend the rest of her life with me.
The beginning of 2016 started off like every other year. Optimism this year would be better than the last. We had started saving money for a fall wedding and I started to work on my health and career. I had been a carpenter for 7 years before going back to college and getting my degree, 6 months earlier, in Philosophy and Economics, with a plan to work in finance and investing and, possibly, to go to law school. I wanted a career where I could support my family, to be a loving husband and a great father to my children. I wanted to give Elizabeth a life that she deserved. A home filled with laughter and togetherness. Everything was moving along as natural as it felt it should have. Until I got a call from Elizabeth that changed everything.
She had complained of stomach issues over the Christmas break so we made an appointment with a doctor to get it checked out. Fibroid growth had run in her family and she had already had surgery to remove them once a few years before. Fibroids grow back, so we assumed the pain was related to that. She had just gotten health insurance from her job and we were able to go to the closest hospital to run tests. After the appointment was over, it was concluded there indeed was a growth in her abdomen and the results of what it could be wouldn’t be in for a few more weeks. We left thinking about going through another surgery to remove fibroids.
A few weeks passed. It was a Wednesday. I was on a phone interview with an investment firm when the phone clicked. On the other line was Elizabeth, which I thought was odd because she wouldn’t have called during that time of the day. I let it go to voicemail. The phone call ended and I called her back, and she was crying. The doctors had gotten her blood sample and ultrasound results back… Elizabeth had cancer.
Nothing in life can prepare you for hearing the words ‘I have cancer’ said by someone you love. At first, you think there’s been some kind of mistake. Cancer? It has to be something else. The doctors have mixed up the results or maybe we don’t have all the information and it’s not that bad. The unknowns leave you confused, the knowns only subdue. And then the weight of reality starts to become heavy and the sinking feeling in yourself begins to pull on [the] realization that this is really happening.
Surgery was scheduled that Friday to have the tumors removed. We were admitted and met the surgeon that would be conducting the operation. She assured us that from the CT scans it looked like ovarian cancer and that she would do her best to get in there and clean up everything she could see, then hit it with chemo, and we would go on to live a happy life. We felt a little calmer and ready to tackle this mountain.
The surgery came. My mom prayed over Elizabeth as she was put under anesthesia. And then we waited. Six hours later, I was talking with Elizabeth’s brother when the surgeon called us into the consultation room. As we sat down, the look on her face said everything to me. She began to tell us that it wasn’t what they thought it was. That it hadn’t originated from the ovaries, but from the lining of the uterus and was a type of smooth muscle cancer called Leiomyosarcoma and it had spread to the abdominal cavity. Though the tumors were removed, the cancer would grow back and metastasize to other areas of the body. I asked if she would survive this disease. She shook her head, ‘No.’
Elizabeth, my soulmate, my best friend, my partner, had stage 4 cancer and it was going to kill her.
I had never experienced shock before. After letting the family know what the diagnosis was, I went to walk the halls of the hospital alone. I wanted to cry but the shock was so intense I couldn’t, it would just come out as a whimper. I made it to the lobby of the hospital and there was an old man playing [the] piano. I just sat and listened, contemplating the feeling of knowing the only thing that ever mattered to me would one day have to leave me here on Earth. Tears started flowing down my face as I came to the conclusion I would help her fight this disease and would stop at nothing to spend every day with her, at her side. I would do anything for her.
And that’s what I did. In the beginning weeks, we continued to live as normal of a life as possible. We hiked, went for drives, had date nights, and watched our favorite TV shows. I gave her shots in the morning to keep the blood from clotting and we worked on a meal plan from the “Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” cookbook. Our lives were now dotted with trips to the oncology department for chemotherapy treatments to curb the pain and growth of the tumors. We had to keep in mind how food was prepared and avoid going into public places without a face mask and hand sanitizer. Following the first round of chemo, we began radiation therapy. The nurses in both departments were fantastic and loved working with Liz, she was such an easy-going and understanding patient. Our oncologist happened to be the Northern California expert on sarcomas. Elizabeth was in the best hands she could be in.
As the months continued, she grew weaker. The treatments were starting to take a toll on her body. We went for a hike one day and she couldn’t make it down the trail. That’s when I started to understand this was the beginning of the end. On the way home, her brother’s pastor called her on the phone and during the conversation joked about getting married at the courthouse. We laughed at the idea but then started to think about it some more. All we’ve ever wanted was to be married to each other. Before we got home, we decided we would get married in the backyard.
The morning of the ceremony, I went to the hardware store and bought material from the garden center and turned some red posts, cinderblocks, and old rope into a wedding arbor. Florist, photographers, videographers, cake decorators volunteered their time and talents to turn my mother’s house into an amazing wedding venue. We had no timeline for when things were to happen, it all unfolded organically. And on a perfect day in April in front of a handful of crying family members and friends, we became husband and wife. It was the best day of my life.
It was only a few weeks after that when a trip to the emergency room would reveal Elizabeth’s organs were being compromised by the growth of the cancer. The team of doctors declared that there was nothing more they could do about Liz’s cancer and began to make arrangements with hospice. I knew this day would come, but hearing it out loud broke me. Hope had been dashed that a miracle would ever take place and that Liz being the fighter that she was, would persevere. It was then that I started to plan how I would cope with losing her. What could I do after she was gone that would help my soul heal and honor her?
As the weeks went on, she grew skinnier and more depleted as cancer weakened her body. I walked her in the wheelchair around the neighborhood. I built a wooden box to help her get in and out of the truck easier. She would be too afraid to fall asleep, so I stayed up with her until she passed out from exhaustion. I wanted every ounce of my love, energy, and devotion to be hers. I had once imagined spending decades taking care of her and giving her what she needed. I now had to fit all that into the short time we had left together. I was tired but I didn’t care, I loved her with everything I was.
It was during this time she made me promise I would be OK after she was gone. I told her life wouldn’t be the same without her, but that I would try for her. I told her I thought about maybe going on the road, for one last monumental drive, to visit all the places we always wanted to see, that I would see these places through her eyes or mine. She stared off into the distance and then turned back to me and smiled. She told me, ‘I want you to go. You need to go. You need to be out there… Nature is your cathedral.’ I will never forget those words. My wife knew that being out in nature, amongst the wind and the rock, would be my medicine for grief, my place of worship and understanding, that the road would help me contemplate the complexities of the universe, of time, of space, of love, of meaning, of life, and of death. It would be the act of solace my soul needed.
I held her hand as I watched her die. She took her last breath and vanished into the air. I felt her soul leave her body. At first, there was anguish and grief, but I felt her energy pass through me and a beautiful peace washed over me and filled my body. It was as if she was telling me, ‘I’m OK. I’m not in pain. It’s glorious here.’ She showed me where we go when our hearts stop beating. I was able to be strong and sad, a stoicism that she gave me.
Two and half months after she passed away, armed with a map and her ashes, I set off on a journey of a lifetime. One that would take me 12 weeks, 19,000 miles, and from one end of the country to the other.