The Big Thaw

We have been quiet at Chez Foley as we adjust to our new cancer-free life. Tom’s brain cancer is, at least for the moment, gone.

For those who know me, it is unusual that I didn’t have a plan with action steps that we would execute once Tom’s brain cancer split. I am not sure if this is because I never thought it would abate, or if our day-by-day mantra has taken over my brain.

For the past two months, we have been simply stunned and thrown into a unfamiliar world. The past five years have seared into our minds day-to-day living. That and a lot of prayer helped us through the gauntlet.

When Doc Kahl surprised us in the first week of February with the early declaration that Tom was cancer-free, we were very happy but unsure. It was as if we had never thought about the prospect that we would be normal again. We had taken day-to-day living quite literally. (Tom will never be declared cured, as we understand it. The best we will get is “cancer-free” and we will take it!)

We began going out to eat — a lot. I gained seven pounds! The dinners gave us time to talk in a relaxed setting about how we’ve changed in the past five years and what we want to do in the next five years.

All of this dovetailed on Feb. 6 with my good luck in getting a great job at Wisconsin Physicians Service (WPS) as vice president of corporate communications. It’s a big job at a company faced with the many changes in health care, particularly the coming Health Care Exchanges and the increasing role government will play in our health care coverage, such as Medicare.

In February and March, my head was spinning most evenings with the new opportunities and the new culture of a $1 billion company with 4,000 employees and 60 years of success. In the past, WPS’s strategy was to use communications sparingly. Our new charismatic CEO Mike Hamerlik envisions a new communications era in which we share the great news of our company and we transparently share the successes and challenges with our fellow employees. We have a lot of work to do.

Tom is the cook in our family. His brain injury from the chemo makes it hard to multitask and cooking dinner challenges him. He loves to go out for dinner, and we had to cut back when I left my job at MATC in 2011 and started my consulting firm.

When the good news floodgates opened two months ago, eating out was a tonic: I had time to unwind after my first few months at the new job, and Tom celebrated several times a week his new vistas without having to plan dinner. We would make up reasons to celebrate. “I got my prescriptions without any hassles!” Oakcrest for the hungry person burger. “Ellen made it two weeks at her new job.” Vintage for the fish fry. “Ellen got her first paycheck.” Jaq’s for two-for-one hamburger night.

Tom’s lasting metaphor for how he feels is the image of people who have been cryogenically frozen and then woken up after years or perhaps centuries when health care has new options for the diseases they suffered or longevity extensions. Think Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” without the brainwashing.

We are thawing, Tom says.

We aren’t quite back.

In some ways, we feel we have lost five years of our lives. Certainly, I lost my place in my career. And Tom still can’t remember things that happened when he was very sick in the hospital. The rest of his memory is pristine. But there are events that occurred that he is totally blank on.

We lost but we gained. I started my consultancy and had a ball. I didn’t make as much money as I anticipated but I made much more than Tom anticipated. I met the gang at Rippe Keane who continue to be my pals and teachers. I learned so much from my work with the Morgridge Center for Public Service that I still consult with them. I would never have been prepared for the job at WPS without these lessons.

Many friends in Madison have patted me on the back in the past few weeks and said that they are proud that I had the patience to wait it out for the right job. My dear friend Bill Wineke reminds me that I was not at all patient, but I did keep showing up, which was truly my path to this success.I could not have done this without the support of folks on Caring Bridge and many, many other people. I will NEVER forget this.

Tom is so much more relaxed now that I have a job with a regular paycheck. He can see a retirement that doesn’t involve a mobile home in a rural outpost. We used to joke about this before cancer but during treatment and after we considered it. With the cost of health care in retirement escalating, it could have been our only option. Now that the stock market is flourishing and we have changed our investments to accommodate its irascibility, we will soon be looking for a smaller home or apartment in Madison. (Or so Tom insists. I could live in my house forever despite the taxes.) We did wait out the home market and we think we can get our investment out of the current “editor’s” house that we bought in 2004. As my mother would have said, “It all worked out.”

I didn’t realize the emotional toll of my consulting roller coaster life on  Tom. We still can’t quite grasp that the WPS paycheck comes every two weeks, and I don’t have to spend so much time doing business development in coffee shops and networking events. We go for long walks on weekends. I am more available to him as he “thaws” and he can suggest we hit the Laurel for dinner without feeling anxious that it could cost more than $20.

Tom has also been traveling more than usual. He drove alone to Minneapolis against my better judgment. He did stop at Black River Falls at my insistence. He always arrives headachey and exhausted but he is energized by his pals there who have stuck by him even though we’ve moved three times since we left St. Paul in 1998.

He visits daughter Maura in Chicago and helped her move into her own apartment, which has a spare room just for him (and I hope me). He loves walking around her Wicker Park and Logan Square neighborhoods sampling the new restaurants and observing the throngs of young urban residents pushing baby strollers.  We wish we had moved to Chicago in our 20s, and Tom is living through Maura and thoroughly enjoying the big city accoutrements as he defrosts.

It’s almost as if Tom is reborn and these new experiences and old friends are tools for him to “thaw” out and chart our future. It scares me every time he drives more than an hour alone. When he moved some of our older future to Maura’s new apartment, I drove with him in a U-Haul truck and we stopped in suburban Chicago at a Schaumberg $60 motel for the night to pace it out for him.

We have mini-adventures on these trips that delight him. The Schaumberg motel had a huge Jacuzzi in the bedroom where the second bed would have otherwise been. The clerk at the desk asked us suggestively if we were here for a “special occasion.” “Yeah,” I almost said to him, “We made it here alive.” Tom and I just laughed that the clerk would think long-married people would have a “special occasion”. Wink. Wink.

I insisted that we use the mini whirlpool while we watched basketball games on the large motel TV in our room. We hung our legs over the lip of the tub and laughed and laughed. Tom doesn’t drink alcohol so there was no champagne involved. It was just funny to us that after almost 30 years of marriage and all this grief, we would be splashing like teenagers in these weirdly placed bathtub. I guess we did have a special occasion after all.

Our daughters are doing very well. Maura works at an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue doing big data analysis. Kaitlin is a nanny for three small children in suburban Sun Prairie. Kaitlin’s job looks more difficult to me than Maura’s, but remember, the nuns never taught us math so what do I know. In any case, the extreme anxiety that we all experienced during Tom’s lengthy treatment and recovery seeped into all of our psyches. We believe the daughters are working it out in very different ways, and we are very proud of them.

I am trying not to cry as I look out on our pretty backyard in Madison where I have gazed as I wrote my CaringBridge missives for so many years. We are all part of a miracle. I don’t understand it. I’m not sure what’s next. I too am defrosting as the lingering crescent shape snow piles smile back at me.

I wanted you all to know that the Foleyoleos are ok.

God is good, as the sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary used to say.

We’ll keep you posted.