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For most of their fateful trip to North Carolina, in May 2013, Jordan Lewis and his girlfriend, Cady Kendall, were triumphant. In town for follow-up medical appointments, the young couple got happy news. Tests after test confirmed that Jordan's sinus cancer was gone.
But at their final screening, the doctor delivered a devastating blow: Numerous small tumors had shown up in his lungs. As the oncologist spoke, Cady stood, walked across the examination room to Jordan, and whispered in his ear: "I'm getting married to you. And I'm going to walk through this journey with you, this time as your wife."
When she recalls that moment now, Cady says it was almost like a dream. "I don't remember even thinking about it, my feet were just walking, my mouth saying the words. It wasn't a debate. There wasn't a question in my mind that I was supposed to be with him."
Four weeks later, they married. And Cady got to be Jordan's wife and battle by his side for the next 9 months.
They met their junior year of college at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jordan had established a reputation on campus as a man with a kind heart and a warm demeanor. Cady knew of him, but they had never been introduced. When prompted by her friends to attend the school's homecoming that year, though, she declared she would "only go if she went with Jordan Lewis," thinking this a sure way to avoid the evening. To her surprise, though, he called her up a few days later and asked if she would meet him outside in front of her dorm.
It was January and the air was frigid. They stared at each other through layers of winter clothing, bundled up against the cold. Cady guessed what Jordan was going to ask her and had decided that before he said anything she would give him a hug. Knowing he was shy — part of his charm — she didn't want him to feel vulnerable or anxious. It was the first of countless times she would seek to support him, even in this smallest of struggles.
The night of the homecoming dance, they stood together on the rooftop of the Mayo Hotel silently watching the lights of downtown Tulsa. It was a spot they would return to many times in celebration of their love. For the rest of that semester, they continued to develop their friendship. Both aware that they had summer commitments — Jordan to Tanzania on a mission trip and Cady to Buffalo, New York, for an internship — they didn't want to jump into anything too intense on the cusp of such adventures.
But during Jordan's preparations for the trip, Cady fell in love with him. The group was traveling to the Bush of Tanzania, which required a lot of intensive training and was not for the weak-willed. She was a volunteer for the training sessions and spent many nights helping him ready his body and his mind. "I had watched him that entire time and was just astounded at what kind of a man he was," Cady says. "To me, it was evident that he was the strongest, yet most gentle person on that team."
Hardship and Hope
Soon Jordan left for Tanzania and Cady for Buffalo. She knew she wouldn't see or hear from him for a month, and he was constantly on her mind. She wondered what would happen when he got back from Africa, whether the special moments and attraction they'd shared would be forgotten. But to her delight, as soon as Jordan returned, Cady received a text message from him asking permission to call her. "We were really old-fashioned in our dating," she laughs.
Over the next month while Cady was still in Buffalo, they talked on the phone frequently. Still keeping it "just friends," each was waiting for the semester to start, knowing that it would only bring them closer.
Then one day, Cady got a call that changed everything. Jordan told her that while in Tanzania he'd been experiencing nosebleeds so severe that blood was passing through his eyes. During their last month of phone calls, he'd been visiting doctors to find the cause. Two days before his 21st birthday, he learned that a large tumor lodged in his brain, pressing on his optical nerve. The malignant tumor, the size of a woman's fist, was a rare form of stage 4 sinus cancer found only in older men with histories of nickel smelting or woodworking. Jordan, his family, and Cady were baffled and overwhelmed with the diagnosis.
Jordan told Cady he was going to sell all of his belongings and give up his apartment in Tulsa that fall. He would move back home to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be with his family and begin an aggressive cancer treatment of radiation twice per day and chemotherapy once per week.
When she hung up the phone, Cady was lost. She didn't know how to move forward. "At this point I remember going to my mentor at my internship and I told her what had happened," Cady recalls.
"She said,'Cady there are two things you can do: You can either act out of love or you can act out of fear.' I knew in that moment I was going to stay by his side the entire time. Whether we're dating or best friends, I knew that I was already in love with him. I would follow him anywhere."
Over the next semester, Jordan and Cady exchanged care packages in the mail, still nursing the friendship that was growing stronger by the day. They talked on the phone once a week, because that was all his vocal cords could handle after being badly burned from the radiation treatments. Then on December 22, 2011 — after six months of treatment — Jordan got news that he was cancer-free. He returned to ORU in time to graduate with full honors.
Finally, Cady and Jordan were back in the same place at the same time. And one year after their first date, Jordan once again escorted Cady to homecoming, this time as Homecoming King and Queen. It was held at the same hotel as the previous year.
They stood on the same balcony overlooking downtown. "I looked at him and said, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe what we've been through and here we are standing at the same place we were one year ago, but this time you've conquered cancer, you're graduating on time?'" Cady remembers. "And we just sat there quiet again, in awe of what can happen in a year." Later that night, in the amphitheater on a hill above their campus, Jordan asked Cady to be his girlfriend.
Fighting the Good Fight
For the next year and a half, Cady and Jordan lived happily in love and cancer-free. In May of 2013, they planned a prolonged visit to Raleigh for Jordan's follow-up screenings and to spend time with his family. On that trip, even when facing the news about the tumors in his lungs, Cady felt surprisingly calm. "It felt like I was made for this moment, to be with Jordan and to fight this with him," she says. "But at the same time it's also scary because the one person you love more than anything in the world is going to have to go through extreme suffering, and that was frightening to me."
They were married almost four weeks later, a function funded by the love and support of their community. A host of people who believed not only in Jordan's survival, but in the love of two young people who decided to battle the odds. Neighbors baked goods for the reception, friends donated the venue, and Cady and Jordan spent their honeymoon night in a suite at the Mayo Hotel, standing on the rooftop for the third time in their relationship, looking out over downtown Tulsa — this time as a married couple.
When the cancer came back, Cady and Jordan were prepared. Not because they expected it, but because they were born fighters. They clung to their faith, and neither acquiesced to the idea of his death — even as the news kept getting worse.
At one point, after the cancer had spread throughout Jordan's whole body, one doctor told him that he would be blind within one week. That evening, Jordan and Cady hung a large TV in their bedroom, ever-determined to persevere. In their shared blog, Jordan wrote, "Blindness is not an option. Death is not an option. I will live a long prosperous life with perfect vision. I write this as a call to arms. A desperate plea for prayer and faith." Cady talks about their struggle as if they were one person, each fighting one half of the same fight. He was fighting the physical and she was fighting the emotional. Each wholly consumed with the task of survival.
They loved each other deeply and selflessly. No matter his physical state, Jordan attempted to care for Cady. From gathering her birthday presents on weakened limbs before he lost his mobility to squeezing her hand in the ICU, when moving any part of his body meant debilitating pain. Cady traveled across the country with him for treatments, bought him a wheelchair and cried in a bathroom stall the first time they had to use it in public: After wheeling him up to a handicap table at a restaurant on their way from Raleigh back to Tulsa, she remembers thinking, "No one knows my husband is the strongest man in the world. No one knows that he is six feet tall. They only see he is in a wheelchair."
The many weeks that passed from Jordan's second and fatal diagnosis were filled with happiness for the couple, because Jordan and Cady chose to focus on their three years of memories together. Lying side by side in his ICU hospital room they recalled the good times and set aside the bad. Then, on March 20, 2014, Jordan took his last breath at the age of 23. As he exhaled a final time, Cady's lips hovered over his, whispering "Jesus" like a prayer, in the last kiss they ever shared together. Of their nearly nine months of marriage, she spent three holding his hand in a hospital bed.
Later, she wrote on their blog, "Every moment was so rich in love and life that it seemed like we truly were married '75 plus years.' God let me be with His precious lamb for almost 9 months, and although it didn't seem long enough to me, I still got the depth of a pure and fearless love that one would get in 75 years of marriage. I got my dream, but in a different way than I had hoped."
Building a Different Life
At 25 years old, Cady considers herself an old soul, having experienced the kind of trauma and loss that most people don't experience until their 70s or 80s. She's walked a road of despair and loneliness. "After losing Jordan, I felt like I completely had to rebuild my life," she says. "I'm still discovering those dreams I have without Jordan. It feels like I have to learn to dream again because Jordan was my dream come true." She admits that it's also difficult to walk a path unfamiliar to almost anyone else her age. And other widows she encounters spent a lifetime with their partner; Cady still has a lifetime ahead of her.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming grief, Cady has found healing — and hasn't had to go it alone. "I feel like I've been so privileged because of the gentle and restorative love I've felt from so many," she says. "It's a complete contrast to what one would think a widow would feel daily." She hopes that she can do the same, guiding and supporting those who are experiencing a similar type of loss. She shares the story of Jordan's faith, compassion and courage anytime she can. "Jordan taught me that to be brave means to be soft."
A year and a half later, she's bravely starting to look toward the future: She is now dating one of Jordan's close friends — a person who shares in her grief rather than being estranged from it. If anything, their relationship is stronger for having that foundation. Cady has found someone who knows exactly what she's lost. "Because I am dating someone who loved Jordan dearly," she says, "it has never been a question as to how we would share his legacy in our future. He treasures Jordan's memory as much as I do."
Cady feels that Jordan's death allowed her to live and love more fully, more deeply. She sees the frailty of life. "My perspective on life shifted," she says. "Accepting the word 'widow' means embracing all the lessons I have learned through losing my husband. It means embracing a new way of living with others and celebrating their lives."
Now, she lives that creed, working with her mother-in-law at a church in Raleigh. She spends her days learning how to communicate with eloquence and grace about a subject that is unimaginably difficult to impart. She seeks to share her story with others in the hopes that not only will they find solace in her words, but also that Jordan's legacy and person will continue to live and breathe long after his body gave up its life. "People are more precious than ever before," she says of her life after Jordan. "Everyone needs to be believed in and loved. I want my role in life to be the person who believes the best."
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