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LOWELLVILLE Love helps man cope with wife's illness



Published: Fri, June 29, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Janice Retort discovered she had cancer after a bout with what she thought was the flu.

By ASHLEY POWERS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

LOWELLVILLE -- Joe Retort started taking notes each day about a year ago: Janice's moods, her medications, if she slept or sat up and waved when he entered the room.

Scribbling onto the large-squared calendar and transferring the details to a legal pad was his way of dealing with his world, whipped into chaos.

Keeping a record of it made sense when so little else did.

So now Joe can rattle off Nov. 7, the day his wife developed a searing fever after the pair finished voting, or how cellulitis dug into her skin, bubbling its surface, in April.

And he clearly recalls May 22, 2000.

It wasn't the day Janice, now 50, was diagnosed with soft cell cancer of the mouth.

But it was the day their struggle with the disease began.

Since that day, when Joe bought Alka Seltzer because the couple thought Janice had the flu, their lives have been consumed with surgery after chemotherapy treatment after radiation after surgery.

How this began: The disease, which started as a tiny sore on her tongue, and its complications have robbed Janice of chewing, swallowing and speaking. She communicates with a kid's wax paper tablet. Before her hearing waned, she tapped on the phone.

"One tap meant 'yes,' two meant 'no,' and three meant 'I love you,' " Joe, 51, recalled.

It happened so swiftly, with a rush of diseases tumbling over one another and up to 14 medications ravaging Janice's insides. The pain was expensive: Thirty of one type of pill cost $1,000.

Janice's physical transformation was rapid: She withered from 120 pounds to 87, and 28 of her teeth were extracted in one operation. Her tongue and lips are swollen; her thyroid and colon, incapacitated. Pneumonia also robbed her of much of her lung capacity.

"If I have to do this 10 more years, I don't care," Joe said. "You get married for better or for worse."

His optimism is staggering, as is his emotion as he describes his wife, his voice faltering.

"I can't imagine my future without her," Joe said. He'd miss all the quirks that made her Janice: her voracious appetite for Stephen King novels, their yearly travels to the Ohio State Fair, her love for raking leaves -- a peculiarity he has yet to understand.

His devotion: At least during the six-month period when they drove four hours to and from Cleveland each day, Janice was near him at night. Now, Joe must visit her room at the Carrington South Rehabilitation Health Care Center in Youngstown, which he does, day in and day out, whispering to her, watching her sleep.

The hospital psychiatrists in Cleveland prod Joe: Does he ever tire of the constant care, the numerous sacrifices?

"No," he said. "No."

"They don't understand. It's my wife. I love her."

Joe also frets over his youngest child, 15-year-old Jenna. She and Janice were inseparable, Joe said, and neither he nor Jenna's brothers, Joe, 25, Jeremiah, 24, and Jesse, 20, can fill that void.

The community's support has helped the family cope. Cards and letters pour in, and Joe often is too overwhelmed to properly respond.

He asks a reporter to issue thanks for him, in phrases of appreciation and gratitude. "How do you find the right words?" he asked. "I'm not good with words."

So sometimes, Joe lets the silence speak for him in Carrington, as he watches Janice's chest rise and fall in deep breaths of slumber.

Her cancer, doctors have said, is inoperable. They don't know the cause and don't have a cure.

Yet Joe watches Janice, still feisty on occasion, writing letters larger on her wax tablet when she's angry.

Those days, he says he scribbles a mental note: "I was lucky to find her."




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