Men · Wellness

Angel in the Outfield

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Nick and I met in a bar on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on October 20, 1990. The bar is called Jenkins Hill. Everyone called it “the hill”. I was a junior at American University. My friends and I frequented the hill nearly every Saturday night for three years (with our fake IDs, of course). That night, my old high school friend, Jen, was coming home for the weekend from Radford as she had done often. We planned on a night at the hill. Jen had a wedding to go to, and she was taking forever. I became a real sourpuss about waiting for her. She finally called me at around ten o’clock to say she was ready. I told her to go jump in a lake or something like that. She apologized and said there was nothing she could do and suggested that we still go out and have fun. I picked her up, and we headed to the hill.

Jen and I had been there a hundred times together. Before she transferred to Radford, she went to a local community college, and the hill was our hangout every Saturday night. We knew the bouncer, the bartender, the DJ and the regulars. It was like Cheers — everyone knew our names. We always hung out in the back with the DJ, Eddie. Jen had a broken leg in a cast, so we had to sit in the front section of the bar on some bar stools, which we had never done before.

I had just started an internship at MCI, a now-defunct telecommunications company, and I was excited about it. Nick walked in wearing a sweatshirt that read, “MCI”. I have no idea why, but I hit him on the chest and said “Hey MCI”. He looked at me with a puzzled grin and continued walking to the back with his friends. My friend, Jen, thought that was a silly thing to do so she hit one of his friends on the chest and in a mocking manner said, “Hey MCI”.

Nick came over a few minutes later to ask if we knew each other and I explained that I just started interning at MCI and loved it! We talked for a little while, and he asked me for my number.

It turns out that he was with his band mates (the band was called Chapter 11 and Nick was the drummer). They had just finished a gig up the street at Julio’s (another popular spot on Capitol hill). The other four members of his band went to college together and they were a few years older than Nick. He had never hung out with them socially before that night. After practice, or a gig, they would go do their thing, and Nick would go out with his friends. That night, for the first time in three years they finally convinced Nick to go out with them. I am so glad they did! If his bandmates had not convinced him to go out with them, if he had not been wearing that MCI sweatshirt, and if Jen’s leg had not been in a cast, I do not know if we would have ever met.

A few months later, we became inseparable. It was a struggle in the beginning getting past the usual insecurities that two young people in love have, and getting to know what makes the other tick. It was on again/off again. I moved to Charlotte, NC for a job promotion, so we split up. Six months later he was on my doorstep in Charlotte with his clothes. We were never apart again.

Nick_BBNick was truly a beautiful human being. Of course, Nick had flaws, but he was also amazing. Nick had the kindest soul of anyone I had ever met. Nick taught me to love and have compassion for animals. He taught me to appreciate the outdoors. He taught me to laugh at myself, and everything around me. He taught me to appreciate things like a meteor shower. He taught me about classic cars (for years he would say, “they’re not old they’re “classic””). He taught me about baseball. He taught me about love. Not the fake, silly love they show in the movies, but about real love. Nick taught me that when you love someone you have to give up a piece of yourself and not worry about being “right,” and all the petty, small details. He gave me a remarkable sense of security because I never doubted that he would be with me forever. After nineteen years together, he would tell me he loved me the same way he did the first time in the sweetest, sincere, perfect way.

Nick was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2006. Because breast cancer is so rare in men, it went undiagnosed and was at a late stage when discovered. Nick had a mastectomy to his right breast, and they removed eleven lymph nodes. All eleven had tumors. The cancer had spread to his vocal cord, lungs, and bones. It was everywhere. It was a devastating time. I will never forget when the surgeon came out to the waiting area and told me what they had found. I thought my world had ended. I felt sick to my stomach. I ran into the bathroom and cried.

Nick and I had just celebrated our 16th anniversary together. It never occurred to us that one of us might not be around forever. Nick fought the disease and fought hard. First, it was chemo, followed by radiation, followed by Tamoxifen, and when Tamoxifen stopped working, he was prescribed a different medication followed by another different medication. Until 2009, the disease was well-managed enough so that Nick had a fairly normal life. He had terrible pain in his bones but with pain medication was able to work, play baseball, travel, whatever. In fact, people often thought that he was in remission, but the cancer was always there. It was everywhere.

In 2009, Nick suddenly became extremely ill. He was unable to keep any food down and had tremendous stomach pain. I took him to the emergency room on multiple occasions where they would hydrate him and send us home. After three such visits, one bright doctor finally said, “we need to admit him, or he will just be back tomorrow.”

Nick was taken by ambulance to Fairfax Hospital where he stayed for five days. I was nine months pregnant with our son, spending every night sleeping in an uncomfortable chair so he would see my face when he woke up and in case the nurses did not hear him when he needed something. Nick’s oncologist was at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The doctors at Fairfax did not have his records and, therefore, could not compare x-rays to tell us what was wrong. Finally, on the fifth day, after relentless asking, the doctor told us that the cancer had spread to his liver. This is the second most devastating news I had heard in my life.

I spent the next several months on Google every night trying to find the miracle cure, an experimental therapy or clinical trial. Each time we went to the oncologist, I had a long list of things I wanted to try, and each time he would tell me why they would not work. I even took him back to Sloan Kettering in New York City. Here I was, huge and ready to have a baby driving to and through NYC during a UN session. It was crazy! I was so desperate.

The news from Sloan Kettering was not any better. The doctor gave the same explanations for why the liver transplant, the vitamin C infusion, the various clinical trials and other therapies would not work. I almost fell out of my chair. I did not want Nick to see me cry, but I had no way of stopping myself. At that point, I knew I was going to lose him and very soon.

NickOur son, Nicholas, was born October 23, 2009. Nick was there for the delivery. It was a beautiful moment that I will remember always. The nursing staff that would normally be taking care of the woman having a c-section was doting over Nick, and I loved it. It was truly beautiful. When Nick held Nicholas in his hands and cried, so did the doctor, the anesthesiologist, and the nurses.

Having a c-section is major surgery. It is highly painful. I had never cared for an infant, and I was alone in my hospital room for four nights. Nick would visit during the day and stay for as long as he could stay, but he would get tired and nauseous.

When we took our baby home, I was still recovering from a c-section and taking care of a new infant and a dying husband. Nick’s father, George, would come over for about 4 hours every day. He would talk to Nick, tell him he loved him, give him a kiss, and then he would putter around the house fixing things to keep busy. When Nick craved something, George would usually go pick it up. It was hard for Nick to keep food down. We would jump at the chance if he had a craving to get him anything he craved at the time.

George usually left around 5 or 5:30 and I would be left with my two fellows. Nick always thanked me for taking such good care of him, but I told him that it was truly a pleasure, and it was.

The disease progressed, and by April of 2010 we had hospice coming to help. Fortunately for us, the nurse practitioner from the hospice, Steven, was also one of Nick’s baseball buddies. It was such a relief having someone who knew Nick taking care of him during his last weeks. It was beautiful watching his friend care for him. I also had the priest from his church come and give him healing prayers even though I knew it was too late.

Cancer is a vicious, cruel disease. It does not allow its victims to die with dignity. It robs them of every ounce of energy, their natural appearance, everything.

Nick passed away on May 11, 2010 at about 10:00 in the morning. He had not been able to speak for two days. Nick waited until his dad, George, got to the house. I know this because I was lying next to him and on his chest all morning, never leaving his side. Seconds after George kissed him and told him how much he loved “his boy”, Nick stopped breathing.

I thought my world had ended, literally. I often wondered what the point was to getting up in the morning and then I would remember the gift that Nick left me with, our son, Nicholas. This beautiful little boy who was born with his father’s sweet disposition, kind heart and good looks deserved the best. That meant that I had to put a smile on my face every morning before he saw me. If I needed to cry, I did it in private or late at night but not in front of our son. Of course, there were the occasional moments where I would slip. When he was about two I had one of these moments. Nicholas walked up to me and asked, “what’s wrong, mommy? Don’t cry mommy, don’t cry”. He is the image of his father.

What I realized after losing Nick was that I had to get out of Virginia. Everything there had memories for me. The house we remodeled together and every room in it. The deli section of the supermarket, where he would take forever deciding on what he wanted while I finished all the shopping and came back to find him standing in the same spot. I was reminded of him every time I drove down the street we would drive on to get out of our subdivision. I would tell him to slow down because there was always a police officer checking his radar. Everything and everywhere.

I quit my job and went to school full-time to finish the degree program that I had been working on for several years part-time. I finished in about a year and then set about to start my new life. Nicholas and I visited Seattle. We visited San Diego. We went to Paris for our first Christmas without Nick. I thought about all the places I had been, and San Diego seemed to be where we belonged.

Right before I finished my last class at school, I put the house on the market and sold most of our belongings. I kept the things that mattered like his baseball uniforms, his drums, his ’72 Duster. Then, I moved Nicholas and me to the other side of the country to start over. I never looked back. It could not have been any other way. I did not leave so I could forget Nick because that is impossible. In fact, Nick (or “daddy”) is a fixture in our home. Pictures are everywhere, and I talk about him all the time. I had to go. Had I stayed where all the familiar things and surroundings were constant reminders that he was missing from my life, I would not be able to move past the devastating loss.

We love San Diego. I feel very lucky. It was a seamless transition for us. I reconnected with a very old friend, Louis, who helped me get adjusted (and get a job!). We have met some beautiful people; many of whom I know will be in our lives forever.

Sometimes people ask me how I am so upbeat and positive all the time. The answer is simple. I was not given a choice. My son deserves to see his mommy happy and smiling and positive about our life and the future even if on the inside I feel devastated. My co-workers, friends and neighbors did not cause Nick’s illness or his death. They do not deserve to bear the burden of my anger and sadness that I feel deep inside. I still allow myself to feel it. When I am alone, and usually after my son is asleep, I allow myself to feel sorry for myself and ask, why? Why Nick? Why me? Why Nicholas? I feel cheated. I am angry. I am so very sad.

I can honestly say that if not for my son Nicholas, I am not sure I could have carried on because I did not want to at the time. Nicholas is my angel who saved me from myself during the darkest moments of my life. Without him, I shudder to think how differently my life would have turned out.

The toughest part about being alone is I never get a break. I can always call a sitter, but it is not the same. My friends can leave their kids with their husband if they want a pedicure, or to run an errand, or a night out with their friends. I have no one. Well, that is not true. I have a couple of very dear friends, Marcela and Patty, who I can call in an emergency who will take Nicholas. I save those favors for a real emergency. For example, recently, I came down with strep throat and went home early from work to rest. I called my sweet friend Patty, who also recently went through her own tragic loss when her mother passed away suddenly. I told her that I was sick and going home to rest. Patty picked up Nicholas from school, fed him, let him play with her adorable boy, Jackson, and then delivered him to me. It was such a blessing. I had several hours of uninterrupted sleep and felt so much better.

What I have learned is that although it becomes very expensive, I still have to go out with my friends on a regular basis. It is good for me, but also for Nicholas to have a well-rounded mom who has a life outside of caring for him. I believe he easily could have been a self-centered, selfish child, but he is the opposite. If Nicholas thought he was my whole world, it might be very different.

It bothers me when I hear the phrase “single parent” bandied about so easily. It seems to refer to any parent who is no longer with their spouse/partner. I want to clarify what being a single parent is like. Because, if your spouse has your child some of the time, or if your mom watches your child whenever you need her, or your sister picks up your kids from school until you get off of work, you are not a single parent. A single parent is alone. No spouse or ex, no immediate family to help, no one. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and takes a level of patience that I never knew I had. I was not given a choice, so I make the best of it.

The thing that I continue to struggle with is that Nick would have made such a great dad. One only needed to see how much Nick loved our cat, Butters, to know that he would have adored Nicholas to pieces. Nick would have been more patient, and funnier. Nick would have taught Nicholas to play baseball (the right way). I know that I cannot bring him back. I have to move on. I never, ever forget, but I keep going.

Nicholas gets to play daddy’s drums and wear daddy’s cleats, and we sometimes drive daddy’s car (usually just around the block). We have pictures everywhere. We talk about Nick a lot. As Nicholas gets older, it becomes more and more difficult because he wants to know where his daddy is. I tell him that daddy got sick and his body stopped working, but his spirit is here right now and is always with us.

Nick and I knew we were lucky. I take a lot of comfort in having been loved so much for so long by such a wonderful man. There are not many people who experience the kind of love that Nick and I shared. Nick truly was my best friend, my partner, my world. For having known him and loved him and been loved by him and for the gift that is our son, I am extremely fortunate. I will always love you, Nick Anitole.

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By: Dahlia Kamel

Cancer is a horrible disease. It robs people of whom they once were. Breast cancer awareness is not only for women. Cancer does not discriminate. Early detection can make a life-saving difference. For more information about breast cancer in men, please visit Cancer.org to learn more. Thank you and thank you Dahlia for sharing yours and Nick’s incredible story of love and courage! Love to you, Gina

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