By Keri R. Hakan
I believe that freedom can be found in true love. My husband and I dated for about ten years and then were married for eight. He passed on in July 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In our eighteen years together, we taught each other a great deal about life and love, without the intention of doing so, but by simply respecting, accepting, and caring for each other in good times and in “bad” times. Our connection was a bond that intertwined us and made us stronger as individuals and as a couple.
I was in my early twenties and in college when we met, and Paul was slightly older. The first time we ever saw each other, there was an instant attraction and connection. When we started dating, I was pleasantly surprised by how respectfully he treated me and how safe I felt with him.
A few years into our relationship, Paul got very sick and almost died from a rare, benign tumor in his intestines. This condition came on without warning in a man who had not had so much as a sniffle in the time we had been together. I would go to my classes and then head to the hospital to sit with him. Paul was my first serious relationship and I loved him, but I was not sure how to handle this situation. The beautiful, intelligent, talented musician that I knew was now lying in a hospital bed being prepped for surgery and waiting to find out if this tumor was cancerous. This was not the “happily ever after” future that I had romanticized, read about, and seen on television. This was messy, crazy life. Was I ready for this? Was he? Yes, as it turned out, we were.
At My Side
He recovered from that illness, but it was a precursor of what was to come. In February 2007, five years after we were married, I suffered a brain abscess that almost killed me and left me with serious side effects. My left leg, arm, hand, and foot were almost useless for several months, and I required a lot of therapy and assistance. Paul was at my side the entire time. The only time I felt confident that I would recover was when he was with me. He had to take care of everything, including me, as well as go to work each day. He did it. Every morning he got me out of bed, dressed me, took me downstairs, and made sure I took my medicines and ate breakfast. Then he went to work. He came home on his lunch break to check on me and eat with me. He did this for a year.
I felt very guilty that my young husband had to take care of me this way, but whenever I said anything about that, he would stop me and assure me that he knew I was getting better every day because he could see it in me. When he would tell me that, I believed it. He loved me in my weakest physical and emotional states. He did not see a woman who had lost all her hair, had a huge incision on her head from brain surgery, and was unable to do the simplest human tasks, like walk normally. He saw his wife, the woman he loved. For this love, respect, and compassion I am extremely grateful, because they are the reason I was able to recover.
The Love of My Life
When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2008, it seemed like a nightmare or a horrible joke that was being played on us. Were we being tested? Paul was my rock. How could this be happening? I questioned it all the time, not wanting it to be reality. One night, a dear friend said to me, “Keri, you know that you can handle this; you do know that, don’t you?” I did not know it at the time. My own health ordeal was one thing, but now the love of my life was being threatened. This was an entirely new ball game.
Paul and I sat down together and had several deep, meaningful conversations about what this meant for us and how to deal with it. We made the conscious decision together to be positive, no matter what happened, and to believe in each other. We set our compasses and moved forward into these new rough waters together. Paul entrusted his life to me. He allowed me to take care of him as I saw fit. I mustered everything I had learned about being seriously ill and recovering, and applied to Paul many of the same elements that he had used during my illness. He realized he had to take care of himself and deal with past situations that had festered in him emotionally. He began practicing Tai Chi and qigong and doing other self-awareness work that included being present, releasing the past, and not being concerned with the future. Meditation helped him attain the ability to live in the present moment.
A Sea of Freedom
I also began these practices, and the release that came from practicing mindfulness meditation was like a tidal wave washing away negative energies, worries, and fears. The sun shone brightly through any clouds at those times, as it does for me today. We both marveled at how in touch we were with our bodies and the energies that flowed through us, especially when we concentrated on our breathing.
In the hospital during Paul’s last weeks on earth, I recited the guided meditation “In, out, deep, slow; calm, ease, smile, release; present moment, wonderful moment,” several times to help him relax and fall asleep. It was the only thing that worked. I believe that because of meditation practice, Paul lost the fear of cancer and death, and realized that there was more beyond his diseased body. We both made the connection between our emotional states of mind and our illnesses, and believed that our bodies and minds were one, as Thay says. Much freedom came to us from living and loving mindfully.
Our illnesses taught us that the love and happiness we shared for so many years was a special connection that not everyone experiences. We appreciated each other and the life we had in us every day, and living mindfully in the present moment helped us to do that. Paul taught me that no matter what is going on, there is room for opportunity, compassion, love of one’s self and others, gratitude, and joy.
We loved and lived these past two and a half years with gusto and with cancer, and it was brilliant. True love and the realization that we were living it allowed us to swim in a sea of freedom that can only be described as divine. Even now, after Paul’s passing, that gift continues to warm my heart and mind and enrich my being.
Keri R. Hakan is thirty-seven years old. In early 2010, she and her husband started meditating with The Heartland Community of Mindful Living Sangha in Kansas City, MO. She recently relocated to Portland, OR.