Moments after my wife stopped breathing, I sat down on the couch in my living room. She had just passed away after a six month battle with cancer. After I made the required phone calls, the house was busy with activity. Friends, family, the coroner, and Hospice all made an appearance. As the movers took away the final piece of medical equipment, I tried to process exactly what I was feeling.
I was, of course, sad that my best friend and wife of nine years had died.
I was also tired. Physically tired from lack of sleep and tired of dealing with doctors, prescriptions and procedures. A small part of me was also happy. Happy that I could soon sleep. Happy that Ashley wasn’t sick or in pain anymore. But above all else, I was confused. Most of my life had been spent moving towards a future with her. For nine years, I had been building a life with her. During the last six months, I had been consumed with cancer treatment with her. Now, there was no her. It was just me. I was confused about what to do next.
In the following months, I tried to figure out the rest of my life. I traveled; I changed my hair; I rearranged my house. I threw memories away and tried to buy new ones. I set out to purge my life of any reminder that I had been married. I decided that I wouldn’t be defined by this death. As far as I was concerned, this did not happen to me. An interesting thing happened though. I realized I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t get away. No matter what I tried I wasn’t able to erase those years from my life.
I also realized I truly didn’t want to.
I only kept a few of Ashley’s things. They were, and still are, stored in a plastic container under my bed. One of the items I kept was a multicolored composition notebook. The entire time Ashley was sick she wrote in this journal as a way to cope. No one was allowed to read it until she died. The hope was that she would get better, and we would just burn the stupid thing. But since she died, I started reading it that very night. I had, in these pages, the last part of my wife. The most intimate of thoughts while she was dying from this horrible disease.
In April, I started an art project with the journal. I took quotes from the book and photos and arranged them in a way that would resemble a scrapbook on acid. Trying to forget wasn’t working. My subconscious was forcing my brain to cope. I had no idea what the pieces would become, I just kept making them.
On the last page of the journal, Ashley wrote that she wanted to start a charity when she beat cancer.
That’s what The Cancer Journal Project is. It’s the charity Ashley didn’t get to start. I decided to use Ashley’s words and the art I made to raise money. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be as emotionally disconnected as possible. I keep people at arms length. But the only way this charity can work is if I’m as open as possible. Through The Project, I’ve held nothing back. I’ve been as honest as I can be. I’ve gone on television and written articles. Besides avoiding the word “widower,” I’ve done nothing to hide the death. In doing so, I’ve done something against my character and created an organization that can help others to cope.
Along with Make-A-Wish, The Project has raised over $12,000 and helped two children travel to Walt Disney World. Our goal is to raise enough money to send one more child before the end of the year. On the website, people can help by either donating directly or purchasing our t-shirts. Every dime we receive goes directly to Make-A-Wish and helps children in Louisiana with life-threatening illnesses go to Walt Disney World.
I’m still confused.
I still don’t quite know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I still live in the same town and in the same house I did with Ashley. That won’t last forever. I will eventually move. I will eventually do different things. I will eventually get remarried. But if I take anything away from this, it will be that’s it’s ok to remember. It’s not a weakness to be sad. I don’t know how long The Project will last, but I know Ashley would be happy about it. Like so many things in life, it will continue until it doesn’t anymore.
About Kenan Irving
Kenan Irving is the founder of The Cancer Journal Project. He is 29 years old and lives in Ruston, Louisiana. Along with Make-A-Wish, The Cancer Journal Project sends children with life-threatening illnesses to Walt Disney World. Visit The Cancer Journal Project to find out how you can help. You can also follow The Project on Facebook and Twitter.