real life

"The pain of losing my new husband weeks before my 50th birthday."

Last week I turned 50. What does this means to me, this cracking of the half century? Being of a certain age brings with it some certainty of confidence, some acknowledgement of wisdom that I like. But this recognition is bittersweet as for me it has unexpectedly come with great loss.

It’s not that I mourn my youth. It was well spent. It was filled with adventure and achievements; I’ve travelled and lived overseas more than once, learned another language, had several careers, which have given me independence and money. I’m proud I’ve built a house on a beautiful property which is forever my home.

The proudest achievement of my 50 years are my two children, Sang and Jinny, who I adopted as babies and raised to fine teenagers now about to embark on adulthood with confidence and heart. When I see my boy babysitting friends’ toddlers so attentive and interested, I know I’ve done a good job. And when I see my girl, delivering speeches as SRC rep at school, then making funny joke videos with her bestie in her spare time, I wonder at how she managed to be so like me when we share no biology at all?

I’ve never been short of men in my life; two husbands and plenty of boyfriends and have loved them all. But my Anth I loved most intensely with the sort of love that spans dimensions and gives you strength that everything is all worth it, even when life is at its most bleak.

It is because of this love, that on turning 50, I am incredibly thankful. For being alive. For making it this far. For this sweet, sweet life. My friends and others who know me might find this attitude a bit strange, given recent events. They might wonder why I might feel thankful. You see, only last month I lost my precious Anth to a very nasty, quick and merciless disease. Brain cancer.

Listen: Mia Freedman interviews Samuel Johnson on the struggles of being there for someone battling cancer. Post continues after audio.

We had been together 5 years but 5 short months from diagnosis he was taken from me. Two and half months in, he proposed to me in the back of an Access Cab, on the way home from hospital.

That day we had invited family and friends to a BBQ planned as a last hurrah. We knew the illness was terminal, but Anth was stable and had a day pass to go home. He was wheelchair bound by this stage and had to travel places by Access Cab as he was a big man and impossible to lift in and out of a car seat. As we bounced along in the back of the cab he turned to me and said “I think it’s about time we got married.” “Really?” I said, surprised. Anth had never been keen before to remarry (he had done it twice before). “Why not?” he said. I thought about it a moment. “Why not indeed.” I said. “I’ve never had a proposal in the back of an access cab.” I started to cry and kissed him. “Third time lucky,” he said.

The last hurrah BBQ morphed into an impromptu engagement party with the wedding planned in a few weeks time. But only some days later, on his 51st birthday, Anth suffered multiple seizures due to his brain swelling from the spreading cancer. The neurosurgeon said a craniotomy was the only chance for him, and us, to have more time. Thanks to a obliging marriage celebrant, and an intensive care unit full of excited nurses, we were able to get married at 10 pm that night, before the looming shadow of the operation the next day. Our wedding night I spent next to his hospital bed in a recliner chair. The doctors let me stay by his side right up until it was time to go into theatre, knowing that these precious hours may be our last together.

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Jillian and Anthony during their wedding in the hospital. Image supplied.

The operation was a success, as much as it could be, and after a week Anth was able to come home. Now completely paralysed down his left side, our house became filled with carers and nurses rostered to help us look after him. As a result of the surgery, Anth didn’t remember the ICU wedding and wanted another ceremony at home. This time I wore a white dress instead of ripped jeans and I carried a proper bouquet (although I had loved the little posie organized by the ICU nurses made from flowers pinched from the hospital carpark) The carers dressed Anth in his best black suit and pink tie. I walked down the aisle on my son’s arm to the sound of bagpipes played by our friend John. It was a beautiful ceremony witnessed by family and friends, with not a dry eye in the house.

Jillian and Anthony celebrating their wedding at home. Image supplied.

Anth had a rich and full two and a half months, where every instant was cherished and where he squeezed every last drop of goodness from his life even though it was now confined to bed and the recliner chair. He received guests; a constant stream of friends anxious to share time with him. He made plans to raise funds for brain cancer research and with his good hand wrote in his journal. He told everyone that his goal was to make it to my 50th, but even as he said it I knew from his worsening symptoms, that wasn’t going to happen. He explained he would have asked me to marry him on my 50th birthday, if all of this hadn’t happened, so it was important for him to live to see this milestone. Instead he died a month shy, from complications arising from the tumours growing in his brain. I was with him to the end watching him fight it all the way. He did not want to go.

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We farewelled him in his wedding suit and pink tie and a few weeks after the funeral scattered his ashes at his favourite spot in the paddock at home.

So turning 50 for me is both joyous and sad. I’m so sad my man is not here to share it with me. He meant it to be a time for celebrating our relationship. Instead it has been about embracing life without him. My friends threw me a party; a chance to have fun and dance. Some lightness after so much heartache. I loved the heartfelt birthday messages about hope and love and renewal. At the party, on saying goodbye, his eldest daughter Elsa told me she loved me. That was the best birthday present.

Jillian and Anthony in 2013. Image supplied.

I am so thankful for this life, which the universe has demonstrated to me so clearly, can be ended at any time. I’m thankful for reaching 50 and for every single day beyond it. Anth has showed me that life is beautiful and taught me to treasure it. Now, from the moment I wake and feel the warmth of my feet under the blankets in the morning I am thankful for the privilege of another day on this planet. I listen to the sound of the rain on the roof, or bask in a sunny spot thinking “how lucky am I.” I savour the laughter of my friends and soak up the love of our children. And for every day of 50 and beyond I will think of my sweet man and honour him by living a good life, a full life, a thankful life. Every disappointment, every achievement, every adventure, I will embrace them all. Because in his death, Anth has taught me how to live.

Jillian Smith is a writer, photographer and lawyer. She lives in McLaren Vale South Australia with her two teenage kids, two goats and pit bull terrier. Since losing her soulmate Anthony to brain cancer she is committed to raising awareness of the disease and fundraising for research to find a cure. 
You can follow her blog here.
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