But, can you catch it?

A little over two years ago, on March 1, 2015, I was diagnosed with stage III cervical cancer. It had spread from my cervix, to my vagina and vulva, and even into the lymph node in my groin. It’s funny, because I felt none of this. It wasn’t painful or visible, and it baffled me that it was silently killing me. I felt like I didn’t know how my body worked, that my assumptions about my body were wrong.

I had been seeing someone at the time, a difficult relationship. He was still married, trying to file for divorce from his wife of many years. We worked at the same company, and my employee was in love with him. It was fraught with scandal and unethical decisions. I was intrigued by him, but I always knew he was a bad decision. When I told him my diagnosis, I never heard from him again. He went AWOL. 

Then, I started treatment, feeling deflated, exhausted, overwhelmed, and I didn’t pursue dating. What would I tell someone on a first date? How would I break the news about my treatment? About not being able to be intimate? It was too much to think about. My friends already looked at me with pitying eyes, I couldn’t date someone looking at me like that too.

Somewhere nearing the end of treatment, I reunited with a high school classmate, who surprised me with his romantic feelings for me. I had never thought of him in that way. At that time, I was sickly and pale, 40 pounds lighter, and my groin was being attacked by toxins. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. But he scooped me up and cared for me, telling me I’m beautiful. I was about to have surgery that would make me unable to be intimate for months. But he had a way about him, helping me feel like none of that mattered. After we’d already undressed, after steamy kisses, he paused, putting some space between our bodies. 

Looking down at me, he whispered, “I want to do this but, because your cancer is down there, I have to ask: can you catch it?”

“Catch what?”

“Your cancer. I know, I should know the answer to this question.”

I hated that my cancer seemed to others like I had the plague, like they should back away. Like I was somehow contagious. Kind of like when my husband and I got divorced and I stopped being invited to weddings. I hated how people told me I was strong and that I would kick cancer’s ass, like I’d win. All I felt, week by week, as my dermatitis started and my hair fell out, as I couldn’t get off the couch anymore because my legs would go numb, was that I was being stomped. Between the cancer and the drugs and radiation waging war on one another, the battlefield that was my body became fallow, trampled to death. Some days I’ve wondered if living was worth it.

They call you a fighter, a warrior. They call you a survivor. But more often, I find myself being a tired partner following a dance with death. I find myself all too often still that fallow field, struggling to come back to life. Someday I know there will be stronger, more beautiful flowers, fertilized because of the experience. Carrying the hearts of those who will always remain fallow fields.

Shiver

There used to be days when I was convinced he was out of my mind. That I’d moved on. That, there I was, lying beside someone else, it had to mean I was over it. Even now, even unpacking that sentence, I cannot quite pinpoint to what “it” was referring. Our breakup? Our relationship? Our deep affections toward one another? Why would I ever want that to be over?

There were times when I knew I’d moved on. Perhaps that’s more like the truth. I’d moved on–I had seen what it was like with others, I had tested the waters of affection and flirtation and compromise and sex. Since moving on, I’ve had great conversation but terrible sex, great sex but terrible conversation, something platonic I’ve tried to force, charming guys I’ve both given into and not, horribly judgmental, free spirited, it’s run the gamut. I even thought I’d fallen in love a couple times, only to be reminded that I just wanted love. I’ve tried. I’ve failed some, succeeded less. But I succeeded at moving on. 

You know those times when you forget a sweater and the breeze blows? When you say, “i’m never forgetting a sweater ever again. I’ll always be prepared.” And then you go some time, always donning just the right sweater to keep you toasty, only to be lulled into a false sense of security. And then, on a sunny day without a sweater, the breeze blows yet again. And then you remember what it felt like?

I used to be convinced i had exhausted that thought of us being right for one another. I mean, it’s been 3 years since it all fell apart. No, that’s not accurate. It never fell apart. We’re just no longer lovers. We keep our distance, physically, but nothing has unraveled. 

A part of me wants to find any reason to reach out, but I catch myself because he taught me there was never any need to be manipulative. He taught me not to lie to myself or others. I fall down sometimes when it comes to that, but I can’t with him. He’s like an animal that can smell fear. He knows, every time, when I’m not being authentic. 

So I sit here, knowing the love I found was true, pure, real. Knowing that I can move on. Knowing that I would rather not. Knowing that he raised the bar. 

I can’t just go put on any sweater, now that I know what cashmere feels like. I’d rather shiver, gathering goosebumps from the cold wind’s blow. 

Longing, aching, but no longer settling. 

Sunny days

It all started with
The cave by the beach,

Just south of home,

Carved into the cliff,

Where I used to bring my secrets,

Where I grieved in secret,

Loved in secret.

The safest, most painful place.

I wish you could have been my secret there.

These places have accumulated over time.

The grass below the rose garden 

Where we’d lay on our backs and watch the summer clouds.

The meditation garden in the grotto,

Where I witnessed God within my heart.

And then there’s your home.

My safest place I never knew.

The strength of the red rim, nestling the town below in its expansive arms.

Sitting in the water of the stream, kissing your face, while the dragonflies buzz about.

Soaking up the hot summer sun on our bare chests and backs and legs.

The beading drops of cool water refreshing us under the heat of a sunny day, running off us.

Light glinting from our blue-green eyes, consuming one another’s souls.

The silence of the gravesite, where my best friend lies.

Where just the memory of your presence there soothes me, just knowing you met him in your home towns, including me.

Surrounded by succulents and lizards.

Surrounded by birds and dragonflies.

The family cat and its rodent prey.

Surrounded by your loving family, sitting in your family home, watching the sunset.

Smiling. Home. Safe. Loved. 

Summer gods on sunny days.

Ash & EmberĀ 

That last camping trip, the one at the wedding by the beach, I remember laughing hysterically as we tried to pitch the tent. As we created a space on the shady side of the dune, under the warped trees. I remember putting out our sleeping bags, holding hands as we lay on top of them, looking up at the top of the yellow tent. We watched the light and shadows coming down on the roof. We listened to the leaves rustle, to one another’s breaths. I said we should do this more. You squeezed my hand and agreed. 

It had been rocky for a month or more by that time. We talked and cried almost every day, you slipping through my fingers like sand. I even started backing off, hoping to keep at least some of you in my grasp. If I only leave him alone, I’d think to myself, then his nerves will calm and he’ll stay. But you weren’t staying. You were suffering from existential breathlessness. Choking on the embers of our heart spark. 

Prior to that month, just prior, you started bringing up marriage. We played with planning, with where and when and what it would be like. You wanted to wear shorts. I countered with cargo pants. You wanted to wear tie dye. I conceded. You just wanted a party. I just wanted you. And then, the flame started smoking, sputtering. Fear froze out the flame, just leaving the ash.

The night before the wedding, you and I trekked in the dark to a bonfire, full of your family members. Your fear, your shame started coming through, making your nervousness show. We walked and walked and walked in the dark, talking things through. I tried comforting you, I tried everything to comfort you, but your nervous system was hypervigilant. Your pain resonated and broke the ribs around my heart. 

I knew something, that night, sitting around the bonfire with your family. I knew that you losing faith meant me losing you. The person in my life more important than all the others. I knew that this was the time when the special wave of love, the raging wildfire, would collapse back into mediocrity, the fire snuffed out. That once the cloud of smoke dispersed back into the air, once the wave collapsed back into the body of the ocean, the euphoria of what we had would disperse too. I had seen my great love, I had experienced the extraordinary. 

Even the best things diffuse back into a world we call normal. Sometimes waves can be ridden for hundreds of miles, other times only moments. Sometimes our moments of bliss are seconds long, some lifetimes. But, just like a river, you never step into the same one twice. You change the earth around you, and it is changing all the time. 

Heart beat, heart break. Ash, ember. Ember, ash.