Ah, love, is there anything in the world at all better than a new romance? Heart pounding, constant distraction, cartoon birds tying ribbons in your hair, starry-eyed amor. It’s seriously the best! Last summer I fell all the way in love with a close friend from my grad school days, so close, in fact, that he was a guest at my wedding. In a flash of brilliance after seeing him on family vacation, it occurred to me that he was beyond amazing, and I wanted to kiss him all the time. Luckily, he felt the same way. 4 months later there we were, in the most fun and easiest relationship I’ve ever experienced (despite him living one state away, or is it because? hee hee), flying back and forth, being super happy, and really feeling the weight of the last few years lighten by the day. There’s talk of commitment, there’s talk of relocation, and then bam, there’s cancer.
While he was very aware of my history, he wasn’t here when I was going through treatment, or after, so there was a nice, abstract quality to my illness; cancer was the past and we were the future, and aside from some gorgeous scars and inconvenient side effects from treatment, it was hard to believe I had ever been so sick. But there it came, blindsiding me on an overcast Monday, 3 days before we left for a wedding in CDMX, and then the questions followed, “do I tell him now, or wait until after Mexico City? Do I tell him in Mexico City? How do I tell him? Does he need to know the scary details, or just the immediate ones?” I was single when I got cancer, found that during treatment was no time to date, and then didn’t have the bandwidth to even think about it until almost 2 years later. This conversation was uncomfortably outside my skill set, but my beau isn’t someone new to me, he’s someone I’ve known for 19 years, and to whom I’m accustomed to speaking very freely. So in the end, it took me a little over a day, but I clumsily told him what was happening followed by immediately requesting we make CDMX about the celebration, and then deal with my health after. I meant this. I had known of the engagement long before it happened, had been preparing for this wedding since summer, and I needed to celebrate the successes of my life and of my friends. In my mind it was simple, in practice it was, like most things, a little more complicated.
My closest friends are like family, and they know the cancer drill. Lots of love, lots of laughter, some righteous indignation that this has happened again, and onward to bolstering me up so much that I have no choice but to heal. My sweet guy, however, hasn’t had to deal with much illness in his life or in his friends lives. His parents are elderly and have their stuff, but that’s more expected than your 47 year old girlfriend who has suddenly grown stiff and cold (or in her inner world is bracing against unpleasant days to come). The moment I got the news of my new lesion, that starry eyed romance was put on “hold,” outside of my mental and emotional control, and every instinct went to survival. Please understand, this isn’t “preserve my life at any cost” survival, it’s “don’t let the demon drag you down” survival, and actually takes scads more focus and energy.
We met in Mexico City with me fluctuating unpredictably between joy and anxiety, my greatest joy being reserved for the events, gatherings, and celebrations of the gorgeous couple, and my anxiety lighting in the quiet moments when I had the unwanted opportunity to sit with my thoughts. These were very often also the quiet moments I was sitting with him. I was distant and uncharacteristically hard to please, he didn’t know what to say, I was a bit short-tempered, eventually he became frustrated, we continued to work it out, and I spent the time trying to figure out what was wrong with me, while he spent the time trying to be supportive in the best ways he knew how. I needed him to ask questions, but had explicitly requested we make the weekend about the festivities, and I needed him to baby me a little, but can come off as an island, giving the mistaken impression that I’ll take care of my own damn self. (But that’s not real, and in a way I desperately want to be taken care of, because life is exhausting, and who doesn’t want to be cradled sometimes with someone cooing in their ear that all will be well, but god it’s difficult to ask for that without feeling like a complete baby). I was irrationally conflicted in ways I wasn’t even aware were possible, and failed miserably in verbalizing this to him.
There were little light bulb moments when I heard the chorus in my head that I’ve taken great pains to mute, and it was telling me that even if the docs say it won’t hurt as much, it will still hurt, and you can’t share that pain with anyone. You are alone in the full knowledge of the ways in which your body, and mind, can ache, and no one can take that on for you, nor would you let them. I was able to recognize that all my surplus reserves of positive energy were now being directed towards me, and how it must feel to him to no longer be on the receiving end of an adoring light that had been shining his way for months. And I finally acknowledged that cancer triggers me, and the emotional scars I’m carrying need some tending, too. This is tricky, tricky, tricky business, and it’s even trickier to share it with someone you’re intimate with. What if he stopped seeing me as his super fun bedmate, and started seeing me as someone who is sick? I couldn’t take that, and even if this was an old friendship, it is a relatively new relationship, and I want that to stay gold for as long as possible, and have since learned that it still can even without the illusion of smooth waters.
In the end, the weekend will be remembered as one of our best, and exactly what I needed to fortify my desire to bounce back vigorously from yet another surgery, because the highs were so high, with the lows being easily attributable to what I was processing. And while we didn’t figure it all out in those 4 days, we did break the ice on how to (and often how not to) talk about my personal boogie man, which apparently I had been avoiding, because I wanted to keep what was quickly becoming one of the best things in my life from the worst. My surgery went well, I woke up in recovery thinking that if he were holding my hand it might hurt less (the upper lobe did hurt less than the lower lobe), I was lucky to have doctors who listened to me about my preference in pain meds (and at this point I certainly have one), I healed with the same efficiency I have in the past, and I celebrated the new year at Taos Ski Valley, barely short of breath at 9,000 ft.
It was in Taos that a conversation with my oncologist, and my thoughts about what it means to live well, finally solidified into an experiment of sorts for the new year and set my course for 2019.
“We are stronger in the places we have been broken.” – Ernest Hemingway