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Life After Cancer: Playing the DW Card

By: Glenn John Arnowitz

I traded in my wife’s “cancer card” for a DW card, or “dead wife” card. Let me explain.

In 2014, I shared Susan Guber’s irreverent piece in The New York Times, “Living with Cancer: Playing the C Card,” with my wife, Sue, who had recently dodged a cancer death sentence but was still struggling with the devastating aftereffects of chemo and radiation. In her essay, Guber proudly exploited having cancer for her own purpose—basically relying on it to absolve herself from any or all social or other obligations that she did not want to fulfill. Only those with cancer could relate, and Sue and I found it all too hilarious. The following week I actually presented her with her own cancer card that I created: a laminated business card-sized card.

“The bearer of this card retains the right to refuse or decline, any or all invitations and obligations, social or otherwise, at their discretion without reason or explanation including, but not limited to: dinner parties, family and high school reunions, weddings and cousin Kevin’s bar mitzvah. No limit. Void where prohibited.”

Sue carried it with her at all times and never hesitated to pull it out and use it for a needed laugh—like the time she didn’t want to go to a particular family function or drive 60 miles to a friends party. Sadly, in September, 2016 her cancer card was revoked as the cancer had returned, taking her life at the age of 58. 

I stepped off the planet for a few weeks, disconnected from the digital universe and nursed my grief with solitude. When I returned I couldn’t believe what I saw. Or didn’t see. Everyone all around me seemed unaffected and so indifferent to what had happened. I was devastated. My wife had died, and the world was now a different place. Nothing would ever be the same. So why weren’t they in mourning? How can they go about their day as if nothing has happened? Why aren’t they consoling me? Attention must be paid! And then it hit me. Life goes on. It’s a cruel lesson to learn, and only those who have lost someone dear to them truly understand what that means. I had that same feeling when my father died 32 years ago but this time it came back stronger—like a whack in the head with a baseball bat—and I was angry. I was depressed. I was in denial. Don’t let anyone tell you that Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief are linear, they’re not.

I can imagine a sports announcer narrating my roller coaster ride of emotional distress: “Here comes denial with a bit of acceptance. Oh no, back to denial and what’s that? A lot of anger! Whoa! Smacked by depression and he’s down. OMG? He’s back up again and bargaining! He’s rallying and making his way towards acceptance. Look at him go! Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh no! Tackled by denial again.”

So when I emerged from those early days of loss, grief and loneliness, I had a chip on my shoulder the size of a cinderblock. And that’s when I realized I needed a DW card to justify my actions, thoughts and overall lack of empathy for anyone but myself. That card would exonerate me from life. Warrant my bad behavior and antisocial tendencies. I felt entitled to my grief. In fact I challenged anyone to upstage my misery. You think you know pain? You don’t know pain. Oh, you’re not feeling well? My wife died. Car accident? My wife died. Having surgery? My wife died. Go on, “make my day,” I whispered silently to anyone who dared to provoke me. Nothing you have to say can trump what happened to me. Sorry, but there’s no empathy here! My wife died, damn it, and I have the DW Card to prove it!

I remember walking in to surrogate court a few weeks after Sue passed to file some paper work and I had zero patience for the female clerk behind the counter who answered everyone of my questions by sharply banging her index finger on the form in front of me. Her apathetic air said it all: Read the form, idiot! This woman clearly lacked people skills, hated her job and couldn’t care less that my wife had just died. And my facial expression said it loud and clear: Die bitch!

That’s when I realized I needed help. I immediately looked for guidance on how to deal with all the emotions that were suffocating me. I looked for books and articles on others who had lost a spouse at a young age but the pickin’s were slim. I wanted to know how Paul McCartney got through his wife Linda’s death. How about Liam Neeson? Or Martin Short? (I got his book and made a beeline to the chapter around his wife’s death and was disappointed that he wasn’t feeling the same level of grief as I was. Maybe he was, but he just didn’t want to go too deep.) C.S. Lewis provided a few nuggets of insight in his book, “A Grief Observed,” especially this thought: “It hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”

But the game changer for me happened when a friend recommended “Levels of Life,” a book by British author Julian Barnes. I read through the first two chapters and was ready to give up, but the third and final chapter, “The Loss of Depth,” held me captive for hours as I reread sections, dog-earring pages and underlining passages. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here was a man, like myself, recounting the aftermath of his wife’s sudden death and every emotion he felt, every thought, every transgression, every insensitive comment from friends and family. This was the anatomy of loss. His nerve endings wrapped around every page. This was the most visceral narrative on grief I had ever read. And he did it all without a DW card. Or did he?

Barnes said things that I couldn’t say out loud and would only think to myself. For example, how being with his wife made him more interesting to friends. She was the “secret sauce” that made their coupledom attractive and entertaining to others. And that’s the way I was feeling about my life as the other couple-less half. I even wrote a song about this phenomenon, “We Liked Her Much Better Than You,” where I exorcised those feelings of insecurity and self-doubt in a catchy 3-minute power pop song. Julian Barnes saved me and I wrote him a note to tell him so and, much to my surprise, he responded with all the right words. I no longer felt alone.

It’s been almost 3 years since Sue’s passing, and I haven’t taken out my DW card in a long time. I’m no longer carrying that anger like a dead weight but feel lucky that I got to spend my life with such a beautiful person and have two amazing daughters as a result of our love. According to Alfred Lord Tennyson, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Is it? Hmmm, speaking from experience, yes, most definitely but I actually prefer Julian Barnes’ sentiment. “There are two essential kinds of loneliness: that of not having found someone to love, and that of having been deprived of the one you did love. The first kind is worse.”

Although I’ve been branded, my scars are fading and no longer visible on the surface. I now have sincere empathy for people and their pain and misfortunes and find myself giving everyone the benefit of the doubt the way Sue often did. If a driver cut us off, I was the one spiting a stream of profanities out the window while Sue’s reaction was more empathetic and understanding. “Maybe they were taking a child to the ER. Or rushing home to help an elderly parent.” In fact, I find myself channeling Sue a lot these days and embodying the sentiments of one of her favorite songs, “Humble and Kind”: “When you get where you’re goin’, don’t forget to turn back around. Help the next one in line. Always stay humble and kind.” So now I’m thinking about my encore career and how I can help others who are suffering like I was. Maybe by sharing my experience with loss and grief I can lessen someone’s pain, sadness and loneliness and along the way, help myself too.

I’ve finally tucked my DW card back in my wallet along with the anger and hurt. Right now, nobody needs to know it’s there but me.  


Glenn John Arnowitz is a musical and visual artist, writer, actor, speaker and painter who is always looking for new ways to scratch that insatiable creative itch. His artistic journey began with his first John Gnagy Art Kit, a subscription to MAD magazine and seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and continued along a twisted path through music, design, theatre and writing. Glenn has contributed articles to various design publications and blogs and is a frequent presenter at design conferences. As a musician, he has spent the past four decades performing in clubs, festivals, concert halls, on radio and T.V. including MTV, NPR and Good Morning America. He has produced music for Showtime, The Movie Channel, PBS, A&E and his compositions have been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles. 

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