Every weekend in church at the celebration of the Eucharist, the list of prayer intentions includes plenty of names. Some you know, some you don’t. For several years, my wife was on the prayer list on dozens of churches throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.
So here’s the story of my wife, Tiffani Schulte. Remember her when you hear the names of those in your church’s intentions. And remember there’s a story behind each name, too.
By RICK SCHULTE
You know that game, Whack-A-Mole? You take your mallet and hit that mole, but another pops up somewhere else and you try to hit it. That’s what cancer is like.
My wife lived with cancer for as long as I’ve held this job, six years. It took a while for the doctors we had at that time to realize the excruciating pain she was having – It can’t be cancer, because she’s too young, they told us – was in fact caused by colon cancer. And so we began a lengthy battle.
At the time, we hoped to just have the surgery and deal with 12 rounds of chemotherapy – that actually seemed like a lot, at the time – and in about six months, it would be over. Remove a few feet of her intestine, heal and take our medicine. A neat, clean break from a scare that would open our eyes, produce a collective sigh of relief and allow us to return to our orderly lives.
That was the plan. And, for about a year, it seemed like that was it with cancer.
But here’s the thing about cancer. You can’t tell it what to do. It has a mind of its own.
I’ll let you take one more picture of me, but that’s it. I’m not dead yet.
We awaited the results of Tiffani’s one-year scan while we were on vacation. I was more than a bit concerned about the results. Sure, I was optimistic. I mean, it was a shock to get diagnosed with cancer at 45, but maybe we dodged our bullet. But I couldn’t help but feel nervous. So while on our vacation, I took lots of pictures of my wife. Going on walks. Throwing around the football. Making dinner. Enjoying a quiet moment at the lake. Everything she did, I took a picture of it. I mean, I was optimistic. But just in case…
We found out after our vacation that the cancer, indeed, returned. I’ll be honest, some of that time was a bit of a blur. We switched to a different oncologist, one closer to our home and who seemed more attentive. It wasn’t a satisfying experience. We switched to another oncologist, one literally within walking distance from my office.
Chemotherapy. Surgery. Recovery. Repeat. That seemed like it went on for too long, with some small victories coming along the way, but not enough overall progress to satisfy us.
Why worry about what might happen? Either you’ll have to live through it twice, or you will have wasted all that time worrying for nothing.
Here’s the thing about dealing with cancer with a timeline consisting of ‘years’ instead of ‘rounds of treatment.’ You come to realize it is an undeniable part of life. You don’t want it there, you don’t like how it’s all-encompassing, but you find a way to not only deal with it, but to live with it.
Let that sink in for a minute. To live with cancer.
Cancer, like any serious illness, can put itself front and center and take over your life, if you let it. I’ll say one thing about my wife: She relentlessly pursued calm, and was damned if a few tumors and gallons of cancer-fighting toxins were going to ruin her life. Even though she could no longer work, she still found ways to stay busy, trying to do all she could and be all she could be. The only thing worse than having cancer beat you is being around to see it beat you. So she dug in and refused to be beaten. She would take the fight to cancer, as if to say, “Just watch me live.”
To me there are three things everyone should do every day. No. 1 is laugh. No. 2 is think – spend some time in thought. No. 3, you should have your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.
I wish I had come up with that.
It was actually from Jim Valvano, a college basketball coach dying from cancer whose perspective not only on basketball, but on life, was sheer, motivational brilliance. Without realizing it, Tiffani subscribed to this theory of living already. It started to make more sense to me as time went on, and this became my mantra. How could I get through every day? How could Tiffani get through every day? Find a reason to squeeze every bit of life out of every day.
But the effort required to get yourself through life does not give you the ability to get someone else through life.
You see, I was under the mistaken impression I could pull my wife through this. I believed I could literally will Tiffani, somehow, to get through cancer and back to a clean bill of health. While it was a noble thought, it wasn’t one based in reality. I could do all I could for myself, but I could not make my wife become cancer-free. What I could give her was love and support, which might help her get through the hard times but would not guarantee anything. I could try to make my children comfortable with a very uncomfortable situation, but I could not completely take away their worries. But they would know I would always have their back.
So, while I found the peace to handle whatever came at us, it still took me a long time to realize my limitations. For years, I felt responsible, like if I just tried harder…It was up to me to not let down my wife. I had to save her.
I truly believed her life was in my hands. What a fool I was.
It’s hard for us to realize, we are not in control. It’s in God’s hands. We have to be willing to give up control.
The great thing about working in an environment where there is no shortage of clergy willing to help is the access to wise thinking. I still remember going into the office of Bishop Wendell Gibbs and hearing him give me words of encouragement, with a steady reminder of how no matter how hard I tried – and I tried with all my might – I wasn’t going to determine the outcome. I could affect how Tiffani might feel, but I could not determine how things would go.
It took time before it really started to make sense to me. It was okay to cry. It was okay to get out my emotions. Tears and disappointment weren’t a sign of weakness; facing up to it would be a sign of strength. I was not going to play an Oz-like role, standing behind the curtain and pulling the levers to get the result I needed. My role was to provide support and comfort to my wife, my family and to those I love. And that included being strong enough to admit I needed help and was willing to accept it.
It’s not up to you, Rick. We’re doing this, whether you show up or not.
Tiffani and I were talking one day about what we would like to experience. Who knows how much time anyone has left, but what would you like to do if given the choice?
We thought about it for a while. She said a cross country trip, heading out along as much of the fabled Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, would be a true bucket list trip. But how would we do it? Financially, how could it happen? A few teachers from our local high school, who knew our family well, caught wind of it. They sat me down in a coffee shop one day and explained how there would be a fundraiser coming up soon, and it would be for us. There was going to be a bucket list trip.
It’s an incredibly humbling experience when someone steps forward and says, “You’ve done so much for everyone else. Now, it’s time we’re going to do something for you.”
Just as humbling is when you realize how often you hear a friend say, “I know we’ve never met your wife, but she’s in our prayers, every Sunday.” When I told my wife this, she wanted to learn more about these churches and these people praying for her. She took great comfort in knowing folks were unconditionally supporting her, and our family. She made new friendships, too. One day, when Tiffani was in the hospital awaiting brain surgery, and I wasn’t able to sit with her, I knew the Rev. Paula Miller was nearby and just chomping at the bit to help. So they talked. They prayed. And finding so much they had in common, they bonded. She became so close to my wife, in fact, that when it was time for us to renew our wedding vows for our 25th anniversary, Paula was there. She would also preside over one more ceremony, but that would come later.
It’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey.
It was hard to believe we were standing on the Santa Monica Pier, at the end of Route 66. Most people on the pier were taking pictures, eating fish tacos or buying souvenirs. We looked around. Quietly, we started to cry. We made it there.
Nearly 3,000 miles, after all the surgeries, all the chemotherapy, all the days of being too sick to get out of bed for more than a few minutes, and we made it to the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t a perfect journey, for sure. We got in an accident along the way, so we needed to unload all of our stuff in the 90-degree Arizona sun and wait for a new rental van to come along. And we also forgot to pack a heavy-duty pain medication, too (although we eventually had it shipped to us in San Francisco, which in and of itself was an adventure). Plus, there were days where Tiffani just couldn’t stay on the road for as long as she wanted. But we did it.
There was something melancholy about the trip home. The last 1,500 miles or so, with nothing but mountains, then flatlands and a whole lot of open road. It gave me time to think about what might await us. There would be a visit to the oncologist in order.
Who knows what that would bring.
Let’s go home and tell the kids.
Tiffani had been exhausted and very sore since the day we returned from our trip. It was understandable, considering we had covered 6,500 miles, zigzagging across 16 states. She was a mess, in too much pain to take her next round of chemo. We were sent directly to the hospital, where a series of tests took place. A few weeks later, they confirmed our worst fears. We had one to two months left, tops.
You never know how you’ll handle it when it’s time to tell people your wife is going to die. You assume there’s no way you can do it. Brain surgery? Chemo? In comparison, those were easy things. Breaking the hearts of your kids, your family, your friends, there’s nothing to prepare you for that. But somehow, we managed to do it.
Actually, my wife was much stronger than me. Was she scared? Absolutely. Scared for herself, scared with how everyone would be. And scared with how her body was betraying her, affecting her appetite, her thought processes, her ability to walk. In such a short time, she went from walking around in San Francisco to being unable to get up from her chair. There was one time in particular Tiffani could not even stand up. With a little work, though, we managed to get her to stand as I pulled her up and she fell into my arms for a prolonged hug. It was only for a few seconds, but it was our last romantic moment; also, the most romantic moment of my life.
“You’ve taken such good care of me,” she whispered in my ear. “I love you.”
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.
I get it now.
Paula prayed for her eternal rest at Tiffani’s Celebration of Life. My God, she had to endure so much. One morning, not long after she died, I was gathering her medications and hospice items to donate to a local clinic. I couldn’t believe the number of pills we had. It was just an immense variety of items to keep her reasonably comfortable. The running joke is we had more narcotics in our home than a Grateful Dead tour bus.
Perpetual light. No more darkness. No more fear. She was going to be okay, and showed us in several obvious signs after her death that she would watch out for us as best she could. But she was free from the suffering. That’s all that mattered to me. She was safe.
We miss her every day. Everyone Tiffani closely touched will likely miss her for the rest of their lives. I still hear about the people she reached out to in an effort to provide support and love — and she did this only a few days before she died. She loved her oncology team so much that about a dozen of her nurses came to the funeral home to pay their respects. The world doesn’t feel the same, for sure, but the sun still rises every day.
In death, we find the clarity to be so grateful for the life Tiffani gave us.
Rick Schulte is editor for The Record and also director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.