The Deep End

He waves at me from the edge of the pool, oblivious to the fact that he trails far behind the skills of his swim class compatriots, grinning from ear to ear.  He’s wearing the new bathing suit he helped pick out yesterday at the store, having outgrown last year’s.  The instructor asks each child to jump, one at a time, and swim to him.  But my son can’t swim–that’s why he’s in class–and doesn’t appear to realize he will not be caught by the instructor.  I glance up to the second level, looking at my husband as he and our baby peer through the glass at the swim classes below.  I want to ask him what to do, if I should warn the instructor that my son hasn’t done this before, but his eyes are fixated on the line of swimmers awaiting their turn.  One by one each child jumps and more or less swims to the instructor.  Finally, it is his turn, and he leaps without hesitation–he’s done this before, always into the arms of his parents or grandparents, always caught just in time.  I watch his smile disappear first, then his blond hair, under the water.  The warm air strangles me as I wait for him to come up.

I remember sitting in my in laws’ home just over a year ago while they were away; my mother with us having flown from Texas to DC to help out.  My husband is almost two weeks post-op, missing seventeen lymph nodes from his right groin and still trying to determine which clinical trial he should enter.  We are homeless, staying with my in laws indefinitely until the Air Force decides what to do with him–what to do with a young Air Force officer and a stage III cancer diagnosis.

And I remember the night, one of the many in which I couldn’t sleep, I descend the large stair case and finding my mother, also not sleeping, on the couch.  I look at her, relief washing over me–someone is here just for me, someone whose job it is to fiercely love and protect me, and I break down.  I sob in her arms, soaking her shirt, unable to verbalize the pain and fear that grips me.

I am drowning in my husband’s recent cancer diagnosis, the loss of our life as we knew it, the uncertainty of our future, of his health, of his life–it all swirls around in my head between sobs.  Eventually, I choke out the words, “I’m so scared.  I can’t do this!”

And she holds me, crying herself, and tells me, “Of course you can, and you will.  And I wish I could take your pain away.”

I watch my son come up for air, choking and gasping with eyes wide.  He finds his instructor and is soon slashing through the water with one hand, the other gripping tightly to the instructor.  He looks over at me, and I smile at him, throwing him a quick thumbs-up.  He smiles and pushes himself up and onto the edge, sitting next to the others.

I settle into my seat, surprised at his recovery.  But glad for it.

A few moments later the kids are asked, one by one, to float on their stomachs and put their face in the water.  When it is his turn, my son searches for my face, then bursts into tears.  I know this reaction; I’ve lived it.

I go to him, visibly shaking from the fear of knowing what comes next.  No longer will he jump unabashedly into the pool, expecting someone to catch him.  From now on, there will forever be a question attached: who’s going to catch me?

“I can’t swim in the deep part!” he cries, his three and half year old body trembling with fear and cold from the water still dripping down his back and into big puddles on the floor.

I fight back tears as I scream in my head “I can’t swim in the deep part either!”, thinking about the last year and a half of so many sleepless nights, so many visits to the hospital, the oncologist, so many explanations of why we are back in DC and not in Argentina, where we should have been living for another two years.  I can’t do this, either!, I want to yell.

I hold him, soaking my clothes, soaking my hair, and tell him how much I love him.  “You can do this,” I tell him, “you’re in this class because you’re going to learn how to swim.  We know you can’t do the deep part yet–but you will!  Each week you will get better and better, and then it won’t be so scary.”

I hug him again and ask him to just go sit with his class, to keep his feet in the water, see what happens.  He does, and within minutes he is back in the pool, but always with his eyes on me.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I tell him when he breaks down again, “I will be right here if you get scared.”

And this reassures him just enough to sit, again with his feet in, and watch the others.  But no more jumping.

And I know just how he feels; because we’ve struggled to swim, we’ve come up gasping for breath, looking for something to cling to, someone to save us, too.  It has taken awhile to get our confidence back, to feel safe and secure, to know who will catch us and who won’t.  But if we can keep our feet in the water, there’s the promise that things will improve–that deep parts won’t seem so scary, that cancer will stay away, that our life will get a little more “normal” every day, and we will feel confident letting go of the edge.

On our drive home from the pool, I sit next to my husband with two sleepy boys in the back seat.  “Stay awake, guys,” I call to them over my shoulder, and they smile, but keep their tired eyes focused on the world beyond the glass. I send a text to a couple we’ve just met, and I remember, suddenly, that I did not share with them my husband’s cancer diagnosis.  I did not include cancer as part of our conversation; it only took me a year and half to omit.

I feel myself slowly lowering into the deep end, and not feeling quite as scared.

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The Million Dollar Man

“Right this way,” she says, holding her ipad in one hand and clutching her the zippered hoodie in the other.  Today it is a different nurse that ushers us down a different hallway.  We dutifully follow, but I glance to my right at the hallway we usually walk, the scale my husband usually steps on to read his weight, wondering if I should ask her if she’s sure about this route since our room, the room we’ve occupied for every appointment we’ve had since the start of this clinical trial, is not at the end of this hallway.  Instead, we are escorted to a different room, across from the bathroom, in the back of the cancer center.  The new nurse takes vitals, notes them in her hospital-issued ipad, and moves swiftly to the door.  With her hand on the door knob, she turns to my husband.  She nods her head toward the robe she’s left on the exam table.  “I know you don’t usually do this,” she tells him, “but the doctor would like you to wear this today.”

We exchange a glance as he grabs the gown, but he casually and cheerfully answers with an “okay”.

“This is new,” he says to me as he unbuttons his shirt and then loosens his belt, not looking up.  The new room is warm and uncomfortable, and I can’t stop thinking about the bathroom across the hall.  I shed my coat and wait nervously.  The change in venue, the new nurse, the removal of clothes, the uncomfortably warm wait has made me doubt today’s appointment.  An unsettling energy settles between us, filling the space between he, on the exam table in a thin, scratchy robe, and me, perched on an office chair, legs crossed and leaning into the contents of my phone.  Trying to make myself small. I check my phone, distract myself by updating my email and scanning facebook.  My hands are sweating.  Perhaps this is where they issue bad news.  Perhaps the reason for the different nurse and different room is because we will receive different information today.  My husband’s body is different, his scan results are different.

We wait.

Finally, the clinical trial nurse enters and begins her usual process of examining his entire body.   This time, she asks about our kids, asking to see pictures.  No one has ever asked us about our kids before, I think, filing the comment away along with all the other suspicious behavior today.

She finishes her exam of my husband, who now lays on his back, looking up at the ceiling and listening from a horizontal position.  She asks to see a picture of the boys again, tells us the doctor will be in shortly, reminds my husband that he can sit up, and heads for the door.

“Do you have the scan results?” I ask her before she can leave.

“Oh, I haven’t checked them yet,” she replies nonchalantly, “but the doctor will talk to you about them in a minute.  Wow, it’s so hot in here!”

Again, we wait in the overheated room, the fear of the news filling the gaping silence between us.  The doctor enters, followed only by the nurse we’d just seen, and the clinical trial research assistant.  No interns, no fellows.

The doctor gives my husband a hug, a first from our usually “all business” formalities that signals in me that something is wrong; he is preparing us for bad news.  I feel my senses become heightened, I feel the room get bigger and then smaller, my brain get fuzzy and then refocus, as I wait for the shoe to drop.

“Scans are clear,” he starts, standing in the corner of the room, leaning on the sink.  “There’s an enlarged lymph node but only slightly enlarged, so we’re not worried.  And the trial should resume within a few weeks, so we’ll let you know when it gets on its way and then get you back in for your infusion.”

Confused, I look at my husband.  The new room, the new nurse, the request to undress, the doctor’s hug…none of it mattered.  My husband is smiling and relieved and I let myself relax and settle into the chair.  We discuss the trial, my husband asks about continuing to receive treatment, if the doctor thinks we should quit while we’re ahead.  The doctor, initially jovial, surprises us with his curt answer.

“I see no reason for you to leave the trial now, you’ve reacted favorably to the treatment.  Plus,” he adds, irritation edging his words, “you’re getting one hundred thousand dollars of medicine with every dose on this trial, so I don’t know why you’d walk away from that.”

My husband smirks at this an hour later while we sit in the Georgetown Hospital Starbucks with a celebratory latte and tea, surrounded by students.  The girl on my right writes for a few seconds, then looks beyond my husband and I through the glass and out into the hallway.  She seems to be searching for something.  She is oblivious to us.

“I flew F-16s, doc, I’m already a million dollar man,” he smiles over his latte, feigning the debonaire of cocky pilot.  But he’s right.  The doctor’s futile attempt to keep us on the trial simply because it’s “paid for” didn’t impress him in the least.  He’s used to being given high-priced items; and those always come at a cost.  Learn to fly a jet, but then you must go to war.  You must fight for your country, you must put yourself in harm’s way.  You must obey.

Take this million dollar drug for the clinical trial.  Stay alive, hopefully, a little longer than those who came before you.  Try not to get too sick, although you may, we just don’t know.  That’s why it’s a trial.

Suddenly a memory creeps into my mind as I lift the lid on my tea and allow some steam to escape in curls: it’s a sunny September day and I have driven to a friend’s house to pick something up.  She asks about my husband, about his health, and asks more than most.  She asks me how it happened, had he ever had any cancer before this?

Yes, I answer, he had a mole.  A big, ugly, black mole that changed shape and color.  I remember lying by his side under the shade of a rented cabana while the hot sun warmed the white portuguese sand.  He rolled onto his stomach to change position during his afternoon nap. And his mole, always dark and large, was now black and raised and changing shape.

“Oh my god,” I say, raising myself up on to my elbows and doing little to mask my concern.  Holding my bikini top to my chest and removing my sunglasses, I lean in for a better look.  “You need to see a doctor as soon as we get home.”

He grunts and tries to find it with his right hand, but it’s just out of reach, and just out of sight, in a place that no one would ever see it, except his girlfriend, when he’s in a bathing suit, lying on the beach on his belly under a tarp on the southern coast of Portugal, taking a nap.

My friend looks at me as I shake the memory and says, “are you going to sue the first doctor, the one who removed the mole and said he got it all?”

The million dollar question.

“I’ve thought about it,” I answer, scanning the room–musical instruments lining the walls, a musician’s dream–and I avoid her eyes.  We were so assured, so confident back then in Arizona.  “It’s a 1-A,” the doctor waves it off.  We trusted this doctor, the one with whom we’d built a relationship, the one who even let me stand next to him to oversee as he gouged out pieces of my husband’s body.  He was an Air Force vet, he was smart, he couldn’t have made a mistake.

Right?

“It might be worth considering again,” my friend says, her green eyes searing into mine as she lightly holds her barely-pregnant belly, her brutal honesty about to hit me in the face, “you might need that money someday.”

I might need it someday–if he gets sick again, if the Air Force decides to medically retire him, if Congress continues to strip vets of their earned retirement.  I might need it someday if he dies.  Which one of these did she mean?  I don’t stop to think it over.

Students buzz in and out of Starbucks with their books, their college careers on their minds.  And as my husband finishes up his latte and stands to leave, someone writes a message on the giant chalkboard wall behind him: Good luck, Sam!

Yes, good luck, Sam, I think.  Because one day, when kisses are still new and electric, you are napping on a beach in the Algarve, dreaming of your next sea-breeze accompanied meal, planning your future from an extended-stay hotel, drinking Portuguese wine and eating chocolates from 14 stories high, listening to the sea pound the shore, naming nonexistent babies and buying pretend real estate, dreaming of your future together.  And then, Sam, your future actually shows up, whether you’re ready or not.

Good luck, whoever you are, you’ll need it.

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Texas Stars & Songs to be Sung

I just don’t like cancer, the voice says.

Something distasteful.

You’re in this right now, we’re not ….we just can’t drop everything and be there for you.

An inconvenience.

That’s what this disease is to some.

***

Very well written, he writes, but our readers like content that’s a little bit lighter, more up-lifting.  Try again, but on a completely different topic.

 Too sad.  Too real.  Not happy enough.

That’s what this disease is to others.

***

I feel the heat through my boots, the only warm spot on my body.  I tilt the sole of my shoe up to be sure it’s not melting.  I snuggle into my jacket and stuff my hands deeper into my pockets to keep them warm.  Looking across the campfire, my brothers are laughing; my husband nurses a beer with a bemused smile on his face.  Beyond their fire-lit faces are the faint outlines of trees, dark silhouettes against an even darker background.  And beyond the trees reaching their branches toward the sky, a blanket of black.  Every now and then the quiet Christmas Eve night is punctuated with howling coyotes.  We stop to debate their location and numbers.  We listen again, but this time, nothing.

“They’re on their way,” my youngest brother grins over the flames.  We laugh at him but I catch my other brother peek over his shoulder.  We’re still new here.

Only when I look up do I notice the stars.  Oh, the stars. The big Texas sky has no competition here, surrounded only by sprawling farmland and coyotes; it sparkles and shines over the city dwellers at the campfire.  The volume of stars, the sheer vastness of the sparkling sky, the years and years that separate us from them–it stuns, and I can do nothing but stare.

A rustling in the leaves nearby startles for a moment, but I quickly remember.  “Come here, pup,” I call to the black shadow shivering in the distance.  Skittish but sweet, he wiggles his skinny body slowly to me between tail wags and then licks my hand obsessively before rolling onto his back.  Our mascot for the week, the dog found us while we explored the surrounding woods and followed us home.  His protruding rib cage, his fear of us coupled with his yearning to be touched, it spoke to all of us and we immediately adopted him into the family.

“Lay by the fire, little guy,” my brother calls out, but the dog isn’t convinced.  Instead, he heads back to his pile of leaves, watching us from a few yards away.  I imagine him content as he listens to the laughter, creeping out of his nest every few minutes to sneak a few graham crackers.  I wonder if he sees those stars.

Two days later we walk the muddy path to the neighbors–neighbors who live a quarter mile away.  My boys are delighted that we have to open the gate each time we go visit, and that we must close it behind us.  Our dog follows, and we step over cow manure and around mud puddles under a bright Texas sun and cloudless sky.  We are headed to the farm.

When we arrive, it’s as if we’ve come home.  The farmer and his wife, whom we met a few days before, welcome us with open arms.  The boys stop a moment to greet the longhorns, then seek out the grandchildren and eventually they all find their way into the chicken coop.  The five children take turns scooping feed into a pitcher, pouring the feed into a cup, dumping the cup down the gravity shoot, and watching the hens peck at it below.  No eggs today, but my son remembers exactly how he held those eggs a few days before.  “Very careful,” he says slowly, annunciating his words to show me just how careful to be, “like this,” he says, cupping his little hand and making a slow scooping motion.

One of the granddaughters exits the coop with a peck-marked hand, a present from a hungry hen.  I peek inside to find the garbage pail of feed mostly empty and tumbled onto the earth.  I right it, and see my oldest still stepping diligently onto an overturned bucket so that he can reach the feeder.  Working hard on the farm.

I overhear my mother’s conversation with the farmer’s wife right outside the coop.

“I don’t know who had more fun, my husband or hers!” she laughs, her brown eyes shining.  “He loves to talk about his farm.”

I know instantly that she is talking about the farmer and my husband.  Wanting to glean as much as he could about this farmer’s organic operation, my husband asked if he could spend Christmas Eve morning at the farm. “I want to be a farmhand!” he joked, then dialed the farmer and set the date.  He was going to learn the secret to growing perfect basil.

“After your husband left, I asked my husband if he had a good time,” the farmer’s wife speaks to me over the head of her grandson whom she bounces back and forth as she holds him.  “And he said to me, ‘we need more of him in the world’”.  I smile but then turn back toward the coop.  I can feel my eyes burning with tears.

“Yes we do,” my mom agrees from outside the coop, next to the farmer’s wife.

I nod slowly as my boys shuffle past me back to the yard.  I watch the hens peck the dirt, unable yet to turn around.

Yes, we do.

***

Our last night at the cabin my brother wants to watch the stars.  We put on our layers, our hats and mittens and jackets over pajamas, and wander outside, then tilt our chins to the sky.  In between sips of beer and bouts of laughter that makes my sides hurt, we try to pick out constellations.  My husband and youngest brother point upward, gloved fingers tracing pictures in the sky.  My mind wanders back to Christmas morning, a hug in the kitchen while red and green wrapping paper is torn and tossed aside, while Christmas music plays in the background.  I hold him tight and whisper my secret into my husband’s ear.   “I’m so happy you’re healthy”, and he doesn’t miss a beat when he replies, “me too.”  I hold him long enough to remember the pain and uncertainty of last Christmas, but I release him before I get drawn into the past.  His clinical trial is a few months from over, and we are miles and miles from where we started a year ago.  We steal a quick kiss under invisible mistletoe.

Our baby waddles over to my mom, handing her a new book.  “Read this?” he asks, then settles into her lap before she can reply.  As she opens the book, I can see the happiness about to burst right out of her.  Nothing can touch us today.  Today, we have it all.

“There’s Orion’s Belt,” my brother declares, sweeping his hand across the sky.

“We already said that,” my other brother replies, and instantly I am brought back to the present.  I laugh–we’re older but we’re still the same–and take a sip of cider, then breathe in the frosty air.  The dark night has surrounded us.  I look down a dirt road, the one that leads to the farmer’s house, and I squint to see if, just maybe, the dog will appear.  He never followed us home, content to play on the farm.  He’s found a proper home, and I smile to myself in the dark.

But I whistle one more time, just in case.

***

We are on the road early, trading in county roads for highways and Texas stars for street lights as we drive to the airport to head home to DC.  Between the sing-alongs and cow-sightings, I lean my head back and stare out the window.  As the fields fly past the window, and farms turn into strip malls, I see the months of 2013 falling away.  An unbelievable year, one I can’t wait to end.  But then I sit up straight; I remember the sunsets we watched, the family we visited, the new friends we made and the bonds we strengthened with old.  I remember the songs we’ve sung, the hugs we’ve given and received, the parties we danced, the vows we witnessed, those that we’ve lost; the laughter, the love.  The stars.  Oh, the stars.

Yes, cancer is inconvenient, and so distasteful that I wish we could spit it out of our lives.  It isn’t uplifting; it’s too heavy and too sad…

But as we pull into the rental car drop-off and my boys belt out their favorite song, I ask my husband to leave the car running, to let them keep singing, to take just a minute.  Because in spite of the inconvenience, the heaviness, cancer brings into focus the most important elements of life, like the beauty in songs from the mouths of babes and keeping the car running to finish a song.  It realigns our priorities, like finding a good dog a good home, and sharing a coffee and conversation with a farmer at his kitchen table.  It has turned every single day into something to celebrate.

I watch my husband lift half a dozen suitcases out of the trunk and stack them precariously onto the luggage rack.  He closes the trunk and pushes forward, two boys in tow.  They are all singing.

No, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything; not even for years of stars in the Texas sky.

Sometimes, you just have to finish the song.

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Missing the Life

The table is set, and our maid is furiously working in the kitchen to finalize the Thanksgiving prep.  Through the embassy my husband secured a turkey, though I told him it was an exception made only for our guests.  I close the glass french doors to the balcony; the sun streaming in on this hot summer day in November is inhospitable and I turn on the air conditioning unit located above our dining room table.  I light the candles, all shades of fall and markedly out of place on this summer day in Buenos Aires, but it is Thanksgiving, and I aim to give our argentine guests an authentic taste of the holiday. I check the time–they will be here soon.

After two bottles of wine and a sampling of everything from the turkey to the stuffing to the pumpkin pie, our argentine guests are laughing and playing with the baby on the floor while our toddler sidles up to their teenage son, curious about the smartphone he holds.  The argentine general reaches for the baby and brings him to his lap, cooing and beaming, wishing aloud for a grand baby of his own.

His wife leans toward me.  “Look at this,” she says with a loving smile, “he can’t keep his hands off babies.” She links her arm through mine and launches into a story, one of many she keeps handy, about her husband and his weakness for kids.

She heads toward the kitchen before they go to thank our maid for her efforts and delicious cooking, and just before they exit our apartment and slide into the elevator, doles out the biggest of hugs.

“Thank you,” she looks me square in the eye, “this has been the most lovely experience we’ve ever had.  Thank you for showing us this tradition of family and love.”

“Just a typical Thanksgiving full of screaming kids and too much to drink!” I laugh and blow her a kiss as the elevator closes and we hear them descend, knowing this is my last scene of the day.  The boys, napping, and the maid cleaning up–the perks of diplomatic life–allow my husband and I a moment alone.

“Do you think they suspected anything?” I ask him as we sit in the living room, overlooking the park four stories below, alive with argentines and their beloved dogs in the summer sun, while the remnants of the meal lay scattered about the dining room table, awaiting their second showing.

“I don’t think so,” he leans back in his chair, a fresh glass of wine in hand, wistful.

 

I remember the toast he gave as he started off the meal, awkwardly attempting to explain Thanksgiving to our guests, the argentine general and his wife and son, and ending with a toast to those things for which we are thankful.  His eyes stall on me as he expresses his gratitude for his family, and I know he is remembering our visit to Hospital Aleman yesterday, the news, the waiting room, crowded, solemn.  Remembering the follow up trip to Starbucks as we digested the information: cancer in the lymph node, at least one, possibly more.  A follow up with the surgical team scheduled.  A breakdown in the back of the coffee shop, a fellow patron staring while desperately trying to seem uninterested, a second trip to the napkin holders to dry my unyielding tears.  He stops mid-sentence during his monologue, trying to compose himself, finishing the toast with strength and poise.  I glance at our guests, managing a weak smile.  I hold my breath, and they do not notice.  But if they look closely, I’m sure they’ll see his cancer all over my face.

***

It’s a date I always remember.  The birthday of my high school best friend; I remember the year I made her a cake and she told me it was her favorite gift.  No matter the year, no matter that the depth of our friendship has dramatically changed, I always remember.

This year, however, I remember differently.

Driving in the car with my husband, the boys in the backseat, we are on our way to dinner, to the home of friends who now live in DC but once lived with us in Buenos Aires.  It’s dark, even though it’s early.  I glance at my iphone before heading inside and notice the date: November 23.  But tonight, I don’t remember my high school friend and her inclination for fast, tight hugs and high pitched squeals.  Tonight I remember November 23 one year ago, in the dermatologist’s office in Buenos Aires.  A seemingly ordinary Wednesday.  Waiting in a crowded room with other patients, all looking just as anxious, as I resist the urge to vomit in the nearby bathroom.  It will be a false alarm, I tell myself.  We are called by the doctor into her office, separated from the waiting room by paper thin walls.  I feel the eyes of all the other patients burning into my back as we wait, holding our breath.

It’s cancer, she says.

An hour later we are seated at the Starbucks across from Hospital Aleman in downtown Buenos Aires, trying to make sense of the spanish phrases, make sure we understood, make sure there was no possible way that my interpretation was wrong.  An hour after that, I am home in our downtown apartment, in the arms of our maid, crying in the kitchen.  Having lost her husband to cancer five years earlier, she is all too familiar with my fears.

“Have faith,” she says, looking at me through sad brown eyes, before escaping into the laundry room.

“Should I cancel Thanksgiving?” I ask my husband as I pick up the toys scattered in the living room, moving books back to their shelves, righting pillows, folding blankets, trying to put my life back together.

“No,” he says without missing a beat, “why would we do that?  Besides, everything’s ready.  And it’ll be fun.”

But neither of us are convinced.

***

Our friend’s home is a treasure trove of reminders of their life in Argentina–wild game hung from the wall, antique maps framed in the entryway, cow-hide rugs warming the dark wood floors.  The welcome is warm and the kids whirl themselves into a frenzy of toys and games of chase as the adults take turns watching and drinking and holding the baby.  While our hostess busies herself in the kitchen, I settle in with an argentine red and her birthday gift, a picture book of their time as a family in Argentina–a highlight reel of their adventures, their travel, their once-in-a-lifetime memories made.  And as I look at them, posed in front of glaciers, standing at the Chile/Argentine border, drinking Malbecs at estancias, riding argentine horses, I feel something I haven’t in a while: longing, an ache, and the sting of envy.  I see in this book what our life should have looked like.  I see the memories we should have made.  I close the book.

On our way home, I ask my husband if he remembers which day he was diagnosed.  It’s  not a fair question; I know it was a year ago today.  And I can’t decide if he is truthful when he replies that he’s not really sure.  We are both playing chicken, seeing who will blink first.

“I miss Argentina,” I say after he reveals nothing, “I buried it somewhere down deep, and tonight it all came up to the surface.”

A phone call to our dermatologist friend, a Thanksgiving meal, and three days later, our life in Argentina is over after only six months.

“I know,” he says with a side glance as he turns on his blinker and slows at the light, one more turn before we’re at our DC townhouse.  “Did you see their book?  I can’t believe all the things we’ve missed.”

***

The boys sleepily fill up on Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch–a full day of romping with cousins and friends has left them utterly exhausted.  My husband steps into our galley kitchen but I intercept him with a tight squeeze and he doesn’t let go, burying himself in my shoulder.  This morning his rash was back–my pits are the pits!, he puns–and this afternoon his leg has swollen.  The cancer is gone, yet somehow it lingers, always lingers.  We sway back and forth to music only we hear, and I catch our oldest son staring at us over his sandwich.  I wink at him, toss him a smile.

He stares silently for a few seconds, elbows resting on the rustic dining table that he’s covered with stains, then drops his sandwich, a smile spreading across his rosy cheeks.  “You guys look like you’re married!” he proclaims, pointing out our embrace, getting his sidekick to look our way, his face covered in jelly.

We laugh but my husband still doesn’t let go.  My toddler, growing up, already learning what love looks like.

“Well that’s good, because we are!” I laugh, and breathe in the scene–two beautiful towheaded boys, a warm, sunlit home, the boys’ artwork taped to every available wall.  They have lost interest in us and begin shouting at each other, each one mimicking the other with growing volume until they end the game in a fit of giggles.

I am still wrapped in the embrace of the man I married only four years ago, and from this vantage point it’s pretty clear:  we actually haven’t missed a thing.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Thousand Paper Cranes

The rain falls sporadically in large drops on formal wear and the wind theatrically blows small yellow leaves through the courtyard of the textile museum as we watch the couple in front of us–she in flowing ivory, he in a crisp suit–read their vows. Occasionally she sneaks a glance at the looming clouds, wondering whether they will merely threaten or unleash atop her unprepared guests. My husband, on my left, holds my hand and traces the ridges of my knuckles with his thumb, then plays with my engagement ring. I know he is remembering us.

Moments earlier, an unconventional reading takes place, one chosen from Story Corp. It is an interview between a wife and her husband battling an aggressive form of cancer. At the mention of the word I immediately become nauseated. Keep it together, I tell myself, not now. I move my eyes from the two gifted story tellers at the microphone to the small white pebbles forming the aisle to my right, trying to focus on them instead of the emotionally driven story coursing its way through the microphone and into the crowd. My husband clears his throat, shifts subtly in his seat. My right hand clenches my purse while my left, still wrapped safely in his, remains composed. Amazing, I think, that my subconscious will throw all my anxiety and fear into the right side of my body–the solitary part–, allowing my husband to believe I am, at least outwardly, unaffected. When the reading is over, I notice I am sweating despite the rapid drop in temperature and cool fall breeze. A deep breath. It’s over.

The couple before us beams at each other as they are pronounced husband and wife, and the crowd collectively beams back. We stand and applaud at the union we’ve just witnessed, iphones poised for the perfect shot. As they exit the ceremony by way of the pebbled garden path, a breeze blows her dress and it billows softly, perfectly, before she is lifted into the air by her new husband. I know she feels weightless in his arms, buoyed by love and the feeling that the world, for this moment, has stopped spinning–just for them.

After a brisk cocktail hour beneath a setting November sun and a canopy of old elm trees, we are ushered into an intimate tent adorned with soft lights, a small dance floor and the cozy feel of family. After several glasses of wine, the couple seated beside us are our new best friends, and the wife my unwitting confidant. The bride graces us with her presence and we swoon, adoring her dress, the wedding, the music. She graciously fawns over us, telling us what amazing women we are, how she knew we’d hit it off. Then, to me, she says, “I am so happy you live here!”, and for a second–a split second–I have forgotten the life-changing event that brought us back to DC.  “Me too!” I smile back, grabbing her hands in mine. And for that split second I mean it, not because it’s a great place to be if we can’t be in Buenos Aires, not because it’s a great place to receive cancer treatments, but because it’s a place full of people we love. It’s a place brimming with friends we have yet to meet. For a split second, it is simply a wonderful place to live.

But as she leaves, beckoned by the neighboring table, she steals the excitement, and I feel the sincerity draining out of me. I return to my seat, reach for the champagne. I remember now. I turn to my new friend, and her soft brown eyes seem so trustworthy that suddenly I am blurting out our dirty little secret.

“My husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re back in DC and not in Argentina.”

She looks at me without blinking. It seems as though she’s stopped breathing.  And just as suddenly as my outburst, the DJ speaks.

“Will the happy couple please come to the dance floor for their first dance?”

The intimate crowd cheers and applauds, encouraging the newlyweds. My new friend continues to stare, and though I shift my gaze back and forth from the dance floor to her, “look,” my eyes say, “this is what we’re doing now, we’re watching them,” she doesn’t break her gaze. Finally, she begins to nod slowly, then turns her face toward the dance, toward happiness. With her back to me, I chastise myself for my impulsiveness. I question my sanity. I have another drink. The bride is ethereal as she dances with her husband, the first dance of their married life. He accompanies her as every groom should, like the luckiest man on earth, happy to simply bask in the warmth of her smile. A lift straight out of the movies has the crowd emoting and clapping, her dress swirling around and around–a photographer’s dream shot. The iphones come out, blocking the view. The dance is over and they are breathless and weightless, floating back to their table, lost in the crowd.

My new friend turns back to me. “I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I had no business doing that to you. You didn’t need to know that,” though I know it can never be unsaid. I feel my husband at my back but don’t turn around; I’ve betrayed him, his secret. Tonight, seated among strangers, he was healthy. No one knew. No one needed to.

“I work with survivors of trauma,” she starts, “I understand your need to share your story. Trust me, you are not the first person to say something like that.” Her words fight against the eighties music montage thumping against the dance floor. I smile at her, wondering how to get out of the conversation that I began, and scan the crowd, hoping to find a way out. My eyes catch on the hanging mobile over the dance floor–a thousand origami paper cranes. All different colors, they twirl softly in the whisps of night air that manage to crash the party. A nod to the groom’s Chinese heritage, the cranes swaying over the dancing wedding guests symbolize good fortune, happiness and prosperity, a proper wedding wish. But Japanese culture celebrates the legend of senbazuru, where folding a thousand paper cranes grants one recovery from an illness and a lifetime of health. Though I doubt the bride included the cranes for us, I can’t help but hope someone is wishing for my husband’s lifetime of health.

A familiar song comes on. “Let’s go!” I rise and the guests at our table follow my lead, and we dance in a circle around the newlyweds under the promise of a thousand paper cranes.

A few hours later, the couple dashes out of the textile museum’s front steps through a sparkling send off on to their next destination. They leave in a bubble of joy and pleasure and we bask in their wake as they climb into their getaway car. Once they’re gone, our sparklers fizzle out and the guests hold nothing but metal sticks. We throw them into ash trays, say our goodbyes, and my husband and I depart for home. My new friend waves goodbye and promises we’ll see them again soon. And in spite of my penchant for over-sharing, I believe her.

In bed that night, my body still drowning in champagne, my husband holds me. He pushes a piece of hair from my forehead, then leans down to kiss me. “Do you think they know what those vows meant?” he asks as he settles back against his pillows, covering us both up with the warm comforter.

“The only thing that matters is us,” I hear them both say, staring into each others eyes and forgetting their guests, and I am amazed that they have both written the same line in their vows. And I am equally amazed by the accuracy of the sentence, especially coming from a couple on the precipice of their union.  They already have marriage all figured out.

“No,” I answer my husband, “I don’t think they know what their vows actually mean. But,” I tilt my face up to his, “neither did we.”

My mind slips back to a few evenings before, where my husband, afraid for so long, finally let go.

“I read that email, did you read it?” he asks me in the basement where we spend our evenings side by side on the couch once the boys are in bed. I know immediately he is referring to the email from a friend who emailed with research about the longest study of Ipi. An optimistic note, an email to show that his drug has been shown to prolong life–prolong life–for ten years.

“No,” I answer, looking anywhere but his face, “I just couldn’t.”

“Well, I did, and it scared the shit out of me,” he drops his head so I can’t see his tears, but his voice catches and his body, so strong for so long, yields to the fear he has buried deep down. I wrap him in my arms, trying to protect him from studies with ten to fifteen years of life extension as their probable outcomes. I cushion his weight and he drapes himself over me, his head buried deep in my shoulder, his hands gripping my back in anguish, in fear. It’s not enough. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, it will not be enough.

A lifetime. Great grand babies. One hundred years. Maybe that would be enough.

No, I think, our vows did not prepare me for this.

The champagne is manifesting now in thirst and the beginnings of a headache. I reach over my husband to the nightstand for a sip of water. I settle back in by his side, remembering the cranes dangling like a wish over the wedded couple. As I curl myself up into him, just under his arm, one leg draped over his, I hope they never know the full weight of their wedding vows. I close my eyes and feel sleep wash over me, slowly drowning wedding vows and breakdowns and the need to share my traumatic secrets. And right before the last wave of sleep covers me completely, I wish for them a lifetime of health.

And one thousand cranes.

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Tree houses & Butterflies

She sits across from me on our white sofa, the large picture window behind her alluding to a gorgeous fall morning. With coffee in hand, her focus is on me, not the paintings we’ve collected, the blue and white pottery that sprinkles our home with wedding memories. None of it interrupts her singular focus. She takes a brief sip, then leans forward slightly, her small frame pointing right at me.

“Okay,” she says, “go.”

I take a breath and wonder how to start. But she knows it all, has seen it all. I dive in and as the words tumble out of me, fast and breathless, she nods, her red ponytail bobbing to the beat of her understanding. She understands these words of “no control”, “anxiety”, “never knowing”, “what if”, “clinical trial”, “cancer”. She has built her own understanding of these words through her experience with this wretched disease. She receives my monologue sitting tall and strong, unaffected, waiting. Then it is her turn, my mentor, to tell me that she and her husband have suffered the same, that they’ve left some trials, been kicked off others, didn’t qualify for others. They’d made plans and then watched those plans crumble at their feet. They’d seen cancer disappear and reappear like a magic trick in her husband’s body. But they remain together. This woman sitting in front of me is living, breathing proof that it is possible: life beyond this darkness is possible.

“I can’t believe he’s still alive, frankly,” she admits, leaning back into the sofa. “We’ve buried so many friends who’ve lost their lives after joining this cancer club–” she pauses for the briefest moment, as if in tribute to them all, then continues–”and we always wonder why he hasn’t been one of them.”

My heart stops for a minute and my stomach turns; we’ve entered a portion of the conversation I wish to exit. Instability, suspended trials, uncertain future; all concepts that keep me awake at night. But death–of my husband; I am too weak to return to that place of fear, relentless anxiety, that I lived in for months after first learning of his diagnosis. I have no strength left. I avert my eyes, unconsciously signaling that I don’t want to be here, don’t want to discuss this. I feel a wave of exhaustion engulf my body. I am so tired, I think to myself as I cup my latte, now cold, between my hands. I look back to my mentor, my friend. She is a constant reminder that there will be life after this moment of uncertainty but also a reminder that it never leaves, that there will never again exist a life without cancer, a life without knowing it can always, always, come back.

My toddler enters the room and his attention falls squarely on our visitor. Without hesitation, he scoots beside her on the couch and presents his favorite book–an illustrated Spanish/English dictionary–and asks her to read it. I take advantage of the lull to change the baby, and as I climb the stairs with my heavy, squirming baby in arms, I smile listening to the conversation bubbling over between the two, as if two old friends catching up after years apart. Moments later I return, slowly descending down the steps, enjoying what I see: my toddler’s small feet dangling just off the edge of the white microfiber cushions, my friend leaning toward him, nodding as he tells her about the planets he’s discovered within the pages of his picture dictionary, reminding her that Pluto is no longer part of the club. I wish we were Pluto, I think to myself, perched on the bottom step, my baby resting contentedly on my hip. I wish we’d wake up one morning to a phone call with our doctor on the other end who’d proclaim, “Wait! Did we say cancer? No, no, it’s not cancer! So sorry for the confusion!” And then-poof!-back to life as we knew it. I don’t want this lifetime membership.

My baby squirms out of my arms and my attention turns back to my son and my mentor; they have moved on to tree houses.

“Wow, I’d really like to see that,” my toddler says dreamily, imagining the tree house in our friends’s backyard, already daydreaming about playing there. “Mommy!” he says as he finally notices me again, “did you know they have a tree house?!”

I shake my head, I did not know that!, and usher the boys to the kitchen for lunch. For all that her family has been through–cancer, trials, countless question marks, just like us–they also have tree houses, kids on the cusp of adulthood, a normal life. I stop as I pass through to the kitchen, my eye catching on bright colors in the backyard as I stop at the window: miniature golf clubs strewn about the grass, the top of the turtle sandbox askew, the soccer ball my boys had been searching for this morning hidden in the back corner. In spite of cancer, there is normal life here. Remember to tell the boys where the soccer ball is, I tell myself. Don’t forget.

***

I hear his small, confident voice as he reads Hop on Pop to his brother. The room is just beginning to brighten with early morning sun and I know it is early.

My husband didn’t sleep well last night, his sleeplessness having long been an indicator of his internal distress, and his tossing and turning last night gave him away. It is five days after the news of his trial’s suspension, and it is now physically evident that he is just as unsettled as I about the news. The unknowns aren’t just eating me alive, they’re manifesting in stress dreams, sleep talking; they steal his peaceful sleep.

“Sad dad bad had. Dad is sad, he had a bad day, what a day dad had!” my toddler’s voice wafts into our room and my eyes flutter open and set their gaze upon my husband’s face. He is facing me, one arm under his pillow, eyes closed. I notice the crease marks on his cheek. In the morning light of our bedroom, the dark circles beneath his eyes betray his exhaustion. I want to take away his anxiety and replace it with peace, with rest, because he deserves nothing less. Instead I close my eyes again and listen to my toddler recite the rest of the book to our baby and imagine the two of them as I find them every morning: sitting up in the baby’s crib, matching jammies, golden strands of hair catching the light of the first rays of morning sun, surrounded by books that my toddler has hoarded into the crib like a squirrel with acorns in the fall. I hear them giggle. My husband stirs. I wish for their biggest problem in life to be not enough books in the crib.

***

Walking back from our neighbor’s house, I shuffle my feet through the deep pile of autumn leaves that has gathered along the side of the road. I look at my feet, clad in flip flops, feel the sweat rolling down my back under my tank top on this 88 degree day on this first weekend of October, and think what a strange feeling it is to be this hot in the fall. Flip-flops and fall leaves, it feels wrong. It all feels wrong. I reflect on my need to go see my neighbors, to commiserate with people who know just how wrong life can be. I knew today was the day they’d receive an obscene amount of flowers in an effort to bring cheer, but I also knew with the grand surprise there would be tears, grief, that feeling of it all being wrong. And, selfishly, in my own sense of grief, I am drawn to them. Our neighbors, living in their own darkness with brief periods of light, ride their emotions in tandem with ours. I barge in–knock, knock–and note the two-dozen empty delivery boxes and as they asked me, in spite of their pain, how I am doing, I begin to cry. I don’t even try to hold back–they know better. Tears of embarrassment–how could I possibly think my pain was comparable?–and tears of relief–these people understand deep-seated pain.

I kick a big pile of leaves before entering our backyard, feeling the sharp, dry leaves on my toes. No, I think, not like this. The extreme heat in the fall. It’s wrong. Life made a mistake. Mothers should hold their babies; fathers should see their children grow. Wives should fall asleep with their husbands by their side. This isn’t how life is supposed to go. Underneath my overwhelming sadness, I am angry.

“Misery loves company,” I recall my neighbor shouting over his shoulder as I leave them arranging their flowers into vases that littered their kitchen table, “come over anytime. We’ll return the favor.”

I feel exhausted as I walk up the stairs of our small townhouse in this small neighborhood. I feel lost, and as I enter the house and am greeted by the brisk smack of air-conditioned air on my hot skin, I crash into another reminder of how backward it all seems. This scorching heat in October, the piles of crunchy leaves in heat that belongs in summer. And yet knowing I can walk next door and find people who understand how painful life can be, people who embrace it simply because they have to, who can smile as they arrange flowers, finding the beauty in the wrong, finding friends in the darkness, brings me a bit of peace.

I pick up my half-drunk cup of tea; it is cold by now, abandoned in my quest for companionship, but I drink anyway. I grab a sweater—the air-conditioning is too cold–and I smile at the gorgeous bouquet of basil, waiting to be made into pesto, from our neighbor’s garden. Small successes in dark moments. I remember the butterfly in their backyard two days ago, remember the surprise and the joy I felt at spotting this beautiful reminder. I stare at the basil and realize this is how life goes: these small moments of flowers, fresh herbs on counter tops, butterflies in backyards, they are our light through the dark.

I hear car tires roll through dry leaves and realize my husband is home after a morning of errands with the two boys. I remove my sweater and head outside with my flip-flops and tank top to help with the boys and the goods. My husband holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other.

“I thought you might like these,” he says, handing me the autumn-inspired arrangement, its blazing fall colors looking out of place in the summer-like sun. Light in the dark, I think. I grab a hold of him and hug him fiercely. I don’t let go. I feel my eyes burn with tears trying to escape, I hear the boys crunch through leaves as they scramble into the backyard seeking out their toys. I allow myself to feel all of this moment–where heat scorches in October, where wives wonder if husbands will be well tomorrow, where parents weep for babies–and where life moves on in spite of the wrongs.

I don’t want this lifetime membership to the cancer club. But we have one anyway. And in spite of it, we will find tree houses and soccer balls, treasure butterflies, fill cribs with books, share basil and send flowers. Screw the cancer club, I think, holding my husband’s hand in mine and watching my boys run through the backyard, cradling my flowers in the crook of my arm.

“Go find the soccer ball!” I shout to them, “it won’t be this warm much longer!”

Side Effects

“This is it? Where’s the entourage?”, I joke as the doctor moves past me to his chair in the corner, trailed only by the nurse practitioner and research coordinator today. The cramped room, normally packed with interns and fellows, all eager to examine my husband’s betraying body, seems strangely vacant even though there are still five of us for today’s checkup.

The joke goes unacknowledged.

“A number of people have died on your arm of the trial,” the doctor dives in, “most were frail, old; probably dying due to high toxicity in the body. I would’ve have allowed them to participate, but it’s a national trial and I don’t have much oversight. So, in any event, your arm of the trial as been suspended pending further review”.

I feel the blood drain from my face and then heat creeping up my neck; I grip the seat of the chair with my arm locked at my side, a reflex to keep myself from falling. I try to listen to the words he’s saying as he continues, but I only hear the word “died” on repeat in my head. I try to focus on the doctor. I remind myself that my husband is healthy, alive, sitting next to me.

I take a breath.

“How many people died, exactly?” I ask, hoping I seem unaffected.

“Around six or so, out of four hundred”, he says.

“And how many of them were old and frail, in their eighties, as you said?”

“I can’t say for certain”, he responds, crossing his leg, left ankle atop his right knee. He wears a pin in the shape of a heart with the letter M on his lapel. I focus on this as he speaks, “and this was all in the first twelve weeks of dosing.”

“So, to clarify, none of them after the initial twelve weeks?” I press him, wanting to know if my husband is at risk.

“Again, I can’t say for certain, but I think most of them did. We’ll know more after the review in six weeks, at which point we’ll let you know if the trial will continue or if we’re done,” he uncrosses his legs and sits a little straighter, pointing his body toward the door.

I glance at my husband, seated by my side, a buffer between the doctor and me. He has not spoken. My silence is his cue.

“So, I might be done with the trial in November? And then what happens?” he speaks, shaking off the surprise, stepping into his proactive patient role.

“Then that’s it, you’re done,” the doctor says, opening his hands. Ta-da!

Just moments before, I think to myself, we were scribbling notes about TSH levels, waiting for blood work results, thinking my husband’s high TSH levels were indicative of a pituitary gland side effect. We were worried about the wrong side effect.

We recap the news but it is clear that there is little else to discuss at this point. The doctor rises, shakes my husband’s hand, then mine.

“See you in six weeks,” he says as he strides out of the small room.

Some chit chat ensues, some tying up of loose ends. The nurse practitioner mentions a waiver she’ll provide for my husband for work, the research coordinator tells us to follow up tomorrow for the blood work results. All light and fluffy comments: have a great week! and see you soon!

We walk out of the cancer center at Georgetown and into the autumn sunlight, handing off our valet stub and waiting for our car’s return. I rest my purse on a cement pylon and lean into it, supporting the weight of the news. The breeze blows the first of the fall leaves across the circle drive and the scent of crisp leaves mingles with freshly-laid asphalt–a strange combination. I watch as college co-eds traverse the parking lot in groups, excited chatter, their enthusiasm written on their faces. An odd juxtaposition, these young students, entering and exiting the cancer center. I feel our life changing again, I feel us entering another state of flux, and I watch book bags full of knowledge bounce in front of me on the backs of students whose biggest challenge is a paper, an exam, an unrequited love. I watch them jealously, longingly.

“How are you doing?” my husband asks, leaning into my sight line and trying to make eye contact.

“How are you doing?” I volley back, wondering which part of this news hit him the most.

He shrugs as the car pulls up, scattering the co-eds, and we are back in motion.

“It’s just ironic,” he throws over his shoulder before he slides into the driver’s seat.

I remember a few hours ago, lunch on the other side of the Potomac, sitting across from my husband at an overpriced by lovely restaurant in the heart of our town–our favorite. I sip my latte and listen as he explains all of his career options and possible moves come the end of his clinical trial in May. I gaze out the window as the city bustles with lunchtime traffic, taking another sip. He continues exploring every option, every possibility. I pepper him with questions. The waitress delivers our lunch but he doesn’t slow down–too much to consider. I see a nanny walk in front of the window, talking on her iphone while pushing a stroller that cradles a sleeping toddler.

He pauses a moment to take a bite, then looks up and asks, “so, what would you like to happen?”

I consider the question as I cup my latte with both hands, trying to warm my chilled body with the hot ceramic mug. I am not ready for the cool weather.

“I’d like to not move for a little while,” I smile at him. I remember the four different homes in less than eighteen months, then shrug, “but I don’t know how much control we really have once the Air Force decides to put you somewhere after the trial.” I look again out the window, the tree-lined street hinting at the change of season with a few stray leaves, the busy pedestrians in long sleeves. The sky is a crisp blue, and despite the changing season, the sun still warm.

“I love this city, and I’d like to stay for a number of reasons; our family and friends are here,” I pause a moment, flashing back to the backyard party we threw a few weekends ago, a crowd full of faces who love my husband all gathered under a dark mid-September night sky, smiles lit up by patio lights and candles, raising their glasses to toast to his health. Knowing true friendship—one of the best side effects of cancer, I think to myself, then continue. “I’d like to know where our kids will go to school, I’d like to not pack up our stuff again, but namely, I’d like you to have continuity of care. Doesn’t that count for something? Can’t we be to stay here for a while based on that alone?”, I ask, hopeful.

“Well, in theory,” he leans back in his chair, his turn to contemplate the city just beyond the window, “but at least we have until May to figure it out and weigh all of our options”, he finishes his last bite and then picks up his coffee. “It is a great town,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

We are driving home again on this all-too-familiar route. “I stay in the left lane, right?” my husband asks as we leave Georgetown, crossing the Key Bridge. I nod but the question is rhetorical, he knows this part of town all too well. He is preoccupied by the news, distressed about what this means for our “plans”. I am preoccupied with six deaths. Always back to dying. The familiar sense of the unknown settles between us. Our life, only a few hours ago, was headed in a certain direction. We had options, we had time. And now on the drive home, it’s all up in the air–again.

***
Now it is morning, and again I clutch my warm mug and wrap my sweater tighter around me as I try to shake off the morning cold. My son brings me a credit-card sized brochure that he’s pulled out of his daddy’s wallet–he is always leaving it within their reach.

“Look, mommy! My favorite book!” He flashes the small packet and it registers as something important. I ask him for it, and his small hand presses it into mine. He watches me for a second, then decides to read another favorite book. I open it up: a credit card-sized quick-reference for my husband listing all of the possible side effects of his treatment.

All the information anyone would ever need, all in this tiny little brochure. And yet, even now, I am still unprepared for the side effects.

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Counting Buoys

I rinse the shampoo out of my hair and feel the salt water, the ocean breeze, the warm sand, slipping away with it. Our summer vacation is over and our life is as it was before–fast, intentional, focused. As I let the warm water wash over me, allowing life to move forward even though I wish my spirit to remain in the waves, I remember our wine-induced conversation the last night of our vacation. We sit on the dimly lit front porch, screened-in but, after years of use, the screens have rolled away from their frames, inviting small, unwanted guests to our party of two. My husband sits across the glass table from me, reclined in a well worn patio seat, red wine in hand. He’s had too much to drink, and so have I. In his white shirt, his linen pants, he looks the part, and wears it well.

The question fell from my lips before I could stop it, encouraged by too much alcohol and too little inhibition. This vacation, so blissfully free of cancer, is about to take a turn.

“Do you think it’ll come back?” I cringe but it’s too late, the words are spoken and hang in the air between us. I pray for an ocean breeze to sweep them away but the pines are too thick. He has to answer.

Reflecting, looking into his glass, one hand behind his head while the other swirls the red liquid; he looks happy. A week of playing in the surf, laughing, half-naked babies and beach breeze-induced sleep agrees with him. He takes a swallow, leaving the tiniest bit left in his glass, then clears his throat.

“I hope it doesn’t,” he starts, softly. “But, if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about it.” He’s confident now, sitting up a bit more. “If it comes back, it’ll come back somewhere bad, and it’ll probably be stage IV. And then I’d have to find a treatment that would give me maybe five years to live instead of four, or something like that. So, what’s that they say? ‘Ignorance is bliss’? I just want to live a happy life. I don’t want to know.”

He finishes the rest of the glass and gives me a half-smile, pleased with his answer. And I am silent only because I know whatever I say next will be potent. I want to shake him, to scream “What about US? Don’t you want to know for us?”

Instead I feign a lighthearted laugh and say, “Well, of course you’ll find out, you’re on a trial. And that’s what they do, they monitor you.” I take a sip and then I add, “and by the way, if it comes back, we’ll get rid of it, just like the first time”. Somehow, the words didn’t come out as convincingly as I’d hoped.

I finish my glass and we are enveloped in silence. Not the awkward kind; the reflective kind. I am learning about him, still. And I understand him. I think back to the last few days on the beach. The secluded beach town, exceptional only in its unexceptional nature. Victorian homes from the 1920s, virtually vacant beaches, low tide stretching out for hundreds of yards, warm water lapping at baby toes. The perfect getaway for a family needing to get away.

We arrive on Monday afternoon and begin to unload the car and explore the beach house. It is old, but functional, a little musty, with mismatched furniture and a large front porch. It needs love, but it is footsteps from the ocean and expansive enough for two sets of tiny feet to run without impediments, and as those tiny sets of feet explore every nook and cranny, my husband wraps me in his arms and says, “I’m sorry, I thought it would be nicer.” I shrug him off–it’ll be great!–, and then search for cleaning products.

We fill our days with hermit crab and sea shell hunts, wave-jumping and rock climbing. I coax my baby into the sand but the first day he is wary of this new frontier, content to shovel sand from the edge of the more familiar feel of a blanket. My toddler jumps and splashes and runs in the water, never coming out unless to say he’s hungry. Our beach time is punctuated with naps and meals, and under the warm, late August sun, with the cool ocean breeze sweeping away all of our real-life troubles, we have found a haven.

I look at my husband across the table, lost in thought, far away. I reprimand myself for having brought up the ghost that we finally buried on this trip. Instead of apologizing, I say “Why are we even talking about this? Let’s move on. More wine?” But he declines and I decline and we decide sleep seems a better option. The seamless perfection of this week at the beach punctuated by the reality of what awaits us back in our real life.

As I reach for the soap and scrub the sand and sea salt off my skin in the shower of our city townhouse, I remember my baby just hours ago, our last jaunt on the beach. We grab our suits and race to beach an hour before check out to squeeze in one more ounce of summer. This time, our baby is ready for the sand and the water. Brave now, he holds his father’s hand as he wades out into the sea, giggling under his baseball hat, squealing when the waves reach his belly. My toddler counts buoys, then begs me to “be a mermaid”, so I dive under the shallow water and swim up to him, listening to my boys squeal with delight. My husband reaches down, grabs hold of our baby and tosses him in the air, then dunks him back in the water. We are the only ones on the beach, on the planet. We are in the middle of an ocean, and we are all we need. The words spoken last night have drifted out with the tide and we purge ourselves of the things we said with each dip in the ocean, each shallow dive. As I swim toward my screeching boys, holding a look of equal parts fear and exhilaration as they wait for me to surface, I leave, for these last few moments, all of our real life behind. Right now we are just bodies buoyed by the salt of the ocean; reflections in the water changing with the circling sun. We are imperfect, flawed, loving, adapting creatures that move with the tide.

The laughter rises up from my family and I feel the breeze at my back. I wish for the breeze to carry that laughter back to our real life, to remind me of the buoyancy, the light, the laughter we found at this exceptionally unexceptional beach. I hope that this laughing breeze can find me when I feel our life about to change–again.

I turn off the shower and bring the towel to my face. The beach is gone from my body, I’ve erased all signs of it. But in my soul, and in a forlorn beach house not far away, I know there exists a world where my husband is free, where burden is buoyed.

I will not forget that place.

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Magic

The steam of the shower clouds the vanity and as I close the mirrored cabinet, the fog receding at the edges, my stomach tightens again.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow my husband’s PET scan results come back. I remember him just before walking out the door on Friday morning, driving alone to Georgetown to make his 9 am appointment on time. He looks good. His polo and khakis, his belt showing off his trim waist, one of the benefits of his plant-based “kick cancer’s ass” diet. That’s the first thing people tell me when they see us for the first time since his diagnosis, how good he looks, always with a note of surprise in their voice, as if to say, “but he doesn’t look like a cancer patient”. His healthy look, it throws people. Cancer patients don’t glow. But this one does. I kiss him and say, “good luck,” as if that’s a thing to say when someone is about to consume a contrast drink to light up their insides in search of tumors, as if it’s an outcome to be controlled. It’s almost as cringe-worthy as saying “Hope you don’t have cancer!”, but I cut myself some slack; it’s our first time at this, after all. He bounds to the car as if going to complete his Saturday to-do list: enthusiastic, focused, ready to move on to the next item.

I’ve barely slept since Friday, and as the fog recedes in the mirror and I take another look at myself, my hair still slick from the shower, gray strands peeking out at the temples, it shows. The hollows under my eyes remain dark, a trait I’ve noticed that has not gone away since that fateful day in November. Regardless of the hours slept, my face betrays me: worry, stress, anxiety—signs of a life held hostage.

My stomach tightens again as I imagine receiving the news tomorrow. Another hospital date. And then I go to the worst place: I ask myself, looking at my tired, changed face, what will I do if he dies?

I’ve ventured down this dark path in my mind before, especially in the beginning, asking questions like, how will I support myself? And, do I know how to plunge a toilet? And what will happen to my boys? I will take them away, I decide, somewhere warm, somewhere to forget troubles. Hawaii. California. Water, surf, sand. A place of dreams. A place to leave the nightmare behind–if there’s a nightmare to be left.

***

I find myself again at the mirror–tomorrow has come today–again staring at the dark circles, dabbing makeup in an effort to hide signs of another sleepless night. Useless. My husband is in the bedroom with the boys–hospital dates merit a day off of work–and I smile as I hear the sounds of coins falling to the floor, rolling on the wood planks, scurrying under dressers and tables. Our baby has overturned the jar of Argentine coins that I can’t bring myself to remove from his reach simply because he loves this game so much. I hear him urging the boys to pick up the coins from obscure corners of the room. At least for a few moments, he fills the role I normally play on the weekday.

My stomach flutters again as I remember why he’s home on a Tuesday, directing boys and refilling coin jars, and as I stand before my reflection, tummy full of butterflies, jumpy and a bundle of nerves, I am taken back to a similar scene six years earlier–our first date. It is winter in Michigan, and the night is enchanting. It has snowed all afternoon on this late December day and the sun sets early, inviting the street lights to bounce off of each unique flake in the city blanketed by freshly fallen snow. The scene is literally dazzling. We have both found ourselves in town for the holiday and have finally made plans for a date; years in the making. As I gather my long, straight hair and pin half of it back, I take a deep breath in then exhale it all out, trying to shake my nerves. This will be big, I think to myself. I feel my whole life about to change.

A knock at the door signals he’s here, and we drive a few minutes into the quaint downtown where a window seat table provides views of Main Street, store fronts covered in thousands of christmas lights and fluffy snow flakes glistening on their way to the ground, fat, shimmery, tangible. As we eat and laugh through a seamless conversation that never stalls, a thought runs through my head: here it is, the rest of my life, sitting across the table from me.

After dinner we cross the snow-covered street to the Irish pub, and I clutch his wooly sweater trying to remain graceful in my 4 inch heels on the icy pavement (he will later tell me he was so nervous that he wore the wrong sweater, I will later tell him it took me three days to pick out my shoes); it’s in vain–I slip but don’t fall, almost taking us both out. We laugh and slush through the snow and cold and enter the warm bar that smells like fried food and beer, both of us trying to prolong the best date we’ve ever had. The sparkling night, the crisp air, the snowflakes landing on cheeks–it’s magic. It is us.

“Mommy, can I brush my teeth?” my toddler barges into the bathroom and stares up expectantly at me, his long curls creeping into his bright blue eyes. He brushes them away and I hand him his toothbrush. Magic.

***

Far from Michigan, we find ourselves once again on the oncology floor at Georgetown, my husband waiting to get blood drawn, the way we always kick off our “dates”. The room is busy, the busiest I’ve seen it yet. Our nurses are all business and no time for chit-chat today, working tirelessly to attend to all the patients in various stages of treatment. I sit on an uncomfortable but last-available stool next to my husband while he waits for a nurse to stab him with a needle and the metallic smell of medicine and the stale scent of illness mingle together as it reaches my nose and I force myself to stay seated, to resist the strong urge to leave. I am so tired of this place.

We head toward Starbucks without asking, now a habit; a hospital treasure hunt punctuated by caffeine. We find it virtually empty, the employees surely enjoying their summer lull; though an elevator full of fresh-faced, buzzing med students in their too-white lab coats point to a school year fast-approaching. In the waiting room at the cancer center downstairs, we wait for my husband’s name to be called. Again we wait to see if the cancer is back. I am beginning to realize I will always be waiting.

A woman in houndstooth suit with red sling backs has her back to me and fills out paperwork furiously. She looks different from the rest of the waiting room, all of whom are sad, tragic-looking. She looks like a first-timer. The rest of the waiting room is full of bandanas, too-large clothing on too-frail bodies, pale faces and tired eyes. “Typical” cancer patients. I’m tired of being here and pretending it’s normal. We don’t belong. I think of our looming doctor visit and my stomach flips again, a wave of nausea overtaking me for a few moments. My husband looks relaxed at my side as he sips a latte and reads a library book, leg crossed ankle atop knee, slightly slouched, very studious as he turns the page, his brow slightly furrowed. He looks more college student than cancer patient and as I glance around the room, I wonder if the other patients question our presence here. I catch a few patients’ eyes but no one ever smiles. It’s a strange place, a cancer center waiting room. People looking furtively at each other, holding gazes for seconds at a time, faces wondering what betrayals other bodies hold.

His nurse appears in the doorway; she calls his name but doesn’t smile. She has never. It’s time.

***

The appointment is over and we are hardwired for the rest of the journey: turn left out of the cancer center, up the ramp, left at the elevators, down the main corridor, up the main elevators to the oncology floor. But on our way, my husband beams. He bounces, he floats. I remember the conversation on our way to the hospital this afternoon. I remember asking him how he felt.

“I feel fine,” he says, shrugging, as we drive down 395. “It’s funny, I don’t even think about it, you know? There are all kinds of things that keep me up at night, but this isn’t one of them,” he pauses for a moment while I point out the bizarre exchange we just made as we briefly flirt with the Pentagon parking lot en route to the 110 toward the Key Bridge, his favorite driving trick. Then he resumes:

“It would make an interesting case study, you know, to see why it doesn’t get to me the way other things do. It’s weird.” Then he reaches over and grabs my hand, “I’m sorry it’s so hard on you, though.”

I try to think of the appropriate thing to say. It’s okay. It’s not hard on me. It’s not me, it’s you. All of which would be lies. Instead I mumble something cliche like “It is what it is,” and we keep moving toward the hospital on another muggy summer day.

“I guess you were a little nervous after all, huh?” I smile at him and ruffle his short blonde hair as we pass a nurse in the corridor. He smiles. “I guess so!” he tosses back, and kisses me without breaking stride. He slips his arm around my waist and we saunter down the hall like high school kids with a secret. A clean scan. Better than a secret. Magic.

We are on our way to the oncology floor, and we are free again.

For now, we are free.

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