The Thanksgiving holidays have always been extra special for the Willis clan because the entire family gathers to celebrate two holidays at once. During the first half of the day Thanksgiving is celebrated with a huge meal, then during the second half of the day Christmas is celebrated with presents, a tradition that we have kept since the beginning, and by “beginning” I mean from the time I married into the Willis family, not the very beginning when there were pilgrims.
Libby and I discussed holiday traditions with our respective families during the first year of marriage and decided that we would spend Thanksgivings with the Willis’s and our Christmases with the Gilleys. Then, as the years went by and Libby’s sisters started their own families that tradition continued.
By Wednesday November 21, 2012, the annual Willis family Thanksgiving/Christmas celebration had been in the planning stages for months, the menu had been decided and the Christmas gifts were wrapped, in fact, most of our gifts were already in the back seat of my truck as I was driving home following a meeting in Nashville.
During the drive Dr. Schlabach unexpectedly called to offer us the use of his condo in Montana for a family ski trip, but there was a long pause before he asked, “Is Libby with you right now?” “No,” I responded, unsure of where this conversation was going. “OK good……… (long pause)………Barry we need to talk…” .
Instantly I felt a tightness in my chest just as if someone were tightening several of those ratcheting cargo straps around my chest. Dr. Schlabach began explaining to me that Libby’s most recent blood test revealed certain enzymes which were given off by tumors and that Libby’s “tumor markers” numbers had gone from normal to “significantly high” and he wanted to schedule a PET scan immediately. My chest tightened a little as if the ratchets on those imaginary straps were all cinched up one click.
Now, there had been some scares in the past but something in Dr. Schlabach’s voice told me that this was different. My own voice cracked a little when I said, “Dr. Schlabach this is not the kind of news I wanted to hear” his reply was full of emotion, “It is not the kind of news that I ever wanted to have to tell you…. Barry, I am so sorry.” Click, the imaginary ratchets tightened again.
I thought Dr. Schlabach was trying to change the subject when he asked “What plans do you and Libby have for Thanksgiving?”. I explained to him about our standing tradition with Libby’s family and he said, “Do me a favor Barry, “Let Libby enjoy her family over the holidays, because……..(long pause)……I have to be honest with you here, the next part of this journey is going to be rough.” It was getting harder and harder to breathe now as the ratchets clicked once more.
What followed was the worst 24 hour period in our marriage (for me at least, up to that point) as I tried to pretend everything was normal. Libby, on the other hand, was so preoccupied with the upcoming holiday and the opportunity to get together with her family that she only asked me one time if something was bothering me and I felt another click when I lied to her.
Following a restless night, there was the usual flurry of activity on Thanksgiving morning as we loaded up the truck and drove to Libby’s sister house in La Grange, GA. During the day I forced myself to make small talk with all of the in-laws, nieces and nephews as the pressure from the proverbial straps built every time someone asked, “Hey, Barry how are you?” “Doing great,” I lied. Click. “How are you?”
When our family finished our meal and gathered in the living room to open presents, the Detroit Lions were loosing yet another Thanksgiving day game on the big screen TV when Libby said, “Wait, before we start. I need to run out to the car, I left one of my gifts.” Seeing my opportunity to catch Libby alone I called after her, “I’ll help you”.
I had made the decision during lunch as I watched Libby interact with her family, that I should tell her about Dr. Schlabach’s call and let her decide when and how to tell her family the bad news. In what may have been a first for our marriage, I caught up with Libby in the driveway and said, “Libby, we need to talk….”
Libby turned quickly with an awkward half-grin on her face, unsure of what she had just heard, but when she saw the emotion in my face and the tears in my eyes, she knew instantly that she was not going to enjoy this “talk”.
Libby had some obvious questions like, “Why did he call you instead of me?” and “Are you sure about the test?”. But, as usual, Libby took the news in stride and she wanted to be the one tell her family, but, she said, “Lets wait until after the gifts are opened so we don’t ruin the entire day for everyone”.
After opening gifts and trying to act like everything was normal, Libby and I gathered Jerod, Nathan and Bethany into the kitchen and told them the news privately before gathering all of the rest of the family. It is hard not to miss the irony when I say that I wanted to be as honest with everyone as possible since I had been lying to everyone, Libby included, for twenty four hours.
The proverbial bands around my chest had tightened so much that my lungs struggled for enough air just to say, “Before you all go back home today ” breath, “Libby wants to tell you all something…” We each turned to face Libby but the tears had already started to flow so she nodded her head toward me, the signal for me to take over. Now, as if spectators at a tennis match, the family all turned their heads in unison back to me.
I eventually got most of the message out to the family before the tears choked off the rest in what had to be the worst ending ever to our thirty three year Thanksgiving/Christmas celebration.