It is 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 18, 2023, and I am in Tuscany.
I wrote that down on a notepad as we passed through Tuscany on our way to Assisi just two months ago, on a tour of Italy.
Tuscany was a place I only dreamed of seeing and I was sure that the closest I would ever get to it would be through the eyes of Rick Steves on television. I never imagined that my husband and I would be there together in person. Nor would I have ever dreamed we would ride in a gondola in Venice, or tour the Vatican, or see Capri and the famous blue grotto, but we did.
Our world had become very small in the previous three years. Multiple Myeloma is what the Oncologist told my husband. Neither of us had ever heard of it before. The doctor kindly gave us a minute to absorb the unexpected news. We turned in a slow-motion fog to each other with a look we had never given each other before. The very first look, in 37 years of uncertainty about our future.
We had blood draws the previous week. A PET scan and a bone marrow biopsy. Given all that, the reality that this might be something bad was floating around in the air, but it had not landed on us yet.
On that Tuesday morning in 2020, we arrived at the doctor’s office for the results. They told us our appointment was from 8:50 to 9 a.m. Who has ever heard of a 10-minute doctor’s appointment? We took that as good news and assumed the doctor would say something like, we found this thing, so take this pill and you’ll be fine. We planned to leave his office after our 10-minute appointment and go to my husband’s favorite restaurant, Chick-Fil-A, for lunch.
For now, though, we sat in the doctor’s office and waited for him to come in. Across from us was a plexiglass shelf holding brochures with pictures of smiling families having fun and tossing leaves into the air. Each brochure boasted a different kind of cancer. All those happy faces made me feel a little mocked. We were not feeling happy like the families on those brochures. We were feeling extremely nervous. A whiteboard on the opposite wall read: You GOT this! It all felt like a slow tsunami just outside the door, slowly rolling its way into the room.
When the door opened and the Oncologist entered the room, he had papers in his hands that said Lab Results and they had Brian’s name on them. The tsunami had arrived.
What was expected to be a ten-minute doctor visit, then a nice lunch, became a four-hour visit to a vanilla-colored recliner, complete with IV’s that delivered his very first ever chemo treatment. During those 10 minutes, we learned Brian had cancer and we were starting chemo - right now! Chick-Fil-A would have to wait.
Twelve chemo treatments later there was no change, so the doctor “kicked it up a notch,” to quote Emeril, and he had another twelve treatments. This time it worked. The chemo did what it was supposed to do and my husband’s numbers were back to baseline.
We did it! We are healthy again, we thought. Then his doctor said, “Now you’re ready for your transplant.” Another fog moment. “Transplant of what?” I said. “Stem cells,” he replied. “Is that an office visit?” I asked. “It’s a six-to-eight-week hospital stay,” he said. Tsunami number two arrived.
On the scheduled date, we checked in to the hospital for the transplant and went through the entire procedure. When the stem cell team gives you the “lethal” (their words) dose of chemo, it wipes out all your childhood vaccines, so you leave the hospital completely unvaccinated. You must stay inside until you get some of your initial vaccines caught up. Once he got certain basic vaccines, we got to venture outside, then out to eat and then eventually back to work and church.
On our next doctor visit, we learned Brian was in remission and the Oncologist said, “We are keeping you alive so you can live your life, now go live!” We praised God for this news.
A few days later, Brian got an email from his seminary professor, inviting anyone in the class to join him, his wife and a team from their Dallas church on a tour called The Splendors of Italy Tour. It included visits to Venice, Verona, Milan, Pisa, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Pompeii and Capri. The professor would be leading the tour. Brian said, “Hey hon, check out this email”. He read it to me and asked if I wanted to go. I reminded him that he was under doctor’s orders to live his life! With that in mind, he signed us up for the trip.
On May 12, 2023, we flew to Dallas to meet the team, then flew to Venice to enjoy a tour of a country we never imagined visiting together. The group began each day with prayer and a joyful song.
On May 15 we were in Venice, taking in the sounds and sights and smells of this beautiful city. We ate gelato, rode a gondola, and visited the Murano glass factory, where I bought a ring. The next day we went to Verona, a beautiful little city with great coffee. Our tour guide said the word Grazi was pronounced, grat-zee-eh, and not to forget to say ‘eh’ at the end if we wanted to say it properly.
In Milan, we visited the church of Santa Maria delle Grazi, to see Davinci’s Last Supper. It was awe-inspiring to take it all in. We toured Pisa, Florence, and saw the statue of David. Every new place left us feeling grateful to walk those streets, eat Italian food, drink Italian coffee, and experience real gelato.
In Assisi, we saw a real friar (garment with a hood, rope belt, and all), sitting at a rough-hewn wooden desk, scrolling through his iPhone. I laughed at the irony of the sight, and I may have taken his picture.
From there, we saw Rome, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and Pompeii and our last tour was of the colorful town of Capri. We even got into a dingy to lie down flat and scoot under the small opening where the cliff meets the water to enter the blue grotto. Once inside, our guide took a turn around the lake so we could see the unbelievable blue water.
We are back home now and the splendors of Italy are forever in our hearts and memories. God opened a door for us that we never would have imagined. He told us through Brian’s doctor to go live our lives, and we did. We still are. God took our small lives and opened them up wide to show us His beautiful world and we humbly and gratefully say to Him, Grazi-eh.