Legacies from the Living Room: A Love-Grief Equation

by Debra Parker Oliver


Book Details

An emotionally powerful love story about family, commitment, and living in the midst of dying. It is a unique memoir written not by an individual who is dying, but by a spouse faced with caregiving and loss. It is targeted for family members facing the terminal illness of their loved one as well as the professionals who are responsible to care for them.


Book Excerpt

This day will determine the course of all others for our family. My hands are shaking, and my eyes are puffy from lack of sleep. This diagnostic process has taken three weeks, and I have not slept through the night since it began. Initially, I let denial help me cope, believing that my healthy and very active husband could not possibly have anything seriously wrong. I reassured myself by believing he was exaggerating the size of the lump in his neck. However, last week a biopsy indicated it was cancer. The doctor took samples not only from his neck but also his throat and nose. A PET scan will discover how far the cancer has spread. David calls today a “lived moment”. He defines this as a time when you enter as one person and leave as another. It is a good description because today we hear the results and learn our future fate. We are getting dressed, both lost in thought. The silence is making my anxiety unbearable. I turn around and look at him. “David, you realize that this is probably at least a Stage II cancer since the doctor said last week that the primary site is not your neck?” “No, I missed that,” he responds softly. His face is flush, and I see his hands shake as he buttons his shirt. “I have been hoping it’s early. I can’t stand the thought that the shit is spreading through my body.” He stops talking. I can tell he does not want to think about it. I turn and finish dressing. I’ve been searching the Internet to learn about cancer staging and speaking to my friends in medicine, as a result I’m afraid we are lucky if it’s only Stage II. If it did not start with that big lump in his neck then where did it begin? I keep my questions and fears to myself so as not to increase David’s anxiety. After entering the clinic lobby, we meet our middle daughter Becky, 23, at the check-in desk. She will graduate from nursing school in only two months, and she has gone to all the appointments to help us understand what we hear. Despite working in a medical school, neither David nor I always understand the medical jargon. After checking in, we’re put into an exam room to wait for the new test results. Despite the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, it feels closed-in and dark. We sit stiffly on old wooden chairs, trying to convince ourselves that everything is going to be okay. David attempts humor by raising the exam chair as high as it can go. Laughing, he declares that he wants to look the doctor in the eye. Becky and I fail to see the fun of it. My sweaty palms are clasped together as I nervously steal a glance at the door, awaiting the doctor’s entrance. After the longest 20 minutes of my life, he appears, stops at the door, and looks directly at David. “It’s metastatic cancer behind your nose, and it’s spreading to your bones.”
 Silence fills the room. I look at David, clearly shocked. His face is blank. I realize he does not comprehend what this means. He lowers his chair back to the ground and stares blankly. I ask, “What stage?”
 The doctor pauses and looks at the floor. “Stage IV.”
 I quit breathing. I’m not prepared for that answer, and I know David isn’t either. David asks, “So how long do I have?” “If chemotherapy works, three to five years. If not, six months.” Those are the last words I hear. My brain shuts down.


About the Author

Debra Parker Oliver

Debra Parker Oliver is the Paul Revare Family Professor of Family Medicine, in the School of Medicine,at the University of Missouri. She has a Masters of Social Work and a PhD in Rural Sociology from the University of Missouri. She was a hospice social worker and administrator in three hospice programs for a total of more than 20 years. After getting her doctorate she continued her commitment to the improvement of hospice care through research with more than 170 peer-reviewed articles related to palliative and hospice care. In an effort to teach and advocate for those facing cancer and terminal illness Debbie and her husband David created a blog to share their journey with others. The received the Project Death in America Community Education Award from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine two weeks before David passed away. Debbie now continues the journey through grief and bereavement, continuing her commitment to share her journey.



Press the play () button to listen to the author's audio file