Everyone knew last summer that Stuart S. was nearing the end of his battle with malignant pleural mesothelioma, and they were preparing for the inevitable.
Stuart and his wife, Ilene, also were preparing, but for something completely different: They were flying to Ft. Lauderdale, to start a 13-day luxury cruise to Italy and Germany.
Family and friends in Chicago, and even his doctors and nurses, all thought the couple was crazy, or at least badly misguided.
But for Stuart and Ilene, whose last name is being withheld because of privacy concerns, it was the best thing they ever did, becoming an inspiration to cancer patients everywhere.
“I just told people, ‘if he dies on the trip, I’ll handle it,'” Ilene said seven months later. “Everyone was like ‘why are you doing this?’ The chemo had stopped working. The cancer was spreading. But our philosophy together was we can either sit at home and wait for it to happen, or we could take one last trip together.”
Their Final Trip
And away they went, doing what Stuart always wanted to do: See where his bride of 44 years had lived and played in her younger days, seeing another part of the woman he loved.
Ilene had gone to college there in the 1960s, and enjoyed every minute of it, eventually returning to the U.S. when she ran out of money. She met Stuart, who was six years older, in downtown Chicago, asking him for a ride that never ended.
“I was the wild one. The mini skirt, long hair, boots up to my knees. It was the 60s,” she said with a laugh. “He was the squarest nerd you could ever imagine. [It’s] funny how we fell and stayed in love. Our trip, and everything we did, brought back the memories.”
They saw Rome and its ancient splendor, the Pantheon and the famed Colosseum. They toured the Sistine Chapel. They took trains to Florence and Verona. They visited the breathtaking Amalfi Coast. They gazed at the Tower of Pisa.
They held hands in a gondola. They laughed and cried and relived their lives, the two boys they raised and the three grandchildren they loved so much.
Although Stuart was dying, he found energy in the trip, surprising himself as he walked the tours, pushing himself past the limit. This was no time to rest. The clock was ticking.
They went to Stuttgart, Germany, to see the cemetery where his great grandfather was buried. They visited a country fair, where he rode a Ferris wheel for the first time in his life, overcoming his fear of heights by hugging his wife with all his might.
They felt the years melt away.
Coming Home Happy, but Exhausted
They flew home on the 14th day. By then, he was thoroughly exhausted. The once strapping, 200-pound man now weighed less than 120 pounds. Two days later, Stuart was rushed unconscious to the nearby emergency room, where he was revived and moved into a hospice facility.
A week later, he sat with his oldest son watching television, thrilled to witness his beloved Chicago Blackhawks win another Stanley Cup with a dramatic Game 6 victory.
“Then he turned to me and said ‘Are you OK with this?’ When I told him yes, I was, he said ‘Then I’m going to sleep now.’ He closed his eyes, and that’s the last we ever spoke,” Ilene said. “He was in a coma then for two weeks before he passed.”
He was 72.
Remember Who Is Driving the Bus
While dealing with the loss of her husband hasn’t been easy, Ilene has been buoyed by the way they handled their final months together, willing to share what she learned with others.
“One of the slogans we had was ‘Who is driving this bus? The cancer or you?'” she said from her home outside of Chicago. “We tried to be the driver. We picked up passengers along the way; passengers who could help us through it. If you let cancer drive the bus, you’re halfway gone to begin with.”
Their experience with other types of cancers had taught them to never concede and never lose hope, never letting the future prevent them from enjoying today.
Stuart had survived pancreatic cancer a decade before, relying heavily on Ilene’s belief in ancient Eastern medicine to supplement the traditional care he was receiving.
He was diagnosed with salivary cancer five years ago and needed aggressive surgery that removed part of his face and part of an ear, but it never dampened his spirit for long. Ilene made sure.
Always Helping Others
He joined Imerman Angels, an international cancer support group that pairs strong survivors with newly diagnosed patients who need emotional support. Stuart counseled and befriended dozens of cancer patients throughout the country and around the world. He taught many how to live with the disease. He worried more about the new friends he was making than he ever worried about himself.
“We lived every day like it was our next day. Not our last day, not trying to shove everything into one, but we knew tomorrow would be another day,” she said. “We never stopped living. You don’t have to look at mesothelioma as a death sentence. Your life is going to be as long as you make it. Don’t sit at home and worry about it. Worrying just makes life shorter.”
He lasted 18 months after his mesothelioma diagnosis. Exposure to asbestos decades before was the cause of the disease. He was never a candidate for potentially curative surgery because it had spread too far before it was discovered.
The chemotherapy didn’t stop the cancer or his spirit. He kept helping others. He continued fixing things around the house, tinkering with the cars and watching his Chicago White Sox. They traveled a lot.
Stuart celebrated his 72nd birthday surrounded by family during his first week in hospice. There were cakes, cookies and his favorite chocolate eclairs.
“He ate everything that day,” Ilene said. “He loved it all, and he never stopped living. He loved that cruise, too. He taught people that life was not sitting in a corner waiting. He did everything he wanted to do, and then he was done.”