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.

Reflections

Today, in the budding, cold, drizzling spring, I was out wandering in the woods. When coming back to the cabins where I’m staying, I stumbled upon a small grey bird (i’m not a bird fanatic and could not identify readily) doing its best to shield whatever was in the nest it was covering. I stopped and marveled a while. At the resilience of this bird, at its diligence in protection. Then, while I slowly disengaged, I saw my reflection, clearly, in a mirrored object that sat inside a room, through a clear window. I saw myself in a mirror, through a window. And this hit me:

Reflections

What was it?

A large, glassy, reflective

Mirror-like substance

That revealed those

Fragile, now broken views

Of your pain with your dad?

Was I just the conduit?
Was I too like the one

You’ve come to distrust?

Where you were skeptical already?

Were the structures not mine to break?

But, rather, the stone, or raindrop

Rippling the reflection,

Reminding you of its pull?
We are alike. Were alike.

I recall him less over time.

Cancer survivor.

Rags to riches.

Instigator, rabble rouser, hippie tree hugger.

Lover of music, gestalt, experience.

Tactical, technical, spiritual.

Angry. Impatient. Stoic.

Withholding of affections.

And then, like magic,

The light switches on, and…

CHARISMA.

Well traveled but humble.

Always pushing the edges.

Overwhelming.

Yes, so alike.
If only I could cover that puddle,

Keep a placid surface,

Unruffle your ruffled feathers,

Shield you from the uncertainty,

Give you a nest in which to roost.

If only I could be more

Than the mere reflection

The force and not the imprint,

Even just a quiet one.
But that’s not me.

That’s not my role with you.

Letting it all play out

Grows my patience, and tries it, too.
One day may it be you

Who stares back.

Irish heart

It’s one of those nights when I can’t stop thinking about what we had once. And, if we’re both able to be honest and unguarded, what we still have. 

I can’t believe it was 4 years ago now, when we went to an Irish punk show on St. Patrick’s Day; I’d never celebrated it before. It was a Friday, and I worked from your apartment, writing code and taking meetings… And taking shots. You got stoned, watched basketball, played video games. I loved falling in love with you in that apartment. The one with the bean bag chair you rescued from the alley and repurposed into something people fought over… Kind of like how you repurposed me into someone I loved. 

I remember the nights we ate ice cream and watched Game of Thrones in the dark. The times we babysat your nephew, when we played music in the living room. When we played games. When I’d watch your ritual of separating seeds and stems from buds, how you weighed flower on a Jimi Hendrix CD. Board games, card games, heart games. Most of all, I remember your smile. Your laugh. Your bright, animated eyes. How those eyes looked into mine. 

The way you sipped tequila when we shot it. The way you called it a “wee dram” like your dad did. The way you danced when you drank tequila. The way you watched when I danced. The way you held me tight and covered my eyes at the show when there were strobe lights. The way you always, always protected me. The way you still do. 

That night, there was a song at the show that reminded me of my best friend who’d died of an overdose the year before. An overdose I’d just found out about. You held me, you danced with me, you kissed me during that song. You made it ours; full of special and thought and intention and love. In every moment, you made me feel safe and strong, because I am.

Now that I’m stronger still, more composed, I wish, on days like today, that you could be part of the stillness with me. That we could be a force. That we could watch basketball, go drinking, or stay in and drink beer and watch star trek. That we could play magic and go to game cons and laugh. That we could continue the happiness and fun and excitement we lost nearly 3 years ago. That we could be best friends, like we both know we still are. 

“If I ever leave this world alive, I’d thank you for what you gave to my life…” 

It’s days like today that I know that day four years ago left a four leaf clover in my heart forever. 

Over-staying Our Welcome

On the first day of 2017, I completed re-reading Joan Didion’s amazing work The Year of Magical Thinking. It got me wondering, might we mix up fate at times, causing us to extend our time on earth, past that which might be planned? Do we make choices that can alter our ending?

Joan Didion is a master of vulnerability. Joan Didion is not the semblance of joy, but her deep feeling encourages the path to joy. Some of my favorite moments:

John Dunne, on Joan’s Birthday (a bittersweet memory):

“Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

I remember tears coming to my eyes.

I feel them now.

In retrospect this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me. 

He had twenty-five nights left to live.

On self-awareness:

I think about people I know who have lost a husband or wife or child. I think particularly about how these people looked when I when I saw them unexpectedly–on the street, say, or entering a room–during the year or so after the death. What struck me in each instance was how exposed them seemed, how raw.

How fragile, I understand now.

How unstable.

On changing the timeline:

I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I had been trying to reverse time, run the film backward.

It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I still was.

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.

I firmly believe that we don’t need the physical death of a loved one to experience the grief about which Didion writes. It could be the death of an emotional connection, the death of hope, the death of our physical bodies as we know it. We all want to control the timeline, we all want to change things. We all seem unstable and fragile, for however long or short a time.

In 2014, I suffered the disconnection, the emotional death, of my relationship with someone with whom I held dear–closer to me than anyone I have ever experienced. The first quote, the memory Didion shares of her husband, is one I know well. This partner gave to me something no one else could ever give: encouragement. He was my tireless supporter. And he taught me every day, “You’re stronger than you think.” For over two years I have been trying to substitute an alternate reel, only yesterday to realize that, perhaps, the reel had already been altered.

Do I think that we change the course of our lives through our actions? Yes.

Do I think we overstay our welcome, that we wander onto paths that weren’t made for us? No.

No. For we will learn much on our journey, but we’ve got an ending coming that is set as our destiny. Whether this life or the next one, we will be at Journey’s End all the same.

“It’s great to have an ending to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” –Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lady of Shallott

‘The web was woven curiously,

The charm is broken utterly,

Draw near and fear not,–this is I,

The Lady of Shallott.’

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shallott, 1832

A year ago, I spent 10 days travelling Europe–London first to see my eldest brother, and then to Prague to see my youngest brother. From London, we toured the UK countryside. In Prague, I got some much-needed family time. I felt as though I belonged to something. You see, last year was a tough one for me, as I faced a serious illness that not only compromised my body but also my spirit. I was a broken woman, and I recall the feeling of believing I had hit rock bottom, only to become startled by the bottom still falling out from under me. It was regular devastation. My first full day, I arrived at my favorite place on earth, the bench in front of The Lady of Shallott at the Tate Gallery.

My travel journal entry:

Never has a piece of art moved me like The Lady–she halts my breath, stops time, makes me forget any other art exists. I am most in awe of her vulnerability–the raw emotion coming across her face. She is grieving. Not quite resolved, not quite tense. She is still suffering to breathe, close to weeping. It is the pillar of vulnerability for me. I strive to be The Lady, as I feel her pain but don’t have a boat upon which to push myself. My candle, too, is about to go out. Sitting in front of her, every inch of me aches.

I love watching people walking by her, passing her, only to turn around and stop. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, but only because of the fearless vulnerability she shows. I love seeing young women interacting with her, looking back at her as they walk away. She is tough to come to terms with. And yet, she is inside us all…that part of us that we hold onto too tightly. She lets go of it for us. She exhales the pain we seem to choose to keep.

I am still haunted by this passage. I’m haunted and liberated by the grief she displays so openly. It reminds me that grief is something natural, necessary, normal. 

On the 9/23/16 episode of This American Life, Ira Glass shared stories of people who had died and what they said just before they passed. What grief and death remind me to do is live. In the moment. Every day. Feeling it all. 

Feel it all. Grieve the endings, celebrate the beginnings, sit in the middles. Cry when they leave. Yell when they anger you. Fear for their safety. Delight in their pleasures. You never know when those moments are the last you’ll have.

Moments

You never know what moments will hold the most meaning while you’re living them.

This morning, I awoke from a dream I’ve been playing on repeat for weeks now, always ending in the same place: he opens the door to his old apartment, smiles that huge, goofy smile and says, wide-eyed, “HELLO!” The scene ends and I awake. The blue trimming of the doorway, the peeling paint on the door, the narrow landing near the stairwell, the chattering of others coming from inside the apartment. Of all the moments over the years, that one has become a favorite. Especially now. Especially when that smile is gone; the smile that always seemed to open every locked door in my heart.

Moments. 

Where I fumbled with my airplane seatbelt and we locked eyes.

Moments.

Where I saw tears stream from those beautiful eyes.

Moments.

Where he taught me how to properly pour wine.

Moments.

When I first met his dad.

Moments.

When he first called me out on a lie.

Moments.

When he challenged my feminism.

Moments. So many small memories that seemed insignificant at the time but now seem to be the things I remember best. 

Tonight, a stranger asked me if it was better to have a respectful, thoughtful ending to a romantic relationship or one that cuts you off at the knees. 

My response? 

I would never jeopardize the beautiful memories with someone just because the production of them ends. 

Never take the moments for granted. You never know when they’ll stop occurring.