Back in high school, they seemed an unlikely match. She was quiet and shy. He was outgoing and funny. But love â and that is what their journey is all about â has a way of trumping everything.
Their love is what matters and what sustains them.
Their first kiss was in August 2008 after theyâd both graduated from college â he from Gonzaga and she from culinary school in South Dakota. She drove him home in her car. He leaned in, unexpectedly, and years later they both say that was the moment when they knew they were meant for each other.
Three years later, she sits in a hospital room, and tells him she thought about what that kiss would be like for more than a decade when theyâd see each other in school, or on church retreats and when heâd drop by her house to visit her brother.
Love. Faith. Commitment.
Thatâs what they have now.
The hospital room is sterile and quiet, and as Rhiannon Harry waits for her husband to wake up, she tries to hush the angry voices in her head. She tries not to be jealous that it has taken their first year of marriage away from them.
Instead, she prays that soon it will all be over. That soon, theyâll have a ânormalâ marriage. That they can get out of town for a weekend. That they donât have an oncologistâs phone number memorized. That Mike Harry, for the fourth time, will beat cancer.
Mike prays for it, too.
Once he turned to Rhiannon and said sadly, âIf it werenât for the cancer, weâd have a happy life.â
âItâs not that itâs not happy,â she replied. âIt just would be less complicated.â
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During his senior year of high school, Mike was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a grape-sized mass growing in his left frontal lobe.
Brain tumors arenât usually detectable until they are the size of an egg. But Mike was lucky â and he owes all that luck to a freshman wrestler.
It started with a couple of concussions. The first one happened in December 1999 when he slid on ice while snowboarding, lost control and hit his head. He didnât feel well for a couple of days. Then, a few weeks later during wrestling practice, he hit his head again and was knocked out. A doctor suggested taking a couple weeks off to heal.
The following autumn â the start of his senior year of high school â he was wrestling a freshman. They were just messing around. Mike thought he had pinned him but the freshman tried to get out of his hold and ended up elbowing Mike right between the eyes. Mikeâs world went dark.
For safety precautions, he went to the doctor. He underwent scans and tests and one month later â the day of his senior year homecoming â Mike was sitting in the same doctorâs office being told he had a brain tumor.
Despite the alarming news, Mike decided to wait for the surgery until after his June 2001 graduation.
As Mike laid on the gurney that day just before he was wheeled into the surgery, he did what he does best. He told a joke.
âA pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel sticking out of his pantâs zipper. The bartender asks the pirate, âWhatâs up with the steering wheel?â âArrrrrgh,â the pirate says. âItâs driving me nuts.ââ
Doctors and nurses laughed and the metal wheels started to clank along the floor into the operating room.
The surgery went well and Mike waited for a semester to settle in at college before starting chemotherapy. He wanted to be a normal college student, even if it was just for one semester.
Soon after he graduated with a biology degree from Gonzaga, Mike was diagnosed again with a brain tumor. The tumor, which wasnât completely removed the first time, had grown back and was its original size. So, once again, Mike had surgery and chemotherapy.
After winning his second battle with brain cancerâ the last, he hoped â he moved back home. The bills from the hospital visits, chemotherapy and surgeries had added up. He unloaded his boxes in his parentsâ basement and began a new life. A happy, uncomplicated one, he hoped.
Thatâs when he saw Rhiannon again.
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There was always an attraction between them, but the timing was off. There were boyfriends, girlfriends, college and life in general. But suddenly in 2008, time was on their side.
âEverything happens for a reason,â said Rhiannon, smiling at Mike from across the hospital room.
They distinctly remember Aug. 1, 2009. The Black Eyed Peasâ âIâve Got a Feelingâ was playing, a perfect soundtrack for the day ahead.
The couple packed a lunch and headed to Devils Tower for an afternoon away.
They walked hand in hand on the path around the monument, stopping along the way to read the signs, even though theyâd read them a hundred times before. They walked a little farther until Mike saw a quaint dirt trail leading to a huge rock.
Rhiannon climbed on top and looked out over the scenery.
It was the moment. Mike called her name as he dropped to one knee.
Since that moment, Rhiannon has been Mikeâs rock.
âThank you for marrying into this because I know I couldnât do it by myself,â he says to her.
A year later they promised their lives to each other. In good times and bad ... in sickness and health ... all the days of their lives.
They honeymooned in Hawaii, eating at lavish restaurants and buying expensive sunglasses as giddy newlyweds.
For a month, their lives were the happiest theyâd had. Then during a routine checkup, Mike learned that his brain tumor had begun to grow again.
In January 2011, just three months after they were married, Mike underwent his third brain surgery in 10 years. Doctors wanted to make sure they got it all, which meant that Mike would be awake the entire time and answering questions. If doctors happened to make a wrong move, they would know immediately based on his speech. Doctors ended up taking out most of his left frontal lobe.
After the surgery, he began chemotherapy for the third time while continuing his job at Bloedorn Lumber. The chemo made him tired, but the side effects were nothing new.
Neither was the experience. It was nerve-racking walking into the cancer center for the first time, and it didnât get much better with practice.
âPeople thought I was there to pick up a grandparent, but I was the one there for treatment,â Mike said.
From the beginning, he found it ironic that heâd go in for chemo dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. The nurses were dressed in space-like suits to protect themselves from the toxic chemicals they were injecting in his body.
The biohazard symbol faced him as he watched the chemicals drip, drip, drip through the IV and into his vein. Once he finished with chemotherapy he got a tattoo â the biohazard symbol surrounded in flames on his back.
He was midway through chemo for the third time when he started having horrible heartburn, which was odd for the man who loved to eat the hottest of hot wings. The doctors attributed it to the chemotherapy.
As the summer progressed, so did his heartburn. Foods began to get harder and harder to digest. Steak was hard to swallow.
âYou know how it feels,â he said. âLike when you get thick mashed potatoes stuck in your chest.â
After a long morning of work, he stopped to get a sub sandwich. He took one bite and couldnât swallow the food. It wouldnât budge. Frustrated, hurt and starving, he called in sick for the rest of the day.
That night he started throwing up blood.
He called the hospital the next day, hoping that it was an ulcer. He had a feeling he was wrong.
The doctors ordered an endoscopy, but when they tried to feed the tube down his throat, it wouldnât budge. Something was blocking his esophagus. They ordered several scans to be done.
The following week with his wife and mother sitting beside him in the doctorâs office, he got the news. Esophageal carcinoma.
- - -
âWhy?â Rhiannon questioned. âWhy do we have to go through this again?â
She was mad. Mad at God. Mad at cancer. Flat-out mad.
Going through Mikeâs head were four-letter words. After three times of being diagnosed with cancer, there would be some sort of immunity. After beating it three times, a person should be invincible.
Mike was angry. And he was scared. Hearing the words this time was much worse. Couldnât a guy get a break?
The feelings lasted only a few seconds before his strength and perseverance resurfaced.
âLetâs get rid of it, I donât want it,â he told the doctors.
They discussed treatment plans and encouraged him to eat âslippery foodsâ â Jell-O, Malt-O-Meal, Gatorade â but it wasnât long before even those wouldnât get past the tumor.
Without much hesitation, doctors sent him to Denver on the Guardian Flight to have a feeding tube inserted in his small intestine. Until the cancer was gone, heâd have to nourish himself through the tube.
There were no more steak and potatoes, no more sub sandwiches. Not even Jell-O. And his favorite meal, Tater Tot casserole, made by his wife, a chef, had to wait.
Everywhere he goes, he carries a black backpack, which holds a small bladder with his daily nutritional needs.
âI can feel it,â he says. âIt feels like a mass. It feels like it shouldnât be there.â
This battle, his fourth round, has been so much harder than before. Heâs constantly nauseous. He struggles with frequent coughing spells. He spends most of his days sleeping. Heâs lost 40 pounds of what was already a thin frame.
His days are dull. In his office are boxes of old motorcycle parts that he bought off the side of a lonely, Wyoming road one afternoon when he was healthy. They are parts he hopes one day to dust off, fix up and sell. But first, he must fix himself.
Mike, 29, and Rhiannon, 28, go to church and they pray. They pray that this will be over soon. They pray that they can go back to being ânormal.â They pray for good health.
Mike finished radiation at the end of March and will start his last week of chemotherapy on April 30. Doctors wonât be able to give them a prognosis, or even consider the next step until four weeks later.
But for the first time since that day with the sub sandwich, Mike ate a small bowl of Frosted Flakes this week. He was tired of hospital popsicles. He wanted something with substance. He took a spoonful and then another and another. And it went down. He was elated, and believes it is a sign that the tumor has shrunk.
Since then, heâs been on a binge: Cheerios and milkshakes and frozen yogurt. It may not be much, but itâs a step in the right direction.
âIn the back of my mind, thereâs always âwhat if?â but I have faith,â Rhiannon said. âGod has a plan for us, we just donât know what it is.â
Theyâre committed to the big picture â a happy, healthy life, children, growing old together â but theyâve only just started to get small pieces to put it together.
The rest, they pray, will come with time.
Just like their first kiss.