Tony Peterson: Between Seasons
Tony Peterson loves all things outdoors and nothing beats duck hunting in the fall. To him, true beauty is a crisp fall morning, with the sun coming up over the swamp and the geese migrating South, forming patterns across the blue and white sky.
He’s preparing for something he never thought he’d have to prepare for: the passing of his beloved wife, Lynne, who is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. She is the love of his life, his most cherished friend, who he not only loves but likes and respects and understands and cares for deeply – more deeply than he’s ever cared for anyone.
I met Tony in a small, cramped, loud coffee shop in Woodbury in early November, just after the Minnesota Gophers had taken down number 5 Penn State in football. We shook hands, hugged, and talked about the last time we’d met - at a Jack’s Caregiver Coalition event in August, sitting in the back of Andre’s yacht on the St. Croix River, drinking beer and eating hamburgers that Rich had just taken off the grill.
We were standing in line, waiting to order our coffees, making small talk about the game and the sun on the St. Croix that day, when Tony shifted topics.
“My wife’s not doing too good. She’s dying.”
Death was real to Tony. It was all around him. He spoke of a book he’d read about death in during Civil War times; that people were more accepting of death during those times because it was ever present. People died in their teens and early 20s all the time. It was all around.
It wasn’t that long-lost neighbor who moved away and came to town every 3 years. Back then, death lived next door and you saw him every day.
Because of better nutrition and medical advances, people now live longer, and death is less real in our everyday lives - and rarely spoken of. There is a layer of discomfort and denial that has covered up this truth of life.
To Tony, this layer had been removed.
Been everywhere and done everything. It brought them to each other.
As a young man, Tony was in the Marine Corps, serving in California and ending up in Hawaii.
“In Hawaii, I was able to live out the dream I had since I was a kid – to dive like Jacques Cousteau. I learned to dive in the ocean and dove in the ocean every chance when I was off duty. It was phenomenal and I loved it.
“I was also a policeman and a dog handler. After the service, I jumped into trucking and trucked all 50 states and through Mexico and Canada. I drove a logging truck up in northern Minnesota. That’s where I met Lynne in ‘96, who worked at the weigh station where they would weigh the logs.
“I knew her for about a year, when one day one of us got the gumption to ask the other one out for a date. We ended up going to a really bad Italian restaurant in Crosby. It was horrible, terrible food – but the date was good! We hit it off!
“She was such a beautiful person, always caring for other people. She was an EMT and was always the first one to volunteer to help people.
“We had the same interests in the outdoors, in hunting and fishing and she was a dog musher. I could care less about dog mushing, but she got me into it. I found myself dog mushing in the Mid Minnesota, then in Bayfield, which was an Iditarod qualifier, I’m running dogs, you know, when she told me she was pregnant with our first child.
“There was something about us – we just clicked.
“Back in those days, we lived in the middle of the woods, where our nearest neighbor was 1 mile away, and you could walk for 5 miles in our backyard before you hit a trail. I called it my ‘Buffalo River Home,’ after a John Hyatt song.
“We were both a little older when we got married in ‘98. Neither of us had children and we started our own family. It was perfect! It was just perfect - like it was meant to be. Sometimes in life you just know that things are meant to be, and this was it! I’ve always felt that about us, and our love has only grown stronger over the years.
He continues, “I can honestly say that I did not love my wife when I first met her. I liked her a lot though. I kind of thought there was something to work with. I think she felt the same about me. We were both something to work with. Neither of us was into puppy love. And, as the years have gone by and as we’ve gone through our trials and tribulations together, we’ve grown to really support and understand and encourage each other when times get tough.
“And now it’s love! But it’s a love based on experience, based on those trials and tribulations, knowing how someone is going to behave, how someone’s going to react based on any given situation. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“So, can I say we’ve had a perfect marriage? No. But can I say our marriage is perfect to us? Yes!
“It took a long time to learn about each other, find out about each other, and trust each other. But it is so worth it.”
Lynne and Tony went back to college in the early 2000s, where Tony received a degree in law enforcement and Lynne a degree in nursing. In 2005, They moved with their two young girls, Michelle and Cheyenne, to the Twin Cities and settled in Bayport, where Tony pursued a career at Stillwater Prison as a corrections officer until 2010. Since that time, he’s been a Real Estate agent. Lynne became a nurse for alcohol and drug addiction at Hazeltine. Within a year of their move, they had their third child, John, who is now 13.
“The last thing you want to hear from a doctor is ‘I’m sorry.’”
“It was January 24th of this year,” Tony continues. “We had gone to the Emergency Room at Woodwinds in Woodbury because Lynne had a pain in her stomach. She thought it was her gall bladder. Yea, her gallbladder was big and was causing her a lot of pain, but they also found a mass on her pancreas.
“They told us that they couldn’t do anything there; that we needed to go to St. Joe’s. I looked at her and she looked at me, like ‘ok?’
“As soon as they told me it was a mass, I was like, ‘oh, shit!’ It was a real ‘oh, shit!’ moment!”
“We went to St. Joe’s the next day and they had a drawing on a white board of what they were seeing. The doctor came into the room and said, ‘I’m sorry, but this looks like pancreatic cancer.’
“I thought – what the hell does that mean?”
Lynne had a large mass on her pancreas. The doctors needed a biopsy of it to confirm their findings. Unfortunately, due to a gastric bypass that she had had 10 years earlier, doctors at St. Joseph’s were not able to get a direct look at the tumor.
Several weeks later, at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Lynne was able to get a biopsy of a ‘distant’ lymph node, where doctors confirmed that she had Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.
The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, so Lynne was not eligible for the Whipple procedure, a surgery that offers the best chance for long-term control of all pancreatic cancer types.
“It would have been a dangerous procedure,” Tony continues. “But it would have given us some hope for more time. The doctors told us in February that there really was no hope. That the treatment we would pursue was just for more time and palliative care and comfort. We were hoping to get a better run at it – didn’t work out that way.”
Lynne began chemotherapy treatment for the cancer in March of this year, but her body couldn’t tolerate the intense treatment.
“She went from walking upright, taking solid foods, to being almost in a walker within 3 weeks. She looked very uncomfortable and very sick and could not walk without assistance. She lost a ton of weight. She lost all her hair - her beautiful long black long hair. We almost lost her during that time due to dehydration when she was hospitalized. It took a lot for her to recover. Then they gave her the chemo again after a 2-week break and the same thing happened again.
“Her body couldn’t tolerate the treatment, so each time, the doctors would give her less and less chemo until finally, I don’t think it’s doing anything.”
Although the treatment initially did shrink the tumor, her cancer soon came back with a vengeance.
The weight of taking on dual roles, as father and mother. The weight of caring for a terminally ill spouse. The weight of keeping it all together. The weight of trying to accept it all.
The weight of getting ready to let it all go.
Still standing – but feeling that weight.
As the treatments have been less and less effective against the tumors in her body, the family has had less and less hope. They knew the grim statistics for pancreatic cancer and the patient’s life expectancy: 50% of patients die within 12 months; the remaining 50% die within 18 months.
Hope is a hard thing to lose
“Last week was a big game changer for us,” Tony continues. “There was always a little hope up until last week, when she developed an internal bleed. Doctors say that now she’s prone to blood clots in the ephemeral artery in her leg. Those can travel up to her lungs, heart and brain.
“The diagnosis that she received… she’s in the dying process now.”
“This truth makes it very difficult, because I’m taking on 2 roles now – I’m both the father and the mother.
“I get up at 6:15 in the morning on weekdays and get the kids going. Usually Lynne sleeps later. Many times, I sleep on the couch now, 20 feet away from the bed. My wife is so small and frail now that I worry that I’m going to move around in the bed and hurt her.
“Working has been very hard since she was diagnosed. I’m a realtor so I always have to be available, able to take calls and always keep my ear to the ground. But I go to the clinic with Lynne three days a week. When am I supposed to work?
“When she was diagnosed, we lost her income right away. I started working for a food delivery service. It’s an OK side job but it sure does wrack up the miles on your car.
“We started cutting back early on. I’m an avid skier, hunter, and fisherman and we’ve cut all that back. I just don’t have the time. It’s hard to focus - my mind is on Lynne. Every minute I don’t spend with her is one minute less that I’m gonna’ have with her… I’m never going to get that minute back. So, early on in my caregiving, I took that frame of mind, but what I found is that I was getting burnt out – my business was going down the tubes, my wife isn’t getting any better, and my kids were wondering what was going on, with their mom and with me. So, I had to re-tool and re-think.
“I had to take a step back and approach it differently. I had to accept the fact that the past life I had was no more. That life was gone. It was never coming back. It’s gone! And that’s tough. It was hard to accept, to believe. I have a hard time accepting it.
“At one point, I was seeing a therapist and talking about my life and he stopped me because he didn’t think I was answering his questions, and he looked me straight in the eye and he told me, ‘Tony, your wife’s going to die.’ I broke down right there. I totally lost it.
“This realization - that Lynne is dying - is hard. She’s a major part of my life and my identity. We have the same goals. I thought she’d always be there, that we’d always be a family. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader, my biggest supporter. Maybe I took that for granted. And when I found out that I’m going to lose her, it destroyed me. Absolutely destroyed me. I’ve had to try to come to terms with that in the last 10 months. I’ve had to really look hard at myself, look hard at life.
“I don’t know what to say to my wife – that I love her; that I hope she’ll get better; that I hope she has a good, peaceful death, where she’s surrounded by her loved ones.”
“Last spring, when I knew that her cancer was really bad and that she might not last the year, she looked really bad, I just wanted her to have a good summer: to spend time with the kids; to spend time with me so I could spend time with her, and we could do things that we love to do. We like to garden. She likes to lay in the sun. We were able to do those things. She’s part Native American and she could honor the earth and go to Pow Wows. We got a chance to do that last summer. We went up to Duluth to visit friends.
“My children need me now.”
“It’s changed me, of course,” Tony continues. “It tends to ‘gentle’ one’s soul, because it makes you realize how fragile life is. I look at things in a different light, especially when it comes to my kids. I’m playing the mother and the father, so I’ve tended to soften some of my previous harsher stances on things with my kids,” he reflects. “I think I listen to them more. I want to know about what’s going on in their lives. I want to know what their hopes for the future are. I want to know what they want to be.
“I need to take extra care with them. It’s a scary time for them - not knowing what the future holds. My son asked me a couple weeks ago, when we were talking about his mom, he said, ‘Dad, is mom going to die?’ I looked at him and said, ‘yes.’ I can’t lie to him. I can’t lie to any of my kids. It would be unfair to them. They deserve to hear the truth.
“The kids can see it for themselves - they can see that she’s dying. She’s actively starting to die. And she’s aware of it.
“How I react when she finally goes is really where the rubber meets the road. I believe these things either bring out the best in people or bring out their worst. Some days, I feel so cheated – for my wife, for myself, and for my kids. For my kids, especially. It’s so terribly unfair that my own kids will have to go through life without their mother.”
Preparing for the change in seasons
“Last week, my wife and I finalized her funeral arrangements at Mueller Funeral Home in White Bear Lake. Lynne wanted to be part of it. I brought it up to her several months ago and she didn’t want anything to do with it. But lately, with the hospitalizations, I think she’s shifted her feelings about it. She wanted to be part of planning her funeral – she wanted to pick the flowers; she wanted to pick out her casket; she wanted to pick out the music. She wanted to be part of virtually everything.
“We got it done – we planned her funeral,” Tony says. “It’s bewildering. It’s heartbreaking. But it is what it is.
“She recently said to me, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to be strong now.’
“For my wife to say that to me… it took a lot of effort. I have to be strong now. She knows that its coming. She’s preparing herself. Now I must prepare myself and my children.
“I have to be there for them.
“When she does go, I hope she has a good, peaceful death, where she’s surrounded with her loved ones. I hope she knows that we all love her. That we’ll miss her. But I hope she knows that she can go. That when we finally release her to God, that she can go in peace and love, with fond memories. She is an amazing woman, an amazing person. She’s been my best friend, and it’s going to be very hard to say goodbye.
“I will go on. My story won’t end, though,” Tony continues. “Because life goes on and the clock doesn’t stop. My kids need me and that’s what she would want.
“I will say goodbye when I have to. And I will go on.”
This Jack story was brought to you by:
Visit AARP.org/caregiving for family caregiver information and resources.
Most people think of family caregivers as women taking care of their aging parents or children. What many don’t know is that 16 million family caregivers in this country are men. AARP is on a mission to break the stereotypes and ensure that all family caregivers, including men, get meaningful support. Men, often due to societal perceptions, avoid talking about their caregiving situation and don’t feel comfortable talking about the emotional and economic challenges of caregiving. However, caregiving is tougher than tough and seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Catch up on any of the Jack's Caregiving Stories you may have missed: