I am dying of glioblastoma brain cancer

Almost 20 years ago, my wife Hannah, an expert knitter, taught our 5-year-old son Abe the basics of knitting. When I came home from work one day, Abe greeted me excitedly at the door and insisted that I sit with him while he taught me his new skills. He held out a pair of blunt wooden dowels with acorn caps glued to the tops and a ball of lavender twine attached to one of the needles. Using his own kit, he proudly began to knit, inserting a needle into the first stitch. “In through the front door, run around the back,” he sang as he did the stitch, “look through the window, and Jack jumps off.”

“Now it’s your turn, Dad,” he said after demonstrating each part of the stitch several times. He carefully watched my attempts and gave helpful advice. Hannah sat on the other side and whispered more tips he could give me. Most evenings over the next few weeks, I got extra lessons from them and was eventually able to knit a simple scarf.

Over time I became a slow but reasonably skilled knitter. I have knitted alligator-shaped scarves, hats for immigrant children, felted bags and many pairs of socks. A single pair can take me a hundred hours to make. Based on my hourly wages as a doctor, a pair of socks might cost me $20 in yarn and $6,000 in labor.

After my diagnosis with glioblastoma, an aggressive and terminal type of brain cancer, knitting became a way to keep my hands busy and my mind calm. When I recovered from brain surgery and went through six weeks of daily radiation, I knitted dozens of simple cotton scarves for friends and family to thank them for their support. Each stitch only took a few hours to make, but each stitch made me feel emotionally connected to those who cared about me.

When I was first diagnosed, I was given a prognosis of just over a year to go. After my post-radiation MRI showed that my cancer had not advanced, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months. I knew that the cancer would still kill me while I was in my 50s, but I began to believe that I could live at least a few months longer. I put up a cream colored scarf for mum, which took about a week to knit, and then a colorful shawl for Hannah, which took a bit longer.

Abe, after staying with us during and right after the surgery, had returned to college when the new semester started in the fall. Through the radiation and chemotherapy that followed, the highlight every week was getting updates on his classes and social life. Nevertheless, I was also devastated to think about my son. I knew I wouldn’t be able to dance at his wedding. I probably didn’t even want to see him graduate from college.

I wanted to knit something for him, as I had for other people I loved. It might take me – still a slow knitter – a whole year to finish a sweater big enough for the man Abe had become. I thought it was unlikely that I would have that much time, so I would not allow myself to consider such a large project. Instead, I settled for a pair of fingerless gloves with cable on the back. I was happy with how they turned out, but they seemed puny compared to what I wanted to make for him.

Right after I finished chemotherapy, Hannah and I attended a yarn swap at a local brewery to celebrate. We spent the afternoon drinking craft beer, chatting with other knitters and admiring the work in progress. Near the end of the event, as Hannah ordered us the last of our beers, a woman approached our table and started talking to me. She finally asked me what I would make if I had the beautiful undyed wool she had seen me admiring earlier. I told her that I dreamed of knitting a sweater for my son, but I didn’t think I had enough time left to finish it.

She went back to her table and returned with more than enough wool to knit a large sweater. “For you,” she said. “Just promise me you’ll try.” I protested, but she told me she had driven this yarn a hundred miles to make sure it found a good home, and she couldn’t think of a better place for it. When Hannah returned, I cried as I told her how I had gotten the big bag of yarn in front of me.

The author's son used these acorn needles to teach the author to knit almost 20 years ago.
The author’s son used these acorn needles to teach the author to knit almost 20 years ago.

Courtesy of Hannah Joyner

As soon as we got home I found a sweater pattern that matched the wool and pulled out the needles I would need. I wound two skeins of yarn into balls before going to bed with visions of Abe wearing the finished sweater.

However, the next day I couldn’t get started. Why would I even hang up when I knew I’d be leaving Abe something woefully incomplete? The yarn was in the bag all week.

At the next meeting of my cancer support group, I talked about the unexpected gift of yarn and my fear of not finishing. In response, members of the group shared stories of their own challenges stemming from the knowledge that they were likely to die soon. I was not alone in my fear of starting something new. Our conversation helped me understand that starting the sweater would be a personal commitment to not give up until I needed to. And I could keep my promise to the woman who gave me the yarn: to get started – to try.

I threw on that night, and with every stitch I thought of my time with Abe—taking knitting lessons from him, listening to him play violin and guitar, sharing his love of Shakespeare, teaching him to drive, saying goodbye after he moved into the dorm , and hugged him before he underwent surgery.

Often when someone is diagnosed with advanced cancer, friends and family give advice to stay strong and positive, insisting that the person will beat even the most aggressive form of the disease. To me, these types of well-intentioned comments are not comforting. Instead, they highlight our culture’s fear of dying and its denial of death.

When I was diagnosed, I knew that no amount of strength, positivity or even faith would stop glioblastoma from killing me. The thought of leaving the people I loved devastated me, but I chose to confront my prognosis honestly and openly. I thought deeply about what was most meaningful to me so I could make informed decisions about what to do with the limited time I had. Instead of creating a bucket list, I decided to continue working in a job I found very rewarding, to spend time with friends around the fire pit in the backyard and enjoy many evenings with Hannah reading aloud to each other while we knit together on the couch. .

I finished a lot of the sweater before my cancer became active again this summer. I had to put it down as I underwent another brain surgery and another round of radiation. I’m knitting again now, but at the end of the day I’m often tired. Trembling in my hands makes it difficult to manipulate the knitting needles. Nevertheless, I am slowly making progress, and the sweater is almost finished. My goal is to finish it and present it to Abe when he comes home for the holidays. If I can’t finish it, I’m sure he can knit the last few stitches himself. Either way, he’ll know that my love for him helped me learn to live fully – even while I was dying.

David Meyers is a family physician and health policy researcher in the Washington, DC area living with terminal cancer. He is writing a joint memoir with his wife, Hannah Joyner.

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