When author Abbe Rolnick’s husband Jim Wiggins slipped off a ladder in 2013, he was told he had osteopenia and would need to rest his back. He and Abbe went to Africa, but the pain persisted, in fact, got worse. Finally, the author “…got the call, the one every person dreads.” Jim had cancer, a rare, aggressive form called Multiple Myeloma. The plasma in his bone marrow had increased, taking over the normal cells, causing anemia and acidity that began to eat away at his spine. Life for Abbe and Jim would never be the same. What followed was a total disruption: for Jim it involved chemo, radiation, stem cell implants, pain, weight and even height loss; for Abbe, an exploration of basic fears, and of course the deepest terror of loss of a loved one.
Rolnick’s book is told for the most part in a series of emails among friends and family. Since she is a fiction writer (River of Angels, Color of Lies) she was able to express her feelings to others, especially to Jim, in a manner both poignant and poetic. She recounts the couple’s simple acceptance, the moments of despair, the daily activities and routines they shared despite the discouraging limitations of Jim’s medical necessities. Whenever possible, the couple cuddled at night, exchanged kisses, watched funny, upbeat fare on television. The memoir is remarkable for these moments, balanced by the necessary, at times dreadful and dire medical information that impinged on their lives every day for a year. The couple had to live away from home, ask family for help including cells donated by a brother, and rely on the kindness and expertise of strangers. As Rolnick puts it, “Cancer explodes with ramifications.” Jim’s round-robin emails form an especially touching piece of the narrative, as he attempts to apply logic, masculine bravado and a mild sense of humor to the horrors he is experiencing.
The author offers advice on keeping up with insurance issues, dealing with the caregiver role, with fears, and with the ultimate uncertainty. She doesn’t know, nor does anyone, how long remission might last. She advises being honest with doctors, and with oneself, and notes that her viewpoint was often the most helpful, especially when Jim would deny he had pain while she observed how much pain he really felt from his overt reactions, groans and grimaces. At one point, the cancer clinic lab made a massive mistake; handling it judiciously but firmly was a learning experience. Two people, the author believes, can perhaps take in the totality of the problems. She describes the year as like being in a cocoon— dominated by the disease, yet growing and changing within.
Leaving us saddened but cautiously relieved by the end of her account, with Jim at home, forming a new life around continued treatments, Rolnick has taken us on a journey, tough and full of dangers, but with a quiet resting place for now—and now is all that matters.