Pulitzer Prize winner recounts personal love story
What medical experts call denial, Amanda Bennett calls hope.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and caregiver to her husband, Chinese historian Terrence Foley, sought to reframe the role of denial in the face of terminal illness during her presentation at the TEDMED 2013 conference in Washington, D.C.
“Denial isn’t even close to a strong enough word to describe what those of us facing the death of our loved ones go through,” says Bennett, whose recent book, The Cost of Hope, outlines the story of her quarter century romance with Foley, with whom she traveled the world and had two children.
Despite his cancer diagnosis, Foley thrived personally- traveling with his family to multiple continents, coaching Little League and even earning his Ph.D. in his 60s.
“We had a heroic narrative for fighting together, but we didn’t have a heroic narrative to letting go.”
Mysteriously, Bennett says, he continued to surpass all expectations. Meanwhile, she buried herself in internet research in search of a cure that was not to be found.
His health dramatically declined in December 2007, and as Foley began to spit blood during what would be his last stay in intensive care, his doctors asked Bennett what she wanted them to do.
The couple had advance directives in place, directives that ordered doctors to do nothing if no further hope was to be had.
“Keep him alive if you can,” she told his physicians. After all, Foley had repeatedly dodged all dire predictions for the past seven years and had recently started a new regimen of experimental therapy. Bennett continued to hang on to the slightest of indications that he could continue to live.
As her husband’s health worsened over the next week, she grew more resolute. “We believed if we were smart enough, strong enough, brave enough and worked hard enough, we could keep him from dying forever,” Bennett recalls.
But Foley died December 14th, 2007, and Bennett says she never said goodbye.
“We pushed the fight right over the edge, and I never got the chance to say to him, ‘hey buddy, it was a hell of a ride,’ ” Bennett remembers, noting in retrospect, that no wife- no matter how hard she tries- can stop the bravest of husbands from dying when it is his time.
Bennett would not consider hospice, because to her it meant defeat.
“We had a heroic narrative for fighting together, but we didn’t have a heroic narrative to letting go,” Bennett says, suggesting there are many “noble” paths available for curing disease, but no such culturally “noble” path to die.
If she had been able to shift her perspective, she says, perhaps watching Foley die would have been easier on them both. That perspective could be broadened: from fear of hopelessness at the end of life to, instead, repeated victories in the face of cancer, a lengthy battle, and then a graceful retreat in death.
“Not even the greatest general defeats every foe,” Bennett says, and such a framework of a triumphant, manly crusade through illness into death would have been a much more workable mindset than hope- and the subsequent lack of it.
Death, she argues, is not the enemy, but she knows most think it is.
“I believed I could keep him from dying, and I would be embarrassed to say that if I hadn’t met so many people who have felt the same way.”
For more of Bennett’s story: thecostofhope.com
More from the Life Matters Media Newswire: