It’s strange, isn’t it, the details you remember about life-altering moments? The way time stands still when you go numb.
For the otherwise elegant Tom Watson, this scene started with holes in his socks on what happened to be last Halloween. His wife, Hilary, had (quite reasonably) been giving him guff about that matter and finally had prevailed upon him to get some new ones.
So there they were, looking at men’s socks in a local Wal-Mart, when he got the phone call: “Tom, I’ve got bad news; Hilary’s got pancreatic cancer.”
Just like that, the results of that morning’s CT scan changed everything. Seeing Hilary standing right there and understanding the expression on his face, the legendary golfer recalled crying like a baby.
“Of course, the first thing you think about is death,” he said. “That’s the first thing you think about, because of the history of pancreatic cancer.”
But this is a story of hope and faith, not despair, as Hilary emerges from three months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation and, finally, surgery they were told couldn’t have gone better May 2 at the Mayo Clinic.
With an inspired — and inspiring — spirit, she thinks now about how soon she can safely get back to her passion: the cutting horse competitions that sustained and buoyed her even between treatments.
“I keep popping up where people are thinking, ‘What are you doing? Why are you here?’ ” she said by telephone Saturday, laughing, as she referred to events such as the National Cutting Horse Association competition last month in Fort Worth, Texas. “I think that’s what kept me going through all of that, having those shows and being enthusiastic and excited about doing something.
“Whether I’m feeling good or not, I was going to still get on that horse. And have some fun doing it. That’s been a godsend for me.”
In turn, they want their experience — which they know remains subject to change, because “you never know about cancer,” Tom Watson says — to provide a glimpse of a blessing for others.
Vicious as pancreatic cancer is known to be — it has the highest mortality rate of all cancers — Hilary understands now that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
And it isn’t like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, to which Watson is dedicated to fighting even as he remains heavy-hearted over the pace of progress and inevitable end with which it still comes.
“This is different than ALS: I feel optimistic, I feel very optimistic,” he said Monday at the 35th Annual Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic.
As he thought about it on Saturday, he reiterated: “One of the things I would like you to say is that you have hope. Anyone that tells you that you can’t operate on that tumor, go somewhere else and find somebody who says they can do it.”
At least in certain cases.
Because she’s always been on the go and seldom had any health issues, this was all a shock to Hilary Watson, to whom Tom has been married since 1999.
Maybe that’s why the symptoms seemed subtle at first, starting with a sense of fullness in her stomach even without eating. Soon came a certain mysterious pressure in her abdomen.
Then, one morning, sheer pain in the midsection — and an undeniable issue.
So she had the scan a few days later, and then there was that mournful moment in Wal-Mart.
And then they did what you do: They got hold of themselves and got on task.
The next day, they went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and got confirmation of her condition and “kind of got a game plan of what to do,” he said.
That began with Dr. Michael Kendrick, understood by the Watsons to be among the world’s foremost experts in treating pancreatic disease.
“He is just incredible,” Hilary said, noting his expertise and bedside manner.
Kendrick diagnosed her tumor to be able to be surgically removed, an aspect that Watson immediately considered “something special.”
So even while the chemo, or “poison,” as Tom Watson put it, made her “sicker than a dog” and the radiation hit hard, too, they looked forward to the surgery.
Well, at least until Kendrick gave them what Watson called “the ol’ TV disclaimer” before the operation that he said included removing her spleen and part of her pancreas through incisions.
There’s an 8 percent chance you could die during surgery, Watson recalled Kendrick saying. That reminded him of the ends of television commercials that rattle off the potential side effects of various drugs.
Or as Hilary with a laugh remembered feeling: “I’m on the bed thinking, ‘Why am I here now?’ ”
No wonder when she came out of surgery and Kendrick told them it couldn’t have gone any better that Watson cried the same way he did in Wal-Mart on Halloween.
Uncannily close to how she was told it would go, Hilary was in great pain for about two weeks straight after the surgery and lost a lot of weight, just as she did during chemotherapy.
Then she had a really good couple of days, and now she’s a little up and down but mostly feels like she’s “crested that hill.”
“Patience isn’t my best virtue,” she said, laughing and adding, “The last two days, I feel like I see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
She’s a lot stronger than he is, her husband will tell you, amid assuming a bit of a caretaking role further embraced by other family members and her group of friends that Watson likes to call “the posse.”
“Unbelievable,” she said, adding that they all “sure make it a lot easier to go through.”
Life goes on all around them, they both know, and that’s why Watson honored his commitment to fighting ALS last week.
Just the same, his most important role now is “just be there” for her and try to do the things she normally does and try to provide what she needs.
“I’m just here to help her,” he says.
A few minutes later, he laughs and says, “Here she comes now: She’d going to let the dog out while it’s raining. All right, I’ll go get the towel.”
To hear them on the phone Saturday, actually, you’d figure everything is normal.
But it’s not so normal, of course.
Even with no evidence anything has spread, Watson knows that with every follow-up to come, he’ll be holding his breath and saying, “God, I hope the scan shows nothing.”
But today is all they know, all anybody knows.
And today Hilary feels like she’s just going to keep getting better from here and that she can’t wait to get back on a horse in a few months.
What a beautiful thing that will be, another indelible life-changing scene when time will stand still again.
“Alive again, yeah, it’s been fantastic for me to be able to have that” between previous treatments, she said. “Because I think that’s what gives you the will to keep moving on.”