When Mila was diagnosed with COPD, I thought our life was over. I never said that, of course. I wanted to be supportive. She was scared as it was, so she definitely didn’t need my fears and concerns as an extra burden. I kept everything I was scared of bottled up inside. As she cried in my shoulder, I remained strong. I held back my tears as she soaked my shirt. The doctor was so matter of fact. Rage grew inside me; why was he being so callous? Couldn’t he see that she was crumbing before him? As tears welled over her now puffy eye sockets, he patted the top of her now clenched fist before leaving the room. Then it was just the two of us.
What was I supposed to say? Do I tell her she is going to beat this disease? No, I couldn’t; COPD has no cure. There is no beating this disease—just learning to live with it. I couldn’t very well say that; I wanted to give her hope—I needed to give her hope. When she looked up at me through her tear-stained eyelashes, she gave me the same look that she gave me 23 years ago when she whispered a faint yes as I kneeled before her. It was a bittersweet look; it held hope, fear and unimaginable strength. This was my Mila; this was the love of my life.
Despite this look in her eyes, I still didn’t know what to say. It felt as though time had stopped altogether. In this very moment, I was experiencing everything over again. When I was younger, my mother always said that there would come a moment where my entire life would flash before my eyes. That time was now. First, I remembered all huge moments in our life together: when we said, “I do,” when Mila first told me that I was going to have a daughter, when we walked through the door of our first house together. Then all the memories changed to our perfect little life together: when Mila would kiss me awake in the morning when I was late for work, her face when she would walk in to a homemade dinner, and the light in her eyes that she still had after all these years together. Our life had always been perfect. We had been blessed, but why did this have to happen now?
We were just getting to the best years of our lives. She was finally going to retire and come home to me. Lacy had grown up and moved out; she was creating a beautiful life for herself as a teacher—just like her mother. We were finally going to able to travel and see the world together, but not anymore, now we would be strapped down to the confines of a house and an oxygen tank. Once again, I couldn’t say that to her.
I could imagine what our life would be now. The lung disease was sure to take its toll on our retirement plans. Surely, the tax would be too great. Rather than staring out at the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower, we would be looking at numerous doctors’ appointments and a life indoors. I imagined her lying in bed unable to breathe. I imagined her last breath. I imagined…
“I can do this,” my beautiful Mila whispered in a tired, broken voice. It was in that moment that I resented myself for everything I had just thought about—everything I had just imagined. This was my wife—my strong, fierce, take-no-shit wife. She wasn’t going to just bow down and hold up a white flag of surrender. No, she was going to fight. She would fight through the difficulty breathing, and I would fight for her. I would be there to hold her hand and her heart for another 23 years.
I imagined my future with Mila, but this time I imagined it accurately. I pictured us standing on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking Big Ben. Sure, she had an oxygen tank on, but the familiar bleat of the supplemental air would become a soundtrack for our lives. I imagined us meeting our granddaughter for the first time, and Mila would just smile. She would hold her granddaughter so tight, and she would whisper sweet nothings in her ear. Mila wouldn’t give up; she wouldn’t stand for anything less than a life full of adventure and happiness. She would learn to live with COPD. She would learn to live. That was all I needed to remember, and finally, I knew I what to say.
“I know you can.”