Excerpt: “Marv Taking Charge: A Story of Bold Love and Courage” - Winner of the CWA Book of the Year Award for Indie Non-Fiction

By Lois Roelofs

Chapter One

January 30, 2018


Not knowing when the pulmonologist was going to call, Marv decided that we would not wait around for his biopsy results. We left, as planned months earlier, on our winter road trip. Winters are brutal in South Dakota, and we were looking forward to meeting up with family and friends in much warmer Arizona.

Along the way, Marv wanted to see Gunsmoke memorabilia— he had listened to the show on the radio as a kid in the 1950s—in Dodge City, Kansas, so we took a moment on our second day to peruse pamphlets at the touristy Boot Hill Museum: Queen of the Cowtowns.

The trip had been good so far. The ice-rutted roads of South Dakota had gradually given way through Nebraska to the dry roads of Kansas. I’d been excited about this vacation. It was only our fourth road trip to the West. Usually, our road trips were to family members living within a few hundred miles. I loved the quiet time with Marv. He was never a chatterbox, so I absolutely loved having him belted in next to me, not able to escape. If I asked too many questions, he’d say, “That’s enough for now,” and chuckle. At times, he’d extend his right hand to me, and I’d know to scratch it lightly to keep him awake.

That day at the museum in Dodge City, we were happy, finally, to be in warm and sunny weather. Ordinarily, I’d have felt like this was a beautiful day of promise. But I wondered if Marv had insisted on leaving before his doctor’s call because he worried it might not be possible later. So far, we’d avoided talking about “what if.”

When we were finishing up at the pamphlet rack, about one in the afternoon, I heard Marv’s phone jangle and nudged him. There were other tourists nearby, so he moved into a darkened corner to take the call. I remember him cupping his hand over his free ear to block out noise; I motioned him to follow me into the nearly silent, sunny outdoors. As we stood on the small wooden porch, I heard him say, “I’m not interested in treatment. Here, talk to my wife. She’s a nurse. She’ll understand what you’re saying.”

He stuck out his arm to hand me the phone. As I took it, I tried to read his expression. Nothing. Just as blank as if he’d been told the mail had come.

“I’m Lois, Marv’s wife,” I said, still watching him.

The pulmonologist spoke in a quiet hurried voice. “The biopsy showed lung cancer. Small cell. Your husband must start treatment right away. Chemo is the only option. This cancer is extremely aggressive. I don’t think he realizes how serious this is. He may have only a few weeks.”

I clutched the phone harder, trying to keep as much control of my own face as I could see Marv was doing with his. A few weeks? Only a few weeks to say farewell to a fifty-five-year marriage? The love of my life? Only a few weeks to get ready to go on without him?


Chapter Two

Twenty-seven days earlier: January 3, 2018


On an ordinary five-degree, wintry day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I headed to a coffee shop eager to start on my New Year’s resolution to write every day. After pickingup a decaf peppermint mocha, I weaved my way to a secluded corner table, shimmied a new spiral notebook out of my backpack, and set up my space to write.

I’d been looking forward to writing again. Two years earlier, Marv and I had moved from Chicago to Sioux Falls to be near our daughter and her family and, except for blogging about the move, I’d spent most my time getting acquainted with my new community. I’d left a writing group back in Chicago, though, and was only beginning to realize how much they kept me on track. Now I was determined to get it going on my own.

But as I settled in with my pen and took a sip of the mocha, my phone signaled a text: “When are you coming home?” From Marv.

He rarely texted me. I’d left him only a little bit ago. My heartbeat quickened as I texted back, “Why?”

“I’m having chest pain, and I want you to take me to the clinic.”

This was not normal. For my seventy-six-year-old husband to be willing to go to a doctor, let alone asking for it, was unprecedented. “At Starbucks,” I texted back. “On my way.”

With my own heart verging on palpitations, I jammed my notebook back into my backpack, jerked on my coat, grabbed my mocha, and dashed out the door. Zipping my Beetle out of the parking lot, my mind raced. Uncertainty always made me default to the details of planning. Chest pain meant I would have to take Marv to the ER, though he would almost certainly argue for his doctor’s office. As a retired nurse educator, I had taught patients and nursing students for years about appropriate interventions. It wasn’t beyond Marv, though, to remind me that he was neither my patient nor my student.

But there he was, waiting for me in our driveway. When he lowered himself into my car, frown lines shouted his fear. In my calmest nursing tone, masking my escalating concern, I said, “Honey, a doctor’s office is not set up to treat walk-ins. Chest pain is an emergency.”

For once, he didn’t argue. That alone told me a lot about what he was feeling.

As I drove up 229 to Cliff Avenue, I kept up that inner planning dialogue. I worried about Marv’s inability to sit for long. How will I keep him calm? Once, I had told him that I was going to write a book about him and title it He Can’t Sit. Marv was a bundle of energy. That wasn’t good or bad, just fact. He attributed his high energy level to an internal motor that never quit. He’d warned our pastors he’d walk out if services lasted longer than an hour. He had told visitors to our home at the two-hour mark that it was time for them to leave. Along those lines, he did not do hospitalizations well—or any confinement, for that matter. He had insisted on early discharges more than once.

Heading north on Cliff, I glanced at him. No evidence of pain. No labored breathing. No change in coloring. So far, so good. When I pulled under the overhang of the hospital’s emergency department, I braced myself; I would have to help Marv withstand a confinement once again.


To: Marv’s Siblings [Marv’s remaining siblings of eight (six siblings and seven spouses)]

Need to let you know that Marv had chest pain radiating to his left arm this morning, starting at 9:00 a.m. I took him to ER. Nitroglycerin and aspirin relieved the pain. He had numerous tests, and doctors decided to admit him as they don’t know for sure what’s going on.

Kathleen [our daughter] was with us all day in the ER. She and I left around six in the evening. Marv had another chest pain episode at seven. Again, relieved by nitro.

I’ll keep you informed about what we find out tomorrow. He may be transferred to the heart hospital for more testing. We appreciate your prayers.


January 5, 2018


I am relieved to be home. On my couch. My fibromyalgia pain is a 10 out of 10.

Last night was a nightmare. After being away from home for two days, Marv was told at the heart hospital he could leave after the last test. Kath and I were there with him all day, and I was waiting to take him home. Then a nurse came in and said he’d have to stay another three hours until the IV was finished and the dye from the last test had worked itself out of his system. His eyes darkened and jaw quivered as he announced, “I was told I could leave now.” The nurse quietly said she was sorry he was misinformed.

Both Kath and I saw that the situation was going to escalate. Beyond tired, I quickly interjected, “Kath and I will get dinner. Call me when you’re discharged. I’ll pick you up.” His posture in bed and facial lines had stiffened over the past two days. I needed a breather for my weary nerves. Nothing short of discharge was going to calm him, and I felt helpless in the face of his frustration.

As I left with Kathleen, she smiled at a nurse in the nurses’ station and said, “Good luck.” But she turned to me and was more reassuring. “Mom, they’ll know how to handle him.”

I was home less than an hour when Marv called. “Come get me. I’m discharged.”

I threw on my down-filled, three-quarter coat, entered my frosty garage, and inched my way back in the dark over two miles of icy roads to the heart hospital. Marv was standing alone in the lobby, no nurse around. “When I saw you pull up,” he said, “I told her she didn’t need to stay.”

I smiled and shook my head; I was not surprised. He’d always been like that.