In a few hours, her husband would be on a plane to his base near Tacoma. She would kiss him at the airport. He would go back to the Army; she to fighting ovarian cancer.
But on a recent Monday morning when the phone rings with news from the hospital, Bill Caudle is still beside his wife, Michelle, on the couch in their Watertown, Wis., home.
“Tissue,” she asks, and he passes one.
She holds the phone to her ear, listening to the medical report, saying little.
Bill reads the news on her face. A tear rolls down her cheek. She tries to smile.
“Remember 9:45 a.m.,” Michelle tells their youngest daughter, Chelsea, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Watertown High School.
The next morning Michelle must see her doctor at Aurora Women’s Pavilion. The new medication she started three months ago has not stopped the cancer. Her CA 125, the number measuring cancer antigens, should be dropping. Instead, it keeps rising.
Her treatments are the main reason Bill signed up with the Army on May 13, 2009, his 39th birthday. That decision is the reason he won’t be there the next morning when she asks the doctor what comes next.
Still, Michelle, 42, is glad to have him home, if only on a four-day pass from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It is a comfort to have him beside her when the bad news lands.
Another comfort rests in the crook of her arm: her first grandchild, 3-month-old Trevor, son of her oldest daughter, Alysha, 22.
When she puts down the phone, her forefinger strokes the soft skin and feathery hair on his forehead.
“I guess,” she says, “I feel like one more part of my life is complete.”
A year ago, the Caudles’ story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spread across the Internet, fed by a divisive health care debate that led to passage of President Barack Obama’s landmark reform bill.
A year later, the issue remains with us. The new law faces challenges in the courts and from the new Republican majority in the House.
Like many Americans, though, the Caudles are not so much debating the health care issue as living it.
Joining the Army was the answer Bill Caudle came up with after getting laid off last year from his longtime job at plastics company PolyOne. He simply could not find work, and Michelle needed the health coverage. By then she had been fighting cancer for almost three years.
Their story touched readers across the country and on both sides of the debate. Dozens of people they didn’t know sent more than $15,000 to a fund for the family. Two sisters from Portland, sent Michelle a quilt they had sewn with positive messages from women in other states.
“America helped us out more than they’ll ever know,” Michelle says. “I was really glad when I could put Chelsea on a plane to go spend a couple of weeks with her Dad before the start of school.”
The money also allowed Michelle and Chelsea to fly to Washington in the summer.
Some people wondered why they didn’t just move to Bill’s base. But Michelle’s doctor, the man she trusts with her life, is in Wisconsin. Her family and friends are there. When she tries to imagine moving, she sees herself home alone in a strange city, her husband off working. No friends. No other family. A recipe for depression.
Still, the miles between Bill and Michelle have been hard.
“It’s tough, but she’s tough,” says Peter Johnson, her oncologist.
“I think Bill is in her life every minute. There is such a bond there. It’s as if he is sitting in the exam room with her.”
Michelle grew stronger this year, those who know her say. She had to.
Early in 2010, she finished her third round of chemotherapy. Her counts appeared promising.
Having graduated from boot camp in Kentucky, Bill moved on to advanced individual training at Fort Gordon in Georgia, where he learned how to be a signal support systems specialist. Michelle and Bill spoke almost daily.
Michelle was adjusting better to their split life. Alysha was pregnant, and that gave her something else to think about. Still, sometimes she would be doing the laundry and find a sock or something Bill had left behind and the sadness of all the distance between them would press down on her.
In May, Bill graduated and came home for a short stay. Just before he left for Lewis-McChord, Michelle learned her cancer count was on the rise.
“Can I take some time and go out to Bill before I start treatment?” she asked the doctor. Johnson said that was fine.
So she and Chelsea flew out and helped Bill find an apartment. They bought cooking pans at Goodwill. They found a cat to keep Bill company, a black tabby named Charlie.
Soon after Michelle returned to Wisconsin, a scan picked up three small spots on her lung. It wasn’t clear what they were. But they were worrisome.
The doctor consulted the latest presentations from the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. He and Michelle decided to try a new treatment that combines more frequent use of the chemotherapy Doxil with doses of Avastin, a biologic agent.
In mid-August, she was the honorary survivor for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Watertown.
Then, only a couple of weeks later, Michelle’s younger sister, Jaime, and Jaime’s fiancé were badly injured in a single-car accident near Lyndon Station, Wis. Her sister fractured a vertebra. The fiancé was left paralyzed from the chest down. Michelle helped organize a benefit to raise money for them.
“Now you’ve got to take care of yourself,” her son, Little Bill, told her that day.
Tests showed the nodules on her lung were cancer. The CA 125 number kept increasing.
On the Friday before Christmas, Bill came home. Instead of their annual gift exchange, Michelle’s relatives gave her a check to pay for Bill’s airline ticket.
It was wonderful and over too soon.
The following Tuesday, Michelle returned to the hospital, her mind fixed on the one calendar that matters now.
“Do I have months?” she asks her oncologist Peter Johnson. “Do I have years?”
More than months, he says.
“Should I have Bill come home?”
“I don’t think it’s at that point right now.”