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JoAnn Siegfried Smith

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JoAnn’s Story: A Big Mixer

“That day, I felt like someone put my family in a big mixer and jumbled us up. When we fell out, I wondered if we would be the same people,” says JoAnn Siegfried Smith.

That was the day they received her husband’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. That was April 2011. In September, he died.

“I would bring my clothes to the hospital so I could sleep over and then go to work the next day. My husband was a self-employed mechanic, so I had to work. My daughter, a police officer, was his caretaker, and stayed with him. She gave me all the reports.” Joanne wipes her hands across her jean-clad thighs. She has just returned from her job as an inclusion specialist at Via, where she has gardened with an autistic young woman.

Even before JoAnn’s husband received his diagnosis, he knew there was something wrong; he’d been losing weight and feeling exhausted, yet the doctors and lab reports found nothing. But the day that JoAnn came home to find him in bed, she insisted that he return to the hospital. This time, a doctor felt an obstruction in his stomach. This time, there was something. He went into surgery, and had 10 feet of intestine and a mass removed. A week later, he received his diagnosis.

Depleted and malnourished, he returned home to regain strength so he could begin chemo. But besides palliative care, he was never strong enough to receive further treatment.

 “But, there were good times and good memories,” recalls JoAnn. “We had fun. We would laugh, and be together, and talk about things we hadn’t talked about.”

He didn’t want to die at home, he told his three children; he didn’t want JoAnn to have to deal with that. So he returned to the hospital. And waited. Could he make it until his daughter’s wedding in August?

That was risky, and so one Wednesday in July, the hospital readied itself for the daughter’s wedding in the chapel with her maid and matron of honor, food, music, and a cake.

“And my husband got to dance with her. He lived for that,” says JoAnn, her eyes filling. “It was beautiful, just seeing the people who helped him get dressed, who stayed with him, brought him downstairs. After the wedding, he looked in the mirror and said, ‘Wow, I don’t look as bad as I thought. Today was the best day of my life.’

“My husband was always so positive. He didn’t talk about dying; he talked about wanting to live. He said, ‘I am a blessed man. Look around me.’ As he was being taken from the hospital bed to the hospice, he said to my daughter, ‘Am I going to die?’ She said, ‘Yes, dad.’ He said, ‘I am going to fight this.’ As he was put on a stretcher, my two-year-old grandson said, ‘Bye, Pappy J,’ as if he would see him again in heaven.

“I haven’t yet arrived where I should be,” JoAnn says matter-of-factly. “When I get to heaven and see my husband, I will hug him and never let him go. You could shake me and tell me there is no heaven, but there is. He saw amazing visions. You could see his struggle to join the loved ones he saw, as well as to stay here. I told him that I had gone every place with him for 31 years, but I couldn’t go to that place. I made the choice to go on here.”

In hospice, he spoke to each family member separately, talking about what he foresaw and what he wished for each of them. “My husband was so great, so encouraging, so giving.

“When my husband passed away, that night my kids—who hadn’t slept in days—fell to the mattress on the floor, and began to bounce around and laugh. I believe my husband heard them and knew we would be ok.”

JoAnn looks around the room, and runs her fingers through her blond bangs. “I was already coming to yoga at the Cancer Support Community with my friend who had ovarian cancer when my husband got sick.

“Then I came to caregiver groups for myself. People share their stories, and it helps you go on. Friends told me they knew what I was going through, but unless they experienced it, they really don’t know.

“I don’t know what I would have done if the support—the groups, Jen–wasn’t here,” says JoAnn, standing.

“I have just married the man who came to fix my plumbing when it broke one day. I knew him—and suddenly remembered him—as a kid. We’d roller skate together. He is so sweet and loving, and my kids love him. My daughter calls him her stand-in dad until she gets to heaven to see her real dad.”

And now the first chapter of JoAnn’s story is over. And a new chapter begins.