ter that, Ford started writing songs, filling journals with lyrics.
“I really think strongly that true art comes from suffering, you know, like bad experiences and stuff,” Ford said. “In a way, my dad’s whole journey through cancer ... gives me something to think about while writing. It gives me inspiration.”
But now the journey seemed to be nearing its end. Ford remained in his room, mind whirling.
“My dad came in to talk to me,” Ford said, “and I think pretty much what he told me was that he was just as sad as I was, only it was a waste of time to sit in bed being sad about it because we had limited time together. We should just forget about the news and just spend time together while we had it.
“I could tell that it really made him sad to see me sad. I mean, it’s one thing to know you’re going to die, but to see it affecting your children is probably the worst of all time.”
Living with a new reality
That first burst of grief was so powerful and confusing that Ford and Maddye ran away from home four days after Jim told them he was dying. They skipped school and drove to their grandmother’s house.
They were looking for somewhere safe, somewhere stable, some place where cancer doesn’t live. They didn’t stay away for long, just enough time to give them breathing room and allow Jim and LeAnn to realize how much they were hurting.
But a strange thing happened in the weeks and months that followed: That cold spike of sorrow gradually thawed, allowing them to forget, at times, that their father was dying. Their grief didn’t go away. They simply found, as their parents did, that it’s impossible to live in a constant state of heightened emotion.
Long hugs and searching glances slowly gave way to quick waves and shouted goodbyes. They adjusted to a new definition of normal.
“They don’t think about me dying all the time,” Jim said. “For the most part, I don’t think they think of it at all, except when I’ve had chemo and they can see me suffering.”
Ford knows time is running out for his father, but he also has homework, music, after-school activities and a social life. He’s a teenager, and listening to a new CD often seems more important than chatting with his dad. Maddye carries a similar load, plus an upcoming high school graduation and a new life in college.
The emotions haven’t gone away, Lankard said. They’ve been subsumed by all the other things going on in the teenagers’ lives. They can resurface at any time, including as arguments with their mother.
If she is like most women in similar situations, then “LeAnn is going through her own fears,” said Lankard, who knows firsthand the pain of losing a husband to cancer.
“She’s going to have to provide for these kids. She’s going to be the one to hope she can get them through college. She’s probably terrified herself. … She cares about Jim, but all of a sudden, she’s worried about her own survival.”
Competing needs gnaw at LeAnn like a school of piranha. She’s a wife, mother, teacher, math coach, daughter, sister, pet owner and caregiver, and each responsibility takes another bite out of her time. She’s inching closer to losing the man she has loved since she was a sorority girl at Oklahoma State, and sometimes the burdens become too much.
“I spend most of my time trying not to be bitter or mad,” LeAnn admitted. “I’m mad a lot. That’s not a secret.”
LeAnn often tells her husband that no one understands what she’s going through. Everyone knows him. He’s the poet, the blogger, the guy on the cover of the newspaper. She’s the one in the background, quietly paying the bills, picking up the house and keeping the family together. People ask about the sick one, not the caregiver, even though LeAnn’s accomplishments are noteworthy.
Recently, LeAnn’s Mathcounts team from Whittier Middle School won the state championship. As a result, LeAnn was named coach of the state team, which will participate in a national competition in Florida in May. Members of her new team come from schools across Oklahoma, so she must travel on weekends to hold practices.
LeAnn is thrilled by her team’s success, even as the new demands on her time increase tensions at home. Jim and the kids could take on more responsibility to help her out, but she wrote that off as a lost cause long ago.
“You can tell my family is spoiled,” she said. “They don’t pick up their own stuff, because all those years I picked their stuff up for them. … They’re very, very bad. I’ve not trained them well at all.”
To LeAnn, Jim’s cancer isn’t just destroying the man she loves; it’s also destroying the partnership they built over more than 21 years of marriage. When Jim is recovering from chemotherapy, she’s “mad all the time,” because he’s too weak to help her with chores — and because it kills her to see her husband hurting.
Maddye is rushing through her last year of high school. Ford is trying to imagine a home with only two people left in it. And LeAnn is moving breathlessly through a hectic schedule that doesn’t allow time for her to grieve.
“We’ve been living with this diagnosis for a year and a half,” she said, “so that’s a long time to know someone’s dying. That’s a very long time. There’s only so much you can do to prepare, and then you go on. You go on.”