Tony Snow's death packed a particularly hard punch to my gut this week. Because during the past year, Tony had been warmly and graciously corresponding with my precious wife Denise, who had also been battling cancer. When Tony found out about her diagnosis, he asked for her email address so they could exchange words of inspiration and advice.
They did. And she relished every word. Here was my wife, a frustratingly liberal-leaning woman and wife of a conservative radio host, sharing a bond with a fellow cancer fighter, one of the giants of conservatism. It was proof that a life-threatening disease is the great equalizer, a reminder that there are more important things than Democrats and Republicans. Denise loved Tony. She admired his faith, his optimism, and his "live-for-the-moment" approach to life.
I imagine right about now, they are arguing politics face-to-face. Because my beloved died almost two weeks ago.
It's awkward to tell others that your spouse has died. Everyone becomes so sad and sorry, and you just hate like heck to have to break the news to someone who hasn't heard the news. It's as if you just know that you're about to cast a pall over someone and you wish there was a way around it.
I suppose that's why I've taken so long to write this column. When I first wrote about my wife Denise's diagnosis of endometrial cancer last year, I guess I brought you into my family's fight whether you liked it or not. And now that she's gone, I feel somewhat obligated to finish the story.
Sharing bad news with strangers is most certainly a selfish act. Over the last year, I've noticed that a sense of comfort occurs from opening up to others. Since I'm a professional communicator, I think I instinctively cling to doing what I do best, even in times of crisis and turmoil. And I have been inspired and uplifted by the goodness of others.
I watched Chris Wallace's amazing tribute to Tony this week on "Fox News Sunday." On tape, Tony often spoke about what a gift it was for him to receive the love and support of thousands, millions of strangers. I, too, have taken great solace in the kindness my family and I have been receiving during this difficult time.
So please forgive me for opening up to you about saying good-bye to the love of my life, my Denise, my sweet, precious, funny, big-hearted best friend. But I think it might make me feel a little better to be able to tell you about this amazing, wonderful lady.
Denise died at 7:12 in the morning on June 29, 2008. She was where she wanted to be, in our bedroom, surrounded by the husband and four sons who adored her. A hospice nurse, an angel if there ever was one, sat quietly nearby. It's a dumb phrase right out of the movies, but she died in my arms, our son Matt holding her hand.
She died the day before her 52nd birthday.
It all happened fairly quickly. During the final six weeks, she just kept getting progressively more fatigued. We thought (tried to convince ourselves?) that it was just the chemo and radiation she was receiving. She would bounce back, we kept insisting. It would get better.
But of course, it didn't. We finally accepted that she was, indeed, dying.
That realization, along with the terrifying stage four cancer diagnosis a year earlier, was a peculiar gift to us. Many couples never have a chance to say good-bye. I think of someone like Tim Russert who went to work one day, his family never knowing it would be for the final time.
As preferable a way as that might be to die, it has to be absolutely agonizing for the family and friends. My heart goes out to those who just don't know it's about to happen.
For Denise and me, this last year was a time to live. Funny, but that's how she always lived her life. She was constantly scolding me for worrying too much about the future, for sweating the small stuff.
After the doctor gave us the horrible news last year, I knew our lives were changed forever.
But in many ways, the past year was the best time we ever had together. We laughed. We traveled. We reveled in family and friends.
I learned to do what Denise had been doing all along: I lived.
When your spouse is given a bleak prognosis, you become an expert in soaking up every moment of every day. During this last year, I memorized every inch of her face. I soaked in her throaty laugh (boy, I loved that laugh). We rarely disagreed about anything. After all, when you both know that cancer is all through your wife's body, does it really matter if someone forgot to put away the ice cream?
We never failed to be optimistic. She once put it best: since there was only a 5% chance for a five year survival (or better), why can't she be in that 5%?
That was my Denise. Always hopeful, never pollyanna. A month or so ago, she grabbed my hand and told me how sorry she was, that she just couldn't believe she was putting me through all this. Knowing that I lost my mom and dad to cancer and leukemia, she said that if she had been able to predict this was going to happen, she would have never married me. Through my tears, I told her that the last 20 years with her made me the happiest man in the universe, and no disease could ever change that. Smiling, she told me that she was so peaceful because as a believer, she knew where she was going. But she hated to leave the rest of us behind.
In fact, she was never afraid. Denise never complained, nor did she wonder why this woman with a lifetime of good health would suddenly get so sick. As she said, "Why me? Well, why not me?"
I'm not really that brave. I have to admit to asking God, "Why her?" on a pretty regular basis. I find myself feeling pretty sorry for myself these days. The person that I would rather be with more than anyone else in the world has left me. Once in awhile, the grief kind of takes me by surprise and I feel panicky, like I can't catch my breath. Our four adult sons who always relied on their Mama for guidance and wisdom are now stuck with dumb old me. Her Mom and Dad had to attend their only daughter's memorial service. And our friends who loved her so very much now have to live without this special woman in their lives.
One day, I'll understand all of this. Some day, I'll get to hold her again.
For now, I'll just try and live the way she taught me to. When my kids ask me about a girlfriend problem, I'll try to imagine what Denise would say. When I'm overwhelmingly sad, I'll try and think about our happiest times together, like strolling hand in hand through one of her favorite places, Disney World or New York City. Or maybe my absolute favorite moment, on any given Saturday morning when we just loved running errands together. For us, going to Target was a blast.
I will never figure out a way to thank people for their overwhelming kindness. Total strangers have poured out their hearts to me and reached out to my family in ways I never imagined possible. Through my devastating sadness, I have been touched deeply by the kindness of so many.
And my message to them: live life the way my Denise did. Hold your family close. Treasure your child's laugh, your wife's tender brush of your hand. When you're tempted to argue about something, think for a moment about what your life would be like without the person you promised to spend a lifetime with.
Believe me, it's not fun.
And my message to Tony right about now? Please be patient with my Denise while trying to explain the wisdom of conservatism. Lord knows I tried, Tony. I really tried. She's going to drive you crazy.
But her heart is in the right place. And she loved her husband, her sons, her parents, and her many friends so very much. It's that love that I carry in my heart that keeps me going right now. Just like I know the love you had, Tony, for Jill, Kendall, Robbie, and Kristi will keep them strong, too.
Like most married couples, Denise and I had a bunch of little rituals. One of mine was to say the exact same thing every single night that we turned out the lights to go to bed. I literally didn't sleep very well if I didn't say it to her.
"Good night, my princess. Sleep safe."